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Let This Be Your Last Battlefield: Survivor's Guilt
Posted By: QuantumSheep<quantumsheep@optusnet.com.au>
Date: 6 December 2010, 10:40 am

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Survivor's Guilt
Planet designated P7H-910, Alpha Sirius System
January 5th, 2549

The jungle floor was uneven, covered with thick undergrowth, rotting logs and assorted types of native fungi. High above the jungle canopy provided only the smallest pinpoints of sunlight to pierce through the thick umbrella of leaves and down to the jungle floor. Creepers snaked their way up moss-covered tree trunks while native insects, ranging from small mosquito-like bugs to large, foot-long centipedes flew around or crawled into the smallest nooks within the tree trunks. The heat and humidity was more than the harshest jungle environment on Earth, so much so that Spartan Leon-A091 had begun to sweat under his bulky MJOLNIR armour. The armour suit's climate control systems were struggling to keep him cool, something that further indicated that this jungle was not the sort one would want to spend a great deal of their time in.

Leon was a First Lieutenant, part of a five-man team of Spartans: Spartan-III's to be exact. They had raided Covenant installations on several planets in surrounding systems in the last month or so, causing chaos to their alien enemies, delaying what many in the highest echelons of the UNSC saw as an inevitable attack on a set of human colonies in a relatively close-by sector of space. Leon had seen first hand the gathering Covenant war machine when he and his team had infiltrated and destroyed a Covenant ship yard in orbit around a gas giant: about fifty Covenant ships, many of them cruisers or frigates, had gathered there to undergo last minute maintenance before being sent off to attack the nearby human colonies. It had been by the actions of him and his team that they had crippled twelve of these vessels and completely destroyed the shipyard, escaping in the nick of time (unsurprisingly) and returning to the UNSC stealth-class vessel that had been flying them to and from the locations of these raids. Leon was somewhat surprised that they had survived such an endeavour but he supposed that they were either damn good at their job or damn lucky. He figured it was both.

Today had proven to be a fairly interesting day: they had successfully infiltrated and destroyed a Covenant weapons factory about twenty kilometres away. Being a weapons factory, it had gone up beautifully when the explosive charges they had placed within the factory had been detonated. Plasma was extremely volatile and the blue-white column of fire that had taken the place of the factory had been perhaps more blinding than this star system's sun, forcing the visor on Leon's armour to polarize to its fullest extent as he and his team watched the spectacular light-show. It felt satisfying to know that countless hundreds of Covenant soldiers of a variety of species had died in that explosion. For every Covenant soldier killed, several innocent human lives were saved. Leon supposed that this was how he justified slaughtering the enemy and he had never felt a pang of guilt about it. Their enemy had killed billions during their relentless push through human controlled space, "glassing" entire planets and ploughing through UNSC ships as if they were nothing but a fly on a car windshield. At least Leon and his team were having some effect on the Covenant war machine, although due to the size of the Covenant forces they had far more work ahead of them to finish the war. Countless more Covenant ships and perhaps hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers were still out there, plotting their next move against humanity.

Leon had only received about three hours sleep in the last few days. Being a Spartan, he could get by on minimal sleep but after all that had happened during the week he could feel the tiredness beginning to take its toll. His legs ached from all of the walking and running, having needed to traverse uneven jungle terrain for the last twenty kilometres. He had marched farther than that but added onto everything else he was really beginning to feel the need to sit down and rest. Naturally his squad leader would disallow it, especially since they were required to be at the extraction zone in the nest half an hour. Their pickup would not stay for long for fear of being detected by Covenant forces in the region, despite all necessary precautions made to prevent such a thing from occurring. One could never be too careful when it came to the Covenant, something that was certainly understandable. A single Pelican drop-ship would be no match for a squadron of Banshee scout-craft.

