Posted By: Cthulhu117<email@example.com>
Date: 10 February 2006, 12:59 am
Last stands are a special favorite with people who don't have to perform them...chiefly authors and politicians.
-Bartimaeus, Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud
Ninth Age of Reclamation
Unclassified System Gamma Beta 7832
Covenant Archangel-Class Space Bomber 001783
The Archangel carrying Eraa 'Gamsamee flew low over the strangely disfigured asteroid that was its intended destination. 'Gamsamee looked at the holoscreen as it projected a view of what was going on, but his attention was devoted to 'Vutbrugee as the Commander explained what they were there for.
"This asteroid was once part of a Forerunner-inhabited planet that was redolent with deep tunnels," 'Vutbrugee informed the younger warrior, "but when the planet was destroyed by an asteroid impact, our lords simply moved their operations to the fragments that remained. This is where the coordinates in the prophecy you found lead us. The Prophet warned us not to come to this place. But he also spoke of a relic that he could not retrieve. By our oaths, we are bound to take the relic for our own, in order to make safe the Great Journey!"
'Gamsamee was about to tell his Commander that he had the relic right inside him, but a small voice inside him whispered, "Don't tell." As he debated what he should do, the voice laughed humorlessly and said, "I'm not too anxious to be forcibly removed from your neural net. They have dared to breach their holy place. It would have been better had they left well enough alone. They have looked, and they shall see whether they wish it or not."
'Gamsamee tried to ignore Azathoth's enigmatic words, but it was a losing battle. "Why did it take six years for this to happen, Excellency?"
The older Sangheili gave an exasperated sigh. "Politics. I had to suggest this to my daughter so she could propose it at the Council sessions. Then the Jiralhanae rebels in the Cut were discovered, and everyone forgot about the idea. It was not until the insurrection was put down, in no small part due to your efforts, that the idea was again brought up. Then it took another eight months to vote on it, and then the vote was one hundred and ninety-eight to one hundred and two. I had to have it brought up again before the Council would approve it, and that took another eight months. With a four-year war and a one and a half-year voting process, I'm surprised it was passed this quickly."
"I did not know you had a daughter in the Council, Excellency," 'Gamsamee observed.
"Indeed. Tiro 'Sunbrugee. Light military training. Served as a Zealot for a few years. About your age. I managed to get her promoted more quickly than most. She isn't a soldier. She's an excellent politician. She simply disagrees with me on most important issues. But I digress. We will land on the asteroid, retrieve the relic, and then depart. You'll lead Squad One, of five Sangheili and ten Unggoy. I'll follow later with Squad Two, as soon as the area is secure."
"Very well, Excellency," 'Gamsamee acknowledged. He turned to pick his squad, but 'Vutbrugee checked him.
"I am glad I remembered to bring this. I wonder that you never asked me about it." In 'Vutbrugee's hand was a curved dagger, the flowing script along the blade marred by crusted blood. It was still quite legible. 'Gamsamee recognized it immediately. With hands that almost shook, he reached out and took the weapon that a Special Operative Commander had given him on a training carrier twelve years ago.
He turned again to leave. There was one more thing he had to know. "Excellency?"
"Where did you get this?"
The response was along time in coming. 'Gamsamee was on the verge of apologizing and making an exit when 'Vutbrugee gravely spoke. "Very old, that. It has been passed down from the first of us. Azo 'Sangheilee forged it in the rivers of flame on Sangheil, in the first days of the Covenant. He passed it to his son, and so on."
'Gamsamee felt one more query was in order. "Then you're descended from Azo 'Sangheilee, Excellency?"
'Vutbrugee seemed shocked. "Of course not! His line ended Ages ago. In a sense, all who follow in his footsteps are descended from him. But physically, he has no heir. Nor, I think, will one ever arise."
'Gamsamee left, satisfied. But he had to doubt the last words that 'Vutbrugee had spoken. Funny that he had never noticed. On the back of the knife, another inscription appeared when the blade was tilted to the light.
The word was Seraphima.
Ninth Age of Reclamation
Derelict Forerunner Facility
In spite of the knife, the last surviving talisman of Azo 'Sangheilee, the young Ultra did not feel at ease in the slightest as he stood with his squad in the cavernous docking bay. The atmosphere in the bay was maintained in a way he could not identify. Truly the Forerunners were marvelous in all their works.
