Author's note: This piece was originally a writing exercise at the 2010 National Writing Project. But I liked the idea and eventually developed it into a short story. Since then, it made its way into the Writing Project’s anthology and received favorable responses.
While the story is based on the game, Halo 3, I tried to make it as accessible to readers who are not familiar with the series--or even with video games--as possible. For that reason, aside from a few dialogues, the story has no specific references to the Halo universe. Nevertheless, fans of the series will no doubt find this writing familiar in many ways.
Four sets of heavily armored boots tramped through the snow-covered terrain. Hidden deep in the mountains, the valley was under constant attack from the winds, raging down from the surrounding cliffs like an angry beast. Though the severe weather made it difficult for the small group of soldiers to reach the large, pyramid-like structure in the north end of the gorge, they were determined. Too much depended on their success.
The entrance to the control room was situated on top of the strange building ahead. Reaching it, however, was made difficult not only by the harsh weather but also by the alien drop pods raining from the sky. When the pods hit the ground, they released their monstrous content upon the soldiers: infected forms of once peaceful creatures from all over the galaxy, anxious to sink their claws into the intruders. Though the beasts were only mindless drones, controlled by a central intelligence, the soldiers knew they faced a long, hard fight before they could reach their objective. The creatures seemed to come at them in never-ending waves, a flood of unspeakable horrors.
By the time the group made its way to the peak, the valley was darkened by the lifeless bodies of the infected, their misery finally over. The web of artificial tunnels leading into the heart of the mountain, and eventually to the control room, looked dark and discouraging. Their flashlights reflected flatly from the nearby walls, carved into the stone by the same ancient hands that had constructed the pyramid. The pathway ahead of them disappeared into an uninviting well of blackness, but the soldiers knew there was no turning back. Activating the eons-old alien technology, lying deep under the surface, would eliminate the infected menace once and for all. The possibility of a more peaceful galaxy was too great a prize to ignore. With the weight of the known universe resting on their shoulders, they stepped into the darkness.
* * * *
Beneath the ridges of the valley, the circular shape of the control room was bathed in a faint blue light generated by the large holographic image of a halo rotating high above. A narrow bridge connected the central platform to the entrance, with the control mechanism resting in the middle. The group silently moved on to activate the device.
Suddenly, a small, metallic ball swooped into the air, an artificial intelligence left there by its ancient creators to guard the control room. Twirling quickly above the platform, it examined the intruders with its single, blue, glass eye. To the soldiers, it appeared harmless.
“The installation should be ready to fire in just a few more days,” said the ball in a surprisingly high mechanical voice.
“We don’t have a few more days,” muttered one of the soldiers angrily.
"A premature firing will destroy this installation!" came the indignant response.
"Deal with it!"
The guardian’s glass eye turned red. "Unacceptable!” it bellowed.
The soldiers’ answer came almost immediately in the form of a red energy burst, knocking the machine back several feet. A subsequent blast followed seconds later, seemingly hitting a vital component; the ball fell to the ground, vomiting sparks. As cruel as it may have seemed, the group knew the prize was too great to risk. They had to activate the mechanism, and if it meant the “death” of the guardian, the loss of its ancient technology, then so be it.
The soldier clad in green armor stepped forward and walked to the control panel, ignoring the ball’s final throes of agony. Without hesitation, he ran his fingers across the holographic panel floating in the air in front of him. A few seconds later, a deep buzzing sound, emanating from everywhere at once, confirmed the success of their mission. The installation was activated and the infected sentenced to extinction.
“Hurry, we have no time!” said the man in green, running back from the center. But by then, the others could see the cracks rapidly appearing on the ceiling. Just as the guardian had warned, the ancient structure--and with it, the entire mountain-range--was about to collapse.
The ground was shaking so hard they constantly had to keep one hand on the wall to prevent themselves from falling. Nevertheless, they somehow managed to crawl through the tunnels and emerge into the valley.
“Where are the bikes?” asked one of the soldiers, trying to be heard through the deafening roar of the falling rocks. The anti-gravity bikes, which were supposed to be waiting for them to help with the evacuation, were nowhere to be found, and they knew that without the speed of the small vehicles, they were doomed.
“I don’t know,” yelled someone. “Maybe over that ridge,” he said, pointing toward a slope, where they could clearly see the opening of another tunnel.
“Well, we can’t stay here.” The man in the green armor took charge. “Let’s go!”
They started climbing toward the other opening. With a little luck, they would find the bikes and be on their way out of the doomed valley. Small remnants of the infected tried unsuccessfully to stop them, their animalistic efforts cut short by the massive firepower of the soldiers. They soon reached the entrance of the other tunnel. They stopped.
“If the bikes are not in here, we’re screwed,” one of them said.
“We have no choice,” replied the green armored soldier, with a slight hesitation in his voice. “If we stay here, we are screwed anyway!”
The group hurriedly entered the tunnel. Instead of being welcomed by the purplish glow of the anti-gravity bikes, however, they soon emerged on the other side of the hill. The massive walls surrounding them were trembling under the pressure of the collapsing mountain-range; car-sized boulders fell from the peaks. It was a death-trap.
“Maybe we still have time to go back and look for them.”
“No,” said the man in green. “The path is closed.”
They all looked at the sealed entrance of the tunnel through which they had come. There was no escape; the valley would be their grave.
“I’m sorry, guys!”
* * * *
R E L O A D I N G . . .
* * * *
“Okay, we’ll do it right this time,” said the soldier in the green armor. “Can someone check the location of the bikes on YouTube?”
“Sure thing,” someone replied.
The answer came a few minutes later, “Got it.”
“Okay, let’s go!”
* * * *
Four sets of heavily armored boots tramped through the snow-covered terrain...