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Halo: The Cole Protocol
By Tobias S. Buckell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2008 Microsoft Corporation
All rights reserved.
UNSC DESTROYER ARMAGEDDON'S EDGE, OUTER FRINGES, ECTANUS 45 SYSTEM
Out of the cyrogenic darkness came a deep, crisp-sounding, but slightly amused voice. "Wakey, wakey, Professor."
Jacob Keyes sat up and took his first deep breath. The gel mat underneath him flexed as he coughed out medical-tasting fluid from his lungs, gasping for a second breath of air in between the dry retching.
"Lieutenant," Keyes coughed, his lungs protesting at his insistence of talking before they'd had a chance to clear themselves out fully. "Lieutenant Jacob Keyes." In the classroom he was Instructor Keyes, but back here on the deck he wanted the proper rank accorded. He'd worked hard to get there in the years before he'd been assigned to teaching due to injuries.
He sat inside a long pod, one of many laid out in a row. The rest of the crew of the Armageddon's Edge were just starting to crawl out of their own pods.
The crew members helped each other out, cracking jokes as some violently coughed up the fluid that they had breathed in to prevent their bodies from being damaged by the cold of the frozen sleep. The on-duty officer squatted next to Keyes. A thin Navy lifer, Edgar Sykes was a pale man in his mid-fifties, with short-cropped gray hair and dark brown eyes that squinted with amusement at the chance to give Keyes some grief.
"How was your date with the Admiral's wife, Lieutenant? Been a while since you were put on ice?"
Some of the other crew, already standing and pulling on clothes, glanced over with grins. Keyes had been in the classroom too long; he didn't get the joke.
"I'm sorry?" Keyes asked. "The Admiral's wife?"
Sykes pointed at the pod. "A frosty bed?"
Oh, Keyes thought. That's what the crew called the pods now. They'd just been called "freezers" the last time he'd shipped out. "Not something you forget easily," Keyes rasped, rubbing his arms for warmth. The chill of the cryogenic pod permeated every last cell. Even worse than the chill, however, were the old injuries from his time on the Meriwether Lewis that flared up. The deep gouging plasma burn to his thigh, the shattered-then-rebuilt hand that he clenched and then opened again. They had sidelined him, and kept him in front of wide-eyed noncommissioned officers, playing the role of a classroom drill sergeant.
He carefully shifted himself to the side of the pod. The injuries had healed enough over time. Enough that on most days, now, they were only a faded memory, a twinge when he tried a little too hard in the gym. But the freezer seemed to bring it out more.
Sykes reached out a hand to help him as he noticed Keyes's careful movement. Keyes looked at the man. "You asking me out on a date?"
That got a few chuckles from the crew. Sykes nodded. "Alright, Keyes. Welcome aboard Armageddon's Edge." He turned to the crew. "What the hell do you think you're all looking at?"
Eyes darted back as the crew resumed their tasks, and the chatter faded.
A smartly pressed gray uniform lay on the side of Keyes's pod. He pulled it on, checking to make sure the double silver bars signifying Lieutenant were clipped on.
It felt good to be back in uniform, especially on deck.
As time passed from his service aboard the Meriwether Lewis he felt that the chances of being involved on the bridge of a ship again were slipping further away from him. It stung.
Still, at forty, Keyes made sure to get up early for his ten-mile run, and he hit the weight room at least three times a week. He was terrified of getting soft.
He'd learned, back when the Meriwether Lewis had been boarded, that it gave him an edge. Even if the edge today remained his ability to outrun his students in physical training, it was still useful in that it earned their respect.
Service was service. If the Navy needed Lieutenant Jacob Keyes to serve out the next couple of decades teaching navigators how to fly their ships, then that was what they needed him for.
Everyone had their place, their role to play.
With the alien forces destroying planet after planet, with people giving their lives just to slow them down, Keyes felt there was no room for self-pity.
He reserved those darker moments for thinking about things like his sister, out there on the Outer Colony of Dwarka. Wondering about her fate ever since the colony had gone silent, too far away for the UNSC to even try to defend.
When he'd gotten the orders to leave Luna, he'd only taken the time to visit his daughter, Miranda. The last time he'd had orders to ship out somewhere he hadn't had family of his own. He was just an eager, young man. Now it felt like he had to tear himself away. He'd grown accustomed to picking her up every day and bringing her back to the small on-base apartment they shared.
He'd kissed Miranda good-bye and let her know she'd have to stay at the dorms in her school, just like all the other children with family on duty.
She was a good Navy kid — she actually perked up at the news and asked what ship he was flying out on.
Someone cleared their throat behind Keyes. He turned to find a man standing there in full pilot's kit, helmet slung under one arm. The pilot saluted. "Good morning, sir. I'm Petty Officer Jeffries. I'm taking you dirtside."
