Age of Reclamation, Eighteenth Cycle, Unit 94 (Covenant Battle Calendar) /
Beneath surface of moon Acheron (human designation)

Orn awoke when the thing fall off his face.

He became conscious just as its long, vice-like fingers loosened their death grip on his head, and gagged as a disgusting, slimy tube slid out of his throat. The thing landed on its back with a wet smack, its legs scrambling in the air, unable to find purchase. After a moment, the legs curled inward, and the thing was still.

Orn coughed for a few minutes, then tried to vomit, but his stomach was empty. In fact, he was ravenously hungry. There was a strange ache in his chest.

After assessing his condition, Orn looked around. The room was dim, but his eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He was held against a wall by some kind of sticky, resin-like material. Looking to his left and right, he could see others. Grun. The two Kig-Yar. Many humans. All of them appeared to be dead.

Cautiously, Orn tested his muscles. He felt sick and weak, but with a groan, he pushed his arms against his restraints. There was a cracking sound and the resin broke, freeing his arms. After that, it was a simple matter to tear off the rest of the hardened slime.

Orn got to his feet carefully, testing his hooves and balance. Then he inspected the other victims. Moving down the line, he looked for anything he could use as a weapon.

Then he stopped, staring at the corpse that hung before him. It seemed Sub-Commander Xiven had not received the glorious death he had hoped for. Orn bowed his head in respect.
As he gazed at his former commander a moment, remembering his victories, he noticed something else. There was a gaping hole in the sub-commander's chest. It burst outward, as if he had been shot from behind, but something...something looked wrong.

"Forgive me, Sub-Commander," Orn murmured as he began to pull away the resin holding the dead Sangheili to the wall.

He pulled down the corpse and turned it over. There was no entrance wound in the sub-commander's back. Whatever had torn out of his chest had done so from the inside.

Orn felt the ache in his chest, and he knew he was already dead.

He carefully lowered Xiven's corpse to the floor. As he did so, he saw the plasma sword hilt still attached to Xiven's belt.

"Forgive me," he whispered again as he pulled the hilt from the belt. He checked the meter and found it still had three-quarters of a full charge. He thought about activating it to make sure it still worked, then decided that it was too risky; the sword would be a shining beacon to any enemies in the area.

Orn considered his options. He was clearly inside the alien derelict. The kilenchae had done something to him, something which would soon kill him. He could easily take his own life with the plasma sword. He simply had to activate the sword and swing it hard at his neck; it would shear through his flesh as if it were water. A quick, painless end.

Something hissed in the darkness. Orn spun, peering into the black.

The kilenchae were mindless beasts, but they had killed his leader and used both Xiven's and his own body dishonorably. What had Xiven said? Find the queen and destroy her. The creatures must have a hive structure, Orn realized. Killing the queen might disable the drones.

Orn knew his time was short. But his commander had given him a mission, and while he still lived, he could carry it out. But first, he had a more immediate problem to deal with.

"Come out, beasts!" he cried in Sangheili. There was a chorus of hissing around him. He squeezed the plasma sword hilt and it hissed to life, casting stark shadows throughout the chamber, but he couldn't see any of the creatures—and they didn't attack. For whatever reason, they weren't interested in fighting him.

After a moment his anger subsided, replaced by a simmering hate. He turned off the plasma sword and activated a small flashlight on his gauntlet. After a cursory search, he found a door nearby.

As he stepped toward it, his chest gave a lurch and the ache suddenly became a stabbing pain. He gasped, dropping the plasma sword and falling to his knees, coughing and heaving. It felt as if his chest muscles were stretching themselves apart, about to burst. Blind with pain, he fumbled along the ground for the plasma sword. His hand closed around the cool hilt and he squeezed, turning his blurred vision from darkness to light.

Still gasping, he pulled himself to his feet and raised the sword. As he did so, the pain in his chest seemed to double. He dropped the sword and fell to the ground, clutching his chest and screaming silently into his breathing mask. He had failed, and his life was about to end in this dishonorable, blasphemous birth...

