Epilogue: The Silence of Answers
[22:12 Zulu [22:12 Local] Oct 2, 2652 [Military Calendar]/
SS Sleepless, En Route to Geart Colony/
For Nieve, there was something downright unnerving about traveling onboard a civilian spaceship. As an ODST and as a Marine before that, his experience with spacecraft was almost exclusively military. He was used to bare bulkheads, obvious airlocks separating compartments, and stenciled numbers over every hatch that were alpha-numeric gibberish to civilians, but told the various servicemen aboard precisely where they were and what the room was for. They had, all things considered, a distinctly utilitarian feel to them, particularly in the labyrinthine engineering spaces.
Civilian vessels had none of that, at least in the spaces he was allowed to access. Admittedly, what seemed to him like an abundance of creature comforts after his time in the field was regarded by most of his fellow passengers as a meager, bare-bones existence, hardly worth being called civilized. For them, even the modern miracle of travel through slipspace, bypassing such trivial rationalities as conventional space-time while they transited through seven higher order dimensions only tenuously connected to realspace was a necessary inconvenience forced on them by traveling through the so called 'old colonies', unreachable by the mass relay network.
To him, it still seemed decidedly off to be traveling in such relative luxury, in civilian clothes, without any armor and with a four inch folding knife as his only weapon. He had a sidearm, along with a full pack of survival essentials stowed in his cabin, within easy reach of his bed, but he couldn't shake the feeling of inherent wrongness.
There was more to it than just the strangeness and the difference from the routine that had been governing his life for years. The feeling had persisted through the month it had taken him to get to the front lines to Reach, traveling on ships redeploying to the edge of Brute Space, still fresh from the recently finished war.
It had begun when Shepard found him in the mess and approached, her normally impassive face grim and drawn, to ask for a quick word. She had the unfortunate dual role of being the harbinger of both the best and worst news of his life. He would have asked for the bad news first—he always did, it made it easier—but she started before he could say anything.
"Jon," She said, her use of his first name unprecedented and a warning in and of itself, "It's not common news, but the war is essentially over. It has been since the ceasefire was declared for negotiations. According to the latest traffic, the treaty is due to be ratified tomorrow and returned via the relay network within the next three days.
"Everyone who's been on the front lines for more than a month is due leave. You've been fighting nonstop since the start of the war, so you'll probably get extra. Long enough to go home if you want to."
She paused and took a deep breath before meeting his eyes. "And you probably should. Geart got hit by the Brutes again. Your sister was one of the casualties. She's still alive, but that's all I was told." Her inflection didn't change as she delivered the news, but something in her eyes made Nieve think that she'd seen the violence of a Brute raid herself, and from the receiving end, rather than picking up the pieces afterword.
He didn't react for a moment. He couldn't. Dealing with the stresses of combat was second nature for him after so long in the military, but bad news from a place more than a decade in his past about a family member he hadn't seen in nearly as long, was enough to cause him to lock up completely. His brain refused to function as it tried to comprehend what Shepard had said.
Sarah, his sister, had been hurt—badly, or he wouldn't have been told about it—while, the ODST, one of the elite, had been thousands of light years away, fighting on a different front of a different war. He knew that she was an army trooper, capable of taking care of herself and willing to take most of the same risks he took, for the same reasons, but that didn't make it better. If anything, it made it worse.
Ultimately, he'd had just enough presence of mind to tell Shepard he would go home before he fled to his quarters to wrestle with the enormity of what she'd told him and the storm of emotions that accompanied it.
Shepard, in turn, had managed to pull some strings. He didn't know how she'd made it happen, but she'd been able to get him transport back to UNSC Space a little early, along with an assurance that if he needed it, he'd be able to add emergency leave to the not inconsiderable amount of time off he'd racked up during the war.
Which ended up with him wandering the passageways of the transport ship he was on, unable to sleep. The worry and nagging unease that had been his constant companions for the last month, during which he'd heard nothing further from his sister or her unit, though he'd sent her a message telling her he was coming, had joined forces with the memories of dead friends, battles won and lost, and the sheer unfamiliarity of his current situation, to produce nights of troubled sleep, when he slept at all.
Eventually, he found himself in one of the ship's observation rooms that was open to the passengers. Another man, wearing the crew's uniform, was there already, staring out into the absolute blackness of slipspace. He didn't say anything when Nieve stepped up beside him, leaving the two of them to gaze at nothing in perfect, silent accord.
[14:23 Zulu [07:33 Local] Nov 13, 2652 [Military Calendar]/
Landing City, Landing County/
Geart, Epsilon-Phi-03 System]
Habit fought with knowledge as Nieve left the spaceport. Habit told him he should head straight for the small house in the woods just outside of the city, while knowledge suggested that the best place to find out more about his sister would be the Army base adjacent to the spaceport.
Habit won, despite the relative proximity of the base, so Nieve rented one of the ubiquitous warthogs that still dominated ground transport on out of the way colonies and started driving.
He was halfway to the house when he pulled off to the side of the road and got out of the 'hog. No matter how badly his sister had been hurt, he'd already been almost two months coming home, so she could wait just a little bit longer while he did something impulsive.
