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Not Exactly Human: Ch. 1: Pike's Creek
Posted By: QuantumSheep<jasnash@optusnet.com.au>
Date: 23 May 2008, 12:15 am

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Chapter One: Pike's Creek

August 27th, 2552, Reach, UNSC Space, 7:56am, Pike's Creek Highway

Having been on leave from his unit for three months, First Class Sergeant Jeff Ganszo had decided to get back out into the field, preferably for one last time before he moved back to Earth.

That was part of the reason he was in his black civilian Warthog, civilian being because it didn't have a gun on the back. There was only a spare tyre where the gun would have been had this vehicle been in service.

Jeff was thirty-nine years old and had been in the UNSC military ever since he had been twenty-one, giving him eighteen years experience of service. That would be more than enough to grant him a place as a squad leader at Fort pike's Creek, the very place he was driving towards now.
Jeff had been popular with the women for his good looks, with his brown hair and green eyes, but now that he was engaged to someone back on Earth, flirting with anymore females wouldn't be possible. He would remain faithful to this someone back on Earth.

Reach was one of the last remaining military strongholds of the UNSC. Orbited by twenty orbital MAC platforms and plenty of UNSC fleet ships, it was believed that if any enemy wanted to attack the planet, they would not be able to crack the 'impenetrable' stronghold of Reach.
The planet was located on one of the major Slip-space routes, one which lead directly to Earth. That meant it was even more important in that aspect: if the Covenant assaulted the planet and won, which Jeff had a feeling they probably would eventually, they could head straight for Earth if they knew which direction it was in.

The Human-Covenant war had been waging for twenty-seven years. Jeff had fought against the aliens in often brutal situations. He had plenty of scars from past battles fought and knew what the enemy was capable of. He had watched entire worlds be destroyed by their seemingly never-ending supply of ships. The only way humanity could win a battle is if it were fought on the ground. That rarely happened.
He knew enough about the races in the Covenant from his experiences to know that most were dangerous, especially the more powerful species. All could kill you, and usually the more there were, the less chance you had of surviving the fight.

This part of Reach, aptly named Pike's Creek since the guy who had mapped the area had had the surname of 'Pike' and there was a creek nearby, was close to one of twenty-five civilian settlements on the planet. These settlements were just like large towns, usually with some sort of military installation in them as well. Usually the people who lived in them were descendants of the early pioneers or marines who were on leave. Reach had good hotels thanks to the amount of military personnel who stayed in them during their leave.

The wilderness of Pike's Creek was your typical Canadian-style forest, with the tall, close together trees and the flowing rivers and creeks. Anyone without a map could get lost in the massive unspoiled forests of the planet. They also made good training areas for servicemen.

Jeff had lived on Reach for the past year, having been stationed on a UNSC cruiser that had seen action near some planets. He had a small apartment in the nearby civilian settlement, named 'Settlement #15' since it was the fifteenth to have been founded on the planet. Jeff had a few friends there, some who were in the military.

It had been three months since Jeff had done anything remotely military-like. He hadn't even fired a gun in that amount of time, although he doubted he had lost his skills in that area. Apparently most of his superior officers thought he was a great shot at any weapon, preferably a sniper rifle.

Where he was going now was Fort Pike's Creek, a military installation in the style of a large fortress. The reason he was going was because an acquaintance of his, an ONI agent of Asian descent, Wang Chung, had recommended a position for him here. A position in the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, or ODSTs.

Jeff had strong memories of what had happened during his last time in the ODSTs. It was the year he had first joined up. He had done so well at basic training and the advanced stuff when his commanding officer recommended him a place in an ODST squad. After what had happened during that time, Jeff had left. He had wanted nothing to do with that group again.

Things change over time, and Jeff knew he could make it back into the ODSTs quite easily with his track record of service to the UNSC. He had won a few medals during his time in the army, but Jeff had always declined any new promotions since becoming a Sergeant. He had always wanted to remain a normal grunt; he had always thought that becoming a grumpy old guy in an Admiral's uniform would be a boring way to end his career.

Since he had declined these promotions, he had built up a reputation around the planet for being a hot-head in combat. He was aware of the rumours about his apparent craziness in combat and frankly didn't care about what other people thought of him. All he wanted to do was serve a little while longer.

Jeff sat back in the driver's seat and continued following the Pike's Creek Highway, mostly a dirt and gravel road which ran near to Fort Pike's Creek.

The wilderness around him was mainly silent save for the sounds of the wind blowing through the bushes, creating an eerie rustling noise, or the faint tweeting of one of the many Earth bird species that had been introduced to the planet in its early days. He could see, surprisingly, a kookaburra perched up on a tree ahead, sitting silently and doing its 'laugh' every now and then.

It was a strangely beautiful setting, one he would hate to see ravaged by war, with plasma falling from the sky and burning away the forests and the rivers. If the Covenant ever did make it here, they would have to fight hard to protect this planet. It was worth protecting and fighting for.

Jeff had always taken it upon himself in the heat of a frenzied firefight to eliminate the enemy much to the annoyance of any other humans with him. This was why he had a reputation and this was why he had a few scars on his body.

Glancing up at the dusk sky, Jeff could make out some points of light, a few stars and a few being UNSC ships. The fact that some of these lights were moving at their own accord made him sure that they were human ships.
With a while to go before he arrived at the fort, he switched on the radio in the Warthog and started flicking through the stations, trying to tune out of the military chatter and to the civilian stations.

'We would like to welcome all our listeners back to 97.3 radio,' a radio DJ said, Jeff having found a civilian station. The DJ sounded like your typical smooth-talking radio disc jockey, the kind who would always be shooting his mouth off about this or that.

'It's another beautiful day on Reach, and I would like to say that the UNSC has ruined the beauty of this planet by placing all their Goddamn ships and stuff in orbit. I would also like to say that this many defences for one planet is way over-doing it.'

