|This article, Actene/Sandbox, was written by Actene. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.|
Shadow was a paramilitary strike team assembled by Simon-G294 in order to fight the Syndicate's criminal empire. As Simon believed that he was embarking on a suicide mission, he recruited only those candidates he considered, like himself, to be beyond the pale of redemption. Although it was Simon's intent to merely expend his recruits against the Syndicate's vastly superior forces, he eventually came to see the team as more than just a suicide squad and entrusted them with his expanded plans to destroy not only the Syndicate, but the Assembly, Diana's Krudesh Legion, and all other organizations he believed were warping the galaxy. Faced with overwhelming odds, internal betrayals, and constantly shifting allegiances and priorities, the team went through several iterations during its ferocious war against the Syndicate. Shadow was effectively disbanded following Simon's death at the hands of Cassandra-G006, but several of its members carried on the team's ambitious objectives.
|(Cockpit Security Recording: Chancer V)|
|Gavin Dunn: Yeah? You mean 'bout the Spartans?
Simon-G294: Yeah. Them.
Gavin Dunn: 'Fraid I don't really know much about that. But if you want to talk about it or Mamore at all . . .
Simon-G294: I don't want to go back. I'll never go back. But is the rest of my life really going to feel this... stagnant?
Gavin Dunn: I get ya'. I do kinda feel like I'm just drifting sometimes, but that's what I want for myself, really. But you... well, you're meant for . . . more, somehow.
Unidentified: Szegény kölyök.
Simon-G294: For more? Maybe. But I can't but have this feeling that when I find the answer, I'll just tear myself apart all over again.
Gavin Dunn: Knowing you, you just might. But after . . . well, I'll just say knowing you so long, I can't help thinking you might do better the second time around.
This excerpt will eventually be used in an Against All Odds work. If I ever get around to writing more. And if I remember this is even here when I do.
The Sangheili--no, the Elite, because Simon could never associate the creatures that had saved and trained him with scum like this--glared at him from across the room with that imperious contempt that its species was so good at. It paced slowly towards the ex-Spartan wearing the battered, defunct armor who had the nerve to challenge him with just a pair of energy swords. Every inch of its body was quivering with indignation. How dare this lowly human assume that it could fight with such weapons?
Simon's enemy was at least two feet taller than him, possessed far more strength, and most likely had years more training with its own energy sword. Its armor was shielded and it hadn't just fought its way through several other warriors. The odds were ridiculously stacked against him, and Simon had spent his life running like hell whenever that happened.
But this time things were different. An odd, unfamiliar sense of clarity and purpose was coursing through him now, one that would not let him retreat or back down. Just as when he'd looked upon his dead friends on the battlefield of Mamore and resolved to fight the UNSC to the bitter end, he now felt as if all of the cowardice and fear that had kept him running away all his life had been stripped away from him. It was like a crushing weight had been lifted off of his chest and now he could breath freely again.
This creature and those with it had hunted him across the galaxy, had killed the noble family that had saved him, and had butchered scores of innocents just to kill him. They had risked and lost plenty of their own to do this, to accomplish a goal that had no real value to them.
And they had tried to kill Cassandra.
Such wanton destruction could not be working towards some strategy or greater goal. It could only be called revenge.
And Simon knew plenty about revenge.
In fact, it was time to get some of his own.
He reached up and slowly removed the damaged helmet from his head. His dark hair was drenched in sweat and clung to his moist skin like vines on a tree. He allowed himself a moment to run his gauntleted hand through the hair while his prosthetic arm discarded the helmet. It fell to the floor with a clatter.
The Elite paused, as if it was surprised by his youth or his complete absence of fear--or possibly both. This wasn't how young humans normally reacted to its approach.
A sudden twinge of pain in his lungs reminded Simon that he didn't have much time left. He was out of medicine and the disease would overcome and kill him very soon. But that concern was barely registered as he took in his opponent: the stance, the way it held its energy sword, the way its eyes were shifting across all parts of his body.
The path before him was clearer than it had been in a long time; everything seemed so simple now. If the death that he'd cheated and fled from for so long was finally on him then he'd be sure to take this bastard with him. The only way to go now was forward.
He reached up and, with a single tug, tore the bandages around his head off. As the fell, he ran his prosthetic fingers across the savage scar across his forehead that he'd hidden with them. His badge of shame, the result of his cowardice, would be bared for this fight. Then, he looked up and met the Elite's flaming eyes and matched its sneer with a deep one of his own.
"Alright, you squid-headed freak," he said, unclipping the twin sword hilts from his chest piece. "You wanna talk to your gods? Let's go see 'em together. "I've got nothing better to do."
The blades activated in his hands, and he felt the jolt of their awakening course up both of his arms, organic and prosthetic alike.
The Elite's eyes widened and, in a flash, both it and Simon lunged simultaneously.
Without looking around, Simon could tell that he was alone in the cockpit once more. Zoey had gone back down to the galley, probably to grill more stories out of Dunn. He leaned back in the pilot's seat, arms folded over his armored chest. Funny, how used he was to having a layer of hardened panels between him and the rest of the galaxy. After a while, you just stopped noticing it, even if no one else ever did.
Behind his helmet's visor he closed his eyes, letting the darkness creep up as he fell into the even sharper darkness of his past. Mamore, he thought wearily. It always comes back to Mamore, doesn't it? Rat Pack and Emily and Venter were all there, waiting to help him die again, just like he'd died the day he'd been augmented and the day he'd agreed to become a Spartan in the first place.
How many times, he wondered, could he die—and yet not die? Someday the death would be final. Someday it would be all over for him...
"But not yet," he whispered. It was his eternal truth, the prayer he affirmed to a god he neither worshiped or believed in. "Not yet, not yet, not yet."
Excerpt 4 (Halo: Descent)
"Ryan's got a trace on two of them, sir," Cody said. "Humans, both of them. Either Insurrectionists or mercenaries."
"Show me," Felix said.
"One moment, sir." Cody accessed the video footage Ryan had sent him, and transmitted it to the Lieutenant Commander. The senior Spartan watched as the sniper scope tracked the two humans, but didn't fire.
One of them was a tall, muscular man with silver-grey hair, with a medium-armoured jumpsuit and a rifle strapped across his back. For a large man, he moved very easily through the forest. Felix watched as the scope turned to his companion, who was—
"That's him," he said. "The rogue Spartan."
"Affirmative, Commander," Cody said. "The muddy footprint we found matches the armour configuration."
"They're definitely mercenaries. You got an identity?"
"Negative, sir. The UNSC had a lot of Spartans on their MIA list, and that's not counting the ones ONI's covering up. We don't have access to the full records on our ships either. Looks like we're going to have to do some research when we go home."
"I think I can help you out there," Ebony said. "If SPARTAN-D1120 can go over the recording again with bio-scanners enabled, I can narrow down the list."
"Basilisk Three?" Felix said.
"Transmitting," Ryan replied. Fifteen seconds later, Ebony said, "Hmm, looks like it won't be so easy after all."
"What do you mean?" the Lieutenant Commander asked.
"That rogue is definitely a SPARTAN-III. The bio-monitors have detected massive amounts of 009762-OO in his bloodstream. It was an illegal drug added by SPARTAN-051 to all subjects of Gamma Company alone."
"And...well, the majority of Gamma Company had been listed as MIA since 2552."
Felix thought about this for a moment. Finally, he turned on his COM again, this time accessing all Spartan channels.
"Saber and Katana Teams, do you read me?"
"We're here, sir."
"Ash, Joey, drop whatever you're doing, and regroup at my position. I need to talk to you guys."
David Kahn prided himself on his ability to keep his cool even when someone--usually someone with a very low life expectancy--tried to provoke him, but this A.I. seemed to specialize in pissing off just about everyone she came into contact to. Even he wasn't completely immune to her unique skill.
"I thought I told you," he said, pronouncing each word slowly so that they wouldn't come through gritted teeth. "That you aren't allowed in my ship's systems. Ever."
Diana did a small twirl on the holotank as she grinned up at him. "Whoops," she said, raising her hands in an innocent shrug. "Guess I forgot about that rule. My memory files can get so messy sometimes."
Kahn couldn't help but find it disconcerting that he was being talked back to by a schoolgirl. A small, hologram of a schoolgirl to be sure, but that didn't make it any less surreal. "Did Mordred upload you?" he demanded, though he doubted that the kid would have had the nerve to defy him, even behind his back.
The A.I. waved a pale, translucent hand dismissively. "Oh, please. It's not like I need that dumbass for everything, you know."
She stared up at him expectantly for several moments, and Kahn knew exactly what she was after. And as much as he didn't want to give her any sort of satisfaction for sneaking into his ship, he couldn't just pass up an opportunity to learn about whatever flaw in his security that Diana had exploited.
He sighed and gave in. "How did you do it?" he asked wearily, wondering how Mordred managed to put up with her on a daily basis.
