Halo: Forerunner - Section 1 Ch 25-27
Posted By: Joshua M. Uda<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 29 October 2010, 7:27 am
Amber light blazed against the darkness of space, radiating from hundreds of orbs linked together in a geometric latticework of bladed alloy booms to form a devastating energy array. The communal formation surged forward through the debris field, vaporizing any obstacles in its path with staccato blasts of individual energy beams that lanced out from units within the whole like static discharge from an ion fountain.
The network's relentless advance continued as additional surviving S-Sentries fled an overwhelming onslaught of advanced weapons systems to join the larger structure, multiplying its synergistic strength. Alone they were no match for a former Cherub in a Class-6 combat skin. Working together in combined unit tactics, they were more formidable, but still manageable. When they were linked, however, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
In the vastness of space, each of the small sentries was like an individual atom, and they could combine geometrically to form structures on a colossal scale. The mysterious power of geometric relationships was the key to their synergistic strength. Each orb housed a single, high-level neutrino, the rarest of fundamental particles. Only these spheres of awareness were intelligent enough to form the core of sentient beings, and when arranged and linked properly, they could alter the relative forces of the universe.
Pirolith was all too aware of their combined capabilities as he unleashed a devastating shower of target-tracking plasma beads. The superheated projectiles scattered to the nearest targets and slowed before impact to spoof motion-sensitive shields. Hundreds of S-Sentries vaporized and lit up the darkness of space with bright blossoms of white light.
The salvo was effective, but enough of the S-Sentries survived to complete the growing formation, and it suddenly halted and adjusted trajectory to target Pirolith with the full power of its newly formed particle array. The fleet commander knew his only hope was to dodge the blast. His shields were no match for such a powerful force.
Once it was unleashed, it would tear through anything in its path, pulling apart the condensed fundamental particles in his shields, one by one, and ripping through to the armor beneath. He would be disintegrated, atomized, and then dematerialized, until all that remained was free, unbound energy.
The enormous structure was massive, but still agile in the weightless vacuum of space. It pivoted and gyrated to track its target as Pirolith raced through the debris, altering his trajectory radically at dangerously high velocities. Without the well-timed induced stasis from his armor, his rapid changes in velocity would kill him instantly, but even with the stabilizing system, he was beginning to feel nauseous and disoriented.
With one final acceleration, his defensive systems shot him violently out of the path of the first energy blast. It missed him by microns, but a miss was all he needed. It was good enough. He just needed to do it again, until he could find a way to destroy the formation.
With a quick thought, he targeted the center of the array, and two narrow beams fired from his shoulders, intersecting in the center of the S-Sentry formation. The structure shuddered and began to condense violently as a miniature black hole formed where the beams had crossed, but the array flashed, and a sphere of white light materialized around the singularity that was frozen at relative absolute zero. The sphere condensed and then collapsed to dislodge the fundamental particle from its true stasis point. The traffic jam was clear, and neutrinos began to flow freely again, dissipating the unrelenting crush of the gravity field.
Pirolith had moved around the array to another position, but the latticework of bladed booms shifted, presenting the network of orbs to the target once again. He could not outflank the array. He fired another salvo of plasma, but the bolts flattened out before impact, stopped by a thick shield of compacted neutrinos.
Pirolith's vision went dark as another blast streaked toward him from the array and his suit jumped rapidly out of the line of fire. The evasive maneuver had accelerated him to velocities approaching the speed of light. He struggled to regain awareness.
For a moment he wished he had an onboard AI. An AI would be able to control and manage evasive maneuvers and might even be able to plot a solution to destroy the S-Sentries. On his own, he was rapidly running out of ideas.
One more blast shot out, and Pirolith dodged again, slamming through a large alloy wall adrift in the wreckage, obliterating the solid object with raw kinetic energy. His shields flickered and reenergized. Pirolith opened his eyes and looked up in horror as he realized the S-Sentries had reformed during the last volley to create a triangulated firing grid.
