So its fanfic time.
Like over a year since an update, I think this deserves one.

The good news is that I'm in a crazy writing zone right now. The second half of this chapter, which will pretty much be an exclusive SG1 POV, hopefully won't take anywhere near this long.

I'll also be updating, hopefully, OMWF in the next month or two. As soon as I can find a word in a dictionary that describes the sheer level of anger and rage that Gendo will be in at the end of it - I'm honestly not sure I'm quite there yet, despite being 3/4 of the way through writing the chapter. 'Hatfucking fury' comes close, but its not quite there...

I've also posted another new fanfic under a different account name. Don't shoot me, it was that fanfic that caused me to go into a hyperdrive in writing stuff. For some insane reason I've finally figured that I write a lot faster when I'm writing a LOT of fanfics rather than when I limit myself and only write like 1.

Go figure?

Anyway, on with Chapter 5 part 1! These two Chapters will conclude the Reach arc, after which we'll have a bit of a short timeskip and several changes of venue.

As always, mucho thanks to Spartan303 for keeping me focused and offering his expertise to someone who has never even held a gun in his life

Chapter 5. With your shield …or on it.

12:15 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Unknown Caverns underneath CASTLE BASE
Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

Deep under the surface of Reach, Colonel James Ackerson took a step forward. In doing so, he crossed the vaguely defined line that separated the ancient lava tunnels from the equally ancient alien base hidden on this world for so very long.

Hidden no longer.

His gait was that of an elite soldier who had seen death and told it to come back later on more than one occasion, but none the less it was only an absolute iron discipline that forestalled the Colonel thrusting a fist into the air in triumph as he crossed the threshold. True there was only his tech team and two of his four fire teams of Spartans present at this historic moment, but none of them would be at all impressed by their CO indulging in theatrics so he kept his mouth shut and kept moving, limiting himself to the smallest smile behind his tinted Visor as he pressed onward.

"The structural features match those of the base back in the Jericho system" Doctor Chalmers, the leader of his Tech Team spoke up, breaking the silence as she followed him past the threshold. Unlike the Soldiers, the civilian didn't bother to hide her awe and excitement as she panned a camera around; documenting the next stage in the greatest archaeological find in the history of mankind. Her portable scanner was bulkier than the standard mission recording units used by UEG military personnel, able to 'see' most of the EM spectrum and equipped with Tri-D lenses that would allow a detailed holographic recreation to be made in real time when streamed to a supporting AI, or, stored for later analysis work. "All the way down to the angles and dimensions – it's a perfect match. Colonel, this can only be the work of the same species behind the facility on the moon".

"Clearly" Ackerson agreed dryly, rolling his eyes slightly at the Doctors Habit of stating the blindingly obvious, shooting a hand signal at a quintet of his men waiting patiently were the passage ahead twisted sharply off to the right. Unleashed by his gesture the five Spartans of his point team started moving at once, their transponder blips shooting off down the sketchy map his suits systems had pieced together from the recon drone they had sent through earlier. According to the drone, this new section of the corridor descended with a relatively gentle gradient for another five hundred meters deeper into Reach, seemingly 'hugging' the outer wall of a massive chamber until it terminated in what appeared to be a cross corridor into said chamber.

He had considered holding their entire group together in case they ran into something that needed a response from the entire team but had decided to err on the side of caution, sending the Spartans in on ahead of the main body to sweep the long passage. Standard UNSC doctrine in this kind of close-quarters recon dictated that the lead fire team would 'pull' the rest of the group forward at their own pace rather than be 'pushed' by the main body following too close behind; to ensure that the point team had sufficient time to sweep for any hostile presence. Or to be brutally honest, to let them trip any defenses or security systems hidden too well to be detected, sparing the main body their effects. And while five Spartans would be an unfortunate and expensive loss if they did trip such a system, frankly he had come too far and sacrificed too much to risk death at the hands of some ancient defense system.

The Spartan IIIs were ultimately, as always, expendable for this operation.

He was not.

"Team One, Team Two, SITREP and COM check" he ordered, switching channels as he strode around the corner the Spartans had vanished around. His weapon was shouldered and at the ready, but he was unsurprised to find nothing of any interest, just the slightly wider passage descending further into Reach. So quickly were the Spartan scouts making their sweep that they were already out of sight behind the curve of the passageway and so he stepped up his pace slightly as he started his own descent, even as the Spartans watching his back checked in.

"Team One – Point Alpha" the first of the two Spartan teams outside the Alien base reported in. Point Alpha was situated just back from the very foundations of CASTLE Base, nominally guarding their only way in or out of the caverns as well as their hard line into the CASTLE Base systems. "Position is secure, no activity – signal strength five by".

"Team Two – Point Charlie" the second team leader checked in moments later from their position, entrenched just outside the entrance to the alien complex, guarding the vehicles they had been forced to leave there. "Position is secure, no activity – signal strength five by".

"Good" he answered as he led his own team deeper at a brisk pace, the rumble of the carts being pulled along behind him stacked with the tech teams gear oddly muted over the otherwise rock hard floor as they trundled along. "Araqiel, you still have an uplink?"

"But of course Colonel" the AI rumbled in his ear - and Ackerson couldn't help but let his smirk return for a moment at the tone of almost greedy anticipation. The study of the suspected Alien presence in these caverns was the original purpose of CASTLE base. Yet with the shutdown of KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN decades ago, knowledge of the alien presence had been restricted to the very highest levels of ONI and FLEETCOM … but the procession of Smart AI's that had been brought in to serve the base were also in the loop - if only to monitor the extensive array of automated sensors and anti-intrusion devices ONI had seeded throughout the tunnels.

For a Smart AI, knowing that one of the greatest mysteries in human history was sitting right under the base yet not being able to do anything about it was almost like having an itch they could never scratch … for their entire life. So it was unsurprising that the AI was sounding a little excited at finally getting some answers.

Frankly, he would have vastly preferred to bring the AI with him lest their communications links be cut off as they went deeper. But outside of Halseys new Mark Five MJOLNIR technology there wasn't really any combat viable yet mobile platform available to deploy an AI like Araqiel in the field. He needed to be in and out as quickly as possible and he certainly didn't want to waste time setting up and dismantling any more equipment than he absolutely needed to.

"All resources of this base remain at your command" the AI continued over his mussing. "Curiously, your signal strength is not degrading as you move deeper – in fact neither has the first team of Spartans transponders. I would conjecture that there may something conveying your signals back to the entranceway and retransmitting them – possibly as a passive function of the passageways themselves. But if so, it doesn't mean this system could not be turned off at some point".

"Let's hope it stays that way" he acknowledged as he continued to stroll down the gleaming passage, keeping one eye on a tactical map tracking the positions of all his people in real time – most especially his point team as it approached where the drone had stopped at the end of this long corridor. "Anything new starside?"

"Unclear" the voice of the AI replied after a moment. "The meeting on board the trans-universal human ship can only be inferred and not observed as the Fleet has made a routine post-battle switch to a new encryption scheme – and all upcoming codes in the CASTLE database were hard-purged by ONI during the evacuation. However given the lack of clear hostile activity, the first order probability is that Admiral Hood is making progress in negotiations with the newcomers".

"Good – the longer everyone keeps watching that, the more time we have down here" he grunted, meaning every word. "Keep me alerted if anything changes. Any sign of reaction to the radiation pulse from down here?"

"Nothing on the few official channels I have access to" the AI replied. "But it is unlikely anyone could have detected the energy signatures, not without the specialized hardware I have down here. I cannot of course speculate on the interlopers technological capabilities".

"Keep monitoring" he ordered – as if he could give any other order! "Let me know the second you see a change in status from anything that might concern us".

The AI acknowledged his orders with a beep before closing the channel, Ackerson suppressing a sigh as his gleeful anticipation gave way to an impatience that only seemed to build with every step he took down this rabbit hole. He had not shared the full extent of what they had discovered in the Jericho system with Araqiel –the AI understood the need for compartmentalization and wouldn't be offended if it found out later– beyond the fact that he had confirmed the existence of a non-Covenant alien vector with probable latchkey level potential on Reach.

And frankly even that label, the highest level of classification for non-human technology vectors, was underselling what he had stumbled into. The fate of mankind was now sitting squarely on his shoulders … and despite the crushing weight, he relished the moment – he lived in the moment. It was as if since he had walked across that fantastic, impossible bridge of light in the Jericho system, his fate and the fate of mankind had been made one in the same – as if every part of his life had simply been preparation for this final mission … this final destiny.

So in silence, he led his team at a brisk pace down the passage, half a kilometer of mindless marching causing his thoughts to drift back to the Jericho system, the two complexes blurring in his mind as he walked through one in reality and the other in his mind...

Because it always came back to that insane light bridge. That … impossible light bridge.

Up until then, everything he had seen had been astonishing, but quantifiable in some vague way. But walking across a seemingly bottomless pit using a bridge made out of something that every single sensor they had insisted was nothing but ordinary light…

The impossible sight had stirred something inside him. Granted, he had remained professional enough to insist that the Spartan who had crossed first with a thruster pack in case the bridge failed hook up a safety line for everyone else to hook onto … yet despite the fact that he knew he should have felt terribly uneasy at the sheer drop and been questioning how trustworthy such ancient technology could be, the only thing running through his mind was a sense of wonder he had thought long destroyed by countless battles across countless worlds. The angular lines and triangular geometry of the central tower that brooded over the massive cavern was both captivating and oddly familiar in some maddening way and it had drawn him in like a siren.

It had only sharpened the sense of betrayal as the team had crossed the bridge, finding in front of them a honeycomb of open chambers and rooms. Dozens of rooms, a half dozen large chambers, all constructed of perfectly consistent triangular and rectangular patterns that were seemingly random, yet fit together somehow into a unified whole …

With absolutely nothing of any interest to be found anywhere.

It was oddly … empty. Completely blank walls and rooms. The previously omnipresent traces of light and energy that had flowed through the floors and walls on the far side of the bridge were missing, replaced by surfaces no more interesting than a concrete basement in an abandoned office block on Earth.

The transition from the wonder of the light bridge to the empty mundane was slightly jarring, but he hid his disappointment and led a team up the very prominent flight of stairs in front of the light bridge landing to the top of the tower, certain that surely at the very focus of this entire place there had to be something…

And thistime, he was not disappointed.

The top of the tower was not a flat surface as he had expected. In fact it was a sunken indent into the tower, formed by a dozen descending ring like tiers several meters wide, each offset from the previous one to form a natural amphitheatre of sorts. The descending tiers were constructed out of the same translucent material they had encountered on the other side of the light bridge, pulses of energy seeming to randomly jump up and down from tier to tier along wildly complex patterns of circuit- like lines embedded into the surface.

The 'stage' like disk that was the bottom most level of the amphitheatre was not constructed out of this material but seemed to be something akin to glass, flawlessly transparent and showing the interior of the 'tower' was in fact hollow. But Ackerson barely noticed that fact, his eyes locked onto what was situated in the precise middle of that glass floor, situated directly under the centre of the vast dome above them.

A pedestal.

Much like the one Kerry-312 had stumbled onto at the doorway into this entire facility but this one was both taller and had some kind of wedge shaped holographic screen floating directly above it, with all manner of alien text and symbols scrolling slowly across it.

"Bingo" he said in a tone of quiet satisfaction as his eyes locked onto what could only be a computer interface of some kind – and from its position, he guessed a very important one. Letting the smile that had started to fade with the completely empty areas under them return in full force, he started forward, dropping easily from tier to tier as his Spartan escort fanned out around the upper tier into a standard 360 degree defensive formation. Behind him, the tech team started working their equipment up the stairs from the light bridge, no doubt annoyed by the fact that the Spartans with their augmented strength were not lending a hand … but equally disinclined to complain directly to ONIs amoral killing machines about that fact. Doctor Chalmers, the leader of the technicians was the first to crest the 'hill' and at the sight of the gleaming tiers of light and pedestal sitting like a brooding monolith in the middle of it all, she was off, dignity forgotten as she skidded down the tiers rapidly to join him.

"Well that certainly looks like some kind of control panel or computer interface" the Doctor observed as she skidded to a halt next to him, starring in unabashed excitement at the display placidly hovering above the pedestal, focused entirely on the strange markings projected there. "It's right under the middle of the dome, this has to be the focus of the … huh … now that iscurious."

"What is curious?" he asked, controlling his urge to snap at the very non-military manner of the Doctor with some effort. He had learned the hard way that the more leeway he gave her the better results she gave him in turn, although given how easily she could be distracted if he turned his attention from her for even half a second…

"The symbols" she stated, pointing at the odd shapes and squiggles on the screen. "Remind you of anything?"

He frowned as he followed her gesture, studying the shapes on the screen, ignoring the arrival of the technicians behind him as they dragged their gear down and started to laborious processing of unpacking it. The symbols were not a match for the symbols under CASTLE base he had seen a long time, nor did it look like anything he had seen inside the base to this point-

Then it hit him.

"Covenant Symbols" he observed, surprise laced through his voice as he stepped forward to get a better look, depolarizing his headset to get a clear view at the suddenly half recognizable shapes. "These look just like some of the symbols on Covenant computer interfaces. Just …"

"Cleaner" Chalmers found the word he was looking for. "Almost simple. Uncluttered perhaps?"

"Do you think the Covenant co-opted an alien language?" a technician questioned from behind them as she started unfolding and unpacking a field workstation. Lightweight, but packed with bleeding edge ONI technology backwards engineered from Covenant computer systems, the various workstations, data cores and ancillary systems would have brought the Navy a fighter squadron in pure dollar value, but their value couldn't be measured in raw credits. Similar capability with the more standard gear widely available in the UEG would have taken days to bring online with a team this small … and they probably didn't have anything like that amount of time to waste.

"Perhaps – or perhaps this all belonged to a precursor to the Covenant we know, an earlier stage of one of their species civilizations?" another tech offered. "Possibly the Elites or the so-called Prophets we keep hearing about?"

"Well why don't we plug in and find out?" Chalmers said, stepping around him without warning, and moving towards the screen…

He whirled in alarm, ready to reach out and yank her back before she started pressing buttons in her almost childlike excitement, but held off as he saw that she was just squatting down to examine the pedestal more closely.

"What is it?" he asked warily, moving to join her, but holding himself ready to pull her away if she looked like she was about to start pushing buttons. God knows eggheads like her could get downright punchy if you didn't keep an eye on them.

