Castle in the Sky
Chapter 17: Castle in the Sky
I left my quarters. The air around me
was a pure haze, almost opaque. I walked through this mist, not knowing where
I'd arrive. Had the air purifiers gone faulty? Over-condensation was common with
older, less efficient condensers. But surely the Thermisticles' systems were newer than the average ships'.
I could see clearly for about one meter, no more.
Many steps I took until faint voices barely penetrated the thick mist. If memory served me correctly, I'd be entering the galley in just a few paces. Sounds guided me more so. I could hear laughter, giggling, and playful screams of children not far ahead. The fog grew thin and visibility increased. I approached a clearing and there was enough light that I could see my hands. They were small like a child's, and as I walked closer to the source of light and laughter, I could see outlines of familiar faces. I could see my home. This was my neighborhood. I looked around: my friends were playing in the street.
At the end of the road, a dear friend of mine threw a pigskin. It spiraled through the air to another. He caught it and spiked it to the gravel like heroes of his would at real games. The girls sat on a lush patch of grass across the street drinking homemade lemonade. They pointed and gossiped and giggled, doing what girls of their age do. But one girl…she wasn't with the others. She was out in the street with fresh scrapes and bruises on her knees and elbows. She was different. She liked to play. She was often more skilled than some of the guys. She wasn't taller or stronger, but she was cunning and tenacious. She had potential.
She was the new girl in town on vacation visiting her relatives. She'd wandered to our street looking for fun and games. I didn't know her well, but she felt familiar as if I should've known her at some point in my past. Some resented her for being able to outclass them in their favorite pastime. I hadn't met her yet. I remembered the intimidation I felt when I first saw her play. I wasn't embarrassed by it like the others. I never once resented her abilities.
One of my neighbors grasped the football he just spiked and threw it back to his friend. The intended receiver reached for it, but this girl dashed in front of him and snatched it out of the air. She held it close as she landed, not losing a stride as she picked up speed. The chase was on.
He matched her pace and followed her line, but where she lacked breakaway power, she made up for it in wit. She was very agile…
She shifted, zigzagged, stopped on a dime, and she threw him more off balance the faster they went. In an instant, he lost traction on one foot and nearly fell on his side. She pumped her legs again and left him far behind, glancing rearward with a smirk. All he could do was slap a hand to the ground in frustration. "You're not that fast!"
I chuckled to myself. If she wanted that ball, it was hers, regardless of how fast she was. No one was willing to give her the credit she deserved, though. Having her on your team just meant you were more likely to win, that was all. She was a decent athlete, nothing more. No one conversed with her, talked about things other than football with her. I thought differently. She had a fire that I respected. I hoped she'd never lose it.
Now, she was too far away for the boy to even hope catching her. She enacted her own celebration ritual and thumber her nose at her rival. She caught my admiring eye from far away and smiled.
I looked towards the void I entered this world through. The troubled reality of the universe was back that way. The hearsay of colonial dissidents and the spook stories of Covenant weren't in this dream.
I had my own castle in the sky. I was safe.
I would live in this dream until it ended.
The boy eyed the new girl with envy. As she danced in her own private end zone, I noticed a couple at the far end of the street. They were husband and wife on a stroll. I had never seen them before, possibly neighbors from a different community. The weather was nice today and brought out a lot of people I'd never seen, but something was odd about them. They way they walked hand in hand didn't seem natural for either of them. They were close together but distant, and they paid particular mind to this new girl—pointing and nodding at her discretely.
But one of them gasped in shock. I looked just in time to see her on the ground in a cloud of dust. My neighbor and friend had pushed her down to the ground as she celebrated. I felt embarrassment of our friendship as he took the ball away from her loose grip and trotted off. He obtained his revenge in a shameful way. He also thought he got the best of her. He was wrong.
As he reveled in triumph, she pushed herself up and chased after him. The stealth she exuded was remarkable. He didn't know she was coming until all her weight slammed into him from behind, knocking the ball loose. Dazed, he looked for her but it was too late. She was gone in a flash with the ball. He was more furious than ever and ran like the wind.
