Cortana looked at Keyes. The loss of the ship’s primary weapon, the Magnetic Accelerator Cannon, was a crippling blow to their holding action.
“Captain, the cannon was my last defensive option.”
“All right,” Keyes said gruffly, “I’m initiating Cole Protocol, Article Two.
We’re abandoning the Autumn . That means you too, Cortana.”
“While you do what? Go down with the ship?” she shot back.
“In a manner of speaking,” Keyes replied. “The object we found—I’m going to try and land the Autumn on it.”
Cortana shook her head. “With all due respect . . . this war has enough dead heroes.”
The Captain’s eyes locked with hers. “I appreciate your concern, Cortana— but it’s not up to me. The Protocol is clear. The destruction or capture of shipboard AI is absolutely unacceptable. That means you are abandoning ship. Lock in a selection of emergency landing zones and upload them to my neural lace.”
The AI paused, then nodded. “Aye, aye, sir.”
“Which is where you come in,” Keyes continued as he turned to face the Spartan. “Get Cortana off this ship. Keep her safe from the enemy. If they capture her, they’ll learn everything. Force deployment, weapons research.”
He paused, then added: “Earth.”
The Spartan nodded. “I understand.”
Keyes glanced at Cortana. “Are you ready?”
There was a pause as the AI took one last look around. In many ways the ship was her physical body and she was reluctant to leave it. “Yank me.”
Keyes turned to a console, touched a series of controls, and turned back again.
The holo shivered and Cortana’s image swirled into the pedestal below and disappeared from view. Keyes waited until the holo had disappeared, removed a data chip from the pedestal, and offered it to the Spartan, along with his sidearm. “Good luck, Master Chief.”
SPARTAN-117 accepted the chip and reached back to slot the device into the neural interface, located at the base of his skull. There was a positive click, followed by a flood of sensation as the AI joined him within the confines of the armor’s neural network. At first it felt as if someone had poured a cup of ice water into his mind, followed by a momentary jab of pain, and a familiar presence. He’d worked with Cortana before—just prior to the disaster at Reach.
The AI-human interface was intrusive in a way, yet comforting too, since he knew what Cortana could do. He would depend on her during the hours and days ahead—just as she would depend on him. It was like being part of a team again.
The Master Chief saluted and left the bridge. The sounds of fighting were even louder now, indicating that, in spite of the crew’s best efforts, Covenant forces had still managed to fight their way out of the areas adjacent to the air locks and made it all the way up to the area around the command deck.
Bodies lay strewn around the corridor, roughly fifty meters from the bridge.
The human defenders had pushed them back, but the Chief could tell that the last assault had been close. Too close.
The Master Chief paused to kneel next to a dead ensign, took a moment to close her eyelids, and appropriated the fallen trooper’s ammo. The pistol the Captain had given him was standard Navy issue; it fired 12.7mm semi-armor piercing high-explosive ammo from twelve-round clips. Not what he would choose to tackle an Elite with—but good enough for Grunt work.
There was a metallic click as the first clip slid into the pistol’s handle, followed by the sudden appearance of a blue circle in his HUD—a targeting reticle—as his armor made electronic contact with the weapon in his hand.
Then, conscious of the need to get Cortana off the ship, he made his way down the corridor. He heard the strange high-pitched squeaks and barks before he actually saw the Covenant Grunts themselves. Consistent with his status as a veteran, the first alien to come around the corner wore red- trimmed armor, a methane rig, and a Marine’s web pistol belt. The alien wore the captured gear Pancho Villa–style and dragged it across the deck.
Two of his comrades brought up the rear.
Confident that there were more of the vaguely simian aliens on the way, the Master Chief paused long enough to let more of them appear, then opened fire. The recoil compensators in his armor dampened the effect, but he could still feel the handgun kick against his palm. All three of the Grunts went down from head shots. Phosphorescent blue ichor spattered the deck.
