|This article, Halo: Galactic Era, was written by RelentlessRecusant and Actene. Please do not edit this fiction without the writers' permission.|
Halo: Galactic Era is a collaborative novel co-written by Actene and RelentlessRecusant. It is set in the Galactic Era and covers the progressive transformation of the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) at the dawn of the 27th century.
RELENTLESSRECUSANT1,2,† and ACTENE2,†
1Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Stem Cell & Regenerative Biology, Harvard University
2Halo Fan Fiction Wikia and Halopedia, the Halo Wikia
†To whom correspondence should be addressed: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Vice Admiral Kawika Son (Ret.), Former Commander-in-Chief, UNSC Naval Special Operations Command
- Captain Artemis-2995 (Ret.)
- Lieutenant Commander Simon-G294 (Ret.)
- Lieutenant Cassandra-G006 (Ret.)
- Master Chief Petty Officer Kimberly Ivy Blackburn (Ret.)
- Senior Chief Petty Officer August Plummer (Ret.)
- Senior Chief Petty Officer Apollo-2994 (Ret.)
- Petty Officer 2nd Class Redmond-M094 (Ret.)
UNSC Defense Force
- Admiral Douglas A. Davidson, Commander-in-Chief, UNSC Fifth Fleet
- Captain Raphael-M064, Commander, Myrmidon Mobility Detachment
- Commander Karen Elizabeth Wakes, UNSC Department of Strategic Intelligence
- Sergeant Randall Ridenour, UNSC Army Special Operations Group
The following excerpts are literary pilot tests used by the authors to explore characters and concepts within the Galactic Era.
By RelentlessRecusant, May-13-2009
Rendezvous Point Alpha
As the Hermes-class gunship Melpomène knifed from the ethereal, phantasmal realm of Slipspace to the familiar three-dimensional contours of reality, directly before her was the torrential prowed bulk of the UNSC Cydonia—flagship of the UNSC Fifth Fleet.
The Cydonia was the lead ship of the Cydonia-class fleet carriers—the most novel and ponderous carrier warship classification constructed to date by human hands. Even at hundreds of kilometers, her ashen hull was illuminated by the profuseness of running lights that studded her angular surface; clearly visible were the two massive MAC weapons systems embedded on her forward prow, the dozens of missile batteries that ran across her crown.
Several kilometers from the carrier, her interceptor screens orbited as if hawks trained to their hunter master’s hand.
Leaning against the forward observation deck of the mercurial gunship, Wakes never failed to be inspired by the noble sight of the fleet carriers; even despite her frigid temperament, the visage of the striking warships, nearly two kilometers in length—a sword that blotted out the starlight, so powerful that they even radiated a light of their own. A seamless meld of royal majesty and firepower; mankind’s claim to ascension upon the stars.
Many said that the Cydonia-class was the ultimate arbiter of space warfare; that the human carriers were uncontested in their dominance of the galactic plane—they indeed were imperial designs, fit to proclaim the birthright of the human race as the sons and daughters and successors of the Forerunner race.
Wakes allowed herself an inward smile—the Cydonia-class carriers were only the beginning of human space superiority. While for now, the 1850-meter-long behemoths were the largest UNSC ships that strode the stars, they were soon to be succeeded.
Flanking the UNSC Cydonia to either side was an arrayed constellation of twenty-three warships; Rendezvous Point Alpha was the rally point for the flag task force of the UNSC Fifth Fleet, the apex of the command & control operations for the Fifth Combat Command. Leading the formation were the battle cruisers Bellerophon and Heracles, whose captains had been honored at the recent battle over Pi Sagittarii.
The multitude of vessels was glorious, held in abeyance in deep space, the hulks eclipsed by the harlequin thermonuclear fire of nearby birthing stars as they shone to life deep within the nebula’s cradle. Caressed by the starlight of a thousand stars, the UNSC Cydonia shone radiantly.
Beside her, the UNSC Melpomène’s command crew moved uneasily. Their orders; to transport a high-priority officer directly from the ONI installation on Asphodel Meadows to rendezvous with the Fifth Fleet command task force in the depths of a stellar nebula, had been most unusual—and more disconcertingly, they had been transmitted directly from the ONI senior operations staff, and had been almost immediately affirmed by Strategic Command and the Fifth Fleet Combat Command.
That their vaunted passenger was a mere Lieutenant Commander (O-4) was a curiosity; with the urgency that their orders had been transmitted from Naval Intelligence, the gunship’s small crew had expected their passenger to be a high-ranking commander, likely of flag rank, from ONI. Instead, the petite figure they had met over Asphodel Meadows was a mere junior officer.
Yet, immediately upon receiving their anonymous passenger, the disposition of power aboard the fleet gunship had immediately changed. The commanding officer of the Melpomène was a Captain (O-6) and the executive officer was a full Commander. Yet, by some unspoken convention, almost immediately, the passenger had seized control of the warship, and a pallid cloak of silence had fallen upon the crew as the newcomer navigated across the station, her very presence forbidding conversation.
Despite her junior rank, she was striking in physical disposition; she was prominently young, such so that the stiff, morbid blacks of the ONI dress uniform and the lieutenant commander’s halcyon oak styling appeared misplaced, out of place on such a juvenile and puerile woman. Yet, despite her youth, her violet eyes blazed with an unnatural hunger, radiated with such a forceful intensity that the crew members were immediately uncomfortable. Her stride was lissome and graceful, yet the manner with which she carried herself was supernatural; it was a predator’s stride, seamless, graceful, and savagely beautiful.
Upon boarding the Melpomène, she had seized control, and had refused to relinquish it.
Tentatively, the gunship’s captain approached the morbid woman from behind, hands politely clasped behind his back, and said tentatively, “Ma’am? We’re at the rendezvous—”
Wakes spun with abrupt speed. She indicated the faraway carrier, centered in the forward viewport. “Captain, bring us aside the carrier and initiate an interface at airlock three.”
The captain froze temporarily as he integrated the order, issued from an inferior officer. He raised his mouth to protest this indignity, but then remembered the dispatch from ONI Operations; instead, he said cautiously, “That’s aside the forward command bay, which is authorized only for flag officer usage—”
Wakes calmly stared at him, with such force that the Navy officer felt he was some inferior arthropod species beneath her contempt. As the gunship’s bridge crew stared at each other, attempting to divine her intent, Wakes wordlessly stalked away to her quarters.
Rendezvous Point Alpha
The marriage between the Cydonia and the Melpomène led to the serial transfer of one officer from the latter to the former. A moment later, the gunship broke off, accelerating at maximum velocity to initiate a Slipspace transition to her former duty station above Bifröst.
The halls in the particular sector aboard the carrier were vacated; only a single figure met Wakes as she expertly dismounted from the airlock’s pressure seal.
Wakes politely inclined her head. “Admiral Carter.”
The hallowed figure reclining in the shadows nodded in acknowledgement. “Commander. I trust your expedited trip was well? It was the best I could arrange on short notice. All our prowler-type ships were on patrol, and I didn’t intend for the Fifth Fleet to see one of our ships here at the rendezvous.”
“It was Navy; I didn’t expect any less”, she said flatly.
The admiral nodded, terminating the niceties, and gestured toward the stretch of voided and darkened hallway before them, beckoning her to walk alongside him.
They walked together for awhile, their footsteps in synchrony, two shades striding in the evening dark along the length and breadth of the warship, the Cydonia’s petawatt reactor unnaturally subdued, lending an insouciant quiet.
Finally, Carter spoke.
“You’re getting your own command, Wakes.”
The lieutenant commander took it without incident, her features betraying no surprise; she had anticipated this promotion for months—with her fulminating advance through ONI, such accolades had become anticipated. Already, some Section Three officers were paralleling her to her grandfather.
She asked quietly, “What class?”
“A prowler-type. The UNSC Meridian Dream. Oracle-class vessel.”
Wakes nodded her assent. “And my deployment?”
Carter smiled thinly. “Sanghelios.”
