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Longsword R: Sabre
Posted By: Sterfrye36<Sterfrye36@yahoo.com>
Date: 7 August 2008, 4:25 am

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      "And what would your name be?" Quarell 'Sulamee heard very clearly…in the humans' language. As his eyes continued to adjust yet again to this suddenly stunning environment 'Sulamee heard a different voice ask in a strange accent, "Perhaps he needs a translator?" Then the first again, "No, I don't think so. Intel said he'd be able to speak English."
      Finally, 'Sulamee was able to make out a whole host of…of humans traipsing around as though they were somehow important, leaning over consoles of their own making, deciphering readouts, speaking into strange devices that sat atop their heads. The entire room was bathed in their harsh lights and the walls and floors were made of their metal. It wasn't too great in terms of size, but it held quite a large amount of computers and personnel. The former Fleet Master realized he'd been led to some sort of human command outpost or control center. 'Sulamee turned to look fiercely at the guide who was lounging against one of the humans' walls, leaning up against it like one of the vile creatures.
      "Have you no honor?" 'Sulamee roared. "To throw in your lot with this scum?" The guide merely shrugged his shoulders, a human gesture that 'Sulamee vaguely remembered as something that conveyed indifference.
      "You cowardly, sniveling, conniving—"
      He would have said more, but the guide quickly strode the few steps separating them and delivered a vicious blow to 'Sulamee's jaw with a loud crack. The humans all jumped, apparently surprised by the sudden noise but not the action. The guide leaned in close to his stunned target and growled, "Be careful who you call a coward, 'Sulamee. You were the one who would glass the surface above innocents as they huddled in underground bunkers. You call that courageous? I abhor you and your radicalism, you coward."
      "Sergeant!" a voice snapped. "That's enough! You're dismissed." The guide spun on his hoof and rigidly marched out of the room.
      "I take it you two have some sort of history," a human's voice stated. 'Sulamee looked up to see what he thought was a human male with short, yellow fur on top of his scalp. He was straddling a chair and wore one of the typically plain uniforms of the humans' military, albeit one that was heavily insulated. It was almost totally devoid of decoration or embellishment. It was a simple, off-brown color and the only thing that seemed even remotely like ornaments were two silver bars that sat atop each of his shoulders.
      "Nice to make your acquaintance," he continued. "I'm Lieutenant Joseph Cable."
      "Lootellan." 'Sulamee snarled, his mouth clicking out the unfamiliar word. The corners of the human's mouth tugged upward.
      "Close enough. It's a rank in our armed forces." Quarell, in no mood for a lesson on humanity's military, looked away. Cable traded looks with the human standing next to him. "Emile," he said tiredly. "I'm afraid he's going to be a stubborn one."
      The second human was obviously older than the first. His face was craggier and he was broader at the shoulders. His voice was a bit deeper, too, and seemed to speak in a measured, deliberate manner. His gray fur and absence of uniform gave him a manner that was certainly not military, but conveyed a certain sense of pride.
      "I'm afraid you could be correct, Lieutenant," he said, emphasizing the last syllable. "He most likely believes the Prophets to the letter."
      "Anyway," Cable said as he looked back at the shamed Sangheili in front of him. "As I said, I'm Lieutenant Joseph Cable and this is Emile de Becque. He's a civilian who used to run a mining operation out here on this planet. He's been assisting us in this area for some time now. We're here to interrogate and debrief you. Your name is Quarell 'Sulamee and you're Fleet Master of the Seventh Fleet, right?" 'Sulamee remained silent. Cable was unfazed.
      "I'll just take that as a yes. So, what made you decide to join the Separatists?" Quarell looked up at a snail's pace and spoke crustily in deliberate English.
      "I have not joined this abominable group." Cable's grin grew slightly.
      "Don't kid yourself. The only reason you would come here would've either been to attack and destroy us or to join us. Since the ships that you brought with you have more or less been shot to hell, I doubt it's the former. So, why'd you decide to join us?"
      "I have not joined this abominable group," 'Sulamee repeated.
      "You got your ass handed to you, didn't you?"
      'Sulamee made a move to grab his plasma sword from its resting place on his hip only to find it had been removed. Emile de Becque chortled.
      "You saw him reach for it, Lieutenant. You owe me some cognac." Cable grudgingly nodded.
      "Yeah, I do." He gave 'Sulamee an annoyed look. "Thanks, jackass. As I was saying, you got your ass kicked somewhere and you couldn't go through with your stupid suicide, so you fled here with your tail between your legs." Quarell 'Sulamee looked up but refused to take the bait.
      "That's it, just as I thought. Now, where exactly did the UNSC wipe the floor with you?"
      "Had it not been for your orbital defense platforms—" 'Sulamee began but got no further.
      "Son of a bitch!" Cable exclaimed. "Emile, they've found Earth. Go inform Commander Harbison and Captain Brackett." De Becque nodded grimly and rushed out of the room. Cable immediately returned his attention to 'Sulamee.
      "So you found our home world, huh? How?" That got 'Sulamee's attention.
      "Your…home world?"
      "Yeah. Didn't you think there was quite a presence for such a seemingly unimportant planet?"
      "Unimportant to you, human," 'Sulamee said. "But hardly unimportant to the Covenant." Cable leaned forward over the back of the chair.
      "Why's that?" Without quite appreciating what he was doing, 'Sulamee spoke easily.
      "My fleet was sent not to crush you but to excavate the suspected site of a Forerunner artifact. By accident, the site happened to be your 'home world', human."
      "Damn. Someone in the network must have been unable to alter that particular piece of information." It was 'Sulamee's turn to be surprised.
      "Network? What network are you talking about?" Cable looked at the Sangheili with a mix of amusement and antipathy.
      "Don't be stupid. What do you think a bunch of humans are doing on this ice ball? We run an extensive intelligence network throughout the Covenant."
      "You mean you rely on traitors to the Covenant in order to further your unholy goals."
      "We call them intelligence sources, but yes. You'd be surprised at just how disgruntled some of your races are with the way Prophets have been running things. Particularly just how pissed off some of your Elite pals are about how much responsibility the Brutes have been allowed to hold." Quarell hissed.
