Bracelet of Gods
Posted By: Ape Man<email@example.com>
Date: 06 July 2001, 12:11 am
As she fled, Pillar of Autumn glistened in the reflected light of ten thousand dying starships.
And as she jumped, reality falling away into memory, Einstein's laws vanishing as seeds of millet upon a fierce wind, the talons of a mad empire raked across her skin, and the gods of this empire were still not satisfied with the bloody massacres occuring on five worlds. Defensive cannonry fell from Pillar of Autumn as she danced through a timeless realm.
"Our conviction is like an arrow in flight. You will only last until it reaches you."
The message had reached them just before they made the insertion into a dimension without time, where there was only space and distances could be crossed instantaneously. Folding in upon herself, she appeared in one area before she had even fully left another.
After ten days of running, she found herself before a star the size of Sol, and that same wonderful shade of complacent gold. Debris was scattered about the system, rock and metallic asteroids, comets, and fields of detritus which seemed to be not natural but left there by some ancient hand forced to flee the site of its grandest construction. Engines bruning through the frozen hydrogen clouds smeared across the outer edges of the system, Pillar of Autumn fell into this place of titans, and she crossed into the shadow of an enormous gas giant, twice the mass of Jupiter. As the terminator of the planet slid across this system's ambrosial sun, they gave the planet the name Threshold, and Threshold was given an aura of divinity in the light refracting around its bulk, a halo.
The hounds arrived behind Pillar of Autumn then, weapons screaming with the wrath of religion and corrupted alliances. An hour later, their massive drives had pushed them out ahead of PoA, where they lay in wait, cannons and missiles glowing with hatred. The smaller corvette stood no chance against the mighty dreadnoughts; even endowed with all the power in the universe, her skin was like that of an antelope, and the lions charging towards her had sharp, serrated fangs. Inertia carred her in their direction, and her drives were too weak to change direction in time.
Klaxxons sounded, and the dropships were readied. Marines and sailors, warriors and pilots, donned their respective implements and moved to their respective positions. Pillar of Autumn had been designed to board disabled vessels and seize command of them. As such, she carried a full complement of two battalions of marines (800 men and women), and over 1000 crew members. Inside her docking holds, she carried fifty dropships, each capable of carrying twenty humans and five tons of equipment. There were one hundred and fifty jeeps, carried along her back in case she should be tasked with a planetary invasion, thirty light tanks, and four heavy artillery platforms. There were fifteen modified dropships, in addition to the original fifty, which could also serve as naval vessels if need be, and they carried ten men and one small gunboat. Motorcycles for recon and scouting, running on flywheels rather than the bulky, noisy hydrogen engines which the other land vehicles used, could be lashed to the base of a jeep for transport down to a planet's surface; there were two hundred of these. VTOL jet fighters, faster and more powerful than the dropships, could be dropped to planetfall in cubic containers which would sprout into small landing strips upon touchdown. Pillar of Autumn carried fifteen of these nimble craft, used mainly to protect the dropships from airborne threats. Various equipment, from hand weapons and ammunition to communications dishes, could be packed into entry-tiled containers, each one eighty feet across, and dropped to the surface, where they would be recovered by the jeeps landing just moments later. To empty the Pillar of Autumn of its invasion forces would take no more than twenty minutes.
Yet she had never been designed to be abandoned; she was not a combat vessel, and was expected to operate only with the support of other, heavier starships. Thus it occured that the dropships would have to make two trips; there were 1800 personnel, and only enough ships to carry 1150 of them. The marines would go first, and the dropships would return to carry down the sailors.
Before any of this could occur, however, Pillar of Autumn had to find a suitable place to drop its forces.
It was sheer chance that the vessel's optics happened to catch the reflecton of light off of an object held in suspension between the gas giant and its single moon. Lagrangian mechanics allowed it to remain stationary relative to the two bodies, caught between their combined gravitational tides. Basis, Threshold's satellite, would not support the personnel of PoA; its atmosphere was filled with noxious gases, and odd magnetic storms induced by its proximity to the gas giant would disrupt communications and possibly disable electronics. At a time of despair, when a feeling of doom crept across the crew, the announcement came that the telescopes had discovered something, and it had an atmosphere capable of sustaining Earth life.