Jeff grinned. This guy obviously wasn't a big fan of the UNSC.

'The UNSC has pretty much been oppressing the human race for most of its reign, which has been, since when? World War Two? When the United Nations were born after that war, it was always known it would lead to an empire like the UNSC. The galaxy would be a better place without it, and you can blame the UNSC for pissing off the Covenant. Maybe if humanity had stayed where God had put it, none of this would be happening. This brings me to another matter: the Covenant. I would like to know what our listeners think about this so-called "unstoppable" group of alien races.'
There was a pause. Jeff continued listening out of mainly curiosity. Most radio stations on all colony worlds were like this. If you asked the average person on the street about the UNSC, they would agree it hasn't got a squeaky-clean record.

'We got Hermes on Line Seven,' the radio DJ continued, 'what have you got to say about the Covenant, Hermes?'

The voice of a typical Reach citizen, this one with a slight hint of German in his voice, started speaking.

'The Covenant?' Hermes said, 'I think they are all a bunch of fucking sissies. If they were all they were made out to be, a bunch of "unstoppable" aliens, they would have rocked up to Reach's doorstep and blasted us all to kingdom come. No, you know what I think it is?'

'What is it, Hermes?' The DJ asked. Jeff mouth the words with the DJ, having known they would be coming.

'I think it's all just UNSC propaganda. The UNSC ain't no squeaky clean government. No, it's got more dirt on it than Richard Nixon.'

'So, what do you think about the races of the Covenant? We've all seen pictures and read about them, what do you think about, the…err…Grunts?'

'Little freaks with high-pitched voices, man. I don't know how any marine could be killed by those freaks.'
They're dangerous in large groups, Jeff thought. This guy had obviously never been in combat before.

'What about those bird ones, the Jackals?' The DJ asked, 'what do you think of those, Hermes?'

'Annoying faggots with shields. The only reason they have those shields is because they can't take a stone to the arm without it breaking. They're weak. Pathetically weak,' Hermes continued.

'And the Elites? What about them?'

'Elites? Those ugly mother-fuckers?' Hermes said, 'those big bastards may be smart, strong and intelligent; pretty much all women want those qualities in a guy; but they are fucking ugly. And to top it all off, they get personal shields. What the fuck is with that? It's unfair, I say. Of course, most of it's just like what I said…'


'Yes, propaganda, man, propaganda.'

Jeff was about to switch off the radio when he was glad to hear the next few sentences.

'That's all we have time for, Hermes,' the DJ said, 'thanks for your opinions on the Covenant and UNSC.'

'My pleasure,' Hermes said before hanging up from the radio station.

'After the next song, more callers will provide us with valuable insights into both sides of this war: UNSC and Covenant. While we're on this tone of war, how about a Vietnam War classic? Over five hundred years old folks and recently revived from old records. Edwin Starr's War.'

The song started to play and Jeff started tapping his fingers to the beat as he drove along the highway. As he began to get closer to the fort, he noticed several marines patrolling the forests and military vehicles driving along a road adjacent to the highway. He was obviously on the right track, then.

The radio DJ had been right about one thing: the UNSC wasn't as clean as they made themselves out to be. Jeff had heard of atrocities committed by the UNSC, such as wiping out towns on border-worlds which may be housing rebels. This meant killing everyone in the town, including the innocent civilians who lived there. The rebel activity in UNSC space had decreased over the years, probably because most of the rebels were either dead or fighting the Covenant.

The rebels had always been disorganized according to the official stories. They were no threat, apparently.
Jeff could see the fortress, a large grey stone and cement wall surrounding the facilities inside of it. It was positioned on top of a hill, a small section of forest around it having been chopped down.

Jeff didn't really see much point in cutting down the surrounding forest, considering if the Covenant ever did come to Reach, they would bombard it from orbit rather than send a ground invasion force.

He drove up to the main gate, guarded by three marines, one of which was waiting in a small gate-house. Upon stopping, the marine stepped out of the gatehouse and walked over to the driver's side of the vehicle.

'Can I see your identification papers and any other authorization you may have?' The marine asked.

Jeff handed him what he had asked for and sat back to wait as the marine walked into the gatehouse and picked up a head-set and began speaking into it, checking with the base to see if Jeff was actually allowed in.

A few minutes later the marine came back out, handed Jeff back his papers and signalled to the two guards at the gate to open it.

'Welcome to Fort Pike's Creek Sergeant Ganszo,' the marine said, 'park your car in Space B7. The car park is off to your left when you enter. Just proceed to reception on foot to receive further information. Colonel Ackerson has been expecting you.'

The two marines each inserted a key card into one of the two panels near the gate. This deactivated the security locks and the gate slowly slid open, revealing a few large buildings, probably with bullet-proof windows and heavily fortified with cement and steel. It was typical of these kinds of places to be like that ever since the Human-Covenant war began back in 2525.

Jeff drove on in, taking a left and passing several marines and military personnel who were walking around, doing their own thing and going about their own business. He could hear the distant sounds of gunfire from the outdoor firing range. Maybe he could stop off there and get accustomed to the weapons again. After all, it had been three months since he had last fired one.

Jeff stopped his Warthog, parking it in the corner of the parking lot and climbed out. He was in his civilian clothes, wearing a dark jacket due to the cold weather.
He started for the front door, passing a few security personnel. The double doors into the main building opened automatically, leading him through a metal detector. There was nothing on him that set it off, so he continued into the entrance lobby. It was decorated with a blue wallpaper and grey carpet, a few pot plants in the corners. The reception desk was at the far end, near a pair of elevators and near the point where two corridors began.

Jeff walked over to the reception desk and got the attention of the receptionist, a young lady in a military uniform.

She seemed to recognize him and smiled in typical customer service fashion.

'Sergeant Ganszo?' She said, 'you are him, aren't you?'
Jeff, surprised that the woman seemed to know him, nodded his head.

