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Halo: Forerunner - Section 2 Ch 29-30
Posted By: Joshua M. Uda<imagine@uvtag.com>
Date: 19 November 2010, 10:06 am

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Chapter Twenty-Nine

      "Bring them in quickly."
      There was a sudden bustling as soldiers pulled away metal beams and cleared debris from the barricade. Moriea thanked the sentry and carried Torun through the gate. Nado followed close behind with a despondent Halseth in his arms. The guard looked to Nado inquisitively, amazed that they had found the children and wondering what they had encountered beyond the gate. Nado said nothing, but shook his head slightly. The guard looked down in despair and then abruptly to the far end of the bridge.
      "Movement!" he hissed. "Quickly, inside now!"
      Everyone rushed into the fortress, and the ground shook beneath them as the large alloy doors locked into place.
       "Bring up the bridge!" shouted the sentry.
      Beyond the gates, the thick bronze slabs of the bridge shuttered and clacked as they slid along two luminous tracks of solid energy, pulling slowly away from the ridge on the far end of a ravine. The near end of the bridge crawled along a sloping ramp that curved up into the sky. The massive metal slabs groaned as they shifted upwards until the entire bridge cleared the ravine and slammed to a stop, towering vertically above the gate.
      "It won't do them any good," whispered Moriea. "That ravine might as well be a crack in the dirt…"
      "Hush, Moriea!" Nado mumbled under his breath. "They don't need to know that, not now."
      She caught herself before arguing, and remembered the children. She could maintain the appearance of hope… for them.
      "Wait here." said Nado. "I'm going to find out who's in charge here, see what I can do to help."
      She nodded and held Torun closer. The boy was sleeping now, soundly. Moriea wished her child's naïve trust could have been well placed in her and the other adults, but she was just as afraid as the children, perhaps more so… because there was no one older, or wiser, or more powerful she could turn to for protection and comfort. They were alone.


      "Where are you going, Lithiel?"
      Lithiel controlled her startled reaction as her heart leapt in her chest. She managed to regain composure before turning around and answered casually and with some degree of forced disdain.
      "I'm going back in," she muttered.
      Alexandria frowned, but Lithiel interrupted before she could say anything.
      "If you want me to do this, you need to trust me. We've been focusing too much attention on the survivors; I need to see what the Sangheili are doing in the areas they now control," she explained.
      Alexandria raised an eyebrow but smiled slightly.
      "Do elaborate," she said.
      Lithiel rolled her eyes and waved her hand. A bright hologram of the Sangheili DNA appeared in the air, and Lithiel pointed to a highlighted section.
      "You made these changes here?" she queried.
      Alexandria nodded cautiously, and Lithiel continued.
      "Then I suppose you've already anticipated that with their aggression levels reduced, they might begin to display social behavior once they gain territorial dominance."
      Alexandria's eyes widened, and she raised her head slowly, keeping her discerning gaze fixed on the young prodigy. Lithiel tapped the hologram, and it reverted back to its original sequence.
      "I'm guessing before the change they simply began to kill each other off at this point," she said bluntly.
      Alexandria exhaled and reached up to run her fingers through the hair behind her neck. She closed her eyes and thought for a moment, then looked up to Lithiel who was waiting impatiently.
      "You are bright," said Alexandria. "I just worry how bright."
       "I'm not going to intervene," said Lithiel defensively. "If you want me to do this, then I need these observations, and you know it."
      Alexandria laughed quietly to herself and nodded.
      "I couldn't stop you if I wanted to, princess," she said. "I've learned that much by now."
      Lithiel waited, not sure how to interpret that answer.
      "Go on," said Alexandria.
      Lithiel bowed her head respectfully and rushed off toward the containment sphere. Alexandria watched as the young girl hurried away. She knew she had made the wrong choice, but she loved the girl too much to deny her. This series would go to waste, but she still had time to work with Lithiel, time to help her become what she needed to be, time to teach her to do what she needed to do… to fulfill the mantle, to atone for all their sins. They had all the time they needed. They could postpone the day of their repentance. It would come soon enough.


      Nado gagged and held his breath as he pushed his way past the injured. The pungent aroma of body odor was barely noticeable beneath the gamy, putrid stench that wafted from piles of spilled bowels and rotting flesh. Dozens of mutilated bodies crowded the narrow corridors, and distraught survivors picked through the mangled limbs and pushed aside flayed torsos, looking for heads that hadn't been crushed or that still had the faces intact, trying to find missing loved ones, hoping they wouldn't be found.
