This was supposed to be a quick five page fic, way back when I got the initial idea. And when I decided to touch it up again, I didn't think it would be too long. Well, seventeen pages later, I wrote the last line. Why does that always freaken happen? People should take me up when I offer them a fic, if they ask for five pages, they'll probably get triple that. Anyway, this is a birthday gift for Aspergian Mind. I had this initial idea a long, long time ago. In fact, several of the key plot points came from the original idea. But I never had the motivation to write it because following Reconstruction, I did plan to not return to Halo. After Aspergian Mind gave me "For Something Better", I decided to dust this idea off, and wrote it not long after he gave me his fic. It's probably that this is a dedication that caused the much longer length. Particularly shifting the focus to the human Len, since I was now dealing with a human protagonists I was able to add much, much more human related matters. The original idea was to focus on the chieftain. The focus shifted heavily from a duel perspective of Jiralhanae and human, to a strictly human narrative. Aspergian Mind, this one's for you. I hope you enjoy. And happy birthday.
The roof above shook and creaked loudly, a sure sign that the bombing was underway. A cold chill ran down his spine. He swallowed a lump in his throat and looked up to the roof, watching cracks of dust filter down and hit his crown. He took a moment to brush his brown hair free of the soil, before resuming his work. He took the knapsack off his back and hastily stuffed it, adding bottles of water, protein bars, a blanket, and spare clips for the pistol on his side to the laptop that was already inside. He pulled on his overcoat, cringing slightly at the bulk in the breast pocket that hit him hard on the chest, before leaving his personal quarters. He walked quickly, but didn't run, down the hallway, until coming to the radio room. By grace of God, the generator was still working. And he sat down in the chair, and tried to level out his voice, before speaking into the microphone.
"This is Len Roberts," he said slowly. "Broadcasting on ONI encrypted frequency. My location is ONI underground base Lima-niner-two. I have the Hotel file. I repeat: I have the Hotel file. Oh god…I'm the only one left. I repeat, I'm the only one left. I am going to try to make it to evacuation point Utah. I repeat, I am going to head to evacuation point Utah…I need pick up and rendezvous. I will remain there as long as I am able... Whoever is hearing this…evacuation point Utah. And I have the Hotel file."
Len sighed, and left the radio on. He was a slim man, of average size and proportions, wearing civilian clothes. In fact, the only trace of his occupation was the ONI issue pistol that was strapped into his right thigh. He was not a soldier, that would be clear to any trained eye the moment he was looked upon. Enormous skill with computers had lead to his recruitment with ONI, but he had never performed well on the shooting range or in the field of battle, generally serving as rear guard, if he ever left the well fortified bunker at all. He was needed now, to deliver Hotel file. To walk through a firefight and glassing and reach an evacuation point that would probably be empty. He shivered slightly, because a chill ran down his spine.
The planet Bridge. A small, mostly desert planet that had been colonized by a few people, years and years ago, and was then mostly forgotten. At least, that was the official story. The fact of it was, the planet Bridge was a haven for ONI. It was the planet where any number of experiments were conducted just beneath the surface. Where captured Covenant prisoners were sent and subjected to testing and manipulation so ONI might discover some secret in their anatomy that would lead to their extinction. It was also where war orphans and politically undesirables were sent in secret, so that might be tested on to make a better soldier. It was where Len had spent the better part of the last six years. No contact with his family. No contact with his friends. All they knew was he was working with the government, on a special project, highly confidential. They only knew that he was winning the war. But all he really did, day in day out, was look at numbers and be sure that the numbers added up.
The first touch of the sun on his skin felt painful. It had been almost a week since the Covenant found this planet and established that humans were here. They had probably thought it would be a simple process to glass it, but the Covenant found extensive resistance, that fought for those seven days. But now the Covenant was prepped to glass. Len hadn't been in the sun in what seemed like years. He was pale from his time underground. The sun hurt, so he pulled his coat on tighter and covered his head with a hat he pulled from his bag. He checked his PDA, and deciding where evacuation point Utah was, he started walking.
And for a long time, he walked. He couldn't see the sun actually. In fact, he couldn't see anything in the orange sky. No clouds, or ships. The dog fights were done. The main ship that would do the glassing must have been on the other side of the planet. Len smiled to himself. Small blessing, but he would take anything he could get now.
And then a laser skimmed past his face. Len froze stock still, a sense of fear running through him. There was a purple trail of plasma from the course the laser shot had taken. Len felt a cold touch on his cheek, and foolishly touched his cheek with a gloved hand. A sharp shot of pain ran through him. Touching a fresh plasma burn, a stupid mistake. Len assumed that the sniper had been off. And now, the sniper would adjust his aim, and put a laser between Len's eyes. He closed his eyes and waited, but to his surprise, nothing happened. He opened his eyes, swallowing nervously, and looked around. For as far as he could see, there was nothing, just barren wasteland of desert, what Len had come to call home for so many years. But he could not see a sniper. He took a step forward.
In front of him, a purple lance of plasma struck the ground. Len leapt back. Another beam of plasma struck the ground to his left, and when he put his weight down on his right side, a beam of plasma struck an inch from his right foot. Another beam skimmed his other cheek. A beam lanced over his shoulder when he instinctively moved to touch the cold spot on his jaw. The plasma beams continued to shoot and drop, sometimes missing him by inches, sometimes skimming him just enough to let him feel the coldness of nerves dying. Tears wetted his eyes, and Len collapsed to the ground, on his knees, head down and hands over head. And the beams stopped. Only once did Len risk lifting his head, and was rewarded with a beam skimming close enough to his crown, he smelled burnt hair. After that, he lowered his head, and didn't dare to move.
Len did not know how much time passed. It could have been single minutes, or it could have been an entire day. But, after whatever amount of time, he heard soft crunching of sand beneath feet. Len didn't lift his head, even as the crunching sound grew louder and louder. His only movement was his shivers and groans. A few moments later the crunching sound stopped. Len gritted his teeth, staring at the ground when his eyes were open. But when he could take staring down no longer, his head inched its way up.