His squad shuffled nervously behind him. He'd brought a particle blaster cannon and an energy sword, but even the comfortable gel-fitting grip of the sword did not comfort him. His squad were the best of the best. Armed with a plethora of assault weapons, they were on high alert. The Sangheili growled and scuffed the floor with their hooves. The Unggoy chattered amongst themselves. 'Gamsamee knew little of the Unggoy dialect, but he was quite certain that they, too, were agitated. He turned, faced his squad, and pressed the stud on his energy sword. His hiss of satisfaction was drowned out by the similar hiss of the blade.
"Warriors!" he roared. "We do not fear pain, death or all the powers of the Demon, if we may attain the honor of the Great Journey!"
They answered him. He knew they would. It had become a sort of formula. Every time they entered combat situations, they recited there ritual. "We know that by our death, great glory will be given to the Forerunners and the Covenant. And so we willingly shed our blood for the gods!"
'Gamsamee growled approvingly. "Warriors, we seek relics of our Lords in this place. We go forth to return with the object of our quest, or not at all!" He raised his sword. "Keep active camouflage on. We don't know what's in there, but the prophecy we follow speaks of guardians. These guardians had best be avoided, that we might not profane this holy place with the blood of our enemies."
The Sangheili nodded, then dissolved into invisibility. The Unggoy followed suit. Fifteen silent wraiths headed into the darkness of the ages, with the exception of the Unggoy Jejeb, who tripped and fell flat with a squeaky curse. 'Gamsamee dropped his camouflage to give the Unggoy the full benefit of his furious glare. The little creature cowered.
The Unggoy gave an extremely frightened titter. Special Operative Sangheili were not renowned for their tolerance of stupid mistakes. "Me sorry, Excellency! Me sorry!" the Unggoy pleaded.
"Do not be sorry. Be silent," Eraa 'Gamsamee hissed. The Unggoy immediately complied. Then the fifteen of them were gone, invisible except to the most skilled observer.
Three hours later, 'Gamsamee had to admit that the initial thrill of being able to explore an actual Forerunner facility was wearing off. Silence and invisibility took their toll after a while. They'd rendezvoused with the second squad a few hours back. The subsequent search had turned up nothing but a large quantity of stunning architecture. 'Gamsamee felt somewhat guilty, but he was confident that another relic could be found. For the first few hours, anyway.
He'd slowly lost confidence and started to think about other things. At first he'd let his mind wander, but for the last while his mind had been fixed on what 'Vutbrugee had told him. It was interesting, but the Commander had hardly told him what he wanted to know. So the knife he carried was the knife of Azo 'Sangheilee. He asked Azathoth about 'Sangheilee, the forefather of his race, but the answers the AI gave him were few and enigmatic. All he gathered was that the Seraphima was supposed to be the reincarnation of Azo 'Sangheilee, who'd negotiated the truce between the Ahlainga and the Sangheili. He kept telling himself that it didn't mean a thing that he carried 'Sangheilee's knife, and was one of two people who the prophecy was most likely about. He wasn't sure why he bothered to tell himself things when they didn't have the slightest impact on him anyway.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of pattering feet drawing near. He leapt to his feet and his energy sword burst into life, but he quickly recognized the source of the footsteps as an Unggoy. Jejeb, the one who had tripped in the docking bay. He wasn't tripping now. He was making straight for 'Gamsamee at speeds the Sangheili had never thought the stubby-legged creature would be capable of. Before the Ultra could sternly reprimand him, the Unggoy started to rattle off a long, hysterical tale in the chattering Unggoy language. He grabbed the creature by its light armor, swung it off the ground and said firmly, "Start that again, in Covenant Standard this time."
Even when it spoke in a language he knew, he could scarcely understand Jejeb. The Unggoy was speaking in a voice so fast and high pitched he doubted it could understand itself. What he could make out, however, was, "Evil little things! Get them away, Excellency, keep them away! Took Halel, took Pigip, took Yibiy! All gone! Hide, hide, hide! Get me out! Please, Excellency! Me not want die like others! No, please no! Run away! Took Kihih, me think took Fafar! All dead or worse! Demons! Help me! Please!"
"Calm down!" he shouted in the Unggoy's scared face. "Now, tell me what you speak of, quietly and sensibly."
The Unggoy spoke haltingly, with many shudders as he attempted to describe what he had seen. "Me and Halel walking in far passage. He see computer in wall. He say we bring back for Sangheili. Me say it too heavy. He say we tell Sangheili where it is. Me say me go tell Sangheili. Me start leave, but he push button on computer and-and-"
The Unggoy started crying and shaking uncontrollably. He seemed to gain control of himself, then spoke again. "Me turn when me hear him scream. Little hole in wall open and little things come out-" 'Gamsamee interrupted the Unggoy.
