Standing in the middle of the cramped storage room, Ellen Anders tucked a loose strand of her black hair behind her left ear and frowned. "They're gone?" she asked into the comm. "Why would the cruiser just up and leave? That doesn't make any sense."
Beside her, a tech grumbled. "Since when did anything the Covies do make sense?"
"I'll fill you in on the details once you return to the Spirit of Fire," Captain Cutter said with a weary voice.
To her other side, Engineer Bradley keyed his own comm. "Sir, what about the FTL drive?"
"We're sending down more Pelicans. I suggest you get your team back up to the Reactor Proper and get the drive prepped."
Once again back into technician-mode, Bradley straightened up to his full height. "With pleasure, Sir." He waved the other techs to follow, and they left the room to head to the lift lobby.
Tagging along at the rear of the group, Anders heard her comm ping a short tone, signaling she had a private transmission queued up. "This is Anders."
It was the Captain. "Professor, I have something to ask of you."
She came to a stop in the doorway as the others moved on ahead. Ellen just closed her eyes and waited. What could be more important than fitting the FTL drive aboard our ship?
Cutter sighed. "I need you to repair Serina, get her up and functional again." He lowered his voice down to a whisper. "I think we're going to need her before we reach our next stop."
Ellen's frown deepened but she considered the seriousness of his tone. "Sir, what's going on?"
He took a while in answering. "Just before the cruiser entered the Slipstream, that Monitor transmitted a message to the Spirit of Fire while on board the enemy ship."
"Wait, how did it get aboard the cruiser?" Ellen asked, starting for the now empty lobby.
"That's one of my questions," Cutter answered. "He mentioned something about returning to an 'Installation B-23' and how he would go there himself without us." He sighed again, and this time she could hear his frustration. "I just don't know where that cruiser went."
Why would it change from "Research Facility to "Installation"? Nearly freezing in her tracks, Anders pulled out her datapad and eyed it suspiciously. "I think I may know where they went, Sir." She resumed her trot towards one of the lifts and entered the center-most one. "The Monitor nearly blew up my datapad's memory with information on B-23. If we grab the memory banks from Tradewind, we could probably pinpoint the cruiser's destination."
"Very well, Professor, but I'll send a team down to retrieve the archives. I still need you to get Serina's systems up."
"Yes, Captain," she said as the lift car ascended. She pocketed her datapad and when the doors chimed open she found Spartan 092 standing there. Anders internally smiled when she didn't jump from his sudden appearance, but the way the armored soldier stood slack told her something else was going on.
He nodded to Ellen. "Ma'am, you ready to get out of here?"
Raising an eyebrow, she nodded in return. "The Captain wants me back on board the Spirit of Fire, ASAP."
His chest heaved with a deep sigh. "Then follow me to the extraction point." He waited till Anders was nearly squeezing past him before he marched on toward the Starboard Docking Bay.
Oddly enough to Ellen, the Spartan didn't leap out in front at a hurried pace, but rather stayed by her side. She mentally shrugged and pressed on, ignoring the small voice inside her head that was telling her to ask the Spartan if something was wrong.
Gregory Williams had been convinced at a young age that it was his lot in life to lead others on the battlefield. He had seen countless worlds and engagements, both large and small. But this- this was a suicide mission. Greg would never question Cutter's orders, but something that must have slipped the old captain's mind was the chance that the shipmaster would flee the scene before the ODSTs could triumph. He immediately pushed aside the stray thoughts when he recalled in perfect detail how Cutter had beaten back the Covenant on that 'shield world', using Gregory's own unit to punch a hole in their defenses.
But now he was in an all out firefight in the heart of a Covenant ship- in the middle of a slipspace jump. "Watch that left flank!" he yelled to a young private. Greg lobbed another grenade at a fresh wave of Grunts that had just exited a pair of doors dead ahead. The frag dropped perfectly in the middle of the pack and managed to take out all but three Unggoy, which he quickly dispatched with his M6.
As originally planned, the majority of his unit had "crashed" into the central hangar of the cruiser, catching the Covenant off guard. It was a bold move, but the effectiveness of surprise was quickly becoming void as more and more enemy troops poured into the large, expansive hangar. He needed to think fast if he were to save his fellow ODSTs from the onslaught. A tap on his shoulder brought his head around.
"Sergeant Williams, Miller is trying to raise you on the comm," a corporal said with unusual calm.