Leon stopped briefly against a large tree trunk, flicking off a nasty looking centipede which had started to crawl across his shoulder. He pulled off his Operator-class helmet, running his free hand through his short-cut brown hair. He was sweating across the forehead and the brief moment of cool air he felt as he removed his helmet was well worth the effort. It was so hot and humid that every centimetre of his skin felt sticky, getting stuck to his armour's under-layer and making movement somewhat more uncomfortable than it should have been. He looked around, watching as the other four members of his team emerged from the undergrowth behind him. They were scattered in a typical staggered formation, with Leon taking point. They had taken turns leading the group and it seemed about time for someone else to take the lead. Captain Thomas A-055, the no-nonsense leader of the squad, emerged from the undergrowth on Leon's right. Leon slipped his helmet back on, his HUD highlighting the Captain with a helpful blue arrow. From a little to Leon's left emerged the nimble but armoured form of 2nd Lieutenant Livia B-121 and a short distance from her both Warrant Officer Francis A-133 and Sergeant Brad A-059 came through the thick jungle undergrowth. They were all outfitted in similar suits of armour, although each member of the team had taken the time to add their own colours and emblems. Leon's armour was a distinct golden-yellow colour mingled with a matching light brown. The Captain's armour was mostly black, with extra ammunition pouches scattered across his front and waist.

"Lieutenant, I think it's about time you went to the rear of the group," the Captain said, his gruff voice sounding almost normal through his helmet.

"I was about to ask about that, sir," Leon said. He hefted himself up from against the tree trunk, watching as the others scattered through the immediate area, carefully checking all directions with weapons drawn. Leon pulled his MA37 assault rifle from the magnetic strip on his back, flicking the safety off and starting over a fallen tree that had since begun to decay on the jungle floor. It was very unlikely that they would be attacked, as most of the Covenant forces in the region would be busy trying to contain the mess the Spartans had made back at the weapons factory. All the group had to do was press on through the jungle to a clearing where a Pelican drop-ship would be waiting to pick them up. It was a simple enough extraction. They would be taken back to the UNSC stealth-class ship currently hiding in the shadow of one of the planet's moons and they would be debriefed, probably congratulated and hopefully given some time to rest. Hopefully, Leon thought absently. He had not had a decent meal in a week. MREs did not count as "decent meals", especially when most of the military rations they were given tasted like cardboard or plastic, depending on what the food was packaged in.

"Brad," the Captain announced, getting A-059's attention, "You're on point."

"Got it, sir," Brad replied, his usually chirpy voice resounding through both the jungle and the radio within Leon's helmet.

Brad started up ahead, pushing through some jungle ferns. The rest of the team followed, with Leon tagging along a few metres behind the Captain. Around him he could hears birds calling and bugs chirruping, although most would fall silent as the Spartans went by. A small green lizard had perched itself on a fallen tree, watching the group walk by with a pair of piercing yellow eyes. As Leon walked by it flicked out its tongue, tasting the air before speeding away on its four nimble legs.

It was about ten minutes later that the group found a somewhat large clear area in the jungle, where the canopy was less dense and where the undergrowth had thrived. Brad held up one hand, signalling the group to stop. The Captain marched forward, assault rifle raised as he went to investigate whatever it is that Brad had noticed. Leon crept forward, standing to Livia's right. She looked at him, her expression impossible to determine through her Scout-class helmet.

"Lieutenant," she said, acknowledging him. Leon simply nodded in response: he had always noticed that Livia seemed to pay more attention to him than anyone else, something he had taken as a sort of respect…but Leon had always thought he might have been missing the point, feeling that it was some other reason that Livia took more notice of him than anyone else she knew.

The Captain knelt by a short ditch, one filled with thick jungle vegetation. Carefully, he pulled some of it away and gazed in an examining manner at what he found underneath. The other members of the squad stepped forward, peering into the ditch. Two bloodied, dirtied and quite dead marines lay in the ditch while spent bullet casings, most likely from their assault rifles, lay scattered around them in the dirt. With a careful hand the Captain snatched the dog-tags from both dead marines and rubbed away the dirt that had caked upon them, reading out the names.

"Sergeant Vincent Matheson and Corporal Carl Davis," the Captain announced, "Both from the 3rd Infantry regiment, 2nd battalion."

"What the hell are they doing out here, sir?" Francis asked from behind, "We're the only humans on this planet…"

"That's obviously wrong if those two are lying dead in a ditch on this planet," Livia replied, her tone piercing and decisive. She had never gotten along too well with Francis, probably because the pair were direct opposites. Livia tended to approach things in a methodical and rational manner, whereas Francis was considerably more reckless and hot-headed. Regardless, whatever dislike they had for each other would disappear in the heat of a firefight. They knew better than to let their petty squabbles impair the rest of the squad's ability to work together. They had known each other for years, right from the very beginning when they were inducted into the Spartan-III program. Obviously their superiors had noticed their capacity to work well together since they had ended up in the same team and had remained that way for years.

