What Once was Ours, chapter 3
Posted By: Jake Trommer<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 2 December 2009, 2:30 am
What Once was Ours
1040 Hours, July 14, 2553 (Military Calendar)
Day Two of the Admiralty Insurgency
"We're here," said Hocus, her voice tinged with awe.
"Gimme a second!" came the shout from aft, punctuated by a loud metallic clank.
Hocus shook her head exasperatedly. "Shilds, if you wreck the comm gear, we might as well just defect to ONI and save ourselves the trouble of what Lord Hood will do to us!"
"Have some faith, babe, I know my way around a Pelican!"
"Call me that again, I dare you. Remember one of the conditions of this relationship?"
There was another clank before the Warrant Officer's voice wafted up from the troop bay. "No pet names, I know."
"Good. Now get up here so we can get to work."
The door to the cockpit hissed open, and the trim co-pilot clambered in like a flight-suited monkey. "Way you were talking, I thought we'd been dropped off."
"We haven't," replied Hocus, her voice still reverent. "But look."
Visible through the Pelican's cockpit was a blue and green sphere, streaked with white, a small grey moon orbiting it. Even from the far orbit Adriatic was currently holding, small streaks of light could be seen heading towards and away from the planet.
"Earth," said Shilds, nodding.
"And the new defence grid," noted Hocus. "Look at that. Fifty Orbital Defense Platforms for the near hemisphere alone."
"This ought to be fun," said Shilds. "Hope they don't decide to take a closer look at us."
"Then hope that the transponder Harper's techies rigged up works. The LSO wants us deployed in---"
Appropriately enough, the cockpit speaker picked that moment to crackle to life. "Hotel Six-Niner, this is Adriatic Landing Signals Officer. Drop in five."
Hocus got to the comm first. "Copy, LSO. Dropship Hotel Six-Niner standing by for drop."
Shilds shot his co-pilot and erstwhile romantic interest a sly look. "Our dropship's number is---"
"Don't even say it," said Hocus.
The Warrant Officer chuckled. "What, LT? You don't want me to propose that we---"
Fortunately for Hocus's sanity, the LSO chose that moment to break in. "Hotel Six-Niner, drop in five...four...three...two...one...mark."
That last was accompanied by several dull thuds as the Pelican was jettisoned from the frigate's hangar, plummeting relative down towards Earth. In the cockpit, Hocus and Shilds were thrown against their restraints like sardines in a can, the former gritting her teeth, the latter bellowing obscenities into his helmet.
Then the Pelican's pre-programmed thrust sequenc took over, and the shaking came to an abrupt finish.
"Engines online," muttered Hocus. "Shilds?"
"Transponder online...plus the codes that'll let us get into Earth orbit."
"All right, then. ETA to Earth orbit...five hours, give or take a few."
Shilds' visor depolarized, revealing a half-grin and a cocked eyebrow.
"No," said Hocus, answering his unspoken question.
"Fine," replied Shilds, making the word sound like an extreme concession. "I'll be asleep. Agathon, wake me when we're in Earth orbit, alright?"
"Yes, Warrant Officer," replied the AI operating the electronic warfare equipment. "Lieutenant Anderson, would you like me to do the same?"
"I think I'll stay awake, Agathon."
"Yes, Lieutenant. We'll be in Earth orbit within...five hours and twenty minutes." The AI's voice changed subtly as a conversation subroutine clicked in. "Are you sure you would not like to rest?"
"I'll be turning of the speakers, it'll save us power."
"If you need me---"
"All right, Agathon."
Hocus stared out the viewport at the blue-green orb as it slowly increased in size, wondering if it would be the last thing she ever saw.
"Ma'am, if there's one thing I've learned during my tenure here in ONI, it's that space is big."
Admiral-cum-UNSC-Chairwoman Margaret Parangosky glared daggers at Colonel James Ackerson. "Again, your insights prove astounding, Colonel."
"Just doing my job, Ma'am," replied Ackerson, wondering if he'd finally crossed the line with the ancient woman who could have him killed with a single gesture.
Parangosky spat. The results looked like something from within a bird's gizzard. "I know, James, I know. Is it time?"
Ackerson nodded. "HIGHCOM would like to meet now, Ma'am."
The aged Admiral almost let a weary expression flash across her face, a slight tightening of the wrinkles and skin, but it was soon banished by the iron-hard discipline that had kept her going all these years. "Then let's go give the masses their opiate."
