|1304 Hours, March 18th, 2520
SIGMA Complex, United Republic of North America, Earth
"I'm sick of these stupid tests Roe keeps throwing on us. And now a leaderboard? Where the hell did that come from?!"
"Calm down, Marco. You're still in the top ten."
The two trainees paced down the hallway, away from the main briefing room. Today had been a tough one, having spent the last few hours battling trained soldiers in a battlefield mockup. They had, as always, finished their mission, only to find upon their return that they were now being graded on their performance. The two of them were only twelve years old, but looked much older. The first was quite pale, with short brown hair and a look of frustration on his face. 035 was printed on his grey fatigues in small black print. The second was a girl, a little shorter but walking with much more ease than her friend. 71 was printed on hers. A door opened at the end, revealing a boy with dark eyes and a cocky grin on his face.
"Oh, hey Jack," said Marco, stopping to greet his friend. "You seen the new leaderboard crap that Roe put up?"
"Damn right I did. Second place ain't bad."
"Yeah, I'm third" said Elena before turning to look at Marco. "Fenn's at the top, of course. I swear, no one can touch him."
Marco shrugged at this. No one ever had a bad word to say about their leader. "Well" he said, sighing. "I suppose seventh isn't too bad. I mean, it's Nef that's in real trouble, isn't it?"
"Poor guy," Jack muttered. Nef-015 was twentieth on the leaderboard, the lowest scoring candidate in all of Sigma. He was as tough as everyone else, but his hotheadedness, along with a weapon jam, had gotten him 'killed' today. Marco recalled watching him trudge off the field at the end of the exercise covered in mud, with fire in his eyes. The quiet, surly kid hadn't spoken to anyone, getting cleaned off and heading for the training room without a word. Marco had gotten himself injured when a TTR grenade exploded close to him.
"So, where are you two off to, then?" asked Jack, still happy at his position among the group. "Kane and Jacob are off at the shooting range, and I think Luisa went with Hank and Resk to speak to Mack about something."
"Well," replied Elena. "Marco was thinking about complaining to Roe, but I managed to talk him down if he didn't want a beating."
"What, from Roe's men or you?" All three laughed at this, and kept on going. It was eventually agreed that they would grab a bite to eat before their afternoon lessons. Sure, this new system Roe had implemented would be the source of a lot of debate among the twenty of them for a while, but they'd get used to it. It had most likely been put in to encourage competition between the group, giving a serious wake up call to those who might have been slacking in some way. It would, Marco thought, probably be changed daily, making everyone have to fight to go up or to retain their own places.
"I don't think I mind this new system," Marco announced, much to his friend's surprise. "I guess a little healthy competition will be fun."
On the other side of the facility, in the simulation room, Jax-007 groaned and rolled over behind a metal pillar while two others provided covering fire with their pistols. They were only firing TTR rounds, of course, but a direct hit would incapacitate or 'kill' an opponent immediately. Their target dived back into cover, giving the trio a brief respite in which to reload and catch their breaths.
"Jax, did he hit you?" asked Grigori-018. He was breathing heavily, the worry evident in his voice. Jax nodded. Why did they even agree to fight Fenn? He was one of the few who had made it out of today's mission without a scratch, and had floored him before retreating only moments ago. Roe had decided to field Jax, Grigori, and three others against SPARTAN-145. So far, they were getting their collective asses kicked, Pierre and Amy having already been taken out. Wulf poked his head over the barrier he was cowering behind and called out.
"C'mon, Fenn. Come out and fight!"
There was no response. Wulf glanced over at Jax for a fraction of a second, and collapsed to the floor. His teammates barely had time to register the paint on the side of his head before a hail of rounds whizzed past. There was a quick blur as Fenn dashed from pillar to pillar. Jax raced forward, firing several rounds as he did so. Grigori picked up Wulf's pistol and moved around the other side. a two-pronged assault might be enough to overwhelm him. There were half a dozen more TTR shots before he could round the corner. There was nothing there. Edging forward, his pistol raised, Jax noticed a prone body lying ahead, face down.
There wasn't a single sound. Not one. Perhaps Grigori and Fenn had shot each other, though he couldn't see another body. Crouching, he turned the boy in front of him over. 018 was printed on his shirt. Grigori. He was splattered across the chest with TTR hits. He couldn't move, but his eyes looked up at Jax in annoyance. Realising the danger he was in, Jax stood up immediately, and froze. Something cold and metallic had just placed itself against the back of his head.
In the viewing gallery above the simulation room, two men watched as the short sparring match was abruptly ended. One man was tall and muscled, clad in military garb with the silver leaf insignia of a Lieutenant Colonel shining on his chest. He was in his early fifties, but looked much younger, save for the noticeable streaks of grey in his brown hair. The other was slightly shorter, wearing a well-used lab coat over plain black clothes. He had a head of unkempt greying hair and a beard, eyes hidden behind the whiteness of his glasses caught in the light.
