|This story, Halo: Resurgence/An Act of Retribution, written by StoneGhost, was voted as the Best Short Fiction of 2014 in the Seventh Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.|
|This article, Halo: Resurgence/An Act of Retribution, was written by StoneGhost. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.|
|0249 (local time), August 26, 2652 (UNSC Military Calendar)
CIC of UNSC Sheffield (DDG-522), high orbit above Unflinching Contrition
Seven flares of white lit up the void as the ships returned to reality.
Positioned in battle formation, dozens of kilometres apart, the ships were grey, ugly, block-shaped, and vaguely intimidating. Each of them was half a kilometre long, at least, plated in flawless, impervious-looking armour, and bristling with weapons and sensor antennas. Almost simultaneously, ghost-like flickers wrapped themselves around the ships and vanished as their energy barriers coalesced.
The battlegroup was late, but it hadn't mattered. The small Remnant force above Unflinching Contrition had been smashed anyway by the UNSC Navy's invasion fleet, so recently that even at that distance, the wrecks of Covenant warships could be seen burning up in the atmosphere. Not visible at that distance were the three dozen or so human ships that held orbit in their place, raining missiles and slugs with deadly precision on the Covenant's ground positions.
Ten years ago, almost to the day, the reverse would have been true. In 2552, the UNSC Navy's finest fleet to date had massed to repulse the Covenant from Reach, foremost among humanity's colonies. But the Covenant annihilated it, batting aside in one month the most powerful military force in humanity's history. Almost a billion lives extinguished. A billion. It was an incomprehensible number. The word was meaningless. The human mind couldn't ever grasp the enormity of it.
But a decade on, here the UNSC was, above a Covenant world. Winning.
Commander Marshall saw poetry in that.
From the bridge of UNSC Sheffield, he watched Unflinching Contrition, a perfectly round, shimmering blue orb. It hung there, stark and bright against the background of inky black. He watched the wrecks of the Covenant ships tumbling and smouldering in orbit, as if in slow motion. It was beautiful, he thought. He wondered how many people walked its surface, right that moment, how many innocent lives. Were they looking up into orbit? Were they terrified? He found himself thinking of home, and a fond, bittersweet fog enveloped his thoughts. It all felt so distant, so long ago. Happiness returned to him like a spectre. It was just a memory.
He wondered how many times they had seen the same sight. The illusion of happiness in him evaporated in an instant and blinding hatred took its place. How many times had they looked on before they scoured away life from a whole world, he thought bitterly. Dozens of worlds, millions, billions of human lives, all burned away. They exterminated entire families, levelled entire cities. The Covenant scorched a path through space, killing everything that crossed their way. They left a trail of worlds dark and smouldering and stacked with corpses. His hands clenched to fists. Nothing anyone could ever do would repay it. There would never be any retribution great enough.
But he could try.
Commander Marshall turned around. Only low, red light illuminated the compartment, straining everyone's eyes but preserving night vision on the off-chance they needed it. Sheffield's combat information centre was silent except for the low hum of the air recyclers and the far-off, faint rumble of the reactors. The twelve bridge crew shared a workspace no bigger than the armoury- space was always at a premium onboard starships, and even on a behemoth like Sheffield, the corridors and compartments were cramped and uncomfortable. A small, low holotank stood between the captain's chair and the forward viewport, recreating Sheffield's sector of space in miniature. A marble-sized sphere passed for Unflinching Contrition itself, half a dozen lines and labels summarising the remnants of the Covenant's orbital defences. Along the far right bulkhead were the four weapons stations, one each for the main MAC, the Harpoons and Archers, the MAC turrets and the point defence systems. Across from them were the sensor and countermeasure stations, furnished with wide holographic displays displaying sweeps from the search and fire control radars. Behind Marshall, left of the viewport, a small avatar of the ship's artificial intelligence stood atop a holo-pedestal, hands neatly clasped behind him in the at-ease position. Either side of the captain's chair were the helm and communications terminals, and it was from the latter that Operations Specialist Third Class James Callahan looked up at him.
"Afraid I missed that, Mr Callahan," he finally replied.
"We've received orders from Admiral Jackson, sir, it's a patrol route taking us towards the fourth planet. They've no use for us now the orbital defences have been destroyed."
"Has the ground invasion begun yet?"
"No, sir, one of the assault ships took a bad hit to the launch bay."
"Hmm," Marshall grunted, feigning indifference. "Is there a revised H-hour for the amphibious assault?"
