UNSC HighCom Facility, Reach
July 20th, 2552
It had in fact taken two days for the UNSC High Command to assemble at Reach. Most of the members had been present on various duties but Fleet Admiral Lord Hood, Fleet Admiral Harper and Vice-Admiral Parangosky had been absent. On receiving the summons they had, quite independently, performed near-perfect spit-takes from what they had been drinking at the time and then raced to board the nearest and fastest ship to head for Reach.
Lord Hood had quite a surprise when his transport, the prowler Nightshroud
had arrived at the orbital shipyards; the sight of a large Covenant
warship docked securely at Station Gamma was almost as astonishing as the collection of new, powerful-looking vessels. Strangest of all was the Keyship – the various Terran and Tau’ri vessels were at least recognisable as vessels, but the tetrahedral bulk of the Forerunner vessel was completely alien to him.
The Pelican flight down to the surface had been equally surprising. The pilots had been as skilled and professional as usual but there was a new quality he hadn’t seen for many years – optimism. Morale across the entire Reach Garrison had skyrocketed, fuelled by tales from those who had been at Sigma Octanus and seen an entire Covenant fleet shattered for no losses. Those tales might have been dismissed as outlandish – but the doubters only needed to look out a window at the new arrivals and the doubts were silenced.
After he landed Lord Hood was hustled to the secure meeting room. It was arranged rather like a courtroom – or an Inquisition interrogation chamber. The table for the senior commanders was raised several feet above the floor and was shaped into a half-circle. The empty central space held either holographic displays or officers and other personnel giving briefings. The room, furnishings and décor combined to give those called in before HighCom an impression of smallness.
Hood hated the room. Officers, enlisted and civilians were not inferiors to be intimidated but carefully listened to – just because they might not have Admirals’ stars didn’t mean they couldn’t have good ideas. But it was part of the rigmarole that ONI insisted on, apparently their studies indicated the design and layout prompted people to be more open and honest that a standard briefing room. ONI tended to get there way over such things.
He took his designated seat, nodding respectfully to Admiral Whitcomb, the Chief of Operations and Fleet Admiral Harper, Commander of the Home Fleet and the Navy’s senior frontline leader, both of whom had arrived ahead of him. He busied himself pouring a cup of tea (at such high levels of secrecy even Fleet Admirals had to fix their own drinks) and waited for the others to trickle in. Vice-Admiral Parangosky, Head of ONI, was next. She did the same thing Hood had done – nodding in greeting to the others and pouring her tea. She was closely followed by Admiral Ramirez, the logistics and shipbuilding chief of the Navy.
Finally there was General Maxwell, Commandant of the UNSC Marine Corps and Colonel Ackerson. Ackerson was the most junior in rank but wielded considerable authority as head of the Naval Special Warfare Office – the legendary Spartans were nominally under his control, along with a lot of other research and development programs – none of which had yielded a war-winning advantage yet, Hood mused darkly.
Once the seven officers were seated, the meeting began. The doors were opened even as the lights dimmed, keeping the central area well-lit but the seven officers in the shadows. Into the room stepped four men – Admirals Stanforth, Cole and Jellicoe along with Commodore Baird – and a floating ball with pale yellow colouring.
To say the sight was surprising would be an understatement. All seven officers had read the messages and reports, they knew what to expect. But to be told that Preston Cole, a man who rightfully should have had one of their seats at this table was back from the dead and actually seeing him in person was an entirely different matter. Then there was Jellicoe and Baird, their distinctly different uniforms (to both the UNSC standard and to each other) made things even more surprising. The presence of Dying Light was just the cherry of top as far as shocks went.
The doors were sealed as the four officers and the Monitor stepped – or floated – into the illuminated central area. Stanforth had warned the arrivals from Earth and Terra about what to expect, and Jellicoe and Baird didn’t bother trying to squint into the darkness, knowing they wouldn’t recognise anyone anyway. Dying Light merely pondered the strange behaviour of the Reclaimers and adjusted his (Cole had decided to use male pronouns for convenience and Dying Light hadn’t argued – it was a novel experience for the Monitor, one to be explored) optical sensors to compensate.
Cole merely growled at the psychological tricks on display. There were far better things to do right now then messing about with the spooks in ONI. Before anyone sat behind the raised table could say something, Cole spoke, his tone laced with annoyance and impatience.
