"...unlikely alliances are formed and shattered..."
Halo: The Cole Protocol went on sale last week. Hit the link if you've yet to pick it up. And if you're still on the fence, read on for an excerpt from the author, Tobias S. Buckell.
THE RUBBLE, COVENANT OCCUPIED SYSTEM, 23 LIBRAE
Ignatio Delgado ducked behind a bulkhead next to a set of cargo containers, the red paint peeling off their ribbed metal surfaces, just as a burst of plasma hit.
The dull metal he hid behind glowed—hot tiny molten gobs dripping then spitting as they hit the cold deck near his feet.
"Melko?” he called out over the acrid sizzling.
The answer came after a worrying pause: “Still here.”
His copilot made it behind the container. But that didn’t change the problem coming right down their throats.
The hold stretched up all around them—the core of a milelong asteroid, slowly spun up to provide gravity, and recently hollowed out. Delgado and Melko stood on the inside wall of the rocky cylinder. The cargo area’s metal walls sunk into the rock and it was crammed with spare supplies from other asteroids.
Delgado pulled out his pistol and pressed the heavily engraved and personalized grip up to his cheek. His uncle had replaced the weapon’s stock with some very rare oak back on Madrigal, and created a piece of art out of this standard-issue M6.
That was before the Covenant forces had glassed Madrigal. Before humans had fled to the safety of the asteroids trailing the gas giant Hesiod that the Insurrectionists who had been hiding there called “the Rubble.”
Delgado kissed the scrollwork.
Firing around the corner of the bulkhead, he leapt for the safety of the next stack of cargo containers.
He caught a brief glimpse of his attackers—awkwardly tall, birdlike aliens with plasma pistols gripped strong in their talonlike hands. Their beady eyes stared right at him.
The spiny quilled mohawks on their skulls twitched. The sound of plasma shots hit the other side of the container and reverberated through the hold.
“Jackals,” Delgado said with a wince. That was what most humans called these aliens, though they called themselves the Kig-Yar. They were just one of the alien races of the so-called Covenant. The ones who’d discovered humans hiding out near Hesiod in the Rubble after the destruction of Madrigal and, for some reason, chose not to wipe them out.
They were as greedy for spoils as their human nickname suggested. Ruthless piracy raids from rogue Kig-Yar weren’t uncommon in the Rubble.
Melko Hollister leaned against the old container, his gray reservist’s uniform specked with blood. “How many?”
“Three.” Delgado looked at his old friend, worried. They’d flown their way around the Rubble’s nooks and crannies together and helped each other stagger back from late night binges for years. They were close enough people often mistook them for brothers. “What happened to you? Looks like something ran you over.”
“Think I’m in bad shape?” Melko coughed. “Should see the other guy.”
Delgado kept his back to the container, gun aimed at the edge. “You killed one of them?”
“We turned the corner at the same time.” Melko stepped back, chancing a glance around the other side of the container. He held his handgun in his right hand while his left clenched his stomach. “I fired first. I fired second. I fired the third time, too.”
“Where’d the blood come from?”
“One of the other Jackals fired fourth.”
Delgado shook his head. This had gotten out of control. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the instigator of all their troubles: a tiny chip, lying in the heart of a toughened case just smaller than his thumb.
The information inside never used to be all that special, back when the planet Madrigal was a thriving Outer Colony world. Back before the Covenant destroyed it, and the survivors fled to the drifting rocks of the Rubble. Back before the United Nations Space Command abandoned them all. And back before Delgado ended up here.
The location of Earth had been commonplace, buried in the heart of every ship making the long jumps back to the Inner Colonies and on to the home world.
“Here.” Delgado handed the chip to Melko.
Now, as far as anyone here knew, this chip contained the only known navigation maps that could get someone back. All the others had been destroyed, rooted out by viruses, or the ships they were on mysteriously disabled and all info wiped clean. All this had happened in the last week or so.
It had radically changed things in the Rubble.
Melko slipped the black oval into a thigh pocket. “Jackals are getting pushy, trying to sneak in here for it.”
They were. And Delgado didn’t like it. Although the Kig-Yar here in the Rubble had been relatively peaceful, and even worked to help build the asteroid Habitats, deep down Delgado could never trust anything Covenant. Not after seeing the glowing remains of Madrigal from orbit as a child.
This just confirmed a deeper suspicion. The Covenant were never up to any good, and Delgado’s people were probably at risk.
So, for Delgado, it was important the navigation data be kept from them at any cost.
Delgado gauged the distance to the airlock from their cluster of containers. “Make the run, Melko, I’ll hold them off. When you get on board Distancia, blow the locks and make a hard run for it, in case there’s a Jackal ship waiting. Start calling for help the moment you punch out.” He held up the scrimshawed gun. “Me and Señora Sies here will hold them back.”
“You can’t . . .” Melko started.
“If I try running to the ship after you it’ll slow everything down—they’ll be able to come running in too. At the very least, this splits them, and confuses them. They’ll be expecting us both to make a run for it.”
Melko grabbed Delgado’s arm. “Okay. But the moment you hear me cut free and the emergency overrides shut the doors, you bug out of here and keep clear of the Jackals.”
The asteroids of the Rubble were all connected to each other by flexible docking tubes. Once Distancia was away, Delgado planned to use those to get out of this storage facility and into the larger asteroid complex.
There were bloody smudge marks on Delgado’s forearm. “No problem there.”
The sound of something crawling on top of one of the containers made Delgado look up.
“I guess it’s time,” Melko said. He handed over his plain handgun. “You’ll need the extra firepower.”
“Thanks. Hey, mijo,” Delgado said. “See you on the other side. In three,” and held out three fingers. Three . . . two . . .