'Colonel Ackerson is expecting you,' the woman said, glancing at her computer screen and typing a few things in, 'although he is a bit busy. A meeting is running late, so you would be better off coming back in half an hour.'

'But I'm fifteen minutes early,' Jeff said.

'I know, but the Colonel is a busy man. I'll pass the message through that you have arrived.'

The woman typed a few more things into her computer and turned back to Jeff.

'Why don't you go get something to eat down at the mess hall to pass the time away?' She suggested.

'Which way to the firing range?' Jeff asked, ignoring her suggestion.

'Just go through that door over there,' the woman replied, pointing over to an automatic door nearby, 'it leads into the marines section of the base. The firing range is hard to miss.'

Jeff turned around to go but looked back at the woman, sure he had seen her somewhere before.

'Do I know you?' Jeff asked, not knowing what response to expect.

'Oh, I'm Jessica Watson,' she said, 'I've seen you around before. I heard you're engaged…'

'Yeah, I am,' Jeff said. He stepped over to the door and glanced back at Jessica, who had gone back to typing at her computer.

He passed through the double doors and down a short corridor which took him back outside, but into another section of the fort. There were marines walking around pretty much in every part of the outdoor area. Some were in ODST armour, but with their helmets off; others were your basic marines and some were off duty, in more comfortable clothes.

Jeff continued across the courtyard, passing a fountain and a set of outdoor tables. Marines were sitting down and eating breakfast while on the parade ground to his left, in between some barracks, Jeff could see groups of marines doing exercises while their drill instructors barked orders at them.

Three months had passed since the last time Jeff had set foot into a place like this and three months was the amount of time that had passed since he had done anything remotely athletic. He hadn't gained weight, although he had gotten a bit lazy. It was time he got back into the business of exercising daily and toning his muscles, although looking at the exercising marines kind of made him feel a little less looking forward to getting back on the job.

On the walls surrounding the base's buildings, Jeff could see plenty of guards and plenty of mounted guns. Anti-aircraft batteries were scattered around the grounds of the base and high calibre machine guns were on top of the walls. They wouldn't help much against a plasma bombardment from orbit.

He continued through the grounds of the base, passing a group of marines sitting around a table with a radio set on it. They were talking and laughing while the radio played some Vietnam War era music. It seemed that all the radio stations were beginning to get into the 'anti-war' feel recently.

Jeff turned a corner and found about five hundred meters of open ground. Closest to him were the booths which a group of ODSTs were using to fire their weapons from at distant targets. Looking at the targets, Jeff could see that they weren't very good shots. Some shots were actually hitting the cardboard cut-outs of Elites, but others were missing by at least a meter, either side of the target.

Jeff walked over to the group of about five ODSTs. They were in basic uniform, but the insignia on the arms of their uniforms, a hawk swooping down onto a mouse, made it clear they weren't any ordinary ODSTs. These five men were members of the Special Operations Division of the ODSTs, and usually only the best of the best made it into that division.

If Jeff hadn't declined so many officers, he would probably be higher up than these guys but since he had chosen to remain a sergeant, he would probably end up taking orders from these men. The squad leader, who out-ranked the other four, was probably slightly younger than Jeff and had the rank of Lieutenant. He had dark hair and brown eyes which, looking at the man, Jeff could tell they contained a wild fire, a furious personality.

The Lieutenant saw Jeff walk over and stopped firing his rifle, lowering it and placing it back on the rack of weapons to his left.

'If I didn't know better it would be crazy Sergeant Gonzo,' the Lieutenant said.

'By the way, Frank, it's Ganszo,' Jeff replied, 'and I'm not looking for any trouble.'

The other four members of the squad all turned around. All of them looked as crazy as the Lieutenant and all didn't seem to be taking Jeff's presence too kindly.

Jeff knew the Lieutenant from past experiences. He had first met him after joining up, on board the frigate which had taken him to Reach for the first time. Frank Hastings was the Lieutenant's name and he seemed to have come a long way since then. When they had first met, Frank had taken an instant dislike to Jeff, having got into a brawl with him in the ship's mess hall. That dislike was obviously still in Frank's mind, although Jeff had no problem with him.
Frank did have a problem with Jeff though. You see, Jeff had punched out all of Frank's front teeth. Frank was sporting some permanent false ones in their place. They were surprisingly white.

'What are you doing here, Sergeant?' Frank asked, stepping closer to him, 'you're not planning to transfer over to here, are you?'

'As a matter of fact, Lieutenant,' Jeff replied. Jeff was a few inches taller than Frank, so he looked down at him and tried to show that he could be intimidating as well, 'I may very well be doing that. If you have a problem, you can voice it to your commanding officer. I doubt he would care.'
Frank paused for a moment and turned to the rest of his squad.

'You hear that?' He said, 'the crazy Sergeant is planning to transfer over to here. I think we should try and show him that we don't take too kindly to people like him just barging into ODST business.'

'Oh, Christ Frank,' Jeff said, 'why don't you just let the past go? You seriously aren't thinking about trying to punch my lights out right here, right now?'
Frank turned around and glared at Jeff.

'I'm not stupid enough to do it right here, right now,' Frank said, 'because, despite what you might think about my intelligence and mental stability, I will never forgive you for punching out most of my damn teeth!'

'You started it,' Jeff said, suddenly realizing how stupid the response sounded, 'because, back then, you were nuts. And you still are. How many squad mates have you ploughed through during your time serving in the military? Do you send them into die while you hang back and make a run for it?'

'Don't push your luck,' Frank replied, 'otherwise I'm going to bleed you real quietly, mother fucker.'

'No need to get all commando on me,' Jeff said. He stepped over to a rack of weapons. 'All I came here to do right now was fire a few shots off at these targets. Besides, I hate Elites.' He nodded over to the cardboard cut-outs of Elites being used as targets. 'When I was first coming over here, I saw how you guys were shooting. At first I thought a bunch of old, short-sighted guys were firing the weapons until I saw you five.'

