The sun poured over the city skyline, slowly creeping through the sleeping streets and bringing light to the mysteries of the night. A night that did not want unmasking, though. Smoke hung thick in the air, adding a last vestige of defense to what belonged still to the stubborn night. But nature's healing touch is not so easily dismayed, and with its healing light, so too did it bring on a light breeze to waft away the smoke... If only to see the horrors with no uncertainty.
Children lay scattered across the street, their backs burned, their faces crushed against the hard street. The school where they had come from smoldered still, low fires hanging on in the heavy breeze. The charred remnants of the building were distributed explosively along the street, twisted and unrecognizable. The teachers were smears for having put the children's safety above their own... To no avail.
The snow that had settled over the past day, several feet thick and trapping the students with teachers, had been flash melted in the arc of the explosion, leaving the perversion of a stage. The rest of the street's snow bled water, creating a slush mix and slick ice layers.
The silence of the street lay thickly. If only to carry on the sound of a plow that came on the road a mile or so on, attempting to allow the people access to the cities arterial roadways. It went about its automated task and ran headlong into the wreckage of the school, where it took debris and bodies and cast them to the side of the street with no discrimination.... Just bits of refuse in the snow.
The alarm sang out a tune of shrill annoyance, something that no one could sleep through-- except Brian. His roommate, David, drunkenly stumbled across the small room and threw the alarm at the heavy sleeper, immediately turning to return to his own comfortable bed. He didn't understand why the alarm was even set as they had been stuck in the building for some time due to the heavy snowstorm that had passed recently. With a full heart behind it, he simply told himself he didn't care and continued to sleep off his hang-over.
Brian, though, felt the sharp attack to his head that was the thrown alarm. Apparently, this ritual was enough to drag him from the depths of his deep slumbers to shallower waters where normal people slept; enough to let him hear the piercing ring right next to his ear. He finally acquiesced with the single plea of his again unconscious roommate, shutting off the alarm to begin his own ritual: shower, shave, the normal drill.
This time with the added benefit of eyes that drooped heavily in the brilliant light that reflected in the lone window off of the pure white snow. The birds chirped on the windowsill, attacking his auditory system with wild abandon while he stumbled in the one luxury his dorm had: a private bathroom. As he closed the door behind him, he was thankful for it--specifically for it shutting him away from the harsh realities of sunlight and nature's morning calls.
The shower worked amazing wonders (as did the hot water splashes from shaving) to fully rouse him to the world's wonders for the day. One of which, he found waiting for him as soon as he powered on his computer station: classes were recommencing. Today. Now. He kicked his friend with such force to wedge him between the edge of his bed and the wall, shouting for him to look at the computer as he grabbed his own bag and trudged out into the freshly-salted open-air corridors that his university used. Many of the students seemed to be at the same disadvantage as he, and crowded the way to his classroom, giving him no choice but to push through the groups.
"... Just hit, I don't know..."
"... Family owns a shop around..." a particularly panicked voice said.
"... A school?" one student in the sizable congregation intoned.
"Does that mean we...?" a faceless voice answered.
Not wanting to be late, Brian ignored all the voices, and kept his eyes pinned low, watching the way in front of him to open a path up that would allow him to arrive in his class safely on time. And that was how he noticed them: Boots that were polished so thoroughly that his own eyes stared back at him from within their shine.
Looking up quickly, he saw it was someone in full Navy dress, an ONI insignia adorning his shoulder. A recruiter. Everyone was fully aware of them, rooting out all the "salvageables" and enticing them to join the efforts to keep humanity alive. Away from the brink of extinction.
They had always done it, as far as memory stretched back, pulling great minds when they were still somewhat naive to the world. It was nothing new, except now it was out of the shadows; they made no attempt to dress in civilian clothes to hide their intents, instead marching in in full dress. Knocking on doors while some awed, others gawked, spinning speeches about how this one person would be the lynch pin to humanity's further survival in this unrelenting universe.
It's standard fare now, nothing to really involve myself in. Besides, Brian thought, I can't honestly say I really care.
The lights above flickered on and off suddenly, catching the attention of the ONI agents, who looked at them with a slight dismay. Brian realized at their sudden change in attention that he was staring at the agents, stopped in his thoughts, lost.