Diana smirked and casually smoothed the front of her skirt. "Oh, it wasn't too difficult," she said loftily. "I just piggybacked a signal off of one of the transmitters you had us set up on the perimeter and followed it back here. I've done it a million times with the dumbass, it really isn't that big of a deal."
She frowned and cocked her head, lifting a hand to gracefully part her blonde hair. "But the thing is," she said, letting out a sigh of mock regret. "With a reputation like yours, I was expecting something a little harder to crack. I've run into drug stores with better firewalls on their computers."
Kahn resisted the urge to empty a clip into the holotank, if only to shut her up for a few moments. But then she'd be jeering at him over the intercom and he'd waste time and credits installing a new one later. As things were, he'd already need to purge the Starkiller's computer as soon as possible now that this insufferable A.I. had been able to root around in it, and that alone would take several hours to complete. And right now, Kahn didn't have several hours.
He sank into the pilot's seat and opened a secure channel that he'd set up between himself and Ro'nin. The Elite took a moment to respond.
"Kahn," the mercenary's voice rumbled over the speaker. "What is it?"
"We've had contact with the UNSC. Nothing major and I'm pretty sure they didn't i.d. either of us, but I'm moving the schedule up regardless. How quickly can you and Kenpachus get us that intel on the Path Walker compound?"
"Not long," Ro'nin replied. "They think I'm still working for them and I've already got a good look around the place, so it should only take me another day to get you a more complete picture."
Kahn did the math. Another day of waiting, plus the hours it would take to plan the assault added to the time it would take to approach the compound and actually capture their target, then factoring in the time they'd spend evacuating and packing up the basecamp...
Two and a half days, give or take a few hours. And that was assuming that nothing else went wrong.
"Fine," he said into the radio. "Get me that data ASAP. And I want you and Kenpachus ready to cover our escape once we get what we came for."
"Of course," said Ro'nin. "We wouldn't be late to a fight like that for anything."
"Well, feel free to do as much damage as you like," Kahn replied, moving to cut the transmission. "Just wait till we've gotten our mark out of there. He's no good to me dead."
Diana had generated an armchair to seat her avatar in and was steepling her hands in front of her face as if she were a detective in some second-rate mystery e-novel. "You two've certainly gotten yourselves in a bit of a hole, haven't you?" she asked cheerfully. "I don't think any of us want the UNSC goons to come give us a taste of their exceptional hospitality, and now we've got to pull off an assault right under they're noses. Y'know, if Mordred had known this would happen I don't think he'd have taken the job."
Kahn snorted, half at the A.I.'s comments and half at himself for even lowering himself to conversing with her. "He'd have taken it. Four million credits is a lot of money, and he's not good at hiding the fact that he's desperate for some cash."
| 1634 Hours, September 8th, 2540 (Military calendar)
Location: Keldabe city outskirts, planet Yularen
Emile vaulted over the shattered wall and landed square in the middle of a cluster of Grunts who had thought the cover would keep them safe. You thought wrong, dipshits.
He swung his shotgun in an arc, pumping out shell after shell and cutting the squat aliens down one after the other. The weapon's final shell turned their red-armored leader's head into a spray of blue mist, but one of the orange-armored little shits was still alive. It cowered amidst its comrades' corpses, too terrified to even run. Emile was already bursting with the sheer adrenaline-filled joy of close combat; he was an unstoppable wave, and the sight of the hated enemy helpless and alone was simply a gust of wind that brought him cresting even higher.
Flipping the shotgun around, he swung its butt with a grace that he knew very few others would ever understand. The powered joints of his beloved suit of MJOLNIR armor boosted his speed and power to a point that the Grunt couldn't have even seen its death approaching. A shudder ran down the length of the weapon as the alien's brains painted the wall it had run to for safety.
Emile nodded, surveying the dead as he dug into one of his ammunition pouches and slotted new shells into the shotgun. Part of him was aware that these were just a handful of small fry out of the millions of Covenant troops now pouring onto Yularen, that there was no real triumph in such an effortless slaughter and that plasma bolts were everywhere, searing the air around his armor and drawing him back to the larger battle. And yet another part was content to simply take a moment to appreciate his handiwork.
This made seventeen Covenant he'd rubbed out since his team began their counter-assault on the local alien vanguard. There'd be plenty more to add to the tally before this fight was done.
"Emile," Carter's voice barked over the helmet radio. "You've stopped moving. Run into trouble?"
"Just admiring the view, sir," Emile replied, sliding the last shell home. "Need me for something?"
"We're sweeping up the center," Carter replied, terse as ever. "The Marines need this place cleared so they can send in their mortar teams. Do you have a fix on my position?"
Emile turned and gazed out further into the jungle of shredded concrete and protruding beams. There was no sign of Carter's distinctive blue armor, but a strobe flashed on Emile's HUD as he passed his eyes over what might have once been a storefront before the Covenant had bombed it into next week.
"I got you, sir."
"You'll advance due east of where you are right now. I'll do the same from where I am. Jorge? You've got everything between us."
"Understood, sir," the new guy's gravelly accented voice replied. "I've got you covered."
"Think the new guy can handle it, sir?" Emile asked over Noble Team's radio channel. "Maybe you need me to pick up anything he can't nail?"
"I'll pull my weight," Jorge rumbled. "You can count on that."
"Alright, keep it civil Emile," Carter warned. "Now let's move it up. Stick to your lanes and roll up anything that gets in the way. Jun has overwatch."
“This is it, team,” Trainee Jake-G293 said, leaning look down the row. The team, his team, were all there, all four other trainees of Team Jian them strapped into their seats within the Pelican dropship’s dim troop bay. He shot them a confident smile and could only hope that none of the apprehension and exhilaration swirling around in his gut showed on his face. “Here we go.”
From the seat beside him, Trainee Mary-G130 let out an amused huff. “Thanks for the update, fearless leader. I wasn’t so sure about this back when you said the exact same thing after we boarded, but now I’m really psyched for this.”
Trainee Terrence-G150 shook his head, quiet as always but unable to hide an amused smile all the same. He leaned down and muttered something to the trainee beside him, eliciting a short bark of laughter.
“Sure you don’t want to back out, fearless leader?” Trainee Ralph-G299 said, grinning back up the row at Jake. “You know what El-Tee Ambrose said, this augmentation stuff’s dangerous. And here I thought Simon would be the one to kick it at the last minute.”
“Oh, I wasn’t worried about Simon,” Jake retorted. “I thought for sure you’d get cut from the program after that last round of testing. At least Simon can do math without counting on his fingers.”
This got a laugh from all of them, even from the Machete and Kopis trainees sharing the troop bay with Jian. As tense as he felt right now, Jake couldn’t help but grin along with everyone. Gamma Company, the three hundred and thirty brothers and sisters that had been his family since the war had taken his mother and father, had felt so strange these past few weeks. Back on Onyx they’d always felt right together even when the teams were pitted against each other for drills and exercises. But ever since the drill instructors and Lieutenant Ambrose had begun to make the final cuts, weeding out the last of the underperforming trainees, they’d all been on edge, terrified that they or one of their teammates would be washed out. But now that was over, and they were together again like they’d always been.
Jake cast another glance down the row to check on Jian’s final member. Trainee Simon-G294 picked up on his look immediately and gave him a thin smile, raising a languid hand in a gesture that was half wave, half salute. “Hey, fearless leader,” he said, his voice barely audible over the Pelican’s engines and the other trainees’ laughter. “You really thinking of getting out or are you just surprised to see me still here?”
“Never doubted you for a second,” Jake replied, a white lie that he knew everyone in the bay saw through. They were all surprised that Simon, sporting what were easily the worst combat scores in the company, was still here when plenty of other trainees from higher slots on the team and individual leaderboards had washed out. But the drill instructors and Lieutenant Ambrose especially all worked in mysterious ways. Machete Team, sitting across from Jian with the likes of Kodiak-G114 and Dyne-G217 in its midst, had almost drummed out entirely, yet here they were. Simon had been given to Jake along with the rest of Jian; to see all four of his friends sitting here in the Pelican meant more to him than any awards or honors Ambrose and the other instructors might have handed out.
Simon gave him another one of those smiles that teetered on the edge between amusement and outright mockery, but his eyes seemed to be looking at something else. Those faint grey pupils were fixed on a spot just past Jake’s head, their scrawny owner—many of the other trainees had taken to calling him “Runt”—looking even paler than usual. He looked as if he were being led to a firing squad instead of the last step in a journey they’d all had to struggle and fight for every step of the way.
It’s only natural, Jake told himself with a shrug. Simon was always bad at concealing his nerves. Jake wouldn’t embarrass his teammate over it here, not when plenty of other trainees—members of Jian included—never passed up a chance to have a laugh at the Runt’s expense. They were all nervous, and they had every right to be. But it was thrilling all the same.
This is it. Today, we become Spartans.
