I walked into the room where I was supposed to fix a computer console and stopped when I saw the hulking figure of a Sangheili warrior standing at the viewing window, looking out into space. The Sangheili turned slightly to look at me.
"I'm sorry." I said quickly, apologetically. "I didn't know anyone was here. I'll come back later." I went to walk out the door.
"No need. Do what you need to here. I'll leave." The Sangheili spoke, his voice masculine and deep.
"No, that's okay. You were here first, and you probably want to be left alone. I just need to fix a console in here, but it's not something super pressing, so I'll just come back later. I have other stuff I can do."
"As I said before, no need. Do what you need to. I will stay out of your way." The Sangheili turned back to the viewing window.
"Okay." I said, almost awkwardly, then walked over to the console that my commanding officer had assigned me to fix. The silence in the room was heavy. This was a very unused room in the Infinity. As far as I knew, it had only been used twice, and one of those times had been when the Master Chief was here alone after losing Cortana, and Captain Lasky had come to talk to him. Other than that, there had been a meeting here, once. Like I said, this room was largely unused. But at some point, one of the consoles had gone kaput, and it was up to me to fix it, being a lowly engineer.
I sat down on the floor, pulled out a screwdriver and quickly removed the screws holding the cover to the panel in place. Once I did that, I took a quick look at the panel. Wow. This thing was seriously fried. It may even need rewired. I fought back a sigh, because sighing would've broken the awkward silence and made things more awkward. I hated rewiring things. Welding was what I was really into. But when you're a lowly Private, you don't really get a choice in what jobs they give you. And everyone hates rewiring things, so naturally, its a job given to those who are low on the food chain.
I started working on the panel, wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible. I'd never talked to a Sangheili, so I wouldn't know how to even begin a conversation, but it felt really weird not saying anything, so I was just going to do what I had to as quickly as possible and get the fuck out of there.
The spark of electricity got my finger. "Ow!" I grunted, snapping my hand back and shaking it. Stupid fucking piece of garbage.
I heard movement, and felt a presence behind me. "Are you well?"
Shit. "Yeah, yeah, it's all good. I just screwed up and this stupid thing shocked me and it hurt. But yeah, it's all good."
I silently cursed myself for sounding so awkward.
I didn't hate Sangheili, not even remotely. I just didn't know how to talk to a member of a different species. Hell, I didn't even know how to talk to members of my own species half the time, so I just didn't talk.
I kept working, going as quickly as possible. The Sangheili warrior was still behind me, watching what I was doing, as far as I could tell. This was getting too weird for my taste, and I just wanted to fix this thing quickly, and get out of there.
"You seem to be very skilled at this."
Please, no. Don't make small talk. Go back to staring out the window. I'm so bad at small talk with people I don't know.
"Yeah, I hope so. I did a lot of training and school stuff for this." Stuff. The universal word that people use when they feel awkward talking about their specialty.
"What is your position in the UNSC?" The Sangheili warrior shifted, and it sounded like he had just leaned on something. Oh, god. That means there was more conversation coming, if he was getting comfortable.
"Uh, I'm a private. In the Army Corps of Engineers." I said, pretending I was super casual and focused on what I was doing.
"Engineers? You are an engineer? What does that entail?" The Sangheili warrior sounded curious.
"Uh...fixing stuff, mostly. Sometimes reverse engineering Covenant weapons. But the war is pretty much over, so we don't do a whole lot of reverse engineering things. If you're really lucky, you get to work with Forerunner technology." I carefully twisted a few tiny wires together, praying I wouldn't get zapped again. I wasn't so lucky. "Ow!" I grunted again, trying to power through the pain to keep twisting.
"Have you ever worked with Forerunner technology?" The warrior asked.
I couldn't stop the snort that came out. "Yeah, no. Privates don't work on Forerunner technology. They fix computer consoles that shock you every time you touch them. So, yeah. No Forerunner technology for me."
There was silence, and I silently wished the Sangheili would go back to staring out the viewing window. Space had to be far more interesting than what I was doing here.
No such luck.
"Would you be excited to work with Forerunner technology, if given the chance?"
That was an easy question to answer. "Absolutely. I'd kill a man to get my hands on some of that." I shifted my position, and threw a look over my shoulder. The Sangheili warrior was indeed leaning on a different console. "What about your planet? I bet your engineers get to work with that shit all the time." I then chewed myself out, silently, for using the word 'shit' in a professional work situation.