      "They're filthy, undeserving apes, as are you." Cable chuckled.
      "That's almost exactly the sort of attitude that led so many to fall in with us. They saw us as worthy opponents with whom they've done battle with for decades, the Brutes as power hungry Neanderthals. Plus, we had no caste system so they could express their opinion of others more or less openly without fear of retribution. Honestly, it wasn't a very hard decision for some of them to switch sides. You know how much the Prophets have been favoring the Brutes lately." 'Sulamee grew incensed.
      "The Prophets are only doing so to make them feel welcomed into the absolution of the Covenant—"
      "Come off it, the Brutes have been around since Harvest. It bugs the hell out of you that they're beginning to retain so much of the Prophets' favor doesn't it? How those 'filthy, undeserving apes' as you called them have found so much standing? It makes every single Elite furious, you included." 'Sulamee looked up, his face unreadable, even for another Sangheili.
      Bingo, Cable thought to himself. That's our opening.

      Two days later, James McCall had checked out of the sick bay and was standing outside of his own personal quarters aboard the ship—was it a ship?—called the Valkyrie. Even though he'd been allowed to roam more or less freely, he'd been able to find nothing that resembled a bridge. There was a large engineering space, as evidenced by the fact that there seemed to be a blocked off portion of the ship or station, which he guessed was simply either life support or engines. Even though the mess hall he'd seen could comfortably seat a hundred or so, he'd seen precious few personnel, and each that he had talked to had been annoyingly pedantic about how classified the whole thing was. Well, James thought, that's ONI for you.
      For all James had been able to figure out, it could've easily been a space station, albeit a cramped one. His quarters for example were extremely neat and tidy, but they were absolutely tiny, even compared to his confined room on the Maverick. Artificial gravity ran throughout all the narrow, constricting hallways, and he hadn't seen any areas that looked like they spun at any time. There were no windows anywhere that he could find, either. The lack of freedom these details created had given him the claustrophobic sensation of living in a bunker or old fashioned submarine. Or, more accurately, a tomb. It was all he could do to keep from feeling like he was suffocating.
      The sound of approaching footsteps alerted him to Colonel Michael Becker walking down the narrow, low hallway to his left. Becker, despite his usual easy-going attitude had also been surprisingly secretive but James knew it was probably more of a desire to rag him around than to maintain security.
      It was only a few more moments before Becker appeared in his flight suit, wearing his usual knowing grin.
      "Ready, James?" McCall nodded.
      "I guess. So what's the big deal?" The knowing grin grew.
      "The big deal, James, is the F-602 Sabre." James nodded cynically.
      "Yeah, I know, it's all you've talked about for the past two days. What's so special about it?"
      "Come on, the flight deck isn't too far. I'll show you."
      Becker proceeded to lead James to his left, then down a series of passageways before arriving at a confining stairwell, which they both ascended. It only went up one deck, and then Becker led James in the opposite direction, back the way they had come.
      There were only two doors in this particular passageway, one at the far end labeled FLIGHT DECK, the other midway down the hall and labeled READY ROOM. Only the latter seemed to have any sort of decoration: the insignia of the VF-84 Jolly Rogers. Becker strolled right past it and escorted James to the flight deck doors. The only information that James was able to drag out of Becker during their trip was that the Sabre looked "tremendously cool", had "really cool capabilities", and was "just downright cool." James would have grown frustrated had he not known that it was part of Becker's normal personality to pull someone's leg.
      "Here we are," Becker announced as they stopped in front of the FLIGHT DECK door. "I've already got it all set up for you. Trust me, it's cool." James just nodded with a slight grin.
      "I'll believe it when I see it, man." Becker turned and hit a series of buttons on a keypad and the door slid open.
      The flight deck was simply a hangar, smaller than the one James was used to aboard the Maverick, though of a similar design. Two rows of six parking spaces occupied the deck, while two aircraft elevators sat at the far end. The entire space probably couldn't have held more than a four or five Longswords. The parking spaces were entirely too small. The only other notable thing about the bay was that it was totally empty.
      James cast a questioning look at Becker. "Michael?"
      "Follow me and watch your step," the Colonel ordered. James complied, but wondered why Michael had even bothered with the last part of the sentence; the only things that occupied the bay were parking chocks arranged in precise formation in each parking space.
      Becker made his way over to the nearest parking space on the right, stopped, and gazed upward with a beaming face. James followed his eyes: thin air.
      "Michael, are you sure you didn't get some of my meds or something?" The one-liner drew a chuckle.
      "No. Let's examine her from another angle." James sighed but tried to follow Becker by stepping over the parking chocks. Instead, he walked straight into something hard with a resounding clang. He toppled backwards with a splitting headache to the sound of Becker's laughter.
      Stunned, James managed to haul himself back to his feet and give Becker a bewildered look.
      "Wha—?" Becker finally quit laughing
      "Yeah, it caught me by surprise when they ended up adding the tech to the landing gear, too. Whoever designed these things must've wanted them to be totally invisible."
      "Michael, for the last time, what's going on?" Becker turned and gave a thumbs up to nothing. Within a few moments, the air started wavering like heat radiating from a sun-baked road. Then, James was treated to a view of the most advanced aircraft ever seen.
      The Sabre was unlike anything James had ever laid eyes on; if a C709 Longsword, was an oversized boomerang, then the Sabre was a sleek, jet black dart.
      It possessed a wingspan only a third the size of a 'Sword's, and a fuselage only two thirds as long. It sat lower to the ground, too, on shorter landing gear.
      The body of the plane was unusual. The nose seemed to be standard fare, but as his eyes traced their way over the aircraft, James noticed its most astounding feature: the cockpit; or rather the total absence of one. James saw no windows that even hinted at a space for a pilot. There were no control surfaces on the aircraft, either, and so he surmised that this thing had to use wing warp technology just like a Longsword. Interestingly, the fuselage tapered to an almost surfboard like tail just after what he guessed was a thin air intake on the top of the bird. James couldn't make out exactly where the engines were, though the intake was placed extremely close to what appeared to be an exceptionally flat exhaust port on the back.
