SEVENTH CYCLE, NINTH AGE OF RECLAMATION / COVENANT HOLY CITY “HIGH CHARITY”, COUNCIL CHAMBERS
The Council lined the chamber sides, watching and murmuring amongst itself. The Sangheili members kept to one side of the room, while the San’Shyuum members kept to the other. The debate was a lot more heated ont eh Sangheili side, as Zuro had expected – the Prophets would all be in agreement as to the cause of his failure, the results, and the punishment.
Ahead of him, the shadows shrouded three figures. Hover-Thrones were rare and expensive, and no Prophets lower in status than Vice-Minister were afforded. The majority made to with anti-gravity belts. Zuro had once tried one – he could never live like that. His muscles would atrophy, his posture would curl up, and he would have weakened to the point of feebleness rapidly. Since that was the Prophets’ natural state, however, he had to admit that they served their purpose well. A Prophet could go his whole life without having to touch a floor.
Two of the figures emerged from the shadows, flanking the third who remained further back. The Hierarchs of Mercy and Regret would deal with him, Zuro knew, and he knew that he had to sway at least one of them to survive.
“The Hierarchy has heard your explanation of the events, and has but a few questions to ask,” Regret said, looking contemptuously at Zuro. “You explained that the humans were waiting for you – how did they know you were proceeding to that planet?”
Zuro’s mandibles flexed in irritation. “I do not know, Hierarch. Our orders were broadcasted on encrypted channels, and were sent to the task force directly from the Ministry of Acquisition. I can only assume that the humans have broken one of our codes, and learnt of it directly from the source.”
There was a rise in the level of muttering from the Prophet half of the Council, and Zuro knew they would not readily accept that their codes had been broken so easily. He shrugged them off. “It is the only explanation that comes to my mind, Excellency.”
Regret nodded. “Very well then. The Council shall investigate your claim, and if it proves correct then measures shall be taken to teach the humans what happens when they nose about where they do not belong. You also told us that it was Supreme Commander Kuna ‘Tsunamee who ordered your ships in without scouts set.”
“Yes. If we had managed to launch scouts, we would have seen the humans – we could have been better prepared, we could have returned with superior numbers, there are a dozen measures we could have taken but were unable to.”
“Was Tsunamee following standard military protocol?”
Zuro’s eyes flickered towards the Sangheili councillors. “He was following standard practice, Excellency.”
“I see. And standard practice includes incompetence, does it?”
Now the Sangheili councillors were shifting. Technically, all ships were meant to launch scouts in unknown territory, to get a better understanding of the region. But with the use of the Luminaries to alert fleet commanders to human presence, and the superiority of Covenant sensory equipment, most had dropped the practice, seeing it as redundant. Until now, Zuro had agreed with it. He resolved to carry it out every time if he returned to his duties.
Regret ignored the question he had asked, and Zuro realised it had been rhetorical. He had been about to reply, but closed his mandibles without saying a word.
Mercy piped up, his ancient voice croaking through the chamber. “Your ships were destroyed with apparent ease, Fleet Master. Superior to the humans’ ships in every way, of sufficient strength to crush them, you still lost.”
“The debris of the corridor placed much strain upon our shields, and there were static build-ups. An electromagnetic field hindered our plasma guidance systems, forcing us to rely on short-range laser turrets. With such limited weaponry and battered shields, it should not be surprising that we were unable to compete.”
Mercy frowned. No member of the Covenant, regardless of species or status, liked to hear a military commander admit inferiority, however circumstantial. Regret chimed in, “Yet their systems were unaffected, were they not? Clearly something technical must be factored into the equation.”
Zuro frowned, but he had to admit that the Hierarchs had a point. Either the Covenant’s systems had been tampered with, or the human ships had an immunity to the EM field that his did not. That was troubling, and he made a mental note to inquire further.
“As for your tactic…I do not deny that it has been of use, and allowed us to continue more work than we would have. But your flee from the battlefield is unacceptable.”
Zuro bared his teeth. “I did not “flee”, Excellency. I saw no victory, and remaining in such a poor position would have been pointless, so I gathered my forces to withdraw. If I had not, High Charity would have learned of our failure much later than it did.”
Regret stroked his wattles, looking thoughtsful. Mercy scowled, but that was the elderly Hierarch’s normal state. At last, Regret murmured, “yes…loyalty to the Covenant…irrelevant sacrifice…”
Zuro’s hearts leapt. Had he done it? He had expected to sway Mercy, who held the military in such high regard. But Regret was still a Hierarch,r egardless of his reputation for clumsy ineptitude, and his support would give his arguments added weight.
Mercy piped up again, clearly intent on finding some flaw in his explanation. “So your only thought was to alert the High Council? It was not merely saving your own skin?”
“It was both.” Zuro hoped the truth would be acceptable. “The situation needed to be reported to High Charity urgently, yes, but I admit I would preferred to live rather than die, and spend the time until the Great Journey continuing to serve the Covenant rather than waiting in Death’s Dream Kingdom.”
Mercy nodded, as if he’d passed some kind of test by reaffirming his loyalty to the Covenant. Empty words for Zuro, but not so empty to the old zealot. Regret nodded approvingly, perhaps at the way he had endeared himself towards Mercy. And finally, without a word, they turned and floated back into the shadows to converse with the third Hierarch, the Prophet of Truth.
In theory, the Prophet Hierarchs were all equals, subservient to none, not even each other. But in practice, Zuro knew, it was Truth who lead the Hierarchs and who ruled the Covenant. And no matter which of the other two he had persuaded, it would be useless if the Prophet of Truth deemed him an incompetent heretic deserving of only execution.
