343 GUILTY SPARK
D+58:36:31 (SPARTAN-117 Mission Clock) /
Pelican Echo 419, approaching Covenant arms cache.
Echo 419’s engines roared as the Pelican descended through the darkness and rain into the swamp. The surrounding foliage whipped back and forth in response to the sudden turbulence, the water beneath the transport’s metal belly was pressed flat, and the stench of rotting vegetation flooded the aircraft’s cargo compartment as the ramp splashed into the evil-looking brew below.
Foehammer was at the controls and it was her voice that came over the radio. “The last transmission from the Captain’s ship was from this area.
When you locate Captain Keyes, radio in and I’ll come pick you up.”
The Master Chief stepped down off the ramp and immediately found himself calf-deep in oily-looking water. “Be sure to bring me a towel.”
The pilot laughed, fed more fuel to the engines, and the ship pushed itself up out of the swamp. In the three hours since she had plucked the Spartan off the top of the pyramid, he’d scarfed a quick meal and a couple hours of sleep. Now, as Foehammer dropped her passenger into the muck, she was glad to be an aviator. Ground-pounders worked too damn hard.
Keyes floated in a vacuum. A gauzy white haze clouded his vision, though he could occasionally make out images in lightning-fast bursts—a nightmare tableau of misshapen bodies and writhing tentacles. A muted gleam of light glinted from some highly polished, engraved metal. In the distance, he could hear a droning buzz. It had an odd, musical quality, like Gregorian chant slowed to a fraction of its normal speed.
He realized with a start that the images were from his own eyes. The knowledge brought back a flood of memory—of his own body. He struggled, and realized in mounting horror that he could just barely feel his own arms. They seemed softer somehow, as if filled with a spongy, thick liquid.
He couldn’t move. His lungs itched, and the effort of breathing hurt.
The strange droning chant suddenly sped into an insect buzz, painfully echoing through his consciousness. There was something . . . distant, something definitively other about the sound.
Without warning, a new image flashed across his mind, like images on a video screen.
The sun was setting over the Pacific, and a trio of gulls wheeled overhead.
He smelled salt air, and felt gritty sand between his toes.
He felt a sickening sensation, a feeling of indescribable violation, and the comforting image vanished. He tried to remember what he was seeing, but the memory faded like smoke. All he could feel now was a sense of loss.
Something had been taken from him . . . but what ?
The insistent buzz returned, painfully loud now. He could sense tendrils of awareness—hungry for data—wriggling through his confused mind like diseased maggots. A host of new images filled him.
. . . the first time he killed another human being, during the riots on Charybdis IX. He smelled blood, and his hands shook as he holstered the pistol. He could feel the heat of the weapon’s barrel . . .
. . . the pride he felt after graduating at the Academy, then a hitch—as if a bad holorecord was being scrolled back—then a knot in his gut. Fear that he wouldn’t be able to meet the Academy’s standards . . .
. . . the sickening smell of lilacs and lilies as he stood over his father’s coffin . . .
Keyes continued to float, mesmerized by the parade of memories that began to pile on him, each one appearing faster than the last. He drifted through the fog. He didn’t notice, or indeed care, that as soon as the bursts of memory ended, they disappeared entirely.
The strange otherness receded from his awareness, but not entirely. He could still sense the other probing him, but he ignored it. The next burst of memory passed . . . then another . . . then another . . .
The Chief checked his threat indicator, found nothing of concern, and allowed the swamp to close in around him. “Make friends with your environment.” That’s what Chief Mendez had told him many years ago— and the advice had served him well. By listening to the constant patter of the rain, feeling the warm humid air via his vents, and seeing the shapes natural to the swamp, the Spartan would know what belonged and what didn’t.
Knowledge that could mean the difference between life and death.
Satisfied that he was attuned to the environment around him, and hopeful of gaining a better vantage point, he climbed a slight rise. The payoff was immediate.
The Pelican had gone in less than sixty meters from the spot where Echo 419 had dropped him off—but the surrounding foliage was so thick Foehammer had been unable to see the crash site from the air.
The Chief moved in to inspect the wreckage. Judging from appearances, and the fact that there weren’t many bodies lying around, the ship had crashed during takeoff, rather than on landing. The impression was confirmed when he discovered that while they were dressed in fatigues, all of the casualties wore Naval insignia.
That suggested that the dropship had landed successfully, discharged all of its Marine passengers, and was in the process of lifting off when a mechanical failure or enemy fire had brought the aircraft down.
Satisfied that he had a basic understanding of what had taken place, the Chief was about to leave when he spotted a shotgun lying next to one of the bodies, decided it might come in handy, and slipped the sling over his right shoulder.
He followed a trail of bootprints away from the Pelican and toward the glow of portable work lights—the same kind of lights he’d seen in the area around the Truth and Reconciliation . The aliens were certainly industrious, especially when it came to stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down.
As if to confirm his theory regarding Covenant activity in the area, it wasn’t long before the Spartan came across a second wreck, a Covenant dropship this time, bows down in the swamp muck. Aside from swarms of mothlike insects and the distant chirp of swamp birds, there were no signs of life.
Cargo containers were scattered all around the crash site, which raised an interesting question. When the transport nosed in, were the aliens trying to deliver something, weapons perhaps, or taking material away? There was no way to be certain.
Whatever the case, there was a strong likelihood that Keyes had been attracted to the lights, just as he had, followed them to the crash site, and continued from there.
With that in mind, he swung past a tree that stood on thick, spiderlike roots, followed a trail up over a rise, and spotted a lone Jackal. Without hesitation, he snapped the assault rifle to his shoulder and brought the alien down with a burst.
He crouched, waiting for the inevitable counterattack—which never came.
Curious. Given the lights, the crash site, and the scattering of cargo modules, he would have expected to run into more opposition.
A lot more.
So where were they? It didn’t make sense. Just one more mystery to add to his growing supply.
