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Charge of the Grunt Brigade - Part One: Colonel
Posted By: Walker<joebob@hotmail.com>
Date: 27 August 2003, 10:18 PM

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      He had been a Colonel, once, long ago, young, handsome, dashing and brave. He was one of the finest graduates of Reach's military program, with a shining future in the UNSC Marine Corps ahead of him. But then it had all fallen apart when his wife left him to shack up with some Medical Corps colonel, and as a result too many AWOL charges and accusations of being drunk on duty had ruined him. They bumped him first down to
Captain, followed by Lieutenant, then down to Second Lieutenant and stuck him on a base on a lonely, far off colony to wait out the years with a miniscule garrison where he could do no harm. He had, by the highest authority within the UNSC bureaucracy, been blacklisted against promotion. And he knew it.
      So it was no surprise that, when he received a letter of reinstitution of rank to Colonel, that he thought that surely the message had been misaddressed and was the rightful property of another forty-two-year-old Lieutenant Major Asa L. D'Arcy. He rushed from the barracks down to the company clerk's office and demanded an explanation, barely managing to get the words out of his mouth.
      "Calm down, Lieutenant, calm down," the clerk said, speaking soothingly to the man as if he were a hysterical animal. "Yes, that's right, you've been reinstated as a Colonel. Yes, Lieutenant, I'm sure that that letter is addressed to you. How do I know? It got sent straight from the ONI, top-priority on the email list. No, Lieutenant, there's no probability that something that high-priority could have been misaddressed. Now, Lieutenant, please, can you leave me to finish my work? I've got an unsightly load of junk mail coming through... Marine life insurance policies and all that..." The clerk slid a Colonel's insignia across his desk and turned back to his computer.
      D'Arcy grabbed them suspiciously. He then walked back to the barracks and plopped down on his bed, holding the letter up to the blinding light of the desert morning. Of course, it wasn't fake, it had been printed straight of the company clerk's computer. He didn't know what he was looking for then in terms of falsity, but it had to be wrong. There was no way he was a Colonel. Not with his record.
      A thought occurred to him, and he realized he had yet to finish reading the message. He held the paper close and pressed against his nose as he continued on.

      ...having been seen fit for reinstitution to his former rank of Colonel, UNSC Marine Corps, Asa Lawrence D'Arcy is further instructed to report to ONI headquarters on planet Reach for special and highly classified assignment. Failure to comply with these instructions will result in a pay reduction to seventy-five dollars per month and further penal action as a court-martial should decide. Congratulations, Colonel...

      His eyes bulged at the words "special and highly classified assignment," as they stood out among the rest of the inane blabber. Now what could that be?
      He hadn't a clue. All he knew was that if he was getting orders straight from ONI he'd better haul ass back to Reach. He sat up, set the letter down on his bunk and began to throw his things from the trunk at the foot of this bunk into the duffel under it. Finally, he withdrew his service pistol. A sleek, polished M6D semi-automatic standard sidearm with a twelve-round magazine and caliber of .450 Magnum. He placed this in its holster and lay it on top of the duffel, next to the letter from ONI and his new Colonel's insignia. He would need that later.
      He leaped out of his clothes and hit the showers.

Dr. Halsey, an aging, slender, no-nonsense civilian specialist on the payroll of the UNSC and the scientific leader of the SPARTAN-II project, shuffled papers on her desk. She had three stacks—one of things she considered unimportant or silly or unnecessary, another of things she would have to get to later, and the last one, significantly smaller, of things that she considered top-priority.
      As she filed her new papers into these three stacks she glanced at the old, familiar pictures on the wall. They were the images that she had come to recognize as her own children, even though her duty as a military-employed civilian scientist demanded she form no connection with the subjects. They were the pictures of her Spartans.
