the double doors behind her, Ellen Anders waved the Monitor over to the
console she had previously repaired. The screen was still lit up with
diagnostic data, but she was hoping to access the more intricate
programs buried in the subroutines. As much as she wanted to return to
the bridge, Ellen could read the seriousness in Alice's tone and
granted her the fact that running around an old UNSC mapping ship
unescorted while under Covenant attack was not a good idea. The docking
bay provided them with a solid escape route and defensible positions,
making it an ideal place for a last stand. If it ever came down to that.
the female Spartan's request, Ellen sealed them in, locking the docking
bay off from the rest of the ship. The lone marine in the bay was
patching up the pilot from Fox One, while the other pilot, kneeling at
her side, did his best not to vomit at the sight of blood.
to herself, Ellen started for the wounded woman propped up against the
forward landing gear of the dropship. Anders did take a few med courses
during her quick transit through the various universities, and any help
she could offer would probably be desired. Probably.
"Anything I can do?" she asked the marine.
ma'am," he answered without looking up. He had just finished wrapping
the last layer of medi-tape around the woman's thigh. "The wound didn't
nick the femoral artery but it was close." He finally turned his head
around and abruptly stood up when he recognized the Professor. "Oh, I'm
sorry. I didn't know it was you."
Ellen's eyebrows met in partial amusement. "It's okay. Is she going to be alright?"
but she really should visit the Med Bay." The marine's eyes defocused
and he took a step back. "Uh, ma'am? Is that the . . ."
looked over her shoulder to see Contrite Variant hovering at the
console, watching their conversation for a distance. "Yes, that's the
The marine worked his jaw for a moment. "Oh, so the
cause of all our problems has a title?" He shook his head. "Well, you
might want to keep it out of the survivor's sight. He keeps mumbling
about that 'wretched machine'," he said using air-quotes.
a fresh wave of guilt being ushered into her her heart by the
bitterness of his words, Anders just nodded. "Where is the survivor?"
He poked a thumb towards the the dropship. "He's inside. Got himself strapped in, ready for takeoff."
keep him there." Ellen looked down at the wounded pilot. "Better get
her inside too, if we have to jet out of here in a hurry."
"Right." The marine waved the dazed Fox Three pilot over and the two men carried the injured woman into the dropship.
Ellen let out a long sigh and returned to the console only to find the Monitor keeping a watchful eye on her.
"Is something wrong?" Contrite Variant asked.
"You have to ask?" Ellen countered. She brought up a menu system on screen and started to access the security programs Tradewind had installed. "Look, there's a lot I need to fix here. I've dug myself a pretty deep hole."
"Why would excavation be an issue?"
it's . . ." Anders clenched her hands into fists and gritted her teeth.
Dealing with an AI like Serina had it its ups and downs, but they
mostly worked things out for the better of the crew. She tried to
return Serina's sass with an authoritative demeanor of her own, but
dealing with 49 Contrite Variant was like telling a child genius to
stop doing astro-navigation calculations and just go to bed. It some
ways, it reminded Ellen of herself. She sighed again. "I need to fix
the problem I created."
"So . . . redemption?"
Ellen looked curiously at the machine. "Sure."
"Then I stand by, ready to assist," the Monitor said with a renewed vigor she found a bit alarming.
To say this AI was odd
was an understatement, but the word best summed up her experience so
far. Returning to the keypad, she quickly found the security protocols.
"Just be quiet for a moment."
"Oh," Contrite said. "As you wish."
rolled her head from shoulder to shoulder and got to work. She began to
restore power to the archaic security cams stationed at key junctions
and rooms aboard the ship.
Just as the fish-eye view into the ventral hatch room popped up on screen, the comm crackled to life. "Professor? Any progress?"
the fuzziness of the video feed, Ellen could easily make out the three
Spartans and the dozen or so marines making their rounds over the dead
Covenant troops. And there were a lot of bodies. Ellen cleared her
throat. "I've got a visual on your team," she informed Spartan 092.
looked up at the opposite corner of the room, then finally spotted the
security camera and nodded. "Good, can you lock down this room? I doubt
the Covies will attempt the same entrance twice, but better safe than
Ellen pulled up another program, checking to see if she
could carry out such a command from her station. As expected, an error
message came up, alerting her that she didn't have authorization. One
thought that quickly died out was to go grab Tradewind's acting-captain and have him enter his passcode, but she figured he should be left alone for now. Still, fail-safes should be in place. She keyed her comm. "The only way I can get those blast doors closed is if there's significant atmospheric venting."