      The entire aircraft seemed nearly organic. Unlike the Longsword, the Sabre had none of the jagged edges James had grown to associate with aircraft. Instead, it sported smooth, natural curves that only served to accentuate its slender profile.
      "This," Michael Becker said with no small hint of admiration, "is the Lockheed-Martin F-602 Sabre."
      "So I gathered," James said. "But I thought you said your squad flew these things. It's a drone."
      "No, no drone. We really do fly these."
      "Are you kidding me? There's no cockpit." Becker shook his head in amusement before giving a "c'mon" gesture to the airplane. Within a few moments, a section of the seemingly seamless airplane cracked open to reveal a man in a flight suit lying almost flat on his back. He swung his legs over the side of the Sabre and dropped seven feet to the floor.
      "James, I'd like you to meet Second Lieutenant Harold Hill, callsign 'Music Man'." Hill flashed James a quick, sly grin from underneath his short, black hair. He was taller than James by at least a half a foot and obviously older by at least a decade, probably in his mid to late thirties.
      "Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir," he said in a syrupy smooth voice.
      "And Harold, I'd like you to meet James McCall, one of my old Swordsmen, callsign 'Monster'." James and Hill shook hands pleasantly.
      "Interesting callsign, Lieutenant," James said by means of making polite conversation. "How'd you get it?" Hill's smooth smile slid into existence again.
      "Well, I'm always listening to music. Doesn't matter what kind so much as it's got a beat and I can tap my foot or bang my head along to it. Classical, soundtrack, jazz, rock, marching bands, barbershop quartets—"
      "Marching bands and barbershop quartets?" James asked with a chuckle. Hill's grin grew wider.
      "Yeah, you know," Hill said, obviously gearing up to launch into a song. "You know the march that starts out 'Seventy-six trombones led the big—" James laughed.
      "O.K. then, how about this one? It's barbershop," Hill said, clearing his throat. " Lida Rose, I'm home again, Rose…" He trailed off hoping that James might recognize the song but James was obviously clueless. "Maybe not."
      "Right," Michael said, sensing that continuing the conversation might just alienate the two. "Harold, how's about telling James just how the Sabre's systems work?"
      "Sure," Hill said, visibly crestfallen. "All right, the Sabre was designed in Lockheed-Martin's famous Skunk Works under the codename RIVER CITY. Thanks to her metamaterials construction, she has an even smaller radar cross section than a Longsword and is totally undetectable. Because of the emphasis on stealth over firepower, it's got a far lighter load than your old ride. It uses a less powerful version of the 'Sword's frequency agile attack radar. There's no CINVET, the pod's not stealthy enough. Sabres only carry twenty missiles, have no external hard points, and still use the old 110 millimeter rotary cannons because the plasma cannons are too noticeable and you can't fire a blast of plasma cold enough to avoid detection without making the weapon pointless."
      Hill walked counter-clockwise, leading James towards the back of the aircraft. "She uses one of those Boeing PDE-P51 Mustang engines to scoot. Nifty thing about that is that the Mustangs have a really complex system of baffles that cools the escaping gasses enormously on its own. When you're in space, the frigid temperatures keep there from being any sort of infrared signature at all. You could almost stick your head inside the exhaust and not hurt yourself.
      "The cockpit is a COFFIN system, which is short for Clear Operational Format for Flight Interface." James looked uneasy.
      "Sort of an unfortunate acronym." Hill pretended not to hear him.
      "It sounds complicated, but all it means is that every single part of that cockpit is a basically a screen. Fish eye lens cameras the size of pinheads on the outside of the fuselage record what's going on outside, correct for distortion, and project it through the back of the screens in real time to create the illusion that there's no aircraft around you. You can look at your feet and literally see the floor beneath you. It takes some getting used to, but you won't have to rely on those infernal rearview cameras like you did with a Longsword.
      "The biggest feature, however, is the ACES system," Harold said as he walked under the bird to admire at it from underneath.
      "What's that stand for?"
      "Nothing. The actual acronym for the thing is so convoluted that we ended up just using the codename they developed it under."
      "It's what allowed the Sabre to seem invisible. Basically, the skin of the bird is constructed out of metamaterials, the stuff I mentioned earlier. Metamaterials have properties determined by their structure instead of their composition." James shook his head.
      "In English?" Hill nodded.
      "Yeah, I know it's hard to follow. The physics of it are way over my head, but put simply the metamaterials resonate at a specific color frequency to cancel out a frequency of light, and they can only cancel out one frequency at a time. It's kind of like a rock in a stream; the materials keep the fuselage from absorbing light much like a rock causes water to flow around it. When light hits these materials while they're resonating, it travels along the surface without actually ever touching and then releases on the backside on its initial vector.
      "Did you understand any of what you just said?" James said humorously. Hill rolled his eyes.
      "No. All I do understand is that it works, and beautifully. There's another form of it that they were even able to broadcast over the wheels somehow. The weird thing though, is that the metamaterials can only resonate with one frequency of radiation at a time. In execution, though, it's far better than even the Covenant cloaking technology because it's totally uninterruptible provided you don't run into anything, which is its only weakness. It can't simulate anything passing through because an identical pair of rocks would definitely attract attention in space."
      "So if these things only resonate at one frequency at a time, how was the Sabre invisible when I looked at it?"
      "Well, the ACES system uses electrical currents on the skin of the bird to continuously change the structure. It actually changes at such a fast speed that your eye can't catch it. It shows up the same way on screens, too. The thing is undetectable." Hill paused for a moment.
      "The only flaw is that the ACES system blocks a lot of radar signals, too. You're stuck with guns and heat-seeking missiles in combat unless you're in deep space where the light is faint enough to focus on fewer light frequencies. You can opt to turn off the system to go fully offensive, but you lose a lot of your advantages."
      "So," Becker said as he clasped a hand on James's shoulder. "What do you think?"
      "Cool," James answered with a long, low whistle. "Very, very cool."
      "Good, because as of this moment, you are Jolly Roger Four. Report back here at 1700 for some familiarity training." James snapped to attention.
      "Yes, sir!"
