Not for her, not for any of them.
―Take 'em down!" she roared. ―Take 'em all down!"
As if they needed telling.
>Benti 1318 hours
Even though she was just following orders, some small part of Benti thought careening off into the darkness with an unknown number of hostiles in the area added up to a big heaping dose of crazy .
The larger part of her didn't care.
―To the left!" Orlav shouted, her flashlight beam glancing off the storage containers, breaking off into the distant ceiling. It caught in freeze-frame wide sprays of blood. The floor was sticky with it.
They were following drag marks, and over the top, wide stumpy footprints. Fresh.
A bark of gunfire, but no flash, hidden somewhere beyond the containers. Percy and Ayad shouting over the roar of a Covenant Elite. Lopez swearing. Some damn powerful swearing-wouldn't be
surprised if some Covie didn't drop dead just from hearing it.
Benti almost fell over a collapsed makeshift barricade, turning too hard around a corner, following the footprints, dimly aware the others weren't around her.
She slipped on the blood-slick floor, caught the impression of movement in front of her, and pulled the trigger without waiting. The bullets punched into the Elite's gut and purple blood splashed down on her face and neck. It doubled over, massive hands cupping its belly. Got a full-on cough of the creature's fetid breath, those four spiny jaws twitching beneath the clenched fist of a head flexed wide in surprise, anger, or some emotion she'd never understand. Especially without their armor, they always looked like they were intensely thinking. But that couldn't be it, and she wasn't going to give it a chance to think.
Her rifle roared until the Elite dropped, collapsing on top of her.
―Crap!" Being crushed seemed a poor reward for doing her job.
But then Clarence was there, grabbing her harness and hauling her from beneath the Elite by the scruff of the neck. Covie blood had soaked her. It glowed in the dark and smelled a bit like armpit mixed with wet cat.
No time to wipe it off: sporadic gunfire throughout the hangar couldn't mask the distinctive footfalls approaching, fast and heavy.
A second Covenant Elite burst out from behind a damaged loader, seeing but ignoring them as they pivoted to face it. The Elite vaulted over an operation console and into the darkness.
―It's going for the Pelican!"
They took off after it.
―Orlav, you back there? One coming your way!"
Benti spat, trying not to think about the alien blood in her mouth and everything she knew about hygiene.
Again she followed the footprints, down one narrow corridor, then another. The container crates formed a kind of maze. Clarence dropped back, checking the corners, not happy about rushing past so many places ripe for more Elites to pop out at them from behind.
The Elite clearly wasn't heading for the Pelican. Instead, it was-
Well, crap. It was right there , against the wall of crates.
Crouched, but not hiding, its head tilted, listening. She noticed its muscles were withered and its limbs lined with scars and wounds, not all of them old, and then realized it was naked. No armor at all. How strange, how perfect.
―I'm going to kill you," Benti whispered. ―I'm going to-"
It held up one finger. It shushed her. Pointed toward the darkness in front of them.
That surprised her so much she shut up, listened with the alien.
Benti heard a last bark of gunfire, the moaning gargle of a dying Elite on the far side of the hangar.
Status reports back and forth on the radio. The alien's breathing. Her breathing. Nothing more.
It looked over at her.
Benti was no expert on Covie expressions, but she could tell it was relieved .
Nothing more, nothing less.
Even unarmed, a Covenant Elite was more than capable of overpowering any Marine with its bare hands. They never stopped, they never gave up until you put them down. Yet this one remained crouching, unthreatening. Listening.
It wasn't afraid of her. She knew that.
But it was afraid of something .
The muzzle of Clarence's rifle entered her peripheral vision, spat fire, and deafened her in one ear.
The Covenant Elite smashed back against a container, half its face shorn off.
Face impassive, Clarence looked at her, a faint judgment, a question, only manifesting in the set of shoulders. He'd seen her hesitate. Crap. She stared back at him, reduced to silence, feeling a flare of irritation she knew was her embarrassment eating itself: Who're you to judge? You could've frozen up a hundred times before in combat for all I know. But she knew, in her gut, that was a lie. Rumor had it no one had killed more Covies than Clarence.
Lopez, from off to the left: ―Marines! Four Covie dead over here. The rest of you, report! Watch for active camo. Keep those flashlights on."
The surprise party was over. A sound-off around the hangar, which didn't seem nearly so big now that their eyes had adjusted to the darkness.