It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
The Master Chief stepped over their bodies and moved on.
A lifeboat. That was his real goal—and he would do whatever it took to find one.
Ashamed by the ignominy of it, but consistent with his orders, the Elite named Isna ’Nosolee waited until the Grunts, Jackals, and two members of his own race had charged out through the human air lock before leaving the assault boat himself. Though armed with a plasma pistol, plus a half-dozen grenades, he was there to observe rather than fight, which meant that the Elite would rely on both his energy shielding and active camouflage to keep him alive.
His role, and an unaccustomed one at that, was to function as an “Ossoona,”
or Eye of the Prophet. The concept, as outlined to ’Nosolee by his superior, was to insert experienced officers into situations where intelligence could be gleaned, and to do so early enough to obtain high-quality information.
Though both intelligent and brave, the Prophets felt that the Elites had an unfortunate tendency to destroy everything in their path, leaving very little for their analysts to analyze.
Now, by adding Ossoonas to the combat mix, the Prophets hoped to learn more about the humans, ranging from data on their weapons and force deployments to the greatest prize of all: the coordinates for their home planet, “Earth.”
’Nosolee had three major objectives: to retrieve the enemy ship’s AI, to capture senior personnel, and to record everything he saw via the cameras attached to his helmet. The first two goals were bound to be difficult, but a quick check confirmed that the video gear was working, and the third objective was assured.
So, even though the assignment was empty of honor, ’Nosolee understood its purpose, and was determined to succeed, if only as a means to return to the regular infantry where he belonged.
The Elite heard the rhythmic clatter of a human weapon as a group of their Marines backed around a corner, closely pursued by a pack comprised of Grunts and Jackals. The Ossoona considered killing the humans, thought better of it, and flattened himself against a bulkhead. None of the combatants noticed the point where the metal appeared to be slightly distorted, and a moment later the spy slipped away.
It seemed as if the Autumn was infested with chrome-armored demons spouting plasma fire. The Master Chief had acquired an MA5B assault rifle along with close to four hundred rounds of 7.62mm armor piercing ammunition. In this situation, with plenty of ordnance lying around, he preferred to reload when the ammo indicator on his weapon dropped to around 10. Failure to do so could result in disaster if he ran into serious opposition. With that in mind, the Chief hit the release, allowed a nearly empty magazine to fall, and shoved a new clip into its place. The weapon’s digital ammo counter reset, as did its cousin in his HUD.
“We’re closer,” Cortana said from someplace just outside his head. “Duck through the hatch ahead and go up one level.”
The Master Chief ran into a shimmery, black-clad Elite, and opened fire.
There were Grunts in the area as well, but he knew that the Elite posed the real danger. He expertly sprayed a trio of bursts at the alien.
The Elite roared defiance and fired in return, but the sheer volume of the specially hardened 7.62mm projectiles caused the Elite’s shielding to flare, overload, and fail. The bulky alien fell to his knees, bent forward, and collapsed. Frightened by what had happened to their leader, the Grunts made barking noises, turned, and began to scurry away.
Individually, the Grunts were cowards, but the Spartan had seen what a pack of the creatures could do. He opened fire again. Alien bodies tumbled and fell.
He continued on through a hatch, heard more firing, and turned in that direction. Cortana called out: “Covenant! On the landing above us!”
He ran toward a flight of metal stairs, and charged straight for the landing.
Boots rang on metal as he slammed a fresh magazine into the weapon’s receiver and passed a wounded Marine. The Spartan remembered the soldier from his last action on one of Reach’s orbiting defense stations. The Marine held a dressing to a plasma burn and managed to smile. “Glad you could make it, Chief . . . we saved some party favors just for you.”
The Spartan nodded, paused on the landing, and took aim at a Jackal. The vaguely birdlike aliens carried energy shields—handheld units, rather than the full-body protection the Elites favored. The Jackal shifted to take aim at the wounded Marine, and the Chief saw his opening. He fired a burst at the Jackal’s unprotected flank and the alien hit the deckplates, dead.