The warped image of 092 shifted as he pulled something off his belt and hefted it in his hand. "That won't be a problem."
"And why- oh, great," Ellen murmured when she recognized the fragmentation grenade. "That's one way of doing it."
screen, the UNSC team filed out, while 092 placed a single plasma
grenade on top of the pile of dead Grunts lying under the hatch. A
moment later, with the room void of humans, a blurred, round object
flew into the room, landing just behind the Uggnoy. With a blinding
white flash, the camera's feed cut off, followed by a muffled rumble
Anders felt through her boots.
"That should do it."
called up the lockdown program and sure enough, the hatch room's blast
doors had closed shut. Anders was about to protest over the use of
explosives inside such an old ship when static blared over the comm.
She hastily tried to scrub the frequency and managed to limit the
amount of white noise. She couldn't tell if someone was trying to
contact her, but since she had just been speaking with the Spartan she
figured Captain Cutter was trying to reach her. "Spirit of Fire?"
"Gone?" Cutter searched the stars, looking for some hint of a slipstream entrance.
"No sign of the Covenant Cruiser, Sir," the sensors officer said, sounding confused. "It must have jumped."
James shook his head. There should be one way to verify.
can you heard me?" James asked over the busy sounds of the bridge. All
hell might not have broken loose, but people were still scrambling
about, fueling a sense of panic. "Communications, can you tighten our
The comms officer nodded and the static dissipated somewhat.
can barely hear you, Captain," Ellen Anders said. Oddly, when her voice
sounded over the bridge speakers, the crewmen quieted down.
"Professor, can you get anything up on Tradewind's sensors?" James asked.
"I'll try," she replied, sounding agitated.
"092, report," he ordered, switching gears.
When Spartan 092 spoke, the bridge nearly fell silent. "We were able to eliminate the attackers, Sir."
Cutter passed up the chance to breathe a sigh of relief, not fully knowing how or why the cruiser had left.
"We'll regroup at the Starboard Docking Bay," 092 continued.
well, Spartan." James glanced at the main viewscreen, finding it void
of anything but rocks and rubble. But no Covenant ships were seen.
Frowning, he turned to the sensors officer. "Did those Phantoms jump as
The officer nodded. "It appears so, Sir. Either that or they returned to the cruiser before it entered slipspace."
Cutter's expression deepened. The latter would have been nearly impossible, and the former made the most sense. But why would they have left as quickly as they arrived?
The Captain had never faced a Covenant force that ran at the first sign
of trouble, let alone drop off a squad of troops to be slaughtered and
then call it a day. The fact that their sensors were blinded by the
debris cloud the enemy lasers had kicked up during the cruiser's escape
made detecting the slipstream rupture out of the question. Usually
there is a burst of radiation, but if the whole in slipspace was small
and fast enough, it wouldn't render on their sensors even after
clearing the dust and magnetic distortion the cruiser had created.
voice came over the bridge speakers. "Captain, of what little resources
I could restore, there appears to be nothing on the radar but you."
didn't like this one bit. The speed of the enemy's response to the EMP
was amazingly fast, and if the Covies were to return, they'd sure as
hell bring a fleet with them. And that was something Cutter did not
want to stick around for. "Ground Team, the cruiser is gone along with
the Phantoms." He sighed. "Prep for evac. We're not going to get
Even through the comm distortion, 092's voice sounded puzzled. "They just left?"
before leaving us with a few parting gifts," Cutter said dryly,
scanning his eyes over the damage reports. "We'll bring the Spirit of Fire into the clearing the cruiser made and send some Pelicans down for quick transport off that ship."
"Captain," Anders interjected. "What about our reason for stopping here in the first place? We can still use Tradewind's FTL drive. It should be easy enough to remove."
"The main reason was to respond to a distress call, Professor," Cutter rebuked mildly. Still, even running at full speed, the Covies would surely spot us against the blackness of space. If they could extract the FTL drive from Tradewind and at the very minimum get it aboard, they stood a good chance of getting out of this alive. And return home.
"Bradley," he called over his shoulder.
