Re: Halo: Lost and Found (A Halo Wars Epilogue) [Chapter 13]

  •  10-21-2010, 1:47 PM

    Re: Halo: Lost and Found (A Halo Wars Epilogue) [Chapter 13]

    Chapter 14

    Ellen Anders forced her eyelids open as she tried to return from unconsciousness. She hadn't planned on falling asleep so suddenly, but it seemed an appropriate reward for completing the last diagnostic on Serina's AI infrastructure without any mishaps. Still hunched over her desk, Ellen uncurled her arms cradling her head and slowly sat up in her chair. She could feel the cold slobber on her cheek and hastily rubbed the annoyance away.

    A subtle ding from her computer brought her attention to the screen. Speeding along on an opened document was the growing trail of the letter J. But once the program caught up with her sleeping form no long holding down a key, the document had amassed 31 pages. Anders smirked and quickly did the math in her head. I've been asleep for almost two and a half hours . . .

    Her hair had fallen loose and a few strands were still pasted against her forehead. Tugging her long black locks free of the fastener, she leaned back and ran her hands through her hair to ease away some of the tension in her neck. As she did so, Ellen blinked away the last remaining bits of tiredness. One of the more helpful skills Anders had learned was the ability to function on very little sleep. Usually just a simple cat nap could keep her going for an extra six hours.

    She let out a yawn and stretched her arms high till she heard a few pops from her joints and collapsed her hands into her lap. Ellen reached up to delete the "J" document file when the sound of shuffling feet to her left caused her to spin ninety degrees in her chair. The abrupt adrenaline rush completely clear away any remaining fog that covered her mind.

    Standing half a dozen meters away with arms folded across his chest was a tall, fit man, decked out in civilian dress. He was facing forward, offering Anders his profile, and looking out at the colorless void of the Slipstream.

    Hoping not to imply her sudden inhalation of air made her out to be startled- which she was- Ellen quickly cleared her throat. "Excuse me but what are you doing here?" She frowned. "And how did you get into my lab?"

    "Sorry," the man said with a gravelly voice. He then swallowed and quietly cleared his throat as well.

    "And?" she implored, but it seemed that was the extent of his vocabulary. Given the fact that this civilian had somehow managed to break into the Observation Deck, she figured "sorry" was something he was used to saying. Her frown deepened when he didn't say anything else for a solid nineteen seconds. "Excuse me," she tried again with a little more forcefulness in her words. She glanced over at her comm unit on her desk and realized she might have to call security.

    "Sorry," he repeated, but ended it with a sigh this time. Some of the stiffness in his stance slackened, if only for a moment. "I have nowhere else to be. At least . . . not for a while."

    What? Is that some sort of pickup line? Ellen shook her head, trying to fully comprehend his words. His tone wasn't that of a guy trying to get her into bed but layered with a touch of sadness and regret that spoke of some hidden meaning. Why are men so cryptic sometimes?

    It was during her brief contemplation with the male psyche that she finally recognized the person's voice as he spoke once more. "Slipspace is oddly comforting to me." He opened his mouth to say something else but clamped down before another sound escaped.

    Ellen eyed him more closely. "You're a Spartan, aren't you?" That will explain how he got in here, but not why . . .

    He pursed his lips and worked his jaw for a moment. His non-reply was enough to confirm her suspicions.

    "So why are you here?" she asked again, trying to soften her words but feeling like she failed. "What brings you down here?" she tried instead.

    "Couldn't sleep." He turned his back to her and walked along the portside viewports as if his feet were being dislodged from mud.

    Ellen tried to mentally place him from the three Spartans. "Jerome, is it?" she asked, trying to sound conversational.

    He looked over his shoulder and nodded. Jerome had something in his gait that spoke of an indecisiveness, as if a stiff breeze might blow him over before he made up his mind to divulge information.

    Ellen was going to ask the slightly younger man what he was doing here for the fourth time, but it finally clicked in her head when she analyzed his posture. It was of someone with something to say. Talk? Why would anyone want to talk with me?