He continued the climb up the flight of stairs, and came nearly visor-to-visor with another Elite. The alien roared, charged forward, and attempted to use his plasma rifle like a club. The Master Chief evaded the blow—he’d fought Elites hand-to-hand before, and knew they were dangerously strong—and backed away. He leveled the assault weapon at the Elite’s belly, and squeezed the trigger.
The Covenant soldier seemed to absorb the bullets like a sponge, continued to advance, and was just about to swing when a final round cut through his spinal cord. The alien soldier slammed into the deck, twitched once, and died.
SPARTAN-117 reached for another magazine. Another Elite roared, as did another . There was no time to reload, so the Master Chief turned to take them on. He discarded the assault rifle and drew his sidearm. There were a pair of dead Marines at the aliens’ feet, roughly twenty-five meters away. Well within range, he thought, and opened fire.
The lead Elite snarled as the powerful handgun rounds tore into the shielding around his head. Sensing the Spartan’s threat, the aliens shifted all of their fire in his direction only to watch as it dissipated against his shields and armor.
Now, free to direct their fire wherever they chose, the Marines launched a hastily organized counterattack. A fragmentation grenade blew one Elite into bloody ribbons, shredded the Jackals who had the poor judgment to stand next to him, and sent pieces of shrapnel flying across the stairwell to slam into the bulkhead.
The other Elite was consumed by a hail of bullets. He seemed to wilt, fold, and fly apart. “That’s what I’m talking about!” a Marine crowed. He fired a coup de grace into the alien’s head.
Satisfied that the area was reasonably secure, the Master Chief moved on.
He passed through a hatch, helped a pair of Marines take out a group of Grunts, and marched down a corridor drenched with blood—both human and alien. The deck shook as the Autumn took a new hit from a ship-to-ship missile. There was a muffled clang, and a light flared beyond a viewport.
“The lifeboats are launching,” Cortana announced. “We should hurry!”
“I am hurrying,” the Master Chief replied. “I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
Cortana started to reply, reconsidered, and processed the equivalent of an apologetic shrug. Sometimes, fallible though they were, humans were right.
Flight Officer Captain Carol Rawley, better known to the ship’s Marine contingent by her call sign, “Foehammer,” waited for the Grunt to round the corner. She shot him in the head, and the little methane-breathing bastard dropped like a rock. The pilot took a quick peek, verified that the next corridor was clear, and motioned to those behind her. “Come on! Let’s get while the getting’s good!”
Three pilots, along with an equal number of ground crew, followed as Rawley thundered down the hall. She was a tall, broad-shouldered woman, and she ran with a flat-footed determination. The plan, if the wild-assed scheme she’d concocted could be dignified as such, was to make it down to the ship’s launch bay, jump into their D77-TC “Pelican” dropships, and get off the Autumn before the cruiser smacked into the construct below. At best, it would be a tricky takeoff, and a messy landing, but she’d rather die behind the stick of her bird than trust her fate to some lifeboat jockey. Besides, maybe some transports would come in handy, if anybody actually made it off the ship alive.
That was looking like an increasingly big maybe.
“They’re behind us!” somebody yelled. “Run faster!”
Rawley wasn’t a sprinter—she was a pilot, damn it. She turned to take aim on her pursuers, when a globe of glowing-green plasma sizzled past her ear.
“Screw this,” she yelled, then ran with renewed energy.
As the battle with the interlopers continued to rage, a Grunt named Yayap led a small detachment of his own kind through a half-melted hatch and came upon the scene of a massacre. The nearest bulkhead was drenched in shimmering blue blood. Spent shell casings were scattered everywhere and a tangled pile of Grunt bodies testified to an engagement lost. Yayap keened in brief mourning for his fallen brethren.
