Fire Down Below
The first exchange of fire during the battle of Primas IV came in the form of a massive, swirling blue beam of energy that was emitted from a sizeable cannon on the underbelly of a human dreadnought. The beam lanced forth and struck the front shields of a Forerunner cruiser about one-hundred thousand kilometres ahead of it. The energy dispersed across the cruiser's shields, causing them to shimmer in a blue pulse, but despite the apparent lack of damage the shields themselves had been drained to a small fraction of their former strength.
Forerunner technology was superior in many ways to that of the humans, but despite this the human weaponry was more than capable of penetrating the defences on a Forerunner vessel. It was part of the reason why the war had gone on as long as it had, and why so many Forerunners had died throughout the many engagements that had occurred between the two species. Plenty of humans had died as well, and continued to do so, and in the black, starry void above Primas IV several ships from both sides of varying configurations met in a battle that was more evenly matched than most. In these waning years of this long war, the humans were throwing everything they had at their great foe, all the while utilising a policy that saw the complete destruction of any ground they lost. This included entire worlds that fell out of their control, which they burned from orbit, as if the humans had become sore losers.
The planet below was a lush, green sphere covered in swirling white clouds. Yet even now, large tracts were becoming orange with flame, as the ground battles raged and had been for several weeks. Entire sections of rainforest had been reduced to blackened wastelands as both sides deployed their most destructive artillery and armoured weapons and vehicles. From orbit, one might have been fooled into thinking some kind of vast forest fire had wiped out much of what was on the world's northern hemisphere.
Primas IV sat on that fine line where a planet was capable of sustaining life, located at the perfect distance from its young, searing yellow sun. Looking through the transparent floor of his drop-pod, Accord-of-Perpetual-Resilience wondered if the planet would ever be the same after the battle was over.
Around him, the cruiser shook violently, as another series of beam weapons hit the shields. Human fighters buzzed by beneath them, engaging the sleeker Forerunner fighters. He shifted his gaze straight ahead, watching as his comrades-in-arms made their way into their assigned pods. His eyes went to the one who approached, who stood only inches shorter than he did but carried a face that appeared gentle, yet the yellow eyes belied a ferocity that only a Warrior-Servant could carry. Lance-of-Righteous-Flame was fifty years his senior, his older sister and the sixth of seven children. Accord was the youngest of the family, but like their parents he had come to fight for his people against their most dangerous enemy so far. And like most young Warrior-Servants, mere decades off of their first mutation, he stood over seven feet tall and was clad in armour that tended to almost his every need. It told him his vitals, it supplied him with nutrients and it ensured, to the best of its ability, that he would not die easy. Most Forerunners, especially the Warrior-Servants, would spend nearly their entire lives within their armour, sleek and form-fitting as it was. His was covered in glowing blue highlights, and it clung to him like a second skin. His sister was similarly outfitted, and like her he had retracted his helmet, if only to see her face one last time before they entered the very literal fire below.
"Are you ready?" His sister looked at him with noticeable concern. She had every right to, not only because they were family, but because they were the only two of the seven children of their parents to still be alive. Their brothers and sisters had died in battles similar to this one, often worlds apart from one another. It seemed fitting, then, that the two of them would go into battle together. It did wonders to help his confidence, and hers as well.
"I have always been ready, sister." Accord could feel the reassuring presence of his ancilla, the small blue figure at the back of his mind, as it ran one last overall check of his vital signs. His heart was beating faster, but that was to be expected. It peaked momentarily as another lance of white hot energy struck the cruiser's shields. The lights in the corridor flickered, and some distant part of the ship was torn asunder as the shields there failed and the beam found its way into the hull, burning through the metal and holo-matter like it was nothing.
"I can think of no better way, for the two of us to go into battle together." His sister put a hand to his shoulder, and their eyes met for what could have easily been the last time. "When we are on the ground, you stay close to me. The humans are vicious fighters, and they will not be dislodged easily."
"I will have your back," Accord replied. With her with him, any doubts or fears he had were allayed, replaced with a confidence that was befitting for any Forerunner warrior.
"And I will have yours." She smiled at him. With that, she took a step back and the drop pod's door shaped itself in the empty space she had just occupied. First it was transparent, before the matter solidified properly and the grey metal of the pod morphed into view, blocking him out from the rest of the world. An alarm klaxon was sounding, as the cruiser began to list, and he could only just make out an announcement, presumably the commander of the vessel, who called for an evacuation to begin. It did not matter to him now, he was about to evacuate the ship in his own way.