He had never seen a living Covenant before, but he had seen plenty of corpses. He had expected to see the hoofs that were characteristic of the Elites. Or even the little feet of a pack of Grunts. But no. Len found himself staring at a pair of distinctly monkey feet. Slight bits of brown hair peeked out from under a skin suit that trailed up a pair of stocky legs. And then the low hanging cloth that covered the groin. Len didn't look any higher before a tight grip took him around the back of the shirt and lifted him up. A sickening wretch went through him as he was lifted, and suddenly found himself several feet in the air. He looked up to see the thick, muscular arm that was holding him up, and forward, he saw a stern glare from a Brute.
Len stared into the green eyes of the Brute, and the Brute stared back, before dropping him. Touching the side of his helmet, the Brute looked to the horizon and growled something. On all fours, Len started backing away, when the Brute turned back to him and picked him up by the backpack. The Brute pulled and yanked. A moment later the backpack had been torn off his shoulders, and Len was left to smack hard against the sandy ground. Watching the Brute begin to fiddle with the bag, Len covered his head with his hands, waiting for the loud boom.
But the Brute was smarter than that. Reaching down to gather the human up, he again picked him up, and stuffed the bag against his chest. The bag hit him so hard, one of Len's ribs almost cracked. He looked to the Brute, groaning loudly, eyes wide in fear. The Brute stared down at him, lips curling up in slight growls every now and then, and he pushed the bag to Len's chest again.
"So you figured out there's a failsafe bomb…?" he asked. "Won't do you any good. I don't have the code to disarm it. All I can do is keep it from going off in my hands. You'd have to march into ONI HQ to get this bag opened." Len chuckled. "Joke's on you, ugly."
The chieftain growled loudly, and touched his helmet. After a moment, he taken a Spiker off his belt and held it so the bayonets were at Len's chest, and his only vision could be the endless oblivion of the Spiker's barrel. "What?" he said, swallowing. "I…I'm not good enough for the hammer you're carrying? F-fine…d-do it." Tears wetted Len's eyes. He breathed heavily, tilting his head up to expose his neck, spreading his arms to expose his arms. He had been told, by those who had felt the embrace of the superheated spikes, that the moment of impact was what was worse. Worse than a bullet. Worse than plasma. Bullets went through you and plasma burned you, but spikes dug deep and burned and ripped flesh. Len braced himself for that shock of surprise.
But the surprise was nothing came. Through tear filled eyes he looked forward, to see the Brute simply holding up the rifle, staring at him. The Brute lowered the rifle after another few moments, and set it back on his belt. One of the Brute's hands grabbed and groped at Len, stealing the pistol from his holster. Then the Brute lifted a massive arm, and pointed to the distance.
Len stared. The Brute lifted his hand and pointed again, this time adding a growl. Before he thought about what he was doing, Len stumbled a few steps forward, in the direction the Brute had pointed. He looked behind him, to see the Brute following. In fact, he did not take his next step fast enough, and he felt the solidity of the cuirass bang into him. He again stumbled a few steps, before getting his footing and starting to walk.
Perhaps fifteen or thirty minutes passed in a deafening silence. Len did not want to risk checking his watch, for fear the Brute may think he was going for a weapon and brain him with a simple fist. But after several minutes of agonizing silence and walking and not being sure if he would be killed moment to moment, the Brute reached a hand out and took him by the shoulder. There was pain in that grip, and Len whimpered softly. The two fingers pinched his bone and muscle, and Len realized he was being told to stop. The hand left him, leaving a wide bruise against the pale skin under his shirt. Len turned around to see the Brute looking to his left, so Len followed the gaze, and came to notice a Grunt and a Jackal, both hurrying over the sands and towards them.
The Jackal and the Grunt both made signs of respect for the Brute, who returned the gesture with a thump to the chest. Len assumed, if the Covenant military was anything like human, then the subordinate would have to stand at attention until the gesture was returned by the commanding officer. Indeed, once the chest was thumped, the Jackal visibly relaxed. The Grunt still stood a bit nervous, but considering he was standing in front of a nine foot tall rhino-ape carrying a magic hammer…Brutes weren't well known for their preservation of life, even those of their own forces.
The Jackal squatted down, and in the sands, began drawing and carving up a rough map with the tip of his kukri. It was…it was of human make, Len noticed, which somehow struck him as interesting. The chieftain watched him draw, occasionally pointing and growling, at which time Jackal adjusted his drawing.
Len, having no hope of understanding what the map or the growls or the ca-caws meant, turned his attention to the Grunt. Short and squat, he looked like any of the thousands of Grunts that Len had dissected over the years. Len waved. "The names Len Robert Roberts," he said slowly. "What's your name little guy?"
Len was in for his second heart stopping shock of the day, when the Grunt lifted his head to meet Len's gaze and said, "Tamtam."
"Y-you just talked…"
"Yes. Tamtam can talk."
"Tamtam listens to radios. Knows how to speak like human."
Len needed to sit down, lest he pass out. He squatted down slowly, then fell down and rested his head between his knees. "I've gone insane," he said lowly. "No, I died. The Covenant must have destroyed the planet. And now I'm dead. This is hell. Some…insane hell…I'm in hell. Why couldn't I just stay in the bunker?"
Tamtam walked forward and, almost brotherly, patted Len on the back with a tiny clawed hand.
"What's going on?" Len asked, out of breath. "What's happening? Why am I here? Why wasn't I killed?"
"Cause of the package you carrying. Chieftain ask what it is over radio. I tell him what you say. So now he keep you so you will keep bomb disarmed."
"No…he can't do that. I won't put the code in…I won't do it."
To that, Tamtam laughed. "Chieftain can make you do anything. You have lots and lots of breakables. But if you listen to him, he'll not hurt you much."
Len sighed. "Uhm…what are they saying?" he asked, gesturing to the chieftain and the Jackal who seemed to be discussing whatever they had drawn on the ground. Judging by how much the chieftain was growling, Len assumed it wasn't anything pleasant.
"Uhm…Chieftain is not here…officially. This campaign is supposed to be up to the Sangheili. If Sangheili find out he's here, won't be well. So he trying to avoid the patrols."
