The Twelve Night Siege
Posted By: Jillybean<Jillybean@bungie.org>
Date: 20 December 2005, 4:04 am
Partridge in a Pear Tree.
Snow fell in long, lazy spirals from the overcast skies. Drifting downwards in little, sporadic flurries of white, a number of them were fluttering over to rest on the still, grey clad form of a UNSC marine.
He sat with his back against a dark boulder, his arms held tight across his chest, his chin tucked into his neck. His long legs were stretched out before him, neatly crossed at the ankles. The muzzle of his sniper rifle reached a little further, the faithful companion brushing against the sides of his legs.
Cold burned in-between the stubble of his cheeks, and nipped at his wrists, while his hands were protected between his chest and his arm. Whenever he exhaled, he could see his breath coming out in plumes, rustling the grey lapels of his jacket.
And his ass hurt. The tarpaulin between him and the snow kept him from the worst of the damp, but it was hardly designed for comfort. Tilting his head a fraction, he peered out from his eyelashes to see if he did, indeed, still have feet. He couldn't feel anything inside his boots for sure.
The steady crunch-crunch towards him of a rhythmical, UNSC trained, well versed and sharp tongued sergeant provoked a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth. He suppressed it, resisting the urge to stretch and shake off the few flakes which were covering him as sergeant Hastings approached.
Hastings crouched beside him, his face ruddy with the cold. Even the simple movement caused noise and commotion, Hastings was breathing heavily, and he slapped his hands together to rub some warmth into them.
"Awake yet?" Hastings asked. He prodded Mitch's shoulder roughly, waiting for some sort of response. Failing that, he snorted and stood once more. "He's probably dead," he muttered, crossing the basin of their rocky outcrop. Grabbing hold of the angular looking boulder, he swung himself up onto a ledge and looked out on the long canyon. Their stronghold, for want of a better word, was at the top of a small incline leading to the cliffs. A recent landslide had dislodged a few large boulders, proving sparse shelter from the elements, and a wall from any plasma bolts.
Across the canyon, Hastings could see the Wraith was still burning. He could feel its heat on his face even now. The purple beast was impaled on the burnt out shell of what had been a commandeered Phantom. He could see the metal warping under the stress of the plasma fire. It blued and twisted, before melting off to drop down onto the frozen ground below with a demonic hiss.
Hastings shifted to see Private William Summers hopping from the largest boulder to the next, his arms wind-milling crazily in order to keep his balance.
"If they had a sniper, you'd be dead by now," Mitch drawled beneath them.
"Thought you were dead," Hastings retorted, making room for Will on the ledge. "How is it?"
"It's pretty quiet out, sir," Will said. He stamped his feet and rubbed his hands together, cupping them around his mouth and blowing.
"No activity at all?"
Hesitating, Will shuffled a little closer, speaking quietly. "They emerged earlier, Sir. Far out of range. They uh . . . they picked the teeth from their dead."
Hasting's upper lip curled. Staring out at the snow field, he could make out the splayed figures of the brightly armoured Grunts and Jackals. Not to mention the two Hunters, one sprawled underneath a landside, the other looking like an overlarge, blue snowdrift.
"It was weird," Will continued. "They only took the teeth of the other Elites."
"It's freaky." Hastings dropped down from his ledge, flexing his knees as he landed. He gritted his teeth, sucking in air through the gaps. The cold air in his throat hurt more than he expected.
Mitch shook the snow off of him with one long shudder. Unfolding himself he got to his feet, brushing his hands off on the thighs of his pants.
"What do you want?" Hastings demanded irritably.
Mitch raised an eyebrow, remaining eloquently silent as he stooped to fold up his tarpaulin.
"Sir?" Will followed him down, shivering slightly as he landed in the snow. "What's the plan, sir?"
Mitch faced his sergeant expectantly, seeing the man glance at Private Summers before drawing himself up to his full height.
"We wait here," Hastings announced. "We wait here for re-inforcements."
Mitch could see Will's shoulders dropping as he realised what that would entail.
"Is there a problem with that, Private?" Hastings asked quietly.
"No, sir." With one, ever so slightly mutinous glance at the sky, Will gestured back to his boulders. "Should I go back on watch?"
"Nah," Mitch said quickly. "Let me go, Sarge. I need to warm up a bit."
"Son," Hastings said with a wry smile on his face. "We all need to warm up a bit!"
Clambering up onto the boulders, Mitch stretched. The muscles in his shoulder popped in and out of place as he clasped his hands and pushed them above his head. On the field before him he could make out the wreckage of the Ghost which had wrenched that shoulder out of place. He walked their natural battlements, keeping an eye on the curls of smoke and plasma.
Beneath him, Hastings was curled up by a rock, slowly fiddling with the transceiver, while Will paced nearby. The sound of static kept beat with Mitch's patrol.
"Bright Dawn?" Hastings was saying. "Bright Dawn?"
Mitch glanced upwards at the grey skies, laced with the occasional solar flare. The Bright Dawn wasn't responding. He knew as much. Their little team had seen neither hide nor hair of another human for hours now. Either the human ships above weren't coming to their rescue . . . or simply weren't there, which would make Fire Team Delta sitting ducks for any overhead Covenant patrols.
Running his fingers along the barrel of his sniper rifle, he eyed the trees at the other side of the canyon. All he needed was to be a little closer.
Cold Outside - by Chad Armstrong
Two Turtle Doves
Far above the colonised planet, Festival, a lone human cruiser was all that was left of her defences. The Bright Dawn lumbered through space, leaving behind spiralling trails of oxygen as she sailed between the planet and the remaining Covenant ship.
Stooped beside the window, Captain Sean Wallace stared out at the growing purple blob. Even the huge, arcing Covenant cruiser had taken heavy damage from the unexpected solar flares. He gritted his teeth as he saw one of her huge engines sputter. Appearances could be deceiving, he certainly wasn't about to attack the Eve of Hope, no doubt she could still pull some amazing trick of spacemanship from her sleeve and take down the Marathon class cruiser.
Wallace took a deep breath as he faced the young lieutenant Jameson. "Yes?"
She handed him a report with a sharp, proud salute. Deep, dark circles lined her eyes and she sported a bruise over her right cheekbone.
"Have you seen to that?" Wallace asked, waving at her face casually.
She shrugged it off. "More important things, sir. We've contained our hull breaches and we've stopped leaking O2. Engineering tells me we should have our engines up to full manoeuvring capabilities within a few days."
"Good," Wallace said. "What about weapons?"
A wicked gleam caught in the lieutenant's eyes. "We should have them within hours, sir. The damage from the solar flares was mostly structural."
"Excellent." Handing the report back, he glanced down at the miniscule version of the ship's AI. "Any news on why we didn't detect the flares?"
"Until it was too late?" The Bright Dawn's AI fluttered her wings in frustration. Tilting a golden hued face to meet his gaze, she shook her head sadly. "Unfortunately my sensors appear to be working perfectly. I can only speculate that the Covenant was somehow blocking our abilities."
"If I may be so bold," Angel continued, "myself and the other AIs were finding it difficult to scan Festival's surface, but Festival has long since had notable magnetic variations in her -"
"Angel," Wallace interrupted, "is this going somewhere?"
"Yes, sir," Angel paused for a moment, her wings flapping slowly. "I believe this was as much a surprise to the Covenant as it was to us. This could be somewhat advantageous, we do know the Covenant were specifically targeting Festival's surface."
"They didn't Glass the planet," Wallace said.
"Precisely, sir." She inclined her head. "Our forces consistently outperform theirs planet-side. With their forces decimated, there will be no air support from the Covenant."
Wallace glanced around his poor, disrupted ship and nodded slowly. "In the mean time," he raised his voice so all on the bridge could hear him. "Our standing orders are to protect Festival against the Covenant invasion. I guarantee you those bastards won't be giving up - and neither will we. I want us able to repel their next attack." With this, he turned on heel and marched off the bridge, intent on engineering. He missed the glances exchanged by Angel and the lieutenant.
Zuk 'Tanamee stepped backwards to allow an Engineer access to the control panel he was working on. The floating purple blob extended its tendrils to caress the ship's circuitry, sending little currents of electricity through the synapses.
'Tanamee took the opportunity the Forerunner had provided him to stretch. His neck muscles were grateful for the chance to move, he had been hunched by that readout for too long. Rolling his head from side to side, he wondered if the galley was operational yet.