#

0345 Hours, March 15, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Unclassified Alien Derelict, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System

Lacking any better options, the Master Chief and Perlman simply walked into the lion's den.

They'd entered the Derelict and made their way back to the corridors where Tolmie had been taken. Initially they had run into very little resistance, which made sense-there couldn't be too many of the XTs left after the various battles they'd gone through.

And yet the things kept coming. The Spartan was good at drilling them with his assault rifle if he managed to see them in time, but Perlman was having difficulties with the shotgun. Shotguns weren't long-range weapons; the idea was to get up in your enemy's face and then splatter his guts all over. Unfortunately, that plan didn't work so well when the enemy had acid blood.

The Chief had warned him not to take the shotgun. Now, in the thick of a battle with two XTs, he reminded Perlman of that.

"Yeah, yeah," Perlman grunted. "Too late now."

They finished off the aliens. The Chief quickly scanned the chamber and its connecting corridors for more XTs while Perlman paused to catch his breath.

"Did you see that last one?" the ODST muttered. "I'd swear it had a beak or something. And its legs went backward. What the hell? These things come in different varieties?"

"That was a Jackal," said the Chief. "Or rather, its host was."

"What?"

"They seem to take on some of the attributes of their hosts. Most of the ones we've seen came from humans, but I saw one with mandibles, like an Elite."

Perlman shook his head. "That's sick. I'd rather fight a dozen Elites than one of these things."

The Chief called up the resonance map on his HUD. The map was sketchy in this area; they were a good distance from the site where the ODST tech had dropped the resonance device into the tunnels. But it was clear they were very close to the root, where, the Chief hoped, the XTs had made their nest.

Oddly, the temperature had risen dramatically, and the air was humid, with a different distribution of gases than could be found on the surface. Either the ship had been designed to cater to the xenomorphs' preferred atmosphere, or the creatures themselves had some way of altering the environment.

"This way," he said, pointing at a corridor with his rifle. Perlman pushed himself off the wall-painfully, it seemed to the Chief-and followed him.

As they made their way through the dark corridors of the alien Derelict, the Chief tried not to think about how much time had elapsed since Ollie and the other Marines had been attacked. If some of them had managed to keep their armor on...

No, he thought, forcing himself to stop thinking about it. He had a job to do.

Perlman walked slowly at his side, shotgun at the ready. The Chief knew most ODSTs hated the Spartans, but Perlman was an exception. After he'd saved their lives on Delta Agma II, Perlman and a few of the other Helljumpers had dragged him away from his quarters and subjected him to round after round at a makeshift bar in some enlisted man's tent. They'd toasted him more times than he could remember, and for one rare moment, the Chief had felt more like a man than a living weapon.

When he was briefed for the Acheron mission, the Chief had been surprised to see Perlman's name on the troop manifest. The man had beaten the survival odds of an ODST. After more research, the Chief discovered that every other member of Perlman's squad from Delta Agma II had been killed in action over the years.

And now, with another squad decimated, here was Perlman, walking straight into hell with two busted ribs and a standard-issue combat suit.

"Perlman," the Chief said, "why are you still a corporal? You should at least be a sergeant by now."

Perlman chuckled. "They've offered it plenty of times. Hell, Yelena refused it until she made sure they'd asked me first. But I don't want it. I can do more good this way."

"Command needs good leaders, Perlman."

"Then they don't need me," said the ODST. "I'm a born grunt, Chief. I leave the orders to people like Hurd."

"Hurd's a good sergeant," the Chief agreed. "But you could be, too."

"Well, given our present situation, we'll probably never know. "

The Chief stopped and faced Perlman. "You think we're going to die?"

"This is a suicide mission, isn't it, sir?"

"Of course not," said the Master Chief.

Perlman stared at the Spartan, who turned and moved on. With a shake of his head, Perlman fell in step behind him.

#

It was forty-six minutes before the pre-arranged check-in with Linda when they found Ollie.