      " Welcome to the squad, little buddy," Becker chuckled.

      "I used to mine the gold in these glaciers," Emile de Becque explained to 'Sulamee. The interrogation had gone on for more than three hours and despite early, promising indications showed no signs of ending soon. 'Sulamee had sat in the same position in stony silence for the vast majority of it, and nothing that Cable and de Becque tried had worked. They knew torturing him would ultimately be useless and probably counterproductive in this case as his deep shame could possibly drive him to close up totally. In desperation, they'd taken to just staring at the Elite for a full half an hour. Finally, out of boredom, 'Sulamee had asked a single question of them:
      "How in the Prophets' name did you come to this place?"
      "I owned a company that used specialized equipment in order to dig in these glaciers," de Becque went on. "We'd drill from the top of the glaciers, extract blocks of ice with particularly large veins, melt them, and then smelt the gold that remained back in orbit. It was extremely dangerous but profitable work. You see, 'Sulamee, all the gold has been depleted from our home planet, so it's become a very valuable commodity; it is not found on every planet we colonized."
      "And when war broke out between us and the Covenant, ONI realized this place would make a perfect intelligence base," Cable continued. The never-ending storms and electronic interference not only made it difficult for Emile's company to get the gold to orbit to smelt and ship, but they also spoofed our most sophisticated sensors. As a matter of fact, in order to communicate with anyone we had to put a communications satellite into orbit that was powerful enough to punch through the interference on a very narrow frequency. Even then we barely heard your broadcast."
      "Indeed," de Becque broke in again. "When the Covenant got close enough to the planet, my operation became unfeasible. I had my crews drill a series of caverns throughout some of the many glaciers to use for ONI. By happy circumstances the first Covenant commander to stumble upon this place was secretly a dissident. That was the beginning of our intelligence network."
      "You mean the beginning of their heresy," Quarell growled. Cable and de Becque traded knowing glances.
      "You're really in a rut about that, aren't you?" Cable asked in an almost sarcastic tone. 'Sulamee, despite his inexperience with the humans' tongue, managed to catch the gist of the question and threw a dangerous eye towards Cable.
      "Be careful what you say, vermin."
      "Or what?" Cable shot back. "You'll go back to the Covenant with the location of this base? I'm sure they'd be happy too see you, what with your massive defeat at human hands." Quarell looked away once more and reverted back to his silence.
      "Oh yeah, very happy. They'd probably throw some sort of extravaganza while a Brute chieftain ripped your guts out."
      'Sulamee's jaws clicked open and then shut; he knew he was fast losing the argument, but he didn't want to admit it to these scum.
      "Man, what a waste of potential. Shame you were fighting for the wrong side." Cable got no rise out of the Elite, so he carried on.
      "Fighting for those Prophets." He made a tsking noise. "Man, they led you and the rest of the Sangheili around by your noses, didn't they?" Cable leaned in close while de Becque remained at a slight distance. Cable's voice dropped to a near-whisper.
      "I'll let you in on a secret. They've lied to you." The former Fleet Master's body quivered with barely concealed rage.
      "By the time you leave this room, 'Sulamee, you're going to know the truth."

Two days later

      "Okay, James," came Michael Becker's voice over the COM. "You remember where everything is, right?"
      "Yeah," James replied, though his voice was a bit shaky. He'd familiarized himself with the cockpit over the last two days, but it was still intimidating. The stick was on the right, the pedals were under his feet and the throttle was on his left. The layout was almost identical to the Longsword. Even the air hose connected to the same hole. Still, it was hard for James to shake the sensation of being buried alive when the canopy closed over him. The lack of light was almost overpowering, pressing in on all sides. The pilot had to force himself to stay calm.
      "All right, then," Becker said. "Activate the COFFIN system."
      "Roger, activating the COFFIN system," James responded a bit meekly. His fingers pressed a series of button on the right hand armrest.
      "COFFIN system coming on line in three…two…one…now."
      The screens all flashed to life at once, illuminating the enclosed cockpit with a sudden light that made James wince. Various diagnostics scrolled over them all in rapid fashion before they flashed once again and James found himself to be sitting in mid-air a good seven feet above the ground. He was forced to fight an abrupt sense of vertigo as his eyes and mind fought for control of his senses.
      He hastily gained control of himself. Taking deep breaths, he took in his surroundings.
      He was laying almost flat in midair in the hangar, the other Sabres surrounding him. He spoke a single sentence to no one.
      "Initiate preflight checks and begin launch checklist."
      "Initiating preflight checks and beginning launch checklist, stop preflight checklist, stop launch checklist," the onboard computer answered back. When James didn't countermand his order, the computer continued to work through the preflight and launch checklists.
      "Engine lit and in the green with ninety-eight percent efficiency, weapon stores check; all weapons safe, loadout as follows: twenty AMRIM-24 Viper missiles, two ASM-54 Copperhead missiles, and eight-thousand rounds of 110-millimeter rotary cannon ammunition, hydraulics systems all check green, electrical systems all check green…"
      It was still faster than doing it himself, but James couldn't help but be bored to tears by the curious female voice addressing him, known to most pilots as "Bitching Betty" because she screamed warnings, commands, and alerts out like some sort of obsessive-compulsive, overbearing girlfriend. Females in the military had a male counterpart in their birds which they had nicknamed "Bitching Billy", apparently because some bureaucrat hundreds of years ago decided that military personnel would respond faster to voices of the opposite sex. It was comical. What wasn't was his loadout; if the mission was simply supposed to be reconnaissance, why did he need anti-ship missiles?
      "Preflight checklist complete. Beginning launch checklist."
      His pulse began to race slightly as he saw a mechanic pull away the parking chocks and scurry out of the way as the stealthy machine's engine revved up. The pilot issued only one more command.
      "Begin taxiing and launch sequences."
      "Beginning taxiing and launch sequences, stop sequences," the computer replied. A second later the aircraft rolled smoothly from its parking spot and towards the elevator pads at the far end of the hangar. James didn't even have to keep his hands on the controls; they moved on their own accord, easily mimicking what James would have done had he been taxing the aircraft himself. James shook his head in amazement; the technology involved was incredible and took a load of the pilot's shoulders, freeing him to think about the objectives. However, the robotic feel of the plane, all its automations it seemed to rob the fighter of any soul.
