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Hunters in the Dark (HALO)

Peter David

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  Philologists, who chase A panting syllable through time and space, Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark To Gaul, to Greece, and into Noah’s ark.


  I’m going to die here. This is it. I’m going to die.

  The thought crawled through Broadside One’s mind and, unlike the previous times when it had done so, he made no effort to reject it. This was no longer pessimism seeding itself into his brain and threatening the mission.

  The mission was over.

  He was over.

  How the hell could this have happened? How could it have all gone so horribly wrong? This was supposed to be a routine expedition, purely exploration. They had had no intention of military action; this was strictly an asset-recovery operation.

  But these creatures didn’t know that. Of course they didn’t. Nor did they care.

  He could feel his lungs filling with blood, which was impressive because that was the only thing he could sense at the moment. The rest of his body was torn and shredded. He supposed that was a good thing. Obviously his brain was shutting down as a means of self-preservation, because if he were actually capable of experiencing all the pain that would be slamming through him right now, he likely would have been driven insane.

  The squad leader had managed to find refuge, whereas the rest of his team, code-named Broadside, had not. He felt immensely guilty about that. He was the team leader, after all. If they were inevitably going to be wiped out, one would think that the squad leader would be the first one to go, not the last.

  He lay in his unexpected shelter—the small cave he’d discovered while running for his life.

  Because you’re a coward.

  He knew this was the truth. Those large, white-furred beasts had come from everywhere. Their approach had not been detected until the last moment because their natural camouflage enabled them to blend in with the damn blizzard that had suddenly rolled over his team as they’d been trying to make their way across the Ark installation’s surface. They’d scarcely been able to see a meter in front of them, and they had not known of their certain doom until it was too late.

  Too late.

  Broadside One wasn’t even sure how he was still alive. The beasts had torn into him with the same enthusiasm as they’d gutted the rest of his crew. His skin had been shredded under their teeth and claws, and he had felt bones break as powerful jaws clamped down on him. One of them had asserted itself and dragged him away while his team was being massacred. It had also been caught completely by surprise when he had pulled out the small firearm that his brother had given him years earlier during the Covenant War, the one that he kept secreted in a holster on his thigh. He was fortunate enough to blow the creature’s brains out while its mouth was around his arm. Then the parts of him that were left (that’s how he was thinking of himself now) were able to find a cave that was half-buried in the falling snow, and he’d crawled inside.

  And now he was going to die.

  His communications unit had partially stopped working. He wasn’t able to call for help anymore. That time had long since come and gone. He could, however, hear everything coming across the local-comm band that was happening to the other personnel. Broadside was only one squad of many—RCTs, or remote contact teams—incredibly skilled, high-risk combat groups designed to be deployed in potentially hazardous and hostile contexts. Despite this fact, they were all encountering the same fate as his team did—in different sections of the Ark, but all of them under attack.

  It was as if the creatures that resided upon the massive Forerunner outpost had united in their determination to destroy the expedition.

  They have.

  The strange voice rang in his head, and he was convinced for a moment that he was delusional. Where did that come from? Maybe, as his body was shutting down, his head was splitting and causing him to lose touch with reality. Which was not necessarily a bad thing, considering how little reality had to offer him just then.

  He tried to move his one intact arm to punch his comm unit, even though he knew that he wouldn’t get anyone. Despite all the damage that had been done to him, despite the fact that his mind was closing up shop and he was hallucinating, he still felt the need to try to reach Rubicon and make a final report. Perhaps just to warn them.

  The Rubicon is gone. It has entered an area that you call slipspace and will likely never be seen again.

  “What the hell . . . ?” he managed to whisper, except that wasn’t really what he said, as his lungs were too full of blood for him to be able to produce actual words. What he said instead was “Wuchel?”

  But the voice spoke to him just the same. You heard me correctly. Your ship is gone. Your allies are gone. Everything you’ve ever cared about is now gone. You are alone, human. But believe it or not, I can empathize with your current plight. Which is interesting, considering the unlikelihood of such a thing, given my protocol. Yet here we both are.

  The squad leader tried to speak once more, but the voice that seemed to be in his mind cut him off. Please stop doing that. Even one of your own people would not comprehend what you are saying, and you no longer need to speak in order to communicate. I can decipher the electrical signals surging in the parts of your mind that still function.

  Who are you?

  I am the one who is going to save you. Would you like to be saved?

  Yes. But . . . why would you save me?

  Because I don’t have one of you. Because you might be useful. Because I am alone here, and I require your assistance. Simply surrender yourself to me and all will be well.

  There was something about the way the voice had spoken to him, the way it had said surrender yourself that set up an alarm of warning in Broadside One’s head. Ultimately, though, he decided it didn’t matter. It wasn’t as if there was really something talking to him in his head. This was just a last hurrah from a brain that was in the process of turning off all the lights before checking out. He was about to die in this godforsaken cave, and this was simply his mind’s equivalent of finding a way to ease him down the road from which no one ever returned.

