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The Prisoner (part 3)
Posted By: Chris Cox<Spheira@netscape.net>
Date: 17 March 2001, 8:27 pm

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He fell to the ground, rolling as he landed. The first thing that he noticed was that the pain that he expected in his legs did not appear. The second was that he was no longer indoors, strapped to a table, or half-naked.
He climbed to his feet, testing his newly-healed limbs. He was standing in the middle of a ruined street, between rows of shattered buildings. The place was not familiar, but was almost certainly the remains of a human settlement, because there were charred corpses lying scattered across the scene, and they were definitely not Covenant.
"This was the first that we found." the voice of his tormentor appeared from behind him without warning, and he spun to face the alien. It stood facing him, relaxing against the side of something that might once have been an apartment block. "From what we could glean from the transmissions sent in the aftermath of its destruction, this planet had a population of more than 500 million of your people."
"Yeah, and you killed them all." he replied. "Tell me something I don't know."
The alien turned away and walked through the remnants of a doorway. "Come." it said. He tried to remain where he was, but he seemed compelled to follow. He followed it through a collapsed building, over piles of plascrete and structural steel fallen from higher floors, to emerge from a door on the other side into a second street. The street was as ruinous as the last one, but the buildings lining its sides were taller, more carefully constructed, older. As he looked around, he noticed that the sky had a different hue, the blue tinged with green. He had been here before...
"This world was cleansed by the fourth holy fleet relatively recently." the interrogator continued. "You should be aware of this, because you were born here." Young remembered now: the green sky of his homeworld, the gas giant moon Fulcrum. The city must be Carlstown, the only sizable settlement on the planetoid. The Covenant had reached Fulcrum two weeks after the Pillar had been assigned to the Reach defence fleet. Three generations of his family had been on Fulcrum when the arrived, and now they were all dead. Nothing had escaped, not even a distress transmission.
The interrogator crouched beside the skeleton of a ground car. "If this war continues, this will be the fate of all of your worlds, and all of your kin. You have the power to prevent this, yet you still choose to remain silent. How many lives is your pride worth?"
Young tried to step towards the alien, intent on taking a swing at it, but his legs again refused to obey his will. "I don't know anything. I don't know the answers you want from me. If I could just give you the Halo and make you all go away, don't you think I would?"
"Perhaps. You could, on the other hand, be intent on gaining the power of the construct for your people and then using it to defeat us." The alien gave what he assumed was a grin. "No matter. You now have no choice in the matter."
The ruins and the street faded, and were replaced by a wide, roughly hexagonal room. The metallic walls of the chamber were lined with glowing, translucent panes bearing various patterns of symbols unfamiliar to Young. In the centre of the room was a deep hollow, rimmed with more of the panes, which he guessed to be holograms as they hung several feet from the floor, unattached. Suspended over the hollow was another, much larger hologram, depicting the ring itself, slowly rotating in the air in front of him.
The interrogator paced across the room to one of the panes, moving its hand through the top of the hologram and causing it to change colour and reorder the symbols. It looked back towards him and his legs walked him up beside it. It stepped back from the pane. "This chamber, as far as we are able to discern, is linked to the primary control grid for this construct. Activate it."
Young was suddenly aware of many other aliens watching him from the shadows around the periphery of the chamber. Most were of the same species as the interrogator, but a few were of a different race, bulky bipeds with three-clawed hands and tall, flexible necks. He started to protest again, but his vocal cords ceased to operate abruptly before he could get a word out. He stepped up to the pane. His hand reached up towards the symbols, then stopped.
He could feel the assembled Covenant waiting to see what he did. The whole thing was a simulation, presumably an image of the real system, produced so he could show them how to use the Halo's systems. As he hesitated, he started to feel compelled to activate the device, although he did not have a clue as to how. The longer he waited, the more the feeling grew. He was desperate to activate it. The need to turn it on expanded in his mind until nothing else mattered, until he was searching everywhere in his mind for the answer. Nothing came.
He stood, motionless, hand outstretched ready to touch the pane, for what seemed like an eternity. Constellations of ideas ignited and burnt out, civilisations of thoughts grew up, flourished and collapsed under the relentless pressure of the need for the answer. Eventually, his mind gave way and he cried out, collapsing to the floor. There were murmurs from the assembled circle of aliens, and they faded out of existence, melting back into the shadows. His interrogator stood over him.
"You are stronger than I expected, human. But every being has its limit. In time, I will find yours."
Then the chamber faded as a whole, and the illusion decayed, leaving him exhausted, covered in sweat, lying restrained on the table. The device sat beside his head, its spines retracted into its inner surface. He lost consciousness almost immediately, hardly remembering being carried back to his cell and left sprawled on the floor.

