It was a tomb. Thirty blocks of alabaster columns and blank white walls. The streets were paved in gravel and sand so that they sparkled in the sunlight. Standing at the front gates was like standing at the edge of a sun-bleached mausoleum erected in the place of thousands of individual headstones. For some reason he felt terrible.
Cortana had no such feelings. She scanned the area with what Chiefs limited sensors could manage. As far as I can tell, they call it the city of Cant.
The City of Cant? The Chief asked. Thats a pessimistic name.
Its another language, Chief, it probably means something totally different.
He blew a puff of air through his nose and clouded the inside of his faceplate. Might as well called it the City of Wont. Or the city of Who the Hell Cares?
He stepped on in. The streets were abnormally clean and well kept, but every so often there was a fallen bag or abandoned book lying tenant-less on the ground. He could imagine the shape of the creature who moments before had been holding these objects sitting carefree on a street corner before being suddenly and unexpectedly obliterated. Cortana was analyzing the constant radio signal and reported her findings as she received them. This is the largest city on HK-154. There are smaller cities to the west and south, but this is the only inhabited continent. They call themselves the Unggai and are indeed a relative of the Unggoy, albeit very very far removed. From what I can tell, they havent been in contact with other intelligent races for centuries.
And we wiped out their homeworld. The Chief surmised, passing an alien-shaped toy doll half covered by an abandoned newspaper. Flash genocide - a whole race of creatures gone.
This wasnt a homeworld, it was a colony. She corrected.
Whatever. He replied.
Her voice sounded like a lecture. Lighting the ring was necessary to kill the Flood. Theres nothing else we could have done. We destroyed the Ark and maybe hundreds of worlds like this to keep the parasite from spreading.
Thanks Cortana, that really helps. The Chief said dryly.
Stop it. She snapped at him. Would you honestly have kept from firing it if you knew this planet was here?
He felt conflicted and guilty. Inhabited worlds way out here? The thought never even crossed my mind.
She sighed. This is real valiant of you, Chief, but snap out of it, please? Youre supposed to be invincible.
Since when? He asked. Ill be honest, I never liked the hero-worship thing. Im closer to Sparks Reclaimer than I will ever be to humanitys Savior.
Her voice was concerned and disappointed. But, you did save them.
He was quiet for a long time. Cortana wished sharing his neural net meant she could read his mind. Whatever was bothering him was also bothering her. She wondered if this was a side effect to interfacing, but felt like it was her emotion not his. For some reason it was really important to her that he be okay with what they had done.
He walked straight through the city taking in the layout of the streets. There was nothing alien about the planning of the place, every block was evenly spaced with roads branching off at right angles leading from the main road where they walked. His avenue was lined in shops and businesses, all empty except for the ghosts of the dead and unclaimed merchandise. At the end of the road was a plot of open pavement and a pair of giant electrical turbines set back from the sidewalk as if their constructors were trying to hide them from the rest of the skyline. The turbines were still running, their technicians in no position to turn them off. The Master Chief smirked. Thats a nice waterfall.
This is exactly what we need. Cortana agreed. An energy source of that size might power our beacon indefinitely. All we need is a way to get the transmitter here to hook it up.
Im strong, but I cant carry a ship that size even if it is only half.. The Chief said. He headed through the bounding fence and into the open lot to explore. Near the building was the first vehicle hed seen yet; a ten-wheeled mini monster with a rear-mounted utility hook. The Chief peered into the drivers side door to find the key stuck plainly in the ignition. I think I'll call it The City of Im-Going-To-Steal-This-Crane.
Cortana thought his wit was twice as funny as usual. Go for it, Chief!
He peeled the cab open like a sardine can, ripped out the seat, which was several sizes too small for him and climbed in. The space was still a little snug, so he sat on his ankle and hung one leg out the enlarged door to free up room. He started the battery-powered engine, figured out how to clock it into reverse, then pressed one hand to the floor-mounted gas pedal and pulled the joystick to get it in gear. The machine backed out over the fence, executed a perfect 3-point turn and trundled off down the street.
Cortana accessed the radio channel and local national archives. There she found a complete topological survey with altitude, forest mapping and weather charts. Go out the back, Chief, theres a valley and a prairie that lead straight back to our crash site.
Just tell me where to turn.
The crane crawled slowly out of town, obviously not intended to move at speed. He lodged the butt of his assault rifle between the dashboard and the gas pedal, then sat back against the rear of the cabin to enjoy the ride. Cortana relaxed as well and continued to stream the information from the Unggai wireless network. There was a complete history on the race, catalogs of art and music, and archives of news broadcasts. Although it was tempting, she fought the urge to share these things with her human companion. Hed never been one to stay angry or sad about anything, but the short moments when he wasnt a happy neutral were strange and unsettling to her. She set a reminder for herself to puzzle why later. For now she was happy to stream new information and enjoy his company.
The Chief made sure his makeshift autopilot was working properly then closed his eyes and let himself doze. For the first time in a long time he wasnt bitterly exhausted. Stasis was never considered a good nights sleep, but after months of endless battle in various places the year and a halfs rest was very much appreciated. He let his arms drop to his sides, his firearm otherwise occupied in a uniquely un-warlike task. He never expected that it would feel good to be unarmed.
This planet was empty, and he let himself be glad of that. There was nothing to kill or be killed by. It was just him alone. Cortana called him out of his moments peace with a wary tone. It snapped him back into lightning-fast awareness in a fraction of a second.
Chief you need to see this.
He yanked the gun from the dash and stood in the open doorway, the crane coasting slowly to a stop in the tall grass. He leveled the rifle over the roof of the cab for a sweep and was stunned by what he saw.
The valley below his rise was coated in blood. Smoke rose from a shattered bit of alien spacecraft laying in various pieces along the line of impact. The hull was still seeping a sickening familiar noxious green gas from its compartments.
There was nothing left of the bodies. The combat forms had been vaporized by the affect of the ring, but their slimy paths through the grass still smelled of the same orange rot hed seen consume and destroy both enemies and allies in hellish waves of animated corpses. Theyd been headed toward the town. 18 months ago they were marching through the blue-brown patches of fresh Unggai blood and taking the locals for their own.
The Master Chief stared at the valley at length, waiting for even one infection form to slither into view. None ever came. Any surviving Flood were either starved to death or scattered over the continent on an 18 month forage. Still, the Chief would not let himself flinch. The Flood was the most evil and destructive force in the universe, and there would be no room for peace where the smallest possibility of its survival existed.
Cortana could sense no Flood activity in range of Cants local radar scanners or weather towers. There was no trace of the Flood in any of the citys current event or archived reports. She found a law-enforcement order to send investigators to a meteorite landing site outside of town. That had been ten minutes before her personal record cataloged the Halo reaction. Triangulating the distance, it would have only taken ten more for the first of the Combat forms to reach the clean white doorstep of Cant proper.
It had just started, Chief. She told him. When we set the ring. We stopped the invasion at its advent. She paused as he slowly lowered the gun from his sights. So in a way you saved them too. Better to die quickly from the ring then to endure the horror and torture of being infected by the Flood.
He hung his head and retreated back into the cab. We need to get that beacon going. He put the machine back in drive and pushed the pedal to the floor. This time he used his foot.