    Oh, great. Just because I'm a professor people think I can cover anything labeled as "doctor" stuff. "Look, maybe you should-" Ellen stopped herself mid-sentence when she saw his downcast gaze fix on some indiscriminate spot on the floor, and his dark brown eyes not only looked troubled but held a story of a past that more than likely eclipsed hers in the way of extraordinary.

    "Are you familiar with Dr. Halsey's work?" he asked, not looking up.

    Ellen snorted out of pure reaction, but collected herself and nodded. "You mean the Spartan program? Most of that file is sealed tight in an ONI vault somewhere on Reach. Though what all I can-"

    "The augmentation process, can be . . . difficult to overcome," he softly interrupted her. "I was on one of the orbital defense platforms above Reach where I was being treated for what they called 'mild effects' from the augmentation."

    Ellen frowned. "Why an orbital platform? I would think it would make more sense to keep you locked tight planet-side."

    "I don't know," Jerome answered as he began his pacing again. "There were others in the isolation room with me, but I can't say who they were." He visibly swallowed. "We didn't stay there very long.

    "From what I learned later, a freighter had docked with the platform, supposedly delivering supplies, but instead of the usual cargo, it was filled with a URF insurgence team. They quickly overran the security teams in place and they somehow knew exactly where to find us."

    Ellen's eyes grew slightly wider. "As in 'you Spartans'?"

    Jerome nodded. "I heard the Code Blue alarms go off and managed to pry myself out of my bed and get the others up and moving. Though still groggy from the meds we were on, I was able to lead the other three into the hallway where we could find some place to either hide or arm ourselves. A brightly-lit medical wing isn't exactly the most discreet place to be." His hands balled into fists, his knuckles turning white. "Right when we stepped out into the main hallway the medical staff had turned the corner to our left, being pursued by the gun-wielding Rebels, and we were caught in the crossfire."

    Ellen felt her stomach turn cold. He must have been only a teenager. And to witness such a thing . . .

    Jerome began to visibly shake as he squeezed the words out of clenched teeth. "I watched as the two on my left took rounds to the chest, their blood splattering against my once perfectly white medical gown. A bullet lanced off my right shoulder, spinning me around just in time to watch the last Spartan candidate take a mortal wound to the stomach."

    He forced his hands open and looked down at his empty palms. "Then the Innies stopped shooting, as if they suddenly realized their actions were spoiling their plunder. I looked up and locked eyes with the nearest rebel. And in the single moment we both knew he was dead."

    Ellen almost shrunk back in her chair when Jerome lifted his head and gazed at her. His eyes betrayed no regrets of taking another's life, but that layer of sadness was back with a vengeance.

    "I went into a rage. Even before the front three men had switched to their shocksticks, I was on them like a crazed animal. I can't even recalled how I did it, but when I was done snapping bone and puncturing flesh with my bare fists, the seven unresponsive bodies of Insurrectionists were littered at my feet." Jerome closed his eyes, shook his head, and sighed. "I must have fainted from exhaustion or lack of blood, because when I came to I was under harsh white lights in an entirely new facility." He swallowed and lowered his voice to just above a whisper. "But I was alone."

    Ellen waited for a while before responding. She even waited till Jerome showed some visible sign that he wasn't going catatonic before her eyes. Her gazed met his and she felt the coldness in her stomach reach up into her throat. "Sounds like you did everything you could."

    He winced and shook his head minutely. "That's not the point," he said, his voice under rigid control. "In the end, I was the only one alive. I survived while the others died." He turned and faced forward again, looking out the viewports. "And it's happening again," he muttered.

    Ellen felt her brow furrow but soon caught herself and looked down at her feet. She didn't have to ask Jerome what he meant by his last statement, but the guilt layered in his voice was thick enough to cut with an energy sword. "And you feel responsible for their deaths?" she asked hesitantly. Ellen classified herself as a pretty brilliant woman, but as far as personality traits and human psych-stuff . . . she felt at a loss.

    "Of course I don't. I wasn't the one that pulled the trigger."

    "But you feel guilty," Ellen tried instead, mentally connecting his past story with current events. "For both times."

    Jerome gave her a sideways glance but remained silent.

