Halo Genesis - Part I: The Argo
Chapter 1 - Briefing
0230 Hours, 12 April 2525 (Military Calendar)/
Epsilon Eridani System, Planet Reach high orbit, Star dock 001-A
It felt like a triple header would to a professional athlete. Only this professional athlete would've hated his job. Brad murmured something spiteful under his breath as the fluorescent lights overhead automatically shot on.
A retina-etching, white glow pierced the haze of sleep straight to his eyes. The alarm pad blared next to the headboard of his bunk...too loud. Any other time it would be fine, but when he was resting? There were other units on standby.
He couldn't simply hit SNOOZE or tamper with the alarm—certainly couldn't smash it like he wanted to. That would be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Instead he just rose out of bed and stammered defiantly to the bathroom. Its incessant blare wouldn't go quiet until he contacted AIR STAFF just a few decks away—probably sleeping themselves; it was all automated. Half knowing it, he broadcasted his own audible tone stored in the memory cache of his neural net. "Let's see how they like Hate Breed in the morning," he said through grinning teeth.
Waking up for a mission was definitely a hastle as of late, but he'd rather wake up in his quarters at Reach than any of the other Star Docks.
He looked in the mirror as he brushed his teeth. He was getting too old for this. The dimness in his once shiny and colorful, green eyes were testament enough to that. He took another look. His pure-blonde hair was now a muted yellow of some sort and definitely not as thick or strong as it used to be. There was something more amiss to his outer shell…
More scrutiny revealed that his muscle tone was also atrophying. His joints groaned in protest to his every move and his breathing was anything but deep and steady. When was the last time he felt whole?
He'd been running bombing missions for too long. So long, that he couldn't find any memory of true joy without twisting his own arm for it.
Then suddenly, he saw it. Not out of desire, but pure luck: A small picture clinging to the inner frame of the mirror—the picture of his wife and daughter. He could just imagine that fond moment so long ago in the wake of the image. The alarm in his bedroom faded away from existence and the memory obscured his very vision as if the present tense weren't even real. Fleeting images came into being forcefully and smoothly just as well.
He took a sigh, put on his flight suit, and looked down to just above the right breast pocket, to his nametape…
The military owned him…and for too long. He realized now that he should've stayed enlisted; he shouldn't have commissioned three years ago. Enlisted life wasn't as luxurious as an officer's, but at least then he wouldn't have held such responsibility, and so much headache.
He took his time getting ready. Maybe his recent, unruly attitude towards the war machine known as the Colonial Military Administration would work its way up the chain to the MAJCOM level. Maybe they wouldn't think he was so useful after all—hopefully.
He only caught three hours of sleep since his last mission. It was a milk run over a rebel asteroid base in a far off system. Seven hours to the drop zone, a thirty minute sortie, and then another seven and a half back to station.
He was exhausted. All week command had put him and his crew through the ringer. This was definitely grounds for early separation in his book. Why would they call him up with only three hours of crew rest? Didn't they know that wasn't mission-safe? There were huge risks involved with that kind of safety negligence. Orders were orders though. Whatever. Just one year to retirement.
He strolled to the briefing room like the military worked for him. He reached the entry to MISSION PLANNING and everyone was already there and by the looks of it, for a good while now. Brad's Commander didn't look so happy with his tardiness and his men were a little perplexed too. They must've felt the same as him by now, but they would never suspect the slightest dereliction of duty from their leader—from Brad.
"Good morning, Lieutenant Banga. Glad you could join us. Better late than never I suppose," hinted his Commander. The Colonel was usually laid back with his subordinates, but something told Banga he'd better tighten up today. He took his seat.
"Morning is it?" Brad retorted. "I can't tell anymore, sir. Not when I'm running missions while I'm sleep walking," he said mockingly. He caught a brief glint of cooperative humor in his Commander's eyes, then it quickly faded. Colonel Sherr wasn't all that bad. His face was chiseled out of solid marble so you might as well bury any hope of figuring out what he was ever thinking, but those that knew him, knew he was down to Reach...for a wing commander anyway. "So what this time? A bomb run? No...Let me guess…last-minute Humanitarian mission for the Senator's election campaign. Or is this just your cute little idea of a terribly late April Fool's?"
Colonel Sherr panned his steely gaze away from Banga and separately eyed each man. "What I'm about to tell you all, doesn't leave this room. You're all ordered to take one day of crew rest before your next mission, understood?"
No one spoke in reply, but they all indiscriminately nodded as if they were hive-minded—as one. Something was up. Once Colonel Sherr acknowledged their agreement, the lights overhead dimmed and in the middle, emerged a G2-class star of brimming amber. Three planets whisked around in tight, elliptical orbits, scraping the walls of the room. The star system rotated for one revolution and then slowly zoomed into a single planet of emerald-green forests, vast, blue expanses of ocean, opaque-brown highlands, and a fierce, pastel-white band of a storm current.
"So where's this?" asked First Lieutenant Selonke, Brad's navigator. "I don't recognize it from any of the pre-mission briefs."
"This is Harvest, an outer colony, taken from the CMA survey archives. This is not an up-to-date representation. You're being sent here to investigate a mishap."
