Chapter 5. With your shield … or on it - Part II.

04:21 Hours, March 16th, 97,445 BCE (Military Calendar) /
Former Builder Forge # 991
'Blunted Hammer'

Silentium.

The absence of activity.

The absence of purpose.

The absence of life.

Across a Galaxy that had once roared with noise, there was now only a deafening silence.

In a single moment, all that could have been, should have been and would have been had been stilled. With the brutal finality of day passing into night. And in the darkness of that long night, a single figure strode through a complex deep under the surface of a world.

Once, the shimmering silver walls of the complex had sung with power and purpose. It had been here some of the greatest Builders had teased and tested out the very building blocks of the universe itself. The Master Slipspace crystal which had mediated all slipspace activity across the Ecumene had even been maintained here, for a time. Countless slipspace flakes budded from it installed into the heart of so many starships. So too had the founding principals behind the Halo array been discovered, an outgrowth of the crude first successes of the Builders forays into Neural Physics.

There was a true irony that a large part of the contempt Builders had for Warrior-Servants had been their absolute belief that creation was a far harder thing than destruction. That they were thus more aligned with the path the Mantle of Responsibility dictated, more evolved even, than those whose only task was in their minds, to destroy.

And yet the figure striding through the darkness recalled bitterly that they had been so very proud of their discovery of the Halo effect. Fabber saluting his rate as they had unveiled their greatest ever creation; the ability to destroy on a Galactic scale - on a whim.

The figure paused for a moment as that thought passed through him. A flicker of a hand gesture invoked all shades of dark irony, before he proceeded once again through the echoing corridors.

Little was now left of the great forges that had once sung with life across much of this world. Most had been removed or destroyed in advance of the parasites incursion into this part of the Galaxy and what little was left had not even been worth the attention of their enemy beyond a cursory infestation. Even now, most of the empty shells were being filled in with molten rock, erasing millennia of work in moments to leave only one small complex. Shielded and hidden.

Hard Light walls faded and vanished at his approach, more solid doors behind them opening slowly to reveal the vast cavern being prepared under his exact specifications. Twelve great galleries were, even as he watched, being spun out of the walls of the complex by swarms of sentinels and constructors. On the vast ceiling overhead a particle synthesis was being refined, reflecting what -hopefully- one day would be the sky of this world after the environment recovered from the total obliteration of the Halo Effect. On the floor, glyphs were being inscribed by the tens of thousands, a story and a warning to those who would one day come here, written in a transcendent material that would serve to contain slipspace anomalies.

Bornstellar-Makes-Eternal-Lasting, known also as Iso-Didact, nodded in approval.

Everything was as it should be.

Everything was exactly as she wanted it to be.

"It is done" a voice that seemed to ripple through the facility from everywhere stated as he came to a halt at the edge of the crystal floor.

"Let me see it" he asked aloud as he continued to observe the choreography of constructs hard at work, all operating under the direction of a number of Engineers floating and making adjustments of their own.

"Do you doubt my oversight?" the voice asked?

From anyone else, such a comment might have been filled with scorn, wounded pride or hurt at the implication that he didn't trust its abilities.

Offensive Bias however did not get hurt. It hurt others. Wounded pride was something it had been denied as part of its makeup, unlike its treacherous older brother.

"No, I simply wish to see it" he clarified.

With no more discussion, a deep humming built up. Glancing up, Bornstellar watched the Ancilla descend from its place up high where it had been overseeing the work. A far larger frame than the roughly head sized units used by most Installation level Ancillas, this framework was still too small to store but a small shard of the Contender class construct. Even so, the awesome presence of the metarch seemed to study him from behind the trio of eyes that dispassionately watched over everything.

The underside of the Monitor casing unfolded into nothing as it came to a hover, a brilliant point of blue light dropping free. Held in a constraint field, it drifted down to float directly in front of Bornstellar, shimmering with a radiant inner light as it gently rotated in place.

The Ancilla had indeed done good work, Bornstellar could see. His eyes that had been once trained to take a place in the highest levels of Builder society studied it carefully, knowing that there would be no second chances to get this right.

He needn't have bothered of course; the crystal was clearly as precisely calibrated as his wife's incredibly demanding specifications required, the task childishly simple for such a vast intelligence to perform. The relative simplicity of the task he had put to the Ancilla contrasting with the great importance of this final act.

Her last request of him.

He and Growth-Through-Trial-of-Change had finished re-seeding the humans onto their ancient homeworld days ago. He had bidden a final goodbye to Riser and his people, taking heart in their stoic determination to start over once more before taking to his ship, leaving the future to their choices and their hands.

But he had not headed back to the Lesser Arc with Trial. At least not immediately.

Instead, he had circled around the planet to his Wife's final resting place, where her ship had already dissolved itself into the rich soil of Erde-Tyrene. A vast construct was slowly taking form as the seed she had planted grew deep roots, constructing and building a little more with every day in a process that would take a great deal of time - but time was certainly one thing the Galaxy now had in abundance.

He had not expected to find her body and indeed he had not; there was no escape from the fire of Halo. Even if it had left the smallest remains, they had no doubt been rendered down by the chemical soup Lifeworkers had seeded to allow the biosphere to rapidly be broken down and replenished. In truth, as much as anything else, he had thought to come to pay his final respects.

To apologise, for his unforgivable failure to save her. And perhaps assure her shade that despite the high price, her children had indeed returned home and would be allowed to truly start again, as she had desired.

He should have known better of course. At the exact location of her final signal, was a data module with exact, specific instructions that had unlocked and activated at his approach, flooding his combat skins ancilla with detailed instructions. It was clearly planned to be. So much so that he had wondered if she had somehow placed a very subtle Geas on him, having anticipated this outcome well in advance.
After all, she had been making him unknowingly move to her will for both of his lives; why would something so minor an inconvenience as death stop her from continuing?

The instructions in question had led him here. Where he had, one last time, carefully set the great forges into motion to construct the missing piece of his wife's legacy - and in an odd way, finding himself honouring his race one last time as a Warrior Servant, Lifeshaper and Builder.

It was fitting that this final legacy for the humans would be touched and shaped by all the facets of the Forerunners.

"Do you think they will find it?"

Bornstellar brought his gaze away from the mysterious crystal to the Ancilla hovering off to the side.

"I am sure of it" he answered at last. "Humans have an almost impossible to suppress desire to explore. To, as Riser put it, go and see what is over the next hill. And if there is another hill, to go and see what is beyond that one. This world" he raised an arm briefly to take in the chamber, "is one of the logical worlds to visit from Erde-Tyrene when they eventually redevelop Slipspace technology. And once they reach that point of technology ... they deserve to know the truth. All of the truth".

"The most predominant desire the humans have is the desire to control. To destroy. Not to explore" the Ancilla retorted with a pulse of light. "Their short sighted, self defeating and self destructive behaviour was self-evident during their war with us".

The reminder caused the Isodidact to frown slightly. With perfect recall 'he' could well recall leading the fleets into battle through the chaos of Charum Hakkor, the bloody cost the Lord of Admirals had demanded for his final defeat. So many ships, so many soldiers lost.

But had they not paid thrice for that?

Laid low; from an Empire that once rivaled the Forerunners to primitives living in wooden huts. Tortured by the Master Builder in his mad quest to find a cure for the Flood for an eon, taken en mass to the 'houses of pain' as they became known? Then harvested by his dark shadow, rebuilt by the Composer into twisted playthings in the mad quest to try and find a way to take on the Flood before their Wife had stopped him.

And had they not changed - genuinely changed - from their ancestors?

"These humans are not the humans you studied, from the battles and war we fought against them" Bornstellar asserted easily, turning his gaze back to the crystal and, with a gesture of his own constraint field, sending it floating slowly to the plinth where it would wait until claimed. "She has assured me that those who will rise will be quite different from those who came before. Her chosen Reclaimers will prove worthy of the title - or do you doubt her planning?"

Of course, he could not, would not, tell Offensive Bias of the secret she had entrusted to him the last night they had spent together before she had decided to make 'just one last run' to try and save a few more precious finite souls from the Floods ever hastening rampage. Of her encounter as a young Lifeworker. Of where her absolute confidence in just what humans could become one day if given the chance truly came from. Something not even his 'other' self had known.

Because it was not his secret to tell.

"I would be hard pressed to do so" the Ancilla admitted after an unusually long pause. "She is one of the greatest strategists of this era. Builders, Prometheans, Lifeshapers even the Flood at one time or another have fallen victim to her manipulations. It is indeed only because of her involvement with these humans, the Geas she has implanted into some of them, that I have positive expectations. But…"

"But?" a slightly amused Bornstellar prompted the Ancilla, wondering exactly what his wife would have made of the grudging respect for her abilities as a strategist the metarch clearly held.

"But accessing this world and, accordingly, the Librarians legacy will require substantial advancement from their current state. To at least Tier 4 on the Lifeworker development index, more likely Tier 3. With no guidance, no oversight. The odds of them destroying themselves are considerable - humans by nature look for challenges and if they cannot find them from outside, they will find them in each other. With the bulk of the Geas modified humans from Omega Halo lost to your other self, a critical single point of failure has been introduced into this plan that was not anticipated. The future will turn on … chance. Rather than design".

Offensive Bias did not sound pleased with that conclusion.

"History is filled with turning points" Bornstellar replied. "In our arrogance, perhaps that was our greatest mistake. Presuming that history would never, could never, turn against us. And in our blind refusal to accept the possibility, deluding ourselves until we set in motion the events that destroyed us. Control, absolute control, is little more than absolute stagnation. The humans have been given the tools needed to rise up once again, but it is their choice if they use them. Their choice if they take on the mantle that we now relinquish as life crawls its way out of the seas on millions of worlds once again. Perhaps … the future will benefit from a little chaos mixed into the planning? A clean start, free of Forerunner and Flood".

"You are asking me to take a leap of faith?" the other rumbled. Surprised, Bornstellar turned back to face the Ancilla as it continued to speak. "To trust that things will unfold as they should on the basis of an unqualifiable belief that it simply will happen".

"You think me a fool for thinking it? Of asking it of you, a creature of pure intellect?"

"I would think you a fool if you tried to claim your plan did not rest on such an assumption" the other retorted, but with a rare undercurrent of amusement threaded through its voice, almost turning strangely wistful "But I have seen your wife take such leaps before and succeed against all my calculations. Against all logic. Perhaps it is fitting that as we leave this place, we will take one last leap together".

"Aya, so shall it be" Bornstellar nodded, waving his hand. With his gesture, the Crystal finally reached its goal to rest on its own inertial reference frame, starting to spin slowly in a perfect dilated pocket of time and space. Power shimmered through the room before being contained and fed back upon itself, the flocks of sentinels in the air bobbing slightly as their antigravity waves were disrupted, to the chirped annoyance of the engineers supervising them out as they finished up their work before vanishing in brief slipspace rips. As they vanished, the Sentinels then started to subsume themselves into the surface of the galleries, adding the last of the material and equipment needed. "Our time as guardians is over my friend. However heinous the sin we have both committed, life now will have its chance to begin anew".

With a thought he sent the final signal to what little was left of the facilities on this world to go into standby state to wait the thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years it would take for Risers descendants to one day look up at the stars and dare to Reach out to them. A long range link to Installation 00 and from there to the rest of the array rebroadcast it across the Galaxy; instructing the remaining Forerunner outposts left behind that could hear it to sleep and wait for the Reclaimers to rise.

With all was as it should be, he took one final long look around and determined everything was the Librarian had asked of him. Satisfied, he turned to nod one last time to the brooding Ancilla, who in turn flashed his 'eyes' once in acknowledgement of all they had seen and done together, both knowing that they would never see each other again as each had their own purpose and path from this place. Sealing his armour, he triggered the slipspace translocation systems high above and in a swirl of golden light he vanished and then reappeared on board his long range transport, docked to Offensive Bias's flagship. Compared to that Fortress class monster, his ship was tiny … but she was clever, fast and had range greater than anything else in the Forerunners remaining fleet. Range sufficient to rival his wife's former ship, the Audacity, which he would need.

The reseeding of the other species stored on the Lesser Arc could be done by the Lifeworkers and their fleet of Keyships. He had a journey ahead of him.

A Great Journey.

With a thought, his ship detached from the hoards of other parasites nestled down the spine of the mighty warship, pushing through the outer hard-light shell with barely a tremble, the sleek looking blue craft basking in the sunlight of the distant primary as it aligned on a nearby slipspace portal. With a second thought, said portal blossomed opened in a flare of radiation and light, beckoning him forward. He spared a final look down at the planet below, the first hints of blue starting to appear through its murky atmosphere as the Strato-Sentinels continued their work.

One day, the humans would reach this world. And if his faith in his wife was correct, then a Reclaimer worthy of her would step forth to claim the key to their future.

15:10 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Forerunner Facility underneath CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

Colonel James Ackerson looked at the crystal spinning slowly on its pedestal and smiled.

All the risks he had taken. The bridges he had burned. The sacrifices he had made over the years; all of it seemed to come down to this moment of vindication. The Forerunner base in the Jericho system had been extraordinary of course, that damned insane bridge made of pure light was something he would never forget.

But the sheer personal satisfaction pailed in comparison to this. The proof that key to defeating the Covenant had been under their noses the entire time on Reach made this moment something special.

More's the pity that the fools in ONI hadn't listened to him so many years ago. So many lives wasted, so many planets lost because they hadn't followed his recommendations, sneering at the 'waste of time and effort' - almost certainly because he was UNA rather than UNSC…

Now however,he would correct their short sighted mistakes.

It was always nice when a plan came together.

"Colonel?" a slightly nervous voice called, breaking the moment. He mentally sighed, but turned anyway, knowing it was probably time to get back to work and stop indulging in gloating.

"Yes Doctor?"

Doctor Chalmers stumbled up to him, nervously looking at her computer. Which was, he mussed, how she looked at just about everything.

"Colonel, I'm getting a constant low-level EM from inside the boundary of that … floor" she pointed at the blue tiles, engraved with glyphs and words in what he knew now was a Forerunner language of some kind. "Readings zero out at the edge, so I'm guessing it's directing or shielding it in some way".

"Is it dangerous?" he asked impatiently.

"There's no way of knowing" Chalmers responded with refreshingly blunt honesty for once. "The frequencies are broadly in the same range as UNSC slipspace cores put out, some kind of high-order neutrinos and intermittent pulses of Chekernov radiation … I really wish I had an AI on hand right now to analyse-"

"Well, we'll know soon enough" he shrugged and ignoring Chalmers sudden cry of objection, he stepped across the threshold. "So far so good" he observed dryly as he started forward, a curt hand gesture having the nearby fire team under Kerry-B303 fall in with him. "Come along Doctor, tempus fugit". He turned away before he saw Chalmers roll her eyes, but was sure she would have done so as she followed him across the barrier at the edge of the great room.

That's when things started to go … strange.

The cavern was so huge it didn't even feel as if it was underground, especially with that perfectly realistic looking sky on the ceiling shining down cheerfully at them, despite the fact that this entire region was covered in thick smog. The ground itself, despite looking perfectly smooth under his feet seemed to shift ever so slightly, almost causing him to stumble a couple of times. The oddest sense of vertigo came over him, as if the room itself was shifting, rotating entirely on its axis ever so slightly with each step he took.

"This is … weird" Chalmers put in from the back of their group and, for once, Ackerson fully agreed with her. Weird was indeed the word.

Even more bizarrely, the crystal itself … didn't seem to be getting any closer no matter how much he increased his pace-

"Sir, we're losing cohesion" a voice cut in over his line and Ackerson stopped, turned and to his surprise, found that instead of the close group, everyone seemed scattered over a dozen or so meters.

"Regroup" he ordered and slightly clumsily, they fell back into formation. "Chalmers, what in the hell is going on?"

"I didn't build the place Colonel" she pointed out as she waved scanner of some kind around. "Everyone stay perfectly still for a while" she ordered and busied herself with the scanner. Ackerson bit back a reply about her giving orders with some effort, knowing that this was her battlefield, not his. Instead, lifting his MA5K and with automatic actions, releasing the magazine, checking the ammo and reloading it, the gesture vaguely reassuring as the ground seemed to gently tilt this way or that way without the slightest hint of movement on any of his sensors.

"I don't have any hard data to work with" Chalmers finally spoke up. "But based on what I'm feeling, I'm guessing that the crystals rotation and these … tiles … are somehow causing a disruption in time and space around us. Similar to some of the … things … that happened around unshielded slipspace cores on UNSC ships".

"Suggestions?" he marshaled his patience, trying not to think about how close he was...

"Follow me" she said. "Go VISOR and stick single file".

Turning, Chalmers started to slowly walk off to the side Ackerson shot the blank visors of the Spartan IIIs a signal to fall in behind him as he switched his helmet over. Quietly they walked and then, all of the sudden everything seemed normal again and he realized Chalmers had stopped.

"Okay, we're clear" she breathed a sigh of relief and Ackerson frowned, glancing up as he reset his helmet display to VisLight.

Sure enough, they were right back where they started with the other fire team of Spartan IIIs patiently waiting as Chalmers moved over to join the excited looking techs to compare data.

"Damnit Chalmers" he snapped, frustration boiling through as being so close yet being denied. "I wanted to get to the Crystal, not away from it!"

"Sometimes in science -and I'm sure in combat- you need to take a step backwards before you can take two steps forward" she defended herself as she started work on a field workstation. "I was able to follow the pure visual record of our route to lead us back here, but the INS systems were all over the place, completely different as we went in and out! And … none of my suits data matches up with this data from outside. It's almost like time and space were, for lack of a better word, fractured in there. And it'll probably get worse the closer we get - so if we go in blind, we might not be able to get back out again. Like, uh, light being bent around a black hole. The writing on the tiles may be a map of some kind through the disruption. So please let me work".

Ackerson bit his tongue once again. She was correct, after all, much as it rankled. This was her ballpark, her battleground, so he let her chatter away with her technicians as she started running a new series of tests on the data.

All he could do was wait and stare at the crystal. Serenely rotating in place, just out of reach. He knew time wasn't on his side -was running out- but there was nothing he could do.

Nothing but wait.

15:15 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

There were few sights that could make someone hostile to the UEG fear like a Spartan II commando in MJOLNIR armor. The most indifferently hardcore Insurrectionists for example, were smart enough to just walk away and go to ground if news got around that Spartans were in the area. Even the most brash young Elites looking to make a name for themselves would generally stop and think very carefully about their next step when told a 'demon' had taken to the field.

Brutes wouldn't care, but other Covenant client races were perfectly happy to let them go first and, at the least, cost the demons some ammo...

As such, it meant that if somehow knew that multiple Spartan IIs in their brand new Mark V armor suits were about to breach the door in front of them in a somewhat irritated mood, most sane sapient beings would find somewhere else to be.

Rapidly.

Eight Spartans crowded the doorway of the lift shaft as it slid open. Four on their knees in the front rank and four more standing beside them, their weapons tracking downrange as the doors slid open, ready to turn anything stupid enough to be waiting for them into an unpleasant mess that would need a full HAZMAT team to clean up.

Anticlimactically however, as the doors opened it turned out there wasn't anyone stupid enough to be waiting for the bullets, rockets and armor-piercing grenades ready to be unleashed.

Heartbeats later, as the Spartans with a wave of status lights confirmed the corridor was clear of immediate threats, the eight figures flowed out into the corridor with a singular purpose. Moving quickly yet remaining almost silent despite their incredible bulk, they advanced swiftly. Eyes and other more esoteric systems checked into and behind every nook and cranny as they passed through the empty reception area at the end of the corridor, splitting without so much as a word at the T-intersection beyond, the two fire teams probing deeper into the base as they searched for anyone who wasn't supposed to be present.

With very specific orders of what to do if they found such people.

Back at the elevator, another group of towering figures filed calmly out of the elevator, advancing in the wake of the first squad towards the reception area. Their weapons were held ready but not in advance-to-contact mode, the two teams instead forming a protective barrier around six far less imposing people, who looked almost diminutive next to the titans in power armor.

Which wasn't to say that they were insignificant. If anything, those tiny figures were by far the most important people in this entire group, hence the concentration of an almost unprecedented number of Spartan II commandos to keep them alive.

But it was undeniable that some of the members of the second group were much … louder … than the Spartans.

"Well I have to say that was the second most exciting elevator ride I've ever taken in my life" Vala Mal Doran complained as she took in the rather featureless corridor. "And all for this? Its really a long way to fall to see the same fifty shades of grey I've been seeing for weeks on the Odyssey-"

"Vala" Cameron Mitchell sighed as the team came to a halt in the reception area, "not now please". He had long figured out that her often irreverent attitude was mostly the way she coped with high tension situations - and he couldn't help but admit his own heart was still racing from the near death escape.

But he really didn't want her making them look bad in front of the UNSC. Luckily she took the hint and closed her mouth for now.

"Alright Chief, we're as secure as we're going to get" Mitchell said, turning his attention to the tallest Spartan in the mix. "Mind explaining what the hell just happened?'

One of the Spartans -not the person he had been looking at- turned to face him. Ignoring the distant snicker from Vala, he corrected his orientation as he wondered idly why these 'Spartans' didn't paint names on their armor before deciding it was probably part of their mystique, much as their use of callsign numbers over surnames. All the Spartans looking almost identical to each other in the same armor, distinguishable only to themselves...

"Sir" the other seemed to almost come to attention at his question. "I suspect a rogue ONI officer, Colonel James Ackerson, has infiltrated this facility within the last six hours. An AI known to be associated with him was present in the base network and rigged the elevator system in an attempt to eliminate anyone who tried to enter the base it regarded as hostiles. We have isolated that AI, but it seems to have wiped all the base security logs and disabled the uplinks to the surface transmitters".

"So you're saying we're cut off from communications with the outside world?"

"Yes Sir" the other confirmed.

"Threat assessment?"

"Unclear - but presumed high" and Mitchell couldn't help but be impressed -or perhaps even slightly intimidated- by the almost glacial calmness the other presented, as if being dropped in an elevator to their deaths was just a typical Tuesday for he and his team. "Colonel Ackerson had access to considerable resources prior to a recent ...reshuffle... in the higher levels of the Office of Naval Intelligence and was flagged as status-unknown. He was also a highly decorated field agent in of himself, with decades of expertise in covert and special operations units. Although it is doubtful he is operating with more than a squad or platoon sized unit in direct support".

