The Siege of Palatine: Part 6: Conclusion
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 7 November 2005, 3:59 am
He crouched down low, his knees almost skimming the earth with each careful step. Leading up to the burning rubble was little cover, save for a few scattered rocks, and so he tried as best he could to present as small a target as possible. He was terrified. Those Elites could survive almost anything, it was said. He didn't care that he had just seen the whole city collapse in on itself. He was convinced something was waiting for him just ahead, something was watching him
When he reached the perimeter safely, he felt himself relax slightly. On either side of him were mounds of smoldering ruins, shapeless heaps of concrete, metal, and wood, no longer discernable as the buildings they once were. A hot wind blew on his face, carrying burning ash and the smell of death. The first icy wave of dread filled his heart, though he did not yet know why.
He commanded his men to spread out and search for survivors, human or otherwise. They did so, cautiously stepping over rubble that had spilled into the now vaguely defined streets. Somehow, though, he was no longer concerned. A horrible silence covered the town almost substantially, oppressively, interrupted only by the unnaturally warm breeze that whistled through the skeleton of this once beautiful place.
As his men slowly reported back to him it became apparent there were no Covenant survivors; indeed, no Covenant at all. The only corpses were human. Men, women, and children indiscriminately littered the devastated surface, often half buried in the homes that had become their graves. Their bodies were charred and broken and had most of their clothes blown or burned off them. They looked pitiful, just lying in the open before him, blood covering their deathly pale skin. They were a ruin of mankind, made so by their own kinsmen. What must they have thought as the bombers had roared towards their own city?
He stopped when he stumbled over something hard and stiff, distracted by the horror of his creation. Looking down he saw it was a body, the body of a boy no older than twelve, his head twisted hideously on his neck, the rest of his body charred beyond recognition.
Overcome, he collapsed, picked the dead boy up and cradled him gently in his arms. Tears dripped steadily onto the child's still face
2100 Hours, October 23, 2552 (Military Calendar)/
Alpha System, Earth
Earth, ONI Headquarters
At first he was aware only of a bad taste in his mouth, then gradually of a dull pain in his extremities. He hated sleeping on the Indefatigable. He always awoke with the feeling of toxicity, as if his body didn't feel quite right in its skin. Perhaps it was the chemicals they had the audacity to label as real food products, like "steak" or "corn", or perhaps it was the zero gravity he was forced to maneuver in throughout most of the day. Whatever the reason, he knew only that he much preferred to have his feet firmly on solid ground. On Palatine II
He snapped upright, his eyes bulging, but did not get far. Restraints on his wrists and ankles kept him tied tightly to the bed on which he lay. He struggled desperately against the metal clamps, not yet fully aware of why he was here, knowing only that he had to get away and go somewhere, see someone.
"Calm down, Captain Miller," a soothing voice sounded above him. He turned his head fervently to his left, revealing a tall, slightly built man dressed in a black suit. He noticed the darkness of the man's clothing contrasted heavily with the room he was it. Looking around as much as was possible in his position he noticed all the walls, floors, and ceiling were a blinding, antiseptic white. There were scattered medical instruments that littered the room as well as a number of desks that sported glass monitors but as far as he could tell the man before him was the only other person in the room.
"Why am I here?" he asked, settling down but still gazing alertly around the room. "Who are you?" He asked the question vaguely, not out of any real curiosity, but simply as an impulse as his mind raced to focus itself.
"My name is Andrew Wagner," the man said, his voice retaining its gentle, reassuring quality. "I am the regional director for the office of Naval Intelligence. You're on Earth, John. At ONI Headquarters."
"Wh- What are you talking about?" he asked, shaking his head vigorously on his pillow as if to stir up some memory and clear his mind.
"You were brought here, from Palatine II," Wagner said coolly. "It is October 23, about 2100 I believe."
Memory returned to him, jolting him almost electrically and turning his insides to ice. He looked as best he could into the man's face, his eyes hard but his face pleading. "What happened there?" he asked, his voice shaking tremulously.
"You got out just in time, John," Wagner said almost encouragingly, as though persuading him to see the positive side of things. "Your planet was glassed just after you left. We could do nothing to stop it."
Miller could not hear his last words for his grief forced a cry from his lips. His wife, his daughters, his home, his world
all gone, killed, burnt out of existence. At first just his head was shaking, as if trying to deny what he knew was true in his heart, then his whole body was consumed in a series of violent thrashings. His arms and legs strained under the effort of resisting the unyielding restraints and his torso heaved up and down on the bed in a futile effort of escape. He screamed and howled foully, like an animal, sorrow and fury overwhelming reason. And at the bottom of it all, the horrible, wrenching feeling that he had failed to prevent it.
