CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

0530 hours, September 13,2552 (revised date, Military Calendar)\Aboard captured Covenant dropship, in Slipspace.

The dropship rolled, inverted, and spun out of control. It tumbled and pitched, and one of the I-beams solidly welded to the hull bucked and snapped.

The Spartans of Blue Team were strapped to the hull in quick-release harnesses. No one, however, gave any thought to the red quick-release button in the center of their chests. They were all hanging on for their lives.

The forward monitor was black because there was nothing for them to see in Slipspace. The only light inside the dropship came from chemical light sticks activated and tossed inside before they departed. Those plastic sticks had cracked, and their luminous contents had balled into a million microscopic blobs in the zero gee.

Although the hydrostatic gel inside his MJOLNIR armor had been pressurized to its maximum safe value, John's bones still felt as if they were being shaken apart.

This violent ride started when they had cleared Ascendant Justice's launch bay and entered the inky void of Slipspace. This "normal" Slipspace was nothing like John had experienced before. Without the smoothing effect of Dr. Halsey's alien crystal—this ride was a thousand times worse.

Radiation levels spiked and dipped... but so far the dosages getting into the lead-lined dropship were survivable. "Now I know," Linda said, "why only big ships travel through Slipspace."

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"You know those SS probes?" Fred asked. "They're almost solid Titanium-A."

The Master Chief checked his team's biosigns: erratic but still within normal operational parameters. Grace's heart skipped a beat or two, but then returned to a normal strong rhythm. No broken bones or signs of internal bleeding yet, either. It was also a good sign that Blue Team were reasonably calm about their dire situation. The Chief knew it was all they could do until they cleared the Slipspace field generated by Ascendant Justice.

He ran a diagnostic on his MJOLNIR shields. They still recharged faster than they were drained by the ambient radiation that stormed invisibly around them. He wished the real Cortana were with him. She would have said something to distract him.

"Status?" John asked. Four blue acknowledgment lights winked on, and four Spartans gave him thumbs-up signals.

Fred chimed in, "This isn't so bad. The last insertion I made, we hit the ground before the dropship. Now, that was a rough ride. We were—"

The dropship lurched violently and cut off Fred's story. Cracks appeared along the armor welded to the port wall. Molten lead oozed from the rupture.

Despite the hydrostatic gel and the padding, a jolt slammed the Master Chief's head against the front of his helmet with force enough to make black stars explode in his eyes. Another jolt slammed his head into the back of his helmet. The inside of the dropship went entirely dark.

"Chief? Chief?" Cortana's voice whispered through his helmet speaker. "Chief, respond please."

John's vision came into focus. His biosigns sluggishly pulsed on his heads-up display. Beyond the display, it was completely dark. He activated his external lights and pointed his head along the interior of the dropship.

His Spartans hung limp in their harnesses. Aside from spheres of lead that had melted under the hull armor, resolidified, and now floated like champagne bubbles in the interior of the vessel, there was no other discernible motion.

"We made it?"

"Affirmative," the cloned Cortana answered. "I'm picking up a tremendous volume of Covenant COM traffic on the F-through K-bands. They've pinged us three times already for a response, Chief. Awaiting orders."

"How can you pick up any signal inside this lead-lined hull?"

"The hull is breached in many sections, Chief. The COM traffic is also unusually strong, indicating extremely close proximity of Covenant forces."

"Stand by," he told her. He hit the quick release on his harness and floated free. He called up Blue Team's biosigns and found them all unconscious, but alive. He grabbed a first-aid kit, injected them each with a mild stimulant, and released them from their safety restraints.

"Where are we?" Will asked.

The Master Chief looked instinctively to the forward monitors, but they were dead. "There's only one way to find out," he replied. "I'll take the portside hatch. Fred, you're on the starboard."

"Roger, Blue-One," Fred replied.

The Chief rotated the manual release of the hatch and it eased open. Beyond was the velvet black of space, filled with stars that shone yellow and amber and red. He clipped a tether onto his suit and then onto the hull and leaned out the hatch.