"So..." Mitchell considered trying to be delicate about the next question, but on reflection, decided that the Master Chief seemed to be a very straight shooter and it would just be best to get to the point, wanting to know exactly where they stood with a man who'd apparently just tried to kill them all. "What is his status now Chief, with regards to the UNSC?"

"The Colonel's is, on the evidence at-hand, guilty of illegally breaching a Grade-1 ONI facility as well as attempted murder of a team operating under the personal authority of FLEETCOM-Actual. Under NAVSPECWAR rules of engagement his immediate arrest or if he resists, termination, is now nominally a mission objective".

Although the others voice continued to remain perfectly calm, there was almost something like an edge to it that sent a chill down Mitchell's spine, as he stared into that perfectly reflective gold visor. For all the absolute stoic professionalism Mitchell had seen in this man since meeting him on board the Odyssey, Mitchell had the sudden feeling that this man was not happy with the events that had just unfolded.

In fact, hegot the distinct feeling that this man in a 'not happy' mood would probably be something witnessed from a very safe distance...

"Well I suppose that settles that. Alright then, what's the gameplan?"

"Sir" the other paused for a moment, before continuing looking down at him. "You are the ranking officer present".

Mitchell blinked at that. Surely he hadn't just heard what he thought he had heard?

"Chief …" he said carefully. "I'm not a member of the UNSC, I don't have any command authority over you or your team".

"Respectfully Sir" the other disagreed, "Admiral Hood gave me specific orders that in the event of an unexpected situation, I was to defer to your leadership and authority - outside of you making a gross hostile act against the UEG. Sir".

Mitchell blinked again, exchanging a brief look with Gunnery Sergeant Wu, one of the Marines of SG3 he had brought with him to reinforce his team on this mission. A five year combat vet of the SGC who had seen and killed everything from Replicators to Kull Warriors; very little made Wu even raise an eyebrow anymore.

That certainly had.

Such an order was, if the UNSC worked anything like the US Military, almost unbelievable. Placing a top-tier unit like these Spartans seemed to be under his command when they had barely known each other for a day? It seemed ludicrous.

Although on reflection, as he turned back to face the other, he realized this wasn't really about command per se so much as the Spartans accepting his input on the situation. The Spartans cooperation was probably going to be exactly proportional to their confidence in his leadership. After all, NCOs had been working around Officers they viewed as incompetent for centuries in his own universe -and he rather doubted that was any different in this one.

And Hood probably knew that better than anyone if he had given such orders in the first place.

Probably.

"Right. Give me a moment to brief my people Chief".

The other simply nodded and he turned to retraced the few steps back to his team where Daniel seemed to be trying to 'encourage' Vala to stop snarking off so much, the two of them putting their conversation on hold as he rejoined them. Getting stuck in the middle of internal power struggles had made a mess of more than one offworld mission for the SGC - and from the other side, the sheer mess the rogue NID had almost made of relations with their offworld allies in the early days…

Still, like it or not, they were involved here.

But he'd need to keep his eyes open.

Wide open.

"Alright. The word is we might have stumbled onto this universe's equivalent of a rogue NID opp with the UNSC's intelligence services" Cameron explained, getting quickly to the heart of the matter. "One of their top level intelligence people, some guy named Ackerson, seems to have gone rogue - or is working for a faction of the UNSC out of Admiral Hoods control. And it seems we might have just found him breaking in ahead of us today".

"So another Harry Maybourne or Frank Simons" Daniel summarized with a sour look on his face, clearly not altogether happy about the situation. "Or a full Trust scenario? A splinter group beholden to no-one with their own agenda?"

"Could be" Mitchell nodded in agreement. "So, here's-"

"Is this even our concern?" Vala put in suddenly, frowning. "It sounds to me like this is a matter for the UNSC to deal with, internal politics and all that, not anything to do with us".

"Well speaking for myself, I tend to take people trying to kill me personally" Mitchell replied in a deadpan tone. "But it's a fair point. Do we have skin in this game?"

"Do we really have a choice?" Wu asked, although his eyes didn't leave the Spartan team calmly watching them back from just down the hall. "We have no contact with the Odyssey - and Colonel Carter said it was too risky to risk using the Asgard beaming system this close to that energy field anyway, so unless you trust the elevator without it being checked over...it's not like we have anywhere to go but forward"

Mitchell shuddered slightly at that. No he did not trust the elevator. Being trapped in a metal box plummeting at terminal velocity towards a rather terminal end (again) did not appeal - at least until a full maintenance team checked it. There would probably be an emergency stairwell to the surface somewhere … but that would be a lot of stairs given that they were several kilometers underground.

"We could just stay here" Daniel suggested after everyone took a second to dismiss that option. "If this guy is down here, well, then he's trapped right? There have to be emergency access routes into this base like at the SGC; why not secure them, and send one of the Spartans to get word to Admiral Hood and General Landry of what happened. Have them call in an army to come and flush him out?"

Mitchell considered that - it was actually not a half bad idea on the face of it as opposed to rushing into an unknown situation. And it wasn't often that an SGC mission had an option of 'call in an army'.

But there was one small problem with such an approach.

"This base was evacuated when the Covenant came-a-knocking" he pointed out. "According to the Chief, everything of any critical value was already either moved off-site or destroyed in place. No … I don't think it's the base he's after. He's just using it as the front door like we are".

"Indeed" Teal'c joined the conversation with his typical directness. "We must assume Colonel Ackerson is searching for the same alien presence we are. If so, we must further assume his motives are not aligned with ours or those of our allies". Teal'c paused as if in thought for a moment before continuing. "There also remains the possibility of Covenant infiltration of these tunnels and in either case, further delay may prove inadvisable given our objective".

"Agreed" Mitchell nodded after a moment, wishing Carter was here to give him another option, feeling he was in way over his head here as things rapidly shifted and changed. General Landry had pretty much forbidden her from deploying to any combat zones at this time however - she was just too valuable to risk getting killed in a tunnel firefight if she was the only one who had a real chance of getting them home. "But Daniel makes a good point, we need to try and get the word out. Chief?" he raised his voice and turned around to face the eight Spartans. "Status of the recon teams?"

"No contact so far, they're finishing the sweeps of Scarlet level now and locking it down behind them as they go. They'll move onto Lavender level next to secure the access point to the old mining tunnels" the other replied after a moment.

"Alright" Mitchell called in a suddenly much more authoritative voice that had all the Spartans in earshot stiffen slightly on reflex, "then here's the game plan…"

15:20 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
USS Odyssey, Reach Orbit, Epsilon Eridani System

"There's another one" Marks called out.

Samantha Carter glanced up at the master display in the Asgard Core room, just in time to see a energy spike dissipate on the live readout.

"Time?" she asked as her gaze flickered over a number of other readouts on the main screen comparing the frequency, amplitude and duration of the surge to the previous one.

"Just over fifteen minutes since the last one" Marks noted as she fed the data into the Asgard core on the latest exotic radiation pulse, still not really sure what she was dealing with. Increasingly, Sam was convinced that whatever was down under CASTLE base was at least in some way responsible for their dramatic shift of universes and timeframes. If so, it made it critical that they get their hands on … whatever … it was. If they were very lucky, it would be some kind of alien inter-universal technology like a Quantum mirror they could simply turn on and use to get back home. Otherwise…

Well, otherwise, everything would rest on her shoulders to find them a a way home.

Again.

It had only really struck her when talking to Jay Felger during the 'Avenger' crisis exactly how she was perceived by the science and engineering sides of Stargate command. And after she (with her Father and Selmacs help, although everyone seemed to keep forgetting them) had managed to defeat the Replicators by blasting the entire Milky Way with the Dakara device through the Stargate network, the 'legend' around her had only seemed to grow.

And if she heard just one more person casually ask her about the time she had blown up a star…

Partially because she had been mentally exhausted by the 'drop everything for this crisis of the week!' life at the SGC, she had taken command of R&D at Area-51 after the defeat of the Replicators and Goa'uld had heralded a new age for the Galaxy. Being able to simply sit down and focus on long term projects had been a joy - even if part of her admitted that she missed the rush of walking through the Gate to explore new planets across the Galaxy.

But more than anything, she had needed some time to decompress. There was only so many times you could have the weight of your Galaxy resting on your shoulders before your spine would snap and after eight years of non stop action and possible planetary destruction, she had been closer than she liked to think to that point. And she had taken advantage of the dramatic strategic shift with the collapse of the Goa'uld empire and destruction of the Replicators to take stock.

Of course, Cam had mercilessly worked to 'get the band back together' and eventually, in the face of the new Ori threat, she had returned to the front line at the SGC. Which had placed her on board the Odyssey when it had been flung into this alternate universe. She supposed that was a good thing though. If she hadn't been on board when the transit had happened…

Refocusing on her board as the console beeped that it was ready, she tapped a series of commands on the norse looking runes and twisted a stone around, fine tuning a new filtering request for the core to process, chiding herself for getting distracted. The word that SG1 and their Spartan escort might be walking into the path of a rogue UNSC force had not … pleased … General Landry. Especially when attempts to raise the ground team had failed, with them out of both sensor and communications contact.

With little alternative, Landry had accepted Hoods assertion that he was sending in a rapid response team to make contact and re-establish communications, but as soon as the communication was over, he had had rapidly given her orders to try and establish contact with SG1. And if anything had a chance of breaking through the interference, it would be the the new communications and sensor systems mounted on the ship's hull linked into the Asgard core.

The core itself was truly remarkable and it was all she could do not to get distracted playing around with it. It was computer programing on a level beyond anything she could comprehend; all she had to do was tell it what she wanted, and … it just did it. Making scans of Spartan James's damaged armor yesterday had resulted in the core virtually all but reverse engineering it on the fly, down to the molecular level. What would have normally taken her days with a fully equipped lab had been performed in seconds, letting her easily see, isolate and fabricate a repair for the damage in less than an hour.

It was both awe inspiring and intimidating in equal measure, thinking about the sheer disruption technology like this could cause to Earth. Like a 'cheat' book for thousands of years of technological advancement. And all the warnings from the Tolen, the Nox, the Tok'ra and even an Ancient or two, about what harm a surge in technology could do to a society not ready for it rolled around her mind as she worked. Of the difference between being able to use technology and understand it. She had read enough intelligence reports of the difficulties the Jaffa were having with their inherited Goa'uld technology, with the vast majority of their population all but clueless to the fundamental science and engineering behind it with their overloads dead. If Earth got all the answers for the next ten centuries of technological development on a silver platter...

It was definitely something that warranted a lot more discussion once they got back to Earth.

Right now however...

With a soft chime, the main display spat out its results and Carter pushed it up onto the main screen. Clearing, it switched to the the topographical map of the ONI base known as 'CASTLE'. The ghostly white sphere of the area of disruption to the ship's sensors was still there, enveloping a wide area underground, seemingly centered on the system's best estimate of the location of the energy signature a few kilometers away.

But now however there were six green dots pulsing inside the isometric passageways of CASTLE, slowly moving together down them.

"You did it!" Marks exclaimed as he stepped up.

"Not quite" she shook her head. "I wasn't able to detect life signs through the interference. But I was able to filter out enough of it to get a lock on the subspace signals from the subcutaneous transponders".

"Can we get a radio signal through?" he asked and Carter shook her head.

"No, not through that much interference". Silently, Carter wracked her brains trying to figure out something. The Asgard holographic systems were useless; whatever this energy signal was, it was completely disrupting the subspace tunneling used by it and the beaming system. Radio signals couldn't penetrate all the massive shielded armor layered over the base and apparently the UNSC also wasn't getting any response from the bases own SATCOM links which seemed to be completely shut down. What she needed was a way to get a subspace communications link established with …

Then she kicked herself for missing the blindingly obvious and, without saying anything, spun back to the other console in the room and keyed a line to the bridge.

15:35 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Sigma section, CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

Anton-044 descended down the elevator shaft. Meter by meter on a nanotube reinforced spool line.

As a highly trained special forces soldier, rappelling silently was not exactly a skill that was particularly noteworthy. But doing it while wearing a half ton of advanced alloys, flesh and fusion reactor while upside down and while being on the lookout for any possible sensors, tripwires, explosives or other surprises that might have been seeded through the shaft...was, for a Spartan, just another 'day at the office'.

This elevator shaft was the only access point between CASTLE bases sub-basement storage areas and the tunnels that had once been the titanium mine the base had been built over. Very few people knew what had been found in the tunnels - it had in fact been pure chance the contracted geologist had already been on retainer with ONI for an unrelated project when he had been called in by the mining company. And after reviewing the findings, he had quietly brought them to his ONI handlers. ONI had promptly paid him a handsome bonus for his initiative, then had a 'surprise safety inspection' find major issues with the mine resulting in it being shut down, then brought out by another ONI front company who mothballed it as economically unviable.

They had also paid off the few miners who had seen the odd formations, letting them know equally quietly that they could be quite well off 'good citizens' if they kept their mouths shut and stuck to the cover story … or be assured their bodies would never be found if they couldn't.

Unsurprisingly, the various miners had taken their rather generous severance payments and done their very best to forget what they had seen. The one exception who had tried to contact the media to sell the story had suffered a tragic airlock accident in low orbit several weeks later.

ONI had run 'KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN' for some time as they had poked at the fascinating crystal formations in the wall, under maximum security protocols. Clearly artificial and predating human presence, but after millions of credits spent had gotten exactly nowhere, it had been determined that they were not really of any interest and the project was terminated. If there had indeed been any alien presence on Reach, it was determined to be long gone now beyond traces like this.

Not one to waste such an ideal location, ONI had shrugged and then reworked and expanded the exhausted upper levels of the mine into the offices, laboratories and workshops that had become the almost impregnable CASTLE Base, while sealing off the lower mines and lava tunnels they had broken into. The single elevator shaft to the old mines was used only rarely by technicians assigned the rather dull duty of going 'downstairs' to check various utility systems as part of routine maintenance of the base, but otherwise it was mostly ignored as a vestigial part of the bases history, the truth of what had been found down there hidden from all but a very few people.

Including James Ackerson.

Anton didn't know Colonel Ackerson personally - only by reputation. But it was that very reputation relayed from Doctor Halsey, Kurt and others which gave him pause and made him take his time as he systematically cleared the path forward for the rest of the team. By all accounts, this was a man who thought only of achieving the mission, with little to no care for the costs or collateral damage, an attitude he found personally distasteful. Spartans of course accepted non-combatant casualties were often necessary as part of their jobs … but as their field experience had increased, Anton and his brothers and sisters had come to repudiate tactics that resulted in unnecessary deaths or destruction in pursuit of the mission, no matter how convenient it might be to take 'shortcuts' over the bodies of innocent people.

They had been trained to be scalpels after all. Not warhammers.

Colonel Ackerson however, from what he had heard, probably wouldn't think twice about killing them all if he honestly felt it served his goals or the interests of the UEG - whatever the rest of the UEG or UNSC may think of that aside. And they had already had one elevator try to drop them to their deaths today, so...

Cortana had already confirmed that the elevator system here was clean of any tampering, but Anton knew the Colonel was far too shrewd to try and use the same trick twice, so he carefully swept the shaft, looking for any surprises - without touching anything or making a sound. He had seen nothing out of the ordinary and soon enough turned his attention to the elevator car on the bottom level, extending a micro-probe through a narrow gap in its roof with precision a surgical-bot would have envied. A tiny sliver of fibre optical cable with very expensive sensors on the end relaying data directly to his VISOR display … empty.

Methodically with the skill and patience that came from being perhaps the Spartans best scout, Anton pulled the hair-thin sliver around, systematically inspecting every part of the interior of the car … ah.

There it was.

Tucked away in the back corner of the lift, just behind one of the light strips where it would be hidden in shadow to normal eyes, a tiny mushroom shaped protrusion had been affixed to the roof. Painted a dull non reflective grey, it blended in well with the ceiling so as to be almost invisible, looking perfectly innocuous to the untrained eye.

But it wasn't. 'It' was an ONI issue field proximity sensor; model six one eight four niner. Essentially a high tech tripwire it was passive until unexpected vibrations triggered it, then it would activate a motion sensor to get a picture of local activity. And then, depending on its programing...

Well he wasn't going to wait and find out what this one had been programed to do.

He marked the location using his helmets sensors before withdrawing the probe, shifting his position to hover over that part of the roof. Aligning a 'wand' like device he detached from his gauntlet, he took very careful aim … and with a faint squeak of overloading electronics followed by a puff of smoke through gaps in the roof, the silent and highly focused EMP discharge destroyed the sensor. He took a quick glance at his ELINT readout ... good, it had fried fast enough that it had not been able to send an alarm signal.

With the sensor eliminated and no sign of anything else in the elevator car, he worked his way to the side of the shaft and dropped head first down the gap between the wall and car, following a hunch. If he had been the one to put the sensor 'tripwire' in play … and yes, there was the Lotus Anti-Tank mine attached to the underside of the elevator.

It seemed Ackerson really didn't want any company following him and was willing to be somewhat more direct in this case.

Back tracking, he first took his time to sweep the other two sides of the elevator car, looking for but finding no other surprises. Then he returned to the mine and with long practiced skills he disarmed the device and detached it, collapsing the mine and securing it in an empty equipment holder at his waist.

You never knew when high explosives might come in handy after all.

"Shaft secure. Motion detector and command detonated Lotus mine, disarmed" he finally broke the silence he had been operating in on STEALTHCOM, his suit recording the message and then shooting it as a millisecond long UV laser transmission directly up the shaft.

Almost at once a double flash of blue lights came back and another seven Spartans who had been silently hanging on their own high-tension cables above him started to descend as he worked his way back up the shaft. Approaching the 'front' wall of the shaft, he pulled out a tiny drill, with its bit honed to a near monomolecular edge. The concrete that made up this wall of the shaft was neither structural or load bearing so it would only take him a minute to silently drill a tiny hole through the thin material for his sensor wand to get 'eyes' on the area immediately outside of the shaft...

And as he focused on his work, so too above him did the other seven Spartans under the direction of Grace-093.

15:44 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Caverns underneath CASTLE BASE (Point Alpha)

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

Her name was Black Six.

Although she also went by the designation Jane-B300, in truth she had been Black-Six or just 'Six for so long that it had all but become her name, her previous life a dull memory faded through drugs, indoctrination and hypnotherapy.

And she was a knife in the dark.

The brainchild of Vice Admiral Margaret Parangosky, Stiletto team had been created to serve her interests directly after ONI Section III was forced by HIGHCOM to go public with the SPARTAN II program. Their record since then spoke for itself of course, but the truth was that in going public ONI had lost their most powerful and effective Black-Operations tool.

And the Vice Admiral had not been happy about that fact.

So when Colonel Ackerson had proposed the Spartan III program, among the justifications had been the need to replace that lost capability. Spartan IIIs could not be expected to match the considerably more extensive training of their progenitors of course, but they were none the less a significant step up from the best 'normal' operators ONI had. And they had served well enough, but after the destruction of Alpha Company the decision had been made to quietly build up a separate 'non disposable' unit for the exclusive use of the top level of ONI - and outside even the limited oversight the Spartan III program had.

From the 443 identified candidates for the Spartan III Bravo company, 25 had been quietly taken out before before even arriving at Onyx, flagged officially to Kurt-Ambrose as 'unsuitable for training and not accepted'. In actual fact, these had arguably been the 'best' of the candidates, far more in line with the exacting requirements Doctor Halsey had put forward for the Spartan IIs than simply being genetically compatible kids 'lucky' enough to have survived a glassing. Twenty had survived the brutal training and indoctrination - and they had become ONI's 'knife in the dark' against their enemies. To be sure they lacked the MJOLNIR armor of the Spartan IIs, but Stiletto were none the less far more capable than the other 'disposable' Spartan IIIs - and morally indifferent to their mission orders, a very useful combination. Assassinations, snatch-ops, precision terrorism, false flag operations and the occasional hit against Covenant targets; Stiletto did it all without qualms or hesitation, unencumbered by the red tape, delays or even scant morality of ONIs more 'official' Black teams.

And right now … they were wasting their time sitting in a tunnel.

Watching a door.

'Six' sighed.

"What?" an annoyed voice asked from the darkness off to the side.

That voice belonged to 'Black Four' or Paul-B333, who was manning the SAW they had set up on top of the barricade so charmingly called 'Alpha Point', the only other Spartan with her at this advanced point. Assembled from heavy equipment crates and some odds and ends that had been left abandoned around the lift shaft terminus, they had blocked off one of the three exits from the assembly area around the lift shaft. This particular exit was directly opposite the lift and was the most direct route to the tunnel that had broken into the lava tubes, inside of which was the alien base the Colonel had always suspected was there.

Too bad the ONI brass back then had been too stupid to listen to him; they could have probably saved humanity a lot of time and death if they had gotten their hands on the stuff inside that before the Covenant showed up. Instead, according to the transmission they had received from Araquel before he had been cut off suddenly, the idiots may be coming down to try and stop them?!

Some days she wondered whose side some of the UNSC were actually on.

"Bored" she finally snorted in reply as she rested her chin on folded arms, her gaze not leaving the elevator doors. "Wish these damn idiots would come down here so we can deal with them already".

"They might not even know we're down here" Four pointed out. "They could be here for another reason, wouldn't be the first time some parts of ONI got sloppy and left something behind, had to come back to get it later. Or send in a torch team like us to burn a server farm some idiot forgot was offline and would be a grade one violation of the Cole Protocol".

"So why did Araquel go dark just after saying company was coming?" was the obvious rebuttal to that possibility.

"He might not want to give his presence away if they're monitoring the base systems I guess. Or the arrogant prick might just be screwing with us. Doesn't matter, if they don't leave before we're ready to, we'll deal with them on the way out. Just saying that we might still be able to slip out without being detected is all".

"Well that sounds boring" Six muttered.

Four sighed again. "Yes, but probably smart. If we've really stumbled onto something that can win the war we don't have time to pussyfoot around while the brass and ONI fight over it - better just to take it, get out and win the war without anyone knowing we're here. Always better to ask forgiveness than permission".

