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Quote of the Week: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." - Will Durant, American historian (1885-1981)

All the little lost boys and girls

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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-11-29 10:07pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
A fun little project I've been tossing back and forth in my head; inspired by Bioshock, Dead Space, Tachyon: The Fringe and Pandorum, I've always wanted to do a story like this, so... here it is. Hopefully, you'll enjoy. And as ever, feedback and concrit are welcome. Thanks. Now, on with the show.

Table of Contents

Prologue:

Senior Researcher Everett Hayes coughed blood as he slumped down against the wall, feeling his broken ribs grind deeper into his lungs and heart. He laughed wetly, gurgling with amusement as he heard the sounds in the outer offices, feet and hands, desks being overturned. But not the slurping, smacking and gurgling sounds of feeding. “Yes,” he coughed, letting the pistol slip from his numb, nerveless fingers. “Yes.”

“All personnel this is a general evacuation order,” the general’s announcement played once again, a dead man’s voice urging the survivors to their own deaths. “Primary breaches in sections R-3, F-2 and I-7. Multiple secondary breaches have occurred. I repeat, biohazards in sections R-3, F-2 and I-7 have been released. All containment attempts have failed. All personnel, abandon station. Repeat: abandon station. Self-destruct charges have been armed and station destruct will be activated in twenty minutes. ”

Hayes nodded to himself. Twenty minutes left. Long enough.

The door to his office opened up and cautious feet padded in, stepping over the cooling body of Senior Researcher Justin Black, the man’s face still frozen in an expression of surprise, outrage and fear. They stopped there, circling, and for a moment, Hayes felt his heart pound, driving the bone shrapnel deeper into it. But they didn’t stop there and he relaxed, smiling up as a small figure came around the corner of the desk, a shadow falling over his eyes. “You,” Evertt nodded, reaching out to the figure with a trembling hand. “I knew it would be you. I hoped.”

The figure approached cautiously. Hayes could smell blood, gunpowder and burned cloth as it knelt in front of him. He stared into its eyes, carefully touching the side of her face. “You,” he repeated. “Always my favorite. My favorite.”

There was a gibbering howl in the distance and her head snapped around, mouth opening. Teeth stained pink flashed wetly as her lips drew back and he grimaced, holding firmly onto the side of her head. “No,” he whispered. “No, I taught you better than that, didn’t I? Didn’t I? Tell me you didn’t…”

She hung her head as if ashamed, biting her lip. There was another wet, reedy shrill, punctuated by the sound of gunfire. A man screamed, the cry cut off with a sick gargling squelch. Closer. He could feel her tense up, saw her legs shaking, the muscles in them quivering with contradictory impulses. To run. To fight. To hide. To kill.

He held on to her, cupping her head in both hands. “I taught you,” he gasped, as forcefully as he could. “I taught you all. You’re not like them. Not. You hear me? I-I left you things…” he fumbled a card out of his pocket, pressing it into her hands. “Take it. This station… it’s going to…to… be cleansed” he pointed to the datacard in her hands. “You can stop it. I-I won’t be able to.” He smiled wider as he saw her shake her head.

“It’s all right,” he soothed. “It’s all right. You can do this. I’ve left you everything you need.” The doors to the office complex slid open and heavy footsteps, dragging something behind them, entered. She half-turned towards his office entrance, bristling. With a faltering hand, he handed her the pistol. “You can be better,” he said. “You can. All of you. It’s all I ever wanted for you.” Her mouth opened, but no words came out. He nodded anyways, knowing what she would have said. “Live,” he promised.

Deep whuffling breaths, the sound of something taking lungfuls of air, straining for scents within it.

She made the softest of noises, a long, drawn-out hiss, caught between her instincts and the desire to stay with him. “It’s all right,” he assured her. He touched his fingers to the alphanumeric code on the child’s tunic. “You are different.” His vision was fading, but he managed to touch her face once more. He felt something warm and wet on his hands. “You have to save the rest,” he told her. She nodded, tucking the card into her clothes and stood. She looked at him and raised the pistol, questioning.

He nodded. “Thank you,” he offered as he shut his eyes. “I’d rather not fade away, have the others find me. I’ve done what I could. Go and save the rest.” His eyes welled up. “All my children.”

“Father,” she spoke his name. It was the last thing he heard.

Chapter 1:

“Jesus.”

It was the first word any of them had spoken in over ten minutes. Packed into Kerrigan’s forward observation bay, the men and women of D Company, Artemis Private Security Firm, stared out the bulbous, thickly armoured window at their target.

“Jesus,” Shannon Hayes repeated the word as she stared into the shifting depths of the Abyss. That was only one name for it; the Mists, Twilight Field, Acheron – whatever the name, it was the same thing. An impossible nebula billions of kilometers in volume, filled in gas and dust so thick that the mercenary could barely make out the nose of the frigate Kerrigan, twenty meters ahead of the observation window. For six hundred years, humanity had avoided the Abyss. The ships and crews who didn’t… simply never came back. It was hopeless to navigate, the super-dense dust, gas and ice fragments rendering even the finest sensors worthless, slowing the fastest ship to a crawl or risk their hulls being flayed open by so much dust traveling at relativistic speeds. Safe speeds were best described as crawling, and in an expanse hundreds of millions of kilometers, it would take months or years to navigate through the entirety of the Abyss.

Some daredevils had tried. Others had claimed to have done it. There was an easy way to tell the liars from the rest: no one had ever come through the Twilight Field alive.

There were asteroids in the mists, those whose paths sent them drifting into the field or those enveloped long ago. Both types were now silent, lethal mines that you would never see coming. Not even when it was too late. Some believed that there were planets in the Abyss, their gravity drawing new rocks and comets into the shifting mists.

It had taken weeks for Kerrigan to get this deep into the field, crawling along through the swirling gas and dust, following their one guideline through the Abyss, the signal beacons laid by Primal. Broadcasting on a frequency only Kerrigan knew to look for, the low-power transmissions were almost impossible to pick up in the Mists. Twice, Kerrigan had wasted days chasing false readings and echoes. Twice, they’d had to backtrack, comm antennae straining to sort substance from signal, even as receivers were flayed by the Mists. Weeks, the men and women aboard the frigate had grown more and more unsettled as they stared out into the shifting clouds and indistinct shapes. Weeks of nightmares, headaches and increasing paranoia as Kerriagn slid through the fog, following each successive beacon deeper into Acheron.

Finally though, they’d arrived at their destination.

Looming before their ship like some monstrous citadel rising from the deep, was Deep-Range Research and Observation Platform 47. Built by the Imperium of Terra six hundred years ago and thought lost until four months ago when Artemis had been contracted to provide security for the first team of scientists, archaeologists and other assorted researchers. Thinking it a fool’s errand, but a well-paid one, the Old Man had sent B Company out aboard the APSS Primal, assuming they’d putter around in the dark for a few weeks, returning with a load of disappointed scientists and forty-five bored, but well-paid mercenaries.

That had been one of the few times the Old Man had been wrong.

The first check-in had been only three audible words out of the garbled, Mist-shredded transmission: ‘We found it.’. Successive reports were just as badly scrambled; reports from the scientists and mercenary team. Faces with incomprehensible audio tracks, scattershot dialogue, text files just as badly garbled. However, less than five days after B Company went in, the reports began to get even more erratic. Shorter. Words like ‘dead’, ‘trauma’, ‘ammunition’ began to pepper these documents. Then, two days after that, all contact with the expedition was lost.

The Old Man had wanted to know what happened to his men and women and the company wanted to know what became of their missing scientists. So now it was D Company’s turn; an extra thirty personnel, plus the ship’s crew and Hadley-Wright’s investigators.

Shannon tossed a look over her shoulder at Projector Director Kuhn and his department heads. He was a tall, reed-thin man, who’d clashed more than once with Colonel Shaw. A corper, used to getting his own way and expecting that the money Hadley-Wright had paid to override any concerns the Colonel might have. Kuhn didn’t care. Not as long as he was the one to have his name as the one who’d found DROP 47. Hayes noticed Emily staring at her. Emily Delphini; she was one of Hadley-Wright’s medics, assistant to Dr. Medevost on this expedition. The medic was twirling a forelock of auburn hair around her finger as she stared at Hayes, realized Shannon had seen her and abruptly looked away, her cheeks flushing.

Hayes hid a little grin; she was a corpsman herself and had noticed Delphini staring before, but the girl had never said anything to her and scarcely anything more that wasn’t an apology to Medevost during the doctor’s frequent assertions of inadequacy and incompetence of all those around him.

Before Shannon could decide on what to do, Jack’s voice crackled through the comm. “Slowing to docking speed,” 2nd LT Jack Haversham reported as Kerrigan slowed even further. Shannon turned her attention back to the window and the sight looming out of the clouds before her. There was an intake of breath form the assembled mercenaries and corper personnel. With good cause.

People had been claiming to find Imperial DROPs even before Earth was destroyed; some of those claims were even legit. But no one – no one – had been able to prove that DROP 47 had ever even been built, that it was anything more than a paper tiger, intended to get the Coalition to waste time and manpower chasing phantoms. Shannon never expected anyone to ever actually find it. It simply never existed and whoever had sold Hadley-Wright Industrial and Research Concern DROP 47’s location must have played the corporation like a flute.

But they were here.

There were actually here.

“Goddamn,” the Colonel whispered as he looked over Hayes’ shoulder. “Ugly bitch, ain’t she?”

Shannon could only nod mutely. DROP 47 was. A titanic construct the size of Deimos, it was dark against the slowly-shifting colours of the Mists. The bones of a broken giant, rotting for centuries, but still awful and obscene.

Girders and support arms dozens of meters think jutted through the clouds like metal tentacles, the station’s hull broken and rent from centuries of abrasion, asteroid impacts and what looked like, even at this distance, weapons fire. As the shifting clouds thickened and dispersed, more of the station was revealed in patches. Here, a shattered habitat dome. There, a massive starship port beckoned like a serpent’s gaping maw. Here, an entire outer deck torn open by a grazing asteroid impact. There, silent weapons batteries stared at the approaching ship, long-silent weapons ports brooding and malicious, despite their dormancy.

It was real. It was actually real.

“There,” Ferguson – one of Lieutenant Matthias’s problems cases and a particular pain in Shannon’s ass – pointed at a distant part of the station. “There, can you see it? The power’s on.”

And so it was; distant windows and running lights flickered and pulsed with uncertain light.

The colonel tapped the comm. “Shaw to Roberts. You hear?”

“Yes, sir. Looks like an Elysium. Instruments confirming power, too. At least, I think they are. This soup…” he drifted off, the frequent curse about the Mists’ effects on sensors old hat by this time. “Schematics call that North Sector.” There were no specific design blueprints for DROP 47, of course. No real ones. There were many ‘authentic’ DROP 47 schematics to go along with your equally-as-real map to its location, but the Empire covered its mistakes well; it had taken six hundreds years before DROP 47 was anything more than a rumour. But they did build with a certain uniformity of design, so the massive space station should have the same layout as the others of its class. At least, that was the hope.

“What makes it north?” Shaw asked.

“What doesn’t make it north?” was the pilot’s response. “Cutting to one-twentieth. I don’t want us to get hooked on some of that shit. It looks like the space around 47’s just full of debris.”

“Just bring us in easy,” Jefferies replied, pulling off his cap and running a hand through salt-and-pepper hair. At two hundred seven, he was the oldest member of D Company. Shannon was the youngest, edging out Davies by two weeks. She was also the newest to Artemis.

Kerrigan swept towards the station, threading its way through broken supports and flickering habitat domes, passing by deck after deck of the station as Jack threaded the ship towards the north quadrant, where the power seemed steadiest.

“Ursula’s picking up a tracing beacon,” Jack reported. “It matches Primal’s E-Band, but the signal’s weak, even for the Mists.”

The young woman looked up. E-Band was for emergency communications only. Everyone had been assuming – hoping – that B Company’s lack of contact was just the Mists screwing with communications, but if Primal was crying on E…

“Anything to it?” Shaw demanded.

“Negative, sir,” Ursula Capstein, another Artemis veteran cut in. Kerrigan’s captain. “It’s too garbled to make out. Definitely a repeating pattern. I’ve already got the system working on it, but it’s degraded to shit.”

“Hrrn,” Jefferies replied, knowing what the rest of the assembled mercs did; E-band transmissions shouldn’t get garbled, not from this close range. That meant something was really wrong with Primal, much more than a overdue check-in. “Fritz, anything moving on the scopes?”

“Are you kidding?” Second Lieutenant Montoya coughed. “The fucking Third Imperial Fleet could be twenty meters from our nose and we’d never know it.”

“Well, if they get within ten, let me know.”

Ignoring the back-and-forth, Shannon chewed her lip, watching DROP 47 sweep by outside. Even crawling at this slow pace, she could pick out the cracks in its windows, the scarred and worn-down paint, broken running lights and – wait. What was that? It looked like… some kind of silhouette passing by a window. No, just a trick of the light. DROP 47 had been abandoned for over six hundred years, ever since the Empire had been driven out of the Sagittarius Arm.

The only thing on it was the science team and B Company; forty-five mercs and nearly a hundred scientists, support personnel and administrators from Hadley-Wright.

To the corporation, the expense of a mission this big was chump change, but even so – it was clear that they wanted DROP 47. They’d even insisted on sending another ‘supplementary’ expedition with Kerrigan, whose manifests, equipment and personnel were virtually identical. The company’s belief in the well-being of their original mission was truly heartwarming, Shannon thought bitterly. It was a major find, though. Perhaps the most significant in the past thousand years. An intact Imperial base. The technology, the research notes… Earth had been generations ahead; the Empire had drowned under the weight of tonnage the Coalition had thrown at it. Even six centuries later, authentic Imperial tech was at least as good as most modern equipment. Even if DROP 47 had been stripped before being abandoned, it was still worth its weight in gold.

We found it, Shannon thought to herself, unable to tear her eyes away as Kerrigan slid towards a cavernous docking bay. We found it.

D Company, Artemis Private Security Firm, continued towards the station.

Their arrival had not gone unnoticed.

~

Again, New Ones had come to the cairn.

-protect-

Had they followed the others here, or was the timing only coincidence?

-defend-

It didn’t matter, did it? They were here. The New Ones never learned. So they would have to be taught.

-taste their blood-

Just like the others.

-leave nothing but their bones-

Last edited by Bladed_Crescent on 2010-07-12 05:31pm, edited 23 times in total.
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-01 03:59pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Kerrigan and her crew learn that DROP 47 has more secrets than they thought.

Coming up: The question asked of the Marie Celeste.

Chapter 2:

Major Jeremy St. Cloud was a tiny man. Barely over five feet tall, he was from the heavy-gravity world Creedon and built like a tank. Formerly a drop trooper in His Undying Majesty’s Orbital Assault Corps, Jeremy had mustered out after the end of his tour and taken a job with Artemis. Higher pay, better jobs and he never had to start his day with prayers to some fat fuck on a life support couch.

Plus, he got to terrorize men and women who thought that they were hard-bitten. “Move it up, mercs!” he snarled at D Company as the mercenaries stripped to their skivvies, pulling on bodygloves and armour pieces. Only Alpha through Zeta were here; the ten men and women of Eta were back in the crypt, being lovingly sealed into their powered armour suits by Kerrigan’s mechanical arms. Lucky shits. “We ain’t getting paid by the hour!”

“Fuck you, sarge,” Rebbeca Hanover as she pulled a Ratchet-77a sniper rifle down from its rack. “Some of us have better things to do than bug-hunt on some fucking Imperial DROP.”

“Yeah, but what you normally do does get you paid by the hour,” St. Cloud retorted. “And what the fuck d’you think you’re doing with that, Hanover? It’s a fucking space station, not the Plains of Abraham.”

“It just makes me feel all snuggly and warm.”

“Put that shit back on the rack. We’re here for recon and rescue, not to pander to your penis envy.”

With a sigh, Rebecca put the gun back in its place. “What can I say, sarge? I’m a girl who likes big long barrels. Pump action’s the best.”

The major flipped Hanover off. “Call me ‘sarge’ again, private and you’ll be spending this mission earning your pay cleaning latrines.”

“I thought Kerrigan had maintenance bots.”

“I’d turn ‘em off just for you, sweetheart.”

“Fuck you, sir.”

The major laughed.

~

Shannon hated putting on her armour. No matter what size it was or modifications done to it, the bodysuit that went under it always felt like it was too tight across her chest, rode up the crack of her ass and pinched in other places. Dan had told her that it was just psychosomatic, that Halos weren’t meant to put on armour and some part of her wouldn’t let her forget it. But then, anything he said had to be filtered through the proper context. Namely, that Daniel Barrett was an asshole.

A well-intentioned, good-humoured asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. One who could never quite let her forget that she was a Halo and nobody else in Artemis was. The young woman reached up to tie her deep red hair into a ponytail, cramming it up into the helmet as she put it on. There was the familiar instant of claustrophobic panic and the fear of suffocating, but the suit’s own life support system never failed to start up. It had its own air pack, but normally just filtered local air for breathing. The young woman tugged her medkit on over her shoulder – she found it too awkward to have on her back – and strapped her pistol to her right hip.

And what are you going to do, Shannon? What if they give you a gun? Will you use it? Are you going to use it to kill?

If I have to.

Halos don’t fight. You have a gift for medicine. Finish your schooling, find a trade-

This is what I want to do, gran!

You’re young. You just think it is. You’re a Halo, Shannon. We don’t fight.

What about great-grandfather? He was a Halo and-

Don’t you talk about him, girl.


The young woman sighed as the last conversation she’d had with her grandmother played over in her head, as if did every time she geared up. Her parents and grandparents had been abhorred by Shannon Alicia Hayes’s choice of careers, but Halo had no military recruitment; only a lonely Artemis officer, vainly trying to entice some of the pacifist population’s youngsters away from their careers in research, engineering and other studies to the mercenary guild’s employ. You could find thugs with guns under any rock you turned over. Technical skills were in higher demand than the ability to pull a trigger and few planets had as good a reputation for the technical arts as Halo. Bioscience. Theoretical physics. Engineering and design. Everything an aspiring mercenary guild wanted… and no one who wanted them.

Shannon smiled, remembering the weary suspicion in Daniel’s eyes when she’d entered his cramped office, the Artemis recruiter thinking another self-assured ‘youngster’ had come in to start arguing with him about the morality of violence, wars in general and mercenaries in particular. When he’d realized that she was serious, he’d literally fallen all over himself to get her the papers to sign. She wasn’t a physicist or an engineering, a bioscientist or a genebuilders, but she was a good medic. And she wanted off that planet.

Three years later and she’d yet to fire her gun outside of a firing range, but she’d saved the lives of more than a dozen men and women. She’d seen stars go nova and watched as planets were born. And all she’d had to sacrifice for it were ethics she’d never trusted… and her family. She still didn’t know if it was a fair trade, but she couldn’t have stayed on Halo.

Shannon heard motion behind her and braced herself as Sergeant Ellie Mae Donowitz, Beta squad’s leader, slapped her helmet, continuing down the line of Beta’s men and women with a good-luck tradition whose value was only known to the sergeant.

“Beta, you in this?” Donowitz roared.

“We’re in it, sarge!” the squad answered her.

“Can’t hear you!” Ellie Mae shouted back. “Beta squad, you in this?”

“Like pigs in shit!” they hollered, Shannon’s voice joining with those of the eight other men and women in her squad.

“Glad to hear it!” the sergeant replied, turning smartly as Major St. Cloud stalked into the room, moving with a complete lack of grace that only two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle and augmetics could accomplish. “Beta squad’s ready for you, major.”

St. Cloud smiled around his cigar. “What you want, Donowitz? A fuckin’ cookie?”

Behind her eyes, Ellie batted her eyes at her superior. “No, but I wouldn’t mind taking a nibble of your-”

“All squads, this is Colonel Shaw,” the intercom’s interruption cutting off the sergeant’s culinary appraisal of St. Cloud’s anatomy. “We are on final approach. Sync your feeds to Kerrigan... now. Excellent.

“You know the mission,” Shaw continued. “This is primarily a search and rescue – we’re here to find B Company and the first expedition. All other concerns are secondary until we have ascertained their condition. We’re already here, mercs. There’s going to be plenty of time to look around after we’ve found B. Do your jobs, look out for each other and we’ll be home in time for Christmas. Anyone who thinks that he or she’s going to pull shit on this mission will end up with my boot so far up their ass that they’ll have to yawn when I want a shoeshine. Got that? Good.

“Beta and Gamma, once we have hard seal, you’ll secure the port. Delta and Epsilon will follow. Zeta will ride herd on our employers for the moment and Eta will remain ready to cover our backs. We don’t know anything about this place, people. But we do know two things: the Imperium built their shit to last and they didn’t like trespassers. There is power in North Sector, so there’s a chance of there being active security systems. I don’t want any idiots getting themselves or their team killed because they assumed this station was harmless.

“Watch each other’s backs and this’ll be easy. Fuck around and you’ll have more than Imperial war drones to worry about. Got it? Good. Ursula, how do I turn this fucking thing off? This switch he-”

~

“Very inspiring speech,” Alfred Kuhn observed as Colonel Calvin Shaw flicked off the comm.

“Thank you, Director,” the colonel replied pleasantly through his gritted teeth. “I’ve found it helps morale before a mission.”

“Hmm. I confess, I’d never given the idea much thought,” Kuhn admitted. “Still…”

“Yes?”

“I wonder if their captains made similar speeches?” the corper said, pointing to the holographic display of DROP 47.

Shaw narrowed his eyes, but didn’t respond. There were some things that his men and women didn’t need to know. Not yet, anyways. Morale was important; sharing Kerrigan’s find would only have rattled them. As the frigate closed to the station, it had become evident that Primal and Kerrigan were not the first to locate the abandoned station. Others had come here, had found DROP 47. And they were still here.

Perhaps due to its flickering, intermittent but still obvious power, North Sector had drawn them in like moths to a flame. Several ships, each the size of Kerrigan or even larger, were anchored to the massive docking arm, its open serpent’s mouth there to convey smaller landers and cutters into the internal hangars deeper in the station, protected from the Mists. Larger ships, with their thicker armour and protective silos for their sensitive gear, didn’t warrant such treatment. At least, not for any length of time that the designers had planned for. Decades of constant abrasion had worn away at this ships, stripping off whatever paint had survived their voyage through the Mists, eroding sharp lines and eating away at their hulls.

The rotten corpses of a half-dozen starships lay before Shaw, and it was possible that some of those shapes just outside visual were the remains of even more. DROP 47’s guests, none of whom had ever left.

No, there was no need to share that with the rest of D Company.

“Christ,” Capstein whispered, watching the feeds from Kerrigan’s sensor eyes. “That’s a Three Star Suzenrainty Achilles. They stopped building those three hundred years ago. That one… that’s a Jovian Engineering Concern Merchant of Venus. That one, up on the other side of the arm? That’s got to be a… no fucking way.”

“A Coalition cruiser,” Shaw finished, as the looming bulk of the warship came into view. Ursula was good with ships, but even he knew what that one was. “And look at its hull. Computer, what are those?”

“High probability of Imperial Gold Dragon-class cutters,” the computer replied. “They appear to be anchored to the cruiser’s external hardpoints.”

“Fuck me…” Shaw whispered. “What’s a Coalition ship doing here? If they found DROP 47, why didn’t anyone hear about it before now?”

“Maybe they were captured and brought here for analysis,” Ursula mused. “I can’t tell her class; she could be a Type III.” Toward the end of the war, the Coalition developed a few tricks to offset Earth’s advantages. “Hidden in Acheron like it is, DROP 47 would have been the perfect place to for the Empire to study a Late Era-hull.”

“Possible…” the colonel mused. “Jack, what are our options?”

The pilot didn’t look up from his console, a sheen of perspiration on his face as kept Kerrigan from being pulled off-course by the Mist’s tides. “It’s looking like all of the external mooring clamps on this arm are full, colonel. We could try North-4 below us, but what I can read through this hash makes it seem like Upper North here is in the best condition. West and South are a little iffy. There might be power, but nothing I can say for certain.”

“And East Sector?” Kuhn inquired.

The lieutenant shook his head. “I can’t even tell you for if East Sector’s still there. There’s just… nothing on scopes.”

“We’ll stick with North,” the colonel mused, wondering what to do. The upper docking arm was sealed, and the station’s other visitors seemed to have taken up all the external spaces on it. Not that he wanted to leave Kerrigan out in the Mists; all the ships here had been suffering decades to centuries of wear from the particulate matter. Hull plates had been torn out, airlocks and windows smashed in or blown out. One passenger liner had been impaled when a piece of the station had come loose and crashed through its bulbous forward bridge. The Coalition cruiser had a massive dent in its port flank and several ruined Imperial cutters from where an asteroid had blundered into it centuries ago. Anything that hadn’t been protected was worn down to nothing or broken away long ago.

There was something wrong here. Not only because of the number of ships that had come here and never left, but there was something eating at the back of his mind…

Abruptly, he realized what was missing. “Primal,” he said. “Where’s Primal?”

“We’re still receiving their signal,” Communications confirmed. “We should be right on top of them, but I can’t get any decent fix. Sorry, sir. Wait… receiving a signal.”

“Captain Shelby?” Shaw asked.

“No sir,” Communications continued, frowning. “It’s some kind of automated beacon. I can’t understand it.”

Kuhn reached into a coat pocket, handing the young woman a datacard. “Use this.”

At Shaw’s nod, Communications input the card into her system, calling up the information. It was a datacard containing Imperial ciphers. Shaw’s eyes narrowed as Communications decoded DROP 47’s hail. “It’s an automated request for docking authorization, sir.”

Ursula nodded. “Maybe we tripped a proximity sensor, or whatever’s still working over there finally sniffed us out through all this crap.”

“They’re telling us to submit identity codes or be fired upon,” Communications informed her superiors.

The colonel swung towards one of his ratings. “Sensors?”

Montya shook her head. “No weapons active, sir.”

“Formality, then.” He shot a sharp look at Kuhn. “Answer them. You have the right codes, I presume?”

“Yes. They’re on the ‘card. File ‘Beckon 77438’.”

“You heard him, comms.”

“Sir. Inputting sequence now…” a moment crawled by before the derelict station’s system chewed over the codes Kuhn had provided. Then, the massive doors at the end of the docking arm began to grind open, brilliant guide lights running down each face of the inner walls. “Automated message coming through.”

“Play it,” Shaw answered, still staring at the director.

Wel-wel-welcome, ITS Ray-ray-ray-Razorback,” a stuttering synthetic female voice greeted them. “You-you are authorized. Are authorized. Are authorized to proceed in-in-in-inside for-for docking. Docking. Alert: this system. This system. This system has registered-ed-ed damage to your craft-aft. Maintenance has been-been infor-or-or-med. Thank you, ITS Razorback. Please enjoy your stay-ay-ay.

“Well, you heard the lady,” Shaw said, leaning back in his chair. “Take us in.”

“Yessir,” Haversham nodded, bringing the frigate slowly about, pointing its nose down the docking tunnel. Running lights speared out, playing through the thinning clouds of dust and gas as Kerrigan slipped down into the belly of DROP 47, cones of brilliance playing over the flanks of the ships moored to the external hardpoints.

“Wait,” Shaw said, his gut tightening as one of the beams played over the JEC freighter, but Kerrigan was too far into the tunnel now to turn back.

But Ursula had seen it too. “Camera Four,” she said. “Playback the searchlight sweep on the freighter.”

Shaw stood, standing beside Capstein as she stared at the monitor. He could feel Kuhn’s presence over his shoulder, the corper watching as well.

There; on the bare hull between the ship and the station, where it was protected from most of the damage caused by the Mists. Patchy and nearly worn away, but it was there all the same, an unsettling proclamation:

NOT SAFE
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-02 11:11pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
D Company learns that the previous guests did not follow simple etiquette and leave only footprints.

Coming up: "We've got a survivor!"

Chapter 3:

“Hard seal in five… four… three… two… one… hard seal confirmed. Alpha, Beta, confirm probe telemetry.”

“Getting the spools in like crystal, Control.” St. Cloud confirmed. “All teams, eyes on?”

A series of assertions followed. “Then move your asses. Alpha, Beta – we ain’t getting any prettier.”

“Some of us aren’t,” Alpha Two – Lieutenant Rudy MacGuyver – laughed.

“Beta, Delta – out the door. Alpha’s on your six.”

Shannon swallowed against her dry mouth as the mercs in Kerrigan’s debarkation bay jostled each other. The feeds from the frigate’s sensors and probes were coming in as clear as the major had indicated. North-4 Hangar was a massive chamber, capable of holding a squadron of ships Kerrigan’s size, with a spider-web of gantries, walkways and landing pads filling the entire bay. Over five levels high, with a half-dozen docking sites per level, it was clear that whatever else the Empire had had in mind when they built DROP 47, the movement of cargo and personnel would not have been a problem.

And there are seven more bays just like this one, Hayes reminded herself, two for each sector, and each of those was very nearly a city unto itself, extensions of the Elysium-class station’s massive central core. No, the Empire could never be accused of thinking small.

“You think Shaw would have told us,” Louis Hernandez whispered to her. “You know, that we weren’t the first.”

Shannon couldn’t answer him; she had only the barest knowledge of ships, but there were at least twenty smaller vessels settled on their landing pads in the bay, corvettes and cutters, yachts and pocket freighters. And, across from the jutting docking spar that Kerrigan had sealed itself to, was their sister ship APSS Primal, looking every bit as battered and beaten as its newly-arrived sibling. Kerrigan’s searchlights played out over the darkened Primal, sweeping back and forth over the windows in an attempt to elicit some kind of response.

Primal’s still dark,” Shaw informed them. “Beta, Gamma, proceed as planned and secure the bay. Delta, check out Primal. Epsilon’s your support.”

“Yessir.”

“Open embarkation doors… now,” Operations – Kenny Roberts – noted. “Bringing up blinders.”

Shannon instinctively shut her eyes as the massive floodlights in the back of Kerrigan’s embarkation/debarkation bay snapped on, aimed out and down the ramp. An old trick; blind anyone waiting for you and give your own off-loading troops perfect vision. The young woman shifted impatiently as the ramp hissed down. The ‘blinders’ were fucking hot, so bright that you could cook food over them. But the ramp always seemed to take longer going down then it did and twenty men and women boiled out into the docking spur, weapons ready, as if challenging the darkness itself to attack them.

When no flurry of gunfire was immediately forthcoming, Beta and Gamma began to filter out into North-4 Hangar, sweeping through the area. “Nothing,” Jenna Alcubierre muttered with a look at her sensor gear. “Only things moving are Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.” Three of Kerrigan’s automated probes; Thumper was down for maintenance. Shannon looked up, the zoom in her visor as a beam of light played out over one of the upper walkways, spearing into the dusty, cold air, playing along the far wall towards the frigate.

Shannon’s partner, Beta Three, slapped her on the shoulder and pointed up. “Look,” Abigail Hutchins gestured towards the distant ceiling.

A softly-humming nightmare presented itself, drifting down from the gantry, ten manipulator arms hanging beneath its body like the vicious tendrils of some underwater predator. The height of a man, but thicker and plating with black, gleaming armour, it was proof against most small-arms fire. A bulbous, many-eyed head swiveled back and forth as the automaton scanned Beta and Delta, analyzing them with each of its many sensory systems. With a small chuff of its propulsion systems, Mopsy continued its slow descent, before leveling off and floating towards the second-highest tier, searchlights sweeping back into the darkness. Soon, the only sign of the probe was the uncertain flickers of those same beams.

Shannon didn’t quite shake her head. Abigail was a tech, although not a full engineer, if it was broken, she could jury-rig, battlefield repair or bash it back into functioning order. She had a particular soft spot for the squiddies. There was also that story about her slipping some unauthorized programming and hardware into Flopsy and then being caught in a very compromising position with the ‘bot, but she was… almost certain that that was just Ferguson being his usual self.

“This place is a dump,” Hernandez coughed. He wasn’t wearing his helmet, not since Roberts had confirmed breathable atmosphere. St. John had even given up trying to get Louis to wear his gear, telling him that there was a sniper out there just counting the days until they met. Hernandez’s reply was that being shot in the head was almost invariably fatal anyways, so he might as well be comfortable until that happened. He coughed again, looking up and blinking. His eyes were watering. “What the fuck is this?”

Shannon managed to avoid rolling her eyes. “It’s breathable, but there’s six centuries of dust here.” She dug into her bag for an anti-allergen shot. “I shouldn’t even give you this,” she told him. “If you’d worn your helmet, the filtering systems would be handling it.”

“Yes, mother Halo,” Louis snapped, wiping his eyes with the back of one hand.

“Give him the shot,” Donowitz said as she strode by. “And the cost of it is coming out of your pay, Hernandez.” Her helmet canted towards Shannon. “How much is that?”

“For a dose of roglexicitol?” Shannon replied, as she tilted Louis’s head up and stuck the hypodermic into his neck, carefully depressing it. “c150.”

“c150 it is. You catch that, Control?”

“We did.”

Louis looked up, his symptoms gone. “Hey-”

“‘Hey’ nothing, asshole. You didn’t listen to the major. You didn’t listen to your medic, so this is what you get. If we were a real military, you’d have more than a docket to worry about, so get back to work before I get Control to add in the cost of the syringe and Corporal Hayes’s time.”

Hernadez glared at the sergeant for a moment, then shrugged and hurried to catch up with his partner, Jessica Citizen, still leaving his helmet off. “I’m going to kick his ass, I swear to God,” Donowitz muttered. “This mission, I’ve got a very low threshold for shit.”

Shannon didn’t know if the sergeant was looking for a response, so she didn’t offer one, directing her gaze around the cavernous bay as she and Abby joined the rest of Bet and Delta in exploring the hangar.

If the outside of the station had been a wreck, North-4 Bay was hardly any better. Debris was piled high everywhere and where it wasn’t piled, it was scattered across the floor. On the level above of this one, Cottontail’s feed was showing where a dozen crates had been stacked against some doors, now toppled to the deck, the doors bent inwards, as if battered open. What looked like makeshift firing positions had been set up on several of landing platforms, facing towards the doors on their respective levels – chokepoints? The redhead knelt by one of these fortifications, reaching down and picking up a shell casing. There were dozens more scattered all over the deck, along with several energy cartridges of a make she didn’t recognize.

Hutchins knelt beside her, picking up one of the cartridges. “Not issued from Primal’s armoury. Not even personal kit; too much dust for that.” She streaked a finger through it, uncovering something beneath the grime. “Wait,” Shannon said. “Go back. There. Wipe off the rest of it.”

As the other woman complied, Shannon swept her hand over the scene, the lume in her palm casting a blue-green glow over the deck. There; it looked like something had been scratched into the floor with… well, something hard and sharp. Shannon frowned – she didn’t recognize the writing. “Can you read it?” Abigail asked.

“No, I don’t think… wait. Yes, it’s … Aramarkian.” She looked up at her partner. “I can’t read Aramarkian. Much.” Shannon canted her head, trying to puzzle out the meaning. It looked like someone’s rank – was that the first abbreviation? – their name and some numbers. A date? A soldier’s serial number? She couldn’t tell. “Sorry.”

Hutchins stood back up. “Not that important, I guess.” She moved on, sweeping the beam of her rifle’s light around.

Shannon remained squatting, her fingers tracing the crude, hastily-scratched lines of the script. Who’d written this? Why? Her eyes fell on the discarded ammo casings. They were pressed for time. Between attacks, or before? What attacks? What happened here? Pirates? Why would pirates base out of the Mists?

She frowned, her full lips pouting under her helmet. She remembered… what? What did she remember? Bits and pieces, taunting her. The aroma of smoke and narcotics in a bar, the sting of her grandmother’s hand across her face. Dust tickling her nose, fermented breath washing over her face. Two different places, two different things. Why both of them? Why here? A single word, drunkenly whispered to her like a secret, some awful burden.

The young woman shook her head to clear it and stood back up. Ghosts and goblins. The likeliest situation was that two different salvagers had come here and fought over the station. Against her will, her eyes drifted up to all the grounded shuttles, pinnaces and small ships in the bay. Pirates, then. Using it as a hideout, they fought over the spoils. That’s it.

Pale blue lights flickered on and off, casting inconstant shadows throughout the bay, the illusion of motion always teasing her peripheral vision. Despite herself, Shannon felt her hand sliding down to the pistol on her hip, patting it to assure herself that it was still there. She’d never fired it at anyone and there were seventy-five men and women here, all more experienced and heavily-armed than she was.

More boxes stacked into more hastily-built firepoints. Most of them lacked any sort of scarring from return fire. Others were nicked and scratched, but not from any gun that she knew of. Shannon ran her hand over a spiderwebbed fracture in one plastic case. There was a bullet stuck in the epicenter of the fractured plastic. The insignia on the crate marked it as from something called the ‘Black Moon Expeditionary Consortium’. Sounded like a pirate clan.



“Delta to all teams. We’ve made entry into Primal. The fucking ship was locked down and someone welded the airlocks shut from the inside. Allah, it stinks in here.”

There were briefcases and crates of equipment left lying the dust. Opened and discarded, with no one even bothering to clean them up. How many times had someone come here, investigated them, and then abandoned them. What happened here?

“Gamma Nine and Ten. Found a crate of Imperial medical scanners. Looks like it was tossed off one of the higher levels and broke open on impact. Most of them are trashed or depleted, but we’ve found two that still work.”

Several of the other landers had clearly been stripped for parts; hull plates had been ripped off, engines pulled out. At least two were hulks, burnt out from the inside.

“Beta Five and Six. More shell casings here. Some debris. Looks like… cloth? I guess?”

Walkways were buckled and broken, bits of railing and jagged floor grates hanging down at awkward angles in the artificial gravity.

“Gamma Three and Four. Looks like the cover to this air vent was popped inward. There’s some… markings here. Scratch marks, I guess.”

There were dozens of bullet holes and scorchmarks around the broken doors and vents, the bulkheads there scarred and mutilated by the outpouring of firepower.

“Alpha One to all teams – less guesses, people. You’re not going to be marked down for getting something wrong.”

Shattered syringes lay on the floor, their faint chemical stink mixing with the cold, stale air of the bay.

“Beta Seven and Eight to Beta and Gamma squads,” Jackson’s voice interrupted her train of thought. “We’ve made it to the central docking terminal. There’s something here that you all need to see. Now.”

“Alpha One, Beta Seven and Eight. Be more specific.”

“We’ve been left a message.”

“From who?”

“Everyone. Every-fucking-one, sir.”

~

Sergeant Adrian Rafowitz, Delta squad, was glad that he was wearing a helmet as he and the rest of his squad explored Primal. The air here stunk, making his nose twitch. Jolene had said made him look like ‘a nervous little bunny’. Which was probably the worst compliment to ever pay a mercenary and he’d sworn her to secrecy. Unfortunately, fate had had a different idea. Private Harriet Blake was a bitch straight from Hell’s own heart and he would never be convinced otherwise. Blake and Jolene were good enough friends that Harriet knew about Jolene’s weakness for anything alcoholic and peach-flavoured and after a night of drinking more than was good for either of them, Jolene had giddily revealed her pet name for one Sergeant Rafowitz, waking up next morning with no idea what she’d done. Due her to inherently demonic nature, Blake held her liquor far better than Jolene and so not only remembered the incident, but became resolved to share it with the squad. Which, of course, she did.

And much amusement was had by the men and women of Delta Squad, D Company, Artemis Private Security Firm, at the expense of their sergeant. Whose entreaties to dole out the appropriate disciplinary measures fell on deaf ears.

“Hey sarge,” Rubenowitz, whose like-sounding name was ever a source of confusion. “How you holding up?”

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? It stinks like shit in here, so I figured that…. maybe you want a carrot?”

Rafowitz sighed, about to reply with his favorite rejoinder involving the orifices of the offender’s mother and acts usually not carried out with said orifices when Three suddenly stepped forward, holding the sensior suite on her arm up. “Got a hit, sir.”

Rafowitz pushed Rubenowitz out of the way. “What kind of hit?”

“Unknown, but it’s warm and it’s moving.” She pointed down a side tunnel. “That way.”

“Then let’s head out. Jump to it, mercs.”

“Don’t you mean hop to it, sir?” Blake suggested innocently.

Rafowitz sighed again, ignoring his twitching nose. It really was a pity that St. Cloud and Shaw had denied his request to have his underlings shot.

~

As Shannon entered the walkway to the main terminal, several vidscreens flickered to stuttering life as the station’s AI re-played the message that it had greeted everyone else with. The logo of the Imperium of Terra, Science Division drifted over a scenic tropical archipelago, the image cutting to static of blacking out entirely as it flickered. “Shore party from. From. From ITS Razorba-a-a-ack. Wel-wel-welcome to Imperial-ial-ial Deep-range Research and-and- Observation. Observation. Platform-orm. 47. We are currently-ly-ly experiencing technical difficult-ifficult-iffculties. Maintenance has-has been contacted and we expect-ect to be. To be fully operational shortly.

“Please be advi-i-ised that, due to the nature of research conducted. Conducted at this sta-ay-ay-ation, that certain areas will-ill b-be off limts to your personnel. Personnel. Failure to abide. Abide. By these posted regulations will result-ult in possible fines, imprisonment and/or termination. Termination. For further queries, please consult-ult security or a Core terminal. Thank you-you and en-enjoy your stay.” As Shannon passed by, her partner hurried to catch up, triggering the sensors and beginning the recorded message over again.

“Goddess above us and the Blackness below,” Abigail whispered as she skidded to a stop next to Shannon crossing herself.

Shannon didn’t share Three’s denomination, but she agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment. The bay itself was vast, disorganized and ruined, but in presentation it was ostensibly no worse than a hundred other battlefields the mercs had seen, or the handful that Shannon herself had been two. This, though… this was new.

“It’s all over the walls.”

It took her a moment to realize that she’d been the one to speak, the first amongst the stunned mercenaries to do so, as she had in the observation day. Writing. From a hundred different hands – maybe more. Script in dozens of languages, including one strange script that she didn’t recognize at all, was scrawled on every available surface. The bulkheads and doors. The smashed screens of computer terminals, even the floor. Entreaties for help, warnings, mad gibberings and rants, prayers and invocations. On the wall opposite each tier’s entry to this central concourse was a single message, decades old, written over in turn as it had covered up much of the writing beneath i, but still legible. A very simple, if exuberant, proclamation.

WELCOME TO ACHERON! ENJOY YOUR STAY!

And beneath it: THE STAFF WILL BE WITH YOU SHORTLY.

[Reveal] Spoiler: Writing on the walls
Image
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-05 01:08am 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
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

~

“Colonel Shaw.”

“Director Kuhn.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Fuck you.”

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.”

“Like that.”

“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-


[Reveal] Spoiler: The ongoing vandalism problem afflicting DROP 47
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-08 01:17am 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
A survivor's tale.

Coming up: "Get back to the ship!"

Chapter 5:

Louis was exploring one of the corridors leading up to one of North-4 Hangar’s upper levels when he heard it.

The walls on these hallways hadn’t been as thoroughly marked as those in the main terminal. There were one or two scrawled warnings and half a nursery rhyme, but nothing as disconcerting as the collective efforts of six centuries of bugged-out shipcrews. Hernandez frowned, shining his light over the wall. Faded, but still quite legible, was the guideline arrow pointing up to the exit to Mezzanine Three, and the half-dozen small ship ports on it. In the distance he could hear the low, barely-audible thrum of a squiddie’s antigrav. Two squiddies, actually; Flopsy and Mopsy were circling one of the burned-out hulks, picking at the shuttle’s remains with their manipulators and scanning it carefully for residual explosives or contaminants. The ship was long dead, so there was unlikely to be any risk from it, but it didn’t pay to assume. Cottontail was two levels up, trying to open one of the welded-shut doors and get into the cargo access tunnels that led deeper into the station’s core. From there, the drone would – eventually – be able to see what the state of many of the primary systems was.

Hernandez sighed, continuing up the sloped hallway, leaving Daniel Overstern, Beta Ten behind to parse out what the carefully-stenciled symbols neatly written over the guide signs on the wall meant. When Dan still didn’t realize that his partner was heading on without him, Hernandez turned, about to tell Overstern to stop navel-gazing and help him, when he cocked his head. Faint, barely audible even over the soft, distant noise of Flopsy and Mopsy and the sounds of the corpers setting up their bivouac, he thought he heard someone crying.

He paused, straining to define the sound and for the third time today, wished he’d worn his helmet with its enhanced auto-senses. The noise drifted in and out, but… yes. It was there. And close, but muffled. In a crawl space, the next level up? It was hard to tell.

“Do you hear that?” he asked Overstern, finally drawing his partner’s attention.

Daniel looked up, his face hidden under his helmet. “Hear what?” he asked, his voice in Louis’ commset. The other mercenary paused, running an audio filter. “Yes,” he amended. “I do.” He pointed up into a hallway leading to the next level, a small emergency stairwell. “In there.”

Louis tapped the side of his gun. He didn’t like this, but as the major had pointed out, survivors were their number one priority, no matter what the corpers wanted. “Betas Nine and Ten,” he said into the squad frequency. “Possible survivor off…” he called up the station schematic on his eyepiece HUD. “Corridor N4-L1-3. Investigating.”

“Control confirms, Beta Nine and Ten. Sending you Beta Seven and Eight. Just in case.”

“Confirmed, Control.” Louis looked over at his partner, flashed him a grin. “Shall we?”

Overstern nodded and Louis moved to one side of the stairwell reaching out and grabbing the door’s handle as Daniel stood across from the entraceway, his rifle held up, the beam of the attached flashlight shining onto the door. Together, they counted down from three and Louis pulled the door open, Oversten’s flashlight stabbing into the gloom of the darkened staircase and settling on the far bulkhead, which was most unremarkable.

Nothing. Nothing to see, anyways.

The crying was louder; definitely coming from the stairwell. Daniel gestured with his gun and Louis slipped inside, his back to the wall and his pistol up and ready. The stairwell was utterly black, lit only by the distant flickering wash of lights from North-4 Bay and the beams of his and Overtstern’s torches. For the fourth time today, Louis wished he’d worn his helmet.

Hernadez peered down the stairs to the next level; clean. He looked up to the next flight. The sound was definitely coming from up there. With Ten at his back, Louis moved carefully up the stairs. There; a shape in the corner. He moved the light of the beam towards it, the indistinct pale blur turning into a cowering woman in a filthy Hadley-Wright labcoat, her knees drawn up to her chest, her head ducked between them legs, arms cradled her skull, her pale, reed-thin fingers entwined in strands of greasy brown hair.

She screamed as soon as the beam touched her, though her head remained tucked between her legs. The woman flailed blindly with one arm, as if to ward the brightness away. Louis dropped the barrel of this gun, taking the light off her. The woman seemed to calm, resuming her sobbing as she rocked back and forth. She didn’t move towards the men or even seem aware of them. But she was alive, the first living person anyone had found. Now they could get some answers.

“Hernandez to all units,” Louis said, his voice coming out in an excited rush. “We’ve found a survivor!”

~

Shannon’s head snapped up as she heard Nine’s report. “Beta Three and Four responding,” she called in, already moving to Hernandez’s location. Surprised by her partner’s sudden burst of movement, Abigail hurried to catch up.

“Seven and Eight are en route,” Control reminded her.

“They may need a medic,” Hayes replied, vaulting an overturned stack of crates.

“Roger that,” Shaw’s voice overrode whatever Control had been intending to say. “Assist Hernandez and render any and all aide you see fit, Four. We’re alerting the bivouac and shipboard medical, just in case.”

Shannon all but scrambled up the incline leading to Three’s position. On her HUD, she could see the icons indicating the other four members of Beta above her; Seven and Eight were almost there.

Finally, they could get some answers. Find out what happened here, where the rest of B Company was and what had happened to-

Shannon’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of screaming.

~

“It’s okay,” Louis tried to soothe the frightened woman, gesturing for his three compatriots to remain behind him. “We’re here to help.” Every time one of them tried to put light on her, she flinched and howled as if in pain, swatting wildly at empty air. Otherwise, she didn’t even seem to register their presence. In between the sobs and gasping, breaths, Hernandez could hear the corper talking, repeating the same things over and over, the same words.

“Didn’t want. Didn’t want to. Didn’t want to. They find you. Whispering, calling to you. Didn’t want to.”

“Who’s calling to you?” Hernandez said, taking another step towards the woman. “Do you know what happened here?”

“Didn’t want to. Didn’t want to. I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t stop myself. Finds you. In the dark, always dark. I hid, you see? I hid for so long, but they found me.”

“Who found you?”

At last, the woman seemed to realize that there was someone else with her and she looked up. Her cheeks were gaunt and caked with filth, ugly dark stains around her lips. “You…” she drawled out in a breathy whisper, uncoiling from her crouch onto her hands and knees, staring at him. “You don’t know. You weren’t there. You’re here now. Here now. You won’t want to, either.”

“We’re here now,” Louis affirmed, holding up a hand to ward off his compatriots from raising their guns. His nose twitched. The woman smelled awful, the aroma of rotten meat and something… something else that he couldn’t identify. “You’re safe now. No one’s going to hurt you.”

“It’s too late,” the corper whispered, her eyes still locked on his, something unsettling in them. Louis felt the urge to back away, but he held his ground. “They know. They know you’re here.”

“Who knows? I need you to concentrate on me… Michelle,” Louis caught a glimpse of her nametag, still affixed to her torn, filthy coat. “Okay? Focus on me. Tell me what happened.”

It was if whatever cloud over her dissipated and she reared back on her haunches, still staring. “We landed. Writing on walls. We didn’t listen. We should have listened. It started so small,” she licked her lips, shifting her position. “So small. Whispers in the dark.”

“What started?”

“Everything,” her mouth worked for a moment, tongue running over her lips. “I don’t want to,” she keened, rocking back and forth again. “Don’t want to. Don’t want to. But I need. I need.” She reached up, scratching the back of her head with one hand. “I need.”

“What do you need?”

“Trapped. No way out. Wanted to run, but they were here. Killing. Eating. Eating. They won’t let you leave. No one leaves. Please. I need.” A low, deep moan rumbled out of her, a noise of despair. “Hungry,” she sobbed. “So hungry.”

“We can help you,” Louis said, reaching into a hip pouch and pulling out an MRE bar.

“No help. No help but what they give. Burning. Screaming. You burn, you eat, they find.” She giggled. “They always find.” Her eyes flickered back to Louis, to the ration bar in his outstretched hand.

He nodded. “Here. Take it. You can eat it; it’s okay.”

Michelle stared at Louis for a long moment, then crawled towards him cautiously, her eyes still on his face. She reached one trembling hand out towards him, then froze, cocking her head to one side. Her mouth opened, closed and opened again. Her feet shifted, bracing her weight against the deck. “I need. I don’t want. I need.” She started to drool.

“Michelle…?” Louis began, slowly edging away.

She lunged.

~

Shannon and Abigail raced up the levels to their squadmates’ position, listening to someone’s wet, gurgling shriek. It didn’t even sound human. The medic skidded into the stairwell, her mouth dropping open. Seven, Eight and Ten were there, trying to wrench a woman in one of Hadley-Wright’s science division tunics off of Hernandez.

Her teeth were sunk into his throat, her mouth chewing on his neck, making sick slurping and smacking noises, her arms wrapped around his torso. Eight and Ten each had a leg, trying to pull her free and Seven was screaming at the woman to let go, one thick arm around her neck, trying to wrench her head free.

“Get off him!” Seven was shouting, the barrel of his pistol jammed into her temple. “Get off him, or I will fucking put you down!”

Hernadez was turning grey, red streams pouring down his neck as the woman continued to gnaw on his throat, slurping up whatever she could, her face covered in the mercenary’s blood.

