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Triple Contact: Resurgence, Part 1
Posted By: UNSC Trooper<unsctrooper@hotmail.com>
Date: 7 August 2009, 8:03 am

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"It seems like such a terrible shame that innocent civilians have to get hurt in wars, otherwise combat would be such a wonderfully healthy way to rid the human race of unneeded trash." -- Fred Woodworth, 20th century anarchist philosopher

Triple Contact: Resurgence

Part 1


2207 Hours, June 11, 2489 (Military Calendar)
Reach, CASTLE Base, Facility Charlie-46

      Check-ups were mostly performed by investigation staffs and verification agents hired by ONI's section of logistics, but once the Admirals and Commanders went beyond the law of intermediate investigation, none of the traditional administration rules were encompassing enough to apply. Were it up to Section Zero, too many of the armchair, couch-bending potato officers would have gained free authorization to control potentially disastrous chemical concoctions and bioengineering experiments.
      Were it up to any section of ONI, bioengineering would have been as much an alien term to the uniformed services of the UNSC as "maritime navy."
      Instead of assigning intelligence agents to evaluate progress in the research and development cells of CASTLE Base, the Naval Special Warfare Command had distanced itself from military theoreticians and philosophers in ONI, aiming for a practical solution to the issue of experimentation. The first option had involved a complete detachment from naval infantry tactics, creating a joint force of biologists and medics selected from each of the other service branches and establishing a syncretic set of research procedures to comply with the inter-service differences of bioengineering. A more conservative approach—as the majority of naval officers had pitched to HIGHCOM before the shift in administration was authorized—would have given birth to an all-powerful Navy responsible with the funding and centralization of all special warfare programs in the UNSC.
      Among absolute majority of naval staff in the HIGHCOM General Council casting its vote in favor of the latter option, most of the special warfare maintenance resources previously owned by the Marines and Army departments had been transferred under the authority of NavSpecWar. Consequently, personnel from the bioengineering community were required to adapt to an entirely new and more drastic timetable.
      Oddly enough, as Senior Chief Petty Officer Morgan Dales advanced through the entrance corridor to CASTLE Base's genetic research arm, there were no traces of the Navy's swift centralization orders issued a month prior to his assignment as a chief investigator and researcher in NavSpecWar. With the virtually numb budgetary bonus he'd received for his acceptance and his previous dedication to frontline weapons research, this job didn't present much of an opportunity for advancement in the field as he'd hoped.
      He could feel the same tightness walking down the restricted access corridor as he did onboard campaign flagships, adding a sense of monotony and lifeless air to his experience that silently demanded no further investigation inside the facility. It was said that in engineering appearances—however awful they seemed at first scrutiny—only hid far more horrid mechanics. With that mental note stuck in his head, he continued walking, unsatisfied by that last part of the saying: into the reception hall and the doctors' lounge, magazines describing various subjects of chemistry, human biology and experimental physics lying, almost untouched, on a network of connected coffee tables uniting into an ostensibly circular conference place.
      The entrance hall, he paused to observe, led into multiple connecting hallways starting from four parts of the room, each doorway locked by several layers of metallic rails and safety supports. Even security here was exaggerated for a facility Reach HIGHCOM usually didn't commission more than once a year to conduct thoroughly-planned experiments. Locking the doors for twelve months and running the place like a ghost laboratory certainly hadn't attracted additional support from the scientific community, either.
      Then why did the UNSC choose this place out of all the modernized facilities in the Inner Colonies to begin a program no one knew much about? Dales had resisted the urge to snatch a report file on CASTLE Base from FLEETCOM headquarters before he'd been escorted underground, read through the contents and ascertain what the military buffs on top of the pyramid wanted with the facility. Though that would have spoiled the delight of a first-time tour through a largely mysterious laboratory—he'd seen that sentiment of adventure fade holding a stable job on an orbiting cruiser for the past few years.
      He scanned the location indicators above the doorways, looked for a station description he'd understand: they all pointed to general research areas. No maps, no grids, and no arrows to steer him in the direction of his field of expertise. Another detail those military policemen had failed to communicate as he was guided to a derelict system of caves.
      There was a way to find out how to get to his department. He ran to a door and peeked through the narrow opening of reinforced, bulletproof glass that offered the only view beyond the steel barriers, strained to get a glimpse of the following point of entry at the distant end of the hallway. Of course: ONI hadn't paid the light bill.
      One of the overhead lights flickered to brightness, reflected Dales' white labcoat onto the door's clear window. For the first time since boarding the trip down Mecanite Mountain, he could see the fatigue provoked by five days of interplanetary travel burden his eyes. He blinked rapidly, adapted to the strong shine spreading through the reception hall and turned to spot anything that might have sparked the sudden illumination.
      An adjacent hatch began parting, support rails and locks detaching systematically in a series of hard bangs and soft hisses, the light behind the door turning on as a shadowed silhouette moved about the entrance. The door opened slowly, screeching at its joints as the weight of the metal and rusted locks combined to wake the air in the facility from its year-long slumber. Boots hit the cold, concrete floor, the silhouette emerging from the opening: a soldier dressed in blue camouflage fatigues, head covered by a traditional Marine Corps cap, and bulletproof vest untied in a hint of carelessness.
      The man threw a glance down his uniform for a split second, no doubt trying to check or arrange his messy clothes before the visitor could notice their sloppiness. He tucked his assault rifle behind his back, straightened and saluted in an instant, soldiery motion.
       "Corporal David Yonders, sir, I'm the watch guard in this old cave," the man introduced himself, twisting and looking around the hallway, raised a finger at the scientist and tilted his head questioningly. "You must be the doctor they called in?"