"I guess" she conceded the logic of his analysis grudgingly. "Still don't like it though. I mean it was bad enough that the Boss made us stay covert while the Covenant were dropping in all over the place … but this is even worse. Frails, Hinge-Heads, whatever. Long as I get to kill something. I'm really getting twitchy for some combat, you know?"

"...You still taking your meds?" Four asked wryly.

'Six didn't dignify that with a response. All of Stiletto team had last year been 'upgraded' with the new drugs being rolled out for Gamma company of the Spartan IIIs. They had mutated their nervous system, giving them an incredible ability to shrug off heavy trauma or pain and keep fighting far beyond human norms, but required a steady regimen of drugs to counter off some … unpleasant aftereffects.

Like increasing aggression and decreased attention span.

Instead, she ran a practiced eye over the kill zone looking for anything unusual through enhanced optics in her SPC helmet. They had the entire area outside the elevator door dialed in with mines under the grating - in case something heavy came in- and their SAW zeroed in on the door to boot.

Plus of course the AT mine attached to the bottom of the lift, if absolutely needed.

And if the enemy got past all of that and them, then they would have to find their way through the maze of tunnels to the next defensive point, Bravo, where the rest of the squad was waiting. And speaking of...

"Point Alpha, fifteen-forty five, no contact, no movement. Comms still down with Araquel at this time. Authenticate Tango Sixteen. How copy?".

"Copy all Alpha" the voice of the leader of team two came back, who was holding at the main defensive checkpoint that marked the boundary between the manmade tunnels and natural lava tubes. The transmission was overlaid with some static caused by the signal degradation through the tunnels, despite the COM repeaters they had installed, but was clear enough "Be advised we are still out of contact with Eagle and his teams. Maintain position and check-in schedule..."

"...next report is due in thirty minutes. Actual is expected to send a runner for check-in at that time, how copy?"

"Copy all, Team one Clear".

And with that the line went silent.

John-117 nodded to himself as the transmission decrypted by Cortana went silent, checking his clock.

These people had checked in exactly on the fifteen minute mark, using a rolling authentication protocol, call signs instead of names and not wasted any time with useless conversation...

They had also, according to the tiny camera that James had poked out of his hole, mined the exit to the lift shaft and were holding in an excellent position back from the doors. One that gave them the advantage of fighting out of the darkness with floodlights in the eyes of anyone who came out of the lift shaft, turning the landing zone into a killzone for most any threat that came out of the lift uninvited.

It all added up to one inescapable conclusion. These were professionals.

He wasn't sure if that his job easier or harder though. If this did turn into a fight he had to assume he was up against competent opponents who had rigged many more surprises through the mining tunnels they would have to clear out systematically as they advanced. On the other hand, professionals were also more likely to recognize their hopeless tactical position and surrender cleanly with a strong enough show of force - especially once they found out that FLEETCOM had sent in a Spartan Team.

Colonel Mitchell had also agreed that it wasn't worth losing the element of surprise to find out how they reacted - and had gained a measure of respect from the Chief for his easy assumption of command, despite the decidedly odd circumstances they found themselves in. It still felt decidedly uneasy operating under non UEG authority like this, especially when they had barely met these people … but he took some comfort in the fact that Colonel Mitchell clearly felt much the same way and was letting him operating all but autonomously to clear their path, not trying to micromanage or second guess him in front of his team.
Yet at the same time, he didn't in any way sound uncertain or indecisive; simply letting his people do what they did without him looking over their shoulder and trusting in his leadership.

And if they could work well enough together down here in … less than ideal circumstances, it probably bode well for the prospects of this new alliance that might just save mankind from the Covenant.

Pushing past his rare moment of introspection as his people finished up their work, the Chief keyed in SECURECOM.

"Final check, give me a go/no go for breach" he ordered and watched as the status lights in sequence winked a solid blue, the Chief noting them as he checked his own equipment one final time, then ran a quick eye over the wall in front of him … and foaming C-17 explosive that had long hardened into a thin, but carefully applied 'X' shaped pattern with a detonator set in the middle. Next to him Kelly shifted slightly in her harness as she finished loading a harpoon into her grenade launcher while Malcolm and William readied themselves above them and shot Spartan 'ready to go' hand signals. Above them were Linda and Vincent, their two best sharpshooters, who had secured themselves perches as top cover, while Fred, Isaac and Grace were holding position directly on top of the elevator car itself at the base of the shaft.

Three more Spartans were hanging back guarding SG1. Thanks to Araquels sabotage to the base internal sensor and CCTV systems before he had sealed himself in the server room, they couldn't be entirely sure that there were no hostiles lurking, despite a thorough sweep and progressive lockdown as his people had secured their route. So he had left three Spartans to guard SG1 - and sent the remaining four under Vinh on a mission to report in. Cortana had revealed a maintenance shaft in parallel to the power conduit that linked CASTLE to the distant orbital generator complexes fusion reactors, used for supplementary power and emergency evacuation. Once there, they should meet up with the ODSTs from the 'Autumn if they were still dirtside, perhaps even bringing back a company of Shock Troopers to truly sweep and secure the base.

Even for Spartans in power armour, it was a considerable distance to cover, but it was vital that Hood and Landry were informed what was going on quickly.

But neither he nor Colonel saw any reason to wait for them to get back either before taking action - and delays in letting the enemy potentially reach the alien base and hold it hostage against them were unacceptable. So as the final status lights on his HUD flashed blue, it was now time for him to get to work.

"Cortana?"

"I've been ready since you asked Chief" the highly strung AI cheerfully commented. "COM system is online and pre-set to transmit as soon as we detonate, EW systems at 100%".

"Then as soon as I detonate, override their communications and transmit" he ordered, mentally shaking his head slightly at the AIs very non-military cheerfulness. He supposed he'd get used to her attitude … some day. "Assault teams" he continued over SECURECOM, "we're go in five seconds from my mark … mark".

Cortana helpfully put a digital timer on his HUD counting backwards as he set his feet and readied his MA5B, flicking the safety off with his thumb and gripping the secondary trigger for the grenade launcher. With his display on VISOR, a wireframe was being projected of the cavern beyond this thin wall as if he could see 'through' it and he aligned himself with the utmost care, bracing himself as the timer hit zero-

And with a thunder only partially muffled by his helmet, the wall in front of him disintegrated as Cortana triggered Graces explosive charges in sequence, the forty foot tall wall of the lift shaft fragmenting then being blasted clear out into the cavern in a sudden hail of loose rock as John aimed and fired his Grenade launcher along with Kelly, Malcom and William.

All four HV rockets screamed up to smash into cavern roof - and almost too fast for even a Spartan to follow, they found themselves yanked from their perches and into the air, swinging a tight arc through the dust, smoke and debris to land well beyond the mined region around the lift. Stones and rocks showered down over the area as he hit the ground and rolled into cover, a salvo of quick-smoke grenades launched by Freds team whistling past him to explode precisely on top of the opposing team's position. A cloud of dirty grey opaque smoke that clouded both sight and sensors blurred into place with a loud crump, cutting off both sides from each other.

Elapsed time, six point two seconds and counting.

His external speakers activated as he set himself, a message he had recorded prior to the breach echoing loudly from the stone walls as he identified his team, his authority and ordered the intruders to drop their weapons and come out with their hands on top of their heads. Cortana was also broadcasting it on the radio frequencies she had determined they were using … but as the seconds past and he kept his rifle trained unerringly on the smoke filled gap from behind a half wrecked mining scoop … nothing happened.

"Cortana, status?" he asked as the message finished its broadcast.

"I've just finished recalibrating your motion tracker and I have movement – phase tracking is away from us - wait … confirmed. They just made several attempts to trigger the explosives set around the lift, but don't worry, I blocked it and used it to piggyback into the explosives and disarm them".

"Any response to my message?"

"You don't think trying to blow us all up is a response?" the AI asked in a somewhat amused tone. "But no, just an attempt to signal their friends I shut down - for now".

The Chief considered that. If their response was to try and detonate the mines before falling back towards their objective …

Well, as far as the Master Chief was concerned these people had been given a fair chance to make the right choice … and had chosen poorly.

He saw little reason to risk giving them another.

With the briefest hand signals, he and the other three Spartans moved up and out. A flicker of motion and a pair of grenades sailed over the barrier to detonate with terrific force as the crouched on the reverse side – but there were no secondary explosions, suggesting they had not left any surprises behind. Vaulting over the barrier the Spartans all but seemed to leap through the dirty cloud, their helmets VISOR modes immediately settling back down once in the clear … to show nothing.

Landing in a crouch, the Spartans weapons remained aimed unerringly down the fifty or so meters of the tunnel until it curved to the right, their eyes searching for targets or any 'stay behind' surprises – and again finding neither - just the faint thermal traces of what looked like two peoples footsteps. Clearly their opponents had used their limited munitions on the elevator shaft and landing - which offered a much better choke point and no risk of friendly fire accidents. And with the Spartans through the choke point, they had decided to fall back and regroup.

Smart tactics - rather than hold an untenable position, they were retreating in good order, conserving assets. Indeed, they had fallen back very quickly – almost surprisingly quickly given the distance to cover and surprise factor...

It wasn't ideal, but they had their breach. And there wasn't much point maintaining radio silence now. "SG One Niner, Blue Leader".

"Go Blue Leader" the other came back instantly. No doubt having heard the racket of Grace's work had made the Colonel anxious for a report.

"Breach successful. Opposing forces attempted minefield detonation but fell back when that failed, in the general direction of the energy signature. Explosives have been disarmed and the immediate area is clear of hostile presence".

"Roger that Chief" the other paused for a moment, probably conferring with his officers before coming back strong. "We're coming down now. You may pursue the enemy at your own discretion. My team and the fire team you left me will move up behind you, but we'll maintain a discreet distance. If you can take some of these people prisoner, so much the better, but that's your call. We'll regroup when we hit the Lava tubes".

"Understood" he responded simply, cutting the channel and again reflecting on the irony that an officer from another universe who had no experience or even knowledge about Spartans … was much better at giving orders to them than many of the UNSC officers he had served under in the past.

"Anton, Kelly, Linda, Will; with me" he switched back over to TEAMCOM. "Vincent, Malcom, Grace; secure those explosives then expedite to reform on us. Fred, assume command of team four and escort SG1 in our wake - keep them safe, I want a minimum bubble of five zero zero meters. Cortana, plot the best path to the objective. Move out".

In a flurry of motion, the Spartans were moving, the Chiefs team assembling into their standard tactical formation on the go, with him in the middle, Anton and Kelly on point and William and Linda in the rear as he reloaded his rifles grenade launcher, eschewing the selection of stun rounds for a standard high-explosive armor-piercing one.

Twice now, James Ackerson or the assets working for him had tried to kill his team, his charges and himself.

He was not planning to give them a third opportunity.

15:50 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Forerunner Facility underneath CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

"I still can't figure out any kind of pattern from these readings. It's like-"

"Quicksand" another tech put in.

"-eah, like quickland" a third agreed with a quick nod, a Sweet William cigar in the corner of his mouth sending a thin line of smoke into the air and mangling his words until he reached up to pull it out, blowing smoke at his console with a glare. "Like space itself is randomly mutating inside that zone" he waved at the blue crystal tiles that seemed to mark the hard boundary of the 'strangeness'.

"But it's almost impossible to visualize" Chalmers noted – and Ackerson tuned them out as the eggheads kept babbling on.

More like a mirage than quicksand James Ackerson thought as he stared at the distant pinprick of blue light that was the Crystal, half listening to the babble of the technicians behind him. What he had envisioned as a quick snatch-op had hit a roadblock he couldn't blow up, bypass or hack. The damn Monitor of that installation had not mentioned anything like this, it was almost as if fate had moved from teasing him to openly mocking him. Like a man seeing water in the desert running towards it, only to never reach it…

He shook his head once, violently clearing the thoughts from his mind. Feeling sorry for himself or angry at himself was a trap any officer could fall into if they were not careful and he chided himself for doing so as he refocused his attention, thinking as hard as he had been for the last half an hour as he stood here watching the eggheads 'ohh' and 'ahh' over the -admittedly' amazing technology rather than focus on how to defeat it.

There had to be some kind of way through this … this maze. The symbols on the floor were quite possibly a map of some kind, but Gods only knew how long it would take the figure out a path through, it wasn't as if any of his people were expect linguists or xeno-anthropologists…

No there had to be a way to see the path ahead … if he could just focus the damn tech team on that rather than drifting off into studying the –admittedly incredible- situation for its own sake.

Sighing, he turned to face the tech teams … and paused.

Staring at the tech who was half chewing on and half smoking a Sweet-Cuban cigar as he glared at his console, the smoke from the cigar slowly rising above him...

It was the feeling he had often learned to trust in the back of his head; that his subconscious mind had picked up something before his conscious mind and was trying to bring it to his attention …

Then it clicked.

"Can ... I help you Colonel?"

Ackerson blinked as he refocused his attention, noting that the tech was now slightly nervously looking up at him from his computer screen and Ackerson shook his head.

"You already did" Ackerson nodded towards the other, spinning to face the Spartan fireteams stoically waiting. "Petty Officer" he called to Kerry-B303, who lead this five member fire team, "how many smoke rounds does your team here have for the GL-16s?" he asked.

"Ten sir, per team" the other replied at once.

Ackerson nodded with a grin slowly forming on his face, stabbing an arm out towards the distant crystal.

"Fire two, as far as you can, into that area. Set for maximum density and smoke generation".

"Aye Sir" the Spartan obediently nodded, turning to gesture two of her colleagues forward, who promptly loaded their weapons and set the controls accordingly.

"Colonel ... what are you doing?" then came the -predictable- voice of Chalmers came from behind him.

"Smoking out the problem" he replied without turning to face her, instead nodding to the Spartans when they shot him a 'ready' signal. In perfect unison, they raised the MA5Bs and with a deep thud the two rocket assisted projectiles streaked out into the vast gulf from the underslung launchers, leaving a thick cloud of white smoke in their wake - as well as a sputtering objection from Chalmers at his actions...

But the protests faded, replaced by gasps of surprise from the Doctor and the other technicians as the dirty white smoke trail was suddenly pulled every which way. It was as if a dozen different winds were competing to snatch the smoke and take it with them upwards, the two grenades themselves arcing wildly off to the right, then up, then down to the floor as they spluttered out a half kilometer or so downrange, the smoke behind them still being ripped away into dozens of columns and clouds that whipped around the crystal in the center rising towards the ceiling. Looking closer, Ackerson would have sworn that the smoke was in fact seeming to 'jump' from point to point in the air, without ever crossing the intervening space...

"That's amazing" Chalmers breathed as she stepped up to face him. "It's like space is partially fragmented, moving in different reference points ... wait, what's it doing?"

Ackerson looked up again and saw that the threads of smoke now seemed to be converging, merging and twisting into a single almost hydra like smoke monster two hundred meters into the air near the roof ...

And then suddenly the smoke vanished - only to reappear almost instantly, billowing out like a tempest out from the plinth the crystal was on. And his heart leap as he saw it was being pushed out following a narrow winding course, but one that continually led outwards. Like a snake or winding river, leading from the plinth and curving along a continuous line towards the edge of the ring.

It was a path! A path through the distortions!

"Alright, let's go!" he barked. "Team one, Chalmers, with me-"

"Hold it" Chalmers objected and it was only with great effort that Ackerson didn't snap at the woman delaying him yet again when he was this close and had solved the problem while the scientists babbled on. "If that smoke is getting pushed out, we need something to distinctly mark our path so we can get back out again, in case visual records or inertial navigation get screwed up again - I don't think we can trust INS or even visual recognition NAV points when we go deep".

...On the other hand, eggheads did occasionally have their uses.

"We have probably close to five klicks of nanocable in the field kit" Spartan Yu-B275 suggested after a moment of thought from the side.

"Get it, double time!" Ackerson barked. "And bring every smoke grenade we have!" he ordered, moving into a jog to circle around the edge of the blue crystals to the entrance to the path where the smoke was being expelled, at once just drifting into an entirely normal looking cloud of dirty grey particles that hung in the air.

Of course, he had barely covered half of the distance to the entrance when the Spartan caught back up to him and Chalmers. It was easy to forget how damn fast they were. So much so that he wondered if he should just tell them to 'sprint it' as they put it, and get in, get the Crystal and get back out again ... but some part of him balked at that idea.

He had waited so long for this moment ... he certainly wasn't going to be sitting watching from a distance as the Spartans did the work for him. Not this time!

The last of the smoke had been pushed out by the time they reached what he had marked as the nominal entrance point. As the Spartans rigged the cable dispenser, Chalmers knelt down at the edge where the 'path' had terminated and pulled what seemed to be a small ball out of her pocket. And then she rolled it gently over the edge of the floor ... where it rolled to a stop and stayed there.

Reaching in, she pulled it back out, then took a half dozen steps further around the perimeter of blue cut crystals to roll it in again ... and bizarrely, the ball accelerated, then turned left and slowed ...then backwards, then forwards again, then crossed back along its path in a completely different direction, moving almost like it was caught in an invisible sea washing up on an invisible beach...

"That's just wrong" Chalmers muttered with a disbelieving shake of her head as she reached in and -after a couple of attempts- managed to snag the ball and haul it back out, stumbling slightly before she moved back and again rolled the ball through the starting point of the path ... and again it simply rolled perfectly normally to a stop. "Well it looks like this 'path' is stable. At least for now".

"Very well" he smiled, turning to gesture to the Spartan next to him.

A second smoke grenade ripped through the air and once again, the spectacular -but rather disturbing- dance took place as the smoke -this time a bright orange rather than dirty grey- twirled, rolled and danced in the air until finally it recovered and crashed to the ground. Again the smoke gathered and rose high into the sky and again it suddenly exploded out from just next to the Crystal after vanishing, winding forward to his location.

As soon as it reached him, he was moving.

The five Spartans fell into line behind him as Chalmers stumbled after them in turn. He felt a fierce surge of exhilarations as he moved along the perhaps two meter wide clear zone. Here he didn't feel even a trace of the kind of odd disorientation he had felt earlier and he moved forward quickly, the smoke puffing up slightly as he ran over it, but quickly settling back down as he moved along, trying to make as much ground as possible before the smoke ran out. It twisted and turned, so by the time the smoke was past and he was forced to call a halt, he guessed they had only covered a fifth of the distance in absolute terms, but probably run almost half a kilometer.

Calling a halt (and mildly surprised that Chalmers had actually kept up with him) he double checked that the Spartans were laying their trail like a modern day hansel and gretel to mark their way home, then prepared to order another grenade salvo when suddenly Kerry-B303s head snapped up.

"Sir! I've lost the rest of the team!"

"What?" Ackerson backed, whirling around … and his eyes went wide as he looked back at where the team should be waiting outside of the region … to see nothing.
No Spartans, no Tech team … just an empty cavern.
"Where the hell did they go? Spartan Yu, report!" he demanded, calling the team leader of his second team. He waited for a few seconds before gritting his teeth. "Any Spartan, any tech, respond!"

Again there was nothing and he turned to Chalmers.

"What the hell is going on Chalmers?"

"I'm … not sure" the other stammered. "It's almost as … if …" he voice trailed off as she saw something. "Good God!"

Turning back around, Ackersons confusion increased as he spotted … a fire team from Stiletto team moving into the chamber, down the entrance they had come through originally. Why in the hell did they leave and go...

Then his eyes went wide … as he saw himself walk in, followed by Chalmers and her techs and the rest of the Spartan team.

"...incredible" Chalmers breathed into the stunned silence. "Space isn't just fractured off this path, time is as well, it's like we can see Slipspace reconciliation with the naked eye! This is … this is unbelievable!"

"Did … we just move backwards in time?" Ackeron asked in shock and no small amount of awe, confused and stunned as he watched himself take in the cavern - and clearly not react to their presence suggesting they didn't see him … because he hadn't seen … himself.

Had he?

"No" Chalmers slowly shook her head. "If I'm right, our inertial reference path is still constant, but everything else is in flux - this is just a reflection if you will of what was before, that chunk of time in this location drifting by".

He didn't have a clue what she just said ... but it sounded worryingly dangerous. He knew enough about slipspace technology to know weird things happened around things like UNSC slipspace cores that lost shielding, God knows what this thing would do...

"Can we proceed?"

"Hmm? Oh yes, of course" she nodded. "But" she added a moment later just before he was about to give the order for the next grenade to be fired, "make damn sure you stay on this path. Stepping off it could be … unpleasant at this point".

"Understood" was all he trusted himself to say, forcing himself to turn around and face the path. "Spartans, once more please".

Another grenade salvo was launched and as he waited for the smoke to once again gather and mark the path for them, James Ackerson let himself take a final look at the incredible sight of his team … and himself … setting up an hour ago, glad his helmet mission recorder was running in full HighDef Capture mode. This would surely something R&D would go crazy over after the war was ended.

And he was close. So close now to having the key to end it in his hands.

And as the path became clear again, he led the team forward at a jog.

16:10 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Caverns underneath CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

It was only by chance and a quick shift of balance that Cameron Mitchell avoided losing his footing on a patch of rough ground as it leveled out from the steep descent.

Again.

The floor of these mining tunnels were neither smooth nor even, covered with loose shale in parts, and groves from heavy mining vehicles in others. Despite the fact that the night vision system was the very best the US military had, depth perception remained tricky as hell in the shades of green that was his world. Denied the subtle shadows and clues the human brain relied on with normal light, it was all too easy to misjudge a step until it was almost too late, especially as the passage dipped and then rose again like a crazy worms path, carved through the crust following the richest veins of titanium.

Still, even if their progress was slower than he would have liked, it didn't have to be fast. The Chiefs team was far ahead of them now. Cameron was in fact slightly incredulous at the sheer ground that the other team was apparently covering. Any normal unit he would have called reckless for moving so fast, considering it impossible to properly check for any traps, ambushes or other surprises while moving so quickly … but his own Spartan escort assured him that their speed actually rated as 'highly conservative and cautious' by Spartan standards.

Still, he couldn't help but wonder that if the Spartans were moving this fast ... why hadn't they made contact with the enemy yet?

