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The Project - Chapter 1: And their name was Ach Barrow
Posted By: stan<stantrl@gmail.com>
Date: 13 February 2006, 6:26 am

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       Lt. Marcus Hanson had never felt more confused in his life. He was pretty sure it was Friday, but anything further than that was beyond his comprehension. In the last five days he had been sent from one office to another, traveling millions of miles across the galaxy to report first to one captain before being shuffled off to another and then a third, all the while having no idea what is was he was supposed to be doing.

       Earlier that week, and for two years before that, Hanson had been in command of a small squad of marines based on a remote outpost charged with the task of intercepting, analyzing, and relaying to the proper authorities whatever covenant transmissions might come their way; which, as it turned out, were very few. In fact, for the last two years Lieutenant Hanson had done little more than count the number of dimples in the ceiling tiles of his small office and attempt to tend a successful herb garden in a low-gravity mixed-gas environment.

      Yet, having done so little and having conversed but rarely with any of his superiors in over two years, nonetheless five days ago he had been contacted by a staff officer in the Office of Naval Intelligence who had informed him that he was to report to one Cpt. Gerald Lamkin as soon as he could find transport. Thus began the five day whirlwind of referrals, confused staff officers, and long inter-stellar rides that by now had left him in a state of such confusion that he hardly knew who he was, let alone what anyone at the Office of Naval Intelligence could possibly want with him.

       It was in this state that he walked, blank faced and bleary eyed, down a long, dimly lit corridor of a non-descript ONI installation located on the smallest moon of an equally non-descript planet (if a planet can be described as such) led by a stone-faced staff officer who had not spoken a single word since Hanson had arrived and presented him with what he thought was the proper letter of referral from the last officer he had met. At length the staff officer stopped at a door marked only with the letters "OCHBARO".

      "Ach Barrow?" mumbled Hanson to himself as he waited for the staff officer to punch in his entry code and open the door.

       "This way," said the staff officer when he had finished.

       "I'm sorry?" asked Hanson distractedly.

       The staff officer, who had apparently reached his speech quota for the day, made no reply but to jerk his head impatiently towards the open door.

       "Oh 'this way' ok, I thought that's what you said. I uh, eh never mind. This way. Ok."

       As he entered the room into which the door led, his confusion was replaced by a kind of general unease. The room itself was as non-descript as the corridor that led to it and the installation that housed it, but the man sitting behind the desk was something quite different.

      "Ah, Lieutenant Hanson, very good, very good we've been waiting for you," said the man with a welcoming smile. "Come in, come in have a seat. Yes, there we are, just have a seat and I'll be with you in a moment.

       "Oh, and Reynolds," (so, the staff officer had a name) "could you bring me the file we were discussing earlier? Thank you."

       As Reynolds left, the man behind the desk took a long, quizzical look around the room as if it was he who had just entered it for the first time and not Hanson. Finally, after what seemed to Hanson an inordinately long amount of time, his glace came to rest on the seated lieutenant, who, after another very long moment, began to squirm uncomfortably in his (not at all uncomfortable) chair. As he squirmed, and while the man behind the desk continued to stare at him smiling, Hanson was able to get a good look at his companion. Though he was sitting at a desk, Hanson could tell he was tall, nearly 6 foot 5 if he had to guess, with light grey hair, and a severe but not un-inviting face that was highlighted by the sharpest Roman (what is a Roman?) nose Hanson had ever seen. Though the man wore the standard ONI uniform, Hanson could find no mark of rank or position.

       The two men sat staring at each other without speaking for a further five minutes before Reynolds returned with the file requested.

       "Ah. Reynolds. Yes. Very good. The file. Thank you," spoke the man in an accent which Hanson couldn't quite place, though it sounded very academic.

       "So, Lieutenant Hanson, I imagine you have had quite the run around lately, I apologize, but in a war there are always mix-ups you agree yes? In any case, I wonder, do you have any idea what it is we have asked you here for today?"

