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Scrambler (Part 2 of 3)
Posted By: The Meep<cbrooks@rivier.edu>
Date: 11 June 2010, 7:55 am

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"Corporal, listen to me! That thing on your back seat is something the Covenant want really fuckin' bad, and now they know you have it. We put a scrambler in it; jams electronics, fucks with their sensors and targeting. We need to get it to Mount Zulu."

      The urgency in the Lieutenant's voice was unmistakable, and the fact that they were currently racing down a street at nearly a hundred kilometers per hour only emphasized it. Not to mention electronic warfare! Reynolds had the distinct impression that he had been on-the-spot recruited into a SpecWar operation, maybe even ONI; an instant replacement for the KIA second driver. Whatever this was all about, it was more important than killing some sniper. His fireteam could handle themselves.

      He could see that the shadow swathed backalley he was in opened up into Pallo Avenue ahead, one of the main arteries servicing Seventh District, a stark contrast both in light and in technology. And then it was a straight shot to the Covenant battlecruiser: Mount Zulu.

      "Covenant armor!" the Lieutenant suddenly screamed into his ear. Reynolds automatically jerked left, following Lucifer and the Lieutenant onto the sidewalk. Two hundred meters distant, moving slowly but steadily down Pallo Avenue's right lane, was a wraith. It's purple hull gleamed under the Mexican sun, and a brute swiveled in the gun turret, bringing the plasma repeater to bear on the dual Mongooses. "Hit the trigger!"

      Reynolds knew there weren't any triggers on the Mongooses: no guns means no trigger. But he clenched his hand anyway as he veered around an overturned cart, the broken and scattered souvenirs it once held shattering underneath Yama's solid rubber tires before being shot out behind them in a fine spray. Much to his surprise, Reynolds felt something shift and click under his middle finger, followed by an electronic humming from the cube secured on the backpad behind him. He realized that he had just activated the scrambler tied to the back of his Mongoose. The electronic readouts on the dashboard turned into red static, but the steering and acceleration controls were so basically designed that they were immune to the scrambler's interference.

      They were seconds from Pallo Avenue when the soldier noticed that the Lieutenant's cube was glowing: the glyphs and inscriptions cut into its surface emitted a faint orange light that, while dim, stood out in the darkness of the backstreet.

      And then Lucifer and the Lieutenant were burning in sunlight as they emerged from the safety of the urban canyon, barreling right across the intersection, not thirty meters from the wraith. The brute gunner followed the Lieutenant, leading her with his repeater. "Look out!" Reynolds yelled into his boom mic, even though he knew she wouldn't be able to hear him over the ferocious wind tearing across his face.

      And then he was blind. Yama screamed over the hard line separating the shadow of the backalley from the harsh brilliance of Pallo Avenue at nearly ninety kilometers per hour, fast enough that he wasn't so much breathing as he was catching air with his open mouth. The sudden sunlight scorched his eyes, and it took all of his training and willpower to keep them barely slitted open. Even then, the brilliance caused his eyes to water, further distorting his vision. For a few terrifying seconds, Reynolds was truly driving blind.

      He felt the jarring thuds of the rough backalley turn into the silk-smooth purr of refined concrete beneath him.
      He heard the wraith's engines rev as it came about, and the sound of its turret firing.
      He smelled plasma bolts burning ozone, and the toxic stench of melting rubber.
      He tasted dirt, smoke, and fear.
      But all Reynolds saw was piercing light and the tears from his own eyes.

      The soldier blindly wrenched Yama's grips to the left as he fought the urge to panic, remembering that the wraith was to his right, farther up Pallo Avenue. He felt the Mongoose heave up from beneath him as the left wheels rode up over the curb. Reynolds immediately threw his weight to the left, barely keeping Yama from flipping over and turning him into a red smear on the pavement. His body clenched, simultaneously trying to lower his center of gravity and bracing for the inevitable plasma blasts.

      Of course, they never came. Yama lurched without warning as her wheels fell off the curb, now level but still barreling down Pallo Avenue with a blinded driver. Fortunately, Reynolds' vision was slowly returning to him, and he chanced a look behind him to size up the wraith. What he saw both surprised and exhilarated the soldier.

