Alone

By EmF

Scifi / Drama

Waste Not, Want Not

Chapter 21: Waste Not, Want Not


Another day away from home
Another journey to sell
Another place we've never been, another day in hell


Another day and a selfless deed
Another reason to bleed
Another world that you're blind to, that you've already seen


Another piece of us is dead
Another mourning to tend
Another promise that only bends, that offers no amends


Is this all for something?
Do we give for nothing?
Do we strain for victory, no matter where it ends?


The notepad stowed into the nightstand, the ceiling tiles blurred from sight, I lay and reflected on the past in the soft light of my quarters. Writing out experiences was often the best way to put things into perspective, at times the only way. This was another rare chance to reflect, to find the strength to move on. Despite possession of a miracle object, Lima Company wasn't special enough to move backward. We could only go forward. Lawson had assured me that the rescue op was a complete success and to put it behind me despite losing one of our best riflemen.

I'd lost a dear friend.

Silence and solitude leant themselves toward these outpourings of reflection that often couldn't be summoned otherwise. I couldn't express these thoughts among the Company—that would indeed set us backward in a sense. Now, the Thermisticles was en route to the next colony, another world whose mission would be the defining moment in Lima Company's so-far momentous, albeit hurried calling. Operation Island Hop would soon be at an end. Whatever lied beyond, only success or failure could tell. Our captain ordered all of us to rest during this journey as there were no preparations necessary. We were idle. No functions for Lima Company to carry out. And yet he told me directly that the most important mission was upon us.

I could only wait and wonder.


I'd fallen asleep again.

Rising to start my waking routine, I was hurried as usual but soon realized I was without purpose. I had to force myself to slow if only to pass the time more efficiently. This was a paradox for us all and it felt criminal to enjoy the amount of rest we had during this portion of the journey. The contrast to everything that had already transpired was polarizing. I hadn't kept track of how much time elapsed since our latest departure, either. Everything had been a blur. Everything had been perceived as one, sprawling day full of crucial events stitched together as I recalled what we'd endured. After all this time and this much effort, it felt to me that Lima Company required some sense of purpose above all else. We knew where we were eventually headed, though the in-betweens had sparked uncertainty of when we'd get there. Some were beginning to wonder if we would ever get there.

The Captain had made assurances that we'd earned the reprieve and to yet again take full advantage of it. The latter part was our challenge.

A knock at my door was a welcomed change to this dreary day I'd woken up to. I'd spent enough time alone.

I opened the door and there stood Rios, his rank upgraded since we last spoke.

"What's up, Top?"

"Couldn't help but notice every time we stop somewhere there's Covenant. And we are making a beeline to Reach, more or less, right?"

"What are you saying, Covenant taking a stab at Reach? I don't know about that. Security posturing at Reach is probably the most robust it's ever been, and if we have our way there'll be a lot of heavy hitters staging from there in short order."

"What do you mean?"

"Can't say for sure at this time. I've received word there could be a big mission waiting for us there, but it's still undecided. We have one last op to carry out, then we'll know for sure."

"Sounds exciting, sir. Hopefully I'll be your first to know."

"Makes sense, you being senior enlisted. I was going to hit the gym and throw some weight around. Can you spot?"

"Maybe later, sir. Got some counseling to do for some of the troops. Any word on Holmes?"

Just hearing the name stopped me short of thought, removing me of the present tense.

"Sir?"

I hated talking about him, especially the details, but I couldn't avoid it forever.

"…His last will states he's to be returned to his homeworld for burial. His coffin will be sent via slipspace and his family will take custody of him when he gets back to Earth. Before he's jettisoned, we'll hold a service for him at the launch bay."


I had worked up a good sweat and a voluminous pump in my pull muscles. The burn was intense. After so much sedentary activity in slipspace, it felt good to finally get moving again, to stimulate metabolism. Moving on to break down some of the push muscle fibers, I was cognizant of someone else entering the gymnasium with heavy footfalls. It could only be a Spartan. She was always armored.

I re-racked the weights and stood up to see her approaching me directly.

"Sir," she said, "the daily update on Sergeant Blunt."

"Thank you, Spartan. I saw the video of you with Sergeant Blunt and the Master Sergeant. I commend you two for taking the initiative getting him debriefed, or at least trying to."

"Thank you, sir."

"So, any progress since that initial encounter?"

"Very little. He's still too rattled. Can't get a good read on him, myself. We feel he won't be the same for quite some time."

"Alright, that's fine. I don't expect him to turn a corner overnight. Just keep giving him the gentle nudge."

"And you, sir, how are you?"

"Me? Well—"

"—Do you really need to be exercising at this time?"

Amy drew closer to me and sat down on a flat bench, the very first time I saw her take a seat. It was uncharacteristic of her to relax, at least in front of anyone else, but she seemed quite at ease doing it this moment. Her attention on me didn't waiver.

"Sir, have you been sleeping well? Feeling well?"

"Actually, yes, it's just when I do fall asleep—"

"—You're stressed."

The Spartan was adept at reading me despite her lack of interaction with people in general.

"I've been having these dreams."

"About?"

"Everything that's happened. Things that might happen. Or things that might never happen."

"He told you about the importance of the next mission, so I know it's on your mind. It's normal to undergo this kind of stress, considering what's at stake. Concentrate on proper rest then."

"This last one, though…"

"Go on, tell me."

I swept away the sweat clinging to my brow. "Weird. I was in battle. All of us. I think it was Zaragosa. Can't be sure where it was exactly. Anyway, it was dawn. We got ordered to take some hill just before sunrise. Maybe it was the North side. Well, as we got to within reach of the summit, we started taking heavy fire. A few of us started to go down. You kept charging upward and I saw you fall. I had the Transit in my hands and I wanted to save everyone right then and there. I had the power to do it."

"But you couldn't."

"I hesitated."

"Why?"

"When I looked inside, I saw Sergeant Blunt knife Gunny Smith in the back."

"Anything else?"

"That was the only thing I saw. Everything ended right there."

Amy fell silent and stared at me. Just the golden reflection of myself in her visor.

"Pretty weird, huh?"

"Don't think too much about it, sir."

I nodded.

"You've got a lot on your mind and you need more rest. That's how you can best prepare. You need to be fresh. We all do, but you most of all. Everything now depends on you."

She stood.