      Dales returned the young Marine's salute, trying as best as he could to make the gesture resemble the Marine style instead of showing off the Navy's specific, slow and gracious arm bending. Considering the circumstances, this young man was his only chance of figuring out where he was, what this place was built of, and how to go about beginning his work task. The natural way to do that, he decided, was to win his sympathy.
       "SCPO Morgan Dales, Corporal," he replied, adjusting his grin somewhat to inspire a sense of safety and authority. "Yes, I've been called to perform some maintenance here. I see there's a bit of a lack of interest in this sector."
       "It's always been like that here, sir. A few years ago, this place was swarming with technicians and scientists from the good old Corps," the Marine made a face of disappointment, looked away from Dales. "Since the Navy got all the power in the military, things have changed a lot… and not in a good direction. That's coming from me; a guy who spends every day of service watching rats craft new venting systems in the ceilings. Ingenious little parasites."
      That wasn't good. The obvious question on Dales' mind was whether the equipment here still functioned after years of inactivity. Rust had an extremely buggy way of cramming itself into medical hardware, among other, more delicate things that doctors used as personal hygiene.
       "I'd assume boredom is granted in unlimited amounts here?" Dales asked, intrigued by the way the solitary Marine accepted his dead-end duty to guard a place no one set a foot into more than once a year.
      The young man laughed shortly, shook his head in disagreement, apparently casual enough about his situation Dales' remark didn't surprise him. "It's pretty interesting what you can do with a pair of scissors, a bathroom bug, and some medicinal toothpicks."
      Dales let that sink in for a moment—no, he felt the food grumbling in his stomach just picturing those three assets. He tried a simulated chuckle at that little sadistic joke, but ended up gazing at a single poster depicting not enough, in his opinion, of a young female model on a wall to erase the previous experience from his head. Once that mental image had been satisfyingly removed from today's learning, Dales stepped around the hall, past snow-white sandstone sinks, elegantly-arranged chairs lined up next to empty desks, ultimately fixing his gaze on the four branching corridor exits.
       "This place may look deserted beyond hope of ever regaining its reputation," Dales remarked, turning to the Marine, who was now following him through the room. "But it's very nicely groomed. Mind if you open these doors? I'd love to see what's behind them."
       "Certainly, sir," the Marine complied, pulled out a collection of intertwined identification cards, selected one, and ran it through the door's access panel. A two-note beep sounded, confirming the authentication. "It's a bit chilly out here, so you'll have to wait until we get to the wardrobe in the command laboratory. I'll get you settled in and you can start strolling about the hallways after I run you through some of the transit areas."
      Dales nodded absently and entered the corridor, his footsteps echoing in the distant blackness. His breath gathered in small clouds of volatile air, skin starting to crawl beneath his thin lab uniform as the cold penetrated the summer-designed material.
      They started through the hallway, rows of neon lights snapping on as they passed security beepers and recording cameras shifting angles, increasingly distant parts of the corridor lighting up as they advanced inward. Dales felt a welcoming sensation as the lights guided them toward other, new and unseen quarters of the facility, through unfamiliar territory suddenly becoming crammed in mobile trays carrying medical tools, tall supply lockers holding what he imagined were more surgical assets, and expository containers filled with embalmed organs once belonging to experimental beings—animals or humans, judging by the varying size of the exposits, he didn't bother analyzing.
       "The last batch of doctors that came here six months ago didn't exactly display much interest in these parts of CASTLE Base," the Marine explained, pointing around the numerous unattended lockers and occasional half-full garbage cans lying against the walls. "Which is why all this stuff never got properly organized. I've been thinking of doing some cleaning up myself, but wait till you see the other sectors of this dump! I'd need an army of low-budget security guards just to help me take out all the rotted body parts around here."
       "I'll help," Dales offered.
      The Marine threw a surprised glance at him. "You will? You've got a lot of work to do, and I don't mean to be a pain in the—"
       "You've been attending all this garbage for God knows how long all alone, so I'll lend a hand. It's gonna' be my workplace, too, after all."
       "Well, thank you, sir. I really appreciate it."
      Truthfully, Dales wasn't sure how he'd manage two duties all at once. He could assume his office wasn't even properly secured yet, the network of computers within the building wasn't logged into the specific information databanks he'd have to download in order to begin working on his project, and, last but not least significant, the food preserves here would require selective processing to eliminate expired products. If he'd have to spend twenty-four hours in his office, six days a week, his bowels certainly couldn't be sacrificed.
      Now, gradually enlarging the corridor's expanse and dim luminosity, the first sign of an extension to the ghostly atmosphere of the facility broadened against the outward darkness—a corridor checkpoint, circular walls providing a comprehensive view of three access hatches, in turn, leading to a series of further darkened hallways.
       "This is the first intersection from the entrance," the Corporal explained, pointing to each of the three doors. "That's the entrance to the cafeteria—big as it might be, it's never truly experienced the suffocating aroma of a smoking beef grill. The hatch next to it leads to the smoking and recreation lounge. That designation doesn't serve it any justice, since there's nothing there other than a bunch of couches, beverage machines and a live feed to the Navy's broadcast program. Not exactly entertainment. Then, the last door connects us to the playground: the freezer full of extra meat to conduct experiments on," having depleted all explanations, the Marine joyfully concluded: "Basically the so-called, off-duty area."
      Other than the cafeteria, Dales suspected, none of those designations accurately fitted the "off-duty" categorization. He widened his eyes, looked at the hatches one more time before passing into the following section of the corridor.
       "It shouldn't be a surprise, ONI's practically busting its ass off to call things what they're not."
