Black on Black: Part 1
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<email@example.com>
Date: 14 November 2005, 4:03 am
It was cold. Damnably cold.
It was cold even through the dense armor plating of the Warthog and in spite of the heater that tried desperately to warm its occupants. The cold was not such that it could be overcome by the vigorous rubbing of hands or by huddling with the nearest unfortunate piece of flesh that shared the unpleasant fate. It was a biting, freezing, bone cold that sucked all energy from the body and allowed one to think of nothing else but the numb discomfort.
There was little mystery to the horrendous temperature. Outside the frosted windows of the heavy vehicle was a vast, frozen landscape that stretched out in a vast white nothingness as far as the eye could see. It was a harsh reality comprised of mountains of ice, fields of snow, and an expansive, onerous white sky. Such was the plainness of the planet that it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sky started. It was a dead world standing in stark testament to a silence that never began and would never end.
To Lieutenant Shirley Steeves, it was the loneliest place she had ever been. Though a staunch pragmatist she could not help but feel that on this desolate surface she was not, nor any other human, welcome. Her presence on a world of ice and wind on the fringes of an unknown system seemed unbelievable, even wrong somehow. She wondered vaguely how many other planets there were like this in the galaxy, in the universe. It didn't really matter. She just felt she needed to get off this planet as soon as possible.
For besides her unusual superstitions, her more earthly senses were discomforted. Her hand shook uncontrollably and any attempt to stop it was quickly revealed to be futile. She also sensed that Colonel Anderson, sitting next to her and appearing unaffected by the cold, could sense her weakness. How long is this damn ride going to last?, she thought miserably. Any curiosity she had as to how long it had really been since they had landed at the lonely port behind them was quickly allayed by an unwillingness to raise her glove and check the time.
Finally, to take her mind off the numbness she felt her body succumbing to, she raised the question that had been on her mind since she had been assigned the mission over a week ago. "Why is it that we're here, sir?" she asked when she felt she could control her voice.
To her dismay the Colonel ignored her, and as if to make his intentional neglect even more apparent he said gruffly, "Private, ETA Goddamnit!"
"Five, sir," said the man driving the Warthog.
Satisfied, the Colonel slumped back in his seat and continued to stare steadfastly ahead with a grim expression upon his well weathered face.
Colonel James Anderson, her commanding officer and her trainer, was not a happy man. That he was angry was to be taken for granted. The only variable was the extent of his temper. While he usually directed his anger cunningly, to intimidate and even inspire, there were times when he lost control. Shirley was one of the few to have witnessed the full extent of Anderson's fury. Once, on a training mission in the jungles of Jericho VII, an insubordinate trainee had been beaten to within an inch of his life by the Colonel and he had done nothing for him but scream at the writhing figure as he died at his feet. It was the only time she had ever seen him do anything of the type, but she knew it was certainly not the first for him. She suspected that part of the Colonel always lay just beneath the outwardly collected surface.
It was because of this that she hesitated to repeat her question, but her curiosity and eagerness to strike up a conversation got the better of her. "Sir?" she managed shortly in a voice that did not quiver despite herself.
Anderson gave a throaty growl to show his displeasure at being pressed, but he did not ignore Shirley a second time. "We're here to interrogate a prisoner," he said tersely, and the tone of his voice indicated he would abide no more questioning.
Lieutenant Steeves, of course, already knew that basic aspect of the mission, though that was all she knew. In any case, her question did not strain on the why but on the here. Like most ONI personnel, she was privy to all inhabited planets, classified or otherwise, but she had never heard of Farrius V. To be sure, she was a mere lieutenant and had only very recently completed training, but she nevertheless assumed that she was only one in a handful of people who knew about a human presence here. Farrius V was beyond the range of where liquid water could exist in the system. Planetary environmental regulators kept humans from dying by mere exposure to the air as would normally be the case on such a place as this, but it nevertheless guaranteed a horribly uncomfortable environment as well as the perfect cover for anything that needed to be kept discreet.
