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Recruitment
Recruitment.png
You have endured great hardships to get here...
Protagonist Pete Stacker
Author ASniper
Story Series The Onyx Chronicles
[Source]

Recruitment

Scene I: Prologue

February 4th, 2544

Location: Aboard UNSC Agincourt, in orbit around planet Onyx

"Pelican Zulu Oh-Three-Three touching down, all personnel clear Pad Two."

The voice booming over the frigate's intercom was barely enough to break out over the noise of the Agincourt’s hangar deck. All around, Warthog jeeps jockeyed for position to tie down in the motor pool and crewmen in gray and orange jumpsuits shifted crate-loads of food, ammunition and all manner of other supplies needed for a prolonged interstellar voyage either by hand or in hulking Cyclops exoskeletons, the utility mechs moving metric tons of material at a time. A big, blocky Pelican dropship hovered just a few meters over their heads, rotating its wing pods frantically to align its thrusters and settle in for a graceful landing.

Somehow, the pilot of Zulu-033 managed the feat and touched down gingerly, buffeting the hangar's occupants with a few last gusts as it powered down. A moment later, its troop bay door opened up under the tail, and the half-dozen UNSC Marines seated within stood up to disembark.

The first pair of boots to hit the deck belonged to a Staff Sergeant Stacker, carrying with them traces of dust from more than a score of different worlds and the experience of a man who'd seen action on every one of them.

Stacker's camo fatigues, from the boots and fingerless black gloves to the lightweight ceramic collar protecting his neck, made him identical to every other Marine climbing out behind him, as did the overstuffed duffel bag and regulation crew cut of his dark brown hair. The only distinguishing features to set him apart were his carefully-trimmed goatee and the flat-top cap shading his sunken-in eyes even after he stepped out from under the Pelican's tail.

Finding himself in the midst of all the hangar bay's hustle and bustle, the Staff Sergeant felt the anxiety that had been dogging him since he first took on the assignment rise in his chest again, pulling the edges of his mouth into a worried frown. The disorder was a result of the ship's entire crew being kept in the dark, not getting so much as a cargo manifest until minutes before the first part of the shipment came up from the planet below. The Office of Naval Intelligence had kept the world under so many wraps, Stacker was sure that despite the black-and-white patches marking every crewman as a member of ONI, not a man among them had been told so much as its name.

Stacker sighed as he hiked up his duffel bag and felt the slight resistance to his fatigues' natural folds from the new patch sewn onto his shoulder. By now, he'd been down to Onyx's surface, seen the training facilities more extensive than those he'd gone through as an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, and been informed that he was now going to train Spartans. Just getting over the idea that ONI was keeping an entire habitable world a secret would've been enough for a day.

Being an easy-going man, there were relatively few things that Stacker harbored a genuine hatred for. The Covenant, good card players and bad music just about rounded out the list, but the top slot had been especially reserved for ONI secrets. He'd been screwed by their little games and claims of greater goods before, and knew that when they came into play, good men and women payed the price. Now, he was one of the ones keeping the secrets. The whole thing had him feeling sick to his stomach.

"Look alive, sir!" someone called out.

Stacker cringed as he realized he'd let his situational awareness slip. He took a quick step back as one of the Cyclopses traipsed up on his left, towering more than twice his height and carrying a crate marked "VACSUITS - SMALL" in its steel arms. Had Stacker been caught under one of its trunk-like legs, they'd have had to mop him off the deck.

The Cyclops started to pass him by, and Stacker jumped after it, half-jogging to keep up with the mech's giant strides. Tugging the brim of his cap in thanks to the operator, he yelled up, "Hey, any idea where I can find a Lieutenant Coney?"

"What?" The man shouted back over the din of the hangar. His head was framed in a roll cage above the mech's chest, the rest of him completely enclosed in its solid steel torso. He brought it to a stop, hydraulics hissing as they settled, and slipped an arm out of the controls to push the near side of his helmet up over his ear.

"I said I'm looking for Lieutenant Aaron Coney! I'm supposed to report to him!"

"Who do you think's got me carrying all this around?" The mech jockey replied. He reached up through the roll cage and jerked a thumb backwards. "She's back there!"

"She?" Stacker repeated. Apparently, he'd misheard something after all when Lieutenant Commander Ambrose, the program's leader, gave him his assignment. Something about the name had seemed peculiar.