―We're good, Sarge," Benti said, punching Clarence in the shoulder in an attempt to gloss over the awkward strain between them. ―Two confirmed kills." She turned her back on the dead, naked alien and followed Clarence to where the flashlights were converging.
―No kills here, just thrills," Gersten said from somewhere off to the right. ―That small transport got smashed up good, Sarge. Someone drunk driving, I dunno."
Only one wounded Marine, as it turned out, and that was MacCraw, who had a gash in his shoulder from smashing into a metal hook.
―I think Rakesh wet his pants." MacCraw sounded a little shaky even as he tried to joke.
―Only if you pissed on me, MacCraw."
―No sign of the crew or passengers," Orlav said.
Benti could see that idiot Cranker posing with his boot on a Covie torso, like some kind of conquering hero. That sobered her mood as much as Clarence's look. Bad luck, being not just overconfident but a jerk about it.
Percy crouched by Cranker's leg, examining the body. ―Interesting outfit they're running," he said.
―No weapons, no gear. Think they're running out of money."
―Maybe we can buy them out!"
―Shut it, MacCraw. Where's Rabbit?"
>Lopez 1327 hours
Taking out the second Covie hadn't been as satisfying to Lopez as taking out the first. The third was less satisfying to her than that. She'd just watched by the time her Marines took out the fourth.
Mechanically gone through the all-clear and found that Rabbit was missing.
Something was bothering her, even as she ordered a sweep of the hangar just to find Rabbit. It had been too easy. These were Covenant Elites. They'd presumably boarded the Mona Lisa and had been hard-core enough to take the ship without too much bungling. But: they'd allowed themselves to be cut down like so many, well, rabbits. She knew her Covies, and they were better than that.
Something didn't scan again, and it had her scar itching. Had there been some breakdown in
command-and-control? And why hadn't they been able to keep power on in the ship? Had most of them left in the escape pods? If so, you'd think the Red Horse would've already picked up a few.
The sweep didn't locate her missing Marine.
―She was with me," Mahmoud said, when they'd regrouped by the main door. ―We wasted that dog over there by the messed-up transport, she said she heard something, then another Covie popped up." He shrugged in his armor, dropping his eyes. ―Sorry, Sarge, I thought she was with me."
Lopez worried away at a single rosary bead named Rabbit , as she opened a channel. ―Okay, Burgundy, you've a lovely way with words, talk to me."
―Can't raise the Red Horse right now," Burgundy said. ―And this ship smells. I mean, it really smells."
―Keep trying. Seal up, sit tight. Don't want no Covies getting in and stinking up your bird even more." Then she turned to the rest of the crew. ―Cranker, Maller, Simmons, Sydney, maintain position here. You're base camp. Clean up those bodies you're so fond of standing on. The rest of us are going wabbit hunting. Move out."
She stopped in front of Benti. Looked the little medic down and down. She was practically neon.
―I think this color suits me."
―Yeah, it brings out your eyes," Lopez said with distaste. ―Take the rear." Didn't always know what to make of Benti, thought she should take things a little more seriously sometimes.
The corridor beyond was pitch-black, the emergency lighting off, except for one flickering light in the distance. On the wall, a smear of blood where a hand had dragged down to the floor only to join a larger, thicker pool that was red and human and old. Something had then been dragged through the blood, the trail heading aft. Through the drag mark, Lopez could see the telltale marks left by regulation boots.
―There was lots of blood in the hangar, too," Tsardikos ventured hesitantly. ―Enough for a few people to have bled out. But I didn't see any bodies."
―No small-arms fire or plasma burns, either," Orlav said.
―Maybe the Covenant really are running out of money."
―MacCraw, one more lame joke out of you and I'll push you out an airlock," Lopez growled, and the chatter shut down. The real Mona Lisa was famed for her enigmatic smile, but Lopez still wasn't in the mood for mysteries.
Rabbit's trail faded, crossed more blood pools, and strengthened again. Fifty meters and still going.
Damn fool bunny. Went too far on her own. Lopez ground her teeth, already reaming the soldier out in her head, when a surprised shout barked up the corridor. Cut off abruptly. More Covenant.
Quick hand signals as they hastened up the corridor
. Orlav came to a halt by a half-open hatchway.
