Chapter 7: Convergence
|Time 51:24:4 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), twenty-sixth sunrise shift of the thirty-first month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 2nd Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)
Location: The Fallen headquarters, Sanghelios
|0520 Hours, March 27, 2555
Autel kept his gaze staring straight ahead as he and another insurgent stood on either side of Esar 'Nilur, the Shadow of Dissent's leader. He listened to the conversation with interest, but was careful to avoid eye contact with Atsu 'Hidal, whom 'Nilur was speaking to. The Fallen leader was a rather intimidating figure, even when he was in a relaxed stance, his hands folded behind his back.
"We are glad to have you join our numbers," Atsu said. Although his tone was warm, his eyes remained wary. "From this day forth, you, I, and all our followers are brothers."
"The Shadow of Dissent is no more," 'Nilur said. "We are at your command, as part of the Fallen."
The two Sangheili placed their right fists over their own second hearts, the sign of mutual agreement.
"Your new armour is in your personal quarters, Field Master 'Nilur," Atsu said. "The rest of your followers are being refitted as we speak. You may pick your subordinates, from your numbers or mine."
The former Dissent leader bowed his head and shifted his hand over to his first heart. Turning, he strode out of the command centre. Autel and the other insurgent followed.
They had infiltrated The Shadow of Dissent seven months ago without incident. Kei 'Oltem had done his part well; when Autel first reported back to 'Nilur, he "showed" him the bugs he had planted in the indicated locations, as per the mission 'Nilur thought was assigned by a high-ranking Dissent officer. In reality, the surveillance would do them no good, as 'Oltem had simply sent pre-recorded transmissions of false information for the insurgents to overhear; in a matter of weeks, every bug had been found and eliminated, although 'Nilur now believed he had gained a lot of information from the transmission.
Autel was given the rank of Ultra among the Fallen, Jaurn and 'Dafek were respectively given the ranks of Major and Minor. He picked them along with three other members of the Fallen to command. He took off the armour in his team's quarters, pure-white save for the blue that trimmed it.
"We leave tomorrow to defeat The Defiant," Jaurn said. One of the Fallen nodded.
"It will be a good day," he said. "We have been pushing them back for months now for what they have done in Yermo. Soon we will deliver the final blow."
"What if the Arbiter is to intervene?" another asked. "He will not appreciate us stirring a riot so close to his city."
"He has remained impassive so far," replied Autel. "And we do have our orders to avoid collateral damage. Atsu 'Hidal has made it clear that we must not create animosity from the neutral sides."
In truth, the albino knew that Thel intended for the Fallen and the Defiant to whittle each other down. It was obvious that the Defiant would soon be wiped out, and he saw no reason to prevent it.
It will be only a matter of time before the Fallen turn on the Interspecies Union as well. Tension is still rising, and they can hardly ignore the numerous trips Separatist politicians are making to human colonies to negotiate terms.
One task at a time though. See what we can find out here, and we will be able to defeat the Fallen. Until then, let them erase every enemy insurgent on Sanghelios.
The others laid down in their beds, and Autel did the same. He removed his helmet and placed it next to his armour, careful to hide the fact that he was still wearing the Adaptable Skin Membrane which hid the true colour of his skin. Strange, how I once balked at the idea of allowing Sangheili to slaughter each other like this. But now I have grown accustomed to it. I suppose we will never find unity again without the Covenant.
"This is their hideout?" sneered one of the Fallen soldiers, his eyes flickering disdainfully over the hilltop they were crouching behind.
Autel took in the sight of what lay beyond the hill but decided not to comment. They were standing outside a seemingly abandoned airstrip, one that had not been used by the Sangheili ever since they had been able to use hover propulsion technology. It located close to a volcano that had become extinct countless ages ago. The airstrip itself had been simply abandoned by the Sangheili of that era, leaving it to be torn down by the destructive nature of the volcano. It looked as if it had failed to do so before depleting its spews of magma.
It had taken the team four days to travel to the airstrip by foot. Autel was still getting used to the fact that The Fallen did not have access to many vehicles or stealth technology that the Covenant Separatists did. But they had managed to track The Defiant's base by tailing the forces retreating from Yermo. This move had clearly shown how desperate their attack had been, and Atsu had been confident that this indicated their vulnerability.