I heard the Sangheili warrior shift. "We do not have engineers on my planet."
This surprised me and I sat back onto my ass, instead of crouching, then turned my body so I was facing the Sangheili. "You don't? Why not?" I was incredulous. How does an entire planet not have engineers.
"Complicated circumstances have led my people to the point where we do not have engineers, nor farmers, nor scientists nor anyone of specialties needed to create a thriving society. We have warriors, and that is all we have." The Sangheili said, staring at the floor.
"Why not?" I asked, intrigued. "How has your planet functioned without those kinds of experts?"
The Sangheili warrior continued staring at the floor. "We were given those experts as we needed them by the San'Shyuum. But they wanted my people to be warriors. Killers. And we were. But we lost the ability to be anything else. And now, my planet suffers because of it."
I leaned back against the console. The Sangheili was probably around eight feet tall, so I had to look up a ways. "Why don't you have people on your planet be engineers and scientists and farmers and whatever?"
He looked at me, finally. His eyes were a yellowish brownish whatever color. "We are warriors. We have no one to teach us to be anything else. That is all we know."
I started messing around with one of the tools I was holding, tossing it and catching it. "But there's no reason you can't be anything else."
The Sangheili warrior shook his head. "You are wrong. There is. We have nothing else we know, aside from the art of war."
I cocked my head and looked at him. "Well, then have the UNSC send a few people to teach you. It's not like they won't."
His eyes narrowed slightly, and the muscles in his face tightened into what I guessed was a frown. He certainly wasn't smiling, although I had to admit I'd have no idea what a Sangheili smile would even look like. "And why would the UNSC send us those kinds of people if the only reason they want us is for military strength?"
I shrugged. "What good is military strength if you are all starving to death? It's not. Plus, your planet has lots of Forerunner bullshit on it, and the UNSC is interested in that, so it's also in their interest to have people that know a lot more about the Forerunners to develop it." Note to self: stop saying words like "bullshit" when you're working.
The Sangheili appeared to study me for a moment. "You think the UNSC would give us the indiviuals we need in order to build our society into something sustainable?"
I threw my hands up into an exaggerated shrug. "Well, if I was UNSC brass, which I'm not, so take this with a grain of salt, I would be cool with having an alliance with a planet that was strong and self sustaining. I mean, co-dependent allies are kind of crappy. If someone needs you to survive, they're going to eventually resent that and revolt. But if they're self sustaining and can thrive without needing anyone else to provide them with the basics, like food, then your alliance would be pretty strong. I mean, a self sustaining nation state with the ability to provide quality military assistance is a pretty valuable asset. You can get more than just military force from them. You can get technology, import food, other goods, that kind of stuff. " I waved a hand at the Sangheili. "But like I said, I'm not a military strategist. I'm just a private, and an engineer. So what do I really know?"
The Sangheili still studied me. "I think, perhaps, you give yourself too little credit." He then moved and folded himself into a sitting position right across from me.
What was this? A bonding moment? I didn't know, but I did know that I probably wasn't going to finish fixing this console anytime soon.
"Nah, I don't. I'm not anyone special. I just fix stuff. A glorified IT tech." I shrugged.
"Is that all? You only know how to fix equipment? You know nothing else of technology?" The Sangheili asked.
"Well, I know a bit about farming, considering I grew up on a farm in New Harmony."
"You have been a farmer?"
"Yeah. It was a pretty small farm, but I know how to grow food and stuff and animal husbandry and all that." I said, shrugging again. Goddamnit with the shrugging. That was my go to in conversations that were slightly awkard.
"Animal husbandry?" The Sangheili's face thing scrunched up slightly. Confusion? Maybe. I didn't know.
"Yeah, like how to take care of animals and raise them and stuff. My family raised sheep. So I know a lot about that." I said.
"So you are proficient in technology and farming." The Sangheili said, leaning forward slightly.
"Well, yeah. I guess." I said, thinking for a second. "Like I know how to garden and to take care of sheep. And I'm a pretty okay engineer."
"Again, I think you give yourself far too little credit. There are few on Sanghelios who could say the same for themselves." The Sangheili was studying me again.