       "Roger that, sir," the Corporal chuckled without making any additional comments, snide remark nevertheless palpable in his reaction.
      The UNSC had once been careful about the way it maintained these laboratories. Dales remembered one mention in a catalogue ten years ago when CASTLE Base was first seeing the real results of successful underground construction, as numerous divisions of scientists recorded themselves working in the weapons departments of the facility and published them on various channels of the Reach network for HIGHCOM to see. What had happened here, why the laboratories were so brusquely abandoned, he'd try to discover. He'd been given an opportunity to nose into ONI's affairs.
      Who in the military wouldn't want that?
      They arrived at another intersection, this one somehow smaller than the previous stop, and for good reason: they'd just moved further down into the facility, the hallway narrowing as a sudden cut in air venting pressure coupled with the constant chilly temperature gathered enough volatility to impact first-time visitors.
      Dales felt the change in pressure force his lungs to adapt to the oxygenation in this place, slowly walked further down the corridor at a steady breathing pace, but couldn't keep up with the exercise. His lungs vibrated, coughs and gulps trying to settle the chaos unfolding in his breathing apparatus, finally composed himself as they entered the intersection and the venting system balanced the pressure.
       "You should've seen the tourists. Seven different voices all straining their throats brings out a hell of an echo down here," the Corporal made a face of appreciation. "Don't worry; it's the first and final time you'll experience that."
       "Tell that to my mortician thirty years from now." Dales replied, wiping the tears away from the previous effort.
      Rapid bangs and hisses sounded to the side of the intersection, a series of lights flickering on the other side of an opened hatch. Dales spotted the Marine peer his head from behind the door. Fast for a decommissioned security guard.
       "We're getting close to the offices, sir. Follow me," the Corporal announced.
      Dales squirmed through the small opening, pulled the hatch shut with a strong thump, and took a moment to picture the scene ahead of him. Everything he'd ever needed and worked for twenty years to achieve, through promotions, shifts and transfers, among hundreds of competing students in the Naval Military Science Academy—it all got back to him, staring at the marvel of modern technology ONI had managed to hide from the surface of Reach.
      A chamber of sorts, roughly as tall as one of the old religious cathedrals he'd seen people gathering in on Earth, wide enough for mountains of crates and supply trunks to rest peacefully against the crystal-clean sandstone walls, systems of mechanized transportation cranes and carriages hanging from scaffoldings in the central part of the ceiling, looking over several idle work desks and monitoring stations. Haphazard adaptations of street signs lay scattered across the reflective floor, guiding intended machinery by size and purpose through a maze of painted corridors. Beyond the illustrious show-off of expensive hardware, along each side of the long walls, a variety of offices were aligned one next to another at floor level.
      Dales listened to the concert of beeping standby cranes and automated supply tucks, eyes darting constantly from one corner of the gigantic chamber to the other, willing himself to drive one of the small carts through every section and grow familiar with their mechanics and purposes. He satisfied the urge by mentally planning his schedule in advance, dedicating a part of it to extensive exploration through this monster laboratory and testing as many of its features as he could or held reasonable knowledge about. He drew back to a saying his applied physics professor used to end classes with: there are no limits to physics, just the amount of understanding one can carry through a lifetime.
       "Why in God's name did ONI desert this place?" Dales questioned, murmuring the query more to his inner intuition than to anyone outside his thoughts, looked at the Corporal as though he held all the answers to his preliminary interests. Well, he's worked here for years, Dales thought, so he must know everything about this place.
      The Marine turned to meet his questioning stare, shrugged the look away and reached for a control panel blinking on the wall behind him, additional lighting sources throughout the chamber strengthening the already sun-bright luminosity as he hit a few buttons. "Hey, you know the spooks. When it comes to why our balls get squished between our legs, they never tell us anything. Until we find out we've grown so fat our legs squish them without us ever noticing," he stepped ahead, scanned the lower levels of the compound for something. "Actually, scratch that, they've castrated us centuries ago."
      Dales found himself grinning involuntarily at the Marine's remarks, disgruntled he could identify with the young man's experience out of all the people he'd worked with. It must have been the quick stroke in the depressurized corridor earlier messing with his discernment. But, by God, he'd do anything to make this experience as enjoyable as possible.
       "Let's get you settled in, sir," the Corporal paced towards the perfect alignment of work offices against one of the surrounding walls, pointed to the colorful graphics of scribbled traffic signs on the floor. "Try to memorize where these signs are located. Once the machines start speeding around you'll have to be especially careful when you head out of the office to take a leak or do something other than cellular manipulation. You'll find some sets of casual wearing clothes inside, along with all the necessary personal hygiene accessories and a pull-up, medium-sized bed. ONI's also provided you with some weapons for protection—an M6A sidearm, a standard Navy-issue combat knife and a few magazines for that pistol."
      They stopped in front of the office door, Corporal Yonders removing the glove off his right hand and punching a series of quick numerical strings on the opening control. "But that's more of a formality to make the scientists feel safe here. Any weapons specialist in ONI knows you couldn't fend off a couple of rabid dogs with that gear, let alone convince a bunch of terrorists you mean business. That's why you have people like me spending time here."
      Dales tried to feel comfortable, attempted to forget the fact that he was starting a job no one in the Navy had been trained for: how to maintain a stadium-size laboratory representing the vanguard of UNSC technological achievement by oneself. With the threat of nosey terrorists gathering enough intel one day to pay him a visit on top of that.
       "At least you're honest about it, Corporal." The only thing he managed in reply.
      The Marine nodded, struggled to grab the door's handle, retrieved his hand and stepped back as soon the large hatch budged and the stale air inside escaped confinement. "Here it is."
