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Longsword R: Interlude
Posted By: Sterfrye36<Sterfrye36@yahoo.com>
Date: 20 July 2008, 4:49 am

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      James McCall sat up in his bed, staring at the man leaning against the doorframe, a man who was supposed to be dead: Colonel Michael Becker. McCall worked his jaw up and down several times, trying to ask Becker all of the obvious question; after a few moments, it finally tumbled out.
      "You're…you're supposed…supposed to be—"
      "Deceased?" Becker answered, smiling from ear to ear, just as James had remembered him doing so often. "Yeah, well, you can think a particular EVA retrieval team for that. ONI had a Prowler cruising around at the shakedown cruise sendoff at Gethsemane. I talked to one of them later; he let slip that they had advance notice of the Covenant attack but were too late to do anything about it, so they were just ordered to gather as much intel as they possibly could and pick up anyone who went EVA."
      "But Marcus said that your bird—" Becker grinned.
      "Lemme finish. Yeah, my bird did get hit by a pulse laser shot, but I managed to eject. Barely. Marcus may not have been able to see my chair get away because of all the smoke and debris." McCall sat in awe for several seconds, shaking his woozy head to absorb everything. It felt like it was filled with cotton; all sounds were slightly muffled, too. Just what did they have him on, anyway?
      "Kind of taking a lot of risks there, weren't they? And why were they looking for Swordsmen?"
      "Yeah, they were taking some risks there, but so far their luck's been holding. And I don't think they were on the lookout for Swordsmen. I either got really fortunate or our actions during the Indianapolis incident got us noticed by someone in Section Three." James sat down, slowly piecing everything together.
      The Indianapolis incident had occurred just a few years ago, just after James had become a member of the squadron. Back then, Michael Becker had just taken command of VF-32. It was more of a punishment than anything else because he had almost been brought up on charges of insubordination by his superior officers when he'd refused to bomb a Covenant occupied city on the planet Eden that still had over half the regular civilian population living in it. By some miracle he'd managed to avoid court martial and wound up getting shuffled to the UNSC Indianapolis, a ship that carried the dubious distinction of being one of the oldest, most rickety ships in the fleet.
      VF-32 was the Indianapolis's lone squadron when Becker arrived to lead it. His kind but firm leadership turned the squadron around, taking the Swordsmen from laughable to laudable. By discharging the hopeless, reforming with the redeemable, and instructing the inexperienced, Becker rebuilt the once legendary squadron. He'd brought in James and Marcus as part of his program, too. Notwithstanding his excellent work, command still saw his near court martial as a black mark against him and refused to promote or even reassign he and his squadron to a more capable ship. Being stuck on the Indianapolis ship was nearly as bad as a being held in prison.
      Her crews had nicknamed her The Leper Colony, and it was easy to see why. The ship was a minesweeper, invariably assigned to the boondocks and training exercises. It hadn't seen combat once in over forty years of service, mainly because it was crewed by the dregs of the UNSC's personnel. As if that hadn't been bad enough already, she had been led by a corrupt captain.
      The captain, Jebediah Queeg, had been involved in a numbers racket run by a cartel based out of the Eridani system. He was crafty enough to avoid being found out by the UNSC, but he made the mistake of believing that the cartel wouldn't come after him when he refused to pay up on a particularly large bet he'd lost. The cartel, naturally, had other ideas.
      The ensuing confrontation was ugly when a group of cartel ships had attacked the Indianapolis during a training exercise in open space. Thanks to a mole onboard the ship, she would have been disabled, captured, and her crew in all likelihood executed had Becker not gone against the captain's direct orders and launched the Swordsmen out into the fray in their decrepit C709-G Longswords. The Swordsmens' impressive performance from that episode had been enough to finally convince command to reassign he and his squadron to the Maverick.
      "The Indie incident would make sense. Did we ever find out what happened to that cartel, Esparada-something-or-other?"
      "Esparza. Supposedly the leader was a drunk and the failed Indie raid gave his opponents in the cartel the excuse to get rid of him that they'd been looking for. Infighting tore the thing in two. Last I'd heard, intel thought he was laying low. Anyways, as for how I got here, I got lucky, just like you did; they picked me up after I ejected. The nuke explosion covered all of their tracks, too, so as far as the UNSC is concerned, we're both dead." James sat dumbfounded for several seconds, mulling the information over.
      "What do you mean by, 'we're both dead'? Why won't ONI just return us to active duty?"
      "Simple. Somebody way beyond our pay grades wants me to lead the eighty-fourth and for you to be part of it, and they're apparently willing to go to great lengths to do so. Whoever is running this thing is getting the best people they can: not the truly big names, but guys that fly under the radar like you. You ever heard of a Deanna Rankin?"
      "You will soon. She's a pretty tough chick, commands the five-sixty-first Wild Weasels." James arched an eyebrow.
      "Never heard of them or the eighty-fourth."
      "There's a good reason for that, actually. The five-sixty-first's an old USAF squad that fought in the U.S.-Vietnamese war, specializing in SEAD with the old F-4 Phantom II. They're flying SkyHawks at present, though they're still focused on SEAD. The 84th, however, is an old USN squadron that got deactivated in the mid 1990s and was only reactivated two years ago as a black ops unit. We're driving the F-602."
      "What's that supposed to mean?" James said, the drugs inhibiting his reasoning. The Colonel sighed and said what appeared to be a single word, but the muffling effects on his ears caused James to miss it. He tried popping his ears to no avail.
      "I'm sorry," James said. "What was that?"
      "Man, whatever they've got you on must be something good, because under normal conditions, you'd have put the square block into the square hole by now. I'll just come right out and say it, then. Right now, you and I are working for ONI." James only stared, his incredulity evident.
      "ONI." James stated skeptically. Beckham nodded again.
      "Yeah, I know it's hard to believe. They were the ones who picked you up, by the way."
      "So you're telling me that the darkness I saw—"
      "And the lights—"
      "Were onboard said Prowler."
      "And the figure—"
      "EVA retrieval guy."
      "Could've sworn I'd died and was going to heaven, Michael."
      "Would the Angel of Death bothered to unbuckle your safety straps?" The dark humor made James laugh, a funny sound to his muffled ears.
      "Amazing," he muttered. "How'd they know to pick me up, anyway?"
      "James, we've been over this already. They didn't know who you were, and they didn't particularly care. They had standing orders to retrieve every EVA pilot they could. Fortunately for us, you just happened to be lucky enough to be one of them." James bit his lip.
      "Is Mar...Major Easley still alive?" Becker considered for a moment.
      "There was a pair of Seraphs that I scraped off his tail. That was the last I saw of him, so as far as I know, yes." James bolted upright.
      "Wait, you were at Earth?" Becker grinned once more.
      "Yeah, I was. It was good to see the Swordsmen performing so well out there. It'll be fun if I get to see 'em again."
      Nothing in the sentence should have raised a red flag for McCall, but the way that Michael said "again", in an almost perfunctory manner made James suspect Becker knew something that he didn't.
      "Yeah," James repeated slowly, mulling things over. "That would be fun. Well, then, where exactly am I?" Becker's smile grew larger.
      "I'm afraid that's classified, little buddy. I can tell you, however, that you aren't in Kansas anymore."

