CHAPTER ELEVEN

0930 hours, September 4,2552 (Military Calendar) \UNSC High Command (HighCom) Facility Bravo-6,Sydney, Australia, Earth. Two and a half weeks ago.

Lieutenant Wagner walked through metal-and explosive-detector gates and into the atrium entrance of the large, vaguely conical structure. Officially designated UNSC HighCom Facility B-6, the sprawling edifice had been nicknamed "the Hive."

It was overcast in Sydney. Gray light filtered in through the crystal dome overhead.

He marched past officers and NCOs moving with purpose to whatever destinations occupied their time. He ignored the displays of acacia trees and exotic ferns meant for the press and civilian tours. Today there was no time for pleasantries.

In another hour the apparent calm and efficiency of HighCom would be shattered into a billion pieces. Only a few of the brass knew that the UNSC's mightiest outpost, Reach, was now nothing more than a cinder.

Wagner approached the receptionist's station under the watchful eyes of a trio of armored Marine MPs.

Keeping Reach's fate quiet was not the UNSC's biggest secret, not by a country mile. Virtually no one in the civilian population of the Inner Colonies knew how perilously close they were to losing this war. ONI Section Two had done a brilliant job of preserving the fiction that Earth forces held their own against the Covenant.

And what did the citizens of the Outer Colonies think? Those who hadn't fled to remote outposts and hidden privateer bases weren't in any position to make trouble. The Covenant didn't take prisoners.

"You're expected today, Lieutenant," the receptionist said. She was a young Chief Petty Officer and looked like she didn't have a care, or a clue. But her eyes gave her away. She knew something. Maybe not what, but she had undoubtedly picked up on the increased security protocols . . . or the haunted looks in the eyes of her commanding officers.

"Please proceed to elevator eight," she told him and returned her attention to the screen in front of her.

He made a mental note to find out who this perceptive person was and see if she could be recruited into Section Three. ONI had lost a lot of good people in the last few weeks.

Wagner moved to the solid steel wall, and a pair of doors parted for him. He entered the small room; the doors closed and locked with a whisper-quiet snik.

A fingerprint pad and retinal scanner extended from the wall. Wagner pressed his hand onto the scanner, and a needle stabbed his index finger. They'd check his DNA against the sample on file. He blinked once and then rested his chin on the retinal scanner.

"Good morning, Lieutenant," a sweet female voice whispered in his ear.

"Good morning, Lysithea. How are you today?"

"Very well, now that I see that you have returned safely from your mission. I assume everything went as expected."

"You know that's classified," he told the AI.

"Certainly," she replied, her tone playful. "But I'll find out anyway, you know. Why not save me the time and just tell me?"

Although he generally enjoyed this tete-a-tete with Lysithea, he knew it was part of the biometric scan, too. She scanned his brainwaves and voice patterns in response to her queries and matched them to older responses in her memory. She probably tested his loyalty in security measures as well—he didn't put anything past Section Three; they grew more paranoid every day.

"Of"course you'll find out," Wagner replied. "But I still can't tell you. That would be a breach of security, punishable under Article 428-A. In fact," he said in a more serious tone, "I'll have to report this violation to my controller."

She laughed, and it sounded like fine bone china clinking together. "You may proceed, Lieutenant," she told him.

The doors parted and revealed a corridor lined with walnut panels and paintings of Washington Crossing the Delaware, Admiral Cole's Last Stand, various alien landscapes, and space battles.

Although he had barely felt the descent, Wagner knew he had dropped three kilometers into the planet, through solid layers of granite, reinforced concrete, plates of Titanium-A, and EMP-hardened metal. None of this made him feel any safer, though; ONI's research facility on Reach had the same setup, and it hadn't done those poor bastards any good.

He stepped off the elevator. Lysithea whispered at his back: "Watch out in there. They're looking to put someone's head on a pike."

Wagner swallowed and straightened the microscopic wrinkles in his uniform. He searched for a reason to delay—anything that would keep him out of the room at the end of this corridor. He sighed and overcame his inertia. No one kept the Security Committee for the UNSC waiting.

A pair of MPs snapped to as he approached the set of double doors. They didn't salute, and their hands rested on their holstered sidearms. They stared straight ahead, but Wagner knew that if he twitched the wrong way he'd be shot first and questioned later.

The doors silently swung inward.

He entered, and the doors closed behind him and locked. Wagner recognized most of the brass seated at the crescent-shaped table: Major General Nicolas Strauss, Fleet Admiral Sir Terrence Hood, and Colonel James Ackerson. Vice Admiral Whitcomb's chair was empty.

Another half-dozen officers were also present, and all were of command rank, which made Wagner nervous. Each had display tablets set before them, and even upside down, Wagner recognized his preliminary report and video records.