Three new formations now surrounded him. They would all fire simultaneously, shooting between the other two in the triad. His relative up and down vectors were still open, but he knew now that the S-Sentries would utilize this next attack to reposition again until he was completely surrounded on all axes. His time was running out.
The stars vanished in a blinding wash of white light as all three arrays fired again. Pirolith dodged upward, and as soon as he was released from stasis, he confirmed his fear. The S-Sentries had repositioned and regrouped. He was surrounded by six formations, three above and three below, all with intersecting fields of fire.
The orbs quickly reenergized, and Pirolith prepared to activate his emergency, unbound-space generator. It was his last hope. His suit had the capacity to generate one short-distance jump through unbound space, but it would drain his remaining energy reserves, and he had no way of knowing where it would take him. There were no other options left.
He prepared to execute the suicide maneuver. There was no time to think about it. He had to act, but before he could, a blast of orange energy sent waves of distortion across the sky. The projected energy field smashed violently into the S-Sentries, flinging them from their formations, and sending them careening away in every direction. Pirolith turned in shock to the source of the discharge. A bright, red orb advanced toward the reeling sentries with a hurricane of energy swirling from its center, pushing constructs and debris away with irresistible force. Then it stopped abruptly.
The S-Sentries contorted and struggled to realign and engage the new threat, but before they could begin to form, a series of fiery blasts rocketed away from the orb, consuming the S-Sentries like dry leaves caught in a sun flare. The remaining S-Sentries fired their individual weapons at the orb, but its shields shot up and dissipated the blasts. It advanced immediately, and another maelstrom of amber distortion swirled outward from its core, throwing the orbs back again. Pirolith unleashed a salvo of plasma bolts on the off-balance hostiles, obliterating the S-Sentries as they tumbled through space.
Again, the red orb ceased its force projection and quickly destroyed the surviving, broken formations with a barrage of intense energy beams. Pirolith and the orb merged their assaults and unleashed all remaining systems at once, transforming the debris field into a storm of blazing destruction and blossoming explosions. The violence raged for a moment longer, and then all was still.
Red-hot beads of molten alloy and superheated plasma vapor clouded the view in front of Pirolith. He looked around for more hostile tags, but there was nothing. They were all neutralized.
The orb approached, and its bright, red light faded and transitioned to a cool blue. As it neared, Pirolith recognized the rounded, boxy frame. He could hardly believe it.
"Are you injured?" asked the construct cheerfully as if nothing had happened.
A broad smile stretched across Pirolith's face. 343 couldn't see the grin behind Pirolith's faceplate, but he knew it was there.
It felt good to be back on solid ground again, but that was the only good feeling in Pirolith's tumultuous storm of emotions. More than anything else, he felt frustration, anger, confusion, and fear. The corridors in this part of the destroyer were dark and stained. He had finally found what he was looking for signs of the missing crew of the Alorus Maxim. Now, however, as he stared at the streaks of blood smeared across ashy deposits on the walls, he wished their fate was still less certain.
Metal groaned as the massive destroyer continued to settle under the uneven stress caused by the hull breach. Pirolith listened for a moment for any sounds of life, for survivors
and hostiles. There was nothing. He turned to 343 and opened a com channel.
"What is going on here? What happened out there?" he demanded.
343 tilted and responded confused.
"You were attacked, and I rescued you, of course!"
Pirolith paused to compose himself. As frustrated as he was, he was also grateful to have his companion back.
"Before that, monitor, what happened to you? And why did those sentinels add me to the targeting ledger?"
"I am truly sorry, but that information is inaccessible," 343 explained politely.
"I have complete access to all logs," Pirolith hissed. "I have resumed command of the fleet!"
"I am truly sorry," the monitor repeated. "It is not that you do not have access, commander. I do not have access. It seems my functional memory bank has been cleared."
"How?" Pirolith probed in shock. "What is your last recorded event?"
