Posted By: 4642 Elitist Bastard<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 21 December 2012, 6:41 am
Milk, No Sugar
THE FIRST WORDS Commander Palmer remembered muttering to the Master Chief, with a star-stricken smirk, had been some quip about how she'd expected him to be taller.
She hadn't. Not really. And yet, removed from his armour, as the plates and the machinery had fallen away—and she had been unable to tear her eyes away, despite the smell—he had looked small.
According to his file, the Master Chief (call-sign S-117, name John, surname not given) was forty-six. His face had looked neither older, nor younger, and yet utterly mismatched against the idea she'd had of a forty-something super-soldier: sunken and bizarrely softened eyes, a weary brow, a jaw that seemed perpetually clenched, as if in stroke.
He hadn't even had that many scars. There was one prominent one on his forehead, near his eyes, and another on the opposite cheek, but Sarah had seen worse—and on people who'd seen far less action.
It therefore took a few seconds, as she closed the door to the toilet cubicle and made sure her flies were closed, to make a positive connection with the pink figure she saw showering at the opposite end of the S-deck's bathroom block.
"Morning," she mumbled, placing her hands below the faucet and lathering the soap in her palms.
The Master Chief looked up, stiffened (in posture, not in arousal) and his elbow juddered at his side for a moment: he had clearly had to restrain himself from saluting. "Sir."
"At ease, Spartan." Palmer was a Marine, and a naked body was the last thing that should have surprised her—her attention, however, was inexorably drawn to how tiny his penis was.
Augmentations, she reminded herself. Muscles at the expense of sex.
"I didn't realise you were an early riser," Sarah continued, finally.
The Chief did not immediately answer, pushing two squirts of shower gel into his left palm and scrubbing under his armpits and across his chest. (Less ripped than Sarah was expecting, too—muscle wastage in cryo? Maybe he was just getting old.) "It comes with the job," he said, as Palmer realised she'd had her hands under the faucet for far too long.
"Sure does." She quickly rubbed her hands dry under a jet of warmed air. "Can I get you some coffee?"
"Yes, please. Just milk."
Sarah found herself surprised again, although she could not ascertain why. Maybe she'd expected the Master Chief to take his coffee black. Maybe the thought of the words 'Master Chief' and 'coffee' sharing the same sentence was simply so outlandish—entirely normal, wholly expectable, yet inexplicably unexpected.
"I'll leave it in the mess," Palmer said, knowing that it would be empty at five a.m. ship time.
Maybe he just wanted the quiet.
Toast in the Machine
JOHN THOUGHT HE could hear the echo of his own gulps as he downed his coffee.
The lights were coming up again, by now, phasing from a dimmed brownish colour to the warm gold of morning. It was supposed to help stimulate natural sleeping patterns—and for now, it seemed to be working. He had always been an early bird.
By all accounts, Infinity was sleeping. She had been dry-docked for some time, and the repairs were nearing completion: after the New Year, the crew would flood back aboard and the ship would head out on its next mission—wherever that might be.
John doubted he'd be here to see it. His security clearance had been revoked, and he was booked in for a psyche examination at eight a.m. shiptime. He hated those things.
A myriad golden sparkles coalesced into a figure on the pedestal behind him, a dumpy, puffed-up fighter plane pilot. "Dr Tackbridge just called. He's been held up in London, he expects to be at least an hour late."
"Thanks," John said, turning back and grasping the disposable coffee cup again.
He still hadn't touched his toast. His hair was still damp from the shower, but the S-deck was cavernous, and chilly, and the butter was beginning to re-solidify.
The bread was thick, but otherwise unremarkable, and John found he was making a conscious effort to keep chewing after the fourth slice. He was hungry, yes, but he didn't feel like eating food. Something felt wrong.
He turned to face Roland's avatar again—he was still there, arms folded, ear-flaps fluttering in a simulated gale. "Can we talk?"
"What about?" John asked, wiping the back of his hand on his lips.
"I'd like to talk about Cortana."
The Master Chief felt his stomach churn, and his shoulders sink. He opened his mouth, ready to say I don't want to talk about it, but closed it without saying anything.
"What about her?" he asked, the third question to flash through his mind.
"We shared a few pages of memory when she was plugged into Infinity," Roland explained, as the Chief found himself subconsciously tightening the belt of his standard-issue robe. "She seemed like she was in pain."