It was enough to make him keep a wary eye out on every side passage they passed, wondering if they were going to be flanked or cut off … but he knew it was more likely that the enemy were just retreating (read; running) as fast as they could to another prepared position. The sheer casual ease at which the Chiefs men had busted past what should have been an airtight killzone had done a great deal to convince him that these Spartans knew their business as well as any Special Forces operator his Earth could boast. And if so, running as fast as you possibly could away from them to whatever backup you had before even thinking about trying to face them made perfect sense.

And if they were running, then they were not stopping to set up ambushes or leave behind surprises.

Probably.

To his approval, his own close escort remained utterly vigilant as they moved in their slow pursuit of the Chiefs team. He had watched with an approving eye as they swept every centimeter of their tunnel for surprises, carefully cleared corners and side passages and otherwise moved as if they expected half an army to be waiting for them around the next bend. Even the best US special forces teams may well have relaxed a little bit by now, what with the lead team having already swept this area ... but not these Spartans, who clearly took their orders to protect his team's utterly seriously.

Not even for a second did they break concentration or exchange even one casual word - and as a bonus, their icy silence and concentration seemed to impose the same across his teams, forcing Vala to keep her mouth shut for once. They almost reminded him of footage he had seen of Kull Warriors, having that same air of implacable action and deadly focus about them as they pressed onwards through the darkness and given all the insanity that had happened since they had set foot on Reach, he was quietly glad to have such capable professionals watching his back.

Presently, the tunnel ahead was coming onto a more level gradient and as it leveled out, he caught sight of the point team again. A side passage that had split off a half klick back rejoined the path here and one of the Spartans had broken off to sweep it before rejoining them here. As he had not heard any gunshots or gotten any alarmed radio signals, he guessed everything was clean - a thought confirmed a moment later.

"Secondary passage clear Colonel" a radio transmission crackled over his earpiece as he and the rest of the team came into sight down the tunnel. "No contact, no trace of enemy activity".

"Understood, carry on" he replied and without anything more than a double click down the channel in acknowledgement, the two Spartans were in motion again, stalking like silent hunting cats down the tunnel, their surprisingly cool running suits quickly starting to fade from sight as they moved on beyond the range of his goggles IR spotlight.

Flicking on his PDA (and making a note to talk to the techs about developing a screen setting more friendly to NVGs while also wishing the Odyssey had been carrying some of those Ancient life-signs detectors/sensors) he checked the map the Asgard sensors had generated, updating his position accordingly. As far as he could tell, they had covered about half the distance to where the miners had broken into the ancient lava tubes … which was about as good a progress he could have expected really. Shutting down the PDA, he then turned and gestured wordlessly to Teal'c as they reached the intersection themselves, causing the Jaffa to also nod and pull a small spray paint cannister. With a hiss of compressed fluids, he sprayed an 'X' onto the wall just before the intersection, making the correct path back with a paint visible to the IR range of their goggles - as he had been doing at every intersection along the way.

Just in case they did have to retreat in a hurry, he'd rather not have to consult maps at every junction along the way to find the correct route back. 'Know your terrain' was one of the key lessons hammered into his head through the 61 day Ranger school course he, like any candidate SG team members not from frontline infantry, had been forced to attend (and pass) before taking a post at the SGC. And as effective a course it was, it had not exactly covered moving through an abandoned mine deep underground on an alien planet … but then, what the hell kind of training on Earth could really prepare anyone for life at Stargate Command?

Smiling briefly to himself at that thought, Cameron's smile vanished moments later as he realized Teal'c hadn't started moving again, and was in fact standing stock still, his head tilted slightly in the way he often did when he sensed something.

"Teal'c?" he asked quizzically as he too came to a halt, keeping half an eye on the passageway ahead as the rest of his team drifted to a halt around him.

"Something is moving nearby" the other said simply.

At that, the sound of weapons safeties being disengaged by SG1 and SG3 carried quite clearly through the tunnel.

"Where?" he asked as he put his PDA back into a vest pocket before reaching down to take a better two-handed grip on his G-36 and flicking off the safety with his thumb.

"I am uncertain" the other replied, slowly turning around with his head still cocked slightly, listening or sensing something only he could. "But it is moving closer".

Taking that for what it was worth, he turned quickly to the two other Spartans with his team. "Blue Seven?"

"Nothing on motion tracking Colonel" the Spartan commented, his visored face slowly panning around as if studying the local terrain, or probing beyond it with whatever technological marvels had been built into his helmet. "I hold no additional contacts".

"Concur" the second Spartan replied from behind them over the radio as he came up to join them, "no contact".

Reading body language of the Spartans was a tad difficult, but there was just enough of an inflection in their tones to suggest that they were far from convinced of Teal'c's claim. But equally were too professional to say so aloud.

But Cameron had learned first hand from a great many missions that Teal'c had something like a sixth sense for sensing when something was about to go down. And it had saved his life too many times for him to lightly dismiss the man's sense of intuition.

"Alright, spread out" he decided quickly. If he was wrong, he was wrong, but he wasn't going to take the risk of being caught unawares. "Get some cover and let's see what happens" he ordered before glancing at the Spartans. "Advise the point team to hold their position for now".

"Sir" the Spartan nodded once. Clearly still not convinced of the threat, but none the less obeying, two Spartans quickly shifted positions, readying their weapons and crossing ahead to the intersection of the two passages where the could cover all three access points, Teal'c tagging along with them. He personally found a nice little protrusion in the wall that provided him good cover from up tunnel, Daniel joining him as the rest of his teams found what cover there was. He controlled his breathing as the expectation of imminent combat started to cause adrenaline to surge, fighting to keep calm despite the hammering of his heart...

Wait.

That was not his heart-

Snapping his head up and easing it around his cover, Mitchell was just in time to see a section of the left hand wall of the tunnel around the corner from his position suddenly start to shimmer in the night vision, growing brighter and brighter-

"Contact front!" he yelled, bringing his weapon up - and a moment later with a shockingly loud roar in the tight quarters that left his ears ringing, that side of the tunnel flashed white hot and disintegrated. He caught a glimpse of Teal'c and his Spartan friends ducking back around the corner of their tunnel, but then everything was washed out as the blast wave ripped down and flung him onto his back on the floor of the tunnel.

The impact stunned him for a moment, but he shook it off in moments as the adrenalin running through his body kicked in. Rolling prone, he brought his weapon into position, flicking on the laser attached to the rails on his rifle in the same motion, the bright IR aiming point showing up well in his goggles, although it simply vanished into the cloud of dust and smoke ahead of him.

Then the dust shifted as a dull thud more felt than heard then heard through his ringing ears washed over him. The cloud of dust seemed to shudder, then a second deeper crump rolled through it, pushing the dust off to the side to show ….

It was … huge.

Bipedal and bulky, with gigantic boots that thudded like a detuned bass drum as it stomped out of the hole in the wall. It was hunched over initially, but soon extended to its terrifying height as it cleared the breach. Massive slabs of thick metal of some kind like some kind of medieval plate armor covered it, with a huge shield on one arm, and a cannon that looked it belonged on an IFV on its other arm, glowing a brilliant hot green. Atop its massive torso, an angular head looked around curiously as long spines on its back quivered - before its gaze settled on him lying on the ground not twenty meters away. Behind it, another of the monsters could been seen stepping out as the first started to turn, bringing its massive cannon to bear towards him.

Suddenly the powerful German assault rifle in his hands felt ridiculously inadequate.

"Ah crap".

Master Chief Petty Officer John-117 rarely got annoyed when an enemy insisted on running away from both he and his team as fast as they could.

But he was willing to make an exception for his team's current opponents.

He would have much prefered them to have tried to make a stand at some point so he could liquidate them cleanly - he had in fact kept his pursuit speed up in the hope of running them down. He dared not risk an all out pursuit, charging after the enemy with all his team's considerable ground speed however. Not because he feared walking into an ambush -if they tried, so much the better- but because he had to be sure that he was clearing the path of any more surprises. He would not underestimate James Ackerson - and if he missed a trap or other kind of surprise in his haste that hit the SG teams following him …

But it was for naught, the enemy was staying ahead of them.

They were clearly not far behind, Anton had a clean lock on the fading thermal traces of their footprints and confirmed the top layer of disturbed ground was definitely caused by people they were only minutes behind. But they were clearly moving at what must be a near dead run without stopping, for a not inconsiderable distance.

Why they were running so quickly was his greatest concern. To be sure there was every possibility they were simply trying to stay ahead of his team. But based on their professionalism thus far, he very much doubted they were simply fleeing in a panic either. They might have an alternative exfiltration route out of these tunnels - and the possibility that they were trying to leave them behind, then cover their tracks by collapsing the tunnels with a nuke or fuel-air device …

It was enough to keep him moving his team rapidly. Whatever their plans, they would be much more hard pressed to act on it if his team was snapping at their heals-

"Chief, wait" Cortana suddenly broke into his thoughts and almost without thinking (almost) he flashed a yellow status light, the rest of his team freezing into immobility and sinking into cover in half a second.

"Go ahead" he murmured back.

"I'm detecting scatter coming back down this tunnel from a motion tracker ... and it's not one of ours".

The Chief considered that for a moment. "Can you localize it?"

"I think so … analysing … here" she concluded and a TACMAP opened on his display, projected as if it was a meter in front of him hovering in the air of the tunnel. Studying it, he saw that the approximate location of the signal was almost right on top of where this mining tunnel ended, at the point where it had broken by accident into the lava tubes that ONI had found so interesting.

It wasn't good news.

He could see on the map that this was probably the best defensive ground in the tunnel system since the elevator shaft itself. It was a good seventy meters from the final turn, straight up a slightly inclined slope to the entrance, which would be easy to barricade and fortify. Motion tracking would mean they could detect them coming in plenty of time to prepare a warm welcome or worse, could be used to direct defensive weapons even though most screening agents and jamming. And with the motion trackers denying them tactical surprise...

He was perfectly confident his team could carry an attack through the position - he was somewhat less confident that he could do it without either expending an unacceptable amount of munitions that might risk a cave in, or risk taking casualties among his own team if the enemy were not as considerate.

He needed a third option.

"Can you do anything about the tracker sweeps?"

"Of course" the other confirmed, almost sounding insulted that he had to ask. "I can re-configure your suits motion tracker to send an interference pattern. As long as you don't move too fast, it will neutralize each sweep before any echo is returned. It'll look on their end that there is nothing here at all".

Which would let them hopefully sneak right up to the final corner without being detected. If then they could do that, get eyes on the enemy position, they might be able to -

"Blue Leader" a new voice suddenly cut into his feed and he quickly switched over.

"Go, Blue Three".

"I'm hearing automatic weapons fire - behind us" he said in a slightly grim voice and John felt a ball of lead sink into his stomach. Will was serving as the rear guard for this team and this far ahead in the tunnels they had no radio contact with the rest of his team. But if his armors enhanced sensors was hearing distant weapons fire behind them - it could only mean one thing.

"Kelly Anton, roadblock" he ordered over TEAMCOM, his voice not giving the slightest clue to his sudden dread as he spun around and gave a very rare order. "Everyone else; sprint it".

Kelly and Antons lights flashed blue as they shifted into defensive positions, ready to halt any breakout attempt by the enemy.

The remaining six Spartans exploded into motion.

The scene exploded into violence.

The sound of automatic weapons filled the passage as the Spartans with Teal'c opened fire, hammering the two Hunters with bullets. A heartbeat later they were joined by the members of Stargate Command, the stone walls not absorbing but reflecting the noise until in moments it sounded like a hundred men with jackhammers were busy at work.

Mitchell didn't really notice though. And not simply because his ears were ringing from the explosion that had blasted into this tunnel. But mostly because his focus was (understandably in his mind) on the rather threatening thing ten meters away bringing its giant weapon up. Knowing as the gunfire directed at it seemed to just harmlessly bounce off, that he was a dead man.

Then a pair of zat discharges slammed into it.

The alien energy blast hit its chest and cascaded out like lightning, washing across the armor and then around the gaps and into the creature itself. A horrid screaming, thundering noise came from the giant before it cut off with something that sounded almost like a groan … before it collapsed.

Seeming to lose all coherence, the enormous figure shattered onto the floor in moments with the armor plating crashing to the ground as coils of what he could best describe as worms scattered loosely all over the cavern floor until all that remained was a significant mess.

Faster than he would have thought possible however, the second Hunter spun around in alarm roaring - and for its trouble a second pair of Zat blasts from up the passage slammed into its back as Teal'c fired in turn copied Valas actions. Once again, as the lightning cascaded around and through it, the Hunter lost all coherence and collapsed into a pile of worms and armor, joining the first pile.

The wave of Covenant forces pressing up behind seemed to freeze in shock at the unexpected neutralization of the giant creatures, as if the universe itself had imposed a two second timeout for everyone to take in the impossible sight and Cameron took advantage of the moment to scramble back into cover.

Then the moment was broken by a loud roar from inside the hole and the fight was back on.

A hail of automatic weapons crossfire tore into the breach as a mixture of aliens came pouring out, charging and slipping over the pile of guts. Small like squat aliens he recognized as 'Grunts' yelping as they waved their weapons, a hail of purple projectiles whizzing past him to shatter on the wall somewhere behind him almost making him flinch before he focused and put a burst through the alien who had fired the shots before it could try again. The two Spartans seemed to simply be spraying on full automatic, but after a few seconds Mitchell realized to his shock they were in fact firing precise three round bursts … but firing so fast that it more or less was fully automatic fire. Their rifles barrels jerked back and forth in a blur, each burst unerringly killing one, their fire scathing through the enemy as effectively as if they had been wielding machine guns...

The withering defensive fire checked the Grunts initial charge, but more kept coming, seemingly indifferent to their dead as they clambered over the steadily growing pile of alien corpses, wildly returning fire with more pressing up, suicidally eager to join in on the fun and Mitchell grimaced. His team was in a poor position, with only half of his team able to engage, limited cover and Teal'c and his Spartan friends cut off ahead of him at the other side of the breach, in the side tunnel.

On the other hand, they had a serviceable choke point and crossfire to work with.

Grenades were primed and thrown into the breach with warnings of 'Frag out!' as SG3's two Marines quickly worked their way into the engagement, the rolling thunder of their automatic shotguns now checking the Grunts momentum, the grenades and shotgun shells forming a storm of lead that barely stopped the next push. Teal'c, at the intersection further up the tunnel helped, hamming into the group with a P-90 in one hand while taking snapshots with his Zat in the other, in a way that would have been ludicrous for someone who had neither his half century of combat experience nor incredible strength that let him duel wield his weapons without so much as a hint of trouble. More help arrived at that point, as the two other Spartans who had been on point skidded into position next to the Jaffa master, their own weapons now entering the fray neatly in time to cover for their teammates as they paused to reload, throwing their firepower into the breach to hold back the charge.

Despite the vigorous defense however the enemy was undaunted, pushing forward apparently in complete indifference to their losses. And now new aliens joined them, a number of the vaguely bird like aliens he knew the UNSC called 'Jackals', their shields adding a whole new tactical dimension to the situation. Another series of Zat blasts from Teal'c snaked up the passage to hit the shields and Vala leaned around him to snap off a couple of her own shots - but the energy seemed to have no effect, the shimmering green barriers simply absorbing the blasts and inviting return fire back up and down the corridor as the Jackals set themselves.

Their accuracy was poor, wild snapshots towards the muzzle flashes deeper up and down the dark tunnels, wild bolts of plasma exploding on the walls vaguely around his team, sending painful fragments of hot rocks into his team. Their impact was minimal, but to his annoyance, every time a plasma blast streaked past his NVGs overloaded, the computer processing systems never having been designed to deal with high-energy plasma. And from the storm of profanity off to his side, he guessed the two Marines were having much the same problem.

Emptying the last of his magazine on full auto half blindly into the mass of enemies with a growl (he doubted he could have missed if he tried), he leaned back into cover, reaching up to yank off his goggles and toss them to the side, finding the tunnel more than well enough illuminated by the burning corpses and still glowing edges of the breach to not need to turn on his weapons taclight, slapping in another magazine before leaning back around the corner as Daniel finished spraying the contents of his magazine into the mass before ducking behind him.

He almost wished he hadn't been able to see so clearly in the dim light, coughing from the smoke and dust in the air.

More and more hostiles were pouring out into the tunnel, so much so they were actually slowing because they needed to climb over the growing piles of their dead and slipping on the pile of worms and other 'remains' that were being churned into a gory paste under their feet. Or even trampling over each other - no matter how many the Spartans and Marines gunned down. Their fanaticism was incredible - and was then he realized they couldn't win this. They were holding the enemy for now, but the Covenant seemed to be content to throw more bodies at the problem than they had bullets. They had their Zats, but the Spartans didn't and given their lousy position...

It was time to pull back - while they still had the ammo for a fighting retreat.

He opened his mouth to issue the order, but was cut off as a new roar of rage came from the hole and then his eyes went wide as the piles of Grunts that had been increasingly doing a good job of blocking up the choice point seemed to explode, sending bodies flying everywhere. A new creature smaller than the monsters that had initially come through the tunnel but none the less huge thundered out through the Grunts, some hit so hard they bounced off the other side of the tunnel as it skidded to a halt, looking for targets with a hungry expression.

It looked almost like an ape, covered in fur and moving with all four limbs. With an answering roar, another half dozen vaulted over the barricade and through luck or design, they emerged as most of the humans facing it were frantically reloading their weapons again.

Cameron without thinking raised his rifle and put a dozen rounds into the thing centre mass, but to his shock, it barely staggered, seeming to shrug off the heavy rounds like he had hit it with marshmallows.

It did succeed in getting him noticed however and with a second terrifying roar it spun, much much faster than he thought it could have and seemed to almost vault forward towards his position, forcing him to slam back into cover as best he could as enormous arms seemed to reach for him-

-then was intercepted in mid air by another pair of Zat blasts and crashed to the ground, rolling to a halt just in front of him, dead with an almost comical look of surprise on its face.

No matter how much she might grate on him at times, there was no doubting that Vala was a crack shot.

That unfortunately left the others behind it. Most turned to charge up towards the Spartans, staggering but pushing forward furiously in the face of their defensive fire, but one in the rear wearing more elaborate armor seemed to think as fast as it moved, ripping the shield (and the arm attached to it) off a hapless Jackal in passing, interposing the energy barrier just in time to catch Zat blasts from Vala as it thundered towards his people with a roar, its other hand back swinging a giant warhammer of some kind-

Then its head exploded as a very heavy slug cracked up from behind him to intercept the things head, the impact sending the corpse crashing to the ground, rather comically on top of the other one.

"Nobel; engage!" a new voice came over his radio and with those words a veritable storm of fire ripped down the mine passage, carving into the Grunts and Jackals pressing up after the apes without mercy. The zipping sound bullets screaming by just past his head encouraged him to keep his head down, adding his own fire to gun down two Grunts who had been leading a pack of such creatures, both holding a pair of glowing blue objects in their hands, which the two leaders dropped as they collapsed.

The rest of the Grunts stopped dead at that, looking almost stupidly down at the two dead creatures … then the blue orbs starting to glow brighter.

At which point they -and the Jackals next to them- started to scatter and push each other out of the way in a panic.

Taking the hint he ducked back around the curve.

"GRENADE!" he shouted as he threw himself fully into cover.

A heartbeat later, a pulse of intense heat washed over him with a flash of bright blue light, then a whole slew of secondary explosions that caused the ground to heave under him, a shower of loose stone crashing over him as for a heart stopping moment he wondered if the mine was caving in.

A few seconds later however he was confident the mine was intact - but the explosions seemed to have stalled the Covenant and he spared a second to check his team.

Looking down the tunnel, he saw a noted the new group of Spartans in an oddly mismatched set of armor (not his teams, but he would take any help about now) advancing rapidly to contact, firing steadily as they went, unphased by the explosion and taking advantage to mop up what was left. His two Marines - no, one Marine, the other was being dragged by Daniel into better cover with a smoking vest- was adding his own bursts of heavy fire with his USAS-12 as a few more of the aliens pushed out through the breach, several more of the ape like creatures and now some of what he recognized as 'Elites', the flashes of their personal shields distinctive as they tried to push the flagging assault through - even as the Grunts fled back into the tunnel waving their hands in the air and dropping their weapons, several simply getting kicked out of the way by the newcomers.

The new Spartans however were unfazed as they skidded to a halt next to him, shifting out into positions with well practiced ease even as their shields flashed from hits. One of them, the tallest, was carrying and aiming something that looked an awful lot like a-

A thunderous screaming noise blasted through the tunnel, with a counterpoint tinkering of hundreds of cartridges being ejected over the ground then slammed into Mitchell, forcing him to squirm back into cover and slam his hands over his ears in reflex.

Yup, that was a minigun.

After a time the roar cut off - probably because it had chewed through its entire supply of ammo- and the Spartan casually dropped the weapon, pulling a rifle from where it had been sitting on his back as he did so to start engaging with that. Shaking himself off and trying to ignore his ringing ears, he hauled himself forward and leaned around the corner.

The charge of the enemy Elites had been shattered and even as he aimed his weapon the last of the enemy were cut down or fled back through the breach, screaming in a panic. Turning his head to check on Teal'c, he let out a sigh of relief as he noted the presence of a half a dozen more Spartans - his Spartans from their far more uniform armor- with their own weapons smoking as the massive crossfire ended the engagement decisively.

"Kat, clear the breach and eliminate all hostiles - Six, Five stay with me" one of the newcomers ordered, getting a nod from a second Spartan, who wordlessly gestured the team forward to the breach, where they set up and unleashed a volley of fire down into it (and got a number of screams from Grunts in return) before leaping over and pressing forward, the sound of their guns slowly fading as they pushed onwards, clearing out the immediate area. Other Spartans from the Chiefs team peeled off and to his mild distaste, started to carefully put bullets through the heads any of the corpses that still showed signs of life.

Executing enemy wounded really didn't sit well with him at all, but (at least according to what they had been told) the Covenant didn't take prisoners - and certainly didn't accept captivity on their side.

So he clenched his jaw for a moment and hauled himself to his feet, safing his weapon and studying the newcomers.

They weren't shooting or aiming weapons at each other, so he guessed these were not with the rogue group they were chasing.