      The Sabres in front of his bird auto-taxied onto the elevator pads and locked into place with a thunk that was barely audible through the COFFIN system. The pads activated and lifted the Sabres up into the air locks in the ceiling, paused as they cycled through them, and moved again as they elevated the Sabres into the launching bay. A muted rumble announced the catapults flinging the aircraft into the black.
      A moment later the pads cycled back down through the air locks and reset themselves. James's Sabre robotically taxied forward and paused; the pilot heard the same thunk as the wheels on the plane magnetically locked down on the pad. The bird jolted as the pad raised up through the air locks before pausing momentarily to allow the air to be sucked out, a process that took only a few seconds.
      Finally, the pad pushed him into the launch bay, a space much smaller than the hangar, at least by comparison. He tried to make out what was beyond the bay but there was a surprisingly strong glare blinding him rather than the inky vacuum he'd expected. He briefly tried maximizing the polarization on his helmet to no effect; the glare was simply too strong. Bewildered, he keyed his COM.
      "Valkyrie control, this is Jolly Roger Four," he spoke as he squinted against the bright light. "What am I looking at?" This time a male voice answered, though it was obviously still synthesized. James wasn't surprised, though; it seemed like everything was computer controlled aboard the Valkyrie, whatever it was.
      "Jolly Roger—Four," the voice replied haltingly. "The Valkyrie is currently orbiting a forested planet similar in size to—Earth. Despite the fact that your objective is currently on the night side of the planet, please remember that the Covenant are firmly in control of the entire world. Regrettably, in order to—shield—your aircraft from enemy sensors more effectively, we have been forced to—launch away from the planet and towards the sun. The resulting visual interference—should allow the ACES system to achieve even greater operational results as it will not need to—deflect particular sensor types until proximity to the sensors demands it."
      "Figures," James muttered to himself. He resettled back into his seat. The most advanced technology in the UNSC's arsenal was telling him everything he'd heard in the briefing: the mission was a simple recon flight, that was all.
      "Valkyrie control, this is Jolly Roger Four requesting takeoff clearance."
      "Roger, Jolly Roger Four, clearance granted. Warning: you will be under AWACS Coyote's jurisdiction following launch in case an emergency arises. Catapult shot in t-minus ten seconds."
      James rechecked his master caution panel; nothing. The engine was lit and showing green.
      The wings flexed and contracted and the exhaust slats slanted every which way as James unconsciously tested his control surfaces. He moved the throttle to full military power. The Mustang's dull roar grew louder in his ears.
      The catapult's shuttle hooked onto the Sabre's front wheels and locked the bird down. The fighter's nose dropped slightly, like a leopard ready to pounce. James took one final breath and looked straight ahead.
      The catapult activated, yanking the Sabre down the track and sending it roaring out into space. The g-forces rammed James deep into the cushioning of his seat as he quickly commanded his Sabre into a climb to get away from his wingman, Jolly Roger Three, callsign "Riff", in order to avoid the possibility of collision.
      "All right, Jolly Rogers, this is Jolly Roger One," Becker spoke over the COM. "When you've finished launching, form up, activate your autopilots and ACES systems."
      The flights all reported in the affirmative, and one by one the Sabres slipped out of existence.

      "I feel the need…the need…for speed!"
      The line was so corny James couldn't help but laugh. Had anyone ever actually thought dialogue like that was good? It was almost uproariously bad. Still, the blonde chick was pretty good looking, and—
      The screen rudely winked back to the bright colors of the planet above him. Not too far in front of him hung the objective: a Covenant fleet in geo-synchronous orbit above the largest city on the planet. They were in a globe-like defensive formation that was designed to allow their shields to overlap.
      They're hiding something.
      He checked the location of the other Jolly Rogers. The squadron was still in formation, the autopilots having kept the birds on their pre-planned flight path perfectly. He couldn't really see them, of course; the ACES systems were working wonderfully. The computer was approximating their positions by triangulating low intensity radio signals they were sending out, even some hidden within the Covenant battle net. To the enemy it would simply sound like static or a technical issue, but it allowed the Sabres to remain hidden, appearing on James's screen as they would have had the ACES systems not been active.
      James saw Becker wiggle his wings, the signal to break formation and observe. There were no acknowledgements from the other Sabres as each pair split off and made their way to the fleet; COM silence was still in effect.
      McCall quickly tucked his Sabre in behind Riff, who elected to lead the two of them straight below the fleet.
      They slid stealthily under the Covie ships, observing nothing out of the ordinary. It was bizarre seeing the Covie ships with their smooth lines not highlighted by blasts of plasma. They reminded James of great whales, sort of elegant despite their purpose.
      That was when the ship at the bottom of the ball moved, revealing an object like nothing James had ever seen.
      It was large, easily the length of a Covenant cruiser, but constructed of a darker, rougher looking metal. It consisted of two thick, equally sized hexagons, far bulkier than normal for a Covenant ship. They were connected by a much smaller, diamond-shaped structure that set longwise with them.
      What had caught James's eyes had been the movement of the Covie ship. What caused them to grow as wide as dinner plates were the gathering motes of energy in the hexagon's gigantic plasma cannons.
      James slammed the throttle forward and snap turned to the right as Bitching Betty began screaming in his ears. An enormous blast of bright plasma punched through the space his Sabre had occupied only a moment earlier. Stars exploding in his eyes from his rods and cones misfiring, James glanced back over his shoulder and watched the blast of plasma rapidly descend like some unholy pillar of fire toward the city. It took only a few moments. The plasma flashed down and slammed into the metropolis, engulfing it in a colossal hellfire that flattened anything in its path.
      Oh, shit!
      James hurriedly tried to find Riff, looking all around, but the glare from the continuous fire of that…that thing made it impossible. Had Riff even managed to get out of the way fast enough? He checked the radar box in his HUD, but it was a sea of confused signals. There was simply too much interference for the Sabres low key communications to work.
