Hawk Chronicles: Chapter 3b
Posted By: Vector40<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 20 February 2002, 4:35 AM
Tapping the edge of the tape against his desk, surrounded by the unlit gloom of his office, Banning grieved silently.
Silently and quickly. He was a soldier.
And it was only ten minutes before he straightened himself up, rubbed at his face, and inserted the particle recording into his workstation.
He brought up the input screen, hastily belaying the automatic replay. He'd heard it enough times to recite it in his sleep.
But that wouldn't be all, of course.
Using the locational micrograph, he instructed the reader head to look between the second and fifth rep line in the optical chip. Second and Fifth. Her address, back on Earth.
Suddenly, a password prompt jumped up onto the screen. He could do this blind; but he took special care to type in the letters correctly.
"loved I not honor more. . ."
There was a beep, and the recording disengaged.
John, I know that you're going to come out here after me. There's nothing I can say to stop you, so I won't try. I'm just going to try to remind you of the obvious.
You're an officer, dammit. Think like one. If you ignore what you're feeling right now and be logical for a second, you'll realize there's not a half-baked chance in hell that one tired old man can penetrate wherever they're going to put me, and escape alive. Take somebody. Take the team. Maybe they'll even keep you out of trouble—although I doubt it.
A loud noise reported in the distance on the playback. There was a pause, then her voice came back. She was talking faster.
Just remember your training, John. Logic before emotion. Reason before action. You're not an idiot. Don't act like one.
The noise was getting louder, a clambering, bustling cacophony. Her voice faded, then, as if from far off, returned for one last line.
A pause, so long he thought she had forgotten to switch off the mic, then a click.
He sat in the darkness, motionless and alone.
It was two hours before he finally stood and moved brokenly to the door. Before he stepped out, he stopped and turned, holding the frame with one hand as if for stability. He looked back into the room.
"What are you talking about?"
"You're sure not coming."
"Why the fuck not?"
Curling his fingers together and rapping them hard against the table, Banning exhaled slowly. A tight smile stretched across his face.
"I'll tell you some day."
"Look, enough of this shit," Carson barked, annoyed. "What the hell are you going to do?"
"I'm going to go find her and bring her back. That's all."
"That's all? You don't even know where she is!"
"I said I'll find her."
"Where? Covie HQ?"
Making a conscience effort to relax his shoulders, Banning pressed his palms against the desk, flat. "If necessary," he growled.
"How the fuck—"
"Look," he hissed. "I am not asking for opinions. The last I checked, I was in charge of this team. I am informing you of my decision for your sake."
He looked around as if daring them to challenge him. "I'm leaving tomorrow. If anybody follows me, I'll gun them down. That's all."
Lifting himself out of his seat deliberately, he rose.
Black. Rotting darkness and a taste of murk in the mouth.
Light and airy, the fluting voice cleaved through the mists. It was followed soon by its ever-present companion, the heavy, pummeling, rumbling thunder.
The sky split apart and, again, a bolt of pain blistered through. Nerve endings seared and died.
Blackness once more, the voice calling hauntingly after.
Three, four, five grenades. He lined them up, taped, along his ammunition strap.
Unceremoniously, his hand grasped the heavy launcher on the table and gave it a spin. It pivoted on the safety catch and the stock came about to face him. He snapped the double breech open and shut, quickly, checking it, then slipped it smoothly into the sheath on his left shoulder.
The right already sported the shortened revolver shotgun, daisy-configured with the semi-homing static rounds, and tightly strapped down.
Three pistols. Duloc Featherweights. Each hip, and an ankle. They found their niches among the magazines of heavy assault ammunition. His long, tanto-bladed stiletto, titanium-edged and Sirius-gripped, went into the slim pocket on the back of his armor.
A noise behind him as the door to the armory slid open, nearly soundless on its tracks. He froze, facing the vesting table, back to the entrance.
Too many years. They had the feeling, the connection—the dance—zanshin, they called it, and no matter what. . .
It couldn't be avoided.
"Mace," Banning said slowly, still facing away.
A pause, lingering. If he reached between them, Banning felt he could touch the silence, break it off in a long icicle, shatter it against the table into a million golden shards. . .
"I'm coming," Macedon said simply.
Weighted and powerful. That was the voice of command. But it was casual, calmly that he spoke, and equally simple: "No."
Silence again. Unseen, Banning closed his eyes, muscles locked.
He had fought terrible enemies before.
Seconds drew into minutes, as the moment tautened and stretched.
The door drew softly shut in his wake as, like a softly washing wave, he slipped out.
Banning opened his eyes and swore.
But, three hours later, as the sun was rising mournfully on the green-spackled Halo, it was the two-man DJA that Banning prepped with practiced motions in the air bay.
