FRED VAN LENTE
Fireteam Spartan: Black’s objective was not difficult to locate. All one had to do was look for the enormous pinkish-purple plume of energy spearing out of the horizon on the colony world Verge. They bled silently through ten square kilometers of heavily fortified enemy anti-aircraft positions toward the perpetually shining beam until at last they reached the remains of Ciudad de Arias.
This city had been among the hardest hit in the initial Covenant assault a few months prior. The buildings leaned and listed on their foundations like beaten boxers right before a climactic keel to the mat. It took Black-Four a few minutes to identify an apartment tower that looked stable enough for them to scale without it collapsing beneath their feet.
Once they reached the penthouse, they passed stencils of pandas and koalas still visible on the charred walls as they entered what they assumed had been a child’s room. They lay down on their bellies and looked out through the vacant holes where windows once were.
Their massive target drifted about five blocks away, casually knocking over fire-gutted husks into clouds of rubble. Thanks to their untranslatable and unpronounceable Covenant name, FLEETCOM simply dubbed the enormous machines “Beacons.” Nearly fifty stories tall and five city blocks wide, the Beacon looked to the Spartans’ eyes like a perfectly symmetrical beehive floating atop four antigravity stilts. Out of its gaping lower orifice swarmed a buzzing cloud of Yanme’e, the glittering, winged insectoids humans called Drones. Clicking and screeching and hissing and squealing in a teeth-gritting cacophony, the swarm tore deep below Verge’s surface with handheld antigravity grapplers that yanked up great chunks of regolith. The Drones flew back up and deposited the rocks inside the Beacon’s hollow, irradiant heart, where the helium-3 inside them would be extracted and converted into pure fusion power. The energy was then projected skyward, focused in the form of a massive purple beam erupting from the Beacon’s summit. A weblike constellation of Covenant satellites orbiting Verge transmitted the power to the fleet blockading the colonies on Tribute, in the Epsilon Eridani system.
Like every other colony world’s, Verge’s helium-3 deposits had been trapped in the second mantle laid down over her original, natural exosphere during the spallation-heavy terraforming process. The Beacon would drift from continent to continent, gathering and extracting all the He-3 it could, until Verge was picked clean, a few weeks from now. Then the machine and its crew would be drawn up into a battle cruiser so the Covenant could glass the planet from space.
Unless, of course, Spartan: Black blew the godforsaken thing to kingdom come first, cutting off the primary fuel source to the fleet blockading Tribute and giving the colonists there a fighting chance.
Which was exactly what they planned to do.
“What do we see, people?” Black-One asked. Befitting their highly classified status as an unconventional warfare (UW) unit, Spartan: Black’s ebony armor had been created as skunkwork prototypes in a top secret parallel development lab in Seongnam, United Korea; as such, MJOLNIR: Black boasted a few variant design elements and enhancements completely different from the standard-issue combat exoskeleton. Its HUD magnification, for example, was much greater than the standard Mark V or VI, with a field of view of nearly five thousand meters. From this distance, Spartan: Black could zoom in on the support troops milling beneath the antigrav “feet” of the Beacon and see them as clearly as if they had been standing across the street.
“Two Hunters per pylon,” Black-Two said, noting the stooped, spiny-armored behemoths. Each creature’s right arm terminated in a gun barrel studded with luminescent green power rods. “Armed with standard assault cannon.”
“Complemented by two—no, three—Jackals at each corner,” Black-Three added.
The spiky-crowned, beaked aliens carried, in addition to plasma pistols holstered at their sides, some kind of long pole made of a translucent purple-pink crystalline material. Occasionally, a Drone would flit away from the larger swarm in a confused, almost drunken fashion, and a couple of Jackals would descend on it with a shriek, stabbing the stray in the neck, where it wore a translucent reddish-orange collar. The bugger quaked spasmodically with pain, clutching the collar with its front claws; it could take only a thrust or two from the Jackals and the resulting seizures before it fell dutifully back with the swarm and resumed whatever task it had abandoned.
“Jackals aren’t just security,” Four said. “They’re also management.”
“Very nice to meet you,” Two said. “I look forward to killing you.”
No one said anything for almost five minutes. They just watched the enemy work.
Finally, Three said, “Hunters and Jackals—they’re just another day at the office. I mean, I can kill Tree-Turkeys in my sleep. And Can-o’-Worms are something you can sink your teeth into. But the buggers—how many are there?”
“I’ve got a hundred, a hundred fifty so far,” Four said. “But I’m not sure … some I may have counted twice. They’re moving pretty fast down there.”
“One-fifty … Jesus,” Three said. “How are the buggers going to react when we bring the hammer down? Can they use those grappler things as weapons? What kind of intel do we have on their tactics and behavior?”
“We have jack,” said Two, the fireteam’s intelligence officer. “Covenant’s rarely deployed them as combatants.”
“Jesus,” Three muttered again, shaking his head. “I hate surprises.”
“If it was easy, they wouldn’t call us heroes,” One drawled.
“I’d prefer a pat on the back,” Three said. “But I gotta be alive for that.”
“Two,” One said, “find us a room in the interior where we can mull this over and catch some Z’s without being seen from the street.”
“Copy that, Chief.” Black-Two backed out on her stomach until she reached the nursery’s doorway, then got up into a crouch and made her way quickly but cautiously through the rest of the penthouse. She determined that what was left of the kitchen had no good sightlines to the perimeter and prepared to return and tell One but was stopped by a fluttering, flapping sound from a doorway on the north side of the room.
