Before The Storm
Posted By: Chris Cox<Spheira@netscape.net>
Date: 21 July 2001, 9:08 pm
"...you are the last of your kind..."
Shadows marched across the floor of the loading bay like an advancing army. The Pillar of Autumn and the orbital dock to which it was attached were passing across the night side of Landfall. As the ship and station fell into the planet's shadow the light of the system's red sun drained off their hulls and seeped out of the loading bay, leaving only the dull glow of the heavy lift shuttles' engines.
The transfer of equipment and supplies was progressing with mechanical efficiency. What remained of the Griffon-class destroyer Aegis had limped into port a day earlier, and since then there had been a rush to remove its remaining personnel, weaponry and ammunition before its superstructure collapsed completely. And so the shuttles rumbled in and out of the bay, their latticework frames loaded with ammunition crates, supply packages, warheads, vehicles, and occasionally marines in EVA suits.
Petty Officer Nikolay Kaplansky was on the bay floor, directing the loaders and the munitions trolleys they were using to ship the cargo into storage bays deeper in the ship. The Pillar was significantly bigger than the Aegis had been, and there was plenty of room for extra equipment to be stored. Everyone aboard was only too happy to take on more troops, crew and guns, but there was an atmosphere of desperation on the ship. These men and women were not reinforcements: they were survivors of SolCore's latest defeat.
Kaplansky gave the emptied shuttle at the far end of the bay the all-clear to take off and turned back to the heaps of materiel on the bay floor. The salvaged equipment had been coming aboard for hours now, as the dock's crew struggled to get everything of value from the Aegis before the Pillar departed. Covenant scouts had been detected in the vicinity of the colony at Reach. That could only mean one thing, and as soon as she was refuelled the Pillar was leaving to give the garrison fleet what assistance she could.
The shuttle rose up from the bay floor and backed out of the doors, its thrusters rotating to control its motion. Kaplansky was running on autopilot, and moved onto the next one, and the next. The bay crews unloaded the cargo from each one, secured it onto a munitions trolley and drove it away into the bowels of the warship. The operation ran like clockwork, each crewman having performed the same task constantly since the salvage began arriving. It was only once Kaplansky was waving off the shuttle at the other end of the bay that he realised that no more were coming in.
He tapped the helmet on his vacuum suit and activated his comlink. "Cortana, where's the next shipment?"
The AI's artificial voice appeared through the suit speakers. "The shuttles are in holding patterns outside. There's a special delivery on its way. Get your teams to clear the bay."
"Clear the bay? Surely it can't be big enough to take up the whole thing?" Kaplansky looked up and down the bay, which was big enough to fit in four shuttles at once, still with room to spare.
"Those are your orders. Get your equipment and personnel out of the way." Cortana paused, probably for effect as her thought-processes worked faster than any human could imagine. "Once your teams are clear, return to the bay and await further orders."
"Fine. Kaplansky out." he said, shrugging and waving for the others to vacate the bay. The loading crews hopped onto their trolleys and rode out through the rear cargo airlock. Once they were gone and the airlock closed, he walked to the middle of the empty room and peered out of the space doors. There was a dropship approaching, unmarked and painted plain black. "Special delivery?" muttered Kaplansky. "Special forces, more like."
The dropship swung into the bay quickly and rocked back on itself as its vectored thrust units slowed it down. As it touched down gently on the floor, engines still running enough to keep it upright, the doors in its rear opened and a squad of men in vacuum suits dropped out. They could have been workers from the orbital dock, except their suits bore no insignia and their visors were tinted. Without acknowledging his presence, they manhandled a three metre long cylinder out of the dropship's interior and left it standing on its end in the middle of the loading bay. Then, without so much as a gesture, they got back into the dropship and left the ship.
Frowning, Kaplansky paced over to the cylinder. Though he was unfamiliar with the artefact: it looked quite old by the amount of wear and scratches on its surface; he thought it resembled one of the stasis pods that SolCore used to isolate dangerous biological agents or keep seriously injured personnel alive until proper medical attention was available. Wondering if SolCore had developed some viral weapon to use against the Covenant, he walked round to the other side of the cylinder, where a small transparent inspection plate was set into the metal of its shell.
At first, he thought there was an injured man in the cylinder. He was wearing a large green armoured suit with a wide reflective visor. But as he looked more closely, he saw that although the suit was slightly pitted and scarred, there was no trace of injuries bad enough to warrant a stasis tube. Then he noticed how thick the armour was, and thought how heavy the suit and its accompanying backpack must be. Then he realised what he was looking at.
A hundred different images flashed through Kaplansky's mind. Images of memories: crackly 2D vids from the Icarus asteroid colony; sterile holovids of testing arenas; the footage from the storming of the UESG complex on Earth. Images of half-human, half-mechanical monsters that moved faster than any real man could, taking hits that would have killed a man without slowing down, and leaving destruction and corpses everywhere they went. The thing in the tube was a battleroid.
Battleroids had existed for hundreds of years. Since their genesis in the Icarus-Thermopylae war, the practice of recycling dead soldiers into hybrid killing machines had spread to every corner of human civilisation. But the terrible effectiveness of the cyborgs soon became clear, and a few well-publicised massacres (the populations of Icarus and Thermopylae being the most notable casualties) led even the most ruthless of commanders to question the necessity for such weapons. In 2214 all human governments singed a treaty outlawing the use of battleroids except under certain specially prescribed circumstances.
The cyborgs had been put into storage, released from their cryogenic sleep only for routine tests and upgrades, used only in the most carefully controlled conditions. Their last outing occurred at the fall of the UESC, when the remaining members of the UESG fortified themselves inside the council buildings in the face of a mob of insurgents. As the insurgents poured into the complex from the streets of the city, the UESG leaders ordered the activation of around 20 battleroids that had been stored in hidden chambers in the basement. Thousands of poorly armed civilians were mown down where they stood, and it took the regular forces of the rebellion a full week and hundreds more casualties to finally destroy the hybrids and arrest the leaders. When SolCore was formed later the same year, the possession of battleroids was outlawed and all the remaining units were located and terminated.
Or at least that's what they teach you in school, thought Kaplansky.
Caught up in his memories, Kaplansky had failed to notice that William Bertram, the ship's executive officer, had entered the bay and was standing beside him. He stood to attention quickly, but Bertram shook his head. "At ease, soldier. Now isn't the time for ceremony."
Kaplansky looked into the stasis tube again. "Sir, is that what I think it is?" he said, hesitantly.
Bertram nodded. "SolCore CC sanctioned its activation a week ago. We've been sitting in port loading supplies we'll probably never use as an excuse for waiting for it."
Kaplansky frowned, still staring at the inert monstrosity in the cylinder. "But... I thought they were all destroyed?"
Bertram sighed. "So did I, until a few days ago. I don't know why this one was spared. Maybe they found it after the purge, thought they could store it in case they came up against something bad enought to justify using it." He shrugged. "Doesn't matter now, of course. Cover it up and pack it away with the rest of the munitions. The Captain's given Cortana the activation code and told her to activate it if the situation presents an opportunity."
Kaplansky looked at Bertram's expressionless face, and back to the mirror-like mask of the cyborg. Contained behind that mask was all the destructive knowledge of mankind. Everything they had fought so hard to forget.
"Is it really that bad out there, sir?" he asked, actually feeling afraid for the first time in years.
Bertram looked away from the killing machine and gazed out at the stars through the bay's space doors.
"Yes." he said.