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Halo: Forerunner - Section 1 Ch 18-19
Posted By: Joshua M. Uda<imagine@uvtag.com>
Date: 24 September 2010, 1:56 am

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Chapter Eighteen

      Didact took a deep breath and let it out slowly through his dry lips. He closed his eyes and listened to the quiet sound of air rushing from his chest. It was relaxing in a way, like the hushed whisper of wind in the trees. He only wished the anxiety in his heart could be so easily exhaled. His hands were sweaty but cold as ice. In fact, his whole body felt chilled, and his bones seemed to tremble whenever he moved a muscle. It wasn't a good feeling. It wasn't a good day.
      Didact had endured enough bad days in his long life to temper most of his emotions. They had little sway on his soul, which was normally as still and peaceful as a mountain lake, even under the most trying circumstances. But love… love was not just an emotion. Love gave birth to emotion. Love was the power that sparked prime creation. Love rent the divine totality, destroyed peace, and introduced entropy to the universe.
      In all that the Forerunners had learned, their greatest discovery was the true nature of love, and even though they had harnessed and channeled that fundamental force to create matter from awareness and to break free from the bounds of sequentially synchronized space, they were still wise enough to acknowledge the truth. Love could never be tamed, not even by immortals.
       "Lord Didact, The Vultus has just exited unbound space and has achieved low Siora orbit."
      Didact stopped his nervous pacing and reached up to run his tensed fingers through his hair. His long brown locks felt unusually course on his palm. His fingers spread out and pressed tightly against his head, sending a wave of released tension from his scalp as individual hairs pulled gently against their roots. He closed his eyes and shuddered, squeezing the back of his neck to free as much anxiety as he could.
       "Everything will be just fine."
      Didact smiled, embarrassed but grateful for the empathetic assurance.
       "Thank you, Permirius," he said, "I'm sure you're right."
       "I am optimistic, Lord Didact," the AI responded.
      Didact huffed a single laugh, and the smile faded from his face, replaced again by apprehension and insecurity. Permirius was being optimistic, and kind. It had only taken him a moment to calculate and note the statistical improbability of a pleasant outcome given the psychological profiles and interpersonal history of the subjects, but there was nothing wrong with being optimistic… and kind.
       "The Librarian has requested you meet aboard The Vultus before proceeding. Shall I transport you now?" inquired Permirius politely.
      Didact sighed loudly. He couldn't avoid this any longer. It would soon pass.
       "Yes, Permirius," he relented, "I'll board now."
       "Everything will be just fine," Permirius assured again.
      Didact faked a slight smile, and then he vanished into the amber light.


       "Who is responsible for this, Didact?! Forget that this is a serious breach of protocol… it's… wrong! It's tragic! Why?! Why would anyone do this?"
      Didact felt his heart swell as she spoke his name. He couldn't mask the longing and pain in his eyes. Fortunately, the expression looked appropriately similar to sincere concern and sympathy. That's how Lithiel took it anyway, which seemed to diffuse her wrath… somewhat. In truth, however, Didact hadn't been able to process a single word she had spoken… or yelled… since he first laid eyes on her.
      He had been speechless from the moment the amber light faded, revealing a goddess of beauty standing before him with her slender arms folded angrily and her soft lips pursed tightly in contempt. It was a breathtaking and terrifying sight, and he was paralyzed.
      Lithiel stopped her interrogation for a moment, sensing his distraction. The indignation in her face gave way to a softer look of pity. It was like sunrise after a long night.
       "Didact…" she whispered softly.
      Her alluring voice tugged gently at his heart and pulled his wandering mind into focus. He began to breathe and blink again; suddenly realizing that he had ceased even basic functions in his mystified state… and he was mystified… because Lithiel was nothing if not a mystery – one moment an enraged goddess, the next a tender princess.