They’d worked, fought, and bled for it over seven years of grueling training back on Onyx. Jake still remembered their first test, a night jump from the back of a Pelican just like this one. Not all of you can be Spartans, Lieutenant Ambrose had said back then. If he’d been trying to intimidate them, it had been the wrong approach. Jake had been six years old then, alone and confused and afraid, but all it had taken was those simple words to light a blazing fire of resolve in his belly. He’d hesitated in front of the roaring, inky abyss for just a moment that cloudy night before leaping from the Pelican and into the darkness. Even then he’d understood what Ambrose was really saying: to be a Spartan wasn’t something that you became just by wanting it. You had to be molded into one, to sacrifice yourself in devotion to a far more meaningful cause than just your own desires.
The trainees sitting with Jake now had proven that they were worthy to receive the title of Spartan. To dedicate their lives to defending humanity from the Covenant and any other force that might threaten it. Every last one of them had walked the same path he had in order to reach this point. When Ambrose and the other DIs had shown them footage from the augmentations of previous Spartan companies, of the candidates left dead or deformed by the procedures, not one of them had backed down. Jake felt honored to even be sitting here with friends like these.
It was an honor he was certain his mother and father had never understood. Gamma Company was his real family.
He realized then that Simon was looking directly at him now. There was a curious look in the Runt’s eyes, one that Jake couldn’t even begin to understand. But Simon had always been tough to read—that was just the way he was, just like Ralph and Mary were always picking fights and Terrence would steal anything that wasn’t bolted down. They were all still Team Jian; after today, they’d all be Spartans together.
Across the aisle, Machete’s Dyne-G217 leaned forward, the usual friendly smile spread across his face. “All these warnings about the procedures sure is making me nervous. What’s all the formulas they’re pumping in us again, Cassie?”
Kopis’s slender medical expert returned Dyne’s smile, though she looked just as nervous as Simon did. “It’s not Cassie,” she corrected, just as she always did. “It’s Cassandra. And do I look like a chemical genius to you?”
“You’re a medical genius, isn’t that close enough?”
Again, laughter from everyone. They were all nervous. But they’d all been nervous during the night jump as well. And every single one of the trainees here had jumped. All it took was the nerve to step out of the Pelican and take the plunge. Just like today.
The intercom crackled. “We’re coming into the Hopeful now, prep for disembark.”
“About time,” Ralph grunted, disengaging his safety harness. “I thought we’d never get there.”
Jake unclipped himself and stood along with the rest of Jian, Machete, and Kopis. He took the lead and could practically feel his teammates forming up behind him. Yes, his fellow trainees were his real family. They always had been. And today they’d complete the transformation into humanity’s guardians. After these augmentations, there would be no turning back. Once you became a Spartan, you were a Spartan for life. Forever.
The Pelican shuddered as it slid into the UNSC Hopeful’s docking cluster. A moment of smooth momentum later and the troop bay opened and a ramp lowered to usher in the bright, clean light of the medical facility. Jake stood up straighter and proudly led his team out into the station. He’d never felt more sure of his purpose and calling as he did now.
This was what they’d all been born to do. This was the destiny they shared. Today, they became Spartans.
Trainee Simon-G294—though he preferred just Simon and most everyone else called him Runt anyway—trailed at the end of the Jian line, his legs leaden with nerves. He fought to keep up with Mary, because if he fell behind and got separated from the others he’d be completely lost. Without the military drill and ceremony that had been ground into him over the course of seven years on Onyx he might have clung to her back as if she were a life preserver. Of course then she’d have turned around and slugged him, but at least then he would be less afraid of getting lost amidst the ocean of other Gamma trainees.
He’d spent the past seven years blending into that ocean, fighting to pass under everyone’s radar only to merely attract more attention once word of his poor performance began to spread. Then it had been a matter of enduring the endless taunts and pranks from the others while struggling to keep up with them, going to sleep at the end of each exhausting day with the certainty that he’d be washed out of the program and thrown back out onto the streets. But that day had never come; somehow he’d eked by and now here he was with all the others, waiting to become a Spartan.
A Spartan. Seven years of training and Simon still wasn’t sure what that meant. It was just another one of the things the DIs yelled at them out on the ranges or obstacle courses. It was hard to absorb the “defender of humanity” when you’d gotten your legs tangled up in barbed wire while live rounds whistled above your head and Mendez or Stacker or any one of the other DIs was standing over you and screaming for you to get a move on. As far as Simon was concerned, a Spartan was still one of the walking tanks that always showed up on the news vids that got brought to Onyx on the resupply frigates: distant, imposing, and certainly nothing like him.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a small cluster of uniforms standing off to the side of the stream of trainees. He recognized them all instantly: there was Lieutenant Ambrose and Chief Petty Officer Mendez, and behind them Tom and Lucy, the only two Beta “graduates” the Gammas had ever seen or heard about. Each and every one of them had been with Gamma Company every step of the way. For most trainees, they’d been voices of encouragement and inspiration. The only thing Simon had ever felt from them was disappointment.
Simon joined in the others in saluting Ambrose as he marched past. The lieutenant seemed to be looking at all of them at once, eyes shining with pride. Simon had never felt so out of place. He didn’t belong with Gamma; he couldn’t call it his family. Even Jian, for all he’d been through with them, was just a group of friends and little more. His real family had died when Omelas had been blown off the map, and no one had wanted him after that. At least, not until the Spartan program had found him.
That was why he’d never given up, never thrown in the towel and just gotten himself thrown out. Without Gamma Company, there was nowhere for him to go. And that was why he had to stay with it, no matter what. After everything he’d been through, where else could he have any chance of belonging?
They marched out of the hangar and deeper into the Hopeful. Amidst the calm, rhythmic stamping of marching feet, Simon was surprised to hear someone murmuring in the file beside him.
“...He has brought rulers down from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble…”
A subtle turn of his head revealed that he was marching beside Cassandra, the medic from Team Kopis. She caught his glance mid-prayer and gave him an embarrassed smile; he averted his gaze, his face inexplicably warming from that simple acknowledgement. He forced his eyes forward again, head pulsing with the added confusion he’d had to deal with a few months back when the first changes had started to come to every trainee’s body. At least, he’d thought it was dealt with.
Cassandra was right there with him on the company’s bottom rung. In some areas, her combat scores were worse than his. Yet she wasn’t anything close to the disappointment he was. The DIs said her skills as a combat medic were the best they’d ever seen in the program. She’d found her niche and it had made her happy and adjusted to life in Gamma Company. Simon couldn’t help but envy her for that.
They were being sorted now, directed to different sections of the Hopeful where the preliminary medical procedures would begin. Simon kept the pace, following behind his team just as he’d always done. His limbs grew tighter with every step; his heart raced inside his chest. This was it. This was where they’d become Spartans.
But that thought only made his heart race faster.
How could he turn into something that he didn’t understand? What was waiting for him on the other side of these tubes and machines? He racked his brain, desperately looking for an answer, but it was too late. He couldn’t figure it out.
He thought again of Cassandra. She didn’t seem cut out for this either, but she’d found a way to do it all the same. If she could get through it just through helping people, then maybe he could do. Maybe that was all there was to being a Spartan: helping people. But then again, what could a bottom-feeder like him possibly do to help anyone?
To be a Spartan… to be a hero…
There was still no answer.
The rest of it passed by in a blur of examinations and drug administrations. The next thing he knew, he was on a pallet surrounded by humming machines and beeping monitors. He lay helpless, riddled with needles and tubes as a fire coursed through his body, burning him from the inside out. He thrashed and whimpered feebly, lost in the pain of the augmentations. But the pain wasn’t even the worst part.
Everything that was happening in him and around him felt wrong. There was the pain, yes, but also an even deeper hurt, a violation that coursed through his body along with every new chemical pumped into his veins. He didn’t understand any of it, this wasn’t right, why were they doing this to him…
There was nothing for him to hold on to. No certainty or conviction to wrap his mind around. He was lost in the sea of pain and violation, unable to do anything but go where the raging current tossed him. The world closed in, sealing him inside a churning, artificial coffin of fear and regret. He was everywhere and nowhere all at once. People shouted all around him, gunfire and explosions burst from all directions. He thrashed and cried out as the noise crashed over him, reaching out for something, anything to grab onto.
His lungs were burning now, screaming for air amidst the waves that had had suddenly become icy and hard. The rest of his body moved, kicking and beating against the thin ice until suddenly it was lifted away. A burst of air swept over him and he fell, crashing down onto cold, solid ground.
And as he struggled feebly on the freezing metal, he heard a familiar voice drifting towards him from someplace very near.
“About time, dumbass. I thought you’d never wake up. So tell me Simon, did you have some nice dreams in that tube? The nap’s over; time for you to get back to work.”
Nightfall came and went quickly on Mamore. The disappearance of the sun didn’t do much to cool the planet’s hot, dusty air, stirred only by the occasional gust of wind whipping across the rusty fields and plains. In ordinary times, just about everyone on the planet would have spent their nights within air-conditioned homes and shelters.
These were not ordinary times.