As Cortana had indicated, there were Covenant forces in close proximity. A cruiser glided silently past them three hundred meters away. All John could see was its silver-blue hull, its plasma turrets with their lateral lines aglow with fire, and the flare of its engine cones as it passed... and then John saw the rest of them.

There were Covenant cruisers and larger carriers; there were even bigger vessels with five bulbous sections that were two kilometers stem to stern and had a dozen deadly energy projectors. Motes of dust swirled between the numerous ships: Seraph fighters, dropships, and tentacled Engineer pods.

"How many ships," he asked Cortana, "are we looking at?"

"Two hundred forty-seven warships," she replied. "Estimation of the total population based on the sampling from your limited field of vision puts that total number at more than five hundred Covenant warships."

For the first time the Chief froze; his gauntlets locked onto the edge of the hatch, and his arms failed to respond. Five hundred ships? There was more firepower here than he had ever seen before. This fleet would easily overwhelm any UNSC defensive force—whether or not the Admiral got through with his warning. Their opening salvo would be a tidal wave of plasma, and it would obliterate Earth's orbital fortresses before they could fire a shot.

A thousand kilometers below, space rippled, parted, and seven more cruisers appeared in normal space. They maneuvered to join the rest of the pack.

John realized he had seen this magnitude of destructive power: Halo. The ring was a weapon designed to kill all sentient life for dozens of light-years in every direction.

And he had stopped that threat. He could stop this one, too. He had to.

His plan called for the infiltration and destruction of their command-and-control station. But how would that stop this gathering offeree? It wouldn't... but it might buy Earth enough time to come up with a plan to counter this seemingly invincible armada.

"You said they've pinged us three times?" John asked Cortana.

"Affirmative. They've been curious about our status, but not as much as you might expect. There's a tremendous amount of COM traffic. They're probably only interested in us as a navigation hazard."

"Send a signal and explain that our engines are crippled and we'll need assistance to move. Let's see if we can get them to take us to this central station for repairs."

"Sending message now."

The Master Chief piped what he was seeing to Blue Team. "Time to wake up," he said. "Armor and weapons check on the double."

There was a pause of several seconds before Blue Team's acknowledgment lights pulsed in his HUD. He knew they were having the same reaction of fear, and then drawing the same conclusion as he had about their mission. They couldn't fail: The fate of humanity lay in their hands.

John angled his head around to take a look at the dropship.

The majority of the dropship's hull had peeled away, and lead and titanium plates underneath showed through. Without their reinforcements, the craft would have disintegrated on the rough ride through Slipspace.

"Covenant C & C responding to our request," the copied Cortana informed him. "Ferry en route to take us in for repairs. They were a little confused about which warship we belong to, but I simulated static to cover our ship's registration ID. They're too busy to take too close a look at us."

The Master Chief returned inside the dropship. "We're getting towed," he told Blue Team.

Linda came up to him and made a circle in the air with her index finger. John nodded and turned around so she could visually inspect his MJOLNIR suit. Computer diagnostics were fine, but his Spartans didn't take any chances with their armor. Especially not in an evacuated environment.

"You're good," she told him.

John then returned the favor and examined her suit. Fred and Will had done an excellent job integrating the replacement parts into Linda's armor. Aside from their pristine condition, they were a perfect match.

He patted her on the shoulder and gave her a thumbs-up to indicate that her armor was in working order.

"Ordnance load out," Grace said and unraveled the duffel bags they had tied to the hull. The packages had been wrapped with lead foil, layers of thermal padding, and then a layer of utility tape. "Heavy or light?" she asked.

"We go in heavy," John said. "Except Linda."

Linda started to object, but he explained, "We'll need you to hang back and cover us with your sniper rifle. I want you fast and deadly. Take a close-range weapon, extra ammo, and whatever you need to keep your sniper rifle working in the field."

"Roger," Linda said. Her voice was cold, hard, and brittle. This was the voice John had heard as she reported in while sniping targets around the team. John sometimes found it a little too cold... but he knew this was a good sign. Linda was preparing to do what she did best: kill with a single shot.

