The Wanderers Chapter 3
Posted By: Chris Cox<Spheira@netscape.net>
Date: 25 January 2002, 4:25 pm
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İİİThe shot came out of nowhere, narrowly missing Vicks' head and blowing foot-long splinters of wood out of one of the small trees at the edge of the forest. Both he and Young dropped to the ground, and Vicks urgently motioned for his injured companion to get under cover. As Young shuffled along on his belly to get behind the bushes at the periphery of the woods, Vicks searched the hills in the direction that the shot had come from, rifle following his gaze. But there was nothing there, and no obvious places for anything to hide. Unnerved, he got up and scrambled into the foliage as well.
İİİ"Did you see it?" asked Young, who was making his way deeper into the trees.
İİİ"Nothing. I don't get it, there was nowhere for it to hide," replied Vicks. He was trying to work out what to do. Had he had his squad to hand, he would have deployed round the edge of the forest and taken the thing out next time it fired, but with only two people there was no way of stopping any other Covenant in the area from creeping up through the wood and taking them by surprise. In any case, they only had one gun between the two of them. "We'd better keep moving before any more of them show up." He got up onto his knees and headed after Young.
İİİAfter they had cleared the fringe of the forest and were no longer visible from outside, they stood up again and started to move faster, away from the edge. The trees were sparse and the leaves not dense enough to provide much cover, and with every step Vicks half-expected another shot to come from behind and fell him. Every so often a twig would crack or some small creature would move behind them in the forest and they would both drop to the ground, scanning the foliage for the enemy.
* * *
İİİThe enemy had just caught sight of them again.
İİİChromomorph armour still active, Galkosh slowed his pursuit to reduce the amount of sound he was making. The humans were tense and glanced back every so often, and he did not wish to be discovered before the proper time. He had planned his attack meticulously: he would work his way around the humans and appear suddenly in front of them, then dispatch both of them at close quarters with his blade. From what he could see, only one of his prey was armed, which would make such a bold plan easier to pull off.
İİİCarefully, stopping every so often to avoid patches of particularly noisy twigs and debris, Galkosh crept round the two fleeing marines. He moved like a shadow, with stealth learned from innumerable hours of practice on his homeworld. As he moved round in front of them, still invisible to their limited senses, he slung his rifle behind him and drew the hand-blade, leaving its heating field deactivated to preserve his concealment. The thin forest faded out into a wide, tree-scattered meadow, and the Covenant warrior crouched low in the long grass and waited.
İİİThe marines stopped briefly at the edge of the trees. The armed one pointed to the other side of the field where the forest resumed, and they began to walk cautiously across the grass towards it.
İİİGalkosh prepared himself, ready to spring his trap.
İİİThen the first marine stopped, staring past Galkosh across the meadow. There was a humming noise, familiar to the alien, and as he turned to look a Covenant close-support vehicle bobbed up over a ridge at one end of the field and started to skim towards them. Galkosh's first reaction was fury: all his careful preparation was going to be ruined by a few inconsiderate warriors on patrol.
İİİDeciding quickly what he must do, he deactivated his armour's active camouflage and turned on the blade-field. He would make his kills now, before the unknowing vandals in the vehicle got within range and spoilt everything. He flickered into existence in front of the two marines, and the armed one immediately brought his weapon to bear on the Covenant warrior. Galkosh's reactions were faster than his, however, and he lunged forwards, batting the rifle out of the way with the flat of his blade and knocking the human to the ground with a well-placed kick.
* * *
İİİVicks landed badly, the alien's blow knocking the breath from his lungs and leaving his gun bouncing away into the grass beside him. Still recovering from the shock of its sudden appearance, he only just managed to roll out of the way as it brought its glowing blade down on where he had been lying. He kicked at it as it turned to face him again, but it caught his foot deftly in one hand and wrenched him back to within blade-range.
İİİBefore it could strike the killing blow, Vicks heard a scream from behind the creature and Young struck it full in the back. Howling incoherently, the injured marine charged straight into the alien, letting his momentum knock it to the ground. As it toppled, struggling to bring its blade to bear, Young pounded it in the head with his fists. "Not again!" He screamed into its helmeted face. "I'm not playing your games anymore!" The Covenant warrior shielded its head with one arm, trying to block out his furious assault, and for a moment Young paused as if surprised that it was defending itself. The short break in the blows was all it needed, and a swift kick to the shins sent Young sprawling.
İİİVicks noticed that the alien's blade had been dropped during the fight, and rolling to his feet he kicked it away across the grass. The leather of his boot scorched and steamed as the blade's energy field scraped across its surface. Shaking the disorientation from his head, he turned to face the creature again as it sprang to its feet and bore down upon him, fists clenched at the ready. To his surprise it parried his punch and shouldered him out of the way to run for the blade on the floor behind him. As it bent to pick up the blade, he looked down and saw his rifle lying in the grass a few feet away. As it whirled round, blade back in its hand, it saw him sighting down the rifle at its head.