      Even with his irritable mood, Hunter Creighton absentmindedly whistled an old tune he'd heard recently as he walked his six foot five, solid build into the weight room onboard the Maverick. It was a catchy tune, one with a happy, Latino beat.
      Oh, I know…that the music's fine like sparkling wine, go and have your fun…
      Even with the death of Steven and James, Hunter was too tired to know what he was thinking or feeling. The ecstasy he felt from the huge victory over the Covenant had been successful in blunting the pain of their deaths, but the two extremes were pulling at him hard, leaving him in some sort of emotional limbo. He'd tried to go to sleep after he'd finished partying, but the memory of his squadmates had kept him awake. That and the shell-shocked look that Marcus had when he had left the jubilant fighter bay without as much as a word. The look had been so haunting, so devoid of any active thought that it had sent chills down Hunter's spine as he watched his commander slowly trek towards the door.
      Like everyone else, he had heard Marcus's enraged screams over the Swordsmen's tactical COM frequency right after James had been shot down. It had been…inhuman, really. There was something there, something that neither he nor any of his other squadmates understood which made it unnerving. Marcus had lost wingmen before during the Gethsemane incident, but he'd never reacted so emotionally. James had become his best friend before Gethsemane, a feat that was not easy to accomplish. Even then, Marcus had kept himself distant from his squadmates. Hunter didn't know why, but for some reason Marcus plainly did not want to associate with people. Recently, however, he'd become less cold, less aloof. He'd grown closer to James, too, along with his other Swordsmen. Hunter had even managed to get a relatively good rapport with him, as had Chase.
      The song continued to play in his head, its upbeat tone clashing with Hunter's annoyed indifference.
      But don't forget who's takin' you home, and in whose arms you're gonna be…
      The brightly lit weight room was actually pretty small, laid out in a simple square. The door was located in the right corner, opening opposite of a mirrored wall and a total of five three-in-one weight racks, adjustable for squat, bench, or incline. No weights hung from any bars; the zero-g effects of space and the fact that this section of the Maverick had never spun had made free weights impossible for squats and bench. Instead, the bars were built straight into the various racks on a series of rails. The racks operated on a simple mechanical resistance system, simulating actual weight with motors and rubber bands. All of the racks had basic voice recognition software so that one could set the weights and number of sets and reps by voice command alone. If a lifter got in trouble, he could just yell for help to automatically raise the bar. Most crewmembers, though, simply preferred to have a spotter so they could still complete their lifts.
      However, the newly installed artificial gravity had allowed the crew to set up a few platforms, raised no more than about an inch off the floor, in the middle of the room for dead lift and hang clean exercises. Flanked by a pair of lockable weight trees each, the platforms were decorated with one of the emblems from the Maverick's three fighter squadrons: the VF-32 Swordsmen, the VF-154 Black Knights, and the VF-302 Stallions. A long rack of dumbbells rested up against the near wall right beside the door, all of them held in place by magnets. Altogether, the platforms and dumbbells were the only free weights in the entire room, leading to a distinctly low number of weight trees, and therefore, a much less cluttered weight room. Another few machines lined the left wall: a shrug machine, a running machine, a lats machine, even a pair of jammers. Overall, the room was well stocked for its size and apparent spare appearance.
      Hunter continued to whistle, strapping on gloves as he did so, so that he wouldn't let his hands build up too many calluses while he lifted.
      So darlin'…save the last dance for me!
      The room was deserted, much as he'd expected it to be; at 1800 hours, everyone was still tired from the battle, and those that weren't on shift were sleeping. Not Hunter, though; he'd always enjoyed lifting as a way to work out stress and frustration. He still had adrenaline running through his system from the fight, which, when coupled with Marcus's bizarre behavior, had kept him tossing and turning for about an hour. A couple of heavy sets seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. He began to work to the back of the room towards the bench racks, only to have a quick, loud yell startle him out of his stupor.
      He was wrong, the weight room wasn't deserted. Instead, he saw two men, one tall and dark haired wearing a wife beater, the other short with tousled, fiery hair and wearing a simple black t-shirt. The large man was underneath the bar, struggling mightily against the simulated weight; the smaller was behind him, spotting him to make sure that the weight didn't come crashing down on him. Even with the distance between them and himself, Hunter could make out a fine sheen of perspiration on the dark-haired man's forehead as he battled to push the bar away from him. With one final shove and a small yell, he succeeded in forcing it back to the racking point, and then finally relaxed as he commanded the bar to lock into place.
