14 Years Ago
Major Saito scowled as he walked through the halls of SERRCom Headquarters, a signed envelope in hand. It had been a year since he was put in charge of raising and training the four new Earthian Chaotics — who had come to be known by their project codename, the Eximius Vir. It had been a year since he began taking care of a group of seven-year-old children. It had been a year since he was charged with training them in the use of their Chaotic powers, despite he himself having none. It had been a year since he took on the job of indoctrinating children into being future SERRCom soldiers… and he had had enough. His heart couldn’t take it anymore; he had seen just how broken the Eximius Vir were when he first met them, and he had seen just how much they trusted each other, and how little they trusted the world around them. They were orphans, foster children; they were in the weakest state a child could be, and now SERRCom sought to take advantage of them.
For this, Saito planned to resign.
A minute later, he found himself standing just outside one of the offices in the massive building that was SERRCom Headquarters. The name plate on the office read “Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Lead” — the man who had managed to convince Saito to take on his current job. For the longest time, Saito had had nothing but respect for Lead as one of the few officers to survive SERRCom’s turbulent years of 2109 and 2110 and come out the other side with the conviction to lead Earth to glory, but now, he wasn’t sure if Lead’s heart was in the right place. How could he possibly justify conscripting children—?
“You’re mad! Shepherd, you can’t be serious!”
Saito froze, his hand mere centimeters from the doorknob to Lead’s office. He could hear Lead’s angry voice inside — an event that didn’t happen often. And immediately following, he heard another voice.
“I am not mad, you stupid fool. It’s you who’s hopelessly naive.”
Saito identified the second voice as belonging to Lieutenant Colonel David Shepherd, Lead’s colleague. Rumor had it that both Lead and Shepherd had been present for the infamous fall of the colony Sunova back in 2109, with both of them fighting to protect the colony until the last possible second. Now they were fairly well known throughout the General Forces for their skill, leadership abilities, and — in the event that they crossed paths — drawn-out arguments. Despite being equals in most regards, Lead and Shepherd never saw eye-to-eye, and in fact usually steered clear of each other. So for both of them to be arguing, behind the closed door to Lead’s office…
Saito glanced left, and then right. The day was late, and few people were around — the hallway was currently empty. Stealthily, Saito slowly pressed his ear against the door, in an effort to better hear the Lieutenant Colonels’ discussion.
“Shepherd, you want to use children as soldiers!”
“Is that not what you’re already doing, Lead? I know you have cronies of your own ‘training’ those kids.”
“Training them to get a handle of their powers, yes, but we were never going to use them as field soldiers. Not until they’re of proper, legal age!”
“Don’t be a fool. We don’t have that kind of time. Four Chaotics, Lead. That’s all we have. We need to put them to use.”
“And what ‘need’ would that be? Your own sadism?”
“Even a fool can see that the CSA is growing bolder every day. Week after week, month after month, we hear reports of outlaw Chaotics attacking the worlds along the outer rim of Earthian and Nimalian space. To protect the sovereignty of our borders, we must respond to this threat with our own force!”
“Outlaws have nothing to do with the CSA itself.”
“Their outlaws are their problems, but they refuse to deal with it. Time and time again, Lead, I’ve told you — the other nations are unreliable. Even way back on Sunova—”
“I refuse to retread this pointless discussion. You are delusional, Shepherd. Our allies should be trusted as such.”
“If you truly believed that, then you’d have those fucking Nimalians here taking care of our Chaotics!”
“If sending them off to be raised by Nimalians is what it will take to protect them from you, then send them off, I will!”
“You would sooner help an entirely alien race than aid your own? You spiteful bastard. Just you wait! I know the Major, and I know that he’s what neither of us are: a decent man. He’ll quit his posting soon enough, and when he does—”
“I won’t allow the project to shift to your command.”
“Too late, Lead. I’ve already got the backup position granted from General Nakamoto himself. If your guy quits, I get the Eximius Vir.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“Oh, but I am. Nakamoto is a pragmatic man, just like myself. He’s a little naive, since he’s still willing to give you a chance… but if that doesn’t pan out, then we won’t let this opportunity go to waste. Chaotics are an invaluable resource, and we can’t afford to just sit on them!”
