Chief plugged Cortana into a holotank that had been quickly welded to the floor of the cockpit. Then he spent twenty minutes checking out the ship. There was not much space inside; just enough for a cockpit, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a closet. Chief didn't discover the closet's purpose, so bare and empty was it, until Cortana found a reference to it in the ship's archives. The closet was a portal to a room, wrapped in a shaped sphere of slipspace, kept in the heart of the ship.
"You wanna check it out?" Cortana asked.
Stepping into the door frame of the closet, he saw not just a room, but a warehouse. It looked to John to be about sixty meters across by three hundred meters tall. He could not see the far wall. Every ten meters up, a pair of shelves extended from the walls, running along the length of the room as far as he could see. The shelves were twenty meters wide each, with a strip of unobstructed space between. The ground for the first hundred meters was covered in things taken from Forward Unto Dawn. Apparently, the sentinels had gathered anything and everything that wasn't bolted down, and a few things that were. Everything was laid out neatly, or as neatly as such a mismatched group of things can be. John saw a laptop, a cigar, and his cryochamber, all resting on the floor near each other. Chief looked around in awe and noticed something odd. The wall in which the doorframe-portal resided had a section, in the corner, that was dotted by hexagonal cubbyholes. He walked over to investigate.
As he drew near, he saw that in these cubbies floated sentinels. Doing a quick mental count, he estimated there were one hundred and fifty sentinels. "Cortana, there are sentinels in here."
"I would guess that they're there to help with heavy lifting."
The nearest sentinel powered up and said "Do you require assistance?"
Well, I could use some answers. "What is the function of this room?
"Why is this room so large?"
"Chief, you can't expect it to know why anything is." Cortana said. "It's only a dumb AI. Stick to simple questions."
"How many sentinels are in this room?"
"What is the function of the sentinels in this room?"
"To store and offload cargo."
"Acknowledged; powering down."
Well, maybe they'll be useful in a fight, Chief thought. He stepped back through the doorframe whence he came and walked to the bridge. As John sat down, Cortana's digitally rendered body swirled into existence next to him.
"We will drop out of slipspace in approximately eighty-five seconds," she said.
"We don't have any intel on where we're going, do we?"
"Just that garbled video clip that was transmitted before comms were cut. I'll play it again."
Watching with a tactical eye, Master Chief noticed that the rounds hitting the soldiers were not plasma. Unknown hostiles, then. Then he noticed something even more astounding. These soldiers weren't being hit at all! They were apparently equipped with personal shields. This was a huge leap forward for the UNSC. If marines had had shields when the Covenant first attacked, they wouldn't have killed us so easily, John thought. Then he saw the squid-ship again. Chief wasn't sure what could be done about it; Godspeed was fast, but not a powerhouse. That ship had him outclassed and outgunned. If it had friends, it had him outnumbered, too.
"Coming out of slipspace in thirty."
Chief walked back to his bedroom and grabbed his MA5 and four magazines, which he clipped to his belt. He returned to the cockpit just in time for them to re-enter real space.
"Four... Three... Two... One." The viewscreens lit up, showing a lush, green planet filling most of their immediate view. In front of them was a large continent flanked at the horizon by ocean. "That ship is sitting on the ground outside a small settlement. There aren't any other ships in orbit, though there is debris enough for a small patrol fleet."
"How far out are we?"
As they approached the colony, Cortana started feeling anxious. This colony wasn't on any of the official UNSC star charts, nor was it on the unofficial ones. The weaponry and armor of the colony's defenders were another stumbling block. They were so different from what marines had used during the Human-Covenant War. The lack of any sizable amount of ships or debris in orbit was also unusual; even on Harvest, ships had been coming and going all the time.
Cortana deftly piloted the ship down through the atmosphere, over hundreds of kilometers of fields, and set it down in a small valley two kilometers from the main settlement. Master Chief pulled Cortana's new data chip from her holotank, and stepped out of the ship onto soft, loamy soil.
The sky was a pleasant light blue, marred only by the thick cloud of black smoke drifting over them from the east. They had landed in a field not five hundred meters away from a monorail system. Between them and the rail line was a moderate prefab compound. Nearest was a small home, two stories tall, with a plethora of windows and an overhang protecting the front door. Behind it were silos and fenced-in grazing areas filled with cows, sheep, pigs, and other meat producing animals.
As Chief jogged across the roughly mown lawn, he heard loud music emanating from the house. When he stopped under the overhang, he saw the door open. In the middle of its opening sequence, a farmer pivoted around the door, and in one smooth motion, leveled a shotgun at Master Chief's torso and fired. John dove forward and to his left, tucking into a roll before coming back up and grabbing his assault rifle.