He was probably right—towards the end, when she'd plugged into his wetware, John had felt the cold fluid sensation become icy, a frigid stab in his brainstem. He was not a machine—despite what they said, he did know pain, and sorrow, and heartbreak—but he doubted he could ever understand the mental condition of a rampant AI.
"I don't know," he said, folding another slice of toast into his mouth.
"I know," Roland said. "She spent a lot of time with you, though. I understand it must be hard."
John tried to read the face on the tiny avatar: the lips were pressed together, the arms locked in fold, and he wasn't giving anything away. He was about as different to Cortana as John could imagine, wrapped in a bulging suit where she had shrouded herself with her memory patterns, a silhouette that the back of his mind told him should be attractive.
"Yes," John said. He still had no idea where Dr Halsey was, no idea if she could've done anything to save Cortana
but he wished they'd had a chance to try. "She was
she was very brave," he continued, his eyes averting themselves as he continued chewing on the same slice of toast.
"She was," Roland agreed. "She died well."
John didn't say anything, sipping at his coffee to wash down the toast.
"I'm going to die, one day," the AI announced, suddenly, his posture unchanged.
"We're all going to do that, Roland," John said—something Sam had said over a game of cards, so many years ago.
"Is it normal be afraid of death?" Roland asked.
John was not sure how to answer. He wasn't sure himself if he was afraid of death, if there was anything that really scared him any more. After the Flood, and the Prometheans, and all the other things he'd seen, John felt numbed to the whole idea of death, and fear.
"I don't know," came Roland's response, in a tone that seemed somehow more muted. "Should I be?"
"I guess." John wasn't sure why, or how. He was in no hurry to die himself, but death wasn't something he'd ever had the compulsion to consider. It was something he'd actively avoided, ever since the early days. He'd shut it out at the sight of his comrades' ashes being scattered into space, and as he'd clung to Kelly as they watched the Unrelenting sink—and Sam go down with it.
"We can discuss this another time
if you'd prefer," Roland said. "I don't want to—"
"I'm good," John said, finally swallowing the final bolus of toast and turning away.
"Very well," Roland said. "I'll leave you in peace."
John downed the last of his coffee as Roland's avatar disintegrated.
It had gone cold.
You See a Tortoise
Dr Jeremy Tackbridge was a man of at least seventy years, quite probably a few score more. Folds of wrinkled skin, latent blackheads and burst capillaries peppered a shrivelled walnut-shaped face, with a wispy comet of white hair from the crown to the neck. When he spoke, it was in a baritone slur from Oxford, with a slow cadence and regular pauses for breath.
" Tackbridge began, reading the name from his computer and screwing up his face in confusion for a second.
"Master Chief," he continued, "I'm sure you know the drill with these by now. Very simple test of your psyche, the brass insists on it."
The man nodded without a word, arms folded across his chest, cleanly-shaven jaw clenched. Tackbridge had propositioned Infinity's ready room for the test, and he kept feeling his eyes drifting past the Master Chief's ear to the unlit 'DEPLOY' sign on the far wall.
Best hope we don't have an invasion, he thought, striking a key on his laptop. "We're going to start with the classic word association test," Tackbridge announced. "I'd like you to answer as quickly as you can, simply say the first thing that comes into your head. So, for instance, if I were to say, 'black,' you would say?"
"White," the Master Chief replied. His voice was quieter than Tackbridge had anticipated it to be, sounding clipped and restrained rather than fruity and weathered.
"Very good. Remember, though, there's no right or wrong answer," Tackbridge smiled, checking the video recorder was running. "So, if that's all clear, shall we start the test?"
A nod. Yes.
Dr Tackbridge cleared his throat, and began at the top of the list.
"Earth." (Born on Eridanus II, Merlin's note had said.)
"Déjà," Tackbridge continued. (The name of an AI involved in his education.)
"Fear." (An open prompt, something designed to elicit a snap emotional response.)
"Sam." (CHILDHOOD FRIEND POSS PUPPY/ADOLESCENT LOVER. Deceased at a young age, fourteen, a time of raging hormones and chaotic emotional development.)
Sad, Tackbridge thought, before continuing, "Game."
"Luck," he replied.
This next one was an odd one.
