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Into the Breach

By PJ Brown

Action / Scifi

They’re just dreams…

The SPARTAN-II program was a highly classified Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) black project that sought to create the ultimate special operations soldier. The plan was to deploy these soldiers to deal with the growing insurrectionist movement among the human colony worlds. Under the direction of the brilliant Dr. Catherine Halsey, she employed controversial techniques to identify and “recruit” those candidates that met the genetic requirements for the program.

In 2517, six year-old children, identified by the recruiting process, were conscripted under secret UNSC protocol — Naval Code 45812 — and kidnapped from their families by ONI. To cover-up for the missing children and hide the program, flash clones were substituted in their place. To ensure that no suspicions would ever arise, these clones had genetic flaws programmed that would result in all the clones dying of an untreatable disease a short period afterwards. The newly “recruited” children were taken to a secret ONI facility on the planet Reach in the Epsilon Eridani system, where they underwent intensive physical and military training/indoctrination.

In 2525, when the children turned fourteen, they all underwent the second phase of the program — the biological augmentation procedure that would enhance their bodies to allow them to wear the MJOLNIR exoskeleton battle suits that were being developed in conjunction with the SPARTAN program. Of the original seventy-five candidates, these experimental procedures resulted in thirty candidates dying and twelve candidates crippled and washed-out of the program, being reassigned to other tasks within ONI and the UNSC. This was also the same year that the UNSC made first contact with the Covenant — a political, military, and religious grouping made up of multiple alien species that spanned a vast area of the galaxy.

By the year 2535, the Human-Covenant war was into its 10th year. All the outer human colony worlds had either been destroyed or abandoned by the unending genocidal attacks by the alien Covenant forces. Time after time human forces stood their ground to try to hold back the onslaught. Despite desperate, ferocious and bloody fighting, Covenant technological superiority would overcome the human defenses resulting in another defeat and retreat. The end result being that the Covenant would lay waste and “glass” human-occupied worlds by plasma bombardment.

Despite what seemed like an endless series of planetary sieges and evacuations, there had been a few scattered victories by human forces. The majority of successes against the Covenant came from when the SPARTAN-II’s were deployed. The success and propaganda value of the SPARTANS resulted in the original reason for the program’s development to be officially revised to allow for public consumption.

In 2536, the Covenant had begun its invasion of the inner colony worlds. Those surviving SPARTAN-II’s along with the next generation SPARTAN-III’s continued to stand and defend against the unrelenting genocidal Covenant advance…

Reach, Epsilon Eridani System

May 23, 2536 – 0935 Local Time

Doctor Sara Reeves was at her desk caught up deep in her daily routine of work. She’d been involved primarily with the SPARTAN program since she’d been recruited by ONI nearly five years ago. Her work was to review and evaluate the mental and psychological health of all Spartans in the program, but especially focus on the SPARTAN-II’s. Her work days consisted of reviewing records, listening to audio recordings along with watching videos of the Spartans to try to analyze their mental health. There were occasions where she was able to follow up in person with a face-to-face interview with individual Spartans. Unfortunately, from her perspective, those were very rare occasions due to the war and the demands placed on the Spartans.

Even though Doctor Reeves had access to the Spartans and their records, there was still much about the SPARTAN-II program above her security classification level. When she had first started this job, she had raised a few protests about this lack of information. She felt it was important to know everything about their backgrounds and history along with knowing what type of training they had under gone to allow her to make a better psychological analysis. She had been harshly awakened into the world of “Black-Ops” when a high ranking ONI officer informed her, somewhat in a joking tone, that if they told her the whole story behind the SPARTAN-II program, they would then have to kill her.

With the implied warning in mind, Doctor Reeves focused on working within the narrow confines and restrictions of what information she could access and questions she could ask the Spartans. Over time she had been able to gather enough information to deduce some of the background details of the SPARTAN-II program. She’d been shocked by what she discovered, but she was careful to keep her thoughts to herself and to not leave any physical records to indicate what she had found.

When she realized what had been done to the SPARTAN-IIs, she found herself torn by the moral implications that engulfed the program and that she was involved with it and by extension was helping to perpetuate the terrible wrong that was done. She spent many sleepless nights wrestling with her conscience, trying to decide whether to stay with ONI and the program or if she should go public with what she knew. It was only when she saw the latest reports about the war, seeing the harsh realities of the Covenant exterminating human world after world that she realized that the Spartans were providing the most effective defense against this unrelenting enemy. It was in that light that such moral quandaries seem to fade or at least take a backseat and she was able to find a solution to her dilemma. Though it went against her medical oath and personal feelings, she focused herself on her job to help make sure that the Spartans were able to continue fighting. There were still some sleepless nights, but those were easily overcome with sedatives and lying to one’s self that they were working for the greater good.

