D+73:34:16 (SPARTAN-117 Mission Clock) /
On board the Truth and Reconciliation .
He wasn’t here, wasn’t there, wasn’t anywhere insofar as the Chief could tell from within the strange never-never land of Halo’s teleportation net. He couldn’t see or hear anything, save a sense of dizzying velocity. The Spartan felt his body stitched back together, one molecule at a time. He saw snatches of what looked like the interior of a Covenant ship as bands of golden light strobed up and disappeared over his head.
Something was wrong and he was just starting to figure out what it was—the inside of the ship seemed to be upside down—when he flipped head over heels and crashed to the deck.
He’d materialized with his feet planted firmly on the corridor’s ceiling.
“Oh!” Cortana exclaimed. “I see, the coordinate data needs to be—”
The Chief came to his feet, slapped the general area where his implants were, and shook his head. The AI sounded contrite. “Right. Sorry.”
“Never mind that,” the Spartan said. “Give me a sit-rep.”
She patched back into the Covenant computing systems, a much easier task now that they were aboard one of the enemy’s warships.
“The Covenant network is absolute chaos,” she replied. “From what I’ve been able to piece together, the leadership ordered all ships to abandon Halo when they found the Flood, but they were too late. The Flood overwhelmed this cruiser and captured it.”
“I assume,” he said, “that’s bad .”
“The Covenant think so. They’re terrified that the Flood will repair the ship and use it to escape from Halo. They sent a strike team to neutralize the Flood and prepare the ship for immediate departure.”
The Chief peered down the corridor. The bulkheads were violet. Or was that lavender? Strange patterns marbled the material, like the oily sheen of a beetle’s carapace. Whatever it was, he didn’t care for it, especially on a military vessel, but who knew? Maybe the Covenant thought olive drab was for wimps.
He started forward, but quickly came up short as a voice that verged on a groan came in over his implants. “Chief . . . Don’t be a fool . . . Leave me.”
It was Keyes’ voice.
Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK. He clung to the tether of his CNI carrier wave, and “heard” familiar voices. An iron-hard, rasping male voice. A tart, warm female voice.
He knew them.
Was this another memory?
He was struggling to dredge up new pieces of his past to delay the numbing advance of the alien presence in his mind. It was harder to maintain a grasp on who he was, as the various pieces of his life—the things that made him who he was—were stripped away, one at a time.
Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK.
The voices. They were talking about him. The Master Chief, the AI Cortana.
He felt a sense of mounting panic. They shouldn’t be here.
The other grew stronger, and pressed forward, eager to learn more about these creatures that were so important to the struggling prisoner who clung so stubbornly to identity.
Keyes, Jacob. Captain. Service number 01928-19912-JK.
Chief, Cortana, you shouldn’t have come. Don’t be a fool. Leave me. Get out of here. Run.
The presence descended, and he could feel its anticipation of victory. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Captain?” Cortana inquired desperately. “Captain! I’ve lost him.”
Neither one of them said anything further. The pain in Keyes’ voice had been clear. All they could do was drive deeper into the ship and hope to find him.
The Chief passed through a hatch, noticed that the right bulkhead was splattered with Covenant blood, and figured a battle had been fought there.
That meant he could expect to run into the Flood at any moment. As he continued down the passageway his throat felt unusually dry, his heart beat a little bit faster, and his stomach muscles were tight.
His suspicions were soon confirmed as he heard the sounds of battle, took a right, and saw that a firefight was underway at the far end of the corridor. He let the combatants go at it for a bit before moving in to cut the survivors down.
From there he took a left, followed by a right, and came to a hatch. It opened to reveal a black hole with jagged edges. Farther back, beyond the drop- off, another firefight was underway.
“Analyzing data,” Cortana said. “This hole was caused by some sort of explosion . . . All I detect down there are pools of coolant. We should continue our search somewhere else.”
The AI’s advice made sense, so the Spartan turned to retrace his steps. Then, as he took the first left, all hell broke loose. Cortana said, “Warning! Threat level increasing!” and then, as if to prove her point, a mob of Flood came straight at him.