Len peeked towards the Jiralhanae, who, in a typical Brute display of annoyance, slammed one of his large fists into the ground. The Jackal crawled backwards, afraid he may be the target of the next attack. The Grunt, despite being so far away, practically crawled backwards and hid behind Len before calming down and coming back into the open.
"Uhm…nice meeting you," Tamtam said softly, before, on all fours, scurrying over to the Brute. The Brute growled something to the Jackal, and gave the Jackal the pistol he had taken from Len. The Jackal seemed excited by the pistol, and inspected it, toyed with it, aimed it at the distance, before replacing the plasma pistol in his left leg holster with it. The Jackal and the Grunt both made their shows of respect, before heading off into the horizon, leaving Len alone with the towering Brute. The Brute pointed at the satchel that Len was still carrying, and gave a low growl. Len sighed, and unhooked the satchel from his shoulder. He placed a lone finger on a spot of plastic stretching across the center.
"Before you get any ideas, big guy, the scanner has to register a pulse. Yeah…I'll play along. I'll keep this from going boom. But mark my words, monkey, the very moment you let your guard down, the very moment I have a moment's break, I'm going to be out of here."
The Brute growled softly, and Len took a step back purely out of instinct. He could readily admit that the Brute scared him. Everything about it. Eyeballing it, he'd say that the Brute stood nine feet tall, with a very large, very powerful build. Its arms were thicker than Len's torso, its torso was bigger than a Warthog's engine. Its armor was rounded over the shoulders and helmet, perhaps so that physical blows or shrapnel would glance off instead of dealing damage to the body? A long, brown beard trailed down its chin. Perhaps the beard could be used as a grappling point if Len had to fight it…
These thoughts ran through the man's mind in a matter of moments. Mere moments passed before he slung the knapsack over his shoulder and began to walk, keeping his head low.
The chieftain walked ahead of him. It was somehow strange. Len would have thought he would walk ahead. But, maybe the chieftain didn't think he was stupid enough to try to run. To test his theory, Len quietly took a step away from the chieftain, then another, quietly walking to the side. When he heard a growl and looked up to see the chieftain holding the Spiker at him, he lifted his arms submissively and filed behind the big Brute. Big he was. Spending hours staring at his back…god, it was like walking behind a billboard.
"A pity you guys are the enemy," he muttered. "You guys would have a huge future in construction. I mean, too bad we can't work together. There are so many planets out there. An infinite number in fact. Why can't we share? And we could certainly work together. I mean, no offense, but I reckon we've got better technology than you guys do. If I had to guess, I'd say the Covenant gave you guys your tech, no offense. Look at that Spiker. Look at that hammer. I mean, damn. Who carries a hammer anymore?" Len looked around. "I mean, we could help you guys with technology, and you could help us with heavy lifting. Why can't we just-"
Len smacked into something unbelievably hard and solid, and fell backwards onto his rump. He groaned, looking up to the towering figure, to see that the Brute had stopped walking and was now staring forward at the horizon. Len got back to his feet slowly. It really had been like walking into a billboard.
The Brute cupped one of his hands over his eyes and looked forward. After a moment, the Brute had turned around, and reached for Len. Len screamed as the hand took hold of him around the chest, and lifted him up. This time it hurt. It hurt so bad, Len lost his breath and weakly beat at the forearm of the behemoth. The chieftain shifted his grip and brought Len closer, until Len was pressed up against the broad cuirass. He squirmed and wiggled. The Brute was ignorant of the struggle and pain that Len was feeling, and started running. For how stubby a Brute's legs may have been, the chieftain could run with surprising speed. He ran over the shifting sands, over the rocks, for a reason Len could not understand until he managed to peek under the Brute's arm and saw an approaching Banshee. A moment later the Banshee had sped down low and almost decapitated the Brute, only to pull up and turn sharply. On its second pass, it let loose a flurry of fat blue blobs of plasma. The Brute stopped running and squatted down, holding Len close to his chest as the plasma rained down around him. Above him, the Banshee pulled up again, began to turn, preparing for another run.
The chieftain stood up, still dangling the human in his arms. Len, exhausted from everything, panted weakly. He managed to tilt his head up to the chieftain, to see the Brute's head swivel on the thick neck. The Brute spotted a cliff side, just as the Banshee came for another pass. Holding the human tightly, the Brute ran, stomping and shuffling as fast as his stubby legs could carry him. Blue plasma blobs rained down around them, and once the Brute almost stumbled onto his front. But before Len would go squish beneath him, he managed to lift to his feet and continue rushing. Finally reaching the cliff side, the Brute leapt, landing on his backside and sliding down, with the human still pinned and held close to his chest. Crashing onto the ground, the Brute groaned, and looked behind him, up the cliff side and to the horizon. The Banshee made one final pass, but unable to follow its target down the cliff side, turned and flew away.
The chieftain growled loudly. He threw Len away, and then with great difficulty got to his feet. Len, landing a few feet away, moved as far as he could from the behemoth, not wanting to somehow anger the clearly angry Brute.
The Brute pulled the gravity hammer from its back, and driving the back scythe into the ground into the ground. In haste, the Brute pulled the Spiker off his belt, and threw it aside, then began prying and pulling at the shoulder coverings of his armor, tearing them off and throwing them aside. Grabbing and pawing at his chest cuirass, the chieftain finally got a good hold and began prying them apart. He gave soft growls and groans now and then, but did his best to work slowly and carefully. But when his upper coverings were dotting the ground, he was left with only the under skinsuit.
The chieftain turned and retrieved the Spiker from the ground, and in doing so exposed his back to Len. Only by clenching his jaw and swallowing did he keep from throwing up. The plasma that the Banshee had shot had burned wide holes in the chieftain's back. Fur and flesh were seared to the skinsuit, with one massive burn across the Brute's broad back. Taking the Spiker in one hand, the Brute began cutting his skinsuit, growling and yapping loudly with each tug and pull. He removed the covering from his arms, and cut across his chest to peel it down to his hips. He carefully tore the skinsuit, until only the armor and skinsuit was from his abdomen and down. He braced himself, and after a deep breath, ripped the seared skinsuit from his back. An agonizing scream roared through the lands. Len actually took a step backwards, but didn't dare try to run.