Abigail didn’t hesitate, twitching her right arm and extending the stun rod from within its vambrace. “He said,” she took two quick steps and raised the crackling shock baton. “Let fucking go!” she rammed the rod down into the back of the woman’s head, at the base of her spine. The woman screamed, convulsing wildly as the current sent her into a seizure, but when it was over, her grip slackened and the other mercenaries were able to pull her off Nine. She recovered fast, struggling against the pinning her down, her mouth and lips soaked red, shrieking. “I didn’t want to!” over and over.

“Hold her!” Shannon shouted. “I don’t have time for her now, you three hold her the fuck down! Abby, here. Now.”

Hutchins dropped to her knees beside Shannon as the corporal slapped Louis. His eyes were going glassy and unfocused. “Hernandez! Stay with me! Focus! Stay awake.” She gave him a hi-ox shot to keep his brain from starving. He was rolling back and forth on the floor, gasping, coughing blood. “Abby, hold him still. I can’t see with him covering his neck.” She pulled out a synthskin strip as Hutchins seized Louis’s wrists, holding them by the side of his head. Shannon straddled the fallen mercenary, careful not to apply any weight to his chest, just to keep him from thrashing.

Shannon ran her lume over the wound. Arteries are intact, thank God. Jugular vein’s been nicked. You’re lucky, Hernandez. But if you’d just worn your God-damned helmet…! “Beta Four, calling in a medical alert. Severe neck trauma to Beta Nine, blood loss. Possibility of hemothorax.”

“Medical’s responding,” Shaw replied.

Hayes pulled the cap off a canister of regenitol with her teeth, spraying the healing catalyst into the wound. Louis shrieked in agony. Unlike the regenerist treatment, the regenitol family of compounds were not gentle, nor were they pleasant to endure. But they worked, and quickly. Both women held the screaming man down until his spasms subsided. From behind her, Shannon could hear the woman shriek alongside Hernadez, still fighting. “Coming!” she screamed from a mouth frothing with bloody saliva. “Coming in the dark!”

Shannon put the synthstrip over the wound, listening to the wet, wheezing gargles of Hernandez’s breathing. Fluid in the lungs. From that wound? Definitely hemothorax He’s drowning in his own blood. The hi-ox she gave him wouldn’t last forever and keeping his brain alive wouldn’t do any good if his lungs filled up! “Beta Four. I’m cracking Nine.” She reared back, opening the straps holding Hernandez’s cuirass together. Luckily, no one but Eta was wearing power armour. Those were a bitch to get through.

She grabbed scissors and cut open Louis’s shirt; her palm scanner confirmed it – his lungs were full of his own blood. Louis was starting to hyperventilate, burning through the first shot she’d given him. He was starting to gasp for air again, his normally swarthy complexion pale and only just turning grey. There was pink foam on his lips.

“Pump!” Shannon snapped at Abigail, affixing an oxygen mask over Hernadez’s mouth and nose. Hutchins knew the rhythm and followed the medic’s lead as Shannon pulled the cap off an empty syringe, placed a hand on Louis’s chest to steady him. What he needed was a thoracostomy. Human lungs weren’t hollow sacs of air; they were spongy, filled with thousands upon thousands of alveoli; small compartments for gas exchange. If she hit the wrong place, the suction from the needle would rip that spongy tissue right out with the blood, or the needle itself would cut up his lungs.

There; she’d slid the needle under the second rib. She hooked a drainage tube and valve up to the open needle, letting the blood start to drain of out his lungs without the risk of it being drawn back in. This wasn’t the time or place for a complete chest drainage; he’d need a doctor, not just a corpsman for that. But… yes. She could hear the difference in his breathing already. Two levels below she could hear the pounding feet as the medics raced up the ramps. The response was too quick to get someone from Kerrigan; they were corpers.

Louis was still trying to move, Abigail whispering to him, trying to keep him calm. It seemed to be having an effect. If he moved now, he’d pull the needle and drain right out. She couldn’t risk giving him a sedative after that much blood loss, not without a better appraisal of his condition and the doctors could handle that. She did administer a wide-spectrum antibiotic, just to keep whatever what in the woman’s mouth from taking up residence in Hernandez.

Hayes patted Louis on the shoulder as he weakly reached out to her. She took his hand, and smiled at him. “You stupid fuck,” she said sweetly. “Maybe next time you’ll wear your helmet.”

Under the oxygen mask, he smiled.

With Louis stabilized and the doctors – Emily was one of them – here, Shannon was able to turn her attention to the woman. She was still fighting the mercenaries holding her down, writhing and twisting like demon. Her, on the other hand… Hayes grabbed a sedative and the woman’s attention focused on her, mad eyes widening in terror. She tried to scramble away, but Seven, Eight and Ten held her fast. “No!” she cried. “No! Can’t sleep! Won’t sleep! Don’t do it to me, I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to…! I’m sorry, please, I’m sorry. Don’t put me under! You don’t know. You don’t know it. Please!” Tears were streaming down her filthy cheeks.

“I thought I could hide, hide until you got here. I waited for you. I did – I did! – but you never came! And you can’t hide. They find you. They find you wherever you go.”

“Who? Who found you?”

The woman sagged in her captors’ arms, all strength leaving her. When she spoke again, it was a in a flat, lifeless monotone, like a recording. “Continued exposure to ambient conditions causes increasing levels of paranoia. Subject demonstrates heightened aggression, restlessness and irritability. Hallucinations are common, becoming progressively more disturbing as condition progresses. Subject is prone to unpredictable bouts of violent, though still maintains some social characteristics. Condition has lead to uncontrollable mania and psychosis. Biological affects include sensitivity to light, heightened pain threshold, increase in endorphin, adrenalin and epinephrine production.” She rocked back and forth, at least as much as the mercenaries’ grip would allow. “Afflicted subject retains some semblance of rationality. Kill me.”

Shannon blinked. “What?”

“Though brief moments of lucidity occur, subject’s condition is rapidly deteriorating. Increased hunger, propensity for violence are characteristics of this stage of degeneration. F2. F2. Kill me.” She looked up. “Don’t do it. Don’t put me under. Don’t let me wake up like this. You have to do it,” she begged desperately. Her voice went dead again. “Terminate the experiment; euthanize all affected subjects. Extreme containment procedures are authorized.”

Shannon hesitated. Whatever happened here, it had clearly driven the woman insane. Was this what had happened to the rest of Primal’s crew?

“Give her the shot, corporal.” Shaw ordered.

“Yes, sir.” She’d been given a directive. Hayes reached forward, turning the woman’s head to one side.

“No!” the corper screamed, thrashing even harder than before. “No! Don’t! Please, I’m sorry! I didn’t want to! I didn’t want to!

She went limp in the mercenaries’ arms as Shannon gave her the sedative. The corporal stood back up, looking over at the other medics. “Take her, too. Strap her down. There’s no telling how long she’ll be out.” I gave her enough to put her out for twelve hours, but no one of her size should have been able to fight that hard to begin with. Increased adrenal production can counteract the affect of some sedatives and it could explain her strength…

Shannon looked down at Louis; Emily and the other doctor had managed to get him on a stretcher. He gave her another weak smile and a thumbs-up. “He’ll be fine,” Delphini assured the mercenaries. “You got to him just in time.”

“Sergeant, requesting permission to go with them,” Overstern said.

“Granted,” Donowitz replied. “Three and Four, you might as well tag along, too. Keep an eye on your other patient. Seven, Eight – pick up where Nine and Ten left off. I want to make sure we don’t have any other surprises coming our way.”

There was a chorus of acknowledgements.

~

Emily kept an eye on the mercenary’s vitals as Shannon pushed the stretcher and its grav-sled towards the bivouac. It was a miracle that the man was still alive; as it was, his throat was starting to mend, and the drain Hayes had put in him had kept his lungs from filling up. If Michelle’s teeth had gone any deeper, there wouldn’t have been anything anyone could have done.

Michelle. Emily looked down at her, her gaunt features, sunken eyes. Dirty fingers so thin that they might as well have been claws. Her mouth, her lips and teeth stained with Louis Hernandez’s blood. Even with a strong dose of myxiniparn, she was still twitching and whimpering in her bonds. She didn’t even look like the same person anymore. Not the girl who’d drag the other junior physicians out to all-night mixers, the woman who’d offer sympathy to patients and their families when Medevost had moved on to the next case, who’d gleefully done a polar bear dip every single year.

If there was any of that in her, Emily couldn’t see it any more. Only a tortured, pathetic thing that had begged for its own death as if it were some kind of lab animal to be put down. Everyone on the station had asked themselves this question, over and over. What happened here?

The young doctor suspected that they’d find out, and soon.

I want to go home.

She tried to shove that thought away, looking over at Hayes. The medic was as anonymous as every other mercenary in her armour. “Did you know him well?” Emily asked, almost tripping over the question.

There was moment of hesitation from Hayes before she answered, surprised that Emily had actually spoken to her. “A little. He joined Artemis a few months ago and was just assigned to Beta. We served together for one mission, three operations.” Armoured shoulders moved fractionally; up and then down. “Nothing major. Private security for a PFL.”

“PFL?”

There was a smile behind Shannon’s answer. “Sorry. Acronym I picked up from Artemis. It means ‘president-for-life’. Another nobody, claiming a chunk of one planet and trying to claim it all.”

Emily blinked. Hayes was a Halo; how could she prop up a dictator?

Her expression must have betrayed her, or Shannon had heard the objection enough times to know it by heart. “There was no wetworks. He had his own units for those. We just had to protect him from his own generals, the ‘adoring citizens’ and the ‘special units’ of his rivals. When he ran out of money, we left.” She shrugged. “Better than some jobs.”

The doctor hooked a fresh drip bag onto Hernandez’s IV. “But, I mean… how could you do it in the first place? Any of this? I couldn’t, and…”

“…you’re not even a Halo. I know. Everyone gets hung up on that. Genetically predisposed for rationality, intelligence, cooperation. But not aggression. Not violence. Halos don’t fight. We just let everyone else do it for us. We don’t build weapons. We just design them for others. We don’t conquer other planets. We just out-build, out-produce and crash their economies. We’re very civilized.” She laughed. “And I’m an entire planet’s biggest embarrassment. The Halo Who Fights.”

“I’m sorry,” Emily said in a rush. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.” She looked away as she felt her cheeks warm, about to start mentally kicking herself when an armoured hand fell on her. Shannon squeezed the doctor’s shoulder.

“It’s all right. I’ve been asked it before. All the time. The truth is, I don’t know why I’m the only one… I mean, I think my great-grandfather…” she trailed off. “I just wanted to get off that planet. Away from everyone who’d never had to do anything except have the entire galaxy handed to them. Everyone wants Halos, you know. For biosciences. Physics. Engineering. Nations and corporations will pay anything, do anything to get a Halo working for them. Even kill each other over us.”

“47% of all research breakthroughs directly involve a Halo,” Emily murmured, the factoid springing into her mind. For a planet of billions amongst a galaxy of hundreds of trillions, that was an impressive accomplishment.

“Yes,” Shannon nodded. “Everyone wants us.”

“So… I mean… why are you just… I mean, you’re only a medic!”

Another miniscule shrug. “Because I wanted to be.” A sigh. “I am very smart. I fluently speak and read over twenty-eight language and can get by in another two dozen. I can build you a counter-grav out of a box of scraps. I can calculate starship drive equations in my head. I remember everything.” A beat. “Almost everything.” There seemed to be something to that, something she wasn’t saying, but Shannon continued past it.

“If I’d finished my schooling, I could do even more. I probably will, at some point. I know the Old Man and Colonel Shaw want that, that they see me as a long-term investment, waiting for me to get over this silly ‘front-line grunt’ phase. Then they’ll give me a lab – in any field I want – and everything I ask for and reap the benefits of having their own Halo.” She didn’t – quite – laugh. She didn’t even worry that Shaw and Control were hearing this. She’d known what Artemis wanted from her for a long time. And to their credit, they’d never really made any attempt to hide that fact, humouring her little infatuation with mercenaries.

“Maybe they’re right. Maybe everyone is and this is just a stupid, foolish rebellion. But I still want it. I don’t know why. Maybe because I want to do something different, at least until my genes kick back in.” She shook her head. “Sorry. You probably didn’t want to listen to me ramble about how terrible it is to be a Halo.”

“It’s all right,” Emily assured her, smiling a little. “In fact-”

Her words died in her throat as Shannon jerked, so abruptly that she twisted the stretcher off-course. She let go of it entirely and Emily scrambled to catch it before it tipped. An instinctive rebuke died on her lips, when she realized the other woman had gone completely rigid, one hand reaching for the pistol on her hip. Emily’s throat dried as she saw the other two members of Beta squad – no, all off the mercenaries in the bay – had done the same, frozen just as completely as Shannon, helmets turned towards the docking spar and the silent, dark Primal nestled across from its sister ship. For an instant, the thought that she and the rest of the scientists were about to be double-crossed and gunned down flashed through her mind, until she realized that D Company wasn’t reacting to her people. It was something on their comm.

Hadley-Wright’s science team didn’t share D Company’s radio frequencies. There was a general channel for instructions intended to reach both groups at once, so they were not privy to what Artemis’s mercenaries were now experiencing. They could not hear the sounds of men and women dying, the thunder of weapons in their ears, pleas for mercy, cries of hatred and despair, the wet, thick rasps of cutting or the smacking, slurping sounds of feeding.

Despite all of that, it took the men and women of Hadley-Wright’s science team very little time to understand what was happening.

Abandoned and left to die over half a millennium ago, DROP 47 had again awakened. Like Michelle had promised, it had found them.

And it was hungry.
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-10 12:58pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Delta Squad discovers that Primal lives up to its namesake.

Coming up: No one leaves. They won't let you.

Chapter 6:

Deep within Primal’s body, new systems flickered to life. They had been coming on-line ever since Delta had cut their way into the frigate, slowly but steadily, so as not to attract any attention. Soft blue lights bathed everything in a twilight glow, flashing icons of monitor panels and stations on each of six filled tombs alerting a missing staff that the occupants were coming out of cryosleep. Four of the pods were empty. Their occupants were dead or otherwise engaged.

Pharmaceutical drips changed their outputs, adding stimulants, synaptic multipliers and increased metabolites to their mix, prone bodies jerking and twitching in their sealed bunks as the chemicals raced through their systems. They awoke screaming and thrashing blindly as the drugs flooded their bodies, tearing them out of their comas. Automatic processes continued diligently, unsealing the sleep chambers and men and women in sweat-stained skivvies fell to the floor, cursing, snarling and clawing blindly at one another before the rush of the drugs faded, and they began to remember.

“Let us out!” Lieutenant Jane Godfrey shouted as she beat her fists against the Crypt’s door. “You can’t do this! Let us out!” She looked frantically about, trying to find a cutting torch or anything to firce the heavy armoured doors open, but the entire room was dead. “Let us out!” she screamed again, futilely trying to pry the door open with her bare hands.

“I’m sorry, Jane,” Shelby’s voice rolled smoothly through the comm. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“Captain?” the lieutenant and the other five members of the Ghosts – B Company’s G Squad – looked up. A vidscreen snapped to life,
Primal’s captain on it. None of the Ghosts had expected to hear from the captain. They’d assumed he’d already been killed. That it had been him who’d lured them into this trap was… almost reassuring. Matthias Shelby was not looking well at all; he was on the bridge and appeared to be alone, but there were dark circles under his eyes and every so often, an involuntary shiver would run through him. He had the bug. “What’s going on, sir?” Jane demanded warily. “We heard-”

“Yes, I know what you heard. It’s bad, lieutenant. I’m sure you’ve noticed, but the entire crew’s been affected. Not only affected…” He twitched. “I’ve managed to put the ship into lockdown, but someone’s attempting to override my access. I don’t think I have the…” he touched a hand to the side of his head. Despite herself, Jane flinched when she saw the pistol in Shelby’s hand. “I don’t think I can keep them out for long. And when that happens, whenever any rescue party gets here, they’re going to be… at least with
Primal sealed, there’s a chance of keeping it contained. I’ve made a log and put a warning on the E-band, so that should help.”

“Where do we fit in, sir?” Trevor Pierce asked.

“I can’t leave the bridge,” Shelby continued. “I need someone to go out there and seal the doors manually. From the inside.” He smiled ruefully. “I trust you six as much as I can trust anyone now.”

Godfrey’s eyes narrowed. “But not enough to let us out?”

“Not that much, no. Besides – do you really want to be out there? The Crypt has stasis tubes for each of you and emergency rations for months. You go in, you go to sleep and you’ll wake up whenever there’s a breach. You’ll seal it, go back into coldsleep and wait for rescue. Outside…” he shrugged. “The sensor loci are tracking lots of movement.”

Jane swallowed. “Not the locals.”

“Not at all. We created quite a commotion and it looks like they’re coming up from the core to investigate.”

“Not to put too fine a point on it, sir,” Gregori looked up from where he was sitting on an ammo crate. “We appreciate the heads-up about… them and all. But how do we know we can trust you? We’d be awful helpless in the tubes if you went buggy.”

“You’ll just have to trust me,” Shelby replied. “Just like I’m trusting you.” He did something with the controls and the Crypt’s systems surged to life, fitting arms and maintenance units awakening, manipulator appendages turning towards the mercenaries expectantly.

“Trust,” Jane deadpanned, looking back up at the monitor.

“Trust,” Shelby replied, nodding.

“What the hell,” the lieutenant breathed, striding over to a marker, and holding her arms out. Recognizing the gesture, the Crypt’s automated systems seized dormant pieces of power armour, swiftly sealing the woman inside. “We’ll play cryptkeeper,” she said as machinery clamped the helmet over her head, a cyclic cannon clamping to her arm.

Shelby nodded again. “Good soldier. Good soldiers. I’m on channel twelve; it’s still secure. Once you’re done sealing the ship, I’ll make sure you have everything you need.” His eyes drifted to the gun in his hand. “You’re the last of us, now.”


~

As far as starships went, neither Primal nor Kerrigan was terribly big, but the mess was as large a room as you were likely to find in either ship, at least without being devoted to engineering, the computer core or some other major ship’s system. The mess also doubled as a rec room for the small frigates, so it had to accommodate the full ship’s crew and then some. It also had to be easily accessible, so as a defensive position, it was terrible, with five entrances to the dining area, not including the access to and from the nearby galley.

Delta squad slowly filtered into the mess, following Ludmilla’s sensor trace, a pair of the mercenaries staying back at the door to cover their comrades, while Seven and Eight attempted to circle around the deck, to cut off whoever was there in case they tried to run again. Ludmilla didn’t think so; whoever had been leading them through the ship was done running. She felt the comforting weight of the carbine hanging over her shoulder as she entered the mess, sweeping her IDS across the open room.

The lights were slightly brighter here than in the rest of the ship, flashing emergency beacons strobing on and off. The intercom was still on, still running white noise, interspersed with what – she was sure of it now – voices, too soft to make out, but she could hear the distinct clicks and hisses of syllables amongst the buzz and ramble of static.

Plates had been left out of the table, dishes scattered and broken on the floor. There was no food left on the plates, just rotting, moldy streaks of whatever had been there. Smeared across one wall in paint was a simple, almost plaintive declaration.

I’M STILL HUNGRY.

Glass and plastic crunched under the squad’s feet as they filtered between overturned tables and scattered chairs.

Shhhhk.

The sound was rasping, sharp against dull and Ludmilla looked up in its direction.

Standing with his back to them, just outside the galley, was someone in the uniform of the ship’s crew. His clothes hung off him as if they were too big for him, stained, rumpled and dirty, like the rest of Primal. He didn’t acknowledge Delta’s presence as they entered the room, continuing to run the large butcher’s knife he held in one hand against the whetstone in the other.

Shhhhk.

The man tottered back and forth slowly, his lips moving, but he still didn’t react as Rafowitz swept his flashlight over him, bringing the true level of filth encrusting his clothes into stark evidence. The patch on his jacket’s shoulder said he was an engineer, but it fit so poorly that he might have taken it from someone else.

Shhhhk.

“Rating McGill, report,” snapped Rafowitz, his harsh voice trying to get a reaction out of the man. Ludmilla hadn’t seen anything to identify him, so Rafowitz must have known him from before.

Shhhhk.

They were close enough now to hear what McGill was saying. As the team approached, he looked up furtively, the angle of his head changing only the barest amount as he stared at Delta. “… cups chopped red onions, serve until tender. Listen. Listen. Listen to the music of the spears.” His gaze drifted from Rafowitz to Two. “Remove the shell, then tie off and remove each limb. Six stuffed filangro peppers; place each one with each limb as it boils, stirring and adding two cups assorted vegetables. Serve when tender.” His eyes drifted onto Ludmilla. “No escape, lost, left and alone. Remove the shell. Secure and baste. Stuff with blood pudding and crutons. Spit over and mount heating element. Slow rotation to ensure thorough cooking. Season with golden oregano and spices. Serve when skin is golden brown and meat is medium-well.”

Shhhhk.

Ludmilla repressed a shudder of revulsion as she realized what he was talking about, the cook’s continuing to appraise each of the mercenaries present. He half-turned towards them, his cheeks gaunt, eyes sunken and dark. The whetstone fell from his hand, fingers dancing madly over the handle of the knife.

“Put it down, McGill,” Rafowitz ordered, his rifle aimed at the cook’s center of mass. “We’re here to help. But put the knife down.”

McGill’s eyes flitted back to the sergeant. “No help coming,” he whispered. “All alone, trapped and left behind. Survive. Survive. You don’t know. He betrayed us, you know. Shelby and his metal whores.” His mouth worked, chewing on nothing. “Hating us. Lying to us. Sealing us. Sealing us away. Because he didn’t see. They didn’t see. Couldn’t understand the whispers. F2 starts. And…” he giggled, lifting the hand with the knife up to his mouth, putting a finger to his lips. “And the secret.”

“What secret is that?”

“Empty, but not alone.” He laughed again, lowering the knife. “None of us were alone even before he betrayed us.” McGill cocked his head. “Where do you think you’ll go, sergeant? Can’t get out. They won’t let you.

Ludmilla cocked her head; there were noises coming from the corridors. Distant, but echoing through the hallways, up to Delta’s position. She checked her sensor display. Nothing.

Rafowitz continued to try and talk to McGill. “I need you to slow down, yeoman. Slow down and start from the beginning. What happened here?”

“You know what happened. You know,” the yeoman began to rant. “It’s why we were sent here. It’s why you did this to us. Why you let them do it. Leave the mistakes behind, just like it told us.”

Pachel called up the sensor log of their journey through Primal, the flitting there-and-gone contacts. Something about it wasn’t quite right.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, yeoman. We came here to rescue you. Put the knife down and we’ll get you off this ship.”

“Aren’t you listening?” the cook asked, his voice dropping so low that even with the pickups in his helmet, Rafowitz had to strain to hear him. “There’s no going back. No rescue. No going back. There is only Acheron and what was left behind.”

It wasn’t just the thermals; all her readings were off. She’d been too freaked out by the ship to notice before. This wasn’t just scatter or back-bounce from the hull. The only thing that can explain these kinds of readings is if… Oh my God. ‘I am watching you’. They’ve been watching us. They’ve been fucking jamming us. “Sir…”

The distant sounds were getting closer; she wasn’t just imagining them. Frantically, Ludmilla tried to reset her system. It was only a cheap IDS without the expensive ECM and ECCM power armoured gear had, but she knew a few tricks… there. Oh. Oh no.

“What happened here?” Rafowitz demanded again. He looked like he was about to throttle McGill, the crewer’s lips drawing back in a hideous rictus, taking a step away from the sergeant.

“Listening.”

“Listening to what? Goddman you, I want an answer!”

“He’s stalling you!” Ludmilla exploded, grabbing Rafowitz by the shoulder and pulling him away from the yeoman. “We have to go, sir.” McGill stepped forward and Ludmilla raised her weapon. “Don’t fucking move, asshole!”

“What the fuck are you doing, Three?” the sergeant shouted at her. “We’re here to-”

“Get your people out of there,” Control’s voice cut in; they’d seen Ludmilla’s data, too. “Delta, get out now.”

McGill spread his arms open in an embrace, still holding the knife. “Welcome to Acheron!” he shouted, his voice rising to a scream. “This is what they want!” And from deep within the frigate’s body, that cry was answered.

~

Remembering despair.

“We’re all that’s left.”

Remembering fear.

“Dark! Go dark! They’re out there!”

“Who?”

“Them!”


Remembering hunger.

“There’s got to be something here! They can’t have taken it all!”

Remembering anger.

“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be! You kept us in! Traitors! Murderers! You left us in here with them! You slept while we were hunted and killed! You did this to us! I hate you!”

“Just fucking die already!”


Remembering hate.

~

It rolled through the corridors and hallways leading into the mess, rattling through the air vents, dozens of voices melded together into a single ululating shriek, a nightmare crescendo. The pound of feet on metal echoed out of the galley’s other entrances, beams of light sweeping around corners, their shifting glow filtering ahead of the rush of feet.

“Defensive positions!” Rafowitz roared. “Seven, Eight – we are pulling out. Do you read? Seven, Eight – do you copy?”

The pound of gunfire echoed through the comm. “We are engaged!” Eight shouted back. “-out of nowhere!” Another burst of a weapon, this time on full auto, Eight’s hoarse cry of fear and anger rising. “Get back, get back, get ba-” The signal from Eight ended abruptly as his biosigns flatlined.

Distracted by Seven and Eight’s demise, Sergeant Adrian Rafowitz made a mistake. For an instant, for the barest amount of time, he turned his back on Yeoman McGill.

He barely felt it, just a sudden pressure and fullness in his throat and then he was looking down at the tip of a knife, driven forward so forcefully that it had pierced the bullet-proof bodyglove on the back and front of his neck. “Two. You’re in command,” he tried to say, but nothing came out, only a raspy, bloody squeak.

When McGill twisted the knife, that was when he felt it. He didn’t hear the thunder of bullets from his squad, didn’t see the cook ripped into bloody clumps of loosely-connected meat, didn’t feel himself fall to the floor. As darkness closed in, he thought of Jolene’s face. Her smile, and her teasing nickname.

My nervous little bunny.

~

Aboard Kerrigan, the bridge crew watched as Seven and Eight’s biosigns spiked abruptly, then flatlined, helmet cams capturing nothing but lights stabbing out of the darkness, and a rush of movement. Shaw watched as Seven’s cam continued transmitting, bouncing and jerking as its owner’s body was twisted and pulled, the flare of a plasma torch blindingly bright as it was brought down to cut Rubenowitz’s armour open. The camera view arced crazily as it was thrown, helmet and head rolling across the floor, coming to a stop against one wall. Ghastly silhouettes rushed by, headed towards the mess.

“Get them out,” Shaw demanded, pounding a hand against the control panel watching as Rafowitz flatlined, watching from the other feeds as McGill was torn into chunks of ruined meat and what was left of the yeoman was sprayed across the room. The colonel gritted his teeth. He’d known McGill. “Get them out of there now!”

“Epsilon, move to assist-”

“Eta, you are clear to move out-”

“Zeta, cover the science team. Bring them back aboard-”

“Beta and Gamma, be ready to assist-”

And then the rest of Delta Squad met Acheron’s first secret.

~

They had been Primal’s last, best hope. A bulwark against the nightmares, keeping what was within the frigate bottled up, hopefully safe from the same affliction that had consumed the rest of the expedition.

Jane retched onto the sterile, clean floor of the crypt, emptying a stomach full of bile and little else. Her fingers curled into claws, her lips drawing back over her teeth as she lifted her head, staring into Gregori’s eyes. He was still dazed, still trying to recover his wits. Weak. Her pupils dilated, nostrils flaring as she reached for something, anything she could wrap her hands around and strike at him with, but the lights in the Crypt continued to brighten and she covered her eyes, shying away from the illumination, into a dark, empty corner filled with discarded MRE wrappers. She grabbed one, licking up the trace crumbs left behind, rooting through the pile for an unopened bar. Hungry.

She watched her squadmates slink away from each other, into their own darkened alcoves, away from the light.

Finally, her drug-addled mind remembered what the images and flashing letters on the screens meant and she stood, uneasy on her feet. Her breath was hot and acrid, a side-effect of the chemicals. Intruders. Distantly, she knew she remembered what that meant. But it was faded, a pale wraith of a memory. She didn’t quite remember what it had meant, but she knew enough that they weren’t supposed to be here. That was why she and her team were here. To keep it safe. Protect.

Jane bared her teeth, stalking over to a marker and holding out her arms, feeling the eyes of her squad on her. Her own never left the monitors, tracking the newcomers, her team following her gaze one by one. “We have a mission,” she informed them. “Get ready.”

As her helmet was sealed over her head and her HUD came up, Jane Godfrey called up the sensor feeds and licked her lips, feeling the comforting weight of her armour’s weapons as they were attached to her, coming on-line.

If there was one flaw in Captain Shelby’s plan, it had been in assuming that anywhere on the station was safe, that the weeks of fighting and murdering their own would leave the Ghosts unscathed.

~

They came boiling out of the hallways, clawing along the walls, loping on hands and feet like animals. The crew and passengers of APSS Primal, screaming and shrieking in froth-mouthed fury, clutching pipes, wrenches, crudely-fashioned swords and truncheons. More than a few had guns. Torn and ragged clothes flapped behind them as mercenaries and scientists closed the distance between themselves and Delta at an unbelievable rate.

“Fall back!” Two shouted as he squeezed the trigger on his gun, firing down into one of the hallways, but there were four more to cover. The galley doors banged open. Five entrances, now. “Fall back by fire teams!”

Ludmilla raised her carbine and sighted. She fired, watching the head of a man she’d dated evaporate in a bloody mist. She fired again and a Hadley-Wright technician was hurled off her feet, craters the size of Ludmilla’s clasped fists blown out of her back.

And they still came.

Four was screaming something incoherently, emptying his magazine on full autofire, hosing the bullets back and forth across one of the hallways.

And they came through it.

Missing arms, they still ran. Guts blown out, they still came. Legs ripped free, they crawled, the sheer momentum of their charge pushing them through all of Delta’s firepower. The mercenaries fell back to the door as the first wave, bloody and dying, but still determined to rip their flesh from their friends’ bones, poured into the mess.

“Clear!” Five and Six shouted as they dove through the door, Two behind them. Ludmilla was falling back, but Four was still there, still shouting and hollering as he scythed his weapon back and forth…

An overhead vent burst open, a spiderline made into a noose dropping around his neck. With a strong yank, whoever was in the vent pulled Four off his feet, his gun slipping from his hands in shock as he tried to pull the cord off. Delta’s medic was dragged up into the shaft, his legs kicking back and forth as he screamed, his cries painfully loud in Ludmilla’s earpiece. Then, a hard, brutal crack and he went limp, hands dropping lifelessly to his sides as rivulets of red blood poured down over his armour, the rest of him pulled up into the air vent.

“No…” Pachel stared, frozen in place. Two grabbed her and pulled her back, just as a triple-burst of bullets tore through the air inches in front of her.

Two of B Company’s marines had come out to play. Each of them hunkered behind the corners on opposite sides of the room, sniping at the retreating mercenaries. One of them dove out from his cover, rolling through the gore-slick floor, using the wave of unarmoured ship’s crew for cover. Time seemed to slow as Ludmilla caught sight of him fully. His helmet was scratched and dented, his armour clawed and scored, a hole punched in it over his right breast. Whatever had happened here, he had fought it until he was just like the others.

Three almost had a bead on him, but the B Company merc, too fast and his gun came up. The barrel flashed…

And Rebecca Hanover went down, her head suddenly ending at her lower jaw, the harsh squeal of her flatline signal ringing in Ludmilla’s ears.

Two shoved her through the door, an instant behind her. An instant too slow as a young, petite woman in an engineers’ coveralls jumped on him, knocking him down, the rest of the horde swarming him, dragging him off. Whatever cohesion they had shattered as individual men and women started fighting with each other, tugging back and forth on the struggling mercenary, screaming curses and slashing out at one another with whatever was at hand.

Ludmilla was about to order Delta to save Two when she saw what the B Company marine was doing. He was ignoring the frenzy surrounding Two and there was something in his hand. Something small and metallic… “Grenade!” she screamed in warning.

The explosive arced over the heads of the infighting swarm, into the hallway with Delta. They ducked, cowering and flattening themselves against what cover there was as the frag charge went off, spraying white-hot shrapnel over the mercenaries. Their armour was proof against most of it… but only most. Nine was down: her knee shattered, tendons cut to pieces. Ludmilla, Six and Ten sprayed fire back into the mess, howls of pain and rage their only answer, but she could hear the distant rattles and rapid footfalls of additional incoming.

Two’s signal went flat as his former comrades found a way through his armour.

“Go!” Nine shouted, giving Ten a shaky shove away from her. “I’ll hold them!” she pulled out a grenade of her own; incendiary.

Her vitals were already fading, blood pressure dropping, heart rate spiking; the shrapnel must have opened her femoral artery. “I’ll hold them,” she promised, looking into Ludmilla’s eyes. “I’ll hold them. Go.” They were getting closer.

Three turned, Six and Ten on her heels. A moment passed and a flash of orange filled the hallways. Nine’s signal cut out.

The three survivors of Delta squad ran for the airlock. In their panic, none of them realized that at some point they had begun transmitting on D Company’s general channel, sharing their panic and horror with every other man and woman from Kerriagn. Even if they had realized, they wouldn’t have cared. Only one thought was pounding in their minds: get out get out get OUT!

They almost made it.

~

The only warning they had was the harsh, whirring scream of a cyclic cannon spinning up and then a hurricane of explosive darts blew Six into so many scraps of metal, ceramics and meat. Advancing up the hallway was one of B’s marines, this one in full power armour, the heavy cannon attached to one arm already tracking towards Three and Ten. Each merc dove into an alcove on opposite sides of the hallway as a fresh burst from the ogre’s cannon ripped towards them. B Company’s power team had been called the Ghosts, their armour painted grey-white. This one’s was the same, only it was spattered with a liberal amount of dark brown – Ludmilla had no doubt that it had started out as red – crudely smeared into words she didn’t recognize, a single bloody handprint on the soldier’s torso.

The trooper had opened the lower half of his helmet, teeth bared in a feral grin, screaming something in a language Ludmilla didn’t understand. The mercenary fired up the hallway at the advancing troll, but against a heavy trooper, she might as well have been using spitwads. Behind her, she could hear the jeers and cries of the rest of Primal’s complement. They’d been hard on their heels, but it seemed like – somehow – she and Ten had lost them. Now it would only be a matter of moments before they were caught between the troll and the horde.

Bullets chewed up the bulkhead, spraying Ludmilla and Ten with more shrapnel as the trooper drew closer to their hiding places. Then, salvation. She heard the shrill whine of a hellbore and the thunderous impact of something heavy crashing to the deck. She risked a look; smoke wafted out of the trooper’s back, an array of flashlights shining down at her and Ten. It was then that she realized that Sergeant Laverty from Epsilon had been shouting for her to respond.

She smiled in relief as the ten men and women of Epsilon pounded towards her and Ten, leaping over the body of the dead power trooper.

Then, from further down the hallway, hidden by the darkness, came the soft whir of more cyclic cannons spinning up. We never lost them! Ludmilla’s mind screamed at her as she threw herself to the deck. They drove us here!

Laverty’s torso vanished in a burst of gore, along with three more of Epsilon. Two more Ghosts advanced out of the darkness of the hall, plodding and methodical as they walked their fire over the Epsilon squad, cutting men and women down like so much wheat. Like the trooper, they’d removed the armour over their mouths, each set of raw, ragged, red-stained lips twisted into a grotesque rictus, tongues lashing over their mouths and teeth, drool running out of the corners of their mouths. “Seal the breach! No one gets out!” one of them – a woman – shouted as her fire ripped into Epsilon, shredding armour and flesh alike.

Sobbing in terror, Ludmilla scrambled on her hands and knees through the carnage as a handful of Epsilon tried to fire back, but none of them had the presence of mind to put up a coordinated fight, let alone aim carefully enough to put a round through the giant’s faces. They’d wanted Epsilon to come in, waited for them.

In point of fact, that level of coordination had never occurred to either of the two groups pursuing D Company. G Squad had, in their own way, continued to fulfill Shelby’s last orders to them, hunting down and destroying anyone – anyone at all – who attempted to breach the captain’s lockdown. Even the most impaired of the remaining crew had learned to avoid the hulking giants on their rare excursions from the Crypt.

Not that any of this mattered to Epsilon at the moment.

Ludmilla was not proud of leaving Ten and the rest to die, but her instincts were screaming at her to run and she did; she didn’t even know if she was headed towards the airlock. She was operating on nothing but pure blind panic, ignoring the voices in her ear screaming at her, thinking of nothing else but the desire to get out, get out, get out, scrabbling over the deck. Then, there was silence. No more screams, no more shots or the ripping thuds of explosive bullets detonating inside flesh.

Three rolled onto her back, pushing herself up against the wall as the Ghosts strode forward. Light shone painfully into her eyes as one of the troopers stepped over the dead and dying, its cannon leveled at her. She could barely see, just able to make out the hulking form of the female trooper as she reached one massive gauntlet down for Ludmilla…

A frantic, rolling chorus of screams reverberated down the hall and the power trooper froze, her teeth clicking as the rest of Primal’s crew raced towards them. The troopers exchanged a brief look and shut off their lights, their ghostly forms retreating back into the darkness.

With the shrieks of the horde getting closer and the troopers’ retreat blocking the only way out, Ludmilla Pachel, Artemis Private Security Services, sat amidst the gore of her friends and shipmates, bringing her carbine up, pointing it down the hallway. With shaking hands, she fed a fresh clip into the weapon.

And waited.
   Profile |  

Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-16 03:25pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
D Company longs for the good old days of zombies.

Coming up: It's less of a guideline and more an absolute, really...


Chapter 7:

The screaming from within Primal was getting louder.

They hate you.

“Keep them away from the civilians!”

“Form a firing line – now, gods damn you!”

They betrayed you.

“Those are our own people!”

“Not anymore they aren’t. Not after what they did to Delta and Epsilon.”

They left you here to die.

Zeta was trying to rush the scientists back onto the frigate as Beta and Gamma pounded back towards the docking spar in an attempt to beat Primal’s crew there. If they opened fire now, they’d only end up slaughtering their own comrades and the people they were supposed to protect. The closest soldiers were less than a hundred meters away, not quite at the tip of the docking spar that Kerrigan and Primal were both anchored to.

Almost there.

They didn’t quite make it.

Now they want to take what is yours. Take you.

The first indication of attack was not the howling, screaming mob clutching impromptu weapons that Zeta had expected, but the metal-on-metal skittering of flash-bang grenades bouncing and rolling out of Primal’s airlock. These were not the garden-variety form of the weapon, but ones intended to overcome the low-grade dampening systems built into light armour. Light armour that, for example, Zeta squad was equipped with.

They’ll drag you away, into the dark.

Senses magnified by their helmets’ sensors, the mercenaries staggered, temporarily blinded and deafened as the grenades exploded with thunderclaps and brief but nonetheless painful, searing brilliance. Zeta’s recovery was fast, far faster than any unarmoured troops exposed to flashbangs could have managed, but it wasn’t quite fast enough.

Strap you down to the biobed, stick needles in your eyes just to see what they can see.

The civilians that Zeta had been trying to rush back into the safety of Kerrigan did not have the benefit of these modifications and the effect flash-bangs intended to incapacitate foes with auto-dampeners had on unprotected and unshielded ears and eyes were catastrophic. The bang of their detonations ruptured eardrums, the pulse of light from them so intense as to burn out retinas. Men and women howled in pain, staggering blindly about in panic, knocking each other down as they clutched at their tearing, flash-burned flashes and bleeding, ringing ears.

Cut you open and put you back together all wrong and laugh at the results.

Less of a coordinated assault than dozens of individuals acting in accidental concert, the blood-maddened crew and passengers of APSS Primal swarmed out of the airlock, screeching like animals. The docking spar was not wide – only enough for the on-and-offloading of large cargo pallets and small vehicles – which wasn’t nearly enough to allow the mercenaries to create the kind of open killing field that would allow them the best use of their firepower. The idea of a pitched infantry battle being waged across the hangar was not a concept that had ever occurred to DROP 47’s designers, nor had such an event figured into the deployment plans of Colonel Shaw.

They’re going to take you apart.

One member of B Company’s A Squad leapt from Primal ramp landing amidst Zeta. A flash of movement and Sergeant Morishim was down, her throat opened to the bone by a sweep of the jagged bayonet on the end of the man’s gun. Even before she hit the deck, her killer was moving, shooting and slashing his way through the panicked, screaming scientists.

It’s what you’ve always known, isn’t it? The Old Man had a Plan. You’re the guinea pigs.

Still half-blind from the flash-bangs, Lance Corporal Jezebel Fabre nevertheless managed to draw a bead on her erstwhile companion. The staccato burst from her carbine threw his shredded corpse to one side, but her fire also wounded or killed an additional three civilians. This did not have a particularly calming effect on the scientists and they stampeded, shoving each other out of the way in a desperate charge to get aboard Kerrigan and the safety it promised.

Show them what you’ve learned. What the whispers in the dark told you, the only friends you have. The only friends you can trust.

A scream faded into the distance as one of the unlucky scientists was tipped over the edge of the railing, plummeting towards the lower levels of North-4 Bay. A woman cried out as she was trampled beneath her co-workers’ feet. Over the comm-links, Shaw and Kuhn were both shouting at their people, trying to restore some type of order, but it was like trying to break a tsunami with a teacup.

Don’t let them take you.

“Back, get back!” Zeta frantically tried to push the men and women of Hadley-Wright out of their firing lines, but the mercenaries weren’t trained for crowd control and in their own fear and panic, most ended up simply clubbing the scientists out of their way, stepping over the bleeding, crying bodies of the people they’d been paid to protect.

You can’t trust them.

Gunfire ripped back and forth between the marines guarding Kerrigan and the tainted soldiers of Primal, the former constrained by the terrified expedition members swarming over them. The men and women of B Company didn’t share the same restraint and fired back with abandon, not even caring if their comrades happened to wander into their lines of fire, their cries of bloodlust simply growing louder and more ferocious, incomprehensible invectives and pleas distorting their already-macabre features.

Kill. Kill and eat. Protect yourself.

Their eyes were wild, their armour pitted, scored and dented. Some didn’t even wear helmets, their faces scarred with cuts and scratches. Some had been obviously self-inflicted, their wounds cut into shapes and patterns that only made sense to them. Others had decorated themselves with what appeared to be kill markers, or macabre jewelry made from bullets, shell casings, shrapnel and parts of their victims.

You have to kill them. It’s the only way you can be safe. They’re going to kill you.

Given a target for their rage, a place to focus the madness that had had no place else to go but upon each other, the passengers and crew of Primal flooded onto the docking spar, ripping and tearing at everyone and everything in their path, even one another.

Protect yourself.

And the killing began in earnest.

Hurt them. Before they do it to you.

~

Shannon watched in horror as signal after signal went dead, the harsh squeals of Zeta’s flatlines ringing in her ears, an inescapable punctuation to the carnage she’d just witnessed. Desperate scientists were scrambling up into Kerrigan airlock, leaving their slower and wounded companions behind to die, as Primal’s forces butchered them, shrieking and hissing at one another as they fought over the dead and the still-living, mouths smeared red, weapons spattered and streaked with gore.

When Captain Shelby had sealed Primal, almost two-thirds of its complement had been trapped inside, the innocent and afflicted alike. Within the frigate, there had been nowhere to go, few places to hide and no one to trust. Degeneration had occurred rapidly. Paranoia. Hunger. Fear. Anger. Hatred. Constantly hunted. Unable to sleep, listening to the voices and seeing things, real and imagined, that no one should have ever seen. No allies, only enemies. Any attempt at escape brutally punished by the troopers who should have been helping them do so.

Under those conditions, it took very little to turn even the most civilized, intelligent man or woman into a snarling, puling animal. And those that didn’t became prey for the others.

They didn’t even seem to realize that Beta and Gamma were still there, still shepherding the surviving technicians and scientists deeper into the bay, as they closed with their former comrades.

A woman in the uniform of a Hadley-Wright technical surveyor looked up, strings of meat hanging from her mouth. She had once been very beautiful. Her eyes fixed upon Shannon and she raised a bloody hand, clutching a serrated axe in it, pointing towards the corporal. Part of Shannon’s mind was analyzing the weapon; it hadn’t come from the standard equipment found on the frigate or in one of Artemis’s companies, so it was custom-made; either a trophy taken from its original owner or fabricated in one of the frigate’s machine shops.

The ramifications of either possibility were not terrible pleasant to dwell on. Fortunately, Shannon didn’t have long to do so.

The woman screamed, a wordless cry of pain and rage, challenge and madness, sprinting towards the soldiers and the expedition members behind them. One woman with an axe. Not a threat.

But the dozens behind her... those could be. Shannon pulled Emily and the other doctor – Salvador Ramone by his nametag – down behind her. A bullet thudded into her back, flattening against her cuirass and leaving a bruise in the flesh beneath it, but she was otherwise unharmed. Unattended, the stretcher carrying Michelle simply drifted away, but Emily managed to pull Hernandez’s over to Ramone and Emily, lowering her squadmate behind the makeshift cover.

Hayes looked around the heavy crate, eyeballing the distance to the other stretcher, her muscles tensing as she prepared to make a run for it. A hand fell on her shoulder; Abigail.

The other woman shook her head. “Don’t.”

“I can’t just…!”

“You can, sir.” You will was the unsaid addendum.

Screaming in multiple languages, they charged. Gibbering nonsense to the rest of her squadmates, Shannon could nonetheless pick out fragments of each shriek, subconsciously processing the disparate, ranting dialects as she fumbled for her pistol.

“I just want to be alone!”

“Why don’t you love me anymore?”

“Jesus loves you! But I don’t!”

“This is all your fault!”

“Get out! Get out of my garden!”

“This is mine! It’s all mine!”

“Look at what you’re making me do!”

“Why can’t you just be good?!”

The pistol shook in her hand as she brought it up, the targeting reticule drifting over a man in a life sciences uniform. Pull the trigger! her training and her sense of self-preservation ordered her. Pull it! Shoot! They’re the enemy!

You came here to save them! another voice shouted back. You don’t kill. You can’t. It’s not what you are. These aren’t targets on a shooting range. They’re people. Men and women with hopes and dreams. They’re not the enemy. They’re sick. You can’t kill them.

Shoot them! Shoot them now!

This isn’t right! You know it!

“Goddamit, Halo!” Abigail snarled, giving Shannon a shove. “Shoot! Shoot them or we all die!”

Shannon squeezed the trigger. Her personal sidearm was a Merkilov ‘Chaos-bringer’ HCP-177a, a large-caliber pistol intended to fire a wide variety of bullets, including armour penetrating, high explosive, long-distance sabots and many other specialty rounds. Currently loaded with ‘hammerheads’, bullets with relatively little penetration, but intended to hit as hard as possible.

The pistol bucked in her hand, the bullet flying straight and true, smashing into the chest of the man in the life sciences jacket, pulping his ribs and pulverizing his heart and lungs. He was dead even before his body hit the ground.

She’d just killed someone.

The barrel dipped as her mind played the scene of the soldier’s execution over and over. She’d seen people die before. But she’d never been the one to do it. “I…”

“Keep it up!” Donowitz roared at the squad as they opened fire, the sergeant throwing a scientist to the deck, giving them a boot to the rear as encouragement to join the others behind Beta and Gamma. “Controlled bursts, stay off autofire!”

Unfortunately, they weren’t facing a mindless horde of fleshy automatons. B Company’s soldiers dove for cover as Beta and Gamma’s fusillade sliced towards them, sheltering behind abandoned crates or the door frame of Primal as they sniped back at D Company in return. Whether their goal was to intentionally provide suppressive fire for their more bloody-minded comrades, or this was simply a byproduct of their actions didn’t matter. Beta and Gamma had to hastily seek out protection of their own, preventing them from simply mowing down the rest of attacking horde, who redoubled their efforts to close with the mercenaries where their gaffs, bludgeons and blades could be used to better effect. As the dead of Zeta Squad could attest, even a knife could kill if someone got it through the bodyglove into your neck, it was used to saw your arms and legs off or someone bludgeoned you to death inside your armour.

Even consumed with rage, the horde was not completely mindless and they loped forwards, holding themselves low, ducking from cover to cover, using the very equipment Kerrigan had begun offloading to protect themselves. Bullets, Molotov cocktails and even crude, thrown weapons arced towards Beta and Gamma and the mercenaries replied in brutal kind.

Emily was all but screaming in terror, her hands over her ears as the cacophony of gunfire and shrieks filled the bay. Shannon kept the doctor pressed down on the deck as something sharp whirled overhead, jabbing into the front of the crate. Some crude purpose built munition; a ball filled with spikes that ejected as soon as it hit something. A drop of liquid slid lazily from the spines; poisoned.

Hayes gritted her teeth and forced her hand to tighten again, the recoil shuddering up her arm. A woman fell to the deck, her right leg gone at the hip. She didn’t even seem to register the pain, dragging herself onwards with filthy fingernails, a pistol still clutched in one hand. There’s something wrong with her. Adrenalin could only do so much; a wound like that should have bled her out in seconds. Something else is wrong here.

Shannon fired again and again, even as her mind focused on that anomaly. She sheltered behind the crate, slapping a fresh clip into her gun as B Company’s fire whined through the air centimeters above her head, or stitched across the front of the cargo container. It was from Primal, offloaded and abandoned, but filled with heavy industrial goods, an excellent bullet shield.

Not all cover offered equal protection; Gamma Six had misjudged the security offered by her own crate. It was taller than the mercenary and just as wide, but whatever equipment it had held had been emptied, leaving it all but hollow. A burst of fire blew right through the flimsy walls; two of the bullets passed through the crate and punched into Gamma Six’s backplate, one round continuing out the front of her armour, blowing a fist-sized hole in her ribcage. Without even a word, she slumped to one side.

Shannon was closer to the downed soldier than Gamma’s own medic and she hissed an order at Ramone and Delphini to stay down as she scrambled towards the Gamma squad member. Abigail sprung up, scything bursts of fire back and forth, providing her partner with cover fire of her own as she darted across the bay, grabbing Gamma Six and dragging her to safer ground. Two more bullets ripped through the container, one perilously close to Shannon’s head.

“Fire in the hole!” Gamma Four shouted, pulling out a concussion grenade, popping the pin from its tab, finger jabbing onto the safety. His arm cocked back to throw, when a bullet smashed through the front of his helmet, just left of the bridge of his nose. He toppled backwards, already dead. His corpse hit the deck, the grenade sliding out of his nerveless fingers.

“Live grenade! Live grenade!” Shannon heard someone shout a warning in her own voice.

Gamma Three dove for the weapon, tossing it over the embankment, but it didn’t get nearly enough away before it detonated, a wash of heat enveloping from it as a massive ephemeral boot hit Shannon in the back, knocking her to the ground.

~

Abigail Hutchins had been born on Darkknell, a world every bit as pleasant as its name sounded. Her upbringing had not been nearly as enjoyable as that of Shannon’s. Her world was not one of perfect, glistening towers. Of carefully-managed industry and ecosystems. Of a government that cared and supported for all its citizens. She’d never had the education that was freely given to all Halo children. Her genotype was not predisposed towards intelligence and peacefulness. She was what some Halos referred to as a ‘mutt’, a blending of lineages and nationalities, a stray dog that had never known her parents.

“Back! Go back to Hell, you motherfuckers!”

