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The Wanderers Chapter 2
Posted By: Chris Cox<Spheira@netscape.net>
Date: 24 January 2002, 4:25 pm

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İİİAt midday of the sixth day of walking Vicks had reached a ridge that ran across the edge of a swampy hollow, and had stopped to eat what was almost the last of his remaining food. He had been walking almost constantly for what seemed like weeks, and the blisters on his feet were beginning to slow him down. But he didn't really care about his feet, or his aching legs, or his hunger. What worried him more was that he had seen no trace of any intelligent beings since he had left the pod, apart from the occasional Covenant overflight. No buildings, no vehicles, and not even any sign of their passing.
İİİHe was beginning to think that his search was hopeless. Even if there were other survivors alive on the Halo, they could be far enough away to ensure that he never found them. He had briefly considered trying to attract the attention of one of the Covenant aircraft, with the intention of killing the pilot and stealing the vehicle, but he knew that it would probably only get him strafed to death. He sat down, dejected, on the top of the ridge, and only then did he notice the figure slowly making its way through the swamp.
İİİAt first he thought it was a Covenant scout, and he dived behind the nearest bush, unslinging his rifle and training it on the distant figure. But as it moved closer to the ridge and he looked more carefully, he could see that it was a human. A human half-dressed in a Solcore marine's uniform, limping slightly, and as far as Vicks could make out, unarmed.
İİİChecking around one last time for the enemy, Vicks climbed onto the highest point of the ridge and started to wave and shout. At first, the man in the swamp did not hear and continued to wander in the same direction as before. But after a few minutes of trying, he stopped and looked around, and then seemed to notice Vicks' silhouette against the sky. Vicks kept waving, sure that he had been spotted. The man stood for a long time, just looking, then started to limp towards the ridge. Vicks headed down to meet him, and they met at the edge of the swamp.
İİİAs he approached, Vicks noticed that the other marine was wearing some sort of greyish angular device over his legs. It was shiny and looked hard, but moved with each of the man's steps as if reforming in reaction to his movement. They stopped a few paces from each other and stood, each waiting for the other man to talk. The silence was uncomfortable, and the other man seemed unwilling to start.
İİİ"You lost out here too?" Vicks tried.
İİİThe other marine stared at him carefully. "Yeah." he said, before falling silent again.
İİİVicks tried a different tactic. "I came down in an escape pod about a week ago. I've been looking for other survivors since then." The man was still silent. "Did you come down with anyone else?" Still nothing. The other man looked like he was thinking hard. After a while, he looked up and spoke.
İİİ"I've just escaped from a Covenant camp about a day's walk that way." He pointed. "They're trying to hack into the Halo's control grid, but they didn't manage to get it out of me before I got away. I've lost my bearings: which way is it to the control tower from here?"
İİİVicks looked at him. He was tense, and there was something not quite believable about the way that he was talking. "You all right, son?" he asked. "And I don't know where this tower is, sorry." As soon as he registered Vicks' confusion, the other marine sighed in relief and promptly collapsed. Vicks rushed to his side, but the man seemed to be unharmed. His eyes opened again and he let out a long sigh of relief.
İİİ"I'm sorry, I just had to make sure you were real." Vicks looked on, puzzled. "They had me locked up for..." he paused. "How long ago did you land?"
İİİ"About six days ago. Been walking since I came down."
İİİ"Hmm. Must have been in there for two or three days then." He paused again, then remembered himself and extended a hand. "Young, Beta platoon. You?"
İİİVicks took his hand and pulled him back upright. "Vicks, Delta." Now that the man was talking, he couldn't resist asking. "Where's the rest of Beta? And have you heard anything about what happened to Delta platoon?"
İİİYoung shook his head. "Last I knew, Beta was spread out somewhere planetwards of here, but that was days ago. I was heading back in that direction myself. Cortana had us holding up the blues to give her time to work out where everything was."
İİİVicks blinked, surprised. "Cortana's still functioning? But the Pillar was destroyed..."
İİİ"Yeah, but she escaped with the rest of us. There was a cyborg on board, and she must have downloaded into its brain or something."
İİİ"A cyborg? But I thought they were all decommissioned after the revolution..."
İİİYoung shrugged. "So did I. Solcore must have kept a couple, shut down or frozen or something, in case they ever needed them. Or maybe that's the only one. Either way, I'm glad to know that it's around."
İİİ"Sure you haven't heard anything about Delta platoon? Not even rumours or anything?" Vicks knew that his questioning must have sounded desperate, but he could not help himself.
İİİ"Nothing, I'm sorry." Young said. "But there were a lot of escape pods, and only a few came down close enough for anyone to establish contact afterwards. They're probably just somewhere else on Halo." In his eyes, Vicks could see that he didn't really believe it. There was a long silence.
İİİ"We ought to move on, before something spots us. You know where you're heading?" said Vicks, finally, eyeing the sky.
İİİ"Yeah, roughly." replied Young. "I'm hoping that my platoon hasn't moved too far since I left. Or at least that it still exists." Vicks looked away. Loss was the only constant in the war. Everyone had lost someone they knew. Some had lost everyone. "It's been slow going because of this." Young continued, tapping the shiny covering over his legs. Vicks frowned, and he explained. "I was pretty badly shot up when the blues captured me. When one of them decided let me go, it put this thing on me. It stops the pain and bleeding, but it doesn't fit well and it slows me down no end."
İİİVicks was still confused at how the injured marine had been captured by the Covenant, let alone released, but he was becoming uneasy at staying in the same place for so long. "Come on," he said. "you can explain the rest on the way. Which direction were you headed in?" Young pointed towards the far corner of the swamp, and the two marines set off again, Vicks in front and Young behind, trying to keep pace with his uninjured companion.

