CHAPTER NINETEEN

TIME:OATE ERROR \ Estimated 0530 hours, September 23,2552 (Military Calendar)\Aboard captured Covenantdropship, Epsilon Eridani system, en route to surface of Reach.

The Master Chief stood on the deck of the Covenant dropship. He stood because the crash seats had been designed for Elites and Jackals and none of the contours fit his human backbone. It didn't matter—he preferred to stand.

They drifted through the upper atmosphere of Reach, descending like a spider on a thousand-kilometer thread of silk. They passed close to a hundred other ships moving in orbital arcs—Seraph fighters, other dropships, scavenger craft with grappling tentacles that dragged sections of salvaged metal. Dominating the skies were a pair of three-hundred-meter-long cruisers.

The cruisers accelerated toward them.

The Chief moved up to the cockpit where Polaski and Haverson sat in the seats they had removed from the Pelican and welded in place.

"They're pinging us," Polaski whispered.

"Nice and easy, Warrant Officer," Lieutenant Haverson whispered. "Just use the programmed response Cortana gave us."

"Aye aye, Lieutenant," Polaski replied and concentrated on the Covenant scripts that scrolled across the display on her left. "Sending now." She tapped a holographic icon.

Sergeant Johnson and Corporal Locklear stood two meters behind the Chief, both of them nervous. Johnson chewed his stub of cigar and scowled at the incoming Covenant warships.

Locklear's trigger finger twitched, and beads of sweat dotted his forehead. "Cortana has this stuff wired tight," Sergeant Johnson whispered. "No worries."

"I got plenty of worries here," Locklear muttered. "Man, I'd rather be in a HEV pod on fire and out of control than up here. We're sitting ducks."

"Quiet," Lieutenant Haverson hissed at Locklear. "Let the lady concentrate."

Polaski kept one eye on the communications screen and one eye on the external displays as the twin cruisers grew larger, filling the holographic space before her. Both her hands hovered over the flight yoke, not touching it, but twitching in anticipation.

Three Seraph fighters burned out of their orbits and took a closer pass.

"Is that an attack vector?" Lieutenant Haverson asked.

"I don't think so," Polaski said. "But it's hard to tell with those things."

Locklear inhaled deeply, and the Chief noticed that he didn't exhale. He set his hand on the man's shoulder and pulled him aside. "Relax, Marine," he whispered. "That's an order,"

Locklear exhaled and ran a hand over his smoothly shaven head. "Right ... right, Chief." With effort, the Marine forced himself to calm down.

A red light flashed on the control panel. "Collision warning," Polaski said with the practiced nonchalance all Navy pilots had in the face of imminent death. She reached for the yoke.

"Hold your course," the Lieutenant ordered. "Yes, sir," she said, and released the controls. "Fighters one hundred meters and closing."

"Hold your course," Lieutenant Haverson repeated. "They're just taking a closer look," he whispered to himself, "and there's nothing to see. Nothing to see at all."

When the Seraph fighters were only ten meters away, they tumbled to either side of the dropship. Their engine pods flared blue and they looped overhead ... then moved to rejoin the cruisers.

The larger ships passed directly overhead and blotted out the sun. In the darkness, the cockpit lights automatically adjusted and flooded the display panels with the purple-blue frequency the Covenant favored.

The Master Chief realized that he, too, had been holding his breath. Maybe he and Locklear were more alike than he had realized.

He took a closer look at the ODST: The wild, desperate look in his eyes and the flaming-comet tattoo covering his left deltoid seemed almost alien to the Master Chief. The man had survived the Covenant and the Flood on Halo, and he had been lucky and resourceful enough to escape in one piece. True, his emotional responses were uncontained ... but give him the same augmentations and a set of MJOLNIR armor and what was the difference between the two of them? Experience? Training? Discipline?

Luck?

John had always felt the other men and women in the UNSC were different; he'd felt at ease only with the other Spartans. But weren't they all fighting and dying for the same reason?

The ruddy light from Epsilon Eridani suddenly filled the cockpit as the two cruisers passed on. Polaski sighed, slumped forward, and wiped the sweat from her brow. Locklear reached into his shirt pocket, removed a clean and pressed red bandanna, and offered it to Polaski.

