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Thirteen Going on Three Hundred - The MARINER Directive
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<jptaber@gmail.com>
Date: 30 September 2010, 4:19 pm

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3. Thirteen Going on Three Hundred

0728 Hours, 19 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- Covenant perimeter, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

A divot in the permafrost earth with an overhanging lip of granite made for Team Echo's "home:" the equipment that had survived their journey to Pearl had been arrayed in a carefully defensible circle. Sitting on the edge and looking in, Warrant Officer Charlie-B149 assessed their guest. They definitely made the Twos big, he decided, and grim. Malcolm was all regulation, terse phrases, military terminology.

They had all removed their helmets, and the Two's mask of impassability had cracked slightly at the sight of Charlie and his fellow Threes, though he didn't know why.

Now Raquel, the team's CO, was sitting and talking with him, discussing the progress of their mission so far. Charlie, Benjamin, and Sofija had put on their helmets and were on sentry, though they still followed the conversation.

Raquel explained that Echo had been deployed as part of a three-team infiltration unit, each one quietly boarding a Covenant ship during a space engagement. Allegedly, ONI had intel that the enemy battlegroup would be returning to a refit and refueling point; the three teams of Spartans were to find out where it was and transmit the coordinates, at which point ONI could start planning a massive strike.

But there had been a problem: the ship Team Echo had infiltrated didn't return to the refueling station. Instead it had diverted here. At first, the team had been angry and disheartened... until they intercepted radio chatter. There was something here that the Covenant wanted very, very badly, and were willing to expend every last drop of their freaky alien blood to have it.

Team Echo felt like they should oblige them.

They stole a dropship and brought it to the surface, locating this area as a zone of Covenant interest and setting up shop. In lieu of accomplishing their primary goal, they wanted to mess up their enemy as much as possible: hit and run strikes, supply theft, sabotage. They stopped short of rampant arson, but only because the intermittent summer snowfall made it difficult.

Slowly they had come to understand the Covenant's purpose here.

Sofija-B295 huffed loudly into her mic as Raquel spoke. "I don't know why she wants us to be all friendly with the Two. We're not supposed to interact at all. We didn't need to reveal ourselves, and after we did, we definitely didn't need to leave him alive."

Charlie remembered the brief, heated exchange between Raquel and Sofija - who had been the first taken down by the Two's assault. She wanted to stick to regulation, a rarity for her, and ensure their secrecy wasn't compromised; all members of Beta Company had a standing order not to allow anyone to know they existed, let alone what their mission was. Yet Raquel, who had months before executed a gang of teenagers without a second thought when they stumbled into an op, hesitated at the idea. Her case was that they'd need the Two's help to accomplish their self-appointed objective of stopping the Covenant's efforts.

Of course, the whole debate was moot. Raquel was the CO. Sofija ultimately had to bow to her wishes.

"I don't know," Benjamin said with a sighing quality of resignation. "Might be nice to have one of them on our side. I don't think he would've been easy to kill."

Unconsciously, Charlie's hand moved to his throat where Malcolm had been holding him down. "Did he look disturbed by us?"

"What do you mean?"

"When he saw our faces. It looked like he was... upset by something."

There was a thoughtful quiet on the channel until Raquel finished briefing the Petty Officer. "Come on," she said, standing up and putting on her own helmet. "I'd like to show you what we found. Maybe you'll have a better idea of what it is than we do."

Malcolm rose and nodded before securing his own helmet.

Charlie flipped over to the team COM. "Where are we taking him, boss?"

"We're taking him to the tunnel."

0844 Hours, 19 July 2544 (Military Calendar)/
Pearl -- access point Alpha, Target Hotel-One-Alpha

Malcolm-059 got the feeling that, without his presence, the Threes would have had an easier, quicker time reaching their destination. Raquel had described briefly to him their Semi-Powered Infiltration armor and how it took spectroscopic samples to replicate the patterns of the surrounding environment - definitely well beyond the capabilities of his own MJOLNIR rig. However, out of some misguided deference for him, the Spartans didn't activate their systems.

The hike was long and trailed around the outer edge of the Covenant perimeter, which suited Malcolm fine: keeping a considerable distance between your targets and your base camp meant that the enemy was less likely to find it. More to the point, it gave him the time to think.

He was still trying to get his head around all the things he had learned in such a short amount of time. His suspicions regarding a second class of SPARTAN-II soldiers was off the mark; apparently, since his own deployment, an entirely new program had been developed and fielded. Their designations meant there were more subjects, and the fact that they were Beta Company probably meant that more had been successfully recruited and augmented. All the Twos together, even before they started sustaining casualties, couldn't populate a full company.

Still, he felt unnerved. When they had taken off their helmets, he had recognized the patterns of scars but the flesh underneath, the shape of their faces...

He switched over to a private channel with Raquel. "Chief," he said. "I have a... personal question."

"What is it, Petty Officer?"

"When were you born?"

There was a beat before she answered. "Twenty-five thirty-one. On Charybdis."

Thirteen. The Spartan girl marching ahead of him was thirteen years old. Even though his brothers and sisters had been conscripted at six, they had never tasted combat until sixteen - and that was with insurrectionists. The Covenant came later.

But the Threes had been culled for maximum hostility towards the Covenant. Their parents had been killed -- either directly or indirectly -- by the Covenant. Their hatred was all-consuming.

Malcolm was suddenly uncertain who would be the more effective soldier: himself or them.