That most of the dead were Grunts like Yayap didn’t surprise him. The Prophets had long made use of his race as cannon fodder. He hoped that they had gone to a methane-rich paradise, and was about to pass by the gruesome heap, when one of the bodies groaned.
The Grunt paused and, accompanied by one of his fellows—a Grunt named Gagaw—he waded into the gory mess, only to discover that the noise was associated with a black-armored member of the Elite, one of the “Prophet- blessed” types who were in charge of this ill-considered raid. By law and custom, Yayap’s race was required to revere the Elites as near-divine envoys of the Prophets. Of course, the implementation of law and custom was somewhat flexible on the battlefield.
“Leave him,” Gagaw advised. “That’s what he would do if it were one of us lying wounded.”
“True,” Yayap said thoughtfully, “but it would take all five of us to carry him back to the assault boat.”
It took Gagaw ten full heartbeats to assimilate the idea and finally appreciate the genius of it. “We wouldn’t have to fight!”
“Precisely,” Yayap said, as the sounds of battle grew louder once more, “so let’s slap some dressings on his wounds, grab his arms and legs, and drag his ass out of here.”
A quick check revealed that the Elite’s wounds weren’t mortal. A human projectile had punched its way through the warrior’s visor, sliced along the side of his head, and flattened itself on the inside surface of the Elite’s helmet. The force of the blow had knocked him unconscious. Aside from that, and some cuts and bruises sustained when he fell, the Elite would survive. A pity, Yayap thought.
Satisfied that their ticket off the ship would live long enough to get them where they wanted to go, the Grunts grabbed the warrior’s limbs and waddled down the corridor. Their battle was over.
The Autumn ’s contingent of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, also known as ODST, or “Helljumpers,” had been assigned to protect the cruiser’s experimental power plant, which consisted of a unique network of fusion engines.
The engine room was served by two main access points, each protected by a Titanium-A hatch. Both were connected by a catwalk and were still under human control. The fact that Major Antonio Silva’s Marines had been forced to stack the Covenant bodies like firewood in order to maintain clear fields of fire testified to how effective the men and women under his command had been.
There had been human casualties as well, plenty of them, including Lieutenant Melissa McKay, who waited impatiently while “Doc” Valdez, the platoon’s medic, bandaged her arm. There was a lot to do—and clearly McKay wanted to get up and do it.
“Got some bad news for you, Lieutenant,” the medic said. “The tattoo on your bicep, the one with the skull and the letters ‘ODST,’ took a serious hit.
You can get a new one, of course . . . but scar tissue won’t take the ink in quite the same way.”
McKay knew the patter had a purpose, knew it was Doc’s way of taking her mind off Dawkins, Al-Thani, and Suzuki. The medic secured the bandage in place and the officer rolled her sleeve down over the dressing. “You know what, Valdez? You are truly full of it. And I mean that as a compliment.”
Doc wiped his forehead with the back of a sleeve. It came away with Al- Thani’s blood on it. “Thanks, El-Tee. Compliment accepted.”
“All right,” Major Silva boomed as he strode out onto the center of the catwalk. “Listen up! Play time is over. Captain Keyes is tired of our company and wants us to leave this tub. There’s a construct down there, complete with an atmosphere, gravity, and the one thing Marines love like beer—and that’s dirt beneath our feet.”
The ODST officer paused at that point, allowing his bright, beady eyes to sweep the faces around him, his mouth straight as a crease. “Most of the crew—not to mention your fellow jarheads—will be leaving the ship in lifeboats. They’ll ride to the surface in air-conditioned comfort, sipping wine, and nibbling on appetizers.
“Not you , however. Oh no, you’re going to leave the Pillar of Autumn by a different method. Tell me, boys and girls . . . How will you leave?”
It was a time-honored ritual, and the ODST Marines roared the answer in unison. “WE GO FEET FIRST, SIR!”
“Damned right you do,” Silva barked. “Now let’s get to those drop pods.