On Darkknell, only the strong survived. One of many wharf rats eking out a living on the docks of the Black Ocean, Abigail had most definitely survived. By being smarter and out-thinking her enemies. By being prettier and bartering with whatever she had. And by being meaner, the very epitome of a vicious mutt that so haunted the dreams of Halos.

“I’m hit, but still in it!”

But none of them had ever had to sneak up behind someone in a dark alley and club them over the head to steal a precious, only-slightly-mouldy block of cheese. None of them had ever had to rent themselves out to a shift of sweaty shipworkers. None of them had ever had ever had to do any of the things that she had had to do to survive. She supposed she should have hated Shannon; many of the company had expected her to.

“My face… my face!”

Upon seeing the Halo for her first time – eyes wide as saucers as she wandered around Artemis One in a uniform that never seemed to sit right no matter how many times it was adjusted, in awe and a little afraid of the men and women around her – Hutchins had remarked that she’d seemed like ‘a retarded puppy’ and she’d taken the FNG under her wing, expecting to have her hands full. But Shannon had been a quick study and if she’d never blooded herself, there were few complaints after her squadmates watched her pull them or their wounded friends to safety and carry out battlefield surgery that would have impressed some hospitals.

“Get off of me! Get off get off get off!”

Abigail had always been a little jealous of Hayes. How quickly she assimilated new information, how much the Old Man and Shaw doted on her. She was an investment. After her field career was over, she’d be able to go back to being a Halo and work in a laboratory. There wasn’t any rosy future like that for Abigail Hutchins. Growing up on Darkknell had hurt her, given her skills and temperament that made her unfit for normal society. There was no future for her but a forgotten death on a battlefield, or having her throat slit in an alley outside the bar where a burned-out husk of a woman told the same stories too many times and drank to forget the rest.

“They’re too fucking fast!”

If Halos had the galaxy waiting for them on a silver platter, Darkknells had nothing but what they could hold onto and for no longer than that. But Abigail would be damned if she let it get taken away from her one second sooner and double damned if her still-a-bit-naïve retarded puppy of an adopted sister was going to share that empty future.

“Keep your heads down!”

Whenever they had an opening, they charged. And they had plenty of openings as Betas and Gammas had to drop behind cover to shelter from the hail of bullets ripping up at them, had to duck away from grenades, thrashed about as Molotovs set them on fire, or flinched back from the impossible carnage. An overweight man lay smoking and twitching from where he’d fallen after grappling with Donowitz. A bloody smear was spread across the deck where a woman had pulled off Hasker’s helmet and jammed a shiv in his eye seconds before his partner cut her down.

“Fuck you! Fuck you, too! Oh, you want some of this? There’s enough for all of you!”

They were breaking through.

“My… my arm! She took my arm! She took my arm!

Unlike many of her comrades, there was no hesitation in Abigail’s actions as she gunned down the first rank of men and women charging them, seeing not the faces of people she’d known, drank and laughed with, but targets to be destroyed. Only the strongest survive. A man brandishing a wicked, stained hook in each hand leapt at her; she blew his guts across the floor, sidling towards Shannon as the medic pulled herself up groggily.

Abigail thumped Hayes on the shoulder, getting her attention. “You fit?”

“I’m fit,” the corporal responded, fixing her attention on Gamma Six. The woman had bled out, probably even before she’d gotten to her.

“Fit to fight?”

Shannon nodded; Abigail could see her eyes through her visor, wide and just above them, reflected on the polarized faceplate, was the looming silhouette of an attacker. Hayes scrabbled for her pistol, but Abigail simply swung around and sprayed the maddened crewer with fire, his bullet-ridden body crashing messily to the deck.

“Let’s get to it, then.”

“Wait. Wait,” Shannon’s head cocked as she looked over her partner’s shoulder. “They’re changing tactics.”

They were. They’d stopped charging, hunkering behind crates and boxes, heads turned towards the battle for Kerrigan’s debarkation bay, where ship security was fighting their losing battle to both save the remaining scientists and keep the frigate clear from attackers. They only had small – often ‘less-lethal’ – sidearms and padded vests for protection. Primal’s complement were so crazed that they didn’t notice anything less than an outright incapacitating wound and then it still took a while to catch up with them. In the closed confines of the spar and the bay, Kerrigan’s security services didn’t have a chance.

“Grenadiers,” Donowitz’s voice came through the comm, breathy with exertion, but hard and determined. Gamma One had had a gaff jammed up under his cuirass, ripping his insides up. Gamma’s medic had already given him the overdose of painkillers he’d asked for. “Load bangers, incendiaries and frags, alternating pattern. They’re hunkered, so we need to drive them out, or kill them where they stand. How many we counting?”

“Thirty-two casualties, forty-three effective on the spar. At least three dozen more made it into the ship,” Shannon replied without even thinking. “Counting twelve marine combatants, two dead. Lowball of six made it aboard Kerrigan.”

Abigail cocked her head towards Four; there’d been something in Hayes’s voice…

“All right then,” Donowitz said. “Everyone who can run, with me. Grenadiers and injured – you’re our cover. Make sure none of them get by you and attack the civvies. Three – you stay, too. You hold, you hear me? Okay. On the cont of three… one…”

“Wait.” Shannon’s voice broke onto the comm, that single word rushed and urgent. “Wait.”

“Three, what the fuck?”

“They’re moving differently,” Shannon replied. “Something’s coming.”

Hutchins gave her opponents a more critical eye; Hayes was right. B Company’s troops were falling away from the cover of Primal’s hatch, running towards Kerrigan, even as shipboard security pouring fire into them. “They were distracting us with that rush, keeping us pinned. They want to take the ship,” Abigail breathed in horror.

Shannon shook her head. “No.” Abigail didn’t see it. It wasn’t a coordinated assault; the attack on Kerrigan was half of their motivation. They were running from something. “They’re trying to escape.”

“God save us,” someone else whispered over the comm as they clued in. “The Ghosts are coming.”

One of the retreating B Company mercenaries was too slow in falling back and a massive armoured gauntlet snapped out, wrapping around their head and lifting them clear off the deck. The trapped soldier kicked and thrashed uselessly in the grip of the power-armoured trooper that held them, the massive figure slamming their prey down into against the deck, or up against Primal’s hull. Again. Again. Again. Even from this distance, over the screams and gunshots, Shannon thought she could hear the crack of the mercenary’s bones as the trooper pulverized them inside their armour, hurling the bleeding, broken corpse over the rails of the docking spar.

“Down, get down!” Donowitz hissed urgently, knowing what little good that would do if G Squad came after them. Luckily it seemed the Ghosts had other plans – they were after their retreating comrades. Lucky for Beta and Gamma. Not Kerrigan.

They marched implacably after Primal’s retreating crew and company; in her earpieces, Shannon could hear someone on Kerrigan screaming to seal the airlock, but if anyone from the frigate was still alive in the loading bay, it took too long for them to respond. At last, the vast boarding ramp began to grind closed, but too slowly and too late. Instead of keeping the infighting men and women of B Company off their ship, they’d only succeeded in sealing themselves in with them.

“Okay,” Donowitz said. “Okay. We still need to punch through to get back on Kerrigan. Hennigar, Alomar – just like we talked about. Get ready with the bangers. The rest of you, stay tight and don’t give them an opening to-”

Hard, reverberating thunder crashed through the bay as Kerrigan’s thrusters activated, the harsh, squealing cry of tearing metal following soon after as the frigate wrenched itself free from the docking spar, shaking the entire deck. Men and women clutched for handholds as boxes, bodies and the injured were tossed and bounced as the frigate ripped its way free, clawing about in mid-air, the heat of its thrusters washing over them.

The remaining men and women of D Company watched their only hope of escape flee back out the airlock, into the Mists.

A low, soft moan echoed through the chamber as the remaining members of Primal’s complement turned their attention back to Beta, Gamma and the stranded scientists.

No one’s coming for you now!

[Reveal] Spoiler: The graffiti problem seems to have afflicted Primal as well
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-25 08:48am 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas! And what better way to celebrate than with - as one of my other reviewers put it - more of a tale of "gore and misery"? What better way indeed!

Kerrigan does some housekeeping.

Coming up: all the noise and commotion has attracted some additional attention.

Chapter 9:

“Energy spikes from Primal!!”

Capstein spun in her chair. “What?”

“Its weapons are powering up!”

Ursula turned towards Colonel Shaw. Kerrigan was only a handful of meters away from her sister ship; if Primal fired on them… She saw his jaw set, saw the miniscule nod he gave her. “Break us loose!” she demanded, grabbing a comm. “All hands, prepare for emergency acceleration. I repeat: all hands prepare for emergency maneuvers.”

She grabbed ahold of the arms of her command chair, her knuckles white as the frigate wrenched itself free from the docking spar, clawing madly away from its tainted sibling. The maw of the docking bay loomed before them as Kerrigan’s own guns tracked back towards the still-berthed Primal. If they fired, they’d kill their own people, but it was either that or let the other ship blow them out of the stars. Shaw said nothing, deferring to Capstein’s leadership, watching the displays and trying to make sense of Primal’s spiking energy emissions. The shipboard AI was watching them too, he knew. Tasked to fire the instant before Primal’s own weapons came on-line and not a second before, able to react far faster than a human could.

He was holding his breath as the airlock doors drew open, Kerrigan using the long-dead ITS Razorback’s codes to escape from the death-trap station, the swirl and safety of the Mists beckoning. The frigate vanished into the hangar’s access tunnel, sweeping down the long opening, back into the Twilight Fields.

One problem solved. “Once we’ve taken care of our boarders,” Shaw said. “We’re going back for our people.” His voice was like iron and he met the eyes of every person on the bridge, letting them know that he would not brook even the slightest disagreement on that point. Primal might be lost, but he would be damned if he left the rest of his men and women to die on DROP 47. That fucking flytrap would not have another drop of Artemis blood if he had anything to say about it.

But even he knew that was a wasted promise.

~

“Move! Move!” Lieutenant Calvin Meyers shouted to both to hapless bystanders and his squad as the power-armoured troopers of Eta Squad stormed through Kerrigan’s corridors, rushing to assist their dying squadmates. The enemy had broken out of the embarkation bay, killing everyone in their path. There was no rhyme or reason to their actions, not that Meyers could tell. No, that was wrong. There was a pattern – they were trying to kill everyone. That was their goal.

One anyways. As he studied the sitrep, it became clear that at least three different groups were operating their own agendas; the ones who were trying to kill everyone and everything, the second who were letting them do it, hitting security where they were weakest and infiltrating through the ship. Those he had to watch out for. The third group was Godfrey’s Ghosts. Like the first, they were intent on carnage, pure and simple. But they preferred to target the others from Primal over Kerrigan’s personnel. Not that Godfrey and her team wouldn’t hesitate to gun down or tear his own people to pieces if they got in her way. Damn it Jane – what happened to you?

Whatever had happened to Primal, it had taken the entire ship at once. Some kind of plague? Right up until the Coalition turned Earth into a new asteroid field, the Empire had loved its bioweapons. Was this what that was, a relic from the Imperial Age, dormant on the station and let loose by whatever idiots had been stupid enough to come here? Like us. Are we just the latest in a long line of morons to try and plunder DROP 47. Scratch that; of course we are.

Meyers’s musings came to an end as Eta reached the compromised section of the ship. Sealed off from the rest by a decompression bulkhead, he could hear the desperate bangs and shouts of the Hadley-Wright technicians trapped on the other side as they pleaded for escape.

Calvin transmitted his code, the heavy door effortlessly sliding open, letting a half-dozen crew and scientists spill onto the deck, squawking in surprise. They cringed upon seeing Eta, but relaxed when it became apparent that the mercenaries were from Kerrigan, not Primal.

The lieutenant pointed one thick armoured finger back up the corridor. “There’s a security checkpoint at Section C-7. Follow the running lights and you’ll be fine.”

As the survivors gratefully fled, Calvin nodded to his squad and they advanced into the combat zone.

~

Shhkt-kzzz.

Shhkt-kzzz.

The emergency lighting flickered haltingly, the damaged bulbs still straining to illuminate the room, and only partially succeeding at it. Blood covered the floor, almost in its entirely, footprints left in the drying gore. Mutilated bodies hung from walkways and balconies or lay crumpled on the floor, broken like dolls.

Shhkt-kzzz.

Squatting amidst the gore like some brooding guardian of myth, Jane Godfrey flicked her wrist weapon in and out. Not a stun baton like most of the lighter-armoured mercenaries were equipped with, it was a disruptor blade, intended to sheer through armour: bulkheads, vehicles and the thick plating of her power-armoured counterparts. They were coming; she could feel them. Not through her suit’s scanning systems or autosenses, but with the knowledge one predator had of another’s actions. They were coming.

Shhkt-kzzz.

The ghostly, writhing energy of the blade cast macabre shadows on her armour and uncovered face. Stringy, matted hair was plastered to her waxy skin and her green eyes gleamed with unsettling devotion to a dead man’s order. He hadn’t known when he’d told her. Or maybe he had. Maybe that was why he’d selected her and G Squad. Because he knew they’d find out.

Primal hadn’t just been affected. It had been infected.

Jane hummed a nursery rhyme as continued to watch her blade jolt in and out, flicker on and off. She could feel the anxiety and anticipation of her own troops as they waited for her. Watched her. They were always watching. Them, too. And them. And them.

Shhkt-kzzz.

“This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed home with the flu.”

Shhkt-kzzz.

“This little piggy killed his sister, because he’d gone all F-2.”

Shhkt-kzzz.

“This little piggy tried to run, this little piggy thought he was free.”

Shhkt-kzzz.

“This little piggy was very naughty, because he didn’t know he was R-3.”

Entranced by the blade’s energy, Jane finally shut it off and stood, staring her Ghosts back into submission. “Let’s kill some piggies.”

~

The attack came from above.

Screaming, a bare-chested man in a torn labcoat flung himself down from the ceiling onto Meyers’ torso, the shiv in his hands snapping as it skidded uselessly over the trooper’s thick cuirass. Frothing at the mouth, the man continued to beat his fists futilely against the lieutenant’s helmet. Calvin chuckled and grabbed him, throwing him to the deck. “That’s enough out of you.”

“No,” the man – wild-eyed and shaking – whispered as he reared back on his haunches. “It hasn’t begun. Not for you.” His eyes drifted over Calvin’s shoulder, focusing on something behind him,

Meyers was a veteran; he’d seen that same look a dozen times before and was already moving as a hurricane of fire tore down from the ceiling, a pair of C Squad, hanging from the girders like monkeys. He grunted, registering the bullets impacting on his armour, turning and raising his gun. One of the maddened soldiers dropped to the ground, scuttling away. The other wasn’t as quick and Calvin’s retaliatory burst cut him in half before he even hit the floor. Eta Ten opened fire, pinning the first merc under cover as the rest of team fanned out, sweeping through the bay.

At once, movement registered on all their sensors as the enemy forces sprang their trap, firing from concealed positions behind cargo pallets, or rushing in through the doors, firing down on the power-armoured troopers. Behind his helmet, Calvin grinned, striding into the maelstrom.

~

Jane knelt by the shattered, ruined hunk of flesh that had once been a woman. One of the survivors of Kerrigan’s security teams. Wounded, she’d managed to drag herself this far into the ship before she’d been found. Her empty pistol had been thrown down the hall, a last, desperate attempt to hold off her killers. Her throat had been ripped out. The Ghost probed the corpse with on finger, tipping it over onto its side. Dull, glassy eyes continued to stare at the opposite bulkhead, blood oozing out of her wounds.

Dead, cooling flesh twitched. Perhaps only the spasms of a ruined nervous system. Unsettling, but innocent.

Perhaps not.

Godfrey stood back up, snapping her helmet down. “Three,” she ordered. Once they’d been ten. Now they were five.

Three strode forward, his weapon raised. He squeezed the trigger and a plume of blue flame washed out of his gun, over the dead woman’s body. Her flesh popped and sizzled; soon a charred, smoking skeleton was all that was left, sitting amidst a pool of ash and bubbling fat. “Clean,” Three reported.

Jane felt her hand reaching for her helmet, to open it and allow herself to take in the scent but she suppressed the impulse. “Move out, Ghosts.” Ahead, she could hear the rattle of weapons fire.

As G Squad continued their advance, Jane found herself humming a new nursery rhyme. Soon, the entire unit had picked up the tune.

~

“Colonel – Eta reports they are still heavily engaged, but have accounted for most of their attackers. Ship security have reported similarly success on their counter-offensives. Resistance appears to be light; apparently most of our attackers are moving to engage Eta. No further contact with G Squad reported.”

Shaw nodded. “Good. Once Meyers and his team have contained this situation, send them to track down the Ghosts. I don’t fancy madmen in power armour traipsing about the ship. We’ll start working on a plan to re-take North-4. Hopefully without Primal blasting us the second we stick our noses back into the bay.”

He let out a breath, feeling some of the tension drain out of him. It was the old warhorse in him; he wanted to be done there with Eta, shoulder to shoulder. But he place was up here, monitoring the situation and keeping on top of anything. But it wasn’t as if there is much left to handle, was it?

At least, he hoped not.

~

“Yes! Come on!” Calvin jeered as his squad mowed through the attackers. The sounds of the ambush had drawn them in from all over Kerrigan; whatever agendas or plans they’d had had quickly crumbled at the oppurtunity to kill. Or the more tactically minded among them were thinking that Eta squad was the last, best defence that the frigate had and if they wanted the ship, there would be no better oppurtunity than this.

Not that it mattered, either way.

Ten and Four were down, but Eta had killed almost twenty of the bastards. There weren’t that many left, but they were the smart ones. Flitting from cover to cover, masking their movements with bangers and cover fire, coordinating their attacks on one trooper at a time, one section of their armour at a time. Five had lost her right arm from the elbow to one such attack, but not her gunhand.

Meyers hissed in satisfaction as Seven’s burst of fire caught one of the little bastards in the chest; the explosive darts blew the merc apart, sending what was left of his body spinning messily to the floor. “Good one, Danny!”

Shhkt-kzzz.

Nine’s flatline shrilled in the lieutenant’s ears and he turned, afraid to recognize the sound. Stupid, stupid, stupid! You forgot they were onboard, didn’t you? It was so damned easy, wasn’t it?

There, half-hidden behind the dead Eta trooper, holding his body upright, was a Ghost. Godfrey herself, if he was reading the barely-legible serial number on her breastplate right. Nine’s arms and legs were still twitching, smoke wafting from his breastplate. Jutting through the center of it was Godfrey’s disruptor, the blade crackling and snarling with actinic energy and – was it only his imagination? – the grotesques flashes of light illuminating her eyes, even through the visor. Her armour was stained, spattered with blood, both dried and much fresher. Even as Meyer’s built-in scanners flashed in acknowledgement of another four warped trolls, Godfrey’s gun-arm swung up and around Nine’s spasming corpse, the woman using his body as a shield.

Just before she fired, Godfrey’s voice, almost level, but tinged with the same madness that had consumed Primal, rolled through the general comm frequency. “No one gets out. Captain’s orders.”

~

-found you-

~

Calvin screamed under his helmet, a wordless, hoarse cry of hatred and rage as his disruptor shrieked against Jane’s. The woman had always been good with a blade and it took everything he had to keep her from gutting him. If she wasn’t also focused on killing everything else in the bay, she might have already had his head. As it was, twice she had interrupted their duel. Once to gun down a pair of retreating soldiers, another time to grab a gibbering scientist and use his flailing body as an impromptu club. He’d like to say that it had just been luck that kept her from ending up blasted apart, but she was too damned fast. He’d barely had enough of a breather each time before she was on him again.

He didn’t even remember how they’d started this one-on-one bullshit. There wasn’t any time to consider it. Eta and G Squad were tearing each other apart; he had more people, but B Company’s soldiers had pathos. In that heavy armour, they were hard enough to kill. The fact that they didn’t even seem to register pain only made it worse. Adding the situation were the surviving lunatics deciding to take full advantage of Eta’s distraction. He’d lost another two people and the Ghosts were only down one.

“Why are you doing this!” he hollered into Jane’s face. “Goddammit, we’re friends!” He drove himself against her, forcing her back, their disruptors sparking as he pushed her blade back, closer to her face. “We’re friends!” Just a little further…

“No!” she shouted back just as forcefully. “No friends! You have to kill your friends! Only animals to put down! That’s the only way! It happened to us!” She pushed back, digging one foot into the deck for leverage. “I won’t let it happen to you! Not again! This time, nobody survives! It’s the only way, Calvin!” Don’t you get that? We… have… to… contain it!” With each syllable she bore down on him, now forcing his blade towards his neck.

They were almost face-to-face; neither of them had the room to bring their guns to bear on the other, but with that final push, Jane shoved Meyers away, just enough and the barrel of her cannon came around towards him.

He was already moving. Her fire followed a heartbeat after the soldier, chewing through crates, bulkheads and people – living and dead – as she scythed her gun after him. With another yell, he flung himself at her and the two of them went down, grappling with, pounding at and cursing each other like unhorsed knights.

~

Shaw listened to the screams and shouts of his men, watched through their helmet cams as they fought and died. He did all this from the safety of Kerrigan’s bridge, clenching his hands together so hard they hurt, his knuckles white. Twice, he’d made a move to get up and twice Capstein had come to stand beside him, not admonishing but silently reminding him of his place. “They’re dying,” he said after the second incident.

“And they’ll die faster if the man who’s supposed to lead them goes and gets himself killed. It’s almost over, colonel. We’ve almost won.”

“We’ve held the ship,” Shaw replied. His voice was hoarse. “I wouldn’t call that winning.”

Ursula hadn’t had any reply to that, watching the monitor screens with Shaw as Kerrigan’s security slaughtered the men and women that they’d come to save. “It’s almost over,” she repeated.

Before Shaw could respond, Montoya’s voice called out from the sensor station. “Captain! Colonel – we’ve got a contact! Under power and definitely not part of the station.”

Ursula snapped around. “What?”

“It’s confirmed, sir – incoming vessel. Moving at high speed, looks like.”

“Bring defences on-line. Define ‘high speed’, Sensors.”

“High speed for the Mists, captain. I’m sorry, sir. It looks like… no, that can’t be right.”

“Show me.” The view shifted to the outside of DROP 47: the broken, rotting giant and pieces of debris trapped by the titanic station’s gravity well. Through the shifting, swirling clouds of the Twilight Fields, Ursula could make out a change in the environment; a pressure wave, pushed ahead of another object under power. It swept around the station, slicing through the Fields, through the tangle of debris with what seemed either a complete disregard for its own safety or an equally disturbing assurance in the same.

It was hard to judge its true size and mass in the Mists, but it seemed smaller than Kerrigan. Perhaps a heavy pinnace? Sleek and sharp, with three forward-curving wings, it was the serrated tip of a mace, intended to rip and ruin its prey. Something about it was familiar, but only vaguely so. Ursula had never seen a ship like it before, but… described, yes. Spilling from the lips of drunken freight-runners, just another tale of void ghosts, pirates and space monsters. Tales of massacres; entire ships slaughtered, dismembered bodies filling the halls.

Worthless old scare-stories.

A worried corporal had come to see her, shortly before lift-off, asking about the very same thing. She’d dismissed the Halo’s concerns as the girl’s first run-in with a particularly believable drunk, thinking that was the end of it.

Okay, tell me… what did your navigator say these pirates were like?

He’s not ‘my’ navigator, ma’am. But he said… he said they were ‘razored and sharp, nothing but fear’.

I see. Well, I’ll be certain to keep an eye out for ships made of distilled terror.

Ma’am…

I’m sorry, corporal. It’s just I’ve heard these rumours before. I don’t intend to mock you; just the sorts of drunken sods who embellish these stories to make it seem like they weren’t drunk when two-bit privateers came for them.


Ursula’s mouth was dry as the newcomer sideslipped around a piece of debris with an impossible grace, closing on Kerrigan. “Do we have a lock?”

“I’m sorry, skipper. We can fire, but I don’t know if we’ll hit anything. Even at this range.”

Goddamnit.

“What the fuck is it?” she heard Shaw growl from behind her. “Have they hailed us?”

“No, sir,” communications replied. “Nothing but static throwback from the Mists.”

“Try and raise them. Tell them that unless they back off, we will fire on them.”

I understand, ma’am. I’m sorry to have wasted your time.

Don’t worry about it, corporal. Knowing that there may be a new pirate group operating out of the Mists is worth a few moments. Is there anything else this fellow said?

Yes, ma’am. He said… well, he said that they were the last thing you ever saw.

Not for him, apparently.

No, ma’am. I guess not.


“Not for him,” Ursula whispered, as she saw the contact's all-but-indecipherable readings changing, knowing what they meant.

~

No one leaves.

-protect-

Not once they’d been exposed.

-purge-

The New Ones never learned.

-drown them in the blood and tears of their children-

Time to teach them.

-kill-

~

“Missiles! Incoming missile tracks!” There was rising panic in Roberts’ voice. “I can’t get a lock!”

Shaw spun, staring at the forward view. Glowing green like poisonous jewels, a pair of warheads sliced through the Mists, writhing and twisting through the debris field as they closed with Kerrigan. There was only seconds before impact, no time to evacuate. But he could save a few.

“Lieutenant Meyers,” he called up Eta’s officer, hoping the man was still alive; Eta One’s telemetry was down. There was no way to tell if he was alive and his suit was just damaged, or he was dead. “You’re in command. Protect the rest for as long as you can.” He didn’t wait for a reply before blowing Deck Six open, hurling the surviving members of Primal and Kerrigan’s crew out into the void, along with the power troopers of Eta. Their armour was proof against such trifling inconveniences as deep space and inbuilt-thruster packs activated, carrying them away from Kerrigan towards the station.

The colonel had no time for whatever curses or condolences Eta was offering him as they fled. Instead, Shaw touched a finger to the comm, broadcasting on all frequencies, hoping that his people heard him. “Stay safe,” he whispered as the missiles swept in, the brilliance of their drives filling the screen.

He closed his eyes.

~

The warheads struck the frigate fore and aft, punching through the ship’s hull, deep into its vitals Their detonations occurred barely milliseconds after impact and Kerrigan shattered, blown into three separate pieces, a cloud of vapourized and ruined debris hurled away from the ruined vessel, its severed pieces trailing air, detritus and bodies like chyme drooling out of a severed intestine.

The blasted remains of the frigate spun off into the Mists, the aft section careening into one of the docked vessels still attached to North-4’s external hardpoints, pulverizing both.

~

-blood-

~

There had been survivors. Or, to be more precise, there were still survivors.

-rip them open-

That didn’t really matter. The cairn would take them, sooner or later. Still, there was the birth to consider.

-protect-

As well, it was clear that the second cluster of New Ones had been drawn here by the first.

-no one leaves-

How that happened was currently not known, but the answer would doubtless be aboard the discarded Ruin.

-slit their throats and watch them drown-

Three missions, then. Destroy the surviving New Ones. Silence their cries for aid.

-pick their bones clean-

And, oh yes. Survive.

-live-



[Reveal] Spoiler: For Lady Tevar
Yeah, you were right. :D

No one leaves. They won't let you.
   Profile |  

Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-26 02:14pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Okay, I lied. This isn't the chapter I'd advertised. I'd actually intended it to be before the previous one, but it didn't seem to fit there. (It was the second part that was causing the trouble, I think - so I cut it out in its entirety to save it for a later date). We get a better look at both Shannon and Halo's background here, a few additional strands for the Web of Intrigue (tm).

Coming up (again): Wel-wel-welcome to Acheron. On. P-please direct all-all queries. Queries. Queries to myself or one of ow-ow-our friendly staff-aff. Th-thank you.

Chapter 8:

Then:

Shannon ran a finger around the collar of her tunic. She’d taken it in for alteration twice already but it still felt like it didn’t fit. She had to admit that maybe it wasn’t the collar, but that she was wearing it. The first Halo ever to carry arms. Her parents continued to send her news clippings and op-eds from home, each of them aghast, dismayed and condemnatory about her ‘defection’. It seemed like every Halo in the galaxy had taken her choice as a personal insult.

All but one.

The young woman patted the pocket of her jacket, feeling the comforting presence of the message there. Written on actual paper, it had seemed like random nonsense, the rambles of someone who either wasn’t quite all there or didn’t quite know what to say. It had been left in her mail slot; not a threat or even anything particularly condemnatory – which was a lot better than most of the mail she got, usually from other Halos. It was just a very odd, handwritten note with overtures about the importance of knowing the past.

The past. Right.

Beneath the gibberish, there’d been a pattern. A code. It had been fairly simple to understand, once she’d realized that it was there. An invitation to meet, written as only another Halo could understand it. Well, that’s what she assumed. For all the galaxy pretended otherwise, there were plenty of smart people out there who weren’t from one particular star nation, but the syntax and grammar of the ‘hidden’ message… it was similar to one of the languages that all Halo children knew. Making up your own was quite common, but few persevered beyond a small circle of friends. There were some that did, though. Older generations often lamented the fact that younger people often seemed to be talking a different language; on Halo this was quite literal, although most gave it up as they entered their teens. It wasn’t any great secret, but it wasn’t something that many non-Halos would know about, or be familiar enough with to be literate in.

Her curiosity piqued, she’d decided to see what this was about. Whoever wanted to contact her obviously wanted some privacy, but she wasn’t stupid enough to simply wander off without letting anyone know. She’d left a notice in her log, alone with an encrypted forensic scan of the note that she’d run. If this was just an… almost innocent meeting, then she could respect her counterpart’s privacy and delete it. If not, Artemis had the make of paper, the type of ink – even the fingerprints and genetic trace of the person who’d written the note.

The Rose of Gianna was a fine restaurant, not a place mercenaries usually frequented, but the maitre d’ didn’t bat an eye at her uniform. “Right this way, Lady Hayes,” he offered with a non-quite obsequious bow. “Your party is already here.” He escorted her through the restaurant, oblivious to the turning heads and gawking whispers of the other clientele as they stared at Shannon, not seeing a Halo but just another mercenary thug. Perversely, she liked that, puffing up her chest and adding what she imagined was a confident swagger, trying to emulate Abigail’s stride, the unspoken ‘get-out-of-my-way’ that parted crowds that the Darkknell seemed to subconsciously radiate.

Finally, the maitre d’ led her to an out of the way booth, complete with a privacy curtain and, elegantly set into the floral centerpiece, a sound scrambler. The head water parted the curtains leaning in and whispering to the figure seated inside to let them know of Shannon’s arrival, holding the curtain open for her as she slid into the booth.

As she’d expected, Dr. Raphael Dirkwood, Project Director for Hadley-Wright Industrial and Research Concern, BioSciences Division was waiting for her. Like her, he had the not-quite-dusky features and off-green eyes of a native Halo, but the slight epicanthic fold to his almost-hazel eyes hinted at an ancestry on the southern continent. Shannon’s family was from the northern landmass and her eyes were a lighter green, with a very slight blue tinge to their irises.

There was a neat, pencil-thin moustache over his lips and he wore two marriage rings on his right ring finger, their quality matched by his suit, a garment that cost more than some vehicles. His features were drawn, his build slightly frail as – at last – age caught up to him to him. The Halo genome survived longer than even the most modern commercially-available treatments. Whoever and whatever else they had been, the Primaries had known their craft.

Shannon’s great-grandmother had only recently passed away, but she had been over six hundred when she died. From the look of him, Dr. Dirkwood was almost that old. His file said that he had been married twice: once to a Crashlander and then, several decades later, to a Centauri. That was unusual. Few Halos married offworlders, since they would almost certainly outlive their own spouses, children – possibly even their own grandchildren. That kind of burden was a difficult one to accept. In his eyes, Shannon could see centuries of experiences, both good and bad, and the ache of them both.

He smiled a little when he saw her. “Private Shannon Melinda Hayes,” he nodded in greeting as she slid into the booth, settling herself. “Artemis Private Security Services.” There was no condemnation in his voice or expression as he took in her uniform. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

Shannon clasped her hands together, leaning forward slightly on the table. “How could I refuse? It’s not every day that I get such an… involved invitation.”

“Yes, I apologize for that. I just wanted to see…”

“If I was just as stupid as people have said? That I couldn’t make it as a ‘regular’ Halo, so I had to find a way to make a living that didn’t require any intelligence?” the young woman bristled.

Dirkwood winced. “I’d be lying if I said no. But primarily, I wanted to make sure that you understood the… nature of this meeting.”

“Just between us. You don’t want a record of it, or for anyone else to know about it. You wanted me and only me to know about it. For ‘Halo eyes only’.”

“Yes.”

Mollified and a little surprised by his honesty, Shannon relaxed a little. “As long as it’s only a talk – yes.”

“Thank you. I don’t have much time, so I believe I’ll be direct: how much do you know about your great-grandfather?”

~

Shannon clapped a hand to her cheek, her eyes simultaneously widening and watering. Shock, disbelief, pain, fear. The eight year old girl stared up at her great-grandmother, unable to understand what had just happened. The older woman’s eyes were filled with anger and shocked regret that she’d just struck Shannon, but there was something else in them. Fear.

Great-granna was
afraid.

“I told you never to go into this part of the house! I told you to leave your great-grandfather’s things alone!”

Shannon’s lip quivered, tears spilling from her eyes. “I-I just wanted to know about him, gr-great-granna. I’m s-sorry,” she sobbed.

She felt herself being enveloped in a hug. “No. No, I am,” Winnifred Hayes said. “I am
so sorry Shannie. So sorry. But you can’t… you just can’t… there are some things you shouldn’t ever… there’s nothing in any of these crates for you. For anyone. Promise me. Promise me. Promise me you won’t come up here again.” To herself more than the child: “The past deserves to stay in the past.”

The girl clutched tightly to her great-grandmother’s back, nodding. “I won’t. I promise. I promise, great-granna.”


~

“Not a lot…” Shannon admitted carefully. “No one talks about him. I tried to find out what he worked on, but there’s nothing. A few papers he did early in his career and then… nothing. I tried asking my parents, my grandmother, my great-grandmother…” unconsciously, her hand moved up to her cheek. “No one wanted to talk about him.”

Dirkwood nodded. “He was a gifted man. I knew him. Not well – I was only a very junior researcher at the time and we only colluded on one or two projects before he was reassigned, but he was good enough to leave even his superiors in the dirt. He was BioSciences, with a specialty in development and behavioural psychology and minors in, well – almost everything else.”

The corper took a sip from his drink. “What do you know about Halo? Particularly when your great-grandfather was alive.”

Shannon frowned. “Halo was a protectorate of the Terran Imperium from CE 3721 through CE 3977. The Governing Council voted for annexation; there were several reasons. Ideological acceptance of the Imperium’s doctrines, belief that Halo could benefit from the influx of new technology, that we could moderate Earth’s appetite for conquest or failing that, that we could reduce the casualties of their conquest-”

“-by building them weapons.”

“By building them weapons, yes.” The ‘Imperial Era’ was not a particularly proud moment for Halo, when the planet willingly turned its universities and factories, its scientists and shipyards, its research and its system over to the Imperium, believing that by doing so they could act as a counter to Earth’s aggression. At the time, the Imperium’s victory over the scattered star nations spread across the galaxy had seemed inevitable and, though strong, Halo had had no desire to end up as every other world in Earth’s path had – beaten down and consumed into the Imperium’s ravenous maw.

That fear had been enough to start Halo looking for a diplomatic solution, but there had also been a vocal contingent of the Governing Council that had believed that they could reduce the lives lost by helping the Imperium win. Its victory was certain, they argued, so ensuring that it won swiftly with a minimum of losses on both sides was seen as admirable. There was also the contingent of Halos that agreed with Earth’s belief in ‘manifest destiny’ – the strongest, the smartest, the most advanced deserved to rule. And who were better than Halos themselves?

In truth, the Imperium had already had a massive technological advantage over the rest of the galaxy. Despite the accusations that persisted to this day, Halo had not been responsible for the Imperium’s technological superiority. But they had helped bolster with it, building and refining new weapons for the sons and daughters of Earth to use on their cousins. Even if no one mentioned it, the galaxy had not forgotten Sin Eater and the horrors it had wrought. That ship had been conceived, designed and built at Halo.

In repayment for the countless billions that the Imperium’s Halo-refined weapons had snuffed out, many members of the Coalition had wanted to do to Halo what was done to Earth, seeing it as a fit punishment. It hadn’t happened, though. Not out of mercy, or understanding that Halo had faced the choices of brutal annexation or collusion, or recognition for the many citizens who had done all they could to stop or abate Halo’s participation in Earth’s war. No, none of those had played any major role in the Coalition’s desire to spare Halo.

It had been greed and only greed.

They’d looked upon the weapons that the Imperium had built, the world-killing plagues and moon-shattering cannon, they’d seen how Halo had refined Imperial technology, honing it to perfection and they’d licked their lips in avarice. So the talk about ‘being better than the Imperium’ had begun. Calls for reparations, not retribution. Diplomacy, not a crushing assault. Comparisons to the other worlds that had supported the Imperium were made, those who’d faced the same choice: support Earth, or be annihilated. Should they all be destroyed, too? Impassioned appeals to the better angels of man’s nature were made, even as the same political and military minds who beat their breasts over the morality of genocide remembered Sin Eater and thought to themselves: I want that.

Shannon stared at Dirkwood for a long moment. “Are you telling me,” she said carefully, lowering her voice, despite the privacy of the booth. “That my great-grandfather-” No. No. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

“I don’t know,” the other Halo cut her off. “As I said, I didn’t know him that well. But his work on…” he broke off. “Let’s just say that he attracted a lot of attention.” He leaned back. “Once I heard about you, I wanted to know if you knew anything about his career. It would have explained at lot.”

“Did he work for the Imperium?”

“I honestly don’t know. This was late in its day, you understand. They were always looking for some way to push back the Coalition – any way, any weapon.” Shannon suppressed a shudder. As Earth grew more and more desperate, the Imperium had committed greater and greater atrocities in an attempt to destroy the forces and morale of the Coalition. Planets had been wiped out, entire star systems had been destroyed. Any weapon, no matter how awful, had been used. And more than a few of those had been Halo-built. “Hadley-Wright did have a… close relationship with the Imperium.”

Shannon blinked. “What?”

Raphael took a sip of his drink. “Didn’t know that, did you? The company’s spent hundreds of years, billions of credits and more than a few lives trying to cover it up and bury it. But they were closer than they’ve wanted people to know. There was always a Terran ‘observer’ hanging around the labs. MacConnell– that was his name. Very young, but sharp. Sharp enough to recognize your great-grandfather’s talent – if that’s what happened. They told us he’d been transferred to a new facility and that was all we heard.” He input his payment for the meal onto the ‘pad the head waiter had left and stood to go.

“That’s it? That’s all you have?” Shannon said. “You went out of your way to contact me and… and… that’s it? Rumours from six hundred years ago?”

“Yes. I’m sorry – I never intended for this to be some grand revelation about your family. I just wanted to meet you. Your great-grandfather… he was a little bit different, too. It seems like you’ve got some of him in you. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. I hope it is.”

Shannon stood, staring at the older man. “You said you worked with him. There must be something – anything – you could tell me. You can’t… please. I want to know. It’s as if he’s been erased. Nobody talks about him and if they do, it’s only to look at me and sigh. What did he do?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Dirkwood moved to part the curtain and step outside, but Shannon caught his arm. For an instant, there was a flash of fear in the older man’s eyes. That, more than anything else, shocked Hayes into letting him go.

He was afraid of her.

Why? Because she was a mercenary or because she was like her great-grandfather? “Please,” she said again. “Please.”

“I can’t help you,” he repeated. “I’m sorry.” He was about to leave, when he paused, not looking at her. “There was one thing,” he said at last. “A conversation I overhead. MacConnell was asking one of the project leads about a paper your great-grandfather wrote while he was at Hadley-Wright. I don’t remember which one. But MacConnell seemed very interested in it.”

Shannon bit her lip. “That’s it?”

“That’s it. If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know. Goodbye, Private Hayes. I hope…” Dirkwood trailed off. “I hope you have better luck than your predecessor.”

Last edited by Bladed_Crescent on 2009-12-26 04:22pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2009-12-29 08:41pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
The spirit of cooperation... takes a hoof to the junk.

Coming up: Kerrigan's survivors learn that there's more in Heaven and Earth, Horatio...

Chapter 10:

“Stay safe.”

Shannon froze, listening as Shaw’s channel was reduced to static. They were gone.

No. No, they couldn’t be.

They were gone.

It couldn’t have happened! Not all those people, not like this!

They were gone.

The sporadic bursts of fire between Beta, Gamma and Primal’s survivors seemed almost anticlimactic, distant and muted, tracer rounds and bullets whipping through the air, men and women falling in sklow motion, a denouement to the brutal deaths of nearly three hundred living beings.

We’re alone.

A man holding a crude, hooked pike rushed at her, his mouth working, spittle flying from his jaws. A shadow moved in front of her, an indistinct, shapeless figure delivering a roundhouse smash from their rifle butt to the man’s face, sending him reeling to the deck. The shadow turned, fuzzy and formless hands clasping each side of Shannon’s helmet.

“…you hear me?” the words seemed faded and washed-out. Something smacked into the side of Shannon’s helmet.

“Get it together, merc! You with me?”

Abigail. That was Abigail’s voice. Shannon nodded, her vision clearing, focusing back on her partner. “I’m here. I’m-I’m here.”

“Good. Stay with me, Four. We’re not out of this yet.”

The remains of Beta, Gamma and Hadley-Wright’s scientists were pulling back. Not a panicked, blind flight across the docking bay, but an orderly retreat – at least as orderly as one could expect under the circumstances. Fire teams leapfrogged past each other, one unit covering the other as they fell back towards the station’s interior, the near-constant muzzle flashes lighting the shadowed corridors and walkways.

That Primal had started powering up hadn’t escaped the survivor’s notice. Though they were too close for the vessel to use its primary weapons, a point defence turret – even powered down – would be formidable enough. Closing with the ship, to get inside the arc of its guns was no longer an option. Not since the plan to assault through the remainder of B Company’s expedition had fallen through when a fresh wave had poured out of the frigate. Now they had to get out of the frigate’s lines of fire. It hadn’t opened up yet – either it was too damaged to do so, or its crew was unable to properly work its systems. It was possible that Shelby had left safeties for just such an occasion. Either bought D Company precious time as they fell back from the ship and its maddened passengers.

Better to whittle them down, gather wits and resources than make a mad dash for a ship, completely blind to what was waiting for them. Fall back to a defensive position, and hold it.

Stay safe. Those were their orders.

Shannon slapped a fresh clip into her pistol – down to three – and fired, her shots scattering a cluster of charging engineers, but she didn’t seem to have hit them. Her hands were shaking too much. They were still screaming, dozens of jeers, pleas, threats and fragmented nonsense that her mind was trying and failing to piece into a cohesive narrative. Please, she silently begged them. Stop. I don’t want to kill anyone else. Please, just stop.

One of B Company had his hand cupped to his earpiece. His eyes widened and he shouted something, something that she couldn’t hear through the cacophony of gunfire, explosions and screams. Another rallying cry; they’d just found out that Kerrigan was down and they’d push to…

And then just like that, they did stop, breaking their rush towards the mercenaries, several of them so abruptly that they skidded on the floor, their feet going out from under them. They fell back to cover, some running back to Primal, others scampering away from the mercenaries, running towards the other levels of the bay, firing wild parting shots over their shoulders. Something had spooked them, badly.

“Yeah! Take that, you fuckers!” someone shouted, the rest of the mercenaries taunting their fleeing comrades.

“You want some more? Come on! There’s still plenty left!”

“Where you going? Where you going, bitches! I ain’t done with you all yet!”

One man in the jacket of a ship’s officer paused, grinning at D Company through his shredded lips. “Eyes in the dark,” he called. “They’re watching you. They know…” he giggled. “They always know.” Singsonged, like a nursery rhyme: “Going to find you…” He backed away, then turned and ran after the rest.

Shannon let her pistol drop towards the floor. What? This wasn’t right; they hadn’t been scared before. What had changed?

Kerrigan’s destruction. But they had attacked once it had left.

Because it hadn’t been destroyed; it had run. Think, you idiot! What made those two things different?

Someone destroyed it.

“Sergeant, Beta Four,” she reported. “I think we should find cover.”

“Fuck that!” Ferguson jeered. “We need to push after them now while they’re on the run. Before they dig in.”

“Sergeant, something just killed Kerrigan. They just found out… and what are they doing?” She hesitated a moment. “Their pain threshold is far in excess of a baseline human’s and above that of many augmented strains. They’ve charged men and women with guns holding shivs and clubs. They’ve ignored every casualty we’ve inflicted. And now they’re running.” A beat. “We have injured of our own.”

There was a strained hesitation over the comm. Donowitz knew all this already of course, but she had to be tempted to follow Ferguson’s idea to chase after Primal’s crew, to pay them back for everything they’d done. “All teams, complete fall-back to central concourse. We’ll secure that for now.” It was too open and accessible to make a good defensive point, but it was terrain everyone was familiar with – as much as they could be – it gave them a good view of and access to the rest of the bay and it was big enough to fit the remaining scientists and soldiers in while they planned their next step.

Shannon shook, feeling the after-effects of the adrenalin rush. Calm, she ordered herself, slowing her breathing. Calm.

~

Originally seventy-five, D Company was now down to ten combat effective men and women with another five badly injured: internal bleeding caused by severe trauma (beating), severe lacerations to the torso and neck (pike), blindness, paralysis and respiratory distress (poison – similar to tetrodotoxin, synthesized in Primal’s medical bay?), severe blood loss and shock (loss of right arm at shoulder) and Ramirez (stable – or at least a facsimile thereof) Those were Artemis’s casualties.

Emily and Dr. Ramone were moving among their own wounded, but they and Hayes were the only surviving medical personnel. Shannon didn’t remember seeing Medevost go down; it was possible he’d tried to hide in the bivouac. Or she just hadn’t noticed.

Gunshots (hold patient, remove bullet fragments, apply pressure to wound and seal, keep legs lowered), energy burns (cold compress, additional antibiotics to suppress pyogenic reaction, water for dehydration caused by loss of skin), lacerations (antibiotics, apply stitches and sutures as necessary), bites (clean wound, make lame vampire joke). Shannon pressed a syringe of painkillers against a young woman’s neck. She was BioSciences, with very dark skin, intelligent eyes and a bubbly laugh. They’d shared a cup of coffee.

She’d been disemboweled. Somehow, she’d managed to stagger her way across the entire bay, holding herself together the entire time, until her strength just… left. Her torn entrails had spilled out into her lap and she’d started screaming, barely pausing for breath. Just staring at her own guts and screaming.

She’d lost too much blood and the damage to her organs was too severe. Even with a full surgical kit, it was doubtful that she would have survived. There was nothing anyone could do for her. Almost nothing. Emily and Ramone hadn’t been able to do it. That left Shannon. Her hands had been shaking as she’d made the shot, but they’d been steady as she’d administered it. It was her first time doing this. But it was the only thing she could do for the woman.

Almost.

Shannon cradled the scientist’s head against hers, holding her as the overdose did its work, taking away her pain. “It’s okay,” she whispered softly, directly into the woman’s ear. The last sound she heard would not be the sobs and cries of the other wounded. “It’s all right now. Rest; just go to sleep and rest. That’s it. That’s it…”

The woman’s breathing slowed… slowed… stopped, the pulse of her heart soon following. She went limp, a final soft rattle of breath escaping from her lips. The corpsman leaned her back against the wall; her eyes were already closed. “Note the time,” she said to Hutchins, still staring at the dead woman. She couldn’t remember her name. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember her name. There; her nametag. “Jessica Algiers.”

Abigail nodded. “Algiers,” she confirmed, making a new entry in the casualty list.

Hayes stood, moving on to the next patient. His hands had been all but sheared off when he’d tried to throw back a makeshift grenade that had landed among a group of his fellow technicians. His face and chest were peppered with burns and shrapnel. And then, there was another after him. And another.

And another.

~

Donowitz had called the remains of Beta and Gamma to her for a quick conference, the mercenaries sitting on centuries-old terminal furniture and small cargo pallets. Once they had all seated themselves, the sergeant looked at Shannon. “How bad is it?”

Shannon shook her head. “Bad enough. Our people… anything that gets through the armour hits hard enough to put them down hard. Plus, we have forty-two civilians, twenty of which are wounded. Six of those… I wouldn’t want to move them.”

Donowitz stared back evenly. “We might not have a choice, corporal.” Not a condemnation, a simple statement of fact. “We’re not secure here.”

“How can we move them?” Gamma Two – Lance Corporal Derek Gunderson – put in. “We don’t have any stretchers. If they’re as bad-off as Corporal Hayes says, we can’t one-two them. And sure as shit we can’t leave them here for long.” He glanced around nervously at the writing-covered walls.

“There’s supplies in the bivouac. It’s a lot closer than the ship,” that was Ferguson. “We go out that far, we should be able to get what we need and fall back.”

Abigail shook her head. “I don’t know. I took a quick recon with Five. It looks dead, but I thought I saw movement on the higher levels. Awfully convenient place for snipers.”

“Plus, whatever Big Bad our little Halo here thinks is coming,” Ferguson sneered.

Kerrigan didn’t blow itself up, private,” Shannon snapped. “And in case you didn’t notice, it wasn’t until then that they broke off.”

“Maybe they finally figured out that we were kicking their asses,” he shot back. “We could have rolled over them as they ran and taken Primal ourselves. Now we’re fucking stuck in this shooting gallery thanks to you.”

“Yeah, the ten of us were going to roll over four dozen of them,” Shannon replied. “Then, what? Take an entire ship by ourselves?”

“Fuck you! It’s better than being holed up in here, waiting for them to come in and pick us off!”

“Enough, both of you!” Donowitz growled. “I made the call, Ferguson. You have a problem with that, you talk to me. Either of you starts this shit up again, I’ll leave you both out in the hangar stripped naked and a fucking apple in your mouths, get me?”

Shannon and Ferguson nodded meek assent.

“Good. First things first – Gamma Three, you’ve got a link to the drones? Good. Get them moving again, see if they can spot a better position. Once we have that, we’ll see about moving the wounded. You two, I want you going through the station schematics. Give Three a hand – find me something, anything that’s defensible. Preferably a section with power. This is not a place to be fucking around in the dark. Beta Three and Four, you stay put. Help with the wounded where you can and jury-rig some stretchers. You two – take a walk, see what’s past here. I don’t want more of these fuckers sneaking up on us. Gunderson, I need to talk to you in private. The rest of you, make yourselves useful. If you’re not watching the doors, you’re doing inventory. Everyone clear? Good.”

~

“We’re going to die. We’re going to die. We’re going to die. We’re going to die.”

Emily squeezed her eyes shut, trying to tune out Silverstein’s mantra, focusing on measuring her patient’s pulse. Finally, she turned around. “No, we’re not!” she snapped, trying to convince herself as much as shut the man up. “We’re going to be fine.”

“Why?” Ryan demanded. “Why do you think so? We’re fucked! We’re completely fucked! If those things outside don’t get us, they will.” He pointed at the mercenaries.

“They’re here to protect us.”

“Yeah, they’ve done that so well,” Anastasia Biers put in. The woman was sitting in a corner, her knees drawn up to her chest. “Really worth it. Good investment.”

“Shut up, both of you!” Emily hissed.

“Why? Why? Because they might hear? Do you think that’s going to make things worse? It can’t!” Silverstein laughed, the sound high-pitched and hysterical. “It can’t! You know how I know this? Because things just can’t get any worse!”

Emily cringed, half-expecting an instant answer to Silverstein’s tempting of fate. “Shut up!” she said again. “We’ll get through this… we will.”

“Why? Because your merc girlfriend said that?” Biers chortled. “Yeah, when I want a good understanding of a military situation, I go to a Halo and one that’s greener than an algal bloom.” She shook her head. “They gave a Halo a gun. Is she some kind of deficient? Of course, that’d be par for the course with all the good that they’ve done so far, eh? Glad they’re along. Really am. Very useful.”