As his superior hefted herself into a standing position, Ackerson frowned. "Show due respect, Ma'am. These people could still turn against you."
Parangosky's bark of laughter sounded particularly harsh set against the smooth hiss of her office door sliding open. "I doubt it. Strauss, McDonald, Pershing's replacement...they're all as complacement as neutered dogs."
It didn't take a genius to note the exception. "And the Arbiter, Ma'am?"
Now a grim look did cross Parangosky's face, and for a few minutes the clatter of the bootheels of the two most powerful people in the UNSC were the only sound in the hallway. Then---
"I do think," Parangosky slowly hissed, "that he could be a problem. We've learned the hard way what happens when we...anger...his kind."
"Not only the Elites," warned Ackerson, "but he also represents the Grunts and the Hunters. The last thing we need is a Hunter rebellion."
A slight widening of her space-black pupils was the only sign Parangosky gave that she did not much care for the possibility that she had mentioned. "Yes, I'd have to agree with you there."
By now they had reached the entrance to the HIGHCOM conference room. The clack of the two immaculately attired Marine guards snapping to attention echoed through the hall as the two approached. Ackerson eyed one up. "Top Byrne?"
Master Sergeant Nolan Byrne nodded. "Sir."
To the other: "Gunny Griggs."
"Sir," the Gunnery Sergeant tersely grated out.
Ackerson looked at Parangosky. "ORION veterans. Wouldn't they be more useful against Hood?"
"Who better to guard our lives?" Parangosky countered.
I'd feel safer if they were guarding our lives by taking Hood's, thought Ackerson. But he kept it to himself.
"HIGHCOM's waiting for you, Ma'am," said Byrne, opening the door.
Parangosky didn't even spare the senior enlisted man a nod as she blew through the entrance. Ackerson nodded acknowledgement at the two ORION troopers, then hurried off in Parangosky's wake.
The corridor leading to the conference room was cramped, and oppressively decorated, and Parangosky didn't help matters. "They're not going to be happy with us."
They're not going to be happy with us even after we overthrew one of their most respected peers? Amazing.
Out loud, Ackerson said, "I would never have guessed, Ma'am."
They were standing outside the doors to the conference room, now, and Parangosky shot Ackerson a look. "Just try to avoid irritating the Arbiter."
Then they walked in.
General David Dack of the UNSC Air Force, idly shuffling some papers, was the first to look up and call the staff to order. "ROOM TENCH-HUT!"
The chairwoman of the UNSC took a second to survey the table, then nodded at the Colonel. "All right, take your seats," said Ackerson.
Parangosky took her seat at the head of the table, Ackerson standing at her side. Both took a minute to survey the room.
The conference room was a circular affair, with a circular table to boot. Both table and room were painted a glossy black, a color that matched Parangosky's office, and the plush velvet carpet was black as well. The circular table had place settings for all of HIGHCOM's members, save one: Ackerson, as Parangosky's adjutant, was expected to stand.
"Gentlemen," said Parangosky.
The Arbiter coughed.
"Gentle...beings," she amended.
Don Hanson, a tough-looking black man in his fifties with a carefully groomed mustache, snorted contemptuously. The General of the Army had made a statement by choosing to wear battledress to this meeting, and no doubt was rather nervous due to his predecessor's method of departure. The bloodstains of the deceased General Daniel Pershing were still on the table.
"Respect the rank, Sir, if not the person," said Command Sergeant Major Bill Duke, the senior enlisted man in the UNSC, a tough-looking man of Asian descent who had refused numerous commissions.
Ackerson coughed. "If you gentlemen are finished...?"
Silence reigned once more.
"Thank you, Colonel," said Parangosky. "General Dack, I believe you called this meeting?"
The blonde haired General David Dack, commander of the UNSC Air Force, stood. A man born to wealth and privilege, it was a common joke that the Air Force's dress blues were colored such so that, were the General shot, no one could tell if he were bleeding.
"Yes Ma'am, I did. You've requested that all of the Air Force's drones be deployed to hunt for Lord Hood...Ma'am, how do you expect us to police former Insurrectionist and Covenant space?"
Parangosky's iron-hard gaze speared the General for a second, then took in the rest of the command staff. "Any other complaints?"
Lieutenant General Nicolaus Strauss of the UNSC Marine Corps slowly got to his feet. "Ma'am, who exactly is in charge of the hunt for Lord---"
Parangosky gave a dangerous look.