Again, she was too distant.
He placed his hands on his hips and breathed heavily. What was once an angry and determined look on his face was now one of acceptance and defeat. He was tired and frustrated. He wasn't going to have it his way today. She was going to win, and him nodding respect to her and turning away confirmed that.
She stood tall and alone at the far end of the road. I took a chance and ran over to her as the street crowd began to dwindle. "Hey, that was nice. I think that's the first time that has ever happened here."
"You know my name?"
"I might be better at sports than these guys, but I still hang with the girls."
She dropped the ball at her side and brought her hands to bear in front of her face. Her palms were skinned and bloodied, likely stinging.
"Yeah, are you ok? That fall you had looked pretty nasty."
She took a second to ponder the question, but instead of replying she just waved me off. She bent down for the ball and walked away.
"What's your name?" I shouted.
I never saw her again.
Alone, I looked around. The mysterious couple was already walking from whence they came, never looking back. Everyone was gone except me.
That was the last I ever saw of the girl from Beta Hydrii. The only thing I knew of where she came from was that her colony had vast continents with long beaches.
All the houses lining the street started to lose color. Red brick and white concrete began to fade to grey-white, exactly like the fog slowly approaching again. The laughter was entirely silent. The world felt empty. There was nothing more to see or do or feel from a time nearly drowned out by a new life filled with war. The dream itself was ushering me out. I began to accept that it was time to face the reality awaiting me again. I turned and proceeded into the heaviest patch of fog, which now felt more of a home than this place I visited all too briefly. Strange, but true.
My next sight was that of the white ceiling above my bunk. It was low and confining. The heavy feeling of waking eyelids wasn't upon me after a dream so vivid. I was instantly awake. I rolled over and hopped onto the floor, feeling the need to cleanse.
I walked down the corridors with a towel around my waist, shower shoes on my feet, and liquid soap in my hands. The air was cold as it hit my bare chest. My arms reacted with goose bumps. I rounded the corner and entered the shower room, walking into a wall of steam at the doorway. The sound of purifiers and water flowing through deionizers was the only sounds to be heard.
Usually the shower rooms were fully occupied and had a lot of voices. There was only water crashing into ceramic tiles. Once through the first wall of vapor, I saw Amy standing naked under a shower head.
Her body was well-defined, but not what I'd imagined. She could pass for an ordinary female, even with the amazing feats she'd accomplished still fresh in my mind. The water flowed from her short, brown hair, down the sharp line of her jaw, cascading into the hollow of her neck, then pouring like a waterfall as it rounded her breasts. Her skin was creamy-white, almost fully pale.
She turned to let the water hit her back, coming around to face me. Our eyes met.
I realized I hadn't moved.
I saw her face for the first time and was blinded by a different kind of beauty.
"How many females are in Lima Company?" she asked. The wording was direct and so was the tone in her voice, as if I was being examined.
The sound of rushing water seemed to overpower her and I replayed her words in my head to be sure of what I just heard. She stood patiently for my response, but a gut feeling told me it would be impolite to keep her waiting. I felt she expected a quick, correct answer. "Uh, yes we have other females in Lima Company." I answered straightforwardly. "I believe there are currently fifteen other females in Lima Company."
"Then why are you staring at me?"
I forced a straight face. "I wasn't. Just curious to know who else was here."
I walked in and I snatched the towel off my waist, threw it onto a nearby bench and chose a shower stall in the most dense patch of steam. I tried not to look at her as I turned on a faucet.
She'd finished her rinsing and walked to a bench for a towel. She patted herself dry rather quickly as I started to lather. After I rinsed the shampoo from my hair, I turned around and she was gone.
Once dried and clothed, I thought about where to go kill time until my shift began a half-hour from now. I wasn't hungry and I wasn't feeling social. I wanted to relive another memory more than anything else, but I wasn't tired enough to fall asleep again. For once, I was fully rested after our private war thousands of miles and minutes distant.
