Posted By: vector40<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 30 June 2006, 8:27 am
Okay, you'll probably have more fun reading this in a nicely-set PDF, which also contains the first half of the story (which has been tweaked up and polished to bring the whole kaboosh together): http://www.degreesofclarity.com/misc/story.pdf
Angus coughed convulsively, throat dry from disuse while he'd been under the laser. "Listen," he muttered, and she stayed close, head to head to make sure she heard him. "What did we get?"
"Just relax, we'll deal with--"
"I did not"--cough, wheeze--"I did not get my ass shot up for the fun of it, my love. Tell me I'm here for a good reason."
Reluctant but assenting, she looked around briefly then leaned back in. "All right, lots of crap, two things we care about. They had the decrypt key for the beacon--"
He let out a relieved sigh at that.
"--so that was definitely the place, counter intel guys are swarming all over the building now, not finding much. Bad news is that the beacon is on a time-cycle that expired at midnight, so it self-wiped. Doesn't matter. There was also a marked map, heavily marked, not really much that I can decipher, but it's a map of the western continent, and the labels are concentrated in a pretty remote area."
Letting his eyes roll up as he concentrated, then shutting them completely, Angus paused, then asked, "Recon?"
"I talked to Baker. No low drones we can use, they don't have that kind of equipment here; there's a small bevy of recon sats in asynchronous orbit, though, not even a full spread--remember where we are, Angus; there's usually crap-all to take pictures of on this fucking planet except fields. And the OPR doesn't overlap that region."
"Fine. The recon birds?"
"Yeah," she glanced down reflexively as if to check her possessions, but she was carrying nothing, "I got some shots, they're on the computer. Nothing much, though, it just shows the terrain. Either nothing's there, or I didn't spread the search wide enough, or whatever it is it's just too well hidden to show up on a high-flying low-tech satellite scan."
He nodded slightly. "We'll have to check it in person."
Frowning down at his mostly comatose figure, she gave him the glare she usually saved for her opponents on the speedball court. "No, I will have to check. You are in the hospital, in case you missed that turn of events, Mister Reverend. I can--"
"You can nothing. You want to walk into the great unknown alone?"
"I'll borrow a squad of UN Marines."
"You'll be noticed in a heartbeat canvassing the desert with an entire team of hut-hut-hut troops. If they have any capability to camouflage or withdraw at all, you'll take a week to find them. Anyway, you'll have to wait for a detachment to free up on the OPR, assuming there's even a unit available, and by that time the scent will be cold."
Catherine folded her arms. "I'm not going on a deep recon run with an invalid," she told him harshly.
"You heard the doc. They can release me before nightfall. A little Dralyn, a little stim, a compressive sleeve, I'll be good to go, and I can even use the arm if I pop a few grams of tensor booster now and then."
"And then you'll collapse and need to lie up for a month."
"So? I'll be on my feet and kicking ass for 24 hours at least." He paused and looked at her earnestly. Then he spoke more quietly.
"I think you're right, Cathy. I think we need to get out. But that's not going to happen if we don't get this job put to bed. And if we want that we need to play it hard right out of the gate."
Running a hand through her hair, head starting to throb, she closed her eyes and sighed, knowing she had already given in. Exhaustion was taxing her store of resolve. And in truth, she did want him there. With her.
She gave the smallest of nods and left to find the doctor.
Six hours later, they were sitting together in the cockpit of a tiny AM-912 pick-fighter, slicing through the thick desert air as they peered down at the featureless expanse searching for anything out of the ordinary.
"Hit it again. Thirty ticks."
Catherine twisted a dial on the rear-facing navigator's panel, then pressed a key. A circular wave of light bloomed on the enveloping glasteel bubble, spreading fast and then fading. "Nothing."
Angus nodded and pushed the control ball to the left, following a bend in the pre-plotted course laid onto his own display. Behind the transparent overlay, the horizon brimmed an unbroken bowl of sand. He was keeping up a cursory visual search to augment the sensor ping. Neither had yielded any results, though they had hours left on their flight path before they would even begin to encompass the region.
They had borrowed the diminutive picket flyer from the planetside Marine base, bullying who they needed to and stepping on more than a few toes; they both suspected that they might not be welcome on Terminus much longer. Angus had wanted something better-equipped, a long-distance sky cutter or ideally an atmospheric plotter, which could do their work in a fraction of the time, but the actual deployment-class Fleet equipment on-hand had proven to be next to nothing, so they were left with what amounted to a tactical support vehicle--barely six feet in length, hardware and the two pilots filling it to the brim, and with much of its weaponry missing in favor of additional fuel pods and sensors. It was highly agile, at least, and omni-vectorable, allowing them to maneuver like a sand snake, a boon in the wandering recon work.
"Checkpoint six. Again."
Their hastily-compiled plan-of-attack compelled them to locate an anomalous signature with their long-range sensor package, assess what they could from a distance, then return to Terminus to present their findings to Baker and the DSE, who would reach their own conclusions and pull together a full-scale force to confront the target. Given that they had--as yet--not even the faintest inkling of what they were looking for, further planning seemed futile.
The cobbled-together nature of the whole endeavor had not escaped their notice. Both kept stony silence regarding exactly how bizarre a turn the job on Terminus had taken, and how far it had diverged from their usual perfectly-planned missions. Neither wanted to think about it. "Almost on checkpoint seven. Hit it."
"Little bit of resonance at sector... resolved. Looks like nothing. I'm repinging... it's gone. Just convection currents."
Angus goosed a little more speed out of the aircraft, tipping the nose down to lose a few hundred feet of altitude in compensation.