Putting aside any personal qualms and focusing on her work, the doctor was getting worried about a disturbing trend starting to appear among the SPARTAN-II’s that she’d discovered. She was finding that there seemed to be a marked rise in anti-social behavior that would normally indicate a trend towards what was considered psychotic behavior. All the medical records indicated that all the SPARTAN-II’s were reporting problems sleeping and dream states. Individually, each Spartan were showing different symptoms and were at different stages, but taken together the group showed that there was a definite pattern curve to their behavior.

In some of the more extreme cases, individuals were not removing their battle armor and leaving their helmets on most of the time, even when not on missions or in combat areas. Her professional diagnosis was that this was an indication that those extreme cases were isolating themselves more from human contact. She was worried that could only result in a continued downward spiral in their mental health, eventually affecting their combat performance. She had already written up a memo outlining the problem with her concerns and sent it up the line. The only reply she had received was a terse response that acknowledged receipt of the memo and that it was being taken under “advisement”.

Taking a moment as she realized that the military bureaucratic mindset was one mind that she would never be able to understand or analyze, she let out an inner sigh as she went back to her review. Opening up the file for a Spartan named Michael-113, she went over the latest medical information for this soldier. She cross-referenced the medical information with the limited information she was given access to about their military operations. From what she could tell, it seemed as if this Spartan was being assigned a lot of solo missions, though what type of missions and the activity involved was unavailable to her. As she continued to examine his latest medical data, a frown grew across her face.

The records were showing that Michael-113 was suffering from increased incidents of disrupted and troubled sleep, with indications of nightmares. Her analysis of his records indicated that this Spartan was not yet in the high risk group, but as a precaution, she updated his medical records to make sure that he was kept under closer observation when not deployed in the field. She also added a note to his medical record, recommending that his solo missions be reduced and that he be integrated into a team/unit structured environment to help reduce the psychological pressures on him.

As Doctor Reeves was finishing updating Michael-113’s medical records, the particular Spartan of her concern was undergoing a mission briefing at another facility on Reach…

As the ONI officer entered the briefing room, he saw the Spartan stand to immediate attention. The officer noted that the Spartan was out of his battle armor, wearing a standard UNSC Navy uniform without any insignia, except for one shoulder tag that was the emblem for the Spartans.

The ONI officer was an older man, with a number of missions and campaigns under his belt. Despite his own experiences, he found it somewhat hard to believe how many and types of missions these SPARTAN-II’s had been involved in, considering their outward youthful looking appearances.

Despite their size — being bigger and taller than average — on the outside Spartans gave no indication as to how “special” they were. The only hint that you could see, to give you a glimpse of who and what they were, was in their eyes and how they looked at you. In past wars it had been referred to as the “thousand-yard stare”, but this was different from what the ONI officer had seen in his own eyes and other veterans. Studying this particular Spartan’s eyes, he could see the familiar look of having seen war and death, but there was something else in there — a determination along with something else that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

The officer reminded himself that this young looking Spartan had nearly twenty years of military experience… being a member of an elite group of soldiers that would take on the most difficult of missions and right now were the UNSC’s best hope for fighting the Covenant.

“At ease, Michael-113,” the officer said watching as the Spartan sat back down. Even sitting down at ease the Spartan looked ready to move in an instance to deal with any situation. His eyes were focused and analyzing everything around him, noting every detail.

“I was going over your mission logs… Everything seemed to go as planned and you were able to retrieve the data module and take out that insurrectionist cell on Paris IV. Do you have anything to add to your mission report?” the ONI officer asked.

“Sir, I have nothing to add about the mission… Everything went according to plan,” Michael-113 replied.

The officer heard the Spartan speak and from the tone of the response he could tell that the Spartan was holding something back.

“You have a question?”

“More of a concern… Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Go ahead.”

“With the current state of the war against the Covenant, I’m wondering why a high percentage of my missions are still tasked to deal with human insurrectionists? The Covenant is the larger threat right now,” Michael-113 asked.

The officer made direct eye contact with the Spartan, “Even with the Covenant threat, the insurrectionists are still causing problems with the UNSC… That we have to divert precious resources like you to dealing with this threat speaks volumes to the impact the Innies are having on our war effort. We can’t afford to have these traitors to humanity undercut us at this time during this war against the Covenant. You have a stellar record in operations against the Innies. That’s why you’re being tasked with these missions.”

“Understood, sir… But I would like to contribute more against the Covenant.”