The Covenant is holding a picnic down on the surface and every single one of you is invited. You have five minutes to strap in, hook up, and shove a cork in your ass.”
It was an old joke, one of their favorites, and the Marines laughed as if they had just heard it for the first time. Then they formed into squads, and followed their noncoms out into a corridor that ran down the port side of the ship.
McKay led her platoon down the hall, past the troopers assigned to guard the intersection, and through what had been a battlefield. Bodies lay sprawled where they had fallen, plasma burns marked the bulkheads, and a long line of 7.62mm dimples marked the last burst that one of the dead soldiers would ever fire.
They pounded around a corner, and into what the Marines referred to as “Hell’s waiting room.” The troopers streamed down the center of a long narrow compartment that housed two rows of oval-shaped individual drop pods. Each pod bore the name of an individual trooper, and was poised over a tube that extended down through the ship’s belly.
Most combat landings were made via armed assault boats, but the boats were slow, and subject to antiaircraft fire. That was why the UNSC had invested the time and money necessary to create a second way to deliver troops through an atmosphere: the HEV, or Human Entry Vehicle.
Computer-controlled antiaircraft fire would nail some of the pods, but they made small targets, and each hit would result in one death rather than a dozen.
There was just one problem. As the ceramic skins that covered the HEVs burned away, the air inside the pods became unbelievably hot, sometimes fatally so, which was why ODST personnel were referred to as “Helljumpers.” It was an all-volunteer outfit, and it took a special kind of crazy to join up.
McKay remained on the central walkway until each of her men had entered his particular pod. She knew that meant she would have sixty seconds less to make her own preparations, and was quick to enter her HEV once the last hatch had closed.
Once inside, McKay’s hands were a blur as she secured her harness, ran the obligatory systems check, removed a series of safeties, armed her ejection tube, and eyed the tiny screen mounted in front of her. The Autumn ’s fire control computer had already calculated the force required to blow the pod free and drop the HEV into the correct entry path. All she had to do was hang on, pray that the pod’s ceramic skin would hold long enough for the chute to open, and try to ignore how fragile the vehicle actually was.
No sooner had the officer braced her boots against the bulkhead, and looked up at the countdown, than the last digit clicked from one to zero.
The pod dropped, accelerated out of the ejection tube, and fell toward the ring-shaped world below. Her stomach lurched and her heart rate spiked.
Somebody popped a tiny disk into a data player, touched a button, and pushed the hyped-up strains of the Helljumpers’ anthem out over the team freq. The regs made it clear that unauthorized use of UNSC communications facilities was wrong, very wrong, but McKay knew that at that particular moment it was right , and Silva must have agreed, because nothing came in over the command freq. The music pounded in her ears, the HEV shuddered as it hit the outer layer of the ring-construct’s atmosphere, and the Marines fell feet first through the ring.
The deck jumped as the Pillar of Autumn absorbed yet another blow and the battle continued to rage within. The Master Chief was close now, and prepared to sprint for a lifeboat. That was when Cortana said, “Behind you!”
and the Master Chief felt a plasma bolt hit him squarely between the shoulder blades.
He rolled with the blow and sprang to his feet. He whirled to face his attacker and saw that a Grunt had dropped out of an overhead maintenance way. The diminutive alien stood with his feet planted on the deck, a plasma pistol over-charging in his claws. The Master Chief took three steps forward, used the assault rifle to knock the creature off its feet, and followed it with a three-round burst. The Grunt’s pistol discharged its stored energy into the ceiling. Drips of molten metal sizzled on the Master Chief’s shields.
The armor-piercing rounds punctured the alien’s breathing apparatus, released a stream of methane, and caused the body to spin like a top.
A trio of additional Grunts landed on the Master Chief’s shoulders and grabbed hold. It was almost laughable, until the Spartan realized that one of them was trying to remove his helmet. A second alien carried an ignited plasma grenade—the little bastards meant to drop the explosive into his armor.
