Story Shard: The Last Sky Marshal
Fracture: Entrenched returns, and with it comes the first Story Shard.
Hosted here on Waypoint, Story Shards are a choose your own adventure-style story for Fractures. Set in the Entrenched universe and told over five parts, Parts 1-4 of The Last Sky Marshal will feature a cliffhanger where a dilemma will be presented, and the community will vote on where the story goes next.
What choice will be made? How will it end? That’s up to you...
THE FINAL WAR! Earth has been scoured by superscience aether-bombs in the conflict between the UNIFIED NATIONS SECURITY CONFEDERATION and the zealous, rad-poisoned mutants of THE COVENANT.
Our home has fallen, headquarters is lost, our generals are long dead, and the dire horde at our gates seek to bring about THE END OF HUMANITY!
BUT, HEROES HAVE RISEN! Alchemically-enhanced soldiers take to the front lines in their incredible EAGLESTRIKE armor, leading the charge and doing their part against our RELENTLESS ENEMY.
It is with these intrepid heroes—the SKY MARSHAL ASTRO-RANGERS, led by COMMANDER KOLBY—that the fate of humanity will be decided...
1045 HOURS, NOVEMBER 3, 67 AP \ SCS BRÍSINGAMEN, APPROACHING CONSTRUCTION DOME ON LUNA
“Corporal, would you please describe the manner in which we will be engaging the enemy.”
“Sir! Feet first, sir!”
A chorus of oo-rahs sounded across the deck as Commander Kolby and his battalion prepared to drop. Cocooned within their vacuum-sealed, titanium-plated armor, it was the Sky Marshals that would—as always—take the lead as the Brísingamen, the frigate-class zeppelin and last space-faring vessel of the Unified Nations Security Confederation, opened its deployment bays.
Kolby’s training kicked in as the three-hundred Sky Marshal astro-rangers leapt out of the skyship and headed towards the steel dome surrounding the complex on the Moon, firing their thrusters to rocket through gaps in the dome’s plating from some previous battle early in the war that left this place derelict—plastered over now by arcanotech energy barriers.
That was the easy part.
Entering the vacuum-sealed interior of the dome revealed almost two square kilometers of factories, warehouses, and long-abandoned workshops, extending outwards on all sides from its magnificent centerpiece. Their target. Project: PERPETUA...
The mission was simple. The Covenant, zealous cultists who became warped abominations as they were mutated by the irradiated trenches and poisoned mires of Earth, had discovered an abandoned cosmodrome with functional off-world transport. Arriving at Luna, they reignited the dormant atomic piles to complete construction of Project: PERPETUA—a massive zeppelin that was in the process of being built in the earliest years of the war.
The SCS Perpetua was to be a shining symbol of hope for humanity’s recovery after the end of the last war, but no one had truly understood the scale of devastation that was on the horizon. Spoiled lands, divided nations, aether bombs... civilization itself collapsed, but humanity could not rely on the mercy of a short apocalypse. The inertia of that destruction was still carrying the corpse along through this Final War. Now, the Covenant planned to augment this zeppelin with their own esoteric arcanotechnology and unleash it upon humanity.
In the last war, Commander Kolby and his alchemically augmented Sky Marshals were also looked to as symbols of hope and heroism, but they would find no time to rest when the conflict had seemingly abated. The lights of democracy guttered in the wind as the Covenant cultists razed cities to the ground, leading the hard-pressed SCS command to ensure that the Sky Marshals’ service would continue, culminating in this mission which could determine the outcome of the Final War.
They were to either claim the Perpetua themselves and turn it on the Covenant mutants, or—failing that—detonate the atomic reactor used to power it and leave a new crater on the Moon.
But first, they had to take out the Covenant’s archon sky-strikers, or else—should the dome open for the Covenant to launch the Perpetua—Brísingamen would be shredded by the arcanotech-augmented machine cannons.
And if they had to destroy the Perpetua, they’d have no way off this rock.
