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The Siege of Palatine: Part 5
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 31 October 2005, 3:59 am

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0015 Hours, October 21, 2552 (Military Calendar)/
Alpha Sierra System, Palatine II
Planetary Capital, Tarentum

       The Areani covered the two Warthogs with brush to help conceal the already well camouflaged vehicles from prying Covenant eyes. Captain John Miller could only sit back and admire their movements. Watching them was like seeing action fast forwarded: their crisp yet fluid movements seemed almost robotic. It was slightly disconcerting to see them working almost telepathically, one man handing the other some scrub before the other had even extended his arms. He noticed they never spoke. He wondered if they were even able.

       Colonel James Burke was sitting on a log nearby staring fixedly into space. He assumed he was reading information on an implant in his retina. There was still much left to be answered. While unusually loquacious for an ONI spook the Colonel was vague at best when it came to their actual mission. What they were searching for and exactly his role was as yet unknown to Miller. He was sure that his role as a "guide" was superfluous, to put it lightly, and he suspected it was a hastily imagined story. Burke seemed to know where they were going without his help and the Areani would probably end up guiding himself through the forest. The more he thought about it, the more it worried him.

       On top of his perfectly reasonable concerns he was beginning to worry that his exhaustion was affecting his mind. He recalled, almost as though it were a dream, his weariness after the first engagement. That had been twenty four hours ago. After that he had felt merely lethargic and drawn out, a completely normal reaction given the circumstances. Now, however, he felt markedly different. He was filled with a manic, frenetic energy. His skin burned and his body shook. He had gone well over two days without sleep enduring much hardship and stress. The only other time he had felt like this was during boot camp when he spent three days in a forest hopelessly lost and deprived of sleep and nourishment. He remembered how completely he had broken down when he had been found by a search and rescue team.

       What was left of his reason was worried about his state. He would have told Burke but he knew the Colonel was on a mission direct from ONI and would not stop for rest. For some reason he found that irresistibly funny and a small laugh escaped explosively from his lips. He looked around. No one had heard him but he knew it was a very bad sign.

       "Alright, Captain, we're moving out," Burke announced quietly.

       Although moments ago Miller had been waiting impatiently to get going he now felt an intense rage course through his body now that action was again expected of him after all he had already done. He felt blood pounding in his ears and his face flush hotly. It was a struggle just to acknowledge the order. "Yes, sir."

       Burke must have noticed the strain in his voice for he looked questioningly at him. "Are you alright, Miller?"

       "Let's go," he said, now answering him, instead plunging ahead through the brush without turning to look at his face.

       He and the Colonel walked side-by-side, alert but upright and moving quickly and noisily. Four of the Areani stuck with them while the other four took up the front and rear. Although he knew they must be close he could not for the life of him see or hear them. They were silent killers, gliding unseen in the forest in the dead of night, utterly aware of everything around them. The notion unnerved even him despite being, at least ostensibly, on the same side.

       Every step was torture. His legs ached unbelievably. His eyes were strained and burned with every blink. He felt sick. His stomach had a dull, constant pain one gets with the flu and his skin felt like it was on fire. He didn't even feel the perimeter of his body anymore, as if is normal mass were being stretched outside itself, spread out, thin, and fragile. He struggled desperately to put one foot in front of the other but it was a losing battle. Right foot, left foot… right foot, left foot… right foot…

       Suddenly he was on the ground, though if forced or by accident he was not sure. He was only aware in the cloudiest sense that he was no longer upright. He struggled to get to his hands and knees but he was shoved roughly down again. "Stay low!" a fierce whisper sounded unmistakably in his ear. He looked over to see Burke also prostrate on the hard forest floor.

       He heard the muffled sound of silenced weapons all around him and it occurred to Miller in that instant that it was a very comforting noise. The volume of fire increased when a shot of plasma lit up the murky woods, the squeals of Grunts and the hisses of Jackals now filled the air. It was odd hearing no human sound at all through the course of the firefight. If he had not known it was the Areani in combat he may have judged the Covenant were winning.

       The reality turned out to be quite different, however. Gradually the eight men formed up above him, checking in with the Colonel. After an extended conversation consisting of a slew of rapid hand signals Burke appeared satisfied and gestured for them to return to their positions. He looked down and seemed to notice for the first time that Miller still lay on the ground, face down.

