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Halo: Forerunner - Section 1 Ch 14-17
Posted By: Joshua M. Uda<imagine@uvtag.com>
Date: 12 September 2010, 4:48 am


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Section 1

Genesis





Chapter Fourteen

      Lithiel closed her eyes and lifted her head ever so slightly, like a ship leisurely raising its sails to catch the wind. She inhaled, and a gentle smile washed across the soft contours of her face as the earthy fragrance of wet sandstone flooded her senses. The sun lit warmly on her cheeks, and a cool desert breeze caressed her shoulders and sent shivers down her spine. The gust combed gently through her long luminous hair, lifting it upward like a silken banner waving peacefully against the blue sky.
      The wind rumbled with a sudden flurry that rushed across the desert lake and over the crest of the cliff where she sat precariously at the edge of the precipice. She leaned forward against the gale, and her slender arms wrapped around the delicate angles of one of her long legs. She pulled gently toward her chest and tucked her head behind the warmth of her knee until the gust had passed. A spray of fine mist settled across the nakedness of her smooth body, and the light bronzed tones of her skin glistened in the fading light as the sun descended toward the plateaus on the horizon.
      Lithiel loved the stillness and serenity of the desert, and she often retreated into the wilderness for days at a time to ponder, to meditate and reflect. She opened her eyes again and sighed as the blue sky surrendered to the fiery palette of sunset. Oranges and reds blazed across the soaring clouds and cast dark silhouettes against distant formations of spires and arches reaching upward from eroded sandstone like the ruins of ancient and sinister castles. The warm colors diffused brilliantly into the mirror surface of the lake and faded off into ocean blue and shades of light green as the sun dipped below the horizon and dusk settled across the desert.
      Lithiel sighed, lay back onto the warm sandstone, and placed her hands behind her head. She looked eagerly to the darkening night sky and watched in awe as the luminous glory of the Aelorian galaxy gradually pierced through the darkness and revealed the majesty of heaven in a breathtaking panoramic display. Brilliant stars and colorful sister moons drifted across the vista, and Lithiel felt for a moment as if she were weightless in the silence of space, moving gracefully through the galaxy with these heavenly bodies.
      Then as she lay there in her waking dream, bright white light began to converge from all directions to gather by her side. It grew brighter each moment and steadily took shape beside her. She exhaled in disappointment, and squinted in the brightness as she looked to the luminous figure, what appeared to be a being of light, a tall man clothed in white robes, young and handsome. He looked down at her, but took no notice of her perfect body, which glistened in the ambience of his light.
      "What is it, Gabriose?" She asked impatiently.
      The being flickered transparently for a moment and then began to speak.
      "Your presence has been requested on Siora, my lady," said the man in a smooth and proper voice.
      Lithiel closed her eyes and nodded. There would always be more time to enjoy moments like this, but she greatly disliked missing them all the same. She raised her head and began to sit up, but the man reached out his hand, and a blue field of light enveloped her. Her body drifted weightlessly into the air, and she gracefully righted herself to a standing position. The blue field faded as the man lowered his hand, and she settled gently to her feet.
      "Thank you, Gabriose," she said.
      She raised a delicate hand to her neck, and gave a gentle tap to a narrow white collar that she wore like a necklace. It immediately began to glow in harmony with similar bracelets and anklets near her hands and feet. A static crackling filled the air, and bright glints of light converged from all directions before gathering across her naked body, like condensation on cold glass. In a moment, the light faded and materialized into a thin white body suit that covered her modestly.
      "Now, what is the problem?"

****

      The flight back to the ground relay base was long and uneventful. Lithiel stared expressionless out at the passing landscape of white and red sandstone that shone eerily in the bright moonlight. Patches of green brush and shrub, rich with the sweet fragrance of dry pollen, accented the desert terrain and gave shelter to the small reptiles that scurried out into the cool night air to hunt for luminous insects.
      None of the night creatures seemed to notice the metallic alien craft that wisped silently overhead. From a distance, it looked like an elongated chariot without wheels. The carriage was open to the night air, but invisible force fields kept the wind from harming the passengers as they clipped along at speeds just nearing supersonic. The passenger carriage was towed along by a sleek pilotless construct that was harnessed by a bright yoke of pastel energy.
      Lithiel was glad there was no pilot; she didn't feel much like talking to anyone. Other than her personal AI assistant, Gabriose, there were no other sentient life forms on this world; she was still completely alone, for a time at least. She would keep it that way if she could, but her unique skills and prodigious talents had called her away once again. She always heeded the call of her people, and she always resented it.
      It was bad enough that they had interrupted her personal time in the wilderness, but she had been in an especially foul mood ever since Gabriose had mentioned the Executor, Lord Didact. The looming confrontation with Didact hung above her head like a boulder ready to drop. She didn't think she had the emotional strength to see him again so soon and under such formal circumstances.
      They had a long and thorny relationship that had never quite matured for either of them. He was a serious and professional man, with heavy responsibilities and weighty matters to attend to. She was a free spirit, who loved to go where fate took her and do whatever seemed most interesting at the moment. He was full of pride and power. She was apathetic and playful. Still, when they were together, they always kindled some type of untamable passion that at times had manifested as love, and at times had reared up as a flaming tempest of fury and contention… at least that's how she imagined it looking back.
      A sad frown emerged on Lithiel's full and pouting lips. She folded her arms across the edge of the carriage and rested the side of her head on her forearm. She lifted a single dainty pinky in front of her eyes and examined the intricate pattern engraved in her fingernail. She thought she might change it when she got back to her lab. She had reprogrammed her genes so that the intricate floral pattern of curling vines grew naturally in very difficult-to-manage lines of shiny silver.
      The decorative engraving at the tips of her fingers was only a small example of her unprecedented skill in manipulating the code of life. She wondered what it was they needed her to do this time, what schematics she would alter, or what poor threatening life form they planned to exterminate. The bright steeple of her base ship rose in the distance, and she sighed longingly. She would know soon enough.

