Date: 25 January 2012, 8:39 pm
ONYX SLIPSPACE BUBBLE - November 17th, 2552
Repetition. That was the worst part. Every day just felt the same, the same routines over and over again. Trying to find a way out. Trying to survive. For Tom, it was nothing like his life so far. He'd always been used to everything changing every day, new assignments and operations to plan, recruits to train, and orders changing all the time. True, military life was all about routine. But at least they varied. Not like this. He couldn't bear it any more.
Tom-B292. That was how they knew him. They who had looked up to him ever since joining the outfit. He was their mentor, their role model - and now he would be their leader. The younger Spartans had trained under Tom for years and now their commander was missing, presumed dead. They were stuck in a strange place, something the mysterious doctor kept referring to as a 'Dyson Sphere', whatever the hell that was. Every day they'd spent trying to escape, or looking for food and shelter and warmth. Something to help keep them all alive. And there were the frozen bodies too. The other SPARTAN-IIIs, trapped in cryogenic storage, but neither dead nor alive. From what Doctor Halsey had explained to them, the other Spartans knew that their comrades-in-arms were in Slipspace. Incredible, but true. It made no sense to any of them, but then again, they were just soldiers.
Looking at the others as Chief Petty Officer Mendez, now acting CO, tried to get a fire going, Tom thought back to the days when he was still a child, before he'd ever heard of the SPARTAN project. It had been a long way from here, the 'shield world' that these (what had Halsey called them? 'Forerunners') had built, and the cave the group was now hiding in. Uncertain of the local flora and fauna, the group had made their way through a series of valleys in the mountains of this world, hiding during the day and travelling at night, attempting to keep ahead in case any of the Covenant had succeeded in following them through the portal they had used to get here. Not knowing, of course, that there were no more Covenant to follow them. Not after Kurt's sacrifice.
Tom was reminded of the camaraderie he had felt back then, back in his early days. He'd been born on a distant world in the Outer Colonies. Tom had visited so many worlds since then, he could barely remember it now. While he was barely more than a child, his homeworld had been attacked by the Covenant. He'd watched through the windows of a UNSC ship as Covenant cruisers and destroyers had swarmed the planet. He'd seen the bulbous dropships as they flew down to the surface, filled with vicious Brutes and Elites, Grunts and Jackals, fully prepared for the massacre they were about to inflict upon a terrified populace. Tom had been there when the Covenant ships opened fire, raining down plasma and fire on the place he had known as home. When the onslaught had ended, and the evacuation ships were making their way out of the system to safety, nothing was left but glass and ash. Tom knew he would never forget that day. No matter how much he could remember of his world or his family and friends, he would never lose his memories of that simple brutality. It was what drove him on through the hard times, what kept him resolute. He'd spent days after landing on Arcadia, on a safe planet, searching among his fellow refugees, asking everyone he saw if they could help him find his parents. But on the fourth day he'd given up. He realised they'd never even made it off the planet, unlike him. A fear that was confirmed when the man from the government came to see him.
Tom had been put in a small room with a group of other children, somewhere in the refugee camp on Arcadia. He recognised one or two, people he'd seen and played with back home. They were all refugees like him, some from his own world, others from different places. Looking around, Tom knew that they all had one thing in common. They were all orphans of the Covenant. Remembering those days, he thought back to the words that had been spoken. Being told that they would all have a choice, to get revenge on the creatures responsible for their families deaths. To become the best that they could be, to fight with honour and to do a great service for all humankind. Tom had been spurred by those words, but not as much as another. He could recall seeing her for the first time, and noticing a kindred spirit among these strange children and the emotionless soldiers. Comparing their differences, and their similarities. He, grubby and snot-nosed, with messy black hair, standing tall despite everything he'd been through. Barely six years old, yet head and shoulders above most of the other kids in the room. A stark contrast to her, - clean, small and pale with short and tidy black locks and a tiny figure, barely noticeable among the group of children listening intently to the big man in the shiny armour. Though they were so different, Tom knew they were the ones most inspired by what the armoured man was saying. By the soldiers standing there with him. And by their memories of what the Covenant had done to them, and those they had loved. They would be the ones to fight the hardest when they had the chance. The ones who would truly understand what it meant to be a SPARTAN.
Tom would never forget the moment he first met Lucy. And everything they'd been through since. But looking back at the past couldn't be enough. He knew, all that mattered now... was the future.