      He sat up, groaning and massaging his triceps as he turned to face his partner.
      "Damn, that's heavy. You sure you set it for the right weight?" The red haired man replied without a moment of hesitation.
      "Granny weight? Yeah, that's the right one." The dark haired man snorted.
      "All right, wiseass, you try it." The red haired man merely arched an eyebrow playfully as he walked around from behind the bench and lay down on it. After he positioned himself, he grabbed the bar, double-checked his grip, and then issued a single command to the rack.
      Immediately the rack unlocked the bar and began to push downward towards the man's chest. He controlled the bar expertly, letting it come down quickly enough that his arms didn't tire out, but slowly enough so that the bar didn't crush his chest once it got there. As soon as the bar touched his chest, the man let out a loud grunt, exploded upward with his arms, pushed off the floor with his feet and launched the weight off his chest and back toward the racking point. Then, he repeated the entire process several more times for a grand total of three reps, grunting loudly each time. Still, he seemed to accomplish his set with a whole lot less effort than his friend. As he finished his last rep, he tossed a look to the man spotting him as if to say, wimp. His friend rolled his eyes in mock annoyance.
      "All right, so you can rep two-forty-five. So what? Your arms are so small that you only have to move the bar a foot and a half; I have to move it a whole yard!"
      "You calling me short?" The dark haired man glared at his partner.
      "Yeah, I am. What of it?"
      "Well, you'd be right then." Both men chuckled, apparently good buddies. Hunter cleared his throat.
      "Mind if I join in?" Both of their heads snapped up in surprise.
      "Uh, no, go right ahead," the smaller man said. "What do you want the weight at?"
      "Two sixty five," Hunter answered matter-of-factly.
      "Maxing out?" the smaller man said after he'd entered the amount by voice.
      "No." A dumbfounded look crossed their faces.
      "Oh," the smaller one said in disbelief.
      Hunter unceremoniously flopped down onto the bench rack, casually wrapped his hands around the bar and said in a disinterested voice:
      Hunter kept the bar moving at a constant speed as it dropped towards his chest. He let the bar make contact and then merely exhaled as he sent it flying back upward, rattling the rack with his power. He never screamed, never grunted, but only exhaled calmly as he sent the bar skyward again and again. After a few moments, Hunter glanced up at the both of them from the rack.
      "I've lost count. How many reps was that?"
      "Six," they both replied, their eyes wide in amazement at the big man's power. Hunter just grunted and sent the bar skyward four more times.
      He racked the bar as disinterestedly as he had begun and got off the bench rack, not a bead of sweat upon him. As he did so, his slowly turning gears finally meshed and he remembered his manners. He stuck his hand out.
      "Lieutenant Hunter Creighton, VF-32." The dark haired man introduced himself first.
      "Sterling Varner. This here's Glenn Beard."
      "Good to meet you," Hunter said perfunctorily as he shook their hands. "So, what do you boys work in? Engineering?" Beard and Varner traded glances.
      "No, actually," Sterling said. "We're Longsword pilots."
      "That's weird," Hunter remarked off-handedly. "I've never seen you two around before. Who do you fly for?"
      "Believe it or not, we're both Swordsmen."
      "Really," Hunter said with a tone more suited to a cross-examination than casual conversation. "That was pretty fast. It usually takes at least a few weeks to get replacements."
      "Yeah," remarked Glenn as he flopped down onto the rack again for his next set. "We thought it was weird, too. Hell, I hadn't even landed back on the Princeton when I got the news that the order had come through. It was bizarre. I ended up landing here on the Mav instead with some new Stallions and Black Knights. It wasn't just us, Hunter; it was a bunch of other guys from the other squadrons, too." Varner leaned up against the wall lost in thought.
      "Same thing happened to me. Something weird's going on, all right."
      "Mm-hmmm," Hunter said without the slightest hint of interest. "You guys going to get on to your next set or what?" Beard glanced up at Varner warily.
      "Actually," he said carefully. "We were thinking of moving on to hang clean."
      "Go ahead then. My hang clean sucks."
      "How much can you do?"
      "Two-forty-five. You?"
      "Two-fifty," Beard answered. They looked at Varner who merely grinned evilly in reply.
      "Three hundred." As if on command, Hunter snorted and Beard stifled a laugh. Varner's grin remained fixed in place. "All right wiseasses, watch this. Load 'er up."

