- 1 序章
- 2 第一部分
- 3 第二部分
- 4 第三部分
- 5 第四部分
- 6 第五部分
- 瓦砾星 星盟占领区域 天枰座 23
“如果我试图跟着你后面跑向飞船，这只会拖慢所有的事 --- 他们也会跑进去的。但这么做至少会扰乱他们。他们会期待着我们会一起跑过去。”
- UNSC 驱逐舰
- 外围边界 艾库塔纳斯 45 体系
- 希柔星， 艾库塔纳斯 45 星系
联合国太空司令部紧急优先命令098831A - 1
- 来自：UNSC/ 通信导航舰队 H.T.沃德
- 标题：常规命令098831A - 1（“科尔协议”）
任何违背此项指令的行为会被认为是叛变行为，将会受到UNSC军事法律JAG 845-P和JAG 7556-L的追查，并被处以终生监禁或者是极刑。
“最后，你得穿上你的全套飞行装备。当这艘鹈鹕号被击穿时，它很可能会开始向外泄露空气，我非常希望你能够完成你的任务 --- 即便这个任务对你这个全职司机自己来说什么都不是。都清楚了吗，杰弗里斯？”
- 橡木林中央栖息地，瓦砾星，天秤座 23
- 外围边界 艾库塔纳斯 45 星系
芬尼根觉醒号自从离开希柔星，就一直缓缓地向艾库塔纳斯 45 星系的边界走去，现在它已经准备做空间跳跃了。郑偷偷的跟踪了这艘货船足够长的距离来确保这不是次星系内的旅行。
- 外围边界 艾库塔纳斯 45 星系
“我知道了。”凯斯说道。“但我希望你当时能再多一点睿智 --- 像是再多等等或有更多惊喜之类。你正在扣押这艘船，并搜寻其他人吗？”
- 岩中埃迪，瓦砾星，天平座 23
- HABITAT EL CUIDAD, INNER RUBBLE, 23 LIBRAE
The moment 模板:Delgado stepped out of the airlock he knew something was wrong. Five very burly men stood waiting for him. Their shaved heads gleamed in the artificial lights of the inner asteroid, and they wore expensive, well-tailored suits. 模板:Delgado also noticed the telltale bulges of holsters just underneath their left armpits. “Ignatio 模板:Delgado?” one of them asked. “Yes, that’s me.” 模板:Delgado stared into the eyes of the nearest heavy. He didn’t see any way to get out of this. The five men had covered all degrees of escape. He was hemmed in. “There’s someone that would like to see you.” They led him across the open expanse of hangar and into the back of a roomy, plush, tube car that waited at the lip of the docking tube leading out from the asteroid. Inside sat a thin, sparse-looking man with jet-black hair and dark green eyes. He set down the computer pad that he had been reading, folded his arms on his lap, and swiveled slightly to regard 模板:Delgado. “Mr. 模板:Delgado,” he finally said after a long pause, no doubt calculated to make 模板:Delgado somewhat uncomfortable. “You would not believe how hard you are to track down.” 模板:Delgado blinked. He’d been hard to find because he hadn’t been around. The Rubble Security Council had asked him to move the navigation data once more. “I had sensitive business to take care of,” 模板:Delgado said. The door to the tube car shut behind him. The tube car moved over and gripped a long sliver of track that led down and away from the hangar asteroid where 模板:Delgado had docked the Distancia. “I know that,” said the man. “I was one of the members who voted to send you out to secure the navigation data today.” “I’m sorry?” 模板:Delgado frowned. “No, no,” the man waved in the air. “Entirely my fault.” He reached out a hand. 模板:Delgado reached over and shook it tentatively. “I am Peter Bonifacio, and I hear you’ve been asking about me, Mr. 模板:Delgado.” 模板:Delgado stared into the eyes of the man who, most likely, had caused Melko’s death. He bit his lip. “I don’t think so. You must be mistaken. I’ve been far too busy with the Security Council’s orders. As you must know.” If Bonifacio, this short, intense-looking man, was really desperate to get his hands on the navigation data, he was hiding it pretty well at the moment, 模板:Delgado thought. Bonifacio lit a cigar. A Sweet William, 模板:Delgado realized with a kick in his stomach. “No, it’s certainly you, 模板:Delgado,” Bonifacio said. “Asking all sorts of very interesting questions. So I thought, maybe it’s time I asked some questions of my own.” 模板:Delgado watched Bonifacio inhale a long drag of the Sweet William, and then let it out into the tiny, cramped interior of the bubble car. A haze of smoke lingered around them. Bonifacio leaned forward. “What do you know about the Exodus project?” The tube car moved on past pedestrians floating their way to and from asteroids. “The what?” 模板:Delgado asked. It felt like Bonifacio was studying every pore on 模板:Delgado’s face. “What about the 奇戈亚尔—why are you asking about them?” 模板:Delgado shook his head, pulling back from Bonifacio, offended. “I have my reasons.” “Mmm,” Bonifacio grunted. “It’s a strange coincidence that the 奇戈亚尔 attacked a place that only the nine Council members knew about… and you.” “You’re accusing me of selling that information?” 模板:Delgado leaned back in. “I was shot protecting the data. My copilot was killed. How dare you suggest I gave anything to them?” Bonifacio looked out the window at the depths of space passing them by. Ahead, the tube pierced the center of another asteroid habitat. They passed into the heart of it, curved green farmland stretching up on all sides around them. “We are all innocent until proven guilty, of course, Mr. 模板:Delgado,” he said. “But in your case, this is such a sensitive matter that a few Council members and I have decided that for the safety of the Rubble, you will have to be detained while we investigate certain concerns regarding your loyalties.” 模板:Delgado clenched a fist. “My loyalties are to the Rubble.” Bonifacio chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure you’re just a living, breathing patriot. So I’ve heard. But the Council would like to hand over security of the data to me now. “So where is it, 模板:Delgado?” “Lodged deep, deep up your ass, Bonifacio.” 模板:Delgado grinned. Bonifacio’s face steeled. “There was no call for that,” he said. 模板:Delgado shrugged and leaned back in the chair. “If we’re playing games, I might as well have some fun too,” he said. Bonifacio quickly hauled back and punched him in the stomach, not even an inch away from a still-healing plasma wound. 模板:Delgado felt like he’d been stabbed, and the pain doubled him over. “It’s such a shame,” Bonifacio hissed. “We started off on a nice foot, and then you had to go do that.” “You’re such a charmer,” 模板:Delgado grunted, holding onto his stomach and leaning against the seat in front of him. “You like this on all your first dates?” “You’re in a lot of trouble,” Bonifacio said. “Because as of this moment, you’re under arrest for suspicion of leaking the location of the navigation data.” “The Council will not stand for that,” 模板:Delgado said. “They all worked hard with me to keep that data safe when we realized it was being destroyed.” “For all we know you could be part of some conspiracy to destroy the data. You and your friend Diego. Who incidentally, did most of the exhorting us to ‘trust’ you.” The tube car slowed, and Bonifacio leaned back. “And the Council signed the warrant.” Bonifacio pulled up his pad. 模板:Delgado looked down at it. Then back up. “How?” “A nice benefit of being a trusted, elected Security Council member. Now, I want the location of that navigation data, 模板:Delgado.” “And how long will you be able to get away with this? Eventually the Council will realize it’s not a normal arrest when I don’t actually show up in a proper holding facility, Bonifacio.” The smuggler sighed. “True, but we have enough time for what I need.” “Until the Kestrel gets in?” 模板:Delgado ventured. Bonifacio quirked a small smile. “And to keep you from spreading that damn name around.” “It’s coming in from 卡律布狄斯IX, right?” 模板:Delgado said, trying to prod more information out of the man. “I hear the UNSC Navy is sewing everything up, so it’s obviously a last-hurrah smuggle. A ship full of luxuries that soon people will pay a premium for… and then you no longer need the navigation data. Right?” Bonifacio said nothing, but looked out the window. 模板:Delgado nodded. The silence said a lot. “So you’ll sell us out to the 奇戈亚尔? Give them the data?” 模板:Delgado growled. “Are you some weepy Earth sympathizer?” Bonifacio snapped, suddenly irritated. “Because you seem really hung up on this idea that I’m trying to steal the data to sell it to the 奇戈亚尔. Even if I am, who the hell cares what happens to Earth? They could care less about us.” 模板:Delgado shook his head. Bonifacio hadn’t come straight out and admitted anything yet, but at least he was getting chatty. He pressed the issue some more. “The 奇戈亚尔 will attack the moment we sell that data. They’re just here to scavenge it.” Bonifacio shook his head. “That’s where you’re wrong. They’re risking a lot to be here, to help us build these asteroids. And they will reward us. They think of this as home just as much as we do.” “How do you think they will reward us?” Bonifacio smiled. “Don’t you worry yourself about that right now.” 模板:Delgado gritted his teeth. The smuggler had now all but admitted he was working with the 奇戈亚尔. That he was the leak in the Council. The tube car slowed near an industrial looking section of the asteroid, where metals were being processed from the raw slag forwarded by other mining companies still operating in the outskirts of the Rubble. They stopped in front of a large warehouse half dug into the ground. Bonifacio leaned forward as one of his men snapped a pair of handcuffs on 模板:Delgado. “Welcome to your new home for the next few days.”
- SCYLLION WAREHOUSE DISTRICT, 卡律布狄斯IX
凯斯 stared at the faces of the rioters, reading the rage and the desperation of the crowd’s mood. So far they were just watching the ONI survivors. The trucks and trailers the ONI team and 凯斯 crawled out of lay broken across the road, burning from the RPG hits. The asphalt had melted underneath them in some places, and the warehouse windows reflected the dancing flames. “Behind us.” Hansen whirled around and shot at the corner of the burning trailer. Someone ducked back behind it. “We need to get out,” Watanabe told 凯斯. The crowd muttered, and triumphant shouts increased in the distance as several of them dragged an ONI agent out from the remains of a trailer. The man struggled, but the ten people holding him were too strong. They shoved him to the ground and started kicking him. They could hear his screams. “Can’t we do anything?” 凯斯 asked. “It’s just the three of us, and hundreds of them over there,” Hansen said. “I can’t even get a shot clear, there’re too many of them.” “Damn it.” 凯斯 turned so that he could glance back and forth between the crowd and the trailer. “鹈鹕运兵船 019, this is 李eutenant 凯斯.” He pulled his side arm out of the holster, but didn’t point it in either direction, just kept at his side. “I take it you’re ONI?” The Insurrectionist on the other side of the trailer yelled at them. It sounded like Kincaide. “You think you’re so smart, sneaking around. But we have you now! We’ll beat you down like your friend over there.” The screams from the ONI agent had stopped. The crowd moved away from the limp, broken body. 凯斯 felt sick, then nervous as the mob screamed in his direction. Hansen dropped a magazine out of her gun. It hit the asphalt at the same time as a new one clicked home. She didn’t respond to Kincaide’s rants. “Jeffries here, sir,” crackled the voice in 凯斯’ earpiece. “Can you get a read on my location?” 凯斯 tried to keep his voice calm. Something about the pent up rage of the crowd unnerved him. “Yessir.” Hansen pointed at a nearby door to another warehouse. They backed over to it. 凯斯 held his hand up to his ear. “Get ready for a hot pickup. We’re coming up to the roof. Got a mob after us, and we lost the Insurrectionists we were after. They were using RPGs on us, so come in fast and low and keep your eyes open.” An Insurrectionist peered around the corner, and ducked back again as Watanabe fired at him. “These are company agents,” Kincaide shouted into the air. “Any one of you grab them I’ll give you weapons. Free guns.” A pair of rioters heard that and ran down the street at the trio. Watanabe and Hansen shot in unison, and the two men pitched forward into the road. Hansen turned around and shot the doorknob several times, then kicked the door in. “Inside.” They moved in, Watanabe and Hansen staying by the door as 凯斯 looked around for a way up. A few more gunshots cracked out—they convinced the mob to stay back. Meanwhile, Kincaide was screaming at the mob to attack. Still, even rioters didn’t want to charge head on into gunfire. 凯斯 could see that through the shattered windows of the door. They were holding back as the two ONI agents shot just above their heads. Looking the other way, 凯斯 spotted a service elevator. “Sir, I’m a minute away,” Jeffries called in. “Get to the rooftop.” “To the roof,” 凯斯 shouted. They ran to the elevator, pulling the cage shut. It lurched up, just as the door they’d come through shattered, rioters pouring through, Kincaide with them. He raised a 星盟 plasma rifle, and as the elevator rose to the next floor, a burst of plasma hit the elevator doors beneath them, blowing them out into the shaft. Smoke rose up with them as they climbed toward the top floor. The elevator lurched to a halt, and once the doors opened Hansen shot the control panel several times. The foyer led to a doorway out onto the roof, and past the stairs leading down the warehouse’s floors. They could hear murmuring and footsteps farther down the stairwell as they passed it to kick open the door. As 凯斯 ran onto the flat roof, he saw the running lights of the approaching 鹈鹕运兵船 wink off. The craft swooped by, blinding them with a sudden glare of a spotlight that then shut off almost as quickly as it had been flicked on. “That you coming out on the roof, sir?” Jeffries asked. “Better believe it,” 凯斯 grunted, sprinting away from the stairwell. “Coming back around for the land, deploying the ramp,” Jeffries reported. The 鹈鹕运兵船 banked and disappeared off into the night. Then it appeared again. Jeffries was throwing it full speed right toward the top of the building, skimming just over the rooftops in a near suicidal dash. 凯斯 had to admire the skill. From the street level the bright flash of a rocket launch lit up an alleyway and a rocket streaked for the 鹈鹕运兵船. “RPG!” 凯斯 shouted, but Jeffries had already kicked the tail of the 鹈鹕运兵船 out, crabbing it around in midair to face the rocket and present a smaller profile. The rocket streaked by, missing but bathing the 鹈鹕运兵船 in an eerie orange light. A second rocket flashed and leapt up from underneath the 鹈鹕运兵船. It slammed into the belly of the craft, gutting it. Debris rained down out of the 鹈鹕运兵船, and a second explosion inside rippled throughout the craft’s body. It hung in the air, engines wailing, but not moving. The third rocket slammed into its tail, and the 鹈鹕运兵船 dropped out of the air into the street below, sinking from eye level in an inferno of boiling metal and parts. 凯斯 threw himself at the ledge of building, firing his sidearm into the street, but the Insurrectionists had already melted back into the shadows. The flaming wreckage burned itself against the back of 凯斯’ eyes as he waited for some movement, any movement, near the ruins of the 鹈鹕运兵船. “李eutenant,” Watanabe grabbed him and yanked him back from the edge. Chips of concrete stung 凯斯 in the face as gunfire hit the lip of the building. Watanabe locked his eyes. 凯斯 stood in front of Watanabe, frozen, as Watanabe grabbed him by the face to look right at him. “There’s nothing you could have done, 凯斯.” 凯斯 numbly ejected the spent magazine from his sidearm and slid in another. “I’m the one who transferred him aboard 仲夏夜号.” “He was a good soldier and a good man. Jefferson flew hard, and now he’s down and we need to focus.” 凯斯 stared at the ONI spook. Jefferson? What the hell was that? Watanabe was supposed to be a man of details, observant. But Jeffries hadn’t rated his attention, apparently. But then, that was a spook versus enlisted. They didn’t care about the man standing next to you. They had their own agendas. “凯斯, you listening? Can you raise the ship?” “I can try,” 凯斯 said. By the stairwell Hansen fired three shots, and someone screamed. 凯斯 moved away from the lip of the wall and closed his eyes. He flipped frequencies on the earpiece, and then looked up at the stars in the night sky. One of them was 仲夏夜号, parked in geosynchronous orbit. It hung directly over the city. “Midsummer Night, this is 凯斯.” He waited a moment, then repeated it. A response came through, crackly and faded. “凯斯, this is 模板:Kirtley. Glad to hear your voice. What’s your situation?” “Pinned on a roof,” 凯斯 reported. “Jeffries was hit by RPG fire; the 鹈鹕运兵船 is down. We’ve got Insurrectionists and a mob ready to tear our throats out.” “李sten, hold tight,” 模板:Kirtley said. “There are ODSTs on their way.” “They won’t get here in time,” 凯斯 said. “Major Faison had it out with the captain, said you guys needed boots on the ground for support if a mob was moving in. They left early, before you called Jeffries. You need to hold out twenty minutes. Copy that? Twenty minutes?” Twenty minutes. Might as well have been an eternity. But it was a chance. “Tell them to space out and watch out for rockets,” 凯斯 said. “Will do. Good luck, 李eutenant.” 凯斯 ran over to Watanabe and Hansen. “ODSTs are on their way. Twenty minutes.” Watanabe and Hansen glanced at each other. Watanabe held up his side arm. “Last mag.” “Same here. 凯斯?” “I’m on my last mag too.” The three of them looked down the empty stairwell. “Twenty minutes, huh?” Hansen said. “Twenty,” 凯斯 repeated. “Well, I’m game to try it,” the ONI agent said, and steadied herself against the wall for a better shot.
- SCYLLION WAREHOUSE DISTRICT, 卡律布狄斯IX
“They’re not trying to push up the stairs hard enough,” Hansen said, ten minutes later. So far 凯斯 had only fired warning shots. The rioters would peek around a corner and fire off a round, and he would too, and then there would be silence until the next rioter nerved up enough to try doing the same thing. “She’s right.” Watanabe stepped forward, trying to look down the stairwell. He jerked back as someone fired a shot. Plasma exploded against the walls of the foyer. “They’ve got the 星盟 weapons now.” Hansen shuffled back from the doorway. “So why aren’t they rushing us?” 凯斯 asked. He scanned the rooftop. “They’re up to something.” Hansen pulled a wicked-looking knife out of her boot and put it on the ground. “凯斯, go left, Watanabe, right. Just start checking the edges. Don’t pop your head over, just listen for anything. I’ll hold this point.” 凯斯 and Watanabe took off at a crouch for the edge of the roof. 凯斯 skirted it, slowly moving against the concrete lip. The edge came up to his head. On the other side of the building, he could see Watanabe doing the same. 凯斯 made his way down one whole side of the building. His thighs burned from the awkward waddling by the end, and he paused to stretch them out. Watanabe had stopped as well. But he wasn’t stretching his legs. He had his gun out. Three men leapt over the lip near Watanabe, with Kincaide vaulting the edge just behind them. The ONI agent charged them from the side, shooting down the first man, then the second. 凯斯 couldn’t risk firing, he’d just as likely hit Watanabe at this distance, so he sprinted at the group. Kincaide used the third man, a rioter, as a shield. He shoved the surprised civilian into Watanabe, then shot them both several times with a plasma rifle. 凯斯 felt sick as he watched Watanabe fall. The man may have been ONI, but he was crew and a fellow soldier, and 凯斯 realized he was screaming. 凯斯 had his pistol up without a second thought. As Kincaide seemed to turn in slow motion, 凯斯 pulled the trigger. He’d been aiming for the chest, but the first shot hit Kincaide in the shoulder. It spun the Insurrectionist back, and he struggled to bring the heavy plasma rifle back up to aim at 凯斯. 凯斯 shot him in the chest, then stomach, grazed his side, and then ran out of ammunition. He slammed into Kincaide, grappling for the alien rifle. “Damn… UNSC… pig,” Kincaide spat, still trying to force the rifle up into 凯斯’ ribs. “Go back to Earth. You don’t belong here.” The memory of the explosions in the cargo bay of Finnegan’s Wake, the flaming 鹈鹕运兵船 Jeffries piloted going down, wounded ODSTs gritting their teeth and bearing the pain as they waited for help, all filled 凯斯’ mind. He grunted and kept forcing the plasma rifle down until it was aimed at Kincaide’s feet. He pulled the trigger, and a burst of white-hot plasma destroyed the Insurrectionist’s leg and threw 凯斯 back, still holding onto the rifle. Concrete bubbled where they’d stood, and 凯斯 felt the legs of his uniform burning. He patted the fires out quickly, and looked back at Kincaide. The man had lost his left leg, blown clean off at the thigh. He’d been shot in the shoulder and chest. Yet he now had a small pistol in his right hand, lifting it up to point it at 凯斯 with determination in his glazed eyes. Without hesitation, 凯斯 blew the Insurrectionist’s head off his body with a burst of plasma. His hands shook. He’d never shot a man before. He’d shot at people, fired warning shots, practiced in drills, but never actually looked at someone in the eyes who was about to kill him, and beat him to the draw. Watanabe groaned, and 凯斯 crawled over to him. The plasma rifle had ripped through the ONI agent’s left torso, leaving a crisped mess. 凯斯 gagged at the smell. “This is bad,” Watanabe muttered. “Don’t move,” 凯斯 told him. “Stay still, don’t close your eyes.” “It hurts.” 凯斯 bit his lip. “Just hang in there, Akio. They’re on their way. We just need to hang in there.” Hansen fired three shots at someone in the stairway trying their luck. Watanabe grabbed 凯斯’ forearm and grimaced, then let go. 凯斯 looked down at the limp, dead body of Major Akio Watanabe. He stood up and grabbed Jason Kincaide’s headless corpse, dragged it to the lip, and shoved it over. He heard the distant thump, and a crowd of people shout in surprise. 凯斯 walked to the ledge and looked down. A fire truck had been commandeered, the ladder pushed up to the roof. Several hundred rioters milled below, many with plasma rifles. “李sten up!” 凯斯 held up his newly acquired plasma rifle as he shouted. “Anyone else tries storming the roof, I’ll blow their damn heads off too.” He fired the plasma rifle twice into the base of the ladder, and watched with satisfaction as metal slumped and the ladder slid off the side of the building, falling over toward the crowd. Rioters scattered as it struck the street in their midst. “Now,” 凯斯 snapped the word out, in full drill sergeant cadence. He may as well have been talking to a crowd of new recruits. “UNSC marines are about to arrive any second. If I were you, I wouldn’t want to be standing around here in plain sight, lest they get the mistaken impression you’re hostile, and act accordingly.” 凯斯 turned around and walked away from the edge. “Look,” Hansen said, pointing up. Stars in the sky grew larger, twinkling brighter and brighter, until they could be seen streaking toward the building. “The cavalry has arrived,” 凯斯 said.
- SCYLLION WAREHOUSE DISTRICT, 卡律布狄斯IX
Twenty single occupant exoatmospheric insertion vehicle pods came in high, ripping through the atmosphere, still glowing hot from reentry. Parachutes popped, enough to slow the 人类-sized capsules down a bit. Then at the last second rockets flared, lighting up the night sky in flames and thunder as all the SOEIV pods slammed into the reinforced structure of the roof. Concrete dust hung in the air, and chips off the roof clattered down as the pods split open and ODSTs leapt out with their battle rifles drawn. From the corner of the roof, in a pod that leaned precariously near the edge, one ODST hopped out. The SOEIV shook, and then fell off the edge onto the street below. The Helljumper pulled his helmet off. It was Faison. “Miss us much?” 凯斯 pointed at Watanabe, and Faison paused. “Damn. Didn’t like the spook, but still…” He pointed at two ODSTs and detailed them to wrap up Watanabe’s body. 凯斯 looked away and swallowed the lump in his throat. He’d seen too much death for one day. “They’re firing RPGs around. It’s probably too risky for 鹈鹕运兵船s,” 凯斯 said. “They took Jeffries out.” “We heard about them coming in,” Faison said. He looked around. “But don’t worry, we’ve got it in hand, 李eutenant. You saved our asses back on the Finnegan’s Wake, now it’s time for us to even up.” “I don’t want to see anyone else die down here,” 凯斯 said. “Magnus! 模板:Jeremy!” Faison shouted. A pair of very tall and bulky Helljumpers ran over. “Grab four spotters, get your gear in place where you two can do your thing. Start marking targets. But stay in the shadows.” “Yes, sir.” “And someone,” Faison said into his mic, still hanging from his ear, “please start tossing grenades down that stairwell.” The mob had retreated when 凯斯 threw the body of Kincaide over the wall, but there were gunshots coming from the corridor and the street as the mob worked itself back up. Two svelte ODST shadows meandered over to the side of the doors and skipped grenades down the foyer and into the stairwell. “Fire in the hole,” one shouted, just before a fireball gushed out the door. There were screams from the depths of the warehouse. 凯斯 switched frequencies to the marine’s open chatter. He could hear the spotters with their night vision and thermal gear muttering. “See the one out by that window?” “Yep, marked him.” “Okay, I got one on top of the building. North-north-west. Near the water tower.” “Sneaky. Yeah.” 凯斯 followed Faison over to an edge, where he held his helmet over the lip for a second, then pulled it back over and reviewed the cam footage. “Look at that,” Faison said. “All this excitement scared off the rioters. So, anyone left is an Innie.” “Perimeter secure,” a Helljumper reported. “They’re not shooting at us yet.” “Okay,” Faison said. “Bring on the decoy and let’s play find-the-RPG-launchers.” A 鹈鹕运兵船 with its running lights on came in slowly, passing them overhead, and swooping around. “Take out your targets,” Faison said. The two snipers, Magnus and 模板:Jeremy, were the focus now. Crack. The sound of an SRS 99 carried over the rooftop. “Got Mr. Window.” The pair of snipers had crawled onto the top of the small structure above the foyer, a building on a building. It gave them unobstructed line of sight to the surrounding streets and buildings. “Mr. Water Tower is… clear of the lattice…” Crack. “And he’s most definitely not going out to party tonight.” “Moving location.” One of them jumped off and sprinted across the rooftop, the long barrel of the sniper rifle bobbing. He set up on the corner of the building, the edge of the gun resting on the concrete lip. “While you’re huffing about, Mr. Street Corner is sighting on the 鹈鹕运兵船…” Crack. “And down.” Crack. “That’s the last one.” Faison made a circling motion with his hand. “That’s how we do it, gentlemen. Bring the other 鹈鹕运兵船s in.” Two 鹈鹕运兵船s descended out of the clouds and came in hard, slamming onto the roof. Hansen and 凯斯 ran up the ramps and buckled in; the Helljumpers followed. The 鹈鹕运兵船s dusted off, engines screaming as they zigzagged their way out of the neighborhood. An occasional zap of plasma-rifle fire rang in the distance. As the ramp shut, Faison staggered his way forward to 凯斯 and handed him a cigar. 凯斯 eyed the flaked exterior. “A Sweet William?” “Nothing but the best, sir. A victory smoke.” “A victory smoke?” 凯斯 looked over at Watanabe’s body. “We lost two of our own down there. Those rioters have 星盟 weapons, now.” “Sir, any day you come back from a mission alive, it’s a victory.” The Helljumper grinned. They were a different breed of soldier, 凯斯 had to keep reminding himself. They had to be. Packing yourself into a heatshield pod, braving the flames of reentry over a planet, and parachuting down into the middle of action, surrounded… that was a bit above the call of duty for a normal marine. 凯斯 handed Faison back the cigar. “I don’t smoke. It’s against regulations.” “Sir, I’ve seen you standing with a pipe, in the chart room, looking over maps.” His grandfather’s pipe. It was an heirloom, and 凯斯 kept it on him. It comforted him to have it in hand. An old habit. “And I don’t smoke it. But tell you what, marine, when I see a victory, I’ll smoke one with you. This wasn’t a victory, it was a cluster—” “It wasn’t a complete loss,” Hansen said. She stood at the center of the 鹈鹕运兵船, balancing as the craft shook and shuddered its way higher and higher. “The reason Kincaide was so set on eliminating us was that he realized he made a mistake. He told me the name of the next ship making a smuggling run while he was trying to bid up the price of the weapons. Said he’d done business with them.” “And the name of the ship?” “The Kestrel. These 星盟 weapons, they’re a problem, 凯斯. We need to figure out why the 星盟’s doing this. And we damn well need to stop it.” “Hoo-ah,” one of the Helljumpers agreed. 凯斯 folded his arms. The Kestrel. They’d hunt it to the edge of the galaxy if necessary, as far as 凯斯 was concerned. Someone was going to have to pay for all the deaths on his watch. “Sir,” the pilot of the 鹈鹕运兵船 shouted back into the hold. “Sir, 仲夏夜号’s hailing us.” The pilot’s voice had cracked slightly. Fear. 凯斯 walked calmly up behind the woman’s chair, even though he could feel the kick in his stomach. The pilot’s helmet twisted back. It had the name Carson stenciled on it. The 鹈鹕运兵船 bucked a bit as it passed over clouds, still gaining altitude. The craft was pitched up, aiming for the black of space. “The sensor stations at the edge of the system think something’s coming in. Something big,” she said. “星盟?” 凯斯 asked. “Know of any other fleets planning to wing by this place?” Carson returned to getting them to orbit, and 凯斯 stumbled back down the steep angle. “Are there any Navy ships scheduled to arrive?” he asked Hansen. She shook her head. “Cole is still out near Harvest. Mawikizi’s main fleet is spread out around Ectanus. There are three destroyers picketing—” “The Night’s main attribute is her stealth,” 凯斯 said, his mind rapidly running through some rudimentary plans on how three Destroyers and 仲夏夜号 could face this 星盟 fleet. So far only Admiral Cole and his battle group had ever scored a meaningful victory against the 星盟. And it was a loose secret within the Navy that Cole had thrown three ships against the 星盟 forces for every ship of theirs he destroyed. Midsummer Night and the three other frigates would be facing long odds. “If it’s 星盟, we’ll have to utilize that stealth for a defense.” With stealth, and the single MAC gun aboard the Night, a series of hit-and-runs could perhaps harass the 星盟 into chasing them, and lure them into a situation where the three Destroyers would only face one or two 星盟 ships. Hansen shook her head. “If the 星盟 are coming for Charybdis, your one frigate will make no difference. 凯斯, it’s vital you follow up on the Kestrel, find out what the 星盟 are really up to. It’s what your ship was designed for. We can’t waste it on a last stand.” “But—” “It wouldn’t be a wise use of resources.” Hansen bit her lip. “And the UNSC, every day, has fewer and fewer resources to spare, 凯斯. We’ve been fighting the 星盟 now for almost a decade. As of now, we’ve pretty much lost all the Outer Colonies. You need to find out what is going on. You need to go after the Kestrel. Before the 星盟 get all the way in-system and trap you.” It didn’t sit well with 凯斯, abandoning people to a doomed defense. He stood next to the ONI agent in silence as the 鹈鹕运兵船 broke free of the atmosphere. “After you drop me off at the orbital depot, tell Zheng to get clear. I’ll transmit the orders. You’ll find that I outrank you both.” “Yes, ma’am,” 凯斯 said. Hansen sighed. “And when you find your real victory, 李eutenant, make sure you smoke one of those Sweet Williams for me.” “We’re coming in!” Carson announced from the cockpit. “And fast. Captain Zheng wants us back on board ASAP.” Through the cockpit windows the long spars of a Navy orbital depot slowly rotated. Carson twitched the 鹈鹕运兵船 until it slammed against one of the spokes. As the back opened, 凯斯 stood straight and saluted. The ODSTs inside followed his example, not sure what was going on. Hansen saluted back, and then left the 鹈鹕运兵船. “Okay,” Carson shouted. “Hang on!”
- UNSC DESTROYER DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?, 卡律布狄斯IX
提尔·外达密 burst through a corridor at a full run and aimed a plasma rifle down its length. Nothing. There had to be more 人类s aboard this destroyer than the pitiful few who’d tried to hold off the boarding party. The angular ship with its sharp corners and boxy layout reeked of a larger contingent of 人类s. The Sangheili did not reholster his gun. A drawn weapon demanded blood, and one didn’t draw a weapon in Sangheili culture unless you intended to use it, even if it was a just a gun. So now it would remain out in his hand. Thel crossed another bulkhead and turned to his right. There it was, that scent again: a pungent smell. The 人类s. They must have retreated to a core area, deep inside the ship. Throughout this system his fellow Sangheili hunted down 人类 ships to destroy them, and the flagships of the fleet would now be raining the full strength of their energy weapons down on the surface of the planet. It was sterilization. A mandate for destruction handed down by the leaders of the 星盟, the three High Prophets. But Thel and his handpicked team were off on a side mission. To his right a team of zealots padded along with him, keeping a full 360 degree path of fire at the ready in case of an ambush. Their long, leathery necks craned around, their eaglelike eyes scanning the awkward nooks and crannies of the 人类 ship for the enemy. “Cowards,” Jora ‘Konaree hissed. Jora was one whose blood always ran hot, always ready for the fight and eager to rush a position. He sounded disappointed and frustrated to not have a direct fight to engage in. “They flee in front of us like panicked forest creatures before the flame.” An apt metaphor, thought Thel, considering that 星盟 ships rained fire down on the 人类 worlds. “Be cautious,” Thel warned. “They are small creatures, but they are not unaware of their disadvantages.” The 人类s would ambush them, soon enough, in some sort of last stand. He’d heard a few rumors from other Sangheili who’d boarded 人类 ships looking for information that they would fight hard, almost honorably. Or, at least, Thel hoped so. Hunting them down like vermin would be… demeaning to everyone involved. From past dissections of 人类 ships of this class, they knew the control center would be close to the front of the ship. A daring and brash position that Thel appreciated. They broke through the doors by tossing a sticky grenade at the seam. The grenade thudded into the gap and stuck in place. It glowed a sickly blue, then exploded. “Forward,” Jora shouted. The other three zealots—Zhar, Saal, and Veer—followed Jora and Thel through the ruined remains of the doors. Zhar, careful but constant and steady; Veer, a bored expression on his face but eyes darting everywhere, looking for details and oddities for his war poems; and Saal, like Jora, looking for anything to kill. They were Thel’s own small force, a band of fighters that had seen many enemies fall at their feet. Jora rushed through the room. “They abandoned their own command center,” he growled. Then he leaned over the alien computer consoles and tapped at them. The only response was sparking and fizzing: the consoles had been shot up before the 人类s abandoned them. “Useless!” He unsheathed his energy sword and fired it up in frustration. The two crackling, curved blue flames of energy rose up on either side of the hand holding the bar. Jora plunged it into the heart of the machine, sparks flying and metal oozing out around where the sword pierced it. The screens above flickered and faded. Jora pulled the sword out and cut the whole console in half, the energy sword cleaving it cleanly down the middle. “Savages with starships and toy weapons, Shipmaster,” he hissed at Thel, who watched the display of anger without any emotion. The barking chatter of 人类 gunfire ripped through the cockpit, and Jora’s armor flared. “Blood,” the zealot swore, as he ducked for cover. Zhar calmly turned and lobbed grenades down the corridor. “So they finally attack.” Jora’s mandibles split open as he roared a challenge down the corridor. Thel, though, already ran down the corridor at the attack. The 人类s had cornered them here. A smart move. Thel leapt through the smoke and chaos of the explosion, his armor dinged, nicked, and its energy shield flaring due to 人类 bullets. He shot the first 人类 he saw as he landed back on the deck. The second 人类, flush against the wall, spun to bring his rifle to bear. Thel was too close to shoot him: he snapped the butt of the energy rifle into the short alien’s face and watched it slump to the floor. Weak, very weak. The 人类’s insubstantial armor of olive clothing did little to protect it. Jora barreled through, sword high, and cut the third marine in half, but not before the man got off several shots, near point blank. Jora stumbled, and clutched at his armor. Thel threw grenades around the corner, angry. Jora might act a little crazed, but he was a hard fighter. Thel did not want to lose him. Thel waited for the explosion to dissipate, then rounded the corner, firing at anything that moved. Within seconds Thel and his boarding crew stood in the odd crimson pools of 人类 blood. Twenty men lay dead in the corridor, their bodies twisted, contorted, missing parts, or just plain destroyed. “There is nothing here for us,” Thel relayed back to the Retribution’s Thunder. “We are returning.” A shame, thought Thel. The 人类s had thwarted their mission to find data about their homeworld by destroying their computer systems before he’d even boarded. Twenty Unggoy filled the large, open space of the hangar bay. The Unggoy, like the 人类s, were short, bred too fast, and were individually weak. The Unggoy, however, wore triangular methane tanks and breathing masks over their flattened, squashed faces. Thel found them useless for intense fighting, but in large enough numbers they were very effective, so he’d left them to guard the boarding craft. The Unggoy were a part of the 星盟, and thus were to be used in the war against the apostate 人类s. But that didn’t mean Thel had to go out of his way to include them in the heart of his missions. As they jumped up into the long, pipelike snout of a boarding craft, Jora groaned. Thel and the others pretended not to hear. “Back on board,” Thel ordered the 星盟 forces in the hangar. The Unggoy grumbled about being moved about randomly, and about being forced to wear their heavy tanks and their itchy masks, but did as they were told. They streamed back up into the mouth of the boarding craft, stepping past their fallen brothers who had died as the 人类s tried to defend the ship. The boarding craft yanked away from the gash it had made in the side of the destroyer, shields flaring as it did so. Thel watched as the bulky, blocky destroyer fell away from them. Streaks of carbon ran along the side where they had fired at the 人类 ship. Most of the damage clustered near the ship’s engines. “It is strange,” Jora grunted. Everywhere the hiss and occasional wispy stink of methane filled the air in the boarding craft due to the lines of Unggoy staring straight ahead, trying not to be noticed by any of the five Sangheili. “What is?” Thel asked as the destroyer dwindled into the size of an eyeball. He nodded at Saal, who murmured into a mouthpiece. “The Prophets have demanded we destroy their ships, burn their worlds, and allow no heretic to live.” Jora held his side, and Thel noticed a trickle of purple blood seep through his fingers. “Now we search for information and sneak aboard their ships?” “The Path is strict, Jora—it brooks no deviation, no remorse. We are zealots. We serve the Way. These are our orders. We do not question them.” Thel saw the tiny destroyer suddenly light up as a long sliver of a plasma beam ripped into it. It exploded, chunks flying off in all directions, superstructure glowing hot and failing. “You do not wonder why our orders changed, Shipmaster?” Jora asked. Zhar, from nearby, looked up. “The Prophets, in their infinite wisdom, want to shorten this war. Maybe the Hierarchs did not realize these vermin were spread out in so many different places, like some weed. Now they urge us to seek the source.” “You think we have failed to find their home world?” Thel asked. “We keep finding more and more developed worlds to destroy,” said Zhar. “李ke the one we just visited. What was it the 人类 Saal tortured called it?” “Charybdis…” Thel said. “The aliens called it Charybdis.” His split mandibles struggled with the word. It was an affront for lesser species to name an entire world. That was a right reserved for the powerful. Saal ran to them, his eyes wide with astonishment. “Shipmaster! Encrypted signal from 模板:InfiniteSacrifice!” Thel walked with him to a communications niche. A holographic image turned, startling the Sangheili zealot. Speak of the Prophets! Here one was. One of the Hierarchs themselves. The image was of a tired, ochre-skinned, and hunchbacked creature slouched over a floating antigravity chair, its head bowed with the weight of an enormous gold crown its long neck could barely support. “提尔·外达密,” it hissed. “You are to report to me aboard the ship 模板:InfiniteSacrifice. I have studied your intrusion attempts aboard the 人类 ships. I have a new mission for you.” The Hierarch leaned forward, and the image flickered away. Thel turned to Saal. “That was the Prophet of Regret. He has been following the fleet, observing the destruction of this latest 人类 world. He has a new mission.” “What is it?” Jora looked a bit awed by the thought a Hierarch had noticed them. “I do not know, but whatever it is, I am sure it will bring us honor,” Thel said. He looked at Jora’s purpled hand. The zealot would need medical attention soon, probably from one of the Huragok. That 星盟 species was obsessed with fixing anything. Yet even letting a Huragok work on you was a grave dishonor. It was the same as letting a doctor put his filthy claws on you. Thel sighed. Blood was your essence, your nobility. To spill it meant to lose honor, and Jora had lost honor with his eagerness and carelessness. Now he would have to let a doctor—a Sangheili warrior so low as to make his living slicing and causing other Sangheili to bleed without honor—tend to his wounds. That was a deep shame. Jora would be eager to prove himself again after this slip. Thel looked back at the glowing remains of the 人类 destroyer. It would be an honor to help find the world the pink, fleshy 人类s came from. And to reduce it to nothingness.