He flexed his shoulders, and shook himself like a dog.
Grunts flew in every direction as the Master Chief used short controlled bursts to put them down. He turned toward the lifeboats. “Now!” Cortana urged. “Run!”
The Spartan ran, just as the door started to close. A nearby Marine fell while running for the escape craft, and the Chief paused long enough to scoop the soldier up and hurl him into the boat.
Once inside, they joined a small group of crew members already on board the escape craft. “Now would be a very good time to leave,” Cortana commented coolly, as something else exploded and the cruiser shuddered in response.
The Master Chief stood facing the hatch. He waited for it to close all the way, saw the red light appear, and knew it was sealed. “Punch it.”
The pilot triggered the launch sequence and the lifeboat blasted free of the ship, balanced on a column of fire. The boat skimmed along the surface of the Autumn at dizzying speed. Plasma blasts from a Covenant warship slammed into the Autumn ’s hull. In seconds, the lifeboat dropped away from the cruiser and dove toward the ring.
The Master Chief killed his external com system, and spoke directly to Cortana. “So, any idea what this thing is?”
“No,” Cortana admitted. “I managed to slice some data out of the Covenant battle network. They call it ‘Halo,’ and it has some kind of religious significance to them, but . . . your guess is as good as mine.” She paused, and the Spartan sensed the AI’s amusement. “Well, almost as good.”
“Halo,” he repeated. “Looks like we’re going to be calling it ‘home’ for a while.”
The lifeboat was too small to mount a Shaw-Fujikawa faster-than-light drive so there was nowhere to go but the ring. There were no shouts of jubilation, no high-fives, only silence as the boat fell through the blackness of space.
They were alive, but that was subject to change, and that left nothing to celebrate.
One Marine said, “This duty station really sucks.” No one saw any reason to contradict him.
Rawley and her companions skidded to a halt, turned back the way they had come, and let loose with everything they had. Their weaponry included two pistols, one assault rifle, and a plasma rifle that a pilot had scooped up along the way. Not much of an arsenal but sufficient to knock three Jackals off their feet and put the aliens down for good. Rawley caved the last Jackal’s skull in with her boot.
Eager to get aboard their ships, the group ducked through the docking bay hatch, closed it behind them, and ran for the Pelicans. Foehammer spotted her bird, gave thanks for the fact that it was undamaged, and ran up the ramp. As always, it was fueled, armed, and ready to fly. Frye, her copilot, dropped into position behind her, with Crew Chief Cullen bringing up the rear.
Once in the cockpit, Rawley strapped in, ran an abbreviated preflight checklist, and started the transport’s engines. They joined with the rest to create a satisfying roar. The outer hatch cycled open. Loose gear tumbled into space as the bay explosively decompressed.
Moments later, the cruiser entered the ring world’s atmosphere, which meant that the transports could depart . . . but they had to do it soon. Reentry friction was already creating a wall of fire around the ship.
“Damn!” Frye exclaimed, “Look at that!” and pointed forward.
Rawley looked, saw a Covenant landing craft coming straight toward the bay, braving the heat generated by the Autumn ’s reentry velocity. There was a limited window of opportunity to get off this sinking ship, and the Covenant bastard was right in the way.
She swore and released the safety on the Pelican’s 70mm chin gun. The weapon shook the entire ship, punched holes through alien armor, and hit something vital. The enemy vessel shuddered, lost control, and spun into the Autumn ’s hull.
“All right,” the wing leader said over the ship-to-ship frequency, “Let’s go down and meet our hosts. See you on the ground. Foehammer out.”
She clicked off the transmitter and whispered, “Good luck.”
One by one the dropships left the bay, did a series of wingovers, and dropped through the overarching ring. Rawley struggled to maintain control as the atmosphere tore at her ship. The status panel flashed a heat warning as friction created a massive thermal buildup along the Pelican’s fuselage. The leading edges of the ship’s short, stubby wings started to glow.