"Yes. As of military calendar 3 February, 1423 Hours, the Office of Naval Intelligence detachment at Harvest confirmed long-range contact with an unidentifiable ship. Class and tonnage are unkown. STRATCOM's assesment...is that it is an alien ves—"
Before he could continue, Sherr sensed a stir amongst the men. He waited patiently. "So it wasn't a friendly encounter, sir?" asked Master Sergeant Pryor, Banga's crew chief.
"Well, let me finish. The mishap is that we lost contact. Whether it's because of these visitors or just a mistake, we don't know. This is where you all come in."
Banga was definitely awake now. He was the ranking individual of his squad so he felt like the one to ask all the questions. "How do we fit in, sir? We're just bombers—"
"Yeah," comm. officer Brahm cut in. "Shouldn't there be some ONI weirdoes out there who would just love to go?"
"I'm sure there is, but ONI has hand-picked you."
The crew rustled again. "We're being voluntold, I knew it," spoke munitions officer Dufraine. "They're whorin' us out to do the bitch work."
Banga wove a hand in the air to cut him off. "Sir, why specifically have they chosen us?"
"This crew has the best mission success record out of any fleet in any MAJCOM. You go when you're told, you release the payload with no questions asked, and you get home safely every time. Not only all that, but you all do it with record-breaking speed and efficiency. You can be counted on and you work well together. My gut says however, that you all are the most likely to make it back in one piece. That's why you're chosen."
"Somethin' told me we shouldn't be so damned good," chimed the MUNS officer once again. Banga shot him a look this time and the weapons expert hung his head in silence.
"You are taking this leave to get your personal affairs in order before your mission," Sherr reasserted. "You'll be introduced to your new ship, given your destination coordinates, and your specifics on the mission. Reconvene back here in twenty-four hours starting now…dismissed."
The commander strode to the exit and walked away. Banga and his crew sat there for a minute in quiet contemplation. Dufraine eyed the Colonel as he walked away, smirked once out of sight, and chewed on a strand of milk weed—only found on Earth. His girlfriend sent a vacuum-wrapped package of it to him every week.
Banga replayed the meeting in his mind. "Well finally…some excitement in our lives," Banga chimed. He looked at all his men, but their empty stares reminded him of just how desperate that sounded. The words even rang hollow in his own ears. He took a deep breath and flexed his taut shoulders. "Either we go or we don't go," he said. "Look, if we find trouble we high tail it outta there, right? Just like in the books…just like we always did if we ever had trouble."
He could see more attention emanating from his men as he spoke. He was getting through to them. He never turned down a mission before, and he didn't want this one to be lost either. Even more, he wasn't about to turn down anything being so short—one more year until he was with his family on permanent vacation. His separation package had to look spotless to PERSCOM.
"Put it this way: We might be the first to see some aliens. How about that? You know if we decline, they'll hand us our walking papers and then what? We're outta the job, that's what. So who's going?"
Dufraine picked his head up. "Even if we make it there and find out what happened, what's to say the aliens don't pull a fast one and blow us to bits or make us their guinea pigs, like in the movies?"
"Look guys, I know how laid back we've become. We're bombers, but that doesn't mean we're treated any better than the longswords or the skyhawks. We're in the military and we all took the oath at day one. I know this is off the books and it's not our style, but we have to go—all those people out there. We really don't even know if these visitors are hostile or not."
The rest of the men all looked around and at one another. They were definitely listening at this point, but still doubtful.
"It's probably just a misunderstanding anyways. Brahm, you know what kind of bullshit equipment we have to deal with sometimes, right? It's probably just a downed satellite out there."
Brahm arched an eyebrow in caution.
"Look…" Solemnly, he hung his head low for a moment to collect his thoughts. He looked back up at his men with sincerity written all over his face. "We've been doing this for ten years; the same thing everyday. We've been the best because we're there for each other…because we make the sacrifice. But whether we like it or not, this is our most important mission. This is the call of duty, boys."
Banga's navigator, First Lieutenant Selonke, was the first. "You know I'm in. I've never left you behind." Master Sergeant Pryor nodded in accordance. "Besides, who's gonna navigate for your ass if not me?"
"I'll go. What the hell, right?" said MUNS officer Dufraine. "Hazard pay alone has got be enough to buy me that house on Earth."
"Count me in," said Brahm, the communications officer. "Once in a lifetime."
"Shit," said Pryor. "I'm a crew chief. I can't quit the Navy. They don't make warcraft on the outside."
Everyone laughed a bit, then looked at Second Lieutenant Holmes for his verdict. He was new, not too long out of Boot. Holmes was a real asset. It'd be a shame to lose him and all his knowledge and know-how on starship defense. They all knew he had the mettle for the job, but nothing was ever certain. After a moment's silence..."This is it, huh? The big deal. Sign me up, boss. Who's gonna shoot down the little green men if I don't go?"
"Alright! This is it," said Banga. Everyone stood at once. "You heard Sherr. Back here in twenty-four. Hug your mamas, kiss your wives, and tuck in your babies 'cause it's off to Harvest."