       Kneeling down he grasped him by the shoulder and shook him forcefully. "Miller, are you hit?" he asked, his voice strained with concern.

       Miller twisted around violently and his eyes bore into Burke with all the manic craze he felt. He gazed at the man without recognition. For a moment he knew neither where he was nor who he was with. Suddenly memory flooded back to him almost painfully and he recalled that he was here because of this representative of the hated ONI. With surprising strength he shoved Burke off him. "I need rest, Colonel!" he shouted furiously, his voice reaching a frenzied pitch.

       Recovering himself Burke walked over to Miller, still on the forest floor, and grasped him firmly by the shoulders and half carried, half dragged him to a nearby tree. Miller struggled but the broad shouldered Colonel overpowered him with almost humiliating ease. He shoved his back roughly against the trunk of the mighty oak and forced him to look into his eyes.

       "Captain Miller, we are on a mission and you will maintain discipline!" He paused for a moment and just looked into his eyes. He shook his head slightly and sighed as if silently berating himself for not recognizing the problem sooner. "Alright, Captain, we'll take thirty." He rummaged around in small pouch on his belt and retrieved a small needle. "In the meantime I'll give you a little pick-me-up."

       Burke removed the plastic cover on the tip with his teeth and spat it out. Without hesitation he plunged it into Miller's thigh and pressed the plunger. Too weak to feel anything or resist the unwelcome injection he just laid his head back on the soft bark of the tree and hoped if he didn't move they would just leave him behind. Thoughts of his home drifted sleepily into mind. He imagined himself lying on his elongated beach chair in his courtyard on a warm summer day with a good book in one hand and a cold beer in the other. His pool lapping to his left, his children playing to his right, the birds singing overhead. And before him, his beautiful wife…

       His eyes snapped open. He stretched and yawned involuntarily, feeling quite refreshed. His instincts told him it must be morning but he gradually became aware it was still pitch black and that Burke was still in front of him and looking at him expectantly.

       Seeing his confusion Burke said, "I gave you a supplement the Areani sometimes use. It boosts energy and caps adrenaline levels. Your body was pumping a lot of adrenaline into your system before but in your state it was just driving you mad," he explained.

       Miller nodded half-heartedly. Indeed, besides feeling energized, some of his reason had returned. He felt as though he had had a solidly mediocre sleep. He rubbed his face with his hands, the friction against the burns he had sustained the day before helping him to wake up some more. "I'm sorry about before, sir," he said candidly, his hands still covering his face.

       "Think nothing of it, Captain," Burke said graciously. He sidled up beside Miller, sharing the tree as a backrest, their confrontation a minute ago entirely forgotten.

       For a while they sat in silence, neither of them talking nor searching for anything to talk about. Somehow their speechlessness spoke volumes. It was odd, Miller pondered, the events that bonded men, especially in stressful circumstances. Perhaps it was left over from primal instincts that men understood each other better in conflict than in the more mundane interactions of civilization. Whatever the reason, he felt a strong connection to Burke at this moment and felt that they had gained a mutual understanding.

       They were moving north again before the thirty minutes were up, but Miller did not mind. He was now eager to be done with this mission and get some proper sleep. The predicament they would still be in even if they found what they were looking for did not seem to bother him. He was hopelessly optimistic and always had been. Just as he felt he would not die this day he felt his home would remain safe.

       They walked on a while longer, no one making a sound. After what he guessed was two hours he felt Burke tense up beside him and slow down. He crouched down and tried to move as silently as the dense foliage would allow.

       "We're coming up on something," Burke whispered mysteriously, beckoning him to get down.

       He did so, crouching behind a particularly large fern and peering through the darkness in an attempt to see what they had come upon. As his eyes focused he began to notice that there was indeed a faint light emanating up ahead. He looked over at the Colonel questioningly but he just shook his head and listened intently. Miller turned and also tried to listen. For a while he heard nothing except the soft rustling of the Areani shifting around them, but suddenly a noise emanated from somewhere in the distance. It sounded like some sort of machinery followed closely by a loud and distinctly alien cry.