      Kelly at graduation from Spartan training, the now-deceased Sam saluting beside his friend John as the colors of the UNSC passed, Linda holding her sniper rifle and a target filled with a close-knit group of bullseyes, Fred in his MJOLNIR battle armor, his helmet held beneath his arm, and finally a photo of young Fhajad, a small, muscular child later crippled by the augmentation process that had ruined or killed so many of the trainees. Now unable to walk or move without his body trembling uncontrollably, the wheelchair-bound Fhajad saw Dr. Halsey almost every day as a fellow employee of the ONI. The deaths and crippling of many of the Spartans had broken her heart—but she moved on, knowing that what she had done to them had been for the better good. For humanity.
      Now a certain paper caught her eye, and a small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. It was the paperwork of the new and unusual situation ONI had burdened her with. The new brigade that had been formed had finally found a commanding officer, it seemed. That choice had not been hers, as was promised. Her first instinct was to file a complaint, but knowing how a great majority of the UNSC regarded her as a quack and would exploit any complaint she made she would have to see how things panned out... Before the name of the commander of the unit had not been written down—it would have been hard to find any respectable officer willing to take on such an assignment, even more of a joke within the UNSC than the Spartan project had been at first. But now, in bold type, the name was set on the page:
      Colonel Asa L. D'Arcy, UNSC Marine Corps.
      The name was not entirely familiar, but somewhere in her often-useful packrat memory the name came up as associated with some kind of discipline trouble. She tapped her chin with long fingers. What else could she have expected? Just as with the Buffalo Soldiers of the plains following the American Civil War, only the worst officers would be given such commands as this. Though, hopefully, just like the Buffalo Soldiers had, this command would turn out to be extremely efficient and earn respect within the UNSC. Of course, that would be an extremely long shot to count on...
      "Dr. Halsey?" Déjà appeared above the miniature holoprojector on her desk.
      "Yes Déjà?"
      "A certain Major General Othello Kingsley to see you, Doctor. He says he has an appointment, but I see no record of one in my logs. Should I let him in?" the AI asked inquiringly.
      "Ah," she said. She had forgotten about that. "Yes, Déjà, send him in."
      The AI glided out of sight and the doors to Dr. Halsey's deep-underground office parted with a rush of air. An average sized man, whose gray hair was shot with streaks of black, gathered himself up and stepped tentatively into her office. A ceremonial cavalry-type saber, meant to be worn only on dress occasions, hung beside his left hip and his service pistol, the standard M6D was suspended from his belt on the right hip, as per regulation. Apparently a flamboyant man, he held a Custer-like quality with his glance and the grin beneath his bushy moustache was charming. General Kingsley was one of the best fighting officers within the UNSC—and one of the most intelligent.
      On the surface he was a political pawn, a campaign tool of the UNSC bureaucrats. He appeared on campaign commercials and ads, delivering snappy slogans followed by a salute or a thumbs-up sign. Secretly he was the reason the party he supposedly supported lost every election. But fortunately for Dr. Halsey—who was a supporter of his little scheme—the party kept using him as a political tool, making the mistake of not seeing that he was smarter than he looked.
      Déjà appeared once more above the holoprojector, and turned to General Kingsley. "Here is the Doctor, General. Dr. Halsey, will you be needing anything else?"
      "One thing, Déjà. I want you to turn off the recorders."
      "Yes, Doctor," the AI said, and she was gone again. When she returned, she asked, "Will that be all?"
      "Yes, Déjà. Thank you."
      After waiting several seconds while the recorders went off, and once she was sure they were alone, Dr. Halsey spoke. "Good morning, Othello," she said, and gestured to the brass-studded armchair on the other side of her desk. "Have a seat."
      "I'll stand, Catherine. Thanks," Kingsley said, folding his leather riding gloves and placing them inside his coat. He scratched his moustache and folded his arms. "How are things going down here? I see you've managed to discover the locations of those recorders those ONI goons set up in your office," he said, looking around the ceiling for what he could not possibly see.
      "Which ones? The ones they told me about, or the ones they didn't?" Dr. Halsey asked, her hands folded in front of her face as she leaned back in her chair. She
      "Both, I suppose. You did—?"