      Now he remembered why things had never been easy for them. He saw himself as a stone in a meadow, content to be alone in an open space, quiet and undisturbed, observing peacefully as the world turned around him. Even though his position was great, it didn't change his nature. As Executor, he was not one to throw his weight around. Perhaps in that role, he felt more like a mountain than a stone; but a mountain, while majestic and dignified, was still quiet and peaceful, still firm and immovable.
      Lithiel, on the other hand, was like water… falling gently from the sky, playfully making her way down the mountain, then gathering suddenly into rivers of raging foam and dancing beads, rumbling with temerity through rock and crevice, over mogul and fall before settling again into languid streams and stagnant swamps. But that was not enough; those types of transitions would be normal for most, for the young anyway. Lithiel, however, could never find equilibrium; she couldn't sit and stagnate.
      No, she would soon get all worked up until she was off to the sky, soaring like the clouds, amorphous and free, then billowing into a black tempest, flashing violently with thunderous lightning until she had beaten down enough upon the mountains, enough to erode away the parts she disliked… and then she would once again make her way playfully down to the rivers and streams... over and over again… forever.
      Yes, Lithiel was like water. None could live without her, yet no hand could hold her. She was always changing, always adapting. She was beautiful and dangerous, gentle and powerful. Eventually she would erode the mountain. Eventfully it would fade away, but she would remain. She was eternal.
       "Didact…" she whispered again.
      Now he looked into her deep eyes, and she knew he was listening. She wanted to say something more. She wanted to talk about their feelings; but this was an official meeting, and the matter was far too important to be delayed by personal distractions.
       "Who did this?" she asked again.
      Didact didn't feel he could properly explain the situation. He looked down at the green moss that grew between the stone tiles under Lithiel's manifest garden pavilion.
       "It would be easier if I showed you," he said timidly.
      Lithiel frowned.
       "I've already seen him, Didact," she said impatiently.
      She sent a mental order, and a hologram of the double-helix appeared between them. She pointed to one of the sections.
       "Handsome, isn't he?" she teased, "strong angular jaw, blue eyes, dark hair, medium build, naturally toned…"
      She paused, realizing her insensitivity a little too late. Didact was not amused, and it showed in his expression.
       "I'm sorry," she said sincerely.
      Didact turned away embarrassed.
       "You sent me everything I needed to see," she said nodding to the hologram.
       "I've seen him here. I know what he looks like. I know his base personality. I know he is extremely intelligent… and adaptable… and aggressive…"
      Didact looked up. He was impressed, but not surprised.
       "What I don't know," she continued, "is why he was made…" she paused and her voice broke. "And… I don't know why anyone would do this."
      She reached out to the double-helix, and it began to divide. As each helix reformed into a duplicate strand, the end region began to blink red for emphasis. The helixes continued to divide and replicate more rapidly, and the end region was highlighted on each new generation.
      Didact didn't know as much about genetics as Lithiel, but he knew enough to understand what she was pointing out. This was a region that all Forerunners were familiar with, Telos Meros. It was a shield against corruption, but the telomeres in the hologram were degrading with each generation. While this did not affect the functional code for the life form, it was the distinguishing feature common to all mortal species, to all species except the Forerunners.
      At last, he understood why she was so upset. This had nothing to do with the xenocide. He began to laugh, unwittingly. A quick and cutting glare set him in a scramble to explain.
       "Lithiel, this is not… what you think it is," he said in a calming tone.
       "Then what is it?" she demanded.
       "He is not a synthesized emulation! You know no one would do that! Even if…"
       "You do not know what I know," she interrupted, speaking each word slowly and with as much emphasis as possible.
      Why would we make a Forerunner mortal?!" he asked rhetorically.
       "I don't know, but that is what you've done!" she shot back, "because the alternative is not…" she stopped abruptly as she analyzed Didact's expression.
      Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open ever so slightly.
       "You need to come and see him, Lithiel," he said quietly. "It would be easier if I showed you… everything."


      Darkness withdrew warily, retreating into the shadows of his dreams. Slowly, he felt life creeping back into his veins, pulsing through his soul, and a silent whisper descended like morning dew, settling gently in his mind.

