Chapter 9: The Message
"We are approaching the Control Centre," 'Vadumee said."Ready yourselves."
Their forces now numbered ninteen Sangheili and eleven Marines, but the Jiralhanae were taking exception to the assault, and were starting to take action. There were two frigates inbound on their position. If they didn't take the ship, and soon, there would be trouble.
Sergeant Banks had insisted on coming along, despite his wounds. He was holding up alright, but didn't give any funny remarks. They had to hurry.
'Vadumee opened the door.
As if expecting them, two score of Jiralhanae were waiting inside the massive room. Everyone opened fire, drowning out the silence that had been around them a few moments ago.
Forenson tossed a frag grenade into a mass of Jiralhanae, wiping out three. A Captain retaliated by firing his Brute shot at him.
The Lieutenant ducked the explosive, and it melted against a Sangheili's shield instead. He raised his shotgun and fired into his chest.
Another Jiralhanae leapt through the air, brandishing what appeared to be a long, bladed hammer. He swung, hitting a Sangheili hard across the chest. The alien gave a faint gurgle, and instead of collapsing, flew across the room and hit the wall hard. Purple blood misted the air.
"Fall back!" Forenson shouted. The Marines backed off, taking cover and reloading. "Fire in salvos! Concentrate on the big one, let's put him down!"
Banks reached for another clip when a Jiralhanae smashed into him, knocking him to the floor. He drew his sidearm, and tried to roll away. The Brute aimed his gun at the Sergeant, when Forenson emptied two Shotgun shells into him, the multiple rounds compensating from the diminished damage due to the scatter.
Sergeant Banks started to stand up, when the Jiralhanae Chieftain reached him. The Marine loosed a single shot before the hammer flew down swiftly.
Autel winced as the human's face was pulverized. He heard bones breaking.
"Man down!" one of the Marines shouted. He unslung the Sniper Rifle from across his back, and pumped two rounds into the Chieftain's chest and one into his head, knocking his massive helmet off. The Jiralhanae roared with rage, charging the human. The sharpshooter panicked, and his shot went wide.
Autel snapped up his carbine, firing a single round into the Chieftain's head. The Brute fell, and was still.
The Sangheili squad roared in triumph. "Brothers!" 'Vadumee exclaimed. "The ship is ours!"
Autel however, looked over at the humans. Forenson knelt by Banks' body, shaking his head. The young Sangheili turned away, and prepared for the journey to their home planet, Earth.
The Tenacious Predator lifted into space, heading towards the ships. The Flood were spreading across the ring, and the cruiser would hold the quarantine until every last one of the parasite were destroyed.
It had taken longer than they thought to finally join the fleet. 'Vadumee had to send for many Sangheili to eliminate the Jiralhanae aboard the ship, and to run a check on all systems. Now, the Tenacious Predator still had stragglers running amok through the ship, but the traitors had lost the battle in space. The fleet was concentrating on holding down the Flood. Unfortunately, the Jiralhanae ships were boarded and now belonged to the infectious organisms, and they kept finding ways to cause them trouble.
Worse, the Gravemind had inhabited High Charity, and calamity was spreading through the city. 'Vadumee had picked up a signal Lieutenant Forenson recognized, and was heading there and sending a squad in to find out what it was.
Autel stood in the Phantom directly behind the Ultra. They were waiting on the makeshift Fleet Master's word.
The cruiser stopped moving, and 'Vadumee's voice came over the COM. "Warriors, you may deploy. Report your findings upon your return."
'Pyronee flew the Phantom out of the shuttle bay, followed by the other dropship. The vessels flew towards High Charity.
Autel looked out the hatch, and saw how different the city was. Signs of the Flood were everywhere. The magenta was covered in a sickly yellow-green substance, and many parts had broken off altogether. It was in ruins.
There was nothing that tried to stop the Phantoms. High Charity's energy shield was shut down, and its defensive turrets did not fire. It was as if the Flood wanted them in the city.
The dropships touched down on what was once a hangar. 'Pyronee opened the hatches, and said, "Inform me when you require extraction." The Sangheili moved out, and into the city. No one said a word. A thick mist hung in the air, and the silence was ominous. The Ultra led the way out of the hangar, and the team moved cautiously, weapons ready.
Autel lowered his weapons and let them cool. They had run into the Flood yet again, and suppressed them...barely.
They had moved through High Charity, getting closer to the signal. They encountered Jiralhanae a few times, but they were easily dealt with.
The Flood were more of a problem. No matter how many the Sangheili killed, more showed up. They lost two, both of whom were turned into Combat Forms. But they were close to their objective.