"That should be the entrance," said 'Nilur, pointing at the largest building. It was worn-out and patchy, but there were visible signs that attempts to repair it had been made.
"They do not even post guards around here," observed Jaurn.
"All the same, be on your guard," the Field Master said. "I will lead my team inside to deal with them. Sanol, remain here with the rest in case there are enemies hidden around the airstrip."
Autel nodded in acknowledgement, and without further ado, 'Nilur leaped over the hill and ran across the open space, with twenty Sangheili behind him. He kicked down the half-melted metal fence that surrounded the airstrip and made a beeline for the main door.
Rather reckless, the albino thought, watching as 'Nilur sliced open the main building door with his Energy Sword and charged inside. But these are insurgents we are dealing with, not military enemies.
Defiant Sangheili rushed out from every door and window in the main building, with 'Nilur's team vaulting back outside after them. The airstrip quickly turned into a bloody firefight, with the Field Master's team holding a firm stand but greatly outnumbered.
"Snipers, take aim and fire!" Autel barked. "Make use of your ammunition wisely, we do not have many."
A dozen Fallen Sangheili holding Beam Rifles, Carbines, and Needle Rifles spread out in a half-circle formation around the perimetre of the airstrip and opened fire on their enemies, cutting them down with great proficiency. Thirty of the Defiant lay dead before the snipers discarded their empty weapons and picked up the Fuel Rod cannons and Plasma Launchers that they had laid at their feet. They charged onto the airstrip with Autel leading them.
The heavy weapons didn't have a lot of rounds either, but the Fallen team was able to turn every Defiant vehicle into wreckage, using the remainder to blow apart clusters of enemy insurgents that were standing back to back.
With the ruthless assault, the tide quickly turned, and the show of force caused the Defiant's nerve to fail at last. They broke and ran, scrambling to get ahead of each other and ducking for cover. Almost indifferently, 'Nilur arranged the Fallen team to stand in a straight line and fire their weapons at the retreating enemies' backs. The last one managed to almost reach the opposite fence before Autel's plasma bolt caught him in the back of the neck, dropping him with hardly a sound.
"Cowards," the Field Master said distastefully. "As if these fools ever had a chance of beating the Interspecies Union with their underhanded attempts at assassination. They could not even die with honour."
Autel stared around at the carnage. The mangled bodies of the Defiant lay everywhere, and the smell of blood and singed flesh hung in the air. So The Fallen has won. The Defiant are no more.
Won what? he thought, watching as the Phantom 'Nilur called in appeared on the horizon beyond the volcano. All we did today was slaughter our own kind, believing we are so much better because we killed them first. I had thought The Fallen had at least some sense of integrity, that their intentions were correct, in a barely recognizable way.
|Time 15:57:14 (Accuracy 1/10 to that of Forerunner), fourth sunrise shift of the forty-first month (Sanghelios Time Unit), 2nd Age of Amendment (Covenant Time Unit, based on Forerunner Time Unit)
Location: The Fallen headquarters, Sanghelios
|1020 Hours, October 13, 2555
"This is our opportunity!" Isto said.
"If I had as many wives as you had claims of opportunity, my children alone would number highly enough to defeat the Union," replied Atsu in a bored voice, leaning back in his chair and not even looking at him.
If the Ship Master was thrown off by the offhand comment, he didn't show it. "This is the right time to go to war against the Union!" The Fallen Chancellor ignored him, prompting him to continue. "We have the resources to defeat him!"
Bam. Atsu's fist slammed down on the table. "When will you realize, Isto?" he spat, his voice finally giving way to impatience. "We are still nowhere powerful enough to win a war on our own planet! Look at the Defiant, they used every last weapon and vehicle at their disposal, and what became of them? We crushed them like miserable grubs!" He leaped to his feet, marching over to his subordinate. "And what of it if we do win? We will simply turn the whole of Sanghelios against us! Do not forget, the Arbiter has the support of those we are trying to win over. We. Need. More. Time!"
Isto hadn't even flinched during the tirade. He just stood there, glaring at him in an almost resentful manner.
The Ship Master had been getting on his nerves lately. He had been pushing for him to go to war against the Union, and was questioning Atsu's decisions more and more lately. He was even raising a commotion among the Fallen to back him up. The Chancellor was tempted to strip him of his rank and have him executed.