The Prophet of Regret hunched forward, head bowed with the weight of his crown. The wrinkled wattle of his throat shook as he looked around the room at the many holographic screens that flickered in the control room buried deep in the heart of the 模板:InfiniteSacrifice. An honor guard of Sangheili surrounded the Hierarch, ready to kill anything that moved to attack the hierarch. Thel was surprised to see the Hierarch himself here, but Regret had always seemed to spend as much time as possible around Sangheili warriors. Regret admired the Sangheili martial prowess, rumors said. While most of the San’Shyuum floated about the holy city of High Charity and focused on their lives, Regret traveled with Sangheili battle fleets to see them in action. It was rumored that the Hierarch carried a sidearm of his own underneath the silk robes draped over his lap, and had killed acolytes who dared ask too many questions on the spot. One of the Minister’s honor guard, a distant cousin with obligations to Thel’s bloodline, had told Thel that the Prophet of Regret had come to his throne through machinations. That may have been true. Thel had his doubts—everyone was prone to gossip. And so what if it were true? The Sangheili were sent forth into battle by the mixed Council of Masters, a group of Sangheili and San’Shyuum masters who dictated war needs. But most of the fighting was done by Sangheili as the San’Shyuum remained on High Charity, the mobile world and heart of the 星盟. That was the nature of the 星盟 itself—the Sanghieli defended the Prophets, defended the holy objects. Meanwhile the Prophets deciphered the holy relics, doling out the technology they found and adapting them for 星盟 use. Their eventual hope was to unlock what the races would need to do to join 朝圣之旅. Much like the mysterious race of the Forerunners had done all those thousands of years ago when they disappeared from this area of the galaxy, leaving only their artifacts behind. It didn’t matter to Thel how the Prophet of Regret came to be one of the three hierarchs, because Regret was here, monitoring the fleet and talking to him. Regret nudged the floating chair he sat in closer to a grand conference table that swooped up from the floor. He threw a plasma rifle onto the table in front of Thel. “Pick that up,” he ordered. Thel froze. If he picked up the rifle, he would have an unholstered weapon out in the presence of a Prophet. The honor guard would be obliged to kill him. Was this some way of punishing him for failing to find data leading to the 人类 homeworld aboard the destroyer? Thel met the honor guard’s captain with large, brown eyes. The Sangheili shook his head in a snaking motion. It was okay. Thel picked up the plasma rifle. “What would you like me to do?” “Look closely at it,” Regret said, sounding suddenly annoyed. “What do you see?” For a moment, Thel saw nothing. It was just a normal plasma rifle. Then he spotted the small readout on the side. It scribed an alien symbol at him. 人类 script. “You see it, do you not?” the Hierarch said, looking intensely at him. “What is this?” Thel dropped the rifle back on the table, feeling unclean. It was forbidden to alter the technologies that the Prophets handed down. They were the holiest of gifts. “It is blasphemy. Heretical 人类 creatures touching and altering the holy gifts of Forerunner artifacts like our energy weapons… or anything else,” hissed the Hierarch. It navigated the floating chair around the table and pointed a hand and jointed finger right at Thel. “And I want you to find who is responsible for it. Find them out and destroy them. They have been found in 奇戈亚尔 black markets on High Charity. Supposedly they come from a system the 人类s call 23 李brae, by way of 奇戈亚尔-run ships. One of my loyal deacons aboard a ship of theirs died transmitting this data to me. Ungrateful pirates.” The Hierarch’s voice had risen to a scream, even as Thel listened. He remembered 23 李brae, he had fought there, on a world the heretical creatures called “Madrigal.” Thel dropped to a knee and fist in a bow before the Hierarch. “Your will be done, Hierarch.” Regret cleared his throat noisily; large fishy eyes gleaming as he stared at Thel. “Of course you will, my Sangheili warrior. Of course you will. That is why I asked you here. You will leave while we continue destroying 卡律布狄斯IX and go to 23 李brae to hunt down this heresy.” He pivoted his chair, and said over his back, “You will take your own ship, but you will also have additional forces at your disposal. I have tasked Jiralhanae to accompany you aboard the 奇戈亚尔 raider A Psalm Every Day. They will help you with whatever you may encounter. And keep the 奇戈亚尔 Ship-mistress well in line. I’ve come to distrust their greedy natures more and more of late.” Jiralhanae? Thel blinked his large eyes, but dared not question the Prophet. The Jiralhanae were barbarians who considered themselves the equals of Sangheili. The Jiralhanae had once attained space flight and high levels of technology. But by the time the 星盟 came across them, they’d bombed themselves back into a state of barbarism. Why the Prophets regarded them so highly was beyond Thel. They had no culture. No refinement in their fighting. No thought about their bloodlines, copulating at will with no foresight or plans. They were not noble. But Thel bowed his head. “I thank you for your gift of troops and ships,” he said out loud. And he thought secretly to himself: I do not have to use them on this mission, they can simply come along and watch true warriors do their duty. He had just recently become a shipmaster, something he’d longed to attain ever since he’d stood on the stone walls of his keep and looked up at the stars and wondered what amazing things might be waiting for him up there. Now, with another ship and more troops under his command, the dream of becoming a fleetmaster seemed within reach. With a promotion like this, Thel would need to send a message home to the keep elders. He would have more wives brought to the keep. It was time for Thel to create more alliances on the homeworld. It was time to expand the rooms, and father more children to pack the common rooms. The line of Vadam would be continued in strength. The keep’s poet would add a line to the family saga, celebrating Thel’s furthering in rank. Thel would be the most renowned Vadam yet. The Prophet of Regret waved his hand. “Come with me, Shipmaster.” Thel loped behind the antigravity throne that Regret drove across the room to a massive wall-sized projection of the planet they’d come to orbit. “They left only three ships to protect it,” Regret mused. “You know why we fight these creatures?” “They committed a grievous sin,” Thel said. “They destroyed Forerunner artifacts.” He shivered as he said that. The Forerunners had left traces of the time they spent in the galaxy scattered across worlds and in space. These mighty demigods of the galaxy had been the forefathers of all the 星盟 knew, and they’d just… disappeared. But they’d left clues as to where they’d gone. A Holy Journey, to another plane of existence, using the technology of the Halos. So the Prophets taught, and the 星盟 existed for finding the Halos, and following the Forerunners on their holy path. But these 人类s, they’d found Forerunner artifacts, and instead of venerating them like all other species, they had destroyed them. Thel vibrated with religious rage. For that, the 人类s would pay. “It is important their heresy and desecration be punished,” Regret said. “So anything that distracts us from this holy duty, that itself, is unholy. And must be stopped. 李ke these blasphemous weapons.” “I understand, Hierarch,” Thel said. “I will stop at nothing.” Regret sighed. It spoke into its chair to the fleet commanders throughout. “Destroy this planet, and all on its surface.” On the screen, plasma roiled and grew on the sides of the 星盟 cruisers as the ships prepared to rain fire down upon the world the 人类s called 卡律布狄斯IX.
UNSC FRIGATE MIDSUMMER NIGHT, OUTER 卡律布狄斯IX
Zheng stood on the bridge of 仲夏夜号, his hands behind his back. 凯斯 watched him pace as the screens lit up. All the bridge crew were on duty, and the junior officers stood at the back, looking on. “I called you all here to watch this,” Zheng announced, suddenly pausing in place to turn and face them, “because it’s important to remember why we fight.” 凯斯 swiveled his chair. Zheng had been averse to talking to the entire ship before this, slightly nervous. 凯斯 bet that Zheng knew what his reputation was. Or maybe Zheng was still damaged from whatever it was he was dealing with. Either way, he’d kept his distance, even from his own bridge crew. And everyone had been happy to keep their distance from him as well. Until now. Zheng looked animated. Angry. For this he’d asked 模板:Kirtley to broadcast his address to the rest of the ship. It was an interesting change. “Some of you joined because you had no other options, some because you were looking for adventure, and others because of patriotism. And since the first contact at Harvest, many of you out of a desire to fight the 星盟. “But as days pass, and the dreariness of daily life, cramped in this ship with your fellow sailors mounts, I know it can be easy to forget that we are, first and foremost, a weapon.” Zheng looked out over the officers on deck. “A weapon to strike back against all our enemies. External… or internal. Because if we don’t do our best, this will be a small taste of what is to come.” Behind Zheng the screens lit up with images broadcast from Charybdis. 凯斯 found his eyes drawn to the nearest, a scene from low orbit taken by a satellite. Far below, the sleek, sharklike shape of a 星盟 cruiser passed over the patches of land, and as it did so, everything underneath it glowed. The screen flickered off, jumping to a new scene: a shot from the top of a skyscraper in downtown Scyllion. What looked like shimmering rain fell from the sky, but wherever it touched the city exploded into actinic flame. Buildings melted, slumping over and then bubbling down into a lavalike mix of asphalt and concrete and shattered glass. The camera wavered as blue haze began to build up near it, and then it melted and static filled the screen. Another live feed, from far outside the city, showed the blue waterfalls of plasma strike the river, sending up a giant cloud of steam as it was vaporized. “They’re attacking,” someone said in a shocked voice. 凯斯 looked to the screen everyone pointed out, and saw tiny dots rising up to harass the bulbous-nosed 星盟 cruisers. They were about as successful as minnows attacking sharks, 凯斯 thought. Plasma darted out from the sides of the cruiser over Scyllion, swatting the tiny Charybdis defense fighters out of the sky like annoying insects. Maybe if they’d been more coordinated, 凯斯 wondered. Could a force of tiny craft distract a 星盟 cruiser long enough for someone to slip something through their defenses? He realized he was trying to avoid the death and destruction in front of him with academics, and forced himself to continue watching. One by one the screens turned to static, and Zheng waved at them. “This ship we’re chasing, it looks like it’s going into 星盟 territory, and we know it’s Insurrectionist. Working with 星盟. For all we know, they led the 星盟 to Charybdis.” 凯斯 raised an eyebrow. That was quite an assumption for Zheng to make. If the Kestrel had led the 星盟 to 卡律布狄斯IX, they’d gotten a lot of their fellow Insurrectionists killed here today, not just UNSC. Innies might be ready to die for their cause, but like this? 凯斯 thought back to what Jeffries had said about Zheng when they’d first met. Zheng had lost his entire family to the 星盟. Zheng had even been impatient about Watanabe’s mission. Now Zheng seemed to have been electrified into fiery, angry motion. “There will be a reckoning,” he shouted to the bridge crew. “We will throw ourselves against whoever was responsible for all this.” And behind Zheng the remaining screens shut down, leaving the last few images of the burned world flickering across everyone’s eyes. 凯斯 spotted Badia Campbell staring at the screens. She looked queasy. Zheng turned back to the empty screens, surveying them for a long moment, and then said softly, “That is all.”
The Prophet of Regret watched the surface of 卡律布狄斯IX melt from the firepower of his ships with grim satisfaction and heavily lidded eyes. He shouldn’t have chosen to smoke in his private quarters before coming out, but before attacks like this Regret always found a good smoke calmed his nerves. Energy rolled over the square buildings that the 人类s loved to cluster near one another on the ground. That made it all that much easier for the 星盟 to destroy them. Regret grew bored of watching the destruction of the planet, and turned the screen off. “You are dismissed. Go. Weed out the Heretics. Leave no stone unturned!” The Sangheili zealot blinked, and then bowed in that sinuously graceful Sangheili way. “Your will be done, Hierarch,” he said, and then left to pursue his mission. Regret sat in the control room, listening to the buzz of the ship’s bridge crew. The matter of the 奇戈亚尔 smuggling weapons rankled the Prophet. Only the San’Shyuum, the leaders of the 星盟 and its pinnacle species, could alter holy technology. To let other races control technology was a dangerous path. The 星盟’s cohesion was grounded in their shared need for Forerunner technology. It was their unified religion, their political structure, and the hub of all commerce. To pull out one major tenet of the 星盟 meant risking the entire thing crumbling. And Regret had not worked the last ten years of his life to watch the 星盟 die. He’d helped it face one of its biggest threats, with hardly anyone any the wiser, right before his ascension to Hierarch. Together, Prophets Regret, Truth, and Mercy had been aboard the massive Forerunner dreadnought that sat in the heart of High Charity, powering the entire moving world with just a fraction of its engines’ power. The dreadnought had come to life as the Oracle at its heart had muttered blasphemous, world-changing accusations at the Prophets. All triggered by the Oracle encountering information about the 人类s. This machine had accused the Prophets of mistranslating Forerunner documents, and misunderstanding 朝圣之旅. It claimed the very tenets of their religion were false. And then the Oracle had attempted to launch the dreadnought. They had disconnected it just in time. In that moment, Regret felt, they had saved the entire 星盟. Without the Halos to search for, the Path to walk, and the worship of the Forerunners who left their mark all over the galaxy, the 星盟 would fall apart. And the Hierarchs would not let that happen. So they turned that conflict into the annihilation and genocide of the 人类s. There was no room for negotiation or settlement. 人类ity would be the first species they had encountered that they hadn’t tried to absorb into the 星盟, as it was the source of the Oracle’s confusion. Destroy them, and the 星盟 would be able to continue Its holy search to follow the Forerunners safely. Nothing could detract from that. Not even these counterfeit weapons. Regret didn’t care that they’d been modified. The San’Shyuum happily pilfered Forerunner technology and modified it as they saw fit. What Regret cared about was that the weapons had been modified for 人类s, and that they’d been tampered with without the Prophet’s approval. And Regret wouldn’t stand for that—not from the Oracle, or from whoever was making those weapons. Regret turned the screen back on and looked down on the burning of 卡律布狄斯IX and watched. This was for the good of the 星盟, he told himself. Regret had only made one major mistake, he told himself. When the 人类s were first discovered Regret had assumed the world they’d been found on was their homeworld. But after destroying it, they’d found out that the 人类s had scattered across many worlds. It made destroying them all a lot more difficult, tiring, and time-consuming than Regret had anticipated.
- MADRIGAL, 23 LIBRAE
The 人类s called it 23 李brae. For the 星盟 it was no more than a series of coordinates, another star in a long series of stars that 奇戈亚尔 ships scouted out under their Ministry of Tranquility contracts. The 星盟 hoped to find Forerunner artifacts in these various systems. It was in one of these many 人类 places that the 奇戈亚尔 had found signs of a massive wealth of Forerunner artifacts, the Prophets said. They also said that instead of studying them and learning of the glorious truths contained in them about the journey all species could prepare themselves for, the stupid creatures had destroyed them. Cosmic vandalism, mused Thel, as the two ships skipped out of Slipspace next to the one planet 23 李brae had in its habitable zone: the orbit not too close to the sun where it would boil its atmosphere off, or so far away that it would freeze. “Start scanning the planet,” Thel ordered his bridge crew. “Engage all sensors. Make the sweep through. Last thing we need is for the 奇戈亚尔 to lay claim, or the Jiralhanae to best the Sangheili in a task personally assigned them by a Hierarch!” Madrigal. Retribution’s Thunder fell into orbit around the planet that had once been inhabited by the 人类s. Just off to their starboard side the 奇戈亚尔 ship that the Hierarch had assigned to them, A Psalm Every Day, accompanied them. Thel’s lower mandibles twitched. The 奇戈亚尔 Shipmistress had come in too close. They could have collided thanks to her aggressive piloting. But neither the 奇戈亚尔 nor the Jiralhanae aboard would listen to Thel. They hadn’t so far. He’d asked them to keep their distance, but they acted as if he were going to cheat them of any discovery, or any chance to get into battle. Thel felt he would have been better off alone than saddled with A Psalm Every Day dogging his every move. Then again, maybe that was the Hierarch’s way of keeping an eye on him. Thel had a general feeling, from what he knew of politics on High Charity, that the Prophet of Regret was very crafty. Yes, this one probably didn’t just outright trust Thel, but wanted some verification. A Psalm Every Day was here to monitor him. Fair enough. “Nothing there,” Jora grumbled from his station as initial results from the systematic scans began to scroll through the holographic display. “It is as we left it, Shipmaster. There are no signs of activity. Our quarry could not have come from here.” The entire surface of the 人类 planet had been destroyed. Melted with plasma. Zhar grunted. “Their structures have deep roots. Is it possible they survived deep underground?” Thel shook his head. “I participated there.” Thel considered it briefly. “I personally saw to the destruction of their warrens in the capitol. I doubt it will become useful again in this Age. You may tell the Jiralhanae they may check the capitol for spoils… with my leave. Meanwhile, send a probe to finish the sweep, then let us move on.” “To where?” Jora asked. He threw the words out almost like a challenge. Thel eyed Jora. “This is a system. There is more than one place to hide. These are 奇戈亚尔 we are dealing with, remember.” Zhar frowned. “Asteroids?” Thel smiled. Zhar, ever the analytical. Hardheaded, but a hard thinker. He knew that the 奇戈亚尔, after leaving their homeworld, had chosen to settle out among the asteroids of their home system. It was what had made them so hard for the Prophets to ferret out while battling them when the 奇戈亚尔 had initially resisted joining the 星盟. “Yes. We will seed the asteroid belt with sensor buoys. We will leave no stone unturned.” Zhar nodded. “It will be done.” Thel leaned over. “Veer, would you do me the…” his voice dripped with sarcasm, “…honor of contacting A Psalm Every Day?” Veer nodded, and the three-dimensional image of Pellius appeared in front of Thel. The Jiralhanae stood eye-to-eye with Thel. Behind the giant, furred chieftain sat the 奇戈亚尔 Ship-mistress, Chur ’R-Mut, her lanky arms draped over her chair’s arms. He grinned his needle-sharp grin and the quills on his head twitched. Pellius curled his lip slightly. “What do you want? We’re preparing to land and search the destroyed capital city.” “You will not find anything there,” Thel said, and explained what he’d already told his bridge crew. The Jiralhanae chieftan looked disappointed. For a second. “You still search, though?” “Yes.” “Good.” And then the image faded away. “Jiralhanae,” spat Saal from his weapons console. “Uncivil and untrustworthy.” “So they are,” Thel agreed. “The Prophets in their inscrutable wisdom have assigned them to us. They are here to stay. Zhar move us out.” Without seeding the system with navigation buoys the ship’s own long-range scanners weren’t good enough to root out a hiding enemy. Unless something was moving around. To catch sneaking ships, they’d need to lay some traps. Thel settled into his chair, getting ready for the Slipspace hop they’d have to make to the asteroid belt, when Veer straightened in his chair. “Shipmaster,” Veer hissed. “Our long range instruments are detecting multiple signals. They are not even trying to hide!” Thel hid his excitement before them. “Where?” “The gas giant.” Not where he’d been expecting. But nonetheless, they had something! “Take us there,” Thel ordered.
Retribution’s Thunder poked a hole through space and time as the ship made the sudden leap from Madrigal to a trailing orbit just behind 23 李brae’s sole gas giant. This was a great location Thel thought. Gas giants tended to have small rocky clusters both in front of their orbit and behind them—it was a natural place to hove his ship to and spy on whatever was going on near the gas giant. Retribution’s Thunder’s screens lit up with contact symbols. Alarms wailed as the crew scrambled for damage control and fire stations, and Thel realized he hadn’t been the only one with that particular idea. “Situation?” Thel barked. “They are everywhere!” a Sangheili shouted from the deck. “We are surrounded.” Thel whipped around at the outburst to look at the unnamed and slightly unnerved Sangheili. “Get off my bridge!” Thel turned to Saal. “Take his console. What do we face—numbers and weapons strength?” “My honor, Shipmaster,” Saal replied quickly. Thel watched the shamed Sangheili slink off the bridge, disgusted that someone so incompetent could end up on his bridge. “人类 contacts,” Saal reported. “But they do not appear to be warships. And they are not moving to engage.” “Tell Pellius to hold his fire and follow our lead.” Thel stood up and walked toward the screens, a long shipmaster’s cloak pulling off the chair with him. His ancestors had worn thick, doarmir-fur cloaks like this at sea to stay warm and dry on long voyages. Thel had made his by hand during a long recuperation in the Vadam Keep after a training accident the family had tried to hide. Thel remembered the shame of seeing his own blood spilled on the sand of the training ring in the courtyard, due to his own mistake. He recalled the faintness and the tall snowcapped mountains that rose above Vadam Keep as he pitched to his side. The family had a recently promoted shipmaster in their bloodline, and they had been loath to lose that particular honor. They’d secretly called for a doctor in the night and held Thel down by his limbs as he was operated on. Thel kept the cloak as a reminder to himself that he could make grave mistakes when he let his guard down. Mistakes like letting an inexperienced minor Sangheili aboard the bridge who panicked at the thought of being surrounded by 人类 warships. “Make sure that coward gets his rations revoked,” Thel said to Veer, letting his mind dwell on that particular incident now that he knew the ship was not in danger. “Maybe with a hunger in his belly he will find the hunger in his soul that he needs to be a real warrior.” “A well thought-out solution, shipmaster,” Veer said, and leaned over to send out the command. “Saal, report.” Thel gathered the cloak around. Be sharp, he reminded himself. Keep your mind open, and think sideways instead of walking forward into a pit-trap. “I… I have to show you,” Saal said. A complex set of scans appeared on the screens. Thel narrowed his eyes, then opened his mandibles in shock. “These are all asteroids,” he said. “They are all connected.” There were hundreds of connected worldlets. “This is unlike anything I have ever seen the 人类s do,” Thel said out loud. “There was nothing like it when the 人类 world here was destroyed.” “Perhaps they built it after that?” Zhar suggested. He looked intrigued by the scans. “You have to admit, that demonstrates some strong blood on their part, to remain here and build after the Prophets ordered them destroyed.” “Strong indeed,” Thel agreed. “But it does them little good ultimately,” Jora said. “Their blasphemy still cannot stand, and they must all still die.” “What bothers me,” Thel grumbled, “is that they have gone this long unnoticed.” “I think I know why,” Zhar said. He tapped his console, and before the bridge crew the long-distance image of a 奇戈亚尔 freighter appeared. It was docked against one of the many asteroids in the superstructure. A 人类 structure. “What new treachery is this?” Thel hissed. The 奇戈亚尔, pirates and scum, worked under contracts given out by the ministries. They were hardly loyal fighters; they had little nobility. But they usually remained in line due to the dual methods of Unggoy Deacons aboard their ships, as well as the contracts and payments the Prophets offered them. Thel could hardly believe what he saw. “Brace for impact!” Saal warned, just as the Retribution’s Thunder shivered, throwing Thel from his feet against a pillar. So the 人类s had found them and were attacking, Thel thought as he sprang for his shipmaster’s throne. The second impact stabbed through the heart of Thel’s ship, a violent, metal-boiling line of light that just missed the bridge. But this wasn’t 人类. 人类s employed kinetic or explosive ordnance, not plasma. A Psalm Every Day was preparing a second volley. It was very obvious that the plasma salvo was from another 星盟 vessel. Their own escort. “Traitors!” Thel seethed. “Evasive maneuvers!” “I have a firing solution,” Jora yelled, turning to Thel. “Permission to fire, Shipmaster?” “Fire at will! Saal tactical Slipspace, now!” But getting past the shock of being fired upon by their own escort had cost them critical seconds. Even as Retribution’s Thunder fired back, another salvo of blue plasma ripped through the heart of Thel’s ship. He could feel some of the engines firing, but they had been too slow. Sangheili double hearts could take far more acceleration than Jiralhanae or 奇戈亚尔, but the incredible random high-speed evasive maneuvers Thel had braced himself for didn’t come. “Status,” Thel snapped. He did not like the returning reports. They were venting precious air into space. The number of casualties was rising. Long range communications were down. 李fe support was failing. The last volley had taken their core engines offline, and their ability to generate plasma had gone with it. While most of their sensors were still operational, they could go nowhere and do nothing. Pellius appeared in hologram before Thel. The Jiralhanae looked pleased with himself, his large teeth bared. “A mighty shipmaster Sangheili, helpless before me. I shall savor this moment for the rest of my life.” Thel stared at Pellius and wondered where the 奇戈亚尔 ship-mistress had gone. She was nowhere to be seen on the bridge. “It will be a short life.” “Not as short as yours. Good-bye, Shipmaster.” Pellius faded away. “He has released boarding craft and Spirits!” Saal reported. “They will not have the Retributions’ Thunder,” Thel said, staring at the spot Pellius had faded from. “Alert the crew. Get in protective gear and draw the boarders in deep. Rig every section to explode. We will leave nothing to salvage!” “Shipmaster! A Psalm Every Day has engaged their slipspace drive!” Zhar said. “They’re leaving!” “Leaving?” Jora growled. “The 人类s are not likely to go anywhere as are we. He will report whatever his feeble mind can concoct when he reaches High Charity.” “They get the glory for reporting this structure and the 人类s hiding here,” Zhar concluded with frustration. “Cursed cowards,” hissed Jora. “The Spirits are approaching to attack!” “Where are their boarding craft?” “They are hanging back.” In the distance, the outer hull shook and shivered as Spirits flew up and down the length of the ship, strafing it. Thel broke the arm off his chair in frustration. “Those who wish to escape the ship may do so now.” It was a rhetorical statement. But it did serve one purpose: to weed out any dishonorable Sangheili who might falter by your side. Thel pressed his mouth parts firm against each other as they waited in silence for a handful of dishonorable crew to desert. Maybe they were serfs who had risen far enough to work simple duties aboard the ship, or Sangheili who’d managed to hide their lack of real blood. He waited for that, and for the 奇戈亚尔 to get bolder and try to board the ship. One of the screens showed Sangheili trying to escape aboard Spirits from inside Retribution’s Thunder’s hold, and the 奇戈亚尔-run ships fell on them en masse, overwhelming them. Plasma ripped out and filled the space around the ship, and it wasn’t long before the cowardly died in the vacuum at the hands of traitorous 奇戈亚尔. A fitting fate, Thel thought. “Fire the empty escape pods,” he ordered. They watched those get destroyed, and it strengthened their resolve to fight. To run was to die. Now the 奇戈亚尔 felt that they could risk boarding, with what seemed like most of the crew of the ship gone. Thel waited. Waited until 奇戈亚尔 swarmed the hull and trooped through the heart of his ship, and then gave the order. Explosions ripped through the interior, section by section. The smooth, bulbous lines of his ship flexed and twisted, and fire gushed out from in between the cracks, roiling up through the corridors. The air in the bridge heated up, and then rushed out. Thel found himself panting for air that no longer existed, and then a secondary explosion turned the cockpit inside out. Thel hurtled through the air and struck a bulkhead.
- HESIOD, 23 LIBRAE
The Kestrel was a svelte smuggler of a ship, more engine than cargo bay. Even then, civilian engine technology didn’t hold a candle to what 仲夏夜号 had at its heart. 仲夏夜号 had been shadowing the Kestrel for almost a week. UNSC sensor buoys had been put on high alert on the edges of the system, and caught the Kestrel preparing for its jump into Slipspace. These were the same sensor buoys that had detected the inbound 星盟. Dmitri Zheng had thrown 仲夏夜号 on a ripping course out to follow it. Badia Campbell at ops reported nervously that the ship’s reactor was struggling to keep up. But the ship had been shaken out. No more pipes blew, or components failed. She’d gotten up to speed, closing in on the Insurrectionist ship like a shark slipping up from the depths on its prey. On their way out, they’d all continued to watch broadcasts from sensor posts scattered throughout the system of the 星盟 ships moving over 卡律布狄斯IX, glassing the surface. The mood onboard had remained somber and determined. The crew had been itching to fight, and now had to turn tail and run. No one liked it. But they had a mission, and they’d all had friends and family fall to the 星盟. Despite Zheng’s anger, many had gotten used to the dull pain of 人类 loss. Casualties mounted; they had for years. It had become a part of life for many. Now they were deep behind 星盟 lines, hopping through what had once been the Outer Colonies, sticking close behind the Kestrel as it seemed to randomly jump into Slipstream space. “We’re close,” 凯斯 announced. The last three jumps the Kestrel had taken made a line on the star charts that 凯斯 could use. Assuming that the jumps continued in their pattern, 凯斯 had run the charts. He posted the result to the bridge crew’s screens. Zheng took a look and frowned. “You think they’re headed to Madrigal? That planet was glassed by the 星盟.” “It could be where they make their drops,” 凯斯 suggested. He paused as his sensors showed the smuggler making another jump. He was right. The last several Slipspace jumps took them to the outer edge of the system, and then the Kestrel began curving its way in-system. 仲夏夜号 followed, invisible and silent. They coasted with the Kestrel all the way into the depths of the system. “It isn’t Madrigal,” 凯斯 announced several shifts later, reviewing the navigation data left by a junior officer. “Then what is it?” Zheng asked. “Where are they headed?” 凯斯 had astronomy data up on his screen with possible paths of the Kestrel mapped out. “There’s a gas giant, farther out. It’s called Hesiod.” They followed the Kestrel as it fell into an orbit trailing far, far behind the gas giant, but slowly catching up to it. “There we go,” 凯斯 said, upping the magnification on the view ahead of them. “Asteroids?” Zheng said. “Trojan asteroids,” 凯斯 said. “Most gas giants have asteroids sitting just ahead and behind their orbit in stable L4 and L5 positions.” “Makes a good hideout,” Rai 李 spoke up from weapons. “The rebels at Eridani used the asteroid belt there and it made it hard to hunt them down.” The Kestrel slowed as it slipped into the cloud of rock. There was something wrong, 凯斯 thought. Dirtsiders heard the term “asteroid field” and thought of a large collection of rocks floating near each other. The truth was that asteroids lay millions of miles from each other. A slow-moving ship could thread through them easily enough on their way through a system. But this collection of asteroids looked just like a layperson’s idea of an asteroid field. Hundreds of asteroids had been moved within a mile of each other. 凯斯 magnified the image even more, putting it up on a wall screen the whole bridge could look at. The hundreds of irregularly shaped rocks jumped into view. “Looks like some of them are built up,” Dante 模板:Kirtley said. “Plus, I’m starting to get a lot of direct-line comms chatter. They’re trying to keep it focused and quiet, but I’m hearing it. Looks like we got ourselves an Insurrectionist hiding hole. And behind 星盟 lines, no less.” But something glinted between them. 凯斯 upped the magnification even further, and everyone on the bridge gasped. The glints were long, silver lines. As 凯斯 jumped the magnification up again, the gossamer lines resolved themselves into tubes. “They’re all connected,” 李 said. “With docking tubes.” “If each of those asteroids is fully inhabited, this isn’t just an Insurrectionist hiding hole,” Zheng said. “It’s a floating metropolis… behind enemy lines.” They coasted in closer, staring at the spectacle of an asteroid field towed in closer, connected together, and hollowed out. Ships moved in between the rocks, and occasionally a burst of flame from a guidance rocket adjusted an asteroid, presumably so that it didn’t break one of the tubes. “Freeze that,” 李 suddenly snapped. 凯斯 stopped the drift on the image. “Zoom.” He saw it too, now. “Is that a 模板:Jackal ship?” 模板:Kirtley asked. “That’s 模板:Jackal,” 李 confirmed. She tapped her console and put a window up next to their live image of a 模板:Jackal ship taken from the combat camera of a Navy ship. Unlike the usual 星盟-made ships, the 模板:Jackal-made ships looked like last-minute scrap yard projects—girders, rockets, and capsules haphazardly joined together around a core unit. These ships were not made to even kiss an atmosphere, but remain in space. Zheng cracked his knuckles and stared at the screen. “Bring the crew up to ready, ops. Weapons, unlock missiles and arm a nuke. Comms, make sure you’re scanning and getting everything that’s going on.” 李, 模板:Kirtley, 凯斯, and Campbell got to work. “李eutenant Campbell, set up preparations to destroy our navigation charts, as per the Cole Protocol.” Campbell paused, considered something, and then spoke up. “Sir, does it make sense? The Kestrel obviously has charts, and I’d bet other ships in this … complex have charts as well. We’re not making it any harder for 星盟 here to find charts, are we?” Zheng looked at the screen. “You’re right, 李eutenant. That thing out there, that’s just one giant Cole Protocol violation, isn’t it? But orders are orders. Ready the purge. Just in case.” “Yessir.” “Okay, 凯斯, bring her in nice and easy. We just want to swing nearby, nice and quiet, and see what intel we can pick up to bring back with us. But if things get hairy, be ready to get us the hell out.” “Aye, sir,” 凯斯 responded. Then he spotted movement. “They have patrols, it looks like. Moving around the perimeter.” “Let’s see how stealthy this frigate really is, 凯斯.” Zheng leaned forward in his chair. 仲夏夜号 moved closer to the tangle of docking tubes, asteroids, ships, dust, and debris trailing the massive orb of Hesiod.
- PINEAPPLE HABITAT, THE RUBBLE, 23 LIBRAE
提尔·外达密 and his bridge crew sat on the far end of a large cell. It was a crude thing: a hole dug out of the rocky interior wall of a hollowed out asteroid, with bars of metal over the front, some of which were hinged. Thel had seen medieval keeps with similarly built jails back on Sanghelios. In museums. He’d woken up with a horrific headache pounding the side of his temple where he’d struck the bulkhead. Not an honorable battle wound, or a way to end a fight, Thel thought miserably as he looked out through the bars. The 奇戈亚尔 had combed the remains of the ship, carrion sniffers that they were, and found the bridge crew alive. The rest of the crew had fought to the death, destroying the ship in the process. Thel sincerely wished they’d just left him for dead on his destroyed ship. But the 奇戈亚尔 had some plan in mind for them, using the Sangheili as hostages. Jora crept his way over. “I am beyond shame, my shipmaster.” Thel had been told Jora rushed the 奇戈亚尔 with no weapon, and they’d shot him several times in the leg. Now Jora was dragging the useless limb behind him on the cell floor. “I have snapped one of the legs off those useless cots made for 人类s.” He handed it to Thel, who tested the sharp end with a finger. Jora had worked hard to get the long piece of metal sharp. “Please,” Jora begged. “I have no honor left. I am crippled. I cannot face my keep.” If the Sangheili masters found out that they’d been captured by a lesser race like the 奇戈亚尔, or that they’d failed so horribly in a holy mission handed to them directly by a Hierarch, there would be dire consequences. Jora’s entire bloodline could be killed off. They’d hunt down his nephews and behead them. The genetic proclivities of failures, the planetary heads of Sangheilios thought, could not be allowed to continue on. But if Jora did the right thing, and killed himself before the 奇戈亚尔 could get any use out of him, or further sully his name and by extension, his line . . . well, his keep might fall in stature, but at least the line could try to struggle back up from its loss of honor. “Please,” Jora whispered. “You have been like a cousin to me. Please do me one last favor. I have not the strength to do it myself.” “Come and kneel,” Thel said. The other zealots in the cell faced away. It was embarrassing to see that Jora could not even dispatch himself, but needed the hand of another. But Thel remembered how Jora had thrown himself against the 奇戈亚尔. That had to count for something, he thought, as he stepped behind Jora. “May 朝圣之旅 await you, may your enemies writhe in hell, and your line continue forward, and gain honor,” Thel said to his boldest fighter. And then he slammed the spike into the back of Jora’s head. Jora slowly toppled forward with a sigh. “May your scattered body go,” Veer murmured, turning back around, “beyond the limits of your mind….” “Beyond the limits of our worlds,” Saal said the next line of the death benediction. “To the places our ancestors dream and sang of,” Zhar sang. “And the Prophets speak of,” Thel finished. The survivors clasped forearms. “You all remain alive—why?” “We want to study how to destroy the 人类s hiding here,” Saal said. “The 奇戈亚尔 spoke of ransoming us to our keeps. But Thel, you are kaidon of your keep now. Would you pay for one of your own captured like this?” Thel snorted. “I would sooner bleed on the ground than do it. You know this.” “Exactly,” Zhar said. Thel could see his tactical mind working. This was good. Set Zhar on a problem and he was like a warrior—he’d tussle with it to his last breath. Saal laughed. “The 奇戈亚尔 are idiots who pay no attention to us. They should have known to kill us where we lay; no Sangheili in his right mind would pay a ransom. That is a 奇戈亚尔 game.” Zhar turned to him. “And that is how we will destroy them. They are too far away to find this out so quickly. And our suspicions were right; we have heard 奇戈亚尔 say as much. The Jiralhanae who betrayed us are returning with the Shipmistress to High Charity where they can claim this find for themselves.” “And find favor with the Prophets,” Veer said. “But how is it that we’re in a 人类 cell here?” Thel understood what he was getting at. “The prophets will not like it.” “人类s and 奇戈亚尔, working together,” Veer mused. “There were 人类s here talking to the 奇戈亚尔 who dragged us in.” “They called the one 人类 Bonifacio,” Saal said. “You could smell his fear of us in the air.” “All we need to do is get out of this cell,” Zhar said. Saal walked over to Jora’s body and pulled the spike free from his head. “I have yet to see anything spying on us. This all looks like it was recently welded together on short notice to contain us.” Thel snorted in appreciation. “Roll Jora’s body onto a cot and cover it. Eventually they will want to know why he doesn’t move. Make sure the covers they gave us drape over where the metal leg used to be.” They had a weapon now. And a plan. Of sorts. Four Sangheili free would be a force to reckon with. And Thel did not, one way or another, intend to be recaptured. Now all they needed was an opportunity.