I felt something wasn't right, though many things weren't right. So many things in my life were in disarray. I rounded the corner in the hall and proceeded straight ahead to the bridge in order to get involved in something and keep busy. There were more technicians and Marines milling about the entrance than usual as Captain Lawson held his usual post at the command console. He looked weary and taxed. The job of a commander depended on the efficiency of his entire force. I began to wonder if there was more Lima Company could do for him.
Holmes was at my station, his fingers dancing about the console, keying commands and typing messages. I hadn't expected to see the bridge this busy so soon. For all I knew, the only matter at hand was to proceed to Reach at our own pace. Eventually get a debriefing, submit after actions reports, earn a few days rest at the finest retreat in the galaxy, and then get the usual briefings on the next mission thereafter.
I approached Holmes and knelt down to his level as he sat face to face with his console. "Hey. What's the latest?"
An absentminded Holmes replied a moment later. "…Hey. You're just in time. Sleep well?"
"Actually, yeah. Haven't slept this well in a while."
"Good. Glad you're awake because you're gonna want to see this."
"What's going on? What'd I miss?"
"I think we've finally got orders. I think we might be moving out."
"No shit, huh?" I looked at the mission clock: fifty-two standard hours had passed since we boarded the Thermisticles, laying dormant in her shadowy depression. "What's the word?"
"Flash Traffic, it just came in." Holmes punched in a few new commands and an Emergency Action Message appeared on his screen. The orders couldn't have been more than a minute old as I read the timestamp on the introduction transcript. Holmes keyed in further. Together, we read:
United Nations Space Command Priority
Encryption Code: Red
Public Key: N/A
From: (CODE NAME) The Smoking Gun
To: (CODE NAME) World Traveler
Subject: OPERATION: ISLAND HOP
Classification: FOUO/Eyes Only (X-Ray Directive)
/START FILE/ DECRYPTION PROTOCOL/
FLASH TRANSMISSION DIRECTED TO ZACOM R&D SPECIAL OPERATIONS/CC
FLASH TRAFFIC REDIRECTED TO UNSC THERMISTICLES C2 VIA CLASS-VII ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (ROSETTA)
COMMENCE OPERATION: ISLAND HOP AT WILL.
Per General Order 98.93.120, you are authorized to take command of all military personnel, operations, and installations at any MAJCOM in the target path. You are authorized with CODE-WORD CLEARANCE: LIBERATUS to review any of the following condensed material, which is now, of considerable benefit.
DO NOT under any circumstances head to Earth or proceed on any vector that leads to Earth unless given the scramble order.
ATTENTION: ANY BREACH OF CODE-WORD CONFIDENTIALITY IS PUNISHABLE BY DEATH UNDER ARTICLE 192/FTO, UNIFORM CODE OF MILITARY JUSTICE AND THE AMENDED ARTICLES OF THE UNITED SECURITY ACTS OF 2162.
/ATTACHED FILE 1 OF 20/
March 7, 2552 (MIL CALENDAR)
MAJCOM-to-MAJCOM Beta Priority Communiqué
Subject: Request of ...
"What the hell? Where'd the rest of the file go?" I asked as the application abruptly closed.
Holmes immediately placed his hands atop the keyboard to troubleshoot.
"Let me see."
He re-opened the messaging application. It shouldn't have closed without direct action by him, which I was sure he hadn't done. A hasty power-up could've caused a glitch, but Rosetta would've surely detected any anomalies. Before consulting her, Holmes investigated further. After a minute of searching for the message, it was quite evident what we were looking for wasn't in the inbox. Holmes opened the deleted items section next, perhaps thinking he accidentally pressed the wrong key at some point and sent our elusive file down the trash chute.
"Where'd this thing run off to?"
Holmes' brow began to furrow and he leaned back in his chair to clear his head and think. After a few frustrating seconds, he bolted upright and began accessing a totally different section of his operating system. His keystrokes were light and swift with full concentration vested into this task.
"What now?" I asked.
Holmes answered me without glancing away from the screen. "There's something screwy going on and I need to find out what it might be. That was a God-damned Red-coded priority Flash addressed to, presumably, Captain Lawson. He'll not be happy if he doesn't get that message. I'm accessing the registry."
