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Commander: Change
Posted By: Cthulhu117<spartan_eric_271@yahoo.com>
Date: 23 November 2006, 2:17 pm

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Change is one thing; progress is another.

--Bertrand Russell

Ninth Age of Reclamation
Covenant Prophet-Year 97201
Covenant Holy City High Charity
Inner Sanctum of the Hierarchs

      The doors shut behind the High Commander. 'Mensamee and the other Sangheili stood at Half-Jaw's shoulders. He was struck by the odd parallel: across from him, Truth was staring at him, flanked by Mercy and a small, glowing blue ball that was bobbing about in a faintly irritating manner.

      The blue thing noticed the High Commander the next second and proceeded to speak in the human dialect, with a peculiar accent that he had not heard before. "And now he is here? Interesting. Oh, I shall enjoy this enlighten-"

      The Prophet of Truth pressed a button on his throne's holopanel; immediately the blue ball sagged and hung motionless and dim in the air. As Half-Jaw glanced at the thing, Truth spoke loudly. "Ah, Commander. I wished you to know the reasoning behind my earlier countermanding of your orders."

      He sounded tired and distracted, but the High Commander was quite sure that this was an act for his benefit. He noted with trepidation that Tartarus was not present. He wished he'd brought an energy sword. 'Sangheilee's blade was a lethal weapon against the Flood, but he didn't know how well it would hold up against the Fist of Rukt.

      "So, Commander, I'm quite sure that you're wondering why I called you off the attack earlier," Truth continued.

      "Yes, Holy One," Half-Jaw said tonelessly.

      "I...apologize...for not notifying you of the change in plans earlier. I simply felt that Tartarus would have a better chance of stopping the Demon, seeing as how you had already failed to destroy the Demon once before," the Hierarch said. Was that a smile on his wizened lips? The High Commander wasn't sure. Even after so many decades of interacting with the Ahlainga, he still couldn't read their faces properly.

      "I am not in disagreement with your decision, Mighty One," Half-Jaw lied. "Forgive my earlier outburst. I was under stress at the time, and felt rather superseded by your order. I lost control of myself; it will not happen again, Lord."

      He expected Truth to tell him "See that it does not," or some variation thereof, but the Prophet seemed to disregard the apology. He gestured to the blue ball, and it sprang back to life, its irritating hum restored. The High Commander stared at it. Was this the Oracle that the Arbiter had retrieved? It stared back at him, its azure eye revealing nothing.

      "This," said Mercy, filling the awkward silence with his quavery tenor, "is a Holy Oracle of our Lords. It was...retrieved by Tartarus, with the Arbiter's assistance. We implored the Monitor, for so it calls itself, to grant us the wisdom of its musings, and it did more than we ever could have hoped for. It showed us another Sacred Ring, to counter the Supreme Commander's error. And it was there that we found our wayward brother, Regret, just too late to save him from the Demon's clutches."

      Truth raised his head again, and steepled his fingers, taking up the conversation where Mercy had left off. "In order to begin the Great Journey, we must retrieve a Sacred Icon from the ring and bring it into contact with this holy temple's core. You and the Arbiter have been tasked with retrieving this Icon. You are our hand in this matter. We fear that the Parasite has spread throughout the region which contains the Icon. We know that the humans have desecrated this blessed relic with their presence. Purge all in your path. Burn the Flood. Do not fail us as you did before."

      The High Commander nodded, knowing it was pointless to argue. But 'Mensamee, it seemed, did not have that knowledge.

      "Fail-" the Machinist sputtered. "He did not fail you. You called him away! How can you-"

      Half-Jaw kicked 'Mensamee's left hoof hard. The younger Sangheili broke off his tirade, sputtering angrily.

      The High Commander shot the Machinist a warning glance, and apologized to the Prophets. "I take the blame for my...assistant, Noble Hierarchs. He is not always as reverent as perhaps he should be. I will vouch for him in future."

      Truth nodded, and then added a question: "You know that the Sangheili are pondering resignation from the Council, I presume?"