The endless search was providing them with more time to think than Catherine wanted. She felt confused, lost within her own head, and doubly lost when she couldn't understand why. Since her youth she had been the quick one, fast to react, fast to adjust, the first to respond to a new stimulus or input; in her classes at the royal college, she received the moniker "Cat," not from her given name but for her demeanor. There were others who were more precise, more broad in scope, better with one skill or another, but nobody was as sharp and steady-footed amidst turbulent data as her. She was secure.
But now everything was changing, and as she stared down at the flat keypads of the nav board, she began to understand how much she had become dependent on her stability, on her custom. Yes, she was a mercenary; true, she and Angus regularly took jobs that put them in danger of life and limb all across the populated systems. But in truth, they had settled. They had a comfortable home, a highly effective system of training; they hadn't taken a job in years that they couldn't easily comprehend and dominate. Most of all, they had convinced themselves that they had at last found some kind of security. Somewhere they could take a breath.
When they had fled their past lives together and thrown off the baggage of politics and leadership, she had imagined that whatever challenges they would face would be no match for their combined wits, courage, and joie de vivre. Did they still have that daring?
They were now faced with a situation that was devolving faster than any she could remember since their exile. If there was one thing they had come to rely on, it was stability of purpose. Could she find her old fast-footed agility, somewhere in her tired spirit?
Did she want to?
As Angus held the slippery-handling fighter on a steady course, his conscious mind drifted amidst the dark doors of his past, snapshots of memory he no longer tried to suppress. Brief flashes of fire-lit battlefields and hammering artillery. A calm and meditative supper in the palace, bantering with the royal cabinet on some learned subject. Blasting upward--exactly, perfectly vertical--from his private hanger in a long line of fire across the night sky, Catherine in the co-pilot's seat with a savage expression of pure glee, as he looked downward at his planet for the last time, blood on his hands, blood of his own house.
In a lifetime of regrets, he had never regretted the decisions he had made that night. It was the best thing for him, for Catherine, even for his people: what good a shiftless ruler? Whatever is next, he had thought then, it is in sight.
For years after they had settled anew, he had always told his old friends and acquaintances that he and Catherine had, in their new lives, found freedom. More recently, on the increasingly rare occasions he still made connections with those of his past, he said merely that they were doing what they did. Still being what they were.
Had his life become sedentary in its decisions, in its aims? Was the last bold choice he had made the one to abandon Nimravus so many years ago?
His display blinked noiselessly as they crossed another indicator. "Checkpoint eight," he intoned, adjusting the bandage wrapped around his shoulder with his opposite hand. He'd need a few more caps of Dralyn and stim pretty soon; the pain was returning. Maybe he'd skip the stim. He was already jumpy enough.
"Nothing," the response came back.
There was nothing wrong with relaxation, with finding peace with oneself. If he was happy, and Catherine was, there was no good reason, none in the world, that they should seek out yet another uncertain path to set his feet upon.
But he was not sure that he was happy, and even less sure for Cathy. They were both, he knew, comfortable; they had found a good pace, a steady rhythm to life, something they could follow effortlessly. But this whole existence, their charmed mercenary careers and the idyllic periods of rest and all of the rest, still seemed like nothing more than an interlude, a transition. Like he'd left one life and not yet, not quite, found another.
And now, Earth. Their home. Gone.
He had been there four times, diplomatic missions all, attending UN summits or meeting with important politicians from various sectors. Never since the war started; with the Covenant rampaging across the flightpaths, travel was possible, but the risk had made it foolish when most practical matters could be conducted safely over com channels. All told, he'd probably spent less than a month with his feet on her surface. Cathy had less.
And yet, it was their home. No matter where he had been born, where he lived or struggled or even died, there was no human being in all of the galaxy who could not call Earth his home.
Maybe now, at last, it was time, once again, to Do.
The spray of hyperdense pellets was fifteen meters on each side, and when it slammed into the hardened shell of the hover-jet, it sounded like an angry inverted rain. Instruments blared warnings: breaches, power drops, carriage errors. The craft shuddered in the sky and began a slow tumble around the axis of thrust before Angus could jerk to attention and arrest their flight. His left hand, half-numb from painkillers, slammed down onto the battle toggle, instantly rerouting power from non-critical systems and snapping the displays into a streamlined combat configuration. "Status!" he roared, command voice back once again.
"Surface kinetic fire!" Catherine's response was immediate. "No backtrack--they're clouded. I'm putting down active sig-probes, but there's a lot of ground down there."
Angus injected more power into the double engine and started screaming in a manual evasive pattern. His fingers flipped up switches, readying weapons and aimpoints. In the stripped-down reconnaissance setup, the flyer had only a small in-line repeater cannon and two articulated light guns covering the front and back hemispheres. There was nothing they could bring to bear against a ground target, even if they could locate it.
Incoming-fire sensors flashed a fraction of a second before another, smaller pattering was heard on their metal skin; another blast had barely caught them, four or five pellets at most. He spun the control ball hard, twisting the hover-jet into a wide helical path with a horizontal slide, then added some vertical spikes. They were leaping across the sky like a hummingbird, using every gram of the agile fighter's maneuverability. The computer plotted near-misses and drew them onto the holo with thready red lines, which were sprouting everywhere now. He gritted his teeth and tried to add more thrust, but the engines were already limping on damaged power feeds, and their top speed was three-quarters of nominal. His mind leapt ahead.
"I need a hit, Cathy--anything, now!"
"Wait, wait, wait, I'm increasing the gain, I think I--shit, shit, there's a ping, Angus, I've got a massive pingback at 3653, barely visible but just huge, I'm going to--"
A thunderous blast cut her off, as a full-on salvo crashed through the jet. They had been facing vertically, and the hit had been taken almost wholly by the engine pods. They creaked, froze, and then began to sickeningly drop.
Angus hit keys, jogged the control ball, abused the computer, trying to get power back into the engines. There was nothing. Behind him, Catherine was issuing commands at lightning speed; he could see glimmer-quick flashes from her display reflecting from his own. Outside, the ground started to swell, as the front-heavy craft tipped forward while they plummeted downward.