- HABITAT EL CUIDAD, INNER RUBBLE, 23 LIBRAE
Ignatio 模板:Delgado pulled at the handcuffs attached to the long chain until he was at the very end, and got a drink of water from a sink. It was a long drink. He used his body as a shield as he picked at a cotter pin holding one of the taps in place. He palmed it and stood up. He was being held inside a dingy factory. The dust seemed to cling to everything. Even the light beams from the windows seemed to ride in on floating clouds of dust. Bonifacio’s five pet heavies sat at a table with a deck of cards that fizzled and popped and lit up their little corner of the warehouse. The card game paused as he watched. The men gathered the cards up quickly, all five rushing to get things cleared off. One of the men stood up and trotted over as 模板:Delgado finished drinking water out of his hands. “What’s going on?” 模板:Delgado asked. The men had ignored him. Bonifacio had yet to return. He’d had no food, but he could drink out of the sink and use a bucket they’d left for him. “Your time is up,” one of them grunted. “The Kestrel’s back.” That meant Bonifacio had no reason left to leave him alive when he got back from wherever he was. The question was, since he was handcuffed here under Council’s orders, how was Bonifacio going to properly get rid of him? “The thing is,” another heavy added. “She’s got company.” 模板:Delgado looked around. “Company?” “A UNSC stealthed frigate. Some new design. It’s poking around the edges of the Rubble.” “How do you know?” asked 模板:Delgado. “Same way we know anything about them. We have someone aboard. They’ve been using a tight-beam laser to cast out messages to us, like where the ship is, what it’s up to. They’re getting ready to help us take care of the problem. “Once we know that’s solved and the Kestrel is safely at Mr. Bonifacio’s private dock, then we take you back to the Council.” The man grinned. 模板:Delgado did not believe what he said for a second. 模板:Delgado imagined they’d be on their way to take him back, and hand him over, but somehow there’d be a terrible tube car accident. Or airlock accident. That’s how people like Bonifacio worked. Four of the men were called away, leaving one heavy to sit by himself and forlornly guard 模板:Delgado. The lone guard only lasted about three minutes before he unfolded a small screen and started watching something on it. The sounds of tinny gunfire and screams from the movie echoed in the empty factory walls. 模板:Delgado retrieved the cotter pin he’d been hiding. He started using it to fiddle with the lock on the cuffs. The guard stared intently at the screen.
- OUTER RUBBLE, 23 LIBRAE
There was an art to deciphering patterns, 凯斯 thought, looking at all the contacts the ship’s radar was showing him on a screen. And despite all the training he gave in his life he felt it wasn’t something you could analyze. Seeing patterns came to those with intuition. You looked for the gaps and cracks that opened up. 仲夏夜号 had slipped deep into the Insurrectionist structure. He couldn’t help but be amazed by it all. All these asteroids, all these connections. What a tremendous achievement. “Say what you will about them, this is a pretty slick operation,” Lt. Dante 模板:Kirtley muttered from comms. He was bent over, looking for stray chatter. “They’ve routed most of their communications through physical lines, there’s almost no wireless leakage. Makes all of this pretty quiet out here, Commander.” Commander Zheng checked the information they were all sending him. “The 模板:Jackal ship, 李eutenant. Don’t forget about the ship. These Insurrectionists are probably working with the 星盟—that’s how they’ve managed to achieve all this. I’m not inclined to be as charitable.” The radar contacts 凯斯 was following shifted with the ship, as if orbiting it, but from a very long distance. 凯斯 puffed the thrusters, gently moving them along a random line. The bulk of the cloud of freighters, personal ships, drones and other small contacts all shifted slightly. A slight sense of claustrophobia washed over 凯斯, but it was quickly quenched. “Commander, you better take a look at this,” 凯斯 said, putting the contacts up on a forward screen. “They’re adjusting their position based on our adjustments. I think we’re not as stealthy as we think we are.” Out of the corner of his eye 凯斯 saw Badia Campbell swallow a pair of pills with a pained look on her face. She looked stressed. Zheng double checked the time-lapsed information, then nodded. “I think you’re right, 李eutenant.” Campbell at ops disagreed. “We can damp our engines down further, alter our course and coast through. 李ghting up full to jump out of here will just blow our cover. We won’t be able to get back in this deep ever again.” 凯斯 disagreed, but didn’t say anything. The bridge crew had been tight. He wasn’t going to risk second-guessing anyone just yet, even if Campbell was being jittery. The decision was Zheng’s anyway. Zheng mulled it over for a second, then tapped the pad. “I don’t like it. 凯斯, light us up and let’s blow clear. We’ll observe from a distance. We can drop some drones and double-check the stealth there; maybe something is going wrong. It’s still a new ship.” 凯斯 had a rough line plotted out already. He double-checked it, and checked the engines. Ready to come on fully hot. They’d rip right through that school of slow Insurrectionist freighters to safety, 凯斯 thought, tapping the navigation console and getting ready. But then something in the heart of Midsummer Night exploded and the air in the cockpit rose in pressure, making 凯斯’ ears pop. “Ops!” Zheng shouted, turning to his side. “Report!” 凯斯 fired the ship’s main engines, looking to throw them clear while Zheng and Campbell figured out what had happened. But the engines wouldn’t fire. 凯斯 turned to Campbell, about to ask for a report. But Campbell leapt clear of her station and pulled out her sidearm. “Campbell, what the hell?” He hesitated for a second, not sure what was happening. So did everyone else. Badia Campbell pulled the trigger. She shot Zheng twice in the side and stomach as he started to get out of his chair. The loud crack of the gunfire stunned everyone into moving. 凯斯 jumped forward at her without thinking, as did 模板:Kirtley and 李. Campbell turned and shot 李 low, getting the weapons officer in the leg. As Campbell raised her gun, she shot 模板:Kirtley in the shoulder, spinning him around. 凯斯 smacked into her before she could pull the trigger again. They rolled over the decking, Campbell twisting to get free and kneeing 凯斯 in the groin as he wrestled to grab her gun. He finally pinned her against the bottom of her console, using all his strength to hold her down. “Why?” 凯斯 asked. “You heard Zheng back on Charybdis,” she said. “He said he would destroy them. I couldn’t let that man in among the Rubble. He’s too dangerous. You know what he did with his own ship, lost his whole crew, just for the smallest chance to get his revenge. I can’t let him do that to us.” She was amped up on something, preternatural strength exhausting an already recovering 凯斯. Sweat beaded her entire face, and her pupils were dilated. “We will win, 李eutenant 凯斯,” she hissed at him. “One day, we will be free.” Her vicelike grip on the gun twisted, and 凯斯 fought her. But the adrenaline and drugs in her system left her crazed. She twisted the gun up between them until the point of the barrel jammed up against her chin. “Badia, please…” 凯斯 hissed, his arms shaking from the effort of trying to pull the barrel away from her chin. She pulled the trigger. The sound, this close to 凯斯’ face, was more than deafening, it washed through his skull and left it ringing. A red mist hung in the air underneath the console. Her jaw slackened, and her eyes glazed. 凯斯 rocked back, holding her limp hand and the gun. He closed his eyes, unwilling to look at the mess of blood and brains spattered across the deck. “Medic!” he screamed, trying to process what had just happened. But as he looked around, he realized the whole bridge crew had been shot by Campbell as she’d leapt forward. Campbell didn’t need help. But they did. He turned around to see Zheng crawling up into the commander’s chair, holding his stomach with one bloody hand, spitting even more blood clear of his mouth. 李 had hobbled back to her weapons console, and 模板:Kirtley had cracked open a first-aid kit and rushed back to Zheng’s side. “Engineering!” Zheng croaked. “Update. What happened?” 模板:Kirtley sprayed biofoam on Zheng’s wounds. That would sterilize the wound, and the hardened foam would act as a firm bandage, seeping into the wound and holding everything together. It would do until the medics got to the bridge for something more thorough. There was a haze of swearing in the background, along with the clanking of crew running from place to place, as engineering crackled back in reply. “We’ve been sabotaged. 李eutenant Campbell, or someone working with her, put explosives on the goddamned fusion core coolant system. It’s a mess, sir.” “Can we fix it?” was all 凯斯 wanted to know. “Sir, she knew her business. The fusion core is going critical. We can stop it from blowing us up to hell, but we’re not going to get the engines back very quickly here.” Engineering got into spacesuits and opened the back of the ship. They started flushing everything out to the depths of space; the lack of air began extinguishing most of the fires and let them get to work on the damaged cooling system. But this was also venting heat and radiation into space. They were no longer stealthy in any sense of the word. They were as good as dead in the water. 凯斯 reoriented 仲夏夜号, realizing that they had only thrusters to work with. “We have thrusters,” 凯斯 reported, a bit relieved. He scanned his console for the largest asteroid. If he could get them to it and use it as a shield of some sort, he could buy them some time to fix the engines. “And weapons,” 李 grunted. Commander Zheng groaned as he shifted. “Comms, set condition red. Battlestations.” 模板:Kirtley moved back to his console and tapped away, one-handed. More blood had begun to stain his uniform. Emergency lighting flickered on and the sirens yelped. “Missile crews stand by. Get the MAC ready,” Zheng ordered. He glanced over at 凯斯. “Where are you headed, 李eutenant?” 凯斯 explained his strategy quickly as they continued thrusting their way back into the rebel structure that Campbell had called the Rubble. He finished with, “We can just go right through the structure, buying time for us to get the engines fixed.” “Belay that,” Commander Zheng snapped. “Steer away from the structure, get us out into the open.” “Sir, with all due respect, we can’t outrun them. Lying about in the open like this… we’re too vulnerable,” 凯斯 said. “Don’t repeat the obvious to me, 李eutenant,” Commander Zheng said. “I’ve already had one of my core bridge crew shoot me. Now another is heading the ship deep into enemy territory. Please forgive my inability to trust your judgment right now. I don’t want to hand the enemy my ship on a damned platter. Take us out and away. Now.” “Yes, sir,” 凯斯 said. He didn’t like it. Not a bit. But he saw Zheng’s position. And he had his orders. 仲夏夜号 ponderously turned about, into a net of freighters and small ships moving in toward it around the very edges of the Rubble. 凯斯 flipped through the scans until he found the biggest Insurrectionist ship, and then wound 仲夏夜号 through the weave of docking tubes and asteroids out toward it. 凯斯 wanted to move them close to one of the Insurrectionists’ big ships. He wanted to get the rest of the smaller ships attacking 仲夏夜号 to stop for fear they might fire on their own ship by accident. A slim chance. But 凯斯 would take it. “Incoming!” 凯斯 shouted, as the world lit up. “Counter-measures deployed,” 李 reported. The twinkling chaff 李 had enveloped the ship in confused a handful of the missiles. The others penetrated the screen. The ship shuddered as they struck the hull. A second wave of missiles streaked in, and 凯斯 had the ship thrusting as close to one of the smaller asteroids as he could, almost grazing it. Missiles struck the asteroid, throwing up dirt and dust. “Good thinking,” 李 said. 凯斯 looked over to Zheng, who had narrowed his eyes. “We’re not stopping, 凯斯. Full thrusters, get us clear.” The moment they cleared the asteroid the next wave of missiles struck. The ship shuddered and shook; damage reports started streaming in. They were taking a hell of a beating. And still Commander Zheng, now doubled over and clutching his stomach, had them limping their way out into the open. This was suicide, 凯斯 thought. He wanted to speak up, say something. But he didn’t. An order was an order, damn it, and Zheng was a good commander. A fast-moving blip ripped across the screen before 凯斯 could even call out. The explosion slammed 凯斯’ face into his console. When he sat up, blood dripped all over the screen. “That was a mass-driver slug,” 凯斯 said, wiping the blood away with the edge of his palm. “Pretty much like a MAC; though in this case, they use it for mining operations.” “It hit near engineering,” Zheng said. “They fire it again, we’re dead,” 李 said. “We’re barely taking the hammering from their missiles.” Zheng closed his eyes, fighting some inner pain. “They’re working with the 星盟. I have no choice but to enact the Cole Protocol. 凯斯, destroy the navigation data, databases, logs, and anything related to them. You have the bridge. I need to get down to engineering.” Zheng painfully left his chair and shuffled out of the cockpit. 凯斯 accessed the Cole Protocol instructions. He found the virus needed to scavenge through the ship’s systems as a second line of defense. This was it, he thought. Once he started this, they were stuck here, no matter what happened next. He’d probably never see Miranda again. Never see another Earthrise over Luna. Another missile strike shook him out of those thoughts. They were dying here. He had a duty. Getting rid of the data might well protect Earth and the colonies. 凯斯 triggered the program, swallowing his nervousness as he began shutting down the nav station. 李eutenant 李 was coordinating fire response, trying to keep the Insurrectionist forces busy and at arm’s length. But judging by the more and more frequent explosions on the hull, it was a losing battle. 模板:Kirtley caught 凯斯’ eye. “They’re hailing us. They want to talk to the commander.” “He’s on his way to Engineering.” 模板:Kirtley shook his head. “Engineering hasn’t seen him yet.” 凯斯 frowned. “Where the hell is he?” 李 swore, and 模板:Kirtley looked frustrated. 凯斯 checked the progress on his virus. It was done. This ship would never get back to the Inner Colonies or Earth. “They’re saying they have more mass-driver shots aimed at us if we don’t kill the thrusters,” 模板:Kirtley said. “Patch them through, then, I’ll stall,” 凯斯 said. Just as he finished saying that three distinct explosions threw the whole ship sideways a few hundred feet. Bulkheads groaned. Metal screeched all up and down the ship. “What was that?” 凯斯 asked. “Nukes,” 李 said. “Our own Shivas.” 模板:Kirtley leaned forward. “Got Zheng now. I’m putting him through to the Insurrectionists.” Zheng’s voice had dropped almost to a hoarse whisper now. “This is Commander Dmitri Zheng, of the UNSC Frigate Midsummer Night. I have just unleashed our Shivas. Remember, I could have dropped these into the heart of your structure, but chose not to. We have honor. I’m ordering my crew to stand down. I demand that you treat them fairly. That is all.” As he faded away, an engineer’s voice came from comms. “Sir, someone needs to get down here. The medic says Zheng’s bleeding out. He doesn’t have long.” 凯斯 stood up. “I’m on my way.” The last time he’d rushed through the ship, he’d gotten somewhat lost. By now he knew his way down the corridors, leaping through bulkhead doors and swinging into the next section with accomplished ease, sliding down rails and leaping up stairs in other sections. Engineering was a chaotic mess of steam, slagged metal, and activity. They’d repressurized the section, but the chief of engineering was at the center of a maelstrom of 人类 activity. Near the engineer’s operations center a medic crouched next to Commander Zheng, who sat in a pool of his own blood. The medic met 凯斯’ eyes and shook his head. “He hand-loaded the Shivas himself and shot them off, wouldn’t let anyone near him,” the medic said. “If you want something done, you got to do it yourself. You can’t trust anyone,” Zheng said from the floor. He held up a bloody hand. “凯斯… come closer.” 凯斯 crouched next to him and the medic, and Zheng grabbed 凯斯’ hand slippery tight. “Didn’t think I’d let any Insurrectionists get their hands on some nukes, did you?” “No, sir,” 凯斯 said. “I want you to know, I didn’t ram that 星盟 ship for revenge, like they say,” Zheng whispered. “No one said that.” 凯斯 glanced at the medic, who just waved his hand to indicate that he keep listening. “Yes they do. I rammed that ship because we had no other choice. It would have killed many, many more. I had to look at the big picture. I had to step outside the box and do what I could with what I had.” “I understand, sir.” “Maybe, 凯斯. Maybe. Just remember, don’t trust any of these people, 凯斯. 星盟, rebels, hell, keep an eye on your own crew. Look for the big picture. You take good care of my ship. Make sure they treat the crew well once they take them prisoner.” Commander Zheng squeezed 凯斯’ hand, and started to breathe heavily. “Move aside,” the medic said, as Zheng slumped over. “Defib!” 凯斯 looked at his bloody hand that Zheng was gripping as the medic tried to revive the Commander. “Sir, 李 here,” the comms piece in 凯斯’ ear buzzed. “They’re boarding. The ODSTs want to know how to proceed.” 凯斯 swallowed. He was next in line. He was now in charge of the ship. All these lives. The mission. It had all been handed to him. This was no classroom, this was all the real front-line mess he’d been hoping to get. Well, he’d gotten it all right. They had no navigation data. They were outnumbered. Damaged. And dead in the water. “Tell Faison we follow Zheng’s orders to stand down. Spread the word.” 凯斯 felt numb as he stood up. “Give me directions to the nearest incursion. I’ll go meet the Innies myself.” It was all on him, now.
- LA PAZ HABITAT OUTER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
Thel sat in front of the bars, his legs folded underneath him, watching the two guards. It was a modified warrior’s crouch, one that let a 圣赫利 rest with his legs beneath him, but in a manner that allowed one to leap up and forward in the blink of an eye. He’d spent long hours practicing with fellow students in the sandy training courtyards of the Vadam keep, learning the pose; now it came as second nature. The short, shuffling 昂苟伊 that guarded them carried a plasma rifle too large for its frame, and Thel caught the trace whiffs of methane that leaked from around the guard’s mouthpiece. The 昂苟伊—an annoying lesser being—was careful to remain as close to the far wall and as far away from the bars as possible, rightly fearing the 圣赫利’s long limbs. But that didn’t stop the 昂苟伊 from taunting them and puffing itself up. “Look, you mighty 圣赫利. Look you not so mighty now, eh?” Thel growled from somewhere deep in the back of his throat. “You ignore the 昂苟伊, yes. Throw us to die at your feet. Don’t care when other races take advantage of poor 昂苟伊. No more. Wait until you are taken to Metisette, then see you our might.” Thel looked over at Zhar. “Might?” “昂苟伊 might is a contradiction in terms,” Zhar grumbled. “So think you,” the 昂苟伊 hissed. “Just you wait. Just you wait.” “What’s this Metisette? That is the second time I have heard that word,” Zhar observed. “The 奇戈亚尔 who locked us in here mentioned it.” Thel took a deep breath. “It is the human name for a world around the great gas giant.” His calves burned somewhat, now. But he waited still. Just under his feet, hidden by his crouch, was the long spear of metal. Using the edge of the bedframe, and their own strength, Thel and Saal had taken turns sharpening it further. They’d also cut rudimentary barbs into the spike by shaving out sections of the crude weapon. Now it was a case of choosing the best moment. Thel didn’t want to waste their one attempt. This cell, they had determined, was in one of the far edges of what Zhar had heard the humans call “模板:Rubble.” Though the 奇戈亚尔 and humans were working together, this was mainly a human creation. Before Thel’s thoughts meandered further, the walls shook and debris began breaking loose. The bars of metal holding them in started bowing and screeching as they were tortured into slightly different shapes. Lights flickered, and Thel still remained absolutely still, like a helioskrill imitating a rock back on the home planet, just watching for a meal to unsuspectingly walk by. As the cell plunged into darkness, Thel felt his weight lift off as the antigravity generators failed. He picked up the spear, the end of it tied off to several lengths of tightly braided sheet strips, and listened. He could hear the 昂苟伊’s panicked breathing and the hiss of the methane tank as he struggled in the air. The spear flew out from between the bars and made a wet, crunching sound as it struck the 昂苟伊. Thel gave the impromptu rope a quick yank, and the screaming 昂苟伊 was pulled right into the bars. Zhar and Saal waited there. Their long arms snapped the 昂苟伊’s neck and quieted it. Saal retrieved the plasma rifle as Thel pulled the makeshift spear out of the 昂苟伊 and shoved the body away. Bright blue blood hung in the space, expanding into large globules as the 昂苟伊 slowly spun in the air. “Get the lock,” Thel ordered. After bracing himself against the far wall, Saal fired at the lock three times. Plasma blew the device away into a cloud of molten metal rivulets that flew across the room, sizzling against 昂苟伊 skin and slapping into the wall. The four 圣赫利 pushed the cell door open and floated out as the lights flickered back on. They hit the floor, along with dried metal beads and the 昂苟伊’s limp body. Blood splattered the floor a split second later. Zhar looked around the room, blinking as his eyes adapted to the overly bright human lights. “They brought us in over there.” He jutted his mouthpieces in the direction of a corridor. Thel moved with the spear, taking point. The 奇戈亚尔 still here would deeply regret jailing him, he thought, as he turned a corner and spotted one of them standing by an airlock door. Thel sprinted the length of corridor, caring little for stealth. The 奇戈亚尔 spun, a protective shield flaring up by his forearm, but Thel struck so hard the 奇戈亚尔’s head smashed into the bulkhead behind him, and he drooped to the ground. Saal peered in through the window briefly, then pulled back. “More inside,” Saal grunted. “But they seem preoccupied.” Thel looked at the door controls, regretting his impulse to kill the 奇戈亚尔 guard so quickly. The collection of buttons that the humans used to control things stumped him. But he managed to tap a large green button that cycled the door open. The 奇戈亚尔 all turned and found themselves facing Saal with the plasma rifle aimed right at their heads. “Remember us?” Saal said, and pulled the trigger. Long 奇戈亚尔 faces exploded as Saal calmly shot all four in the head over their screeches of fear and rage. “And that,” Veer said, stepping over the bodies and closing the airlock door of the ship behind them, “is why you never imprison 圣赫利; you execute them.” The walls and seats were splattered with bright purple blood. Thel looked around with satisfaction. “That is a good start,” he said, a pleased rumble in the back of his voice. “Throw the bodies out.” Now it was time to find out what the 奇戈亚尔, humans, and 昂苟伊 were up to. And make them all pay.
- OUTER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
The Petya’s alarms sounded. 杰 bolted for the cockpit, where 麦克 was already strapping in. In the far distance a bright flash receded, a glowing ball of excited trace gases in the vacuum of space that had been disturbed by an explosion’s shock wave. “That’s a Shiva,” 麦克 said, reading off the monitors. “Probably three, actually.” “Nukes? Who’s nuking 模板:Rubble?” 阿德里亚娜 asked. “Us,” 麦克 said. “There’s a UNSC ship in system. Some sort of stealthed ship.” “Prowler? ONI coming around to check up on us?” 杰 wondered. 麦克 shook his head, half of which was covered in shaving cream—he’d been in the head when the alarms flashed. “Would have piped us a message by now. No, this is fleet. Looks like a frigate on the long-range.” “One of our own,” 阿德里亚娜 said. “Getting the crap kicked out of it,” 杰 said. 阿德里亚娜 nodded. “Look at all those ships surrounding it. What the hell were they thinking?” “Arm us up. Let’s get in there and see if we can help,” 杰 said. “Too many ships,” 麦克 said. “I don’t have enough explosive surprises to get those guys off its tail. Plus, I’m seeing a bunch of them moving in to board it. That’s a death trap, 杰.” 杰 hit a console with his fist, leaving the imprint in the metal. “Easy, cowboy,” a female voice that wasn’t 阿德里亚娜’s said. 杰 whirled to find Juliana’s image appearing at navigation, her large eyes regarding his. It’s just a simulation, he told himself. Those eyes can’t see, like they almost seem to right now. The AI spread her arms. “I can help your UNSC friends; you can’t. 麦克 is correct. They’re surrounded. They fell into a trap. One of their bridge crew was a sympathizer who signaled the ship’s location. They’re being taken to temporary holding cells.” “And after that?” 杰 asked. “After that, well…” Juliana folded her arms. “If they followed instructions, I doubt they have working navigation data. Which means they’re no major threat. They’ll be left to live. If they aren’t, I’ve threatened to stop working for 模板:Rubble. They need me too much to ignore that. It all falls apart without me.” 杰 glanced at 阿德里亚娜 over the top of the AI’s image. 阿德里亚娜 smiled back. “I will look after this,” Juliana continued. “I’d like you to go look after Ignatio 模板:Delgado. I’ve sent 麦克 the coordinates.” “阿德里亚娜’s pet Insurrectionist? Why?” 杰 walked over and sat in front of the AI. “He’s in a spot of trouble. And we need him because, while I can spy on him and monitor his movements, he’s been quite canny about keeping the navigation data hidden even from me. I think he fears you might hack me.” Juliana cackled at the thought, then stopped abruptly, looked around, and continued. “I think at this point, 模板:Delgado may give you the data for safekeeping.” “Why is that?” 麦克 asked, eyes narrowed. The AI smiled and shrugged. “Call it a hunch,” she told the team of Spartans. And then she flickered off. 杰 frowned. “I don’t feel like being some AI’s errand boy.” 麦克 raised his hand. “Yeah, she’s also holding back on us.” “How’s that?” 杰 moved to his side. “The ship the dockworkers were passing rumors about, that was coming back from the colonies, was the Kestrel, remember? Well, it’s out there now. The chatter is that the UNSC ship came in after it. Took me a bit to find her…” 杰 slapped him on the back. “Damn good. We go for the Kestrel, knock her engines out when she docks.” “And 模板:Delgado?” 阿德里亚娜 asked. “He’s the next navigation puzzle.” “Once that smuggler’s out, we snatch 模板:Delgado for the AI.” 杰 smiled. Everything was coming to a head now. It was time to move. 麦克 stood up and nodded. Gray Team was on the same page. “Your pet AI? 杰, I think maybe it just likes you,” 阿德里亚娜 said as she turned around to go back to where their Mark IV MJOLNIR armor waited on brackets. 杰 and 麦克 followed. “You’re just jealous,” 麦克 said, as they stopped in front of the armor. “But then, we both seem to be making friends out here. Shame 杰 doesn’t seem to have the social knack.” “Idiots,” 杰 said. “We’re not supposed to be making friends.” “But it’s so much more fun.” 麦克 grinned. 阿德里亚娜 chuckled, then looked at the armor waiting in the gloom for them. “Get the feeling we’re going to be spending a lot of time in our second skin?” 杰 reached a hand up and caressed the gray exterior. Yes, he did have that feeling. Things were past that tipping point where you felt you could still back away and lie down in the grass and just observe. No, someone had tossed grenades into the anthill. It was time to jump in and participate. Back in action.
- IN ORBIT, METISETTE, 模板:23librae
Thel grumbled happily. They’d taken the 奇戈亚尔 shuttle out farther away from 模板:Rubble, slowly scanning the area until they’d found a larger 奇戈亚尔 transport ship on its way to Metisette. They boarded it, fast and quick, before the few 奇戈亚尔 on board had even realized what had happened. On board were several hundred 昂苟伊. The 奇戈亚尔 had been in charge, but didn’t have the numbers to run their own ships. Now the 奇戈亚尔 were dead. But the 昂苟伊 had run the ship for the 奇戈亚尔. That made them useful. They were willing to work for Thel and his crew, or so the cowering 昂苟伊 Deacon said as Thel stood on the purple-stained bridge. “It would be the Prophets’ will,” the Deacon yelped. “It would be,” Thel said from behind the 昂苟伊. “We are on a direct mission from a Hierarch.” The 昂苟伊 waddled about, shifting its mouthpiece, to face Thel. It looked up and spread its arms out. “I do not question. I serve. That is our fate,” it moaned. Thel couldn’t care less for 昂苟伊 self-pity. “Tell your crew this ship flies where we command, or we will slaughter every last one of you. Saal will go down to engineering and watch over you. Veer will roam the corridors.” Veer growled, and the 昂苟伊 backed up. “Sirs! We will do our ship duties! Doubt us not.” Thel turned to Veer and Saal. “Be wary. The slightest notion the 昂苟伊 are playing games, hold nothing back.” Veer and Saal grunted affirmatively and walked out of the cockpit. The deacon turned to go, but Thel held up a hand, and the 昂苟伊 froze. “What is down there, 昂苟伊?” Thel asked. He pointed at the image of the planet on a screen at the front of the cockpit. It was Metisette. Its sickly, yellow-orange-colored atmosphere swirled; thick, cold storms lashed the icy surface. The 昂苟伊 stared at them, saying nothing. Thel turned back to the screen and folded his arms. “Zhar, my closest advisor, didn’t want to come here. He wanted to turn this transport right around to attack the 奇戈亚尔 ship docked by the humans, and take that right back to High Charity so we could warn the prophets about the Jiralhanae treason.” “A noble choice,” the 昂苟伊 said. “It is not,” Thel said. “We were captured, and jailed. When we return, we will be lucky if we hold our titles, if not our very names.” The 昂苟伊 trembled at Thel’s anger. “What is your name, Deacon?” “Pipit,” the 昂苟伊 replied. Thel folded his arms. “Pipit, one of my ancestors, a kaidon of Vadam, lost a war to one of the keep’s bitter rivals. The new kaidon put my ancestor in the cellars, jails where the defeated were left in the most dishonorable manner imaginable. They were fed scraps, and visited by the invaders to be mocked and laughed at. The most honorable among the jailed killed themselves or each other. “The kaidon escaped after weeks of starving. He had become so thin he could pull himself through the bars of his window looking out over the Vadam keep cliffs. He scaled the cliff, and swam down the river, all the way to the valley. “The kaidon walked for many days, eating vermin and scraps, becoming lower than low, until he came into the vast deserts that lie in the interior of all our lands. And out there, after wandering for many years, built his strength, his hardness, and made allies from other wanderers. They were the least of the least, yes, but with a will to fight, and a will to live no matter the odds. “With this new tribe, my ancestor returned to Vadam keep and scaled the walls. He killed his enemies all, throwing their bodies to the river. It is said that it ran purple with blood for a week. And when the kaidon was done killing his enemies, he opened the jails and killed the Vadam who had been cowardly enough to remain alive in them. That was my kaidon. That is Vadam. Our blood was forged in the desert, confirmed in the keep that day, and purified through Kaidon Ther’s experiences. So it is carved on the Vadam saga wall.” Thel looked over at Zhar, who asked, “Shipmaster, do you have a point to retelling a stanza of your family’s saga?” Thel sat down in the shipmaster’s chair at the center of the cockpit. “I can hardly turn my back on my lineage, can I, Zhar? I will not return to High Charity with a lost ship, knowing we were locked up by 奇戈亚尔, and little knowledge of what is happening here. I would be no better than the jailed 圣赫利 that Ther executed for being useless.” “It was a suggestion. An option,” Zhar said. “But it is not an option, as we are 圣赫利.” Thel now turned back to Deacon Pipit. “So you understand, 昂苟伊? We are here to stay. I ask you, again, what is on Metisette?” “Dreams,” Pipit sighed. “Do not play word games,” Thel growled. “Be plain.” “When commanders need fighters, 昂苟伊 are ordered to breed and expand. Then we die in great numbers. 昂苟伊, you all say: do this, do that. Some dream of free,” Pipit explained. “And though we hate 奇戈亚尔, this one named 模板:Reth, high commander, says to those 昂苟伊 that they can come to Metisette. Come, build a home. Help change this moon so it becomes a place you can live where the methane is free in all the air. Breed free.” Zhar started to laugh. “And you believed this… 模板:Reth?” Pipit looked up, beady red eyes squinting in anger. “奇戈亚尔 always betray, yes, but the opportunity…” The alien shrugged. Thel looked down at the fatalistic little alien. “So Metisette has methane in the air that you can breathe.” “A place for 昂苟伊,” Pipit said. “A safe place, where we can live without interference, without controls on our population that are imposed from on high. Where we can walk around without these chafing harnesses and breathing tanks.” “An 昂苟伊 paradise,” Thel muttered. “Where you can breed until you overrun the entire place.” The 昂苟伊 were well-known to reproduce like mad. During peacetime the Prophets monitored their population closely; the 昂苟伊 had never cared for that. And even though they hated the 奇戈亚尔, it made sense that the 昂苟伊 had jumped at the chance in this strange sequence of events to gain a world of their own. Thel scratched his lower mandibles. Saal called Thel over the intercom. “They have our infiltrator harness here,” he said. “In their storage bay. The 奇戈亚尔 stole it from our ship!” Thel stopped scratching as he thought about the news. “We have a change of plans. Take the armor down to the 奇戈亚尔 shuttle. Get the shuttle warmed up as well. We are going down.” “Into that murk?” Zhar protested from nearby. “Yes. Zhar, the Prophets unleash the 昂苟伊 to breed whenever there is a war; they stop mixing antibreeding hormones into the methane supplies. Now we have a renegade 奇戈亚尔 breeding 昂苟伊. I think this ‘模板:Reth’ is creating an army on the surface of Metisette for himself.” “So we are going to see for ourselves?” Zhar snorted. “I want to talk to 模板:Reth,” Thel said simply. “Why?” “If he is in charge of Metisette, he knows what is going on with the humans and the 奇戈亚尔 working together. And he knows about the betrayal of the Tiralhanae. 模板:Reth knows things we need to know.” “And he is surrounded by hundreds of 昂苟伊,” Zhar noted. The deacon cleared his throat. Thel turned to him, and Pipit said, “Not hundreds.” Thel waited a moment. “Thousands?” Pipit still bobbed his head. “Tens of…” but already the alien had shaken its head again. “Hundreds?” Now Pipit nodded eagerly as Zhar swore. 模板:Reth had quite an army at his disposal. This would make getting to him a lot more difficult. But Thel smiled. “We have our infiltrator harness back.” That gave them an edge. They were not just 圣赫利, but well armed, well armored, and also invisible 圣赫利. Like his ancestor Ther, the ancient kaidon, Thel would come back against great odds, swarming into the middle of his enemy before they even knew what had happened. “Get us ready, Zhar,” Thel ordered. “We are going down there. Pipit, Veer will take over while we are gone; you will help him. Give us the coordinates to 模板:Reth. And if you deceive us, Veer will be here to make sure you suffer immediately for it.” Pipit nodded and, in a voice that seemed to crack, gave Zhar the necessary coordinates. “Thank you, Deacon.” Thel looked around. “You will also need to have an 昂苟伊 pilot meet us at the shuttle, Deacon. Talk to the 昂苟伊 down there on Metisette, tell them you had an accident aboard, and need to be resupplied with methane for 昂苟伊 to breathe.” With that done, Thel stalked off the bridge with Zhar close behind. “Three of us against hundreds of thousands of 昂苟伊,” Zhar said. “The little ones will cower with fear and run from us in floods,” Thel proclaimed as they thudded down the corridors. Zhar laughed. “You are confident.” “I am 圣赫利,” Thel said. “This is what we are.”
They crammed into the tiny shuttle. Spec ops armor lay on the benches where 昂苟伊 would have lined up and sat. Now there was only one 昂苟伊, a terrified pilot who remained strapped in and staring at the 圣赫利 in terror. Thel felt the warmth that came to him when he had a direct plan. “Take us down, Saal.” Once they’d broken through the worst of the deceleration in the upper atmosphere of Metisette, Thel unstrapped himself and walked back to don his spec ops armor, and helped Zhar with his. The shuttle shook and rattled its way through the thick atmosphere, but they remained balanced on their feet easily enough. Once suited up, Zhar flicked the armor on, and faded away into invisibility. “It works,” Thel said. Then tested his own. Zhar and Saal switched places. As Saal struggled into his armor alone and Zhar flew the shuttle in, Thel walked up to the edge of the cockpit to look down. Nothing but thick orange clouds and haze—at least until they broke out under the clouds to fly over a jagged, ice-cold landscape whipped by constant storms. Zhar banked them slowly through the orange murk toward a massive crater. As they flew across it the sides reached up like distant mountains, and Thel could see a massive lake at its center. In the distance stood what looked like a keep, straddling a giant river of liquid that tumbled over the edge of the crater down to its floor. The keep was ramshackle, made out of parts of old, ruined ships that had been rudely deorbited and landed near the lip of the immense waterfall. But it stood high with additions that had been built in between the spaceships’ hulls, with tubes and domes that hung like carbuncles pocking the rock faces and rising above the river. Thel saw that it could house hundreds of thousands. Elevators ran down along the sides of the thousand feet of waterfall to structures around the giant lake. Metisette wasn’t a world one could breath in. Its mostly nitrogen atmosphere would leave 圣赫利, or 奇戈亚尔, or most races with nothing to breathe. The liquid on the very cold Metisette was methane. Thel watched as a stream of it fell off the lip of the crater. Methane mist hung strong in the air all throughout the natural valleys and low areas of the crater, thanks to the falls. “Giant reactors heat the land all around the crater,” the pilot spoke up, pride suddenly more powerful than its fear of the 圣赫利. “It makes more of the mists.” Zhar skimmed the lake and approached the falls. The shuttle hit the mists, and then rose up near the falls, pressing Thel against the seat. “We pop over the edge and land, Zhar,” Thel shouted. “Make sure your armor is tight, Saal. It will give us air until we are inside the structure. If 模板:Reth is breathing and 奇戈亚尔 are in there, then we will be okay. “If there is only methane, we go in as far as we can before coming back. Zhar stays with the shuttle, hiding, as this 昂苟伊 has the other 昂苟伊 load up our shuttle with tanks of methane.” Thel watched the remains of a large 奇戈亚尔 merchant ship appear over the lip, and Zhar arced over it into a large landing area marked out in plasma-melted rock. As soon as the shuttle touched rock, the three 圣赫利 activated their camouflage and flickered and vanished. Zhar sat across from the 昂苟伊 who was supposedly piloting the shuttle, and Thel and Saal jumped out the back of the shuttle. The 昂苟伊 pilot had not lied—the land here was bitterly cold to Thel, but it was tolerable. Like an arctic waste. Not nearly as cold as the rest of the moon. Silent ghosts moving through the orange murk that hung in the air, they maneuvered across the field, keeping well clear of the 昂苟伊 who waddled out across the landing pad toward the shuttle, barking and shouting in their language. Thel kept an easy lope going, covering the ground so fast that any 昂苟伊 who noticed a wavering in the air would surely shake their heads and dismiss it as a trick of the light. They slipped in through a series of giant airlocks, where 昂苟伊 still had to wear their harnesses and tanks. Thel looked around. “This is 奇戈亚尔 territory,” he whispered to Saal. It made sense that the lesser aliens were here in a re-purposed old ship, mounted near the lip of the falls. It made for a commanding view, because although the 昂苟伊 felt like this was their world, Thel would imagine that the 奇戈亚尔 saw it differently. Saal found a lone 昂苟伊, and an empty room in the back of what had once been the large hangar bays of the 奇戈亚尔 ship. It didn’t take long to get the 昂苟伊 to give up the location of 模板:Reth. “The cockpit room, at the very top.” Saal snapped the 昂苟伊’s neck and they took the emergency maintenance tubes up through the ship. Thel panted heavily and his mandibles were wide open, his tongue flicking the air, by the time they arrived at the top. Four 奇戈亚尔 guarded the cockpit’s doors, but two of them were looking out the windows down to the launch pad, bored, their plasma rifles slung over their backs. They never had a chance to turn and see what attacked them. The two 圣赫利 were in their midst in a split second, firing point-blank into their faces with their own plasma rifles. The other two 奇戈亚尔 had a second to squall loudly before they met the same fate, and Thel blew the cockpit doors apart with a grenade. Inside the carpeted, lavishly furnished room sat a single 奇戈亚尔, his large eyes staring at the shimmering flaws in the air before him. Thel shut his invisibility off. “圣赫利,” the 奇戈亚尔 hissed. “Damn you, what have you done? Do you know who you cross?” “You are 模板:Reth?” Thel asked. “Yes,” the 奇戈亚尔 said. “You let 昂苟伊 breed without control. You pretend to be a voice of the Prophets here. You are a heretic.” Thel raised his plasma rifle and struck 模板:Reth in the head with it. “Pick him up,” Thel ordered Saal. “Let us return to the shuttle.” A loud warble echoed across the corridors. Thel looked around. “That sounded like an alarm.” Saal walked over to the front of the cockpit, 模板:Reth slung casually over a shoulder. “It is. We should call Zhar, have him fly up here. We can get outside onto the top and get him to pick us up there.” Thel stepped forward to stand next to Saal and looked down. Saal murmured into the air, talking to Zhar. “Zhar needs just a minute. Too many 昂苟伊 inside the shuttle.” Hundreds of feet below in a courtyard formed from the superstructures of three or four mothballed spaceships, thousands of 昂苟伊 streamed out. The crowds ran to surround the building they were in. “They cannot enter,” Saal said. “Almost all of them have no harnesses or air. The methane mists out there let them breathe. Where are their harnesses?” Thel looked at the unconscious 奇戈亚尔 on Saal’s shoulder. “The 奇戈亚尔 either have not made them many, or are keeping them under lock and key.” “But why?” Saal asked. “Because they cannot leave Metisette, or even attack this 奇戈亚尔 structure in the center of their own keep, if they have no tanks.” “Doesn’t help us right now,” Saal said, looking at the quadrangle fill with 昂苟伊. “Enough 昂苟伊 seem to have harnesses to cause us trouble.” Thel turned and looked back down the corridor, hearing the sound of 昂苟伊 screeches. “It tells us who’s really in charge of all this.” “The 奇戈亚尔.” Thel looked back at 模板:Reth’s limp form. “Yes. That one in particular. Wake him up. We may have to put a gun to his head. What is Zhar’s progress?” Saal cocked his head, listening to an update from down below. “Zhar is closing the ramp and warming the shuttle up.” “The timing will be tight,” Thel said. He walked over to the doors with his plasma rifle up and ready. “Be ready to blow the windows out when he gets airborne.” “My honor,” Saal grunted. He set 模板:Reth down and slapped the 奇戈亚尔’s face. “Wake up,” the 圣赫利 zealot growled.