      Just when it appeared the situation couldn't get any worse…
      "Warning: ACES system failure. Repeat, ACES system failure. Automatically attempting emergency system flush and restart. Repeat, ACES—"
      James shut the alarm off by voice command, painfully aware that the Covenant could clearly see him. If he was lucky, the plasma was doing to their sensors what it was doing to his. Maybe they couldn't see him thanks to the brightness of the plasma—
      No such luck. The ships in range on the bottom of the formation quickly zeroed in on him and opened up with their triple-A batteries. McCall flashbacked to the last time he'd taken on the enemy's point defenses, which hadn't ended particularly well for him. His breath caught slightly in his throat at that realization. Fortunately, he didn't freeze up but instead put his Sabre through its paces, jinking like a madman.
      Amidst all the chaos, a new voice clawed its way through the interference and broke the COM silence.
      "This is AWACS Coyote," said a deep male voice that—despite its obviously panicked tone—commanded respect. "Jolly Rogers, we have an emergency situation on our hands. The Covenant have deployed a super weapon designed for orbital bombardment. Your orders are to destroy it by any means possible." Is he nuts? James wondered as he dodged a particularly close shot from a frigate's guns. Evidently, Becker was asking himself the same thing.
      "Coyote, Jolly Roger leader. Say again, did not copy your last transmission." Coyote's voice came back, slightly irritated, but settling from his earlier panic.
      "Jolly Roger leader, Coyote. I repeat, ROE weapons green, you are cleared to engage!"
      "Understood, Coyote. Who's still alive?"
      "Leader, Four. I'm still alive but my ACES system's fried. It's attempting a restart but nothing yet. I've lost track of Three."
      "Lead, Eight here," said Harold Hill. "I'm fine, but Seven took a graze. Her ACES system's gone."
      "Leader, Six. Five's EVA. His Sabre took a hit on the way to the rally point. He's trying to set himself high up in orbit enough to be picked up the Valk. With your permission, sir, I'd like to stay with him and make sure he makes it back."
      "Granted, Six. Two's still alive but I've lost all contact with him and positioning. Something's wrong with his COM system.," Becker reported, his normally even voice obviously frustrated. "We're going to have to do this the hard way. All damaged aircraft, RTB. The rest of you, continue the fight. If you've lost your wingman, join up with someone else who has, too. Forget formal pairings if you have to. I'm dropping a nav point. Rally here."
      McCall, now at the edge of the defensive batteries' range, swung his bird around to rendezvous, only to discover he was already in position. Well, he thought, that's convenient. Several Sabres came streaking out of the firestorm of pulse laser blasts. Only a few peeled off to join him, orbiting only a few kilometers from the Covenant formation. The others blasted right on past, apparently too damaged to stay in the battle. In a moment more, Becker had jointed him, too.
      James took a quick headcount. There were only five Sabres left.
      "All right Jolly Rogers, here's how we're going to do it. We're coming from them from below. The interference from that super weapon's shots should keep them from accurately targeting us. Get close to launch your Copperheads and get out of there. We're not going to be able to do much to it, but—shit! It's moving!"
      Indeed, the entire formation was moving counter to the planet's slow rotation, the super weapon raining brilliant death in a broad, straight swath.
      "They're going to glass the whole damn planet. Let's move."
      The five Sabres rolled out, their Mustangs at maximum power as they screamed toward the super weapon. The Covenant fire focused once again on the wedge of aircraft.
      "Break!" Becker ordered.
      James dove, away from the majority of the Covenant fire and toward the bottom of the formation. He knew he would have to get close to launch his missiles. The fire from the ships could probably nail it if he launched them at their operational limit. By the same token, if he got too close he'd make an appealing target for some Covie gunner.
      On top of all that, Betty was still bitching in his ear. "Attention: ACES system online!"
      Okay, so maybe she was good for something.
      He kept his Sabre dancing left and right, spinning to make his small bird's profile even more difficult to target anyway. After all, his ACES system could fail again. Still, he was getting closer in his wild dance with death, closer to a position where he could launch his Copperheads.
      Just as he was about to slip between a Covie ship and the super weapon's blasts, an explosion rocked him, causing him to nearly collide with a destroyer's shields. Had the Covenant hit one of their own shields? Or had it been a Jolly Roger? No time to ask.
      He switched to his ASM-54 Copperheads by voice command and activated his radar. When he did, Covenant fire became even more intense—a feat that James hadn't thought possible. They didn't seem to care about the possibility of hitting their own ships.
      He used the Sabre's LEMRS system to lock on to the super weapons small diamond structure, praying it was the bridge. He managed a shaky tone and suspected he would get no better.
      "Jolly Roger Four, bruiser! Bruiser!"
      His main bay doors flew open and both ASM-54 Copperhead missiles lanced out on short-lived contrails toward their targets.
      The lead missile never even got close. A pulse laser blast nailed it almost immediately, forcing James to fly through a small fireball. His master caution panel lit up like a Christmas tree and Betty began bitching about something regarding his engine.
      The second missile, however, hit home, punching a surprisingly large, jagged hole in the diamond shaped structure's armor. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any effect and the fire continued unabated.
      James yanked the stick hard right but the Sabre didn't respond. Adrenaline spiked through his system. He tried again.
      Suddenly he realized Betty had been screaming that he'd lost all thrust vectoring from his engines. He couldn't maneuver at all and as a result he was locked into a ballistic path with the diamond structure, which was rapidly filling his COFFIN's screens.
      His hands reflexively flew to a pair of handles, one on each side of his seat.
      "Jolly Roger Four has experienced control failure, ejecting!" He lay as flat as he could make himself on his seat and yanked the handles upward.
      He tried the handles again to no effect as the Daemon rushed ominously onward in the COFFIN's screens.
      "Grit, you lousy sonuvabi—"
      The Sabre crashed into the Daemon's underbelly in a spectacular fireball, wiping James from existence.