      Dales stepped over the door's threshold, carefully moved his gaze in a circle around the office, noting the irregular arrangement of cupboards next to the couch, the large desk covered in stacks of pens, blank papers, display screens showing strange functions, and small transparent keyboards appearing to be part of the desk itself flickering in assorted patterns. He slipped next to each compartment: the pull-out bed now standing straight as a couch, clothed in an all too familiar white covering blanket; the beverage machine standing next to his desk, featuring dozens of variations of dark coffee and fruit-flavored tea; and, finally, his work place humming a distinct melody of computer circuits. He sat in the armchair, hung his forearms over the plastic supports on the sides, let the soft, leather fabric reform itself according to his body build.
      But something didn't sit right with the way the office was positioned, closed and narrowed against itself like a more comfortable form of a jail cell reserved for politically influential criminals. Of course: he couldn't see the drops of stars through the reinforced glass floor every time he broke the streamline of work onboard Navy cruisers. He already missed the thrill of it, the sensation of floating above infinity as he went about mundane tasks.
       "It looks a bit crumpled, but every time you look out the window, you'll see the world's biggest laboratory a few feet away," the Corporal remarked, shook his head in a simulated gesture of amazement. "That should balance things a bit. If you ever need anything, there's a dial on your desk that calls up my COM."
       "Thank you for all the help, Corporal," Dales turned and smiled, feeling the urge to grab a book from the small collection on one of the cupboards and devour its pages. Or just lie down on the couch, relax his feet, and plan things for a moment. "That'll be all."
       "You're welcome, sir." the Marine greeted, snapped the office door shut, his footsteps echoing away.
      Strange guy, Dales thought, very chatty. That's expectable—I'd go mad to talk to someone if I were in his position.
      He rose from the chair, put his hands in his pocket, decided to do some cleaning up around the room. It must have been years since someone swept the floor; scattered stains of red food sauce and drips of coffee had rotted to a disgusting, greenish tint that spread in splattered circles, some of them old enough for small bugs to gather around and serve a dinner of year-old garbage. There was so much to be rearranged: the furniture now placed obnoxiously close to the center of the room, the clichéd paintings of sunsets and meteor showers hung on the wall above his desk, and some strange holes in the ceiling that he assumed had been perpetrated by the colonies of rats that inhabited the facility.
      Without putting together a tight and very exact working schedule, he couldn't turn his office into an elegant place to live… or at least acceptably clean to sleep without worrying about rodents nibbling on his eyes and ears.
      He fell back to his desk, crashed against his chair, sending a stray lamp falling from the table. The desk's command lights next to the computer screens pulsed together, two exact copies of miniscule drawings shaped as envelopes next to each light indicating there were new files in the computer. Dales put his hands on the keyboards, tapped a few buttons, bringing a blue notice flashing up on the display, accessed the prompt. The display was dominated by a second-long flicker, a pause, and a final flash of blue light resolving into a text document. ONI tags on the top and bottom authorized the virtual transmission.
      The "sender" specification at the beginning of the document, however, let Dales ponder the actual nature of his objective here.
      Captain Terrence Hood.


1209 Hours, June 12, 2489 (Military Calendar)
23 Librae System, Madrigal, Station Hassan-Reynolds

      AV-10 Hornet Attack Craft had outperformed any low-cost, speedy infiltration vehicles in the UNSC since its conception as a training asset for Marine and Navy special operations, though its versatility often came in contradiction with the rapid attack purposes it was designed for. Less than half of the commanders in charge of the Reach Military Preserves had noted its prolonged durability in volatile environment simulations, added the continuous desire of veteran Generals to throw everything from soft rainfall to mission-hazardous snowstorms among the rough array of strange weather patterns it was put through.
      But those technicians had never fully understood the capacity of their work, the ground-breaking revolutions in rapid attack strategy that had enabled the UNSC to function beyond a simple safety-provider in the Outer Colonies for the past centuries, turning it to a practical state-mechanism relying on fast deployments of Marine forces and an almost full-grown presence of Army encampments to truly safeguard its citizens' welfare. Military designers never got to see the end result of their engineering, aircraft and long-distance patrol vehicles speed through deserts and mountain ranges with every part of their engines having been touched at least once by a worker they'd supervised and paid to monitor their inventions. Once the hierarchal guardians of HIGHCOM stepped into the picture, most of the decisions that would rightfully be granted to the designers of their military hardware were removed from the planning process of fighting interplanetary wars.
      As a result, field officers like Commander Ernst Rosenberg— after being briefed on their new military acquisitions only an hour prior to the initiation of a covert operation on an unstable outer colony—were unaware of the limits a first-generation AV-10 Hornet could safely sustain. Gut instinct, and the experience of ten years overlooking diplomatic missions from a control station in orbit was the most trustworthy tool a sole commanding operator could employ to properly guide a Marine task force through thirty miles of uninhabited dunes.
      Aware of the opportunity he'd been given to use these wonder-birds on terrain too rough for a heavily-armed platoon of Marines to cross on ground, Commander Rosenberg had set the task force's two Hornets to run on a reasonably basic set of features necessary to end a trek under a hundred-and-ten-degree temperature conditions: first on the list, transit velocity, he decided, would have to remain under a constant twenty-five mile parameter to avoid overheating the VTOL thrusters, along with a drastic reconfiguration of all night-vision assets otherwise constantly active on a standard patrolling craft. Further enlightening the crafts' burden was a low-altitude flight path to reduce the thrusters' resistance.
