Special Activities Group, Sanghelios Defense Force. ‘Rradee knows the vile name well, the deplorable curse. It is the title of the most hellish and detestable of the demons. The body whose conception and every footstep is dedicated to a singular purpose—his death and the death of his Faithful brothers.
‘Rradee looks at the organism before him. It is pitiful, so wrested of life its shattered body is more akin to a broken corpse. Nimbused unnatural orifices on its face indicate where this Sangheili’s jaws were wrenched off with pliers. Where his nicitated eyeballs were lanced by a Jiralhanae spike rifle’s serrated projectile. More blood flows freely from uncoagulated wounds on his hands, where a knife has surgically excised every finger. There is so much leaking blood that the Sangheili’s body has been exhausted of coagulant proteins, and the hateful organism is falling into hypovolemic shock from simple loss of fluid volume—loss of life-blood.
And it deserves it. As a hundred patriots gather around the abused body, they smolder with passionate fury, righteous fire.
‘Rradee knows that it has been a petty game between him and the Special Activities Group. It has been this way for twenty whole years. Black years, bleak, without hope.
‘Rradee and his followers are beyond recounting how many times the Special Activities Group has tried to kill him. His entire extended family to the third generation was killed in the first year in an attempt to draw him out. His wife-mate, his children—all captured, interrogated for information about him, then killed—they had been expendable files of information. The Special Activities Group had been creative in trying to kill. The elitists of the Sanghelios Defense Force’s special forces were talented—Yes. They had captured Stoics, psychologically broke them, had reprogrammed them into activatable sleeper agents. They had, instead of attacking Stoics with plasma weaponry, with projectile rifles that implanted detonatable microchips into their skulls. And they had, on occasion, tried to infiltrate SAG operators into his organization.
Laying abandoned by the ground, as destitute as this creature’s hope, were the crude knives and metal implements that ‘Rradee had personally used to perform surgery on this poor, pitiful fellow.
Precise footsteps click against the metal, and the followers turn as one to find a shadow wading into the hallowed ground of the sanctuary.
‘Rradee turns his head towards the Ape. He indicates the SAG operator on the ground, gesticulating with his blood-smeared molecular knife.
“We just caught him. He was from the Special Activities Group—a plant. He was posing as one of our newer followers.” ‘Rradee spits bitterly onto the hemorrhaging creature. “He was here when we met two days ago. He saw you. We intercepted him as he was trying to get a message to his handler.”
Wakes turns his pale, wintery eyes towards the terrorist warlord. “What have you learned from him?”
“Not much. SAG has learned to compartmentalize its intelligence. Worthless slaves like this receive little.”
The tortured Sangheili makes a gurgling, defiant sound, and ‘Rradee firmly slams his boot onto his mouth, where his jaws have cut off. An inhumane wheeze escapes from its tortured lungs.
“What did you learn?”
‘Rradee’s eyes manage to become even darker, and they run with liquid anger. “SAG just doubled the strength of the current task force hunting me to twelve hunter-killer squads.”
Wakes briskly draws an M7 submachine gun, fires a single shot into the cranial vault of the writhing creature. It becomes still.
“Extract some genetic material from it, and then burn the body in plasma. We could still use its biometric data to infiltrate an SDF facility before they realize he’s been missing.”
The shadow melds into the darkness again, and ‘Rradee turns his head to his acolytes.
UNSC EMBASSY OFFICE OF THE CONSUL EXTRAORDINARE
The codicil convenes under the secrecy of a Faraday shield, counter electronic warfare equipment, and EMP-hardened Titanium A armor. They meet within an au courant office—etched glass sculptures line luscious oak bookshelves, and antiquities dot the walls; paintings from the Louvre, Mayan figurines. The floor is well-carpeted, and upon a low table is a bottle of brandy and tinted glasses.