For how long he was inconsolable he was not sure. He was only aware that he was eventually once more lying still and staring and the ceiling with eyes blurred by tears. He was still being watched by his uninvited guest who remained standing by his side. He waited there, gazing down at him patiently, as a parent does with a stubbornly tempestuous child. This filled the hollowness in him with a burning fury.
"You bastards!" he spat viciously. "You knew what would happen if you went there. You fucking knew!" Once again he wrenched with all his strength at his bindings.
"Please, Captain," Wagner said, a touch of mockery tinting his still placid voice. He looked utterly unconcerned at his attempts to free himself. "The Covenant were there to scavenge whatever the hell technology they could have from that place. When they were done they would have evacuated and glassed Palatine anyway. We were never coming for you." He looked down almost pityingly at Miller. "You knew that."
"No," he said desperately, his head still muddled from the drugs he had been given. "You just let them die. My God, my family." Tears coursed down his face anew.
"Miller, you know some sacrifices have to be made if we are to pull through this, not just as a civilization but as a species! The lives of the people of your planet were spent just as any soldiers' are, their sacrifice just as important, just as real."
"They never asked for that!" Miller cried through clenched teeth. "Men, women, and children, you fuck!"
"Who asks to die, Miller?" Wagner shouted back, his composure lost. "It needed to be done! You're not looking at this objectively. You lost your family, and for that I am sorry, but you know what we did had to have happened and could not have happened any other way. You know it!" He seemed to force himself to calm down, then continued. "That is precisely why we chose you, Captain. You understand this, perhaps better than anyone, even if you do not yet know it."
"What do you mean?" he asked exasperatedly, twisting disconsolately on his bed. "Chose me for what?"
"You and your team were able to gather a small amount of artifacts from the alien ruins, I see," Wagner said, reviewing a datapad he held in his hands. "You were also able to take some images before retreating back to your Pelican. Sadly, you were the only one to make it back to Earth alive."
Miller's brow furrowed in confusion as he slowly began to concentrate on what he was being told. "What about Colonel Burke and his men?" he asked.
Wagner smirked at him knowingly. "I'm sorry, Captain, but I have no idea who that is."
Miller knew before Wagner had even finished speaking what his purpose had been all along. He gave a cold, mirthless laugh. "You want me to present the findings to the UNSC because the Areani 'don't exist', is that it?"
He gave no answer, but continued to smile in the same manner as before. It was all the answer he needed, for the man would never admit to any knowledge of the shadowy special forces known as the Areani, even now.
He smiled almost gratefully, for he had been given at least something to resist the murderers of his family. His own pleased look still upon his lips he settled back into his bed, his eyes closed in protest. "I will have no part of your lies, Wagner. I owe the people you abandoned that much."
"Yes, you certainly owe it to them to make their sacrifice worth nothing," Wagner said sarcastically. His voice did not sound particularly worried at his dissension, as if he had expected nothing less.
When Miller did not respond, Wagner pressed him. "It is over, John. You can't bring them back, no matter what you do. What you can do is help us to win this fight, save humanity."
Miller turned to him, defiance still shining brightly in his eyes. "I am going to my grave with too much already," he said dully. "I will carry no more on my shoulders."
To his surprise, Wagner nodded gravely, perhaps even sympathetically. "Indeed, Captain, you have much on your conscience. The events on Ysaris III would weigh heavily on any man."
"Fuck you!" Miller snapped. "That was your intel we worked with! You said the city had been evacuated!"
Wagner laughed mockingly, biting through him and ravaging him to the core. "It had, John, but you know as well as I that there are always those who can't be gotten to in time, or those that can't leave. Though I admit," he scratched his chin and sighed, "Who could have guessed there would be a whole school full of children left without having been contacted?"
"Shut up," Miller managed as he felt his throat swell painfully. Memories of that day mingled with the feelings of grief he felt for his home, forever lost, to form a horrible sickness in the pit of his stomach.
"Of course there was no Covenant counterattack," Wagner continued relentlessly. "Our reports were false. But we didn't know that, and neither did you. You knew only that the mission to take out the carrier above the surface was jeopardized and that its success superceded the importance of the lives of a few thousand inhabitants of a doomed city. And so you had it bombed by our own men."
