The Sharp Edge of a Knife: Part 3 of 3
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 4 August 2006, 4:44 am
"I know what you are thinking," Simon Campbell said after a long stretch of silence.
"You do?" Ahmed Temsik replied vaguely, only half listening. Most of his attention was focused on navigating the stretch of highway in Miriam's car without the benefit of any light. He did not dare turn on the vehicle's headlights lest any Covenant patrols should spot them, and the lamps that usually lit the road had been switched off after the blackout. Simon suggested using their helmet's night vision function, though the motion blurring made driving even at a moderate speed a harrowing and dizzying experience. Ahmed did not slow down, however. He could not; the threat of a Covenant bombardment was ever present.
"Yes," Simon returned tersely, "and it will never work. The ship will have its shields up even at stationary, and there will be nothing on this planet that will have a high enough yield to bring them down."
At this point, the two women in the back were suddenly interested in the conversation. "What is he talking about, Ahmed?" Miriam asked.
He was still not listening. A sharp curve in the road required all his concentration, and as he accelerated his way through it, his stomach churned as his vision blurred. At least he had the whole road to maneuver.
When it became clear he would not answer, Simon explained in his stead. "Marine bases typically store tactical nuclear warheads for ground engagements. I believe Ahmed wants to detonate one under the ship."
There was an immediate tumult at this revelation. "You can not be serious, lieutenant!" Sarah cried, shocked. "The blast will surely destroy the town!"
Ahmed checked his watch, ignoring the protests. They were nearly twenty minutes out of town. "Where is the base from here, Miriam?" he asked.
"I will have no part of this," she said fiercely. "If the people of this town are fated to die, then so be it. But I will not have their blood on my hands just so that I may survive. I would rather die with a clear conscious."
Finally registering the dissent of his followers, Ahmed slammed his hand on the steering wheel causing all the vehicle's occupants to jump. He slowed the car to a quick halt, lifted the visor from his helmet, and turned to face the Senator. "Miriam, I want only to get to the base," he said in a voice that trembled with barely controlled frustration. "I will explain what I mean to do once we arrive there. If you still will not help me, then we may die there instead of in town. It makes little difference now."
He could barely see Miriam's face in the dim light, his vision all the worse from his abrupt abandonment of night vision, but he sensed acquiescence before she gave it. "Have we passed the refueling station?" she asked slowly.
"Yes. About two minutes ago."
"Then there should be an exit ramp on the left soon. I will guide you from there—it should not be far."
He nodded, but before moving on, he glanced briefly at Simon in the seat beside him with a questioning look. "I'm with you all the way, Ahmed," he said matter-of-factly. "Until the end."
He clasped a hand on his friend's shoulder. Nothing more was necessary.
The car started up again, and they were off. He immediately regretted his immoderate outburst. Certainly, worry and doubt were understandable given his plan, especially from a woman who called this place home. He had been on a mission until her interruption, though, focused single-mindedly on the task he had set out for himself; a task that he knew must end in his death. So he had detached himself from the situation, for he feared that if he dwelled on it at any length fear would overcome him. His sudden return to the present had brought all this to the surface, and Miriam suffered its consequence.
They reached the exit Miriam had told him of, and he turned left across the abandoned highway to drive along it. She guided him from there, as promised, and at last they reached the restricted road that led to the base. He turned past the empty checkpoint and drove down the final stretch.
It was not long before they arrived at the Marine outpost. It was predictably dark and completely abandoned. "The base lost its use after we became isolated from Earth," Miriam explained when Simon wondered at this. "The few remaining Marines simply left, recalled to the capital from then on."
They exited the car and approached the entrance, Ahmed and Simon leading the way with flashlights scanning the area. The front building was marked administration, so they passed it and headed towards the rear. The atmosphere was unmistakably eerie. Over the empty concrete buildings a frozen UNSC flag fluttered stiffly in the light breeze. Beyond the myriad frosted windows of the rows of barracks was nothing was a deep blackness, belying the life and vigor that once inhabited the long halls. Silence now filled the base; it was like a massive grave, marking something once living yet now gone forever.
