An Exception to the Rule
Chapter 18: An Exception to the Rule
"Absolutely unacceptable! Are you insane?!"
The Doctor was furious.
Everything had been relatively calm and under control amidst the Command Deck a moment ago until someone suggested the boldest thing I ever heard. More bold and audacious than all the tales of every great Ship Commander's career-defining maneuvers combined.
Two neutral ships from either side would somehow agree to meet halfway and Lima Company would use the newly-discovered Device to double cross the entire Armada, essentially steal the Gunny and flee as the enemy delivered terms.
It was obvious Kleiner would categorically reject that line of logic. He'd see zero chance in risking the Transit. His position was defensible, but so was the other, and looking at the many faces of Lima Company was a harsh call to reality. It was instilled in every troop—the lifeblood of the UNSC—to never, ever leave a fallen comrade behind. The oft-unspoken rule summoned the awareness of anyone who'd fought and bled and sacrificed alongside others the way we did.
The Command Deck of the Thermisticles had taken on a new atmosphere. Marines and civilians crowded the bridge trying to gain insight into this sudden development. This enemy broadcast had troubled everyone regardless of which side of the issue they stood on. The air was still, the thoughts heavy. Total silence followed Doctor Kleiner's outburst. The enemy attempting to use the Gunny as a bargaining chip was one thing, but the Doctor we'd come to know as a veritable hero so quickly dismissing the fate of Lima Company's leader was quite another.
Removing myself from both sides of the argument as best I could, I realized something that very few others likely had: that even if Gunnery Sergeant Smith was extracted before the Outpost's destruction, did our adversary really believe we were going to give up the Transit for one man? I then cringed at how quickly I'd resigned the life we'd already once left behind on that dying world, but as the Doctor strongly alluded to, there was the inescapable, cold reality to acknowledge: whether or not he was still alive, the martyr he'd become was his true destiny. I reluctantly endorsed the idea even while my grieving for his fate was swallowing me whole.
In the grand scheme of the mission and indeed our very survival as an interstellar civilization, there was simply no trading this device for anyone or anything. The more I pondered the value of human life, even a single life, I imagined the Gunny would have us turn and run knowing that decision would save countless more. And that's exactly what he gave us: an altruistic farewell from a man who urged us to live and fight another day with his final actions.
An exception to the rule.
"How would they even know we're still here?" Lawrence asked, now directing his sights outward to everyone as if heralding a thorough debate. "This could all be a bluff to draw us out into the open. The Gunny's gone. Nothing could have survived that blast. You all know that."
There was a willful, almost wishful skepticism evident from the majority of people in the room despite Lawrence's observations, and they were compelling on their own. I could see it on the faces of nearly every Lima Company Marine. Lawrence was Sierra Company, now just a handful of misplaced survivors looking for closure, rest and a chance to contact whatever family they had, wherever they were. It was easy for an outsider to let go. Lima Company wouldn't roll over so easily.
"Maybe you're wrong." Haze said. "Maybe they got him out in time."
"C'mon, that's stretching it."
"It is possible. They infiltrated every sector of those mines, even with all those security measures. They could've egressed in that same amount of time or quicker. There is a small chance they have him."
From a corner of my vision, I could see Doctor Kleiner cross his arms with a facial expression I hadn't yet seen on him. It showed his palpable dissent against Haze and people of a similar opinion pondering the issue any further as if it could never be remotely conducive to our future undertakings.
The Doctor was nevertheless content to find ally in Private Lawrence and let the Marine continue the argument to its bitter end.
"You're not gonna go for this, are you?" Lawrence fired back. "This bait-and-hook? C'mon, it's a ruse. A half-assed one at that. Don't play into their hand, Haze. The Gunny is gone, and for all they know we're long gone too. They're clutching at straws. They're desperate."
"We have the right people, the right tactics, the right tools, two Spartans, and the Doctor's crystal ball that can see around corners and through fucking walls! Let's do the right thing and get him back! We owe it to him after all he's done for us."
A moment of silence passed, then the Doctor weighed in. "I don't like it. Something is wrong. We can't do this. We have to proceed with Operation Island Hop and I'm sure the Captain would agree. Sir, you have ONI and HighComm directives to abide by and the time is ticking."
"Maybe we should radio back and demand they show us proof," said Holmes, clasping a fist in his other hand, "and this way we'll at least know if he's truly alive."
"No." Kleiner boomed.
Again the room fell silent for a marked amount of time. The elderly civilian suddenly projected an air of authority, one we'd never seen before. I never thought he'd be able to interject the Marines' attempts to steer the conversation against his favor, but here he was doing it. Not one person in the room was unnoticing of this new side to the Doctor.