“I should’ve known that you’d see them only as an asset to be controlled. Shepherd, I can’t believe…”
At that point, Saito carefully backed away from the door. He had heard plenty enough. For several years now, he had suspected Shepherd to be a cruel man, willing to do anything to get ahead — and now that he had proof, he was torn on what to do. Continuing to train eight-year-old children for their inevitable conscription ran counter to every molecule in his body… but if Shepherd was telling the truth, then Saito quitting now would only be worse for the Eximius Vir. They weren’t even ten years old, and Shepherd wanted to use them as actual soldiers — Saito could scarcely believe it. But if it was true…
The Major glanced left, and then right. The hallway remained empty. With a heavy sigh, Saito backed away from Lead’s door and began to leave. He hated his job, but if quitting it was tantamount to sacrificing the lives of four others… then he wouldn’t. He would remain where he was, as evil as it may have been, and simply hope that one day, he could tell himself that he truly was the lesser of two evils.
That one day, he could tell himself he was right.
* * *
— Thursday, October 13th, AD 2129 —
“You what now?”
«We’ve recovered a few pieces of Aldredian tech. We’re going to take them with us.»
“And what is this tech, exactly?”
«If we knew, we wouldn’t need to bring it back for study, would we?»
Saito sighed in mild irritation. It hadn’t been long since Mote contacted him about the Black Suns wanting to bring Aldredian salvage aboard Genesis, and now the Colonel was busy speaking with Commander Rabine about the worthiness of the technology. On that matter, Saito was well aware that Rabine’s excuse was merely that: an excuse. Even if he knew exactly how all of the Aldredian tech worked, he would still want to take it all with him, and he was certain that Rabine felt the same. So what was she really after, then?
“There’s no need to play coy with me, Commander,” Saito stated. “This is supposed to be a joint expedition, after all. Everything we learn will be shared with each other.”
«Ah yes, of course. I will be sure to place my utmost faith in SERRCom, and in your ability to search through a Dreadnought’s systems without Black Suns oversight.»
“What are you trying to say, here?”
«Colonel, allow me to be blunt. Do you really expect me to believe that SERRCom will share everything it learns about the Dreadnought with the Black Suns?»
Saito paused uneasily; she had a point. Even if he himself wished to honor the original intent of the joint expedition, there was no doubt in his mind that the EIIC would fight tooth and nail to hoard every last piece of knowledge scraped from the shipyard and its contents. Sometimes you have to wonder if the top brass really think of our allies as such, he mused bitterly, but if the Commander wants to play this game, then fine. Trust that never existed in the first place can’t be earned through words alone… “Commander, you do realize that our ship is the only way home?”
«I hope you aren’t suggesting that you mean to strand us in the middle of Drakkar territory.»
“Of course not. But this is our ship, so we run by our rules, and that means disclosing all pertinent information to each other. For what it’s worth, I give my word that we won’t withhold anything from you.”
«Yes, of course. There is certainly value in trusting and learning from each other, such as how and when we recruit Chaotics into our forces.»
The Colonel scowled. He could recognize a threat when he heard one; for Rabine to be pulling her trump card here suggested that the technology she was claiming could be incredibly useful or powerful, but Saito wasn’t sure if he was willing to bet against Rabine revealing the secret of the Eximius Vir to the Earthian public. And for that matter, he wasn’t even certain how much damage the information could cause to SERRCom, if any at all.
“…So you want to bring Aldredian technology on board the Genesis, then?” Saito questioned flatly.
«Indeed,» came Rabine’s response. «We won’t ask for anything regarding the Dreadnought. In exchange… we expect you not to ask anything about what we’ve found.»
Which is probably more valuable than anything we’ve stumbled across, the Colonel thought to himself. He couldn’t help but think that the Black Suns had been looking for these particular pieces of technology in the first place — maybe this was even why they had dedicated an entire team to digging up artifacts on the planet where they found Mote’s armor. “Are you sure about this?” Saito asked, “Dreadnoughts are powerful ships, Aldredian ones especially so.”
«Certainly, yes, but the Black Suns are not a naval organization. We specialize in infantry and ground forces; we leave all matters of space to the government militaries. Conversely, we ask that you entrust matters of ground forces to us.»
“’Entrust’. Right. Well…” Saito sighed warily. “…You drive a hard bargain, Commander, but I’ll take it.”
«Sir!» Mote exclaimed, «do you really—?»
“Let it go, Mote,” Saito interjected. “Go ahead and drop the Commander and her fancy tech off with the Genesis. Tell Krick I gave the okay.”
«…If you say so, sir.»
«Thank you for understanding, Colonel,» Rabine replied.
