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The Siege of Palatine: Part 3
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 20 October 2005, 10:57 am

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1420 Hours, October 20, 2552 (Military Calendar)/
Alpha Sierra System, Palatine II
Planetary Capital, Tarentum

       Captain John Miller bit hungrily into a ham sandwich, devouring near half of it in a single ravenous bite. Besides the fact that his battle fatigue had awakened a crippling hunger in him, it had been over a month since he had eaten anything other than the hermetically sealed chemicals they passed off as food on the Indefatigable. It had been a pleasure beyond description when his Marines discovered an abandoned deli just down the street, and he felt beyond caring that their procurement of supplies was outright thievery and thus strictly against regulations.

       It struck him as odd that he should feel so pleased when so much death and destruction surrounded him, but the sudden realization didn't dull his hunger any nor did it faze him. He knew, without letting it sink in, that he would feel all the horrors of battle later, that a sickness would seize him and sleep be robbed of him, but he could not feel it now. All he felt was the elation of success and the anticipation of the fight that was to come. His humanity was suspended; for now he was a warrior.

       He sat on a bench in the courtyard, watching uninterestedly as a group of orderlies hauled the naked bodies of slain Covenant soldiers onto one flatbed truck and their weapons and equipment onto another. The fallen Marines had already been more respectfully removed. He had watched with a sort of strange detachment as he saw his comrades' charred bodies removed from the ruined buildings. The only thought that had occurred to him was whether or not they would ever get a chance to bury them.

       Thinking deeply of the events of the previous night he was surprised when he saw he was being addressed by a Marines that stood before him. "Excuse me?" he asked, hastily adding a "sir" when he saw the man outranked him.

       "Is this seat taken?" the man repeated slowly and with what might have been a smirk.

       "No," he said somewhat dreamily, then said with more emphasis, "No, no one's sitting here."

       "Ah, good," he said, his smirk now developed into a full blown smile. He was a man of about fifty, about ten years older than himself, with a harsh, well-weathered face that was soften somewhat by the light blue eyes of a much younger man. He had a generously sized cookie in one hand with the other he removed his helmet and made himself as comfortable as one can on a concrete bench wearing full battle gear. After taking a bite of his prize from the ravaged deli he extended a hand and introduced himself. "Major Frank Gerard of the 81st," he said in a gruff, friendly voice.

       Miller shook the proffered hand and likewise introduced himself.

       "You should get those wounds looked at, son," he said, referring to the burns he had suffered the night before.

       "No, I think I'll do that later," he said, running a hand across the scorched patches of skin on his face. He had the ridiculous notion that if he waited until the end of the fighting to tend to his wounds that he would somehow survive the fight.

       "D'you know the numbers, Miller?" the Major asked suddenly, foregoing any further chance of small talk.

       Assuming he meant the casualties from the night's engagement, he said, "I've heard a dozen different tales from a dozen different people."

       Gerard grunted. "Well, word from command is about three hundred combatants KIA and as many wounded. Civilian casualties are thought to be in the thousands."

       It was about what he had guessed, but the staggering figures managed to penetrate his clouded mind and stirred a feeling of remorse for his home. "Those are official?" he asked.

       "Well, as official as they can be in the middle of a mess like this," he said with a sweep of his eyes that took in the carnage around them. "Apparently the Covenant torched a lot of apartment buildings that were full of people trying to get off the streets." He shook his head gravely, an understated gesture given the enormity of the tragedy. "And that's not even the worst of it. Command thinks less than two thousand enemy troops actually landed last night. It was just a sampling of the fight ahead."

       Miller wondered briefly why Gerard was talking to him. "It seems odd they wouldn't overwhelm us right away," he said, deciding to humor the Major. "They've only given us time to organize a defense."

       "Bastards have been busy the last couple hours. They've bombed military installations across the planet, including the other three relay stations. This is the last one we've got. Without it we won't be able to send interplanetary messages."

       The news alarmed Miller. "What's to stop them from glassing Tarentum?"

       Gerard shrugged. "There's a reason they're invading and not glassing. Whatever they've come for must be here."

       The idea intrigued him. With the rush and activity of that past fourteen hours he had neglected to analyze the situation. It certainly was unusual for the Covenant to do anything but render human worlds uninhabitable once they got the chance. The only other instance in which the Covenant had invaded was at Sigma Octanus IV, and he recalled that ONI had been all over that little bombshell. Whatever had transpired there was a closely guarded secret.

       He suddenly remembered the plight of Earth, forgotten amidst his own myriad problems. "What news of the Home World?" he asked the Major.