She looked at it for a second, then glanced at the Corporal, then took it. "Thanks, Locklear." She folded it into a headband, flipped her blond hair from her face, and tied it around her forehead.

"No problem, ma'am," Locklear replied. "Anytime." "Locking onto the signal source," Lieutenant Haverson said. "Course two-three-zero by one-one-zero." "Two-three-zero by one-one-zero, aye," Polaski said. She gently pushed forward and turned the yoke.

The dropship smoothly banked into a gentle dive. The surface of Reach disappeared from the screens as the dropship entered the thick clouds of smoke that wreathed the planet.

There was a quiet beep, and the display filters activated. A moment later, images resolved on the display screens—hundreds of thousands of hectares of raging firestorms and blackened char where there had once stood forests and fields.

John tried not to think of this as Reach anymore—it was only one more world the Covenant had taken.

"That canyon," Lieutenant Haverson said and pointed at a fissure where the earth had been eroded in a sinuous twisting scar. "Scanners are just picking up surface information. Let's get a closer look."

"Understood." Polaski inverted the ship, executed a reversed roll, and dropped into the canyon. When she righted the drop-ship, sculpted rock walls raced past them only thirty meters to either side.

The Lieutenant reached for the backpack COM system they had removed from the Pelican. He fine-tuned the frequency of the unusual signal they were homing in on; a six-tone message played, followed by a two-second pause, and then it repeated.

"Open a channel on that E-band, Lieutenant," the Master Chief said. "I'll need to send the countersignal."

"Channel open, Chief. Go ahead."

The Master Chief linked his COM and encrypted the channel so only those people sending the signal would hear him. "Oly Oly Oxen Free," he spoke into his microphone. "All out in the free. We're all free."

The beeping over the backpack COM speaker suddenly stopped.

"Signal's gone." Lieutenant Haverson snapped his head around and stared at the Master Chief. "I'm not sure what you just told them, but whatever it was, they heard you."

"Good," the Master Chief replied. "Set us down somewhere safe. They'll find us."

"There's an overhang ahead," Polaski said. She moved the ship toward a deep shadow along the starboard side where the cliff angled out from the canyon. "I'll put us down there." She spun the ship, backed into the darkness, and set it down light as a feather.

"Open the side hatch," the Chief told Polaski. "I'll go out alone and make sure it's safe." "Alone?" Lieutenant Haverson asked. He rose from his seat. "Are you certain that's wise, Chief?" "Yes, sir. This was my idea. If it's a trap, I want to be the one to set it off. You stay here and back me up."

Haverson drummed his long fingers across his chin, thinking. "Very well, Chief." "I got your six, Master Chief," Locklear said and unslung his assault rifle.

The Spartan nodded to Locklear and marched down the ramp. The Chief wanted them on board the dropship for two reasons. First, if this was a trap and they were all caught out in the open, he wouldn't have time to save them and himself. Second, if the Covenant were here, waiting, then Haverson and the others had to get away and get Cortana back to Earth. He could buy them the time to make it out alive.

At the bottom of the ramp, he hesitated as his motion tracker pinged off a single signal. There—thirty meters ahead, just behind a large boulder: The friend-or-foe identification system tagged the contact as neither Covenant nor UNSC.

The Chief drew his pistol, crouched, and crept forward. A private COM channel snapped on: "Master Chief, relax. It's me."

Another Spartan stepped out from the cover of the rock. His armor—while not as battered as John's—was covered with scuffs and burns; the left shoulder pauldron had been dented.

The Master Chief felt a surge of relief. His teammates, his family, hadn't all been killed. He recognized the Spartan from his voice and the subtle way he glanced right and left. It was SPARTAN-044, Anton. He was one of the unit's best scouts. The two stood there a moment and then Anton moved his hand, making a quick, short gesture with his index and forefinger over the faceplate of his helmet where his mouth would be. That was their signal for a smile—the closest any Spartan got to an emotional outburst.

John returned the gesture.

"Good to see you, too," John said. "How many are left?"