       Burke nodded and motioned to Miller to move out. The further they went the brighter the light became until its source was distinguishable. Two tall lamps had been erected and were shining a slightly purple hued light at a freshly dug hole in the ground. Underneath these lights were dozens of Covenant soldiers, mostly Grunts, tending to a large machine that seemed to have excavated a cleared portion of the forest floor. They had been quite industrious, apparently, for the hole went deep.

       Burke examined the scene with a pair of compact binoculars and handed Miller a pair. He looked through them, scanning the area and trying to count how many Covenant were defending the site. He estimated about two dozen grunts, half a dozen Jackals, and two Elites. They were standing about quite carelessly, paying more attention to the machine than to possible threats. Even the Elites, usually the brutally efficient leaders of the less competent lower castes, were standing together near the hole, speaking to each other casually.

       Raising his hand in the air the Colonel made a series of signals that he assumed the Areani would see and carry out. His assumption was justified for seconds later two silenced shots sounded to Miller's right and both Elites, unshielded in their arrogance, dropped to the ground. A moment later and four more shots rang out killing most of the Jackals before they knew what happened. Two grenades detonated in a group of Grunts, killing at least half of them in a bloody mess, and two of the Areani moved out from the tree line under the cover of the flying debris. They ran with inhuman speed and were upon the stunned survivors in an instant, devastating them with a series of shotgun blasts. The long ranged shooters continued firing from the concealment of the forest, covering their comrades with a stream of perfectly positioned shots. The final enemy soldier, a Jackal, was killed when one man knocked the glimmering shield out of the way and the second blew a hole through it with his shotgun.

       Miller was amazed. He had never seen an attack so perfectly coordinated, so quickly executed as the one he had just witnessed. The other Areani ran from the trees and secured the scene before he could even stand up. He approached the hole and peered down into its depths. It was an extensive tunnel, sloping downward at a steep angle, and culminating, if his eyes could be believed, in a metal hatch with a green light glowing brightly on his front.

       "What in Christ?" he breathed in awe.

       Burke ignored him and rallied his men. They set off down the tunnel and he and the Colonel followed closely. The whole operation was becoming more abstruse by the second. He just wanted to get it all over with.

       Something alarmed one of the Areani in front of him. The man snapped his head around and rushed suddenly straight at him. For a split second Miller thought he was the target but the man brushed passed him to grasp the wrist of an Elite who had sneaked up behind him and was on a downward swing to crush his skull with a blow from its plasma rifle. In a single fluid motion the soldier pushed Miller out of the way and heaved on the alien's arm, using its inertia to throw it forward. It fell on all fours, a remarkable feat in itself given the speed of the attack, but before it could recover three of the Areani rushed forward and shot steadily into its back at point blank range until its shields collapsed and the bullets tore through flesh and armor. As the Elite lay on the freshly turned soil of the tunnel, gurgling pathetically, the man who had initiated the attack walked calmly over to it, kicked the heavy helmet off its head, and ground its skull mercilessly into the ground.

       Miller watched this all happen in a split second and then the Areani get back into formation without even acknowledging that they had just saved his life. He tried to be grateful but found he could not. Although the alien's death had been entirely necessary, and perhaps on some level gratifying, it had been executed in a cold, ruthless manner that left him with a feeling of abject horror.

       Burke rushed over to him and helped him up, his face white with concern. "Are you all right?" he asked, giving him a cursory examination for wounds.

       The extent Colonel's worry startled him almost as much as the attack had. Once again Miller wondered why he was truly here but he did not deign to ask. He guessed he would be finding out soon enough. "I'm fine, sir," was all he chose to say.

       "Good, good," he murmured, shooting what might have been an admonishing glance at the ever stoic Areani. "Let's move on."

       They continued on into the earth towards the small hatch at the bottom that glowed with a faint green iridescence. As the lead Areani approached it the two halves opened with a soft hiss revealing a darkened room beyond. The soldiers did not seem in the least surprised at this, they simply moved on through. Burke also walked through the hatch in long, confident strides, leaving Miller obliged to follow, albeit cautiously.

       The Areani had switched on their flashlights, illuminating a square, angular and completely bare room. It was quite small, perhaps twenty meters long and three high and wide enough only to meet their needs. All the surfaces were made of a dull grey metal that did not seem to reflect any of the light that shone on it. The only distinguishing characteristic of the place was a band of pale green light that ran lengthwise across the right side of the room and at intervals formed glowing runes. Also, there was a second door at the other end of the room with the same green light shining on its front.