      The massive Covenant tank had veered to the side, it's right stabilizing fin having bashed itself into a rounded stub against the middle barrier that separated incoming and outgoing traffic. The snubbed fin was still grinding into the barrier amidst a shower of sparks, and the wraith was listing heavily on that side. The turret was behaving even stranger: much to the gunner's frustration, the turret's cockpit was slowly turning in circles, rotating 360 degrees and beyond. It reminded Reynolds of a dog chasing its tale: just circling, circling, circling. Also, given the plasma scorches on the surrounding buildings and the street itself, the plasma turret had apparently spewed its projectiles with as much accuracy as a child throwing a handful of pebbles. There was no familiarly neat line of stitched scorch marks on the street, but rather small craters over everything in the vicinity: cars, buildings, and anything that wasn't Reynolds and the Lieutenant.

      Reynolds was forced to turn back or else risk crashing into one of the hundreds of vehicles that littered Pallo Avenue. They were mostly civilian: two-doors, flats, and the occasional bus towering over everything else. But it wasn't uncommon to see a warthog or troop transport lying abandoned on the concrete, more often than not half slagged and reeking of burned meat.

      The run-in with the wraith had spooked the soldier, and he leaned over Yama's dashboard as low as he could, trying to put as much distance between the scrambled Covenant armor and his flimsy Mongoose. Before he had even made it a hundred meters, though, there was a deafening blast, followed immediately by an immense shockwave of superheated air. Reynolds screamed, and he was sure the Lieutenant did too, as a plume of blue flame and billowing sheets of plasma shot into the sky, briefly obscuring the sun and giving everything a sterile blue tint. The shockwave almost knocked him off Yama, and he swore the rear wheels were actually lifted off the ground as the blast wave nearly flipped his Mongoose. The skin on the back of his neck was red, and his entire body was suddenly doused in sweat as the heat wave threatened to cook him alive. Had he been any closer to the wraith, that just might have happened.

      Speaking of the wraith. Apparently, it had tried to fire off a mortar blast at the retreating humans. The scrambler, however, turned that simple action into a deadly mistake. Instead of coalescing the superheated matter into a uniform sphere and containing it within thousands of tiny pinched magnetic fields, the wraith's firing mechanism flooded the storage chamber with the plasma, but couldn't generate magnetic fields to contain it. Within milliseconds, the unbound matter expanded, burning through the wraith's hull and exploding when the pressure grew too great. Burning shrapnel - chunks of blackened metal with edges that glowed red from the heat - rained down around Reynolds as he focused on the road, correcting Yama's swerve and recovering from the shockwave.

      The Lieutenant's scrambled voice, which had been trying to talk to him for a few seconds now, finally became coherent, but was still staticky and filled with bloops and sirens due to the scrambler. "This is the gauntlet. Expect heavy Covenant resistance as we get closer to Mount Zulu. The scramblers should take care of them." Her voice was cool now, a far cry from the frenzied, urgent shouting from earlier. Reynolds suddenly wondered what they would do once they reached the Tavari Plaza: just drop off the crates? Would they have to fight their way to the grav lift? Was it a rendezvous?

      The street was deserted aside from the abandonded vehicles. Pallo Avenue - built to handle the majority of the Seventh District's population - was very broad, and there were plenty of gaps and openings in the frozen traffic that a Mongoose could easily maneuver through. Yama and Lucifer were still going full speed, but the trip took on a strangely peaceful tone. Cars whipped by him at nearly one hundred kilometers per hour, but the massive high rises, architectural accomplishments, and pure eye candy of Mexico City's downtown passed by at a seemingly leisurely pace. With Mount Zulu hidden behind the legions of skyscrapers, and no Covenant in sight, Reynolds almost felt like a tourist.

      The almost-but-not-quite relaxing sojourn was abruptly interrupted by a pair of ghosts. The hovercrafts shot out parallel to Pallo Avenue from a side street. Instead of turning into a lane and giving chase to the Mongooses, as their drivers obviously intended, the twin ghosts continued straight across Pallo Avenue's seven outbound lanes and collided with the middle barrier. One ghost flipped, crushing its pilot between its frame and the barrier, but the second ghost managed to glide up and over concrete wall, flying almost ten meters straight up before the scrambler finally shut down its anti-gravity engine. The vehicle plummeted, snapping the driver's seat off from the bulky front portion once it landed. Reynolds laughed, turned back to the road, and deftly ducked around a minivan, its chrome windows lined with sun reflectors and cartoony butterflies.