"I think this is it," Simon announced. He gestured towards a windowless square building that stood starkly near the back of the base's perimeter. On either side of an immense metal blast door were signs that warned of explosives, chemicals, and radiation within.
"The armory," Ahmed breathed. He reached out a hand and touched the cold metal door. It was freezing to the touch, though he did not immediately withdraw his hand. Then he looked down at the ground and frowned, saying, "It's been sealed and the power has been cut."
"The base must run on its own power," Simon suggested.
They backtracked to the maintenance building they had passed earlier. Simon kicked in the locked metal door, the deep thumps echoing discomfortingly in the utter silence of the camp. They entered and quickly located the generator. Simon, who had some technical training, immediately approached it and gave the machine a critical look. "I think I can get it running pretty quickly," he announced. "Looks like they just shut it off manually."
"Hurry up," Ahmed pressed him, glancing at his watch. The sun would be rising soon.
The two women, meanwhile, turned to him and looked at him expectantly. "I have brought you here," Miriam said. "Now tell me your plan."
She looked freezing. It did, in fact, seem colder within the building than it had without. He had the sudden impulse to put his arms around her and warm her. Shrugging off the absurd notion, he prepared to make good his promise. "I intend to find the lowest yield nuclear device possible. The ship is a good distance away from the town, and they are separated by hilly terrain. If detonated at ground level, the people should be safe."
"Then what good will that do us?" Sarah asked. "If the ship remains, then nothing will change except, perhaps, for the Covenant's complacency."
"My hope is that the blast will provide a sufficient distraction for us to get away on the shuttle. If we can make it to the craft, we blow the warhead and enter slipspace before they can track us. In time, we can return to Earth."
"It's one hell of a long shot," Simon said with reluctant admiration, "but it is the best course of action we have."
As Ahmed studied Miriam's pale, doubtful face, he realized the wrenching decision she had: to stay and perish needlessly or, as the planet's leader and representative, abandon her people to their deaths. He took her hands and said firmly, "It is the only course of action."
Miriam looked at him sorrowfully, her eyes glazed with tears. His heart ached painfully as he studied her, feeling the pain she felt. He wondered how much of his efforts were dedicated solely to her; more accurately, to the bond he felt they now shared.
At last, the generator whirred to life, and Simon let out a whoop of success. "I got her running!"
"We must move quickly, then," Ahmed said as they gathered their supplies. "I do not still want to be on this planet when the sun rises."
"I think I can override the seal from here," Simon said. "Bear with me."
Using their officers' codes, the door to the weapons facility was soon open. They left the maintenance station and returned to the building at the back, the imposing doors of which had now parted. Entering, Ahmed saw an impressive array of small arms and explosives hanging upon an endless series of racks—all manner of rifles, shotguns, and pistols, interspersed along the way with bundles of grenades and bulky anti-personnel mines. All of this he passed with hardly a look. His quarry lay waiting for him at the rear.
A large wooden crate lay haphazardly along the back wall, a yellow symbol plastered on its front cautioning radioactive materials within. It had been removed from its special storage space and seemingly dumped here, as if the Marines had debated whether or not they should take it with them and ended up deciding against it. A fortunate thing.
"Crazy times we live in that a nuclear weapon is left abandoned in an empty Marine base," Simon said in awe. He bent down and inspected the size of the crate. "Looks like a nuclear mine. I doubt it is more than a megaton. If detonated on the ground, the town should not feel its effects."
Pausing in thought, Ahmed lay his hands upon the container and ran his fingers along its coarse surface. "One megaton will be as a bee-sting to the Covenant ship," he said slowly. "If we are to succeed, there can be no room for error."
"We can do it, Ahmed," Miriam said confidently, shivering more than the cold should have evoked. Simon, though, looked at Ahmed with narrowed eyes, but his gaze was steadily ignored.
"We should load this crate onto one of the Warthogs," Sarah suggested.
"No," Ahmed said. "Warthogs are too big and too noisy. If we come into contact with the Covenant, we are dead no matter what our armament. We will put it on a civilian truck."
