CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

1820 hours, September 13,2552 (revised date,Military Calendar)\Aboard Covenant battle station

Unyielding Hierophant.

The Master Chief accelerated his Banshee to its top speed.

There was another explosion at the temple, and plumes of steam geysered into the air from the heat-exchange plant. The circling formations of Banshees scattered.

John tucked as close as he could to his flier's fuselage and coaxed every bit of speed from the craft.

A pair of Banshees swooped in, one off his port, the other on his starboard. Their plasma weapons heated; John rolled back and forth to throw their aim. He braced for impact... but there was none.

The Chief craned his head back and saw the pilot of the lead Banshee slump, slide offthe flier, and plummet to the ground. The trailing Banshee was riderless as well... only a blood-spattered cockpit and cowling.

Linda still had him covered—had taken out both pilots with precise fire. She had to be close.

John scanned the area. There were spires and water-reclamation towers, transport tubes and catwalks that crisscrossed the center of the interior. There was a nexus of walkways near the beam of illumination that ran down the center of the station, a location with enough glare that a sniper might hide in the open undetected.

He risked keying Linda's private COM channel. "Thought you might need a ride, so I—"

An energy mortar blasted over John's shoulder, burning the air like a sun in close orbit and draining his shields to half. It impacted a water tower, and the structure detonated into a cloud of blinding steam.

John punched the Banshee through the cloud, glanced down, and saw a Wraith tank tracking his trajectory. He ducked and weaved but kept moving toward Linda's probable location.

His mission countdown timer read 7:06. There was no time for fancy evasive maneuvers.

Did Linda even want to be found? Maybe she wanted him to get to safety and leave her behind? It's what he would have done. "Position report, Linda," John barked over the COM. "That's

a direct order."

Three seconds ticked off his mission clock and then the six-tone "Oly Oly Oxen Free " song whistled through John's speakers and a NAV marker appeared on his heads-up display.

The triangular marker centered on a rope that ran between two transit tubes and dangled perilously close to the high-intensity light beam. It was a barely discernible thread that ran through a hard shadow cast by a nearby catwalk.

John hit his image enhancers. Through the glare of the light, and in the depths of the shadow, he caught the flicker of reflected optics.

Linda used both the brilliant light and the darkness to hide.

John angled the Banshee to her. He clipped the tether line from his belt to the frame of the Banshee and squeezed his thighs tighter onto the seat.

When he was thirty meters away, he made visual contact. Linda had the rope coiled about a boot and wrapped about one forearm. She held her sniper rifle in one arm, and John could only surmise that she had been firing from such an impossible position.

She uncoiled the rope from her boot, swung, released at the apex of the arc—and fell toward him.

John forced the Banshee's cowling up against straining hydraulics and stretched out his arm, his fingers touched hers— and her hand slapped firmly into his gauntlet.

He swung her around and over his shoulder. Linda landed in front of him, straddling the seat. John spun the Banshee about and accelerated back to the windows. The craft's forward cowling remained wrenched up and

slowed them down—but there was no other way to fit two people on the craft. "Coming in hot," John said over the COM to Fred and Will. "Open the door and get ready for a quick exit, Blue Team."

Fred's acknowledgment light winked on.

"Cortana, breach those air locks. Now!"

A cacophony of voices filled John's COM. There were so many copies of Cortana speaking at the same time he couldn't make out anything coherent.

"Cortana, the air locks."

There was apop of static. "Apologies, Chief," Cortana replied.

"I'vespunoffadedicatedcopyto... to...speakwithyou." John thought she had already made a copy to talk directly with him. What had happened to it? "Override the air lock safeties, Cortana. Open the external and repair bay doors."

"Working, Chief. There's too much system COM traffic. So many of us. Near saturation level. Have to fight to get. . . Stand by..."

An explosion appeared a kilometer away along the far wall. The Lotus antitank mine became a blossom of flame and black smoke that drifted and diffused and left a spiderweb of cracks on the meter-thick translucent section.

But the window held.

That Lotus antitank mine could have sheared through that wall even if it had been reinforced steel, but this wall had remained in one piece.

They were stuck inside.

Three hundred meters to the window.

"Cortana!"

In John's peripheral vision he saw clouds of Banshees and Ghost fliers gaining on them. "Cortana—it's now or never!" "In ..." Cortana's voice was faint. "Intersystem failure 08934

EE. Global system error 9845-W. Resetting. Inner doors open. Override in progress. System lockdo—"

The COM went dead.

A hundred meters away, beyond the cracked window, the atmosphere turned white for a split second then cleared. Spaced every twenty meters along the bay walls, the air lock doors were opening. Beyond, stars shone upon velvet black.

Fred and Will's Banshees appeared off John's starboard canard. John pointed and together they dived, accelerating toward a bull's-eye pattern of cracks on the translucent portion of the wall.

That web of fissures spread: fingers that stretched and split along the length of the window... slowed and stopped.

John fired the Banshee's plasma cannons. Fred opened fire as well, and four blobs of plasma splashed across the glassy surface fifty meters away.

The window flexed, crackled, tiny flakes popped off. . . but the translucent material remained stubbornly intact. John was thirty meters from the surface—he'd have to veer off now, or impact upon it. He gritted his teeth and braced himself.