Keyes leaned forward and tugged at the pilot's bedraggled uniform. "I hope you don't fly as sloppy as you dress." Some ships, like the Armageddon's Edge, ran a little off kilter. Captain's prerogative. What mattered to many at command was their battle performance, and Keyes had heard the Edge had limped back to Earth with pride for a full refit after it had paired with another ship to take out a Covenant Destroyer.
Still, Keyes felt it didn't hurt to make a point.
"If you can't bother to fasten your buttons, keep your insignia on straight, and follow procedure, why should I feel safe getting in your bird?"
"Sir, because my uniform doesn't have to drop soldiers off in hot zones. Sir."
Keyes relented a little. "Okay, Jeffries. Let's see what you've got waiting for me."
Petty Officer Jeffries approached a green, battle-scarred Pelican dropship squatting next to two others in the Armageddon's Edge's tight storage bay. The sides had been splashed and gouged by energy beams. Keyes followed the pilot as he walked under the high rear wings and engine nacelles up the ramp into the belly.
Jeffries walked past the webbing, storage bins, and the seats lining the walls to climb up into the cockpit. "You can strap in behind me, sir." Jeffries said. "You don't have to ride back there. I don't want to get lonely on this trip. There's room under your feet for your kit bag."
The ramp groaned as it slowly closed, the hold of the dropship darkening.
Once it clanged shut and sealed, Jeffries tossed his helmet aside. "Don't have to stay airtight on this milk run. Not exactly leaping into combat today, are we?"
No, thought Keyes, flashing back to the times he'd been in combat. They certainly weren't. Combat was men strapped shoulder to shoulder in the back, while you weaved and ducked a Pelican through anti-aircraft bursts. Your palms would be sweating and your breath heavy in the confined space of your own helmet. Combat was when the cockpit you were sitting in smelled of blood, and fear.
Keyes clicked back to the present as Jeffries flicked and tapped the console in front of him, bringing the Pelican to life. In the copilot's seat Keyes kept an eye on things. Jeffries ran the systems check with a bewildering rapidity that could only come with practice and familiarity. There was a photo of a brunette with two boys taped to the side of the cockpit window. Keyes pointed at it. "Your kids?"
"Yes sir. You have any?"
"A daughter," Keyes said.
The four engines wound themselves up, a kick that shuddered through the entire frame of the Pelican.
"Gamma 54 to Armageddon's Edge, preflight check is green, systems nominal, flight plan filed. Permission to fly?" Jeffries sounded bored.
"Gamma 54, hold tight for the trapdoor," came the breezy response from the bridge.
The ship's bay doors opened to reveal the planet beneath. Thin, long clouds covered the unfamiliar green-and-brown-colored continental shapes. Keyes hadn't had time to read up much about his destination. He'd gotten his orders at lunch, and been bundled off and frozen in an Armageddon's Edge cyrogenic pod by dinner.
"What brings you out all the way from Luna to see the wonderful skies of Chi Rho, sir?" There wasn't a lot of room for a Pelican to move in the Armageddon's Edge's bay, but Jeffries gunned the four thrusters and the Pelican hopped up and forward, and then, just as abruptly, spun and dove through the bay doors.
Jeffries was looking back over his shoulder at him, showing off that he could get out of the ship's bay without even paying attention. Keyes didn't give the pilot the satisfaction of a flinch. But Keyes was impressed. The dangerous stunt showed Jeffries could fly blind. And damn well, too. "Orders, Petty Officer. Orders."
"We go where they tell us, right?"
"You know it." Keyes glanced up through the shielded glass, catching a glimpse of the medium-sized ship that had taken him all the way from the home system. Craters pocked the ship's surface, and burn streaks crisscrossed the arrowhead-shaped nose of the ship. Despite a refit, the scars remained from the ship's last encounter.
Armageddon's Edge dwindled away as Jeffries thundered them down in a long arc toward the atmosphere. The Pelican shook and shuddered as heat built up from atmospheric reentry. Streaks of glowing red filled the air.
"Do you know if there are any training stations for patrol craft here, Jeffries?" Keyes asked suddenly.
Jeffries checked a monitor, then glanced back. "Training stations? Here? Sir, Chi Rho is for repairs and drydocking. Support for the front line. There's no training out here. All you have to do is head out a few days and run into a Covenant long-range patrol — you'll get all the training you need."
"I thought so." Keyes looked out through the red haze. Chi Rho was an Inner Colony world. Not as developed or as large as the mother planet, but still home to hundreds of millions of people on its primary continent and Earthlike surface.
But Chi Rho was the closest Keyes had been in some time to that somewhat gray, invisible line where planets turned from the Inner Colonies to the Outer Colonies.
With worlds scattered so far from each other, and travel being a long and sometimes dangerous affair, news traveled slowly, and most of it came through UNSC channels of late. Every citizen knew that the Covenant were slowly destroying human planets from orbit, world by world. Only the UNSC stood in their way, fighting for every bloody inch.