      The off-chance of a Hornet malfunctioning on its first mission as part of the UNSC Air Force's arsenal wouldn't be taken up with the responsible designers. It would be taken up with him. That made the duty all the more frightening and demanding—the irrationality of HIGHCOM pigs.
       "Target showing multiple signatures on lock radar," the voice of a Hornet's flight master broke in on Rosenberg's frequency, releasing the specific echo of inter-orbital communication. "Three contacts, bearing north-east of current flight path."
      There theoretically was no need for the pilot to communicate any positions received on his radar. Rosenberg enjoyed a power few naval NCOs had the self-control of manipulating without being remanded from military service on grounds of moral malpractice: the complete, unrestricted ability to monitor virtually any location on a planet from a small control room… dim shadows of foot-sized boulders, camouflaged outlines of green hillsides, even infrared imagery of shower rooms in female officers' training camps. The last of which had been manipulated so many times it had cost the careers of dozens of aspiring lieutenants.
       "Copy, Bravo Team: expect next transmission within five-hundred meters of target."
       "Target," in this instance, nominating a group of supply trucks reported to have left one of Reynolds city's overcrowded ammunition deposits carrying unauthorized amounts of resources a few hours before the mobilization of the Marine task force. Among tightly-scheduled transportations to and from isolated UNSC Defense Force supply deposits—which only amounted to a maximum of two trips a week—additional movements of ammunition had usually raised criminal tensions within the collective secrecy of ONI.
      Rosenberg watched the monitoring screens in front of his control panel display moving footage of the Marine attack group holding formation on both sides of a narrow road strip. The formation followed the straight road through vanilla-colored desert dunes, occasional wind gusts spitting strains of sand onto the heated pavement, and the automated zooming mechanism of the orbital station's surveillance cameras close in on the Hornets' wings, desert fatigue-dressed Marines holding on to their respective railings for safety. Though the attack group itself could only spot a fraction of the target's tail, Rosenberg viewed the trucks speed ahead of the Hornets: three dark-green UNSC colonial militia personnel transporters, windows open on their sides as, what he guessed, was a last attempt at preserving whatever coolness they could manage given the trucks' lack of air-conditioning, and a blurred outline of figures standing next to each other beside the windows.
      These sorts of transportations had never involved a group of people as large as the one Rosenberg could see inside the trucks. The last investigation crew comprised of four militia patrol teams that had been assigned to check the status and maintenance of the ammunition deposits out in the desert had taken place more than a year ago, days after the creation of Madrigal's colonial administration authority marked the planet's inclusion in the Earth government's charter. Unless another show of fireworks in celebration of Madrigal's achievements was due today, this trip could represent the first sign of early rebellion in this sector.
       "Bravo and Alpha, your target's entering effective firing range," he reported as the data on the birds' approach rate flowed on his control panel. "Get ready to flank them and pull the plug."
      The Hornets lowed in on the trucks, tailed the last vehicle of the convoy in flanking formation just a few meters away from its sunlight-reflecting roof, and turned their noses toward the vulnerable open-windowed sides. Rosenberg saw the shadowy figures move about the interior at the sight of the crafts hovering beside them; no doubt, by this time, the pilots had issued the warning to stop the convoy through the intercommunication radio signal to the truck drivers. But none of the vehicles even flinched off-course, apparently accelerating, instead, hazardously fast toward an outlying series of curbs in the road.
       "Status, Alpha and Bravo," Rosenberg keyed his headset, keeping his finger pushed on the communication button until someone responded. Overriding voices and the soft purring of the Hornet's thrusters crackled back at him. "Alpha-Bravo, respond."
      The disruptive bursts specific of assault rifle fire swallowed the channel, covering the pilot's voices as they struggled to make a head start of what was happening. Rosenberg scanned the screens on his control panel one by one: the biosigns listing of the Marines turned orange, red, and finally blinked continuously, warning that the troopers' lifesigns were being affected by heavy trauma in some parts of their bodies; cameras mounted inside the Hornets showed the Marines covering behind the craft's fuselage, firing intermittently towards the trucks below, the pilots rapidly combining several controls on their dashboards; lastly he turned to the main surveillance monitor and watched the figures inside the trucks poke assault rifles through the open windows, rounds of gunfire smash and speed past the two birds… before another head stretched half-way out the side and brought a long, rocket-shaped, shoulder-mounted weapon in the air.
       "Alpha-Bravo, pull up and switch to missile launch system, engage the convoy, now!" Rosenberg rose from his desk, shouting the order.
      A smoking lance impacted the left-sided Hornet's nose, tore through the fuselage in a balling cascade of metallic remains and blood-tinted fire, two of the monitors on the control panel analyzing the craft's performance losing feed with it, and the remaining two displays showcasing the second bird's attempts at escaping the volley of rocket launchers flickering to static.
       "Alpha-Bravo, do you read? Abort pursuit now! Evade!"
      Useless calls for retreat crossing the orbital communication channel still convinced Rosenberg that the Hornets had pulled up to a safe altitude, planned their approach more efficiently this time and returned to engage the attackers. They had to. Those Marines were professionals hired by Naval Special Warfare to police the wild frontlines of the UNSC's territorial dominion, armed with the most sophisticated piece of light support craft the best engineers had designed and deployed straight off the naval docks on Reach. Combined together they were the most feared men and women with rifles in the galaxy.
      But there was someone else out there rivaling the Marines' age-old oath of honor with a cowardly strike, disbanding a treaty of brotherhood established centuries ago through stains of blood on craters and muddy rainforest grounds.
      A rebirth of ancient human vices.