      "How much further?" asked Nado.
      The young man in front of Nado limped along slowly, steadying himself with a makeshift staff fashioned from a short metal pole. He didn't look back at Nado, but answered over his shoulder.
      "We have a long way to go still," he said, "this fortress is very deep. But don't worry… I'll get you through the crowds, and then you can speak to the man in charge."
      The guard snickered slightly as he spoke the last words. Nado's eyes narrowed, and he tried to catch a glimpse of the guard's expression, but the man turned away quickly and continued to push through the crowd.
      "Out of our way!" he shouted. "Government business! Move!"
      Something about the guard didn't seem right, but Nado couldn't quite make sense of it. Perhaps it was something about the way he almost laughed when he mentioned "the man in charge."
      Nado's thoughts were interrupted by a shrill scream that rang out from the far end of the hall. A woman had just found the remains of her mother. The guard suddenly stopped and turned to see the woman. Her mother's body was fairly intact, not mangled like so many others, but as Nado looked closer, he could see that the corpse had been charred along one side.
      "She's been shot," he noticed out loud.
      The guard glanced quickly to Nado, and then lowered his head, leaning on the staff and shifting his weight uncomfortably from his own burned foot.
      "Earlier this morning, the survivors managed to push back the first attack on the fortress," he explained, "but at a cost… the old, the children, the sick, all the weak fell behind or were trampled to death as these panicked fools pushed their way into the structure."
      "I don't understand," said Nado, "why were they shot?"
      The guard looked up surprised and slightly defensive.
      "They were devoured," he said, "by the ghosts… can't you see that?"
      Nado pointed to the old woman's corpse.
      "That one was shot," he said, then looking down at the guard's leg, "and apparently, so were you."
      The guard looked down at the blackened flesh on his own leg and shook his head slowly.
      "It wasn't for mercy, if that's what you were thinking," he explained, "those that fell behind served as a buffer, slowing the ghosts down long enough for the soldiers to move into firing positions."
      The guard's face twisted as he remembered. He thumped the pole on the stone tiles, frustrated with himself… angry with the whole mess.
      Nado was beginning to understand, and the guard could see the shock in Nado's expression. He picked up the pole and pointed it angrily at Nado.
      "Don't judge me!" he grumbled threateningly. "They are invisible! You understand?! Invisible!" he shouted.
      Nado pictured the scene in his mind. He could almost see it play out, indiscriminate fire forming a wall of projectiles and energy blasts that poured into the invisible predators and their prey, obliterating everything and clearing the entry long enough for the gates to be shut. He cringed at the thought, but he knew there was no other way.
      The necessity of such drastic measures had become clear after initial losses soared into the millions within the first few hours of the crisis, but now with so few survivors, sacrificing anyone was difficult. Nado reached out slowly and gently moved the pole away from his face.
      "I don't judge you," he said calmly. "Let God judge us all."
      "Ha! There is no God!" laughed the guard. "How can you continue to delude yourself, even now?"
      Nado clenched his teeth, but then realized the absurdity of what he had said. The guard was right; how could there be a God? If anything had created them, it certainly did not care much for its creations. Soon they would all be gone, forever, and there was no help in sight, not from man or from miracle. Nado sighed.
      "Let's keep moving," he said quietly. "We don't have much time."
      "No," said the guard, "we certainly don't. You are right about that."

Chapter Thirty

      Alexandria sighed as she stepped out into the sun. She closed her eyes and felt its gentle warmth caress her smooth face. The rich aroma of the ocean, mingled with the earthen scent of wet stone, wafted up from the cliffs below but dissipated quickly as a crashing wave sent cool mist spraying into the sky. Alexandria opened her eyes and squinted at the bright droplets suspended in the air. Each one magnified the bright light of the sun, and together they were like a trillion stars that rained down lightly on her skin, sending an invigorating chill shivering through her whole body.
      The ocean crashed again into the precipice and then withdrew with a white roar, fading to a whisper. It was a steady rhythm, like the breath of a sleeping giant… inhale… crash… exhale… inhale… crash… exhale – the breath of life, it seemed. It was good to be alive.