"You have access to that? The ship's registry?"
"Right now, I'm the only one who can."
"What about Rosetta?"
"What about her?"
"We could bring this up to her, see what she thinks, and she'll probably engineer a solution in half that time we could."
Holmes smirked. "Eh, maybe, but I want to try and do this myself."
"Fine, suit yourself. Just saying she's about a billion times faster than you or me."
Holmes was silent as he carried on.
Of course I might very well be as proud as Holmes in my own abilities. It was always the outsider, the detached observer, who saw the bigger picture in every situation. I'd learned this by now, and figured I'd let Holmes forge ahead out of a sense of pity.
It was odd that this console, and especially the ship's registry, wasn't monitored a thousand times per second by her. She could easily do it. Why hadn't she intervened already? Unless...she pulled the file herself. Buried it somewhere.
I turned away from Holmes and looked to her, that holographic form of hers conversing directly with the Captain. Her shoulders were squared to his, their eyes locked. She hadn't glanced at me. Why would she? That would be a dead giveaway. She knew I was here with Holmes, how couldn't she know? She likely knew what we were up to and what we humans were thinking. She'd likely calculated all the possible outcomes of our curiosity, what questions we'd ask and when.
What was Operation Island Hop?
Who was The Smoking Gun?
Holmes waved at me from his seat. I caught myself staring straight ahead into a blurry monitor. My vision came back into focus as he wakened me from my musings. "Hey, Thermisticles to Pennington."
"Yeah, I'm here." I said.
"Something doesn't add up, Penn. There's no record of this file existing. There's no audit trail available to me. It just vanished."
"Kinda like the Transit does, eh?"
"C'mon, help me out here. We're screwed if we can't recover this message."
"Alright, what do you think happened? How does a file vanish without any evidence of it vanishing?"
His brow furrowed again. "I don't know. A virus?"
"Doubtful. How long was this ship idling on the moon?"
"Probably pretty long."
"So, hypothetically, if it wasn't a virus, which Rosetta would probably know about, then what?"
"You're acting like you know something I don't."
"Not know. Just a guess."
"Well, take a guess for me, Blake."
"I think it's her."
Holmes twisted in his seat to get a good glance beyond me and to the command console. I could still hear her conversing with the Captain over my shoulder. They likely had a lot to discuss going forward. He swung his eyes back to me.
"You think she pulled it?"
"Who else...What else can do that?"
"Well, I suppose no one. I guess you're right. But why? I was here at this station. I received the message. I was supposed to forward it to the Captain. I'm competent."
"So, either she wanted that honor, or she deemed in a split second that it wasn't for our eyes."
"Ok, fine, but why permanently delete the freaking delivery receipt as well?"
"Because that message, Holmes, doesn't exist."
Holmes leaned back again, staring at me. He was silent for a moment.
"...What's going on here, Shakespeare? Are we getting duped again?"
I glanced over my shoulder once more. She was heavy into her discussions with the Captain. "I don't know, but whatever it is, it's high up there. You said it was Flash traffic at the Red level. We're not normally supposed to look at that kind of stuff unless it's read to us, right?"
"Sure, but we were assigned to this duty. Rosetta could've at least back-briefed me after she snatched a piece of my job away from me."
"Don't take it personal. It's just business. We're just button-pushers. No one's gonna ask an enlisted guy for his opinion, and I think she has a lot more to accomplish than us in her functions."
"It's not that personal for me, Blake, but the only thing she accomplished right now is amplifying my curiosity. I'm quite tired of the two-fingered hand dragging me around by the nostrils, and I know you are too."
"What's done is done. Our heads have to be in the right place."
"What place is that?"
"Helping the Captain in any way we can. Inventorying, inspection, resting up for the next mission."
"Jeez, Blake, who died and made you squad leader?"
"Your mom, alright? Now don't think too much about that file. It obviously wasn't meant for anyone but the Captain."
Holmes hunched over and nodded. "Damn, I'm tired!"
I could understand. We were just coming out of the fatigue of battle. A battle that would later define a war.
