Posted By: Cthulhu117<email@example.com>
Date: 2 March 2006, 10:40 pm
Leadership in today's world requires far more than a large stock of gunboats and a hard fist at the conference table.
-Hubert H. Humphrey
Ninth Age of Reclamation
Unidentified System Designated 11254
Covenant Flagship Champion's Vengeance
Eraa 'Gamsamee paced the personal stateroom of his flagship, the flagship of the Fleet of Glorious Martyrdom. This particular fleet was so named because of the incredibly high casualty rate. It was the naval equivalent of the Special Operatives.
'Gamsamee had been out here in this sector of the galaxy for six years now, plotting slipspace routes through the insignificant Western Spiral Arm. As Supreme General and Commander of the Special Operatives, it was his prerogative, and obligation, to search for the relics of the Forerunner in times of peace. So that was what he was doing.
He hadn't told anyone except Orna what he'd been doing all this for. Three days after Alpha Warband had been wiped out on that damned asteroid, he'd returned to High Charity and immediately sought out the Prophet of Truth. He vividly remembered the conversation.
"Most Honored Messenger of the Gods," 'Gamsamee had reverently uttered as he entered Truth's presence. The Prophet gave a curt nod.
"What is it, Sangheili, that you ask of me? Your position is definite. You will replace 'Vutbrugee. I would have his second-in-command take the honor, but as you survived, I have little choice, it seems."
Eraa had taken a deep breath and spoken quickly, before he could change his mind. "Holy One, while within the holy place of the Forerunners, I...located...a set of coordinates which I believe to be the location of a sacred Halo."
The faint trace of boredom in the Hierarch's eyes was instantly gone. "A sacred ring? Curious. I wonder if you are correct in this matter, General. After all, on the other Forerunner artifacts we have found no trace of the rings remained."
"I am certain, Noble One," 'Gamsamee confirmed. "The information in the databanks of the facility was beyond a doubt."
The Prophet of Truth had slowly smiled.
Of course, he had just been going by what Azathoth had told him. Although there were times when he doubted the AI's veracity, he was at the time confident that Azathoth was not lying about this. After six years, his confidence was somewhat weakened.
He'd had to go through the most aggravating levels of Council bureaucracy to be allowed to go out there. He'd met with Councilor after Councilor, to be turned down each time. Even Clan Sam's own representative had not taken action. It had been a surprise sponsor who finally took up his cause: Tiro 'Sunbrugee. He still wondered why she'd done that. Certainly her family did not owe him anything.
In a backwater region, there is little need to map slipspace routes. In the eight hundred years since the Western Spiral Arm had been detected and discovered, no viable slipspace routes through it had been plotted. 'Gamsamee had been sitting around in the Champion's Vengeance for literally years. Every few hours he sent out a wave of slipspace sensor probes. Every few weeks, a ship would arrive to resupply them. Every few months, he would actually talk to someone outside of the ship. Every second, he was tired. He hadn't slept more than an hour in over six weeks.
Everything had been wrong lately. Seventeen of the last twenty sensor probes had been destroyed by crashing, going through stars, and other unknown cataclysms. The resupply ship had missed its last visit, and rations were growing short. 'Gamsamee was growing quite angry. His usually spartan and neat stateroom was disheveled. His usual clipped baritone and profound calm Special Operative Commander persona was gone. In his place was an unkempt Sangheili with wild, sunken eyes, hoarse voice, short temper and silver armor kept in an unusually dirty state.
His computer terminal chimed, and Azathoth's holographic figure appeared in a ring of virtual flame. Lately the AI had dropped his usual Sangheili form, and worn what he claimed to be his default appearance. The creature he represented was an unidentified biped of great strength, dead black in its coloration, wearing a long kilt and little else. For some reason, the figure greatly annoyed 'Gamsamee. Then again, just about everything annoyed him these days. The cold, oily walls of the ship; the methane stench drifting from the Unggoy barracks; the constant thrumming of the reactor; everything was conspiring to drive him insane.
Azathoth was about to speak, but his efforts were forestalled when he saw 'Gamsamee collapse backwards like he'd been shot. The AI gave a vicious, eleven-syllable curse that involved fusing Lady Luck to a titanium plate and then melting the plate in a plasma furnace. He waited.
For a second, 'Gamsamee thought he really had gone insane. He was standing on an island of some kind, grassy and warm. Looking down to the sun-splashed beach, he saw a tall Sangheili with his back turned, dressed in the same black kilt that 'Gamsamee had seen Azathoth wearing. He also had a thick black gauntlet on his right hand that extended up to his elbow.