An errant arcanotech bolt impacted and dissipated on Kolby’s Jacknife torso armor, an energized plate that added an extra few dozen kilos but ensured maximum front-facing protection. Kolby raised his rifle and fired as his Triplex Aero visor tracked the bolt’s trajectory, hitting his thrusters once more to propel himself at the line of Jackal merc-mutants. The creatures hid behind iron shields fashioned from the Eaglestrike armor of fallen warriors, but it did them little good. Catching one of the mutants in the side, dark green blood sprayed onto the ground as three of Kolby’s fellow Sky Marshals—Chen, Tchakova, and Vickers—arrived in formation to assist in the attack on the archon, breaking through the first line.
Eighteen of their number hadn’t made it, either killed by the impact or by the entrenched Covenant mutant forces. They all knew what they were fighting for and how thin the margin for error was; every soldier lost was one less chance they had to win the day for humanity. Kolby comforted himself with the thought that their odds were improving as his squad of Sky Marshals destroyed the first archon battery with a satchel of CX-12 explosives.
Scanning the horizon, Kolby tracked three other local archon emplacements which the other Sky Marshals were converging on, and, beyond them, the Covenant-occupied factory. Within that facility lay their prize.
At that moment, Kolby’s cosmocom radio picked up a local signal—but this wasn't from his Sky Marshals. Somebody else was here...
“Hallo. Ist jemand da?”
The voice that came through his cosmocom spoke in German, which Kolby cursed that he couldn’t translate.
“This is Commander Kolby of the Unified Nations Security Confederation. Identify yourself.”
"UNSC, hier? Es ist Professor Henrik Gläsmann, Dritteabteilung. Seit dem diese Dinger hier angekommen sind haben wir uns im Bunker verschanzt. Jetzt versuchen sie reinzukommen! Ich habe Zivilisten bei mir. Familien. Wir brauchen sofortige Hilfe!"
Kolby gritted his teeth. They hadn’t come for a rescue mission, and they’d certainly not had intelligence on any remaining civilians on Luna, but one thing stood out in what Gläsmann had said: Dritteabteilung. Section Three.
Scientists—especially those affiliated with Section Three—had been marked as high value personnel. They were critical to understanding the Covenant’s arcanotech, plundering the myriad secrets of their cult, and advancing humanity’s own military hardware.
A thousand tactical questions rushed through his mind. Was this unexpected complication an opportunity? Could it be a trap? How many could feasibly be retasked for a rescue op? What intelligence might Gläsmann have that could aid the mission?
He took a breath to focus himself. The choice was clear.
SHOULD COMMANDER KOLBY...
A) Rescue Professor Gläsmann and the civilians
B) Ignore them and focus on the mission
A DARING ASSAULT! Commander Kolby leads three-hundred Sky Marshals to the Moon where the mutated abominations of THE COVENANT have infiltrated an old construction dome, within which they seek to complete the SCS PERPETUA star-zeppelin and bring about THE END OF HUMANITY!
While on the lunar surface, Commander Kolby receives a distress call from PROFESSOR HENRIK GLÄSMANN, a scientist claiming he and a group of civilians are trapped in a bunker, which presents A CONUNDRUM to the valiant Sky Marshal leader: deviate from the mission for a rescue operation, or ignore him to focus on the objective?
You’ve made your choice. Now see the consequences...
“Alright,” Commander Kolby spoke into his cosmocom. “I don’t know if you can understand me, but hold tight. I’m on my way.”
“Sir, what are you doing?” Tchakova asked.
“I need you, Chen, and Vickers to hold this position while I secure a high-value asset. If we need help dealing with Perpetua’s atomic reactor, this could be exactly what we need.”
Though the Sky Marshal was clearly conflicted by this sudden change in the mission’s parameters, she nodded and rocketed up to higher ground to take up overwatch with her sniper rifle.
Gläsmann had remained silent on the cosmocom but transmitted a waypoint to his HUD, directing him to a nearby bunker. Two mechanized steel doors built into a thick, slanted concrete box opened as he approached, inviting him below.
“I’m coming in, professor. Have your people ready.”