       "Now in the fading twilight… you are the last… I am sorry… You are the end… and the beginning… I will bring you out of darkness into light. I will form you again from the mist and raise you from the dead. I will make you a monument to all our sins. Altus…"


      Altus shuddered as he drew his first breath. His eyes strained to lift the heavy darkness that engulfed him, slowly pulling back the veil to reveal a strange world of indistinct shapes and colors. He tried to remember something, anything. Not what had happened or where he was, but who he was, what he was. Even those simple thoughts evaded the grasp of his impaired cognition. Nothing seemed right.
      He exhaled slowly and felt a chill race up his back, along his neck, and behind his ears. He closed his eyes as the sensation dissipated from the top of his head. He blinked, and at last, remembered something. He remembered that he had a body, though he couldn't visualize what form it was in. He felt like his whole being was centered in one place just behind his eyes; yet as he searched his senses, he could feel the constant pressure of a hard surface pushing firmly against him from behind.
      He concentrated for a moment and then began to move two fingers on his right hand. He could feel his heart beat faster, and the disorienting haze began to clear from his mind. He extended and contracted his index finger again, touching it delicately to his thumb, savoring the sensation. He then proceeded systematically to the next finger, and the next, and then the last. That felt good. That felt right. He tightened his fist, but a sharp pain lanced through his arm and pierced his shoulder. He was startled by the sound of his own voice crying out in agony.
      Now he began to question at a higher cognitive level.
       "What happened to me?" he thought. "Where am I?"

Chapter Nineteen

      Pirolith clenched his teeth and pressed his lips together tightly in a snarled frown. He was growing more agitated by the minute, mostly because of the outrageously unprecedented and anomalous situation he had stumbled into, which lacked any known protocol and was seemingly fraught with unacceptably high levels of personal risk and peril. Despite these stressors, however, Pirolith's most immediate annoyance was 343's incessant humming.
      The luminous construct had been bobbing along behind him as he cautiously searched the dark and deserted hallways of the Alorus Maxim for any surviving crew members. So far, they had not found anyone, dead or alive; but they had only boarded the massive destroyer a few hours ago, and exploring the immense interior of a Titan-Class vessel could take years.
      Pirolith only planned to complete a cursory survey. He had not been able to establish remote communications with the Shipmaster, Sufis; but despite the obvious concern that some harm may have come to the Alorus Maxim's officers, Pirolith was experienced enough to avoid the command deck or any other strategically important areas of the ship, at least until he had identified and assessed all threats. If an enemy was present, he did not intend to make overt contact.
      Maneuvering stealthily though the ghost ship, however, was an unnerving experience. Encased securely in a heavily-armed, Class-6 combat skin, Pirolith would not normally experience any degree of fear; then again, he would not normally find a drifting Forerunner Destroyer, heavily damaged and dead in space. The ambience was cold and eerie, and for the first time in a long time… Pirolith was afraid.
      The monitor's company would actually have been quite comforting if the insensible machine hadn't been cheerfully giving away their position every few minutes with his melodious outbursts.
       "Construct!" Pirolith hissed under his breath, "The idea here is to observe unobserved!"
      343 did not respond, but the humming stopped for a moment. Pirolith rolled his eyes back until his eyelids shut involuntarily. He knew it would start back up again in a few minutes. He had already griped at the monitor several times and had tried to explain the simple concept of "stealth" to the self-proclaimed genius, but 343 was insistent that his sensor scans had not detected any signs of life on the Alorus Maxim. Perhaps 343 was right; perhaps Pirolith was in denial, mentally incapable of accepting the implausible but apparent conclusion – everyone and everything on the destroyer was dead.
      Pirolith turned around gracefully in his light and tight-fitting armor. He looked at the metal-encased orb of blue light that had become his companion and friend of sorts.
       "Listen, 343," Pirolith said calmly, "I do understand your reasoning, and unfortunately, you are almost certainly correct in concluding that the crew of this vessel is dead."