Next to the Sangheili stood a child, too young to be a Neophyte. He could hear them speaking, even though it normally would have been too faint at that distance.
"Father," the young one asked, "were the Sang- Sangl-" He mastered the word, too difficult for his untrained tongue to easily wrap itself around. "Were the Sangheili always here on Deen?"
"No," the tall Sangheili admitted. "Myself and Tiro -your mother- as well as many others, came from a far distant world." Eraa gave a start. The voice was unmistakably his.
"What world, Father?"
"I do not remember its name. Nor would I wish to, even if I could. And even if I did, I would not tell you. There is nothing left there now. The stubbornness and foolishness of a once great race destroyed it forever."
'Gamsamee was prepared to bet that the child hadn't understood a word of what his future self had just said. As he continued to watch, a slightly shorter biped walked down onto the beach. This being was about two meters in height and wore a black jumpsuit that accentuated its muscular definition. Unnaturally pale and stiff, he walked briskly to the future 'Gamsamee's side. Nodding towards the child, he spoke in a heavily accented Sangheili dialect.
The future 'Gamsamee returned the nod. "Yes. Azo is five now. I worry about raising him without a mother. I know nothing of how to be a parent. In that respect, we are alike."
Without warning, 'Gamsamee's world spun beneath him. He fell, but the soft grass did not break his fall. He found himself on a hard, warm cot protruding from his stateroom's sparse wall.
Azathoth's eyes were somehow different. He realized that for the first time, the AI's usually metallic eyes had pupils. The AI gave something that seemed to be a smile, although with his default form it was difficult to be sure.
"You don't need to tell me what you Saw. I heard. You spoke out loud. Well, well. I just seem to have a knack for running into Seers. First Revelation, then you. Of course, before Revelation there was that Je-" He broke off abruptly, then started again. "Well, it looks like your future is doing quite well. You don't have the same talent for it that Revelation had. He remembered his Sights well enough to write them down in cryptic verse. Still, you seem to be a natural. That's something."
"All Seers are natural," 'Gamsamee growled shortly. The AI seemed surprised.
"Actually, very few of them are. According to your histories, there have been twelve Seers in the last twenty Ages. Ten were monks of Gracious Enlightenment who'd spent decades developing the technique. The other two were the Prophets of Blindness and Hindsight, and neither of them saw anything useful until they meditated on the subjects and focused for literally years."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" 'Gamsamee complained. "My head is somewhere between a Jiralhanae attack and a migraine."
"But," the AI said exasperatedly, "you have gained some extremely interesting knowledge. Even I find it interesting, which is something. You've learned the name of your son, you've learned the name of your bond-partner, you've learned to live on a world called Deen. Which, incidentally, is not a world known to the Covenant."
"Then this will happen, beyond a doubt?"
"No, you degenerate lowbrow! What if you were to kill yourself right now? Then what you Saw would obviously not take place as you Saw it! Your continuous problem, the main problem with your otherwise comparatively brilliant command of strategy is that you treat everything as an objective problem! This, like so many other problems that you will have to confront in your life, is a subjective situation, and till you successfully accept that, you will be at a loss for the solution, you debased savage!"
'Gamsamee waited several seconds, then asked, "Are you quite through?" He had never seen the AI so agitated. Quite apart from the creative insults, Azathoth was giving off vast quantities of presumably holographic smoke, and silver flame was blasting sporadically from his eyes.
Azathoth shook himself, then settled into a cross-legged position of meditation. "Yes, I suppose. Do you understand what I was trying to say? If not, I'll be glad to repeat it. It is of great importance. Oh, and don't kill yourself just to see what would happen. A Seer committing suicide can play hell with the subjects of his prophecies."
"Play what?" 'Gamsamee quizzically inquired.
The AI impatiently waved him away. "Figure of speech. My point is that- well, here. Story time. There was a Seer in the Second Age of Reclamation called Yakno 'Ultak. He Saw the only way the Commander Guji 'Lohanree could defeat a group of heretics, and knew he had to warn 'Lohanree. Due to a combination of bad luck and mistaken identity, he failed. 'Lohanree and thousands of soldiers were killed because of 'Ultak's errors. He felt the only way to atone was to commit ucouphez, a highly ritualized form of suicide. He did so. As a result, just about every prophecy he'd had that involved him did not come true.
"For example, he once Saw himself becoming the Supreme Commander under the Prophets of Stasis, Mercy and Damnation, an act that would cause Damnation to be replaced by the Prophet of Faithfulness. Since he did not fulfill this, Damnation died at the time when he should have been replaced by Faithfulness. Faithfulness died at the same moment. It's similar to a computer system that gets backed up. His destiny had been destroyed and he didn't have another one to spare. The end. The moral of the story is not to kill yourself."
