Time for a pep-talk... whose effect is rapidly neutralized by further revelations that DROP 47 is not, in fact, the vacation hotspot that the brochures made it out to be.
Coming up: "I have to ensure that you are free of Transmissible Celestial Dementia."Chapter 4:Eat.
“This is fucked up in a most auspicious way,” Hernandez murmured as he stared, like the rest of Beta and Gamma squads, at the wall. Shannon couldn’t help herself; she kept picking out messages amidst the jumbled graffiti, wondering at what they meant. Some were obvious. Others, less so.
BREATHING; DON’T TRUST IT
“What… the fuck… is going on here?” Shannon heard a voice. It took her a moment to realize that it had been Colonel Shaw who’d spoken; he was still aboard Kerrigan
, monitoring his teams’ vidlinks and telemetry. “What in God’s name happened to this place?” It was the question of day.
EYES IN THE DARK LIGHT LIGHTS
“Looks like everyone got the bug,” St. Cloud replied, Alpha squad shouldering their way through the assembled mercs. Only five men, Alpha was D Company’s command unit. The diminutive major stepped in front of the far wall, his back to the message welcoming them to Acheron. “The fuck are all of you doing here? I thought I told your asses to scout the bay, not stare like a kid at his first peep show.”
GET ME OUT OF HERE
The ‘bug’ was space madness. Symptoms could vary – sometimes intense claustrophobia or severe agoraphobia presented themselves. Mania, obsessive-compulsive actions, unpredictable mood swings, sleeplessness, nervous twitches and headaches were all common symptoms of space madness. Severe, often violent, paranoia and disturbing hallucinations were the underlying traits in the most extreme cases.
NO, I LIKE IT! LET’S PLAY!
“Sorry sir,” Gamma Nine said. “You gotta admit, this is fucking weird.”
I CAN SEE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE!
“Maybe it is,” St. Cloud said. “I don’t see anything changing here, do you? We got a missing crew, missing corper teams and I didn’t think we stumbled across B Company yet, do you? Three hundred people, private. How many of those do you want to leave behind? Got any friends you want to abandon?”
EATING AND WATCHING AND EATING AND WATCHING AND EATING AND KILLING AND WATCHING
Nine looked away without answering. “Yeah,” the major said. “That’s what I thought.” He turned back to the rest of the assembled squads, his voice booming through the comm to reach the rest of D Company. “Yes, this is fucked up. Yes, it’s not what we expected. But we are not leaving without knowing that happened to our people. We do the job, we get paid. We’re here to find our friends, not hide in our beds with the blankets pulled up over our heads so the monsters won’t get us. You want to walk? You fucking do it after the job. Then, anyone who wants to can go. Until then?” St. Cloud jerked a thumb at the wall. “Write me a fucking letter.”
DON’T TRUST THEM! ANY OF THEM!
“Well said, major,” Shaw put in. “Keep your wits about you, people. We are not extras in a slasher vid and I expect to see that reflected in your performance. You were hired because you were willing to chew rocks and capable of shitting gunpowder. You are trained. Toned. Fit and capable. We are here, we are not going anywhere until the job is done and until it is, we are going to hold this station. Keep a level head, trust in your team and whatever’s waiting here for us is in for the worst day of its life. If you’re going to panic, if you’re going to lose your cool and you might as well flush yourself out into space now, and save me the trouble because I don’t have any use for you. Do you understand?”
“We understand, sir!” the emboldened mercenaries shouted back.
“That’s what I thought,” Shaw’s voice, granite and unyielding, answered back. “Now carry out your orders before I let St. Cloud break out the motivational thumbscrews.”
Slowly, the two squads broke back up again into twos and threes, some studying the words, others heading back into the bay. St. Cloud gestured for Gamma’s technical specialist to try and work with some of the shattered computers, though it was clear that they’d been destroyed long ago. Perhaps even when the Empire abandoned DROP 47. Shannon turned to go, when one last hastily-smeared note caught her attention.
DON’T GO IN THE SHIPS! TRAPPED!
The young woman started. The burned landers… St. Cloud was right. They got the bug.
Shannon frowned, looking at a particular spot on the wall, just below the warning about the ships. Strange symbols... There was something about the way they were written. More orderly, not with the same scrawled desperation, the same urgency as the multitude of other notes. Someone had taken their time here. She traced the shape of the unknown letters, trying to figure out why they bothered her. The markings… they looked so familiar. Where had she seen them before?You don’t believe me do you, Hayes? Here. This’ll prove it. Look.