      Suddenly, a flash of light burst from the sky followed by a thunderous clap and a rolling shockwave. Alexandria's smile faded, and her nostrils flared. She turned abruptly from the balcony and stormed back into the foundry. This was bad timing, very bad. The alloy doors closed securely behind her, shutting out the calming beauty of nature. The brightly lit halls seemed to press in on her from all sides. She hated this place and hoped to be free of it just as soon her apprentice could replace her, but that would never happen, not if Lithiel were discovered by the proctor… very bad timing.


      Nado staggered back and closed his eyes as he attempted to regain his balance. The sheer size and depth of the chasm was beyond anything he had ever imagined.
      "Do not stare into the abyss!" cautioned the guard with a clack of his tongue for emphasis. "You will catch vertigo."
      Nado opened his eyes and swallowed uneasily. He already felt disoriented, but he took the guard's advice and turned his eyes back to the bright metallic engravings in the floor. He could see that the ramp they were on extended along the wall of the chamber, spiraling in switchbacks down into the darkness.
      "What is this place?" he gasped.
      The guard laughed and ran his fingers through the dusty black wool on his scalp.
      "You're asking me!" he mocked. "We just found this place ourselves. No one knows what it is! But the one in charge… you can ask the boss. Maybe he will tell you."
      Nado clenched his fist and bit his tongue. He wasn't in the mood for solving riddles, and it seemed it would be quite a journey still before he would meet this boss.
      "Let's keep moving then," said Nado angrily.
      "No farther," said the guard to Nado's surprise. "We wait here. He is already coming, you see?"
      The guard pointed down into the abyss. Nado steadied himself before looking, and then slowly cast his gaze downward into the darkness. Who was coming? He couldn't see the ramp that far down, and he doubted the guard could see much farther than him. Then he noticed something faint in the center of the darkness, a dim blue light that grew steadily brighter as it seemed to rise up through the center of the pit. In the distance, Nado could hear a soft electric humming that steadily rose in pitch as the light ascended, and there was something else, he could barely make it out as the light approached. Was it… a melody?
      Nado's heart leapt as he felt his weight suddenly shift past his toes; he toppled forward, but a firm hand grabbed his arm from behind.
      "Careful now! What did I tell you! Do not look into the abyss!" scolded the guard as he pulled Nado back from the edge and helped him regain his balance.
      Nado's heart was racing and his eyes were wide with adrenaline. He couldn't think of what to say, and before he could speak he froze motionless, stunned by the bright metallic orb that burst over the ledge and blinded him with its spotlight. The guard raised his arm to shield his eyes from the light, and a sly smile crept across his face.
      "Here is the one in charge…" he said, "meet the boss."


      There was a strange gurgling, and a reverberating echo rang out like a scrambled radio signal from Nado's mouth. It only took a moment before the noise harmonized into a rather normal sounding scream of terror. The bright orange rings of light faded from around him, and he found himself standing atop a small platform beneath the center of a spacious dome of light. Three men stood in front of him near what appeared to be a raised, metallic altar. They turned quickly to him as his screaming subsided, looking away from a bright holographic ring that hovered in the air above the pedestal.
      "Good god, man! What is the fuss?" said one of the men with a tinge of irritation in his voice.
      A hollow, metallic voice opened up from above Nado's head, and he looked up in horror to see the orb hovering just above him. He ducked to the floor, and the men began to laugh.
      "This specimen appears to have survived the outbreak in sector 4523."
      "It speaks!" gasped Nado.
      "Of course I speak!" baulked the orb, "a novel achievement for an aboriginal specimen, I'm sure!
      Nado looked around nervously. He remained crouched with his shoulders raised and his arms in a defensive position between himself and the orb. The guard was nowhere nearby, and the cavernous chamber, the ramp way, the abyss, all of it was gone, replaced by this new place, wherever or whatever it was. Perhaps it was a dream, some type of hallucination. But Nado looked closer and realized that he recognized one of the men. He was Bayano Aman, the ruler of an enemy tribe.
      "You!" he said accusingly. "I know you! All of this is your doing?"
      Nado stood up and took an aggressive step toward the man, but his body was instantly frozen in place by a bright beam of energy that shot out from the circular light at the center of the orb. Bayano Aman did not recoil but stepped up to Nado, stopped, and folded his powerful arms across his broad chest. His black skin shimmered with sweat, accentuating the contours of his large muscular frame.