"Again," he shook his head dismissively, "unacceptable as that risks giving away our position. Getting your hopes up like this was foolish enough and now we're wasting more time. This behavior is counter to the Captain's mission and quite frankly to common sense. Lawrence is correct. This is what they want. Let's be on our way and let logic prevail."
The Doctor walked away and crashed down in a chair, sinking into it with a fatigue I understood at this point. He'd labored through a side of the argument that was increasingly more palatable than one which pursued farce and figment. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment, then began rubbing his temples, perhaps wishing that the Captain was without a doubt on his side.
Haze humbly gaited towards him. "Sir, it's the Gunny we're talking abo—"
"—I know!" Doctor Kleiner glared at the young Marine, but quickly regained his composure and stood again. With a brief moment, he finally put the squabble to rest by driving home the most salient aspect of our grim reality.
"I know it's your Sergeant, but we absolutely can't risk losing the Device. It is more important than his life or my life or yours…combined. This shouldn't even be up for debate."
The Lead Scientist instantly looked to the Captain again, who was still candidly observing all the arguments, appearing to take everyone's opinion in stride.
"Yes, Doctor," Haze replied, cupping his hands in a pleading manner, "but we could get in, get the Gunny out of there, and leave so fast that they wouldn't even realize what hit 'em!"
"We probably could, Private," Kleiner spoke over his shoulder, his body now squared to the Command Station above, "but it's still too risky. You either cannot or will not see that if there's just one slip-up, one variable not accounted for in such an operation, it could all turn very dire for everyone…not just us. This isn't some operation where a few lives and some equipment is at risk. It's the entire War. The enemy knows what you're capable of now. Do you think they would just let you zip in and zip out unabated? The amount of ambush awaiting you is reason enough to relent your sentiment here and now. Forgoing the near-certainty of you failing and dying needlessly, you would also be risking the tool that could win entire battles and then see it turned over into enemy hands. Would you want to be the one responsible for that? No, you wouldn't, Marine. So, we're going to play it safe. We're going to play the hand we've been dealt."
Kleiner caught his breath. The man was fuming, and rightly so given his position.
"Maybe it's time to consult the dealer." Haze mumbled, glancing at Captain Lawson.
The Doctor's eyes bulged out widely, casting a spellbound look toward Haze as if the Private had gone crazy thinking he could deal directly with a Naval Captain, now darting his eyes at nearly every uniformed member posted at the Bridge as if all of Lima Company had gone crazy too. In all actuality, we had. The whole situation was utter insanity...
The UNSC now had in its possession a device that could teleport matter to unforeseen distances, we had just been informed that the enemy quite possibly had our thought-to-be-dead Gunnery Sergeant in captivity, and some of us were now considering going in guns blazing to steal him back.
I wasn't sure what to think at this point. I wasn't sure where I stood.
I could sense that most of Lima Company would jump at the chance to do a snatch and grab for Gunny Smith, but if we were given the green light to do so by Captain Lawson's permission, the Doctor would surely feel betrayed. More prosaically, I couldn't imagine a Naval Captain would so readily consider such a reckless option to begin with—lancing headlong into unknown, enemy territory chasing after obvious deceptions. So far, the Naval Captain remained silent at his station, which meant he was struggling as well.
Doctor Kleiner was the brightest among us. The Doctor had been our guide, and practically our savior. He was the man behind the myth of the Transit. He shepherded us from the darkness of the mines to the Lambda Core and to the far side of the Moon. He projected such reassurance and a sense of hope the moment we entered the Omega Wing. He always knew what to do. He was always a step ahead no matter how desperate the situation. He never once lost his cool. Seeing him like this now was not only uncharacteristic, it was worrisome.
Captain Lawson stood straighter, shoving himself away from the chair he'd been leaning up against the last few moments, recognizing the stalemate in the highly-charged conversation. He took his queue and delivered a verdict into the muted ambiance.
"My heartfelt condolences go out to all the men and women of Lima Company. Gunnery Sergeant Smith was a good man, a good leader, and he was the bravest Marine I ever knew. His loss is terrible…
The Captain breathed deeply as he gaited away from the elevated command station, slowly descending the ramp into the expanse of people.
"We owe him a debt that can never be repaid, but at this stage, risking our best chance for success on anything but the greater good would serve no benefit to us or to him even if he had survived. The next decision is critical to the War effort and ultimately reflects our new purpose, and that purpose has become more than about us. It's about our neighbors. It's about the UNSC and its prospects for turning the tide. The best way to properly avenge Smith is to engage in only key battles one star system at a time. This here isn't our fight, as much as I'd like to stay and settle the score. It's not what he'd want. He would want to know you carried on and made your contribution, each one of you. And he would want you to do it under orders with precision and measured success, not haphazardly or as captives to the anguish we now suffer. For once, victory is possible following this discovery that Smith quite literally gave his life to secure. We should honor that. And while no one can guarantee victory, I can promise you this, Marines…You will have the chance to get the payback you deserve if you stay this course. The next mission awaits you at Reach where you can once again become the tip of the spear just like before. How does that sound?"