"Stop," he begged. He remembered walking through the ruined, burning city of Clearfield, every building leveled, every vehicle destroyed, every person killed. "It is not the same thing," he attempted desperately.
"No!" Wagner agreed whole heartedly. "No, it is not the same thing. For on Palatine you saw for your own eyes the clear and present danger that you knew threatened our cause, our people. On Ysaris you condemned those people to death because of a baseless report you could not have personally confirmed. You acted out of blind fear and an ultimately false instinct to ensure the continuation of our species. You have no place to lecture me!"
Miller continued to shake his head and deny everything Wagner said. It seemed to make sense, but it must be specious, there had to be something wrong with his logic, he was just too tired to see it. He just needed time to clear his head.
But Wagner would offer him no such chance. "You are a hypocrite, Miller. You hold the lives of your family above those you killed at Clearfield." As he said this he pressed a button on a console near Miller's bed. The bed rotated forward so that he was now upright, not prostrate. "You probably will not admit that to yourself, so let me show you."
A holograph flickered to life before him showing the three dimensional face of a teenage girl. She must have been only fourteen or fifteen with pale white skin, beautiful blue eyes, and short blond hair. She had a faint, ghostly smile on her face and a youthful vitality shining brightly in her stunning blue eyes, reminiscent of his own lost daughters'.
"As you know, many planetary governments require their citizens to update their picture and voice records every few years for security reasons," Wagner explained. "Ysaris III was among the first to implement such a system, and despite its destruction we were able to recover the records."
Miller knew what was going to happen, and he looked pleadingly at Wagner. "You know this is not necessary. Don't do this."
"You need to appreciate that we're not the villains here, John," he said, once more returning to his calming voice. "You have to understand that in war some atrocities are necessary for survival."
He pressed another button and the face of the girl became animated. Her voice played loudly from the speakers in the room. "My name is Anne Wilson. I am a resident of Clearfield, Ysaris III."
"You killed her, John, just as surely as if you'd dropped the bombs yourself."
Miller twisted violently in his restraints. "Stop this, please!"
"You understood it once," Wagner said as if he had not heard him. "You just need to see it again."
With that he walked away as a new face replaced the girl's. It was the face of a young boy, about the age of the one he had stumbled upon himself in the city he had ordered destroyed. "My name is Daniel MacLean. I am a resident of Clearfield, Ysaris III."
"Wagner!" Miller cried after him. "Stop this!" His plea fell on deaf ears.
"My name is Laura Brennan. I am a resident of Clearfield, Ysaris III."
"My name is Anand Singh. I am a resident of Clearfield, Ysaris III."
The briefing room was imposing in design, and purposely so. The ceiling towered fifteen meters above them and sported an underpowered array of dimly lit lights. At the head of the long room was a heavy oak table, elevated high above the diminutive table that stood before it. It was twenty five meters in length and seated two dozen UNSC brass. On the wall behind them the insignia of the United Nations Space Command was placed prominently on the wall glowing with a faint blue luminance that did little to improve the gloom of the chamber. A slew of stenographers were also present, ready to officially record all that was said along with the many microphones that were scattered among the room. At the back was an audience of over a hundred high ranking officials eager to hear some good news before the Covenant commenced their second attack on Earth.
Sitting at the small table that stood low and unimpressive before its beautiful oak counterpart was a Marine in full dress uniform. He was medium in stature and had handsome features somewhat hardened by a number of burns that, though faded, were still quite fresh. More remarkable, however, was the tired, defeated look in his eyes that could be clearly seen by his inquisitors even through the darkness.
A man sitting at the head table and dressed in the fatigues of a full general began the meeting. "This is Special UNSC Committee on the investigation of pre-Covenant findings, commencing at 1330, October 24th, 2552." The stenographers tapped furiously on their pads as they kept pace with the speech. "We are gathered today to overlook the evidence collected from an ancient alien site found under the surface of Palatine II." He paused and nodded to the man before him. "Marine, please state your name and rank for the record."
For a moment the Marine made no movement to respond and merely looked steadfastly at the surface of his table. His head was shaking almost imperceptibly as if in refusal. A buzz began from the audience at the subordination of this man. It was unheard of to ignore the direct command of the head of the committee in the middle of a hearing.
Just as the general made a movement to repeat his question the Marine stood up from his chair and looked directly at the board of directors. An immediate hush fell over the chamber and no one had trouble hearing the soldier's clear, hollow words. "I am Captain John Miller of the United Nations Marine Corps."