“Jeez, boss,” Frye said, his teeth rattling from the constant jouncing of the Pelican, “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
Foehammer made some adjustments, managed to improve the ship’s glide angle, and glanced to her right. “If you’ve got a better idea,” she yelled, “bring it up at the next staff meeting.”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Until then,” she added, “shut the hell up and let me fly this thing.”
The Pelican hit an air pocket, dropped like a rock, and caught itself. The transport shook like a thing possessed. Rawley screamed with anger and battled her controls as her ship plummeted toward the surface of the ring.
Covenant forces had launched a concerted attack on the command deck about fifteen minutes earlier but the defenders had beaten them back. Since that time the fighting had lessened and there were reports that at least some of the aliens were using their assault boats to leave the ship.
It wasn’t clear whether that was due to the considerable number of casualties Covenant forces had suffered, or the realization that the ship was in danger of falling apart, but it hardly mattered. The important thing was that the area around the bridge was clear, which meant that Keyes, plus the command team who remained to help him, could carry out their duties without fear of being shot in the back. At least for the moment.
Their next task was to take the Autumn down into the atmosphere. No small order considering the fact that, like all vessels of her tonnage, the cruiser had been constructed in zero-gee conditions and wasn’t equipped to operate in a planetary atmosphere.
Keyes believed it was possible. With that in mind he planned to close with the ring world, hand control to the subroutine that Cortana had left for that purpose, and use the last lifeboat to make his escape. Maybe the ship would pancake in the way he had planned—and maybe it wouldn’t. Whatever the case, it was almost sure to be a landing that would best be experienced from a safe distance.
Keyes turned to look at the data scrolling across the nav screen and detected motion out of the corner of his eye. He looked, saw the primary weapons control station shimmer like a mirage in the desert, and rubbed his eyes. By the time the Naval officer looked for a second time, the phenomena had vanished.
Keyes frowned, turned back to the nav screen, and began the sequence of orders that would put the Autumn in the place she was least equipped to go: on solid ground.
Isna ’Nosolee held his breath. The human had looked straight into his eyes, given no alarm, and turned away. Surely his activities had been blessed by those who went before and from whom all knowledge flowed.
The camouflage, combined with his own talent for stealth, had proven to be extremely effective. Since he had come aboard, ’Nosolee had toured both the ship’s engine room and fire control center prior to arriving on the bridge.
Now, standing in front of a vent, the Elite contemplated what to do next.
The ship’s AI had either been removed or destroyed, he was sure of that. At least some senior personnel remained, however—which meant there was still a chance.
In fact, based on the manner in which the other humans interacted with him, ’Nosolee felt certain that the man named “Keezz” held the position of Ship Master. A very valuable prize indeed.
But how to capture the human? He wouldn’t come willingly, that was obvious, and his companions were armed. The moment ’Nosolee deactivated his camouflage they would shoot him. Individually, the humans were weaklings, but they were dangerous in packs. And animals grew all the more dangerous the nearer they came to extinction.
No, patience was the key, which meant that the Elite would have to wait.
Vapor continued to roll out of the cold air vent, and the air seemed to shimmer, but no one noticed.
“All right,” Keyes said, “let’s put her down. . . . Stand by to fire the bow thrusters . . . Fire!”
The bow thrusters ignited and slowed the ship’s rate of descent. The Pillar of Autumn wobbled for a moment as it battled the ring’s gravity field, then corrected its angle of entry.
Cortana took over after that, or rather, the part of herself that she had left behind did. The Autumn ’s thrusters fired in increments so small that they were like single notes in an ongoing melody. The highly adaptive subroutine tracked variables, monitored feedback, and made thousands of decisions per second.