She issued a final, fluid string of commands, then cried, "Do it!"
He slammed both fists into the ejection panel, and the craft split in two.
They were in the sand.
After smashing into the desert at an unpleasant but booster-deadened velocity, Angus and Catherine had rapidly stripped the sloughed-off ejection sled and started hoofing it through the soft dunes. If they had been tracked in their landing--and discerned from the signature of their jet, wherever that had ended up--they did not want to be easy pickings for a clean-up crew.
They had their personal equipment, the basic survival kit packed in the ejection sled (desert gear, mainly water), and most importantly, Catherine's portable computer, socketed with the memory chip from the craft's sensor package.
Angus was examining it as they walked, several hours after the crash, once they felt a little more comfortable that they'd put distance behind them. The screen showed a hybrid topo map of the immediate region, and was overlaying a thin blue line where they'd picked up the ping. It was enormous.
"What did this show up on, Cathy? Radar?"
"No," she replied from beside him, peering at the screen. "It's the subterranean sonic. Reports back changes in density. Nothing showed up on the other sensors, except for a little blip on infared; that's what tipped me off, but I had to switch to the sonic and pump some power through to get this reading. It's underground and shielded." Which meant military, a conclusion supported by the minor clue that they'd been blown out of the sky. It was time to decide what to do. He stopped at the top of a dune, carefully scanned the horizon in all directions, then dropped his gear and squatted down to get some water.
Catherine was playing with the computer. "If we're going to send a signal," she said, manipulating the screen with her thumbs, "now's the time. Com satellite's above the horizon and it won't be again for another 18 hours or so."
He nodded. "We need to decide. Calling in the cavalry would be the obvious thing, but maybe not the smartest. Can you tight-beam the signal?"
"It's complicated. We don't have the hardware for a really secure message; the only antenna here is the built-in, and that just broadcasts in a spray. Now . . . I think that I could rig a kind of EM hood using some of this gear"--she gestured at the reflective blankets in the survival kit--"and I know more or less where the satellite is in the sky. Probably it'd get through, and the encryption key we agreed on will still be good. But it's an iffy thing. There's a real chance of leakage."
They hadn't sent out a distress message earlier for the fear that it would be picked up by their assailants and triangulated. There was no way of knowing what the enemy's capabilities were.
"It's risky." Angus stood and brushed the sand from his ass. "Even to mobilize a basic extraction flight will take DSE hours, I'd bet. And if they call in Fleet for help, it'll be a couple of days before they can muster and organize a task force to occupy this area. If we put out a message and get intercepted, we're going to be fucked long before they can help us."
"Sure. But what other choices do we have? Walk? It'd take us a week to get to a farm center. We're in a desert, Angus."
"Yeah." He looked back the way they'd come, at the now-invisible landing site and the blurry, rising waves of heat.
Option one, he thought, and knew his partner was doing the same. Call in Fleet. Gamble that the bad guys don't make our signal.
Option two. Do nothing. Keep walking until we get out of the waste.
Impossible. Not enough water, at the very least.
Option three. Locate the jet's crash site and try using its antennae to send a secure signal.
Idiocy. They had barely any idea where to look, minimal odds at recovering any usable hardware, and they would certainly not be the first to arrive at the site.
They'd have to broadcast.
"Wait," Catherine blurted. "Wait."
She had a strange look, like she'd just understood something she had strived to comprehend for a long time.
"You're thinking we should signal, right? You are. Take the chance. For the mission."
He nodded, acquiescing. His shoulder was sending off long spikes of pain down into his chest and across his arm and neck, but the drugs were lost in the crash.
"Fuck it." She shook her head hard, almost percussively. "Fuck that. You want to take a chance for these guys? You want to lay it down for the great goodness of Terminus, Angus?"
She came in toward him, kicking up sand, and kneeled quickly, coming eye-to-eye. "Let's take a chance for us. Let's roll the dice for ourselves, and when we win, we really win. Even losing that way will be better than nothing.
"Crazy, huh? Doing for ourselves. Crazy. What do you think?"
It was two hundred meters from the dune to the squat stone hutch, and Angus was glad for the binoculars from his kit bag. In the magnified view, he was able to carefully examine the flattened area, fifty meters to a side: the scattered pattern of passive antennas and receptors, the triangle of disturbed patches of sand where the anti-air gun battery had "popped" up not long ago, and the gray hunk of rock in the center of it all, complete with a small door.
It looked absurd. And chilling. He wondered what it might conceal.
Cocking his head to the side, he activated his throat mic and muttered through to Catherine, stationed on the other side of the target. "I see a standard array of infared and some broad-spectrum emissions wires. Thoughts?"
Her reply came back, clear as gunfire in his earpiece. "Could be ground-noise pickups, no way to know if they're buried. Could be visual, but I don't see any lenses. This is definitely Terminus hardware, by the way. Local job, or at least a local reception committee."
"That jibes with what we saw in town."
Infared and EM. The latter was no problem now that they had lost their "noisy" jet--their personal com link was mil-spec line-of-sight and almost invisible, and they'd switched off unnecessary gear to give a quieter profile. And they could deal with IR. If they banked on there being nothing else.
Which was bad planning.
"Let's do it."
The three tiny IR spoof grenades that had been stuffed into the bottom of Angus's bag were not loud, obnoxious devices that blocked bodily signatures by covering them with a cloud of chaos. Such things were useless when one wanted not only to hide one's location, but hide one's presence altogether.
Instead, what they did upon detonation was to gradually emit a cloud of thick, non-drifting, organic particles that diffused throughout the surrounding air until it had reached saturation. Each could fill a volume of thirty square feet, leaving the entire region at a steady, constant temperature of 98.6 degrees.