"Cortana." (The AI he had been attached to for over five years—only recently deceased.)
"Dead," the Master Chief snapped. No change in his facial expression, and his voice had raised by little more than a semitone, but it was clearly a touchy subject.
"Peace." (Could be an antonymic association
possibly an indication of weariness. He's been in service for decades, Tackbridge remembered.)
"Sex." (Another open prompt.)
Tackbridge opened his mouth to read the next prompt, but no words came out. He looked up again: the eyebrows were angled up slightly, furrowed in surprise, and the skin had flushed slightly pink. Jeremy had, of course, known about the SPARTAN-II project—everyone had, since the leaks—but until this point he had found it difficult to attach the notion of a child super-soldier to the weary-looking man sat opposite.
The test. Tackbridge picked up where he'd left off, and resumed.
"Trust," the Chief replied.
"Love." (Tackbridge expected this to be an interesting one
"Thank you," Tackbridge said, turning the recorder off and removing his spectacles, wondering again to himself why he hadn't bothered to get his eyes lasered. "That completes this portion of the test."
You were supposed to leave five minutes between each test, and offer them refreshments in between. Jeremy felt as if he could murder an egg sandwich—his train had been held up in the morning, and there had been no food left at the station for him to have breakfast.
"Can I get you a cup of coffee? Some mineral water?" he asked, standing and heading for the vending machine at the end of the room.
"I'm fine." He heard the Master Chief take a breath before adding, "thanks anyway."
Poor man, Jeremy muttered once he had his back turned, punching the button for the bottled water anyway.
Undergarment Pun Goes Here
"FLEETCOM will have to make the final decision, of course," Roland said, as Captain Lasky scanned the auto-generated psyche report. "Physically, he's fit as a fiddle. Some genetic mutations, but nothing you wouldn't expect."
"He was in an unshielded tube for four years." The effects of four years frozen and exposed to cosmic rays aside, what Tom saw in the psychometric report worried him. Tendency towards emotional withdrawal. Reserved aggression. Speedy decisions, rarely followed by an attempt to correct. "I'd be astonished if they didn't give him at least a few months' shore leave," he muttered, downloading a copy onto his neural bridge to examine more closely later.
"That's for them to decide, sir, but confidentially, I do agree with you."
"Assuming the Ice Queen doesn't have him locked in a box for the rest of his life," Lasky sighed, stretching in his seat as the door to the captain's cabin chimed. Roland saluted lightly before disintegrating in a shower of gold particles.
I hope Parangosky doesn't have the ship bugged, Tom thought, pushing the release key on his desk. She might try and assassinate us all.
"At ease, Chief," he said, quickly, not giving him time to salute or stand to attention in the doorway. "Please."
The chair made an uncomfortable squeaking noise as the Master Chief lowered himself into it, the frame straining under a hundred and thirty kilograms of augmented muscle and bone. Lasky had briefly expected it to snap.
"I've asked you here because I've received a request from FLEETCOM," he said, re-reading the mail he'd received from the Admiral. "Lord Hood would like you to take part in the holiday celebrations at the Voi Cenotaph."
The Chief's lower lip slacked, ever so slightly. Lasky still remembered the first time he'd seen that face, held in a perpetual jaw-lock, a man clearly beyond his years. Scores of medals, campaigns and a body count in the hundreds had made him old, even then, when he'd only—only, if that was even applicable—been Senior Chief Petty Officer.
"Every year since the end of the War, the brass has held a New Year celebration for personnel stationed in the Solar system. There's a segment at the beginning dedicated to the fallen." Lasky swivelled the screen about on its pivot. "It starts at sunset, and they always read a passage from For the Fallen. They want you to do it this year."
The Spartan's eyes scanned the message for a few second, his jaw tightening again.
"Especially after all that's happened this year," Tom continued, "with New Phoenix
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Am I being invited," the Chief asked, "or volunteered?"
"Invited." Lasky swung the screen back on its mount. "I suppose he just thinks it'll be good for morale."
"I'll do it," the Chief snapped, quickly.
"You don't have to. You can say no—"
"I know. I'll do it," he repeated.
Lasky smiled. "Good. I'll let them know you're willing to take part. You're dismissed, Chief. Thank you."
The Chief rose, and Tom spotted his eyes drifting towards that old book on his desk. Christopher Floyd's STARHOPPERS III.