He lay slumped against the wall of the tunnel, surrounded by a dozen XT corpses. Parts of his MJOLNIR armor, nearly impervious to most small arms fire and a few large ones, had been torn from his arms and legs. The golden visor of his helmet had been smashed into a hundred tiny mirrors by a vicious blow that sent a spreading crack across its surface.

"My God," Perlman breathed.

There was enough blood on the floor to indicate the other captives had been injured, perhaps killed, in the fight, but the aliens hadn't left the bodies behind. The Chief tried not to speculate as to why.

Ollie and the Marines must have put up one hell of a fight—but so did the aliens. The Master Chief knelt next to the body. Ollie's rifle was still in his hand. The Chief glanced at the ammo counter: 01.

He'd been saving one last shot. And the Chief knew why. But in the end, it hadn't mattered; he'd succumbed to his injuries before the XTs could do anything else to him.

Solemnly, the Master Chief turned off the blinking light in his HUD that represented Ollie's status, switching it to MIA.

"What do we do now?" Perlman asked. "Do we carry him?"

The Master Chief stood up. "No," he said. "We have too little time as it is. Come on, we're almost there."

#

Orn woke an abrupt, painful gasp. He remembered the pain and looked down to find his torso intact—no gaping, bloody hole from the hideous spawn of the kilenchae. Somehow, he had been spared. His chest still ached, but the gods had let him live to finish his mission.

Wearily, Orn got to his feet. He found the plasma sword hilt and attached it to his belt. If he found the humans, he would find the kilenchae. Then he could fulfill both his missions-or die with honor in the attempt.

From somewhere in the darkness came the muffled sound of weapons fire—staccato sounds, which means human weapons. Orn ignored the growing ache in his chest and began following the sound.

#

As he struggled to keep up with the Master Chief, Perlman checked his watch: thirty-five minutes before the whole place became a smoking crater.

Perlman barely had time to react when two XTs materialized out of the darkness. Before he'd even raised his shotgun, the Master Chief had sent a dozen bullets into both their skulls. Perlman instinctively flinched to avoid any potential acid blood-spray.

Three more aliens detached themselves from the ceiling and fell upon them. The first the Chief dispatched with a quick burst from his rifle. The second came down on the Spartan's back, clawing at his armor and repeatedly slamming its piston-like inner jaw at his helmet. The clang of each blow struck a hollow note in the corridor; if Perlman had time to think about it, he might have realized the jolt itself would have killed a lesser mortal like himself.

But he was busy with the third alien, which had nearly taken him completely by surprise. Now he was in a deadly dance with the thing, making silly lunges and yelling at the top of his lungs trying to get it to move far enough away so he could use the shotgun. At close range, he might get a faceful of acid.

Just when he'd decided he'd have to chance it, an emerald fist came out of nowhere and smashed into the clear dome of the alien skull. The thing tumbled to the ground, screeching, and Perlman's eyes briefly registered the bizarre image of the smooth dome with a spider-webbed crack in it, sickly yellow blood seeping from the wound...

"Perlman! Kill it!"

The shouted order instantly kicked in his military instincts and he blew the creature's head apart.

The Chief had already turned away, walking back to the alien he'd thrown off his back. The thing's right arm had been torn off, Perlman noted, and both its legs were broken.

Despite his loyal belief in the superiority of the Helljumpers over all others, the familiar adage among the UNSC enlisted came to mind: never mess with a Spartan...

The Chief had his pistol out and put two rounds in the alien's face, abruptly silencing its anguished screaming.

Perlman looked at him. "Out of bullets," said the Chief, pointing at his rifle where he'd tossed it on the blackened floor of the tunnel. "Come on, we're almost there."

There was an almost disturbing lack of XT resistance as they crossed the last few corridors before entering the aliens' "nest."

The room, like the rest of this underworld beneath the Derelict, was completely dark. But the powerful flashlights attached to their armor revealed a new nightmare at every turn.