The shoes he was wearing weren't meant for a walk in the woods, but he didn't hhave far to go so there was no need for him to dig boots out of his bag. The crater in the road had been filled in and paved over years ago, but the burnt, twisted wreck of melted metal that marked where his father died was still there, hidden in the shadows at under the edge of the forest serving as a quiet memorial to a day of blood and fire.
Nieve stopped by the wreck briefly to pay his respects, but it wasn't what he was looking for. He'd already seen others like it, along with hastily repaired damage throughout the city, the marks of a brute raid still bitterly familiar from fourteen years ago and the others he'd seen since then.
He didn't know precicely where his destination was. His memories of the place were fragmented flashes, and he'd been to busy running for his life to pay attention to where he was. It was only after he stumbled on the skeletal remains of a long dead jackal, it's ribs shattered by a hail of buckshot at point blank range, that he knew he was on the right trail.
The HEV pod was still in the impact crater it had made, though time had conspired to topple it from it's precarious upright position. Regardless, Nieve still crawled into the small, claustrophobic space. Something had been using the empty pod as a nest, which drew a small smile from Nieve as he looked at the dimly lit interior.
It was the same as every other pod he'd been in, bare and unadorned, meant only for a death ride to the planet below. At the same time, it was indescribably different, on a far more personal level, even though he'd never seen the inside before.
When he emerged into the forest again, he was quieter, weighed down by the memories the pod and the woods around him held. He stood for a moment, completely still, taking in everything around him, before he sighed quietly and left, knowing that he would never come back to this place again. That he wouldn't need to.
The rest of his drive passed in a blur, until he arrived at the house where he grew up which looked the same as it always had. Even the patchwork repair job from the raid when he was younger now had the same weathered look as the rest of it.
It was a series of prefabricated modules that were connected together, and it had serves as a home for Nieve's family since the first colonists had arrived, well over two centuries ago. It was home. The battered and scarred metal and the fields and forests that surrounded it were Nieve's foundation. It was the one place that was always constant and would always welcome him back, no matter how far or how long he traveled, and no matter where he actually lived.
The door opened as approached, welcoming him inwards. Without hesitation, he stepped across the familiar threshold and felt himself relax in a way he hadn't done since he left to begin basic training years ago. Within the walls of the house, despite what reality, his training, and even his memories would suggest, he was safe.
"Anyone home?" He called. He knew the answer. There had been another 'hog in the driveway and a light on in one of the windows, but it was what he'd always asked when he returned at odd times and his way of announcing that he was back.
"On the porch," came the shouted reply. Sarah didn't acknowledge that it was him, though she would have known his voice instantly, and nothing in the way she spoke suggested that his return was anything special. Then again, he hadn't either. They didn't need to, and neither of them had ever felt like they needed to get emotional to demonstrate how they felt about each other.
"You could have written, you know," Sarah continued, "All I ever got was a message from the Corps saying you'd been injured, and that was years ago. You couldn't have sat down for five minutes and recorded a video saying you were fine?"
The bite in her voice made Nieve smile as he continued through the home. "I see you're doing fine," he replied, "and it's not like you ever sent me anything either. Besides, you know what I do. I doubt the censors would have let one word in five, of either a message or a video, get through."
"Don't give me that bullshit, Jon. You were to busy playing with things that go boom be bothered."
Nieve laughed. "Damn right I was." He stepped out onto the back porch, taking in the view through the transparent walls with a glance before looking at Sarah as she put down a well worn data pad that he recognized as her book collection. She handled the pad in an oddly gentle manner, as if she was still cautious about her own strength. The extra care was understandable, since her left arm was the latest version of the UNSC's standard biomechanical replacement. Her eye left eye was also synthetic and vicious burn scars covered that side of her face, continuing down her neck and into her shirt.
Sarah must have noticed the look on his face as she stood up. "Relax," she said, "it's mostly superficial. The docs say they can fix the scarring, they just don't want to start another round of surgery until they're sure the replacements are properly integrated."
"What the hell happened?"
"What does it look like? A fucking plasma grenade, that's what. The corpsman had to cut my armor out of the skin it fused to on that side, and the arm and eye were obviously a complete loss. It's just luck that my leg didn't get fried too."
Nieve had to shake his head at her nonchalance. She'd had the better part of two months to get used to what had happened, but it was still amazing she was taking it so well. He'd met others who'd never been able to move past what had happened to them, and he was glad his sister wasn't one of them.
The fact that she was alive was as amazing as her attitude. The heat required to melt and fuse the standard issue composite armor despite it's heat resistant gel layers was only generated within the lethal radius of a plasma grenade.
In the end, he just shook his head again and responded in the only way that felt appropriate—he stepped forward and engulfed her in a hug. "It's good to see you again, Sarah."
"You to, Jon."
After a moment he stepped back and rubbed his ribs where her new arm had done it's best to crush them.
"So how long are you back for?" Sarah asked.
"No idea. I'm burning through all the leave I earned on the front lines, and then there's the possibility of emergency leave if you're still having problems then."