Date: 25 January 2012, 8:40 pm
Tom was so busy reminiscing about the early days of the Beta Company Spartans, those first steps in boot camp and the pain of the augmentations he and the others had received, that he almost failed to notice someone walking towards him from behind. Of course, to him, 'almost' was the key word - as a Spartan, Tom had reflexes and instincts greater than any normal human, even if he wasn't quite as powerful as the Halsey's own Blue Team. As the figure behind him got close, Tom spun around and grabbed the intruder in a fierce grip, holding their hands together in a defensive position and taking complete note of his surroundings. It took a few seconds for him to realise that the person was, in fact, Halsey.
"Interesting. Not as quick as Kelly, but certainly faster than any Marine. Looks like Kurt did a decent job after all." Halsey was calm, almost too calm, though Tom noted to himself that she'd seen Spartans in action before and would have known better than to try sneaking up on one. It was a test, nothing more. She hadn't had time to make a detailed analysis on the Spartan-IIIs, nor did she have an AI to do it for her, and Tom could tell this annoyed her. Though he had to give her credit - she concealed her emotions well.
"Doctor." Tom had tried to figure out her motivations in the short time the party had been trapped inside the Dyson Sphere. As far as he could tell, Halsey was driven by nothing more than knowledge, and yet he could sense there was something deeper. Some emotion he couldn't quite put his finger on. Was it guilt? Remorse? Regret? Halsey was an enigma to him, and he knew there was no way he could engage in a battle of wits with her to find out more about her. Though he knew he could always just be blunt, speak plainly and to the point, and hope that somehow she would decide to lower her defences even for a moment. He could tell from her treatment of the Spartans that she felt somehow responsible for them, as if all she wanted now was to make sure they were safe. Ironic, given they were all career soldiers from childhood. Surely they would be the ones keeping Halsey protected? Though Tom knew better than to say that out loud.
"I merely wondered what your thoughts were on the other Spartans, Tom. My Blue Team." Unlike Tom, Halsey was certainly up front about her reasons for talking.
"I think they're Spartans, like us. I think they're good at what they do. And that's all."
Halsey seemed disappointed at this. "Nothing more? You're second in command, after all."
"No ma'am. Nothing more."
"Hmmm. I wonder..." Halsey looked away from Tom, at the scarlet sunset over the grassy plains beyond the cave they were camped in. "Tell me, Tom, what do you know of Noble Team?"
That brought back a new memory with a start. Noble Team... where had he heard that before? Of course, he knew. It was nothing more than a long-forgotten reference, dredged up in the current circumstances, but Tom could recall it perfectly now. It was after the slaughter on Pegasi Delta. Operation TORPEDO. He and Lucy had been the only survivors of that battle, the rest of Beta Company wiped out in a slaughter inflicted by the Covenant. And yet, the operation had been deemed a success, the Covenant presence on the moon wiped out. The payoff? An entire company of Spartans, with one survivor so badly traumatised she would never speak again. After that battle, Tom had been separated from Lucy, and from his instructors. Lucy had almost been declared unfit for duty, only regaining her position after pleas from their commander, Kurt. Tom, meanwhile, had been requested for special duties in a squad under the direct command of Colonel Ackerson, the original instigator of the Spartan-III program. It was a black ops team, equipped and trained for only the most desperate and extreme missions against the Covenant threat. Tom had been spared, again by Kurt's request, but not before Tom had found out the name of this squad. Noble Team.
"Not much," he answered. "All I know is that Colonel Ackerson wanted me to join, but I was kept on Onyx instead. I was needed to help train Spartans."
"A noble aim, no pun intended. Well, perhaps you were better off. Noble Team was wiped out on Reach, when the planet fell. You may be interested to hear that Ackerson is dead too."
"Oh yes, when Earth was attacked he was on the front lines. Don't ask me how he wound up there, I can honestly say I have no idea." A lie, of course - Halsey knew full well what her 'child', the AI Cortana, had done. "He was captured and tortured by the Covenant, though at least he did something good in his final moments. He did save thousands of lives in delaying tactics."
"How do you know all this, ma'am? I thought you weren't on Earth when it was attacked." Tom could tell Halsey was simply playing for time, he'd already figured out these past few days that it wasn't like her to chat idly about nothing.
"You're right, I came here straight from the Eridanus system. Blue Team told me. They filled me in on all the details, what they briefed you all on was merely part of the information they have. Classified, naturally. ONI orders." Not that Halsey had ever given a damn about ONI's 'classified orders' before.
There was something else, Tom was sure. As he watched her, she hesitated. As if deciding whether or not to tell him whatever she had come here to say. Tom decided to take the initiative. He decided if she wouldn't talk about one thing, he'd simply question her about something else, until she cracked.
"The battle on Earth. If we lose the home planet then we've lost the war, yes?"
