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Decipio Umbra Chapter 2: In Tergus Pennae
Posted By: Archangel 7<arch.angel_7@yahoo.com>
Date: 27 July 2007, 7:07 am

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In Tergus Pennae

      "TS-Seven-One, you are cleared for landing. Begin sequence when ready."

      Colonel Jason Froman stood silent in the flight control tower, watching as the arriving Pelican dipped from the sky in a sluggish crawl. The thrusters propelled scalding air onto the tarmac, slowing its descent until finally the landing gear of the lumbering aircraft connected with concrete. The muted roar of the engines slowed as the rear hatch began to separate from the hull.

      As the ramp continued lowering itself, a figure clad in a nondescript gray flight suit emerged, leaping from the ramp to the ground before the plate of titanium and steel halted. To Froman the man appeared as nothing more than a gray blemish on a sea of lighter shades, but the blemish drew an exasperating amount of attention to itself, brazenly ignoring the welcoming committee and security officers as if their only purpose of existence was to be a hindrance. In an instant, Jason understood why the senior officers vehemently loathed this man.

      Jason left the flight coordinators to their business and started toward the elevator. Though thirty-nine, bordering on his eighteenth year of service, with grey flecks pockmarking his comely dark brown hair, he had no denials about his reckless early years. In fact, he regarded the cocky rebel as a universal archetype, less a cliché than a role every man was destined to play.

      Of course, a man of that type in any position of authority and experience would be infinitely more dangerous than any rookie could ever be.

      He punched the key on the elevator's panel that would take him to ground level and receded to the center of the lift. If there were any way that man could become what he was needed to become Jason needed to find it, and quickly.

      Major Arnold Johnson stepped into the small lift, set in an inconspicuous concrete pillbox at the edge of the base. Camp Davidson, at least as far as the public was concerned, stood as little more than an outpost for the local UNSC security wing. The only buildings pockmarking the relatively small rectangle of concrete were several hangars, a row of barracks, and an administrative office. There were few embellishments to suggest it was anything but an afterthought in the UNSC's agenda. In fact, as far as Johnson could tell the only suspicious aspect to the base's design was its location: the most remote island in a small chain of volcanic landmasses.

      Of course, the UNSC could easily explain this away. Dragonhead, since its discovery, had been labeled as a 'miracle of nature;' the planet had a near-Earth level of livability, and the first colonists found the magnificent natural wonders - as well as the lack of effort needed in terraformation- quite appealing. Colonization boomed and Dragonhead found itself with more capital than it knew what to do with. It soon also found itself with an image as a refuge for the rich, famous or infamous, as well as a popular vacation spot for the few who could afford the travel.

      Despite its large economy, the UN found it particularly low in resources considered important, namely titanium, and with such a large civilian population the local commanding officers received an abundance of payoffs to let illegal activities slide. Thus, it garnered little security attention from the military and was considered of minimal strategic value. Johnson didn't know of a better place to set up a little cloak-and-dagger operation.

      After several minutes of descent, the doors of the lift parted, giving way to a small white-walled seating area. Johnson glanced dazedly around, half surprised at the morbidly dull setting.

      "Is something wrong?" Johnson looked for the source of the voice and found it sitting upon one of the benches adjusting its wire-rim glasses.

      "I'm fine," Arnold replied. "I guess I should have expected this level of courtesy from the UNSC."

      The other man smiled, rising from his seat and walking toward Johnson. "Colonel Jason Froman," he said, offering his hand. "I'm the CO of the Research and Engineering teams here in The Pit." Johnson took the man's hand and shook it coldly. "Don't worry, the tour will get much better from here."

      "Tour?" Johnson replied. "No offence, sir, but I came here with the expectation to work, not follow along with such petty formalities." Johnson could see the growing frustration dwelling beneath the Colonel's surface demeanor, but the look failed to intimidate him.

      "I insist," the Colonel said, with the slightest twinge of anger accenting his voice. "The happenings around here are much, much larger than the bit of desk work you're used to. You're going to be responsible for the years and months of work we put into this, so I strongly suggest you get familiar with your surroundings very quickly, and recognize who's in ultimately charge here."

