Into the Breach

The End of One Road Traveled…

UNSC Rampart
October 16, 2552 — 0630 Ship Time

“Michael…? Michael…? You should really pay attention,” chided an amused female’s voice.

“Huh? I’m listening to the briefing,” Michael replied, finding himself slightly annoyed at being disturbed.

“Hmmm… From your suit’s bio readings, I would swear that you were asleep,” the female teased.

Michael sighed, “I would think you would be the first one to cut me some slack, Adriana. You know I didn’t get much turnaround time from our last mission before we got tapped for this operation.”

Adriana added her own sigh. It always surprised Michael how human his AI could sound even after all the missions since being paired together.

“You know how serious the strategic situation is since Reach fell,” Adriana replied.

Michael sighed again as he opened his eyes, glancing around the briefing room. The ONI briefing officer was still droning on about operational background details while constantly stressing the mission’s importance to the UNSC. The briefing officer and the other men and women assembled were unaware of the conversation going on inside Michael’s helmet or he’d closed his eyes. Besides, he’d already gotten a copy of this operation’s orders and details and was already up to speed on his role.

Adriana was right about the current strategic situation the UNSC and humanity faced. It was two months since the Covenant glassed Reach and with the fall of Reach, the UNSC’s position went from critical to desperate. Most of the talk these days was about how long it would be until the Covenant found Earth and glassed it.

While an undercurrent of despair ran through talk about Earth being next, Michael shrugged it off. What bothered him was that he wasn’t there to help defend Reach when it mattered. The planet was basically the only home he’d known his whole life... and now it was gone. It hung over him, and logically he knew one more Spartan wouldn’t have mattered, but logic didn’t quell the nagging feelings of guilt in his head and gut.

Despite the current strategic situation, he’d at least gotten the upgrade to his battle armor. He was sporting the brand new Mark VI MJOLNIR battle armor which was a big step up from the old Mark V system. Luckily, he’d been able to test the armor by putting it through its paces on several recon and wet-ops missions. His specialized skills were still in heavy demand, but with the threat from the Innies almost non-existent, the Covenant were the sole recipients of his skills.

Even with the upgrade to the new armor system, Michael maintained some links to the ‘old days’. While almost all Spartans discontinued the practice of having their ‘number’ on their armor, Michael still displayed his ‘113’ alongside the UNSC emblem on his battle armor. Doing it gave him a sense of connection and continuity with his past. It also helped him keep a grasp on his identity. This seemed to be harder to do as the war continued to drag on with no end in sight of the continual death and destruction.

“I wish they hadn’t chosen now to field test a new rifle.”

Adriana wasn’t as pessimistic as Michael, “The M-41A pulse rifle could be a force multiplier. The firepower it can put out is more than the MA5, giving you a potential advantage over the Covenant. I would think you would be more appreciative of this opportunity.”

“Hey, I’m a firm believer in there is no such thing as too much firepower! I don’t like having new weapons sprung on me at the last minute. That goes doubly so when this OP is taking place out in the boonies with no help or support nearby. If this rifle works as advertised, I’ll take ten of them,” Michael said not hiding his sarcasm and cynicism.

Adriana chuckled, “Despite your misgivings, you’re still being asked to field test this new weapon and report back on its use.”

Michael sighed and Adriana picked up on it. Her programming flashed with worry and concern, “What’s wrong?” she asked.

It took Michael a moment to reply. His thoughts were drifting back to places and people long in his past, “I don’t know… I guess I’m just tired,” he said.

Adriana scanned Michael’s bio-readings as her concern for him grew, “I’m sure we’ll get some downtime after this mission,” she replied, trying to reassure him.

Michael said nothing. There always seemed to be another mission waiting for him. He actually hated the downtime between missions as it gave him too much time to think and consider things. Sometimes, he got the sense he was trying to find something he’d lost yet he did not understand what it was. He couldn’t put into words what he was feeling, so it was easier to not say anything and just focus on the next mission and trying to stay alive. His attention turned back to the briefing officer as he updated the current intel for their mission objective.