On one Melko leapt forward and threaded his way through the maze of containers that stood between him and the airlock. Delgado quickly followed.
The Jackal on the top of the container ran forward, focused on Melko. It looked down, spotted Delgado aiming up at it, and raised its curved firearm to shoot.
Too late. Delgado pulled the trigger three times and the large, birdlike alien screeched as the shots hit home. Purple blood made a faint cloud in the air, and as the Jackal fell forward, an oval energy shield flickered on from a bracelet strapped to its right hand.
Delgado had made it across a corridor to a gap in the containers.
The other two Jackals would turn the corner any second. He dropped the empty magazine out of his handgun one-handed, keeping Melko’s handgun aimed forward. He slid another magazine out of his pocket awkwardly with the fingers that still held Señora Sies, wiggling the tip in until it clipped, and then shoving it home against his chest.
He kept both up, aimed and ready, and as the Jackals turned the corner, he let off a withering burst of shots. The aliens slid to a stop and ducked back behind the container, but not before firing back.
Metal splashed around Delgado, searing his ribs.
But as he clutched at burned skin with a hand, he heard the thunderclap of explosive decompression from the other side of the containers. Air rustled, and then roared past as it was sucked out into the void past the open airlock Melko used when he’d cleared out.
The Jackals shot clear of the corner, triple-jointed legs jerking and their oval energy shields flaring as they ran at Delgado.
He emptied his magazines uselessly against their violet translucent shields and stood ready with gritted teeth as they lowered them to bring energy pistols to bear on him.
A gray blur dropped down from a set of containers stacked four high behind the Jackals. Massive boots struck the fused rock floor, leaving large dents in place and tossing up shattered rock.
Delgado stared as the massive gray statue with the goldfaced helmet shot the nearest Jackal in the torso with a full round of submachine-gun fire, point blank. Then it yanked the butt of the gun up hard into the other Jackal’s long, jagged-toothed jaw as it turned to face the sudden threat.
The Jackal flew back, purple blood slinging up in a long arc above it in the air.
The limp body of the alien landed at Delgado’s feet with a crunch, then slid past him, slamming into the container at his back as the Jackal’s blood rained to the ground.
A long trail of slick purple wetness pointed back toward the tall, armored soldier that stood where the Jackal had been. The armor-plating, chipped, scarred, and dull with wear, shifted as it removed its helmet.
It was a woman.
She ran a gray-gauntleted hand over her tightly tied-back hair, surveying her handiwork. “Now that I’ve done you a favor,” she said in a Slavic-accented voice, “I don’t suppose you could return it and tell me where your friend is headed in that little spaceship of yours?”
Delgado felt something sticky and wet spreading down his side, and patted at it. His fingers came up red with his own blood. He shook his head and staggered, then slumped to the ground. Señora Sies and Melko’s gun skittered away from him as he let go of them.
“Damn.” The woman thudded her way over and crouched by him. She unfolded a small med kit and pulled out a can of biofoam and some field dressings. She had very blue eyes for such an efficient killer, Delgado thought.
“What the hell are you?” he asked, as she ripped his shirt open to spray the foam. It stung as it sealed the wound.
“A Spartan.” She wrapped tape around his torso to hold the bandage on.
“I’ve heard rumors about Spartans out here. But figured if you really existed you’d be all off in the Inner Colonies now, fighting the Covenant for the UNSC. What are you doing out here, behind enemy lines?”
Satisfied with her emergency medical work, the Spartan leaned back. “Some of us get more bizarre assignments.”
There were always rumors that Spartan soldiers were around, sneaking about and causing trouble. But then, people also blamed gremlins in the equipment for causing random, unexplained trouble. One didn’t believe it. Spartans were like boogeymen to the Insurrectionists.
“You’re after the navigation data too, huh?” Delgado realized, wondering if the navigation data was the whole reason they were here, or if they somehow had gotten abandoned in the Rubble.
The massive Spartan smiled. “If the Jackals get their claws on that chip everyone will suffer.” She leaned forward and placed a small pin into his open hand. The gauntlet was surprisingly careful and precise as she folded his hand into a fist, the device inside it. “If you ever want to hand it over, just trigger this beacon, we’ll come calling. We’ll certainly protect it better than you’re doing right now.”
Delgado shook his head. He didn’t trust the Kig-Yar. But the UNSC was far from loved out here, too.
She sighed. “A shame.” She scooted back and picked up Señora Sies and tilted it in her hands to examine it.
Delgado held his hand up, and she gave it back to him. “Nice piece.”
“My uncle spent three weeks on it,” Delgado gasped. His side still hurt.
The Spartan cocked her head, listening to her earpiece. “Your backup has arrived.”
“Wait.” Delgado tried to stand, but gave that up the moment he shifted and felt the pain rush up through him. “Who are you?”
The Spartan stood, looming over him. “My name is Adriana. Spartan One-One-One.”
“Ignatio Delgado.” Delgado held up his hand again. “Thank you.”
Adriana shook his offered hand, carefully. “You’re welcome, Mr. Delgado. Just remember this. I was not here, and I certainly did not help you. There are no Spartans going bump in the night. Understand?”
Ignatio didn’t, really. He was feeling quite dizzy. But he nodded anyway. It seemed prudent, sitting on the floor in front of this titan in her suit of armor.
“Well then, Mr. Delgado.” Adriana let go of his hand and pulled her helmet back on. The voice that came out from the helmet sounded powerful and amplified. “Good-bye.”
She leapt up onto the nearest container, then thudded off, leaving Delgado to wait for his rescuers.
Halo: The Cole Protocol is published by Tor Books and is available now at major retailers.