She pressed her back against the wall and peered around the doorway. She was looking into a ruined family room, a flatscreen lying facedown and shattered on a carpet littered with tempered glass that once filled floor-to-ceiling windows. On the ground beside a sofa blackened and bloated by fire and the elements, a solitary Yanme’e Drone twitched his wings spasmodically.
Two put both hands on the assault rifle hanging from her shoulder and silently lined up a shot at the crown of the bugger’s walnut-shaped head. Something seemed off about the creature, though. She didn’t pull the trigger.
Two realized the Drone was on his back, pulsing the hinged armored plates that covered his wings over and over again in a futile attempt to flip himself over onto his belly. Two could now see that all four of his lower legs had been cut off and cauterized at the stumps. His two remaining arms didn’t have joints that allowed him to reach behind and push himself upright.
Two watched him struggle for twenty seconds more. Then she emerged from behind the doorway and took several slow strides over to where the Drone lay. His orange, half-egg eyes were fixed at the ceiling and didn’t register her approach.
Still covering the insectoid with the rifle, Two tucked one foot under the creature’s body and kicked him up and over. He began frantically beating his wings to stay upright while hopping up and down on the end of his abdomen. The bugger was human sized, and they were now practically eye to eye. Two took a step back and made sure the Drone was staring down the barrel of the AR.
Holding the gun steady with one hand, she flexed her other elbow in such a way that a compartment sprang open along the left forearm of the skunkware MJOLNIR. A wand computer with a microphone, speakers, a digital ink keyboard, and every scrap of linguistics data United Nations Space Command had gathered on the languages of Covenant races popped out of the compartment and slid into her palm.
“Identify yourself and your purpose,” Two said sternly, and waited for the Interrogator, as ONI had christened the device, to translate and broadcast the question in Yanme’e.
The icon of a rotating circle appeared on the Interrogator’s display, indicating it was working. After only a few seconds, the device emitted a faint series of clicks and screeches in a pitiful attempt to mimic Yanme’e speech. Two had little faith in it succeeding. Sure enough, a moment later, its display flashed: “Untranslatable.” Two cursed under her breath. Not enough was known about the damn buggers to make even that simple demand intelligible.
With his head cocked quizzically, the Drone watched as Black-Two tried to rephrase the question a couple of different ways so that the Interrogator might translate, but no avail.
Then the creature made an unmistakable gesture, extending one claw in her direction, then curling his digits rapidly toward himself: Give.
Black-Two frowned. What little intel ONI had on the Drones suggested they had an instinctive faculty for technology. Cautiously, she handed the Interrogator over. There seemed little harm in it. A cord attached the device to her forearm to supply it with power and data, as well as ensure that the other half of a conversation couldn’t just walk away with it.
The second the Yanme’e wrapped his claws around the device he popped open the access panel on its underside. He rearranged the circuits and microfilament wires in the Interrogator’s guts with such speed and precision that one would have thought he had spent every waking moment for the past twenty years working with them.
Two opened her mouth to protest, but found herself just watching, transfixed by the rapidity of the thing’s movements, which had a certain kind of flitting grace, like a dragonfly making its evasive way across the surface of a pond. Something in the device clicked.
And the creature started talking.
* * *
In the nursery lookout, Black-One was just starting to wonder what was taking Black-Two so long when her subordinate’s voice rang out from inside the apartment: “Chief! Better come here! Bring the boys, too!”
The rest of Spartan: Black walked into the living room to find Two tethered to the Drone by the Interrogator’s power cord. At first glance it looked like the Yanme’e was holding the Spartan on a leash.
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Instantly, the three other Spartans fell into an attack phalanx, Three and Four both dropping to one knee and raising their ARs while One remained standing, training her own weapon on the Drone’s head. “Spartan Black-Two!” she barked. “Step away from the hostile!”
Two held up both hands and made calming gestures. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay. He’s not all that hostile. I named him Hopalong. Hopalong, meet the guys. Guys, meet Hopalong.”
Hopalong’s claws flickered across the translator’s digital ink keypad. “Hello, guys.” Normally, the Interrogator spoke in the inflectionless nonaccent of the midwestern United States. But whatever the Drone did to the machine’s insides had distorted the computer voice so that now it sounded more like a recording of intelligible speech played backward that just happened to also sound like intelligible speech.
“The hell, Two?” Three snapped. “Making friends?”
“He knows an alternate route to the Beacon, an underground one,” Two said calmly, but with urgency. “Tunnels that have been completely cleaned out of helium-3 so the buggers don’t go in them anymore. We can slip in under the antigrav pylons and take them out before the Covenant knows what hit them.”
“How did he know we were after the Beacon in the first place?” Three demanded. “You tell him?”
“Have you looked outside?” Two snapped defensively. “Like there’s anything else on this dirtball worth blowing up.”
“I can’t think of a single reported instance in which Covenant provided aid to human troops against their own kind,” One said, pointing her weapon at Hopalong. “We trust this bug … why?”
“See that?” Two pointed to the stumps where Hopalong’s missing limbs had once been. “The Jackals did that. They work the buggers to death on that thing.”
Hopalong’s claw flickered across the translator in short, staccato bursts. “Kig-Yar do this,” the machine said, using the Jackals’ own name for themselves. “I drop cache twice. Kig-Yar cut legs off. Say I worthless. Let me crawl from Hive. Think I die, but no. Then I see you come. Through city. I follow. I come here. Climb walls. See you. Know you help. You kill Kig-Yar. All Drones help. Hive help.