"---Sorry, former-Admiral Hood. Chain of command is pretty blurred now. Rodger Young's skipper outranks the Marine detachment commander, but the Marine commander is in charge of the op, then there's one of your spooks floating around---"
"Enough," said Parangosky. "The chain of command is perfectly understandable."
Strauss frowned. "Umm...no, it's not, Admiral. That's why I'm---"
Parangosky shot Ackerson a look, and the Colonel's hand started to stray towards the butt of his sidearm.
Fear blossomed in the General's eyes. "---But, I suppose it's perfectly understandable to someone in the thick of the action. My apologies, Ma'am."
General Hanson and CSM Duke somehow managed to snort in unison.
The Arbiter, sitting at the far end of the table from Parangosky, shook his head. "Two potentially civilization-destroying conflicts later and you humans still have not changed..."
"Is that all the business you have for me?" asked Parangosky.
Admiral Tim "MAC Gun" McDonald, Chief of Naval Operations, leaned forward. The CNO's caggy face and lantern jaw masked a keen intellect that had thrived---some would say a little too well---in the politics of Generals and Admirals. "Ma'am, some planets with former military personnel in their government have expressed their...wariness at having the head of ONI becoming the new Chairwoman of the UNSC."
Parangosky's lip curled. "Admiral McDonald, you will send the following message, exactly as I tell you."
McDonald's already-grim face grew even more so. "Yes Ma'am."
"Tell them if they do not like the protection of the UNSC...that they are free to join Terrence's rag-tag fugitive fleet, and then they will see just how well the UNSC takes care of its own. Do you have that?"
"That is all I have for you, gentlemen. Dismissed."
"Admiral Harper? Signal from the Adriatic, recon team deployed on schedule."
Fleet Admiral Theodore Harper, hands clasped behind his back, Eridanian cigar clutched in his mouth, shot a nod over his shoulder at the comm station. "Very good, comms. Keep monitoring all frequencies. If something happens, I want to know about it five minutes before it occurs. Understood?"
With that, Harper resumed staring off into the void. Long ago, as a young Ensign aboard the corvette Assegai, he'd memorized the constallations shining out there in the pitch-black of deep space as part of his duties as navigation officer. Those stars were bright and full of hope for me. Now they pretty much are me...bright pinpricks of light trying to keep the darkness at bay.
The Admiral gave a slight snort at his introspectiveness. "XO, I'm going to be in my quarters. Let me know if anything turns---"
"Excuse me, Admiral Harper?"
The flag officer turned to face a fairly short enlisted man, whose heart-shaped face seemed best-suited to mournful expressions. It was Hood's omnipresent aide, Senior Chief Petty Officer Donald Grath.
"Senior Chief, what can I do for you?"
"Lord Hood has news, Sir. If you'll follow me..."
"Sure thing," replied Harper, following the NCO off of the bridge. "And when the hell are you getting your stars?"
Something in the Senior Chief's face froze.
Seems I hit a nerve...seems our good little automaton of a chief has feelings after all...
"Lord Hood..." Grath slowly grated out, "has determined that in order to preserve equilibrium amongst our fleet and maintain the current command structure, that all promotions amongst naval and marine personnel are frozen for the time being."
Harper shot a wry look at Grath. "Translated from pogue-speak, son?"
A brief grin shot across the naval NCO's face. "I'm Force Master Chief in everything but name...but that doesn't give me the status I need amongst the other senior enlisted personnel. I've got Master Chiefs on other ships completely ignoring my orders because I don't have the stars."
"Don't worry son," said Harper. "I always take care of my own...I'll see what I can do to get Terrence to make an exception."
A relieved expression, so different from his of being constantly harried, broke across Grath's face. "Thank you, Sir," he said softly. "That'd mean a lot to me."
"We're here," said Harper.
The entrance to Sir Terrence Hood's stateroom was identical to that of any other crewman or officer's quarters on board the Shadow of Intent, if not for the fact that it had wood panelling embedded within the metal, the Hood family coat of arms carved upon it. One Sangheili Major and a Marine NCO stood at attention in front of it, carbine and battle rifle taughtly held across their chests.
Harper cocked an eyebrow at the Marine. "We've got business with the Admiral."
The other executed a crisp right-face and slapped the door control. The wood-panelled entrance hissed open with startling speed.
Grath glanced at the Admiral. "Flag officers first, Sir."
