CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

TIME:DATE RECORD ANOMALY\Estimated 0640 hours, September 23,2552 (Military Calendar)\Epsilon Eridani system, tunnel complex below surface of Reach.

John tensed as he watched the thousands of Covenant crowding on the galleries surround him and his team. He didn't dare move; his team was on the wrong end of too much firepower. They couldn't win this fight.

On the third gallery off the floor of the great room, at the four o'clock position, a Hunter pair roared with anger. They raised their fuel rod cannons and then leveled their weapons—and fired.

Kelly moved before anyone; she was a blur of motion and stepped in front of Dr. Halsey. John and Fred moved to either side of Kelly, while Anton grabbed the Admiral and threw the older man behind them.

The blinding white-hot plasma charges struck the Spartans' shields and splashed over their chests. John's shield drained completely. The overpressure forced him to take a step backward, and the skin on his forearms blistered.

Then the heat was gone, and he blinked away the black dots that swarmed in his vision. Kelly lay at his feet. Her armor smoldered and hydrostatic gel boiled from the emergency release vent along her left side.

A thousand more shots rang out from the gallery, and John instinctively crouched to cover his fallen comrade. He braced for the inevitable burning energy impact.

Plasma bolts and crystalline needles crisscrossed the galleries overhead, a spiderweb of energy and projectiles. Every shot was directed at the pair of Hunters who had fired upon John and his team.

The Hunter pair raised their shields in unison and ducked behind them—the quarter-meter-thick slabs of metal could repel almost any single weapon's fire ... but not this merciless barrage. These mightiest Covenant soldiers burned, their armor and shields ignited as well, and John caught their outlines for only a split second before they were vaporized.

The section of gallery where they had stood blasted into dust and smoke, and the debris rained onto the floor ... along with dozens of Grunts and Jackals who had been unfortunate enough to be standing too near the pair.

Three heartbeats pounded in John's chest. Neither the humans nor the Covenant hosts in the great room moved.

"What the hell is this?" Sergeant Johnson muttered. "Shouldn't we be dead by now?"

John linked to Kelly's biomonitors; she was in shock, and her suit's heat pumps were strained to the failure point. He had to get her to safety.

From the uppermost gallery a Covenant Elite in golden armor raised its energy sword high into the air and shouted. Translation software in John's helmet whispered half a second later: "Take them—but the next one to fire at the holy light will be skinned alive! Go!"

Dr. Halsey pressed the arm of her glasses tighter against the back of her ear, listening as the built-in translator whispered. "The crystal," she murmured. "They're after the crystal."

Teams of Elites dropped slithering, plasticine ropes, which glowed a ghostly blue. They rappelled to the floor. A hundred Grunts squealed with excitement and danced from one foot to the other. Jackals followed their Elite leaders on the ropes.

"Polaski!" Admiral Whitcomb shouted into his COM. "Get down here ASAP! We need immediate extraction!" "Roger that," Polaski replied in her cool never-flinch Navy flier voice.

Fred, Grace, and Anton turned and fired three-round bursts straight up as a team of Elites tried to descend on their position. The Elites fell, spattering purple blood across the tiled floor.

Dr. Halsey stuffed the alien crystal into her lab coat pocket and knelt next to Kelly. She checked her vitals on the data pad and shook her head. She looked at John, her expression grim. "She's alive ... barely. She needs help."

"Let's not be rude," Admiral Whitcomb barked. "Welcome our guests, Master Chief!" "Perimeter fire," the Master Chief ordered. "Keep it tight. Dispersion pattern Delta. Go!"

The Spartans simultaneously stepped into a semicircle, assault rifles pointed outward. In unison they thumbed their weapons' safeties and opened fire. Right behind them Locklear, Johnson, Haverson, and the Admiral took up position inside the circle. They primed and threw grenades.

John paused and turned his attention to Kelly. He hauled her limp body off the floor and draped her over his shoulder.

The Covenant forces hit the ground and edged closer, but they didn't return fire. Dozens of Elites dropped as armor-piercing rounds peppered their armor and frag grenades detonated with thunderous force. The Jackals who followed their masters on the ropes landed in the middle of the carnage, maneuvered in front of the Elites, and overlapped energy shields. It was typical Elite bravado—they had to be the first into the battle ... even if that meant they'd die for that honor.

