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Hermes Trismegistus - Chapter 8
Posted By: Tursas<tursas@shaw.ca>
Date: 16 August 2001, 9:17 PM

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Roughly two days later according to time on the Halo, Bob found himself sitting under a large tree, boiling before him in the cooking pot the flesh of a member of one of several species of herd animals that he had found resided on the ring construct. Hunting and killing the thing had taken a large amount of preparation and a great sense of timing; stalking the animal without spooking it or alerting it of his presence had alone taken a great amount of patience and upwards of an hour. The reward for that patience, however, had paid off for the whole episode, if you didn't include the reaction of the herd to losing a sister; Bob had almost been trampled by the compatriots of his quarry in a stampede of aggression aimed at himself. Only by dodging up a large tree and waiting out the attempts of the herd to topple the said tree did he find himself alive. On the whole, it wasn't the perfect hunting experience, but, as the voice had put it, // Either you or the worms eat. Make your choice. //
    Bob grabbed the work glove lying on the ground beside him and used it like a dishtowel to remove the pot from the makeshift stand without burning himself. He put the pot down on a wooden board to let it cool and eyed the beauty of the ring as it stretched away into the distance. In the sky he could also see two planets: one of a white pastel coloring speckled here and there with patches of blue and green, and another, seemingly much larger of yellow coloring. But the planets were not what bothered him; the stars that could be seen past the clouds in broad daylight made him wonder about the stability of this place and the thickness of its atmosphere. Who knew what kinds of cosmic rays were lacing through his body at that moment. He had asked the voice after noticing that sight for the first time first about the safety of the ring, and secondly who had made it; but all he had received in response was a vintage 20th century song about stealing sunshine. Bob hadn't asked any more questions after that and let the voice say what it would when it would. He had wanted to know why the day and night scheduling on the ring was so erratic -- each day had averaged at three hours and each night about the same -- but he put it down to being on a giant ring in space and tried hard not to incite the musical wrath of the voice. For all he knew, it would start singing 18th century opera if he wasn't careful with his thoughts.
    But he had learned one thing from, or rather about, the voice that seemed to remain fairly consistent: it was no use trying to block it out or not listen when it was speaking. Although the visitations themselves didn't break his concentration when doing other things, their content sometimes did. One of the few other times that the voice had spoken of the other humans on the construct Bob had been dicing edible roots (pointed out to him by the voice) and had narrowly missed the fingers of his left hand with the machete. It was part way through a droning lecture on the nuances of one type of wood versus those of another that the voice had said the words, "other humans," disjointedly, causing Bob to forfeit control of his hands and almost take his fingers off. The incident had been completely unique. Bob wondered if it was done intentionally, but, for the sake of not hearing some semi-famous tenor bridge his whole range of voice, had not asked if this was so.
    Bob looked down at the meat chunks and tubers that had been boiling in the water. If survival school had taught him one thing about food, it was that unknown meat was to be cut into tiny chunks and boiled. He was now glad that he had gone to survival school for the single reason that he didn't appreciate the idea of voluntarily introducing foreign parasites to his digestive tract. Who knew what kinds of deadly worms inhabited those chewy-looking chunks?
    There was one other thing that survival school had taught him that he had not obeyed in this instance; he had made a fire (and one out in the open at that). Rule number one of not being detected was to avoid open flame and smoke. The one would give one away during the day, and the other during the night. Fire, though useful for many things, was not desirable in an evasive situation. The voice had been very clear, however, that it did not matter as the nearest sentient being was "a thousand miles away". It had also been very clear about how the MREs should only be a supplement to foraged food and not a replacement. This made sense to Bob, though he was reminded briefly of the government he had left on Earth, which often blended lie with truth in a seamless mix. There was still the issue of why the voice had masqueraded as a plant for a considerable length of time.
    Bob figured that the stew had cooled enough and sipped a spoonful from the wooden utensil he had fashioned from one of the non-toxic woods pointed out by the voice. Bob had never heard about toxic wood before, but had been told that it was ok to burn as the organic toxins broke down with the application of heat. The concoction tasted like chalk. This single fact caused him to break with the standard.
    "Does everything around here taste like crap?"
    // How do you know what crap tastes like? //
    Bob had assumed from the beginning that most things tasted the way they smelt. He didn't respond.
    // In a while you'll be going on a trip around the ring. The first major land battle has just taken place between the opposing forces and we need you there to fulfill your purpose. //
    Bob had been told quite bluntly about two days earlier that he had a specific purpose on this ring. This short but very descriptive monologue had answered the primary question in his mind since leaving the shaft; the question of why he was here. That purpose was to dispose of the bodies of the deceased. He knew now that as a giant battleground, the Halo had been designed to accommodate disputes to the fullest and cleanest extent possible. This consisted primarily of two services, the first being the provision of a place to fight, the second being the arrangement of janitorial services after the fighting was over. Essentially, Bobs job was to play caretaker. Another thing he had learned was that this ring was called "Halo." It was a simple name, to be sure, and he wondered about the precise origin of the appellative; the voice had not bothered with telling Bob who or why it had been named that way.