“Covenant conquered us. Jiralhanae and Sangheili. Overthrew our own Hive-Gods. Make Hive worship Prophets instead. Rule through fear and pain. Now they come for you. Together we stop them. Earth Hive and Yanme’e. Just give us freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.”
He reached up and touched the red-orange collar around his neck with both claws. He flicked at it, as if wishing to rip it off, but didn’t have the power.
“Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.”
Hopalong kept repeating the same click-and-whistle combination that presumably meant freedom in the Yanme’e language. Two yanked the translator out of the Drone’s hand and turned it off.
She pointed at herself, then at the rest of Fireteam Black, then made a “talking” symbol by slapping her thumb and fingers together. “We will get back to you,” she said loudly.
Fireteam Black went into the kitchen where they could still see the Drone but he couldn’t hear them, Interrogator or not.
The others waited for One to weigh in first. She didn’t say anything for a minute, then said, “I can’t shake the feeling there’s something not quite on the up-and-up about this. But maybe that’s because I don’t like a roach as big as I am coming up with my battle plans.” They couldn’t see her face beneath the reflective gray visor of her helmet, of course, but it was obvious to all of them she was wrestling with the idea. “Besides, inserting ourselves into local intra-Covenant disputes is a little above our pay grade, Two. We’re more the blunt-instrument type.”
Two glanced back at Hopalong. He lay propped up on the floor on the middle joints of his remaining arms—the elbows, she supposed—and rubbed his claws together in front of his mandibles, back and forth, back and forth, like a housefly, in some kind of hygienic ritual.
“Normally I’d agree, Chief, but the plan he’s proposing seems the best way to take the enemy by complete surprise and circumvent the Drone threat.”
“You can be sure he’s not leading us smack-dab into a trap?” The doubt in Three’s voice was unmistakable.
“If he wanted us dead all he had to do was whistle for his buddies the minute he laid eyes on us,” Four pointed out. “Why contrive some elaborate ambush?”
Black-One said, “I’ve got to say, the opportunity to hit the ground hot, inside the enemy’s defenses, and take out the objective before they even have a chance to mount any kind of a resistance…” She stayed silent for a second or two and then announced, “Yeah, that’s just too good to pass up. Okay, Two. Tell the bugger he’s got a deal.”
Two went over to Hopalong to connect him to the translator again and give him the good news.
Once she was out of earshot, Four asked One, “And if it is a trap?”
Black-One looked straight at him. “Then we kill them all.”
“Now you’re talking,” Three said.
Fireteam Black waited until an hour before dawn, which was scheduled to arrive around 0600 hours or so. In the interim they downed some high-protein MREs, then helped Three remove eight medium-sized backpacks from a case he had humped all the way from the drop point by himself. Each Spartan slipped a C-12 “blow pack” over each shoulder. A single pack could punch a hole in the hull of a Covenant Cruiser, as Fireteam Black had had the pleasure of witnessing firsthand. They had little clue what kind of material the Beacon’s antigrav pylons were made out of, but the general consensus was that one pack per pylon should do the trick. And they probably only needed to knock out one or two pylons to send the whole thing crashing to the ground.
“And if not?” Four asked.
“Then we try harsh language,” One said.
Everyone chuckled. Pre-op gallows humor. Situation: normal.
Hopalong watched them the whole time, hop-hovering in place, glittering head bobbing from one side to the other; whether that was from fascination or boredom no Spartan could say.
They fell in to callsign order and snaked down the stairs and out of the apartment building in single file.
Hopalong chose to crawl face-first down the edifice’s side.
On the ground, One insisted that Hopalong point in the direction that he wished them to go; One then sent Four, with his battle rifle, to scope out the area. It never failed to amaze One, even after all these missions and engagements, how effortlessly Four simply melted into the shadows in his jet-black MJOLNIR, carrying his rifle by its barrel at his hip like it was a lunchbox. She and the others hunkered down behind piles of rubble and waited until the little yellow dot representing Black-Four on the circular motion tracker in the lower-left corner of their helmet displays briefly flashed green. Without giving any verbal commands, One rose to a crouch and sprinted in Four’s direction; Three leapt up quickly and followed; Two, a little bit more slowly, so the crippled Hopalong could keep up behind.
They zigzagged through the ruins of Cuidad de Arias like this for twenty minutes, until Four swept, at Hopalong’s indication, the basement of another crippled apartment tower via a side stairwell. An entire cellar wall had collapsed, burying a line of washing machines and exposing a rough-hewn tunnel carved in the unnaturally raised mantle of the terraformed planet.
Black-One switched the order of their close alignment at that point, acquiescing to Hopalong taking the lead, Four following, then Two, then Three. She took rear guard. Their sleek train formation was belied by their stumbling progress through the rough tunnel, which had been carved out by insectoids expecting only to fly through it. So the “floor,” such as it was, was just as covered in fissures and protrusions and jagged edges as the “walls” or “ceiling.” It was more like an esophagus than a tunnel, snaking in cylindrical fashion down, down, down ever deeper into the earth. Hopalong now had the advantage, hastily flitting forward on his translucent wings, disappearing from view until the column of Spartans rounded a bend to find him hovering in place, impatiently beckoning them forward with a claw. Visibility was awful, provided solely by light enhancement in their helmet visors, bathing their environs in a lime-green gloom. The whole experience would have been extremely claustrophobic, had spending days at a time entombed within head-to-toe exoskeletons not cured every Spartan of any possible inclination toward claustrophobia a long, long time ago.
They clambered and crawled through the tunnel until, very faintly, they could hear the unmistakable hum of the Drone swarm at work far in the distance, and the warren walls began to tremble with the looming overhead presence of the Beacon. They were drawing near.
