An old soldier’s adage flashed across her mind: “Never share a foxhole with a hero.” Glory and promotion were fine, but right now, she’d settle for survival , plain and simple.
First there was a loud clang, followed by the birth of six blue-white suns, which illuminated the inside surface of the shaft as they fell to the filth- encrusted floor below.
Then the invaders dropped, not one at a time down the stairs as the infection forms might have assumed, but half a dozen all at once, dangling on ropes.
They landed within seconds of each other, knelt with weapons at the ready, and faced outward. Each Helljumper wore a helmet equipped with two lights and a camera. With simple back and forth movements of their heads, the soldiers created overlapping scans of the walls which were transmitted up to the grating above, and from there to the mesa.
McKay stood on the grating, eyed the raw footage on a portable monitor, and saw that four large arches penetrated the perimeter of the shaft and would need to be sealed in order to prevent access to the circular stairway.
There was no sign of the Flood.
“Okay,” the officer said, “we have four holes to seal. I want those plugs at the bottom of the shaft thirty from now. I’m going down.”
Even as McKay spoke, and dropped into the hole which had been cut into the center of the grate, Wellsley was calculating the exact dimensions of each arch so that Navy techs could fabricate metal “plugs” that could be lowered to the bottom of the shaft, manhandled into position, and welded into place. Within a matter of minutes computer-generated outlines were lasered onto metal plates, torches were lit, and the cutting began.
McKay felt her boots touch solid ground, and took her first look around.
Now, finally able to see the surroundings with her own eyes, the Company Commander realized that a bas relief mural circled the lower part of the shaft. She wanted to go look at it, to run her fingers across the grime-caked images recorded there, but knew she couldn’t, not without compromising the defensive ring and placing herself in jeopardy.
“Contact!” one of the Marines said urgently. “I saw something move.”
“Hold your fire,” McKay said cautiously, her voice echoing off the walls.
“Conserve ammo until we have clear targets.”
As soon as she’d given the “hold fire” order, the Flood gushed out into the shaft. McKay screamed: “Now! Pull!” and seven well-anchored winches jerked the entire team into the air and out of reach. The Marines fired as they ascended. One Helljumper screamed curses at the combat form who was leading the charge.
The loudmouthed Marine dropped his clip, loaded a fresh one into his rifle, and shouldered the weapon to resume fire. The combat form he’d been shooting leaped fifteen meters into the air, wrapped his legs around the Marine’s waist, and caved in the side of the soldier’s head with a rock.
Then, with the fallen Marine’s assault weapon slung over his shoulder, the creature climbed the rope like an oversized monkey, and raced for the platform above.
Lister, who still stood on the grating above, aimed his pistol straight down, put three rounds through the top of the combat form’s skull, saw the form fall backward into the milling mass below, and watched it disappear under the tide of alien flesh.
“Let’s move , people!” the noncom said. “Raise the bait, and drop the bombs.”
Energy bolts stuttered upward as the winches whirred, the Helljumpers rose, and twenty grenades fell through the grating and into the mob below. Not fragmentation grenades, which would have thrown shrapnel up at the Helljumpers, but plasma grenades, which burned as the Flood congregated around them, then went off in quick succession. They vaporized most of the gibbering monsters and left the rest vulnerable to a round of gunfire and a second dose of grenades.
Ten minutes later word came down that the plugs were ready, and a larger combat team was sent down, followed by four teams of techs. The arches were blocked without incident, the shaft was sealed, and the grating was repaired. Not forever, but for the next day or so, and that was all that mattered.
The Master Chief arrived at the top of the gravity lift and fought his way through a maze of passageways and compartments, occupied by Flood and Covenant alike. He rounded a corner and saw an open hatch ahead. “It looks like a shuttle bay,” Cortana commented. “We should be able to reach the Control Room from the third level.”
The CNI link that Cortana followed served to deliver a new message from the Captain. The voice was weak, and sounded slurred. “I gave you an order, soldier, now pull out!”
“He’s delirious,” Cortana said, “in pain. We have to find him!”
. . . pull out! I gave you an order, soldier!
The thought echoed in what was left of Keyes’ ravaged mind. The invading presence descended. It could tell this one was nearly expended—no more energy left to fight.
It pushed in on the memories that the creature so jealously guarded, and recoiled at the sudden resistance, a defiance of terrible strength.
Keyes clutched at the last of his vital memories, and—inside his mind, where there was no one but he and the creature that attempted to absorb him—screamed NO!
Death, held in abeyance for so long, refused to rush in. Slowly, like the final drops of water from a recently closed faucet, his life force was absorbed.
With the memory of the voice to spur him on, the Master Chief made his way out onto a gallery over the shuttle bay, found that a pitched battle was in progress, and lobbed two grenades into the center of the conflict. They had the desired effect, but also signaled the human’s presence, and the Flood came like iron filings drawn to a magnet.
The Flood onslaught was intense, and the Spartan was forced to retreat into the passageway whence he had come in order to concentrate the targets, buy some time, and reload his weapons.
The pitched firefight ended, and he sprinted for the far side of the gallery and passed through an open hatch. He fought his way up to the next level of the gallery, where the Flood appeared to be holding a convention at the far end of the walkway.
The Chief was fresh out of grenades by then, which meant he had to clear the path the hard way. A carrier form exploded, and sent a cluster of combat forms crashing to the ground.
The burst carrier spewed voracious infection forms in every direction, and collapsed as one of the fallen combat forms hopped forward, dragging a broken leg behind him, hands clutching a grenade as if it were a bouquet of flowers.