Young was half awake, half trapped in the illusion still, his mind hanging on the divide between the two. He was back with his platoon, fighting his way out of the ambush at flame gorge, the narrow valley they had been hiding in when a force of Covenant scouts blundered into them. The firefight was so intense that the trees in the gorge were being ignited by stray shots, and they were all having to retreat to avoid the growing inferno.
More gunfire. Closer.
He was starting to regain consciousness. The flame gorge battle was more distant now, the shouts of his comrades less audible. Yet the gunfire was, if anything, getting louder. He opened his eyes, taking in the darkness of his cell. The shooting was definitely real. A bullet ricocheted off the wall of the cell, and a Covenant energy weapon answered from close by.
Slowly regaining control of his limbs, Young shuffled round and tried to sit up. Too late he found that his legs were still largely crippled, and he rolled back, wincing in pain. While he tried to compose himself, the door slid open and a blue-armoured Covenant warrior burst in, grabbed him by one arm and dragged him out of the door, into the dimness of the twilight outside. He looked around frantically, ignoring the agonising jerks as his legs dragged along the ground. From a patch of rocks to one side of the encampment, a group of marines was laying down fire on the aliens, advancing slowly towards the prefab shelters and heaps of supply crates. The landing craft was beginning to slowly rise up out of harm's way.
The warrior was dragging him towards one of the Covenant vehicles hovering at the opposite side of the camp, a smooth, purple craft with a turret floating, apparently unattached, above its rear. Gritting his teeth, Young wrapped his free arm around the alien's legs, sending it sprawling and himself straight down onto the hard ground. He scrambled to his knees, shuffling towards the marines as fast as he could manage in his injured, exhausted state.
He had barely crawled a few paces closer when the warrior, which had jumped to its feet, caught up and kicked him hard in the ribs. Snarling curses at him in its guttural language, it took hold of his arm again, dragging him to his knees and sending pain spearing through his wounded legs as they scraped across the ground. Still growling, it threw him to the floor again and bent down to get a better grip, when a burst of rifle bullets tore through its torso and brought it crashing down on top of him.
Pulling himself from underneath the dying alien's body, Young was relieved to see three marines dashing out from the cover of the rocks, heading towards him. A low droning from the direction of the Covenant vehicles indicated that they were moving off, turning their weapons on the prefabricated buildings and piled supplies as they went, burning what they could not take with them. Two of the approaching marines dived to the ground, keeping up the fire on the retreating aliens, while the third, a tall man wearing a HUD-equipped helmet, jogged over to Young and crouched down next to him.
"You okay?" He started, then noticed the spread of red gashes under the dressings on Young's legs. "Shit..." An energy blast from one of the Covenant vehicles ripped through a nearby shelter, sending glowing shards of metal bouncing across the ground. "We'd better get you out of here."
The marine turned and signaled to the other two, who began to edge back towards the rocks, and then activated his helmet comlink to order back the rest of the force. Young turned around, trying to see if the Covenant had got out of sight, and found himself looking into the face of the fallen alien behind him.
It was sitting awkwardly, crouched with one leg underneath, having somehow survived having most of its chest blown away. Purple blood flowed down its sides and dripped from its ruined armour, staining the earth below it. It had managed to recover its weapon and was pointing it at the other marine. Too late, Young yelled a warning and tried to grab hold of the gun, but before he could move the alien had fired a burst into the unknowing soldier's back, burning through armour and flesh, toppling him to the ground with half of his torso burnt to ashes.
A moment later, Young's hands closed around the weapon, wrenching it from the injured warrior's grasp and turning it on the alien. They sat for a few seconds, glaring at each other while the two marines scrambled back towards them, trying to aim their rifles past Young to get a shot at the alien. The Covenant warrior glanced over Young's shoulder at the approaching humans, snorted in resignation and lunged at him, jaws wide open. It had hardly moved an inch before he fired, blowing its head apart and briefly holding it in mid-leap. He kept firing into the corpse until the weapon began to glow from the heat and its casing started to crack.

He hardly noticed when one of the other marines reached him, took the gun from his hand and led him back to the cover of the rocks, crawling back in the face of fairly heavy fire from the Covenant vehicles, which had taken up position on a nearby rise. Friendly hands reached out from behind the boulders and carried him back from the fighting, to where a jeep waited with a field medic. Exhaustion and shock were beginning to set in, and with a combination of these and the painkillers which the medic administered, he sank into unconsciousness. He felt the jeep moving under him, and as the sky faded out the meaning of what had just happened sank in.
He was free.
* * *