“Enough with the damned spook mind-games. I know who you all are and you all know me. Terrance, Danforth, Margaret, Jose, Richard, Benjamin…Colonel Ackerson. Turn the lights up.” None could miss the acidic tone he used for Ackerson.
A voice from the darkness, quite snappish and confrontational, came back: “Prove it.”
Cole laughed bitterly. “Oh I really don’t think you want me doing that in mixed company Margaret
. Did you ever tell Lord Hood there about that weekend furlough on Paris IV? The one that ended up with you locked up in a little local jail and having to be sprung by your ONI goons?”
There was a sharp intake of breath from the darkness and a quiet chuckle from Stanforth, Jellicoe and someone at the table. Cole continued glaring in the direction the question had come from for a few seconds before looking around at the seated, hidden figures.
“I understand it’s a shock seeing me again after all these years but I’d have thought you’d be glad to see me. I’ve brought friends, allies and whipped an entire Covenant fleet. We even brought you a whole damn battlecruiser gift-wrapped to study! I’d have thought that would buy us a little gratitude.”
Another voice came from the shadows, this one male and quite clearly suspicious. “The point remains that this could be a Covenant plot to learn of Reach or worse, Earth and weaken our defences prior to an all-out offensive.”
Cole knew that voice. “Ackerson, you’re a fucking idiot if you really think that. If this was a massive Covenant plot it’s already worked: my ships in orbit are safely alongside and if we wanted we could gut the entire orbital infrastructure – and probably kill you all as well – in short order. If you really thought this was a trick then you, the cowardly little shit that you are, wouldn’t have come within ten light-years of Reach.”
The voice came right back at Cole, the tone even more angry. “That’s hardly a tone you want to use with us Admiral
, not if you want to convince us of your intentions.”
Jellicoe stepped in; as amusing as the exchange might be there were more important matters. “And that is hardly a tone you
want to use when meeting new allies is it? We’re here to help you people – but if they’re all like you I might just turn around and go back to my universe.”
That was a bluff and everyone standing in the pool of light knew it – but the officers sat behind the table had to take it seriously. Finally a new voice, stern and authoritative, cut through the angry spluttering coming from Ackerson.
“Enough of this. Colonel, regardless of your position on this council I am still your superior officer and I am ordering you to shut the hell up unless directly addressed until further notice. Is that understood?”
An answer came, dejected, almost sulking. “Yes sir.”
The stern voice replied. “Good. Now turn the damn lights up.” The room lights slowly rose to normal levels, revealing the panel of officers – Hood at the centre looking stern, Harper and Whitcomb either side trying – and failing – to hide smirks, Ramirez and Maxwell feigning disinterest with somewhat more success, Parangosky glaring at her subordinate and Ackerson himself looking down at the table and not meeting anyone’s eyes.
Lord Hood’s stern expression relaxed somewhat into genuine compassion. “It’s good to see you again Preston.”
“Perhaps you could perform the introductions Admiral Cole?” said Harper.
“Certainly sir. This is Vice-Admiral Sir John Jellicoe of the Colonial Fleet, currently commanding the Alliance Reconnaissance Force and Commodore Sir Jonathan Baird, commanding the Tau’ri Task Force and HMS Dreadnought
.” Both named officers saluted Lord Hood respectfully, he nodded in return.
“And this is 010 Dying Light, Monitor of Installation 00, commanding the Keyship Shield of Eternity
.” That got some strange looks. “He is an AI construct, one of many created to oversee vital Forerunner facilities throughout the galaxy – and beyond. The Forerunners are long-extinct, some of their technology was reverse-engineered and imitated by the Covenant who worship the Forerunners as gods. The Forerunners themselves left our universe for another, where they joined a great Alliance that included the precursors to Admiral Jellicoe’s people and the Tau’ri of Earth. I sent Dying Light and his ship back to that universe to gather allies, and these two gentlemen answered the call.”
There was a round of questions at that, mostly about the other universe and how Cole himself had survived Psi Serpentis. Cole answered them with a great deal more patience than he had shown earlier with Ackerson, deferring occasionally to Jellicoe or Dying Light when needed. The extra-universal visitors then gave a brief history of their own civilisations, the reborn Alliance and the forces they had brought. Admiral Whitcomb had scoffed at the mere mention of the Warstar’s superlaser, unable to comprehend such a powerful weapon. Dying Light managed that objection by displaying a holographic recording of the obliteration of the Assault Carrier Alacritous Retribution
three days earlier. That had silenced the room for a minute or so.