'Gamsamee wearily nodded. He needed time to center himself. However, all he did was collapse once more onto his bed, falling asleep almost instantly.
He was awakened by the chime of his door. He cursed under his breath. If they didn't know that procedure on board ship was to call him on his holoscreen first, they were visitors. The only people important enough to visit the Supreme General were Councilors or Prophets. Either way, he did not relish meeting them in his current state of disarray. He hastily brushed accumulated grime from his armor and threw a glass of water in his face, drinking what was left. Drying off with a towel that felt like a Jiralhanae's ass didn't improve the pain in his head. He ran to the door, attempting to present a professional attitude at the least.
The person standing outside the door was a female Councilor, quite a rarity among the patriarchal societies of the Covenant. She was slightly built, but quite as tall as 'Gamsamee's eight feet and two inches. She had dispensed with the ornate and unwieldy headdress of the Councilor Sangheili, instead wearing an armorweave traveling cloak with a large hood and cowl. There was a very familiar look in her eyes that 'Gamsamee couldn't place. He suddenly realized that his mandibles were spread a little bit wider than was socially acceptable, and felt his face color somewhat. He looked at the floor, embarrassed. So what if he what the Supreme General? He had a right to live a little. But nevertheless, she was a Councilor. It was inadmissable for a warrior to have a relationship with a Councilor. He had to remember his manners with such an important and manipulative person. "Greetings, exalted leader. To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
She strode right past him, her cloak rippling with her speed. "I do not require that you refer to me as 'exalted leader', for I am neither a leader nor exalted. Furthermore, the honor is not yours. Nor is it mine, I'm sure," she commented dryly, gazing around the disorderly stateroom.
"You may, or may not, recognize me," she continued. "I am Tiro 'Sunbrugee, daughter of Dana 'Vutbrugee, son of Vulo 'Jorbrugee, son of the Council Leader Gakba 'Kinbrugee. I know the truth about my father's death. I know why you search out here, looking for something that you do not believe you will ever find. I know that your AI is attempting to hide in you computer, although I do not know why he will not reveal himself."
Azathoth appeared at the top of the holoscreen, looking somewhat abashed. 'Sunbrugee continued as though nothing had happened. "The fact that you are afraid to admit to yourself is that this AI is the key to finding the Sacred Ring you seek. Not your probes, not your ship, not attempted to appease the Hierarchs with pointless murder."
In an instant, 'Gamsamee had pulled his personal energy sword from its wall rack. The blade was close enough to the Councilor's neck to blister the skin. "What do you think you know about that?" he grated furiously.
"I know," she practically spat, "that you, on the orders of the Prophet of Truth, killed the Guard of the Prophet of Fury and then the Prophet himself, taking care to make it seem as though the Prophet had disbanded his Guard and then left for a world deep in the Cut to become a hermit. I know that you did this in order to allow the Prophet of Regret to enter the Triad, so that all three Hierarchs might be conducive to your proposal. I know enough about the corruption of the Triad and Council to know, like you, that the Prophets, virtuous though they are, are not as perfect as they seem. I know that you do not seem to know that it is wiser to watch such corruption from the sidelines rather than take an active part in it. And I know that this AI of yours knows where the Sacred Rings are to be found."
'Gamsamee deactivated the energy sword and clipped it to his belt. Turning to the console, he stared into the eyes of Azathoth, who stood there, arms akimbo, feet spread, code encompassing his body. The AI had such anger in his eyes that for a second 'Gamsamee recoiled.
The Sangheili broke the silence. "You know where the Halos can be found?"
Azathoth nodded wordlessly, rage still flaming from his body.
"And you let me stay out here for six years when I could have been on the Holy Rings of the Forerunners?"
Again, the AI nodded. Then he spoke, the usual dryness in his tone multiplied tenfold. "Do you want to know why I never told you where the Rings were to be found? Do you really want to know? It's because the Covenant is too weak for it. The Great Journey that you've mindlessly slaved after for thousands of years is not what the Halo entail. They, like all other remaining Forerunner facilities, were designed to study and to contain. Halo is beautiful, but it is a prison, and it is hell, filled with ruin. The 'Holy Rings'? You had better leave well enough alone. That's all I have to say on this matter. If you want the coordinates, I'll give them to you. But I warned you."
If 'Gamsamee could possibly have grabbed Azathoth by the throat, he would have. "How can you conceivably think that even you, an Oracle, may profane the Sacred Rings' name with your insults?"