"The rest of us will take whatever we can carry. Once we're in I have a feeling we won't be able to come back. If we have to, we can always lighten our load."

The Chief grabbed a battle rifle and, for close use, a pair of submachine guns. He took a pair of silencers for the SMGs and hip holsters for the smaller weapons. He picked up a dozen frag grenades in their plastic ring carrier and slotted that into the left thigh section of his armor.

He'd need ammunition, a lot of it, if things got hot. So he took extra clips for the SMGs and the battle rifle and taped them onto his chest, arms, and right thigh. More clips went into a backpack, along with two Lotus antitank mines, a few cans of C-7 explosive, detonators, timers, two field first-aid kits, and a fiber-optic probe.

While the rest of Blue Team got their gear together, John told them, "Stay off the COM from now on."

They all nodded.

Lead lining or not, they were close to too many listening Covenant ears to take any more chances with the COM.

He moved to the still-open port hatch, slid the fiber-optic probe outside, and plugged it into his helmet. Grainy images appeared on his heads-up display.

Hundreds of Covenant ships swarmed into view. In their midst a speck glowed and grew larger until the Master Chief saw it was a ship of similar design to their own: two U-shaped hulls, each the size of their dropship, sat on top of one another. This ship accelerated toward them and separated—one part moved to their dropship's stern and the other drifted to the nose.

The clanging of metal on metal reverberated through the hull, and the Master Chief felt a gentle motion in the pit of his stomach.

He looked back and passed on a thumbs-up to Fred, indicating that their tow had arrived, and Fred passed this signal on to the rest of the team.

On the fiber-optic feed the Master Chief saw that the Covenant tug maneuvered them through the fleet, up, over, and around ships a hundred times their size. There was a moment when they dived and there was nothing on screen save the stars and black of space. The Master Chief got a glimpse of the gold-colored star on his heads-up display, and then the video feed moved over to a planet of ocher smeared with clouds of sulfur dioxide and an orbiting moon of silver.

The tug turned to face a new ship in the distance. This vessel looked like two teardrop-shaped Covenant ships that had collided, giving the result an overall elongated figure-eight geometry.

They moved toward this ship, and the Master Chief made out more details. Spokes radiated from the narrow midpoint of the vessel and connected to a slender ring that he hadn't seen before because they had approached facing it edge-on. Featherlike tubes extended from either bulbous section and moved slowly over that central wheel. John squinted to make out more details on this unusual ship, but he was already at maximum resolution.

It had a ring? Was it rotating? But the Covenant had gravitational technology. They didn't need rotating sections to simulate gravity.

Then he saw something recognizable on the structure: tiny ships docked to that ring. Covenant cruisers and carriers. There must have been sixty connected to the central hub.

The titanic perspective of this structure clicked into place. The carriers looked like toys. The twin teardrop shapes had to be thirty kilometers end to end. This could only be the Covenant command-and-control center, the Unyielding Hierophant.

The tug moved directly toward the station. It was precisely where they had to go, so it was a lucky break... but ironically, it was also the last place the Master Chief wanted to be.

There was no telling what kind of sensors the Unyielding Hierophanthad, but they couldn't take chances. John retreated into the dropship and eased the hatch shut.

He moved deeper into the ship and waited with the rest of Blue Team. Three minutes ticked by on his mission clock; John tried to control his breathing and focus his mind.

Gravity settled his stomach, and there was a series of metallic clatters along the hull. Atmosphere hissed in though the cracks of their breached ship.

John pointed at Fred and Grace and then to the starboard hatch. They leveled their rifles and moved. He pointed to Linda and himself, then the port hatch, and they also moved into position.

John wasn't sure what kind of reception waited for them on the other side of those hatches, but one thing was certain—they'd

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302 HALO: FIRST STRIKE

have to face it head-on. There was nowhere to hide inside the re

inforced and too-cramped interior of their dropship. The port hatch cracked and squeaked open. Linda and John aimed their rifles.