    Ellen pursed her lips. This Spartan has been carrying something that happened to him years ago, and now that he's separated from the rest of Red Team, he feels the same flood of emotions. She had figured out, by listening to Cutter's reports while on the bridge repairing Serina, that the other two Spartans were on the Covenant cruiser when it jumped. "I heard that a lot of ODSTs made it on board the cruiser before it left," she said. "Maybe Alice and Douglas linked up with some."

    Jerome's shoulders rose with a quick exhalation of breath. "Maybe."

    Thinking back to her last moments on Tradewind, Ellen frowned. "Do you think you could have gone with them if you hadn't had to oversee the FTL drive's extraction?" she asked, hoping he wasn't looking for her to admit a role in all this.

    "No," he sighed. "It's just that . . . I don't know." Jerome rocked his neck back and forth a few times. "Red Team is just that, a team. The three of us have fought alongside each other ever since we were given our first set of armor. It's hard to explain, but we have a natural ability to function as one when engaged on the battlefield."

    Ellen nodded in agreement. "Trust me, I know what you guys are capable of."

    "And with those two going off to God-knows-where, I'm left here . . ." he trailed off and lowered his chin to his chest.

    "Survivor's guilt," Ellen breathed, when the oddly-shaped puzzle pieces finally snapped into place. "That's it, isn't it?"

    Jerome lifted his head up and turned to face her. "We're all survivors, Professor," he said with a raised eyebrow and a bit of normalcy returning to his voice. "Some just have a heavier burden to carry."

    Ellen tilted her head in confusion. "And you think bearing this guilt is a way to justify the situation?"

    His eyes narrowed. "What would you know of guilt?" he rumbled.

    In the back of her mind, Ellen felt something snap. "Guilt?" she blurted out, as she stood up abruptly, pitching her chair backward to bang off a rack of diagnostic equipment. "Try telling Cutter that using the Spirit of Fire's FTL drive as a warhead into the sun of a collapsing planet is a great idea. All the while leaving the rest of the crew with little hope of a safe return home," she bit out. "If there's anyone aboard this ship that should carry the responsibility of guilt, it's me."

    Ellen stopped her rant when she found herself a mere meter away from the Spartan with her hands on her hips. The fire in her words matched her expression, and for the first time since his arrival, Jerome's face slackened to passive. Looking up into those dark eyes, Ellen finally felt a complete release inside from the same feeling that clutched Jerome's mind. "And you know what? There's nothing I can do about it now. And if I had to do it all over again, I would, because it was the only way to save our necks."

    She poked a finger into his chest. "So maybe you should start thinking along those lines. Let the past be just that: the past. You think feeling guilty makes you a better soldier? Own up to the things you can control and let the rest get sucked out an airlock."

    Fighting back the tightness in her throat, Ellen took a step backward. She knew those words were not just meant for Jerome but for herself. She tried to deny feeling any remorse for her outburst, but the universe seemed to collapse and expand into the Observation Deck in the span of a single breath.

    For a while, the two were silent, both staring at each other in an unannounced contest. But eventually Jerome blinked several times and sighed. "You're right," he said, with the slightest tug of a smile. His shoulders slackened like a retired marionette. Ellen watched as the tension lines in his face smoothed to reveal surprisingly handsome features.

    Ellen looked at him quizzically. "I am?" She then straightened up. "I am," Ellen confirmed. I guess so. Her previously held notion that this guy needed to see a psychiatrist was washed away when she concluded that what Jerome needed was not only someone to listen, but some firm words as well.

    "Yeah, but you got your second chance," Jerome said with a wry smile, motioning with his right hand at the void of slipspace outside the viewports.

    Ellen smiled. "Maybe you will too."

    "Yeah. Maybe." He shook his head and closed his eyes. "I'm sorry to barge in on you like this."

    "It's okay," Ellen responded, knowing that it truly was. Awkwardly, she reached out and lightly patted him on his left forearm. She hastily withdrew her hand and smiled up at the Spartan. Psych training or not, she still had a lot to learn about relational interaction.

    Jerome let his own tug of a smile spread across his face. "I'll let you get back to sleep." He turned to go.

    "Actually, I'm wide awake now," she said with a little more spunk. Ellen poked a thumb over her shoulder to point at her computer. "I've finished Serina's final diagnostic. I'm ready to boot her up, if you'd like to stay and watch."