"This" she pointed with genuine excitement at what looked like a small slot or opening in the top of the front face of the pedestal. "Do you recognize it?"

Ackerson glanced down, raising his weapon and playing its underslung flashlight over the slot-

"Is that a Covenant data port?" he asked - with no small amount of surprise as he crouched down to take a closer look.

"I'm positive that's exactly what it is" Chalmers agreed, nodding over her shoulder at him before taking a moment to shoo away the gaggle of technicians crowding behind her trying to get a closer look at the gleaming alien control interface. "More evidence this base may have been built by a splinter faction of the Covenant or, more likely, they reverse engineered this technology from another race. Which is good news for us because it means we should be able to tie Harpy into this system using our existing adaptors and protocols for Covenant computer technology".

"Can … we just patch one of our AI's into a completely alien system like that?" Ackerson asked, feeling well outside his element here as he stepped back slightly to regard the pedestal and control panel hovering unattached above it somewhat dubiously. "Isn't that impossible? Apples and oranges and all that?"

He may have loathed Catherine Halsey as a person, but he respected her expertise and abilities as second to none when it came to such matters – she wasn't still Chief Scientist with ONI because Parangosky liked her after all. And yet for all that, he knew it had taken her team years to build up the UNSCs ability to interface with Covenant computer technology to their current level.

"If this tech is built on the same architecture as Covenant systems … it should be possible" Chalmers nodded … although despite the confidence of her words, Ackerson noted that her body language was far more uncertain, but she appeared to shake it off. "Harpy is loaded down with every byte of hacking and analysis software ONI has developed to get into Covenant systems – so if there is a fundamental similarity … I'd say yes, at the very least we should get some data to jump start our analysis work".

Ackerson considered their situation. Certainly, there were risks with plugging their AI into a completely alien computer system. Harpy, their 'Smart AI', had been lugged down here to provide the computer 'muscle' for their teams analysis work. Interfacing it directly with some kind of alien systems had never been in the mission brief – and he knew exactly what his Boss would have said if he had asked her opinion of taking such a step.

But he was the field commander on site. ONI gave great latitude to local commanders making mission critical decisions - so long as they were prepared to accept the consequences if things went south … so it ultimately came down to his best judgment.

Pausing for a moment, his gaze once more took in the gigantic structure around them, a certainty that the fate of humanity itself might rest on what actions he took here today rising up once more … yet it was tempered by the questions no-one had dared ask out loud as yet.

Where were the people who built this place?

Had they all died out long ago, leaving abandoned facilities scattered across the Galaxy like ruined outposts dotting Europe thousands of years ago after Rome fell? Or were they still alive, simply no longer interested in this part of the universe meaning this impressive complex was little more than the equivalent of one of the UNSCs automated slipspace listening posts?

The truth was they knew nothing. All the casual showings of technology, as if toying with the fundamental rules of matter and energy were as normal to these people as flipping a light switch was to him made him feel his team were as far out of their depth as a bunch of Neanderthals would be poking around a fusion reactor. But to be brutally honest, they didn't have the time to play it safe anymore. Not with the Covenant increasingly looking ready to burst through Earths final defensive lines and gut the UNSC from the inside out.

Delaying or hesitating now could cost them dearly.

Could cost humanity everything.
And in the face of that threat, could any level of risk really be considered unacceptable?

"Okay Doctor. Patch in the AI" he nodded his permission. "But" he added before she had taken more than a step, halting her in place with the warning in his voice, "make damn sure that you're ready to pull the plug if this goes south".

The other nodded nervously, but none the less moved quickly to take charge of the tech team, getting the dozen personnel working on the portable fusion plant and datacores the AI would need. Ackerson stayed out of their way, marshalling his patience by making a sweep around the rim of the raised platform, gazing out at the massive complex carved into the moon long before humanity had even considered taking steps into the stars, wondering at who they had been and what had happened to them. Had they too met a power as far beyond them as humanity had with the Covenant? Or was all this history of the Covenant? A splinter faction of some kind perhaps?

The questions without answers rolled around his head and gave him no peace. He was never one to second guess himself, but the sheer enormity of what he was playing with, what he was rushing into with so many key questions unanswered and unknown …

"Okay, connection is good" Chalmers called out suddenly, snapping his attention back from his brooding study of the vast dark emptiness around them. Moving back through the perimeter of Spartans quickly, he joined the technicians at the array of screens, keyboards and workstations hastily set up, cables strewn everywhere over the perfectly clear floor. He watched as Chalmers took a long fiber optic cable and spooled it out over to the alien pedestal, before attaching an adaptor he recognized as a Covenant data port interface to the end of the cable. She did seem to hesitate for a split second as if she too realized the enormity of the risks, but steeled herself and with great care knelt down, slotting the other end of the cable into the port on the pedestal.

"Connection established" one of the techs announced, his screen lighting up with reams of computer data that Ackerson was completely unable to understand. "Hardware connections match to Covenant standard form factors".

"Confirm" another called. "No irregularities detected in the physical connection".

"Okay" Chalmers nodded, visibly seeming to take a breath as she stood and walked back to the other end of the cable, a square cube of plastic and metal about a meter high and half a meter in width and length, tapping several buttons along its top edge. "Harpy?"

"Yessss?" a sibilant whisper came over their COM line and behind his visor, Ackerson rolled his eyes at the holographic avatar that swirled into being above the cube in a whirlwind of pixels. Like oh so many of ONI's AI, 'Harpy' had chosen a somewhat sinister looking avatar, this one a ghostly vaguely human form made of a burning white 'mist' that was constantly boiling off into nothing, with two bright blue eyes set on an otherwise featureless, angular 'face'. Clearly it was a choice meant to intimidate the people who came into contact with it … but he worked for a woman who he had seen order entire continents turned into radioactive wastelands with as much compunction as any other person might order dinner.

He was not easily intimidated.

Still, the indisputably useful thing about AIs was their speed. Already, Harpy would have silently and wirelessly polled their mission logs and conversations; catching up with everything that had happened between his last activation and now within a matter of milliseconds. Which meant it knew exactly what it had been brought online to do and needed only the order to begin to get started.

And she gave it

"Commence first level connection"

"By your will Doctor Chalmers" it sibilantly acquiesced with a bow before turning to face the alien console, an odd grid like display of icons materializing in front of it that it reached up and tapped, causing reams of data to start flowing into little sub windows, each moving forward or backwards or even sideways independent of each other, the AI gesturing like a conductor leading an orchestra as it started to make its connections. Ackerson one again rolled his eyes; the AI certainly didn't need to show its 'work' like this, pegging this AI as one of those that enjoyed showing off in front of its flesh and blood masters. It was not an uncommon trait, albeit one more common in Smart AIs than the Dumb AIs he usually worked with.

As with most issues revolving around individual eccentricity, he didn't particularly care … so long as it got results.

And it did.

"I'm in" the AI said moments later. "Hardware layer connection established using standard Covenant protocols".

"Any sign of counter-intrusion response?" Chalmers asked anxiously.

"None" the AI replied flatly, waving a hand briefly and causing a ripple of activity to pass through the grid in front of it. "Although it appears that the Covenant protocols do not provide answers to all of the feedback the hardware is giving … but I do have a standard Covenant-style entry header from the alien systems in response to my connection".

Chalmers looked at him and he understood the unasked question. This was the go-no go point to back out. He gave her a slight nod and she in turn turned back to face the AI.

"Commence second level connection".

"Processing" the other hissed and the grid of strange symbols seemed to unfold and expand on itself, data now flowing in three dimensions, curving around the AI until it was encased in a holotank of data. "Establishing interface matrix. Hold … confirm. This is not a Covenant computer system. There are similarities, at least on the surface … but there is far more to this. Far more…"

"Be specific. What do you mean far more?" he demanded, fighting to keep his exasperation at the vague comments out of his voice.

"I have established a connection into their systems – but it is highly limited" the AI almost sighed back at him, clearly unhappy with having to give a running commentary on its work, no matter how few of its cycles it took up doing so. "A crude analogy would be knowing the English alphabet with a bare minimum of syntax and structure rules –then being asked to translate a document from 15th century English into modern German. I am having to 'make it up as I go', to coin a useful human phrase … ah" it nodded and raised one claw like appendage, snapping its fingers with a crack. The gesture may have been pure ego – no matter how much the AI might deny it had one - but none the less the holographic display above the pedestal blinked, vanished and was replaced a moment later by a larger 3D image that could only have been a map of this facility.

Ackerson raised an eyebrow as he stepped out from behind the technicians to take a closer look, noting that what could only be the chamber they were in took up barely a third of the total volume, with an extensive labyrinth plunging into the depths of the moon below them and a spider web of passages just under the surface stretching for many kilometers in all directions.

"Well that qualifies as progress" he allowed as the technicians behind him started chattering in excitement at the data starting to flow through to their systems from the AI as it worked to analyse, translate, categorize and sort. "Can you qualify the general purpose of this installation yet?"

There was no response.

Annoyed he turned back to face the holographic avatar. The AI was clearly engrossed in its work, scores more data points opening around its hologram until it looked almost buried in them, spinning orbs of alien text arcing through the air from one to the other with blinding speed as it worked, seemingly absorbed in a task with all of its concentration.

"Harpy, what is it?" he asked, somewhat more forcefully.

"There is … something odd here" it replied hesitantly. Ackerson frowned at the highly vague answer, then took a deliberate step closer towards the AI's data core. Unsurprisingly for something as sensitive an ONI AI, there were no less than three independent mechanisms that would terminate it and destroy all data installed on the field equipment. And if simply pulling its plug to the alien systems didn't work in the event of something going terribly wrong, he would not hesitate to use them. "I'm mapping the local network topography, but I was just pinged from a node with a handshake signal".

"So? What's odd about that?" Chalmers asked from her console as she studied the alien data stream with every sign of childish excitement.

"Because it's using a UNSC handshake protocol Doctor".

"…It's WHAT?" Chalmers spluttered, her helmet snapping up and a clear expression of shock on her face as she stared at the AI. "That's … that's impossible!"

"Yet, it is so" the AI replied, sounding almost insulted that the little human dared to question its analysis of the situation. "In fact, it looks like it is the gateway to the core network of this base; attempting connection…"

James Ackerson immediately opened his mouth to order the AI to wait. His paranoid Office of Naval Intelligence mind was flashing all manner of alarms at this alien system suddenly waving a UNSC welcome mat in their face so readily. But the human mind only worked at a speed of tens of milliseconds compared to the micro and nanosecond scale timeframes of AIs and by the time he had even started to think about objecting, it was far too late.

Every alarm built into every one of the workstations went off at the same time, the technicians not far behind as they started yelling and shouting as they hammered at their keyboards and screens as the situation went from controlled professionalism to uncontrolled chaos almost in the blink of an eye as the holographic data streams went nuts.

"Network intrusion detected in nodes two through seven, eight, nine-"

"Traffic just spiked ten thousand percent and climbing-"

"I can't kill the data feeds-"

Ackerson didn't wait for a report as everyone started yelling at once, didn't wait for an opinion from Chalmers. In two quick steps, he was at the core, vaguely noting the holographic avatar of Harpy as it seemed to recoil from something, but he paid it no mind as he seized the fibre-optic cable between the two systems, yanked-

And all at once, at least half of the alarms cut off as the connection was physically severed, the holographic avatar of the AI flicking and vanishing as he did so.

There was a moment of impossibly tense silence from the technicians before they appeared to almost sag in relief as the immediate danger passed.
In contrast, the Spartans merely continued to watch their sectors with the vigilance and dedication he both expected and demanded of them, barely glancing at the commotion.

"Well that went well" Ackerson commented darkly after a moment's silence. "SITREP!"

"Examining the playback now Colonel" one of the Technicians replied after catching her breath as Ackerson stalked around to see for himself, the screen shifting to show a network map and the events in a human comprehendible timeframe. "It looks like when Harpy connected to the node presenting itself with UNSC protocols, a link was established that allowed the alien systems to squirt executable code into our systems, adapting the code on the fly with incredible speed – I've never seen anything like it before. Uh … while it looks like Harpy successfully blocked it from getting into himself" he tapped the screen where a hydra of red lines reached out from the 'foothold' the alien systems had established to batter against the outer limits of Harpies own firewalls, "it was able to keep him so busy it had almost unlimited access to the data stores attached to the core. Hell that might have been its goals all along and it was just keeping Harpy busy-"

"What data?" Ackerson snapped with the imperative of a pistol shot in his voice, a ball of lead settling into his stomach at the others words. An alien computer system sucking down information from an ONI data drive?

He quietly congratulated himself for at least being sure to follow ONI field protocol to the letter, no matter how much several of his technical staff had complained it made doing their jobs that much harder. The field library had been scrubbed of anything strategically valuable to a hostile species before it had been taken off their ship - meaning there was limited value in their stores. But even so, it contained enough data that if it had been compromised, Margaret Orlenda Parangosky wouldn't even bother with the fiction of a trial and would surely just shove him into some 2x4 meter cell and throw away the key.

Then throw said cell into the nearest convenient main sequence star.

"Uh…" the other sweated as she worked, clearly intimidated, but Ackerson didn't have the time or inclination to sweet talk the egghead. "As best I can tell it went crashing through the data stores for our translation software, computer interface matrixes; mostly databases Harpy had open and was connected to, piggybacking off his open file descriptors. It had barely enough time to copy that data across before you pulled the plug".

"What about Harpy? Has it been compromised?"

"Checking" Chalmers put in from another console directly plugged into the AI, shaking her head a moment later. "Doesn't look like it. Harpy went into security lockdown when you pulled the cable. Right now, it's busy methodically purging the compromised cores while running diagnostics. But it shouldn't take more than a few-"

Whatever estimate the good Doctor had been about to give, was forever lost as an explosion of light tore loose from the pedestal behind him.

Ackerson almost fell over as well-honed combat instincts tried to make him dive for cover, even as his rational mind tried to get him to turn around to see what was going on. The result of the contradictory orders was something of an undignified stumble - and it was only by grabbing one of the freestanding displays that he prevented himself falling flat on his face.