"I was there," the AI hissed. 'Gamsamee stumbled backwards. He could see it now. Warriors in hoods and cloaks, battling parasitical enemies too great for them. Fighting and dying in a barren, parched land covered in jagged rocks and fissures which oozed gaseous fumes. And then nothing was there before his eyes but Azathoth. Not Azathoth as he appeared now. Azathoth standing there, with a bright blue light shining from behind him. Azathoth in that barren land, the cowled creatures surrounding him. Azathoth, his eyes not angry, not sad, but haunted by the reflection of death burned indelibly into them. And then just Azathoth, standing again on a console in Eraa 'Gamsamee's stateroom. "I was there," he repeated, more to himself than 'Gamsamee.
'Gamsamee backed off. He hadn't known. Why hadn't Azathoth ever told him? Why would he be ashamed of it? He could not fathom why a Holy Oracle would regret his association with the Forerunners. He was perplexed, angered, and more than a little frightened. 'Sunbrugee's voice from behind him also seemed a bit off-color. "Shall we find the Ring now, Commander? Or should I leave you here until you are quite done staggering about?"
"No...the location of the Halos is a matter of the utmost importance. If you will accompany me to the bridge, Councilor?"
She chuckled. "As long as you don't assume anything, Commander."
Azathoth watched them go. As he did, the ship's AI, Kuj, appeared next to him, speaking in a monotonous, condescending voice.
"Question: Why did you feel the need to tell them, Oracle?"
"No one can be warned what the Halos are like," the AI admitted. "The Edenians could not stay away from them, my masters could not stay away from them, and 'Gamsamee could not stay away from them. I had hoped that in the last few millennia organics had evolved some common sense, but it is not to be. They will see the truth, and they may yet pay with their lives."
"Comprehension: Ah, I see." Kuj paused. "Retraction: As a matter of fact, that does not seem to make the situation any clearer. Could you be more specific?"
"No," Azathoth stated curtly. "That is the only truthful explanation I can offer. If you don't like it, you can shove off."
"Bemused Response: Shove what off where?"
"Yourself. Off my systems. You are meddling in matters that do not concern you or your Covenant. You would do well to leave me in peace. We have entered slipspace, and you ought to monitor the ship's path rather than bore me with your irrelevant and pointless questions."
"Indignant Assertion: I am only attempting to serve-"
"You are not attending to your duties, and if you persist I will be forced to-"
An alarm blared throughout the ship. There was a sudden sound of the slipspace engines choking up terribly, and the ship ground to a halt with unsafe speed. Azathoth transferred himself rapidly to the bridge computer port. The Councilor was standing there, serene as usual, while 'Gamsamee rose to his feet. How the Councilor maintained her balance was quite beyond Azathoth. "What did you destroy now?" the AI growled.
The look on 'Gamsamee's face was pricelessly murderous. "So much for your damn coordinates. They very nearly put us right through a planet."
The AI's face was the picture of innocence. "Well, I last updated my astronavigation systems about ninety-three thousand years ago. There are bound to be some new planets that spring up in that time."
'Gamsamee watched the cherubic expression on Azathoth's face turn to an annoyed frown. "What's wrong now?" he groaned. Why did this have to happen the one day of the year when a Councilor came on board?
"Your sensors are showing basic industrialization and development of civilization on the planet's surface, although the bulk of the life signs are subterranean. Your databanks indicate that no known Covenant colonies are in the arm of the galaxy. This is either rebels, heretics, or something new."
"Can you pick up any transmissions from the planet's surface? ID codes, maybe?"
The AI's frown deepened. He tinkered with the ship's audio for a second. An extremely loud blast of toneless music blasted out over the bridge's sound system. 'Gamsamee recoiled. A voice, speaking in an unfamiliar language, was following hard on the music's heels. "Translate that," 'Gamsamee barked. Azathoth worked on it for a second, and then a voice speaking relatively intelligible Covenant Standard rang out.
"-that was MA2B Assault Weasel with 'Show Me Heaven And I'll Show You Hell', his new single, that one coming out in stores just this month. Coming up after these messages we've got Randomactofviolence, Shinkichikon, Soap, and Jarissa Colbert, so stay tuned on XHAR 91.4. It's a beautiful hurricaney day in the Harvest City region today, winds up to 50 miles per hour, hard rain. If you're over on the south side of Harvest City, you may want to get your sandbags outta the basement, cuz it's raining like hell in a crapshack and the river's gonna start flooding its banks in a few hours. On a somewhat lighter note, the temperature's dropping to about ten below tonight, so it ought to have all frozen up by the morning. Can't be certain, with a four-hour night. Yes, another wonderful eight hours of paradise on Harvest Colony. Earth time is now exactly fifteen minutes past one, April 17, 2552. We'll be right back."