The Brute fell to all fours, panting, growling, drooling. He reached behind his back, and groped for another handful of the skinsuit. Taking hold of it, he carefully pulled, growling and shaking, until he pulled most of the seared on skin suit from his back. The Brute was panting like an exhausted dog. He got to his feet slowly, aching and holding himself, trying not to move his shoulders or arms.
Then, without a growl or snarl, he retrieved the Spiker and put it back on his belt. Carrying his hammer would pose a problem, because he no longer had the magnetization of his armor. He settled for carrying it on his shoulder. When he began to walk, Len followed after him without order or word. He did not much like walking behind the Brute now. His only vision was the scared and burned back. And the smell…well the Brute had not smelled particularly pleasant to begin with, but now there was a sickening smell of scorched flesh.
When his backpack started to beep, Len placed his finger against the scanner to silence it. Setting the backpack back on his shoulder, he swallowed another wave of gorge, and then risked coming alongside the Brute. The Brute looked down at him, and lifted one of its massive fists to brain him. But a sharp surge of pain ran through him, starting from his back, and the Brute actually fell to his knees. A slow moving hand touched his shoulder, and then skin on his back, each time a loud growl escaping his throat.
Moments passed before the Brute got back to his feet, and retrieved the hammer he had dropped. He glared at the human, as if the human might snicker or laugh, but Len was far too frightened of the raging animal to make any jokes. The Brute wiped saturation from his eyes before standing again, panting. When they started walking again, Len again tried coming to its side. The chieftain glared at him passively, but must have decided that braining him was not worth the effort and pain.
The planet Bridge had been chosen for research because it did not boast the great hubs of civilization that were common with humanity. It had been even been ONI's hope that, if the Covenant ever came upon it, they would see a few tiny specs of civilization, and of course they would destroy them, but maybe not destroy the entire planet. The civilians that had colonized this planet, they would be killed. But maybe the Covenant would enjoy killing them and not bother with a more in-depth search. But they had been wrong.
As night broke, the chieftain decided to take refuge in a small shanty town that seemed to be abandoned. Most of the civilians of this planet, such a small number, were desert people or travelers. The planet really had no resources or income. Len even wondered why anyone would bother settling here. But they did. And sometimes they built little places like this to gather and trade whatever goods they had.
Len assumed the town had been deserted. When the residence first saw the Covenant ships in the sky, they had fled into the desert. That delusion was shattered when he stepped into one of the dwellings and found a body torn apart. This time Len did vomit. On his hands and knees, he spat out a large pool of bile onto the ground. The chieftain, who had come into the dwelling first, looked to him with annoyance and disgust, before starting to rummage through what supplies there were inside.
"Who did this," Len said, looking to the Brute. "Was it you? You fucking animal…These were fucking civilians! Fucking desert people who didn't know a fucking thing about this war! All they wanted to do was live out here, alone and away from technology!"
The chieftain growled at him, probably not understanding Len's shouts and screams but not liking his tone. He turned his back and resumed rummaging through what supplies there were. Len grabbed the first thing he could, which turned out to be a cooking pan, and threw it with all his might. He had wanted to hit the Brute's head, but the pan was heavier than he thought it would be, and gravity pulled it down so it collided with the Brute's broad back. Still, the result was quite pleasing. The Brute gave a roar of agony, falling to his hands and knees and panting loudly. He looked over his shoulder, green eyes turning hazy and cruel and lips pulling back to display his fangs. Len turned and ran for the door, but the Brute was faster, lancing a fist out and catching Len across the shoulder. Len tumbled to the ground, hitting hard. He looked up in time to see the Brute lifting a foot high into the air, and only rolling to his side spared him a stomp. Len was not fast enough to avoid a kick, and the Brute's toes caught him in the ribs, and sent his body into the wall. Because of the poor construction of the dwelling, the wall broke down without much trouble, and Len found himself outside. The entire house collapsed upon the Brute. But after mere moments, the great wreckage heaved and was thrown aside, and the Brute stomped out. Taking Len by the throat, he lifted him off the ground, and began to slowly strangle him.
Len rolled his shoulders, and slipped the backpack off his arms. Holding tight to the strap, like a drowning man would a life preserver, he lifted it up, trying to make the Brute see it. Attracted by the movement, the Brute's head did turn, and the cloudy eyes focused on the satchel. A low growl escaped his throat, but a moment later the hand was undone and Len toppled to the floor.
He might have lost consciousness, he wasn't sure. He closed his eyes for a moment or an hour, but when he opened them next, the Brute was standing over him. Grabbing him by the nape of the collar, the Brute dragged him into another of the dwellings, and threw him before a dismembered corpse. He swallowed down his bile, but looking back at the Brute, demanded to know what was happening.
The Brute squatted before one of the corpses. Drawing his Spiker, he cut a small in the torso of the corpse. He pointed to the wound, and then to the wounds that had clearly caused death.
"T-they were cauterized," Len muttered. "Plasma. Not a knife. What? Is that supposed to make me feel better about being here. Being trapped by you. Your prisoner. Fine, so you didn't kill these guys. How many have you killed?"
The Brute, again, growled. Len rubbed his throat, but backed away. He walked outside, and sat down in the middle of the shanty town, pulling his legs up to his chest, and waiting. His hands fiddled with the bag he carried. More than once he thought of ripping it open and blowing himself up. He never did though. Instead, he reached beneath his coat, and took out a fair sized book. Leather bound, colored blue with beautiful, hand stitched pages with golden tips. His fingers traced the words at the front, Holy Bible. He started to read.