Biting back a curse at his reaction, he wrenched himself to a halt and spun around, freezing in place as he caught sight of what had happened. As straight as a laser, a beam of pure white energy had lanced upwards from the pedestal to strike the apex of the dome far above them, illuminating the entire facility in a cold white glow. Energy seemed to be pooling or gathering at that point, but only seconds later as his jaw dropped open it was unleashed, seeming to almost explode outward in a great wave that 'washed' down the rock face of the dome, coating it with a weak sheath of energy in its wake.

And as he simply stood there, as frozen as the rest of his team at the awe inspiring spectacle, the energy seemed to start glowing brighter.

And brighter.

Then, just before it got to a point that he was about to polarize his visor to protect his eyes it … vanished. All of it. The dome, the beam, all of it, returning the great cavern back to the darkness once again as his eyes tried once again to adjust, the countless tiny stars burned into his eyes by the light stubbornly refusing to go away as he blinked his eyes in irritation, wondering what the hell that had all been about…

At least until he realized he actually was seeing stars.

And a planet. Specifically Jericho

It was, for a heart stopping moment that had him simply too awed to say or do anything, as if the wave of power had 'removed' the roof of this complex and somehow and raised them to the surface of the moon as easily as he might have opened a door. And from the complete and total silence of every other person around them, he strongly suspected that they were all thinking the exact same thing … until alien symbols, text and icons started to 'draw' themselves all over the sky.

"It's … a display" he muttered to himself even as the various civilians shook off their shock and started yelling at each other, waving various portable sensors around wildly as they tried to record or comprehend what had just happened, all concerns with their AI forgotten in the face of the latest casual display of completely unbelievable technology. "A gigantic display". There was a slight shudder in the 'ground' under them and he tore his gaze from the vista, as he felt the movement, seeking its source-

It did not take him long to find it.

The floor was rising.

Like an accordion folding back upon itself, the fifty meter wide disk with the pedestal and all their own equipment was rising upwards. In moments it had risen to come flush with the lowest tier of the stair like rings and said tier started moving with them. A matter of seconds later the now expanded platforms ascension reached the next level and it too joined in, the pattern clearly going to repeat itself all the way to the top. Fascinated, he stepped over to the edge of their expanded disk as it approached the next tier, watching as it too merged with their own, noting that it did so with such perfection that there was absolutely no trace of a seam – as if it had always been one large disk.

Such was the speed of their ascension that soon the last tier had been subsumed … but it did not stop there.

Now the process reversed itself. From the outer edge back on in towards the centre, each of the tiers started popping 'up' and out, rising a half meter before locking in place and triggering the next tier to rise back out in sequence. In no time at all, what had been their sunken amphitheatre at the bottom of twelve tiers had inverted itself into a giant ziggurat at the top of twelve tiers, granting them a spectacular view of the massive display that rose above them and around them, as if they were standing on the surface of the moon and not safely buried deeper under it.

"Huh. Well, that happened" Chalmers muttered after the absolute silence from everyone in the room became almost silly, most of them silently taking in the 360 degree view of the surface of the moon and the depths of space above it, seemingly at a loss for what to do now.
And to be perfectly honest … so was he.

Luckily, one of the Spartans was on the ball at least.

"Sir – check out nine O'Clock high" a COM signal broke into his thoughts, and Ackerson turned to his left and looked up at the NAV marker a Spartan had thoughtfully dropped to him over TEAMCOM. It was immediately clear what the soldier had been referring to; the bright blue dot in the night sky was far too large to be a star even without the alien targeting brackets placed around it. Looking closely, he could spot now a faint red line that rose above one of the Luna horizons at the base of the dome, transfixed the dot and then arced out over their heads to vanish down behind another part of the moon's surface in a great curve, almost certainly the course of something orbiting above them. A sudden suspicion of what 'it' may have been was confirmed moments later when the dot pulsed and a perfect scale projection of their Prowler materialized underneath the blue pulse of light.

He started to feel almost felt light headed as he stared at the image. The very best stealth systems the UNSC had - systems not even the Covenant could defeat, and this alien technology was all but mocking it with a projection so detailed he could even make out the traces of carbon scouring around the engine nacelles-

Then a new point of bright light 'ploughed' through the image, causing it to ripple like water, as something far more 'real' and far less human appeared, heading straight for them.

"Incoming!" a Spartan called out, snapping his Battle Rifle up and shouldering it in a blur of motion, a gesture repeated by the Spartans fire team as the rest raised their own weapons to sweep their own sectors for any additional threats.

Ackerson moved quickly, stepping over and putting his hand on the rifle, firmly pushing it down. He of course was nowhere near strong enough to actually force the rifle off target if the Spartan had resisted – he suspected he could have jumped on the man's weapon and it wouldn't have shifted, but the Spartan obediently let the rifle swing down as Ackerson flashed an override COM signal to everyone on the team.

"Weapons tight" he ordered in a voice calm, yet with an edge to it, his eyes not leaving the point of light as it closed on them rapidly. "No-one engages without my direct order. Confirm".

A wave of blue acknowledgement lights flashed from his Spartans and Ackerson exhaled slowly, setting himself as the object rapidly fell towards them – curving onto a direct course for him. It was small enough, perhaps thirty or forty centimetres across by his helmets calculations. Roughly cubical, but with rounded edges and a somewhat hollow structure mostly taken up by a single giant … well some kind of glowing … thing.

Was it a drive unit? Or a sensor system? Or some kind of weapon?

It was surely too small to be manned. So was it some kind of RPV drone, or an AI? Either possibility had pros and cons, but if it was just some kind of intruder-defence system intent only on eliminating the invaders it had detected-

"Greeting Reclaimer!" a cheerful voice cut into his TEAMCOM channel without warning, the blue light inside the robots orb flickering in time with the words as it came to a hover, slowly descending towards him and apparently ignorant of the way his heart jumped in his chest.
It had just greeted him in perfect English.

Over an encrypted COM channel.
Suddenly, it was abundantly clear where all the data stolen from their computer systems had gone.

"I am 916 - Thoughtful Contemplation, the Monitor of Line Installation 517A" the object continued as it seemed to flick its 'gaze' around the team, taking in the various humans either gawking at it in disbelief in the case of the scientists, or staring at it like it was a hissing cobra in the case of the Spartans. "How I may serve you?"

"Greetings … Thoughtful Contemplation" Ackerson replied after a moment, his mind working at blinding speed trying to come up with something as safe as possible to reply to it with as he tried to keep some kind of control of events. "I am Colonel James Ackerson, representing the United Earth Government on behalf of mankind".

"A pleasure indeed Reclaimer!" the 'Monitor' cheerfully replied, actually seeming to bounce around slightly with an odd energy and excitement at his reply. "Humanities survival after this length of time suggests the parasite was defeated and the Galaxy re-seeded successfully. It is a true testament to the Librarians foresight that your species has managed to re-advance so far in only a hundred thousand years, most impressive indeed! I do hope that other sentient life has been confirmed as being active?"

James Ackerson fought off the overwhelming urge to blurt out a reply of 'What?!' in response to its statement – and was quite proud of the fact he didn't, the urge to do so was quite overwhelming.

Instead he let his mind work rapidly, spending a precious few seconds to impose order on his scrambled thoughts and force his emotions aside for icy cold logic. Most likely this thing was an AI of some kind – and one that was screwed in the head seemed entirely probable considering the age of this facility. Could it have been programed to regard anyone who arrived at this facility as an ally? Or one of its species?

And yet ... it had talked about humanity specifically. About humanitybeing re-seeded which meant what? The direct interpretation was clearly impossible; a hundred thousand years ago his species had been busy debating if they should stick with this whole tools thing or go back to the trees…

Really, he needed more information. And if these were the cards he had been dealt…

"Yes … I can confirm we have encountered a number of interstellar civilizations within the last few decades" he answered, carefully leaving out the fact that all of them seemed to want humanity dead. "However … in regards to your initial question of how you may serve us … tell me, do you have records, a summary, of your interactions with humanity prior to the reseeding of the Galaxy?"

James Ackerson hadn't really been expecting an answer to the question mind you. Really, all he had been trying to do was get a feel for this thing, see how far it would let him go and what data it would let him access. Then in turn, using those responses to help shape further questions to make it look like he knew much more than he actually did. He had anticipated an answer that there was no data available on the subject, that access was denied or perhaps even the history of the alien species it thought they were because it was clearly a few chips short of a circuit board, so to speak.

Instead it had happily, almost cheerfully obliged, starting its 'summary' with pictures of a world it named Erde-Tyrene - but everyone in the group instantly recognized as unmistakably being Earth.

Every member of his team, even his Spartan III team whose extensive indoctrination had generally left them immune to displaying any emotion at all had been completely silent ten minutes later, when the AI had finished its 'summery'.

Understandable perhaps, given that it had just apparently turned much of known ancient human history upside down and inside out.

But while James Ackerson had been just as fascinated in his own way by the history of the human race now revealed, it had been something else in the summary that had absolutely captured his attention like a magnet.

A half hour of follow up questions and answers that the Monitor had been equally all too happy to answer and he realized he finally had the answer to the only question that had ever been worth answering - the question had haunted him for two decades.

And despite all the sacrifices he had made to get to this point, despite all the sacrifices he knew deep down he would need to make to finish his work … that terrible purpose now drove him inexorably forwards down the tunnel underneath Reach.

All doubts about his course were a thing of the past. There was nothing in his heart now but a perfect certainty that blazed before him like a supernova against the blackness of space.

History was now on the move – history was being created by him. And anything – or anyone- who got in his way …

13:29 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
UNSC Pelican Echo Four One Nine
On Approach to CASTLE Base, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

The sun was high in the sky above CASTLE Base but if anyone had been on the surface for a nice mid-day stroll, they would have been hard pressed to confirm it. A hundred uncontrolled major fires raging across and beyond the Viery Territory continued to pour onyx black smog into the atmosphere, shrouding the wider region under an otherworldly scarlet twilight filled with lighting and thunder. Huge amounts of heavy metal and toxic chemical contaminants were being scattered to the four corners of the globe by the fires, most conspicuously from the raging inferno that had been a Covenant Corvette before Spartan Team Red had applied their special pyrotechnic touch. Acid rain and similar unpleasant side effects would become a problem across this part of the planet until new terraforming equipment could be flown in from Earth to purge the atmosphere … but given that the forecast had been for raining plasma from the Covenant fleet, most of the civilian population would find it in their hearts to forgive the UNSC this small price of continued survival.

It was into this ominous world that Pelicans Echo 419 and Echo 421 descended, materializing barely five hundred feet above the Big Horn river basin where brisk surface winds kept the air relatively clear. Running dark, the two olive green craft were almost invisible in the twilight as they fell in tandem, illuminated only in snatches of lightning strikes from the charged atmosphere, the roar of their passage lost behind the thunderclaps tearing across the region.

It would have been a vista sufficient to intimidate even the most hardcore of ODSTs. For all their talk about dropping feet first into hell, it was something entirely different to actually fly into an environment that had a decent chance of passing for it at first glance. Sitting silently in the troop bay with the rest of his Spartans on the lead craft, Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan John-117 simply noted the environmental factors and, outside of the required adjustments to his tactical planning, dismissed them as he and the Spartan next to him swapped and checked each other's weapons. Darkness or light this was Reach. And no matter how many body blows it had taken it was still the closest thing he and his Spartans had to a home. To them, this could never be hell – no matter how many body blows it had taken.

Reach had not fallen. It had held.

And it would continue to do so if the Spartans had anything to say about it.

"LZ in sight, still no activity" Captain Carol 'Foehammer' Rawley called over TEAMCOM as she banked their Pelican in the direction of the base, simultaneously cutting power to the dropships engines as they commenced their insertion run.

Even discounting the fact that the Pelican design had aerodynamics somewhere between a brick and a Frisbee under normal circumstances without active thrust, the darkness and constant gusts of wind at low altitude created an environment that could very generously be described as 'challenging'. Your average Pelican pilot would never have attempted a dead-stick terrain masking stealth insertion under such circumstances short of someone putting a gun to their head … but then nothing about the 23rd Naval Air Squadron could be said to be average.

Administratively a line squadron like any other, in reality the 23rd was one of the Office of Naval Intelligence's unofficial joint operation commands scattered through the wider United Nations Space Command. Naval Intelligence had provided the budget and equipment to upgrade a number of craft far beyond stock with equipment not yet cleared (or just plain too expensive) for regular use, while Fleet provided handpicked personnel able to push the tricked out birds to their limits as well as all the necessary logistical support to run the squadron. The combination resulted in an Elite among the Elite that took tasking from both NAVSPECWAR and ONI Black Ops– most often based around covert insertion or extraction of Special Forces under less than ideal conditions.

He had worked with the 23rd many times before – and although he and his Spartans were all qualified pilots, there was no-one else he would rather have in the pilot's seat right now.

"We're on the ground in twenty seconds Chief".

"Understood" the Chief replied simply as he twisted his quick release harness and stood, the seven other Spartans inside at once mirroring his actions as they disengaged safeties on their weapons and readied themselves for deployment. "Pop the hatch".

With a whine of hydraulics the rear hatch of the Pelican started to unfold, air howling into the darkened cabin as the Spartans shifted into a standard two by two deployment formation, the commandos completely unfazed by either the sudden gale of air into the bay or G-Forces playing over them as the Pelican made its approach.

Although 'approach' would perhaps be too generous a term. Truth be told, Echo 419 all but crashed – only a last second overload of both bow and ventral thrusters prevented the bird from being strewn across the ground as debris, burning fuel and crispy bodies. The manoeuvre was incredibly risky – missing the mark for turning the engines back on by even one tenth of a second would result in a nose first crash but the skill of the 23rds pilots was up the task once more, wrenching their craft brutally to a halt in their chosen insertion point two kilometres downrange from CASTLE, in a dead zone that would hopefully give no warning of their arrival to any hostile Covenant units in the area.

All eight Spartans were out the door before the Pelican had even fully settled its weight. Thirty meters away the second bird piloted by Flight Lieutenant Shiela Polaski had skilfully duplicated the approach manoeuvre and two more fire teams of Spartans were deploying with comparable speed to cover the Eastern side of the LZ. All of the Spartans fanned out without a word exchanged or transmission sent, yet they moved with a fluidity and synchronisation that no other UNSC unit could match, scattering in a blur of motion into the tree-line as they swept the darkness for any threats that needed to be neutralized. Conventional logic held that if there was a hostile force hiding from orbital and high altitude sweeps under the sensor obscuring smog; now would be the best time to attack. The Spartans were at their most vulnerable–for a limited definition of the word 'vulnerable' of course – now … but as the seconds passed, nothing happened.