"You keep staring at that book," he said, standing himself and turning off his equipment. "I didn't choose it. Del Rio was reading it before he got canned."
"I see." The Chief nudged the cover open to peer at the copyright page and the author photograph.
"I tried reading it, it's rubbish. You're welcome to it, but I wouldn't bother."
"Actually," the Chief said, allowing the cover to fall back into the stack, "I met the author a couple of times. He was stationed on the Pillar of Autumn."
Lasky immediately felt himself blushing with embarrassment. He'd called it rubbish. "Small world," he muttered, and pushed past the Chief on the way to the mess hall.
The (Rail)Road Goes Ever On
They transferred from the shuttle to a high-speed train at Cape Town, rolling up the spine of Africa on a reserved maglev track.
John had never been on a train before. He might have, in the muddy years of his youth, but he would've been too young to remember. He found the narrowness of the car disconcerting, but took some comfort in the large windows, and the fact he was seated by the vestibule. There was an emergency egress switch directly above it, so you could tear the door open and jump out with no risk of rapid decompression—that, at least, made it better than a starship.
Lasky was sat opposite him, tapping slowly at a tablet, occasionally taking a cursory glance out of the window. John wished he'd brought a book—Lasky had told him that he was welcome to that one Del Rio had left, but that was probably still on Infinity.
The view would've been nice if they weren't thundering through at six hundred kilometres an hour: right now, the savannah was a green blur, with occasional flashes of brown and black. It was mid-morning, and the light was unexciting.
John was already in his dress blues (a misnomer, given that they were actually a tempestuous battleship grey) and they were uncomfortably scratchy. He found himself longing once again for the comfort, and the privacy, and the anonymity of his armour, with Cortana providing some idle distraction with a voice-controlled chess game or something.
"Something bothering you, Chief?"
Lasky had put the tablet down, and was now resting both elbows on the table, eyeing him expectantly.
"It's nothing, sir," John said, quickly, staring intently through the window at the scrolling savannah.
Come on, Spartan, he told himself. He'd lost people before. Too many people, so why was Cortana's absence getting under his skin so much? It wasn't the worst death he'd seen. She'd died nobly, stopping the Didact and saving John's life.
Not the first, and not the last. The first had been a long time ago, but it still hurt.
It wasn't more than three months before he'd met Lasky, fresh-faced and jug-eared, with spots instead of wrinkles. The brave cadet (Silva? He found his memory failing him) who'd managed to survive a needler blast to the abdomen for three minutes. The image of Lasky cradling her body as she expired had muddied itself over time, but it was just as vivid when viewed through the pinhole camera of a fading memory.
Lasky was older now, and the eyes across the table were old eyes, much like John's own, wearied through the witness of many terrible things. And yet he still remembered the teenager, crying helplessly out in the field over a dead girl.
"Permission to sp—"
"Granted," Lasky interrupted, "and you don't have to ask me. You're off-duty, remember."
Technically, yes. But when John remembered the ceramic grafts on his bones, he doubted he could ever really be off-duty.
something of a personal question."
Lasky's smile loosened, and he glanced beyond the Chief, into the aisle, and out of the window. "Go ahead," he said, after a few seconds' waiting.
"The first time we met. Cadet Silva."
"Right," Lasky whispered, gazing blankly through the window.
John recalled the aftermath. Lasky had seemed lost in the Pelican, and all John had done was say 'I'm sorry,' told him he'd fought well, given him a shard of the Hunter's armour as a keepsake. He'd then retreated to the corner with Kelly and Fred, and barely made eye contact once his own helmet was off.
Sam's memory had still been fresh in his mind.
"It must've been difficult," John said.
"Yep." Lasky inhaled deeply, sat back in his seat, and fumbled around in his pocket, pulling out something on a chain: a pair of dogtags. SILVA, Chyler. He'd hung on to that for all these years.
"I'm sorry," John blurted, again, an expression of sympathy delayed by thirty years.
"It's fine," Lasky said, inhaling again and blinking the glint from his eyes, straightening and returning it to his breast pocket as the Chief finally recognised the other fragment attached to them—the shard of the Hunter he'd helped down on Circinius IV.
Cortana didn't have dogtags, John remembered. Nothing left to bury.