As the rest of the soldiers were secured within their pods, Accord did one last check of his weapon. It was a light rifle, typical of those assigned to Warrior-Servants, capable of folding itself down into a smaller, more compact form when not in use. The weapon was secured within the pod on his right-hand side, and would be there once he made landfall. As the ship's computers quickly went through the launch procedures, he looked down again, just as the transparent floor became something grey and opaque. The underbelly of the cruiser was aflame, and secondary explosions began to rip through its form. This did not matter, and it was only moments later when the ship spewed him, and the numerous other pods, out of its frame. Each pod shot through the void above Primas IV like a tiny meteor, blazing through space as fighters and capital ships from both sides blasted at each other with particle beams and plasma weapons. Blue, green, orange and pink bolts of light darted by, and Accord kept his hands on the grips at either side of him as tightly as he could as his drop-pod rocketed through the chaos. He had only a small viewing port in front of him, and through it he could see little else but the flares of vessels exploding, and some of the drop pods as they caught stray fire. Despite this, he remained calm, and he clenched his jaw and allowed his helmet to shape itself around his face, covering his eyes and filling his view with a detailed heads-up display that told him just about everything he needed to know about his mission and of his armour and vitals.
Orange fire filled the viewing port. The whole pod began to rattle as it entered the planet's atmosphere, and the shaking intensified as the friction increased. Accord closed his eyes, taking his mind away from the chaos outside the small shell he was inside of. He thought of home, on one of the colonies closest to the Forerunner capital, with its plains of red grass and orange skies. He thought of home, and of his parents, both of whom were still alive and likely waiting for his return. Hoping for his return, but no doubt proud of what he had become. He was doing his part, and it was the least he could have done. He had followed in the footsteps of his Warrior-Servant parents, but really what other option had there been?
And almost suddenly, he heard the alert from his ancilla. His train of thought came to a crashing halt and he opened his eyes. The world through the viewing port was no longer blazing orange with the fire of atmospheric entry. Instead, there was the blue of a natural sky, which quickly merged into something else as thick grey smoke began to fill what little he could see of the outside. There was a violent lurch that rattled him to his core as the brakes engaged, bringing the pod to a sudden slowdown that was absorbed by both the sophisticated design and technology of the pod itself, and by the armour he wore. The greenery he had expected to see was miles away. Instead, he landed in a blackened landscape akin to something one may see in a nightmare. Burning embers drifted on the breeze, and spot fires burned all around, as the pod hit the ground hard at the edge of a smouldering crater.
The door shot open and Accord found his grip around his rifle. At the press of a button the weapon extended to its full length, and he stumbled outside into the infernal landscape beyond. The ground beneath him was blackened and ashen, and the forest that had once been here had had its trees reduced to charred logs. Energy weapons fire darted across the sky, and fighters from both sides of the battle zoomed across the heavens, shrouded in grey clouds and black smoke. Accord raised his rifle, his legs unsteady beneath him after the landing. His armour compensated for this, allowing him to keep his balance even as he gradually regained his bearings. Looking around, other drop pods had landed in the vicinity and armoured Warrior-Servants emerged, weapons at the ready. His sister was at the other side of the large crater, and he moved towards her as the group took up formation and began moving across the blackened, uneven terrain. Some of his comrades had not made it, their drop-pods destroyed in orbit by stray fire or even targeted enemy fire. He wondered, if only briefly, what it was like, to die up in space, vaporized in the heat of a particle beam, or left drifting as your damaged armour struggled to keep you from dying to the vacuum. None of these were pleasant thoughts, but it was all he could think about, especially when surrounded by such a dreary environment. Even now, the lightest drops of rain had begun to fall, heralding a much more intense storm.
This world had been a Forerunner colony. There had been cities here, amongst the forests, and Accord had seen them in recordings prior to being sent to this battlefield. They were not the grandest cities of the Forerunner empire, but they were close, and the capital, from his understanding, was only on the other side of the mountains that were visible on the horizon now. The humans had burned that city from orbit, and had landed their soldiers in the surrounding regions before engaging those staffed in the military installations there. They had not burned these places as they had the city, and it was likely they intended to take what military hardware they could for their own use. It was a dishonourable act, to eradicate a city of innocents, and it was all the more reason for Accord to be confident in his place here, and why he had come here. The humans had proved themselves the most dangerous enemy the Forerunners had ever faced, and they deserved nothing more (or less) than complete annihilation.