      "Find them all? Yes, I did. I have Déjà do a bug sweep of my office every month. Apparently ONI keeps coming back for more, just as I suspected they would. These bureaucrats never let up. Can't wait for the chance to get me in a corner and use what goes on in here against me."
      "Ah, yes. They are like that."
      "Tell me, Othello, are you familiar with the growing number of Covenant defectors that have been surrendering themselves to us?" Dr. Halsey asked coolly, leaning back in her chair and pressing her hands together, her two index fingers slightly brushing her upper lip.
      "Partially. I know that there have been a few surrenders, especially among the lower castes in the Covenant juggernaut and in small groups of usually no more than five," Kingsley answered. "I heard somewhere the ones who were not killed anyway by Marines were taken to secure military facilities, interrogated and thrown in the stockade. That's all I know."
      "All you know?" Dr. Halsey asked.
      "Well, other than a few rumors about some of the prisoners being used in biological weapons experiments," the General said.
      "Actually, if you took the time to dig a little deeper you would find that those rumors are quite true."
      "Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?"
      "No, it's not. I wanted to talk to you about defectors. Not just prisoners of war, Othello, but Covenant foot soldiers that are actually willing to change uniforms and finish the rest of this war under the colors of the UNSC. Fighting alongside our own human Marines," Dr. Halsey explained slowly.
      Kingsley was silent for a moment. He scratched his moustache again and rested a hand on the pommel of his saber, a purely absent-minded and non-threatening gesture. He furrowed his bushy brows and frowned. "I suppose it's possible. After all, the Covenant treat their own men like shit."
      "That they do," Dr. Halsey said, ignoring the not-often heard example of frontline language Kingsley had displayed. "And yes, it's entirely possible. In fact, we have a substantial number of Grunts, a few Jackals and at least one Elite who have actually begged for the chance to serve with us."
      After a short pause: "Now, don't kid with me Catherine."
      "I would never consider it—especially with such a subject," Dr. Halsey said. She pulled open a desk drawer and removed a file folder, marked "classified". She handed it over to Kingsley, who took them curiously. "I think that you'll find these quite interesting, to say the least."
      Kingsley licked his thumb and opened the file. The first picture in the collection was one of around one thousand Covenant Grunts, all unarmed and with circular tags about their necks, signifying them as prisoners of war. Of course, they were unarmed, and behind each stood an MP with a stun baton. He flipped over to the next photo.
      The same thousand Grunts, now joined by twenty Jackals. There were a significantly smaller number of MPs present, and the Grunts seemed to be doing some sort of exercise. The equivalent of jumping jacks to them, he supposed. An exact imitation of the human activity would be impossible due to their short-legged and stocky frames. Their POW tags bounced in rhythm with their movements as they propelled themselves into the air and went down again. Kingsley was slightly afraid when he realized that these were military exercises...
      The following picture was of the thousand Grunts, the score of Jackals and a single elite engaging holograms of Covenant forces in battle. The defectors, still bearing their POW tags, were armed with training weapons that emitted a targeting laser whose signal deactivated Covenant holograms when they struck them. A caption at the bottom of the photo said that the Covenant's brainwaves were monitored during the activity, and upon spotting the Covenant holograms they subconsciously recognized them as enemies. Kingsley grew steadily more worried about what was going on...
      The last photo was of the one thousand and twenty-one Covenant defectors standing at attention, their fists pressed against their hearts in salute as the colors of the UNSC passed, carried by MPs. The defector's ranks were perfect even by parade ground standards, and their armor color had been changed from its original, Covenant colors to the silver and black of the UNSC Marine Corps. In every defector's possession were the traditional plasma pistols they used so often, and the elite, who bore on his shoulder the rank of a Marine Corps Lieutenant, held a humming energy blade in his hand. None of the Covenant were wearing POW tags. At the bottom of the photo were words that made his jaw drop: "The Grunt Brigade".