"Colonel" the Master Chief's familiar voice came as he walked up to him, powerful floodlights in his armor activating and throwing the tunnel into sharp relief (he really wished it hadn't given the steaming mess and blood soaked walls). "Are you alright?"

"Thanks to your Spartans" he nodded to the four Spartans who had moved to rejoin the rest of their team, "and these Spartans, more or less" he added, gesturing to the newcomers before he remembered he had a man down. "Excuse me Chief".

Walking back (and having to watch his footing even more with the sheer number of spent shell casings and cartridges on the tunnel floor) he moved to where Daniel and Vala were working on Corporal Hayes and crouched down next to him. "You alive Marine?"

"Sir, Yes Sir!" the Marine grunted out. "I've had worse fucking sunburn".

"Marines, always lying around on the beach" he tried to keep his voice light, and not wince as he saw the burns on the man's arms. The man's body armor incorporating the new anti-energy weapon composite had clearly done its job, but some of the energy had clearly 'splashed' down the man's arm, roasting the skin underneath the sleeves Daniel was finishing cutting loose. "Hang in their Hayes, we'll get you back to the ship soon".

"Damnit I knew I packed it somewhere" Vala was rifling through her field pack before finally finding what she was looking for. "Hah! Found it!" she announced, pulling out a golden risk with a ruby crystal on one side and a band on the other, slipping it onto her hand.

"Hang on, where did you get that thing?" Mitchell asked.

"It's mine" she shrugged.

He gave her a long steady look and eventually she rolled her eyes.

"It really is! I brought it with me from P8X-412 with the rest of my things" she explained, referring to the planet she had ruled as a Goa'uld -sort of- for a time. "The SGC already has three of them, General Landry didn't see any problem with me keeping this one when in the field - unless of course" she added with a raised eyebrow with a pointed look at the man under her, "you don't want me to use it?"

Oh she was good, putting him in an impossible position while giving him the illusion of a choice. Clearly despite how much she claimed to hate her Father, she had learned more than a few tricks from the conman.

Sighing he nodded and without any more fuss, Vala lowered the device and a low humming built up. Then a golden glow built up as a shadow fell over the group, several Spartans approaching him.

"One second guys" he held up a hand and as he watched, Vala shifted the healing device down and the pitch rose notably as she slowly moved it over the areas where the skin had blistered and burned. Before his eyes the skin seemed to waver and then reform under the golden light. How exactly this thing worked he wasn't sure but as she slowly moved the device along down the Jarheads arm, the seared skin was steadily fading from the crisped red and black towards a healthy pink. "How long?"

"Shouldn't be more than a minute" she replied without looking up. "Plasma burns like this are very similar to staff weapons blasts. Healing devices are calibrated to be able to fix those up quickly, the Goa'uld wanted something they could use to show off to Jaffa in the field and boast about their Godhood, healing the mortally wounded and all that".

"Indeed" a deep voice came from behind him. Nodding silently to the Marine who was starting to relax as the device did its work, he stood and turned to face Teal'c.

"T, you in one piece?"

"I am fine Colonel Mitchell" the other nodded, still holding his P-90 in one hand like an oversized pistol and keeping a wary eye on the impressive pile of dead behind aliens behind him. "These Spartans are formidable warriors" he observed, glancing at the quartet he had fought alongside and a slight nod in return from their team leader.

"They are at that" Mitchell agreed, his mind recalling in vivid detail the Spartans dropping enemies as fast as they could pull the trigger, turning back to face the Chief and newcomers who seemed to be closely observing Vala working with the Goa'uld healing device. "I don't think we've been introduced Spartans…" he prompted the newcomers, both of whom wore oddly miss-mash armor compared to the identical suits the Master Chief's men wore. Quickly, one of the two came to attention.

"Spartan Carter Sir" the first said, without saluting - as was proper in a combat zone even if he wasn't in a completely different military. "Leader of Spartan Fireteam Noble. Admiral Hood sent us to contact your team and warn you that we had evidence you may be heading into an ambush by rogue UEG elements".

"I think we figured that part out when Colonel Ackerson's AI tried to drop our elevator down the shaft and turned off the brakes" Mitchell replied with a slightly ironic smile.

"Kalmiya informed us of … that, Sir" the other nodded, sounding almost embarrassed at the events.

Or furious, it was really hard to tell with their faces covered by their helmets.

"Admiral Hood extends his deepest apologies for getting your team mixed up in this. Your Colonel Carter" he continued, reached down to his back and pulling out a small container of some kind, "also had this ...beamed… to our Pelican en route when the Odyssey was informed of the situation and that we were going on and asked us to give it to you when we saw you". The Spartan opened the container, presenting the contents to him.

Surprised, Mitchell pulled out … what looked like a polished white stone of some sorts, about the size of a wallet. Utterly featureless, with no buttons or controls it was … well, a stone.

"Okay, going to be honest" he admitted as he turned it over in his hands. "I have no clue what this is".

"'It' is an Asgard subspace communications receiver Cam" the very welcome voice of Samantha Carter came from no visible point on the stone, the Spartans exchanging a glance with each other at the sudden voice. "I had the Asgard core pull this design from their archives; it can cut through to orbit from deep underground and should be able to punch through the signal interference from the alien presence. At least until you get much closer".

"Hell yes now that's what I'm talking about" smiled, holding the stone closer to his face, probably on instinct as he guessed that this thing used technology far more sophisticated than mere microphones to hear. "So, you missed all the fun down here Sam, we and the Spartans just finished a little tango with the Covenant".

"The Covenant Colonel?" a new voice broke in that caused the grin to quickly fall from his face as Sam's voice was replaced by the dry voice of General Hank Landry. "Wait one, I'm going to bring Admiral Hood in on this conversation. Then you can explain to me exactly what the hell is going on down there".

"Uh yes Sir" he recovered before glancing at the two Spartans who had also seemed to stiffen to attention on reflex at the mention of their commander in chief.

And although he could not see their faces behind the orange visors, he would have bet a month's pay that they had the same 'oh crap' expressions on their faces that he did.

16:25 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Forerunner Facility underneath CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

Finally.

Finally, it was here.

Standing less than ten meters from the crystal, James Ackerson revised his opinion of the things beauty.

It was far more beautiful than he had anticipated.

It was much smaller than he thought it would be, perhaps the size of a person's fist. Floating above a golden pedestal, it rotated slowly in the air. Patterns seemed to appear and fade by the millions every second as it slowly turned. A deep blue light seemed to emanate from its core, with edges and facets seeming to fold and reshape like the pieces of some kind of alien puzzle.

Alien in every sense of the word.

Priceless in every sense of the word.

And now, his.

"The radiation surge definitely localizes right here" Chalmers confirmed as she walked around it, her portable sensor gear pointed right at it the whole time. They had discovered quite quickly that the 'path' as it were terminated into a slightly raised disk perhaps ten meters in diameter, centered on the plinth above which the crystal rotated.

And at least here, time seemed both normal and sane, despite being at point blank range to the cause of it.

"Still nothing harmful?"

"Not that I can detect" the other shook her head. "When the pulses are not occurring, it's all normal background levels".

Ackerson nodded, then hesitated for a second. The enormity of the moment pressing down on him for a second and he would be lying if he said he didn't feel a slight sense of nerves come over him.

Then he pushed past it and carefully reached out to take a hold of the crystal.

For a moment, it's light seemed to diminish. And for a heart stopping moment, it seemed that that glowing light was being absorbed into his hands.

Then the light pulsed blue again and his helmet went crazy. Static washed over his HUD, his COM unit squealed and his motion tracker showed a thousand contacts around him before they vanished.

"Radiation spike!" Chalmers warned and he froze in place, fighting the instinctive urge to drop the crystal. "I'm seeing a lot of neutrinos … but it's not in the database, high order - wait … it's dropping … its gone" she blinked as the crystal in his hands. The bright blue glow indeed had dimmed somewhat, but it still sparkled.

"Anything now?" he asked, almost not daring to breath.

"No" Chalmers shook her head sounding bewildered. "Just normal background radiation again".

"Colonel Ackerson" a new voice crackled in over the radio and he looked up. His HUD had returned not just to normal, but now he noticed that the transponder markers for his entire team in this chamber were visible for the first time since they had been on the path through the distortions. And hitting his magnification, now he could see the others standing on the edge of the tiled area.

It seemed simply removing this Crystal from its plinth had shut down whatever effect it was having. Excellent! Then they were just about finished here.

"Ackerson, Go" he replied, noting that the communication was flagged on his private command channel and cutting out his external speakers accordingly.

"Colonel, hostile Spartan IIs have breached the outer perimeter led by Sierra One One Seven - estimate at least a dozen, probably more. They claim to be operating under the authority of FLEETCOM Actual and have ordered us to stand down. No casualties on either side as yet, but the outer pickets have fallen back to point Bravo. Orders?"

Pure shock settled over James Ackerson at that news, freezing him in place for a full second at the news.

Then the second passed and his shock was replaced with a growing anger.

Quickly, he turned to place the Forerunner crystal into the secure ONI sample case one of his Spartans was holding ready for him as his mind whirled, stunned by the unexpected complication and thinking furiously.

He had finally done it. Finally found what he had always known was down here for this long … and now, at the moment of his triumph and vindication, Halsey's freaks were coming forward led by her chief enforcer. Ready to seize his triumphs for their own!

Still for a moment, he forced himself to choke down the anger and consider his position. He had known that there was a good chance he would come into conflict with the wider UNSC of course. He had even given his AI carte blanche to deal with any intruders trying to come after him while he was down here. But in the grey area that he and ONI operated in, such actions, even friendly losses, could be waved away or justified if he brought back something as valuable as he was going to bring. After all, 'Ends justifies the means' was almost ONIs unofficial motto, allowing everything from the various Spartan Programs to 'asset seizures' on world's about to be glassed to be approved while their owners were left to die.

Nothing, after all, excused questionable actions more than success.

And if he near singlehandedly won the war for the UNSC, well … no matter what some of his former colleagues may have said about him, even Halsey wouldn't have a damn choice but to admit he had been right all along.

But this … this was something else. This was directly defying and committing an act of mutiny against no lesser person than Hood himself. Not even Parangosky with all her hard and soft power had ever been bold enough to disobey a direct and lawful order from him.

Well at least not before she had been deposed. She probably regretted that now.

If he did this, if he ignored the order and carried on with his plan … then this would be a point of no return. It would be either victory or death, there was no middle ground to walk along.

And while he knew in that moment what choice he would make because he had made it a long time ago ... he wasn't alone. Oh he had no doubts that Stiletto Team would stay with him no matter what he asked them to do, their indoctrination had been very thorough. His ship's crew too were loyal to Parangosky first and foremost, if not to the same level. But as long as he played his cards right and didn't back them into a corner, they would get him as far as he needed to go with them. Then they could report in and claim ignorance or whatever they wanted of their authority.

Chalmers and her team on the other hand …

Well, he'd deal with that soon enough, thankful that the Spartan had had the sense to update him on his command channel rather than the general channel. It would be … unfortunate if some of his team made the wrongchoice.

"Colonel Ackerson?" the distant Spartan prodded after he didn't respond, shaking him out of it and focusing him back on the here and now.

"Right, understood. I'll keep this fire team with me. Spartan Yu, take your team and recall the rest of the unit at once. And be quick about it, I won't wait for you if the enemy breaches this position".

"Sir" the other acknowledged, clearly indifferent to the fact that he would be going up against other Spartans - let alone the very best there were. In the distance, he saw their transponder icons wink out as they vanished up that holographic passage that separated this room from the long winding ramp to the tunnels above.

"Chalmers" he turned now to face the blissfully unaware scientist. "Is the ground safe to cross now"

"I think removing the crystal has shut it down and eliminated the distortions" she said, reaching into a pocket and fishing out that little plastic ball she had carried around for whatever reason and with a surprisingly good arm, sent it arcing through the air to bounce away some distance, its trajectory looking satisfyingly normal. She shrugged. "Well it seems safe enough".

"Then let's move" he said, breaking into a jog past the raised area - and indeed, reality seemed to be back to normal as he moved through the tiled ground, Chalmers following along behind him. "Technicians, pack up everything now, we're leaving".

It was a little odd. He had just crossed the Rubicon; from this point forward there was only vindication, or death. And yet, he felt almost light.

Still, with NAVSPECWAR's most lethal operators sitting on their nominal escape route, he really really hoped that Forerunner Monitor hadn't been lying.

Reaching into his vests pocket, he pulled out a tiny white oblong it had given him. Perhaps the size and shape of pistol magazine, he pressed one of the two buttons on it as he had been instructed to do, but only once the crystal was secured. Almost at once, the device seemed to open up on invisible seams, the upper third of it separating into a half dozen floating sections with glowing red and orange lines, but nothing seeming to connect them to the body of the device as they slowly rotated in the air above it backwards and forwards in jerky motions before suddenly going still...

And to his extreme relief, moments later a golden shimmering appeared in the air a dozen meters away, solidifying into the glowing orb of Thoughtful Contemplation.

"Greetings Reclaimer!" it cheerfully said, twisting slightly to 'look' at the carry case he was clutching in one hand. "Ah, I see you have successfully recovered the focus crystal. Excellent, excellent! Now the work of the reclamation can begin!"

"Yes, yes it can" Ackerson smiled at it, as it moved to hover alongside him. In the far distance, he could see the techs quickly disconnection their equipment and shoving it into their crates and he mentally told them to move faster. He didn't want to leave his men behind unless he had no other choice, but he equally didn't want to leave behind all their irreplaceable ONI issue field gear if he could help it. "You said that once the crystal was secured, there would be another way out of here?"

He really hoped that it hadn't been lying about that.

"Correct Reclaimer" it agreed, its 'eye' shifting around slightly. "Within approximately twenty to thirty your minutes, local debt reconciliation should have been sufficiently completed to allow direct for return to your vessel from this location".

Ackerson smile only went broader.

There was no way even Halsey's freaks could possibly stop him now. By the time they arrived, he would be long gone.

16:35 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Caverns underneath CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

The tactical situation was complex.

While complex tactical situations were something of Spartan programs raison d'etre, it didn't mean that the Master Chief liked it when he was forced to fight battles on multiple fronts at the same time. Both real and political.

The Covenants incursion had not been entirely unexpected. The possibility was, by in large, the reason Lord Hood had insisted on such a strong escort force for the team from the Odyssey. And based on the direction of the tunnel the Covenant had dug, it seemed Cortana's theory regarding the base camp Red Team had set on fire yesterday was correct; they had been looking for the same thing SG1 was. Noble Team were pushing down the tunnel even now, the last reports from Commander Carter had been that resistance was light, but persistent. Piles of the lowest ranking Grunts had been found killed by their own side with their methane tanks missing, suggesting their supplies had been running low and the few Covenant supply crates Nobel had found so far had been picked clean of anything useful.

And yet, they still attacked fearlessly, speaking to the folly of trying to take any prisoner.

After they had finished policing the mass of Covenant wounded (he could tell Colonel Mitchell disapproved, but was not going to make an issue of it) he had moved the entire group up the tunnel in a tight formation to rejoin Kelly and Anton, unwilling to split their firepower anymore, just in case they were hit again, as unlikely as it seemed. He had also 'borrowed' both Jorge-052 and Kyle-B312 from Noble to reinforce his team, confident that the remaining four Spartans in NOBLE would be more than adequate to deal with any stragglers as they swept the enemy breach - and with Hood confirming two companies of ODSTs were on their way, they would have plenty of backup soon enough.

A Sparten II and Reach native, Jorge had been detached to serve with NOBLE as an advisor while they got used to their new armor and the astonishing capabilities it offered them, making him the easy choice to reinforce his unit. He was also the Chiefs best Heavy Weapons specialist, able to place a 102mm rocket exactly enough to rival laser guided weapons while firing from the hip on the move. And that was a skill that he felt might come in very handy shortly.

Noble Six on the other hand was a Spartan III from Beta company. Something of a lone wolf among the Spartan IIIs, the Chief knew some of his recent 'black' field experience included dealing with rogue ONI cells, missions the navy had kept very hush hush. And given who their opponents were, that recent experience also might come in somewhat handy today.

For now, he had given Nobel Six instructions to stick to Colonel Mitchell's team and act as their close in escort - and was pleased to see her taking the orders both seriously and competently. Frankly, he would have been much happier sending them back to CASTLE Base entirely, giving his people maximum freedom to engage the enemy without having to worry about having to cover them. But that was politically a non option. Things had sounded a bit tense over the subspace link between Landry and Hood when they had reported in - understandably so, given that a faction of the UEG had tried to kill them all at least twice.

Colonel Mitchell had spoken up firmly in defense of his team's loyalty and expressed confidence in their ability to protect them, insisting they proceed. And it wasn't as if he wasn't grateful for the others vote of confidence, but it none the less gratted that his team was now under suspicion thanks to the actions of Ackersons. He knew that trust was earned, not simply given - and that the crew of the Odyssey had precious little data to understand or trust anyone in this reality so far. So much so that when Lord Hood had suggested sending SG1 back to CASTLE for their safety while he flooded the mine with troops, General Landry had surprising deferred to the Colonels opinion that they should just push on as is.

The Chief was a soldier, but he had gotten a lifetime of education in the various factional games of ONI and the wider Navy. Clearly, the crew of the Odyssey were looking for information about the schism between the loyalist forces and the people trying to kill them, having precious little information to go on about what kind of situation they had gotten mixed up in.

Even more difficult, Lord Hood had just given him explicit orders that they were to try their best to take Ackerson alive. Again, a political necessity to show they were not trying to cover things up or hide things from their new allies, it added a whole new dimension in terms of just using excessive firepower to eliminate the threats. And while a lesser unit of the UNSC might have simply made the decision to ignore the directive, claiming it simply had not been possible under the tactical circumstances, the Master Chief would be damned if he ever chose to take such an easy way out!

No, he'd deal with his orders and his situation with the same utter professionalism he demanded of every person under his command.

It was a waste of his time and energy to concern himself with 'what if's' on the strategic level, instead focusing his attention on the more immediate tactical issue he was facing; Colonel Ackerson's 'roadblock'.

"It should be straightforward enough Chief"Jorge mussed in his deep voice as he studied the picture on the datapad. Cortana had cleared up the images gathered by Anton - undetected - while they had been fighting off the Covenant, giving him enough data to try to formulate a plan of attack.

It didn't look terribly promising.

The tunnel ran for a good seventy straight meters slightly uphill from the last bend. At the end, the mine abruptly ended in a much less refined passage of natural rock, clearly the point the miners had broken through to what they thought were rich ore veins but turned out to be the ancient lava tubes ONI had found so fascinating.

The barricade itself directly in front of the entrance was stacked with standard UNSC field crates. Rugged enough to resist small arms fire normally, when packed with earth they became a cheap and effective barricade and had been set up almost as a wall across the tunnel. This 'breastwork' provided excellent cover for a half dozen people to engage at the same time and the tunnel itself provided no real cover. A couple of light machine guns were placed on top by barely visible people, with what Cortana had identified as M74 30mm sentry guns hiding just behind the floodlights that illuminated the entire passage.

It was another annoyingly competent defense.

Even if those heavy weapons simply fired a standard suppressive pattern blind through a smokescreen, at this range...

"I shouldn't need to expose for more than two seconds" Jorge continued tapping the pad. "One rocket here, one here. They should wipe out both sentries and blow the barricade. Even if they have reserves, we'll be all over them by the time they get back on their feet".

"The problem is the explosives themselves Spartan" Cortana cut in over the team channel. For various reasons, he was continuing to keep her presence hidden from SG1 - and ignoring her hints to engage SG1 in irrelevent conversations about their incredible technology. And in response Cortana was sulking./

She still did her job of course, with maximum efficiency, but at times she seemed as petulant as Doctor Halsey had been when denied information to do her job back in the past...

Shaking it off, he focused in on her analysis.

"I calculate an even odds chance of cooking off secondaries if they've mined the barricade" Cortana continued, her comments echoing his own concerns. "If we're not careful, we'll bring the whole roof down on top of that part of the mine. Or, at the least, seal the entrance, which could take days to reopen if structural stability is lost".

"Unacceptable" the Chief decided, wracking his brains as he analyzed the enemy position again. It couldn't be bypassed or flanked. If they tried a straight up attack, there was a good chance some of his people would get killed if they had rigged up any more mines or explosives to strip their shields before raining heavy fire down on them. His prefered method for dealing with such positions, dropping heavy ordnance precisely onto their position was also out of the question based on Cortana's analysis. To say nothing of the risk of killing the HVT they were after. They needed to neutralize the position, with a minimum footprint … there had to be something he hadn't seen…

"Chief?" a voice broke into his thoughts suddenly and the Chief quickly pivoted to face Colonel Mitchell, now approaching with the stoic 'Teal'c' in tow. "I see we have a bit of a roadblock in the way".

"Colonel" he acknowledged the other, tilting his head slightly as he saw Teal'c hand the Colonel a moderate sized sphere from his pack. Black, with a few golden lines curving over its surface.

It looked … alien.

"If you have any suggestions, I am open to them" he said without a hint of pride or hesitation. Chief Mendez had hammered into all the Spartans that a leader who refused to ask or accept advice or help when offered, was a leader who didn't deserve the title.

"I have one Master Chief" he said, holding up the sphere casually. "Question; are any of your people any good at softball?"

"In position" Kelly whispered several minutes later.

It wasn't of course, in any way necessary for Kelly to whisper. Her helmet was very well insulated, to the point that any sound she made would never be heard on the other side unless she was near shouting. And as her voice was being recorded and shot back behind her via a series of Laser relays to the rest of her team just behind the next bend in the tunnel, it really wasn't necessary to whisper.

But she did it anyway. Old habits died hard.

"Proceed at your discretion" the Chief replied a moment later.

Flashing her acknowledgement light, she turned slightly to check Linda, close behind. The Spartan shot her a subtle 'good to go' gesture, her rifle already cradled tight and ready.

Well, no point in wasting any time.

She looked down at the sphere that Colonel Mitchel had given her. With the greatest of care, she pressed the three odd buttons in the 'flat' part of the device in the exact sequence Teal'c had showed her, three small lights coming on as she did so. Then glancing at her mission timer as it advanced to 16:40:58 … 59 … now.