    Jerome grimaced. "That's okay. I should probably get some sack time before Cutter calls in an early morning war room meeting." He extended his right hand and gave Ellen's left shoulder a squeeze. He just as awkwardly pulled his hand away and tucked it inside a pant pocket. "Good luck with that." He nodded with a smile. "Ma'am." Jerome started for the door on the far side of the room.

    Ellen watched him go with a new found respect for the man- and for Spartans in general. For all they are called upon to do, they more than likely have little downtime. But even as his steps proved less mechanical and more natural, Ellen felt she might have said too much. She didn't really plan on exposing her hidden emotions, and part of her felt regret at being so vulnerable before anyone. But the other part of her was overjoyed at the release, finally coming to terms with her own guilt. It was something she might have to run further analysis on.

    "Oh, and Professor?" Jerome called from the doorway.

    "Ellen," she said. "You can call me Ellen."

    Jerome smiled and glanced down at the ground for a second before nodding a final time. "Thank you, Ellen."

    As she nodded in return, Jerome disappeared out the doorway. "Thank you, Jerome," she said softly. Smiling to herself, she pulled her chair over to her desk and brought up Serina's start-up program.

    Jerome entered the lift that would take him to the upper levels of the ship only to find his finger pausing over the control panel. A voice inside his head was screaming at him to head back to the Professor's lab and not be alone for the next few hours. But a different voice, still and small, was telling him he needed to soak in everything the two had talked about.

    He couldn't really believe he had just bared a portion of his soul to Anders, but it felt . . . right. What he didn't expect was his nearly uncontrollable emotions, something a Spartan should be well above. Regardless, he knew he had worked through the callous layers of guilt only to come out stronger. And for that, he owed the Professor more than just a thank you.

    Jerome knew a part of him had subconsciously led him to her lab, and even now that same draw wanted him to stay. But the last thing he wanted was to appease some hormonal instinct of loneliness in the current state of his subsiding emotions. The two conflicting worlds of discombobulated thought and a sex drive would not make any such pleasurable experience worth it.

    Jerome shook his head and dialed in the correct deck level. What am I thinking? He sighed when he knew exactly what the lustful thoughts wanted. He couldn't deny that he found Ellen Anders very attractive, and her awkward quirkiness added a certain charm that made him smile. Jerome quickly wiped the expression from his face. Intimate relationships should be the furthest thing from my mind.

    He let out a frustrating sigh and banged a fist off the cold lift door. What he needed now was sleep and some time to shift and organize his thoughts into something that didn't resemble a mental traffic jam.

    When the door chimed open he started for his quarters, hoping his new-found confidence with the Professor wouldn't distract him . . . too much.

    Alice felt her entire body go numb for a split second before the golden rings surrounding her vanished with a flash of brilliant light. She was weightless for another second before her feet made solid contact with the ground, and she reached her left hand forward to retain her balance. Her helmet's diagnostics were in the process of a quick reboot when her visor began adjusting to the dim lighting.

    But it was not needed.

    From high above, large, ice-blue panels glowed into existence, giving Alice a better view of the place she had arrived. Feeling more like she was on the inside of a multi-walled pyramid, the cavernous room was hard to put into scale. She was on a raised oval platform, surrounded by computer consoles of unfamiliar design which came to life by her mere presence. Looking forward over the holographic displays Alice found a giant circular pit that vanished into the ceiling as well. She could easily imagine the vertical shaft running hundreds of meters in both directions.

    "Where are we?" Douglas asked, stepping up beside her.

    "Wonderful, isn't it?" Contrite Variant called out as he descended from up above. The Monitor made a casual loop around the ring of consoles to come to a stop in front of the two Spartans. "After careful requisition of the Constructors, I have managed to erect a near duplicate of the Library found on Installation 03!" he exclaimed triumphantly.

    Alice exchanged a glance with Douglas who merely shrugged. "Okay," she said slowly. "Is that a good thing?"

    "Why yes, of course. My Makers allowed a generous amount of flexibility in the overseeing of B-23, and I have put it to full capacity."

    Alice frowned. "What's so important about the Library?"