      Twenty minutes later, there was only one question on James's lips: "Michael," he said, obviously perturbed as he seat in his cramped chair. "What the hell was that thing?" The Jolly Rogers all carried the same sentiment. They were in the squadron's ready room, a restricted space just big enough to seat all twelve members of the squadron in their flight gear, neatly in three rows of four. It was here that they received briefings and debriefings, and generally congregated for fun. After all, the only other space large enough to accommodate them all was the mess hall, but by unwritten rule no one wanted to associate with someone of a lesser ilk—like the cooks—if they could avoid it.
      At the moment all the chairs were occupied by the frustrated Jolly Rogers. Unlike normal, there was no laughing, no friendly backslapping. It was time to get down to business.
      "A little something Grit dreamed up," Becker stated with no particular enthusiasm and just a hint of resentment. "Grit?" The AI materialized in the room's small holotank, his bandanna and chaps fluttering in a nonexistent wind. He took his time to speak, first adjusting his cowboy hat so that it sat lower on his head, then situating his belt so that his pearl-handled revolvers were clearly visible. The Jolly Rogers simply shifted from glaring ruefully at their commander to glaring ruefully at the designer of the simulator run that had handily handed them their asses.
      "Good mornin', y'all. I—oh.," Grit faltered as he caught the pilots' glares. "I can see nobody appreciates my work."
      "It sucked," somebody mumbled in the back. Grit, rather than becoming upset, snorted in amusement.
      "Everybody's a critic. Anyway, Lieutenant, what you ran into was a theoretical Covenant super weapon which is tentatively codenamed 'Daemon'. It's designed to reduce the time it takes to glass a planet by focusing solely on that task. Within a few dozen hours the planet would have been utterly destroyed.
      "The formation you saw protecting the Daemon was our best guess at what type of fleet and tactics the Covenant would deploy to protect such a weapon. They surrounded the Daemon from all directions as it has no self-defense systems to speak of. When it's time to bombard, the bottommost ship moves out of the way, but the fire from the Daemon discourages all but the craziest—" the AI's image threw James a quick glance "—from getting too close."
      Grit shifted his weight then continued talking. "As you all saw, the Daemon is tremendously effective. Its weapon uses blasts of superheated plasma—"
      "All plasma's superheated," came another mumbled remark from the back.
      Grit halted, this time clearly annoyed. "And you would be?" A man of middling build with close cropped blonde hair stood up from his seat in the last row, his New York accent dripping with sarcasm.
      "A-Rab." Grit blinked.
      "A-Rab," the man repeated.
      "Odd, you look Eastern European, not…Oh, I see. Very clever," Grit said. He'd obviously pulled up the man's records. "Very clever, Flight Officer Aaron Rabinowicz. You're on KP starting right now and ending whenever I feel like it. Understood? Besides, you sure as hell don't have a whole lot to brag about. You were obliterated a few seconds into the engagement, failing to last long enough to even cover your wingman. Pathetic." A-Rab, stung by the public rebuke and his assigned punishment, dropped meekly back into his seat.
      "Belay that," Becker said, a hint of his normal good humor showing through. Grit turned to face the squadron commander, ever so slightly letting his palms brush against his pearl-handled revolvers.
      "Colonel, this is a clear issue of insolence," Grit stated, somehow making the middle syllable of the last word sound more like "suhl" than "soul."
      "Oh no, I agree," Becker said while nodding his assent. "But what you have to understand, Grit, is that A-Rab is the official squadron cynic. His position grants him immunity from AI's with overblown egos who decide to drop in a super weapon on what ought to have been a standard exercise."
      "You gave me permission to design the new runs, sir. As I recall, you thought my idea of basing them on the latest intel reports was an 'excellent idea'. Am I wrong?" Becker shook his head.
      "No, no, I'm still in favor of it. I just find it hard to believe that ONI would send us out into the field without the slightest idea of what we're going up against."
      "I fully briefed you and your men, Colonel. I included everything that could have been in such a briefing."
      "You're changing the subject," Becker rebuffed. "Surely intel would have recognized the type of fleet since to cover this type of weapon and extrapolated from there. Anyway, A-Rab is off KP duty until I say so, got it? He also gets to make smart-ass remarks whenever he wants too."
      "Since when?"
      "Since now. A-Rab, as official squadron cynic, you're off KP." A-Rab leaned back in his chair, giving Grit a good view of the snarky smile he was wearing. Emboldened, he gave one last parting shot.
      "Hey, Grit, at least my gun's big enough that I don't need two of them." The ready room collectively snickered. Becker glanced back over.
      "One night's KP duty. I despise low blows."

      "The technique," Sterling said as he ripped off another gigantic bite of his cheeseburger and began to chew in the lounge known as Afterburner, "issimple. Yew haveto expwode upwahrd once yew getdaweight up toyerthighs—" He swallowed. "And you have to get the weight there really quickly or you lose all your momentum and can't clean it. The real key, though, is being tall enough that you can leverage your upper body's strength into both the initial jerk and pushing it up once you're under it."
      "Right," Glenn responded. "And I'm a leprechaun."
      "Seriously, that's all there is to it. I can't help it that, you know, you're so, well—"
      "Just say it."
      "Guys. I asked you a question," Samantha Matthews broke in. She was seated in the same booth. It would have been impossible for them not to have heard her.
      "Oh, sorry," Sterling said.
      "Yeah, we apologize," Glenn followed up immediately.
      "It wasn't like, you know, we were ignoring you or anything—"
      "Despite the fact that we were already eating when you and Zoë showed up—"
      "And wanted to discuss something totally not related to our very serious, very intense discussion of the—"
      "Life or death matter of hang cleaning."
      "That's a matter of life and death?" she asked disbelievingly. Beard and Varner traded knowing glances.
      "Couldn't be more important."
      "Lives hang in the balance."
      "It could just save the polar bears."
      "It might end up being the key to defeating the Covenant."
      "All I asked is what you thought was wrong with Marcus." The pilot was clearly exasperated.
      "Battle fatigue," Varner answered.
      "Shell shock," Beard added.
      "You think he fought a turtle?"
      "Yeah. And got fatigued from it." Matthews sighed and turned to her wingmate.
      "How about you, Zoë?"
      "Huh?" Zoë had, as usual, been a little bit out of it.