"What do you mean by that?"

"If you ever wanted to do me a favor, don't fail the Captain's next mission." The Spartan withdrew. "Get your rest."

She walked away.


Holmes' coffin lied below.

Halfway through the workout, Amy finished what she had to say and left the gym in her usually-abrupt manner, and then I lost all motivation as Holmes entered my thoughts again. The thought of failing—of losing everything Lima Company had fought for—brought back the memories of everyone that we'd lost along the way. It was worse than to die in battle, in a way, failing those that had come before—who sacrificed so others could continue carrying the mantle they preserved and passed along in safe keeping. At least they had given their all and never faltered. Holmes and Smith and others…I could hear their voices. Their faces were still vivid. All they ever wanted to do was help others and protect them, take down as many Covvie as they could alongside any Marine. We'd be moving on without them. Those of us left fighting were robbed. Not just as troops, but as people.

I just couldn't fathom the depth of their contribution as I gazed downward off an observation deck in the cavernous launch bay.

Holmes' makeshift tomb was already prepared for its final journey, sealed off from the outside and fueled just enough to send the Marine homeward.

I was alone. The slightest of movements triggered echoes.

Further out, Lima Company's small Pelican fleet and a lone Prowler occupied the deck. They were as still and silent as the FTL casket below. Like the casket, they were just empty vessels, just inert bodies. The view before me would be my final memory of him. This would be my closure upon his departure from Lima Company. A beat of footsteps was tugging at my dulled awareness as I held in the sight of it all. The footsteps stopped right next to me and I glanced sidelong at Sergeant Haze standing there, the NCO looking outward from the mezzanine just as I had been.

"He was my first friend in Lima Company too. Watched him start out as a PFC. He ranked up fast and he deserved it. It's like all the good ones never make it."

"I know."

"Guess you couldn't have stopped it from happening. Just didn't see it coming. Maybe it was just inevitable, Transit or no."

"It was my failure, I admit. Just knowing he's gone is…I'm sorry. I can't speak of it now."

"It's hard to recollect, I know. But the only way to solve a problem is to first admit there is one. Sooner or later, sir, you're gonna have to start coming to grips with your predicament. Because it's started to become all of ours now."

"What predicament is that?"

"Your shortcomings as a leader. Look, there's no easy way to say this so I'll just go ahead and say it. The unit would rather you step down and recommend a suitable replacement, someone with more field experience and the proper mentoring. I think you're beginning to understand that. And it's not your fault. You weren't prepared for this role. And I know you mentioned to the Captain before all this that Rios would've been the best pick for command."

"Aye, I did, but the Captain wouldn't budge. He had my feet nailed to the floor."

"Maybe it's best if we make him budge. It's happened before, you know. Other units. In the movies. The majority factor is a strong one, even in military hierarchies. And we no doubt have that in our favor. It can be done."

"I don't know, Haze. I just don't know. Lawson is firm. He's dead-set. And this is a unique mission we've found ourselves in. We're not just an infantry unit anymore. Quite frankly, we never were, even at Zagosa."

"Gunny Smith knew what was up, Penn. He buffered us from Command pretty well because he had experience. Vast experience. I think we can all agree it was better during the Smith days. Rios is up for that role, you know. We could let him take over."

"And do what? Tell Captain Lawson that—"

"—I don't even want to hear that name. It sickens me to see what he's done to us."

"I know you're confused and I know exactly why you've been frustrated for so long. You never knew that the assembly of Lima Company was actually predicated on protecting the Outpost."

"Say again?"

"None of us knew back then, but we were to be absorbed into the Captain's command and eventually become his expeditionary fighting force from the start."

Silence.

Haze studied me through squinted, dissecting eyes.

"What are you suggesting?"

"He hand-picked every single Marine months before any of us stepped foot on Zaragosa Prime."

"When did you learn of this?"

"Shortly after we were brought aboard the Thermisticles. Before my commission. He told me."

"Who else knew?"

"Only ones who knew from the start were the Doctor and Zero-Seven-One."

Again, silence as Haze contemplated this revelation.

I preempted.

"Haze, Lima Company is on a path to affect real change in this War. Call it glory if that's what you'd like. We ought to see this through. Lawson's put together a great team and envisioned probably the grandest, most meaningful offensive the UNSC could hope for. If we get blessed off by higher commands to move forward with that, we'll be guaranteed to strike directly at the Covenant. I'm talking about hitting them where it hurts and watching them struggle. Much more than payback. It'll be our comeback."

"Maybe. But even I know that Captain Lawson is just one man. His hopes and dreams aren't guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that a rookie Lieutenant has a Spartan for a personal bullet shield and gets anything else that he wants just as long as he subjects us to whims of a cavalier in white. I see Lima Company for what it's really become now in Lawson's image. This whole operation has become smoke and mirrors to me. And I'm not the only one. Anyone can see we're not doing real missions. All this jaw about the tip of the spear, tip of the spear, tip of the spear. We're at the tail end of it, chasing after guerillas dug into dead planets and precious admirals that have nothing to do with the lives of infantry troops. None of us are cut out for this. We're getting stale and losing people while doing it. Whatever happened to Reach? Whatever happened to getting this unit back up to full strength and getting on with our lives, getting real assignments again? Clearly, the Captain doesn't trust this company anymore, sir. If he did, we would be on real missions led by real leaders. I'm not saying you're a bad person, it's just that I don't look up to you as a leader. More like a brother who once shot the rifle beside me. Let's face it, you have little experience."

"I trust the Captain's judgment."

"After all we lost at Zagosa? What more should we squander foolishly? Didn't we already lose enough when we lost Gunny Smith?!"

"It was different with the Gunny, Haze. He volunteered. He knew what was at stake and he made the call."

"And now Holmes! Who's next?! Maybe Rios while we're at it!"

"I can't think of anything great the UNSC did that didn't involve sacrifice, Haze. None of them died in vain, so maybe it's time to start believing. While you do, I'm going to prepare Holmes for slipspace. There's a service for him in one hour. I trust you'll be there."

"Aye, sir." Haze barked. "I will be. Holmes was my friend. He was a friend to everyone in this unit. And everyone is heartbroken just as much as they are confused about how this keeps happening. Will you be elaborating on that during your eulogy?"