As Kolby headed down, he picked up the noise of hustle and bustle echoing up from within the vault—the sounds of dozens of feet stamping about, excited chatter, boxes and crates being moved and thumped down on the ground with haste, perhaps setting up a defensive perimeter in case of a breach. That was good. The word “civilian” was one that hadn’t been used for years, for it had come to lose all meaning in this total, all-consuming war.
At last, he arrived in the central vault chamber, its domed ceiling illuminated by small lights running along a thick wooden beam that spanned the length of the room, approximately fifteen meters in diameter and crudely sectioned off with various rooms—a kitchen, living quarters, workstations, and a closed door at the far end of the room that was surrounded by candlelight.
Kolby tightened his grip on his rifle as he saw no sign of anyone around, yet the sound of activity persisted. The floor was scuffed with boot prints, carpets were torn up... people had to have been here.
He listened closely, slowly making his approach towards the living quarters where the sound tracker of his Triplex Aero visor seemed to be picking up the noise source, aware that every second he was spending down here meant anything could be happening on the lunar surface.
As Kolby pushed into the living quarters, he felt a sudden impact strike his helmet and whirled to the side, weapon raised, to see a gaunt man in a white lab coat with mousy, golden hair. He held his hands up and shook them.
“Nicht schießen! Einen Moment!”
After a few seconds, a second voice in Kolby’s head repeated: “Don’t shoot! One moment.”
“Professor Gläsmann?” he asked.
“Ja,” he responded, pointing at Kolby’s helmet, his voice now just about synchronizing with the English translation. “I put earwig device on your head, let us understand each other.”
“Professor, where the hell is everyone? You said there were civilians down here...” Kolby glanced over to a wooden table in the corner and spotted a disc spinning on a record player. Lifting the needle, the sound of commotion ceased.
“Oh, they are here, Commander!” he said, beckoning Kolby over. “Let us head to the chamber beyond, I think they are nearly finished...”
Gläsmann scurried over to the door surrounded by candles and as Kolby approached, he saw that names had been scratched into the wall. Barton. Dubbo. Endesha. Magnussen. There were dozens... and Kolby felt his blood run cold as Gläsmann smiled at him, opening a slat on the door and peering inside.
“Is unfortunate we have to skip the pleasantries and get straight to business, Commander,” Gläsmann said. “We had hoped to delay you a little longer, and that you would have brought your squad with you. But no matter, the leader of the valiant Sky Marshals will do.”
Kolby raised his rifle once again, aiming squarely at Gläsmann’s head. “What the hell have you done?”
“They bade me offer you the chance to surrender.” Gläsmann did not turn to face him, but continued eagerly staring at the process of... whatever was happening within.
“Those mutant cultist freaks actually made a deal with you?”
“They came here. Told me that what they truly seek is to be unbound from our mortal concepts of good and evil, of laws and morals. The Old Ones, their technology, will lead the Covenant to their third life—as man, as mutant, and as what comes next when their wisdom teaches us all new ways to revel in this great journey. Their grace will smother the Earth, and with the star-zeppelin complete they will go on to affect universal change in time. This kindness, to join them, they offer.”
Kolby pressed the barrel of his rifle to the back of Gläsmann’s head. “Do you even hear yourself? How the hell did they turn you with talk like that?”
Gläsmann remained unfazed. “We have been here for a long, long time, Commander. We offered no resistance when they came, and their Prophets offered us salvation. If you wish to see the choice the others made, simply step into the radiation chamber. They’re all in there. Waiting.”
“They knew they would be followed here and needed someone to delay your progress.” He turned now, holding out his hands to Kolby. “But we can end this now. We shall step into the chamber together, join the others, and begin the great journey.”
In all his years of fighting, Kolby had seen much of what the worst of humanity had to offer—both in the form of the Covenant’s cultists and mutated abominations and the Unified Nations Security Confederation itself. It had almost seemed easy to go numb to it all as the world descended into base depravities in the name of long-dead generals and Covenant dogma, but this... a new world of deeper, darker horrors waited just beyond those doors, and Kolby could stop them from opening.