Upon one couch reclines the owner of this miniature emporium of wealth—Pressley, UNSC State Department, extraordinary consul to Sanghelios. With every movement, he feels a discernable, heavy weight impinging upon him—he is responsible for the truce that will either save—or slaughter—mankind’s biological existence in the galaxy.
Astute upon another couch is another shadow—this one so profound it eclipses all other darkness—it is the umbra cast by the midday sun, the supermassive behemoth black hole at the axis of the galaxy, the cover of night at dusk. It is the ether that constitutes every cast shadow, the power that overwhelms every dying star.
It is nameless. Its darkness has absolved it of a name. For an unnatural creature of such proportions, the Deputy Director of the UNSC Office of Naval Intelligence doesn’t need to have a humanizing epithet to address it.
The third contributor to this unlikely harlequin council is a Sangheili. His presence upon the furred couch is so juxtaposed and bizarre, and his gilded, ornamental silver armor stands in stark contrast to the human bookshelves and sculptures. He is ‘Ileal, come from the Sangheili Council to conspire against it. For months the Sangheili Intelligence Service had suspected a human plant somewhere within the executive division of the Sangheili government—they could not have suspected treason from one of the government’s highest authorities.
For a government executive committing high treason and conspiracy, ‘Ileal’s words are light and brisk, but come with undercurrents of unmaskable tension. “This is the time I have spoke of. ‘Isham is making his move—he is at the zenith of his support by the Ultranationalists and the public. He is on the brink of turning the Council against us…”
Pressley’s eyes, wintered by his severe deprivation of sleep, flicker at the alien councilor. “What’s ‘Isham preaching now?”
‘Ileal hesitates momentarily, but his inertia overcomes that. He has broken so many Covenant laws and legislature that treason does not matter now.
RWANDA CAFÉ UNSC AFB ARTEMIS
The shadow emerges, ethereal from the shadows. His clothes have been incinerated and his body sterilized, in order to destroy any genetic or cellular information that links him to the death of a Special Activities Group commando, an elite special-forces trooper of the official Sangheili government. The M7 submachine gun with which he has stolen another life is discarded.
Half an hour after the murder of the SAG soldier, Wakes is wading through Rwanda Café, oblivious to the fact that he has killed a tortured Sangheili commando, his eyes uncomprehendingly sweeping over pairs of UNSC servicemen and servicewomen on dates, attempting to relieve themselves of their stresses on a Friday evening.
The shadow has not come to Rwanda Café to have one of their infamous Earth-imported Columbian coffees, nor to seek female companionship, nor to enjoy the strip club hidden downstairs. He’s come to learn about ONI’s covert biological warfare programs.
He nearly misses Forge within the crowd, despite his photographic memory of her facial and bodily appearance. She is markedly different in appearance—her lustruous chestnut hair is stained a brilliant, striking scarlet, and her soft, downy grey eyes are a vivid cyan, juxtaposing poignantly again her hair. Her hair runs down below her shoulders, now, and her ONI dress uniform is replaced by a buttoned ruffle-front shirt and loose jeans. She waves at him to join, and he briskly knifes through the crowd and sits.
She smiles slightly. “I was afraid you weren’t going to make it, Lieutenant Commander.”
He says simply, the master of understatement, “I was held up by other pressing duties.”
His eyes curtly examine the environment, and his chronometer. “This isn’t exactly lunch time, Forge.”
“Call me Melanie”, she says simply.
“All right, Forge.”
The commander indicates the menu. “Can I get something for you, Wakes?”
He stares vacantly at her, and she sighs with a touch of drama.
“Wakes, for a Lieutenant Commander, you certainly don’t act like one.”
The shadow’s eyes intangibly flare, and Melanie acutely notes that in her own mental dossier. His stare at her continues to be barren.
She disguises her recognition as a shrug and waves over a waiter, asking for a glass of a wine. Again, she turned to the recalcitrant ONI officer. “Can I get you one?”
“Does it look like I drink?” His voice is glacial.