"Three, Master Chief, and one other make up our team. Apologies for the disabled FOF tag, but we're trying to confuse the Covenant forces in this area." He looked again to his left and right. "I'd rather not give a full report in the open." He motioned toward the shadows of the cliff face.

John flashed his acknowledgment light and the two Spartans jogged out of the center of the ravine, both keeping their eyes on the rim of the canyon overhead.

The Master Chief had plenty of questions for Anton, however. Like, why had his team split from Red Team? Where was Red Team? And why hadn't the Covenant glassed every square centimeter of Reach yet?

"You okay, Chief?" Lieutenant Haverson's voice broke in from the COM.

"Affirmative, sir. Contact made with a Spartan. Stand by."

Anton halted before a dark cavern entrance. It was difficult to see, even with image enhancement; there was only the faint outline of a tunnel in the shadows of the cliff face. Just inside were reinforcing steel I-beams painted matte black, and beyond there were two-meter-wide boulders with chainguns bolted to their sides. Each gun was crewed by a Spartan—whom John recognized as Grace-093 and Li-008.

When they saw John they gave him the smile gesture, which he returned. Grace followed the Master Chief and Anton into the cavern. Li remained to operate the guns.

The Master Chief blinked as his eyes adjusted to the harsh fluorescent lights that illuminated the interior of the cavern. The walls had a grooved texture, as if they'd been dug out by machinery. Standing before a foldout card table in the center of the cavern was another man, in a Navy uniform.

The Master Chief stiffened and saluted. "Admiral, sir!"

Vice Admiral Danforth Whitcomb, despite his Western European name and Texas drawl, claimed to have descended from Russian Cossacks. He had the physique of a large bear, a closely shaved and polished head, eyes so dark they could have been made of coal, and a salt-and-pepper mustache that drooped over his upper lip and dangled off the edge of his chin.

"Master Chief." The Admiral snapped off a crisp salute. "At ease, son. Damn good to see you." He strode to the Chief and shook his hand—a gesture very few non-Spartans cared to endure;—pressing bare flesh into a cold unyielding gauntlet that could pulverize their bones. "Welcome to Camp Independence. Accommodations ain't four star... but we call it home."

"Thank you, sir."

John had never worked with the Admiral before, but his accomplishments during the battles for New Constantinople and the Siege of the Atlas Moons were well known. Every Spartan had studied Whitcomb's record.

John opened a COM channel to Lieutenant Haverson. "Move up, sir. All clear."

"Roger," Haverson said. "On our way."

"I'm happy to see you, Chief," Admiral Whitcomb said, "so don't take this the wrong way, but what the hell are you doing here? Keyes had orders to take you on a mission deep into Covenant territory."

"Yes, sir. It's. . . a long story." The Admiral twisted the end of his mustache, glanced at his wristwatch, and smiled. "We got the time, son. Let's hear it."

John sat on a rock and recounted to the Admiral what had happened since he had left Reach: the recovery of the NAV database on Gamma Station, the Pillar ofAutumn's harrowing escape, the discovery of the Halo construct and its eccentric caretaker, 343 Guilty Spark. He hesitated, then described his encounters with the Flood and subsequent destruction of Halo, ending with his capture of the Covenant flagship.

During the story, Lieutenant Haverson and the others from the dropship arrived. They remained silent as the Master Chief told the tale.

The Admiral listened without speaking a word. As John finished, the man gave a slow, low whistle and sat contemplating it all.

"That's one hell of a tale. And if it had come from anyone but you, I'd order a psych exam." He stood and paced. He stopped and frowned. "I believe it all. . . but something still doesn't add up." His face wrinkled as he thought. "Can't quite put my finger on it, though."

"Sir," Lieutenant Haverson meekly said. "Pardon me for asking, but how is it you are alive? Here?"

The Admiral smiled. "Well, that's another long story, Lieutenant. Let me give you the short-and-sweet version." He leaned against the cavern wall and crossed his arms over his chest.

"The second those Covenant bastards entered the system I knew Reach was history. The Covenant don't do anything halfway.

