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The Prisoner (part 4 - Final Chapter)
Posted By: Chris Cox<Spheira@netscape.net>
Date: 09 April 2001, 8:02 pm

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    When Young awoke he was still on the jeep, strapped into the passenger seat while another marine drove the vehicle through a series of steep-sided gorges. As consciousness returned to him he looked down and was relieved to see that dressings had been put over his legs to replace the transparent alien ones, and that his injuries did not hurt so much anymore. The painkillers were obviously working.
    He began to move his head and looked around. Another jeep was driving ahead of the one he was in, and by the sound he guessed that another was following behind. There were no Covenant in sight, no sound of the alien landing vessel, and humans all around. He breathed a sigh of relief. The marine beside him noticed his movement and shouted back over her shoulder.
    "Yo, Add, he's moving." There was some noise from the back of the jeep and a face appeared between the seats.
    "Welcome back. Thought you'd gone into a coma or something for a while." The face was smiling, belonging to a forty-ish man leaning down from the back of the jeep. "Addenstone, Epsilon platoon." he said, extending a hand. "You?"
    Young managed to lift his arm to shake his hand. "Young, Beta platoon." His voice was rasping and his throat felt like sandpaper. "You got any water?"
    "Sure." 'Add' reached down and handed him a flask from under the seat. After however long he had languished in the Covenant cell, the stale water tasted like heaven itself. Having drunk, Young looked around. The vehicles had left the gorges and were skirting a wide lake. In the distance, he could just make out a thin black spike standing out against the sky, evidently some sort of tower. They were heading straight towards it.
    He turned back to Add, who was still leaning down to watch him. "Where are we heading?"
    "We were supposed to be creating a diversion," the older man answered. "but command pulled the plug. The blues have troops dug in on both sides of the river a few klicks spinwards of here, and they're covering the only bridge. We were supposed to capture the supply dump where we found you, and hopefully draw off some of the troops from this side of the river so our guys on the spinward side can force their way across to join up with us."
    Young nodded. "So why'd they pull you out?"
    "The bridge force ran into a Covenant armour unit five klicks from the bridge. They had to turn back and scatter before they all got shot to pieces. They're going to try again tomorrow. Hopefully the blues won't have guessed what we're planning." He raised one eyebrow. "Luckily for you, we'd already opened fire on the camp before the pull-back order came in. If they'd told us a minute earlier, we'd never have found you. How long had you been in there?"
    Young shrugged. "No idea. They picked me up after they hit our patrol near the three mesas: I've been out for so much of the last few days that I can't think how long I was there."
    "Fine. You'll be safe soon." said Add, nodding. "We've been hiding in that tower up ahead for the last few days; it's easy to defend and the engineers have been trying to figure out how to get into the sealed chambers at the top. We're all hoping they find something good."
    "Yeah. Like nukes." said the driver, grinning. "We could really use some heavy support."
    "How far have we got now?" Add asked her.
    "'Bout twenty minutes, if we carry on at this speed." She replied. Young thought she looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't put a finger on where he had seen her. "After we get out from this basin, it's all flat terrain until the tower."
    The jeep's comlink suddenly crackled into life, the sergeant in the following vehicle yelling for them to look behind. Add hopped back up onto gun mount and stared back across the side of the gently rippling water. Young twisted around in his seat and peered round the side of the jeep. Coming over the crest of the hill immediately beyond the lake was a huge formation of Covenant vehicles, ranging from the light one-man skimmers to large tubular transports with ten or twenty aliens apiece. "Shit!" Add exclaimed. "Where'd they come from?" He scrambled into the gun's swivel mounting and rotated the weapon to point backwards. "Step on it!" He yelled to their driver.
    "What the fuck you think I'm doing?" she called back, gunning the engine and swerving up the side of the embankment beside the lake, taking the jeep over the top and out of the Covenant line of fire.
    The little convoy of jeeps wound its way through a sparsely forested valley side, all the time maneuvering out of sight of the pursuing aliens. At their increased speed, they carried on for almost ten minutes of tense driving before the first of the alien skimmers came within firing range. The lead vehicle announced this fact with a blast of energy that sliced through a nearby tree. Add swept the trail behind them with the minigun, trying to throw off the aliens' aim.