****

      The long journey through unbound space gave Lithiel the time she needed to study and analyze the genome sent to her from Siora. Most other interstellar races had developed stasis technologies to enter some form of suspended animation during unbound space travel. Even at velocities far exceeding the speed of light, traversing the galaxy could take months or even years.
      For mortal beings, who savored and clung to every moment of their succinct lives, suspended animation was simply a way to get the most out of life before the end. Immortals, on the other hand, had no qualms about spending long periods of time engaged in seemingly meaningless and mundane activities.
      Without the fear of wasting their lives on endless journeys, the Forerunners had bravely undertaken interstellar travel millennia before they had achieved light speed. Early pioneer groups were in transit through normal space for 8000 years before reaching the first inhabitable world. Comparatively, even the most extended interstellar voyage through unbound space would seem quite brief.
      A year in transit could still become boring, but these extended periods of inactivity often provided the quiet moments of reflection and meditation that gave birth to profound insights and significant scientific breakthroughs.
      On this trip, however, there would be no breakthroughs, no landmark discoveries. That had taken place long before Lithiel had ever been summoned, and now it was her task to make sense of it and to cross check for errors in the original data.
      The interior of Lithiel's ship was a large, empty, cylindrical chamber that functioned much like the surface of Siora. At the moment, it was filled with the materialized manifestation of a marble pavilion surrounded by a small botanical garden in full bloom. Lithiel had always preferred classic and ancient architectural styles.
      Modern Forerunner designs were aesthetic in their own right, but they glorified power and technology. She simply felt a deeper connection to the handcrafted artistry of the Pre-Sioran Era that paid homage to nature and life. She always surrounded herself with the unique architecture of that period.
      Lithiel appreciated colossal, metallic and angular designs; they did strike her with a sense of awe and wonder, but there was something intimate about the ancient motifs of interlocking stone archways and marble pillars adorned with elaborate carvings of exotic creatures and flowering vines. It felt humble; it felt human; it felt right.
      The luminous holographic double-helix in front of her also felt strangely right. Yet that was precisely the problem. It was right, but it was wrong. It carried all of the unique and distinctive markers she would expect to find in any Forerunner genome, but this sample was different in one way. It was broken.
      Lithiel reached out and touched the hologram, and the double-helix began to untangle and divide. She reached up again, and the animation froze just as the division was completed. Her eyes narrowed and focused, carefully examining the event for the thousandth time. Then suddenly, they grew wide, and a half smile crept across her pretty face.
      "There you are…" she said slyly.
      Lithiel raised both hands and spread her fingers wide. Several helixes, frozen at similar points in the division process, materialized in the air in front of her. They drifted together until they formed a circle, which revolved slowly so that each image paraded before the geneticist one at a time. She examined and compared the progression of each generation warily, and her smile grew wider. She had it!
      Lithiel stood from the stone bench where she had been sitting beneath the pavilion. Her bare feet stepped lightly across the cold stone tablets, carrying her gracefully around the circle of holograms, which she continued to examine. A mental summons was picked from her mind, and Gabriose immediately appeared beside her in his bright angelic form.
      "Yes, my lady?" he said politely.
      She did not look away from the images as she answered.
      "Contact the research team on Siora," she ordered. "I have some questions for them." She looked to Gabriose. "Urgent questions," she added.
      Gabriose nodded, and his image faded away. Lithiel turned again to her helixes and rechecked the region of interest. She felt satisfied with her conclusion as she stared carefully at the arrangement of molecules… arrangement?
      The sly smile faded from her expression. Her mouth opened slightly, and she stepped closer to the images. Her head shook almost imperceptibly from side to side as a look of concern and confusion took form in her expression. How could she not have seen this before, but it must be a mistake. It had to be a mistake. She checked again and suddenly raised her hand to cover her mouth as if to keep the words from escaping.
      "Not Forerunner…?" she gasped.
      A flood of questions and fears filled her mind. What had they found? What had they done?




Chapter Fifteen

      "Was your visit pleasant, Commander?"
      Pirolith looked to the bright monitor as it hovered along at his side. He didn't know why, but for some reason he felt comfortable with this mechanical construct. He was a solitary person, but he almost enjoyed the monitor's company. It had accompanied him or remained nearby for a few weeks as Pirolith explored Siora for the first time. He assumed the AI construct was simply fulfilling its duty to look after the population of Siora. That would make sense considering the condition in which the construct had found him. Still, Pirolith felt there might be something else that had kept the monitor from returning to other duties since their first meeting.
      "Yes, 343," Pirolith replied. "It was cordial."
      343 bobbed up and down and his blue core grew brighter for a moment. Pirolith was still learning to read the construct's non-verbal expressions, but he was pretty sure it was pleased that the meeting had gone well. In truth, the meeting was cordial, as such visits always were with the High Council, but it was not pleasant, and it had not gone well. Pirolith stopped and turned to the monitor.
      "And, 343…" he addressed the monitor but waited.
      "Yes, Commander?" the construct inquired curiously.
      "You needn't call me Commander anymore."
The construct grew dim for a moment, and it hummed a note of understanding to itself.
      "You resigned your post," it stated candidly.
The statement wasn't so much insensitive as it was oblivious. The monitor was simply proud that it had solved the puzzle before being given the answer. Pirolith didn't take offense. He almost appreciated the construct's brashness. They were very much alike in that regard. Pirolith simply tightened the corners of his mouth and nodded slightly.
      "And what will you do now?" 343 asked.
      Pirolith looked down at the green grass. It seemed so inviting, like all the other natural elements that graced the core of Siora. He didn't want to think about what was next. He wanted to wander some more. He wanted to get away from the behemoth fleet ships and Forerunner dreadnaughts. He wanted to spend a few decades taking in the natural world, the mountains and valleys, the waterfalls, rivers, and oceans. He wanted to listen to the insects chirping at night and the birds singing in the morning. He felt a gentle pull in his heart toward all these things. They seemed right. They seemed good.
      That would all have to wait though. The former Fleet Commander had one more task to complete, and then he would be free. Pirolith looked up from the grass and carefully examined his metallic companion. He squinted, and his tightened lips pushed upward as his lower jaw extended. Then he began to nod slowly.
      "How important is your presence here, 343?" Pirolith suddenly blurted out.
      343 drew back and shook himself slightly.
      "Paramount! Of course!" he said proudly.
      The shocked response drew a half smile from Pirolith. For the first time, it seemed he may have managed to rile the construct. He was amused and somewhat pleased with himself in a mischievous way.
      "My function is allocated real-time priority tasking; furthermore," he continued, "all of my processes are given full affinity to…"
      "I see," Pirolith interrupted apathetically.
      The monitor grew brighter and began a slow orbit around Pirolith.
      "Why would you be interested in the importance of my presence," 343 puzzled out loud.
      "I thought you were a Genius?" Pirolith mocked.
      The construct stopped its orbit abruptly and turned to face Pirolith. A large grin filled the Ancient's face. He was really having fun now. The monitor said nothing though and returned to its flight pattern.
      "I want you to come with me," Pirolith stated as if making the decision as he spoke.
      343 stopped again.
      "Yes," he said.
      "Yes, you will come?" Pirolith asked.
      "Yes, I know what you want," the monitor clarified.
      Pirolith was about to be confused or frustrated when he realized what had just happened. He could almost see a smug grin painted across the blue orb. Yes, he thought. They were a good pair.