The chieftain worked while he sat, not seeming to care that Len wasn't aiding him. The chieftain dismantled most of the houses for supplies, scavenging wood for a roaring fire and metal siding for…Len assumed the chieftain was fashioning defenses in case anyone came about. He retrieved dried meats from one of the dwellings, and then large jugs of wine which he pilled neatly on the ground. When he had piled enough wood together, he took a firebomb off his belt and threw it down. In an instant a warm fire was roaring. Len looked up from his reading, and was thrown a stretch of dry meat as well as a jug of drink. He looked down to the bible, sighing, before putting it back in his coat and eating a tense dinner with the Brute. When done, the Brute threw some extra pieces of wood onto the fire, and settled down into a comfortable sitting position as he tended to the flames. Len wondered if the fire was a good idea, considering there were no doubt still Covenant patrols dotting the landscape, but considering how cold the nights were on this planet, it was necessary. It was equally possible the Covenant would not bother passing over an area they had already covered.
Len took out his bible, and began to read by the light of the fire, but when the Brute came to stand before him, he looked up. The Brute dropped burn salve before him. "You're kidding right…?"
The chieftain growled lowly. Turning around, to show his back to the human, he lowered to one knee. Len had to look away. As much as he truly despised this creature, his captor, the fact that any creature had to endure such horrific burns…that the chieftain was even standing and walking around and had gathered the firewood and broken down the houses…What was this thing made of? The chieftain growled again, looking over its shoulder at him. Len sighed, and placed the bible safely in his coat pocket. Soiling his hands with the salve, he hesitantly leaned forward and touched the Brute's broad back. The body before him shifted, but then went still. The smell was unbearable, as was the feel. Oddly, touch was the least offended sense. Like touching raw meat. Len looked away, and slowly rubbed the salve into the moist skin.
"Second degree burns," Len muttered, but still kept careful note of how the Brute reacted. "I hope you get an infection and it kills you, you monster."
When the Brute looked over its shoulder and growled, Len stopped and backed away. The Brute did its best to view the extent of burns on its back, but its neck wasn't flexible enough. Growling, it took its seated position across the fire and lets its head drift.
Len waited a long time before he attempted to escape. He passed time by reading his bible or sleeping lightly, but kept waking up and looking to the Brute. Sometimes the Brute was wide awake, sharpening the scythe like blade on the back of his hammer or checking the ammunition that was loaded into his Spiker. Or sometimes he was slumped forward and could have been asleep, but Len didn't want to risk it. Only when the Brute's breathing became noticeably deeper and heavier did Len get to his feet. He stared at the Brute. He watched it, taking note of every shift it made, every snort, every snore. He held his breath as he began to move about the camp. Tearing a stretch of fabric from his coat off, he retrieved a stick from the pile of wood the chieftain had organized. Binding the cloth around the stick's head, then saturating it with a bit of drink, he put it into the fire, and pulled out a fair sized torch.
"I suppose I should mutter something witty," Len muttered to the Brute, before heading off into the barren sands, as quickly and as quietly as he could manage. Len walked at first, and when he believed he had reached a good distance from the Brute's camp, he started to move at a brisk job. Working in a laboratory for several years didn't leave one with an athlete's body, but ONI's physical requirements had kept him in relatively good shape. Enough that he could jog for about a mile before he had to stop. Not even because of exhaustion, but because of the bitter cold biting his limbs. Len shivered and brought the torch closer, using it to warm his fingers and toes. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his PDA, and decided that evacuation point Utah was six klicks south.
Six klicks…through the bitter cold. Len stopped, and tried to brace himself. Six klicks…six klicks. He could never make that on foot. Not with the clothing he was wearing, not with the biting cold of the night, not with the Covenant in position to glass this planet.
He was going to die here. The realization settled in for the first time, as a cold stiffness in the pit of his stomach. Somehow he had managed to surpass his fears, but suddenly it came flooding towards him. He was going to die on this planet. Die here all alone. God, why did he leave the Brute?
Len picked himself up slowly. He patted the bible in his jacket, reminding himself it was there, and started walking.
When he heard hoof beats in the distance, he froze yet again. For a foolish moment he actually thought that sound may be the Elites coming to get him, but that would be ridiculous. Elites didn't make that much noise, at least from what he had been told about them. He waved his torch and began approaching the sounds off in the distance, and to his relief, he saw nomads, each riding on the back of a black stallion, six in total.
They approached him in a herd, stopping a few inches from him. There was no moon in the sky, but the torch offered enough light Len could see the front figure dismount his horse. But when the figure drew a flashlight and shined it into Len's face, he recoiled, blinded. "Who are you?" came a voice.
Len tried shielding his eyes from the flashlight's glow, but there were still spots in his eyes, and the holder of the flashlight actually moved the glow so it went around his hand. The other five dismounted their horses as well, though Len could not see, only hear the loud crunching of sand beneath multiple feet.
"My name is Len Roberts. I'm an agent of ONI. Listen to me. I have vital intelligence that needs to be brought to the attention of ONI's central directory. I need to get to an evacuation point, the last one of the planet. If you're still here, I assume you haven't managed to get to an evacuation center. If you take me to the evacuation point, I can guarantee passage for you, your family…your horses. I promise." Len gritted his teeth. His eyes refused to adjust to the blinding light that was still shown in his face.
He waited for a response, expecting the only logical one that these six men could make. Instead, he heard the click of a gun, and felt a sharp coldness run through his left shoulder. He dropped the torch to the ground. The sands were kicked up and fell, extinguishing the flame quickly, and now only able to see the blinding light from the flashlights, he stared forward. "You brought the Covenant here," came the voice. "They left us alone. You think we'll let you escape then leave us here? If this planet is going to die, you're going to die first."
Len felt a cold press of steel on his forehead. Instead of hearing a click, or a boom, he heard an odd "vroom" sound. Len instinctively fell to the ground and covered his head with his hands, curling into a ball. There were sounds of gunfire above him, and more vrooms, a roar, many screams…and then only loud groans of agony, and a triumphant roar.
A flashlight had fallen before Len. He reached for it, recoiling slightly when he felt wetness, but gripping it tight, shown it around. The Brute had somehow tracked him, and torn through the six others in a matter of moments. Len watched as the chieftain lifted his hammer over his head, only to swing it down, driving the spike on the other end through one of the nomad's chest. Another, both legs broken, was trying to crawl away, babbling incoherently. The chieftain approached this one, and positioning the scythe blade of his hammer under the human's throat, lifted his foot. The heel of the foot came to rest on the back of the human's head, and pulling the blade back, he decapitated the man with ease. The chieftain stopped for a moment, listening, looking about if any of the six were still alive. Walking to one of the bodies, he lifted his foot. The human, who must have been playing dead, came to life and screamed something, before the foot was dropped down and crushed his skull.