The ghost of Angus running fast and low was therefore invisible to the motion-detecting infared antennas, and he headed straight for the stone building. In his hands were a long metal spike and an improvised hammer made from a (stable, unarmed) limpet mine and a bayonet.
Reaching the low hut, he threw the items onto its roof, then vaulted up after them, found a spot, crouched, and drove the spike through the cement with three long blows.
Assumption one: the small building was only an entranceway to an extended staircase, ladder, or elevator. Nobody, alert or otherwise, would be just inside to hear a noise or see an intrusion.
Taking the short wire that ran from the rear end of the spike, Angus plugged it into his com inputs and pressed a button to start feeding it to Catherine.
Moments later, her voice came back: "I have video. You've got a long, dark staircase down, with dim lights by the base, no features, no visible security. The door is driven by a wheel. No way to bypass; you'll have to blow."
Wordlessly, he hopped back to the ground, pulling the next items from his bag, a stack of shaped charges, with detonators already installed, and a bundle of det cord. He pulled the self-adhesive strip from the back of the first charge and stood waiting in front of the featureless steel door.
"Left edge, eight inches down," her voice came in. He pressed the charge to the left side of the door. "Four minutes estimated until the field disperses, by the way. Left edge, twenty inches up. Right edge, exact center."
He applied the rest of the explosives, then primed them and ran the det cord to a manual detonator. Quickly, he unraveled it until he had enough slack to get around the building, walked four feet and kneeled down.
Counting mentally to three, he squeezed the detonator. A hard, muffled crack signaled the explosion. He ran back to the door, which was scarred at both sides, and waited for the signal.
"Smoke's clearing--give it a second--clear, go, go."
He picked up the improvised hammer, snapped off the bayonet, jammed the stout blade into the upper right corner of the door and levered it back as he stood to the side. With a creaking, swaying tilt, the door eased out of its frame, leaned, and slammed down into an explosion of sand.
"Three minutes. Clear the entryway."
He sheathed the bayonet and pulled the rifle off his back, his personal carbine, a basic and reliable .30-06 he had carried in four wars. Spinning into the dark entryway, he entered low, scanning for a target. He immediately registered a small landing leading to a narrow, descending stairway, which he moved toward, sweeping the area with his weapon and finding nothing for the dozen or two meters he could see. He froze for a moment, listening, and heard only his own breathing.
Assumption two: the entrance/egress of this installation was infrequently used, and they were safe in making use of it if they did not linger.
He considered moving further, but he only needed to ensure that the immediate area was safe; no point in wandering. Into his mic, he said, "Nobody. Bring it in."
There was no response. He waited for a moment, then stepped back out into the sunlight in case the cement was blocking signals, and tried again. "Entryway clear. Move in."
There was a pause, then, very quietly, "Can. Nos."
Their code. Can, shut up. Nos, not safe. She had a threat.
Assumption three: Catherine's position was safe.
Shit. Angus hoisted his weapon and immediately prepared to head out. His mental ticker informed him that he had two minutes until the infared cloud dispersed. Looking toward Catherine's position, he scanned the dunes for a target. There--several occluded figures--he squinted, found the binoculars in his bag and raised them--
"Crack," came her voice, small but panicked, and that word they had only ever used once, a long time ago--
--and only four decades of military discipline allowed him to keep from dropping the lens, the swimming in his head proving even so that age had taken its toll.
He wanted to burrow into the sand and hide. This wasn't their fight. This wasn't what they were ready for. Wasn't fair--this was what people geared up and hyped up and lay awake nights preparing for, they didn't have it dropped on them like a practical joke--
Moving across the surface of the sand, distant but unmistakable, was a small team of alien Covenant.
On Terminus? On Terminus?! This is the Core!
How had they penetrated so far undetected? The war was taking place in the Outer Reaches, and in deep space, and along the spinward thrust that had led them from Reach to Earth; here in the western sector, defense was strong, the perimeters secure, and the transplanted UN command unassailable in its new home on Lux Procella. Here the greatest worry was how to bring the interplanetary trade back up to speed before the aristocracy had to consider lifestyle changes.
But now he had less than a minute to fight or flee and there were four armed Covenant Elite three hundred meters away, certainly too far for aimed fire, and of course they had their shields--
His earpiece activated again. "If?"
Could he engage? "Not at this range--I can approach but I don't know what I can do with a rushed assault on four Elites, and the cloud is dropping fast."
Pause. Then, softly, "Con?"
"Yes. I'm sure."
Careful not to hit them with reflected sun from the binoculars' glass, he watched as the group moved closer to her position. She said nothing for several moments.
There was nothing either dramatic or regretful in her tone, and Angus knew he would not sprint across the sand with guns blazing, either. It was the only tactically sound option. He would continue the mission. She was on her own.
That it was almost certain to kill her was incidental.
Refusing to speak, refusing to think, he slammed a tight lid on his emotions, turned, and headed back into the building, fast.
Without moving, hardly breathing, she willed herself to sink lower into the powdery sand, out of sight of the approaching Covenant.
They were coming along almost exactly the same path that she and Angus had taken, and she realized with a moment of gallows amusement that it was probably the ground team sent to follow up on their crash. It was fortunate that the soft sand had erased their footprints, but given that they had ended up at the same place anyway, it hardly seemed to matter.
Sixty meters. Unless they suddenly veered off or circled around to approach the base from another direction--and why would they?--they would stumble directly onto her within minutes. Without moving, she tried to picture her surroundings. No two ways about it: the only route that would effect an escape would be directly through the now-reviving sensor zone. And that would kill them both.
This was no soft target, and she wasn't sure what to do. Like Angus, she had studied the intelligence from the war with due diligence, but like Angus, she had avoided the actual fighting, and so had never seen--or killed--one of the aliens firsthand. She knew they were fast, tough, adaptable and intelligent, with lethal plasma weapons and personal shields that could only be penetrated with sustained fire. She wasn't going to ambush them and take them out before they could respond. Likewise, the usual SOP for outnumbered escape and evasions, to take one individual hostage and bargain her way out, seemed ridiculous when the enemy wasn't even human.