    Contrite Variant tilted slightly on his axis. "It contains the catalog of every living being in the galaxy the Librarian was able to record. Along with pertinent information on the research regarding the parasite known as the Flood."

    "A giant database," Douglas muttered. "You think this 'Flood' is the same thing we encountered on that shield world?" he asked Alice quietly.

    With eyebrows raised, Alice nodded. Douglas had beat her to the simple conclusion of the 'parasite' reference and had more that likely placed their apparent common enemy. "Monitor, do you have a visual example of the Flood available?"

    Without hesitation, a static image popped up on all of the holographic displays and revealed a bulbous, multi-tentacled form. Contrite Variant seemed to shudder as he moved in closer. "This is primarily known as an Infection Form. It is capable of tracking down a host, either recently deceased or alive and-"

    "Yeah, we get it," Douglas interrupted with a raised hand. "We've seen their work."

    The Monitor perked up. "You have?" he said excitedly. "Then you must know how important my research is and why we must act with haste."

    "No, we don't," Alice said through clenched teeth. Why are AIs so high strung all the time?

    "From the beginning of my Makers' campaign against the Flood, they had hoped to find a way to neutralize their adversary. With the construction of the Rings, they built a series of super-weapons that, when activated, would destroy all sentient life in the galaxy in order to starve the Flood."

    The passiveness of the Monitor's comment didn't send Alice rocking back on her heals but his words did. "As in kill every living thing?" she breathed, wanting to make sure she understood him properly.

    Contrite Variant made an approximation of a nod. "Every life-form that could become a Flood host, yes." Then his eye appeared to brighten. "But after centuries of labor this facility has made progress."

    "And that is?" Douglas asked with strained patient.

    Alice could understand his frustration. If Contrite Variant's Makers had the ability to eradicate all life in the galaxy, then ONI Command needs to know about these Rings ASAP. Another quick look at Douglas' rigid posture told her he too was troubled by this new intel. Alice stared back up at the Monitor who looked as if he couldn't decide which Spartan to look at.

    "While the Ring Installations did stop the Flood, I have discovered a more excellent way to finish off the parasite once and for all." Contrite Variant raised himself a meter in the air. "I have found a way that successfully configures Installation 03's firing array to directly eliminate the Flood itself."

    The moment of silence following the Monitor's statement lingered for a few seconds.

    Alice's frown deepened. "So the only way to removed the Flood was to starve it?"

    The floating machine dipped a half meter. "Until now."

    To punctuate the Monitor's words, a burst of light pulsed from deep within both ends of the vertical shaft to gather at the opened area before the two Spartans. Contrite Variant was silhouetted briefly until the light collapsed into a single floating image of an angular letter T. Along its slender shaft it glowed a shimmering green.

    "This is the newly created Index," Contrite Variant said pridefully. "A variation of the original found on Installation 03." The Monitor lowered itself to eye-level. "But it's activation will require a Reclaimer to initiate such a high-level protocol. If you are willing, I can begin the preparations."

    Alice's mind began to race as the weight of the situation pressed down on her shoulders. From her previous engagements on the shield world, Alice knew of the overwhelming capabilities of the Flood and how it didn't distinguish between human and Covenant as enemies. And if the Flood had caused the builders of this facility to make a last ditch weapon . . .

    Alice shook her head. She wasn't about to get pressured into committing genocide- regardless of the victim- but if nothing else, Captain Cutter had to be informed of all this. If the Spirit of Fire ever makes it here.

    Beside her, Douglas stepped forward. "Look, you have to understand that we need to discuss this with our superiors and form a consensus," he said diplomatically. "A decision like this requires in-depth analysis and study of the end results." Douglas looked over at Alice nodding invitingly.

    Then it clicked in Alice's mind. Just buy some time. "Yes, that's right. If you could provide us with-"

    Her request was cut off by the sudden shift of the overhead light panels from pale blue to yellow then back to normal again. On the multiple displays, the image of the Flood infection form was replace with that of the Covenant cruiser performing a docking maneuver on what looked like one of the many spires extending from the central base of B-23.

    Alice's eyes grew wide. It wasn't that the ship's arrival was unexpected, but coupled with the fact that it appeared to draw attention from whatever security measures this station had was enough to turn her stomach to ice.