The rain pattered against the surface of his armor, and swamp water sloshed around his boots as the Master Chief pushed his way through some foliage and suddenly came under fire. For one brief moment it seemed as if his latest question had been answered, that Covenant forces were still in the area, but the opposition soon proved to be little more than a couple of hapless Jackals, who, upon hearing the sound of gunfire, had come to investigate. As usual they came in low, crouching behind their shields, so it was almost impossible to score a hit from directly in front of them.
He shifted position, found a better angle, and fired. One Jackal went down, but the other rolled, and that made it nearly impossible to hit him. The Spartan held his fire, waited for the alien to come to a stop, and cut him down.
He worked his way up the side of a steep slope, and Chief spotted a Shade sited on top of the ridge. It commanded both slopes, or would have, had someone been at the controls. He paused at the top of the ridge and considered his options. He could jump on the Shade, hose the ravine below, and thereby let everyone know that he had arrived, or slip down the slope, and try to infiltrate the area more quietly.
The Chief settled on the second option, started down the slope in front of him, and was soon wrapped in mist and moist vegetation. Not too surprisingly, some red dots appeared on the Spartan’s threat indicator.
Rather than go around the enemy, and expose his six, the Master Chief decided to seek them out. He slung the MA5B and drew out the shotgun— better suited for close-up work. He pumped the slide, flicked off the safety, and moved on.
Broad variegated leaves caressed his shoulders, vines tugged at the barrel of the shotgun, and the thick half-rotten humus of the jungle floor gave way under the Chief’s boots as he made his way forward.
The Grunt perhaps heard a slight rustling, debated whether to fire, and was still in the process of thinking it over when the butt of the shotgun descended on his head. There was a solid thump! as the alien went down, followed by two more, as more methane breathers rushed to investigate.
Satisfied with his progress so far, the Spartan paused to listen. There was the gentle patter of rain on wide, welcoming leaves, and the constant sound of his own breathing, but nothing more.
Confident that the immediate perimeter was clear, the Master Chief turned his attention to the Forerunner complex that loomed off to his right. Unlike the graceful spires of other installations, this one appeared squat and vaguely arachnid.
He crept down onto the flat area immediately in front of it. He decided that the entrance reminded him of a capital A, except that the top was flat, and was bracketed by a pair of powerful floodlights.
Was this what Keyes had been looking for? Something caught his eye—a pair of twelve-gauge shotgun shells, and a carelessly discarded protein bar wrapper, tossed near the entrance.
He must be getting closer.
Once through the door he came across a half dozen Covenant bodies lying in a pool of commingled blood. Struck once again by the absence of serious opposition, the Master Chief knelt just beyond the perimeter established by the blood, and peered at the bodies.
Had the Marines killed them? No, judging from the nature of their wounds it appeared as if the aliens had been hosed with plasma fire. Friendly fire perhaps? Humans armed with Covenant weapons? Maybe, but neither explanation really seemed to fit.
Perplexed, he stood, took a long, slow look around, and pushed deeper into the complex. In contrast with the swamp outside, where the constant drip , drip, drip of the rain served to provide a constant flow of sound, it was almost completely silent within the embrace of the thick walls. The sudden sound of machinery startled him, and he spun and brought the shotgun to bear.
Summoned by some unknown mechanism, a lift surfaced right in front of him. With nowhere else to go, the Master Chief stepped aboard.
As the platform carried him downward a group of overlapping red blobs appeared on his threat indicator, and the Spartan knew he was about to have company. There was a screech of tortured metal as the lift came to a stop, but rather than rush him as he expected them to, the blobs remained stationary.
They had heard the lift many times before, the Chief reasoned, and figured it was loaded with a group of their friends. That suggested Covenant, stupid Covenant.
His favorite kind, in fact—apart from the dead kind.
Careful to avoid the sort of noise that might give him away, he completed a full circuit of the dimly lit room, and discovered that the blobs were actually Grunts and Jackals, all of whom were clustered around a hatch.
The Chief suppressed a grin, slung the shotgun, and unlimbered the assault rifle.
Their punishment for not guarding the lift consisted of a grenade, followed by forty-nine rounds of automatic fire, and a series of shorter bursts to finish them off.
The hatch opened onto a large four- or five-story-high room. The Master Chief found himself on a platform along with a couple of unsuspecting Jackals. He immediately killed them, heard a reaction from the floor below, and moved to the right. A quick peek revealed a group of seven or eight Covenant, milling around as if waiting for instructions.
The noncom dropped an M9 HE-DP calling card into their midst, took a step back to avoid getting hit by the resulting fragments, and heard a loud wham!
as the grenade detonated. There were screams, followed by wild firing. The Spartan waited for the volume of fire to drop off and moved forward again.
A series of short controlled bursts was sufficient to silence the last Covenant soldiers.
He jumped down off the platform to check the surrounding area.
Still looking for clues as to where Keyes might have gone, the Master Chief conducted a quick sweep of the room. It wasn’t long before he picked up some plasma grenades, circled a cargo container, and came across the bodies.
Two Marines, both killed by plasma fire, their weapons missing.
He cursed under his breath. The fact that both dog tags had been taken suggested that Keyes and his team had run into the Covenant just as he had, taken casualties, and pushed on.
Certain he was on the right trail, the Spartan crossed the troughlike depression that split the room in two, and was forced to step over and around a scattering of Covenant corpses as he approached the hatch. Once through the opening he negotiated his way through a series of rooms, all empty, but painted with Covenant blood.
Finally, just as he was beginning to wonder if he should turn back, he entered a room and found himself face-to-face with a fear-crazed Marine.
His eyes jerked from side to side, as if seeking something hidden within the shadows, and his mouth was twisted into a horrible grimace. There was no sign of the soldier’s assault weapon, but he had a pistol, which he fired at a shadow in the corner. “Stay back! Stay back! You’re not turning me into one of those things!”
The Master Chief raised a hand, palm out. “Put the weapon down, Marine . .
. we’re on the same side.”
But the Marine wasn’t having any of that, and pressed his back against the solidity of the wall. “Get away from me! Don’t touch me, you freak! I’ll die first!”
The pistol discharged. The Spartan felt the impact as the 12.7mm slug rocked him back onto his heels, and decided that enough was enough.