She had her small spike rifle, a flechette-firing submachine gun that pumped out wads of high-velocity darts, with several full magazines; she had her dagger and a backup; she had two improved thermite grenades, which had proven exceptionally useful in the past; and she had her suicide pill, which, like Angus, she would never use.
They were much too stubborn to ever concede a game.
Forty meters, thirty, and she was at a loss, but at twenty meters she had a sudden thought, and committed to it instantly. It was strange, untested--but she trusted her instincts.
Cats always landed on their feet.
She pushed back to a stand, lifting her rifle from the sand beneath her in one motion and turning to face the four attackers. They were quick, undoubtedly, but nobody was quick enough for reaction to beat action. In less than a second she had swept fire across the squad, lighting up their shields with a sequence of hits. She didn't know what that might do, but if there was anything human in them, maybe it would sting.
Beginning to angle left at a dead sprint, legs pumping in the sand, she pointed the rifle again and focused an arc of fire directly in front of her targets, blasting a line into the sand with superheated steel nails. Back and forth until the magazine clicked empty, and she started moving again to the right as she swapped it out. The talcum-fine sand had exploded at the numerous impacts, laying out a long cloud of dust which hid the Elites. She pecked a few more bursts through the cloud, galling them; blue-white plasma, accompanied by a vvvb vvvb whining, answered her. She took a knee.
One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. Letting her rifle hang from its sling, she took a thermite grenade into each hand, thumbed the activators, and gently lobbed them forward, side by side into the exact center of the cloud. Just like serving a speedball.
They might be aliens, might be intelligent--but they were still men. And men charged forward.
One Elite became visible just as the grenades went off, and another behind was caught as well, judging by the grunting roars. She didn't stay to assess the damage; she was already cutting laterally, sending more licks of fire into the rapidly dissipating dust, harassing, distracting. Plasma came back, but here she had a distinct advantage: while her rounds were originless and invisible, the undoubtedly deadly streaks of plasma drew a line all the way back to their source, and she continued to pepper them. One blue bolt grazed her shoulder, charring her clothing, scorching her skin. Adrenaline pushed back the pain.
Another magazine change. Two more until it was dry. She swerved again, ran for a bit, then pointed herself straight at the two remaining Elites, who were becoming visible again. Focusing her fire at the one on the left, she forced her muzzle down with taut arms as she blasted non-stop, overloading its energy shield just as she clicked empty.
Only a few meters away now, still barreling forward, she pulled the weapon's sling over her head, turned it around as she cocked her hips, and--holding it by the pistol grip, like a side-handle baton--whipped it into the Elite's head. It flinched, but was already coming back around with its plasma rifle, when she drove the knife in her left hand straight through its face.
It hesitated, seemed to lose tension, then fell hard. Catherine began to turn.
The blow hit her just below her ear, a pummeling downward strike from the butt of a heavy plasma rifle, and she blacked out. Waking several seconds later face-down on the sand, she could feel the crushing weight of the Elite pushing one foot into the center of her spine, and struggled to turn her head to breathe. Eyes still swimming, she tried to shift positions, but there was no chance of it; the weight was a stone pillar.
"Boroka malak korosog," the voice rumbled from above her; she could hear the dark fury and feel the vibration through the foot on her back. "Loktog mogai!"
She pushed one hand under her, to her beltline, and found the emergency switch under the buckle. Squeeze, twist, press.
Then she closed her eyes and waited for the first blow.
Angus was creeping down the darkened corridor, all senses tuned, when his earpiece suddenly began to speak.
He froze, eyes continuing to scan his surroundings, and hugged a wall.
This is an automated emergency distress. This is an automated emergency distress. Unit is KIA, incapacitated, or captured. Unit is KIA, incapacitated, or captured. Consider any further transmissions suspect. Consider any mission responsibilities by unit to be forfeit. Message repeats.
He angrily squelched the signal.
She was out, as he'd expected. And as he'd expected, there was nothing he could do.
He was two floors down the underground complex, and had not yet come across any of the enemy, or indeed anything other than some empty rooms; internal security seemed to be minimal, no doubt on the assumption that the facility's obscurity kept it safe. It was clearly a cobbled-together installation, probably adapted from a pre-built structure for another purpose, and whole areas were unlit and unused; it was, however, massive, as he had learned from a structure map he'd found pasted at a hallway intersection. Mostly unlabeled, it laid out the interlocking web of halls and rooms, some of them hundreds of meters across, hangers more than offices; there was no doubt that it was a military structure, especially with the three penciled-in captions: Comms, Launch, and Barracks.
The last he would steer widely clear of. The second he made careful note of. He was headed directly for the first.
But now he paused, considering. He had not expected to receive a distress signal from Catherine, had assumed that whatever happened he would not know until he had finished the mission. But if she had triggered it, she had survived the battle, at least long enough to find herself beaten; and if that were true, and if the surviving enemy could restrain itself (and Elites were not known for their undisciplined aggression), she would surely have been taken prisoner.
Brought to the only possible location.
It took him only a few moments to reach his decision.
Catherine covered her head with both arms, trying to protect her face and the medulla of her spine. Heavy kicks and stomps rained down on her fetal form; she shifted as best she could to avoid or dampen the blows, but her body was taking a terrible punishment. The single Elite had grown to six, as backup had arrived; she held on grimly, pushing her mind past the pain, and waited for them to tire.
Angus avoided two passing groups of Covenant, Grunts and Elites, a few Jackals, as well as a small race of blue aliens he assumed must be technical or support crew. This was undoubtedly closer than any human had ever come to the inner workings of a Covenant station.