Greg frowned, then mentally smacked a hand off his forehead. Sometime in the last few minutes he had accidentally switched off his communication device. "Williams here, Miller."
The fellow sergeant got right to the point. "Location?"
"LZ 2, pinned down between two damaged Phantoms smack dab in the middle of the hangar," he answered with disdain. "And you?"
"Slightly better at LZ 1. We've managed to rid ourselves of some snipers perched on the upper level, but they keep sending Grunts to halt any progress we make in getting out of here."
Williams looked to his left to stare briefly at the thick wall that separated the two hangars. "Where are you exactly?" he asked Miller, ducking back down and consulting his own virtual map. Right on cue, a red ping lit up on his display just twenty meters to his left.
"We're behind a row of crates along the North wall," Miller clarified. "You've got an idea?"
"Maybe." Williams took a quick survey of his soldiers, trying to find one in particular. "Private Burns!"
The redhead hopped off the line and was at his side in an instant. "Sir?"
A stray plasma round sailed overhead, making Williams bend down farther. "You have your explosives with you?"
Burns pointed a thumb at his backpack. "Enough to last till New Years Eve."
Greg cracked a smile. "Then let's celebrate early." He nodded towards the left-most wall. "Think you can bust through that?"
"Sure," Burns replied, but as he looked up at the never-ending barrage of plasma and needles, his face went a shade paler. "How do you propose I get over there?"
Williams gave the Private a frown. "Just set the timers and toss 'em over."
Burns pursed his lips. "Right, sorry, Sir."
"It's okay, we're all still adjusting."
It was true. Given the diminished numbers of ODSTs after the final battle on the shield world- and the fact that they were lightyears away from an outpost to officially commission soldiers, Williams, along with other group commanders, had appointed a handful of leathernecks into the ranks of the Helljumpers. It was as crazy as it sounded, but when a squad in trouble saw a Spartan come to the rescue, well . . . ODSTs were the next best thing. Even if some of them aren't completely out of training diapers.
"Miller, get clear of the wall's dead center. We're going to punch a hole through, then your guys lay down suppressing fire while we make a run for it. We'll link up at LZ 1."
Even as Burns removed the cylindrical explosives from his pack and armed them, his face remained pale. "We're going to run for it?" he asked with a quivering voice.
Greg nodded. "Son, we'll be overrun with Covies in a matter of seconds. We've got little choice in the matter."
Burns swallowed but readied himself for the toss. "Fire in the hole!" He drew his arm back and was about the throw when a pink needle stabbed into his forearm right between the lightly armored plates. He cried out in pain, and clutched his arm with his free hand.
Only he had dropped the explosives in the process, spilling them on the floor to roll away in multiple directions.
The sizzling pop of the needle tore through flesh and synthetic layer as it burst.
The surrounding ODSTs were quick to react, turning around to find a fellow soldier in agony. But their heads immediately turned downward as the thin metal rods came to a stop at their feet.
"Get them clear!" Williams belted out, as he snatched up two of the explosives and tossed them at the wall. The other ODSTs, too busy to focus on the Sergeant's previous plan, just chucked their own palmed explosives into the onrush of Covenant.
The force of the multiple blasts sent the ODSTs to the ground in a daze. Williams ducked away from the cloud of dust billowing out of the unseen hole in the wall. Flaming debris and partial limbs of Unggoy fell all around their once sheltered area, as the full effect of the explosions could be seen. One of the already crippled Phantoms had its nose completely blown off while the other was a fiery slab of melted metal.
Greg swore to himself. If he had taken the time to examine the explosives Burns had pulled out, he would have seen the markings and realized they were of mining-grade. Williams was just looking for something that could slag a half-meter wall, not take out a whole colony of Innies . But the damage was done- literally, and his men were starting to come to. He did a quick head count and found each of his troops, and thankfully, all looked coherent.
That's when Gregory noticed the eerie silence. He poked his head above what was left of their cover and spotted a half dozen retreating Grunts. "Miller?" he asked into the comm.
A sputtered cough answered. "Holy sh*t, Williams. You trying to kill us?"
"Sorry 'bout that." He glanced over his men. "Everyone okay?"
"We'll live," Miller commented with another cough. "Give us a second . . ."
"Sir, Burns is injured but the rest of us are okay," a corporal informed Williams with a nod. "Sir, I don't see anymore Covies."