"Uh...." Callahan thumbed his console, probing for an answer. "There is, sir, zero four hundred. Marine engineers are working double time to cut open Essex's fused bay doors. The Admiral's Strike Groups are on suppression of enemy air defences until then."
"Mr Callahan, chase up the engagement report for me, I want to know what's still out there. Mr Bennett, plot your patrol route and make your calculations. I want us back on station at Unflinching Contrition by zero three fifty."
The helmsman looked up quizzically. "Are you sure sir? That gives us just an hour patrolling, it's a fifty million kilometre round trip."
"You better get us going then," Marshall remarked. "Give us a high burn half the way out and then a full deceleration."
"Aye sir," the junior rating replied.
"Engagement report is available now sir, courtesy of the Admiral's command AI."
"Thank you, Mr Callahan," Marshall said as he lowered himself into the captain's chair, and picked up his lukewarm capsule of coffee. It occurred to him that this might be the very last time he sat there. He batted the thought away absent-mindedly, as one might a small fly, and turned his attention to the subdued holographic screen that blinked into life.
"Miss Islam," Marshall said after a quiet moment studying the screen. "Instruct combat air to put a recon picket out, they have three minutes."
"Aye sir," she replied immediately. "Something wrong?" she enquired, without looking up from her terminal.
"Intel reported seven squadrons of Seraphs stationed here, but only five below-strength ones have been reported so far." He paused, and took a draught of coffee. "They've made bigger mistakes before. I'm not overly concerned. All the same, keep us at action stations."
"Ah. Recon's in the air sir," Islam reported. "Six Darts, mutually supporting courses. UCAV operators request mission limitations."
"Limit of exploitation, a hundred thousand metres from the ship, Rules of engagement, they are to positively ID all targets before engaging. Constant data feed at all times. Shepherd, monitor and aggregate their telemetry."
"Of course, Commander," the AI replied in his characteristic smooth, sterile voice, before vanishing.
Marshall's eye was caught at that moment by a flashing icon in the corner of his display. He knew from past experience that it was the XO's way of getting his attention surreptitiously. Marshall didn't like the man much; he lacked confidence, initiative and couldn't make decisions under pressure. In Marshall's opinion the bridge of a destroyer was the last place he should be.
Marshall sighed under his breath, and rose to full height. "Lieutenant, a word." Marshall skirted round the the back of the bridge, touched a panel beside the heavy bulkhead hatch, and stepped through once it slid aside. Lieutenant Rose followed a moment later, looking sheepish. Marshall tapped the hatch control and closed it behind them.
"Is something the matter, Mr Rose?" Marshall inquired.
"Well, not exactly, I suppose I don't know," he replied quietly. "Is there something I should know, sir? Your execution of our patrol orders seems a little... unorthodox. If we've been given other orders that you can't tell me about-"
"It's nothing like that, Mr Rose. I'm simply concerned about the possibility of a Remnant counterattack on our forces." Marshall studied Rose's eyes, watching for clues if he was buying it or not. He seemed satisfied enough. "I'm eager to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet as soon as possible."
"Seems fair enough, sir," Rose replied, apparently convinced. "I do trust your judgement sir, and I do want you to feel you can discuss your course of action with me." Marshall turned to leave, but was stopped by Rose's hand resting on his shoulder. "Oh, and sir, I've been waiting for the right time to say this, but I suppose there isn't one. I heard about your application for promotion- I'm sorry."
Marshall falsified a smile. "That's quite alright Mr Rose."
"I mean it sir," he repeated lowly as Marshall unlocked the hatch. "It's a real shame the Navy is losing someone of your experience." Marshall ignored this comment, reentered the dimly lit bridge, and returned to the viewport.
"Course and calculation plotted, sir," Bennett said as Marshall looked out. "Ready to get underway."
"Commence burn, then, Mr Bennett. XO, you have the bridge. I'll be in my quarters."
Marshall sat in the deep office chair in the broom cupboard that passed for his study. Even the commander's quarters onboard a destroyer left much to be desired. The compartment was sparingly furnished, the only items on the desk being a lamp, a personal computer and a small wooden photo frame. On the bulkhead behind him, a holo-map of UNSC space glowed blue, while a robust safe was embedded into the opposite wall. Other than this, and except a fire extinguisher and emergency breathing gear, the tiny compartment was bare.
Marshall leant back and crossed his legs on the metal desk, cupping a fresh capsule of coffee.
