Chapter 14: Reach

There was a trembling under the floor and a sensation in Alsa Sam's stomach that made her want to run to the nearest washroom, but there was none on a Covenant Phantom. Though at one point the shuttle's design had been reserved for dignitaries and diplomats, complete with refreshment facilities, a chance incident had led one astray into a human warzone, where it had been recommissioned as a temporary dropship for wounded warriors. It had performed so admirably that the army had immediately put in orders for combat-capable models armed with plasma turrets.

What she rode in, however, was the civilian model. The tremors and nausea were from the transfer from artificial gravity to natural. They persisted inconsistently as the craft made the gradual descent. She bit back her sickness. She had to be strong.

Alsa only knew these things because of her husband, her mate whom she loved and who had been recalled to duty. When she had found out she had screamed and cried, demanding to know why the Covenant was so determined to take from her all her love, but with his infinite patience Orita had managed to calm her the way only he could.

You must be strong, my love, he had said, half-dressed in his golden armor. Have faith in the Forerunners and their Plan. We all walk the Path. Pray for Orna, for Oriné, for myself, and for our little secret.

Our little secret: the only reason she was bothering to return to Sanghelios.

Though the unpleasant sensation continued as the gravities were matched up, eventually the female Sangheili was able to push it out of her mind.

When the shuttle finally touched down, the pilot helped her down the rear ramp and onto the ground. With a cordial bow he was gone again, the Phantom lifting up into the sky to rejoin the cruiser that had passed by the planet and dropped her off, as well as several soldiers on leave.

She had often thought about the resources the war was consuming. There had been only a short break between the Jiralhanae war and the crusade against the humans. The Brutes hadn't even been properly adjusted to the Covenant before they stumbled across the human colony Harvest at the beginning of the war.

So many ships and weapons needed to be built, and more importantly, the manpower required for using them. She couldn't fathom the scale of it all.

The walk back to her Lineage's flat was long and lonely. In times past she had made this journey alone, either going to the home of a friend or to a distant market to find treats, but it was always with the expectation to find her mate waiting for her.

She arrived and ascended the gravity lift, stepping off on her balcony with practiced grace. Peeling aside the curtain she stepped into her cool home and put her bag on the floor. "Sasat?" she called. "Sasat, are you in?"

"Yes, my lady," came the gravely reply. The diminutive Unggoy female waddled out from the direction of the kitchen. "I apologize for not being able to greet you, but I have been busy tending to my duties. How was your trip?"

Alsa knew the slave maid was already aware of the outcome of the trial, but she did not want to discuss specifics now. She was tired and anxious. "I will tell you later," she said.

The Unggoy nodded. "Very well." She pointed down the hall. "He is in his room, my lady. He grew tired and wished to rest. He played long with Kasa Nom across the road. I do not think him to be ill." The Sangheili thanked her maid and went down the hall towards what had been Oriné's old room and Orna's before it. Inside was darkness, the thick shades closed against the midday light.

Barely visible in the dark was Maka Sam, her youngest son.

He had been conceived while Oriné was away on Jisako and Fulsa was studying at the Pontifectus Academies, and born when their middle son was at Institution. With all their children occupied, neither Alsa nor Orita had thought it proper to distract them with knowledge of the child.

It had been wrong, she realized now. They deserved to know. Fulsa died without ever knowing of the existence of her baby brother.

She crept into the room, careful not to disturb the quiet atmosphere. At the side of the bed she leaned in and nuzzled the boy lightly. He stirred slightly, one glassy eye cracking open. "Maulo?" he asked, voice still high in youth. "You're back. Is Paolu here too?"

"No, my child," she said, stroking his soft head. His skin was supple. "He has... gone away. For now."

He murmured something further and slipped off into sleep.

Alsa left the room, moving back to the entryway. She looked out over the balcony. The sun was waning. If the Covenant was determined to take from her all she had, she supposed she was powerless to stop it. But for as long as she could, she would keep this child safe.

They will take my last breath before they will take my last son.

"Down! Now!"