Encryption Code:
Public Key: file/el dorado canyon/
To: Captain Gunter Reeves, captain UNSC Maverick/ (UNSC Service Number: 81472-10763-GR)
Subject: New Orders
Classification: TOP SECRET (EYES ONLY)
Attachments: eldoradocanyon.nav

/start file/

      Captain Reeves,

      Pay good attention, Captain; you're only going to get one chance to read this file as it will self-delete immediately after being closed.
      You are hereby ordered to proceed to the coordinates in the attached file by way of the outlined route as soon as repairs are completed on your ship. Time is of the essence. Prior to departure, no crew are to be informed as the mission is now considered top secret and your ship is currently under the command of NAVSPECWEP Section 3. At these coordinates you are to await further instructions which will be sent to you. Do not hail any ships you see, let them hail you.

      P.S. Hope you enjoyed that Fury launcher I sent you. Did you find it useful? Lemme know when we meet.


/end file/

      Sitting in his chair in his mahogany walled personal quarters, Captain Gunter Reeves gazed at the file as it sat on his personal screen, quietly puzzled. He leaned back in his chair—and winced in pain. His left shoulder had been injured pretty badly during the fight; when the Covenant frigate rammed the Mav, he had been tossed from his position near the captain's chair, right over the large holotank, and into the low wall that separated "the pit" from the rest of the bridge. It had almost snapped his shoulder cleanly in two, causing bone to break the skin and result in heavy bleeding. He'd passed out after only a few seconds, unconscious for the rest of the fight. Really, it was a miracle that he hadn't bled out.
      Reeves had only woken up a few hours ago, his veins full of emergency transfused blood. An ungainly cast sat on his shoulder and held his arm at an uncomfortable angle, causing it to jut out just far enough so that it could easily catch doorframes and cause him more pain. He'd made this unwelcome discovery while leaving sick bay; his elbow had caught the edge of the doorway and he had woken up a few minutes later on a gurney.
      The worst part of it, however, was that his brand new uniform was absolutely ruined.
      El Dorado Canyon, Reeves thought as he tenderly shifted his arm to a more comfortable position. Where have I heard that before? The captain reflected for a moment. His historical knowledge had saved the Earth from being overrun once today with the swinging gate maneuver. Perhaps it would shed some light on these bizarre new orders.
      Reeves opened up a web browser. He was taken straight to the UNSC's homepage, a garishly laid out page, replete with recruiting and promotional materials. He entered a new URL at a snail's pace due to the fact that he was typing with one hand: www.google.com. He entered the term just as slowly, his right hand hunting over the unfamiliar side of the keyboard. The results came back quickly and he clicked on the first one without hesitation.
      The page was rather plain, an obvious online encyclopedia, but it held mountains of information.