The captain smiled; she had know all along of this object. Yet she had not known where to find it, and relief surged within her. Turning to look through a viewport in the bridge, she could see it, gleaming from the light bouncing of of Threshold. An arc of blue, cutting across the dead black of space. A ring surrounding what could be the only chance of humanity's survival.
Covenant vessels were approaching within a million kilometers now, as Pillar of Autumn drifted through the center of the ring, releasing a cloud of dropships, equipment pods, and weapons as she did so. Having fallen into an eccentric orbit around Threshold, she would pass across here again in another hour; in that time, the dropships would have to land, disembark their passengers, and return to meet Pillar of Autumn before the Covenant fleets arrived. Trajectory computers onboard told them that it would be close, and the dropships might be descending to the halo in a firestorm of disentegrating starships.
Lieutenant Gough watched the ring turn as they approached, spinning like a wedding band on a nervous finger. Clouds and seas could be seen, high snow-capped mountains. It was as if a small slice of Earth had been turned inside out and set in space one hundred and fifty light years from Sol, orbiting alien planets. All around his own, other dropships were firing their engines madly, descending bottom-first to slow their approach speed. He did not care to ponder who had built it; such a thing could wait until after the landing, when the danger would be gone. For a fleeting moment.
"Look at the night side of it. Don't seem like we'll gettin' much sleep." Gough nodded to acknolwedge the speaker, and then craned his neck to see through a port on the opposite side of the cramped dropship. A line of silvery blue extended up across his limited field of view, showing only a slight curve. This side, oriented towards the parent star, was caught in its own shadow and thrown into darkness. Yet Threshold and Basis acted like massive mirrors, and there was an eerie twilight coating the far side of the halo. Lightning could be seen flickering from cloud to cloud, and sprites whirled madly, high above the surface, beyond the low, fifty-thousand foot atmosphere.
Thrusters swung the ship about, and his view was lost. Already, the pilot was trying to compensate for the ring's spin by accelerating to match it; rather than coming down directly onto the ring, they had to intercept the circular structure at a tangent, travelling at a velocity euqal to that of its spin, and in the final moments before landing swing around to the inside of the brilliant cerulean ribbon, dodging mountains and the ring walls holding the air in.
Covenant weapons fire would be falling upon them like lances from angry deities, returning to their devine world, to their halo, to their power.
The Sons of the Jjaro watched from the night side of the ring, observing the starships approach. Pondering. Calculating. Waiting.
Pillar of Autumn shuddered as the plasma was draped over her like rain, searing through the shields, tearing away great plates of armor and reducing them to so much crystalline metal vapor. Sacred Promise stalked just a few hundred miles behind, dark and ominous, surface slick with some sort of dispelled energy. Shining with the light of stars, a predator moved upon the last ship of Earth.
Aboard, hidden amid superconductors, miles of wiring, static shield energy, dwelling within the armor of some elemental device of slaughter, a binary mind sent binary commands out along the lines, and comm dishes slaved to a given point. A message was sent as the routers engaged, and radio waves came streaming from Pillar of Autumn.
"...He says I come not to send peace but a sword..."
Mines tumbled from the flanks of the human vessel, detonating moments later as Sacred Promise hurtled through their midst. After the initial burst of electromagnetic radiation, there was nothing left save a few lone particles drifting through space in random directions.
Golden flares like the tears of gods exploded across the upper atmosphere of Halo. Already, Gough could see the first dropships kicking up enormous cloud of dust as they settled, and the miasma of jeeps moving away from the initial landing site. Covenant landing vessels glinted behind Gough's own dropship, smooth, deathly black surfaces catching the light of the parent star. Even before they reached the atmosphere, human anti-aircraft cannons began to bellow fire visible from two hundred miles above.
Plasma began to form a shock front ahead of the dropships, and Wang held his knees tightly in the buffeting. Below, they could see land, mountains, rolling hills, seas, massive bridges spanning ominous caverns. Yet it all seemed odd, as if it had been turned inside-out. Looking to his side, Gough could see the great sapphire arch of Halo, stretching across half the sky.
And behind, there were only stars, and the molten embers of the Pillar of Autumn.
Great plasma lances burst across the sky above, reaching from one side of the ring to the other, pounding human landing sites. Gough was certainly glad that his own dropship had been alone on landing; it was far too unimportant to attack with the massive plasma cannons, and that alone caused slight solace in his mind.