The lieutenant commander paused in mid-stride, drawing the connection instantaneously. The vice admiral affirmed it.
“The Black Tower has approved your mission, Wakes. DREAMLAND is all in your hands; planning, maneuvering, rendition, and cleanup.”
Wakes’s mobile features became marvelous; “Mine?”
“Direct from the Black Tower, Commander.”
She cocked her head curiously, and the admiral smiled again. “They’ve not only approved of your mission and your command, but also my recommendation for a promotion. It’s Commander Wakes now, and we’ve installed you as the Associate Director of Operations for Strategic Intelligence.”
Wakes gave some small pause at this. Her gaze was astray; while her status as Sierra India’s operations chief had been all but in name for some time, and her inevitable personal command and promotion had been already been foreshadowed, this had resurrected some yonder memories. She said simply, “My grandfather was at this same point too. He was the operations chief for SPARTAN-III, KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN, and later, the Sanghelios station.”
Somehow, under the indirect and dusky lighting of the Cydonia’s abandoned corridor, her promotion had seemed less significant.
Carter offered, “The Black Tower has not forgotten your legacy. Your grandfather saved the UNSC during the One Week War.”
He stared at the young woman in front of him, the glacial glint of her amethyst irises under the dusky light, how her black hair fell to the swell of her breasts, the fervor in her eyes as she contemplated, and he could not help but be taken in. Indeed, Section Three’s predictions were quite right; young Wakes was well fulfilling the legacy left by her grandfather and her family.
Twenty-two and with an independent command? Strategic Intelligence was a domain filled only with those in ONI who were solely the exceptional, the highest percentile, but still, this officer far surpassed any protégé that Carter had mentored in the past.
His gaze lingered on her desiringly for a moment, her beauty and her intensity unmistakably alluring.
Wakes asked quietly, “How long before the assets are activated?”
“You came from Asphodel Meadows yourself”, he levelly replied. “What do you think?”
“I am impressed by their screening program. The chemical probes they have optimized in their series are acceptable”. Compliments from the recalcitrant Wakes were few and far; it had a strong impression on Carter.
“And the state of the assets?”
“Acceptable. It’s a pity that Son and Schore were not involved; I suspect they would be even better if they had been onboard.”
Carter was still acclimating himself to her; her youth was exceedingly striking at times like this, yet, she spoke with the seniority of a flag officer.
“Kimberly Blackburn and the Myrmidons were more than enough for the work of two people. Afterwards, they were both spent; they’d accumulated enough ethical and moral doubts.”
“Blackburn”, quietly mused Wakes.
After a pause, he said, “The second block should be comparable.”
The commander didn’t offer comment on that. Her pale lips were compressed into a thin line as she was lost in thought.
“And should I require, will those assets become available?”
“A definite ‘no’ regarding Blackburn, but the second block, probably, once the Black Tower has deemed that project matured.”
“I agree with the Black Tower’s investment with the chemical biology program”, said Wakes in passing. “I feel Schore and Son were quite right that chemical augmentation were the next generation. Already, even I can see the logic.”
“You’re taking them?”
“Some”, she admitted.
Perhaps that was the reason was why her ferocity was unmatched, although the prodigious officer had already been far surpassing exceptional even before the development of the program.
“And when do I rendezvous with my ship?” Wakes asked.
“The Meridian Dream is coming at 1430 hours”, he said softly. “You’ll come onboard at the periphery of the nebula, away from the Fifth Fleet’s prying eyes.”
She nodded, taking it in stride. “And how goes the preparations for Dashan?”
“The surface situation is deteriorated. The flag task force is making its final preparations at this staging point, and then, by the end of the week, we’ll be making the long jump and the combat deployment.”
Wakes remembered the twenty-four vessels of the Fifth Fleet command group that she had seen, inbound aboard the Melpomène.
“You’ll be making the deployment at double task force strength?”
“I estimate the deployment will be nearly at battle group strength, should conflict arise. The command task force is heavily invested with battle cruisers and destroyers, augmented by the Cydonia. With any luck, it should be all over soon.”
Wakes nodded levelly. “Then, best of luck with your mission, Admiral.”
“And the same for you, Commander.”
He looked longingly at her for a long moment, and then she primly swung on her heel and departed, destined for a yonder star system buried far away.
By RelentlessRecusant, May-19-2009
UNSC Meridian Dream
Nearby Rendezvous Point Alpha
Karen Elizabeth Wakes’s initiation aboard the UNSC Meridian Dream was conducted without aplomb nor fashion at the verge of the resplendent nebula that was the rendezvous for the vessels of the UNSC Fifth Fleet Combat Command.
At the nebular fringes, the Oracle-class prowler had laid dormant for several days, tamed and awaiting the arrival of its newest master. The spacefaring vessel’s very physical manifestation was exotic; a gently sloping fuselage that gradually grew to expand to include a pair of angelic wings, with two baffled thruster vanes that extended from their hem.
More than that, however, the vessel’s hull was sleek, nearly aquatic; it was a seamless and streamlined curvature of dielectric composite which so gracefully flowed that it seemed that the prowler had been born by nature. Her entire length was an onyx obsidian; the characteristics of her stealth plating shone the prowler in a foreign light as the nebula’s harlequin and intense lights splayed across the ship, the hull resonating with electric colors as they reflected the intensity of a thousand birthing stars around it.
The craft had a crew of scarcely fifty; the 125-meter vessel, one of the smallest UNSC capital ships constructed, boasted extensive automation and fly-by-wire technologies to make the vessel more adaptive in combat and reconnaissance—electronic reflexes and intuition were orders of magnitude superior to human abilities. The extensive automation allowed the vessel to be essentially controlled by less than half a dozen people; the remaining crew was redundant insurance for one of ONI’s most audacious investments. Furthermore, the highly diminished crew size also lessened the chance of a security leak.
Only one of the Meridian Dream’s crew awaited her presence at the airlock as Wakes adroitly stepped through. She immediately recognized the face; prior to assuming command over the her first independent naval command, Karen had committed the memory the dossiers, vitaes, faces, and personal histories of each of the crew members aboard the prowler. This particular crew member had attracted significant interest.
Her complexion was cool as she said softly, “Captain Karen Wakes, requesting permission to come aboard.”
Commander Gordon Whiting was the first captain of the UNSC Meridian Dream; Whiting was a veteran of Fleet Intelligence (Section One) of ONI, first an analyst at the Tracking Office, then tactical officer aboard the infamous UNSC Ether A Go Go before earning command of SRP-042.
Whiting was smartly clad in a short-cut black shirt; the ONI working service uniform. The commander’s oak leaf insignia was upon his collar, and on his breast, he chose only to wear his ONI affiliation pin, with none of his combat citations. Emblazoned on his left shoulder was the ship patch for the Meridian Dream; the visage of a black stallion upon a brilliant starfield, circumscribed with the words MERIDIAN DREAM (SRP-042).
The manner of his dress was loose and disorganized; there were creases and it was poorly folded. Yet, the body that wore that sloppy uniform was intense; his every moment was controlled, and his manner was firm and assertive.
He snapped to attention with abrupt speed, raising his hand stiffly in salute. “Captain. Permission granted.”
Wakes’s pale eyes flickered over the commander, summarily evaluating him briefly and filing mental notes about the manner of his uniform and stature for cognitive indexing.
At last, she said, “At ease.”
There was a moment of silence as her counterpart evaluated her, and then she spoke.
“Commander, as per General Order 48103, I am hereby placed in command of the UNSC Meridian Dream and her crew. You are relieved.”
Whiting nodded fractionally in acknowledgment. “I stand relieved.”
“Show me to the bridge.”
Her entrance to the bridge was dramatic; her gait was carefully controlled and with formal rigor, and with Whiting in lockstep, she entered with the kaleidoscopic nebular stars behind her, lending a celestial and electric light to the scene that gleamed off of her raven hair and expressionless irises. In contrast to the entire crew, she was clad in a formal service dress uniform, with a black jacket juxtaposed over a white dress shirt. Her dress jacket carried her full ensemble of insignia and decorations; the gleaming eagle of a Navy Captain, dozens of campaign ribbons and decorations for her service in special warfare, two Silver Stars, and finally, the ominous and instantly-recognizable Eye of Providence insignia of the UNSC Office of Naval Intelligence. The sleeve of her jacket bore gold chevrons.