At his instructions, the crate was loaded onto the bed of a dark pickup that had been left parked at the base with the help of a forklift. They were careful by necessity, but they worked faster and with less caution than sense would dictate; they had only another hour of darkness before the sun would betray what little cover they had. Everyone seemed to work with renewed energy, purpose providing a much needed bulwark to their flagging hope.
They were off as soon as they were able, Simon and Sarah in the cabin with Ahmed and Miriam crouching in the bed of the truck, holding their package in place. Although they had tied the crate down to the best of their ability, their haste made the arrangements precarious at best. If the crate slipped off the back, all could be lost.
Simon drove them back on the highway, which in time would take them to the far side of the ship. Despite still being encumbered with night vision, he drove faster than Ahmed had, pressed on by the approaching sunlight. It seemed perceptibly brighter already; Ahmed could just discern the snow covered branches of the trees on either side of the road swaying in the gentle breeze. As he watched them he felt, along with the renewed fear of being discovered by the Covenant, a profound regret in destroying the rugged beauty of this planet. He reminded himself that the ruin of Ephrath was a matter of time and beyond his control, yet somehow this did not allay his feelings of guilt. He recalled Miriam's reluctance to be responsible for the death of the townspeople while in the same breath acknowledging its inevitable destruction.
He looked over at her now, making out the outline of her face and her hair whipping furiously from the passing wind. She seemed to sense his eyes upon her, and he saw her turn to face him. He held her gaze for some time, taking some comfort from it. With the prospect of her home world and all she had known facing obliteration, he considered speaking some words of consolation to her. He realized she would probably not be able to hear them, however, and in any case they would be unnecessary. Hollow words could do nothing for her now.
It took a full hour to traverse the distance necessary to ensure the safety of the town, at the end of which Simon no longer needed the night vision equipment. The sun was not yet visible, but the land was bathed in a soft, bluish light, aided in part by the glow of the ever-closer Covenant ship. With the cover of darkness now gone, Ahmed decided they needed the cover of the trees.
He banged his hand twice on the back of the cabin and called to Simon to turn off the road and enter the forest. "Not too far," he ordered, "but far enough to be discreet."
Simon searched for a parting in the dense trees and soon found one. He drove into the forest about one hundred feet, stopped, and then turned it around, should the need for a quick getaway arise. The ship was directly overhead now, its cool purple glow shining through the treetops. It had seemed so beautiful from a distance, if unsettlingly so, but up close it was hideous, terrifying. He wished he had the means to bring about its destruction.
They all then left the truck and lifted the crate down from the cargo bed. The two Marines pried the box apart and, with some difficulty, the four of them were able to carry the heavy device another thirty feet through the thick foliage to a small clearing. Simon, although at first nervous at tampering with it, was able to activate it shortly without setting it off, to the relief of no one more than himself.
"Alright," Ahmed said in a tone of finality. A sense of peace and calmness suddenly seem to come over him. He understood his part to play and no longer feared what would come of it. "Miriam, Sarah, please get the truck started up. We will need to move out quickly."
Seeming to understand Ahmed had something he needed to discuss privately with his friend, the two moved back towards the vehicle. Miriam caught his eye just before the trees obscured her, and her own eyes seemed to widened in alarm. Did she understand now? he wondered. He imagined so.
"Ahmed," Simon said, rounding quickly on him before he could speak, "it must be me. It must."
He just shook his head. "No, Simon. I led us here. This is my doing. I will stay."
They had neither the time nor the equipment to set up a proximity trigger, and they could not risk leaving the device alone lest patrolling Covenant should destroy it—their plasma weapons could melt its components before they had a chance to fire. Both of them understood that someone had to remain behind to make sure it detonated.
Ahmed waved down Simon's further protestations. He laid a hand on his shoulder and forced him to look into his eyes. "Simon, you have a wife and a baby on the way. There is nothing for me back home. This is what I was meant to do."
Simon averted his eyes, unable hold his gaze any longer, surely seeing with the truth of his words. "Go, my friend," Ahmed said warmly. "Take them to safety. The shuttle should not be far from here. Contact me on my com when you are ready."
He said nothing, only nodded. Then, he was off, running back through the brush to where he had left the truck without another glance.