Water flowed over the lip and spilled out into the corridor, lapping around their boots. Shower block. A glimpse of green plastic floor befouled with curling red.
A fetid, wet smell. The sound of gushing water from a shower left on. Near-total darkness except for their flashlights, which illuminated a row of lockers that concealed the space beyond. On her signal they entered, fanned out, swept by rote. Lopez couldn't hear a thing over their progress, the water up to their ankles. Splashing echoed off the walls and bounced from the ceiling, creating confusion with no direction.
Still, she managed to pick out a sound that wasn't water.
Lopez tilted her head at the Marine nearest to her, Mahmoud, who took up a position behind her, along with Ayad. ―Rabbit," she breathed into the radio. ―Report."
No answer. Then a faint wet burble, which could've been anything. They made their way across the floor, stepping softly in the water. Benti and Clarence watched the door, Percy and Rakesh coming up on their flank to circle in beyond the lockers.
A wet gurgle, followed by a heavy, thick sound, like meat being slapped against the ground.
Rounded the shower wall. The flashlight revealed . . .
Didn't know which of them had said it. Maybe they all had.
Their bunny was dead.
An Elite stood over her. Stood on her. No, stomped on her, huge foot pounding down over and over on her chest. Crushed her rib cage into a jagged mess of bone shards. Made a pulp of her lungs and heart. Pulverized her. Flattened a hole through her until it was stomping only on the shower floor, smeared with gore. The lockers were spattered. The Elite's legs were coated with Rabbit's remains.
It saw them, and still it didn't stop. As Lopez yelled something, she didn't know what, and tightened her trigger finger, the Covenant raised its huge foot and slammed down on Rabbit's face, smashing her stunned, vacant expression. Then the rifles roared, and roared, until Lopez shouted for them to stop.
Images of fire in Lopez's eyes. The smell of gunfire and Rabbit's bowels and the Covenant's dead flesh. Rakesh vomiting on Mahmoud's shoes as Mahmoud failed to get out of the way. Putting a hand on Rakesh's shoulder. To comfort him? To steady him? To steady herself?
A commotion from the door, where the gunfire hadn't stopped right away.
Benti yelled, too loud: ―Cranker! Two contacts incoming! I hit at least one of them! Cranker, do you copy?"
―Ready and waiting."
Then Benti again: ―What was that? Did you hear that?"
―Benti! Were the Covenant armed?" Lopez stepped over Rakesh's vomit to look around the shower wall at the door.
―No," Benti said. ―But did you hear-"
Lopez cut her off. ―Eyes open. Keep watch at the door."
Benti nodded, mercifully shut up.
―Sir." Cranker again. ―Still ready. Still waiting."
―Hold your position, Cranker," Lopez ordered. ―You might have some Covie heat coming your
way, but they don't appear to be armed, just like the rest. We've got some clean-up here, but we'll be back soon. Over and out."
Lopez crouched down beside what was left of Rabbit.
This really didn't scan. On any level. It left her a little numb.
She'd been in the war since the beginning. She'd seen far too many friends and comrades and jerks and assholes and people, too many of her people, killed; burned up by plasma, run through with swords, crushed by brutes. Too many. And that meant she knew the Covenant by their actions, if nothing else. No single death signaled victory for them. No one Marine stilled gave them pause.
Celebration didn't enter into the equation-they just moved on. They did not leave themselves vulnerable, they did not desecrate the dead, they did not pound Marines into jelly. They did not do this .
―Sarge?" MacCraw loomed over her. ―What're you doing?"
―Give me some light." Do something useful for a change.
Rabbit had no eyes left to close.
The bolognese of innards was cooling fast, but was still hot beneath Lopez's fingertips as she felt about tenderly, picking aside fragments of spine, seeking Rabbit's dog tags. This act didn't disturb her, hadn't done so for years. To be repulsed on the battlefield was to be selfish, put your own distaste over the needs of the dead.
Ah. A glint in the flashlight's beam, and she'd found the dog tags, one of them folded over and flattened. She reached for them, paused, finding something else near her fingertips, half-revealed, half-hidden by the torchlight. MacCraw really couldn't hold a light steady worth a damn.
The universe was a big place and Lopez didn't know it by half, and never would, but what she saw sure as hell didn't come from Rabbit, and didn't look like any Covenant she knew. She stared at it for an instant.