      "I said, what do you think is wrong with Marcus?"
      "Oh, that's easy. His flight suit is too tight. It makes him uncomfortable."
      "Wait, lemme get this straight," Varner jumped back in. "You think the Major has gone loco in la cabeza because his flight suit is too tight? I think you're nuts."
      "I'm a woman, Sterling; I don't have those."
      "Well," Samantha said, "I think he's become a recluse because—"
      "No, I'm not finished yet!" Zoë Park protested from her seat in the booth. Samantha buried her head in her hands.
      "Zoë, no offense, but I really don't think that Marcus is upset because his flight suit is too tight."
      "Well, it's what irritates me! I mean, can you imagining having to fit these things into my flight suit like I do every single day? It gets old. I have to wear—" Samantha tuned out her and the men who were unsuccessfully trying to cover up their laughing, pondering her own speculations instead.
      "I think he's clinically depressed," she stated. "He's surrounded by good friends most of the time. I mean, even though he's got us around him twenty-four-seven, he never really busts a gut laughing. Does anyone here know if he's on any meds?" Her question was met with shaking heads. "I mean, think about it," she continued as she absentmindedly poked at her spaghetti. "The only one of us to ever get close to him was James. Now that he's gone, Marcus has gone off the deep end."
      "So he wasn't always this bad?" Sterling Varner asked from across the booth.
      "Well, like you said," Glenn Beard interrupted, speaking around his mouthful of cheeseburger, "he's just lost his best friend. Give him some time, he'll snap out of it."
      "Snap out of it? Yeah, the keyword in there was 'best friend', Glenn."
      "That's two keywords."
      "Whatever. If he doesn't snap out of it—"
      "He will," Beard said as he finally swallowed. He licked his lips obnoxiously.
      "You wanna bet? As I recall, the last one didn't turn out so well for you." Beard scowled as the recent loss of ten dollars stung him.
      "How did you clean three hundred pounds, anyway?"
      "Guys, focus," Matthews said.
      "As I was saying, if he doesn't snap out of it, who's next in line for leadership of the squadron?" Samantha considered for a moment.
      "That'd probably be Hunter."
      "Captain Communicative, huh? Let's hope he does snap out of it, then." Hunter was nowhere to be seen or else Varner never would have made that remark. Hunter was normally a teddy bear but he was perfectly capable of choke slamming anyone clear through a table if provoked.
      "No, that's the point. He wasn't the life of the party but he at least interacted. He's spent the last four days locked in his stateroom, only emerging for meals and not speaking to anyone. He has a kind of thousand-mile stare. I'm really worried about him."
      Samantha was going to continue her line of thinking but stopped when she realized that everyone was staring past her, towards the doors. She turned around to look and there in the doorway stood Marcus Easley.
      And he looked like hell.
      Heavy bags sat under his eyes, dark enough they made his eye sockets appear almost like caverns. A good four days of growth had allowed his facial hair to hit a gray area between stubbly and a full blown beard. His shoulders were slumped in exhaustion. Still, there was a noticeable lack of tension that was palpable, almost as if he had had a heavy weight removed from his shoulders. He seemed slightly more at ease with the world as he walked right by his squadmates and toward and empty booth. They watched him as he sat down and ordered from his booth's screen. After about ten seconds had passed, he seemed to shake out of his stupor and notice that the four of them were staring at him with all the respect and privacy an entomologist might give a reproducing stick-bug.
      "Marcus," said Samantha, obviously surprised, "you're…alive." Marcus leaned away from her slightly, confused by her sudden interest.
      "Last time I checked, I was."
      "Marcus, I'll be frank. We're all concerned about you. You've barely left your room for days." Marcus considered for a moment.
      "How long ago was the battle?"
      "Four days ago."
      "Wow," Marcus said. "I guess I have been in my room a lot."
      "Yes, you have. Marcus, what were you doing in there for four days, anyway?" Marcus hesitated before answering.
      "Reading." Samantha blinked.
      "Reading," she repeated.
      "Yeah, I've been reading a, uh…really good book."
      "For four days? What was it, Moby Dick?"
      "Look, I'd rather not talk about it. It's kind of private."
      "Marcus, it's nothing to be embarrassed about," Zoë Park said as she moved over into his booth, slid next to him. She cooed into his ear as she leaned on him and snaked her right arm around behind his back before embracing him in a hug. Marcus jumped as if struck by lightning, a horrified look on his face.
      "What's nothing to be embarrassed about, Zoë?"
      "Marcus, you can relax, I've got it all figured out," she continued. Marcus's color dropped a considerable way towards white. "Your—"
      "I'm not!" Marcus half-yelled as he attempted to stand up in the booth, banging his knees into the bottom of the table as his painful reward at pre-emption.
      "You didn't let me finish," Zoë continued as she pulled Marcus back down into his seat. "Your flight suit is too tight in the crotch." Marcus sat in stunned silence, his muscles totally locked up. Without warning color came rushing back into his face and he roared the biggest belly laugh that any of the squad members had ever seen. He laughed until he grabbed his stomach from pain. He laughed until he had tears in his eyes. He laughed until—no longer able to support himself—he slid underneath the table.
      Mercifully, his order of a BLT came quickly and he escaped the room without any further interrogation. He left the room, the plate shaking in his hand, his laugh reverberating down the corridor like some sort of jolly ghost.
      Afterburner sat in stunned silence for well over a minute.
      "Porn," Glenn stated. The squadmates turned to look at him.
      "What did you just say?" Samantha asked.
      "He's reading porn in his stateroom." Samantha was incredulous.
      "For four days?"
      "Name me something else that would keep a guy secluded for that long. He's probably beating himself up knowing that he can't have any of the models. His soul's crushed, so he's fallen into a deep funk. Because it's porn, he's embarrassed to talk about it."
      "Then explain the screaming and howling he was having when you and I found him," Varner challenged. "The only kind of dream he could conceivably get from pornography is—"
      "Exactly," Glenn said as he nodded sagely, leaning back in the booth while brining his cup of coffee to his lips. However, he was forced to duck to avoid the dozen or so napkins his squadmates threw at him.