      Kingsley slammed the file shut and tossed it onto the desk, only slightly aware that his jaw was still hanging limp. He closed it shut and narrowed his eyes. "Those are very good fakes, Catherine. You planning to let them be captured by Covenant?"
      "I was afraid you might have a similar reaction, Othello. Yes, it would be very effective within the lower Covenant castes to have these pictures captured, but I assure you that they aren't fakes. They were taken by a very good friend of mine named Fhajad. He doesn't lie."
      "Are you telling me that we took prisoners from the same enemy who, in their first message to us, vowed to destroy us, trained them in combat exercises, and gave them a commission among our own ranks?"
      "Yes, Othello, I am. In fact, they're going to be attached to your division."
      "May God have mercy on our souls."

Colonel Asa L. D'Arcy stepped off of the Archangel's single Pelican, which had ferried him from the military transport ship to the Omega Wing of planet Reach—location of ONI's Section Three secure facility Castle. His pistol was tied down to his right hip and his pack was slung over his shoulder. His colonel's insignia reflected the sun off of his collar as two MPs rushed towards him.
      "Sir, we've been asked to escort you to the office of Dr. Halsey. We need your papers," the first MP, a corporal, said. He held out his hand expectantly, and was confused and disappointed when nothing was placed in his grasp.
      "I'll keep my papers, thanks," D'Arcy said, nodding.
      "But sir—"
      "Corporal, I'm sure you've been with the Corps long enough to know how to follow orders. Am I correct?" D'Arcy asked, cutting him off and falling back into the position of seniority easily.
      The Corporal nodded. "Yes, sir. Follow us, please."
      They led him to the first of many gates, where three more MPs stood, MA5Bs in their hands and looking decidedly dangerous. One of them fingered his trigger nervously, handling his weapon a little too jerkily for D'Arcy's comfort. The Corporal approached him, and nodded in D'Arcy's direction. "He's all right, Jim. Let us through."
      The MP eased up a bit and punched the button at the door and it opened. If Castle had been on lockdown the door would require someone with the proper security clearance to slide one of his dog tags through a slot below the control panel. With secure ONI facilities, these security clearances were quite higher than what would be required to enter a normal military base, usually a rank of at least Corporal. The Corporal and his partner lead D'Arcy through.
      It turned out, as D'Arcy had guessed, that this checkpoint was merely the first of many. As they went deeper and deeper into the endless caverns of Castle, the security requirements grew more rigorous and the number of guards multiplied. Usually there was a guardhouse to the side of the heavily guarded checkpoints, where guns and ammunition lined the walls and even deeper in there were rows of bunks where he could see a few guards turning restlessly in their sleep. He wondered how often these guys got out. Not often, judging by the pale color of their skin. Nonetheless, the guards were usually large and overbearing.
      Finally, about an hour later, they came to Dr. Halsey's office. The AI, in the form of a Greek goddess, consulted with the doctor and then let them in. The MPs saluted Dr. Halsey and a Major General standing by her desk, and D'Arcy followed suit. "Ma'am, Colonel D'Arcy, as you asked."
      "Thank you, Corporal. You may leave us, now."
      "Yes, ma'am!" the MPs saluted and exited the office.
      Dr. Halsey placed her fingertips together and pressed them to her lips. She leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, then shot D'Arcy an inquisitive look through her glasses. "Colonel Asa Lawrence D'Arcy, correct?"
      "Yes, ma'am, that's my name."
      "Do you have any idea why you've been called here, Colonel?"
      "No ma'am."
      "Do you have any... personal speculations?" Dr. Halsey said. Her tone was flat and pure business, not kind nor treacherous. Yet, something about it made the hair on the back of D'Arcy's neck prickle. He hesitated a moment before answering her question, tossing a glance to the General standing by her desk for guidance. The man nodded.
      "Well, ma'am, the letter that reinstated me as a Colonel... it said something about a 'special and highly classified assignment'. I suppose it's some Section Three project you've assigned me to. That's really all I can think of, ma'am."