Yet already there were reports from Wang, scouting on the nearby ridges, that two Covenant dropships were inbound. It would only be a few minutes before they arrived, and if help did not arrive before then or immediately afterward, the small force of humans would be slaughtered, torn to the earth as stalks of corn at harvest, their tough, sinewy stalks splintering unevenly as the scythe worked its way through their ranks.
Gough shivered; it was cold here. Even from the distance, he could hear the roar of the waterfall, as it thundered down a great, ten-thousand foot chasm. He had stood near the edge of that chasm a few hours earlier, just after the dropship had deposited the small force here and moved on to aid in distant battles. It had seemed the edge of a world, and the glittering green river delta far below had been a paradise, locked away from him by a sheer cliff two miles high. An odd tree, vaguely resembling a pine, had floruished near the edge of the cliff, and any attempt to defend the area would have been impossible with the cover an attacker would be provided by those trees. The Sarge had even considered blasting the bridge spanning the waterfall's chasm, but it had seemed futile and pointless. With their multitude of dropships, the Covenant could have landed anywhere they pleased; destroying bridges would have done no good.
He imagined the beasts, what his own army had dubbed "grunts," and shivered. They were vulgar-looking creatures, naturally repulsive. And they were easily killed. But they came in numbers far too great for comfort. On Reach, they had massed in the ten thousands at once, and despite their numbers, they had somehow managed to operate with ruthless efficiency.
And his mind formed an image of the Elites. They were quite the opposite of the Grunts; sleek, graceful, quick, cunning. Formidable opponents indeed.
And the Knights, he could not imagine. He had only heard stories of them, and those stories had been from men half-dead and dying, women with their lower halves missing, young men and boys and girls who had seen their parents vaporized by the plasma swords of the megalithic beasts. No one from his squadron had seen one, and his entire divison had only met up with two of them. Both Knights had torn their way through an entire company, and vanished into the darkness of Reach's night, traceless, timeless, soundless.
His assault rifle felt warm in his hands, comforting. He knew it would do little should the heavier elements of the Covenant armies attack his outfit, but it was comforting nonetheless. Its stacatto had been engineered to satisfy and to reassure. It was a weapon against both the enemy and against the fear of the user. The grenades lining his belt were different; even more effective, he knew, but they seemed weak, soft. The assault rifle was a defending god to him, and the grenades were mere thunderbolts.
From the gathering gloom, as the sun began to dip behind the ridges surrounding this strange structure, a brief cry of help came blaring, then the stacatto beat of Wang's rifle. Silence for only one moment. Another burst of bullets, and as Gough twirled to face the direction of the faint sound, he could see the trees on the edge of the ridge lit with gunfire. A dozen plasma bolts came hurtling from the trees, crossing the canyon and tearing small gashes in the opposite rock wall. Gough's squadmates were already on their feet, rushing towards the base of the cliff, firing to the sides of Wang's position in the hope of suppresing his attackers.
The scream of a dying Grunt. It would have been hilarious under other circumstances. Now, it seemed foreboding, evil. More gunfire, the concussion of a grenade. The trees at the edge of the cliff swayed violently. And then the unmistakable sound of a plasma rifle dispensing a burst of stored energy, and silence. Wang's rifle came bouncing down the side of the cliff, and the ridge above suddenly lit with weaponry, raining plasma hell down into the canyon.
Unconsciously, Gough dove under cover, shouting to his squadmates to do the same. Two of them responded almost instantly to the weapons fire, but one panicked, turned to the left, then stopped abruptly and spun to the right. Plasma tore at his back, and he fell to the earth, dead. Assault rifles thundered all throughout the canyon, as the eight remaining members of the squad returned fire at the general direction of the ridge.
A hiatus. A pause in the fighting.
Covenant transports raced in over the horizon, one banking to a halt and settling into the trees along the top of the ridge, and the other continuing on in the direction of the waterfall.
Comms crackled for a moment, before an oddly familiar voice blared over his helmet speakers. "Covenant dropship inbound. They must be hunting for survivors." His mind searched frantically, trying to associate the voice with a name.
"It's Cortana!" screamed McClees, racing from the small boulder he had been hiding behind towards the sail-shaped structure. Gough jumped to his legs and raced after him. "Sarge, shouldn't we contact her? Someone else is in the area!"
