Chapter One: Gateway
In our arrogance,
The eternal foe was left
In darkness - to feed.
With a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a datapad in the other, Admiral Thomas Lasky walked easily onto the bridge. The two Marine bridge guards saluted, and Lasky nodded at them as the bridge doors slid open at his approach.
As he stepped past the threshold, the familiar sounds of the Infinity's command and control center drifted into his ears. Presses on holographic keyboards, the soft crackles of comms channels, and quiet conversation. His eyes took comfort in the sight of walls bordered by ops terminals and those who worked them, the central holotables, and the forward viewports, which gave a clear view into the inky blackness of space. This was his element, and where he had felt most at home for several years.
Lasky's eyes met with Sergeant Julius, the leader of the bridge guard. "Admiral on deck!" he acknowledged, snapping to attention and raising a crisp salute while the rest of the Bridge officers did the same. The Admiral touched his datapad to his temple and gave an easy smile. "As you were."
Admiral. The title was still something he was getting used to, even eight months after the fact. It certainly felt like it hadn't been that long since he was still just a Commander, back when he was running ground operations back on Requiem, alongside the Master Chief. The simple fact was that after a brutal thirty-year war of attrition, the UNSC officer corps was severely depleted. The venerable Lord Hood, being forced now more than ever to confront the eternal enemy - time - wouldn't be around much longer to serve as that most weathered and dedicated pillar upon which the UNSC had greatly relied on. Prescient of both of these facts, UNSC HighCom instituted a new program where younger officers who had proven themselves with distinction in the heat of battle were fast-tracked into high-command positions. It was part forwards-thinking pragmatism, and part desperate necessity. So now Lasky, whose main claim to 'distinction' was by not letting the UNSC's most expensive and advanced warship ever created meet an unforeseen fiery end, was the proud owner of the rank of Admiral. The four silver stars still felt heavy on each side his collar.
He settled into his command chair and took a swig of his coffee. Rich, flavorful, and warming. Navy coffee was always damned good. Marine coffee on the other hand... Setting the drink down on an armrest, Lasky began to thumb through his datapad, checking for any important messages. Not finding any, the Admiral tapped in a few commands and brought up his guilty pleasure: the weekly War Games results between the Infinity's Spartan-IV teams.
The recent wargame competitions had been the brain child of the Master Chief and the culmination of over 5 months of intense training courtesy of both Blue Team. There had been a noticeable improvement in the performance of the Spartan-IV's during their training, so much so that the Chief had rated their performance as 'Passing.' High praise indeed coming from the Master Chief. Nevertheless, a strong spirit of competition had risen amongst the teams as a result, and Commander Palmer had organized a tournament of matches to find out which team really was the best of the best.
Lasky checked his chrono out of the corner of his eye, Monday, 2:00 a.m. Not that night and day mattered that much on a warship, as you aligned yourself around your shift, but it did mean that all of the wins and losses would have been reported.
Scrolling through the data, Lasky raised his eyebrows upon seeing that Crimson and Majestic Teams, two of the top ranked S-IV squads on the ship, had fought each other to a draw for the top spot. Surprising, considering that Crimson had a long history of victory over Majestic, but that gap had been slowly closing over the past few months. Any more thoughts he had on that line were interrupted when he saw that Castle team had thoughtfully trounced Lancer team in an incredible upset in the third round.
Lasky scowled, he had bet Sergeant Julius a bottle of Arcadian scotch on a Lancer victory. He looked over to the Sergeants post, only to see a subtle-but-knowing smile on his face. Lasky waved a finger in his general direction, and couldn't help but chuckle to himself. He took another sip of coffee, letting the sounds and conversations throughout the bridge wash over him.
"... I still don't understand why our shore leave had to be postponed for a couple of squidheads."
"A couple? I wouldn't count an entire Assault Carrier as 'a couple,' Hernandez."
"Okay, Lewis, sure. More than a couple of squidheads. All I'm saying is that right now, I could be relaxing on a beach in the Dominican, a beer in one hand and a girl in the other. But instead, I'm stuck in the middle of space waiting for his majesty the Arbiter."
"The beer I believe. The girl, not so much."
"You forget Hernandez, the Arbiter played as much as a role in saving the galaxy from the flood as Master Chief did."
"Oh sure. But where was he when the Didact attacked Earth? Too busy 'repopulating' on Sanghelios if ya know what I mean."