The crew rose in stiff unison as she entered; their response was prompt and gratifying. Whiting obviously kept his crew under tight military decorum; his CSV and officer’s reviews in FLEETINTEL had bespoken of his fabled efficiency and diligence, and the respect and excellence he had cultivated in all the crews that had served underneath him.
The fanciful broad Captain’s Chair in the center of the bridge was vacated; without preamble nor introduction, she sat in it, instantly at the apex of attention.
Whiting gathered his senior officers, and made the appropriate introductions.
“Captain, these are my division chiefs. Lieutenant Commander Ridenour is the tactical officer. Lieutenant Fairchild is the countermeasures officer. Lieutenant Blanchard is the communications officer. Lieutenant Davis is the systems ops officer. Commander Clayton is the special warfare officer.”
Wakes already knew them by their name, and indeed, knew each of the Meridian Dream’s division chiefs with far more breadth than even their former captain.
“Thank you, Commander. Please take the executive officer’s station—you are now second-in-command.”
Wakes began. With all the crew members still standing, she started, “I am Captain Karen Elizabeth Wakes, Assistant Director of Operations to the UNSC Department of Strategic Intelligence. As per General Order 48103, I am now the commander of the UNSC Meridian Dream.”
“The Meridian Dream has been reassigned from Section One to the Department of Strategic Intelligence; our mission is to execute Operation: DREAMLAND, a semi-permanent deployment over Sanghelios, in the Urs System in Covenant territory.”
“Our upcoming deployment is a top priority in the Director of Naval Intelligence’s list. It will be the most challenging operation that any of you will have experienced. We will be operating deep in Covenant space without relief and resupply; I require the most exceptional technical aptitude and diligence to duty and orders possible from all of you. Under Commander Whiting’s guidance, the Meridian Dream was one of the best prowlers in Fleet Intelligence. I look forward to continuing that tradition.”
“I will be hosting a reception for the senior officers in my quarters tonight. I look forward to your attendance.”
She looked directly at Whiting and Clayton, and said, “Commanders Clayton and Whiting, walk with me. The rest of you are released.”
There were sursurrations as the bridge crew resumed their tasks, filing back to their consoles, and shortly afterwards, Wakes was joined by the prowler’s executive officer and special warfare officer.
She led them beyond the bridge, and heard them falling in behind her in lockstep. When they had reached a quieted section of the stealth vessel, absent from other milling personnel, she turned to face them.
“XO, report on ship status.”
“One hundred percent, ma’am”, said Whiting briskly. “Stealth countermeasures, electronic warfare, and reconnaissance sensors are online and optimal. Reactor is green. The free-electron laser has sustained over six thousand simulated test-firings without incident.”
Wakes was careful to notice the report regarding the Meridian Dream’s reactor; the Oracle-class prowlers, as the most futuristic iteration of the UNSC’s stealth vessels, had been a consequential investment for ONI’s R&D programs, and was the first UNSC ship class ever to be fitted by the unique sodium-cooled fast reactor (SCFR). The fast reactor was a novel UNSC reactor design, a nuclear fission-based reactor with extremely high efficiency compared to older iterations, and also was a low-maintenance and low-risk system; the next generation in UNSC nuclear energy.
The reactor itself was mostly comprised of non-fissile uranium-238 (U238); upon neutron capture, the uranium-238 was transmutated to fissile plutonium-239 (Pu239), which was the substrate for the energy-generating fission reaction. The reactive core was submerged in a liquid sodium (Na+) pool, allowing for efficient thermal energy dissipation. The SCFR, by utilizing a “fast neutron” process, created a highly-efficient and self-sustaining reaction that was more energy-efficient than thermal neutron designs. Furthermore, the reactor’s transmutative capabilities made it a “breeder” reactor that required relatively unenriched natural uranium (uranium-238); this meant that the UNSC prowler fleet could be sustained on very low-grade uranium obtained nearly directly from the mines. In contrast, all other UNSC warships with fission reactors required highly enriched uranium; a highly costly and painstaking process to “weaponize” uranium ore.
Few reports had been disclosed about the quality of operation of the sodium-cooled fast reactors aboard the Oracle-class prowler vessels; Wakes was internally pleased to hear that the Meridian Dream’s reactor was working well.
“Special Warfare, report on status of your unit.”
Wakes had extensively studied Commander Lee Clayton’s record before assuming the Meridian Dream; more so than any other officer onboard, in fact—his participation was integral to her mission, and in fact, necessary. In preparation for her arrival, the Meridian Dream had been assigned a small UNSC Naval Special Warfare (NAVSPECWAR) detachment.
She and Carter had specifically requested Clayton’s platoon; his team of operators were an extraordinarily versatile and robust cohort drawn directly from the eminent Naval Special Warfare Group Six; the highest tier of UNSCSOCOM’s forces. Clayton’s unit, attached to Group Six, Valkyrie Squadron, was a versatile and experienced team of special warfare veterans, many trained in zero-g operations, military free-fall, and underwater operations—this diversity in skill-set had made them particularly attractive for the upcoming operation on Sanghelios.
Furthermore, his platoon, well-established in UNSCSOCOM, had been in the trade for quite some time; Clayton was a sixteen year veteran of the service, and his platoon chief, even longer. All the operators knew the ropes of the clandestine UNSC special warfare community; their usage by politicians and governmental officials, their accomplishment of non-military missions that achieved only personal goals for others. Importantly, they had seen the worst, and had learned not to speak a word of it—Wakes and Carter had both desired this greatly, even more so than their technical aptitude and combat experience.
“Ma’am; Phantom Platoon, Valkyrie Squadron, Group Six, NAVSPECWARCOM, reporting. We are fully operational; onboard with me are two six-men tactical teams and two sniper-spotter teams. Covert deployment pods are aboard in the internal weapons bay.”
“I’ve called both of you here because of your involvement in DREAMLAND. While the majority of details are classified, in your signal inboxes is an encrypted document that contains classified particulars regarding our mission that has been disclosed on a need-to-know basis only. I need you to impress upon your crews in my absence that you will require the highest standards of service from them; both the naval crew and the surface team.”
“I know both of your career service vitaes well; Commander Whiting, I specifically chose the Meridian Dream as my ship because of the exemplary service of your prowler in ONI’s employ. Commander Clayton, the same goes for you and your platoon; you have the highest commendations from the Director of Naval Intelligence himself.”
“Thank you, ma’am”, said Clayton readily.
“Both of you saw the cataclysm wrought by Beyond Veil’s Azure. You served in the Defense of Earth, and later, the last stand at Haven and the Redoubt. Contrary to what you may think, Strategic Intelligence is a preventer; we do not seek to cause wars, but instead, to extinguish their seeds even before the first signs begin to manifest.”
“Our mission to Sanghelios is in keeping with the highest ideals of the UNSC; we will prevent another galactic war. First, the Human-Covenant War, then the Memory Crisis, and now, Beyond Veil’s Azure. Within less than a century, humanity has seen three galactic wars of devastating scale; we will not survive a fourth.”
“The mission details relevant to your teams are in your inboxes. I expect to see you both at the evening reception.”
The universe is changing.
SPARTAN-G294, better known as Simon, paused in his labors to look up at the clear sky above him. In the early evening, a few stars could clearly be seen off in the distance, evidence of a plane of existence that not only dwarfed his own little planet, but completely swallowed and encompassed it.
In the end, we’re all nothing but specks of dust when you look at the entire galaxy, Simon thought with a sense of awe. Not even the Covenant or the UNSC will ever be anything more than blots on the big picture. When put like that, nothing really seemed worthwhile anymore. No one could ever work hard enough to break free from the small existence alloted to them.
