The All-Seeing Eye
Chapter 20: The All-Seeing Eye
Everyone was formed up in single file.
Hungry and weary, Lima Company awaited its due respite, occupying the entire length of the corridor just outside the ship's armory. Troops shuffled forward one at a time to turn in their weapons and gear post-deployment.
Sigma Octanus Two was a knee-jerk op, likely the fastest and shortest mission anyone among us had participated in. Most leaned up against a bulkhead in the sluggish advance. Others found the will to field strip their weapons out of courtesy, saving the armory personnel some time in disassembly and cleaning. Some did nothing but stand and wait. I knew what some of them were thinking by now in the unit's new direction as the drone of voices steadily grew. Those that discussed our incursions to the few that stayed behind in orbit did so tiredly as if it were a chore to recount the tale. As the last Marine crossed the threshold from the launch bay sealed further behind, we took our place in line and I scanned the hall. Spartans were somewhere else, as usual. They weren't seen since the dismount. The Pelican formation now parked and awaiting maintenance was an afterthought. Debriefing from crew chiefs on armaments and readiness for the next mission would soon be on the agenda. Senior personnel had reporting requirements and wouldn't get much rest. Captain Lawson rarely took pause despite this optempo.
No sooner had I eased my stance, Captain Lawson's voice boomed through the sector's PA.
"Lieutenant Pennington, when you're through there, proceed directly to the Command Deck."
I was the last one in line.
I looked ahead and decided to get comfortable knowing the long wait was in store.
The CQ called out from somewhere ahead. "Sir, we'll take you now."
I stepped out of line and paced to the front.
"Of course he's first." A voice nearby mumbled.
I was too tired to respond at the jab knowing there were looming priorities jabbing even harder.
The large dolly at the head of the line was already laden with sooty rifles, pistols and shotguns. I offloaded all my weapons and outer ensemble as I walked, nodding my thanks to the lone Corporal manning the armory. Before exiting, I gave Lima Company a cursory glance before setting off to the Thermisticles' Bridge.
The walk was long and barren of people and I enjoyed solitude for the time, slowing my pace. The healing planet we'd only briefly set out to before was still poised beyond the bow, the Captain deep in thought as I entered. Rosetta customarily announced my presence, but the Captain's stance was still directed toward that world.
After a moment, he said, "We're losing a Spartan."
He still looked beyond, choosing not to establish eye contact with his only lieutenant for some reason. Maybe out of reticence to see my reaction to the news, puzzled at how such an established field officer with a lot of momentum behind him could lose such an asset in such short order.I gaited closer and assumed Parade Rest, awaiting orders. It was then that I saw the lone Pelican shuttling away from the Thermisticles and toward Sigma Octanus IV. He was tracking it since its departure, I gathered. News of losing a Spartan could never be good, no matter how anyone worded it. His statement was direct and to the point as usual, and I hesitated to inquire exactly who we were losing.
"Not Amy." He added.
"Why are we to lose Adrian, sir?"
"Apparently, ONI thinks one Spartan is enough for Lima Company. For now, anyways. Could get worse as I was actually due to lose both of them until three other Captains and a General finally convinced them that yanking Oh-Seven-One from the project would not be in good practice."
"You had Amy in Lima Company from the beginning."
"Still might lose her. Remains to be seen. The mission at Zaragosa Prime is long behind us and I've been lucky to keep her as long as I have, so now I'm under evaluation. If ONI can be convinced I'm using the Spartan to the fullest extent, not wasting her skillset, we can hold onto her."
"Think that'll happen?"
Lawson spun about to face me. "No."
"So we're going to lose her?"
"Well, maybe not. It's all about timing now. We've only got two more stops to make before we're at Reach, and I'm hoping that by the time ONI makes their decision we'll have already entered the critical phase and be essentially off-limits to the likes of a single command. If we get the final greenlight, we'll be a truly joint operation and ONI will be just one player on a larger team."
"And if we don't get the greenlight by then, Amy's gone."
"But I've got reason for optimism. Received a lot of chatter since we left that briefing. Steps are being taken to form the joint task force right now. It's going to gain momentum. They've already stood up separate personnel and intel commands dedicated to the plan. Logistics supply chains are in the works. So far, a core group of very important people are sold on the Transit and the strike mission. And guess where Lima Company will be when it reaches critical mass?"
"Tip of the spear."
"Just like I promised."
"Fingers crossed, sir."
"I had hoped to have a Spartan dedicated to offense and one to defense before an ONI admiral sent me that kind of correspondence, but now we'll just have to make due with one bodyguard for the time being."
Lawson nodded at me. I could see the hope and anticipation welling, that something tremendous he and many other strategists had worked for was slowly but surely piecing together. Something that could alter the course of this long, costly war. It was incredibly ambitious. Everyone knew that. Obviously risky, but nevertheless achievable and now within reach. The payout could be monumental: the once-insuperable Covenant could be struck down.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant, you were about to brief me right before I ran you over with all that."
"No, sir. I'm glad you did…"
I glanced out the viewport once more at the departing Pelican only to notice the much larger vessel passing it by. Then it was gone. A stealth ship.
I squinted outward, just barely witnessing those outlines again. Even starside, I wouldn't have seen it if not for the contrast against the bright, reflective planet to her port.
"…Is that a Prowler?"
The Captain glanced over his shoulder. "Yes. Winter-class designed for quick infiltrations."
"Looks like it's about to infiltrate the Thermisticles. It's headed straight for us."
"It'll be docking with us soon. Next mission will require it. I'll brief you on it when we're en route to the next star system." The Captain nodded. "So, please. Your turn."
"Well, it was hard to get answers out of the one we rescued. There could be more friendlies down there at Sig-Oh-Two. Should we reconsider? Or at least recommend Mattis re-deploy a recon force there and resume scanning? Maybe Colonel Mattis could create a small task force, have some superiority in case that frigate shows up again."
Lawson thought about this for a few seconds, the longest time yet that I'd seen him contemplate on any matter.