The United States bombing of Libya (code-named Operation El Dorado Canyon) comprised the joint United States Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps air-strikes against Libya on April 15, 1986.

The bombing raid was the conclusion of a period of escalating reciprocal actions by the United States and Libya. After years of occasional skirmishes with Libya over Libyan territorial claims to the Gulf of Sidra, a water body extending far into international waters, and years of vulnerability to Libyan-supported terrorism, the United States decided to push the issue in the first quarter of 1986, contemplating a military attack in order to send a message about support for international terrorism. In March 1986, the United States, asserting the 12 nautical mile (22 km) limit to territorial waters recognized by the international community, sent a carrier task force to the region. Libya responded with aggressive counter-maneuvers on March 24 that led to the destruction of Libyan radar systems and missile attack boats. Less than two weeks later on April 5, a bomb exploded in a West Berlin disco, La Belle, killing two American servicemen and a Turkish woman and wounding 200 others. The United States claimed to have obtained cable transcripts from Libyan agents in East Germany involved in the attack.

The Attack:

The raid was designed to hit directly at the heart of Gaddafi's ability to export terrorism with the belief that such a preemptive strike would provide him "incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior." The final targets of the raid were selected at the National Security Council level "within the circle of the President's advisors." Ultimately, five targets were endorsed by the JCS and Secretary of Defense and approved by President Reagan:

      Reeves skimmed the list of main targets somewhat apathetically. A command post, some barracks, a terrorist training base, Tripoli's main airport and a military airfield. Nothing particularly stuck out to him, so he went ahead and moved on.       Unfortunately, the next few paragraphs were dry descriptions of the strike forces assets and the complexities in assembling them, followed by a short explanation of the attack. Nothing, however, caught his eye or tugged at his mind the way that the swinging gate maneuver had, so he ignored them. Reeves briefly skimmed them before reaching the final paragraph, which caught his interest.

Although retaliation for the Berlin bombing had been anticipated, Libyan air defenses seemed almost wholly unprepared for the attack. In fact, it was reported that antiaircraft fire had not begun until after the American planes had passed over their targets at Tripoli. Libya's formidable air-defense system (manned by 3,000 Soviet air-defense technicians) was completely overwhelmed by precise Navy suppression strikes. It was reported that some Libyan soldiers abandoned their posts in fright and confusion and officers were slow to give orders. Also, Libyan fighters failed to get airborne to challenge the attacking bombers.

      Evidently, someone in Section Three had a thing for history. Long story short, Reeves thought to himself, despite the fact that the Libyans knew the retaliation was definitely coming, they totally failed to stop them.
      Did whoever assigned this name to the operation—the AI calling itself Grit?—see the current fight the UNSC was going through as similar to the one the Americans fought? It would be a stretch at best as the UNSC certainly was not militarily superior to their opponent, and lacked the resources to pull off a large-scale assault. Revenge for the terrorist attacks wasn't a particularly good parallel, either…but the speed and unexpected effectiveness of the strike might be.
      Reeves re-read the paragraph again, ticking of specific facts as he did so.
      Wholly unprepared. That would fit. The Covenant wouldn't be expecting a counterstrike. Precise Navy suppression strikes. That made less sense. Little was precise about fighting in space, especially the way the UNSC did it. But if the UNSC was somehow able to land some sort of knockout blow…Libyan fighters failed to get airborne. A sneak-attack of some sort.
      But the question remained: where would this strike be? A strike at the Covenant…? No, it couldn't be. Humanity still had no idea where the Covenant home world was, nor did they have any idea where to begin searching.
      Reeves minimized the window. "Eagle," he stated plainly. The AI wavered into existence on the captain's desktop, his naval fighter pilot regalia flowing with logic symbols.
      "I've got a nav file here," Reeves said as he moved his pointer over the icon. "I want to see where exactly this thing leads."
      "Of course, sir," Eagle said as he walked across the screen and tapped the file twice with his finger to open it.
      "I'll—" Eagle stopped short, but quickly regained his composure. "I'm afraid the file is eyes only, sir. I'll have to take a short leave of absence; call me if you need me."
      "Thanks," Reeves said as the AI dissolved into nothingness. The captain opened the file with the most recent star chart onboard the ship. The route and coordinates led to nowhere, a seemingly random point in space about halfway between Earth and Reach. The journey would take nearly a week, only to reach…open space? A rendezvous in the middle of nowhere would fit ONI's usual modus operandi, but something still nagged at him. He browsed quickly through the list of star charts in the window before selecting the oldest one he could find, one that was dated clear back to 2412, back when massive colonization was underway. Unfortunately, the point was still in unexplored space on this particular chart. Reeves next selected a chart fifty years younger. This time, the point led right to a single, backwater system called Midway, located halfway in between Reach and the first outer colony world. Traffic information indicated that the planet was only used for re-supply for ships that had the first few generations of Slipspace drives and could barely make short jumps. It had never been a particularly notable stop, either. Forty years after its initial discovery, the system was abandoned.
      The captain opened a new tab in his internet browser and typed the planet's name into Google, slightly amazed the civilian web was even functioning. The only results that came back were related to the battle of the World War II. He tried entering "Midway Planet", but to no avail. Even searches with more modifiers failed to turn up any results. ONI must have erased all references to it that they could find, though for what purpose? For that matter, why hadn't they taken the simple precaution of removing such an old star chart with the planet's name on it? Or was he simply reading too much into an obscure planet?…Reeves leaned back in his chair thoughtfully only to yelp in pain as his elbow made contact with the arm of his chair.
      "Eagle!" Reeves commanded, grimacing.
      "Yes, sir?" the AI shimmered into existence.
      "How much longer until repairs are finished?"
      "About another six hours, sir."
      "I see," Reeves mumbled as he gingerly leaned back in his chair, this time much more careful of his posture. "As of this moment, shore leave is denied to all crewmembers and anyone who is on it—heaven knows how they could've gotten it at a time like this—is to be expected to report back to the Maverick immediately."
      "May I ask why, sir?" Reeves paused for a moment.
      "No." The logic symbols traveling the length of Eagle's body accelerated slightly.
      "I see. Will that be all, Captain?"
      "Not quite; wake me up as soon as the repairs are completed, will you?"
      "Yes, sir. And sir?"
      "If you want my advice, you need to make sure there's nothing in front of you if you decide to go flying again," Eagle said, jokingly. Reeves opened a single eye to glower at the AI.
      "Shut up."