He fired, retreated, and fired again. Carrier forms exploded in a welter of shattered flesh, severed tentacles, and green slime. Combat forms rushed forward as if eager to die, danced under the impact of the 7.62mm rounds, and flew apart. Infection forms skittered across the decks, leaped into the air, and shattered into flaps of flying flesh.
But there were too many, far too many for one person to handle, and even as the Chief heard Cortana say something about the black hole he accidentally backed into it, fell about twenty meters, and plunged feetfirst into a pond of green liquid. Not in the ship, but somewhere under it, on the surface below.
The coolant was so cold that he could feel it through his armor. It was thick, too—which made it more difficult to move.
The Master Chief felt his boots hit bottom, knew the weight of his armor would hold him in place, and marched up onto what had become a beach of sorts. The cavern was dark, lit mostly by the luminescent glow produced by the coolant itself, although streaks of plasma fire slashed back and forth up ahead, punctuated by the steady thud, thud, thud of an automatic weapon.
“Let’s get out of here,” Cortana said, “and find another way back aboard the ship.”
He moved up toward the edge of the conflict and let the combatants hammer each other for a bit before lobbing a grenade into the mix, waiting for the body parts to fall, and strafing what was left.
Then, having moved forward, he was forced to fight his way through a series of narrow, body-strewn passageways as what seemed like an inexhaustible supply of Flood forms came at him from every possible direction.
Eventually, having made his way through grottoes of coolant, and past piles of corpses, Cortana said, “We should head this way—toward the ship’s gravity lift,” and the Spartan saw a nav pointer appear on his HUD. He followed the red arrow around a bend to a ledge above a coolant-filled basin.
Even as he watched, a dozen carrier forms marched up out of the green lagoon to attack a group of hard-pressed Covenant soldiers.
The Spartan knew there was no way in hell that he’d be able to force his way through that mess, turned, and made his way back down the trail. A sniper rifle, just one of hundreds of weapons scattered around the area, was half obscured by a headless combat form. The petty officer removed the rifle, checked to ensure that it was loaded, and returned to the overlook. Then, careful to make each shot count, he opened fire.
The Elites, Jackals, and Grunts went down fairly easily. But the Flood forms, especially the carriers, were practically impossible to kill with this particular weapon. With few exceptions the heavy round seemed to pass right through the lumpy-looking bastards without causing any harm whatsoever.
When all of the 14.5mm ammo was gone, the Chief went back for the shotgun, jumped into the green liquid, and waded up onto the shoreline. He heard an obscene sucking noise, saw an infection form trying to enter an Elite’s chest cavity, and blew both of them away.
After that there was more clean-up to do as some combat forms took a run at the human and a flock of infection forms tried to roll him under. Repeated doses of shotgun fire turned out to be just what the doctor ordered—the area was soon littered with severed tentacles and scraps of wet flesh.
A pitch-black passageway led him back to another pool where he arrived just in time to see the Flood overrun a Shade and the Elite who was seated at the controls. The Spartan began firing, already backpedaling, when the Flood spotted him and hopped, waddled, and jumped forward. He fired, reloaded, and fired again. Always retreating, always on the defensive, always hoping for a respite.
This wasn’t his kind of fight. Spartans were designed as offensive weapons, but ever since they’d landed on the ring, he’d been on the run. He had to find a way to take the offensive, and soon.
There was no break in the endless wall of Flood attackers. He fired until his weapons were empty, pried energy weapons out of dead fingers, and fired those until they were dry.
Finally, more by virtue of stubbornness than anything else, and having reacquired human weapons from dead combat forms, the Master Chief found himself standing all alone, rifle raised, with no one to shoot at. He felt a powerful sense of elation—he was alive .
It was a moment he couldn’t take time to enjoy.
Eager to reboard the cruiser and find Captain Keyes, he made his way back along the path he had been forced to surrender to the Flood, passed the Shade, rounded a bend, and saw a couple dozen infection forms materialize out of the darkness ahead. A plasma grenade strobed the night, pulverized their bodies, and produced a satisfying boom! It was still echoing off the canyon walls as the human eased his way through a narrow passage and emerged at one end of a hotly contested pool. About fifty meters away the Covenant and Flood surged back and forth, traded fire with each other, and appeared to be on the verge of hand-to-tentacle combat. Two well-thrown grenades cut the number of hostiles in half. The MA5B took care of the rest.