And as he panned his light around, Perlman—a veteran who'd seen the worst men and Covenant could do in the horrors of war—had to choke back a scream.

The chamber wasn't nearly as large as the immense cargo hold had been—this one was only a few dozen meters across. It was hexagonal, and mounted in the center of the room was a large cylindrical machine—no doubt once of some importance to the long-dead Pilot, but now just another mysterious monolith of a dead world.

The ceiling was low, at least compared to other places on the Derelict—just a few feet above the Master Chief's head. How the titanic Pilot had made use of the room was a mystery. The floor was covered with the three-foot tall eggs, but almost all of them were empty.

Worse of all, the floor was littered with the dried, empty husks of the pink crab-spider things, the "facehuggers." They lay about the floor like leaves, and Perlman felt bile rise in his throat at the sound of his boots crunching their corpses underfoot, or sending them skittering along the floor.

But Perlman noticed all of this afterward. What he saw first—what he couldn't tear his eyes away from—was on the walls.

Plastered to each wall, bounded by a disgusting layer of black, encrusted slime, were the bodies of dozens of men and women. As he turned, running his lights over the faces, Perlman saw many he knew, while others were so disfigured as to be unidentifiable.

Some had clearly been dead for a while, their flesh a sickly shade of pale green. Many of them were dressed in standard Marine or tech outfits, and Perlman realized they must be the crew of the Mayberry.

He turned to another part of the chamber, still scanning the faces, and then he paused. "Oh, God," he breathed, moving toward one particular corpse.

Tolmie's eyes were open, almost bulging out of his head in an expression of unimaginable agony. His chest, Perlman noted, had a gaping hole in it—from the birth of one of the alien filth, if what the Chief had told him was true. A thick line of dried blood ran from his torso to the floor.

"Oh, God, kid...I'm sorry," he muttered. He reached up and closed the milky eyes of the corpse.

The Master Chief was checking each victim. "Half are from the Mayberry," he told Perlman. "There are a few Marines who were with Ollie, and—Perlman!"

The Chief had stopped at one victim and began tearing at the black, resin-like slime holding the person to the wall.

Perlman hurried over join him. "Oh no," he said. "Yelena..."

With his enhanced strength, the Master Chief managed to free Hurd from the wall with little trouble. A quick check of her vitals showed the sergeant was unconscious, but alive.

"Yelena?" Perlman said. "Can you hear me?"

The Chief had pulled a small medical kit from a compartment in his leg armor. He selected a small, inch-long syringe and gently placed it against the woman's neck, tapping it lightly with a finger to deliver the dose.

"She's the only one alive," the Chief said tonelessly as they waited for the stimulant to take effect.

Hurd's eyelids fluttered open, and the eyes moved around slowly at first, unfocused and dilated. Finally they settled on Perlman.

"Shit. How bad is it?"

"What do you remember?" the Master Chief asked.

Hurd turned her head to look at the Spartan. "The...things took us on the surface," she said. She was trying to think through the grogginess. "Dragged us down. Stahl fought too hard, they just...they killed him. I couldn't get a good enough leverage, they had me too tight...blacked out while they were still dragging me. How long—" She fell into a coughing fit, then continued, "how long was I down here?"

They all knew what the question meant: had there been enough time for her to be infected?

"About two hours," said the Chief.

The mention of time reminded Perlman to check his watch. "Sir, we have twenty-five minutes before we have to check in. Is there..." He looked at Hurd. "...is there any way to tell?"

"Not without some real medical equipment," the Chief said.

"Just go," Hurd said, grunting with pain as she started to get to her feet. "Get the hell out of here. We can't risk one of those things escaping."

"No!" said Perlman. At first he'd assumed it really had been a suicide mission, a chance to settle the score with the beasts and make sure no one was suffering down here. But now that they'd found Hurd, he couldn't accept the idea they'd come down here just to fail—and seeing Tolmie had made him even more determined to save Hurd if they could. "There's no evidence you've got one of them in you, Yelena—"

"Belay that shit, Corporal!" Hurd said through clenched teeth. "And if you call me Yelena again, I'll shove that shotgun up your goddamned babygirl vagina."

