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The Siege of Palatine: Part 4
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 28 October 2005, 2:54 am

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2320 Hours, October 20, 2552 (Military Calendar)/
Alpha Sierra System, Palatine II
Planetary Capital, Tarentum

       "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."

       For a moment Miller was too stunned to respond. It seemed a pompous thing to him, to announce one's seizure of command to a mere Captain amid the rubble of a ruined city. Exactly what was expected of him was not especially clear.

       "Do you want me to contact command for you, sir?" Miller asked at last.

       "No, Captain…?"

       "Miller," he offered truculently.

       "No, thank you, Captain Miller." He thought that for the briefest moment the Colonel gave a small, knowing smile. "I will be heading there myself momentarily." He pressed a button just beneath his shoulder. A second later, the eight black uniformed soldiers ceased what they were doing and rallied behind the Colonel with startling speed.

       They were like no soldiers Miller had ever seen. They wore dark urban camouflaged pants that were covered in holsters for a sidearm, a combat knife, grenades, and a copious amount of ammo for weapons of all description. Their vest was thick and black and worn over a black uniform without any identification or rank. The vest was made of a material he didn't recognize and looked more like rubber than Kevlar*. Their faces were the most disconcerting, however. Underneath a black helmet their eyes were covered by large, dark goggles and the rest of their faces concealed by a black ski mask. Not one inch of skin was visible.

       "Who are they?" Miller asked in awe. The Marines all around him stared at the mysterious soldiers as well for they exuded a sense of fear even in their apparent allies.

       "We'll talk on the way over," the Colonel said. Burke himself was dressed exactly like his men save for the headgear. Instead he bore a standard issue communications piece and a simple black beret with the curious symbol of two golden swords crossed over each other stitched on the front. He gave two of his men a hand signal that they silently acknowledged. They ran down the street and around the corner with the same unnatural speed they had demonstrated before.

       "On the way over?" he asked, confused.

       "Yes, Captain. You're coming with us."

       Before he could ask any questions two Warthogs roared down the street and stopped just before the alleyway. Without even being told the rest of the Colonel's men piled into the Warthogs with swift, almost robotic movements. In the lead vehicle the driver got out and sat in the back letting the Colonel drive. He motioned for Miller to join him in the passenger seat.

       He hesitated for a moment, more out of shock than apprehension. The prospect of accompanying an agent of the Office of Naval Intelligence along with eight unidentified soldiers was itself cause for doubt, but that he had been seemingly singled out added outright suspicion.

       Colonel Burke seemed amused by his hesitation and gave a smirk that infuriated him. "Captain Miller," he said with what seemed strained sincerity, "I will answer all questions you have on the way over. But we need to move, now."

       He could hardly refuse a direct command from a superior officer with the authority of ONI behind him. He reluctantly opened the side door and clambered into the passenger seat. Burke entered after him and started the ignition. Before heading off he stuck his arm out the window and issued a hand signal to the Warthog behind him. As he drove off the other vehicle followed.

       Miller was at least grateful for the opportunity to sit down on a proper seat. He set his weapon, which had felt increasingly heavy as the day wore on, in front of him and grimly set the safety on. He removed his helmet and propped it on his knee, running a hand tiredly through his light brown hair. He was shocked to discover upon examining his hand that it was covered in blood. Tentatively he felt his head and discovered the wound at his hairline.

       "You should probably get that checked out," Burke commented, this time with what seemed to be genuine concern.

       Mildly surprised by this sudden care, he said, "No, it's nothing." He took a piece of gauze from a pouch on his belt and pressed it firmly over the cut. He looked over at Burke as he did this, the questions that had been stirring in his mind now finding their way to speech. "What do you want with me, sir?"

       For a moment the Colonel didn't respond as he drove with some difficult around the rubble of a collapsed building that had spilled over much of the road. The shouts of Marines scrambling frantically to put out a blazing fire in the remains filled the vehicle and drowned most other noise.

       When they had passed Burke spoke. "You're Captain John Patrick Miller of the 31st Marine Division of Palatine II, correct?"

       He struggled to understand how Burke could possibly know that five minutes after meeting. He had had no time to put in a search on his name nor ask any of his comrades. It was perfectly possible his subdermal automatically identified him from his speech though he suspected as he had before that this man knew much more than he let on. Deciding not to be difficult he simply said, "That's correct."

       The Colonel remained expressionless. "You were transferred back to your home planet four years ago from active duty on Ysaris III and tasked to train local defense forces, correct?"

       He gritted his teeth and struggled to contain his anger. The thinly veiled reference to the incident on Ysaris III filled him with unabated rage. He was tortured day and night by his memories from that day and to have it thrown in his face so soon after meeting another agent of ONI was unbelievable. With difficulty he managed, "Yes, sir."