Frank looked like he was about to step over and punch Jeff in the face, but at the last second he stopped himself from doing it. Instead, he stepped over to the other rack of rifles and pistols and picked up an MA5B Assault Rifle.

'Let's see how good you are then, Ganszo,' Frank said, loading a fresh magazine into the rifle and clicking the bolt back, 'grab one of these MA5B rifles and we'll see who gets the highest hit percentage on the next set of targets.'
Frank pressed a few keys on the nearby control panel, resetting the targets. The cardboard Elites lowered into the ground. In a few seconds the targets would be back up, going up and down at random intervals.

Jeff picked up his own MA5B assault rifle, loaded a magazine into it and clicked the bolt back. The rifles were chambered with 7.62mm rounds and was gas-operated, coming fitted with a handy in-built computer which calculated how many shots were left in the weapon and a compass which always pointed north. This was handy if you ever got lost, although usually if you got lost you ended up getting killed if it were out on a serious mission.

Jeff had a bit of a dislike for the rifles, which seemed unable to shoot accurately for prolonged bursts of fire. He knew of better weapons that could keep their fire accurate and consistent for as long as you held down the trigger and for as long as the amount of rounds in the magazine lasted.

However, he practiced with every weapon in the UNSC that was available to a marine and had become skilled in most of them, although using a rocket launcher was beyond him. Hitting a moving target with those things was a pain in the ass.

Jeff raised the rifle and pointed it out across the firing range. Frank was standing ready as well. Jeff could see him just on the boundaries of his peripheral vision.

The first set of targets sprang up and the bright colored armour of the cardboard Elites made it pretty darn easy for Jeff to cap off rounds into each of the targets. He couldn't see how well Frank was doing, but could hear him cursing every few seconds.

Jeff finished off his magazine and quickly inserted a new one. Each set of targets in this so-called 'competition' mode allowed three extra magazines for MA5B rifles, the sensors in the metal booths counting every shot fired and collaborating with the sensors on, in front and behind each of the targets.

Jeff fired controlled bursts at each target, although he could hear how Frank was shooting: pretty much constantly, bullets peppering his targets and ripping them to shreds.

After going through two magazines, one last target, a cardboard Minor Elite in blue armour, sprang up. Jeff fired a single shot which got the Elite right between the eyes.
The bell sounded to signal the end of the 'competition' and the control panel behind Frank started tallying up the results. A thin sheet of paper began streaming out of a slot on the machine and Frank grabbed it, ripped it off and looked at the results. He swore quietly under his breath.

'So?' Jeff asked, placing the rifle back on the rack, 'did you do well, eh, Frank?'

'Screw you, Ganszo,' Frank said, handing Jeff the paper. Jeff looked down the list of statistics and found what he was looking for: Frank had a hit percentage of 59% while Jeff had one of 97%.

'Gee, Frank,' Jeff said, putting the paper into one of his trouser pockets, 'with shooting like that I'm surprised that you have survived this long in the ODSTs.'

'Whatever, Ganszo,' Frank said, 'it doesn't mean anything. Take my word, Jeff: if we ever end up out n the field together, don't expect any help from me.'

'I doubt I would need it,' Jeff said. He was relieved that he had gotten back his feel for shooting, but he would need to use something more accurate. Preferably a sniper rifle, and as back-up a powerful pistol.

'Frank, you haven't introduced me to the rest of your squad,' Jeff said, 'care to tell me who they are? Or are you too pissed off to do such a thing?'

Frank glanced back at his four squad-mates, who seemed to be grinning at the fact that he had failed pathetically against Jeff in the shooting 'competition'.

'Maybe another time, Ganszo,' Frank said, sounding a little calmer now, 'now get going before I decide to punch you.'
Jeff shook his head and started walking back for the main building. If there ever did come a time when he and Frank ended up on the same mission together, Jeff had a feeling that it probably wouldn't end too well.

He headed back to the entrance lobby and once again spoke with Jessica Watson.

'Is Ackerson ready to see me yet?' He asked as he approached the desk.

Jessica looked up from her computer screen and smiled.

'Oh, Jeff, you're back,' she said, 'he's waiting for you in his office on the third floor. Just take the stairs down that hallway.'

She pointed over to one of the hallways and started typing on her computer.

'Thanks,' Jeff said.

As he walked to the hallway, he noticed Jessica watch him walk away. Whatever work she had been dong had stopped when Jeff had arrived in the room.

Jeff paused to look at a map of the base which was pinned up on the wall, obviously there to help any visitors. On it he could make out the firing range, barracks, parade ground and other buildings part of the marine/ODST training area. The main building he was in now had each floor mapped out. The map, being an interactive touch-screen, enabled him to select a location from the list and show the quickest route to it.

He pressed on 'Offices: Commanding Staff' and the map faded into the background, now showing the quickest route to the offices that belonged to the commanding staff.

Satisfied, Jeff continued down the hallway having memorized the path. He started up a flight of stairs and continued past the second floor onto the third floor.

Now in a different looking corridor, he noticed a few signs on the walls pointing off into different directions. It shouldn't be too hard to find an office in a building like this, but after taking a right turn and throw a set of double doors; Jeff became aware he may have gone the wrong way.

There were more double doors for one thing, and each one was guarded by at least one marine. Jeff walked down to the end of the hall and noticed that one of the doors was wide open. He could see a few windows behind it, looking into what appeared to be a laboratory. He could hear voices coming from the lab.

'It's not talking,' one of them said, 'what do you think we should do?'

'Just keep subjecting it to the treatment. If it doesn't want to end up a cripple, it'll talk.'