“There’s the gravity lift!” Cortana said. “It’s still operational. That’s our way back in.”
It sounded simple, but as the Master Chief looked up at the hill on which the lift was sited, well-aimed plasma fire lashed down to scorch the rock at his right elbow. It glowed as the human was forced to pull back, wait for a lull, and dash forward again. Looking ahead, he spotted the point where a group of hard-pressed Covenant were trying to bar a group of Flood from making their way up a path toward the top of the hill and the foot of the gravity lift.
It was a last stand, and the Covenant knew it. They fought harder than he’d ever seen the aliens fight. He felt a moment of kinship with the Covenant soldiers.
He stood and threw two grenades into the middle of the melee, waited for the twin explosions and went in shooting. An Elite sent plasma stuttering into the night sky as he fell over backward, a combat form swung a Jackal’s arm like a club, and a pair of infection forms rode a Grunt down into the pool of coolant. It was a madness, a scene straight from hell, and the human had little choice but to kill everything that moved.
As the last bodies crumpled to the ground, the Spartan was free to follow the steadily rising path upward, turn to the right, and enter the lift’s footprint. He felt static electricity crackle around his armor, and heard plasma shriek through the air as a distant Covenant took exception to his plans. Then the Chief was gone, pulled upward, into the belly of the beast.
Keyes? Keyes, Jacob. Yes, that was it. Wasn’t it?
He couldn’t remember—there was nothing left now but navigation protocols, defense plans. And a duty to keep them safe.
A droning buzz filled his mind. He vaguely remembered hearing it before, but didn’t know what it was.
It pressed in, hungry.
Metal rang under her boots as McKay jumped down off the last platform onto the huge metal grating. It shivered in response. The trip down from the mesa had taken more than fifteen minutes. First, she had taken the still- functional lift down to the point where she and her troops had forced their way into the butte, back when the Covenant still occupied it, then transferred to the circular staircase, which, like the rifling on the inside of a gun barrel, wound its way down to the bottom of the shaft and the barrier under her feet.
“Good to see you, ma’am,” a Private said, as he materialized at her elbow.
“Sergeant Lister would like to speak with you.”
McKay nodded, said “Thanks,” and made her way over to the far side of the grating where the so-called Entry Team were gathered into a tight little group next to an assemblage of equipment that had been lowered from above. A portable work light glowed at the very center of the assemblage and threw huge shadows up onto the walls around them. Bodies parted as McKay approached, and Lister, who was down on his hands and knees, jumped to his feet. “Ten-hut!”
Everyone came to attention. McKay noticed the way that the long hours and constant stress had pared what little bit of extra flesh there was off the noncom’s face, leaving it gaunt and haggard. “As you were. How does it look? Any contact?”
“No, ma’am,” Lister responded, “not yet. But take a look at this .”
A Navy tech directed a handheld spotlight down through the grating and the officer knelt to get a better look. The stairs, which had ended on the far side of the platform, appeared to pick up again just below the grating and circled into the darkness below.
“Look at the metal,” Lister prompted, “and look at what’s piled up on the stairs below.”
McKay looked, saw that the thick metal crosspieces had been twisted out of shape, and saw a large pile of weapons below. No human ordnance as far as she could tell, just Covenant, which was to say plasma weapons. With no cutting torches to call upon, not yet anyway, it looked as though the Flood had depleted at least a hundred energy pistols and rifles in a futile attempt to cut their way through the grating. Given some more time, say another day or two, they might have succeeded.
“You’ve got to give the bastards credit,” McKay said grimly. “They never give up. Well, neither do we. Let’s cut this sucker open, go down, and lock the back door.”
Lister said, “Ma’am, yes ma’am,” but there were none of the usual gung-ho responses from the others who stood around him. It was dark down there— and nightmares lay in wait.
Once inside the Pillar of Autumn , ’Zamamee and Yayap found conditions to be both better and worse than they had expected. Consistent with the Grunt’s predictions, the officer in charge—an overworked Elite named ’Ontomee— had been extremely glad to see them, and wasted little time placing ’Zamamee in charge of twenty Jackals, with Yayap as senior NCO.
