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A Baker's Dozen
A Baker's Dozen

The bar saw more than its fair share of reprobates and those of ill repute. It saw its fair share of shady bounty hunters, organised crime types, shady folks doing dealings in the back. But neither the bar nor the man behind it had ever seen what was currently sitting around one of the biggest tables in the building.

They could never be said to blend in, even in their street clothes and messy hair. Their scars were just a bit too many, their height too uniform amongst them all, and their shoulders too broad for their comparatively young ages. He’d wager the oldest among them was just shy of fifty.

Still, they ordered their drinks, and they paid for them. Like everyone else, he served them and took their creds, then went back to drying glasses. He didn’t operate the bar as a way to spy on folks that needed a drink and a quiet place to sit and talk, so he wouldn’t begrudge the obvious Spartans their get-together.

So long as the bar was left standing when they were done.

Spartan Kennedy sat with her back to the plush seats of the booth, nursing a bottle of whiskey and a small tumbler full of the amber liquid. To the right sat Carrie Lones, to the left sat Natalia Ivankov. She did the rounds in her head as she looked at the expectant faces of those gathered; Arthur wore a tight-lipped smile, and had his arms folded over his chest, like he was amused by the whole situation they found themselves in.

Isabelle Fischer kept herself open and relaxed, but Kennedy saw the flexes of her muscles and her shifting in her seat. She was just as nervous as everyone else. Even moreso, it seemed, as she was on her fifth pint of stout beer.

Olivia Fang kept herself closed off from the table as best she could, unwilling to meet someone’s gaze. Or, perhaps even unable to.

Annabelle Irons and Ronaldo Darle were locked in a quiet discussion, eyes flicking over towards the other side of the table, where the quote-unquote ‘traitors’ sat.

Kennedy’s wandering eyes saw Francois Delatte’s own eyes locked with Natalia’s. He was hunched over the bar, glaring at her without blinking, as if issuing a challenge.

Kirsten Hawke was the one wanting to catch the eyes of Olivia, making a show of her movements whenever she had to make them, languidly picking up her bottle of beer and sighing ever few seconds.

Marcia Machados wasn’t trying to catch anyone’s attention, but she was the subject of scorn nonetheless. On the other side of the table, Annabelle and Ronaldo kept talking about her, and Marcia kept trying her best to ignore it.

That left Adrian Griggs, and Omed Kincaide. Both of which were looking around the bar like they were expecting an ambush, or someone to be watching them. Pointless, really, as Kennedy made sure all of them knew to come alone, come unfollowed, and come without knowing who else was gonna be there.

The only reason they hadn’t yet started killing each other with bar furniture was because Kennedy was there. She felt a twinge pluck at her chest at that last thought. If she was there from the start, would there have even been this divide between them?

Natalia was giving Francois a pursed-lipped glare, drumming her fingers on the table besides her tall Mojito. Kennedy followed her eyes to where he sat, on the half of the table where everyone now loyal to the Nueva Alianza Revolucionaria sat. There was a great chasm between those of the NAR, and those of them still working for the UNSC.

Kennedy felt a tension in the air as they gave each other looks and side-eyed glances. Each one expected the others to snap and start a brawl.

Which brought her eyes back to Carrie, who was giving her eyes and flicking her head towards the table, urging her to do something. Kennedy picked up her glass with a sigh, raised it to her lips, and drained it. She sat it down on the table with enough force to cut through the conversations, the snide looks, the glares, and train all eyes on her.

“It’s been a while,” she said to them, a thin smile spreading her lips. “Years, for some of us.”

“Why are we even here?” Griggs asked. “You said you wanted to talk to me, I assume that meant me alone.”

“Why did you come?” Kennedy asked in reply. “You knew something like this was inevitable. Good god, guys. If I knew this was going to happen I never would’ve let the UNSC arrest me.”

“You vanished,” Marcia said. “ONI said you went AWOL.”

“Actually,” Carrie chimed in. “First, they said you were the one who suggested we all split up in the first place. Go our separate ways,” she scoffed, and shook her head. “Shoulda known something was up.”

Natalia hummed. “Then, suddenly, it’s talk of people going AWOL. Rogue elements, terrorist incidents.” She made sure to give the other half of the table a pointed stare. “Something I never thought I would see from us.”

