SECTION 6

OPERATION: FIRST STRIKE

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

0510 hours, September 13,2552 (revised date, MilitaryCalendar) \ Aboard hybrid vessel Gettysburg-Ascendant Justice, in Slipspace.

The Master Chief and his team, which now consisted of Grace, Linda, Will, and Fred, had been ordered to report to the Officers' Club—normally forbidden territory to NCOs. Of course, nothing about their circumstances had been normal for a long, long time.

The Gettysburg's O-Club had a massive table of oak, scored with numerous gouges and scorches from a hundred cigars casually set upon its surface. There was a bar stocked with bottles containing a rainbow collection of liquors, dusted with shattered crystal. The room's walnut-paneled walls were polished to a rich glow. Hung along those walls was the UNSC gold-fringed blue flag. There were also gold and silver citation plaques for meritorious gallantry. There were photos of officers and past Captains of the Gettysburg. And most interesting to the Master Chief were tin Civil War daguerreotypes that displayed battlefields full of charging men and cavalry and cannons belching flash and thunder.

Admiral Whitcomb and Sergeant Johnson entered the room. The Spartans snapped to rigid attention. "Officer on deck!" the Master Chief shouted, and they all saluted.

"At ease," Admiral Whitcomb said. "Please sit down." The Master Chief stepped forward. "With respect, these chairs will not support the weight of our gear, Admiral." "Of course," the Admiral said. "Well, make yourselves as comfortable as you can. This is an informal meeting." He snorted.

"I just wanted to see who was left on board and alive." He looked past the open doors to the Officers' Club. "Lieutenant Haverson will join us shortly. He's investigating the site of Corporal Locklear's... accident."

A holographic projector pad upon the bar flickered to life, and Cortana's slender body appeared. Chunks of broken crystal on the pad refracted the light and distorted her image so she appeared half melted and cast prismed arcs of light onto the walls.

Sergeant Johnson stepped over to the bar and swept the pad clean. "Thank you, Sergeant," Cortana said, looking over her re-sorted figure.

"My pleasure," he replied with a grin.

Cortana faced the Admiral. "Sir," she said, "you'll be happy to hear that I'm detecting no signals, residual radiation, or any transient contacts ... which is precisely what you would expect from a normal Slipspace journey."

Admiral Whitcomb nodded, sighed, and eased into one of the leather-backed chairs at the table's head. "Well, that's one small blessing."

"And here's evidence that Doctor Halsey's crystal was indeed destroyed," Lieutenant Haverson said as he entered the room. He paused to seal the door behind him.

Haverson sat next to the Admiral and set a small plastic bag flat on the table. "I found Locklear exactly where Cortana said he would be: B-Deck, the medical storage room. Overloaded electronics at the site are consistent with a high-energy radiation burst. . . as are the burns on the Corporal's body."

He grimaced and added, "If it means anything, his death was quick. And these"—he tapped the plastic bag on the table—"are crystalline fragments that I found at the site. At first glance they appear to be a match to the shard found on Reach." He shook his head. "But what I found isn't sufficient mass to account for the entire crystal. So unless it was atomized and left no trace, a fact inconsistent with the presence of these larger pieces, then the rest of that crystal has to be somewhere else."

Cortana tapped her foot, and one of her eyebrows arched. "If the radiation burst detected before our jump correlates with the destruction of Doctor Halsey's crystal," she said, "then there is an alternative explanation. The timing between that explosion and the radiation flare was only forty-seven milliseconds. Since the crystal had unusual space-and time-bending properties, the missing fragments may have been 'squeezed' out of the ship and into Slipspace."

Haverson asked incredulously, "You mean pieces of the greatest scientific discovery in human history are"—he nodded past the walls of the Gettysburg—"lost in Slipspace?"

"Yes," Cortana replied. She shrugged. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant."

"At least the Covenant can't get to it anymore," Admiral Whit-comb said. He flicked the plastic bag with his thick finger. "Or if they do, they're only going to find a bunch of busted fragments."

"I just wish I knew why Locklear did it," Haverson said. Everyone was quiet. John and the other Spartans shifted uneasily in their heavy MJOLNIR armor.

Sergeant Johnson cleared his throat. "The boy was a little on edge. After all he'd been through, you'd expect that. But he was an ODST—tough as nails and twice as sharp and used to getting pounded. He wouldn't crack. He had a reason."

"Doctor Halsey," Haverson remarked and narrowed his eyes. "She had to have set this up."

John started to defend Dr. Halsey, but he stopped himself from arguing with an officer. Yes, her actions were inexplicable: She had exfiltrated Kelly, left them when they needed her the most, and given Locklear the alien artifact. John still wanted to trust her, though. Perhaps whatever she was up to was for the greater good.

"Let's not start this," the Admiral said. "I don't want anyone's perceptions colored by us discussing the 'whys' and 'what ifs' of this situation. Save it for the debriefing they're going to give us when we get back." He cast a sideways glance at the bar and unconsciously smacked his lips. "From here to Earth it should be smooth sailing, and we can finally relax."