The engineer was at his side in a flash. "Yes, Sir?"
"Report to Chief Engineer Prescott and tell him he's got a job to do," Cutter informed.
smiled. "Yes, Sir," he said with a pinch of enthusiasm. He was through
the exit and running down the corridor before James had even turned
"Professor," he said into the comm. "I'll be sending down a team to help with the drive's removal. Please help them in any way."
bring us in. And alert Medical. We'll be having a few extra guests that
have been in Cryo for far too long." He stood up and folded his arms
across his chest. "Let's make this quick, people. Time is of the
Even as he silently watched the bridge crew carry out
his orders, James still felt the stirring in his stomach that something
wasn't right. Maybe it was an effect from the thaw. Or maybe it was warranted.
"Seriously?" the tiny voice said in his ear.
flipped his HEV's secondary monitor over to the receiving channel and
wasn't surprised to see Toril Holmen as the source. "Copy, Control.
Standing down," he said for his squad, wanting to defuse the situation
as quickly as possible.
He exhaled a weary sigh and keyed the
hatch open. The hydraulics hissed and he climbed out to find the row of
ODSTs filing out of the room looking rather annoyed- and rightfully so.
In the military, one was used to being ordered about, doing things
without question, but this back and forth, stand-up-sit-down gambit was
loosing its charm. He heard the soldier to his left grumble a complaint.
"They just need to make up their minds once and for all or just shoot us into vacuum," the ODST griped.
raised an eyebrow, but the expression was lost underneath his helmet.
"You know how unpredictable these things can be," he admonished lightly.
"Eh," the soldier waved Nathan an unpleasant hand gesture and marched off.
his head, Nathan looked down to his right to see a certain pod,
Toril's, unopened. He dialed in a personal line to her HEV on his comm
and walked over. Immediately his ears filled with what was most likely
curse words in her native tongue. He cringed at the vehemence in her
voice but tapped on the pod's glass window nonetheless. "You okay in
The swearing cut off, followed by a sigh through clenched teeth. "Go away," she said tiredly.
pulled his helmet off and ran a hand through his hair, relishing in the
relief it brought. "There's no where to go," he replied, deciding to
probe her underlying demeanor.
That response elicited the glass on Toril's pod to opaque, blocking any visual contact. "Find somewhere."
folded his arms across his chest and shifted his weight to his right
leg, holding his helmet by the brim. "I think here is where I need to
be." He rolled his eyes at the cheesiness of his own statement. What a stupid thing to say!
warning, the HEV's hatch snapped open, narrowly missing his face and
sending Nathan to tumble backwards and land on his rear. Still sitting
in her pod, Toril gripped the handles above her head, looking as if she
would fly out feet first. But her body sagged and she slumped back
down. "Please, just leave me alone," she said quietly, no longer
transmitting over the comm.
Trying to play it cool, Nathan sat up
and bent his knees, placing his forearms casually over them. His
eyebrows met together but he softened his expression with a smile.
"There's obviously something going on with you. If you tell me, maybe I
Toril snorted, the sound coming out more nasally than
normal. She was still wearing her helmet, but at least she had
depolarized it. "You don't get it, do you? When someone says they want
to be alone, that's when you leave."
Nathan felt color rising to
his face. "I know, and if you really want me to go, I will," he said
with a wince, hoping she would give in just this once.
lifted to his, the blue irises contrasting with his brown. Toril
narrowed her eyes as she studied his sincerity. Nathan could read a
distant pain behind those beautiful eyes and wondered if he may have
opened a wound she didn't feel like sharing. He panned his head around
to find the room empty, and started to sense that he too should
probably go . . .
She visibly swallowed and lifted her chin. "What makes you think I can trust you?" she asked cautiously.
in surprise at the turn in her tone, he set his jaw before speaking.
"Holmen, I know you're new to being an ODST, but things are a little
different here. We're a family, more so than marines. My squadmates are
my brothers," he pursed his lips for a second, "and you are my sister."
He tucked his right leg underneath the other. "So if there's something
you need to talk about, I'm here."
Toril's head lolled to the left. "You really mean that, Parker?"
course. Sometimes talking through an issue is the best way to feel
better about it," mentally he cringed at his choice of words. In his
mind, Nathan was coming off as an idiot.