That, plus the fact that the security detachment had a reasonable amount of supplies, including methane, meant that basic physical needs had been met.
That was the good news.
The bad news was that ’Zamamee, now known as Huki ’Umamee, lived in constant fear that an Elite who knew either him or the recently deceased commando he had decided to impersonate would come along and reveal his true identity, or that the Prophets would somehow pluck the information out of thin air, as they were rumored to be able to do. These fears caused the officer to lay low, stay out of sight, and delegate most of his leadership responsibilities to Yayap.
This would have been annoying but acceptable where a contingent of Grunts was concerned, but was made a great deal more difficult by the fact that the Jackals saw themselves as being superior to the “gas suckers,” and were anything but pleased when they found themselves reporting to Yayap.
Then, as if to add to the Grunt’s woes, the Flood had located the Pillar of Autumn , and while they were unable to infiltrate the vessel via any of the maintenance ways that ran back and forth just below the ring world’s surface, they had become adept at entering the vessel through rents in its severely damaged hull, the air locks where lifeboats had once been docked, and on one memorable occasion via one of the Covenant’s own patrols, which had been ambushed, turned into combat forms, and sent back into the ship. The ruse had been detected, but only after some of the “contaminated”
soldiers were inside the vessel. A few of them were still at large, somewhere within the human vessel.
As the Grunt and his group of surly Jackals stood guard in the Autumn ’s shuttle bay, a dropship loaded with supplies circled over the downed ship, asked for and received the necessary clearances, and swooped in for a landing.
Yayap eyed his recalcitrant troops, saw that three of them had drifted away from their preassigned positions, and used his radio to herd them back. “Jak, Bok, and Yeg, we have a shuttle coming in. Focus on the dropship—not the area outside.”
The Jackals were too smart to say anything over the radio, but the Grunt knew they were grumbling among themselves as they returned to their various stations and the ship settled onto the blast-scarred deck.
“Watch the personnel slots,” Yayap cautioned his troops, referring to the small compartments that lined the outside surfaces of the shuttle’s twin hulls. “They could be packed with Flood.”
In spite of the resentment he felt, Bok touched a switch and opened all of the slots for inspection, a new security procedure instituted three days before.
The compartments were empty. The Jackals sniggered, and there was nothing Yayap could do but suffer through the indignity of it.
With that formality out of the way, a crew of Grunts moved in to unload supplies from the cargo compartments that lined the inside surface of the dropship’s hulls, and towed the heavily loaded antigrav pallets out onto the deck. Then, with the unloading process complete, the shuttle rose on its grav field, turned toward the hatch, and passed out into bright sunlight.
The cargo crew checked the label on each cargo container to see where it was supposed to go, gabbled at one another, and were about to tow the pallets away when Yayap intervened.
“Stop! I want you to open those cargo mods one at a time. Make sure they contain what they’re supposed to.”
If the previous order had been unpopular, this one met with out-and-out rebellion, as Bok decided to take Yayap on. “You’re no Elite! We’re under orders to deliver this stuff now . If we’re late, they’ll take our heads.” He paused and clicked his beak meaningfully. “And our kin will take yours , gas-sucker.”
The Jackals, all of whom were enjoying the interchange to the maximum, looked at each other and grinned.
’Zamamee should have been there, should have been giving the orders, and Yayap cursed the officer from the bottom of his heart. “No,” he replied stubbornly. “Nothing leaves here until it has been checked. That’s the new process. The Elites were the ones who came up with it, not me. So open them up and we’ll get you and your crew out of here.”
The other alien grumbled, but knew the rule-happy Elites would back Yayap, and turned to his crew. “All right, you heard Field Master Gas- sucker. Let’s get this over with.”
Yayap sighed, ordered his Jackals to form a giant U with the open end toward the cargo containers, and took his own place in the line.
What ensued was boring to say the least, as each cargo module was opened, closed, and towed out of the way. Finally, with only three containers left to go, Bok undogged a hatch, pulled the door open, and disappeared under an avalanche of infection forms. One of the attacking pods grabbed onto the Jackal’s head, wrapped its tentacles around the creature’s skull, drove a penetrator down through his throat, and had already tapped into the soldier’s spine by the time Yayap yelled, “Fire!” and the rest of the Jackals opened up.