      Half-Jaw nodded heavily. "I had assumed as much; the Councilors do not take kindly to this move, and many of them are entirely unused to having their wishes countermanded. Will you take any action against the muttering? If so...the Council wishes me to tell you that this is unprecedented. Unacceptable. "

      Truth gave a grim smile. "The Sangheili have failed to protect the Prophets as they promised," he said softly. "I see no reason why I should change my plans in order to accommodate a race that allowed Regret to fall so easily. A Hierarch is dead, Commander."

      The High Commander was about to point out that he had been ordered to kill Regret, when he noted that a contact was approaching on his motion tracker. Rolling his eyes back, he saw the doors to the antechamber slide open to reveal the Arbiter. He caught on to Truth's statement, and responded with appropriate anger. "His murderer was within our grasp! If you had not withdrawn our Phantoms-"

      "Are you questioning my decision?" Truth was a good actor. His voice was sibilant, frosty and a touch sardonic.

      "No, Holy One," Half-Jaw mumbled bad-temperedly. "I only wish to express my feeling that the Jiralhanae-"

      He was bringing up the Jiralhanae on purpose now, but Truth's veneer did not flicker. Mercy was glancing between them, obviously confused.

      "Recommissioning the guard was a radical step, but recent events have made it abundantly clear that the Elites can no longer guarantee our safety," Truth finished, turning his attention to the Arbiter.

      The High Commander turned away, mumbling, "I shall relay your decision to the Council."

      As the twin doors closed behind him, he heard Truth ask the Arbiter, "Ah, politics. How tiresome. Do you know, Arbiter, that the Sangheili have threatened to resign? To quit the High Council over this exchange of hats?"

      He did not hear the Arbiter's reply. He had already opened a comm to the Special Operatives on the docking level. If Truth was intending on maintaining the kill-sign on him, he wanted as many backup fighters as possible.

      One Phantom flight later, he and as many of the Operatives as he could muster drew near to a section of Halo, cordoned off from the rest of ring's surface by a vast wall-like superstructure. Stretching from the top of the wall to the ground about twenty kilometers up-spin was a green energy shield. Copper plasma in cohesive form, Half-Jaw guessed, but with his limited physics knowledge he had no way of being sure.

      The Phantom hovered. They were playing the waiting game now. A few Phantoms of Jiralhanae had landed in the Wall some time ago and hopefully established a beach-head for the Arbiter's entry. However, it was evident from the current status of the shield that they had either all been killed by now or failed for other reasons to deactivate it. The High Commander thought either was possible.

      As he watched the holoscreen, he noted that the Arbiter's Phantom was approaching the Wall. He turned his attention away from it, addressing the pilot. "Move the dropship over the energy shield," he ordered. "We want to get in and out as fast as possible. You will drop as many in as possible via the shockpods and follow us in with the rest of the team. As soon as we have the Icon, you will extract us without delay."

      "Of course, Excellency," the pilot intoned respectfully. Half-Jaw scowled and fiddled with his severed mandibles in annoyance. It was the 'anything-to-further-the-Great-Journey' attitude that was destroying the Sangheili. All too common among the Special Operatives. Now it was spreading to the Piloting Corps by the looks of it.

      He distracted himself, trying to calculate about how long it would take a shockpod to drop into the ground from their present altitude. The shockpods were really miracles of engineering. He started to wonder who had designed them. He asked Azathoth.

      No one answered him.

      He pushed harder, trying to hear some fragmented sound. But there was nothing. There was no Forerunner AI in his neural uplink, or anywhere for that matter. When had he last heard Azathoth? He recalled the AI enhancing a section of holovid for him on the Purity in Belief, but more recently than that...

      He barely kept back a curse. Azathoth must have gone into the ship's computer. From there he could have ported himself into the central memory core of High Charity. At this very second, a half-insane Forerunner intelligence had the run of the Covenant.

      What was he going to do?

      As he thought the words, he realized that there was nothing he could do. He would just have to hope that Azathoth had more common sense than he'd been displaying recently.

      No matter. His duty was clearly to the Sacred Icon rather than Azathoth. He would have the Icon.

      The Arbiter's mind must have been on his mission, because less than a minute later, the shield dropped. "Warriors! Half-team shockdrops in with me! Half-team remains on-ship as reserve!" roared the High Commander as the emerald curtain dropped from the Wall.