Lasky took that moment to interrupt. "While we were fighting the Didact, the Arbiter was up to his neck trying to protect Sanghelios from a Loyalist fleet. There was nothing he could have done to help us, and we would have done the same if we were in his position. I understand you still have some strong feelings towards the Sangheili Lieutenant Hernandez, but you have to remember that we are allies."
"Sorry Admiral, you're right," was the response of the Infinity's Chief Weapons officer.
Lieutenant Lewis, the comms officer, swiveled in her chair so that she was facing Lasky. Her hair was tucked underneath her duty cap in a tight bun, and her dark, perceptive eyes posed her question for her. "This is still a little strange sir. We've heard almost nothing from the Sangheili for two years, then their leader rings up HighCom on an encrypted channel and asks to meet? In the middle of nowhere?"
"You're right Lieutenant, there is something strange about it. But the Arbiter is a friend, and I am sure that whatever he wants to discuss, especially with this sort of secrecy, has to be important."
The unusual situation had gotten Lasky thinking. It had been eight years since the end of the Human-Covenant war, and three since the Master Chief had defeated the Didact. During that time, the alliance that had been brokered between Humanity and the Sangheili by the Arbiter had remained... cordial.
Hostilities had immediately ceased between the two factions, but after almost thirty years of brutal war each side was still more than a little wary of the other. Sure, there had been a few exchanges of knowledge, minor technologies had been swapped from warships on both sides, and there was a tentative, yet lucrative growing, trade agreement.
However, the general consensus among the human colonies was that humanity was far better off trying to rebuild the infrastructure and fortify the defenses of the planets that they still possessed, as well as continue the frantic search for Forerunner technology. Involving themselves in the happenstances of their former enemy was considered to be an unwarranted drain of their already limited resources.
The Sangheili have echoed this response, too caught up in trying to secure their own worlds and fleets while at the same time being embroiled in a civil war with the remnants of the Covenant Loyalists, those still loyal to Jul M'Dama and the Storm.
Recent Loyalist activity on the border of the outer colonies had been giving HighCom some sleepless nights. Orders had been dispatched to Infinity to link up with Task Force Yorktown after a short shore leave, and then investigate the Loyalist sightings. They Infinity had been loaded up before their patrol for a long-term deployment, and Lasky had been told to deal with any Loyalists he encountered in any way he saw fit. The Separatist Sangheili leadership had been informed of the UNSC's intentions so as not to make them…skittish about a UNSC battlegroup operating close to their territory.
In summation, both sides had been far too focused in their own dealings to pay much attention to the other, so when the leader of the Separatist Sangheili had contacted the UNSC asking for a meeting in the middle of deep space, more than a few eyebrows had been raised. Especially on the verge of Infinity linking up with Battle-group Yorktown.
"But what if it isn't the Shadow of Intent coming to meet us? What if this is some Loyalist trap?" "questioned Hernandez. I love popping Covvie ships as much as the next weapons officer Admiral, but we're on our own out here."
"That's been taken into account, and is why our shields are up and slipspace drives charged. Isn't that right Roland?"
On the central holotable, the small, orange tinted figure of a human male dressed in the heavy fur coats and pullover hat of a World War Two bomber pilot materialized into view. "Aye, aye Admiral, shields peaking at one hundred percent and we're ready to jump at your word," relayed the Infinity's resident Artificial Intelligence.
Lasky nodded. "Excellent. How much longer until the Shadow of Intent arrives?"
"Shouldn't be too much longer, we pinged their slipspace signature when they were ten minutes away, and that was three minutes ago," replied Roland.
"Very well," said Lasky, "Keep me posted."
The remaining minutes passed quickly and in relative silence, with the bridge crew getting ready for their guest's arrival.
Lasky's eyes were diverted away from his datapad by Roland's announcement: "Admiral, slipspace portal opening up a few thousand kilometers off of our bow. Size and readings typical with that of a CAS-class Assault Carrier."
Even from this distance, Lasky could see the purple-black of the slipspace portal distorting the space around it, silhouetted against the stars.
Out of the portal smoothly emerged a large, gleaming, silver warship with a bulbous, whale-like front, a sleek silhouette, and a unique hooked bow section. The vessel, clearly a warship, radiated gracefulness, but Lasky knew that hidden beneath the curved lines and sleek hull was enough firepower to take on a small fleet - and win.
