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The Cole Protocol

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The Cole Protocol

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Author: Tobias S. Buckell
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Series: Halo: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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In the first, desperate days of the Human-Covenant War, the UNSC has enacted the Cole Protocol to safeguard Earth and its Inner Colonies from discovery by a merciless alien foe. Many are called upon to rid the universe of lingering navigation data that would reveal the location of Earth. Among them is Navy Lieutenant Jacob Keyes. Thrust back into action after being sidelined, Keyes is saddled with a top secret mission by ONI. One that will take him deep behind enemy lines, to a corner of the universe where nothing is as it seems.

Out beyond the Outer Colonies lies the planet Hesiod, a gas giant surrounded by a vast asteroid belt. As the Covenant continues to glass the human occupied planets near Hesiod, many of the survivors, helped by a stronghold of human Insurrectionists, are fleeing to the asteroid belt for refuge. They have transformed the tumbling satellites into a tenuous, yet ingenious, settlement known as the Rubble--and have come face-to-face with a Covenant settlement of Kig-Yar... yet somehow survived.

News of this unlikely treaty has spread to the warring sides. Luckily for the UNSC, this uneasy alliance is in the path of the Spartan Gray Team, a three-man renegade squad whose simple task is to wreak havoc from behind enemy lines in any way they see fit. But the Prophets have also sent their best---an ambitious and ruthless Elite, whose quest for nobility and rank is matched only by his brutality... and who will do anything to secure his Ascendancy and walk the Path.





Out of the cyrogenic darkness came a deep, crisp-sounding, but slightly amused voice. "Wakey, wakey, Professor."

Jacob Keyes sat up and took his .rst deep breath. The gel mat underneath him .exed as he coughed out medical-tasting .uid 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 .uid that they had breathed in to prevent their bodies from being damaged by the cold of the frozen sleep. The on-duty of.cer squatted next to Keyes. A thin Navy lifer, Edgar Sykes was a pale man in his mid-.fties, 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 .ared up. The deep gouging plasma burn to his thigh, the shattered-thenrebuilt hand that he clenched and then opened again. They had sidelined him, and kept him in front of wide-eyed noncommissioned of.cers, 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 terri.ed 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 .y 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 .ying out on.

Someone cleared their throat behind Keyes. He turned to .nd a man standing there in full pilot's kit, helmet slung under one arm. The pilot saluted. "Good morning, sir. I'm Petty Of.cer Jeffries. I'm taking you dirtside."

Keyes leaned forward and tugged at the pilot's bedraggled uniform. "I hope you don't .y 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 re.t 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 Of.cer 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 drop-ship 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, .ashing 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 con.ned 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 .icked 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, pre.ight check is green, systems nominal, .ight plan .led. Permission to .y?" 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-browncolored 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 .inch. But Keyes was impressed. The dangerous stunt showed Jeffries could .y blind. And damn well, too. "Orders, Petty Of.cer. 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 re....

Copyright © 2008 by Tobias S. Buckell


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