The farmer looked astonished, his eyes and mouth open to the point of comedy. "Aw, shit, you're not one of Them, are you? I saw them on the news before it cut out, so when I saw a big metal guy coming up to my door, I panicked. Sorry about that. You got a name, metal-man?"
"Well, my name's Liam McCreary. I take it you're with the marines?"
"Yes. I was hoping to find out more about the situation here."
"Special Forces, huh? Well, you probably know about as much as I do. A ship showed up, destroyed everything in orbit - which isn't much, admittedly - and then started pouring out killer robots. And get this, it didn't send down a fleet of dropships, it landed. On the ground. Can you imagine it?" John could, actually. Larger ships had landed on the surface of a planet, but only for drydocking. And, of course, crashing. However, he didn't say this, only stared at the man. "Anyway... Rail's out, so you can't get to the city that way. I have a pretty durable buggy you could borrow though. She's quick and she'll take most any terrain; just don't go riding into battle with her."
"Thank you." Liam walked Chief over to a sort of garage-tent staked down behind the house, facing the field inhabited by Godspeed. Liam grabbed the keys from a nail on the tent pole and tossed them to John. "I'll take good care of it," Chief said.
"See to it that you do. If you see anyone who needs a place to stay until this blows over, tell 'em they're welcome at the McCreary farm, will you?"
And he was on his way.
Shit! As she fired at the cluster of drones hovering at the end of the gully, Eve knew that Jenkins was dead. She had no proof, she'd seen soldiers go down like that even before their shields were breached, but sometimes proof is superfluous. She knew Jenkins was dead. When the drones were destroyed, Kaiden ran to Jenkins' corpse. Eve followed more slowly, keeping her assault rifle ready, watching for another wave of drones. When she was satisfied that they were safe, if temporarily, she looked down at the body. Kaiden confirmed what she already knew.
"Ripped right through his shields. Never had a chance."
Because I sent him forward. "We'll see that he receives a proper service once the mission is complete. But I need you to stay focused."
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
They ran up the gully and through a grove of trees, killing drones all along the way. As they reached an embankment at the edge of the grove, a young human gunnery chief - the same gunny from the distress signal, Eve remembered - ran into view, falling onto her back and shooting the drones following her. She ran behind a rock just as two man-shaped synthetic warriors finished impaling a colonist on a spike.
As disgusted as she was by the colonist's death, Shepard knew that there were more pressing matters at hand. She felt the same rush when she began firing on the synthetics as she had felt on Elysium. Despite fearing for her life and that of her squadmate, there was a certain rush, a certain feeling of vitality, that could not be matched outside of battle. Eve did not like this feeling necessarily, but it lent her a preternatural clarity that she absolutely appreciated.
When the synthetics were scrap, she walked over to the soldier. The woman spoke first. "Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams of the 212. You the one in charge here, ma'am?"
"Are you wounded, Williams?"
"A few scrapes and burns, nothing serious. The others weren't so lucky. Oh man... We were patrolling the perimeter when the attack hit. We tried to get off a distress call, but they cut our communications. I've been fighting for my life ever since."
"Where's the rest of your squad?"
"We tried to double back to the beacon, but we walked into an ambush. I don't think any of the others... I think I'm the only one left."
"This isn't your fault, Williams. You couldn't have done anything to save them."
"Yes, ma'am. We held our position as long as we could. Until the geth overwhelmed us."
Geth? Eve thought, They haven't done anything since they evicted the Quarians. Kaiden gave voice to her thoughts a second later. "The geth haven't been seen outside the Veil in nearly two hundred years. Why are they here now?"
"They must have come for the beacon. The dig site is close, just over that rise. It might still be there."
So far as Eve could tell, Williams was telling the truth. To have survived this long, she must have been a good soldier, and Shepard needed a new squadmate. "We could use your help, Williams." The gunny's eyes brimmed with anger and loss.
"Aye, aye, ma'am. It's time for payback."
They walked for a time, both tense and calm. Alive with adrenaline, but feeling drained and emotionally dead. Just when her adrenaline high was starting to wear off, Shepard saw the dig site. The area where the beacon had been found was marked by a small Prothean ruin. They were walking down a narrow gulch strewn with boulders, an excellent approach. Eve directed Kaiden and Williams to take cover behind some boulders, then slowly approached the ruin. As she neared the end of the boulder field, she saw four geth troopers standing guard. She dived onto her side behind a boulder. As best she could tell, the beacon wasn't there, but she decided to kill first and ask questions later. Even if she had wanted to ask questions, geth were not known for their chattiness.