Behind his visor, Perlman's mouth gaped. "Understood, sir."

"Sergeant," said the Chief quietly.

Hurd had pulled herself to her feet. She ignored the Chief for a moment, flexing her right arm, then her left. She hissed. "Something's broken in this one," she said, holding her left forearm.

"Sergeant," the Chief said again. Perlman saw his pistol was in his hand, and understood.

Hurd regarded him coolly. "You planning to get out of here before they nuke the place?"

"Yes," said the Chief, and Perlman realized that Hurd had been in on the Chief's plan all along.

Hurd reached behind her back, drawing her own pistol from its holster. "You know what? If you don't mind, Chief, I'd like to stay around a bit longer." She nodded her head toward the sad, shadowy shapes along the wall. "I wouldn't mind a little payback for this. But when the time comes, you do what you have to. Sound good?"

The Chief regarded her silently for a moment, then nodded. "Stand by," he said. "Let me check the map." After a few seconds, he turned and indicated a door. "This way leads to a tunnel that seems to move upward toward the surface. It should be a bit shorter than the way we took down here, but..."

"But you can't be sure," Hurd finished.

Perlman checked to make sure his shotgun had its full complement of shells. "Twenty-one minutes," he said. "No time to—"

His words were choked off as a black, six-fingered hand clamped around his throat.

#

To the Master Chief, the whole event seemed to unfold in slow motion—the alien grabbing Perlman roughly by the torso and throat, yanking him toward a hole in the ceiling he hadn't even noticed.

"No!" Hurd screamed, grabbing for Perlman's legs. The Chief knew that was a lost cause, likely to result either in failure or, worse, a headless ODST. But as the sergeant delayed Perlman's abductor, the Chief raised his pistol, paused to aim, and pulled the trigger.

There was an enraged screech and Perlman abruptly fell; the Chief managed to get under him fast enough to prevent a broken neck.

"Nice shot," Hurd said as they helped Perlman to his feet. A part of his helmet was smoking where the alien's blood splatter had hit it. Hurd quickly undid the snaps and pulled it off.

"Ugh," Perlman said, coughing in the thick, moist air. "Put it back on, I'd rather my head melted off than smell this shit..."

"Do you have a rebreather?" the Chief asked him. "For when we get to the surface." He avoided the word if.

Perlman, still coughing, nodded. "In my pack."

More alien screeches sounded from the ceiling and some of the other doors. "Time to go," Hurd said, hauling Perlman to his feet.

The Chief checked the map again in his HUD as they headed back into the corridors. The route he'd selected led them through one more large room before trailing off toward the surface. It was easier to deal with the XTs in the corridors, which were fairly small and narrow—as long as you kept an eye on the ceiling. But there was no telling what might be in that last chamber...

#

For a few moments, Orn thought he had lost track of the humans. The gunfire had stopped, and the Sangheili thought they'd finally fallen prey to the kilenchae. But no, now he could hear their murmured speech through the wall. Soon he heard their footsteps echoing away.

He began jogging in the same direction, his hooves striking the ground as lightly as possible to avoid tripping; the kilenchae's disgusting secretions were everywhere. While he couldn't be sure this tunnel would intersect with the one the humans were taking, he knew sooner or later he would find them. The gods had spared him, so that he might complete his holy mission.

Orn noticed the echo of his steps had become more spread out, and he stopped. He could see little in the darkness, but his ears told him he had entered a chamber. There was a rhythmic hissing sound to his right, like an air pump. That might explain the breathable air this deep below the ancient vessel, he thought.

He was trying to decide how to proceed when he heard the sound of human footsteps. They were faint, and somewhat unsteady—they'd been slowed by an injured member, he realized. Fools. Far better to slay the injured then try to hold out the hope of escape from this dark hell.

