The blackness of space wrinkled, split, and flared blue – and where once was nothing but stellar dust, a Covenant Cruiser emerged, weapons hot and shields up, fighters launching from hangar bays. In short, what emerged was the Covenant equivalent of the harbinger of death.
Zuro was glad that it was his ship. He would not want to have to face such a ship – especially with a Fleet Master such as himself at its command.
The blue faded, giving way to the inky blackness of space beyond, far off stars winking like pinpricks of light. Normally, he would have gazed at it. Its beauty never tired him. But right now, he had more important matters to attend to.
“I want sublight engines running at one-third speed, divert shielding to frontal hull sections. Deploy the Seraph squadrons into escort formation, and broadcast the message across the Prophets channels.”
He leaned on the raised platform’s railing for a moment, gathering his strength. Slipspace always exhausted him – it affected everyone differently, Zuro was only glad that it was nothing more serious than tiredness – rather than physical damage, or psychological trauma. Slipspace was dangerous, made more so by the Covenant’s woefully lacking understanding of it. But it was a necessary thing if the Covenant empire was to function, and so Zuro tolerated it.
His second in command, Tulo ‘Kotarqee, clenched a fist to his chest in salute. “Engines run at one-third speed, Excellency. Channels are open – no response as of yet.”
He straightened up, his cloak billowing as if there were a breeze. He looked, for all the galaxy, as if he were one of the mighty Fleet Masters of legend stepping out of the pages of history.
Perhaps someday his life would be history. But right now, he lived for the present.
“Order the fighters to take up dispersal pattern ALEPH. I want anything larger than a body vaporised. Begin long range sensor sweeps, and continue broadcast. And if you find any heretic ships, destroy them on sight. Nothing must taint the holy relics.”
“By your command.”
What response had he expected? Zuro didn’t know, but it was standard practice, and stopped the Covenant from glassing any relics that still functioned. If there remained the remnants of the Forerunners lives as mortal flesh in this star system, he would find them, and claim them for the Covenant.
The system was certainly cluttered, he thought, staring out into the holographic representation of the region of space they had arrived at. One Unit away from the systems star, an cloud of dust and debris enclosed the system, thinning above and below the star but thickest around its equator. Parts of it were mere dust, but crackled with electricity, jumping constantly as particles met. Boulders collided in space, cracking, and spinning off to form smaller objects, or join larger ones. An elegant dance in space that would continue endlessly.
Beyond that, the sensors registered only cold dead rocks or mammoth gas giants. He made a mental note to check them later for other relics – the Old Ones were renown for their curious attachment to gas giants, and had left many facilities behind orbiting them.
But his interest was drawn to a small, flashing red arrow, pointing to a region in the asteroid belt.
"Excellency, we have pinpointed the reliquary worlds position,” said Tulo, pointing to a particular region of space.
Zuro bared his teeth, irritated. “We cannot pass through this,” he barked out. “Even with full power, our shields would rapidly fail under such forces, and our sensors would be blinded. Can we not make a slipspace jump within it?”
His navigation officer, ancient ‘Tanaklee, shook his head. “We cannot jump where we cannot see. We might emerge within the planets core, or collide with debris. We would be no safer making a straight course.”
Zuro cursed his luck. A reliquary world within his grasp, ripe for the claim…and unreachable.
“Can we make a path? Use our laser and plasma cannons to carve out a safe tunnel through the belt?”
‘Tanakree squinted. “We may not need to.” He rotated the hologram slightly, zooming in. “There. A clear region. Sensors indicate that it stretches for a considerable distance – perhaps there is already a tunnel there?”
“How recent?” Zuro asked, suspicious. “Any indications that it was made by heretics or humans?”
“None, Fleet Master. It is ancient, and begun to fray at the edges, but was once as clean cut as anything the Forerunners did.”
“Then signal the fleet. We have found our prize and our entrance.”
His COM officer nodded, sending the broadcast across slipspace channels.
Space rippled and distorted, stretched, and burst with blue light. Around them, more ships entered the system, the other members of the Fleet of Benevolent Enlightenment. All had armed their weapons and raised their shields, in case of ambush. Zuro doubted that any lying in wait would have turned down the Purity of Spirit as such a tempting target, but the Supreme Commander had not thought so.
There were many things they disagreed about. But Supreme Commander Kuna ‘Tsunamee was an honourable warrior, and a veteran of the Unggoy Rebellion. He knew many tactics, and was cautious.
But caution could hold you back. Fortune favoured the bold, and Zuro had certainly been called that, among other things.
The ships com crackled as the message arrived. “Sent the fleet in. We shall claim our prize, and go down in history as the ones who began the Great Journey!”
Zuro smiled wryly at Tulo. “You heard the old man. Take us in.”
UNSC CLARION DRONE 423-7G
>>PRIORITY ALERT: ENEMY CONTACTS DETECTED
>>APPROXIMATE: 32 DESTROYERS, 13 CRUISERS AND 1 ASSAULT CARRIER
>>TRANSMITTING: INTELLIGENCE TO REGIONAL CENTRAL COMMAND
>>ATTACHMENT: THE HOT GATES ARE OPENING. BEGIN PHASE ONE.
"This is the Lacrimosa! We have visual contact with the enemy!"