      Pirolith paused at that last word. Somehow, after his recent loss, it seemed to carry more weight than ever before. It cut deep into his heart. Even though the crew of the Alorus Maxim, and all but a few of the officers, were mortal conscripts from Forerunner protectorates, their deaths still seemed to imbue him with a greater sense of remorse; their lives, their deaths, all seemed more meaningful now.
      He hadn't mourned for the conscripts killed in the uprising on Maridon; then again, he hadn't mourned for his son at the time either. He didn't grieve until later, until after the initial shock had passed, and this strange concept… this thing… death, had fully settled in his mind and taken a permanent place in his mental schema. He had gained a deeper, if not new, understanding of life… by watching in horror as it was taken from one that he loved.
      No, death was no longer trite, no longer a trivial affliction suffered by lesser beings. Death was darkness beyond comprehension, a weight beyond measure, an inexorable power, ominous, unrelenting, and unforgiving.
      Pirolith felt a deep sorrow for all those who fell into death's inescapable grasp. He felt sorrow for the young Forerunner Sufis, and for the mortal conscripts under the shipmaster's command. Pirolith only hoped that Lord Gracos had been aboard one of the other ships in the battle group when the Alorus Maxim met its demise, though the location and ultimate fate of the remaining ships was still unknown.
      It was for Gracos that the former fleet commander had come to this sector in the first place. Of all the commanders in the Forerunner fleet, Gracos was Pirolith's first choice to take his place as fleet commander. Gracos was not as competent a strategist and tactician as Pirolith, no one was; but he was close, and he was a true warrior. He could make the tough decisions. He could do what was necessary to honor and magnify the Forerunner mantle. But most importantly, Gracos would follow protocol, no matter what.
      This was how power shifted in the Forerunner executive. No coups, no elections, no egos, no ambition, just honest self-appraisal and committed voluntary service by every Forerunner. Pirolith knew he was the best suited to command the fleet, and so he served. Now he was honestly admitting his failure to comply with protocol; and as the best suited to serve, he was also the best suited to choose and mentor his own successor. He had come for that successor, for Gracos.
      But where was Gracos now? Where was the battle group? Where was Sufis? Where was the rest of the conscript crew? There were no answers yet, but 343 had made an unbiased assessment based on the available data. They were all dead.
       "I do regret my assessment, Lord Pirolith," 343 replied sympathetically, "but the probability that I am incorrect is statistically negligible."
      Pirolith looked down, and a slight shifting of his posture was barely perceptible beneath his armor, hinting at the discouraged drooping of his shoulders. He spoke in a hushed tone.
       "That being undisputed, 343, you have still failed to note that your conclusion concerning the lack of a hostile presence is based on available data."
      343 dimmed slightly, pondering the ancient's wise statement and recalculating his conclusions. Pirolith waited patiently for 343 to come to the realization on his own. He didn't have to wait long. Suddenly, 343 went dark and descended slowly until he was barely off the floor plates. The construct wished for a moment that he had the same neuro-transmission capabilities as higher-classed AI's, but he did what he could to minimize noise by transmitting a radio signal to Pirolith's armor com.
       "Perhaps we should proceed with more stealth until we can ascertain the effectiveness of my sensors in detecting unclassified life forms," the monitor remarked in a muted tone.
      Pirolith just smiled as he turned quietly back to the dark and empty hallway.
       "Stay close," he whispered.


      Admiral Perok closed his eyes, and a slight smile crept onto his weathered face. Billowing clouds of steam dissipated from his mouth as he let out a shaky sigh. At last, his violent trembling had stopped. His jaw was sore, and his teeth were ready to crack from hours of uncontrollable shivering, but now that phase had passed. That was the hard part. The rest would be easy. All he had to do now was close his eyes and drift off to sleep.
      Everything was relaxing now. His shoulders loosened. His hands were numb; his skin had stopped burning with frostbite, and his bones were no longer aching with crushing pain as the coldness of space claimed his body. Yes, the worst had passed, and he was satisfied with this end. He was ready to go. He had witnessed the impossible. Alseron was saved, and now he was content.