Frowning, Greg stood up slowly and scanned the hangar. Sure enough, the last of the Unggoy were hobbling away from the blackened areas the explosives had created and were breaking for the last opened door. He pointed a finger at them and ordered, "take them out!"
The corporal's stuttered SMG fire was accompanied by a few others as they mopped up the last of the enemy.
When the echoes of gun fire died down, Greg finally heard the reason for the Covenant's retreat.
The hangar was venting atmosphere.
Somehow, one of the explosives must have tore through a weak spot in the flooring, and the hiss of air escaping through a crack was the sign. Warning klaxons blared as the doorway the Grunts were heading for flickered pink, telling Greg he had little time till the thick blast door would close and leave them to suffocate or freeze, whichever came first.
"Miller! Change of plans. Get your people in here, now," Williams barked, hauling Burns up on his feet by his collar. "Gentlemen, let's move!"
Without question, three dozen soldiers vaulted the burning rubble and joined the other group from LZ 1 in a dash for the slowly closing blast door. Burns was moaning the whole way but did match Greg's speed. The large silver door was half closed when the last of the ODSTs ducked through the opening.
Sergeant Miller tapped his visor twice to depolarize it and Williams could see the odd expression on his face. "Hell of a way to break an enemy line," Miller said, wiping the dust off of his chest plate.
Williams allowed the unit's medic to take Burns from his grasp and shrugged. "Hey, it worked didn't it?"
"Unconventional as always," Miller murmured. He turned to looked down the dim corridor. "So what now? I sure don't want to cripple a ship I'll need to use to get back home."
Williams chewed on the inside of his cheek as he thought about his options. At first, his mission was simple: plant charges along key energy conduit points and disable the cruiser. But now, a critical systems failure while in the Slipstream was a very, very bad idea. With the likely endpoint being a Covenant garrison of some sorts, Williams concluded that they needed to take the bridge in order to bring the ship out of the Slipstream safely.
A suicide mission indeed.
"Miller, I don't think I've ever been on a Covenant bridge before," he commented casually.
Sergeant Miller shifted his weight to one leg and brought a tapping finger to his lips. "Come to think of it, neither have I."
Although Nathan Parker kept up with the two Spartans, he was mesmerized at their ability to stay quiet in contrast to his harsh steps on the hexagonal-patterned floor. Even his own breathing boomed in his ears and he forced himself to walk that fine line between calmness and alertness. Still unsure of his current weapon choice, he kept wanting to switch to his SRS, but the battlefield didn't really call for it.
The Female Spartan came to a stop at the end of the corridor where it took a sharp turn to the right. She slowly leaned her head around the corner and held up a fist with two fingers extended. She swapped positions with the male Spartan and he also poked his head out for a look.
Beside Nathan, Toril raised her SMG, but 130 held out a hand to forestall any action.
It was then that Nathan could hear voices shouting, followed by a growl and stampeding steps against grated flooring. He looked at Toril questioningly, but she merely shrugged. The sounds of the footsteps became more distant as the seconds ticked off the mission clock. Covies mobilizing. But to where?
042, turned back to face the three and nodded. "Let's go," he whispered.
They moved as one, keeping their weapons raised, Nathan with his silenced M6. He immediately noticed the abrupt change in decor when it shifted from the normal purple-on-pink to a more industrial look. The ceiling rose up by almost three levels with large piping and conduits running both horizontal and vertical. An eerie green mist was spewing from several large, circular containers, but the fact that they generated no noise added to the creepiness factor.
"This must be where they retrofitted the Active Camouflage into their design," Toril commented, her voice barely audible.
As he stepped out on the grated floor, Nathan realized the huge room extended downwards by several more levels. "Whatever technology the Covies are using, it sure does take up a lot of space."
The male Spartan led them across a catwalk, always sweeping his submachine gun in preparation for battle. He was holding something else that Nathan thought was a fuel-rod cannon, but he couldn't tell for sure. "With this much room dedicated to a massive cloaking device, I wonder how many actual Covenant are on board," 042 said with faint curiosity.
"You would think this would be located towards the rear of the ship, near the reactor," the female Spartan pointed out. "I bet we're dealing with a Spec Ops vessel," she added gravely.
"That would actually explain a lot," the male Spartan said. "A lone ship sent out to capture an AI? Sounds about right to me."
Toril tapped 130 on the arm. "What is that thing? One of ONI's newest toys?"