"How little were the 'things'?"
The Unggoy made an expansive gesture. "Size of you head. Maybe bigger. Lots of legs on bottom, sharp thingy on top. Yellow. Smell terrible. They jump on Halel, bite him, he die. Pigip heard and came, then they got him. Yibiy and me start shoot at them. They pop, but more come. Me run away. Yibiy not fast enough. Me hear him scream. Me ran to Kihih and Fafar, but they not believe me. The things attack, so me run again. Kihih tried fight, but they kill him. Me and Fafar run, but they come from both sides. We split up, they follow him. Me run for help. Me find you. Help me, Excellency! HELP ME! THINGS-"
'Gamsamee watched in horror as the Unggoy raised the plasma rifle he carried and shot himself through the head. A second later he saw why. A smallish yellow blob had appeared from the darkened corridors to the left and started to head toward them. 'Gamsamee momentarily recoiled in disgust, then strode purposefully forward and stepped hard on the thing. He heard Azathoth's voice the next second.
"Ah yes, your Prophet's 'guardians'. Species one-nine-eight-zero two. Common name: Flood. A highly parasitic and dangerously adaptive virus from galaxy three-zero-six. Discovered approximately two billion Edenian years ago. Since first contact proved...violent...military protocol was initiated and their system of inhabitance was annihilated due to the highly contagious nature of the virus. Accidentally introduced into this galaxy 1.98437364 billion years ago. Subsequent war lasting over one and a half billion years, eventually resulting in the annihilation of all who could aid the Flood and the imprisonment of the Flood organisms on specific installations throughout this galaxy. Currently resides in galaxies one through eight hundred and twenty-one."
"How is that possible?" 'Gamsamee scoffed. "You squash them. They die. That is all. How could they possibly be dangerous?"
"They are a virus," the AI repeated. Then, sounding more insane than usual, he added, "There is no known cure for the Flood infection. And over one billion years were spent on the subject, so it is highly likely that it is incurable. Furthermore, any sentient being infected adds their knowledge of tactics to the Flood's group consciousness. Did I mention that there are about twelve thousand specimens stored on most Forerunner facilities?"
The amused smile on 'Gamsamee's face changed to a horrified grimace. As far as he could see, the tunnels in front of him had filled with literally hundreds of the little parasites. The AI did not share the Sangheili's shock.
"Ah. Seems I failed to mention that."
In that instant of dawning comprehension, a thousand thoughts ran through the mind of Eraa 'Gamsamee. Azathoth monitored them, categorized them and stored them away. As always. However, it is a fact that the AI never noticed 'Gamsamee thinking about what he said.
"I have a bad feeling about this."
About three hundred Flood later, 'Gamsamee's energy shields dropped. He fell back quickly. If what had happened to the Unggoy was any indication, these things could tear up unshielded opponents easily. He wasn't going to join Jejeb and the rest of the Unggoy.
He knew it was rather shameful to cut and run like this, but he didn't see any other choice.
As he cautiously backed, 'Gamsamee raised his particle blaster and fired from the hip into the mass of Flood. Never shoot from the hip was an ideal that had been impressed into him a million times over. But at the moment, he couldn't possibly miss the Flood. There was nothing else to hit. The things just kept coming. His shields were taking too long to recharge. At this rate he'd be overwhelmed before they were back up. He turned and fled with a certain degree of annoyance. It was not until much later that he realized that not once on the facility did he ever feel afraid.
He hoped the way he was running would lead him to the hangar. If not, he didn't know what he would do. Stand, fight and die, or anything else that presented itself. He gave a cry of disappointment as he rounded a corner and saw a catwalk extended over a deep-looking chasm. The cavernous room was eerily green-lit, and a foul smelling yellow gas boiled off the edges of the catwalk like smoke.
Without knowing exactly why, 'Gamsamee slowed to a walk. There was something about this place that made you slow down, forget your objectives, and pay homage to the glory of the Forerunners. At least when a horde of flesh-eating parasites wasn't chasing you. He started across the thin, railingless bridge with considerably less confidence than he'd ever had before.