1758 Hours, June 14, 2489 (Military Calendar)
Reach, FLEETCOM HQ, ONI Section One Council

      They ran through armies of attentive Military Policemen standing, staring at each other from less than two meters away on either side of the mathematically-precise alignment of vaulted doors, rifles to their sides as if waiting for the Chairman of the Security Committee himself to pass by. A wolf pack—though "staff" was their formal designation despite the inaccuracy of the word—armed with the weapons meant to intimidate new commissioned members of the council. Papers literally condemning someone's actions with a frontal accusation. No backtalk and no indirect representation. They were here to send an officer to the judiciary court of the UNSC Navy. Or, if they truly had their own way, to a silent death deep in slipspace on a covertly sabotaged frigate.
      If they were to be observed from a wide distance, the staff comprised of three veteran Admirals could be mistaken as a delegation sent to recall a new deal with a private business corporation that hadn't lived up to their contracting conditions. The theory wasn't that far away from striking reality. Instead of money, there were lives at stake.
      The leading member of the staff, Fleet Admiral Gregorian Oswald, urged the rest of his group to follow his pace through the wondering gazes of on-guard MPs, past beeping security sensors uselessly scanning their service badges, and saluting colleagues in the Navy naïve enough to believe Oswald was the kind of man who put moral decency ahead of his job. Following in his footsteps were Rear Admirals Strasski and Chamberlain, both acting as chief advisors to the UNSC Security Committee.
      Oswald's duty in ONI, however, encompassed everything from militia deployments to conceptions of comprehensive fleet rosters crucial in the case of an ad-hoc war effort. His results in as varying a field of expertise as he'd struggled to take charge of were much less than easing the minds of rifle combat squads and naval Admirals alike. He'd wanted to steer the UNSC in the direction where the Unified Earth Government was simply a political faction responsible for nothing but promises aimed at factory workers and agricultural pioneers in the Outer Colonies to sooth their aching and prevent them from blocking his path to absolute power.
       "A true fascist," he recalled someone naming him before he'd been appointed Chairman of the UNSC Defense Forces. Now, he held the strength to use that word against everyone who slipped whenever the floor was wet. And someone just did.
      Captain Terrence Hood. The newest addition to Section One. The man had compromised expensive new hardware given under his command, and Oswald swore he'd get the semi-baldheaded punk to regret the day his mother decided a career in the military for her son was a fitting ticket out of a life filled with illiterate farmers on Harvest.
      The papers Oswald had prepared for this meeting, specifically written to outline the failure of personnel conscriptions from the Outer Colonies ONI had practiced for the past century, could change the face of the intelligence service for good. He was determined to do some cutting and splicing.
      He entered the room at the end of the hallway, didn't bother stopping for the routine identification procedure one of the MPs had prepared for as he marched down, and quickly scanned the assembly before picking a seat at the head of the long, central table. Five officers were present, each wearing the specific commanding uniforms of their leading military branches: Marine Corps Commandant Leonard Wellington, wearing his service's specific light-grey uniform with a mostly badge-less waist in-keeping with the brotherhood philosophy of the Marines, crossed his hands on the table in expectation; Admiral of the Navy Richard Parangosky carefully reading an opened file on the table failing to greet Oswald as he entered; Senior General of the Air Force Amy Greensboro smiling warmly and whispering something to the fourth officer present in the room, General of the Army George Sanders; and finally, the man this meeting was destined to accuse, the twenty-five year-old screw-up Captain Terrence Hood sitting at the bottom of the table, in the usual seat of criminal punishments.
      Oswald laid the report file on Hood's latest activity on the table, waited for the rest of his staff of accusing lawyers to be seated beside him, and blinked friendly at the group of top commanding officers in the UNSC—the most ambitious military leaders humanity, in so far, had given birth to as it emerged from a two-thousand year-long state of cultural and national division.
       "Gentlemen, and ladies," Oswald began, lowering his head in appreciation of the only female commander at the table. "You've been summoned here as leading officers of the four government-owned military branches of the UNSC Defense Force. Consequently, the purpose of this meeting is of great significance to the diplomatic relations of the UNSC and the Earth government with private entrepreneurs of colonization corporations and their joint administration authority in the Outer Colonies. If you'll allow me to brief you on the unfortunate developments in the colonies."
      A resonation of combined approvals gave Oswald "permission" to start his briefing. He caught a glimpse of Captain Hood at the other end of the table, noted the coolness in his demeanor, his passiveness even now, at a time when his career, or very likely his life, depended on how well-entertained Oswald had felt during the last few hours—and entertainment on Reach usually described judges sitting in a courtroom, watching an ill-behaved officer shiver in his clothes, and waiting to pass the negative verdict. He fumbled with a series of papers Rear Admirals Strasski and Chamberlain pulled out of their briefcases, and straightened in his seat.
       "At approximately 1210 Hours, 23 Librae Madrigal Time, one of the most expensive and resource-demanding projects the engineering divisions of Reach HIGHCOM had funded and researched was issued an untimely verdict concerning its viability," Oswald reached into his file and passed along prototype images of a compact transportation aircraft to the four commanding officers. They studied the pictures attentively. "The AV-10 Hornet Attack Craft, one of the most, in theory, reliable and easy-to-produce fast infiltration aircraft the UNSC Air Force had been provided with last week. Two of these rapid attack craft had been transferred, under the authorization of General Amy Greensboro, to the Naval Special Warfare Command in preparation of their maiden voyage: a covert mission to identify the nature of suspicious ammunition transportation on Madrigal which had been taking place for three consecutive days all around the colony. Technical control of the operation was handed to Captain Terrence Hood," Oswald saw the young man raise his head at the mention of his name. "Who, in turn, authorized a certain Commander Ernst Rosenberg from NavSpecWar to conduct the operation. As I'm certain you all have, at some point, assigned compact aircraft similar to the new generation AV-10 Hornets on your various patrolling and law enforcement actions throughout the recently occupied colonial territories, this unfortunate event concerns all of the representatives present at this table."
