Down Upon My Knees (And You Have Broken Me)
“You have broken me all the way down
Down upon my knees
And you have broken me all the way down
You'll be the last, you'll see.”
Glen Hansard, “All the Way Down”
He made Captain today. Thirty-one years after they told him he’d never have a future in the UNSC, to the day. The irony certainly isn’t lost on him. It’s kind of poetic, even, considering he made Captain because Del Rio couldn’t, as Parangosky would have said, “politic” his way out of the mess hebrought him in by letting the Master Chief escape on Requiem against Del Rio’s orders. That and that the old dragon seemed to have had a soft spot for misfits like him. It wouldn’t surprise him if she found a way to appoint people to her likening even from beyond the grave.
He made Captain today and all he can think of is the set of dog tags in his hands. He wonders what she’d have said to that.
Probably that thirty-one years is a long time to grief for someone. Or that he’s not really still grieving for Chyler or even the rest of his friends that died on Circinius IV. Maybe she’d tell him that what he’s really still grieving for is his childhood or his innocence.
Or maybe she’d tell him to stop with the bullshit and raise one to her and one to Circinius IV on the party in his new ready room. Yeah, he thinks and can’t help twisting his mouth into a humorless half grin, that sounds more like the old dragon.
That doesn’t change the fact, though, that he’s still sitting on his bunk with a set of dog tags in his hands that should have long gone to Chyler’s next of kin and that he just couldn’t let go. He’d had to let lots of things, lots of people go through all those years and sometimes he held on to those dog tags as if they were a life line.
When they told him he wouldn’t be serving in this new war for at least two more years, if he would be serving at all, he’d gripped the dog tags hard enough that they left dark red smudges on his palm, digging into them painfully. The attack on CAMS had left something in him, or maybe awakened it, something raw and primal that had been hard to tame for a 14 year old. After crying his heart out, he’d wanted to do only one thing. Fight.
They let him, three years later, or at least they started training him again, this time conditioning him to shoot aliens, not humans. Sometimes, he was ashamed of the hatred he found in himself when they were training them on how to shoot Covenant aliens, firing around like blind men trying to hit a cat. He felt like he was starting to lose himself.
He lost his mother about four years after he started training again. The great Colonel Lasky, having been promoted to General posthumously, having died from a heart attack. Not even in the field, and he had a pretty hard time not breaking out laughing in the middle of a briefing for his class’s last Thursday War before graduating naval officer training. There went another part of him.
Orenski bought it later that same year, feet first into the battle, Helljumper, Helljumper, where have you been and all that crap. When her dog tags were in the first package he received on his first posting as a newly minted Ensign and he opened it, he didn’t even realize for a full five minutes that he was crying again. Just wetness on his cheeks when reading her sister’s letter saying that she felt April’s dog tags were better off with him, seeing as she would be shipping out for another tour as a Helljumper herself in three days. He never heard from Orenski’s sister, either but at least he got to keep that part of himself, after all.
Sully crashed with the Pelican he’d been piloting – strange, he’d though back then, for some reason, military intelligence had always seemed what Sully would excel at to him – two years later. Sully didn’t die but sometimes it felt like he was dead, anyway. Paralyzed from the waist down, rejecting every offer at having his bodily functions restored and washing out of the Marines. He’d needed three years to find him again, track him through ten colonies having been glassed before he found him in a seedy bar at the end of the known universe, or so it felt.
They still meet sometimes for a beer or two and they call it “Reunion of the Class of 2529 of Corbulo Academy of Military Science”. Or, for short, “The Last”. Hard to believe that there are no more survivors of the massacre that started his own personal war against the Covenant. Actually, there aren’t a lot of people who once attended to CAMS anymore, period. Meeting Sully helps him keeping that part of him alive.
And somewhere along the line, Admiral Parangosky happened, someone who believed in him, even when he didn’t believe in himself anymore and had no Chyler Silva, no Colonel Mehaffy who kept reassuring him that somewhere inside of him was a soldier anymore. Men cowered at the mere mentioning of her name – most of the time he did, too, he doesn’t have any illusions about that – and there she was, nodding at a Lieutenant who’d been refused a promotion to Lieutenant Commander six years in a row and voiced aloud how she appreciated perseverance and standing up for what you believed in at some function or other.
No one had believed her about that second part, and he hadn’t either but six months later his then Captain had to pin Lieutenant Commander’s oak leaves to his shoulders, whether she wanted to or not. There had been packet of cookies in his quarters when he came back after the ceremony. No note attached, not even a bow or gift wrapping. Just the cookies he’d seen Parangosky being especially partial to at said function. That had been kind of endearing. Really, really creepy but endearing. Chyler would have laughed her ass off at that, after being sufficiently jealous of him for receiving so much attention.
There’d been other things like that over the years, small interventions every time it looked like they might throw him out after all, despite needing all the manpower they could get. He’d started wondering what the old dragon would want as her price for furthering his career like that pretty soon because ONI never did someone a favor without expecting you to pay your dues at some point. He thinks, after remembering her inspection of Infinity before sending them off to Sanghelios, that maybe this captaincy is the price ONI is asking of him to pay, after all those years.