"Take off early," I said with a smile, "I got it."
"You sure? Your shift doesn't begin until another thirty minutes."
"Yeah, I'm sure. Get going. Get some shuteye."
"Thanks, man. Wake me up when something happens." he said with a grin.
"You know it." I took my seat.
Holmes exited the bridge. He wore a certain smile on the way out, met passerbys with it. It was a smile that told of pride, pain, hardship, endurance…of victory.
Our entire journey had been wrought with the highest peaks and the lowest valleys. We were ripped apart from our battles and pieced back together again by our own slivers of hope. We made it. We triumphed. We were going to finish the fight.
A light flicked on at my terminal. It was an incoming signal on a UNSC frequency. Were there friendlies about? Survivors?
A squawk came over my headset, most likely interference cutting into the channel or another listener blatantly stealing bandwidth. Maybe a solar flare or intense thermals from the ghosted Zagosa bleeding her charred soul into the external arrays. But it was on my entire receivable spectrum...Was I being jammed? Could the Covenant have found us?
I scrutinized the tools available to me and deduced that it wasn't what I feared. Rather, I heard a human voice when I patched that signal into my headset. It was so human that I forgot it was a machine. "How are you, Private Pennington?"
I slid the microphone down to bear in front of my mouth. "I'm fine. How are you, Rosetta?"
I asked the question in reply to her own. It was the natural, courteous response. But was it a real conversation? She was surely programmed to formulate a variety of appropriate answers, but could this AI comprehend the meaning of them?
"I'm doing just fine, though being cooped up in a less than spacious network is not the hospitality I'm used to."
I wasn't overwhelmed by such a unique answer to ordinary small talk, but I was beginning understand how much versatility she possessed in her logic.
"Hopefully, we won't be in space too long." I replied.
"Yes," she replied, "not too long indeed."
"You know our destination?"
"Where are we headed?"
"What's the next mission?"
"It's classified for now, Private. The Captain will determine when Lima Company will be cleared to know."
"We need to keep a tight lid on critical information at this stage in our operations. I do apologize if that weighs down on any uncertainties Lima Company might have at this time, but we must all work together in order to uphold the compartmentalization of any sensitive information we may encounter in the future. This means knowing what we're cleared to access and when."
She knew exactly what I was thinking. Only one response was the correct one. "I agree, ma'am."
"Thank you, Private. I'll have this same discussion with Corporal Holmes. Also, speaking of discussions, the enemy is hailing us."
I spun around in my chair and found her holoform. She winked at me. I spun back around and faced my console.
It was lit up like an excited fusion coil.
I scrambled for the controls, searched for the correct sequence to locate and process the incoming signal. While I boggled in my seat, frantically looking for the correct command string at the console, Rosetta whispered, "I took the liberty of deciphering the message. Want to see?"
"Sure." I said, trying to safeguard my dignity with an even tone. "Give it to me on screen."
"Splendid!" she said playfully. She put the message on display, already in our language. It was still a chore to read with the Covenant's broken understanding of our wording, and our broken understanding of theirs as well. It was universally understood that there was no direct translation between to the two opposing lexicons. I scanned the text as best I could, trying to comprehend the misplaced verbiage and trying to sift through the flagrant use of religious connotation.
It was a simple message, maybe a few sentences long. I read it carefully…
Then I froze.
I read the scope one more time, took a deep breath, and confirmed what was on display. I looked around. Each person was engrossed in their task. The bridge was a beehive of information and activity, but nothing felt the same anymore. They were prepared for the next mission, while I was now consumed in the past. The Captain was seated at his own console consulting ship reports. "Captain…sir…"
"Yes, Private, what is it?" he asked, turning to me. He gaited closer, asking, "What have you got?"
"It's a message from the Covenant." I said as he hovered over my chair. I could feel the color drain from my face as I re-read the message again and again.
"No...there's no way." Lawson whispered.
"What?" Doctor Kleiner asked, rushing over to my station. "Do they know our location?"
"No, it's the Gunny." I replied. "The Covenant claim to have him…and they want to trade."