No sooner had Simon disappeared behind the trees than the forest became alive with activity. A searing heat scorched Ahmed's face as a tree to his right burst explosively into flames, the force of which toppled him to his back. Struggling to rise, he brought his shotgun to bear from its sling and briefly scanned his surroundings. Deciding in a split second that the plan had failed now before it had begun, he leapt to the nuclear mine to activate it, but his way was suddenly blocked by three plasma bolts striking the ground before him, spraying molten glass across his front. He fell back once more, the breath knocked from him, leaving him gasping for air. He reached weakly for his fallen weapon, but a, horrible wrenching pain suddenly shot through the hand that sought for his firearm. Looking up, he saw an Elite had landed its armored foot directly on his left hand, kicking the shotgun away with the other. Ahmed screamed in pain.
And screamed in failure. So it had all been for nothing. All their efforts had been utterly wasted, and they now faced ruin as surely as if they had done nothing. Likely his friends, the object of all his exertions, were now dead. If only they had been given five minutes longer, if only Providence had lent them a few moments for their plan to come to fruition. But God did not seem to be much on their side in these waning days of humanity.
The Elite at last lifted its foot, sending a new wave of pain shooting up his arm. He brought his ravaged hand to his chest, holding the wrist tightly with his other. It was a hideous sight to behold: the flattened, bleeding appendage hung limply from his wrist, its middle and ring fingers torn completely off. It made him sick to think the twisted mass of flesh and bone was part of his own body. It hardly mattered now—it would all be over soon enough.
He looked up, trying to make out those who had come to kill him. The Elite that had caused him so much pain stepped over him now to stand before him. It was flanked by at least a dozen Grunts and Jackals, all brandishing glowing weapons, something the Elite curiously lacked. He had seen videos and holograms of the Covenant before, but these did not prepare him for the real thing. The Elite was huge, standing at least eight feet in height, with a wicked face fixed with glowing eyes that bore into him with an unabated hatred. The Jackals were monstrous creatures, screeching horribly from their grotesque mouths. The Grunts were all squealing high pitched sounds and staring at him with a dreadful hunger in their eyes.
They did nothing, however, keeping their distance and, for all their posturing, holding their fire. At last, seemingly on the order of the Elite, a Grunt came waddling over to him, a small weapon in its reptilian hand. It came to stand next to him and pointed the device at him. Ahmed closed his eyes and waited. This was it.
Yet, still nothing happened. Even the myriad sounds emanating from these creatures came to a halt. Slowly, Ahmed unscrewed his eyes, looking once more at the throng of his captors. They had parted to allow the passage of yet another alien and he noticed that all the others had bowed their heads as they let it pass. Eventually, the figure emerged into the light of the burning tree, and he gasped upon seeing it. The alien was about human height, with an elongated head sporting pale pink skin. It wore brilliant purple robes trimmed in gold and walked towards him in a bizarre, stuttering gait, as if unused to the practice. Surely, this was a Prophet, one of the hierarchs of the Covenant so much talked about by the UNSC but never seen. He wondered if he was the first human to ever lay eyes upon one.
The creature stood before him and looked at him with narrowed eyes. It glanced briefly at the mine nearby, but completely ignored it. Likely, the dull metal casing looked harmless enough to one so arrogant as to dismiss anything of human design. In any case, the Prophet seemed singularly interested in him.
Suddenly, the Elite behind him spoke in a deep, rumbling alien tongue, its jaws parting and quivering in a terrifying manner. Ahmed studied the Elite closer as it spoke. The firelight reflecting off it revealed the crimson armor which it wore. He recalled his chase back in town, the brief glint of red illuminated by the distant ship, and wondered if it was the same alien.
The Prophet responded to the Elite, and Ahmed was shocked to hear it answered in perfect English, apparently for his benefit. "Let them go," it said in a high pitched, slightly hissing voice. "They have no chance of escape, and will soon join their kind in death."
Ahmed's heart jumped at this. Had they made it away alive?
The Elite spoke again, apparently protesting the Prophet's decree. The Prophet rounded then on his subordinate. "Silence!" it breathed. Then, it turned back to Ahmed, and its expression changed quickly from anger back to its previous countenance of vexation. After what seemed to be a prolonged silence, the creature laughed at him, a horrible, mirthless laughter that made his skin crawl.