"The 3rd Infantry regiment was in charge of defending a UNSC shipyard that got destroyed in a Covenant attack a month ago," the Captain said, standing up. He turned to face the others. "If that's the case, then I'm confused as to why they're here."

"Maybe they were captured, sir?" Brad suggested, "They were brought here and escaped into the jungle, only to get cut down in what looks like an ambush. Those casings are all around, as if they were shooting in all directions. There's no evidence of an organized firing pattern. And they're covered in plasma burns, which makes the identity of the culprits kind of obvious."

"You know what?" Leon interjected, "I think this doesn't add up whatsoever. Two soldiers, both of whom were MIA, show up on some backwater alien controlled planet and just happen to get killed in a place we stumble across? That's a one in a million chance…maybe even more than that. One in five million."

There was a brief silence amongst the team. They all weighed the consequences of this discovery in their minds, trying to work out if there was indeed a much darker reason behind it all. The Captain took a careful gaze at their surroundings, stepping past Leon as he stepped up on a fallen tree and tried his helmet radio. The Pelican drop-ship that was supposed to be waiting for them did not respond, either because it had not actually arrived yet or…

"No response from our intended extraction drop-ship," the Captain stated, "And there's no way we'll be able to get in touch with the stealth ship."

"We wait," Livia replied, "The Pelican probably hasn't arrived yet."

Leon could tell that the others had gone on edge. It was quite noticeable, the tension in their voices. Leon could not help but feel the same himself, but being a Spartan he knew how to control his nerves as did everyone else. They were still human, they still felt fear and anxiety. They were just better at putting it under control. The words of one of Leon's many trainers and superior officers wandered into his mind at that moment: You must learn to control fear and not let it control you.

"Sir, I suggest we get moving," Leon said, looking towards the Captain, "Staying here isn't safe."

"We should never have stopped in the first place," the Captain said, shaking his head as he realized his mistake. He paused for a moment, before continuing: "I can understand why we're making mistakes, though. We're all tired, we're all feeling the strain of our actions in the last few weeks take their toll…"

"You know what I'm thinking, sir?" Francis asked, interrupting the Captain. He nodded towards the two dead soldiers. "Those two dead army boys lying dead over there…they were captured and then they were let out, hunted for sport. I wouldn't be surprised if Elites were into that sort of thing."

"Damn it Francis," the Captain snapped suddenly, "Do you have to interrupt me?"

Leon was perhaps the only one who noticed the ripple in the air behind the Captain as he started having a go at Francis. The Captain was tired and on edge, as they all were so his anger was not unfounded.

"I think we should just get moving and forget about what we found here," the Captain said, "And that—"

The dark armoured stealth Elite, eight feet tall and massive in its muscular frame, shimmered into being from behind the Captain and plunged the two-pronged blade of its glowing energy sword through the back of the Captain's head. His helmet did little to stop the searing razor-sharp blade, with both prongs going straight through his skull and smashing out the front of his visor. The Elite pulled the sword free and let the Captain's lifeless corpse tumble onto the ground below.

At that moment chaos erupted around the four remaining Spartans as several more camouflaged Elites shimmered into view, surrounding the group whilst hiding in the undergrowth and the tree-line. Leon stared at the Captain's body for a moment, almost dumbfounded by the fact that he had died. He had known the man for so long, had developed a close friendship with him…and yet he now lay dead in the undergrowth, his visor smashed while blood trickled down his face. His blue eyes were wide open, as if he had not expected death at that moment. No one in the squad had expected it. Death could come so quickly and without mercy…

Some said Spartans never died. That was just typical public relations stuff. Ever since the Spartan Program had gone public the UNSC had been billing them as indestructible super soldiers. They could not be further from the truth. Spartans could die just like any ordinary human could.

Leon raised his assault rifle and squeezed the trigger. The weapon buckled in his grip, hammering each round home in the front of the Elite that had killed the Captain. The active camouflage the alien used limited the strength of its shields, something that benefited Leon greatly since the alien's shields failed after a few direct hits. The assault rifle rounds ripped through the alien's armour, cutting it down. The Elite fell backwards, slumping against a tree trunk and smearing dark purple blood as it fell against it.