       He nodded, still determinedly showing no emotion. He rounded a corner and began driving down an abandoned street even more devastated than the last. "We've intercepted Covenant transmissions indicating that they're searching for something on the surface."

       "So why do you need me?" he asked, annoyed by his coyness.

       "Whatever they're looking for is in the woods outside of Tarentum. I understand you train men there?"

       It was true. The military had claimed a large swath of the forest to the west of Tarentum for a training camp for local assets. He regularly trained the raw recruits there. The more experienced trainees were taken to the deep wildernesses far to the south.

       "With respect, how the hell do you know all this about me, sir?"

       He shook his head. "Doesn't matter."

       The Colonel still waited for an answer. Miller wondered why he bothered when he obviously knew. "Yes, sir, that's correct," he said, purposely deliberate.

       "Maps of the area go only so far," Burke continued. "We're going into the forest and we need a firsthand guide to help us around."

       "I thought you were assuming command of the planetary defense."

       "I will inform General Ito that he will act under the authority of the Office of Naval Intelligence, but I will not be personally coordinating the defense effort, no,"

       Whatever that meant, he thought. No messages were being sent to Earth unless absolutely necessary for fear of being intercepted and decoded by the Covenant. He wondered briefly but uninterestedly as to what Burke would tell the General.

       "We're here," he announced and stopped the vehicle in front of a low, sprawling office building. The government facility was acting as the provisional headquarters for the defense of Tarentum. Given the importance of the target it was in remarkably good shape. The landscape around it, however, was utterly leveled and littered with casualties from both sides, a bitter testament to fierce battle to protect it.

       "Alright, Captain, I'll be back soon," Burke told him. "Stay here and don't go too far. I'll leave four of my men with you."

       The Colonel left with the other four and headed towards the entrance. He walked with a casual assuredness that contrasted heavily with the carnage through which he stepped. His men were a different story: they were down low, watching their corners and forming a protective ring around their leader. They worked in unison and moved in short, clipped movements that seemed distinctly inhuman. He wondered what outfit they were from and realized he had forgotten to ask.

       The remaining men left with him were no less alert. Two of them manned each of the turrets on the two Warthogs and the other two ran to find cover and form a loose perimeter around the entrance. Miller himself wandered over to a ruined building with a nonchalance similar to Burke's, taking his helmet and weapon with him only as an afterthought. He took a seat on a particularly large piece of rubble and put his face in his hands. He was technically still in a hot battle zone but he no longer cared. Exhaustion once again seized him. He was going on two days with no sleep, and having fought hard for the past twenty-four hours had taken a heavy toll. He needed to rest. He cursed in resentment when he realized he would be going right back into action with this mysterious Colonel.

       He began tapping his foot nervously and he then noticed that his boot was on something quite soft. Looking down he saw the battered body of a small boy. He recoiled with such horror that he fell off his perch and landed heavily on his back. Getting up he hesitantly approached the corpse. Wincing, he knelt down and felt the neck. The boy had been dead at least four hours. He sighed deeply and, overcome by a strange curiosity, turned the head so he could see the face. A feeling stirred in him as he gazed into the lifeless eyes of the child, an expression of horror and pain frozen grotesquely on his youthful face.

       With a sudden onset his right hand began to shake and blood drained from his face. Despite the warm evening air a chill swept through his body. Memories flooded back to him. He grasped his hand to try and steady it and took a few involuntary steps backward. All at once, as if someone had switched them on, tears streaked down his face. His body was wracked by a series of violent sobs that must have been heard by the four men left to protect him. He fought the memories back, tried to subdue them and push them back into the recesses of his mind.

       His tears stopped as suddenly as they had come, but his hand was shaking as uncontrollably as ever. He recalled something he had meant to do and opened a channel to the main hub. "The status on settlement Ancona, please," he asked when he got through, his voice as unsteady as his hand.

       After only a short pause the operator said, "Ancona was untouched by the Covenant. Do you want me to patch you through to a resident there?"

       He didn't even consider it. "No," he said. He couldn't go through that again. Not when there was still so much to be done.

       His hand was still now and only slightly cold. He rubbed it vigorously with his other hand and took a moment to survey the night sky. He noticed only now that much of the Eastern horizon was tinged with a red glow. He realized with a horrible feeling in his heart that much of the city was probably ablaze from conventional Covenant weaponry. Even if his planet survived this he wondered how much of it would be scarred forever.

       A hand clasped his shoulder and he spun around suddenly and forcefully, surprising a taken aback Colonel Burke. "You alright?" he asked.

       "Yeah, I'm fine," he answered, averting his eyes and wiping his face with the back of his hand.

