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0740 Hours, February 9, 2549 (Earth-standard Calendar), in orbit over planet Xavier, Omicron-Georgia system


“Hornet mines primed. Target is in range of Alpha and Charlie clusters.”

“Good work, O’Neil. Fire them now.”

The Prowler’s bridge crew, a tight gathering of five officers, watched with baited breath as the Covenant cruiser slid towards them. They knew it couldn’t know where they were, that their ship’s stealth systems were up and running and that the aliens’ sensors wouldn’t pick them up. But to see it so close, close enough that it could actually be seen from the viewport…

And then a cage of white light erupted around the cruiser’s sleek form. For a moment it sat suspended within a dozen beams of light and then in the next its shields were failing, its armor burning away in a storm of nuclear fire. Then it was gone completely, reduced to a small field of rubble amidst the empty darkness of space.

The navigation and systems officers let out triumphant whoops; the communications officer reached over and pounded O’Neil on the back at his weapons station. In the center of the bridge, their captain grinned and settled back into his command chair. The youngest man on the bridge, Commander Arthur Onegin did not look at all like your run of the mill ONI officer. His uniform was wrinkled and uneven and he slouched in his chair in a way that O’Neil was certain they were supposed to drill out of you at the academy. Even his hair was growing out a few centimeters beyond the tight Navy standard held by the rest of the bridge crew.

“Well,” Commander Onegin said, looking around with a grin. “That’s what I call a big bang. What’s that make for us today, O’Neil? Two? Three?”

“Four, sir. You’re forgetting the corvette we hit when we took down the destroyer that was after Agincourt.”

Onegin tapped his chin. “You’re right about that, O’Neil, I think we got that one, too. That’s another tally for the hull, isn’t it?”

Kerry laughed from the communications station. “I don’t think command is going to like that, sir.”

“Oh damn it, you’re right. Well, let’s pack it up and call it a day guys. Command has a problem with all the kills we’re getting.”

Everyone laughed at that, but their brevity quickly faded as they altered the prowler’s course and headed back into Xavier’s atmosphere. The motes of flashing lights that appeared on the colony planet’s horizon were a harsh reminder that their victory here was just a slight bump in a losing battle. The Navy was giving the Covenant all they had and more, but just like with countless worlds before Xavier even that was not enough. All they could do was fight as hard as they could to slow them here so that the rest of humanity would live to fight another day.

As if realizing the harsh reality himself, Commander Onegin rubbed his hands down the front of his uniform and stretched his shoulder muscles. “Well, I think we just bought Omelas a bit more time. Kerry, what’s the evacuation status?”

“The Army’s giving the Covenant hell down there, sir, but from the looks of things it’s slow going. Lots of transports stalled on the landing pads, waiting for clear skies before they lift off.”

O’Neil watched the captain out of the corner of his eye. It wasn’t often Onegin’s self-assured, cocky demeanor flickered but just for a moment he suddenly looked the way a twenty-five old Prowler commander should: nervous and uncoordinated. “You have family in Omelas, don’t you sir?”

Onegin gave him a shaky grin, the old confidence slipping back into place. “Yeah. Parents and a younger brother. That cruiser was dropping Banshees down into their airspace, so the skies should be clear soon.”

“Yes, sir.”

The commander clapped his hands together, all traces of fear gone. “Well, then. Let’s go ruin another hinge-head’s day.”

O’Neil could still remember the day that Onegin had been given command. He and the rest of the bridge crew had instantly taken bets on how long it would be before “the kid” snapped and had to be locked up. His reputation had preceded him: the rising star who’d been fast tracked through the academy and recruited by ONI to become the youngest warship commander in UNSC history—just the kind of jumped-up punk who’d get them all killed in some crazy quest for glory to further his own career. The fact that he dressed sloppily and took a liberal approach to military formalities had not helped his standing in the eyes of the crew.

Of course, this was all before he’d led them in destroying eight Covenant warships over three engagements.

“We’re on course for Omelas now, sir,” Kayneth reported from navigations. “Lots of Covenant ground activity, but no sign of any warships.”

“Well, keep scanning. We’re on a roll today and we’ve still got some Hornets left on board.”