Suddenly, Atsu had an idea. Trying to keep the cunning smile off his face, he forced his voice to sound just a bit reluctant. "You are right, my friend. We cannot spend time dawdling. We need to show that we are not to be taken lightly. But it is not wise to be rash." Turning away from Isto, he paced around the room, and continued.
"So here is what you are going to do. Take your ship and go to the human colony of Falaknuma. Its fleet is not present and its defences are minimal. Kill the humans there, and lay waste to the planet. That is how we will begin to destroy the Union, by targeting its weakest forces there." Atsu turned and looked his Ship Master in the eye. "Do you understand?"
Isto hesitated for the slightest of moments, but then he straightened and placed his hand over his heart. "Yes, Excellency!" With a savage eagerness in his eyes, he left the room.
When Atsu was sure he was gone, he turned to the other individual sitting in the room. "That is one problem solved, Valir," he said.
Valir straightened a little. "Isto is a problem, certainly. But how was it solved, Excellency?"
"Because we will not see that fool again. If I know Thel 'Vadam, he will not stand by and allow his new friends to be killed. He will send his fleet to destroy Isto's ship, but by then many humans will have died."
"But then Thel will declare war upon the Fallen," Valir pointed out.
"Not once I carry out the other part of my plan. Where is your brother Urei?"
"In the Cazal Keep."
"Good. Keep an eye on him."
"Isto 'Vadum is preparing to leave for the human colony," 'Cazal said. "You will join his ranks. Find the military database in Falaknuma, and bring back what you find to me, and only me. Not to my brother. Not even to Atsu 'Hidal."
"I understand, Excellency," said Kaur 'Oltem.
"You have built your reputation well. Isto trusts you, so make that your advantage."
Kaur nodded one more time before running off to the dropship where Isto's troops were boarding before going into orbit.
No one knows that Kaur works for me, thought 'Cazal. He most certainly will return alive, even if no one else does.
The cruiser materialized out of Slipspace and drifted away from the closing rift behind it. Any sound made by the re-entry was quickly swallowed up by the stifling silence of space.
"What is our position?" Isto asked.
"We are out of range of the human colony's detectors," a subordinate reported. "We should be able to reach it within twelve subunits."
"What are their defences?"
"Detecting them now, Ship Master," said another Sangheili. After a pause, he said, "I can see fourteen space stations on this side of the planet. I am guessing there is at least twenty-two in total."
"How many warships?"
There was a pause. "Two."
Isto was surprised, and a little more than disappointed. "That is all?"
"Excellency, it is a small colony. And the humans do not have a lot of ships to spare at the moment. Still, any more and we would have more than we can handle."
That is true, I suppose, Isto thought. The Fallen only had a total of four capital ships at the moment. He decided it wouldn't be wise to engage in a direct space battle, because even repairs would be difficult for them to make.
"Reactivate the engines," he ordered. "We will destroy those ships first, then any other weapons the humans have."
One of the Sangheili looked apprehensive. "I do not like this. We are only one ship and that is an entire colony."
Isto considered berating the subordinate for his comment, but decided against it. After all, everyone in the Fallen was still alive because they learned to employ caution rather than stick by their reckless proclaimed honour that accomplished little more than get many of their number killed.
"Ship Master, there is a human ship leaving the planet," another Sangheili suddenly said. "It is small and I almost didn't detect it."
"Is it heading towards us?"
"No, Excellency. It is heading in a perpendicular direction. It is a small ship too, possibly for stealth rather than battle."
Isto pondered this for a moment. We should really just ignore it and proceed to attack the colony. But where is that ship headed?
Had we been detected? Was that ship leaving to seek help? Or could there be...a bigger reason?
"Trace it," he said.
"Do as I say," he snapped. "We do not have much time before it leaves. Plant the tracer and we will follow it." Perhaps it could lead us somewhere of interest. And we could always come back later if need be.
The subordinate entered a series of commands on his holographic panel, and Isto watched on the viewscreen as a small probe launched silently from the cruiser, almost invisible in the dark space. A moment later, a light blinked on his command screen.
"It has been attached, Ship Master," the subordinate said. "The humans do not appear to have noticed it."
Isto smiled. I must congratulate whoever designed these new probes. Even the Union does not have this kind of technology yet.
"The ship has entered Slipstream space, Excellency," reported a Sangheili.