Before the Marine had time to react, the Chief snatched the M6D out of his hand. “I’ll take that,” he growled. The Marine leaped to his feet, but the Chief planted his feet and gently but firmly shoved the soldier back to the floor.
“Now,” he said, “where is Captain Keyes, and the rest of your unit?”
The private turned fierce, his features contorted, spittle flying from his lips.
“Find your own hiding place!” he screamed. “The monsters are everywhere!
God, I can still hear them! Just leave me alone .”
“What monsters?” the Spartan asked gently. “The Covenant?”
“No! Not the Covenant. Them! ”
That was all the Spartan could get from the crazed Marine. “The surface is back that way,” the Master Chief said, pointing toward the door. “I suggest that you reload this weapon, quit wasting ammo, and head topside. Once you get there hunker down and wait for help. There’ll be a dust-off later on. Do you read me?”
The Private accepted the weapon, but continued to blather. A moment later he curled into a fetal ball, whimpered, then fell silent. The man would never make it out alone.
One thing was clear from the Marine’s ramblings. Assuming that Keyes and his troops were still alive, they were in a heap of trouble. That left the Chief with little choice; he had to put the greatest number of lives first. The young soldier had clearly been through the wringer—but he’d have to wait for help until the Master Chief completed his mission.
Slowly, reluctantly, he turned to investigate the rest of the room. The remains of a badly shattered ramp led up over a small fire toward the walkway on the level above. He felt heat wash around him as he stepped over a dead Elite, took comfort from the fact that the body had been riddled with bullets, and made his way up onto a circular gallery. From there, the Master Chief proceeded through a series of doorways and mysteriously empty rooms, until he arrived at the top of a ramp where a dead Marine and a large pool of blood caused him to pause.
He had long ago learned to trust his instincts—and they nagged at him now.
Something felt wrong . It was quiet, with only a hollow booming sound to disturb the otherwise perfect silence. He was close to something, he could feel it, but what?
The Chief descended the ramp. He arrived on the level spot at the bottom, and saw the hatch to his left. Weapon at the ready, he cautiously approached the metal barrier.
The door sensed his presence, slid open, and dumped a dead Marine into his arms.
The Spartan felt his pulse quicken, as he bent slightly to catch the body before it crashed into the ground. He held the MA5B one-handed and covered the room beyond as best he could, searching for a target. Nothing.
He stepped forward, then spun on his heel and pointed the gun back the way he’d come.
Damn it, it felt like eyes bored into the back of his head. Someone was watching him. He backed into the room, and the door slid shut.
He lowered the body to the ground, then stepped away. The toe of his boot hit some empty shell casings which rolled away. That’s when he realized that there were thousands of empties—so many that they very nearly carpeted the floor.
He noticed a Marine helmet, and bent to pick it up. A name had been stenciled across the side. JENKINS.
A vid cam was attached, the kind worn by the typical combat team so they could critique the mission when they returned to base, feed data to the ghouls in Intelligence, and on occasions like this one, provide investigators with information regarding the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
The Spartan removed the camera’s memory chip, slotted the device into one of the receptacles on his own helmet, and watched the playback via a window on his HUD.
The picture was standard quality—which meant pretty awful. The night- vision setting was active, so everything was a sickly green, punctuated by white flares as the camera panned across a light source.
The picture bounced and jostled, and intermittent spots of static marred the image. It was pretty routine stuff at first, starting with the moment the doomed dropship touched down, followed by the trek through the swamp, and their arrival in front of the A-shaped structure.
He spooled ahead, and the video became more ominous after that, starting with the dead Elite, and growing even more uncomfortable as the team opened the final door and went inside. Not just any door, but the same door through which the Master Chief had passed only minutes before, only to have a dead Marine fall into his arms.
He was tempted to kill the video, back his way through the hatch, and scrub the mission, but he forced himself to continue watching as one of the Marines said something about a “. . . bad feeling.” A badly garbled radio transmission came in, odd rustling noises were heard, a hatch gave way, and hundreds of fleshy balls rolled, danced, and hopped into the room.
That was when the screaming started, when the Master Chief heard Keyes say that they were “surrounded,” and saw the picture jerk as something hit Jenkins from behind, and the video snapped to black.
For the first time since parting company with the AI back in the Control Room, he wished that Cortana were with him. First, because she might understand what the hell was going on, but also because he had come to rely on her company, and suddenly felt very much alone.
However, even as one aspect of the Spartan’s mind sought comfort, another part had directed his body to back toward the hatch, and was waiting to hear the telltale sound as it opened. But the door didn’t open, something which the Master Chief knew meant trouble. It caused a rock to form at the bottom of his gut.
As he stood there, gripped by a growing sense of dread, he saw a flash of white from the corner of his eye. He turned to face it, and that was when he saw one, then five, twenty, fifty of the fleshy blobs dribble into the room, pirouette on their tentacles, and dance his way. His motion sensor painted a sudden blob of movement—speeding closer by the second.
The Spartan fired at the ugly-looking creatures. Those which were closest popped like air-filled balloons, but there were more, many more, and they rolled toward him over the floor and walls. The Spartan opened up in earnest, the obscene-looking predators threw themselves forward, and the battle was joined.
It was dark outside. Only one mission had been scheduled for that particular night, and it had returned to the butte at 02:36 arbitrary. That meant the Navy personnel assigned to the Control Center didn’t have much to do, and were busy playing a round of cards when the wall-mounted speakers burped static, and a desperate voice was heard. “This is Charlie 2-1-7, repeat 217, to any UNSC forces . . . Does anyone copy? Over.”
Com Tech First Class Mary Murphy glanced at the other two members of her watch and frowned. “Has either one of you had previous contact with Charlie 217?”
The techs looked at each other and shook their heads. “I’ll check with Wellsley,” Cho said, as he turned toward a jury-rigged monitor.
Murphy nodded and keyed the boom-style mike that extended in front of her lips. “This is UNSC Combat Base Alpha. Over.”
“Thank God!” the voice said fervently. “We took a hit after clearing the Autumn, put down in the boonies, and managed to make some repairs. I’ve got wounded on board—and request immediate clearance to land.”