343 paused, and then answered, "You were preparing to jump."
Pirolith thought back to the moments before 343 had lost power. "Just before your flash transmission," he thought out loud.
"I have no record of such a transmission; however, I do show data fragments that resemble the remnants of a transmission log," 343 explained. "Shall I reconstitute it?"
Pirolith thought for a moment and answered, "No, but archive it and secure it."
"Done," said the monitor. "Fragment meta data also indicate that
"Now what?" Pirolith grumbled.
"It seems that I initiated my own shutdown shortly after disabling com relays and deleting memory and event logs," 343 puzzled. "Why would I do that?"
Pirolith looked to the empty corridor and moved forward slowly.
"Let's find out. Scan for sentinels near the command deck ahead," he ordered.
Pirolith turned his attention to the task at hand. He activated automatic targeting systems and whispered under his breath, "343
Kael-Sept frowned deeply as he walked along the river bank. The expression didn't quite display the austerity it should have the sternness that could be more easily manifest in the deeply etched lines of an old and wise mentor. Though Kael-Sept was both old and wise, there simply were no lines in his face, no wrinkles, barely even a fold in his radiant complexion. His eyes, however, were as deep as the universe, and now they seemed ablaze with a grim severity that emanated directly from his soul. "Didact," he muttered under his breath, "this is a matter you should bring before the entire council."
Didact looked away from the high counselor and said nothing. They both paused as they neared a muddy bank rimmed with tall, green willows that leaned resolutely against the current of the stream. In the distance, a flit of motion caught the executor's eye, and a crisp splash slapped across the water's surface. Rainbows of light reflected off the scales of a large fish as it dove back into the murky water. Others in the school began to jump as well, snatching small flies from the evening swarms that hovered near stagnant pools along the riverbank. Didact inhaled the cool evening air, rich with the scent of wet stones and earthy moss. It was pleasant, quiet, calming
yet he felt a strange chill of despair diffusing through his heart. As he stared at intersecting ripples in the water, he noticed the sky's reflection, cooling from the warm colors of sunset to serene shades of green and turquoise. Twilight was upon them.
"Of course," continued the high counselor, "you thought it best to seek my opinion first, privately." Didact looked to Kael-Sept nervously, but the high counselor smiled softly and comforted his young friend. "That was wise, Didact."
"Concerning the Librarian," Didact said, timidly, "I shall simply follow protocol, regardless of my personal feelings. The situation with Permirius, however, is anomalous."
Kael-Sept looked down and nodded.
"Yes," he said. "I had hoped you might seek my opinion on both matters
but it seems that you and I are too much alike. I'm afraid I don't understand my daughter any more than you do."
Didact scratched his head and tried to think of a way to respond that wouldn't be too awkward. He could think of nothing. Kael-Sept raised an eyebrow, waited for a moment, and then continued.
"Yes, Executor, follow protocol. Permirius is another matter
Do you realize you have been before the high council three times in as many days?"
"Yes, my lord," Didact acknowledged.
Kael-Sept placed his hand on Didact's shoulder and gently ushered him back to the trail. Small blue lights marked the long path that wound through the forest. Luminescent insects converged around each marker, creating a brilliant spectacle complimented by the shimmering starscape above. Kael-Sept drew uncomfortably close to Didact, and the executor could see the night lights reflecting in the darkness of his eyes as if the entire Aelorian was kept there in a pocket of unbound space.
"In my long experience," said the high counselor, "that pattern is an obscure but reliable indication that larger events are in motion. Be vigilant." Kael-Sept backed away from Didact, who stood confused. The high counselor continued, "I will support whatever action you choose to take with Permirius."
"But the others," Didact began but stopped, "your pardon, my lord. I wish it were so simple, but Permirius did not exactly breach any protocol
he did not directly aid them, he simply chose to ignore them."
"A crime of omission," Kael-Sept laughed, "clever."