Wagner saluted. General Strauss leaned forward and snapped off his display. "Christ! Did we know they had so many damn ships?" He

banged a fist onto the table. "Why the hell didn't we know about this? Who in ONI let this one slip by?"

Ackerson leaned back. "No one is to blame, General—except the Covenant, obviously. I'm more concerned with our response to this incursion. Our fleet was decimated."

Ackerson's reputation preceded him. Wagner had heard about the lengths to which he'd gone in the past to make sure his own operations got priority over Section Three's. His rivalry with the SPARTAN-II program leader, Dr. Catherine Halsey, was the stuff of legend. Wagner thought Ackerson had been reassigned to a front-line post. Apparently he'd squirmed out of it. That was trouble.

Admiral Hood straightened and pushed his display away and finally acknowledged Wagner. He returned the salute. The Admiral was impeccably groomed, not a silver hair out of place on his head, and yet there were dark circles under his eyes. "At ease, Lieutenant."

Wagner tucked his hands behind the small of his back and moved his feet slightly apart, but otherwise didn't relax a millimeter. One was never at ease when in the presence of lions, sharks, and scorpions.

Hood turned to Ackerson. "Decimate is the wrong word, Colonel. We would have been decimated if we lost one ship out of every ten." He voice rose slightly. "Instead, we lost ten of our ships for every one that managed to limp away. It was a total disaster!"

"Of course, Admiral." Ackerson nodded, pretending to listen, and his eyes flickered over the report again. His eyebrows raised as he noticed the time and date stamp. "There's one thing, however, I'd like answered first." His glassy glare locked onto Wagner. "The time difference between the events in this report and now..." He trailed off, lost in thought. "Congratulations, Lieutenant. This is a new speed record from Reach to Earth. Especially when I know you took the time to perform the legally required random jumps before returning to Earth."

"Sir," Wagner replied. "I followed the Cole Protocol to the letter." That was a lie and everyone in this room knew it. ONI was always bending the Cole Protocol. In this case, it was probably

justified because of the value of the intel. Still, if they wanted to crucify him, all they had to do was check the time logged on his Prowler's engines and do the math.

Hood waved his hand. "That's hardly the issue."

"I think it is," Ackerson snapped. "Reach is gone. There's nothing between Earth and the Covenant now except a lot of vacuum—that and whatever secrecy we can preserve."

"We'll review Section Three's practices later, Colonel." Admiral Hood turned to Wagner. "I've read your report, Lieutenant. It is extremely detailed, but I want to hear it from you. What did you see? Are there any details you thought too sensitive to include in your report? Tell me everything."

Wagner took in a deep breath. He had prepared for this and he related, as best he could, how the Covenant ships appeared in the system, the valiant efforts of the UNSC fleet defending Reach, how they failed and were systematically destroyed.

"When the Covenant slipped onto the surface of Reach with their tactical forces and took out the orbital-gun generators— that was the end. Well, I saw only the start of the end. They glassed the planet, starting with the poles."

Wagner, who'd two years ago had a third of his body burned by Covenant plasma and not once screamed or shed a tear, paused and blinked away the moisture blurring his vision. "I trained at the Naval Academy on Reach, sir. It was the closest thing I had to a home in the Outer Colonies."

Hood nodded sympathetically.

Ackerson snorted. He pushed away from the table, got up, and moved to Wagner's side. "Save the sentimentality, Lieutenant. You say they glassed Reach. Everything?"

Wagner detected anticipation in the Colonel's tone—as if he wanted the Covenant to have destroyed Reach.

"Sir," Wagner replied. "Before I jumped to Slipspace, I witnessed the poles destroyed, and approximately two thirds of the planet's surface was on fire."

Ackerson nodded, seemingly satisfied with this answer. "So everyone on Reach is gone, then. Vice Admiral Whitcomb. Doctor Halsey, too." He nodded and added, "Such a tremendous waste." There was no sympathy in his voice.

"I could only speculate, sir."

"No need," Ackerson muttered. He returned to his seat.

Strauss sighed. "At least we have your special weapons programs, Ackerson. Halsey's SPARTAN-IIs were such a great sue—"

Ackerson shot the General a look that could have blasted through battle plate. The General halted midsentence and snapped his mouth closed.

Wagner stood absolutely still and stared straight ahead, pretending he hadn't seen such a gross breach of military protocol. A General knuckling under to a junior officer? Something extraordinary had just been revealed—there was some kind of backup plan on a par with the SPARTAN program, and Ackerson was behind it. The Colonel suddenly had a lot of juice.

Wagner continued to feign ignorance—and no matter what, he didn't meet Colonel Ackerson's gaze. If Ackerson suspected that he'd caught on, the bastard would have him erased to prevent his secret from getting back to Section Three.

After what seemed a century of uncomfortable silence, Admiral Hood cleared his throat. "The Pillar of Autumn, Lieutenant Wagner. Was that ship destroyed? Or did she jump? There is no mention in your report."