      Striding to the gravity lift he dropped out. As he did so, a shockdrop pod slid into position beneath him. He landed inside, standing up. It sealed on him. Airtight and watertight. He was falling a mile straight down towards snowy rocks in a titanium-alloy coffin. Five hundred kilometers per hour was his terminal velocity. He would take less than twenty seconds to reach it. Then he had about three minutes to ground. Mind the bump.

      That was about as much thought as he could fit into the fraction of a second between his sealing into the pod and his drop.

      The temperature rose rapidly. The Sangheili did not sweat as the humans did, but their skin lost its luster and became scratchy to the touch. Half-Jaw couldn't see his skin, but he bet that at the moment it was about as shiny as lead.

      A thud rattled the pod, then another, in quick succession. The High Commander bit back a curse as his shield flared into visibility from the impacts and the heat.

      There was another thud, and the pod shook and spun. At this rate, he'd be too dizzy to get out of the pod even if he did make it.

      As the thought crossed his mind, the acceleration stopped, and the pod crashed to a dead stop, burying itself in the thick snow. Half-Jaw pulled free of his restraints, fighting the pain of impact, and struck the door palm on. It crashed free, landing five meters away on the snow. Drawing his energy sword, he watched as the other Sangheili in his team plummeted to earth, meeting with various successes and lack thereof. One of his warriors dropped into a ravine blanketed by a seemingly impervious-to-light fog, and the High Commander had to instruct him to wait there for help.

      As he looked over his team, he noted only minor injuries, in stark contrast to the pod of one Arus 'Hanthuree, who had been unlucky enough to impact on the large, brown-metal structure that towered above them. Another Sangheili, Vura 'Gahantee, pulled the broken corpse from the pod, shaking his head sadly. Half-Jaw closed his eyes in a moment of reverence for the fallen comrades of this war. When they snapped open again, he was all business. "Burn the body. The Parasite is coming."

      As if to prove his point, an unearthly howl echoed off the snowscape, and a twisted body stumbled up over the nearest ridge, brandishing what looked like a human shotgun.

      'Gahantee cursed. The High Commander glared at his breach of etiquette; all Sangheili were expected to be the model of politeness in the presence of such a high-ranking officer. The younger Sangheili apologized, explaining: "In the Reach campaign, Excellency, a human wielding one of those weapons shot me twice in the chest. It was not a pleasant experience."

      Half-Jaw glanced back at him. "No weapon, Major, is a match for a skilful attack."

      The red-armored Sangheili cocked his head in puzzlement. "A skilful attack, Great One? How do you mean?"

      By way of answer, the High Commander dropped his sword and rifle and dropped into a hand-to-hand combat stance. Before 'Gahantee could ask what he was going to do, he sprinted towards the combat form, dodging the cone of pellets it fired at him, and sprang into a leap. Landing the leap with a somersault, he headbutted the Parasite in the stomach, distracting it long enough for him to drive his fist through its chest. The infection form inside popped against his shield, and the monstrous creature collapsed in a heap.

      Before it hit the ground, he was off running again, coming to a halt next to 'Gahantee. "That is what I mean, Major," he lectured the astonished young warrior. "A skilful attack. One Parasite is dead."

      Another Flood Combat Form peeked up over the ridge with a growl. Behind it, another raised a plasma pistol and howled. "Only several thousand more are left," Half-Jaw continued seamlessly.

      The Flood gave a mass roar and charged, one tide of rotting flesh stitched unhandily together and forced into movement. The Operatives returned fire with their plasma weapons, quickly mowing down the attacking forces, but a few combat forms slipped past the barrage. The High Commander stabbed one through the chest with his sword and kicked another in the direction of 'Gahantee, who delivered a crushing blow to it with the butt of his carbine and killed it with a few shots. A third leapt high over Half-Jaw's head, but the squad's demolitions expert, Askan 'Ksanee, stuck a grenade to it and sidestepped as it landed in an explosion of blue plasma.

      Seconds later, another wave of Flood attacked, this time from behind. They were entrenched in the region, the High Commander realized, and it would be difficult to oust them without some reinforcements. He was about to signal for the rest of the team when he noted the Flood rush off upspin. Evidently they had seen something new.

      That something was a tall Sangheili in worn silver armor. The Arbiter wielded an energy sword with a will, hacking and burning his way through the encircling Flood, but he would soon be overwhelmed by sheer weight on numbers. Snatching the fuel rod cannon from 'Ksanee, Half-Jaw fired three shots at the crowd of Flood, hoping the Arbiter would survive.