The mission codename... “OPERATION BRIAR PATCH” seemed well suited because they were heading to the outer fringes of the galaxy. The UNSC always considered finding, investigating and recovering Forerunner tech important because of the potential scientific breakthroughs they offered. After the encounter with the HALO installation by the Pillar of Autumn and John-117, these recovery missions now took on an even greater importance. ONI was now placing all its–and humanity’s–hopes on finding any tech that could turn the tide of war against the Covenant. Long-range probes located what appeared to be a former Forerunner planet on the edge of the galaxy. This mission was to investigate and recover any useful data and tech.

Michael wasn’t too optimistic on the outcome of this mission as he sensed the desperation hanging over this mission. Not that he would raise any objections about going on what was probably a wild goose chase. To put it mildly, he was indifferent to the mission and the whole situation. This was just another chance to face death and kill something. Except for the destruction of Reach, he was numb these days. He’d always had difficulties with social interactions, but by this stage of the war it was impossible for him. It was easier to isolate himself, wrapping the numbness around him like a protective blanket, so he rarely took his helmet off now around other people. There was one exception to his socialization rule... his AI Adriana.

Not that Michael didn’t care, he’d just seen too much death and destruction. This wouldn’t keep him from fighting and defending humanity as his training and indoctrination helped him push through any ‘feelings’ as the mission always came first. Yet, he was also realistic and after all the missions and battles, he knew it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out. Despite any pessimism surrounding this mission, he would always do his duty and make sure everyone got a chance to come back.

Michael noticed the briefing officer was wrapping up his presentation. He filed away his doubts and feelings, trying to focus on something more tangible.

As the cruiser prepared for its Slipspace jump, Michael was on the stasis deck getting settled into his cryo-chamber for the journey. Even after all these years and the hundreds of times he had been in cryo-sleep, he still got nervous about going under. His heightened anxiety was from knowing he would in cryo-sleep for three weeks during the cruiser’s journey to the target planet.

Adriana was familiar with his anxieties regarding cryo-sleep, “Relax, Michael. I’ll be here when you wake up,” she said, trying to reassure him.

“I know, Adriana. It’s just old habits. I guess some things will never change,” he sighed, taking a deep breath as the cryo-chamber closed, sealing him in.

As the cruiser entered Slipspace, Michael was already in cryo-sleep. The three weeks was a long time as he dreamt about different things, places and people, experiencing a wide range of emotions.

The cruiser was still in Slipspace as it approached its destination, and Michael was beginning the process to come out of cryo-sleep. He’d experienced a wide range of dreams that seemed to encompass his whole life. As the cryo-drugs left his system, and before the stirrings of consciousness came, there was time for one more dream. It was a dream he hadn’t experienced in years. It was so long, he’d almost forgotten about it and how it always made him feel…

He was out of his armor, standing on a balcony looking out at a huge blue lake surrounded by a green forest. The warm sun and a gentle cool breeze on his skin tickled and intoxicated him, making him feel alive. He became aware of another’s presence and out of instinct spun to face the potential threat. He froze finding a young woman standing behind him. A sense of beauty and strength radiated from her as he looked her over.

Their eyes met and time lost all meaning. In those dark eyes, he saw a reflection of himself. He noted something else in those eyes, but he didn’t recognize it. A sense of peace and completeness filled him as he sensed they both shared something in common… pain… and a longing or desire for something more from this life. Michael finally found his voice.

“Can I stay here with you?” he asked. He experienced a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts he didn’t understand. Despite the confusion, he was certain he needed… that he wanted to be here with this woman.

The young woman with brunette hair, smiled as she stepped closer to him. Her smile set off something deep inside Michael, blowing on the embers of his soul as understanding dawned about what he was experiencing. He smiled back, again taking in her eyes.

After what seemed like another eternity, the young woman took his hand in hers, holding it tight. The warmth of her skin touching him filled him with a sense of happiness he couldn’t recall experiencing before.

The woman finally answered his question, “Soon… Soon...”
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