A smile tugged at the
corner of her mouth. "No, I mean the whole sister-brother thing." She
sighed. "Can we really be like that?" she asked with half a frown.
felt his stomach tighten. Deep down he knew he would like nothing more
than to invite her into his quarters for some "R & R", but the way
she asked her question meant friendship was possible and nothing else.
His emotions were conflicting with one another as he stared at her
partially obstructed face. On one hand, he desired the intimacy. But on
the other hand, he truly wanted to help Toril, even at the cost of a
romantic pursuit. "Yes," he replied with difficulty, as if the word was
oozing out a meat grinder.
Toril's expression softened and she actually smiled at Nathan. "Okay."
Nathan mimicked her smile. "Okay."
Toril leaned forward and lowered herself in her seat, situating herself as if to take a nap.
"So . . ." Nathan trailed off, not really understanding her change in comfort.
press your luck, Parker," she said, nearly laughing. "I'd say this is a
good start. Let's not ruin it by going any further."
his mouth to speak but immediately thought otherwise and clamped it
shut, not wanting to loose any ground he made by ruining it with a
quick comment. Instead, he stood up and gave her a casual salute. He
spun on his heel to go.
His brow furrowed as he turned back around. "Yeah?"
Toril gave him another rationed smiled. "Thanks."
He nodded and started for the ready room, feeling a wave of relief wash over him.
the time Jerome had returned to the Starboard Docking Bay the place was
buzzing with activity. Four Pelicans had managed to squeeze in around
the still immovable dropship, and medical staff were pouring out of the
UNSC ships. He sent Alice and Douglas off to escort those that would
retrieve the 19 frozen Tradewind crewmembers.
more marines filed out of one Pelican, Jerome still felt uneasy about
everything. The firefight in the hatch room was short and to him it
ended a little too quickly. And then the Covies just leave? He
shook his head, and made his way over to Anders, standing by the lone
console in the bay. In his mind, he couldn't figure out why a
shipmaster wouldn't at least patrol the area of the engagement before
committing troops for a ground assault. Odd as their tactics usually
were, this didn't make any sense.
He came to a stop to Anders'
right, stepping in between her and the Monitor. "Thanks for the help
back there." He glanced at the screen, noticing a sensor sub-program of
the mapping ship was running. Either she was as skeptical of the
Covenant leaving as he, or she had just left it up for lack of nothing
better to do. "Still scanning?"
Anders shrugged without looking
at him. "This ship may be old, but its sensor equipment was top-notch
when it was built." She waved a hand to the screen. "Might as well be
on the look out."
"Find anything?" Jerome asked.
getting some weird readings on gaseous clouds." Anders leaned on the
console, using her hands to support her weight. "But if I focus the
spectrometers for more than a few seconds, the program freezes up and I
have to start all over."
"Your readings are probably due to the cruiser's laser blasts exploding those smaller asteroids out there."
the Spartan and Professor turned towards the source of the voice. It
was a young man with a mop of red hair tucked underneath an engineer's
cap. "And you are?" Jerome asked.
"Engineer Jonathan Bradley,
Sir." He held out a hand and gave the Spartan a surprisingly firm
handshake. "The Captain sent me down to retrieve the FTL drive," he
nodded to Anders, "with your help, of course."
Jerome frowned. "Where's Prescott?"
"Getting ready to do the math," he answered with a grin. "Assuming Tradewind's
drive is still operable, there's a lot of voltages and amperes we need
to check. Once we have everything verified, a pair of Pelicans can pick
up the FTL drive and we will finally be on our way."
"Sounds like a good plan to me," Anders said with a little more cheer than usual. "Shall we get started?"
engineer smiled again but his eyes glanced over at Jerome. "The Captain
wants our team to have an escort. Who should we ask about that?"
me," Jerome replied. "The med team will need all the help they can get.
No sense in pulling away any more marines than needed."
"Good." Bradley waved a half dozen techs over, each holding some form of electronic equipment. "Lead the way."
Jerome was half way turned around, the Monitor quickly moved to block
their path. "Do I understand you correctly in saying that you will be
Jerome exchanged a glance with Anders who frowned. "Yes. We're getting out of here," she said, her words coming out slowly.