"Admiral, sensor readings identify the ship as the Shadow of Intent. They're holding steady at their current position and their shields are up, but their weapons are cold like ours." he heard from Roland.
"Sir, message coming through. The Arbiter has requested permission to take a Phantom over and dock," said Lewis.
"Granted. Direct his dropship to the bridge hangar bay," replied Lasky. "Tell him that I'll be there to greet him in person."
Lewis nodded, and with that Lasky stood up out of his chair and made for the hallways.
Stepping out of the bridge, Lasky saw a gathering of six marines in the corridor, along with a single Spartan-IV adorned in pale-white MJOLNIR Gen-II power armor. As Lasky approached the group, the marines fell in formation behind him, and the Spartan took step besides him.
"Commander Palmer," addressed Lasky.
"Admiral," replied the head of the Infinity's three Spartan-IV companies, and his close friend.
Lasky glanced up at Palmer, a few inches taller than he was in her armor.
"Permission to be honest sir?" asked Palmer.
Lasky smirked a little. The two had known each other long enough that when they were alone, they barely bothered with such formalities. "Granted," he answered.
"I'm not so sure how I feel about letting the leader of the Elites onto the Infinity sir," she said.
Lasky nodded in understanding. When first unveiled, the Infinity had been advertised as the peak of human achievement up to that point. While they weren't wrong, the Infinity was indeed the most powerful and technologically advanced ship humans had ever built, FleetCom certainly did its best to keep it away from prying eyes, especially after Requiem. For the past couple of years, Lasky's ship had been forced into more morale-boosting tours, naval demonstrations, shipping lane patrols, or minor counter-insurgency actions across UNSC space than he cared to admit. Safe assignments, sure, but certainly lacking in excitement
"It's alright Palmer, the Arbiter's just here to talk."
Palmer relaxed a little at Lasky's calm tone. "I know that sir, what worries me is what exactly he's here to talk about. It's been nearly two years since we've heard nearly anything from the Sangheili leadership, and all of this time we've just assumed that the silence was good."
"I understand your concern Palmer, those facts have not been lost on me."
"Also, there's a rumor going around on the ship that the Elites might have found a Forerunner artifact, maybe another Halo. I mean, they never told us that they wouldn't look for Forerunner tech. Admiral, what if they found the Flood again, and they're being slaughtered and are coming to us out of desperation?"
"The Flood is gone, destroyed with the Ark." Lasky said coldly, and firmly. Even so, he felt shivers run down his spine. Every human had seen the vids, whether it be from Earth, or if they had the right security clearance like him, footage from the Halo arrays and the Ark. If there was one thing that Lasky hoped he would never see in person, it was the Flood. Thankfully his concern was widely shared, resulting in extremely strict procedures involving the excavation and analysis process whenever Forerunner tech was discovered.
They rounded a corner, the door to the bridge hangar in sight toward the end of the corridor.
"Still sir, I can't shake this funny feeling I have in my gut. I mean we're overstocked for a long term deployment and every branch has gotten quite a bit of new toys."
Lasky nodded, thinking back to the reports his quartermasters had sent him. UNSC R&D had indeed given the Infinity an unusual amount of new tech. Most weren't anything major, a few upgrades to ammunition or weapons or computer systems, but there were a few things that had people excited. Word on the ship was that the ODST's were giggling like school girls at some new armor they got. He reminded himself to ask Lieutenant Colonel Dare about that when he got a chance.
Palmer frowned, "Think this sudden face to face with the Elites has anything to do with our pending redeployment?"
"Well we're about to find out. Try not to come across as too threatening," said Lasky, trying to bring some levity into the situation. Palmer just nodded, detaching her helmet from her belt sliding it over her head. She was on-duty now.
Six Marines, one Spartan-IV, and one Admiral entered the small hangar, dominated on one side by the angular hull of a Pelican dropship, and the other by the rounded purples and greens of a Covenant Phantom.
Standing tall and proud just in front of the Phantom was the Arbiter himself, the aura of his presence unmistakable. Lasky strode towards him, eyeing the intricate engravings adorning his dull gray armor. He then noted the energy sword and plasma rifle attached to his hips. Two Sangheili in sleek, jet-black armor flanked the Arbiter, similarly armed, and Lasky recognized them as Sangheili SpecOps warriors.