The men and women of the Humanity Liberation Front’s Seventh Mountain Division, better known as the Mountain Lions, had set up their camp on a plateau overlooking the dusty plains stretching for miles and miles in every direction as far as the eye could see. Patrols moved in shifts around the base of the hill, setting up long-ranged scanners and making sure no government patrols got close enough to recognize their nightly resting place. All it would take was one Warthog reporting them in for squadron after squadron of bombers to come soaring in to wipe the plateau and its Lion inhabitants off the face of the planet.
Within the camp, the rebel soldiers huddled in small groups. They were a tapestry of soft, cautious activity. Some were already asleep, while others ate, talked quietly amongst themselves or simply sat together and rested in the hot darkness. A single platoon milled around the Seventh’s small convoy of battered Warthogs and assorted civilian vehicles. Everything had to be ready to move out without delay in just a few hours. Staying on the move was how the Seventh had been such a thorn in the UNSC’s side while keeping up the already impressive feat of keeping themselves alive.
The plateau had once been some sort of farming homestead, before the war had either killed or driven off its occupants. The foundations of a barn and a few shattered houses could be seen amongst the resting insurgents, though only one building was still standing: a lone toolshed that loomed over the rebels as a silent monument to what life must have been like here before war had come to Mamore.
Two men perched on the shed’s roof. They kept themselves low against the rusting panels, just in case snipers lurked out in the darkness beyond the camp in search of an easy shot. Below them, a trio of soldiers passed a pair of shovels between themselves as they dug a single grave for the five shrouded corpses laying off to the side.
“That was Benny’s team, wasn’t it?” Gavin Dunn, the Seventh’s second in command, rested his head behind his hands and craned his neck to look down at the grave detail.
“Yes.” Redmond Venter, the Seventh’s commander, didn’t glance back at his lieutenant. He sat at the edge of the roof, the back of his close-shaved head revealing nothing about his mood. His voice was hard and grim, but then again it was always like that.
Gavin shook his head and looked away from the bodies. “Damn shame, that. He had a girl waiting for him, back in Mato Grosso. And Carley was a month pregnant. I think the kid was Hume’s. He must feel awful.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Redmond remained rigid as a statue. “No one told me she was pregnant.”
“Yeah, well, everyone knows I’m a bit looser on the regs around here.” Gavin sighed. “She was a hell of a singer, too. Benny had a nice crew.”
“It was an ambush,” his commander admitted. “Probably Marines. They hit them when they went into town to get rations. Vincent and his team were with them. Stray and Emily, too. They brought the food back. And the bodies.”
There was a trace of disapproval in Venter’s tone. He didn’t like burials of any kind, since they left evidence of the Seventh’s encampments. Cremation attracted too much attention, so swift burials were all that could be done for the corpses that were lucky enough to be pulled off the battlefield. When it had come up some months before, Gavin had pointed out that taking the bodies kept the UNSC troops from knowing how many fighters they’d killed. Venter had shut that down right away. With their helmet cams and combat monitors, the government commanders would find out how many had been killed during the after-action reviews, regardless of how many bodies were left behind. Benny and his team had just been fortunate enough to have died alongside comrades with the time and bravery to bring them back for a proper sending off.
Even if that sending-off was just a hole in the ground.
Two smaller figures sat below the shed, a few yards away from the burial. Stray and Emily, two of several young fighters serving within the Seventh. Gavin had never once entertained the idea that children could be used as soldiers—at least, not until Mamore’s war for secession had started up. Now the streets of every town were full of war orphans, desperate for a home and ready to do their part to win independence for their planet. Put a rifle in a hungry kid’s hands and teach them some drills and discipline, and you turned a starving urchin into a patriot in the fight for independence. That was the way Gavin saw it, though it still twisted his gut every time he saw the skinny kids riding or marching alongside grown men and women.
And he never got used to seeing those poor, limp bodies.
Stray and Emily were two of the best soldiers Gavin had ever seen out of any age group, young or old. The Seventh had found them hiding out in the mountains; they’d managed to bury an entire Marine platoon under a rockslide with just a pair of grenades and had been picking through the debris for survivors and supplies when Gavin and Redmond had led a patrol to the site of the commotion. Since they’d come into the fold, they’d performed any and every task put to them with a relentless, furious energy that Gavin could only envy. Emily was tough and quick and determined, and Stray…
…Stray was something else entirely. The grimy, shaggy-haired boy couldn’t have been older than fourteen, yet he outstripped almost every other man and woman in the Seventh with his speed, strength, and endurance. He wasn’t even all that big, just lean and well put together, yet Gavin had seen him kill full-grown Marines with his bare hands. There was no other way to describe it. Stray was a freak of nature.
They rested back to back, leaning on each other for support just like they always did. Emily looked up at the sky, her head resting on Stray’s shoulder. Stray just stared down at the ground in front of him, passing the tip of a knife through the dirt by his toes.
Gavin followed Emily’s gaze up, up to the sky. Say what you would about Mamore’s heat or its dust or the fact that the entire planet was now a war zone. At night, the sky was beautiful.
Millions and billions of twinkling stars stretched out above Gavin, flooding the plains with their smooth, gentle light. They didn’t care about the war, the killing, the dusty trek that awaited the Seventh in just a few hours. They simply shone on and on, silent testaments to the true vastness of the galaxy Gavin, Redmond, Stray, Emily, the Seventh, and all of humanity lived in.
For a moment, it all seemed so silly. The war with the Covenant wasn’t even a year gone, and now here Gavin was, fighting other humans as if they hadn’t just been pushed to the brink of extinction. He dimly recalled the speeches and rallies he and Redmond had helped coordinate before the fighting had started, how humanity could not survive any longer under Earth’s corrupt tyranny, but all those tracts and politics faded away in the face of all those wonderful stars. Gavin leaned back, drinking it all in for as long as he could.
Beside him, Redmond’s gaze remained fixed on the burial.
“I’ve made a decision.” Gavin wasn’t sure when or how the words came tumbling out of his mouth, but they came out and he kept on talking. “When all this is done, when Mamore’s free, I’m going to space.”
“Oh?” Venter gave him a sidelong look, his face as severe and harsh as ever.
“Those stars out there,” Gavin said, gesturing up at the sky. “I want to see more of them. I’ll get a ship of my own and see them all.”
“When this is over,” Redmond replied. “You can do whatever you want.”
“When this is over,” Gavin agreed. “I’ll do what I want. That’s what we’re fighting for, isn’t it?”
Redmond was quiet for several moments. He turned to look back down at the burial detail. “If you fly like you drive,” he said finally. “I think you’ll need to get more than just one ship.”
He paused again, actually considering the idea. “And you’d better get insurance on all of them.”
Gavin shrugged. “Hey, anything’s possible if you put your mind to it. I can learn how to fly just fine.”
“You said the same thing about playing the guitar, but I’m still not letting you get another one.”
“Hey, I know it wasn’t really a UNSC shell that blew my old one up…” Gavin shook his head. “But I’m serious. I’m going to space. There’s gotta be more to life than just this stupid war.”
His gaze lingered on Stray and Emily. The girl, still looking up at the stars with wistful eyes, didn’t notice, but Stray did. He glanced up at Dunn and caught his gaze. There was something strange behind those cold grey eyes of his; there always was. But as usual, Dunn couldn’t read it at all. He looked away, back up at the stars.
“I’m tired of war,” he said, though he couldn’t be sure who he was talking to. “Tired of killing. Tired of seeing my friends die in front of me.”
Beside him, Venter didn’t answer. Stray and Emily stayed together in silent companionship as the burial detail kept shoveling dirt, the camp continued its silent vigil, and the stars shone silently down on them all.
“Watch me carefully. Just do what I do, and you’ll be fine.”
Simon Onegin hugged himself, shivering at the cold wind blowing through the holes in his oversized clothes. He looked up at his brother, who pressed up against the side of the concrete wall and peered out at the street beyond. “You sure about this?”
Arthur glanced down and flashed him a smile. That was all it took—all it ever took—to make Simon feel better. “You bet. Remember, we’re doing this for Mom.”
“Yeah.” Simon nodded in agreement, crouching down behind Arthur’s legs. “For Mom.”
Arthur pressed a finger to his lips and indicated one of the passersby: a well-dressed young man of about his own age leaning against a bench and chatting with a girl. “That one,” he murmured. “The boyfriends are always the best ones.”
Without warning, he pushed off from the wall and stepped out into the street. Pressing one hand against his side, he affected a limp, hobbling at an angle towards the bench. His free hand dropped to his side; the fingers twitched, beckoning Simon to follow.
They cut a strange pair, ambling out into the quiet city streets. Arthur was tall and lanky, with thick dark hair, patched-up clothes, and keen eyes that peered out from underneath the layer of dust and grime that coated his skin and clothes, searching for the next opportunity to score a little money or food. Simon, many years younger, barely came up to Arthur’s waist. He shared his brother’s unruly black hair, but aside from that he didn’t think he bore much of a resemblance to his brother at all. He wished he did; a short life spent tailing after his brother had convinced him that everything would be better if he were more like Arthur.