At his command, Oriné's Grunts threw themselves down behind a low rise; moments later heavy machine gun fire erupted, tearing apart the grassy earth. A few bullets scraped the tips of their methane breathers, but by and large they were unharmed.

Oriné, from his flanking position behind a low wall, watched as the Unggoy under his command crept closer and began firing over the top of the hill, green bolts and pink needles slicing the air and digging into the human firing positions. Though largely ineffective due to the level of cover afforded the humans, the Grunts' fire was providing an adequate distraction. The rise of the hill also gave the Unggoy enough time to duck down and avoid being hit.

With the humans distracted, Oriné raised his Carbine and fired. The thin green trails pierced three skulls and a throat, and threw their defenses into chaos. They were so distracted with the Grunts that they were unable to properly trace his shots.

As he stepped back behind the wall, his radio hissed. "'Fulsamee, what is your status?"

"Their defenses are weakened. My lance will be inside the facility in moments."

"How many Grunts have you lost?"

"None, Excellency."

Major Tokla 'Gerrolee chuffed his disapproval over the radio. He only viewed the Unggoy as fodder, good for little more than a few moments of distraction before being cut down. Before Oriné's arrival in Resolute Unit, the Grunt mortality rate was at a staggering seventy percent.

"Continue on your mission. 'Idylee and 'Talodee's lances are keeping the humans' attention, but we must eliminate these sentries to allow the demolition units through."

"How fares 'Nebudee?"

"Unknown. Out." 'Gerrolee wasn't known for his conversational talents, especially while under fire. In the past six years, the Elite Minor had learned that he couldn't rely on the Major for much information, but 'Gerrolee was familiar with the idea of leading from the front. He constantly sought honor and glory through combat, thinking nothing of putting himself in harm's way. He was also quick to assume credit for his unit's accomplishments and blame his subordinates for failures. Despite having served now for an unbroken six years on the front, any hope Oriné had of ascending to Major rank had been quashed by 'Gerrolee's achievement theft. On Escova, on Tulane, on Paris IV, he had fought with distinction and his superiors only ever recognized 'Gerrolee. But Oriné no longer fought for honor or glory. He fought only for duty.

The last human fell, trying to scream as a pink needle sliced through his windpipe. It exploded, decapitating him and leaving the door undefended. Oriné saw his chance. "Forward!" he cried, and the Unggoy jumped up and ran towards the door. The Elite Minor followed, boots slamming against the ground, until they were at the entrance. A quick glance inside revealed it to be clear.

"This is Resolute Unit, Second Lance," Oriné said into his radio. "Southwest entrance is clear for the Prophet Blessed." A moment later, a Phantom dropship came into view, descending from the madness above. Human Longswords and Hornets clashed against Covenant Banshees, filling the air with fire. The beetle-shaped Phantoms had become more and more common on the front lines recently; it had been phased in as a front-line dropship, relegating the Spirits to primarily Inquisitorial use. Oriné had been guarding Inquisitors when the call had come suddenly: the largest human naval base had been found, called Reach. Not wishing to miss the chance for honor, the Ship Master of the Triumphant Declaration recalled all his units and left to join the Fleets of Particular Justice and Vengeful Light.

Likely he would be punished for abandoning the Inquisitors, but Reach was far too tempting a target.

Hovering above the ground, a small gravity lift began depositing troops. Several black-armored Elites and Grunts descended, taking up defensive positions around the landing site. Two Sangheili disembarked, carrying between them a large bomb. Oriné suppressed a smirk; he had always believed Special Operations to be far more stealthy, but he was increasingly aware of their less-than-subtle tendencies.

Quickly the entire unit trooped into the building, leaving Oriné and his lance outside. The Unggoy looked at him expectedly, and he inclined his head. "We must meet up with Major 'Gerrolee," he said. "Onward." They took up a steady pace away from the building and towards the rendezvous spot.

Minutes later they arrived, finding the Major talking over the radio. As Oriné opened his mouth to report, there was a resounding explosion, the very earth beneath his feet heaving and nearly toppling him. Two of his Unggoy did fall. Looking over his shoulder, he saw pillars of smoke rising from where the groundside generators for the humans' planetary defense guns had been.