The Ultra slowly walked towards a door, which chimed open. The squad moved in. Autel moved towards a hologram projector. "The signal emanates from here," he said.
He clawed away the Flood mucus, and found the activation button, and pressed it. Nothing happened.
"Perhaps it was a trap," one of the Sangheili said. "We should leave."
He was about to turn away, when the panel glowed. The holographic figure of a human female appeared. "Hello," she said casually.
Autel recognized the hologram as a human artificial intelligence. She seemed friendly, but she could be something set up by the Flood. "Who are you?"
"I am UNSC AI Serial Number CTN 0452-9. You may call me Cortana," she said, crossing her arms and grinning cheekily. Her smile faded quickly, and she said, "I've picked up your activity on the radio traffic. You guys have been rescuing Marines."
"What of it?" the Ultra asked, approaching her as well.
"I know I can trust you to do me a favour. I need to deliver a message to Earth."
Some of the Sangheili looked skeptical, but Cortana pressed on, "This is important. I've discovered something, and there's someone I know who can help. It's vital that he gets this. We don't have much time, the Gravemind will find me here soon, and you'll all be in danger. He's tracking me right now."
"You may be waiting for the arrival of the parasite to kill us," a Sangheili said, but Autel cut across him. "Very well. Hurry." He took out a message recorder, and uploaded it onto the projector. At once, Cortana began to speak.
"Chief...High Charity, the Prophets' Holy City, is on its way to Earth. With an army of Flood. I can't tell you everything, it's not safe. The Gravemind...it knows I'm in the system..."
Three doors opened, and Flood forms burst in. The Sangheili squad returned fire, cutting down the enemies one by one. Autel kept his back to the projector, making sure no Flood could destroy it.
"...but it doesn't know about the Portal," Cortana continued, "where it leads. On the other side, there's a solution; a way to stop the Flood, without firing the remaining Halo rings—"
The AI's hologram sparked. She clutched her head, gasping in pain and collapsed onto the 'floor'. Slowly, she looked upward. "Hurry Chief," she whispered, her voice filled with agony, "the Ark...there isn't much time..."
The Flood were cut down, and Autel turned to make sure Cortana was done. He removed the message, and stored it into his armour. He heard the message, and did not like what it held at all.
"Go," she urged, her hologram flickering and crackling, "Get it to Earth at any cost...it means more than you know. I have to go, the Gravemind is coming..." The AI's hologram vanished.
"We must leave," the Ultra said, "before the Gravemind is upon us." The squad headed out, and Autel contacted 'Pyronee. They made a harrowing trip back to the hangar, and managed to leave the Flood-infested city.
Autel and the others entered the Control Centre, and placed the message on the data scanner. 'Vadumee approached them.
"No sign of the parasite," he said, "it is suspicious. However, the quarantine is holding well. Now, I will examine the message before we depart, I have sufficient ships to take our place—"
"Ship Master, one of our destroyers are moving towards us!" a Sangheili called. "Collision course!"
'Vadumee moved to the command console quickly. "What in the name of the Forerunners do they think they are doing? Evade!"
"Our quarantine holds us in place, Excellency!" he said. "We are trapped!"
"Fire all turrets!" the makeshift Fleet Master ordered. "Make haste!"
The Tenacious Predator's powerful cannons fired at once, taking down the destroyer's shields and melting the hull. Thick mucus poured out of it.
"The parasite have infested the ship!" 'Vadumee exclaimed. "They mean to take ours as well!"
Autel couldn't believe it. From his limited experience with the Flood, they were numerous, brutal, and highly unstable. He never realized how cunning they were, nor that they had the patience to take over an entire warship so slowly and carefully.
The Sangheili aboard the Control Centre watched helplessly as the destroyer flew closer, leaking plasma and Flood biomass, but did not cut speed.
"Brace for impact!" 'Vadumee barked. Everyone clung to something.
There was a deafening boom as the destroyer collided with the Tenacious Predator. Several crew were thrown off their feet. Alarms rang through the Control Centre.
"Status!" the Commander shouted over the din.
"The Flood vessel has penetrated the cruiser!" a Sangheili reported. "They are spreading numerously all over the ship!"
Autel's hearts sank. Once the Flood got on board anything in such large numbers, it would be near impossible to hold them back.
"Tell everyone to evacuate," 'Vadumee said quietly, sounding not like the proud warrior he always portrayed, but a defeated commander who was forced to run dishonourably. "We are abandoning the ship. Autel, inform the Lieutenant as well. Ensure...the humans are safely evacuated first."