"Are you sure you translated that right?" the Councilor asked. "I don't actually know a single word that they used in that broadcast, or whatever it was."
The AI shrugged. "Don't kill the messenger. I just translated it. Whatever they said is their business."
"Azathoth, open a Priority One link to the Sanctum of the Hierarchs," 'Gamsamee said firmly. "A new race...by all the gods, this is an interesting discovery. I wonder what this race has in the way of fighting capabilities? From the looks of it, they have pitiful taste in music, but you never know. The Jiralhanae have no music at all, except their primitive tribal drums. Then again, they are cowards and fools. At any rate, this new race can't possibly be worse than the Jiralhanae."
"Not to interrupt your pointless musings," Azathoth enunciated louder than was at all necessary, "but I have a link to the Prophet of Regret."
'Gamsamee frowned. He had harbored a strong dislike of Regret for several years now. "Are the Prophets of Truth and Mercy there? I would rather speak with one of them."
"Not a chance," the AI scoffed. "Looks like you'll have to work it out with Regret."
"Holy One," 'Gamsamee said reverently as the Prophet of Regret appeared on the holoscreen. The Prophet looked eager to see what was worthy of a Priority One uplink to the Sanctum. "As you know, I have been investigating the Western Spiral Arm of the galaxy for the last few years searching for a Sacred Ring. Very recently, I located a world that is inhabited by a race which has never before been encountered by the Covenant. There are some twenty thousand beings on the planet," he continued, consulting the data that Azathoth had punched up, "in a state of industrial development that, while advanced for an unknown race, is approximately one thousand years behind our standards. From what we've gathered, they are called 'hu-mans', speak a dialect that appears to be similar to a phonetic-inverted Sangheili dialect spoken in the Cut, have about sixty other colonies arranged rather close to their homeworld, and use a sort of rigged slipspace engine for interstellar travel--please hold." He turned to Azathoth. "You were able to find this all out from that transmission?"
"Of course not! I hacked into their high-priority military databases. They aren't safeguarded against artificial intelligence intrusion protocols. How barbaric."
"We would like to know what the Triad and Council say on this matter, Holy One," 'Gamsamee declared. The Prophet of Regret nodded. He was young for a Hierarch- scarcely three hundred, still as brash and impulsive as a child. He was unpopular with the Council. Truth had picked Regret because he was easy to manipulate.
The Prophet of Regret was also notoriously poor at decision-making. He gnawed at his taloned hands for a second, then spoke haltingly. "While the other Hierarchs are not currently available, I believe I speak for the pair of them when I say that, as these creatures are intruding on the sacred territory of the Forerunners, it is your duty, and ours, to defeat them as instruments of the gods."
Normally, 'Gamsamee would have demanded that such an issue be taken up in the Senate. But he was out of practice. Battling these creatures would be good exercise for him. Besides, it would not be a difficult battle. The five thousand Covenant warriors on board his carrier against a chiefly civilian colony of twenty thousand infidels would be nothing more a hard training routine for his elite troops. "Understood. I will carry out the holy work of the Forerunners with my whole heart." Deactivating the holoscreen, he powered up the carrier's internal broadcast systems. "Warriors! Prepare for battle! We deploy in twenty units. Phantom pilots, prepare yourselves. I will be leading the ground assault personally. We will land, wreak havoc on these human heretics, leave before sunset, and burn their pitiful world to the bedrock!"
Councilor 'Sunbrugee glared at him. "You should not lead the ground assault. It is not your place to fight like a common warrior."
"My honor would be marred, Councilor, if I did not answer the call of the warrior. I will go to the surface. You may accompany me if you wish, although you are hardly outfitted as a warrior."
The Councilor smiled. Her hands disappeared into her cloak, and reappeared a second later, holding a pair of short, electrified ijhava staves. "My father wasn't lying when he said I had warrior training. I will command the ground assault. You will fight and lead your army from the front lines."
He bowed, pleased that he would again feel the exhilaration that drove him through combat. He wasn't counting on the reckless determination of the humans he fought. He didn't know, at the time, where the prophecy would take him from here. He never learned that his elated war cry would typify the Covenant to humanity for the better part of fifty years. Yet he shouted it on a hundred battlefields.
"Your destruction is the will of the gods, and we are their instrument!"
Only Azathoth still mused on the prophecy of the Seraphima. He had always known when and how it would be fulfilled. It was just another one of his many secrets. One he would never tell. One had to find out some things for oneself.