      Oswald exhaled in relief, rearranged the order of business in his mind before he continued: "Captain Hood's and Commander Rosenberg's operation was swiftly crippled by what we are convinced was a murderous act of hostility against the citizens of the Earth government, and the service men and women of the UNSC Defense Forces. A transportation force under the colonial militia commands of Madrigal that was spotted transporting UNSC weapon resources to a location as of yet not transit-authorized by the Colonial Administration Authority opened fire on the detachment of Hornet Fast Attack Craft and their attached Marine strike force as soon as they ordered the convoy to stop its transit. A brief firefight commenced as the Marines returned fire and caused severe damage to one of the trucks—but not enough. Both aircraft were destroyed upon their retaliation by a volley of mobile rocket missiles stolen from the ammunition deposit east of Reynolds."
      The officers crisscrossed questioning glances, remained silent, waiting for Oswald to reveal his real intention. The Fleet Admiral rehearsed his speech mentally, proceeding with the next order of discussion.
       "Although footage of the engagement clearly demonstrates an intolerable lack of consistency in Commander Rosenberg's strategic approach of the operation he'd undertaken, an investigation team led by Rear Admirals Strasski and Chamberlain, who are at my side, determined that a considerable, if not decisive, amount of the operation's tragic outcome is directed at Captain Terrence Hood with us today," the military representatives turned toward the young Captain for instant, locked their attention at Oswald again. "Our staff's report concluded that Captain Hood, despite his relatively comprehensive experience in Naval Special Warfare, intentionally initiated a chain of decisions inconsistent with the command of special operations forces. New acquisitions of military equipment in NavSpecWar dictates a period of exhaustive testing in the field of special operations tactics before being put to use in a live policing action with valuable human assets—a stage in administration Captain Hood did not follow as ordered by the UNSC Navy Act of Special Warfare of 2362. Secondly, the transfer of newly acquired hardware to a colonial representative of the UNSC Navy, such as Commander Rosenberg, must at all times be accompanied by a detailed, practical and theoretical set of guidelines and operational usage regulations in order to safely run a mission after having acquired the respective equipment—a critical stage Captain Hood, once more, did not satisfy."
      Oswald felt his mouth dry out—not as much as Hood's luck so far would dry out, he thought—and requested a glass of water from a nearby waitress. He drank half of the glass as soon as the girl brought a small tray on the table in front of him.
       "Thirdly," he began the last legal specification. "Captain Hood found himself in the position of executive officer as the operation proceeded, but he did not oversee the progress Commander Rosenberg was making with the Marine task force, thus failing to ensure the Marines and equipment involved a basic degree of safety. These errors combined to create a situation we've not often seen in the Special Warfare Command, both hazardous to the expenses of the Navy's proceedings in military engineering and to the human implications that resulted from such carelessness.
       "Furthermore, and possibly more significant than the unilateral disaster this operation has cost us," Oswald punched the table in disappointment. "Our relations with the private colonization corporations on Madrigal could most definitely reverberate throughout the other colonies. If some of you don't understand what that risk involves, which, I'm sure you all do but obviously have limited input in such matters, I'll bring the implications to your attention: it means we just exchanged fire with a governmental organization representing the colonial community. The colonial militia. An intergovernmental firefight," he shook his head. "Things like this only seemed possible when the Koslovics thought that socialism still meant progress in 2161.
       "Among the problems I've communicated to the Security Council is an amendment to the NavSpecWar conscription acts currently in practice. Given the Outer Colonies' rather incomplete integration within the UNSC's effective administrative boundaries, further conscription from diplomatically unstable colonies will be retrieved from the package of legalized political acts NavSpecWar functions on. Experienced personnel that come from a long line of military-hardened descent needs to be preserved in times when circumstances change for the worst. If anything, this lesson needs to be learned through sacrifice."
       "Sir, if I may intervene," General of the Army George Sanders leaned over the table, glared at Oswald confusedly. "The UNSC's human intelligence capabilities rely on Outer Colony resources to expand its range of control. A cut in conscriptions certainly would pose a problem to that goal."
       "Then, I'd assume, General," Oswald replied. "That you would agree to risk more equipment and human lives to satisfy the needs of a militarily inexperienced class of civilians?" he pointed toward Hood. "We've already seen the result of broadening our conscripting perspective. Captain Hood knows full well what I'm referring to."
      The absentminded nod Hood displayed strengthened Oswald's commitment to bringing him down with a quick and silent blow. No one would notice. He would be replaced. The plan was bulletproof.
       "Sir, I feel I have to object applying a singular instance to the general populace of the colonies," General of the Air Force Amy Greensboro intervened, shifted in her seat. "The possibilities being born out there could very well be more helpful to the UNSC than the people we're conscripting from the Inner Colonies—"
       "With respect, ma'am," Admiral of the Navy Richard Parangosky spoke for the first time. "The Air Force has no problem putting farmers at the steering wheel because they're quite good at handling machines. Apply them to a morally-strict service that requires intellectual capacities beyond measuring the size of a turnip and you can't get anything more than a turnip-producing farmhouse."
      A brief display of power between the officers commenced at Parangosky's affirmation, fell silent in a few seconds as Oswald prepared for his verdict on Hood's conduct.