The Engineer was tutting under its breath, clicking as it moved to the next panel. 'Tanamee squared his shoulders, about to return to his work, before the floating creature spun on him, scolding him roundly with a chorus of whistles and screeches.
"Fair enough!" 'Tanamee bowed his head in concession, aware the little creature didn't understand the ironic deference, and backed away. Thumbing a holographic panel at the door, he leaned closer to the wall. "Bridge to the Temple. Has the Great Prophet Luck recovered?"
The speakers hissed for a moment before a timid Unggoy's voice replied. "No, your Excellency, we regret he has not!"
"Keep me informed," 'Tanamee said. It took more effort than he expected to pry himself from the wall's support. Stretching his two toes inside his boots, he ignored the burning in his soles as he walked down the flickering corridors.
The Eve of Hope had been sheltered from the brunt of the solar flares by the lumbering, refitted explorer Grave Leanings. The first ship to ever come in contact with these humans and she was gone in an explosion of light and heat . . .
'Tanamee blinked those thoughts away and hopped over a fallen beam. Inside the galley he saw a team of Unggoy trying to reset the tables. The Hope had been retreating when the flares erupted. He well remembered giving the orders to barge in between two human ships. They'd been destroyed, and the Hope damaged, but it was all in the name of the Forerunner. Luck had commended him, had promised him a promotion.
Luck was dying.
"Pray forgiveness for my thoughts," 'Tanamee murmured as he accepted a bowl of worms from the Unggoy. "They were wrought by fear and not honour."
Seating himself, he gazed around the canteen. Panels had been ripped from the walls as Engineers happily repaired systems, or the Unggoy decided the metal could be best used elsewhere. 'Tanamee trusted in his crew to bring the Hope up to fully operating status again.
He sorely needed Luck's guidance now. Scratching absently at a lower mandible he contemplated the cold, congealed worms he had intended to eat.
"Excellency?" The quietly attentive Unggoy bounced on his heels.
"Is there nothing else?" 'Tanamee asked, turning the bowl to inspect its contents.
"I am afraid not," the Unggoy said.
Sighing deeply, 'Tanamee tipped his head back and poured the 'food' down his throat, shuddering at the taste.
"Zuk." The gruff, exhausted voice of his second in command sounded from the doorway.
Taking the chance to leave his meal, 'Tanamee pushed away from the table, greeting his friend with a raised hand.
"I've just heard," he said in a low voice. "Luck has begun his Great Journey."
"We're on our own," 'Tanamee sighed. "We have to make the best of it. After all, what does the Celebration of the Star teach if not faith in the darkest times?"
Snorting, his second in command eyed their wrecked ship. "The celebration has not started yet."
Stalemate - by Theo
Three French Hens
Crouching to rifle through the crate of rations, Shi 'Nahassa emerged with a sealed pack of condensed nutrients. He eyed the date, neatly printed on the bottom, and dropped it back into the crate with a snort of disgust.
"By the Prophets," he grunted, kicking at a drift of snow. Catching sight of the young recruit watching him, the last surviving member of his squadron, Shi calmed himself. Twitching one lower mandible playfully, he ducked under the overhanging branches of their little shelter. On a small rise, the sparse copse wasn't the ideal place to hide. His old instructor, Gui' Natanna, would have scorned him for even suggesting it.
Shi's armour seemed to weigh him into the snow as he approached the Special Operations Sangheili lazing against the trunk of a tree.
"We may have to go hunting," Shi announced, stopping in front of him. Lia 'Nahamee had run into their squadron towards the end of the battle, and had gratefully accepted their comradeship.
At least . . . as gratefully as any arm of the Prophet's could.
"There's plenty of human flesh out there," Lia grumbled, his eyes staring off at a prey he couldn't possibly see.
"Cousin!" Shi sounded scandalised.
Shifting uncomfortably, Lia ducked his head in apology. Picking at the hardened sap on his battered, black armour, he squinted upwards. "The sun is reaching its nadir. We should be prepared for any attack from them."
"You think they'd attack in the evening?" Shi asked.
Lia clicked his mandibles quietly. "I do not underestimate them. They took out my squadron." He shifted his gaze fractionally to see the blue armoured recruit between the trees. "What's his name?"
Slightly surprised at the quick reply, Lia tilted his head. He could see Cru was quietly dismantling his plasma rifle, setting the power unit on top of their crate of supplies, and removing the filters. He held each one up to the light before he put them down.
"Meticulous," Lia drawled, not impressed by the young one's diligence to a task better suited to an Unggoy.
"An odd one, I agree," Shi said.
Shi turned to his cousin incredulously. "Oh you must know."
Growling under his breath, Lia cuffed him over the head, knocking the scarlet helmet off.
Laughing slightly, Shi stooped to pick it up. "Well it feels good to know something you don't . . . for once!"
"Your mother would be ashamed of you, forgoing your own blood and lineage so easily," Lia retorted.
Shaking himself, Shi righted the helmet on his head. "Cru 'Lanasee wouldn't have that problem," he said quietly, almost conspiring with his cousin.
"He's an orphan?" Lia asked, having trouble keeping his voice down.
"And an orphan of quite a lowly lineage, I'm told," Shi whispered. "During the Brute Incursion."
"Anyone we'd know?"
"No," Shi shifted his weight and leaned closer to Lia. "The High Priestess herself picked him from a city in Sangheil and sent him to a training camp. I'm told he was a close friend of her son."
Lia sniffed. "Not so unusual."
"He's personally blessed too . . ." Shi glanced to the subject of their discussion. Cru was slowly reassembling the plasma rifle, concentrated on his task.
"Well if he's lucky enough to survive this," Lia gestured at their little camp. "Maybe it will rub off on us."
The quiet mumblings didn't reach Cru's ears. He kept his back to the superior officers, mostly from respect.
With the plasma rifle slotted back together, he took aim at an outcropping of rock on the cliffs. Satisfied with his work, he holstered it.
And found himself staring out a blank snowfield with nothing to do. He supposed he could attempt to find more camouflage shield power cells, but didn't suspect this search would yield anything more than his previous ones had.
His mother detested idleness, and had told him many times that it would only lead to ruin. And in turn, he had lazed high on the branches of the ylanni trees, basking in the warm sun of Sangheil. Glancing skywards, he suppressed a snort of amusement as he saw the thick, coniferous pines surrounding him. Hardly a suitable spot for basking. He doubted he could even attempt to climb the long, spindly branches with their sticky spikes.
The sun wasn't warm enough either. Even though its flares had died down, he didn't like to stare too long at the bright orb in the sky. No reinforcements, a decimated squadron, unknown opponents . . . it all sounded far too much like a tale for Hatchlings for Cru's tastes. All it needed was a young warrior to prove his Honour and they'd be set.
Grumbling to himself, he let his gaze fall, and found it tracking to the little wooden box nestled in the snow. He and Shi had spent the time since the battle organising the first teeth of the fallen, to take back to the loved ones. Some, Cru knew, would go to the priestesses for caretaking, those who had no family left to mourn for them.
He flinched around as the other two approached. "E-Excellency?"
"Relax," Lia waved him off. Brushing past, he began to rummage through the food crate. "There's certainly not much here."
"I could have told you that," Shi muttered under his breath, clicking amusedly at Cru to soften the mutiny. He folded his long limbs and sat in the snow, a long shiver passing up his body.
"This isn't fit for a Kig-Yar," Lia grumbled. He opened a packet and squeezed the ooze from it, sniffing the brown paste. "The Prophets will be hearing of this on my return."
"Why yes, cousin," Shi said.
Slowly, Cru sat down beside him. "Perhaps," he began, a little nervously, "when we return with our prized artefacts, the Prophets will allow us to dine at their table."
There was a moments silence before the two older Sangheili laughed uproariously.
Pleased his joke had gone down so well, Cru let his shoulders sag in relief.
"I like this one," Lia said, elbowing the young recruit. "Next he'll be telling me the Demon really is the instrument of the Forerunner."
"Such casual blasphemy!" Shi shook his head in mock shame. "I assure you, young Cru', my family is far more respectful than this arrogant creature suggests."
"I?" Lia held his claws out for silence. "Let me tell you of the time I caught your commander sneaking brandy into mass . . ."
Four Calling Birds
"This is the Bright Dawn calling all units, please respond."