He had known for a long time that he would do something like this. Even after the war, it had eaten away at him. He would never be able to forgive the Sangheili or the Covenant for what they did. He wasn't alone, either. The chorus of anti-Covenant sentiment was growing by the year. It had begun to coalesce into one strong, loud voice, after years of being stifled, first by sheer terror that the onslaught would begin anew, then by UEG suppression of dissenting parties. Marshall thought of it as the voices of the those who survived finally being joined with the echoes of the billions of dead. The Covenant had a debt to pay, a debt in blood that demanded repayment in kind.
What he was about to do was terrible, he had absolutely no doubt about that. He said it aloud to himself periodically, just to make sure he was sure of it. "I am going to kill millions of people." The more he said it, always privately, of course, the more it seemed to solidify into a certainty in his mind. At times it felt like it was the only certain thing in his life, his single unifying purpose. It was awful, evil and unforgivable, he knew it all. But it needed to be done by someone, and it might as well be him. He was addressing the balance. He was an instrument of universal justice. His freedom- his life, in all likelihood- seemed an inconsequential price to pay.
It would probably be named as an atrocity, and be grouped alongside what the Covenant did to Humanity. That thought sickened him. What he planned to do was nowhere near the magnitude of sheer evil wrought by the Covenant hegemony. But it wasn't through lack of effort that his deed would be the lesser. If Marshall had some means to eradicate the entire Covenant hegemony, every last sorry stinking one of them, he would've embraced it with every atom of his being. But he was only one man, and no matter how great his desire for vengeance, he couldn't equal what the Covenant did. A entire empire of species devoting every effort, for almost three decades, to the utter annihilation of Human civilisation. If there was some way he could lower himself to their cruel, merciless levels, and pay them back in full, he'd take it. But that eventuality only existed in his dreams, and instead he would do what little he could. If it was terrible, then so be it. He'd see them all in Hell, and laugh at them for eternity.
If Marshall was honest with himself, he'd wanted to do something like this for as long as he could remember. During the Great War, pure hatred of the Covenant was widespread, encouraged even. It became a sort of unofficial religion. Whatever people's differences, you could always count on sheer loathing of the Covenant to unite people, and UNSC propaganda capitalised on that. It had faded over the years, though. Propaganda faded into the past, survivors got married, had children, Humanity rebuilt. The first babies to be born without the threat of Covenant for twenty seven years had turned ten that year. The orphans were adults and had jobs and partners. One day, the last survivor would die, and the Human-Covenant War would pass out of living memory. One day, no one would remember it at all.
As long as he lived, though, Marshall would never forget, and he would never stop hating. Ten years may have passed, but the wounds were as deep as ever. He didn't display it any more, but it hadn't gone away. And if he was going to fix this, to inflict his own tiny act of vengeance, he had to do it now. Marshall was forty seven. His application for promotion to Captain had been denied. The writing was on the wall. Sheffield was due a refit at the end of the year, and Marshall doubted he'd see another command. This could well be the last time he had the opportunity. He was in command of a destroyer, his XO was spineless, and the Covenant world was, so far, free of UNSC personnel. Being ordered on a patrol was a complication, but it wouldn't matter in the end. He'd planned this for far, far too long. Every conceivable eventuality had been accounted for in his mental plan. Marshall new he was a bad person- he didn't believe in redemption- but he was a good officer.
Marshall shuffled in his seat, and his legs clipped the photo frame on his desk. It felt forward with a clatter. He paused for a moment. Thought he kept the photo on his desk, he hadn't looked at it in months. He didn't really want to now. But now that it occurred to him, if these were his last hours as a free man, he supposed it was the sort of thing he should do. Marshall leaned forward, deposited his coffee capsule on the desk and picked up the wooden frame. He turned the photo over, and let the melancholy scene wash over him.
Three pairs of eyes met his own, frozen in unchanging happiness. He recognised the scene as the foothills of Mount Törött, a popular skiing resort back when Reach lived and breathed. A much younger Dan Marshall smiled back at him from the photo frame. There was far less grey flecking his hair, the lines cris-crossing his face were less pronounced, and his eyes had a bright and optimistic twinkle that was no longer there. The man smiling back at Marshall from the photo didn't exist any more.