A small smile flashed on the officer’s face, “Well you’re in luck… As you’re probably aware, the Covenant has started moving against our inner colonies… Two months ago they started by attacking and invading New Constantinople. Vice Admiral Whitcomb has been organizing and conducting the defense of the system and planet, so far he has been fighting the Covenant to a draw with them only managing to gain a small foothold planet side for now. HIGHCOM is currently organizing a relief task force to reinforce the system. You will be assigned to the relief force to provide Spartan support to the ground forces there…”

The officer noted the beginning of a small smile on the Spartan’s face as he continued his briefing, “We have a secondary mission for you while you’re planet side. We’ve intercepted communications from several insurrectionist cells that are located on New Constantinople. You’re to track down these cells and eliminate them with ‘extreme prejudice’. Do you understand?”

The officer saw how the half-formed smile quickly disappeared at hearing the secondary mission objectives.

“Yes, sir… I understand,” the Spartan replied with no hesitation.

“Your mission briefing package is available to download and has also been loaded into your battle armor. The relief task force is still assembling and it’s planned that they will be heading out in three days’ time.”

“What kind of support will I have for achieving my secondary mission objectives?”

“None… The secondary mission is on a ‘Need to Know’ basis. The Vice Admiral already has SPARTAN-III Alpha Company in-system. You will provide support to those forces, but they will not assist you with your secondary mission objectives… Any other questions?”

“No, sir,” replied the Spartan in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Then you’re dismissed,” the officer said watching as the Spartan stood up to attention and saluted.

As the Spartan started to leave, the officer spoke again bringing him back to attention, “Michael-113… One more thing.”

“Sir?” replied the Spartan.

“Good hunting Spartan…”

On the outside, Michael-113 displayed no emotions while walking back to his room. But while he didn’t display any outward emotions or give away his thoughts, on the inside he was a torrent of emotions.

Damn it! Another wet-op! I’m so damned tired of going after Innies… I should be fighting the Covenant… That’s where I’m needed…

He briefly considered contacting Doctor Halsey to try and get the mission orders changed, but he knew that she wouldn’t override or question ONI mission orders.

He let out an inner sigh at the reality of his situation that he would follow and carry out all his orders as he had been instructed to. He was too good of a soldier to disobey his orders. The Innies were causing some major headaches for the UNSC, but it bothered him that the Innies didn’t seem to realize that they were just as much a target for the Covenant as everyone else was?

I guess we’re the only race in this universe that cannot only fight an alien race bent on our destruction, but also fight amongst ourselves at the same time, he thought with a sigh.

Upon entering his room, he didn’t hesitate as he sat down in front of his terminal and brought up his mission package information along with all information regarding New Constantinople and the latest intel regarding the battle and disposition of forces — both UNSC and Covenant. He spent the next several hours reviewing all the data, memorizing all the details and info he thought he would need to survive and complete his missions.

The dream came again as it always had… There was fire everywhere. He could hear people screaming for help and crying… There were monsters swarming everywhere… It wasn’t the Covenant… The enemy were actual monsters that were feeding on people…. He couldn’t move. All he could do was stand and watch helplessly as voices called out. The voices taunted him, calling him “Murderer”. He wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do. All he could do was scream back in a helpless voice, “I’m just following orders…” The voices laughed at him and his feeble excuses. “Who are you? What are you?” the voices asked him over and over…

Michael woke up with a start, covered in a cold sweat. As he ran a hand down his face, he took deep breaths to relax and calm down. It seemed that after every mission the nightmares were coming with more frequency and becoming worse. He knew that being a highly valuable resource, they were constantly monitoring him.

He knew that he wasn’t the only Spartan that was suffering from problems sleeping and nightmares, it was how each of them was dealing with it that set them apart. He knew that John was on the extreme side — it was now very rare that the Master Chief took off his battle armor let alone his helmet when not in combat. Michael knew that the others tried dealing with their problems by burying their feelings and focusing on becoming better weapons by training harder. He didn’t want to cut himself off like the others…

I’m still human… No matter what happens… I’m still human, he kept thinking to himself, trying to relax his body and clear his mind of the disturbing images.

Finally relaxing enough to lie back down, he closed his eyes and though it took some time, he was able to drift off to a slightly less disturbed, but still a restless sleep. Thoughts of — Who are you? What are you? — still echoed in his mind.

Despite the troubled sleep, Michael was up early and doing his daily workout in the base’s training facility. He found himself pushing himself extra hard this morning on the weight benches. He was currently bench pressing weights in the 1000lb range.

Focus on the weight… Just focus on lifting… Nothing else matters, he thought, concentrating on his breathing and trying to push all other thoughts from his mind.

Finally finishing his set, he put his weights down, he was caught slightly off-guard by a female voice from behind him, “You’re Michael-113 aren’t you?”