She tossed a grenade over her boulder, then sprung up and opened fire with short, controlled bursts from her Lancer. The first trooper didn't even have time to shoot at her before toppling over. The second was caught in a crossfire between Ashley and Kaiden. The third trooper was destroyed by Eve's hastily thrown grenade. Shepard rushed the fourth, letting her shields absorb its fire before ramming into it with her shoulder. As the automaton fell, she planted a boot where a human opponent's throat would be, and fired a three second burst into its head.
Then she turned to her soldiers. Both of them were staring at her with open-mouthed astonishment. "What?" she inquired.
"Not once have I seen someone run towards a geth, ma'am."
"Well," Kaiden started, "Shepard's made a career of doing the unthinkable."
Eve shook her head. "C'mon, you two. Let's see if the beacon's still here."
Upon entering the city, Master Chief had seen signs giving directions to various utilities and attractions. City Park, one read. Bertie's Bed and Breakfast, another proclaimed. The only one that interested Chief said Spaceport. If there was any resistance, they would either be trying to take or defend the spaceport.
It turned out that the spaceport was on the far side of the city. The cargo rail line he had been following curved around the city to the spaceport, but John decided to cut through. As he drove, the city got progressively worse. Trash began to fill the streets, cars sat abandoned, buildings were riddled with pock marks from bullets. The entire last block before the spaceport was leveled. Then, at the end of the block was a drop off. At the bottom was a pool of molten rock that covered most of what Chief assumed to be the spaceport. "The enemy must have dropped dozens of kilotons of ordinance in order to make the spaceport inaccessible," Cortana said. "Look, Chief, the rail station's still intact. The enemy must be using it as a forward operating base." Chief drove into the forest to the side of the road, as the road leading to the station had been reduced to slag.
"Hmph!" Cortana huffed indelicately, and John could picture her pinching the bridge of her nose. "The Enemy. I don't like going in dark. We don't even have a proper name for them. I sound primitive, and I don't like sounding like a monkey, Chief."
"Well, we don't know what they're called, and they are the enemy."
"Yes, but if we don't have proper names for things, people won't have any respect for us."
They bickered, arguing over small, unimportant things for the three whole minutes it took to circumnavigate the spaceport. They didn't argue out of spite. They argued just to talk to each other, Cortana to avoid thinking about the postponement of her death, Chief to avoid thinking about service after it. John clutched the emergency brake, drifted to a stop, and sprung out of Liam's buggy, which rocked alarmingly. He stopped a moment, off balance, then sprinted to the handrail on the edge of the platform, and vaulted over it.
Trusty MA5 in hand, he ran to a crate and leaned against its back. Then he peered out slowly, and saw the backs of two humans, one male, one female, who were firing at some kind of machines. Evidently they were the mystery enemies. Then he noticed a thin, slightly muscular woman behind a structural support kneeling down over a bomb, attempting to disarm it. John sprinted forward and tossed a grenade over their heads, sprayed a long burst at the machines, and slid on his knees into cover next to the two providing covering fire.
"Who the hell 're you?" asked the woman of the pair, in the overly loud voice of one who has been firing a gun for some time.
As she finished disarming the bomb, the thin woman, a Commander, told him "We're not going to get to the last bomb in two minutes at the rate we've been going. There are about twenty geth over there, and we need your help if we're going to save this colony."
Master Chief hurdled over their cover then, not bothering to wait for his companions to get ready. He sprinted from crate to crate, firing a burst or tossing a grenade each leg of his run, taking hits to his shields all the time. The three human soldiers gave him covering fire when he ran. By the time he reached the group of geth, there were only seven left.
Chief ran at them, firing on full automatic, destroying one before getting in the midst of the group. He grabbed another by its shoulder and threw it over the handrail onto the cargo rail itself. He punched another in its "throat," and pulled out a handful of cables and wires. As he wrestled a fourth for control of its gun, the other three soldiers charged in. Two geth went down to rifle fire. The last was lifted into the air, covered in a blue, smoky aura, and literally ripped in half. Chief paused for a second, then pulled the gun from the fourth machine's grasp, and used the butt of the stock to bash its head in. Meanwhile, the Commander sprinted to the last bomb and hovered feverishly over it, pressing buttons.
John tossed the unfamiliar gun to the ground, not taking his eyes off the male soldier, who, he now noticed, was surrounded by the same aura. With the other two soldiers staring at him, he walked over to her. "Is that the last one?"
"Yes. If there were more, they'd have blown by now, and we'd be dead."
"That close, ma'am?"
"Too close." She stood up. "Thanks for the help. I'm Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy. And you are?"
Chief snapped a crisp salute. "Master Chief Petty Officer SPARTAN-117, ma'am."
"Do you have a name?"
"But you're not going to tell me what it is... because you're part of Alliance Special Forces."