      Perok inhaled slowly through his mouth, taking one more shallow breath. He wished he could have smelled the flowers in the meadow or the ocean breeze one last time, but he was content to know those simple pleasures were still there for someone else. He couldn't smell anything now. His nostrils had frozen together hours ago, and his nose was dripping with icy snot. It wasn't a pretty sight, but it wasn't such a bad way to go.
      Perok wondered what it must have been like for his officers, to go so quickly in a single moment of terror, to not have time to ponder and prepare for the end. It must have only taken a fraction of a second for the scorching plasma beam to rip through the heavily armored command pod and vaporize everything and everyone.
      Perhaps that would have been a better way to go, but not for Perok. He was grateful he had left the pod, glad that he had been sealed off in the outer ring of his capital ship. Somehow he was fortunate enough to be in the one small, compartmentalized section that survived the blast. And now he was adrift, dead in space, just like the Alorus Maxim.
      Perok knew it was only a matter of time before his oxygen was depleted, and without power, it would be even less time before he froze to death. It was a slow and painful end, but he would suffer it a thousand times to see what he had witnessed.
      He felt his head bump against the hard, polymer window of the observation bay as he drifted weightlessly like a fetus in the womb. He tried to open his eyes to take one last look through the iced window at the vanquished Forerunner destroyer. His eyelashes were crusted with frost, but he was able to crack his eyelids just enough to make out the silhouette of the distant ghost ship.
      It was just as large and menacing as ever, but the bow was a tangle of twisted metal and melted alloy. Light from the system sun glimmered off a ring of debris that had begun to form in the weak gravitational field around the moon-sized Forerunner vessel. It was a tragic and glorious site.
      Perok wondered if anyone would ever know what had brought such ruin to the Alorus Maxim. He wished he knew; he wished it had been him. He didn't understand the strange things he had witnessed. Perhaps he had been hallucinating in the trauma of losing his ship. Such strange visions… angel… demon…
      It really didn't matter who did it; it was done, and the Forerunner battle group had fled. It was a miracle… perhaps there was a god after all. Perok closed his eyes again, and savored that thought as his body settled peacefully into perfect stillness. If there was a god, Perok hoped he would meet him now… so he could thank him for this miracle… and for his mercy.


      Pirolith stood in shock and wonder as he stared out into the void. A vast cosmos of distant stars lay just beyond the twisted metal and debris. It was strangely beautiful, evoking horror and awe all at once. This was not what Pirolith had expected to see when the three large alloy sections withdrew from the doorway.
      A violent gale roared out into the vacuum, carrying foreign objects and debris out of the hallway. Pirolith's armored hand shot out with blinding speed and caught 343 by his metal frame as he flew past. The Class-6 combat skin remained stationary, pressed firmly against the floor plates by its own internally generated gravity field. The surrounding energy shield shifted to a more aerodynamic form to allow the remaining gust to slide smoothly around Pirolith.
      The blustering wind continued to bleed atmosphere into space, but the thunderous roar began to fall silent, fading to a light whistle, then a whisper, then silence. Pirolith released 343, who flickered for a moment as he checked his systems. The monitor adjusted for changes in atmospheric pressure and broadcast a brief flash to Pirolith's internal armor com.
       "I appreciate your concern, Lord Pirolith; however, I am capable of deep space navigation."
      Pirolith turned his armored face to 343. The featureless faceplate would have been unnerving to most creatures, but it actually seemed more natural to the faceless construct.
      Inside the impervious shell, two small fundamental particle arrays projected an exact pattern of spectral wavelengths directly into Pirolith's eyes, reproducing a perfect replica of the light waves intercepted by the sensor array embedded in his faceplate. Pirolith could not distinguish between this sensory relay sight and actual sight, except that he could magnify, enhance, or illuminate any image from the sensory relay.