- ASUNCION HABITAT, INNER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
凯斯 watched his people being herded toward gates. They huddled together and stared down at their feet as they moved forward. Men in gray uniforms, rifles slung at the ready, moved about the edges, pushing the crew back into line toward the five checkpoints the rails led everyone toward. The Midsummer Night had been docked with an asteroid. From the cargo bay they’d all been herded out at gunpoint, down a long corridor in the endcap of the habitat, and walked out into the interior. But the tall rails, all enclosed in chicken wire with razor wire wrapped around that, effectively prevented them from walking out into the habitat until they’d passed through five stations. Humorless-looking officials stood by small podiums in the stations with computer pads. “Stay single file,” a guard shouted. The lines formed up, people jammed against each other, wondering what came next. They were face-to-face with the enemy: Insurrectionists. Captured. A woman in a black uniform with yellow trim walked up to a dais mounted over the gates. She brushed back a long lock of black hair, then folded her arms at the small of her back in a sort of parade rest. When she spoke her voice was amplified so that the entire crowd could hear her. “Welcome to the habitat Asuncion,” the woman said. 凯斯 leaned back and looked up at the far side of the asteroid’s interior, far on the other side from where he stood. Patches of gardens and trees could be seen. It was odd, seeing something almost pastoral in a megastructure like this. “And welcome to 模板:Rubble,” the woman continued. “My name is Maria Esquival. I am here to help orient you to your new situation.” 凯斯 was surrounded by his remaining bridge crew. Lt. Dante Kirtley had folded his arms and was watching the woman, but Junior Grade Rai Li checked out the crowded crew, looking worried. Behind 凯斯 loitered a handful of ODSTs, with Faison standing in their midst. He raised an eyebrow at 凯斯. Maria Esquival continued her speech. “After the destruction of Madrigal, as we escaped into the asteroids and rocks here, we had some very tough decisions to make about who we would become: refugees struggling to exist, fighting over scraps? Or a civilization? “We chose civilization. We worked hard to build 模板:Rubble. We worked hard because we knew we had something to build. A world like nothing the UNSC has ever known, with its strict hierarchies and militaristic command.” 凯斯 looked over at Dante, who rolled his eyes. “More Insurrectionist bullshit,” the comms specialist muttered. “Free of the trappings of being a colony, we reinvented ourselves from the ground up. 模板:Rubble is a technocracy. All of its municipal functions, all its laws, are voted on by our members. Some of us are Insurrectionist, some of us are refugees from Madrigal. Others are miners who were here from the beginning. Some are smugglers who made it here from the Inner Colonies. All are welcome. “We mean that. All are welcome to have the right to vote. This includes you, crew of the Midsummer Night.” Esquival paused to let that sink in. In the crowd, Kirtley leaned back toward 凯斯. “They all vote on everything. Like even security? That’d be insane.” “Because we believe in freedom, 模板:Rubble invites you to join our democracy. You have a choice in what happens next to you. You can choose to turn your back on the imperialist nature of the UNSC. Many of you may have come from Outer Colonies. Colonies that fell to the alien Covenant while the UNSC took their time to enact methods of dealing with the aliens. Colonies that you know were not as well protected as they could have been, because the UNSC’s loyalties are to Earth first, the Inner Colonies next, and the Outer Colonies last. Here in 模板:Rubble, you are equal among all.” Rai Li sniffed. “How many crew you think are going to buy that crap?” 凯斯 looked out over the crowd of heads. How many crew were survivors of border colonies, or had family in the Outer Colonies? He thought of his sister for a second, a twinge of pain at the thought of her dying without UNSC protection, out there alone in the Outer Colonies. Or maybe, 凯斯 suddenly thought, maybe they’d survived. Just like 模板:Rubble had. The idea captured him for a second, and then 凯斯 shook himself. No, he had to remember what the Covenant was really about. 模板:Rubble was some strange anomaly… “Too many.” 凯斯 rubbed his jaw, thoughtfully. “And can you blame them? We have no options. We’re stuck out here. Behind the lines. They might as well start trying to find allies, figure out what the new game is. We’re refugees, now.” His eyes burned. He hadn’t slept since they’d been boarded, running from place to place to make sure things went smoothly. Now it was over. Everything was over. He’d read about POWs in past wars, unlucky bastards who’d been the first shot out of the air and stuck in a camp for the length of a war. If he lived, he’d be one of those footnotes. Maria Esquival cleared her throat. “But, as you are UNSC, and have a checkered background, there are some concessions that have to be made when integrating you into the population of 模板:Rubble. “You will have to swallow a motion tracker, in the form of a pill. This will let 模板:Rubble’s AI monitor and track your location. You will have to report for counseling and you will be assigned a case officer who will review the integration process. However these things are a small price to pay for your freedom.” 凯斯 wished he had his pipe to fiddle with. He had to leave it aboard the ship, along with any other personal effects or objects as they were moved to Asuncion. “Those of you who wish to become citizens, have only to ask when you reach Processing. You will be split off to a separate location. Those of you still loyal to the UNSC, who refuse the pill, we will, of course, be forced to jail you.” With that, Esquival turned around and left her perch. The large lines staggered forward. “A lot of them are asking for citizenship,” Faison said from behind 凯斯. “Can’t blame them,” 凯斯 said. “One can understand what’s going through their minds.” “You’re not going to do anything about it?” Faison asked. “We’re trapped. We have nothing. What do you want me to do? They’re doing the rational thing.” Faison grabbed 凯斯 by the shoulder. “Either we’re soldiers or we’re not. Defeat or not, we should never forget that, 凯斯. Give them a speech. Say something to counteract all that, because whatever this is you’re doing right now, this isn’t leadership. Where’s the man who had us all jump out of that freighter?” Say something. 凯斯 cleared his throat, then jumped up onto the railing. He wobbled for a second. “Crew of the Midsummer Night,” he shouted. The snaking line paused. And 凯斯 suddenly felt like a blank sheet of paper. Nothing came to him. Faison punched his shin, and 凯斯 sucked his breath in. “Crew of the Midsummer Night, we have had a hard blow, I know. Some of you, after hearing all this, will have a hard choice to make. “Just know this. No matter who we are, or why we give our service, we all joined to fight a common enemy. The people here, although they fled the destruction of their own world, think that the Covenant can be allies. The same creatures that destroyed their world. I think this is an illusion. So I hope that you will, if the time ever comes, stand by my side again if the need calls for it. With no hard feelings. I will not be joining their citizenry. I remain ready to fight the Covenant and protect humanity, as I swore to do when I joined the fight. As did you all.” 凯斯 got back down. There was only silence. Rai Li finally shook her head. “That was an awkward speech.” “Doesn’t matter,” Faison said. “What mattered was that he gave it.” And 凯斯 knew he was right; he was stumbling toward being the leader they all wanted . . . and needed. 凯斯 grabbed Faison by the shoulder. “By the way, why are so many ODSTs at the front of the line? They look like they’re going to be citizens.” Faison nodded and looked 凯斯 in the eye. “Well, of course. You know the Helljumpers: first in and all that.” He gave the last word in emphasis. Then he winked. 凯斯 got it. He could still trust Helljumpers to be Helljumpers. Faison was just making sure he got men out into the general populace in case they needed them out there. “You’ve got company,” Lt. Kirtley said. Maria Esquival and several black-clad men pushed through the crowd of crew toward 凯斯. “Lieutenant Jacob 凯斯, I gather?” Esquival said. “Yes ma’am,” 凯斯 replied. “No more speeches.” 凯斯 laughed. “I thought we were all equals here.” Esquival tilted her head. “You just announced you gave up the right to citizenry, right?” “Yes…” One of the black-uniformed men punched 凯斯 in the stomach. Faison stepped forward, but 凯斯 waved him back as he coughed. “Then I’m pleased to report I’m under no obligation to treat you as a citizen, Lieutenant 凯斯.” Esquival smiled. “The problem is, you have a position of power over your men. Such speeches, while admirable, are given from that position of power. Many possible citizens might feel compelled to go to jail who wouldn’t otherwise.” “It’ll all end,” 凯斯 said. “When the Covenant gets bored of whatever game it’s playing here.” Esquival sighed. “You’re so sure of yourself. The war with the Covenant is something the UNSC somehow started back on Harvest, we’re sure of it. This is not our war, we just got caught up in it. It’s your war. While you all fight to the last man with your brotherhood of arms, we’ve built something here. I don’t know if the UNSC has noticed, but the Covenant is comprised of a number of varying races. Many of these were allowed into the Covenant. We here in 模板:Rubble are looking for ways humanity can join their ranks. As a junior race, perhaps. But we’re adept, Lieutenant 凯斯, we’ll work our way up.” 凯斯 shook his head. “You conspire with the enemy.” Esquival sighed. “Take him and his bridge crew to the jails. Get them out of here.” They zip-tied his hands, and then led him off. Several junior officers started applauding, but it died out nervously after a few seconds.
- SOMEWHERE NEAR HABITAT CARIBO INNER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
杰 eyeballed the Insurrectionist smuggler in the distance. They’d been tagging along far behind it until it had docked. Now he flew in the weightless vacuum toward it. He struck the surface, absorbing the impact with his knees. Even as he rebounded, he threw a magnetic grapple at the hull to stay attached. 阿德里亚娜 hit the hull next to him. She grabbed his leg with one hand to stop him from bouncing back off. She had a large plastic case tucked underneath the other arm. 杰 looked at her helmet. “What does 麦克 have for us today?” “Electromagnetic pulse bomb. Mostly harmless—except to anything electronic aboard the Kestrel. It’ll wipe it all clean,” 阿德里亚娜 said. She opened the case and pulled out a large, disc-shaped device that looked like a landmine. “He’s been saving this one.” With a thud the EMP attached itself to the hull. 阿德里亚娜 leaned over it and tapped out a code. “It talking to you, 麦克?” “We’re live,” 麦克 reported. “Now get well clear of that thing. The EMP pulse is strong enough to fry a whole ship. Usually our armor can recover from those bursts pretty quickly, but it will still knock out your MJOLNIR briefly if you’re too close. I want to wait until we’re all back aboard and well clear before—” 杰 spotted movement. “We have company. They’re coming from the airlock.” Two black space suits, hardened-looking affairs, coasted quickly at them. A burst of flame from their backs jetted them down the hull even faster. “Hostile or curious?” 麦克 asked. Muzzle flash answered that; the two suits had machine guns in either hand. 阿德里亚娜 bent down and leapt at them, pulling out her battle rifle and firing. Her rounds sparked and pinged off well-hardened material and the two suits curled up in a ball. “They were expecting us,” 杰 said. “We’ve been here a while, it’s obvious something’s happening,” 麦克 replied. “Not too surprising they’ve rustled up a response of some sort. I’m jockeying Petya in closer.” “No,” 阿德里亚娜 said. “Get ready to hit the EMP; we don’t want to give these goons a chance with it. They’ve probably raised the alarm. We also don’t want to give them time to get the data off the ship somehow.” She grunted as she smacked into one of the suits. 杰 leapt at the second one while paying out the rope on his grapple with one hand. He didn’t bother shooting at the man until they collided. He ripped the rocket pack off the back of the combat space suit and threw it away, did the same with the man’s two guns, then yanked himself back toward the smuggler with the line. The black suit hung still, unable to move anywhere. 阿德里亚娜 had smashed in the faceplate of their other opponent. The man’s dying breath hung in the air between the two, a crystalline and fading cloud. She threw the suit away, the motion pushing her toward the hull. “Four more of them,” she said. The glare of their packs marked them, flying right at them from the asteroid. “Let’s get out of here.” With all the strength available to them from the combination of their physique and the MJOLNIR powered armor, they crouched and leapt for the Petya, over a mile away. Halfway across, 麦克 triggered the EMP bomb with a dramatic electric fireshow that crackled across the Kestrel’s hull. It also left their chasers immobile, their electronics burnt out by the invisible wave of electrical energy the bomb had released. 杰’s heads-up display flickered slightly. “Cutting it close, 麦克?” “A little,” came the response.
- THE REDOUBT, METISETTE, 模板:23librae
The first trio of 昂苟伊 to turn the corridor walked right into Thel’s line of fire. Short bursts of plasma struck them in the center of their torsos. Footsteps pattered behind Thel. He turned around and saw 模板:Reth trying to run away from Saal. Saal grabbed the 奇戈亚尔 leader and dragged him back toward the windows and out of the direct line of fire. “Do you two realize what you are doing?” the 奇戈亚尔 asked. Saal cocked his head. “We are kidnapping you.” 模板:Reth did not find it as amusing as Saal seemed to. “There are hundreds of thousands of 昂苟伊 out there, all who are at my command.” “They are out there,” Saal said. “But you and I know they cannot all get in here.” And Saal chuckled. “So you plan on doing what then?” 模板:Reth hissed. “You are meddling in extraordinarily important affairs.” Thel ducked behind the doorframe as more 昂苟伊 spilled out into the far side of the corridor. One stumbled when he saw Thel duck back around with his plasma rifle. “圣赫利! Defend the Redoubt!” it screamed, and the back of its methane tank exploded from another accurate shot. Flaming debris struck other 昂苟伊, who lost their cohesive charge down the corridor and scattered, trying to pat the flames away before they got burned. “That should hold them for a bit,” Thel muttered. But then to his surprise, the 昂苟伊 turned back toward him again. These were some very determined 昂苟伊. “They have something to fight for,” 模板:Reth shouted. “圣赫利, you don’t understand what’s going on. You must free me. I can save your lives. I swear it.” Thel watched the 昂苟伊 charge. There was little love between the 奇戈亚尔 and 圣赫利—模板:Reth’s kind resented the position 圣赫利 held in the Covenant. And the 圣赫利 regarded the 奇戈亚尔 as little more than scavengers. Thel suspected 模板:Reth was lying and would happily have them killed the moment they set their weapons down. But 模板:Reth pressed on nonetheless. “You are the 圣赫利 from Retribution’s Thunder, am I right?” Why was Zhar taking so long? Thel shot another handful of 昂苟伊. “Yes.” More came up the elevators and stairs and ran forward. “It was a mistake. We should not have betrayed you to those Jiralhanae,” 模板:Reth said in as soothing a voice as a 奇戈亚尔 could. “But we needed you to not interfere! Not after all the work we’ve done so far.” Thel shook his head. “What is done is done. You have made your choices. Now we are making ours.” Way too many 昂苟伊 were rushing up to the top floor, flooding over dead bodies in the hall. Thel knew they were going to continue until he ran out of the charge in his plasma rifle. “You go against the Hierarchs!” 模板:Reth shouted. Saal backhanded the 奇戈亚尔. “We are on a direct mission for the Hierarchs. Do not dare blaspheme like that. As if you speak for the Hierarchs…” he muttered. Thel saw out of the corner of his eye that the 奇戈亚尔 looked stunned. “Which Hierarch?” “The Prophet of Regret himself,” Saal proclaimed proudly. 模板:Reth shook his head. “Wrong Prophet,” he muttered, the feathered spines on his head wavering in confusion. Wrong Prophet? Saal and Thel looked at each other, and then Saal shouted, “Zhar is up!” Sure enough a column of disturbed air rippled just outside the windows. “Blow the windows out!” Thel ordered. He shut the doors and locked them against the 昂苟伊. Saal used a sticky grenade on the thick windows. The blue light pulsed, and then Thel grabbed 模板:Reth to shield him as the explosion shook the room. Glass shards flew out, and the thunder of engines filled the room, bringing the acrid clouds of methane mist with it. Thel hoisted 模板:Reth onto his back. “You scream, struggle, or move about, you will regret it dearly. Now take a deep breath while there’s still some air!” He followed Saal out onto the lip of the window, looking at the slope of the repurposed ship stretching out before him. They didn’t want to go that way. Slide off the edge, they’d have a very long fall. Thel pulled himself and the weight of the 奇戈亚尔 up, using his hands and legs to crawl up onto the slope of metal above the windows. Saal scrambled up ahead, unencumbered, to the top of the ship, where the shuttle hovered, waiting for them. They needed one last tactic to gain them some time. Thel pulled out a pair of grenades and let them roll down toward the slope of the hull. As they dropped by his feet he kicked them in through the window. He scrambled up after Saal as fast he could, the grenades’ explosions blowing red flame and debris out of the windows underneath him as he ran. The 昂苟伊 pilot stood in the back of the shuttle, eyes wide in stunned surprise as he watched them run toward him. Zhar gently touched the top of the old 奇戈亚尔 wreck with the shuttle and Saal and Thel leapt aboard. The tips of other grounded ships poked out of the thick, ruddy mists all around them like towers. “Take it up!” Saal shouted forward, and they accelerated away, the structure dwindling at the top of the falls, the crater lake falling into the distance.
- HABITAT EL CUIDAD, INNER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
Despite being left alone, Ignatio 模板:Delgado had still not managed to free himself. The thing was, trying to use a sliver of metal to pick the lock of a pair of handcuffs was a challenging proposition. And 模板:Delgado couldn’t even get the sliver to reach the keyhole. With a loud sigh the one guard in the warehouse stood up and folded up whatever he’d been watching and pocketed it. “Alright, 模板:Delgado, things are settling down. Time to get you moved out.” 模板:Delgado nodded, filled with a sense of foreboding. This was it, then. The guard noticed the look on his face. “Come on, 模板:Delgado. It’s not like that.” “Really?” 模板:Delgado looked the heavily muscled man up and down. “How is it, then?” The man shrugged. “All 模板:Bonifacio and the Security Council know is that the data keeps getting found out. Better to keep you on close watch.” 模板:Delgado shook his head. “Then why are you doing this? Why the hired muscle, the empty warehouse?” “It keeps you under his eye. He doesn’t trust you, 模板:Delgado. You’re a wild card, man.” 模板:Delgado was unshackled from the chain, then handcuffed to the man’s right wrist. With a shove, 模板:Delgado was pushed forward. “What’s your name?” 模板:Delgado asked. “Owen.” “Your real name?” “What do you think?” “Owen” asked, looking down at 模板:Delgado as he herded him outside to a waiting tube car. “Where are we going?” 模板:Delgado asked. Owen smiled. “One of 模板:Bonifacio’s working ships.” 模板:Delgado frowned. “Working ships? He have a lot of broken ones?” “Look.” Owen leaned in close, almost whispering. “Relax a little, 模板:Delgado. 模板:Bonifacio’s going to be in a foul mood because his smuggler ship, it just got fried.” “What?” Owen was laughing. “The best-laid plans… Someone really doesn’t like 模板:Bonifacio. They fried his ship. It’s structurally intact, but nothing inside it works; the data got wiped out.” 模板:Delgado swallowed. The Spartans had struck again. “So now 模板:Bonifacio needs me.” “Pretty much.” The tube car stopped after making its way between a handful of coupled asteroids. Owen opened the door, and 模板:Delgado quickly followed him to avoid being yanked along. Peter 模板:Bonifacio stood near an airlock, along with a handful of Security Council members. Including 模板:Diego Esquival. Owen unlocked the handcuffs, and 模板:Delgado massaged his wrists. “What’s this all about?” “Where’s the navigation data, Mr. 模板:Delgado?” one of the suited Security Council members asked. 模板:Delgado stood still for a second. “Safe. As we agreed on.” 模板:Diego pursed his lips. “模板:Bonifacio presented evidence to the council that there are Earth-first elements within our population that have attacked any navigation data that might lead ships of any sort back to Earth or the Inner Colonies. The data you have needs to be transported to its final destination, where it will be better safeguarded.” “Final destination?” 模板:Delgado looked around at them. “What final destination? The 奇戈亚尔? Come on, you know where that will lead.” “We’re moving it to the Exodus Project,” said one of the councilmen, an older man with scars across his face. “It’s final. We’ve all voted. So please, Mr. 模板:Delgado, give up the data. You’ve served 模板:Rubble well. It’s time to hand it over now.” “What the hell is this Exodus Project?” 模板:Delgado snapped. “It’s just a big emergency plan,” 模板:Diego said. “We can’t talk about the particulars.” “And it needs nav data?” 模板:Delgado looked at 模板:Diego. “Yes.” 模板:Diego nodded, and spread his arms. “It really does, Ignatio. Please, trust me on this. Trust the Council as 模板:Rubble’s elected leaders.” 模板:Delgado looked at the other members. They didn’t look like they meant him any ill. But was it the right choice, whatever they had in mind? 模板:Delgado took a deep breath. It wasn’t his decision to make, was it? 模板:Rubble had elected the entire Council for a reason. The Council had hired 模板:Delgado. He was no longer keeper of the data. “Okay,” 模板:Delgado said. “It’s aboard Distancia. I have to key everything open.” 模板:Diego laughed. “In plain sight, huh?” “The best place.” For a quick moment, everything felt okay. Maybe even normal. 模板:Delgado relaxed slightly. The sensation was shattered as Peter 模板:Bonifacio stepped forward. “I’ll take him over to Distancia, then meet the rest of you at Exodus. The Distancia only has a light guard on it. It’s an easy target. My guards aren’t just Rubble Defense volunteers, they have actual fighting experience.” There was accusation in his glare, and 模板:Delgado saw a few nod in agreement. It looked like 模板:Bonifacio had been knocking 模板:Delgado’s ability to keep the data safe. 模板:Diego came forward. “I go with you.” He and 模板:Delgado shared a glance. 模板:Bonifacio shrugged. “I’d be delighted to have you aboard, Councilman, as well as anyone else who wants to come. Keep in mind, my ship’s quarters are cramped. This way.” He held out his hand, indicating that they should go first. His guards had already cycled through the airlock into the ship 模板:Bonifacio had waiting for them. It was a cramped ship, a converted tug of some sort. It had probably once grappled dirty asteroids and pushed them into new orbits to be harvested by the miners and their processing plants. Now it was 模板:Bonifacio’s personal transport. Quick enough, 模板:Delgado thought, looking around the extended cockpit once they’d come in through the airlock. But still a bit over the top. Who had a personal ship just for transport in 模板:Rubble? It was part of 模板:Bonifacio’s desire to preen and make a point of showing how special he was. 模板:Bonifacio got inside, gave the order to leave, and turned to 模板:Delgado. In the darkly lit cockpit he looked birdlike, his eyes pools of beady darkness. “Someone fried my ship, everything electrical was shorted, and several good men guarding it are dead. That costs. A lot.” “I’m sorry to hear it,” 模板:Delgado said, eyeing the three large guards now surrounding him in the tiny cockpit. 模板:Diego chuckled, and 模板:Bonifacio turned to him. “This amuses you? The future of 模板:Rubble is laughable? I’m working hard to make sure we have a future, despite your meddling.” “A future?” 模板:Diego shook his head. “You’re full of shit, 模板:Bonifacio. You care about future profits, not the future.” “Yeah?” 模板:Bonifacio reached into his pocket, hands trembling slightly, face red. “Were you all so high-and-mighty when the Covenant first came? Tell 模板:Delgado the real story, and how you all, in your democratic glory, turned to one person when it all came to a head.” 模板:Diego didn’t say anything. 模板:Bonifacio shook his head and pulled out a Sweet William. He pointed the cigar at 模板:Diego. “They tell you how the 奇戈亚尔 contact really happened? I’ll bet not. Because it doesn’t make those men look good.” He lit the cigar and drew in a long pull, then laughed, cigar smoke puffing out of his mouth. “They crapped their pants when that first 奇戈亚尔 ship swung by 模板:Rubble, scanning us, checking everything out. Wanted to know what to do. Attack it, or try to pack up and run to some other part of the system? And if attack, how? But they were taking so long to deliberate, I did something else. “I hailed it. And I offered to trade. Sent them a manifest of everything I could imagine we had in our storage areas. I explained we weren’t UNSC, that we hated them. That we were rebels. Because, really, even other species have to know about trade, right, 模板:Delgado? Economics, that’s universal. Everyone wants to better themselves.” “That was the real first encounter?” 模板:Delgado asked. “So it’s the second where their ship appeared and offered to trade and set up in 模板:Rubble?” “A month later. Some sort of 奇戈亚尔 big shot named 模板:Reth had a box that could translate their speech into ours. Like they’ve been studying us,” 模板:Diego said. “And they wanted to trade.” 模板:Bonifacio nodded. “We took guns off them to sell to our brothers, where we could smuggle them back to the colonies, in exchange for goods. The 奇戈亚尔, in turn, wanted Slipspace drives.” “Slipspace drives?” 模板:Delgado frowned. “Turns out the 奇戈亚尔 are pretty low on the Covenant totem pole.” 模板:Bonifacio smirked. “They’re not allowed to build drives for their own ships. Its engineering is all done by the ones they call Prophets. Closed boxes for the 奇戈亚尔. See, they’re not the monolithic juggernaut the UNSC makes them out to be, this Covenant. They have divisions and inequalities. And where those exist, we have what you call a market, Mr. 模板:Delgado. Combine the engines with Earth’s location, and 模板:Rubble will do more for the Insurrection than any other place in history.” “But what happens when the 奇戈亚尔 slip up and we’re all found out?” 模板:Delgado asked. “The Covenant will be back to glass us.” “We leave,” 模板:Diego muttered. “Ahhh, exodus, exodus, exodus,” 模板:Bonifacio waved his cigar around. “模板:Diego, we have spent so long building all this. And you want to run away from it?” “I don’t,” 模板:Diego said. “But it’s irresponsible to not have a backup plan.” “I’ll tell you what’s irresponsible. Irresponsible is promising the 奇戈亚尔 Slipspace engines, taking their payments of nifty little weapons and shipping them back to the colonies, but then pretending to warehouse those engines until you’ve got them all gathered up. When you never intended to hand them over.” “Damn it, 模板:Bonifacio,” 模板:Diego shouted, “the council voted to proceed with the Exodus Project. It’s a backup plan. Once we have enough Slipspace engines installed, then we’ll hand the rest of them over.” “The 奇戈亚尔 know what you’ve been doing anyway,” 模板:Bonifacio said dismissively. “What?” 模板:Diego stared at 模板:Bonifacio. “You can’t take an asteroid habitat as big as the Exodus Project and hang it way back off 模板:Rubble, and not expect them to miss it. Plus, they really want their engines. They haven’t believed your official excuses for not getting as many delivered to them as promised—not in the slightest. They are our allies, our business partners. We stand a chance to live on. Let the Covenant and UNSC fight, while we make money and trade instead.” 模板:Delgado stared at both men. “The Exodus Project is a giant habitat?” “He’s pretty much told you what it is,” 模板:Diego said, annoyed. “The largest rock in 模板:Rubble was held back from the beginning. The surface was coated to try and stealth it. Back at the start, it was an emergency in-system retreat: get as many civilians in it if the Covenant came back in force and try to sneak out to the Oort cloud far on the edges of the system where no one ventures. “Now the Exodus Project is being outfitted with Slipspace drives. A lot of them. The idea is not to hide in the system, but to head out away from the UNSC, and the Covenant. Just get into the stream and keep going until we’re well away from all of this.” “That’s audacious,” 模板:Delgado said. “How many citizens can it hold?” “It’s big,” 模板:Diego said. “Big enough for a million citizens.” “And you’ve hidden it away, all this time?” 模板:Delgado couldn’t believe it. In 模板:Rubble, where everything was voted on, the Security Council had pulled off something significant: a major secret. The tug fired a series of thruster bursts and slammed into a docking collar. 模板:Bonifacio grabbed 模板:Diego by the shoulders. “Look, 模板:Diego. I know you and I don’t exactly agree on everything. But I’m a Council member, just like you. I want to see 模板:Rubble continue and prosper. I’m not your enemy. You know that, right?” “I know that,” 模板:Diego said. “I’m sorry.” “I want that data on Exodus protected, but not out here in 模板:Rubble where people are attacking it—whoever the hell it is that’s doing that. Understand?” 模板:Diego nodded. “Good.” 模板:Bonifacio pulled 模板:Diego tighter. “Now tell 模板:Delgado here to let us onto his ship so we can get it and do our duty.” 模板:Diego looked at 模板:Delgado. “Give him what he needs.” 模板:Delgado bit his lip. “You sure about this?” “Yeah.” 模板:Diego sounded subdued. “It’ll be okay. And we’ll need to talk to you about the Exodus Project. You can’t repeat any of that to anyone.” “I can keep a secret,” 模板:Delgado said, as the airlock doors opened. 模板:Diego laughed. “I know. And after this, we’ll make everything right for you. You took shots for us. They can’t forget that.” They trudged out from 模板:Bonifacio’s tug down an access tube to a set of quiet docks that 模板:Delgado had chosen. The rock ceilings sloped fifteen feet overhead, and only four or five docking collars led into this small chamber, as it was an old mining depot. 模板:Delgado crossed the silent chamber to the airlock where Distancia was docked. They all crowded into the airlock and cycled through and in. 模板:Delgado took a deep breath, pulling in the smell of metal, oil, and sweat. Distancia had once hauled miners out from Madrigal orbit across the system to 模板:Rubble. Now she ferried cargo in and around 模板:Rubble, from one end to another. Quicker than tube cars, as he didn’t have to route through each habitat, pausing for traffic. It felt good to be back aboard. Maybe if 模板:Bonifacio was telling the truth, and he was really just a maverick Security Council member, then 模板:Delgado could just go back to ferrying things about 模板:Rubble. Like before 模板:Diego had called, talking about the disappearing navigation data, asking him if he’d take on hiding it for the council, as he knew 模板:Rubble the best. And he was the only person 模板:Diego personally trusted. Going back to ferrying sounded good, 模板:Delgado thought, as he walked the small group over to the safe hidden under the floor grates of the tiny kitchen on the ship, halfway toward the cockpit. It opened on his fingerprint, and 模板:Delgado pulled the oval container of hard plastic that held the chip out. He offered it to 模板:Diego. 模板:Bonifacio reached out a hand, and 模板:Diego shook his head. “I think I’ll be the one who keeps it on his person until we get it to the Exodus.” “I was afraid you’d say that,” 模板:Bonifacio said. 模板:Delgado turned around, eye to eye with the barrel of a very large pistol in 模板:Bonifacio’s hand. “Hand it over to me, 模板:Delgado.” 模板:Diego swore, and was hit in the ribs by one of 模板:Bonifacio’s men. “Thank you,” 模板:Bonifacio took the navigation data away from him. “Thank you very much, 模板:Delgado. I’d hoped to just take it and promise to meet you two aboard the Exodus and never show, but 模板:Diego had second thoughts. You’re rubbing off on him. Either way, 模板:Reth is really, really going to appreciate this.”
- METISETTE ORBIT, 模板:23librae
The 奇戈亚尔 named 模板:Reth screamed, a primal roar of pain and horror that echoed throughout the corridors of the ship, all the way up to the cockpit, where Thel sat poring over 奇戈亚尔 estimates of human strength in 模板:Rubble. Zhar stood up, but Thel held up a hand. “I ordered Saal not to do this. I will go.” For a moment Zhar remained up, then he folded back down into his chair. “What—” “That is my concern, Zhar.” Thel walked out of the cockpit, past the 昂苟伊 clustered in the halls. They chattered nervously and cleared a path as Thel strode by. Thel walked to 模板:Reth’s cell. The 奇戈亚尔 had been strapped to the wall, his arms and legs splayed out in a large X by strong straps. On the other side of the energy bars, Saal stood in front of the 奇戈亚尔. As he leaned forward, the horrendous screams began again. “Why are you really here in this system?” Saal bellowed. “What is it you seek to gain?” 模板:Reth spit purple blood and screamed. Thel shut off the containment system, and stepped into the alcove. “Has he said anything new to justify continuing this interrogation? Maybe something different?” Thel asked softly. Saal spun around, turning off his energy sword. Purple blood stained the hilt in his hand and dripped from his fingers. “No, honor. He has not. He’s still sticking to his story. That a Hierarch commands him to have done all this.” “Have you forgotten your orders, then?” Thel stared Saal straight in the eye, neck bared, as if daring Saal to try for it. Saal backed away from the implicit challenge of confidence, moving closer to a wall. 模板:Reth gurgled in the background. “I wanted to break him of his heresies,” Saal said. “What he’s saying cannot be true.” “It is a poor soldier who insists on seeing things not as they are, but as he wants them to be. One day reality hits, and his illusions fail him, and he dies stupidly. What honor is there in that?” Thel stepped closer to Saal, cornering him, dominating his space. Saal straightened. “But if the 奇戈亚尔 is right, then one Prophet ordered him to come here and do this, and another ordered us to come here and—” “It is not up to us to pick apart what the Prophets may or may not have ordered, Saal. It is also not up to you to decide what orders of mine to follow.” Thel patted his waist, where his own energy sword was clipped, and kept his eyes locked on Saal, who finally looked toward the ground. “I have failed you, honor,” Saal said. “You have.” Thel sighed. “I have lost nobility. I will do what is right.” Saal’s energy sword flared into being. “You will not take your life,” Thel said. “You will scar your forearms with the mark of disobedience.” Saal closed his eyes and shivered. “Please…” “It is an order,” Thel stood up straight and high over Saal. “Now leave.” Saal walked out of the cell with his head low from shame. Thel walked over to the slab of a bed and sat on it, facing 模板:Reth. “圣赫利 are insane,” 模板:Reth hissed. “What is the mark of disobedience?” “He will use his energy sword to burn marks into the skin of his arms. Crossing lines all up and down, where all can see and know him for what he is. It is shameful. Death is preferred. But for now, I need all my fighters. He can kill himself later, and we will destroy the body so that his lineage will not suffer. If he performs well in battle.” 模板:Reth shook his head. “圣赫利…” “We are strong, 奇戈亚尔. That is why we sit at the right hand of the Prophets.” 模板:Reth laughed. “One day that shall pass.” “Not as long as we remain strong.” Thel stood. “But Saal’s worries do trouble me. You still claim that it is the Prophet of Truth who sent you here?” Again 模板:Reth laughed. “You should worry. I speak the truth. And it was Truth who sent me here. He doesn’t believe that the Prophet of Regret has come even close to the human home-world.” Thel leaned closer. “But this here is not the human home-world.” 模板:Reth blinked, focusing his memories. “When that 奇戈亚尔 ship took back recordings of these humans begging to trade for their lives, Truth realized he had found a way to easily find the core of their infestation.” “These heretical weapons,” Thel said. “Humans have rebels among them. Something Truth wants to use. The weapons are traceable. We could map the entire human population if we got these rebels to smuggle back enough of them. Sadly, the humans have a new directive that has killed this opportunity.” “They destroy data on their ships before they are captured, yes,” Thel said. “But we still have a chance to get the location of their home-world from them here. There are opportunists who will sell it to us. Once we have it, these habitats are ours to keep, the Prophet promised us. The 奇戈亚尔 will hold a special place then, Truth has promised us.” Thel shook his head. “The 圣赫利 will remain by the side of the Prophets.” “You are too arrogant,” 模板:Reth spat. “The Jiralhanae betrayed you. We are given this special mission by the Prophet of Truth. Both seek to minimize your kind. You have dominated things far too long.” “We are in the midst of a holy war with the humans,” Thel hissed. “That is not the time for such things.” “But it is,” 模板:Reth said. “We will use our 昂苟伊 army from Metisette to destroy the humans here once we have the data that leads us to their homeworld. And we will be favored in the Prophets’ eyes. Not you, 圣赫利.” “You are an obnoxious creature.” Thel broke the straps around the 奇戈亚尔 and freed him. “When we hand over the humans, we will be honored. The Prophets will look kindly on us in the final journey.” 模板:Reth staggered over to the bunk and lay down. “We will be holier and more blessed than you, 圣赫利. You will see. You will see.” Thel walked away, back to the cockpit, where Zhar looked up. He’d overheard their whole exchange. “Do you believe him?” Zhar asked. “I think 模板:Reth believes what 模板:Reth is saying.” Thel sat down, suddenly tired. “What games are we caught in the middle of?” Zhar asked. “I do not know,” Thel said. He toyed with the image of the 奇戈亚尔 ship on his screen. It was the closest thing the 奇戈亚尔 had to a true fleet ship, similar to the designs of refitted 奇戈亚尔 raiders that had fought the Covenant from asteroid belts before the 奇戈亚尔 were granted a place within the Covenant. He wondered if the 奇戈亚尔 had managed to put a Slipspace drive on it. It looked likely, though Thel wondered if the cobbled-together affair would make it through. It certainly didn’t look like it. But it had weapons. Thel made a decision. “We will take that 奇戈亚尔 ship. We will use it to destroy all this heresy. If the Prophet of Truth shows up and tells me to stop, then I will do so. Tell the others to prepare, and tell these 昂苟伊 to ready themselves to be useful.” Until the Prophet of Truth himself showed up here, Thel had to follow the orders he was given. And since the Jiralhanae would be back with the High Prophet of Regret soon, Thel wanted his actions to show that he had done his duty. Yes. The human habitats here would burn, just as their world Charybdis IX had burned.