Time was up. He had to return to his squad, resume the fight to secure the Perpetua, deliver a crushing final victory against the horror that had taken root here. But first, there was the matter of the unarmed monster before him—Henrik Gläsmann.
Kolby could gun him down now and be done with it, or leave the twisted scientist here—maroon him on Luna to live out whatever remained of his life with no hope of escape. He wondered which would be more just, but like “civilian” the word “justice” had long faded out of use.
SHOULD COMMANDER KOLBY...
A) Leave Gläsmann
B) Execute Gläsmann
DECEPTION! After responding to a distress call from PROFESSOR HENRIK GLÄSMANN, claiming to be trapped in a bunker with civilians in need of rescue, COMMANDER KOLBY split from his team to mount a daring RESCUE OPERATION.
But, upon entering the bunker, he discovered he’d been LURED INTO A TRAP! Turned into A COVENANT AGENT, Gläsmann told Commander Kolby of the offer made to him by the PROPHETS and gave him the chance to surrender by entering a radiation chamber with him to become one with THE ENEMY.
Faced with the choice of either LEAVING GLÄSMANN to return to his squad or EXECUTING him in cold blood, you’ve made your choice. Now see the consequences...
Commander Kolby steadied his breathing. This isn’t a human being, he told himself as he looked Henrik Gläsmann in the eye. This is an enemy. A traitor. A monster. But even after all these years of endless, ever-escalating conflict, executing an unarmed man always seemed like an excessive depravity.
When he eventually fell, be it in this battle or the next, Commander Kolby had no doubt that he’d be seeing Gläsmann again. He exhaled slowly and found his resolve to do what needed to be done.
“You hesitate,” Gläsmann said, grinning as he made to turn his back to the Sky Marshal. “Perhaps I can make this easy for y--”
Blood splattered the door to the radiation chamber. Gläsmann fell to the floor with a dull thump. And Commander Kolby did not look back as he exited the bunker to return to the lunar surface.
The consequences of his off-mission detour were made almost immediately apparent as he arrived back where he’d ordered his team to hold position. The rocky, uneven ground was strewn with over a dozen corpses. Bulbous, unseeing eyes belonging to a group of Jackal merc-mutants stared blankly up at the dome over their heads, their skin sickly and pale, and Kolby’s wrist-mounted battlepad began updating his HUD with the tactical overview of what he’d missed.
Vickers was the first of his Sky Marshals he saw splayed on the ground, crumpled at an unnatural angle with the unmistakable markings of an arcanoblade slashed across his chest. Chen was not far from him, it was clear that he had taken the same blade through the abdomen and been lifted off his feet, tossed aside like nothing.
Tchakova was still moving, barely. It seemed she had fallen from a great height, shot down from her overwatch position, and her armor was severely warped from the combined effect of arcanotech fire. She was injured, but in the dusty half-dark it was impossible to know how badly.
Kolby hurried over, his heavy steps churning the ground.
It didn’t matter; the closer he got, the worse the damage looked. They both knew it was too late. Tchakova shakily grasped Kolby’s wrist, squeezing hard until her strength failed her.
And then she was gone.
Kolby was alone.
He stood for a moment in silent contemplation of his fallen team, not yet able to feel the loss of those with whom he’d fought for countless years—for if he were to lower that barrier now, he would surely join them. He replaced that tremor of guilt with blame, knowing he’d made a mistake going down into that bunker, and that blame then transformed into responsibility. Make their loss worthwhile.
A thunderous explosion tore through the dome complex, rousing Kolby back to a state of combat-ready alertness.
“Sky Marshals,” he spoke into the comm, “report in!”
“Secondary target destroyed, Commander,” Marshal Aiken responded. “Significant casualties sustained, but it looks like we’ve got the mutant bastards in retreat! Standing by for orders.”
Kolby’s visor updated with the report. Three hundred of them had dropped. Eighteen had died on the way down. A further two-dozen had fallen in the fighting since, and the destruction of the secondary reactor complex had flash-vaporized seventy-five more.