      While vehicles posed little to no threat due to the scrambler, infantry was an another matter entirely. Ghosts and tanks may flip and explode, but the only things that would break for the ground troops would be their gun's electronics. Plasma weapons would spew their energized gas like a water hose and overheat quickly, but needlers and carbines would still be effective, albeit scopeless. And, even then, they wouldn't even need to aim anyway if there were enough of them.

      Such were Reynolds' thoughts as they rounded a broad, gentle curve in Pallo Avenue, only to discover no less than thirty squads of Covenant, each consisting of brutes, jackals, and grunts. The battalion size group of enemies was locked in a massive firefight with the main bulk of the 730th, Reynolds' own battalion. A combination of explosives and plasma had blasted out nearly ten meters of the central barrier; the Covenant were entrenched behind cars and in buildings on the left side - coincidentally, the side Reynolds and the Lieutenant were on - and the 730th were on the right. The battlefield was massive, occupying a half kilometer stretch of Pallo Avenue and spilling out into the side streets, courtyards, and buildings surrounding it.

      Sniper fire rained down from the thirtieth floor of a highrise tower right behind the main Covenant fortification, and was quickly countered with twin blasts from two Scorpion tanks. The resultant debris fell a hundred meters, crushing anything unlucky enough to be caught beneath.

      A pair of hunters bashed their way through the rubble of the central barrier, shields flailing and mortars charging, only to be met by two platoons of marines. Concentrated fire caused the hulking conglomerates to turtle up behind their armor, as they slowly inched towards the human line under a hail of bullets. One fell to sniper fire, and its partner was quick to follow as close to a hundred rounds a second flew at it.

      Near the center of the battle, a pack of brutes was tearing into several squads of marines. Bodies and body parts flew as the muscular aliens beat the comparatively diminutive humans into bloody pulps. In the ensuing panic, fireteams split and the soldiers fell into disarray. Despite their officer's attempts to try and focus their fire on the aliens, the brutes continued to beat a bloody swath through the human formation.

      A single wraith lobbed mortars into the buildings behind the 730th, trying to reach the Scorpions and grenadier teams that rained explosive death on the Covenant battalion from afar. A salvo of rockets retaliated seconds later, but the wraith backed into an alleyway; the explosives detonated harmlessly on the surrounding buildings.

      Overhead, a flight of Falcons and Hornets danced a deadly dance with a number of Banshees. The air jockeys fought both in the open sky above Pallo Avenue, and in the cramped airways between skyscrapers. No matter where it fell, burning wreckage from destroyed fliers was sure to crush someone - Covenant or Human - underneath.

      And, sitting no more than a kilometer to the south, was Mount Zulu. It's bulbous hull was situated just above the highest skyscrapers, since it was too large to fit inside Tavari Plaza. From this close, turrets, docking bays, and large scale glyphs were clearly visible on the alien warship. A cylinder of cyan light protruded from its stomach: the gravity lift. Dozens of small black dots slowly drifted down it, each one a Covenant soldier eager to tear into one of humanity's largest megalopolises.

      The Lieutenant stopped several hundred meters short of the edge of the battlefield, sitting astride Lucifer as she surveyed the chaos. They were on top of a small rise that sloped down to the main battle; maybe ten meters of total altitude. Reynolds couldn't see her face as he pulled up next to her, but he was sure it was a mask of frustrated concentration.

      It was only a few seconds before the Lieutenant spoke. "Alright," she began, pointing at Mount Zulu. "The plaza is just a few hundred meters southwest of the battle. We can either try and punch through the fighting, or we could backtrack and try to find an alternate route."

      Reynolds was about to voice his opinion when the Lieutenant spoke again, glancing at an iris readout on her wrist. "And we don't have time for the backroads. Come on, Corporal. Saddle up and stick close."

      Once again, without waiting or even looking at her partner, the Lieutenant braced herself on Lucifer and gunned the acceleration. With a sigh and a silent prayer, Reynolds did likewise.