Lasky was not intimidated, as he was confident in the ability of Palmer and the Marines to keep him safe. If worst came to worst, he had the pistol on his right hip, and ever since Requiem, UNSC Naval BDU's have been upgraded with armor plating in vital areas. Not enough to stop a direct blow from an Energy Sword, but enough to protect him from a glancing plasma shot.
The UNSC Admiral stayed on his course, towards the alien much larger than himself. As Lasky approached, the Arbiter bowed his head in a sign of respect and clutched his right arm across his chest.
"Admiral Lasky. I am deeply grateful that you have granted me this audience," the Sangheili said in his deep, baritone voice.
"Of course Arbiter. Welcome to the Infinity, it's an honor to have you aboard. Shall we go to the conference room?" answered Lasky, his voice calm and confident.
The Arbiter nodded, then turned to his two guards and raised a hand, signaling them to stay with the Phantom.
Lasky gave Palmer a look and she turned to the Marines, telling them through their helmet radios to stay within the hangar as well, and keep on eye on the Arbiter's companions. She then turned back to Lasky and nodded.
Lasky gestured towards the Arbiter, and the two began their walk to the bridge conference room in silence, Palmer falling in a respectable distance behind. When they reached their destination Lasky told Palmer to stand guard outside the door. They entered, and almost immediately the towering Elite started pacing back and forth, hands behind his back, head stooped. "I trust that there are not any outside ears listening in Admiral."
The UNSC officer peered towards the ceiling. "Roland, that means you. That's an order."
Lasky was met by silence but he knew the willful AI would follow his orders.
"I will get right to it Admiral." the Sangheili began, stopping his movement and facing Lasky. "We have discovered something, and we need your help."
Lasky furrowed his eyebrows. "Discovered what?"
The Arbiter reached into a pouch in his armor and withdrew a flat disk, setting it on the central table. From the disk sprang a holograph of what looked like nothing more than a small round sphere. A set of coordinates that Lasky didn't recognize was floating off to the side.
Lasky was puzzled. "What is it?"
"We do not know." answered the Arbiter. "On her patrol route, one of our cruisers, the Ancestral Light, was picking up some unusual sensor readings and diverted to investigate. The ship managed to transmit this picture just before we lost all contact. Another cruiser, the Divine Sustenance, was also sent but has not reported in since."
"You've heard nothing?" asked Lasky, still looking at the blurry sphere.
"Nothing. The Sangheili Council had dismissed the discovery as unimportant and are unwilling to send more ships to ascertain the objects nature, especially after the loss of two ruisers. They said that they did not want to weaken our defenses, even though there has been no major Loyalist activity in three months. Technically, I am not even supposed to be here, the Shadow of Intent is supposed to be conducting long range reconnaissance."
The Arbiter's mandibles pressed together in what Lasky assumed was the equivalent to pursing ones lips, and his tone grew sorrowful. "I knew the Shipmaster of the Ancestral Light, he was a good friend. He and his ship have stood by my side for many years, through many hardships and uncertainties, and now all that remains of him is this," he said, waving at the holographic sphere.
"I want to know what happened to my Sangheili, Admiral, and I want to know what caused their disappearance. This object... What few scientists we have were unable to determine what it was or its purpose, based on the extremely limited information we have. That is why I am here. I need your help Admiral, Humanity's help. I know that you have entire departments within your Navy dedicated to the study and research of such artifacts. We would as well, but we lack both the knowledge and the personnel to do so."
Lasky put a hand to his chin. "So what exactly are you asking of the Infinity? To accompany you to this artifact? Why not just go yourself, the Shadow of Intent is more than a powerful enough ship."
The Arbiter paused. "... I will admit Admiral, I am a little apprehensive about going alone, as well as the crew. Yet, when we asked for help we were not expecting a response at all from the humans, let alone sending their most powerful warships."
"Humanity and the Separatist Covenant are allies Arbiter, and we do our best to uphold that alliance," said Lasky as convincingly as he could. "But I have to be practical here, what's in it for us?"
The Arbiter couldn't help but chuckle to himself. "I knew that question would come up sooner or later. It appears that is one area where humanity and Sangheili are the same, at least in these times..."