“We move on the primary objective, Marshal Aiken,” Kolby responded. “We either claim or destroy the main facility and the Perpetua. Nothing else matters now.”
“Affirmitive, sir. We’ll regrou--” Marshal Aiken paused as the main facility displayed signs of activity.
Something was coming out of the pipes...
A dark purple cloud began to spread in all directions through the dome complex, clawing its way towards the Sky Marshals like some kind of vengeful apparition. This weapon was a relatively recent development for the Covenant. For one thing, it was capable of shorting out communications equipment, but it was the effects it had on people that were said to be truly terrifying, affecting each victim differently with seemingly no logical rhyme or reason in its distinction.
Despite his years of experience, Commander Kolby had never actually encountered the Covenant’s crawling mists before, but he had heard the stories of what these weaponized nanoclouds were capable of—and that meant he had to act fast.
Kolby looked down at the two fallen Sky Marshals closest to him. He’d long hated the idea of using the equipment of his fallen comrades, but that principle was just another luxury that they didn’t have on the battlefield. Both Tchakova and Chen had equipped their helmets with an additional attachment, the more antiquated nature of the SKY MARSHAL battle-rig's systems and design meant that only one could be equipped at a time.
Tchakova had opted for specialized Nocturne Goggles that would help with visibility, but Chen’s Gummytube Filter had been created as a specific countermeasure for the Covenant’s crawling mists to—at least in theory—stave off some of its potential effects.
With the mist drawing closer, Kolby had to make his mind up on what he was going to equip now.
SHOULD COMMANDER KOLBY...
A) Equip the Nocturne Goggles
B) Equip the Gummytube Filter
TRAGEDY STRIKES! After executing the treacherous PROFESSOR HENRIK GLÄSMANN and returning to the battle, COMMANDER KOLBY discovered that his team had been ELIMINATED by retreating Covenant mutants.
After many of the other Sky Marshals sacrificed themselves to destroy the secondary reactor complex, A NEW WEAPON was unleashed—the horrifying CRAWLING MISTS!
Faced with the choice of scavenging equipment from his fallen allies, Commander Kolby must press onto the main facility with either the NOCTURNE GOGGLES for enhanced visibility or the GUMMYTUBE FILTER for added protection, each presenting different advantages in the trial to come. You’ve made your choice, now see the consequences...
Commander Kolby grimaced as he pried the Nocturne Goggles from Tchakova’s helmet and integrated it with his own. While he had never before encountered the Covenant’s crawling mists, he had been in numerous situations where visibility was obscured—by smoke, by gas, by fog—and a soldier’s loss of visibility could only be a recipe for disaster. Come what may when the fog rolled over his position, if he survived he could at least navigate through it...
The mists were heard before they were seen, hissing like a thousand serpents, and when the thick, purplish cloud finally reached him, vapory tendrils at the nanocloud’s edges clawing in all directions, Commander Kolby was ready.
Engaging his jump pack, he rocketed up to the top of the damaged two-storey building Tchakova had fallen from to survey the situation. He could see at least several other Sky Marshals had had the same instinct as they took up elevated overwatch positions, but many were already being smothered by the mist. As it settled into its effective radius, the hissing turned to a sizzling sound, like the crackling of wood over flame.
And then the screaming began.
Kolby watched in horror, his Nocturne Goggles giving dire clarity, as the nanocloud’s effects took hold. Some Sky Marshals melted from within, their armor collapsing to the ground. They were the lucky ones.
Others saw the reverse effects, where their armor itself was targeted for disintegration, and these once proud soldiers threw down their weapons to clumsily fumble with straps and release clamps and cast off their protection. They would be rendered almost helpless against the worst effects to come, as many of those who seemed not to have been affected at all were changed from within and driven to madness.
That madness soon gave way to violence, as the fog lit up with weapons fire. Sky Marshal turned against Sky Marshal.