He saw at least one human, walking with a group of Elites and speaking through a translator. Muscles clenched. He restrained himself.
Dimly, Catherine was aware as the beating tapered off, and several of the tall aliens grabbed her limp form and began to carry her.
She was already three-quarters gone, utilizing the POW technique she'd been taught by Angus. Her consciousness, rather than here suffering withering pain from an array of broken ribs, at least one shattered knee, a pounding concussion, and what felt like internal bleeding, was elsewhere, trolling through the recesses of her memory, a warmly-lit, comforting space flush with artifacts from her past.
She thought of her father and mother, something she had not done for years, and thought of her homeworld, Angelica, so different from Angus's huge and temperamental Nimravus. It was lush and warm three seasons out of the year, with dozens of strong native crop species and some unique animals known across the colonized systems. She had not seen it since she had fled, twenty one years ago now, almost to the day. Now and then it would surface in the news, for some contribution to the war, or cultural event, but she had never been back, and not just because it was forbidden. She wondered if it was still the same. Wondered if the dawn surfacing over the eastern ocean, viewed from the roof of the North Palace, still drew a thin line of solid light across the horizon, as if the water were spilling down onto the plains. Wondered if her father was still the same.
Bump, bump. A small part of her mind registered that she had passed inside, and was being carried downward.
By good planning, the best of the skills he'd honed over his long career, and a broad stroke of luck, Angus made it to the Communications room unobserved.
Unlike the rest of the installation, and much as he'd expected, it was well-secured and organized. A double, reinforced sliding door sealed it off from the hall, demanding some kind of security card for entrance; peering through the hand-sized window, he saw a long, straight room, one wall decorated with an array of readouts and familiar communication hardware, four or five of the small blue Covenant seated before them, handling relays or dispatch.
He didn't expect trouble, but it would have to be quick, and flawless. He would rely on a lax security and sense of boredom brought about by the station's seclusion; perhaps such things did not occur with these creatures, but if not, they would be more alien than anything he had ever encountered.
Standing beside the entrance, back to the wall, he reached out with the barrel of his rifle, and tapped against the metal door three times, loud.
As her body moved through the dark halls of the Covenant base, her mind moved through the dark shadows of her memory.
She thought of Cole, Angus's personal retainer, who had known him since childhood. The pinnacle of steadfast, simple loyalty. Naive? Yes, naive. But he had loved Angus like a brother, and had tried to stop him from leaving with love in his heart.
Standing with her beneath the cool blue-white lighting of the royal hanger, Angus had killed him with two blows from his elbow after receiving a desperate slash from Cole's knife. Later, once they had reached safety, they had discussed it as they never would again, and he swore that he meant only to incapacitate. But she knew firsthand his expert control. She had wondered what anger had been brewing in him, and for how long.
She thought of the first planet they had come to, after fleeing Nimravus in his private clipper; it had been Balnos, the water planet in the east Core, and they had stopped at its famed orbital dock. While they arranged for a thorough strip and refitting of the clipper, in fear of implanted trackers or bugs, they had hit the restaurants and casinos, partying through the day and night, then retreating to a rented room and making passionate, breathless love for hours. It was a catharsis, a cleansing; they were struggling as best they could to convince themselves that they were all right.
All these years after, she wondered if they had ever been successful.
Angus took the first one with his bayonet, wanting to let the doors close behind him for sound-dampening before he discharged his weapon. After punching the blade hilt-deep into the creature's stomach, then his chest, he stepped in, willing the doors to slide shut.
There was a moment of absurdity as he stared at the remaining technicians, who were aghast in shocked silence. It stretched into seconds, and Angus began to actually feel awkward; one of the aliens was beginning to unthaw, opening its mouth to give a cry, when the doors finally slid shut behind him with a hissing thud, he lifted his rifle, and killed them all, one by one.
Pushing them out of their seats, he set a mental timer for five minutes. Ordinarily it would be an impossibly short goal, but he had trained and drilled for years executing lightning-quick communications exchanges, for times like now when it was critical. All of the gear here was not only human, but UNSC standard; he sat down and set himself to the controls with practiced comfort.
The first one, to Terminus dispatch, was a generic warning notice, and he intentionally patterned it in the same format he would have used for a routine report. He gave their coordinates, spelled out the basic threat, and emphasized the Covenant involvement. He ended with a dire Potential danger extremely serious. Threat exists both to all Terminus but also entire Core. Mobilize immediately.
Encrypt from his personal chip. Send. Mission complete.
The second was a message to a man named Michael Severin, now captain of a UN flagship cruiser, but who had once been Angus's lieutenant, and whom Angus had neither seen nor spoken to in slightly over twenty one years. Keying into a channel that was an open military secret, he composed a brief message, opening it with a very, very old phrase of allegiance. The royal unit's battle cry.
Libertas et fidelitas. Freedom and loyalty.
He wasn't worried that Severin would fail to respond. Some loyalties never died.
The time was ticking down on his last message, but it wasn't long. Addressed to the King-in-Regency of Nimravus--not naming Darryl explicitly, partly because he couldn't be sure the title had not passed to another, but partly to make a point--he wrote only,
Let it be known that I surrender the throne for ever and in perpetuity. To this I attest.
My seal-number is u2y64x8rv. My seal-word is ragnarok.
Tell them goodbye.
Send. Wipe the logs. Time to go.
Idly, Catherine thought of their home, not so far from here. She thought of the day, not so long ago, when Duncan LaGrange had showed up at their door. It was spring. She wondered if she would see it again.
The jostling of her movement began to jar her into consciousness.
The rhythmic stamping of the team of Elites was audible from the other end of the long hallway. By lying prone and peering around the corner at its very base, where it was dark, Angus was able to watch them unobserved.