The Elite's expression became much more serious. "Admiral, all I want is to find out what happened to my crews. Anything involving the artifact we will leave to you: study, research, anything else. I just ask that whatever information you may recover from it not be used to bring harm to the Sangheili."
Lasky stood there, then nodded slightly. The Arbiter's last request wasn't exactly Lasky's to guarantee, but he wasn't about to tell him that. "Alright. I'll have to put this past Admiral Hood."
The Arbiter nodded. "Yes... Lord Hood is an honorable man, and has earned the respect of many Sangheili, including myself. In fact – "
"Admiral, urgent message from Fleetcom coming through, it's Admiral Hood," interrupted Roland.
Lasky raised his eyebrows. Speak of the devil. "Admiral Hood? How urgent?"
Lasky paled. Delta level classification? Shit. This was either extremely bad or extremely good. The Arbiter noticed the sudden change in Lasky's demeanor, and his mandibles opened and closed in an unconscious show of confusion and concern.
"Arbiter... If you'll excuse me for a moment," said Lasky curtly, stepping out of the conference room. He hurried to his private office and activated the video terminal, straightening his BDU's as he did so.
Within seconds, the chiseled face of Fleet Admiral Sir Terrance Hood replaced the black and gray static.
"Sir!" said Lasky saluting, which Hood promptly returned.
"Admiral Lasky. There's time for pleasantries, so listen up. Scientists deciphering a Forerunner archive at ONI Research Facility Trevelyan have found something - an Forerunner archive of some kind. The data decryption is incomplete, but from what we have managed to uncover is that this was the data archive that the Librarian used to record the last phases of their war with the Flood, shortly before the Halo's fired. It mentions the discovery of an object believed to be of Precursor origin. The archive states that she had to abandon study the object due to the Flood, but our scientists have managed to extrapolate modern coordinates using Forerunner star charts included in the archive. The location has been sent to your ships A.I."
Lasky pursed his lips. This was a little too coincidental for his likes. Precursor? He recognized the name, they had been the civilization that had come before the Forerunners. Yet Humanity still only knew an immensly small amount about the Forerunners, and far, far less about the Precursors, whoever they had been.
"Admiral Lasky, these are the same coordinated of the object the Arbiter wished to investigate," he heard a disembodied Roland say.
"Roland, I thought I ordered you to stay out of the conference room?" Lasky asked, aggravated.
"I did sir, but I may or may not have hacked into the Arbiters holo device and scanned its contents when he landed."
"Damn, have the Elites beat us to it? This could make things more... complicated," said Hood, putting a hand to his chin. He knew that the Infinity was meeting with the Sangheili Assault Carrier, he was the one who had ordered it.
"Not necessarily sir," replied Lasky, "the Arbiter and the Sangheili do not know the purpose nor origin of the object. All they do know is that they lost two of their cruisers trying to investigate it, and that the Sangheili Council have decided not to look into it further at the moment. All the Arbiter wants is to find out what happened to his crews, he's already said that he would let the UNSC have full 'custody' of the object."
"Well, I doubt that he knew this object could be Precursor either," chimed in Roland.
"Hmmmm..." mumbled Hood. "Alright. You're already the closest UNSC force in the area. Task Force Yorktown has just finished their replenishment operations, they'll be shipping out within the next few hours. I'm diverting them to rendezvous with you at the coordinates of this construct rather than at Novus Naval Station, but it will be a couple of days in slipspace until they get there."
"I've already plotted a course sirs, it will take the Infinity just under four hours to get there," informed Roland.
"Good," said Hood. "Lasky, this is what you're going to do. Go to the coordinates, help the Arbiter find out what happened to his crews if you can, and try to get him to leave as soon as possible. No mentions about how ONI dug up what I just told you. In fact, don't mention we know about this thing at all. Run some preliminary tests, but stay cautious until the Yorktown science team arrives in two days. A lot of people were foaming at the mouth when they heard the word 'Precursor,' and both you and I know the potential implications of letting it fall into any hands that are not ours."
"Yes Admiral." acknowledged Lasky.
"You know what to do Lasky. Hood out."
With that the connection was cut, and Lasky took a deep breath. He exited his office, walking quickly back to the conference room where he had left the Arbiter.
As he entered the Sangheili looked up at him and asked, "Is everything alright Admiral?"
Lasky did nothing but nod, trying his best to show no emotion. "The situation is under control. Now, let's go find out what happened to your crews."