I turned and walked away, saying over my shoulder, "If I could promise that no one in Lima Company would die, I'd do that. But I can't. You know better, Haze. Nothing's guaranteed. What do you think Smith would say about that little fact? What do you think he'd say about you right now?"


"Sir, Second Lieutenant reporting as ordered."

Captain Lawson customarily replied, "At ease."

"How's that Vice Admiral doing?"

"She seems to be over the shock and fairly quickly. She had some questions about you and your team, and how you got teleported to the prowler. I had Rosetta brief her. Too busy for that myself."

"You called me here. Is this regarding the next mission?"

"Yes. Heraklyon."

"Where's Heraklyon?"

"Exactly." Lawson chuckled. "It's a few light-decades from Reach. UNSC's turned it into an off-the-grid base for operational test and evals. It's where the most promising prototypes go to get approved for operation or sent to the grave."

"Is this conveyable to the troops?"

"You might as well go ahead and tell them. We draw nearer to Reach and, well, we can't keep it a secret forever. Besides, Lima Company has proven itself to me. In my view, you're ready. Now, you must prove to others that Lima Company is ready."

"To the—"

"—A group of people that will ultimately grant us permission to proceed past what we are now. The key stakeholders have all gathered at our next stop, waiting for our arrival. We'll present the Transit's capabilities to them for assessment and await their decision."

"How soon?"

"Quite soon. In fact, we'll be entering normal space within the hour."

"Sir, I have a send-off about to commence for Holmes."

"That's fine. I understand. Go handle that."

"Sir, will you be there. It'd mean a lot to them if you showed."

"If not for the next stop, I'd attend. Please relay my condolences to the unit."

"Aye, sir. After it's done, should I—"

"—Rosetta will brief you. I'll already be planetside."


"Holmes was a dedicated man, to the uniform and to everyone."

It was evident that the lot of Lima Company agreed as I spoke in the position of attentio006E.

"It's his example that any Marine would strive to emulate in keeping with the extraordinarily high standards Lima Company esteems. With him, we built this unit into something special. Without him, we'll continue to build it in his honor and the honor of all others who gave everything. Staff Sergeant Blake Holmes is released from service, sent home to rest in peace."

I about-faced and placed my sights to the dark capsule steadily floating away from our ship, and shouted, "Present arms!"

As one, all of Lima Company rendered salutes.

Holmes' craft picked up speed as a disc of white light materialized some distance ahead of its trajectory. He entered that realm and disappeared, never to be seen by Lima Company again.

"Order arms!"

Lima Company finished its salute to Staff Sergeant Blake Holmes.

In the next moments, I saw everyone off as one by one the Marines ascribed their names into a Mylar plaque that was to accompany the folded UNSC flag. Holmes' family would at least have some idea of who we were and who their son was while stationed so far away. Similar tokens were done before, but the mood was perceptibly more somber this time. I was the last one to etch my name, and when I finished I was again alone in the launch bay. It was done. Lima Company had closure. The unit could move on from here. I climbed in one of Lima Company's Pelicans and stowed the items into a slipspace canister resting on the co-pilot's chair. They'd be sent off soon enough. Now, the Captain was waiting at the planet's surface.

An Iso-Rosetta took control of the dropship and we cycled out of the launch bay.

A small rocket burn and the Pelican righted about to face Heraklyon.

"Do you talk?" I asked.

"You've seen me talk." Rosetta replied.

"I meant do you ever initiate the conversation or do you just respond when needed?"

"I am a class seven A.I." She retorted matter o'factly. "I have my moods just like you."

"What's your mood now?"

"Anti-social."

I laughed. "Okay. Tell me about Heraklyon."

"It's a proto-world still forming in the system's accretion disk, tidally-locked to the host star. The star system as a whole is remarkably stable considering the amount of independent objects., but the only stable portions of the biosphere on the planet is at the very edges."

"The twighlight zone."

"Yes. You can see a few moons out there coalescing in the distance."

From the ship's present position outside of Heraklyon's atmosphere, it appeared as though all the rocky bodies encircling the planet were quite comfortable in their orbits. An emerald-green gaseous haze bound it all together in one, continuous band.

"That's interesting. So, why did we split up?"

"You and Captain Lawson?"

"Yes."

"It's a formal evaluation, Lieutenant. They want you in the dark so as to provide a true test of your abilities as well as the Transit's. You can have no prior knowledge of the test and its components. It's double blind."

"I see."

The Pelican initiated its descent through the uppermost reaches of atmosphere. The nose cone and underbelly groaned under the stress as flames licked at the edges of the forescreen. Passing through clouds, Rosetta had taken on a slim trajectory that had the dropship dropping at a very steep angle. The glide path was none at all. The ship was almost free-falling. I increased tension on the restraint harness to remain fully upright and alert.

"Sorry for the dive, Lieutenant. We have to pass through this weather system quickly."

"What weather system? It's perfectly clear."

"And that's because of super-sonic gusts. Be glad we're in a tail wind."

"How long until we land?"

"Not soon enough."

"I hope the mission doesn't fail because of some gusts."

"It's like this all the time, sir. At least, on the lit side of the world. Conditions at the twighlight gap should be infinitely more favorable."

The ship streaked downward, howling through the air. I glanced at the inclinometer and it read 315°. A forty-five degree dive straight to our destination. Glancing up, I saw the ground just racing closer and closer. It was mostly rocky with very little greenery. The air temperature outside the hull and the hull itself began to cool and the ambient light began to dim rapidly as though the Pelican had just pierced through a cloud layer. Rosetta began to taper off the descent angle gradually. During the middle of her maneuver, the air speed suddenly dropped off dramatically and I lurched forward into the tight grasp of the restraints. The blood pooled in my face and I nearly fell unconscious, just before feeling the fear of a complete stall.

"Okay, we're in the clear." Rosetta announced. "You'll be able to dismount soon."

For another fifteen minutes we coasted at a much more comfortable velocity, the horizon now leveled out. I loosened the slack on the harness pads and took stock of the landscape now mere meters below. The craft slowed even more as I made out the length of a runway ahead. The Pelican touched down onto a barren, tarmac expanse. It seemed we were completely alone here. There weren't any ground guides out on the runway and there weren't even any fuel trucks or emergency vehicles seen, not even in the farthest distance or the adjacent taxiways.

"Where are we?"

"Just an active flightline thirty minutes from the test site."