"Devious," frowned Didact, "and within all parameters and failsafe protocols
that is, as far as I understand your intent when you set them."
"How so, Executor?" asked the high counselor.
"Well, Permirius is required to willingly disregard any information not directly addressed to him
to protect our privacy. He is to ignore all thoughts unless otherwise instructed, even schemes and plots
"Those protections do not extend to alien prisoners," explained Kael-Sept. "He is to ignore Forerunners, Didact."
Didact swallowed hard, and tried to think of a way to frame his next question. He had hoped the conversation might lead to this, but now that it was upon him, he was losing courage. Kael-Sept easily discerned the concern and spoke first.
"You want to know who he is
Didact was shocked, but his heart raced and he blurted out, "Yes!"
The high counselor turned and began to walk again, gesturing for Didact to follow.
"You want to know what he is
" Kael-Sept clarified.
Didact hurried to catch up and held his chest out as he answered boldly, "Yes
Kael-Sept stopped and turned to face Didact. He stared into the executor's eyes and examined him closely.
" he whispered, "you want to know who you are," he smiled.
Didact felt the accusation hit him with an overwhelming weight. He wished it weren't true, and he stammered, "Lithiel seems to think he is special
"I know," said the high counselor.
"She has always wondered about
the Precursors. She thinks he is part of the answer
she doesn't believe in the mantle, my lord."
"I know," whispered Kael-Sept more sadly.
"She has taken him to the first archive," Didact blurted out, "to the Ark of the Covenant."
For the first time in all of Didact's life, he saw surprise in Kael-Sept's expression. The high counselor looked mortified.
" he whispered, "summon the council."
Altus stepped cautiously onto the slightly raised platform and joined Lithiel in the center of an engraved, circular pattern.
"I should warn you," she said. "This is older technology. It will be quite different from what you've experienced on Siora."
Altus smiled curiously.
"What is thi-"
His stomach seemed to surge up into his throat as an angular alloy ring jumped from the engraved pattern on the floor, raising a curtain of blue light around him and his escort. Just as swiftly, the ring dropped back into the floor, and Altus felt a sudden chill race up his spine as he came face to face with an enormous insect-like creature. He staggered back and paused, realizing that he was in a new chamber, and the creature was suspended in the air in a field of blue light.
"Don't be afraid," Lithiel reassured him.
Altus blinked as his eyes adjusted to the contrast of the bright containment field set against the heavy darkness in the cavernous chamber.
"What is it?" Altus asked, cautiously inspecting the alien.
"Not what," Lithiel corrected, "who."
A confused look washed over Altus' face as he realized what she meant.
is a sentient being?"
"Quite," she said with a distant tone in her voice, "this is Turpis Rex."
Altus looked at Lithiel with a skeptical half-smile.
"What is that? It has a name?"
"You couldn't pronounce his name," she replied curtly. "Turpis Rex was the name we gave to his species."
Altus was silent for a moment, then his eyes narrowed, and a faint sneer pulled at the corners of his mouth. He looked back to the creature and examined its menacing form. It was motionless, yet something about it seemed so alive. Altus stepped closer, and a shimmer of color flared across the reflective, orange surface of its large compound eyes.
"Turpis Rex," he whispered. "What does it mean?"
Lithiel's head lowered, and she looked away from the creature. Altus waited for a response, but Lithiel remained silent. He turned to her, but paused before speaking. He could see that this creature, whatever it was, filled Lithiel with a deep sense of shame. He put his hand gently on her shoulder and asked again.
"Lithiel, the name, what does it mean?"
She looked to Altus, and then her gaze wandered to the suspended creature.
"I suppose you've never seen anything like it," she said quietly.
Altus' eyes briefly shifted to the side as if to glance back at the alien, but he did not turn around to see it; his memory of the frightening image was fresh enough. He looked back to Lithiel. Her countenance was dark in a way, and fading.