It wasn’t that Onegin was some kind of technical genius. He never got in the way when his crew were fussing over the Prowler’s subsystems or its arsenal of stealth weaponry and was content to let them handle most of the daily workings of the ship. No, what made Onegin special was his uncanny ability to predict just when and where the enemy would appear and where they’d move once the prowler had a lock on their signal. All he needed was a reading on a Covenant ship and he’d know exactly where to place the Hornet nuclear mines that would tear it apart. O’Neil had never seen a commander wield the prowler’s arsenal with such lethal, unflinching efficiency. If they’d had a fleet of prowlers headed by men like him, O’Neil was convinced that they wouldn’t be losing this war.

And when he gets higher up, who knows? Maybe we will. O’Neil was convinced that Onegin would be an admiral in five years. A guy like him, who didn’t let drill and ceremony get in the way of killing the enemy, was going places and O’Neil could only hope to stay with him long enough to see it happen. It was a little ray of hope amidst the wave of black despair he had to fight every day this war ground on.

“We’re twenty thousand klicks above Xavier’s surface, sir,” Kayneth reported.

“Alright, alter course so that we pass near Omelas,” the commander ordered. “If there’s anything we can do to help with the evac, let’s do it.”

“Gladly, sir.”

“Sir, update on the evacuation situation,” Kerry called out. “A couple transport shuttles just got through. Took some fire from the surface, but they’re both outside the kill zone.”

“And the rest?” Onegin asked, that strange tightness creeping into his voice again.

“Still lots of fighting in the residential areas. The Army’s got a perimeter around the spaceports. The troopers are trying to get everyone inside their defenses, but they’re getting cut to pieces down there. I’ve got a colonel down there asking for reinforcements.”

“Pass his broadcasts through to the fleet, just in case they aren’t getting through.” The commander tapped his fingers against the sides of his command chair, eyes narrowed in thought. After another moment he turned to O’Neil.

“Weapons, are our Shiva nukes primed for use?” he asked.

“Yes sir, I had them prepped when started hunting upstairs.”

Onegin nodded, a glimmer in his eyes. O’Neil had seen that look before, usually right before one of the commander’s mine formations wiped out a Covenant ship.

“Have them rearmed,” Onegin ordered. ”I want them ready to be launched in-atmosphere.”

O’Neil instinctively reached for his console controls, then hesitated. “In-atmosphere, sir? We haven’t received clearance for that.”

“You let me worry about clearance,” Onegin said dismissively, turning back to Kerry. “Kerry, get me a heads up on the region around Omelas. If there’s any Covenant hard points, artillery batteries, ground camps, anything that they could be hitting the city from, you let me know.”

If it had been any other officer, O’Neil might have pushed the issue further. But this was Onegin. Another officer would have worried about the consequences of an unauthorized Shiva strike, but the commander was focused entirely on protecting the city. The man’s family was there, and woe to the Covenant who were between Onegin and his will to keep them safe.

He keyed in the authorization codes to the weapons crew, ordering them to prime the Shivas for atmospheric launch.

Onegin had settled back in his chair, eyes fixed on the sensor display. A slight smile played across his lips; O’Neil could practically see the wheels turning in his head as he worked out exactly how he’d use the Shivas to save Omelas. If they’d been fighting rebels, O’Neil might have been terrified by that look. Even in this day of massed space warfare, the ability to use weapons of mass destruction so easily against the enemy was one that one that only a deranged psychopath would be expected to possess.

But this was the Covenant they were dealing with here. Whatever it took to exterminate them, O’Neil would gladly follow through with. This is why the commander’s going far, he told himself. We need men like him if we’re going to win.

“Sir, I’ve got something,” Kerry said. “Army aerial recon says almost all of the Covenant forces are flying in from a canyon just north of Omelas. Looks like they’ve got ground emplacements covered in the rocks.”

“Let me see.” Onegin’s eyes flashed over the data and his smile widened into a grin, one that O’Neil couldn’t help but share. It was time to go hunting again.

“This is perfect,” Onegin said. “The way the wind is, all the radiation will get blown back towards anything beyond their positions. We’ll barbecue those freaks in their own little fort.”

He nodded to O’Neil. “Lock in on that canyon. Kayneth, get us over there now.”