"Why are we here?"

"We're a little early. The assessors haven't arrived yet."

"How long do we have to wait here?"

"They're running a little late, but we should get notification once they make their descent over there."

"Damn, I was ready to go."

"What kind of mood are you in?"

"Don't start."


I woke from sleep as the Pelican began a new descent. I'd dozed off some time ago.

Looking out and over the ship's broad cowling, I could see only a dimly-lit flat plain flanked by forests that stretched for many kilometers. At its farthest end, it was met with the skyline of a metropolis. Silhouettes of high-rise buildings dominated that horizon beneath a panorama of moons and asteroids loitering beyond the clouds. The tail ramp opened immediately after touchdown and I made my way toward the opening. Marching downward, I saw only Captain Lawson there amid a clearing, his service dress bright and crisp as though it was brand-new and prepared exclusively for this day. His personal appearance was always within regs, but he seemed to have a particular glow about him. He obviously wanted to look as presentable as possible to our incoming benefactors.

"This place is where they used to test field artillery." He said. "These days, it's a MAC gun range. Look," he pointed, "you can see the scorch lanes beneath the shrubbery going all the way out to that mock-city."

"Sir, some scientists had a chance to analyze the Transit before I left the ship, and they said with high confidence that—"

A lone junior officer no older than me stopped the conversation short as he opened the hatch of a nearby observation bunker and marched toward us.

"Sirs, I'm Lieutenant Sorensen, General LeMay's remote attaché. I came to inform you that the General will not be here today. He had to remain at Earth due to increased activity at the IRIS site."

I tried to re-engage the Captain, but a firing of retrorockets suddenly resounded throughout the region, startling us all and drowning out my voice. We collectively glanced upward and noticed a large vessel decelerating towards a landing pad very close to our vantage. The three of us backpedaled a few paces as the incoming craft slowed to a steady descent, a plume of dust thrusting outward then up in several places beneath its flat-bottomed hull. I covered my eyes and waited for the haze to settle.

Within a few seconds, the area was clear and there before us was a giant box car resting atop the ground just a few steps away. It was bulky and wide, vaguely rectangular with thrusters on all four corners slowly cooling from bright orange to a dull red. The vessel appeared to have the shape of a giant brick, hardly a wieldy or aeronautic vehicle, meant only for ferrying people to and from orbit. A blast shield retracted on its longest face and revealed an equally wide, clear plate of very thick plexiglass separating us from a host of visitors all seated in luxurious chairs. They were all in military service dress. Each of them appeared to be pressed for time, this stop likely being just one of their many items on today's agenda. Most of their faces were currently absorbed into their datapads and other devices.

"The ones looking at us," Lawson said, "those are the ones that already know. They've digested my Zaragosa reports in full. They'll be expecting something truly groundbreaking."

"You can say that again, sir."

He was absolutely correct. I wasn't close enough to see the whites of their eyes, but I could see it in their posture through the giant pane. Some of them had rigid interest in us while the remaining panel of so-called judges was content to converse casually amongst one another or sip from drinks or access their communications, or all three at once. The barrier was sound-proof. In perfect silence, the lot of them carried on while a select few motionlessly studied us and their surroundings, occasionally offering glance at the mock-city in the extreme distance. I couldn't know if they fully appreciated Lima Company's situation, what we'd done to get here or if they knew their decisions today could ultimately allow us to go even further. Their attention would be undivided soon enough, though. That much was certain.

"I just wonder if they brought along any popcorn in that stagecoach."

Lawson got a brief, subdued chuckle before the next arrival announced its presence from above, a lone Pelican shuttling down exuding far less of a commotion upom landing. The tail ramp immediately lowered and a man we'd made introductions with quite recently descended.

"That's General Vaughn, one of a few dissidents against the strike mission."

"I do remember him, the one grilling you at the briefing."

"Yes, quite skeptical. But I like skeptics. Especially the loud ones."

"Why's that?"

"Because once they're in your court, it leaves little doubt leftover from everyone else."

"Is he still in the minority? Seemed that way from the meeting at Sig Oh-Four, anyways."

"Yes, he is. But he's still got pull in the community and should not be discounted. And it's always a good idea to never, ever draw the ire of a senior official. Let's hear what it is he has to say."

The Marine General made his way toward us with powerful, effortless strides, never once breaking eye contact. Gentlemanly, nevertheless, he held out a hand at the Captain which meant he was forgoing any semblance of formality and releasing Lawson of any such. We remained at ease.

They shook and maintained eye contact.

"Captain Lawson, welcome to Heraklyon. And welcome, Lieutenant Pennington. Try not to let all the scenery distract you today. The ONI analysts have concocted a very tough set of scenarios. While these people behind you are accustomed to conventional weapons testing, they will no doubt appreciate your presentation once they see for themselves what kind of capabilities you're claiming with this prototype…if it lives up to those claims. I'll be watching myself."

Lawson nodded.

"Thank you, General. We appreciate the notification and we hope you get a good view."

The General took one step closer to the Ship Commander, saying, "I've commanded thousands upon thousands of Marines in my service to the UNSC. You know the actuaries of command. You know how the odds turn out in this War. That's a lot of men never making it back home. One thing I've learned is never to promise fighting men anything you aren't ready to deliver in that instant, because the look in their eyes is what stays with you until the end. Heed those words, Captain."

"Aye, sir."

"I had a part in designing these tests in order to simulate what live combat with this weapon system might be like. It tests the device and the person operating to see, mainly, how quickly they can negotiate realistic, tough challenges. They watered it down. I wanted it to be much tougher than it actually is."

Vaughn stared at Lawson for a moment and nodded, then took a place off to the side of the VIP gathering.

The Captain turned to me, squarely grasping at my shoulders.

"The wait is almost over, Blake. Everything we've worked for culminates here. Just one more trial. They all know Lima Company is a good fighting unit, but most of them only have a vague idea of what to expect today. These spectators are the most influential in the entire UNSC, so this is the pivotal time and place for Lima Company. The deciding hour."

"I've never seen this many senior officials before, sir. It's a snake pit."

"Don't you worry about them, just concentrate on the task. Your back will be facing them the whole time as you carry out whatever objectives there are anyway. Just remember that a triumph today means our next set of spectators will be the Covenant. We'll have them fearful of the UNSC. Respectful at the very least. Be thinking about that out there."