"Permission to speak, Admiral," the Chief said.

"Granted. Speak your mind."

"I don't wish to contradict you, sir, but perhaps it shouldn't be smooth sailing. And maybe we shouldn't relax." Admiral Whitcomb leaned forward. "I have a feeling I'm not going to like this. .. but explain yourself, Chief."

The Master Chief outlined his mission plan, how he and his team would take a Covenant dropship and insert into the rendezvous location for the invading Covenant fleet. They would then infiltrate their command-and-control center, the Unyielding Hierophant, and destroy it; that would hopefully cripple the Covenant force . . . or at least slow them down. Maybe even enough to buy Earth time to reinforce their defenses.

The Admiral stared at the Chief without blinking and flatly replied, "Mission request denied."

"Acknowledged, sir." He remained standing, at stiff attention.

Whitcomb frowned, as the other Spartans also snapped to attention and remained stone-still. He sighed.

"I understand your motivations, Chief. I do. But I will not risk transporting your team to the Covenant rendezvous point," the Admiral explained. "If we lose this ship, Earth never gets its warning."

"Sir," the Master Chief replied, "we will transition from Slip-space to normal space alone. Once the dropship clears the gravitational influence of the Gettysburg and the Ascendant Justice, the Slipspace field will deteriorate and we will enter normal space. You need never even stop. And only a minor course correction puts the Gettysburg on the correct trajectory."

"Has a drop out of Slipspace ever been attempted in a ship so small?" the Admiral asked. His heavy brows knitted together.

"Yes, sir," Cortana said. "Our Slipspace probes perform the maneuver all the time, but the shearing stress and radiation are considerable." She paused and looked toward John. "The Spartans, however, in the MJOLNIR armor should be able to survive."

" 'Should,' " the Admiral echoed, his face grim. "As much as I admire your daring, Chief, I still have to deny your request. You'll need Cortana to get past the Covenant security systems. She has to make it to Earth. With the data she's carrying on Halo, the Flood, and Covenant technology, she's far too valuable to risk."

"Understood, sir," John replied. "I hadn't considered that."

Haverson slowly stood and brushed the sleeves of his tattered uniform. "I'll volunteer to go on the Master Chief's mission," he said. "I have extensive training in cryptology and Covenant systems."

Admiral Whitcomb narrowed his eyes and reexamined the Lieutenant as if seeing him for the first time.

"You'd never survive the Slipspace transition," Cortana told him. "But..." She tapped her lip with her forefinger, deep in thought. "There might be another way."

Covenant icons entered the stream of symbols flowing along the surface of her holographic body. "I discovered a file-duplication algorithm in the Covenant AI on Ascendant Justice. I successfully used it to reproduce my language-translation routines. I might use it to copy portions of my infiltration programming into the memory-processing matrix in the Master Chief's MJOLNIR armor. It won't be a full copy—there are replication errors and other side effects—but it would give the Spartan team access to some of my capabilities. Enough, I think, to get them through the Covenant security barriers."

Admiral Whitcomb sighed deeply. He stood, went to the bar, and then returned to the table carrying a bottle of whiskey and three intact crystal tumblers. "I assume you Spartans won't join me in a drink?"

"No, sir," John replied, answering for his team. "Thank you, sir."

The Admiral set a glass before Haverson, the Sergeant, and himself. But before he poured, he set the bottle down and shook his head as if a drink were suddenly the last thing he wanted. "You realize, Chief, that you and your team will be on your own? That my first, my only priority, must be to get to Earth?"

"My team is willing to accept the risk," the Chief said.

"The risk?" the Admiral whispered. "It's a one-way ticket, son. But if you're willing to do it, if you can slow the Covenant assault on Earth, then, hell, it might be worth the trade."

The Chief had no reply to this. He and his Spartans had survived against impossible odds before. Yet the Admiral was right: There seemed to be something final about this mission ... something that told John he wouldn't make it. That was acceptable. The cause more than justified the sacrifice of four when measured against billions of lives on Earth.

Admiral Whitcomb stood and said, "Very well, Master Chief. Mission request approved."

The Master Chief parked the groaning overloaded robotic dolly next to the side hatch of the Covenant dropship. The dolly held four tons of carbon-molybdenum steel I-beams.

Will unloaded the cargo and hauled it inside, where Fred and the Sergeant cross-braced and welded the beams in place.

This was the final reinforcement to the dropship. The interior of the craft was so cramped that two armored Spartans could barely pass one another.

They had welded layers of lead, boron fibers, and Titanium-A hull plates they had removed from the Gettysburg. According to Cortana's calculations, this was the only way to give them better than fifty-fifty odds of emerging from a Slipspace transition with an intact ship.

Admiral Whitcomb monitored the display of a computer repair cart, then looked up and said, "Cortana is ready for you, Chief." He waved him over.

The Chief marched to the cart and let the Admiral hook up the interface to the base of his neck. "This should feel just like a normal download," he said.