The pair of eyes to young Marshall's left belonged to a youthful, energetic face, framed by flowing, shoulder-length auburn hair. Marshall looked into her eyes and for a moment saw the illusion of depth and emotion in them, even though he knew he was imagining it. Tears welled up thick and fast in his own eyes as he looked at her joyful face, immortalised here in a shining, radiant image that didn't even compare to the real Helen Marshall. Like the man to her right, she didn't exist any more, except for in a handful of scattered photographic representations which only ever amounted to a dim echo. He touched a trembling finger to her face and only felt cold, hard glass, and for the millionth time longed for the warm, soft touch of his wife. Ten years on and he had forgotten what that was like. She was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Ten years on and he was nothing more than the shell of a man without her.
Through blurred vision Marshall locked eyes with the third person in the photograph. The young boy didn't look older than three or four. Wavy brown hair had been picked up by the light mountain wind and cascaded down the side of his face messily. His expression was pure joy as he sat on his parent's laps, mouth agape in noisy satisfaction. Marshall remembered how amazed he had been the first time he had seen the snow. Benjamin had been better than his mum and dad at skiing, he remembered with a fond smile. Without them both, his life had been hollow.
Marshall opened a drawer and put the photo frame carefully inside. He was a fool for allowing himself that moment of weakness. He was doing this for them- for Helen, for Ben, and for the billions of other human lives extinguished. He wiped away the tears on his sleeve. In that moment he didn't care that to some people, those who hated the Covenant as much as him, and those who used that as an excuse to fight against the UEG, he'd be a hero. He knew also that to many of those he'd served with, he would be a traitor to the uniform he wore, that he had only damaged the interests of his species. He knew all sorts of lies and half-truths would grow up around his actions that day. On his personal computer was a two thousand word letter explaining exactly why he had done what he planned to do, that he wasn't an insurrectionist and that it was precisely because he loved his species that he had committed such an atrocity. He had been writing it for years. It would be automatically sent to the seven biggest colonial news stations the moment the deed was done.
In all likelihood, he'd be imprisoned. They might even execute him. He didn't care. He had no family left, his career was about to end, and, as he bitterly thought, his life may as well be a prison anyway. He knew he'd be a hero to some people. He wasn't doing this for them. He wasn't doing it for himself, even. This was for all those who'd lost parents, siblings, entire families. For the billions of dead. For Helen. For Ben.
Marshall removed his service pistol from the drawer, and loaded a full magazine.
|0350 (local time), August 26, 2652 (UNSC Military Calendar)
CIC of UNSC Sheffield (DDG-522), high orbit above Unflinching Contrition
"We're stationkeeping in high orbit sir," Callahan reported as Marshall entered the bridge. He checked his watch. It was exactly 0350. "Ten minutes to H-hour," Callahan confirmed.
"Good work, ladies and gents," he replied. "Anything of note encountered?"
"Nothing, sir. All aircraft re-embarked."
Marshall grunted in acknowledgement. "Shepherd," he summoned, and the AI materialised atop the holotank.
"What's the current Covenant population of Unflinching Contrition?"
"One moment," the AI answered. "The current estimate as of zero two thirty today, local time, is forty two million, three and fifty nine thousand. Shall I commission a more accurate estimate?"
Forty million. It barely made up for even one colony. But it would suffice.
"No, Shepherd, that won't be necessary," Marshall replied. He took a deep breath. From this point there was no turning back.
"Shepherd. I'm hereby ordering you to power down all your systems and hibernate indefinitely."
Shepherd didn't express surprise; AIs never did. The bridge crew, however, all looked up. "Commander Marshall," the AI spoke calmly. "I am sure you are aware the implications of the order you just gave. Would you like to reconsider?"
"I am aware, Shepherd. I hereby order you to power down. I'm aware this is a breach of UNSC Navy standing orders and may result in disciplinary action."
Shepherd paused for a moment. "Very well then, Commander. Goodbye and good luck." The holotank went dark.
"Mr Okello," Marshall addressed the weapons crewman manning the MAC station. "Get me a firing solution on the largest urban area you can detect."
"Sir, do you want to tell me exactly what's going on?" Rose asked, confusion breaking and dominating his voice.
Marshall ignored him. "That's an order, Mr Okello," he asserted as the weapons operator looked up in disbelief. No one moved. Marshall knew this wouldn't be easy. But if he was going to do this, to commit this act he'd planned and dreamed about for a decade, he had to make them all feel what he felt. Otherwise all he'd do is land himself in the brig.
"Callahan, how many members of your family did you lose in the war?"