"I simply had to see it with my own eyes," the Prophet said when it regained composure, its jowls quivering as it spoke. "One of the chosen humans, into which so much pain and effort has been expended by those who can never comprehend your true purpose. Their attempts to kindle your buried potential has been the cause of much worry in the High Council." It laughed once more, but this time it was more forced, deliberately mocking. "And now to behold the source of so much controversy, dispatched with such ease and cradling a broken hand and a broken spirit! If only they could see you now.
"While I never subscribed to the same worries as the others, I nevertheless hold a certain respect for your kind, however miserable your nature. That you recognize your destiny without the scriptures speaks of a certain intuition; primal and uncultivated it might be, but it lurks still just beneath the surface. The pitiful fruits of your labor have put up more resistance than any thought possible, but it is your champions that filled us with such trepidation as we embarked on the final leg of the Great Journey. Even without their leader, they put up an admirable struggle, and this new apocryphal Hero still inspires much terror in the lower castes and among those of lesser faith."
At this, the alien leaned very close to his face. "He is not what he should be, nor what you hope him to be," it breathed softly to him. Ahmed wrinkled his nose, but it was more instinctual than out of any need. He had expected the aliens to smell, yet up close to them they seemed completely odorless. All that filled his nostrils was the forest air and the smell of burning wood
And the feeling of the forest floor on his hands
"He can not win this fight and will not survive what is to come," the Prophet continued. "Indeed, your species' last hope ended completely by chance. We do not know how it happened, or why, but you were not chosen as you were meant to be. An accident, I believe, precluded you from following fate's path. I'm sure they were much distressed by this: you were the perfect subject, genetically predisposed unlike any other for their indoctrination. Like a moth to a flame, they were drawn to you without knowing why, without understanding. I imagine they tried despite your condition, but by the time you were recovered it was too late to elevate you to your destiny."
Ahmed had not been listening to the alien's ramblings, too much distracted by the pain in his hand and the weight of his failure. He did not understand a thing of what the Prophet had been saying, yet its latest words slowly sunk in, and stirred within him a memory so old and hazy he wondered if he imagined it. But it quickly increased in clarity until he could make out the words and faces of those involved, and he knew it was no figment of imagination.
He was in a bed, a hospital bed, surrounded completely by white; white sheets, white walls, white light. A nurse hovered over him, attending to the many plaster casts that covered much of his body. Lying down nearly flat on the bed, he was unable to see his surroundings very clearly, but straining his eyes and moving as best he could, he saw a woman at the door of his room, conversing in a piercing whisper with a doctor. She was very striking, dark locks of hair falling over her pale skin. Her delicate features were twisted in frustration now, though. He struggled to hear what was the discussion entailed.
"I'm afraid only family can see the patient right now," the doctor said sternly.
"Given his family all died, that seems a rather restrictive rule," the woman responded angrily. "I am here on behalf of the UNSC to take this child
"I'm afraid if they want to take a six year old boy in critical need of care and recovery from this hospital they will have to do rather better than a slip of paper, Doctor Halsey," he returned, intimating his doubt at her credentials.
She looked furious at the man's impertinence, though she appeared either unable or unwilling to argue any further. She looked at Ahmed, lying there pathetically on the bed, encased in plaster, and her gaze softened. Nodding, with a great sadness and disappointment about her, she turned around and left without a word.
The Prophet looked at him intently as his eyes widened and nodded slowly, a smile spreading across his face. "Ah, but you do remember now, don't you? It should have been you. You were the first." The Prophet started pacing the ground before him, and its expression changed to one Ahmed understood to be satisfaction. "It is good you understand, human. Your race must die by as a matter of course, and I feel no regret for their extermination, but it would have been truly vile to kill you without making sure you understand where you went wrong, given the limitations of your inferior nature. You of all your kind are an enemy worthy of respect, and this small courtesy is one I take upon myself gladly.