After what she could only hope had been five minutes, Shirley peered hopefully out of the window, struggling to see over the hulking soldier in the passenger seat with a rifle on his lap. To her surprise she saw that they were very near the base that must have been their reason for coming. It was unusual, since they had been driving across a flat plane and any sort of facility should have stuck out clearly against the white horizon. It quickly became apparent why she had been so deceived: the base was made out of ice. Or rather, it was inside of ice, encapsulated in the expanse of a great column of ice pushed upwards by the tremendous pressure of the shifting glaciers. Its perimeter was also just a wall of ice, built haphazardly enough to appear natural from a distance. One would have to look very closely to find any trace of the facility, and who would look here?
As they approached the wall, a section of the ice moved aside allowing them entry. Just inside the compound were several tired looking men standing miserably in cramped checkpoint buildings with rifles cradled to the chests as if for warmth. They waved the vehicle on with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
The Warthog pulled up alongside the largest building. The soldier driving it turned the engine off and twisted around in his seat to face Shirley and Anderson. "Please pull your scarves over your faces and secure your goggles, ma'am and sir." They proceeded to put their own gear on. Shirley noticed Anderson took the request seriously and put on his own gear, so she decided to as well.
Although she had been unsure as to why such a fuss was being made over a walk of no more than ten meters, she quickly discovered her escort's reasoning. Despite her thick jacket, heated gloves, and well made face gear, the biting cold felt like it was stripping her skin with a knife. The two privates that led them towards the door moved with deliberate leisure, clearly enjoying the opportunity to torment these ONI officials used to the warm, comfortable climates of the Inner Colonies. The Colonel did not seem bothered by the cold, however, so she tried determinedly to walk with the same slow steadiness.
Inside the building must have been at least as cool as the Warthog, but she had never felt so warm in her life. After a silent prayer of gratitude to whatever God was listening she took off her fogged up goggles and examined the room she was in. It was much larger than it had appeared from outside, probably extending far into the glacier of ice. She stood at the beginning of a wide corridor that ran far into the distance. There were several smaller hallways along its length that must have led to further identical corridors. To her right was a flight of stairs and two elevators. Clearly the facility was built not just into the ice but below it as well.
The worst part of the building was its atmosphere, and it could not all be attributed to the cold nor to the bareness of the ambience. It had a crypt-like quality, the smell of death and the sense of suffering. It made Shirley feel very uncomfortable, and she felt in the pit of her stomach that she was about to be plunged into the mysterious underbelly of ONI's secrets.
Before she could ask, Colonel Anderson suddenly spoke. "Lieutenant, welcome to Juan-Rodriguez." He clapped his hands together exuberantly as if he reveled in the feeling of misery and pain. "This is ostensibly a military outpost, in reality a prison, and is the last Goddamn place in the galaxy you'd want to be."
With these less than cheerful words Anderson stepped into the elevator followed closely by their escort. Unsettled by her commander's good humor, Shirley reluctantly joined them.
The ride was short, and the doors opened to reveal a corridor identical to the one above. Indeed, were it not for the lack of a door to the exterior she would not have believed she had even left the main floor.
Shirley followed the Colonel off the lift and noticed with some concern that their two man escort, that had accompanied them since they had landed, did not pursue them. Instead, they proceeded back up to the surface, and she suddenly desperately wanted to go with them.
Colonel Anderson walked briskly down the hall for a short time passing a seemingly unending series of non-descript, identical doors and equally similar guards who stood lazily at intervals along the hallway. Struggling to keep up with his long stride Shirley nearly walked into him when he wheeled suddenly about to face a door no different from all the others. A grim expression on his face, Anderson slipped a key card through a slit to the right of the door and it opened with a soft hiss.
Inside was a hole of a room. It was freezing, dark, and cramped, and smelled strongly of human waste. In the middle of the room was a sturdy but rotting wooden table with two metal chairs stationed at either end. On the far side sat a man, dressed in filthy rags that provided inadequate insulation against the chill. He was slightly emaciated, though he seemed to be of medium stature, and his face, covered in grime, was not handsome, but nor was it ugly. On the surface he seemed entirely forgettable, but somehow she felt awed in his presence.