This confused John. As far as he knew, everyone knew about the Spartans. It was then that Cortana whispered in his helmet "Chief, something's wrong here. Everyone's heard of Spartans. You've been declassified for years. And I don't know what this 'alliance' is, but I've never heard anyone call the UNSC an alliance. Best to play along for now, I think. Maybe we can see what they're up to, and if they are on our side." Three seconds after Commander Shepard had spoken, John answered simply.
"Hmph!" She pinched the bridge of her nose, the spitting image of Cortana, then in an irritated voice, said "Alright, we still have to secure the beacon. Then you can talk to Captain Anderson about who gets to keep it. Come on."
They jogged down the rail station until they came to a balcony overlooking a platform near the edge of the landing area. John could see the road he'd ridden in on. On the platform below them, crates were scattered in a half circle around a tall white obelisk shrouded in a green aura, not unlike the one that had enveloped the male soldier. The beacon. Standing guard around it were more mechanized soldiers.
However, John's eye was drawn to the spikes near the edge of the platform. Scattered about were four meter tall spikes on which colonists and their defenders both were impaled. Their bodies glowed a soft blue, and appeared even more ashen than most corpses. The spikes themselves were a deep blue, not unlike the armor of the invading force's ship. "Chief," Cortana said softly, "those people are dead, but there is energy moving under their skin. Like power cables inside them. Be careful."
Eve saw the spikes and winced internally. It was bad enough seeing the ruined bodies of the colonists, but it seemed cruel that she would have to fight them, too. It was hard to stay in soldier mode when she had to stare into the unnaturally blue eyes of those she had failed. The Master Chief seemed wary of them. Shepard wondered if he had seen them before.
Before she could speculate more, the geth troopers saw them. She, Kaiden, and Ashley ran to the left and down the ramp to some crates, while the Master Chief vaulted over the rail. When he hit the floor, the entire platform shook. The Commander filed that away in her "think about it later" box, and spun out of cover.
The geth were focused on Master Chief. Good; they'll never see me coming. Eve fired at the closest trooper as the husks were descending from their spikes. It went down quickly, but she had to duck back into cover as its companions turned on her. Kaiden and Ashley made up for her lack of fire by coordinating their fire against the geth. Eve looked over at the Master Chief, crouched behind a crate. He surveyed the husks methodically for a moment, then he opened up with that strange assault rifle he wielded. The husks fell, one by one. Eve returned her attention to the geth, only to find that Kaiden and Ashley had finished them off.
As the last husk fell, Master Chief walked over to her. In a low voice, he asked "What the hell were those?"
Standing seven feet tall and weighing more than any human had a right to, Master Chief cut an imposing figure over the Commander. Don't let it get to you; you're in charge here. "Your guess is as good as mine. They were colonists. Now they're not."
He stared down at her for a second more, then turned to Kaiden to discuss the beacon. She tuned them out as she radioed the Normandy. "Normandy, the beacon is secure. Request immediate evac."
Joker responded quickly. "Aye, aye Commander. We're coming down now."
"Roger, Normandy. Standing by."
Eve turned around to speak with Kaiden and Master Chief as Ashley studied the beacon, slowly walking towards it.
"It just doesn't seem probable. What are the chances that we find a planet with no visible Prothean ruins, settle it, find a beacon, and it works? It seems too good to be true." Kaiden opened his omnitool, and tapped through a few files. "Yeah, the last time anyone found working Prothean technology was when we found Mars." Master Chief cocked his head to the side, as if listening to something, then asked Kaiden a question, but it was full of technical terms, and Shepard let it go over her head.
As Kaiden enthusiastically pulled up three dimensional diagrams and enlightened the hulking warrior, Eve looked over at Ashley. She's standing too close to- Ashley got within a few feet of the beacon, and started sliding forward. She windmilled, apparently under the impression that she slipped. Then she started to step backwards, as if fighting someone who was tugging her towards the beacon. In the Commander's mind, something clicked, then she was sprinting toward her subordinate.
She wrapped her arms around Ashley and flung her away from the beacon. Unfortunately, she was now being yanked forward. As she got within arms' reach of it, she heard Ashely cry "Shepard!" Then her mind was filled with images, things of which she had no recollection, but she could see as if she were there. She saw some sort of aliens fighting against machines. The machines were winning, and the organics were being destroyed. She found herself rooting for the aliens, hoping that they would somehow survive the onslaught. As she watched though, the situation grew more desperate. The aliens were fighting valiantly, then stubbornly, then desolately. Now they were writhing in pain, begging for the end. Tears streamed down her face. She felt pain for what she witnessed, but the vision itself was painful as well. She had a massive migraine, and like the defenders, she wished for the end. Then, abruptly, there were no more aliens. The machines left quickly.
She felt relief as she slumped to the ground, and she blacked out.