Now sure that all the six were dead, the chieftain turned his attention to Len. Walking to him, the chieftain dropped the satchel that Len had left at the camp. It was starting to beep softly. Len sighed, and placed his finger on the scanner, and silenced the beeping. He put the satchel over his shoulder, but screamed out as he remembered he had been shot in the shoulder. The chieftain was not patient with him this time, and took him by the collar to lift him to his feet, then dropped him down. Len gritted his teeth, applying pressure to the wound as best he could, letting the knapsack rest on his other shoulder. The chieftain kneed him once in the small of the back, almost making him tumble to the ground but he managed to keep his balance by flailing his arms. Nodding to the chieftain, he began to walk, listening to the heavy crunch of the chieftain's steps behind him. By the time they arrived at the camp again, Len was pale, shivering fiercely, and in vain trying to hold his hand against his shoulder to stop the bleeding. He collapsed beside the fire, for the single reason that the fire was something warm and he felt so cold.
The chieftain growled loudly, standing over the man. He set his weapons down and spent several minutes building the fire back up to a proper size and strength, before disappearing into the one of the remaining dwellings. He came out a time later, and dropped a strip of bandages down before him. Len smiled, managing to tilt his head up however slightly. He laughed softly, before setting his head down, and passing out.
He woke when the sun touched his face, and sent a flare of warmth through him. He shivered, and blinked, looking around. The chieftain was tending to the fire, keeping it burning with the last remnants of the wood. It was still cold, even with the sun out it would take some time before the air was properly heated. Len pushed himself up with his left arm, but screamed suddenly when sharp pain ran through him. He quickly rolled over and used his right arm to right himself, rolling to a seated position. During his sleep, his jacket and shirt had been cut off. Both the shreds of bloodied cloth that lay around him, as well as the shallow cuts he had received over his chest, were testimony to this. His shoulder and arm had been bandaged, poorly, but enough that the bleeding had stopped and he had survived through the night. His skin was still sickly pale, his movements still strained and weak, but he was alive.
Seeing that he was awake now, the Brute tossed him a strip of dried meat and a jug of wine. And when breakfast was done, the Brute growled, and gestured that it was time to move. Len spent a moment rummaging through the scraps of his clothes, unearthing the bible which, no doubt by grace of some higher power, only had a small amount of dried blood on its pages and had endured only small scratches over the cover. Holding it in his right arm, he followed after the Brute.
The sun beat down upon his now bare back and shoulders, exhausting what little energy Len had left. How could the Brute move with such strength and consistency. The burn on his back seemed to be healing. The salve had helped, but no doubt a Brute's natural endurance and healing abilities had contributed. There was still the smell of burnt flesh, it still glowed a sickly red, and it may have been infected considering Len could see revolting sacks of puss just beneath the outer layer of skin…but had that happened to a human, he would be dead right now.
When the Brute stopped short, Len managed to stop before walking straight into him. The Brute reached behind him, taking hold of the human, and lifting him as he had the prior day, started to run. But the air around the Brute and man shivered and from out of, seemingly thin air, came a large squad of Elites. The Brute cursed loudly, and though Len did not understand what he said, he could deduce what had happened. The Brute had walked right into a trap.
Len was shifted about, and came to again stand behind the Brute, while the Brute hoisted his hammer off his shoulder, and drew the Spiker from his belt with his other hand. He circled and snarled at each of the Elites, constantly shifting his aim for fear of being taken from behind. He barked and roared and snarled, once even lifting his Spiker and shooting the ground before one of the Elites as it took a step forward.
At last, from out of the circle, one Elite stepped forward. He carried a plasma sword in one hand, and a carbine in the other. Clad in gold armor, that in the brightness of the desert actually hurt Len's eyes, Len believed he would have been a general in rank. Len found it strange he should approach the chieftain fully armed, until he deduced he was showing the Brute respect by matching his weapons. What followed was a heated exchange between the two. Twice the Brute roared and pointed his hammer at Len. The chieftain was throwing himself into a fit, roaring and snarling, stomping the ground, swinging his hammer into the ground and kicking up a great cloud of dust. By contrast, the Elite stood perfectly calm and firm, head tilted back as if in passive disinterest with everything the Brute said. What Len would give to learn understand what they said.
An agreement seemed to be reached between the two. Two of the Elite came in from the circle, one taking either of Len's arms and lifting him off the ground, then carrying him to the sidelines. The Elite leader gave his carbine and sword to his lieutenant. The lieutenant then proceeded to aid the general in removing his armor, first his helmet, this his shoulder and arm coverings, and finally his chest cuirass. Lastly, the lieutenant aided the general in peeling the skinsuit down to his hips, where it was cut off to prevent it from dragging or tangling around his legs. And then, he did the oddest thing Len had ever seen. The general took four steps forward, and then lowered to one knee. The lieutenant lifted the plasma rifle and fired four fat blobs forward, giving each a minute's distance before firing again. The general growled and roared in clear pain as his flesh was seared by the shots, and spent several minutes afterwards gathering his strength again. It was only then, on equal footing, that he would face the chieftain, who had spent this time leaving his weapons outside the circle. The general growled something to his Elites, to which the Elites all nodded understanding.
The chieftain swung first. Lifting his arms in front of his face in a manner that resembled a boxer, he approached, and when in range threw a stiff right cross at the Elite, who ducked beneath the punch and circled. The chieftain roared, swinging a massive backhand, and when that too was dodged, he tried another cross. Rather than avoid, the general allowed the hand to come at him. He caught the chieftain by the wrist, and pulled his fist off target, so they instead it moved through the air for its full force. Then, still holding the chieftain by the wrist, he pulled him close. One of the Elite's knees lifted, and struck the chieftain hard in the unarmored stomach, winding the chieftain enough that the general could move behind him. Cupping his hands together, and swinging them over his head, he brought both fists down upon the chieftain's back. The chieftain gave a roar deeper than Len had let heard, before collapsing to the ground.