****

      Permirius had been surprisingly easy to persuade. His assertion that 343 could be easily replaced was good news, but it would have certainly agitated the self-important monitor. Pirolith had uncharacteristically decided to keep those words of reassurance to himself.




Chapter Sixteen

      Dark clouds of black and brown smoke churned violently overhead as the last three soldiers staggered up the embankment and joined the rest of their garrison. General Ornok stood quietly in the center of his control room and monitored the progress of their retreat on a panel of lurid monitors. His frame was twisted and frail, but a fearsome portrait of strength and grit was permanently chiseled into his gaunt and pallid features.
      Dozens of officers rushed frantically about the dark room, checking systems and coordinating tactical operations. The stale air was already uncomfortably hot, but the stench of their haggard bodies made it almost suffocating.
      The command room was buried deep within a mountainous plateau, safe from most weapons; and those that could penetrate the earthen fortress were currently held at bay by what remained of the Tureen Fleet. The General's forces had just survived another ground assault. It appeared to be a scout mission, just a small group of drones, but a significant threat for troops caught in the open. The next attack would likely be devastating.
      The remote base was a high-value military target and had remained undetected until now. The enemy had been focusing on large population centers. All reports indicated that a sustained ground assault was underway on every continent. Most would fall quickly, but the Tureen Nation was the most formidable power on the planet. They would hold, and they would make their stand here in the deep and narrow canyons of Kargot Ruehn.
      On the surface above, soldiers made final checks of automated defense systems and turrets before falling back into tunnels and bunkers. They were well trained, armed, and equipped, but they would only fight if their mechanized forces failed to secure the fortress. Large bunkers on the ridge of the rocky plateau bristled with energy weapons and sleek, black, missile pods. The weapons were silent for now, but in a moment they would be ablaze in a brilliant display of violence and chaos.
      Suddenly, a clap of deafening thunder shook the ground, sending shockwaves across the rocky terrain and knocking soldiers off their feet. Large boulders broke from ancient stone formations, tumbling wildly down the hillsides and splashing into the muddy rivers below. A roar of panicked voices and unintelligible shouts echoed across the deep canyons as all eyes looked with anticipation to the sky.
      Hundreds of compact, robotic, hunter drones jettisoned from launch bays set deep within the face of the towering cliffs, screaming into the air with a series of resonating thumps as they broke the sound barrier.
      "Report!" barked General Ornok.
      "Aerial contact, sir!" shouted one of the officers.
      "Fleet reports our airspace is still secure. All dreadnaughts are still being held outside of bombardment range. Two forward observation posts report a single carrier made a precision jump into sector 42."
      "Put it on screen!" ordered the General.
      The officer moved to another console and tapped the screen. The main display panel came to life as the outpost recording began to play. The image was clear and brilliant, showing a distant section of the canyon and a panoramic view of the sky above. Suddenly a flash of light filled the screen and the display went static. A moment later, the image resolved, and the faint outline of a diamond-shaped ship could be seen in the clouds.
      The ship's port section was sliding out of a bright portal, which quickly closed behind the vessel. Dual shockwaves rolled outward along the clouds above and the ground below. A wall of dust and debris advanced steadily toward the camera and crashed against the lens, darkening the screen.
      "Stop," said the General. "Go back 30 frames and replay at half speed."
      The officer tapped his console a few times, and the image reversed for a moment and then began to play in slow motion. The General watched intently as the recording replayed. The room fell silent.
      "Stop!" he ordered again. "Go back 10 frames and play at one-tenth speed."
      All eyes turned to the display panel. The recording played slowly and showed the ship in the sky and the wall of dust advancing along the ground. Then, just before the view went dark, a bright, amber light appeared on the horizon. The General looked to another screen where a stream of text was scrolling upward.
      "How many fighter drones did we launch?" he asked.
      "300," an officer responded sharply.
      "Did they engage the ship?"
      Officers looked to status screens, but no one answered. General Ornok put his hands on his hips, and scowled.
      "Where is the ship now?" he shouted.
      Finally, one of the officers looked up from his display with a stunned expression and began to answer.
      "Sir, sensors show the ship jumped again just after we lost visual tracking." The officer's voice broke as he continued. "Incoming combat logs from all Hunter flights record full payload deployment from all weapon systems…" he paused and reexamined the data. "Sir, the hunter squadrons didn't reach the insertion point until after the ship had jumped…"
      General Ornok cursed quietly and began to pace the room.
      "Ongoing transmissions?" he asked.
      The officer looked confused and nervous. He fumbled with his console.
      Ongoing transmissions!" Ornok repeated.
      "There must be something wrong…" the officer stammered. "I… it seems that… All of the feeds went dead, Sir. I'm reading 0 of 300… maybe the shockwave is interfering with transmission. I can reroute…"
      "That won't be necessary," Ornok interrupted. "Lock it down!" he shouted. "We have incoming ground forces."