The left side of Sarah's face looked like a grotesque mask when she smiled, but the right side lit up and managed to convey enough emotion to make up for it. "You'll go stir crazy within a month." Her smile faded just as quickly as it had appeared. "I'm out on medical, so sooner or later I'll have to find a job, but I'll probably keep living here. It's just as well, I've had enough of the Army anyways. You don't need to worry about me, I'll be fine."
Nieve grinned in reply. "Well, in that case, I'm going to start my time off properly. I'm getting a drink, you want one?"
[12:40 Zulu [05:50 Local] Dec 13, 2652 [Military Calendar]/
Landing City, Landing County/
Geart, Epsilon-Phi-03 System]
Nieve drew in another lungful of air and pushed himself harder. The steady impact of his feet on the ground accelerated as he broke into a sprint and the last hundred yards flew by in a blur before he slowed down to a sudden halt in front of the house.
He opened the door with one hand while the other wiped sweat from his face. Despite knowing that he should spend some time cooling down, all he wanted to do was take a long shower and get something to eat.
Later, after what the UNSC still called a Hollywood shower, though the exact reason for the name had been lost over the centuries, he was sitting down at the kitchen table when Sarah stepped into the room, rubbing at her remaining eye.
"You look like shit." Nieve said. He could see the faint sheen of sweat that still covered her, and when she lowered her hand, the bag under her eye was obvious.
"Good morning to you too, Jon." Sarah sounded surprisingly awake for someone who'd clearly just gotten out of bed. "You're up pretty early, even for you."
Nieve shrugged. Her eyes sharpened, and she looked him over again. "Bad dreams? Me too." He nodded.
She poured a mug of coffee in silence and sat down across from him. "It seems like I loose my arm every night, over and over again. When that doesn't happen, I see what the Brutes and Jackals did to the people they caught. It was… well, you know what it looks like during a raid." She stared down into the mug and continued, very quietly, "How do you manage? Does it ever get better?"
"Sometimes, sometimes not. It depends on the person. If it's really bad, you might want to see a shrink. Time usually helps, though."
"But you still have bad nights, don't you? That's why you went running this early, isn't it? You had to work it off somehow."
"The bad nights come and go. I learned to live with them a long time ago, and they're less frequent now. Mostly, I just carry on as best I can and let things fade into the past. I guess I'm lucky in that regard. Not everyone can, and I've seen so much shit in the last few years that none of it really adds to the nightmares anymore."
Sarah sat there, thinking over what he said as her coffee cooled. Eventually she reached a conclusion. "You're going back, aren't you? You still love what you do, even after everything."
They hadn't talked about the future during the month he'd been on planet. They both had known that Sarah wasn't going back to the Army from the extent of her injuries alone and Nieve hadn't needed to think about what he was going to next. As far as he was concerned, there were still battles that needed fighting, even if the war was over, and when the time came to re-enlist further on down the line, he knew that wasn't a choice at all. Sarah had only just realized it from the way he spoke, though, and she looked him straight in the eye while she waited for him to reply.
Nieve me her gaze without flinching. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I am."
The silence of the void is all encompassing and infinite. But compared to what lay between the two siblings in that moment, it was the lesser silence. Between them was the uneasy silence of a peace that left no peace, the grim silence of a soldier who's work was still unfinished, the soft silence of understanding and above all, the painful silence of answers.
A/N: Well, that's it. This story is over, after two years of work. They were interesting, eventfully years in real life, though they never really gave me a good enough excuse for the long pauses between updates that you've all dealt with gracefully. (Well, for the most part, anyways.)
Convergence would never have been written without one person specifically, so I thought I'd thank her here. She challenged me, way back at the end of senior year of high school, to actually finish a fic, as opposed to abandoning it to die or leaving it as a one-shot. So I did. It took two years of working in stolen moments, but the fact that I'm writing this bit at all clearly means that I lived up to that challenge. You know who you are, and thank you.
The rest of you deserve my thanks as well. Every review is a major ego boost and one more thing that drags me back to my computer or makes me open a notebook again to keep writing. Sure, "MOAR! I WANT MOAR!" reviews get old, but hey, someone wants to read what I've written, and that means a lot. Even better are reviews that are longer, and best of all are the reviews that take time to make constructive criticisms. I didn't get back to everyone who wrote one of those, but I did talk to most of you, and I learned a few things from most of you. As for the occasional flamers (and really, I didn't have that many), well, there are always going to be jackasses in the world.
Special credit has to go to Hang Tuah, because the conversation one of his early reviews started had a great deal of impact on the story. The questions he asked made me think about things I hadn't thought about before, and they're more or less responsible for the creation of the interludes, since that's where the background details we discussed became visible.
Convergence had its ups and downs, but I'm glad I stuck with it. I know I'm a better writer now then I was when I started, and even if that wasn't true, the experience alone has been worth it. So, once again, thanks to all of you who stuck it out with me.
Finally, I just want to reiterate one last time that there will be no sequel to Convergence. I think a fusion of Mass Effect and Halo that continues through the games would be a great story, but I don't have the time or energy to tell it—after all, look at how long it took me to get this far. I think I'll leave that herculean task to someone else. In fact, I probably won't be writing any more fan fiction for a while.
It's been great, people.