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Protocols: Installation 05 by UNSC Trooper

Protocols: Installation 05, Chapter 1
Date: 1 July 2008, 9:09 pm

"The military don't start wars. Politicians start wars." - William Westmoreland

1254 Hours, July 25, 2496 (Military Calendar)
Solar System, Mars, Argyre Planitia, ONI Underground Facility Yankee-7

      The slightly oval-shaped corridor grew narrower as Rear Admiral Parangoski walked past flickering neon lights, war posters, publicly announced military notices and a series of brutish graffiti drawings. Aside from a couple of Marine MP's snapping to attention as she trotted past them, the hallway seemed as eerie to her as a backstreet swarming with hooligans.
      She ignored the feeling, and concentrated on the meeting she was programmed to attend. Reaching for the back of her head, she tied her hair into a bun. Unnecessary in some cases, but this was a high-priority emergency assembly. Some of the finest naval officers, Generals and Admirals the UNSC could produce were to take part in the meeting. Naturally, she had to look decent enough to impose some kind of authority.
      A tall Marine MP saluted her, slammed the butt of his rifle into the floor, and withdrew his weapon as he lowered his hand, blankly staring into the far side of the corridor.
      Parangoski gracefully offered back the salute. Her arm was slender, her fingers long and her skin smooth as silk. She'd managed to preserve her elegant appearance even after almost thirty of years of service. A job in ONI Section Three rarely did that to an officer.
      The door to the meeting room was already parted, four uniformed men apprehensively strolling around a three-meter-long briefing table. They shook hands, exchanged smiles and seated themselves on both sides of the table.
      The Rear Admiral shot a half-second glimpse at her Navy uniform. Wearing her barely noticeable smile, she walked into the room, blending perfectly with the other officers.
      As she approached the table, the officers pushed back their chairs and saluted rapidly. Parangoski gestured the at-ease signal. Without a word, the officers sat back down.
      The room had a certain beauty. Of course, this was Mars; the most comfortable colony for any UNSC forces. Countless training grounds built on the legendary fields of the Argyre Planitia, testing stations, and industrial quarters were all located on this planet. Mars had even come to compete over popularity with Reach.
      Parangoski pulled a chair from the table, straightened her skirt and sat. To her left, General Richards seemed to eye her underhandedly. She didn't mind, though. They had become close friends even during the Eridanus Rebellion, shared the same operations stations onboard several frigates, and cooperated in ground battles against the rebels.
      Her gaze dropped on the officer that sat to her right: A young man in his early thirties, short-haired and pale. He wore a uniform the Rear Admiral wasn't very familiar with.
      The man caught Parangoski's curious gaze by surprise. He turned to her, seeming to not have noticed her presence beside him.
       "How rustic of me," He apologized swiftly, stretching his hand out in a friendly manner. "I apologize. My name is Major James Ackerson, Army."
      Parangoski accepted the Major's hand. "It's a pleasure." She replied absentmindedly, grasping the man's hand as tight as she could. For a female officer, her strength was somewhat out of the ordinary.
      The Major's last remark intrigued her. The UNSC Army didn't pay any part in ONI. Not as far as she could tell. Perhaps this man was here to participate in some kind of covert operation, which brought her mind to the issue at hand. She had a task to do, a log to report.
      The Rear Admiral glanced at the two officers on the other side of the table: Commander Ortega, and Vice Admiral Terrence Hood. She fixed her gaze on the tall, white-eyed, balding Vice Admiral. Everyone in the Navy had heard of him, his incursions into hostile space, his fleets outnumbered yet still capable of scattering entire contingents of rebel warships into several star systems; Epsilon Eridani, Epsilon Indi, Hydra, 111 Tauri, and easily a few other theaters.
      Yes, he'd earned the right to shadow over many of the commanding officers in Sol. The perfectly aligned, glittering medals on his chest spoke for themselves.
      Scrutinizing the photographic intelligence on the tabletop, Vice Admiral Hood leaned back against his chair. "Gentlemen," He looked at Parangoski insistently. "Ladies," He continued. "I don't have the vaguest idea why we've been assembled here." Turning his chair further toward Parangoski, he raised a bushy eyebrow. "I assume Rear Admiral Parangoski has something to share with us." He remarked enthusiastically, eyes fixed on the pondering female officer.
      She searched for the right words to present her report, taking a short sip of water from her glass. "With your permission sir, I'd like to begin my debriefing." She queried calmly, rising from her chair and gulping down on her nervousness.
       "Certainly, ma'am." Hood replied, carelessly gesturing his approval with his right hand. "Our time however," He touched his wristwatch. "Is limited, so if you please." He concluded, finally resting his hand on the table.