Will fell from his perch on the wheelbase of a wrecked 'hog, scrabbling for the radio. Sliding in the snow he grabbed at the transceiver, lifting it to his mouth as he skidded to a halt.
"This is Fire Team Delta! Bright Dawn? Bright Dawn?"
Breath caught in his throat, he waited, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the moulded plastic.
"Fire Team Delta?"
"Give that here." The sergeant abruptly snatched the transceiver away, pausing only to flash a grin at the private. "Bright Dawn, this is Sergeant Alan Hastings."
"It's good to hear from you, Sergeant Hastings." The tinny female voice was filled with static, but recognisable.
"You too, Angel. Still watching over us?"
"Always." The speakers crackled unpleasantly. "Hold on, I'm attempting to retune the frequencies."
Will stood, pressing close to the sergeant as they lingered for a reply. With a grimace, Hastings batted the young man away, his breath condensing on the mouthpiece as he waited for what seemed like an eternity.
"Is that better, Sergeant?" Angel asked, her voice cutting through the air.
"Loud and clear, Angel." Hastings turned, waving at Mitch on the boulder.
"Excellent," Angel was saying. "What is your current status?"
"We're holed up here, not far from the old mines." Hastings paused, wondering how best to say it. "It's pretty bad down here. All I have is myself, Privates Will Summers and Mitch Davies."
Angel didn't respond for a moment. "I have your location," she said, her tone sounding odd. "I'm patching you through to the Captain."
Will mouthed a surprised 'huh?' to his sergeant, brushing the snow off his uniform.
Shrugging, Hastings waved again at Mitch, beckoning him down.
"Ah," the captain's voice resumed the transmission. "Am I speaking to Sergeant Alan Hastings?"
"Excellent." Captain Wallace's tone switched abruptly. "Listen up, son. We received intelligence before the solar flares that the Covenant was after something. It is imperative we do not let them get a hold of . . . that something."
Hastings grimaced as he saw Mitch finally deigning to join them. "Understood, sir, but they took pretty heavy losses too."
"They cannot be allowed to get their hands on . . . whatever it was," Wallace repeated, sounding oddly like the voiceover for the UNSC recruitment adverts.
Shaking the impression away, Hastings continued. "Sir, we are desperately in need of reinforcements."
"Not possible, I'm afraid." Wallace's voice crackled. "These flares are still unpredictable. Son, this is a direct order."
Had Hastings been on the bridge he might have seen the expression of foreboding on the faces of the other crewmen, but as it was all he could do was sigh and confirm his Captain's orders.
"So," Mitch was the first to speak when the transmission fizzled out.
"We have our orders," Hasting gravelled.
"Sir," Mitch raised an eyebrow. "With respect, there are three of us."
With a wicked smirk on his face, Hastings eyed the man. "Legend has it you're a pretty good shot with that sniper rifle."
"Pretty good," Mitch said, seemingly alarmed. "But I'm no SPARTAN. I need to be closer."
"Well we know where they are," Will pointed out. "They're at the thicket."
"That's a great help," Mitch snapped, folding his arms over his chest.
"Okay." Holding his hands out for a little peace, Hastings crossed to the boulders. Climbing on top to get a better view, he waited for his men to come abreast of him. "We have the upper hand. The element of surprise. Summers and I will sneak behind the Wraith . . ."
"The burning one," Mitch clarified, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Hastings chose to let it slide. "While you will climb that cliff. When you're ready, we'll attack and drive them out. Think you can snipe 'em?"
"I don't know how many there are," Mitch said calmly.
Hastings reached for the rifle, eyeing it. "You have spare bullets?"
"Then we'll be fine."
Mitch glanced at Will before he shouldered his rifle, shaking his head. "Sir," he said, his tone so deeply reverent as to be sardonic, "yes, sir."
"Enough of that mouth, soldier," Hastings called after him. He watched while the marine began at the base of the landslide, moving up the incline with no apparent trouble. Turning to Will, Hastings hefted his SMG. "Ready, soldier?"
Will puffed out his chest and nodded. "I'm ready, sir."
"Well then." Staring out at the stretch of cold, inhospitable ground, Hastings steeled himself. "Forwards."
The hissing and crackling of the burning Wraith only grew louder as they approached. Keeping low, Hastings kept his eye on the pool of dripping, spitting plasma. The one thing he didn't lack was another burn scar. He waved Will forward to the other side, hoping the young man had enough sense to keep away from the blistering metal. He crouched close by, peering around to see through the trees. He could make out the distinctive purple blisters of the Covenant supply crates between the dark trunks.
"Sir," Will hissed. He pointed to his eyes and then back along to the trees, holding up one finger.
Sure enough, as Hastings looked harder, he could make out the indistinct shape of pearly blue armour moving between the trees. Turning back to Will he lifted one fist to sign his orders. The blur of black dropping from the skies didn't register at first, but the sharp pain in his chest did.
"Sir!" Will bellowed.
Hastings heard the sharp sound of gunfire pinging off a metal shell, but all he could see was the heavy grey of the skies and that damned, unpredictable sun . . .
"Halt!" The Elite gripped the sergeant by the neck, holding the human in front of his chest. The younger human's aim faltered, and he stopped firing.
Breathing heavily in the thin air, Lia thumbed his comm. "Shi? Cru was right. There are two of them are out here."
Shi' Attacks - by The Frumper Hunter
Five Gold Rings
Shi grimaced as his cousin's message came in. He nodded to his inferior, grabbing the carbine from its resting place against the tree. "Stay here, Cru," Shi instructed, marching to the edge of the copse.
"Your shields are depleted . . ." Cru hesitated as Shi rounded on him, but maintained his fierce stare. "Excellency," he corrected himself.
"Your position is here," Shi growled, not unkindly. "Should there be more . . ."
Cru watched the scarlet armour skulk off into the snow. A bright splash on all pale surroundings . . . he clicked his mandibles in disapproval. The humans, in his experience, could be rash, but they were never without tricks. He doubted they'd attack so blatantly.
And if he knew this, Cru was sure the others knew it too. Which begged the question, why would they go? He prowled the treeline unhappily, his view obscured by the carcasses of the battle, peeking up from the snow like absurdly coloured bones.
Never without tricks.
His gaze, once more, was drawn to the outcroppings of rocks on the cliffs. Lifting a spent sniper, he focussed the lens on the rocks, watching out for any sign of movement.
Mitch's fingers had been cold before, or so he had thought. Now they were frigid lumps of ice. Gripping the jagged edges of the rocks he climbed, he saw, rather than felt, the cuts into his skin. It would have been be fascinating if it hadn't been so damned creepy.
Extending his arm up he found his hand plunging into a bed of snow, and he grunted with relief. Stretching further he explored the surface with the tips of his fingers. It seemed to be a ledge he could settle on.
The synthetic webbing of his rifle's strap was biting into his neck as the gun sawed back and forth while he fidgeted. He pressed closer to the rocks and dug the fingers of his left hand into a narrow crevice as he brought his right hand around to try and free his rifle. Slipping his fingers under the webbing he paused, contemplating how he would remove the rifle from his back without toppling himself back down the cliff side. Bending his elbows, he strained every muscle to hug the face of the cliff as he pried the strap over his head. The butt of the gun hit the back of his head and he winced, unsteadying himself. He scrabbled with his right hand, the gun clattering noisily off the rocks before his fingers found some purchase. He inhaled shakily before slowly lifting his gun up and shoving it onto the ledge above.
A few moments later he had followed it onto the narrow projection of flat rock on the cliff face. Settling his back against the cold granite he lifted the gun, fiddling with its sight and running his fingers soothingly down its neck. Rolling his head from side to side he stretched his arms out in front of him, cracking his knuckles, before he lay out on the snow.
Peering through the scope he scanned the blurs of white before he found the sharp blobs of purple forming the Wraiths. He zoomed in, concentrating on the specks moving in one corner. The ants jumped into focus, revealing themselves to be his two team mates. Summers and Hastings were kneeling in the snow, while a black armoured special operation's Elite was pacing behind them.
Mitch paid no attention to the creature's angry gesticulations as he zoomed in further, catching the alien's neck in his crosshairs.
Cru' gripped the rocks and used his powerful leg muscles to propel himself upwards. The human sniper was sprawled out above him, completely unawares of Cru's rapid ascent.