      As the green smoke and vaporized snow settled, the Arbiter got back to his feet. His shield crackled and started to regenerate the heavy damage it had suffered, but he seemed relatively unscathed otherwise. The High Commander exhaled in relief and started to walk towards the Arbiter.

      He gave a polite nod to the Commander and took a deep breath. "At the center of this zone is a Sacred Icon, critical to the Great Journey. I must find it."

      Half-Jaw nodded enthusiastically, and looked to his warriors. "We shall cut into the heart of this infestation, retrieve the Icon, and burn any Flood that stand in our way!" He gave a battle cry. The Operatives joined in willingly, but the Arbiter remained aloof and silent.

      Stung by the rejection, the High Commander stared insultingly at the Sangheili who had once been his brother. "The Parasite is not to be trifled with," he said coolly. "I hope you know what you're doing."

      The Phantom flew low overhead, dropping in a Spectre transport and a few Ghosts. The pilot contacted him. "I shall bring reinforcements as soon as possible, Excellency," the junior officer said smoothly. "Jiralhanae, if there are any to be spared."

      "No," barked Half-Jaw. "Let the apes take care of their own. I am ordering you to bring our kind, Sangheili. Good fierce warriors, not cowardly furballs. I wish to battle the Flood, not scream at them."

      "Of course, Excellency," the pilot said quickly. "Operatives, needed for the retrieval of the Icon."

      The Phantom flew away to obey the High Commander's order. "Forward, warriors!" he barked to his team. "And fear not pain, nor death!" Seeing the Arbiter uncertainly looking to him, he gestured him forward. "Go. I'll follow when our reinforcements arrive."

      As he spoke, a large Forerunner construct issued forth from a door on the rusty building, spitting red crystals at the pair of them. "An Enforcer! To the vehicles! We'll need their heavy guns!" shouted 'Gahantee, hopping into the driver's seat of a Ghost.

      The Arbiter ran off after the vehicles, springing dextrously into the gun turret of the Specter and opening fire on the Enforcer.

      Luckily for Half-Jaw, the Enforcer chose to pursue them rather than attack him. He waited for a few minutes before the Phantom arrived, and was quick to step into the grav-lift. Even when the place wasn't swarming with Flood, he disliked the Quarantine Zone.

      His Phantom had just started to fly over the structure when a voice that could have been 'Gahantee's crackled over the radio. "Leader! We have found the bodies of several humans!"

      The High Commander frowned. He hadn't known that there were any humans in the vicinity. "Keep moving," he answered slowly. "I'm on my way."

      They kept going, passing over fields of snow and wreckage covered in Flood, Sentinels, and even a few of the large Enforcers. With consternation, he saw that the Flood had commandeered a Wraith tank. As they flew over the scene, the tank's mortar fired a shot which just clipped the aft of the Phantom. The pilot growled in irritation. "We are losing some power, Excellency! We need to lighten the ship. We have a Specter which we can drop."

      "No," Half-Jaw said firmly. If he had to go into the Quarantine Zone again, he at least needed mobility. "Set down a team of the Operatives."

      The pilot nodded, and the High Commander spoke into the Arbiter's comm. "I'm sending you a squad of my most experienced warriors, Arbiter. Do not squander their talents."

      The Arbiter did not answer. The Phantom moved on.

      It was not for another half-hour that they set down on the other side of what looked to be a Sentinel production station of some kind, dropping Half-Jaw and the one remaining Operative, 'Narsilee, in the Specter. Almost immediately, the Arbiter tore out of the wreckage at full speed, pursued by a combat form driving a Ghost. Although, judging by the amount of damage it had sustained, 'driving' was the wrong word. As the Commander watched in surprise, the Arbiter leapt up on the Ghost's fuselage, shot the Flood through the chest with a human rifle, and leapt into the driver's seat. Half Jaw shouted to the other Sangheili. The Arbiter waved to him, and drove off at boost speed.

      The Specter followed, although at a more leisurely pace. The Flood had heavily guarded the Arbiter's goal, another structure. Wraiths patrolled the entrances, and inside combat forms with human turrets lay in wait. However, their lack of skill proved costly, and it was the Sangheili, sans vehicles, who entered the final building.