- HABITAT EL CUIDAD, INNER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
模板:Delgado didn’t even think twice—he grabbed the gun and kicked 模板:Bonifacio in the stomach. But in that split second 模板:Bonifacio’s three men piled onto him, trying to yank the gun away as they smashed his ribs. As he gasped from the pain, 模板:Bonifacio shouted, “Shoot them both and throw them out the damn airlock!” But 模板:Delgado had the gun up and pointed at 模板:Bonifacio despite the pain of getting pummeled by the bodyguards. “Get away from me. Or he dies.” The three overly muscled men backed away, their guns now out and trained on 模板:Delgado. 模板:Bonifacio smiled and held his hands up. “Now, easy, 模板:Delgado. Come on. We can work something out here.” “Screw you, 模板:Bonifacio.” 模板:Delgado wasn’t in the mood for his bullshit now. “Give me a gun,” 模板:Bonifacio snapped. The nearest heavy tossed him one. 模板:Delgado hesitated, not really wanting to fire a gun inside his own ship. That hesitation cost him, because now 模板:Bonifacio had a gun of his own pointed at 模板:Diego. “I’m going to shoot 模板:Diego if you don’t hand that over.” 模板:Delgado thought about it for a second. Giving away the data would certainly endanger 模板:Rubble. 模板:Bonifacio, it was now obvious, would not be taking this data to the Exodus Project. No, he was going to sell it to the 奇戈亚尔. All signs pointed to it. 模板:Delgado shook his head. 模板:Bonifacio shot 模板:Diego in the chest. Blood sprayed and hit the floor as 模板:Diego collapsed, clutching the wound with a look of shock on his face. 模板:Delgado leapt over to 模板:Diego as he shot at 模板:Bonifacio, who ducked out into the corridor and ran for cover. 模板:Delgado waved the gun at the bodyguards. “Back up. Back up.” They were hired help—their hearts weren’t into the idea of a close-range shoot-out, luckily. Only 模板:Bonifacio was insane enough to fire inside a damn spaceship, 模板:Delgado thought. He grabbed 模板:Diego’s collar and pulled him out of the kitchen and down the corridor. 模板:Bonifacio fired down at him from the cockpit, the bullets sparking off the metal bulkheads. 模板:Delgado fired back as he dragged 模板:Diego to the airlock. This was all messed up. Very messed up. 模板:Diego moaned as 模板:Delgado pulled him into the lock and cycled into the habitat’s lock. A very loud bang startled him. The airlock seal broke as Distantia abruptly cut loose, her engines firing. Air whistled out of cracks in the warped airlock. Red alarm lights blinked, and 模板:Delgado kicked at the door leading into the habitat. It wouldn’t open, of course—with the outer seal broken emergency systems had kicked in. As long as the simple sensors on the outside detected loss of air the inner door was locked. 模板:Delgado grabbed the emergency phone, and got 模板:Bonifacio’s voice. “I just used an emergency Security Council code to override communications from your airlock,” 模板:Bonifacio said flatly. “And I canceled the airlock’s alarm.” The strobing lights shut off. It would look like a false trigger. A mechanic would be sent out at his leisure instead of an emergency crew. “You bastard.” “Good-bye, Mr. 模板:Delgado.” “Go to hell, 模板:Bonifacio.” 模板:Delgado slammed the phone against the wall until it broke. 模板:Bonifacio had killed them. Almost as good as a bullet, 模板:Delgado thought. He sat down next to 模板:Diego, holding a hand to his chest. 模板:Diego stared up at the ceiling, his breathing irregular and gasping. “I’m sorry, 模板:Diego,” 模板:Delgado said, looking down at his old friend. 模板:Diego bubbled blood up from his mouth, but said nothing. 模板:Delgado closed his eyes and bit his lip. Already the air seemed to be getting thinner. 模板:Delgado lay down, breathing shallowly. Then he reached down into his right shoe and tugged out the small beacon 阿德里亚娜 had given him. 模板:Delgado opened the casing and pressed the red switch. A small green light flickered on, and started pulsating. He closed his eyes and waited.
- METISETTE ORBIT, 模板:23librae
模板:Reth lay curled up on the uncomfortable slab, thinking about the warmth and closeness of a 奇戈亚尔 nest, and how far away such things were from him at the moment. He hurt everywhere, thanks to his treatment by the 圣赫利. Oh, they’d pay for this. 模板:Reth followed the orders of a Prophet. Who were they to treat him so cruelly? The 圣赫利 thought they were lords of it all, but they were just thugs, 模板:Reth thought. Little different from the Jiralhanae and their violent approaches to everything in the world. Soon the Prophets would listen to all 奇戈亚尔, 模板:Reth thought. 模板:Reth was here, working to find the secret of the human home-world. It would have been his already, if not for the 圣赫利 meddling. “昂苟伊!” 模板:Reth carefully got off the bench, his limbs protesting, his steps dizzy. The 圣赫利 would have to go. Things were so close to being finished. Soon his human agent would have the location to Earth for him. Once 模板:Reth had that, then the army of 昂苟伊 he’d gathered on Metisette would be ready to be unleashed on 模板:Rubble. The asteroids would make wonderful 奇戈亚尔 nesting grounds. “昂苟伊, where are you? You must attend me. Are you not believers in the mission the Prophet of Truth himself gave to me, and thus to you?” 模板:Reth collapsed to the ground in front of the energy bars that kept him jailed. Once he had 模板:Rubble, he thought through a haze, and the location to Earth, the humans’ Exodus Project would provide him the vehicle he needed to then bring the 昂苟伊 to attack the human homeworld. A daring plan. A 奇戈亚尔 plan. A plan the Prophet of Truth had agreed to when 模板:Reth presented it after returning with the secret of 模板:Rubble and the humans’ desire to trade. He’d kept it a secret from his own Shipmistress, a violation that would have gotten him castrated if found out, but it had paid off handsomely. “昂苟伊!” Now they’d been discovered, the Jiralhanae were returning to broadcast the news about the discovery of 模板:Rubble to a different Prophet. The 奇戈亚尔 couldn’t stop them. But they could move the plan up, so that they wouldn’t look like traitors, trading with the humans. No, it was time to destroy the humans and their homeworld and show the Prophets that it was the 奇戈亚尔, not the 圣赫利 or Jiralhanae, who were the most cunning and loyal and holy subjects of the Covenant. The shuffling steps of two furtive 昂苟伊 soldiers got 模板:Reth to focus on the ground in front of his long face. “圣赫利 kills us if we release you,” one of the 昂苟伊 protested. “And you’ll risk your chance at joining in the Great Journey because you’re scared of these 圣赫利,” 模板:Reth hissed. His ribs hurt. The 昂苟伊 shuffled their feet again, methane snorting out from their masks as they looked back and forth at each other. “Will you risk the 圣赫利 destroying the Redoubt, and all you’ve built on Metisette?” 模板:Reth asked. “Will you see all the 昂苟伊 on that planet punished, when they’ve been following the right Path?” They glanced at each other again. “Our nipple brothers would be all killed?” The 昂苟伊 sucked food from a shared tube, a nipple, 模板:Reth remembered. “Yes, your nipple brothers would all die.” That was enough to get them to free him. One of the 昂苟伊 tapped at the controls for 模板:Reth’s cell. 模板:Reth smiled as the energy bars disappeared. He rolled out of the cell before the 昂苟伊 changed their minds. “Quick, you must help me escape.” The two 昂苟伊 grabbed him under his arms as he wobbled, prompting 模板:Reth to grunt in pain. Together, all three hobbled down the corridor until 模板:Reth had them stop near a service panel. The 圣赫利 may have taken the ship by force, and cowed the 昂苟伊, but 模板:Reth still had some tricks of his own. He shut down the ship’s computer system with an override password. While the 圣赫利 raced to reboot the system, he had the 昂苟伊 drag him to an escape pod. Minutes later the cylindrical pod shot out of the ship, veering back toward Metisette at top speed, as the 圣赫利 coasted with a dead ship. It was time, 模板:Reth thought bitterly while rooting around the pod for a medical kit, to show the 圣赫利 that 奇戈亚尔 could fight.
麦克 flew the Petya through 模板:Rubble, flipping the ship end over end for sudden deceleration, and weaving his way around docking tubes and asteroids. In the confines of the airlock, braced against 麦克’s radical maneuvers, 杰 swore. “I don’t see why I’m in the airlock for the quick rescue, 阿德里亚娜. He’s your pet Insurrectionist.” “Shove it,” 阿德里亚娜 muttered over the suit radio. 杰 stiffened. “Is that how you talk to rank?” “When rank stops whining I’ll modify my behavior,” 阿德里亚娜 said. “Besides, I need to be in the medical bay in case 模板:Delgado’s hurt.” “So we’re trusting an Insurrectionist AI and rushing to help an Insurrectionist. You see anything wrong with this?” 杰 asked. Another voice crackled in his ear. The AI. Juliana. “Technically 模板:Rubble is a collection of people with many different backgrounds. Only a small percentage of them are actually Insurrectionist as you understand it—” “Can it,” 杰 muttered, as 麦克 flipped the ship again, making his stomach lurch. 麦克 fired the engines to dodge docking tubes. “Anything new about 模板:Delgado?” “The airlock the signal emanated from is still throwing me error codes from the broken seal,” Juliana reported. “You’re still the closest ship. An emergency crew is outside the lock on the habitat side, but can’t get at it, of course. I’ve broken the communications block on the airlock, but no one inside is responding.” 杰 thought about that. A broken airlock and silence. “Doesn’t sound too promising.” “No,” Juliana replied. “It doesn’t.” “Coming in on the lock,” 麦克 shouted. 杰 felt the Petya shudder like it never had before, and he was pressed against the side of the airlock despite the artificial gravity. He was glad he wasn’t looking at this from the cockpit. Metal ground on metal as 麦克 forced the wrecked airlock against theirs. “We’re go on your command,” 麦克 reported. 杰 faced the thick metal door with its yellow stripes and red warning symbols and notices. “Do it.” The airlock sprung open with a gust of air. Then the habitat’s airlock ground open with a tiny puff of air. 杰 forced his way through the moment the gap was large enough. Two men lay on the floor of the airlock’s nonslip metal surface. 模板:Delgado, a gun in one hand and the other bloody, lay over the stomach of a man with a bad chest wound. Blood pooled the floor around them, freezing as the vacuum sucked air and warmth out even faster now that a bad seal was in place between ship and habitat. 杰 threw 模板:Delgado over a shoulder of his gray MJOLNIR armor, and picked up the other body as gently as possible, aware that he could be making the chest wound worse. He cycled through back into the Petya, thudding his way past bulkheads into the tiny cramped offshoot to the crew quarters where 阿德里亚娜 stood ready by a large metal table. She looked up. “Two? Who’s the other one?” Juliana flickered into being over a nearby shelf. “That’s 模板:Diego Esquival.” Her voice sounded muted, as if she were shocked. 阿德里亚娜 shook her head as she checked him over, while 杰 held him in his arms still. “He’s dead.” She pulled 模板:Delgado off 杰’s shoulder and set him on the table. “But 模板:Delgado’s got a pulse. Store the other man into one of the cryogenic pods.” 杰 walked 模板:Diego’s body around the table and to one of the three pods. Once he set it down and closed the lid, the automated systems kicked in. 模板:Diego was frozen in his last minute, for all the good it did him. When he turned around, 阿德里亚娜 had an oxygen mask on 模板:Delgado and the computers reading his vitals. 模板:Delgado stirred and opened his eyes, the oxygen taking effect. He tried to sit up, but 阿德里亚娜 put a hand on his chest to keep him in place. “You’re back on the Petya, 模板:Delgado.” “模板:Diego?” 模板:Delgado groaned, looking around. “What about 模板:Diego?” 杰 and 阿德里亚娜 glanced at each other, and 模板:Delgado saw it. He seemed to fall back in on himself, shaking his head and looking off into the distance. “Damn that bastard.” “What bastard?” Juliana asked from the corner of the room. 模板:Delgado twisted to see her better, and his mouth fell open. “You!” Warring emotions crossed his face. 杰 figured the man had wondered if the AI was not to be trusted, but that the revelation still caught 模板:Delgado off guard. “Yes, me.” Juliana grinned. The hologram folded its arms. “What happened, 模板:Delgado?” “模板:Bonifacio happened.” 模板:Delgado all but spit the name out. “He took Distancia. He also shot 模板:Diego.” 模板:Delgado bit his lip, and slowly sat, holding his knees to do it with a grunt. “I knew 模板:Bonifacio was a sketchy man. I have watched him smuggle things into 模板:Rubble. I know of ten different caches he uses. He’s definitely running those covenant guns to the colonies. He campaigned hard for that Security Council spot,” Juliana said as 阿德里亚娜 and 杰 watched the exchange. “But to do this?” 模板:Delgado looked at the AI. “We have to catch him.” “He’s not even trying to run,” Juliana said. “Your ship is slowly coasting through 模板:Rubble.” “模板:Bonifacio thinks I’m dead. He’s taking his time, so he doesn’t alarm anyone.” The group looked at each other, and 模板:Delgado caught the glances. He raised his voice. “Oh come on, I would not have done this. Why the hell would I risk my life to break an airlock? And do you think I shot Maria’s brother? Really?” 杰 tapped the table. “Juliana, he makes a good point.” 模板:Delgado turned around to him. “And since when are you and 模板:Rubble’s AI all working together? When the hell did that start?” “When the Jackals started getting too close to the data,” 杰 said, staring 模板:Delgado down. Juliana was quiet, her eyes closed. “Okay 模板:Delgado. I think you are right. We have a big problem.” She opened her eyes to look at the three people staring back at her, and the equations streaming across her holographic body suddenly flashed bright red. “奇戈亚尔 ships are withdrawing all throughout 模板:Rubble. They’re en route for Metisette.” “You told us the Jackals were up to something, like an invasion. Could this be it?” 杰 said. “Their encryption is good. I can’t break it just yet. But communications traffic is up and that can tell me something. I’ve never seen activity like this. 模板:Delgado says 模板:Bonifacio is stealing the data. And this is happening at the same time as the largest movement of 奇戈亚尔 ships we’ve seen since they first started arriving to make a presence on 模板:Rubble. It has to be related.” “Damn,” 模板:Delgado said. “We were right—all they wanted was the data. They’re making a move now, right?” Juliana continued. “Distancia is moving in the direction her flight plan indicated, but could make a break for it the moment it gets clear of 模板:Rubble to wherever the 奇戈亚尔 want it to. We have to get to it and stop 模板:Bonifacio. And prepare for whatever it is the 奇戈亚尔 are up to.” 杰 nodded. “Our first priority is 模板:Bonifacio.” They had to focus on that; that was Gray Team’s mission. 阿德里亚娜 met his eyes, then nodded. She agreed. “Once we have that secured, Juliana, you have our assistance.” The AI had her eyes closed again. Planning, running through the millions of threads spread all throughout 模板:Rubble in a way no human could. But she was an AI close to rampancy. 杰 wondered how much they should follow her plans. He’d have to revisit that once they had their hands on 模板:Bonifacio and the navigation data. Juliana faded, becoming almost a ghost in the bright medical bay, then she appeared again. “Okay,” she almost whispered. “I can pass the fix I have on Distancia onto you, but I’m going to need some of you to help me. One team goes after 模板:Bonifacio, the other I need to do something a little bit trickier. “There’s a 奇戈亚尔 ship still in 模板:Rubble. I can’t crack their encryption, but if I can physically get into one of their systems, that would let me figure out exactly what they’re up to. If it’s a full-scale attack, we need to know for sure so that we don’t make a big mistake. If we use non-Rubble attackers, then 模板:Rubble can deny this little incursion was our doing if things turn out to be okay with the 奇戈亚尔.” 杰 looked at the AI. “You want us to board a Covenant ship?” “And plug me in, yes.” Juliana nodded. “My higher functions. I’ll be leaving a simple base copy to keep regulating 模板:Rubble, of course. But the core me will go with the boarding party.” Juliana was rampant. Or just plain insane, 杰 thought. He scratched his chin, then looked at Juliana. “We’ll need a larger force. We need to free the crew of that UNSC ship that was captured. It’ll have ODSTs aboard. Release those men and we have a force.” Helljumpers weren’t huge fans of the Spartans, but were somewhat like Spartans, 杰 had to admit, but without the altered physiology and powered armor. And they were good fighting men; he was sure he could get them to storm a Jackal ship. It was the sort of thing ODSTs would enjoy doing. “I’m not the ruler of 模板:Rubble,” she said. “Only the Council can release them. Besides, most of those people are tagged with locaters. People will notice it if they start trooping out to help us.” “Do all of them have locaters?” 阿德里亚娜 asked. Juliana smiled. “Not all. The ones who refused to become Rubble citizens don’t.” “Then we can use some of them,” 杰 said. “I won’t open the doors,” Juliana said. “That would draw attention. But if the cameras were to malfunction, you could break the crew out and get them to help you before anyone would really notice.” “That’ll have to do.” 杰 turned around. “阿德里亚娜, 麦克, you take 模板:Bonifacio. 模板:Delgado, you’re with me, I need someone who knows the inside of these habitats.” 模板:Delgado swung his legs over the side of the table with a wince. “You sure you’re going to break up your little team?” 杰 grinned. “Who else will be able to talk the ODSTs into coming with us? 麦克, 阿德里亚娜, get on the navigation data, and quickly. I’ll take care of things for Juliana.” The Petya shuddered as 麦克 disengaged the ship. “I’ll drop you off at the nearest working set of locks,” he announced. “Then it’s a full burn for Distancia.” 模板:Delgado stood up, wavering on his feet. “Do me a favor,” he asked 阿德里亚娜. “When you catch up to 模板:Bonifacio, make sure you shoot the thieving bastard for me. Preferably in the knee, or somewhere painful like that.” The Petya thudded into another airlock. “I’ll go release the others,” 杰 told 模板:Delgado. “You and Juliana need to scare up another ship for the attack.” 模板:Delgado and Juliana exchanged a glance. “We’re on it.” 杰 ran a systems check of the Mjolnir armor, and walked down the corridor for a pair of M7 submachine guns and extra ammo.
- THE REDOUBT, METISETTE, 模板:23librae
模板:Reth quickly strode through the hall of one of the Redoubt’s grounded ships. There were ten old decommissioned ships that had been landed around “the Plaza,” with the largest 奇戈亚尔 ship towering over them all from the northeast corner. Docking tubes connected the ships like bridges high over the ground. And if 模板:Reth chose, he could descend into the ground, where every day the 昂苟伊 warrens spread deeper and farther into the warmed rock. The escape pod he had landed in still sat out on the landing pad of the Plaza, crackling and shimmering from the heat of reentry. He’d lived in fear for several long minutes, convinced that the 圣赫利 would get the ship running in time to turn around for him, but they hadn’t. The 圣赫利 had gotten the ship booted up and kept moving along their trajectory, headed for 模板:Rubble. 模板:Reth needed to order the 模板:InfiniteSpoils away from dock along with all the other 奇戈亚尔 ships, but he was reluctant to do so. Soon the 模板:InfiniteSpoils would have human Slipspace drives, something the Hierarch hadn’t even granted 模板:Reth, but something that all 奇戈亚尔 wanted: a Slipspace ship of their own. But first 模板:Reth needed to take 模板:Rubble, and any human ships with the drives, for the 奇戈亚尔. The humans had been stockpiling the Slipspace drives they’d traded for to install in their own machine: the Exodus Project. But when the 模板:InfiniteSpoils got its drives it would mark something new, as long as the 奇戈亚尔 could spirit it out of 模板:Rubble before the Hierarchs heard of it. Everything was about to change, 模板:Reth felt, as he took an elevator up into the tall, grounded ship that was the 奇戈亚尔 refuge inside the Redoubt. There were many, many more guards around now than when the 圣赫利 had broached it. He entered his room. The remains of the firefight had been cleaned up, the glass replaced so that he could, once again, look out over the Plaza, and the Redoubt as a whole. The river of methane on the surface of Metisette rumbled underneath their creation. Its passage turned giant turbines, creating power for the entire complex. The 昂苟伊 thrived here among the mists of methane reclaimed from the rivers and pools. Shuttles were already descending from the reddened clouds to touch down on Metisette’s surface. 奇戈亚尔 were forming up in the square below the balcony, as well as 昂苟伊 Deacons. All per his command. Several of his key advisors hustled up behind him. They looked shocked at the wounds all over his body, and his hunched position. 模板:Reth paid the stares no mind. “We have planned for the invasion of 模板:Rubble for a long time,” 模板:Reth said, doing his best to straighten up against the twinges of pain the 圣赫利 had left him. “Is it time?” they asked. 模板:Reth smiled. “Yes,” he said. “It is time. Send the orders. Gather the 昂苟伊 out onto the Plaza. Give them their harnesses and masks. Prepare for the attack. We will take it all for our own, and once we have that data, we will continue to their homeworld as well.” The 奇戈亚尔 in the room warbled happily. They had been waiting patiently as the humans developed asteroids that the 奇戈亚尔 considered prime for 奇戈亚尔 nests. Now they would be rewarded. “Go,” 模板:Reth snapped. “Tend to your functions!” The 奇戈亚尔 advisors scattered out of the room, bumping into a slew of 昂苟伊 that waited outside. They were not rocketing into 模板:Rubble just yet. But for all intents and purposes, the invasion had begun.
- HABITAT ASUNCION, INNER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
The first sign for 凯斯 that something was happening were the shouts from the guards who had been walking the corridor outside. Two of them ran full tilt past 凯斯’ cell. 凯斯 walked over to the bars as the guards dogged shut the thick, metal door leading to the corridor. They pulled out handguns and stepped back from the door. “Faison?” 凯斯 shouted down the row of cells. “What’s going on?” “Don’t know,” came the response. The guard on the left side of the door looked back at them. “Quiet!” 凯斯 pressed his face against the bars to get a better look. As he did, the large metal door exploded inward between the two guards and bounced down the corridor. A heavy cloud of dust hung in the air, making everything hazy. Something large and gray blurred through the door. The guards shot at it, but not before it smacked into them, knocking them both out with quick blows to the head. The figure paused, and a golden faceplate scanned the rows of cells. 凯斯 heard Faison’s incredulous voice: “Holy shit, a Spartan.” Dirt settled on the gray armor, then shook off as the Spartan thudded down along the cells. “Who’s the commanding officer?” it asked loudly from behind the helmet. 凯斯 put a hand out through the bars. “That would be me, Lieutenant Jacob 凯斯.” He still couldn’t believe this. Had the Spartan come just for them? Where had he come from? The Spartan stopped in front of 凯斯. “Back up.” 凯斯 stepped back, and the Spartan gripped the bars and yanked them off their hinges, metal squealing in protest and more dirt falling from where they’d been set into the rock. The Spartan tossed the door onto the floor behind it and walked into the open cell. “I have a proposition, Lieutenant 凯斯.” By the entryway between the bent bars the face of an AI appeared. “We may have a way to help you get your crew back to where they belong as well. If you’re interested.” 凯斯 leaned out of the open cell. “I’ll listen to you both. You can explain what you’re doing here and what’s going on while you free my men.” The gold faceplate looked him up and down. “Of course. I’m 杰, Spartan double-oh-six, Gray Team.” 凯斯 shook hands with the large, gauntleted hand. “We need an attack force,” the Spartan said as he moved from cell to cell. “To get the AI Juliana into a Jackal ship and back out. To figure out what the Covenant are up to in this system, and whether they’re readying an invasion force.” “You’re a Spartan. You haven’t tried going after the ship already?” The gold faceplate shifted. “Those are long odds. Not something I want to try unless I absolutely have to, and am feeling extremely lucky.” “Fair enough,” 凯斯 said. “You said you could get my crew out?” A few more mangled bars clattered to the ground. Faison and his ODSTs had rifled through the pockets of the guards for key cards. Now they moved door to door, unlocking cells with less drama. A crowd of officers and crew now milled about. 杰 paused in front of 凯斯, now that he no longer needed to free prisoners. “The ship we came in has navigation data. We can join its computers with your ship’s by docking for a Slip-space jump. It’ll be awkward, but your frigate should be large enough to clamp us on.” 凯斯 looked over at Faison behind the Spartan. “Your men willing to jump a Jackal ship?” “You kidding?” Faison said. ODSTs behind him nodded. “Beats rotting here.” The AI tilted her head. “Ignatio 模板:Delgado has a ship ready for you all. The alarms are shut down, but the guards change shifts soon. You’d better all clear out.” “She’s your ship’s AI?” 凯斯 asked 杰. “No,” 杰 replied. “I’ll explain later.”
- HIGH ORBIT HESOID, 模板:23librae
Thel idly scratched at a small piece of charred carbon that had been flaking off his armor while the 昂苟伊 before him trembled, wondering about its fate. He finally stopped. “So 模板:Reth escaped.” “Lords…” The 昂苟伊 shook as it started to speak. “模板:Reth is devious. And he has commanded all within this system. You can imagine, most 昂苟伊 are eager to please our masters. It is easy to be confused at times like these, when lords turn against lords.” Thel stood up from the pilot’s seat. Saal looked up from his console. The 圣赫利 winced as he moved, the crisscrossing scars of his shame scabbing and causing him pain. Which was the point. Saal refused to look at Thel; he kept his eyes cast down at the floor. Another sign of his shame, a refusal to meet another 圣赫利’s eyes. The message had gotten across to Saal, Thel thought. It was a shame it had taken so long to control him. Thel leaned closer to Saal. “It will only bring shame if you do not perish triumphantly in battle.” Saal looked up, a glimmer of hope brimming in his large eyes. “I will redeem myself before you and my ancestors—by my blood I swear it,” he said. “I know you will,” Thel replied. “That is why I ordered you to remain by my side for now.” Ahead, on their screens, 模板:Rubble grew larger as they got closer. “I want you to lead the charge on that 奇戈亚尔 ship,” Thel said. “The 模板:InfiniteSpoils. It is powerful enough and large enough for what I have in mind.” “I’ll destroy anything in our way,” Saal said. “Good.” Thel returned to the shaking 昂苟伊. “And you, will your soldiers do their job, by the Prophets? Or will they risk the chance of damnation by disobeying?” “Sirs! They will fight. They have seen the error of their ways,” it said. “Then you will follow close behind Saal,” Thel said. “Saal, get weapons for yourself and the 昂苟伊.” “My honor,” Saal said, and left to go equip himself. Zhar, still in the cockpit, scratched a mandible. “You think the 昂苟伊 will really fight hard to take the ship?” “Do they ever really fight hard?” Thel wondered. “I just need them to cause confusion while we do what needs to be done. With that ship, we can destroy this ‘Rubble’ and get things moving back in the direction they’re supposed to be moving.” Zhar nodded. “And Saal will fight like an unleashed army to regain honor.” Thel grumbled happily. “Yes. Yes, he will.”
- HABITAT ASUNCION, INNER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
模板:Delgado ached all over. His throat felt like someone had taken steel wool and shoved it down to his stomach, and he couldn’t help stumbling a bit as he walked from the bridge down to the airlock of a decent-size freighter, not all that much different than Distancia. But adrenaline kept him moving. Juliana had run through a list of ships they could commandeer on short notice in the name of 模板:Rubble Security Council and found this old bucket. 模板:Delgado had moved and docked it near the prison. He reached the airlock and flicked switches to power the door. 杰 marched through first, with a quick nod at him. A long stream of UNSC Navy types trailed behind him. The man immediately following 杰 wore a standard orange prison jumper, but he had the air of command. He walked over to 模板:Delgado. “You’re the pilot?” “Yes.” “Excellent. I’m Lieutenant Jacob 凯斯. They’ve asked me to run the ship. I hope I’m not stepping on any toes?” 凯斯 looked around the cockpit, and 模板:Delgado could tell the man knew exactly what he was looking for. “No toes,” 模板:Delgado said. “I’m happy to work with you.” “We need weapons,” someone said. Juliana appeared as a hologram over at the communications station. “And weapons you shall have. I need a few more minutes to download a version of myself into this ship. There’s a high-capacity storage chip in the comms panel, 杰, 模板:Delgado. When we get to the 奇戈亚尔 ship, you’ll need to get that into the ship and plug me in.” It looked like some fifty people had invaded the freighter. 凯斯 looked around. “This bucket have a name?” 模板:Delgado looked at Juliana. “The Mighty Sparrow,” the AI reported. “And no, I have no idea why. I’m downloaded now, though. Time to disconnect.” “Good.” 模板:Delgado took the pilot’s chair, and 凯斯 moved to stand next to him as 模板:Delgado cast off from the airlock. “Where to, Juliana?” “Habitat Greenworthy for the weapons,” the AI replied. She looked around at the cockpit. “So many determined men all around me. It’s quite exhilarating.” No one responded. 凯斯 cleared his throat as 模板:Delgado began moving the Mighty Sparrow through 模板:Rubble toward Habitat Greenworthy. “The trick will be approaching this Jackal ship. If they get their shields up we’ll be useless. By the way, do we have a name for this ship?” “The 模板:InfiniteSpoils,” Juliana muttered. One of the crew on deck, Dante Kirtley, who had seated himself near Juliana’s image at comms, suggested a diversion. “You asked about tricks, sir. We need to keep their eyes on something else while we drift near.” “What can you offer us?” 凯斯 asked Juliana. “You said you controlled 模板:Rubble when you were catching me up as we walked from the prison over to the ship.” Juliana thought about it for a second. “A very large industrial accident. I can cut loose one of the asteroids being mined. We can float it by their ship. It’ll give them a scare but it won’t hit.” “Excellent,” 凯斯 said, folding his arms. “Add a lot of debris, we’ll use it for chaff.” “Consider it done,” Juliana said. “And because they built this 奇戈亚尔 ship here in 模板:Rubble, we’ll be able to dock with them. No need for suits.” “What about just attacking the dock they’re attached to? Why a ship?” an ODST asked. “They have the dock airlock guarded,” Juliana said. “Of course, a few feints from the docks will also serve to keep them distracted, so I think it’s a good idea to attack from the docks as well as via a ship.” Now they had a plan, 模板:Delgado thought, as crazy as it was. And they seemed to have a leader, because even 杰, hardened Spartan though he was, deferred to Lt. 凯斯’ command of the bridge.
- 模板:Rubble外, LIBRAE 23
The Petya had been hunting down Distancia, without the other ship even aware that there was a cat-and-mouse game going on. Both were plain freighters, long ships with spars and cargo containers bolted to the main frames. But Petya had the advantage of being extraordinarily well armed. Inside the Petya, 阿德里亚娜 watched 麦克 lean over the controls with the air of a predator waiting in the bushes, patiently biding time before striking. “He’s edging out of 模板:Rubble,” 麦克 whispered. That was all 阿德里亚娜 needed. Enough toying about. 杰 was getting ready to invade a Covenant ship, while they were out here. They needed to move quickly to wrap this up and get back to support him. “Alright, let’s hit him.” “We’re done playing hide-and-go-ship?” 麦克 smiled. “Definitely.” “You hail them, I shoot them.” 阿德里亚娜 looked at the screen showing their trajectories. “Shoot this jerk first. Hit the engines. We’re not playing games. We can’t give him a chance to turn back and do the right thing. He already chose his fate back at that airlock.” “Yessir,” 麦克 said, with a sudden grin. Two distant thumps under her feet indicated missiles away. Twin rocket trails flared in front of the cockpit windows as they sped ahead, and then slowly curved down. “He sees them,” 麦克 reported, as Distancia increased power to her engines to make a run for it. But the missiles closed the dark gap between the two ships and slammed into Distancia’s rear. “Nice!” 阿德里亚娜 said, looking at the debris trailing off the stern of the Distancia. “Crippled in one shot.” 麦克 leaned back. “They’re not going anywhere.” 阿德里亚娜 hailed the stricken freighter. “Distancia, this is Petya. We took out your engines, don’t make us hole the rest of the ship. I’m coming aboard. You cause any trouble, it gets ugly. You cooperate, you live.” For a long moment there was no reply, leading 阿德里亚娜 to wonder if they weren’t monitoring any of the standard channels. Then finally, over a burst of static, a reply: “Petya, this is Peter 模板:Bonifacio, aboard the Distancia. I have to protest this extraordinary hostility. I am a member of 模板:Rubble Security Council, on a top-priority mission. You are way out of line, whoever the hell you are.” “Shut up and get ready to open your airlock, 模板:Bonifacio,” 阿德里亚娜 snapped. “But what is this about?” 模板:Bonifacio whined over the radio. 阿德里亚娜 didn’t reply. 麦克 pulled them in over the Distancia’s spine, getting ready to dock. “I will report this,” 模板:Bonifacio radioed. “You can trust that…” 阿德里亚娜 muted the volume. The Petya shuddered as the two ships docked, 麦克 grappling them into place. “Pressurizing the lock. You’re go in twenty,” 麦克 said. 阿德里亚娜 pulled her helmet on and snapped it into place. “Once I’m in, you undock. Just in case. Hit them from a distance if it goes bad.” “You sure about that?” 麦克 asked. “Damn straight. I’ll find a way off.” “Ten seconds to full pressure.” 阿德里亚娜 turned and left the cockpit for the airlock. She flipped her battle rifle forward and stood in front of the door as the light on the airlock door flashed green. It slid open and 阿德里亚娜 walked through, wincing slightly as it then slid closed after her. There was always a sense of finality in leaving the safety of a base ship like this, a sense of stepping off the edge of a metaphorical cliff of some sort. And now she was free-falling her way into a new situation, a new set of variables: whatever was on the other side of the large metal door in front of her. But then, she liked the screaming flow of adrenaline coursing through her. She liked the adrenaline rush even back when she’d first showed up at the Spartan training grounds, staring with all the other kids at the instructors. She hadn’t broken out with 杰 because she wanted to escape. She’d done it for the fun, that feeling of stepping off the edge. The more dangerous, the more it felt like she was really someone. It beat the gray numbness of stillness, and sameness. The world seemed to vibrate as 阿德里亚娜 watched the outer door open, her rifle up, her vision expanding into a sort of hunting state. She burst through into the Distancia’s airlock where nothing waited for her but benches and metal grating. The door closed behind her, and the Petya disengaged with a loud thump as 麦克 cleared away. 阿德里亚娜 waited until 麦克 had time to get well clear, then banged on the inner airlock door. It opened, and two gunshots cracked into the armor over her ribs. 阿德里亚娜 grunted and rolled through the crack in the door, firing back at the two men shooting at her. Always take the offensive, she thought. Don’t get backed into a corner. After dropping them she moved back into the airlock for a moment and checked her armor. Just dinged. But her ribs ached from taking the impact. “Hold on,” a voice shouted. Not 模板:Bonifacio, another bodyguard of his. A handgun skittered down to stop in front of the airlock door. “I’m not going down like that, no way. I signed up as a bodyguard, that’s it. I’m unarmed, now, please don’t shoot.” 阿德里亚娜 moved her back against the corner and glanced at the gun. “Who else is there?” “Just me.” “模板:Bonifacio?” “He’s in an escape pod,” the bodyguard said. His voice quavered a bit. 阿德里亚娜 spun around the corner and marched up on the bodyguard, a slender man with a shaved head. He looked up at her, hands up near his chest to show he was unarmed. “What’s your name?” 阿德里亚娜 asked. “Sean. Wha…What the hell are you?” The patch on his jumpsuit said s. Williams. “You catching this, 麦克?” 阿德里亚娜 murmured, amused. “Any pod launch yet?” “No,” came the answer. 阿德里亚娜 looked down at Sean. “Why hasn’t he launched?” “Because you’ll shoot him,” the bodyguard said. “Tempting, huh?” 麦克 said. “So what game is 模板:Bonifacio playing, then?” “He’s hailing us,” 麦克 said. “Put him through,” 阿德里亚娜 sighed. 模板:Bonifacio’s voice filled her helmet. “You’re after the navigation chip, right?” “Hand it over and live, 模板:Bonifacio,” 阿德里亚娜 said. “Maybe. I heard what you did to my crew, soldier.” 模板:Bonifacio spat the last word. “I’m not stupid enough to believe you’ll just play nice once I hand the chip over.” 阿德里亚娜 sighed. Now the man was getting seriously jittery and causing problems. “模板:Bonifacio…” “Here’s the deal. I am leaving the data onboard, but I’ll tell you where it is once I’ve cleared the ship in my pod.” “Oh, come on,” 阿德里亚娜 said. “And then we find out that you lied and have the chip on you.” “We split the difference,” 模板:Bonifacio said quickly. “Let me get far enough away in the pod that it would require some serious work, for you to catch up to me. A good-faith gesture that you’re actually going to let me go. I get to that point and I tell you where the data is.” “Let me think about it,” 阿德里亚娜 replied, and toggled the mic off. “Williams?” “Yes?” “Did 模板:Bonifacio make a copy? And if you lie, don’t imagine I won’t make you pay for it.” Williams shook his head. “No, he didn’t think you were on to him until you shot the engines out.” 阿德里亚娜 moved until her faceplate stopped an inch from Williams’ nose, looking at his reaction. She waited until he finally closed his eyes. Satisfied, she flicked the radio mic back on. “Alright, 模板:Bonifacio, you cut loose.” 麦克 came on. “阿德里亚娜, you sure?” “杰 is about to storm that ship without us, 麦克. We don’t have time—we need to move quickly and get back to him.” “Okay, he just shot clear.” 阿德里亚娜 walked over and stood by the pilot’s chair of the crippled ship, and watched the tiny pod dwindle away on one of the monitors. The pinpoint flare of its exhaust finally winked out. 模板:Bonifacio’s voice crackled. “It’s taped above the edge of the airlock’s lip, right where you entered.” He laughed. 阿德里亚娜 ran down to the airlock. She felt along the top of the rim of the entrance delicately, and found the chip where he said it was. She pulled it free and looked at it. It wasn’t much more than a tiny, stubby hardened wafer that sat in the palm of her hand. So much trouble over such a small thing, she thought as she slid it into a hip pocket. “Got it?” 麦克 asked. “Think so. I’m coming back to double-check,” she radioed. “I’m moving in.” She stepped into the airlock, and Williams moved forward. “What about me?” he asked. “You stay aboard the ship.” 阿德里亚娜 put a hand to his chest and pushed him back. “Someone will eventually be out for you.” “Eventually?” “It’ll give you time to think about the quality of the people you choose to work for.” The door slid between them, and Williams looked through a porthole at her. 阿德里亚娜 turned her back to him and cycled aboard the Petya. She walked forward to the cockpit and handed 麦克 the chip. He plugged it into the ship’s computer. “It’s good.” “Then let’s get the hell out of here.” 麦克 looked at the monitors tracking the escape pod. “You sure you don’t want to go after him?” 阿德里亚娜 bit her lip. “Let him rot in his pod. It’s going to be a long journey. I don’t imagine whoever he was working for is going to be happy. People like 模板:Bonifacio might believe the Jackals are suddenly warm and fuzzy, but he’s insane if he thinks the Covenant is going soft. He’s a dead man, he just doesn’t know it yet. Let’s go.” “Strap in, then,” 麦克 said. “We’re bugging out.” The nearest chair groaned as 阿德里亚娜 sat in it. They’d reinforced the chairs to deal with fully armored Spartans, but the chairs still protested the weight. Then 麦克 spun Petya around and fired up the main engine, speeding them toward the Jackal ship that 杰 was going to be storming. She hoped they got there in time. Because she would be a little bit disappointed if they missed all the action, 阿德里亚娜 realized.