      "Don't be absurd," he said calmly in a low, raspy voice. "Yes, I know you too, but this is not my doing. Trust me; you have no conception of what is going on here. Settle down now and do not disturb us. We will have questions for you in a moment."
      The Orb released Nado, and he staggered as his weight settled back onto his feet. He looked to the other two men. He did not recognize either of them, but they seemed sober and serious as well. They nodded to him, and he could see no reason not to comply, so he relaxed and stood still, watching the strange orb cautiously out of the corner of his eye.
      "This man's tribe was very near to the temple," said Bayano to the others.
      "Then the ghosts have traversed the entire circumference," said one of the men sullenly. "There are no other sectors remaining."
      The orb bobbed and weaved around the three men and hummed a strange melody to itself. Bayano turned to the orb and raised his arms.
      "Won't you do anything?" he asked angrily.
      "Certainly!" declared the orb. "I am perfectly confident in my containment protocols. The outbreak will be eradicated on schedule."
      "There it is again!" one of the other men cried out. "You see! This thing is useless! I am telling you, we must act now!"
      "Why not now?" Bayano asked the orb desperately. "Do you want all of us to die?"
      "As I have told you," began the orb, "our primary objective is to facilitate your survival."
      "Then why aren't you doing anything!" shouted Bayano. "Can you not see?! We are not surviving!"
      "Naturally," said the orb bluntly. "You are ill-suited to defeat this variable of the project species, and we will not likely achieve our objective until the eighteenth permutation of the genome; however, protocol disallows extensive intervention with the control species."
      All of the men on the platform stood quietly and stared at the orb. Nothing it said made any sense, but it was clear they were on their own.
      "Are you done now?" asked Nado slowly.
      Bayano snapped out of his daze, and his eyes turned to Nado.
      "What?" he asked confused.
      "Are you done… discussing!" hissed Nado.
      Bayano looked to the other two tribal leaders who had survived the long journey with him to the deep underworld of the ring, where they had discovered this place and the orb so many years ago. They stared expressionless at the holographic ring, now illuminated red in all sectors.
      "We are done," he whispered quietly.
      "Good!" said Nado resolutely. "Then listen to me. Whatever this thing is, it seems to believe it has resources to stop the ghosts once we are all dead!"
      Bayano Aman thought for a moment and then nodded. Nado continued, "It also seems this thing cannot or will not help us for some reason, yet it wants us to survive."
      Bayano furrowed his brow and squinted at the young warrior.
      "What are you saying?" he asked directly.
      "I am saying that the resources exist, and this thing will not stop us from using them if we can find out what they are and where they are!"
      The other two men looked up from the hologram at Nado and then at each other accusingly. Nado watched the exchange perceptively and stepped closer to Bayano.
      "Do you know what they are?" asked Nado.
      He looked into Bayano Aman's eyes as the larger man pulled away.
      "You do know…" Nado whispered. "How long have you known about this place?" he demanded.
      Bayano turned back defiant with a deep-set frown pulling downward against the sneering lines around his flared nostrils.
      "Not long enough!" he grunted.
      "Show me the weapons," demanded Nado without flinching.
      "No one can use them," snorted Bayano with distain. "They are not for men."
      Nado stood closer to the tribal leader and stared coldly into his eyes.
      "Take him, Bayano," interrupted one of the others. "He survived the ghosts. Maybe he can find a way where we have failed."
      Bayano looked at the resolute warrior in front of him. He could see from the scars and fresh wounds on Nado's body that the warrior had survived by fighting and not by mere flight or chance. Perhaps there was a way. He reached out and put his large hand on Nado's shoulder.
      "Come," he said, "you will represent the tribe of my enemies. But here and now, we are all men. We fight together."


      An amber glow reflected off the floor plates and filled the darkness in the vast space above the gallery. Alexandria could sense a discerning set of eyes settle on her back, but she did not turn around to greet the proctor. She tapped the console in front of her and closed the portal to the asynchronous, unbound space. She wished there were some way to transmit between the sphere and the normal universe. Without actually entering the sphere, she had no means of surveillance, no way of knowing what Lithiel was doing, no way of warning her to stop.
      "Welcome, Lord Proctor," she said gently over her shoulder.
      "Am I?" answered a deep voice from behind. "Is this how you greet those who are welcome in your library, Alexandria?"