There was this really irritating strand of hair in my face, and I pushed it back. I guess I'd missed it when I'd put my hair up, but I didn't want to redo it in front of him, because that would be weird. I don't know why it would be weird, it just felt like it would be.
"Okay, but that's probably because they don't know how. If they knew how, I'm sure they'd be awesome at it." I said, making a gesture with my hand.
"Would they? My people excel at war, and few other things." The Sangheili said, sounding slightly dejected.
I shifted and sighed. "Okay, but that's because war is the only thing you guys have been doing for a long time. I bet if you guys had someone to help you re-learn how to do the farming and the engineering and the science, you'd be really good at that too."
"Why do you think that?"
What, was this twenty questions? Why did this Sangheili warrior care what I thought, anyway? I answered him, though. "Well, your planet has been around a while. Clearly, your people could do all that stuff before the San'Shyuum showed up, and you could do it again. The San'Shyuum kinda messed it up by making you guys dependent on them so they could use you for military purposes alone, but before all that, your planet had all that other stuff to help you survive. And you could get back to that."
"I doubt it." The Sangheili seemed even more dejected.
"I believe in your people. Why don't you?" I demanded, folding my arms.
The Sangheili warrior studied me for entirely too long. I was glad my arms were folded, because it almost felt like he was trying to look into my soul, and for some reason folding my arms made me feel like my soul was safe. "Why do you believe in my people?" He asked.
I wasn't anticipating that question, so I had to think for a second. "If you managed to excel at war, what's to stop you from excelling at other things? War requires a lot of brainpower, and lot of critical thinking skills, and a lot of creativity. Apply that in other areas, and I'm sure you'd have great scientists and great farmers and great engineers and great doctors and all that."
"Not doctors." The Sangheili corrected me.
"Why not great doctors?" I asked, leaning forward too.
"Doctors are shameful, on our planet."
"But you guys go see human doctors for stuff."
"We do. But being a doctor on our planet is shameful."
I frowned. "That's stupid."
"Is it? The taking of blood in an act that isn't of war is shameful."
"Yeah, but that's stupid too." I said, still frowning.
The Sangheili warrior gave something that sounded like a laugh. "Is it?"
"It is. It's super stupid. Why would you not want to go to someone who helps keep you alive and well? Why would you shame someone who just wants to keep their people alive and well? That's stupid." I said, emphatically.
The Sangheili studied me again. I wished he would just stop. No one ever asked for my opinion on things, and I suddenly felt self concious.
"But it doesn't matter what I think. I'm just an engineer, and a low ranking one at that." I shrugged again, looking away.
"Does it not matter what you think?"
I threw a look back to the Sangheili. "No, it doesn't matter what I think. No one cares what I think, and it's not going to change anything."
"You think it doesn't change anything, and that no one cares?" He asked.
"It doesn't, and they don't." I said, shrugging again. "But that's okay with me. I'm not anything special, just one in a billion people. My ideas don't matter, my opinions don't matter, and sharing them doesn't really change anything. I don't know why I'm even having this conversation, because nothing's going to come out of it."
"You're convinced nothing's going to come out of it?" The Sangheili warrior asked.
"Yeah. I mean, unless I changed your mind about your people being able to excel at science and engineering and stuff. And about the doctor thing being shameful. Then that makes a difference, since I changed one person's opinion. But beyond that, it's not going to make a difference." I said, shifting and turning to the console I'd been fixing, my back to the Sangheili warrior.
Heavy silence reigned. I tried to ignore it and focused on what I was doing.
I heard the Sangheili warrior stand up. "You don't know who I am, do you?" He asked.
I shook my head, still focusing on the console in front of me. "No, I don't. Sorry."
"No need to apologize. What is your name?" The Sangheili asked.
"Um." I leaned forward, trying to get a really good look at this one microchip that seemed royally fucked. "Lee. Kat Lee. Private Kat Lee. That's my name. And my rank, I guess." I poked my finger at the microchip. Yeah, it was probably fucked. "What's your name?" I asked, only out of politeness.
"My name is Thel 'Vadam. Arbiter Thel 'Vadam. That is my name, and my rank."
I froze. Oh, my god.
I covered my mouth with my hand. Oh, god. I grabbed the console and pulled myself up to my feet, then spun around and saluted. "Oh my god. Arbiter. Sir. I had no idea. I'm so sorry." Oh, god. I now regretted everything I'd said.