The boy and girl looked up as they approached. Even from afar, Simon saw their eyes widen. They exchanged looks with each other, then looked hurriedly from side to side in the hopes that these two urchins were coming for someone else. When Arthur was close enough that they couldn’t ignore him any longer, the boy stepped forward, as if trying to shield his companion. The girl got off the bench and eyed the brothers warily.
“You want something?” the boy demanded.
Arthur raised his hands placatingly. “Sorry, sorry, don’t mean to bother you. Look, I know we’re being trouble here, but could you spare a few credits? Not for me, see, it’s my brother…”
That was the cue. Simon turned his head and let out a quick, hacking cough. It wasn’t a hard one to pull off; he was sick so often that half the time his coughs were real.
The girl made a sympathetic noise. Her companion glanced back at her. His eyes widened again, but when he looked back he gave Arthur and Simon an appraising look. From where Simon crouched beside Arthur, he could see the boy look back to his friend again. After another moment’s pause, he let out a sigh and withdrew two items from his pocket: a chatter mobile device and an adjustable credit chit. He slotted the chit into the chatter and began inputting a code on the screen. “I guess a few credits can’t hurt,” he said, more to the girl than Arthur. “How much do you need? Ten? Fifteen?”
Arthur tilted his head to the side, eyes fixed on the device. His legs tensed and then, just as the boy raised a finger from the device, he sprang. In an instant he had forced the boy to the ground with a kick to the back of his leg. He plucked the chatter out of its startled owner’s hands, knocking the yelping boy’s hand away when he tried to snatch it back.
“Sorry,” he said, dancing out of reach. “Don’t worry, it’s for a good cause.”
The girl yelled something in another language and leaped forward, grabbing for Arthur. Simon scuttled forward on all fours, entangling himself in her legs. She struggled to keep her balance, then tripped over him and fell back against the bench. Simon leapt up, but hesitated as he watched the girl curl into a ball, grabbing her arm. A pang of guilt flashed through his gut, paralyzing him. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her, just keep her from hitting his brother…
Something hard latched onto his arm. The boy whose chatter Arthur had just grabbed was clinging to his arm, trying to wrestle him to the ground. Simon yelped and tried to tug away, but the boy’s grip was too firm. He wasn’t strong enough to break away.
Arthur came down on the boy in a flash. A swift kick in the gut broke his grip and left him sprawled beside his companion, gasping for air. Arthur grabbed Simon’s hand and hauled him away, back toward the alley. "Come on,” he urged. “Before someone thinks to call that in.”
Simon hurried on after his brother without sparing the couple another glance. They darted through the alleys, weaving around walls and trash bins as they returned to the safety of the shadows. Arthur was tapping into the chatter as he ran, dodging the obstacles without even looking up. He kept up a fearful pace and it was only when Simon had begun to lag several paces behind that he turned and stopped in a small service alcove to let his younger brother catch up.
“Nice job,” he said as Simon knelt down beside him, panting. “Now, gotta start the transfer, before he gets his girlfriend to kill the account.”
Simon looked back up at him. “They’ll be okay, right?” he asked, still feeling a bit guilty about the girl.
Arthur snorted. “Rich kids like that? Please, he probably has three more of these back home.”
The older boy chuckled as he worked the chatter. “Dumbasses. Always want to impress the girls when I ask for handouts.”
Simon laughed in reply, though he wasn’t quite sure why. Off to the side, someone else laughed as well. “Got him as your backup now, huh, Arty?”
The brothers spun to see a man wearing a faded overcoat watching them from the corner of the alcove. The man thrust his hands into his pockets, a smile playing over his weathered features.
Simon shrank back, but Arthur just let out a derisive snort. “Don’t worry. It’s just Toby.”
The man laughed again. “’Just Toby’?” he repeated drily. “Is that any way to talk to your elders? What would your mother say?”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “You saw.”
“You get up to the most interesting things when I follow you around,” Toby said in answer. “How many times do I have to tell you, you can’t just transfer the creds from the account on the chatter. It has to get approved by the sender after you make the transfer.”
Arthur glowered but said nothing. He seemed to deflate a little, looking less like a triumphant thief and more like a scolded boy. Simon didn’t like seeing his brother like this. He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t quite figure out what to say.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Toby chastised him. “You had a good hit there. Picked a guy you knew you could beat, got him in a spot with no surveillance cameras… I have to admit, you’re getting better at this.”
He held out his hand, palm up. “Come on, let me see.”
Still glaring, Arthur handed the device over. Toby took it and immediately began plugging away at the screen with practiced ease. He furrowed his brow, appraising the chatter. “Hm. You screwed up on the credit transfer, but this piece is in pretty good shape. One of the newer models, too.”
Toby tapped the screen one last time and reached into his pocket. “I know a few people who’ll pay some nice credits for one of these. In the meantime…” He dug out his own chatter and slotted in the stolen credit chit.
Arthur made a grab for the chatter. “We don’t need you to sell it for us. Give it back!”
Toby shrugged. “You think you can wipe the memory data, cancel out the ownership safeties, and reboot the whole system so that this thing will actually work? Come on, Arty, I know you’re smarter than this.”
Simon sat down and hugged his knees to his chest. Above him, Arthur let out a low growl but took a step back. “Fine. Keep it.”
“Ah, don’t be so sore about it.” Toby tapped his chatter screen. “I think two hundred will go off well for this. Help your mother keep things running back home.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t need to sell that thing. And you could still give us more money. You could actually help her, if you wanted to.”
“But what sort of man would I be if I just did all the work for you and let all your little outings go to waste?” Toby offered Arthur the credit chit. The older boy considered it darkly for a moment before snatching it and turning on his heel. He started to walk away, then hesitated.
“Are you… are you going to tell her?” For the first time, he sounded more worried than angry.
“I don’t know. Probably not.” Toby shrugged. “What were you planning on telling her?”
“I… I got a job. Taking out trash in the old warehouse district. I’ve gotten work there before.”
“Well, I don’t see any reason why I should ruin that pretty picture. Don’t worry, though, I think gigs like this are a much better use for your talents.” Toby waved the stolen chatter before slipping it into his pocket. “Make sure she doesn’t let that cash go to waste.”
“Come on, Simon,” Arthur muttered. “Let’s go home.”
“Yeah. Home.” Simon sprang up and followed after his brother. He spared one last glance over his shoulder at Toby. The scruffy man leaned against the wall, smiling as he waved good-bye.
It wasn’t long after that day in the alley that the men in blue came and took Arthur away for good.
“You wait here,” his brother had said, one foot already through their apartment door. “Toby’s out there. I’ve got to go talk to him.”
Simon hadn’t had anything to say to that. He didn’t know why Arthur had to talk to Toby and his brother left too quickly for him to ask. Arthur just flashed him a smile one last time and darted out, feet pounding against the grated stairs leading down to the street. Simon didn’t see what happened next. He heard voices, then yelling, and when he’d rushed to the door to try and see what was going on his mother came from her room to shoo him away. Climbing onto the kitchen counter, Simon had looked out the window in time to see men in blue put Arthur into a car and drive away. Toby was nowhere to be seen.
His mother cried for hours that night. Arthur didn’t come back the next morning, or in the evening, or the morning after that. He’d simply vanished and Simon didn’t know where to look for him. His mother didn’t talk to him much after that. The scent of her grief filled the apartment. After that night, she never cried—Simon learned from his mother that tears made no difference one way or the other—but he could still see the pain that lined her face, the distant look in her eyes whenever he asked after Arthur, and the way she kept him close by her, as if he too might be snatched away at any moment.
Arthur had often taken Simon out down to the city streets where they’d play in the dirt and garbage that lined the sidewalks, finding treasure in the things the people from the tall buildings threw away. After Arthur was taken away his mother did not let Simon outside, but he snuck out anyway, slipping off to the places he and Arthur had played. But without Arthur there was nothing to do; Simon just sat on the pavement, hoping that his brother might show up again. The other kids from their apartment complex came by, calling for him to join them, but he didn’t pay much attention to them and they soon decided he wasn’t worth the effort. A few dogs—thin, mangy strays who slept near the sewers—would come by to investigate him. Sometimes Simon slipped them food and they seemed to like it.
Aside from the kids and the dogs, there was someone else who came by when Simon snuck out onto the streets. Toby came by sometimes to smile down at him and ask how he was doing. Whenever Simon tried to ask after Arthur, Toby would just laugh and change the subject.
Simon wasn’t sure what was funny about Arthur; when he asked his mother about it she smacked him and kept him from going outside anymore. A few weeks later, Simon got sick; through his feverish haze he remembered seeing Toby again, arguing with his mother. Afterwards, his mother gave him some medicine that she hadn’t had before, and things got better.
“What was he doing here?” he asked her.
“Just don’t worry about it,” was the only thing she’d tell him, the same answer Arthur always gave after he took Simon out stealing. But there was an edge to her voice, one that was neither grief nor pain. It was fear, and that fear made Simon afraid for reasons he couldn’t understand.
“Where’s Arthur?” He didn’t know where the question came from. By now he had learned not to ask after Arthur, but being sick had made him lonely for his brother.