The trip was quiet except for the crunch of half-ton armor on permafrost. After a while of hiking they spotted an enemy patrol; Team Echo blended in perfectly, but for Malcolm it took a little more effort. When he was confident that he was hidden, he settled in to wait. He figured that it would be wiser to let them pass.

Apparently, the Threes didn't share that observation. As the small lance marched by, the Spartans sprang from cover. They had the same priority ladder as Malcolm: first they targeted the Elites, the leadership. Charlie slid a knife neatly into the back of one Elite's neck while Sofija - in a more visceral display - seized the sides of the other's head and twisted hard. Neither apparently had shields activated, and both of the aliens dropped fast. Raquel and Benjamin acted next, gunning down the three Jackals and leaving only the handful of Grunts.

There was an effectiveness in their teamwork, but it lacked the cohesive efficiency Malcolm had seen when reviewing his own Spartans' logs. Some sort of decorum was missing from the motions, and in the next few moments it became clear.

Five Grunts were now running around screaming, devoid of any leadership. The Threes grabbed their sidearms, each choosing a target and firing. They were clean kills, but Sofija turned to the fifth Grunt and blasted both its legs. The diminutive form fell to the ground, brilliant ichor leaking onto the ground, screaming; it was pathetic, and Malcolm could almost dredge up the slightest bit of sympathy for the creature.

The four Spartans holstered their weapons and surrounded the whimpering Grunt, beginning to pummel it. They kicked and punched, one solid blow dislodging its methane breather. A raw mouth with dozens of needle-like teeth gasped at the influx of oxygen, struggling to breathe.

They just stood and watched it die, slowly, before moving on.

Minutes later they came to what Malcolm could only assume was their destination. It interrupted the forested demeanor of the landscape, a chest-high wall of a silvery stone material. Trees were cleared on all sides of it. Walking up to the edge, the Spartan saw that it dropped for several hundred meters into darkness, despite the risen sun. Four grapple hard-points had been fastened to the ground around it, cables going up and over the wall.

"This is it," Raquel muttered. "We call it the tunnel."

Malcolm couldn't take his eyes off it. "Covenant?"

"No," she replied, her head twitching slightly to the side. For a Spartan, it was as much of a shrug as anyone was likely to see. "But they're interested in it. They're digging to get better access, so either they don't know about this way in or it's not worth their time to guard it all day."

He gave one of the cables an experimental tug. It was secure. "Are we going down?"

"Yes." She cocked her head back at her team. "We don't have another grappling kit, so one of us is staying topside. Benjamin!"

"Yeah, Chief?"

"You're on our ass. Make sure no one sneaks in."

"Yes, Chief."

Four Spartans clipped themselves onto the cables and prepared to descend, while Benjamin took up as inoccuous a position as he could manage. With the advantage of the SPI armor, Malcolm had to consciously remember where Benjamin was, otherwise he would disappear.

Slowly they rappelled down, controlling their fall and occasionally kicking off the nearby wall for support. The material felt slick beneath the tread of Malcolm's boots, and once or twice he caught himself fumbling for purchase. He reminded himself to let gravity do the work, and was soon moving at a good pace. Around him, the Threes were keeping up extraordinarily well; he assumed that they spent a good deal of time moving up and down this access.

The floor wasn't too far below, and as soon as he was standing and free of the cable he clicked on his helmet light. The disc of LED brilliance cut through the darkness, illuminating a sizeable tunnel of the same sleek material. At certain angles he could make out geometric lines lingering below the surface.

He chinned his helmet camera to record. An icon appeared in the top left of his HUD to remind him that it was recording all audio and visual input.

"What is this place?"

It was Charlie who spoke up. "It's hard to determine exactly what, but there's some evidence that it's a kind of shunt for the planet's geothermal energy. There's carbon damage to the surface of the material, though you wouldn't know it to look at it. Compared to the sample from the surface, there's plenty of microscopic scoring." His own lamp swept across the space. "Whoever built this was trying to reroute and control the flow of magma through the crust."


"Probably the same reason the UNSC is: easy, cheap power."

Malcolm stared down the tunnel into blackness. "Where does this go?"

"Dunno," Raquel said. "We don't have any sonar or seismic equipment. All our observations came from sizing the place up for an ambush. Wherever this end goes" -- she nodded down one end, then the other -- "we suspect the Covenant are digging in this way. Probably trying to access this very tunnel."

The ONI briefing resurfaced in Malcolm's mind. "This other way must lead towards Roland."

He could almost hear the frown in Raquel's voice. "What's in Roland?"

"It's classified. But the Covenant want in."

Raquel looked to Charlie and Sofija. "Then it's worth targeting. When we get to the surface, prep the ordnance."

"Ordnance?" Malcolm asked.

"We have a Fury tac-nuke meant for our original mission. I was thinking about deploying it in the dig site, but I wasn't sure if it would be effective enough in the open. We'd annihilate their forces, but the site would still be accessible. But a chokepoint like this? I don't care how much abuse this stone can take, a warhead will crack it, vaporize anyone nearby, and flood the whole tunnel with lava. Clean kill."

In his time, he had seen many strategies that would be considered overkill, but using a tac-nuke -- unauthorized -- was perhaps the most excessive. He opened his mouth to say something, but shut it quickly.

"Anything else you need to see?"

"No," Malcolm said. "We need to get to the surface. I have to report in."