Halsey looked up with a start. "Yes. No. Oh, I don't know. We always survive in some form or another, humans adapt remarkably well. It's the one advantage we have over the Covenant, they're imitative rather than innovative. If we lose Earth it will be a setback, and a tragedy, but certainly not the end of the war. Who knows, it may even give humanity the final push we need to take the fight back to the Covenant, and really give them a challenge. It could be what gives us the final motive to win."
She paused. "My daughter is on Earth."
Tom was surprised. He hadn't expected such a blunt comment, and such a private and emotional one, from someone who made a point as Halsey did of remaining so aloof and cold and logical. "Your daughter?"
"Yes. She's fighting, you know. Her father would be proud."
Tom tried to think of words to say, something that would be appropriate, yet nothing came. He simply stayed silent. If Halsey wanted to speak, then he would let her speak. If it opened her up enough to reveal her reason for being here (because he knew that this couldn't be the real reason), then surely it would be worth it.
"I have faith in her. She's a good leader, she has her father's skills. She even has her own ship. The In Amber Clad. She'll never let the Covenant take Earth, I know that much. Even if I never leave this place, even if it becomes my tomb, I can be proud of her. I simply wish that we spoke more..."
With that, Halsey fell silent. They stood there, at the mouth of the cave, both looking out toward the horizon, for what seemed like an eternity, though in reality it was mere minutes. Eventually, Tom broke the silence. "What was her name?" He almost regretted the words, speaking as if she was already dead. But Halsey didn't seem to notice, as she answered.
Date: 25 January 2012, 8:41 pm
There was more to this meeting than met the eye. Tom knew that even with the brief moment of weakness (weakness? More like humanity, he thought) that Halsey had just shown, there were still things she wasn't telling him. Things that she was hiding. And yet he knew she had come to him specifically to say those things, so why was she holding back? The only explanation Tom could come up with was that whatever these secrets were, they would be tough for him to handle. There was nothing for it. He was going to have to be direct.
"Doctor, I appreciate you speaking to me like this. I even sympathise with you about your daughter. I know what it's like to potentially lose loved ones to the Covenant. But there's something else, isn't there. Something you aren't telling me."
Halsey was silent for a moment. Then she spoke, just five words, but devastating nonetheless.
"Some of your Spartans survived."
Tom was shocked, and confused at the same time. For years he'd thought that he and Lucy were the only non-Gamma Spartan-IIIs left, that everyone else had died. PROMETHEUS, TORPEDO, those two operations had been responsible for the deaths of almost six hundred of his comrades, his predecessors. Gamma Company were almost gone too, wiped out by the Sentinels on Onyx - with the remaining few safe here inside the Dyson Sphere. So what could Halsey be talking about?
"I don't understand, Doctor, what do you mean some Spartans survived?"
"I mean that you and Lucy are not the only members of Beta Company to survive. Some Alpha Company Spartans did too. They were Noble Team."
With that, Tom realised, it made sense now that he would be considered for a unit such as Noble Team. If Ackerson had been in charge of a new generation of Spartans, then of course he'd use such soldiers in an elite black ops squad. Why use ODSTs when you had men and women who could each outmatch a dozen of them?
"It took me a while to realise exactly what they were. I had my suspicions, exacerbated by Ackerson's files, but I couldn't be sure until I arrived here on Onyx. Some of the Spartans you fought with, and your predecessors, were spirited away before the operations that would end their respective companies. It was done in the same way as Kurt, and they were brought into Noble Team. Unfortunately, they were all killed on Reach. Most died fighting the main Covenant invasion, one sacrificed himself to help me get away. We encountered a patrol of Elites as we were making our way to my lab in CASTLE Base. If it wasn't for Jun, I wouldn't be here now."
As she told her story, Tom felt regret, that he hadn't been around to see his old friends still alive and fighting. And remorse that he hadn't been there to comfort them as they died. Not really sentiments a soldier should have, on a battlefield, but nevertheless, he felt them all the same.
"But why tell me now? What purpose does this serve aside from new information that I can't do anything about?"
Halsey paused. "You're right, there's no real purpose. But I've seen how you are with the others. I raised my Spartans to care for each other, to trust each other. I raised them to have bonds beyond basic teamwork and friendship. That's what makes them unique. Not special armour or a lifetime of training. They fit each other perfectly. I wanted to see if it was the same with you. And I was right - your bonds are just the same. Kurt knew the value of those bonds, and he made sure they were instilled in the Spartan-IIIs just as I did with my own. Maybe not as a whole - three hundred people can't care for each other as implicitly as thirty, but within your teams you have a bond that is stronger even than those forged by me. And Lucy. I've seen you with her, these past few days, and it reminds me of someone. Someone I thought was lost."