“Ceasefire!” Kolby bellowed from atop the building. “Stop firing! They’re not Covenant. We’re shooting our own people!”
His pleas were lost in the cacophony of chaos below as Sky Marshals moved blindly against their comrades. Their violence devolved into such feral fury that the remaining soldiers used their gauntleted fists to bludgeon their brothers and sisters in a mad scramble of screams and laughter. For it was not any simple madness that these warriors were afflicted with, but Covenant madness. The kind that unnaturally revels in slaughter, unbound—as Gläsmann had said—from such mortal concepts of good and evil...
And then, almost as quickly as it had arrived, the nanocloud began to dissipate.
“Sky Marshal Aiken to all survivors,” Kolby’s radio crackled. “Retrieve what you need from the fallen, and advance.”
Commander Kolby launched himself down to the ground and found himself part of a painfully small cohort of survivors.
Of three hundred, only twelve of their number remained. Kolby recognized each and every one of them.
Unlike the other Sky Marshals, Aiken was clad in a KERBEROS helmet which made known his long-time service to the Capital Military Authority—itself a long-faded memory of human society. Kolby knew they would need Aiken’s experience now more than ever as he met with the group in grim silence.
The remaining crew quickly scavenged what they could from the field of fallen Sky Marshals, prioritizing explosive ordnance and all the ammunition they could carry. Though they had been beaten down, they were not out of the game just yet—and, in all likeliness, the Covenant no doubt suspected they had all perished. That gave them two final advantages: knowledge that their enemy had spent the ace up their sleeve, and the element of surprise.
The last twelve Sky Marshals left behind the carnage of the battle and rocketed up to the outer walkways of the main facility which housed their target, now finally within reach.
Windows ran the circumference of the circular facility’s highest level and Kolby led the Sky Marshals into what appeared to be a small office, lined with long-abandoned desks and chairs illuminated only by static-filled monitors. For once, it seemed that fortune favored them as the sound of the glass breaking did not alert any mutant forces. Their foes were no doubt occupied with the task of completing the Perpetua, augmenting the vessel with their own arcanotechnology.
Silently exiting the office, the Sky Marshals maneuvered across a series of high catwalks that ran the vast length of the inner facility, before the Perpetua finally came into view. Its grey cylindrical frame positioned vertically like a rocket, the launch chamber itself had been hollowed into the moon itself to accommodate its two-hundred-and-forty-meter length. There were very few lights on, save for those which were aiding in areas of operation for the Covenant mutants, prompting Kolby to scan the area with his Nocturne Goggles, tagging enemy positions for the other Sky Marshals to see.
And that was when he saw it.
The Prophet was among them.
He was not fully certain whether referring to the creature as a singular entity was correct, as this behemoth of rippling muscle adorned in a tattered red-gold robe was composed of not one, but three bodies unnaturally fused together. Whether this abominable triumvirate was the product of radiation, the Covenant’s arcanotechnology, or an unholy combination of both, Kolby also wasn’t sure, but the madness-inducing terror Gläsmann must’ve felt facing this thing became wholly apparent.
One of its heads appeared sunken into its body, another was fixed looking upwards, and the third extended from a stretched, leathery-looking neck. All its eyes were fixed on the Perpetua.
“My brothers,” this third head spoke in a high, unexpectedly silky, articulate voice, and echoed through the facility. “Now is the time of our unworlding. With this vessel, we shall follow in the footsteps of the Old Ones and burn this stinking menace in the name of our Covenant.”
One arm, long and spindly gestured elegantly to its prize while the Prophet’s other arm, thick as a tree, slammed upon the ground in a deep rolling thunder, like the drums of war calling the troops to their final battlefield.
Scanning closer, Kolby could see they were in the process of getting the atomic reactor onboard.
The enemy was almost ready to leave.
“Commander,” Marshal Aiken addressed him. “As I see it, we’ve got two ways to play this...”
Kolby knew he was right. If they could deploy the SCS Perpetua, then there was a chance that he and the remaining Sky Marshals could claim the ship for themselves and turn it on their enemy... but if they failed, here and now, the Covenant would possess a war-ending weapon.