"No, I haven't," he answered. "We
we always thought that if there was life out there, that it would be something terrible, or strange, like this... When you came, we were shocked, shocked that you looked like us, and not
" He turned again and stared at the creature, with its clawed limbs and bright yellow patterns marking the hardened, green chitin of its exoskeleton. "No," he said again, "I've never seen anything like it."
"Neither had we," Lithiel muttered.
Altus felt his heart sink as her words and expression confirmed his suspicions. Suddenly the creature did not seem so terrible or hideous. It was special, not just rare, unique, or exotic, but a singularity. Somehow, its form was beautiful.
As it stared back at Altus with its bright, unblinking eyes, there was almost a sense of agony in its alien expression, a deep and inexpressible sorrow that only Altus could know. He reached out but held his hand short of touching the force field. In all but one thing, they were alien to each other, but the Forerunners had given them something in common, hopelessness
and that made them brothers.
Lithiel watched approvingly as Altus mourned and admired the creature. "Ugly King," she whispered.
Altus cringed as the words crossed her lips. For the first time since they had met, he turned to her with anger in his eyes.
"Why?" he demanded.
She bit her lip, and tried to think of an answer. She felt hurt, not by his anger as much as by her own people for having such a question to answer. She had heard countless explanations and justifications, but she could only offer what she thought to be the truest of them all.
"We weren't ready," she said with a trembling voice.
The harsh expression on Altus' face sharpened. He stood with his mouth half open in astonishment and held his hands out to his sides, looking down at his own chest as if to make himself more obvious.
"Weren't ready?" he scoffed, "Ready for what, Lithiel
for your mantle? Not ready to be gods? I suppose you're ready now! What do you mean weren't ready?" Altus paused and then looked to Lithiel accusingly. "You said only the most dangerous life forms were indexed and exterminated," he pondered aloud.
Altus drew closer to Lithiel as she tried to avoid his probing glare. He lowered his voice and spoke deliberately, "So tell me they were deadly
Tell me they were a threat
Tell me they could not be subdued!"
Lithiel raised her hand to cover her trembling lips, but said nothing. Altus stepped closer and looked sternly in her eyes.
"Why?" he asked again.
"Because they were the first," she whispered.
Altus thought for a moment. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head in disbelief.
"Yes, Altus," Lithiel continued, "we weren't ready for our mantle. Turpis Rex was discovered over 6 million years ago, and exterminated on the same day. We did not appreciate the great diversity of life that we had found. This specimen is only a reproduction. None were indexed; their genetic form is preserved, but their culture is lost," she looked to the alien sadly. "He is a monument to all our sins."
"All your sins?" Altus mumbled slowly, "
you said our extermination was an anomaly
Tears were now flowing down Lithiel's face as she prepared to give her confession.
"Altus," she said softly, "the anomaly was not that your people were exterminated, it was that extermination protocol was not followed."
Lithiel gave a fleeting glance over Altus' shoulder and then looked down at the floor.
Altus turned slowly and stepped to the side to look beyond the edge of the containment field. His eyes filled with horror, and he coughed, half choking, half gasping as his heart filled with anguish and indignation. His face contorted, and he struggled to hold back his tears. Still, he could not take his eyes from the countless rows of containment fields that stretched endlessly down the length of the chamber until they faded into the shadowy distance. Legions of wildly exotic creatures and strange forms stood suspended in rank formations for as far as Altus could see, and he stood paralyzed with his arms hanging limply at his sides.
Lithiel moved carefully to his side and gently closed her hands around his arm below his shoulder. She waited, but he did not shun her, so she leaned her face against his arm and held it tightly. He could feel her moist tears against his skin, rolling lightly down to his course hands, and falling to the floor.
"Why did you bring me here?" he asked softly.
She lifted her beautiful face from his arm and set her chin on his shoulder. The warmth of her breath caressed his ear as she whispered, "To atone for our sins."