* * *

İİİAfter half a day of uninterrupted running, Galkosh was beginning to tire, and he slowed to a brisk walk as he passed by a small cliff. There had been a few, small signs of the human's passing on his straight path across the construct, and he was confident now that his prey was alone. Where there was ground soft enough to bear footprints only one set of impressions, although the length of the stride suggested that the creature was healthy. Galkosh was happy with this: an injured target always died too quickly for his liking.
İİİThe one thing that Galkosh was unable to tell was how far behind his quarry he was. The days had been hot, by the look of things, and footprints dried out too quickly to give any indication of time. However, he was confident that he could sustain a pace of two or three times that of the human, and he had marched for days on end when he had been practising back on his homeworld, where the gravity made movement that much harder. It was simply a matter of time.
İİİHe had spent some of the time adjusting his armour's camouflage to match his surroundings. Most of the warriors eschewed the chromomorphic fibres that could be incorporated into their armour, proclaiming that their faith was the only protection they needed. Galkosh had laughed at them, for he did not see the camouflage as protection. The camouflage allowed him to move unseen and start his battles where and when he wished. As in any other form of performance, the difference between a great battle and a merely passable one was timing.
İİİBut of course, one could not consider starting one's performance while one's prey was still miles away. A little refreshed by the period of slower movement, Galkosh started to run again, continuing to head in the same direction as the sun began to set behind Threshold's enormous curve.

* * *

İİİAnother day passed. Vicks and Young covered the distance to the place where Young last remembered being with his platoon, and arrived in the series of shallow, wooded valleys to find nothing.
İİİThe two marines hiked over the crest of the last of the hills that they had been crossing that day, and looked down on a silent forest. The terrain was just as Young had described it, but was simply empty. There were no marines, no vehicles, no Covenant and no sign that any of the above had been in the area at all.
İİİ"Shit. I was afraid this would have happened." said Young, scanning the horizon.
İİİ"Doesn't matter. There must be some sign left to where they went." answered Vicks, starting off down into the nearest valley. "Come on, let's check it out."

* * *

İİİThe two men began picking their way down the steeper side of the hill, towards the edge of the trees. As they did, a slight shimmer in the outline of a boulder perched on the side of a nearby hill betrayed the presence of Galkosh, waiting and watching hidden from their view. He was crouched in the shade of the rock, his chromomorphic armour activated to conceal himself, with his precision rifle aimed steadily across the distance between him and them.
İİİThey were in the open. There was no cover for them to hide behind, no other humans they could call upon for help. He had been surprised that there had been two of them: the second, injured one must have joined the first after he started the pursuit; but it did not bother him. If he so desired, he could pick both humans off from his position on the hillside, without a chance of them escaping. But he did not, because there were better ways of accomplishing the same result. He would let them get into the cover of the trees, follow them in and engage them at close quarters, hand-to-hand if possible. Taking the easy route would have been meaningless.
İİİWhen the humans had nearly reached the trees, he remembered something else. There was still something missing from the piece, an element that would set the scene for his performance perfectly. Sighting along the rifle very carefully, he took aim and sent an energy bolt flying inches above the first human's head and into the trunk of one of the trees. The creatures dropped to the ground and shuffled hurriedly into the cover of the forest. Satisfied, he lowered his weapon and loped off down the sheltered side of the hill.
İİİHe had the prey, the predator, and the arena, and now there was also fear.

* * *