The Chief had no problem satisfying their honor. He slapped a fresh clip into his rifle and continued firing.

Jackals and Elites cautiously advanced on the firing Spartans. A second line of Jackals angled their personal energy shields over their heads to prevent any grenades from being tossed into their midst.

Polaski's dropship descended from the hole in the ceiling, spun about, and eased to a stop a meter above the cracked blue-tiled floor. Both side hatches of the craft hissed open.

John handed Kelly to Fred as he leapt on board; he helped Dr. Halsey and the Admiral inside next. Locklear and the other Spartans jumped into the second hatch. Sergeant Johnson and the Master Chief were last to board—just as their feet touched the ramp and they grabbed on to the rungs, Polaski accelerated off the deck.

The Master Chief watched the Covenant as the dropship climbed. There were thousands of them—on the floor, clinging to the walls, overflowing the galleries. They looked like a swarm of angry ants.

The hatch sealed and the Master Chief moved forward, toward the cockpit. As he passed through the compartment, he saw Kelly. She was slumped over; thin trails of smoke curled from the holes in her armor.

He helped Dr. Halsey strap Kelly down. Halsey's eyes locked onto the wounded Spartan's erratic vitals as they squiggled across her data pad. She set the elongated crystal next to Kelly... but it didn't lie flat. It defied gravity, floating—one sharp, slender end pointed at the surface.

"How very odd," Halsey whispered.

John had to agree; it was unusual. Almost as odd as being under the guns of a thousand angry Covenant soldiers—yet none of them had fired a shot.

"Take care of her," he told Dr. Halsey, then he stood and made his way to the cockpit.

Polaski hunched over the controls. She pushed the Covenant dropship into a hyperbolic ascent and entered the hole in the ceiling of the great room. The Master Chief grabbed hold of the walls and braced himself.

The dropship, however, slowed and pitched forward so it was once again horizontal. "Problem," Polaski announced and rapidly tapped the controls. "Big problem." The purple light of the grav beam in the hole darkened; it seemed to fade from view... but it also began to hurt to look at. "They're pushing us back," Admiral Whitcomb said. "Li, crawl topside and launch a couple of Jackhammers up this pipe."

"Yes, sir," Li replied—eager to return to the fight. He nodded at John, grabbed a Jackhammer rocket launcher, and moved to the hatch.

The Admiral frowned and shook his head. "No way a rocket will make it up a kilometer of this tunnel. Gotta try anyway." The dropship stopped rising, bobbed in place a moment, and slowly sank back down through the tunnel. Li opened the side hatch. The intense purple light from the grav beam flooded the interior of the ship.

Dr. Halsey inhaled sharply, and the Master Chief turned to see what had startled her.

For a moment he thought the crystal she had brought with her had shattered. But it hadn't broken, not exactly. The top half of the slender shard had split along its facets and opened like a flower blossom. The sapphire petals undulated, and as the ultraviolet light of the grav beam fell upon them, the crystal opened wider. The facets twirled and spun in a complex geometric dance. The crystal seemed to reshape itself, and it pulsed a cool green.

The light inside the ship cleared—all traces of the purple tint seemed to recede like a tide.

The dropship lurched upward.

"What the hell—" Polaski, caught unawares, grasped the yoke and pulled back. Their dropship hummed with power and shot up through the tunnel.

"Gravity," Dr. Halsey whispered and stared into the opened facets of the crystal. "This thing warped space when we first approached. It apparently has an effect on artificial gravity fields as well. I can't wait to get this into a lab."

The dropship emerged from the hole, and sunlight flooded the interior.

Once out of the grav beam, the slender stone folded back upon itself, closing petal-like fragments, melding back into a single smooth shard. Dr. Halsey plucked up the stone and slipped it back into her lab coat pocket; she returned her attention to Kelly's biosigns.

The air over Menachite Mountain was thick with circling flocks of Banshee fliers and Seraph fighters. The three-hundredmeter-long light cruiser had company, too. Six more Covenant cruisers faced their tiny dropship, plasma turrets tracking them.

A series of icons flashed on Polaski's console. "They've got weapons lock," she said, the calm in her voice cracking slightly around the edges.