Harper grinned. "Chiefs run the Navy. After you."
The two entered the room, Grath first. The Senior Chief immediately snapped to attention and snapped off a parade-ground-sharp salute. "Admiral, Senior Chief Grath reporting as ordered."
Admiral Harper cocked an eyebrow, and waved a hand in Hood's direction. "I'm here too, Terrence."
Lord Hood sat behind a computer terminal, the light from the monitor throwing the many wrinkles on his face into sharp relief. But rather than making him look wearier than ever, a look of intensity that Harper had only seen when his long-time comrade was engaged in the thick of battle permeated his face. "At ease, the two of you. Come over here."
"What is it, Terrence?" asked Harper. "More certain doom from ONI about to come crashing down on our heads?"
Hood shook his head. "No. It's a message. From the governor of Sigma Octanus IV."
Grath and Harper exchanged confused looks. "Pardon, Sir?" asked the Senior Chief.
"I'll just play the message," said Hood, punching a button on the console.
The hologram of an aged man in his late sixties appeared, clad in clothes of a vaguely military cut, but devoid of any insignia or award, save for a pair of golden medals glittering over his left breast.
"The Colonial Cross..." muttered Grath. "Two of them..."
"Quiet, Senior Chief," said Hood.
The figure spoke. "This is Governor Ysionris Jeromi of Sigma Octanus IV, to Admiral Sir Terrence Hood." The man's face split in a wry grin. "I have no idea why I'm bothering with all these formalities seeing as how we've worked together for so long now, but I digress."
Harper shot an accusing glance at Hood. "You never told me old Jeromi went into politics after the war."
"He preferred to keep it private," said Hood.
"As I'm sure you know, seeing as how it was the reason you and your buddies went rogue, that Margaret Parangosky has become the Chairwoman of the UNSC. I've had more contact with ONI than most, so I don't think I need to point out just how bad of a fix this puts us in."
The hologram leaned forward. "That's why I'm offering you my support...you can have the natural resources of Sigma Octanus at your disposal, our militia, our political support. And we're not alone. There are other politicians who were former service members who've had dealings with ONI, and they feel no differently than I do."
An almost manically intense expression filled Jeromi's face. "We can create a coalition, Terrence, a group of peoples who can take the UNSC back and make it into what it was supposed to have been. We---"
Hood switched off the hologram. "I do respect Ysionris, but he does have a tendency to be rather long-winded at times. In any event, you get the general idea. Thoughts?"
Grath frowned. "Pete's not here."
"Stacker's a groundpounder, Senior Chief...he just goes with the flow. Us Navy personnel, we like to know what it is that's being done to affect the situation."
Harper looked at Hood. "Terrence...you realize what this means. The allegiance of a planet may very well give us legitimacy...but it'll also make Margaret twice as focused on taking us down."
The weariness had returned to Hood's face. "If that's the risk we have to run to win this war, so be it. Dismissed."
Grath looked at Harper, a mute plea for Harper to make the appeal. Harper made a slight nod, and the NCO exited the room looking slightly less discomfited.
Harper swivelled sharply to face Hood. "Terrence, why in hell has that man not gotten his Command Master Chief's stars? He's doing the work of a Fleet MCPO, at least let the poor guy have the dignity of a title and rank to go with his duties."
Hood shook his head. "I've already shaken things up amongst my own task force, not to mention Easley's rapid-response unit and your Home Guard, by going after Margaret. Changing up the command structure would only make things worse."
"Dammit, Terrence, there's Master Chiefs on other ships who aren't listening to your own aide because you won't pull your head out of your ass and promote the guy!"
That did it. "Get at the fucking position of attention, Harper!" barked Hood. "I've put up with your complete ignorance, no, sorry, disdain for regs and military discipline because you're one of the best fleet commanders I've ever met. And I've put up with that "oh, look at me I'm such a front line grunt I don't have to wear the right fucking uniform or salute" act for that same reason. But questioning my decisions is going too far. I'm in command here. You and Easley are next on the chain. Am I understood?"
Harper had snapped to attention at the beginning of Hood's tirade, and even more impressively stayed in that position. His cigar had fallen out of his mouth, leaving a slight dark trail of tobacco juice on the otherwise gleaming deckplates. "Understood, Sir!"
Hood relaxed somewhat. "Good. Look...Ted...I understand your concerns, I really do. But I can't afford to put the needs of one man before the needs of an entire task force."
"Yes Sir," said Harper.