Turning around, he found 'Gerrolee watching him intently. Oriné straightened. "Mission completed, Excellency."

"Not a moment too soon," the Major growled, disengaging his radio. "The Supreme Commander of the Fleet of Particular Justice is rallying ships to chase down a human ship fleeing the battle. Our Ship Master wishes to join him and has sent emergency recall orders."

Oriné frowned. "One ship? Surely it is of little consequence. We do not think it is fleeing back to their home world, do we?"

"No, but we suspect there may be a Demon aboard."

Demon. The thought made Oriné shiver. Demons were human soldiers, clad in brilliant green armor with reflective orange visors. Their skills and capabilities were frightening, oft reputed to be able to take down entire battalions on their own, independent from the rest of the human military. Being of strength, intelligence, and cunning, even the Sangheili feared their reputation; many glory-seekers had been killed attempting to bring down a Demon.

If fleet rumor was to be believed, Reach was their home world. The Demon escaping in that ship could be the last of its kind.

A Spirit began descending from the clouds. Oriné signaled for his lance to prepare to leave. "What of the others?" he asked, checking his Carbine. It was out of ammunition and he had no refills. He left it in a crate and chose a plasma rifle instead. "Shall we meet them in orbit?"

"I cannot reach 'Nebudee, nor 'Talodee, nor 'Idylee. I suspect they have fallen in combat." Inside, Oriné felt a pang of sorrow and guilt. Once before he had survived, alone, amongst his unit: on Pearl, amidst a wasteland of snow and ice, he had survived through chance as the rest of his comrades perished. Again, his life seemed to be repeating itself.

"Very well," he said quietly. The dropship touched down and opened its doors. Quickly hopping in, Oriné and his Grunts fastened themselves into the troop compartments. The doors closed and the ship lifted off, rising rapidly. From the viewing slot, Oriné watched as the ground fell away. He could see the individual skirmishes for a while, Covenant lines clashing with the heavily entrenched humans, overwhelming the heretic aliens with force and numbers. Then he could see entire battlefields, fronts made clear by smoke and fire. Human and Covenant air vehicles clashed repeatedly in the sky, amber and sapphire fireballs exploding, engulfing lies. Then they began to leave the atmosphere behind, and the Elite Minor could see the ships, the sleek Covenant vessels taking up orbits while the last of the human fleet burned in the atmosphere.

Again, the war claimed many lives. Again, the Covenant would be victorious, and again, the humans would burn for their heresy. His heresy was different from theirs, but Oriné had different circumstances: he had sacrificed all for another chance. He had watched his sister die and killed his friend in order to give himself the opportunity to prove his loyalty.

He fought for duty. No longer could he find glory in the Covenant, but still there was duty.

Discovery, war, death. Repeated forever, a cycle of life itself.

Life moved in cycles. He remembered when he realized it, when he was in High Charity playing guard and lover to Ekla of Lat, when he was a cadet in Institution. He had been sitting in a chapel, praying hard for forgiveness, for a way to break the cycle. Now he understood: there was no breaking it. The Forerunners decreed its continuance, and he would follow. He was not the axel around which the wheel turned; he was not even a spoke that connected reality with the Grand Design. He was merely part of the rim.

Oriné 'Fulsamee's cycle would begin again.

Legal Message:

I do not own Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, or Halo 3, the Halo novels, or any part of the extended universe. Those masterpieces go to Bungie and Microsoft Game Studios. My ownership extends only to those characters which I created, and if Bungie feels like seizing them, then I'm sure I can't stop them.

Reader Message:

All right! Another one in the pipe. Took my sweet time with this, but hey, it gets better every time. So now you know the "secret" of Oriné's past. When I first started writing Negative Halo, I had a very basic idea, but in it, Ekla was the one who was accused of heresy, and there was no Fulsa. I think this version turned out to be much better.

Next up is Negative Halo 3, which will debut on January 1st, 2009. Why then? Well, why not?

I would like to once again thank Jillybean and an REG Omega for their assistance in coming up with ideas for Sangheili culture. Jill is directly responsible for the nadier, and I pretty much lifted Omega's name suffixes from his profile.

See you in a few months.