The general, believing the fight done, turned around and began to walk, but the chieftain rose to all fours and growled something that caught the Elite's attention. The Elite retorted with his own growl, and waited for the chieftain to stumble back to his feet, and charge him. Again, the Elite's movements were swift and precise. At the perfect moment he had side stepped, and let the chieftain run past him. Balancing on one leg, he swung the other, and again struck the Brute hard across the scarred back. Again, the chieftain let out a cry of agony like none had heard before. One of the Elites that was holding Len actually looked away, cringing slightly. The other roared in glee and rooted his commander to continue.
When the Brute didn't collapse as he had before, the general moved in for the finish blow. Just as before, he stood above the chieftain, and lifted his clenched hands over his head to bring them down. But this time, the chieftain swung a fist backwards, and knocked at the Elite's left leg. He growled, losing his balance for a moment, and the chieftain reached back, catching the Elite by the arm. He yanked the Elite to the ground, and held him down, letting the hot, grinding sands tear apart his wounded back. The general roared in pain, as the Brute held him down with one hand. The other lifted, and clenched into a fist that was brought down across the Elite's jaws. Another punch came down, and another, before the general's body went still. The chieftain placed his hands down on the Elite's long neck, and began to tighten. The Elite's response was to drive two fingers up and into the Brute's throat. The Brute rolled over and off the general, gasping and holding his windpipe. The general easily got to his feet, shaking his body to try to free his wounded back of some sand particles. He approached the Brute, and took him by the hair. Lifting the Brute off the ground, the general was quick to wrap an arm around the Brute's thick throat, and lock his hands behind the Brute's back. The Brute roared and fidgeted. He dug his claws into the arm that held him, ripping down and drawing purple blood. But the Elite throttled the Brute's neck, until he stopped and beat feebly at the arm that held him. Arching his back once, the general tightened his grip, and the Brute's body went limp. Carefully, the general lowered the Brute to the ground, and squatting before him checked the pulse on the chieftain's neck. Seemingly satisfied with the weak bump, bump, bump, the general stood and made a gesture to his Elites. The Elites roared in unison. Len managed to steal a glance at the Brute, laying on the warm sands, before the Elites that held him set him down.
While the Brute was brutal and cruel with him, manhandling him at every turn, the Elites seemed to regard Len with a complete lack of interest. They had positioned him between them. The general and his lieutenant were first. Len was behind them, and behind Len were the four additional Elites. Occasionally looking lifting his head and looking forward or back, he saw that the Elites maintained a watchful vigilance, shifting their gaze side to side. But never once did they look to him. They walked a long time in that uncomfortable silence. Every so often, the knapsack started to beep, and without being ordered to, Len scanned his finger. He assumed that the Elites already knew about it. Maybe they had hacked into the radio when the chieftain had talked to the Grunt, or maybe they had come down to this planet for the sole purpose of retrieving it and him. It didn't matter.
The shadows were tall they finally reached the Covenant's base. While ONI built bases literally underground, the Covenant seemed to build theirs to touch the heavens. Even UNSC bases tended to be squat and square. The spiraling height of the obelisks, the temples, the factories. Len stopped moving, and was nearly trampled by the Elite behind him, who gave him a growl and a knee to the small of the back.
Now in the base, the general claimed the satchel that Len was carrying, and quickly went off with his lieutenant to figure out how to dismantle the failsafe. Behind him, one of the Elites drew an energy sword and approached Len. Only the lieutenant's roar had stopped him. The Elite who would have done the honor of executing the human instead sheathed his blade and, taking Len by the arm, dragged him towards the base's prison. Len dropped his bible, but managing to retch his arm free of the Elite's grip, he quickly retrieved it. The Elite, in annoyance, kicked Len hard in the chest. There was a crackle and a sharp pain ran through Len's torso, but before the Elite could crush his skull beneath a lifted hoof, two of the others pulled him away. Pulled to his feet by yet another Elite, Len held his bible, clinging to it tightly, as he was dragged limply to the brig.
He was given his own cell, which he was grateful enough to thank his Elite captors for. He was thankful because the other cells in the brig were filled with snarling Jackals, a rampaging Hunter who beat against the cell walls, and even an Elite who seemed to have gone mad, and was roaring and screaming as if possessed by the same demon as the Hunter and Jackals. Len was given his own cell. He was kicked into it, then the fourth wall sealed behind him. Exhausted and beaten, Len plopped down against the farthest wall. His bible in his lap, he doubted he had the strength to read it. His chest was aching, as was his shoulder, as was his entire upper body from being in the blaring sun without any coverings. At some point, he passed out.
He woke to a sound of crashing. Everything about him was aching. Even his eyes were aching as he tried to look forward, but somehow it hurt to do that, and he closed his eyes slowly. After a few moments, he tried opening his eyes again, to see the fourth wall of the cell shrivel away. The chieftain, brandishing a human assault rifle over his shoulder, stepped inside. Len stared, blinking twice then feeling dizzy closed his eyes and rubbed his eyes. "It's finally happened, Len. You've gone insane."
The Brute stomped forward, and lifted Len up around the chest. The rough fingers and hand, touching his sunburned body, caused him to whimper lowly. The Brute shook and inspected him, and learning whatever he wanted to, dropped Len to the ground. "What are you doing here?" Len screamed.
The Brute was still bare of armor on his upper body, but his chest and back now bore black wrappings, something that would aid in healing the burns, Len assumed. He had no hammer or Spiker. In fact, it seemed he was wearing a human SMG with a suppressor instead of the Spiker, and he carried the assault rifle in his other hand. Len rubbed his eyes. "What are you doing here?" he asked again.
The Brute took him by the wrist and pulled him out of the cell, and dragged him to the brig's exit. Len caught a glimpse of the prior occupied cells, to see the occupants of each had been slaughtered. Len had no doubts about what creature was responsible.