Three stopped abruptly in front of One, and she almost walked right into him.
He turned around, raised his hand before her, and raised an index finger—the UNSC silent signal for Heads up.
She peered around Three’s shoulder to the front of the line. Four had stopped as well and was turning to pass signs back to Two, who passed them to Three, who passed them to her.
A raised fist: Hold position.
Four disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel.
On her motion sensor One could see his yellow dot move eight, ten, fifteen meters away from their position—then he was out of sensor range.
Nothing happened for what seemed like a very long while.
Then the yellow dot reappeared on her sensor and rejoined the others. Four materialized out of the gloom.
He raised his forearm, clenched his fist, and pumped it up and down, rapid-fire: Hurry!
He disappeared back down the tunnel, and the others followed. In a few paces they entered a mammoth, ovular cavern, the top of which was covered with what appeared to be metallic scales, some kind of mineral deposit that caused the ceiling to gleam even in the subterranean nonlight.
Then One’s breath caught in her throat.
Spartans were not, as a group, especially well acquainted with fear, but when she spotted one of the “scales” overhead shudder, as if shaking off a dream, One knew exactly what she was looking at.
Sleeping Drones. Hundreds of them, dangling from the ceiling of the cavern, completely carpeting the rock above.
She had only the one chance to glance above before she returned her attention to Three’s back. He was in a crouch, weaving a nonlinear path through the cavern. One immediately intuited why: Four had gone out before them to scout the best route through the innumerable loose rocks and ankle-busting crevices in the cave floor so they could make their way through without noise. No need to wake the Yanme’e, no matter how friendly they were supposed to be. She knew for certain now that whatever Hopalong’s plan was, it wasn’t an ambush. If it were, they’d already be dead.
A distant noise kicked One right in the stomach: She could still hear a different swarm of Drones slaving away in the distance.
There were twice as many Drones here as they had previously counted. The day swarm worked while the night swarm slept, and vice versa.
That meant there had to be three to four hundred Drones all told in the area.
Black-One hoped they all shared Hopalong’s democratic sympathies.
After a few twists and turns beyond the large cavern, Hopalong signaled for a stop and the Spartans circled him. They were so close to the work site that the grinding, growling of the excavations drowned out all other sounds, and the tunnel walls shook so violently they were periodically showered by dust and stones from above. A possible cave-in wasn’t far from their thoughts.
Hopalong produced a thin broadcast data wafer.
“Hell is that?” Three shouted. In any other circumstances a whisper would have been preferable, but the harsh roar of digging practically prevented them from hearing themselves.
“Hopalong salvaged the broadcast wafer out of the video screen in the penthouse,” Two yelled back. “He rejiggered it to show abandoned tunnels that lead toward one of the Beacon’s pylons, and avoids ones being used for excavation now.”
“I’m not sticking that thing in my head!” Three exploded. “Who knows what kind of enemy worms or viruses Bug Boy stuck on it!”
“I saw him make it myself, while you guys slept.”
“Nothing personal, Two, but that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve got some serious Stockholm syndrome going on here with your six-legged boyfriend, that’s all I’m saying. Your judgment may be seriously effed up.”
“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.” Two got her back up. “You mind saying that again?”
With an explosive sigh that could be heard even over the grinding din surrounding them, Four reached between Two and Three and yanked the data wafer out of Hopalong’s claw. He stuffed it into the receiving slot on the side of his helmet.
Three stared at Four. “You’re a lot of help. I’m trying to hold an intervention for our sister here.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Four said.
When a diode on one end flashed, indicating the upload was complete, Four yanked the wafer out and handed it to Two, who stuck it into her helmet too. One was prepared to order Three to do the same but that proved unnecessary. Soon all four of their HUDs featured translucent V-shaped arrows with range meters that indicated the direction of their individual pylons.
“Everybody set countdown timers for … T-minus ten minutes,” One said. “This spot is Rally Point Alpha. Return here once your blow packs are set. Then we’ll have Hopalong give his buggers the good news they’ve been liberated. We’ll evacuate them beyond the blast radius before detonating the C-12.”
One pointed at Hopalong, then pointed at the ground. “You stay here and wait ’til we come back. You got me?”
The Drone just cocked his head and wiggled his mandibles in her general direction.
Spartan: Black checked their assault rifles one last time. Locked and loaded.
“Let’s get some,” One said.
“Universe needs less ugly,” Three declared.
Then they headed off, alone, in four different directions.
Black-Two’s HUD led her down a wide rabbit hole that snaked several levels deeper into the earth so narrowly that she had to scale down feet-first. At the nadir of the passage, where it began snaking back up again, a fissure in the side of the tunnel faced a much larger cavern beyond.
Two turned on the horizontal lantern over her visor and peered through. The beam illuminated subway tracks, a stalled train, and several signs in Spanish in the human-hewn tunnel on the other side.
She flicked the light off and made her way up the rest of the tunnel in the green gloom of light-enhancement. The range counter in her HUD said she was within fifty meters of her antigrav pylon. The tunnel emptied out into another with a level floor and a ceiling high enough for her to stand up all the way again.
As soon as she did so, a Jackal rounded a bend, his beak pointed downward at a translucent glowing cube in his hands.
Right before he walked into her, he looked up, sensing an obstruction, and Black-Two unloaded her assault rifle into his face and neck. The deafening digging sounds reverberating off every inch of the warren completely drowned out the burp of the AR and the Kig-Yar dropped without a cry.
Black-Two crouched behind the bend in the tunnel, but no companions of the dead Jackal emerged. Her motion sensor remained clear of red dots. The countdown on her HUD hadn’t quite reached eight minutes.