    Young was leaning round the side of the jeep. The two other marines had left their weapons in the rack behind his seat and he was holding one of them, trying to pick out any exposed Covenant drivers. However, the small skimmers which had caught up with them effectively shielded the driver from fire directed at the front of the vehicle, and no opportunity had presented itself. One of the skimmers got too close to the jeep behind theirs, and the gunner on the rocket-varient warthog blew it apart with a well-aimed missile.
    As if in reply, one of the larger Covenant vehicles, of the type with a turret suspended in the air above the vehicle's rear, veered out of the trees from uphill and turned to match the course of the jeeps. As the skimmer turned so hard that its bottom plowed a trail through the leaf-litter on the ground, the alien in the turret sent a volley of energy bolts into the rearmost jeep. One wheel sheared off amidst a cloud of metal splinters, and the stricken vehicle bounced off course, crashing through the trees and bushes to the side. The Covenant vehicle's turret tracked round neatly and the gunner poured more fire into the disintegrating jeep, ending its progress as one bolt detonated the rocket magazine.
    Add was cursing and blazing away into the front of their pursuer, his bullets glancing off the invisible energy shield over its hull. As the alien vehicle absorbed his fire, Young noticed that the gunner, with the turret turned away from their jeep, was exposed. Aiming as well as he could from the speeding warthog, he opened fire himself with the rifle on full automatic, emptying the whole clip at the alien. Just before the turret swiveled round to face them, he saw a splash of purple among the blue ricochets. It turned to bear on the jeep and then carried on turning, spinning round on the gunner's last command.
    The larger skimmer was now stuck between the humans and the rest of the Covenant, unable to fire and actually giving them some cover. Add had seen this and stopped firing, but soon after he did the Covenant driver must also have noticed the death of his companion, because it dropped the vehicle out of the chase. However, just as Add took up aim at the smaller skimmers behind, the marine beside Young called out. Young turned to look, and saw the dizzying height of the tower stretching into the sky just up ahead. They had made it.
    The two remaining jeeps raced down the remaining hillside towards the small complex of angular buildings at the base of the spire, dodging and weaving to avoid the Covenant fire. They followed the lead jeep as it made for a large entrance in the side of a vaguely triangular structure. As they neared the portal gunfire erupted from the surrounding buildings at their pursuers. Young could just make out a squad of marines deployed on the roof of the structure armed with portable rocket launchers, and concealed under camo netting beside the huge doors was a rare sight indeed: a human light tank. The ordnance began to take its toll on the Covenant skimmers and they scattered back into the woods, awaiting the arrival of their better-armed brethren.
    When the jeeps had finally passed under the giant arch of the entrance and Young's eyes had adapted to the dim light inside, he could see that they had entered some kind of huge corridor, at least twenty metres high and wide. Another squad of marines crouched in the shadows near the door, and makeshift fortifications had been erected along the sides of the corridor. They drove through until the passageway opened out into a large circular chamber, apparently in the centre of the tower, with the ceiling so far above the floor it was lost from sight.
    Spread across the floor of the chamber was a somewhat battered assortment of marines, crew from the Pillar of Autumn and military hardware. Crates were stacked against one side, rows of vehicles in various states of repair occupied the opposite wall. Three dropships accompanied the various ground vehicles, one of which was unloading the last of the squad it had been carrying. Young looked around for an entrance higher up in the walls, but couldn't see it.
    The jeeps were parked alongside the other vehicles, and their driver climbed underneath to check for damage. Add led Young towards the centre of the chamber, where the marines had pitched tents and constructed impromptu barracks out of crates and the remains of some of the more badly damaged vehicles. "Welcome home." he said, grinning. "We've been here for about a week and a half now, hiding from the blues' air scouts." Young nodded, looking around at the bustle of the camp. Marines were resting, weapons were being cleaned, equipment was being repaired, music was being played in one of the makeshift buildings. It was good to be among humans again.