The freighter Mighty Sparrow drifted ever so slowly behind the protective bulk of a stray asteroid as Juliana reassured some very worried Jackals that the asteroid would miss the 模板:InfiniteSpoils. An industrial accident. A debris cloud of rock, water vapor, and metal shards all completed the messy illusion. On deck, a tense Lt. 凯斯 eyed the screens, watching closely. Everyone in the cockpit was suited up, guns at their hips, ready for anything. He glanced over at Li and Kirtley, who had both managed to integrate themselves into the crowded bridge, helping out where needed. “You have the mass driver primed to shoot their shields out, just in case this doesn’t work?” he asked Juliana. “Yes, but at that point we have to assume that even the Jackals won’t believe that the attack on their ship was by escaped UNSC, if that comes into play.” 凯斯 doubted they’d believe this was the work of a lone UNSC vessel anyway, but Juliana wanted a door out, in case they found no plans by the Jackals for 模板:Rubble. Privately, 凯斯 felt 模板:Rubble should just assume the Jackals had plans for invasion and strike first, intrigue like this be damned. But it felt good to be back in action against the Covenant one way or another. “Get ready, then,” 凯斯 muttered. They were close. “The 奇戈亚尔 shipmistress is relaxing; her computers are showing the rock won’t hit. She’s yelling at me for being careless,” Juliana reported. “All teams go, then,” 凯斯 said. “Now or never.” Juliana’s body flashed a sudden increase of the equations that decoratively flowed over it. “Airlock assault teams are go in ten, nine…” 凯斯 turned to 模板:Delgado. “Fire it.” The pilot triggered the thruster sequence, and the entire asteroid rolled them around to face the Jackal ship. The thickest part of the cloud of debris lay between them and the Jackal ship as the Mighty Sparrow leapt across the several hundred feet, thrusters blazing. “Four, three…” Juliana intoned. “Brace for impact!” 凯斯 shouted. “Two, one.” They struck, and the Mighty Sparrow screeched and shivered as its hull smacked against the 模板:InfiniteSpoils. “ODSTs are go for intrusion,” 凯斯 ordered. “Moving out,” Faison reported via radio, the banging of an airlock door coming over the channel. “I’ll be adding support,” the Spartan, 杰, reported. “We’re locked in. Very nice maneuvering, 模板:Delgado,” 凯斯 said. “Our hull is holding, minor leaks.” He let out breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Juliana cleared her throat. “The 奇戈亚尔 shipmaster is complaining that we are deceitful, cowardly liars.” 凯斯 chuckled. “I take it she’s figured out she’s under attack.” In the distance, gunfire started up, with the return whine of plasma answering it. “Yes,” said Juliana. “I would say that she has.” “We have contact,” Faison reported. “Pull me,” Juliana said. “We want to be ready to plug in the moment we get the chance.” “Okay.” 凯斯 leaned over and gently slid the chip, in reality a small matchbook-sized card, out of its housing in the station. Juliana’s hologram flickered away, and he tucked it into his chest pocket as he left the cockpit. A pair of ODSTs flanked the airlock, battle rifles at the ready. “What have we got?” he asked. “Pretty small contingent of Jackals. We have the corridor in secured. Faison has us pushing them back toward their bridge.” The sound of grenades boomed out, bouncing around the walls. “Breached the bridge,” Faison reported. “There’s still fighting outside the ship by the other entry airlock. You have a clear path to me, though. I’m sending 杰 back to get you.” “I’ll be here,” 凯斯 said, as the echoes of the last blast finally dissipated, and the distinct sound of a wounded Jackal’s screams followed it.
杰 whipped out his submachine gun and peered around the cloud of smoke the grenades left behind. Jackals lay draped everywhere on the bridge, thrown clear by the explosions. Nothing stirred in the haze, but 杰 walked around, putting a round in the head of each Jackal for good measure. “Bridge is secure,” he reported. ODSTs streamed in after him. “Bridge is clear,” they confirmed. They had plowed through the Jackals quickly on their way up to the bridge, 杰 running in front. Five Jackals, unable to hide behind their energy shields, had died in the corridors. Same for the bridge crew. But from the sound of battle chatter, the bulk of the fighting Jackals had run out of the ship to fight the initial attack from the dock. A good hundred or so of them had held their airlock against that threat, not even for a second imagining that they were going to get boarded from the outside. It was easy enough to keep them from getting back in. The AI and Lt. 凯斯 had a flair for this, 杰 thought. “Spartan, can you head back and provide protection for Lt. 凯斯?” Faison asked. “On my way,” 杰 replied. He took one last look around the bridge. The ODSTs were throwing the dead Jackal bodies into a pile in the corner. He double-timed it back down the corridor. ODSTs snapped quick nods at him as he passed, some flat-out stared as he thudded his way back toward the Mighty Sparrow. He passed Li and Kirtley running toward the bridge with a pair of ODSTs guarding them. 凯斯 waited in the airlock. As 杰 stepped inside, his earpiece crackled. “杰, this is 模板:Delgado.” “Go ahead,” 杰 said. “I’m passing on a message from Petya. They report success, and are on their way back. That’s all.” “Thanks,” 杰 said. He smiled inside his helmet. 阿德里亚娜 and 麦克 had taken care of business. “You ready?” 杰 asked 凯斯. “Yes. And by the way, Spartan?” “Yessir?” 杰 looked down at him. 凯斯 smiled up at 杰. “Boy, is it nice to see you out here with us.” So many things could still go wrong, 杰 thought. But they’d stormed a Jackal ship, destroyed most of the nav data, and had control of the rest. So far, so good. “杰, Faison, 凯斯,” 模板:Delgado’s voice burst over 杰’s moment. “We have a problem. There’s a ship inbound. Not ours. Covenant.” 凯斯 frowned. “Already?” 杰 put a hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Come, Lt. 凯斯, we need to move quickly, then.”
Thel looked at the monitor, not quite believing what he saw: a human freighter, docked with the 模板:InfiniteSpoils. And he was listening to the 奇戈亚尔 battle channel, where they screamed about human attacks by their UNSC warriors. Zhar looked over at him. “This Rubble grows stranger by the day, Shipmaster.” Thel shook his long head. “As strange as this may be, it cannot surprise you. The humans are heretics—it was foolish of the 奇戈亚尔 to think they could enter into an alliance with them.” “Nonetheless, the airlock is occupied. What do we do now?” Zhar asked. “Shoot the human ship,” Thel ordered. “It will either move, or we will have to burn our way in.” Thel leaned back in his command chair, watching plasma leap out toward the human ship.
模板:Delgado grabbed the sides of his navigation chair as the cockpit shuddered. Air pressure dropped—the ship had been holed. He pulled the visor shut on his suit and sealed the gloves. It made operating a console clumsier, but it was clear this bucket was going to be full of nothing but vacuum soon enough. The monitor showed the Covenant craft firing another round of plasma at them. 模板:Delgado winced as the Mighty Sparrow groaned. A large chunk of the cockpit ceiling caved in, and the glass all blew out. This was bad. They needed to bug out. “We’re losing the freighter,” 模板:Delgado reported. “Get your men out of this ship, 凯斯. It looks like the Jackals have reinforcements.” “Get inside the 模板:InfiniteSpoils with the ODSTs then,” 凯斯 said. “Abandon the Sparrow, it’s a lost cause. If we leave the Sparrow docked, they’ll have a hard time getting through her. We’ll fight our way out down the docks.” 模板:Delgado cleared out of the cockpit. At the airlock one of 凯斯’ men waited for him. Faison, if he remembered the name correctly. “I came back to make sure all my men were out,” Faison barked, putting his black helmet on. 模板:Delgado could see the corridor he’d just run down reflected back in the visor. “凯斯 and 杰 are on the bridge, jacking the AI in. We’re headed for the docks. I want to lead the breakout there.” “I’ll go with you,” 模板:Delgado said. Running with the leader of the Helljumpers had to be a safe bet. They ran through corridors, Faison leading, turning the corners with his battle rifle up at chin level. 模板:Delgado followed, handgun out. He was struggling to keep up with the marine, though. His legs hurt, his lungs hurt. Everything was one big ache. Faison turned a corner well ahead of 模板:Delgado and plasma fire burst out. Faison dropped to the ground with a grunt, firing as he fell. The smell of burnt flesh filled 模板:Delgado’s nostrils. 模板:Delgado rounded the corner firing his pistol low, shifting his aim to hit a 奇戈亚尔 running down the corridor in the feet. It howled, energy shield falling to the ground, and Faison shot it in the head. “Damn it!” Faison shouted. He sounded angry, not hurt. Despite that, the floor was slick with his blood. The shot had been close to an artery, 模板:Delgado guessed. Even without the charring, Faison was in bad shape. “This corridor was supposed to be cleared.” “He could have been hiding until now.” 模板:Delgado crouched in front of the marine. Faison’s right thigh had been hit. As he cursed the Jackal, Faison used a knife to cut off long strips of cloth from his left pant leg. 模板:Delgado helped him make a makeshift tourniquet, tying it off around Faison’s upper thigh to reduce the bleeding. It was a blood-soaked rag by the time they finished. 模板:Delgado wiped his hands on his trousers. “You need a medic.” Faison leaned his helmeted head against the wall and groaned. “I know,” he grunted. “But if we call someone down we’re putting them in risk.” 模板:Delgado sat down against the opposite wall. “What are you doing?” Faison asked. “Waiting for help with you,” 模板:Delgado said. Faison shoved the battle rifle across the floor. “No, you keep moving. You’ll have a better chance of getting out of here if you head for the docks. Keep your eyes open.” “There is no way I’m leaving you behind,” 模板:Delgado said. “Leave me your pistol,” the marine said. “Take my rifle. I’ve been shot in the thigh and I’ve already lost too much blood. I’m not walking out of here, pilot. It’s just not going to happen.” “You have men to lead. We can get them to come back via the docks for you,” 模板:Delgado said. “I’m not spending lives to save my own,” Faison said. He shifted his position and winced, and then he yanked his helmet off, throwing it down beside him. “I turned the corridor too fast, I let my guard down, and I paid the price.” “And if I wasn’t in such rough shape, I would have been right there beside you,” 模板:Delgado said. “Battle is random like that, sometimes.” Faison gestured for 模板:Delgado’s pistol, and 模板:Delgado tossed him Se?ora Sies. The marine examined it. “Fancy piece.” “It has a long history,” 模板:Delgado said. “I’ll bet so,” Faison muttered. “I’m sorry to have to ask for it, but you’ll be better off with the rifle. Now go, quickly.” 模板:Delgado stood up, and grabbed Faison’s wrist in an extended handshake. “You’re a good man, Faison. For UNSC.” Faison laughed. “I bet it hurts to say that.” 模板:Delgado smiled. “Not really, soldier. Not really.” “Go,” Faison hissed. “Please.” 模板:Delgado turned the corner with the battle rifle up and at the ready, his footsteps echoing softly off the walls as he left the ODST marine behind him in a pool of blood. Once he was down the corridor he ignored Faison’s commands and radioed 杰. “Faison is down. If you can get back to this location at any point, he really needs a medic. He’ll need backup—we were ambushed.”
凯斯 watched as Juliana appeared over the alien console, her form wavering and sparking. “It’s getting bad out here,” he told her. “We have Jackals on the docks in solid numbers still holding out, and reinforcements at the door on the other side. We abandoned the Mighty Sparrow. Please tell me all this was worth it.” Juliana ignored him as her eyes flashed incandescent white and she dropped to her knees. “Strong security,” she whispered. Then she opened her eyes wide. “But it was worth it. We’re in real danger. All of us. Yank me, Lieutenant, and get me back into 模板:Rubble. I have the data I need, and we need to act fast. The 奇戈亚尔 are coming for us. 模板:Rubble will need to make a stand. Get me out of here, 凯斯. Now!” 凯斯 pulled the chip and pocketed it. “To the docks?” he asked 杰. The Spartan’s gold visor turned to him. “I need to make a detour. Your man Faison’s hurt. 模板:Delgado asked if we could help.” 凯斯 nodded. “Get to him.” 杰 thudded out of the room, and 凯斯 turned to the ODSTs inside the cockpit. “Let’s get out of here.”
Thel stepped aboard the 模板:InfiniteSpoils with a snarl. The human ship had clogged up their attempt to board, and they’d had to shuttle over on boarding ships, burning their way aboard the docked human freighter. It left him in a testy mood. And with 昂苟伊 milling about bumping into each other, Thel’s mood had darkened further. He leaned over to Zhar. “Have any of them figured out how to move this human ship away?” “No,” Zhar replied, looking over the 昂苟伊 standing around the cockpit, pushing buttons and chattering to each other. Thel sighed. “Leave five 昂苟伊 here to cut the ship loose with plasma torches once we get through the airlock.” He stalked back to the airlock and made his way through after several 昂苟伊. They fanned out ahead of him into the corridors, their ungainly steps making far too much noise. The 奇戈亚尔 ship felt empty. No 奇戈亚尔 had even tried to hold the airlock. Had the humans killed them all? And if so, where were the humans? Zhar followed him through. After the airlock closed, the sound of welding and cutting came through from the other side. A moment later a loud creaking sound filled the corridor, then silence. “The human ship is cut loose. The 昂苟伊 Deacon and Saal say they’re towing it free and casting it off,” Zhar said. “So far, no human ships have come to sniff around.” “Good.” Thel looked around. “昂苟伊 toward the bridge. Zhar and I will secure the other airlock from the docks and eliminate any 奇戈亚尔 there.” The 昂苟伊 dutifully headed up the corridor. Zhar patted the plasma rifle in his hands. “Let’s go, then.” Thel’s old friend took the lead, turning corners as Thel quickly followed behind, keeping him covered as they thudded down the inside of the ship through bulkhead after bulkhead. Zhar turned a corner and flinched as human gunfire slapped into his armor. The old 圣赫利 fired downward, and the shots stopped. The now dead human, its back against the wall, had been already wounded. A large shot to its thigh had bled the creature’s strange red blood out onto the floor. Zhar had shot it once: clean through the head. “It was sitting down,” Zhar said. “Startled me. I barely got a return shot in.” “You are lucky it didn’t have a more powerful weapon.” Thel kicked away the handgun lying by its side. “Indeed.” Zhar actually sounded somewhat shaken. He squatted in front of the dead human. “I wonder why they left one of their own behind like this? Was it a trap?” “Who knows how they think?” Thel said. “Who cares? They are heretics. They do not deserve names or life.” Zhar wouldn’t stop worrying at some idea deep in his head, “I don’t know, Thel. You’re a true zealot, I know, and I would never doubt the word of the Prophets, but we’ve fought the humans for years and they show some capacity for honor. Look, they left behind one of their own, who was bleeding and dishonored, to spring a trap and die with honor. Don’t you think that indicates something profoundly noble about them?” Thel looked down at the dead alien and thought about it, “You think too much, Zhar.” As he said that, Thel saw something move quickly out of the corner of his eyes. Zhar snapped out his plasma rifle and fired, just as the large, gray-armor-clad human fired back with a rifle of its own. Thel pulled out his energy sword as the armored human smacked into him, carrying them both rolling down the corridor until they struck a bulkhead hard enough to make Thel’s vision blur and knock his sword loose. “I cannot get a good aim,” Zhar shouted, as Thel struggled to get a grip on the powerful human’s rifle. The loud human gun fired into the floor several times as they fought over it, and then Thel got the barrel in both his hands. He stared at his reflection in the alien’s visor and roared as he bent the weapon, straining to make it useless. The gold visor stared implacably back at Thel. There were no sounds, though the alien was straining just as hard. What creature did not choose to show its face that wasn’t a soulless and dead one? Thel roared again. “Demon! Heretic. Unholy alien!” He headbutted the gold visor, snapping the human’s neck back with each whiplike blow. The human threw him back and yanked a primitive knife from the chest of its armor. The two warriors stood, staring at each other for a split second. Thel suddenly realized that they would both die, fighting to the very end, equally matched. Equally matched with a human. Thel spat purple blood from his mouth. This was a surprise. The human looked over at the other dead marine, shook its head, and then took off down the corridor. “We follow it,” Thel gasped, out of breath. He’d broken a rib with that impact. “What was that?” Zhar asked, cautiously pointing his plasma rifle around the corner. “I do not know,” Thel said. “It was strong, though.” He joined Zhar, turning around the corner. “Looks like it was headed to the docks. Let’s go.” Zhar had a small limp, and it hurt for Thel to run, but neither of them would allow these to slow them. Both 圣赫利 ran all out, grunting occasionally, to the airlock dock. They got there just in time to see the gray-armored human disappear past the lip, running out into the large cavernous docking area where human tracers and Covenant plasma filled the air. 奇戈亚尔 corpses lay around the airlock. Zhar took one side, Thel the other, forgetting about the strange new human for now. “It looks like the 奇戈亚尔 were protecting the ship,” Zhar said. “But were surprised by the attack from inside.” “The humans are moving out onto the docks, back into their habitats,” Thel noted. “They have done us a favor. They cleared the ship.” He shut the airlock door with a laugh and walked over to Zhar and clapped him on the shoulder. “Guard this door, old friend. I will head to the bridge and get us moving. We will pick up Saal, and then we will see what our options are.” Zhar nodded. “But you should also check to see what it was the humans were doing aboard when we get clear,” Zhar said. “We do not need anymore surprises.” Thel thought about the pain in his ribs, and what had felt like a close brush with death, and nodded. What had that human been?
The sound of the ship’s airlock doors shutting echoed throughout the spare cavern that the 奇戈亚尔 had as a docking bay. The lanky aliens paused, looking over at the doors. Two of them ran for the lock, banging on the door, as loud clanks and hisses told everyone in the docking bay that their ship was undocking. 模板:Delgado watched the panic spread through the 奇戈亚尔 as they realized what had happened. The 奇戈亚尔 had kept bunched up on the far side of the docks, close to their ship’s airlock. That had made getting out onto the docks a dangerous exercise, but the 奇戈亚尔 had realized that letting the humans get off their ship was better than trapping them in it. Now they were no doubt wondering who the heck was taking their ship. 凯斯, hunkered down on the far side of a shipping container they were both using as cover, waved 模板:Delgado over. The immense bulk of the gray Spartan 杰 stood behind the lieutenant. “I’m sorry to hear about Faison,” 模板:Delgado said. The word had spread as they’d remained pinned down by the 奇戈亚尔. The aliens, with their energy shields and snipers, were doing far better now in the large, open docking bay than in the tight confines of the ship. 凯斯 nodded. He looked tired, 模板:Delgado thought. These men were all his responsibility. The four dead in the open area of the docks were on 凯斯. Now so was Faison. “杰 has an idea,” 凯斯 said. The Spartan stepped forward. “You had them all suit up, 凯斯. Everyone’s vacuum ready. Only a few Jackals are equipped. If we figure out how to flush the air out of the entire dock…” “We’d need Juliana for that,” 模板:Delgado said. One couldn’t just flush the atmosphere out of a habitat without extensive overrides. 凯斯 pulled the large chip out of his pocket that held Juliana. “杰 will cover you; you just need to get somewhere to plug this in. Get Juliana back up and have her flush the bay. We’ll pick off the stragglers.” 模板:Delgado almost reverently placed the AI’s chip into his pocket. She’d been created to manage the mining operations of a Madrigal corporation, helping guide asteroids to processing plants around the system. She may have been commercial AI, nothing like the industrial strength thinkers the UNSC used, but she’d somehow managed to keep the entire Rubble together since the fall of Madrigal. Juliana had been a protector of 模板:Rubble for so long she was almost like a technological deity, a god everyone in 模板:Rubble looked to for help with their troubles. And she fit in his pocket. He scanned the docks. “Over there.” He pointed 杰 at a console used by supervisors to run the docks. “That should be doable.” It was well away from the bulk of the firefight. “So go!” 凯斯 said. The rate of fire from the ODSTs picked up as 杰 and 模板:Delgado made a run for it, ducking from one set of containers and large structural spars to another. They stopped a mere fifteen feet from the console. 模板:Delgado swallowed. From where he had been, the console looked out of the way. Up close, he realized it was in the open. Though far away from the 奇戈亚尔, they were good shots. 杰 realized it too, because the Spartan turned and held out a gauntleted hand. “Give her to me, I’ll plug her in.” 模板:Delgado stared at the Spartan’s hand. He’d be just handing over one of the most important assets 模板:Rubble had. How much did he trust these UNSC Spartans? So far they’d worked toward the same goals. If you didn’t start trusting someone at some point, he thought, then you’ll never trust again. This Spartan was offering to risk his life to get out in the open and try to save them all. How much proof did 模板:Delgado need? He took a deep breath and handed Juliana over. 杰 cupped the chip in his hands and darted out. For a brief second it looked like the 奇戈亚尔 hadn’t spotted them, that 杰 would make it to the console and back before they noticed anything. But as the Spartan stood and inserted the chip, plasma fire struck the wall overhead. 模板:Delgado leaned out and wildly fired his battle rifle at the 奇戈亚尔. Several plasma shots grazed 杰, but he kept the chip guarded until Juliana’s form appeared over the console. “Get back!” 模板:Delgado shouted. “She’s in the system.” Near misses blackened the gray armor as 杰 ran back to cover, firing his battle rifle as he did so. Three 奇戈亚尔 fell over, dead. 模板:Delgado marveled at the Spartan’s accuracy. At this range, across hundreds of feet of dock, all 模板:Delgado had done was harass the 奇戈亚尔. 杰 slammed his back into the container as plasma slapped the other side, boiling metal. 模板:Delgado’s earpiece crackled, and Juliana’s voice filled his ear. “Thank you, 模板:Delgado, 杰. What do you need from me?” “Blow the air out of here,” 模板:Delgado requested. Juliana didn’t reply, but a second later all the airlocks feeding into the docks blew open with the bass warbling of emergency sirens and strobing warning lights. Air rushed out into the vacuum, thundering past, and the sound of plasma fire stopped. It was over in a few minutes. ODSTs popped up and shot the few remaining 奇戈亚尔 that were in full gear and still able to breathe and fight. The other aliens died horribly, flailing around, asphyxiated, their long mouths open and frozen in silent screams. 凯斯 and the ODST Markov looked out over the carnage once the docks repressurized. 凯斯 looked a bit horrified at the carnage. Markov looked slightly pleased. 杰 stood behind them, towering high, battle rifle in hand. “The Petya has caught up to us,” he told 凯斯. “I would suggest you use it as a temporary command center. It’ll keep you from getting recaptured, at the least.” 凯斯 ran a hand over his silvering hair and nodded. “Thank you, Spartan. We’ll need it. Juliana reported that this is just the beginning, the 奇戈亚尔 are up to something. Juliana might as well brief us aboard your ship.” 杰 slung his battle rifle and plodded off toward one of the nearby airlocks. After a moment, 模板:Delgado followed, both glad to be out of the dock full of dead 奇戈亚尔.
Thel looked over the reports that Zhar had patiently gathered for him. The humans had dug around the 奇戈亚尔 battle net, which had been poorly secured. “These are details on where the 昂苟伊 Redoubt is,” Zhar said. “Including force strength, ships, how they will shuttle the 昂苟伊 to 模板:Rubble for an attack, and plans for an invasion of one of their habitats called ‘Exodus’. The humans have the whole 奇戈亚尔 battle plan for themselves now.” “Well, they are clever creatures,” Thel said. He shut the display down. “You yourself admired that, if I remember correctly.” “This is troubling, though,” Zhar said. “It means the 奇戈亚尔, 模板:Reth, may have been telling the truth.” Thel sighed. “That they plan to trick the humans out of the location to their homeworld?” “Yes. And that he was doing a holy duty for a Hierarch. You must admit the possibility, looking over those plans to attack the humans. These have been in place for years.” Thel rubbed the bottom of a mandible thoughtfully. “It is a possibility, now. I agree.” “Then we may have crossed the Hierarch,” Zhar said. “You of all should know how that chills my heart.” “A Hierarch,” Thel said, cautiously. “What do you mean?” “What I mean is that we were given a set of orders that put us in conflict with orders given by another Prophet.” Zhar shook his head. “These things border on heresy.” “Then do not speak of them ever again,” Thel said. “But it does not change our situation.” “But—” “So we shall also send a message to 模板:Reth,” Thel said, trying to add a note of reassurance to his voice. “We will not approach or attack the Exodus asteroid that the 奇戈亚尔 want. We will attack the other human parts of 模板:Rubble, working to destroy the humans there.” Zhar swallowed. “Will that be enough to convince the Prophet of Regret that we did what we were asked?” Thel grumbled. “We will destroy 模板:Rubble. We will grind it to pieces from this 奇戈亚尔 ship. How will they doubt our zealotry, then, Zhar? We offer 模板:Reth our agreement to leave their habitat alone, and maybe we will come out ahead.” “Maybe?” Zhar left the cockpit in a dark mood, and Thel sat down on the shipmaster’s chair with a sneer. This was not Covenant standard; it was designed for 奇戈亚尔. It was an insult and an expression of their rebellious impulses. And even worse, it was an uncomfortable fit for the 圣赫利. Nonetheless, it would be a good spot from which to oversee the destruction of 模板:Rubble. The sooner this mess was wrapped up, the sooner Thel imagined a more normal life would resume. Betrayals and intrigues were not his strong suit. 圣赫利 were almost always more… direct. Thel punched the console in front of him in frustration, shattering the screen and denting the metal.
- METISETTE, 模板:23librae
Peter 模板:Bonifacio unstrapped himself from the pilot’s seat of the escape capsule. The long-burn engine had run out; he’d kept the thing maxed to get well clear of the damn Spartans that had hunted down Distancia. Now he coasted toward Metisette. What was that damn 奇戈亚尔’s code? 模板:Bonifacio hunted through scraps of paper in his pockets until he found the tiny card. He plugged the frequency into the escape pod’s controls and transmitted the emergency. Then he waited nervously until the speaker crackled with the sound of 奇戈亚尔 voices. “Peter 模板:Bonifacio. Proceed.” “I need help,” 模板:Bonifacio blurted out. “I’m in a capsule, headed toward Metisette. I need to be picked up!” “And do you have our navigation data with you?” “Is this 模板:Reth?” 模板:Bonifacio asked. A moment as the question was transmitted, and then translated. “This is 模板:Reth,” came the response. “Our data?” 模板:Bonifacio swallowed nervously. This was indeed 模板:Reth, he told himself. He’d done a lot of business with the 奇戈亚尔. This was about business. And a partner like 模板:Reth would understand a setback. He was dealing with a trade-oriented species, just like himself. 模板:Reth would understand. “The data was stolen from me,” 模板:Bonifacio finally admitted. “Stolen? What use is this to us? Why did you bother even calling to admit this?” 模板:Bonifacio couldn’t tell because of the delay and monotone of the translation device, but it felt to him that 模板:Reth sounded angry. “I know where they will be taking the data,” 模板:Bonifacio said quickly. “Please, if you come help me I’ll help you get the data.” Another pause before the reply, then, “You are a useless lump of nothing that once glittered to us, 模板:Bonifacio. We gave you weapons to smuggle, and make a profit on. We gave you docking rights, and helped you in every way we could imagine. And all we asked is this one favor, for which you failed us.” “No!” 模板:Bonifacio screamed over the radio. He started babbling. “You can’t just abandon me, you owe me. We worked well together. We were good together.” Only silence came from the other end. “I’ll tell you where they are taking it, if you do me this last favor,” 模板:Bonifacio begged. “Where are they taking it?” 模板:Reth asked. “To the Exodus asteroid,” 模板:Bonifacio said. “And if you do me the favor of picking me up, I’ll tell you where it is.” 模板:Reth laughed. “I already know where it is, thank you. We will be taking it for ourselves soon enough.” 模板:Bonifacio’s mouth dried with fear. He’d been wrong, he realized. About the 奇戈亚尔. Probably about everything. But he still had his life to save. “But…” “I will do you this last favor, 模板:Bonifacio,” 模板:Reth said. “I will not come pick up your pod. Because right now, were I to pick you up, the last moments of your life would be horrible indeed. Good-bye, human.” The radio went silent. 模板:Bonifacio was alone, floating toward Metisette, looking out the tiny portholes of his escape pod at the distant ruddy orb. He wondered if the air would run out before the heater stopped.
- SOMEWHERE NEAR CHARYBDIS IX
The Prophet of Regret stood in front of a giant screen that showed his fleet assembled in the far distance: tiny specks of light waiting to be flung through space wherever he wished. He turned his chair about to regard the other body in the room: the Prophet of Truth. Regret frowned as Truth rebuked him. “You are, as ever, too hasty.” “How is this?” Regret whined. “I have sent my hunters out to find the source of what I thought was trouble. I have hunted the humans. I have acted.” “You have not acted well. My plan was more elegant.” Truth, Regret thought, always did like working his intrigues. He shouldn’t have been this surprised to find out Truth was behind the design of these smuggled weapons. They were all just an attempt to furtively find the human homeworld, Truth had said, without further fleet engagements. Never mind that Regret knew they could smash the humans, one world after another. Truth worried about the secret of humans, and their first encounter with them. Particularly since the three Hierarchs had worked so hard to hide that secret. “Does it matter now what we have done?” Truth said. “There is a mess, and it needs cleaning. The fleet needs to return to this world. If the 奇戈亚尔 have the location of the human homeworld, we can use it and the 昂苟伊 quartered there. If not, then we destroy all traces of this… experiment.” “I agree,” Regret said, finding himself once again following Truth’s lead. “The Jiralhanae who betrayed your 圣赫利 shipmaster, they will need to be destroyed. Their loyalty is commendable, but the knowledge of what they saw must die with them. We do not need any in High Charity speaking of this.” Regret agreed. “You will travel to this world with us, and watch the fleet in action?” The Prophet of Truth bobbed his head. “I want to see this all concluded, yes. I have had my effects brought onto your flagship. We will have joint command. Together we will fix any problems. As we always have.” Regret turned and looked at the screen, with its live images of the fleet. Truth had platitudes, words about being brothers, now that his experiment had failed. But they were only brothers with a shared secret while the humans lived. If they ever got rid of the threat humans presented, then Truth would have no need of Regret. More than ever, Regret realized, if he ever had the chance to destroy the humans first and keep control of his position in the Covenant, he would have to move fast in the future. Faster than Truth’s intrigues. Regret shook himself from his thoughts. “Then it is time for us to go there,” he said. And using the controls on his floating throne, he keyed in a channel to the ship’s bridge and gave the order for the fleet to make the jump.
- PETYA, NEAR HABITAT TIAGO,
- THE RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
模板:Delgado sat down in the cockpit of the 斯巴达战士’s freighter, finding it strangely reassuring to be back aboard. 凯斯 had joined the 斯巴达战士s aboard the Petya, along with Markov and 模板:Delgado. The other ODSTs remained out on the docks, cleaning up after the firefight. Things were happening all across the 模板:Rubble, 模板:Delgado felt. 模板:Juliana was off in some vast, spread out, processing mode that made it hard for her to focus on one small area. But she’d asked them all to get ready for a conference. So now they were just waiting, 麦克 running checks on the Petya, Jai and Adriana in the back examining his armor after the battle. 凯斯 paced the cockpit, waiting for information, frustrated. Markov just stared at the metal floor, somewhat shell-shocked at the death of his commanding officer, Faison. Everyone surged into the cockpit, though, when 模板:Juliana finally returned to manifest herself. “I’m sorry for my absence,” she said, appearing over the communications console. “I was verifying the data I had taken from the 奇戈亚尔 ship. I’m also presenting this information to all members of the 模板:Rubble Security Council.” She faded away, and in her place the moon Metisette appeared. It zoomed large, until its clouds hung in front of the crowd in the cockpit. The image increased, until an irregular oval appeared on the rocky ground of Metisette’s surface. Another leap in perspective showed it to be the remains of a crater. Liquid covered the very bottom, filled by a river of some sort with a waterfall. 模板:Delgado looked at the shapes by the waterfall’s edge. “Are those structures?” “The 奇戈亚尔 have created a natural home for hundreds of thousands of 昂苟伊,” 模板:Juliana’s voice said. “This structure, parked over a methane waterfall where the mists are thick enough with methane that the 昂苟伊 can breathe out in the open, is called the Redoubt. Right now, as we speak, 昂苟伊 are being readied for an invasion of the 模板:Rubble.” 模板:Juliana let that sink in. “When do they mobilize?” 凯斯 asked. “Within the next twenty-four hours,” 模板:Juliana said. The image of Metisette faded, replaced by pictures of 奇戈亚尔 ships moving out of orbit down to Metisette. “As soon as they pick up the 昂苟伊.” Those images faded as well, to be replaced by 模板:Juliana. She cocked her head, listening to someone else. “The Council wants to know what our 奇戈亚尔 contacts are saying about all this.” “That would tip the hand of any defense the 模板:Rubble might need,” 凯斯 muttered. 模板:Juliana nodded. “May I offer another point of importance?” “Please,” Jai said from the cockpit’s entrance. He’d removed his helmet, and his brown eyes were fixed on 模板:Juliana. “The 奇戈亚尔 know about the Exodus project.” 模板:Juliana had dropped a bombshell, 模板:Delgado realized. Their most tightly held secret, something he hadn’t known about, had been in the 奇戈亚尔 databanks. It angered him. “And once 模板:Bonifacio had delivered the navigation data to them, the 奇戈亚尔 were going to use the asteroid as a troop carrier to invade Earth.” 模板:Delgado felt vaguely sick. 凯斯 looked confused, but didn’t ask any questions for now. This was the first he had heard of the Exodus project, and while he could infer what it might entail from the AI’s statement, he was hoping it would let something more solid slip. 模板:Juliana waited for this, too, to sink in. “I’m unwilling to lose the 模板:Rubble. It’s everything I exist for. I say we attack first. We use our mass drivers like MACs. We get 凯斯 and his men back aboard the 仲夏夜号. If we start attacking them while their main force is on the ground, we have a chance of winning this.” 凯斯 fiddled with a pen as he looked around. “The 仲夏夜号 has the capacity to go up against that big 模板:Jackal ship, but we could get overwhelmed by sheer numbers with all these other craft they have parked throughout the 模板:Rubble. And then there’s the other issue: have these 模板:Jackals been working alone? Because if not, all they have to do is call in support. One stealth frigate won’t be much use against what the Covenant usually bring to a fight.” “I can’t speak to that,” 模板:Juliana said. “But now we have another problem. The Security Council is getting ready for a meeting. They’re shutting me out. This isn’t something I can override without drawing attention. 模板:Delgado, 玛丽亚 was Diego’s closest relative, and has been given a temporary seat on the Council to represent him. Can you get down there? I don’t want us out of the loop here.” 模板:Delgado was already up. “Take me there, I’ll go in.” Jai and 麦克 looked at each other. Jai shook his head. “We don’t want to risk taking Petya into the heart of the 模板:Rubble. We’re already exposing ourselves enough with the AI and 模板:Delgado aboard.” “I’ll take tube cars,” 模板:Delgado said.