Leon became aware of the several other stealth Elites surrounding them, all of which had opened fire with plasma rifles and plasma repeaters. Leon shifted his fire to one of the Elites up ahead, just to his left. His assault rifle's magazine clicked on empty at that moment and Leon hurriedly began to reload. He rolled into cover behind a thick tree trunk, plasma bolts slamming into the front of it and burning holes into the wood.

He looked towards the others, watching as Livia and Brad went running into cover, weapons firing. Francis went to follow but the glowing blue orb that was a plasma grenade came flying from the tree-line ahead, sticking itself to the Spartan's left leg. Francis only realized this at the last moment, about to reach down and attempt to pluck the glowing grenade off of his leg when it detonated. The blue-white flare of flame enveloped the Spartan and scorched the nearby undergrowth, leaving a smoke black crater. Scorched pieces of what had formerly been Francis rained down all around, with one bloodied and scorched severed arm landing only a short distance from where Leon was crouched. Leon saw it and for a moment felt a bout of nausea: Francis had always spoken of going down in a blaze of glory when his time came. He probably had not envisioned the death he had received, though.

There were Elites everywhere it seemed, with plasma fire coming from nearly all directions. Leon slammed a fresh magazine into his assault rifle, fully aware that it was his last one. He spotted another one of the Elites further ahead and opened fire, blasting away its personal shield before several of the rounds pounded into its stomach and sent it falling down, emitting a pained groan as it went.

Brad came racing up from behind, holding his M90 shotgun. He hit the ground at a run and slid a short distance, coming up beside Leon. He fired a few shots at a pair of advancing Elites before hurrying to reload, doing it was finesse even in the heat of a firefight.

"They're everywhere, Lieutenant!" He shouted above the noise, "This whole thing was just one big setup!"

"You think they were actually after us?" Leon asked. It seemed probable, but he had never considered it. It might explain why they were only being attacked by Elites, as they were probably the ones who had organized the ambush.

A golden armoured Elite emerged from the tree-line up ahead, adorned in regal armour and sporting a scar down one side of its set of four mandibles. Leon had little time to react as the golden armoured Elite raised and fired a Needle rifle, sending a razor sharp shard of pink crystal straight into the side of Brad's head. The helmet the Spartan wore did little to stop it penetrating. Brad fell backwards in a heap and Leon was about to reach over and check if the Spartan was still alive when the needle rifle shard embedded in Brad's skull exploded, spraying blood and bits of brain as it took out a large chunk of his head.

Leon watched and turned away, disgusted and dismayed at the sight. With a sudden bout of rage he stood up, firing away the last magazine in his assault rifle towards the golden armoured Elite. The Elite rolled out of the incoming fire, disappearing into the thick undergrowth. Leon's assault rifle hit empty again and without any spare magazines the Spartan dropped the weapon, pulling his M6G pistol from its holster and firing away at the few stealth Elites up ahead. Two of them were brought down with carefully placed shots, with one Elite having its brains blasted out the back of its head. There seemed to be a few more of the stealth Elites left, firing from the undergrowth, sending blue and pink plasma bolts zipping by Leon, some slamming into the ground near his feet. Leon went to reload his pistol just as a plasma bolt hit him in the right leg, the pain tremendous as it burned through his armour and scorched his skin.

Leon stumbled, trying to gather his bearings. An Elite lay dead nearby, riddled with assault rifle bullet holes. The Spartan started for its dropped plasma repeater, seconds before the sound of an assault rifle firing caught his attention. Leon grabbed the plasma repeater and opened fire at the nearest Elite, hammering the alien with pink plasma bolts and cutting it down with the powerful weapon. Leon looked back and saw Livia running up to help him. She stopped behind a set of rocks and fired her assault rifle at the few Elites up ahead.

Leon slowly raised himself to his feet, his wounded leg burning as he put weight on it. He heard movement in the tree's behind him and saw a flash of the golden armoured Elite, this time moving swiftly through the undergrowth. Leon was about to raise his weapon when the powerful alien lunged forth from the bushes and plunged an energy sword through Leon's stomach.