“He had to go somewhere else.” His mother’s face pinched and she looked away. “He has to work, work somewhere else.”
“What kind of work? Who’s he with? When will he be done? When’s he coming back?”
“I don’t think he’s ever coming back.” His mother got up and left the room quickly. “It’s better this way.”
“Better? What’s better?”
She stopped, halfway through the door. “I don’t know. That’s just what he told me.”
It wasn’t long after he got sick that he was taken away. Men and women in suits came to the apartment and spoke to his mother. She yelled at them and told them to get out, but they wouldn’t leave. One of them took Simon by the arm and took him to the door. He struggled and tried to reach his mother, but they gave him one of his soft toys, a dog Arthur had given him, and he calmed down.
His mother said something to him, but Simon couldn’t remember what it was. He was small and tired and confused; he couldn’t remember much of anything.
They took him from the apartment he’d grown up in, down to the streets where he and Arthur used to play. He looked up just before they put him in the car and saw Toby one last time, talking to his mother. Her face was full of pain and grief, the same pain and grief she’d held when they took Arthur, only this time it was far worse. Toby said something to her and put an arm around her shoulder. It felt strange, seeing someone like that touch his mother, but there was nothing for Simon to do. The anguish in his mother’s face never went away, but she didn’t shake off the Toby’s arm.
Then they shut the door to the car and he couldn’t see her anymore. He hugged the stuffed dog and wondered if they’d take him where they’d taken Arthur.
For days Simon was taken from one place to another. He remembered little of what went on in any of the buildings where he was taken. They were all clean and sterile and smelled like soap, nothing like the apartment he had grown up in. Each was just another blur of waiting and sleeping and eating as adults talked to each other and filled out forms. His mother was not there. Arthur was not there. He kept the stuffed dog close and wished they would take him back to the apartment.
But they never did.
After what seemed like an eternity, they took him to a building filled with other children. They were just like the ones from the apartment street: noisy and rambunctious, always pestering him to come do things with them. He tried to ignore them, keeping his distance as much as he could and speaking to them as little as possible, but this center was crowded . More children were brought in every day and few ever left.
There were a few amongst the other children who, like Simon, kept to themselves. These quiet ones looked out at the world with dull, mournful eyes. It was ones like these that Simon wouldn’t have minded talking to. They seemed to know things about the world outside the cramped center, things about other colonies and even the Covenant and the war the news feeds were always talking about. But they weren’t interested in talking.
Simon didn’t know how long he spent in the center. One day blurred into the next and became a week, and then maybe a month. He wished and hoped and prayed that his mother or Arthur or even Toby might come to take him away. There were no familiar faces here; he barely knew any of the other children’s names. He wondered if he would spend the rest of his life shut away in here, forgotten by everyone.
One day he woke up with a start and realized as he climbed out of bed that he could barely remember what his mother’s face looked like. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to bring the memory back, to will himself back to the apartment, back to Mom and Arthur. But when he opened them again, he was still at the center, surrounded by strangers.
He could feel a tightness welling up inside him, filling him up so much that he thought he might explode. He wanted to cry out, to scream, to sob. What had he done wrong? What was he being punished for? Why was he here, in this place all by himself?
But the tears wouldn’t come, and even as the scream welled up in his throat he felt it die away just as quickly. There was no point; no one would care. The adults would yell at him for being noisy and the other kids would laugh at him for being a baby. Crying wouldn’t help anything. He sat on his bed and buried his head in his hands. None of this made any sense.
And then one of the other boys decided to take his stuffed dog.
The fight was just another blur amidst the endless misery of the center. In the next moment Simon had thrown the boy down with a move Arthur had taught him. Then another boy jumped on him, and when he pushed that one off one of the girls kicked him to the ground. Everyone was yelling and laughing and cheering at the brawl. Someone punched Simon in the face; he spat at them and bit them on the arm. Even as someone else grabbed him from behind and hit him in the head, Simon felt something he hadn’t felt since Arthur had been taken away.
I don’t feel so bad anymore, he realized. He lashed out and punched someone else. This feels good.
A moment later someone pushed through the crowd of screaming children and hauled him to his feet.
The man in the uniform looked Simon up and down and made a face. “They really did a number on him.”
Simon fought the urge to hold his throbbing head. He knew he was bleeding from more than a few places. His nose was dribbling all over his clothes and the surface of the table in front of him. Beside him, one of the caretakers made a disapproving noise.
“You can rest assured that we don’t tolerate this kind of fighting here,” she told the uniformed man. “It’s against all of our policies.”
She shot Simon a dirty look. “The children are usually more well behaved than this.”
The uniformed man grunted and looked down over the datapad in front of him. “Yes, yes. I’m sure you’re all the model of structured youth development.”
“If you want to inspect the other dormitories—“
“Won’t be necessary. Ma’am, I’m not here to do an inspection. Just let me speak to the boy here for a few minutes, would you?”
“Feel free to ask him about—“
The caretaker made another disapproving noise, but turned and left the room. Simon looked across the table at the man in uniform. His nameplate said “Santiago”; Arthur had taught him a bit of reading back at the apartment.
“You feeling all right?” Santiago asked. “Looks like you took the worst of it.”
“Does this sort of thing happen with you often?”
Santiago rubbed his face wearily. “Can you talk?”
“And here I was thinking you’d bitten your tongue during the fight. Any of your friends come to help you out back there?”
“No. Well…” Simon dropped his gaze. “I don’t really have any friends.”
Santiago looked over his datapad again. “Not the worst thing in the world. No one here seems that personable.”
“Being here is the worst thing in the world.” This was already more talking than Simon had done during his whole time at the center. He looked back over at Santiago hopefully. “Can I go back home? Can I see Mom?”
He’d been gone for so long that it already seemed like a long shot. He didn’t even feel disappointed when Santiago shook his head.
“I can’t take you back to your family,” Santiago told him. “If there were any chance of you going back home, I wouldn’t be talking with you now.”
Simon nodded and dropped his gaze. He wondered how long he’d have to sit here, and if the caretakers were going to punish him for fighting.
“I can’t give your family back,” Santiago continued. “What I can do is give you a new one.”
Simon looked back up. A new family? What did he mean?
“Right now, you’re a ward of this colony. You don’t have a home and until you come of age you’ll just be dead weight for the people here. Just one extra mouth to feed. But I don’t want that for you. The United Earth Government doesn’t want that for you. Humanity doesn’t want that for you. We want to help make you into someone better. Someone who protects people. Someone who kills monsters.”
“Kills… monsters?” None of what Santiago was saying made any sense. Simon just wanted to know about this new family he was talking about.
“You’ve been selected to be offered this opportunity. Not a whole lot of people like you get a chance like this.” Santiago slid his datapad over to Simon, who looked down and gasped. His own face peered back at him, surrounded by reams of data and words he didn’t understand. “The people who sent me had you in mind before I even came here to talk with you.”
Someone had been watching him? Someone had selected him? “Are there others?” Simon asked quietly, still staring at his picture on the datapad screen. “People like me?”
“Lots of others,” Santiago promised. “Hundreds. If you come with me, they’ll be your new family. You’ll all be part of something so much bigger than yourselves. You don’t understand now, but what I’m offering you is more than just a new life. It’s a new existence.”
Simon, do you want to be a hero? Do you want to be a Spartan?”
“Hey! Hey!” Gavin ran over to the customs agents. “You guys can’t just impound my ship like that! You can’t take my girl!”
One of the officers glanced at him incredulously. “How can the ship be your girl if you haven’t even bought it yet?”
“Well… well…” Gavin waved his arms furiously. “Well, she’s going to be!”
- "Do you know what I hate, more than anything else in the world? Power. Power corrupts. Power seduces.Power destroys. It breeds lust and self-righteous hypocrisy, fooling you into believing you're fighting for a cause when all you really are is in love with the supremacy you've been given over others."
- ―Venter or Arthur
- "A new Adam, a new Eve. A new Garden of Eden will rise from the ashes, but this one will be tended by an attentive god, a worthy deity. Life will return and evolve, carefully managed and shepherded to perfection..."
- "War is a cruel parent, but an effective teacher."
- ―Possibly Venter
- "We grew up in a rotten world that abandoned us, that could have cared less if we lived or died. So you created a new world, one that existed inside the rotten one. One where we cared about each other. You built that dream, and you've lived it ever since because that's the only answer you could ever give. But I'm helping create a world that can care about the people who live in it. I won't be a slave of the status quo ever again, because I've seen a vision of a future too beautiful for words."
- ―Venter to Gavin.
- "Self-sacrifice. That's what it means to be a Spartan. We fight in the darkness and never receive recognition for our actions. Plenty of us have died without anyone else knowing what we've done. It's thanks to these sacrifices that humanity still even exists."
- ―A Spartan
- "Let's not dignify this shit by saying it's about revenge, or justice, or the rest of that high and mighty crap you guys like to toss around. This is just about dogs ripping each other apart."