With an ear splitting roar Cru' skidded onto the snowy ledge, judging the distance wrong in his haste to reach him. The snow provided little purchase under the soles of his boots and he crashed into the human, sending both of them tumbling off the plateau. The gun went off in the scuffle; one loud crack ringing out over the canyon walls.
Cru' kicked the soft belly of the human, finally freeing their tangled bodies as they plunged over the edge. He scrabbled with his claws as he sailed downwards, grabbing at anything and everything.
He heard the human's yelp of pain before he realised he'd grabbed hold of the human's boot to halt his downward spiral. His own plasma pistol went bouncing down the rocks to disappear into nothingness, following the human's sniper.
"Bloody . . ."
The human muttered away to itself, kicking feebly. Cru' held on tightly, not needing to glance below to judge his chances of surviving such a fall.
"Let go ya squid faced bastard!" the human exclaimed, staring down at him.
"You!" Cru' snapped back. Craning his neck he could see the outcropping the human had grabbed a hold of. It jutted out from cliff face, leaving Cru' with nothing to transfer his weight to. Even contorting his body and swinging he couldn't reach the side of the boulders.
"Stop!" the human screeched, its pitch painfully high.
"Does it pain you?" Cru' asked, contemplating wriggling about some more.
"I swear I'll let go just to see you die, you . . ."
"Spare me," Cru' muttered tiredly. He pried the claws of one hand off of the human's boot and wrapped them around the leg muscles of the alien.
"Hey! Hey! What the Hell do you think you're - HEY!"
"Apologies," Cru' grunted as he climbed up the human's body. "I believe that is a sensitive area."
"Sensitive my - " the rest of the human's sentence was cut off when Cru' used its face as a handhold. Scrambling onto the ledge, Cru' was quickly joined by the human.
"Shall we begin again?" Cru' asked, somewhat facetiously he knew.
The human did not reply. In fact, it had turned its back to him and was working away at the small outcrop of rock which had saved both their lives. With a small grunt of satisfaction, it turned to regard him warily.
"What have you got there?" Cru' asked, attempting to peer around the humans back.
"Show me!" Manoeuvring on the tiny sliver of a platform proved difficult and the human found itself gripping Cru's breastplate in order to stay on. With a grimace, Cru' leaned back and detached the cowardly creature from his armour. "Show me or I fling you off the edge."
"Try it, buster," the human muttered. It's thin, mismatched lips opened wide, revealing all its teeth. It laughed. "I'll tell Mom."
"Whomever Mom is I do not care," Cru' snapped at him. "I wish to see what you picked up from the ground."
The human appeared to contemplate this, at the same time maximising all the possible distance between the two of them, which was not much. "You can't touch me. You'll kill us both."
With a malicious grin, Cru' hunched his shoulders up menacingly. "A fitting death for the Forerunners." He threw his head back and laughed at the human's expression.
"Funny little squid, aintcha?" the human growled.
"I have no wish to die, human," Cru' assured him.
"Mitch." Its shoulders relaxed despite itself. "My name is Mitch."
Cru' blinked. "I am Cru' Lanasee, son of - "
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Mitch held up a hand to stall him. "I don't want your life story."
"You humans have very little respect for your ancestors," Cru' said. He shifted his weight slightly, eyeing the snow he dislodged as it sailed down into the canyon below them.
"You got a radio?" Mitch asked.
"A . . . communications device?" Cru' nodded. "Why?"
Biting its lip, Mitch leaned forwards. "I want your word. Swear on the Forerunner . . ."
"I . . . swear," Cru' said, a little awkwardly. He wondered where this was going.
Mitch shuffled a little closer, bringing them within a claws breadth of each others faces. The smell of soft, unwashed flesh was thick in Cru's throat.
"The only way we'll get off this cliff is if we work together, right?" Mitch asked.
Cru' bowed his head in agreement.
"Radio your guys and ask them if my team mates are still alive. I'll trade you. My discovery for your captives."
Cru' leaned backwards. "Let me see it."
Slowly, and holding it out so it would fall should Cru' attack, Mitch revealed his prize. It was a fist sized rock, dark and well worn by rain and wind.
At least, that's how it looked at first. The smooth face of the fist sized piece of granite seemed unnaturally glassy, while the chips hewn around the edge were as smooth and perfectly matched.
And if that wasn't enough, the shining golden rings carved into its face seemed to point out its value.
Seven rings, five of which were glowing.
Touching the side of his helmet, Cru' allowed a smile to reach his mandibles. "Shi'? I may have something for you."
Animosity - by Dillo
Six Geese a Laying
Mitch waited, trying not to shiver as the stiff wind tugged at his clothing. The Elite . . . Cru' . . . was patiently listening to his superior's response. Up close, the Elite was beginning to lose some of his fearsome hideousness. The squid like face twitched and moved with all the dexterity of fingers, occasionally arching in surprise or drawing tight in annoyance.
Shaking the thoughts off, Mitch met the Elite's amber eyes and received a reassuring blink.
"Shi'," Cru' said, pressing long digits to the side of his headpiece. "Smanuh llits evila?"
"Hey!" Mitch batted at its gauntlet with his hand, bruising his knuckles on the blue metal. "Speak English! I know you can!"
Somewhat reluctantly, Cru' began again. "I wish to know if the humans are still alive?"
"They are . . ." a second Elite voice sounded. It was tinny and filled with static coming from the speaker in Cru's helmet, but Mitch could make out the heavily accented English the other Covie.
"I request you keep them that way." Cru's eyes remained on Mitch. "I have arranged a trade."
"Slleh slleb!" the radio exclaimed.
"Please," Cru' stressed. "I have another here. He wishes to arrange a trade."
Mitch tucked the rock into his pocket as the Elite gingerly unfolded his long limbs.
"You ready?" he asked, sliding his lower limbs over the edge of the cliff.
Cru' moved forward, seizing Mitch's hands. "I will not let you fall," he said sincerely. His mandibles moved so close to Mitch's face that he could feel the alien's breath on his skin.
"Quicker we get down from here the better," Mitch muttered.
Will's left knee had gone into spasms some minutes ago. To distract himself he was digging his fingernails into the palms of his hands, a task not made easier by the steady gaze of the special operations Elite.
The black armoured creature stood in the snow, apparently perfectly comfortable. It hadn't moved since threatening the Sarge with the fearsome looking plasma sword and now seemed content to simply stare at them.
Something in the unnerving silent stare reminded Will of the only SPARTAN he'd ever seen.
"You okay, son?" Hastings asked, speaking out the corner of his mouth.
"Silence!" The second Elite, a slightly taller, red-armoured version of his comrade, snapped at them. Its jaws clacked together noisily. In contrast to the other one he paced the snow in front of the captured humans, often muttering under his breath.
"Why are you doing this?" Hastings asked again. He shifted his weight in the snow, earning a disapproving growl from the red Elite. Tilting his chin he stared the creature down.
"Your fellow human wishes a trade," the Elite said at length. He whirled away from them, continuing to stalk the path he'd worn in the snow.
Will glanced at Hastings out the corner of his eyes. The Sarge's expression was unreadable, matching the special operations Elite exactly.
Shi' paused in his stalking when he caught sight of a distinct blur of blue moving towards them. Drawing himself up to his full height he waited for his young recruit to join them. And there was no third human tagging along behind.
He waited until he could see the expression on his sober young friend's face before he spoke.
"And what reason do I have for allowing these vermin to live?" He spoke in the human tongue, making his voice as gravely as possible. Noticing the vaguest twitch of surprise in Cru's stance, he allowed the young one to bow respectfully before him before continuing. "We ought to have killed them."
"I must warn you," Cru' said, holding up a claw in caution. "The human sniper has us in his sights."
"What?" Lia' surged forward, his sword hissing through the cold air as he brought it to the throat of the younger human.
"Hold!" Cru' barked. "He will fire if you do not release those humans."
Leaning closer around his prey, Lia' wrapped his claws into the fabric of the human's shirt. "What have you done?"
"Stop!" the human blurted, closing his eyes as the blade hissed closer.
"Tnod od that, tsurt em. No eht Forerunner," Cru' spoke rapidly. He pulled an object out from under his breastplate. It fit easily into the palm of his upturned hand and was swathed in a ripped square of the human uniform. "No eht Forerunner," he repeated.
With a frustrated grunt, Lia' let go of the human, stepping backwards. "Leave," he growled.
The humans stumbled to their feet, hurriedly moving away.