      Fleet Master, or rather former Fleet Master Quarell 'Sulamee glared at the hologram of the planet without even attempting to disguise his disgust. Even though he'd become one, 'Sulamee knew he could never fully give himself over to his heresy, the same heresy of those who resided on this forsaken planet. That is, to the best of his knowledge they did. True, all he had heard were rumors, but they were all he had to go on right now.
      He'd heard of them some time ago, a supposedly secret society of disgraced or disenchanted Covenant named "The Separatists." Sangheili, Unggoy, it didn't really matter. All had lost the Prophets' message somehow, and all would be kept from the true path. And their blasphemy! Their ludicrous claims that the rings would not speed those who believed along a path to salvation, that they were something else entirely; such lies threatened to utterly undo the Covenant. Even though the Prophets had never stated exactly what it was that the Heretics believed the Halos to be, 'Sulamee had never cared. All that mattered was that the Hierarchs had decreed the very air that the Heretics breathed as unclean and tainted with sin and that they deserved to be annihilated, just like the humans. And here he'd all but become one though his own actions, the ultimate irony. It was enough to turn his stomach.
      'Sulamee's early military career had actually been built on fighting pockets of sacrilegious resistance such as these. He'd scored an impressive string of quick victories against former top commanders who had fallen from grace. Time and time again in places such as Eternal Unrest and Vigorous Dissension, by using his better-equipped, more numerous forces, and by choosing the battlefield, 'Sulamee had been able to all but guarantee his own victories. This command style had catapulted him through the ranks and earned him a reputation as a brilliant tactician able to best his enemies with minimal losses.
      Ultimately, however, that reputation had led to his assignment as head of the forces sent to excavate the Ark as the Prophet of Regret's guard. The fleet had been assembled once the majority of the first excavation fleet had been destroyed by human saboteurs aboard the Unyielding Hierophant. This flotilla was monstrous, armed to the teeth, and unstoppable even though it was barely on par with the fleet destroyed at the Unyielding Hierophant. Rumor had it that some among the Hierarchs had begun to refer the Seventh as "The Invincible Fleet." With such firepower and a promising young commander leading it, how could it fail?
      The only problem was it did. Miserably.
      Everything that could have gone wrong did. The advance group was totally smashed by the humans and was never heard from again. But, rather than cautiously gather more intelligence, 'Sulamee simultaneously overestimated his own strength, underestimated that of his foes, and foolishly relied on outdated intelligence reports that said he could expect little to no resistance from the humans. Even though the reports could hardly be characterized as too cautious, the accursed things had been criticized as doom-mongering by some as grossly miscalculating the humans remaining strength. As a result, 'Sulamee disregarded them almost entirely.
      Yes, 'Sulamee had done all those things and then proceeded to charge full speed into the worst naval defeat in Covenant history. Even now the better part of the 756 ships were shattered in orbit near the Ark, leaving what remained of the Seventh Fleet a shadow of its former self as it sat above this forsaken planet.
      Angrily, he brought his closed fist down on a series of holographic keys, which opened communications on an entirely unencrypted channel. He huffed irately as if wishing let the Heretics know of his extreme distaste for them even before he stated it.
      "So-called 'Separatists'," he began gruffly. "I am former Fleet Master Quarell 'Sulamee, ex-commander of the mighty Seventh Fleet." He paused momentarily in self hatred, trying to decide how to continue. It was a decision he immediately regretted.
      An unusually accented voice answered almost instantly through extremely heavy static.
      "Forgive me, Excellency, but your Seventh Fleet doesn't seem so mighty as it stands now. This is all that remains of the so-called 'Invincible Fleet'? How did this happen, Fleet Master, especially with a brilliant young commander such as yourself leading it?"
      The brashness of the voice so stunned 'Sulamee that he floated in silence, speechless at the sheer audacity the speaker displayed. His surprise was quickly replaced by a seething, indignant anger.
      "How dare you talk to me in such an insolent—"
      "With all due respect, Fleet Master, no member of the Separatists particularly cares what you accomplished in your short but ever so dazzling career; many among us had equally illustrious accomplishments." 'Sulamee struggled to find something to say, to save face.
      "I swear by the Prophets' blood I will crush you all beneath—"
      "Spare us, Excellency. We hear enough righteous prattle every time someone such as you wishes to defect to our more egalitarian society. It becomes quite tiresome, really. Now then, do you have any ships left capable of ferrying you down to the surface, or do you require one of ours?" The disgraced warrior's entire body shook in fury.
      "I am more than able to set myself down on your desolate hell-hole, Separatist!"
      "Then I suggest that you quit wasting my time and come planet side so that appropriate arrangements may be made for you and your soldiers."
      The connection terminated with a pop and a quick burst of static.