    Add brought Young towards the largest tent, which was being used as headquarters for all of the marine units housed in the tower. Just before they reached the tent, a man wearing navy overalls jogged over to them and stopped. "Hey, Add. We got the door open!"
    The old marine stopped and stared. "You're kidding me."
    "It's open, I swear. You owe me fifty credits, sucker."
    "Bull. You ain't getting a cred out of me until I see this for myself."
    The technician shrugged. "Be my guest. We're shipping some more stuff up there in a minute. Coming?"
    Young frowned. "Which door is this?"
    "The door. The big locked door to the control centre at the top." said the tech. "We've been working on opening it for days now, but the whole system's powered down. Once we get inside and get everything working, we should be able to use some of the integrated defenses in this place to keep the god squad out."
    "Fine. Be nice to get to see what's in there, anyway." said Add. "Lead on." The tech gave a mock bow and led them over to one of the dropships, which was being loaded with crates from a pile nearby.
    "We can't get to the top through the tower structure." Add explained. "With the power down, none of the tower's systems are working, including the elevators. This is the only way to the top." He pointed to the dropship.
    As the engineers loaded the last of the crates, Young, Add and the tech climbed into the hold along with the cargo. A few minutes passed, a marine waved the go-ahead to the pilot, and the dropship gently lifted off, leaving the ground and rising slowly up the inside of the chamber. The walls slid by, the lights of the camp fading below them, replaced only by the lights on the dropship itself.
    Their ascent into the darkness at the top of the tower went on for several minutes, until the walls began to grow lighter again. The dropship slowed, pivoted in mid-air, and finally lifted up over the edge of a long bridge stretching from one side of the chamber to the other. The pilot set them down on the bridge and another team of engineers rushed in to unload the crates.
    Young followed the other two men out of the dropship's hold, looking around the top of the chamber. The ceiling was barely thirty metres above their heads, and the bottom of the chamber was barely visible over the side of the bridge. One of the engineers shouted something to the tech, who ran over to help with the crates.
    "What's going on?" yelled Add to his friend, over the top of the crate he was helping to drag.
    "The blues are attacking the tower. They're forcing their way into the entrance corridor. We've got to get this stuff set up and this thing turned on, or we can kiss our asses goodbye." The tech disappeared into the hold again.
    Young listened carefully. Sure enough, he could make out the sounds of gunfire echoing from down the tower. "Come on." said Add, motioning towards the doorway at one end of the bridge. "Let's see if we can't give these guys a hand." Each taking a piece of equipment unpacked from the crates, they jogged through the door and up a series of winding ramps, passing by numerous darkened side passages, until they reached a second doorway at the top.
    This portal was surrounded by portable generators and other pieces of kit that the engineers had been using. The two halves of the door had been prised apart barely more than a metre, but the gap was wide enough to get through. "Shit. There goes fifty creds." Add muttered under his breath. They sidled through the opened doors and into the chamber beyond.
    Unlike the rest of the tower, the room appeared to be powered, as the translucent panes that were spread across the walls were glowing with various unfamiliar symbols. The chamber was hexagonal, with a hemispherical pit in the centre. A holographic representation of the Halo was suspended above the pit, surrounded by more of the panes. Something was very familiar about the room. An engineer spotted them and rushed over to take the equipment they had brought.
    Five or six of the engineers were working around the room, either operating the kit they had installed or working at the panes. They ferried more equipment into the chamber and set it up with the machinery already there, and the engineers managed to get the set of panes around the hologram to accept commands. The sounds of battle drifted from down the tower, occasionally joined by shouted orders and requests for backup from over a communicator.
    Just as the engineers seemed to be making some progress, the sound of Covenant weapons fire echoed from much closer to their chamber. An engineer burst in through the door, threw down his load, and bellowed "They're up here! They landed on the outside!"
    "Here." Add was holding his pistol out to Young. "Take it. Looks like we'll be cutting it fine this time." Young took the weapon, checked the clip. Add had unslung his rifle and crouched at one side of gap in the door. Young took the other side.