İİİ"You lose," said Vicks without expression, and started to pull the trigger. In the fraction of a second before he fired, the Covenant vehicle that had been approaching from the far end of the field burst into his field of vision, engine droning like a million angry hornets. He saw its turret, a strange hemispherical construction hovering slightly above the rest of the vehicle, swing round to bear on him. He looked defiantly down its three-pronged barrel, waiting for the shot. But the turret continued to turn.
İİİThe alien glanced round briefly, just soon enough to see the human in the vehicle's turret. As the gun discharged, it flung itself to the side and into the long grass. The energy bolt crashed into the ground and sent pieces of smouldering foliage and soil spraying across the two marines.
İİİVicks flinched from the flying debris, but rushed forwards immediately after as the vehicle sped on past. He sprinted to the patch of grass into which the Covenant had dived, rifle trained on the alien's hiding place. But as he got closer, he saw only a few square feet of crushed stems. Their assailant was gone. The vehicle swung round and made another pass over the area, but it had vanished without a trace.
* * *
İİİTrying hard to regain his composure, Galkosh watched the humans from the cover of the forest. There were now four: the two he had been pursuing before and the two who had arrived in the vehicle. The theft of one of the Covenant's own machines was an insult as well as an inconvenience to Galkosh. Such an offence could not go unpunished.
İİİHowever, there were now twice as many targets and the formidable firepower of the close-support skimmer to deal with. Attacking from close range, although much more pleasing in the combat aesthetics it produced, was no longer such a safe option. He would have to whittle his prey down before he attempted such a bold assault again, make a prelude to his final offering. He waited until his heart rate had returned to normal, wiped the blood from the scratch the unarmed human had made while pummelling his head, and set off towards higher ground at a light run.
* * *
Cruising along in the Covenant skimmer, spared from the rigours of walking, the four marines scoured the surrounding terrain for signs of their comrades. Vicks was lost in thought, because although their two new-found companions had saved their lives, they had as little idea where the rest of the survivors from the Pillar of Autumn were as he did.
İİİ"Sons of bitches ran off without us!" called Rowland from the driving seat. He was a young man, a native of Reach who had arrived back at his homeworld on the Pillar only a few days before the colony was obliterated. "We left the platoon on a patrol down by the lakes two days ago, and when we got back they'd just gone. No radio, no signs left behind, nothing. Found a few tyre tracks leading spinwards, but they faded out before we found anything."
İİİ"Yeah. Then the Covies spotted us and shot the crap out of our 'hog," said Nakamura. She had said very little since they had joined the two marines, although admittedly it was difficult to hear her from the turret on the top of the vehicle.
İİİVicks nodded. "How'd you get this thing?" he asked, patting the purple armour on the side of the Covenant machine.
İİİ"Dumb blue bastards tried to follow us into the swamps by the side of the lake. We snuck into a tangle of plants too thick for them to get the skimmer in, so they all got out and followed us in. We worked our way round the back of 'em and then took off with this thing." Rowland grinned proudly. "I think we pissed 'em off."
İİİYoung stared out over the hills around them. "So what do we do now?"
İİİRowland shrugged. "We've just been sweeping the area for signs of the others. It's no good though, there's nothing here. Either Cortana's taken them somewhere else, or..." He looked grimly at Young.
İİİ"No," said Vicks flatly. "They've got to be somewhere near here. There can't be enough dropships to lift the whole platoon out. And if the Covenant got them, we'd know about it."
İİİNakamura pointed to a blocky structure barely visible on the antispinward horizon. "We should make for that."
İİİ"Why?" asked Young. "It could be full of Covenant for all we know."
İİİThe marine raised one eyebrow. "Hunch?" she offered.
İİİYoung shrugged. "Unless anyone's got a better idea?"
İİİ"Fine by me. Hell, I'm bored of wandering around this dump," said Rowland, turning the skimmer in the direction of the structure.
İİİVicks was only half-listening to them. Looking over the empty hills and forests, he wondered whether his squad had even made it to the Halo, let alone survived the fighting on the ring. As the skimmer hummed away past the trees, he searched the foliage as his guilt gnawed away at him from inside.
* * *
İİİHaving lost the humans in the forest, Galkosh cursed his luck and briefly searched for new prey, only to stumble across a discarded Ghost light skimmer half-buried in some dense undergrowth. He had no idea where its pilot had gone, but the machine was mostly intact and still well-charged. Pulling the plants away from the foot pedals, he mounted the vehicle and rode it down the hill after the marines, the throttle at maximum to try to make up the lost distance.
* * *