Halo: The Cole Protocol
And if so, where were the humans?
Zhar followed him through. After the airlock closed, the sound of welding and cutting came through from the other side. A moment later a loud creaking sound filled the corridor, then silence.
"The human ship is cut loose. The Unggoy Deacon and Saal say they're towing it free and casting it off," Zhar said. "So far, no human ships have come to sniff around."
"Good." Thel looked around. "Unggoy toward the bridge. Zhar and I will secure the other airlock from the docks and eliminate any Kig-Yar there."
The Unggoy dutifully headed up the corridor.
Zhar patted the plasma rifle in his hands. "Let's go, then."
Thel's old friend took the lead, turning corners as Thel quickly followed behind, keeping him covered as they thudded down the inside of the ship through bulkhead after bulkhead.
Zhar turned a corner and flinched as human gunfire slapped into his armor. The old Sangheili fired downward, and the shots stopped.
The now dead human, its back against the wall, had been already wounded. A large shot to its thigh had bled the creature's strange red blood out onto the floor. Zhar had shot it once: clean through the head.
"It was sitting down," Zhar said. "Startled me. I barely got a return shot in."
"You are lucky it didn't have a more powerful weapon." Thel kicked away the handgun lying by its side.
"Indeed." Zhar actually sounded somewhat shaken. He squatted in front of the dead human. "I wonder why they left one of their own behind like this? Was it a trap?"
"Who knows how they think?" Thel said. "Who cares? They are heretics. They do not deserve names or life."
Zhar wouldn't stop worrying at some idea deep in his head. "I don't know, Thel. You're a true zealot, I know, and I would never doubt the word of the Prophets, but we've fought the humans for years and they show some capacity for honor. Look, they left behind one of their own, who was bleeding and dishonored, to spring a trap and die with honor. Don't you think that indicates something profoundly noble about them?"
Thel looked down at the dead alien and thought about it. "You think too much, Zhar."
As he said that, Thel saw something move quickly out of the corner of his eyes. Zhar snapped out his plasma rifle and fired, just as the large, gray-armor-clad human fired back with a rifle of its own.
Thel pulled out his energy sword as the armored human smacked into him, carrying them both rolling down the corridor until they struck a bulkhead hard enough to make Thel's vision blur and knock his sword loose.
"I cannot get a good aim," Zhar shouted, as Thel struggled to get a grip on the powerful human's rifle.
The loud human gun fired into the floor several times as they fought over it, and then Thel got the barrel in both his hands.
He stared at his reflection in the alien's visor and roared as he bent the weapon, straining to make it useless. The gold visor stared implacably back at Thel. There were no sounds, though the alien was straining just as hard.
What creature did not choose to show its face that wasn't a soulless and dead one? Thel roared again. "Demon! Heretic. Unholy alien!" He headbutted the gold visor, snapping the human's neck back with each whiplike blow.
The human threw him back and yanked a primitive knife from the chest of its armor.
The two warriors stood, staring at each other for a split second. Thel suddenly realized that they would both die, fighting to the very end, equally matched.
Equally matched with a human.
Thel spat purple blood from his mouth. This was a surprise.
The human looked over at the other dead marine, shook its head, and then took off down the corridor.
"We follow it," Thel gasped, out of breath. He'd broken a rib with that impact.
"What was that?" Zhar asked, cautiously pointing his plasma rifle around the corner.
"I do not know," Thel said. "It was strong, though." He joined Zhar, turning around the corner.
"Looks like it was headed to the docks. Let's go."
Zhar had a small limp, and it hurt for Thel to run, but neither of them would allow these to slow them. Both Sangheili ran all out, grunting occasionally, to the airlock dock.
They got there just in time to see the gray-armored human disappear past the lip, running out into the large cavernous docking area where human tracers and Covenant plasma filled the air.
Kig-Yar corpses lay around the airlock.
Zhar took one side, Thel the other, forgetting about the strange new human for now. "It looks like the Kig-Yar were protecting the ship," Zhar said.
"But were surprised by the attack from inside."
"The humans are moving out onto the docks, back into their habitats," Thel noted. "They have done us a favor. They cleared the ship."