The Sarge was already crouched behind one wall of the tower, waving the two sprinting men in. "Already done it! Get the fuck under cover!"
The Covenant dropship on the ridge rose back into the air, circled for a moment, and came diving down madly into the canyon. Weapons fire arced out from its firing ports.
Gough cycled through the active channels on the comms for a moment, hoping to get in contact with Wang. Perhaps he had survived. After dialing through several positions on his helmet, he froze, safetied his weapon, and looked wide-eyed at the Sarge. "Sir...you're gonna want to hear this. Seven."
After a moment adjusting his own comms, the Sarge stopped. "Holy shit."
Channel seven was filled with a wash of high-frequency noise, base-twelve digital signals being transferred at ridiculously high speeds, and low, slightly garbled Covenant words. They were definitely Elites talking, their voices harsh and grinding, high and low, as if being run through a harmonizer. Their language sounded obscene to human ears, a collaboration of vowel-less squeals, groans, and exhalations.
"Cortana, Channel Seven." The Sarge switched his comms back to normal tactical channels.
After only a moment's delay, the AI's voice sounded again in their speakers. It was clear she was not talking to them, but to whomever it was nearby whom she had been talking to earlier. "Those cocky bastards. The Covenant . . . they're broadcasting tactical data on an insecure channel. Who do they think they're dealing with? If you don't mind, I think I'm going to commandeer your suit's transponder system to monitor their channels. If their security's this lax, it shouldn't be too hard for me to burrow into their defense network. I'll let you know when I hear something interesting."
Gough dropped into a prone position, extracting his pistol from a holster on his hip. Hefting it heavily in his hands, he pointed it at the ridge, activated the zoom, and waited a moment as his eyes adjusted to the perspective of the pistol's lens, projected by his helmet directly onto the back of his retina. Wang could not be seen, though one tree now crackled and burned slowly, plasma welts liberally peppered about its trunk.
AR fire sounded again, and Gough dropped the pistol and instinctively unsafetied his rifle, raised the firing sight to his cheek, and squeezed the trigger, firing in a random direction. McClees was standing upright against one wall, firing madly away at something invisible through a stand of trees two hundred yards away. The Covenant dropship was maneuvering for a landing, easily absorbing the occasional hail of bullets it received.
Gough knew then that they would not survive. They were five men, after Wang's presumed death, against perhaps forty Covenant, and at least five Elite. For every eight Grunts, the Cows always sent at least one Elite. He only hoped there were no Knights, that he might die without knowing the terror of those creatures.
Cortana was now absent. The comms were silent, save the Sarge's curses every so often as plasma rained down into his position. So far, no one of the five remaining had been injured. But they were scared and running low on ammo, and the Covenant hadn't even landed yet.
Movement beyond the far trees˝a small shape. It was difficult to see, well-camoflouged against the foliage. Gough could do little more than hope it was reinforcements.
Whatever hope he had was dispelled when the dropship's sides split open along the center, and three dozen Grunts came pouring out, firing madly for cover. Stealthily, swiftly, gracefully, another dozen Elites dashed from the dropship to the cover of trees, loosing plasma bursts from their rifles as they ran. The Sarge cursed again. Segur groaned somewhere, presumedly injured. Assault rifle fire lanced through the canyon from several directions, pinning down perhaps half of the Covenant. As one foolhardy Grunt popped from cover in an attempt to dash closer to an Elite, McClees put a line of bullets right across its path, and for one moment sparks flew from its body armor, before it toppled to the ground, rolling and tearing up vegetation, plasma pistol slipping down an embankment, and it screamed. This time, Gough could not help but laugh.
Instantly, the entire forest seemed to be alight with plasma fire thundering in on the tower, and Gough fell back to the floor, sticking his rifle around a wall and firing. After a moment, the barrage stopped, and Segur, injured but still fighting, caught another Grunt off guard. As it toppled into a tree, body catching on the gently swaying branches, it let loose a death cry of, "Nyeeeaaaahhhh!" Its pistol slipped from its arms, discharging a random shot back towards an Elite when it hit the ground. The sleek Covenant officer grunted, shot the weapon, and proceeded to make a sound which was a Cow's version of laughter. It sounded horrible, like heavy files being run over screaming industrial equipment.