He jabbed the needle of a fuel spray into the tank, piercing the covering. He dialed a mixture, slapped the catch, and started the plasma-laced fluid flowing.
Quietly, and without turning, he parted his lips and spoke. "Get the capsules."
Mace, behind him, opened the storage cabinet and removed the two large round pods without speaking. He moved forward and stowed them in the tiny jet.
The high-speed dump finished, the canister beeped. Banning slid out the needle, wiped it, and slipped it back into its sleeve.
He walked to the disposable jet and reached to the loading pallet beside it to pick up the helmet he hadn't worn in years. He brushed at it with his finger tips, clearing a path in the thin layer of dust to reveal the design.
Swooping, diving, claws unsheathed for the kill, long and unwary, hard face narrow and merciless, a raised, embossed, silver-shrouded hawk.
The speakers popped and spoke as the canopy sealed shut.
"I'd like to register my objections to this."
"Thank you, Steve."
"Mace isn't ready for this. You can do whatever the fuck you want, Bird, but he's bleeding."
"Thank you, Steve."
A pause, and a weary sigh. "Look—Mace, are you there?"
"Will you just make sure to take the shot? Your current dose will only last another three hours. If you don't get that, and you end up in combat. . . Well, your heart might stop, but that's if you're lucky."
He inhaled deeply, purging his body of toxins, flooding oxygen into his veins. From his position in the back seat, he began ticking items from the take-off checklist.
"You have my word."
A moment of silence, then, uncertainly: "Uh—well, okay. That's all, I guess. Um. . . Good. . . Good luck.
Banning broke in, interrupting him. "And yes. We're coming back."
The engines began to whine. The diminutive jet slowly angled upwards on its mounting beams. The dome above them split open, revealing a ray of brilliant sunshine.
Barely able to be heard over the engines, Steve's voice crackled once more, dim and faint.
Banning slammed back the throttle as the rails aligned on the track. The pod hurtled upwards and rocketed into the sky.
The roar and throb of the single massive in-line booster murmured through his bones, as Banning hit 10,000 feet and set a tentative course across Covenant lines.
He looked down, searching for the comms panel, then realized Mace's station had priority. It was the old two-man distribution—helm front, weapons and comms back. But he had no weapons. He clicked the inter-helmet vox link on. "Mace, transfer communications to my console."
Two seconds, and the screen lit.
He had committed the information to memory the previous night, and the nine-digit frequency number ran from his fingers to the touch-monitor without falter. He waited, then at the prompt, typed in the five-digit access key.
A moment for the military net to bridge into the phone systems, and then he heard ringing.
It was only another second until it picked up. A gruff, no-nonsense voice emitted from his headset. "Hello?"
A pause, and then, "Who is this?"
"John Banning. Hawks."
More silence. Until finally, Fleet General Burmingham let out a very unofficerly squeak and said, "Oh! Of the Hawks! Good morning, Captain. I apologize—it's been a hectic week."
Banning felt an absurd sense of relief. He'd almost expected the man to deny his existence. "Thank you, sir."
"What can I help you with? I should thank you again for your assistance during the attack; your men definitely turned the trick there. I'm sorry to hear about the sneak on your base. I'd have sent somebody to cover it, but we pretty much figured it was secure."
"So did we."
An awkward silence. Burmingham cleared his throat. "So what do you need, Captain?"
"I need to know where they took my man."
"Your—" he broke off. "Just a moment please, Captain." Banning heard him somebody talking in the background.
He returned, sounding annoyed. "Captain, I'm getting reports from particle surveillance of an unauthorized air intrusion over our territory. Vectors from your base. Are you airborne, Mr. Banning?"
Hissing in impatience, he snapped back, "Yes, General. I am."
"You aren't cleared."
"Very sharp, sir."
Burmingham growled, sounding remarkably bear-like. "Would you like me to shoot you down, Mr. Banning?"
"If you like."
Quiet again, and a chattering. At last, he returned. He sounded tired, and resigned.
"If this were anyone else, Banning, you'd be dodging heavy cannon fire by now."
"Your restraint does you credit, sir."
"If it pleases the General."
Pausing, he chuckled softly. When he spoke again, he sounded more amiable, if resigned. "What do you want, you old bastard?"
"I need to find my pilot."
"Oh, right. They captured one of your men, didn't they?"
"They almost captured them?"
"Almost a man."
He laughed. "Two days ago?"
"Day and a half. But yes. Satellite intel would be nice."
He laughed again. "It most certainly would. You got a couple milspec sats up your sleeve?"
"Not the last I checked."