There was the sound of what seemed to be some sort of electrical device buzzing away and suddenly there was a familiar sounding howl, quite like that of an Elite.
Stepping to take a closer look, Jeff was surprised to have the double doors close right in front of him. He felt a tap on the shoulder and turned around.

'Sorry, sir,' the marine standing behind him said, 'this is a restricted area.'

'What? Yeah, sure,' Jeff said, suddenly realizing what he was just doing could have very well gotten him into a lot of trouble, 'I'm just lost. Do you know where Colonel Ackerson's office is?'

'Down the hall, take a right. It's a door with "Ackerson" written on it,' the marine said, pointing back down the hall.

'Thanks,' Jeff said, beginning to follow the marine's directions. He took a right turn at the end of the hallway and found himself in a short blue corridor with about three doors in it. He looked at each of them in turn and found what he was looking for: the office door labelled "Ackerson".

Jeff knocked on the wooden oak door. There was a brief pause before there was a response.

'Come in,' a gruff voice said from the room. Jeff turned the old-fashioned door-knob, a by now out-dated mechanism, and stepped into the office.

It was a fairly large office, decorated with all sorts of military memorabilia and was walled with cases containing medals, trophies and special looking papers.

Sitting at the expensive wooden desk was a middle-aged man with greying hair and weary eyes. He was in a Colonel's uniform, the name badge above his left breast pocket reading 'Ackerson'.

Upon entering Ackerson looked up from the data-pad he was reading.

'Aren't you going to stand to attention, Sergeant?' Ackerson asked, 'or have you forgotten military etiquette for being out of the job for so long?'
Jeff stood up straight and saluted, realizing he must have looked like a bit of a fool.

'Sorry, sir,' Jeff barked, 'it won't happy again, sir.'

'Good. At ease, Sergeant,' Ackerson said, and take a seat.'
Jeff relaxed, dropped the salute and sat down in one of the comfortable chairs in front of the desk. He looked around at some of the trophies, some being for baseball, others for golf and a few for running.

'I didn't know you were into sports, Colonel, sir,' Jeff said.

Ackerson glanced around at his own trophies and chuckled.

'Those trophies are from a time when I was young and carefree,' Ackerson said, 'but things change, Sergeant. Especially with this God-forsaken war.'

'I understand, sir,' Jeff said.

Ackerson opened a drawer on his desk and took out a silver cigar case. He opened it took one out and held it out to Jeff.

'Would you like one, Sergeant?' Ackerson asked.

Jeff looked at it and shook his head.

'I don't smoke, sir.'

'Understandable,' Ackerson said, taking the cigar and placing it into the corner of his mouth, 'I didn't think someone like you did smoke. Not that smoking is much of a hazard nowadays thank to those medical treatments.'
Ackerson took out a lighter and lit the end of his cigar, puffing on it a few times and letting the smoke waft above the desk.

'First Class Sergeant Jeff Ganszo,' Ackerson said, looking at the data-pad and then back at Jeff, 'I wouldn't believe it myself if I didn't see it with my own eyes. You have quite a reputation on Reach. I'm aware that people call you "crazy"?'

'I am aware of that too, sir,' Jeff said, figuring out the extent of the Colonel's questions would probably be on his mental stability, 'but that's just common perception.'

Ackerson took out the cigar and held it between two of his fingers on his left hand as he skimmed through the information on the data-pad.

'ONI agent Wang Chung recommended you to me,' Ackerson said, 'which is something that doesn't happen very often. You and him must be very good friends.'

'We are, sir,' Jeff replied.

'So that must mean that you are aware of the fact that ONI has been tracking your progress for most of your life, am I correct?'

'Yes, I did know that, sir,' Jeff said, 'and it really doesn't matter. I don't know what they see in me.'

'I don't either,' Ackerson said, putting the data-pad on the desk and then puffing a few more times on his cigar, 'that information's probably stored away in some top secret file. Heck, if I don't know about it, then it must be pretty darn important.'

There was a pause before Ackerson continued. He seemed nice enough despite what Jeff had heard about him. Apparently Ackerson had gotten into some trouble with his wife and was almost transferred to the front line because of a so-called 'computer error' a few weeks ago. This had all been cleared up though and Ackerson was living a normal life again.

'Jeff, tell me, why is it that you are so keen to fight in this war?' Ackerson asked, 'are you aware of the UNSC's progress in fighting the Covenant?'

Jeff knew only too well how the UNSC was doing in the war against the Covenant. So did the entire human civilian population. The UNSC was pretty much losing.

'I heard that we're not doing too well, sir,' Jeff said. The sunlight was filtering through the gaps in the shutters on the window and was getting him in the eyes. He squinted and looked down towards the desk.

'Yes, but I would think that is an understatement of our badly we're doing,' Ackerson said, 'in all the battles that have been fought, we have only had three major victories including the recent battle at Sigma Octanus. I have no idea why you would be so keen to fight an enemy this dangerous.'

Jeff was surprised to hear an experienced Colonel speaking like this. Usually the Colonels would be the more confident ones, but Ackerson was obviously different.

'So that's why I ask you, Jeff,' Ackerson said, 'why the heck are you so keen to fight the Covenant?'

Jeff considered his answer for a moment. Ackerson must know about what happened in his first year, the time Jeff spent in the ODSTs then. But if he did, why was he asking? He was probably looking for an answer from Jeff himself, rather than from a data-pad written by some unknown person eighteen years ago.

'I hate the Covenant, sir,' Jeff replied truthfully, 'an enemy like that cannot be allowed to wipe out the entire human race just because we're infidels or something.'
Ackerson chuckled again.

'Infidels! Good choice of word, Sergeant,' Ackerson said. He puffed some more on his cigar and tapped out some of the burnt tobacco into an ashtray on the desk.

'What's so funny?' Jeff asked.

'Oh, nothing. It's just that a word like that hasn't been used for years,' Ackerson said, 'well, at least I haven't heard it been said for years. It's a good way to describe what the Covenant thinks we are, though.'