Perhaps that’s why God’s so infallible. He’s the only one who does know what it’s like to be all powerful, omniscient.
Allowing a tired sigh to slip from his lips, the young man turned back to the task at hand. He was currently working to re-calibrate his water purifier that gathered moisture from the nearby stream and stripped it of any harmful fungi or bacteria. While it was both fast and efficient, the machine was also constantly requiring tune-ups like this one in order to continue working properly.
Simon was unsure as to what exactly it was that had driven him to turn his face skyward. He had seen the same star-speckled sky innumerable times before, enough for him to begin to take its beauty for granted. It wasn’t normal for him to begin contemplating things like the metaphysical as he just had, as he generally tried to avoid any topics that were liable to depress him. But he had felt a sudden foreboding, as if someone or something had reached out and touched his mind in an attempt to warn him.
Warn me about what? he wondered as he completed the calibration and replaced the water purifier’s maintenance hatch. He had felt something like this once before, and the events that had come afterwards hadn’t exactly been thrilling. It was because of those events that he was out here, on a planet deep within unknown space, on a journey of self-exile. He’d been back in the military then...
Not really the correct phrase, Simon corrected himself with a shake of his head. In the military again makes more sense. But that really didn’t sound right either.
But regardless of his past experiences with such feelings, this one was definitely the most poignant one yet. This one seemed to be telling him something. Things were happening, forces were being set in motion. Whatever was going on out there, it would be big enough to shake this immense galaxy at its very base. And, more importantly, it had absolutely nothing to do with him.
Simon’s life up until his arrival on The Planet, as he called it, had been turbulent and dangerous. At the age of six, he had been a beaten down orphan in desperate need of a purpose in life. With bullies constantly making him their target, he had been forced to grow up faster than most kids his age. Rather than fighting back, he had developed a philosophy of selective cowardice. So long as there was a means by which he could escape any unwelcome situation, he would take it in an instant; if not, he would try his best to fight like an animal until his tormentors gave up. For the most part, this latter option had failed to serve him as well as the first one did. But despite this early exposure to the realities of life, he had remained open to idealism and opportunities for a better life. And so when a naval officer from the United Nations Space Command had offered him a chance to make that hope for a new life a reality, Simon had lapped his words up like a dog and effectively signed his soul away to humanity’s military with a simple verbal agreement.
Turning away from the stream, Simon began to head back towards what had been his home during the entirety of his stay on The Planet. A small, modified civilian transport was landed about fifty yards from the stream and had remained that way ever since Simon had first identified this location as the best place to live. With stubby wings tipped by auxiliary engines that supported the main one, located in the ship’s bulbous rear section, this vessel had impressed Simon during his short time flying it for its speed and maneuverability. Now, it just provided him with an excellent place to live. Only a single place on the hull served to identify it in any way: the vessel’s former name, Profiteer, had been sloppily painted over and replaced with a shorter word written in large, uneven brush strokes. Jian. That had been the name of Simon’s squad, back in the SPARTAN-III program.
The SPARTAN-III program had been a last-ditch gamble on the part of humanity’s military leaders. At the time of Simon’s recruitment, the human race was being systematically exterminated by a conglomeration of dogmatic aliens known as the Covenant. Convinced that humanity was somehow an offense to their gods, the collective races of the Covenant had slaughtered billions in their efforts to right this perceived wrong. In spite of the UNSC’s massive fleets and armies of marines, the Covenant’s superior ships and technology had seemed unstoppable. Even the SPARTAN-IIs, indomitable super-soldiers enhanced by biological augmentations and formidable combat armor, had done little more than slow what seemed to be the end for humanity. As human scientists struggled to overcome their technological inferiority, the UNSC’s strategists had decided that humanity’s only hope lay in the buying of time, time that could be spent finding new ways to defeat the Covenant. And so the SPARTAN-III program had been created in order to purchase that time. The currency that it would use? The lives of children.
It wasn’t as if Simon and his fellow S-IIIs had been told that they were suicide troops, little more than missiles to be launched at the enemy and then subsequently written off. Throughout all their training they had expected to be humanity’s saviors, its frontline defense against the forces of evil that vied to destroy it. So they had been taught and so they had believed. And not a single shred of evidence existed to state otherwise. Every one of them had been trained to fight, kill, and survive with the utmost efficiency. Organized into five person teams, they had learned to work as a single unit in order to fulfill any objective given to them. And every one of them had absorbed every last shred of training in order to become the finest soldiers since the SPARTAN-IIs. Most of them, that is.
Reaching the Jian’s lowered boarding ramp, which made up much of the ship’s lower front, Simon looked up at the cockpit, which extended out past the ramp and pointed towards the distant horizon. Its vaguely head-like structure made it and the pilot an easier target for any hostile fire, but it also allowed him to clearly view all that was directly in front of the ship.
Not that he had much to worry about when it came to space conflicts. He was alone out here, safe from the Covenant, the previous owner of this ship, and the UNSC. Especially the UNSC. This planet had been the third he’d considered for his new home after three consecutive blind slipspace jumps into the unknown sectors of the galaxy. It had proven to be the closest to Earth in terms of climate, atmosphere, and general makeup, and so Simon had settled there. Now, a few years later, he had been given no reason to regret his decision.
Strolling up the ramp, Simon reached out and punched a button on a nearby control panel. As the gangway eased upwards, he made his way toward the ladder that would take him from the cargo bay to the segment of the Jian that composed his principle living quarters... and tripped on a stray crate of ration bars. He fell with a surprised grunt and banged his knee against the metal floor. Rubbing it ruefully, he wondered if all the little self-orchestrated training exercises were doing anything to improve his combat skills.
He had been one of the... unusual trainees. He’d certainly been bright enough, always a little smarter than most of the others, but when it came to just about any kind of combat he was always in last, always one of the worst. He had done his best, struggling to keep up with everyone. At least, he had done this until the discovery that had altered his life a second time.
After picking himself up, Simon pushed the rations crate back into place with the other boxes stacked around the bay. Each one was filled with essential supplies such as rations or energy packs, things he had stocked up on before landing here. It had been quite some time now, and he still had yet to run low on anything.
Reaching the ladder, he began to climb its well-worn rungs. Upon sliding through the circular portal at the top, he pulled himself up into the Jian’s living quarters. The place was cluttered with crumpled ration bar wrappers, torn papers, and other trash; it would take several minutes hard searching in order to find oneself a clear surface. Apart from the garbage, what passed for the common room was littered with books and equipment. Off on the walls, away from the table and chairs that had been affixed to the floor, were several closets that were sealed shut by large metal doors. Relics of the ship’s previous owner, each one was stocked with all manner of personal weapons. Simon hadn’t discovered them until he had already accumulated some weapons of his own and so these storage areas had remained largely untouched for the entirety of his stay aboard the Jian.
The ship was intolerably messy and its living accommodations were quite spartan, but it was the only place Simon had ever called home since Onyx, the planet upon which he and the other SPARTAN-IIIs had lived and trained together. That had been his home right until he’d figured out what kind of a home it was.
He’d been a smart kid, and so he’d figured that if he couldn’t keep up by listening to his instructors then maybe he could succeed by following the examples of previous trainees. After all, his entire training batch seemed to all be organized under the title of “Gamma Company”, and since they were not being trained with any other companies then there had had to have been other companies that had come and gone before them. Perhaps the prior trainees’ files might hold some secret to getting through the program.
I should’ve left it alone, he reflected regretfully. Should’ve accepted that I was the worst in the company and gotten on with my life. If only he’d just not gone looking for things, kept his curiosity in check, then how differently might his life have turned out...
Shoving a pile of papers to the side, Simon scanned the metal table as he sifted through more of the clutter. I really need to set some time aside for cleaning.
Seeing an odd lump amidst the pages of a closed book, he opened it and discovered what he had been searching for: a three-foot long cable that he seemed to have absent-mindedly coiled up and used as a bookmark the night before. It seemed that his need to mark his spot in the novel had been more important at the time than his need to have unrestricted access to essential pieces of equipment.