      Alexandria closed her eyes. She turned slowly with her head slightly down, pausing to steady her mind for a moment and resolving to control her expression; then, she opened her bright eyes and forced a smile against her natural recoil.
      A dark and menacing figure stood before her. Sharp spikes protruded unevenly from the silhouette between plates of chitinous armor, and a set of clawed feet tapped against the metal floor. Set at the center of the creature, between two broad shoulders, a black, elongated head extended toward Alexandria. She tried to look into the dark, rounded surface above the mouth as if it were a normal set of eyes, but there seemed to be nothing there but an expressionless void.
      She stammered, "I was expecting…"
      "The Proctor?" interrupted the creature. "Yes, he will be visiting you soon."
      "Why have you come here, Proteus?" asked Alexandria bluntly.
      Proteus… speaking the name felt strange to Alexandria. She could remember a time when there was such a person, but the creature before her now had been so genetically altered and mutated that there was nothing left of that man except the name. If even his personality had remained it might have been enough, but shifting forms so often and to such extremes had dealt some measure of irreparable damage to the soul beneath the flesh.
      All Forerunners knew that time and experience would inevitably lead to one of two personality extremes. Either a person worked diligently to improve oneself until eventually reaching a state of sublime balance distinguished by calm wisdom and a peaceful demeanor, or a person would indulge in extremes of emotion, thought, and behavior. The latter was normal for young Forerunners and for all mortal life forms, but indulgence without temperance could be dangerous if left unchecked for too long. Change always seems possible to the mortal, but a habit developed not over years but over millennia could become impossible to break.
      Those who developed such habits would eventually reach a permanent state of imbalance marked by exaggerated character flaws. Many of these flaws could be slightly annoying yet tolerable, such as Pirolith's blunt and irritable demeanor. Others, like Lithiel's playful and free spirit, could be quite refreshing. Rarely, however, some Forerunners could become dangerously unstable, those who harbored such emotions as anger, fear, or ambition.
      Proteus was one of those unfortunate few. In the early ages of the Forerunner expansion into the Aelorian, he was driven by an obsession to make of himself the perfect warrior without the aid of a battle suit. He had come to Alexandria's mentor each time he discovered some unique power or ability possessed by an alien race, asking the unthinkable. Strangely, as a bequest from the High Council, his wishes were granted.
      Many millennia had passed since his last alteration, and in the interim, Alexandria had replaced her mentor as the new adept. It was no coincidence that Proteus had finally returned after so long an absence. Alexandria knew why he had come, but she was not like her mentor, and she had no intention of granting his request, not this time.
      "I understand you have begun the process of reseeding the Sangheili," noted Proteus flatly.
      "We have only begun an inquisition into the possibility," countered Alexandria quickly and eagerly added, "but the results have not been promising."
      A frightening rumble beat like a drum as Proteus laughed in amusement.
      "Alexandria," he mocked, "still the frightened apprentice, I see. That was so many ages ago."
      He stepped closer with a thud against the floor plates, and Alexandria stood straight, half defiant, half paralyzed. He breathed a foul and humid effluvium into her face and then chuckled deeply again.
      "I am not here for that," he said dismissingly. "Though, you are right to suspect my interest in the Sangheili's… unique ability."
      "If you are not here to infuse their… ability," began Alexandria timidly, "then why? You have nothing more to learn about them then you learned when we first indexed them."
      "Of course I have nothing more to learn!" snapped Proteus with a hiss. "Do not forget that it was I who defeated them! I succeeded where the Cherubim failed! I know them. I am not here for me!"
      Alexandria felt her heart race, and she knew Proteus could hear the thumping in her chest and could see the temperature rising on her skin, yet he made no apologies for his unnecessary intimidation. It seemed to amuse him in a way. She took a step back and breathed deeply to calm herself. She knew he could not read her thoughts, and that was what she wanted most to hide from him as she concluded that his anger was more directed toward the High Council than toward her. After all he had done to defeat the Sangheili, theirs was the one ability the High Council had denied him; and being who he was, that offense had undoubtedly smoldered in his heart and mind for eons.
      "We all recognize and reverence your achievements, Proteus," she said carefully, "but you still have not told me why you are here. If not for yourself, then for whom?"
      He laughed again with a base reverberation, "For the Council, of course. It seems they are ready now to make use of the Sangheili's gift, but… in their own way."