      They walked through a short hallway, leaving 'Narsilee to guard the entrance, and a tremendous snowy vista greeted them. Before them lay a huge crevasse with no means of crossing except what they now stood on: an anti-gravity gondola.

      A sound made them both look up. An identical gondola had just taken off from further down the cliff wall. Half-Jaw squinted and saw a few tiny figures milling about on it. "More humans. They must be after the Icon."

      As the Arbiter ran forward to activate the gondola, the Phantom swooped in again, delivering its last load of reinforcements. A Flood howl sounded behind them, and the High Commander realized that 'Narsilee was still out there. He could not leave him behind; 'Narsilee was the best driver in the squad. He drew his sword.

      "On you way, Arbiter," he barked. "I'll dead with these beasts."

      As he ran, he heard another Phantom descend behind him and Tartarus's gravelly voice chuckled over the radio. "I see that coward didn't join you," the Jiralhanae said. "I'll do what I can to keep the Flood off your back."

      Hearing the directly derogatory comment, Half-Jaw stiffened as he ran. He had been meant to hear the remark, and his team had heard it too. One of them, obviously trying to console the High Commander, answered in disgust, "Oh, what courage! Safe in his Phantom!"

      Another Sangheili voice burst in. "Ignore the braggart." Half-Jaw was unsure if the remark was directed to the first warrior or himself.

      He exited the door they had come in by. 'Narsilee was there, but nobody else was. The Minor gave his superior a puzzled glance. "What it is, Excellency?"

      "I heard Flood," the High Commander muttered sheepishly. "Or thought I did."

      "No, Excellency!" 'Narsilee said in surprise. "I heard them too, but nothing has happened since!"

      Half-Jaw cocked his head. The Flood were not often known to postpone attacks. "Wait here, warrior," he instructed 'Narsilee. "I will investigate."

      He leapt around the door's protective armor, sword at the ready. There was nothing there, but twenty yards away, he saw a dark, bulky shape against the snow. It was not a Flood of any kind. It was a Jiralhanae Captain, and he approached quickly.

      "What are you doing?" he asked sharply, as another Flood scream sounded. As it did, he gave a start, for the sound had come from the Jiralhanae.

      He had never heard of Jiralhanae being infected by the Flood, although he supposed it could happen. He grabbed the Jiralhanae by the shoulder and spun him around.

      The ape was holding a sonic projector, of the type that Unggoy constructors used to make their squeaky voices audible to laborers. He hit the playback button, and an earsplitting Flood howl resounded around the snowy region. He flung the projector to the ground. This Jiralhanae had been faking the approach of the Flood in order to distract him.

      But why had Tartarus wanted him to be separated from the Arbiter?

      He was so deep in thought that he never noticed the meaty, wire haired fist coming around to strike him squarely in the face.

      He hit the snow already rolling, his mind trying to process the reality of what had just happened. A Jiralhanae, far subordinate to him, had struck him with minimal provocation.

      As he rolled upright, the Captain pulled a long knife from its waist, apparently not trusting its plasma rifle at this range.

      As it drew the knife, the High Commander was a flash of movement. Ducking under the monster's clumsy stab, he struck both fists into its belly. The blow should have doubled the ape in pain, but the thick pad of hair and muscle diffused the force. He needed something sharp.

      He grabbed at his belt for his energy sword, but even as he reached, he spotted it lying ten feet away, melting the snow. Unable to stop the motion, he kept reaching until his hand made contact with a cold, light hilt.

      The knife of Azo 'Sangheilee was in his hand before the Jiralhanae could blink in surprise.

      The knife of Azo 'Sangheilee was in the Jiralhanae's chest before the it could finish blinking in surprise.

      He pulled the blade free from the carcass, noting the faint purple glow around it.

      As he wiped it clean of gore, he realized that the Jiralhanae had just undeniably tried to kill him.

      Which meant the Arbiter had been targeted too, by Tartarus and a Phantom full of Jiralhanae.

      He had been betrayed. The Sangheili had been betrayed, by the Jiralhanae. This would mean a schism.

      The Covenant, as he remembered the Prophet of Revelation saying enigmatically years ago, was on the verge of civil war.