"Form up." His sister, being the highest-ranked soldier here, took the lead of their fifteen-strong group. Further down the blackened land stood a Forerunner military outpost, one that had fallen under the occupation of human soldiers. It was their objective here, and they had landed as close as they could to it without risking the drop-pods. Now, there was a significant distance across the wide open ground to cross, and it was this that served the first major challenge. Even now, armoured human soldiers were moving into defensive positions along the perimeter of the outpost. Behind them, the pyramid-like structure stood tall and gleamed in the subdued light of the day. Accord started to advance with the others, and as soon as they crossed the crest of a rise ahead they came under fire.
Blue and pink beams of energy darted across the blackened expanse of ground. Accord felt his heart pounding as he returned fire at the distant foes, crouching as he did so in order to better level his aim. His fellow Warrior-Servants took up positions nearby, taking cover in craters and behind fallen trees. The hail of energy weapons fire filled the air, going both ways, beams flaring and sizzling through the rain that fell upon the region. Accord levelled one of the armoured human soldiers in his rifle's scope, and he let fly with an orange beam that struck the human, who had crouched behind a barricade, squarely in the head. The helmeted head erupted into an explosion of charred flesh and pieces of brain matter, and the human fell backwards with smoke wafting from what remained of its skull. The act of killing was still fairly new to Accord, and had it been any other species he may have had doubts. But here, with the foes as they were, relentless and ruthless in the way they exterminated entire Forerunner worlds, he felt very little. As the exchange continued, the rain intensified, and a rumble of thunder made it clear that the storm was only just beginning.
His sister signalled for the group to advance. The first phalanx were the ones to take the lead positions, activating their portable hard-light shields. Six of them, crouched behind blue energy shields that extended from devices on the left forearms of their armour. The others moved in behind them, and the humans concentrated their fire upon the first phalanx as the Warrior-Servants rapidly advanced.
The plasma mortar was something Accord should have expected, but when he saw the swirling white ball of energy fall from the sky above he still felt some degree of surprise. It left a vapour trail in its wake as it evaporated the raindrops it fell through, and the ball of energy struck only metres away. There was an explosion of white flame and dirt and smoke, and the ground shook underfoot upon impact. Accord looked up, expecting to see their support falling from the heavens, but nothing came. Further warriors were supposed to follow them into this battle and provide supporting fire, yet for whatever reason none showed themselves. Instead, the small group of battle-hardened Warrior-Servants advanced on a heavily defended location with no one but themselves to rely on. Something had gone wrong, somewhere, yet not even his sister voiced anything about this. Everybody knew their mission, and they all knew that things did not always go according to plan.
The Warrior-Servants continued their advance. One of those within the forward phalanx fell under the withering hail of energy weapons fire, and the shield they carried failed as it overloaded under the strain and vanished in a brief blue flash of light. The Warrior-Servant who had carried the shield was shredded as several beams connected to his armoured form, and his armour could only do so much to withstand the searing heat of the beam weapons. He fell into a heap in the mud, and the others to either side of him moved in to close the gap. Accord maintained his position in the group as they continued to advance, closing the distance between them and the human defensive lines. Another of the energy shield bearers fell, and a plasma mortar shot landed only metres from where Accord stood. He felt the heat of the explosion wash over him, quickly followed by the concussive wave that knocked him off of his feet and sent him sprawling into the mud.
As he went down, he watched as one of his comrades-in-arms was hit, a beam connecting with his shoulder before another struck him in the chest and burned through the armour and into the flesh underneath. The Warrior-Servant fell forwards, purple blood oozing out of the scorched, jagged hole that had been put through him. Accord remained on the ground for a moment as another of his compatriots went down, catching three bolts of hot plasma in the chest that knocked the Warrior-Servant backwards. Another plasma mortar shot incinerated one of the others, the entire Warrior-Servant disappearing in the blue explosion, leaving only a charred husk that went rolling into a crater.
Accord felt a powerful hand grip his right arm and the next thing he knew he was back on his feet, being hauled along by a similarly armoured figure as they both darted into a ditch before the human defensive lines. The forward phalanx had collapsed and several other Warrior-Servants were brought down in a hail of weapons fire that sent their burned, maimed bodies tumbling upon the uneven terrain. The rain poured down, and the ground underfoot turned into a thick, sticky black mud. Accord, his heart thumping within his chest, looked to his saviour and realised that his sister had pulled him out of immediate danger. Now it was just the two of them, right below the human defences. Even now they could hear shouts as some of the human warriors moved forwards to find them, the Forerunner assault seemingly thwarted.
"Stay down," his sister ordered. Accord did not need to be told twice. He clutched his light rifle and aimed it out of the ditch, in the direction of the human defences. His sister did the same, and the first of the human warriors appeared at the top of the ditch. Both Forerunners opened fire, orange beams striking the armoured figure. The armour itself only did a basic job of absorbing the powerful beams of energy, and the human warrior came falling forwards with several holes burned through its form. The body landed in a heap only inches from Accord, and he felt one hand fall upon his left knee, as if the human had tried to reach for him as one last act of defiance, as its life dwindled quickly from its bloodied form. Strangely enough, Accord found himself unnerved by this touch.