I nodded at my Captain.

"Knock it out of the park, Lieutenant."

"Sir?"

"It's an old…never mind. Do the best you can, son."

"Aye, sir."

Another senior officer walked this way, an elderly female with the rank of vice admiral. This was a no-salute zone, though muscle memory almost had me stiffening for the position of attention just seeing her. I merely followed the Captain's lead.

"Captain Lawson," she said before stopping just before him, "I've read through everything. All your reports from the Zaragosa system, this prototype under test, everything. Very impressive, everything you've done. Some of us believe you've got some lofty claims, though. One thing is certain. Today's evaluation will either be your biggest success yet or your final career move."

"Indeed."

"What is most intriguing to me is how you structured this tactical unit, Lima Company. I took the extra time while headed here to skim over the original unit roster. I also took the time to review the current unit roster and compare the two. Did a double take at one name in particular."

"The name?"

She glanced upon me, her eyes drifting back to Lawson.

"Never mind." She said. "Thank you for rescuing Rear Admiral Osman."

"Glad I could be of help, ma'am."

"I won't forget it. If there's anything I can do for you, just let me know."

"Well, yes, there is something."

"Bearing in mind that it can have nothing to do with today's proceedings."

"It does pertain to this occasion, but it's more of a small favor if anything."

"Go on."

"Well, there's someone here that I'd really like you to have a chat with."

"Name?"

"General Vaughn. He's the—"

"—Corps' Chief of Staff. Yes, I know."

"Right. He's standing right over there." Lawson pointed.

"And what is it you'd like me to discuss with this person?"

"When we get the greenlight after today's final evaluation, send him my way to give me the news."

She shrugged. "Okay. Something personal?"

"Mildly."

"You seem pretty confident in the face of the complexities of this exercise, Captain."

"More than confident today, ma'am. We're battle-tested."

"Good luck out there, regardless."

"Thanks," he grinned, "but we won't need it."

She arced a brow at him. Her last words were, "Pride go'eth before the fall."

My Captain's smile was steadfast, his eye contact with her unrelenting.

The Vice Admiral offered only a smirk at the Captain before she withdrew and retook her seat among the other dignitaries.

"That Rear Admiral you rescued is an executive officer for Vice Admiral Margaret Parangosky, who is the current head of ONI. Osman is no doubt preparing a field report for Parangosky as we speak. Coupled with our presentation here, I expect ONI at large will be propping us up on a pedestal."

"Understood."

The blast-grade window slowly retraced into the surrounding superstructure of the giant box car and the sounds of their voices could now be heard.

"Ok, it's time. I'll kick this presentation off by briefing these fine folk. Go ahead and take your place at the overwatch tower."

Captain Lawson activated his neural broadcast frequency and cleared his throat, gaining the attention of the small gathering as I withdrew from the area.

His voice also resounded into my subnet as I steadily gained distance.

"Fighting the Covenant is never fair. I'm sure every one of us knows that from personal experience. We're outgunned, outmaneuvered, outclassed in every way. As the UNSC gets pushed further and further back, many would say we're fighting a losing battle. It's hard to argue in light of the facts. Here and now, we will attempt to show you that with a proven prototype, we don't have to remain on the backfoot. You've all traveled far on short notice to be here and we thank you for your time. Please observe this demonstration with hope and an open mind, and with your favorable consideration of this weapon system I would submit to you that with it in our employ we won't just level the playing field…we'll slope it drastically in our favor."

I stopped to glance back. Every one of the VIPs was now sitting erect, setting down their savory drinks. They had quieted into total silence following his commencement speech, much like Lima Company had when subjected to a similar showing in the mines below the destroyed Outpost.

I climbed the final flight of stairs, once again looking down upon the crowd. They had their attention directed at the mock-city further outward, largely unaware to my presence at this time. I reached the top and gazed outward, scanning the distance. Much of the uninhabited skyline was only halfway constructed, easily seen from this vantage. Steel girders and pipes and powerlines were exposed at one edge of the vista.

I unlimbered the Transit from the canvass. Its mirror-finish display captured everything in existence and displayed it all quite clearly. I peered inward, accessed its zoom capability. Wrecked vehicles and failed salvages were strewn about as if they had been parked during a metropolitan lunch hour. The setting was even replete with park benches in the fully completed sectors. Corrugated, two-dimensional silhouettes of people and animals were propped up along finished sidewalks and green trails. This replicated environment had been continually broken down and rebuilt again from repeated live weapons testing.

Today's weapon test wouldn't involve firing a single shot. Complete silence would be the Transit's only noise.

I glanced down once more as Captain Lawson broke the seal of a cube containing a data chit which he removed and loaded into a display device. He read from it, "The Operator will locate a single object and transport it for this first objective. It is a UNSC standard issue assault rifle, an MA-Five series weapon in the general vicinity of a park at grid A-Two. He will transport it to the end-zone, the area shaded in red just in front of where the Evaluators are seated. The first objective's test will begin now."

The directions were clear and simple. I panned the Transit's display over the entirety of the metropolitan area, centered on it for the bird's eye view. Conveniently, the entire expanse had gridlines displayed holographically from emitters embedded into its grounds, and the borders revealed corresponding alphanumeric designators. It made finding A2 easy. The view was subsequently hovered over the park in question. By estimates, it was a rough kilometer by kilometer square of shaded greenery. Only a few small structures were within its perimeter, a clubhouse, some washrooms and a maintenance shed being likely among them. There was little doubt the objective was inside one of those buildings. I scanned the maintenance shed first and I found it instantly lying on a shelf inside. It appeared in the end-zone not five seconds later, on display up close for all to see.

I hadn't the chance to see their reactions for myself as the Captain announced the second test parameters immediately following the successful conclusion of the first.

"The first objective has been successfully completed. The Operator will now be given a time-sensitive task for the second objective. He will locate a moving target and transport it to the end-zone within a thirty second timeframe from the start of the test. The object is an autonomous vehicle painted bright orange traveling a route from grid B-Ten to B-Twenty-Three at sixty kilometers per hour. Again, successful completion of this objective requires relocating the object to the end-zone within thirty seconds from the start of the test. The test will begin now.