"Me neither. As a matter of fact, at the moment there is currently one operational high-flier, a junky old P-90 Brick Toaster that had twenty to one odds of us ever pulling a usable shot off of it. A couple sage armsmasters got very rich when we launched her, but it's a Pyrrhic victory if I've ever seen one—some of those images look like my grandkid's kindergarten doodles. You want to place bets on whether it happened to have an overflight at the exact time of your attack? This doughnut is thin, but it's sure as hell long."
"What about supra-atmospheric sub-orbitals?"
"We only put up suborbs in special circumstances. They're almost as scarce as the sats."
"The attack wasn't a special circumstance?"
Pause again. "Good point. Give me a minute here."
They flew through the sky at twice the speed of sound, unmolested, and alone in their thoughts. Mace stayed silent.
The general returned. "You lucked out, pal."
"We put up three of our five currently functioning suborbs during the attack, to supply us with immediate area intel, warn us of incomings, that sort of thing. One was geosync—should I say "Halo-sync"?—aimed the site of the attack. Here, I mean. One was on a looping, highly eccentric orbit—about as eccentric as they can get in-atmosphere— keeping an eye on some other bits and pieces the recon kids wanted to watch.
"But the third was just doing random scan, making sure there wasn't anything sneaking up on us in dark corners. We snagged a couple shots of what looks like your retreating attack force. Seems a bit small, though."
Dry: "They were. Afterwards."
"I'm not surprised. We saw equipment trains for most of an entire land-based division. Anyway, one of the images isn't any help—they're just in the middle of navigating out of your mountains, they could be headed anywhere. But the second was shot right before we pulled down the flyer, and the convoy is well underway. Tracks confirm they were pretty much dead-set on the course."
He sighed unhappily. "We ran the projection. There's only one thing out that way.
"The crater. The crash site of the Penitent's Oath."
Harshly: "The headquarters."
Burmingham didn't speak for several seconds.
The next instant, the computer squawked indignantly, as the fuel meter dropped to halfway and they passed the point of no return.
They flew over the bleak, barren landscape, sealed in their fate.
Long gleaming sensors protruded from holes in the surrounding glass. A metallic "finger" tapped wryly against her forehead. Immobile, she gave a feral snap of her jaws and head and snarled at it malignantly.
An instant's warning, a flash of whiteburnlightheat, and—pain.
After an hour of ultrasonic flight, cleaving through the rarefied air in the upper reaches of the Halo, they began closing on their drop zone. Banning had assigned it arbitrarily while en route, drawing on his years of strategic experience, but without any planning or intelligence whatsoever—he trusted in luck, or fate, that it would be a suitable landing spot and not within spitting range of an enemy encampment.
He didn't have much choice one way or the other.
As the approach-indicator lights began their sequenced flashes, he started to touch keys.
Fleet General Birmingham shifted restlessly in his seat, staring worriedly at the large wall-mounted screen that dominated one wall of the CCC.
The view from the suborbital's camera was crystal clear, and the weather patterns flawless. There was nothing to obscure his view as he watched the stubby, bullet-shaped jet streak across the foliage and overgrowth.
The assorted technicians and duty officers in the command center all pretended not to be paying attention; but Birmingham noticed doggedly that there was a distinct slowdown of typing and vox-commands as the flight grew closer and closer to the areas marked on the field maps in a bright, scarlet red.
There was a sudden disturbance in the room. A cry that someone was unable to restrain bubbled out, "Sir!"
He turned, slow and obdurate. "Yes?"
Obviously regretting speaking, the duty officer nevertheless shook his head and pounded out a series of commands. The view of the main tri-d screen changed and blew up. "Energy flare in coordinates two, two, three, five, niner. . . mark three, sir!"
The screen continued unfolding closer, as the technician at the optics station kept adding pixel after pixel of data and zoomed farther. The energy supervisor spoke again.
"That's confirmed, sir. Missile launch."
The Covenant-tech operator crooked an eye at his board and entered a quick staccato of filters and algorithms. It only took a few seconds.
"Looks like a standard plasma A/G fast-mover, sir. Case number C-72."
Without looking—a skill he had acquired thirty years ago as an armory mech—Birmingham scrabbled down the number on a pad. He knew that he'd want to look it up later.
"Aw, cra—that's a second energy bloom, sir! Same signature, sector 24469!"
"I read vectors at twelve negative one and climbing, sir. They'll probably light up the second stage i—"
With a soundless flare, the speck that was the first missile detonated its second stage. A heartbeat later, the second missile fired as well. Their speed doubled, tripled, quadrupled before the segmented plasma burn-chambers overloaded and fell away.
The overflight optical tech adjusted the field of vision again, setting the camera to automatically follow the projectiles. He split the screen. A separate view calmly observed the DJA, still locked straight as an arrow onto its course.