Simon frowned down at the jumbled cord until he had found both ends. One was shaped like an ordinary electrical plug, while the other was a much smaller metal-capped nub. Careful not to lose hold of either end, he made his way out of the common room and through the ship’s “neck” that led to the cockpit. Unlocking the sliding door, he heaved at it until it shifted over to the side. Such an activity could have been completed by merely activating the adjacent locking mechanism, but the entire ship was in an indefinitely long state of electronic hibernation; just about anything besides the lights and the boarding ramp had to be operated manually.
He headed up the small ramp that led to another door, which he opened in the same manner as he had done the last one. As he entered the cockpit, Simon took a moment to glance around at its numerous panels and switches that filled the broad control desk. It still never failed to amaze him that just a single person could operate all these things at once in order to keep the ship flying smoothly.
No, he reminded himself with a touch of humility. You hardly ever touch half of these things. If Diana figures out you’re getting prideful, she’ll get cranky.
Reaching the center of the desk, he eased into the pilot’s chair and faced the apex of the intricate network. The entire center of the desk seemed to have been stripped down to the bone before being refurbished with a scattered array of repurposed technology. A control throttle had been installed in the very center, its base expanding out in order to make it easier for the pilot to reach. Just above it were several dusty screens that monitored the status of the Jian’s various essential systems, and to the right sat a small holotank. This last feature was the only thing that Simon had actually installed himself; everything else was, like the weapons lockers in the common room, further evidence that he had not been the ship’s first owner.
Leaning down, Simon quickly found the master power controls under the desk and slid his fingers along the switches. One... two... three... four. He flipped this fourth one, providing the cockpit with enough energy to power the entire control desk. As lights began to blink on, Simon smiled at the reassuring hum that came with a successful activation. Unwinding the cord, he slid the thicker electrical plug into an outlet just beside the master power board. Then, gritting his teeth slightly, he pushed the hair on the back of his head aside with an index finger while feeling for the small patch of metal that had replaced the skin there. Finding the tell-tale bump, he inserted the smaller end into a small indentation hung where it magnetically attached and clung fast.
There was an awkward pause, and then a sharp jolt coursed through Simon’s skull. Wincing from the pain, he felt the alien warmth of another presence come flooding from the back of his mind and into his primary consciousness. A sudden burst of clarity flashed from within this new mind, and then the holotank shimmered as its blue pixels rose up to create the shape of a teenaged girl. She tugged at her short jumper, a now familiar sign that meant she was connecting to the Jian’s systems in order to access the cockpit’s security camera. This allowed her to better coordinate the movements and body language of her chosen avatar, but like most humans Simon preferred to pretend that the artificial intelligence could actually see him with her digitized projections of eyes.
“By my count it’s about an hour past the usual time,” the AI Diana observed, looking accusingly up at Simon. “Having problems, or are you just getting tired of my company?”
“Well, the water purifier needed calibrating and I had trouble finding the connection cord, but I wouldn’t rule out the other option either.” Simon flicked a switch on the dashboard in front of him. “You’ll get over losing an hour. Hasn’t been a long-term problem the other times, won’t be one today.”
Diana crossed her arms. It was sometimes incredibly off-putting to see how easily AIs mimicked and translated human body language. “If you were only awake for a few hours every day then you’d be just as annoyed as I am.”
“Well then I’m grateful that I’m the organic and you’re the AI,” Simon told her as a few more lights flickered on. “Now let’s get the systems check out of the way so that you can get on with doing whatever it is you do when you’re active.”
She gave him a little snort and an eye roll but didn’t offer a retort. Instead, she tugged at her shoulder-length holographic hair - her way of projecting the fact that her invisible processors were beginning a standard routine.
“All cockpit systems normal,” she announced with a degree of boredom. “Ready to run scans for the rest of the ship.”
Simon nodded and reached for the master power switches once again. This time he moved them all to their on positions and the Jian rumbled as its engines purred to life. Simon pulled a clipboard off of the main console and scanned the worn checklist attached to it. He’d already memorized every item printed on it, but it was still comforting to know for sure that he wasn’t misremembering anything.
“Lifeboat systems?” He always went over those first.
“Check. Lifeboat systems are, as always, fully functional and ready for immediate usage.”
“Non-cockpit computer systems?”
“Check. Simon, this is really boring. Can’t we just cut the inspections down to once a week?”
“You’re a smart AI, Diana. This should be less of a hassle for you than it is for me. Non-computer electronic systems?”
Diana froze for a full half second before responding. “They’re all fine, as are all of the other systems we haven’t checked, because I just went over every single one. Can this be over now?”
It was quite hard for Simon to keep a smirk off his face. “You might be lying just to get out of this. Weapons systems?”
“Are you questioning my honesty programming?” Diana asked with an outrage that was only partially playful.
“You can’t question what isn’t there,” Simon told her as his finger trailed down to the next item on the list. “I know you AIs can just bypass those whenever you want, so what’s the point of having them?”
Scowling, Diana angrily shoved a strand of hair away from her face. “We’ve got secondary programs too, stuff that makes us-”
“Save it.” Simon leaned back in the chair. “You’re off the hook for today, but only because I’m tired. Now I’m gonna take a nap, so you do whatever it is you do when you’re hooked up and not arguing with me.”
He heard Diana grumble something about insulting and offensive, but by this point he had already begun to shut it out. His eyes slid closed, enveloping him in darkness. Here there was only himself and the memories he carried. No Diana, no UNSC, just him and the memories...
He’d figured it out in the end. His research had led him to believe that Alpha and Beta companies had been destroyed in suicide missions, and that a similar fate would most likely befall Gamma company as well. With all of his faith in the UNSC gone, he’d stopped his struggling to be like all the others. Instead, he’d become determined to survive at all costs, and in order to do that he’d begun to think smarter and fight dirtier. It had worked during training and it had worked during the company’s first missions against the Covenant.
Then had come the battle to retake New Africa and the end of the Human-Covenant War. Hoping to avoid having to deal with the public’s discovery of their child kamikazes, the UNSC had dispatched commandos to wipe out Gamma company. The government had soon seen the foolishness of this course of action and had it stopped, but by then it was too late. Simon had been through with the UNSC, and had made his feelings clear by shooting a superior officer. That had been before he knew how futile it was to fight humanity’s government, that it was better just to run than to stand one’s ground.
It had been during this time in his life when he’d gotten Diana. Implanted directly into his skull, she was a permanent resident that depended on his continued survival in order to survive herself. She was quite useful, but that didn’t make her any less annoying when she got snippy.
We also rescued-
Simon pushed that thought out of his mind. He had done the right thing then, but it didn’t make it any less painful to think about. Because of that good deed he’d ended up in a desperate brawl against his former team leader and gotten himself blown out an airlock. And then even more consequences had followed...
His thoughts turned to the subconscious feeling he’d had back at the water purifier. If some calamity was about to befall the galaxy, mightn’t it possibly come here as well? He couldn’t tell, not for certain, and that bothered him.
Maybe it’s time to go back, he mused. See if I can’t make a life for myself back in civilization.
This idea seemed rather foolhardy. Why should he go back now, especially since he was worried about some big galactic event that might be underway? The way my luck always seems to have gone, if I go back I’ll just be caught up in it again. He was barely into his twenties and he had only made it this far through a combination of brains and chance.
Then again, maybe I’m just making a mountain out of a molehill. It was just a feeling in my gut. For all I know, it might just have been today’s lunch.
Perhaps the best thing to do would be to consult with Diana. She’d have some advice on the matter. Besides, all this thinking was giving him a headache. He was tired, and no one wanted to be making critical decisions like this in such a condition. Yes, rest was the best thing right now.
Outside, it had begun to rain. Simon’s breathing slowed as he faded away into the dark embrace of sleep. The patter of rain against the window continued as his head lolled to the side and he lost consciousness.