He shut the airlock door with a laugh and walked over to Zhar and clapped him on the shoulder. "Guard this door, old friend. I will head to the bridge and get us moving. We will pick up Saal, and then we will see what our options are."
"But you should also check to see what it was the humans were doing aboard when we get clear," Zhar said. "We do not need anymore surprises."
Thel thought about the pain in his ribs, and what had felt like a close brush with death, and nodded.
What had that human been?
HABITAT TIAGO DOCKS, THE RUBBLE, 23 LIBRAE
The sound of the ship's airlock doors shutting echoed throughout the spare cavern that the Kig-Yar had as a docking bay. The lanky aliens paused, looking over at the doors. Two of them ran for the lock, banging on the door, as loud clanks and hisses told everyone in the docking bay that their ship was undocking.
Delgado watched the panic spread through the Kig-Yar as they realized what had happened. The Kig-Yar had kept bunched up on the far side of the docks, close to their ship's airlock. That had made getting out onto the docks a dangerous exercise, but the Kig-Yar had realized that letting the humans get off their ship was better than trapping them in it. Now they were no doubt wondering who the heck was taking their ship.
Keyes, hunkered down on the far side of a shipping container they were both using as cover, waved Delgado over. The immense bulk of the gray Spartan Jai stood behind the lieutenant.
"I'm sorry to hear about Faison," Delgado said. The word had spread as they'd remained pinned down by the Kig-Yar. The aliens, with their energy shields and snipers, were doing far better now in the large, open docking bay than in the tight confines of the ship.
Keyes nodded. He looked tired, Delgado thought. These men were all his responsibility. The four dead in the open area of the docks were on Keyes.
Now so was Faison.
"Jai has an idea," Keyes said.
The Spartan stepped forward. "You had them all suit up, Keyes. Everyone's vacuum ready. Only a few Jackals are equipped. If we figure out how to flush the air out of the entire dock..."
"We'd need Juliana for that," Delgado said. One couldn't just flush the atmosphere out of a habitat without extensive overrides.
Keyes pulled the large chip out of his pocket that held Juliana. "Jai will cover you; you just need to get somewhere to plug this in. Get Juliana back up and have her flush the bay. We'll pick off the stragglers."
Delgado almost reverently placed the AI's chip into his pocket. She'd been created to manage the mining operations of a Madrigal corporation, helping guide asteroids to processing plants around the system. She may have been commercial AI, nothing like the industrial strength thinkers the UNSC used, but she'd somehow managed to keep the entire Rubble together since the fall of Madrigal. Juliana had been a protector of the Rubble for so long she was almost like a technological deity, a god everyone in the Rubble looked to for help with their troubles.
And she fit in his pocket.
He scanned the docks. "Over there." He pointed Jai at a console used by supervisors to run the docks. "That should be doable." It was well away from the bulk of the firefight.
"So go!" Keyes said.
The rate of fire from the ODSTs picked up as Jai and Delgado made a run for it, ducking from one set of containers and large structural spars to another.
They stopped a mere fifteen feet from the console.
Delgado swallowed. From where he had been, the console looked out of the way. Up close, he realized it was in the open. Though far away from the Kig-Yar, they were good shots.
Jai realized it too, because the Spartan turned and held out a gauntleted hand. "Give her to me, I'll plug her in."
Delgado stared at the Spartan's hand. He'd be just handing over one of the most important assets the Rubble had.
How much did he trust these UNSC Spartans?
So far they'd worked toward the same goals. If you didn't start trusting someone at some point, he thought, then you'll never trust again.
This Spartan was offering to risk his life to get out in the open and try to save them all.
How much proof did Delgado need?
He took a deep breath and handed Juliana over.
Jai cupped the chip in his hands and darted out. For a brief second it looked like the Kig-Yar hadn't spotted them, that Jai would make it to the console and back before they noticed anything.
But as the Spartan stood and inserted the chip, plasma fire struck the wall overhead.
Delgado leaned out and wildly fired his battle rifle at the Kig-Yar.
Several plasma shots grazed Jai, but he kept the chip guarded until Juliana's form appeared over the console.