"They won't fire," Admiral Whitcomb declared. There was steel resolution in his words—as if this weren't a guess on his part, but rather an order that the Covenant had better follow. He set his hands on his hips and watched the ships, seeming to stare the cruisers down. "They want whatever the doctor and her team discovered ... and they want it bad enough to let us shoot at them and not so much as spit in our direction."

"Sir," the Master Chief said. "We're to rendezvous with Cortana and the captured flagship at oh-seven-fifteen hours. That gives us only twenty minutes, sir."

Admiral Whitcomb consulted his watch and then glanced at the Covenant ships gathering around them and edging closer. "Polaski, get us out of here. Plot a course to your rendezvous point—and make this crate fly as fast as you can!"

"Aye aye, sir." Polaski angled the ship into the upper atmosphere of Reach; the sky darkened from turquoise to slate gray to midnight blue and then inky black, filled with stars.

As their dropship left the cruisers behind, it moved painfully slow compared to the agile Seraph fighters. They formed up around her, four to the port and four on the starboard of their craft. A pair of the teardrop-shaped singleships pulled ahead of her, slowed... and blocked their path.

"They're boxing us in," Polaski said and decelerated their ship. "Warrant Officer," the Admiral said and set a hand gently on her shoulder. "Ram them. Full speed."

Polaski swallowed. "Aye, sir." One of her hands cinched her crash harness tight. The other hand passed over the velocity stripe on the control panel, and shoved it to full power.

The dropship jumped—straight toward the Seraph fighters in their path. The two fighters tumbled aside with a scant three meters to spare, and the dropship raced past them.

Locklear peered out of the port display and whistled. "Does anyone else," he whispered, "think it's a little crowded up here?"

The Master Chief looked over Locklear's shoulder. There had been a dozen small warships when they had descended only a few hours ago... now there were three times that number in orbit around Reach.

There were light cruisers that looked like luminous manta rays; there were four carriers with their bulbous sections, and the space near them was aglow with swarms of Seraph singlecraft; there were a handful of destroyers, sleek and fast, bristling with plasma turrets.

There was also wreckage: Pieces of Covenant ships tumbled in orbit, raw ragged chunks of the alloy plating, tangles of plasma conduits still aglow from the heat they carried, and clouds of metal that had been vaporized and had cooled into mists of glittering dust.

"Cortana's been busy in our absence," Lieutenant Haverson remarked. He nodded approvingly at the carnage.

The Master Chief detected flickers of light and dark from the launch bays of a Covenant carrier. He activated his visor's magnification and saw a legion of Elites in thruster packs, and a score of the tentacled engineering drones leaving the bay.

"Singleships, drones, and Elite boarding parties on intercept vectors," Polaski announced. "Inbound—" She paused and double-checked her scans. "Jesus. They're inbound from all directions."

"Get us to the rendezvous coordinates," Admiral Whitcomb ordered. "And don't spare the horses." "Sir," Polaski replied, her voice icy cold, "these are the rendezvous coordinates." The Master Chief searched for their captured ship on any display—and saw only the enemy.

Cortana and Ascendant Justice reappeared in space; it was a tight fit. This particular jump required precision to the centimeter and, although she loathed admitting it, a large measure of luck.

She had often wondered what would happen if a ship transitioned to normal space too close to a planet or other mass—in this case, another ship.

Ascendant Justice winked into existence within the debris field in high orbit around Reach. There was, however, no ultraviolent explosion as the atoms of the flagship overlapped with the matter of the scrapped ships the Covenant had herded together in space.

Either Slipspace jumps prevented such occurrences from happening, shunting the incoming ship to the side like water that flows around a river rock ... or she had borrowed some of the Master Chief's probability-bending good fortune.

Hundreds of wrecked ships, human and Covenant alike, tumbled lifelessly about her, their net trajectories suggesting that Ascendant Justice had just nudged them aside. If she'd had more

time, she would've designed a set of experiments with drone ships to test out her displacement-luck hypothesis. But time was something neither she nor the Master Chief had in abundance.

Minutes remained until their rendezvous—and Cortana would need every millisecond to accomplish what she had to do if any of them were going to leave the Epsilon Eridani system alive.

Cortana searched the field of derelicts for a likely candidate. There were only a handful of Covenant ships; if the UNSC had managed to take out one of the alien ships in the battle for Reach, they apparently had been forced to obliterate it. No suitable candidates remained for her plan.