The object was long and thin, and oddly segmented. It looked like a very large spider's leg, but without the stiffness. She only associated it with something living when she saw it ended in a branch of small tentacle-like fingers. The shoulder had been reduced to a pulp of pale sickly goo, veined through with strains of green and purple. Sick, diseased, reeking of the stench Lopez had noticed when they'd first entered the Mona Lisa 's hangar.
She reached for it out of some perverse impulse, then paused. The shadow of her hand hid it from the others. John Doe saying, "I won't come back."
―Sarge?" MacCraw was getting restless.
Pondered. Decided. Probably nothing. They didn't need to see it.
Apologetically, she nudged a loop of intestine over the thing, then a scrap of uniform over what was left of Rabbit's face. Mama Lopez took care of her own. Freed the dog tags. Rakesh looked like he was going to be sick again. She got up, cupped his hand with hers, and dropped the bloody tags in his palm.
Did the spider's leg come from Rabbit or from the Covenant? Distracted herself from that thought with the situation at hand: Covenant, headed toward Cranker's position.
―Cranker," she said. ―Talk to me."
A puzzled tone from Cranker. ―The Covenant never got here. We're still waiting, but they never got here. Did you guys go after them? Because-oh wait. I think that might be-oh crap oh crap oh crap . . ."
A garbled curse. A sound like a muffled rifle discharge, almost an afterthought. A wet sound. Too wet. Then, nothing.
Lopez wondered how much of this Burgundy was hearing.
Did they still have an escape route?
>Burgundy 1349 hours
Burgundy had her pistol out, safety off, even with the Pelican sealed up tight. There'd been too much gunfire out there. The Marines might call her Stickybeak and joke about pilots not seeing any action except on leave, but Burgundy had seen enough to know you didn't wait until you could see the whites of their eyes before turning up the heat. Covenant didn't have whites, for starters.
The feeds from the Pelican's rear cameras didn't help her mood any. It looked like the Covie action was getting a little too close for comfort.
Lopez pinged her right after she'd heard one last burst of rifle fire that cut off abruptly. The signal was weak, the ship's structure already interfering. Strange static.
―Burgundy, what's happening there? Can you see Cranker? Simmons?"
―Sarge, I'm not sure what I'm seeing." Her throat was dry and she swallowed. ―It's dark, and their flashlights are just lying on the floor now. I couldn't really make out what happened. I think I'm seeing dead Covenant and . . . oh shit." The hair on her arms rose, gooseflesh stippling her skin.
―Sarge, something just dragged one of the Covenant out of the light."
―Something? Like what?"
―I can't see shit! Something big. I think. I really can't see it. Do they eat their own, Sarge? Because that's what it looks like."
Except she knew Covenant didn't eat their dead any more than Marines ate their dead.
She wasn't sure she wanted the lights on anymore.
―Maller, Cranker, Simmons, and Sydney, where are they?" Lopez demanded.
―Sarge, I'm telling you, I don't see them, Sarge." She put her finger on the trigger, took it off. She put it on again.
Okay, so she'd seen something earlier, but hesitated to tell Lopez. She thought she'd seen them at the beginning of the attack, spinning out of view, hit by something that looked like a handful of pale balls. Twirling and rolling to the ground, rifles abandoned, grappling with them. The feed went to a black box. She couldn't replay it.
―KIA?" came Lopez's calm voice.
―Not sure. Maybe. I'd hate to be wrong," Burgundy said, certain of nothing, and hating that.
Lopez was silent for a moment, then said, ―Keep talking to me, pilot."
But there wasn't anything to see any more. Discarded flashlights, fading as the batteries died. The darkness drawing a little closer.
―Nothing. All calm now."
― Red Horse there?"
It was hard to look away from the feed, but she scanned the waveband. ―Yes! Got her."
―Patch her through."
―Yes, sir." Always good to have a call from home.
―Sergeant Lopez?" If Lopez's voice was weak, Rebecca's was weaker, grainy, but calm. ―What
have you found?"
―No sign of crew or prisoners. One KIA, four more missing, possible KIA. Unknown number of
Covenant forces on board. I don't know how the Covenant got here, and they're acting mighty strange."
―Strange how?" Rebecca asked, echoing what Burgundy was thinking.
―No armor. No weapons. Not really fighting back, most of them."
―That is all you've found?" Rebecca sounded disgruntled, as though she found this report lacking.