He was maybe about three-quarters of the way across when he heard the noise behind him. It was really a quiet sound, more of a light, soft splat than anything else. But something about it reminded him of the Flood. He turned and had a brief glimpse of the remains of an Unggoy, before the blobby thing hobbled towards him on mangled legs and exploded with the force of a grenade.
'Gamsamee was flung off his feet. He skidded into the door frame, across the catwalk. Not a moment to soon. The force of the explosion blasted the walkway into mutilated shrapnel and two short projections from either surface, which soon collapsed into the abyss. 'Gamsamee gave a sigh of mingled annoyance and relief. He wasn't going back that way, but at least the Flood weren't following him.
He heard Azathoth make a negative expression and speak condescendingly. "You continue to treat the Flood as animals. They are intelligent plotters. They will find a way across. Most likely they will cross this room by way of the walls. You are not out of this yet."
'Gamsamee was strongly tempted to hit his head, for all the good it would do. He was starting to dislike Azathoth, for the first time. The AI gave a loud, fake cough. "Save it for later. At the moment, you need to us out of here."
'Gamsamee nodded and rose. He had no idea where his particle blast cannon was. He surmised that it had fallen into the pit. He grabbed his energy sword and ran off into the labyrinthine tunnels. He could barely see his hands in front of him. His flashlight proved useless; he was running too quickly for it to linger on anything. He rushed around the next bend and ran, at painful speed, into Givnu 'Jekaiee. The other Operative was evidently terrified. He was breathing heavily, and purple blood was streaking down the side of his head, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Get up. Follow me," 'Gamsamee gasped, still winded by his impact with the more heavily built Sangheili.
The other shook his head and shivered convulsively. 'Gamsamee struck him hard in the face. 'Jekaiee stood slowly, his breathing stabilizing. "Are we the only two left, my Lord?"
'Gamsamee spoke tiredly. "I...don't know. We've lost six Unggoy by my count, most likely seven. Did you see anyone?"
"Just one, milord," the other Sangheili groaned. "And I hope I may never see such a thing again. 'Kiprafee. He's one of them. All twisted and yellow. The arms were more like tentacles. His head was completely gone. He attacked me. I had to defend myself. I shot the thing down, but more came. We must have lost at least a dozen Unggoy, maybe three Sangheili. And I'm the fourth."
"What?" asked 'Gamsamee as the other Sangheili collapsed backwards. He rolled 'Jekaiee over. The cut in the warrior's back was not long or deep, but it was lined with some kind of khaki flecks. Azathoth gave an affirmative signal.
"Flood-inflicted wounds do tend to cause a slowed-down version of infection. Since combat forms bear the same spores that infection forms carry, any cut that penetrates a nerve will eventually cause death and/or infection."
'Gamsamee got up. He started running again. He lost all sense of time as he ran. He knew, however, that he was not yet out of breath when Biza 'Olkaree dropped from a vent in the tunnel roof. Only it wasn't quite 'Olkaree anymore. The infection had only just taken effect. The skin and armor were not quite covered with slimy yellowed flesh, the putrid stink of the rotting corpse not fully developed, the reptilian eyes not yet glazed over completely. Yet it bore the unquestionable hallmark of the Flood. The creature turned, pieces of material falling from its ruined frame as it did. It looked directly at 'Gamsamee for a second, then gave a bubbling screamlike howl.
It was only 'Gamsamee's instincts that prevented the blow from removing his skull. As it was, the tentacular arms of the Flood combat form struck him heavily on the shoulder, pushing his shields into the red.
As he ducked aside, he felt his shields dropped and plasma scorch his back with a horrible hissing. The creature was still carrying 'Olkaree's plasma rifle. He lunged to the other side of the tunnel, kicking the plasma rifle out of the Flood's grasp as he did.
The force of the kick was stunning. It ought to have at least caused any enemy to bend double in pain. Instead, the kick simply tore off the combat form's arm. It did not seem deterred in the least. It used its other arm as an alternative. This time, 'Gamsamee's dodge was too slow. The tentacle wrapped around his unshielded wrist and held. 'Gamsamee cried out; the pain was intolerable. He fell with a moan of agony, and his head landed on the hilt of his energy sword.
With speed born of desperation, he seized the handle and hacked viciously at the Flood's arm. It recoiled, its limbs severed by the white-hot blade. He struck at its chest, and received a new shock as the blade went all the way through, followed by his arm. With a thrill of horror, he pulled his hand from the pulpy flesh as the hellish combat form collapsed.