      Pirolith willed the image to illuminate so he could see 343 more clearly in the darkness. The signal from his mind was not read or translated by an AI. Those AI-enhanced systems were only used in Class-12 combat skin, the armor of ancient Cherubim. Those systems could interpret cognitive reasoning and thinking. Pirolith's Class-6 combat skin was controlled by a battle harness, which only synced the brain's basic motor control and coordination with the armor, and it could only receive a few other limited commands related to system functions. The battle harness was just a flat and flexible, formed alloy yoke that wrapped partly around the back of his neck. It was nothing but a sensor, and had no sentience of its own.
      Pirolith much preferred this crude and unsophisticated system to those integrated with combat AI's. He didn't like anyone or anything getting into his mind if he could help it, especially not constructs… though he had to admit now, he was becoming quite attached to 343.
      Pirolith was a bit embarrassed to have made his affinity for the construct so obvious. He did know that 343 was capable of deep space navigation, but his protective instinct had kicked in, which surprised him much more than it did the monitor.
       "Deep space navigation?" said Pirolith, pretending to be impressed, "well, that's good to know."
      343 quickly discerned Pirolith's false apathy, but he kindly let the Ancient keep his walls intact. The monitor turned to the doorway, proceeded to the edge of the wreckage, and examined the vast wound that had once connected with the missing bow of the Alorus Maxim.
      Pirolith had seen the damage from his small, base ship, but it was entirely different up close. It was more real; it was more painful; it was more personal. They had explored the destroyer for days before reaching this section, hallway after hallway, door after door, through large rooms and cavernous chambers, and now they had arrived. It would have taken three times as long to traverse the missing section. How had they not found a single soul, not one survivor, not one corpse?
      Pirolith stepped though the doorway and out onto the warped remains of the hallway floor. It was only a short section, bent by some immeasurable force into a deformed ribbon, like a ghastly plank extending into the void above an ocean of stars. Pirolith walked it slowly until he reached the edge. He would have to jump and cross the void to reach the other side of the gaping crater. From there, he could continue on toward the command deck. He bent his knees and prepared to deactivate his gravity field.
       "Shall I attempt to activate the transportation grid again?" asked 343 as he popped up suddenly in front of Pirolith.
      Pirolith looked out at the field of debris. The small objects moving at high velocities did not concern him; he knew his combat skin could withstand the impact of a meteor. It was the large sections of wreckage that he was worried about. If he got pinned between two of those massive artificial asteroids, he would survive, but might lose mobility long enough to give an opportunistic enemy enough time to strike.
      On the other hand, using the transportation grid could throw him directly into hostile territory. Without warning, he could be surrounded and outnumbered by what appeared to be a fairly capable enemy. He preferred to make first contact undetected, so he could choose the time and place of his assault. That was the most tactically sound option. He would risk navigating the debris field.
       "No, 343," Pirolith answered, "but make another attempt to connect with the ship's AI, or any other functional system… if there are any."
      343 grew brighter for a moment and then dimmed.
       "I have transmitted a flash probe," reported 343. "No response has been detected; however, the ship is still in a low-power state, and communications systems have limited function. I suggest we–"
      343 paused and went dark. Instinctively, Pirolith initiated his active camouflage system and vanished as light morphed around his armor. He sent a quick mental order, and his sensory relay shifted to display his peripheral and rear views. Spectral and motion detection sensors showed no change in the environment.
      343 began to drift away slowly, seemingly out of control. Pirolith gritted his teeth and remained motionless as he waited patiently. He sent a mental order to open a com channel to the monitor, but belayed it almost as soon as the suit began to respond. Whatever had happened to 343 was likely related to his flash probe.
      Pirolith sent another mental order and locked down his suit's com network. All channels and nodes were immediately rendered inoperable, not by changing code, but by complete physical transformation. His processing systems were now impregnable.
      Pirolith shifted his sensor relay back to 343 and magnified the image. The Monitor was now out of reach, drifting slowly off into the debris field. Pirolith considered his options. The Class-6 combat skin could only direct its gravity field in one vector at a time, but 343 was still within range of the array.