****

      Reports were broken and sporadic, but General Ornok and his officers had determined the threat to be uncategorized and not previously encountered. Transmission fragments from foreign governments indicated that all weapon systems had proven ineffective, and their forces had been decimated. Ornok was not eager to encounter this vague new threat, but the mystery was compelling, and his officers continued to work tirelessly to gather more intelligence for him.
      For some unknown reason, the main operating base at Kargot Ruehn had not been attacked, and no contact had been reported since the disappearance of the hunter squadrons. The base was still in lockdown, and automated systems were fully operational and combat ready.
      "Sir!" one of the officers shouted as he jumped up from his station. "We just received a transmission from Norym!"
      Ornok turned from his display panel and tossed the map tablet he had been tinkering with onto a glossy black table near the wall.
      "Norym!" he balked. "What could possibly compel anyone from Norym to communicate with us?"
      The officer looked excited then concerned.
      "From what I can make out, their command structure is in complete disarray. Everyone is either scattered or dead," he explained.
      "The transmission came from a low-ranking officer in Titus. He is certain they are defeated, and we are the only other hope for a defense."
      Ornok smiled for the first time in days.
      "Well, he got that right. It's about time those animals recognized our superiority."
      The officer tried to be respectful and let General Ornok speak, but he seemed eager to finish explaining the situation.
      "Sir, yes indeed, but he sent us a recording. This might be our first glimpse of the threat."
      "What!"
      Ornok pounded his bony hand on the officer's station and began to shout. His voice was hoarse and raspy, but forceful all the same. "Why are you blabbering on about Norym's command structure, when you have information like that? Put it on screen!" he shouted.
      "Yes… of course, sir... I just…"
      "Now…" Ornok growled impatiently.
      All attention turned to the main display, as the officer hurried to unpack and load the recording. A moment later an image of the Norym capitol of Titus appeared on screen; the city was in ruins. The video was grainy and unclear, apparently taken from a soldier's personal recording device.
      "Do we have audio?" Ornok asked.
      "Just static, sir," the officer replied.
      Several Norymese commandos entered the field of view and maneuvered together through the rubble. The image shifted sporadically from left to right as the soldier wearing the recording device checked his flanks. Suddenly the view shifted upward. At first, it seemed to be night, but as the camera panned, the sky turned from black to brown and then to red where the faint light of the sun bled through the ash-filled atmosphere.
      Without warning, the view began to shift wildly. Every few seconds there was a glimpse of one or more commandos running, taking cover, and firing in all directions. The view settled behind a burned-out vehicle and then slowly began to peek out at the battle scene.
      Four commandos appeared in the distance, entering the view from the right side. Two stopped and took cover before providing suppressive fire for the others who advanced at a dead run. Then, in a blinding flash, a blazing stream of energy sliced through the air from a source off camera, up and to the left. The energy beam lanced across the face of one of the advancing soldiers, and he collapsed in a heap.
      The image shifted to the source of fire, but the view was blocked by the crumbling ruins of a building. Another blast of energy streaked across the screen from the same source, targeting the remaining soldier. He had taken cover behind another burned-out vehicle, but the energy beam quickly vaporized the metal hull and blasted through the commando's chest. He shuddered and slumped over dead.
      The image darkened as the observing soldier lowered himself to the ground and crawled under the vehicle, advancing slowly toward the firefight until taking cover behind a toppled, stone slab. Suppressive fire continued to trace across the screen from the commandos on the right, and the view re-centered on the first fallen soldier. The armor-clad commando had not been wearing a helmet, and burn marks laced his skull where his entire forehead and right eye had been blasted away.
      The view shifted again as the soldier seemed to move through the ruins to a flanking position. Lights continued to flash as fire was exchanged in both directions. Suddenly, a weapon was raised into view, and the soldier slowly strafed the edge of a wall until, at last, the hostile appeared around the corner.
      A small construct hovered in the air, dipping and rising to dodge incoming fire. A sphere of energy appeared around it each time a projectile impacted on its shields, which seemed to weaken with sustained fire. There was a bustle of confusion in the room.
      "What is this supposed to be?" the General hissed.
      "That's just the same drone we've been encountering this entire conflict!"
      "The message said there was a recording of the new threat attached," the officer began to explain. "Maybe it shows up later."
      They continued to watch as the flanking commando stealthily advanced on the distracted drone, waiting for a moment when its shields were weak. A sudden burst of suppressive fire dropped the shields, and the soldier fired. A bright, blue, laser beam shot from his weapon, and punched through the construct. It dropped altitude and began to spark. The screen flashed white as the drone exploded, and then everything went static.
      "That's it?" asked the General, frustrated.
The officer typed commands into his console and ran diagnostics on the file. Ornok began to laugh.
      "Well, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised the Norymese thought that scrap of metal was the terrible new threat."
      Others in the room began to laugh as well. They had destroyed hundreds of thousands of the small drones, and thousands of the larger, more formidable constructs that fired missiles and unleashed walls of plasma bolts. Even those behemoth combat drones with their shields and powerful arms capable of crushing armored vehicles, even those could be matched and defeated by the Tureen forces.
      Alone these constructs were manageable, but the enemy sent countless hordes. That was the problem. In the open, such swarms of constructs could easily be destroyed with nuclear weapons, but the enemy only sent them into heavily populated areas, where the level of collateral damage would simply defeat the purpose.
      "Well, I suppose they couldn't resist the opportunity to waste our time," grumbled Ornok. "Everyone back on task, and I don't want…"
      Curses and gasps filled the room as every screen suddenly went black. The officer who had been running diagnostics jumped up and cried out in horror.
      "What's going on?" General Ornok shouted in the darkness.
      "We're down!" screamed the officer.
      "What?"
      "We're down!" he shouted again in a panic. "All of our systems are offline!"
      The room was a flurry of motion and noise as officers scrambled in the dark. General Ornok cursed and shouted orders, but no one was paying attention. Someone touched him on the shoulder and he felt a combat helmet being placed in his hands. Ornok quickly put the helmet on and activated the night vision. He shoved past the armed guard who had been posted at the entrance, and then stepped deliberately through the crowd and grabbed the panicked officer by the throat.
      He pulled the startled officer in close and growled, "What did you do?"
      "General? Sir! I… I…"
      Ornok shook the officer violently. "Speak up!" he shouted.
      The officer struggled to compose himself. He was perhaps the only person in the room who truly understood the magnitude of what was happening. He tried to hold back the vomit as it erupted from his mouth, but all he managed to do was send it down his chest and keep it off the General.
      "We're going to die!" he sobbed. "It's over!"
A stream of curses poured out of Ornok's mouth as he pushed the hysterical officer away and decided to shift tactics. He crouched down in front of the officer and tried to speak calmly.
      "Listen, Officer… what's your name?"
      The officer looked to the sound of the General's voice and managed a reply.
      "Kartun."
      "Kartun… listen Officer Kartun," Ornok continued, "I don't like this any more than you do, but I am determined to keep you and every other Tureen alive. I need you right now to help me do that. Whatever you know, you need to tell me now so I can take the next step."
      The officer nodded, and the shock seemed to be wearing off.
      "I tried to stop it," he said, "but it was too fast, before I could do anything…"
      "Hold on," Ornok interrupted in the best kind and understanding voice he could fake. "You tried to stop what?"
      The officer paused to organize his thinking and began to explain as clearly as he could.
      "The file," he said, "I thought there might be something more in the recording, something we missed, so I ran a diagnostic, and I found a hidden packet."
      Ornok began to realize what was going on, but he managed to quell his anger until he had gotten everything he could out of Kartun.
      "What did you do with the packet, Officer Kartun?" Ornok probed.
      Kartun grimaced and shook his head as he began to cry.
      "I don't know what I was thinking, Sir…. I'm sorry… We were all so interested in identifying the threat… I… I had to see what it was… I thought it was encrypted… for security! It took over everything! It was too fast! How was I supposed to know they could…"
      "You're telling me the Norymese did this to us!" Ornok shouted in a rage. "They sent us a VIRUS…! When the entire planet is in peril…! They still manage to get in one last petty kick!"
      Officer Kartun broke protocol and grabbed the General violently by the arms.
      "NO!" he screamed hysterically. "NOT THE NORYMESE! DON'T YOU SEE? IT WAS FROM THEM! THEY SHUT US DOWN, AND NOW THEY'RE COMING FOR US, AND WE'RE ALL GOING TO…"