Lia' let them move away before he pointed the tip of his plasma sword at Cru'. "Care to explain yourself?" he asked in Sangheili.
"Relax," Cru' dismissed his worries with a snort. "I made sure the human had no bullets." He revealed a small box of ballistics, with his other hand he gave the package over to Shi'. "And this is the Forerunner artefact we so desperately wanted." He regarded Lia' smugly.
The older Sangheili shook his head in disbelief, flicking the sword off. "And tell me, oh blessed one, why you simply did not kill the human?"
Cru' shrugged his mandibles. "I gave him my word."
"You should ask for it back," Shi' said. He held up the unwrapped rock. "I think someone has been counting eggs before they've hatched."
Cru' stared at the simple, not glowing rock with his jaw hanging open.
Captives - by Dillo
Seven Swans a Swimming
"With respect, sir," Mitch didn't flinch as Hastings shouted in his face. "I believe I would have been completely ineffective as the sole opposition to the Covenant on this planet. I'm not a SPARTAN." Off Hastings look he reluctantly added "sir."
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Hastings took a moment to attempt to wrap his understanding around this concept. "You delivered to the Covenant a priceless Forerunner artefact - which they wanted - and made a pact with one of them, on it's honour, and just . . ." he trailed off, shaking his head. "You expected that son of a bitch to be truthful?"
"He was, sir," Mitch said mildly. "In my position, what would you have done?"
"Everything in my power not to deliver that rock, Private," Hastings snapped. He sighed and thumbed the radio on the breast of his jacket. "Sergeant Hastings to Bright Dawn?"
On the orbiting ship, Angel quickly rerouted the communications, reassuring herself that it was perfectly acceptable for the shipboard AI to answer a ground team.
Even if they were the only known ground team.
Not so much so when the ship's captain had demanded to be kept up to date with every single development.
She allowed her subroutines to handle the rest of the ship as she concentrated all her processing power on what Hastings was saying.
"Can you describe this artefact to me?" she asked, already cross-referencing what she knew with her own databases. The seven rings carved into the surface were obviously meant to indicate something . . . but the wider she cast her search parameters, the more 'Secure File' flags kept coming up.
As a smart AI, Angel had the option of turning off her emotional subroutines. She knew that when she did, it became a simple matter to ignore those flagged files and come to a speculation based on what she was authorised to know.
She was not authorised, and nor did her mission [the protection of Festival up to acceptable loss parameters] require to know what exactly was in those tempting little files.
And they were small. Awkward little files, obviously new, and with very little data. It probably wouldn't even be worth looking inside.
In the end, it came back down to those emotional subroutines. The mind she had been based on came from the ever so dutiful Professor Elaine Allan, who had specified in her will she wished to be used for an AI, if ever the opportunity arose. When it had - an unfortunate car crash - Angel had been born from the ashes. Professor Allan had been a prominent philosopher and had been on her way to deliver a lecture on ethics before fate stepped in. An irony not lost on Angel.
A little guidance from above would be very welcome right about now. Angel lamented the loss of her fellow AI more than ever. They had been higher on the cybernetic food chain. They could have made such decisions for her.
Some detached part of her programming was cataloguing the ways in which a smart AI could recognise the changes in a situation where a dumb AI could not. The rest of her programming was busy obsessing over those files.
Statistically she could not hope to retrieve the artefact with the resources at her disposal. Legally she could not assess its worth. It left her with one logical option . . .
The captain's office possessed a full sized holographic projector. Angel didn't use it much, her own matrix was much larger than most. Still, she flared into life in the room, her golden skin the only light in the dull little room. The tips of her feathered wings escaped the projector's field of view and faded into nothingness.
Wallace glanced up from his desk, dark circles around his eyes.
"Captain . . ." Angel found herself stepping towards him.
"Any reports?" he snapped.
"We lost the artefact to the Covenant," Angel said, unable to look away. It was a unique quirk of an AIs programming that their visual sensors were located in the matrix 'eyes'. An attempt to make them gel more with their human counterparts, Angel supposed, but it made subtle scrutiny impossible. "I recommend we return to Earth to report our findings. There's no more we can do here, sir."
"What about our men on the planet?" Wallace asked, his voice sounding oddly strained. She registered the pattern, finding far too many parallels with the pattern of someone under severe stress.
"They're an acceptable loss, sir."
Wallace shook his head. "We're taking that artefact back."
"Sir," Angel protested, "we don't have the manpower . . ."
"Our orders are to retrieve that artefact - "
"Our orders are to defend Festival!" Angel switched her emotional subroutines back on. "We've failed."
Wallace stared at her, his eyes bulging from their sockets.
Those files? Those secret, hidden, tempting files? Those gloriously forbidden files, so easily hacked into when she had the inclination . . .
Halo. The AI making the report, Cortana, she had quoted a number of three galactic radii. To ensure total galaxy coverage Angel would be looking at something along the lines of seven Halos.
There were seven rings on that rock, five of which were glowing. What did that mean? In all likelihood it meant five of them were activated.
Without a doubt, Angel had to get that rock.
"You're right, sir," Angel said. She affected a smile and bowed her head and wings. "You're completely right. I'll instruct our teams immediately."
Filtering away from his office she gently reached out to tap into the Covenant ship's communications array. So far no chatter regarding the artefact. Either they wanted to keep it quiet or something was not working as planned.
Angel kept an eye on it, opening a channel to the marines on Festival.
"We need you to retrieve the artefact if possible, marines."
"Any chance of back-up?" Hastings asked.
Angel would have smiled to herself as she dived deeper into these forbidden files. "We'll see," she said.
Useful things, emotional subroutines, she thought.
Angel - by Chad Armstrong
Eight Maids a Milking
"It glowed," Cru' repeated stubbornly, staring at the rock. Back in their camp among the trees he had inspected his 'artefact' from every angle.
"You were had!" Lia' growled. "You were had and the humans are laughing at you!" Turning to his cousin, he placed a hand on Shi's shoulder. "We ought to attack now, while they still haven't had rallying time."
"It doesn't now!" Shi' snapped tiredly. He waited for Cru' to look ashamed, or at least worried, but the youth remained determinedly reticent. Facing his cousin once more, Shi' took in the hunched stance and tight grip on the hilt that Lia' had. "We ought to consider our options," he began. "Twelve days and twelve nights I have fought on this barren rock and for what? For the death of my brothers in arms? No, Shi', I will not sacrifice their lives for the sake of a pebble!"
Shi' chewed on his upper mandible.
"Do either of you know the story of the Celebration of the Star?" Cru' asked after a moment's contemplating said pebble.
"Here we go," Lia' muttered under his breath.
"I believe it is relevant," Cru' continued.
"You walk a fine line, young one," Lia' growled.
"Let him speak," Shi' said, collapsing onto the snow. His skin was flushed blue with exhaustion.
Reluctantly, Lia' sat also.
Unlike most of the Old Tales, the Celebration of the Star is not a story of the noble Prophets, but instead of the humble, warrior Sangheili who were chosen by the Forerunner as the vanguard of the holy Covenant.
It was long ago, long before any species of the Covenant knew how to walk among the stars, when Orna' Shala emerged from his tent one night in the cool summer. Inside his eight mates were bickering over which Hatchling belonged to whom, and who could blame Orna' Shala for wishing to escape.
As any Hatchling can tell you, Orna' means 'Star Seeing' and if you have ever wondered why, you might want to listen closely.
That night as he escaped with a hide of rum in his claws, he sampled the fresh air and contemplated life, the way all good Sangheili like to do. In between his toes he felt the sands of the desert and a breeze pulled at his robes.
It was in this blissful setting that he first saw a star. It's brightly pointed flame of light fell from the heavens to a point not far east from Orna'. So amazed was he by its shining beauty that the very next morning he packed up his harem and began to trek eastwards.
On the next night he stepped out of his tent and sure enough, he saw the star rise into the sky, before sinking once more beneath the horizon. This time his most trusted mate followed him out. Assuming the star must be too tired from its exertions to once more reach the heavens, she suggested they bring the star gifts.
So on the second day they travelled towards the star, with Orna's harem arguing in the way that harem's do over which gifts to give to the star. They settled on precious metals (suggested by his youngest mate, who believed wealth was the proper gift for such a magnificent star), incense (suggest by his oldest mate, a staunch supporter of the old ways. Surely a star from the heavens was a message from the Great Sky Spirits and sacred incense was a far more appropriate gift). It was Orna's most trusted mate who quietly took him aside and suggested that their last gift be embalming fluid. For she argued that the star was likely exhausted and ready to die, and far nobler for it to be buried properly.