The chieftain pressed against the side of the door, and slowly opened it. A moment later, he was through, skimming the hallways either side before he gestured for the human to follow. Len obeyed. He followed the chieftain's silent orders and hand gestures, never pressing past the chieftain, never trying to run. When he was pushed into a storage room, he did so without a noise, and when the chieftain held onto him tight with a finger on his mouth, he did not resist. Soon enough the Elites, moving down the hallway, had passed, and the chieftain emerged again.
When they left their present building and were out in the open, Len noticed it was twilight hours. Why hadn't the planet been destroyed yet? Why had the Covenant built a base at all? This wasn't some sort of temporary settlement to aid the deployment of troops. This was…this was a veritable city. That was probably for the best. A city this big actually had a lax defense. The size made it difficult to patrol, but what more, few of the Covenant would ever think that a human would attack here. That did not mean that the chieftain seemed to want to take any chances. He moved very quickly when in the open, and very slowly when behind cover. Len watched every movement the Brute made, and mimicked them as best he could, until the two of them finally came to what Len assumed was some sort of hangar. It was in the open, with many Phantoms, Ghosts, Vampires, and Spirits circled about, some being fueled and others perhaps awaiting repairs. The chieftain paused a moment, before coming into the open. After a few moments, the Jackal from before came over. Again, Len watched them exchange shows of respect, before the Jackal gave the Brute a large detonator. The Jackal pointed to select dropship, which the Brute in turn pointed to, and Len approached. He was not actually sure how to enter the ship, when he saw the Grunt from before pop out of one of the side flaps. The Grunt, holding onto a side bar, reached a stubby hand down. For a moment worried that he might pull the little creature's arm out of socket, he finally took the offered claw and, to his great surprise, was lifted into the dropship without any difficult. The Brute lifted the Jackal up under the arms, and aided him in getting in, before he himself climbed in.
Len sat down in one of the seats, setting the bible down in his lap. The Grunt came next to him and sat down, and for a few moments took great interest in the bible. But when a clawed hand reached out, Len swatted it away, earning a whimper from the little creature. The Brute and the Jackal took the pilot and co-pilot seat respectively, and lifted the Phantom off the ground. Len, from one of the side flaps, could see the ground gradually pushing away. He looked to his side to see the Grunt fastening himself to the seat with a harness, and then the stubby arms did the same for Len. "Thank you," he said politely, which the Grunt nodded at.
He watched as the ship lifted higher and higher into the air, and then began to speed away. And looking back at the base, he watched as it suddenly erupted into an inferno. Explosions emerged throughout the base, huge showers of orange or blue plasma shot up into the air, engulfing buildings and…no doubt whatever aliens were in those buildings or on the street. Len swallowed, feeling sick. From in the pilot's cabin, laughter could be heard, emerging from the Brute and the Jackal.
Minutes passed. Len wondered if he might ask the Grunt what was going on, where he was being taken, but decided better. Truth be told, he did not want to learn what cell he would be inhabiting soon. He just lay back in the chair, shoulder aching, ribs aching, skin aching. But he held the bible tightly. And every time the Grunt tried prying his hands off it, he woke up long enough to swat the hand away.
Len woke yet again when he felt the dropship lurch and come to a stop. He opened his eyes and shook his head. The Brute came over him, and pried the harness up and off him. Len obediently stood. He was lead off the dropship by the Brute, first down to the ground. The three other aliens followed, and walked a good distance, before the Brute again lifted his detonator and squeezed the trigger. The dropship erupted in a blue inferno.
"Chieftain wants you to start walking this way," the Grunt said, erecting a little finger to the south.
Len shrugged passively, and without question nor resistance, began to walk. It was several minutes before he realized that no one was behind him, even longer before he realized that the Jackal was not watching him through a scope, and therefore it seemed unlikely anyone would kill him if he stopped. But he kept walking. It was the brief time between night and morning. The air was bitterly cold, but warming up quickly. Len stumbled along on tired muscles, sometimes tumbling to all fours and crawling, but he soon returned to a vertical base and resumed the slow trudge over the shifting sands. But he kept stumbling, and as the last of his sweat dripped down his nose and to the thirsty sands, he had to wonder why? Why had the Brute saved him? Why had the Brute let him go? Did it like him? No, of course not. That was absurd. This...this was just a new form of torture, a new form of execution. Maybe the Brute didn't want Len to die by another's hands, the Brute believed it was his right to decide when his prey died. Maybe the Brute had saved him just to spite the Elites, and this was the easiest way to get rid of the body. It didn't matter. Len was going to die...
Cupping his hand over his eyes to block out the rising sun, he looked forward and saw a large mountain rising up from the desert sands, in the distance. There were only a few mountain ranges on the planet. Mostly it was endless, flat sands. But this one looked familiar, by the almost U shape from the center indent. It was probably a mirage. The sun was beating down so hard. It had been a day since he had drank anything, and days since he had had water. Len gathered his strength, and started to run as best he could. He fell and tumbled but every time he got back to his feet and pressed on. With a parched throat, he began to shout and scream and beg, waving his arms, even as this exerted what strength he had. But collapsing to the ground, barely looking forward, he saw two black figures running towards him over the sands. He stood again, wobbling on his two feet, and taking another step, only to collapse. And try as he might, he could not stand again.
One of the figures, as they drew closer they were seen to be a pair Helljumpers. And as one hoisted Len to his feet, the other pulled a canteen from his belt and quickly put it to Len's lips. Len gulped down heavy mouthfuls of the water, taking hold of the Helljumper's wrist and tilting the canteen back.
"Buddy, you're going to get sick," came one of the Helljumpers. "Jesus, how long have you been out here? You're Len Roberts, right?"
Pulling the canteen away, and coughing a bit of excess water out, Len held up the bible he had been clinging to all this time. "Listen…listen to me. My name is Len Roberts. This is Hotel file. Set it under a black light. Certain words will be highlighted with invisible ink, and equations will be written at the top of each chapter in the empty space." Len coughed again, body convulsing. "Listen to me, you need to get this to ONI's central base. Make sure they get it…and tell them…what I…what I said…"
Len panted heavily, and closed his eyes slowly. The soldier that held him hoisted him up over his shoulder, and the two hurried to the dropship, the last one in the sector.