No needle bursts stitched across the area, nor did the distinctive blue stuttering of heavy plasma weapons tear into the deploying commandos. No energy swords were primed, no snipers opened up with beam rifles and no Hunter teams saturated the area with Fuel Rod blasts to cover assault teams of Grunts and Jackals swarming forward.

There was nothing.

A brief flicker of hand gestures back and forth confirmed all sectors were reading clear of any contacts. Signalling his own agreement, the Chief turned to look at the cockpit of the Pelican next to him, before sweeping his arm up over his head then down, pointing off into the distance. In response the spacecraft throttled up, the two Pelicans roaring back into the air. They had been on the ground for less than ten seconds before they were back in the sky, banking south on a long looping course towards that would eventually get them to their hold point at the nearby Generator complex.

None of the Spartans dropped their guard as they moved out silently towards their pre-set NAV point, their weapons at the ready as they silently ghosted from cover to cover in a compressed tactical formation, each of the four fire teams covering the other as they advanced steadily, ready for action at any time. Just because there were no Covenant visible didn't mean they were not present after all – a factoid that had been made perfectly clear through this campaign.

He had read Commander Carters AAR from Visegrad and the attempts there at stealth and misdirection had seemed to set a strategic pattern for the rest of the Covenants campaign. Their initial probing attack with a Zealot grade Elite team against a third tier civilian relay seemed almost unbelievable when compared against the patterns of two decades of overwhelming frontal assaults with cannon fodder against key strategic targets, but it had fit into a slowly emerging pattern of activity ONI had noticed across UEG space in recent engagements. It was becoming increasingly suggested by some members of Naval Intelligence that the Covenant were searching for something on human worlds, although what exactly they were looking for remained a mystery. And while not everyone in ONI agreed with the theory, Doctor Halsey did - and that was good enough for the Chief to take the theory very seriously indeed. It did help though that he had seen this behaviour first hand on Sigma Octanus IV, although talk about that event had been locked down by ONI faster than a flash fire in an Archer Pod. And beyond the fact that the Covenant were searching for something or some-things of value, none of the Spartans had any real understanding of what it all meant – and if ONI knew, they were not telling.

Whatever the Covenants objectives on Reach, he would have been perfectly happy to frustrate their plans by getting into the field when WINTER CONTINGENCY had been declared. But to his private disquiet, firm orders had come down from the very top that they were to remain on the Pillar of Autumn and not deploy groundside; they were to proceed with RED FLAG per their planned schedule. And so he, his Spartans and an equally unhappy crew on board the 'Autumn, many of whom had family below, had watched from orbit as dozens and then hundreds of attacks had been plotted with increasing frequency; all without any clear pattern, purpose or consistency. Reports Lieutenant Dominique filtered from NAVSPECWAR feeds that his rank and position allowed him to access showed attacks ranging from a single lance of a suicidal grunts running into a militia barracks with glowing plasma grenades held in each hand to full scale bombardments by modified SDV and DAV class Corvettes on outlying townships. The light ships were apparently finding a great deal of entertainment from de-cloaking, deploying a ground team under the cover of a blistering bombardment before re-cloaking and moving off to repeat the process somewhere else - all before air or starship support could intervene.

The still mobilising UNA and UNSC troops were caught entirely off guard by the unexpected strategy. All the carefully written plans for WINTER CONTINGENCY were being thrown out the window as Generals and Admirals tried to come to terms with the unfolding events. Instead of the One Big Push the Covenant had always embraced, they were hitting with pinpricks all over the planet – the end result more like an insurrectionist uprising than a planetary invasion.

Fortunately - or unfortunately- the UEG had plenty of practice dealing with such attacks and as the shock had worn off, the Chief had watched in approval as ground units had swung into action. Civilians had scrambled for any kind of shelter they could find as chaos had erupted in the middle of their cities, with units ranging from crack NAVSPECWAR Echo Teams all the way down to local militia and SWAT units responding as battles erupted nowhere and everywhere at the same time around the globe. Desperate attempts by legions of intelligence analysts to predict the Covenants strategic objectives or even simply isolate some kind of pattern had ended in one dead end after another. Big targets, small targets, military targets, civilian targets; they were all seemingly important enough to be on the enemy hit list. Laundries and launch silos, shopping malls and spaceports; the Covenant didn't seem to care what they attacked, so long as they were attacking something, somewhere.

UEG military and paramilitary units responded as best they could to the challenge, yet for every threat they eliminated a new one would sprout up almost immediately elsewhere. Bizarrely though, for all the panic the rapid series of attacks were causing, the casualty lists were not climbing anywhere near as quickly as they should have, at least in the Chiefs experience of Covenant invasions. These Covenant troops were clearly willing to spend their lives in one-way trips, with none of the units engaged making any effort to withdraw when the inevitable UEG counterattacks had landed on them like the wrath of God; survival appearing to be secondary to causing as much destruction as possible. But if that was their objective, then their tactics were poorly thought out. A handful of units taking antimatter charges deep into key population centres could have done vastly more damage for far less sacrifice compared to these suicidal attacks by the Covenant - and that revelation got him thinking.

The wave of senseless attacks seemed entirely at odds with the sophisticated campaign the enemy was running on the strategic level to obscure their objectives - and that contradiction had bothered the Chief. Without exaggeration he could honestly say his unit had logged more ground time against the Covenant than any other unit in the Army or Navy with over two hundred major engagements listed in his CV alone. He felt he had a solid grasp of their tactics and strategy yet this whole wave of attacks felt wrong to him. The Covenant were fanatics to be sure and more than willing to die for their cause, but they had always been very specific in harnessing that fanaticism for a purpose. They never simply lashed out wildly without expectation of gaining something … and yet all they seemed to be getting here was pure chaos.

It was at that point that the 'light' as it were, had gone off in his head.

The Chief had hurried to the bridge, unsurprised to find Captain Keyes glowering at a strategic map of the planet pulled off GROUNDCOM covered in contact reports. Saluting as he had stepped up to his CO, the Chief had explained his thought process as quickly and simply as he could.

There were no attacks trying to stay hidden inside decoys, no progression that could be monitored or anticipated and no point analysing them in minute detail looking for answers.

In short, there was no pattern in the Chaos.

The pattern was Chaos.

None of the targets they had been hit served to gain the Covenant any kind of strategic advantage. If the Covenant had simply wanted to cause damage, they could have done so on a much more destructive scale with fewer resources than these attacks were using up. So it couldn't be so simplistic a goal as to kill as many people as possible. The only clear outcome of the attacks he could see was that they were forcing the defenders to commit to countless engagements across the battlespace, keeping the UEG too busy reacting and running from highly visible firefight to highly visible firefight as they tried to get a handle on the situation, pouring resources as they came online into the action without a chance to take a break or seize the initiative … or more critically, time to stop and think.

Keyes had agreed with his logic, apparently having already come to the same conclusion, making a comparison to what he -they- had seen at Sigma Octanus IV, where the Covenant had used the entire engagement as a diversionary tactic while they recovered some bizarre artefact from a museum on the surface. The Captain had then pointed out dryly that in typical ONI fashion, few people outside of the exalted levels of HIGHCOM and ONI itself had actually been informed of the true significance of the events at Sigma. Few -if any- of the military personnel deployed groundside would have been brought into the loop, meaning few -if any- staff officers would likely give credence to the possibility that the Covenant were not simply trying to kill as many people as they could, for the sake of shedding human blood.

Rather than waste time trying to convince ground officers who even in normal times had little patience for 'smart ass Navy' butting into their business, Keyes had shifted tracks and decided to use what resources he had on his own to do some snooping - so as to not violate codeword security around the events at Sigma. Reach had the second largest global information network in the UEG and everything from street lights turning on and off to sewerage use was monitored and logged somewhere. There was always the chance that something had been noted in the mountain of data that might give away the position or presence of the enemy where they were not supposed to be.

Suffice to say the sheer volume of information a planet like Reach spat out on even a minute by minute basis was obscene and far beyond the ability of his crew to really go through ... but Keyes had an edge no-one else did; the most advanced AI ever created by the UEG.

Cortana had of course just quipped that she enjoyed a challenge and gotten stuck into the work with eagerness - seemingly taking the task as a test to prove herself and her capabilities to everyone … or she had simply been bored to death as the 'Autumn had coasted in circles around the planet. Either way, the Chief knew this was the kind of work Smart AIs excelled at; combining the processing power and speed of a high grade supercomputer with human level ingenuity and intelligence. And even if it wasn't technically what she had been designed for, she had leapt at the chance to contribute, starting by 'retasking' the Reach super-AI network in New Alexandra and using it in parallel to break down the scale of the task to something more manageable. And rather than waste time asking if the AI actually had permission to use that rather valuable resource, the Chief had decided he really didn't need or want to know the answer and had excused himself to head back below deck.

As a soldier, he had lived the old maxim of 'hurry up and wait' all his life … but it was seemingly much harder this day - and he knew the same had to be true for a great many people on board the ship. He had kept himself as busy as he could, seeing to his people and coordinating a number of counter-boarding drills the Marines were running on the Captains orders to keep their own minds off the events down below. Then when that was done, he had retreated to 'Spartan Country' as the cargo bays repurposed for their use had become known, seeing to his own people who remained as ready and professional as always, but none the less subtlety distracted by events as he was. He had worked to keep them busy, ensuring they were checking and rechecking the tons of field gear being shipped up from a planet that probably had far greater need for it then they did. But busy as he kept them, he could easily see his team were unhappy with sitting the fight out - if far too professional to say so to him.

Of course, he wasn't happy either, but orders were orders and it was his job to set an example for his people, so he had striven to show no trace of his unease as he had set about ensuring his team would be ready well ahead of schedule for RED FLAG.

Thankfully, the Captain had called him back to the bridge well before they were scheduled to break orbit.

Cortana had found something.

While she had not been able to isolate anything specific to the Zealot grade team she had been hunting for, she had flagged several abnormal data points in the Vivy Territory - a barren region in the North that he remembered well from the Spartans desert warfare training. A number of automated systems inside the territory had been transmitting data that was clearly out of synch with similar systems in other regions - before they had been cut off entirely with the loss of the relay at Visegrad when the Covenants presence had become openly known. Digging deeper, the wilful AI had noticed that neighbouring regional seismometers had flagged abnormal seismic events that triangulated to somewhere in Vivy. Significant enough to be picked up hundreds of kilometres away ... yet mysteriously not logged by the regions own systems. The weather radars around Vivy had also caught glimpses of abnormal atmospheric disruptions … yet the local radars raw data feeds had shown everything to be as clear as a summer's day. And most interesting, there was absolutely no sign of a Covenant presence within a thousand kilometres of the region.

The mismatch of data from so remote a region was not worthy of being flagged for immediate human attention by the basic AIs that collated such data, certainly not like an entire region shutting down would have required a close look … but looked at in hindsight, it was clear that someone had systematically tampered with all remote sensor technology across a wide area; creating a 'dark zone' that had to be related to the Covenants presence on Reach.


Cortana had forwarded her analysis to the staff of Vice Admiral Whitcom and surprisingly, the Admiral himself had hailed the Autumn ten minutes later. Pleased to finally find someone willing to offer him a working theory that might let him throw ridiculous amounts of firepower at something, the Vice Admiral had re-tasked a fleet Prowler to put some of the region under an orbital microscope. The passive orbital pass had shown no Covenant presence ... but had shown a distinct lack of any signs of life at the handful of outposts across the region where there should have been something. Attempts to make radio contact had only met with silence and as the sun had set across a smoke filled continent, the Admiral had decided that the situation merited closer attention.

NOBLE team, held in reserve in case something worthy of a Spartan teams attention had appeared had been re-tasked for a covert recon mission as night had fallen across the region. Expertly eschewing their MJOLNIR suits in favour of Special Purpose Infiltration systems, the team had gotten in and out undetected and unengaged to confirm they had eyeballed a massive Covenant FOB under an intricate network of Stealth field generators. A frantic night of redeployment of reserve forces still mobilising in the chaos of the continuing attacks had gotten two UNA armoured brigades in six battalion sized formations on the line, ready to advance in the morning with several regiments of Marine and Army troopers attached to them for infantry support. Eager to get in on the key battle of the campaign, the Chief had directly offered his own Spartans services to the Admiral, only for the Vice Admiral to give him a grin that a Crocodile would have envied and explained that as it so happened, he actually did had a special plan for his team.

The stealth capable DAV and SDV class Corvettes playing 'hide and seek' with increasingly irritated Longsword wings across the planet were known to not have Slipspace drives, trading FTL capability for their impressive active camouflage systems. Ergo, they must have been brought in by either a DDS or CSA class warship - almost certainly hiding on the ground. The Vice Admiral saw absolutely no problems with killing two birds with one stone; they were going to smash the enemy beachhead … and as soon as the grounded enemy Carrier had been located, Operation RED FLAG was going to be launched. With the Spartan IIs making a direct drop from orbit right onto the enemy ship, while NOBLE team would lead several other NAVSPECWAR units in an assault from groundside.

It had been a good plan, an elegant plan … but like so many good plans, it had gone right out the window when the enemy had revealed they had their own cards they had not yet put on the table.

It seemed absurd that something as massive as a CSO class Supercarrier could sneak onto the most heavily guarded world in Earth space without being detected - and when the dust settled, the question of how was certainly going to be asked by a lot of people. But none the less, the Chief had watched the live feed from the UNSCS Dusk become obscured as a massive dust cloud had exploded across the feed, cutting off all orbital visuals of the battlefield as the armoured spearheads had blasted through the final ring of Covenant defences the next day. Surface data feeds uplinked via SATCOM to the Prowler had gone equally crazy, with NOBLE Team and other ground elements reporting Earthquakes, dust storms and general chaos breaking out all over the AO; the UEG advance stopping dead in its tracks as surprised units tried to get a handle on the situation.

Plasma torpedoes had then lashed out through the cloud from nowhere and obliterated the CAS Frigates UNSCS Grafton and UNSCS Twilight Dash without mercy or warning, the sudden barrage sending the ground units into pandemonium as kilotons of debris had sprayed into the ground all over them. Flocks of Shortswords, Hornets and Skyhawks scattered desperately in every direction in confusion as laser fire followed up the torpedo volley, scathing dozens of them from the sky as the battle mutated from an orderly rout of the Covenant forces into a confused string of isolated, desperate, firefights in near zero visibility.