    The other major question that Bob concerned a good amount of his thoughts with was why it was he who was chosen from the many billions of possible Earthlings, and probably trillions more non-Earthlings, to do this job. The voice had not visited during moments of such contemplation. The only possibility that Bob could figure was that ėmakers,' as the voice called them, were maladjusted and sadistic. But even when Bob had reached this conclusion, the voice had not bothered to clarify. Bob knew that the voice knew what Bob thought, he only wondered why it wasn't more forthcoming with the explanations instead of allowing Bob to infer with reckless abandon. The conclusion Bob reached on this topic was that the voice was also maladjusted and sadistic, but there had been no rebuttal on this topic either, causing Bob to wonder more still about what was real and true and what was not. He stared into the licking flames of the fire and wondered for a moment if he could ever meet up with the other humans on the ring.
    Bob turned, picked up the stew pot and held his breath as he choked down the chalky mixture. He pulled a water bottle out of the pack behind him and took a mouthful of water to swish out the taste. He sincerely hoped that future meals wouldn't be so bland.
    Bob then extinguished the fire with soil and buried the ashes beneath a circle of peat moss he had dug out earlier. The ground steamed and the peat on top began to dry as the peat around had upon making the fire. It wasn't the best camouflage against future detection, but it would have to do under the circumstances. The probability of someone, anyone, coming by this exact spot and noticing the discoloration of the undergrowth was next to nil, but Bob had played such odds on many an occasion before and nearly expected it to happen eventually. He dumped out the remaining contents of the cooking pot and picked up a handful of dirt to scour away the scum of the meal.
    // Ready to go? Good. The transit terminal is about a mile spinward of where you are now. I'll relay the precise coordinates to you as you get closer in a way your simple monkey mind should understand. I suggest you run. //
    This message prevented Bob from continuing with cleaning the pot, so he simply stuffed it back into the pack, stood up, resheathed the machete, put on the pack and set off at a trot in the correct direction. He dodged around trees at the edge of the forest until it ended and the terrain became hilly.
    // Hotter. // Bob kept at his set pace, then glanced down to make sure his bootlaces had not come undone. This was something he would not normally do, but then, everything he was doing at the moment was not something he would normally do. Except for the running. Bob had run so many miles in his lifetime that often he wished that he had the suicidal tendency to run faster, just so that he wouldn't have to put up as long with the monotony of running mile after mile without rest or change of scenery. But running faster often led to mistakes and he had to keep in mind that no matter what the scenery, or how fatigued he became, he had to keep his situational awareness up and his pathfinding skills sharp. The two often went hand in hand with the other. For example, he tried not to run through mud. Leaving boot prints everywhere was a no-no for the reason that it could give away a position without a shot fired.
    Naturally, Bobs job required him to be sneaky, because otherwise he could be caught and killed. Bob hadn't liked the idea of being the hunted when he had committed his first act of terror, but over time that feeling had mutated into a kind of rabid enjoyment, fueling Bob with the motivation to go on to subsequent missions. The feeling of being the fox, with a hundred hounds after him, was like an addictive drug; the more he committed acts of terror the more he enjoyed them and the more he needed to do them. This need at times caused him to consider the moral repercussions of his acts and feel ashamed of himself for becoming such a monster, but he always put the guilt away in a box marked "result of orders" at the back of his mind. This box had been filling ever so incrementally over the course of the years and would overflow, he hoped, very far in the future. But he also hoped that it would continue filling, or at least would have the opportunity to continue filling. He hoped this because committing an act of terror required a target or a body of individuals against whom the act was performed. Should this body of individuals consist of human forces, he would defect; this action was very well articulated in his mind. He didn't enjoy the companionship of the voice and hoped that maybe he would be able to have it removed from him some time in the future.// He's got the job
    That nobody wants,And the voice
    That everybody does. //
    Bob didn't know what to make of this.