She turned her attention to the vast number of wrecked UNSC ships. The Covenant didn't have to completely destroy a human ship to remove its tactical presence from the battle—a single energy projection beam could tear through enough decks and kill enough crew to disable the craft.

She wondered how many fallen humans drifted in the local space alongside her, thousands of brave men and women who had died fighting.

Her sensors flicked over the silhouettes of the UNSC light ships. There were corvettes with bisected hulls leaking radioactive coolant from their nuclear start-up reactors. Although they were more suitable for her purpose, the damage to them was too great. She didn't find one with a single intact fusion reactor.

She tagged the location of the carriers and heavy cruisers and excluded them from her search. They were simply too large. She was willing to sacrifice maneuverability and speed... but not so much that it would take her an hour to make the burn out of orbit.

That left destroyers and frigates. She found and tagged fourteen in the debris field. Destroyers were essentially frigates that carried a meter and a half of Titanium-A armor instead of the sixty centimeters of their lighter counterparts.

There were two candidates: Both the destroyer Tharsis and the frigate Gettysburg had intact fusion reactors. While the Gettysburg had been killed by an energy projector beam that had gutted it stem to stern—obliterating the bridge and life support— its power plant and even the Magnetic Accelerator Cannon on its

undercarriage were apparently functional. Even better: The ship's topside hardpoints were intact. Cortana let a flicker of power pulse through Ascendant Justice's engines, and she slowly drifted toward the Gettysburg.

She paused to listen to the Covenant traffic insystem. There was eight times the chatter there had been before, with many references to the "Infidels" on the planet and the "holy light" that was now in jeopardy. Good. That meant the Master Chief was doing what he did best: causing mayhem among the enemy. And more importantly, the presence of Ascendant Justice floating among the hundreds of dead ships had not been detected.

When she was within a kilometer of the Gettysburg, she cut her engines. With delicate puffs from the thrusters she edged closer and rolled Ascendant Justice until its top side was parallel with the top side of the Gettysburg.

She pinged the Gettysburg's telemetry system and received a faint handshake reply. Cortana gave the override code—quickly accepted—and entered the Gettysburg's NAV computer.

There was no other computer intelligence on board. The captain of the Gettysburg had flatlined the NAV system and the AI as per the Cole Protocol. Cortana extended her presence through the empty systems. The Gettysburg was a wreck; all thrusters offline. It wouldn't be moving on its own power ever again, but its heart still beat. The ship's fusion reactor operated at 67 percent capacity. Perfect.

Ascendant Justice gently touched down on the Gettysburg— probably the first time in the history of the universe that human and Covenant ships had made contact with nonlethal intentions.

All modern UNSC ships had been designed with hardpoints on their dorsal and ventral sides in the event that they were too crippled to move under their own power. In theory, another UNSC ship could dock, lock systems, and carry the wounded ship away.

The Covenant flagship had a similar series of hardpoints on its top side where ships too large to fit in its launch bay could dock.

The two systems, however, were incompatible.

Cortana fixed that. She activated the seven service drones on the Gettysburg, and instructed the Covenant Engineers

within the outer hull of Ascendant Justice to secure the docking points mating the two ships and adapt their power uplinks. The reason for this salvage operation, her pinpoint jump into the debris field, and the hybrid docking. . . it was all for power.

Ascendant Justice's cover had been blown; the Covenant knew that their flagship was human-controlled. That made their original plan of rendezvousing in orbit around Reach impossible. She could have jumped to that location and picked up the Chief, but then they would be stranded there while the Slipspace capacitors slowly recharged—and in the meantime they would be boxed in and obliterated by the Covenant armada.

So she had to change tactics; she'd jump into the thick of a hostile and wary Covenant force, grab the Chief, and just as quickly jump out of the system. For that she'd need power to instantly recharge the Slipspace capacitors—the kind of power only two ships could produce.

The power uplinks connected. Gigawatts flowed from the Gettysburg's reactor into Ascendant Justice's energy grid.

"Perfect," she purred.

It was 0712 hours. She had less than three minutes to prepare for the next phase of her plan.

Cortana checked and rechecked the calculations for what had to be the shortest Slipspace jump ever: from the floating junk-yard to the rendezvous coordinates, a mere three thousand kilometers. She scanned that region of space—and discovered it was no longer a blind spot in the Covenant defenses. There were three times as many ships insystem as when she'd left.