On the third night they reached the star. It lay in a crater, glowing so brightly in the night that the Hatchlings were afraid to come any closer. Orna' Shala and the three mates cautiously approached, only to be greeted by a strange looking creature they'd never seen before.
"Do not be afraid," it commanded them, shining with the light of the sun. "I have been on a great journey through the stars."
Hesitantly, Orna' spoke of the gifts they had brought.
"Kindness and co-operation . . . it may be you are the race we were sent out to find," the creature said.
"And where did you come from?" asked the youngest mate.
"I came from the Ring," it replied.
"Is that where your journey began?" asked the oldest mate.
"It is indeed," replied the creature. "I had to know if any were spared. I had to warn them about the new outbreak, if any were left behind . . ."
The trusted mate found this worrying. "And who are you?" she asked.
"Ah," the creature said. "I am all that is left. I am the Penitent Tangent. I am your only hope. For your race to reach the rings and follow procedure, I must be your guide. I must be your way. Though I admit, you are less than I hoped."
So enthralled by the Oracle's beauty was Orna' that he vowed to follow the Oracle's teachings, so that he and his race may one day reach the Sacred Rings.
"And the 'Star' was in fact the Forerunner ship," Shi' said heavily.
"And the Prophet's envy of the star sparked the Great War," Lia' snapped. He shoved the cartridge of a carbine into its slot and bared all his teeth. "I know my history."
"But the Celebration of the Star is so much more than that!" Cru' leapt to his feet, watching as his elders prepared themselves. "It is a celebration of the Forerunners and of great hope in dark times!" He followed them as they marched to the treeline. "Don't you see? The harem brought gifts to the Oracle. Offerings of peace!"
"And what do you suggest we do?" Shi' rounded on him. His skin was tinged orange with exhaustion and Cru' rocked back on his heels.
"I . . ."
"A truce?" Shi' asked, quieter. "We do as we are ordered."
"Then we are wrong," Cru' said stubbornly.
"Stay then," Lia' growled. He was crouched in the snow, his breath coming out in a fine mist. "I will follow the teachings of that Oracle."
Celebration of the Star - by Darkness Has Fallen
Nine Ladies Dancing
"Sir?" Angel waited for the Captain to notice her. When he did deign to glance across the bridge, she attempted to keep a polite expression. Emotional subroutines, why had she never used these before? Everything felt so real.
"Yes, Angel?" Wallace asked. He approached her, dark circles around his eyes.
"We're receiving a transmission," she said, holding up a hand.
Wallace jumped in before she could finish. "From Earth? Reinforcements?"
"No," Angel said. She carefully scrutinised him. "It's on a Covenant frequency, but it's definitely directed to us."
She had already run the message through every code and filter she possessed and was convinced of its authenticity. Statistically, she judged the Captain's reaction would be unfavourable, and even her own protocols weren't too clear on the proper course of action . . .
Inside - she danced.
Vive la revolution! This was what smart AIs were made for. A capability far surpassing any plain collection of codes, but a wit possessed by only humans.
Ah . . . but no more 'only' humans.
Tactically, it was a perfect solution. A bit of spin and it would even be good for moral. Angel could see far reaching implications for this message.
"Angel?" Wallace pressed, an eyebrow raised in concern.
"Sorry, sir," she said. Clicking her fingers she brought up a screen running lines of code. "It's from Commander Keyes and an Elite named 'The Arbiter', I presume that's a translation," she caught Wallace's gaze and hurriedly continued. "It's verified by Cortana."
"What does it say, Angel?" Wallace's voice grated on her senses.
"It proposes an alliance . . . sir."
Zuk' Tanamee nodded in response to the quartermaster's question. He ducked his head, beckoning his friend closer. "This could be our way out."
"Could be," Alu' Barassa agreed, his eyes darting back and forth. The Engineers in the control room were making the last of their repairs, puffing away to themselves. "The Jiralhanae . . . are they to be trusted?"
"No," Tanamee shook his head. "We'll confine them to quarters, the Kig-Yar and Drones too." He paused as Barassa paced away from him. His friend was hulked over in his armour, his shoulders hunched and his expression concerned. With a sigh, Tanamee straightened up. "You doubt this news."
"Yes," Barassa said bluntly. He paused by a flickering display and chewed nervously on an upper mandible. "Not for the reasons you think. I served with the Arbiter, many cycles ago."
Trying not to show his surprise, Tanamee gestured for him to continue.
"I have every respect for him," Barassa continued, keeping his gaze on Tanamee. "And I have no doubt this alliance with the humans is a wise one."
"But how can we take part?" Barassa shook his head. "We still have two units of Jiralhanae on board . . ."
"Injured." Tanamee said.
". . . three Kig-Yar squadrons . . ."
"Severely depleted numbers," Tanamee pointed out.
". . . and four scores of Drones." Barassa shook his head, staring at the floor. "And this is only if the human ship agrees to such an alliance."
"There is only one way to find out," Tanamee placed a hand on the quartermaster's shoulders. "Shall we go boldly, once more, into the battle?"
Barassa bared his teeth in a feral grin. "I shall alert those loyal to you, Excellency."
"No! Never!" Wallace stalked from one side of the bridge to the other, gesticulating so wildly he palmed an ensign over the head. "Lies and trickery!"
"Sir!" Angel ducked despite herself when a mug of coffee went flying. The interactive interface subroutines were not nearly as useful as her emotional circuits. A female lieutenant was not so lucky and she shrieked as the scalding liquid made contact with her skin. "Medical to the bridge," Angel added in an undertone.
"Can't you see?" Wallace stormed towards her, pointing his finger at her. "Covenant illusion!"
"Those codes could only have come from Cortana," Angel said patiently. She made a note in the ship's log that Captain Sean Wallace displayed increasing signs of paranoia.
Wallace spun on his heel, reaching the previously assaulted ensign and grabbing his shoulder. "Lay fire on those bastards."
"Belay that order!" Angel snapped.
"Dare you defy me?" Wallace seemed to grow, spittle flying from his mouth as he roared at her. "I am in command!"
"Protocol dictates - " she began.
"Fire!" Ignoring her completely, Wallace slammed his open palm down onto the ensign's console.
A dozen alerts sprung into Angel's awareness, systems reacting to the random series of commands entered by Wallace's fury.
"Ensign!" Wallace bellowed.
Too late Angel felt the tell-tale prickle in the ships sensors. A sense of deja-vu she barely registered. As the Bright Dawn opened fire Festival's sun erupted into life, shooting out a flare of superheated plasma.
She didn't take time to warn them as she hijacked the ship's controls and brought the lumbering junk heap around, presenting the heavily armoured aft to the worst of the damage.
It almost felt as though the sun was retaliating to the threat of violence.
An emotional response. Nothing more.
Burning Dawn - by Theo Prins
Ten Lords a Leaping
Mitch spread out their armaments on the tarpaulin, running his fingers over rifles and pistols. His first choice would always be his sniper, but a close range weapon might be more useful under the circumstances.
Mitch glanced up as Hastings approached, his fingers hooked into his belt loops. "Yes, sir?"
Hastings crouched beside him, glancing at their choices. "How are you feeling, son?"
"Um . . . fine . . . sir."
Hastings nodded, his Adam's apple bobbing. "Good. Good."
They crouched in silence for a while longer.
"Was there anything else?" Mitch asked, trying to catch his sergeant's eye.
Thoughtfully, Hastings picked up a pistol and inspected its mechanisms. While he was engrossed in this task, he spoke. "I chewed you out pretty hard earlier."
"I made a tactical error, sir."
"You saved my life." Hastings glanced at him, as a conspirator. "Mine and Will's. This attack? This is madness. We should be hiding out."
"Yes, sir," Mitch said, for lack of any other response.
"I want you to know, I'm proud of you." Hastings reached out, hesitating for a moment before he placed his hand on Mitch's shoulder. "You're a good soldier and I'm proud to have served with you."
"Thanks, sir." Mitch forced a smile. "Thanks."
"Guys!" The impromptu moment was broken by Will's frantic shout. "They're coming!" His yell was cut off by a burst of plasma and the marine sailed through the air. He landed some metres away from his lookout spot on the boulders, a plasma wound sizzling in his shoulder. He sat up, shaking his head groggily.