"…No." He said flatly. "He's not in that position yet. And neither are we. Our mission takes precedence. Any other day, I'd gladly stick around and lend support. Our ship is capable against a single frigate, but I think I'll count my blessings and avoid that confrontation. It's a shame we lost the Boxer, but I doubt anyone's going to task out any of their own ships as combat escort. Not to a known hostile area. Not while they're recovering. Operation Island Hop's timetable alone negates any possibility of it. I sent out a warning communiqué to Sigma Octanus Four about the frigate you encountered. Hopefully they can muster enough firepower to take it out when they're back to full strength. Take solace, Lieutenant. We've done a good deed here. Mattis will appreciate that. We have to be moving on now. So, moving on, I skimmed over your latest after actions reports. You and I will be going over it in detail later, but first go ahead and get yourself cleaned up and fed and take care of your people."
I turned to exit the Bridge.
"Pennington," the Captain called out.
I stopped and about-faced. "Yes, sir?"
"I knew Lima Company would prevail."
"How's it going, LT?" Gunny Rios said as he glanced up at me.
"Making a pit stop for some fuel."
I sat down and didn't waste a minute to eat.
"How'd it go with the Captain?"
"Same as always. Got new orders, so I'm busy again. Got any fires you're putting out in the Company, Gunny?"
"Had a troop just lost their homeworld to Covvie. She's taking it well…for now."
"I can only imagine. To be too far away to do anything. She have family there?"
Silence for a moment.
"Other than that, sir, it's going smoothly. So what's got you busy?"
"Well, when I'm not overseeing mission prep, my CNI feeds me volumes of UNSC basic officer training non-stop."
Gunny took a swig of juice, nodded. "Gotta play catch up."
Then the whole mess took pause when Sergeant Blunt entered.
Nearly every person in the room stopped doing what they were doing and saw a man with incredible presence walking down the perimeter, his face impassive, surveying us just as we did him. Two sergeants flanked him, escorted him to a private table where they sat him down and unshackled his wrists.
"Food fight?" Lawrence said from a nearby table.
"Look at his handlers." Rios whispered. "They don't want to be within ten meters of the guy. Have any of you been up close to him?"
"I try not to be." Struger replied. "Looks like he could kill covvie and human."
"I can say from first hand experience, he reeks. Doesn't take showers. Handlers heard him say he only drinks and bathes with natural water. Whatever that means."
"No detergents, I guess."
"I guess the ship's purifiers aren't up to his standards either."
"He'll have to drink some of it sooner or later."
We all watched him and he sensed our collective gaze in an instant.
Then Haze entered the mess, making his way down the line, inevitably nearing Blunt's table on the way to ours. The confined Sergeant immediately hunched over a plate of food the guards fetched him in a protective display just like feral animals would. He eyed his passerby with scorn and Haze squinted in confusion.
"Look at that." Gunny shook his head. "He's as wild as those Jackals we put down."
"But remember," Holmes said, "he's as capable as any of us. Who knows how many Covenant he took down all by himself. He could be useful. He'd just need time to repatriate."
"He's no good to us, though. Sir, if it were my choice, I'd hire a man with half his skill and none of his baggage. He's not fit for this unit or this mission. What are we gonna do with him ultimately?"
"Yeah," Holmes added, "what do you think the Captain would say about all this?"
"I don't know," I replied, "but it's ultimately his decision what happens to the guy. I just call it like I see it. And I see two outcomes for Blunt. One was dying in that jungle. The other is facing what's coming to him. Well, whenever someone finds out what really happened anyway. Since he's along for the ride, I guess he gets to cheat judgment one more time until we're allowed to offload him. Maybe Reach will be his ultimate destination."
Haze glanced back at Blunt before nearing our table, then stopped mid-stride as he and I made eye contact.
"Looks like you have a full table. I'll eat somewhere else."
"You can have my seat." Holmes offered. "I'm done."
"No, it's okay. Take your time. Plenty of other places."
Rios sat straighter and again shook his head. "You know that the Captain is going to want a full debrief on this guy, Blunt, after he sees our AARs. And if he catches our combat video logs, he's definitely going to want some resolution. Captain Lawson won't let it go."
"I think you're right."
"I know I'm right."
"It'd look better on us if we start now before the Captain has to tell us to."
"Yeah, but how? This guy is a clam stuck shut. Ain't opening for nobody."
"If he hasn't reached out to anyone by now, it would seem he never will. Which also means he'll likely distort the facts to stall if he ever does respond to questioning."
"Yeah, but only he has the facts. There's no one else."
"If we're going to extract any info from him, we need to do it smartly. We need to have a method in place that gives us some idea of whether we're getting the truth or not. Or at least enough information to make recommendations to the Captain."
"Any suggestions, sir?"
"Let's wait for him to come down from his shock. He's no good to anybody the way we found him. Too defensive."
"How long do you want to wait, sir?"
"Not sure, but we've got plenty of time. Don't give the impression we're hard pressed on time. He'll be suspicious that way."
"That's a long time for him to be waiting in confinement. Sure he won't resent us for that?"
"He won't have to because I'm cutting him loose. He's free to wander about the ship."
"And that's a good idea too?"
"He needs to feel freedom again. He needs to feel he's among allies, not captors."
"Yeah, about that, sir. You did say to him that he's gonna get what's coming to him."
"That's only if he's guilty of something. Otherwise, he should feel his story can be heard by fair and impartial people like you and me."
"And on the other hand, what's in it for him to come clean and spill the beans on what happened out there if he knows he'll eventually wind up confined at Reach?"
"Nothing, at least in dealing with me. So, I'll need you all to do it. I have to be out of the picture on this one and you have to become his peers. And eventually his confidants."
Gunny shrugged with a bitter smile, and a welling humor I'd see in his predecessor before began to show. "I never thought I'd be playing good-cop-bad-cop in the Corps, sir. And inside of a giant can too. This'll be a first for me."
"All of us. Just another loose end to tie up before Lima Company lives up to its true purpose."
At that, the mess table fell silent for a moment.
I resumed. "He doesn't seem to care much for officers anyways. You are the senior ranking enlisted, so ideally it's you. You can bring along anyone else too. He'll feel like he's among allies that way."