      Several cycles later, Quarell 'Sulamee stood uncomfortably in what passed as an aircraft hangar. Stalagmites jutted up like ugly teeth at asymmetrical points in the floor. His aircraft had almost impaled itself on one before finding a space large enough to land in. To 'Sulamee's military mind, the very fact that this hole in a wall had been dignified by being called a hangar only proved his suspicions: these Separatists were anything but truly military.
      The so-called "hangar" was concealed inside the face of just one of the many large glaciers that floated on this excuse for a planet called Tho'h, which literally meant "Freezing Hell." Such an inhospitable world, the Covenant had never dignified it with a proper name; an entire world of water and ice, forever frozen thanks to its distance from this system's weak sun. The cold was so piercing that, in spite of the climate control systems of his armor, 'Sulamee actually shivered as he shifted his gaze to the miserable environment outside.
      The sky was perpetually overcast outside the hangar, furiously flashing rapid, irregular arcs of lightning across the cloudy heavens. Although the erratic light provided some illumination, the thick clouds served to further reduce the already dim daylight to twilight as they dropped ton after ton of snow upon the oceans and glaciers of the planet.
      The oppressive lack of light laid everything low; the dark, angry, planet-wide ocean reared up against the glacier, crashing again and again against the icy wall which defiantly withstood the ocean's relentless onslaught. Neither yielded, neither showed signs of weakness as they continuously fought each other for dominance.
      The glacier was set in the same shadowy, ghastly tint: the ice was as dark as death itself and streaked with golden lightning strikes, a combination of the eternal twilight that engulfed this planet and the curious mineral makeup of the ice.
      'Sulamee, trying to move out of the wind and its dagger-like cut, moved deeper into the hangar, only to be stopped short when an excellently camouflaged door slid open unexpectedly. A tall, thin Sangheilli stood in the doorway, wearing a suit of armor unlike anything 'Sulamee had ever seen. It was obviously not of Covenant origin. Though it conformed to the Sangheili's body, it was far more angular than the traditional armor worn by 'Sulamee's kind. It focused on covering key parts of the body such as the joints, head, and chest areas, but did not cover the entire body as did the traditional armor. Indeed, it seemed as though the Sangheili wore some sort of insulating material underneath. The metal it utilized was thick, noticeably bulky and of alien origin as well, something much rougher than what the Sangheili was used to.
      One aspect of the armor, however, stood out far more than any other; it blended in with the ice perfectly. What sort of coward would wear camouflage like this into battle as opposed to the light bending devices the Covenant normally used? There was also an inexplicable series of small arrows on the left shoulder.
      "Good," the unidentified Sangheili said with no preamble. The Separatist turned and strode into the inky blackness. "Follow me." 'Sulamee briefly had an urge to strike the Separatist for his gall but resisted. There was no telling what this heathen was capable of.
      'Sulamee reluctantly followed his guide deeper and deeper into the glacier. The already weak light became near total darkness after only a few moments as the door slid closed behind them. The former Fleet Master struggled to keep up, constantly bumping into walls as he trailed the Separatist. 'Sulamee opened his mouth to ask where he was being taken, but the blasphemer seemed to read his mind.
      "Unfortunately, I'm afraid you will have to be debriefed. We must glean all the intelligence from you that we can; our continued survival—indeed, yours as well—may depend on it." 'Sulamee huffed in response.
      "Yes, yes, I know it's an indignity beneath your station, but it must be done," the Separatist said. "You'll soon come to appreciate our ways, Fleet Master. We've learned quite a bit from the humans." 'Sulamee stopped cold; sensing 'Sulamee's shock, the guide turned around.
      "Come now, Fleet Master. You know as well as I do that the humans are excellent fighters. In terms of bravery they are far superior to the Unggoy. I've fought them before, 'Sulamee. It may surprise you to learn this, but even though I bear no particular love of their kind, they are creatures worthy of respect."
      'Sulamee flung himself towards where he guessed the Separatist was in a blind rage, only to almost render himself unconscious as he missed by a wide margin and crashed headlong into an icy wall. He collapsed into a heap on the floor.
      With stars flashing in front of his eyes 'Sulamee could barely make out the guide's laughter. Dazed, he tried to pick himself up, but only succeeded in slipping and slamming to the floor again.
      He came to a few moments later, unable to see the Separatist, but more than able to hear his mirth. A pair of claws grabbed him and hauled him to a standing position. 'Sulamee was so disoriented by the lack of a horizon and the buzzing in his ears that the guide was forced to help him balance himself as he walked.
      The rest of the trip was a blur. He couldn't force himself to concentrate until he heard the distant sound of another door opening and saw a painfully harsh light. His eyes reflexively snapped shut, trying to block out the brightness. It didn't work; most of the light still got through.
      He felt himself led to and then forced down awkwardly on a chair that was obviously not made for the comfort of a Sangheili. A number of indistinguishable voices began speaking at once. 'Sulamee tried to clear his head by shaking it but it was still several minutes before he was able to think clearly.
      And when he recognized the words that were being spoken, he received his biggest shock yet.