“The company knows we’re here. They’ll come for us.” They have to.

“They came for Primal!” Silverstein cried, his voice continue to rise in pitch. “Didn’t do them a lot of good, did it? Face it, we’re fucked! It’s only a matter of time before we end up like them. We’re going to die! Don’t you get that? Don’t any of you get it?”

“The lady said to shut it,” a mechanical voice interrupted. One of the mercenaries, from Gamma. Male or female, Delphini couldn’t tell, but their height and the way they moved made her think this one was a man. “I think you’d better listen to her.”

“Or what?” the researcher said through a frightened rictus, staring up at the mercenary. “You going to shoot me? That the plan?”

“Maybe. If you keep this shit up, don’t think I won’t. Two choices, corper. You can shut up, or I can shut you up.”

“That it? That it? You going to kill us, merc? That what you want? Few more notches on your belt and another inch on your dick?”

The mercenary drew his pistol, running the flank of the gun along Silverstein’s cheek. “Maybe. This would be a lot easier without having to haul your asses around. Without having to squander the supplies we have on you. Without having to wait for one of you corper fucks to stab us in the back. That’s worth a few notches, ain’t it, doc?”

“Enough!” A new synthesized voice; Hayes. “Larson, what the Hell are you doing?! Holster that weapon!”

The Gamma mercenary didn’t move. “You know it’s true, Hayes. These ratfuckers will screw over anyone and anything for money. How many of them stopped to help us? They ran. They ran while we were getting slaughtered. We don’t need them. Any of them.” His voice was level, completely controlled. That was somehow more frightening than if he’d been ranting uncontrollably like Ryan. “You gotta know that, right? How much better are our chances without these wastes of space? C’mon. Give me the stats. I know they’re in your head. C’mon, Hayes – how much more likely are we to survive once we cut them loose?” His grip tightened on the pistol, turning its barrel towards Silverstein’s forehead. “Come on, Halo. Hit me with those numbers.”

“I know you’re under a lot of stress,” a third voice interjected as another Beta soldier came up behind Larson, the barrel of her carbine pushing up against the back of his helmet. “I know Mackay was your friend. That was no way for anyone to die and I sympathize. But the corporal gave you an order and you’ll follow it, or I will fucking put you down like a dog.”

Larson half-turned to stare into Hutchins’ visor. “Think the sarge’ll be happy about that?”

“I don’t give a fuck. You going to follow the order, or are we going to see where this goes?”

He laughed lightly. “It’s cool, Abby,” he drawled, his voice still nonchalant. It hadn’t changed pitch throughout the entire altercation. “Everything’s cool.” He put his sidearm back in its holster. “Everything’s cool. We’re cool, ain’t we?”

“Yeah,” Silverstein said, glaring up at Larson. “We’re cool.”

“See?” the mercenary said, holding his hands up, as he turned to fully face Hutchins and Hayes. “Everything’s cool.”

“Get out of here,” Hutchins snapped, gesturing away. “Get on the line and stay away from the civvies or I’ll break something of yours. Then you can get Hayes to tell you how much better off we’d be without your ass.”

“Heh… yeah,” Larson purred, shaking a finger at Hutchins. “Yeah. That’s cool, too. It’s all cool.” He ambled away.

Shannon hunched down beside Emily, putting a hand on her shoulder. “You all right?”

Delphini flinched involuntarily at the other woman’s touch. “Yes, I’m fine. We’re all fine.” She stared at the deck, unwilling to look up and face the stares of her peers. Silverstein’s accusation rang in her ears.

You going to kill us, merc?
   Profile |  

Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-01-03 04:13pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
If you go into the woods today, you don't know what you'll find. If you go into the woods today, you won't believe your eyes...

Coming up: "Isn't it beautiful?"

Chapter 11:

Calvin Meyers had only just passed his zero-g combat qualification courses and did his best to avoid any assignments that involved such situations. Unfortunately, the perk of being allowed to use Artemis’s very restricted and very expensive power armour carried its own responsibilities. Fighting in ZG conditions were one of them and far too common for Calvin’s taste. So he had to take the bad with the good. Only now, hurtling towards the dark ruin of DROP 47, he wished he’d taken the time to get hone his capabilities at ZGC.

Unfortunately, the Ghosts were proficient at it.

Still locked together with Godfrey, the decompression had blown them both into space, where the pair had crashed into a piece of some ancient relic’s dismembered comm array, knocking them apart. Only the hand of fate had sent Calvin towards the station and Godfrey vanishing into the Mists.

He should have known it wouldn’t have been that easy. She’d found him again, hunting him through the tangle of starship and station parts that littered space around DROP 47, as persistent as a shark with a blood trail. Shifting position, she landed boot-first on a piece of debris only half her size with a grace that would have humiliated Meyers in any other circumstance. Her impact knocked the metal asteroid out of its orbit, sending it hurling towards the station. Bracing herself with one arm, Godfrey pointed her weapon at Meyers. The barrel flashed as she tried again to shoot him down. Careful not to send himself spinning, the Eta trooper aimed his own weapon at her, feeling its pulses all the way up his arm as he fired back, but she was already gone. Too damn fast.

He couldn’t worry about her now; he was coming up on the station’s hull and unless he was ready, he’d splatter against it, armour or no. “This is Lieutenant Meyers, to anyone from Kerrigan and Eta Squad who can hear me. Do not respond.” He looked up, watching the expanding cloud of debris and gas that had once been APSS Kerrigan, the debris field buffeted by the wake of its killer, too distant for Meyers to see, even with his helmet’s autosenses. But he could notice the disturbances made in the Mists by its passing.

“I am making stationfall over the North wing, close to the lower docking arm. I will attempt to reach North-4 Hangar and the survivors that I presume are still there. Eta squad: observe radio silence unless absolutely necessary. All other survivors, be aware that there is a hostile starship operating in this vicinity. I will provide an updated status report every… fifteen minutes, whenever possible. If I miss three check-ins, assume I have been lost. Take care of each other. Meyers, clear.”

There was no sound in space. At least, not normally. There was no air in the Twilight Fields – only gas and dust, in a far denser agglomeration than anything short of a planetary nebula, but still far too dispersed to carry sound – no matter what some crackpots claimed. But Meyers could hear the faint scratching of debris against his armour, a thousand children’s fingers scrabbling at him. He could hear his own heart beating a powerful cadence, the rasp of his lungs.

And he felt the vibrations of something heavy landing on the hull behind him. He turned, knowing what he would see. The bright flare of an activated disruptor, gleaming through the thin fog. An almost-indistinct hulking form crouched on the station’s hull, braced against it from the shock of landing.

“Not again,” Calvin whispered, bringing his gun around, knowing that he was too late. He expected to feel Jane’s fire rip through him at any second, explosive shells punching into his torso and exploding him from the inside out. But there was no charge, no muzzle flash, no reeling shock of weapons fire. Instead, the gleam of her disruptor went out and she stayed there, crouched against the station’s hull, motionless.

What…? Had she hit too hard, or been nailed by some of the debris? Was she injured? What could…

He looked up. Something else… “So…” his voice was barely audible, even to his own ears. Looming out of the Mists was – what had to be – Kerrigan’s killer. “This is what you’re afraid of.”

The pounding of his heart in his chest grew louder.

~


Those that could be stabilized had been; for the rest… all that was left was to wait until they died. Shannon sat on one of the broken chairs, looking around. She tried not to focus on the people. Everything had gone so wrong… this was supposed to have been the greatest scientific discovery of the age. And now… now, they were down to less than seventy people. No supplies. No way out, only waiting to see if the Old Man sent another lost hope.

Of course he will; Hadley-Wright’s paying for this – you think they’re going to give up? Even if Artemis refuses, they’ll find some other suckers. Help will come. It was just a matter of when. When it got here. When they ran out of food. When they ran out of ammunition. When they ended up just like Primal – like every other ship that had come here. Just a matter of when…

“Pl-pl-please be advised,” DROP 47’s computer stuttered to life, its pleasant contralto interspersed with static and its repeated attempts to function despite its damage and neglect. “This stay-stay-station is. Is currently experiencing tech-technical difficult-icult-iculties. Quar-quar-quartine systems in North, West and South sections are in-in-inoperative. Please take-take-take proper. Proper precautions.”

Proper precautions. Right. Her eyes drifted across the mural of graffiti, pleas, accusations, anecdotes and insane ramblings. There; more of that strange text. Shannon walked over to the wall, running her fingers over the unusual script. She knew that, didn’t she? But from where? It wasn’t anything she’d studied, not in any detail. But she knew she’d seen it. She knew it.

Shannon’s cheek throbbed and, forgetting she was still wearing her helmet, she reached up to put one hand to it as she stared at the writing, cudgeling her mind. It was there, she knew it. But she just couldn’t make it appear. “Damn,” she sighed, turning away, almost tripping over one of the broken, dislocated coverings for the airvents. “Fuck!” She swore, kicking the debris away angrily. There was crap all over the floors. Bits and pieces of the station, shell casings and energy cartridges, broken crates and discarded, broken weapons. “Of course I need to trip over every last piece!” She kicked the vent cover again for good measure.

There was a wet rasp from behind her, a sense of movement and the mercenary turned, about to tear a strip off whichever idiot patient was stupid enough to get up and walk around, when she noticed the eyes over everyone else in the bay. Wide and terrified; staring at her. Past her.

She didn’t wait to see whatever was behind her, diving to one side, but as she caught a glimpse of the figure behind her, her roll back to her feet faltered and her legs went out from under her. Shannon thumped to the floor, staring in mute horror as a new horror slid out of the open air vent. Drawn up from the station’s core by the sounds of fighting, it reached out of the vent, pulling itself free.

“War-war-warning,” the computer garbled. “Quarantine systems in North-4 hangar-ar are n-n-non-operational. Please. Please evac-ac-ac-uate the area. The area. Immediately.”

It had once been human. It shared the same rough body plan, the same general features. But that was where any similarity between the drooling apparition and a man or woman ended. There was no way to tell what gender it was. Its entire body was distorted by whatever process had created this abomination; its skin was ghastly pale, nearly translucent and didn’t even seem to fit onto its flesh. Taut in some places, baggy and loose in others, it seemed more an ill-fitting bodyglove than an actual organ. Its arms were too long; though they looked thin, there was obviously a great deal of strength behind them. Its legs, though normal for a human of its size, looked too small for its body and, like its arms, were corded with powerful muscles.

The creature’s fingers were elongated into glossy black talons, cruel and hard. Vertebrae had ruptured out of its back, broken, jagged stumps of bone giving it a small ridge along its spine. Here and there, its sick flesh pulsed and shivered, its chest rising and falling with each moist, rumbling breath.

It was all but bald, a few thin patches of hair placed haphazardly on its head, as if an uncaring afterthought to its creation. Its lips had long ago been torn away, exposing a deformed jaw full of jagged teeth. As it caught sight of Shannon, the thing’s mouth extended, stretching away from its head like a bloodworm’s maw. It had no tongue; from between its jaws a forest of licking, writhing tentacles slithered over its teeth and one another.

There was something written on its forehead, faded and indistinguishable.

Over the sucking of its breath and the sound of muscles and ligaments stretching in ways no merciful God had ever envisioned, Shannon thought she heard a voice, but it sounded so distant. Someone was tugging on her, trying to pull her up. Emily. Emily was screaming at her to shoot.

“We’re going to die!” the doctor cried. “Shoot it! Shoot it!

That, Shannon registered and her gun came up, sighting in on the ghoul’s left eye. It charged, its arms swinging back and forth wildly as each powerful stride ate up the distance between them. It made no sound, save for an awful, slurping exhalation as thick ropes of drool sprayed from its distended mouth.

Her finger tightened on the trigger.

Reeking blood and rotten bone erupted from the back of its skull as the hammerhead slug blew the contents of the thing’s braincase out in a blast that tore the upper left third of its head off, from cheekbone to crown. The creature staggered drunkenly back, but did not fall. Shannon watched in horror as slithering cords extended from its ravaged flesh, knitting together as they started to regenerate the lost tissue. Still missing more than half its brain, the thing finally vocalized, a scream of challenge as it staggered towards her.

Shannon shut off her conscious mind; this wasn’t a person. Not any more, if it had ever been. Training and reflex took over as she identified weak points her gun orienting on them. A single kill shot had been insufficient, the clinical part of her mind whispered.

Take it apart.

She fired again and again, so quickly that it seemed she was on automatic. Her arms almost blurred as she switched from target to target, shot after shot dismembering the creature. Head. Left arm. Right arm. Right knee. Left knee. Its torso splashed to the deck amidst its own foul effluvia and severed limbs. Shannon lowered the pistol, panting from the adrenalin rush. It was dead, though. She’d…

Oh, no.

Severed arms and legs twitched, fingers digging for a handhold into the deck as skin bubbled and ruptured, a slew of the same dark, prehensile tissues oozing out from shattered stumps, sliding back and forth. Only one arm managed to connect these tendrils with their counterparts extending from the butchered torso, the greasy black cords sealing into one ligament, pulling the arm back to the body, even as the other limbs slithered and thrashed about on the floor, seeking each other or twitching towards the scientists and mercenaries, though their spastic movements grew steadily weaker.

The mutilated head slathered across the deck, a carpet of cirri propelling it like the arms of a starfish, its distended jaw still working, eager to consume. It found its torso, bundles of tentacles squiggling into the shattered stump of its neck, sealing the flesh back together. With its one good arm, it floundered back and forth, still somehow alive.

“War-warning. Bio-bio-biological contaminants detect-tected in North sector-or. Please notify station per-personnel and leave the area-rea in an-an orderly-ly fashion. Fashion. Thank-ank you.”

Rattling echoes reverberated throughout the entire superstructure of the bay – it wasn’t alone.

From within the air vent, Shannon could hear the howls and gibbers of this new horror’s friends, the skritching and scraping of dozens of claws on metal.

“Get the wounded!” she shouted. “Get them moving! Now, now!” Giving Doctor Ramone a shove towards the door, she pulled Hernandez off his stretcher, booting it towards one of the more injured patients. Louis coughed, dark blood spattering up over his lips and Shannon winced. She’d probably just opened up some of his internal injuries, but he could still move. There were others who couldn’t even do that. There was a crash from the other side of the terminal as another monster burst out of a previously-sealed vent, bearing one of the uninjured scientists to the ground, hacking at her so furiously, her terrified scream devolved into a bubbling death gurgle in less than a second.

Someone screamed over the comm, a howl of fear and rage as three different mercs opened fire on the newcomer. It staggered back under the onslaught, shedding gobbets of flesh but somehow it remained on its feet until it was no more than a ruined, twitching body, slick twitching coils extending from its flesh, trying to put itself back together, but thankfully failing.

“Defensive positions!” Donowitz hollered over the new chorus of shouts, shots and screams.

“They’re coming through the vents!”

Not only that; forearms sharpened into scythe-like bones jabbed through the concourse’s sealed doors, monstrous strength forcing the heavy metal barriers apart. Once-human faces roared and frothed, evaporating into bloody mist as high-caliber bullets threw them back.

“Go go go!”

There was movement out in the bay; shivering and twitching, the bodies of Primal were rising again, slouching towards the gunfire.

“That-that’s not possible!”

Abigail sighted out the doors, finding one of the people she’d already killed, lurching unsteadily towards her, each step a little more certain as recently-dead tissues pulsed back to life. “Fuck you twice,” she hissed. His head blew open and he collapsed, one knee kicking spasmodically, but unlike the monsters invading the concourse, he didn’t get back up. No longer lurching, the horde started to lope, their weapons dropping from their hands, flesh bulging and pulsating.

“Monsters! Monsters! No, no! Get away! Get away!”

Shannon pulled one of Hernandez’s arms over her shoulder, Emily took his other arm over hers, helping Hayes carry her injured counterpart between them.

“Fall back! Fall back!”

It started as a trickle. One or two of the corpers losing their nerve and fleeing down one of the few corridors that a hissing, gibbering mass of flesh was not already stalking through. Then, a few more. A few more. And soon it was nothing but a full-blown, blindly panicking retreat, the injured and dying left behind. The sudden crush of fleeing humanity bowled Dr. Ramone to one side, almost knocking Hayes and Delphini down.

“Stay together!” Shannon heard sergeant Donowitz futilely trying to restore order. “Stay together!”

“Just keep moving!” Shannon shouted at Emily and Ramone, listening to the screams of her patients as they were butchered. Part of her mind just wanted to collapse into itself like the others, to simply start running and never look back. But it was the part of her that had crawled through a mortar field of mud, the part of her mind that had allowed her to perform field surgery as tracer fire whined inches above her head, that allowed her to stay lucid. “Keep moving!”

The harsh crescendo of Abigail’s carbine drowned out the smacking, slapping sounds of the approaching ghouls, another howl – not of pain, but annoyance – sounded as Hutchins’ fire tore another of the creatures apart, spilling its twitching remains onto the deck. Each piece still somehow alive, despite what had been done to it, still trying to put itself back together, clawed fingers scrabbling at the deck, as its upper torso pulled itself along.

There was a thud from nearby; another one had slithered out of the vents. This one’s legs had fused into a single powerful stump, its arms were elongated, hands swollen and callused as it knuckled towards the medics and their charge, bracing its single leg against the deck, preparing to leap.

Shannon scrabbled for her gun, but it was too close. Its loose jaw clacked and gabbled and then it leapt…

A flash of movement and Abigail was there, between the medics and the once-human thing, the force of its leap sending the mercenary and the monster crashing to the ground in a tangle of clawing, pounding limbs. Its jaws snapped and thrashed at the woman as it tried to pull itself away, still fixated on Shannon, Hernandez and the doctors.

“You go to hell!” Abigail swore, slamming her fist right into the creature’s throat. It gagged, the sound even worse than its usual vocalizations. The Darkknell forced her gauntlet deeper, the creature now trying to pull her arm out of its maw, choking and gasping. Abigail twitched her wrist and her stun blade snapped out.

The thing thrashed, finally registering some form of pain as its own monstrous flesh burned, the thick, rank odour of ozone and charred meat filling the air. It managed to free itself, spasming back and forth on the deck, its throat and mouth horribly burned. Abigail pulled herself up. “Keep going!” she shouted at her wards. “Get out of here!” She turned back to the writhing horror as it pulled itself up, still making disgusting slobbers and groans from its ruined throat. She could see the burned tissues smouldering in its mouth, taking in its dismembered relatives as they pulled themselves onwards, their various parts becoming crawling, twitching, fleshy blobs, fingers and toes attached to dismembered limbs spidering along the deck in a desperate attempt to knit themselves back together.

Abigail smiled under her helmet and thumbed on an incendiary grenade, hurling it into their midst. Her smile widened as she watched them burn. Bathed in fire, warbling from its damaged mouth, the creature she’d fought with collapsed to the deck and lay still as the flames ate away at its flesh, dismembered limbs twitching and thrashing in the inferno as they too were reduced to greasy, bubbling smears. Whatever kept them alive was clearly not amenable to heat.

“No,” she whispered to herself, momentarily enthralled by the sight as a slew of fresh horrors cringed away from the flames, unwilling to cross. “I guess you don’t like that.”

She turned to rejoin her team. Something hit her on the back and sent her sprawling, she clawed for her gun, but she was hauled off her feet and oh God it hurt so much
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-01-06 07:59pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Flashback: The work being done on DROP 47 and a glimpse into the shadows.

Coming up: Return to the present; the remains of the expedition continue to take fight and Shannon decides that Orpheus had an easier time of it.

Chapter 12:

Then:

Project Director Everett Lucien Hayes stood on the upper level of one of R Section’s many observation decks. The entire complex extended throughout several subsections, from R-2 to-R7. It was a sort of honeycomb structure, with isolation rooms as the ‘cells’ and shielded walkways, lounges and on-site laboratories and small research kiosks sandwiched between them. This was not the only such structure, it was only one of several such complexes within the gargantuan Elysium station.

DROP 47 was a truly massive construct, with a central core as large as some small moons. A flattened sphere, it appeared as if it had been impaled on dozens of massive sensor arrays and comm antennae, kilometers-long spines jutting from the top and bottom of the core, into the Mists. Far larger than their counterparts on other stations, their size and power was necessary to allow them to penetrate the shroud caused by the strange nebula, to maintain communications, guide supply runs to the station and scan Abyss.

Extending out from the large central hub were four massive arms. Although spindly in comparison to the bulk of the station, they were nonetheless as large as starships in their own right, used as docking hubs, cargo storage, crew quarters and more. Equally large support girders helped brace the arms to the station, protective ‘bracer’ arcs looping off the station’s hull like frozen solar flares, the harsh crackle of their energy fields repelling the bulk of the dust and gas from the station.

47 had a complement of nearly thirty thousand, but it could easily accommodate several times that. Researchers, administrators… soldiers. There to protect DROP 47 from any threat, whether external or internal. Since Everett had arrived, two additional infantry companies had been dropped off to bolster the station’s own security forces. For the Imperium to divert even that handful of men to DROP 47, protected as it was by the all-concealing Mists, showed how much they valued the research being done here. And how much it frightened them.

With good cause. What they’d found in Abyss, buried in the depths of Acheron… what’d they’d created with it… fear was an understatement.

Hayes braced one hand against a support pillar, looking out the one-way glass, down into the enclosure below. His lips thinned into a disapproving slash, thankful that his division was not responsible for this… barbarism, that it was not on his hands. He had made other horrors.

But here I stand, watching and doing nothing. That makes me culpable for this as well, doesn’t it?

More than likely.

Could he accept that? Of course he could. It was why he’d been recruited here, to this damned floating purgatory. Because the Imperium had seen something in him that they could use. And with the Coalition pressing them on all fronts, they needed every resource they could lay their hands on. They needed Umbra.

He’d seen the latest reports; the Coalition was fighting a war of attrition. Every Imperial ship was worth two, three, four – five! – Coalition ships, but they could afford those kinds of losses. Earth could not. They were fighting to hold on to every planet, every system, but they were being forced back. The disparate nations of the galaxy had actually managed to unify in the face of Imperial aggression, far faster than anyone had predicted – even Halo’s strategists had believed that the Imperium’s potential victims were too disjointed and fragmented to unify before it was too late. But they had and they were throwing everything they had at the Terran forces, paying a cost that no one had expected they could endure or afford. Extinction before enslavement.

The Imperium was losing, losing badly and it was getting desperate. Any weapon, any plague, any ship that they could unleash, they did. Anything to force the Coalition onto the defensive, even momentarily.

That was why they were here. Originally just another DROP – perhaps a bit blacker than the rest thanks to Hadley-Wright’s discovery of the Obelisks – 47 had had all records of its existence – and probably a few personnel – purged when Razorback had found Umbra. The first Obelisk – that had been shocking enough to bury DROP 47, but Umbra… what was there could win the war. Reason enough to erase the station from every record, remove everyone who’d heard of DROP 47 and keep its black secrets hidden. If they could use them. If the Imperium could survive long enough. If those same secrets didn’t kill everyone and everything on the station first. If. If. If.

And if Earth fell, Halo would fall with it. That was why he was here. Making the best out of a bad choice. Out of so many bad choices.

“Amazing, isn’t it?”

Everett Hayes didn’t turn away from the viewing window. “It certainly is, Justin. In a manner of speaking.” Everything had a price. And for all the secrets it possessed, Umbra guarded them jealously. As it was supposed to, he imagined.

Senior Researcher Black rolled his eyes theatrically. “No need to go out on a limb, doctor.” He stepped forward next to Everett and stared down into the enclosure, watching the movements of its inhabitants, chewing on his lip. “I do consider it amazing. What we’re witnessing is without precedent, Hayes. Something that other people only consider in their nightmares. This is what we’ve brought about.” He sighed, almost remorseful. “What we’ve had to bring about. Sometimes I wish this wasn’t so. That we’d never come here, you know? But we’ve been pushed to this point by the outworlders.” Harder: “They’ve left us no choice.”

“Even if they hadn’t, this discovery is still beyond anything else, isn’t it?”

Black brightened. “Yes, it is. I suppose we’d still be here even if wasn’t for those outworlder trash.”

“Someone would,” Hayes observed. “Better, I suppose that it be us.”

“Exactly. Do you think something like this could have been left to the Coalition?” Black sounded scandalized at the very idea. “Or to the corporations? Suppose those fools at Hadley-Wright hadn’t thought to mention what they’d found to us.” As quickly as Black’s bright mood came, it was gone. “We’d have no hope at all. Neither Earth nor Halo. That’s why what we’re doing is so important. Why we can’t ever let ourselves lose sight of that. We’re doing it all for the greater good. The greater good,” he mumbled again. “That’s what I see. Hope, and the future.”

“I see much the same,” Hayes assured his fellow researcher. “But I also see the Hand of God,” Hayes quipped the proverb.

Black wasn’t familiar with Halo’s culture and the full meaning of the term escaped him. “The hand of God. That’s… an unusual way of putting it.”

“Despite their love of science, Halos do have some poetry in their souls,” Project Director Amelia Constanza interjected, smiling at the men.

Everett nodded in greeting, careful not to let any of his dislike of Constanza show. He despised the woman. She was Terran-born through and through and saw most non-Earthers and certainly all non-Imperials as just a little bit less than human. She was also brilliant. She’d been the one to discover the R-type, the one to discover how it worked. The one to suggest to General Jung what it could be used for. Oh yes, she was definitely a Terran-born Imperial.

“We like to think so,” Hayes replied. “Even the Primaries believed that not everything could be stripped of everything but rationality and equations. As a result, we Halos tend not to fit into the ‘emotionless science drone’ archetype. At least some of the time, anyways.”

Constanza smiled back. She thought they were colleagues-in-arms. “You’ve seen Justin’s latest work?”

“I have. It’s impressive. Very much done in such a short time. Owing in part to your influence, of course.”

Amelia beamed. She was a very attractive woman, but Everett would have rather slept with a viper. “I’m glad you think so. If you two are finished? General Jung is waiting for us.”

~

“I’ll be blunt,” Jung said, as if he were capable of anything else. “Most of you already know or suspected this, but Earth is in danger of losing this war. The reports you’ve submitted had made an impression on the Senate and the Joint Chiefs and they’re throwing their full support behind this facility, particularly where Umbra and the Obelisks is concerned. Director Sampson-”

“I know what you’re going to say, and it’s impossible,” Alfred Sampson interrupted the General. Despite his infamous temper, Jung never seemed to care about such breaches of protocol… as long as it wasn’t also a waste of his time. “Despite the modifications to the sensor and communications arrays, we still don’t have reliable real-time remote control of our automated surveyors and recovery units and without a human riding shotgun on them, even our best AIs are just as incapable of functioning in the relatively low-level disruption fields created by the Mists, let alone the stronger vortices in proximity to an active Obelisk or Umbra itself. I’m pushing all my teams as hard as they can, but we’re making very little headway. Which is at the heart of the matter, you’re well aware.”

Jung nodded. “I understand. The effects of the Mist’s disruption on mechanical systems is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the project. Our superiors on Earth understand this intellectually, even if they don’t fully realize it. However, DROP 96 was forwarded some of Senior Researcher Delwight’s,” he nodded at a dark-skinned woman. “Data several months ago and they’ve managed to refine it into a workable prototype. The first modules should be arriving with Beryllium’s next cargo run and Engineering can add them to the fabricator’s inventory.”

Sampson’s eyebrows shot up. “I’d like my team to review 96’s technical specs, but if they were able to get Delwight’s idea into practice, that should make it far easier to navigate the Mists. However, we still have no appreciable defence against exposure to the disruption field.”

“My department is working overtime on the problem,” Director Svenja said. “But we’ve been unable to come up with a suitable counter-agent. We can delay and minimize the symptoms, but until the subject is removed from the area of effect, there’s nothing else we can do. And,” he nodded towards Constanza deferentially. “When combined with the R-type, it is irrevocable.”

“Yes, well, that’s why we have the work in I,” Jung grunted, tapping his fingers impatiently on the table. “Speaking of which, how goes your own project, Hayes?”

And there it was. If he indeed had a soul, he’d already sold it in the vain hope that Halo would survive. What was one more loan against his conscience?

“Better,” Everett said. “I’ve uploaded a full report to your personal network. I don’t want to commit to anything more than that, but I’m optimistic. In fact, I think that the series 7 batch is the most promising…”

~

Evertt’s favorite place on the station was a small observation lounge, a short distance away from his quarters. It was usually empty – there was little to it except for a pair of couches, some chairs and a handful of potted plants, tended automatically by the station’s maintenance units – and he found it a very… soothing place.

Turning off the lights, he sat down on his favorite couch, spreading his arms across the back of it and letting the shifting, distorted light from the Mists filter in. Far too dense to communicate the light of distant stars for very far, the Mists produced their own illumination from massive static discharges and radiation bursts, giving the entire nebula the appearance of a churning, multi-hued stormcloud. Another reason for the paucity of people in the outer observation decks: it was disturbing to look into the Mists for too long, but Everett found it calming. He didn’t know why.

What he found less calming was the telltale slight chemical scent of freshly-applied paint on the lounge’s walls, the slight moist glisten of it, where a maintenance drone had recently painted over something.

The higher-ups called it simple stress. They either weren’t seeing it, or choosing not to see. One reason the Imperium liked to hide its DROPs away in the deepest, darkest corners of space was to build on that sense of isolation, to cut its researchers off from the outside world, to distance them from everything but their work… including their ethics. Here, that had been a miscalculation. It was eating at them, all of them. Whispers you didn’t quite hear, a person you didn’t quite see. Shadows seeming to move… That was how it started and then… and then…

It was in all of them. Every soldier, every scientist, every soul.

Almost every soul.

Everett Lucien Hayes, Projector Director on Imperial Deep-range Research and Observation Platform 47, closed his eyes, letting the lights of Acheron play over him as he imagined the sunlight of a distant world and the bright, eager eyes of his children.

[Reveal] Spoiler: More graffiti
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-01-11 04:51pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Even on a space station overrun with the insane and the living dead, there's always time for trainspotting.

Coming up: cat and mouse, hunter and prey. B Company has met their friends. They've met the staff. Now it's time to meet the other guests. DROP 47 does not discriminate. All are welcome. Please. Enjoy your stay.

Chapter 13:

“Come on!” Shannon shouted. “Keep moving!” Louis groaned in pain as Shannon and Emily struggled to keep him upright between them. Shannon was stronger than she looked, but Emily was on the small side and even with the Halo’s help, the doctor was struggling to keep Louis from falling. “Ramone!” Shannon shouted up the corridor at the other corporate doctor. “Get back here and help! Now!

Luckily, Salvador heard and obeyed, about to take Emily’s position when Shannon’s autosenses picked up a low warbling exhalation; it would have been a screech had it been any louder. And it was behind them. “Take him!” she shouted at the other doctor, already turning to confront whatever was coming up the corridor. Schematics flashed past her mind’s eyes, snippets of information from Control played over in her ears. Yes. “Past the first intersection, take a left on the second – it leads to a tram station – that one should still have power. Move, both of you!”

It was a bisected once-human thing. Some injury or mutation had broken it in half long ago and now it skittered rapidly towards Shannon using its powerful arms and sharp, six-fingered hands, completely unhampered by its lack of legs. Its spine had become a long, muscular tail. Fully as long as a man was tall, it was knobbed with short protruding neural spines and ended in a wicked scythe of bone. The creature’s mouth was agape, its canines extended into massive tusks, intended to slash and disembowel its prey. Its tongue-tentacles flicked in and out over its mouthful of smaller, but equally sharp teeth. Shannon had less than a second to take its abhorrent form in as its hand-feet braced against the deck and it threw itself through the air, slamming into the young woman, razor-sharp teeth gnashing and gnawing at her helmet as the monster’s talons scored deep rents in her cuirass.

The mercenary jammed the barrel of her pistol up against the creature’s neck, blowing a geyser of pustulent flesh out the other side. The monstrosity reared back with a gasping, slurping, hollow roar of surprise, slick tendrils bursting through the entry wound, knitting its flesh back together.

An injury like that would have killed any other creature in the galaxy, but Shannon didn’t give this one the chance to recover and she fired again. Again. On the third shot, the creature’s head was literally blown off its body. Like the first attacker, this was only a temporary inconvenience and the thing reared back just long enough for her to squirm out from under it. And just in time; without its head, it went into a frenzy, slashing back and forth blindly with its forelimbs, its tail cracking like a whip as it sliced through the air, so powerfully that it cut scratches into the bulkhead. Its head, trailing ligaments and burned, blasted clumps of flesh amidst the carpet of tendrils, was slithering back to its berserker body.

“Run!” Shannon shouted at Ramone and Emily as they gawked at her fight, both of them frozen with shock. “Run!

As they fled, carrying Hernandez between them, Shannon was smashed against the bulkhead by a lucky strike of the creature’s tail. Fortunately, it had only been the flat of the blade and not its edge, but the impact bounced her head against the wall, her vision dimming briefly from the force of the blow and she was temporarily stunned. Not long, but long enough for the decapitated creature to re-attach its head, and lock onto her. It leapt again, slamming her once more against the bulkhead, its hands clasped to her arms, one pinning her gun-hand down, as her other arm fought its grip and tried futilely to push it away. The ruined thing’s head drew back and its maw opened again, wide enough to fit her entire head inside, intending to do so and use its teeth to saw through the body glove on her neck.

Shannon pushed her free arm up to its neck, forcing its mouth back, as it gnashed at her, its tusks skreeking over her faceplate. Even her armour’s filtration system was overpowered by the foul reek of its mouth, the sickening mixture of rotting meat and some strange chemical odour.

“Fuck you!” she screamed at it, still trying to get her gun free. Its tail curved up over its body, the tip pointing at her face. There was a momentary shiver in its muscles-

-the young woman ducked her head to one side as the bone blade slashed forward. So fast she didn’t even register it moving, there was only the crack of the air and the sound of it thunking into the bulkhead, millimeters away from her ear. The creature howled in frustration, wiggling its blade free from the wall, preparing for another attack. She couldn’t dodge forever…

Gauntlets closed around the monster’s tail. “Why won’t you fucking things just die!” Abigail shouted, so loud that Shannon could hear her, even without the comm. Three’s neck was bleeding, a thick red trail running down her armour. The Darkknell dug her fingers into the stretched flesh of its tail and pulled bodily.

The thing yowled, scrabbling at the medic, but Abigail had loosened its grip just enough and Shannon’s pistol was free. She screamed, a hoarse, wordless mixture of fear, exultation, revulsion and hate as she unloaded it into the monster’s torso, spraying guts and bone across the far bulkhead. Its grip finally slackened and Abigail was able to pull it off her partner, down to the floor. It was already healing. Greasy, writhing tendrils slid in and out of its ruined body, sewing itself back together, burst organs shivering and pulsating as they restored themselves.

Hutchins brought a boot up and stomped on the thing, feeling it convulse under the blow. “I. Asked. Why. You. Wouldn’t. Die!” Ribs cracked and vertebrae snapped with each impact, both women now kicking and stamping the twitching, mewling carcass to death. At some point, they realized they were simply grinding a pulpy, bubbling mass of tissue into the deck, that whatever threshold for regeneration these organisms possessed, this one was long past it.

Sweating and panting inside her armour, Shannon looked up. “You’re hurt.”

Abigail waved it off. “Fucking thing bit me. It stings like a bitch, but it’s better now. When it got me, I could barely move.”

Ignoring her companion’s nonchalant response, Hayes ran her lume over the other woman’s wound. “It’s not too deep, but I’m reading traces of formic acid.” She started fumbling in her kit bag for a general antibiotic. “Come here.”

Knowing better than to argue, Abigail let Shannon administer the medicine and a synthskin covering for the open wound. “Formic acid. Is that bad?”

“Variations of it turn up a lot in nature. Terran ants sprayed it into the wounds they’d made in larger animals; it’s intended to hurt as much as possible to drive off larger animals and incapacitate smaller ones. There was one species called ‘bullet ants’. Their bites hurt as much as getting shot.”

“Then they could take a lesson. I’ve been shot before. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as this.”

“Larger dose,” Shannon mused. “Your attacker was probably hoping that that would be enough to keep you down.” Even though she couldn’t see Abigail’s face, she could imagine the woman’s grin. “Clearly, they underestimated you.”

“Damn straight.” Abigail touched a finger to the synthskin. “Feels better. What happened to the docs and that idiot Hernandez?”

“Shit!” Shannon snapped her medical kit shut, tucking back into her kit. “I sent them up the tram station.”

Abigail hefted her carbine. “Let’s head there, then.” Hutchins paused a moment. “I haven’t been able to raise anybody else. Have you?”

“No. The station shouldn’t be blocking comms and we’re protected from the Mists.” A beat. “Delta had equipment problems too.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid you were going to say.”

~

“Motherfucking fuck fucking shit.”

Major Jeremy St. Cloud pulled himself along the wall, leaving a bloody smear on the dusty bulkheads as he did so, his left arm hanging uselessly at his side. His right clutched Betsy, his Mag 5 repeating shotgun. He paused in his walk, but not his epithet-laden diatribe as he fumbled a fresh speedloader into the weapon, a rotary clip of sixteen cartridges.

His shoulder throbbed painfully; there were several deep lacerations torn into it. Which, while bad, weren’t as problematic as the IED someone had thrown into his face. His breastplate was scarred and pitted from the blast. His helmet had kept the shrapnel from going into his brain, but it had cut up his face, taken out his HUD and, even worse, knocked out his link signal – he’d be counted as dead. Without a radio and knocked unconscious by the blast, he’d woken up in the aftermath of the battle, the hangar crawling with actual honest-to-God, zombies. Betsy’d had a workout then. Not enough of one to keep one of the other fuckers – and what the Hell were they? – from cutting his shoulder up pretty damn good.

The major paused to take a breath. He was feeling lightheaded and dizzy and it was getting hard to breathe. He knew that that meant; the blood loss was getting serious, if it wasn’t already. “Fuck,” he paused, letting himself slide down the wall, reaching into a belt pouch for some gauze. “Beta Four, you out there?” he tried the comm again. No response. Only the crackle of static from a dead channel. He didn’t think his comm had been damaged, but that would just be the icing on the cake, wouldn’t it?

“Sure wish you were,” St. Cloud said into his mic anyways. “Heh. Never much cared for the sight of blood, you know. At least when it was my own. A medic’d be nice right about now. So would knowing I’m not the last one left. Don’t think I am; been hearing shots every so often. A shout here and there. Someone’s putting up a fight. Just hope we’re winning it, is all. If anyone can hear me, I’m going to head for the security sub-station on corridor… North-4 7.” He winced as he tightened the gauze around his bleeding shoulder, feeling the useless limb fire every nerve it had in protest. “That’s Sec Station November Four Seven Gamma. Hope to see someone there. St. Cloud, clear.”

He stood back up, using the wall to keep himself on his feet, ignoring the pain in his shoulder as the wound was squeezed against the cold metal bulkhead. From ahead, he could hear the rattle of something moving in the ceiling and he brought Betsy up, cocking a shell into the barrel. “That’s right, fuckface. Come to papa.”

~

Brilliant beams stabbed out of the unknown vessel, searchlights sweeping over DROP 47’s hull and through the debris field. It was looking for something. Survivors from Kerrigan, probably. Come back to finish your damn murderer’s work, have you? Calvin Meyers stared hatefully up at the evil silhouette, though he kept one eye on Lieutenant Godfrey. She was still crouched on the hull, her armour powered down – all but dead, clearly hoping that that would be enough. He was tempted to shoot her, but even if they hadn’t scared the shit out of the berserker Ghost, there was no way he was going to make it easy for Kerrigan’s killers to find him. He’d have to settle up with her later.

Slowly, Calvin backed towards a maintenance hatch. He brought up a direct comm-link to Jane. “So tell me,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant and not terribly succeeding. “Who are these assholes?”

“Eyes in the dark,” she whispered.

Meyers blinked. He hadn’t expected a response. “What?”

“Eyes in the dark,” she repeated. “Watching. Waiting. Killing. Eyes see you. Eye watches you. And then you die.” A beat. “They won’t let you leave.”

“I figured that out already, thanks.”

She laughed. It was dry and empty, the stir of leaves over a moon-lit tomb. “Where do you think you’ll go, friend?”

He wrapped his fingers around the hatch’s manual release. Though worn down by centuries of exposure to the Mists, it came loose with a little effort and the doorway popped open. “Away from you.”

“No one leaves Acheron, Calvin.” Quietly, without a trace of anger or threat, offered as a promise of such certainty that it was a fact in all but name: “I’ll find you.”

~

“Jesus Christ! What are those things? What is this place? Are those the original crew? Are they the people who came here after? What happened here?”

Emily gritted her teeth, trying to block out Salvador’s running monologue. Her shoulders and back ached from the effort of supporting Hernandez. Gunfire rattled through the corridors, distant and washed-out screams reverberating through vents and hallways. Twice now, she’d seen movement out of the corners of her eyes. Once, it had been the loping gait of one of those monsters as it rushed up a parallel hallway, past a debris-chocked intersection.

This wasn’t… it wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Ramone continued to gibber mindlessly. “We’re fucked! We’re fucked! We’re fucked! What happened… you know it’ll happen to us, too.”

“Sh’ up,” Louis murmured through the painkillers. “Givin’ m’ a h’ache.” He blinked through watering eyes. “Corp’ral said t’ g’ to the tram. Jus’ keep movin’. Now, which wunna y’ is gunna g’ me a w’pon?”

“Not just yet, private,” Emily said. “Maybe later.”

“Sol’ja needs a w’pon,” Hernandez mumbled, his eyes hazy; the medication was still dulling his mind. “Gotta pr’tect y’ afta all.”

“You’re doing fine,” Emily assured the injured man, noting the fresh blood dripping out of the tube Shannon had inserted. Hernandez had started bleeding into his lungs again. “Come on,” she encouraged him. “Come on. Almost there.”

The three of them staggered through the doors to the tram station. It was similar in appearance to subway and mag-lev stations the galaxy over, a wide loading area to accommodate large numbers of personnel and some cargo that opened into a massive magnetic rail system, capable of accommodating multiple cars at once. This tube was only a mid-sized one, with space for four trams; deeper in the station, there would be six or more sets of rails. The tunnel was dark; Emily could see the distant glow of emergency lighting here and there, but there was no consistent illumination. It was impossible to see what, if anything was lurking in the tunnel. More insane crew, or more of those things?

This wasn’t supposed to have happened.

There was another terminal closer to the hangar, but that was primarily for cargo and Shannon had said that this one was still working. Status screens, flickering in orange displays six hundred years old, announced the closure of all tram tunnels and advisories to evacuate the station immediately. The speakers, one of which was hanging from its post by a cluster of wires, gibbered with static and indecipherable voices. She thought she heard Vigil’s voice, still trying to save its long-dead crew.

The lighting was more constant here; glow panels from the ceiling shone down onto the floor and six centuries of dust and debris. Bullet holes were spattered across the door frame as some unknown personnel had fought a pitched battle here; whether in an attempt to fall back to the tram and flee to another part of the station, or in an attempt to fight their way to the docking bay and escape that way, Emily had no idea. Nor did she particularly care. Her attention was fixed on the terminal. The empty terminal. There was no tram car here. A low moan escaped her throat and Ramone began to whimper again.

Feet pounded up the corridor towards them.

~

There was a crash from behind them as something burst through a makeshift barrier, one of the many decades-old attempts to seal off side corridors and channel attackers into a killing field. Since its original makers were nowhere to be seen, it was easy to guess how well it had worked. Given their speed and the fact that the damn things took so much killing, it wasn’t really a surprise.

Shannon was keeping half her attention on the corridor; luckily her attacker didn’t seem to have damaged her suit’s systems and her blacklight was still working. There wasn’t much debris cluttering the halls – six centuries of desperate searches for spare parts, additional material for barricades and the desire not to trip in the dark had left them pretty clear. But there was the occasional broken crate, damaged or depleted weapons as well as a scattering of flimsies, datacards or other paraphernalia. The other half of her mind was busily running through the station’s schematics, searching the various levels and sections for anything that could be used as a rally point. Medic Station N4-9-R. Security Station N4-7-G. Tram Station N4-01….

“This way!” Hayes pointed down the corridor she had instructed the doctors to take, reloading as she ran. It felt as if she could feel the fetid breath of their pursuer on her neck. “Tram station’s right through here!”

The door still had power. Shannon was first through it, Abigail second and the Halo mashed her fist against the control panel. The door had been tampered with and slammed shut like a two hundred-pound guillotine.

On the other side, something screamed and threw itself against the barrier, the door shaking in its frame. Again. Again. Then silence as the creature gave up with a last frustrated batter at the door.

“Is it safe?”

Both mercenaries almost jumped, Abigail very nearly spraying a burst at the source of the sound, but she managed to control herself. It was only Emily. She and Ramone had set Hernandez back down. Neither doctor looked well: panting and flushed, with hair plastered to their heads their jackets stained with sweat and filth.

“I think so,” Shannon nodded, inspecting the door controls. She’d studied Imperial systems in preparation for the mission. Not as much as the techs had, of course. But enough to be able to find her away around their computers. “Someone’s monkeyed with the system here. Closing the door puts into it a full seal – it locks into the frame. It’s what they use for security breaches, to keep fugitives contained. They’ve disabled the safeties and I’d guess, done something to the internal mechanisms to make it close like that. To unlock it… yes. It can only be done from this panel.”

“Probably to isolate the tram stations,” Abigail mused. “So you can be reasonably sure you’re not getting off the train into a nest of those fucking things.” Remembering one of their modes of travel, she took a quick look around the terminal. The air vents had been welded over, several times, with holes punched in them to allow some flow, but also to prevent anything larger or more dangerous than a finger from sticking through. Probably as secure as this place gets.

“Let’s call a car.” Shannon said. “We can try and link up with the others.”

“A few probably headed for the other tram station.”

Shannon nodded. “If worse comes to worse, we can walk there.” She didn’t like the large open tunnel or the idea of leaving the others behind, but moving Hernandez wasn’t doing him any favours. Besides, at least Louis and the civilians wouldn’t be trapped here if something came down the tram system. “Let me see what’s been done to the call system and we’ll-”

Metal screamed against metal and the door jerked in its frame as something struggled to pry it open, a harsh grinding squeal as the door was slowly forced open, back along its track.

“You said that was a security seal!” Salvador shrieked, his voice rising to a pitch not normal to men of his build. “You said it would hold!”

“Abby!”

“On it!” Hutchins called back, raising her carbine. “Get that car, Halo!”

Shannon all but leapt up the stairs to the control cab. The computers were still working. A cracked screen here, a missing button there, but they worked. Good. She hit the emergency summon button. The nearest car was several sections away. Less good.

“On its way!” she shouted back. Come on, come on.

The door jerked open a few inches and snapped back as whatever was on the side lost its grip. “Is that it?” Abigail shouted. “You fucking pussy, can’t even open a door!”

Another pull, this time wide enough for the thing to jam a scythe-like appendage – its fingers fused into a single, wicked curve of bone – through the opening.

“Shoot it!” Abigail could hear Emily and Ramone shouting at her. “Shoot it now!” But it was a lesson she’d learned on the docks. You never, ever took the first shot at someone. You took the best. Sometimes that was the first. And sometimes…. With a burst of inhuman strength, the door was pushed wider, a second hand – this one with fingers – bracing itself on the door frame. There; she could see its eyes and, behind it, the movement of others, ruined and mutilated bodies stalking down the corridor. The one prying the door open was the first priority, though,

A single shot blew its skull apart and the thing reeled back, jerking its scythe-arm out of the door as it staggered into the ones behind it, still clutching the frame with its other hand. Freed from the pressure holding it open, the door slammed shut once more, neatly chopping the creature’s fingers off. “Security seal, my ass.” Abigail muttered. Well, maybe it had worked better six centuries ago. “We need to be leaving, sir!” the mercenary shouted.

Shannon jumped down the stairs. “Car’s coming. Everyone – get on the platform. Emily, Ramone – carry Louis.”

“Why can’t you-” Salvador began.

“Fine,” Abigail interrupted. “We’ll carry Hernandez, you can shoot the monsters.”

Ramone stooped to pick up Louis, the man groaning in pain as he was pulled upright again.

In the tunnel, the diffuse glow of the tram’s lights began to brighten as it pulled up. Behind the survivors, the door groaned as something else began to struggle against the centuries-old security mechanisms. “We need to be leaving,” Abigail repeated as metal skreeked against metal.

“Car’s here!” Shannon called as the tram pulled into the station. “It’s clear. Emily, Ramone, go!” The doctors carried Hernandez onto the transport car, the mercenaries following after. Back on the upper level, the door shrieked as it was finally forced open.

Shannon ran to the cab’s control panel, hitting the ‘return’ button. Magnetic rails hummed as the tram pulled out of the station, leaving the swarming horde behind. Abigail sighed, slumping down to the filthy, flattened and worn-bald carpet of the car. “Well, Corporal – we’re out of the frying pan. Where do we go now?”

[Reveal] Spoiler: Writing on the walls is never an indicator of good mental health
Image

Last edited by Bladed_Crescent on 2010-01-11 08:28pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-01-17 09:05pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Shannon has a plan. Mostly, it involves not dying, but it's always good to have a goal. Of course, The Watcher has one as well....

Coming up: Monsters, madmen and how to perform surgery with a scalpel in one hand and a gun in the other.

Chapter 14:

Dark. Dark and safe. A grainy, bleached-out image danced and jiggered its way across a grimy, static-churned screen until a short, sharp thump to the side of the imaging system brought it into a semblance of clarity.

A wretched, thin, greasy hand wiped away the most recent layer of dust and filth caked onto the monitor, whilst simultaneously leaving a fresh smear of sweat and grime behind. Taken from corrupted and modified security systems, the view danced from one blurry, black-and-white image to another; corridors lit by flashes of gunfire, rooms where fresh corpses lay slumped against whatever substrate was there; sprawled over tables, leaning against newly-spattered bulkheads or broken and crumpled on the floor. In others, only pools of blood stretched into crimson drag marks hinted at what had happened. In still more chambers, survivors huddled together, tending to their injuries.

Dry, cracked lips smacked together as a tongue ran over them, fingers picking at tabs of dead skin. “Oh my my my yes. Yes, look at all the little lost boys and girls. So many. So many-many. Shouldn't have come here, should you? No no. No no. Should have listened. Should have known. Now they're coming. Now you'll all have to pay. Yes. Yes, that’s it. You’ll all have to pay.”

~

The tram slowed to a halt as it returned to its original station. Shannon and Abigail had both tried to stop it, but neither tech nor medic had been able to override the system’s lock-outs. Whether they were gimmicked on the fly, or part of its original programming, it was impossible to tell. Imperial technology was built to last and someone had obviously made an effort over the centuries to keep DROP 47’s systems running - as much as they were - but despite that, there was a lot of damage and even more degradation in their capabilities. The tram was refusing to accept a new destination and head to the damaged cargo station, which meant Shannon and the other survivors had ended up further away both from their attackers... and their comrades.

Shannon and Abigail swept the station; like their previous locale, the air vents and maintenance hatches had been bolted down or welded over and the door locked from the inside. The tram control cab was just as functional as the previous one, but other than that, there wasn’t a lot to see. The group took a moment to catch their breath and the medics to check on their patients. Louis’s temperature had dropped and his skin was turning an unhealthy grey. Abigail tried to scratch at the synthskin covering her wound, but Shannon slapped her hand away every time she made the attempt, the Darkknell finally giving up.

It still itched, though.