He shakes his head and leans his forehead against his fists still clutching Chyler’s dog tags. So many, many years, so many losses… was it worth it, he keeps asking himself. He’d always come up short an answer, if it weren’t for one Lieutenant… Commander Sarah Palmer telling him he was overthinking it again and that he needed a break and look at how many people they didn’t lose because there were people like him and her keeping up the fight.
His mouth twists into another grin, one that isn’t fully devoid of humor this time.
Sarah… well. He thinks Parangosky would have liked Palmer, had she paid attention to her enough before she died four years ago. Chyler would have liked her as well, though maybe they wouldn’t have gone on well with each other. His mother… she would have hated Palmer. They’d have been like two frag grenades set to detonate every time they’d have been in the same room. It would have been a magnificent display of strong wills and superior fighting skills, if nothing else. He’d actually have paid money to see that.
As it was, he got to know Sarah eight years ago, as a Second Lieutenant in the Marines, just out of OCS, as the commander of the detachment of Marines on board the corvette he’d been serving on at the time. Fittingly enough, their first meeting had been a simple misunderstanding about quarter assignment on board that had deteriorated quickly into a shouting match of epic proportions.
He still has no idea what it was that made him lose composure like that. Sarah actually had had the gall to insinuate issues with strong female figures because of some past trauma involving one of them. The only reason they’re friends to today is probably that he’s ten years her senior and had the experience and good grace to say yes to the beer she’d offered to buy him a day later, anyway.
Some days, he thinks that maybe their friendship works despite the age difference, different attitudes, different tempers because they know how to make sure that they both don’t lose more parts of themselves than they already did.
There’d been fights again, because that’s just what happens between Navy and Marines and has probably been happening for almost a thousand years now already but there’d only been one other that was as bad as their first one. No shouting match this time, just months of silence from both sides because Sarah had volunteered to be one of the first SPARTAN-IVs and he’d had different ideas about what “career advancement” meant.
The stories they were telling about SPARTAN-IIs and IIIs and their origins with voices lowered and throwing furtive glances in all directions before starting to whisper just were a bit too much when you imagined only half of those things being done to your best friend – some would say only friend in his case – however much consensual or not.
And still, even with Sarah having survived augmentation and being still alive he misses… “I honestly thought they were bullshitting me but it seems you really are missing your own promotion party, Captain Lasky.”
Shit. He should never have given her the access codes to his quarters, no matter how much he trusts her. And anyway, “Do you ever knock, Commander Palmer?”
She gives him a mock offended look, complete with raised eyebrows and drawing her head back a little. “I did knock, Tom. When you didn’t open…”
“You automatically assumed something was wrong? I’m deeply touched by your concern.” He actually is, despite the deadpan and dry sarcasm. He would just never tell her so. Some things, they don’t talk about in this friendship.
Her answer is a look that suggests this might not be one of his brighter or saner days and jerking her head in the direction of the corridor behind her. “Come one. If we don’t make it there soon, they’ll assume we wanted a more private celebration and eat all the damn cake.”
Private celebration, his ass. Half the crew probably already think she’s sleeping with him, so he’s pretty sure she doesn’t care, either about what the other half might be thinking after today. “Never knew you were so much of a cake person, Sarah.”
“As it happens, I’m very partial to cake. Now please get up your fucking ass and make an appearance at the damn party.” Only Sarah Palmer can make a sentence with the word please in it sound like an order to shoot at that fucking target now, we really haven’t got all day, Cadet.
She’s right, of course. He needs to be there, even if it’s just for an hour or so because lots of people will be there. The committee that dethroned Del Rio will be there, and a couple other brass. Including Admiral Osman. Yeah, well. Even a Captain by the grace of Margaret Parangosky can’t afford to snub someone like Serin Osman. He sighs and gets up, slipping Chyler’s dog tags into his pocket. “I can leave after an hour, right?”
It makes Sarah laugh, just outright laugh, like she would only do with him, never in anyone else’s company and say, “Course, sir. Just I have it on good authority that Master Chief might make an appearance later today.”
He doesn’t believe her for one second because he knows full well that the Master Chief they’re talking about here is still too wrapped up in his grief over the loss of his AI two weeks ago to even consider attending something so probably alien to him as a promotion party full of brass. He lost people he still isn’t done grieving for over thirty years ago.
Still, he decides to humor Sarah, “Really now? And what’s “good authority” supposed to mean?”
“Oh didn’t you know? The gossip’s strong in the SPARTAN community…” He lets her talk, laughs and interjects in the right moments, all the way to his new ready room. It does him good to be with her, be around her, listen to her, talk to her, no matter what they’re saying about them on the ship and in the brass. She keeps him grounded, keeps him walking, talking, fighting. Sometimes he likes to think he’s doing the same for her.
And he never told her about Circinius IV or his mother or Orenski or Sully or Chyler. He isn’t going to start now.
Maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. Or maybe never. It doesn’t matter now. It’s his promotion to Captain today, thirty-five years after the day they told him he’d never have a future in the UNSC and Sarah’s here to celebrate it with him. What better way to forget that the world as he knew it died on that same day thirty-one years ago than that?