He moved closer to the wall, to the left side of the entrance to the tunnel the humans were coming up. His three-fingered hand moved to the plasma sword and he snapped it off his belt, running his thumb over the switch without pressing it.

He would slay the humans, then find a way to destroy the kilenchae. Perhaps there was some sort of self-destruct system on the alien derelict, though its circuits would be long inactive...or perhaps there was something in the engine room he could sabotage. It mattered little, so long as the kilenchae—and himself—were destroyed. But he had so little time...

The humans were on the verge of reaching the chamber. He could make out heavy footsteps—very heavy, almost like those of a Sangheili—which meant it had to be one of the human demons.

He had no more time to think about it, because the humans were nearly upon him. Pressing himself to the wall, he waited until he saw a glimpse of a shape around the corner and he thumbed the plasma sword switch, roared and swung the sword out.

The blade struck emerald armor and rebounded with a blinding flash, while the human was knocked backward from the force.

It was a Demon! Orn recognized the green armor and golden visor from videos he'd seen of the creatures in action...but he quickly pushed away the panic that bubbled up in his throat. They were still just humans. Its armor may have saved it from his first blow, but it could never withstand a second. With a snarl, Orn prepared for another strike.

The hissing in the corner abruptly rose to a horrible, breathy scream.

Startled, Orn turned, the glow of the plasma sword casting an eerie light across the room. A massive object sat at the far end. It looked like some sort of strange ebony altar, with a large v-shaped plate in the center and numerous bony appendages jutting out behind it. Momentarily forgetting the Demon—who was getting to his feet, but seemed just as confused—Orn involuntarily took a curious step forward.

Then the thing moved.

Faster than Orn could believe, an immense limb—a tail?-snapped across the room and struck him on the back, hurling him toward the living altar and sending him sprawling on his face before it like a penitent.

His shock turning to rage, he got to his feet and looked at the thing. He'd managed to hold on to his plasma sword and he thumbed it to life, casting a bright glow before him.

The apex of the v-shaped alter was inches from his face. As he gazed up at it, a pair of jaws slipped out from behind it, the teeth dripping with slime. And then he knew what it was.

The Queen.

He remembered the sword too late; a claw lashed out and casually smacked it away from his hand. Another hand snatched him by the back of his armor and lifted him into the air. The Queen hissed again.

Summoning his courage, he spat on the Queen's plated head..

It was then that the ache in his chest returned, the pain far more intense than it had ever been before. The Queen's other prehensile hand clamped onto his chest armor, gripped it deep with its recesses, and tore it off with one bone-jarring yank.

Orn felt more pain than he had ever imagined as the bones of his chest began to buckle before a hideous strength. And his last, awful thought, before the creature tore through his chest in a burst of blood and bone, was that the Queen was calling to it.

#

Through his enhanced visor, the Master Chief saw everything—the Elite's brief struggle with the gigantic XT, the hideous birth that followed after, the way the Queen tossed the lifeless body aside once the disgusting newborn hit the floor and scampered into the shadows.

Then, the giant head turned and looked straight at the Master Chief, and he suddenly felt a surge of vertigo as he looked at those claws and teeth, the dripping slime...it was as if the creature was clutching at his mind, playing at the tiny mote of pure, animalistic fear he had spent a lifetime learning to suppress...

The Chief's mind cleared. He noticed the huge white egg sac behind it now, and realized it had to be some sort of queen for this "nest." The thing was still staring at him, the skin around its jaws pulled tight in the rictus grin of a corpse. The room was filled with eggs, though the nearest ones remained closed, for some reason. At each entrance to the chamber was a cluster of the drones; presumably the eggs were the reason they were holding back.

"Chief?" said Perlman over the COM channel. "We've got a problem here...we're cut off. And we've got ten minutes left."

The Chief nodded, holstered his pistol and slowly removed the SPNKR rocket launcher from his back. The Queen watched, her breath coming in wheezy, ragged gasps. The magazine held two rockets; he figured he'd hit the Queen with the first and then try to make sure the blowback from the second one took out all three of them.