I raced the display toward grid B10 to find the vehicle. It wasn't there—already ahead of me. Zooming the display slightly outward, I found it already crossing grid coordinate B15. Through city streets it drove. Other vehicles parked to either side, moving pedestrians and animals and cross-traffic were all intentional distractions. Ten seconds elapsed. Zooming back in, the target was selected and relocated in another five seconds and placed into the end-zone after a total of sixteen seconds. I now had feedback from the audience upon hearing the sounds of hands clapping.

Captain Lawson remained objective, the applause quieting down as he proceeded directly to the next trial, his voice level as he read from the text.

"The final objective requires relocating multiple moving targets within a fifteen second timeframe."

He paused. And so did I.

I glanced downward over my shoulder and saw him continue to read from the prepared script, everyone else further behind glancing at one another in silence.

"The objects to be relocated are six greyhounds at the racetrack…"

Preempting the final task, I found the racetrack with ease: the obtuse, ovular swath of land at the city's edge. Hovering over that area, I waited for the word to be given.

"…The Operator must transport a minimum of three of these objects to successfully complete the objective. The test will begin now."

I could already see the hounds loosed and sprinting around the circumference from the current view. It would take them much longer than fifteen seconds to lap, but I had less than that amount of time to win the day. With one hand, I swept the display to hold steady with the speed of those swift, hard-charging animals. Multiple swipes were needed just to keep pace. My other hand tapped at one of them, two of them, three. I had enough selected for transport to achieve the minimum mandatory required to pass the test. I hadn't known how much time went by as I executed the jump. All three made it into the end-zone.

I glanced back upon them all.

"Thirteen seconds!"

The entire gathering was on their feet, an uproar of cheers filling the area.

Lawson glanced up at me with a nod and joined in the standing ovation.

"Well done, Pennington."

"Thank you, sir."

"You can deliver the news to Lima Company personally. Full disclosure. No more information blackouts."

"Sir, do you think they've seen enough? Enough to ensure their approval?"

"I'm certain of it. Look at them."

"There is plenty more we can show them. Transit seems to be doing fine. What do you think?"

"..Go ahead, but keep it subtle. Don't go crazy or anything."

I peered into the Transit again. I could do anything at this point. Lawson was smiling ear to ear, something I thought I'd never see. His weapon system and mission proposal had become noticeably more palatable to these people, and soon enough he'd have most (if not all) of them eating from the palms of his hands.

It wouldn't hurt to drive those points home.

A low-rise apartment in the city center was so new in its construction phase that it hadn't even been connected to city power or sewage yet, I could see as I zoomed in toward its foundation. I simply plucked the structure like it was a toothpick on a dinner plate and set it down in the end-zone. A plume of dust displaced as it fully settled into and flattened the turf with a loud thud. The outward spray nearly smothered everyone below me, though they were happy to be graced with such a miraculous showing. An identical building adjacent to the now-empty patch of land next to it was also ripe for the picking, and so it was promptly stacked onto the one I'd just transported like we'd all sat down for a game of Jenga.

We all felt like giants at this point.

We could do anything.

To thoroughly illustrate that notion, I gazed up and into the sky. The vast stretch of meadow before us was quite suddenly filled with one of the outlying asteroids once orbiting this world. Snatched from its path and placed here before us like some pebble you found at your feet. Again, an uproar from the crowd. They were all standing, starting to file out of their seats and into the field on their own accord, everything now purely unscripted. They meandered through the end-zone and met with Captain Lawson, forming a line to shake his hand.

"Alright, Pennington. That's quite enough. I think you lit a fire beneath 'em."

I could hear the exaltation in his voice upon issuing the stand-down. Next, he asked with a slight apprehension, "Any change in the Transit's appearance?"

"None, sir. It's stable as far as I can see."

"Okay, good. That's…"

He was bombarded with people and conversation below.

"Okay, let's give them time to digest and cast their votes now."

"Aye, sir." I descended the tower. He waited where he was as the VIPs found their way back to their ship. "And congratulations, sir."

"I couldn't have been possible without you and Lima Company. We did it."

After the last one of them found their seats, he began his closing remarks.

"So there you have it, distinguished guests. I think this will conclude the demonstration of the Transit and its capabilities. There's a lot to process, I can see you're still grappling with what you've witnessed. Put simply, the UNSC now has an unsurpassed tactical and strategic advantage against the Covenant. The way forward, upon your consideration, is for Lima Company to continue executing the UNSC's most high-value, time-sensitive missions. Issued to you now is an up-or-down vote on this matter. Take your time and confer with your counterparts. A neutral entity unaware of today's event will announce the verdict afterwards. Me, personally? I'm tired of losing to the Covenant. It's time we gave a show of force for once."

Silence as the evaluators stared at the Captain for a moment, wavering their attention between him and the presence of incredibly massive objects that weren't present earlier. One by one, they took to their devices, all of them deep in thought as they weighed everything. A low murmur circulated as they discussed amongst themselves. A naval captain and an infantry lieutenant shared in the aftermath of this field of battle. As we basked in that brief moment of triumph, the ground began to tremor. It caught me off balance and I nearly fell to my side, the reverberations grew suddenly ferocious. Further out, in the midst of the field the ground began to swell.

The seismic wave was headed this way, I could see, now passing beneath the enormous asteroid beneath it. Once I saw the horror in the Captain's eyes, I followed his gaze over my shoulder to see a massive secondary shockwave propagating rapidly in our direction from somewhere unseen in the far distance. It was tall as it was wide, splitting cloud tops and shattering the mock-city in its devouring wake. Only visible beyond its forefront was pure haze and vortices of pulverized debris swirling violently, and only our extreme distance to the fallout was what afforded any reaction time to save ourselves. The concussive wave would reach us in only seconds.

The nearby Pelican's engines began to spool and the box car's payload assist rockets began to fire, but they'd all be consumed before it gained enough altitude. I gazed down into the Transit. All people were quickly selected.

Now, everyone was back at the airfield two-hundred kilometers distant.

The resultant stare from all of them was reward enough for what I'd just done. So many people were terrified and consequently gratified simultaneously. They scanned their new surroundings about the tarmac, awed to have experienced teleportation firsthand. They would have never expected it coming to this world.

Lawson transmitted, Subtle, Pennington. Very subtle. If any of them hadn't planned on signing off on Lima Company, they are strongly reconsidering now.

I could only smile in reply.