Near the floor, along one wall, she found a crevice big enough to stuff the Jackal’s corpse into in case any hostiles decided to come up the tunnel behind her. She scraped gravel to cover the purple bloodstains on the tunnel floor and accidentally kicked the smoky cube the Kig-Yar was holding. As the cube bounced across the floor she thought she could see three-dimensional images in the center of it. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands.
The sides of the cube were perfectly clear, and its interior was filled with a cloudy gel that churned and swirled as if it had its own internal air currents. In the center of the mist stood a slowly rotating three-dimensional image of a Yanme’e male, wings extended. A few Covenant characters floated near its feet. Black-Two had studied her Interrogator enough to recognize these characters as numbers—years, in fact. Two dates about a decade apart.
A trio of buttons appeared beneath Black-Two’s fingers on the surface of the cube. She tapped one, and the mist seethed, wiping away the large image of the Drone, and started cycling through a series of images inside an immaculate plasticine honeycomb marred by a spray of Drone legs, abdomens, heads, and splashes of their green-gray blood. Interspersed among these three-dimensional tableaus of slaughter were scenes of smashed eggs, presumably Yanme’e as well, shell shards hurled explosively against the luminescent hive walls, the not-quite-living insides scooped out and oozing across the floor. The same Kig-Yar character floated beside each image, every time.
The countdown on her HUD reached five minutes.
She removed the Interregator from her forearm and waved its optical scanner over the cube until it picked up the Jackal word.
While she waited for the Interrogator’s wheel icon to stop rotating, she played with the cube a little bit more, punching other buttons and seeing where they took her. In all cases, the mist wiped away the existing image and replaced it with another 360 degree three-dimensional image of an individual Drone, attached to various scenes of hive carnage, all accompanied by the same Kig-Yar character.
At last, the Interrogator flashed at her. “Untranslatable,” it claimed. “Word itself translation from Yanme’e language. Nearest analogue(s): ‘Unmutual’ (43% accuracy), ‘Incapable of Socialization’ (51% accuracy).”
Two shrugged, dropped the cube, and made her way to the mouth of the tunnel. One of the Beacon’s pylons passed a full story over her head as she peeked just over the ground level. An erupted heap of asphalt four or five paces away momentarily blocked her view from the pylon’s guard—three Jackals and two Hunters—but they soon marauded into view. They weren’t looking in the direction of the pylon at all, but were fixated on the Drone swarm as it fell like titanium rain into the horizon below the Beacon’s massive, pulsating belly, crisscrossing with a second curtain that showered upward, into its bowels.
The counter on Two’s HUD ticked down below one minute.
Pre-fight adrenaline slammed into her veins. Her heart rate shot up to a dance-floor drumbeat.
Ten seconds. She flexed her hands around the AR.
“Engage,” Black-One whispered across her helmet speakers.
Immediately, the sharp rattle of Black-Four’s battle rifle could be heard even over the noise of the excavation. The Hunters turned and began bounding toward the opposite pylon.
Black-Two popped out of her hole and fired three short bursts at the back of the Jackals’ heads as they fell in behind the Hunters. Jets of purple spray squirted skyward as they pitched forward.
One of the Hunters instantly spun its spiny head around and pointed its blank gaze at Black-Two. She despised the damn hulks and their completely blank, gray nonfaces, for they had no expressions to read, no way to tell if they had spotted you or not—
Until they started lumbering toward you, swinging their massive, armored legs with frightening rapidity, as this one did now.
Two leapt all the way out of the hole. She sprinted for the teepee-shaped pile of a collapsed concrete kiosk half a block away.
When she turned to let off a few bursts in the Hunter’s direction, the emerald discharge from an assault cannon slammed right into her chest with a deafening roar of static, lifting her off her feet and slamming her onto the ground.
Getting knocked over saved her life, for as she thudded onto her back a second green ray of incendiary plasma blasted directly overhead. With her energy shields completely knocked out and the HUD shield alert honking a furious warning at her, the second blast would have cut her in half.
Two looked up over her chest and saw both Hunters rumbling down on her. She quickly rolled ungracefully behind the rubble cover and willed her shields to recharge, but the Hunter was looming over her before she had a chance to catch her breath. The armored bulk raised its triangle-shaped shield over its head, ready to bring it down on her in a crushing blow.
Instinct took over. The Hunter was tall enough for her to somersault between its legs, and her maneuver caused it to simply further pulverize the pile of concrete when it guillotined its arm down.
Until her shields returned, she didn’t stand a chance mano a mano with the Mgalekgolo. But she had an equalizer: the blow pack. She slung one off her shoulder and hung it by its strap onto one of the Hunter’s long spines jutting from its back.
She then sprang up, leaping up over the Hunter as it tried to reach back to grab the pack and rip it off—but its armored arms simply wouldn’t turn that way. She used his head as a springboard and backflipped over the pile of rubble, remotely detonating the C-12 charge as she landed.
She would have been vaporized if the concrete pile of the kiosk hadn’t been between her and the blast. The Hunter disappeared inside an abrupt ballooning mushroom of dust that radiated outward and completely subsumed Two.
When it finally receded, there was nothing left of the Mgalekgolo but a few sizzling bits of chitin fused to the ground and carbonized ropes of blackened worm. The concrete kiosk had been pulverized into powder.
The ground trembled beneath her feet and Black-Two whirled around just in time to see the other Hunter barreling furiously toward her. Her shield bar hummed back to full power. The barrel of the Hunter’s assault cannon swirled a fierce emerald green, indicating it had charged for a second blast, but Two threw him off by opening up point-blank with the AR, forcing the thing to throw up its shield to protect itself.