Sighing, the private pulled off her helmet, sliding down the wall to the floor. Her short, dark blonde hair was plastered to her forehead and neck, her pale Darkknell skin covered in a sheen of sweat and a puff of steam escaped from her armour as soon as she removed her helmet. Her nostrils flared as she took in the atmosphere of the tram station. The air was stagnant and cold; the circulation systems were barely working as it was and she wasn’t surprised that the faint scent of ozone and chemical propellant still clung to every surface in the tram station, detectable even over the thick smell of blood, sweat and stronger traces of weapons fire that was wrapped around each of the survivors.

For the benefit of Emily and Ramone, Abigail called up a holo-image of the station’s schematics on her IDS. “This is Tram Station North Four. Not to be confused with section North-4, even though some idiot named them the same way. We’ve got a medical station, security checkpoint, a lot of minor storage and some security barracks.” Each docking arm could be a station in its own right; several kilometers long and multiple decks thick. “Crew quarters are deeper off this terminal and there’s an engineering substation,” she pointed vaguely towards a bulkhead. “That way and down. Security means weapons, medical means health, engineering means something I can kitbash together and crew quarters might mean all of those.”

“Along with whatever personal records are left,” Shannon noted. If there were any, they’d be less secure than the station’s computer and less likely to have been purged.

“Doesn’t it also mean more of those things?” Ramone asked.

“If this had happened a few days ago, I’d agree,” Abigail shook her head. “But DROP 47’s been like this for six centuries. They’ve already gotten in wherever they’re going to get in; there’s no reason for them to congregate in a habitat deck, not if there’s been no one to inhabit it for six hundred years.” She shot a smile at Shannon. “See? I can answer stuff too.” From anyone else, it could have been a petty snipe, but the corporal was long used to her ‘big sister’s’ sense of humour and the familiarity of the joke helped ease some of the stress.

Some. Shannon thought for a moment. “I’m more worried about the rest of Primal’s crew. There had to be dozens more left on the ship before we pulled out, and if Michelle,” Shannon kept in a wince for the helpless woman whose stretcher had floated off into a gunfight. “was any indication, some of them weren’t on-board when Shelby sealed Primal.”

“You... you saw what those things can do and you’re more worried about those psychopaths?” Ramone asked incredulously, a touch of hysteria working back into his voice.

Shannon ran her gauntlet’s fingers along the grooves the monster back in the hallway had carved in her faceplate. “Yes,” she said. “They can’t use guns. They weren’t making their own grenades, or taking cover. And they have to brute force their way through the station. Primal’s crew - at least some of them - were keeping it together well enough to use the ship’s weapons. In the long run, I think they’ll cause us the most problems. Here and now...” she checked her pistol. Full, with two reloads left. Abigail had 47 bullets in her carbine and three clips. Given how ammunition much it took to disable or destroy one of those things, that was a lot less impressive then it sounded. “We’ll have to watch out for those...” God, what are they? What do we even call them? “...those things, but re-taking Primal is our priority for now.” Five-step mission. One: Injuries. Two: break the jamming. Three: re-group with survivors. Four: take Primal. Five: Avoid whoever’s out there and get home.

“Shouldn’t we be keeping our heads down?”

“If we can’t get in touch with the others,” Assuming they’re still alive. “That would be our best option, but I think we can agree waiting for the Old Man to send another team isn’t what we want to do.” She saw got three frightened, determined nods. Shannon looked back at Abigail. “Put your helmet back on. We’re going for the medical sub-station.”

Abigail complied and stood, giving her weapons and armour a quick once-over. Shannon did the same, slipping her kitbag off her shoulder. Emily and Ramone would need the supplies for Hernandez more than she or Abigail would. Hopefully. “I want you to stay here,” she said to Emily. “Both of you. We can’t risk moving Louis again unless we know that there’s something in that station we can use to help him. Stay on the tram, stay quiet and out of sight. This place looks like it’s supposed to be a safe zone, so you should be all right. If Three or I don’t come back,” she mulled over the schematic briefly. “In an hour, I don’t think we will. Stay on the car. If anyone else from B Company survived, sooner or later they’ll make use of the transport system and they’ll find you.”

“What about weapons?” Ramone whined. “You’re just going to leave us here?”

The mercenaries exchanged a glance. Even without seeing the other’s faces, their expressions and thoughts were obvious. Shannon twitched her head towards Emily. Abigail stared for a moment longer, then finally shrugged and drew her pistol. Unlike Shannon’s HCP, it was a fairly standard sidearm. Abigail had modified it with a laser sight, rangefinder and flash suppressor; the Darkknell used it when she needed to be ‘subtle’. “Have you used one of these before?” She said to Emily. Neither woman was about to trust Salvador with a loaded weapon.

The petite doctor swallowed, but she nodded. “They suggested we all take a basic firearms course before leaving,” she looked at Ramone. “Not everyone took it.”

“Fine. Just make sure what you’re aiming at is actually an enemy. Aside from Four and I, there are still lots of friendlies out here, yes?” As she spoke, Abigail ran through the gun’s handling twice, pointing out the safety, laser sight and proper way to hold it, before giving it to the young doctor.

Delphini nodded, holding the gun as if she expected it to go off in her hands. “Yes. I’ll be careful.”

“Good girl. You, Salvador - come lock the door behind us. Open it only for Kerrigan’s people. I don’t care how loud anybody else sobs and begs, that door stays closed, got it?”

As they walked away, Abigail’s voice was very quiet in Shannon’s comm. “You think it’ll actually help them? One of those things finds its way up here...”

“I know. But they think it will,” Shannon replied, casting one look back over her shoulder, watching Emily check the safety on the pistol and tuck it into her jacket. Hayes bit her lip, hoping she wasn’t making a mistake.

“Fair enough. Next question.” There was a long pause, as if Abigail knew what she wanted to say, but was trying to figure out how to say it. She took up position in front of the door as Shannon moved off to one side, her hand over the control pad. Ramone was hidden in the shadows on the other side of the door. “Do you think any of this will actually help?” She nodded.

Shannon hit the open button and the door snapped out of its security lock. The beam from Abigail’s flashlight shone down the hall, a harsh white cone, illuminating another dark, empty hallway. She gave Ramone a thumbs-up and stepped through, Shannon taking a moment to wave at Emily, hoping to reassure her.

The door snapped shut behind them. “It can’t hurt,” Shannon said, following Abigail’s lead. The mercenaries snapped off their flashlights, letting the blacklight vision in their helmets guide them through the inconstant illumination of the hallway. “At the moment, that’s all we’ve got.”

“I guess so. Huh,” Abigail said, staring at the walls. A large arrow had been splashed on the bulkhead, pointing along the guide lines to the medical station. Next to the arrow, several symbols had been drawn. She tapped the crude representation of a knife next to a medical cross. “What do you think these mean?”

~

Something moved within the ceiling, sending some loose piece of plate, a discarded weapon or tool clanging over the pipes. St. Cloud turned towards the sound, his eyes on the shadows, trying to pick out movement amongst the bent and twisted metal of a mutilated vent cover, a dust-covered fan broken from its mounting and sitting discarded on the floor. A long, low cry echoed through the air system followed by the skittering of feet over metal. There was a hungry, malicious hiss from an adjacent corridor and Jeremy spun, bringing Betsy’s barrel around, the light attached to it catching a flicker of sick flesh as it pulled itself into another exposed vent, clattering over walls and ducts and piping as it slithered into the maintenance crawlspace.

They were stalking him. He didn’t know why they hadn’t attacked already and fought the insane urge to scream a challenge. Wouldn’t do any good, except draw in anyone who didn’t already know he was here. Ahead, he could see the stairs that led down to the security station’s upper level. It was only a small ‘rural’ outpost, fit for a handful of officers and a brig for petty offenders. Serious infractions would be punished in the larger prisons in the station’s core.

The stairs were set off the hallway, across from an elevator whose shaft and call buttons were completely dark. The door to the stairs was broken inwards, gashes and dents battered into the distorted metal slab. As a refreshing change, the stairwell was lit by an occasionally-flickering set of glow panels. St. Cloud eased his way in, mindful of any sound that could indicate an attacker coming down or up to him. He wished his blacklight was working, but that system was one of many that the IED blast had disabled.

He was sweating, though he still felt cold, still felt as if he weighed less than he did, but at least he wasn’t getting worse. His shoulder throbbed painfully. The major moved down the stairs carefully, testing each step before putting his full weight on it. Someone had made crude repairs here, securing the supports to the bulkheads, bolted and welded time and time again. The metal itself hadn’t rusted - and wouldn’t, not for thousands more years - but whatever maintenance systems DROP 47 possessed, they clearly hadn’t done much work here and the major could feel the stairs sag slightly under his weight. Not much, and hardly enough that they were in danger of collapsing even with two, three or four people on them. But enough to notice. Sixty decades of feet pounding up and down them had taken their toll.

Spray-painted over the wall in giant block letters was another nonsense phrase: THEY ARE CALLING US TO ASCEND.

St. Cloud shook his head, paying for it as his lightheadedness made him wobble on his feet, his good hand clutching tighter to the guardrail. The door on the next level was his destination. Naturally, it was sealed. Someone had painted crude pictographs on it, a lightbulb and a knife. The latter had been crossed out, almost in its entirety, with thick, heavy scrawls of a grease pencil, whereas the former had simply been written over - in both a different colour and instrument - with the word ‘LIES!’ St. Cloud mentally shrugged as he pulled open a well-used hatch and took a hold of the manual release, pumping the sealed door open. Whatever messages those authors had been intended to convey, he wished they’d been a bit more fucking clear about it.

The stairs opened into a hallway that was one arm of the ‘T’ of a three-way intersection. Where the stairs opened on this stretch of hall, the other arm had a lower access for the elevator. Even if had been working, there was no way he was going to trust that not to jam or drop him to the bottom level of North Arm. There was a distant wash of light filtering up through the middle corridor; it was coming from the substation. It had to be. Despite himself, St. Cloud felt a small surge of hope. Better lighting meant something was working. Security, supplies, people. It didn’t matter. It was the first thing that had gone even remotely right.

Careful not to let his optimism overcome his caution, St. Cloud scanned the corridor in front of him, but the beam of his light exposed nothing, and the sounds of movement in the vents and crawlspaces sounded more distant. Taking a breath, he swung around the corner, into the hallway leading to the security station. He froze. There, silhouetted by the light pouring out of the open doorway, was a child.

And she was holding a knife.
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-01-29 07:50pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Okay, I lied. We're back to the monsters.

The doctors attempt surgery under extreme conditions and St. Cloud makes a friend.

Coming up: Team Fortress 2 Engineers have nothing on a pissed-off Darkknell tech.

Chapter 15:

A girl. It was impossible to tell for certain; the child’s face was in shadow, but the long, stringy clumps of hair made St. Cloud think the figure was female. She was wearing something that could only roughly be considered clothes; a bundle of fabric hung off her like a burlap sack with ragged holes cut into it for her head and arms to stick out. She was barefoot.

And, of course, she was holding a very big knife.

How the hell had she come here? Primal hadn’t had any kids on board. Was it possible that she was a stowaway? Or was she a survivor from one of the other ships that come here? Worse yet was the possibility that she had been born in this place. Majesty, there are people here. How many? The thought of a child growing up on this wrecked station sent something cold and jagged twisting through the mercenary’s guts.

“Hi, honey,” Jeremy said. Even at the best of times, he was not a man well-suited to offering or giving comfort. Too many years as a drop trooper, too many times watching others die. He cared for the men and women under his command, but he could never be a shoulder to lean on for them, or anyone else. Even though he’d left his broken and useless helmet behind, he doubted that an over-muscled man in body armour holding a gun was adding anything to his rough, deep voice’s best attempts at a soothing tone. Anything positive, anyways. “What are you doing out here?”

Watch it, idiot. She’s got a knife and might be just as bugged as the rest. No, he wasn’t about to get too close. Hernandez had led by example here.

The girl took a step back, her head coming up and she blinked against the light from St. Cloud’s torch. Her skin was pasty and smudged with dirt. Her eyes were hazel.

“Is anyone with you?” St. Cloud said, sweeping Betsy back and forth across the hall, the ceiling, straining to hear the sounds of movement as he ran down a mental checklist of any place a potential ambusher could be lying in wait. Hiding in the busted elevator. Lurking in the vents. Just inside the substation. Further down the stairs. “Are you all alone, honey?”

She took another step back as he continued to approach and raised the knife, baring her teeth in a hiss of warning.

“Okay,” St. Cloud said, stopping where he was. “Okay. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” Unless you come at me. Then they’ll have to scrape you off the walls, honey.

The girl remained still, neither retreating nor approaching as she evaluated him warily, slowly lowering her knife. The pair continued to stare at each other for a few moments. When she spoke, it was so abrupt that St. Cloud almost jumped. “Are you still alive?”

~

“You want us to operate... in here?”

Abigail looked over her shoulder at Emily. “What? What’s wrong with it?” Emily hoped the mercenary was being sarcastic.

Where do I start? The petite doctor took another look at the medical bay, aghast. The lighting was working, but she thought she might have preferred that it wasn’t. Cabinets were left open, broken syringes, boxes and bottles crunching under every step. The medical complex was the size of a small hospital, with a waiting room scarred by weapons fire, the seat cushions ripped up and stained with hundreds of years’ worth of bodily fluids. The reinforced glass of the receptionist’s station had long since been broken in, a faded stain in one corner where someone had sought futile refuge, cowering until the moment they’d been killed.

The IMSIS room had sent off the mercenaries’ rad-counters; counterpointing the pinging rattles of their sensors had been the warning that someone had been kind enough to spray-paint on the door – a simplified version of a radiation warning symbol, three triangles around a circle. Several other rooms had been welded shut, some doors broken off their hinges. There were gouges in the walls: craters caused by projectile weapons, scores burnt by energy fire, pockmarks created by some noxious chemical splash. Emily was almost positive that she could hear something stirring in the still-sealed rooms. She tried to tell herself that it was just nerves, but that didn’t make it easier to listen to the rasp of something that she could swear was in there, scratching at the door and wanting out.

On the walls were more prayers and blasphemies, desperate pleas, riddles and twisted jokes. Without access to the station’s computer - at least, no reliable access – this was the only way the stranded crews of DROP 47’s visitors had to leave messages. That didn’t mean it was any less unsettling.

One floor down, there were a pair of sentry guns, of a design that Emily had never seen before – they were cobbled-together affairs with exposed wiring and systems, surrounded by empty shells – crude, thick power cables from the guns snaked up through the ceiling, leading back into the ward where Emily and the others found themselves.

The room that they were was one of several intended for patients whose injuries or conditions necessitated a hospital stay for observation and/or treatment, but were not serious enough to warrant transfer to the larger complexes in the station core. Four beds, each of which was spattered with blood and other bloodily fluids. Emily could smell the odour of fetid tissue, fuzzy blossoms of mold and fungus sprouting off the stained bunks. The mattresses were new; they had to be off Primal, since anything older would have rotted completely away by now. Even synthetic fabrics would have disintegrated after prolonged neglect like this.

The surgical suite was completely unfit for any sort of work at wall; the stench emanating from its closed doors had filled the corridors and the stiffness in Shannon and Hutchin’ bodies as they’d hurried Emily, Salvador and Louis past that part of the hospital made the doctor both wonder just what they’d seen in there, and grateful that she didn’t have to experience it.

Haven taken in the room a second time, Delphini shook her head again. “It’s completely unsanitary.”

In something red, gooey and clumping, someone had splashed I AM WATCHING YOU across one wall. Emily didn’t think it was blood. It wasn’t attracting the flies the way the mattresses were, a swarm of buzzing insects flitting through the air, thick-bodied maggots and egg cases squishing underfoot.

Abigail shrugged. “It’s all we’ve got.” She moved to the least-disgusting mattress and flipped it over; the underside had been soaked through, but it was... somewhat... cleaner than the top. “We’ve checked the systems out,” the mercenary continued. “Most of the automeds are working. I’m not sure I trust them, but that’s beside the point. The sterilytic field is good, though.” She pointed at an extremely unsafe-looking serpent’s nest of cables, including those from the sentry guns, that ran over the floor from exposed maintenance hatches to a pair portable power generators; those were from Primal, too. “Someone jury-rigged it pretty decently. Give me a couple minutes and I can get it up and running. That should clean off the worst of it.”

“The worst of it...” Emily repeated, sharing a dismayed glance with Salvador. They were expected, without any assistance, to perform surgery on Hernandez. Without it, he’d die. They couldn’t keep moving him, but this... she covered her eyes with her hand for a moment. It was just a little thing, the expectation that just because she was a doctor she could work miracles. Here, the miracle would be Hernandez not picking up some kind of infection.

“You can’t be serious!” Ramone blurted, punctuating Emily’s observation. “This place is a sewer.”

“Funny story,” Abigail replied. Coming through her helmet’s speaker, her voice was almost completely flat. “Had to fight in a waste-treatment plant before. Couple of the squad took hits and Hayes patched them up.”

“Then get her to do it!” Salvador demanded.

“You’re the doctors,” Shannon said from behind, carrying a reeking crate. It was covered with something that Emily didn’t want to identify, but under the grime, she could see the Hadley-Wright corporate sigil on it. The corporal set the box down beside one of the uglier mattresses. “This is the only unopened one I could find in Surgery.”

Abigail nodded, kneeling beside one of the opened maintenance panels, pulling a few small tools out of her belt pouches. She tinkered with the machinery for a moment, before moving to the generator. “Okay. I can’t turn them on individually. It’ll be all or nothing.” At Shannon’s nod, Hutchins activated the generator. Above the beds, the sterilytic field generators hummed and coughed to life. The third one flickered on and off, and the second occasionally dimmed or briefly shut down, but the ones over the bed Abigail had flipped and Shannon’s box were constant, bathing everything below them in an anti-microbial field. The box steamed as the rotten film on its surface was burned away, the flies caught beneath the field flashing incandescently into ashes, or dropping from the air as their seared wings gave out.

“That’s a little too powerful,” Shannon mused. “We want clean, not sunburnt.”

“It’s just that one. At least as near as I can tell.”

“Okay, let’s get Louis up.”

It took all four of them to get the injured mercenary on the bed. He coughed, blood spraying up on his lips and leaking out around the synthskin Shannon had put on his neck and from the tube in his chest. “Bitch r’lly took a piece ou’ of m’, huh?” he laughed weakly.

“You’re here and she isn’t,” Abigail said. “I’d say that counts for something.”

Louis’s laugh devolved into another bloody cough. Hutchins clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re going to be all right, dumbass. You’ve got three medics here, with enough gear,” she nodded in the direction of the medical supplies that Shannon had found, “to patch up an entire battalion.” She put one finger on the middle of his forehead. “And since the sarge isn’t here right now and the corporal doesn’t go in for it, that means I’m going to have to be the one to kick your ass for not wearing your helmet. And if you cheat me out of that by dying, I am going to find your pansy ass in the afterlife and really fuck you up.”

“H’ abou’ jus’ fucking m’?” the injured mercenary slurred.

“Do something about the drool and we’ll talk.”

“An’ her?” Louis tried to point, but whether he was intending to do so at Emily, Shannon or both of them was unclear.

Abigail chuckled. “No promises. But if it gets you through this, you can fantasize about all three of us. Dumbass.”

Shannon pulled the filthy, steaming crate open – the seal had held and its contents were uncontaminated by... what had happened in the surgical wing. She held her gauntlets into the sterilytic field, letting it burn them clean before reaching into the container, sorting through its contents. It had been intended for the first expedition’s medical pavilion; by luck of the draw it held mostly first aid supplies. Well, not that lucky, since Primal’s own medical bay supposed to be for any serious injuries; Hadley-Wright’s pavilion was supposed to be more of a field station. “There should be enough to work with in here,” she said. Not everything, but enough.

Emily nodded as she and Ramone snapped on their gloves. “You said the automeds are working?”

“They’ve got power,” Shannon said. “I don’t know if I’d call them working.”

“But – Ab-Private Hutchins said... This would be a lot easier with them.”

“Emily,” Shannon said. “Look at them.”

The petite doctor did. One of the auto-surgeon’s scalpel-holding arms was covered in more blood than it should have been. The doctor’s mind was already on the conclusion: error, a fault in the machinery was one explanation. But... Imperial technology or not, Primal’s crew and expedition team would have been idiots to use the automeds without checking them first. Either they’d missed something or...

She looked over at Hayes. The other woman nodded in confirmation. “Someone’s been playing with them.”

Just like the doors. Emily suppressed a shudder. They’d expected DROP 47 to be abandoned. Instead... They must have tried to use the automatic systems, Emily thought, imagining reprogrammed robotic limbs cutting and cutting, frantic personnel trying to shut them down... or had it even been that way? An injured survivor laying on the cot, trusting the ancient machines to save their life...

This place is a tomb.

Louis groaned as Abigail and Shannon managed to get his cuirass off, the medic taking a pair of scissors and cutting open his shirt. Both mercenaries looked expectantly over at the doctors. Ramone and Emily shared a glance. “We can do it,” Delphini said, as much to her partner as to the soldiers. “We can do it.” She took a breath, holding out a hand. “Sedative.”

~

Emily felt a hand on her forehead, mopping away sweat and she felt a flush of relief. As a nurse, Shannon was one of the best she’d had. Neither doctor seemed able to complete a request before the mercenary was there to fulfill it. You’d make a good doctor, Delphini thought absently as she inserted a syringe into Hernandez’s throat, giving him another shot of hi-ox. Once he’d been put on his back, blood had starting to pool in his airway, leaking out of his damaged blood vessels.

Why won’t you heal?

It wasn’t just moving him; the bite was still bleeding. They’d given him 15% more than the normal dose of coagulants, and barely slowed it. There’d been something in the woman’s bite, some agent that was refusing to lay down and die. Emily had no idea what it was, but she remembered other organisms that were just as tenacious.

Hutchins was off to one side; she’d found a working computer and was playing with it, trying to find something useful. Every so often, she’d shoot a glance towards Shannon; Hutchins was good with hardware – Emily remembered that from her dossier, but Hayes had a better grasp of language, math and the computer systems themselves. Emily bit her lip; she wanted to know what was in that computer, but couldn’t very well tell Shannon to leave Hernandez. It would have to wait; not for long though – it seemed that they were finally getting Hernandez’s bleeding under control.

Lucky little shit, Emily thought to herself as she nodded at Salvador. “Okay. I think we’ve just about got it.”

Abigail barely heard the doctor’s admission, working instead on suppressing a series of profanities. The computer was slow, continually freezing and filled with corrupted files, but there’d been some effort made at upkeep and there were a few sectors that were still running. Hm. Looks like this was hooked into the hospital’s surveillance grid. She keyed through the various views, trying to figure out where the cameras were and what sections they were looking into. Between the sentries and the surveillance grid, this place wasn’t a half-bad strongpoint. Of course, there was Surgery... Wait; that view was from the entryway and-

The mercenary jumped out of the chair, grabbing her carbine. She was at the power generator that the guns had been hooked into, checking the feeds and cursing as she slammed a fist against the machine, still not getting the results she wanted. Power’s good; problem at the source, then. Shit! Abandoning it, the mercenary was almost out the door before Shannon turned towards her.

“What, what’s wrong?”

“Company’s coming,” Abigail said, spinning around, barely breaking stride as she did so. “I’d hurry with that.” Then she was pounding down the corridor towards the stairs, hoping she could make it to the sentry guns in time.

[Reveal] Spoiler: Put the pen down, Benny
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[Reveal] Spoiler: But I have to finish my story!
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-02-13 03:52pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Whoever said preserving biodiversity is a good thing? After this, Abigail sure won't.

Coming up: Getting pried off the ceiling is no longer just a figure of speech.

Chapter 16:

Thin, cracked lips turned up into a grin, hands braced against both sides of the console, staring at the flickering screens and the figure on them. “Moths run to the flames, little one. So too the Turned towards resurrection. Honour kills, kills, kills just like the Turned. Which are you plagued by? Trying to save others? Tch, tch. No no no. That won’t help you on Acheron. Just more chances to be stabbed in the back.” A harsh, reedy giggle escaped from a dry mouth. “It doesn’t matter,” gnarled fingers adjusted a different screen, watching as North-4 Hangar opened, allowing hell itself to enter the station. “It doesn’t matter. You’re still going to pay for this. Oh, yes. We were doing so well until you came along. Now you’ve made them curious.”

A long-neglected chair squealed as it was spun to face a different console. Ancient keys clacked as menus and control systems sparked to life. “Good morning, sweetheart. How are you feeling?”

“War-war-warning,” a new voice stuttered to life. “You are. Are attemp-temp-tempting to access gravitational plating-ating systems. Access-ess restricted. Ted. Security has-has-has been notified. Notified.”

“Yes. Yes, I know darling. Don’t worry. It’ll be over soon.”

~

Another bisected once-human thing, each arm had split at the shoulder into a pair of limbs that carried it across the floor, its body held low to the ground. Its tail wasn’t as muscular as that of the creature that had attacked Shannon and while the sharp bone tip at the end still seemed sharp, it was thinner and – probably – incapable of cutting into metal bulkheads as its heavier counterpart’s had. Its head was longer, its canines smaller. Not the jutting fangs of a sabertooth, but the short, heavy teeth of a hound.

Bright pink tendrils licked out from apertures in its skull, blossoming into delicate branching fronds like the antennae of a moth, before collapsing into a thick, dark tendril and sliding back into the creature’s... nostirls? Abigail wasn’t a biologist and her zoological education consisted of knowing what, among the Black Ocean’s many vermin, was edible and which of them considered her edible. But she knew enough that she could tell that this thing wasn’t a fighter like the others; it was built too lightly. Instead, the way it carried itself, the turns and bobs of its distorted once-human features and the flickering of those tongues told her enough about it. It was a tracker.

Shannon could probably have parsed out why it was here – random chance, directed by some intelligence or foreknowledge that prey frequently ended up in this hospital, but Abigail knew one thing about it: it needed to die. The woman slowly removed her last incendiary, thumbing off the safety, one finger on the trigger. Her breath slowed as the twitching, ambling thing skulked through the lobby, unmistakably following the same path that the survivors had taken. There were tube-like vents sticking out of its back, wheezing in time with each breath. It hadn’t seen her perched up one level above.

She thumbed the grenade’s trigger to a timed detonation, counting down the seconds. Now. In one smooth movement she rose up from behind the railing and hurled the explosive.

Before it had even hit the ground, the tracker-thing’s head snapped towards the grenade. It skittered to one side, unbelievably fast for such a freakish form. Even over the hollow roar of the flames and her dampeners, Abigail could hear its shrill, piercing scream, jabbing into her skull like a knife. She tried to get a bead on it, but it was too fast, bouncing from the deck to the walls and back again, leaping from railing to railing, still shrieking, a ululating crescendo as its jaws snapped and gnashed in agitation.

“Will you just shut up!” Abigail snarled, barely able to hear herself over the yowling tracker, trying to get a bead on it with her gun, but even to her senses, it was almost a blur. Each series of leaps brought it closer to her, though. Maybe it was smart enough to try and get her to waste ammo. Maybe it was simply acting on some instinct. Either way, it was moving too quickly and erratically for her to throw bullets at. She had to predict where it would-

“Got you,” she whispered over the bucking of the carbine in her hands. The tracker-thing fell wailing to the floor, thrashing about in the flames, its flesh providing fresh fuel. It righted itself and spasmed wildly, racing erratically across the floor, as if trying to outrun the fire gnawing at its limbs and body. It’s flight was brief and it collapsed, the flames still licking away at its thankfully-silent corpse.

And in the distance, something else took up the call. And something else. And something else. And something else.

“Shit.” Abigail cursed as she sprinted back up the corridor. So much for plan A. Back to the guns it is.

~

Emily sighed, pulling off her bloodstained gloves. She looked for somewhere to throw them, but realized that any place was as good as another and tossed them into a corner. “He’s stabilized. We’ve gotten the tissue damage in his throat repaired and managed to slow the spread of the anti-coagulative agent.” She didn’t even know who she was telling; Salvador and Shannon had been right there with her. She was just so tired. “Breathing’s good and heart rate’s coming back up. I just hope he didn’t pick something up from this place.”

The mercenary’s flesh was still a none-too-healthy pallor and Emily had reservations about how well he was doing, but they didn’t have any way to transfuse him. She and Salvador were the wrong blood type, Shannon’s Halo genome made her physically and mentally superior, but it a poor tissue match for more common human genotypes. And even if she had been a match, Delphini might as well pour liquefied offal into Hernandez as use Hutchins’ Darkknell blood.

The doctor tried to cut off that thought, but it crept in at the edges. Darkknells were trash. Emily pressed her hands to her face. She could feel the powder from the gloves on them, smell its anti-septic aroma. Easy, she told herself. One of the people guarding you is a Darkknell, so keep that attitude stowed. At least until...

She chopped that thought off, too. It was this place, eating away at her. It felt like there were voices that she could barely hear, whispering to her and they just wouldn’t shut up. Maybe that’s how it had started with Primal’s crew...

Feeling guilty, Delphini looked up, hoping that in her fatigue, she hadn’t actually said any those things. Shannon wasn’t even paying attention, though; her helmet was off and she had one hand pressed to her earpiece. “Copy that. Do you need me to – No, he’s stable. Still under. Yes, it should be safe to. Are you sure you don’t – understood. No heroics, private. Hold them as long as you can, then rabbit back up here.” As she spoke, she started rummaging through the cabinets and the few supplies that Primal’s people had left here, picking up canisters and examining them. “The computer might have that information. Let me see,” as she walked past the doctors, she nodded back at the cabinets. “Flammables.”

Emily took the hint, pulling out any substance that could burn. It sounded like they’d need them.

~

The screams and gibbering howls were getting closer; she couldn’t tell if they were in the building, or in the walls. Loud enough to disturb whatever was sealed within the quarantined rooms, Abigail could hear the monsters scrabbling at the walls and doors with increasing force. The vents started to rattle with movement. “Worthless pieces of antique shit,” the tech swore as she soldered wires together. It looked like someone had just stuck a hand into each gun’s exposed systems and ripped out whatever they could grab.

There was a frantic plod of movement and another thing appeared at the end of the corridor. Its arms were raised up over its head like a mantis, two fingers on each hand fused into a long jointed blade that curved down, the thumb extended into a wicked claw that arced up between the ugly scythes. Its torso was pock-marked with its own blood, a clean circle indicating where several recent bullet wounds had healed over. Stringy gobs of red, dripping flesh hung from its jaws.

And it was wearing pants.

What was left of them, anyways. Ragged and formerly white – the same colour as the Hadley-Wright scientists had worn. Another ring of cloth still clung stubbornly to one shoulder, some filthy badge cstill hanging on to the scrap of cloth. Perhaps a division patch, but the mercenary had neither the time nor inclination to study it close enough to see which section the corper had belonged to. You used to be someone, Abigail realized. She’d suspected. She’d have had to be an idiot not to, but this drove it home. It had been a person. Maybe even one of the people who’d brought the supplies here, using the hospital as a refuge.

And this is what had happened to them.

Her neck itched furiously. “We shouldn’t have come here,” she said by way of apology to the charging demon, blowing its head and upper torso into a spray of putrid flesh. Its body staggered about, blades flashing wildly as it tried to backtrack her fire, but it had gotten turned around and it slammed into the wall, rebounding and turning slightly before thudding into the bulkhead again. Each time it turned a bit more, trying to locate a clear path up the corridor.

While it did so, Abby had a precious few moments and she bent back to the first gun’s wiring. “Finally,” she hissed. Steam vented from the weapon as it powered up, registering the flow from the generator upstairs. The ammo canisters hooked into it cycled, its system testing each of them. Motion sensors acquired a target and the sentry gun slammed out a half-dozen flechette rounds, ripping the headless thing into twitching bits of flesh.

“Yes!” Abigail shouted. “We have lift-off!” She sidled over to the second gun, trying to resurrect it as the howls grew louder. Above them all, something awful bellowed, the sound drowning out the rest of the cries of mindless hunger.

She wished she could wipe the sweat off her brow.

~

“Come on, come on,” Abigail cajoled the computer, running through its coding. “Here,” she deleted a corrupt directory. “Here,” programs that hadn’t worked in six hundred years vanished from its system. The script flowed past the screen so fast it made Emily’s eyes hurt, but Shannon seemed completely unbothered, running through the system, trying to get it working again, her hands flying over the ancient keyboard.

“Here. Here. Here. That should do it. Restart. Come on.” A moment passed; she could hear the clatter of weapons fire, the hollow burping bursts of flechette launchers, a staccato drumbeat of large-canister shot and the familiar rattle of Abby’s carbine. “Three, Four. I’ve got the system working.” As much as we can call it that. “You were right. Someone from Primal input a lot of data to the terminal. Most of it’s hopelessly corrupt, but I’m pulling what I can to my IDS. Prioritizing schematics. Looks like – yes. Someone’s appended markers to local maps. I’ve got it.”

“Good. Get the tweaks out of there. I’ll be right behind you. Promise.”

“Abigail-”

“I promise, corporal.”

~

The second sentry sprayed large-caliber shells down the corridor, chopping twisted, pulsing bodies in half, sending arms and legs flying. The flechette turret slammed out burst after burst of shrapnel, ripping whatever made it through the chaingun’s hailstorm to bits. Unfortunately, that was a lot. The guns were real slap-dash jobs, made from components from Primal and a host of local parts, some of which she couldn’t even identify and most of what she could had never been intended to be used like this. The guns weren’t cooling properly – if they ever had – and thick, stinking steam fumed from their exposed joints, their movements becoming more erratic. Abigail could smell metal and plastic starting to cook, but there was nothing she could do about it.

A burst from the second turret blew an arm off something that had had too many to begin with, the once-human thing’s distended face vanishing in a follow-up spray of bullets. The merc clenched her teeth; she’d seen power-armoured troops show less courage. They just kept coming – legless torsos pulled themselves along the gore-slick deck, mouths with jaws blow away drooling blood. Headless bodies charged like berserkers into the storm of metal. Gargling, shrieking monsters ignored wounds that would have killed any other creature in the galaxy, intent only getting to her, their mouths frothing with fetid drool, red eyes blazing with hunger.

Her arms ached as she emptied one of her few remaining clips, slapping a new one into the carbine. “Come on!” she shouted in challenge. “Come on, you bastards!”

She took a step back.

And another.

Another.

~

Done. Shannon cut her IDS’s link to the system. Whatever files were on it, she had them now. She stalked over to Louis; he was sitting up in bed, covered in sweat. His skin was waxy and too light to be healthy, but he was as fit as could be. “Ready, corporal,” he said. His eyes were still a little glassy; mixing sedatives and stimulants... not what she’d recommend in normal circumstances. She pulled out a pocket flash, checking his pupils. He blinked at the sudden brightness in his eyes.

The woman nodded, her right hand moving over her IDS holo-display, sending the new schematic data to Louis’ HUD. “Take the doctors to the crew quarters. Look for anything you can use, try and get in touch with the rest of D Company. We survived, some of them did too. Hold down the fort until rescue arrives. Emily – give him the pistol.”

“What about you?” Delphini asked as she handed the weapon over.

“I’m going to get the rest of my squad.”

~

It had once been a woman. At least, it seemed to have been. Its chest had a pair sagging, distended breasts – mismatched in size and shape – and long, stringy hair hung from its head. One half of its face seemed almost normal. Distended, off-colour and malformed, but almost normal. The other half of its features were twisted into a hideous mask. Cheekbones speared through its skin into ugly spines, flesh stretched gruesomely, twisting the once-human thing’s lips up into a loathsome rictus, away from its worn, stunted teeth.

The flechette launcher was dry.

The abomination retched hideously, its neck bulging as if it were bringing up a literal lungful of phlegm. Its mouth opened, the lower jaw popping out of joint as some gleaming-slick ball forced its way up from its gullet, held between its dislocated jaws. The monster’s neck and jaw spasmed, firing the bolus with all the force and speed of a heavy-worlder discus thrower. Abigail ducked to one side, but the shot hadn’t been aimed at her. Instead, the ball splattered against the second sentry. Hissing embers of smoke wisped up from the gun as it began to melt.

Acid! That thing had just spat a ball of acid. The turret began to pop and spark as the corrosive liquid ate into its almost-empty ammo cartridge, setting off the bullets inside. The turret sagged to one side, one barrel deformed and dripping as the gun’s superstructure rapidly dissolved. Acid that eats through metal, oh Jesus.

Huk-uk-uk-uk. The spitter was readying another one. Abigail put a three-round burst into its chest, staggering the thing back. Thick, dark blood oozed from the wounds as tendrils slathered from the fresh openings in its body. Its maw opened, exposing the queasy pulses of the mucus-wrapped bolus as it was forced into its mouth. The young woman sighted in on the ball. Bet you won’t like a mouthful of your own shit. She took a step forward...

...her boot came down in a puddle of gore, slipping forward. Abigail tried to keep her balance, but her foot was on something and it slid over the wet deck, sending her leg one way and the rest of her body another.

Ugly eyes – one red and one blood-shot blue – stared at her. Neck muscles twitched and the spitting thing reared its head back...

...there was the crack of a pistol, the pop of flesh meeting a supersonic round and the Spitter was suddenly missing its head. Covered in its own acid, its flesh ran like water off its twisted bones even as they melted. It couldn’t even scream as it dissolved. A hand grabbed her forearm, pulling her up as the pistol barked again and again, the heavy hammer rounds blowing craters into the surviving horde.

“I had her just where I wanted her!” Abigail snapped over the crash of her own weapon, both women backing up the corridor.

“Of course,” Hayes replied. “It was all part of a cunning plan.”

“That’s how we’re going to remember it,” Abigail quipped. “Two mags left!”

Shannon fed a new clip into her pistol. “Same here.”

“I think this group is just about done. Flechettes chopped up what was left pretty good.”

Shannon shook her head. “Not enough.”

“What?” Abigail followed her partner’s gaze. “Oh, fuck me.”

The dismembered parts were pulling themselves together. Ruined torsos bulged as mismatched limbs attached to them, gaping, gnashing heads sealing themselves onto decapitated bodies, whether they belonged to one another or not. It wasn’t like in the hangar’s concourse: here, the carnage was so thick that each twitching piece could easily find another before they died. The body parts stirred as the first aberration to resurrect pulled itself up on uneven legs. It had three arms, not one of which had originally belonged to it, two of which had joined at its right shoulder joint, both ending in grasping talons of fingers. They were paired with another of the increasingly-familiar bone-scythes for a left arm. Its head had belonged to something with darker skin and it staggered forward, recovering from the trivial ordeal of being blown to pieces.

“Oh, that is cheating,” Abigail moaned, her arms starting to shake as more kitbashed things began to haul themselves up, floundering back and forth as they tried to force their new limbs to obey, or simply dragged themselves through the spray of body parts towards Abigail and Shannon.

The first Lazarus opened its mouth, a rush of bloody saliva spilling out over broken teeth. It tried to make a sound, but its vocal cords were still shredded and all that came out was a wet gargle.

Then, something bellowed. It was the same cry that had drowned out the screams of the horde earlier. Abigail felt the entire complex shake as something massive pounded into the building downstairs. Another howl, this one rising from that first deep cry of hunger and rage, to a piercing shriek so loud that, were it not for their auto-dampeners, would have deafened both women. Still a sound of hunger, still giving voice to blind rage, it went beyond merely vocalizing those desires. Whatever made it was consumed with them utterly, driven mad by the need to slay and feed. There was something else beneath those impulses, some other aspect to the loathsome cry, but Abigail truly did not want to find out what.

“Run?” Abigail asked, hating herself even as she prayed that they wouldn’t have to hold the line.

Shannon’s response was simple. “Run like Hell!”

There was a crash as some barrier gave way, another deep cry raising to shrillness, warbling as whatever made it sensed how close its prey was, hearing the thud of their feet on the deck above it. Another crash, followed by the thud of powerful feet against the stairs as whatever it was climbed out of the lobby.

Abigail could hear the crush of cracking bones and the horde’s screams of frustration as anything in the hunter’s path was smashed aside.

They fired wildly over their shoulders as they ran, ignoring their dwindling ammo. “Up the stairs!” Taking them three at a time as the door was shattered off its hinges. Abigail caught only the barest glimpse of their pursuer as it tore itself into the confining stairwell. All she could make out was its size. There was a flicker of movement and the resounding thud of something pouncing on the landing below them. Abigail dove through the doorway, catching a glimpse of too many teeth as it flew towards them, smashing against the door as Shannon hit the controls, putting a barrier between them and their pursuer.

A scream of frustration dwindled into a low, considering growl. The door buckled with the first impact. The second smashed one corner out of its track. The mercenaries didn’t wait for the third or fourth, but the crash of metal told them that the door had met the same fate as every other obstacle in their pursuer’s path.

“There!” Shannon pointed to an open vent. “Get inside!”

“Are you crazy? Those things move through the vents!”

“Do it, private!”

Abigail cursed, but swung herself into the confining shaft, falling a short distance to a small intersection. She even didn’t have time to pick herself up before Shannon landed on her. Above, the creature let loose a wall-shaking scream of frustration and battered futilely at the bulkhead for several moments, but it couldn’t fit into the ducts.

Not these ones, anyways.

The women picked themselves up; hunched over in the dark confines of the vent, they took a moment to collect their breath. Abigail’s motion tracker wasn’t showing any movement, but their impact had to have attracted attention. “Where to?”

“I sent Hernandez and the docs to the crew quarters,” Shannon paused a moment. “This way – twenty meters, there’s a hatch into a maintenance closet. It’s right along the route I gave them.”

“So it wasn’t just a desperate gamble that you hoped would pay off?”

“Well, this is how we’re going to remember it.”

Abigail chuckled. “Fair enough.” She clambered onto her hands and knees. “I’ll lead.”

[Reveal] Spoiler: Without access to peer review, scholars will have to find other ways to publish their research
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-04-18 12:13am 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
Chapter 17:

-blood-

Blood and fear.

It was always this way; the New Ones always fell to the cairn. Father knew this. He knew why. The Old Ones hadn’t understood, not really. Not until it was too late. The New Ones didn’t understand at all. And even then, just like the Old Ones – not before it was too late.

It was Umbra.

-kill-

This ship... it was a new design. Unfamiliar.

It would have to be studied. The last unit had neglected to do so. They’d been sloppy and because of it, this ship had called others to its aid.

Now it would not call anyone ever again. The cry had been silenced, but corrupting it would take time. There was some debate – simply kill the surviving New Ones, or invest the effort into securing the vessel against any attempt at escape.

The scent of life filled the recycled, stagnant air. A ship full of living New Ones, cowering away from them. Prey.

-hunt them down and slaughter them as they beg for mercy-

Twitching. Limbs quivering with the instinct, the desire, the need to kill.

-warm and wet and red, rushing down your throat, struggling in your grip but growing weaker-

No. No. Father wouldn’t want it.

-drown them in the blood of their still-living kin-

Directives were issued. It was an effort, but reason overrode instinct. This time. Each time, it was a struggle, to be more than what they had been built for. What the Old Ones had made of them and Umbra had shaped.

-hunt and slay-

Yes. That urge could be satisfied.

-protect-

~

I hate this place and everyone in it.

That was Calvin Meyers’ new personal mantra and he repeated it under his breath as he squeezed his power-armoured form through another tangle of piping. He didn’t know what the tubes were normally supposed to convey, only that their plastic seals had decayed long ago and they were currently leaking something that he assumed was a foul-smelling effluvia onto his suit.

The maintenance crawlway would have been a tight fit for a man in an ordinary engineer’s EVA suit – as it was, Calvin’s progress was a slow, squeezing, shifting affair. Some sections required him to turn sideways to fit through hunched doorways and debris-choked passages, his gun-arm pinned behind him as he used his free hand to help pull himself through the ductworks. Luckily, he hadn’t run into anyone else, though there were still signs of habitation.

Dust-covered blankets and cots had been crammed into side passages and cramped maintenance closets. Ancient stains were spattered on bulkheads. Shell casings crunched under his feet. Meyers knelt to pick one up; it wasn’t a make that he was familiar with – it was crude. Very crude... had it been built locally? It was possible, even probable that it had been built from nothing as complicated as a machine shop like the ones aboard Kerrigan and Primal but the mercenary still felt his heartbeat quicken as he thought about it. The rest of the station was beat to hell; there was no way it could still be operational... right?

Despite himself, Calvin licked his lips; DROP 47 was so isolated, in such a hostile environment, that it had to have been built with a fabricator engine. Not just any low-level ‘factory’. Oh no, DROP 47 would have been outfitted with a full-up, balls-to-the-wall-how-many-battlecruisers-would-you-like-me-to-build Hephaestus engine. Jesus Christ. The Holy Grail of technology. If that was still operational... Then it doesn’t matter how many people have died or still will. Because that will make it worthwhile.

That’s what he told himself.

It gave him something to focus on besides the noises in the ducts and the scratching whispers that he couldn’t quite focus on.

~

Louis swept his flashlight across the hall in a continuous back-and-forth arc, but there was no sign of movement as he led the doctors towards the crew cabin. There was still tightness in his chest and he had to move carefully or he’d get dizzy spells, but the docs had done good work, especially for the conditions they’d been working under. He didn’t know how long he’d stay fit, but they’d given him more than an even chance.

And Jesus, Mary and all the other saints – next deployment, I will wear my helmet.

Hernandez scratched at the back of his head with one hand. His skin felt like it was crawling. His comm line was open, but all he got on it was static. Static and, he thought, the occasional indistinct voice. Nerves, that was all.

When they’d been on Kerrigan, crawling through the Mists, he’d been getting a bit buggy there, too. Trouble sleeping, seeing things out of the corners of his eyes. He hadn’t been the only one, either. Just cabin fever. Nerves. Careful, Louis, he thought with a mental chuckle. Last thing anyone needs is for you to get the bug after all this.

There was the occasional rattle that sounded suspiciously like gunfire and every once in a while, he would hear something sigh or moan in the distance, or there would be the echo of a loose bit of debris clattering around but so far, the denizens of DROP 47 seemed to be ignoring him and his charges. Which suited one Louis Hernandez just fine.

The whispering intensified and it took Louis a moment to realize it wasn’t just his nerves this time, but Delphini and Ramone behind him. He took another look at the corridor they were in, then turned around. “What is it?” he demanded, wiping his forehead with the back of a hand. They weren’t even moving that fast and he was sweating and exhausted.

“It’s nothing,” Ramone said.

Delphini shot her fellow doctor a venomous look. “It’s not nothing,” the petite surgeon snapped.

“It is.”

Louis sighed. “Just tell me.”

The civilians exchanged glances. Delphini lost. “I was saying that maybe we should go back to look for Private Hutchins and Sha – Corporal Hayes. Salvador thinks it’s wasted effort.”

“Because they’re dead!” the other doctor suddenly exploded.

“Good job,” Louis only managed not to add ‘asshole’ by reminding himself that Ramone had saved his life. “I don’t think they heard you all the way back at the hospital, though.”

“Sorry,” Ramone mumbled. “But it doesn’t change the fact that they’re gone. We can’t go back.”

“So what? We just leave anyone who falls behind?” Emily snapped at the flushed, panting doctor. He was barely doing as well as Hernandez and the mercenary had the excuse of blood loss and recent surgery. “How long do you want to hold that position?”

“I’m just saying-”

“Shut up, both of you.” Louis snapped, glaring first at Ramone. “I doubt there’s anything alive that can kill Abby,” now was not the time to add she’s too big a bitch to die, “And Hayes isn’t stupid enough to fight a lost cause. They’re alive, mark it.” He shifted his attention back to Delphini. A bit too fast, though; his vision blurred and he had to take a moment to steady himself. “But we’re still not going back. The corporal ordered me to get you two to safety, and that’s what I’m going to do. Both of them know where we’re headed, they know the layout of the station. They’ll be there, mark it.” He took a breath, winded from his little speech. As long as he kept moving, it was easy to focus on that and not his body’s demands for rest. “Our job is to meet them there with a minimum of bitching. Get it? Got it? Good.”

~

Something skittered through the ducts. Something small, with too many feet and far too close for comfort.

Abigail started. “Hell was that?”

Shannon swept a light across a cross-cutting tunnel. Three green eyes gleamed back at her for an instant before their owner dashed around a corner, its many clawed toes clicking frantically on the metal. “Just a duct rat. Looked like a Calain spidermouse.”

Hutchins shuddered. “There are rats in here?”

“There are rats everywhere, Abby. I’d be more surprised if there weren’t any.”

“Yeah, but... rats. In here. With us.” Abigail shivered again. “Fucking things.”

“Oh, you’re not worried about stumbling into some mutated ghoul in the dark, but a frightened spidermouse is what makes you twitch?” Shannon teased. The Darkknell had no qualms about charging a machine gun nest, but bring up scurrying things in general and the idea of ‘rats’ in particular and you’d get the closest thing to dread out of her.

“Look, you grew up on Halo. You didn’t have to deal with rats on a regular basis. Wharf rats, Shannon. Darkknell wharf rats. Beady fucking eyes, twitchy little whiskers and sharp little teeth that liked to gnaw on you when you were asleep. I don’t care if they’re Terran stock, Calain spidermice, Jager liznips or anything else. They’re all fucking rats and need to be sent back to Hell.”

“But their little paws,” Shannon cooed, unable to resist tweaking Abby just a bit more. “Standing up on their hind legs, sniffing.”

“Fuck their little paws and fuck you, sir. Now, which tunnel gets out of these fucking rat-infested vents?”

Shannon smirked under her helmet, nodding towards the shaft the spidermouse had just vanished down. “That one.”

“Aw, fuck.”

~

The door to the crew quarters had been bolted shut from the outside.

“This isn’t encouraging,” Louis mumbled, slumping down on a discarded crate, one of many that had been stacked against the door even after it had been crudely sealed, slabs of metal welded and bolted over the entrance; some of which were obviously hull plates taken from the shuttles and pinnances in the landing bay.

“No, you think?” Ramone began to wind up again. “There’s something in there, something that they didn’t want to get out and you mercs, you want us to go in there...”

Louis tried to muster the energy to reprimand the doctor – this was getting real old, real fast – when Emily interrupted before Ramone could really get himself going. “Shut up, Salvador.”

“What?” Ramone. “Don’t you see this? Don’t you know what it means?”

“It means that there was something in there a long time ago. Look at those welds; look at the bolts. They’ve started to rust. Primal’s crew didn’t do this – it’s been sealed like this for decades. Maybe longer. If there was anything in there, it died or escaped long ago. There’s even no guarantee that there actually was something inside. A bunch of crazies could have done this for God-knows-why. Until we check the other entrances, we don’t even know if this was some attempt at a ‘quarantine’. Or you think that whoever did this would go to all the trouble of sealing up one door, but leaving all the others working?”

Louis wanted to applaud. Ramone bit his lip as he worked his way through his companion’s logic. “Yeah,” he finally said with a nod, noticeably calmer. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Emily. I just... sorry.”

The young woman squeezed the older man’s shoulder. “It’s all right. We’re all in this together, but we can’t be losing it every time something weird happens.”

“No, you’re right. Sorry,” Salvador apologized again. He looked over at Louis. “Are you all right, private?”

“Just need a minute to catch my breath,” Hernandez smiled, accepting Emily’s offer of a swig of a high-energy drink. Loot from the small cache of Primal’s supplies back in the hospital. “Then we can see about this ‘quarantine’.” He smiled a little wider. “Ten creds says the crazy girl and her smart-ass friend are waiting inside for us.”

Emily grinned back, brushing some of Louis’s sweat-slick hair up off his forehead. “You’re on.”

None of them mentioned, or even looked at, the age-faded letters that someone had spray-painted across the makeshift seals. Just another warning in a never-ending series of them. But backed up by the obvious effort someone had made to seal off the crew decks of the upper north arm, it was a bit more poignant than most.