“There is no ‘us’!” Francois spat. “Not since our CO vanished.”

“They wanted to stick me on a penal colony,” Kennedy said. “They shoved me in a cryo tube for the journey, said I was gonna be doing five years for minor infractions.”

“What happened?” Olivia asked.

“The penal colony wasn’t under UEG control anymore,” Kennedy laughed. “The frigate got blindsided by pirates right after slipspace transition. Blew a hole in their critical systems, boarded the ship. Anyone who fought back got killed, or captured, and those of us unlucky enough to still be in cryo got picked up for ransom.”

She paused, pouring herself another shot of whiskey and draining the glass almost as soon as it was full. She looked around at the faces of her squadmates, all of them now united by a single look of concern, despite their newfound ideological differences.

Kennedy breathed a sigh of relief at that, passing it off as the alcohol burning its way down her throat. “Eventually,” she said, “I was brought out of cryo to work for a woman known as The Collector.” She shook her head.

“That’s where I came in,” Carrie said. “ONI saw fit to task me with the mission of hunting her down, and bringing her to justice.”

“That’s cruel, even for the UNSC.” Kirsten spat.

“Sounds exactly like their MO to me,” Francois said, shooting a pointed glare over at Natalia. “She wasn’t the only one that was hunted down by people she cared about.”

“You’re right,” Kennedy said with a smile. “I suspect ONI tried to exploit a lot of us to hunt down those of us who no longer wanted to be under the UNSC’s thumb.”

There was a murmur of agreement from most of the gathered Spartans.

Kennedy folded her hands over the table and leaned forward. “Those of you who said yes, can I ask a question?”

There were a few nods.

Kennedy held the gazes of the handful of Spartans who nodded. “Why did you say yes?”

“Because they’re loyal lap dogs!” Griggs shot at them.

Natalia stood up and raised a fist, Kennedy reached up and put a hand over her midsection, straining slightly to get her to sit back down.

“Griggs,” Kennedy said, hardening her brows and shooting him a withering glance. “I don’t believe I asked you a damn thing.”

It was a gamble, one that played off of his respect, and lingering emotional state. He wilted and looked away, sitting back in his chair. “Sorry, boss.”

Kennedy felt a spike of happiness, but kept it off of her face. She pushed on Natalia’s abdomen a bit more forcefully, and the woman sat back down next to her.

“Natalia,” Camilla angled her head to peer under Ivankov’s red bangs. “You can go first.”

Natalia took a shuddering breath and closed her eyes. “I thought I could convince someone to come back into the fold.” She paused and took a deep glug of her Mojito. “I was wrong.”

Francois shuddered on the other end of the table, shaking his head.

“I’d wager it was similar reasons for everyone else? Olivia?”

There was a nod from the other woman. “I didn’t want Kirsten to be at the mercy of an ONI team, where I could maybe save her.”

Kirsten’s shoulders slumped in their sockets, and she listed in her chair like a wounded boxer.

Kennedy moved on. “Fischer? Ronaldo? Annabelle?”

Isabelle Fischer twirled her glass around and sighed. “Yeah. I thought I could save someone.”

“Same reasons,” Ronaldo said.

Annabelle merely nodded.

“I expect you guys didn’t think that far ahead, hmm?” Kennedy jabbed at the other side of the table. The remaining ‘traitorous’ Spartans were all in similar states to Kirsten and Francois.

“We didn’t think…” Arthur began, then trailed off with a mirthless laugh. “I guess that was the problem.”

“Now I have a question for you guys,” Kennedy sniffed, folded her arms, and turned her body towards that side of the table. The ‘traitors’ all looked up. Arthur, Adrian, Marcia, Francois, Kirsten, and Omed. All of them looked up at her with an expectant eye.

“Why did you do it?” she asked.

There was some activity. Adrian looked away, Arthur let his head drop. Marcia found new resolve in scratching something into the surface of the table with her fingernails.

Francois, Kirsten, and Omed all bristled under the question, but the ire wasn’t directed at Kennedy, more as it was directed at the reason behind why she asked.

“We were all packed onto ships,” Adrian said. “And sent out into the wild unknown.”