They danced like this for a few seconds—the Hunter recharging, Two sidestepping and firing, the Hunter forced to stop and defend itself. Two knew she couldn’t keep this up all day. For one thing, the Mgalekgolo had more armor than she had ammo. She had to maneuver herself into a position to land some shots in the exposed orange flesh between the armored plates around the neck and midriff, but of course the beast was making sure to keep those areas blocked with his shield.
Sudden movement to Two’s right drew the barrel of her AR in that direction, but when she saw Hopalong clambering out of the hole she lowered her rifle. He hop-flew in shallow, graceless parabolas toward the underbelly of the Beacon. She looked in that direction and saw that the Yanme’e had stopped working. Instead, they swarmed across the machine’s surface in a single glittering curtain. Unnervingly, every one of their amber, half-egg eyes seemed to be fixated on the approaching Hopalong with burning intensity.
Much to her shock, as soon as the Hunter spotted Hopalong too, he swiveled around and lumbered after him, completely forgetting all about Black-Two. He stopped once to aim and fire a concussive green stream at the Drone, but Hopalong managed to get just enough altitude on his membranous wings to levitate out of the way.
It was then that she spotted the smoky cube in Hopalong’s claws, the one she had left behind in the tunnel.
It all clicked instantly in her mind at just that moment.
Incapable of Socialization.
Dead Drones and eggs.
A jolt of fear electrified Black-Two’s spine. She found herself running after the Hunter, who continued to fire and miss at Hopalong. She dropped to one knee and let off an AR burst at the Drone, but the gun was spent. Cursing, she snapped in a fresh clip as fast as she could.
Hopalong was far enough away that Two couldn’t be sure, but it looked like the cube in his claws flashed as his digits flew across the device’s multichromatic controls.
She could see glittering crystalline flashes as, one by one, the collars fell off the necks of the Drones waiting patiently on the Beacon.
The Hunter fired again, and missed again.
“Black-One, this is Black-Two, please come in immediately, Black-One…”
“Black-One here. I don’t have time to chat. I’ve got a Hunter with a fuel rod cannon with my name on it pinning me down—”
“We’re about to have much bigger problems, Chief. If anyone’s placed their packs I say we evac our asses ASAP.”
“What? Why? What do you see?”
At that moment the last few collars fell off the Drones’ necks.
“We’ve been tricked,” Two said, desperation creeping into her voice. “This is no ordinary collection of Drones—they haven’t been ‘enslaved’ here—”
When the Hunter turned around and started running away, the bottom of Two’s stomach fell out.
“This is a penal colony!” Two shouted.
Like an explosive cloud of shrapnel, the Drones launched themselves off the Beacon toward Black-Two in a spinning, chittering horde, each mass murderer of their fellow Yanme’e and killer of their young and defiler of their hives clicking and whining out the same word, over and over again, the only Yanme’e word Two had understood as Hopalong had repeated it so urgently back in the penthouse:
Black-Two’s motion sensor became subsumed with red dot after red dot until it looked like someone had cut her cheek open and the blood was seeping over the display, drowning it in crimson.
The cloud of Yanme’e slammed into the Hunter and in the blink of an eye he was covered in dozens of them. He let off an emerald swath from his assault cannon that dismembered any Drones in the path of the blast, but others instantly choked the gap closed. Together, the buggers lifted the Mgalekgolo high in the air. The barrel of the assault cannon was still recharging a flickering green when they ripped the Hunter’s limbs and head from its body. The ropy, eellike worms that comprised the creature’s true “self” cascaded like grain from a silo out of the ruptured shell. The Drones unthinkingly swooped down on the worms before they hit the ground and tore them into bright orange-red chunks with their claws and mandibles.
Two caught only a few glimpses of this over her shoulder, for almost as immediately the Yanme’e launched themselves in her direction. She turned and sprinted in the direction of the Beacon’s antigrav pylon. Once she was within twenty meters she let the second blow pack slide off her shoulder and into her hand. She twirled it twice and hurled it at the pylon, where it hit about three meters up and stuck in place with a magnetic thunk.
She turned ninety degrees and ran toward the hole she originally came out of. All around her buggers exploded out of the ground and shot into the air; undoubtedly the hive sleeping below the surface now awakened to a glorious living dream of unbridled mayhem and carnage, no longer held in check by their Covenant wardens.
Two plunged headfirst into the warren just as a horde of Drones dove down to snatch her up as well. The Yanme’e slammed into a pileup, clogging the tunnel’s mouth and fighting among each other for the right to pursue her.
Two didn’t give them the chance to decide the contest. She primed one of her M9 grenades and underhanded it at the hole. The Drones’ shadows wisely flew in retreat as the frag exploded, bringing down the upper wall of the tunnel and sealing Two inside.
The warren maze writhed with the fluttering shadows of rioting Drones in every direction. Two scurried a few meters in the direction of the original rally point then stopped, spotting the fissure leading to the subway system.
Bracing herself against the opposite wall of the tunnel, Two pushed off with her MJOLNIR-enhanced legs and put her shoulder into the fissure. She smashed through to the other side in a cloud of dirt and rocks.
Immediately, she pressed her back against the train tunnel. A few Yanme’e stuck their heads in through the unfamiliar hole to investigate, but not seeing anything moving, and since Two’s black armor and gunmetal gray visor perfectly camouflaged her presence among the machinery-covered walls, the buggers moved on with a low, disappointed chatter.