They were not in a tactical formation--who would be, in their own base?--but they were fairly well-grouped by habit. One of the lanky creatures had a dark shape carried over its shoulders: Catherine. Another walked directly behind, and four more were in approximate double-file in front.
He wished he knew whether she was conscious, or capable of fighting, but there was no indication.
Six Elites. No backup.
There was only one answer.
Catherine was rising back toward an uncomfortable recognition of reality when she was unceremoniously dropped five feet to the hard floor.
Groggy and damaged as it was, her body responded instinctively, slapping the ground in a flat breakfall. But she lay motionless, unable to muster the energy even to glance around, until a rapid patter of footsteps sounded just by her head, and she flinched and looked up.
Angus was running down the hall, weapon slung behind his back, head down. He reached her, stopped, and squatted.
"Hi." He touched her on the cheek with a gloved hand, and smiled. A swarm of emotions raced through her, shock, relief, and a tactical sense of confusion that eventually won out. As he hiked her up and took her over his shoulders, she mumbled, "Wha . . . what happened?"
"I tripped an intruder alarm a few sectors away. Everyone took off that way. Must've . . . oof . . . must've figured you weren't going anywhere. Hold on, we gotta hurry." He began trotting as best he could with the load, taking a left at the next intersection.
She tried to speak again, couldn't seem to open her throat, and very carefully tried to clear it. Lasers of pain shot through her chest, and she gasped, tears coming to her eyes. She had to force her attention to stay focused; it was beginning to wander into the mists of her subconscious again, and this time not by choice. "Where're we going."
"Launch bay. There's an orbital escape pod docked here. Saw it on the way in. Should be able to bug out before they get reorganized, if we're lucky. What's your status?"
Reflecting, she made a motionless assessment of her injuries, flexing and shifting. "Breaks. Burns. Okay for now. Need some Dralyn, might be bleeding. Inside."
Angus was breathing heavily, struggling with her limp weight. Carrying one another was nothing new for them, but this was a race--and they weren't young.
Passing through another intersection, they heard a roar from the side hall; instinctively, rather than falling back, Angus lunged forward to the cover of the corner. Reaching it, he steadied Catherine on his shoulders, lifted his weapon one-handed, and sprayed it around the corner without looking. He emptied most of the clip haphazardly, then quickly released the weapon, turned and starting running as fast as he could, a sort of loping trot. She wished she could relieve his burden, but she could not; she knew for certain that if she tried to run, she would collapse on the spot.
More cries from behind them. Their head start was running out. "Hold on," she muttered to Angus, voice still shot. "Hold on. Gimme. Gimme a gun."
He slowed to a halt. "You s--"
"Gimme a damn gun!"
Pulling the sidearm from his hip without a word, he pressed it into her left hand, then took off again.
Carefully, planning out each motion before she made it, Catherine shifted around, rolling her head until she could see behind them. Several figures were scrambling toward them from a ways down the hall, blurry and insubstantial. A few whirring bolts of plasma scattered toward them, striking walls at various angles. Elevating her arm, she rested her elbow against Angus's shifting back, cocking her hand up like a kid playing with a dart gun. She needed it close to her face, or she wouldn't be able to focus on the sights.
She brought up a bead on one of the figures, waiting patiently while the oscillation from her arm, her overall jostling, the pounding in her head and the target's motion moved together in a shifting cadence. Then, instinct dictating the moment, she squeezed the trigger.
Bang. The target, must have been a Grunt, wobbled and stopped moving. "Got one," she rasped.
"And one for the books, my lady!" he responded in a sing-song, evoking one of their old games. His tone was light, even jovial; she felt a few moments' drunken confusion before she pushed it out of her mind, aimed, and made another shot.
They hammered down the hall, taking turns Angus must have memorized, and passing completely by numerous enemies. They were beginning to draw a crowd, now, kept at bay only by her deadly potshots and the fact that Angus seemed always able to turn a corner just before the return fire became deadly. Twice, he stopped after a turn, drew a fragmentation grenade from his belt, and flipped it around the bend as hard as he could; the damage was unclear, but it kept them pushed back. Still, they were running out of room, and running out of luck.
"You know," Catherine grumbled, one eye squeezed shut as she struggled to line up another shot. "I had this. Idea. Retiring. You might remember."
"Oh, yeah? Yeah, that sounds familiar, was that you?"
"Yeah. Oh yeah. Stop this. Shit. Get out. Live in. The trop--tropics. Or what. Ever. Fun. Shoulda tried. This. Not fun." Bang.
"That sounds pretty good, Cathy. That really sounds pretty damned good." Suddenly, he stopped, heaved her to the floor and set her against the wall.
"We're here. This needs to be quick, but I think it's possible. There'll be some Elites in here, maybe some vehicle crew, but it's a big hanger, and they'll be scattered; I think we can slip in before they really realize. You ready?"
He changed the magazine in his rifle, wrapped the sling around his arm, and held it like a pistol while he toggled the door open. He popped through, making a scan, then came back and scooped her back up. "Let's doooo it."
The light in the hanger was blinding. It was a cavernous chamber, metal-walled, and Catherine could see aircraft both human and Covenant positioned on pads around it. There was no immediate reaction to their entrance; perhaps Angus had been right.
He shuffled them rapidly along one wall, and she was able to glimpse his destination: a squat, oblong cylinder standing upright in the corner, mounted to wall brackets along a long rail. If they had landed all this hardware in the hanger, the roof had to open to the sky; it must have been barely hidden under the sand.
They were three-quarters of the way there, and hoping to make the whole way unnoticed, when the first vocalizations were heard, rapidly escalating to an uproar. They'd been spotted.
"Whoops," he said, and reaching for his last reserves of strength, began to sprint. After four steps, she vomited down his back, unable to take the churning. He didn't slow. The first burst of plasma hummed through the air, much too high.