      Alexandria puzzled for a moment and then began to understand. Proteus was too unstable to be given such ability in addition to his other formidable enhancements, but with recent developments in synthetic, genetic integration, the ability could possibly be incorporated into combat skin.
      Battle suits already possessed a cloaking mechanism, but the system produced nothing close to the near perfect invisibility effect created by the Sangheili. No sensor device could defeat their cloak because their invisibility was not achieved by bending or projecting light; instead, they bypassed light and every sensory mechanism altogether.
      At the center of the Sangheili's unusually structured brains was a neuro-cluster capable of transmitting electromagnetic energy directly into the brain matter of nearby life forms, altering the cerebral energy patterns and causing a form of passive hallucination. The victims' eyes could still see everything, but their brains would not recognize visual sensory input associated with the transmitting creature. To compensate for the missing imagery, the subconscious mind would fill in the empty space with a nearly perfect projection of the perceived background, which only distorted when the transmitting creature moved. It was a most deadly capability, one of many that had doomed the predacious Sangheili to extermination.
      Though the prospect of developing an independent, synthetic, neuro-cluster to replicate the effect from within a battle suit was intriguing, Alexandria was rightfully suspicious of Proteus, and she could still not understand why the Council would send him to initiate such a project. Despite being unable to read Alexandria's thoughts, Proteus was as perceptive as any ancient Forerunner.
      "A conciliatory gesture, Alexandria," he explained to her surprise, "that is the only reason I was sent… but, I have waited long enough. I am too old to romanticize about the possibility of innate power. This power, I am willing to take in any form."
      The thought made Alexandria tremble, but she knew she did not have the will to resist both Proteus and the Council. If only Lithiel had been ready sooner. No doubt, she would have refused, and no one would have been able to force her… no one.


      Four dark figures emerged cautiously from a doorway, exiting the narrow hall and entering a large octagonal chamber. The room was dark except near the corners where angular supports rose from the floor and up into the high vaulted ceiling above. The only other light came from what appeared to be a holographic control panel that hovered in the air above a small pedestal. Two thick rectangular columns stood in the center of the room. They were constructed of the same alloy that covered the walls and floors, and they were braced across the top by a large beam of the same shape and size to form a boxy arch.
      Bayano stepped forward and pointed at a raised platform beneath the arch that was slightly luminescent yet transparent as glass, allowing Nado to see that beneath the platform was a deep pit descending downward into the darkness.
      "Stand here, away from the edge," instructed Bayano. "There will be nothing to stop you if you fall."
      Nado hesitated for a moment as he stepped onto the transparent material. It seemed to have some give, but it held his weight, and he cautiously moved to the center as he was instructed. Bayano gestured for the other two men to wait and stay behind, and he stepped onto the platform with Nado. He then reached out and tapped the holographic control panel above the pedestal. There was a series of loud mechanical noises, and then the platform began to descend into the pit. Nado looked upward as the archway above vanished in the distance. Soon there was nothing but darkness above and below, but he could feel that they were still descending rapidly, and he could hear Bayano breathing and shifting his weight uneasily.
      "Tell me, Nado," said Bayano, "what has happened to your brave chief? Has he also survived as you have?"
      Nado thought back to the night the ghosts first attacked their city. He had not seen the chief; he had not seen any of the guard either. It seemed as if they had vanished. All of the people were fleeing in terror, dying in the streets, but no one had seen the chief.
      "I am sure he did," said Nado quietly. "If even I survived, then certainly our chief would have little problem."
      Bayano grunted, "That is very loyal of you to say, Nado. I could have used more men like you in my tribe. I hope you are right. Your chief has always been a formidable enemy to me. We all could use more men like him in our tribe now."
      There was a sudden thud, and Nado staggered to keep his weight above his feet as the platform came to a halt. They had arrived in a chamber identical to the one they had left. The darkness gave way to a soft blue light that shone from panels on a doorway against one of the walls.
      "This way, quickly," said Bayano.
      They moved toward the door, and it slid apart as they approached. The hallway beyond was surprisingly smaller than all of the others they had encountered in the underground labyrinth. It turned sharply around a few corners and then opened up into another large chamber. This new room was long and was full of tall rectangular pillars. Bright, blue beams of energy pulsed across the length of the chamber between the pillars, and an electric static noise filled the air.