Nothing could live where the twenty plasma beams converged—and most of the infection forms were dead within two or three heartbeats. But Yayap thought he detected motion behind the mist created by the exploding pus pods and lobbed a plasma grenade into the cargo module. There was a flash of green-yellow light as the device went off, followed by a resonant boom! as it detonated.
The cargo container shook like a thing possessed, and chunks of raw meat flew out to spray the deck with gore. It was clear that three, or maybe even four combat forms had been hiding in the cargo compartment, hoping to enter the ship.
Now, as the last of the infection forms popped, a momentary silence settled over the shuttle bay. Bok’s corpse smoldered on the deck.
“That was close,” the Jackal named Jak said. “Those stupid gassers damned near got us killed. Good thing our file leader kept ’em in line.” The soldiers to either side of the former critic nodded solemnly.
Yayap, who was close enough to hear the comment, wasn’t sure whether to be angry or pleased. Somehow, for better or for worse, he’d been elevated to the position of honorary Jackal.
A full company of heavily armed Marines waited as torches cut through the metal grating, sparks fell into the stygian blackness below, and each man or woman considered what awaited them. Would they survive? Or leave their bones in the bottom of the hole? There was no way to know.
Meanwhile, thirty meters away, two officers stood by themselves. McKay had borne far more than her fair share of the burden ever since the drop.
Silva was aware of that and regretted it. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that she was his XO, an extremely demanding position that could burn even the most capable officer out. But the truth was McKay was a better leader than her peers, as evidenced by the fact that the Helljumpers would follow her anywhere, even into a pit that might be filled with life- devouring monstrosities.
But everyone had their limits, even an officer like McKay, and the Major knew she was close to reaching them. He could see it in the grim contours of her once rounded face, the empty staring eyes, and the set of her mouth. The problem wasn’t one of strength—she was the toughest, most hard-core Marine he knew—but one of hope.
Now, as he prepared to send her below, Silva knew she needed something real to fight for, something more than patriotism, something that would allow her to get at least some of the Marines to safety.
That, plus the possibility that something could happen to him, lay behind the briefing that ensued.
“So,” Silva began, “go down, get the lay of the land, and see if you can slam the door on those bastards. Forty-eight hours of Flood-free operation would be ideal, but twenty-four would be sufficient, because we’ll be out of here by then.”
McKay had been looking over Silva’s shoulder, but the last sentence brought her eyes back to his. Silva saw the movement and knew he had connected. “ ‘Out of here,’ sir? Where would we go?”
“Home,” Silva said confidently, “to brass bands, medals, and promotions all around. Then, with the credibility earned here, we’ll have the opportunity to create an army of Helljumpers, and push the Covenant back into whatever hole they evolved from.”
“And the Flood?” McKay asked, her eyes searching his face. “What about them?”
“They’re going to die,” Silva replied. “The AIs managed to link up a few hours ago. It turns out that the Chief is alive, Cortana is with him, and they’re trying to rescue Keyes. Once they have him they’re going to rig the Autumn to blow. The explosion will destroy Halo and everything on it.
I’m not a fan of the Spartan program, you know that, but I’ve got to give the bastard credit. He’s one helluva soldier.”
“It sounds good,” McKay said cautiously. “But how do we get off before the ring blows?”
“Ah,” Silva replied. “That’s where my idea comes in. While you’re down cleaning out the sewers, I’ll be up top, making the preparations necessary to take the Truth and Reconciliation away from the Covenant. She’s spaceworthy now, and Cortana can fly her, or, if all else fails, we’ll let Wellsley take a crack at it. It would be a stretch—but he might be able to pull it off.
“Imagine! Arriving back on Earth in a Covenant cruiser, packed with Covie technology, and loaded with data on Halo! The response will be incredible!
The human race needs a victory right now, and we’ll give them a big one.”
It was then, as McKay looked into the other officer’s half-lit face, that she realized the extent to which raw ambition motivated her superior’s actions, and knew that even if his wildest dreams were to come true, she wouldn’t want any part of the glory that Silva sought. Just getting some Marines home alive— that would be reward enough for her.