“Of course,” he responded, his tone filled with forced levity. “Now, is that all?”
«That’s it, sir,» Mote stated. «I’ll contact you later, if necessary. Lieutenant Emerson, out.»
The Colonel sighed again after the connection cut out, this time of relief. He reached up and massaged his neck, and then began stretching the rest of his body in an effort to relax. There were no enemy forces around for well over a hundred kilometers, but still he felt somewhat uneasy. I wish every problem could be solved with a gun and a good battle plan. Oh well, such is life…
Saito glanced off to his side, where Hackett and Travis were approaching down the corridor, opposite the entrance to the bridge. He offered them a nod of acknowledgment as he turned to face them, facing his back toward the closed entrance to the Dreadnought’s bridge. “Major, Captain. How was the patrol?”
“There’s nothing around, as expected,” Hackett replied.
“Yeah, it’s just a big, empty ship, sir,” Travis declared. “I don’t think we needed a patrol to tell us that.”
“Never hurts to be too careful,” Saito remarked. “Particularly in our line of work.”
“I suppose that’s true…”
“And what about you, sir?” the Major questioned, “how goes things on the bridge?”
Saito glanced over his shoulder at the bridge entrance, and then shrugged. “It’s going. Conspicuously quiet, all things considered… but it’s going.”
“About that, sir…” Travis’s expression turned uneasy as he continued, “did, uh, did somethin’ happen between you and Kate?”
“…Yeah, I suppose you could say that.”
“Anything serious?” Hackett asked, “or just another one of her fits?”
The Colonel passed her a wary look before sighing dejectedly. “Little more serious. Apparently, she only realized a few days ago that SERRCom’s conscription of the Eximius Vir wasn’t exactly… legal.”
“Oh…” Travis frowned. “…Wait, really? She only just realized that?”
“I suppose. She made it clear that she never liked being conscripted in the first place, but it would seem that no one actually told her that SERRCom doesn’t have any official agreements with the nations of Earth for the sake of conscription.”
“I didn’t really peg her as someone to care about the legality behind it,” Hackett commented.
Saito shrugged. “Neither did I, but here we are. It probably doesn’t help that her discovery was immediately followed by a heated debate with Mote.”
“Mmm… those two have never gotten along all that well, anyways.”
“Nah, that’s not quite right,” Travis refuted. “I mean, of course they’ve always clashed, but it’s been worse recently. Ever since SERRCom rounded up my nephew and his friends.”
Hackett passed him a bemused glance. “Are you sure you aren’t just biased because of your nephew?”
“No, really, ma’am,” Travis insisted. “Somethin’s been botherin’ ‘em lately, I’m pretty sure. I mean, c’mon, did either of you hear anything from or about Kate over the past three days? Mote stayed cooped up in his room as well, when normally he’d be spending at least half his free time training with Mark.”
“You really keep a close eye on them, don’t you?” Saito responded with a slight smirk.
“Heh, I suppose. Picked it up from interactin’ with Austin and his pals, I guess.”
“Still… I think you’re right.” The Colonel sighed and placed his hands on his hips. “A couple weeks ago, after the debriefing for our mission that recovered Mote’s new armor, I had a brief chat with him. At the time, he didn’t seem to like the idea that he was being singled out by the Aldredian tech… I can only imagine how much more frustrated he might be now.”
“Should you be telling us this, sir?” Hackett questioned uneasily. “This sounds like a conversation made in confidence, but now here we are, discussing the four of them like worried parents… this isn’t our job.”
“Isn’t it?” Saito passed her a wary glance. “You’re the second-most senior member of CSF-1. You’ve been here for years, you helped me train up the Eximius Vir. Like it or not, Hackett, the two of us were basically their surrogate parents. Just because everyone pretends otherwise nowadays doesn’t change that.”
“And what, exactly, would you have us do, sir? Perhaps I did help raise them, against my better judgment. It doesn’t mean we can still treat them like children now.”
“I don’t think bein’ worried about their well-being qualifies as treatin’ them like children,” Travis countered. “If you really want to fit it into the confines of your job, then just think of it like… the healthier they are, the easier our jobs are.”
Hackett eyed him with mild irritation before crossing her arms and turning back toward Saito. “I still don’t like it, sir. This isn’t our place to meddle.”
“I didn’t like it when SERRCom conscripted four orphans and put me in charge of turning them into superheroes, either,” Saito countered, “but I still did it. I still meddled. As did you, and Travis both. We’re all in this, and it’s naive to think otherwise.”
