'Ester asked why people are sad.
"That's simple," says the old man. "They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people's ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams."' - The Zahir, Paulo Coelho
14 HOURS PRIOR TO SIERRA 117's DECENT
3 HOURS PRIOR TO KEYES' ARRIVAL
Never had she felt so alone and frightened.
Her boots sunk into mud, sprung free, then trampled beds of grass as she sprinted out of the water, up the hill, and across a conveniently fallen tree trunk. The trunk linked two hills across appearing ominous within the fog. Pausing, she glanced left and right for another route.
"There has to be something…" She groaned, her fingers trembling as the growls approached her person. Holland cursed, prayed, then jumped onto the dead plant just as a malformed Elite attempted to clutch her throat. The trunk was nothing but a hollow shell at that point, a result of natural events- a fact reverberated by thundering footsteps stampeding across it. Once she reached the other hill, Holland retreated into the foliage. Streams of light broke through the dense foliage as if to beckon her forward. Her haste grew in volumes as she headed towards the lights, sprinting past dozens of Covenant soldiers attempting to fend of the assault of the deformed figures. At last she entered the A-shaped structure, scrambling to get onto the lift in the middle of the room. There was just enough time for her to slam her fist into the activation panel. A grenade rolled from her fingertips then hit the floor beneath the oncoming assailants just as the lift descended deep into the structure.
Her body surged forward—a knee collapsed onto the glass of the lift. Exasperation licked at the edges of her consciousness to a point that the after quakes of her grenade barely registered to her. Blinking seemed damn near impossible. There was no longer darkness when she closed her eyes. It instead was replaced with the images of horrible disfigured creatures limping and crawling towards her. The heart rate monitor's beeping chimed louder, quicker the longer her eyes were closed. Holland finally took a glance at the inside of the shaft. She pulled an adrenaline shot from her first aid pack then unsealed her helmet, pulling it up just enough to expose a sliver of skin. The pricking of the needle caused no discomfort but a wave of a familiarity to wade through the panic coursing through her veins.
Panic and nostalgia were very close in Holland's book. Either one or both were ever present since the age of twelve. The Spartan checked her ammo. Light tremors grew in volume as the lift began to slow down.
'One, two, three…. Seven in total. Four that can be rigged to do some damage. I just to need to find four corners and a central chamber. That should be enough.'
The lift hiccupped as it stopped on the level. The Lieutenant bit back acid working its way up her stomach. Multiple of the grotesque forms from before snarled and screamed at her. A call that she couldn't ignore- not outright. Others might have run in her situation. It was hard to determine whether the bitter acceptance of the situation was a result of her training or simply a matter of who she happened to be.
Whatever the circumstance, she swallowed once before setting into square stance and putting—'one, two, three, four'—rounds into the mangled elite that leapt at her. Emile's kukri worked its way into her left hand. She continued to fire with her right. Her optics picked up on the unsealed door just under the cover behind the snarling creatures.
She took a breath- took a chance- and sprinted headfirst for it.
. . .
Tense, jerking movements. Profusely sweating from the pores, the scent of which he could pick up slithering through his vents. A pistol discharged at random points throughout the room before taking aim at the statue of drab green.
"Get back! You won't turn me into of those-those things!"
"Calm down," John lifted a hand in reassurance then took one step forward. "What things? The Covenant?"
The marine snarled as the other man drew closer, his hand shuddering uncontrollably. "No! Not the Covenant- them!"
John glanced about the room. He shook his head as he roughly exhaled. "Where is everyone? Have you seen Captain Keyes?" At the mention of the Captain, the man jerked backwards as if slapped. He shuddered violently then began to sob heavily. John scowled at that.
'What the hell happened here?'
"G-gotta stay here… She told me to st-stay here and she would come back. They all would… But she didn't! None of them came back!"
"The Lieutenant? Did you see where they went?" His heart hiccupped at the mention of her, hoping that nothing had occurred in his absence. Mind blank, he closed the distance between himself and the startled marine rather quickly, pressing him with another question. "Where is Keyes and the Lieutenant?"
Another bullet discharged from the pistol. John grunted as he rocked back, his shields wailing at him. He promptly snatched the pistol from the man who flinched and continued to sob heavily. There wasn't much that the Spartan could do for him now. He holstered the pistol and explained to the soldier how to get back up to the surface. 'He'll need help, but I need to figure out what happened here first.' With that handled- for the most part- he continued, stepping around the large wall the man curled against to tread further into the room. Charles chuckled as they came across a damaged ramp that caught fire. The walkway above it, including the walls connected to it, were smeared black. Scratches from flying debris scarred the walls.
"Demolitions," the A.I. clarified. "On a much smaller scale. I imagine they had to break the line of scrimmage."
"And leave someone behind?" The Spartan clambered over what was left of the ramp. It groaned under his weight, nearly giving way to the stress.