"Man, I wish Gunny Smith was here."
"That makes two of us. Well, you'd better keep an eye on the good Sergeant and be ready to welcome him back to reality if we hope to turn that page. Cut him loose. Let him get a hot shower whenever he warms up to it and give him free reign at the mess for even hotter meals. He'll feel like a new man once he's had both, and eventually he'll let his guard down."
Leaving the mess, the CNI automatically unsilenced its messaging notification service and sounded a chirp to get my attention. I opened up a data tab and immediately acknowledged a message from Captain Lawson.
FULL ACCOUNTING OF PRIOR MISSION DUE. MEET IN THE OFFICER'S CONFERENCE HALL.
"Sergeant Haze has really been on your case, LT."
I spun about, saw Holmes and shrugged.
"Haze has some legitimate concerns about our mission."
"That's either you covering for him or you've got a talent for understatement. You're a good Marine, sir, but a terrible liar."
I could only shrug in response, Holmes always being the Marine to read me like an open book.
"Sir, Haze has got more concerns than just the mission. While you're busy, more and more Marines are starting to take notice of him and all the smart-ass remarks."
"Just Haze's way."
"I know Haze and his ways. This is more than just personality quirks. This is a trend. He got quite vocal on the ride outta Sigma Octanus Two. He pulls these kind of antics when you're not around."
"You rode up with him?"
"I was right next to him."
"What kind of stuff was he saying? Was it about me?"
"I can't remember it verbatim, but don't worry, sir. We talked him down. Didn't take long, either. Once we were safe and celebrating, he eventually went silent."
"Maybe he's a bit restless since leaving Zagosa. More so than most of us."
"How are you holding up, sir?"
"Not sure about that yet. I'm busy dealing with the Captain. He wants the full, compiled AAR from Sigma Octanus Two like ten minutes ago."
"Don't forget to rest up, sir. You can't be everywhere at once."
"Starting to realize that. So, do me a favor and keep an eye on Sergeant Haze for me."
"I've been keeping an eye on him ever since we lost Gunny Smith."
"Captain knew what he was doing making you an NCO."
No sooner had I rounded the entryway to the conference room, Captain Lawson immediately jabbed a finger on the surface of the conference table, saying, "You need to squash this, Lieutenant. This breach of protocol occurring among your people. Sergeant Haze walked into the bridge unannounced and started talking to me about leadership in Lima Company and…I can't remember half the things he was saying because he was blathering on and on, without any coherency at all. Reign that man in."
"Sit down and upload your report to the console."
Together, we watched my v-log of the entire mission at Sigma Octanus Two.
I'd offhandedly see Captain Lawson nod or grunt with approval, occasionally swiping at the screen to queue up another's v-log and gain multiple perspectives of the incursion. A smile appeared when he saw the camera pan purely vertical to witness the sight of gunships abruptly ending the firefight in the hilly jungle. Eventually, we came to the part where Haze issued his own critique during the return journey.
I hope you learn from this, sir.
Lawson let the video roll on. The look on his face was now anything but approving, or even reserved in his current disapproval. I glanced back on the video screen. There I was, alone in the woods, the troop formation steadily gaining distance as I lingered in darkness beneath the canopy.
He paused the video and there on that still frame he gathered his thoughts for a moment.
"Half a minute alone. You let the Sergeant get to you. Took you a while to catch back up to Lima Company. Is your thinking flawed?"
"Haze has always been…temperamental."
"And have you thought about what to do with Haze since this happened?"
"Jumping the chain of command and conferring directly with you on combat tactics is not what any officer would call harmless. If he had concerns with leadership, protocol, and common courtesy for that matter, the proper course of action is to make those concerns known with senior enlisted beforehand. We all know this. Why is he special?"
"I think since we both came up in the ranks together, he feels he's got a direct line to me."
"Well, this is out of line. And your open door policy is going to leave you susceptible to more instances like this. And did I hear him offer to take the Transit?"
"Yes, sir. Correct. He offered to take it off my hands."
"That is asinine."
"I can tolerate episodes like this. I'm going to give him a pass."
"Are you sure that's best for the unit?"
"Well, speaking of which, he at least went out of his way to confront me alone and not contradict me in front of others. What they don't know won't hurt them."
"And that's commendable of the Sergeant?"
"We have history, sir."
"I know you do." Lawson nodded. "You've been through a lot together. Now, it's different. You both have your place in this unit, and that's him beneath you. What if he questions you again? What if he questions you in front of others? Or during a firefight? Are you thinking about that?"
"I'll shut it down next time it happens, but I won't reprimand him today, sir. That's my determination."
"Your call. You'd be wise to expand your observation of him regardless. Help you see what's coming if you're wrong about him."
"That, I can do."
"And don't for a minute think he's right about anything he said of you. He's coming from a very weakened state. I'm sure if we had a resident psychologist, they would agree."
"He lost an older brother, his only brother. Ashton Haze was a fine soldier. During the initial battle of Jericho, his unit got separated and was pinned down by an entire Covenant battalion. There weren't even any bodies to recover before they issued the evac hours later. It made Ryan eventually join the UNSC when he came of fighting age. Prior to that, he'd landed himself in a lot of trouble as a minor. Barely made it past the recruiter's screening. But once he was in, he excelled above all others in training, particularly in combatives, thus his assignment to Lima Company." Lawson glanced back to the v-log. "But this attitude since you took the lead concerns me. It should concern you."
"I thought you selected everyone that's in Lima Company, sir. You didn't see any of this coming? These personality traits?"
"Yes, I did to some extent. Lima Company is experimental after all. Bringing Haze into that fold was a calculated risk. And he did fine at Zaragosa, but that was with Gunnery Sergeant Smith in charge. Maybe he looked up to him, just like a younger brother would. I don't know. Smith was very informal and his charisma worked well for the unit. But now, things are different and things will continue to change as we reshape Lima Company into the unit I intended it to be. Haze has surely changed as well, though I'm not so sure it's for the better."
"Maybe he resents your selection process."