    The type of drug he associated with committing terrorist acts was in sharp contrast, however, to the other that had filled him before his days on the run. Before he had been distinguished on the most-wanted lists of many countries, he had been a counter-terrorist operator. He had learned many useful lessons in those days, but things never worked out precisely as planned by the government, and the feeling that he was growing stale over the years had pushed him to join the foreign arms of the Old Navy and then Center. The strategists and mission designers in the foreign departments were pleased to have this sudden upgrade in human resources; their operatives consisted primarily of cannon fodder drawn from the regular army and to have one of the ėterrible teens grown old' on their payroll was a privilege and a career catalyst for many. Mission designs were always infinitely more difficult when Bob was involved. They often asked him to do the impossible and survive; such had been the general trend on Bobs last mission -- first the insertion on foot and then the complication of a counter-terrorist unit at the apex of the excitement. That final mission was supposed to have been a very easy in-and-out deal. He was glad that his coordinator was brilliant enough to choose a large storm sewer as the means of escape, but cursed his dumbfoolery at his clumsy way of planning everything else. Center should have known about that counter-terrorist unit far in advance; there were contacts in the CWS military that had access to such information and who should have reported it.
    // Colder. // Bob slowed to a stop and, turning around, began to move in the opposite direction. // Turn left... now. // Bob turned left ninety degrees in a small arc and kept running. Before him was a small stand of saplings hidden in the enclave between two low rises in the ground that could almost be called hills. He slowed to a walk and continued into the copse with the UMP raised. As the trees surrounded him, the refreshing smell of youth whelmed his olfactory sense. The bright green of the leaves and grass around him contrasted with the white and brown of the tree bark to produce a very pleasing scene to the eye. Dew hung from the leaves of the saplings and whipped against his face as he walked through, causing his skin to tingle with the coolness and refreshing energy of a cold shower.
    Further into the copse, the trees broke and standing in the center could be seen a cylinder standing on end no more than eight feet in height and ten feet in diameter. At its top was a cone whose edges extended outwards from the sides of the cylinder like eaves on a house. Bob stood there for a moment to allow the refreshing feeling to work its way through his system.
    // It is interesting, no? //
    "What's that?"
    // The trees and grass and water here are all the result of death, destruction and violence. //
    "Come again?"
    // When battles take place on this ring, the bodies are removed to these areas, as I told you before, so that they can be processed underground. The blood and other matter of the bodies works its way into the soil and acts as a terrific fertilizer. Thus, everything good here is a result of bad feelings and misunderstandings. //
    "The cycle of life is what we call it. Didn't you ever take fourth grade science?"
    // No. //
    "Well, it's nice here all the same."
    // Somewhere on the elevator is an identification pad. Find it and we can go on. //
    Bob moved around the cylinder until he stood in front of a receded area about two inches square and chest high.
    "What now?"
    // Touch it with a finger or a thumb. It needs to have your fingerprint to operate. //
    Bob touched the pad of his left thumb to the square, his other hand on the grip of his gun, and stepped back a few feet. A few moments later, part of the side of the cylinder receded and opened to produce a doorway and adjacent cylindrical room. Bob checked that there was nothing inside and walked in. He turned around in the amply lit nine foot diameter space and touched the pad of his left thumb again to the other receded two inch square on the inside of the elevator. The door closed and Bob felt his weight removed from his feet as the elevator accelerated downwards into the depths of the ring.
    A few moments later Bob felt his weight and more applied to his feet as the elevator decelerated and stopped. The door opened. Lights came on and Bob stepped out. The door remained open behind him.
    Around him was another of those sights guaranteed to make one think if not over classed by something bigger. Bob had seen the ring and the mountain, so this sight came as no surprise to him. Besides, he had seen railway depots before, and this was nothing more than a very large underground railway depot.
    To his left and right, straight as arrows, lay the bounds of a railway platform which extended forward from the elevator door a distance of fifty meters. The platform width was about ten meters. It was flanked on either side by rail lines receded into the ground about a meter. The tracks vaguely resembled those of a maglev in shape, though Bob couldn't be sure. On either side of the platform on which Bob was standing, the tracks ran in duplicate the length of the room and into dark tunnels, which, he supposed, extended all the way around the Halo. On the far sides of the tracks resided other platforms, succeeded by two more tracks and on in this fashion far into the distance. The terminal seemed absolutely clean; no dust hung to the air as Bob walked along the platform, and no blemish could be seen in the rock of the platform or the tracks. Everything was colored a concrete gray, but it also all seemed to magically produce its own light. No light fixtures could be seen anywhere, but the soft glow of the building material provided all the luminosity needed to see one's way. At the end of the platform, a ramp rose gently to a catwalk, which extended perpendicular to the tracks in either direction and hung over the tunnels. It was an access way to the other platforms as similar ramps could be seen to descend from the catwalk to the platforms. The catwalk had no railing. Beside the elevator door there was a rather large handcart type apparatus.
    // Behind you is a track with a car on it. Go to that platform. //
    Bob turned from the edge of the platform to look in the other direction. Sure enough, six or seven platforms over was a track on which resided a railcar. The light reflecting from it betrayed a shape designed for intense speed. It was shaped similarly at either end, obviously having been made to travel in either direction.