  Okay, I surrender, he thought.

  Good. A wise decision. Let us get started, then.

  My name is Luther Mann, and my earliest memory is from when I was . . . I don’t know . . . four years old. Maybe four and a half.

  We were running.

  The “we” in this particular instance were my parents. My father was a scientist, and my mother a doctor. I don’t even remember where we were running from. It was the city in which we had been living, I remember that much. My parents told me the name once, but only once, because they don’t like thinking about it and the one time they discussed it, they were both pretty much three sheets to the wind, celebrating their anniversary by drinking too much. Which was, I have to admit, something of a regular endeavor when I was growing up. Usually they managed to keep it behind closed doors or after my bedtime, but every once in a great while, they would slip up. The alcohol would flow freely, and they would become well and truly hammered. Seeing this at a young age, it wound up driving me into a perpetual state of sobriety. I don’t drink to this day because I have seen what can happen to the human mind when it loses control, and I have no desire to risk falling into that hole.

  But one of those few times when I saw them drinking, they became expansive and actually talked about t
he day from my earliest memory. Flouting the usual cliché archetypes, it was my father who became overly emotional. He spoke of the desperate need to get off the planet, and about how he managed to talk his way onto one of the fleeing spaceships. Part of the time he attributed it to his silver tongue, and another part he admitted to bribing the right individuals, but however he managed to accomplish it, he got us off-world. As he spoke, tears welled up in his eyes and, before he could control it, were cascading down his face.

  Mother, she remained mostly calm. She corrected a few details here and there in my father’s retelling but otherwise didn’t react at all. She simply stared off into space, as if she were seeing it all happening again, and, apparently having no idea what to do, just did nothing.

  I’m not sure how we managed to learn that the Covenant was coming. They excelled at sneaking up on worlds and glassing them into nonexistence without letting anyone know that their forces were on the way. But somehow someone on our world managed to get advance word, or at least enough notice for us and a few thousand others to clear out. Unfortunately, there were millions on the planet’s surface, so a lot of people died.

  A lot.

  As a child, I didn’t care about that, however. Death and life, evil and good . . . these were all abstract concepts. I didn’t understand the notion that if we were still on the surface of the world, we would be dying, too. I didn’t know what that was.

  All I could see from our escape vessel as it hurtled skyward were the plasma blasts descending from the Covenant warships. The planet’s name was Verent, and they hammered away at its surface.

  As we made our way to safety, the Covenant appeared to take note of the fleeing vessels. They seemed to decide to use us for target practice, unleashing a barrage of blasts upon us. I watched out the window in horror as I saw other vessels being blown to shreds. In my childish mind I could imagine Covenant officers or soldiers or whatever snickering to themselves.

  Whoever was piloting maneuvered the vessel with what I now know was astounding dexterity. He flew us between the blasts, and sometimes he would spiral so that it seemed as if we had been hit. He put distance between us and Verent as quickly as possible.

  And suddenly there was a Covenant ship squarely in front of us. We were looking straight down the weapon barrel, and I had never been that close to death in my young life. We all braced ourselves, waiting for the blast that would rip our ship apart.

  It never happened.

  I never understood why. But for some reason, the Covenant vessel didn’t destroy us. It ignored us as we piloted swiftly away. Every adult in our ship stared out at the Covenant ship, anticipating our destruction.

  It never came.

  And to this day, I have absolutely no clue why. I know that the Covenant’s determination was to annihilate every human being in existence, and yet for some reason, on this particular day, they did not seem the least bit interested in our ship. The only explanation I can imagine was that they wanted us to escape, in order to spread the word of how they so easily decimated our world. What good is there in being a destructive force if no one is alive to let everyone else know of it?

  The Covenant’s campaign against humanity was fought on a number of levels, including that of public relations. So I suppose, from their point of view, making sure that some survived to share with others the tales of the Covenant’s power was an obvious aspect of military procedure.

  That was the very beginning of my fascination with the Covenant. That moment, when they spared us for no good reason.

  I was on a seat near a porthole, gazing through it in wonderment. The Covenant vessels unleashed a steady stream upon my world, and I watched as it went up in flames. We were of sufficient distance that it was scarcely visible as anything except patches of fiery color. The actual glassing effect that would consume the planet would take several days to form, and it would not cover its entirety; just sections of it. Presumably the sections where humans had resided.

  As I mentioned, I was unaware of the reality of what I was regarding. I was also oblivious to the fact that the adults around me were no doubt in agony as they watched their home being obliterated, raging over their helplessness in the face of the alien incursion.

  And me . . .