The question went unheard, however, as the Cyclops powered up again and continued on its way. Seeing no reason to bother it further, Stacker turned around and started walking back the way it came.

Following the lane past one landing pad after another, Stacker found himself having to sidestep deck crews waving glow rods to guide more Pelicans in and Warthogs rushing by with crates tied down in their beds. With the Navy suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of the Covenant's technologically-superior ships, the sheer amount of resources being brought aboard would normally have been unimaginable for a ship as low on FLEETCOM's list of priorities as a Charon-class light frigate, but Stacker had heard they were even getting a smart AI to help with the ship's operations, a rarity even among full-fledged capital ships. ONI always had ways of getting what they wanted, and with the Agincourt’s mission set to take them to the edges of Covenant encroachment on UNSC space, they were sparing no expense in making sure it would succeed.

Stacker started glancing at the rank insignia of every Navy uniform he passed, looking for an officer's bars. Finally, he spotted the double silver stripes of a Navy Lieutenant, and looked up only for his breath to freeze in his lungs.

Erin.

Familiarity. That's what seemed so strange about the name. Just the sight of her slim silhouette and shoulder-length black hair brought back a flood of sensations two decades old by now, and not all pleasant. His first, unprepared contact with the Covenant on Green Hills, before the news of Harvest even spread and in the middle of his ODST training. The mission she'd commandeered his training squad for to secure the observation data critical to understanding and fighting back against the aliens. The friends who'd died because they weren't prepared to carry out a diversion for her, and the argument they'd had when they were safely on a ship in orbit. The long nights they'd spent together while the rest of the crew remained in cryo.

"For the love of Pete, watch where you're standing, ground-pounder!" the Navy mech jockey yelled irritably, startling him.

Damn, he thought, he'd done it again. Gotten lost in thought and hadn't even noticed the Cyclops coming up on him.

The shout caused Erin to look up, and her sharp blue gaze fixed on Stacker almost immediately. Christ, they were exactly the same as he remembered them. In fact, her face looked like it had aged only a couple years, not a couple of decades. When they'd met, she'd been almost ten years older than him. Now, he might've had a few years on her. He could only imagine what he must've looked like to her.

Whatever it might have been, it didn't show in her expression. She straightened up, waiting as he jogged across the lane and snapped a salute.

"Staff Sergeant Stacker, reporting ma'am."

"Hey, Pete." She replied. The casual air gave him pause until she added, "At ease, if I really need to say it."

Stacker let his shoulders loosen up a bit, but couldn't find it in himself to relax. Erin could see it, he was sure, damn spooks were always trained to psychoanalyze everyone they met for backstabbing, but he supposed it was better to give her that impression than let his guard down. Then, however, he berated himself for grouping her in with the other spooks. Marines made rumors up about ONI all the time, but he knew Erin. Or at least he liked to think he did.

As Stacker stood uncertainly in thought, Erin turned back to a tablet she was holding and asked, "So, have there been many other women since Green Hills?"

"What?" He sputtered, his supposed guard toppled like a house of cards.

Erin cracked a smile and shot him a playful glance. It broke the ice, and Stacker found his grin come naturally.

"Not really." he answered truthfully as he stepped onto the edge of the landing pad with her, out of the way of passing utility mechs. "Anyway, nothing long-term. With the Covies clean-sweeping the outer planets, Helljumpers don't stay anywhere too long."

Erin lifted an eyebrow. With everything about her so calculated, Stacker knew she wanted him to know she was studying him. "And what about your time as a Drill Instructor? You spent nine years on Reach before this, didn't you?"

So she'd looked into his CSV. No surprise. Those years on Reach, the last three of which he had been training ODSTs, were the reason he'd been chosen as a DI for the Spartans. Eager to get the subject off of him, Stacker shrugged and asked, "How 'bout you? Living the glamorous life of a secret agent, you must meet some classy guys."

"A couple of times, on undercover operations. Of course, I always ended up having to double-cross them, but none of them were . . . never mind." The sigh she threw in towards the end made Stacker have to wonder whether she was joking or not. "So, I assume you've been briefed on the mission already?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"And you're sure you're alright with it?" She asked, then, hesitantly added, "Kidnapping kids?"