Cortana spotted the Chief's hijacked dropship ascending from the lower atmosphere of Reach, with a pack of Seraph fighters surrounding the craft.

She intercepted a series of repeated orders from the Covenant's fleet commander: Do not fire or you will be targeted and destroyed. The Infidels have captured the holy light.

This was both good and bad. Good because the Master Chief and his team with this "holy light" avoided being blasted into vapor. Bad because every Covenant ship in the system was closing in on their dropship—ultimately they'd box it in, grapple with the tiny craft, and take it with overwhelming force.

This also made Cortana's jump target increasingly crowded.

She made certain her plasma turrets were fully charged; she rechecked her shaping magnetic coils; she ran a systems check on Ascendant Justice's thrusters in case something happened with her exit jump and she had to maneuver.

The time was 0714.10 Military Standard.

Cortana then did the one thing she was not good at: wait. Fifty seconds for a mind that could perform a trillion calculations per second was an eternity.

At T minus thirty seconds Cortana dumped power into the Slipspace capacitors.

Pinpricks of light dotted the black space around her.

At T minus twenty she updated her calculations, taking into account the slight gravitational variances that so many Covenant warships created in local space.

The vacuum around her pulled apart, and she picked a path through the "here" of normal space into the "not-here" of Slipspace.

At T minus ten she wrote a quick program to target the distant ships near her exit coordinates—and keep them targeted when she reappeared.

Ascendant Justice moved slightly forward into the rip in space; light enveloped the craft.

She vanished from the field of floating debris and—

—reappeared in an eyeblink. The full face of Reach filling her lateral starboard displays. The port displays were crowded with inbound Covenant ships.

The odd piggybacked Covenant—human craft appearing in the middle of their trap must have confused the enemy ... no one fired.

The dropship was three kilometers off Cortana's starboard beam, its trajectory more or less aligned with Ascendant Justice's launch bay.

She opened the UNSC E-band and said, "Chief, your ride is here."

"Acknowledged," the Master Chief replied. There was no quaver in his rock-solid voice. He had been headed into certain death a moment ago, but he sounded like this was what he expected to occur. Like this was normal operational procedure.

The dropship veered toward the open bay, and Cortana dropped shields for a split second—just long enough for the tiny craft to enter—then reestablished the protective field.

Cortana routed power from the Gettysburg into Ascendant Justice's Slipspace capacitors, and they began soaking up the charge.

Three dozen Covenant cruisers surrounded her, their plasma turrets glowing a hellish red as they prepared to fire. Apparently the order not to fire did not extend to Ascendant Justice.

Cortana needed five seconds to attain a full charge, five seconds before she could make good her escape... but five seconds might be long enough for her to become the center of a small Covenant-made sun.

She took the initiative and fired at the closest four cruisers.

Laser-fine plasma lanced from her turrets, burned though the Covenant shields, and split open their hulls. When the superheated gas came in contact with the atmosphere inside the ships, plastic, flesh, and metal caught fire and roiled throughout their interiors.

Two of the targeted cruisers immediately detonated as the plasma beams found the reactors. Billowing clouds of vaporized metal mushroomed across the night and obscured her from the advancing ships.

Pinpricks of light appeared around Ascendant Justice.

ERROR.

Cortana rechecked the figures and quickly found the source of the problem: The fail-safe subroutine that tracked local gravitational conditions returned an anomaly.

The gravity from Reach no longer warped space ... which was impossible.

No time for speculation. She had to leave or fight.

She moved Ascendant Justice into the twisting spatial field—

—and vanished.

Instead of the nonvisible nondimensions of Slipspace, however, a blue-tinged field appeared on Cortana's monitors. It wasn't space—not the crowded space near Reach, or the star-filled space of the Epsilon Eridani system. But it was a space, where there should have been no space at all.

212 HALO: FIRST STRIKE

She probed the region with her sensors, but her range was lim

ited to a thousand kilometers as if she were in an obscuring fog. There—a contact. And another. And then a dozen more. Fourteen Covenant cruisers resolved from the blue mist. "Cortana," the Master Chief said. "What's our status?" "Same as ever," Cortana replied. "We're in trouble." The Covenant warships fired. "Damn," Cortana muttered. She initiated her last option: She fired back, hoping to take

some of them to hell with her.