The Spartan backed away, fired a series of ten-round bursts, and gave thanks when the grenade exploded.
The carrier had given him an idea—when they blew, they went up in a big way. A second of the creatures scuttled into view, and made its ungainly way forward, accompanied by a wave of infection forms and two more combat forms. He used his pistol scope to survey the combat forms and was gratified that they fit the bill: Each carried plasma grenades.
He stepped into view, and the combat forms instantly vaulted high in the air.
As soon as their feet left the deck, the Chief dropped and fired—directly at the carrier.
The Spartan’s aim was perfect—as soon as they passed over the carrier, it burst, and ignited the plasma grenades the combat forms carried. They all went up in a blue-white flash of destructive energy.
“The Control Room should be this way,” Cortana said as he charged ahead, eager to keep them moving in the right direction.
He moved fast, advancing across the blood-slicked floor, and followed Cortana’s new nav coordinates toward the still-distant hatch. He passed through the opening, followed the corridor to an intersection, took a right, a left, and was passing through a door when a horrible groan was heard over the link.
“The Captain!” Cortana said. “His vitals are fading! Please Chief, hurry.”
The Spartan charged into a passageway packed with both Covenant and Flood, and sprayed the tangle of bodies with bullets.
He kept running at top speed, sprinting past enemies and ignoring their hasty snap-shots. Time was of the essence; Keyes was fading fast.
He made it to the CNI’s carrier wave source: the cruiser’s Control Room.
The lighting was subdued, with hints of blue, and reflections off the metal surfaces. Thick, sturdy columns framed the ramp which led up to an elevated platform, where something strange stood.
He thought it was a carrier at first glance, but soon realized that the creature was far too large for that. It boasted spines that connected it to the ceiling overhead, like thick, gray-green spiderwebs.
There were no signs of opposition, not yet anyway, which left him free to make his way up the ramp with his rifle at the ready. As he moved closer the Chief realized that the new Flood form was huge . If it was aware of the human presence, the creature gave no sign of it, and continued to study a large holo panel as if committing the information displayed there to memory.
“No human life signs detected,” Cortana observed cautiously. She paused, and added: “The Captain’s life signs just stopped.”
Damn. “What about the CNI?” he asked.
Then the Chief noticed a bulge in the monster’s side, and realized that he was looking at an impression of the Naval officer’s grotesquely distorted face. The AI said, “The Captain! He’s one of them !”
The Spartan realized then that he already knew that, had known it ever since he had seen Jenkins’ video, but was unwilling to accept it.
“We can’t let the Flood get off this ring!” Cortana said desperately. “You know what he’d expect . . . What he’d want us to do.”
Yes, the Chief thought. I know my duty.
They needed to blow the Autumn ’s engines to destroy Halo and the Flood.
To do that, they needed the Captain’s neural implants.
The Master Chief drew his arm back, formed his hand into a stiff-fingered armored shovel, and made use of his enormous strength to plunge the crude instrument into the Flood form’s bloated body.
There was momentary resistance as he punched his way through the creature’s skin and penetrated the Captain’s skull to enter the half-dissolved brain that lay within. Then, with his hand buried in the form’s seemingly nerveless body, he felt for and found Keyes’ implants.
The Chief’s hand made a popping sound as it pulled out of the wound. He shook the spongy gore onto the deck and slipped the chips into empty slots in his armor.
“It’s done,” Cortana said somberly. “I have the code. We should go. We need to get back to the Pillar of Autumn . Let’s go back to the shuttle bay and find a ride.”
As if summoned by the lethargic beast that stood in front of the ship’s controls, a host of Flood poured into the room, all of whom were clearly determined to kill the heavily armored invader. A flying wedge comprised of carrier and combat forms stormed the platform, pushed the human back, and soaked up his bullets as if eager to receive them.
Finally, more by chance than design, the Spartan backed off the command deck and plummeted to the deck below. That bought a moment of respite.
There wasn’t much time, though, just enough to hustle up out of the channel that ran parallel to the platform above, reload both of his weapons, and put his back into a corner.
The horde really came for him then, honking, gibbering, and gurgling, climbing up over the bodies that were mounded in front of them, careless of casualties, willing to pay whatever price he required.
The storm of gunfire put out by the MJOLNIR-clad soldier was too powerful, too well aimed, and the Flood started to wilt, stumble, and fall, many giving up their lives only inches from the Spartan’s blood-drenched boots, clawing at his ankles. He gave thanks as the last combat form collapsed, relished the silence that settled over the room, and took a moment to reload both of his weapons.
“Are you okay?” Cortana asked hesitantly, both grateful and amazed by the fact that the Chief was still on his feet.
He thought of Captain Keyes.
“No,” the Spartan replied. “Let’s get the hell out of here and finish these bastards off.”
He was numb from creeping exhaustion, hunger, and combat. The planned escape route back to the shuttle bay was littered with Flood and Covenant alike. The Spartan moved almost as if he was on autopilot—he simply killed and killed and killed.
The bay was filled with Covenant forces. A dropship had deployed fresh troops into the bay and bugged out. A pair of amped-up Elites patrolled near the Banshee at the base of the bay.
All the possibilities raced through his weary mind. What if that particular machine was in for repairs? What if an Elite took over the Shade and gunned him down? What if some bright light decided to close the outer doors?
But none of those fears were realized as the aircraft came to life, turned toward the planet that hung outside the bay doors, and raced into the night.
Energy beams followed, and tried to bring the Banshee down, but ultimately fell short. They were free once more.