Lord Hood leaned forwards, his expression intent. “As grateful as I am for the extra ships, you mentioned upgrading our vessels. Could you elaborate please?”
Jellicoe nodded, mentally recalling the briefing the Nemesis’
Chief Engineer, Captain Daniels had given him earlier about the options available.
“My engineers have talked it over and we think the most efficient way to go about this is to refit your ships with shields and our FTL jump drives, plus a power generator for them. Installing our weaponry would take too much time for each ship, and your own weapons are quite capable as it is. By their nature as retrofits, the shields and the jump drives will not be as strong or as capable as those on my own ships, but they should give you a powerful edge nonetheless.”
Admiral Jose Ramirez, the logistics chief, leaned forwards. “How effective would they be, and how quickly can we begin work? It’ll take some time to get out shipyards configured with the new designs.”
Jellicoe smiled at the engineer. “The shields on one of your frigates should be able to withstand two, possibly three plasma torpedoes before failing. The jump drives would have a single-jump range of perhaps five thousand light years, though your shipborne AI’s will need to be given the navigation programming to make them work.”
Dying Light spoke up once Jellicoe had finished. “We can also provide some upgrades to your existing weaponry. The advances used on the Reclaimer’s vessel, Everest
, would be too time-consuming to replicate without bringing vessels to the Ark for months at a time. Instead we can improve your Magnetic Accelerator Cannons to fire three rounds with one capacitor charge, a less-advanced version of the upgrades given to the Reclaimer’s ship.”
The combat officers among HighCom looked delighted at the possibility. Three MAC rounds were usually enough to take out a Covenant frigate or destroyer and put a serious dent in heavier vessels, but usually the UNSC ships wouldn’t survive to get those three shots off. Ackerson, meanwhile, was still fuming at being slapped down by both Cole and Hood in as many minutes.
Jellicoe nodded his thanks at the Monitor. “As for speed, among the reinforcements I’ll be calling up from Terra is our yardship, the Safe Harbour
. She’s designed to resupply and refit an entire Battle Group at once, so she should be able to handle perhaps a dozen of your frigates or destroyers at a time. The reason we plan on using shields and jump drives is that those components are black-boxes that we can position in cargo bays with minimal connections needed to the ship itself. We anticipate that the refits shouldn’t take much more than a day or so per ship for the actual work, then a few days testing of course. For the moment the actual components are beyond your ability to manufacture, we’ll give you the plans and designs but it’ll take a while to get your infrastructure in place.”
Ramirez sat back, satisfied that they’d have a quick commencement on the upgrades and wouldn’t be delayed by having to set up production lines for entirely new components. Harper and Whitcomb were already working out the logistics of getting ships to Reach and cycling them through the upgrade program – naturally Reach’s garrison fleet would be first. They could then be sent out on offensive missions while the next batch of ships arrived for the upgrades and to maintain Reach’s defences.
Stanforth entered the conversation at this point. “Finally there is the matter of the captured Covenant vessel. Dying Light here infiltrated their computer systems and managed to extract some very useful information. Monitor, if you would please?” Dying Light complied, projecting a hologram showing a star chart with various worlds, including Reach, Earth and the Inner Colonies being highlighted.
“The Fleet we destroyed was a small, specialist force sent to Sigma Octanus to recover Forerunner artefacts, they didn’t know it was one of our worlds. It came from this forward supply station at Tau Ceti, some monstrosity called Unyielding Hierophant
apparently. This station appears to be the main logistics base for all Covenant fleet movements in the Inner and Outer Colonies. Admiral Jellicoe, Preston and I believe this would be an idea target to hit when the first wave of upgraded ships is completed – or even beforehand if the Recon Force is willing to commit. Not only do we stand a good chance of eliminating a key element of the enemy supply chain but we may also be able to take any vessels docked at the station with it as well. This would buy us vital time to get the ships at Reach upgraded as well as to complete the orbital defence network at Earth. Finally, I think it would be good for morale if we were able to take the offensive again.”
Jellicoe nodded in agreement with Stanforth before speaking up. “This logistics station is an enormous construct, too big to directly destroy unless we get lucky and hit the main reactors or fuel bunkers. However from the available data we know that it is in a low orbit over a large gas giant – hit it with enough force to destabilise that orbit and it’ll burn up in the gas giant’s atmosphere.”