The young rating looked up questioningly. He answered stonily. "Parents, two brothers, grandparents. My sister survived. Why?" His question was an accusation. No one ever asked about family any more, especially not in the military. More often than not there was a tragedy behind every face.
"I'm sorry to ask that of you. I myself lost my wife and young son." Marshall hated this, but he had to continue. "Mr Bennett, your parents were killed at Tribute, weren't they?" The young sailor nodded. "Miss Islam, am I correct in saying you lost a family member?"
She met his gaze and gave him an icy cold glare, as accusatory as Callahan had been, but her voice was level and calm. "Yes sir. Kid brother died fighting at Earth."
"Parents died in Mombassa, sir."
Marshall nodded. "And you, Rose?" Marshall turned to his XO.
He paused for a minute. "It's just me now, sir," he said, his voice low.
Marshall turned to face his bridge crew, all thoroughly angry and confused. He took a deep breath, and mentally consulted where he would go next. His heart threatened to leap out of his chest.
"I'm sorry I brought up painful memories, ladies and gents. But down on that planet are forty million Covenant beings. Some are military, some are not. Here and now, vengeance can be ours. The Covenant can never repay Humanity for the deaths they inflicted on us for so long. But that doesn't mean we have to let them go unpunished. Those forty million stinking Covenant down there killed twenty three billion of our species. Brothers and sisters, parents, sons and daughters. If we do this today, it will barely equal a medium sized colony. This doesn't even come close to the destruction they wrought. But it needs to be done. It isn't just retribution, it is justice."
"Sir..." Rose said, speaking slowly. "What you're proposing is madness. It's a war crime. Even if it wasn't, it would end all of our careers. They'd execute you."
"Arthur, I've been dead for ten years already!" Marshall yelled. He took a deep breath. "This isn't just a spur of the moment thing. I've been thinking about this for a long, long time now. Okello, do you have my firing solution?"
Okello looked to Rose, and then back to Marshall. "I'm sorry, sir, I can't obey that order. I understand why you're doing this; hell, I might even agree with you in your position. But if I do, I'm guilty of treason. I can't do that to my family, sir. I've got kids."
"I understand, Mr Okello," Marshall said slowly. "And that's exactly why I brought this with me." He produced the pistol from his ankle, holding it loosely at his side.
"Sir, what the fuck do you think you are doing?!" Rose exclaimed.
"This is coercion through threat of force, Rose," Marshall said stonily. "Get out of my way and shut the fuck up. Okello, I don't wish to threaten you, but I'm afraid I have to. It's not treason if you're acting under duress. Now, get me my firing solution or I'll blow your head off."
"Already done, sir," Okello said with a noticeable tremor.
"I don't want anyone else implicated in this," Marshall explained. "You are, all of you, fine officers and men. As far as anyone outside this room is concerned... none of you were cooperative. I forced your complicity through threat of force. Am I understood?"
The bridge crew seemed to hesitate as one. He imagined there was a great deal of conflict in them right now. He supposed that until then, most of them had regarded him as a decent man. Not only had he proved them wrong, he had implicated them all in committing a war crime. Even if they weren't involved, their careers would all suffer through simple association.
"Do what you need to do, sir, " Bennett agreed finally, breaking the silence.
"I've erased the bridge sensor readings, sir," Callahan said. "Made it look like a malfunction."
"MACs are charged, sir," Okello announced. "Firing on your command."
"Knock 'em dead, sir," said Islam. "For my brother." Marshall turned to look at Rose. For once the XO's face was an unreadable enigma. Marshall didn't know him well enough to judge what he'd do next.
"Do it," Rose conceded finally. Marshall relaxed his grip on the pistol.
"Mr Okello, six slugs, fire when ready," Marshall said. He looked at his watch. It was 0354. They were cutting it fine. "And may God have mercy on us."
A succession of six reverberating whump sounds shook the ship at half a second's interval. On the bridge, the lights dimmed ever so slightly and the ventilation fans slowed a fraction. A small white pinprick of white on Unflinching Contrition appeared, then swelled in size exponentially, an enormous shockwave emanating from the impact and racing across the planet's surface, scouring it clean. Marshall watched in awe, his mouth agape. He imagined the destruction unfolding on the planet, the millions of souls screaming in terror and fear. Just like they'd done to us, over and over and over. A tear rolled down his cheek, joy and despair both. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
He cocked his pistol, held it to his chin, and pulled the trigger. It was the last thing he remembered.