"Get back!" Delgado shouted. "She's in the system."
Near misses blackened the gray armor as Jai ran back to cover, firing his battle rifle as he did so. Three Kig-Yar fell over, dead. Delgado marveled at the Spartan's accuracy.. At this range, across hundreds of feet of dock, all Delgado had done was harass the Kig-Yar.
Jai slammed his back into the container as plasma slapped the other side, boiling metal.
Delgado's earpiece crackled, and Juliana's voice filled his ear. "Thank you, Delgado, Jai. What do you need from me?"
"Blow the air out of here," Delgado requested.
Juliana didn't reply, but a second later all the airlocks feeding into the docks blew open with the bass warbling of emergency sirens and strobing warning lights. Air rushed out into the vacuum, thundering past, and the sound of plasma fire stopped.
It was over in a few minutes. ODSTs popped up and shot the few remaining Kig-Yar that were in full gear and still able to breathe and fight.
The other aliens died horribly, flailing around, asphyxiated, their long mouths open and frozen in silent screams.
Keyes and the ODST Markov looked out over the carnage once the docks repressurized. Keyes looked a bit horrified at the carnage. Markov looked slightly pleased.
Jai stood behind them, towering high, battle rifle in hand. "The Petya has caught up to us," he told Keyes. "I would suggest you use it as a temporary command center. It'll keep you from getting recaptured, at the least."
Keyes ran a hand over his silvering hair and nodded. "Thank you, Spartan. We'll need it. Juliana reported that this is just the beginning, the Kig-Yar are up to something. Juliana might as well brief us aboard your ship."
Jai slung his battle rifle and plodded off toward one of the nearby airlocks. After a moment, Delgado followed, both glad to be out of the dock full of dead Kig-Yar.
THE RUBBLE, 23 LIBRAE
Thel looked over the reports that Zhar had patiently gathered for him. The humans had dug around the Kig-Yar battle net, which had been poorly secured.
"These are details on where the Unggoy Redoubt is," Zhar said. "Including force strength, ships, how they will shuttle the Unggoy to the Rubble for an attack, and plans for an invasion of one of their habitats called 'Exodus.' The humans have the whole Kig-Yar battle plan for themselves now."
"Well, they are clever creatures," Thel said. He shut the display down. "You yourself admired that, if I remember correctly."
"This is troubling, though," Zhar said. "It means the Kig-Yar, Reth, may have been telling the truth."
Thel sighed. "That they plan to trick the humans out of the location to their homeworld?"
"Yes. And that he was doing a holy duty for a Hierarch. You must admit the possibility, looking over those plans to attack the humans. These have been in place for years."
Thel rubbed the bottom of a mandible thoughtfully. "It is a possibility, now. I agree."
"Then we may have crossed the Hierarch," Zhar said. "You of all should know how that chills my heart."
"A Hierarch," Thel said, cautiously.
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean is that we were given a set of orders that put us in conflict with orders given by another Prophet."
Zhar shook his head. "These things border on heresy."
"Then do not speak of them ever again," Thel said. "But it does not change our situation."
"But -- "
"So we shall also send a message to Reth," Thel said, trying to add a note of reassurance to his voice. "We will not approach or attack the Exodus asteroid that the Kig-Yar want. We will attack the other human parts of the Rubble, working to destroy the humans there."
Zhar swallowed. "Will that be enough to convince the Prophet of Regret that we did what we were asked?"
Thel grumbled. "We will destroy the Rubble. We will grind it to pieces from this Kig-Yar ship. How will they doubt our zealotry, then, Zhar? We offer Reth our agreement to leave their habitat alone, and maybe we will come out ahead."
"Maybe?" Zhar left the cockpit in a dark mood, and Thel sat down on the shipmaster's chair with a sneer. This was not Covenant standard; it was designed for Kig-Yar. It was an insult and an expression of their rebellious impulses. And even worse, it was an uncomfortable fit for the Sangheili.
Nonetheless, it would be a good spot from which to oversee the destruction of the Rubble.
The sooner this mess was wrapped up, the sooner Thel imagined a more normal life would resume. Betrayals and intrigues were not his strong suit.