Arthur picked up the mantle while Griggs chose to drink. “We were sent to colonies who were scared,” he said. “Unanimously decided to cut contact with the UEG when Earth was attacked.”

Marcia cleared her throat. “What we found were colony worlds with a newfound mind for independence.”

“They’d gotten word about the end of the war; everyone had,” Francois said. “They just chose to keep quiet.”

“They liked their new lives.” Kirsten smiled. “And we were happy for them, until the ships gave them a choice;”

“Submit back to UEG governance, or…” Omed trailed off, and all of the ‘traitors’ looked up at Kennedy with the same flat expressions.

Kennedy winced. “You were used,” she said. “As a scare tactic.”

“No one likes the idea of Spartans silencing your freedom,” Marcia said. “So, a few of the colonies we were at decided that fighting was pointless.”

“Some of them didn’t,” Arthur said, his eyes turning far-away and distant. “And we were deployed on surgical strikes to ‘remove’ problem elements within their governments.”

“At that point, the first of us turned, and it snowballed from there,” Adrian finished.

Kennedy took some time to digest that information, before she turned to the UNSC side of the table. “So, why didn’t you turn?”

Natalia spoke up. “What I found was a frontier world dealing with refugees. Human, and otherwise.” She shook her head. “There was no time for ideology when innocent lives were at risk.”

Olivia merely shrugged. “It was just what we were doing. No different than any other mission.”

Kirsten shot up and pointed at her. “You take that the hell back! They were humans! With lives!”

“They were threats to the UNSC, and we were always about removing threats,” Olivia replied up to her.

“You heartless, slack-jawed bitch!” Kirsten balled her fists and clenched her jaw so tight Kennedy could see the muscles twitch under her skin.

Kennedy stood up and whistled. The pitch rattle dthe glasses and got everyone’s attention before the situation devolved even further. “Hawke! Take a seat. Now!”

Kirsten was panting with anger, but sat down all the same.

Kennedy sat as well and put her head in her hands, running them through the tresses of her golden hair. “It’s obvious that you’ve all had dealings before this meeting. Some more than others.” She motioned to Natalia and Arthur, and Kirsten and Olivia.

“Why did you even call this meeting, boss?” Marcia asked.

“Because I’ve come to offer you all a choice,” Kennedy said.

“Go back to the UNSC, or die, hmm?” Adrian chuckled. “That’s not much of a choice.”

Kennedy looked up at him with serious eyes, smoothed down her hair, and leaned forward in her seat. “Fuck the UNSC!”

That got a reaction from everyone at the bar, from outright horror to disbelief. Even Carrie, sitting beside Kennedy, and her oldest and closest friend, was shocked to the core. “What the hell did you just say?” she asked.

“Fuck the UNSC, is what I said,” Kennedy repeated, looking around at all the faces at the table. “And fuck the Nueva Alianza Revolucionaria.” she added. “Fuck any government or organisation that would have you butcher civilians to send a message.”

“Whoa, we’ve never—” Adrian began.

“Your organisation monopolises food rations and lines ‘political dissidents’ up against the wall,” Kennedy cut him off with a sharp stage whisper, through gritted teeth. “The Golden Dawn Massacre rests squarely on their shoulders, so don’t fuck with me, Griggs!”

“Look at what the UNSC does, as well!” He motioned back.

Kennedy blinked and widened her eyes at him. “This isn’t a game, Griggs! This isn’t some petty, childhood squabble where you get to hit them because they hit you. This cycle of violence is never ending, and no one can do a thing about it because an eye for an eye seems to be the only thing these people understand!”

“What are you proposing, boss?” Natalia asked.

Kennedy looked at her, deep into those green eyes, and took a breath. “Years ago, you all decided to follow me. Me. Not the UNSC, not the Epimetheus programme, and not Chimes.”

She let the name hang in the air like a leaden blanket over the entire conversation, sparing it no more than a heavy breath and a slow blink. “I’m asking you,” she continued at a lower volume, “to do the same now.”

There was a silence among everyone, none more so than the UNSC side of the table, who she was asking a lot more of.

“The UNSC will never allow us peace,” she said. “One way or another, we will continually be used.” She reached back into her pocket and brought out the remnants of a shattered collar. “I spent a year with a det-collar around my neck, being forced to commit atrocities that I couldn’t say no to.”