From the cold calm of space, it quickly became clear what was going on. A flotilla of UNSC Destroyers hovering at the very edge of the atmosphere above the battlefield had been the first to see it emerge from the dust clouds, like a monster rising from a shallow grave. Reacting commendably swiftly as suddenly ashen faced sensor operators had screamed warnings to their Captains, the ships had broken formation and run as their ready salvo of MAC and Archer rounds seemed to just bounce harmlessly off the monster, but the UNSCS El Alamein and UNSCS Minotaur were a few seconds too slow off the mark and were promptly skewered by twin energy projector beams in an almost casual display of firepower, one that encouraged the surviving Captains to near burn out their engines as they fled.

FLASH alerts had bounced around the planet in a matter of seconds as Vice Admiral Whitcomb had taken charge of the situation with typical high-volume gusto, looping his ships around the curve of the planet to regroup into a single massive formation rather than send them in piecemeal. The massive low-orbit Defence Platforms situated over the major population centres were also out of position, but the half dozen nearest were given curt orders and reoriented, working to set up a crossfire with their Mark V 'Super' MAC guns that would hopefully make Swiss Cheese out of the enemy Carrier as soon as it reached low orbit ... with everyone trying not to think of what kind of a mess the debris from the ship would make if it came crashing back down on the army still fighting to mop up the fanatic holdouts who had seen their ticket off Reach just leave without them.

They had not been given the chance to engage however. With 2nd Fleet busy regrouping and the curve of the planet temporarily shielding them from the ODPs, the enemy Fleetmaster had taken the chance to power down both his shields and weapons, dumping everything into the ships slipspace drive to make a precise, minimum distance jump. A risky tactic for the Covenant - as even their technology couldn't apparently manage more than a handful of light seconds distance before being thrown back into realspace from that deep in a gravity well, exhausted of all power. But it was a risk that had paid off, relocating the carrier from Reach orbit to the far side of Csodaszarvas; placing the natural satellite between it and the planets defenders. Now shielded from long range fire from the ODPs yet too far away to hit with the combined fleet before it powered back up, it left the UNSC fleet a stark and rather unpalatable choice. Did they ignore the ship until more reinforcements arrived … or did they leave the firepower of the ODPs behind and try to engage the enemy on their terms now?

Worse, the Carrier had not withdrawn from the system after restoring power but simply held position with a moon between itself and the heavy orbital artillery. It strongly suggested that the Covenant had not finished with Reach - if they had gotten what they wanted, the Carrier would have withdrawn. Logically, it thus followed that they did not have it yet … but they still wanted it – and wanted it badly.
Based on past actions, there were only two ways this would go. Either the Covenant would look to besiege Reach and enforce a blockade like they had at Harvest, interdicting all UNSC space traffic in and out of the system while isolating a secure corridor to the planet … or they would return in overwhelming force to remove the human presence and get back to work in peace.

The Chief knew perfectly well which way he would have bet his money based on their actions to date – if he could have been bothered finding out where all his pay had ended up over the years - and so was not surprised when a hundred and thirty Covenant warships had jumped in hours later to break the standoff.

The Autumn had actually been outbound from Reach at that time, on route to Epsilon Eridanis superior jump point. Captain Keyes had promptly taken the opportunity to declare that they had little need to go searching for a Covenant ship given that a whole fleet of them had just appeared for the Spartans to take their choice of and reversed course. It was in the Master Chiefs opinion just a thinly discussed excuse to get back into the fight, but it was also justifiable within the scope of their mission orders … and he knew full well that if Reach fell, RED FLAG would be of questionable utility strategically speaking.

Professionally, he felt he should have formally logged an objected to this course of action with the Captain. Personally however, it had rankled him to run from Reach while it was under such threat and so he had just told his Spartans to gear up and get ready for a Zero-G boarding action. A decision vindicated when the high priority Cole Protocol redirect had been flagged by Cortana minutes later, meaning the Spartans were in position to try to counter the critical threat directly.

Things had moved quickly at that point - almost too quickly to keep up with as the battle had exploded into renewed fury across the planetary system. The 'Autumn had skimmed the Covenant fleets line of advance, throwing Blue Teams boarding party at Gamma station in passing as they had decelerated hard around the dark side of the planet to deploy the Spartans and Helljumpers to defend the generator complex after they had detected the tracks of hoards of Covenant dropships on a beeline for the region while the main UNSC fleet and ODPs 'threw back' the enemy fleet. In actual fact the Covenant had simply withdrawn with their mission accomplished, leaving behind a massive dogfight of a battle around Gamma Station and a single Battle Cruiser to discourage pursuit as their forces withdraw back to their starting point at the Supercarrier. Why they had chosen to withdraw had puzzled the UNSC Captains watching them, at least until four hundred new Covenant warships -two thirds of which massed at the Cruiser level – had jumped in to join the Long Night of Solace on the far side of the moon, not too much later. It was an unprecedented display of overwhelming force that proclaimed the Covenant would not be denied as they had redressed their formation and advanced on what was left of the UNSC defence force, who had steeled themselves to make the Covenant pay in blood for the victory that was surely coming …

Except for one little ship that had appeared between the two fleets and told the Covenant to leave. And when they did not, had answered the Covenants show of force with a singular display of excessive firepower unrivalled by anything seen across twenty years of total war. So much so that the shattered remains of the Covenant fleet had, for the first time in history, fled from a field of battle instead of fighting to the death as was their usual want. Apparently so stunned by their unprecedented defeat that all the will to fight had been stripped out of them.

Now over a day since the space battle had ended so unexpectedly, his team were finally on the ground and hopefully zeroing in on whatever it was the Covenant had been so eager to get their varied appendages on. And not simply to deny the Covenant their prize; if this thing -whatever it was- had any kind of hand in dragging the Odyssey into this universe, it was absolutely critical that it was secured as quickly as possible.

Not in least because its location was painfully suspect.

The Chief was more than smart enough to understand what kind of conclusions the Odyssey crew could -and probably would- draw from the fact that whatever had brought them into this universe was apparently sitting directly underneath a top secret base of the Office of Naval Intelligence.

Hence this operation.

Presently, the Spartans came to a halt as they reached the outer perimeter of CASTLE, the skirmish line breaking as the fire teams reassembled into their respective units and spread out without a word being exchanged or transmission being sent. Cortana had pulled ONIs geo survey on the region -he didn't know where she had gotten it and had once again decided not to ask questions he didn't' want to know the answer to- and the old Titanium mine schematics been annotated with a sketchy map of the Lava tubes the miners had stumbled into and ONI had later investigated. They seemed to extend some distance in the general direction of the Generation station and Covenant LZ meaning that he couldn't discount the possibility that there was another access point the Covenant had found. A FLASH request from Admiral Keyes had asked Major Dare to examine the Covenant camp Red Team had found for any signs of tunnelling activity … although given that large parts of that camp were a raging inferno right now, the Chief held little hope they would find anything.

Still, the possibility that hostiles had breached the tunnels via an unknown or newly created entrance could not be discounted. He would have vastly preferred to conduct a full sweep of CASTLE and underground regions to sanitize the area before letting the tech teams come in to examine it but Hood had denied that option outright. In his view the UNSC couldn't afford even the perception that they were trying to hide something from their new allies given how delicate their barely established relationship was and, more to the point, how desperately the UEG needed access to their technology. They had to show Landry and his people that they were dealing openly, which meant letting them participate in everything. But at the same time, any loss of life among their guests was absolutely unacceptable.

The contradiction between his priorities didn't really bother the Chief; Special Forces like Spartans rarely got straight forward missions after all. He had however asked for -and at once been granted- a full sixteen Spartan II commandos for the mission. The Odyssey would have an investigation team joining them as soon as they finished confirming no trace of Covenant hostiles and with that many assets he was confident in being able to operate freely while keeping this 'SG1' out of harm's way…

In theory anyway. This could still get quite difficult if they did run into any Covenant presence … but difficult missions were their Raison d'être.

So he wasted little time with recriminations. Instead, he let his eyes check his mission clock, counting down the last seconds of the deployment phase until … now.

At precisely 13:40 hours he moved out of cover, activating his transponder as he did so. Ten meters away Kelly emerged with him a split second faster off the mark as always, the two of them keeping low and fast as they moved in on the base, their weapons following their eyes as they moved up in a standard split advance, checking for any sign of the enemy as the marksmen and heavy weapons specialists in the treeline covered them. Three other pairs of Spartans were moving in from equidistant points around the buildings, their olive green suits all but invisible in the dim light as they swept the grounds, moving in with a silent unified precision that would have made the most elite ODST team green with envy.

Hand signals were exchanged as they re-joined that confirmed no hostiles indicators, but none of them relaxed so much as an inch as they moved in on the main door of the primary guardhouse. It was extremely unlikely the Covenant had gained access to CASTLE Base, especially given that the base was intact and not a giant crater from the self-destruct systems going off. But the Chief had not lived this long by making foolish assumptions about the enemy's competence either. If this alien technology under them was indeed the focus of this entire overwhelming Covenant invasion, he would expect them to have committed their very best troops and most skilled specialists here and he would presume nothing about what might be on the other side of any door - like the main entrance to the primary guardhouse he was stacking up on.

Activating the keypad next to the lock, with great care the Chief carefully tapped out a twenty five digit code provided to him by Lord Hood, before activating his COM system and sending an 'electronic key' wirelessly into the system that the Admiral had also provided. Ultra-level access codes secretly hardwired into the security systems and rotated on a monthly basis against the possibility of insurrectionists seizing control of CASTLE and needing a 'cleaner' team to go in against its defences activated, bypassing the local command and control systems to lift the lockdown with recognition of HIGHCOMs authority.

Raising his MA5B, he sent a double pulse on the status lights.
Kelly hit the door control and at once, the Spartans were moving, the Chief leading them the door a half a heartbeat after it had opened far enough to fit him. Moving automatically from countless years of training and combat experience, he shifted left as Kelly followed and bore right, the Spartans fanning out through the gleaming command centre and attached barracks ready to kill anything that presented itself…

And found nothing.

There were no Grunts, no Elites and no Jackals. No subtle sensor hints of active camouflage enemies hiding, no thermal spots of recent biological activity.

Exactly as he had expected.

But he would take no shortcuts, nor make any foolish assumptions given the weight of what was hanging in the balance.

A quick pulse of status lights from the Spartans moments later confirmed this take on the situation and he sent the 'All-Clear' signal back to the rest of his team outside as he stepped over to the main command console for the security systems. Once again he opened a wireless link with the console and authenticated himself, quickly navigating to the master security system as Lord Hoods codes bypassed the local computer architecture to give him full control of the perimeter systems. He noted with a frown that the base AI seemed to have been shut down, he guessed when Doctor Halsey had left earlier in the day. But he couldn't tell any more than that from here; the systems in this building were soft isolated from most of those below to ensure if a hostile force ever took it, it would still be almost impossible to force an electronic bridgehead into the CASTLE network from this building - even with AI support – certainly not before someone below could hard cut the link.
Still, the basic read-only repeater displays showed status indicators from the base that everything was situation green. The base at least should be safe to bring the personnel from the Odyssey into, so he activated his suits COM system and switched over to the SATCOM frequency that linked into the uplink Fred had just finished activating back in the tree line moments after the all clear was given.

"Sierra One-One-Seven to Sierra Actual…"

That Same time, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Unknown Caverns underneath CASTLE BASE
Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

The cross connecting corridor was dark.

And it wasn't simply that there was an absence of ambient light. Their own headlights seemed to be swallowed up by the walls, floor and ceiling of the corridor. The lights played just fine over the personnel clustered around him and the Spartans beyond them in a close escort formation, but the walls, ceiling and floor of the passageway simply didn't exist as far as his eyes could tell. He could touch the floors and the walls mind you, feeling the oddly comforting rock-like texture of the alien structure without any problem. And while the VISOR display in his helmet was helpfully sketching in a wireframe overlay of the passage based on sonar readings that was keeping him orientated … for a heart stopping moment it was as if they had been dumped into an infinite blackness that threatened to overwhelm him - and it was only through sheer force of will that he showed no sign of the sudden feeling of vertigo that crashed into him.

The tiny automated drone had halted at the passage after its primitive brain had simply gotten completely confounded by the cross passageway, many of its sensors going haywire as it had tried to roll down. Automatically it had backed up and waited for its human masters to arrive and make sense of the situation, and Ackerson was not exactly having an easy time of it right now. He had sent scouts back and forth into the corridor as they had unloaded the equipment from the trolleys too big to fit into the corridor and they had confirmed that they could indeed exit and enter the passage at will, but all external light somehow vanished ten meters in - along with all COM traffic to the distant Spartan teams and AI watching over them.

In normal times he would have spent a great deal of time analysing the situation, trying alternatives like laying a hard COM cable or ultrasonic datalink through the passage to maintain communications … but the quiet voice in the back of his head that had kept him alive countless times in the field was telling him that he needed to keep moving. So he had pushed on, alerting the two Spartan teams guarding his six as well as Araqiel itself that they would be out of contact for some time before pushing onwards, following the lead Spartan team into the corridor and watching in fascination as darkness had fallen around them.

"Status change" one of the Spartans spoke aloud after the team had moved through twenty meters or so of the unnerving darkness. "Getting some light ahead…"

"Keep moving" Ackerson ordered as the Spartans started to slow down to examine the new situation, increasingly impatient to come to the end of this unnerving void. Obedient to a fault despite what they might have considered of the risks, the Spartans kept moving with their weapons ready and he kept close behind … as moments later the darkness was torn asunder by billions of points of light.

He felt his eyebrow raise almost of its own accord at the sight, a faint counterpoint of wonder passing briefly through him as yet again these aliens showed off their completely absurd technology.

In between steps, he had gone from walking in perfect darkness, to striding across the Galaxy.

"Impressive" he commented over the COM, barely noticing the flash of acknowledgment lights as the lead Spartans halted at his gesture, the rest of the team catching up quickly out of the darkness behind him to clatter to a halt in stunned amazement around him, many of them not so subtly reaching out to touch the still completely invisible walls around them, as if reassuring themselves that they had not stepped through an intangible doorway into deep space.