       It was unimpressive in detail yet it still filled Miller with a sense of wonder. Everything about the place, even the drab metal, seemed distinctly alien. Even more compelling was that the style was not at all like the Covenant's suggesting, perhaps, a another player in this deadly game. For good or evil, he thought enigmatically.

       Burke walked over to the lights on the wall, studying them closely. "Amazing," he breathed, extending a finger into one of the runes. It passed through and made a small noise like a sizzle but stayed otherwise intact. "Just amazing," he said again, pulling a small camera from his belt and taking a few pictures.

       "What is this place, sir?" Miller asked quietly with the feeling of speaking in a holy place.

       "I'm not quite sure yet, Captain," he said, returning the camera and moving slowly over to the second door. The Areani mimicked his movements, two of them taking position on either side of the door and the rest ready to spring forth at any threat beyond. Miller hung back but the Colonel was up front with his own weapon drawn and motioned for his men to go through.

       The door opened and the Areani ran through in pairs, weapons raised and ready, alert for any threat. Burke walked through with them and Miller followed somewhat reluctantly.

       What he saw took his breath away.

       He stood on a platform overlooking a cavern of impossible magnitude filled with what looked like alien structures of all description. Although the cavern walls and ceiling were comprised of the same dull metal of the room they had entered at first, the buildings that thickly covered the bottom were made of materials of all description. One particularly large installation was built of a green tinged metal with spectacular designs carved ornately on its surface. Another was built of a warm colored stone and almost resembled the style of the humans above. Most striking of all, however, was a blue hued light that shone with stunning brightness far in the distance. It was as beautiful as it was ethereal, and it filled Miller with a humbleness he had not thought possible.

       "My God," he exclaimed wondrously. He could not take his eyes from the light despite its blinding intensity. "How was this place not discovered before now? By us, I mean."

       "At a guess," Burke said, gazing up to the roof of the cavern, lost amidst the darkness, "I would say the metal shell surrounding this place simulated regular igneous rock, confusing geological surveys." He looked over at him meaningfully. "So you just built right over it."

       Miller nodded in understanding. The cavern extended for miles and probably went right under the city of Tarentum. "So that's why the Covenant didn't glass the planet. This is what they came for."

       Burke was no longer listening, instead issuing commands to his men. At a signal from the Colonel the Areani nearest him removed the silencer on the end of his weapon and fired a sustained burst straight into the air. The report echoed explosively in the vast space and could probably have been heard by anyone or anything along its length.

       "What the hell are you doing?" he hissed, more out of shock than subordination. Despite being a markedly stupid and conspicuous thing to do in an unsecured area, he couldn't help but feel the brutish gesture had somehow shattered the divinity of this magnificent place.

       In response to the noise a slew of Covenant on the cavern floor below that had previously not been visible came into sight and opened fire on them. They all ducked behind a low partition at the edge of the platform on which they stood; it absorbed the superheated plasma without melting. Four of the Areani got up to a crouching position and fired down on the enemy, ducking at intervals to avoid the plasma that was fired up in deadly streams. The other four ran down a ramp to the bottom and flanked the Covenant from the left. Despite starting in an unusually unprofessional manner, the fighting arm of ONI was rapidly taking command of the firefight and pushing the numerically superior alien forces back.

       Miller risked a glance over the wall. Many Grunt and Jackal corpses littered the hard metal floor, overwhelmed by fire from above and from their flank. A handful of survivors, including two Elites, were falling back for reinforcements. Meanwhile the four Areani below had split into two groups, each entering with the two nearest buildings with rushed caution. He heard gunshots in the distances and a flash emanate from the doorway of both structures.

       He looked over at Burke, who had stood up and was snapping some more shots of the cavern with his tiny camera. "What the hell is going on sir?" he asked exasperatedly. He considered helping the four Areani still on the platform but decided his assistance would not be welcome.

       "My men and I are just investigating the ruins, Miller," he said absentmindedly while scanning the area with his camera, this time taking a video. The Areani below had left the buildings they had been in and ran hastily to two more. A couple of them were carrying some objects that had procured from within.