And even the UNSC's official bulletins indicated that most of the Outer Colonies had been destroyed — glassed with incredibly powerful energy weapons, the likes of which the UNSC had never seen.
Every day for the past nine years, since the first encounters with the aliens, the front line had moved closer to Chi Rho and the outer edge of the Inner Colonies.
Keyes knew this was not where you trained green pilots.
But his orders, strange as they were, said that he was to get out to Chi Rho at full speed for a training exercise.
Even a follow-all-commands Navy lifer like Keyes knew the orders were a load of crap. A cover for something else.
And that something else might involve getting back aboard a ship, Keyes found himself daring to hope. Maybe even the recently patched up Armageddon's Edge.CHAPTER 2
CHI RHO, ECTANUS 45 SYSTEM
Jeffries dropped out of his flight plan pattern and came in low over a large park, the tops of the trees whipping about in the fury of engine backwash. Birds scattered in their wake, rising to the sky in flocks of green and blue.
He angled the Pelican back, flaring the craft out for a spectacular, bone-jarring landing that had Keyes grabbing the arms of his chair. Again, Jeffries was showing off.
The engines whined down as he cut them, and dirt slowly settled back to the ground. Keyes considered giving Jeffries a hard time for the unusual approach, then decided against it.
He wasn't this man's bridge crew. Just let it go, he told himself.
"I'll be here waiting for you when you get back, sir." Jeffries said. "Taking you to your next location."
Keyes unsnapped himself from the copilot's seat. "Where are we going next?"
"Don't know, sir," Jeffries said, twisting back. "My orders are to wait for you to come back, and presumably you'll know where we're going next."
Keyes walked up to the front of the cockpit and looked out the window. "What is all that?"
Out around the dirt patch they'd landed in, rows and rows of small wooden stakes had been sunk into the ground. Beyond them, what looked like young stalks of corn poked up through the tilled soil.
But right near the woods, which Keyes could tell had been recently cut down, a large sign proclaimed the area as the Bacigalupi Memorial Nature Preserve.
"Victory Gardens," Jeffries said. "Victory Farms is more like it, I guess. Anywhere you can grow crops and food, no matter the surface, we're using it. The Outer Colonies used to grow most of the food, so we're experiencing shortages here. I'll drop the ramp for you."
Keyes walked to the back of the Pelican as daylight filled the inside. The ramp lowered to reveal a Warthog waiting for him, along with a completely dust-covered and annoyed-looking private in olive camo, a battle rifle slung under one arm. The private looked tiny compared to the bulky, armored, oversized all-terrain vehicle. Keyes had always liked the Warthog's metal tusks on either side of the tow winch, which were ostensibly metal guards.
The private saluted. "Lieutenant Keyes?"
Keyes nodded. "That's me."
"Private Tom Gerencer. I'm your ride the rest of the way, sir." The marine hopped into the driver's seat of the massive vehicle. Keyes followed. "Sorry about the drop-off point, but our main sites are overrun by tent cities. Traffic's snarled, so it's more of a pain than it's worth. Better to drop you straight in."
"Tent cities?" Keyes stared at the marine sitting next to him. Had things really gotten this bad? He felt like his stomach had been kicked. Keyes and his neighbors often shuttled to Earth to visit relatives or to enjoy some fine dining and sightseeing. Meanwhile out here large numbers of people were living hand to mouth. Was the UNSC censoring so much that not even a whiff of all this had reached Earth? They must have been. This was dire stuff.
Gerencer nodded. He drove them down the dirt road, spinning the large, grippy balloon tires as he gunned the Warthog toward another dirt road through the preserve. "Outer Colony refugees, sir. They keep piling up at spaceports. Nowhere for them to go. We've shut down arenas, parking lots, even whole streets for them. Running out of tents, food, and a lot of people are running out of patience. It's ugly out there, sir. I've pulled a shift or two patrolling."
"Patrolling?" Keyes asked. "What's the UNSC doing police work for?"
"The refugees are a drain, sir. We're planning an extended battle here, a few surprises for the Covenant if ... or when they arrive. With the refugees on the surface, they're just costing us food and sitting out here like targets. Every ration they get is a ration we won't have when holding the line. How long brass will put up with all this chaos out here, I don't know."
They roared on past several massive JOTUN robotic combines, and then into a gap in the wooded area around the recently created farmland.
"Almost there," Gerencer said as they bounced over ruts and gaps in the dirt.
With a final roar the Warthog leapt out into a small ring of trees. The marine idled them over a well-worn patch of mud.
The ground rumbled underneath, and the edges rose around them as they slowly moved down a long shaft.
"Welcome to Camp Patmos, Lieutenant." Gerencer grinned. "From here we plan how to open up a can of whup-ass on the Covenant every hour of every day."
Excerpted from Halo: The Cole Protocol by Tobias S. Buckell. Copyright © 2008 Microsoft Corporation. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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