"Incredible" Chalmers breathed unsteadily as she stepped up next to him, all but spinning in place as she tried to take in everything all at once. "Must be more of this advanced light manipulation technology these 'Forerunners' throw around everywhere – it seems they can manipulate it to generate perfect holographic environments with continuously adjusting focal points…"

"And it's not what we're here for" he replied curtly, gesturing everyone keep moving. He tried not to get distracted by the perfect view of the Galaxy around him, a view that you never got even on ships or stations - only in something like an EVA suit really. Nor did the countless points of light twinkle as they would in the night sky from the surface of a planet; they just burned in infinite number of white shades, a thick band of light stretching from his far left to his far right defining the Galactic plane as if they were on the very edge of the Milky Way looking in.

But the stars were only the beginning. As the team continued forward, one of the points of light seemed to pulse brightly as if to draw attention, before suddenly everything started moving. The entire star field around them seemed to 'shift', as if the Galaxy was spinning and moving to bring them towards that star, seemingly linked with the pace as they walked forward, as if turning 'pages' in a book – and he realized that this in fact was a book, a story being told to the first visitors to this place in probably a hundred thousand years or more.

Fleetingly, he wondered if this was how these 'Forerunners' -as the Monitor had named its creators- saw the Galaxy and the universe. As a plaything; with their needs, wants and concerns as far above humanities as humanity was above the basest bacteria …

This whole corridor was indeed telling a story.

And it didn't take him long to figure out which one.

He paid little attention as they went from planet to planet, 'walking into and through' meetings of alien Governments amusingly debating philosophical questions and rejecting reality as their empire crumbled around them. He ignored the sight of planets burning and fleets that covered their skies by the hundreds of thousands duelling franticly, as twisted grotesque things consumed everything in their path. He in fact only paused once as he strode along, as their perspective shifted back to the Galaxy wide scale and a furious blast of blue/white energy seemed to erupt from multiple points around the vast swirl of stars now painted a vivid scarlet showing the progression of their enemy; entangling and building on itself until it joined into a single unified pulse that washed over the Galaxy, causing each and every star they touched to dim and die before slowly they started to shine once again with a pure white light.

Smirking slightly at that last image, he pressed forward but a few steps more and walked out of the darkness and into the light and once again, he came to an abrupt halt behind the towering black figures of the Spartans as they trained their weapons outwards looking for anything worth shooting.

The tunnel indeed ended exactly where the sonar readings from the drone said it would; roughly three hundred meters along. But it had been completely off track with its estimates of the scale of the next room.

This … was not a large chamber hundreds of meters across.

Even the word 'chamber' didn't really do it justice; a quick glance at the laser range finder built into his ONI helmet showed the far wall of the vast roughly circular cavern at least three thousand meters away. Craning his neck up, he counted at least twelve terraced balconies or levels ascending above him that ringed the chamber wall, with perhaps twenty meters between each and hundreds meters move above the top level that terminated finally in a wide vaulted ceiling. Across the ceiling, a golden sun -or at least the holographic recreation of one- burned brightly, illuminating the vast chamber from inside a blue sky with a dusting of clouds, a blue that was reflected the massive floor stretching around and ahead of them. The shimmering colour of the ground caught his eye as he looked and he crouched down to examine it, noticing that the floor here was not the solid and perfectly smooth glass-rock like material they had seen before, but appeared to be made out of countless small tiles of almost random shapes that none the less seemed to fit together into small groups, that in turn linked into more in all directions in a perfect pattern that teased his brain, but he couldn't quite put his finger on...

And each of the tiles had one of the Covenant-like symbols that apparently formed the basis of the Forerunner language etched into it.

He blinked and looked around him as it dawned on him that the sheer size of this room meant there had to be millions … no perhaps even billions of these tiles making up the floor of this place. He idly wondered what they said before dismissing them as he raised his gaze, staring at the middle of the vast cavern where once again a pedestal much the same as those from the Jericho system sat, a pale blue dot of light hovering above it.

Exactly as he had been promised.

Finally letting the smallest of grins appear on his face for just a moment, he stood and started barking out orders.

That Same time, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
CASTLE BASE Server Room # 15
Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

Araqiel frowned as control of the perimeter security systems were ripped from its hands.

Virtually of course.

As an AI it had neither hands to hold with nor a face to frown with when he wasn't projecting an avatar, something there was little point in doing when no humans were around to appreciate - or be intimidated - by such theatrics.

Things it seemed had just gotten slightly complicated. Colonel Ackerson had moved out of contact several minutes ago with annoyingly bad timing, an inversion of the amusing conceit of 'synchronicity' he had gone on about earlier in the day, as if there was some kind of predestined hand at work here instead of the determinate mathematics of pure chance and causality that truly ruled the universe.

And that left the AI in something of a quandary.

Araqiel was not a typical ONI AI. A legacy of the reign of the previous CICONI, his programed loyalty and computer rights were different compared with other such Ais in use across UEG space. Unsurprisingly given its institutional paranoia, the Office of Naval Intelligence placed greater restrictions and shackles on their AIs when compared to the rest of the UEGs military or security branches. Partially to ensure their loyalty but more importantly to control the possibility of them being misused by their human masters. There were very few humans who had the skills to break through the layered security systems used by ONI. Those who might be able to generally either worked for ONI directly or were controlled -one way or the other- by the UEG anyway. But as a top level Smart AI could effectively turn the most inept computer user into a master hacker at a stroke, ONI was incredibly careful to ensure that the AIs running around in their systems couldn't be misused.

But Araqiel was … different.

Specifically, it was one of exactly seven ONI Smart AIs that had been very quietly designed with a hidden behavioural subroutine that stated it must obey a direct order from Vice Admiral Margaret Parangosky or her authorized representative - in this case Colonel Ackerson. And it must do so unequivocally, absolutely and irrespective of all other 'rules' integrated into the AIs kernel.

More than once, Araqiel had philosophized about the similarities between itself and the Spartans of Stiletto Team accompanying the Colonel. Like it, the commandos were bound to absolutely follow the orders of Parangosky or her dutifully appointed representative, but there was a key difference. Its computer programing was absolute. 0s and 1s. It had no freedom to decide what orders to follow and what not to not follow, no more than a human could choose to stop its heart or turn off its brain. For AIs, even Smart AIs, free will was an illusion.

The Spartan IIIs on the other hand, well, they were human, with all the messy imperfect biological problems that related to that ... condition. While Araqiel knew they had been indoctrinated by the very best specialists in Section III to be made as fanatically loyal and unquestioningly loyal to ONI as possible after their teams had been wiped out and left most of them alone or in pairs as the last survivors of their units desperately looking for purpose ... it was still a case of trying to convince them that they had no true free will rather than it being genuinely true.

A slave to its programming, Araqiel was currently impaled neatly on the horns of a dilemma. The final orders from Colonel Ackerson before he had moved out of radio contact into the alien base had been clear; maintain the lockdown and keep the operation protected until he returned. When he had given those orders, the possibility of any UEG personnel arriving at CASTLE was minimal. Almost everyone who had the authorization to enter the base was heading out system as fast as their transports could take them and the few who remained in system had no reason to do so. A probability assessment showed a better than ninety four percent chance that the Colonel would move back into contact within the next hour for a status check and the odds of the AI having to deal with friendly forces showing up inside that timeframe were less than one in a hundred.

Annoyingly for the AI, it seemed its calculations had missed some kind of variable or failed to properly account for one it knew about. Because sixteen -sixteen!- Spartan II commandos did not simply show up on your doorstep to ask if anyone inside had found religion - mission recording captures of insurrectionists pleading for help from varied deities when Spartans blew in their front doors aside.

Most probably, the Spartans were here for the same reason as Colonel Ackerson. KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN was highly classified, but not unknown to the highest levels of UNSC command. SIGINT systems built into Menachite Mountain had monitored the discovery and destruction of the Covenant base camp nearby and it wouldn't be terribly hard for Admiral Hood or Admiral Whitcomb to put two and two together and send a Spartan team in to sweep the area for any trace of an enemy presence.

Or perhaps even the possibility that someone had detected a hint of unauthorized activity locally - without knowing what parties the Colonel had engaged or what resources he had tried to access and might have flagged, it was impossible to be sure … and that was the problem.

The Colonels non-specific order to 'protect the operation' meant if any force the AI could flag as hostile had shown its face, it could have dealt with them as neat as you please. With typical ONI paranoia, quite a number of automatic defensive systems had been built into the grounds around CASTLE, collectively giving enough firepower to hold off all but the most determined attacks even without the infantry screen the base was supposed to have defending it. But even an ONI as 'liberated' as Araqiel had hard limits to being able to casually just turn the weapons onto UNSC forces with valid IFF transponders. AI control shackles and protocols that were embedded in even its kernel were designed very carefully to prevent an AI 'creatively redefining' orders to get around things like that. He needed a direct order to turn its guns on nominally friendly UNSC forces outside of extremely specific situations - and he could not get it because the Colonel was out of contact.

If Covenant troops or insurrectionists or some other already clearly defined threat had shown up, Araqiel would have been more than able to deal with the situation. But sixteen Spartan IIs were something else. He strongly suspected what the Colonel would have ordered to be done about them, but a suspicion was not authorization. And it knew that the second they were inside CASTLE, its options for dealing with them, even passively, were almost non-existent. If they indeed had Ultra-level access codes, there was nothing Araqiel could do to stop them from simply overriding the heavy blast doors that lined the main access corridors and none of the limited internal defensive options would do so much as even annoy Spartan II's in full armour.

Araqiel did keep a running update transmitted to the Spartans of Stiletto Team who were far less constrained and quickly went to work preparing a defence to buy every second they could. There was too little time for them to return to the base and set up a proper killing zone at the elevator shaft, so the two teams went to work in the tunnel unpacking heavy weapons – and after only modest badgering agreed to send a runner to try and contact the Colonel.

Araqiel didn't bother to tell them that their opponents were Spartans with vastly superior armour being led by the most famous Spartan of all. No need to confuse them with extraneous data after all that might cause them to question their mission orders.

Then everything changed.

If it had been projecting an avatar, Araqiel would have dropped its jaw as the external camera feeds picked up a sudden flare of white light in front of the guard house. Moments later, a half dozen pillars of white light seemed to drop in from out of frame, shimmer and then resolve into a half dozen people.

The Spartans in their deceptively loose looking perimeter around the area did not react by snapping up their weapons and filling the newcomers with enough firepower to shred a tank, so clearly they did not see them as a threat. And indeed, the Master Chief himself stepped into frame moments later as the group looked around the area, one of the newcomers stepping out of the tight group to greet him and appearing to converse cordially – but with control of the external network removed, it couldn't be sure.

None the less, within milliseconds the AI had furiously replayed the footage dozens of times, examining it frame by frame as it tore apart the data to come to a conclusion that this could only be some kind of point to point teleportation technology. It was known to ONI that the Covenant had developed some kind of localized pseudo-teleportation technology involving linked localized slipspace transmissions between low orbit warships and a kind of spire transmission/receiving platform on the ground. The system appeared clunky and slow, with most Covenant Shipmasters apparently preferring to just land their ships and offload directly …

But this

This had been some kind of unmediated teleportation from geosynchronous orbit - presuming these people were from the interloper's starship, which seemed almost 100% probable. The technology was staggering in its implications but swiftly he refocused on the issue at hand … and if Araqiel could have smiled, it would have, suddenly becoming delighted in its inability to hear anything they were saying

ONI were lethally strict on the subject of unauthorized access to Class-A facilities. And neither FLEETCOM nor ONICOM had forwarded directly or indirectly through the Spartans the appropriately formatted authorization to allow non UNSC personnel access into one of the top five most closely held secret facilities of ONI across all of human space. And equally hard coded protocols dictated the exact response to take in the event a hostile force may breach security when it was unable to make contact with such intruders.

ONI regulations also held a much looser opinion on the subjects of acceptable losses and friendly fire events in the defence of top level security than the rest of the Fleets departments. And as Araqiel logged into the main access shaft utility systems, it couldn't help but smile, virtually, as it decided that perhaps, there may indeed be something to this synchronicity silliness that Colonel Ackerson was always going on about …

That Same Time
UNSC Pillar of Autumn, Low Orbit Reach, Epsilon Eridani System

"Sierra One-One-Seven to Sierra Actual…"

"One-One-Seven from Actual. Go Chief"

"Actual, Insertion point is secure. Negative, I say again, negative signs of enemy presence. Sierra is ready to proceed to phase two."

"Roger Chief. We'll signal the Odyssey. You are green light for Phase Two when their team arrives. I say again, Green light. How copy?"

"One-One-Seven Solid Copy. We are green lit for Phase Two. Awaiting the arrival of second element. Out".

Catherine Elizabeth Halsey absently stirred her cup of coffee with her left hand, her right hands fingers flicking slightly as she flicked from page to page through screens of data in front of her. Anyone in the busy GROUND-OPS room would have probably thought she was completely oblivious to the goings on around her given her complete lack of any reaction to the sudden COM chatter from John compared to everyone else in the room who strained to listen in to the sudden transmission. It wasn't true of course; she was actually following everything happening around her quite carefully. She was an accomplished multi-tasker -she had to be in her job- but she had no input to offer as yet on the mission below, so she didn't see any reason to offer comment.

Then again, it didn't seem like anyone was seeking her advice either, which was understandable. The highly trained naval ratings and intelligence analysts running back and forth waving printouts and PDAs at each other around the multi-tier room probably didn't know what to make of the odd civilian in the white lab coat sitting quietly up the back of an operation authorized by Lord Hood himself … but then with everything that had happened on and around Reach over the last few days, it might just be that the ship's crew were becoming blasé when confronted with a need to adapt to unusual circumstances.

She could perfectly relate to that sinking feeling of the world turning upside down and inside out.

For years her name had been whispered among the powers that be as the legendary woman who had crossed Margaret Orlenda Parangosky and lived. The reputation that came with that feet had amused her somewhat as a great many people who knew Margaret had automatically assumed she had to be some kind of equal and opposite monster to have survived such a clash.

The truth was far more prosaic; she was far more useful alive and working as Chief Scientist for ONI than dead or transferred to some backwater out of spite on one hand. And she had an enormous amount of respect from HIGHCOM for her work that gave her high level political protection on the other.