      "That's fine, Colonel. General Kingsley will be explaining the situation to you," she said, and turned to the Major General. "Othello?"
      The General stepped forward and came into the full light—D'Arcy recognized him as General Kingsley, from all of those political ads. He was a lot like some General he had studied in grade school. What was his name? Oh, yes. It was Custer that foolhardy glory-seeker who got himself all blown to hell by Indians somewhere in Montana. They had a lot in common: they lived in the limelight, they loved having their photograph taken, and they were both brevetted at a very young age for gallantry in combat. This one, it seemed, was a bit smarter. But he would see.
      The General produced a file from behind his back and handed it over to D'Arcy. He watched with a bit of amusement as the Colonel's eyes bulged, seeing the contents of the classified folder. It reminded him so much of what he must have looked like only hours ago: very humorous.
      "Uh... sir? Ma'am? What's this?"
      "Well, now, Colonel, I'm sure you've seen some combat?" the General asked.
      "Yes, sir."
      "So you tell me."
      "Well, General, I think it's pretty obvious that they're Covenant ground forces: Grunts, Jackals and an Elite. But what I meant to say was, why are you showing me this? What are these pictures trying to tell me, exactly?"
      "Again, you tell me, Colonel."
      "Well, sir... it looks like we've armed Covenant prisoners and made them Marines," D'Arcy said slowly, forming his words carefully with his lips. He did not believe a single word that came out of his mouth, yet he still braced for the impact the answer he got might bring.
      "Exactly, Colonel."
      General Kingsley waited for it, but it did not come. There was no skeptical laughter, no sudden outburst of disbelief and outrage. Rather, the Colonel simply shook his head. A faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "So, what are they for? Some equality-platform public-relations stunt?"
      "No, not at all. They really are soldiers." This time it was Dr. Halsey who answered, getting up from her chair and pushing her glasses higher up on the bridge of her nose. She took the file from D'Arcy and held up the photo titled "The Grunt Brigade". "And you will be commanding them."
      There was a long, drawn-out pause.
      "Ah, now, when I got my letter and read about a classified assignment I knew there was going to be a catch," D'Arcy said, breaking the silence and shifting his jaw. He looked from Dr. Halsey to General Kingsley, then back to Dr. Halsey who was looking at him expectantly.
      "Will you accept this assignment?"
      The old soldier thought about it for a while, taking in both sides of the argument. Did he want to be in charge of a whole brigade of fifth-columnists who could easily turn on him at any moment? Or did he want to go back to eating a batch of Lieutenant's field rations for breakfast? And, still yet, he found himself wondering if this wasn't all some sort of big, pointless practical joke—though what were the odds of that? Finally he answered. "Damn straight!" He patted his service pistol. "If you'll excuse the language, ma'am. It's been awhile since I've been out of the lines."
      Dr. Halsey blew it off with a wave of her hand. "It's of no importance. I'm just glad to see that you took to this assignment so quickly... and, believe me, had I been confronted with something like this, with no prior knowledge, I would be quite flabbergasted. This is unlike any project I have ever taken part in before, and I have seen quite a few of them."
      "Yes, ma'am. Are we done here?" D'Arcy asked hesitantly, not wanting to sound insubordinate. General Kingsley threw him one of those "your-front-line-manners-ain't-gonna-be-tolerated-back-here-missy" looks, but Dr. Halsey seemed not to notice.
      "Yes, we are. You may leave. Report at the front gate at zero-seven hundred hours tomorrow morning," Dr. Halsey said. "We'll be waiting for you there to take you to a new location and walk you though the more specific details of your assignment."
      D'Arcy snapped to attention and whipped a crisp salute to his forehead. "Sir! Ma'am!" he barked, then executed an about-face and walked to the gate, shoulders thrown back and chin held high. He stopped just before the door, and eased up. With his head turned slightly, he looked at her over his shoulder. "Ma'am, I have just one more question."
      "When do I get to meet the troops?"