"Deactivate the TTR effects. End simulation."
The soldier tapped a button on a nearby control panel, reversing the TTR's hardening effects and allowing the trainees to pick themselves up and leave. In spite of the embarrassing defeat, they still chatted happily with Fenn as they exited the simulation room. Richard Mack Senior smiled, and turned to his colleague, who continued to punch digits into his datapad.
"Good to see they don't hold grudges. They're getting better against each other. You updating the leaderboard?"
"Yes. Have to move 133 down for getting hit like that. At least 127 went on the offensive before 145 took him down."
"They have names, Calvin. Amy, Pierre and Fenn. Y'know, perhaps this leaderboard isn't such a good idea, come to think of it."
"How so? It'll encourage the trainees to strive for success."
"Yeah, against their own teammates. Just saying, we're gonna get some arguments pretty soon. You can't just focus your attentions on the top five, either. What about Nef? Poor kid had a face like thunder after training today"
"He'll learn. Thinking of pitting numbers two to five against our number one. What do you think?"
"Jack, Elena, Pierre and Kane? Look, if five others couldn't touch Fenn today, what chance do-"
"They're the best!" interrupted Doctor Roe, a fierce gleam in his eyes. "Every single one of our candidates needs to know his or her own limits, and we will make sure that each knows the strengths and weaknesses of their comrades" Mack sighed at this, pressing two fingers to his brow.
"Look, we can't be sure after only implementing the leaderboard system for a single day. I mean, people like Nef, Luisa or Marco could easily get on top by the end of the week. Are they doing something similar to this on Reach?"
Roe snorted. Though he hated to admit it, roughly two thirds of the info pertaining to SIGMA was being secretly transferred through secure channels from Reach, where a larger batch of Spartans were currently being trained, to Earth. It was, of course, done in secret, having been approved by Admiral Paragonsky herself. "No, the leaderboard is my own design, though I've been reading Halsey's notes. I swear, that woman has her head so far up her own backside that she actually thinks she's some kind of good samaritan for her efforts"
"Sounds like jealousy, Calvin."
"It's just her. You and I both know we're not saints. Hell, my work on Heimdall and what you've done in ORION is enough to get us put away for life if it came to light."
"Well, Parangosky does hate Halsey. The three of us are useful for now. The dirt on us gets dug up when we outlive that usefulness."
For the first time in a while, Roe genuinely smiled. "More like Parangosky likes you. I know you both hate Halsey, but you can't deny that the two of you are similar in more ways than one, Richard."
Mack wasn't a fan of his first name. He'd never really liked it, and only allowed a few people to call him by it. Frowning, he sighed and glanced over at the monitors. The nearest one showed Marco, Jack and Elena laughing in the canteen. "I'd best be off," he said finally. Roe nodded.
"Say hi to Junior to me. How old is he now?"
"Fourteen. We're not speaking at the moment, had a bit of an argument when he kept asking about this place. He's been getting worse."
"Oh," responded the Doctor, before turning round. "Is it the-" he made motions of a syringe being injected into his arm. Mack shrugged, grabbed his back and walked out without another word. Roe was left alone in the control room. After sending off another report for SIGMA to ONI, he looked around at the monitors, and watched these children he had spent the last six years turning into weapons. They still laughed and played games, but there was a lack of innocence to it. They had spent the day fighting and marching and shouting and shooting, and simply hadn't switched off. On the odd occasion that a fight did break out, it usually took half a dozen Drill Instructors to detain them if Mack wasn't there. They all respected him deeply, something that wasn't shared with him.
Roe fumbled with a stack of pads, and dropped one to the floor. Cursing, he bent over to pick it up, and something caught his eye. A tiny device had been taped to the underside of one of his desks. A bug. Casting his eye toward the monitors, he instantly knew who had done it. The innocent looking little girl, who incidentally was the second best fighter and probably one of the more vicious trainees, not that she looked it, happily sitting with her two friends. Elena. No. 071. Roe couldn't use their names. He wouldn't become like Hasley, who from the reports seemed to get to know each and every one of her Spartans. He was there to manage their training, to turn them into supersoldiers. Besides, with the life they lived, any one of the trainees could end up dead these days. And this was before their scheduled augmentations in a year or two. He wouldn't deal with that. He let Mack play psychiatrist. The old soldier was good at that.
A succession of beeps from the intercom indicated that there was a commotion from the canteen, where all twenty recruits had gathered. 007 had, in his usual manner of taking jokes too far, tripped up 098 as he crossed the hall. What ensued appeared to be some kind of knife fight, with 063 and 076 attempting to restrain their comrades. As the DI's stormed into the room, Roe sighed and turned the monitors off.