"I made myself do better," continued Lasky. "My combat scores sucked at Corbulo, but
I dunno." He leaned forward on his elbows again, drawing a covering smile. "I guess love really is an enabler."
"Did you love her?"
Lasky paused for a moment before answering. "Yes. Yes," he said, slowly, deliberately, "I suppose I did."
"I'm sorry," the Chief said, for the second time in as many minutes, the third in as many decades. He had had an inkling that the pain on the young Lasky's face was more than that of a soldier losing his comrade.
"Did you ever find anyone else?" he asked, on a whim, although intimate relationships like that were still a mystery to him—something he, quite simply, had never understood. (They'll pair you with another AI, he remembered Cortana saying.)
yes, I did."
"Is she nice?"
"Yes," Lasky said. "He was."
He. Something else John hadn't known about Lasky. Was, in the past tense, too. "I'm sorry," John said, again, not even sure why he did so.
"It's fine," said Lasky. "We broke it off, too difficult trying to keep it going long-distance."
"Maybe some day," Lasky muttered, distantly. "We're still friends."
Friends. Another story, another thing John had missed. Another chapter of a friend's life that he had been absent for.
"Why do you ask?" the Captain asked, suddenly, furling to full height and sitting back against his seat.
" John began, intending to say
he wasn't sure. "I'm guessing," he continued, restarting his sentence, "she must've been your first combat loss."
not quite," Lasky said, his voice trailing at the end of each word. "She was the first one I saw that really hurt."
"I was the same," John mused.
That made Lasky look up in muted surprise, his eyes intent but not quite widened. "How so?" he asked.
"It was only a few months before," the Master Chief recounted. "We sank a Covenant cruiser with a bomb, but his suit had a breach in it so he couldn't evacuate. We had to leave him."
"I'm sorry," Lasky said—something John had found annoying in himself felt unexpectedly kind when coming from someone else.
"He was a SPARTAN-II, like me," John continued. "His name was Sam."
"It was very sudden," he recalled. "He was the best of all of us, he was stronger, he was faster
and he was a lot braver than I was."
"Right," said Lasky, his eyes drifting to the middle distance. "Were you two
"Were we what?" In love? "No. No!" John blurted, feeling his face flush red in embarrassment. "We were
He trailed off, unsure of what to call it. If it was not love that they had shared, he didn't know what it was, but it wasn't that. Not the swell that had risen in his chest on plugging Cortana in—
"He was the closest to a brother I ever had," John finished, staring out of the train's window, enough time to read the name off the station signs even though they were thundering through at two hundred metres per second.
"I lost my brother too," Lasky said.
"Oh." The little sound came out of his mouth without him realising it, an uncharacteristic flash of naked surprise. "I didn't realise."
"It's OK," the Captain said, straightening, stuffing his tablet into a kevlar carrying-bag. "We can talk about this another time."
"Thank you, sir."
"No problem, Chief," Lasky continued. "We're all friends, now. It's what friends are for."
John remembered the hours he'd spent standing on Infinity's observation deck, and how Lasky had come up to speak to him, offer his condolences.
What kind of a friend am I? John wondered, glaring through the window and catching the briefest glimpse of a hyena before it blurred again into the savannah. Where was I when he was crying over Silva? His brother?
" he began.
Not a good one.
"Whenever I was struggling on an exercise," John recounted, "he'd always pick me up and dust me off, and he'd always say 'never let them see you bleed.'"
"That's good advice," said Lasky.
"Mhmm." Another involuntary noise by way of acknowledgement. Never let them see you bleed—good advice, but it wasn't until after Sam had gone that John had learned how important it truly was.
"I'm going to the buffet car," Lasky announced, standing and stowing his datapad overhead. "Do you want anything?"
John was hungry, but he had no idea what he could expect to find to eat on a moving train. I'm fine, he opened his mouth to say, but it came out as "I don't know."
"I'll get some sandwiches and a Fanta," Lasky said, disappearing past John and into the next coach.
I need to get off this damn train, John thought.
"Is he off somewhere?" Palmer asked, watching Corporal Dubbo as he broke through the throng and sprinted in the direction of the railway station.
"His wife's waters have broken," Stacker said.
"Great timing." Palmer took the free seat, checking all her lapels and badges and buttons and medals were in the correct places. Before Infinity's re-deployment had been delayed by two months, Chips had been pestering her to get the brass to put him on paternity leave.