Charles sighed at the inquiry. "Hard to tell. They might have come back through this way. That marine could have shouldered in with the Captain. I don't imagine a very pretty outcome for any of this."
"You know what's happening here, Charles." He spotted a door on the other side of the room. He trekked up the catwalk and off the ramp to get to it. "That's why you sent her here. What did they find?"
"There was a reason why they built this ring, Wonder Boy. Believe it or not, it wasn't for the glory of looking cool."
"Then what was it for?"
"The only thing that could well and truly fuck up the Forerunners; the Flood."
"Can we use it against the Covenant?" The door slid open upon his approach. Through it, the scent of death wafted along stale air.
"Use it? I'm sorry, were you not paying attention to anything I just said? The Forerunners were running the galaxy before those things showed up. They built this structure and they've built more. Maybe it's an ONI thing- lots of classified things I can't tell you. But I can tell you this; the Forerunners were the closest thing to God that you could ever imagine. Could they be defeated? Sure. But no one had successfully achieved that up until 150,000 years ago."
John checked his corners, the thick curl of wrong coiling into his stomach, tendrils latching onto his conscious. He wasn't walking blindly into this mess—Charles at least had some idea of what was going on. Or at least what they were up against. The next room he stepped into was spacious, save for a path leading downwards. A ramp that lined both sides of the room. Chief kept his finger on the trigger, swiftly pointing the nozzle downwards as he descended.
Even though they had found nothing but the Covenant here, it felt as if all the tension and nausea from before escalated. A low churn in his stomach could attest to that. Despite the crawling sensation of 'someone is watching me', he turned to his left at the bottom of the ramp to find a door with a UNSC issued decoder attached to it. John presses the left side of his body to the door.
'One Mississippi… two Mississippi… three.'
No sounds echo from the other side of the door. He straightens himself to full height, hand trailing to the decoder—only to snatch it back and snap his rifle in the direction from whence he came. A glance to the left then the right. Nothing descends upon him, so he shuffles back towards the decoder.
Charles' voice murmurs quietly in his ear that the door is already open. Slurred and low words, because even the corrupt A.I. can smell the slithering of heat and evil and unknown trickling towards them. It crawls with a crooked smile and gleamed eyes because it knows what will happen next.
The door opens at John's request—his heartbeat skyrockets, his brain tells him, 'body!' Nearly slips from his grasp but he manages to circle his forearm around the man's torso, gun leveled at the room ahead. Not wanting to be caught compromised, he drags the dead corporal in and lowers him to floor with eyes scanning the room. It becomes apparent that this is the reason why he lost contact.
Large, ominous, quiet; the room has high ceilings as well as an observation window leading to the outside world. Two raised platforms center the room. Two doors line each side of the room, leading to an adjacent door from the one he stood in front of. The Spartan's gaze drew to the stone floor. Or that is, what coated it.
Pools of blood that had tumbled from someone faster than they could seal with their fingers. Splattered the ground and continued to ooze from them as they fought their assailant, their body twitching and jerking to rid themselves of the agony coursing through them. John followed each trail of blood with his eyes; smeared in harsh lines along the wall, thick near the door to his left, and thin towards the platform. Scarlet teardrops scattered farther down the room indicated that someone tried to make a run for it.
Scanning the floor, Charles could only identify human blood as well as a trail of sludge stalking the trenches of blood within the exhibit. It's consistency mirrored mucous, but he knew better. The control room had revealed so much to him.
"Ah, that explains the observation window. They held it here to observe it. Watch it grow and contort in hopes of being able to learn its' weaknesses. Perhaps they were too late…"
"The Forerunners?" John's voice boomed inside his helmet, echoing the helpless atmosphere that had sucked each of them into.
Unanswered questions were becoming the center of their relationship. John distantly wondered if the Lieutenant was accustomed to this sort of behavior. 'She's his favorite,' immediately followed that line of thought.
"That helmet has an active recording," Charles mumbled with a hitch in his voice that John suspected was surprise.
"It's still running?"
"No. 'Active' meaning 'it still exists'."
Last named stenciled on the back of the helmet. John turned it in his hand to inspect the inside only to find a malfunctioning targeting system for the right eye and chunks of ripped skin clinging to the material of the helmet. With a short sigh and somber shake of his head, he turned the helmet back over, his fingers pulling the data drive out its cradle.
He glanced at and noticed the scratches near the teeth of the core before sliding it into a crevice located on the back of his own helmet. Charles queued the video making the image on the HUD fracture then turn black.
"I'll see what I can piece together… This a complete mess—"
Apparently, it wasn't nearly as much of a mess as the A.I. let on because a series of numbers flashed in the lower left-hand corner;
OPEN RECORD VIEW [2552.5.27 .5:52:56 L]
. . .
Pvt. Jenkins, Wallace A.
. . .
. . .
. . .