Wellsley, who had been busy fighting a simulation of the battle of Marathon, materialized on Cho’s screen. As usual, the image that he chose to present was that of a stern-looking man with longish hair, a prominent nose, and a high-collared coat. “Yes?”
“We have a Pelican, call sign Charlie 217, requesting an emergency landing.
None of us have dealt with him before.”
The AI took a fraction of a second to check the myriad of data stored within his considerable memory and gave a curt nod. “There was a unit designated as Charlie 217 on board the Autumn . Not having heard from 217 since we abandoned ship, and not having received any information to the contrary, I assumed the ship was lost. Ask the pilot to provide his name, rank, and serial number.”
Murphy heard and nodded. “Sorry, Charlie, but we need some information before we can clear you in. Please provide name, rank and serial number.
The voice that came back sounded increasingly frustrated. “This is First Lieutenant Rick Hale, serial number 876-544-321. Give me a break, I need clearance now . Over. ”
Wellsley nodded. “The data matches . . . but how would Hale know that Alpha Base even existed?”
“He could have picked up our radio traffic,” Cho offered.
“Maybe,” the AI agreed, “but let’s play it safe. I recommend you bring the base to full alert, notify the Major, and send the reaction force to Pad Three.
You’ll need the crash team, the emergency medical team, and some people from Intel all on deck. Hale should be debriefed before he’s allowed to mix with base personnel.”
The third tech, a Third Class Petty Officer named Pauley, slapped the alarm button, and put out the necessary calls.
“Roger that,” Murphy said into her mike. “You are cleared for Pad Three, repeat, Pad Three, which will be illuminated two minutes from now. A medical team will meet your ship. Safe all weapons and cut power the moment you touch down. Over.”
“No problem,” Hale replied gratefully. Then, a few moments later, “I see your lights. We’re coming in. Over.”
The pilot keyed his mike off and turned to his copilot. Bathed in the green glow produced by the ship’s instrument panel, the Elite looked all the more alien. “So,” the human inquired, “how did I do?”
“Extremely well,” Special Operations Officer Zuka ’Zamamee said from behind the pilot’s shoulder. “Thank you.”
And with that ’Zamamee dropped what looked like a circle of green light over Hale’s head, pulled the handles in opposite directions, and buried the wire in the pilot’s throat. The human’s eyes bulged, his hands plucked at the garrote, and his feet beat a tattoo against the control pedals.
The Elite who occupied the copilot’s position had already taken control of the Pelican and, thanks to hours of practice, could fly the dropship extremely well.
’Zamamee waited until the kicking had stopped, released the wire, and smelled something foul. That’s when the Elite realized that Hale had soiled himself. He gave a grunt of disgust, and returned to the Pelican’s cargo compartment. It was crammed with heavily armed Elites, trained for infiltration. They carried camouflage generators, along with their weapons.
Their job was to take as many landing pads as possible, and hold them until six dropships loaded with Grunts, Jackals, and more Elites could land on the mesa.
The troops saw the officer appear and looked expectant.
“Proceed,” ’Zamamee said. “You know what to do. Turn on the stealth generators, check your weapons, and remember this moment. Because this battle, this victory, will be woven into your family’s battle poem, and sung by generations to come.
“The Prophets have blessed this mission, have blessed you , and want every soldier to know that those who transcend the physical will be welcomed into paradise. Good luck.”
A blur of lights appeared out of the darkness, the dropship shed altitude, and the warriors murmured their final benedictions.
Like most AIs, Wellsley had a pronounced tendency to spend more time thinking about what he didn’t have rather than what he did, and sensors were at the very top of his list. The sad truth was that while McKay and her company had recovered a wealth of supplies from the Autumn , there had been insufficient time to strip the ship of the electronics that would have given the AI a real-time, all-weather picture of the surrounding air space.
That meant he was totally reliant on the data provided by remote ground sensors which the patrols had planted here and there around the butte’s ten- kilometer perimeter.
All of the feeds had been clear during the initial radio contact with Charlie 217, but now, as the Pelican flared in to land, the package in Sector Six started to deliver data. It claimed that six heavy-duty heat signatures had just passed overhead, that whatever produced them was fairly loud, and that they were inbound at a speed of approximately 350 kph.
Wellsley reacted with the kind of speed that only a computer is capable of— but the response was too late to prevent Charlie 217 from putting down.
Even as the AI made a series of strongly worded recommendations to his human superiors, the Pelican’s skids made contact with Pad 3’s surface, thirty nearly invisible Elites thundered down the ramp, and the men and women of Alpha Base soon found themselves fighting for their lives.
One level down, locked into a room with three other Grunts, Yayap heard the distant moan of an alarm, and thought he knew why. ’Zamamee had been correct: The human who wore the strange armor, and was believed to be responsible for more than a thousand Covenant casualties, did frequent this place. Yayap knew that because he had seen the soldier more than six units before, triggered the transmitter hidden inside his breathing apparatus, and thereby set the raid in motion.
That was the good news. The bad news was that ’Zamamee’s quarry might very well have left the base during the intervening period of time. If so, and the mission was categorized as a failure, the Grunt had little doubt as to who would receive the blame. But there was nothing Yayap could do but grip the crudely welded bars with his hands, listen to the distant sounds of battle, and hope for the best.
At this point, “the best” would likely be a quick, painless death.
All the members of the crash team, half the medics, and a third of the reaction team were already dead by the time McKay had rolled out of her rack, scrambled into her clothes, and grabbed her personal weapons. She followed the crowd up to the landing area to find that a pitched battle was underway.
Energy bolts seemed to stutter out of nowhere, plasma grenades materialized out of thin air, and throats were slit by invisible knives. The landing party had been contained, but just barely, and threatened to break out across the neighboring pads.
Silva was there, naked from the waist up, shouting orders as he fired short bursts from an assault weapon. “Flood Pad Three with fuel! But keep it inside the containment area. Do it now!”
It was a strange order, and civilians would have balked, but the soldiers reacted with unquestioning obedience and a Naval rating ran toward the Pad 3 refueling station. He flipped the safety out of the way, and grabbed hold of the nozzle.