      Marcus Easley set the Bible back down on his desk and rubbed his eyes. The tiny text was playing havoc with his rods and cones. He'd begun reading it again immediately after Beard and Varner had left his quarters. This time, rather than let it fall open to a random page, Marcus had started at the very beginning, back in Genesis. He'd read non-stop for several hours now, unable to put it down. It felt strange re-reading all the stories he had learned as a child but had long since forgotten. Adam and Eve, Able and Cain, Noah and the Ark, Moses and the Egyptians. It had been so long that when he re-read the stories it felt almost as if he were waking from a dream, each account familiar yet new. It felt eerie and vaguely unnerving, yet somehow consoling as well.
      The funeral had been a few hours ago in the Maverick's small multi-faith room, a fact that he was sure James would not have approved of. In his head, the major could hear his deceased squadmate Give me a real funeral in a church, none of this touchy, feel-good, politically correct crap! I want some stain glass and hymnals! Marcus smiled slightly as he imagined his friend railing about how ridiculous the arrangements were, the first time he'd really smiled in days.
      Marcus hadn't actually attended the funeral, but instead stood outside the doors, listening to the Maverick's chaplain read what was almost certainly a prepared speech with James's name stuck in at all the appropriate points. Or maybe not. He had been too busy remembering James to really listen to it closely.
      Marcus returned his attention to the book for a few moments as if making an important decision. Then slowly he set his elbows down on the desk and clasped his hands in front of him. His eyes all but twitched closed. For some reason, it was making him nervous. Marcus didn't know why. He used to do it all the time when he was younger.
      Bit by bit, Marcus lowered his head and prayed.
      Lord, he began but halted, jerked his head up and opened his eyes as though he'd hit a brick wall. What now? he thought. It'd been years since he'd done this. He anxiously eased down once again before staring at his right hand.
      Before staring at the faint, almost imperceptible cross.
      After Beard and Varner had left, he'd scoured ever part of the room, looking for some small drops of blood on a wall, his bed, his desk. Nothing.
      His fingernails couldn't have done it during the dream, either. The scratch was perfectly formed with right angles and even proportions. It was too exact to have been an accident. But that meant that…
      Slowly, he lowered his head and folded his hands in prayer once more.
      Uh, Lord…My Father who art in…no, uh…I come to you in…Damn. No! I mean…wait, ah…Lord, I…I…have absolutely no idea what I'm doing. I…
      Marcus let his hands unceremoniously drop back to the desk before he moved to pick up the Bible again. Maybe he could find a passage on prayer.