Everyone participating in the day's fateful event had reconvened at a reception area near the entrance to a small officer's club directly off the flightline. It was a wooden establishment, maybe some aesthetic preference of someone who was once in charge of this militarized proto-world. Flag officers had that kind of pull to spend discretionary money how they saw fit, especially if it was part of a leftover surplus budget. There was nothing much to the place. It seldom saw any use, after all. The wait staff currently consisted of two people, the bare minimum to receive guests for a building of this capacity. Two waiters with one of them doubling as the chef. It was likely they were only here to serve this congregation and then they'd move on just as we would, until the next small gathering arrived for some other weapons convention.

We waited just outside in a private room while the evaluators finished making their decisions that would steer Lima Company's fate—Captain Lawson's fate as well. Half an hour had elapsed since our sudden arrival here. It had been perfectly quiet. Neither of us spoke. We didn't indulge in the food and drink available to us. We were both still reeling ourselves. The wait staff was being debriefed by a pair of ONI field agents somewhere else, intimidating them into silence by way of signed non-disclosure agreements that contained official statutes warning of prosecution and legal penalties and the like.

In this silence, I remembered something that I had desperately tried to inform the Captain of before the test sessions began. It had all happened so fast.

"Sir, I wanted to mention to you that I had some scientists run a few more tests on the Transit before I followed you down here. With their instruments, they determined that the Transit no longer needs electromagnetic or nuclear energy to function."

He turned to face me. Any smile he had on his face these past few minutes had vanished. "What is it, then?"

"It's feeding off gravitons, now."

"That might explain the destruction that happened out there, as well as what happened on the ship."

"They suggested that it could harness interactions between any object, no matter how large or small, no matter how far away."

Lawson rubbed a hand at his chin, saying, "That would implicate a limitless energy source being utilized."

"Aye, sir, although one with great consequence." I pointed outward in the direction of the test site.

He nodded.

"They're probably still determining the extent of effects you caused on the planetary system as a whole, not to mention the fact that there's a city-sized asteroid sitting in the middle of their recently-demolished range."

"I get a pass, right?"

The door to our room swung open and there stood General Vaughn, the chief critic of Lawson's grand design. He walked inward and stopped just before us.

"I'm here to inform you that your weapon system and your mission proposals will be sponsored."

Lawson let out a sigh and patted me on the back.

"...With caveats."

Lawson leaned in and listened intently to what the General was about to say.

"Got word from the High Council that you have been given full support and a new tasking. The Thermisticles and all her hands are to be given an aggressor role in Operation Red Flag. You'll get the details uploaded via secure channel. As soon as you're briefed, you'll proceed directly to Reach with orders." Vaughn shrugged, "And I suppose me being here to deliver the news is your way of saying gotchya. Well played, Captain."

"No, actually it's not. It's my way of personally saying thank you to yourself."

General Vaughn gave Lawson a wary, sidelong stare. "Thanks for what?"

"For helping us pull this off."

"I did?"

"Aye. You identified new challenges we needed to be aware of and overcome to make all this happen. You played the devil's advocate and gave us the missing perspective. Because of you, the proof of concept was arranged here at Heraklyon, and now everyone's onboard. Now, because of you, Operation Red Flag has another arrow in its quiver."

"Well, you pulled it off. Never thought it would happen. I was sure time was against you, but you did it. You have my best hopes, and of course my full support."

Captain Lawson and I assumed the position of attention and together we saluted General Vaughn. He saluted back, and I was certain the man cracked a subtle, fleeting smile at us.

"Good day, gentlemen, and that was a hell of a show."

We were then left to ourselves following the General's withdrawal.

Lawson breathed deep, saying, "Well, time to get back to the ship and find what Operation Red Flag is all about."


"So, here it is," Lawson said, "the big one."

He held a data chit aloft and I accepted it, stowed it in a pocket.

"Our orders, sir?"

"Yes. In summary, we're to rendezvous with the joint task force staging there. We'll be trailing the Pillar of Autumn into enemy territory, commanded by Captain Jacob Keyes. Our mission is to infiltrate and capture the mobile command post and take one of their leaders hostage to negotiate a truce with the Covenant. Failing that, we'll destroy the vessel and anything around it. There's extensive intel on our targets. It's all contained within those files, so keep the info secure. Make sure you brief Lima Company equally extensively while we're en route. Things will quickly speed up once we're in-place."

"Aye, sir."

We exchanged salutes and I exited the Command Deck.

As I walked through the main artery of the Thermisticles, every passerby offered greeting. The ship had taken on a new air of optimism and pride. All its inhabitants had endured the most harrowing trials. Everyone knew we were en route to Reach. Soon enough, they'd come to learn of Operation Red Flag and all its glory. And Lima Company would be in a journey of its own making. As such, I took the opportunity to generate an all-hands broadcast, informing them of the news.

"Marines of Zaragosa, as you know, we are headed to Reach at this time. We're finally on our way. Because of your efforts, we are on a path to take on the Covenant again. It starts with a new set of orders for Lima Company. We've got fresh intel on a Covenant flagship that's unaware we have knowledge of its presence. It's vulnerable, and we're going after it. Once we've made it to Reach, our new mission begins. Ready yourselves for the last briefing we'll ever need together. I'll see you soon."


All the data had been released to our internal battle net. Every troop had access to the mission's every detail. I'd highlighted as many aspects as I could over the last hour inside this briefing room. Now, it was time to let the facets of this operation piece together and await their questions.

There were none.

"So, then, thoughts?" I asked.

Seated before me in a square grid, members of Lima Company filled the room and remained motionless, some scanning through pieces of the op order.

"Well," Rios began, "it's a lot more gutsy than a straight demo of the vessel, but I can see the payout will be big if the mission's a success."

On holo-display at the head of the room was that gargantuan mothership hovering listlessly, a planetoid-shaped body of colossal significance.

"Given what we're up against and what we're putting up against it, I'd say odds of success are high. I mean, we wouldn't even be doing this mission unless the ONI analysts and Highcomm officials determined it was worthwhile. If you tally all the assets in our favor, it becomes easy to see. We'll be linking up with some heavy-hitting ships fully stocked with naval and ground assets, ODSTs, an impressive number of other Spartans, the most advanced A.I.s, and we've got the Transit."

This statement seemed to cause an instant morale boost among the troops. All attention was now on me.