"Only the best," she replied playfully yet quietly. The female Spartan shook her head. "No, it was the device an Elite used to capture the alien AI back on Tradewind. It has a little tracker built into it . . . if Douglas is reading it right."
"I heard that, Alice."
So they do go by names, Nathan pondered, but figured the numeric tags were still required by "little people" like him and Toril.
"You mean they have problems with their AIs too?" Toril asked, sounding slightly amused.
"I don't think it's a Covenant AI," Alice answered soberly. "And whatever the reason the Covies want the thing, it can't be good."
Nathan nodded. With all the ONI secrets out there, this was obviously something the two Spartans deemed necessary to solve with all haste.
Douglas waved them forward and pointed the barrel-shaped device to his left. "This way."
Relieved to finally be somewhere other than the bridge, James Cutter stood with arms folded across his chest, watching the two Pelicans touch down in the main hangar. The thick metal cables that were suspending the cargo slackened when Tradewind's FTL drive settled down between the two transports.
Standing beside James was Prescott with datapad in hand. "It's in better shaped that I imagined," the Chief Engineer said over the roar of the mechanics and other crewmembers cheering. "We'll have it fitted in no time, Sir."
Cutter felt a tightness in his throat. Here, right in front of him, was the Spirit of Fire's chance to return to UNSC-controlled space . . . and yet, James wasn't sure he could. He felt a shiver run up his spine as he replayed the last transmission from the Monitor in his head for the umpteenth time. Not only would he have to explain abandoning his ODSTs aboard an enemy ship but come up with a good reason why he stranded two Spartans.
Of course there was the fact that his ship was in desperate need of repair and how he would be heading into unknown territory- again. He sighed out loud. His actions were becoming a databook example of how to thin one's ranks, and the last thing he wanted was to loose any more of his soldiers. James knew the backlash from the crewmembers not wanting to do anything but head for home could lead to a mutiny. And where would that leave us?
"You alright, Sir?"
James caught Prescott's concerned look out of the corner of his eye. "What would you do, Drew?" he asked quietly. When Prescott's face turned to one of puzzlement, Cutter clarified. "Return home or go get our boys on that cruiser?"
The gray haired man shrugged. "I'd do whatever made the most sense." He tucked the datapad underneath his arm pit and held out his hands like a scale. "If we head to the nearest UNSC outpost, we could muster a fleet from Reach or wherever and hope our troops are still alive." He lifted his left hand higher. "But if we follow the cruiser as soon as we get this FTL drive installed, we could catch them off guard." He grabbed his datapad and started some calculations. "But don't get me going on crew morale. I'll leave that to the experts."
And with that final comment, Prescott waved the technicians over to start adapting Tradewind's FTL drive to the Spirit of Fire's empty Translight Engine Room.
Morale. Was that all any UNSC ship survived on in this campaign against the Covenant? James shook his head and turned to go.
He spun on his heel to find Ellen Anders coming to a stop. Oddly enough, at her side was Spartan 092. "Professor, Chief," he greeted them.
Anders pulled out her datapad and keyed it for a transmission. "During my ride up here, I sifted through the data Contrite Variant gave me and found a string of galactic coordinates."
James raised an eyebrow. "That thing has a name?" he asked, pulling out his own datapad and accepting the coded information. "Any locations stick out as unusual?"
Anders nodded emphatically. "Yes, Sir. Arcadia was just one of a handful of sites within UNSC space, but there was one in particular that took up the largest cache of data." Both of their datapads beeped an affirmative. "That has to be Research Facility B-23."
Captain Cutter nodded slowly, working his jaw for a moment. The blur of activity around Tradewind's FTL drive was increasing, almost disorienting, as James weighed his options once more.
"We are going after them, right, Sir?"
Cutter's eyes darted to the golden visor that was the source of the question. 092 was standing with rigid posture, extreme even for a Spartan. James could detect the desperate plea underneath the calm professionalism of the super soldier's words. The Captain closed his eyes long enough to let out a sigh. He opened them again and gave a curt nod to 092. "Yes, we are." He laid a heavy hand on the Spartan's armored bicep. "And once the new drive is installed, we'll be on our way."
"Yes, Sir." Spartan 092 nodded once and marched on in the wake of Prescott's engineers.
James watched him go, wondering if there was something else he should say, but he decided to let the man be. "Anders," he prompted, turning back to face the young scientist, but her eyes were still on the wandering Spartan.
She looked back at Cutter and shifted her shoulders. "Yes?"