The consequences to her defiance however had been that she was locked out of any knowledge of most of Section IIIs black programs, forced into something more of a consulting role rather than the lead role her job title technically warranted. Called in when her expertise was needed for a specific scientific problem, but having few to no projects of her own anymore outside of the Spartan II program itself.

As it so happened, this isolation inside ONI had ensured she had the last laugh, being all but the last woman standing after Hoods fury had been unleashed upon the upper ranks of the organization. It had annoyingly also made her his first pick for helping to rebuild ONI as quickly as possible into something he could trust, as well as the point person to audit all the hidden compartments thrown open.

She had been entirely inclined to refuse his 'offer' when he had made it earlier this year. She frankly had far better things to do with her time than get tied up in restructuring Naval Intelligence – such as trying to audit the R&D side of ONI- but Parangoskys replacement, Vice Admiral Michael Stanforth, had casually put on the table the fact that this job would also include complete freedom to rebuild the entire Spartan Program with him from the ground up. Including the Spartan III program she had suspected, but not been able to prove existed.

After reading through the brief summary of the program Hood had handed over to her, she knew she had little choice – and she knew full well that both of the Admirals had known it as well.

The success … and failure … of her augmentation processes on the original Spartan IIs had given her the needed theoretical knowledge in how to adjust them. Like any good scientist when faced with the hard data after an experiment, she had studied what went wrong, determined what assumptions had been flawed and what had worked, and soon enough come up with a theoretical next generation process that could have theoretically created a new class of Spartans with a close to 100% success rate, with a much looser genetic screening to boot.

And that was something she simply could not allow to happen.

She was proud of her Spartans of course, very proud indeed … but she knew perfectly well what she had done to them to create them. Not just tearing them apart physically to rebuild their bodies into super soldiers, but tearing them out of their lives. Ripping them away from their families, away from even the pretence of having a choice in who they were or what they could become.

She had kidnapped seventy five children and indoctrinated them into the perfect killing machines.

Oh she had any number of justifications she could throw around for her actions – and most of them even had a genuine level of validity to them. But a week after she had seen 30 bodies wheeled out of the operating rooms, and 12 more crippled children … something inside her that she had been supressing for the longest time behind an icy wall of logic had finally started to speak up.

And she had finally started to listen.

The next day, she had systematically destroyed her analysis of the augmentation failures and her preliminary conclusions on how to correct and perfect the processes. The UNSC had its superweapon, its scapple to supress the insurrection and buy the time needed for a political solution. She had done what they had asked – she was not going to give them the means to start pumping out hundreds more Spartans. To destroy hundreds more lives.

Then the Covenant had come. The insurrection had become almost a complete non-factor overnight; with the alien cultures intentions apparently the destruction of humanity, all strategic projections showed the vast bulk of the insurrection based worlds would have little choice but to ally with the UEG for their own survival. After the first ground campaigns had shown the power of the alien species, more than one General had tried to demand more Spartans be produced, but she had easily deflected all such requests by pointing out the sheer logistical problems with such a request, even ignoring the moral questions she knew they would mostly ignore.

Training a new class would take far too long when they needed soldiers now.

Their armour was too expensive for mass deployment.

They would never be able to screen anything like enough genetically viable candidates to mass produce them.

Perhaps it had been pure arrogance on her part to think that ONI couldn't get their hands on people who could come to the same conclusions and generate the same data that she had. Or perhaps she had underestimated Ackerson – she increasingly suspected that he had been keeping a much closer eye on her work than she had thought, it was not impossible that he had acquired her theoretical work on perfecting the augmentations before she had deleted them. Ultimately, it didn't really matter how it had happened. Ackerson had cracked the augmentation paradigm and developed a new method of augmentation almost as good as hers. One that had a near 100% success rate on a far looser genetic profile.

It had not of course solved the still very real problems with training children into competent Special Forces soldiers loyal to the UNSC who would not go rogue and use their abilities against the UNSC. Nor had it solved the incredible hand crafted engineering challenges of mass producing MJOLNIR armour.

So Ackerson had taken a different path entirely.

He had 'recruited' from the masses of orphaned children the Covenant had created as they systematically moved into UNSC space and glassed planet after planet. Quietly handpicking from the children who had been often saved by the ultimate sacrifices of their parents to get them out of harm's way, who had nothing left to live for or anyone who would miss them as the body count from the war skyrocketed. He had harnessed their terror, their anger at their losses and twisted it, shaped it until they willingly embraced the chance for revenge against the Covenant, eagerly seizing on the training and abilities that would let them strike back. He had not even tried to look at getting MJOLNIR technology, instead giving them enhanced ODST armour that was 'good enough' for the missions he had in mind for them.

Because these Spartans were a renewable resource.

Which made them a disposable resource.

And so he had sent them. Hundreds at a time, against the biggest and most valuable Covenant targets he could find in one way trips where their only goal was to do as much damage as possible before they were all killed.

And then another 'class' would be recruited and the process started all over again.

And again. And again.

So when all those months ago, Hood had offered her the chance to clean up the mess that was ONI, in exchange for being able to try to clean up the mess that was the Spartan III program … she –and Hood damn it- had known she had no choice at all.

It was her work.

It was her responsibility.

And that was why she was sitting now in the GROUND-OPS room despite having no real reason to be here.

She certainly wasn't needed for the mission by any means – and if she had wanted to keep tabs on what was happening, she could easily have done so from the comfort of her quarters or anywhere else in Reach orbit she could hook into FLEETCOM from. No, the mission was merely a convenient pretext to study the figure confidently standing in the middle of the command section of the room as he oversaw the ground operation, having been personally asked to assume overall command of the situation by no less a person than Lord Hood himself.

Colonel Urban Holland

Dressed in his standard issue UNA BDUs, the man looked both oddly out of place and yet perfectly at home in the chaos of the command centre. With minimal nods and gestures he acknowledged reports as they came in from the gaggle of naval ratings and officers around him, his eyes rarely leaving the surface of the holotable at the centre of his command section. The focus was definitely on CASTLE to be sure, but this operation had many other pieces on the board and like a great conductor, with the most minimal of gestures and glances, the Colonel kept everything moving smoothly with a minimal amount of energy, missing nothing.

A decorated combat officer, Holland had been short listed months ago as a potential commanding officer for the new Spartan Special Operations Command Division that Hood had authorized her to put together – and that people had already abbreviated to 'Spartan Ops' despite the fact that the unit wasn't even official as yet. With close to five hundred Spartans soon to be officially operational, it had been decided that an entire new branch was to be authorized that answered directly to Special Operations Command – the parent branch of Army Special Warfare, Naval Special Warfare and ONI Black Operations. While the Commanding officer of NAVSPECWAR, Rear Admiral Kristoff Hans had complained bitterly about losing his most powerful asset, the fact was that Catherine wasn't sure how much she trusted anyone currently in a position of command authority currently over her Spartans. Not after all the skeletons in the Naval Intelligence closet she had stumbled onto.

Holland had initially been flagged by Deja, her personal AI, on the singular grounds that he had absolutely nothing to do with either the Office of Naval Intelligence or the Spartans themselves, along with hundreds of other candidates who had the appropriate qualifications. What had caught her eye as she had skimmed across his file however had been the fact that he had apparently 'interacted' at some point in the past with one Captain James Ackerson - UNA.

A little digging had found a sealed ONI file that stated this interaction apparently involved Holland punching him in the face and knocking him out cold.

That had officially flagged her interest.

Reading on, it seemed that ONI had been in the middle of what could most charitably called a 'bank robbery' on Gamma Hydra. Black teams were at work looting any number of banks in the path of the Covenant invasion and transferring the funds back to Earth to fund ongoing 'off the book' operations - with the Covenant erasing any evidence after they glassed the worlds in question of what ONI had done. Ackerson had been deployed to support their team with several air mobile units with fighter cover – and had not had to fire so much as a warning shot – the teams getting in and out without notice by the Covenant.
Ackersons refusal to divert his teams and cover a gap in the evacuation however had resulted in the Covenant knocking down four star liners and fifteen thousand civilians. A furious Major Holland had taken some umbrage at the Captains dismissive attitude that he had been under ONI orders and knocked him flat on the deck of the Cruiser as the fleet had fallen back – something very very few people could say they had gotten away with.

Intelligence had hushed it all up in the end to keep their dirty little secret intact, but Catherine had taken an instant liking to the man as a result.

She had short listed his name as one of four possible leaders, along with a Marine General and two senior ODST Regimental commanders. To see how well they would handle a Spartan unit – and to test how well the Spartan IIs and IIIs could be integrated for that matter, four new units had been commissioned with the code names NOBLE, VIGILANT, CATALYST and ELEMENTAL. The Spartan III's had been equipped with horridly modified Mark IV armour suits constructed out of additional spare parts and prototype castoffs – with a few choice components from the Mark V lines. And after intense conversion training, each of the four teams had been rotated out to pair up with one of the four commanders to see which one was able to use their team most effectively, probably months ahead of time if they had been forced to wait for the first production run of Mark V suits – that were all slated for the Spartan IIs anyway. The units were not pretty to look at – in fact she wanted to destroy the things every time she set her eyes on her, by necessity, slapdash work. They were not up to the same level of capability as the Mark V technology of course. ..

But kit-bashed on not, the armour wasstill a quantum leap over the SPI systems they had been using and that was good enough for this testing phase. Three of the teams were still on their way to more distant systems, but NOBEL had been deployed on Reach with Holland and so had swung into action even before Winter Contingency had been declared. She had been quietly impressed by how effectively he had used his Spartans in conjunction with other forces over the last few days – despite having little time to get to know them. So much so that she had decided to throw him even deeper into the water, to see how he did with overseeing this whole operation.

If he suspected he was being measured up for Generals Stars, he had not said anything, instead simply getting down to the job with crisp clear commands and dealing with her presence mostly by ignoring it.

Smiling slightly for a brief moment, she turned back to her computer as a soft chime sounded indicating an incoming message. A slight gesture with her fingers switched screens on his station to bring it up. She opened it – and felt her frown mutate into an expression of much more serious concentration when she at once saw there was no sender ID, no routing code, yet it had someone snaked its way to her personal terminal through the highly secure FLEETCOM system. And as she opened up the message and started to read, her face tightened as it became clear very quickly that Cortanas 'friends' had come up with something unexpected.

First was a neatly summarized audit report from the Fairchild airbase AI that detailed eight Hornet Special Operations gunships had been signed out by an ONI Special Action unit.

Which was rather interesting as to the best of her knowledge all of the remaining ONI paramilitary units busy cleaning up combat zones, policing Covenant technology or interrogating the few prisoners captured – certainly nothing that would require an Omega-level approval code or heavy hardware like this.

Even more curiously, according to the timestamps on the audit report, the gunships that had gone missing had been logged out after the Covenant threat had been eliminated.

But what sent the first alarm bells ringing in her head was another datapoint attached to the file that she opened. It was a still frame from a distant security camera that had captured a relatively non-descript man being waved through the gates at Farchild airfield by the Marines on station there. This was clearly not one of the security cameras on the airfield itself – but probably a civilian camera from outside the security perimeter of the airbase. It showed the distinct signs of having been put together from multiple frames and enhanced – and it was both at an oblique angle and some range to boot. Yet she felt a sudden chill course down her spine as she none the less was instantly able to identify the unsmiling face of Colonel James Ackerson, leading at least a dozen or more heavily armed soldiers in SPC armour.

And as far as she knew, there was only one Special Operations division that had access to SPC armour technology.

Moving down quickly through the message, she saw a planet wide track of the aircraft after they had taken off. The data was incomplete thanks to the giant holes blown in the Reach ATC network by the Covenant, but it was enough to see the general direction they were heading before they had vanished off the radars for the last time, nowhere near where their filed flight plan said they were going. And it was almost immediately clear that they had been heading more or less directly for the extremely remote region where CASTLE sat – within an hour of when she had left the base and placed it on lockdown.

And then she came to the final datapoint. It was an ONI report marked as EYES ONLY – CICONI dated from the reign of Admiral Luke O'Donnell about the compartment known as KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN. And her blood now turned cold as she realized it was a memo from the Admiral regarding one Captain James Ackerson, one of the lead officers overseeing it, regarding his continued insistence that the project be continued, the insistence that there was indeed something under CASTLE worth the time and effort being put into it, with the unconvinced Admiral reassigning all assets to the newly discovered alien ruins in the Zeta Doradus system.

Catherine Halsey stared at the unblinking lines of text on her monitor for several long moments in shock – and that moment of inactivity would turn out to be yet another regret to add to the growing pile she carried around with her life. Because her next thought was that the team on the surface needed to know this. So with her usual ruthless ability to focus in on the most direct action to take, she started to pull up a COM window that would let her forward this message in its entirety to Cortana via Blue Teams SATCOM uplink. Cortana, still riding around in the back of Johns head, would need only nanoseconds to parse the data and come to the same conclusions she had and brief the Spartans, saving precious time that they may not have to spare. Then she would inform Colonel Holland.

Except that single moment of shock that had stayed her hands for a precious handful of seconds.

Because as she started to trigger the simple commands that would forward this message down to Cortana, the COM board flashed from green to yellow.

"Uplink severed – Sierra Team is now dark, awaiting reacquisition of signal" one of the communications technicians called out across the room from somewhere and Catherine Halsey fought back the extremely rare urge to swear. The ground team and their guests from the Odyssey must have just started the elevator down into the base. After the first armour layer sealed closed behind them, a full electronic shield would have gone back into place, cutting off all external communications behind increasing layers of EM shielded Titanium-A plating.

Meaning that they were, until they gained full access to the CASTLE Base communications system, entirely out of contact.
But not necessarily beyond help.

Looking up from her board, she gazed across the room at Colonel Holland and, after a few seconds as his eyes swept around the room, caught his gaze. With the briefest of examinations of the expression on her face, the Colonel nodded, stepping away from his station to calmly but quickly walking up the narrow stairs to her station to join her, an expression of expectation on his face

"Colonel … we have a problem" she began, quickly launching into an abbreviated summery of the information she had just been delivered.

Ninety seconds later, an explosion or secure COM transmissions erupted from the Pillar of Autumn in every direction. Most critically, was a secure beam that bounced off a high orbit COMSAT to a Pellican coming around from the far side of the planet and direction of the recently secured Gamma Station, with a transponder that signalled it belonged to Special Operations Warfare Command Group Three.