"Understand now that it ends with you. The weight of your failure is crushing, and certainly divine. You never bred, for reasons surely guided by the same hand that caused your accident. Your species will die, their last hope set on a falsehood, their last actions reflexive rather than meaningful. You are the last thing to stand in our way."
It was in this moment that many things happened at once. The Elite spoke once again, inciting the Prophet's wrath—but only briefly. On hearing what its comrade had to say, the alien's eyes opened wide and it screamed orders frantically, causing many of the aliens to run off into the brush in the direction of where the truck had been.
At the same time, Ahmed's com piece crackled to life, and the message he had waited for came with heart-lifting clarity. "Ahmed, if you are still there, we are in position."
He looked around him, pain and misery evaporating with the voice. Half of the aliens, including the Elite, had run off into the woods after the escaping trio. The Grunt next to him, momentarily stunned by its leader's fury, did not immediately fire. Seizing upon this moment, a fire newly kindled within him, he grabbed the alien's weapon with his remaining hand and with all the strength left to him he pulled it forward. The alien lost its grip and sprawled forward on its stomach. Acting quickly, he pointed the pistol at the Grunt's breathing pack and fired a bolt into it.
A bright flash followed by intense heat filled the air. The aliens screamed again, but this time it was in pain and surprise as flaming methane flew in every direction. Much of it landed on Ahmed, and burning pain seared through his body, but the knowledge of imminent release filled him with a final, powerful energy. He sprung to his feet, half running, half crouching, and dove for the nuclear mine. A few of the more levelheaded aliens tried to stop him, firing a few shots that further burned him, but still recovering from the blast they had not the time to aim properly. At last, he reached it, and clasped a hand to the casing's controls.
He thought he could hear the roar of the shuttle in the distance. He thought he could hear the mine activate with a hum. He thought he could see the long awaited sun finally rise above the trees. None of that mattered now. It was all soon cleansed by a beautiful, pure white light and blissful silence, a silence that carried him away on its comforting wings.
It was finally all over now
Miriam Cohen vomited again into the shuttle's limited toilet. She fell back on the floor of the bathroom, resting against the rear wall and breathing heavily. She felt awful; weak, nauseous, hot. At first she had attributed it to sorrow and horror at the destruction of her home, and then to a sickness she must have picked up back on Ephrath. But neither medicine nor counsel offered relief. And she dared not consider that possibility
Ahmed's plan had worked perfectly. Somehow, he had survived the aliens' ambush and set off the mine that would act as their cover for escape. They entered slipspace just above the planet's atmosphere and traveled for a full week away from Earth, as per the Cole protocol. When they had reentered normal space in an obscure solar system, they had waited for the Covenant ship to appear in chase.
It did not. They had lost track of the shuttle. Beyond all odds, beyond what seemed possible, they had survived.
They were now headed back for Earth, a journey that had taken two weeks already and was almost complete. Yet somehow, she feared to go there, to be back among civilization carrying the weight of the deaths of all she had known. They would judge her, she did not doubt, for leaving her people to die in pursuit of her own safety, but she did not care. It had never been about survival; she had reconciled her fate back on Ephrath. Rather, it had been as it was with Ahmed: a desperate act of defiance against an unbeatable and relentless enemy. However intangible the consequences might have been, defying the Covenant's will filled her with hope and satisfaction.
Summoning the will and the courage she needed, Miriam slowly approached the medicine cabinet and with an unsteady hand she opened the mirrored door. From within, she retrieved a small white capsule with a small screen on its front. She held it for a moment at arms length and then, with a prayer, pressed her finger to a small indentation just below the screen.
It beeped immediately. She dropped it suddenly, as if it pained her, and put her face in her hands.
A knock sounded softly at the door. Sarah's voice came soon after. "Are you alright, Senator?" she asked tentatively.
"Come in, Sarah," Miriam answered tiredly.
Her secretary opened the door and stepped gently in carrying a bottle of clear liquid. "I have found more medicine in the ship's hold," she began, but she stopped when she saw the Senator's pale, distressed face. "Ma'am?" she ventured inquisitively.
Miriam held a hand to her mouth for some time, staring at the floor in sadness. Eventually she looked at Sarah directly, her eyes dim with mounting tears.