|2034 Hours, February 4th, 2544
Grendel's Tavern, Schönheit, Inner Colonies
Seventy-two hour furlough. Absolute bullshit.
Clad in black fatigues, a grey-haired man sat within the crowded bar's corner booth, downing his fourth glass of alcohol and praying that this one would finally get him somewhere close to drunk. It wasn't working.
His grey eyes flitted up from the swirling liquid to meet an elderly man, bald and leaning on a wooden cane. Though hunched with age, he appeared fit and strong, with a jagged scar across his right cheek and mouth.
"Do I know you?"
"We fought together once. May I sit?"
Ackton shifted slightly and indicated the opposite seat, which the newcomer took. He waved for a moment and a barman soon appeared. The pair ordered the same beverage: Bourbon, straight. They shared a nod of respect, and waited until they were along again before speaking.
"You do not remember my face?" the older man asked, smiling.
"Can't say that I do."
"It is to be expected, I suppose. I was surprised to see you after forty years, Ackton."
Peering across the table, realisation finally dawned on the old soldier as he mentally removed wrinkles and scars until his companion resembled someone he had once known. He straightened up slightly, glancing around the room for a moment.
He nodded. "Indeed. It's been some time since the days of our rebellion, eh?"
"If you could call it that."
Decades ago, Schönheit had been consumed by insurrection; a six-month battle following food taxation riots that saw over 300,000 dead and many more affected by its fallout. Unlike many colonial uprisings, this one had been quelled not by the UNSC's overwhelming might, but by a peace treaty signed to end the fighting. Many had criticised it as a moment of weakness. For those who had served on the ground, like Ackton, it had meant that their entire struggle had been pointless. After all, certain individuals had escaped what he saw as justice.
Schumer detected his bitter tone. "Come now, surely it was not a great loss? With the Covenant at our doors, a battle fought long ago between Humans must seem almost idiotic."
"You say that like the Insurrection's over, Colonel. Like there aren't still folks out there bombing civilians and raiding cargo containers to fight their silly war."
"Oh, I'm not a Colonel any more. Seemed pointless to keep fighting after twenty-seven." his old foe conceded. "Besides, I only wished to ask you a question, since you clearly haven't given up your own fight. Your rank?"
"Major. What was it you wanted?"
They paused once again as their drinks arrived, and Ackton paid for two bottles to be delivered to their table.
"I wished to ask you this: Was it worth it? Fighting the Insurrection, I mean?"
"Absolutely. Without some oversight from Earth, things would have fallen apart. I mean-"
Schumer cut him off with a raised finger. "Not politics, Major. Actual fighting. How many men and women died in this pointless civil war?"
"They did their duty," Ackton growled, feeling his temper raise as he downed yet another glass.
"They signed on for tours, yes. A year on Eridanus II. Six months on Mamore and so on. Then they go home. Our fighters fought for their homes, with heart and beliefs to inspire them. I doubt every UNSC soldier felt the same way. I can't help but wonder how things would've gone if we'd kept sending your troops home in body bags across the Colonies, just like we did here."
Ackton shook his head. I came here to pass the time until we got back into the field, not discuss politics with some crusty old Innie bastard. For a moment, he because acutely aware of the M6D handgun holstered at his hip, but suppressed the urge. War criminal or not, Schumer had been officially pardoned back in '04, even if he'd gone on to privately fund terrorist groups for another twenty-three years after that. As the bottles arrived, he took one and slowly poured his Bourbon.
"You've got a point," Ackton said at last. "But to be frank, Colonel, faith can't measure up to firepower and ideals don't keep supply chains going. You think even half of the soldiers under my command gave a shit about you or your men? If you killed a Marine, his buddies had a reason to hate you, sure. But aside from that? It was mostly just part of the business, in my experience."
"So then, you believe that fighting us was a mistake?"
"You remember the last big offensive before we pulled out of here?"
Schumer traced a finger over his scar. "How could I forget our first encounter?"
"You shot me clean through the shoulder."
"And you slashed half of my face open. I think I can be excused for defending myself."
Despite everything, the two men burst out laughing after a moment of silence. Abandoning the shot glass, Ackton took a swig from his bottle, finally feeling the alcohol's effects.