Once her motion sensor cleared of red dots except at the margins, Two walked over to examine the sleek, dust-covered train car. A brief inspection indicated it was intact and straddled a single rail that snaked away into a tunnel unimpeded by any debris or cave-ins she could see.
“Who’s dead?” One’s voice crackled over her helmet.
“Not Two,” she replied.
“Not Four,” Four said, calmly, over AR fire. No matter what kind of 110 percent FUBAR situation Spartan: Black found itself in, Four’s voice never rose, never wavered; he always sounded like he was shopping for groceries. Two found that both extremely lovable and extremely disturbing about him.
“Black-Three? Black-Three, this is Black-One, come in,” One called over the open channel. There was no answer, but Two heard the ragged sounds of what she was sure was breathing.
“Chief? Recommend we change rally points,” Two said. She placed a white dot on the team’s motion displays to mark the location of the subway tunnel. “I found the Arias transit system. Train looks like standard colonial model, running on internal cell power, and this one is…” She popped open the service hatch on the side of the train car to check. “Yeah, it’s fully functional. We rev this thing up we can get the hell out of Dodge right under the swarm’s noses.”
“I’m all for that,” One said through what were clearly gritted teeth. Two could hear her firing her AR too. “It’s a goddamn bugger convention down here.”
“Chief,” Two blurted out, “I’m an idiot. I shouldn’t have trusted Hopa—that damn bugger. He played me like I was a naïve social worker. I’m so sorry. I—”
“He played all of us, Two,” One said. “I fell for it too. No need to beat yourself up about it.”
“Yeah,” Black-Four said, “particularly when there are so many buggers down here happy to do it for you.”
“Shut up, Four,” Two said.
One said, “Black-Four. New objective. Shoot your way to Two’s choo-choo. It is now Rally Point Beta.”
“Copy that,” Four responded, then was drowned out by automatic fire.
A pair of blinking yellow dots appeared on the edges of her motion sensor: her fellow Spartans, fighting their way to her.
Just a pair, though.
“What about Three?” Two asked.
“He’s not responding,” One said.
“I can hear him breathing. He’s still alive.”
“But unconscious.” There was resignation in One’s voice.
Two didn’t think. “I’m going after him.”
“Belay that, Spartan,” One said sharply. “I’m not losing half my Fireteam.”
But Two was already plunging back into the warren. “I’ll be back with him before you’re done firing up the train for evac.”
The pointer to her Beacon pylon remained active, so despite her grenade’s cave-in she was able to circle back through the now largely empty tunnels to her original position. She leapt out onto the surface of Verge and headed to the opposite corner of the Beacon, which still listed in midair, firing its energy beam to the heavens, albeit in a pitiful stream since the Drones had stopped feeding it precious helium-3.
The Drones swirled all around the Beacon—really, as far as Black-Two could see—in a pinwheeling, asymmetrical blur of gray-blue wings. Frequently a pair would collide, then claw at each other with high-pitched clacking and squeaking. Other Yanme’e would hover in midair and stupidly watch them battle until the victor had torn the vanquished limb from limb—literally.
That must have been what the Kig-Yar character “Unmutual” meant: the Yanme’e equivalent of a personality disorder, an inability to relate to others. While in humans such psychopathology could create cunning, hyperaggressive killers, in Drones, with their even more rigid socialization, Unmutuals were incapable of working in concert with the rest of the swarm as a single, coherent unit. The efficient Covenant wasn’t about to let those minor details waste a vast source of manpower, however: Unmutual Drones were yoked to Beacons and worked to death by Kig-Yar.
A host of Unmutuals clung to the underside of the Beacon. As she ran underneath it, a few dropped down and attempted to hoist her into the air. She knocked them off her back with the butt of the AR. A solitary Drone plopped down directly in front of her, blocking her path, and she took it out with a short, controlled burst.
Yet they kept dropping down, forcing her to zigzag around them. By the time she emerged on the other side of the Beacon there were dozens of them standing as still as statues facing her, simply watching her with cocked heads, mandibles twitching.
A yellow dot appeared on the edge of her motion sensor.
“Black-Three, come in!” she yelled louder than she needed to. “This is Black-Two. I am closing in on your position. Give me your status.”
There was silence for a moment, then Three groaned across her speakers:
“Buggers picked me straight up in the air, and they would have torn me apart like a wishbone if I hadn’t let loose with my AR.”
She sprinted a beeline for the dot, closing to twenty, then fifteen meters. She was on the edge of the city, and a few skyscrapers loomed before her. The ground was uneven enough that she couldn’t see any sign of a Spartan lying before her.
“Can you move?” she asked.
“I don’t know…” She heard his MJOLNIR shift and creak, and then he cried out. “Goddamn it! They dropped me way high up, and I landed right on my ankle … must’ve broke, even inside my armor … And the biofoam pinned it in the broken shape! Goddamn stupid skunkworks piece of shit…”
“Just sit tight,” she told him.
She was within ten meters of Three. A Drone landed in front of her, arms spread, but she didn’t slow down. Instead she barreled right into him, smashing her assault rifle into his face and knocking him over. She put a foot through the front of his thorax with a crunch and squish as she ran over him.
A menacing buzz made her look behind. The Unmutuals were falling into a single curtain behind her. Her dispatch of the last Drone must have overcome their innate selfishness. They were very slowly, but very deliberately, roiling toward her, a solid wall of flickering death.
Her motion sensor showed she was practically on top of the yellow dot, so she stopped.
Black-Three was nowhere to be seen.
“Where the hell are you?” she asked.
