|September 2nd, 2558
Deck Four, Helios Station, Mars Orbit
"I'm telling you, every time my suit comes back from maintenance, half the paint's been scraped off."
"Sure that's not just plasma burns, Resk?"
"No Jacob, I count those. Some tech out there has it in for me."
"Well, cobalt isn't what I'd call the most inconspicuous of colours."
A round of laughter broke out around the cafeteria table, where Sigma Team sat and enjoyed a brief half-hour of respite before they were to report in and receive their newest assignment. Even outside of their distinctive MJOLNIR powered armour and clad only in basic fatigues, the nine Spartans still cast a larger than life aura across the crowded room. Ignoring stares from a group of nosy pilots a table away, he refilled his glass of water and inclined his head towards his closest comrade, Resk-063.
"Don't act like you don't love repainting it, buddy. I swear, if you retire from this Spartan business you'd be a great artist."
The larger Spartan chuckled, toying with the food on his plate. "Maybe. Anybody else here got talents they'd like to put to use outside of the military? Nef?"
Across from them, a bald, heavily-scarred man sat with his eyes downcast, supremely focused on his meal and nothing else. Upon hearing his name Nef-015 glanced up, shook his head, and resumed eating as the Spartan next to him rolled his eyes. Unlike his more taciturn neighbour, Jacob-076 greatly enjoyed these queries and fired back right away.
"I'd be a mechanic, probably."
"Whereabouts?" Jax asked, smiling.
"Somewhere out in the Colonies. Fixing up those big rigs miners drive sounds fun."
"For you, maybe," chimed in the only female in Sigma, Amy-133. "I could never stay cooped up inside fixing machines all day."
"Why, because you prefer blowing them up?"
Amy flicked a noodle off her plate towards Jacob's face with superb speed and accuracy, though he caught it at the last moment with his fork. Jax took another sip of his drink before addressing Resk once more.
"What about you, big guy? You got a retirement plan or are you just asking for the hell of it?"
"After the war is over, and they let me retire," Resk chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. "I'd like to live somewhere quiet. Reach, maybe?"
His friend sighed. "Not much chance of that now, is there? They say it'll be years before they fix the glassing damage and make it fit for hab-"
Jax paused mid-sentence, and looked around to see the frozen faces of several of his team members. I never said that, he tapped the side of his head, struck by a sudden realisation. Hell, I don't remember how I even answered back then. Aside from the table and a single meal before him, nothing in this room was actually here. The environment, food, and people around him had all been constructed from Jax's own memory, down to the tiniest detail. All he had to do was play the part of himself and the program would finish automatically.
"Inconsistency detected," a soft female voice chimed from the ceiling. "Simulation halted."
The Spartan waved a hand in front of his dead best friend's face, then flicked his nose. The hologram flickered as his finger passed right through it, while Resk's ghost stared unblinkingly ahead. The others had also paused. At the end of the table, Marco-035 and Wulf-041 had been laughing at something or other, while Kane-098 discussed something with their long-dead team leader Fenn-145 in a low voice. He hadn't been paying attention to their conversations, but the program responsible for scanning Jax's memories through his neural implant had been surprisingly good at reconstructing the scene. However, Jax had gone off-script. Of the eight other Spartans sitting at the table, only three had lived to see the Fall of Reach. The others - enjoying a rare moment of levity in their brutal lives - would have had no knowledge of it, which disrupted the simulation's runtime.
Standing up, Jax could only shake his head. He'd been spending too long in these environments in his off-time already, and this wasn't the first time he'd accidentally disrupted his own memories. Behind him, a section of the 'cafeteria' wall broke apart as a door opened up, and a tall figure in a black techsuit stepped inside.
"Jax," Kane-098 stood with arms folded behind his back, barely giving the image of his younger self at the table more than a glance. "We're set to depart in two hours. Suit up."
"Got it, Chief," he saluted, feeling slightly embarrassed. If Kane had anything to say about this, then he'd keep it to himself.
Kane mirrored his gesture, turned, and departed the chamber, leaving Jax alone in his little reconstruction of the past. While he'd been given permission to use Helios Station's prototype simulation chambers as much as he wanted while here on leave, he had begun to have second thoughts about the whole thing. What had begun as mere curiosity was quickly developing into a vice; something that could emotionally compromise the Spartan if left unchecked. He took a deep, calming breath, and exhaled, letting such an attachment pass out of his life. It was such a simple trick, taught to him by Resk long ago, but his intensive discipline made it work.
"End program," Jax said. As he approached the door. The room's interior wavered and flickered into darkness as the holographic projectors shut themselves down. That last thing to vanish were his fellow Spartans.