She slammed the pieces of the collar onto the table and shook her head. “I will never allow myself that loss of control ever again.” She looked around the table and shook her head. “And I don’t want any of you to experience that either. Fuck organisations, fuck governments, the only people we can trust are right here, at this table.”

Everyone looked around, and suddenly the ideologies made little difference. The past held little weight in that moment.

There were no movements as everyone digested what Kennedy had said.

“You’re talking about treason,” Natalia said.

“In a way, yes. We take a ship, we head out into the stars, we take the jobs we want, and fight for the ideologies we create. No flags, no systems, just us and the open skies.” She smiled at them all, the first genuine smile since they all sat down at the table. “Please,” she added. “I don’t want to do this alone.”

“Mercenary life…” Arthur shook his head and trailed off. “Comes with connotations. The UNSC won’t just hunt us down, they’ll bend every effort towards it.”

“Yes, they will,” Kennedy said.

Arthur shook his head.

“I’m in,” Carrie said.

All eyes turned to look at her, but she only had eyes for Kennedy. She put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder and nodded. “Where you go,” she said, “I go.”

There was another tap on her shoulder from Kennedy’s other side. Natalia met Kennedy’s eyes with a determined smile. “This whole mess,” she said, “only started because you weren’t here to keep us in line. Never again.”

The three pair of eyes then looked around the table. Olivia was the first to nod, and clink her glass on the table. “I’m in,” she said.

The rest of the table followed, one after another. As more nodded, said yes, or joined with a hand in hand or a hand on a shoulder, the effect continued.

Until only Arthur remained undecided, twirling his glass about, and staring into it with a far-off look.

“Arthur, please.” Kennedy said.

Arthur looked up at her with a harrowed expression on his face. “When I was a trainee,” he said, “just finished augmentations, I ran off.” He took a drink and sighed. “Came to a little farm on the edge of nowhere, stayed for three nights. They fed me, clothed me, and let me sleep in a bed. Best night’s sleep of my life.”

Kennedy smiled at that, and motioned for him to go on.

“I decided then,” Arthur continued as directed, “that if I ever were to get out of the game, I’d wanna open a farm.” He looked up at Kennedy and shook his head. “If I do this, that future goes away.”

“Why did you come back?” Kennedy asked.

Arthur sighed. “I couldn’t leave you guys all alone.”

Kennedy smiled at that, and shook her head. “The UNSC won’t let you have that future,” she said. “They won’t stop until the NAR is dissolved, and everyone who was ever a part of it either dead, or interred.” She leaned forward. “I don’t know what the future holds if you throw your lot in with us, all I can offer you is a chance to fight for the future you want. Not for the future the UNSC, or the NAR, wants for you.”

Arthur considered those words with a sigh. Looking up, he nodded at Kennedy. “You always did have a way with words, boss. All of us, cooped up together on one starship, airing out grievances around expensive heavy machinery? It’s a bad idea.”

There were a series of laughs from around the table, none louder than Kennedy’s.

“It very well might be,” she agreed with a nod.

“Sounds like my idea of a fun time,” Arthur said, raising his empty glass. “I’m in.”

A wave of relief washed over Kennedy, felt by the entire table.

“That’s all well and good,” Natalia said, “but now that our allegiances have changed, some of us for the second time, a lot of people are gonna be angry at us.”

“That they will.” Kirsten agreed.

“Which means we can’t exactly stay here.” Marcia added.

Kennedy held up a finger. “I did mention a ship.”

Everyone's eyes went wide.

“You have a ship?” Adrian asked.

Kennedy scoffed. “No, of course not!” Her eyes glinted with an air of mischief as she stood up, placing her palms on the table and grinning madly at everyone present. “We’re gonna steal one!”

The barkeep watched the conversation develop, unfold, then resolve with an air of disconnected curiosity reserved for only the best f his patrons. He was a bit worried when one of the Spartans stood up, looking ready to throw down, but the leader put her back in her place with a whistle.

He watched them go with a happy wave and a ‘do come back!’, only speculating at what sort of trouble a gang of thirteen Spartans could get themselves into.

Then, without a second’s hesitation, he put those thoughts from his mind as the door swung shut, and he picked up another glass to rub it dry.

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