The air seemed to shimmer in the floodlit area off to the sailor’s right, and Silva fired a full clip into what looked like empty air. A commando Elite screamed, seemed to strobe on and off as his camo generator took a direct hit, and folded at the waist.
Undeterred, and unaware of his close call with death, the rating turned, gave the handgrip a healthy squeeze, and sent a steady stream of liquid out onto the surface of Pad 3. A Covenant work crew had been forced to build a curb around the area during the days immediately after the butte had been taken.
The purpose of the barrier was to contain fuel spills, and it worked well, as the high-octane fuel crept in around the Pelican’s skids and wet the area beyond.
“Get back!” Silva shouted, and rolled a fragmentation grenade in under Charlie 217’s belly. There was an explosion followed by a loud whump! as the fuel went up and the rating shut off the hose.
The general effect was to turn those Elites who remained on the pad into shimmering torches—screaming, dancing torches. The response was immediate as the Marines opened fire, put the commandos down, and were then forced to turn their efforts to fire fighting. Charlie 217 was fully involved by that time, and shuddered as the fuel in one of her tanks blew.
But there were other Pelicans to protect and while some had lifted off, others remained on their pads.
Silva turned to McKay. “Show time,” the Major said, as Wellsley spoke into his ear. “This was little more than a warm-up, no pun intended. The real assault force is only five minutes out. Six Covenant dropships, if Wellsley has it right. They can’t land here, so they’ll put down out on the mesa somewhere. I’ll handle the pads—you take the mesa.”
McKay nodded, said, “Yes, sir,” and spotted Sergeant Lister and waved him over. The noncom had a squad of her Marines in tow. “Round up the rest of my company, tell them to dig in up-spin of the landing pads, and get ready to handle an attack from the mesa. Let’s give the bastards a warm reception.”
Lister tossed a glance at the raging fires and grinned at McKay’s unintentional pun. “Yes, ma’am!” he said and trotted away.
Elsewhere, out along the butte’s irregularly shaped rim, the commandeered Shade emplacements opened fire. Pulses of bright blue energy probed the surrounding blackness, found the first ship, and cut the night into slices.
’Zamamee and a file of five commando Elites had already cleared the landing pad by the time the humans flooded Pad 3 with fuel. In fact, the Elite officer wasn’t even on the surface of the Forerunner installation during the ensuing inferno—he and his commandos were already one level down, moving from room to room, slaughtering every human they could find.
There had been no sign of the one enemy soldier they wanted most, but it was early yet, and he could be around the next corner.
Murphy had just taken the safeties off the 50mm MLA autocannons, and delegated control to Wellsley, when she felt something brush her shoulder.
The petty officer started to turn, saw blood spray, and realized that it belonged to her. An Elite produced a deep throaty chuckle as both Cho and Pauley met similar fates. The Control Room was neutralized.
But Wellsley witnessed the murders via the camera mounted over the main video monitor, killed the lights, and notified Silva. Within a matter of minutes six three-person fire teams, all equipped with heat-sensitive night- vision goggles, were busy working their way down through the mazelike complex. The Covenant’s camo generators didn’t block heat, they actually generated it, and that put both sides on an even footing.
In the meantime, thanks to a dead officer’s personal initiative, Wellsley had a 50mm surprise waiting for the incoming dropships. Though effective against Banshees, the Shades lacked the power necessary to knock a dropship out of the sky, something the Covenant had clearly known in advance.
But, just as an Elite couldn’t withstand fifty rounds of 7.62mm armor- piercing ammo, the enemy transports proved vulnerable to the 50mm high explosive shells that suddenly blasted their way. Not only that, but the fifties were computer-controlled—which was to say Wellsley controlled, which meant that nearly every round went exactly where it was supposed to.
Control had been delegated too late for the AI to nail the first dropship, but the second was right where he wanted it to be. It exploded as a dozen rounds of HE went off inside the fuselage. Ironically, the compartments that held the troops preserved most of their lives so they could die when the aircraft hit the foot of the butte.
But there were only two of the guns, one to the west, and one to the east, which meant that the surviving transports were safely through the eastern MLA’s field of fire before the AI could fire on them. Still, the destruction of that single ship had reduced the assault force by one sixth, which struck Wellsley as an acceptable result.
Machine-generated death stabbed the top of the mesa as the Covenant dropships made use of their plasma cannons to strafe the landing zone. A fire team was caught out in the open and cut to shreds even as a barrage of shoulder-fired rockets lashed up to meet the incoming transports. There were hits, some of which inflicted casualties, but none of the enemy aircraft was destroyed.
Then, hovering like obscene insects, the U-shaped dropships turned down- ring, and spilled troops out their side slots, scattering them like evil seeds across the top of the mesa. McKay did the mental math. Five remaining transports, times roughly thirty troops each, equaled an assault force of about one hundred and fifty troops.
“Hit ’em!” Lister shouted. “Kill the bastards before they can land!”
The response was a steady crack! crack! crack! as the company’s snipers opened fire, and Elites, Grunts, and Jackals alike tumbled to the ground dead.
But there were plenty left—and McKay steeled herself against the coming assault.
The lights had gone off for reasons that the Grunt could only guess at, a factor which added to the fear he felt. Unable to do anything more, Yayap listened to the muffled sounds of battle, and wondered which side to root for.
He didn’t like being a prisoner but was starting to wonder if he wouldn’t be better off with the humans. For a while at least, until— A blob of light appeared, slid down the opposite wall, crossed the floor, and found its way into the cell. “Yayap? Are you in there?”
There were other lights now, and the Grunt saw the air shimmer in front of him. It was ’Zamamee! Much to Yayap’s amazement, the Elite had kept his word and actually come looking for him. Realizing that the breathing apparatus made it difficult for others to tell his kind apart, the Grunt pushed his face up against the bars.
“Yes, Excellency, I am here.”
“Good,” the Elite said. “Now stand back so we can blow the door.”
All of the Grunts in the cell retreated to the back of the room while one of the commandos attached a charge to the door lock, backed away, and made use of a remote to trigger it. There was a small flash of light, followed by a subdued bang! as the explosive was detonated. Hinges squeaked as Yayap pushed the gate out of the way.