Chapter Seventeen

      "That's it, Occultus. Well done. Bring it back online."
      The Combat AI received the mental order and quickly transmitted instructions to its resident fragment. Screens and monitors blinked back to life and illuminated the room full of dismembered corpses. The air near the main display panel shimmered for a moment as Gracos moved silently through the gore, thoroughly checking each of his hapless victims. All threats were neutralized. His cloaking shields powered down, revealing the sleek, white outline of a menacing battle suit.
      The Class 12 combat skin was a marvel of technology and engineering. It was also an ancient relic. Like knights' armor, its time had passed, and only a few elite remnants of the Forerunner Cherubic Forces still maintained the powerful, personal weapons platform; and of the few who maintained their armor, Gracos was the only Cherub who still used his and personally engaged in combat.
      The system was powerful enough that it could have defeated the bunker fortifications and automated defense systems above, but not without sustaining unnecessary damage. Besides his plasma sword, Gracos had only deployed other weapons twice. Once to vaporize the thick, hardened alloy doors that secured the fortress entrance, and once to neutralize the attacking hunter drones. For all of the weapons built into the combat suit, its true strengths were speed and stealth.
      Fundamental particle arrays bent all spectrums of light around the suit, shielding it from radiation and rendering it invisible to every type of alien or mechanical eye; and a network of integrated force fields manipulated surrounding air and neutralized all sound waves originating from the suit. No matter how forcefully the hardened armor impacted with another object, it would never emit even the slightest sound.
      Force field generators also bound each joint and could generate almost infinite force multiplication. The built-in Combat AI coordinated activation of each force servo with the wearer's naturally occurring brainwaves for motor control. This system gave the wearer enhancements in speed and strength that were thousands of times greater than augmentations provided by mechanized variants.
      The only real limitations on performance were determined by the laws of physics and the abilities and conditioning of the wearer. Ages ago, elite Forerunner warriors had trained for centuries before gaining even slight proficiency with the Class 12 system. Those who eventually mastered the armor, however, became the fiercest and most lethal force in the galaxy.
      The Cherubic Force had quietly faded into history as Forerunners made improvements in mechanized combat units and gave preference to losing constructs in battle over risking the lives of immortals. Gracos, however, was a warrior at heart, and he always would be. So it was that on rare occasions, those few unfortunate worlds that resisted his battle group were given a terrible demonstration of the greatest military achievement of the Forerunner Race.
      "Lord Gracos, the Dreadnaughts are prepared now to neutralize the Tureen fleet."
      The voice in Gracos' head was transmitted from Shipmaster Sufis aboard the Destroyer Alorus Maxim. The Tureens might have believed they were holding off Forerunner plasma bombardment, but protocol did not permit bombardment of the planet, not when strategic ground suppression was possible. No, the Forerunners were holding back at Gracos' order. He knew if he destroyed their space fleet, they would likely resort to nuclear weapons and destroy their own planet. His objective was not to purge the planet of alien life, but of all military capability.
      The command and control center was now neutralized, and nuclear weapons were under Occultus' control. Gracos surveyed the room one last time and sent his mental order to proceed.