       He waited a while longer, knowing full well he would get no answers from the Colonel. The Covenant, meanwhile, had gathered more troops from further in. The men on the platform opened fire to delay them but they were now heavily outnumbered. Miller knelt down and opened fire as well, no longer caring what was thought of him, and clipped a Grunt just as one of the Areani left a building. The men below also opened fire, one of them lobbing a grenade into the mass, but it hardly stemmed the tide.

       Burke pressed a button on his vest which Miller assumed sent a signal to his men. "I think that's enough. We need to exfiltrate now before reinforcements drop in behind us." He tapped the shoulder of one of his men and they ran back towards the entrance of the first room.

       Although still confused as to what Burke's purpose was here, he was all too eager to leave. The Covenant numbered in the hundreds now and the fire from him and the three Areani left were not enough to cover the four men's retreat below for long. They backpedaled, firing a few rounds at the alien horde, then ran pell-mell for the ramp. Just when he thought their luck at dodging plasma bolts was at an end, all four men made it up on to the platform and were back out the door. Miller and Burke followed hastily.

       The man Burke had sent back was activating a mine at the front hatch, setting up a trip wire for the first unfortunate Covenant soldier to give chase. They all hopped nimbly over the wire and ran as fast as they could to the top of the tunnel. Miller felt a sense of safety as he took in his first gasp of fresh forest air.

       "The Pelican should be nearby," Burke said to nobody in particular, then radioed in for the pilot.

       "Where are we going?" Miller asked, curious as to what their next move would be.

       "Back to the Prowler," Burke answered when he had closed his channel. "We need to get the hell of this planet ASAP."

       Miller's brow furrowed. "What do you mean, sir?"

       "From what we understand of Covenant religion, they won't tolerate a human presence in one of their holy sites," Burke explained, obviously referring to the alien site behind them. "It has been desecrated for them. They have no choice but to glass Palatine now."

       As if to accentuate what he had just said the mine at the bottom of the tunnel detonated and high pitched squeals carried up clearly to them through the night air. Miller couldn't at first comprehend what he was being told. "Wh – what?" he stammered.

       "I'm sorry, Captain, but it was the only way. The Covenant can't be allowed to investigate those ruins. That's how they get their technology, but scavenging old alien sites. We're already losing this war, Miller. We can't let them become any stronger."

       Miller thought with sickness of his family to the north, worrying at his own safety. Of his hometown, that glimmered like a jewel in the summer and was wrapped in a warm, comforting darkness in the winter. Of his house, with its terra cotta roof he had put in himself, its garden tended to so lovingly by his wife, and the sparkling pool in the courtyard his daughters had been so fond of in their youth. Of three hundred and fifty million souls that had no idea of the horror that was about to befall them.

       Without thinking he raised his own weapon and pointed it straight at Burke's head. At once two of the Areani snapped around and threatened him with their own firearms. If he pulled the trigger he was a dead man but he didn't care. He couldn't just let it happen and do nothing.

       "You son of a bitch, Burke," he spat furiously, his anger overtaking reason. "You piece of shit!"

       "You're threatening a superior officer, Captain," Burke said calmly, not at all shocked or angry, his voice only loud enough to be heard over the shots from the Areani containing the Covenant in the tunnel below. He walked slowly but steadily over to Miller, and he found he was unable to fire. The Colonel yanked his weapon brutally from his hands when he reached him and followed this with a punch to the face that almost knocked him out. Burke caught him as he fell and handed him over to one of his men, who picked him up and slung him over his shoulder as if he were a stubbornly insolent child.

       His vision was blurred and he found it difficult to discern what was going on. He was vaguely aware of some men behind him firing at the Covenant that persistently pursued them and of Burke's heated yells into his communications piece. At last they came to a clearing in the woods where a Pelican was hovering just off the forest floor. Two more Areani were waiting patiently at the entrance to the hold and dutifully hauled Miller's body onboard.

       At last regaining some of his strength he fought against his captors who restrained him with contemptuous ease. As the rest of his men clambered into the back Burke took a needle from one of the men who had been waiting and thrust it painfully into his arm. He felt the effects of the contents almost immediately as a debilitating drowsiness swept through him. He found his concern for his home world ebb away as quickly as his strength. At least I will get some sleep, he thought peacefully as darkness took him.

       The last thing he remembered before drifting into unconsciousness was the Pelican's engines rumbling to life and taking off into the air.