“Now,” ’Zamamee said eagerly, “lead us to the human. We’ve been through most of the complex, but haven’t run into him yet.”
So, Yayap thought to himself, the only reason you came looking for me was to find the human. I should have known. “Of course, Excellency,” the Grunt replied, surprised by his own smoothness. “The aliens captured some of our Banshees. The human was assigned to guard them.”
Yayap expected ’Zamamee to challenge the claim, to ask how he knew, but the Elite took him at his word. “Very well,” ’Zamamee replied. “Where are the aircraft kept?”
“Up on the mesa,” Yayap answered truthfully, “west of the landing pads.”
“We will lead the way,” the Elite said importantly, “but stay close. It would be easy to become lost.”
“Yes, Excellency,” the Grunt replied, “whatever you say.”
Unable to land on or near the pads as originally planned, Field Master ’Putumee had been forced to drop his assault team on the area up-spin of the Forerunner complex. That meant that his troops would have to advance across open ground, with very little cover, and without benefit of heavy weapons to clear the way.
The wily field officer had a trick up his sleeve, however. Rather than release the dropships, he ordered them to remain over the LZ, and strafe the ground ahead of his steadily advancing troops. It wasn’t what the transports had been designed for, and the pilots didn’t like it, but so what? ’Putumee, who saw all aviators as little more than glorified chauffeurs, wasn’t especially interested in how they felt.
So, the U-shaped dropships drifted down toward the human fortifications, plasma cannons probing the ground below, while volleys of rockets lashed upward, exploding harmlessly against their flanks.
The field officer, who advanced along with the second rank of troops, waved his Jackals forward as the humans were forced to pull out of their firing pits, and withdraw to their next line of defense.
’Putumee paused next to one of the now empty pits and looked into it.
Something about the excavation bothered him, but what? Then he had it.
The rectangular hole was too neat, too even, to have been dug during the last half unit. What other preparations had the aliens made, the officer wondered?
The answer came in a heartbeat. McKay said, “Fire!” and the Scorpion’s gunner complied. The tank lurched under the officer’s feet as the shell left the main gun and the hull started to vibrate as the machine gun opened up.
The explosion, about six hundred meters downrange, erased an entire file of Grunts. The other MBT, one of two which Silva had ordered his battalion to bring topside, fired two seconds later. That round killed an Elite, two Jackals, and a Hunter.
Marines cheered and McKay smiled. Though doubtful that the Covenant would try to put troops on the mesa, the Major was a careful man, which was why he ordered the Helljumpers to dig firing pits up-ring of the installation, and create bunkers for the tanks.
Now, firing with their barrels nearly parallel to the ground, the MBTs were in the process of turning the area in front of them into a moonscape as each shell threw half a ton of soil up into the air, and carved craters out of the plateau.
Unbeknownst to McKay, or any other human, for that matter, the third shell to roar down range blew Field Master ’Putumee in half. The assault continued, but more slowly now, as lower-ranked Elites assumed command, and tried to rally their troops.
Though pursuing his own sub-mission, ’Zamamee had been monitoring the command net, and knew that the assault had stalled. It was only a matter of time before the dropships would be ordered to swoop in, pick up those who could crawl, walk, or run to them, and leave for safer climes.
That meant that he should be pulling out, looking for a way to slip through the human lines, but the session with the Prophet continued to haunt him.
His best chance, no, his only chance, was to find the human and kill him. He would keep his head, all would be forgiven, and who knew? A lot of Elites had been killed—so there might be a promotion in the offing.
Thus reassured, he drove ahead.
The commandos were up on the first level by then, just approaching a door to the outside, when one of three waiting Marines saw a line of green blobs start to pass the alcove in which he was hiding, and opened fire.
There was complete pandemonium as the humans ran through clip after clip of ammunition, Grunts were blown off their feet, Elites fired in every direction, and soon started to fall.
’Zamamee felt his plasma rifle cycle open as it attempted to cool itself, and knew he was about to die, when a plasma grenade sailed in among the humans and locked onto a human soldier’s arm. He yelled, “No!” but it was already too late, and the explosion slaughtered the entire fire team.
Yayap, who had appropriated both the grenade and a pistol from one of the dead commandos, tugged on ’Zamamee’s combat harness. “This way, Excellency. . . . Follow me!”
The Elite did. The Grunt led the officer out through a door, down a walkway, and onto the platform where ten Banshees stood in an orderly row.
There were no guards. ’Zamamee looked around. “Where is he?”
Yayap shrugged. “I have no idea, Excellency.”
’Zamamee felt a mixture of anger, fear, and hopelessness as a dropship passed over his head and disappeared down-spin. The entire effort had been a failure.
“So,” he said harshly, “you lied to me. Why?”
“Because you know how to fly one of these things,” the Grunt answered simply, “and I don’t.”
The Elite’s eyes seemed to glow as if lit from within. “I should shoot you and leave your body for the humans to throw off the cliff.”
“You can try ,” Yayap said as he pointed the plasma pistol at his superior’s head, “but I wouldn’t advise it.” It took all the courage the Grunt could muster to point his weapon at an Elite—and his hand shook in response to the fear he felt. But not much, not enough so that an energy bolt would miss, and ’Zamamee knew it.
The Elite nodded. Moments later, a heavily loaded Banshee wobbled off the ground, slipped over the edge of the butte, and immediately began to lose altitude. A Shade gunner caught a glimpse of it, and sent three bursts of plasma racing after the assault craft, but the Banshee was soon out of range.
The battle for Alpha Base was over.
The Spartan fired into what seemed like a tidal wave of tentacled horrors, backed away, and resolved to keep moving. He was vulnerable, in particular from behind, but the armor would help, especially since the monsters liked to jump on people.
What happened next wasn’t clear, but could make Marines scream, and put them out of action in a relatively short period of time. Ammo would be a concern, he knew that, so rather than fire wildly, he forced himself to aim, trying to pop as many of the things as he could.