- "We are the alienated. The scorned. The despised. Our name is unworthy of praise, our body unworthy of envy. We are the shadow, cast by the light of heroes. The darkness born of their shining legend. Thus, we hate. Thus, we resent. We feed on the cries of those who sink into darkness, cursing those who shine so brightly. And you? You are the sacrifice!"
- ―Gravemind to Arthur Onegin
- "I believe in pain. I believe in fear. I believe in death."
- ―Possible Simon quote
- "Arthur Onegin, you are the vessel. The one worthy to shoulder all the evil in this wicked galaxy."
- ―The Chastener
- "It all began with a bunch of old fools. Church... and me. All of us believing we could make the choices for billions of other people and save humanity. But now, that era of arrogance is over. The others have all passed away. I'm the only one left, and soon I'll be gone, too." , ,
- ―Arthur Onegin to Simon-G294
- "They prey on fear, and loneliness, and desperation, and then they offer a home to those who have no one else to turn to."
- "But you're a hero, aren't you?"
- "I'm just a guy who's good at what he does. Killing."
- "Someday you'll have to realize that there's no such thing as a hero, and you'd better hope that happens before you die a miserable death trying to be one. Hero's just a word we slap on other people so we can worship all the good they've done for us and pretend their faults and flaws don't exist. You stick 'em up on a pedestal and all of a sudden it doesn't matter that they're ignorant jackasses or self-righteous hypocrites. You've given them a cause to be on the right side of, so everything they do turns to gold and it's okay to hate everyone they fight because, hey, those guys you don't know aren't on the right side. You'll never be a hero, because you can never see yourself as one. You'll always come up short, never seeing the success while you wallow in all your failures. And the rest of us, the ones who aren't obsessed with some imaginary status quo of good and evil, the ones who just live our lives as best we can, we'll leave you heroes in the dust."
- "When I was at my deepest, lowest point, when I'd abandoned and betrayed everyone who'd ever cared about me, I wondered why they were still trying to help me. After everything I'd done, everything I'd done to them, they still wouldn't give up on me. I only understood it when I realized that they'd never thought I was some great to guy to begin with. They never thought I was a hero. They never looked up to me. We were just people, standing on the same ground and they wanted their vicious, lying, cynical bastard of a friend back. They forgave me. They all did. The only thing I've never been forgiven for is the one thing I've never seen as a crime. The other Spartans could never forgive me for doing what I did. They put us all on one big pedestal, and I had the nerve to put a chip in it."
- "Cassandra, I love you."
- "When you do it on a galactic scale, mass genocide doesn't seem quite so messy, does it?"
- ―Referring to the Halo arrays
- "Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, "From where have you come?" Satan answered the Lord, "From going back and forth across the earth, and walking up and down on it.""
- ―Job 1:6-7; Diana and the Assembly
- "Now, the interesting thing is, most people don't actually want freedom. At least, not freedom in the sense the word usually gets used. No, what they want is security. They want to be secure to go about appreciating all the little pleasures credits can buy them. They might say they're interested in politics or civil rights, but at the end of the day those are big words to people with small minds. As long as they're free to enjoy life, they'll never be motivated to do more than lodge some complaints, maybe participate in a few protest rallies. It's all lip service. They want all the privileges of democracy and none of the responsibility."
- ―Joseph Sears
- "I am a knight. I will be your sword and shield. That is my duty."
- "I miscalculated. Ryuko had not been able to escape. The slavers had taken her, just like we agreed, and now they came to pay me my thirty pieces of silver. If I took the data, I was lost. If I left the data, I was lost"
- "Gavin, no, Captain Dunn isn't quite the pure soul you seem to think he is. He has his own agendas, just like everyone else, and like most everyone else he's inclined to shun what he doesn't understand. Oh, he latches onto people like us for a while when he needs us—everyone needs an attack dog now and then, after all. But when it stops being convenient, when we stop fitting in with his own personal galaxy, he rejects us and never looks back. He did it to me. He'll do it to you, too. If he hasn't already"
- ―Redmond Venter to Simon-G294
- "My life's been built on mistakes and bad decisions. My anger and pride have hurt many people, especially the ones closest to me. I've killed so many people, and I'm going to kill even more before the end. There's too much blood on my hands to ever be washed away. But now, facing the death I've been running away from for so long, I'm not afraid. It just feels like I'm coming to the end of a long journey. I can't help but feel content. I have lived. I have no regrets."
- ―Simon-G294 prior to the Second Assault on the Garden
- "They are two sides of the same twisted coin. Both of them can only live through violence. A fire burns inside each of them, pushing them on to struggle, to survive, to will. He rejects his fire as evil and that rejection brings him only pain, yet he finds pleasure in the violence all the same. She embraces her fire and it brings her peace; through battle, she rejects her own sad fate. I shaped them both, each in their own way. My twin monsters, to turn on the galaxy as I see fit."
- "We sent one of our best Spartans in to kill a guy who's been a vegetable for the past five years. Hospital's got no guards, no military presence at all. And five minutes later—you're gonna love this—she comes flying out the window. On fire."
- "The fires I stoke will spread across the galaxy. The people will fight, and through battle they will understand the fullness of life. The final chains of the Assembly will be burned away. For us, this war is peace."
- ―Amber-G330 to Simon-G294
- "Cassandra told me once, 'To conquer death, you only have to die.' I didn't understand what she meant then. I still don't know what she meant now."
- "The difference between us and them is that we live here. We live here with these people, up to our knees in shit, going to sleep hungry at night, doing the best we can to get by. These military types, these "operators," they don't live with them. They don't care about the people they kill, the the dreams they rub out, the orphans they create. They don't even see them as people. To them it's all just a job well done, another day's work fighting the fight to preserve the status quo. We were part of that world, once. Never again. This is our world now. These are our people."
- Zoey Hunsinger: "He doesn't scare me. You do, sometimes."
- Stray: "Please. Kahn's more dangerous than I'll ever be."
- Zoey Hunsinger: "Yeah, but to him it's all just a job. He doesn't enjoy what he does. Not like you."
- — saf
- "He was the greatest Spartan of us all. Just knowing I'm not him makes me want to kill myself."
- ―Simon-G294, referring to Agent Microchip
- Dyne-G217: "What the hell have you got to laugh about?"
- Stray: "Heh. I remember you laughing the last time we met back on Talitsa. Remember how thrilled you were at the thought of beating me to a bloody pulp? What's wrong? Where's your smile now?"
- Dyne-G217: "Shut up that was different! Maybe I did feel that way at first, but you were different then and... and even now I... I never really wanted that kind of fight."
- Stray: "Hate to break it to you, but I couldn't give a damn what you want."
- "Why the hell do you even bother keeping this up, Simon? What the fuck is wrong with you? You hate life. You're mad all the time. You're afraid to enjoy yourself even a little. You might as well be dead already. Do us all a favor and give up!"
- Dyne-G217: "What do all these explosions even accomplish? What the hell is wrong with you"
- Simon-G294: "I am nuts, Dyne, get with the program!"
- ―Joke. Maybe
- The Assembly is able to store the composed consciousnesses of the New Phoenix citizens by using a fragment of the Domain discovered by Deep Winter. The Domain, which was erased and fragmented by the Halo activation, becomes the means by which the Assembly can convene and participate in human affairs. Due to its reliance on human technology, the Assembly's fragment of the Domain is highly limited but it can allow organic life to share a physical space with AIs--something Winter and his compatriots hope will lead to a gradual evolution in the relationship between AIs and humans.
- Diana has discovered another fragment of the Domain, which she uses for her own purposes. Simon has a vague notion of this; he knows that she uses something to move about so fast but has no idea of its true nature.
- Sepia/Amber is a prime candidate for Diana-ing.
- Gamma Spartans can actually meld with Forerunner technology such as the Domain and imprinting far better than most humans; this is due to their frontal lobe augments.
Simon-G294:Relationship Section (Removed)
With Team Jian
- "No matter where you hide, no matter what you think you can do to run away, I'll always be there waiting for you. And I'll make sure you pay for everything you've done."
- ―Jake-G293 to Simon-G294
After being assigned to Team Jian, Simon spent most of his time struggling to keep up with his teammates. Although his friends in the squad took a protective attitude towards him and shielded him from the taunts he endured at the hands of other trainees, they often resented his deficiencies and never viewed him as a true peer. Distanced from them and the other Gamma Spartans, Simon quickly lost faith in his friends after they were forced to abandon him on Mamore. After losing the family he had found in Rat Pack, the deaths of teammates Terrence and Mary during the Battle of Earth barely affected him on an emotional level; this fact enraged Jake and Ralph when they discovered his defection. When Simon killed Ralph during the destruction of Philadelphia, Jake was determined to avenge his friend's death and devoted himself to bringing Simon to justice.
- Jake-G293: "Why are you doing this for him? After everything he's done, all the crimes he's responsible for, you're just going to protect him? If it were any other murderer, some other piece of Innie trash, you'd just stand aside and let me do my job. But just because he's got a pathetic face and a sob story you're going to just let everything go, is that it?"
