Halo: Escalation Issue 19
The issue opens on a world in the Urs-Fied-Joori system, where Ayit 'Sevi tinkers with a Covenant communication node. Two other Sangheili Storm confront him about this, one of them making note of an unknown object that 'Sevi has placed inside the device, before 'Sevi kills the both of them. In a UNSC briefing room, Admiral Serin Osman briefs a trio of officers about the upcoming Operation: ATHENA. After describing 'Sevi and his role as a Sangheili agent working exclusively for ONI, Osman goes on to explain that Jul 'Mdama's Covenant has acquired both halves of the Janus Key and that Dr. Catherine Halsey will seek to use the Key to find the location of the Absolute Record, which in turn will provide 'Mdama the location of every Forerunner artifact in the galaxy. To prevent this, ONI has assembled a five-member specialist team who will stow away aboard the Breath of Annihilation, one of 'Mdama's two assault carriers. Once the Covenant fleet reaches the Absolute Record, the team will transmit their location for UNSC reinforcements and locate Dr. Halsey.
Aboard UNSC Infinity on September 15, 2558, Captain Lasky arrives to check on Commander Palmer, who is in the process of battling a Mgalekgolo in a War Games simulation. The officer overseeing the simulation tells Lasky that Palmer has tripled her required hours in the simulation over the last month, and remarks that she has been particularly aggressive lately, while Palmer rips the Hunter's constituent Lekgolo apart.
Meanwhile, on Jul 'Mdama's flagship Song of Retribution, Halsey continues to analyze the combined Janus Key, informing 'Mdama that she has nearly pinpointed the exact location of the Absolute Record. Jul is impatient about her tests, but Halsey tells him that his rushing of her work has previously led only to setbacks. 'Mdama comments on the growth of his Covenant, stating that their losses in the previous battle were less severe than they had feared and that the fleet is growing despite the now crushed insurgency. Halsey reminds him to think in the long term, stating that new challengers to his power will inevitably appear and that he should seek to eliminate all of his problems once and for all. Jul notes that they have been exceedingly lucky recently, but Halsey states that their success is due to destiny.
Back on Infinity Lasky converses with Palmer. Worried about Palmer's wounded pride from her failure in the last mission, Lasky tells her that he can get someone else in her place if she feels she is not fully up to the task. While Palmer maintains that she is ready, Lasky urges her to focus on the mission rather than her personal conflict with Halsey. They arrive at a hangar where Gabriel Thorne and Ayit 'Sevi are having a heated argument about their previous encounter on Ven III. Lasky and Palmer break up the altercation just as Dr. Glassman and Spartan Tanaka arrive at the scene. Lasky introduces Tanaka to the rest and explains that 'Sevi, Palmer, Thorne, Tanaka, and Glassman will comprise the specialist team on Operation: ATHENA. Glassman then briefs them on the equipment they will use on the mission. The human members of the team will infiltrate the Breath of Annihilation in a Covenant box with a cloaked interior compartment, transported to the ship aboard a Phantom piloted by 'Sevi. Once at the Absolute Record they will separate from the fleet and find a place to land. Because they lack real-time superluminal communications options, they will use a state-of-the-art model of telemetry probe that will transmit their location back to the UNSC.
Aboard Song of Retribution Jul 'Mdama interrogates the captive rebel Sali 'Nyon. 'Nyon states with disgust that 'Mdama is becoming more and more like a human, as he would rather keep him imprisoned than kill him as per Sangheili tradition. Jul retorts that he honors tradition but will innovate if need be, and reminds him of where blind adherence cost them as a civilization. Sali continues to revile 'Mdama, who then asks how many insurgents still remain in his ranks. Sali tells him that he will know soon enough, prompting 'Mdama to strike him. 'Nyon is unfazed by this and continues to insist that 'Mdama will be punished for his offenses against the "gods".
On September 17, 2558, Ayit 'Sevi's Phantom enters Breath of Annihilation, just before the fleet makes the jump toward the Absolute Record. Upon their exit from slipspace three hours later, Glassman begins to comfort Thorne about the incident with 'Sevi, saying that Thorne losing his temper was understandable given what happened between the two. Annoyed, Palmer orders him to be quiet, but Thorne thanks Glassman for his support and asks the doctor how they managed to convince him to come along on the mission. Glassman jokingly replies that this was a matter of him being allowed to work with Palmer again.
'Mdama's fleet enters the upper atmosphere of an unusually hot gas giant with a metallic hydrogen core, noted by Dr. Halsey as being likely artificial. The Janus Key begins to react, leading Halsey to conclude that they are close to their destination — a slipspace portal to the Absolute Record. As the portal begins to form, however, slipspace ruptures materialize into several ships of the fleet, tearing them apart. Breath of Annihilation is damaged as well and the Spartans and Glassman are thrown about uncontrollably in their crate. 'Sevi blows the box open and tells the others that they must move out as the entire ship is breaking apart. He also reveals that the telemetry probe has been destroyed, meaning they have no way to contact the UNSC.