Outside of the tall faux-marble columns of the Council Chambers, 玛丽亚 Esquival looked over at 模板:Delgado. The chambers were buried deep in the heart of Korrah, one of the first 模板:Rubble habitats, and he had rushed to get there. “You got over here quickly.” She looked like she hadn’t slept in days, with bags under her eyes. She pushed a stray wisp of hair aside. 模板:Delgado broke protocol and gave her a long hug. “I’m so sorry about Diego.” She let go and looked up at him. “They said that bastard 模板:Bonifacio is in an escape pod somewhere with the 奇戈亚尔?” “As far as we know, yes. When this crisis is over, I will personally hunt that cockroach down.” 玛丽亚 cleared her throat. “The Security Council just had an emergency meeting to figure out what to do next. I stood in for Diego. I had no voting rights, but I could talk if needed.” “I know. What can you tell me?” “The summary is that we’re grateful for all the risks you’ve taken, though I think half the Council is ready to string you all up for releasing the UNSC prisoners without locators, or without authority.” “We didn’t have a lot of time to confer or ask permission, and 模板:Juliana was helping.” “That disturbs them almost as much as anything. You know the AI is well past her useful age.” 模板:Delgado nodded. “She’s unpredictable. But I think, deep down, what she cares about is the 模板:Rubble. What is the Council going to do?” “You’re not going to like this.” “Really?” 模板:Delgado raised an eyebrow. “They’ve called the 奇戈亚尔. They want to see if there is any negotiation to be done.” 模板:Delgado stared at 玛丽亚. “They what?” “Understand—from their position, the 奇戈亚尔 have only helped. And don’t lecture me about the destruction of Madrigal. The fact is, you know a lot of people trust the 奇戈亚尔 here. They’ve worked with us to build the 模板:Rubble. They’ve traded with us. They consider them allies.” “They really did it?” “Yes. We’re waiting for a response.” 模板:Delgado walked away, shaking his head. “We’ve completely tipped our hand.” 玛丽亚 looked down at the ground. “I don’t know. Maybe not. We’re just asking for meetings. I’m not sure what else we can do except get ready to defend ourselves. We have a Council, it’s the way the 模板:Rubble works. They’ve spoken.” “But they were wrong,” 模板:Delgado snapped. “What would you have us be?” 玛丽亚 asked. “We’re ruled by representatives, and by our votes.” “This is a disaster.” “Maybe not.” 玛丽亚 grabbed his arm. “Again, all we’ve done is ask for meetings. We haven’t asked why. Certainly with all the recent activity around the 模板:Rubble it would make sense that we’re jumpy.” 模板:Delgado looked at her. “I really hope so.”
- THE REDOUBT, METISETTE, 模板:23librae
模板:Reth lay in a soft collection of pillows in an approximation of a nest. His skin had been bandaged, cuts and bruises covered with medicines that stank, and he was giddy from pain medication. The damage the 圣赫利 had done to him still throbbed, but he was beginning to feel like the worst of the pain was over now that a 奇戈亚尔 healer had spent time with him. The soft sound of air fans lulled him near the edge of sleep when the door to his room opened. “I was not to be disturbed during this sleep cycle,” 模板:Reth snapped, his eyes still closed. “It is the humans.” A lesser 奇戈亚尔 groveled by 模板:Reth’s feet. “They keep contacting us, requesting meetings.” “About what?” 模板:Reth opened his eyes. The room was decorated with bits and pieces of art from around Covenant space randomly piled in corners and hanging off shelves in random chaos and clutter. All were pieces stolen or traded from all the species the 奇戈亚尔 dealt with—a riot of shapes, colors, sizes, and function. It may have looked like random junk, but any 奇戈亚尔 in the room would know it was 模板:Reth’s hoard. In the corner was a handmade 圣赫利 practice helmet, carved out of a hard wood and painted black. 模板:Reth’s most prized piece of the collection. 圣赫利 didn’t part with their handmade gifts easily. 模板:Reth had to work hard to pilfer that particular item. “They won’t say,” the 奇戈亚尔 by his feet said. 模板:Reth sat up, wincing as split skin on his shoulder recracked and started bleeding again. “Send word to all 奇戈亚尔 in the 模板:Rubble to pull out. Have them stand ready to act as our front wave. The humans may be getting wind of our plan, somehow. Let’s not leave our brothers sitting within easy reach of the aliens.” “Yes, lord. But… we have worked with these humans for so long. We have built good things with them. Are you sure we must destroy them?” 模板:Reth sighed. “Any day now the Hierarchs will arrive. Do you wish to look like you were helping heretics? Our task is to fetch the location of Earth, and destroy them. Now we are to do this.” Time was growing short, 模板:Reth felt, if the humans were getting antsy. He was going to have to launch 奇戈亚尔 ships against the 模板:Rubble before the 昂苟伊 were even on their shuttles for the invasion. No matter, he thought. That would just soften up the 模板:Rubble before he took it. Once he had the Exodus asteroid, 模板:Reth thought, all these stolen baubles in his room would be meaningless compared to that fat prize.
- PETYA, JUST OFF HABITAT TIAGO,
- THE RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
凯斯 turned to Jai at the back of the cockpit. “You and your team should leave. The Council seems to think things are unchanged; they might even fight to prevent us getting back aboard the 仲夏夜号. I don’t see the sense in us weighing you down.” “I don’t see the sense in leaving either,” Jai said. “I could make it an order,” 凯斯 said. “You do outrank me. You may well order me to do it.” Jai looked at 凯斯. The unspoken second half of the sentence in the air was that Jai would refuse. 凯斯 raised an eyebrow and drew in a breath to ream the 斯巴达战士 out, but from behind him 麦克 spoke up. “Say what you will about 斯巴达战士s, Lieutenant, one thing we don’t do is leave fellow soldiers behind to die.” Jai raised a finger. “With us at your side retaking your ship will not be hard to do. With Petya’s navigation charts and the computers synchronized—” “We won’t be leaving citizens behind to be massacred,” 凯斯 interrupted. He already had to live with leaving Charybdis IX on its own. He couldn’t bring himself to run away from yet another fight. “The 模板:Rubble has no love for the UNSC,” Jai said. “They are mostly Insurrectionists.” 凯斯 wondered if the 斯巴达战士 was really that cold, having been trained to do nothing but kill Insurrectionists, and unable to shake that training. Or if Jai was somehow testing him. “There are children, 斯巴达战士, and citizens. They will be slaughtered. I will offer my services to them, and we will be ready to fight for the 模板:Rubble.” Jai folded his arms. “Look—” “The 模板:Jackals are moving out of the 模板:Rubble,” Dante Kirtley shouted. 凯斯 snapped his head up in interest. “They’re moving out?” “He’s right. Take a look.” Up at the front 麦克 tapped one of the many screens before his seat. 模板:Jackal ships all eased their way out from the 模板:Rubble, according to the contacts on the radar and reports from all over the 模板:Rubble. “Like rats from a sinking ship,” 凯斯 muttered. Jai moved in for a closer look himself. “Does the Council know? Where’s 模板:Juliana? Get that damn AI here, she has to have spotted this.” 凯斯 stepped back. The 斯巴达战士 sounded agitated. “My, my, temper, little 斯巴达战士,” 模板:Juliana said. She’d appeared at their sides. “Time is short!” Jai said. “We don’t have the time to sit around and debate things. We need to move quickly.” “What’s going on?” 凯斯 asked, realizing that Jai’s frustration mainly came from leading a small team, alone, and now being part of a committee trying to figure out how to defend an entire community. Jai was somewhat out of his element. 凯斯, on the other hand, had expected something to happen. The 模板:Rubble was basically a very large, slow ship, and it was constantly making course corrections. “I come bearing news,” 模板:Juliana said. “The Council has 模板:Rethought their approach based on this behavior. I had them recast their votes. They’re willing to consider our plans. Second: aboard that 奇戈亚尔 ship I stole some encryption keys. I’ve been tracking their chatter. We’re in even more trouble than just the 奇戈亚尔 attacking—according to the 奇戈亚尔, they’re expecting high ranking officials from the very top of the Covenant hierarchy, and possibly a Covenant fleet, to arrive shortly.” “When?” 凯斯 asked. “Even they don’t know. Just… soon.” 凯斯 looked at Jai. “Still think we can even make a stand now?” Jai slowly shook his head. “A whole Covenant fleet? Not without some minor miracle. These people are all doomed.” 凯斯 felt he had to agree. It was a chilling feeling. “The Council agrees,” 模板:Juliana said. “They have decided to launch the Exodus habitat and evacuate the 模板:Rubble.” “The Exodus habitat?” 凯斯 asked. “You mentioned the name before. I need to ask, what is it?” Jai turned back to look at him. “Right, you need to get caught up a bit.”
- OUTER RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
Thel stalked across the bridge. “All the 奇戈亚尔 ships are leaving the 模板:Rubble?” Zhar exhaled through his mandibles in an audible sigh of happiness. “Yes. Now we won’t have to worry about firing on them. One less reason the Prophets may seek to damn us when they arrive.” “Contact 模板:Reth,” Thel ordered, tamping down his annoyance with Zhar’s obsession about the wills of Prophets. They were 圣赫利—noble warriors. This dithering didn’t bode well. “It is time we spoke since his escape.” Zhar bowed his head and fiddled about. Thel ignored Zhar’s mutterings with distant 奇戈亚尔, moving his way up the chain of command, until 模板:Reth’s long face appeared on one of the screens. Thel faced the image. The 奇戈亚尔 still wore bandages over the wounds Saal had inflicted on him. “Shipmaster,” 模板:Reth said, the words dripping with fury. “You have stolen Infinite Spoils, the pride of my fleet.” Thel ducked his head. “I am not here for recrimination, 模板:Reth. You will do what you have been asked. I can only do the same, for we are both soldiers of the Covenant. I have offered to stay away from your main target, but I am also going to start attacking the humans.” “Do what you wish. Keep them occupied, 圣赫利. The longer their eyes aren’t looking toward this moon, the better.” The 奇戈亚尔’s image flicked off. Thel looked around at the nervous 昂苟伊, and the now petulant Zhar. “That 奇戈亚尔 will do his best to assassinate us with words to his Hierarch,” Zhar said. “Why talk to him like this, Shipmaster? It serves nothing but to remind him that we’re here.” Thel ignored Zhar. “Prepare this ship’s weapons.” He walked over to a screen showing the image of their first target, a small asteroid on the edge of the 模板:Rubble with mining equipment on it. The long-barreled mass drivers could sling ingots of metal across the 模板:Rubble to wherever they were needed. The larger machines could send these slugs across the entire system, from planet to planet. They made effective antiship weapons in a pinch, Thel knew. He’d encountered a few repurposed mass drivers in the service of canny humans before. “Destroy it,” he ordered, and watched as several balls of energy barreled their way across the empty space between them to plow into the asteroid, ripping it apart in fiery destruction. Normally his heart leapt when dealing fire to his enemies. In this case, Thel felt as if he was merely going through the motions. He had no idea what the Prophets would think of all this. But he had to do his duty. And 圣赫利 knew all too much about duty and nobility. It ran in the blood.
- PETYA, HABITAT TIAGO,
- THE RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
The first attack on the 模板:Rubble came from the Infinite Spoils. 凯斯 had 麦克 put the information up on one of Petya’s larger screens. “They’re going after the mass drivers,” 模板:Juliana reported. “They realize they’re damn good weapons,” 凯斯 said. Another blow. He’d hoped that the 模板:Jackals hadn’t realized the defensive potential of the mining equipment. It would have been a useful surprise. 模板:Delgado joined them, out of breath from running across the dock to get to the Petya. “They’re starting the attack?” “The Council is calling for the 模板:Rubble to evacuate to the Exodus habitat,” 模板:Juliana told him. “There are ships moving in to defend the mass drivers and the most populated habitats while the evacuation proceeds. Exodus is being moved toward one of the limbs of the 模板:Rubble, so that civilians can get to it by tube car. I’m initiating emergency routing, all cars are one way.” “How long will it take to get everyone evacuated?” 凯斯 asked. “A million citizens, once Exodus is docked, will take twelve hours. With me presiding. But then there is another question,” 模板:Juliana said. She turned to look at the 斯巴达战士s. “The Exodus can hardly go anywhere without the right data.” “The 科尔 Protocol is absolute,” 凯斯 said. “We cannot risk handing that over.” “Not even to save a million lives?” 模板:Delgado asked. “Because it risks billions more,” 凯斯 said. “Don’t even look at the 斯巴达战士s, you turn and look at me. I’ll carry the weight here. We cannot turn risk back on whole planets.” 模板:Juliana practically hissed her next sentence. “I have not held onto the edge of rampancy for years trying to save all this, just to watch the UNSC walk away from it.” 凯斯 closed his eyes. The weight of the entire million lives felt as if they were crushing his skull. He wanted to find a way to help. Anyway. But… “模板:Juliana, there are hundreds of thousands of trained Grunts getting ready to board 模板:Jackal ships, and a suspected Covenant fleet getting ready to hit this system. You calculate the odds: what would you do if you were me?” 模板:Juliana paused for a moment, running through simulations and possibilities, no doubt. “Give us something, Lieutenant. According to the records on your ship you’re known for thinking outside the box. Now would be a good time, Lieutenant 凯斯, to do some serious out-of-the-box thinking. “We need your help,” the AI whispered. “A last stand isn’t what’s needed. They need to be saved.” 凯斯 sat heavily in a seat. He looked at the images of 昂苟伊 Grunts lining up amid the large structures on the waterfall of liquid methane. He started flipping through the 模板:Jackal ship numbers. Hundreds of them perched on the ground on Metisette, except for the handful that had just withdrawn from the 模板:Rubble and were targeting mass drivers, as well as other weapons-like systems. He tapped his pen against the screen, missing the heirloom pipe he usually held. It was still back on the 仲夏夜号, with all his other effects. “模板:Juliana, the habitats and asteroids, the parts of the 模板:Rubble—you keep them all aligned, correct?” 凯斯 looked up and saw the AI nod. He looked back down at the Covenant forces. They were all on the ground. Vulnerable, if you had the right weapons. Or something close enough. 凯斯 stood up, and the eyes of everyone in the cockpit tracked him. “The Exodus is not the only habitat with engines—the entire 模板:Rubble can move. 模板:Juliana is constantly keeping the entire structure of the 模板:Rubble aligned. Which means they all have engines. Which also means, given enough time, the 模板:Rubble can be used as a weapon itself as it’s emptied and abandoned.” 模板:Juliana hadn’t seen it, 凯斯 realized, because it was almost a form of suicide. The AI lived for the 模板:Rubble. It was a part of her. But it was lost to them. The Exodus was how these people would survive. So why protect the 模板:Rubble anymore? 凯斯 pointed at the forces marshalling on the surface of Metisette. “The Covenant has destroyed us from orbit. Why not return the favor for once?” He looked over at the 斯巴达战士s, and was surprised to see a trio of grins. Gray Team was in.
- PETYA, HABITAT TIAGO,
- THE RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
Jai realized there was excitement building in the air. They’d gone from looking defeat in the eye, from contemplating a million lost lives, to realizing that 凯斯 had come up with a seed of a working strategy. 模板:Juliana was glowing, abstract figures flowing faster and faster over the holographic space of her body. It was as if she was breathing faster and faster, as if having a panic attack, and then she slowed. “I… I think I see what you’re thinking, 凯斯.” Jai saw that 凯斯 had been watching her closely. “模板:Juliana, can you help us do it?” “It… it won’t be easy,” she said. Jai and 凯斯 exchanged glances. This was their best opportunity. If the AI stood in their way, it could all fall apart. Jai moved close. “模板:Juliana, they all need you now more than ever.” She focused on him, as if seeing him for the first time. “Ah, 斯巴达战士, are you worried about me?” Jai blinked, not sure what to say, and 模板:Juliana laughed. “You’re worrying about me, aren’t you? It’s flattering, 斯巴达战士. So flattering. But what I meant was that it’s going to be hard to dodge the 模板:Jackal defenses and sensors.” On one of the screens three large structures were highlighted, then picked out of the picture and zoomed. “Item number one is the central processing unit for their sensor grids. A big building. Kill that, and you take out their ability to see anything coming. “These other two are Covenant antiship weapons, mounted to keep their Redoubt safe. They’ll be firing at any non-Covenant ships coming in. You’ll be dodging them to land. Not only that, they may be powerful enough to strike at any pieces of the 模板:Rubble that I throw at them.” Jai studied them. “We’ll have to jump right into the heart of the attack to disable these?” “Do that,” 模板:Juliana said, “and I’ll rain Armageddon down on them, I promise you.” 凯斯 leaned over and looked as well. “For this you’ll need ODSTs. Can we get the Council to let us back aboard my ship?” “I’m sure they’ll be cooperative at this point,” 模板:Juliana said. “You’ll need to be moved,” 凯斯 said. “I can offer you space aboard 仲夏夜号; we have the processing power for you. That is, if Exodus does not have the power yet. I know it’s not completed.” “I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be staying with the 模板:Rubble,” 模板:Juliana said. “To hit Metisette and the Redoubt from here will require tricky calculations. I need to ride the pieces down where I can make instant adjustments for the best effect.” No one said anything for a moment. 凯斯 looked at the hologram. “Are you sure about this, 模板:Juliana?” “I lived for the 模板:Rubble. What am I without it? And who else can do this? You all know I’m approaching rampancy. I certainly know I am.” 模板:Juliana chuckled. “How many get to choose how they will die. And how few in such a poetic manner? Besides, you can’t get away with all the heroism here.” The words hung in the air as everyone let that settle in. They were all taking similar actions, and could well share the AI’s fate. Jai touched the lieutenant’s arm. “The Exodus. What do we do?” “Have the Petya stand off by the Exodus with the navigation data. If we fail, Petya makes a run for it. The moment we’re successful, though, I think we should take a risk, don’t you? We give them the navigation data, to be handed over when the ‘all clear’ goes through. Petya and 仲夏夜号 can pair up and cover the Exodus as it launches off to… wherever it’s going to go. We go our own way. They head off into the depths of the galaxy, far from the Covenant, using random jumps.” “We’ll still face a court-martial,” Jai said, curious to see what 凯斯’ reaction would be. “We’ll still have saved a million lives,” 凯斯 said. “I think it’s worth it. We keep with the Exodus, long enough to make sure its well clear.” Jai stood fully up from their quick conference. “So now we move.” Adriana stepped forward. “I want in on dropping to Metisette.” “Adriana…” “You took on the 模板:Jackal ship alone. You’re asking me to sit this one out as well?” 麦克 stood up, and Jai shook his head. “Petya needs its pilot. We can’t afford to lose the ship.” The three of them hadn’t worked as a team in combat since all this trouble erupted in the 模板:Rubble, but then, their missions always seemed to be a by-the-minute sort of thing. And Jai didn’t relish the thought of trying to even stop Adriana this time out, now that she knew there was a big fight ahead on Metisette. For as long as he’d known her, Jai knew she was actually looking forward to it.
模板:Delgado had offered his services as a pilot, and 凯斯 had accepted. Now 模板:Delgado trooped his way aboard the 仲夏夜号, surprised by all the tight corridors, low bulkheads, and lack of confusion in the flurry of returning people on deck. Everyone had a mission: get the Night on its way toward Metisette at the highest possible speed. When he got to the bay of the 仲夏夜号 模板:Delgado was shown a Pelican. “We lost a damn good pilot back on Charybdis IX,” a grizzled fellow pilot with blond hair and a strong jaw said. His uniform had a patch naming him as Finlay. “I’m sorry to hear it,” 模板:Delgado said, walking around the long-tailed machine. “Damn Insurrectionists,” Finlay said. “Shot him right out of the sky.” 模板:Delgado looked over at the blond pilot. “Is there a problem?” “Yeah.” Finlay threw a punch to the gut that doubled 模板:Delgado up, coughing. “I don’t like Insurrectionists. You sons of bitches have cost us enough—now we’re covering your asses on some suicide mission?” 模板:Delgado staggered back, and Finlay stepped forward. 模板:Delgado planted his feet and head-butted the man in the face. Finlay staggered back, hand on a bloody nose. “You goddamned—” He didn’t get any further. Pilots and an officer surrounded him, pulling him away. “I’m not a damn Insurrectionist,” 模板:Delgado said as he walked by him. One of the other pilots joined him. “He’s a bit strung out by all this. He and Jeffries hit it off pretty quickly.” “Jeffries was the one who was killed?” “Yeah. Nice guy. Great pilot.” 模板:Delgado stopped. “I’m sorry to hear about it. But I didn’t kill him.” The other pilot nodded. “I know. Come on. They’re going to get Finlay patched up and calmed down. For all his testiness, you can trust him in the air, you understand? But we still should give him some space.” 模板:Delgado nodded and followed the pilot away. The plan was to have the 仲夏夜号 come in fast at Metisette’s upper atmosphere, then decelerate by aerobraking. Once the friction of the atmosphere had slowed them down, the ODSTs and 斯巴达战士s would be released. Then 仲夏夜号 would boost up and out again, and loop back around to settle into orbit so that her Pelicans could retrieve the ground forces. But there was a good chance, 模板:Delgado knew, that even if they were successful, if the 斯巴达战士s and ODSTs took too long they would all still be on the surface as the evacuated parts of the 模板:Rubble came down. Then 模板:Delgado wouldn’t be needed at all. The deck of the 仲夏夜号 vibrated. The ship had left its berth in El Cuidad, and was accelerating toward Metisette. Here we go, thought 模板:Delgado.
凯斯 was back on the bridge of the 仲夏夜号, but this time he sat in the commander’s chair. He hadn’t thought about Zheng in a while. Too much else going on. But as they thundered toward Metisette, he wondered what thoughts would’ve run through Zheng’s mind in this same predicament. Zheng had been feared as a suicidal leader, one willing to throw his ship against the Covenant. An unfair assessment, 凯斯 knew. And ironic. Because here 凯斯 was now throwing his own ship and crew into a mission that might well have the same result. He’d promoted Dante Kirtley to Ops. Rai Li remained on weapons. A junior officer, Lieutenant Second Grade Jason Burt, managed communications. And 凯斯 had navigation rerouted to the commander’s chair, because what they were about to do was beyond tricky. “How are you doing on your end, 模板:Juliana?” 凯斯 asked. “Slinging mass and burning fuel, Lieutenant.” All throughout the 模板:Rubble docking tubes had been severed as the last of the occupants pushed their way through. Deputies with bullhorns shouted and directed traffic toward the Exodus habitat, but so did every computing device in the 模板:Rubble. They’d all been taken over by 模板:Juliana and were blaring the need for evacuation. She’d shown 凯斯 some of the organized chaos. “I just took out the five 奇戈亚尔 communications relays,” 模板:Juliana reported. She’d used the last of her mass drivers to fire hyperkinetic slugs of metal at each of them. Now 奇戈亚尔 comms were down to line of sight. “And here comes those annoying 奇戈亚尔 ships that have been hovering around.” 凯斯 smiled. It was a small trap for the 模板:Jackals. Knowing that they would move in, 模板:Rubble ships with missiles were lurking around the mass drivers to ambush them. 模板:Juliana fed 凯斯 grainy video showing sparks of fire and tracers lighting up the vacuum, and the resulting return fire of plasma as 奇戈亚尔 and 模板:Rubble ships fought it out over the mass drivers. “Where’s the Infinite Spoils?” 凯斯 asked. That was the one he was nervous about. That 模板:Jackal ship could match his frigate, from what he’d seen while aboard it. “Keeping back. You said there were 圣赫利 aboard it?” 模板:Juliana asked. “We saw Elites, yes,” 凯斯 replied. “While we were retreating.” A screen popped up on the arm of his chair, showing him a diagram of where that ship lurked. It was moving toward several of the large habitats, now thankfully abandoned. The screen jumped to video showing plasma ripping apart the large asteroids and boiling rock as clouds of air burst out along with slagged metal. Hopefully destroying those parts of the 模板:Rubble would keep that monster at bay until 凯斯 was done. Then he looked forward to engaging it. He shut the views down and brought up Metisette. “Good luck, 模板:Juliana,” 凯斯 said. The decoupled habitats that 模板:Juliana commanded were trailing far behind 仲夏夜号 on a separate trajectory. The 模板:Rubble trailed behind Hesiod in the same orbit around the sun as the gas giant. And Metisette orbited Hesiod. That meant that soon Metisette would disappear behind Hesiod from the point of view of the 模板:Rubble. 凯斯 was rushing to catch Metisette even as this happened. His signal to 模板:Juliana, a direct line-of-sight signal, was failing even now as Hesiod’s stormy atmosphere began to get between them. 模板:Juliana’s trajectory was different. The pieces of the 模板:Rubble under her command were much slower. She was moving them forward from their trailing point behind Hesiod to a point where Metisette would be when it came out from behind Hesiod in its orbit. To be strict about it, the 模板:Rubble wouldn’t rain down upon Metisette. Instead, Metisette’s orbit would swing the moon around Hesiod at breakneck speed right into the pieces 模板:Juliana had jockeyed into place. The effect, however, was the same. The Redoubt would be destroyed. If they all did their work. 凯斯 had the frigate moving so fast it was shaking. The reactor could be close to overheating, yet no one breathed a word about how hard they were pushing the ship. They all knew they needed each additional second. “ODSTs ready?” 凯斯 asked. “Standing by,” Lt. Kirtley reported. “Aerobraking in four minutes. Everyone strap in and hold on.” The 仲夏夜号 was in the shadow of the moon now, streaking toward it like an arrow toward a bull’s-eye. 凯斯 could see the swirls and outlines of the moon’s clouds. It grew over the next minutes until it filled the cockpit with its strange orange- and red-hued light. 凯斯 was aiming his ship deep into the thick atmosphere, counting on the immense friction to slow 仲夏夜号 down. He’d timed this down to the millisecond, run it by 模板:Juliana, and now all he could do was let the ship’s computers continue with the course… and hope. They’d picked up 模板:Jackal contacts, but they’d approached too fast for them to engage. They’d run right through the cordon before the 奇戈亚尔 even realized they were there. “Aerobraking!” 凯斯 shouted. They hit Metisette’s atmosphere and the ship began to buck and pitch. A junior officer standing by was thrown clear across the bridge. “I gave orders to strap in, damn it,” 凯斯 snarled as the young man grabbed someone’s chair, his arm bent at an impossible angle, his face bloodied. “You’re endangering the bridge crew.” The man crawled away and got himself to a safe place and strapped in, moaning loudly due to his injuries. A fireball grew around the frigate, heating up as they continued to thunder through the high atmosphere of Metisette. Deck plates creaked and groaned as they readjusted. 凯斯 glanced at the readouts. They were losing speed. Dramatically. They were also losing hull integrity. The friction was burning off plates every second. 凯斯 tapped the screen. A second set of preloaded routines sprung into effect. Thrusters fired, slowing them down even further. He glanced at the topographical map of Metisette that 模板:Juliana had uploaded to his computers. “One minute!” 凯斯 shouted. They were closing in on the Redoubt. They would be moving fast when they shot the ODSTs out. He could only hope the pods and their bodies could handle what came next. He didn’t know of anyone who’d attempted dropping ODSTs in a maneuver like this. The seconds ticked by as he waited. A hull-breach alarm sounded, and 凯斯 looked over at Kirtley. “Hull abrasions, no serious structural damage, within expectations,” the lieutenant reported. The aerobraking had lost them a lot of hull, but the ship would hold. “The ODSTs are go in ten,” 凯斯 said. He tapped the console to give authorization. The 仲夏夜号’s computers took care of the rest, spitting the ODSTs out from a bay like bombs being dropped on an enemy city. 凯斯 watched them fall away like dangerous, black spores on another screen, then looked up as emergency klaxons went off. “Covenant antiaircraft fire!” Rai Li shouted. Teardrops of contained plasma rose to meet their ship. 凯斯 turned off the thrusters and slammed on the main engines. All ahead full, he thought with a grimace, as plasma grazed the sides of the ship. The 仲夏夜号 shuddered and clawed its way along, struggling to escape the moon’s gravity and get back into orbit. “Come on, girl,” 凯斯 found himself muttering quietly to the ship. “You can do it.”
- THE REDOUBT, METISETTE, 模板:23librae
Jai felt the SOEIV slam against him as it fired rockets to reach a sane velocity right before it slammed into the ground. The front popped off, and Jai stepped out onto the surface of Metisette with his battle rifle up. Four SOEIVs had already hit the ground around him. Two ODSTs stumbled out; one fell to his knees. “Shit, I can’t even see straight,” he muttered over the comm channel. “Can the chatter,” Jai said. They’d had a brutal launch from the ship and a rough journey down filled with Covenant antiaircraft fire picking them off. And even Jai had been slightly rattled by the whole experience. But they were in enemy territory right now. They needed to get sharp, and quick. They had four hours of air strapped to their backs with rebreathers and tanks. They needed to get this mission wrapped up as fast as possible. The air was thick and red, and a similar eerie red fog covered everything around them. Jai continued looking around. They’d landed within a mile of their target: the spirelike building along the banks of the methane river that housed the sensor equipment, capable of spotting the 模板:Rubble. On 模板:Juliana’s map it hadn’t looked so imposing, Jai thought. “We launched with three Shivas,” Jai radioed. “Tell me at least one of them managed to make it down.” He glanced at their ID pips briefly to get their names. Mutuku was yanking on the front of an SOEIV. The front popped loose, and a fully-suited ODST fell out. “Jones ate it.” The other Helljumper, Adams, yanked the other pod open. “Your bomb, sir.” Jai ran over. Good. He glanced around. The other SOEIV pods must have landed all over the damn place. They were the only ones out of fifteen supposed to hit here. They’d have to do. Jai dragged the Shiva free from the pod. A foldable frame with wheels came loose as he yanked on it. “Form up.” Jai grunted from the strain of shoving the frame under the large missile. Once underneath it, he pressed a button, and the wheels deployed. With the two marines covering his flanks, Jai started pulling the nuclear warhead toward the building. Mutuku opened fire. Jai looked over to his right to see two 昂苟伊 tumble to the ground, dead. Ahead, more materialized. Jai gunned them down, realizing that they were only lightly armed. “We caught them off guard,” Mutuku observed. “They’re carrying pistols.” “Good for us, then,” Jai said. “Keep moving.” More 昂苟伊 Grunts came, a fast frontal assault in two waves of ten. Jai picked them off as Mutuku and Adams held off attacks from the sides. They sprinted for the building’s door, which Jai kicked down. He threw a grenade inside and ducked as a cloud of debris flew out over him. Three 奇戈亚尔 hid behind energy shields in the far corner of the room. Jai left the Shiva behind and took cover around the nearest corner. Mutuku and Adams got the 模板:Jackals’ attention with a burst of rifle fire; Jai threw a grenade behind them. As they turned around to shield themselves from the blast Jai picked them off. “We need to clear the building,” Jai said. “We’ll hold the door,” Adams said. Jai ran down the hallway that the 模板:Jackals had come from. He turned a corner, and found himself face-to-face with another. He swept the butt of his rifle up without a second thought and caught it in the chin. The alien flew backward in a spray of purple blood. Jai barely slowed down his run. He got up a set of ramps without anything getting in his way, but as he started moving from room to room he found plenty of Grunts inside. They were armed with plasma pistols. Jai hardly bothered keeping a count. He just moved from room to room, a gray killing machine. Within fifteen minutes he’d swept the entire building. The rest of the upper floors looked to be just equipment. If any Grunts were hiding up there, they were cowering away and not going to present a problem. He sprinted back to the foyer where the two Helljumpers waited. “How are we looking?” Adams sighted down his rifle. “A handful of Grunts made a run on the door. We dropped them. But I think there are a lot more out there gearing up to come our way.” The building was half a mile upstream from hundreds of thousands of Grunts waiting to board hundreds of 模板:Jackal ships. Jai curled his lip at the thought of so many Grunts attacking. They wouldn’t need weapons, they could just throw themselves at the team. “There’ll be more,” he said. Satisfied they had the situation under control, he pulled the Shiva down the corridor. He’d spotted a thick door leading to what looked like a maintenance room. He kicked the door open and smiled. A whole room of Covenant junk—consoles, chairs, screens. He wheeled the Shiva into the heart of the room and pulled the cart out, smashing it to uselessness so the Shiva couldn’t be easily moved. “Jai, they’re pressing hard,” Mutuku radioed over the sound of plasma fire striking nearby. Battle rifles clattered. “Maybe a hundred Grunts this time.” “On my way soon,” Jai promised. He shoved Covenant junk up against the Shiva after checking the readout on the front. The timer said they had two hours before Pelicans would be back to rescue them. Once he had the Shiva covered he left it, closing the heavy door behind him. “Stowed our present away?” Adams asked from the side of the entrance. Jai held his rifle up and scanned the murk outside. A lot of dead 昂苟伊 lay out in the mist. “Safe for now.” “Now we stay put until the antiaircraft guns go down.” An explosion in the distance made them jump. “Well, there goes one,” Jai said, checking his ammo with a sense of satisfaction.
- THE REDOUBT, METISETTE, 模板:23librae
Adriana opened her eyes inside the HEV. How long had she been out? The HEV had slammed into a building before the retro-rockets had finished their full burn, bringing it to a near stop. It had bounced down the side and hit the ground headfirst, crumpling badly. She’d been knocked out by the impact. In the dark she couldn’t tell if her vision was okay, but she had a raging headache and what felt like whiplash. She slapped the cover-eject switch and the explosive bolts on the cover thudded. It hardly moved an inch, but now streams of orange light came in from around cracks between the cover and the pod. The HEV was facedown on the ground. Adriana swore. She pulled her knees up, forcing herself back against the restraints and padding, compressing it to get her feet under her. The knees of her armor ground and scraped against the cover, but she finally planted her feet. Then she pushed the entire HEV up, lifting it onto her shoulders. She heaved it off to the side where it landed with the restraints facing the sky. It would have been a lot easier had it landed like that, she thought. She looked around. “Oh…” Tens of thousands of Grunts turned to face her, ripples of activity passing through their ranks like wind through tall grass. Since nothing had initially popped out of the pod, they’d ignored it and continued to line up to board the giant troop carriers that awaited them in this plaza. Adriana was supposed to land outside the Redoubt, close to one of the antiaircraft emplacements. Not here. “…shit.” She dove back into the HEV as plasma-pistol shots struck the sides. The HEVs held a little bit of rocket fuel to allow soldiers to use them to easily hop over to a new location. But that required them to be standing up, in the position they were designed to land. Adriana triggered the emergency burst with the HEV lying flat anyway, and the HEV took off across the mile-long plaza. It plowed through Grunts who flew overhead in sprays of bright-blue blood, constantly thumping and shivering as it made its way through the tightly packed mass. The engines finally sputtered, then stopped, and the HEV ground to a halt over the icy rock. Adriana vaulted out and ducked behind it with her battle rifle in one hand, yanking a rocket launcher out with the other. She was out of the main mass of Grunts. Those still hovering couldn’t decide whether to chase her or continue boarding their vessel. A massive, purple-stained gap in the center of the 昂苟伊 formation indicated the path the HEV had rocketed through. Some hundred Grunts finally peeled off to make a run at her. Adriana fired in short, controlled bursts, watching wave after wave of Grunts tumble forward and die. There were so many. She was quickly running out of ammunition, and now hundreds of outraged Grunts had drawn their pistols and started a second assault on her position. Just not enough ammo, she thought, checking her heads-up display. And she didn’t want to use the rockets. Those were her last resort. Screw it, this was a last-resort situation; it was her against a moonfull of Grunts. She popped up with the launcher on her shoulder and unleashed everything she had before ducking back for cover. As the plaza boiled with rocket fire, she looked for blips on her heads-up display. Some of the signals were of HEVs that were weapons caches, dropped alongside the regular HEVs. She needed one right now. She spotted one half a mile away. Adriana threw the empty rocket launcher away and dashed from the large open grounds of Grunts before they could regroup. She grinned as she approached a larger, bulky HEV that had struck into the side of one of the many tall structures that ringed the plaza. The 模板:Jackals had just grounded ships and turned them into buildings, by connecting them. Almost as ramshackle and bizarre as the 模板:Rubble, she thought, as she ripped the cover off the HEV. A quad bike almost fell out onto her. “A Mongoose?” she whispered. Useless. The four-wheeled ATVs just meant you were a biking target. Several Grunts rounded one of the arches of the building. Adriana picked the Mongoose up by the handlebars, using it as a shield, and then ran into the small group, slamming the Grunts into the ground with it. The Mongoose worked well as a weapon, a giant four-wheeled hammer that she used to crush three more Grunts in explosions of purple blood, until the wheels had all bounced off, the chassis warped, and finally snapped. Adriana tossed the ruined machine away. Her muscles would pay for that later, but for now, there was too much adrenaline for her to notice. In the distance, a long line of Grunts moved through the mist and buildings at her. She checked her ammo and prepared for the onslaught, just as a distant explosion caught her attention. They needed all the antiaircraft emplacements knocked out. They needed it more than they needed some extra dead Grunts. No matter how many she killed, they just kept coming at her. She needed to think smarter. Adriana sprinted for the distant river of methane, visible by the fog banks created by the waterfall as it hit the warm grounds of the Redoubt. Plasma fire hit the rocks near her, kicking up steam and molten splashes that stained her armor. Adriana ran faster than she ever had before in training, or in battle. This was staying smart. She needed to find a way to rendezvous with the ODSTs trying to take out the second emplacement. In the dense fog she had to slow down a bit, but it gave her a chance to catch her breath. The motion tracker in her heads-up display, overwhelmed up to this point, cleared, and showed friendlies. Four Helljumpers were pinned at the riverbank behind their HEVs by Grunts. Adriana ran up behind them. “What’s the situation?” “Two 模板:Jackal snipers. Lots of Grunts. Every time we try to break out of the fog and make a run at the antiaircraft gun they pick us off.” “You have the charges ready for the antiaircraft gun?” Adriana asked. “Who’s placing them?” One of the Helljumpers raised a hand. “Dobey took one in the head on the third attempt. But I can place them.” “There were supposed to be sixteen of you.” Adrienne pulled out the near-empty magazine on her battle rifle and slapped a fresh one in. “Ten of us made it down—we lost six trying to get up to the damn thing.” Adriana looked out into the rolling banks of orange-lit mist. Large boulders of ice and rock on the edge of the Redoubt made for good hiding places, both in the mist and outside of it. “Let’s stop at five attempts to charge that gun, shall we? I’ll take point.” She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep this pace up. She could feel her blood pounding since the moment she’d stood up, surrounded by a sea of the enemy. She realized now that she almost went out in a blaze of glory, until she’d spotted the river and came to her senses. But she was still struggling to think clearly and not merely react. She took a pair of large stones and threw them out right where the boundary of the mist ended. Two sharp bursts of plasma vaporized them. That was enough for Adriana to pinpoint where the shots came from. Adriana tossed a pair of grenades in a high arc, one right after the other, using her strength to get them higher than any normal human toss could. She counted off two seconds, then radioed, “On me!” The sprint through the mist took another several seconds. She dodged waist-high pieces of rock as she made her attack. Just as she was about to burst out of the mist, a good fifty feet ahead of the Helljumpers struggling to keep up with her, two grenades exploded behind the pair of boulders where she figured the snipers were taking cover. It was all the distraction she needed to cover the ground to the first 模板:Jackal’s boulder. The 模板:Jackal was already turning to face her when Adriana brushed the long Covenant weapon he held aside and struck him. Adriana grabbed the 模板:Jackal by its feet, whipping it around, until she found a boulder and bashed him against it. The 模板:Jackal died in a spasm, its spine pulverized against the rock, its suit leaking air. Rock exploded around her, and she dove behind another boulder. Three Grunts rounded on her, and Adriana used the last of her precious ammo for three head shots, taking a deep breath before each one to center her aim. She hardly noticed their grazing plasma fire. A grenade explosion from the other sniper’s position got her attention. Adriana sprinted around another boulder, rifle up and at the ready, and found a Helljumper finishing the sniper off with a handgun. The silvered faceplate turned to look up at her. “All clear,” the Helljumper radioed. One of them had gotten hit by the sniper as they’d rushed the position. But the Helljumper with the charges was still on his feet. Rising over the haze and boulders by the river were the large tripod legs of the Covenant antiaircraft battery. Adriana pointed. “Get that thing rigged ASAP, soldier. You two, follow me, we’re creating a perimeter. He rigs it, we hold it.” She bent over the dead Helljumper for his extra ammo magazines, and before she stood back up, tapped his helmet. “Okay gentlemen, let’s do this. We have an hour before the Pelicans return.” They fanned out into the boulders, watching for more Grunts and 模板:Jackals.