"It's as good as it gets, Marines."

There was only silence now, everyone awake and poised to take action.

"Seems like we're all on the same sheet of music. And I can't wait to hear their screams as we murder Covvie on their own turf. Dismissed!"

Everyone rose to their feet and proceeded toward the exits.

Haze then approached. I took notice of him and gathered in an instant that his attitude had completely changed in these recent hours. His demeanor was certainly more forgiving than times before, and I witnessed a seldom-seen smile from him. It was as if in this moment all had been forgiven.

"We're finally headed to Reach." He said. "You're from Reach, aren't you, sir?"

"I am."

"I know you're excited. There's been speculation that we might get some shore leave there."

"I wouldn't bet on it. The pace is only picking up from here."

"Still have family at Reach?"

"They're all still there, yeah."

"Perfect chance to pay them a visit before we're on the move again. Me? I'm gonna visit my old stomping grounds if the Cappy lets me." Haze jabbed an elbow at my side. "You ever seen Hungarian women?""

"I hope we get that lucky, but I have a feeling we won't."

The CNI lace interrupted our light-hearted chat and began forwarding a real-time audible unicast from the Captain.

"Lieutenant Pennington, get to the bridge immediately. Our orders have changed."

"What's going on, sir?"

"Please…just come here."

The tone in his voice was uncharacteristic of him—troublesome. I'd witnessed his bearing change before, but only on rare occasions such as when coming to certain realizations about the Transit or during the thrill moment everyone had experienced at its evaluation and subsequent achievements at Heraklyon. But this time, I detected something I hadn't heard before...

Panic.

Captain Lawson was always rock steady, much like Gunny Smith but in a more disciplined way. As I entered the bridge I could him consulting a set of instructions, no doubt some special orders that Rosetta, the ship's AI, had kept locked away only to be opened under very specific circumstances. It was a handheld display he read from, colored in a bright orange/white/oragne striping. I immediately found out why everyone else was standing at their stations as I gazed beyond and saw our final destination: Reach.

"We are to proceed directly to the IRIS Site in the event of a Bloody Arrow." He announced, scanning the readout. "I just can't imagine how the hell they got Reach."

There it was in plain view.

"Prepare the Emergency Scramble Order for the Thermisticles, Rosetta, and get us to SWORD Command alternate headquarter site, code-named IRIS. Exact coordinates: three degrees, fifty-four minutes, thirty-six seconds South latitude by thirty-eight degrees, forty-nine minutes, forty seconds East longitude. Alright, that's where we're headed. Damnit, Operation Red Flag is officially scrubbed. All bets are off, now. We're headed to Earth."

Reach was my home. I had hoped to return this day, at least see its beauty from afar if there wasn't the chance to venture down and see familiar faces that grew up and found their paths in life. See how the world changed. This would be its last change for it was completely in ruin.

Just like Zaragosa. Just like Troy. Like Beta Hydrii. Jericho. Harvest.

The Thermisticles was now about to enter into slipspace again, Reach slowly disappearing from site as the bow shield warded off everything outside. I lost sight of it completely and heavy footsteps grew louder as though they were compelled to do so by official order, getting closer. Amy walked toward me from the entry. I glanced her way.

She hadn't walked with her usual pace—fast and fluid. This time, she approached me without protocol and formalities. No salute rendered.

The crew of the Thermisticles was a frenzied activity as she would once again journey in a race against time. Now, Earth was its final destination. Everything occurring at the Bridge was a peripheral blur as I stared outward. That planet's silhouette was still seared into my vision, but it would never be the same as I once knew it. A smothering wave of grief then pummeled like a thousand undertows all at once, my sight drowning in it—the realization that I was once again powerless to change what I witnessed.

All I could do was remain here in uncertainty of what was next.

"I was almost too young to remember." Amy said.

I glanced sidelong and there she was standing alongside, staring at the same window I had been these last few moments.

"But I can never forget. I watched my world burn from the back of a Pelican. Smith was the only reason I was alive, and we were both lucky to make it out in time. Everything was still being destroyed in our last moments above it all. I remember looking out at him, the sky, the places below that were still untouched, the last survivors giving thanks as we flew higher and higher. It was my last, good memory if you can understand that. I saw everything. I was a child and I was afraid. The only thing I knew beside the fear was that I was alive. But when the fear was gone completely I realized my friends and family and everything I ever knew would never be there again. The only thing taking their places over time was revenge. And we deserve to have it, so hold onto it. It's all we have left."

"You ever think about an end, Amy? Think it'll ever end?"

"Who's going to win the War?"

"What if there is no winner?"

"There has to be a winner."

"Maybe we'll just go on, Human and Covenant obliterating each other until both are gone and the galaxy has nothing left."

"Maybe. We'll see. As for now, I think you know there's no going back. Once destroyed, the beauty of those worlds can't be repurchased at any price, including the price we make them pay if we're ever that fortunate."

She was absolutely right.

This was the next chapter. The place I came from wouldn't be in that tale anymore. The fields, the street corners, the usual places I'd been and the familiar faces there. Sights, sounds, smells, all gone. Only memory.

"I think this is the most words we've ever shared, Spartan."

I wiped away tears, but they just kept coming. The same anger she just spoke of now clouded my vision, giving me new eyes to see with.

It was the anger she'd carried inside her since she was young. She'd been fueled by a hatred many degrees higher than that of most who fought this War. She was fighting like all others but had more reason to. A particular vengeance was on the docket—her own, personal equation to balance. The anger wouldn't consume her, it hadn't yet. She'd obviously perfected her ability to contain it. She molded it over the years, honed it into the spear of retribution waiting for the right time to unleash it fully.

And I knew I had instantly changed once the tears stopped and I dried my eyes a moment later.

Looking to her now after this exchange of hearts, already she seemed transformed to me. Or, rather it had been I that underwent the change. Maybe both. Either way, she was surely more identifiable. Not in the way she had always projected strength and determination in the face of adversity; those traits of hers would never vary. Rather, it was the barrier falling away. It was the complete understanding revealed between two people who had the same experience.

We locked gazes, and for that moment I saw more than myself in her reflection.

She was no longer foreign to me, no longer insular.

We were now the same.

"Tell me, Amelia, did you ever play football here at Reach when you were young?"

"Yes, and I never forgot you."

"I know."

-THE END-


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