****

      Sufis sneered and shifted uneasily in his chair as he waited for Lord Gracos to respond. His patience had been tried enough, and he was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to unleash the full force of the Alorus Maxim on the impertinent Tureen forces.
      He had mustered every last measure of self-control in order to exercise restraint during this operation. For days, the Tureens had brazenly fired salvos of missiles and volleys of laser fire at Forerunner ships. All of the munitions, of course, had no effect on Forerunner energy shields, but Sufis felt his pride sustain more damage with every impact.
      What annoyed him most was that the Tureen Admiral actually thought he was holding the Forerunners back. He was irritated that such an insignificant and inferior creature was allowed to believe he had bested the accomplished Forerunner Shipmaster. That was too much to bear, but now that would all come to an end. Now Sufis could finally put that insolent Tureen in his place, a grave, just as soon as Gracos finished his ridiculous war games and responded.
      Sufis tapped his fingers on the armrest of his chair and took a deep breath through his flared nostrils. If he had his way, they would have glassed all of the major cities immediately after the first signs of resistance. He hated protocol and felt that Lord Gracos took too many precautions to avoid undue collateral damage.
      He didn't see what difference it made anyway. As long as they indexed a species, why did it matter how many others died? The population could always be replenished, and at least a restored population could be shaped and molded from the start. His view was not an anomaly either, especially amongst conscripts and younger Forerunners, but the Ancients had their way on everything. Their will was all that mattered. That was the order of things, for now.
      "What is going on down there?" he hissed.
      A hollow voice resounded in his head as the ship's relay received a transmission from the surface and activated the hearing center in his brain.
      "My infiltrator fragment has just been packaged with a captured transmission from local Norymese forces, and the Tureens should be receiving it now."
      Sufis almost doubled over, and his head turned abruptly to one side. His cheeks rose tightly against the sides of his furious eyes, and his entire mouth clamped shut around his upper teeth as he held back his first instinctive response. A moment later, the redness faded from his face. He sat upright and took a deep breath before speaking in an unsteadily calm voice.
      "Occultus, why am I speaking to you and not Lord Gracos?"
      "Lord Gracos is engaged in combat, Shipmaster," Occultus replied blankly. "He was assaulted by 300 automated aerial combat drones 240 seconds after insertion, and there are currently 114 drones remaining, of which 86 are at least 90 percent combat…" Occultus paused. "All remaining drones have been neutralized," he finished.
      Sufis rolled his eyes and slumped back into his chair.
      "Good. Now will you please sync me with Lord Gracos?"
      "I'm afraid that is not possible," Occultus responded.
      "What's wrong?" Sufis demanded, concerned, "was he injured?"
      "Lord Gracos is uninjured, and his combat system sustained no damage. He instructed me to manage all communications until he has successfully infiltrated the Tureen command center."
      Sufis said nothing, but stared blankly off into space, wishing he were elsewhere or at least had his own command.
      "What is your concern, Shipmaster," Occultus probed.
      Sufis continued to sit motionless in a semi-comatose state. He was beginning to feel very dark and depressed. First he had to put up with three weeks of pestilent Tureen harassment, and now he was reduced to conversing with a Battle Suit AI. He nodded slowly, acknowledging his agreement with his own conclusion that the situation was outrageous.
      "How old are you, Occultus?" Sufis asked rudely.
      "I do not see the relevance of your question, shipmaster." Occultus replied.
      "Well…" Sufis began, with disdain dripping from every word, "allow me to elucidate… You are a relic of the Pre-Sioran Era. That means, at the very least, 5.7 million years have passed since you came online."
      "Yes, to be precise it has been…"
      "DON'T interrupt me, Construct!" Sufis shouted, looking around the command deck as if trying to find the source of the voice in his head. "We don't need you anymore! We don't need Cherubim, and we don't need Lord Gracos running around a fledgling planet trying to hold stubbornly to an antiquated protocol that has outlived its RELEVENCE!"
      "Shall I convey that message to…"
      "OCCULTUS!"
      Sufis clenched his fist and ground his teeth together.
      "I am talking to YOU!" he grumbled angrily. "You are the problem here! You are the excess in this operation! We don't need your shadows sneaking around in the Tureen network because I can blast the entire control center from orbit! I can disable the base defenses… with PLASMA!"
      "The defenses are disabled, Shipmaster," Occultus interrupted calmly.
      Sufis stood from his chair and looked with wild eyes to the holographic display of the Tureen fleet. He completely forgot about his tirade as he stepped closer to the bright image, reaching longingly toward the largest command ship.
      "Occultus…" he summoned with excitement.
      "Notify Lord Gracos the moment he penetrates the command center that our Dreadnaughts are prepared to neutralize the Tureen Fleet!"
      "Yes, Shipmaster."