The pain was intense, burning the Spartan from the inside. Leon screamed, able to see the Elite up close: it had an amber coloured eye, its other eye on its right side closed up because of a nasty looking scar that ran down that side of its face. Leon could feel his strength leaving him as he struggled to push the Elite off of him, able to smell the alien since it was so close to him. Blood was welling up in Leon's mouth, some of which he spat out and splattered on the visor inside his helmet. The pain seemed to be easing and Leon was suddenly aware of a numbness he could feel at his legs. He stumbled but the Elite held him up, savouring the worthy kill as it eased the energy sword out of Leon's gut. Leon struggled to stand up by himself when the Elite let him go, unable to control or feel his legs as he fell at the Elite's feet. The alien looked down at him briefly but was distracted when Livia opened fire, bullets pounding against the alien's shield. The Elite was about to start for Livia when the alien's shield failed. Several rounds caught him in the chest and he fell to the ground, merely a few feet from where Leon lay. The Elite began to crawl away, pulling free a plasma pistol and firing a few shots at Livia, who ducked to avoid being hit.

Leon eased himself against a tree trunk, trying his best to stop the bleeding at his stomach. So many thoughts were racing through his mind, whether he would live or die and if he lived, what would he do? He tried to move his legs but the messages his brain were sending them did not reach them, as if some rather important connections had been severed. Leon put a hand to his gut, using his free hand to pull his helmet off. It was almost stifling inside that thing and if he was going to die he didn't want to die cooped up in a full suit of armour.

Livia raced to his side, looking over his wounds. She seemed shaky, something that was understandable since everyone else on their team lay dead. There were still Elites nearby, searching for the remaining Spartans while the golden armoured one had since disappeared from sight.

Livia took off her helmet, revealing her somewhat gentle face that hid a very tough, no-nonsense woman. Her hair was closely cut to about neck length and was auburn in colour, her eyes in a matching colour. She removed a canister of bio-foam from one pouch on her armour, sticking it into the dispenser tube on Leon's armour.

Leon was already beginning to feel a bit light-headed and was reminded of it when Livia grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him.

"Damn it Lieutenant, look at me!" She exclaimed, making him meet her gaze. The bio-foam dispenser sent a wave of the cold, stinging stuff straight into the worst of Leon's wounds. He emitted a pain grunt as his stomach wound stung profoundly.

"Can you walk?" She asked. Leon took a moment to answer, unable to concentrate on her. She shook his again, trying to get him to listen. Leon could not shake the sight of Brad lying with a needle shard in his head, one that exploded and sent bits of his skull flying all over the other Spartan. It was something that Leon would never be able to forget.

"No…" Leon spat, tasting blood in his mouth.

"Then I'll carry you to the extraction point," Livia said. Leon shook his head. That would be hard to do and even more difficult with the Elites scouring the jungle for them.

"Leave me here," Leon said. Livia seemed to contemplate this for a moment and then shook her head.

"Damn it, just leave!" Leon shouted, "That's an order! Leave me here! There's no use in you dying as well!" It was perhaps a fool's courage, he thought, giving such an order. He did not want to die, neither did anyone else he knew. But if he saw Livia die…he could not live with himself if that happened.

Livia seemed conflicted for a moment. Slowly, she stood up, taking up the shotgun that lay near Brad's body.

"I'm going to lead the rest of those Elite bastards away," she said, a determined gleam in her eyes, "And then I'm going to come back for you."

"No…just go…get to the extraction…"

"I'm going to come back for you, Leon," Livia said, seconds before she turned and ran away, firing a few shots in the general direction of the Elites in order to get their attention. Leon watched her run away, plasma bolts flying after her. He did not want to see her die as well, not after everyone else in their team had. And there he suddenly found himself alone in the jungle, wounded and immobile, with nothing left to do but wait...and hope.

October 12th 2552
On board the UNSC cruiser Last Light of Dawn, in orbit around Earth

Spartan Leon A-091 woke up drenched in sweat and breathing quickly. His living quarters were dark and he fumbled briefly for the readout on the wall, pressing a key that brought up the current time: 2345 Hours. He had only fallen asleep two hours earlier, further hinting at another night of dreams and nightmares. He pressed another key that switched on the lights in the room, revealing a modestly sized set of living quarters that came with only the bare essentials.