The Colonel pulled out the chair nearest him and casually took a seat, though he quickly mimicked the solemn expression their guest wore on his face. Shirley was left to stand, apprehensive and confused.
The man's pained expression suddenly transformed into a smile which was markedly unpleasant in its insincerity. "Ah!" he said with feigned friendliness, as if he had just noticed their entrance. "My old friend."
"Captain," Anderson acknowledged with a nod that could not be called unfriendly itself. "Why are you here, Tom? Fell into a hole and didn't like what was at the bottom?"
"Why are you here, Anderson?" the man returned without answering. "I'm a dead man walking, so this seems to be a waste of your talents."
"But Tom!" Anderson protested with mock indignation. "This is where I am most talented."
Shirley leaned against the wall, watching this conversation in silence. She felt superfluous, like she had tagged along uninvited to this unusual meeting between old acquaintances. It was disconcerting that neither man acknowledged her presence, but it was even more frightening to see the Colonel behaving in what could only be called a cheery manner. She felt the whole time that his anger was seething underneath the surface, ready to spring forth at any moment.
"I've got nothing to say," the man called Tom said.
"Everyone's got something to say, old friend," Anderson said. "It's just a matter of getting it out of them." He placed his elbows on the table and suddenly thrust his face closer to Tom's. "Tell me what you saw, Tom. Tell me what you were told."
"I've got nothing to say," he repeated laconically.
Anderson nodded to himself as if in companionable understanding. With seeming absent-mindedness he pulled his sidearm from its holster and placed it on the table with a dramatic sigh. His index finger tapped gently against the hilt as if it moved of its own accord. "I see," he said in a light tone, as if he had done nothing.
Shirley almost smiled with relief. This was more like the Anderson she knew; intimidation was the Colonel's game.
Tom glanced cursorily at the gun on the table but did not seem to be terribly bothered by it. "You gonna shoot me, Colonel?" he asked in an expressionless voice. It was not even defiant. It was like he really no longer cared.
"What do you think, Tom?" Anderson asked, his own voice retaining its uncharacteristic lightness.
Tom seized upon the question. "I think that I'm dead no matter what I say or do," he replied quickly, a hint of anger now rising in his voice. "I think that what I saw or heard is unimportant and well known to you already. All you are looking for are those that told me." He rubbed his eyes tiredly and his voice once again became calm and cool, as if quite exhausted by his brief exertion. "You think I'm a total fucking idiot, Colonel?"
"I think you misunderstand the situation," Anderson said simply. "Think about this. All you've got now is survival. If you tell us what we want to know, you could live." He looked at Tom with what he must have thought was an imploring expression. "What do you have to lose?"
"Forgive me if my faith in the system is limited," Tom snorted derisively, "but I can't say I believe you. I refuse to condemn my contacts to the fate I must now face because of a misplaced trust in your damnable lies."
Shirley was amazed, for surely this man knew Anderson well enough, but he did not seem in the least intimidated by him. On the contrary, he was openly criticizing and speaking down to him. She knew now what she was in awe of this man: he was perhaps the bravest soul she had ever known.
In contrast to his regular response to such behavior, Anderson kept his calm quite well. "Oh, come on, Tom," he said, now twirling his gun playfully around on the table with his finger. "We're fighting a war against a vastly superior enemy and you're defending traitors to the UNSC. You do this in the name of morality? My God, ten million have died so far, and you are one man! We must make sacrifices to the greater cause, and you and the lives of the men and women you dealt with are those sacrifices."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Colonel," Tom said quietly, "but was that not the maxim of the Soviets? Of the Koslovic Regime?"
Anderson ignored the interjection. "You would do well to heed my advice, my friend," he said, dropping any pretence of true amicability. "Tell me: is this your final decision?"
Tom lowered his head and his neck shook almost imperceptibly as if he were silently mouthing a prayer. Shirley was almost convinced he might give in, but when he raised his head he bore an expression as defiant as ever. "It is." He was completely resigned to his fate.
"You always were stubborn," Anderson said with a hint of fondness in his voice. He then raised his pistol and fired.