There looked to be a heated argument. Evidently Zuro had failed to convince at least one of the other Hierarchs. But as he peered into the gloom, he made out the shape of Truth raising a hand, cutting them off, and the chamber fell silent. The Hierarch had made his decision, and all awaited his judgement.
The Hierarchs floated forward, Truth now joining them, floating ahead of the other two to form an arrowhead formation. Even if Zuro had not known it before, he would have seen from the Prophet’s bearing and the way that the other two followed his lead that Truth was the true leader of the Covenant.
He swallowed, his mandibles clicking together nervously.
Truth looked around the Council, as though looking for someone, his gaze resting for a moment among the San’Shyuum delegation before returning to Zuro. The Fleet Master could feel the sheer force behind them, the keen intellect burning ferociously.
He had never feared the Prophets before. But he feared this Prophet, and with good reason.
He raised his arms up, and the miniscule amount of chatter that had broken out died out, leaving a silence just as loud as if they had been shouting.
“The hierarchy has made its decision. While your decision to leave the battlefield was…unusual, the benefits the Covenant have reaped outweigh any drawbacks. We were alerted as soon as you arrived, and we have had time to prepare again to take the planet that is by rights our inheritance. The Fleet of Enlightened Benediction stands by to take the planet the humans have claimed. We need only someone of enough skill to lead them into battle.
“it is useless casting blame. The Commander who ordered you into an ambush is now dead, his ship shattered by the sheer number of human warships. But numbers can be drowned, and firepower can be matched in turn. It is time we showed the humans why the Covenant is feared and respected by countless races, and why it is us, and not them, that are the rightful inheritors to the Forerunner’s legacy.”
He nodded to a figure in the balcony, and now even Zuro turned to look, managing to find the figure…the Vice-Minister of Acquisition.
“Consider this an investment of our trust. The chance for glory and redemption are yours once again, but there are conditions which we impose. The planet contains a relic of vital importance to the Great Journey, and shall light the way along the path. If you accept, then you will allow us to appoint the Vice-Minister as the Hierarchs personal representatives, to oversee the protection and excavation of the relics. Do you accept?”
There was a gasp throughout the room, and Zuro frowned, hesitant. Such a move was unprecedented – the Writ of Union made clear the division between the Sangheili and the San’Shyuum, and to appoint a Prophet representative to oversee a battlefield violated it. But the Hierarchs words were law, and nothing he culd argue could change that.
Besides, what alternative was there? Execution for failure, and ignominy and shame for him and his family. His children would be taken from their mother and uncle, and taught how their father had been a heretic. His clan would be shamed, their titles and lands stripped from them. Only shame awaited him if he said no.
He drew himself, hoping he looked proud and strong, and said, “I accept your offer, Noble Hierarch. And I shall continue my campaign against the humans.”
The Prophet smiled thinly. “You shall indeed, Fleet Master. And I expect results. Do not disappoint.”
The Vice-Minister frowned deeply. The Councillors and the Fleet Master had departed, as had Regret and Mercy. Only Truth remained with him.
Acquisition had rarely met the Hierarch in person. Holograms were the normal means of communication between them – for physical security, and because it meant that they were not seen together. Their movements would not be tracked back to each other if they conversed impersonally through holographic avatars.
It troubled him that Truth had seen fit to dispense with that, at least this one time.
“Your Minister saw fit to resign today,” Truth said, almost conversationally. “He believed that his family needed him, especially with his mate carrying his third child. Such fertility is rare, and we need all the young we can produce.”
Acquisition’s eyes widened in shock, and knowing. It was not well known that the Minister was sterile, but his mate had still managed to raise two children. But Acquisition had held back the implications of such a scandal because it was leverage he could use.
Suddenly, he had lost that leverage. And he wondered what leverage the Hierarch held.
“I…did not know that, Hierarch. Did he choose a successor?”
“He did not. The speed of his retirement took him by surprise, you could say. But as Vice-Minister, of course, your place in the Ministerial hierarchy is assured. Tomorrow, you will begin your first day as a full Minister by journeying with the fleet, and seeing to it that the relics the human world possesses do not fall into their hands.”
The Vice-Minister – no, the Minister, had to admire the way Truth had manipulated the old coot into stepping down. There were rumours about how the current Hierarchs had ascended, but it did not pay to dwell upon the legitimacy of your leaders.
“The Sangheili are growing suspicious, Hierarch. How could they not? Our favouritism toward the Jiralhanae draws their ire, and. you have violated the Writ of Union for the first time in centuries”
“Surely you are not complaining, Minister? To oversee the excavation of a holy relic of the gods is a rare thing, especially for one so well preserved and important as this one. You should be flattered.”
Acquisition bowed his head. “I am, Hierarch, and honoured. But I worry that the Sangheili shall suspect more than they do already. I cannot guarantee how much time we have, only that it rapidly dwindles with every day.”
Truth looked thoughtful. “The time is fast approaching, Minister, when we must all look at what ideals our guards must embody. Nobility or loyalty? Honour or sacrifice? And when that day comes, Minister, we must take an extra hard look at the fate of the Covenant, and what path we must take them down.”
Acquisition was alarmed now – he did not wish to be taken into the confidence of a Hierarch. Such people rarely survived for long, either from jealous colleagues or by the Hierarchs needs to remove complications. But a small part of him felt privileged that the Hierarch had deemed him worthy of such confidence nevertheless.
“You will accompany the Fleet Master on his mission. For too long, we have allowed bumbling ineptitude and disregard for sacred relics to cloud the path. Find what we seek, and light the path. And above all-”
“Do not disappoint?”” Acquisition hazarded a guess.
Truth raised an eyebrow. “Indeed, Minister. Now, do not let me detain you any longer. I’m sure there is much that needs attending to.”
And with a certain finality, the Hierarch hovered out of the doors, leaving the Minister alone with only his thoughts.