Cole took up the thread at this point. “Sadly the Tau Ceti gas giant isn’t big enough to just blow the damn thing up like I did to Viperidae, but this’ll be the next best thing. We’ve got a pretty solid plan worked out, we just need the go-ahead and a few other supplies.”
Ramirez perked up at that. “Supplies such as what Admiral Cole?”
Cole grinned viciously. “Half a dozen Prowlers, Stanforth’s fleet that he took to Sigma Octanus and as many nuclear mines as you can spare.”
The HighCom officers exchanged glances at that. It seemed Preston Cole was back in business and as mean as ever. Lord Hood leaned forwards with an expression of great interest.
“Tell us more Admiral, I can safely say you’ve got our attention.”
Over the next twenty minutes Stanforth, Cole, Jellicoe and Baird laid out their plan, ably assisted by Dying Light who provided holographic maps showing intended movements. The plan was complex, subtle, and cunning and yet contained a brazen ruthlessness and a deep understanding of the Covenant mindset.
By the end of the presentation, Hood, Harper, Whitcomb and Ramirez were clearly convinced. The time came for the seven officers to formally approve the plan; it passed by six votes to nil – Ackerson had, as graciously as possible given his earlier rebukes, abstained as fleet operations were not his area of expertise.
With the official seal of approval, the four standing officers left to get to work – Stanforth and Cole to see to resupplying and organising the ad-hoc task force that had gone to Sigma Octanus into a cohesive Battle Group and Jellicoe and Baird to contact Terra and update their superiors, a process which also involved Dying Light relaying messages via the Ark, the Beacon and the Panopticon network.
The various HighCom officers left as well – Ackerson mumbling some diplomatic excuse while Parangosky simply gathered her notes and left with a nod. Ramirez and Maxwell left after a brief exchange of pleasantries, leaving Hood, Harper and Whitcomb behind, quietly discussing what they had just approved. Harper had given his wholehearted support, but in the back of his mind was a frisson of doubt.
“Have we done the right thing with this Terrance? We could lose a lot of ships that we can’t afford to if this goes balls-up.”
Hood nodded gravely. “That is a concern but the potential gains are enormous. And we have to be honest with ourselves, this is the only
solid plan we’ve got right now to stave off total defeat. It’s not as if we haven’t approved suicide missions before.” The memory of the missions that Alpha and Beta Companies of the Spartan-III program had been sent on came to mind.
Whitcomb was ever the pragmatist. “If nothing else, it’ll give us a better feel for the capabilities and mindset of our new “friends” out there. If they hadn’t shown up, we’d have lost most of that fleet Stanforth took to Sigma Octanus anyway. And if it does buy us time then it’s all to the good.”
Hood nodded. “Agreed. Richard, get a couple of groups from Home Fleet out here to beef up the defences, they can be the first through the upgrade program when it starts. That way we can have some improved ships at Earth if this goes sideways.”
Harper nodded. “I’ll see to it. Valiant
will lead the groups I’ll send out here, I want my flagship as tricked out as possible.” This was said with an almost parental pride, Harper loved his command almost as much as he loved his family. He and Whitcomb left to see to the arrangements.
Hood remained behind, contemplating the future. He’d had to send men and women, entire Battle Groups on seemingly-impossible missions countless times during this thrice-damned war but this time, he felt it was far from impossible. The plan those three Admirals had put together in a few days was very impressive and he felt it had a strong chance of success.
He just wished they’d chosen a different name. “Operation: Sucker Punch” was far too close to tempting fate in his mind.
I'm back ladies and gents. Long train journeys are good for the creative juices. Writing Cole is proving even more fun than I initially thought - having him slap down Ackerson is deeply satisfying. I never liked the Ackerson character, he's just too...evil for my tastes. This is the guy who spent a lot of time digging up dirt on Halsey and the Spartan-IIs, not because of any ethical concern but because they were overshadowing his own NavSpecWarfare projects. And let's not forget how he essentially tried to kill the Master Chief during the test of the upgraded MJOLNIR suit in "Fall of Reach."
For those who think Cole is being too brazen, perhaps. But I think it's in-character and it may well come back to bite him. ONI is powerful and he hasn't exactly endeared himself to them.
Operation: Sucker Punch will be coming soon. I do have a plan, but just as with the second battle at Sigma Octanus, I'm keeping a secret so you can enjoy it as it unfolds. This is really gonna fuck up the canon timeline