Captain Lawson turned a tide in each of us. All eyes were fixed on his.
I could see everything change in an instant, every person resolved and resolute. Haze nodded firmly at the Ship Commander. I mulled over the Captain's words again and again. They sounded retributive whether he knew it or not, coming off almost like a reprisal not just for Gunnery Sergeant Smith but for millions of Zaragosans as well—an affirmation of human resiliency and tenacity. Tears were then shed by some, but they weren't merely cries of closure. There was a new mix of emotions now, rare combinations of acceptance and hope and determination circulating among Lima Company that were never before this potent.
Lawson nodded solemnly as he turned for the Captain's chair, retaking his seat slowly, glancing over the many faces in the bridge for another moment.
"As soon as our spot on the Moon rotates out of the Covenant's line of sight, we'll be underway. The orders given to me are to make best speed toward Reach at my discretion, but if no one here objects we'll make a few stops. I've been informed the Sigma Octanus system has been under siege. It's right on the way."
Lawson keyed commands into some of the controls populating his chair's armrests and the bow's blasts shields began to contract over the viewport. In silence, Marines and Scientists shuffled toward the bulkheads, collecting their thoughts. A movement of its own accord commenced as Lawson began contemplating something. All non-essential personnel started to clear the deck and depart for their mainstays of the ship while the bridge crew waited at their stations. Moments later, a course was plotted to the Sigma Octanus system. The Thermisticles and all her hands entered the void of slipspace along with a new chapter of their lives.
I made sure my battle uniform was in perfect condition, continuously glancing about it as I marched through the Thermisticles' quiet corridors. There wasn't much to scrutinize—just the rank insignia pinned to the lapels and some stitching for other compulsory items like nametape and unit patch which was likely to soon change. It was probable that right now someone was putting their artistic abilities to use in creating one. The shiny metal up top kept shifting in place, adding to the hindrance it recently became. Regs stated they had to be perfectly upright, squared to the deck. The service dress uniform I'd hung in my quarters moments prior was equally finicky, though more involved and much harder to keep clean.
Up ahead was the dead-center of the Thermisticles, her cylindrical chamber that I'd sought during my long trek to seek out the Captain. Like the next words I'd speak, many choices lied ahead depending on one's destination: up the shaft would lead toward the enlisted quarters, down to the officers' where the Scientists were, and among this level were the dwellings of the executive crew and the Captain himself—when not stationed at the Command Deck outside of his personal cryopod.
I knocked once.
"Sir," I marched forth into the room, "Lieutenant Pennington reporting as ordered."
I found Captain Lawson already standing near a holo-display, the ambience dimmed. The beleaguered Ship Commander consulted reports with haste, looking like he was anchored there for some time. His hand gestures were swift and fluid as he swiped through the luminescent displays one after another like he was pre-programmed to do so, surely pre-occupied. Not glancing my direction though he acknowledged my presence, the answer came at a delay, "At ease, Lieutenant."
I re-positioned to Parade Rest while he afforded himself another moment to deactivate the projection, motes of light particles fizzling out of vision a meter above the aperture.
"Alright, talk. I haven't got all day."
Thankfully, the Captain practically ordered me to speak freely, so I did.
"Sir, why me?"
It was only then that eye contact was established.
He looked at me quizzically as if I was a cadet of his currently under evaluation. "Doctor Kleiner's training session didn't give it away?"
"I understood the necessity of that aspect, sir, but what I can't understand is me bypassing years of progression and experience and having it flaunted in front of the others at your award ceremony. And you saved me for last. If you were trying to send a message, you definitely did."
"Good. Then it's established."
"Some of them took it as a slap in the face, sir."
The Captain shifted his stance, squaring his shoulders directly at me. "Are you denying promotion, Pennington? Because if you are, tell me right now and I'll have you reassigned to another unit."
"Captain, Lima Company is my home. It's where I belong. A transfer to some other unit is the last thing I'd want. I am merely protesting your decision."
"Why? I never micromanaged you. I even respected the unit's traditions by letting Smith remain in-charge. Now that he's no longer with us, Lima Company needs an officer and someone will believe they're worthy enough to be its new leader. We've got a week-long journey to find out who it'll be if you decline. Plenty of time for me to make another decision." He looked away. "Still, my hopes are on you. I'd rather it be you than bring in some butter bar fresh out of the academy who doesn't know a thing about the people in Lima Company. If not you, then some other enlisted in Lima Company. Prior-enlisted always get the most respect from their troops."