       "I firmly believe the only solution to preserving a status of trust and reliability among NavSpecWar ranks is a removal of unsuitable candidates," he explained calmly. "Colonial population on the frontier is the primary option that presents a possibility of doing so. That, however, brings me to the repercussions of Captain Hood's less than favorable behavior. As you might expect, the actions he was involved in call for a detailed criminal investigation," he felt his pride growing inside him as he spelled those last two words, noticed Hood lowering his head. "For acts of strategic operation inconsistent with safety procedures conceived by the Naval Special Warfare chiefs of staff, for losing command of Marine Corps personnel during a special policing mission, for causing technical damage to the infrastructure of the UNSC Engineering Corps by improperly manipulating aircraft, and for hazarding diplomatic relations between the UNSC and its representative authorities in the colonies, Captain Terrence Hood has been nominated to take part in an extraordinary court-martialing session represented by a special delegation of legislative advisors in FleetCom HQ."
      The brass let out a combined series of nods and verbal agreements, looking at Captain Hood in short rounds of questioning gazes intended to communicate the general feeling of disappointment and anger Oswald's arguments had brought against him. The possibility finally presented itself, Oswald reflected on his struggle to get rid of the troublemaker, to purge the Naval Special Warfare Command of undesired human resources neither efficient nor experienced enough to handle even the most fundamental set of duties the office demanded. There was nothing and no one determined enough to stop him. If sensitivity still functioned in the military, the mothers and children of the Marines that lost their lives in the face of a group of renegade militias in an utterly senseless slaughter gave him sufficient moral grounds to crush this bastard.
       "As a result, Captain Terrence Hood has been removed from his office as special forces operator, Captain of ships in the UNSC Navy, and beneficiary of military funding directed in support of his status as special operator," Oswald reminded himself to let Hood declare his position on his own shortcomings. "Captain Hood, as an officer of the UNSC Navy currently sidelined due to your failure to satisfy military procedures resulting in a considerable loss of human life, under oath of honor and dedication to the UNSC Defense Force and the Unified Earth Government, do you have a statement you'd like to communicate regarding your past actions?"
      Hood rose from his chair, momentarily arranged the white Navy officers' uniform around his shoulders and removed his hat, revealing a hairless frontal region of his head, the only hair present on his shining scalp reduced to a short rim on the sides of his temples.
       "Ladies and gentlemen, commanding officers of the UEG's prideful military arms," Hood bowed to the four officers in turn. "Fleet Admiral Gregorian Oswald has showed more than enough tolerance I could ask for as a member of Naval Special Warfare only a few minutes ago placed under governmental investigation for acts of malpractice."
      Oswald didn't remove his stare from the young man. First he loses two perfectly functional Hornets along with twelve professional Marines, and now the punk tries to sugar up to his ass?
       "My actions, while obviously of unprofessional nature—"
       "Not unprofessional, Captain, murderous." Oswald snapped.
       "Yes, sir. I've cost the Navy certain damages, along with an unpardonable result that manifested itself upon human life. I hold no pleasure in declaring myself innocent; the evidence presented against me is sufficiently stained with moral accusations that I cannot effectively attempt to save anything that could further my career."
       "Now you think about your career?" Oswald intervened again. "It's over, Captain! Useless. Irrelevant to the mudhole you've walked yourself into."
       "Sir, UNSC judiciary investigations allow me to defend myself with whatever arguments I can find at my side. There's no doubt my career is very likely to end here, but I only did what the circumstance requested of me for that specific operation: the efficient and rapid deployment of a response force to capture a convoy suspected of armament trafficking in a scarcely-patrolled sector of Madrgial. I did not order further special operations testing for the two Hornets I've transferred under Commander Rosenberg's supervision because the communication I'd received from the Engineering Corps stated the aircraft functioned perfectly for a first assignment."
       "And you trusted Commander Rosenberg to be aware of the report the Engineering Corps issued you personally?" Oswald replied. "Captain, other people can't read your mind and it's simply unimaginable that you were assigned to a position in NavSpecWar with that kind of perception of relations in a special operations command."
       "You'll see, Fleet Admiral, that the Engineering Corps communication contained no technical specifications regarding the usage of the two Hornets, nor did they advise any further proceedings under the conditions of a special operation, which practically gave me permission to transfer the hardware to Commander Rosenberg's command." Hood pulled out a napkin and wiped his forehead. "I'd also venture a guess, Fleet Admiral Oswald, that since I'm going to be tried for disrupting diplomatic relations between the UNSC and its colonial representatives, the people that caused this whole scenario, the rebellious convoy, has been located and the gunmen apprehended?"
      Oswald pictured Hood's naval uniform transforming into a black and white prison outfit, the man waiting in a kilometer-long line to grab his share of a very limited supply of food: the blood and limbs of the Marines he'd sent to die. The thought cheered him for a second, but he couldn't help trying to answer Hood's question in his mind. He hadn't ordered the apprehension of the criminals himself—the duty of tracking the rebels down was solely NavSpecWar's affair acting as the receiving end of an armed assault.
       "Interesting the way you approach this problem," he replied. "It's only your behind you're worried about. Your career. Your future. You should have been thrown out of the service years ago. Individualism has no place in the military."
       "I see," Hood said. "Then you have no evidence to suggest I manipulated any diplomatic relations, sir."
       "I'll tell you what you will see, though, Captain," Oswald retorted, ran through the papers placed on the table, arranged them in a stack, and slid them back into his file. "The faces of the mothers you've just destroyed and the children you've made cry in their arms. The families you've torn apart, Captain. That's the only thing you'll see from now on. I look forward to seeing your face resemble theirs," Hood rose from his desk, gestured his staff of Rear Admirals to the door, and smiled to the four officers as they prepared to leave the meeting. "The only difference will be the steel bars crossing it."