The bullet cleaved brutally through Tom's head, spattering the dull cement wall behind him with dark red blood. The chair teetered precariously on its back two legs for a moment, then at last dropped to the ground leaving Tom's empty eyes to stare into nothingness with the same obstinate look frozen upon his pale, grimy face.
Anderson stood up wordlessly and walked out the door, saying a few words to the guard standing outside in the hall. He then said to Shirley, "Come with me."
Shirley was not in so much shock as to disobey her commander, but she did hesitate for the briefest moment. She gaped for as long as she dared at the bloody mess that had been a coherent and brave man only a moment before. She then wiped a speck of blood that stood out brightly against her unusually ashen face and hurried to follow Anderson from the room that had just changed her life forever.
They walked only a few doors down from the room where Tom had been killed and entered a second chamber, the same size as the previous one but in much better condition. He gestured for her to take a seat at an oak table that looked quite new and recently set up. She did so, and the Colonel also sat down in the seat opposite her.
For a fleeting second, Shirley had the ridiculous notion that Anderson would shoot her too. Anderson had taken her silently to this room, not twenty meters from where he had murdered Tom, and now stared at her with an odd gleam in his eyes. Maybe she had seen something she wasn't supposed to. Her instincts screamed at her to get up and run as far and as quickly as possible, but her senses kept her planted firmly to the seat of her chair.
Anderson continued to look at her, a faint smirk spreading gradually across his pallid lips. He was the master of psychological games, and right now it was working miracles on Shirley's disoriented mind. "What the hell just happened in there, sir?" she blurted out, her fear of his reprisal momentarily forgotten.
"Our dear captain back there found out something about us he shouldn't have," he replied easily. "And I will tell you exactly what it was he died for
if you're willing."
Shirley shook her head vigorously and looked accusingly at her commander. "Sir, I want some answers. I just saw you murder a man
Anderson slammed his fist on the table with startling strength. So sudden and forceful was this movement that it made Shirley jump back in her chair. "Don't be Goddamn naïve, Lieutenant! It pisses me off to see you rookies! You all turn out the same in the end." He scratched the stubble of his chin agitatedly and ran a hand swiftly through his hair, a gesture she recognized as the Colonel attempting to calm himself. "Okay, Lieutenant, I'll tell you everything you want to know about Tom."
"How long has he been here?" Shirley asked, this question for some reason being the foremost amongst her curiosity.
"Truth be told, I don't know exactly. The last time I saw him was three years ago during the Harvest missions. The incident happened shortly thereafter."
Three years. Three years in this freezing, barren prison. Such an experience was beyond her comprehension. She strained to understand how Tom had been so relaxed and composed.
"He was not tortured, if that's what you were thinking," Anderson added without invitation. "At least not in the way you're thinking."
Shirley did not really want to know what the Colonel meant by this so she did not venture to ask. She did, however, wish to know what would condemn a man to an icy, inhospitable world such as this one. What constituted robbing a man of his humanity, of caging him for years without chance of freedom and then shooting him like a dog? The knowledge that Anderson was prepared to tell her everything was too much for her to resist. "What did Tom know, sir?"
Anderson renewed his smirk, the manic gleam from before once again twinkling in his eyes. "Yes, there it is. That's the reason you're here. There's that itch, that insatiable lust for knowledge you crave, even though you know what it means for you." He paused at this moment to give her a chance to refute this, but she continued to stare stonily ahead, her face pale but resolved. "I would like to tell you the full extent of what he knew, but the boys upstairs are uneasy as it is, so I'll tell you what I can.
"As you know, an alien species known as the 'Covenant' has effectively declared war on humanity. Admiral Cole, of course, defeated their fleet at Harvest three years ago. I assume you know the real figures?" Shirley gave a short nod. The real numbered conflicted heavily with the propaganda reports of the media. An opponent of only a third of their numbers had destroyed over half the human fleet. "Well then, you know that it is a sensitive time for us? You know we cannot have any leaks to the general populace? It would cause a calamity in the Colonies."