"Then we will follow them."
If there were any objections among the crew, they did not voice it. The soldiers entered their respective commands, and a moment later, a glowing rift appeared before the cruiser and it entered, leaving behind the real space.
Of course, Isto was well aware of the risks he was taking. They could very well be arriving facing dozens of human ships. As primitive as their weapons were, a good half dozen cannons aimed at their single cruiser could easily tear them apart. Even if they arrived some distance from the human ship's destination, they couldn't stay far enough away without losing their trail. And once they were back in real space, it would be difficult to escape a small fleet of enemy capital ships.
But something tells me that this detour will be well worth it. Either way, I would rather have found out than be left in the dark. Isto seldom avoided taking risks if there was a potential reward to be had. He had had a few close calls in the past, but he wasn't about to back out now.
"We'll be arriving in New Quebec in thirty minutes," reported a Petty Officer.
"Copy," said Lieutenant Kirsten Seltzer. Addressing another subordinate, she said, "Chief, call Lieutenant Medellin to the bridge."
"Yes, ma'am." The NCO tapped the ship's communication access and found the officer. "Second Lieutenant Spencer Medellin, report to the bridge immediately."
The bridge doors slid open immediately. Seltzer turned around, eyebrows raised.
"I was just outside, ma'am," Medellin said. "So we're about to come out of Slipspace."
Seltzer nodded. "Is your pod ready?"
"Good. You know what to do. I'll give you the signal while we're docking."
The Marine officer saluted and left the bridge.
Almost feels like a military operation. Still feels like an ONI op, no doubt about that. We're still the same double-dealing cloak-and-dagger team, no matter which side we're on.
The stealth corvette came out of Slipspace exactly thirty minutes later. New Quebec loomed on their viewport, growing larger as they approached it.
"Okay, everyone, we've gone over this," Seltzer said. "Play it cool."
The ship's COM blinked a blue light. She pressed a button.
"This is the Black Adder, on approach to New Quebec from Falaknuma," the Lieutenant said. "Requesting docking for transfer of datafiles."
"Roger that, Black Adder," came the reply. "Please send your clearance code and you will be directed to the indicated docking station."
Seltzer was about to send the code when alarms started going off all over the bridge.
"What's going on?" she shouted over the din as the crew fought to shut down all the alarms. Had they caught onto us already? But we made no mistakes...
"Lieutenant, our proximity alarms won't shut down!" shouted the ship operations officer. "But we're still eight hundred metres from the nearest—"
The bridge flooded with light as a Slipspace rift opened five hundred metres below them. A Covenant cruiser appeared underneath the corvette.
"Get us out of here!" Seltzer shouted. "Medellin, you have to launch now! Get down to the surface and link up later!"
"Ma'am, that cruiser is going to tear us apart if we make a move—"
"Do it, Marine! We only get one shot at this, so launch your damn pod before I have to override its controls and launch it for you!"
The Black Adder shot forward with a sudden burst of acceleration, nearly throwing her off her feet. The corvette left behind the Covenant cruiser, which was still drifting but otherwise motionless.
Covenant ships are dead in space momentarily until they power back up, she thought feverishly. We can make it into the mass of space stations before it has the chance to fire on us. To hell with stealth now. We need to get in and out as soon as possible.
"Station, we're heading down to the surface," Seltzer said into her COM, trying to keep her voice level. "We can't lose this information to that Covenant ship."
"Negative, Black Adder, get into orbital slingshot and find a space station to dock on the far side of the planet. You are not cleared for the surface. We have classified military operations going on down there—"
The Lieutenant cut the COM and watched as they approached the surface. She felt the corvette shudder slightly as the stealth pod launched from its hangar. Lieutenant Medellin will soon be back with some very important information for the Insurrection. Then we'll see how classified this new Delta Company will be.
"The Black Adder still isn't responding to our hails," the dockmaster said.
"Something's not right," said Major Lance Sturgis. "That corvette wasn't authorized to go down there."
"They're ONI operatives. You know how it is, they always like to do things their own way."
"But they would have been safer in slingshot orbit," the Marine officer pointed out.
"Yeah, but there was no time to talk. They're heading down there now, and all our forces are engaging that cruiser."
Sturgis frowned. "It's a Sangheili ship. We're supposed to be friends now."