      Johnson growled a bit under his breath, but relented. "If you insist."

      "Good. Now follow me." Johnson followed Jason through a door opposite the lift. They continued along a hallway. The corridors of the facility were eerily sterile, and devoid of any signs of life. Many of the doors they passed seemed identical, save for the numbers and plaques affixed to them. The effect was mildly unsettling, though Johnson ignored it as best he could.

      "Do you know about the history of this place?" asked Jason, after what seemed like an eternity of silence. Arnold shook his head.

      "Only the basics. I've never heard the full story."

      "We started six years ago, back in 'twenty-five when the Spartan Project was moving into Project MJOLNIR-"

      "Spartan Project?"

      "You haven't been briefed on the classified files yet, have you? In any case, the Spartan Project was a Navy project, initiated as a way to ensure the UNSC's hold on the colonies was kept intact. Back in the good old days, we didn't have enough manpower to deal with any troublemakers who might have been looking to start up a coup. So, instead they found these kids - less than a hundred, if I remember correctly- who were as close to genetically perfect as possible. They took these kids, and trained them. Not just physically, either, but in every goddamned aspect of the military. Then they changed them. Muscle augmentations, skeletal carbide ossification, neural enhancements- I don't even know everything they did to them. They were made to be some sort of black-ops strike team, very secretive, very effective." The pair stopped as they arrived at a sealed metal door, rather like something one would expect from the interior of a Navy vessel.

      "Sounds. . . different."

      "Indeed. Anyway, we started after NavSpecWar green-lighted development of a powered armor system for these 'Spartans,' they also began another project. After Harvest and the Outer Colonies started falling, the higher-ups decided that the Corps, though we could give the Covies a hell of a fight, were far too outmatched to win this new war. They also knew from the beginning that there weren't enough Spartans to fight a drawn-out conflict. They needed better troops, Corps-wide. Now, this is where I came in."

      Jason turned to face a panel next to the door and punched in a short series of numbers. "I proposed a solution. No, compromise is more like it. I proposed a compromise between the training of a Spartan and that of a standard Marine." He waved his hand, signaling Johnson to continue through the door. He entered, and found himself on a small walkway, separated from the open white room surrounding it by sealed double-pane windows on two sides. "This," Jason continued, "Is the culmination of every hour spent on making that proposal a reality." Below, a group of people entered through a door resembling the one he had just passed. Every inch of their bodies were covered by identical sterile suits, and each of their faces where concealed by featureless polarized visors. They moved to their individual work stations with a near-autonomic precision, with a seeming disregard for anything but their work.

      It was then that Johnson's attention was drawn to a series of glass tubes lining the left wall. Suspended inside, floating immobile in a blue-hued solution like cadavers, were men.

      "What. . . What the hell are you doing here?"

      "As I was saying," replied Jason without the marked surprise Johnson's voice had, "This is one of the neuro-muscular enhancement chambers." He turned to face the tubes. "We have six of them. Within those suspension compartments we remotely administer protein complexes that increase muscle capacity and endurance tenfold. We surgically implant miniature cybernetic neuron-impulse controllers that enhance reaction speed, coordination, and memory. This is, of course, in addition to several processes which I'm afraid I can't discuss. In short, we take humans, and make them into something much more.

      "Of course, this is just bare-bones stuff compared to the Spartan Project. But, as I said, this was a compromise. That project had less than a fifty-percent success rate. As you can imagine, we need a few more men to survive this process, and as of right now we have nearly an eighty percent success rate. Now, let's move on, shall we?"

      The words Jason spoke reached cold ears as they exited through another door at the end of the walkway. Arnold couldn't help feeling as though he was in an amusement park watching animatronic displays in each chamber they passed. The entire area exuded an aura of lifelessness, seeming much like an elaborate science fiction story. It was more of a surreal fantasy than a solid reality.