It was only then that he noticed that the Flood's arm was still attached to his. He yanked on it savagely. There was a sound of flesh tearing-his own. He released the arm. He raised one of the four whip-like tentacles on the appendage. It had little barbs on the underside. He groaned. This was going to be more painful than it looked. He suddenly gave a yelp of pain as the rotten arm burst into pale flame and withered to ashes. Azathoth spoke in a confident voice.
"Your shields can be configured to give pulses of unique destructive power. Your bastardized Edenian technology is really rather inspiring."
'Gamsamee rather resented his suit being referred to as 'bastardized', but he held his tongue. "Azathoth, is there a way out of here?"
"Not directly," the AI cheerfully pointed out. "But if you get us to the control center of this facility, I ought to be able to figure something out."
"And where is this control center of which you speak?"
"Right here, as a matter of fact. The Sangheili have a strange intuition which seems to lead them to places of Edenian technology. I should research it. It is a most intriguing subject, and I do hope that you will attempt to develop it, as it can prove-"
"Azathoth. Shut up," 'Gamsamee snarled. The AI mumbled something about just trying to make conversation, then trailed off.
'Gamsamee turned to find that the rock wall behind him had slid open. He took two steps into the room, and immediately a hand reached out, grabbed him, pressed him to the floor, and raised an energy sword for a killing move. Then 'Vutbrugee released his hold. "Ah, 'Gamsamee. Do you feel you should explain what has transpired?"
'Gamsamee angrily stood. "I did not set these things loose, if that is what you are insinuating. That was an accident on the part of an Unggoy."
'Vutbrugee gave a furious growl. "Damn Unggoy. I have always sworn that they kill more allies than enemies. Was it Halel? That one was too careless, always. I should never have allowed his promotion to Operative. And now, as a result of his foolishness, we are stuck on a desolate asteroid with several thousand...things...that seem intent upon murdering the last two of us. And now we're all that's left."
"At least we are on a holy relic of the Forerunners," 'Gamsamee optimistically noted.
"What being could enjoy greater felicity," snapped 'Vutbrugee. "We are cut off from the Archangel, without a hope of rescue in time. The place has a teleportation grid, but even that is useless."
"The teleporter?" 'Gamsamee could hear Azathoth ponder. "I might be able to make use of it, if I can interface with the controls. Set me on the control console, next to the main flux reactor beam," he ordered briskly. "Right, let's see what the Flood have managed to do since their outbreak." His figure briefly appeared on the console, then disintegrated into different areas on the holographic display. He reappeared almost instantly. "The teleportation grid is online, but we'll need to supply our own energy source. The grid's power lines have been tapped by the Flood for their own purposes. The grid is only getting a tenth of the energy it needs to perform a single teleportation. Your shield system should do the job quite well, if you'll give me a moment."
'Vutbrugee stared intently at the figure on the console. "An Oracle. Most intriguing. You carry him with you?"
'Gamsamee was about to make an excuse, but he felt the truth would be better. "Yes. I took him from the Prophet of Revelation's ship. He's been with me ever since."
'Vutbrugee nodded and closed his eyes. He spoke slowly, but with the utmost determination. "It is quite obvious, then, what you must do. You must use our shields to teleport yourself and the Oracle to the ship. You will then escape and return to High Charity, to replace me."
'Gamsamee crossed his arms as he faced his superior. "Me? You must go."
'Vutbrugee did not move. Or at least not until he leapt into the air and kicked 'Gamsamee to the ground, where the younger Sangheili lay winded. "Listen," he bellowed at 'Gamsamee. "I knew 'Vansamee. He was a good friend. A good person. And if he thought you were worth giving his life for, I am going to respect his choice! He was either brilliant or insane. Just like you. I know what the prophecy said. You're here to help Orna. You're going. Everyone still has a part to be played. Farewell and parting luck, Eraa 'Gamsamee."
'Gamsamee got to his feet. He knew what he had to do. The reactor beam was right next to the console. The knife of Azo 'Sangheilee could temporarily interrupt the beam. He nodded. 'Vutbrugee nodded back.
Between the moment he nodded and the moment he left the ruin of the facility, 'Gamsamee did three things. He reached up and grabbed Azathoth from the console. He lunged out with the knife, blocking the reactor beam.
And as he sat in the Archangel, mechanically and mindlessly entering slipspace coordinates, he felt a single tear trickle down his face. It had happened again. Another life had been sacrificed for his. He didn't know if he could take such a thing if it happened again.