In this time, even the Fleet Master put his prejudice behind him. He knew what they had to do. Autel hurried out of the Control Centre, knowing what he would run into along the way.
"Prepare to make the jump to Slipstream space," 'Vadum ordered. The crew completed their system check and complied.
"Local ships, on my mark. The rest of you, I wish you well. I do not have to tell you that you must do whatever it takes to ensure the quarantine holds firm."
The Tenacious Predator was lost to the Flood. 'Vadum had called ships to destroy it, but it jumped to Slipspace, no doubt en route to Earth. The makeshift Fleet Master was given a carrier, the Shadow of Intent, and prepared to give chase, accompanied by a group of cruisers. After a quick meeting, where the Sangheili agreed to drop the "ee" suffix in their names to indicate their separatism, they were ready.
They had extracted ninety percent of crew on board, but the rest they couldn't get to or was consumed by the Flood. Autel knew that what was waiting at Earth wouldn't be pleasant, nor would the human forces be enough to repel them. So they had to hurry.
The fleet made the jump to Slipspace, en route for Earth at last.
The fleet returned to normal space in orbit around the human planet, Earth. They came over the continent Africa, and found the location of the crash site.
"Remain here," 'Vadum ordered the cruisers. "I shall deploy troops onto the surface."
The Shadow of Intent flew closer to the remains of the Tenacious Predator, and made a low approach. There were figures running around, human and Flood alike. It was obvious who was losing.
In the deployment bay, Autel activated his pod, and dropped to the surface with four other Sangheili. On their way down, he heard the Fleet Master speaking on all frequencies.
"Hail humans, and take heed. This is the carrier Shadow of Intent. Clear this sector, while we deal with the Flood."
Autel felt his drop pod lurch to a stop as it landed. He kicked opened his hatch, grabbed his Plasma Rifle, and leaped out. Immediately a Combat form was on him. He pedaled back, firing until the Flood was shot to bits. As they began to cut them down one by one, four other figures joined them.
Two of the Sangheili were N'tho 'Sraom and Usze 'Taham. The third was his father, Thel 'Vadam. The fourth was an armoured human.
Autel realized that he was a Spartan. It was the first time he saw one, and he realized how frightening the human looked. Although not as tall as a Sangheili, his body was entirely covered, giving the appearance of a machine.
The Spartan fired a three-round burst, hitting a Combat form dead centre in the chest. The infection form inside died, and the Flood died.
He was no doubt sharpshooter-deadly as well as powerful.
Autel heard his fellow Sangheili speaking with Thel.
"My brothers, I fear you bring bad news." The Arbiter said.
"High Charity has fallen, become a dreaded hive!" the Major replied grimly.
"And the Fleet? Has quarantine been broken?"
"A single ship broke through our line, and we gave chase."
"We had a fleet of hundreds!" Thel said disbelievingly.
"Alas brother, the Flood. It has evolved!"
As the group got closer to the Tenacious Predator, more voices were heard. Human ones.
"Master Chief, the Elites are looking for something. We didn't believe them when they told us." A female voice said.
"Elites"? Was that what the humans had always called them? It was a rather crude name, but at the same time flattering.
"It's Cortana, Chief!" A gruff male voice added. "She's on that ship! Find her — get her out!"
'Vadum had been very interested in what the AI had to say, from what Autel told him. But he didn't yet hear it.
The Flood became more numerous than ever, and the evolved Pure forms were proving very difficult to kill. A Sangheili was cut down as a Ranged form shot spikes all over him. Autel took cover, the sharp projectiles shooting off the wall. He needed a longer range weapon.
A Tank form came around the corner, and swung at him. Autel ducked, and the Spartan, the Master Chief, fired a Shotgun round between its tentacles, dropping it where it stood. Just in time, 'Pyron's Phantom flew in, deploying another group of Sangheili. The dropship's plasma turret cut down a few of the Flood, including the Ranged form, before flying away.
"Hurry, Demon!" the Major called. "We seek the same prize. But our Ship Master will sacrifice all to stop the Flood."
The squad found the hole in the Tenacious Predator where the destroyer had rammed it.
"I shall remain here," Thel said. "We will let nothing pass."
The Chief nodded, and dropped through the hole.
The squad spent a few minutes dealing with all the Flood in the area, before they confirmed it was clear. 'Pyronee flew in again.
"We must go," he said. "the Demon may destroy this ship soon. The Fleet Master also wants to hold a Council in the ship. The human leaders are there as well."
The Sangheili climbed aboard, not sorry to leave the Flood-infested hive.