The prowler lurched as it changed course yet again. They were in the lower atmosphere now, a tiny speck of a ship armed with enough destructive power to wipe out more Covenant in an instant than an entire Army brigade could kill in a month. O’Neil relished the poetic justice of it all. Let’s see how they like getting fried from orbit.

The commander leaned back in his chair and locked his fingers behind his head as if he were relaxing on a beach instead of directing a warship. “This is gonna be one for the books,” he said, still grinning. “I hope Simon can see the blast from the spaceport.”

“Simon, sir?” Kerry asked.

“My little brother,” Onegin explained. “Guy’s only nine, but if you think I’m a clever son of a bitch wait until he grows up. He’s going places, I know it.”

O’Neil couldn’t help himself. “Well, then let’s make sure he can, sir.”

Onegin nodded. “That’s the plan. Kerry, send out a tight beam transmission to the Army. Tell them to be ready for the blast. Kayneth, get me a heading on that canyon and be on the lookout for any corvettes snooping around out there. Maybe we can light them up with another Shiva if they get too close.”

Before either officer could report back, Onegin’s personal communications console started beeping frantically. O’Neil recognized the sound at once: a high priority transmission from Onegin’s bosses in ONI. Everyone froze, eyes turning towards the commander. If ONI was calling them in the middle of a battle like this, something big was up.

The commander had never been the type to carry on private conversations in front of the bridge. He flicked the comm system on so that it was on the main speakers. “This is Onegin. We’re in the middle of something, so would you mind keeping this short—“

“Commander,” interrupted a terse voice from the other end. Static punctuated the transmission, but it was still perfectly audible. “We just received your last positioning transmission. You’re in the vicinity of Omelas?”

“Yes, sir,” Onegin said confidently. “And I’d be watching the show down here, because we’re about to make some hinge-heads very unhappy.”

“Excellent,” the officer said. He sounded distracted, as if he were listening to someone else as well. “Are your Shiva nukes armed?”

“Armed and ready to fire,” Onegin replied. “We’ve got a whole canyon full of Covies that aren’t going to be around much—“

“Whatever you’re doing down there, forget it,” the officer snapped. “We have a new directive for you. This is Priority Alpha, commander. I can’t stress enough how critical this order is.”

Onegin frowned, leaning forward in his chair. “Okay, sir, I’m listening. What’s the problem?”

“It’s Omelas, commander. Specifically Watkins University.”

“That shitty college?” Onegin let out a little laugh. “Yeah, I remember that. A real crapshack. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“It’s their library, commander.” The officer didn’t even seem to be noticing the commander’s flippancy. “The Covenant overran it five hours ago and wiped out the staff before they could wipe its digital files. There’s an astro-navigational cache in there that hasn’t been wiped. Do you understand what that means?”

Everyone on the bridge knew exactly what that meant. It was the reason they reviewed every article of the Cole Protocol, word for word, before every engagement. If the Covenant got their claws on that cache, they’d have a map of every human planet they hadn’t already glassed—including Earth. O’Neil’s palms began to sweat at the very thought of it. He had family on Iskander, just a few systems away. If the Covenant found that out here, it would be the first one they creamed.

Onegin nodded, all trace of cocky brevity gone. He knew the stakes just as much as the rest of them. “All right, I get the picture. Do you need us to do aerial recon, provide support for ground teams? How close should we get?”

The officer on the other end was quiet for several moments. When he finally spoke again, he sounded incredibly tired. “It’s too late for that, commander. We’re initiating emergency code Jabberwocky. You’ve been briefed on it.”

O’Neil had never heard of any code called “Jabberwocky” before, but from the way Onegin stiffened he knew exactly what the officer was talking about. The commander let out a small laugh and shook his head. “Sir, it sounds like there’s been a little misunderstanding here. The evacuation’s still going on down there—“

“Do you think we don’t know that, commander?” the officer snarled with such ferocity that even Onegin looked taken aback.

“Sir, there have to be ground teams that can wipe that cache,” Onegin protested. “We don’t have to initiate Jabberwocky.”

“Commander, you aren’t the only one with an understanding of the tactical situation,” the officer said coldly. “We ordered the Army to retake the college four hours ago. When that didn’t work, we had Army special forces assault the campus. The Covenant wiped them out before they even got close. An hour ago we deployed Spartan assets to Omelas. A Headhunter team. We confirmed them KIA ten minutes ago.”