"Whether or not that's the case, he will respect your authority. I'm not going to tell you how to run your own company, Lieutenant. That's your job now. I'll say no more on this. I will say that after seeing the mission unfold myself, it was a success. Good use of people and resources, cool under pressure, you listened to your Spartans and made excellent tactical decisions, and there were only minor injuries as a result of all this. Lima Company prevailed."
"We lost a pilot. A Vulture pilot, no less."
"I know, but don't dwell. Remember, loss is just another part of command."
"Hard to look past it so easily. I keep thinking maybe there was something that could've been done to prevent it."
"With the kind of radio interference you experienced down there? Even if you had established contact and warned the pilot in time, that frigate still would've made a showing and nothing would have changed. You can't control everything, Pennington. Learn to deal with that. And you will. I know you will. You'll come into your own as we move forward."
"I wonder how the Colonel feels about it."
"Actually, I do know how he feels about it. He's lending us another Vulture."
"Among other things, yes. Apparently they have a lot of things up for grabs in some dusty depot down there."
"He must really believe in the strike mission."
"Hope that we get this lucky going forward. You don't see those kinds of favors too often. Now, moving on to the one we rescued. Sergeant Blunt."
"Yeah, about that, sir. I am open to suggestions about what to do with him. He's got nearly the entire company spooked. They're pretty fidgety around him."
"Never mind that. Has he been properly debriefed, Lieutenant?"
"Not yet. I do have a plan of action going, but Sergeant Blunt requires finesse. He's been though a lot."
"Quiet. More like a man of action than talkative. Bit of a badass. Comes across as a low-key Gunny Smith, if that makes sense. But with the kind of stress he endured down there and the things we saw, we might never learn what his situation was. And for any number of reasons, he might never come out of his shell by the time we enter the final phase."
"I'd like to have this resolved before then, Pennington. It's our duty to do so. I can't even begin to think what Big Navy would think of us if we hand him over without a proper accounting of his mission…and how it turned so damned mutinous."
"I understand, Captain, but I can't promise anything. All we can do is try."
"I am requesting a daily status on this. Alright, I believe that concludes this debrief. Anything else?"
"No, not at this time, sir."
"There are undoubtedly some lessons to be learned here, but now we can move on. I can fully trust you with command."
"Does it get easier, sir?"
"What, losing people?"
"No. It doesn't get any easier. You just get more used to it."
"Hey, Holmes, walk with me."
"You're walking that busy walk, sir."
"Too fast for you?"
"At present, yes. I was hoping to take a load off my mind. Where you headed?"
"Oh, that means you're about to pump energy into that ball o'magic. Which means we're due to deploy real soon. What'd the Captain tell you?"
"You'll have all questions answered soon. I feel kind of stupid asking you this question, but has Sergeant Haze said anything that caught your attention recently?"
"Yes, depending on who's asking."
"Just me. So, what have you got for me?"
"He's having trouble sleeping."
"Great. I'm up to my ears in real issues while Gunny's babysitting Sergeant Blunt and you're babysitting Sergeant Haze."
"Well, Gunny and Amy actually got through to Blunt. They wanted me to give you this recording. I'll upload it to your CNI in a minute. And don't worry about Haze. It's not a big deal for me. I have this under control. Remember, I've known him a lot longer than you have."
"So, he brought this sleep deficiency to your attention or have you been keeping tabs on him better than I thought you would?"
The reactor room hatchway parted down the center and slid apart, revealing support trusses, high-pressure cooling conduits and radiation waveguides, the innards of the ship's powerplant. Beyond the first catwalk was the sapphire glow emanating from beyond the bulwark of airtight seals, cordoning off the dense neutron storm on the other side.
"A bit of both. Says he can't get more than a couple hours' shuteye a day."
"A couple hours a day? That's not good. I think it's time he gets medically evaluated. I'm axing him from this next mission, and as soon as we get to Reach I want you to see that he's properly taken care of by doctors."
"I'll see it done, sir."
"Oh, and no synthetics for him. None."
I unlimbered the Transit and stared at the black sphere for a moment. I hadn't known why I was staring until the sight of a new object on its surface emerged, barely noticeable. Only with the light of this sector could it have been visible if it was ever present times before.
It was an inconspicuous, tiny dot. A deep, dark purple. So dark that it was only slightly off-black against the black surface, as if once part of the surrounding void but somehow escaped its abyss.
Or was cast out.
It then began to pulsate in brightness, slowly, rhythmically.
An instant later, it became ringed in bright yellow, adding even more clarity to its existence.
"What's up, sir?"
"Nothing…" I said, reaching forward and thrusting the Transit into a receptacle. It sealed shut and I watched as the gantry way retracted and spun about the circumference of the room, leading the sphere to its eventual destination inside a gamma ray bath.
A message notification chimed, the CNI having completed its download of the video Holmes sent me. I stopped walking, passerbys guiding around me.
"Spartan Oh-Seven-One and I wanted to stop by to see how you were doing, if there's anything we can help you with. Maybe you want to talk about things back at Sigma Octanus Two, anything."
"Well, you need a Spartan to make sure I'm behavin'. I'm flattered."
"Oh, her? She's just here because she was curious about your health."
"So, anything you want to talk about?"
"I know why the three of us are here, so let's get past the child's play. We're here because ya want my story."
The Spartan remained silent and the Gunny nodded agreeably.
"We were stranded on that world. No reachback. No way out. Men change when that happens."
"Things took a turn for the worse." The Gunny said.
"Men lost faith. Gave into fear. Fear became their guiding light."
"Your unit splintered."
Blunt then drew a deep breath, recounting.
"Certain types have an inner mutiny. Predisposed. The worst are the ones who can influence those around them, the whisperers. Capture your fear and shape it. Build it slow and silent. And when the betrayal finally happens, it happens when ya least expect it. Ya can't see it until it's too late, that lusty hunger they got in their eyes. And ya kick yerself because ya realize ya seen it all along."
"That's what happened with your unit?"
"What do ya think?"
"I think I want to keep listening."
Blunt cocked his head to the side, the puffed, mangy beard obscuring most of his features. But the striking eyes full of story were overpowering. For a moment, he studied the Gunny and the Spartan, the look in his gaze resolute.