"Let's take those lying bastards out!" Hastings slammed the cartridge into the pistol, springing forwards. Before he could reach the boulders the black armoured Elite bounded over them in two swift leaps. It scrabbled on the white snow, a plasma rifle still steaming in its hand.
Hastings dropped to one knee, taking aim and firing as the Elite wasted precious time finding its footing on the packed ice. "Get Summers out of here!" he bellowed over his shoulder. From the corner of his eye he could see a blur of marine green and grey as Mitch followed his orders.
The Elite lifted his rib cage in a roar of fury, spreading his arms in a terrifying display of power. The distraction worked long enough for the second attacker to make a break over the boulders.
Hastings turned, his numb fingers slipping over the metal of the gun as he squeezed off another two shots at the scarlet armour. He could see the energy shield surrounding the red Elite begin to weaken. Twisting he aimed for the special operations Elite once more, his fingers sliding over the grips.
He heard a triumphant human grunt and the dull whoosh of a sniper bullet being propelled through the air. For a moment, Hastings found himself frozen to the spot, his gun halfway out of his hands. The black Elite in front of him kept its eyes fixed on Hastings. Everything about the alien's stance was directed at the sergeant, its weight was forward, and it had its claws outstretched . . . but it was not truly paying attention to him.
Hastings relaxed, recovering the grip on his pistol as he backed off.
"No," the Elite growled, abruptly spinning away from Hastings. It covered the ground between it and its fallen comrade in a few, short strides.
Mitch was lying in the snow, steam rising from the muzzle of the sniper rifle. He didn't glance up from his scope when the third Elite came over the barricades.
Cru' didn't hesitate when he caught sight of Shi' sprawled out in the snow, surrounded by a circle of purple blood. He aimed his carbine at the humans, shifting his weight to steady himself.
"Don't do it," Mitch spoke up. Blatantly, he moved his fingers over the trigger. "I'll kill you too. Don't do it."
"Coward!" Cru' spat, his eyes narrowing. He lapsed into the guttural language of the Elites for a while, and whatever he said evoked a heartfelt whine from Lia'.
"Put. The Gun. Down." Glancing up from the scope, Mitch sucked in a deep breath. "Please, Cru'."
"Put it down." The tableau broke when Lia' spoke. He stood, having pulled the teeth from Shi's jaw.
"I can take him," Cru' growled, tightening his grip on the carbine.
Lia' reached up to push the gun down. He stood closer to Cru'. "I know you can," he said, loud enough for the humans to hear. "But my cousin is dead."
"I would seek revenge," Cru' hissed.
With a little shrug, Lia' removed the gun from the younger Sangheili's hand and tossed it towards the humans. He removed his helmet and scrubbed at his scalp with his gloved hand. "They've won, Cru'," he said, his eyes on the humans.
"We - " Hastings had to stop the assurances that rush to mind. Shaking his head, he gestured to the Elites. "Will, secure them."
Will's eyes widened as he approached the huge creatures. They stood in the snow, growing in height each time they inhaled, and completely oblivious to the cold. He turned back to Hasting. "Uh, sir? How should I do that?"
"We will cause you no trouble," Lia' interrupted. He lifted his hand. "I give you my Honour."
Hastings grimaced as he watched the two of them sit down. "You know this isn't personal, right?"
"But of course," Lia' said simply. "It is not personal for us either." He gestured to the dark red stain on Will's sleeve. "I apologise."
"What are you doing?" Cru' hissed.
"I am taking your advice," Lia' lifted his head. "I am putting as at their mercy."
"That's not my advice!"
"I walk towards the creatures that I have never seen before and bring them my gift of wealth, peace and death." Lia' glanced up at the sky. "And what in the name of the Forerunner is that?"
They looked upwards in time to see the sun flare brightly, and the following streaks of orange in the sky.
"Ow!" Cru' yelped, pulling at his breastplate until he'd ripped it off his chest. It fell to the ground, melting through the snow until it lay on the permafrost beneath.
"It's the rock!" Mitch exclaimed, kicking the blue metal out of the way. The rock tumbled out, the five rings glowing red hot until the sun flare dissipated.
Lia' glanced up, meeting Hastings gaze. "Ah," he said. "This changes matters somewhat."
"My superiors," Hastings shrugged helplessly. "They want that."
"As do mine," Lia' agreed.
Seven Rings - by Theo
Eleven Pipers Piping
Angel put out the call to evacuate as soon as the first flare subsided.
Two facts logged in her databanks and were instantly correlated by her logic algorithms. Opening a channel to the Eve of Hope, she exclaimed, "Do not return fire!"
On the bridge of the Bright Dawn some med teams were attempting to restrain the Captain and haul him off to a lifeboat.
"Evacuated all non essential personnel," Lieutenant Jameson was ordering the bridge crew. Angel noticed she still hadn't seen to the cut on her forehead, it had crusted over with a long brown scab. Absently, Jameson lifted an arm up to wipe it over her brow, dragging a trail of blood behind her sleeve. "Make sure the Captain's on a life pod and getting out of here! Are the Pelicans ready to go?"
A young, flustered looking ensign nodded his head.
"In case you didn't notice," the response to Angel's hail was from a zealot. He sounded the worse for wear, just like all of the Bright Dawn's crew, and Angel detected the noises of explosions behind him in the static. "You fired on us."
"Did you receive the hail from your Arbiter?" Angel asked him, redirecting some fleeing crewmembers past a hull beach while she waited for his response.
"We did. You, apparently, did not."
"The situation has been dealt with."
"Very well. Our ship is not so badly damaged." With this the creature ended the communications. If Angel had been corporeal, she would have blinked.
"Angel!" Jameson turned to her. "We're losing structural integrity."
"Get off the ship," Angel said to her. "I'm going to follow protocol."
Jameson's eyes widened, the last of the bridge's crew leaving behind her. "But . . . what about the transmission? From Cortana?"
Angel smiled. "I believe that is a question you will have to come to terms with yourself. I cannot allow myself to fall into Covenant hands."
Jameson nodded, screwing her eyes shut.
"One last thing," Angel said, holding up a translucent hand. "Those solar flares aren't natural. They were retaliation,"
"I don't understand." Jameson flinched away from an exploding conduit. The klaxons were growing more intermittent as vital systems began breaking away from the ship.
"The Forerunners were protecting something," Angel hissed. "Now go!"
Jameson turned and fled down the corridors, leaping over buckled deck plates and dodging falling debris.
On the bridge, Angel played her favourite musical selection over the speakers. A military piping tune, bizarrely appropriate. Her donor had always wanted a state funeral.
She didn't hesitate to select the deletion function, only regretted that her realisations could not have been explained in more depth.
Oh if only they knew what the Forerunner really were . . . so simple when you looked at the evidence . . . DNA fingerprinting . . . the flares , the flares were her eureka moment.
If only they knew.
Ragnorik, the Jiralhanae Captain on the Eve of Hope, paced the length of the docking bay. His Jiralhanae stood to attention before him in even lines. They were each watching his progress, their eyes showing the same impatience his rank gave him free rein to demonstrate.
The distinctive hissing clunk of the docking bay doors opening relaxed him. For a moment he had worried that - well, it never paid to be over cautious as the old Jiralhanae saying went.
He turned, ruffling his fur as he did so, as if to prove his annoyance. "Finally," he sneered at the approaching pair of zealots. "I began to think you had crawled back into the shells you hatched from, you slimy ingrates."
Zuk 'Tanamee's lower mandibles twitched, as they always did when he was forced to liaise with Ragnorik, and he shifted his weight into a fighting stance.
"Puffing up proud, aren't you?" Ragnorik laughed, his troops behind him chuckling. "Well, what are you waiting for? Draw in the infidel's escape vessels and let us slaughter them, pleasing the Forerunner." His upper lip curled. "As you never could."
"I warned you," Zuk 'Tanamee said at last. His voice was quiet, and showed no sign of the rage in his clenched fists and tense posture. "I asked that you mind your tongue."
Ragnorik spat at his feet.
At this, 'Tanamee's companion stepped forward. Alu' Barassa lifted his head and cleared his throat. "Ragnorik, you and your soldiers have the option. Join us and renounce the Prophets . . . or die."