Ten meters.

The window's smooth surface flashed into a jigsaw mosaic. The squealing of glass over glass filled the air. It shattered.

The entire length crumbled and instantly blasted into the vacuum of space—swept out by the pressurized atmosphere filling the interior of the station.

John tried to maneuver the Banshee. He bounced into the repair bay, rolled the craft over and upright—fell off, tumbled though the air lock . . . and drifted away into the darkness of space.

He flailed his limbs in the zero gravity, and the tether on his belt snapped taut. He recoiled back toward the Banshee. Linda held on with one hand and held out the other to him. He climbed back aboard and tapped the thrusters to stabilize their pitch and yaw.

Behind them the station vented gas as well as the bodies of Covenant Engineers, Grunts, Jackals, and Elites. Clouds of metal junk bled from the ruptures. Tendrils of steam flash froze into glittering ice crystals.

The Covenant fleet moved as well—some cruisers closed with the station, others moved farther away. There were five hundred alien warships without leadership from their commandand-control center, and they reminded John of motes of dust in a sunbeam—silently floating in every direction.

John spotted a dropship drifting a kilometer ahead, dead in space. He clicked his COM once and dropped a NAV marker onto a Covenant craft. Fred and Will's acknowledgment lights winked on.

John pulsed the Banshee's engines once and let its inertia carry them to the dropship. He hoped the rest of the Covenant Fleet was trying to figure out what had just happened... and not paying any attention to one more piece of debris floating in space.

The Banshees gently impacted onto the tumbling dropship. John grasped the hull, and Linda scrabbled over him, opened the port access hatch, and entered. Fred and Will drifted closer, and John helped them aboard.

He hesitated and took another look at the Covenant fleet. Hundred of ships without control. But how long would that last? Even if the station's reactors chained and blew... the Covenant still had enough force to destroy Earth's defenses and burn it to a cinder.

All they had done was buy a little time: as long as it took for someone to take charge of the Covenant fleet. That wasn't enough, but John wasn't sure what else to do.

He crawled to the hatch, entered the ship, and sealed it behind him.

Linda stood at the pilot's console while Fred stood beside her manning the ops station. An engine schematic appeared in front of Linda, and power pulsed through its plasma coils. The interior lights dimly glowed.

"Where to, Chief?" Linda asked.

"Away," John said and looked at the system NAV display. He pointed to the tiny moon orbiting the nearby planet. "Get us into the moon's shadow. But slow. Try not to attract any attention."

His countdown timer read 5:12. They might still have time.

"Roger," Linda said.

The dropship spun about and gently moved away from the station, almost imperceptibly accelerating toward the tiny moon covered with black and silver pockmarks.

Fred hunched over his console. Thick spiky lines representing the Covenant F-through K-bands fluxed and flickered on his screen. "Covenant COM channels are jammed," he reported.

"Communiques and queries to and from every ship in the fleet wondering what the hell is going on. And the station's COM channels are all full of those copied Cortanas ... and she's just repeating different system error codes."

"What's this?" John asked, leaning over Fred's shoulder. He pointed to one COM band with only a single spike.

Fred looked at the Covenant calligraphy for a long moment, and then inhaled sharply. "If the translation software is working right," he whispered, "that's the E-band... it's one of ours."

Fred snapped on the external speakers. Six tones beeped, stopped, and then repeated. "Oly Oly Oxen Free," John breathed. "Send the countersign, Fred."

"Aye, Chief. Sending now."

Who could have sent that signal? There was no other living Spartan in this system. Unless it was Dr. Halsey and Kelly. Had they somehow tracked them?

"It's about time you showed up." The drawling voice of Admiral Whitcomb was loud and clear over the COM. "Switch to encryption scheme 'Rainbow.' "

John nodded to Fred, who ran a shunt from the Covenant COM into the data port in the back of his helmet. "Decryption online," Fred reported.

"Admiral," John said. "With all due respect, sir, why are you here?"

"Lieutenant Haverson suggested we drop out of Slipspace on the edge of this system—hide in the Oort cloud and gather a little intel." The Admiral sighed. "Well, I took one look and figured that even if you took out that station... hell, son, there'd still be a couple of hundred Covenant ships within spittin' distance of Earth. Me getting there and warning them about it wouldn't make a lick of difference. So I'm going to do something about it here and now. You've done your part, Chief. Leave the rest to me."

There was a pause, then the Admiral asked in a low, serious tone, "You did get it done, didn't you, son? You got that station rigged to blow?"

"Yes, sir." John linked his mission timer to the COM. "Four minutes thirty-two seconds and counting."

"Perfect, Master Chief. Bring 'em on back to the barn. Stay on your heading. Your instincts are dead on. We're on the far side of the moon and are waiting for you."

John motioned to Linda to increase their velocity. She pushed the acceleration stripe to three quarters power.

"Waiting, sir?"

"Whitcomb over and out." The COM went dead.

John looked to Will, Fred, and Linda, and they all shrugged.

He pushed the acceleration stripe to full velocity, and the dropship entered a high orbit around the splotchy moon, arcing around to the far side, where the battered Gettysburg waited for them.

But only the Gettysburg.

"Where's Ascendant Justice?" John whispered.