"She jumped, sir. Telemetry indicates the Autumn was pursued by several enemy ships, however, so her fate can only be speculated upon. I did not mention the Pillar of Autumn in my report, as that ship is on Section Three's Secure List."

"Good." Hood closed his eyes. "Then there is, at least, some hope."

Ackerson shook his head. "With all due respect to my predecessor, Doctor Halsey, the special weapons package on the Pillar hasn't got a chance in hell of accomplishing its mission. You might as well have shot every one of them in the head and gotten it over with."

"That will be enough, Ackerson," Hood said and glowered at him. "Quite enough."

"Sir," Wagner ventured. "The Colonel may be correct... at least in his mission assessment. Our agent on the Pillar of Autumn signaled us before the end. He regrettably reported that a

significant number of Spartans went groundside to defend Reach's orbital guns." "Then they're dead," Ackerson said. "Halsey's freaks have finally lost their luster of invincibility."

Admiral Hood set his jaw. "Doctor Halsey," he said slowly and with deliberate control, "and her Spartans deserve the utmost respect, Colonel." He turned to face him, but Hood stared through Ackerson. "And if you wish to keep your newly acquired position on the Security Council, you will show them that respect, or I will personally kick you from here to Melbourne."

"I merely—" Ackerson said.

"Those 'freaks,' " Hood said over his protest, "have more confirmed kills than any three divisions of ODSTs and have garnered every major citation the UNSC awards. Those 'freaks' have personally saved my life twice, as well as the lives of most of the senior staff here at HighCom. Keep your bigotry in check, Colonel. Do you understand?"

"My apologies," Ackerson muttered.

"I asked you a direct question," Admiral Hood barked.

"Sir," Ackerson said. "I understand completely, Admiral. It will not happen again." His face burned bright red. Wagner, however, didn't think this was the color of shame. It was anger.

"The Spartans," Hood whispered. "Doctor Halsey. Whit-comb. We lost too many good people on Reach. Not to mention dozens of ships." He pursed his lips into a razor-thin line.

"We should send a small recon force to see what's left," General Strauss suggested.

"Not wise, sir," Ackerson replied. "We must pull back and reinforce the Inner Colonies and Earth. The new orbital platforms won't be online for another ten days. Until then, our defense posture will be far too weak. We'll need every ship we've got."

"Hmm," Admiral Hood said. He placed both thumbs under his chin as he considered both positions.

"Sir," Wagner said. "There is one additional item not covered in my report. It didn't seem exceptionally important at the time, but if you're debating a recon mission, I thought it might be pertinent."

"Just spit it out," General Strauss said.

Wagner swallowed and resisted the urge to meet Ackerson's eyes. "When the Covenant destroys a planet, they typically move their large warships closer and blanket the world with a series of crisscrossing orbits to ensure that every square millimeter of the surface is covered with plasma bombardments."

"I'm painfully aware of Covenant bombardment doctrine, Lieutenant," Hood growled. "What of it?"

"As I indicated, they started at the poles, but took in only a few ships. They were spread thin along the equatorial latitudes, and no additional ships were inbound. In fact, a large number of Covenant ships abandoned the system, in pursuit of the Pillar of Autumn?'

Ackerson waved his hand dismissively. "Reach is glassed, Lieutenant. If you had stayed to watch the whole show, they would have burned you down, too."

"Yes, sir," Wagner replied. "If, however, there is a recon mission, I would like to volunteer for the duty."

Ackerson got up and strode to Wagner. He stood a centimeter from his face, and their eyes locked. Ackerson's gaze was full of poison. Wagner did his best not to recoil, but he couldn't help it. One look and he knew this man wanted him dead—for whatever reason: that he had heard of Ackerson's alternative program to the SPARTAN-IIs, that he didn't want trouble over Reach. . . or maybe, as Lysithea had warned him, that he was just looking for someone's head to impale on a pike.

"Are you deaf, Lieutenant?" Ackerson asked with mock concern. "Some kind of hearing loss due to combat action?"

"No, sir."

"Well, when you push the limits of Slipspace in those little Prowlers, you risk all kinds of radiation damage. Or maybe the trauma of seeing Reach destroyed shook you. Whatever your problem, when you leave here you are to visit the infirmary. They are to give you a clean bill of health before you return to active duty." He shrugged. "There must be something wrong with you, Lieutenant, because you do not seem to understand me even though my words are crystal clear."

"Sir."

"Let's try this, then. We are not wasting a single UNSC ship to confirm what we have already seen a dozen times before: Reach is gone."

He inched closer to Wagner. "Everything on it is blasted to bits, burned, glassed over, and vaporized. Everyone on Reach is dead." He jabbed a finger into Wagner's chest for emphasis. "Dead. Dead. Dead."