Look.Some things are better left in the past, child.
The corporal straightened, looking for her partner. This was pointless. They needed to be scouting the area like the major said, not wool-gathering over something she’d probably seen in a holovid and some bugged-out pirate had just copied.
As Abigail wandered over, Shannon looked over Three’s shoulder, to another note amongst the scribbled background. Like the welcoming one, it was very simple and to the point.
THEY WON’T LET YOU LEAVE
“There was something you wanted to speak with me about?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. When we were on approach to the station and received the hail… you had a datacard containing the appropriate codes to decipher the Imperial encryption. Not only that, but you had the correct codes to allow us access to this station.”
“You didn’t inform me, nor the Old Man that Hadley-Wright had this information.”
“There was no need to.”
“Yes, there was. We based our entry plans around hard-docking and cutting into the station. I had my squads assembled on the assumption that we were going to make that kind of docking.”
“Does it really make a difference?”
“Yes, it does. If I’d known we could expect an easier approach, I would have had an alternate deployment plan. If there had been a hostile response, my units would have been out of position and not able to respond as effectively. The main bay is good for rapid mass offloads of troops and equipment, but it is a chokepoint. We do have personnel airlocks for a reason.”
“I apologize, colonel. I honestly never considered such things.”
“That’s why your superiors hired me, director. If I’m to do my job – if my men and women are to do theirs
– we need to be kept informed. Is there anything else that I should know about this mission? Anything at all?”
“No, colonel. There’s nothing else you or your people need to be concerned with.”
“Very good. The bay appears to be secure. Epsilon will be available if you need it, but Zeta is your teams’ assigned support.”
“Thank you, colonel Shaw. I’ll pass the word to my team leaders that they can begin setting up their biviouac immediately.”
Delta Three – Corporal Ludmilla Pachel – sighed and gave the IDS-S on her arm a hard thwack, bringing up its holographic interface, enlarging her sensor screen. There and gone. There and gone. She kept getting hits on the tracker’s thermal read, but nothing more than a hint pointing them down a new corridor or passeway. Either the fucking IDS was on the fritz again, or someone was fucking playing with them.Someone who knows the range of an Artemis-issue IDS-S,
a paranoid voice in the back of her head whispered.
She’d been on Primal
for a mission once. The frigate was a good ship, but now… it was like an entirely different vessel. The stagnant air stunk, running a gamut of odours, all of them rank and foul. Rotting meat. Soiled blood. Filthy water. Effluvia. Carbon scorings and bullet holes speckled the walls in places. The acrid touch of ozone from energy weapon discharges hung in every corridor. Either air recycling had been shut down, or the battle had been recent.
The battle… against who? Why?
They’d only found one body. Captain Shelby. He’d sealed himself in the bridge, put the entire ship in a quarantine protocol then he’d disabled the controls and the comm system’s hardlines. With that kind of damage, not even Kerrigan
could override the lockdown. Pachel had managed to get into the security system and get eyes on the bridge. Darryl Shelby had been sitting in his command chair, looking as composed as anyone could expect, the picture of serene contemplation ruined by the ragged hole in the side of his head and the pistol that had fallen from his hands to the deck..
Because it had been locked away, the bridge was the only part of the ship with functioning security cameras. The rest had been smashed or otherwise deactivated.
The living quarters… something bad had happened down here. Doors had been broken down, beds overturned, furniture up-ended… there was blood, blast scars and dragmarks throughout the crew deck.. More writing on the walls. No bodies.
The walls were marked, smeared with substance she didn’t want to identify. Blood, of course. Grease pencil, paint, bodily fluids and evacuations. There were notes scrawled on the walls, just like there were in the bay’s terminal, only here there was no question of who’d written them. Pleas for help, ravings and threats. Fragments she couldn’t understand even if she wanted to. And one phrase repeated over and over in a dozen different styles. It’s time.Time for
what? What happened here? What could take down over three hundred people like this? What made them seal themselves inside?
Were they trying to keep something out… or something in?
No one had mentioned the hundreds of scratchmarks and bloody smears covering inside the sealed airlock, as if a lot of people had very desperately wanted to get out, had tried for hours under their fingers were raw and bloody. That kind of maddened desperation led to thoughts that none of the mercs wanted to share. But it still left a question. Where was Primal
’s crew? There were no responses to comms, no sign of anyone else. Had they gotten out somehow, or had they died, trapped aboard their own ship? Or are they stalking you?
a little voice in Ludmilla’s head whispered to her as she got another infuriatingly brief thermal contact on her scanner.