As the Chief shouldered the launcher, Hurd put a on his arm. "No," she said. "You don't have to do this."

Perlman said, "Not really much of an option here, Sergeant."

"No. You have two shots, right? Which entrance leads the way out?"

The Chief pointed to the tunnel on the far wall, to the left of the Queen.

"Does that tunnel link up with any others?"

The Chief consulted his map; it was sketchy in this area, but there didn't seem to be any branches off that particular tunnel. "Not that I can see."

"OK. Give me the launcher. Hit that entrance with all you have and if you make it through, I'll cover you."

"Yelena—" said Perlman.

"Shut the hell up."

"Sergeant," the Master Chief said, "with all due respect, I'm not—"

"With all due respect, Master Chief, the Covenant are still out there and we've already lost one Spartan and a dozen good Marines today."

The Master Chief considered this quickly, then nodded. He set down the rocket launcher and Hurd handed him her pistol. Them he gave her a quick salute, which she returned.

"Now give me a minute with this grunt," said Hurd.

The Chief nodded and started to move toward the tunnel, keeping an eye on the still-watchful Queen.

"Yelena..." Perlman said.

"Joel...tell my parents for me, OK? And another thing—take the damned promotion this time. I don't want the boys getting stuck with some know-nothing asshole from outside the platoon. You got that, Corporal?"

"Yeah. I got it." Perlman's voice was thick.

"Good. Now get the hell out of here."

Perlman hesitated, then saluted her. She returned it and then gave him a little shove in the direction of the Chief.

Her quick movement must have drawn the attention of the Queen or the drones, because then all hell broke loose.

The Chief had his own pistol and Hurd's in his hands and was charging toward the entrance of the tunnel just as a half-dozen XTs were swarming out of it. The leading alien went down, with four bullets—two from each gun—drilled neatly into its gleaming forehead.

Then Perlman was at his side, shotgun booming. Two more drones had their upper bodies splattered against the wall.

The Master Chief dispatched another drone with the pistols, then tossed the empty weapons aside and leaped on the last one bare-handed. A few seconds later, the shattered body of the alien hit the floor, crushing several eggs. The Queen screamed.

"That pissed her off," Perlman said.

Drones began boiling out of the other entrances, running past Hurd in their effort to get at the Chief. And all the while the Queen screamed.

The Chief took off up the tunnel. Perlman hesitated just a second, glancing back at Hurd. She looked at him meaningfully. With a nod, he turned and fled up the corridor.

#

As the last of the drones vanished into the corridor behind the Chief and Perlman, Hurd turned to the Queen. She was, well, royally pissed, and still screeching bloody murder. Hurd watched the thing for a moment, savoring it.

Then there was a sound like a knife tearing through wet canvas, and Hurd saw the Queen was freeing herself from the egg sac—presumably to pursue the Chief and Perlman.

It was time. Hurd got down on one knee, shouldered the rocket launcher, and brought the barrel to bear on the Queen.

"Smile, bitch."

#

0530 Hours, March 15, 2543 (Military Calendar) /
Dropship 77-Troop Carrier ("Pelican") Delta 421, Acheron, Zeta Reticuli System

"Just registered minor seismic tremor beneath the Derelict, sir," one of the Marines said to Linda. "Looks like a rocket detonation."

Linda's hands tightened around the Pelican controls. They were just minutes away from the two-hour deadline the Master Chief had set for them. If he was using the rocket launcher, that could mean the situation had become desperate—or hopeless.

Linda decided to make one last circle over the Derelict, which would bring them to the two-hour mark. The clock on her HUD ticked off the last few seconds with agonizing slowness. By the time she'd finished the circle, it was thirty seconds past the Chief's deadline.

Linda didn't hesitate any longer. "Prep for planetary departure," she said over the ship's COM. "We're getting out of here."