Lithiel. You must try to focus, princess. Follow me now
Lithiel outstretched her slender arm and took the soft hand of her mentor. Alexandria's gentle voice was calming and reassuring, but the young apprentice was still wary, perhaps even frightened as she stepped from the portal. Lithiel stared in awe, surveying the great hall of strange and exotic creatures, each one frozen in stasis in a field of blue light.
"What are they?" she whispered.
"Not what, my dear
Lithiel turned from the endless rows of containment fields and looked to her mentor with confusion.
"If they are not animals, Alexandria, why are they here? Did they do something horrible?" she asked innocently.
Alexandria's smile faded slightly, and her eyes shifted down and away as she pondered.
"Yes," she finally answered, "they have committed many diverse sins, Lithiel; but mostly, they were irredeemable."
Darkness settled over Lithiel's expression as she tried to imagine what great sins these beings had committed, and she wondered how the galaxy could contain so many hopeless creatures. Alexandria examined Lithiel's reaction closely, and she mustered a reassuring smile.
"Lithiel," she prodded, "there is no need to be so sullen. This is not a tomb; it is a place of hope. These were beyond hope, but not beyond our love
because we are merciful. They are all preserved until the time comes when we have learned all things and discovered a way to redeem them from their sins. They are not lost forever. They sleep. They are the seeds of their race."
"And will there be a reseeding?" Lithiel asked with a hopeful tone.
"That is up to you, my dear," Alexandria said softly. "I have indexed them here in my library for you. Now you must read them all. You must come to know each one; you must learn what makes them different, and what makes them alike. And when you have learned, I will teach you to make them again from the mist, and when we are ready, we will bring them out of darkness into light."
Lithiel's eyes filled with hope at Alexandria's words. She knew that Alexandria favored her, thought she was special. And Lithiel did have a natural ability for finding patterns in the complex chaos of life. Indeed, Alexandria believed that Lithiel's gift could be nurtured so that someday, the young Forerunner princess could replace her as the adept in her field. Alexandria had lived for so long and felt that she had reached the limits of her abilities, but for young Lithiel, it seemed there were no limits. She couldn't have hoped for a better successor.
"Come," she said kindly, "we have so much to do, and it's time to begin the journey."
A lump formed in Lithiel's throat, and she pressed her lips together tightly, willing the pain in her heart to subside, to retreat back into the dark void where she kept her less pleasant memories. She tried to conceal her emotion, but she caught Altus' concerned expression out of the corner of her eye before he looked quickly away. She had expected him to ask what was wrong, but he again proved himself to be as unpredictable and insightful as ever.
They stood silently together on a luminous conveyor beam that whisked them along past the frozen ranks of indexed aliens. Altus closed his eyes and listened to the rhythmic flutter of wind rushing past his ears, thumping a steady beat as each containment field in the nearest aisle flew past in a blur. Their pace was fast and steady, and Altus could no longer see the end of the grand hall where he and his escort had entered through the portal. He felt they had been traveling for some time already, yet the path ahead also vanished into the shadows as it stretched into the distance. He could only wonder what awaited him at the end.
Lithiel stared down at the luminous streams of pastel energy beneath her bare feet. For a while, she had been so captivated by all of the new species in the hall, so curious about their biology and anthropology, but after watching thousands of their motionless forms pass her as she was conveyed along the light path, she had become more curious about their individual journeys, about the fateful and horrible paths that had led them to this place. Now she could only look down in shame as she passed silently, unseen by their lifeless eyes, yet still feeling the intensity of their accusing and hateful gaze.
"Please don't hate me," she thought, "I am here to help. Someday, I will free you all. I will atone for our sins."
Suddenly a new brightness emerged in the distance, casting lurid shadows across Lithiel's young and lovely features. She looked up from the path and reached up to pull back the soft hood of her white robe. With another graceful motion, she swept away the shining locks of golden hair from her eyes that sparkled with the reflected light growing brighter in the distance.