Pressing the last button, an odd low clucking/beeping noise, lights flashing and chasing each other inside the odd control panel, as she got a grip with her right hand on the mine wall. One second, two and-

With a mighty heave, Kelly pulled herself around the corner, sliding across the loose shale until she dug in her heals and halted in full view of the enemy. She ignored the sudden shrill alarm tone in her helmet as the opposing sentry guns fire control systems ranged on her and started to spin up - hurling the sphere with considerable force up the slope.

That done, she leapt forward, dodging the first of the 30mm shells as it streaked by, stepping forward in a rapid sequence calculated to evade the standard fire patterns of M74 cannons, even as the sphere reached the enemy position and was arrested by the small protrusion she had aimed it at. And as it impacted, a pulse of white energy accompanied by a bizarre screaming/echoing sound washed over the enemy position...

...and as the light faded, she saw the vague silhouettes of the people at a barricade collapse to the ground like puppets with their strings cut.

The energy pulse however did nothing to stop the automated guns, forcing her to extend her next step into a dive as tracers streamed down the tunnel seeking to end her life, smashing rock from the tunnel walls as dozens of rounds ripped past to crater them, one glancing hit causing her shields to shimmer as she tucked into a roll -

-just as four loud cracks sounded in rapid succession. Placed precisely, Lindas four slugs smashed two a piece into the chainguns, smashing the main power couplings and causing the guns spinning barrels to grind to a halt impotently.

Seizing the opening with both hands, Kelly finished the roll and pressed back to her feet, shale flying from her feet as she sprinted up the tunnel in a blur, snatching her pistols from her thigh holsters as she reached the barricade and vaulted over it; assessing the tactical situation in an instant as she flew through the air.

Six hostiles had been manning the barricade, but were slumped over and not moving so she dismissed them from her calculations, leaving them to the rest of the Spartans coming up behind her to secure or eliminate. More pressing was inside the Lava tube beyond it, where four new targets were hurrying forward in response to the attack, coming to an abrupt halt as she suddenly appeared, flying through the air at them.

And both they and the disabled hostiles outside the tunnel had all been dressed in Special Purpose Combat armor.

There was only one group of soldiers who had access to that armor - and even as she flew through the air, she noted they were reacting fast, starting to spread out into a firing line as best they could in the narrow passage, their weapons coming up, all at a speed much greater than normal soldiers (which ruled out any possibility one of them could be James Ackerson).

Clearly, the warning that Commander Carter had relayed from Doctor Halsey to the Chief had been accurate.

These could only be Spartan IIIs.

The fact that Colonel Ackerson had access to an off-the-books Spartan unit was both astonishing and yet somehow unsurprising to Kelly, given her experience with ONI over the years. But any sense of camaraderie or empathy she may have felt towards these commandos was suppressed quite ruthlessly by the fact that she knew the Chief had relayed an unequivocal order from the very highest level of authority to stand down.

An order they had ignored.

Which made them rogue Spartans.

Such a threat was unprecedented - the kind of damage rogue Spartan commandos could do working for someone like James Ackerson?

It was far too great a threat to allow them leave these caverns alive.

The visors of the first two enemies shattered as the heavy M6D rounds punched through, Kelly faster on the trigger despite her pause to consider the situation than these Spartans could ever be. But even as their bodies were flung back from the impact, the two next targets behind them aligned and opened fire on full automatic, filling the narrow jagged passage with AP rounds.

Her armors energy shields flared into existence as the bullets sprayed over her, rounds ricocheting wildly into the walls - and from the subtle surprised jerks in their aim that caused shots to fly wide, she saw that they had not been told of that innovation in the new Mark V armor. Returning fire as she landed, Kelly emptied both her clips into the next target in line in a vicious assault as she sprinted forward, cutting her target down with a shredded chest. Her last enemy continued to engage, backing away while emptying their magazine until she slammed into them with a lowered shoulder, just as her shields edged towards the redline.

The impact of half a ton of MJOLNIR armor to the chest would have killed any normal person from blunt force trauma alone (and probably sent their corpse flying 20 meters). This person however moved with the impact, crashing to the ground with a clawed hand to arrest their momentum in a spray of loose stone, discarding their empty rifle to yank a combat knife with the other hand as they tensed in a crouch. Seeing no other immediate threats, Kelly assumed a loose stance, returning her weapons to their holsters, deciding in that fraction of a second to give them a chance.

One chance.

"Stand down Spartan!" she demanded over her armors speakers - but she might as well have been talking to a Covenant Zealot for all the notice the other took as he (or she) leaped at her, fainting to the left before trying for a right cross at her face with their blade, a strike she casually evaded with a slight twist, sighing to herself.

With blinding speed -even for a Spartan- her fist lashed out, seizing the extended arm and spinning the Spartan around to slam them face first into the cave wall, their knife hand locke helplessly behind their back.

The other was barely stunned by the impact that again would have knocked out a normal person, at once trying to thrash their way loose. But with an iron grip on their arm pinned behind their back plus all the mass and augmented strength of her MJOLNIR armor, it was an utterly futile effort. The attempted backwards kicks against her shins were cute as well, even if they didn't have the slightest chance of breaching her quickly recharging shields or armor plating.

Then the others left hand reappeared … clutching several pins-

Again with incredible speed Kelly reacted, hauling the Spartan off the wall and spinning, heaving with all of her considerable strength to send the enemy Spartan flying through the air, continuing the spin as she turned her back and crouched to make her profile as small as possible-

The blast as the grenades detonated was impressive in the confined space. The Spartan was blown into pieces and Kelly's shields flared as shrapnel rained on her, but far too little to threaten them. Moments later, a clatter of footsteps sounded as Linda, then Fred and finally John stormed forward in response, their weapons up and seeking targets as the thunder of the explosion echoed through the mine.

"Clear!" she called out as they entered, taking a breath as she pulled her pistols and proceeded to reload them, the automatic gesture doing much to push past the mild shock at the other Spartans actions.

"SITREP" the Chief ordered, glancing briefly at the remains of the Spartan sprayed and over the floor as he and the rest of the team spread out, a second group of Spartans following moments later to reinforce their position.

"The shock grenade disabled the first fire team as planned" she confirmed, seeing on her motion tracker that the rest of the team seemed to be busy back there now, probably securing the prisoners. "The second fire team" she nodded at the bodies at the Chief's feet "moved up to engage. I eliminated the first three, then attempted to disable the fourth after ordering them to stand down". She paused for a moment. "The enemy triggered their entire grenade store in an attempted MAD scenario - I did not have time to counter".

A very subtle wave of body language passed through the Spartans at her report. All of them would of course be willing to do what was necessary to complete a mission - they had all learned that lesson the hard way when they had been forced to leave Sam behind the first time they had engaged the Covenant. But there was a big difference between that and being willing to throw your life away for minimal gain, especially when offered quarter as she had.

Kelly wondered if she would ever really get used to the Spartan IIIs. So much like them … and yet so different. Still, she supposed Noble team proved that at least some of them were able to be retrained upto Doctor Halsey's exacting standards and expectations. Probably.

"Understood" was all the Chief said before a click signified a COM channel was being opened. "Blue Five, report?"

"We're stripping their armor now Blue Leader" Grace promptly came back. "We've also secured their equipment and disabled their weapons. Their vitals show as stable and, according to Colonel Mitchell, they should be out for at least thirty minutes..."

The Chief turned slightly to face Fred who had been checking the other three Spartans Kelly had neutralized, the other Spartan giving a shake of his head as he stood that said all he needed to for their status. Unfortunate; the UNSC needed every soldier it could get -especially Spartans- but they had chosen their side. Still, there was at least a chance their prisoners might be redeemed - once ONI had gotten through with them.

"...no tags, no identifying marks" Grace concluded her report.

"Noble Six?" the Chief asked next, his meaning clear.

"These are not any Spartan Threes I've ever seen Blue Leader" the other said after a moment. "Given their … age, I'd guess they were recruited roughly around the same time as Bravo company. But they never came through the Onyx training grounds".

"None of their profiles match any files in any Spartan program I have on hand either Chief" Cortana backed him up quickly.

"Very well" the Chief said after several seconds, keeping his thoughts to himself, even as Kelly wondered how far this went. Was this it … or were there other non-loyal Spartan teams out there?

It was a very disturbing thought, to put it mildly.

"Blue Five, keep them physically and chemically restrained until we can move them topside for interrogation and detail two to keep them secure. Bring me their helmet mission recorder so Cortana can have a look. Everyone else" he added, looking around the group as he hefted his MA5B, "lets finish this fight".

16:42 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

USNC Pillar of Autumn

Parking orbit, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

"I'll kill the son of a bitch with my own two hands. No, strike that, I'll use one hand".

"Dan."

"It wouldn't be fair otherwise. Hell I might even make it sporting. Give him a stick or something to wave around if it makes him feel better!"

"Dan."

"...Sorry Boss. I can get a little carried away sometimes".

Fleet Admiral Terrence Hood directed a level look at his deputy for a good few more seconds as he took in the furious man pacing back and forth, looking past the anger to note the stress lines and sheer fatigue in his bearing. The man had held Reach in the face of a massive Covenant attack for days, trying to make sense of a chaotic pattern and to his great credit, had snapped the shocked Navy and Army units out of it and vigorously pushing the enemy back offworld. Then, he had even managed to pull off the rare occurrence of pushing back the first wave of Covenant warships that had moved in, only for a second, massive wave to jump in to finish the job.

If not for the sudden intervention of the Odyssey, Reach would have fallen at that point - and Terrence could see that fact was still weighing heavily on the man, despite the near flawless defense he had run with what assets he had.

And his job hadn't finished with the horrific nuclear blast that had ripped the heart of the Covenants largest fleet ever seen in human history. For the last thirty hours Danforth Whitcomb had been working non-stop coordinating the military and civilian authorities to both wipe out the last scattered Covenant holdouts while organizing disaster management teams and logistics efforts across the globe. At the same time, he also remained in command of what was left of 2nd fleet, dealing with the post battle issues there. And even with the organizational power of the AIs at his disposal it was enough to stretch any man to breaking point, like trying to simultaneously conduct a half dozen orchestras playing different songs at the same time at a very high tempo. And even a man full of as much energy as Danforth Whitcomb...

"Dan, how much sleep have you had in the last thirty six hours?"

The other instantly waved his concerns off.

"I'm fine Sir" he insited. "Just a little peeved at Ackerson".

"We all are - but answer the question please?" Terrance frowned.

"Begging your pardon Admiral, he's had less than six hours of sleep in the last forty two" a new voice broke in, causing Terrance to glance down at one of the small holographic figures 'standing' on the Wardroom table; a knight in heavy plate armor who crossed his arms in casual insolence at the glare Whitcomb directed at his intervention into the conversation. "Your CNI is showing all the indicators of extreme fatigue-"

"When I want your opinion Arthur, I'll ask for it" Whitcomb bit out before turning back, something that sounded suspiciously like 'damn snitch' coming from him as he did so. "Admiral, I-"

"You're relieved Admiral" Hood said. The other still started to open his mouth to object, but with only a slight tilt of his head the others objective was stillborn, Terrace making it clear without saying a word that this was an order, not a request as he reached out to tap a glyph on the wall of smart glass. "Bridge, wardroom".

"Wardroom, bridge, Hikowa here Sir" the duty officer came back in moments.

"Commander, I need a rack for Admiral Whitcomb for the next eight hours. He doesn't leave the room and no-one disturbs him without my direct order for anything short of a reactor breach".

"We have a VIP room ready to go Sir" the junior officer responded at once, clearly having anticipated the possibility of one of their guests staying. Good officer that one Hood reflected, unsurprised that the 'Luna Schoolmaster' as Keyes was known had handpicked an exceptional command crew. And it would probably be hell trying to get any of them away from him even with RED FLAG aborted. "I'll have a Marine there to escort him to his room in sixty seconds".

"Excellent" he approved. "I'll be sending the Admiral up presently. Hood out"

With a beep the channel closed.

"Dan, you're no good to me dead, get some sleep and come back with a fresh mind" he finished a little more gently, slightly ashamed at railroading the other into bed, but he knew that Whitcomb was simply the kind of man who would kill himself before leaving his post. Even if he knew it was the wrong call and that he needed his sleep to be able to do his job … the man was just genetically incapable of walking away by choice when he felt there was work to be done.

On the other hand, he was also a hell of an officer and when given an order, generally followed it. And so rather than fight the point, he simply saluted and left the wardroom without complaint - but not quite able to hide the guilty relief he felt at the idea of getting some sleep from him as he left the room.

"Arthur, tell General Walter that he is in charge for the next eight hours, he can route anything to me that needs Naval attention" Hood told the AI, who slammed a fist in salute against his chest and then vanished, minimizing to project only the ships crest of the Trafalgar, a 'polite' way AIs in conferences with others made themselves scarce while still being available if called on.

That done, he turned to the other person in the room and sighed, suppressing the urge to rub his head, thankful that he was wearing a duty uniform for once rather than the Class-A dress his media minders insisted on him wearing most of the time.

"Can't say I disagree with Dan's sentiments regarding Ackerson Sir" Vice Admiral Stanforth put in from his side of the table a few seconds later. "Although personally I'd sooner just throw him out the airlock - if not for the perfectly good waste of air that would be".

Hood grunted an agreement as he sat back down next to the officer, glancing over the feeds rolling over the wall of the wardrooms smart glass. They probably should have returned to the Trafalgar, which being the command ship of the 2nd Fleet was fully equipped with flag command facilities. But as the 'Autumn seemed to be at the center of this storm, he was disinclined to walk away from here until this situation was resolved.

Luckily, the ship's wardroom had easily been converted into a perfectly functional war room simply by bringing in a couple of extra computer terminals, with the massive smart glass wall instantly converted to display feeds from both the Bridge and Ground Command room, with a half dozen holographic figures of various AIs across the fleet and planet projected onto the table itself

All of this effort dedicated to finding out what in the hell was going on downstairs.

Vice Admiral Stanforth, as the acting CIC of the Office of Naval Intelligence, was busy directing the main effort against Ackerson. Which mostly amounted to a chain of screaming down the ranks until tens of thousands of people and dozens of AIs dirtside were dropping everything and frantically chasing up Doctor Halseys revelation that James Ackerson was present and working his own agenda. No-one knew exactly why he was here, although the working theory was that he was after whatever it was the Covenant had been so hot to get their varied appendages on was firming up as by far the most likely. Especially after his presence (or at least his people's presence) at CASTLE had been confirmed by SG1 and their Spartan escorts via the remarkable 'subspace' link.

Six squadrons of Longswords had been scrambled into in a patrol pattern over the region, covering the entire area to prevent any retreat by Ackerson - just in case he had some other way out of the base. Two companies of ODSTs from the Autumns own complement who had been deployed at the Generator Complex to the South-West were even now lifting for CASTLE, with orders to fully sweep and secure the base as they threw resources at this situation...

But he couldn't help but feel that he was trying to bolt the gate shut after the horse had bolted, strategically speaking.

Because simply put, Landry was pissed.

Part of Hoods job involved putting himself in the shoes of other people and seeing things from their perspective. And from the perspective of the crew of the Odyssey, they had just walked into a little civil war or internal power struggle right on top of what might be the key to getting them back home again. If he had been in Landry's shoes, he'd be damn suspicious about the situation. Trying to make judgements on very limited information from a distance with people under his command in the line of fire...

Thankfully, Colonel Mitchell - and the Master Chief for that matter - had done wonders to settle things down before paranoia could take hold. The Colonel (probably with various codewords mixed into the communication) had made it clear that he trusted the Spartans and determined that it would be best to proceed onwards. Hood had had offered Landry the option of pulling his team out until he could flood the facility with troops, but Colonel Mitchell had quickly insisted on continuing, citing the possibility that Ackerson or even another Covenant team could reach the objective before they did if they didn't press on hard. And do God knows what with it.

His reinforcement of the assertion that Colonel Mitchell had command authority on the ground had seemed to calm things down a bit, the gesture hopefully read for what it was by Landry, as hopefully was the order to get Ackerson alive.

Still, what a disaster in the making this could be!

Hood was the most powerful person in the entirety of human controlled space (at least in this reality) but he had never felt so powerless before. He had made every reassurance he could to Landry, but frankly the future of this alliance was now down to SG1 and the Spartans. All he could do up here was to try and figure out what the hell Ackersons involvement was all about.

"Lets hold of on the spacings for now" Hood rejoined the conversation with his acting head of the Office of Naval Intelligence. "We need to figure out what the hell Ackerson's endgame is. There's something of value down here, so why is he after it? And why does he want it so bad he's willing to go to the top of the UEGs most wanted list?"

"Maybe he hoped to present whatever was down there as his reset button?" Stanforth shrugged, abandoning his keyboard and leaning back in thought for a moment. "Try to get his past sins forgiven by bringing in something valuable enough to get us to give him a pat on the back and promotion? He's made a hell of a lot of enemies over the years and no longer has Maggy to protect him … perhaps he's looking for a new patron?"

Hood considered, then shook his head.

"No" he considered. "Not Ackerson. The man might be an arrogant ass with an ego the size of a supercarrier … but he's always been focused on the war against the Covenant, no matter what sacrifices he or mankind need to make to win it - and no matter what anyone else thought of him. No, he could care less about saving his reputation. Or even ONI politics. Ackerson wouldn't take this kind of risk of acting directly against UNSC authority unless he thought it served a higher purpose. Something big".

"Okay, let's take a step back" Stanforth frowned. "Let's assume that he and the Covenant are after the same thing we are - whatever the hell it is … you know, this could have been purely opportunistic on his part, rather then planned".

"Go on" Hood told him, his eyes unfocusing slightly in thought as he considered it.

"Well, if he was on Reach, for whatever reason and saw the pattern of Covenant attacks, he might have figured out they were looking for this … thing. But he knew that no-one else knew about it. So decided to get in and work on asset denial because he thought by the time he could convince anyone, they'd have it. Too valuable to let the Covenant get their hands on it, so he'd go in and blow it up".

"It's possible" Hood thought, tapping the desk before shaking his head. "But that wouldn't explain why he or his AI would go hostile against UNSC forces coming in behind him. Or why he launched the opp after the Covenant retreated … damnit, there is something else at play here we're just not seeing".

"Well once the Chief hauls him up here, we can ask him" Stanforth smirked at that, clearly enjoying the thought of Ackerson being brought before them on his knees. "Too bad we shut down Midnight, they had a nice cell with a view of a granite wall that would have been perfect for him".

Hood snorted in dark amusement at that. 'Midnight' had been one of the more horrifying things to come out of the shakeup of ONI. A 25th century gulag hidden inside an asteroid field, for the most valuable of ONIs prisoners. While it was certainly no secret that ONI had a number of detention facilities, generally just sections of military prisons under the military justice system. It wasn't even a big secret that they had a 'black' prison where they 'vanished' some of the worst people to without a trace. But the sheer scope of said prison and number of people there not on any records had taken everyone aback. Midnight was frankly something out of the worst nightmares of mankind - and had almost made Hood regret his decision to not simply shoot all of Section III's command level officers and be done with it.

It had been a true black hole.

Once you went in, you never got out.

It had been an easy order, to shut down the entire facility and process the prisoners into the conventional military and civilian justice systems, the ripples of which were only just starting to be felt. He knew that decision would cause headaches as 'vanished' people reappeared and told their stories, but he stood by it none the less, wondering when the hell ONI had turned from an intelligence gathering and covert operations group into a secret police force answering to no-one…

Well, they sure as hell answered to him now.

And soon enough, so would James Ackerson.

All he could do was wait, and watch the planet slowly spin under him, trying not to give voice to the suspicion that this entire situation was spinning out of control.

16:48 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Caverns underneath CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

The walls were fascinating.

The Master Chief didn't consider himself to have a particularly well developed artistic sense. Art was really not something he had had time for in his life.

Which wasn't to say that every Spartan II was the same; several of his Spartans had artistic talents that may have stunned those people who thought they were nothing but killing machines. Vincent for example was quite a big fan of drawing in charcoal, a hobby he had apparently picked up from Doctor Halsey. Before he had lost her in 2531, Daisy had had quite the talent for carving small wooden fixtures - although she claimed it was just practice to keep her knife handling skills fresh. And Kelly's continual changes of hairstyle and colour could make the most jaded soldier double a double take on any day of the week.

But he had never had the time for appreciating such things. It was enough for him to know that he was ensuring that the rest of his team and mankind as a whole survived to do so.

But even he had to admit to himself that the crystal patterns in the wall were almost … captivating.

Reaching the final NAV point a minute ago, he had been surprised to find that the crystal formations he had been expecting were glowing a soft white light, illuminating the tunnels more than enough that no night vision systems were needed. The patterns swirling through the rocky walls of the tunnels seemed almost to undulate and shift ever so slightly as he watched, teasing with hints of activity he could barely grasp - and didn't even know if he was simply imagining.

It was fascinating … and annoyingly distracting. And worrying. According to Cortana's records on KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN, the crystal formations had been utterly inert through the entire investigation. Now they were glowing brightly?

It might have been a result of the Odyssey being brought into this reality, something turning on … or it might have been the result of James Ackerson turning something on. Or the Covenant. Or any combination of the above.

Trying to ignore the patterns as he pressed forward, the Chief slowed as a crackle of sound came over his COM unit, resolving into a hard voice, covered in slowly fading static …

It was a transmission. Coming in under the same frequency and encryption scheme that Cortana had marked as belonging to the enemy.

When his team had policed the enemy prisoners, Grace had handed off their mission recorder chips to him. They were encrypted of course, but even ONI grade field encryption was hardly more than a mild diversion for the AI riding around in the back of his head. Annoyingly, the mission recorders themselves had been disabled - on every suit. Most probably anticipating this scenario; to deny intelligence to the UEG of what the hell Ackerson was up to.

It did however still have the teams encryption schemes, frequencies - and most critically, the transponder logs. They had confirmed that 20 Spartan IIIs were present in this force - plus Ackerson himself and at least a dozen or more support staff.

Armed with some hard data on the enemy's presence and capabilities, he was pressing ahead with a reinforced fire team. His gut was telling him that the enemy couldn't be so vainglorious or tactically inept that they would fight to the death with no possible escape vector. They had to know the odds of punching through his team - and any other units they should assume were being deployed- were next to zero. And while Ackerson had always been in his limited exposure to him quite ruthless, he had certainly not been stupid or suicidal.