       "I, well, no sir, I have no idea. Frankly I am very confused."

       "Yes, yes, there should be some confusion, that would be natural would it not? However, look here Lieutenant," said the man pointing to the file, which he held in such a way as to make it impossible for Hanson to comply. "You can see quite clearly that you were called here after only the most careful consideration and for the most important of reasons. Oh yes Lieutenant, it is all very clear, very clear. Just look here and I will show you.

       "Lieutenant Hanson," the man continued after a slight pause, "my name is Brenton Lordsly, and I am the leading researcher on a project deemed by the Office of Naval Intelligence to be of the utmost import for the war effort. Now, in time we will get to what exactly it is that we do here at Ach Barrow, but let me first inform you why it is that you are here, as I'm sure that it is that which you wish most of all to learn. Am I correct in thinking so Lieutenant?"

       Hanson merely stared dumbly at the man and waited for him to continue.

       "Well," said Lordsly when he was sure Hanson would make no reply, "you sir have been picked from a list of numerous eligible candidates to play a key role in our project. The candidates on that list were chosen, oh, well, for many reasons; their character, their physical stature, their mental capacities, but also for their experiences, indeed, most importantly for their experiences in the war; for what they have accomplished for the war effort. Your qualities Lieutenant Hanson, your admirable record, and most of all your experience have placed you at the top of that list. That is why you are here. You see, it is all very clear. Very clear, yes."

       "But, I'm… Sir, I'm sorry, but I've spent the last two years listening to static, I have hardly any combat experience, hell I've never even fired my gun outside the range. What do you mean? What experiences?"

      "Lieutenant Hanson, oh! my dear sir, my dear fellow, there are more important experiences for a man to have had in wartime then simply the killing of the enemy. Oh yes, yes, Lieutenant oh my yes! far more important. In any case there will be time for questions later, if there are any to be asked; but, no, no I see you are beginning to understand, yes! you are beginning to understand very well. You see, it is all very clear, very clear indeed."

       It was not clear at all. Hanson was more confused now then he had ever been. He was so confused that he was hardly sure if what he was hearing was real or if he was sleeping on the transport, experiencing the eccentricities of a much wearied mind. Of course; it was all real. It made no sense, and was completely bizarre, but it was real. This fact was driven home all the more powerfully when, after a few moments, Lordsly, began speaking again.

       "Very well, I suspect you are very eager to see just what it is that you have been chosen to do. But first, let me give you a very brief, yes, a very short, introduction, or orientation if you will, concerning our project here.

       "As I mentioned earlier, you have been chosen to participate in a project that has been deemed by those in power to be of the utmost importance," Lordsly continued. "Shortly after this war began, it was decided by those that decide such things that every effort must be made to understand exactly who and what were our enemy. To that end a department was set up, this department, the Office of Covenant Habitual and Behavioral Activity Research Office to be exact, to study the behavior and the habits of the covenant. All redundancies aside, the office was given the power to collect and analyze Covenant specimens. However, given the nature of our opponent, this was of course very difficult. Yes, very difficult. You see, sir, Lieutenant, we are dealing with a very driven, very motivated, very, well, very religious enemy. As such they do not accept capture but prefer what they imagine to be martyrdom. Therefore, as I know you have experienced in the field, we have had little luck capturing a live specimen.

       "The problem is, you understand, the elites are too smart, the grunts too stupid, and the hunters, jackals, and brutes, well, they're both by turns. You see, if an elite is cornered, if capture is imminent, he will simply kill himself. And if a grunt finds himself in the same position, he invariably panics and is killed by one of our troops, or is shot by one of his own. The others, well, they are not as predictable, but albeit to say, we have not yet captured any covenant. That is, not until two weeks ago."

       As Lordsly spoke, Hanson continued to stare blankly forward, his confused mind unable to understand a single thing the scientist was saying.