       "They repelled the first wave quite handily and are mopping up the last few Covenant that made it to the surface. I heard the fleet that arrived numbered only fifteen ships and still did quite some damage to our defenders. In any case the enemy survivors are regrouping at Epsilon Eridani and are staying put, probably waiting for reinforcements."

       "Then we can expect no help from them," Miller said bitterly.

       Gerard shrugged. "Well, not much, though in their infinite wisdom FleetCom has sent 'someone' to take over command of the Palatine defense."

       He narrowed his eyes at Gerard's mysterious emphasis on "someone". "ONI?"

       "We picked up something in Covenant communications that caught those bastards' attention," Gerard acknowledged. "They'll be here soon, one assumes."

       Miller groaned. Like most members of the UNSC armed forces he had a healthy dislike for the Office of Naval Intelligence matched only by a strong suspicion for their motives. They had reached almost a mythically evil status in the UNSC, and most Marines took it for granted that ONI were indeed responsible for all the things they were accused of including reprogramming captured Covenant soldiers, conducting experiments on children, even attracting the Covenant's attention in the first place. It was perfectly natural for people to want to blame someone when faced with utter extinction, and he assumed ONI bore these feelings with no small amusement.

       But Miller's hatred of the shadowy agency was much more deep-rooted than the average man's. Four years ago, on Ysaris III, he had been involved in a botched operation that had cost the lives of many civilians and ONI had swooped down on the incident with blinding speed bringing enough whitewash to cover the Great Wall of China. He and all the men under his command had been detained for days and rigorously questioned by Internal Affairs before finally being set loose with not so much as a stain on his record. To penalize him would be to acknowledge that anything had happened and it was blaringly obvious from the onset that their intent was to cover it all up as neatly and discreetly as possible. He was hardly grateful; the guilt of that day gnawed away at him even now. It had all just left a bad taste in his mouth.

       He suddenly fell silent and his expression darkened. Sensing their conversation was over Gerard gathered his gear and stood up to go. Before leaving he said, "I came over to tell you that Covenant chatter has increased and Command thinks they're getting ready for their second attack. This time it's gonna be all they got. Get into position, son, and tell your men to do the same." With that he returned to his own Marines.

       A sudden tiredness swept over him replacing the elation he had felt only moments ago. It occurred to him that he hadn't slept in almost thirty-six hours. As he stood up his gun felt unnaturally heavy, his arms stiff and his head muddled. How am I going to fight like this? he wondered, and as he approached the building he taken position in the night before. He grabbed a chair from behind a counter and placed it at the front of the shop. He dropped his gun to the ground, took a seat, and let his head roll back. Although the feeling of accomplishment had drained he still felt no fear; he was too tired to be scared. He felt sure somehow that he was not going to die here. It was a feeling of Providence…

       He would have fallen asleep but a sudden thought made him snap upright in his chair. Like tending to his wounds before the battle was over he had the absurd idea that contacting his family while there was still fighting to be done would be bad luck. He decided now that such superstitions were selfish since his wife and two daughters would be left wondering whether or not he was still alive. Opening a line to the communications hub, a bad feeling creeping into the back of his mind, he got hold of an operator with surprising quickness.

       "How may I help you?" a woman asked in a cold, automatic sort of voice. He guessed it was a simple AI.

       "Patch me a line to Ancona, resident Rachel Miller."

       "Yes, sir, one moment please." The call was rerouted to his hometown, a small town two hundred kilometers north of Tarentum. It was a beautiful town, built on a meandering river and surrounded by rolling green hills so fertile that they would grow crops if one merely sprinkled the ground with seeds. His own house was a villa built, as much of Palatine was, in the style of classical Rome, the building itself surrounding an inner courtyard with a garden and a small pool. His heart ached as he thought of it. The first thing he had done after the fighting of the previous night was to check that Ancona had not been touched by the Covenant.

       At last the call went through. "Hello?" a woman's voice ventured, a voice he had known intimately for the past twenty years. In the single word she uttered he could detect strain and sorrow, and for a moment he could do nothing but silently berate himself for being so selfish and not letting his loved ones know that he still lived.

       "Rachel, it's… it's John," he said lamely. What could he say?

       It seemed to be enough, however, for she let out a long sigh of relief and even gave him a small laugh. "My God, I was so worried, I thought – I'm glad you called."

       "I'm so sorry, sweetheart, things have been very hectic here." A terrible excuse, he thought. It's been over twelve hours.

       She accepted the lie without trouble, not wanting to ruin the moment. "Of course, I can imagine."

       "How are the kids?" he asked, finding it harder and harder to speak.

       "Kelly's helping to coordinate defense for the region. You know how good she is with technology. Claire is here with me. She's really scared but she's helping me lock down the house." Her voice became choked and she had to stop several times.