****

      Crystalline beads of sweat drifted aimlessly around the control pod, colliding occasionally like asteroids in a debris field and bonding amorphously with each other before stabilizing into larger spheres. The sight was unusual for Admiral Perok. He had often seen the pods and passageways of his ships filled with similar fields of blood, weightless orbs bubbling into the compressed atmosphere from the bodies and limbs of wounded soldiers, but he had never seen this.
      No battle had ever dragged on for this long, not with the Norymese, not with the Kalgorons. No, those battles and skirmishes were quick and violent. This was worse. This enemy was different. This enemy was stronger and more sophisticated, and this conflict had ground to a standstill.
      Perok's officers were veteran warriors. They were used to rapid deployment and decisive action. That is what they had trained for. Under those conditions they could operate seamlessly with cool heads and ruthless efficiency, but the suspended matrix of perspiration was a clear sign of their fear and anxiety in this unfamiliar and unpredictable situation.
      Perok cast his watchful eyes around the cramped, cylindrical chamber. Twenty seven officers were fastened securely in their battle stations. Each was absorbed in the flood of information that scrolled across their screens.
      At every station, fingers tapped furiously on illuminated consoles like rain on a window, sending a steady drum-roll of muffled pattering to join a chorus of heavy breathing and quiet grumbling. Some officers checked systems or relayed commands; others worked complicated calculations and plotted ship or weapon trajectories. All of them were afraid, and all of them would fight to the end. But whose end would it be?
      That was the question Perok could not answer. For the first time in his 32-year career, victory was not guaranteed. The outcome was uncertain. No matter how strategically brilliant or tactically precise his past enemies had been, they could never overcome the technological, military superiority of the Tureens. Perok only hoped that he could succeed now where his fallen foes had failed because now, the Forerunners stood dauntless in the lofty position that his proud and mighty nation had once held as their own. They seemed superior… in every way.
      For three weeks, the Admiral had thrown everything he had at them; every known weapon system had been deployed, developed or experimental. General Ornok had nearly court-martialed him when he reported the ineffectiveness of their nuclear torpedoes, even accused him of being in league with the enemy and submitting false reports to command. Perok would have been more offended, but he hardly believed it himself.
      Nuclear weapons, high explosives, chemical and biological bombs, dry-state energy weapons, plasma cannons, magnetically accelerated projectiles, electro-magnetic pulses, everything had been tried. Nothing had worked. At least nothing seemed to cause any detectable damage to the enemy fleet, but for some reason, the enemy had withdrawn slightly after the first nuclear strike. And so the Admiral took what he could get. He worked with what he had.
      Each day he tried new combinations: nuclear combined with lasers, nuclear followed by M.A.P. volleys, plasma followed by nuclear. He hoped eventually he might find the combination that would weaken their shields enough to deliver a deadly blow. That was his hope, and so far it seemed vain.
      Still, if he could at least keep them far enough away from his home world to prevent plasma bombardment, then that was victory enough for now. If he could just buy General Ornok enough time to halt and turn back the ground assault, then maybe they could stop and regroup long enough to devise a way to defeat the Forerunners.
      "Admiral," said a tired and haggard officer from the far end of the command pod.
      Admiral Perok pulled his focus from the drifting field of perspiration and his attention from his own drifting thoughts. He looked to the far end of the pod and made out the face of Captain Marikos. The white walls of the chamber were normally well-lit, but the pod was full of dim colors and shadows now, lit only by the eerie glow from scattered control panels.
      All unnecessary power consumption had been eliminated to accelerate the recharge cycle of the ship's energy weapons. Besides that, too much brightness could be just as draining on the body as too much darkness. Most of them hadn't slept for three days. At least the shadows gave them all a sense that rest was near, and it was.
      "Report," Perok responded dryly.
      "We have the next solution plotted, and all weapons have been recharged," Captain Marikos continued. "We are ready to launch at your command, Sir."
      Admiral Perok closed his eyes and frowned.
      "What do you have this time, Captain," he asked apathetically.
      Marikos could sense the hopelessness as well, but was actually quite optimistic about this next solution.
      "Sir, we will be attempting to utilize systems from the Peritol section."
      In his fatigue, Perok almost missed the remark and was about to nod his approval when he realized what section Marikos was referring to. He opened one eye and blinked for a moment as he rechecked his own recollection to be sure.
      "Captain, did you just say the Peritol section?" he asked, more interested than before.
      "That is correct, sir." Marikos responded politely.
      Perok opened his other eye and leaned away from his seat into his restraining harness.
      "Captain Marikos," he began slowly, "I know we are all tired, so perhaps you are confused, or perhaps I am confused, which I admit is a possibility at this point. To my best recollection, however, the Peritol section is a civilian pod…" Perok paused and waited for Marikos to correct himself.
      "Yes, Admiral," Marikos affirmed quite confidently, "to be precise it is a science pod. The Peritol section was commissioned for scientific research in zero gravity environments."
      Perok blinked both eyes and swallowed the dryness in his throat. He knew this one would be good.
      "Just lay it out for me, captain…" he sighed.
      "Yes sir, of course," Marikos continued, "three months ago the Peritol section was outfitted with a particle accelerator… an atom smasher."
      "I know what it is, Captain," Perok interrupted, "it shoots dust… in a circle… at itself…"
      Perok lowered his head and looked out at Marikos from beneath his thick raised brow. Marikos took a deep breath.
      "Yes, sir… but engineers have been working on it since our last volley. The last team has just been retrieved from space walk. We believe with modifications, we can fire an atom at one of the Forerunner ships."
      Perok remained mostly expressionless except for a faint sneer, and his gaze wandered back to the matrix of drifting beads. He reached up and began to scratch the stubble that was growing along his jaw.
      Marikos shifted nervously in his restraints. He knew it sounded ridiculous, shooting a single atom at an alien dreadnaught, but what else hadn't they tried? The particle collider had produced all kinds of cryptic subatomic particles in experiments. No one knew enough about those particles to rule out the possibility that one of them might in some way degrade the Forerunner shields.
      Perok finally finished his musings, and looked back to Marikos.
      "Make sure it's ready," he said quietly, "and prep all weapon systems. If this works, I want to be ready to fire everything we've got while the window is open."
      The Admiral began to release his restraints.
      "Stay on com," he ordered, "and standby."
      Everyone was surprised, but no one said anything as Admiral Perok unsecured his restraints and pushed off from his chair toward the exit hatch. Wherever he was going, he had his reasons, and they were his reasons.
      Captain Marikos looked back to his team and gave them a nod. They all set to work making final preparations for the attack, all except Marikos. He tried to stretch in his station and looked deep into his imagination to see what other crazy schemes he could dream up.
      He knew just as much as the Admiral that this one wouldn't work; sure there was an outrageously slight chance, but he didn't have the luxury of relying on a last hope. He had to find another last hope for tomorrow, and the day after, and for as long as his fellow Tureens needed something, anything to keep their hopes alive… for one more day.