As the Marines strapped themselves in, she pulled out the remote detonator for the HAVOK warhead. Once the Pelican had reached a safe distance, she'd detonate it and destroy the Derelict, the Covenant ships and any XTs for a ten-mile radius.

"Sir!" the Marine monitoring the service said. "Registering more tremors—much smaller this time..."

"Grenades," Linda said. "Where?"

The Marine indicated a spot about a quarter of a mile from the Derelict. Linda grabbed the controls and the dropship lurched to the west.

"There!" the Marine cried.

Below them was the howling surface of Acheron, its surface just starting to be lit by the glow of the gas giant it orbited. As they watched, a small patch of ground cracked and broke open and a black glove came out, followed by a green armored arm.

Linda hit the COM. "Open the cargo bay!" She gunned the Pelican's engine, aiming for the widening hole. Gray dirt was thrown in all directions as the Master Chief pulled himself to the surface. Then he turned and reached down and Perlman appeared, clutching his rebreather to his face while using his other arm to swing his shotgun at the dark arms that clutched at him from inside the hole.

The Chief and Perlman started to run as the XTs boiled out of the hole like ants from an anthill.

#

The Pelican roared overhead; Perlman could feel the heat from the engines through his armor. The Master Chief was in front of him, legs churning as he tore up the dusty surface of the moon. Perlman could feel his owns strength ebbing. His ribs felt like they were on fire.

Behind him he could hear the screeches of the XTs...God, even if he survived he'd be hearing those sounds forever...

Ahead of them the Pelican had come down, hovering with its back to them just a few feet above the ground. The cargo bay door was open. It was less than thirty feet ahead, but it felt like miles.

But then the Chief was hopping onto the ramp, and he turned and grabbed Perlman bodily and practically tossed him into the dropship.

The Pelican's engines roared as it took off into the sky. As the cargo ramp began to close, one XT crawled over the edge. The Master Chief was already moving toward it when another Marine stopped him.

"Allow me, sir." The Marine lifted a shotgun, took aim, and blew the alien away. Perlman watched its body tumble into the clouds as the ramp closed.

The Master Chief made sure all the Marines—including Perlman—were strapped into their seats, then he opened a COM channel. "Linda, are we out of range yet?"

"Aye sir."

"Do it."

#

Beneath the Derelict, the alien drones clattered through the tunnels, seeking out the special egg that contained their next Queen now that the old one was dead. As they ran, they paid no attention to a small, black half-sphere that had been carefully placed in the egg chamber beneath the Pilot's room.

Just as a drone had located the proper egg, the spikes along its side denoting it as royalty, the world around it went white.

#

"Master Chief." Linda sounded relieved. "We just received a message from the Tyger. They were playing cat-and-mouse with a Covenant frigate near the edge of the system, but Captain Arad managed to destroy it. They'll rendezvous with us at 0800."

"Understood." The Chief had taken the seat across from Perlman. The ODST had his helmet off and was draining a thermos.

"Water?" the Chief said.

Perlman finished the thermos, wiped his mouth and grinned. "Beer," he said. "Watery beer, though. Quenches the thirst."

The Chief chuckled. "You'll get a commendation for this mission, Corporal."

Perlman grimaced. "Not likely," he said, nodding toward Reardon, who was snoring in his seat. He had yet to regain consciousness. "Not once he has his say."

The Chief had a hunch Reardon's mishandling of the entire mission meant he wouldn't have his say in anything for a long, long time. "We'll see," said the Chief. "But if they do offer to make you sergeant, will you take it?"

Some of the other Marines, having noticed Hurd had not made it back, were paying attention. Perlman thought it over.

"What the hell," he said. "Anything to get out of taking orders from you asshole Spartans."

As the Marines struggled to stifle their snickers, the Chief made his own show of deep thought. "Corporal Perlman..." he began, and then he suggested the ODST do something that would require him to be hermaphroditic and double-jointed.

Perlman laughed, long and loud. "You know what we Helljumpers say about Spartans, Chief? Never mess with a Spartan—"

"—because they have no sense of humor," the Chief said.

END