Halsey was of course referring to John, though there was no way for Tom to know that. He'd heard rumours during his training of a great Spartan warrior, feared as a 'demon' by the Covenant, and he'd heard Kurt speak of him sometimes. But he couldn't possibly understand who she was talking about now, nor was he ever likely to if they couldn't find an exit to the Dyson Sphere soon. As Halsey continued, Tom realised she seemed to be speaking more to herself than to him.
"I know how much you care for Lucy, and I know it's more than anything superficial like friendship or love. I tried to form those kinds of relationship myself. A test, I thought. An intellectual exercise I set myself to prove how clever I am. I was always one for such frivolities. But it couldn't have worked, not truly. I found I'd failed, despite my best efforts, and it burned me inside. Until a few weeks ago when I realised the true success of my experiment. Such bonds were formed, not through artificial means, but naturally through fire and flame. When you risk your life for someone, when you spend your days fighting against overwhelming odds to support them, that's the mark of a such a bond. John and Cortana have that. So do you and Lucy."
She fell silent. Tom could barely speak. He knew she was right, he cared about Lucy more than anything, anyone, he had ever known. It wasn't merely love. It was so much deeper than that. They'd fought through desperate odds so many times, saved each other from death more times than either of them could remember, and they had both survived Pegasi Delta. They had come through the fire together, and been reformed together. It had created the bonds that Halsey spoke of, something never spoken but that they both understood implicitly. They would never leave each other, they were tied together now.
It was this thinking that gave Tom an idea. He knew that Lucy had refused to speak ever since Operation TORPEDO, assuming she still had the ability at all. Maybe the good doctor could provide some help, or advice. He knew it was a long shot, but there was no harm in asking.
"Doctor, what do you know about Lucy's condition?"
She looked at him. "I know she won't speak, that's about it. If I recall correctly, from what you and Mendez told me earlier, it was sometime after your last operation with Beta Company?"
"That's right. The doctors then said it was Post Traumatic Vocal Disarticulation. Kind of a mouthful, but I wondered, is there anything you could do for her?"
Halsey looked thoughtful for a moment. "I'm sorry, but I'm not that kind of doctor. The question you have to consider is whether she can talk, and won't, or if she simply can't at all. If the latter is true then there's nothing we can do. If it's the former, then unless she chooses to speak, there's still nothing we can do. We can hardly force her, and that would be cruel by any means. We could attempt to persuade her, but again, there would be little chance of success."
Regardless of her words, Tom was grateful. At least he had an understanding of her condition, it may not be much use to her but it certainly made him feel better. If there was a chance of helping Lucy then he would take it, but if such chances weren't available then he would simply have to accept his friend's silence.
Halsey, of course, realised there was something that could help. She didn't understand much about Lucy's circumstances, but nevertheless she had seen studies some years previously about similar reports from Marines in the field. It was exceptionally rare, but on at least one occasion the afflicted soldier had been able to recover the power of speech by learning, over time, to deal with the trauma that had caused it. Perhaps if Lucy could learn to come to terms with her tragedy, she would be able to learn to speak again, though even then it would be a slim chance and a long road to recovery. As Halsey searched through her memory for something useful, she remembered reports from a black ops mission some years ago, that seemed to have taken place roughly six months before TORPEDO. It had been notable as it had been one of the first missions to use her 'smart' AIs for combat purposes. The technology had improved over time of course, with this op using an AI inside a TACPAD, nothing like the MJOLNIR interface Cortana used with John. But there was something about that operation that she now knew hadn't added up. At the time she'd found it curious, but nothing too noteworthy, and certainly not worth chasing up given how much time she was devoting to the Spartan-II project and to MJOLNIR. The question was how a small black ops team could have completed such a dangerous and risky mission behind enemy lines in such a place. She'd originally assumed it to be ODSTs or some NavSpecWep plan, but now she realised it had to be Spartans. Her suspicions had been raised with Noble Team, and were confirmed when she saw Ackerson's S-III files. Explicit reference to the operation, a fully detailed account rather than the censored version that had reached her, had confirmed the involvement of Spartan-IIIs. More to the point, it had been Tom's own squad that took part. It had finally started to make sense, and she had realised then the memory wipe her AI had undergone to keep this from her. Ackerson had been tenacious, she would give him that much. But now, it gave her an idea. She would have Tom remember that operation and talk to Lucy. With any luck, their memories would be the trigger Lucy needed to begin her road to acceptance of the Pegasi Delta slaughter. In the end, all it took was a single word to persuade him.