They came at him in twos, threes, and fours, flew into fleshy bits as the bullets ripped them apart and seemed to melt away. The problem was that there were hundreds of the little bastards, maybe thousands , which made it difficult to keep up as they flooded in his direction.
There were strategies, though, things the Chief could do to help even the odds, and they made all the difference. The first was to run, firing as he went, stretching their ragged formation thin, forcing them to skitter from one end of the room to the other. They were numerous and determined, but not particularly bright.
The second was to watch for breakouts, concentrations of the creatures where a well-thrown grenade could destroy hundreds of them all at once.
And the third was to switch back and forth between the assault weapon and the shotgun, thereby maintaining a constant rate of fire, only pausing to reload when there was a momentary lull in the fighting.
These strategies suddenly became even more critical as something new leaped out of the darkness. A mass of tattered flesh and swinging limbs lashed at his head. During the first moments of the attack the Chief wondered if a corpse had somehow fallen on him from above, but soon learned the truth, as more of the horribly misshapen creatures appeared and hurled themselves forward. Not just ran, but vaulted high into the air, as if hoping to crush him under their weight.
The creatures were roughly humanoid, hunchbacked figures that looked partially rotted. Their limbs seemed to be stretched to the breaking point.
Clusters of tentacles protruded from ragged holes in the skin.
They were susceptible to bullets, however, something for which the Chief was thankful, although it often took fifteen or twenty rounds to put one down for good. Strangely, even the live ones looked like they were dead, which on reflection the Master Chief was starting to believe they were. That would explain why some of the ugly sons of bitches had a marked resemblance to Covenant Elites, or to what an Elite would look like if you killed him, buried the body, and dug it up two weeks later.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, two of the reanimated Elites barged in through the hatch, and were promptly put down. That provided the Chief with an opportunity to escape.
There were more of the two-legged freaks right on his tail, though, along with a jumble of the tumbling, leaping swarms of spherical creatures, and it was necessary to scrub the entire lot of them with auto fire before he could disengage and slip through a door.
The Spartan found himself on the upper gallery of a large, well-lit room. It was packed with the bipedal, misshapen creatures, but none seemed to be aware of him. He intended to keep it that way, and slid silently along the right-hand wall to a hatch.
A short journey brought the Chief to a similar space where what looked like full-fledged battle was underway between Covenant troops and the new hostiles.
The Spartan briefly considered engaging the targets—there was certainly no shortage of them. He held his fire instead, and lingered behind a fallen cargo module. After a hellish battle, the combatants had annihilated one another, which left him free to cross the bridge that led to the far end back along the walkway, and exit via the side door.
Another of the hunchbacked creatures dropped from above and slammed into him. The Spartan staggered back, dipped, and hurled the monster back over his shoulder. It crunched into the wall and left a trail of mottled gray- green, viscous fluid as it slid to the floor.
The Master Chief turned to continue on, when his motion sensor flickered red—illuminating a contact right behind him. He spun and was startled to see the crumpled, badly damaged creature struggle to its feet. Its left arm dangled uselessly and brittle bone protruded from its pale, gangrenous flesh.
The thing’s right arm was still functional, however. A twisting column of tentacles burst from the creature’s right wrist and he could hear the bones inside break as they forced its right hand roughly aside.
The tentacle flashed out, cracked like a whip and hurled the Master Chief to the floor. His shields were almost completely drained from the single blow.
He rolled into a crouch and opened fire. The 7.62mm armor-piercing rounds nearly cut the monster in half. He kicked the fallen hostile, put two in its chest. This time, the damn thing should stay dead, he thought.
He moved farther along the hallway. Two Marines lay where they had fallen, proving that at least some of the second squad had managed to get this far, which opened the possibility that more had escaped as well.
The Master Chief checked, discovered that they still wore their dog tags, and took them. He crept through the wide galleries and narrow corridors, past humming machinery and entered a dark, gloomy vault. His motion tracker flashed crimson warnings—he was in Hostile Central.
Another of the misshapen bipedal hostiles shambled by, and he recognized the shape of the creature’s head—the long, angular snout of an Elite faced him. What held his fire was where the head was located.
The alien’s skull was canted at a sickening angle, as if the bones of its neck had been softened or liquefied. It hung limply down the creature’s back, lifeless—like a limb that needed amputation.
It was as if something had rewritten the Elite, reshaped it from the inside out. The Spartan felt an unaccustomed emotion: a trill of fear. An image of helplessness—of screaming at a looming threat, powerless—flashed through his mind, a snapshot of his cryo-addled dreams aboard the Pillar of Autumn .
No way is that going to happen to me, he thought. No way .
The beast shuffled by, and moved out of sight.
He took a deep breath, exhaled, then burst from his position and charged for the center of the room. He battered aside the shambling beasts, and crushed a handful of the small spherical creatures beneath his boots. His shotgun boomed and thick, green blood splashed the floor.
He reached his objective: a large lift platform, identical to the one he’d ridden down into this hellhole. He reached for the activation panel, and hoped that he’d find the up button.
One of the hostiles leaped high in the air and landed next to him.
The Chief dropped to one knee, shoved the barrel of the shotgun into the creature’s belly and fired. The beast flipped end over end, and fell back into a clot of the smaller, round hostiles.
He dove for the activation panel, and stabbed at the controls.
The elevator platform dropped like a rock, so far down and so fast that his ears popped.
Where the hell was Cortana when you needed her? Always telling him to “go through that door,” “cross that bridge,” or “climb that pyramid.” Annoying at times, but reassuring as well.
The basement, if that’s what it was, had all the charm of a crypt. A passageway took him into another large space where he had to fight his way across the floor to a door and the tunnel-like corridor beyond. That’s when the Spartan came face-to-face with something he hadn’t seen before and would have preferred never to see again: one of the combative, bipedal beasts—this one a horribly mutated human . Though the creature was distorted by whatever had ravaged his body, the Chief recognized him nonetheless.
It was Private Manuel Mendoza, the soldier that Sergeant Johnson loved to yell at, and one of the Marines who had been with Keyes when he disappeared into this nightmare.