    The first alien ran up the ramps straight into their field of fire, and dropped almost immediately, pierced through the head and torso. The next one stopped itself just in time and ducked behind a pillar, returning fire with a hail of crystal slivers from its weapon. Young and Add kept them back from the door, picking one or two off as they ran for the next piece of cover, and using the thick doors to protect themselves. Young's clip ran out, and Add tossed him another.
    Young heard a shout from the engineers. All of their equipment was working, and they had gained access to the main controls. A few moments later, a Covenant warrior with the same compact, shoulder-mounted weapon that had injured his legs before his capture dashed across the nearest ramp, firing wildly through the gap. There was an explosion from within the chamber, and as Young cut the alien down with two well-placed rounds Add turned to see what had happened. He cursed.
    Young glanced round. The alien's shot had struck the ceiling, spraying semi-molten metal fragments across the room. One such fragment had passed straight through one of the panes surrounding the central hologram and then straight through the engineer standing at it. The pane, being holographic itself, was undamaged, but the engineer was lying motionless on the floor. Add looked round again. "Take over!" he shouted. "I'll hold the door."
    Young got up and sprinted across to the pane. The engineer was clearly dead, a smouldering hole through his chest, and he pushed the body out of the way. He turned to the pane.
    It was the exact same pane that he had seen when under the influence of the Covenant device. The layout was the same, the alien symbols and diagrams were the same, even the colours were identical. As before, he did not have a clue what to do with it.
    "What do I do?" He yelled to one of the engineers.
    The man answered without looking up from his own work. "Turn on the link to the primary control grid. If we get that online, we can turn the tower's defenses on the Covenant."
    Young looked back at the pane. There was nothing to indicate what any of the symbols meant or what any of the icons did. He turned back to the engineer. "I don't know how to work this thing!"
    One of the other engineers ducked as a few more crystal shards flew through the doorway. "Hurry up or we won't be around to worry about it!"
    Young stared desperately at the pane. He tried to remember any of the ideas he had run through while in the Covenant device, but nothing seemed to make any sense. He tried touching a few of the coloured icons at random. The display on the pane changed with each touch, but it became no clearer to him. The sounds of the Covenant were getting closer. An energy blast flew through the doorway and splashed against the far wall.
    Despairing, he turned back to Add, who was struggling to reload his rifle. "I can't do this! I don't know how to use all this alien shit!"
    Add glanced back, scrabbling around for another clip. "For Christ's sake, Young, get that thing on or we're all going to die!" He yelled over the din of the weapons fire.
    Young looked around himself desperately, and saw that all of the engineers were looking at him. "Activate the goddamn control grid!" ordered the nearest one.
    As if in a dream, Young stared from left to right. All of the engineers were glaring at him, and even Add was looking at him in desperation. The sounds of firing were still coming from the door, but even with Add unable to fire back, they were not advancing through it.

    My God, he thought. This isn't just like the Covenant device, this IS the device. I never escaped. I never left it.

    With a scream of frustration, he turned the pistol on the nearest engineer, and the next, and the next. Men in SolCore naval overalls crashed to the floor all around him. When the clip was empty, he turned to the door, where Add was crouching. The marine stood up, but as he straightened his legs extended and his body inflated. When he had stood up fully, it was not a human but the Covenant interrogator that stood next to the door. The firing had ceased. The room was silent.
    Young pressed the trigger, and the hammer clicked on the empty chamber of the pistol. The alien growled in exasperation. "My patience is almost at an end, human. I fail to see how you continue to hide your knowledge from me."
    Young dropped the pistol and lunged at the interrogator, his fist connecting with its head. It did not so much as flinch. As he stared at it, the disbelief in his eyes now turned to resignation, the alien swatted him out of its way like an insect. "You have not defeated me, human. I still have a few more techniques to use, and you cannot hold out forever. We are not finished here."
    "You are finished." Young rolled over to see who had spoken. In the place of one of the fallen engineers there now stood a second alien, also dressed in red armour, glaring at the interrogator. "Had I learned of this travesty earlier, you would have been finished long ago."