The power grids had been especially patchy lately, frequently powering on and off, always downplayed on the news. There would be a small blurb, then assurances that the authorities had a full grasp on the situation. Later, these stories began to be supplanted by ones of upgrades to the grid going into place; of patching the problems that were left over from the Covenant invasion. Everyone had well-since moved past the blatant lies that were spewed at them and instead stuck with the rumor mill that churned out more savory explanations.
They were almost impossible to miss, and invaded everywhere: the dorms, cafeteria, even... class! Brian took off at a run, blindly pushing aside people as rushed off. All the way, he cursed himself for having signed up for the first class of the day on all of campus, no one else was that stupid. Stupid enough to sell away their morning breakfast that could be put to something more constructive... Like talking about whatever was going on out there in the wide world.
But he didn't really think it was all lost time given that ONI now effectively had control of every university on Earth. This was really just training for a career that was all but inevitable now. And that is precisely why he was elated that he made it only five minutes late.
Professor Pepper, a relatively young man who had taken up the professorship in the wake of the invasion while still working toward his doctorate, took interest in this, calling his new star pupil out.
"I liked your thesis, but that doesn't mean you can choose when class starts." Brian mumbled a quick apology as he moved into a seat near the front of the class, unashamed.
"Well, as I was about to say, today we're going to cover the ante bellum period. We all know how we got here, but what are the repercussions?" Professor Pepper asked rhetorically, looking up at all his students in the amphitheater-styled room. "How are we holding up? Where are we going to be?"
"We have to start somewhere, so let's jump to the end," the professor started with a slight smirk. "The UNSC found itself bolstering our last world against the Covenant, unable to defeat the Covenant despite all the factors. ONI instead looked to destroy the enemy through subterfuge and in-fighting. Thanks to the workings of the SPARTAN program, this happened. The warrior caste of the Covenant had the gap widened and eventually split away, forming a temporary alliance to aid us while the final blow was dealt to the leadership caste of the Covenant.
"By the end of November 2552, due to outside involvement, we found our world 'safe,' hardly felt as much, though, many will tell you, with the warrior caste's ships floating around, as 'guardians.'
"Even so, it was absolutely necessary. All of the continents suffered heavily during both of the battles, leaving us scarred and broken, Africa all but lost. People were afraid, afraid of those ships firing on their homes again, afraid of yet another invasion, so, many areas continued to deteriorate in the lapse of up keep.
"That prompted the UNSC to step in and begin the arduous task of implementing a reconstruction plan, bringing in a hard-edged approach that, despite its detractors, was useful. That's how we've been able to resume our normalcy in such a short state... The kicker is that that normalcy was no longer enough... Heavy casualties be damned, we now had millions flooding into every corner, refugees from every one of the former colonies.
"Everything was running short and further UNSC involvement was called for, sparking tensions that many thought we could lie to rest in our time of need. I guess old habits die hard, though.
"Many of these new refugees were from the Outer Colonies and had been planet hopping since the early days of the war. 'Baggers' is what they became known as, for their trademark single bags of possessions that were lifelines to the destroyed past. Including the feelings of betrayal, mistrust, and a sense of righteousness.
"The rubbing is--" the professor began as they were plunged into darkness.
"Not a problem, I'm sure it will be back momentarily." But the power did not come back, the entire class sitting in the dark, waiting on the power to be restored. Many, Brian included pulled their computers out to pass the time as Professor Pepper began busied himself with trying to find out about the outage.
Brian scrolled through the limited applications that he had access to over the classroom network and opted to check his mail. He found a new letter from his mother, telling him of how proud she was, how his father would have been so proud of him. His sister also sent him a letter out of familial sense, having not really grown up with him, always having been away somewhere. He sorted the inbox, separating the wheat from the chaff until he came to a curious letter attributed to a government owned address.
His eyes ran over the subject line several times, 'A Time for Service.' Nothing clicked for him, only curiosity. He opened the file and found the letter that greeted him had a watermark designed in it, the insignia of ONI.