Forge asks the waiter for a second glass as well, and then dismisses him. She looks at the light-diffusing shadow before her. “Not a social butterfly, I see.”
“Is it a special access program?”
Forge flinches at the name-dropping. “For Christ’s sake, Wakes—”
“Special access programs” was the bureaucratic language for black operations. A typical case of military lingual obfuscations, they made small amendments to the military budget more palatable to politicians in the State Department to accept. Small amendments that exponentially swelled to massive budgets that became untraceable through electronic data-pushing, and funded black operations for the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Special Operations Command.
His voice is cold-blooded. “There’s nothing new with them.”
Her own voice grows hard. “There’s no need to flaunt classified intelligence in a fucking café.”
“I didn’t ask to meet a second time, Forge, nor did I ask to have dinner with you.”
She retorts indignantly, “I didn’t ask you out to dinner—”
“What’s the code name for the project?”
Melanie’s eyes tense, losing again to Wakes’s abrupt shorthand and uncivil interruptions. Finally surrendering, she draws a pen from a breast pocket, scribbles down a name on the napkin.
Wakes’s eyes flicker over and read two words—“TROJAN HORSE”. Forge crumples the paper into her pocket.
He says nothing.
She says, “Knowing you, you probably know all the personnel, equipment, and funding for our program, the maiden name of the grandmothers of the people in the project…”
“On your mother’s side, it was Elizabeth. On your father’s side, he never knew his mother’s maiden name—your father’s mother was raised in an orphanage without a last name.”
She laughs congenially and grins. Forge tosses her radiant cardinal hair back. “Is that what you study in your spare time, Wakes?”
“When I’m not managing the SPARTAN-III Program.”
Melanie abruptly turns alert, her picturesque aquamarine eyes prying at him. She says softly, “What?”
It is his turn to frostily smile. “Black op, under Section Three. The predecessor to Halsey’s SPARTAN-II program.”
Her eyes dilate in surprise. “How come I’ve never heard of this?”
“Fleet Admiral Sir Lord Terrence Hood hasn’t heard about this.”
“I get the feeling that I wasn’t cleared to hear this.” She says with a grin, “Is this the moment where you dramatically draw a pistol and say that you’ll have to kill me?”
The shadow replies succinctly, “If you repeat it, I will have to kill you.”
She evaluates the nuclear winter shining in his eyes and decides that he isn’t joking.
The waiter brings wine, hands a glass to Forge, hands a glass to Wakes. The shadow stares witheringly at the waiter, who feels the urgent need to back away from the curious, intense patron at table fifteen.
Wakes turns his obstinate stare towards Melanie, who is looking back at him. “You seriously don’t drink?”
“I’m on duty.”
“It’s ten o’ clock on Friday night.”
“I’m on duty”, he answers.
“When do you drink?”
“When I’m off duty.”
“And when’s that?”
“I’m always on duty”.
Forge stares, uncomprehending, at Wakes.
Wakes glances at the shimmering elixir in the glass goblet before him. “I’m not paying for that.”
Forge says quickly, “I’m covering.”
“Good”, he says, with equal quickness.
Her colorful eyes widen again in a moment of surprise, and then supplies, “That explains a lot.”
“What?” “How you’re…how do I say this…” Her voice becomes curious. “How you’re you, Wakes. You are single, right?”
An aide de camp spares the two ONI officers from another awkward pause. He raps the shadow gently upon the skeletal shoulder, and Wakes whirls alarmingly in his seat to face the aide, who is taken aback.
He says timidly, “Sir, priority transmission from General Woodbury for you, sir. He wants you at his office ASAP.” The aide waves a communicator in his hand.
Forge stares. “General Woodbury, as in the Theater Commander for Sanghelios?”
Wakes doesn’t bother with a reply. Instead, he plucks the crumpled napkin from Forge’s pocket, and then stalks off, leaving Melanie in the candle-lit dim with two glasses of untouched wine and another lonely dinner.