"Then Staff Sergeant Rios is your man. He is one of the best. He was Gunny's right hand man and would've been the next in line for leading Lima Company. He'd been groomed for the position months prior. You had a peek at our unit history and our combat v-logs. Why not him?"
"Mostly for the same reason you were chosen to be the Transit's primary operator."
"How does one relate to the other, sir? I don't see the correlation."
"So what you're saying is that the merits I considered you on don't warrant the promotion?"
"Truthfully, no. There's dozens who would deserve the same or better. Ask anyone. And a Private going straight to Lieutenant? Sir, that has no precedent in the UNSC, maybe even in the entire history of the Corps itself. It just doesn't seem right to any of us."
"These are unprecedented times. Decisions must be made and we have to work with what we've got. Your accession into the commissioned ranks is…unconventional. However, it is strategically necessary to your unit, to me as your acting commander, and to the War."
"Yeah, but sir, did you see their faces? I had to stand there in front them and keep a straight face while you pinned those bars on my uniform. That was the hardest thing I've ever done, and now I'm catching some flak for it. Now it's like I'm a ghost. No one talks to me anymore."
"For the better. Officers do not have the luxury of friends, certainly not among the enlisted. You understand, I'm sure. Officers are leaders, held to the highest standards. We do not engage in fraternization, tolerate weakness, incompetence, or insubordination. You are now in command of Marines. Better get used to it."
"I heard someone say that I'm just going to be your relay. The mouth of the Ship Commander, they said. They think Lima Company will become errand boys without any visibility just like before. I didn't disagree with them because truthfully it's how we all felt the whole time we were defending the Outpost."
"If the idea of service to the UNSC no longer appeals to some, then I can arrange for their transfers as well. You are their LT and they will follow your lead. I will fragment this unit throughout the inner colonies if that's what it takes to maintain some order and discipline. You can relay that to them, Lieutenant. Frankly, I can't believe this restructuring has splintered you all. Lima Company is not some toy army living in its past. Lima Company completed its mission. I would hope that all of Lima Company understood the criticality of that mission. I don't know why this is personal to them. Every Marine got promotions or awards or both, so no one should be feeling left out. Your engagements planetside and all of your rewards were fully vetted up and down the chain."
"What chain? Who do you report to? Up until a few days ago, we were patrolling cities and neighborhoods, then we get the call to defend some mining camp. Sir, we didn't even know you existed until Covenant started glassing the world and the only safe direction was down."
"It was just your turn. People need to start growing up and realizing that the needs of the UNSC always come first, whatever our predicament. We are all going to Reach together. Like it or not, the knowledge we all possess is classified under X-ray directive. Even if some of you are reluctant to continue what we started, then those unwilling few will just be collecting dust in some isolation ward until they die or we win the War...whichever comes first. Those are the only two decisions anyone has now, and that's coming from the very top."
"Is that what this is all about? We're conscripted for your new off-the-grid missions? I'm no war planner, but there are some troops that question your authority in assuming permanent command of this unit. Where are the actual orders? We haven't seen them."
Lawson's jaw clenched, though he nodded coldly in agreement, choosing his words more carefully than he usually did.
"Understandable. Justifiable. I'll send you a copy of those orders my very next chance. Any other hot items before we're underway, Lieutenant?"
"Sir, I didn't mean to call you out. We know the importance of this mission and I'm sure most of us would get behind it, but we can't do it blindfolded again. We just can't. We don't have it in us to handle another knee-jerk like that. This time we're going to need a little clarity going forward. You're right about us…We're not some ragtag security detail, so we want to know what we're getting into. Don't just dangle carrots in front of our noses and say we'll be at the forefront again. Give us specifics. Give us a reason to go all-in and we'll do it. That's coming from everyone in Lima Company, sir. From the very bottom, to me, and now to you."
"...I understand the unit's concerns and I'm going to agree with your terms, but beware that with disclosure comes responsibility and accountability. Thank you for the visit, Lieutenant. You and I will brief the unit on the other side. I suggest you all head to cryo and get some rest. We'll need it where we're going."
As the men and women of the Thermisticles ventured through the voids of slipspace, I reflected once more on the past and on our newfound purpose.
Escape was only the beginning. Zaragosa Prime's embattled survivors found closure, solace, and now find a new calling at Reach, but a vast number of worlds much like our own are besieged by the Covenant. While we gave our all to defend one world, still an untold more were set before our path. My new place among the unit was yet another matter that would unfold in the days and weeks to come. Altogether, I feel only graver choices loom ahead, more double-edged swords that lie in wait as we follow our Captain into new tomorrows.