      Parangoski nodded silently. Reaching into her breast pocket, she retrieved a small disk. Steadily, she guided her obnoxious heel shoes slowly toward the main visual display. She slid the disk into the prompt, waited for a few seconds, and snapped the large monitor to life.
      The officers in the room leaned over the table, expressions disgruntled and surprised as the hovering image of a planet-sized ring object floated against the silhouette of a blue gas giant.
      Vice Admiral Hood rubbed his eyes, straining to observe the strange construction even closer. Parangoski couldn't feel the need to speak, however. She thought that the very image of this alien behemoth spoke thousands of words she couldn't even mumble. The memories from the first time she'd seen the object filled her mind for a few short moments.
      She concentrated on the image, and setting one hand on her hip, she began detailing her report. "On the fifth of May, ONI lost contact with one of its exploration drones." She explained, steadying her voice. "After a month, a signal confirming its slipspace exit was broadcast back to Reach HIGHCOM." Major Ackerson sat on the edge of his seat as Parangoski continued her debriefing. "Our decoders at FLEETCOM HQ managed to filter the image into what is being displayed here." She pointed toward the screen, its display shifting angles as the drone passed by the circular object.
      Stunned, Vice Admiral Hood still gazed at the screen. No one in Section Three had managed to find any sign of intelligent alien life forms on any of the UNSC's colony worlds. Biological life in the colonies ranged from bacteria to tree worms. This was something else. It was entirely artificial.
      Hood waved his hand, pretending he wasn't surprised. "Please carry on, ma'am." He said, his voice barely audible. He'd failed in hiding his anticipation, and everyone in the room had noticed.
       "Technological analysis has proven to be inconclusive," Parangoski finally said. "But what we can surmise," Her voice rose slightly. "Is that this construction has the diameter of Earth, terraformed. It also seems to be rotating around its axis." She let out a sudden sigh of frustration, leaning against the monitor's table. "To be completely frank, sir, we haven't established its origin, technological means of construction or function." She concluded, glancing at the officers. Their fear and anxiousness were almost palpable. She could feel it herself.
      Ironically, mankind's ancient dream of making contact with alien technology wasn't met with happiness, glory, or pride, but with fear. Fear that this unknown force might have plans of its own. Fear that its power might threaten humanity.
These officers were playing part in the first close observation of an alien relic, and they all knew it.
      Hood whispered something to Commander Ortega. Coming to his feet, he clasped his hands behind his back and studied the peculiar ring-shaped object from a closer distance.
      Parangoski snapped as Hood approached her, standing her full five-foot-ten height as best as she could. She wanted to stand down. Her feet had almost swollen from the recent sprinting between operations stations as the UNSC retook the Eridanus System from the rebels. She liked to work out, though not as much as she was forced to.
      She put her thoughts aside, and watched as Hood stood immobile in front of the display. The image of the object had drifted off-screen by now, leaving behind the eastern part of the gas giant.
       "This is truly fascinating." Hood remarked bluntly. The other officers in the room moved closer to each other, discussing the incredible imagery they had seen. Similar to a group of kindergarten children talking about a cartoon they'd watched, the officers' speech grew louder.
      Hood sat back down in his chair, gesturing for the others to stop speaking. He ran his hand through his white hair in a rapid, nervous motion as the last part of the massive blue planet drifted away from the drone's viewing range.
      The others were silent, unmoving, eyes fixed on Parangoski and Hood. Something incredible had just happened, and they knew what would follow. They'd just become frontline fodder. They would be the first ones to investigate the object, regardless of the risks.
      Hood's gaze darted from one officer to another. Finally, he opened his mouth. "I'm not entirely sure what to make of this." He said, his words seemed to be only half-intended. "We need this thing to stay in here, and what I mean by in here," He emphasized. "Is that no one in this room is allowed … authorized, to spread the word to Section Two." His eyebrow shot up again.
      Parangoski looked at Hood. Naturally, she understood what he meant. If the general public knew about this, the government would have little to do than speak their minds. The press would be held under control, but the people wouldn't. Chaos would destabilize what the Earth government had fought to achieve. The consequences would be unacceptable, and Hood knew it.
      Parangoski moved to the table, withdrawing her disk from the computer's prompt. Hood eyed her attentively. "Do you have the coordinates to whatever this artifact is, Rear Admiral?" He queried.
      She scratched the back of her head discreetly, choosing her words. "Yes sir, I do. However some of the information transmitted by the exploration drone has been misinterpreted on several occasions." She explained, rubbing her chin subtly. "Astrophysics Corps should have them decoded in a matter of hours."
       "Very well, ma'am." Hood turned away from the middle-aged woman. He grabbed a pen, fumbled with it, and tapped the table in a thoughtful motion. "I wonder what HIGHCOM would think about this." He reckoned.