The watch officers and techs had long since abandoned any pretense of working. All eyes stared uneasily at the screen.
In less than ten seconds, the missiles had cut the distance to the jet in half. Impossibly fast, they screamed forward, eating up the gap a thousand feet at a time.
Birmingham leaned forward, enraptured, and—
He frowned, and sat back in his chair.
With two taps of his command pad, he overlaid a large reticle on the map where Banning had said they would LZ.
It was twenty miles behind the jet.
"Lieutenant Kaminski, are you recording?"
Startled out of his reverie, the optical controller quickly turned his gaze to him. "Of course, sir."
"Please rewind the playback by thirty seconds."
"Now, please, Lieutenant."
Looking desperately once more at the closing rockets, Kaminski reverted the view as fast as he could, and snapped on the playback.
Birmingham leaned forward again.
"Now, if you would slow us down... oh, 3x? And zoom in a bit as well."
The view dropped in, slowing to molasses. The squat figure of the gray pod oozed across the tri-d.
Wrinkle lines appearing around his eyes, Birmingham tilted his head. The red marks of the LZ reticle crept past the screen.
And, barely visible, two tiny figures emerged from the pod-jet and were swept away.
He drew back in surprise. "Slow that down again, mister. Double the increment.
This time, it was unmistakable. From the bottom of the jet, two figures slipped out of the underbelly and dropped into the windstream. They fell, pinwheeling like motes of dust, and were gone by the next frame. Half a second later, first one missile then the other lanced across the viewscreen.
He tried to suppress a grin, failed, and sat back once again into his seat. He waved. "Go back to the live feed, Lieutenant."
Reappearing on the screen for scarcely three seconds, the jet blinked once more into existence—then was obliterated by the pursuing missiles. The first tore it apart, and a fraction of a second later, the second vaporized the particles. There would be no evidence for a Covenant search team to find.
A moment's hesitation, and the room burst into a cheer.
Birmingham smiled slightly and reclined his chair.
Falling in the wind, silent as a dropped knife, Banning streamlined his body and arrowed toward the trees.
They had perhaps a full minute before a random sensor sweep would be likely to detect their approach. With any luck at all, they would be on the ground by then, below the arc of the airborne scan buoys the Covenant employed.
It was a gamble—the random sweeps were just that, random, and completely unpredictable. But in an area like this, there simply wasn't enough equipment to spare to truly saturate every air route, and he was betting on that.
He slashed down in the morning sky, his battlesuit's outer layers folding the air around him over and over in the multitudes of its surface area, until when it finally emerged it was both noiseless and emission-free.
But an active-scan sweep would soak him with heavy gammas and hard-rays in an instant. He held his body rigid, praying for every unit of speed he could muster. His helmet flashed a warning as he began to approach the limits of what he could survive stopping.
He kept accelerating.
Twenty seconds. The dark expanse of trees, beginning to be lit by the rays of golden sunlight, drew closer.
Ten seconds. They were too far.
He didn't stop.
He slammed through the upper canopy of leaves, and at the same time, wrenched his arm around to grasp the control manipulator for his jump pod.
It was five feet to the ground when, gasping, he crushed his palm down on the key.
". . . no, not often. Only in special cases, really."
"But how did it work?"
"Well. . . are you sure your father said I should tell you this?"
"Well. . . all right. It involved several people, of course—that was the only way. You see, you'd have two horses (there were other methods, but this was the most common.) Strong ones. There were special harnesses made, and you'd anchor them to the poor sap who's getting it—one on top, one on bottom. Of his body, that is. Arms and legs."
"Wow. . ."
". . . and of course the victim would be allowed to say a prayer or two, or have last rites spoken over him depending on the circumstances, but when all was said and done, the end result was always the same: they'd give the horses a mighty whack, and they would ride for all they were worth in opposite directions.
"The fellow in between, of course, tended to get torn in two."
"John, are you sure your father said this was okay?"
After almost a minute of uninterrupted freefall, Banning was moving fast enough to break every bone in his body, were he to come instantly to a full stop.
As it happened, he did not stop instantly; he stopped in one second.
The full-body, eight-point, mesh- and gel-fitted harness smashed into him with sufficient force to splinter a tree. He went from close to 100 miles-an-hour to approximately one, in the distance of four feet—and with only the padded torso-straps of his pod to restrain him, felt like a man being run over by a train.
The next moment he fell the last ungraceful foot to the ground and felt the earth reach up and slap him.
The irritatingly bright sky refused to go away.
Banning wondered if he could shoot it.
Probably. But that would involve moving.
Never, ever, ever. . .
The hand shook him again. He groaned, then forced out:
"Whoever's doing that better hope he's got a guardian angel."
He cracked one eye.
It was Mace.