'Infidels, sir?'

'Exactly!' Ackerson exclaimed, 'and if they think that, they can stick it up their alien arses for all I care. Sergeant, you have a good sense of humour.'

'But it wasn't meant to be—'

'No need to keep going, Sergeant,' Ackerson said, his expression changing back to one of neutrality. He paused and looked back down at the data-pad on his desk.

'I've read up on your records, Sergeant,' Ackerson said, 'it seems you have passed every medical examination with amazing results. Your reflexes are amazing, your eyesight better than it should be, your strength almost that of a—'

'A what, sir?' Jeff asked.

'Never mind,' Ackerson replied, 'but I've read up on your past missions and your short time in the ODSTs. It seems you and someone else in your ODST squad were more than just friends…'

'Elise Taylor is in the past, now,' Jeff said, trying to block out the memories.

'The reports say that on your first mission in the ODSTs, a diversion mission involving infiltrating a Covenant arms factory on a world outside UNSC space, ended up being discovered and you lost the element of surprise. This resulted in the deaths of almost all of your squad-mates,' Ackerson said, 'your report on it states that Elise Taylor was killed by a golden armoured Elite which you took care of soon after.'

'I know this, sir,' Jeff replied.

'Yes, yes, I'm getting to the point,' Ackerson continued, 'you, single-handedly, took the supply of explosives from your dead squad-mates and with only two people providing covering fire, you ran into the grounds of the factory under heavy energy weapons fire and planted the explosives on the main reactor. You were wounded about five times, but not fatally.'

'Obviously, sir.'

Ackerson raised an eyebrow and looked at him face-to-face.

'You were offered a Colonial Cross for what you did that day,' Ackerson said, 'but you declined it. I would like to know why you declined the highest decoration in the UNSC.'

'A medal wasn't going to bring Elise back,' Jeff replied.

'So you left the ODSTs and returned back to the regular army. What gets me is why you want to rejoin the ODSTs?'

'Because the past is in the past and I'm ready to start anew,' Jeff replied.

'And because you enjoy killing the Covenant so much?' Ackerson asked.

'Pretty much, sir.'

Ackerson sighed and then puffed some more on his cigar.

'Sergeant, are you aware that the UNSC High Command as classed you as "unstable"?' Ackerson asked.

Jeff raised an eyebrow. He was surprised to hear this, but then again, it was UNSC High Command, They could be a bit stingy when they wanted to.

'Unstable, sir?'

'They think you're a safety hazard to both yourself and anyone else you may be with on a mission,' Ackerson said, 'and I can understand that considering on past missions you have pretty much "gone postal".'

Jeff wasn't surprised to hear about this. Sometimes he couldn't control his anger and besides, he never harmed any of his squad-mates.

'Going violently nuts in combat isn't going to earn you a good reputation,' Ackerson said, 'that's why I'm in this position now. On any other circumstances I would accept you into one of my ODST squads, but looking at your past record, I'm not too sure…'

'So, you're not going to accept me?' Jeff asked.

'Give me a chance to think it over,' Ackerson said, 'although I have been thinking about it before you arrived here. Meeting you, you seem nice enough. But I am yet to see what you're like out on the field.'

'Just give me a chance, Colonel,' Jeff said. He was getting a bit sick of having people tell him everyone thought he was crazy. Frank had obviously thought it was a bit funny, but knowing Frank's sense of humour, anything could be funny to that guy.

'As a matter of fact, Jeff,' the Colonel said, 'I'm not going to accept you. You may be one of our best, but I cannot afford the risk of having an unstable marine in one of our squads on an important mission.'

Jeff shook his head. So he was still out of a job. Pretty soon he would be out of cash too. The UNSC didn't pay you for doing nothing. They only did that after you retired on the pension plan.

'So, what am I going to do now?' Jeff asked. He suddenly felt annoyed, which was understandable.

'Jeff, I declined because I can get you into something even better,' Ackerson said. He reached into a drawer on the desk and took out another data-pad. 'What I'm about to tell you know is top secret, but I'm pretty sure a man like you can keep a secret, am I right?'

'You're right,' Jeff replied.

Ackerson leaned forward a bit in his seat and puffed once again on his cigar.

'Do you know about the Spartan II's? You should, it was made public a few years ago,' Ackerson said.
The term 'Spartan' did ring a bell. It only took Jeff a moment or two to remember.

'The genetically engineered super soldiers? The ones which make normal marines look insignificant?' Jeff replied with some disdain, 'sure I've heard about them. Every time they do something, everyone has to know about it. But if the marines do something important, it's forgotten in the foot-notes of history.'

'I know how you feel, Sergeant,' Ackerson said, 'but we're
not here to talk about the Spartan II soldiers.

'Everything I am about to disclose to you about this particular mission is top secret. I had trouble finding out myself, but I managed to get access to certain files. A mission involving all of the surviving Spartan soldiers has been organized and will be departing on August 30th. This mission is for the Spartans to capture a Covenant ship and use it to find out where the Covenant home-world is.'

'So?' Jeff asked, unable to see just what the Colonel was trying to get at. The mission didn't sound all too exciting.

'The Spartans intend to infiltrate the home-world and capture a Covenant "Prophet", pretty much a leader of the Covenant. The Spartans will be using the UNSC Halcyon-class vessel Pillar of Autumn.

'Thing is, that ship can't do the job without someone distracting the main group of Covenant forces. That's why the newly built cruiser, Winter Sunshine, has been assigned the task of distracting Covenant forces and leading them on a wild goose chase.'

Jeff thought about this for a moment. The idea of leading the main Covenant forces around on a wild goose chase seemed stupid considering Covenant Slip-space technology was more superior to human Slip-space technology.