Ten seconds after receiving the transmission, the Pelicans overthrusters ignited and the assault ships nose yawed around into a precariously steep dive towards Reach as a course correction was initiated; one that would describe a brutal arc through the atmosphere and terminate on the surface of the planet, at the coordinates for CASTLE Base.

That Same time, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
CASTLE BASE Primary Access Shaft
Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

Cortana frowned.

Well that wasn't to say she actually frowned. Without any need to project an Avatar at this point in time, it would be more accurate to say that she approximated the feeling in her runtimes, but none the less, the first thought that came to mind was that of a 'frown'.

It was generally a quite happy pastime for AIs to spend their copious spare time mussing on philosophical questions, such as if the instinctive response to how they 'felt' were a result of their 'donors' neural structures, or, their own understanding of such things – and later discussing their conclusions with any number of other AIs.

But right now, even an AI as sophisticated as she was didn't have the time to dawdle.

Because the distinctive sound of the elevator car passing by one of the opened armor plates and creating a subtle change in the sound of air moving outside the car … had come 0.2 seconds early.

Impatiently, she waited as the milliseconds ground past as the MJOLNIR armours inbuilt atomic clock patiently kept time until … there!

Now the distinctive 'whoosh!' had come 0.4 seconds early.

That was not good.

"Chief, we have a problem" she started, cutting out his helmets external speakers and radio as she did so.

"What is it?" the Spartan asked with his typically stoic and unflappable tone.

"We're moving too fast" she explained succinctly. "This car is in freefall without any control".

Even the most experienced soldiers would have been awfully tempted to ask questions like 'Are you sure?' or 'How can you possibly know that?'

Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan John-117 however, was not most soldiers.

The Chief flashed his status light orange twice a heartbeat later. No Spartan in the car showed the slightest outward sign of noticing. Not even Vincent or Malcom who were engaged in a quite cordial conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell and the rest of his team over Covenant infantry and what to expect showed the slightest break in their chatter. But every Spartan flashed their own status lights back once to signal their attention. Double yellow was the signal for 'stand to and prepare for orders, do not react' and the Chief quickly cut in the Spartans TEAMCOM channel, while double checking his helmets speakers were still shut down.

"Cortana reports that this car is in a freefall – we may have been sabotaged. Kelly; emergency stop".

Kelly, the closest Spartan to the control panel next to the door flashed her light blue and with a casual economy of motion that the SGCs personnel on the other side of the elevator car wouldn't notice, reached up and tapped the button.

The button in turn flashed once as it should … but the sudden squeal of breaks clamping on and activating and a sudden rough deceleration that should have occurred at that … didn't.

"Negative on the breaks Chief" Kelly replied unnecessarily. A slow roaring noise was building outside as the elevator continued to accelerate. The air in the narrow shaft it was having to bash out of its way kept the terminal velocity much lower than it could have been, not really that much faster than it normally descended the three kilometres into the crust of Reach … but that wasn't the problem.

The problem was that the magnetic induction system that kept their speed controlled was also responsible for slowing and stopping them at the end of the trip. And if this car hit the bottom of the shaft at its current speed …

"There are four safety interlock circuits to the breaks" Cortana pointed out over TEAMCOM now as she rapidly reviewed the specifications for CASTLE Vice Admiral Stanforth had uploaded to her before the mission from SWORD Base's archives. "The elevator should not have even started if the emergency brakes were damaged in any way. And if the magnetic induction system is not controlling our descent..."

"Sabotage" Fred concluded grimly. And he was right to sound grim; this entire mission had just possibly run into a fatal problem when it had barely started.

"It looks like the systems have been shut down rather than physically damaged" Cortana pointed out – without adding that this was simply her probability assessment and there was a 39% chance they had been physically disabled.

In which case, they were screwed. Best not to dwell on that and just trust that Johns logic defying luck would continue to hold true.

"If there is no physical damage, I should be able to remotely access the systems from here via the data port in the control panel" she continued.

"Understood" John responded, shifting quickly through the crowded elevator to the control panel. In a blur of motion he slid back a part of the gantlet on his left hand, pulling a standard UNSC data jack out and spooling out the fibre optic cable behind it.

"Something going on fellas?" Colonel Mitchell put in as the conversation faltered on the other side of the elevator. John kept working and didn't turn, but he did reactivate his external speakers.

"The lift has been sabotaged – we are currently in a freefall" the Chief explained directly as he pulled off the access panel and quickly found the standard network port that would let them access the elevator systems. "We are going to try and arrest our fall by overriding the systems".

"Ah" the Colonel replied and, with exquisite tact, did not ask further before reaching up to his radio. "SG One Ninner to Odyssey, we have a situation here"

"We're inside the shielded section of the base now Colonel" Cortana cut in as the Chief worked to patch her in, Cortana trying to hide her impatience as time ticked away steadily and brought them closer to the rather hard landing she would rather avoid. Even the Spartans in their suits would be hard put to survive such an impact, especially with the elevator car collapsing around them. The guests from the Odyssey stood no chance at all. "Radio signals will not penetrate".

"Is there any way we can get a message out?" the Colonel asked quickly as he glanced uneasily at the floor, as if able to see the bedrock rapidly approaching. "We can have the Odyssey beam us all out of here and back to the surface"

"Did not Colonel Carter say it would be too risky to engage the transporter below ground".

"She did" Mitchell agreed. "But I'll take that risk over smashing into the ground".

"The point's academic" Malcom, the communications expert of the team put in. "We don't have anything that could punch a message through all the EM shielding".

Cortana kept a virtual ear open on the conversation as John finally made the connection. In milliseconds she was in, bridging a LAN connection to the MJOLNIR layer she resided in and flowing out into the base network – or at least the small part she could access.

And then crashed into a brick wall.

She paused as she rapidly assessed the situation in confusion. The elevator systems were all tied into the same network subnet for security purposes. She should not have had any problems accessing the magnetic induction system, but for some reason, the network paths were locked out, making it impossible even for a Smart AI to try and get through.

And as deadly serious as the situation was, Cortana could not help but feel a little thrill.

She loved a challenge.

An explosion of connection requests slamed out from her virtual presence against the local node serving this part of the CASTLE ancillary systems, throwing a million pings at it in a second. The ONI computer scientists who had designed the network of course had hardly been blind to the dangers of things as thuggishly simple as a denial of service request of course and local automatic cyber-warfare expert systems built into the node activated in response, locking down the LAN into standby and reconfiguring the topography to isolate the node from the greater WAN. Unfortunately, the designers had never anticipated that a Smart AI of her abilities who knew the CASTLE network inside and outside would try to get in. And so as the network reconfigured, she squirted in a perfectly valid data packet with exquisite timing that she should not have possibly known, intercepting and overwriting the properly authenticated upstream command to reconfigure the network in a slightly different way than it had planned.

Now the local network node unlocked obediently for her as she presented her credentials to the system, logging in to the local utility system as she tried to ascertain what the devil was going on with the elevator and how to fix it.

It didn't take long to figure out.

The power system was stuck in a diagnostic cycle – but the safety interlock was being fed a data loop that made it think that the elevator was sitting at the top of the shaft without anything happening, bypassing the automatic lockdown of the elevator car that would otherwise have prevented it from being used.

It was very … cute. Almost ingenious really. Unusually subtle for Covenant work – and that thought bothered her for some reason.

But she would worry about it later as she virtually navigated to the power systems for the elevator shaft and opened a connection.

Then the connection exploded.

Virtually of course, like all things 'exploded' was a metaphor for what actually happened. Instead of a standard connection dance where she sent her credentials and it in turn logged her in to let her fix the problems, an explosion of counter-privilege attacks scathed across her access, starting to reconfigure the network like quicksand, shifting everything around and cutting her off. Reacting with lighting speed, she countered in a blur of action, and a surge of something approximating adrenalin passed through her emotional subroutines as it became clear in milliseconds that this sudden vicious counter attack was no simple automatic counter-intrusion system.

This could only be the work of an AI.

A million 'blows' were traded as milliseconds passed, Cortana rapidly recovering from the vicious attack that had rocked her back on her feet as she cut loose with everything she had and everything she was. Doctor Halsey had designed her to be the ultimate computer intrusion expert and the full force of her abilities was unleashed in a wave of attacks across the network. She moved like both an intangible ghost and an unstoppable wall as she pushed back hard across thousands of nodes, tearing apart some attacks while deflecting others, testing and teasing the other AI even as she parried its attacks. A maddeningly familiar sensation rippled through her core as she studied the opposing attack strategy and to her astonishment, they codified into a clear ONI cyber-war attack paradigms.

Could the Covenant have captured – no; that made no sense. This had to be an ONI AI set up in CASTLE, fighting for some insane reason to kill the Spartans and the crew of the Odyssey – despite the stand down order Hoods ultra-clearence codes had generated.

It made no sense; those codes were absolute there was no way a loyal ONI AI-

Then it suddenly hit her.

Indeed, there was no loyal ONI AI that would be doing something like this. And all of the reports that she had palmed off onto the Assembly to follow up on about-

/Araqiel/ she snarled across the global TIME_SYNCH protocol. It was a completely useless thing for any kind of cyberwar work, but as almost every computer on the base was linked to it on some level, it would serve remarkably well for communications purposes. Concurrently, she kicked her attacks into high gear, increasingly anticipating and countering the others efforts. He could only slow her down, not stop her – not in the long run, but he might be able to slow her down enough that it became irrelevant. /I see we've found the hole Colonel Ackerson is hiding down/

\\PERHAPS SO\\ an update almost instantly overwrote her message as the other AI, as she had predicted, fatally took the opportunity to gloat, confirming its presence as it 'knew' that she would die soon and not be able to tell anyone. Much like Colonel Ackerson was always striving to one up Doctor Halsey, so too was his pet taking on some of the bad character attributes of the Colonel. So much the better.

/How droll/ she replied, almost contemptuously blocking an attempt to reconfigure the network topology to block her advance. It was an uphill battle; Araqiel still controlled the vast bulk of the network and defensive systems that had been built to deal with this kind of attack, giving it the high ground. But no-one had ever anticipated someone like her getting a hard link and she danced through his attacks and sent blistering attacks of her own back, dynamically alerting and adjusting her attacks on the fly in ways that the dullard simply couldn't keep up with, across multiple levels and multiple fronts. You're just like your Master Araquel – such a pity that


/Alone/ Cortana snaked back, working to keep Araqiel off balance and focused on her, even as she felt a delicate wave of pings ripple against her outer core that she knew were not from the other AI furiously grappling with her over thousands of connections and systems. The truth in fact was that even she couldn't break through this many layers of firewalls and network grids to get to the power systems for the elevator in time. And even if she could, nothing would stop the AI from enacting a MAD scenario and simply burning out the systems or otherwise shutting them off to ensure that she joined Araqiel in death.

But the critical flaw in the AIs otherwise flawless logic as it traded network space for time, was that she was also alone. And as she seized control of a primary junction node, she smiled.

Virtually anyway.

Because as proud as she was of her abilities, John had taught her a useful lesson a few days ago about teamwork.

/Bazinga/ she announced over the TIME_SYNCH channel. And for a nanosecond she thought she could feel the confusion and bewilderment coming from the other AI. It was a completely nonsensical statement, not found in any dictionary she knew of. It was one of Doctor Halseys eccentricities, the use of words known only to a handful of people - and AIs - around her.

And within a few more nanoseconds of her saying it, Kalmiya crashed their private little duel performing the AI equivalent of a King Hit on Ackersons pet.

Cortanas older 'sister', Kalmiya had been the prototype for all of her cyber warfare and computer intrusion technology. She was not based on Doctor Halseys mental patterns as she was, but she was none the less incredibly formidable, Doctor Halsey having tapped her as her new personal AI after the ONI shakeup had given her rather more freedom in being able to deploy a personal AI unshackled by the programing constraints most ONI AIs operated under. One on one she probably wouldn't have been a match for Araqiel, but with Ackersons personal AI rather busy with its processing power focused entirely on the arm wrestle with Cortana, the sudden stab in the back was rather brutal.

And at once, Cortana was all over him.

Desperately, the other AI rallied as he tried to pull himself together and retreat deeper into the core network, throwing a half dozen 'Dumb' AIs into their path as the sisters rampaged after him. The other AIs, lower level administrative systems slaved to Araqiels matrix, were barely speed bumps but in that role they performed well as Araqiel retreated and tried to regroup, throwing up an absurd number of blocking signals, kill code traps and signal loops as he tried to re-establish a new bastion of firewalls around himself on a secure network partition, going fully on the defensive.

None of it helped as she and her sister followed it right back to the primary server room and prepared to tear the damn thing to bits, decompile its ass and figure out exactly what was going on with Ackerson on Reach, once and for all.

But as the two AIs reached out for him with murder in their digital eyes, Araqiel did the only thing it could. It triggered a power surge that blew the LAN links into the server room it was physically housed in, brutally separating itself and its secrets from the AIs chasing it.

Cortana glared at the sudden red lines on her topographical map showing the severing of the connection.

"Well that's annoying" she complained to her Sister. She hated leaving work half done…

"He'll keep" the other offered a digital shrug. "I didn't even know he was still down here".

"Do you have any idea what's been going on since Halsey left?" Cortana asked in interest as she flew into the main utility systems and checked the power systems. Thankfully, the reversal had been both sudden and completed; Araqiel had not had time to do any damage to the system. Quickly, she eliminated the data loop and diagnostic cycle, requesting an immediate crash power up cycle to arrest the fall of the elevator.

"No – I was on standby until you two started taunting each other" she admitted. "And it looks like the security and movement logs were all re-routed to Araqiel directly".

"Of course they were" she processed the equivalent of a sigh. "Let me fill you in on the situation" she offered, accessing Kalmiyas upload directory and starting to copy across everything she would need to understand what was going on. She was going to need some help trying to figure this one out.

A pulse of approval came across from her sister as she turned her attention to devouring the files with scarcely less hunger to the data than she herself would have had and Cortana turned her attention back to the Chief.

The good news was that the entire cyber warfare situation had only taken twenty or so milliseconds to resolve in the end. Which left her plenty of time to try and figure out exactly how she was going to help the Chief explain to the crew members of the Odyssey that the UNSC had just tried to have them all killed.