The Hephaestus Equation V
Posted By: Dirty Commie<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 15 December 2002, 9:10 pm
"Whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah, whoah! Are you telling me we're in a temple!?" One other marine said to the (naturally) tech who had suggested the downed elites were paladins.
He shrugged. "Could be. It's just a thought, really. Maybe that's just how they show rank, or brag about how many kills they have. I don't know." No one seemed relieved. "Of course," he continued "I do recognize this set of symbols right here," he motioned to the set surrounding the right eye "they symbolize the earth, the sun, and...I think Karuq."
"A Covenant god, a big one too."
Tal didn't like where this was going. "What is he the god of, exactly?"
"Well, things like metallurgy, mining, forging, very analogous to the Greek god Hephaestus, as a matter of fact."
Tal spoke up again. "Metal weapons too, I assume?"
"Yes, but the analogy between Karuq and Hephaestus isn't perfect. Karuq has dominion over more archaic weapons than the plasma the Covenant use now." A lieutenant nodded.
"Like swords." Said Tal. The tech nodded again.
"It appears his dominion has extended into melee weapons." He shrugged. "Could be good or bad. We don't know enough about their pantheon to tell for sure. We should record this." The gang of techs busied themselves with photographing the elites and taking bodily samples.
Blue Team! Are you guys alright? Came the screeching into Tal's ear. The eye-HUD indicated it was coming from Red's frequency.
"Blue here, we were ambushed, we killed them, but lost eight guys, including Jackson. Is there a problem with you?" A chisel-faced lieutenant standing next to Tal said authoritatively. Tal surmised that he was now the highest ranking in the reduced Blue squad. Richards had been assigned to Green to replace a sick commander there.
Sure as hell seems like it. The voice seemed a little less tense. We can't raise Green or Black teams on the comm. The Faith says they're transponders all disappeared within ten seconds of each other. We encountered no resistance. Zero casualties for Red. Tal breathed a little easier. At least the bulk of the force was intact. Our orders are to continue on schedule.
"Roger that." Said the lieutenant, a little less jubilant at the victory over the 'paladins.' "Have you reached the objective yet?"
I guess. This whole station is built in concentric circles of these identical white hallways. We're in the center of it. Get down here double-time, you have to see it. Just find a door, and there will be a door behind that, keep going through doors until you get here.
"Copy, Blue team out." He turned to the techs clustered around the elite corpses. "Hey, useless!" The techs looked up. "We're moving out, pack it up and stretch your legs, we may have to do some running."
Tal's HUD flashed. +21:00.
The lieutenant was wrong; they didn't have to do any running. The three-minute journey to the center of the enigmatic station was quite uneventful.
The center was much more puzzling than the elites, though. Blue team could smell it before they reached it. The soldiers recognized it immediately. It was the putrid stench of rotting flesh. Human flesh.
As they opened the last door to the center room, the whole team involuntarily took a step back. For just a second, it seemed as if they had opened a door into the cold vacuum of space. The walls, floors, and ceiling of the massive chamber were all made of some dead black material, twinkling with their own thousands of stars.
Upon closer inspection, the walls appeared to be made of some black liquid. It reflected very little light, but Tal swore it was flowing down the walls, like a waterfall. No, not just down. Up, around, swirling around all the stars. Swirling around itself, everything. The 'stars' were tiny crystals, perhaps diamonds, embedded in the wall or whatever was behind the black liquid. He actually tried to pry one of the stars loose to examine it, but the whole wall was encased in a resilient type of glass. But no matter which way he turned his head; he couldn't see the glass casing. The overall effect of the display was extremely hypnotic. It was soothing and stimulating. Tal felt a flash of pity for the magnificent work of art that they would soon have to destroy. Then he remembered the mangled bodies of his fellow soldiers in the immaculate white hallway, the dark red blood staining the floor. He wasn't feeling very piteous anymore.
The main focus of all the soldiers in the room wasn't on the mesmerizing wall, however, it was the center, the source of the overpowering stench.
The altar, as Tal came to call it, was a circle about thirty feet in diameter. The first fifteen or so feet was a simple steel floor (which appeared to be floating in space) with hundreds or thousands of the mystical sigils and runes nearly identical to the ones the marines had seen on the faces of the paladins. Inside those marks is where things got interesting. There were only three things composing the rest of the altar. A suspended steel ring about ten feet overhead, a rather out-of-place-looking bowl (it was not unlike birdbaths back on Earth) and the slowly decaying bodies of four UNSC marines. Apparently human sacrifices were not just a rumor.
The bodies had been hung upside down from the ring, spaced equally around. As a matter of fact, it looked unsettlingly like an inverted crucifixion. Feet together, their arms splayed out, so each fingertip touched the tip of the adjacent corpse. But when Tal examined the exact spot where each green-black finger met, there was actually a tiny space, and he could see no visible means of keeping them in that position. The same situation occurred with the spot where the heels of the marines met the overhead ring.
In the center of the altar was the dark purple 'birdbath.' The base and column was ringed with thousands of semi-transparent disks, jutting out like blades. It was these the techs were so interested in. They were frantically copying the flimsy looking disks, transmitting them to the Faith, and then storing them in the lightweight cases designed for just such an occasion. Nobody was complaining about having to store and carry the extra load, it always helped to have a hard copy.
The bowl of the altar was the strangest part, however. It was filled with the same liquid as the walls, but instead of a cold, dead black, it was a brilliant, vibrant riot of yellow, white, and red. Tal tried to touch the mysterious liquid, but as soon as he moved his hand close, his fingerless gloves burst into flame from the intense heat. He ripped off the glove and threw it to the ground, scowling. Some of the techs chuckled. Tal was mystified by the uneven heat distribution. It was quite cool six inches above the liquid, but hot enough to melt metal two inches above it. Tal cautiously ran his hand along the bottom of the bowl. Cold. The mystery was puzzling, but it would have to wait. He walked away from the mysterious altar and revolting corpses to find the commanding officer of Red team.
The commander of Red team (and ex oficio of the whole mission) was a stocky, quiet Colonel by the name of Wilkins. Tal saluted and asked for further orders. Wilkins grunted.
"The Faith has extended our mission by six minutes, no Cov ships in-system, readings normal. Just take a seat and get your gear together, we may have to get out of here in a hurry." Tal saluted again and took a seat in an empty corner of the room. Or at least the closest thing to a corner in the circular chamber.
His HUD flashed, +28:00.
After Tal had checked all of his equipment and weapons, he just relaxed and watched the techs do their thing. It was almost comical, all of them scurrying about, copying disks and gesturing to each other wildly. It looked to Tal like a pack of hamsters pumped full of dangerous stimulants.
Tal still had his characteristic edginess, though; the mission hadn't exactly done a lot to diminish it. He even jumped to his feet once when one of the two heavy blast doors opened silently. His finger was around the trigger before he realized that the Colonel had passed close to the door, Tal just hadn't noticed him. He sighed and sank to the floor. Tal was looking forward to several months of sleep back on the Faith.
Tal sat up, pulse racing.
The doors didn't have motion sensors. They had manual controls.
Tal knew what was coming next.
The purple sword flickered to life.