    "Looks like our ODST friends are here," Douglas muttered.

    "You have allies aboard a hostile vessel?" Contrite Variant demanded softly.

    Alice took another step forward. "Yes, and they mean no harm to you. Or to your work here," she added, hoping to quell the situation without the Monitor jumping to action.

    Contrite Variant seemed to consider her words then bobbed up and down in acknowledgement. "If they show no hostility then they will be left alone." His eye dimmed briefly. "But if they act unbecomingly the Sentinels will carry out security measures as they are programmed."

    "Sentinels?" both Spartans asked simultaneously.

    "Yes, they will follow protocol." The Monitor lifted up and started moving backward.

    Alice held up a hand. "Wait, where are you going?"

    Contrite Variant turned to face her. "As per protocol, I will initialize the new Index for transport, though it may take some time to do so."

    "Fine." Douglas shifted his weight. "And what about examining the data and contacting our commander?"

    The Monitor gave a little chuckle. "I'm afraid communications are temporarily disabled in compliance with security measures. But if you wish to review the data . . ." Once again the holo-displays flickered and lines of undecipherable text filled in all around them. Countless pages scrolled every which way and various images cycled quickly, pausing a split second before being replaced by another.

    "Though this installation is rightfully yours to inherit, please remain here while I attend to the Index." And with that, the Monitor sputtered way, down into the vast opening in the floor.

    After a moment, Douglas spoke, still staring at the vertical shaft. "I don't know if I find the light-bulb's lack of concern over the Covenant cruiser disturbing or comforting."

    Alice nodded. "I know." They turned to face each other. "You think these 'Sentinels' are going to be trouble?"

    "I would count on it," Douglas said with a shrug. "But until we find a way out from under the Monitor's eye, the ODSTs are on their own."

    Nathan Parker waited with his reunited squad at the airlock's inner door. He knew they were taking a big enough risk to trust the docking collar being positioned by an unknown operator, and the quiet nervousness in the small anteroom was palpable. Parker didn't know if the cruiser was on an automated approach or if someone- or something- was steering the ship to the docking port. Regardless, it was the only way to board the massive space station and knock out the jamming that could bring down The Spirit of Fire.

    In other words, it was a Priority-1 assignment and whatever fears one had were irrelevant.

    One of unit's techs confirmed that breathable air was inside the facility but recommended the standard helmet filters to remain on full. It was also decided that a small team would stay with the wounded on the cruiser's bridge, and given a cataclysmic event, they would attempt to break off and head for deep space- if they could. It was a fail-safe that Nathan hoped they didn't have to use.

    Parker watched as his commander squeezed through the crowded ranks and started for the airlock. Frowning, Nathan sighed. A motivational speech was the last thing he wanted to hear after giving himself a good dose of a lecture. Still upset about his screwed-up exchange with Toril, Nathan was beating himself up mentally for being so quick to judge. Deep down, he knew better- he was raised better. In their debriefing with Williams and Miller, Nathan hadn't had the chance to officially apologize to Toril, and remorse was slowly eating at the back of his skull. Better shape up, he thought. Feelings get put on hold in battle.

    "Weapons check," Sergeant Williams called from the front of the group. He allowed his soldiers a moment to gather themselves then turned around. "While we do have a clear objective, achieving it may not be easy. All we know from Corporal Winters' passive scans is that the waypoint on your heads-up-display is our destination. Whatever equipment we'll need to disable is unknown. Whatever security we'll need to bypass is unknown. So trust your equipment, your fellow soldier, and your gut." With a nod from Williams, Miller, standing next to the release panel, hit the control pad and the airlock began to open.

    Taking a deep breath, Nathan cleared his mind and kept his eyes on the slowly parting doors. There were a lot of things that could go wrong once inside the facility, but there was also the hope that the two missing Spartans were already on board. And if the ODSTs could complete their objective, they could end the comm jamming and link up with Alice and Douglas.

    Swallowing past the bitter taste in his mouth, Nathan knew it was a big "if."

    New story out! Halo: Below the Brine
    (it's the best story you're not reading!)
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