"CENTCOM to Ark Royal – good luck out there admiral."
"You too General."
“Oh my god…oh my god…”
“Fighters are launching! Medical bays are ready to receive casualties!”
“Yellow Alert! Yellow Alert!”
Stanley managed to get his hands over his ears as klaxons sounded, before a Petty Officer reached the controls, turning them down.
“Damnit, I thought ONI said they’d overhauled it?” growled his XO.
“Apparently they missed the alarms,” said Stanley sarcastically. “This was once a civilian ship. I doubt a colony ship was ever meant to engage an enemy fleet.”
Stanley activated the PA system. “This is the captain. Covenant warships have entered the system, and are at point Alpha of the route inward. All hands to battle stations. This is not a drill. I repeat, all hands to battle stations.”
There was a flicker of light on the holotank next to his chair, and a female chuckle.
“You could have let me do that, Captain.”
Stanley frowned. “These are my crew, and this is my ship. And I give the orders until otherwise.”
“Yes sir. But there is such a thing as “delegating”. You really should look it up.”
“I know what it means, Tinuviel, and I can pull my weight. Now get back to running this ship, or running algorithms, or whatever it is you do.”
The light sputtered out, but Stanley thought he saw the ghost of a wide grin linger for a moment before the holotank hummed to a stop.
Damn ONI spooks. They’d altered his ship, changed his crew, and now he had an AI to deal with.
Well, that wasn’t quite all there was to it. Tinuviel made the slipspace calculations, operated the internal systems, cross-checked every function of the ship, and assisted in the tactical matters. That was fine, and if that was all there was to it Captain Stanley would have been fine. But she was an ONI AI, and her objectives were certainly not Stanleys. She listened all the time, and occasionally small errors would crop up around the ships internal computer arrays. Nothing crippling, but minor things. And Stanley didn’t trust her.
That wasn’t to say he didn’t like her. She could be pleasant, and she didn't breach military conduct. But trust was everything aboard a ship, and once you lost that, there wasn’t much you had.
“Take the safeties off the CIWS and the Archer pods, and prime the MAC’s. I want a firing solution on them as soon as they emerge from the Corridor.”
"Aye aye captain.” Lieutenant Steyr at TAC OPS, and Lieutenant Tavor at WEP OPS, were almost a single voice as they performed their duties.
Through the bulkhead view ports, Stanley could just make out the shapes of the rest of the UNSC 30th Fleet – frigates, destroyers, cruisers and four mammoth Carriers. Including the Aeneas, that was fifty seven ships, and all of them had their weapons trained on the only way a ship could enter the Minorca region of the system.
The fleet was in position. The corridor was narrow – and the fleet was heavily armed. With such a dense concentration of enemy ships, it would be hard to miss. Like shooting fish in a barrel – except, Stanley thought, fish didn’t shoot back.
The Juno Corridor was an unusual phenomena, a perfect tunnel through the dust and debris of the Agatean Cloud. Nobody really knew if it was natural, or if was artificial. But it twisted and turned and doubled back, and lightning bolts arced from asteroid to asteroid and through the dust, making it a dangerous labyrinth. It could be navigated, but mistakes took a high cost.
As the first enemy ships emerged from the Corridor, Stanley could see that their cost had been high.
There were flickers surrounding the first ship, a destroyer, where lightning struck its energy shields. A bolt struck the hull, sending sparks flying and burning off a laser turret. The hull looked pitted and scarred from debris, but not breached.
Damn. Stanley had hoped the Corridor would do at least some of the work for them.
“On my command, I want coordinated fire from the battlegroup, simultaneous MAC and missile strikes."
Grumman nodded, relaying the odred to the COM officer, and in turn to the other ships.
“Firing solution locked, captain!”
Around them, the other ships opened fire. Archer missile pods rocketed through space, trailing plumes of exhaust. MAC rounds lanced past the missiles, striking shields and tearing into hull plating – the missiles caught up, finishing them off.
Four ships shattered under the onslaught, a fifth careened into another, both erupting in glaring white light and purple plasma, and a cruiser was knocked back a thousand meters by the force. The Covenant ships accelerated, realising that they were in a trap, hurrying to escape before its jaws could shut on them.
“Lock onto the next ship, before they clear the dust cloud!”
“Affirmative! Target lock acquired!”
The enemy ships that had survived had formed into a defensive formation – ships with higher shield charges in front, weaker ones in back, surrounding the Carrier. More Covenant destroyers flared as missiles and depleted uranium slugs crashed through weakened shields, slammed into vulnerable hull.
Stanley grunted with satisfaction. In less than five minutes, they’d destroyed half of the enemy fleet!
“Send the order to the battle group, break and engage targets at will.”
There were affirmative transmissions, and the smaller ships accelerated, now firing indiscriminately. Enemy and friendly ships closed ranks.
Commader Grumman coughed slightly. “Captain, Azure Team is requesting an SOEIV drop.”
“Not now, Commander. We don’t have the time to drop them on Minorca.”
“They know, Captain. They don’t want to go to Minorca.”
Stanley raised an eyebrow at Grumman.
“Then WHERE is their target?”
He followed Grummans gaze...out, into space, and into the midst of the enemy formation.
“now things get interesting…”