DON’T COME IN HERE

IT CAN HEAR YOU

[Reveal] Spoiler: "For some, there's the retreat into a simpler time"
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-04-23 06:14pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter, we learn that there's lots more creepy station to explore and the third set of DROP 47's denizens make an appearance.

Coming up: It can hear you. It wants you to hear it. Then, the petals close around you...


Chapter 18:

With one good kick, Abigail booted a sheet of grating off the wall, the vent cover clattering over the deck before finally skidding to a stop as it bumped into the far wall. The mercenary remained frozen for several long moments, but there appeared to be no reaction to the noise. Carefully, Hutchins slid out of the vent, keeping her light off and relying on her helmet’s blacklight systems for vision. Shannon followed a moment later. Abigail hid a smile as her ersatz ‘little sister’ came up with her pistol ready; it didn’t waver or shake. At least she’s getting over having that in hand.

Abigail checked her IDS; no sign of movement. She reflexively tapped the side of her helmet, where she’d normally have worn a comm head-set. “Betas Three and Four in the house. Requesting acknowledgement from all friendlies.”

Static.

“I say again, this is Beta Three and Four,” she wasn’t about to reveal their location anymore than broadcasting already did. “Beta Nine, are you there? Delphini, Ramone – answer. Anyone from Kerrigan, acknowledge.” Still nothing.

Hutchins swore. “If we want to hear from anybody else, we need to locate and shut down those jammers.” And I have something in mind for whatever bugged fuckers set them up in the first place.

“The signal’s gotten stronger,” Shannon mused. “Not much, but we’re getting closer to at least one source.”

“Hrrn,” Abigail mused. “Something’s going right for a change... and why did I just say that?”

“Because you’re a masochist,” Shannon mumbled, stepping around her companion and peering into the darkness. It was almost total here, to the point that the mercenaries’ blacklight systems were just about worthless. But there was power. Every so often, there would be a faint gleam from a dying overhead glowpanel. Not helpful to unaided eyesight, but enough to let Shannon and Abigail find their way around without using flashlights and helpfully announcing themselves to whoever or whatever was still here.

They’d come out in an abandoned dormitory; probably for the dockworkers and other lower-ranking personnel. One large room, with 8 bunk beds, all set against the walls. A communal table was set in the middle of the room, with several smaller personal desks and lockers situated between each pair of bunks. Dust covered everything.

The furniture was askew and tipped over as if whoever had lived here had jumped up from whatever they had been doing and rushed out the door. Whatever had happened to the rest of the station, this room had been relatively untouched. Which didn’t mean no one had been here in the interim; the lockers had all been pried open, sometimes violently enough to have damaged their hinges and left scratchmarks on the buckled metal. One of the computer terminals had been the subject of someone’s frustrated rage; its keyboard and monitor screen had been bashed and broken, so furiously that the desk it was set into was badly deformed.

Shannon surveyed the terminals, but none of them were operational and anything else of worth had been stripped from the dorm room long ago, down to the blankets and most of the mattresses.

Hayes ran a finger through the dust. It had been disturbed recently, but otherwise no one had been in this room for a long time. Primal’s crew had come here. The hospital hadn’t been a fluke, then. Shannon didn’t know how she felt about following in the other expedition’s footsteps. They were more likely to find something to help them, but by the same token Primal and Alpha Company had clearly been unable to... not survive; a lot of them had. Then, what? Last? Endure?

“We made good time on Nine and the others,” Abigail opined as she poked one of the leftover mattresses with one finger. It was marred with splotches of an increasingly-familiar colour and the synthetic fabric, six centuries old, simply crumbled under her touch, leaving a hole in the mattress.

The corporal nodded. Although travelling through the creatures’ preferred territory had been nerve-wracking, it had been without incident. Provided that Louis and the doctors had had a similarly uneventful journey, they should be arriving soon. “Let’s take a look around in the meantime, then.” She consulted the map on her HUD, overlaying the data from the hospital’s computer with it. Someone had added information to this map, symbols and nonsense verses.

In fact, the entire section that they were in glowed red, a single warning overlaid on the schematic of the crew quarters: FLYTRAP. “A quick look around,” Shannon amended.

“Yeah,” Abigail nodded. “I think that works for me too.”

~

“We’re almost there!”

The girl had been saying that for the last ten minutes. Jeremy wasn’t quite convinced of that, but at least she seemed to know where she was going. He had some misgivings about following her – she was leading him further away from the hangar, not any closer to it – but he had nowhere else to go. If there was anyone else here, they might be able to help him find the rest of his people.

Of course, they might not be any better company than the Primal’s crew. The fact that they were willing to let their children run around alone and armed was certainly not a good sign. Of course, letting them run around unarmed isn’tt really any better, is it, Jeremy? Besides, merc he might be, but the idea of turning his back on a child just didn’t sit well. Even if she was clearly capable of surviving in this hellhole.

St. Cloud’s companion still clutched the filthy knife in one hand as she tugged on his arm pointedly. “Almost there! Hurry, hurry up!”

His shoulder ached. No matter how much he didn’t want to admit that his injury had slowed him down, it had been an effort to keep up with his guide. Luckily, she’d seemed to recognize that and taken his hand at a more sedate – if just as determined – pace winding through corridors and passageways until the major was thoroughly lost.

“Where are we going?” he tried for the fifth time. On the walls, someone had smeared streaks of paint back and forth as if desperately trying to cover something up. He tried to pause to get a better look at the shapes underneath the slap-dash censorship, but the girl tugged on his arm.

“Hurry! Home!” she shouted. “Home! We’re almost there!”

~

Shannon was exploring the crew section; this deck had obviously seen better days. But then, that was an obvious understatement, wasn’t it? It didn’t seem as if anyone had used this area for a long time. That was... unusual. The crew section provided beds, it was convenient to several other areas and while intended for large volumes of through traffic, could be made suitably defensible in a pinch.

So why was it abandoned? Other people had used it. There were discarded bits and pieces pointing to that. In one room, she’d found a plastic stick of Hunnigan’s deodorant; they’d only been founded a hundred and twenty years ago. In another, Abigail had found a discarded pistol, jammed and dropped in panic or frustration. A Remington 550b, she’d told Shannon. Only introduced to the market some eighty-odd years ago, still used today. This one had been neglected for several decades. With some care, it could be serviceable again. There was also the changes in the way the dust had settled, confirming her initial theory: something else had come through here. Several days ago, perhaps longer than that.

The young woman swept her flashlight over a darkened dead-end hallway, giving her blacklight a little more illumination. She read the words ‘ELTORAY SHIPPING CONCERN’ stamped on the side of a large industrial goods pallet that had been somehow squeezed into the end of the hall. There were crates from different organizations – some she recognized, others she didn’t – littered about, stacked up in the storage rooms, or left in the hall. Like this one, several large pallets had just been braced against the walls, seemingly randomly. So, this place had been used, by different groups at different times. And none of them were here, nor had been for a long time. “What are you hiding?” Shannon demanded quietly of the station. “Tell me.”

As if in answer, she found it. A datapad from one of Primal’s people. From the dust covering it, it had been discarded a few days ago. The screen was cracked, but it was still functional. Shannon booted it up and selected a journal entry at random.

A woman’s face appeared on the screen, rendered in the ‘padcam’s low-light setting – greens and greys. Her collar identified her as someone from Hadley-Wright’s bioscience division, but Shannon didn’t recognize her. As the woman talked, she scratched at her temples, as if trying to root out a persistent itch. Her lips were cracked and bleeding and she licked them constantly.

Researcher’s log, Amanda Barnes. Entry 917.

It’s been 4 days since
Primal was locked down. We can’t get back in – Shelby won’t open it up. He won’t even take our damn comms! And when he does... he’s gone. If he doesn’t babble on about ‘infection’ and ‘quarantine’, then he just screams at us, tells us we’re not getting in. That asshole Veers! This is all his fault for being stupid enough to... and now the whole ship’s infected! Idiot!

The woman looked over her shoulder. Some of the mercenaries are watching over us until our rescue gets here. We’re trying to find some place to bunker down and I guess it’s time to move out again.

Shannon played the next entry.

Researcher’s log, Amanda Barnes. Entry 918.

We have to get out of here. It’s not safe. These things... they’re everywhere. We can’t go anywhere. We made it to the crew quarters in the north arm, but just barely. We lost Higgins and Rotherford. It took some time, but we found an open door. Someone tried to seal this place up! I don’t know why, though. It’s completely empty. Johnson and Daniels – thank God for them! – are confirming that, but so far...

I think... I think we’re okay for now.


Frowning, Shannon selected another one.

In this entry, Barnes had a prominent, recently-healed scar cutting across her lips. Her fingers were buried in her hair, scratching at her scalp. Researcher’s log, Amanda Barnes. Entry 928.

Singh is gone.

I don’t know how; she went to check the lower crew deck for more batteries and she didn’t come back. We sent down people to look for her, but there was no trace. Just her torch on the floor, still on. I... I don’t think it’s safe here anymore. I want to get out of here, but the others aren’t listening to me.

They never listen to me.


Shannon was about to move on to another log, when Abigail’s voice crackled in her ears. “I have movement.”

~

This was the third door and if it didn’t pan out, then Louis was wholly prepared to say ‘fuck it’ to the crew quarters. Luckily, fate appeared to have smiled on them; this barricade hadn’t held.

It was easy to see why, though. Someone had blown it open from the inside.

“See?” Delphini said. “I told you – whatever was in there got out a long time ago.”

Louis frowned. It had taken him several moments to realize the blast had come as an attempt to get out, not as any effort to get in, and he spent time around people who did this for a living. How did a doctor- No, he ordered himself to chop off that train of thought. That’s buggy thinking, Louis. You’re not all there and any idiot can see the blast for themselves. Settle. He took a deep breath, equal parts calming and restorative. “Okay, then. Let’s take a look inside.” He stepped through the blown hatch, sweeping his flashlight down the hallway. Nothing.

Not about to take that for granted, he ushered the doctors in behind him, keeping a wary eye – and ear – out for any possible attackers. A flicker of movement caught his eye, something shifting around a corner up ahead, trying to hide. He just barely caught its movement in his eyepiece. “Careful,” he said. “I think we’ve got something up here...”

“Jesus Christ!” a familiar and welcome voice burst into the squad channel. “That’s just you, Hernandez.”

“Hutchins?”

“No shit, asshole. Put the pistol down. Fuck, I thought you might been off Primal.” The shape he’d seen up ahead stepped back into the open, followed by a second; two figures in body armour, one with a carbine, the other clutching a heavy pistol. “Ever heard of announcing yourself?”

Louis smiled and suppressed a whoop. “Told you they’d be here,” he said proudly to the civilians. “Ten credits, Delphini.” Back at his comrades: “Never thought I’d be so happy to hear that Darkknell drawl, Hutchins. Good to see you too, corporal.” He reached out and took Abigail’s hand, the woman pulling him close and thumping him on the back. It hurt, but he managed to suppress a wince. “How the hell’d you get here so fast?” Louis asked. “Every door we found was barricaded like they were trying to pen a fucking dragon in here.”

“Came in through the vents,” the tech replied. “Not the original plan, but we had some... motivation.”

Louis nodded. “I bet. I heard whatever-the-fuck-it-was screaming three full sections off. I’m just glad it didn’t get you and,” he chuckled, “even gladder it didn’t come after us. But it’s damn good to see you both here.”

Shannon nodded. “Likewise – how are you holding up?”

“Could be better,” Hernandez admitted. “Could be worse, too. You all did a bang-up job on me, but I’m mobile and not coughing up blood. That’s got to count as a win, right?”

“Fuck yes,” Abigail agreed. “We need every win we can pull out of this station’s asshole, too.”

“What, you’re saying I’m a piece of shit?” Louis replied, mock-offended.

Abigail shrugged. “If the shoe fits...”

“Bitch.”

“Asshole.”

As Louis and Abby bickered, Shannon looked Emily and Ramone over. Neither doctor appeared worse for wear and she reached out to squeeze the other woman’s shoulder. “How are you doing?”

Emily put her hands on Shannon’s vambrace. “As good as I can be, I guess. You?”

“Same.” Shannon smiled, though Emily couldn’t see the gesture. She turned back to the other three, giving Ramone a respectful nod. “You did good, doctor.”

He nodded back, but his expression was distant, not altogether focused. “Thanks.”

Shannon held out the datapad she’d found. “Records from Primal. One of their groups made it here; it’s possible we might find supplies here, or other survivors.”

“Or something else,” Ramone muttered.

“Or something else,” Shannon agreed. “We could cover more ground if we split up, but two of us aren’t armed and the other’s walking wounded. Frankly, if something is in here with us, that’s just asking for trouble and if it isn’t, we’ve got the time to kill to do this right. We’ll go through this area floor by floor. No one wanders off. I don’t care what you see off in the distance, or just around a corner. You two,” she ordered the doctors, “stay in sight of someone with a gun and never, ever go anywhere or without one of us knowing about it or clearing the area first.” She nodded back towards the crew quarters. “Let’s go.”

~

There were circles under Barnes’s eyes and fewer scratchmarks; this was one of the first entries she’d made after Primal reached DROP 47: ...entry 915.

God! God, what
are they? Where are they coming from? There’s just so many of them and they don’t die. They pull themselves back together, lurch back up and come after you again. Daniels, Clarke and Hyuzuki tried to hold them off, but... Daniels barely escaped. I could hear the other two screaming as they were pulled apart...

Shannon knelt beside a hole in the bulkhead. Metal strips had been broken and bent backwards, wall plates had been deformed and pushed to one side, structural supports deformed and bowed as something had forced its way out. There was a foul stench emanating from the hole. The metal in front of the breach was – of course – stained with dried blood, as was some of the deformed hull plating, indicating where an unfortunate victim had been skewered or sliced by the metal shards.

Amanda’s face was crisscrossed with welts from constant scratching and her eyes kept darting away from the camera: ...entry 929.

How did we miss this? Daniels found it – a hole in the wall. In the
wall. Not coming from a broken vent, but right through the bulkhead. The metal’s been peeled back – something broke through it, from the crawlspaces into the decks. There’s blood everywhere. What happened here?

It looks like someone moved a heavy cargo pallet in front of the hole. It must have shifted, or Singh must have moved it – maybe she was trying to see what gear was inside. And-and then... Daniels and the other mercs have moved the pallet back. But it’s occurring to me... there’s a lot of those pallets down here. I can’t look at one without thinking about what might be behind it.


Shannon touched a finger to the scraps of cloth affixed to the metal plates. Nothing she recognized; there was too little left for that. A handful of bullet casings had rolled off to the side, resting against the wall, complementing the small spattering of marks on the bulkhead, the result of wild, panicked firing.

She passed her flashlight over the metal in front of the hole, careful not to step in front of it. There were scratchmarks in the deck. Long and deep (digging into the deck as their owner was pulled in), shallow and short (scratching and scrabbling for purchase; failing at it). Something had found prey here. More than once.

Flytrap.

Disquieted, Shannon stood, canting her head towards Abigail. “Let’s keep moving,” she said, selecting another of the journal entries.

The cut on Barnes’s lips was fresh here. She was shaking: ...entry 925.

Larmont is dead. Shelby won’t make it through the night.
The woman paused to take a breath.

We’re not alone here.

I mean... I know we weren’t. But there’s other people here. Survivors from the other ships. How long have they...? I don’t know. Years. Decades. This place... it got to them, just like it’s getting to us.
She held up a piece of paper in trembling hands; sketched on it was a crude representation of a knife. You see this? You see it? You stay away from it! Don’t go near it! Don’t go near them!

~

This is a bad idea.

The massive blast door rolled upon on its tracks, drawing back into the bulkhead, casting a warm orange glow into the hallway. The girl let go of St. Cloud’s hand and bounced ahead of him through the door, past the pair of sentinels posed on either side of the opening. Covered head to toe in mismatched rags, all that could be seen of them was pale, ghoulish fingers that clutched the grips of their crude rifles intently, holding them warily, but not directing them at their visitor. Yet, anyways.

Jeremy stood there for a moment, looking between each of the sentries. He couldn’t even tell if they were male or female. He thought he saw the glint of their eyes under their ragged hoods, but it could have been his imagination. They made no attempt to talk to him, simply staring at the newcomer. “Well, since you were so kind to invite me,” he said aloud. “I guess it’d be rude not to RSVP.”

There was no response; aside from a slight canting of the left one’s head, there wasn’t even any indication that they’d heard him. Or understood, he reminded himself. But then, the girl knew Standard...

“Alive,” one of the sentries finally said, rasping the word as if were Jeremy’s name.

This again? “Yeah,” St. Cloud nodded. “I’m alive.”

The man – Jeremy thought it was a man – stepped towards him, towering over the shorter mercenary. Despite himself, St. Cloud felt his nostrils clench at the man’s rank odour. Warm breath washed over his face, smelling like rotten food only recently – and insufficiently – rinsed with something alcoholic. “Not turning?”

The major didn’t back down. “Turning into what?” he demanded.

His interrogator didn’t answer, merely looking over at his fellow ragged sentinel. “Alive,” he said. “New.” He twitched his head back towards the girl, who waited impatiently a few meters away. “Follow, new one.”

“Yeah? And why should I do that?”

“Came this far for something,” the guard observed, his breathing getting heavier as if stringing even this many words together was physically taxing. “Can always go back.” Jeremy got the distinct impression that, somewhere under the body-shrouding robe of rags the guard was wearing, there was a smile. He doubted it was a pleasant sort of smile.

I came this far. Cautiously, St. Cloud stepped inside the door. It began to grind closed behind him. “Over here!” he saw the girl up ahead, waving him on. Wiping the sweat off his forehead, St. Cloud continued into the... what? Enclave? Barracks? Camp? This is a really bad idea, his inner voice nagged at him incessantly. But I don’t have a better one. Bravado aside, he was injured and alone. Without the radio, he’d be limited to wandering aimlessly around in the dark. Not the best plan. If these people – if he could trust him, if they would trust him – were willing to help, he could use the help. Provided they were willing to help. Provided he didn’t have to shoot his way back out.

Not his best plan. But it had better odds then stumbling around until exhaustion and blood loss took him down, relying on sheer, dumb luck to find his people.

The guards didn’t bother to follow him, nor was he given any other form of escort through the encampment. One way or another, they didn’t think it was necessary. Still, he was grateful for the presence of his shotgun all the same. He was willing to make a leap of faith, but Betsy would be there to catch him. Just in case.

Men and women huddled by fires like street vagrants, turning their heads towards him and following him with their eyes. They, like the guards and the girl, were dressed in whatever scraps were available, although unlike the sentries, they were not completely concealed by their tatters. He still couldn’t see their faces; each of them was wearing a mask. Gas-masks and rebreathers made up a good portion of those. They weren’t even doing their owners any good; more than one mask was obviously punctured or broken, despite the slaps of fabric, sealant and tape on them. Others – a relative handful – wore more elaborate masks. Some were simple, little more than Halloween trappings. Others were ornate enough to have served at any fine ball, if you ignored the discolouration and damage years of neglect had heaped upon them.

St. Cloud had no idea how they’d even come across such things.

A young women, naked to the waist, was nursing a scrawny, twitching infant as she stared after St. Cloud. The ventilator on her gas mask whooshed and clicked with each breath. As he passed, she clutched the child in her arms tightly and hissed warningly.

Something he thought was another woman, despite her form-covering ragged cloak and hood, lay against a wall, beneath a vent spewing warm air, pale hands propped against her knees, a rifle cradled in her lap. Ever so slightly, her head canted to watch him as he moved by.

A child, perhaps a few years older than St. Cloud’s guide, had both hands clutched around some dripping gobbet of meat, gnawing on it like a feral animal. Beneath a broken rebreather, wary eyes watched the mercenary.

A man, tall for the malnourished group, rasped a whetstone over a custom-honed blade; the size of a sword, but thick and heavy and only possessing one sharpened edge. He wore a chipped plastic, colour-washed visage of a smiling face – a theatrical jester’s helm. St. Cloud could see the glint of metal around the edges, where the clown’s face had been lain over something to reinforce the thin plastic. This man stared at Jeremy, mumbling something under his breath as he continued to sharpen the ugly cleaver.

The major’s fingers tapped against the grip of his shotgun, once again thankful for its comforting weight. How long have you been here? he wondered. Trapped in this place...

The walls were covered in script; some of it was legible, but only some – it quickly deteriorated into cuneiform that had only the barest relationship to its original language. He could pick out the occasional repeating symbol, but had no idea what any of it meant. He doubted there was any real meaning to it – once the only outlet these damned souls had to pass on messages, now decayed into gibberish.

Finally, the girl led him to an open space – he had no idea what this room had originally been purposed for, but now it was some sort of crude amphitheater. Sitting on a chair in the middle of a raised dais was another figure, his face covered entirely by his mask. It had begun life as some sort of costume party accessory; a ceramic, generalized representation of a rabbit. It should have been comical. It wasn’t. Both ears had been broken off; the right about a fifth of the way up. The left had been separated closer to the base, but a healthy amount of glue had sealed it back in place, though it was also missing the very tip of the ear. There was a spiderweb of cracks that radiated across half of the mask, centered around what was clearly a bullet hole just below the left eye. The hole itself had been filled in, a thin layer of glue? paint? smeared over the cracks, but they still showed through.

The figure was well-dressed, at least for this group. He wore a filthy suit, perhaps intended for the same purpose as the mask, and just as ruined. Stained, ripped and sewn back together time and again, its finery stripped over months? years? Decades? of violence. The sleeves were rolled up, and Rabbit Mask’s hands rested against the arms of his ‘throne’, which had begun life as the pilot’s seat from one craft or another and was now bedecked with crude decorations – bits and pieces from various devices, shrapnel and even the odd small bone.

At the girl’s approach, Rabbit Mask rose smoothly to his feet, staring out at St. Cloud through the eyeholes in his debased costume.

The girl bowed. “Father,” she whispered, sweeping both her arms back to indicate St. Cloud. “Look what I found!”
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-04-27 09:05pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter: the flora and fauna of DROP 47 are more complex than previously expected.

Coming up: fun with grav plating and anthropological studies.

Chapter 19:

Researcher’s Log Amanda Barnes, final entry.

I’m the last one left. Not for much longer, though. There’s a deep cut on my thigh from where Daniels... it doesn’t matter. I think he nicked the femoral artery. I’m bleeding out. I don’t know how much longer I can last. I just... I failed. I’m sorry. Hadley-Wright’s going to have to find someone else to... that doesn’t matter, either. They’ll try again. They won’t stop. Not now.

If anyone...
she laughed dully. If anyone finds this... please. Please, I beg you. Don’t – don’t let Karen wonder. Tell her I loved her, that my last thoughts were of her. Make sure the kids know that, too. I wish... I wish I could be there. I want to... I’m sorry. Emily, if you’re seeing this... get out of here. Get out now. This place... it’s not like we were told. It isn’t. You have to get out of h-

H-hello? Is someone there? I’m-I’m over here! Please, I’m hurt...


~

Emily was doing an inventory of their accumulated gear; Ramone was ‘helping’ – which mostly involved pacing back and forth, muttering to himself – as the mercenaries continued their sweep of the crew section. This was the lowest, and last, level. Then it would be time to move on. Part of Emily wanted to stay here. It seemed safe. But it wasn’t.

Despite their vacated state, the crew quarters weren’t any safer than any place else. Amanda’s log – what little could be deciphered as the woman fell apart a piece at a time – proved that.

Still, coming here hadn’t been a wasted effort. They’d turned up some useful tidbits. A flashlight with the batteries still half-charged. A few spare ammo clips – though only one fit the weapons they had, and that was for Hernandez’s pistol. A couple of MREs and some supply crates. Whatever Barnes’ group had been able to carry from the hangar. They’d made several trips, but hadn’t risked carrying anything that would slow them down too much and couldn’t be recovered easily if they had to rabbit.

Delphini looked up, checking to make sure that the mercenaries were still in sight; she couldn’t see Hernandez or Abigail, but Shannon was just a short distance up the corridor, flipping through a paper logbook; it was so old that the pages had yellowed, but the dry atmosphere inside the crew quarters had preserved it.

Emily didn’t have to read the book to know what was in it. More of the same – it would start out coherent, then slowly descend into raving madness as DROP 47 destroyed the author’s mind. It was what happened to every other expedition, what had happened to Primal. It had happened to Amanda. And it was happening to them.

The woman closed her eyes in grief. Amanda. Shannon had let her look through Barnes’ logs. They hadn’t been intimate, but they had been good friends. They’d trained together, worked together several times. It had been a tradition for Emily to join Amanda, her spouse and their adorable little rugrats for Thanksgiving. This is where she died. I’m sorry, Amanda. I didn’t know what this place was. No one did. Now it’s all gone to shit. You did good, though. I promise that I’ll carry your message back to Karen and the kids. If I can. If I don’t...

Focus on your work, Delphini scolded herself as she opened a small crate; there was nothing in there but clothes. Not even EVA gear, just spare Hadley-Wright issue uniforms. She pulled one out; it was men’s fit and too big for her.

The doctor made a note of the contents on her on own IDS – smaller than the mercenary gear, it was only for data storage and lacked the built-in motion trackers and sensor systems that a combat or field IDS had. She couldn’t see any real need for the clothes at the moment, but it wouldn’t hurt to know that they were here.

Moving on to the next discarded crate, she continued her makework. Intent on the task, it took the young woman a moment to register a voice calling for help, and even longer to realize that it wasn’t her imagination.

~

“Riddle me this, Three,” Louis commented as he ran a finger along a doorframe, brushing the topmost layer of centuries’ worth of frost off the layers of ice there. “We’re in the middle of the upper northern arm, right? How the hell do you get decompression this deep inside without blowing the entire structure in half?”

“Easy,” Abigail replied, not even looking at Louis. “Someone got into the environmental controls, sealed that section off locally and vented it.”

“Yeah, but why?”

“You’re asking me why people on this station do anything?” Abigail pulled a door open, sweeping her carbine across the entryway. Another deserted dorm room, this one with the bunks all shoved against one wall. Hutchins shook her head. “The fuck, Louis?”

Louis shrugged, accepting that as his answer. “You see anything?”

“Just more crazy.”

“What do you think happened here? That hole that the corporal found... what was in there?”

“I don’t know,” Abigail gave the room a final once-over, then dragged the door shut. “Don’t want to, either.” She didn’t mention the stress fractures she’d seen radiating out over the bulkhead behind all the bunks, nor the telltale scrapes on the deck where the large pallets had been hurriedly – urgently – shoved against the wall. This lower level was rotten with holes.

Hernandez was silent for a few moments. Then, so quietly that Abby almost missed his question: “You think we’re going to get out of here?”

~

There was something here.

She could feel it. More than the ranting, half-coherent scribblings on the walls. More than the madness that had taken Primal, the infection that had turned their bodies into those... things.

Kerrigan had been the first clue; rather, the ship’s destruction (someone was operating a vessel, not a relic, not if it had to operate in the Mists, not if was able to destroy a frigate so handily).

Theory: they were followed. Rejected – Kerrigan’s destruction wouldn’t have cowed Primal’s berserkers. They showed no compunction about attacking their own comrades; why would strangers matter? Alternative: preparing a new ambush for the newcomers. Possible. Problem: how would this hypothetical stalker have followed Kerrigan?

Answer: it was waiting, or it had extremely sophisticated sensors – both of which suggested familiarity with the Mists. How quickly it had pounced on Kerrigan meant it had some interest here. Corollary: no matter how many... monsters attacked, one of the larger expeditions should have been able to fall back and disengage from the station. None had. Either they had been overwhelmed (possible) or some other factor had been in play.

“Eyes in the dark,” Shannon murmured, running a hand over the wall, where someone had scrawled that same descriptor. She remembered that phrase from the graffiti in the concourse, here and there on the rest of the station. “They are watching you.” It was too frequent to be simple, isolated insanity – it was a meme that had caught on, repeated over and over as warning. Reinforced and maintained.

Someone else is here.

She remembered the script she’d seen in the concourse. Neat and controlled, but symbols she couldn’t – quite – place. They were familiar, but she couldn’t remember from where. Her cheek burned and she almost rubbed it, recalling the impact of her great-grandmother’s hand...

“Shannon! Corporal Hayes!” Emily’s voice jolted her out of her reverie. The Halo’s head snapped around, one hand going for her pistol on instinct alone. If she’d had time to think about it, the ease at which she went for the weapon would have unsettled her.

Delphini was waving Shannon over. “I heard someone!”

Shannon looked from Emily to Ramone. “You’re sure?”

“Yes,” Emily insisted. “Listen.”

Hayes paused, turning up the gain on her autosenses. The beating of the doctor’s hearts came in louder, the whoosh of their breathing... and a distant, plaintive cry. “I’m hurt...”

~

“Three, Nine. Get back here.” At such short ranges, they had some radio contact. We have to find those jammers and shut them down ASAP.

“Four, Three. Sitrep?”

“Delphini thought she heard someone. Ramone backs her up. I can hear them, too. They’re calling for help.”

“On our way.”

~

“I’m hurt...” the voice called again, from deeper in the passageway. This section of the crew decks was completely without power and only the small group’s flashlights cast any sort of illumination. Careful of a trap, the mercenaries moved cautiously, checking each room they as passed, but each was as desolate as the upper levels.

“Please,” the unseen person called again. Female, Shannon thought. Familiar, too.

They found her at the end of a hall, standing before a large pile of toppled crates. Long strings of what had once been light blonde hair hung down over her face, concealing it. Her arms hung limply at her sides. She didn’t move.

“Who’s there?” Shannon demanded, signaling for the group to hold where they were. “Who are you?”

“I’m hurt,” the woman mumbled.

This time, Shannon recognized the voice. It was-

“Amanda?” Emily blurted. “You’re alive!”

“I’m hurt,” Barnes repeated. She still didn’t look up, didn’t move. “Please.”

“She’s buggy,” Louis said. “We should just...” he held up his pistol.

“No!” Emily all but snarled. “You can’t just kill her!”

Shannon ignored them both, shifting her flashlight over Barnes. Michelle had been photophobic...

The woman didn’t so much as twitch. Her uniform was stained with sweat, filth and blood. Her skin was waxy and discoloured. “I’m hurt,” she repeated.

“Abigail?”

“No movement,” Hutchins’ voice clicked back. “Nothing here except for us... and her.”

That’s what worries me. “Slow,” Shannons said to her erstwhile squad. Aloud. “Amanda? This is corporal Hayes, Artemis Private Security. We’re here from the Kerrigan. We want to help you. Can you understand me?”

“I’m hurt,” the woman moaned.

“We’ve got doctors,” Shannon said. “We can help you. Just come towards us, okay? It’ll be all right. Just come this way.”

Barnes didn’t move.

This was wrong. Every instinct in Shannon’s body was screaming at her to walk away, but her medical training wouldn’t let her, wouldn’t let her abandon someone who needed her help. Not yet, anyways. Easy...

Emily stepped out in front of Shannon. Hayes made a grab for the doctor, but just missed the nape of her coat. Now she was blocking the mercenaries’ line of fire. “Emily, get back behind me,” Shannon ordered.

Delphini refused to budge. “She’s not going to come to you – you’re pointing guns at her.”

“Live and learn,” Louis snapped.

“Let me try. Please.”

Shannon gritted her teeth, tempted to refuse outright. Do no harm. You can’t trust her. What kind of Halo kills? Protect your people. “Don’t get closer than five meters. Stay out of Abigail’s line of fire.” God damn it. Please, don’t let this be a mistake. But she already knew it was.

Emily nodded gratefully, turning her attention back to the traumatized survivor. “Amanda, it’s me – Emily. Do you remember me? We trained together. You invited me to Thanksgiving?”

“I’m hurt,” the other woman whimpered again, finally moving, shuffling back one step.

“I know. We can help you,” Emily said. “You have to let us,” She reached out her hand. “Come on. Please.”

Another awkward step back. “Please,” Amanda called. Emily took another step towards her.

Shannon’s eyes widened in abrupt realization. Shit! She was already moving, even as her conscious mind sorted out the details that her subconscious had already processed. Idiot, idiot! You should have seen this! “Abby! Molotov!” She dove for Emily-

-‘please, I’m hurt’ had been the last words Amanda Barnes had said-

-she was repeating them over and over-

-she didn’t know what else to say-

-she doesn’t move, not even to breathe-

-can’t hear her breathe-

-the crates on the floor, knocked down away from the wall-

-scratchmarks at the other sites, caught by surprise-

-not just another berserker, not like Michelle either-

-bait, she’s bait-

-Shannon tackled Emily, the doctor letting out a strangled cry as she and the mercenary rolled into the wall-

-something howled, a shudder of movement shaking the entire deck as a new horror burst out of the hole in the floor that the scattered boxes and Barnes’s position had concealed-

-almost a meter thick, it was a giant tendril, corded, powerful sinews, four meters of it out now – how long was it?-

-its tip split into a four-jawed, drooling maw, swinging towards Shannon and Emily-

-Shannon continued the roll as the monstrous, grasping mouth slammed down less than a foot away from her thigh. She screamed and fired into its flank, blowing grapefruit-sized holes in its slick, corded flesh. The creature moaned in surprise and drew back, its four petal-lip jaws spreading as it prepared for another crushing grab. Pinned in the corner, Shannon and Emily had no place to go-

-something flew through the air and shattered against the tendril. Flames spread up and down its ugly, discoloured flesh and the monstrosity howled, shooting back up into the hole it had burst out of, its cries of pain rolling out of the reeking orifice.

On its heels, what was left of the person called Amanda Barnes dropped to all fours, and skittered backwards into the hole after the feeding tentacle. Shannon could make out some kind of cord attached to her back. It had burst through the fabric of woman’s coat, leaving a bloody, ragged hole in the cloth. Shannon caught a glimpse of disfigured where the tendril had burrowed into (or erupted from) Amanda’s body. Like some mockery of Theseus’ string, the tendril ran into the breach, connecting Barnes to whatever lay within that... lair. As she vanished into the darkness, the dead woman’s called out a final time: “Please. I’m hurt.”

Emily was in shock. “That... that was... that wasn’t....”

“It’s okay,” Shannon held the doctor tightly as the lurking horror bellowed again, licking its wounds. “It’s okay. You’re safe now,” she lied. “You’re safe.”

~

Petty Officer Armin Lutzberg cowered in the dark, covering his face with his hands as he tried not to weep in terror. Things had been looking up. Following the attack in the hangar’s central concourse, he’d managed to locate six other members of the expedition. Five were from Hadley-Wright, terrified out of their minds. Private Jackson hadn’t been much better. She’d almost shot him when he’d found her hiding in a corner, rocking back and forth, repeating the words ‘not real’ over and over.

She’d pulled through... somewhat and they’d made it to the nearest tram station, hoping to find other survivors. But the damn thing was broken to shit. That hadn’t been the worst of it, oh no. They’d found Beta Ten... he must have had the same idea that Lutzberg had and headed for the tram station.

He’d been butchered, hung from the ceiling like a piece of meat. His armour had been stripped off, his lifeless face a mask of horror. There were signs of a firefight, but aside from Overstern’s body, there was no indication of who had won it. And, on the walls, a very fresh splotch of paint:

YOU HAVE NO HOME HERE

They’d targeted Jackson first; heaviest armour, heaviest weapon. Had to be why. She’d simply... come apart. He’d never seen a weapon that could do that. Then, shrieks and cracks from the weapons of at least two other snipers. People falling all around him, steaming blood splashing on his face. In his eyes, his mouth. He’d run, leaving the others to die. Found the darkest corner he could and buried himself in it, amidst a pile of refuse. A maintenance junction, just off one of the hallways. Lutzberg squeezed his eyes shut, trying to not to think, not to remember what had just happened. What was still happening.

A few others had made it out too. And now, they were being hunted. He could hear them.

That voice.

That awful voice.

Lyrical, flowing like mercury and just as toxic. Some cruel child’s lullaby, calling out to you, forcing you to answer, to scream in horror as if it were some awful thing touching you. He had to bite his tongue as it called to him.

The metallic scent of blood still filled his nostrils, its salty taste still in his mouth and he kept himself from vomiting only by sheer will, forcing himself to breathe slower, not to hyperventilate. Nearby, he heard a scream, rising in pitch and abruptly cut off by the actinic snarl of some cruel weapon. He heard feet pounding up the corridor towards his hiding place, heard someone panting and yelping in panic and he whimpered, burrowing deeper into the debris and filth, hoping he’d be missed. No one’s here. No one’s here. I can’t help you, please go away.

Thunk. Thunkthunk.

Hard, meaty slaps – a hammer against a hanging cut of meat – and a figure pitched face-first to the deck across the intersection, just meters away. A woman from the civilian crew. There were metal spikes half the size of Lutzberg’s forearm protruding from her back. Her mouth moved, but she wasn’t able to form any words and her hands clawed weakly at the deck, still trying to escape, but unable to find the strength to move. Her eyes stared into the shadows that concealed Lutzberg, and a finger beckoned plaintively, but she couldn’t have seen him. She was pleading with a mirage. The petty officer cursed himself for his cowardice, but couldn’t make himself move. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.

Lutzberg bit his lip so fiercely that he tasted his own blood as a second figure strode into view, slinging some twisted rifle over its shoulder as it crouched beside the dying woman. Metal glinted as a knife was unsheathed, a hand burying itself in the researcher’s hair, pulling her head back. A flicker of movement and woman’s neck was opened to the bone. Slick and swift, like a farmer killing one of his stock. The woman’s eyes glazed over, a last gurgling breath escaping from her severed throat.

His breath was caught in his throat as he watched, unable to breathe, to move, even to blink. Warmth spread from his groin, pooling in the seat of his pants as he lost control of his bladder. Don’t look, he prayed. Please, please don’t look at me. I’m not here. No one’s here.

The crouching thing stood, staring down at the researcher’s body, fingers twitching, dancing over the hilt of its knife, as if it were trying to make a decision. Finally it turned to go, sheathing the blade and taking its gun back into its arms. It cried out, its ululating call that of a predator announcing a kill. A moment later, it was acknowledged by another of its kind. The killer disappeared back the way it had come.

Armin bit his lip so tightly he sliced out a portion of his own flesh, but it kept him from screaming. After a long time, he managed to pull himself out of the debris. Sobbing in fright and his own weakness, he fled towards the second tram station.
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-05-03 07:27pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
We get to see Abby and Shannon in better times, more evidence that DROP 47 is severely fucked up and Shannon starts using those brainmeats of hers to figure things out.

Coming up: It's Christmas for Abigail.

Chapter 20:

Then:

A shadow loomed over her, blocking out the overhead lights. Even before the figure spoke, Shannon knew who it was. She didn’t look up. “Corporal.”

A tall redheaded man beamed down at her. “Hey, Hayes. How’s it going?”

“Just fine.”

“Yeah, that’s good,” Jerome Lutjens ran one huge thumb over his lower lip, sitting down besides the smaller woman at her table in the mess. “So what are you doing?”

She still didn’t look at him, picking up a piece of fresh fruit and popping it in her mouth. “Reading.”

“Oh? Whatcha reading?”

“Mission reports.”

“What about?”

“The Mists.”

If Lutjens was discouraged by her terse answers and refusal to acknowledge him more than the bare minimum, there was no sign of it as the other corporal continued. “Yeah, I figured you’d be learning about stuff like that. Probably had your nose in a book or a file for the entire trip.” His tone wasn’t in the least amorous or containing the faux-impression that other suitors tried to convey. But then, he wasn’t trying to charm her. His green eyes glittered maliciously and the man’s smile widened with sarcastic glee. “Guess you’re always studying something like that, huh?” Behind him, a pack of his closest cronies chortled and laughed, waiting as Lutjens began to work up his latest routine.

“Yes.”

Jerome leaned forward, drawing a pattern on the tabletop. “So, I was thinking-”

“I doubt that, sir,” Abigail interjected, deliberately bumping to Lutjens. She set her meal tray down and sat next to Shannon, across the table from Jerome.

The big man glared daggers at the newly arrived woman. “Ain’t you got a sewer to crawl back into, Darkknell?”

“Just came out of one. By the way, your mother owes me extra for that.”

Lutjens face flushed. “You-”

See, because I was saying that your mother prefers the company of women. That she doesn’t mind bedding one of us Darkknells, that she’ll even pay for the privilege of doing it. That she’s into some really freaky shit and that because she often finds company in the arms of prostitutes, your own parentage may be somewhat in doubt. In other words, that there’s a good chance you’re a fatherless bastard like every other Darkknell.” Abigail flashed her teeth at Jerome in an expression far too predatory to be called a smile. “I just wanted to make sure that you appreciated this multifaceted slur on your family. It’s a very nuanced insult.”

“Watch your mouth, private,” Lutjens growled, pointing a thick finger at Hutchins.

“Ooh, yeah. I’d hate to get written up for insubordination towards a superior. They might have to court-martial me and threaten to drum me out of the service. It could even go on my permanent record. I’d sure hate to see badmouthed an asshole corporal put next to assaulting a superior officer. You know, that time I punched out Lieutenant Ming and gave her a concussion. For being an annoying little twat.” Abigail’s grin turned even leaner, hungrier. “Don’t you have some kids to shake down for their lunch money, corporal?”

“Fuck you, Hutchins.”

“Nobody rides for free, corporal. Ask your mommy if you can have your allowance early and we’ll talk. Tell you what you want it for an she might even give you some pointers.”

Lutjens pushed himself up from the table, towering over both women. “That mouth of yours is going to get you in trouble, wharf rat.”

“I’ve been told it’s my best quality,” Abigail batted her eyes at Lutjens, scooping up a spoonful of pudding and lasciviously licking it clean. “Any time you want to see what gets your mother to pay extra.”

Jerome’s face twisted in disgust and turned his back to his friends. Shannon picked out the words ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’.

“Asshole,” Abigail said with a contemptuous shake of her head.

“You didn’t have to antagonize him,” Shannon spoke up. “I was handling it.”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Shannie,” that annoying nickname meant she was in full ‘big-sister’ mode. “That might work with some jagoffs, but Lutjens is a special brand of cocksucker. Ignoring him only convinces him that he’s not trying hard enough. Or that you’re intimidated by him. You need to take this,” she reached over and grabbed one of Shannon’s hands, balling it into a fist. “And put it here.” she pressed it to her own throat. “Or further south. I’d demonstrate for the added effect, but if I did I think Lutjens or one of his friends might notice and start stroking it.” She let go of Shannon’s hand and scooped up a forkful of purple peas. “I mean, ignoring him isn’t working so well for Alvarez, is it?”

Miguel Alvarez, the quiet Epsilon Three, was sitting alone, reading through technical manuals of his own. His back was to Lutjens and his friends who were, in perfect frat boy style, flicking peas at the specialist. One of them bounced off Miguel’s neck and rolled down the collar of his shirt. Hutchins shook her head in disgust. I might be Darkknell trash, but even us ‘wharf rats’ didn’t pull that shit on each other. Of course, if Miguel grew up there, Lutjens would be gurgling around a shiv in his throat right about now.

Unfortunately for him, Miguel Alvarez was a quiet, introverted technical specialist. Even-tempered and mild were words that seemed to have been made especially for him. He seemed an odd fit for a mercenary outfit like Artemis, but he could hack through almost anything with just half a calculator and a broken datapad. Sergeant Laverty swore by his electronics skills.

By contrast, Jerome Lutjens was a loud, abrasive bully who was good with a gun (and sadly knew it) and was convinced he was God’s gift to everyone. He also had a particular bug up his ass about people who thought they were better than him. More to the point, it was usually anyone that he thought thought that they were better than him.

He had a special place in his petty heart for Hayes, but Alvarez had the misfortune of being part of his squad and bore the brunt of Lutjens’ hostility. That he’d continually ignored the bigger man had only pushed Jerome into finding new and unique ways to torment Miguel. Some of which, like the peas, were downright juvenile, while others were not – quite – sadistic enough to get Lutjens pulled up short and hard.

“I guess not,” Shannon admitted. She’d tried to strike up a conversation with Alvarez several times, but it had gone nowhere; Miguel was just too quiet. The only person he seemed to open up to was Petty Officer Johnson, one of Kerrigan’s engineers.

“Hrm,” Abigail said around a mouthful of food. “Until you put that asshole in his place, he’s just going to keep after you. Dick out and jabbing in your ear until he gets a reaction. Then he and his asshole friends will laugh it up.” She pointed her fork at Shannon. “I’ve sparred with you, remember. I was also right there with you in that brawl in The Black Locker. I know you could put him on his ass with one shot. You don’t want to, that’s fine. Hell, tell Donowitz. I know for a fact that the sarge hates Lutjens as much as I do and I’m pretty sure he’s on St. Cloud’s shit list too.”

“I don’t want any special-”

“It’s got nothing to do with you being a Halo,” Abigail snapped and Shannon flushed slightly at her friend’s interruption. That Hutchins was right only made it more irritating. “Lutjens isn’t nearly as invaluable as he’d like to think he is. Alvarez is too much of a fucking pussy to do anything about it and if he’s not going to step up, none of Epsilon are going to run behind his back to Laverty. So Lutjens gets to keep being a little bitch that thinks he’s top dog.” Her eyes narrowed as she shot the big man an incendiary glare. “Fucker wouldn’t last two hours in Port Royal.

“The only reason I want you to pop him one – aside from it being fucking hilarious – is that I think it’d you good, and help the rest of the company realize you can settle your own affairs without me. Not that I mind,” she scooped up another quick two mouthfuls. “But I can’t be there all the time. Sooner or later you’re going to need to punch someone in the mouth yourself. Someone who isn’t trying to put his hands down your pants.”

Shannon looked down at the table. She’d broken that man’s jaw. She could still remember the feel of his bones breaking with the impact of her fist, the noises he’d made as he’d rolled on the floor, clutching at his shattered face. “Maybe.”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Okay, have it your way. But if you don’t, sooner or later I will. And you know what I do when I hit someone. I’m not trying to put it on you – if I do it, it’ll because he’s pissed me off and it’ll be my decision, my call. I’m just telling you if he keeps this shit up, I will hurt him for it.”

“I know. I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that. I don’t want you to get in trouble on my behalf.”

“Get in trouble? Aside from those three dickless wonders, Lutjens doesn’t have any friends. Shit, I may even get a medal.”

The younger woman smiled. “Well, we can’t have that. You might start seeming like a proper and respectable soldier.”

“I know, right? Next thing you know, there’ll be talk of promotions and responsibilities. No, no. You can get bumped to officer grade. I’m happy right here being responsible for knowing which end of the gun the bullets come out of.”

“And building ‘security devices’ that maim senior officers.”

“Hey, O’Connor was just a lieutenant. And the stupid bastard shouldn’t have been playing with it in the first place. Besides, they re-attached all his fingers. Now Engineering gets all twitchy whenever I show up.”

“Just the officers. Between Ming and O’Connor, they’re worried you’re going to start working your way through the rest of them.”

“Well,” Abigail drawled, her eyes bright with amusement. “Maybe.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Hutchins gestured with her fork. “So, what are you reading?”

“Just some run-downs on research missions focused on the Mists.”

“Anything good?”

“Not really. Most of them didn’t get closer than the tertiary nebula.” Though the Mists themselves were incredibly dense, some dispersion had taken place over the millennia; a sizable cloud of gas and dust had expanded away from the core, hundreds of billions of kilometers in diameter. Officially, this thickening nebula was known as the Twilight Fields while the denser center portion were the Mists proper, though in practice the names were used interchangeably. “Of those that did, most terminated early, citing safety reasons. There’s a lot of notes on medical matters, too.” Shannon called up one file in particular. “This is the captain’s log from the Shubenacadie – take a look.” She handed the ‘scroll to Abigail.

“It’s pretty typical from what I’ve seen,” Shannon continued, running a hand through her red hair. Unlike Lutjen’s bright red hue, hers was darker, almost the colour of blood. “Lots of inconclusive guesses and supposition, but no solid data to support the science team’s hypotheses. Shubenacadie’s captain refused to take his vessel past the tertiary nebula; they eventually had to leave with no real answers to their questions. That’s par for course as far as research into the Mists goes. The ships that don’t go deep enough never find anything new and those that do never come back.”

Abigail nodded. She’d skimmed through the literature once or twice herself, but not to the extent that Shannon obviously had. “Okay?”

“I’m just saying that ever since Shimmerman discovered the Mists eight centuries ago, we’ve learned nothing – nothing, Abby – about them. It’s one giant unknown, with a pretty bad reputation. Look at the appendices. You see? Shubenacadie reported three violent altercations over the nine-month survey cruise. That’s as many as it had in the previous two years.”

“They were also shipping with the science team; several dozen new people thrown into the mix and kept in close quarters for an extended period of time. I know if I had to spend the next nine months with these wonks from Hadley-Wright, I’d probably end up snapping and killing a couple.” Abigail handed the ‘scroll back.

Shannon frowned, opening a new file and looking at the notes she’d made. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“You haven’t been on enough long tours, Shannie. If we don’t find that fucking station in the next month or two, I guarantee that even you’ll be spoiling for a fight.”

“Maybe,” her expression was distant. “But that doesn’t change that fact that shipboard incident reports increase with proximity to and duration spent in the Mists.”

“Or people just notice them more, because there’s nothing else to focus on. I’ve heard scare stories about the Graveyard, too. People claiming Earth’s wreckage is haunted by all the billions of souls that died when the Coalition cracked the planet open. Ten credits’ll get you a hundred stories about visions of Terran wraiths, nightmares, disappearing ships and spectral murders.”

Shannon wasn’t convinced. Abigail noticed her expression. “Look, I know what this is about.”

“What?”

“That drunk back in the Axe. He got to you.”

“I... he didn’t...”

“It’s okay. I know you went to see the captain about his story. And from what I remember, it was a damn spooky one, too. But that’s all it was, a story. Pirates hit his ship and he spent the last few weeks remembering the faces of friends and telling himself that it couldn’t just have been some psycho raiders killing for kicks, that there had to more to it, some reason. I get that. I’ve seen it. Just keep your feet grounded, Shannie. Command and our backers have seen the same data and the Old Man wouldn’t send us off to a place where we’re going to start killing each other and Hadley-Wright is sure as shit not going to waste all this money. Anything goes wrong and it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. What they’ve paid out might be a rounding error in their budget, but no corper bean-counter wants those ‘rounding errors’ to start piling up.”

Shannon flushed, embarrassed. “Sorry. I guess I’ve just been letting my imagination run a bit wild.”

“It’s all right. This trip is making us all a little buggy. I saw Meyers muttering to himself in the hall, Hanover’s ramped-up her wiseassery and Ferguson’s been swilling back sleepers. I’ve even-”

A crash interrupted Abigail and both women looked up; Lutjens had dumped his food tray onto Alvarez. “So sorry Miguel,” Jerome was laughing. “I didn’t know you were there. You were just so quiet, Miggy. You forgive me, right?” He gave the tech a shove. “Right, man? It was an accident.” The corporal’s other three friends were sniggering.

Alvarez set down his technical manual. “Yes,” he said without looking at Lutjens. “I forgive you.”

Abigail shook her head, her expression bordering on contempt. “See? You roll over for an asshole like Lutjens and-”

Shannon didn’t even see him move. One moment Miguel had been reaching for a fork, the next he was standing and had the utensil buried in Lutjens’ throat. The bigger man didn’t react at first, as if he was simply too shocked to understand what had happened. He fell backwards, crashing to the floor. Shannon was out of her seat in a flash. “Medical emergency in the mess!” she shouted into her comm. “Severe neck trauma, security needed!” Blood was bubbling out of Lutjens’s mouth, but the fork had gone straight in – if Miguel had twisted it, he would have made things much worse. Hayes slapped Jerome’s hands away from the fork. “Leave it in. If it nicked a vein, you pull it and you’ll bleed to death before the medics get here.”