'How the hell is the Winter Sunshine meant to avoid getting caught and blasted to pieces?' Jeff asked, 'what kind of stupid idea is it to try and outrun Covenant ships?'

'The Winter Sunshine is fitted with an experimental Slip-space drive which has been proven to be as fast and accurate as any Covenant ship's drive. They even managed to build a large Albatross drop-ship with one of the drives, which will be docked in the ship,' Ackerson explained.

'But a ship that size couldn't survive a Slip-space jump,' Jeff said, 'it'll fall apart.'

'Not this one,' Ackerson said, 'it can survive a jump. The drive, you see, is a much more smoother and efficient way of going in, through and out of Slip-space. It doesn't tear a hole in normal space to get into Slip-space; it uses the Covenant's way of doing it: merely opening an entrance up.'

'And why are you telling me all this?' Jeff asked.

'The mission won't all be flying around dodging Covenant,' Ackerson said, 'there will be ground operations on some Covenant installations as well. I'm sure you'll be a good addition to any team on those operations.'

'This all sounds like a suicide mission,' Jeff said, trying to decide whether he should accept the coming offer of being assigned to the ship or not, 'is there any guarantee that we will be able to get back to Reach?'

Ackerson paused for a moment, his expression changing to that of a frown. Jeff waited a few seconds for his answer, and it was what he had figured it would be.

'There is no guarantee that you will be able to make it back. Once the Pillar of Autumn has completed phase one of the plan, which is capturing the Covenant ship, the Winter Sunshine won't be needed anymore. Thing is, by that time you could very well be dead. The ship could have been destroyed, I don't know,' Ackerson replied, 'I am willing to get you a position as a squad leader on that ship, if you want. This could very well be the only position you could ever hope of getting because of your records and reputation. You have to make your decision today, since I'm leaving for Mars tomorrow.'

Jeff paused. If he accepted, he could very well not come back to Reach or Earth for that matter. He would still be doing his job of fighting the war if he accepted, but maybe the cost of his own life was a bit too high.

Then again, if he didn't accept he would run out of cash and chances to get back on the job.

'Get me a position on board that ship,' Jeff replied, 'I'm ready to start killing some alien bastards.'

Jeff returned home later that day with files on the mission Ackerson had given him.

His first priority was to read up on the mission, which was also a good way of passing time away. The Winter Sunshine was meant to be leaving on August 30th, in three days, from Space Construction Dock Seven. The Construction Docks were large, orbital stations where the ships were built.

He returned to his apartment which was on the fifth floor of an apartment block in the Pike's Creek civilian settlement. It was large enough for his needs, having a laundry, kitchen, bedroom, lounge room and bathroom. He had furnished it himself, although most of the furniture had come with the apartment when he had purchased it last year.

The lounge was in a basic layout, with two armchairs, a sofa and a large television set which took up most of one wall. A rack filled with movie discs, both new and old, was underneath the large screen. There weren't many stations on Reach, so he usually passed the time away on the virtual reality console in the corner of the room.

As he was making his way through the corridor that lead to his apartment, he saw one of the other tenants of the building out in the corridor watering a pot plant on a shelf along the wall. It was Gerry, a middle-aged man descended from the early Slip-space pioneers who had colonized the planet. He and Jeff knew each other well enough for him to greet Jeff as he walked by.

'Hello Jeff,' Gerry said, pausing in the watering of the plant, 'how was your day? I heard you tried getting into an ODST group o something.'

Jeff stopped and turned to face him.

'Yeah, I did,' Jeff replied, 'but they didn't want me. Turns out I'm too "unstable".'

'A shame, a shame,' Gerry said, 'from what I've heard of you, you would have been a good addition to any combat group.'

There was a pause. Jeff figured he should be getting back to his apartment and was about to say goodbye when Gerry started speaking again.

'I know it may not concern you, Jeff,' Gerry said, 'but I know a few certain people who know a few certain people, you know, connections and all, and I can find out thing not many other people in this area would know.'

'What are you getting at?' Jeff asked. Gerry was like this: always knowing about things that other people didn't, like the times that particular ships were leaving the planet and where a particular Colonel was going next.

'Have you heard of the Winter Sunshine?' Gerry asked, 'apparently that thing uses technology reverse engineered from Covenant ships.'

Jeff laughed. What a coincidence for Gerry to go on about that particular ship.

'Gerry, I'm being stationed on board that ship,' Jeff asked, 'I didn't get back into the ODSTs, but I did get into something.'

'Jeff, the technology aboard that ship is unstable,' Gerry said, raising an eyebrow, 'My friends who worked on the ship say that a Slip-space jump could very well make the ship and everything aboard it be broken down into their component molecules, thus killing the entire crew. Are you sure you want to take that risk?'

Jeff paused. If Gerry was right, which he usually was, then that was one more thing about this mission that was dangerous.

'How could you know all this?' Jeff asked, 'I'm pretty sure it would be top secret.'

'I have friends who know people,' Gerry replied, grinning, 'Reach has a small civilian population. Everyone around here knows what's going on. I doubt anyone off-world does, though.'

'Right,' Jeff said, 'well, I have to go and read up on some stuff, so I'll see you around.'

'See you later,' Gerry said as Jeff walked away.

Jeff approached the door into his apartment, slid his key card into the panel near the door which unlocked it. The door opened and closed behind him as soon as he was inside.
Sitting down on the sofa and switching on the television so it wasn't completely silent, Jeff loaded the information on the data-pads onto the laptop computer lying on the coffee table. He went to the kitchen and took out a packet of chocolate biscuits as well as a bottle of water and began reading up on the details of the mission, the ship and the superior offices.

The Winter Sunshine was a newly built UNSC cruiser, fitted with Archer missile pods, chain-guns, nuclear warhead launchers and two MAC cannons. The MAC guns could be fired one at a time, one charging as the other one fires, thus keeping an almost constant rate of fire. Two MAC guns would have taken up a lot of space on the ship, but Jeff supposed the ship needed two of the weapons to stand a chance in what appeared to be a 'suicide mission'.