“How the hell am I supposed to know, man? They dropped my ass on some roof somewhere.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding.” She scanned the buildings in front of her and had to guess which one the yellow motion sensor dot pointed her toward. “Why can’t this goddamn thing be more specific about altitude?”
“Write a letter to the friendly folks at Naval Intelligence,” Three groaned.
She could hear the swarm surging forward. She threw herself through what remained of the plate-glass windows lining the lobby of an office building and made for the fire stairs, which wound up a reinforced concrete shaft on one side of the building.
Two took the steps five at a time. The building had to be forty stories tall.
She whipped past the sign for the thirtieth floor when the walls of the stairwell began to tremble and an intense, overpowering hum began vibrating through the shaft. She worried the building was about to collapse. She passed a hole punched in the wall and saw five Yanme’e desperately crawling through the exposed, rusting rebars and realized the entire swarm was trying to claw their way inside at once.
She looked behind and saw the shadow of a huge mass of Drones surging up the stairwell right behind her.
“Aaaaaaaah,” Three crackled over her speakers. “They found me, Two, they found me! Stay back, you goddamn buggers!” She heard him firing his AR. “You wanna piece of me, you’re gonna have to work for it!”
She sprinted the rest of the way up to the roof and burst outside to see Black-Three lying on his back struggling with a Drone who was trying to rip his AR out of his hands. The crumpled husks of bullet-ridden Yanme’e lay all around.
There was something about the Drone fighting with Three that looked familiar—the four missing limbs.
Hopalong and Three both turned their heads to look at her at once.
She didn’t hesitate.
She unleashed a short, controlled burst at Hopalong, ripping him away from Three and knocking the Drone off the building.
The swarm poured over the edges of the roof like a cup overflowing and she could hear them on her heels coming out of the stairwell too.
She closed the distance between her and Three in two long strides. She didn’t slow down. She scooped up Three, threw him over her shoulder, ran to the edge of the roof…
She landed with both feet on the roof of the building opposite and didn’t waste any time locating the exit leading down—the door had been blown open by a Covenant raiding force many months ago.
She took the stairs down by leaping from one landing to the next, stopping only once to adjust Three to a more comfortable position across both her shoulders.
As she did so Three said, “For a minute there I didn’t know whether you were going to save me or your bugger boyfriend.”
“That would be because you are a moron,” Two said.
Much of the swarm was waiting for them in the lobby when they burst out of the stairwell. Howling like Sioux warriors on a final charge across the plains, the Spartans unloaded their assault rifles, Three while still draped across Two’s back, and cleared a narrow path through the Drones to the exit.
But now came the impossible part—the scenario One had wanted to avoid in the first place: a hundred meters of open ground between the Spartans and the Beacon with clouds of infuriated Drones swarming overhead, everywhere they looked. Each of their ARs was on its last clip and they wouldn’t make it ten paces without expending all their ammo if they tried to fight their way through.
So she just had to run.
The Drones flew down and tried to grab them, or snatch Three off her shoulders, but she was too strong and Three beat them back with the AR, firing off a burst or two when absolutely necessary.
Then Two felt her feet kicking empty air—she was rising off the ground against her will. But no Drones were near them.
“Oh crap,” Three said.
She looked up—and saw several Drones floating above them, the antigrav grapplers they used to excavate mantle for the Beacon now trained on the two Spartans.
She saw a familiar form flitting by their side—she had blown off his front arms but he was still alive, limbless but still able to hover-hop on what remained of his tattered wings.
So Unmutuals weren’t completely incapable of cooperation.
They just needed the right leadership.
Her helmet headset crackled, “Black-Two, this is Black-One. Come in. Black-Four has powered up the train and we are ready for evac. Return to Rally Point Beta immediately. Over.”
“Copy that, Black-One,” Two said, “but I’d get that thing moving now.”
“Because I am about to drop something extremely heavy on top of it.”
And she detonated the blow pack she had attached to the antigrav pylon of the Beacon.
The huge C-12 explosion was so violent that it startled many of the Drones into dropping their grapplers, which in turn dropped Two back onto her feet. She didn’t waste any time in dashing for the warren holes. The other three antigrav pylons struggled for a few seconds to keep the unforgiving mass of the Beacon upright on their own, but gravity emerged victorious and yanked the machine downward on one side. The plasma stream still emanating from its top cut an apocalyptic swath through the Yanme’e swarm, vaporizing Hopalong and the dozens of Unmutuals around him. It sliced the buildings Two and Three had just escaped from in half like a giant scythe.
Two dropped underground just as the first pylon hit. The tunnels immediately began collapsing around her and it was a mad dash to stay one step ahead of the flattening ceilings. She barely made it to the subway tunnel and handed Black-Three into Black-One’s outstretched arms as she stood on the back of the train car before leaping onboard herself.
The subway disappeared into its tunnel just as the remains of the fallen Beacon crashed through the platform roof.
For a moment, everyone inside the train car paused to catch their breath. The train whined quietly through the absolute darkness of the metro tube. Spartan: Black was too exhausted to celebrate.
“ETA at Pelican in twenty,” Four said after a moment, as if nothing had just happened.
Three punched Two playfully in the shoulder. “So what did we learn today, huh? If you see something that looks different from us in any way, kill it immediately and without question.”
Two just cocked her head. “We are a hell of a lot more ‘Mutual’ that’s for sure.”
“Huh?” Three said.
She watched the tunnel darkness recede back into itself behind them as the train hummed its way to the drop point.
“Nothing,” Two said with a smile only she knew was there.
Copyright © 2009, 2010 by Macmillan