Insanity and Biscuits
"Hello Serin. Biscuit?"
"You sure? It's ginger."
"…then I'll double pass."
It was like a game, Serin thought. Pass, double pass, and with ginger biscuits as the reward. Still, the games of her life had ended. Childhood games. Spartan games. ONI black-ops games with Kilo-Five. All there was left now was business-…
…and coffee. Because at the end of the day, at the end of twenty-seven years of war and a few months of destabilization of the sangheili, it wasn't worth fighting for if you couldn't get a cup of coffee at the end of the day.
"Well, here's to our health."
Or at least that was the case with Doctor Catherine Halsey.
Was it a façade, Serin wondered, watching the woman dunk the ginger biscuit into the steaming black liquid on the desk between them. Did Halsey know Parangosky's routines and was trying to mock them? Was she aware that Serin had read her journal and was trying to dig into coffee now, free of a little inconvenience growing inside her? Or was this what life was like on the Ivanoff, with coffee being part of the bargain?
"So tell me then Serin," Halsey said, putting the half-eaten ginger biscuit on the saucer her coffee was on. "What brings you all the way out here?"
"Oh, you know…" the former Spartan mused. "Installation zero-three. The Infinity."
You, she thought to herself. But she wasn't going to say that. Not yet at least.
"Uh-huh," the doctor said, as if reading her protégé's mind. "All things I'm sure that no-one else at ONI was capable of doing."
The operative fell silent.
"Serin, I taught you how to do many things. Lying wasn't among them. So either Parangosky hasn't sank her claws into you as far as I thought, or else, deep down, you're the same girl I knew who first arrived on Reach all those years ago."
Serin wished BB was here. For all the AI's annoyances, he'd at least manage to add some spark to the conversation. But here however, alone with Halsey…
It suddenly occurred to the operative that Halsey hadn't used her title(s) once. She wasn't "Captain Osman." She wasn't even "Spartan-017." Maybe it was because Halsey was still a civilian, or maybe she addressed all her 'children' like that, but-…
"Sure you don't want one?" Halsey asked suddenly, lifting up a ginger snap. "I don't know how long you've been in cryo…or if you even still use cryo nowadays, but you look quite peckish."
"I'm fine," Serin murmured. "I'm…" The biscuit went up. "Actually, I'm not fine."
The biscuit went down. The coffee steamed. And for the first time in the conversation, Halsey looked genuinely interested.
"I'm not fine," the operative repeated. "I come out here, to get away from it all…to see Eta Halo, to see the Infinity, and instead, I end up talking to you."
"You came to see me, Serin."
"I did. And instead all you're doing is drinking coffee and eating ginger snaps."
"Like Parangosky, you mean?" Halsey asked.
Serin stared at her.
"Please," the doctor continued. "I may be stuck by one of the Forerunners' hula-hoops of death and destruction, out in the middle of nowhere, but I still hear things. I hear that Parangosky's going to retire from ONI soon. I hear she's repeatedly calling you into her office."
"I also hear that she's very fond of coffee and ginger snaps," Halsey said, taking another sip of the caffeine. "So tell me-is it that I have similar tastes to Parangosky that bothers you? Or is it that she has similar tastes to me?"
The operative remained silent. Even as she took a ginger snap.
It was true, the former Spartan reflected, as she chewed on the biscuit Parangosky had changed. Maybe it was her looming death, maybe it was the weight of life, maybe it was something else entirely. But either way, every time she went into the admiral's office, the same routine would follow. Coffee, biscuits…and whining. Whining about the sangheili. Whining about the UEG's handling of things. Even whining about Halsey of all things. Serin had no great love for the doctor, but seeing the lifeblood of ONI being reduced to something she just…wasn't…it was too much. That was why, when the time for inspection of Installation 03 and its surrounding UNSC property came, the operative had volunteered. To get away from her mentor. And in the end, see her old one.
And what was more, Serin suspected that Halsey knew it.
"You know, Serin," Halsey began, taking her last sip of coffee and leaving it on the saucer. "I reckon this comes as a shock to you."
"Me," Halsey said. "On Earth, Parangosky's changed. Here, I'm the same."
"I'm not sure you are…"
"Oh, I am," the doctor said. "Reach, Onyx…I'm just the same. I'm the same person I was since we first met on Reach all those years ago. So being the same person, I'll say I'm sorry. I'm sorry for what I did. I'm sorry for ruining your life."
"Serin, I ruined your life," Halsey snapped. "I ruined the lives of seventy-five children, even the thirty-three who passed my final exam. I don't regret it, I admit…I did what had to be done. But I was sorry thirty-six years ago, and I'm sorry now."
Serin remained silent.
"Of course, that's another difference between me and Parangosky," Halsey continued. "She thinks she can lock it all away. Ackerson, herself, even Mendez…they're all in the sewer still, Serin. The Spartan-III Program, the Spartan-IVs for all I know…only difference is, they think they can hide for it. Me? I haven't."
"You're on the Ivanoff now, Doctor," Serin pointed out.
"Not by choice. But maybe it's for the best. There aren't any children I can screw over here."
It was the end of the conversation, Serin thought. Was it a rehearsed speech? Maybe. Maybe Halsey had one prepared for every living Spartan II, heck, even Spartan-III, that was still alive. Maybe it was a spur of the moment. But for the first time in three decades…she believed her.
It was an odd thought. But thinking of what Parangosky had told her over the years, after seeing what the admiral had become…maybe it made sense.
"You still here, Serin?" Halsey asked. "Or do you have work to do?"
"Actually, Doctor," the operative said. "I wouldn't mind some coffee."
And for the first time in what felt like her entire life, Serin smiled back.
The idea for this came from the preview of The Thursday War, said preview showing Parangosky. Margaret "badass" Parangosky, having gone from being the most feared admiral in ONI to reflecting about God and how good ginger biscuits taste. Admittedly, she regains some of her old swagger back further on in the novel, but still...well, let's just say my mental image of her has been tainted.
Though ginger snaps are quite tasty...
Update (27/10/12): Corrected errors. I'll specify that the term "X Halo" stems from the fact that I was writing this without Internet access when I wrote it, and couldn't remember the designation for Installation 03. Forgot to change it to "Eta Halo" before posting.