"Any idiot put together can see this is a different kind of unit. Yer all bound by oaths ya took and yer duty, and ya got that portable superweapon yer LT's carryin' around. Ya got a purpose. Well, I've done my duty, and now I've got one last deed to carry out. That deed is a warning. Certain types of people come across a time and a place where duty ends. I don't know when it'll happen, but I promise, it's comin' for ya."
"You suspect someone?"
"They prolly used to be tight with ya, but over time they avoid yer company. Same exact thing happened with my unit, only my CO was two ranks higher and actually had some experience. But now yer stakes are much higher with that superweapon. Someone's gonna make a pass at it, sooner or later."
The Gunny glanced back at Amy, and she shook her head.
"You know," the Gunny began, "I've heard of men becoming the very thing that they hated and tried to destroy."
Blunt was unfazed by the Gunny's ruse.
"Whatever hate I had, whatever hate you think I have, it's been used up on that world and buried there. Along with those men."
The disconnected, sterile video playback that followed was of the Gunnery Sergeant and the Spartan exiting the room after a silent moment, leaving Blunt to himself.
But the audio continued as the two paced away from Blunt's quarters.
"You believe anything he said, Rios?"
The Gunny thought hard on that for a moment.
"You know…apart from all the blabber…I do. He never once moved, Amy. Never blinked, never lost eye contact, never scratched his face or wiped his nose. The guy was firm. No guilt. I think he was telling the truth."
"Or he has no tells."
"Either way, we only have his version of the story like I said before."
"That's just it. We haven't heard the story yet. I'm not convinced."
"What do you think we should do?"
"LT's call, but I say just keep talking with him at every opportunity you get. Maybe get others to visit him. See if the story changes."
"We're en route to Troy, Hellespont System." Captain Lawson said as I stood nearby at parade rest. "Sixteen hours until deployment."
The bow screen offered no view outside the hull, though I knew exactly what was beyond: nothing. The Thermisticles and all her hands had resumed Operation Island Hop, the jaunt through the void of slipspace, now another week's journey to the next world since the departure from the Sigma Octanus system.
"FLEETCOM confirms the planet was glassed this May," he added, "so I've been told to expect a residual enemy force on patrol."
"What's the mission this time?"
"This is a snatch and grab for a VIP that never made the evacuation, a Rear Admiral Serin Osman. You'll have her details uploaded to your lace. The Thermisticles will maintain a holding pattern beyond Covenant detection range. From there, the prowler Blink Once will be your transport vector to low orbit, close enough to get you within range of teleporting directly to the target, a subterranean bunker we hope is still intact and secure.
"It's August now. They're sure she's still around after four months down there?"
"It's a UNSC fallout shelter like Omega Wing, designed for situations like these. It can provide twelve months of security, shelter, sanitization and sustenance for a group the size of Lima Company."
"She can operate and maintain it by herself, though?"
"Admirals are never alone."
"So was this mission requested of you as a top priority?"
"Yes, but not because she'll run out of food, Lieutenant. The knowledge she may hold is crucial to the UNSC and we're going to rescue her."
"What are your assessments, sir? Can we pull this off?"
"Rosetta confirms my analysis at ninety-percent certainty that we can extricate her with zero loss. We have exact coordinates and depth, and I've been told she sent out a slipspace probe two months ago outlining the current Covenant presence in-system and on the ground using satellite imagery."
"Not exactly fresh intel."
"Agreed, but this tells us she's alive and kicking and Rosetta also guarantees all calculations made will give the Transit enough capacity to get you all there and back again without depleting its supply, all while bypassing any enemy activity. Of course you will be a lightweight force due to constraints dictated by the Transit, but you will nonetheless be a fireteam comprising elite members of your selection, and the Spartan will be going with you. Let's just hope all you encounter down there is a bored admiral. Is the Transit ready?"
"I think so."
"What do you mean, you think so? Is it ready?"
"...Yes. It's ready."
I knew the Thermisticles entered real space once her blast shields retracted over the bow screen. Bright starlight filled the bridge. Somewhere, very far ahead was our destination. Another colony world.
Captain Lawson turned to face me. "It's time."
I exited the bridge and proceeded to the launch bay.
There, the team had been waiting and prepping. The sharp, angular lines of the Blink Once were menacing and looked extremely odd inside the bay, like the vessel didn't belong here. We all entered her cargo bay single file as I approached, no words spoken. I took the nav station for the view while an iso-Rosetta guided the ship automatically along its course, which presently jettisoned the Blink Once out of the Thermisticles and into the night.
Even at sixty-percent thrust, the journey to the planet wouldn't be long. We were already inside the planet's umbra, fully shadowed from the system's star. Occasional, minuscule twinkles of light caught my eye from random spots on this dark side of the planet, the tell-tale signs of the glass sheet that now encased much of its vast surface.
After two hour's journey, we were within range to teleport directly into the chamber.
The team had already started final preparation further aft in the ship. Within minutes, we gathered in the cargo hold with weapons, armor, and all the courage we could muster before heading into this new unknown.
We were inside. It was a small, well-lit, ten by ten meter room with lockers and shelves and refrigerators and stowed Murphy beds lining the walls. It was a mess. It looked like a bomb went off inside. We found out exactly why as the only entryway had been blasted away, a once-solid Titanium vault door just in pieces and strewn about the interior in razor-sharp scraps. Outside was a scene not unlike the mines of the Foreclay Outpost, rocky and dark. Looking around, a single sanitization facility was in the corner, cordoned off from the room with a door—currently open.
"Look at that." Struger pointed. "Solid Titanium-A a meter thick and they just cut right through it. Blew it right to smithereens." He picked up a scrap piece of it and flinged it across the room with a flick of the wrist. "Yeah, they came in, got her, killed everyone else, hauled 'em all away, in and out in a few seconds. Very clean. Got her alive because they knew she was important."
"How can you be so certain?" I asked.
"Do you know what the forming temperature of Titanium-A is? You'd have to be shooting some very serious firepower to get that to break open. And they did it in such a way that it didn't jeopardize their target."