The path was moving her and her mentor swiftly toward the light, and as they neared, she could see that it was shining from the polished surface of a small sphere, hovering just above a pedestal at the end of the light conveyor. She gasped with anticipation as she realized what it was.
" she stopped.
"No, Princess. It is an asynchronous field, but not as large an unbound space as that."
Lithiel looked on with wonder. Even though it was not an entire shield world, the existence of a stably isolated asynchronous field was exciting enough. She had heard many scientists theorize about the possibility of creating such a field, but like many young Forerunners, she had not yet lived long enough to see such wonders progress from the realm of intellectual creation to the world of physical reality.
After a few million years of life, this process would come to seem quite ordinary, and upon hearing of wild conceptions for some new innovation, she would immediately accept that concept as an inevitable reality, a simple matter of patience. Now, however, she was still young, and amazed to see a physical manifestation of what was once nothing more than a dream, a fantastic possibility.
"How does it work?" she asked eagerly.
"That is what you're here to learn," answered Alexandria as she took Lithiel's hand and helped her step from the end of the light conveyor.
Alexandria gently escorted Lithiel to the shining orb and gestured for the young woman to step into the field. Lithiel looked uneasily to her mentor, but could see that there was no need to question or be afraid. She looked into the blinding light and stepped forward. A rush of static bristled across her skin, and a surge of heat flushed through her veins. The light dissipated and she felt the soft, moist cushion of grass beneath her feet as she continued on. Strange shapes began to materialize around her, and soon the transition was complete.
Lithiel stood in awe as she took in the natural beauty all around her. How could it be? This was a world, with trees and rivers and mountains and valleys
then she stopped suddenly as her eyes found the horizon and began to follow its concave curvature into the starless night sky, across the apex of the heavens and back down to the other side of the landscape. She burst into delighted laughter, and then jumped with a start as she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"We couldn't fit an entire world," explained Alexandria in an amused confession, "so we packed in what we could."
"What is it for?" Lithiel whispered as she traced the horizon again.
Alexandria turned Lithiel to face her and placed her other hand lovingly against the side of Lithiel's face, "it's for you, princess."
Altus had only looked down for a moment, but it was long enough. He had just barely noticed an abrupt hush in the fluttering air, but before he could look up, his entire peripheral view was suddenly plunged into darkness. His eyes dilated and then strained uncomfortably against the brightness of the light path, which glared in harsh contrast to the surrounding darkness. He felt an overwhelming vertigo, and grabbed hold of Lithiel's arm, nearly falling from the path. She was surprisingly strong and steadied him with little effort.
"Keep your eyes forward," she advised calmly.
Altus was full of adrenaline and didn't quite register what she had said. He looked back in alarm, but was only able to catch a fleeting glance of the last rows of illuminated containment cells as they vanished over the horizon.
The rows had ended abruptly, and now there was nothing but the path, blazing on through the darkness. Altus regained his balance and composure before turning back to Lithiel. Her eyes were locked on the path ahead. Her head hung slightly down, and she did not turn to face him, but took a brief glance to the side to make sure he was alright.
Altus looked down at the light path, and then noticed the small area of illuminated floor plates near the path's edge. The ground was passing quickly, but Altus could see that the surface of the floor plates was no longer polished. It did not shine with its usual reflective alloy glow. The surface seemed dark and blackened. He looked back again, and noticed a haze of ashen dust shining near the path in their wake. He blinked in confusion. The interior spaces of Forerunner constructs, at least the ones Altus had seen, were always spotless, almost sterile environments.
He blinked again as his eyes began to water from the increasing plumes of dust and ash in the air. His nose began to tickle and he sneezed. Lithiel glanced at him again without turning to face him. He wiped his eyes and sniffled, catching the distinct scent of burnt carbon. Then he paused and looked around at the darkness, his eyes wide with fear.
"Lithiel," he whispered, "what happened here?"