      General Richards giggled from the other side of the table, to the suspiciousness of Major Ackerson. "That's easy to say. They'd have an entire fleet group reduce the thing to ashes, sir." The General remarked amusingly, but Hood didn't even flinch.
      Ackerson snorted, seemingly not impressed by the General's uninspired joke. "HIGHCOM or not," Ackerson began explaining. "Everyone will try to get their hands on this 'ring' if word gets out." He strained in Parangoski's direction, but shut his mouth closed. He didn't want to argue with a superior officer, especially one outside his branch.
      The Rear Admiral sat back down, a scent of expensive, sweet perfume briefly drifting by Ackerson's nose - a pleasant smell for him. It had been years since he'd inhaled anything like it.
      Across the round table, Commander Ortega opened a small manual and scanned through a few pages. He closed the book, pointed to the page where he'd read, and slid it toward Hood.
      Parangoski leaned closer to the middle of the table. She strained her eyes and made out four words on its cover: UNSC Emergency Military Laws. The puzzle in her mind had already been sorted out for the most part. She anticipated what Hood would say next.
      The balding Vice Admiral closed the handbook, rubbed his hands together and took a deep breath. "Protocol indicates that we respond with defense weapons." He said, the officers suddenly bouncing in their seats. "We're not going to do that. Quite on the contrary, in fact." He looked at Ackerson and General Richards. "We'll need to send a scouting party, explore this thing's atmosphere, grounds, technology, whatever." His forehead arched a series of prolonged wrinkles. "I have you in my sights Major," He said, paused, and then pointed toward the General. "And you too, General Richards."
      The two officers nodded back acceptingly. Ackerson's gesture, however, hid his true opinion.
       "Major Ackerson, I understand your special weapons program is a part of the ORION Project." Hood remarked, his tone shifted to steel. "Which means your men are fit to lead the primary exploration unit, followed by one of General Richard's Marine battalions." He concluded.
      Ackerson didn't like the Vice Admiral's plan. The units that were part of the ORION Project weren't involved with this type of undertakings. Explaining that to Hood would be the most difficult part, though, so he set his disagreement aside in a corner of his mind. At a time like this, staff wars wouldn't help the slightest bit.
      Hood turned to Parangoski for a moment. "Rear Admiral you will be providing the expeditionary unit's transportation." He looked away deliberately, and then moistened his lips. "One frigate should suffice. No escorts. This system is well outside of any pirate's operating range."
       "Sir, excuse my interruption, but shouldn't we take advantage of this rather … unanticipated discovery?" General Richards suggested, his voice keeping its cool print.
      Hood, frowned, leaning his head carelessly on one side. "What kind of advantages are you referring to, sir?" He asked, evidently interested in the General's promising remark.
       "Well," Richards relaxed against the back of his chair, arranging his sentence. "This ring is completely terraformed, maybe even equipped with a wide assortment of landscapes." He set his elbows on the table. "Perhaps we should have a few of our expeditionary forces set up a base of operations. Of course, after the object is satisfyingly explored."
      The concept was intriguing, and Hood considered it for a second; alien or not, the ring was just as similar to the military as a colony world. "Expect my response in a few hours, General." Hood finally replied. He handed Commander Ortega a large envelope from the table. Swiftly, the Commander saluted, rose to his feet and stepped out of the room. Curiously, the man hadn't been much of a talker after all that had been revealed.
       "I am unaware of your social statuses, backgrounds, relationships with other services," Hood said as he watched Ortega slide the doors shut. "But if anyone here discusses any of this with an unauthorized naval officer," He stood and clenched his jaw nervously. "Punishment procedures will be harsh as possible; furthermore they will be initiated on my command, which means you should expect the worst." His words could puncture through concrete.
      The others lowered their heads. "We understand, sir." Parangoski accepted. The Vice Admiral could provoke fear with little effort among his subordinates. He was notorious for that.
      Parangoski straightened her skirt again, and slowly rose from her seat. Major Ackerson and General Richards followed. The General tightened his hat around his head, the soft cushion making contact with his rough hair, producing a comfortable feeling of warmth.
       "I'm cutting this meeting short. Get some sleep. All of you." Hood advised calmly. "You'll need it." He made for the room's door. "Good luck." He opened the door for Parangoski; a rare gesture of politeness, particularly on the part of one of ONI's heads.
      Parangoski smiled back to him, and walked past the Marine MP's standing in front of the door, Ackerson and Richards following behind her. All she could think of was crashing on her bed as soon she exited the hallway. It was a long day, but longer days awaited her. She'd just become the main pawn as humanity touched alien technology. The thought didn't excite her. She hated it, and she hated herself for walking into it.