Variant perked up and his eye glowed a little brighter. "Wonderful!" He
seemed to vibrate where he floated for a half second. "There. I've
uploaded the location of Installation B-23 to your computing device. We
Jerome noticed the Professor gasp when she heard
her datapad sound a negative tone. She pulled the device from her
pocket and frowned. "You just completely filled up my memory," she
Fed up with the machine's antics, Jerome reached out
with lightning-fast reflexes and grabbed the lower chassis of the
Monitor, pulling it closer. "Look, Glowrod. You've done enough already.
If you think you can use the Spirit of Fire as your own
personal MagLev train, you're wrong." He let go, giving Contrite
Variant a slight shove. "You stay here, touch nothing, and we'll consider taking you with us. Is that clear?"
Monitor was silent for the span of a long exhale. "Of course,
Reclaimer." Contrite Variant sputtered away, lifting high above the
Pelicans to hover between the cross beams supporting the bay's ceiling.
looked back at Anders, willing to argue his method of interaction. But
she merely sighed with a understanding smile and motioned for him to
After the first twenty minutes of successful evacuation of the Tradewind survivors,
Captain Cutter exhaled a quiet sigh of relief. His crew was moving with
the efficiency he had expected, shaving ten minutes off the original
estimates to get the Cryo Room emptied. He had dispatched a group to
retrieve the logs and anything else the techs deemed vital from the
auxiliary bridge, and they were almost finished.
And the most
thrilling news of all: Chief Engineer Prescott had given Cutter the
green light on the FTL drive. "While it is an old model, I'm positive
we can adapt it to our power conduits," the aging man had said.
Prescott was older than James, but still had his bearings in place.
While some men his age would have gone senile by now, Prescott showed
no signs of instability. If he says he can get something done, he gets
And with that wonderful transmission, two Pelicans were en-route to Tradewind's stern where they would extract the drive and return it to the Spirit of Fire.
And once we've installed the new drive, we'll be on our way home. James felt a tightness in his throat and swallowed past it, quelling the emotions that were struggling to water his eyes. Mary how I have missed you.
had been far too long since the Captain had corresponded with his wife,
and he, like everyone else aboard with family, was praying that the
galaxy had not given up all hope for their return. He knew the UNSC
would classify them as MIA at best, but the thought that Mary and his
daughter Ruth could go through such unneeded suffering was plucking at
his heart strings. Up until now, he had tried to place the worry into
the back of his mind, but now with the possibility of returning home in
their grasp, he wondered if they would have moved on with their lives. How
long would they wait? Would Mary accept my lost fate and return to
Earth to live with her sister? Had Ruth finally married that marine
medic she had been dating for two years?
So much could have
happened, and yet it was all out of his control. With another swallow,
he mentally pushed aside those questions, forcing himself to focus on
the task at hand. James motioned to the main viewscreen. "Bring up the
feed from those Pelicans."
The screen split into two views, both
slightly off from each other, giving the impression the visuals were
coming for a single, cross-eyed individual.
"Delta 749, what's your ETA?" Cutter asked into the comm.
"Forty seconds, Sir," the male pilot answered quickly.
"Everything's prepped and ready to go," Bradley informed from Tradewind's drive room. "Opening the outer doors."
"Glad to hear it," James said with a smile. "Ground Team, how's the rest of the evacuation?"
last medical transport just left," Spartan 042 responded for the other
two. "Aside from the first three squads in the docking bay, the team in
the aux bridge, and those at the aft end, all personnel are off Tradewind."
"Good." Cutter returned his attention to the main viewscreen. "Delta 749, let us know if-"
the image on the right belonging to Delta 750 vanished only to be
replaced by static. A terrified gasp echoed over the bridge. "Spirit of Fire, we-"
But Delta 749's feed was cut off with an audible crackle.
contacts!" the sensors officer yelled, switching the main screen to a
tactical one. "Three Phantoms just took out our Pelicans!"
eyes grew wide when the faint flicker of a ship coming out of active
camouflage appeared at the top edge of the forward viewport.
"Enemy cruiser right above us!" an officer hollered in a panic.
no," James breathed. He never would have thought a Covenant ship that
size could have the means to cloak, but sure enough, the vessel had
materialized out of nowhere. Cutter's mouth went dry.
The Covenant Cruiser was back. And it had the Spirit of Fire locked in its sights.
New story out! Halo: Below the Brine
(it's the best story you're not reading!)