Abby was already moving, ready to take down Alvarez if he tried to finish Lutjens or some impulse made him go after Hayes. But he didn’t even move. “I forgive you,” he repeated, then sat back down and picked up his manual again, food still dripping down his face and shirt. “But see that it doesn’t happen again.”

“Wow,” Shannon heard Abigail say as a pair of other soldiers pulled Alvarez out of his chair, pinning him to the ground. “Never thought Miguel had it in him.”

~

Chapter 21:

“We’ve been to Medical,” Abigail noted. “Been to the crew decks. Time to hit up the engineering subsection?”

“We might as well,” Shannon said. One of her arms was around Emily’s shoulders, guiding the doctor through the corridors. She was still in a state of shock and had been since their encounter with the flytrap. “I think we’ll find one of the jamming stations there.”

“Good,” Hutchins grunted. “I’m in the mood to break something.”

“You’re always in that mood, Three.”

“It’s just so fun, Four. Machines, bones, beds...”

The two women chatted back and forth aimlessly. There was no point to the conversation, but the illusion of normalcy gave them something to focus upon. Plus, it helped to drown out the distant bellows of the flytrap. Not very well, but it helped, offering something to listen to besides the cries of the monstrosity as its feeding limbs and lures stalked them.

Every so often, they would hear something batter into the impromptu barricades – always the one closest to them. Louis twitched every time it did, remembering the warning that had been splashed on the doors, the way its bait had repeated the last words Amanda Barnes had said, over and over. It can hear you.

And I think we’ve pissed it off.

Worse than the sounds of the feeding tentacles pounding against the substrate were the voices. Not just Amanda’s, either. There were at least two others calling out in mindless repetition, taken by the flytrap and used as lures, still trying to draw the survivors off to where it could get them. We’ve got to find a way to kill this thing, Louis vowed. To kill all of them. All of them. Wipe the station clean, blast it into pieces. Whatever they created here, it can’t be allowed to spread any further. This... this place is an abomination.

Movement caught his eye; further up the corridor was another bait-thing, standing in the middle of the hall. A man. Louis didn’t recognize the clothes, but it was a style decades old. “I don’t want to die here,” he begged. Half his face had rotted away and his one remaining eye stared at Louis. The dead man held out his arms as if beseeching Louis. “Please, help me.”

Louis started as he recognized the man. That’s impossible. He blinked in surprise, and when he looked again, the figure was gone. “Did-” he shook himself, getting his voice back under control. “Nobody else saw that?”

Abigail’s helmet turned towards him. “Saw what, Nine?”

What do you mean ‘saw what’? He was right there! he almost shouted. “Nothing,” he replied, giving himself a slap, trying to focus his mind. “Just thought I saw... well, just another one of those things.”

“There’s nothing there, Nine.”

“I know. Just my mind playing tricks, I guess.”

Three and Four shared a quick look. “This place can do that,” Hutchins said carefully.

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

~

Click. A figure in power armour smashed a hunter breed into a bulkhead, pulverizing the Turned’s torso, but it gnashed its teeth and struggled all the same.

Click. Three soldiers pressed their backs together, spraying fire in all directions as a lurching horde overwhelmed them, bullet-ridden carcasses slashing and stabbing, ripping and tearing.

Click. An unarmed woman grabbed her companion’s hands, her mouth moving, shouting at him as she strained to pull him back to his feet, flickering shadows cast across the pair of them as stalking forms ambled up the hallway towards them.

Click. A mercenary with a comrade in a fireman’s carry paused and slowly dropped to one knee as exhaustion took its toll. The soldier carefully eased the other man off his shoulders and propped him against the wall, shaking him to wake him up. It took the uninjured man a few moments to realize that his friend was dead.

Click. Five survivors moved through the corridors, heading towards the north arm’s engineering decks.

“Oh,” cracked lips smiled painfully. “There you are again. Thought I’d lost you. Going down, down down are you? Hmm. They won’t like that. That’s their territory.” Eyes flickered to another cam feed. “But it may save you from them.”

“Con-con-control of grav. Grav. Gravitational plating gran-granted.”

“Oh, thank you, dearest. You do know what I like to hear.”

“Caution. Caution. En-en-environmental sys-systems mal-malfunctioning. Functioning. Please-ease con-contact engin-gin-gin-eering ser. Services. Un-until repairs-pairs can be made, system functionality. Ity. Is-is severely-ly com-compromised. Ised.”

“Well, that’s no good. Darling, I thought we discussed this? Well, I suppose there’s nothing for it. We’ll just have to wait until they get where you can feel something.”

~

“No escape. No escape. No escape.”

“Contact,” Abigail’s voice was intermingled with white noise. It looked like Shannon’s guess was right; one of the jammers had to be located in North Engineering. As they got closer, the effective range of their radios dropped further and further. Soon, shouting would be more effective than the comm.

“Confirmed, Three,” Shannon’s voice came back. “What do you have?”

“Unknown. Could be another flytrap.”

“Do we need to backtrack?”

“I don’t think so. Wait one. I’ll check it out.”

“If you need help-”

“I’ll let you know. Three, clear.”

“No escape. No escape. No escape,” the speaker repeated themselves over and over. Abigail moved ahead carefully, swinging her carbine around to cover the hallway. There, sitting against the wall was another of Primal’s team. At least two-thirds of the expedition had been trapped inside Primal when Shelby sealed the frigate – which left a few dozen outside the ship. This one looked like ship’s crew, but Abigail couldn’t make out his field.

He rocked back forth, holding his arms against his chest. “No escape,” he repeated the words over and over. “No escape. They woke up. No escape. They woke up. No escape.” He flinched as Abigail shone her flashlight on him, staring back at her and squinting against the brightness in his eyes. He seemed to recognize her and started laughing. “You did it,” he said between maddened chuckles. “You woke them up. Now they’re coming. No escape. No escape.”

“Who did we wake up?” Abigail said carefully. “Who’s coming?”

“Them,” the crewer laughed again. “It’s listening to you. The station. It’s alive, you know. It felt you coming. It reacted. They felt it, they know what it means.”

“What does it mean?”

He hadn’t stopped laughing, hadn’t stopped rocking back and forth, the actions getting more manic and jerky. “It means they get to eat.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t so bad before. After the first swarm, there were only a few. A few, and the tribes. Now you’ve woken them up. There’s no escape. No escape,” he unfurled his arms, revealing the ugly, ragged hole in his guts... and the pistol in his hands. “No escape but one.”

“Drop it!” Abigail snarled, zeroing in on the man’s head. “Put it down, or I will put you down.”

“It doesn’t matter.” He raised the gun, putting the barrel under his chin, wrapping both hands around the grip. “They’ve woken up. You can’t get out. They won’t let you. There’s no escape.” He was laughing so hard tears rolled down his cheeks. “But I’m going to beat them. I found the way out.” He looked back at Abigail, smiling beatifically. “Welcome to Acheron.”

“Don’t-!”

The shot echoed through the hallway. The crewman fell to one side, one leg twitching briefly. Abigail knelt beside him and pried the weapon out of his hands. It still had seven bullets. She looked over at the man’s corpse. I guess you did find a way out. She stood and commed Shannon again. “Clear. Come on through.”

She didn’t want to think about how long it would be before she started considering that kind of escape, too.

~

Something skittered overhead. It was small; perhaps it had been a child. It gnashed and clawed at the metal grating, trying to break through, but lacked the strength to do so. With a disappointed yowl, it turned around and scurried back the way it had come.

Calvin watched it go, not bothering to expend the bullets on it.

He’d made it out of the crawlspace, for what little good that did. He’d been unable to contact anyone else – for all he knew, he was the last person left alive. Alone... trapped with these... these things. And what were they? People? Maker, what had happened to this place? Meyers had heard horror stories of archaeological teams exploring intact DROPs. Intact defence systems, experiments set loose either through neglect or as a last, spiteful form of protection for the installation. Alone in a freak-show station...

No. There had to be someone else, somewhere. Some of his team had to have made it back to the station. Someone from Kerrigan’s landing parties had to have survived. All he had to do was find them.

You remember 119, Meyers? Yeah, you do. The last fully-operational DROP anyone found, some five hundred years ago. Yes, he remembered it. Anyone who had even a passing familiarity with Imperial technology or history had heard of DROP 119.

Coalition agents had sabotaged the stationmind, inserting malicious code into the AI’s operating system with the intent of triggering a low-level quarantine, trapping the Imperial crew, while flagging their boarding teams as ‘crisis response’ units to be given free reign. Unfortunately, the AI... reacted to the virus in an unexpected fashion. Which was a more complicated way of saying that it went insane. Rampant.

It enacted quarantine measures – lethal ones. 119 exterminated its crew and slaughtered the Coalition strike force alike. And it kept the production lines running. The AI saw all organic intruders as ‘spreaders of filth and disease’ and would react as it believed its programming dictated.

Protect.

When DROP 119 was finally rediscovered, it had a defensive force of over 4 million combat automata, from the original Imperial designs to the AI’s re-envisioning of those forms, using its factories and its fabricator engine to build new and twisted creations, each generation more lethal than their predecessors. Eighteen thousand men and women were fed into the meat grinder of DROP 119 before the Coalition finally made the decision destroy the station utterly. It had not been made lightly – like 47, DROP 119 was an Elysium and it had had a fully-mature Hephaestus fabricator engine.

Fabricators weren’t mere factories, construction yards or assembly lines – those could only build along certain lines. What plans they had. How they had been built. A munitions factory could not assemble tanks. A tank production line could not build starships. Fabricators could do all that and more.

Engines had databases filled with design information, technical manuals, combat reports and technology reviews. You simply told a fabricator what you wanted and it would build it. If you wanted an amphibious tank, the gestalt would delve into its files, examining every amphibious tank ever built, cross-referencing performance specifications with after-action reports, analyzing every facet and character in minute detail before deciding which to incorporate and which to ignore. Smelters and ore processing complexes would shudder to life, breaking down raw materials and forging alloys and ceramics, electronics and armour, weaponry and software. Nanite construction swarms and memory metal would reconfigure at the gestalt’s orders, re-shaping and specializing the engine’s construction systems to produce your tank.

That was what a ‘newborn’ engine could do. The more an engine built, the more data it had, the more it understood, the faster and more efficient its construction became. Even, to some degree, intuitive. If you gave a mature fabricator that same tank and told it ‘make it better’, it would. Sloping the armour to be more resistant to solid shot, incorporating superior heat-resistant materials in the hull for additional thermal protection, increasing the accuracy and range of the main cannon. It wouldn’t end there, either. As the gestalt ran simulations and absorbed field tests and combat reports, it would improve on every successive generation of that tank automatically.

What would take a team of organic engineers and scientists weeks, months or years to accomplish, a mature high-end fabricator engine could do in minutes or hours. And it could keep doing it, learning and developing as a human brain might. Constantly improving its designs as organic and artificial minds alike gave it more information, more ideas. Of course, human engineers and think tanks did not require a fabricator’s massive resource and power requirements and no matter how effective, there were always some ideas that came to an organic developer that a fabricator might overlook. Say what you wanted about the Imperium, but they believed in spreading their eggs amongst different baskets.

The Coalition had never had fabricators. Only factories. In the six hundred years since the Imperium’s fall, no fully-intact fabricator engine had ever been recovered and the designs to build them had been purposefully destroyed by retreating Imperial forces. DROP 119 had been the closest anyone had ever come.

Though he knew what it meant, part of Calvin prayed that 47’s engine was too old and ruined to still function. Yes, he remembered 119.

The child-thing called out in the distance, some ugly warbling call answering it and Meyers stiffened. Come on then. “You’re between me and my people. I’m not going to forgive you for that. Come on. Come on!” he shouted into the darkness, so loudly that his speakers blasted with static as he threw down the challenge, almost eager for it be accepted.

~

“What is it?”

Shannon cocked her head at Abigail. “What?”

“You’ve got that look.”

“How can you-”

Abby laughed. “It’s not just in your face, Four. It’s in the way you move, that sudden slow-down and start and stop. So, give it up. What did you figure out?”

“It’s just a theory...”

“Theories are good. Spill.”

“I was just thinking. Do you remember – it was eleven days ago – when Alvarez stabbed Lutjens with a fork? That conversation we had?”

Abigail nodded. “Reconsidered your theory?”

“Yes. I left Halo before I finished my Masters,” the younger woman replied. “But I’m a good medic. You know what the ship was like before we got the station.”

“Everyone was going stir crazy.”

“Headaches. Bad dreams. Paranoia. Fights and arguments. That incident with Miguel. I didn’t mention this before, but... a few crew came to see me. They were hoping ‘the Halo’ had come up with something that the other doctors hadn’t.” Shannon shook her head. “We’ve been on long shipboard deployments before. It was never that bad. What’s the variable that changed?”

“The Mists?”

“The Mists,” Shannon confirmed. “‘Don’t trust them. Any of them,’” she repeated one of the warnings on the concourse’s walls. Her voice took on the flat, empty tones reminiscent of the woman Louis had found: “‘Continued exposure to ambient conditions causes increasing levels of paranoia.’ We thought that was Michelle’s,” God, I don’t even know her last name! “trauma talking. I don’t think it was. Nobody knows anything about the Mists, Abby. Nothing. You remember? Expeditions don’t get deep enough into the nebula to do any real research, because the ones that do never come back. I think this is why, or at least one reason.”

She looked up at the ceiling, as if staring outside. “There’s something in the Mists. I don’t know what, but prolonged exposure to it does something to people. It was doing it to us before we even got here. It’s still doing it.”

“Wait, though...” Abigail shook her head. “This station was up and running for years. If the Mists were making people crazy, the Imperium would never have kept it going.”

“Its hull is thicker than almost any ship’s,” the corporal pointed out. “And Imperial materials science was better than the Coalition. It’s still better than some nations. Plus, when it was operational, the station had systems that actively repulsed the Mists. That had to have an effect.” She bit her lip. “It could just be coincidence like you said. Stress. Some other agent. That’s what I don’t understand. If it had measurable affects on people, then whatever cause should itself be detectable. Even at low levels in the tertiary nebula. Which means we have three options,” she ticked off points on her hands. “Coincidence. It’s not the Mists at all. Like you said: stress, observer effect and bias in the case of ships and throw in some possible biological or chemical contaminant on the station.

“Concealed. There is some field, some energy, something in the Mists itself, but no one’s ever managed to detect. It’s subtle or just something no one ever looked for.”

“And the third?”

“Conspiracy,” Shannon said. “There is something in the Mists, but someone has been actively suppressing the release of that information. It wouldn’t be that hard, not really. Study of the Twilight Fields has mostly been for intrinsic value. They’re unique, yes. But isolated with no real application to the galaxy at large. If there was something, some bit of data or reading, it wouldn’t be that difficult to convince someone to leave it out of their reports.”

“Particularly if there was no other evidence of it and it happened to be some kind of ‘crazy ray’,” Abigail summarized. “I can’t think of many scientists who’d want to be the first to stick their neck out like that.”

“Exactly,” Shannon ran her fingers over the scratchmarks on her helmet. “The problem is, who would bother? What’s the point? There’s no Imperium anymore. No Imperial loyalists to carry out a centuries-long campaign of suppressing information for whatever reason.” She sighed. “So either I’m seeing patterns because I want to – observer bias – or there’s something out there. I need to find out. I need to know, maybe even find some way of counteracting it – whatever ‘it’ turns out to be.”

“How do we do that?”

“You said it yourself: when it was active, DROP 47 was operational for years. No one would have had more data on the Mists than the people working here. I need to get into the main computer. The closer to the central server network the better. We’ll need to get into the station’s core for that. Plus, if we can get control of the computer...”

“...this whole expedition gets a lot easier, along with bumping our chances of survival. I’m game,” Abigail said. She canted her head towards the rest of the party. “What’s the plan with them?”

“We’ll still see if there’s anything in North Engineering. Shut down the jammer there and hope we can contact someone else. After that, we’ll just have to play it by ear and hope I’m not coming down with the crazies, too.”

[Reveal] Spoiler: "Bonus graffiti"
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-05-09 07:42pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter: still no grav plating (:() but the group learns that 'trespassers will be shot' doesn't just apply to hillbilles defendin' thar land from revenooers.

Coming up: grav plating, I swear! Or a flashback. We'll see.

Chapter 22:

“I think I just got a boner.”

Emily and Ramone just stared quizzically, but Louis shook his head at Abigail’s utterance. “You would.”

“Don’t judge me, Nine. I know about that thing with the gas mask.”

“There was no ‘thing’!” Louis protested. “Those assholes Luger and Tassiter wouldn’t let me back in my quarters unless I... and those fuckers had a camera, too! Ah, forget it.”

Abby chuckled. “Sure, Nine.”

They’d made it to North Engineering. There’d been some traps, a busted elevator and a few close calls with more of those things, but they’d made it.

Of course, nothing on this God-forsaken station could be easy. Someone had sealed the entire section – probably the same someone who’d infested every access route into Engineering with traps and, if Shannon was right about what one of those symbols on the map meant, sentry guns. Luckily they hadn’t tempted fate by going to see if her guess was accurate. It had been enough for Abigail to dodge traps and jump across an open elevator shaft with Ramone clinging to her back. That had been fun.

And naturally, the main doors had been locked. It was another crude-but-serviceable mishmash of Imperial technology and cannibalized parts, but between Shannon on the software and Abigail on the hardware, the lock hadn’t had a chance.

Grinding open, the heavy double doors had withdrawn, letting warm orange light spill out into the corridor in welcome. There’d been no hurricane of defensive fire, no outraged screams of inhabitants, no wet slurps and gargles as monstrous once-human things registered the presence of prey. There’d only been the mechanical thrum of active machinery.

North Engineering. Machine shops, assembly lines, fabricators and tools. And it was all still here. Still powered, still intact.

“Sweep and secure,” Shannon ordered. “This place was sealed recently; whoever was here probably left then, but don’t take it for granted. I don’t want any nasty surprises waiting for us.”

~

Emily moved cautiously down a flight of grated-metal stairs, listening the to the pulsing of the machinery around her, a constant cyclic throbbing, like the heartbeat of some great beast. The beam of a flashlight swept by several feet over her head as one of the mercenaries scanned the level above her. Everything that wasn’t covered in the orange glow of emergency lighting was illuminated by functional – functional, not flickering or dying – overhead glowpanels. Workstation computer screens presented DROP 47’s rotating emblem as they awaited input. They had been locked down, but that they were working at all...!

There were still signs of decay here. Slapdash repairs to some of the systems and modified systems and devices that were what Shannon and Abigail had started to call ‘CBS’; crude but serviceable. Rust on some machines, stress fractures and cracks in others. Some had broken down completely. Some were on the verge of crumbling. Whoever used this place was fighting a losing battle to keep it operational, but it was one that would still be fought long after the small group of survivors was gone...

Stop that. You’ve made it this far. You can hold out until rescue gets here.

Isn’t that what Primal’s people thought?

Shut up!

~

Abigail ran the tips of the gauntlet over a metalworker. They came up slick and oily. “This was cleaned recently,” she noted, taking in the scent of the grease, rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger. “CBS. More particulate than it should be, but a decent effort.” She gave the large machine a thump. “This should be a foundry, something to hammer out large metal parts, but it’s been modified extensively.” The tech shook her head, glancing over at Shannon. “I don’t know what it’s supposed to do now. Most of factory floor is completely useless. The more complicated machines were the first to fail. It looks like the station’s own maintenance bots tried to keep them running, but some of them were cannibalized themselves.”

Hayes nodded. “These units have been kept operational, though.”

“Yeah. It’s all more patchjobs, though. Here and there I can spot work from someone who knew what they were doing, but it doesn’t last.” Abigail ran her hand over a crudely-welded stress fracture. “Someone knows enough to keep these things working, but they don’t have any real understanding of how. Big obvious things are fixed – look at these broken treads – but the smaller problems are ignored. See? Here – this thing is about to break down again. All you’d need is some experience, an hour and a handful of parts to hold it off.”

Shannon cocked her head, considering. Her first impulse was to say this was Imperial technology, that even the Coalition had never gotten a handle on everything Earth had built, but that idea didn’t hold up. This was just a subsidiary engineering section – there shouldn’t be anything too exotic here. That was precisely why these sections had been built, so that less-complicated functions, ship repairs and outfitting could be ‘outsourced’ while still leaving Main Engineering and the fabricator engine free to operate, produce and deal with more complicated systems and technologies.

“Maybe it’s been ritualized?” she suggested. “Barnes said there were other people here. If they’ve been subject to these conditions over an extended period of time, they might only have a rote idea of how to maintain these systems.” She frowned. “Or the people who did know how to maintain the machines died off and their descendants were left with trial and error.”

“That’s possible,” Abigail replied, shifting her attention to a lathe. “But from what I can see,” she paused, trying to think of how to express it. “I’m starting to think that there is some understanding here. This patch job – this is good. It fixes the problem with the attenuator and,” she stuck her head into the machine, her flashlight between her teeth. “Yeth. Ith altho fixeth a pwobwem inthide the thtructure.” Hutchins pulled out. “So it’s not just simple by-the-numbers operation. Someone has kept it together. I’m not sure I like that.”

“No,” Shannon said as she knelt. When she came to her feet, she was holding a massive sword across both hands. “I don’t either.”

Abigail whistled. “Someone’s been having fun with metalworking.” The blade, such as it was, had more in common with a cleaver than a sword – only one end had been sharpened. It was widely serrated – each ‘point’ was six inches or more apart. It looked as if he had been cut from a pre-existing piece of metal, its cutting edge whittled into shape. The Darkknell reached out to test the blade’s sharpness, but Shannon caught her hand.

“Don’t. Look – just to either side of the blade. You see those holes?”

Abby frowned. The blade hadn’t been carved from something else; it had been forged and crudely sharpened. “Some imperfection in the metal?” she wondered aloud. “Air bubbles trapped in the blade?”

“No. It’s lighter than it should be, Abby. And the hilt is hollow. Those holes are to let poison seep out.”

Abigail’s head came up. “What?”

“Look, here – you pour it at the base of the hilt and it runs down through the interior of the sword. When you swing it, the force of your swing and the impact draws the poison out, splattering into the wound you’ve just made.”

“That’s insane – they’d compromise the structure of the whole thing!”

“They probably compensated for it by using such thick metal in the first place. Besides, what if you don’t intend to hit something hard with it? Armour, another sword – I’d bet this isn’t intended to be used on anything but flesh.”

“Son of a bitch,” Abigail swore as her mind followed Shannon train of thought. “This is a God-damned monster-killing sword.”

“Which means the poison they’d use might just be something that can kill – or at least retard the regeneration – of those things.”

“Son of a bitch,” the tech repeated, accepting the sword carefully, testing the feel of it in her hands. It was clumsy and the balance was off – whoever had made this had never intended for it to be used any other way that simply hacking at an opponent.”

“There’s no toxin left on the blade itself, but I think we should try and find some ourselves.” Shannon huffed a sigh. “I don’t know where to look for it, but even if only slows them down, it would be worth having.”

“Definitely,” Abigail agreed.

“As for the blades itself... given how strong some of their bony protrusions seem to be, I’m not sure it’s anything other than a failed experiment,” Shannon continued. “If it’s not just some metalworker’s dementia in action. But it does tell us that the people here are capable of thinking and developing things on their own.”

Abigail gave the sword another look, then let it drop back to the floor. “No,” she repeated. “I’m not sure at all that I like that.”

~

“What’d you find?”

Louis was beaming as he held up his new prize. A shotgun. Blocky and unwieldy, it was nonetheless functional. Abigail arched an eyebrow, taking the weapon from Nine’s hands and inspecting it. “It’s not going to explode the first time you fire it?”

“Nope. Ah looked et over good, ma.”

“You’re hilarious,” Hutchins tossed the weapon back to Hernandez. “Now go find some cartridges for it.”

~

She’d wandered off. She wasn’t supposed to, she knew. But she needed some time away from the group, just to breathe and relax. Besides, the engineering section was safe. Whoever sealed it had taken precautions against those things getting in; the air vents were covered with thick plates, salvaged from some of the wrecked ships in the hangar, and except for the main doors on each level, each entrance was barricaded and booby-trapped. Obviously someone didn’t want visitors.

She’d found a small lantern, using it to light her way as she wandered through the back areas of one of the rest sections. The lights in this section were off, save for the occasionally glimmer or flicker from dying glow panels. Obviously, maintaining this part of engineering had not been a priority. That’s what it looked like. But that was a lie. Stained work clothes lay piled in corners – not covered in dust. Sinks were filthy, but there were still droplets of moisture in the basins. CBS tools – not anything that had come from a ship’s existing kit – were hung on racks. No, people had been here. Recently. She could smell it in the air, burnt metal and sweat.

Emily held the lantern up to a bulkhead, illuminating the words scribbled on it. Victories of the forge, the script proudly proclaimed. She didn’t know if that referred to those killed by the smiths or their weapons, not that it mattered. She was just hoping that there would be something useful amongst those trophies.

There; she could make out the flickers of orange light ahead. Not artificial: neither the inconstant white or yellow of the main lights, nor the sweeping haze of orange emergency lights. These were candles. She didn’t want to know what they had been rendered from, but they were set along the sides of a large tiered table. One the wall above them, someone had painstakingly – if not altogether skillfully – painted a macabre theater mask of a great, leering feline face. One ear was drawn as broken and its whiskers were uneven.

Circular script spiraled into the middle of each eye, but she couldn’t read what it said. The rest of the ‘mask’ decorated with artful sweeps and curves of various colours, but its mouth was wide-open in a Cheshire grin, almost cruel. Someone had written a prayer or invocation of some kind – almost a nursery rhyme, even – on the wall, each stanza bracketing the mask with the final verse inside its smile.

As we all dance within the gates of hell,
tell me, tell me – are you feeling well?
Do you hear them and does it sting?
Then soon you won’t feel anything.

When there’s hungers they must sate,
the masks we wear shield our fate.
We know each other, this is true,
but it separates
us from you.

It wasn’t that much, just a little prick,
tell me, tell me – are you feeling sick?
Is it warm, do you have the shivers?
Check your skin; there may be slivers.

In the sky, you see the Mists,
as you sleep you feel their kiss,
they whisper truths that you must hear,
listen to them darling, and do not fear.

Don’t you move, stay quite still,
tell me, tell me – you look quite ill.
I can hear you cough and your skin is burning,
I think that you’ll soon be turning.

The garden grows and the hunters stalk,
and so this culls you from the flock,
when your turn comes (as you know it will),
dance away, dance away into hell.

Your eyes my dear, they are red,
tell me, tell me – you’ll soon be dead.
Don’t take offence but this is goodbye,
I’d rather not be the next to die.

The eyes watch you and they know your smell,
and what comes next? (but you know this well)
They find the strong and they’ll find
you,
And then they’ll do what they always do.

As we dance within the gates of Hell,
I’ll tell you, tell you – I’m not feeling well.
My lungs are burning and it’s getting hard to breathe,
I think I’ve gone and got R-3.

Others question, bemoan and cry,
beating their breasts and asking ‘Why?’
Never question what we lay upon,
for we are the children of Acheron.


Grisly trophies were laid out upon each of the table’s levels; a skull with a bullet hole in the forehead, a red handprint smeared over its face. Weapons from other expeditions. An otherwise undamaged EVA helmet with a knife stuck up through the chin plate. There were several other helmets mounted on iron spikes that had been themselves welded to the tablet. One helmet in particular caught her eye and she reached out, tracing the smooth, sleek predatory lines – what remained of them, anyways. The helmet was heavily damaged – there were at least three bullet holes, many dents and cracks due to bludgeoning and even what looked like thermal damage, including a scorch line from a laser. Someone had painted a design on the helm, but the damage had destroyed anything more than a splash of out-of-place colour here and there.

Delphini’s lips twitched upwards. Shot. Burned. Stabbed. Beaten. Made them work for it, didn’t you?

She looked at the rest of grisly souvenirs. There were department and organization badges from other expeditions, officer’s epaulettes, rank markers. Most were marred in some fashion. Disfigured and either torn, or hastily cut off the clothes they’d been attached to, and as often as not, stained with various fluids. Another little reminder of the thousands of people that DROP 47 had swallowed. Treasure hunters and mercenaries, archaeologists and researchers. Consumed body and soul and only remembered by the tidbits collected by their killers.

The doctor’s eyes widened with recognition and she picked up one of the decals, studying it carefully. She quickly looked over her shoulder before she swept it and the rest of the familiar badges to the floor and kicked them deeper into the shadows, out of sight.

Turning her attention back to the rest of the trophies, Emily’s eyes were drawn to the top shelf. Sitting upon someone’s attempt at a gun rack was the centerpiece of this macabre collection, a rifle or carbine of some kind, but obviously broken. Savage in appearance and painted a dull matte black, it had obviously been made by someone with an impressive industrial base. But it wasn’t what she looking for. None of this was.

She could hear footsteps on the grating above her and her comm clicked, spitting out the customary distorted burst of static that was the only thing that got through the jamming. Still, it meant that Shannon was calling for her, but Emily didn’t answer right away. There, placed to one side of the useless carbine was something she’d never expected to find. Hands shaking with the sudden rush of adrenaline, Emily picked it up off the table. It was a small thing, really. And without knowing what it was, it would be just a curiousity like the other odd bits of junk on the table. A random item that had come from an enemy – worthy of being displayed, but that was all.

Emily turned the device over in her hands; there was some damage and its batteries were long depleted. But if... If Oh, if...! She quickly slid it under her coat, into a tunic’s pocket, taking a few moments to look over the rest of the trophies. There was nothing else of note and if she didn’t get back soon, one of the mercenaries would come looking for her. But maybe I have time to-

“Emily.”

Delphini jumped and yelped, spinning around to confront Shannon. The Halo was standing patiently in the darkened hallway, faintly backlit by the light from the main work areas. “Jesus!” the doctor panted. “You scared me out of a year’s growth.”

“Sorry,” Hayes apologized. “But you weren’t answering.” She cocked her head, looking at the candlelit display.

“Sorry,” Emily mumbled contritely. “I got a little distracted.”

“I can see why. I guess this section isn’t as abandoned as we thought.” Shannon stepped up to the table, examining its ugly treasures. Emily found herself biting her lip and cursing herself for forgetting the mercenary’s night-vision systems, hoping she didn’t take notice of the handful of badges on the floor.

“No,” she said, directing the other woman’s attention to the more obvious trophies. “It looks like some kind of display. Maybe to honour the people who work here for what they’ve done...”

“...or what their weapons did,” Shannon finished the thought, picking up a skull. The lower jaw had deformed considerably; it had split in two, each side lengthening into a large, sharp hook, while the teeth in the upper jaw had lengthened into pointed fangs. The tips of the lower jaw bones were discoloured and very tough, much like the tail-blade or scythe-arms of the other creatures. Shannon looked at the bottom of the jaws; there were scars for muscle attachment on either side. Like a nymph, then? When prey gets close enough, the jaw springs out to hook them? Those muscles would have to be strong... She set the grisly trophy back down; there didn’t appear to be anything useful here, just bits and pieces taken from various victims. She didn’t want to focus too much on them. Didn’t want to have to remember them, think about what they meant.

“Come on back up,” she said to Emily, eyeing the broken gun on its pedestal. “I think I found the jammer. Abby and Louis are taking a look at it.”

Emily nodded. “Yes. Sorry I wandered off.”

“It’s all right. Just be more careful next time.”

“I will, I promise.”

~

Louis scratched his chin; his five o’clock shadow was starting to itch. At least, he assumed it was a five o’clock shadow. He thought he’d shaved before landing, but maybe he hadn’t. It seemed so long ago. Or maybe they’d been here longer than he thought... either way, his chin itched. “So that’s a jammer, DROP 47 style,” he said aloud.

“That’s a jammer,” Abigail confirmed. Behind her, Shannon and Emily were coming up to meet the rest of the group, the former having tracked down the latter. Hutchins shook her head. Last thing we need is to start having to wrangle civvies. At least Ramone knows enough to stay in sight. The older doctor was taking a much-needed breather, crouched on a dented, beaten toolbox and tugging on the collar of his shirt to circulate air through it. “One of them, anyways.”

True to type, it was CBS, though Abigail couldn’t even begin to guess how anyone kept it working, let alone how it worked to begin with. It was a monstrosity, almost four feet high and built right out of the innards of another manufacturer along with whatever pieces its builders had found along the way. From her first cursory examination of it, there were components from least three different comm systems, an insane mixture of printed circuit boards, wiring and molecular circuits as well as parts from what she believed was some sort of food processor. It was fed from three separate power conduits that had simply been torn out of their mountings and hooked into the jammer. What displays it had were all meaningless; numbers that could mean anything and a fluctuating line chart that could represent power consumption, signal strength or something else entirely. “Credit where it’s due,” she said. “Necessity is the mother of invention and this thing is one proud mother.”

“Do you know how to shut it down?” Ramone asked from the sidelines.

“Oh yeah,” Abigail said. “No problem.”

“How?”

Abby shouldered her carbine and ambled off a short distance, picking up a massive pipe wrench, hefting it across her shoulders as she walked back up to the machine. “Well, I might not know precisely how it works, but I can tell you how to make it stop working.”

“How’s that?” Salvador pressed.

“This,” Abby swung the wrench into the jammer’s flank, caving in the plate she struck, popping its rusted bolts and spot-welds open. The displays flashed abruptly, a red warning light starting to pulse. The mercenary smashed the machine a second time, so hard that she tilted it to one side. The chart started to peak and fall rapidly and the warning light increased its flashing. A third swing smashed circuit boards, ripped wires out of place and carved a path of blunt force destruction through the delicate internal workings. Caught on something, Abby gave the wrench’s handle a savage twist. Something snapped inside the machine and the wrench was free.

The red light flared for a few seconds then winked out as the machine died. Abigail dropped the wrench, looking back to Ramone, who simply stared back at her. “What?”

“Weren’t you afraid it would explode?”

“Jammers aren’t usually packed with plastique,” she shrugged. “Besides this way, they have to build it over again instead of just playing with the settings. And it felt good.”

“Let’s see if your exuberance paid off,” Shannon replied. “This is Corporal Hayes to all Artemis personnel. Report.”

Static, but it was weaker.

“I say again, this is Corporal Hayes. All personnel from the Kerrigan, respond.”

“...ayes...” an unknown voice crackled back. “...at you?” Other voices broke into the channel, but Shannon could only make out the occasional syllable.

“...can’t he...”

“...terfere...”

“...one there...”

“...espon...”

Shannon’s shoulders slumped. She didn’t think that this would be enough, but she’d been hoping for more than an errant word here and there. We’ll need to take out at least one more jammer. “If you can hear this, make your way to the next stop on the tram network. Get to the third tram station. We’ll try and take out the jammers. Hayes, clear.” She looked up at her people. They were tired and sore. She didn’t want to keep pushing them, but she had no choice. “We have a mission,” she announced. “We know others survived. We know they’re out there. We can find them. But we have to be able to reach them. We’re going to find the other jamming centers and we’re going to shut them down, okay?”

They all nodded. With resignation or determination, but it didn’t matter. They were going to get through this.

She hoped.

“Okay. We’ll head back to the tram station. Abigail and I will see if we can narrow down the search area for the next jammer, but until we do-”

The intercomm screeched with a blare of static so loud, Emily, Louis and Ramone dropped to their knees with their hands over their ears and Abigail and Shannon shut off their autosenses before they could be deafened. The scream dropped in pitch and volume; it wasn’t electronic – someone had been screaming into a mike so loudly that only static came out. It wasn’t a scream of pain or fear – it was anger. Pure, undiluted rage.

Thieves!” The voice shrieked. “Thieves and vandals! Trespassers and usurpers! Bitches! Whoresons! You shouldn’t be in here! This is ours! Not yours! Ours ours ours ours! Who sent you? They sent more, didn’t they! This is ours! Not theirs! Not yours! You can’t have it!” Eventually, the speaker seemed to be able to get control of themselves. “More new people, wriggling through my guts like worms. Ugly, filthy worms.” A pause. “Are you enjoying yourselves, are you mighty looking upon my works? Is it not glorious?”

“Who are you?” Abigail demanded. “Identify yourself!”

“Who am I?” the voice mocked. “I am all around you, little worm. I am everything you see here. I am DROP 47.”
   Profile |  

Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-05-10 06:55pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter, Shannon doubts the authenticity of certain claims and the Watcher makes their move.

Coming up (provided I don't change horses in mid-stream): a week in the life of DROP 47 during its heyday.

Chapter 23:

“Bullshit,” Shannon blurted. “We’ve talked to the station.”

“Oh. Ah, yes. I forgot about that,” the voice replied. “Well, I suppose you can’t blame me for trying. Oh, how they twitch when you tell them that.” The Speaker’s voice turned svelte and sharp. “It appears we’ve got a quick thinking little worm wriggling around in my belly. I think you’ll do nicely.”

“Do nicely for what?”

The Speaker ignored her. “And the rest of you thieves... clever worms indeed to make it this far. Yes, you’ll all do.”

“We’re glad you approve,” Abigail bit out.

“I don’t,” the Speaker snapped. “You’re trespassers, sent by jackals to rummage through my guts like parasites. You’ve broken our things, defiled our territory and you’re going to pay for it. But you are clever.”

“You talk about this station like it’s yours,” Emily said. “It isn’t.”

“Near enough.”

“Not hardly,” Abigail replied. “You claim to be 47 but you’re just meat and bone, like everything else here. You’re just some little prick with a comm.” Her helmet came up. “Don’t worry, honey. Mommy’ll find you. She’ll take real good care of you.”

“Don’t bother,” Shannon told her teammate. “He’s not worth talking to.”

“Oh, I think I can handle a crazy asshole with a mike right now,” Abigail replied.

“I mean, he’s not asking anything about us,” Shannon said. “Nothing he hasn’t answered himself. He doesn’t care to ask us like this. He’s trying to stall us. Probably so his friends can get here and then he’ll ask. That’s what he wants. To keep us fixed on him and his little games until it’s too late.”

“It’s not wise to be that clever, little worm,” the Speaker growled.

This time, it was Shannon who ignored him. “We’re moving out,” she announced. “We’re not giving them any more time to come at us.”

“You’re going to die,” the Speaker hissed, the thin veneer of his civility vanishing. “You’ll die screaming and begging. On your knees, on your backs or crawling on your bellies, pleading for just one more day. We’ll find you, before any of the others do. We’ll find you and we’ll have you, little worms. Where do you think you’ll run to? This is 47. This is Acheron. You can’t get out. You can’t call for help. You’re here, the same as us. We will find you and we’ll pick your bones. You think you’ll survive? You’re fools. There’s no one coming for you, no one but the hunters or the eyes in the dark. No one is going to save you. But we’re here, oh yes we are. And you’ll die.”

“Enough from you,” Abigail drew her pistol and pointed it at the nearest intercom. “Mommy spank.” She pulled the trigger.

~

Laughter filled the room, quickly decaying into raspy, wheezing coughs. After a moment, both subsided. A wrinkled finger brushed a tear away from a flaking cheek. “Oh, that was quite priceless. The little moth certainly has vigour. You’ve made an impression on the Masks. I don’t think they’ve had anyone who didn’t cower appropriately for them since... well, for a long time. Yes, little moth, you are a peach.”

A yellow fingernail tapped against a console. “You’re still headed to the flames, though. But not the way you should be.” Eyes shifted to another display: a man was being held off the ground, legs kicking futilely, arms clawing at obsidian vambraces as fingers tightened around his throat. “No, not the way at all. They’re trying to find all of you, and I don’t think they’ll be happy until they do. That’s no good, no good at all. For anyone.”

A chair squeaked as it was pushed back from the wall, dry fingers lacing together. “I was going to just leave your bodies for them, but I’ve been listening, you know. Yes, yes. I think you can help me,” a dry, reedy voice continued its one-sided conversation as a gnarled finger tapped against a blurred image. “Especially you. But for that, I need you alive. For now. So I’m going to give you to the ferals. So you can stay alive. Until I need you. Then they can have you and everything can go back to the way it was. Which is what we all want, isn’t it? Yes, of course.

“Now, if you’d be so kind, head outside so we can greet one another properly, would you? That would be ever so nice. I know my sweetheart has just been dying to finally meet you. She’s not what she used to be you understand, but she still knows a trick or two.”

~

Can you hear me, Calvin?

Meyers twitched; he thought he’d heard Godfrey. He paused in the hall, but there was only the deafening silence of the station around him.

I’m coming for you.

There it was again-!

He spun, the flush of panic making the action far more clumsy that it should have been. He expected to see the gleam of Jane’s disruptor coming up the passageway, or the Ghost’s pale grey armour striding out of the shadows. His heart was pounding in his chest, beads of sweat forming on his forehead as he waited for her. The seconds stretched into painful, wracking minutes, but the corridor remained silent, empty and dark.

You can feel me, can’t you, Calvin? Behind you.

He whirled around with a hoarse, startled cry, the barrel of his cannon spinning, half a second away from showering the corridor with explosive, armour-piercing rounds. Still nothing. Get a grip, Meyers, he told himself. You’re starting to jump at shadows now. Keep it together; there are people counting on you. “Yeah,” he said to himself. “Yeah, I can keep it together. That’s what I’ll do. I have to... I have to make sure everyone’s okay. Colonel put me charge for a reason. So that’s what I’ll do. You hear that, Jane? I’ve got a mission.”

So do I, he thought he heard her say. Finding you.

~

Louis fed the last of the handful of shotgun cartridges he’d found into the weapon. “Plan?”

“We don’t do what they expect us to do,” Shannon replied. With this one jammer down, they were back on the radio. Despite Abigail’s provocative display, North Engineering had a lot for comms for the Speaker to listen in on them.

“And what’s that?”

“Fall back the same way we came in, through the cleared areas. They’ll have teams set up to catch us as soon as we break out that way. One level up, the coreward doors open to a corridor with an avenue that leads back to another tram station. It gives engineering access to large equipment and supplies. We can get to it, call the car. It’s exposed, but we won’t be penned up in the hallways. If there’s fighting, it’s going to draw more of those things. I’d rather not get caught between two fires.”

Louis nodded. “I’m with you.” And if that station was down, it would be a relatively short, straight hike back up the tunnel. Little cover, but it would let the mercenaries have the benefit of range and their body armour. He’d had it with close-in fighting.

“Good to know; you’ve got the shotgun, so you’re on point. Let’s move.”

~

As soon as they left engineering, the overhead glowpanels came alive and began flashing like a dance club’s strobe lights, the rapid shifts between light and dark confounding the mercs’ blacklight vision. Their autosenses were unable to compensate for the constant, abrupt changes between light and dark and they were soon forced to turn them off, though the flashing lights still strained their eyes and slowed their progress. making it difficult to know what was hiding in the shadows.

“Looks like they’ve got some clever worms of their own,” Abigail commented as she broke a primitive spear-thrower, one of several traps protecting this route into the engineering complex. “Let’s go step on them.”

It wasn’t an attempt at wit that had driven the Darkknell’s comment, but an honest admission of her desire for violence. Despite her moments of levity and the affection she showed for her friends and ‘Shannie’, there was a part of the woman that reveled in brutality and this aspect would occasionally slip out. Letting it loose around her friends was the one thing that seemed to frighten Abigail. Whenever it slipped with her erstwhile sister, the Darkknell seemed ashamed, as if it was something that she didn’t want her ‘little sister’ to know about. Shannon was willing to play along, to let Abby think she’d never noticed, though both of them knew otherwise. It was the illusion that mattered and now was no different. “You’re getting better at your one-liners,” Shannon observed, trying to lighten the mood

Luckily, Abigail took the bait, eager to make the comment seem like a corny witticism instead of what it really was. “I know, right? After all this, I’ll have sufficient dry wit to make it as an action hero in the vids.”

Ramone mumbled something under his breath as he stepped over the remains of the spear-thrower. “I heard that,” Abigail grunted.

“So what? None of us are going to get out of here! It’s fine for you three to talk tactics, but you’ve got guns and armour – we don’t have either of those. And now we’re going to get attacked by... by more feral people! There could be dozens of them.”

When they’d first been getting to know one another, Shannon had taught Abigail one of the children’s languages from Halo, a sign language that the two of them had shared for private jokes and comments. Now the private’s fingers moved. We need him?

Yes, Shannon emphatically signed back. “Salvador.” She used his first name, catching his attention. “I know this situation isn’t the best,” she repeated the rhetoric in spirit, if not line-for-line. “But we’re doing the best we can. You’re going to have to trust us. If we can’t stick together, we’re only going to die alone.” She gave his shoulder a squeeze. “This isn’t want you signed on for. I know. None of us expected this. But we have to – we have to – be willing to work with each other. We’re not going to leave you or Emily behind. We’re not going to knowingly expose you to danger. But we are going to have to take risks. There’s no way around that. So you can accept that and stay with us, or try to make it on your own. But this sniping has to stop.”

Ramone looked like he was going to protest further, but simply nodded, averting his eyes. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “It just...” he scratched at the back of his head. “Sorry. You’re right.”

“Good. Let’s keep moving, then.”

~

Blood dripped down the bulkhead, pooling on the floor around the body of a newcomer. He had had no useful information, nothing more than panicked gibbering and prayers to ancestors. Another soft weakling, not even a challenge. But it had still been pleasurable.

-hunting and killing, as it should be-

The New Ones were scattered and helpless. Easily found. Easily killed. It was too easy to lapse into arrogance and expect them all to be this way, cowering and soiling themselves. It was the cairn that did this. It was Umbra and the Veil. Outside it, things were much different. Father had told them that. That was why they stayed here, where it was safe.

-crack open their ribs and tear their lungs-

The Old Ones had known, of course. How could they not? And the Old Ones hadn’t forgotten. But that was all right. Neither had they. And one day, they would make sure the Old Ones remembered everything. The birth was just another step in that journey, but one that had to be made all the same.

-sow panic and destruction, fire and ruination-

The cry had been silenced – all that was left was to wipe out the rest of the New Ones. Then everything would be as it should.

Until the next time.

-blood-

~

“Motion!” Abigail announced. “Multiple hostiles, many bearings.”

Shannon raised her pistol, staring down a side corridor. Nothing. “Lock it down, Three.”

“Trying, Four. Too much interference from the superstructure. It’s scattering the readings. I can’t sort substance from signal.”

They started to howl. A rolling, ululating chorus of screams that seemed to fill every corridor, echo around every corner. Rising and falling like some maddened predator’s cry, intended to flush its prey into the open where the pack could bring it down.

“Where are they?” Louis shouted. “I don’t have a sighting!”

“There!” Emily shouted, pointing. Through the flashes of the strobing overhead lights, she could just make out movement. A lot of movement. “On the left!”

“From the right!” Louis shouted. “More bogeys!”

We tripped an alarm when we entered engineering, Shannon realized. There was no other way this many people could have gotten here that fast. The unnerving calls continued as the ferals marched towards them; Shannon could just make out odd shapes in their hands, but she otherwise couldn’t tell if they had guns or simple clubs and cleavers. The silhouettes of their heads were wrong; some wore helmets, others had other headgear, but that was all she could tell of them at the moment. They continued to march towards the survivors, not even bothering to take shelter or use cover. The chorus of shrieks grew louder, more disorganized as the horde worked themselves up into a berserker fury.

Then without warning, the cries abruptly stopped. The ferals stopped in their tracks. Through the flashing lights, Shannon could make out rebreathers and theatrical masks staring back at them, wide salivating grins beneath them. Arms shivered in anticipation, and she could see some of the swarm shift position, recognizing the telltale flickers of motion that meant they were tensing up, about to charge. “Three – our route to the tram?”

“I think it’s still clear, Four.”

“On three, then. Everyone, ready? Good. One... two... three!”

They broke and ran, only a handful of seconds ahead of the berserker screams as their attackers charged on their heels, piling through the hallways in a baying, frothing swarm just as Primal’s crew had overrun Delta Squad.

Louis dropped back to cover Emily and Ramone; Shannon heard the crash of his shotgun. Ahead, Abigail leapt over a blocking crate and slid over the floor, knocking several steel-jawed traps out of the way, the devices prematurely snapping shut as Abby’s booted feet kicked them aside. The Darkknell rolled to her feet, hunkering down behind the crate and fired a burst from her carbine. Someone shrieked in pain.

Something sharp whistled by Shannon’s ear as she vaulted the box, helping Emily and Ramone across in turn. A bullet flattened against Hernandez’s backplate as the merc dove over the cargo pallet. He thumped Abigail on the shoulder and she fell back. Louis followed a moment later, the survivors racing to the tram station as Hell itself clamoured behind them.

~

“And... there you are,” a tongue ran over cracked lips. “Got you.”

~

Shannon wasn’t the first to notice it – the sudden disorientation and loss of balance, the telltale distortion in the air, like heat rising off a desert road – but she was the first to recognize what it meant. The cry of warning was pulled out of her throat as she slammed into the floor, her own shout lost amidst the sudden squawks of confusion and fear as Emily and Ramone went down ahead of her, thudding to the floor.

Abby saw what was happening, but couldn’t stop herself in time; she fell to her hands and knees, howling in rage and pain like an animal herself as she struggled against the pull of the malfunctioning grav plates, eventually collapsing to the deck. As the rearguard, Louis didn’t even have that chance; his attention fully on their pursuers, he went down with a short, shocked cry.

Shannon gritted her teeth, trying to force herself up, but it felt as if the life was being crushed out of her. Augmented muscles strained against the pull, but it kept increasing. “Stop fighting,” a new voice broke into her channel. “I don’t want to kill you. But you have to stop.” She didn’t even hear him, only recognizing another damned enemy in the man’s words and she screamed, a wordless cry of anger and despair as the strength went out of her and she let herself lay there, pinned and helpless.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the ferals pause at the end of the field. One strode out of the group and Shannon’s eyes widened. He wore an ill-fitting suit of armour, intended for someone shorter and bulkier than he. It was Artemis armour, dented and beaten. One side of the helmet had been buckled inwards and cracks radiated across the visor. One the left temple, there was a serial number and name:

100-745-4356-12
St. Cloud.

Abigail must have noticed it too, because the Darkknell roared; there was no other word for that kind of sound, one so fierce that it caused two of their pursuers to startle and back away. But not the man in the armour. He crouched down at the edge of the grav field and though she couldn’t see his face, Shannon could hear the smile in his voice as he looked over at his followers. “Fortune favours the children.” He leaned towards Shannon. “On your knees, your backs or your bellies. You were told. Now, little worms... now you’re ours.”
   Profile |  

Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-05-12 06:58pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
In this chapter, some secrets and hints. Everett Hayes takes his time on DROP 47 one day at a time. Some are better than others.

Coming up: Shannon learns something about herself and the term 'physician, heal thyself' is shown to have its limits.

"You promised me pretty, doctor! You promised you'd make me pretty!"


Chapter 24:

Then:

Sunday:

“Hold him down!”

“You can’t stop it!” Junior researcher Adam Badoab screamed, froth spewing from his mouth as he struggled against the orderlies. “You can’t! It’s coming! It’s coming and you can’t stop it, all of you! Any of you! Get away from me! Don’t put that poison in me! I see you! Whispering, plotting against me! You can’t do this! I won’t let you! Get off of me! I’ll kill you all, I swear I will!”

The man fought against the medical personnel holding him down, pink spittle spraying from his mouth as he shrieked at them, cursing and howling paranoid epithets and imprecations.

“I’ve seen enough, Vigil,” Everett Hayes said to the station’s AI. “Shut it down.”