      Questions nagged his mind to the point of becoming a flittering array of nonsense, but Johnson still retained enough self control to muster some semblance of apathy. He bit the inside of his cheek, not enough to change expression but enough to be of comfort. Most might have called this a nervous habit, but to Johnson such things were nonexistent. 'Nervous' was not a recognizable state to him. However, fear was. Not fear in the sense of cowardice, but a much more primal impulse, triggering vehement urges in his muscles for movement. He knew the involuntary biting carried more urgency than the action itself let on.

      He gazed into one of the tanks again. The body within floated silently. It's eyes were rolled back, leaving only spheres of white in the open sockets. The body was completely rid of hair. Protruding from multiple points on the body were tubes, streaming wildly to whatever infernal machines the scientists had in store. The man inside was helpless, completely at the whim of those who were, for all intents and purposes, mad.

      Why would anyone force such change upon someone? Giving them a fighting chance against an unforgiving enemy was one thing, but Johnson couldn't help but find something monstrous about this ordeal. Taking a man's body and making it something else seemed almost in violation of the man's nature itself. He wanted to back out, reserve the 'honor' for someone else, but-

      But no. He had promised Smith that he would take responsibility for the assignment. He couldn't forgive himself if he backed down from a promise, no matter what situation it placed him in. However, there was one request that he felt needed to be made.

      "Listen, Colonel," said Johnson, as the pair finally made their way out into an office corridor. Jason stopped, and turned as Johnson spoke. "My men will arrive in less than an hour. I don't know the extent of what you're doing here, and frankly, I don't want to know. But this. . . This 'enhancement' is what you're planning on doing to them, yes?"

      Jason nodded, his eyes still half-closed.

      "I want part in it."

      The Colonel's eyes opened slightly.

      "It may seem odd, sure, but what kind of leader would I be if I left them to die in a lab while I watch from behind some desk, far away? Besides," he said, "I wouldn't mind killing a few more Covies before I retire."

      This time, the man's eyes reflected a hint of amusement. "If you insist."

      "I'm glad that you're taking this upon yourself," said Colonel James Ackerson. "It's not easy going against what others think is the better path."

      "I'm not seeking anyone's favor," replied Winston, "Only to do the right thing."

      "I can't think of a better cause," said Ackerson. "High Command might think that pushing something military-wide will solve their problems, but we simply don't have the resources. What they need is time, not a pipe dream leading us into oblivion." Distant, far away in the tunnel, the muffled whine of the tram's engines broke through the void silence of the underground. "If they need more Spartans, I'll give them more Spartans."

      Ackerson lifted the large suitcase he had been toting since the two had left his office and handed it to Winston. "See to it personally that the package reaches its destination. We can't afford another chance at this."

      Winston took the case and set it beside him. "I will." He glanced down at the case, then returned his gaze to Ackerson. "If it's not too much to ask, I'd like to know what's inside of this."

      "A set of forged cease-and-desist order from Command and a bribe, in case the CO doesn't buy the cover."

      "A bribe? Mind if I take a look?"

      Ackerson hesitated, unsure. Finally, appearing as though he was reminded of some long forgotten detail, he gave in. "Only if you vow on your grave never to speak about it or show it to another living soul." Winston nodded, and set the case on its side. He inserted the small key Ackerson had included with the package into the corresponding slot on the case's lock and popped it open.

      He lifted the lid to reveal a gigantic crystal, set in a pocket of foam padding. The crystal was nearly opaque, smoky grey and with astoundingly precise edges. A line of ruby-colored stones had been set into the crystal on one facet. The stones were aligned in angular shapes- almost as if they were some sort of lettering. Deep inside, it seemed, they glowed dimly, not enough to radiate through the chamber but enough to break the darkness. "Beautiful,' Winston mouthed before slamming and locking the case.

      The tram reeled to a halt at the platform, signaling Winston's time for departure. "It's been a pleasure knowing you," said Ackerson to Winston as he stepped aboard the train. He nodded back, unsure of what to make of the Colonel's farewell as he settled into his seat.