"Are we all that's left?" Accord pushed the dead human's arm away from him.
"It does not matter if we are," his sister countered. "We will finish the mission." His sister was back on her feet at that moment, and Accord followed suit. Both of them moved up the muddy ditch, rain dripping down their armour as they went. Another human warrior appeared, and both of them blasted their enemy down without a moment's hesitation. They were upon the defensive lines here, where the humans had erected crude but effective barricades out of metal and onyx parts. The Forerunner outpost was only a short distance ahead, a tall pyramid-like structure with an even taller spire at one end that towered well over the surrounding landscape. The amount of soldiers stationed here would have been few, and it would not have been difficult for a sizeable human force to gain control of the place. Accord could only guess as to why it had been deemed important enough for them to try and retake, but any amount of Forerunner ground taken back from the barbaric humans was worth fighting for. His sister moved ahead as the remaining outside defenders turned their attention upon the pair. Beams darted through the air and his sister blasted the nearest human soldier down, whilst Accord swivelled his aim about and sent a shot into one standing some distance to his sister's right. This one fell backwards with a fist-sized hole shot through its chest, and Accord was quick to shift his aim to another who came round from a barricade ahead. A beam from his light rifle found its way into the human warrior's shoulder, and the human stumbled as it levelled its weapon and fired. Accord felt the heat of the beam miss his left arm by mere centimetres, and he followed up with another shot that put the human down for good.
His sister was already moving ahead. As she approached the entrance to the outpost, a human warrior appeared from within and the pair immediately connected, both attempting to raise their weapons before they instead opted to grappling, with his sister knocking the rifle out of the human's grip before the human took to grabbing for her own. Locking their hands upon the light rifle, his sister forced the human to sidestep such that the pair were side on to where Accord was standing. He raised his rifle, taking aim at the human, but a swift kick from his sister's opponent sent his sister back against the nearby wall, only a short distance from the entrance. Accord took the opportunity to fire, now that his sister was out of his scope, but the weapon's charge had diminished and he found himself scrambling for an additional charging cell, all the while his sister continued to struggle with the human soldier. Finally, his sister pulled a small light blade from her armour and plunged the glowing weapon into the human soldier's stomach, slicing it through in such a way that it disembowelled the human. She let the body fall from her grasp, and from there it plopped into the mud unceremoniously.
Accord finally reloaded his weapon. His sister deactivated the energy blade and picked up her rifle. She did not look at him as she did this, and what remained unspoken was clear. Accord's inexperience had almost cost her, and he doubted he would have been able to live with himself had anything happened to her because of his mistakes.
The pair entered the outpost, going down a narrow corridor that lead underground. The interior was mostly grey, the floor covered in the geometric designs that were common on Forerunner constructs. His sister took the lead, taking them down into a large well-lit room that had since been converted to a makeshift human command post, with tables and chairs erected amongst communications equipment and terminals of human design. At the far end was a large grey sphere, set within an alcove on the wall, and the humans had apparently found it a point of interest, judging from the cables and computers they had connected to it. His sister stopped at one of the Forerunner terminals amongst the haphazard command post, and she tapped a few holographic keys that turned the display above into some kind of blueprint of the facility. Accord stood nearby, his eyes scanning the interior for any sign of humans.
"This does not appear to be an ordinary outpost," Accord said.
"It isn't." His sister spoke bluntly, and she turned her head to him. She could almost feel her piercing gaze from under her helmet. "It is a research facility. Specifically, stasis field research. It is something we cannot allow to fall into human hands, but we cannot afford to lose it entirely." She paused, letting the information register within Accord. "We came here before the humans could make any progress on deciphering our research. But the sensors here indicate that there are more of them on the way." She tapped several more keys, all the while Accord stood watch.
The interior was eerily silent, a far cry from the noise of the battle on the surface, and the whole atmosphere was one Accord found unnerving. He kept his rifle raised to his shoulder, eyeing the way they had come, and the corridor that started at the other end of the room. Such a change in pace was disorienting, as only moments before Accord had been fighting for his life.
"How long do we have?" Accord asked.
"They'll be right on top of us within minutes." His sister stepped away from the terminal and turned to him. Her helmet retracted then, revealing her feminine, yet hardened, features. "We will have to hold them off. I have orders to destroy this place if we cannot reclaim it."