"What am I looking at, Roland?"
The Infinity and Shadow of Intent were holding at the edge of maximum sensor range, and had just arrived in-system.
"I'm not sure Admiral, but it sure as hell is giving off some crazy readings. See for yourself."
Lasky's datapad lit up, and the UNSC Admiral scrolled through the data. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. The 'object' in question was a rounded sphere of unknown composition the size of a basketball, and was giving off a gravitational field three times larger than Sol was. Lasky didn't even begin to try to think of just how unbelievably dense the thing had to be.
"Are these readings accurate Roland? Are you sure that something isn't wrong with the sensors?" Lasky asked.
"No Admiral, I've checked the data thousands of times. It's correct," replied the A.I.
The sensors also showed the sheared remains of two Covenant Cruisers orbiting the object.
"They probably jumped in too close and were caught in the gravity well, unable to escape until they were crushed," hypothesized Hernandez.
"Well, at least we know what happened to the Arbiter's ships." muttered Lasky.
"Sir, comm coming through from the Shadow of Intent." revealed Lewis.
"Put it through," ordered Lasky.
The distinct voice of the Arbiter resonated throughout the bridge. Everyone could hear the resigned sadness of his tone, as he no doubt could see the obliterated remnants of the two cruisers just as well as those on the Infinity's bridge could. "Admiral Lasky, we've found what we've come here for. At least we have closure now. We will be returning to our original assignment soon, this object is all yours."
The link closed, but Lasky noticed that he got a message on his datapad. It was from the Arbiter, most likely relayed through Roland.
It read: Be careful with this object, there is something about this that doesn't feel... normal.
Lasky put the datapad down and slowly walked over to the forward viewport. Even though he couldn't see the object at this distance, it certainly felt like he could feel it. It made him uneasy, and a strange gnawing sensation formed near the back of his head.
"I... I don't like this. Helm, prep the slipspace generators, let's back away to a farther distance."
"Woah... Admiral? The sensor readings just spiked off the charts! I mean, even more off the charts!" said Lewis.
In a moment that reminded Lasky of the Infinity being scanned by the Didact on Requiem, a minor shockwave shook its way through the ship, vibrating the chairs and terminals and causing Lasky to grit his teeth.
"What was that - Roland?" asked the Admiral.
"I don't know sir, some kind of energy pulse... It's not like anything I've ever seen. I recommend relocating the Infinity to a greater distance."
"Agreed, prepare the ship for slipspace transi– "
Time seemed to pause for Lasky, as he suddenly felt a gut-wrenching falling sensation. The bridge of the Infinity dissipated around him.
He found himself in... Well, he didn't know where he was. He was standing, but on what, he had no idea. His entire world was a stark, blinding white light that seemed to penetrate every molecule of air. Lasky squinted, he tried shielding his eyes with his hand, yet still the light was there. He closed his eyes, yet instead of the cooling black of the back of his eyelids, the white still prevailed. He began to get dizzy and stumbled, yet he did not fall.
"Where am I?" he asked, yet his mouth didn't move, his words only echoing in his head.
A voice spoke. Lasky didn't so much hear it as he did feel it, unknown vibrations rumbling through his body, somehow forming words in his mind.
"Hello Thomas Lasky."
""Am I dead?"
"No. Simply listening."
Lasky was startled at the sudden voice, yet at the same time calmed, as if he had heard it before. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"
"I know all of your names. Were it not for my actions, your species, as well as every other in this galaxy, would have perished to the Flood long ago. It is my geas that has guided your path to ascend to the Mantle."
If Lasky could move his jaw it would have dropped. "Librarian?"
"Yes and no. The Librarian, the true Librarian, died with the firing of the Halo Arrays long ago. I am but a ghost of her former self, a shell with only a single purpose. I was left behind while others used the Artifact to press forwards."
"What purpose is that?"
"To send you on your path. To re-unite you with your true fate."
Lasky felt his heart beating faster. "I don't understand, what path? And who were the others? Other Forerunners?"
"The path that Humanity should have walked long ago... were it not for us."
He had so many questions, and had a strong suspicion that who or what-ever this 'Librarian' copy was wouldn't be answering most of them. "The Artifact? What does it do?
"It is a Gate. A door waiting to be opened."
"A door? To where?" The whiteness began to fade, and Lasky reached out his hand towards nothing. "No! Wait!"