    Bob walked to the end of the platform, away from the elevator, to the ramp, and began to climb. At the junction of ramp and catwalk he turned to his right and walked past six similar ramps over the catwalk to the platform beside which resided the car. Bob turned right and walked down the ramp and up to the middle of the car, which could be seen by now to be shaped like a short hot-dog whose ends tapered downwards towards the track. Again, Bob touched a receded area about two inches square on the side of the car and watched as a door receded into the shiny gray pod and slid aside.
    Bob stepped into the car, noticing on arrival the several chairs spaced evenly and resembling those of a dentist, with head rests whose ends curved around to hold the head in place while in motion, and bars not unlike those found on roller-coasters extending upwards from the shoulders of the seats in a loop. All the details of the cabin were in black. There were no windows anywhere, but there was an eerie white light promulgating from an overhead lighting fixture.
    // Pick a chair, any chair. Put the pack and gun in the overhead luggage hamper before you sit down. We don't want your lunch or bullets flying around like they've been put into orbit. //
    Bob walked to the far end of the car, found and opened one of the overhead luggage hampers which was not unlike the carry-on baggage spaces on a commercial airplane, stuffed in the UMP, hat and backpack, and sat down in the nearest padded seat. Immediately, the bar overhead swung down and locked into position over his chest. The bars on the other chairs in the cabin did so too. The chairs swiveled around to face in the opposite direction. The car door closed and the lights dimmed.
    // Passengers are reminded to please remain seated, // the voice came as a female flight attendant, // not eat, smoke or drink while the car is in motion, and keep their hands folded in front of them as the car accelerates. Thank-you. //
    The car began to lurch forward. Bob could hear nothing but his own breathing. He folded his hands in front of him and placed them in his lap.
    // Houston, we are ready for lift off. //
    // Acknowledged, Discovery. Prepare for lift-off in five... four... three... two...//
    The car shot forward, placing G after G of force into Bobs back. His hands, still folded, crashed into his abdomen where they remained until the acceleration ended two minutes later. There resounded in the cabin the sound of air screaming past the outside of the car. Bob attempted to keep his eyes closed, but it was as no use, as he tried in vain to refrain from screaming himself.
    Eventually, however, the insanity of acceleration ended and the scream of air past the car neither rose nor lowered in pitch, coming to rest at a steady whine. Bob stopped screaming.
    // Boy, you should have seen the look on your face! It was like they crossed a howler monkey with a polar bear! //
    "You have a camera in here?"
    // At the front of the cabin. //
    Bob made a face.
    // No need to be unpleasant. We're almost there. //
    Sure enough, almost at that instant, the car began to decelerate with the same violence as when it accelerated. Bobs' torso shot forward the fraction of an inch into the holding bar and stayed there. His arms and legs also shot forward, dangling from his torso and pelvis directly in front of him. Bob strained to keep his head straight.
    Two minutes later the car stopped decelerating, rolling slowly until it came at last to a gentle stop. Bob rolled his head to loosen the muscles in his neck. He looked forward and made another face.
    // Passengers are thanked for their observance of the in-flight rules and are encouraged to use ringworm for all their future Halo traversing needs. Stewardesses are present to assist those who may have suffered in-flight motion sickness. Have a nice day. //
    The roller-coaster bar lifted, the lights came back up and the door of the car opened. Bob retrieved his gun, hat and pack from the overhead carry hamper and moved shakily towards the exit.
    // Lucky for you, the fight was nearby. You won't have to walk very far to get where you're going. //
    Bob had been wondering about that. Although the railcar went in a direction parallel to the curve of the ring, there was no apparent transportation in the perpendicular direction.
    // This is going to be really tedious, working back and forth between battle sites and the nearest elevator. I personally wanted to train you in portable teleporting, but the powers that be decided against it, claiming that that was too complex and dangerous a thing to teach and equip you for. Therefore, when you start complaining about all the back-and-forth, I want you to know that it isn't my fault that you're stuck like that. //
    "How far do I have to walk to this site?"
    // About ten miles each way. //
    "And there isn't any kind of assist to help me along?"
    // Asides from a handcart similar to the one you saw earlier, no. //
    "Shit. You couldn't fit any more than ten bodies on one of those things. Are you sure that there is no other way?"
    // Nope. There isn't. //
    Bob cussed again. "What the hell is this shit? First you tell me that I have to be a caretaker, and then without explaining any further, you tell me that I can't use any kind of ubertech to help?"
    // That's just the way things are, kid. //
    // You'd better start walking. //
    Bob had done some fairly burdensome and monotonous things in his lifetime, but never anything so apparently useless as to cart bodies back and forth from place to place. He walked up the ramp.
    "Which way now?"
    // To your left. //
    There was nothing else he could do at the moment.