Accord knew what this would entail. He had known that something like it might be required of him, the moment he had come of age and entered the military to fulfil the duties required of one of his rate. Giving one's life for the cause was a noble act, yet even now he felt a pang of doubt. Of unease, even, as his eyes met with those of his sister.
"The self destruct?" He asked.
"The humans were smart enough to disable it."
"So we fight?"
"No." His sister shook her head slowly. For the first time in many years, he saw that stern face of hers turn into something else, soften into something positively downbeat. "I can order our ships to burn this place from orbit. Kill us, of course, and the human soldiers as well. The last resort measure." The look in her eyes said enough. She was giving him an out. He could leave, make a run for it. She wanted him to, as she would be the one to give the order and ensure the place was destroyed. Accord shook his head then, and he thought he saw her eyes light up, ever so slightly.
"I am here, as you are. To the end."
At that moment, the first of the human attackers rushed into the room. Both Accord and his sister opened fire, bringing down the soldier and the one that followed him inside. As they both went down, the others that had been following them stayed back, likely to rethink their approach. To them, there was an enemy force entrenched within an underground structure with only a limited number of entrances. They would likely hang back and use a less direct means of attack, if they had such resources available to them.
"I will make the call," his sister said. "Once the order is given, we will have only minutes before the ship moves into position."
Accord nodded. He understood perfectly. His sister proceeded to communicate with the fleet in orbit, one that was currently engaging a human force of similar proportions. From the corridor leading from the entrance, he could hear voices. Human voices, likely shouting orders at each other as they gathered their resources for another attack. He was waiting for the grenades to start flying in, and he kept his eyes fixed on the doorway back the way he had come. Behind him, his sister recited the appropriate codes for the order to be recognized by the commander of the ship that would carry out the bombardment. He could hear the exchange through his connection, and the commander sounded genuinely regretful as he acknowledged the order and went to pass it on down to his subordinates.
His sister looked up.
"It is done," she said simply. Her eyes went to the nearby terminal and she walked over. There, she worked at a few of the keys while Accord kept watch on the entrance. He could hear the human soldiers moving about outside. He waited, his finger on the trigger of the rifle. If several of them ran in at once, the two of them would likely be overwhelmed. The humans were only hanging back because they did not know how many Forerunners were inside.
"Brother, come here."
Accord turned around and saw his sister gazing at the holographic display intently. Cautiously, he took his eyes away from the doorway and walked over to her. She likely wanted to show him something, perhaps tell him something prior to their impending incineration. Instead, as he neared, she put an arm around him and pulled him into a strong headlock that caught him off-guard. A small circular device revealed itself in her palm, and she placed it against his armour. As soon as it connected, he felt the entire armour suit lock into place, immobilising him. Such a device was sometimes issued to squad leaders, a means of keeping unruly troops under control or immobilising the wounded to enable better treatment of their injuries. Neither of those applied to Accord, so he could only guess as to why she was using it on him.
He was so surprised he hardly uttered a word as she began to drag him to the large sphere at the other end of the room.
"What…what are you doing?" Accord squirmed against her grasp, but she was strong and his locked-up armour made any kind of movement difficult. Ahead, the sphere slowly opened up, revealing the empty shell within. It reminded him of a cryptum, but it was much smaller than one.
"You're family to me," his sister said. "And family should stick together, even in death. But I can't allow that, brother. Not like this. Not when there's a way out for at least one of us." She brought him inside the sphere, large enough as it was for him to lie down in its centre. The armour-lock device continued to immobilise him, and he could do little but watch his sister through his visor as she set him down and backed away. "You will be safe inside there. The stasis field will protect you. When you wake up, it will be as if no time has passed at all."
"What?" Accord could hardly believe what he was hearing. The entire room shook then, as the first of the beams from the ship in orbit struck the surface. "No, no, you cannot do this." He struggled against his armour, but the device had it firmly locked down. His sister, Lance-of-Righteous-Flame, had moved back over to the main terminal. There, she activated the stasis field, and the sphere began to close around Accord. Sparks flew as another beam struck the ground above. It would be a few more before they burned their way deep enough, giving the pair perhaps another minute before they were incinerated. "Get me out of here, Lance! Don't leave me like this!"
His sister ignored his pleas as the sphere shut, encasing him in darkness. He felt a warm, tingling sensation cover him as the prototype stasis field engaged, and the world around him, darkened as it was, seemed to fade from view as his senses were starved of even the sensation of passing time. His voice, screaming for his sister to free him so they would at least die together, caught in his throat as his vocal chords seized. Finally, consciousness left him, and along with that went the very galaxy he had known all his life.