As the dropship began to lift off, just moments after spilling the last of its cargo, a burst of assault rifle fire from the mouth of the canyon roared, and the dropship's shields glimmered briefly. Gough glanced from cover briefly to see a large creature with two legs racing through the trees towards the tower, tossing a grenade towards a group of Covenant. As it worked its way around a clearing, it fired in at the Covenants' backs, dropping a few Grunts and an unwary Elite in seconds. A grenade detonated, far from anything, but it shocked one group of Grunts, terrified and confused without their Elite, and allowed the approaching creature to topple them all in a quick burst across their chests. Gough could see it now, a large, green, armored humanoid, rifle in hands, firing through gaps in the trees, lobbing a grenade into a covered Covenant position, sending Grunts flying and producing screams of annoyance from the Elites. He had heard a rumor, and now knew it to be fact; shooting the Elites only pissed them off.
Gough reflected as he stared at the machine. Cortana had been telling the truth.
The armored creature came tearing into a huddling group of Covenant minions, tearing through several of them with its rifle, and dispatching the last with a crushing blow to the head from the AR's stock. Even the Elites seemed to pause and observe its grace, its efficiency, the way it smoothly flowed from one opponent to the next. One of its grenades blew a defending Elite into a short wall of dirt, where recent rains had caused the earth to collapse, and as the creature picked itself up and reached for its gun, a pistol round tore its way through the Cow's neck, and it fell back, growling and snorting, firing madly at the approaching shade. Here was their demon. Here was their harbinger of apocalypse. It sent another pistol round ripping through the Elite's skull, rupturing armor and bone and thin skeins of muscle, which lodged itself in the brain cavity.
The remaining Covenant had fled and were now working their way around the tower, racing along the side of the canyon. "It's a mess, sir!" shouted the Sarge. "We called in for evac, but until you came along, I wasn't sure it was coming." Gough dashed down from his position in the tower to meet the approaching weapon. Cortana had told the crew it was not a man. It was to be called only a weapon. It preferred it that way.
"Don't worry Sergeant," Cortana sang over the comms. "We'll stay here and help until evac arrives." The anxious marines quickly reloaded and fell back into the tower, where the eight-foot tall suit of armor stood, weapon readied, observing. The Covenant only allowed them moments of rest.
"Covenant inbound, over here!" Gough shouted, as he sighted shapes approaching to the rear of the tower, through the trees. After a moment, the weapon was back down from the tower, spraying the approaching Elites with gunfire. It took only a few moments, before they both fell. The armored beast ejected a spent clip, slammed a fresh one home and jammed the action on its AR forward in a smooth motion, which lasted only a second or two. More Elites came rushing around from another side, and McClees and Segur, back on his feet and fighting pain, met them with metal teeth. The Covenants' shields glimmered madly, as they returned fire, but the marines had an advantageous position, shielded by trees and rocks. A grenade sailed into their midst, and Gough quickly glanced over at the cyborg to see it dropping a pin and lifting the assault rifle back to its eyes. A brief concussion, and both Elites went pinwheeling through the air, dead, weapons hurtling out quickly enough to kill someone if they were struck by the flying plasma rifles. Covenants carrying portable shields quickly advanced in groups of three, absorbing bullets, falling back as their shields depleted, then rushing back up to assist their comrades. McClees came around to the side of one group and a line of rifle fire came slanting through them, while the cyborg and Segur came at the second group from opposing angles. The Covenant could not turn quickly enough to cover themselves from two positions, and the two on the side were easily felled. Tossing a plasma grenade gently towards Segur, the third shield-bearing Cow easily fended off a hail of weaponry from the cyborg, firing back occasionally. In only moments, however, the Covenant was astounded to find its own plasma grenade lying at its feet. It looked briefly back towards Segur, who grinned at it, before it was thrown back, bouncing up a hill, body shattered and broken.
The cyborg's featureless visor observed Segur for a moment through the haze left by the grenade, then it turned and dashed in the direction of more fighting.
Above, Halo's graceful curve rose to attain divinity, but it held not the strength and determination, and fell back upon itself, infinitely, as the true deities mocked it from afar.
Plasma fire glittered as it swept from one side of the ring to the other, thirsty to spill the blood of empires.
Gough stopped fighting for a moment, to catch his breath, and noticed that above, the brilliant day side of Halo had drowned out the stars.