Sitting up quickly, Michael turned towards the voice. He found himself looking at a woman who appeared to be in her late-30′s to early-40′s. Out of habit, he quickly noted details about her body and how she projected herself. The woman was about 5′ 4” in height and with a slight/slim build with short brown hair. She projected an air of knowledge and intelligence by the way she held herself and seemed to be studying him.

Must be a doctor… She has that look, he thought, studying her a little more closely. Michael had been around doctors most of his early years that he found he could easily pick them out of a crowd.

“Yes… I’m Michael… What can I do for you?”

“I’m Doctor Sara Reeves… I was wondering if you have a few minutes to talk.”

Michael considered the request for a moment. He thought he should be going over his mission package again and putting together his equipment. He was about to brush off the doctor as he’d spent the majority of his life around doctors of one sort or another and he was tired of the constant questions along with accompanying poking and prodding. The words started to form in his mind when he suddenly was hit by an unusual feeling and thought — he found that he wanted to talk.

“Okay Doc… I can spare a few minutes, but then I have to go finish prepping for my mission. I’m shipping out soon.”

Michael arched an eyebrow in surprise as he saw Doctor Reeves actually smile at his response.

“Excellent… If you’ll follow me I have an office setup where we can talk in private,” she said trying to keep her excitement in check. Most times when she requested face-to-face interviews with Spartans they were usually resistant and didn’t want to talk unless they were ordered to. She cherished the opportunities when she got a chance to do an actual interview session.

Michael kept a gap between them, as he followed the doctor, as to not make her feel uncomfortable as most people got uncomfortable by the towering size of the Spartans. Entering the doctor’s office, he noticed just a desk with chairs on each side and a computer terminal on the desk. He quickly sat down on the chair that the doctor offered, settling in as the doctor took her seat on the other side of the desk from him.

Reeves didn’t waste her opportunity as she quickly started off the conversation, “So Michael… How are you feeling these days?”

“I’m fine… No worries,” he replied with a shrug.

“How are you sleeping at night?”

Warning signals went off in his head, he knew he had to be careful answering this question. He knew that they monitored him on base and would be tracking his behavior and noted his sleep disturbances.

“I’ve been having some troubles sleeping, but you know how it is. When you’re on an operation and in the field you don’t get enough or proper sleep or in some cases you may not get any sleep until you’re back on ship or back at base. There’s just an adjustment and it takes some time,” he replied using a matter-of-fact tone of voice.

“Uh-huh… Is there anything particular in these dreams that bother you?” Reeves asked as follow-up, typing notes on the computer terminal.

“No… I just have these dreams. They don’t mean anything,” Michael replied trying to keep the hesitation out of voice.

The doctor easily picked up on the hesitation in his voice, “What do you dream about, Michael? Are the dreams always the same?”

“It’s nothing… They’re just dreams… They mean nothing.”

Reeves sighed in frustration, “Michael… I’m not the enemy here. I’m here to help you and the other Spartans. I’m here to listen… not judge you.”

Michael took a deep breath. The dreams were becoming worse, it was at this moment that he decided to take a chance and open up a bit to the doctor. He described some of his dreams… the monsters, the fire, the people screaming and crying for help. Despite taking a chance and open up about his dreams, he decided to minimize his risk and held back some of the more personal details from the dreams.

I don’t need to be held back for “further evaluation”… not this time, he thought with some concern, watching as the doctor took notes.

“Is that everything? Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to tell me?” Reeves asked.

Studying the Spartan, her experience and training was telling her that he was holding back from her. She found herself drawn to his eyes. She could see and feel the strength in there, as he returned her gaze, but she could also see pain there and she was surprised by how much that bothered her.

“I’m fine doc… I’m mission ready. Is that it?” Michael said breaking the doctor’s concentration.

Sighing again in frustration, the doctor realized she wasn’t going to get anything more from this Spartan right now. Even though she had concerns about Michael’s mental well-being, she had limited power within the scope of the program. Despite her concerns and misgivings, she knew that ONI wouldn’t accept her reasons and grounds to hold this Spartan back for further follow-up.

A momentary guilty feeling passed through her, but she pushed it down as she spoke, “Yes, that’s all… for now.”

Quickly leaving the doctor, Michael displayed no outward emotions, but again inside he was a raging sea of emotions.

Maybe I should have told the doctor what I’ve been feeling… But I’ve spent most of my life being studied and analyzed… I’m tired of doctors and everything to do with them… I just want to do my job… My duty…

He tried to push thoughts about dreams and doctors out of his mind as he went back to his workout. He tried to focus on that and preparing for the mission, but he found it hard to keep his concentration.
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