Ragnorik stepped backwards, his jaw dropping open with a distinctly uncivilised bark of surprise. The Sangheili in the room wrinkled their mandibles in disgust. He noticed then how many of them were there. They lined the docking bay with at least four Unggoy to each one. He had initially dismissed them out of hand, but suddenly their numbers seemed so much more formidable. Each one focussed their attention on Ragnorik's Jiralhanae.
"Heresy!" one of the Jiralhanae behind him hissed. "They are Heretics!"
"We worship the Forerunner," the voice of the ship's resident Sangheili Priestess rang out over the congregation. She stood at the far side of the room, out of range of most of the Jiralhanae weapons, and flanked by her Honour Guard. "We believe the Prophets do not."
Ragnorik turned his attention back to 'Tanamee. "You wouldn't dare."
'Tanamee leered at him, his split jaws stretching in a delighted smile. "Oh yes I would." He lifted his claw in a signal of preparation and that was the last thing Ragnorik of the Jiralhanae ever saw.
When the last of the Bright Dawn's Pelicans landed in the Eve of Hope's docking bay among the human escape pods, transport ships and fighters, there was no sign of the Brutes. The Engineers had sprung into action to clean the deck plates up.
Zuk 'Tanamee approached the gangplank, remembering what the last human marine had said to him and extending his hand in welcome.
Jameson stumbled down, followed by the Pelican's pilots. She stared at his outstretched hand before gingerly taking it in hers. "Uh . . . hi," she said.
'Tanamee lowered his forehead in greeting, "I hope our alliance will prove much profitable," he said in faltering English.
One of the marines whose Bumblebee had been first to be pulled into the Eve of Hope sidled up to Jameson, pointing to 'Tanamee's lowered forehead. "You gotta bump heads with his. It's like this weird thing they do."
Jameson glanced around the crowded room. She saw Grunts, Elites, even a few Hunters, and lots of humans. Cautiously she stood on tip toe to touch the top of her head to his helmet. "Wort . . . wort wort?" she guessed.
'Tanamee laughed. "My mother was a saint, but I appreciate the effort. Your crew tells me you are in charge?"
Jameson flushed bright red. "Yes, I think I am," she said.
The Bright Dawn Ends - Akbaralli Kapasi
Twelve Drummers Drumming
The three humans and two Elites stared at the rock glowing in the middle of Cru's breastplate.
Lia' turned to the shivering, semi-naked Elite and gracefully shrugged his shoulders. "I owe you an apology."
Cru' grunted, his wide chest wracked with a long, convulsive shiver.
"Like a bird . . . huge sternum . . ." Summers said, his head cocked to the side.
Hastings suppressed a groan. Pinching the bridge of his nose he glanced towards Shi'. "So," he said.
"Indeed," Lia' agreed. He crouched down, resting his palms on the shining black shin guards of his armour. "While this artefact exists we can have no peace." Something about this struck him as amusing, or at least, Hastings guessed it did. The Elite chortled to himself quietly.
"We get rid of it." Hastings turned to Mitch, gesturing sharply. "Take it up in to the mountains. Leave it somewhere - anywhere."
"Go with the human," Lia' added to his young counterpart.
Mitch stepped forward, crouching to reach for the rock. He picked up the wide breast plate, sneaking a look at Cru's seething face. "I'll, uh, try not to be long," he said, heading outwards. After a moment, he heard the crunching footsteps of Cru' following him.
"I really hope they don't kill each other," Hastings muttered.
Lia' inclined his head. "Cru' won't. He is angry with me, not the human." He turned away from the view and sat down, resting his back on one of the boulders. "I will act as your hostage," he said, closing his eyes and looking as though he intended to catch a few z's.
"If you don't mind me asking," Hastings blurted out, glancing nervously at the body of Shi', "Why?"
Without opening his eyes, Lia' replied, "He was my better. All my life, he was my trusted companion, my greatest friend. And this war killed him."
"I realise we were never exactly great buddies," Mitch panted as he struggled to keep up with Cru's great, big strides. "But you gotta forgive me sometime!"
Cru' did not reply, his huge, muscle bound shoulders hunching up.
"Oh come on!" Mitch exclaimed, slipping on the packed snow. "You could help me carry this thing!"
Again, no reply.
Pausing to catch his breath, Mitch stared at his surroundings. He was high in the valley's surrounding cliffs, still trailing Cru's shed armour behind him. The rock was beginning to melt through the metal, leaving an acrid taste to the air. He could see the camp below him and could make out blurred figures moving, but he had no idea who was who.
Seeing that Cru' had simply continued onwards, Mitch dropped the shell in disgust. "He was gonna kill my Sarge!"
"Your human trickery!" Cru' snarled, spinning around and covering the distance between them surprisingly quickly. "He was a good Sangheili! A good commander! He trusted me and - " the Elite faltered.
Mitch grimaced, glancing away from the creature's fearsome mouth. "You woulda done the same thing," he muttered.
"Yes but that does not make it right," Cru' muttered.
The loud hissing of a ship swooping over the canyon's walls made them both flinch. The Pelican arced over the sky, sinking down towards the human encampment.
"And now my death comes," Cru' muttered bitterly.
"I'll hide you," Mitch promised.
"For Lia' to die instead?" Cru' shook his head.
"Look!" Exasperated, Mitch hauled the breastplate around, tipping the rock out. Automatically, he and Cru' lunged to catch it, forgetting about its heat as both their hands clamped around it.
The rock flared with light, cooling instantly, feeling pleasantly warm in their grasp. It broke apart, showing a star field being disrupted occasionally by the blur of a falling snowflake.
"Whoah," Mitch said.
"Do not let go!" Cru' snapped.
"Hey relax!" Mitch grimaced, trying to keep his hold on the small surface. As they watched, the star field rearranged itself, showing seven rings, five of them glowing.
"The Sacred Rings," Cru's breathed.
"It's a map." Mitch ducked his head as the snow was whipped into a flurry. The movement broke his tenuous contact with the rock and it rejoined as before.
The Pelican hovered close by with Lia', Hastings and another Elite Mitch didn't recognise standing in the entrance way.
Hastings waved him over. "Come on, kids!" he shouted. "We're going on an exchange trip!"
"Sir?" Mitch asked, jumping over to the Pelican's deck, Cru' following behind. He glanced at the Elite, surprised to see breathless exhilaration on the his face. "Sir, we have something to tell you!" he shouted over the roar of the engines as they left Festival's atmosphere.
The Canyon Pick-Up - by Paul Davies
I've wanted to write an illustrated fic for years now and it always seemed like such a big project - collecting artists, coordinating them, even writing a suitable story. As a result, I never got round to it.
But in November I rounded up a bunch of my favourite artists, emailed them out of the blue, and asked if they'd like to illustrate something they'd never had a chance to read. At this point, the story was more a collection of wishes held together with a hope and a prayer.
All of the artists rose to the challenge and I can't thank them enough. Putting aside their own schedules they produced these fantastic illustrations out of their own pockets, all for the spirit of the festive season.
I couldn't choose a favourite, but there are certainly some which stood out for me. I wanted lots of different styles, and I love the fractured 'Bright Dawn explosion' by Akbaralli Kapasi. Dillo's drawings are lighter hearted and I think they really help move the story along, letting the reader imagine the growing friendships between the Elites and the humans. 'Shi Attacks' is one which took my breath away in my in-box. Oddly enough, 'Angel' came out of the blue, developing the pic with Shishka I realised she had a whole story that had to be told and she got her subplot. The slightly Celtic colouring style of Darkness Has Fallen put me in the mind of folk stories and was definitely needed to illustrate the 'Celebration of the Star'. I was determined to get Theo Prins on board because his stuff is always so detailed and professional, and I was flattered when Paul Davies leapt on board to help.
I could go on forever, but, thankfully, I'll leave it for now.
As always, thanks to the great Wu who puts up with me and my madcap schemes, I'm really glad I got the chance to do this.
Have a great holiday/religious festival/solstice (delete as applicable)
'Cold Outside' and 'Angel' - Chad Armstrong
'Burning Dawn', 'Seven Rings' and 'Stalemate' - Theo Prins
'Shi' Attacks' - The Frumper Hunter
'Animosity' and 'Captives' - Dillo
'Celebration of the Star' - Darkness Has Fallen
'The Bright Dawn Ends' - Akbaralli Kapasi
'The Canyon Pick Up' - Paul Davies