The ship would be holding a crew of four hundred marines, two hundred engineering personnel and one-hundred and fifty crew members. The man leading the mission would be Captain Bob Turnwell, a highly decorated officer who was fifty-four years old and had a reputation for keeping his cool in almost any situation. He also liked to stick to schedules very tightly, often giving his crew hell if they were behind schedule or over schedule, Jeff couldn't remember if the two terms were different or the same.

Glancing up at the television, a typical cooking program was on as the chef was preparing a cheesecake. This made Jeff hungry for something sweet so he chowed down on a few of the biscuits and continued reading through the document.
Looking through the crew manifest, he recognized a few names but none were anybody he really knew all too well.

However, a few names in the ODST section caught his eye: Lieutenant Frank Hastings and the names of his squad members. Great, Jeff thought, he would be stuck on a ship with someone who would probably punch his lights out if given a chance.

Jeff started looking through the blueprints of the ship, noticing it varied a bit from the regular UNSC ships. Most rooms were your typical rooms in a ship, but as you neared the Slip-space engine, which seemed to take up the majority of space in the engineering section, rooms would become larger and with irregular shapes. There was a thick wall of titanium steel blocking off the Slip-space engine itself.

Jeff supposed this was because of the radiation, so he went searching for a picture of the drive and managed to find one buried amongst the files.

It wasn't your basic Slip-space engine. This one was a large, blue-white sphere of engine with rings of metal floating around it, obviously keeping it in place. It went up for quite a few decks. Coils of plasma energy ran along the walls, connected to the base of the sphere.

How could the UNSC have gotten hold of this kind of technology? Jeff knew of no reported ships that had been captured by the Covenant, but he supposed that this kind of information would be kept secret.

If this technology was in one ship, it wouldn't be long before it was put in others. Reading on, Jeff found information regarding the technology but hardly anything about its origin. All it mentioned of where it came from was the sentence 'Slip-space drive reverse engineered from captured Covenant ships'. If ships that belonged to the Covenant had fallen into human hands, the numbers would have to be in the very few. It would have taken years of research for the UNSC to have created something like this.

Jeff looked through the information on the ship and found that it had more habitation decks than other ships he knew of, as well as more gardens and an obstacle course for marine training.

He skimmed through most of the information, skipping the boring technical data such as the mass of each section of armour plating. Three meters of Titanium-A armour plating was more than usual. This ship would have cost a hell of a lot of money to build.

Jeff found information on the Albatross drop-ship which had been modified to support a Slip-space engine like the one in the Winter Sunshine, but on a smaller scale. It seemed that no one was willing to actually give it a try, scared that it may fall apart upon entering Slip-space. If that happened, whoever was in it would be broken down into atoms ad scattered throughout Slip-space. That wouldn't be a very pleasant way to die.

So, Ackerson had said that someone had actually tested the Albatross drop-ship. That had either been the wrong information or a lie, but Jeff was pretty sure Ackerson hadn't got his facts right.

Jeff would have to leave at about three in the morning on August 30th to get a shuttle to the Space Construction Dock where the Winter Sunshine was. That meant the night of August 29th would probably mean him going to sleep at seven o'clock in the evening. He had been able to sleep in every day for the past three months and suddenly he would have to get re-accustomed to the early mornings again. At least he was on an important mission.

That reminded him. He hadn't spoken to Iris, who was back on Earth, for three months. It was virtually impossible to send a message to anyone outside of the solar system. Earth was a fair distance away and you couldn't send Slip-space messages. Well, unless you had access to a multi-million dollar Slip-space communications probe and its launcher.

'Incoming Video Link.'

The emotionless female voice of the video phone on the wall nearby broke Jeff's train of thought. He got up and walked over to the phone. The call was coming from Jones Marshall, a long time friend.

Jeff flicked a switch and Jones' face appeared on the screen, his lounge room as the back-drop. Jones was your typical thirty-six year old African American guy who had a slight beard, brown eyes and a good sense of humour. Jones had been a rapper back in his twenties on Earth when he quit and decided to join the military to help in the war effort. Now he was a Corporal in the unit known as 'Wolf Pack', specializing in covert operations.

'How's it going, man?' Jones asked, grinning, 'you wouldn't believe the luck I've had today.'

'Yeah, hey Jones,' Jeff said, 'what happened? You finally get lucky with one of your lady friends?'

'No, not that,' Jones replied, glancing around his room, 'it's just that my commanding officer, that guy called Tunney, he just recommended me to a post aboard some new ship. I think it was caught Winter Sunlight or something…'

This was a coincidence. Jeff realized that by Winter Sunlight Jones meant Winter Sunshine. That would mean he was on the same ship as Jeff for the mission. At least he had a friend who could be with him during the mission.

'Jones, it's Winter Sunshine and today Colonel Ackerson got me a post on that same ship,' Jeff said, smiling, 'that means we're on the same ship together. On the same mission as well.'

'Yeah, Tunney told me about the mission,' Jones said, frowning, 'it sounds pretty dangerous.'

'I'm sure we'll get through it,' Jeff said, 'we always do. This time shouldn't be any different.'

Jones paused.

'Whatever you say, Jeff,' he said after thinking about his response for a moment.'

'So, on the thirtieth,' Jeff said, 'you want to meet at the mess hall on the construction dock? That way we can find out which parts of the ship we're on.'

Jones laughed.

'Yeah, we can,' Jones asked, 'but it turns out that I've been put under your command. We'll be in the same part of the ship for pretty much all of the voyage.'

'Great,' Jeff said. He paused. 'Don't worry about a thing, then. I'm sure we'll get through it. We'll return home to a hero's welcome.'

'I hope you're right, Jeff,' Jones said, 'I hope you're right.'