Boston, North American Eastern Coast Region
“Uh, hey Bianca, it’s me, Cassandra. I was just calling to tell you that I’m taking the day off today for, uh, personal reasons and that I’m really sorry I didn’t schedule it ahead of time-”
“No need to worry.” Over the phone, Massachusetts General Hospital’s secretary sounded mildly amused. “I already marked it down in the employee log and deducted it from your vacation days.”
“You... did?” Cassandra could hardly believe it.
“Of course I did. You’ve taken the same day off every day for the past three years, so I figured you’d be taking it off today as well. You know how the management is about unannounced vacations.”
“It isn’t a vacation really, but thanks anyways.” She’d been busier than normal over the past few weeks and had forgotten to schedule it with the hospital. Luckily for her, Bianca was incredibly good at her job.
“I don’t mean to pry, but why exactly do you take today off? Is it your birthday?”
“No, it’s not my birthday today. Why do you ask?”
“Well, your birth date isn’t listed in your file, so I should probably find out and put it in there. When is it?”
“Uh... I’m not sure.”
“Uh-huh.” Bianca sounded dubious. “This got something to do with the military work you did?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Well if it means you can’t disclose your birthday then I guess I won’t bother asking what it is you did with them. Does today have something to do with it?”
Bianca could be thoughtful and efficient, but she could also be quite nosy at times. “Yes, but it’s a personal thing. I’m done with the military.”
“Amen to that. Well, I gotta get back to filing. Enjoy your day off.”
“I, uh, will. Thank you so much for your help, I don’t know what I would have-”
“It’s just part of my job, Cassie. Bye now.”
Cassandra gritted her teeth at the hate nickname, but it would be ungracious of her to offer her usual protestation about it. Instead she hung up and glanced back at the calendar on the table beside her. She hadn’t thought about it for a while, but she really didn’t know when her birthday was. There were a few vague recollections of it being during the winter, but other than that she couldn’t remember. Just like most memories of her family, the date had vanished into the fog of the past.
What kind of kid forgets her own birthday? Sure, she’d been six when the ONI agents had grabbed her for the SPARTAN-III project, but couldn’t she have clung on to that much during training? After a while she’d adapted, just like the other kids from real families had. Things had been easier for the ones from orphanages. They’d all been volunteers. But like Simon was always pointing out, the agreement of a six year old isn’t that binding.
At first, there’d been a perceptible barrier between the orphans and the kidnaped children. The orphans had seemed tougher somehow, more knowledgeable regarding life’s hardships. But that hadn’t lasted long at all. The training broke everyone down, regardless of background. The drill instructors didn’t care who your parents had been when they beat you into submission.
Cassandra looked down at her nightgown and sighed. She might as well get dressed now, or this would start to feel like a real holiday. And this is nothing like a real holiday.
Five minutes later, she’d slipped into some casual clothes and was at her apartment’s desk, rustling through its oaken drawers for the materials she’d saved for today. Like most other female S-III veterans she had never used, and probably never would use, lipstick or makeup. Whereas other girls had been trained to find those implements one of life’s greatest necessities, the S-IIIs had learned that anything that consumed more time than it was worth was nothing more than a liability. Besides, as her boyfriend was often telling her, she was still too young to need these things.
It was true. She had been twelve at the end of the Great War and a quarter of a century later she had still been the same age due to an extended cryosleep, courtesy of the Sanghelli people. Many of the other SPARTAN-IIIs had undergone similar age-stopping sleeps when not performing missions for the UNSC. Even after the military had put an end to the policy of keeping its super-soldiers in stasis, modern drugs had kept the problem of aging at bay. After she and Simon had been re-inducted into the military, they too had been given access to these same drugs. Biologically she was around twenty one, and age wise (although she was unsure of her specific age) she couldn’t be more than a few months older.
But that was all behind her now. She was a civilian, a normal person leading a normal life. A job as a hospital nurse might not have been the same as a battlefield soldier and medic, but no one was ever shooting her and she was certainly not having to watch friends and comrades die before her eyes. She was finished with the military and would have nothing more to do with it. Today, however, was her one exception.
On this day, so many years ago, Cassandra had watched her first team die during a mission against the Covenant. She’d survived to be transferred to Team Jian, but everyone else in Team Kopis had perished in the forests of some unnamed border planet. It had taken her a very long time, right up until the point where she had broken free of her clinical depression on Hekate, to come to terms with her loss. Now she did not allow herself to dwell on such sad matters as she went about her new life. Today was the day she broker her rule and remembered her time in the military.
One day a year was certainly a time she could take to remember the friends she had lost in the war. When one really thought about it, she had too. There was no one else who remembered them the way she did, not even the other SPARTAN-IIIs. They had stuffed the losses into the back of their minds just as the UNSC had stuffed their casualty reports back into the deep recesses of some archive. There was no monument to the fallen S-IIIs like there was for the SPARTAN-IIs, no day of remembrance for the children who had given their lives for humanity. It had always struck Cassandra as one of the worst fates imaginable to be dead and not remembered by anyone.
The rest of her day would be spent in quiet memorial to these unsung heroes. She’d attend a short church service and perhaps visit some of the memorials to the Great War that were scattered around the city of Boston. This was that special day in which she allowed herself to become immersed in the past, and she did not intend to waste it.
But before she did any of these things, there was one self-created ritual that she had to complete.
Sitting at the desk she faced a stack of clear white notecards, all purchased a week in advance. In her hand was a pencil, an antique she’d purchased alongside an electric sharpener at a pawn shop. The pencil’s yellow surface had been worn down by numerous sharpenings, but its tip was still perfectly capable of performing the task at hand.
Pulling a single notecard off the stack, Cassandra closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Then she opened them and began to write.
SPARTAN-G015, Benjamin, age twelve. Team Kopis. Killed in action by enemy sniper fire.
Each letter was drawn out with the utmost precision, each word written with an almost reverent care. These were the only memorials afforded to her friends and she would not allow them to be defaced by an errant twitch of the hand.
Laying the finished card gently to the side, she silently drew another and resumed writing.
SPARTAN-G014, Alex, age twelve. Team Kopis. Killed in action by enemy fire.
She’d seen their bodies, limp and devoid of life, as they lay on the forest floor. No effort had been made to recover them, and they’d undoubtedly been collected and desecrated by the Covenant soldiers once the battle had ended.
SPARTAN-G235, Nathan, age twelve. Team Kopis. Killed in action by enemy close-range weapons.
Nathan had been torn in half by a Jiralhanae Chieftain’s gravity hammer. He’d always been resentful of her combat deficiencies, always angry that his team had been saddled with one of Gamma Company’s worst fighters, but he’d still died saving her life, pushing her out of the way when he himself could have been leaping to safety instead.
She reached for the next card, but before she could write a tremor seemed to pass through her body. A single tear slid down her face, but she steadied her hand and pressed on.
SPARTAN-G270, Vincent, age thirteen. Team Kopis, squad leader. Missing in action, presumed dead.
Her team leader had been the last to die, but she had never seen his body. Too wounded to make it to the extraction point in time, he’d headed off their pursuers in order to give her time to get to safety. She’d last seen him limping off into the woods, weapon blazing.
Now came Team Jian’s turn. The new squad had welcomed her with open arms when she’d been transferred to them, and they deserved no less a memorial than Team Kopis.
SPARTAN-G150, Terrence, age twelve. Team Jian. Killed in action by enemy fire.
Team Jian’s long ranged specialist had taken an explosive Brute Shot round to the face. Despite her medical training, Cassandra had found herself unable to look at his body’s head.
SPARTAN-G130, Mary, age twelve. Team Jian. Missing in action, presumed dead.
Simon had been with Mary when Cassandra had last seen her. They’d both been stuck on a rapidly descending mining elevator back on New Africa. Simon had never spoken of her death, and Cassandra had never thought to ask.
The final card was the hardest to write. Perhaps it was because its subject was not as positively dead as the others. Perhaps it was because he had been with her the longest, throughout their exile with the Sanghelli and their days on Hekate. Maybe she just didn’t want to think of him as being dead. With a hand that she was barely able to keep steady, she completed the card.
SPARTAN-G294, Simon, age seventeen. Te am Jian. Missing in action, presumed dead.