As the stale, foul air attested, someone had been messing with environmental, turning the lights down; if Delta hadn’t had vision augments in their helmets, they would have been all but blind. Even still, every few minutes the lights occasionally flickered to full brightness, too abruptly for the blacklight systems to compensate for, the sudden, unexpected flashes of whiteness blinding the mercenaries. Rafowitz had ordered Delta to low-power blacklight only, the squad relying more on their flashlights for vision than Primal
’s illumination or their own blacklight gear.
The intercom had been left on, spewing nothing but static and white noise. At least… every so often, Ludmilla thought she heard other noises coming from the comm. Giggles, or whispers. She couldn’t make out the words. At first she thought she was just going buggy, but she noticed others looking up at the intercom and she knew it wasn’t just her.It’s time.
No one had said anything, afraid of being the first to sound crazy. She was about to take the plunge, opening her mouth to speak, when her IDS’s sensor suite pinged again with a thermal reading. This time it was more solid, coming from the galley. “That way,” she said.
As they approached the galley, the sweep of Ludmilla’s flashlight passed over the bulkhead, briefly revealing a new message, daubed in artful smears and sweeps of red.I am watching you.
Emily Delphini, Junior Medical Assistant, Hadley-Wright Industrial and Research Concern, kept her eyes carefully downcast as she went about her work, setting up the medical pavilion of the prefabricated bivouac. Little more than metal rods for a superstructure and memory plastic, it was the size of a small house, too big to set up inside the frigate, with its cramped corridors and strict adherence to function over form. Until the mercenaries and tech teams secured more of the station, this would be a processing center for the various relics and devices the first forays brought back, as well as a repair kiosk and, in Emily’s case, a first-aid station. Well, a first aid cot-and-table.
Behind her, Dr. Medevost was on another tear, pacing back and forth in the medical pavilion, swearing and cursing at the mercenaries who’d so unceremoniously dropped the case of broken Imperial medical scanners in front of him, declaiming their incompetence and uselessness in increasing acerbic language, as well as the station’s previous visitors for their treatment of such priceless technology. Emily knew better than to say anything while the doctor was in one of his moods, even in agreement – it would only make her a target, too. Every failing, whether real or imagined would be brought back out as fodder for the irate doctor’s notorious temper.
Randolph Medevost was one of the most brilliant medical minds she’d ever known, so there was no question about his place on the second expedition to an Imperial DROP, which were well-known for their dabbling in various medical sciences from the benign to the deeply horrific. That he hadn’t been slotted for the first expedition had nettled the doctor and Emily had had to suffer his indignation for the entirety of Kerrigan
’s voyage to the station. That the first group Hadley-Wright had sent had vanished without a trace didn’t seemed to have mattered to Medevost, as long as ‘that worthless cunt Dunst’ wasn’t around any longer to take the credit that Medevosty believed was his.
As the doctor continued to lambaste the (thankfully out of earshot) ‘jarheaded, sister-fucking brutes’ of Artemis Private Security, the young woman looked up through the clear plastic window set into the more-opaque plastic walls of the bivouac, looking out across the dark hangar. Points of light moved back and forth, pointing out the locations of the mercenaries. A pair them, indistinguishable in their armour, wandered by the window. One stopped to look in and Emily blushed, glancing away. She didn’t know enough about their markings to pick out one person from the other without reading the names, but she wondered which one was Shannon Hayes.
She’d learned the corporal was from Halo; Emily had never heard of a Halo ever carrying arms, let along serving as a mercenary and her curiosity was piqued. But she doubted that Hayes would ever be interested in her… she was nobody. Just another ‘corper’, a drone in Hadley-Wright’s multi-trillion dollar and multi-billion-faced hive. Still, as she finished laying out her medical kit and began sorting through the medical scanners, separating the ‘active’, ‘fixable’ and ‘junked’ devices and listening to Medevost rant and rave, occasionally snatching one of the scanners out of her hands to wave it in her face, she occasionally glanced out the window, looking for one anonymous set of armour amongst many.
Shannon swept her flashlight over the walls, wishing she’d brought some water. Her mouth was still dry. Gamma three and four had been right; several of the grates intended to cover the airvents had been punched out, metal frames, busted fans and broken grating scattered here and there. She approached one of the vents; there was something there, faded but darker than the metal. Keeping her flashlight on it, the medic swept her lume over the stain, the scan results coming up on her HUD. Blood. Human blood.