"Osman." Amy said.
"They knew exactly what they were doing and how to do it. I wonder how much time they had inside before the Covvie broke through."
I nodded absentmindedly while glancing around. The bunker still had plenty of illumination from some unseen power source and an air current was felt through overhead ducting, but there was no admiral present. It didn't appear anyone had been present for some time, except for…
"Smells like piss." I said as the draft hit me squarely in the face.
"And shit." Lawrence added.
"Fresh, too." Struger said, his nostrils flared.
Amy glanced around. "Check the bathroom. Could be just a clog."
No, I'm here.
The neural lace began displaying a message.
Don't look up, whatever you do. And do not alert your team to my presence.
I did as the sender asked. I scrutinized the message header, finding their identity. It was her, the Admiral.
Now, don't make any sudden movements after what I'm about to tell you. They're coming in the door right now if they're not here already, but you won't see them. It's a team of specialized Elites with advanced camouflage systems. They're after me, not you. They would've killed you by now. They're waiting for you to find me and then they'll finish the job. For now, I need you to tell your team to do something useful—they will know something is off if they see you doing nothing. Think of something.
"Alright, everyone, hydrate and search the lockers and shelves for any clues. Careful not to break anything, so move about very slowly. We need to find clues so we can find her."
Good. Walk to a corner of the room farthest from the entrance and open a channel with your Spartan. Tell the Spartan I am here and that Elites are in the area, but not to engage. Order your Spartan only to scan the area with thermals. It's the only way to spot them. Do it now.
I moseyed to the place where she mentioned, taking cursory glances at the team and at the items in the room, exuding nothing readily suspicious in my actions. Stopping exactly in the corner, feigning an inspection of a wall locker, I then initiated contact.
I whispered, "Amy, don't react and don't engage. Hostiles in the room. Camo'd Elites, number unknown. They're here for the VIP who is somewhere close by. We're not dead so I'm guessing it'll stay that way until they know we've spotted them. Pan around the room with thermal vision. I'll do the same with my HUD. Repeat…do not engage. You look first."
I remained in my spot with eyes toward the wall, feigning another inspection.
A green-colored blip shone in my HUD.
"Roger." She said. "Four Elites. Two posted up at the exit with repeaters, one at the wall right behind me with a sword, and the last is right on top of Holmes with a sword. The shooters have you pretty well covered, sir. Only one not hosed is Gunny. They're awaiting orders. My guess is the one breathing down my neck is the ring leader."
I then turned to face the center of the room, did a quick once-over before resuming the mock inspection of my rifle. Four bright-orange thermal shapes, standing imposingly taller than any of us. Each of them ready to pounce.
"Any ideas, Spartan?"
"Flashbang first. I'll take out the one on top of Holmes. The one behind me is going to chase after me as soon as it recovers, so gun it down as soon as the flash happens. We'll have to regroup on the last two at the door if the others can't engage quick enough."
"We won't have much time."
"Alright, I'll inform the others."
I glanced around once more.
"Marines, don't acknowledge any of what I'm saying. Don't make any sudden movements. Just keep doing what you're doing and keep your heads down. We've got four camo'd Elites in the room. They're holding fast pending a visual on the VIP. We're going to take them out real soon, so I need you all to switch optics to thermals. Amy's going after the one on top of you, Holmes. I'm gonna take care of her threat, and the rest of you focus fire on the two guards at the door. Set your optics to full polarization. We're kicking this party off with a flashbang. We'll only get a couple seconds at this. Acknowledge only with a ping. One ping only."
A series of blips on the HUD signaled that everyone understood.
"As you were."
Amy slowly unlimbered the cylindrical grenade and slid it down past her hip, hovering it there.
I turned and nodded at Amy, spoke loudly, "Alright, there's nothing useful in here, Marines. Let's explore the rest of the—"
A crack as loud as thunder and a blinding white light filled the room.
Amy's lunge toward Holmes' attacker was so swift my aim on her Elite faltered, but with such speed the assassin assigned to the Spartan had no chance of inflicting any harm on her. Both aliens were neutralized in an instant. I emptied half the magazine into my target while all other Marines sent an overwhelming barrage toward the ones furthest away. Once they fell to the floor, I glanced over toward Amy just in time to see Holmes' adversary on the ground beneath her feet twitching and writhing. She raised her armored boot in the air and brought it swiftly down atop the alien's skull and it simply exploded beneath.
"All hostiles neutralized." Amy announced.
Cordite and smoke wafted in the air as I switched the VISR optics back to normal. Another body hit the floor and we all glanced toward Holmes, now on his knees clutching at his stomach.
"Amy, keep eyes on the doorway!" I yelled.
I rushed toward him as every other Marine crowded around.
"Fuckin' bastard sucker punched me." Holmes said, coughing up a spat of blood.
"Status?" Amy asked.
I glanced Holmes over, then me and the Gunny instinctively looked at one another and I knew in an instant how much blood he'd already lost. An artery was opened wide by a fatal slash of the energy blade. Though cauterized at the site, the adjacent wounding had opened up and I could feel my knees beginning to soak as I knelt next to him. Even if we teleported back to the ship this instant, he wouldn't make it. Even if someone had a whole liter of compressed biofoam on-hand, he wouldn't make it. I choked back tears and forced a steady tone.
"Got hit good, Amy, but Holmes can fight this one out."
Amy glanced back for an instant, wordless. I couldn't tell what she was thinking, but I hunched she knew exactly what happened and that I was putting on a good show. She refocused aim on the doorway to the bunker.
I pulled from my ruck a micromorph inhalant.
"Here, breathe deep so it doesn't hurt. We're gonna have to move you outta here."
Elation took a hold of Holmes at the first breath, then he started to inhale deeply and rhythmically, his respiration and pulse rate quickly diminishing, emulating that of a deep sleep.
His lids started to sag and I knew it wouldn't be long.
"Hey, sir, you remember that time you patched up my arm at the North Side bunker?"
"Yeah. I remember that."
"There were medics there. Why'd you do it?"
"Because you were right there."