No, this man clearly thought he had a way out of here. Be it a hostage scenario by threatening to destroy whatever it was SG1 needed, or simply having another exit strategy being kept close to his chest; the Chief knew he had a way out.

Accordingly, the best bet was to push hard to get to him before he could use it.

He was leading fast skirmish team of himself, Kelly, Linda and Anton from Blue Team along with Jorge and Kyle from Noble team in advance of the enemy. It gave him a highly flexible unit with enough firepower and experience to deal with anything up to and including the entire remaining enemy force, but didn't have to be slowed down protecting SG1. Fred remained in command of the bulk of the Spartans (in an unsaid sign of his approval of his leadership of the Spartans when he wasn't around) who were following as quickly as SG1 could move ... but they were well past caution now, following the tracks of light utility vehicles and footsteps Anton confirmed were only hours old.

"...ome in team ..wo, te...three...do yo...copy, over?"

"Cortana" he said quickly as he waved the team forward, eying the DF indicator as Cortana processed the signal and determined a heading, gesturing the team forward as he saw it seemed to generally align with their current direction. "Analysis?"

"The underlying metadata shows a direct broadcast, it's not bouncing a relay this time, but the tunnel is still interfering somehow" she answered after a moment. "Phase shift also suggests its stationary. Nothing on motion trackers. If definitely from our friends though".

"repea...team one and tw...do you copy, over?"

The transmission came again, now coming through somewhat stronger, slightly more urgent in tone.

"If they're not moving, they may be at another fortified position" Linda pointed out over SECURECOM. "We probably can't afford to go in soft on this one. We need to hit hard and punch through them".

"Could be a risk. These Spartans may not have MJOLNIR but they're just as fast as we are - and decently trained" Kelly warned.

Having been the only person to personally engage them so far, it was a warning that the Chief gave considerable weight.

"Blue Leader" another voice interjected, the Chief taking a second to realize that this was from Noble Six, who was pacing him. "I have a suggestion".

"Go ahead" he asked, curious to see what the Spartan had to suggest.

"Cortana" the other asked the AI, "can you scrub my voice? Record a message and transmit it back to the enemy, but make it barely audible? Scramble it at bit to drop a word or two -and throw in some battle effects while your at it? And overlay it with the transponder data for one of their Spartans?"

"Of course" the AI confirmed, managing to somehow sound almost insulted at the idea that she needed to be asked if she could perform such a task … and only using two words to do it.

The Chief mentally wondered if he'd ever quite get used to having the spirited AI living in his suit with him.

"Then why don't we send them a message? See if we can pull them out to come to rescue their other teams and eliminate them in transit?"

The Chief considered the others suggestion, noting and ignoring the relatively cold blooded nature of the suggestion in favour of its combat utility. It was certainly … creative. And it was preferable to meet the enemy in the field rather than assaulting a prepared position.

"Not a bad idea Kid" Kelly put in, the Chief frowning slightly at her somewhat casual chatter. She had never been entirely comfortable around the Spartan IIIs, even the ones Doctor Halsey had handpicked for the first fire teams like NOBLE, but getting that casual in the field was very unlike her.

It was possible having to kill those other Spartans like she had had affected her more than she realized. He'd keep an eye on her. He didn't expect it to negatively impact her combat performance, but he couldn't help but sympathise. Traitors these Spartans might be, fanatically disloyal they might be … but eliminating them still felt disturbingly close to friendly fire.

But he held absolutely no doubts any of his Spartans would hesitate even for a moment in doing their duty.

"But if they pass on the message, we'll lose any surprise we may still have about our proximity to their position" Kelly added a moment later.

"We'd lose that anyway if we engaged them at this point" the Chief decided, turning his head slightly to nod at the Spartan III.

The other paused for a second, then his SECURECOM activated. "Cortana; record and modify as instructed" he ordered, then quickly gave a curt, not quite on the edge of panic request for immediate assistance, his entire voice and tone changing to be oddly … bland. Deliberately hard to clearly identify, yet filled with curt tension on the edge of panic.

There was a half second pause as Cortana did her work, then the message was replayed. Now impressively filled with static, his voice was distorted and the words almost but not quite inaudible over the roaring of assault rifles and explosions.

It certainly sounded convincing enough...

"Good, send it" he ordered Cortana.

"Encrypting. Burying the metadata and verification signature … message is away Chief" she acknowledged - and now they waited to see if the bait they had put out would be taken.

They didn't wait for long.

"Team two, we're moving to your position! Are you able to fall back? We've been ordered by Dragon to pull back to his position for extraction?"

"Cortana, send a static burst on that frequency" he ordered as he waved the team forward.

"Done" she confirmed, blasting them with a static pulse.

"Team two, say again?"

"Send no response, we'll-"

"Chief, Triangulation shows the enemy signal is only four hundred meters away, and mobile, moving in this direction quickly" Cortana broke in over the top of him urgently.

The Chief at once took in the local terrain. Unlike the mines, these illuminated lava tubes were all sizes and shapes. Just ahead was ideal ambush terrain, an oval shaped bulge in the tube that would let them flank the tunnel on both sides...

"Set up here" he ordered quickly dropping a NAV point and the team scattered into position quickly, three people to each side. "Everyone go passive".

Soon enough, the sound of engines came thundering up towards them, the Chief identifying them as M274 ATVs. And a moment later, transponder data from their suits was overlaid as Cortana intercepted their signals, showing five Spartans and no Colonel Ackerson approaching rapidly.

There was probably at least ten seconds until they hit the kill zone and his team knew exactly what to do, in the perfect position for a parallel ambush. The enemies inertia would carry them right into a killing field crossfire, just far enough ahead that his team wouldn't hit each other, but close enough that they would be torn apart by the concentration of firepower.

Because he was not the robotic killing machine that some people in the UNSC may have thought he was, he spent eight of those seconds reflecting over the fact that he had just lured out fellow soldiers by tricking them that their teammates were in mortal danger, appealing to their sense of honor and duty to those sharing the foxholes with them, successfully pulling them out to their deaths.

He had killed plenty of humans before. Traitors too. But today, for the first time in the history of the Spartan programs, Spartans were killing other Spartans.

Then, because he was the robotic killing machine that the UNSC had trained to be, he smoothly pushed aside his personal distaste for the task, raised his weapon and took careful aim, a distant part of his brain recalling a phrase Deja had taught he and his family so many years ago.

"With it, or on it" he whispered to himself, triggering the grenade launcher as the enemy thundered into the trap.

Cortana, for once, stayed mercifully silent.

16:55 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

Unknown Forerunner Facility underneath CASTLE BASE

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

"Where the hell are they" Ackerson muttered as he paced, watching the last of the Science team finish moving their gear into place, packed up and ready to go.

Watching him as he paced, Kerry-B303 couldn't help but agree. Yu's team had gone out over half an hour ago. They should have been back by now. If they weren't, then it probably meant they weren't coming. It would be best to write them off and move on before this position was compromised-"

"Spartan 303?"

"Sir" she at once shot up to attention as Colonel Ackerson turned to look at her.

"Go through the tunnel and try to establish radio contact" he gestured impatiently at the nearby tunnel. "Find out what's taking so long. If you can't make contact in thirty seconds, come back".

"Yes Sir" she said, sighing mentally.

Well, he was the boss after all.

Moving quickly, she headed for the tunnel. The light of the massive cavern faded away quickly to be replaced with the cute holographic 'story' - in reverse this time before it faded away into a pitch black environment. On a sudden impulse, she reached up and pulled her helmet off, blinking slightly at the sudden lack of light, trying to focus and see if she could see anything in the darkness with her naked eyes … nope, nothing.

Pretty incredible technology really.

Soon enough, light suddenly started to return and she started to raise her helmet-

Then froze.

Directly in front of her, in the exit to this tunnel and walking towards her, was a Spartan II in MJOLNIR armor. Their MA5B rifle was up and pointed directly at her face - and while their presence here certainly answered the question of what had happened to the other Spartans of Stiletto team - it was cold comfort knowing that she was certainly about to join them-

"Kerry?"

Confusion, pain, fear; a whole spike of emotions seared into her brain at that astonished word from the other, staggering her. Maddeningly familiar, yet fogged and insubstantial, a surge of memories snatched away even as they tried to push up from her subconscious feeling her mind being ripped in two.

The brutal ONI conditioning that had helped to turn her into a soulless killing machine was being assaulted by her forgotten memories, a whirlwind of confusion and pain arching up into her mind and through her very being, forcing her to react in another very conditioned way; attack the source of the pain.

In a blur of motion she flung the helmet in her hands forward, the heavy headpiece crashing into the others rifle and knocking it off target, providing an ample window to spin around and run faster than she had ever run, back into the darkness, the throbbing of her head driving her on. Operating on pure instinct, training, without conscious thought, nothing but a Spartans fight/flight reflexes.

'Kerry-B303' had been born in a refugee camp on Sigma Octanus IV six years ago. Separated from her twin brother during the chaotic evacuation of New Constantinople in 2537, she had found herself entirely alone after being shipped off the arriving transport to processing. In shock and almost indifferent to her continuing survival, she had existed for months. Her world reduced to a cot in an old hall, converted to house the lost and orphaned refugees. Refugees who had no-one to care for them from the outer colonies.

She had cried herself to sleep every night, tried to ask every adult she saw for help, to find her brother or her parents, only to be pushed aside with varying degrees of indifference. She didn't understand that these poorly resourced and overstretched people were doing the very best they could and that she was just one of millions of refugees. She didn't understand, really understand that her family and everyone she knew were dead - at least not at first.

But slowly, she had come to understand that this was her reality now.

It was a rough place, the refugee centre. One day, she had broken another kids arm when he tried to steal her blanket. The next week, she had been quietly whisked away to a room where a man in a uniform told her and a number of other children, some from her centre some from others, that they could either go back to the refugee camp, or come with the Government men and start a new life to fight back against all the bad people in the universe causing them so much pain.

Everyone had walked onto that shuttle. And never looked back.

From that day forward her old life had ended as she had put it all into the past. She had taken up the chance to strike back against everything that had cost her everything she had, becoming what others may call an amoral killing machine, but none the less becoming an exceptional amoral killing machine. Admiral Parangosky had personally congratulated her on some of her successful missions, saying that she had the makings of an exceptional ONI officer about her.

Kerry's past had become a distant memory, only the raw feelings of helplessness and loss remained; twisted unknown to her by ONI indoctrination experts as the lever to parlay that into a fanatical subconscious loyalty to the people who had given her the power to rise above it.

Now however, the fundamental rock of 'ONI = good, people who oppose ONI = bad' that the technicians had built 'their' Spartan on was directly in conflict with the very source of that pain and loss they had used.

Not that she understood or even knew any of this of course.

Staggering into the chamber, the other four Spartans in her team raised their weapons in surprise at her entrance, shifting their aim quickly to cover the entrance as they took notice of her state.

Forcing herself forward and willing the bizarre pain away that had struck her when she faced the enemy, she moved over to where Ackerson was stomping towards her as her mind cleared. She wondered if they had tried to use some kind of less-than-lethal weapon on her? She knew ONI were always experimenting with new toys...

"Report" Ackerson snapped, taking in her appearance and understanding something had happened.

"Sir, the hostiles … previously reported … are outside the entrance" she bit out, centering herself, fighting through the dizzy, painful feelings through sheer willpower.

The other cursed.

"Any sign of the rest of your unit?"

"No sir" she said as she stoically endured her throbbing headache. What the hell did they hit me with? "I was not able to even start to make contact when I ran into the enemy".

"Then we must assume they are lost" Ackerson decided with a sigh, pausing as his gaze wandered over her face, clearly wondering about her helmet before he continued turning away, clearly dismissing it for now. "Thoughtful Contemplation" he called to the Monitor, "now would be a good time to get us out of here" he instructed it, gesturing the other Spartans to close up with them.

The Monitor 'looked' up from where it was working. A thin beam of blue energy connected it to the Slipspace Crystal they had come to retrieve, causing it to spin and reshape itself like the oddest puzzle she had ever seen as it hovered in the air on its own. Like a lock being opened...

"I am initiating the slipspace retrieval sequence now Reclaimer. The process should take ten of your seconds" the eternally happy Monitor replied. "Please remain stationary".

"Colonel, what's going on, what hostiles are out there?" Doctor Chalmers protested from somewhere in the huddle. "Are the Covenant out there?"

"Explanations will be provided in due course Doctor" Ackerson dismissed her. "I suggest you concern yourself with bracing for this".

Yellow light started to swirl around them, the crystal itself starting to also glow with the light. Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention - and reflexively, she raised her rifle as the opposing Spartan team poured out of the dark tunnel as one group. All of them turning their weapons their way.

Including several heavy weapons that would make mincemeat of their tightly packed formation.

"Colonel Ackerson" a loud strong voice thundered from the speakers of one of them even as her own team raised their own weapons in reply - but by a miracle no-one was firing. "By direct order of Admiral-"

Then everything went golden as energy washed over her - until a second later it washed back to nothing, revealing the cargo bay of their prowler in orbit.

17:00 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

USS Odyssey. Reach Orbit, Epsilon Eridani System.

The billet of Commander In Chief, Stargate Command or CICSGC, was one of the oddest postings in the US military.

Beyond the blindingly obvious differences of dealing with alien technology powers and the new reality of engagement through the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond, it was odd in that a frontline command of a little over five hundred personnel warranted a two star General in command. There were of course many reasons why the rank was justified for the post, but it put George Hammond, Jack O'Neill and now Hank Landry into the oddest position of directly coordinating and leading the troops on the front line. Knowing their names, understanding their hopes and dreams … and writing the truth as lies to their families when some inevitably fell on world's halfway across the Galaxy.

Unlike the vast bulk of Flag officers in the US Military, he simply didn't have the luxury of maintaining emotional distance from the men on the front line … because he was on the front line with them, even as he equally needed to fight political battles in the halls of Washington.

One of the hardest things Hank Landry had to do after accepting Jacks offer of a 'job you won't believe' was to re-learn how to maintain some level of emotional distance from people he worked with day in and day out. It had he knew earned him something of a reputation as a hardass of a General at times, especially when compared to Jack O'Neills understandably close links to the officers and men of the SGC he had fought alongside for the best part of a decade. But if he was to be able to lead and lead effectively, he needed to be able to to send some of the finest damn men and women he had ever served with to their death, without a second thought, if the mission warranted it.

It didn't mean that he didn't churn inside every time he ordered a team offworld on a high-risk mission that some or all of them might not come back from, mind you.

But he would never dare show it.

So when Colonel Carter suddenly shouted out in alarm, all he did externally was to glance up from the stocktake report from the ship's quartermaster he had been reading, barely raising an eyebrow in reaction.

"Yes Colonel?"

"Sir, I just detected another radiation surge" the Colonel explained from the systems-operations console next to Marks, gesturing towards the ships main display screen on the left of the bridge, where readings and readouts jumped around like a hyperactive child on Christmas morning for a few days before suddenly flatlining. "But this time when it faded back down, the background energy signature zeroed out entirely - I have the subspace transponders of Colonel Mitchell's team back again" Carter cut herself off, before smiling. "All of them are showing as active Sir - and moving. And with the energy field gone, I can get a clear reading on the underground terrain".

"Let's see it" he ordered, standing and walking over towards the screen. Carter worked her board for a few seconds and the scientific jumble flicked off, to be replaced by an isometric view of the region.

"Well I'll be damned" he muttered to himself in a sotto voice. CASTLE base was off to the side, the wild network of mining tunnels and spreading out from under it clearly visible. Somewhat to the North was a massive chamber, sitting where until now all that had been visible was the blurry smudge signifying the energy distortion scrambling their sensor returns. "How the hell did the UNSC miss this thing?"

it was clearly a rhetorical question, but Carter answered it anyway.

"The energy signature while visible to the Asgard systems would have played hell with ground penetrating radar or sonar" she explained, continuing to work her console as the image rotated to display the huge facility in increasing detail. "It's like how we missed the Ancient cavern under Glastonbury Tor-"

"Thank you Colonel" he silenced the other with a pointed tone in his voice as he studied the image, the six green transponders flashing on it moving slowly towards the perimeter of the chamber. "Well, it's progress. We'll need to -"

"General" Marks cut into his commentary urgently. "I'm getting a signal from Colonel Mitchell over the subspace link".

"Put it through" Landry ordered, quickly marching back to his command chair as a click sounded from the bridge speakers, tapping the button on his chairs armrest to bring his microphone into the loop as he reached it. "Colonel, good to hear your voice, we just saw the radiation signature cut out from up here. I presume your mission has been successful?"

"Not exactly Sir - and you may want to get Admiral Hood on the line as well" the Colonel's voice came through - and even from orbit it sounded a little grim. "We have a bit of a problem here…"

17:03 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

ONI Prowler Veiled Night. Low Orbit, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

James Ackerson ripped his helmet off as soon as the swirling golden energy faded away to nothing.

No matter how many generations of the damn things the techs built and 'perfected', every model of the things he had worn since basic training still felt about as comfortable as wearing an iron pot on his head.

How in the hell the Spartan IIs did it … well, they hardly counted as human anyway.

"Colonel, good to see you back" the sibilant voice of Harpy, the AI he had been assigned for this mission came over the ship's speakers moments after what remained of his team finished materializing. "And I see you brought our … guest back as well".

Ackerson ignored the comment as he set his helmet down on top of a packing crate in the bay alongside his rifle. Ever since the Forerunner monitor had 'ambushed' him back at Jericho, the ONI AI had been all but sulking where their friend was concerned. If because it had been so easily shunted aside by 'Thoughtful Contemplation' (while the lowly humans saved the day simply by pulling out a cable) or if it just outright didn't trust it, he didn't know.

Either way, the trip from Jericho to Reach had partially involved an AI pissing contest that had made him very grateful that he had spent most of it in cryo-stasis.

"I take it you recovered 'it'?" the AI inquired with an almost-sigh after he didn't deign to answer it's implied question.

Ackerson turned, walking over to where the Forerunner Crystal was being examined by Chalmers … hovering a good meter off the deck on its own without a care in the world. Incredible.

"Yes I did" he smiled, looking around the bay at the assembled Spartans and technical crew. The former looking as implacable as they always did, the later slightly more shaken as they too removed their helmets. "All of you, my thanks. we've sacrificed much, but the key to final victory over the Covenant is now within our grasp. Chalmers, stay a moment. Everyone else, dismissed".

The Spartans saluted him in perfect unison and turned to start ushering out the technical teams - all of whom looked slightly shaken by the events, but otherwise obeyed for now on autopilot, clearly trying not to think about the last minute events before they had been transported up.

He'd deal with the consequences of that later.

Soon enough they were alone - even the Forerunner Monitor floating off out the door to do whatever it was want to to. He still didn't entirely trust it, but after it had blown up its home, taking most of a Covenant fleet with it to join him on this mission, he was inclined to give it a degree of leeway … what the hell was Chalmers saying?

He thought she was talking to Harpy, some kind of nonsense phrase that sounded like 'Laputan Machine' and he turned to ask her what the hell she was saying...and froze.

Mostly because she was pointing an M6C-SOCOM pistol at him.

James Ackerson was a very experienced field operative, with a lifetime of experience running and being run by black operations units and intelligence units. He had not given Chalmers so much as a second look since she had shown up; clearly she wouldn't be here if Parangosky didn't want her here. And she had been nothing but a highly useful -if moderately annoying- field scientist who was about as much of a threat to him as a soft teddy bear.

No more.

This wasn't Chalmers doing something very very stupid and impulsive, a look of terror mixed with desperate intent as she tried to be a hero or something silly like that to stop him.

No, facing him now was a woman with a rock solid gun arm and the cold eyes of a professional killer, who was pointing the silenced weapon at his head as over the speakers in the room, Harpy stuttered and crackled.

"I don't under...what…Laput...Laput...mach...UNSC AI override active, Agent Chalmers".

Ackerson felt his spine freeze at Harpys confused comments, followed by the dull monotone statement of acknowledgement of the others nonsensical code words. The giddy feeling of victory that had been rushing through him since materializing inside the ship in one piece was drained away in moments, replaced by the cold hard alertness of combat readiness. Harpys confused babble could only mean that Chalmers had activated a failsafe override code built into the AI. The kind of ONI override codes he knew would lock everyone else out of it and turn Harpy essentially into a slave to her instructions, answering only to her. Which meant given that Harpy was patched into the ship right now … she had just taken control of his ship.

Understandably, such codes were one of the tightest kept secrets in the ONI information technology division.

The conclusion he came to was thus both quick and easy.

"So. Section Zero shows itself at last. I must admit, I thought you were all dead?"

He at least had the small pleasure of seeing the tiniest flicker in the others expression at his sudden proclamation of her identity. Perhaps annoyance. Perhaps respect for his quick assertion, he didn't know. But at least it was something, a cheap point scored he'd take, refusing to give the other the satisfaction of showing any fear.

Section Zero. The near mythical internal investigative and policing arm of the Office of Naval Intelligence. The answer to 'who watches the watchers' - they were only talked about in whispers by most people inside Naval Intelligence.

As one of Margaret Parangoskys aides and troubleshooters, he knew somewhat more about them than most. Section Zero had been an active force inside ONI for centuries, with agents spread through all three Sections of ONI. ONI personnel tapped by the higher levels of Fleet Command to serve as internal spies for them, independent of the more official oversight units. To make sure that ONI was essentially not acting in a way that ran counter to the policies and strategic direction their bosses had set.

Understandably, Margaret had not exactly liked the idea of having an 'official unofficial' secret police watching her every move, knowing that frankly there were things that it was simply better that the Admiralty didn't know about for political, legal and operational reasons. Among others.

It had taken her a great deal of time and effort to slowly render Section Zero ineffective over her reign, taking full advantage of the significantly beefed up powers and assets ONI had gathered to itself to fight first the Insurrection and then the Covenant to carefully weed out those who might go outside the official chains of command - keeping Section Zero away from any of her more 'questionable' projects.

Until now.