“So you’d blame yourself and I for the attitude problems of Mote and Kate?”
“Not directly, but yes. Us and SERRCom both. SERRCom, for conscripting them; and us, for saying nothing about it.”
“Er, respectfully, sir…” Travis interjected slowly, “weren’t the Eximius Vir in foster care before SERRCom picked them up? I’m not certain that they would’ve been better off without us.”
“That’s no argument for pressing kids into military service.”
“I’m not sure what you’re trying to get at here, Colonel,” Hackett responded, her voice strained with frustration. “It sounds to me that you don’t like being here in the first place. Then why are you still here?”
Saito stared at her, his lips pursed, and then glanced down. “…I got them into this mess. I’m the one who saw the order to train fucking child soldiers, and rolled over to play ball. And now, I’m the one who arrested the Captain’s nephew, and his friends.” He exhaled deeply. “…That’s eight young adults whose lives I’ve essentially sacrificed, in the name of the ‘greater good’. The least I can do is stick around and see this through.”
“I remember you saying something similar after our mission with Fireteam Alpha,” Travis responded quietly. “Sir… I hope you aren’t blaming yourself for all of this. Fifteen years ago was a long time…”
“Fifteen years is nothing,” the Colonel scoffed. “Fifteen years ago, I was older than you are now, Captain. I don’t have the excuse of being young and naive. I was swept up in the SERRCom craze of the ‘10s, the time when SERRCom could do no wrong, the time when SERRCom had a General of the Space Forces who hailed from the same country as me. But I have no excuse for getting caught up in it all.” He glanced over at Hackett, and then at Travis. “And neither do either of you.”
Silence followed, as the Major and the Captain simply stared awkwardly back at Saito. Upon seeing their pained expressions, part of him felt a tinge of regret at being so harsh with them — but most of him earnestly believed every word he had said. When he was charged with taking care of the Eximius Vir, he had been 34 years old, and a newly minted Major. At the time, he wasn’t alone in caring for the Eximius Vir, as there had been two others with him, but they were long gone now. Through the years, CSF-1 had picked up Hackett, and then Travis, both before the Eximius Vir reached the age of 18. MacTavish was the only innocent member of the team, having joined just over a year ago; as far as Saito was aware, she had only a passing knowledge of CSF-1’s true history. But the rest of the team was just as guilty as he.
“You’ll pardon me for saying, sir,” Hackett finally spoke up after a period of protracted silence, “but if you feel so strongly that what we’ve done is wrong… then maybe it would be best to come forward about it.”
Saito took a deep breath and exhaled warily. “I’ve… considered it,” he responded, his voice low. “But the reason I haven’t is the reason I never spoke out in the first place: there are worse people than me in this organization, and if I quit, the Eximius Vir could end up far worse off.”
“That sounds like a rather flimsy justification.”
“Maybe it is, but it’s what I tell myself. And I do believe it. We’ve developed a rapport with Mote, Mark, Danielle, and Kate. Believe it or not, they trust us, sometimes more than they do other officers. And certainly more than they should. As the people who ultimately led them to where they are now, we have a duty to live up to their trust.” Saito glanced down at his boots, taking a deep breath before returning his attention to Hackett and Travis. “If the time comes, then I won’t hesitate to face the music. If the Eximius Vir ever decide on their own that they want to come forward with what they’ve been through… then I won’t hesitate to back them, and I won’t hesitate to face the consequences. But until that day, my job is to both direct and support them, and support them I will.”
“What about my nephew, then?” Travis questioned, “will you give him and his friends the same choice?”
The Colonel eyed Travis warily, his lips pursed and his brow slightly furrowed. He stopped for a moment to think, momentarily glancing away before returning his attention to the Captain and opening his mouth to respond.
«Colonel! Colonel Saito, are you fucking there?!»
Saito jumped as Krick’s voice exploded in his ear. He looked over at Travis and Hackett and gestured toward the Dreadnought’s bridge. “Sounds like we’ll have to continue this discussion later.” He then tapped his earpiece, activating his side of the comms connection as he followed Travis and Hackett onto the bridge. “Colonel Saito here. What’s the problem, Krick?”
«Incoming hostiles,» the Captain replied irately. «A whole goddamn fleet just dropped out of Subspace, right outside the shipyard. It’s the fucking Drakkars!»