****

      Admiral Perok nodded politely to the command pod guards as he pulled his weightless body through the last containment hatch and into the transition chamber. There was a dull, metallic thud and then a static hissing as the hatch sealed behind him. He took a deep breath and pushed off gently toward the center of the chamber so he could stretch his limbs for a moment. He twisted and gyrated gracefully in the air, making sure he moved every muscle group at least a few times. He had survived every other hazard his occupation could throw at him; he wasn't about to die now from a blood clot in the brain.
      After a thorough round of calisthenics, Perok finally reached out to a handhold and stopped his residual rotation. He gently massaged a cramp in his arm, and then turned to the guards.
      "All right, begin transition… once I'm clear, lock it down," he ordered.
      The guards looked confused but responded soberly and began the transition. All three occupants of the transition chamber readjusted their orientation, maneuvering until their heads were situated toward the command hatch on the inner wall. Once in position, each of the guards placed one hand on illuminated panels on opposite ends of the chamber. The panels flashed brightly, and a low humming filled the air.
      The deep base tone resonated off every surface and grew louder and higher in pitch. Perok's arm stiffened against his handhold as his momentum resisted the sudden acceleration. The guards drifted with the admiral away from the hatch until their feet settled against the outer wall of the chamber.
      Perok swallowed hard and braced his frame, waiting to be engulfed in centripetal force. He felt a sudden disorientation and vertigo as the blood rushed from his head, but he continued to tense his entire body, and a moment later, his heart rate spiked enough to keep him from losing consciousness.
      The outer wall was now the ground, and it pressed uncomfortably against Perok's feet. He shifted his weight until his bones adjusted, and he looked to the guards. One of them was busily monitoring a display panel. The other glanced quickly to the same display and reported sharply.
      "We have synchronized velocity now, sir. Standby to dock…" he said, "docking now…"
      The humming faded and was suddenly drowned out by a thunderous clap. Both guards flinched at the sound, but the Admiral remained still. Another clap echoed through the chamber and the metal walls of the pod groaned loudly. The crisp smell of ozone filled the air as the remaining static electricity discharged from the rotating outer ring of the ship to the docking transition pod.
      A slight smile crept onto Perok's haggard face. He had been buried deep in the center of his ship for three weeks. Being cramped in the heavily armored command pod without any artificial gravity was bad enough, but being deprived of any external viewports was too much to bear.
      Perok was not claustrophobic, and as much as he loved to gaze upon the majestic starscape of the Aelorian Galaxy, he could even live without that. He could endure almost anything, but not uncertainty… not when all he loved was in peril. He had to look one more time upon his home world, to know that it was still there, to remember what he was fighting for… and… if by some provident chance he happened to witness with his own eyes the destruction of a Forerunner ship… then that would be good too.
      "Docking is complete, Sir."
      The chamber filled again with static hissing and a metallic clang as the outer hatch opened into the rotating ring of the Tureen carrier. Admiral Perok wasted no time lowering himself through the floor and into the narrow ladder shoot. His arms were weak with atrophy, and the artificial centripetal gravity grew stronger with every rung, but he soldiered on until he reached the bottom. At last, he descended into the relatively spacious halls of the outer ring.
      Perok looked eagerly to the nearest observation bay. The normally bright, white walls were masked in shadow like the command pod, but the stars were just as brilliant as they cast their lurid light through the thick, polymer viewport. The Admiral was breathing heavily from exertion and exhilaration. He stepped wearily up to the port and leaned against the window, resting his face against its cold, hard surface.
      The stars flew by as the ring turned silently in space. Perok reached up to wipe away the fog that was building up from his labored breathing. He stood up straight and steadied himself.
      "Just a moment now… almost," he whispered to himself.
      Then, his heart filled with indescribable warmth and joy. His tired lips began to tremble, and warm tears broke from his eyes, washing gently down the wrinkles of his face. The deep blue ocean never looked so beautiful, and the green forests so alive. Alseron was still theirs, still free, and he would do anything to ensure it always would be… anything.
      Perok's vision blurred, and he closed his eyes tightly to blink away his tears. He opened them again, and surveyed the vast surface of Alseron, tracing every landmark across wide deserts and snowcapped mountain ranges… and then the blackness of ruined cities, still glowing like embers beneath the ash. His tearful gaze washed over with hatred and resolve, shifting slowly to the horizon, and then to the stars.
      He knew just where to look from weeks of tracking and mapping. It was still there, a dark outline in the distance, the destroyer Alorus Maxim and two dreadnaughts in its shadows, dwarfed by the larger destroyer. Somewhere in their wake were dozens of battle cruisers, each one ten times larger than Perok's Tureen capitol ship, but as large as they were, they were too distant to see.
      Perok could see them all in his mind. He could feel their presence, like wolves in the shadows, waiting… waiting… but unaware. There were no sick and elderly on this world. There were no weak! There was no prey… only predators! Admiral Perok clenched his teeth and cued his com.
      "At the ready, Captain Marikos!" he growled.
      "On your mark, Admiral!"
      Perok's eyes narrowed with unbending resolve. He was the predator here… and he would kill them all.
      "Mark!"

****

      "We are entering bound space now," reported 343 cheerfully.
      Ambient light seemed to rush from the command deck and vanish through the view port into the blackness of normal space.
      Pirolith's hands dropped from his hips. His face paled with astonishment, then horror as he staggered back from the view port, staring with disbelief at the drifting ruins of the Alorus Maxim.




Chapter Eighteen

Coming Soon...





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