"You killed that man because he knew the real statistics?" Shirley asked, appalled by the prospect. Half the Navy probably knew the real figures.
"No, for Christ's sake!" Anderson yelled, irritated at being interrupted. He wordlessly slid a datapad down the table to Shirley's waiting hands.
The datapad sported a small screen displaying a picture of seemingly no relevance. It showed a photograph of space, obviously taken from a ship or space station, the blackness spattered with a bright collection of stars. One particularly lustrous star was circled in red to show some significance but there was no text to explain it. The date at the bottom read "21st of June, 2519".
Shirley did not want to reveal her ignorance with regards to the picture's meaning, but it occurred to her that she could not possibly know what it portrayed without some clarification. "What am I supposed to be looking at, sir?" she asked, lowering her tone of stiff respect a little.
"That is a picture taken from the UNSC Glory about four and a half billion kilometers from the remote planet of Chi Cheti IV," the Colonel explained. "The figure you see circled was less than one hundred thousand kilometers away from the frigate. Unfortunately it disappeared before a closer examination could be made, but sensors from the Glory did pick up an unknown frequency emanating from the light source. Those frequencies have now been matched to the Covenant ships at Harvest."
It took a moment for Shirley to absorb all that had been said, for her mind was still swimming from her encounter with Tom. Suddenly, it all fell into place. 2519
" she began.
"Of course we knew, Lieutenant," Anderson said with a grunt. "You didn't think we were totally fucking incompetent? And this is only visual confirmation. We've been intercepting alien transmissions for the better part of the last century!" Anderson stood up and walked slowly around the room, choosing his words carefully. "You understand this cannot come out. If they knew that the Office of Naval Intelligence was aware of the Covenant before they attacked it may be seen as our fault that Harvest was destroyed. Such a dangerous weapon cannot fall into the hands of a blundering military man."
Shirley thought, silently, of Tom's composed, educated face, his grim resolve right up until the moment Anderson ended his life. He did not seem the blundering military type to her. But the Colonel had worked his magic on her. She offered no resistance. "I understand."
"Good," he said gruffly. Then, with a quick, sudden move, he placed his hands firmly over Shirley's forearms in the armrest of the chair and thrust his face close to hers. "Now understand this. Your life has just changed. You know a secret that could change the lives of millions, billions
and you're about to find out a lot more. But with such power comes sacrifices." If possible, he pushed his face even closer to hers. "You may no longer fraternize with anyone outside the agency without my express consent. That includes all friends and family. Shirley Steeves will cease to exist. Shirley Steeves will never have existed." He released her and stood back, but continued to hold her eyes. "Do you comply with what I have just said?"
And that is why I am here, Shirley thought dismally. I have no choice but to concede. I have seen what ONI does, I have looked into the very heart of their operations and secrets. If I refuse I will never leave this place alive.
It was then that she understood the simple brutality of Anderson's mind, the brilliance of the artlessness. But would such a Neanderthal mentality be effective on all those brought here, all those appalled by the true nature of the government they had in their serene naivety dedicated their lives to? 'Yes, that's the reason you're here,' Anderson had said. 'There's that itch, that insatiable lust for knowledge you crave, even though you know what it means for you." Was that enough? Was the Colonel's psychological profiling enough to guarantee ONI's discreetness?
For Shirley, it was. She realized that now. She realized that this was the life she chose, that she had forced the consequences upon herself. Anderson was right: her thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and her life up until now had to be sacrificed to quench that thirst. She made the decision without looking back.
"I agree to your terms, Colonel Anderson," she said coolly.
Anderson nodded to himself. There was no hint of triumph upon his hard face, but neither was there surprise. Everything had happened exactly as it should have. "Follow me, Lieutenant," he beckoned, walking briskly out of the door.
Shirley followed her commander once more. As she did, she remembered what the Colonel had said earlier. 'It pisses me off to see you rookies! You all turn out the same in the end.'
Is that my fate? Am I destined to become like Anderson, a cold killer who can view human life as nothing more than a hindrance to a greater cause, imagined or not?
More importantly, do I care?