Though twisted by what had been done to him, the Private’s face still retained a trace of humanity, and it was that which caused the Master Chief to remove this finger from the shotgun’s trigger, and try to make contact.
“Mendoza, come on, let’s get the hell out of here. I know they did something to you but the medics can fix it.”
The reanimated Marine, now possessed of superhuman strength, struck the Chief with such force that it nearly knocked him off his feet, and triggered the suit’s alarm. Mendoza—or rather, the thing that had once been Mendoza—waved a whiplike tentacle and lashed out again. The Spartan staggered backward, pulled the trigger, and was subsequently forced to pull it again as the twelve-gauge buckshot tore what had been Mendoza apart.
The results were both spectacular and disgusting. As the corpselike horror came apart, the Chief saw that one of the small, spherical creatures had taken up residence inside the soldier’s chest cavity, and seemed to have extended its tentacles into other parts of what had been Mendoza’s body. A third shotgun blast served to destroy it as well.
Was that how these things worked? The little round pod-things infected their hosts, and mutated the victim into some kind of combat form. He considered the possibility that this was some kind of new Covenant bio-weapon, and discarded it. The first of these combat forms he’d seen had once been Elites.
Whatever these damned things were, they were lethal to humans and Covenant alike.
He quickly fed shells into his shotgun, then moved on. The Spartan moved as fast as he could—at a dead run. He charged into another room, scrambled up onto the gallery above, blew an Elite form right out of his boots, and ducked through a waiting door.
The area on the other side was more of a challenge. The Chief had the second floor to himself, but an army of the freaks owned the floor below, and that’s where he needed to go.
Height conferred advantages. Some well-placed grenades, followed by a jump from the walkway, and sixty seconds of close-quarters action were sufficient to see him through. Still, it was a tremendous relief to pass through a completely uncontested space, and into a compartment where he found a new development to cope with.
In addition to their battering attacks, the creatures had acquired both human and Covenant weapons from their victims, and these combat forms were even more dangerous as a result. The combat forms weren’t the smartest foes he’d ever encountered, but they weren’t mindless automatons, either— they could operate machines and fire weapons.
Bullets pinged from the metal walls, plasma fire stuttered through the air, and a grenade detonated as the Master Chief cleared the area, discovered a place where some Marines had staged a last stand on top of a cargo container. He paused to recover their dog tags, scavenged some ammo, and kept on going.
Something nagged at him, but what was it? Something he’d forgotten?
It came to him all at once: He had nearly forgotten his own name.
Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK.
The droning chant that had lurked at the edge of his awareness buzzed more loudly, and he felt some kind of pressure—some sense of anger.
Why was he angry?
No, something else was angry . . . because he’d remembered his own name?
Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK.
Where was he? How did he get here? He struggled to find the memory.
He remembered parts of it now. There was a dark, alien room, hordes of some terrifying enemy, gunfire, then a stabbing pain . . .
They must have captured him. That was it. This might be some new trick by the enemy. He’d give them nothing. He struggled to remember who the enemy was.
He repeated the mantra in his head: Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK.
The buzzing pressure increased. He resisted, though he was unsure why.
Something about the drone frightened him. The sense of invasion deepened.
Is this a Covenant trick? he wondered. He tried to scream, “It won’t work.
I’ll never lead you to Earth,” but couldn’t make his mouth work, couldn’t feel his own body.
As the thought of his home planet echoed through Keyes’ consciousness, the tone and tenor of the drone changed, as if pleased. He—Keyes, Jacob.
Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK—was startled when new images played across his mind.
He realized, too late, that something was sifting through his mind, like a grave robber looting a tomb. He had never felt so powerless, so afraid . . .
His fear vanished in a flood of emotion as he felt the warmth of the first woman he’d ever kissed . . .
He tried to scream as the memory was ripped from him and discarded.
Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK.
As each of the fragments of his past played out and was sucked into the void, he could feel the invader enveloping him like an ocean of evil. But, like the pieces of flotsam that remain after a ship has gone down, random pieces of himself remained, a sort of makeshift raft to which he could momentarily cling.
The image of a smiling woman, a ball spiraling through the air, a crowded street, a man with half his face blown away, tickets to a show he couldn’t remember, the gentle sound of wind chimes, and the smell of newly baked bread.
But the sea was too rough, waves crashed down on the raft, and broke it apart. Swells lifted Keyes up, others pushed him down, and the final darkness beckoned. But then, just as the ocean was about to consume him, Keyes became aware of the one thing the creature that raped his mind couldn’t consume: the CNI transponder’s carrier wave.
He reached for it like a drowning man, clutched the lifeline with all his might, and refused to let go. For here, deep within his watery grave, was a thread that led back to what he had been.
Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK.
The Master Chief fired the last of his shotgun rounds into the collapsed hulk of a combat form. It twitched and lay still.
After winding through the confusion of subterranean chambers and passageways for what seemed like hours, he’d finally found a lift to the surface. He carefully tapped the activation panel—worried for a moment that this lift would also drop him deeper into the facility—and felt the lift lurch into a rapid ascent.
As the lift climbed, Foehammer’s worried voice crackled from his comm system.
“This is Echo 419. Chief, is that you? I lost your signal when you disappeared inside the structure. What’s going on down there? I’m tracking movement all over the place.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” the Master Chief replied, his voice grim, “and believe me: you don’t want to know. Be advised: Captain Keyes is missing, and is most likely KIA. Over.”
“Roger that,” the pilot replied. “I’m sorry to hear it, over.”
The lift jerked to a halt, the Spartan stepped off, and found himself surrounded by Marines. Not the shambling combat forms he’d spent the last eternity fighting, but normal, unchanged human beings. “Good to see you, Chief,” a Corporal said.
The Chief cut the soldier off. “There’s no time for that, Marine. Report.”
The young Marine gulped, then started talking. “After we lost contact we headed for the RV point, and these things , they ambushed us. Sir: Advise we get the hell out of here, ASAP.”
“That’s command thinking, Corporal,” the Chief replied. “Let’s go.”
It was a short walk up the ramp and into the rain. Strangely, and much to his surprise, it felt good to enter the stinking swamp. Very good indeed.