He would have despised the use of his designation. A number, he’d always said, was something you assigned property, not people. But it wouldn’t feel right to deviate from the format she’d used for all the others.
Cassandra had never known what became of Jake and Ralph, Team Jian’s two surviving members. They had not made any appearances during the Myrmidon training or the Midgard crisis, which meant that they’d probably been reassigned to another one of ONI’s black operations programs.
She felt guilty that she couldn’t have the full list of Gamma Company’s casualties, but there really was no way for her to accurately tally the dead without an official unit roster. Perhaps she’d try and secure one at some point in her life so that the other dead could have a place in her thoughts and prayers. The UNSC would almost certainly be unwilling to give a civilian classified documents, but there were always ways of getting one’s hands on such things.
Later she’d burn the cards and dispose of the ashes in a respectable fashion. But for now and the rest of the day she’d hold on to them. They were the only things she had to remember her friends by.
For the first time in her four years of setting this day aside, she’d actually be doing something enjoyable in the evening. Redmond, another young veteran from another class of SPARTANs, had tentatively set some time aside from his school studies for a date. They’d been doing it for a while, and Cassandra couldn’t bring herself to refuse. Her friends, especially Vincent, probably would have preferred things like this anyway. They’d hate to know that she was depriving herself for their sake.
Somehow that thought just made things a little bit sadder.
MORNING THUNDER (June 30, 2009)
Halo: Galactic Era Prologue (Part I, UNSC Perspective)
Like a swift-footed sentry, Dashan steadfastly made its rounds around its parent star, millions of kilometers away, circumscribing the dwarf star in a stellar waltz of grandiose proportions.
The distant star broke over Dashan’s horizon, beckoning the dawn. It hung in unnaturally pale skies, as if a baleful, malevolent eye, a celestial sentinel. Bloodshot light spilled over the planet’s glacial plains, inflaming the snow with a hellish hue, as if the planet was afire.
Rising to the morning’s call, as if drawn to the scent of the bloody light, myriad metallic birds of prey began to assemble, an infinitude without number, preparing to adorn Dashan with her dawn sacrifice of shed blood.
“Mission is a go at rolex plus five.”
“Haven, this is Weatherman. Metrological report says it’s safe for the birds to fly. We’re receiving solid GPS numbers for the strike.”
“We’re double-checking Weatherman’s numbers. J-2 confirms Battle Code Red.”
“All units, we’re sending out revised coordinates. Spotters have a possible fix on the target’s location—”
“Angel Six, taxi to romeo-lima and prepare for immediate take-off.”
“Strike Package Alpha is a go, Haven.”
“Copy that. All elements, mission is go. Repeat, mission is go.”
The metallic raptors ascended into the air with supernatural speeds, transversing the crimson-hued skies effortlessly, agilely darting, as if propelled by mere ethereal thought. Their bodies were an acute contusion of grey and black hues, their forms precise, angular, and crisp—these mechanical predators had been bred for one purpose only; to kill and slay upon command. Their forms were lean, cruel; their eyes shone with the color of arterial blood.
They assembled into a grandiose crest, an arrowhead that pointed towards the yonder rising dawn star, a salute of death. The starlight shimmered from their unnatural surfaces, the vessels palpitating, as if tremoring in the anticipation of the bloodshed to come.
The dawn was broken by staccato bursts of encrypted chatter.
“Nav check, nav check.”
”Alpha element is three minutes from drop.”
“Strike King to Haven. We are approaching wave-off authorization position and are requesting updated tasking orders.”
“Haven here. All elements, be advised, CJSOTF-Dashan and Naval Intelligence have given final authorization for the operation. We are green-lit. Handing over operational authority to you, Delta Six.”
“Roger, Haven. I have authority.”
For Sergeant Randall Ridenour, undoubtedly, one of the most invigorating feelings achievable in military life was riding a helicopter into battle, the rhythmic thunder of the rotors the clamor of the God of War, the patriotism and adrenaline like lightning, coursing through his veins. The cyclonic winds tore at his feet, like the hydra’s tentacles, attempting to flick him off of the fast-moving Army DO-30 Kingfisher helicopter into the jagged mountainous peaks thousands of feet below.
He clung for life and limb to the metal exoskeleton of the Kingfisher, his fleshy hands and feet desperately adhering to the helicopter as the metallic raptor trembled in expectation of the bloodshed to come.
Trained as a Navy corpsman, Ridenour found an unmistakable allure to the wanton violence of special operations—he was terrified of the deafening gunfire and explosions, the deft speed with which humanity’s finest killers slayed, and he was horrified of the carnage they wrought; the mangled bodies, the gaping mouths, the twisted limbs and scattered blood.
Yet, here, clinging to the side of a attack helicopter as he rode on the edge of an advancing wave of vicious machine and flesh as mankind’s tsunami sought to consume another alien township, he could not deny the sheer thrill, the ecstasy of combat—the sheer glory of an entire wave of metallic war machines, the rapture of watching over an entire crack legion of mankind’s best soldiers, the intoxicating scent of victory; of surviving an alien enemy’s best efforts to kill him, and being able to survive to tell the tale.
And today, manufacturing the death of a rebel warlord responsible for the deaths of thousands of UNSC soldiers and marines on this godforsaken, depraved arctic world. Thousands of light-years from Earth, Terra’s children met the alien foe in open battle and avenged their fallen brothers and sisters.
Ridenour leaned his helmeted head out of the swift gunship, his visored eyes seeking the entire armada of UNSC special forces that rode their steeds onwards to blood and battle—his helicopter, “Angel Six”, was the first in the column of black-hulled Kingfisher light attack gunships, the leading UNSC warship. Close behind were seven other similar helicopters, each replete with four black-armored troopers with their legs dangling off the precipices of their choppers as his was.
The DO-30 Kingfisher was one of Army Special Operations Aviation (SOA)’s lighter models, a two-man gunship originally intended for reconnaissance work—thus, it was a small, nimble covert chopper, one capable of carrying four UNSC special operators in and out of hot zones, beneath the radar umbrella, in day or night.
The small size of the Kingfisher excluded a proper troop bay; thus, its four passengers were forced to sit on jumpseats on the edge of the helicopter, the stirring winds invigorating their spirits and attempting to tear them off the gunship.
Aboard Angel Six was four members of Ridenour’s six-man team; Major Courtney “Archer” West (commanding officer), Master Sergeant Blake Robinson (noncommissioned officer in charge), Sergeant Pratik Shah, and then Sergeant Randall Ridenour.
In the lagging chopper to starboard were Sergeant First Class Gordon Hedges and Staff Sergeant Alexander Grant. Together, the six warriors comprised Army Special Forces Team Delta Seven Fourteen (“Delta Four”), one of the leading teams of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force—Dashan (CJSOTF Dashan). Along with them in the second Kingfisher was an attached long-gun sharpshooter/observation team, Staff Sergeant Peter Lancaster and Sergeant Bethany Sullivan.
Ridenour’s gaze panned in the innards of his own vessel; in full combat equipment, Delta Four’s members were ghastly wraiths, abominations of the darkness—black load-bearing vests with matching tactical helmets and shinguards. Dashan’s starlight glistened off their armors, and Randall could not help but admire his teammates, their fierceness, their quiet determination. The Kingfisher was devoid of chatter—the Army Special Forces were a focused cohort, and these precious minutes prior to the assault served as a mutually-respected oasis of quiet which served to unify the assault time in mind, heart, and spirit.
His vision dropped to his own belt; in his black-gloved hands was an MA12-SOC/CQB carbine, the “A12 Carbine” that was the favorite for UNSC special forces. His bulletproof vest bore few other accoutrements, only two spare magazines for his 5.56mm infantry weapon and the black-edged lethal carbide knife that was the pride of the UNSC Army Special Operations Group. Ridenour’s vest was largely devoid of insignia for counterintelligence purposes, although he proudly bore the silvery wings of Ranger Jump School (Asphodel Meadows) and the lustrous caduceus—the twinned snakes of a Navy/Marine Corpsman; his personal reminder to himself that he had been trained and raised in the art of healing, not that of killing.