       Burke looked down at the broken body of the young boy and a glimmer of understanding smoothed his concerned face. He looked back at Miller and said simply, "Let's go."

       He felt a strange wave of affection for Burke for not questioning him about his appearance. His feelings of hostility seemed to melt away. For a moment in the man's eyes there seemed to be a consoling twinkle… as if he knew. The realization didn't bother Miller. He was just grateful to him for letting it go and even felt slightly comforted.

       The soldiers that surrounded them made no move that they had even heard what was said. Now overcome with curiosity and eager to put the incident behind him he questioned the Colonel once the Warthog started again. "You're men, sir," he began uncertainly, unsure of how to put the question when three of them were sitting in the back. "To what outfit do they belong?"

       Despite maneuvering around the dangerous streets of the burning city Burke tapped the symbol on his beret of two golden swords crossed over each other with pride. "They're the Areani. Special Forces. They are the fighting branch of ONI."

       "They seem… different." When he seemed hesitant to go on, Miller pressed him. "You said you'd answer any and all questions."

       He had half meant it as a joke, but the Colonel seemed to take his promise seriously. "They certainly are different. They were handpicked at twenty for extraordinary service to the UNSC. They were given special training and an implant at the base of the neck that taps into their spinal cords. It keeps them hyper-adrenalized, enhances the senses, improves nerve transmission." Again he paused but decided to go on past what he should have disclosed. "It also transmits on an ultra-low, alternating frequency that simulates telepathy between members of their squad."

       "They can read each other's minds?" he asked in awe.

       "Not exactly. They can transmit a feeling, a sense, nothing more. But it is enough to coordinate simple tactics silently and efficiently."

       "Are they Spartans?" He, like all Marines, had heard of the mythical Spartans who sent the Covenant running on several occasions… at least according to news reports.

       "No. In individual combat the Areani can't compete with the Spartan IIs. In a group, however, they could take one down quite easily." There was not a hint of idle boasting in his voice; he said it simply as fact.

       Miller looked back at them. He didn't doubt it. The Areani, even sitting in the Warthog, were in constant motion. They checked and rechecked their weapons, scanned their surroundings, or readjusted their position. The man on the turret swiveled with an almost manic awareness. He supposed that was an effect from the hyper-adrenalization. He wondered how they performed in a combat situation.

       He settled back in his seat and tried to relax. The effects of his episode had all but worn off. The pace of the day and his exhaustion helped to dull his senses some. Now he just remembered the feeling he had experienced mere minutes ago as if they had been described to him by someone else. Trying to shake it off, he continued talking. "How did you get past the Covenant blockade from Earth?" he asked somewhat distractedly.

       "We came in on a Prowler. They must have detected us jump in system but they didn't try too hard to track us. They must not have considered us a very serious threat." Burke looked over and stared straight into his eyes. "Let's see if we can change that, shall we?"

       Miller fell silent. Burke's ominous comment had awoken a sickness in his stomach. He had had the feeling from the beginning that he would not die this day but he nevertheless felt that heading into trouble a third time was testing his luck. Since Tarentum was built on a peninsula the retreating Covenant would have only one way to go: into the forest. Ten men were about to enter a hornets' nest.

       They reached the edge of the city and the highway that led off the peninsula and into the forest beyond. Unfortunately there were open plains that extended for over three kilometers before reaching the tree line which would leave them very exposed to the enemy before they reached cover.

       As they began their perilous drive on the highway the Areani became, if possible, more alert. Burke had also assumed a new expression, one of grim determination. The stream of traffic trying to get out of Tarentum had long since stopped so the stretch was completely abandoned; the Colonel was free to tear off at top speed.

       Although his surroundings blurred past him, Burke asked him to take a pair of binoculars from underneath the seat and look to the north from the passenger window. He set them on twenty times view and saw a remarkable sight. Thousands of Covenant were leaving the city by the northern road. They had many of their vehicles with them but the majority were on foot running in a disorganized fashion towards the forest. A few enthusiastic Marines gave chase in Warthogs, ripping into the dense mass of aliens with the mounted chain gun, but they were quickly driven off by the threat of Ghosts covering the rout.

       "My God, but they're beaten!" he exclaimed excitedly. "They're running pell-mell from the city, the bastards."

       "And only on the northern route," Burke mused.


       "So that's where we're going."

       His protest was lost amidst the rumble of tires on raw dirt as the Warthog swerved off the asphalt and onto the plain. When they reached the tree line they drove a few hundred meters in until the foliage became too dense to navigate. Burke and his men hopped out of the vehicle and he told Miller to do the same.

       "It's time to earn your pay today, Miller."

* Footnote – Obviously they would have something better than Kevlar five hundred years from now but for simplicity's sake I'm just calling whatever material they would use Kevlar.