Brian stared at the letter for a few moments in utter surprise, just not able to grasp that he would be one of the ones to be singled out. The lights kicked on overhead, reviving him from his reverie.
"Well, according to the ONI officer in charge of research here, looks like we can expect this all morning, so, I'm going to dismiss class," the professor announced to them all.
Brian stashed his computer back into his bag, joining the herd as it left the class. He couldn't get that letter off his mind, though. He walked to nowhere in particular, seeing students all staring at him from benches that sat astride the walkways, as if he would start a sudden dance number, taking little notice. He settled to stopping in at his dorm to talk it out with David only to find him not there.
Dismayed, he decided on a late breakfast and tossed his bag onto his bed to not allow its contents to disturb him. Along the way, he felt as if the tables had turned and he was suddenly the one watching at the students once again congregated together, whispering hurried conversations in corners leaving him wondering just what the hell was going on today.
Just outside the cafeteria, he found another pair of ONI agents talking to a student about his patriotic duty. Brian looked away, so as to not remind himself of what sat on his bed, waiting for his return. He moved by the agents who looked over at him as he passed closely by, which he pretended not to notice, averting his eyes to the gaggle of students who stared at them like they were pop stars. He found a curious lack of the usual vehement eyes, assuming they were just the ones who were more occupied with the freshly looked eggs and sausage he smelled on the air.
Shedding all thoughts, energized by the thought of the proper breakfast that awaited him, he doubled up and grabbed what he could of a meal and sat down. He kept his eyes on his plate, mind wiped clean of every thought except the fluffy eggs that he forked into his mouth, mixing with the sausage that almost tasted real, a rare thing in this age. He washed it all down with a generic beverage that on any other day would have simply been, but today seemed to have a real flavor to it, satisfying more than a simple thirst.
They showed up then. The two ONI agents from outside moved across the room, straight for his table. Brian saw the movement from his peripheral, knowing they were there for him. He wasn't sure if he was ready, so he took a minute and stared into the corner of the room, at the microphone that stood lonely in the corner while they stood silently near him.
He liked that microphone, so often serenaded by would-be artists who let the energy of the world pour out of them and into the speakers. And that made him almost happy to see a student with a large pack that looked like it held a fancy guitar heading for the stage.
"Son, we would like to speak with you," one of the agents behind him said. He still didn't know how to feel, so he kept his eyes forward, hiding his uncertainty about just whether he wanted this or not.
"The times are troubled, we need the best and the brightest to take up the mantle and guide humanity toward the future where we still live," the other of the two continued. Brian muttered some incoherent words to tell them he was listening, but to express no more to them than that. He just watched the artist as she pulled off her heavy pack and fumbled with cables.
"Everyone is being called upon, but we see a particular amount of potential in you." The girl looked good behind that microphone, her blond hair contrasted by her darker eyebrows, hiding the green depths that pooled below. She smiled.
"Son?" Brian was ignoring them now, the siren's smile drawing him in, stripping away his and everyone else's defenses.
"Innies out!" She yelled into the microphone, inviting hell to the unaware.
The two ONI agents didn't hesitate, their hands moved to their sides, training kicking in. Realizing they were in their dress, they immediately turned and ran for the door, forgetting the students amassed there, gaping at this girl. Their purpose of making sure humanity lived guiding every action.
The students didn't know where to look, the girl who was slipping a small device from her sleeve, or the ONI agents who were fleeing the scene.
The ONI agents didn't break their stride and shouldered their way through the glass doors of the cafeteria as the girl raised the detonator to the sky, pressing a small button. The instrument case detonated, sending an explosion to chase after the agents.
Brian was frozen to his seat, shocked to his core, unbelieving even as the pillars blew out around him and the ceiling came crashing down around him. His last thought not running back to his mother, sister or long dead father, but to his bag that sat on his bed, unattended. How he didn't need to make that tough decision of going with ONI anymore.
(I'm putting this at the end so as to possibly cut-off some complaints. If you do not wish to read it, it is completely unnecessary.)
I'd like to thank everyone who had a hand in this and apologize for how things turned out. As well, I would like to dedicate this to all the MAJor influences that went into its creation. I hope it's been enjoyable read for everyone!