"Could be insurgents, Major."
"That corvette might have led them here. They could be up to something. Do we have their location pinned down?"
The dockmaster checked the main datascreen. "They're about thirty klicks from Base Alpha-Two-Niner. And they're still getting closer. Wait...they just pulled away and are heading back into orbit. What are your orders?"
Sturgis hated the whole situation. He was placed here as the commanding officer of the military force that safeguarded ONI's current project down on the surface of New Quebec. He had about seven thousand soldiers under his command, and they were to be distributed all around New Quebec. Which would have been just fine had this Covenant ship not come calling. Planet as small and secluded as this could be glassed by a single cruiser. We don't have any capital ships, and our space weapons are limited. How the hell did these Sangheili get here?
What am I supposed to do?
Sturgis took a calming breath. He had to make use of what he had. Do the best he could, even if he knew he couldn't win. "Dockmaster, send out all distress drones in this station. Get all the other stations to do the same." The drones were capable of entering Slipspace and sending one-way signals to wherever they arrived, but even the nearest colonies were pretty far. It would be a while before they got any help.
Now about that corvette. Picking up the COM that he had connected to his subordinates, he found the officer closest to Base Alpha-2-9 and established a connection. "Lieutenant Forge, do you read me?"
"Yes, Major. The regiment down here is getting tense. We don't know what that Covenant ship is going to do, but they're awaiting your orders."
"Tell them to hold defensive positions at their assigned areas. But I need you and your team to go after a rogue corvette. Split up your force and look around Base Alpha-Two-Niner to see if they left anything behind."
"Solid copy, sir. Forge out."
As soon as they ended the connection, Sturgis contacted the Alpha-2-9's commanding officer. "Commander Damian Lash, this is Major Sturgis. Do you read me?"
"Yes, Major. I've already received word of the Covenant ship and we've put the base on lockdown. The trainees are all inside and out of sight."
"It's more than that, Commander. We've got a possibly rogue ONI operative team dropping in for a visit. They're somewhere around the area, but I've sent a team to take care of whatever they're up to. If you spot anything suspicious, contact Lieutenant Jacob Forge and give him a heads-up."
"Affirmative. We'll keep our sensors on alert, Major."
Sturgis slumped back in his chair, watching the dockmaster launch the distress drones. The nearby stations were doing the same, and soon the space was filled with tiny dots entering Slipspace and disappearing. Some of them zoomed past the Covenant cruiser, but it still didn't react. It merely drifted closer and closer to the planet, like a creeping predator.
What's it waiting for? the Major thought. He suddenly leaped up and marched out of the command centre. I'm not waiting around to find out. My Helljumpers are on the surface preparing for an attack, and I should be down there with them.
Isto wanted to pound his projector in frustration. Out of all the things to have happened to them, their weapons battery had to malfunction as soon as they came out of Slipspace.
I checked the ship over three times before we left, he thought darkly. Either the Fallen is shorter on functioning technology than I thought, or...someone is sabotaging the ship.
He thought of Atsu 'Hidal, and his sudden agreement to send him to attack the humans. Is this his doing? Was he trying to send me to my death? No, not even Atsu would lose a ship in exchange for taking my life.
Who is it then? Our opportunity is slipping away from us!
"Ship Master, we have found the human ship," a subordinate said. "It is near the surface, at—"
"I do not care," Isto snapped at him. "We do not need to follow that ship anymore. Weapons officer, are our batteries online yet?"
The Sangheili shook his head, looking puzzled. "I am still trying to find out what is wrong, Excellency."
"Let me see it," the Ship Master said irritably, striding over to him. No one noticed Kaur 'Oltem, who was surreptitiously examining the diagram of the corvette's location from underneath the bridge's platform. Covered in shadow and camouflaged, he was more or less invisible to anyone. He cautiously slipped out of the control centre's open doors, and headed for the hangar.
Isto would not have the weapons online for several cycles, Kaur had made sure of that. It would only be a matter of time before the Ship Master sent ships out for an attack. He could then easily leave the cruiser with them, and get to where the human corvette was lurking.
By the time he found the information he was looking for, the weapons would be working well enough to reduce the planet to glass. Isto would return with a triumphant announcement that he had annihilated the human colony, but no one would know about the information Kaur would obtain for 'Cazal. Not even Atsu 'Hidal.