"But anyway, you wanted to know how I felt about the fighting back then? Nothing much. You were just some asshole leading a bunch of Innies. But was I pissed when we left Schönheit? Yeah, because I'd lost good men to your fighters and you got a clean slate."
"I regret nothing," the old Insurrectionist said gravely. "I fought for my homeworld, just as many do so now against the Covenant."
Ackton shook his head. "No."
"What? Both are invading armies. The UEG's laws would have bled this planet to death, while the Covenant kill everything and move on. Same result."
The venerable trooper had to wonder if Oswald Schumer had gone mad at this point. Perhaps the old man, who'd drank half of his own Bourbon bottle, was simply drunk and trying to rub his own single victory against the UNSC in his face. It was entirely possible that he was looking for a fight. Ackton took a calming breath, shaking his head a second time.
"I think you're overestimating the importance of your planet, truth be told."
"It was certainly enough to warrant two Marine Divisions, as I recall."
"Because that's what HIGHCOM thought was necessary, Schumer. Your men didn't fight off some grand invasion; it was a containment force. We kept you in check like a virus, made sure to push you back when necessary."
"And yet we were never defeated."
"Yeah, because it wasn't worth risking our lives at that point. Act smug if you want, but you and I both know we'd have crushed you within a year."
At this, Schumer bristled with righteous indignation, gripping his cane. Now it was Ackton's turn to smile as he continued.
"So like I was saying: Yeah, fighting Innies like you was worth it, since we kept things together for the Covenant to arrive, and nothing fucked you boys over harder than genocidal aliens, did it? Folks like you trying to arm militias because we're overtaxing your corn exports suddenly aren't sounding patriotic enough when there's an actual, proper war on. Sure, it seems bad in hindsight that we were fighting each other when the Covenant were out there, but I'm not the one dwelling on my six months in the spotlight forty years ago."
With that, he nodded and downed his entire bottle, feeling rather buzzed.
"Schönheit remains free," came Schumer's reply. "In the grand scheme of things it may not seem like much, but it is my home, Major Ackton. I am too old to fight in this war, you see."
"That so?" Ackton raised an eyebrow. "I'm seventy-one and still making orbital drops."
"Huh. Does the UNSC not care about retiring its soldiers any more?"
"Not ones like me, Colonel. Any vet who can lead troops and shoot well is worth his weight in gold these days. What're you doing these days?"
"I teach history at a local University. While this planet's settlers were in my parent's generation, many wish to hear of Schönheit's earliest days."
And I bet you just love making yourself out as the man who saved the planet.
"And about your rebellion?"
"Naturally. Of course, I must look at things from an objective manner."
Like how you booby-trapped dead Marines with landmines and hung 'collaborators' from the rooftops during those six months?
As silence settled over their table once more, Ackton took a good long look at Oswald Schumer. Forty years ago, he'd been reviled as a butcher by UNSC troops and loved as a freedom fighter by his followers, forever eclipsing any other notable Insurrectionists within their rebellion through propaganda and increasingly risky moves. As a member of the ORION Project, Ackton's goal had been to assassinate the man, though their one encounter in the midst of a particularly brutal assault on a town put the pair of them in hospital, just in time for the ceasefire's announcement. Schumer grasped his cane and pulled himself up, looking a little shaky after his bottle of Bourbon.
"In truth," he announced to Ackton, "Nothing really matters, does it?"
"Is that the drink talking or have you become a nihilist?"
Schumer laughed. "Perhaps both, Major Ackton. I've made my mark, and you've indulged my ego tonight. Perhaps we'll meet again?"
The old man gave a drunken salute and slowly hobbled out of the bar, leaving Ackton alone once more. Definitely the drink, he decided, standing up moments later. It seemed that in his old age Schumer had been grasping for verification that his work was meaningful; that it hadn't all been for nothing. Perhaps for a few brief years he had attained total victory, but as the ex-ORION soldier prepared to exit the tavern, he couldn't help but feel sorry for the man. He knew of the manufacturing plants creating weapons for the UNSC, and of ONI's research base elsewhere on the planet. Schönheit had fallen to its supposed conquerors regardless of the rebel's efforts.
And here I am, doing what I've always been doing. Every fight's worth fighting.