Or, they could remove the Perpetua from the board entirely, denying either side the opportunity to claim it. Blow the atomic reactor, put a new crater on the moon, vaporize everything and everyone here, and leave the rest of the war to chance.
It had all come down to this. A final choice would seal the outcome of this battle and define humanity’s future.
“What are our orders?”
SHOULD COMMANDER KOLBY...
A) Deploy the SCS Perpetua
B) Destroy the SCS Perpetua
“This is it,” Commander Kolby said as the vision of what they could achieve crystallized in his mind. “We see the mission to the end. We’re launching the Perpetua.”
There was no debate, no shared glances rife with doubt. The remaining Sky Marshals simply nodded.
“Atomic reactor’s about loaded, Commander,” Marshal Aiken observed a stout-looking group of Grunt mutants leaving the Perpetua’s loading dock. “Makes our job nice and simple.”
“Take out the Prophet,” Kolby agreed.
As he finished, the ground began to rumble, but it was from above that the change came, and as dust fell from the ceiling the diminutive mutant creatures gazed up in awe as the great dome initiated its opening sequence. Though the full view of the starfield beyond was still distorted by the arcanoshield layer that effectively served as an “airlock” for the larger dome complex, the stars shone bright, undiminished.
It was as close to a green light as they were going to get.
Commander Kolby signed to the other Sky Marshals to unleash hell upon the mutant forces stationed by the Prophet below. Raising their explosive weaponry gathered from their fallen comrades, they fired as one.
The granite ground broke apart and churned with the impact and heat of explosive detonations as grenades and rockets found their mark. Whirling in the face of the assault, the Prophet paused just long enough to fill the air with its own angry howl before disappearing in a cloud of smoke.
“Double-time, Sky Marshals!”
The twelve Sky Marshals followed Kolby’s lead as he ignited his jump pack and rocketed towards the impact site. Dodging debris and the sizzing remains of their foes, the Marshals switched to their rifles once more to open concentrated fire at the emplacements of wide-eyed Jackal merc-mutants on high pieces of scaffolding.
One of the Jackals landed a shot on Kolby’s jump pack with a sniper-adjacent weapon that fired a deadly arcanoparticle, sending him careening the last seven feet to the ground. Another Sky Marshal received a similar treatment, taking two hits in rapid succession. He was not as lucky. Kolby grimaced as the other veered off course and disappeared in a fiery explosion against the scaffolding.
They were down to eleven now.
Their advantage had run its course, as the remaining Covenant forces now began to rally and regroup, two-dozen of their number emerging from the Perpetua after they’d seemingly finished hooking up the atomic reactor. Marshal Aiken was still airborne and led six of his fellows into the star-zeppelin, another two providing covering fire on the bridge.
Intent on assisting, Kolby started forwards only to be slammed suddenly to the ground. Sprawled on his front, disoriented, he realized with belated certainty that he was caught in a powerful grip. Forcing himself to roll over, he saw the Prophet up closer than he ever thought he would—its triumvirate of hideous heads all looking at him with fury and hatred.
For a moment, he almost imagined them as the faces of Chen, Tchakova, and Vickers, channeling vengeful spirits against the leader that failed them.
“Commander!” Aiken called over the cosmocom. “Are you aboard?”
It was as if time slowed down from his perspective.
He saw the Prophet inching closer towards him. In the distance, one of the Sky Marshals on the bridge fell into the lunar chasm below as he was hit by a series of crystalline shards. Further still, another was left to defend the bridge alone.
And all the while, the Prophet’s grip continued to tighten around his knee.
“I’m not going to make it,” Kolby managed to say, giving his final order. “Go!”
He didn’t hear himself scream, nor the crunching sound of his leg as the Prophet’s grasp broke through armor, flesh, tendons, and bone, for it was drowned out by the explosive roar of the Perpetua’s engines. The grey hulk of the star-zeppelin began to rise, a wall of fire washing over the hangar, flash-vaporizing the remaining Sky Marshal who had been fighting on the bridge, and the pressure wave blasted Kolby and the Prophet apart.