Sergeant M. Peter Stacker was paging through the programme. The New Year celebration at Voi was an odd event by any standards: it started out as a memorial service, and slowly loosened up as the night went on, with music, theatre set-pieces, and by midnight it had usually degenerated into a full-on open air Christmas ball.
The atmosphere seemed more somber this year. New Phoenix was still fresh in people's minds: the sight of men, women and children simply vanishing into thin air, recovered from security cameras and played again and again on ever corner of the planet, was not something that would be forgotten quickly.
"It doesn't say in here who's opening it," Pete said, lodging a knowing smile in Palmer's direction.
"Gonna be a big surprise," Palmer grinned, touching her nose by way of acknowledgement. By now, everyone in Lasky's inner circle knew that the Master Chief would be opening the celebration—outside Infinity, it was a closely-guarded secret, nothing more than an outlandish rumour.
"No-one knows what he looks like," Stacker realised. "But when he opens his mouth
"Yeah," Palmer grinned, settling back into her seat and adjusting her cap. She looks good in evening wear, Pete thought. Older, more mature.
"Ladies and gentlemen," came a sudden, booming voice, "would those who can, please stand."
Silence and the sound of shuffling shoes spread in a ripple across the assembled throng, the soldiers snapping to their feet, the civilians in the stands behind them doing so more reluctantly.
There was a very mild breeze that peppered Stacker's face, and he found himself rubbing his chin, setting a reminder on his bridge that he needed to trim his beard. The sea of heads was topped with a golden foam, the orange-cast light of the sunset highlighting the edges of their hair.
"He's had his hair buzzed," Palmer whispered, and Pete turned his attention to match hers, to the slender figure marching up the aisle, clutching a folder of paper notes under his arm.
God almighty, Stacker thought, locking his hands before his waist, he looks old. The fresh haircut had accentuated the wrinkles, the wear on the Spartan's skin, and the perpetual shadow on his eyes.
He approached the pulpit, swivelling to face the audience with an unexpected elegance. A ripple of whispers emerged behind them as the rustling of the Chief's notes was amplified over the sound system.
"Who's that?" whispered someone behind him.
"I dunno," said another, "just some guy?"
Stacker twisted and spat an invidious 'shush' as the Master Chief opened his mouth to speak.
"They mingle not
with their laughing comrades again," he began, deliberately, and there was instantly a rise of noise from the audience behind them.
"Oh my God
"Silence!" Palmer snapped, "you will not talk!"
The young Marine froze into silence, as the Chief continued, "
they have no lot in our labour of the daytime; they sleep beyond our mortal foam."
Pete stole a glance at Palmer, and he could tell she was thinking the same thing: he was speaking too fast, not allowing himself enough breathing time between sentences.
"They went with songs to the battle, they were young," he continued, "straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow." His voice was cracking a little, but he was slowing down, and that somehow injected more gravitas. "They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted
and they fell with their faces to the foe."
Come on, Chief, Stacker thought. If you can sink a superweapon with a nuke and survive, you can read a damn poem. The Chief's face, blown up on four giant screens to the sides, looked up, surveyed the audience—missing Stacker—before he swallowed, and took a pause of breath.
"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
we will remember them."
Any nascent applause was snuffed out by three blasts of the trumpet, the opening of Fanfare for the Common Man (something the governments of the world had, after much wrangling, managed to agree upon as an anthem for all.) The Master Chief swung about again, to face the Cenotaph, and saluted, sharply.
A sudden gust of wind sent a ripple across his uniform, and a few hats flying across the assembled crowds. The band continued, not dropping a single beat although the conductor's coat was visibly billowing.
The final note hit an uncomfortably loud crescendo, ceased abruptly.
A few brave souls started clapping as the Master Chief closed his folder, and strode to the side, giving a cursory glance outwards—in Stacker's direction.
Pete swore he saw the crinkle of a nascent smile on the old man's lips as they made eye contact. Someone, somewhere in the audience, cheered—as those around chided them, the applause peaked, and slowly decayed.
And as quickly as he'd appeared, the Master Chief was gone.
"Was that the Mas—"
"Yes," Pete whispered.
The young Marine behind him uttered a quiet "wow." His mouth was hanging open, and he seemed dazed, star-struck. "You know him?"