- METISETTE, 模板:23librae
模板:Delgado avoided looking over at his copilot. He didn’t want the UNSC pilot seeing the pale look of fear on his face as they bucked and kicked their way through the thick atmosphere of Metisette. 凯斯 had come at the moon fast, used its soupy atmosphere to burn off their speed, then sped back up into orbit to loop back around and drop the Pelicans off. Several smaller 奇戈亚尔 ships had come after them, but most of the troop carriers that had lifted off Metisette were staying well clear of the UNSC frigate. The 奇戈亚尔 ships attacking them were small, but then so was 凯斯’ frigate. 凯斯 was drawing them off, away from the drop zone. It was mostly working. As long as the antiaircraft guns didn’t fire when 模板:Delgado and the five other Pelicans came in over the Redoubt, this insane, highly fragile plan would work. 模板:Delgado watched as the clouds parted, and slammed his Pelican hard right to avoid a massive 奇戈亚尔 troop carrier climbing up and away from the complex. He wobbled back on course, looking over to the right to see another Pelican with a sheered tail diving and tumbling its way toward the ground. “That was Finlay,” someone radioed. 模板:Delgado came in low over the remains of the anti-aircraft emplacements with a smile, and touched down in front of the large spirelike building. The other Pelicans made similar flare-outs and landed in a row. He fumbled for a second when trying to find the switch to lower the ramp, but the copilot was on it. The moment the ramp hit the ground, boots stamped their way up and into the Pelican. 模板:Delgado turned around to see both 斯巴达战士s standing behind him. Their armor was hardly recognizable: dented, carbon burned, peeling and flaking from heat and plasma and abuse. They looked as if they’d fought through hell itself, 模板:Delgado thought. Helljumpers snapped themselves in along the sides of the bay. Several hung out the back of the Pelican, firing back at a solid mass of 昂苟伊 who started to flood the area. Plasma filled the air and slapped the sides of the Pelican. The 斯巴达战士s looked back, then tapped 模板:Delgado on the shoulder. “That’s everybody. Go go go,” he heard Jai yell over the radio. “The Shiva has ten minutes.” 模板:Delgado had the time up on a counter in his heads-up; he knew damn well how much time they had. He rammed the engines up full and pulled out over the Redoubt, moving upriver as fast as he could as Helljumpers fired their last few bursts from the closing ramp. Once well clear of the Redoubt, and with the cabin depressurized, 模板:Delgado began a slow spiraling climb with the other four Pelicans. A giant flash of light filled the inside of the Pelican. In the distance the Shiva went off. As the initial blast faded, they could see the plume of the explosion reaching up into the sky, slowly turning into a giant mushroom. Then 模板:Delgado’s slow spiral took it out of sight.
- THE REDOUBT, METISETTE, 模板:23librae
模板:Reth sat at a table as a healer checked him over. He’d been inside a command center when the massive explosion occurred, and since many of the 奇戈亚尔 ships grounded to make the skeleton of the Redoubt were fighting ships, he was therefore well shielded. He’d been safe. But he’d gotten a high dose of radiation. The healer left him with pills to take, and 模板:Reth stalked his way up to an enclosed balcony carved out of a large airlock. The Redoubt was a mess. It was a good thing they were moving out to take the 模板:Rubble, he thought. Rebuilding this would be expensive. There were 昂苟伊 leaders wanting to see him, shocked by the damage the humans had done and wondering what it meant for the timeline they had in mind for their continuing development of Metisette as a world for themselves. 模板:Reth growled. Humans. When the Prophet set him on this task, 模板:Reth had done it to raise his profile, and that of the 奇戈亚尔. He’d also enjoyed the guilty pleasure of working with the humans. Their profit-minded goals and 奇戈亚尔-like love of trade and smuggling and piracy had meshed. He’d been slightly disappointed to have to destroy the humans throughout the 模板:Rubble as the endgame of this grand experiment. Now though, he wondered if the Prophets weren’t right. The humans were unconscionable reprobates, too dangerous to let live. The Prophets’ call for their extermination was starting to make sense to him. 模板:Reth looked forward to taking the 模板:Rubble. Even more so, to getting the Exodus and the location to their homeworld on it. He’d happily burn it all for the Prophet, now. 模板:Reth left the balcony and donned a long cloak, his air supply for the walk across the plaza, and a pair of plasma pistols. He walked out in the plaza where droves of terrified 昂苟伊 stood. They’d all been dosed with antiradiation meds. Many had died in the blast, but 模板:Reth had had those bodies bulldozed away, and cleared the way for 昂苟伊 waiting in the lower warrens to line up and get aboard the troop carriers. He had only lost a few thousand to the bomb, thankfully, as the communications and scanning station was miles upstream of the core Redoubt plaza. It was time to repay the humans for their deeds, he thought, as he walked toward his shuttle and several of his senior 奇戈亚尔 officers. 昂苟伊 were shaking and looking up into the sky. It was growing brighter. 模板:Reth stopped and looked up. Giant fireballs were streaking down, growing larger and larger. The humans had taken out the antiaircraft batteries and his ability to see… to see this coming. He ran for his shuttle, shoving frightened 昂苟伊 aside. “Go!” he screamed at his pilot in the cockpit. “Get off the ground!” The shuttle fired its engines and started to rise, and 模板:Reth saw the first giant mound of rock slam into the Redoubt. But where had they come from? he wondered, as the shock wave threw his shuttle aside and dashed it against the side of one of the large buildings. The wreckage of the shuttle slid to the ground as debris and rock rained down on it. A dazed 模板:Reth looked up through the cracked glass of the shuttle; he stared directly up at one large fireball that plummeted right at him. It was irregularly shaped, he thought, with large docking collars sticking out of one side, melting away into slag as the heat deformed them. A piece of the 模板:Rubble, he realized just before it struck, vaporizing everything in an immense release of hyperkinetic energy and destruction.
- METISETTE ORBIT, 模板:23librae
Thel looked at the glowing, cratered remains of the Redoubt from orbit. “Nothing remains of 模板:Reth’s fleet. There is no sign of 模板:Reth himself, either.” A stillness descended on the bridge of the Infinite Spoils as both Zhar and Thel contemplated the destruction the humans had wrought on Metisette. “And now what, Shipmaster?” Zhar asked. “We have destroyed prime targets in the 模板:Rubble; the rest has dashed itself against Metisette.” Thel looked at the 昂苟伊 working for them, and thought about Saal, brooding somewhere deep inside the ship. “Some might say we have done our mission well, Zhar. Do you think the Prophets will believe it when they arrive?” Zhar looked at him, his mandibles flexing slightly as if tasting the air for clues as to what Thel might want as an answer. His once proud mind had become erratic in the face of the idea that the Hierarchs may have had differing goals, and that they’d gotten caught in the middle of some machination between the Prophets of Regret and Truth. Thel knew that 圣赫利 honor demanded they rise above it. He cleared his throat. “模板:Reth’s invasion fleet is in disarray. The Hierarchs will not be happy if we stand here and let the last of the humans escape with the location to Earth and the only chance all these loyal 昂苟伊 have to live.” Thel looked at the 昂苟伊 on the bridge as they paid close attention to him, without looking directly at him. So maybe 圣赫利 could play politics, Thel thought to himself, or at least set aside the desire for direct combat for a bit, despite the fact it coursed through their blood. “What do you mean?” Zhar said. “The Hierarchs want loyal subjects and true believers,” Thel said. “I cannot imagine what would happen to all these surviving 昂苟伊 if they do not try to take that asteroid in which the humans are trying to evacuate the system.” 昂苟伊 eyes balefully watched Thel pace the bridge now. Zhar coughed. “Their lives would all be forfeit.” Thel nodded. “They would indeed.” He turned to the 昂苟伊 in the room. “Tell your surviving brothers to board the Exodus asteroid. We will provide cover for the action, but then stand clear. That human ship is too much of a match for this ungainly 奇戈亚尔 boat.” He walked over and shut off the screen showing the ruins of the Redoubt. “The 昂苟伊 will take the asteroid, or die trying.” If the Hierarchs were to let any of them live, there was no other option. Zhar got up and walked over to Thel. “If the illustrious Hierarchs cannot agree on these things, what else do they disagree on, and what else might just be Prophet manipulation, Shipmaster?” Thel grabbed Zhar’s arm, and Zhar growled. But Thel looked his fellow 圣赫利 in the eye and whispered, “Such thinking lines the path to heresy. Do not indulge in it.” Zhar pulled free and left the bridge.
- HABITAT EXODUS, THE RUBBLE, 模板:23librae
From the moment the evacuation protocols had blared into life, Karl Simon’s day had been a blur of tubes and long lines, waiting to board a habitat he’d never heard of until today. And it was a habitat that was going to jet them toward a new system. Away from home. A home that was under attack. It reminded him of the day the Covenant attacked Madrigal: the same nervous lines of people, hushed rumors, and fear that hung in the air. At the very end, Karl had been shuttled to the Exodus in a cramped supplies freighter. He’d looked out the pilot’s windows and seen the craters and pitted surface of what looked like a tiny moon. The Exodus was six miles of potato-like asteroid, with a diameter of two miles. The freighter was a fleck of dust next to it, and the Exodus filled the windows as far as they could see as they approached it. We did this, Karl had thought with a momentary flash of pride. He’d been hustled to what felt like a stadium near the core of the ship, moving through miles and miles of corridors, following instructions on a card that had been handed to him in the shuttle. A hundred thousand other refugees, their murmuring echoing around the walls and ceilings, all had assigned chairs that matched numbers on their cards. But now, the moment Karl sat, an usher appeared. “Karl Simon?” “Yes?” “Volunteer for the 模板:Rubble Defense Force?” “Yes.” Karl had signed up during the early days of the 模板:Rubble, when they’d been looking over their shoulders every day, expecting the Covenant to return. “Come with me.” The usher led Karl out of the rows of chairs with restraints where everyone else was being ordered to buckle in. Outside, the usher pointed down a corridor. “Follow this all the way to the end. They need you there.” It was a mile, which Karl walked as fast as he could, slightly out of breath when he reached an open bay near the front of the asteroid where thirty men with rifles and handguns stood, guarding the entrance. A grizzled old miner looked him up and down. “Volunteer Defense?” “Yeah.” “You have certification in hand-to-hand combat and firearms training?” Karl nodded. The minder handed Karl a datapad and a handgun. “We have an estimated three thousand 昂苟伊 who’ve managed to get inside, more expected. You’re drafted. The doors behind us lead to the control center, the bridge, of the Exodus. The aliens do not get past here. Understand?” “Yes, sir,” Karl said, and took up position just as the floor started to shake. “What the hell is that?” one of the other men shouted, holding a machine gun up as a seven-foot-tall man in gray armor turned the corner. They all stared as the half-ton, armor-clad human walked up to them. “I have something the bridge crew needs,” he said, and held up a small black chip casing in his gauntleted hand. “Mind letting me through?” The 模板:Rubble Defense Force stepped aside, one of the large miners politely holding the door open for the giant, armor-clad soldier to step inside.
The bridge crew of the Exodus habitat hailed the 仲夏夜号. 凯斯 looked over at Lt. Burt on the comms. “Patch them through.” 仲夏夜号 had been covering the slow flight out to the edges of the system to prepare for a Slipspace jump for almost a day now. 昂苟伊 and 奇戈亚尔 fighters had dogged and harassed them the whole way, pockmarking the surface of the asteroid and occasionally scoring hits on the frigate, but unable to stop them. The desperate Grunt boarding parties left 凯斯 nervous. He’d had to make a snap decision to have the 斯巴达战士s hand over the nav data, but all indications were that the 模板:Rubble Defense fighters were keeping the Grunts pinned down. And more importantly, well clear of the cockpit. The Grunts, with their methane tanks and nowhere to go once the Exodus entered Slipspace, would eventually choke to death. 凯斯 had decided the million lives were worth the small risk. There’d been enough Colonist deaths by the Covenant so far. It was time to rescue some of them. He had no idea of what trouble might lie ahead for him from this decision, but the lives saved would be worth it. They were far now enough out to enter Slipspace. An engineer appeared, his overalls dirty, bags under his eyes. “Lieutenant 凯斯, I apologize, but the Security Council insisted I contact you.” The 模板:Rubble’s Council. 凯斯 had almost forgotten about them. “What’s wrong?” “The Exodus will not be able to make the trip. We don’t have the range and engine power. We expected more time to bring more engines online. With a Covenant fleet supposed to arrive, we have to go with what we have now. And what we have now, well, they’ll burn out, or if we make lots of small jumps, it will literally take centuries to cross the galaxy away from where Covenant or UNSC people would ever dare venture, as we originally planned.” The man looked defeated. “The Council knows?” 凯斯 asked. “Yes. They’re debating what to do.” The engineer looked down at the floor. “But the Exodus can make a journey, just not as far as originally intended?” 凯斯 confirmed. The Council didn’t want to return to the colonies. Would they be hardheaded enough to risk Exodus and everyone in it to try and leave the Covenant and colonies behind anyway? “Yes.” The engineer met his eyes. 凯斯 realized the engineer was worried about the same thing. “Put me through to the Council,” 凯斯 ordered. He thought about the last time he’d given a speech. Forget trying to sound stirring, he thought. Just lay it out. His duty was to convince the Council to head toward the Inner colonies. It was their best bet for survival. The screen filled with the members of the Security Council. The 模板:Rubble wasn’t working as a technocracy right now, not while being herded into their spots all throughout the Exodus asteroid. This was their leadership. And 凯斯 had to influence it. “Hello, I’m Lieutenant 凯斯, of the 仲夏夜号,” he said with a faint grin. He locked his arms behind him. It was a classroom habit, and it would keep him from reaching for the pipe which he’d found sitting in his belongings, thankfully untouched. “I’m a fighting man, but as commander of this ship, I know something about holding people’s lives in my hands. I won’t bullshit around. You have enough engine power to reach an Inner Colony quickly, where there will be some measure of protection, and access to resources. The other option is to risk a slow, long journey out to a destination that has neither, but in which you retain your own power. “I don’t know what the UNSC will do, and I can’t guarantee that all of you with Insurrectionist ties will be given a pass. But remember, you have a million lives you’re deciding for. A million lives who could make a difference in the future fight against these bastard aliens who destroyed the 模板:Rubble. Unless you choose to let the Covenant win.” 凯斯 looked at them all, and 玛丽亚 Esquival stood up. “We took a vote,” she said, “before you called.” 凯斯 sucked in his breath. She quirked a faint smile. “We’re aiming to reach the 18 Scorpii system. If you would escort us, Lieutenant.” “Of course,” 凯斯 said. “Make random jumps out, until we clear the asteroid of Grunts. We want to make sure not a single one remains alive before we turn toward the Inner Colonies.” His after-action report was going to be damning enough. Showing up with an asteroid full of evidence… well, 凯斯 figured he’d be spending time behind bars again soon. But he couldn’t turn his back on a million lives. He couldn’t leave them for the Covenant. Not again. 玛丽亚 nodded. “We have teams combing Exodus thoroughly.” 凯斯 waited until the screen flickered off, then looked around at his bridge crew. “It’s still tricky,” he said. “Don’t let those breaths out. We have to hope Petya’s computers can keep us in sync.” “Actually,” said a voice from the back of the bridge. “We ditched Petya.” The 斯巴达战士 at the back pulled his helmet off. It was 麦克. He held out a chip. “This what I think it is?” 凯斯 asked. “Navigation charts.” 麦克 sat down by 凯斯’ old console. “I ran simulations on syncing our two ships. The odds weren’t good. Made more sense to dump the freighter. I pressed your crew into service; we off-loaded a lot of the more useful cargo into your bay. We also cut loose a couple of Pelicans to make some room.” 凯斯 raised an eyebrow. “And I authorized this when?” 麦克 plugged the navigation data in, dumping star chart information into the ship’s computers. “I took some liberties. Time was short when you showed up. Jai and Adriana lent a hand; they’re still stowing things. A good price for the data, losing just a couple Pelicans, Lieutenant 凯斯, don’t you think?” 凯斯 straightened out his back, holding in his private smile. “Don’t ever try to run my ship for me again.” The 斯巴达战士 did not reply, but plugged in a random vector out of the system. “We’re going in the same direction. I carried these personally on a disk from their ship to this one. Can’t be intercepted. Will you give the order?” 凯斯 looked out into space through the windows of his bridge. “Send them the signal. Engage Slipspace drives.” All across Exodus engines flickered to life, and the asteroid struggled its way into Slipspace, ripping and clawing its way into a hole in the universe. It was ungainly, but the asteroid managed it, and 仲夏夜号 followed, leaving behind the remains of the 模板:Rubble.
- METISETTE ORBIT, 模板:23librae
模板:Bonifacio drifted in orbit around Metisette. The batteries on his pod were close to dead, and condensation dripped off the portholes. He’d seen the destruction of the Redoubt from orbit, the asteroids raining down into the atmosphere. Since then things had been quiet. The air was getting thick inside the pod, and it was hard to breathe. Occasionally he heard 奇戈亚尔 voices on the radio and sometimes fast 昂苟伊 chatter, but none of them would respond to his calls for help. Not even calls back to the 模板:Rubble had been answered. He’d pleaded and begged, even offered rewards, but gotten only static. He sat in place hugging his chest, when a loud pipping sound caught his attention. 模板:Bonifacio moved over and looked at the scans. A bulbous-headed ship had appeared in orbit nearby, expertly dropping out of Slipspace in a way no human ship could. Another flashed into space behind it, then another, and another. An entire Covenant fleet materialized in front of 模板:Bonifacio. This would be a new group of Covenant. Ones who hadn’t shut him out, 模板:Bonifacio thought. He moved to the radio. He’d surrender. Yes, he’d be a tool of the Covenant, a slave to them, but he’d live. Yes, he’d live. He grabbed the microphone and hailed the large cruiser moving nearby, and kept calling it until he saw it change course. 模板:Bonifacio’s heart skipped. He’d done it. He’d survived. He was going to get picked up. He smiled as he watched the cruiser pick up speed, and then frowned. It was still picking up speed. It was moving so close that he could see it from the windows of his pod, growing larger every second. A ball of energy gathered underneath the ship. 模板:Bonifacio screamed and put his hand up against the slimy, wet porthole as if to ward off the plasma that lashed out and struck his tiny pod. The massive Covenant cruiser plowed through the vaporized remains as it adjusted its orbit.
- INFINITE SACRIFICE, METISETTE ORBIT, 模板:23librae
Thel got to his knees and bowed to the pair of Hierarchs before him on the bridge of the Infinite Sacrifice. An honor guard of five 圣赫利 guards arrayed themselves around their floating chairs. “Rise,” the Prophet of Truth said. “You ordered the 昂苟伊 to storm the human vehicle after the 奇戈亚尔 模板:Reth’s death?” “Yes, Hierarch,” Thel said. “It was a chance to get the location of their homeworld. But we know now the 昂苟伊 and any 奇戈亚尔 that were with them have failed.” “How is that?” the Prophet of Regret asked. “Their air would have run out by now.” The heavy crowns of the Hierarchs bobbed as they considered that. “Indeed,” Truth said. “We are left only with 奇戈亚尔 who imagined they were helping humans, at 模板:Reth’s orders. Potential traitors, all of them. And these 昂苟伊 as well, breeding outside the law. Traveling without permits.” Regret shook its head. “A mess.” “A mess that revealed much,” Truth hissed. For a moment, an uncomfortable silence hung in the air. Then Regret nodded at Truth. “We will destroy all the traitors.” Thel felt his neck tighten. He’d failed to appreciate the situation, and now he would pay the ultimate price for his mistakes. The Hierarchs would have his head. Vadam would suffer. His lineage would be suspect. The floor beneath his feet felt as if it wavered, and then Thel stiffened. Zhar was moving forward. The 圣赫利 warrior had drawn the bar of his energy sword, but not yet unleashed it. “Zhar,” Thel hissed, horrified. Zhar seemed to be struggling with himself. “So you will kill us too, Shipmaster?” Zhar cried out. “Like animals? After all we served. How can I suffer such a dishonor? My line’s dishonor?” The honor guard drew their energy pikes, the ends shimmering with contained blue plasma. Zhar took another hesitant step forward, and Thel pulled out his sword and turned it on. “Zhar?” His old friend looked back at him. “I have already drawn,” he said. “I will not stand and let them dishonor me.” “I have drawn as well,” Thel said sadly. Zhar leapt forward, but Thel jumped as well, slamming into his side and spearing Zhar through the throat with his sword. It sizzled and spat 圣赫利 blood. Thel threw Zhar against a wall, then decapitated him with a swift swipe. He stared at the mess of blood and Zhar’s body, then turned back to the Hierarchs, setting his sword down on the ground away from him. What else could he have done? Thel wondered. Zhar had forced him into it. To step toward the Hierarchs with a sword in hand was madness. Regret looked shaken, but composed himself and piloted his chair out of the large bridge. “What madness 圣赫利 honor can be,” he muttered as he left. “They should be careful, lest they lose their way.” But Truth looked at Thel with analytical eyes. “Tell me your name, noble warrior.” “Thel ‘Vadamee,” Thel said. Truth moved closer, the honor guard moving with him. “You live. Say nothing of what happened here.” “Yes, Hierarch,” Thel said. “Report to the shipmaster—he will find you lodging until we return to High Charity.” Truth also left the bridge. Thel waited until they were well clear, then stood. He didn’t look at Zhar’s body as he walked to the large, 圣赫利 shipmaster to get his instructions. This mission was over, and Thel was grateful. He wanted a ship to command that was part of a fleet, not off on its own. But leading a mission, away from the Prophets where his decisions could or could not risk their wrath… Thel ‘Vadamee never wanted to be in that position again.
- UNSC FRIGATE READY OR NOT, OUTER 18 SCORPII
Commander Arthur Resnick of the frigate Ready or Not was enjoying a routine patrol at the edge of the system of 18 Scorpii. The slow pace gave him time to catch up on paperwork, and he was scrolling through a datapad full of reports when his navigation officer suddenly stiffened. “Sir?” Resnick glanced at the screen. “What the hell is that?” The report showed something… huge. It was bearing down on the system in Slipspace. The scan had been forwarded to them via an early warning sensor net and station farther out-system. “That’s gotta be Covenant,” he said. “None of us have anything that heavy.” The mass was off the charts. “It’s six miles long,” the navigation officer said. She sounded shocked. “Whatever it is.” “Send the warning.” The planet of Falaknuma would need to gear up as best it could. There wasn’t much in the way of UNSC Navy here. Falaknuma mainly served as a base for a section of the 军情局 Prowler Corps, and a handful of frigates. They were going to get overwhelmed pretty quickly, if past Covenant encounters were anything to judge by. Resnick cleared his datapad. “Get the MAC ready. Bring the reactor up to full operational power—” “Sir.” Comms stood up. “It’s broadcasting a UNSC friend-or-foe tag. The 仲夏夜号.” Resnick looked over at Navigation. Lt. Onika frowned. “There’s another signature in there. About the right size to be a frigate.” “Could be a trap.” “Standby, but wait for my order to fire,” Resnick said. “We stand off and watch this. For a moment.” Then the massive object dropped into real space and they finally got a read on it. A six-mile-long asteroid, trailing debris, one engine misfiring and a UNSC frigate trailing it. “Comms, open a channel,” Resnick ordered. On the screen a man with Navy-short salt-and-pepper hair appeared. “Ready or Not, this is Lieutenant 凯斯, of the 仲夏夜号. We’re all friendly. Do not fire.” 凯斯 grinned. “The asteroid is full of refugees from behind Covenant lines. They’re all civilians from what was once Madrigal. About a million of them. Their air is getting stale, the asteroid has been holed from being shot at, and the engines are critical. We need to get these civilians off the moment they get into a stable orbit.” The bridge crew of the Ready or Not stared at the large asteroid moving by them. Someone from the back of the bridge uttered what was on everyone’s mind: “Holy shit.” Resnick snapped around. “Alright, let’s get to it. Comms, we need to bump this up the chain of command and to the Colonial Administration Authority. Let’s get cracking—there are people’s lives at stake.” The bridge exploded into motion as the rescue effort began.
“We lost much,” the Prophet of Regret said. Truth looked at his fellow Hierarch. “No. We purged 奇戈亚尔 and 昂苟伊 who might have caused trouble, due to their inclinations to work with humans. And thanks to the modified weapons, we have found two more worlds of theirs to attack.” “Neither of which will be their homeworld,” Regret grumbled. “It is progress,” Truth said. From their throne room, high up in High Charity, they looked out over their subjects. Streams of other San’Shyuum wobbled around the city in the air in large rings, barges of 昂苟伊 flew from point to point, and pilgrims from all throughout the Covenant worlds thronged the streets. “We need to be more careful about the 圣赫利,” Regret said. “Honor and nobility might one day get in the way of orders.” Truth glided away from the city scene and into the heart of the chamber, where golden streams of light flashed through a gentle drug-smoke haze. “Maybe,” he said. “But some of them seem fiercely loyal, and very useful. I value loyalty.” Regret grunted. “I value results.” “Then it is good we work together,” Truth said. “For the good of the Covenant.” Regret picked up one of the bowls and inhaled. “For the good of the Covenant, yes. In all we do.” The two hierarchs had resolved the moment of bad blood that had grown between them. Their plans were back in synchronization. For now, Regret thought. For now.
- VADAM KEEP, YERMO, SANGHELION
“The Fleet of Particular Justice?” Lak ‘Vadamee asked. The old 圣赫利 walked along the keep’s walls with Thel. Thel had a new shipmaster’s cloak that tugged and kicked at him in the cold mountain wind. “I have never heard of it.” “It is a new reorganization of the fleets. Against the 圣赫利 Councilors’ desires. They have given me a cruiser to command within this fleet.” “A strange new age, Kaidon.” Thel looked out over Vadam valley, out toward the distant sea. “Stranger than I can dare speak. Even when I add my lines to the family saga.” “But our nobility rises, does it not?” Lak asked. “For now,” Thel replied. “But I have seen humans as strong and as fast as any of ours. And I have seen what happens to those who disappoint the Prophets.” “We are Vadam,” Lak said. “We shall persevere.” Thel started to say something, then paused. Lak had trained Thel when he’d been among the keep’s young. He’d bruised and kicked Thel, toughened him to be the warrior he was today. He’d taught him the histories, made him learn sagas, and taught him to reason. If he couldn’t trust Lak to be a close advisor, then Thel had no friends and was alone in this universe. “You must never repeat this, but I saw the Hierarchs argue with each other, and it cost the lives of many souls,” Thel finally said. “Is it heresy that I cannot shake the worry that gives me?” “There is heresy, and then there is heresy,” Lak said softly. Thel rested his hands on the stone in front of him. “What do you mean by that riddle, elder Lak?” “Long ago our ancestors believed without a doubt that the Forerunner artifacts we found scattered on our world were objects of veneration. We could study and worship them, and imagine transcendence. But that was it. To destroy, even take them apart, was heresy. “Then came the Prophets, who wanted the artifacts to study. They wanted to violate them and explore them. So we fought to prevent this heresy, and both Prophets and 圣赫利 almost perished in the fight. Now we let the Prophets do what they will and study these artifacts. Might made heresy change. But what is the true truth? Who knows?” Lak shrugged. “That is close to heretical,” Thel said, looking over at his old master. “I am an old 圣赫利,” Lak said. “I have been hit on the head too many times, and am easily confused. What do I know of theology?” Thel grumbled. “We shall persevere then, elder, heresies or not, and strive to follow the path. I might even rise above just shipmaster.” “That is the attitude to take, Kaidon. Enjoy your moments of triumph now. The future will come soon enough; there is no reason to dwell too much on it. Then you will end up an old creature who has spent far too much time worrying.” Thel followed Lak down the stairs into the warmth, where the elders of the Vadam waited to congratulate him on his success and promotion. There was living to do, Thel thought happily. And the warmth of a productive and virile keep to enjoy.
- UNSC LOCAL HQ, FALAKNUMA, 18 SCORPII
凯斯 saluted and stood ramrod-straight in front of the two men at the table in front of him. Admiral 科尔 waved at him to sit down. The other man, an 军情局 agent, slowly flipped through the pages of a report with exaggerated care while 凯斯 stared at the Admiral 科尔, the Hero of Harvest and the man who’d dedicated his life to taking the fight to the Covenant. 凯斯 realized that the slow page turning was theater, but it was working. 凯斯 was nervous and sweating under his full dress uniform. This was the part where they busted him back to the classroom. And yet, as he played back all his actions in the past few weeks, he found in himself few regrets. He was at peace with himself. In some ways, he’d managed to banish the guilt of not being able to help his sister, dead or trapped somewhere out in the Outer Colonies, by rescuing these million. “Lieutenant Jacob 凯斯,” the 军情局 agent said in sibilant tones. “Quite a return from your mission.” Admiral 科尔 tapped the table. “To begin with: navigational hazards.” The Exodus asteroid had been falling apart as it came in, shaking itself to pieces due to resonances the engineers hadn’t anticipated from trying to drive a six-mile-long asteroid through Slipspace. Once in orbit around Falaknuma the emergency scramble to evacuate the nearly one million ex-模板:Rubble residents had been a success. But the asteroid had disintegrated shortly after. Falaknuma now had a ring of debris around it, and the UNSC was using frigates with MAC guns to blow the larger chunks into small enough pieces to burn up in Falaknuma’s atmosphere. But that now meant impediments to getting on and off Falaknuma until everything had deorbited and burned up, which according to experts would take years. “Then there is the matter of your dumping an unknown number of Insurrectionists on the population. Some have slipped away from the camps. Who knows when that will start to come back to bite us,” the 军情局 agent said. 凯斯 stared straight ahead. “Yessir.” “And I’ve lost one commander,” said Admiral 科尔. “I see, sir.” 科尔 fiddled with a pen. “Why, Lieutenant?” 凯斯 looked at him. “A million civilians, sir. Behind enemy lines. I had a duty to do something. Anything. Sir.” “A good argument,” the admiral said, much to 凯斯’ surprise. “At ease, Jacob. You did the best you could under some damn horrendous circumstances. You did good. A lot of those million civilians are people with experience in dealing with the Covenant, which 军情局 is already putting to good use through debriefing. Seems this 模板:Rubble group is full of pilots. We’re getting some recruits out of them. And getting people back from behind the lines—damn it, that’s a victory in my book any day.” 凯斯 couldn’t help but be stunned. “Thank you, sir.” “Most important, I see you worked damn hard to keep my protocol in effect.” “Yessir.” “Good job, then, Commander.” “Thank you, sir.” 凯斯 took the compliment, then paused and looked back at Admiral 科尔, who chuckled and pushed a set of bars across the table at him. “You’re promoted, Commander 凯斯. We can’t let someone who thinks like you get away from us, can we? A few more maneuvers like that stunt at Metisette and you’ll be in the textbooks, not ever teaching them again.” “Thank you, sir.” “仲夏夜号 is getting a refit, 凯斯. You have time to take some leave, get back to the home system and see family. Get healed up and ready for the next round.” 凯斯 was dismissed. Outside he found Jai, Adriana, and 麦克. “I thought you were all under a different branch?” he said. “We’re here to ask for a Prowler,” Jai said. “Think they’ll give us one? We need to get back to work.” 麦克 sighed and folded his massive arms. “I say we just take one now, ask for forgiveness later.” 凯斯 smiled. “There’s going to more lurking around behind Covenant lines?” “Couldn’t tell you,” Adriana said. “Have to kill you if we did.” 凯斯 smiled, and Jai stood up, towering over him, and extended a hand. “It was a pleasure working with you, sir,” Jai said. They shook hands, all of them, and then 凯斯 stepped out.
- UNSC LOCAL HQ, FALAKNUMA, 18 SCORPII
Admiral 科尔 turned to the man next to him. “Men like him will save us, you know. We need more like 凯斯.” The 军情局 agent, one Commander 模板:Hadley, did not disagree. He looked down at the paperwork in front of him. “The Spartans want another Prowler. They seem to lose their own on a regular basis.” It was 科尔’s turn not to comment. Eventually 模板:Hadley turned back to his paperwork. The door creaked open, and a ton and a half of gray-armored Spartans walked in. The three of them stood impassively before the table. “We’re giving you the Prowler,” 模板:Hadley said. “And you’re going back in. Deeper, this time.” He tossed them a binder that included the details of their next mission. “It doesn’t get any easier, and you’ll be even farther from our lines.” The three Spartans were poring over the documents. “That’s the way we like it, sir,” the team leader said. “We’re Gray Team.” 科尔 imagined them all smiling with the excitement of heading back out over enemy lines.
- UNSC RECRUITING STATION, HALKIA, FALAKNUMA
Ignatio 模板:Delgado, formerly of the 模板:Rubble, now sat slouched in front of a heavyset Navy recruiter in his full Navy dress uniform. They’d been trading barbs, 模板:Delgado getting more bored and irritated with the process. Questions about his background, lineage, political affiliations, ideals… it was a lot of bullshit really, 模板:Delgado thought. He’d come back from a funeral for Diego, attended by 模板:Rubble refugees living in tents and temporary housing on Falaknuma. He’d held Maria as she cried. And halfway through, made a decision to come here. He saw the datapad the recruiter had on the table. “Trouble with authority” had been written down. The recruiter was going through the motions now, not interested in 模板:Delgado unless he was looking to become a marine. They’d give him a gun and some boots, sure. But not a ship. It seemed like it was too late to kiss and make nice with the recruiter, 模板:Delgado figured. He was wasting his time now. “We’ll process this application as soon as possible, then,” the recruiter finally said, sensing 模板:Delgado’s desire to leave. But before he could turn to the next person in line, a man in a black uniform sidled up beside the recruiter and flashed identification. “Commander 模板:Hadley, sir. What brings an 军情局 agent out to a simple recruiting station?” 模板:Hadley looked down at the recruiter, then at 模板:Delgado. “He does.” He pointed at 模板:Delgado. He picked up the datapad and tapped on the screen. “Mr. 模板:Delgado has no love of the Covenant, do you, Mr. 模板:Delgado?” 模板:Delgado shook his head. “No, no, I don’t.” The 军情局 officer smiled. “Welcome to the Navy then, Mr. 模板:Delgado. You’ll be picked up from the refugee camp here in two days. Get your effects in order by then.” The recruiter’s mouth was open. It shut. “Sir, this man’s background check came back with ties to known Insurrectionists!” “How many recruits do you get who’ve fought one-on-one with the Covenant? Or ship to ship?” Commander 模板:Hadley asked the recruiter. “But his psyche profile…” “Oh, I’m sure Mr. 模板:Delgado will have a life-altering experience while at boot camp. In fact, I already have an instructor in mind for him. And if Mr. 模板:Delgado doesn’t wash out, well then, there’s an 军情局 Prowler with a spot on it for him. You won’t wash out, will you, Mr. 模板:Delgado?” 模板:Delgado looked up at him. “It would make too many people happy for me to even consider it.” Commander 模板:Hadley laughed. “So why are you joining, Mr. 模板:Delgado?” “I’d like to shoot down some Covenant ships, Mr. 军情局 man.” 模板:Hadley turned to the recruiter. “See? He’s perfect. I like him already.” “I’m not in the Navy until I sign, right?” 模板:Delgado said. “Right,” the recruiter said. 模板:Delgado slowly flipped the 军情局 officer the bird, then pressed his thumbprint to the datapad. “Be seeing you around, Mr. 模板:Delgado.” 模板:Hadley walked away. “Bet on it,” 模板:Delgado called after him.
- OFFICER APARTMENTS, MARE INSULARAM, LUNA
When 凯斯 opened the door to his apartment on Luna, he found 米兰达 inside watching a hologram of an old naval battle. He’d radioed ahead to tell her she could leave the dorms and head home before he got there. Tall, square-rigged ships lumbered around the center of the living room, battered about by raging seas, trying to line the sides of their ships up for the best cannon shot. 米兰达 was studying the battle from various angles, rewinding it, and had alternate simulations of it running in different sections of the apartment. 凯斯 set his luggage down inside the door, walked over to her, and grabbed her tight for a long hug. “Geez, what’s that all about?” she asked. “You’re not normally that clingy.” He let her go. “Nothing. Just glad to see you.” He realized he was a bit of a cold Navy father figure, urging her to study, keeping her on the straight and narrow. So much so that a hug caught her off guard, even though he’d been away for weeks. “Is this homework?” 凯斯 asked, looking at the battle. 米兰达 froze it all. “No, just something I’m playing with.” “I was hoping to tear you away, walk down Armstrong Alley, get an ice-cream cone.” “Okay.” Outside, as he locked the door, he refused to look up through the clear lunar dome at the night sky and the stars. For 凯斯, stars were no longer distant, amazing things. Now they were filled with the threat of the Covenant, bearing down and moving ever closer, always. An implacable foe. Tonight, he kept his head straight ahead, walking down past the bronzed statues of lunar rovers and centuries-old busts of astronauts who’d first landed on Luna oh so long ago. They might even enjoy a nice Earthrise by the decks. Because tonight he was just a father, out with his daughter, enjoying the simple treats of life.