Everyone on the bridge was hanging on the officer’s every word. O’Neil couldn’t believe it. ONI had used Spartans and even they’d been wiped out. What was going on here?

“So you see,” the officer continued. “If the Covenant didn’t know they were sitting on a gold mine then, they do now. It’s only a matter of time before they find that cache and transmit it back to their fleet.”

Onegin leaned back in his chair, his face ashen. It was the first time O’Neil had ever seen the young commander look anything but confident and self-assured; the sudden look of desperation that filled his eyes now frightened O’Neil beyond words.

Silence hung on the bridge for nearly a full minute, interrupted only by the soft humming and beeping from the prowler’s instruments. Finally, Onegin nodded. “Alright. I understand. We’ve got our point defense missiles primed and ready. I’ll put us into a low level run and level the college with those.”

“Commander, you know damn well those won’t be enough to make sure the cache is wiped out. This is the reason Jabberwocky was created in the first place.”

“Then I’ll go in myself!” Onegin yelled, jumping to his feet. “We have small arms onboard, and I’m trained for ground contact! I’ll take my whole crew in and wipe the cache, just give us—“

“Commander, if you don’t shut up and follow this order I will relieve you and find someone who can!” The officer’s voice was like ice. “You’re the only asset in the vicinity with Shiva capabilities. The rest of the fleet is tied up in orbit. Do you understand me?”

The wheels in the commander’s head were spinning again. Every option was playing out in front of him even as he stood there on the bridge glaring down at the communicator. Looking at him now, O’Neil felt a cold gulf opening between them, with him and the rest of the bridge crew on one side and Onegin on the other. In such a tight room he had never seen a man look so alone.

Onegin brought one fist down on the console hard enough that a stream of blood ran down his knuckles and onto the controls. He glanced down at the crimson trickle, then back at the console. His mouth tightened, but his voice was shockingly calm as he spoke to the officer once more.

“Understood, sir. Our nukes are primed. Send me the library’s exact coordinates and I’ll initiate Jabberwocky.” He clicked the communicator off, but remained standing. His fingers tightened and tapped against the console, as if he were kneading invisible dough.

“Kerry,” he said. The ferocity with which he’d argued with the officer a moment ago was nowhere to be heard. Instead, his voice just sounded calm and dull. “They’ll be transmitting you coordinates in a minute. I need you to transfer them to the weapons station. O’Neil, have that Shiva locked in on them as soon as you receive them.”

And then O’Neil understood exactly what Jabberwocky was. For a moment he was speechless, unable to register the horror of what they were about to do. He shook his head slowly, hoping to wake up from the nightmare they’d suddenly plunged into. “Oh no,” he whispered through numb lips. “Sir, no…”

Onegin ignored him. “Kayneth, maneuver us towards the city. Maintain stealth protocols but get us as close as you can.”

Maybe Kayneth still didn’t understand or maybe he was just a better soldier than O’Neil was. The ship jerked again as it veered around, bringing them away from the Covenant lines and towards the embattled city. O’Neil felt ever jolt and bump from the engines like fists being punched into his gut. There was no way they were heading there, no way they were going to do what they were about to do.

A stream of coordinates flashed up on his console, but O’Neil ignored them. “Sir, we can’t do this. You were right, there has to be another way. We can land, just like you said. We’ll fight off the Covenant and—“

“Enter those coordinates, O’Neil,” Onegin ordered. He stood alone at his command chair, hands clasped behind his back. He was aloof and detached from them all now, just like they’d always expected from an ONI officer. “That’s an order.”

A small proximity alarm chimed somewhere off to the side—they were in range. O’Neil looked desperately around at the rest of the bridge crew, but they were suddenly busy with their own stations. No one was going to back him up. He was the only one who wouldn’t go through with it.

“We are at minimum safe distance now,” Kayneth said quietly. “Holding position.”

“Enter the coordinates,” Onegin said again.

“Sir, please,” O’Neil said. He was having trouble breathing now. “Sir, your family’s down there.”

In an instant the commander flashed across the deck, crossing over to the weapons station in two strides. He grabbed O’Neil’s shoulder and hauled him away from the station. O’Neil looked up from the floor, stunned. He had never expected such a wiry man, seven years his junior, to be so strong. “Oh, sir,” he said. There was nothing else to say.