Everyone planetside was busy evacuating—which was the right thing to do—but I had to stay behind." Several emotions played across the Admiral's face: concern, amusement... and then his features settled into a firm stare as he looked into the past, recalling what happened.

"We'd been working on a new bomb, called the Nova. It was a cluster of nukes, each with a lithium triteride casing. Now, these things, in theory, when they detonate, not only make a big bang like you expect a nuke to—but they also force their tritium cases together in one big superheated and pressurized center." He made a fist and slammed it into his other palm for emphasis. "Boosts the yield a hundredfold." A grin spread across his face. "Planet killers. We had planned to use these things in space battles to level the playing field."

His grin faded and he stroked his mustache. "Well, things didn't quite turn out as planned, and we got caught flat-footed with those Novas on the ground. So I decided to repurpose them."

Lieutenant Haverson's face wrinkled with confusion. He didn't dare interrupt, but the Admiral saw his expression and said, "Think, son. All that ordnance around with plenty of Covenant to blow up."

Haverson shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir. I still don't understand."

"Intelligence officer, huh?" Whitcomb snorted and turned to the Master Chief. "What would you have done?"

"Arm them, sir," the Master Chief replied. "Activate the fail-safe tampering detonators and start a countdown timer. Say, two weeks."

The Admiral nodded. "I gave it only ten days. There's no need to give them too much time to tinker."

He set one of his heavy hands on Lieutenant Haverson's shoulder, and Haverson flinched. "They are two possible outcomes to this plan, Lieutenant. Either the Covenant pack up the Novas and take them home for study—a possibility I pray to God happens. A bomb like that would crack their home world in half. Or the bombs stay here—and they'll stop the Covenant on Reach."

"I see, sir," Lieutenant Haverson replied in a whisper, then glanced at his watch. "This was how many days ago?" "Got plenty of time left," the Admiral told him. "Around twenty hours."

Lieutenant Haverson swallowed.

"There's just one snag in that plan, though." The Admiral removed his hand from Haverson and his gaze settled onto the dirt floor of the cavern. "I had a team of Marines—Charlie Company—that got wiped out before we could get to those Novas." He sighed. "Brave kids. A damned waste of good men. That's when I picked up Red Team on coded COM. I 'convinced' them to lend me a few of your Spartans. We got to the Novas, armed them, and we've been raising eight kinds of hell down here with hit-and-run exercises—just to keep everyone busy, you understand. Wouldn't want to get bored."

"And the rest of Red Team, sir?" the Master Chief asked.

Whitcomb shook his head. "We got one last transmission from them before they said they were falling back." He walked to the table, unrolled an old paper topological map, and pointed at Menachite Mountain. "Here. Where ONI had their CASTLE base." He paused. "But the Covenant are tearing that mountain apart, rock by rock. I want to believe they're still there ... but we've counted at least a dozen companies. Those Covenant have air support, close orbit patrols, and, on the ground, armor. The place is a fortress. Could anyone survive?"

The Master Chief scrutinized the lines on the map and had an answer for the Admiral. "They're underground," he said. "The CASTLE facility. We did a lot of training there. The Covenant can fill up those tunnels with only so many search parties."

"Then you think they all have a chance?" "Yes, sir. More than a chance. I'd guarantee they're in there. That's where I'd be."

The Admiral set his fingertip on the representation of Menachite Mountain, tapped it twice, thinking, and then suddenly looked up. "You got into this canyon in a captured Covenant ship, right? A dropship?"

"Yes, sir." John hadn't told him that. Despite his brusque manner, the Admiral knew his business.

"Then we'll go get them, son."

182

HALO: FIRST STRIKE

"Sir!" Lieutenant Haverson said. "With all due respect, sir, our first priority should be to get back to Earth. The intelligence we've gathered on the Halo construct, the technology aboard the flagship we've captured ... Cortana's Slipspace calculations alone could turn the tide of this war for us."

"I know all that," the Admiral replied tersely. "And you're three hundred percent correct, Lieutenant. But"—he tapped the map again with his meaty forefinger—"I won't leave a single man or woman behind on this planet for the Covenant to tear apart for sport. No way. And that goes double for a Spartan. We're going in."