    The interrogator snorted. "I could save all of us a lot of trouble if I can extract this information from this creature. Why bother hunting them down, when we might control the construct ourselves and let it do our work for us?"
    The newcomer advanced. "You are a fool, Maugur. Your incompetence forced us to fight these filthy creatures here in the first place. Now it is stopping you from fighting altogether."
    Maugur snarled. "I am working to foreshorten this war."
    The other alien stepped forward until its face was a few inches from that of the interrogator. "You are a blind fool. Is it not obvious by now that this thing knows nothing about the workings of the construct? If the humans really were intending to use the construct against us, surely they would be converging on the appropriate structure. They have as little idea of how to use it as you do."
    "I will not be addressed in this manner." Maugur bared his teeth, opening all four mandibles slightly. His adversary drew in his breath in the rattling manner that Young was interpreting as laughter.
    "You forget, Maugur, that while we are on the surface of this construct I am in command. If you cannot accept your place, return to the fleet and I will cleanse this place of the humans myself."
    Maugur lowered his voice, growling with barely-restrained rage. "What are your orders, honored leader?"
    "Leave this simulation and order the troops to break camp. The landing vessel is to return to the Purity of Spirit. We will not require it because we will not retreat." The seething Maugur snorted in affirmation and faded out of existence.
    The remaining alien turned to where Young lay crumpled on the floor. "Maugur would have you killed now, for he has no honour. Much as I would like to see you dead, to kill a prisoner would dirty my name." The room faded, and Young could feel the device on his head. The dull metal walls of the Covenant shelter reappeared round him, and he was in the real world again, strapped to the table. The alien reached down and removed the device from his head.
    As he lay still restrained, Young saw another alien enter the room and start remove the dressings on his legs. Pain speared through him again briefly, but stopped when it pressed a rounded object against his legs. This done, the alien redressed the wounds with a different, more rigid dressing and left. The red-armoured one returned and undid his bonds. It roughly lifted him from the table and set him on his feet beside it. To his surprise he was able to stand, the dressing taking some of his weight and what must have been a painkiller from the rounded thing making the wounds bearable.
    "You are free to go now, human." The alien intoned. "I will order my swords not to kill you while you leave, but once you are gone from our sight you will be fair game again." It looked down into his eyes. "Do not mistake this act for compassion, human. My name is Kholai, and I am not a coward who slays his own prisoners. But the next time we meet, I will kill you. One way or another, your race will perish here."
    Young found his voice. "I'll be sure to return the favour." Kholai ignored him, and pushed him out of the door. A squad of Covenant warriors saluted their leader, who growled an order to them in their own language. It was only then that Young realised that the alien had itself been speaking in English, without the help of the translator device. Kholai led him to the edge of the camp, and before he left, he turned to the alien.
    "If you despise my species so much, why do you speak my language and why did you think that I was telling the truth when..." He thought quickly. "...Maugur said that I was hiding something?"
    Kholai ignored the question. "Go."
    Young shrugged and began to make for the cover of some woods on a nearby hill. He had gone only a few metres when Kholai spoke again. "The warrior who fights best is the one who knows his enemy." Young turned to answer, but the alien had already turned away and was pacing back to the camp. Searching the skyline for landmarks he might recognise, Young walked on towards the hill.

    As the landing craft rose into the sky, the Covenant left the remains of their camp, skimming off planetwards in an assortment of vehicles. Inside one transport, a lesser Covenant leader spoke to Kholai. "Shall I dispatch a warrior to kill the human now, honored leader?"
    Kholai shook his head. "No. The tracer placed inside the fabric of his wound dressing will lead us to his comrades. The first thing the humans will do when he finds them is replace our dressing with one of theirs. When the dressing is removed, the tracer will activate. When it does so, inform me and we shall fall on them."
    The second alien nodded, obviously impressed by his ingenuity. "Yes, honored leader."
    Kholai performed the equivalent of a smile. "The warrior who fights best..."
    Remembering the proverb, the subordinate nodded again. The two exchanged knowing looks, and then returned to their battle prayers with the rest of the warriors.