The commander bent over and entered the coordinates. His fingers flashed across the controls, priming the Shiva and locking it in on its course. Now that he was closer, O’Neil could see how utterly devoid of life his eyes were. They were icy grey pools cold steel, nothing like the casual, easily amused commander he had known before.

The console beeped: it had a lock.

“Sir…” O’Neil pleaded one last time.

“Ten billion people,” the commander whispered. His arms shook. “Against five million. Against my mother and father. My little brother.”

“Sir, don’t…”

The commander looked straight ahead and pushed the button.

The Shiva dropped from the Prowler’s launch bay. A trail of fire burned from its tail as it shot forward, hurtling down towards the city below. It flashed across the miles between them, hurtling towards its programmed target.

In Omelas, the Army troopers and the Covenant warriors did not look up from their battle to see the warhead plunge over their heads. The civilians crowded in the docks did not see it as they waited to be taken away from the aliens who cried for their blood, nor did the pilots who struggled desperately to save them. A single transport, its pilot tired of delays and empty promises for cover, shot off away from its landing pad and up into the atmosphere.

The missile ignored the fleeing craft, ignored everything except the target it had been given. It was suspended in air for a second longer, and then it reached the college and the timed fuse within its casing did the rest of its deadly work.

White fire consumed the cache, the college, and the city of Omelas in an instant. It made no distinction between human and alien, soldier or civilian. Everything was wiped clean, a perfect result from a perfect hit.

Omalas was gone, a sacrifice offered up to ensure the survival of the human race.

And in the fleeing transport, rocked by the shockwave from the blast, a young boy stared down at the brilliant light, amazed by the sudden flare and unable to comprehend the hole that his brother had just blasted in his life.

A few moments after it had appeared the light faded, leaving nothing but ashes in its wake.

The Prowler shuddered as the blast washed over it, but Kayneth had already taken them out of range of the worst of the shock wave. Their shields held; the ship’s stealth systems weren’t even affected by the radiation.

O’Neil looked up at the commander. There was nothing left to say.

Onegin’s hand dropped away from the console and he stepped away, shuffling back to the command chair. He turned to look at the viewscreens, still broadcasting the data from the Shiva strike. A contented smile played across his lips and he nodded. His eyes gazed past the screens and locked on something far away, further than the ship, something that only he could see.

“Did you see that, Simon?” he asked. It took O’Neil a moment to realize that Onegin was talking to his brother, the one he’d just vaporized along with his parents and every other soul in Omelas.

“I did it,” the commander continued, as if he were the only person on the bridge. “I didn’t screw things up.”

With a start, the commander fell to his knees, arms dangling by his side like a puppet with its strings cut.

“I saved so many people,” Onegin said, his face splitting into a wide-eyed grin. “I saved everyone. If the Covenant had found that cache, there’s no telling how many people could have died. Your sacrifice…”

His voice broke and he hunched over, kneeling before the evidence of his atrocity like a worshiper at prayer. “Your sacrifice prevented that. So Simon, Mom, Dad, I… I…”

And then he threw his head back and let out a shriek of pure animal anguish that reverberated around the bridge. The other officers looked away, as if they were witnessing something obscene, but O’Neil could only watch as the commander dropped down to the deck, his body wracked with sobs.

“Shut up! Just shut up!” Onegin screamed at himself, tears running down his face. “Shut up! You bastard!

He screamed again, another howl that petered out into a chorus of weak sobs as he shuddered against the cold metal of the deck.

O’Neil lay against his console, unable to tear his eyes away from the hunched, demolished figure that had been his commander. This was the end of his career, he was sure of that. He hadn’t carried out orders; he had forced his commander to come over and push the button himself. He’d be demoted if he was lucky, maybe even court martialed and discharged for dereliction of duty. But he couldn’t think about that now, or think about all the people who wouldn’t die because the Covenant didn’t have that cache.

All he could see was the Shiva blast as it wiped out Omelas and everything in it. If that was the price of salvation…

He looked at the commander, then at the images of Omelas’s destruction, and back again.

If that’s what being saved is like, I don’t think I want to be saved.

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