The whiteness completely receded, and Lasky fell into a hard, unforgiving black...
Lasky came to with a start. He felt cold metal underneath his hands, and blood in his mouth. As his senses came back to him, he could see that he was bathed in red emergency lighting, and klaxons blared all around him. He immediately recognized that he was still on the Infinity bridge, not that... place... that he had been before.
"Admiral!" he heard, as Sergeant Julius came into his field of vision, blood trickling down his cheek from a wound on his temple. "Get up Admiral!" he said, putting gloved hands around Lasky's midsection.
The bridge was in disarray. Crew members were writhing on the floor in pain, shouting to each other, scared and confused. Lasky struggled to his feet with the help of Sergeant Julius.
"SITREP!" he bellowed, wanting an immediate handle on the situation.
The voice of the A.I. Roland echoed throughout the bridge.
"Admiral, all major systems are currently undergoing a hard restart. Shields are offline. Weapons systems are offline. Slipspace capabilities are offline. Sensors are offline. Life support is online. Main reactors are offline. Secondary reactors are offline. Tertiary reactors are online. Central power is offline. Emergency power is online."
"What the hell happened!" yelled Lasky, although in his gut he had a feeling he already knew.
"Unknown sir, not enough data to determine our circumstances," replied Roland.
Just then, the emergency lighting cut out, only to be replaced seconds later by dull white, flickering lights.
"Secondary reactors online. There is sufficient power to activate our sensor suite," said Roland.
"Do it! Find out what's going on!" ordered Lasky.
"Analyzing.. Admiral, we are 284,958 kilometers away from a large terrestrial planet, initial scans show a heavily populated and industrialized surface. The planet does not match with any in the UNSC database. Warning: seventy-two unknown signatures ranging from corvette to destroyer class detected holding above the planet. Heat output typical with those of warship class. They are now gathering together in a defensive position and orienting towards us."
That got Lasky's attention. If these vessels had hostile intent, there wasn't a damn thing the Infinity could do about it. It was every ship commander's worst nightmare. "Unknown warships? Forerunner?"
"Not likely, signatures do not match typical composition of Forerunner vessels."
"Covenant? Insurrectionists?" asked Lasky.
"Maybe, but if they are, these aren't any type of ships we've encountered. The Innies usually just repurpose our own... these are of a remarkably different design."
"Can you show me?"
"No. There's not enough power to operate a vidscreen without compromising what little systems we have left."
Lasky inhaled through his teeth. "Is our situation that bad that turning on a single vidscreen will deactivate our sensors?"
"Yes sir. I'm operating below the minimum power requirements as it is."
"What about the Shadow of Intent? Are they here wit h" Lasky inquired, wondering if they got dragged into the same situation that the Infinity was in.
"The Sangheili Assault Carrier is holding approximately eight thousand kilometers off our stern, be advised, sensors indicate them to be in a similar situation to us. Admiral, I'm detecting small signatures typical with strike craft launching from a few of the unidentified ships and several orbital stations. They are forming a screen in front of the main formation of ships."
Lasky grimaced, both because of the sudden onset of an excruciating headache and in light of the current situation. His mind immediately came to the conclusion that they had stumbled upon a hidden rebel planet, and ONI had made it clear they hadn't accounted for the innies entire fleet. But then he remembered his 'talk' with the Librarian. Where had that Artifact brought them? "What about the object that we were investigating? Is it still here?"
Lasky could do nothing but assume the worst. Not UNSC, not Covenant, not Forerunner. Hell, he would take Insurrectionists right now. "Roland, I want our defensive and offensive capabilities back online and I wanted it yesterday!"
The bridge lights dimmed, then went back to emergency red, with Roland saying, "Diverting power: shields at one percent and rising."
Suddenly, the titanium plates that had fallen to protect the bridge in the case of a critical systems failure disengaged.
Lasky's mouth dropped as he was met with a sight that every UNSC soldier knew.
"Planet scans complete... wait... this can't be right," said Roland, disbelief bleeding through his sythesized voice as he no doubt ran millions more computations.
The AI looked from his spot on the holotable to Lasky, and UNSC officer met his bewildered gaze with one of his own.
"Admiral, I've ran the topographical scans a thousand times. The landmassess, the water bodies... they all match! This planet is Earth!"
Special thanks to my beta JonHarper