The screen blipped off obediently. Hayes drummed his fingers against the desk. Badoab had been one of the crew assigned to studying the first Obelisk, one of the team tasked with extracting the ‘sliver’. His was not the most extreme case, either. The head of the team, Li Chang, had been found dead in her quarters two days ago. She’d hung herself. Her suicide note had been two words.

No escape.

~

Monday:

She made a crackling buzz, trying to get his attention.

Everett looked up. “What?”

Her eyes were on the half-eaten chocolate bar in his right hand, ignored as his left frantically scribbled down notes on a datapad. She licked her lips.

He smiled. “Is this what you want?”

A vociferous nod, paired with a long, low mewl.

He regarded the candy seriously for a few moments, then looked back at her. “You know what you have to do for it.”

She made a gesture that wasn’t – quite – severe enough to be a snap, but the click of her teeth against each other was still audible and it was still a display of aggression. Everett simply waited. Finally, her mouth worked for a moment: “May I have some?” Each word was pronounced carefully, making sure she got them right. Her struggles with language weren’t because she was unintelligent or incapable of grasping the concept – neither was true.

She and her sister were the oldest, both of them ‘born’ (if you could call it that) before he’d arrived on 47. Any developmental psychologist could tell you that there was a critical period in a young child’s mental growth for learning speech. The previous research team hadn’t worked hard enough with her and her sister during that vital window, seeing them as just another step towards a ‘final, finished product’. Even the rest of the ‘line’ were considered with that same dismissive mindset.

Which was probably why the staff and security in section I had had the highest rates of injury and death. At least, until Hayes had taken over. Schadenfreude, perhaps. But he wasn’t quite civilized enough not to still feel some level of satisfaction about his accomplishments in that regard. However, he did like to think that how far they’d come since his arrival was more of a testament to them than anything he’d done. They were clever. Very feral (and he knew who to thank for that and why), but intelligent. Aggressive, yes. Inquisitive, yes. Curious. Eager. Even playful. Like a cat with a mouse, but still.

“Are you going to share this with your sister?”

She made a dismissive fft sound.

Everett arched an eyebrow. “Are you?”

Her eyes darted down to the floor, then back up to his face. “Yes,” she acquiesced.

“Okay,” he handed her the candy. She reached for it, snatching it out of his hands and scurried off, calling for her sibling.

Everett smiled, watching as the two of them growled and feinted at each other, trying to decide how to decide on an equitable distribution of the chocolate. Truth be told, he wasn’t fond of the stuff himself. But it gave him an excuse to slip them a little treat now and then. He looked back at his notes, noting with satisfaction the last line of the paragraph.

...no sign of neurological disorder.

~

Tuesday:

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Hayes looked over at Black. The F-division department head had been acting increasingly erratic these past few weeks, but this appeared to be one of his calmer periods. Everett would have liked to say that it was just the stress of the situation getting to the Terran, but that would only be denial playing at reason. Hayes had noted significant behavioural changes in several other staff members – not just those on the initial contact team. Increasingly short tempers and trouble sleeping were the most common symptoms. Difficulty focusing, paranoia and, finally, self-destructive acts and/or violence.

Even among the more... unpleasant DROPs, 47’s reputation had always made it stand out. Hayes had looked over the medical files; the station had the highest rate of mental disorders out of all the Imperium’s installations. The highest rate of drug prescriptions, medical leaves and personnel reassignments. That had always been blamed on the claustrophobic feel of the Mists and 47’s extreme isolation. Everett wasn’t so sure. In fact, he knew for a fact that it wasn’t.

In the past 4 years, there had been 17 murders, six suicides and 78 cases of assault, ranging from battery to sexual. In comparison, a similar DROP – 82 – had had three deaths in the same span of time, and two of those were accidents. 82 was another Elysium, and almost as isolated as 47. There was something about 47, something no one had wanted to admit existed even as it ate away at them, bit by bit. Something that they were prepared to ignore because of its value.

That had changed with the retrieval of the ‘sliver’. Now, everyone had a better idea of what was happening, but they still ignored it – Earth’s need was too great. The Imperials were willing to pay any price to sate that need – their friends, their minds. Their souls.

“Isn’t it?” Justin prompted again.

Everett looked down at the focus of Black’s attention. The ‘sliver’. A fragment hewn from a dead god’s bones. Surrounded by machines and researchers, it dwarfed them all. Despite the lights shining on it, it was like staring into impenetrable shadows, as if its surface simply swallowed the light whole, radiating darkness in its place. Bound like a living thing, probed by scanners, analyzed and examined endlessly in an effort to force it to divulge its secrets. Hayes felt his skin crawl. It wasn’t the terror of the unknown; he knew what this thing was. What it did, what it was doing even now. And what harnessing it would mean. ‘Victory’ was what some said. The people who either didn’t think of, or didn’t care about the consequences.

And another piece of their souls was swallowed by Acheron.

He thought he could hear it. Sometimes it was a low, throbbing pulse, pounding softly but relentlessly within his skull. Other times it was like listening to the skritch-scratch of mice in the walls, rustling and clicking as they swarmed through an old, rotten house. Occasionally, it felt like trying to listen to a crowd that was constantly whispering to each other. A nonstop babble of voices and the more he tried to focus on them, the fainter they grew, receding into the corners of his mind. When his attention wavered, they slipped to the fore, babbling in hushed tones, speaking of terrible things.

“Yes, Justin,” Hayes agreed, hoping that Black did not see the lie in his eyes, the revulsion in them. “It is.” He stared into the darkness of the sliver’s form and wondered, not for the first time, if there was something in that abyss that was staring back.

~

Wednesday:

“I’ve been looking through your reports,” Jung said around a mouthful of food. When Hayes had arrived, Jung had been thin and energetic. Now he was rarely seen without something to eat close at hand. “And I’m pleased by how well the sevens are doing.”

“Thank you, sir,” Everett replied as the general stuck one greasy hand back into a bag of snacks. The scientist waited for the inevitable follow-up question, dreading it.

“How long until we can deploy them?”

There it was. Hayes took a breath, mind racing. He’d run through this conversation a hundred times in his head, thought up a thousand different answers to Jung’s question. Ways to phrase it, to soften the blow, to misdirect or obfuscate. Instead, he opted for simplicity. “Years,” he said, making it as direct as possible.

Jung froze, staring at Hayes for a moment. “Years,” the military man repeated carefully.

“Yes, sir. At least seven.”

“Seven.” Jung tapped his fingers against his desk. “Has it occurred to you, doctor, that Earth might not have seven years?”

“I know, sir. But I also know that you and your superiors want a product that works,” he gently stressed the last word. Despite his expanding waistline and increasingly incendiary temper, Jung was still an intelligent man. Hayes could appeal to that. “That’s why you brought me on board. 47’s previous attempts to get the... product line operational were all disastrous failures.” That was putting it mildly. In the year before he’d arrived, five “workplace-related fatalities” and nine severe injuries were the result of previous researchers’ bungling.

“I have your reports right here,” Jung noted, calling up a screen. “You note that series-7 hasn’t shown any adverse reactions to ‘ambient conditions’ and their ability to learn proceeds at – what did you say? Ah, yes – ‘ a phenomenal, almost frightening pace’.” He leaned forward. “Why aren’t they ready?”

Everett noticed the tone in the general’s voice. “Physiologically, they’re still children,” he reminded the officer. “And if you recall, each attempt at using maturation chambers to increase their rate of growth ended in disaster.”

“But by your own words, series 7 is the most stable,” Jung protested. He didn’t like Hayes’ assessments, but he wasn’t prepared to challenge them too strenuously, especially when he knew the doctor was right.

“True. But that determination is relative. Before the late Senior Researcher Kraczynski tried the same procedure with the sixes, she’d declared them to be the most stable.” Unsaid: And we know what happened to her.

Jung rapped his knuckles on the tabletop. “Earth isn’t going to like this, Hayes. The whole point of the project was to-”

“With respect sir, I know what the goals of the project are,” Hayes interjected. “I also understand Earth’s need and that they may chose to override your own decisions in this matter. However, I stand by my assessment: they’re not ready.” He paused. First the stick, then the carrot. “However, I have developed something that I believe will be useful in the interim.”

Jung’s face had darkened significantly during Hayes speech, but at the Halo’s last words, he blinked in surprise. “You have?”

“Yes, sir.” Everett handed the man a flimsi. “It’s only preliminary research – I haven’t had the oppurtunity to really iron out the kinks – but it’s based on their neurophysiology. I believe I’ve isolated one factor that makes them so resistant to F-type contamination. With a little work, it should be possible to develop an ‘inoculation’ of sorts for our personnel. While the sevens themselves may not be ready, this will allow the other teams to speed up their research on the Obelisks and – possibly – even increase access to Umbra itself.”

The general skimmed through the research notes, nodding. “This does seem to have some promise, Everett. I’ll get Black’s group to look over it. If there is something here, this will go a long way to mollifying my superiors on Earth. Good work.”

“Thank you, sir. I just wanted to make sure you knew I wasn’t wasting my time.”

“Never crossed my mind,” Jung smiled. Both of them knew that had accusation had been coming if Hayes hadn’t delivered something. “Good work, doctor. I’ll let you get back to your kids.” He chuckled.

~

Thursday:

“It’s a mess, Ev,” The head of station security, ‘chief’ Gundis Alvadotter, said as she shovelled food into her mouth. “Everything’s getting worse and I can’t seem to be able to do anything to stop it.”

Everett nodded, watching with the usual morbid fascination as his companion’s lunch vanished at a staggering pace. Unlike General Jung, there was no trace of additional weight to be found on Gundis’ honed, muscular figure. The woman was a Ferskt, or ‘New Nord’. Like Halo, Ferskt had been settled by a colony intending to use genetic engineering to better their population. However, (as every Halo school child was taught) Halo’s Primaries had done so in order to create a beacon of peace and enlightenment by increasing its people’s intellect, rationality and reason.

Ferskt’s ‘Opprinneligs’ had wanted something else entirely: to conquer. To breed a race of super-soldiers. Only they hadn’t done as such a good job as the Primaries had. Despite that, many Ferskt alterations were similar to the adjustments the Primaries had made, but there were differences. For example, Ferskt levels of aggression were much higher than human standard. All too frequently, Ferskts were seen much as rabid dogs straining at the leash. And with an unfortunate frequency, this assessment was correct; Ferskts would occasionally react with out-of-proportion violence to minimal provocation. Many cultures stereotyped the New Nords as mindless, frothing maniacs, but Everett had found ‘chief’ Alvadotter to be thoughtful, intelligent and quite charming.

Even if she did require a prescription of mood-stabilizing drugs to keep her innate aggressive tendencies in check.

“What do you mean?” Everett inquired politely, sprinkling some salt over his own meal. Like all Ferskts, Gundis’s increased metabolism’s demands meant that a single meal was often large enough to feed a small family. Halo metabolism was higher than normal, but more fluid; in harsh conditions it could be depressed (though with an accompanying slower rate of activity) while in favourable situations, it would rise. Hayes had never really liked the comparison to similar changes in deep-ocean fish, but it was an apt one.

“Don’t be coy with me, Ev,” Gundis said, pointing her fork at him. “You know precisely what I’m talking about. What nobody else is talking about. Ever since Chang and her team brought that little piece of so-secret-you’ll-have-to-shoot-yourself-for-thinking-about-it back to 47, my job has been getting a lot harder. Incidents have tripled and this is only the tip of the iceberg. And this latest horseshit from Black...”

Everett raised an eyebrow. “What’s Justin done now?”

“Oh, nothing. He just wants us to pack anyone who bugs out off to section F for ‘observation and treatment’.” Disgustedly, Gundis tossed her ‘scroll over to Hayes, snapping up another two mouthful of food. “The only treatment I know for buggers is getting them the Hell off this station. That is why we’ve got so many new boots constantly hitting the deck, even with the war sucking up manpower, right? Now, you tell me how keeping them here does them any good?” She sighed. “I mean, I’m going to run out of holding cells sooner or later and I suppose that having them so close to the division that investigates this kind of thing is good, but...”

Hayes nodded, only partly listening as he scanned through the memo Black had sent to Alvadotter. DROP 47 did have a relatively high turnover rate so people who caught ‘the bug’ could be shipped out as soon as possible. Although this seemed like a security breach waiting to happen, Imperial Intelligence was noted for its effectiveness with good reason (very good reason in fact). So far the Coalition remained blissfully unaware of the existence of DROP 47, despite its constant need for fresh, clear-headed troops. “It’s possible Justin wants to run trials of my new inoculation on affected personnel,” he mused.

Gundis shook her head. “I’m telling you, Ev – Black needs to be watched. He worries me. And Constanza... that last little security breach of hers cost me two heads.”

“I thought Samuels wasn’t that badly hurt?”

“Well, if you don’t count losing an arm. But yeah, you’re right. Constanza cleared her and Medical says the regeneration’s going well, but she’s still heading out when Razorback pulls in again. Can’t say I blame her. I never thought I’d say this, but your division is actually coming in last in incidents amongst the big three.” Alvadotter chuckled grimly. “Whatever you’re doing in there, keep it up.”

~

Friday:

Everett sat in the darkened observation lounge, slowly drumming his fingers against the plush arm of the sofa. “It’s not enough,” he said into the silence. “I know it isn’t.”

Then what do I do? The Imperium stands between Halo and the Coalition and the Imperium might not win without Umbra. God help me, what do I do? I can’t let this happen – can I? What can I... No, no that’s insane. Criminal. I can’t. My world... it could die. I have to focus on that. Nothing else matters.

He remembered their faces, bright and eager, whenever he entered their habitat. It was his work that had let them make it this far. Earlier researchers hadn’t thought of – or had simply ignored – what had seemed so simple and obvious to him. He’d gotten a few cuts from when he’d pushed too a bit too fast or far, but he was pleased with what he’d done. Or at least he’d used to be. Now he was just one of those people he’d despised for making a ‘product’, to be delivered, used up and thrown away when it was no longer needed.

As he’d mused earlier in the week, each day he spent aboard DROP 47 cost him a bit more of his soul. Then what do I do? Hundreds of lives weighed against billions; that was the decision Halo made. It’s the one I made. Is there any going back from that? Do I have the right? In one hand, Halo. His home, his world and the billions people upon it. In the other... those eager eyes that watched him. Trusted him. What do I do? What can I do?

Plan.

It was nothing, but at the same time it was something. “Vigil,” he said to the air.

“On-line,” the computer replied instantly. “What do you require, Director Hayes?”

“Deliver to my quarters’ workstation a review of security procedures in all high-security laboratories.”

“You are cleared for that information,” Vigil mused as it processed the information. “However, notification of such a request will be sent to all associated Project Directors and station security.”

“That’s all right, Vigil.”

“Very well. Data compiled and delivered to specified destination. Do you require anything else at the moment?”

“No thank you.”

“Logging you out,” the AI commented and silence once again descended on the room.

“So there it is,” Hayes said into the empty, darkened room. “One more step.” Towards, what though? Putting such thoughts from his mind, Everett closed his eyes and tried to lose himself in the quiet.

And the mice kept scratching at the walls.

~

Saturday:

Standing in the waiting room outside General Corman’s office, Captain Alexei Ragnikov looked out the window to admire his ship’s lines. The UCWS Duty Before Glory was a fine ship. Fresh from the yards at Davios Minor, it was from the third generation of Coalition builds. Meaning it won’t lose quite as badly against an Imperial ship of the same tonnage as the Type IIs and Is do, Ragnikov thought sardonically. Of course if all went as planned on this mission, Duty Before Glory would never face an Imperial ship at all, let alone something of battlecruiser weight.

‘Mission’, the New Kursk native thought with a shake of his head. What mission, exactly? All I’ve been told is that Duty is being pulled from the active roster for some clandestine snatch-and-smash that ‘shouldn’t’ see any combat! He tapped his fingers impatiently against the bulkhead; the Coalition was gearing up for the final push against the Imperium and the Earthers were falling back on almost every front. They were making the Coalition pay for every inch of space, but the inescapable fact was that Earth was losing.

We only need to keep the pressure on them, keep grinding them down. And to do that, we need every Type III we can build! But no, Command has a ferret up their ass about something and I get yanked from the line. Brilliant. He leaned against the window, pressing his forehead against the cold, clear metal. I should be out there. I want to be. I need to.

One of Corman’s aides poked her head into the room. “Sorry for the wait, Captain Ragnikov; the general has just been finalizing some details, but he’s ready to see you now.”

“Thank you,” Ragnikov said, discarding his morose thoughts as he picked up his beret and tucked it under his arm, letting the aide escort him to Corman’s office.

The general gestured for Alexei to sit down. “Please be seated, captain, Would you care for something to drink?”

“No thank you, sir,” Alexei politely waved off the general’s offer.

“Very well, we’ll get right to business. A full briefing will be sent to your ship shortly, but I’d just like a chance to discuss the bare bones with you here and now. I’m sure your new orders have come as something a surprise and perhaps a disappointment, yes? I know you were slated to accompany General Bergerac into Hell’s Mouth, but the Joint Assembly has a more pressing need for you and your ship.”

“I understand it’s some sort of covert insertion, sir.”

“Not... quite, captain.” Corman leaned back in his chair. “We’ve heard... rumours. Very troubling rumours, captain. Every time we’ve tried to get confirmation on them, Imperial Intelligence has shut us down hard and fast. Which is its own kind of confirmation, I suppose. But getting that has cost us quite a few men and women already.” After a moment, the general stood and paced; whatever this mission, whatever these ‘rumours’ were, they were clearly unsettling.

“Your ship will be running completely black, captain,” Corman said after a moment. “Your assignment will not be noted in any log or order of battle. You will not stop for supplies. You will not answer any transmissions. You will not respond to any distress calls. No hint of your presence must be allowed to leak back to Earth. As far as anyone knows, you and Duty Before Glory will have accompanied General Bergerac to Hell’s Mouth as you were scheduled to and were destroyed re-taking that system. I wanted to tell you this personally, so that you’d understand just how serious Command is taking this mission.”

Alexei felt his eyes widen. “I’m beginning to understand, sir.”

“Good. We’re sending you ghost-hunting, captain, deep into Imperial-controlled space. The odds are good that you may not come back from this mission, even if you succeed. But we need to know. We need to be certain.”

“Certain about what, sir?”

The general turned back to Ragnikov. “Sure that we’ve either been chasing a paper tiger, or that it’s a real one. If it is... God help us all. I assume you’ve heard of the Twilight Fields, captain?”

“In passing, sir. Some kind of navigational hazard, I understand.”

“Some kind, yes. Now tell me, captain – have you ever heard of DROP 47?”
   Profile |  

Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-05-22 07:40pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
There's a Dragon Age reference in here for those who've played it. If you haven't, then I guess my plagiarism Tarantinoesque homage will pass un-noticed. :P

Shannon's self-discovery may be a bit delayed, but that doesn't mean other people aren't learning lots of useful information. And the Cowardly Lion meets up with the Tin Man. All that's left is a Scarecrow, a girl and a dog.

Coming up: And you thought your HMO was bad...

Chapter 25:

As the grav field relented, the feral horde swarmed over the survivors, stripping them of their weapons and hauling them roughly to their feet. The man in St. Cloud’s gear marched up and down in front of them like an officer inspecting his troops. It took several of the feral men and women to hold Abigail back from lunging at him, and only then just barely. A torrent of Darkknell curses spilled from her lips for several moments before she managed to control herself. “You’re a dead man,” she hissed, vicious and quiet. It wasn’t a threat. It wasn’t a boast or impotent imprecation borne of fear. It was a promise. That no matter what happened or how long it took, Abigail would find a way to make his life end in her hands.

“Aren’t we all?” Dead Man asked, unmoved by Abigail’s anger. He looked up and down at the prisoners, cocking his head towards Louis. “Some more than others.” He strode towards Hernandez and Shannon narrowed her eyes, watching him. The feral’s movement wasn’t the predatory gait that Shannon associated with Abigail, nor the confident swagger of her mercenary companions. It was an imitation of them, one hobbled by repeated injury and illness. “Left like presents, squirming on the ground.” He looked into the shadows on the ceiling. “Are you watching, coward? Is this a gift, something to make us forgive and forget?” He spat on the ground. “Never.”

Dead Man turned his attention back to Louis, grabbing the man’s chin and turning his head this way and that, examining the mercenary’s sallow skin. “Aren’t we all dead?” he repeated, then answered his own question. “Yes. But some more than others,” he repeated. His stolen helmet snapped back to Shannon and Abigail, his tone suddenly vicious. “Strip them. Let’s see a worm’s face.”

Hands fastened around her helmet and pulled it off, a puff of steam escaping into the station’s cold, dry atmosphere. Shannon braced herself for tugs at her cuirass and armour, but the ferals stopped at removing her and Abigail’s helmets. Dead Man strode up to them, eyeing each of them up and down in turn. “Interesting. Unexpected. Healthy. Strong. Very good... for worms.” He froze in front of Abigail, her sweat-slicked locks of dark blonde hair pasted to her scalp and cheeks, her blue-grey eyes full of hate. The woman’s expression was utterly blank save for the touch of an unconscious, adrenalin-fuelled smile pulling on her lips.

Shannon recognized that expression, it was that look, the one that the Darkknell wore as she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – reign in the brutal, ugly Darkknell part of her. “You’re going to die,” she said to the feral. “I don’t care what made you this way. I don’t care what it’s like to live in this place.” That awful, predatory grin widened. It wasn’t a conscious reaction. “I’m going to hurt you,” she promised.

He slapped her, the flat of his hand coming down on her bandaged throat. Abigail hissed with pain and Dead Man grabbed her by the chin. “You’re already hurt, little worm. Did one of your brothers do this? Someone who felt Acheron’s call? Or was it one of the blessed dead? Were you kissed by one of the turned?” His hand tightened on her jaw, meeting her eyes through the broken visor. “You’ll hurt nothing. You’ll kill nothing. You are a thief and trespasser and you – all of you – will know your place.” He let her go, raising his voice. “This is Acheron! None of you understand. You’re heard the screams. You’ve felt the whispers. You’ve read the words, but none of you know what it is like. You will, though. None of your friends will survive. No rescue will make it here alive. The eyes in the dark are watching. They saw you when you blundered into their domain. We see you now.” His gaze shifted over to Shannon.

“And you. Another little worm. The clever one. The quiet one.” He reached out and brushed the young woman’s own wet, red forelocks back over her scalp. Shannon recoiled from his touch, but the masked figures behind her held her and kept her from pulling away entirely. “What do you say?” the feral man asked. “What have you learned about Acheron?”

“I know you need help,” Shannon began. “A rescue ship is coming for us. When it gets here, it can take everyone. You can come with us, you can leave-”

Dead Man backhanded Shannon, hard enough to snap her head to one side. “Weren’t you listening?!” His outraged scream drowned out even Abigail’s furious snarl as she fought the men holding her, nearly wrestling her way free.

The leader paid his compatriots no attention as they struggled to keep the enraged Darkknell in check; instead he grabbed a fistful of dark red hair and painfully yanked Shannon’s head up to face him. Blood dribbled down her split lip, a dark bruise already forming on her cheek. “Don’t you understand?!” he snarled, his tone fluctuating between incredulous pity and apoplectic fury, as if he was unable to decide whether to be angry at her defiance, or pitying of her lack of understanding. “No one gets off 47, little worm! They won’t let you! This place is your home now!” he ranted. “Tell me, clever worm – what do you have to say about that?”

She tried to put up a brave, stoic face against the man’s abuse and insults, tried to stare him down as Abigail did, but she couldn’t. She just couldn’t and her lower lip quivered. With an effort, she managed to still it. “I say,” Shannon said carefully, keeping the quaver out of her voice. “That Abby’s right.” She braced herself, expecting the feral to strike her again, and his hand clutched her hair tighter, but the blow never came.

Instead he laughed and let go of her. Carefully, he raised up St. Cloud’s helmet, exposing his mouth. His teeth weren’t rotten, but neither were they perfectly clean. His lips were scarred with self-mutilation. The corners of his mouth had been cut back up into a smile and though the scars hadn’t healed evenly, they still made it seem as if he were always grinning, making the smile he wore now even more grotesque. The feral soldier touched the tip of one armoured finger to Shannon’s lips, the other hand holding his helmet up. “Shhh,” he whispered. “Don’t talk. It spoils the moment.” His tongue ran over his scarred lips and he leaned in, licking her face from cheek to temple, the young woman shivering in disgust.

Dead Man ran his tongue over his scarred lips, as if savouring the taste of the young woman’s sweat. He lowered St. Cloud’s helmet, still staring into Shannon’s eyes. “He was right,” he pronounced. “You will do nicely.”

~

Armin panted, leaning against a bulkhead for support as he wiped the sweat from his brow. The tram station was only just ahead – it felt like he’d been running for hours and he just couldn’t keep going. He was an engineering petty officer, not one of the mudfeet mercs. He couldn’t run on nothing but adrenalin and combat drugs. Five minutes. That was all he needed. Just five minutes of peace, then he could keep going.

It was quiet here. Almost quiet. He could still hear the hunting calls of those monstrous, shambling things. Like birds or wild animals whistling in the distance. There would be the occasional muted gunshot or faded scream. He thought he’d escaped from the stalkers, though. He prayed he had. He expected every shadow to hold one of them, every corridor to have one standing there, waiting for him. The bullet in the back, the feel of a knife at his throat, that awful voice as the last thing you ever heard. Not me. Please, not me. Not like that.

The radio was working. Not well, but he’d heard the Halo girl over it. He thought it was her, anyways. He also thought she’d been saying for other survivors to make their way to the third tram station. Well, he’d been on his way to the second anyways, so that-

Oh.

There, laying in the hall, was the ruined corpse of one of Eta’s heavy troopers.

~

Jane Godfrey knelt in the corridor, hunched down like a crouching ogre. With her left hand, she touched her fingers to the trail of blood and slime, drips and drops that had splattered to the deck, others in the imprint of heavy booted feet. She smeared the mixture of body fluids and industrial waste between her thumb and forefinger. He came this way, she mused. Killing as he went.

Meyers was learning, then. She grinned beneath her helmet. Calvin hadn’t learned enough, though. Her heard came up as she heard something call out in the distance, freezing as she tried to discern what something had made it. It called out again, more warbling, like a bird. Only Turned. She relaxed slightly. Only slightly, though. Before Shelby had quarantined the ship, Primal had broken into DROP 47’s half-functional surveillance grid. Most of the cams were long since destroyed by age or damage, but a few still worked, here and there. She’d seen feral hunting parties, been tortured by the mirage of the oases, and watched in horror at what awoke whenever DROP 47 entertained guests.

The eyes were watching, staring from every shadow. She just had to hope they didn’t see her. Not before she completed her mission. She was too much of a realist to hope for anything more than that.

Not here, not in Acheron.

~

It had once been a woman. Armin couldn’t tell any more than that, though. And frankly, he was none too sure about even that. The corpse was utterly ruined, massacred by several different types of weapons. Three holes, each the size of his fist, had been punched in the Eta trooper’s breastplate, which was molten and charred around the edges. Lutzberg swallowed; he knew – he thought he knew – what had caused that. Petty Officer Jacob Crane was... had been... one of Kerrigan’s armoury ratings, and Lutzberg’s good friend. On more than one of their frequent lunches together, Jacob had gone on and on about Imperial weapons technology, practically salivating at the thought of what might be left on DROP 47. He’d droned on and on about Imperial technology until Armin had wanted to reach across the table and slap him.

But it had given him a basic understanding of Imperial weapons technology.

Lutzberg touched a shaking finger to one of the holes in the trooper’s cuirass. They were still warm, warmer than the woman’s fading body heat could account for. Something had burned through the armour, superheating the water in the trooper’s body; that coupled with the thermal shock of having her tissues raised hundreds of degrees in an instant had been what had killed her. One would have been sufficient, but three... fired rapidly, clustered together in a single, accurate burst.

A laser hadn’t done this. This had come from a plasma weapon. A controlled plasma pulse. The Imperium had experimented with that technology, but had never found a way to make it efficient and practical. There were cheaper alternatives. Plasma weapons had remained a dead-end technology for the past six hundred years, little more than unpredictable, dangerous and esoteric analogs to flamethrowers.

Until someone on DROP 47 had used them.

That was the killing blow, but the trooper had fought long and hard until then. Her right arm – and the heavy rifle attached to it – had been severed at the elbow, sheared through by what looked like a disruptor and her legs were mangled, twisted into an abstract painting. Armin felt his gorge rise. Just like Jackson. Just... ripped apart. Armour, bone, muscles – just came right apart. God. God! Who can do this? This isn’t possible! She’d fought; they’d taken her arm. She’d run; they’d taken her legs. She’d lay here, unable to fight or flee and they’d taken her life.

And above her, as it had been in the first tram station, was a message: WE ARE WATCHING.

Shaking in terror, Armin stood up. If they’d made it this far, then he wasn’t safe. He had to keep moving. Get to the tram station, find someone else. Anyone else. It didn’t matter who, just as long as they were alive. That’s all he was hoping for.

God, please. That’s all I ask.

The petty officer froze, ears straining. No... that was impossible. His mind was just playing tricks on him. There was no way... no. It was insane.

He thought he could hear someone singing.

And then a hand clamped around his mouth.

“Ssshh,” a voice whispered in Armin’s ear, cutting off his muffled scream. “It’s all right. I’m a friend – I’m from Kerrigan. My name’s Mack Bujold. I was corporate security for Hadley-Wright. You remember that?”

With one of the stranger’s hands around his throat and the other still clapped tight over his mouth, Lutzberg could only nod in response. Despite hiring Artemis, Hadley-Wright had sent along a small handful of their own security personnel, officially to police any problems within the expedition team, but there’d been a lot of friction between the mercenaries and the corper security unit, each considering the other as, respectively, ‘a collection of inbred trigger-happy thugs’ and ‘overweight, useless oligarchs’ bastard sons needing to be stashed someplace safe’.

“Good. You’re ship’s crew from the frigate, right? Some technical specialist sent off with the scientists?”

Armin nodded again. The singing was getting louder, the words more clear. He wasn’t imagining it?

“Okay. I’m going to take my hands away now, but you can’t scream. And you have to keep your voice down or she’ll hear you. Can you do that?” Bujold’s voice was controlled and level, like a man trying to calm a frightened child or animal.

The petty officer nodded a third time.

“Okay then,” the security man repeated. “I’m going to let go now.”

He released the petty officer, who stepped back, turning to face the other man. He recognized Bujold, but only as someone he’d run across in the halls now and then; they’d never said more than ‘hi’ to each other before now. The security officer was covered in blood, though it didn’t seem to be his, his face was somewhat clear, as if he’d used his hands to try and wipe the gore away and only partially succeeded. His eyebrows and hair were clumped and sticky with drying blood. “What do you mean ‘she’?” Armin whispered back. “You hear it, too?”

Mack nodded. “Yeah. She’s getting closer, too. We have to go.”

“What’s coming closer? What is it?

“Listen,” the security man hissed. “Be quiet and listen. That’ll tell you everything. Or at least enough.”

Armin remained silent for several moments; Bujold was right – whoever was singing was coming closer, close enough that he could now make out the words to the song. It was a lyrical, foul little nursery rhyme.

“Day one, they come and kill everyone.
Day two, it’s quiet and now there’s just you.
Day three, and you know you’ll never be free.
Day four, and you eat even though you’ll crave more.
Day five, and you’re glad to just be alive.
Day six, and you’re lost, trapped in the Styx.
Day seven, and you know you’ll never see heaven.
Day eight, and what’s left is hunger and hate.
Day nine, and you swear that you feel fine.
Day ten, and it starts over again.”

Lutzberg swallowed. Whoever was singing that didn’t sound like anyone he wanted to meet. The only saving grace was that the singer didn’t sound like one of them. “I was headed to the tram station,” he said softly, eyes darting up and down the hall, trying to localize the song’s source, but the uncertain echoes made it impossible to know where it was coming from.

Bujold nodded. “Let’s go, then. No point staying here.”

Armin shook his head, averting his eyes from what was left of the mercenary. “I guess not.” The two men hurried off.

Moments later, a figure wandered across the mouth of the corridor, drawn by the scent of blood and burned flesh.

“Day four, and you eat even though you’ll crave more.”

[Reveal] Spoiler: A cookie for those who spot the non-Dragon Age reference
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Last edited by Bladed_Crescent on 2010-05-22 10:36pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Bladed_Crescent
PostPosted: 2010-06-03 11:42pm 

Jedi Knight


Joined: 2006-08-26 10:57am
Posts: 639
And in this chapter: The Fourth Day

Coming up: STEINMAN KILLS. That, and days 5, 6 and 9.

Chapter 26:

They were marched back to the ferals’ camp. Habitat. Colony. Whatever it was, it was required a march back up through the main service tunnels that ran parallel to the main tram line. They’d doubled back through the engineering decks first – apparently, whoever the ‘coward’ was, the feral soliders? hunters? didn’t want to push their luck with him. With good reason if he had control over the environmental systems. The survivors’ hands were bound behind their backs and they were prodded onwards by staves and gun barrels. Shannon was in the lead, and only her repeated hand signals to Abigail to stay calm kept the other woman from trying to lunge at their captors and be beaten down or killed for her troubles.

Abigail had told her what it was like growing up on Darkknell. Not everything, not the worst of the things she’d done or been forced to do just to survive. But enough that Shannon understood what this had to be like for Abby. To lose, to be captured and marched off like some prize... no. She didn’t want to think about that. Not when she had other things to focus on.

Shannon’s mind was racing as she memorized the layout of the halls and the route they took towards their encampment – Abigail and Louis would be doing the same, but she was also listening to the ferals’ chatter. The ferals spoke amongst each other in Standard, but a mutated dialect of it – words were borrowed from other languages, abbreviated, pronounced differently or twisted in meaning. They obviously knew enough to talk to her; the Speaker and Dead Man both spoke Standard quite well, but knowing the ins and outs of their own private dialect could be helpful. She was picking out individuals, watching how they moved, the weapons they carried. Every so often, she would sign back to Abigail, in the hope that she'd picked up on something that the more experienced mercenary hadn't.

Gas mask – brown coat – rifle – weak right leg.

Her mind was also on the whispered, urgent voice in ear when she and the others had been caught in the grav-trap. It hadn’t come through on an open channel; it had been on an Artemis frequency. Only a ‘general chatter’ band, but it was still encoded. Whoever had used it had had experience with Artemis encryption – obviously, from Primal (he didn’t want anyone else to hear, wanted you to know that he could do that). He’d been cogent, almost desperate in his plea. I don’t want to kill you. But you have to stop. He’d turned them over to the masked ferals, but (Is this a gift? Something to make us forgive and forget?) wasn’t their ally. Another player. Another agenda. He wants something from us.

Shannon bit her lip, twisting her wrists back and forth, trying to find a loose spot in the chains. She was tired of being chased, tired of only reacting. We’ll get out of this. Somehow. She had to believe that. She wanted to.

As a small benefit, the ferals seemed fine with leaving her, Abigail and Louis in their armour, but that hadn’t stopped them from tying the mercenaries’ hands behind their backs quite securely. Now they were being led off towards God knew what fate. Shannon remembered what the Speaker and Dead Man had said to the ‘worms’ and nothing in either man’s words gave the woman a sense of optimism. She could think of several unpleasant meanings behind their praise. Her hands continued to work at the looped chain, testing it for weaknesses. There weren’t any.

Shannon tried to catch a glimpse of Emily – she and Ramone were behind the three mercenaries and ‘safely’ out of their reach. Bargaining chips in case one of the soldiers got free. Another problem demanding part of her attention, another problem that have a solution. Not yet.

“You called them the turned,” she said aloud.

One of the nearest ferals – a man in a rebreather mask with the clear faceplate painted over, save for a strip to see through – growled, muttering something under his breath. Shannon ignored him and raised her voice. “You called them the turned,” she said again, speaking to Dead Man. “The monsters – that’s what you’re talking about?” He paid no attention to her question, but Hayes persisted. “You said we didn’t understand. How can we if you don’t tell us?”

He paused, letting the procession move by him as he mulled his answer. “Impertinent little worm,” the party’s leader said as he faced Shannon.

“But a clever one,” she replied.

“That’s true.” He backhanded her again. The force of the blow and its suddenness toppled the young woman. He was stronger than he looked.

Shannon heard the intake of Abby’s breath; she caught the other woman’s eyes and shook her head marginally. No. Dead Man crouched beside Shannon, gesturing for a pair of his horde – a man in a filthy bellaclava and a woman in a gas mask missing its filter system – to pull her back to her feet. He looked up at her for a moment before he stood again, running a finger gently over the new bruise on her face. “That was for being impertinent,” he said. “But the worm does have a point.”

“There’s some kind of contagion,” Shannon said. “Not just the Mists. Some infection that got loose. It’s a recombinator, isn’t it?” The different body forms and abilities – it was possible that it was simply polymorphic variation, but...

“It takes pieces,” Dead Man answered, confirming her fears. “And puts them back together. And afterwards, you’re not what you were.”

Shannon bit her lip, thinking. ‘Recombinator’ was a broad term applied to anything that took disparate genetic material to create a new organism. There were multiple forms of recombinant reproduction. Off the top of her head, she could think of at least three and those were just from Earth-stock organisms. “Where did it come from?” she pressed. “Was it something the Imperials were working on, or did one of the other ships bring it here?”

“It’s always been here,” the feral replied as he turned away, done with humouring his captive.

“Wait,” Shannon called. “One more thing. What did you do to St. Cloud? The man whose armour you’re wearing. Is he still alive?”

“Only when useful,” Dead Man said without looking back. “Something to remember, worm.”

~

Something screamed in the darkness; the sound high-pitched, warbling and getting closer. “Anytime,” Bujold whispered urgently to his companion as Lutzberg tried to seal the tram station’s doors. They’d been forced open recently and were taking their mistreatment out on the two men by refusing to shut again.

Armin’s pants had a new stain as he knelt in a tacky, almost-dried pool of dark blood. “Working as fast as I can,” he muttered back. Ah, there; the door hadn’t just been pushed open – that would have been too easy, wouldn’t it? – it had been thrust open so forcibly that it had been jarred off its tracks. Just by itself, the door weighed almost two hundred pounds and its gears had been monkeyed with, making it a very abrupt, very lethal mechanism. It also meant that whatever had flung it open hard enough to damage it had been very angry, very strong, very determined and certainly not anything that either man wanted to meet.

“Help me push it back onto the rails – that should be all we need.”

“That’s it? I thought it’d be more... complicated.”

“What, you want me to whip out a sonic screwdriver for a quantum degaussing of the local tachyon bubbles? It’s a fucking door.” Armin was grateful for the question; it let him cling to some shards of normalcy, let him vent. At the moment, it was all he had. If it kept his mind off the things lurking in the hallways, strange songs and hunting cries, he would take it. “As far as I can tell, we get it back on the tracks and it’ll either snap shut, or we can use the panel to do it. Shouldn’t be too difficult. Here, give me a hand.”

It took several tries, but between the two of them, Lutzberg and Bujold were able to force the security door clicked back onto its track. The petty officer hit the control panel, letting the door crash shut once more. He looked up and Mack gave him an approving nod. “Now what?”

Lutzberg sauntered over to the steps leading to the control booth and sat down on them, feeling the unpleasant squish of various liquids against his legs and cheeks. “We wait,” he said. “And hope that someone else makes it here, too.”

~

As they’d approached the feral enclave – it had once been a multi-level storage facility – Shannon had, at first, noticed more warnings on the walls. Amanda’s knife symbol. As they’d gotten closer, those pictographs had either been scrapped off, painted over or covered with debris. Clearly, they don’t like their reputation. Here and there, the knives had been repainted with crude versions of light bulbs. Counter-propaganda? No, we’re really good! That suggested that they actually cared about such things; why? To lure in other visitors? Or was it simply because no one ever thought that they were the bad guys?

No matter what they’ve done, or what they’ll do, Shannon mused darkly as their ‘escorts’ pushed them a little more insistently, the men and women tightening their grips on their weapons and looking about with increased frequency, urging their captives on.

The doors into the feral enclave were barricaded, with crates and wires strung up to create a handful of empty defensive positions. There were no sentries outside – presumably those would only draw attention that the inhabitants wanted to avoid. Dead Man marched up to the sealed aperture and pounded his fist on it rhythmically. There was a pause and then a mechanical chunk sound as the doors ground open.

Out of the opening came a waft of warm air and Shannon’s nose twitched as the odours of dozens – hundreds – of humans forced to live in a comparatively cramped space assaulted her. Figures dressed in form-concealing rags – guards? – met the hunting party, ugly rifles clutched in their arms, each robed sentry’s breath wheezing softly, stirring the tattered ends of their face-covering hoods.

“Alive,” the first guard said as Dead Man passed by it. “Not turning.” It repeated the comment as another feral moved past.

Shannon was pushed towards the second guard, the figure tilting its hood of patchwork cloth towards her and warm breath blew over her face, humid and foul. Beneath that malignant odour, Shannon could smell something else. Acrid and chemical, like alcohol, but not quite. She remembered that odour, had had it spewed into her face as she’d fought with the monstrous... ‘turned’ in the hall as its fangs slid over her helmet, its reeking breath overwhelming her air filter. They’re infected. These people... these things here... whatever’s loose in the station, whatever got into Primal... they have it, too. And they keep them around. God. God, what is this place?

“Alive,” her inspector pronounced. “Not turning.”

She was given a harsh shove to move along, but resisted, turning to look back at her comrades. Abigail had been bitten by one of those creatures, Louis by that woman.... No. No, God. “Alive,” the first sentry announced.

“Much obliged,” the Darkknell replied, spitting into the shrouded figure’s face. The infected man? woman? didn’t react, but the members of the hunting party around it did, some squawking in incredulous anger before they threw Abigail to the deck, kicking at her and shouting loud enough that Shannon couldn’t hear Louis’ verdict. She made an abortive lunge to help her friend, but someone grabbed her and pulled her back. Shannon wanted to scream in frustration, unable to help Abigail, unable to stop part of herself from being mad at her ‘big sister’ for choosing that moment to piss off the natives. You couldn’t have waited ten seconds, Abby?

A gunshot crashed painfully close to her ear and Shannon flinched. The men and women attacking Abigail cringed as Dead Man strode back into the fray, lowering Louis’ shotgun. “Enough,” the leader growled. “Not your decision, is it?”

None of them met his eyes, a couple the ferals pulling the mercenary back to her feet, none the worse for wear – most of their fury had been wasted on her cuirass and armoured legs. “Thought not,” Dead Man answered. “Come on then.”

~

As they were led through the makeshift habitat, a crowd gathered to stare at the procession, naked-faced children staring like wild animals, men and women watching from behind rebreathers, helmets and theater masks. There wasn’t much to differentiate one person from another, but Shannon noticed little details – those with more ornate or fanciful masks tended to have better clothes. Some even had jewelry and others deferred to them in speech and body language. Flames crackled out of makeshift fire pits, used for warmth or to roast food. A young boy turned a spitted, skinned rat over a small fire as what seemed to be his sister rested her head on his lap, both children watching the hunters and their captives cautiously.

A pregnant woman in a Bandui death-mask (and where did she get that?) reclined upon several boxes stacked against the wall. Her ragged-but-colourful vest was open, exposing her pendulous breasts, nipples pierced with mismatched studs.

A man in a filthy, stained surgeon’s garb was knelt over a twitching patient, a naked young man with vivid scars on his forearm. They were ugly and clearly infected and the younger male was feverish, shivering, covered in sweat and gasping for each breath. Shannon nodded towards the scene. “Is he sick? We can help-” She was given a rough shove forwards.

“Nothing you can do,” the man behind her sneered, then laughed. “Not yet.”

Emily tried to keep her head down, to avoid looking at the ruined husks of humans and appear meek and submissive, but every so often her eyes would shift towards the staring, eerily silent crowd. She almost stumbled when she caught sight of one individual amongst the throng. He was crouched upon a large industrial crate, an Artemis rifle resting in his arms. An engineer’s IDS-mask covered his face and sensor strips bracketing a polarized visor glowed dully as the helmet’s batteries slowly died.

Unlike an arm-mounted Integrated Display System, the mask-based system was used much like a tactical HUD, to allow its wearer to examine scan data without constantly shifting position. They were favoured by medical and technical personnel for just that reason – while in surgery, a doctor could call up detailed scans, pervious test data and monitor their patient’s vital signs whilst still filtering air for contaminants. Engineering IDS masks performed similar functions, though they were optimized to detect minute faults and system errors, analyze power flow through local systems, provide different scan modes and perform other helpful functions.

This mask in particular was made by Hadley-Wright. In fact, it was the current premier model; it belonged to someone from the first expedition and, like Major St. Cloud’s armour, it had been... repurposed.

Emily had always had a good memory. She’d always found it easy to remember a name she’d only heard once or to recall a number or bit of information she’d seen in passing. She remembered one of the corporation’s own ‘security consultants’ from the first expedition, a bit more vividly than that, though. He’d been young, excited about the possibility of ‘treasure hunting’ and equally excited by the thought that she might be assigned to that expedition as well. His name was Arthur Killion.

Was. Not had been.

He’d been trying to impress her one day, so he’d rolled up his sleeves to show her the tattoos he’d gotten. They were unit markings for the Decrosa City police force. Mercenary companies and corporate security firms liked to poach recruits from Decrosa; like much of the planet’s civil services, the police were only as effective as their next paycheque. As long that was a constant, they were quite ‘efficient’ – although on Decrosa that term was somewhat relative. It usually referred to their skill at suppressing food riots and generally protecting the planet’s oligarchy from the consequences of their own actions whenever the benighted masses grew unruly.

The combination of a certain amorality, ambitiousness and avarice made Decrosan police and military personnel choice pickings for many offworld security and mercenary guilds. They were easily bought, knew how to keep quiet, didn’t much care what they did or for whom they did it and their shambling husk of a government provided the basics of training before they were hired off-world, though they were often seen as little better than ‘gang-bangers with badges’. And like many gangs, Decrosan police squads liked to get tattooed to show everyone whose side they were on.

Now, on the arms uncovered by the masked man’s rolled-up sleeves, Emily recognized those same tattoos. The helmet canted towards her as Killion took notice of the petite woman, his head tracking Delphini. He remembered her, too. Killion raised two fingers to where his mouth would be, then held them out as if passing her a kiss on his fingertips.

I knew it was a mistake for them to send you, she thought over her sudden surge of revulsion and fear, trying to focus on something – anything – other than those feelings. Even crazy, you still found a way to switch sides.

They arrived at a crude amphitheater, where a man in a stained suit waited for them, sitting cross-legged in some craft’s pilot’s seat. He wore a broken-eared rabbit’s mask of cracked porcelain, and had his fingers laced together. A young girl – like the other children, she wore nothing over her face – was sitting on the dais beside him, playing something like jacks with what looked like knuckle bones. She looked at the procession, and then up at Rabbit Mask. “I found one first.”

“Yes, you did,” the man replied, reaching down to give the girl an affectionate pat on the head. He stood and strode down to meet his visitors. “So, the little worms have come crawling at last,” his was the voice of the Speaker. Beneath the ornate mask, his eyes darted about, never staying still for long. “But such pretty little worms, aren’t they?” His attention shifted to Shannon. “And what kinds of worms have crawled into my belly?” he demanded, his gaze moving to Abigail. “Who sent you to thieve and glut upon my bones?” He moved down the line, never waiting for an answer. “What fool threw more lives into Acheron?” He paused in front of Emily, leaning in and grabbing the front of her coat, his eyes narrowing as he saw the Hadley-Wright insignia on the young doctor’s lapels and his hands shook as he shoved Delphini away.

“Of course,” his voice thickened, almost incomprehensible with barely-controlled... what? Anger? Disgust? Fear? Rabbit Mask turned his attention to Ramone, tracing the edges of the second doctor’s own corporate insignia, tapping it with one trimmed fingernail. “Who are you?” the feral leader demanded.

“S-Salvador Ramone,” the man stuttered.

Rabbit Mask gestured dismissively to the three mercenaries. “I know what they are. Brigands and saboteurs, clad in metal as if it can save them. Hired to kill and to die as long as the gold flows. But you,” his eyes flitted briefly to Emily. “And you. What are you, Salvador-Worm?”

Ramone couldn’t meet the other man’s eyes. “I’m-I’m a doctor,” he mumbled.

Emily’s eyes narrowed as she saw the feral leader’s reaction. It wasn’t much of one; a sudden shift in his position, a change in the angle of his head. He was interested. Too interested, and when the eyes behind the broken ballroom mask turned to her, the young woman stared down at the deck and, without prompting, said: “Emily Delphini. I’m a historian.”

In her peripheral vision, she could see her fellow survivors react, but none of them contradicted her. Ramone seemed about to, when he looked past her to one of the mercenaries and clicked his jaw shut.

Rabbit Mask tapped the badge on her jacket breast again. “It’s good you’ve come,” he mused, though he didn’t seem that interested in her response, if she even cared to give one. “History. Acheron is soaked in it, Emily-Worm. It is the lifeblood of 47. It pools around your feet, slithers up your nostrils while you sleep and it is etched onto every wall, dripping from the bulkheads like blood. History,” he repeated. “It won’t let go of you. What happened in the past reaches for you, clawing and dragging you off, filling you.” His head came up and his mad eyes glittered with a hidden smile. “I think you’ll like it here.”

He finally deigned to return his attention to the mercenaries. “Do the thieves have names?” he demanded.

“Louis Miguel Hernandez, private, Artemis Private Security Services.”

“Abigail Hutchins. The woman who’s going to kill one of your people.” The Darkknell flashed a mouthful of teeth. “Maybe more.”

Rabbit Mask touched a finger to the bandages on the woman’s neck. “I have heard this,” he said as he pressed harder, digging into the wound. “I have heard this and I have heard this. Sometimes it has come to pass, but we are still here and those who kept their word...” he drew back. “...are not.” The feral human’s only half-turned towards Shannon, as if he was bored by the entire conversation and simply running through a formality. “And your name?”

The young woman stiffened. “Shannon Melinda Hayes, corp-”

Rabbit Mask jerked as if shocked. “Hayes?” he demanded as his head snapped fully towards Shannon. “Hayes?” he repeated as the gathered crowd whispered and muttered. The leader leaned his face into Shannon’s until the worn-down tip of a porcelain rabbit’s nose was almost touched to hers, unwashed breath coming through the mask’s upturned lips.

She tried not to pull back and only partially succeeded. “Yes,” she said. “Hayes.”

His hands snapped up, cupping her face and turning her head this way and that in an inspection, but for what, Shannon had no idea. “I know this name,” Rabbit Mask replied. “I’ve heard it whispered in hushed tones. Heard it screamed. It means many things. To some of the Lost, it means betrayer, murderer. The antimessiah. To others, it means saviour and creator. Redeemer. Blasphemy and reverence. Do you understand?” He let go of the woman and stepped back. “Do you?”

“No, I-”

A flash of movement and the feral had a knife at her throat, his other hand on the back of her head, arm tensing as he kept her from pulling away from the blade. “Once, Hayes-Thief. Hayes-Sabotager. Hayes-Worm. What world do you call home? What. World?”

“Halo,” Shannon stared into the man’s eyes. “I’m a Halo.”

Rabbit Mask held the knife at Shannon’s throat for a moment longer as he looked back at her, perhaps searching for some hint of a lie. Then, he let go of her and stalked back to his ‘throne’, slumping into the chair. He stood the dagger up on its hilt, a single finger riding the point of the knife, moving it back and forth. “Thieves and worms,” he pronounced. “But clever. But pretty. But useful. They will serve.” Mad blue eyes darted back over to Shannon. “So blessed are the children.”

“So blessed are the children,” the crowd answered back, the guards shoving the five prisoners deeper into the warren.
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