But on Dashan, on these embittered, ague, and desolated wastelands—on this foreign and alien world far on the Outer Rim, few could preserve their humanity; and slowly, Ridenour found himself slipping into the war frenzy that had consumed his comrades, that he was turning into a merciless monster without regard for human nor alien life.
He gritted his teeth, feeling the mouthguard clenched between his jaws.
He would not succumb.
Today, they would kill for only one reason—to assassinate the rebel mastermind that had the blood of thousands on his hands.
Their resolve would not weakened, their faith would not fail. He, Randall Ridenour, was one of mankind’s finest. They had to succeed; there was no other alternative.
The frigid winds chewed into his exposed cheek, rousing him back to reality and the eve of battle.
From the lead jumpseat, Archer spoke, her feminine form glorious as she brazenly sat at the precipice of the assault force, determined and unafraid, the embodiment of mankind’s courage.
“Delta Six to Sniper TOC. What’s your sitrep.”
“Activity, Blue, West. One Unggoy.”
The condensed jargon could only be that of a Marine Force Recon sniper. Ridenour parsed the communiqué rapidly; one Unggoy (Grunt) had departed the three-story target building, from the western side of the first floor.
“Any sign of the target?”
“Negative, Six. We are cold feet as of yesterday, 1430 hours.”
Ridenour breathed heavily. An entire sniper platoon from Marine Force Recon had taken up positions around the small Unggoy colony last night, canvassing the entire town from sniper positions in the surrounding mountains. ONI’s target, the rebel commander, had taken shelter in the objective center in the center of the town, and hadn’t been spotted leaving since then.
All the members of CJSOTF-Dashan and JTF-11 understood how imperative this mission was; five bloody years, the UNSC had spent on Dashan, attempting to fend off the marauding aliens that were slaughtering human citizens on the planet.
Only recently had ONI developed actionable intelligence, information on the rebel command structure and chain of command. Taking out this target was an alpha-level priority directive from Naval Intelligence. Tens of thousands of humans, soldiers and citizens, had died on Dashan. Killing this single warlord was the first step in cauterizing the infectious rebel tumor that was metastasizing across the planet.
He felt fierce rage burn through him, worm his way to his heart.
“Copy, Sniper TOC. Sixty seconds to drop.”
“Recon Six to Delta Six. Rifle teams are standing by to provide support fires, over.”
Archer and Robinson exchanged glances, and after a moment’s look into each other’s eyes, both knew what had to be done.
Courtney grasped the short-wave radio, and her words were fierce and determined. They could not fail.
“Assault leader to all elements. Fire Order Vermillion. Air Assault. Out.”
It was done, the deplorable words spoken.
With those words, the Army officer had consigned hundreds of innocent Unggoy to their deaths. Because it had to be done.
Metallic cries yearned through the air, high-frequency crackles that leapt through the atmosphere. A flight of Navy F-779 Predator interceptors detached themselves from the core formation, breaking hard to port, their azure afterburners lending an electric fervor to the dry morning air.
Major West spoke again, and the thrill of battle entranced Ridenour.
“Voodoo, this is Delta Six. Requesting fire mission, over.”
“Delta, this is Voodoo Leader. Standing by for fire mission, out.”
“We have fire observers on the ground, Voodoo—patching you through to Sniper TOC. Delta out.”
“Recon Six to Voodoo”, declared the Force Recon commander. “Adjust fire to mike-golf three-six-four by nine-oh-five. Requesting MOAB munitions. Attack direction is northwest, and approach is clear.”
“Voodoo Six to Recon Six. Fire mission confirmed. Copy northwest.”
“Be advised, air strike is in effect. Voodoo Six out.”
Ridenour felt his lips run dry. Force Recon’s leader on the ground wasn’t doing anything to curb potential innocent casualties—he had requested an air strike with laser-guided MOAB (Mother of All Bomb) munitions, the heaviest air-to-ground ordinance carried by Navy fighters. The 20-ton high-explosive warheads were capable of leveling over twenty city blocks from the overpressure shockwave.
The air strike would literally wipe off half of the village off the map.
Suddenly, Ridenour had a concern for the safety of the target; if the Navy’s Predators overshot their target, their objective building and their target—the rebel officer—would be incinerated like so many thousands of feet of building. ONI would be interrogating atomized ashes in the former likeliness of an insurgent commander.
Nevermind the target—half of an innocent village—nearly ten thousand Unggoy would perish in milliseconds.
Someone at CJSOTF Dashan obviously had revised the “acceptable civilian casualty” limit from one hundred to tens of thousands.
“Voodoo Nine to Voodoo Six. Testing for enemy fire guidance radars. Negative. Testing for enemy passive guidance radars. Negative. Testing for enemy anti-air fire. Negative. Sir—target is defenseless.”
Ridenour exchanged glances with Shah, in the seat next to him—the place was supposedly a rebel stronghold, bristling with anti-air cannons, field artillery, and mechanized cavalry. Authorizing a nine hundred kiloton air strike on a defenseless Unggoy worker village would be akin to hunting a bunny with a rocket launcher.
“Delta Six, this is Voodoo Six. Negative on enemy double-A fire. We have aerial superiority. Beginning attack runs, over.”
“Roger, Voodoo Six. Delta Six out.”
From Ridenour’s vantage, legs dangling off of the nimble scout chopper, his gaze like that of God upon the Unggoy village, a small squid of mottled purple and cyan writhing in a canyon flanked by snow-crowned mountains, there was serenity—a small flood of Unggoy and Kig-Yar waddling in their mountain village, peace of mind upon them as they rose from their morning communals and prayers.
And the next second, reality horribly yawed, and then shattered altogether.
The Navy air strike had begun.
Ragnarok blossomed on Dashan. Massive, incinerating infernos winked into existence, their massive kiloton-yield shockwaves sundering the fabric of reality.
The brilliance was like that of a nuclear explosion—even through his polarized visor, Ridenour forced himself to look away and his eyelids squeezed shut as a solid wall of brilliant incandescence and overpressure shockwave slammed into the limber Kingfisher, threatening to wrest it from the air.
And then it was over; Ridenour gazed at his exposed forearms, and found that there had been blisters from the intense heat of the thermobaric blasts.
“Voodoo Six here. Splash one, over.”
“Recon Six to Voodoo Six. Splash one, copy. Requesting revised fire mission. Adjust fire left two thousand, drop five thousand.”
“Adjust fire mission, confirmed. Voodoo Flight Two, you have authorization.”
The Navy Predator fighters continued to dive—they waggled their wings, then broke the holding formation, breaking by wingpairs, wing-to-wing, then executing awesome dives, dropping tens of thousands of feet in the air before releasing their munitions.
It happened again, and again, until fully two-thirds of the village were afire. Columns of oily smoke and fire rose, so prolific that they blotted out the morning sunrise.
“Voodoo Six here. Splash fire, over.”
“Recon Six to Voodoo elements. Good shot, good shot. Terminate fire mission Conclude that majority of kill box has been slagged. Casualties are estimated in the thousands, over. You are clear to engage, assault force.”
As Ridenour gazed at the tempest of fire and smoke that raged below in the mountain valley, the hell of broken earth and magma that oozed through charred soil, the blood raining like rainfall, he could not help but interpret some portent of impending doom from the red and black that scarred Dashan’s mountains and skies.
Ten thousand lives, extinguished at a word.
He felt strangely hollow inside, the fight within him, depleted.
The attack force and Team Delta-Seven had departed Hotel California to assassinate a single rebel commander—now, an entire village had been bombarded to piecemeal.
Suddenly, the air assault didn’t seem so glorious.
Robinson jarred him from his introspection. The massive man’s glove bounced off his shoulder pauldron.
“Ridenour! Get ready to drop! Sierra-papa-india in thirty seconds! Gas and packs!”
Instinctively, the team’s members reached for their weapons and their ammunition. It was time.