      Bayano grabbed Nado's arm, pulled him behind one of the pillars, and crouched in the shadows. Nado began to protest, but Bayano's strong hand clapped over Nado's mouth and held it shut until Nado noticed the fear in the chieftain's eyes. Bayano released Nado and turned slowly to the corner, leaning out carefully to look around the chamber.
      "There," whispered Bayano, pointing to a dark diamond-shaped object hovering near the ceiling. "You see? It cannot be used by man."
      Nado looked carefully; it appeared to be some type of drone, a construct of sorts.
      "How do you know this is a weapon?" he whispered to Bayano.
      Bayano turned and gave Nado a critical stare.
      "Are you a fool? Why do think I am whispering? We learned by error what they are! Believe me, it is weapon… a most devastating weapon. And as I told you before, we cannot use them. They have a will of their own."
      Nado pressed his lips together, lowered his brow, and leaned out from the pillar to size up the construct.
      "Is that so?" he said, determined. "Well, I have a will of my own!"


      Lithiel watched in amazement from her concealed position high above the creatures below. Her battle suit held her aloft and cloaked her enough that none of the Sangheili were able to detect her. She truly hadn't meant to come and observe their social behavior, but the lie she had so quickly conjured up to appease Alexandria had been so perfectly devised that it appealed to her as well. Curiosity had led her to take a slight detour on her way to the control room, and what she found was astounding.
      The Sangheili had indeed evolved socially. Hundreds of the saurian creatures wandered through the ruins below. Uncloaked, their neon, purple and blue skin shimmered in the fading twilight as they rifled through the abandoned possessions of their victims. Normally, once the Sangheili gained territorial dominance after eliminating the test population, they would turn on each other, unable to quench their instinctive compulsion for violence and aggression.
      This time it was different. There were no survivors in sight, and the Sangheili were curiously searching the area, examining homes, vehicles, communications devices, and weapons, showing, for the first time, an interest in tools and technology. The implications were remarkable and terrifying.
      One of the creatures pried a pulse rifle from the hands of a dead victim. It looked cautiously into the barrel and pressed the activation switch. In a blinding flash of light, the weapon discharged and the Sangheili roared in surprise and pain as the searing energy blasted away one of its four mandibles.
      Other Sangheili nearby came bounding across the rubble to see what had caused the commotion, excited at the prospect of finding another survivor to kill, but they stopped when they saw the wounded creature, grasping its maw in agony. Then, in another horrifying surprise, they began to laugh in a roaring ruckus.
      Lithiel checked her peripheral display to be sure her topographical scanner was recording a hologram of the anomaly. Humor, as base as this manifestation may be, was a distinct feature of only highly intelligent and social creatures. It was fundamentally based in a common frame of reference. If the Sangheili had evolved so much in their socio-cultural dimensions, they could possibly begin to react more reasonably to compulsive or elicit influences. They could be controlled.
      On the other hand, these deadly predators could become an even greater threat if they were to discover the advantages of force multiplication, coordinated strategies, and combined tactics.
      Lithiel's thoughts were interrupted by another blinding flash of light. The wounded Sangheili had picked up the pulse rifle again and had fired into the pack of its mocking peers. Glowing, blue blood sprayed through the air and vaporized against the energy beam. Alien entrails poured from one of the Sangheili onto the ground as it collapsed in a heap. The others roared in anger and leapt toward the weapon-wielding aggressor, but the creature fired again, exploding the head of one of the Sangheili mid-air with deadly accuracy and plunging the barrel of the weapon into the chest of the other as it pounced onto him. He fired again, and the weapon's super-heated barrel burst through the dying creature, piercing through and out of its back with acrid steam spewing from the muzzle brake.
      Lithiel recoiled in shock. The Sangheili had just barely discovered the weapon and had already mastered it with devastating effect. She needed to stop the experiment immediately. She needed to warn Alexandria!
      Suddenly the weapon-wielding Sangheili was obliterated in a loud explosion; wet and charred pieces of flesh flew through the air in all directions. Another Sangheili had taken a rocket launcher from the ground and began to fire in all directions. Several other Sangheili looked around wildly and quickly found weapons of their own. In an instant, the quiet scene below had transformed into a raging battlefield. There was no time! Lithiel accelerated away and toward the nearest access tunnel. She had to make it to the control room before it was too late.