"Margaret certainly tried - and where she missed us, the Covenant generally didn't" the other admitted, her gun held exactly on target center mass but well out of any possible range to grapple or lunge. He was still wearing his armor, but even if the first shot didn't penetrate the sheer force would throw him down to the floor without question.

And the next one after that would surely be put through his head.

"But there are still a few of us left. We've had to spread our attention very thin, but you were always someone we kept tabs on. Harpy" she then added, "overload the adaptive camouflage skin and initiate special code nineteen".

"Yes...Agent Chalmers" the AI agreed in the dull voice and then the ship shuddered slightly at its smart skin powered down - and then alarms went off across the ship as obeying its instructions despite its desperate attempts not to, Harpy shut down the Prowlers stealth systems.

"So, your orders were to let me recover the crystal and then screw me over?" he asked, folding his arms across his chest and glaring at her while hoping she didn't see where his right hand folded under his arm ended up...

"No, my orders were to watch and step in if you decided to act against the UEG-"

"Then why the hell are you stopping me?" he demanded in anger, rolling his eyes theatrically. "You know exactly what I'm trying to do! We can end this war tomorrow Chalmers-"

"Yes we can - but at a staggering cost" she rebutted. Good, she was trying to argue the point with him, rather than just shoot him like any pragmatic ONI agent should have done after blowing their cover. That gave him room to work with - but he had to move fast. Even without its active camouflage his prowler was quite stealthy, but with half of Second Fleet in spitting distance probably scanning for anything even remotely looking like a threat. Thankfully, thanks to ONI paranoia, there were limits to what the AI's on their ships could do, with manual overrides he had no doubt the crew were frantically activating, but even so...
"That's a call that needs to be made by the people at the top. Not by you, feeding your ego that you are the one Hard Man capable of making Hard Decisions to save mankind!"

"Without my 'hard decisions' and others like me willing to make them, mankind would have been dead years ago at the hands of the Covenant" he dismissed her protest scornfully. "Instead I brought us years of time, time enough for this. We're in this war for the species Chalmers, the Covenant made that damn well clear at Harvest. And if I have to sacrifice millions to save billions, or billions to save the human race from extinction"-

"Please" Chalmers sighed, "spare me the supervillain ends verses means riff" she gestured for him to move to the side - and he did so, taking the opportunity to move his arms back to his side and starting to count backwards from five, holding his glare at her. "Point is, I was monitoring your transmissions down on Reach; I know Admiral Hood has ordered you to stand down and report to him. You can try to explain why you think you're qualified to determine the destiny of the Galaxy to him by all means, but I wouldn't count on -"

And as he reached zero, he squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself and flung the flash grenade he had palmed when crossing his arms straight at Chalmers.

A jackhammer slammed into his chest as Chalmers fired on reflex at his action, hitting him exactly centre mass as her training dictated. The heavy armor plates of his enhanced SPC armor did their job exactly as designed, but the momentum was still hell, sending him flying back to the deck as the grenade initiated with a loud hissing. Feeling the wind knocked out of him, he rolled left on memory and heard the distinct ripping hammering sound of silenced rounds deflecting off the metal deck as he opened his eyes. Even with his eyes shut and looking away, the flash grenade had left his vision filled with purple spots but he pushed past it, yanking his backup weapon from its concealed holster with the smoothness of long practice and experience, lining it up on Chalmers blurry head as best he could as she tried to recover from the painfully blinding attack, firing blindly where she thought he was - and pulled the trigger rapidly.

The holdout pistol only held four shots and for a heart stopping moment as he furiously blinked to clear his eyes, he thought he had missed… then Chalmers toppled to the deck with a clatter, her face a bloody mess.

Throwing the pistol to the side with a sense of disgust, he hauled himself to his feet and stared down at the lifeless agent for a moment, actually feeling a slight pang at the senseless waste.

"Too bad Agent Chalmers" he muttered. "You could have been a living hero, instead of joining the list of all the dead ones".

Then with a hiss, the door the cargo bay opened behind him.

"Sir we have a pro…" the voice cut off suddenly behind the sound of safeties being snapped off as a pair of Spartan IIIs entered the room, at once falling into combat mode and thundering across the deck to him, their rifles pointed at the body on the floor.

"It's okay, it's okay, we're clear" he held up a hand, fighting for composure at how close he had come to dying as the Spartans swept their weapons around the room rapidly, looking for a threat before they settled down. "She was a mole, triggered something in Harpy".

"Sir, you're hit!" the Spartan exclaimed, seeing the still slightly smoking hole in his chest plate.

"It didn't penetrate, just a hell of a bruise" he waved the other off as they moved in to examine the damage, refusing to wince at the ache he was feeling as he forced air back into his lungs. "SITREP?" he bit out.

"Sir … Harpy just activated a termination protocol and deleted himself - after shutting down the active camouflage matrix". The other didn't flinch away from the look of fury Ackerson could see reflected in the others golden visor. "We're being scanned by several ships and stations of Second Fleet and are being hailed".

Ackerson considered it a great triumph that he successfully resisted the urge to ask for a weapon to put another half dozen rounds in Chalmers face at that news. He had the Focusing crystal true, but all his contacts, assets, account numbers; near everything he needed to operate off the grid and complete his mission … had been encoded into Harpy for this mission.

And had just been lost.

No matter.

He'd adapt and find a way forward. He'd certainly done more with less in the past and he wasn't going to give up. Not now.

"The communications array is still locked down, correct?" he snapped as he forced himself to start moving towards the ship's bridge, pushing aside everything but the need to deal with the here and now, his mind working rapidly to plot his path out of this hole.

"Yes Sir" the other confirmed. Per his orders and standard ONI covert prowler procedure, no communications were being accepted from any source outside of his vetted team - which at least meant that no-one would be talking to outsiders without his permission.

"Well that's something anyway. And send a detail to throw that body overboard" he added jerking his head back towards the cargo bay as he made his way up the cramped passage to the ship's bridge as the ship's general alarm started to sound.

17:20 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

USNC Pillar of Autumn

Outbound Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

"She's making a break for it!"

"Stay with her Ensign- but keep abeam. Aki, keep your scans up and focused, I don't want to pick up a hornet mine for a hood ornament".

"Already on it Boss"

"Aye Sir!"

Jacob Keyes tried not to grin at the slightly less than formal response from his helmsman compared to his by-the-book XO as he pushed the Pillar of Autumn for all she was worth, making the cruiser move and dance like a ship her size had no right to as she steadily ground down the distance between her and her target.

Sitting behind the helm in his chair and studying the 'smart glass' wall displaying the sensor track of their target, he couldn't help but feel a slight thrill at the unexpected chase playing out. He had been keeping half an eye on the events of the ground through Lieutenant Haversons reports to the bridge from the GROUNDCOM room, but had been understandably surprised -and mildly alarmed- when Admirals Hood and Stanforth had walked onto his bridge with no more warning than the surprised Marine guard yelling out 'COMMANDER FLEETCOM, COMMANDER ONI, ON THE BRIDGE!'.

It was 'fun' enough having the Commander in Chief and (acting) head of the Office of Naval Intelligence both using your ship as their de facto flagship without so much as a 'by your leave' (not that either of them needed one to be perfectly fair). But things then got even more 'fun' when after they had returned his hasty salute, Hood had ordered an immediate lockdown of all Reach orbital space over FLEETCOM-7, also ordering a full sensor sweep and visual checking of any contacts returned anywhere around Reach by all available ships.

Keyes could have pointed out the ridiculousness of the order of course; that with Reach space so congested with space debris from the Covenant attack it was going to take a very very long time to check every single sensor return … but he had no desire to make the very junior officer's mistake of speaking truth to power.

Besides, a look at Hoods face told him that the Admiral knew perfectly well he was asking the impossible, but was giving the order anyway for reasons he didn't need to know about. And that was that.

But perhaps they had finally had the luck balance sheet swing their way for once - because he had barely started to plot out a search pattern when Lieutenant Hall had suddenly announced a popup target on his long range scopes in low orbit, just short of the horizon. Appearing literally in the middle of nowhere far below the majority of debris, a direct focus by the active sensors had at once caused Hood and Stanforth to snap up and pay attention; the image resolving quickly into that of an ONI Razor class Prowler perfectly silhouetted against the planet's clouds as the ships optics had locked in on the contact. One that wasn't part of Second Fleet.

For whatever reason, its active camouflage system had failed. And even if it got it back now, it was far, far too late to try and hide. With damn near every active sensor on every warship, space station and ground array that had a line of sight focusing their attention on the target there was enough EM radiation bathing the target right now that you could probably cook an egg on its outer hull if you wanted to. Prowlers could vanish against space if no-one knew it was there, but if you did know where it was, they had exactly one option for survival in the face of the enemy.

And this one exercised it.

Like a cat caught in the night by a spotlight, the startled Prowler had at once made a run for it and like a pack of hounds chasing a fox, the fleet had responded to Hoods trumpet call and thundered into pursuit. Hundreds of fighters looking on the TACMAP like an angry hornet's nest had been flung into motion as Hood snapped out rapid orders, spreading out to close a net in and around the target to limit its freedom of movement and try to keep it pinned against Reach. She was fast though -faster than any ship that size had a right to be- and clearly not going to give up easily. Worse, her Captain clearly knew exactly what he was doing, threading a spectacular course using debris fields, orbital infrastructure and the bulk of the planet to block the approach some ships and dodge fighter units trying to herd them after it became clear from the first warning shots and broadcast demands to halt their ship that the Fleet wasn't simply going to shoot them down, but wanted them intact.

Riding that razor thin margin for all it was worth, the Prowler had suddenly turned hard around the curve of the planet towards his sector as she built up speed, leaving two Frigates trying to pincer her flat footed, victims of their own inertia. And if she got past him, then they would have a clean run up and out to the jump limit where they could safely engage their slipspace drives before anyone could catch them.

It was a brilliant plan, clearly flawlessly executed to pull a number of warships out of position like a chessmaster thinking three moves ahead to create the opening. And the navigator in Keyes couldn't help but silently salute the enemy Captain for their daring and skill.

But it was a plan with two minor flaws.

First, the enemy had made the (understandable) assumption that the Pillar of Autumn was exactly what she looked like; a stock Halcyon class Heavy Cruiser with perhaps ten percent the thrust of the modern Marathon class Cruisers. And certainly not a ship just retrofitted with a bleeding edge tri-cyclic fusion reactor and a thruster assembly sufficient to push a Super Carrier around.

And second, the assumption that the enemy hadn't caught on to what they were doing until it was too late.

In actual fact, Keyes had guessed at his opponents strategy almost as soon as it was implemented and quickly convinced Hood to let him handle the interception, trying to ignore the look on the others face that said without saying if he screwed this up, his would be the shortest promotion to Admiral in UNSC history. Backing himself, he had ordered the Frigates to overcommit deliberately to put them beyond any ability to adjust their courses and pursue, opening up the hole that the enemy had gladly taken, as Loval had sluggishly and slowly moved their ship to try and intercept in a perfect simulation of a straining Halycon, all but daring them to take the 'hole' in the net 'they' had created...

And then, when they did, slamming his throttle to full.

Now, with his engines at flank speed, his ship was steadily chewing up the distance, despite what had to be a near reactor overload level of thrust burning from the Prowler that was taking years off its engine life every minute.

There was no way it could get clear now … but it was still running.

And that made him worried.

"Optimal deployment range in two minutes, fifteen seconds Captain" Loval called out, bringing his attention away from the sensor readout of the enemy ship.

"Time till they hit the proximity limit?" he called back, glancing at the NAV chart.

"If they can maintain this thrust? Eight minutes, thirty seconds absolute minimum, more like ten minutes if they want a more than fifty fifty shot at not causing a slipspace rupture inside their own ship".

"Then why the hell is he still running? He's got to know he can't get out" Stanforth murmured from next to him, standing on the 'Captain's Walk' just next to the inactive holotank where the ship's AI would project from when present, unknowingly voicing his own concern. "He's stubborn, but he's not stupid. He has to know there is no way out, it's time to fold and win whatever concessions he can for coming along quietly. Or, contact us and tell us to back off or he'll blow up whatever it it he took - why the hell is he maintaining radio silence?"

"We'll find out soon enough" Hood shrugged slightly, clearly at as much of a loss as he glanced at one of the open COM windows on the smart glass in front of him. "Gold Leader, status?"

"Sir, we are ready for deployment on your mark" the Spartan II -Joseph-122 by his tag- confirmed. Down in the launch bay the ten remaining combat-ready Spartan IIs available to the 'Autumn were suited up for Zero-G combat, ready on the Zero-G booster frames to launch a forced boarding action once they reached optimal range. Hoods initial hope that they could simply use the Odysseys incredible 'beaming' technology to put a boarding party on the ship and take it from the inside had been dashed when General Landry had reported that whatever it was James Ackerson had taken from the alien facility, it was continuing to generate some kind of radiation that was highly disruptive to their beaming technology.

Enough to make it a fifty-fifty shot if they could get a team through - intact. And no-one really felt like testing those odds.

General Landry was keeping his incredible ship close behind though, the much smaller ship almost casually matching his acceleration. It could have easily intercepted Ackerson, but such was the power of his weapons that Landry when asked wasn't at all confident he could disable the Prowler without causing catastrophic damage, quite possibly destroying the very thing they were all trying to recover. Accordingly, he had consented to a reserve position. If somehow Ackerson got past the Autumn, he would have the final shot to try and stop them before they reached the jump limit.

And yet Ackerson continued to run…

The always paranoid Stanforth had voiced the opinion earlier that this was an unmanned decoy; that he had used the same alien tech he had used to vanish from CASTLE Base to evacuate his ship, after pulling the fleet out of position chasing it everywhere. Letting him get out on another ship with a more subtle exit. Probably after faking his death with a self destruct sequence or something just because that was the way he seemed to roll.

However General Landry had confirmed that his ship's sensors were detecting several dozen life signs on board the ship - and the radiation signature was still present and strong. Which at the least meant that what they needed was on board…

Keyes shrugged as he watched his ship close the distance, aligning to pull alongside the enemy. Whatever the answers Hood and Stanforth wanted, they'd have them soon enough.

17:20 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

ONI Prowler Veiled Night. Low Orbit, Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

"Damnit Monty, we need more power to the engines!" Ackerson snapped.

"I'm giving it everything we've got Colonel!" the voice of the ship's chief engineer came back, barely audible over the screaming of a ship's fusion plant running at the absolute limit over the COM. "Anything more and we'll melt the thruster manifold right through!"

"The 'Autumn is shifting trajectory, their increasing thrust again and moving to come up alongside us" the ship's tactical officer warned, disgust colouring her voice at the unexpected power of the massive warship chasing them down. "Looks like they're moving into range for a boarding action..."

"At these speeds?" the ship's Captain shot an incredulous look at the officer before shaking his head and muttering something under his breath. "All hands" he declared over the PA, "stand by to repel boarders". Turning, the Captain offered him a dark glare, clearly irritated by his refusal to just give up and surrender or unlock the COM system to parlay with their pursuit, a position enforced by the presence of two armed Spartan IIIs standing behind the Colonel and loyal to him. "Colonel" he tried again in a softer voice, "we're out of options. We won't make the proximity limit even in a straight line before they shoot out our engines!"

"And until they do, they do - maintain course" he ground out and the other exhaled in exasperation before turning back to his navigation displays. Ackerson glared at his own the tactical repeater display at his station at the rear of the bridge as if through sheer willpower he could cause the cruisers sublight engines to blow a fuse or something, the smaller but infinitely more dangerous human ship from the alternate reality following close behind her. Luckily they seemed to be content to let the UNSC take the lead here, unwilling to get involved in this matter despite their clear interest in it.

It was a small favor he thanked the universe for, but it seemed ultimately irrelevant. The Captain was right, the UNSC cruiser was just about to run over the top of them, any attempt at a course change would just let it close the distance that much faster…as much as his heart rallied against the idea of throwing in the towel, it looked like he was about out of op-

"Reclaimer!" a voice voice entered the debate, Ackerson spinning to watch as Thoughtful Contemplation entered the bridge, gaining the attention of the crew quickly as it looked around before focusing on him and floating over to him, the bright light of its 'eye' flashing rapidly in time with its words. "This vessel's engines are under considerable stress - we must engage our trans-light capabilities immediately".

"We can't, not for another three minutes" the navigator hastily pointed out - perhaps worried that he would think he was lying or trying to help the UNSC ship following them. "Not until we clear the gravity well proximity limit!"

The Monitor didn't respond directly, instead floating forward to one of the consoles that the ship's AI usually ran through - shooting a beam of blue light into it that caused the crewman nearby there to yelp and cringe back.

"Colonel-" the Captain started to protest in alarm.

"Let it be" Ackerson waved the other distractedly, staring at the Monitor as it seemed to work for a few seconds, before the beam cut off and it spun around.

"Oh - I see, your crude translight capabilities are not able to compensate for the reconciliation disruptions to the underlying spatial strata" the decide exclaimed in sudden understanding, sounding remarkably happy over the fact. "There is no need to fear; the focusing crystal in the presence of an active field of what you call 'slipspace' will automatically mediate our transit no matter the external gravitational influence!"

"What?" the ship's Captain spluttered. Ackerson ignored him, focusing his full attention on the Forerunner Monitor.

"You're saying" Ackerson said quickly but carefully, "that if we engage our slipspace engines now, the crystal will let us jump from this deep in the gravity well?'

"Indeed".

"And you couldn't have told me before now because…?" he asked, barely holding his temper in check. The time wasted making their attempted escape!

"You did not ask Reclaimer" the Monitor pointed out, leaving Ackerson speechless for the first time in a long time, before he just shook his head and grinned.

"...fair point - Captain, engage the slipspace drive at once!"

"Colonel you can't believe this thing!" the Captain spluttered, fear written all over his suddenly pale face. Slipspace accidents were a thing terrify any spacer - with unpredictable side effects from engaging a slipspace engine in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you were lucky, an unstable rupture would just scatter your body in a few trillion pieces across a few light years of deep space. If you were unlucky…

"Sir if we activate the drive now-"

"Captain" he said in a voice as cold as deep space, made more terrible in the way the two Spartans behind him shifted slightly, their weapons coming up fractionally to a more ready position. "Engage. The. Drive".

The other set his jaw, but deflated quickly, turning to face his crew.

"Helm, power up slipspace drive and engage".

"...aye sir" the helmsmen confirmed, swallowing once as he reached for the FTL board and started the power up cycle.

"James Ackerson" a new voice came over his headset, flashing as a priority channel on his board. The ship's COM system was directly linked to his station now, although so far most of what had come through had just been demands to stand down from various Captains he had ignored.

This voice however...

"This is Terrence Hood" the voice coming from the ship chasing them confirmed his identity. "Final warning Colonel; stand down, surrender whatever you took from Reach and surrender your ship. I give you my word the court martial will be fair and show leniency, letting you explain your actions in full. But if you do not comply, I will give the order to use lethal force against you".

Well it didn't get any more clear than that. A direct order from the ultimate military and civilian authority in the UEG personally given to him to stand down.

It was far too late for that though.

Humanity couldn't afford for him to fail or falter now.

"My apologies Admiral, but I have a mission to complete" he responded over the same frequency as he listened to the sound of the ships drives powering up to activation levels … and the fear in the navigation officer as he counted down to activation. "I will gladly submit my actions to history's judgement and vindication … but not yours".

Cutting the channel, he braced himself as a blue portal ripped open in front of their ship.

Vindication or death.

17:22 Hours, September 23rd, 2552 (Military Calendar) /

USNC Pillar of Autumn

Outbound Reach, Epsilon Eridani System.

"Captain, he's powering up his slipspace drives - and activating them!" Hikowa suddenly shouted as proximity alarms sounded across the bridge.

"Loval, back off - back off!" Keyes snapped and all across the bridge people staggered as the ship's emergency thrusters ignited, pushing the Autumn away from the relatively tiny Prowler they had just about moved up next to as its massive engines pivoted, accelerating them away as the Ensigns hands danced over his controls.

"He's crazy, we're still well inside the jump limit" Hall spluttered.

"Hood, we're detecting a massive spike in the radiation signature!" Keyes heard the voice of General Landry who was still linked into a conference call with Hood from behind him. "It's much bigger than before!"

"The ruptures forming!" Hall called out and on the ships sensor display, a blue portal materialized in front of the Prowler. Blue waves of energy seemed to pulse down the skin of the ship as it approached the portal.

"Sir, do we engage?" he asked urgently looking at Hood - but it was pointless as even as Hood opened his mouth to answer, the Prowler shot forward into the portal and vanished as the portal swirled closed behind them.

"Track his vector" Keyes snapped, leaning forward urgently. "Talk to me Loval, is he going anywhere near anything?"

"...no sir" the other responded glumly after a few seconds. "His track is straight through open space off the edge of the charts".

"How long until we can jump?"

"At least six minutes Sir - and by that time-"

"-his wake would have dissipated" Keyes finished, fighting the sudden sense of failure as he set his face.

"Sir I have one contact - it looks like they dumped something overboard just before jumping … sirs" Hall looked across at the trio of Admirals, surprise and confusion on his face, "it looks like a body".

"Well we might get at least some answers from it" Keyes noted, turning to the flight ops officer. "Launch the search and rescue Pel - no" he interrupted his own order with a raised hand as he recalled whom he was dealing with. "Have a Marine EOD team report to the SAR bird, then launch it to recover the body. Make sure it's clean before we bring it back on board and put it through full decon. Ensign, bring the ship about and commence a deceleration burn for Reach orbit".

"Aye Sir!" the flight-ops officer nodded and went to work at once.

"Aye Sir" Loval acknowledged the order professionally, but without terribly much enthusiasm - and Keyes could well understand that feeling.

Keyes couldn't help but feel that they had just lost a very important race - one that would come back to haunt them in the future.

"I'm sorry Admirals, General" he finally turned to his superiors and their ally on the screen in front of him, unable to put off the inevitable any longer. "We've lost him".

And that ends the Reach Arc.
The next chapter will be a timeskip chapter, cutting across several weeks of time in-universe to set up the second half of this story. And it'll probably only be like a quarter this damn monsters size, dealing with both the Covenant side of things and UNSC/SGC side of things.

Hope it cleared up one or two things (and opened up twice as many lines of questions )

Peace, out!