  I watched the planet’s surface be expunged in a series of incandescent blasts, and then stared at the mighty vessels that were inflicting the damage.

  “Pretty,” I whispered.

  Because to me, that’s exactly what it was. The amazingly powerful ships were unleashing their astounding energy upon Verent. To a child, of course it was pretty. Beautiful, even. At that moment, I became not afraid of the Covenant, but instead seduced by the purity and grandeur of their power.

  To say the least, my parents did not agree.

  “How can you say it’s pretty?!” my mother screamed at me. This from a woman who had never so much as raised her voice to me my entire life. I tried to explain, but had no words with which to do so. Ultimately it didn’t matter, for she did not provide me the opportunity. Instead she slapped me so hard that she knocked me off the chair upon which I was perched.

  I fell backward, slamming my elbows on the deck, and the jolt sent pain ripping through my arms. “I’m sorry!” I managed to say, or perhaps the more childish “I sowwy,” or maybe I didn’t say anything at all. Perhaps I simply blathered uncomprehendingly, trying to understand what in God’s name set my mother off.

  She then kicked at me. I don’t think she was actually trying to kick me, because I was an easy target and she would have had no trouble delivering several deep blows to my stomach and ribs. Instead her foot swept wide and simply grazed my side. Nevertheless, I cried out—not from the impact, but from the fact that I had so enraged my mother that she was attempting to punish me for it.

  And then my father was there. I don’t know if he actually heard what I’d said. He grabbed at my mother, snagging her arms, dragging her back and away from me, shouting her name, begging her to stop. It took long moments for her to calm down. I was curled in a ball, my arms covering my head to protect myself as best I could. Later, a doctor would look me over, and the total damage would be a bruised rib and a scrape just above my right ear. But I didn’t know any of that at the time.

  Meanwhile, my mother was berating my father over what I had said. How dare I? How dare I say that such devastating and destructive things were “pretty”? How could I possibly do that? My father kept assuring her that I was just a child, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, that she should pull herself together. Someone—I don’t know who—eventually took pity on me and picked me up and brought me over to a chair, easing me into it. I wasn’t openly crying at that point, but simply sniffling into my hands. What seemed an eternity later, but was probably only a minute or so, my father came over to me. He embraced me and spoke soothingly and told me that I shouldn’t let my mother being upset bother me. That she was simply devastated by what had happened to our home and wasn’t thinking clearly.

  I asked what had happened. He told me that the aliens called the Covenant had destroyed everything we held dear. I asked why. He said he didn’t know.

  I was quiet for a long moment, and then I asked why it was so pretty then, their act of destruction.

  He said he didn’t know. That sometimes there was beauty in the strangest places, if you just knew where to look for it. Which, he added, I obviously did.

  And from that moment on, I became obsessed with the Covenant.

  On some level, I knew that they were the enemy. I knew I should hate them. I should revile them.

  Instead, all I could do was study them.

  They became my personal bête noire. They may have been black beasts, but I still found an elegance, an allurement in them and in their weaponry. And not for one minute did I believe that they would wind up wiping out humanity.

  My mother no longer had any taste for living on other colony worlds. She convinced my father to relocate us back to Earth, in London, a
nd that was where I enrolled in school. We lived in a relatively small house, and my parents got on each other’s nerves with distressing frequency. I would do my best to ignore it, and it wasn’t all that difficult. I would sit in my room studying everything I could find on the Covenant and so became quite accustomed to screening out their arguments.

  I actually got in trouble at school as I got older, because I would get into arguments with other kids about it. I got beaten up quite a few times and picked up the nickname “alien lover” because I always maintained that eventually peace would be reached. That we humans and the Covenant would find a way to work out our differences and that the war would come to a conciliatory conclusion. Still not sure exactly why I clung to that hope, but I did.

  None of my classmates ever believed me.

  My parents got called into school countless times as the administrators tried to mediate.

  Interestingly, the more often my parents were summoned into conferences, the more strident my mother became in my defense. I was somewhat amazed to hear of it, as she would defend my every word, even though I had trouble comprehending that she herself believed it. She might have disagreed with the sentiment, but she fought furiously for my right to voice it.

  Slowly, it seemed that she was turning back into herself, at least, the way I remember her before Verent’s fall.

  I was suspicious of her at first. And then eventually she pulled me from the school and insisted that she would teach me at home.

  I didn’t realize that she was so strong as a teacher, but she truly was. Every morning we would sit down with various texts and she would teach me about everything—mathematics, the sciences, history . . .

  Everything except about the Covenant. It was established early on that I was not to discuss them, and I was willing to accept that condition. Because I loved my mother. I did. I was grateful for the fact that she was appearing to come out of her shell. That was all that mattered to me. So I kept my peculiar interest in the Covenant to myself and listened to my mother’s lessons.