      With a quick thought, Pirolith placed a tracking icon on the monitor. Motion sensors ignored all objects that could be identified through geometric and density recognition algorithms. Only unidentified moving objects or recognized forms tagged as hostile were displayed. For now, a single icon accentuated the view, drifting steadily through the chaos of wreckage and debris.
      Pirolith initiated one last scan, which read negative for hostile elements, and then he prepared to jump. Suddenly, a shockwave of energy surged through his veins as a high-pitched alarm rang out in his head. His eyes shot wide open, and his breathing intensified as he shuddered from the sudden surge of adrenaline.
      Fear dissipated quickly with the startling alarm and was immediately followed by the expected onset of anger and aggression. Pirolith focused on his display and quelled the normal physiological response to adrenal dump. His cognitive reasoning and thinking would be impaired for a moment, but he was already recovering rapidly.
      Hundreds of hostile tags appeared before him in the debris field. Each icon indicated a recognized hostile entity. All of the markers were accelerating aggressively across the chasm from the opposite end of the metal crater, and all of them were converging on Pirolith.
      Pirolith sent a mental order through his harness and engaged all defensive and offensive systems. A fleeting regret passed through his chaotic thoughts. He wished he still had his Class 12 Cherubic armor. This system would have to do.
      A bright envelope of energy flickered in amber around the Ancient as he disabled his gravity field and pushed away from the precipice back into the recently cleared hallway. His active camouflage engaged, and he vanished from sight, not from as wide a spectrum as could be masked by Class 12 camouflage, but he hoped it would be enough.
      The hostile tags were closing rapidly now; they would soon be in visible range. Pirolith magnified his view as he drifted silently away from the open space beyond the doorway. Magnification increased by 10, then 20 times. Small blue lights began to appear in the darkness, hundreds of them. He locked on to one of the lights and magnified by 40. A trace outline of white light appeared around the distant object as Pirolith's onboard threat-assessment system matched the object with registered hostiles in the system's database and compiled a report of capabilities and capacities.
      Pirolith was puzzled, and then almost laughed as the image enhanced and the object took shape. Two metal sections were joined together by an alloy rod. The bottom section loosely resembled a small, metal whale, arching its back as if to come up for air. A bright, blue light radiated from where its mouth would be. The rod extended from its tail upward and connected with what would be the belly of the top section, which was shaped like a large, metal, humming bird, frozen in flight with its wings swept back. The entire object was only the size of a handheld weapon.
      It was a constructor! Pirolith zoomed out and surveyed the swarm with amazement. They were all constructors! The small drones were common sites on any Forerunner world, but they never traveled in such large flocks. They were maintenance and repair drones. They must be coming to repair the airlock breach. That meant at least some systems were still online. But why were they marked as hostile?
      Constructors had no weapons. They were only equipped with a small energy beam that was fired from the nose of the top section to repair damaged material by constructing elements from fundamental particles. It could do some damage if one were to wander into the line of fire without combat skin, but it was not a real threat.
      Pirolith remembered 343's yet-unsolved malfunction and began to worry about the integrity of his own systems. He reactivated his gravity field and set down firmly on the floor plates. The markers continued to converge. Relief settled into his tensed muscles, and he prepared to disengage his camouflage to conserve energy; but then he stopped, reconsidered, and approached the doorway again stealthily.
      The constructors were arriving sporadically at the edge of the destroyed hallway and were already busily attempting to make repairs. The reflective walls glistened with blue light as hundreds of constructor beams traced the damaged vessel in all directions.
      Pirolith set his system to ignore the drones. The mess of cluttered icons cleared from his display, leaving a single marker on the distant shell of 343. The construct must have collided with some fast-moving object while Pirolith was distracted. It was now careening away into the outer edges of the ring of debris. The Ancient let out a frustrated grunt, and began to weave his way through the constructor beams. His shield flickered occasionally as he passed through the streams of concentrated particles. Unharmed, he stepped to the edge of the precipice, locked on to 343, and jumped.