"Gunny always liked you."
"Easy, Holmes. Relax."
"You always made his job easier. But…honestly I don't think this will be healing any time soon."
"Don't say that, Staff Sergeant. Who's gonna be my level-headed NCO if you take on that kind of attitude?"
"They're all good troops, sir…" He said, voice trailing off into silence.
Peacefully, without pain, Staff Sergeant Blake Holmes' eyes closed, never to open again.
I waited a moment, looked down and realized I'd been holding his hand the whole time. With the other, I placed a palm over the Marine's neck and grabbed hold of his dog tags, yanking them free, stowing them into my ruck. A tradition no Marine took joy in.
"You lived your life with honor. To those before you, Staff Sergeant, go home."
Anything more I could say was abruptly ended as ceiling tiles started to shift out of place, revealing a crawl space from which legs started to protrude. All rifles were trained upward and subsequently lowered as UNSC standard issue boots thudded into the deck. There stood a withered, tattered Rear Admiral Osman. She instantly favored her left leg after the fall and nearly fell to one side before Amy stood her back up with an outstretched arm.
"Ma'am." She said. "Are you injured?"
She waved the Spartan off. "No, I'm fine. Thank you." She started scraping back a tuft of disheveled, dirt-black hair, glancing down at her uniform in self-disgrace. She looked up and offered a weary smile. "Just a little out of regs is all."
She gazed softly upon our fallen, then at me. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"Is there anyone else we should search for?"
That's when she started to recollect the climax of her ordeal, the shock fully weighing her down. Clasping her hands over her waist, the tears came lightly as she recalled her recent memory. "No, I'm all that's left here."
"Understood, ma'am. Let's get you to safety."
Amy nodded at me.
I nodded back. "Time to go."
I took a hold of us all and instantly we were back inside the bay of Blink Once.
The Admiral instantly fainted into Amy's powerful arms, the Spartan gently dragging the senior officer by the wrists toward a medical stretcher.
Marines hefted Holmes to an adjacent stretcher and sat down next to him, just staring off into space.
I marched to the pilot's chair and keyed the ship's transmitter.
"Rosetta, execute the autopilot routine and get us the hell out of here."
The reactor room was predictably quiet and barren of activity except for the pair of scientists standing idly near a snack dispenser, chatting casually.
The quiet I currently found myself in was like a long-forgotten treasure, easy to have been left behind in times like these because it is usually accompanied with solitude. But once it's there, it's precious. And I everything I was doing, everything I had on my mind began to slow. I had the Transit in-hand and was about to look for that strange symbol again, but then a pang of grief surged from within, the realization that someone I knew well would never be seen or heard from again. In this silence, I knew I'd have trouble letting go of Holmes, my first friend in Lima Company.
Through glassy eyes, I looked and there it was, waiting for me.
The dark-purple interloper.
I dried my eyes with a sleeve as it pulsated on and off, on and off, repeatedly, never stopping. Was it always there and I had only recently noticed? As before, it then overtly advertised its presence by ringing itself in the same bright-yellow I'd seen when I took notice the last time. Was it signaling me, aware of my awareness? I reached out an index finger, bringing it closer, and it began to pulse even faster. I made contact and it disappeared.
Removing my hand entirely from its surface, there was nothing. Not even the shapes and symbols representing the physical reality of my surroundings. Nothing.
In an instant, the pitch-black sphere became a blinding chrome one. The reflection of myself was vivid and startling, the scientists across the room taking notice. I immediately walked away and tucked the mirror-like Transit beneath my torso. As I exited the area, I brought its display to bear again, noticing that all the symbols and shapes reappeared. It was in that instant that my footsteps lost traction against the deck and I was floating. A second later, I fell back to the deck, landing on the soles of my feet.
Transit stowed beneath canvass, I headed to the bridge. I needed the Doctor's immediate counsel.
The sphere was so bright that its shine was subtly oozing outward beneath the woven strands of opaque cloth that obscured it. Nothing else had changed, though, only the visible alteration it had undergone since I chanced activating whatever function the new symbol on its surface represented. Passerbys nodded but I ignored their greetings. Passing through the ship's main artery, I caught site of normal space outside the thick windows and I knew we'd exited slipspace early. I quickened my pace to the bridge.
Others took notice of the view outside and were conversing about it as I sped past.
I then opened a private channel to the command deck.
The CNI's signaling prompts were going through but weren't being acknowledged. I kept trying.
I queued the request as highest priority.
Every time I checked on its status, it kept getting bumped lower and lower on the queue list. I then sent off a series of urgent requests as never-ending attempts spaced in one-second intervals, flooding the queue and bumping out all others. The ship's registry would become saturated with my traffic and whoever it was that was keeping my requests from getting through to the command deck would soon have no choice but to deal directly with me.
"Lieutenant Pennington," Rosetta said to me, "Captain Lawson and the entire Bridge crew are trying to troubleshoot a slipspace course deviation. This could take a lot of time. Please refrain from any future attempts to contact the Captain. He will gain contact with you when he is ready."
"I really need to speak with him. It's very important."
"Our tasks take precedence over yours, I'm sure."
"Fine, I'll walk."
Within the next minute, I strode in unannounced through the entryway to the bridge, approached the command chair and tapped the Captain on the shoulder.
He only glanced rearward for an instant before saying, "What is it, Lieutenant?"
He was engrossed consulting his displays, scrolling through pages and pages of diagnostic reports and equipment event logs he was inundated with just as all others here undoubtedly were.
"Sir, I've been trying to get a hold of you."
"I know. Rosetta says you're quite insistent."
"Where's the Doctor? I have some very important questions for him."
"He departed for re-assignment shortly after the strike mission briefing at Sigma Oh-Four."
"And he didn't even say goodbye?"
Lawson never broke visual contact with his tasks while replying. "I'm sure he would've, but his transfer to Earth was immediate. Man's in high demand. Pennington, can't you see we're extremely busy?"
"And I think I know why, sir."
Lawson then finally withdrew from his fast-scrolling reports and squared his gaze directly at me.
"To the conference room, Lieutenant."