Chilled mercury filled John's mind just like it always did when Cortana entered and fused with his thoughts. This presence, however, warmed too quickly, as if it were just thin ice melting against his body's heat. It was like a recollection of Cortana inside his head—not the real thing.

"Initializing MJOLNIR armor systems check and subroutine unpacking protocols," Cortana's voice whispered. At the same time, the real Cortana also spoke over the COM: "Don't listen to her. She's only half the woman she used to be."

"As long as you only copied the good parts," the Chief replied.

"I'm all good," Cortana replied tersely. "Just don't get too used to a passenger you can order around."

"I wouldn't dream of it."

"Systems check complete," the copied Cortana whispered.

"All systems are functional."

Linda approached the opposite side of the Covenant dropship; a robot dolly followed stacked with rifles, Lotus antitank mines, explosives, and crates of ammunition. She angled the dolly and led it up the loading ramp until it butted against the hull.

Fred emerged from inside, and Linda handed him an armful of submachine guns. The Master Chief detected a slight limp to her stride and an almost imperceptible awkwardness to her usual fluid motions. He opened a private COM channel to Linda. "What's your status? Are you fit?"

She shrugged. This gesture was notoriously difficult to perform in MJOLNIR armor with its force-multiplying circuits. It took a degree of concentration and dexterity that spoke volumes about Linda's true coordination.

"Doctor Halsey would say I needed a month's bed rest," she wryly replied. "But I'm squared away, Chief. I still have this." She picked her sniper rifle off the dolly and slung it over her shoulder with a liquid grace. "And I still have this." She patted her helmet. "Even though the Covenant did their best to shoot it off last time." She stepped closer to him. "I can take care of myself. And I can take care of the team's back. I've never let you down, sir. I don't plan on doing so now."

He nodded.

What John wanted to do, however, was order her to stay behind. But he'd need her uncanny skill with the sniper rifle on this mission. He'd need her so they could survive just long enough to stop the Covenant.

If he could have accomplished this mission alone, he would have made everyone on Blue Team stay. His team, however, knew the risks and knew the payoff for their sacrifice. It was as good a final fate as any soldier could ask for.

He marched to the other hatch on the dropship and boarded the craft. There was one last detail to take care of with Lieutenant Haverson. John moved past Sergeant Johnson who, obscured by a shower of sparks, welded the last supporting I-beam in place.

The Lieutenant sat in the cockpit checking the automated routines that Cortana had uploaded into the system. These would generate the proper coded responses to Covenant queries. They had also changed the dropship's registry tag so the Covenant would not recognize this ship as belonging to the now renegade Ascendant Justice.

"Lieutenant," the Master Chief said. "Forgive the interruption."

Haverson looked up and slicked the sweat-drenched hair from his face. "What can I do for you, Chief?"

The Master Chief eased into the copilot's seat. "Dr. Halsey gave me something to pass on to ONI Section Three: her analysis on the Flood."

Haverson's eyebrows shot up.

He opened his belt compartment .. . and hesitated. Which data crystal? The one only containing Dr. Halsey's Flood analysis and possible inoculation? Or the one containing the source files for her conclusions, the one she said would kill Sergeant Johnson?

While John felt justified in gambling his life and the lives of the other Spartans, that was his choice as their commander to make. That wasn't the case for the Sergeant.

It was a biological fluke that had spared the Sergeant from the Flood. A one-in-a-billion shot, the doctor had said. But it was a billion-to-one shot that he could save billions of lives. So the mathematics of the situation were almost even.

What had Dr. Halsey said about saving every person, no matter what the cost?

No—John had sworn an oath to protect all of humanity. His duty was clear. He reached for the crystal containing the complete files and handed it to Lieutenant Haverson. "She said it would help fight the Flood, sir. I'm not exactly sure what she meant."

"We'll see, Chief. Thank you." Haverson took the crystal and peered into his depths. He shrugged. "With Doctor Halsey, who can tell?"

The COM channel clicked, and Cortana announced, "Ten minutes until we reach the drop zone. Make final preparations to launch Blue Team. You'll only get one shot at this."

"Roger that, Cortana," the Chief replied. "Spartans, on deck!" Haverson tentatively extended his hand. "I guess this is it, Chief." The Chief gently shook the Lieutenant's hand. "Good luck, sir."

John moved back though the dropship—almost running over Sergeant Johnson, who was dragging the arc welder down the gangway.

"Allow me, Sergeant." John grasped the two-hundred-kilogram machine and lifted it with one hand.

The Master Chief exited the dropship, and he and the other Spartans assembled outside. He stowed the arc welder and took his position at the head of the Spartan formation.

Admiral Whitcomb looked them over once and then said, "I'd wish you luck, Master Chief, but you Spartans seem to make your own luck. So let me just say I'll see you all when this is over."

He saluted them and they returned the salute.

"Just one last order," the Admiral said.

"Sir?"

"Give'em hell."