As the Perpetua settled above the moon, it began the process of extending grappler arms from its underbelly to attach itself to the empty Brísingamen, pairing the two vessels.
“We will return, Commander,” Aiken said over the cosmocom. “We will rally all we can from the colonies, and we will come back to liberate Earth.”
Kolby did not have the strength to reply, but winked a green status light on his HUD to indicate he understood.
Blood poured from Kolby's partially cauterized leg where the knee had been severed, the still-functioning systems of his armor did what they could to pump him with enough chemicals to dull the pain, but he knew he was done for.
Slipping out his sidearm, he had just one last thing to do.
“I understand… I see it so clearly.”
The Prophet spoke softly, but its voice cut through the dust and destruction long before its lumbering form came into view.
A nightmare before, now it was twisted almost beyond recognition. The left-most head had been severed after impacting on a piece of rebar, and the right-most head was covered in shrapnel from their earlier barrage of rockets. All that remained was its sunken center.
“See what?” Kolby asked, shifting his position with a grimace.
The Prophet shuffled forward, the burns on its body becoming clearer as it got closer. Its face contorted in an unsettling grin—eyes bright with glee.
“It was not for our Covenant to bring about universal ascension. Where your fellows go now, they will do that themselves.”
“What do you mean?” With one hand, Kolby fumbled with the sidearm to ensure it was loaded. Ready.
“It seems that the valiant Sky Marshals will have the honor of unleashing the Old Ones themselves. Our role was simply to bring you all to th--”
The words were swallowed by the sharp crack of the first shot.
But still the creature stood. Firm. Unmovable.
Kolby did not stop until he had emptied the magazine into the Prophet's remaining head.
Until there was nothing left for him to give.
And then, at last, the creature swayed, toppling backward with a crash that rolled through the now silent launch chamber.
Turning his gaze from the carnage, Kolby watched the Perpetua through the shimmering energy field. It had extended grappler arms to the empty Brísingamen, which had hung above the dome after their deployment, and his eyes fixed on its engine trail until it was indistinguishable from the stars.
It was done.
He was done.
It was only then that the last Sky Marshal on the moon allowed himself to welcome his final breath.
1138 HOURS, DECEMBER 9, 67 AP \ SCS PERPETUA, UNKNOWN SPACE
The SCS Perpetua returned to normal space and Sky Marshal Aiken gazed at the vast sea of stars that came into focus, an enormous green-brown planet filling the lower half of the star-zeppelin's viewscreen.
It was impossible to tell whether they had succeeded or not. They may have stopped the Covenant mutants from claiming the Perpetua, but they were no closer to saving Earth itself... the stalemate endured.
They had intended to go to the other colonies, gather what forces they could, and return home in triumph. But instead, it seemed that the Covenant had warped the atomic reactor with a pre-defined destination, and as the Perpetua came around the gravity well of the planet their sensors detected a radar echo just over the horizon.
Something was hidden in shadow.
Rounding the dark side of the planet, the object came into view and the sensor displays quickly began their analysis. Thirty-thousand kilometers in diameter, the outer surface of this ring-shaped construct was an assortment of seemingly mismatched metallic plates that spread like cold webbing across layered foundation material, dark green “veins” engraved in ornate geometric patterns.
But on the inside of the metallic wheel, a world lay within. Earth might have looked like this once, with snow-capped mountain ranges, vast grasslands, arid desert, and an even greater assortment of landscapes that none of the Sky Marshals had seen beyond their dreams.
They had, it seemed, found some kind of paradise.
Aiken thought of Commander Kolby, the last Sky Marshal to fall on Luna, giving his life so they could escape, and all his other hundreds of fallen brothers and sisters. Their sacrifice had brought them to this point, and now they had not only a potentially war-ending weapon in the Perpetua, but perhaps a new home as well.
Sky Marshal Aiken ordered the star-zeppelin to begin its approach to the surface.