James eyed her with concern. Her hair had almost escaped the tie used to secure it, and her eyes looked weary. "Why don't you get some rest before working on Serina."
Anders brought a hand up to rub at her eyes with thumb and forefinger. "I'll be okay. Priorities, right?"
He gave her a flat smile. "Very well."
She stuffed her datapad into her satchel and frowned at the crowd filing out of the main hangar. "Will he be okay?" she asked, gesturing to the Spartan with a tilt of the head.
James turned to spot 092 with his gaze downward. "I hope so, Professor." I hope so.
Jerome felt like a stranger looking through the glass of a storefront window. He stood outside the Drive Room, watching as an endless stream of techs and monitoring equipment were circling around the small FTL drive. All he could do was watch. Jerome never had any expertise with electronics, let alone higher physics, but he knew enough not to get in the way.
"This is amazing, isn't it?"
Bringing his visual focus closer, he caught the reflection of Engineer Bradley in the glass. "What?" Jerome asked disinterestedly.
"This," he replied, pointing to the interior of the room. "We're actually going to make it home now."
Jerome gave the slightest turn of his head and noticed Bradley wearing a stupid looking grin from ear to ear. He was clutching a handful of datapads to his chest with his eyes lit up like the bright lights shining down from the ceiling above. "Do you have an estimate of how soon you'll be done?" Jerome asked with fatigue.
Bradley looked up at him with a larger-than-life smile. "No more than another half hour." He bowed at the waist rather awkwardly and ran off down the hallway.
Are all engineers this giddy about their work? Or was Bradley just filling his mind with delusions of grandeur by thinking they would be burning sky for Earth? He shook his head. Jerome wondered if the Captain would even bother to tell anyone the truth till they were at their destination. That would be my way. Just tell everyone "battle stations!" as soon as we exit the Slipstream and they'd figure it out.
He breathed a deep sigh and closed his eyes. He technically didn't have a "battle station" so the request would be irrelevant to him. Instead, he would team up with Douglas and Alice and go find trouble themselves. But now, there really is no where to go. He wanted to believe that the Spirit of Fire would get to his fellow Spartans in time, but that twinge of doubt was eating away at his conscious like a starved beast. He wasn't sure if he was being too melancholy or if he was letting his past failures shape his thoughts.
He clenched his hands into fists and didn't bother trying to force them open. The pressure in his grip was strong enough to kill a Sangheili and toss its carcass into orbit.
Eventually, he unclenched his teeth and pried his fingers from his palms. The past. He had fought so hard to bury the memory of his first engagement into the darkest recesses of his mind, but now, his head was swimming with ghostly reminders. He shook his head violently to rid himself of the pain but only succeeded in bang his helmet off the glass.
The turning of heads in the Drive Room made him focus on something other than his awful memories. It was after someone gasped that he realized he had cracked the window. He growled and held a hand up in apology.
"Whoa, you okay?" It was Bradley again. This time he was void of datapads.
Jerome slowly turned to face the engineer and was rewarded with the shorter man backpedaling. "Finished?" he asked, ignoring the previous question.
As if switching gears on a warthog, Bradley perked up. "Yes, we are," he said excitedly. "The Captain's about to make the announcement."
"Great," Jerome said mildly and march off in the opposite direction, heading down towards an opened hangar. He really didn't care which, he just wanted to see what he figured the Captain would do next.
He wasn't surprised. Down in Drop Bay Bravo, he ignored the Captain's lengthy explanation of his plans blaring over the speakers- that was sure to ruffle some feathers- and stared down through the opening in the floor. Like a wise commander, Cutter knew to leave no spoils of war behind.
Jerome watched as the four tracer lines of the MAC gun targeted the remains of Tradewind . . .
The quadruple explosions tore through ancient hull and rock, obliterating the old mapping ship in seconds. Fire spewed out of the dust cloud as the reactor ignited. Sparks and debris collided together to trigger secondary explosions which just as quickly burned out in the thin atmosphere of the asteroid.
As the last few chunks of warped metal turned into slag, the Spirit of Fire vectored away from the wide crater that once held a UNSC vessel.
When the hum of the FTL drive vibrated the flooring, Jerome couldn't help but envy the ease of which the enormous warship had eliminated that which needed to be destroyed.
In his mind's eye, Jerome wished he could do the same to his own demons.
New story out! Halo: Below the Brine
(it's the best story you're not reading!)