Another night of the same old dreams, most to do with watching the people he had fought alongside for so long die in such horrific manners. Leon ran a hand through his sweat-drenched hair, trying to shake the images out of his mind. The images of all the people he held dear, his fellow Spartans, dying in an ambush before his very eyes. To him they had been brothers and sisters, comrades in arms. It was like losing family and they had been the only family he had ever known. His real family, from what he had been told, had died when the Covenant had glassed a UNSC colony world. They were nothing but a footnote in his own personal history.

Leon could remember the weeks that had followed the ambush, where he had spent a whole week living in the jungle, unable to walk and drifting in between conscious and unconscious states. He had never seen any trace of Livia again, something that ate away at his conscience every day and night. There was no closure, despite all the effort he had taken to find out her fate. To not know her true fate was worse than seeing her die. If she was still alive no one, not even the people in the highest echelons of the UNSC or the spooks at ONI, had found any trace of her. She was most likely dead, just like the rest of the squad. And Leon had been the sole survivor, getting picked up by a UNSC patrol a week later and taken to Reach for debriefing.

The last two years had been spent on Reach where he had undergone tremendous amounts of physical therapy. His spinal column had been severed towards the bottom, explaining why he had lost feeling in his legs. Fortunately, medical technology had come far enough to repair the spine and the nerves that ran along it. Such procedures required months and months of physical therapy where Leon had needed to learn to walk again. Even the professional doctors who had seen over his case had doubted he would ever get full movement back in his legs again, something he had been determined to prove them wrong about. He had struggled, stumbled and eventually walked his way back to being able to move his legs properly again, without help from a nurse or crutches or even a wheelchair.

The psychologists who had met with him had determined that Leon suffered from a typical condition known as "survivor's guilt": being the sole surviving member of his squad had scarred him mentally. The fact that he never knew Livia's fate had also left an indelible mark in his psyche, something that tormented him just as much as seeing his squad die had. And finally, the crippling blow had been one of the psychologist's statements: after Leon had talked about Livia for hours, the way she was always kind to him, always friendly and seemingly more interested in him than anyone else…Though Leon had missed the point entirely, the psychologist had determined that Livia had indeed been attracted to Leon. A missed opportunity like that had further hurt Leon mentally, coupled with the fact that he did not know her true fate.

Now Leon had been deemed fit enough to return to active duty, something that Colonel Ackerson, the effective "father" of the Spartan-III program, had been apparently pleased to hear. It might have explained why the Colonel wanted to meet in person with Leon. Apparently Leon had been out of the loop for quite a while, having left Reach in early August, narrowly missing a Covenant invasion on that planet. Colonel Ackerson had a few things to tell the Spartan, especially with recent events.

Leon was about to lie back down in the bed when the computer set into the wall nearby beeped loudly. Someone was trying to contact him so slowly, noticing that his right hand had begun its usual involuntary shaking (something that had only started happening shortly after being found by the UNSC after the ambush), Leon pressed a button and heard the voice of Commander Noland filter through the internal communications system. He seemed like a nice enough man and had made it his personal job to see to it that the Spartan fitted in well with life on the ship during the trip to Earth.

"Lieutenant, it's the Commander. We've received word that the folks down in Sydney have organized a time for you to come down. The shuttle will be ready in about half an hour, so I suggest you start packing your things. I'm sorry if I disturbed your sleep…"

"Don't apologize, sir," Leon said, holding his shaking right hand with his left in an effort to halt its movements, "I was already awake."

"Right then. The shuttle will be leaving from hangar seven and I'll send a man up if you need help packing anything…"

"There's no need for that, sir," Leon replied, "I haven't got much to pack."

"Understood. I'll see you at the hangar in half an hour, then."

"See you there, Commander." Leon flicked a button and ended the communication. Carefully he slipped out of bed, slipping into a casual uniform while he began to pack what little he had. One item, the largest of all that he had, was the case containing his MJOLNIR armour. He hadn't worn it since he had been returned to the UNSC after the fateful ambush almost three years ago. Whether he would wear it again was anyone's guess. It was no secret to him that most of the higher-ups in the UNSC considered him "damaged goods". Whether Colonel Ackerson thought the same thing was yet to be determined.

With the organization that only came from being in the military for as long as Leon had, he carefully packed his things and departed the living quarters. He had never been to Earth before, oddly enough, having spent most of his days on Reach. With Reach gone he supposed that Earth would become his new home.