He paced away and I followed closely in tow, the veiled Transit tucked firmly in my grasp.
He paced through the doors to the Conference room and immediately about-faced toward me. "Well, what is it?"
I removed the canvass bag and his first reaction was rearing back where he stood.
"How did you come by this? When did it happen?"
"Did you or Rosetta pick up a loss of ship's gravity a while ago?"
"Okay, so then it was just confined to my local area then."
"You're saying the Transit caused the gravity to go out on only you? Where did it happen?"
"I was near the reactor room at the time. So, it must've set us off course when the new object appeared on its surface. It changed itself, sir."
Lawson was silent, thinking.
"Does it function anything like a slipspace drive, sir?"
"Not really. Why do you ask?"
"It did set us off course. I can't think of anything else that would've done that. And it played with the ship's gravity. These events occurring so close together can't just be coincidence."
"Well, slipsapce drives and the Transit's manipulation of space-time, in theory, work similarly. Where they differ is that the Shaw-Fujikawa translight engine is principled on encapsulating just enough nine-dimensional space over and around a vessel and propelling it along the space-time continuum, whereas the Transit is purely teleportation. Anywhere in an instant. It doesn't just quantize spatial data to send you through an invisible chute for a set amount of time…it has all the spatial data of the universe stored within it."
"When the new symbol came into being and activated, everything around it hiccuped."
Lawson's demeanor instantly changed and he took a chair, relaxing his posture in the form-fitting contours. For the first time since I met the naval Captain, a flighty pitch was audible in his normally sturdy tenor.
"N-now, Doctor Kleiner did mention the possibility of something. It was wild even for us, but we hadn't looked into it. He planned on investigating it sooner or later, but never had the time to, you see. Too many other priorities. General LeMay and his damned deadlines." Lawson scoffed. "Anyways, it had to do with its core ability to map everything, the fabric of space-time. The Transit always presented to us an extent to which it could teleport things. We knew exactly how far we could go based on what energy it had in store and what we were teleporting, but Kleiner wasn't convinced he'd seen it all. He was certain that it was capable of more, something we couldn't yet understand. It was just his own theory. But maybe," Lawson gestured at the sphere with his whole hand, "just maybe, this is it."
"Something more. Extra capacity for longer jumps?"
Lawson stood, all the while never taking his sight off the Transit.
"He said its reach was finite, but unbound. Only limited by the energy stored within it at any given time. He never elaborated on it. I never obligated him to because the mission at Zaragosa Prime was carried out in full and a complete success. But during the evals, as you know, we placed it within high-current energy fields during your battles and we saturated it with gamma radiation just before we all fled the planet. We got out of it what we put in, plain and simple, no punches pulled and none given. But after everything that happened and everything that the Doctor said, I had the assumption we'd never allowed it to take on its full potential. Like there was something we needed to activate or unlock. A hidden threshold we just couldn't approach with our methods."
"Sir," I said, placing the Transit on the table, "I have a confession to make."
Lawson then broke his gaze on the bright chrome mirror and looked to me.
"I haven't refueled it. It's been at the same state since we left Troy, but I'm somehow still teleporting with it. Ever since this happened to it. Sir, it has no limits. Ask me to teleport the Thermisticles to Reach right now and I'll make it happen."
He sat down again. "You're certain?"
"Yes, sir, it's getting the energy from somewhere, but not from any of our sources."
He continued to stare. "No, no, don't do that. We ought to know where it's new energy comes from first."
"Have you or the Doctor ever seen this reflective type of appearance?"
"But it does mean something."
The Captain then inhaled deeply, a kind of explosive breath someone takes when confronted with an impending decision incredibly scrupulous.
"There's only a few things we know for certain. Its greatest science we've been able to understand has to do with the reconstruction process itself. When anything is teleported and reassembled any distance away, Kleiner said it was possible that the object is not entirely composed of its original matter anymore, but rather copies of its former self rearranged."
"Where would it get this extra information from?"
"From the host object, actually."
"I don't understand. Why not relocate the original whole instead of breaking it down and reassembling somewhere else?"
"Not just somewhere else, Pennington. Somewhen else. Remember, this is teleportation. Do it over a great enough distance, and you've just trumped Einstein's equations. You've officially gone back in time. Reassembly becomes…necessary."
"Because over distance and time, particles move. They need to. They have to be able to resonate freely in space. This reassembly accounts for all the particle movements an object could and will experience over the executed change in distance and time and is responsible for getting every part of you to the destination as you normally would in slower terms. Otherwise...well...I don't even want to think about an otherwise. It wouldn't be a good thing, let's just say that. So, it's a quantum-tunneling process that's unavoidably more efficient than say…encapsulating something massive inside of a shockwave much like the Thermisticles is undergoing now."
"Sort of like processing information in parallel rather than serial."
"Yes, something like that. Like I said, we never had the time to do a proper study beyond mission objectives, but if you're interested in it, research something called the Banach-Tarski Paradox. That'll spin your head for a minute or two."
"Anything else you feel is pertinent that I should know?"
"Well, whatever built this thing, it was built with humans in mind. We know this because it responds to our inputs, discerns operators' intent and can even simplify the process of teleportation to better facilitate that intent." Lawson shifted in his seat. "We found an imprint of a human hand beneath the Foreclay Outpost. I don't know if you saw it in the mines on the way to the laboratory. Carbon dated to over a hundred-thousand years ago."
"I missed that."
Lawson stood. "This has been a real advancement in our limited usage of the Transit. Thank you, Pennington. We'll see what becomes of it. Keep me updated, and feel free to pick the brains of some scientists in your idle time. I know they've got plenty of it themselves since they're letting Rosetta run most of the show."
"I just might do that."
"In the meantime, I think it'd be a good idea to have yourself and Lima Company get plenty of rest. And I expect you'll arrange a service for Staff Sergeant Holmes."
"Everyone needs it. I hate to put it like this, but the sooner we move on from it, the better. For now, I've got to find out where we are and get on track again. Time is getting short for us. Need to be on the move."
"Can you say anything about what's ahead, sir?""I can only say that it will be our most important mission yet."