Recent; no more than two months old.
“What have you found?” Hutchins asked, standing next to Hayes.
Shannon switched from her HUD to IDS display, showing the data to her squadmate. Hutchins wasn’t a medic, but she’d worked with Shannon long enough to be able to understand the basics of a medical scan and she swore softly. “Have an ID?”
“It’s pretty badly degraded. And I don’t have B Company’s genome files anyways.”
“I’ll call it in,” Abigail put a hand to the side of her helmet, as if cradling a headset. “Beta Three and Four. Found blood. Four says it fits the time frame for Primal
’s stay, but we don’t have the medical files for a match. …yessir.”
Shannon blinked; Three was right. The stain was from two months ago, when Primal
would have been here …
Hutchins placed a tiny marker on the vent. “You have the beacon? Good. Beta Three clear.” She looked down at Shannon. “Control’s got it tagged. Once Delta opens Primal
’s lines, we’ll get the medical data from them and find out who got splashed here.”
“It might not have been one of ours,” Hayes mused aloud. “There were over a hundred scientists assigned t the first expedition. Should we get one of the corpers to do the sample in case it’s one of theirs? Might as well make them useful…” Shannon said.
She could practically hear a knowing smirk in Abby’s voice. “Yeah, we could do that if you really
wanted. Hmm. Looks like the good doctor is on another tear, the rest of his staff is smart enough to get clear. Oh, except poor Delphini. Feel like rescuing a damsel in distress from a fire-breathing dragon? You’ve already got the shining armour.”
Hutchins laughed. “Hit a sore spot, have I, sir?” As a corporal, Shannon did outrank most of the other men and women in her squad, but she had also seen the least action out of any of them, since the Old Man and Colonel Shaw continued to see her as a Halo first and one of their own second, putting her far out of harm’s way. She didn’t know whether they didn’t want their only Halo-born merc to be killed or simply didn’t think that they could trust her to follow her training rather her upbringing in a firefight, and she wasn’t sure which was worse. The former was more patronizing, but the latter was downright insulting.
But she had made corporal on her own (at least she liked to think so). The rank had been awarded after her actions on September. The counter-insurgency mission to that world had gone bad and Beta had been ambushed by guerillas who’d gotten their hands on mortars intended for the use of the planetary militia. Shannon had rescued one of her teammates who’d been hit by the initial barrage, carrying him back to cover and taking a decent amount of shrapnel herself. The merc’s name was Andrew Fumere. She’d saved his life… and two weeks later, he’d been shot dead by a guerilla sniper.
She could almost hear her grandmother and parents lecturing her on the futility of her actions.
So, she was a corporal. In a mercenary unit whose adherence to proper military decorum depended largely on how much they were being paid and how big of a stick their superiors threatened them with if they didn’t, but mercs weren’t soldiers and there was a fair amount of insouciance in how the men and women of Artemis handled each other.
“I’m just offended by your ignorance, private. You should know that a Halo would never
, ever attack
a dragon. Instead, we’d reason with it until it understood that an all-princess diet is simply unhealthy and convince it to seek alternatives.”
Abigail laughed. “Like the Halo who spoiled its dinner with too much talk.”
“Ready to move, sir?”
“Just a moment.” Shannon stood on her tiptoes and peered further into the vent; the dark smear continued as far as she could see, a haphazard hashmark of scratches dug into the metal surface. Most prominent of all were the eight parallel strips, just enough for four fingers on a hand, dug into the shaft’s smooth surface as their owner was dragged away.
Despite her suit’s climate control, Shannon swallowed again, feeling a chill as she tried to force that image from her mind. Two months. Two months ago, someone had been pulled, bleeding and screaming, into that vent. Where, though? And why? And by whom? Not just pirates,
a nagging voice whispered to her. So then what? Going to use that famous Halo brain to come up with any theories?
Before she could finish the thought, Hernandez’s voice snapped through the comm. “We’ve found a survivor!”
The sweep was completed; there was no trace of the New Ones outside the cairn. They had to be inside.-hunt and slay-
It was… unfortunate that they were here, so close to the birth. They couldn’t be allowed to interfere.-protect-
But then, it wasn’t as if any others had ever survived long enough to do the same, was it?-pull out their entrails and devour their flesh-
No. It wasn’t. Not this time, not ever.-hunger/desire-
The New Ones had walked into their own graves, as they always did.-bury them alive and feed while they scream-
And they would be obliged, as they always were.-kill-
Spoiler: The ongoing vandalism problem afflicting DROP 47