       "Yes, yes, I can see you do not believe me, but we have indeed captured an Unggoy, and have it here, in this very facility and will, at the earliest opportunity, begin to exam him. Well, what do you say to that sir? Is it not very clear after all?"

       "I, well, I think I understand what you are doing here but I still don't get why I'm here? What do you want me to do?" stammered Hanson when he realized he had been addressed.

      "Well, isn't it very clear Lieutenant? You are going to conduct our research; you are going to work closely, oh very closely indeed! with our specimen. It will be your job to gain his trust, if such is possible, and will obtain any and all information pertinent to our war effort and to the operation and inner workings of the Covenant. Do you understand now?"

       "I don't think I -"

       "Excellent, well, shall we meet our other guest then? Oh, what excitement! What joy, Lieutenant, sir, my friend this will be the most rewarding job you have ever undertaken, yes! I see it now, you and I and this little alien will achieve wondrous things and oh, well, never mind all that I do get so excited, let us to your room!"

       With that, Lordsly stood abruptly and, with an impatient gesture, motioned for Hanson to do the same before exiting the room through a door in the rear wall which Hanson had not previously noticed. After a moment, though he remained as confused as ever, Hanson stood and followed the scientist into what appeared to be an exact copy of the corridor down which he had been led earlier. This corridor did not have the length of the other, however, and after a minute or so, Hanson stood waiting while Lordsly entered a code into the cipher lock of a windowless door located near its end. The door opened, and Hanson had his first look at what would be his working and living quarters for the next three months.

       The room the two men entered had the same worn down, uniformly bland look found throughout the complex. The walls were painted a light grey save for a yellow line which ran around its circumference just at eye level. On one side sat a bed, a table, and a chair. Opposite that Hanson could see what must have been the bathroom, though there were no walls or stalls to afford the occupant any privacy. To round out the room, in a far corner could be seen a small kitchenette. To Hanson it seemed like a fairly normal, though definitely bland, studio apartment, the kind you might find in any crowded city or even on any military base. Yet there was one exception; one wall was made entirely of glass. What was meant to be seen through that glass Hanson could not tell as whatever it was lay in such darkness that Hanson could see little more than his own, and Lordsly's, reflection. As he looked, he thought he might have seem some hint of motion, a shadow darker than the rest moving towards the glass, but he couldn't be sure, and did not have the time to investigate more closely as his inspection was interrupted by Lordsly who exclaimed with a loud voice "My, my is it not lovely? Are you not excited Lieutenant?!"

       "I don't know, sir. What is this place?"

      "Why, it's your home Lieutenant! Yes, yes, your home, here you will stay for the duration of the project. Oh indeed! In fact, this is the very project; there, on the other side of the glass, that is the project! Shall we have a look! Oh, I think we shall!"

       Even as he spoke, Lordsly reached behind Hanson and flipped a switch on the wall. The room behind the glass lighted instantly, and, as his eyes adjusted to the brilliant lights, Hanson saw staring back at him something the likes of which he had never before encountered.

       "Holy shit, what the hell is that!?!" he exclaimed, stumbling back from the window.

       "Why, an Unggoy of course; a grunt. Surely you know of the Covenant grunt?" replied Lordsly in a voice that betrayed that his confidence in Hanson was shaken, if only but slightly.

       "Oh, yeah, no, a grunt sure I know about grunts. It's just, well; I've never seen one this close before."

       "Indeed? Have you then never encountered on the battlefield one of its brethren? Have you never in mortal combat endeavored to kill our avowed enemy?"

      "Endeavo- uh, no, no I haven't. I mean, it's like I said, I haven't really seen much combat time."

      "Oh, sir, this is most peculiar, oh well, decidedly so! Hmmm, I am made slightly uneasy by this revelation Lieutenant Hanson; I had been assured that you were our man. However, that is of no import, you are here, and, given the strict timetable which has been forced upon us by the dire circumstances of this terrible war, you are what we have and we shall make you our man if we must.

       "Very well," he continued after a moment's contemplation "let us meet your new friend!"