The much-abused hull shuddered as it entered the atmosphere, started to shake, and sent a host of loose items tumbling to the deck. “That’s as far as we can take her,” Keyes announced. “Delegate all command and control functions to Cortana’s cousin, and let’s haul ass off this boat.”
There was a ragged chorus of “Aye, ayes,” as the bridge crew disengaged from the ship they had worked so hard to save, took one last look around, and drew their sidearms. The fighting had died down, but that didn’t mean all of the Covenant forces had left.
’Nosolee watched anxiously as the humans started to leave the bridge. He waited for the last person to exit, and fell into step behind. The beginnings of a plan had started to form in his mind. It was audacious—no, make that outrageous—but the Elite figured that made the scheme all the more likely to succeed.
The lifeboat reserved for the bridge crew was close by. Six Marines had been detailed to guard it and three of them were dead. Their bodies had been dragged off to one side and laid in a row. A corporal shouted, “Attention on deck!”
Keyes said, “As you were,” and gestured toward the hatch. “Thanks for waiting, son. I’m sorry about your buddies.”
The corporal nodded stiffly. He must have been off duty when the attack began—one half of his face needed a shave. “Thank you, sir. They took a dozen of the bastards with them.”
Keyes nodded. Three lives for twelve. It sounded like a good trade-off but how good was it really? How many Covenant troops were there, anyway?
And how many would each human have to kill? He shook the thought off and jerked his thumb toward the opening. “Everybody into the boat, on the double!”
The survivors streamed onto the boat, and ’Nosolee followed, though it was difficult to avoid touching the human vermin in such tight quarters. There was a little bit of space toward the front and a handhold which would be useful once the gravity generated by the larger ship disappeared. Later, after the lifeboat landed, the Elite would find an opportunity to separate Keezz from the rest of the humans and seize him. In the meantime all he had to do was hang on, avoid detection, and make it to the surface.
The human passengers strapped in. The lifeboat exploded out of the bay, and it fell toward the ring world below. Jets fired, the small craft stabilized, and followed a precalculated glide path toward the surface.
Keyes was seated three slots aft of the pilot. He frowned, as if looking for something, then waited for the boat to clear. He leaned toward the Marine in front of him. “Excuse me, Corporal.”
“Sir?” The Marine looked exhausted, but somehow managed to snap to a form of attention, despite being belted into an acceleration chair.
“Hand me your sidearm, son.”
The expression on his face made it plain that the last thing the soldier wanted to do was part company with one of his weapons, particularly in close quarters. But the Captain was the Captain, so he had very little choice.
The words, “Yes, sir,” were still making their way from the noncom’s brain to his mouth when he felt the M6D pistol being jerked out of his holster.
Would one of the 12.7mm rounds punch its way through the lifeboat’s relatively thin hull? Keyes wondered. Cause a blowout and kill everyone aboard?
He didn’t know, but one thing was certain: The Covenant son of a bitch standing in this lifeboat was about to die. Keyes raised the weapon, aimed at the very center of the strange, ghostly shimmer, and pulled the trigger.
The Elite saw the movement, had nowhere to run, and was busy reaching for his own pistol when the first bullet struck.
The M6D bucked, the barrel started to rise, and the third slug from the top of the clip passed through the slit in ’Nosolee’s helmet, blew his brains out through the back of his skull, and freed him from the tyranny of physical reality.
No sooner had the noise of the last shot died away than the camo generator failed, and an Elite appeared as if from thin air. The alien’s body floated back toward the rear of the cabin. Thousands of globules of alien blood escorted bits of brain tissue on their journey to the lifeboat’s stern.
Lieutenant Hikowa ducked as one of the Elite’s boots threatened to hit her head. She pushed the corpse away, her face impassive. The rest of the passengers were too shocked to do or say anything at all.
The Captain calmly dropped the clip from the gun, ejected the round in the chamber, and handed the weapon back to the stunned corporal.
“Thanks,” Keyes said. “That thing works pretty well. Don’t forget to reload it.”