       Tears threatened him as well. Clearing his throat he managed, "Tell them I love them."

       She was crying openly now. "I love you."

       "I know, I know. I love you too." Tears blurred his vision and his throat felt many sizes too big.

       Before he could say anything further the courtyard erupted with the shouts and warnings of Marines. The Covenant had arrived.

       "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, but I have to go." He didn't say why. She had enough to worry about.

       She seemed to know anyway. With difficulty she said, "Just come home, John. Come home."

       The tears that he had struggled to contain poured down his face unchecked. "I'll see you soon, my love." Before it could go on he closed the channel. Wiping his face with the back of his hand he took his position at the front window, cocking the machine gun that had been placed there at his request since the first attack. Calling had been a bad idea, he thought. How am I going to fight like this?

       "Here they come!" someone yelled.

       Miller opened fire.

       By nightfall Tarentum remained decisively in the hands of humanity though it no longer stood. The famed jewel of the galaxy that had once stood as a symbol for beauty and learning and art now lay in ruins, its smoldering remains the only gravestone for untold thousands of men, women, and children who could not get out in time.

       Its defenders had faired little better, beating the invaders through perseverance and sheer force of will. While over half of the Covenant force had been killed in their effort at least that many of the humans were also dead, though it was feared much more. Command worried that if the Covenant survivors, driven to make camp outside the city, launched a third attack nothing could be done to stop it.

       Miller was among the survivors, and the third attack was the last thing on his mind. In an alleyway facing the relay station the battle for him and about a hundred Marines was not over. Two Hunters and three Elites were trapped in the alleyway and the Marines were trying desperately to dislodge them. The Hunters were lobbing their heavy plasma bolts from a distance into the relay station that, by miracle and by the blood of hundreds of men, was one of the few buildings left standing.

       That was about to change, however. The Hunters were reeking havoc on the station and it wouldn't be long before in collapsed. The Hunters were on Miller's side of the alleyway while the three Elites were on the far side protecting their comrade's vulnerable backsides from a flanking maneuver.

       "Somebody bring up that rocket launcher!" Miller cried. Sergeant Morchenko, one of the few surviving men from his command, brought one to the front. Stepping into the alley he knelt down, leveled the weapon, and fired a round at the two alien beasts.

       Having seen this happening, the Hunters came together and brought up their shields as one. The powerful rocket detonated on them, but their thick steel-blue armor protected them from any real harm. Leveling their own weapons, they fired at Morchenko. Quick enough to dodge out of the way, the Sergeant avoided getting hit directly by the stream of greenish plasma so feared by the Marines but his proximity took its toll. When he landed next to Miller half his face was a mass of blackened, simmering flesh. He twitched grotesquely, near death.

       "Medic!" Miller screamed. He looked away for fear of vomiting. Furious, he opened a channel to Command. "This is Captain Miller requesting an air strike at my position, over." He knew it was a useless gesture since the use of the air force had been prohibited for fear of attracting Covenant fighters. For reasons unknown the Covenant were not bombing the city from the air and Command was nervous to tempt them.

       After a crackle of static someone said, "This is Command, no air strike is available at this time. Can't risk Covenant response, over."

       Miller slammed his fist into the side of the ruined building against which he leaned in helpless anger. "If they haven't sent their fighters yet they're not going to now. We need and air strike, immediately!"

       His last word was drowned amidst a deafening explosion and for half a second he thought he had gotten his request in record time. Peering down the alley told a different story, however. The side wall to the alley had been blown open and black-uniformed soldiers he could not identify poured out of the gap in between the Hunters and the Elites. Three of the mysterious newcomers shot the Hunters in their exposed backs and they both dropped with a heavy thud. The other five dispatched the Elites who, caught now between these reinforcements and the Marines they had been contending with before, were killed without being able to take down a single man.

       As these new soldiers secured the alleyway, one of them putting a bullet in the head of a twitching Elite, an ninth figure emerged from the hole in the wall and, ignoring the carnage through which he stepped, walked calmly over to Miller. Not sure exactly what to make of the black-uniformed soldiers Miller was relieved to see that the man was indeed human.

       The man walked up specifically to Miller, noticing the insignia that denoted his rank, and asked, "Are you in charge here, Captain?"

       The man himself bore the rank of Colonel. He snapped a quick salute. "Yes, sir," he replied. Major Gerard had been incapacitated holding his end of the courtyard and he realized only now that he was, in fact, CO.

       The man nodded as if he had already known. "My name is Colonel James Burke. By the authority of the Office of Naval Intelligence I'm taking Command of the defense of Palatine II."