"A little," Sergeant Stacker said. Not well enough, he thought, but he remembered what the Chief had quipped when freeing his team from the holding cells on Delta Halo. 'You know me. A friend for life.'
Perhaps, thought Pete (ORION candidate 73, as he had once been) he had more in common with the Master Chief than he'd realised—and in that instant, he was glad to count him as a friend.
The orchestra was now playing Stravinsky (the Firebird, a nod to New Phoenix) and the sun had dipped below the horizon, turning the gold and the green to blue.
In four hours, the chairs would be cleared away, and the assembled soldiers would be dancing to whatever bassy music was currently popular.
John doubted he would be joining them. He was itching to get out of his dress shirt: it was at least two sizes too small, and the fabric made his skin crawl.
For now, he had come to the foot of the Cenotaph. Admiral Hood had led him here, amongst the rotting flowers and the laminated photographs, to a small blank spot.
Some kind soul had carved 117 into the metal surface of the monument.
Hood had left him to himself, and John was surprised at how moved he was by the presence of his service ID, in graffiti, by some stranger who he'd never meet.
He had been touched by the smiles of the audience, too. John was well aware that this was technically his 'public debut,' the first time anyone outside the brass and his own inner circle had had a face to associate with the name, with the icon.
He disliked the idea of being an icon.
His left hand was in his pocket, thumbing at the data card, subconsciously.
They'd examined it afterwards, and given it back to him as a gesture of goodwill: it was virtually empty, but there were a few clusters that remained, a few shards of Cortana that had been left by the explosion.
The Master Chief unbuttoned his tunic, shrugged it off, and laid it on the side of the monument, on a convenient ledge, before squatting, and beginning to scrap away at the ground.
It took him less than a minute to dig a grave deep enough so that it wouldn't be disturbed. His hands were coated in dust, and he wiped them on his dress shirt before gently placing Cortana's data card within.
He let his forefinger linger for a moment, remaining in contact with the little crystal, before bringing his palms together to bury it—bury her—in the African soil.
John smoothed it over with a gentle pat, standing upright again, wiping his hands on his abdomen again before stiffening, and gazing down at the little grave he'd dug.
Unmarked, of course, but she was there. Time to say goodbye.
"Goodbye," John mumbled, stepping away from the grave. She was gone, and there was no changing that, no matter how much you wanted it to.
He didn't like losing friends, but
He straightened again, sniffed, and cleared his throat. His shirt was filthy now—he'd need to go and change it, but he didn't want to put his tunic back on in case it stained the inside of that, too.
He fumbled to unbutton the shirt, shrugging it off, feeling a chill as the breeze buffeted his bare chest.
His eyes widened as he looked down.
It had been in the same batch as the augmentations, or only a few weeks before: he, and all the Spartans, had their body and pubic hair follicles lasered. No hair means less risk of foreign objects—and infections—entering wounds.
But now he saw something different when he looked down. John was growing a gentle coating of downy fur, short and light-coloured, on his torso, and on his arms.
The Librarian, he immediately thought, although all Infinity's doctors had given him a clean bill of health afterwards.
Feeling a little nauseous, John quickly slipped back into his tunic, suddenly feeling very cold and hoping nobody would noticed on the way back that he wasn't wearing anything underneath.
For the first time in years, John was genuinely scared. He could not tell anyone—not now, at least.
Cortana would know what to do.
He stuffed the dirty shirt into his trouser pocket, and took another glance down at the grave.
Cortana was not here now. John would have to take care of himself, better than how he'd failed to take care of her.
He felt a lump in his throat, a tangible physical sensation that amplified itself, made John shiver as he raised a hand to his chin.
Never let them see you bleed. He had waited until after he had been de-briefed to weep over Sam, locking himself in a quiet area of the ship and wallowing in self-pity for a few hours. He'd spoken with Kelly about it (it turned out she had done the same—they were all teenagers) and felt marginally better afterwards.
John was older now, wiser, and wizened. But something was happening to him, and he could not tell anyone. Never let them see you bleed—or mutate.
Dammit, this hurt.
"Goodbye, Cortana," he whispered, subconsciously kissing the inside of his fingers. "Goodbye, with all my love."
With all best wishes to the HBO community for peace and prosperity at Christmas