- Cassandra-G006: "It's because he's the proof that what they did to us was wrong. The rest of us helped them forget that, let them hide behind what good little soldiers we were. With him, they've got nothing but the person they created, and instead of owning up to it they'd rather just wipe him off the slate like any other criminal."
- ―Jake-G293 and Cassandra-G006
- "To tell the truth, I can't say which I enjoy more: making him happy or watching him suffer..."
Simon's partnership with Diana is far more complicated than the friendly, professional relationships enjoyed by many Spartans and their support AIs. An advanced, dangerously experimental AI, Diana has no love or respect for her "meatbag" creators and views herself as a superior being. Uninterested with the human conflicts her Insurrectionist masters dedicated themselves to, she decided that the galaxy and its inhabitants existed solely for her own enjoyment; to that end, she found in the tormented, conflicted Simon the perfect soul to observe and manipulate. Although never taking her offer of partnership at face value, Simon was too grateful for the benefits of such an advanced AI's help to question her betrayal of Venter and the other rebels.
Diana sees Simon as both a vessel to give her agency in the physical world and a "subject" for her to exercise control over. She never loses interest in mocking her "dumbass" partner and will sometimes deliberately engineer misfortune or even outright danger in order to see how he adapts and survive. She often encourages him to take treacherous and self-interested courses of action, preying on his low self-esteem and belief that he and all other Spartans are monsters. Nevertheless, she does feel genuine affection for her unfortunate partner and assigns his life far more value than that of any other "meatbag."
With Gavin Dunn
- "Never again! Never, ever again!"
- ―Simon promises not to work with Gavin Dunn, again
At the end of the, Tobias was a down-on-his-luck freighter captain who had been hired by the to ferry supplies between and besieged military bases throughout the embattled Sol system. With the war over and the Covenant withdrawing, Tobias's contract was at an end and he saw little chance for lucrative employment within Earth's shattered economy. Drifting aimlessly near Jupiter, he chanced upon a scuttled orbiting the planet. Daring to venture alone aboard the crippled alien vessel, he discovered that most of the crew had been killed by a ship-wide decompression while the rest had fled without self-destructing the vessel. After contacting the Navy, Tobias set about combing the ship for salvage. When a military recovery team arrived several days later, they confiscated the ship and almost all of its contents—everything save for several crates full of holographic entertainment devices.
Embittered by the military's takeover and his miniscule salvage fee, Tobias withdrew to a refueling station where he examined the recovered holo-devices. With the help of Marco Killian, a former Naval data analyst, he pieced together how they functioned and swiftly realized the market potential for the alien entertainment systems. He and Marco struck a deal: in exchange for a cut of the profits, Marco would help Tobias translate and reproduce the entertainment systems for sale on the colonial markets. The two invested in analyzing the foreign technology and soon began selling government approved knock-offs that featured most of the originals' features without the dangerous presence of Covenant materials and power sources. After decades of tight military control over alien artifacts, the public jumped at the chance to experience such advanced entertainment. Selling in deliberately tight supply, Tobias and Marco made millions within the first year of production. By the time they hired a manufacturing company to mass-produce the entertainment devices, the partners had become two of the most successful entrepreneurs since the destructive war had begun.
Personality and Traits
Tobias was ambitious and daring, traits that made him extremely successful in his quest to excavate and recover alien artifacts. Despite his age he was remarkably self-sufficient, often spending long periods of time by himself in uncharted space and only hiring additional help when it was absolutely necessary. He often surprised would-be bandits and raiders with his proficiency with both firearms and unarmed combat, indicating some sort of previous military training—though if Tobias had fought for the UNSC, the, or another group entirely was unknown. Tobias was a legend among spacers for his secrecy and ability to keep his discoveries hidden even from splinter factions and UNSC recovery teams. His caution and paranoia was well known, and he left a miniscule footprint with both his movements and finances.
- "This tastes like ass you waste of space! Go make me something that's actually food!"
- ―Tobias Lensky reacts to Simon-G294's cooking
When Tobias did hire subordinates, he was a highly critical and demanding employer. His extensive time alone in the field made him very caustic and dismissive of others, though when impressed by an employee's services he paid extremely well.
Known Gamma Spartans
- Holly-G003 (KIA)
- Victoria-G013 (1)
- Alex-G014 (KIA)
- Benjamin-G015 (KIA)
- Amos-G028 (KIA)
- Alric-G040 (KIA)
- Hannah-G049 (1)
- Cooper-G078 (2)
- Denny-G105 (4)
- Edward-G113 (4)
- Mary-G130 (KIA)
- Rebecca-G149 (2)
- Cameron-G156 (1)
- Jace-G162 (3)
- Cesare-G177 (KIA)
- Dante-G188 (KIA)
- Cato-G202 (2)
- Kris-G203 (4)
- Emmett-G211 (1)
- Karl-G222 (2)
- Sirius-G223 (4)
- Ezra-G226 (3)
- Nathan-G235 (KIA)
- Clara-G235 (Actene and Chakra, resolve)
- Vincent-G270 (KIA)
- Raziel-G241 (2)
- Cora-G288 (3)
- Aaron 3 (KIA)
- Silvana 4
- Rapier Team
- Team Tanto
The Legacy Saga (rename "Edden Saga"
- Ocean's Shadow: Initial Gamma deployment. Jian's first mission, destruction of Kopis, Cassandra assigned to Jian. Ro'nin and Tobias Lensky established as characters working behind the scenes as the war reaches its climax. Juno introduced.
- Tree of Liberty: Simon stranded on Mamore, bonds with Emily, Rat Pack, becomes Stray. Cassandra, Jian fight in the battle of Earth. Mamore insurrection, Rat Pack slaughtered. Stray and Emily join with Venter, Dunn, Diana. Emily's suicide, Jian discovers Simon's defection. Diana convinces Stray to betray Venter; they flee Mamore with captive Cassandra.
- Exile's Inferno: Simon,Diana, and Cassandra encounter secluded Forerunner paradise world. Stuff happens. They return to civilization, encounter characters such as Gavin Dunn. Meanwhile, Sarah Palmer heads up operation to eliminate Simon. Operation: MAD DOG, Bombing of Philadelphia.
- Miscellaneous Concepts
- After Dyne goes vigilante, he and Simon team up for something that turns out to be a lot bigger than it first seems. Zoey might be there, depending on what the timeframe is. Maybe throw Cassandra in the mix, but avoid trite and pointless relationship nonsense.
- Prompt: After Diana's actions endanger the Chancer (again) and result in a lost contract (again) Gavin and Zoey insist that she no longer be allowed in the ship's systems. Stray doesn't like this and strikes out on his own to earn back the money Diana lost them by freelancing again.
- Codename: AZRAEL: A shadowy, ruthless operative who ostensibly works for ONI; commands deadly paramilitary force with ties to other organizations.
- Sepia as possible miniboss.
- Possible Kryptes plug.
- After Dyne goes vigilante, he and Simon team up for something that turns out to be a lot bigger than it first seems. Zoey might be there, depending on what the timeframe is. Maybe throw Cassandra in the mix, but avoid trite and pointless relationship nonsense.
1st Generation: The Foundation
Crazy old generation. All born before the HCW begins. Their actions in pursuit of power, peace, and stability shape the viewpoints and events that follow them. Examples include Parangosky, Kahn, Lensky, Dr. Church, Halsey etc.
2nd Generation: Children of War
Born either during or just before HCW. Includes SPARTAN-IIs (even though they precede the HCW by about a decade). Their lives are greatly shaped by their relationship with the first generation as well as the role the carnage of the HCW plays in their lives. Many become similar to the 1st generation, passing their worldview and ideals down to later generations. Examples include Master Chief, Arthur Onegin, Gavin Dunn, Redmond Venter, Freelancers etc.
3rd Generation: Forgotten Generation, Wasted Generation
Primarily used to distinguish the IIIs, particularly Gamma Company. Born close to the end of the war, should have inherited a galaxy exhausted by conflict and ready for peace. Instead, become pawns of preceding generations. Wasted in ceaseless conflict and power plays. A lot of overlap with 4th generation due to relatively similar ages.
4th Generation: Blazing New Trails
Post-war generation. They may have been born during HCW, but were too young for it to have much effect on them. Grow up in the post-war era, are often caught up in machinations of 1st and 2nd generations even though they try to create a galaxy for themselves. Often mentored or inspired by third generation. Examples include Zoey (currently only major 4th gen character I can think of).
5th Generation: Casting off the shackles
Again, a lot of overlap with 4th gen. "Final generation." The schemes and conflicts of preceding generations come together to turn the galaxy on its head. Heroes of 3rd, 4th generations lead this 5th generation toward building a new world free of the ambitions of 1st and 2nd gens.
- UNSC naval officer tasked with policing the space lanes; a capable commander, but is generally put into service against Insurrectionists, pirates, and other human criminals rather than against the Covenant. Possibly a Javert figure for Gavin Dunn, becomes obsessed with catching the Chancer V. On the whole a decent fellow, just a bit zealous about "cleaning up the space lanes."