"So the Prophet of Truth has escaped through the Portal?" 'Vadum asked.
"Yes, along with the entire fleet," an older male replied. He was obviously the commanding officer.
"We will follow, soon enough," the Fleet Master said. "In the meantime, we must discuss what is to become of your planet."
"The Flood will be contained," the human Admiral said stiffly.
"Do not be so sure. Even we have difficulty with holding them back. I suggest we glass the planet, before—"
"That will not be ideal," said not the human, but the Arbiter. Thel shook his head.
"The Flood has spread only through the city. We will not give them the chance to go any further. These humans will not be willing to give up this planet...and neither will I."
"They are risking infestation," 'Vadum said. "If this planet were to be complete Flood-controlled, that would be disastrous."
"Would you be so willing to glass your home planet, if the Flood were dormant there?" the Admiral asked. The Fleet Master did not answer.
"The parasite is becoming unstable," Thel said. "Destroying the cruiser will not be enough to bring that back. We need another solution."
There was silence. Finally, 'Vadum said, "We could bring our ships to burn the city. It is abandoned anyway, and it is the quickest and simplest."
"Very well," Thel said. "Do it."
The Admiral was about to object, but the young female shook her head. "It's the only way, sir."
The human sighed, and nodded.
Autel could see how difficult it was was them to watch the city being burned. They had no doubt seen this on their other colonies, and it was something that brought back many bitter memories.
The Control Centre doors opened, and the Chief entered...followed by the Monitor, 343 Guilty Spark.
"We have the construct," the AI said. As he set the device down on the central projector, he began probing it with a blue beam. Minutes ticked by as every eye was on him.
"Will it live, Oracle?" 'Vadum asked. "Can it be saved?"
"Uncertain," Spark replied. "This storage device has suffered considerable trauma. Its matrices are highly unstable."
The Admiral stepped forward. "Perhaps one of our technicians—"
"That will not be necessary." 'Vadum said firmly.
Cortana's hologram activated. "Chief!"
"Success!" Spark exclaimed triumphantly.
Autel listened as the AI relayed her recording again. The Control Centre was completely silent.
Cortana's hologram flickered, and was still.
"It's just a message." the Chief told 'Vadum.
"Let it play." The Fleet Master said.
Spark tapped the message device with another beam, and she began to speak again. Autel winced as she fell to her knees, gasping in pain. It was pitiful to watch.
Cortana's recording ended, her image staring with desperation at the Chief.
"I'm sorry..." Spark said softly.
"No matter, Oracle. We've heard enough." 'Vadum said, leaning back. "Our fight is through the Portal, with the Jiralhanae and the bastard Truth!"
The Sangheili around the room raise their forearms and roar in agreement. Autel felt no urge to join them.
"Fine," the Admiral said, "We'll remain here...hold out as long as we can."
"Did you not hear? Your world is doomed." 'Vadum stood up. "A Flood army, a Gravemind, has you in its sights! You barely survived a small contamination."
The human lost his temper. His eyes reflected the anger he had experienced upon the recent glassing. "And you, Ship Master, just glassed half a continent! Maybe the Flood isn't all I should be worried about..."
"One single Flood spore can destroy a species," 'Vadum said in a dangerously soft voice. "Were it not for the Arbiter's counsel, I would have glassed your entire planet!"
The Admiral was about to retort, when the female placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Sir, with respect, Cortana has a solution..." she said calmly.
"Cortana? Did you see her condition? How damaged she is? She could be corrupted for all we know. Her "solution" could be a Flood trap!"
"We should go through the Portal, find out for sure." The female insisted.
"What we should do Commander, is understand — clearly — that this is humanity's final stand — here — at Earth. We go, we risk everything; every last man, woman, and child. If we stand our ground, we might just have a chance."
"No," Thel said, speaking up at last. "If your construct is wrong, then the Flood has already won." He looked to the Chief.
"I'll find Cortana's solution. And I'll bring it back." The Spartan said.
The Admiral sighed. "Earth...is all we have left. You trust Cortana that much?"
"Sir. Yes sir." It was clear that the Chief had a close relationship with the AI.
"Then this is either the best decision you've ever made or the worst. Hell if it is, Chief? I doubt I'll live long enough to find out which."
And without another word, the Admiral walked out of the Control Centre, followed by the humans and the Oracle.
"Leave us," 'Vadum said. "We must preparing for the coming battle. Find all weapons you can get and gather them in the hangar bay."
The Sangheili dispersed as well, and Autel walked with Thel out of the room.