      The pair sped down the small incline, sticking to the right side of the road, right up against the barrier. Most of the combatants were firing at range from the far sides of Pallo Avenue, turning the central lanes into a No Man's Land of sorts. It was only a few seconds before they reached the fringe of the engagement. The road around them became scarred with plasma ionization and bullet impacts. The air was clogged with dirt and ash. Debris from hundreds of explosions littered the road, ranging from small chunks of brick to entire walls of buildings. The sound of gunfire and sizzling plasma discharges filled the air; Reynolds' helmet automatically dampened the audio, but it was still deafeningly loud.

      He heard a brute's voice, immensely amplified to reach over the entire battlefield. It was standing on the fourth story balcony of an apartment complex, giving it a commanding view of Pallo Avenue. It was yelling in its language, and when Reynolds stole a glance at it, he noticed that it was pointing right at him. Or the scrambler on my backpad he thought. Do they know what it is? Even if they did, I doubt they could destroy it. Reynolds, after seeing what had happened to the wraith and ghosts, was entirely confident in the cube's ability to protect him.

      It wasn't long after the brute's barking announcement that the Covenant stopped firing, much to the 730th's surprise. For a few seconds, the only sounds that echoed between the massive buildings lining Pallo Avenue were the engines of Lucifer and Yama and the rapidly diminishing gunfire from the Human side. Reynolds became acutely uncomfortable as he continued down the street at full speed. The hairs on the nape of his neck stood straight up, and his heart was suddenly in his throat. What the hell's going on?

      There was a second command from the brute on the balcony, this one sounding almost... reverent. That is, if inflection even translated accurately between Brutish and English. The sporadic gunfire picked up again, returning to its formerly deafening level. A huge explosion rocked the highway, and the alleyway which the wraith had been hiding in collapsed in on itself. And still the Covenant held their fire.

      "Just keep going," the Lieutenant whispered in his ear, her voice betraying her nervousness. "We're turning to the far side. I want to put that barrier between the Covies and us before they start shooting 'gain."

      Sure enough, Reynolds could see the smashed opening in the center barrier up ahead. The debris was scattered mostly on the human side of the highway, so crossing into the gap was relatively smooth. Lucifer rounded the plasma-scored concrete barrier, his suspension jerking wildly on the uneven rubble.

      Without warning, a brute leaped from behind a burned out truck, tackling the Lieutenant's Mongoose as it sped through the opening. Man, meat, and machine tumbled out of control, the Mongoose flipping and throwing the Lieutenant off its seat. The brute's arm was trapped between the carriage and the wheel, and he roared with pain as Lucifer spun out of control into a flipped warthog, denting its thick frame. The brute struggled to unpin itself, it's free hand grasping futilely at the glyphed steel-alloy cube. A sniper round from the human-side skyscraper blew out its skull.

      Reynolds' head spun at the sudden attack, and he braked abruptly, placing Yama just behind the untouched portion of the center barrier. The rush of wind blowing through his helmet died, and he could hear the balcony brute roaring in... Frustration? Anger? Happiness? Nonetheless, its amplified voice echoed down Pallo Avenue and shook the smoke drifting through the air, sounding like a titanic monster from legend. Reynolds winced at the noise as he searched for the Lieutenant. He found her quickly: lying, crumpled, on the edge of a small crater about ten meters away. A fireteam had taken up residence in the shelter of the crater's depression, and one of them was currently crouched over the officer, wrestling with a small package that might have been a medpack.

      He paused, not sure what to do now. The Lieutenant was down, maybe even dead. Her package was out of commission, Lucifer was wrecked and covered in brute brains. Should he continue to Mount Zulu? What would he do even if he could get there? Throw the cube at the nearest wraith?

      A sudden explosion blew a hole in the concrete barrier a few feet ahead of him. Reynolds was thrown off the back of the Mongoose by the blast, the corner of the steel cube cutting a gash down his lower back as he was flung past it. He cartwheeled through the air once, twice, and then landed face down on the pavement, skidding two meters before finally coming to a stop. His armor was smoking from the explosion, and blood from the cut on his back pooled on the hot pavement below him. His right thumb twitched, but aside from that, Corporal Reynolds was still.

To be concluded next week...