Ten meters left when Angus took the hit to his thigh. He shuddered, almost fell, but recovered, and kept hauling forward. "Angus!" she croaked. "Jesus!"
Saying nothing, he swung his rifle behind them, firing off some rounds, and hobbled as fast as he could. They reached the pod and took cover behind it.
The din was a cacophony now, and she thought their pursuers must have reached the hanger as well. Swell. Angus peeked around the pod, blinked, and withdrew. "At least two dozen." He found his last grenade, triggered it, and threw it in a high arc.
Quickly now, as she sat up against the wall, he clamshelled open the hatch of the pod and began activating controls. Finding something, he tapped into his hand and held it out to her. "Here. Swallow. Dralyn." She took the caps dry, feeling the hard, bitter lumps pass down her throat.
Something she had noticed was itching at her attention, but she wasn't sure what.
Keying a last switch, he turned back to her, bent down, and lifted her up with both hands under her armpits like a child. A whip-crack of plasma scored the wall inches away, and she realized they must have exposed a limb or scrap of clothing. No matter. He tucked her into the pod, tightening the safety straps with unabashed tenderness.
Then he started to close the hatch.
"Wait!" she gasped. "What are you doing?"
"Getting you out of here."
"It's a one-person pod," he interrupted, and shot a dark grin. Her uneasy feeling turned to sudden nausea. "I'm not coming, hon."
"Angus!" She couldn't breathe. Her throat closed around the cry. He leaned forward, placing a hand against her cheek and smiling.
"Hey, now. It's me, okay? It's us. This is part of the game, remember? You can't pull aces forever."
"Angus! You can't--"
"Listen," he said, his voice now serious. "Listen, Cathy. This is the only way. The only way out." He glanced around, the sounds growing closer. "I've made arrangements, but it'll take a while, okay? Key a sedative once you reach orbit. It'll be a couple of days. Then go wherever you want . . . go home, think about what you want to do, okay? Maybe--maybe even back to Angelica. All that's happened . . . I don't think they'll give you too much grief. Or keep working, but only if that's what you want."
"Wait, come on, we'll take another ship, there's--" She could see several multi-seat craft around the hanger.
"No." He leaned in, with exquisite care, and gave her a long kiss.
"I love you so much. Please be happy."
He stood back and stepped on the kick-plate, activating the hatch, which began to swing closed. She saw him give a real, radiant smile, full of warmth and joy--for the first time in as long as she could remember.
"And say hi to the boys for me!"
Her words caught in her throat. The hatch sealed shut. Through the glasteel, she could see him manipulating controls on the wall, then hitting a final button. Vibrations ran through the pod as the ignition sequence began.
She reached out, as if to touch him, and felt only cold, smooth glass.
He was still visible. As the clamps on the pod released and fuel started to pour into the shielded launch boosters in preparation for the initial kick of thrust, she saw him kneeling with patient, studious grace, and bringing his hands together for a moment of calm. Then he stood and drew out the long bayonet on his belt, holding it in a saber grip, and slowly gave his foes a fencer's salute, then another to her, sweeping the blade back to point toward the ground. "Enjoy the stars!" he roared over the deafening jets, then the boosters activated and hurtled her along the rail into the sky.
For two days, she orbited Terminus, in a drug-induced hibernation. She woke only twice, in a deadened stupor, then remembered where she was and what had happened, and activated another flood of knockout sedatives to put her down as fast as her bloodstream would carry it.
On the third day after her escape from the Covenant base, as she was cycling around over that same spot, a hulking UNSC space cruiser, the Gallant, was waiting for her in geosynchronous orbit. Picking her up on laser trackers, it sent out two tiny tugs to draw her into its bays, where several medtechs stabilized her injuries, then administered stims to rouse her from her trance.
When she awoke, she was lying face-up in the open seat of the escape pod, a dark-haired man with a trimmed mustache and captain's bars on his shoulders seated beside her.
"I am sorry," he said, in accented English--an accent that brought her instantly back, twenty one years ago, to a planet called Nimravus and a man named Angus Reverend. All at once, like a glass had broken inside her, she began to weep.
He pulled her to his chest and held her gently. "I am sorry," he said again. "He was not like normal men. But we will try to fill his emptiness.
"Tell us what you wish, and this ship is yours."
Wracked with shuddering sobs, she exerted her will, and forced herself to hold steady for long enough to say a few words.
"Take me home."
* * *
The hidden Covenant base in the deserts of Terminus, built with the complicity of local mercenary forces, and intended to provide a foothold for the invasion of the planet--and later the campaign to take the Core itself--was burned clean by massed fire from ground and air forces, the UNSC OPR, and the long-range capital cruiser Gallant.
The Fleet planet of Nimravus announced a month of mourning for the death of its ruler, Angus Reverend, lost in the fight against the Covenant. His aging father, destroyed with grief, eventually took a shuttle from his palace dock and flew it into the Slipstream, never to be seen again.
The culture world Angelica welcomed back its long-absent princess, Lady Catherine Richards, who voluntarily stepped down from her position, but would remain there, for the rest of her life, with her family.
A decade later, remarried, she gave birth to her first child. She named him Angus, and announced to her friends that he would be enlisting with the UN armed forces as soon as he was ready, to fight in the war.
But that remains to be seen.
I shan't submit you to a rambling explanation like I did in the last piece. All I want to say here is that I am both shocked and incredibly pleased to have actually finished this friggin' story, which I began a very long time ago and never really expected to finish. I'm also glad that it ended up being a very suited capstone to my fan fiction career, and a tribute to what went before--I doubt anyone's enough of a "fan" to recognize it, but many of the elements of this story showed up in my past work, and the tone itself is a nod to my beginnings. Just call me Tarantino.
Cheers to you all. I'm out. And since I worked for a long time for the right to say this:
-- Brandon "vector40" Oto