Just like that, it was out in the open. The crime by any normal sense of justice behind the mission they would undertake for the next month. To kidnap upwards of three-hundred and fifty orphans of the war with the Covenant from across the colonies, train them even harder than the battle-hardened Marines Stacker would nearly break in order to forge ODSTs; this was the price ONI had set for the making of Spartans. Spelling it out made the pill that much harder for Stacker to swallow.

He straightened up again, and overcame some difficulty in meeting her eye. "Wouldn't have made it this far if I weren't, ma'am. Do you really have to ask?"

"I'm not questioning your resolve. If your psych analysis trusts you being here, so do I, it's just . . ." Erin paused, and for the first time Stacker had seen, she seemed at a loss for words. "Last time we met, you were . . . idealistic, about things. After so many black ops, it was refreshing. That's what I liked about you. And now you're involved with here . . . what changed?"

She had a point. The Pete Stacker she'd known, from the days when the war began, would never have stomached being part of the SPARTAN-III Program. But twenty years was twenty years, and it didn't help that those two decades were filled by a war with an alien menace. Stacker's family had a long history of military service, as far back as the Interplanetary Wars, and probably ancestors who'd served in conflicts from before mankind even left Earth, where he'd been born. But by the time he'd lost enough friends and comrades to lose count, he couldn't for the life of him figure out why. But then . . .

"I . . . met someone." He said. "A Spartan. Master Chief Petty Officer, One-Seventeen."

The encounter had changed his life. Bogged down in the mud of Jericho VII, he and a whole platoon of the 105th had been torn to shreds by nothing more than an army of Grunts. Less than one man in ten had survived, and those that did, himself included, owed that fact to the Spartans. While losing so many had nearly shell-, or rather drop-shocked him, he'd gotten to speak at length with their leader, only identified by the rank and the number 117, and learned that their sacrifice had allowed nearly the entire population of the colony to evacuate safely.

That day, Stacker had learned that humanity did have heroes. And with them, they still had hope.

"If it takes a kid to make a man like that," Stacker added, gaze drifting to the deck between his boots, "okay. It's gonna be the price of surviving this war."

Erin favored him with a gentle smile and handed him the tablet. It read: Candidate Recruitment List - Miridem.

"Miridem's our first stop." She told him. "Your assignee is a boy named Kody Jacques. He's turning five in May."

Stacker tapped the name on the screen. The candidate's file popped up, complete with preliminary blood tests, school reports cards, and even notes on how his parents had been killed in the Battle of Alluvion, where he'd been born, just last year. What mattered most to him, though, was the picture of a bright-eyed kid with brown hair, blue eyes, and the fake smile of a boy on school picture day.

"There is, actually, still one thing I have a problem with." Stacker said.

Erin's brow furrowed. "What's that?"

"The project head, Ambrose, said we should try using revenge as a way to get these kids to join up." Glancing back down at Kody's picture, Stacker found himself reluctant to see him turn into someone consumed by hate, even if it was hatred of the Covenant. "I'm not too sure about that."

"That's where you raise an objection?" Erin crossed her arms. "Pete, the whole point of giving these kids a choice in joining the program is so we get the ones who really want it. Revenge, while not an ideal basis for a soldier, is a powerful motivator. Once they're brought back to Onyx, we'll have years to turn them into reasonable and professional combatants."

"I know." He said, shifting his mouth to one side in consternation. "I just think there's gotta be a better way of going about this."

"Have you come up with a better angle for recruiting candidates?"

He shrugged. "Not yet."

Erin sighed tiredly. "Fine. If you want to make the job harder on yourself, be my guest. You can find the program's liaison with the Agincourt on the bridge, he'll set you up with quarters. Dismissed."

Feeling sheepish, Stacker nodded and turned away, looking both ways for passing Cyclopses before heading off. He didn't look back, and so didn't see the concerned look Erin trained on his retreating back.

Scene II: Miridem

1115 Hours, February 18th, 2544 (Military Calendar)

Location: Redbridge (colonial capital), planet Miridem


Scene III: Miridem

February 18th, 2544

Location: Miridem


Scene IV: Chancer

2544

Location: Aboard civilian freighter Chancer in slipspace


Scene V: Reach

2544

Location: New Alexandria, Reach


Scene VI: Circumstance

Scene VII: Onyx

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