He held up a hand. "No, it is I who should apologize. Now that you know who I am, you are afraid of speaking candidly with me."
Uh. Well. Yeah. Yeah, that was right. I mean, he was practically a war hero and I was literally no one. Just that person they sent to fix things no one else wanted to fix. And I'd just told him I thought his planet's stance on doctors was stupid. Oh, god. Someone kill me right now. "I, um. Like I wasn't trying to be mean when I said the doctor thing was stupid." I said, hastily. "I just mean it seems kind of..." I stopped.
"Stupid?" The Arbiter asked.
"Well, not stupid, just kind of..." My dumb brain couldn't come up with any adjective besides stupid. I hated myself at this moment. I couldn't come up with anything.
The Sangheili did that thing where it sounded like he laughed. "I do not mind if you think it stupid."
I rand a hand across my mouth. "Yeah, stupid. I guess I really do think it's stupid." Inwardly, I cringed. God, someone save me.
The Sangheili took a few steps forward until he was so close to me that I could feel his body heat. "Were you in my position, would make a request to the UNSC to send my people those who could help us become a self sustaining society?"
It was hard to concentrate with a Sangheili that close. I wasn't sure if he was being friendly or threatening.
If he was being threatening and was going to kill me if I said the wrong thing, what would I lose? I mean, I wouldn't have to fix the console. So that was a plus. Why not say what I thought?
"Yeah, I would. I mean, you guys have helped them with military stuff. Why not ask for help with like, civilian stuff? You deserve the help. So ask for it." I said, shrugging. "But I'm-"
He cut me off. "You are a private. That, I am well aware of. But I do not know why you seem so bent on making it clear that you think your opinions do not matter."
I held up both hands. "Because they don't. I'm nobody. I do basic maintenance on the Infinity. That's it. I'm nobody. Really. I am. What I think is totally irrelevant. If you want advice, I'm not the person people ask for it."
"Perhaps they should." He said, quietly.
I looked up at him, craning my neck. Sangheili were so huge. It was difficult to look at him from my not so lofty height of 5'4". "Why would they? It's not like I have anything good to say."
He shook his head. "I disagree. Our conversation has been very enlightening to me."
"Okay, but that shows you were in a really deperate spot, if you're going to take advice from me." I said, shrugging again, looking away.
"Was I? Or was I in a position where I needed an affirmative word from something with an outside perspective, and you provided me with exactly what I needed?" The Sangheili said, quietly.
I opened my mouth and then closed it. I really didn't have ar esponse to that. "Um. Yeah, maybe." I shook my head and sat back down to work on the console. "Sorry, but I really have to finish this."
I have to finish it so I can get the hell out of here.
"Private Lee, why do you feel the need to denigrate yourself so?"
I just shook my head again. "I'm not going to answer that. You never answered my question, so I'm not going to answer yours."
"What was your question?" The Sangheili crouched next to me, and I cringed.
I was really into this console. I tweaked the microchip slightly, and was surprised when it actually connected with the stuff it was supposed to connect with. Okay, maybe I could do this all in one sitting without getting additional parts. Which sucked, because the need for additional parts was an excuse I could've used to get out of there and avoid talking to him further. "Um...I told you I believed in your people and then asked why you didn't."
The Sangheili was silent for a long moment.
The silence quickly became awkward. Or maybe it was just me that was awkward, and that's why the silence felt awkward.
"Perhaps because there is a part of me that believed what the San'Shyuum said about my people, that our only proficiency was for war." He finally said.
"Well, I don't believe that." I muttered, screwing together a few connectors in the console. It was the last thing I had to do. I screwed the panel back on and stood up, then pressed the power button. The console powered up. Awesome. It was fixed. I could leave.
"Okay, I'm gonna go." I said, awkwardly, gesturing towards the door, then turned to leave.
The Sangheili grabbed my arm. I looked down at the large hand thing on my arm and felt my face get hot.
Why was my face getting hot? Embarassment? I didn't know.
"I have to. I have other things I have to do. Look, I've enjoyed our conversation, really, but I have to go." I said, gently trying to yank my wrist away.
He held it fast. "That, I know. But before you go, please allow me to tell you something."
I stopped pulling. "Okay. Go ahead."
He searched my face, amber eyes searing my own. "Do not think yourself so low, Private Lee, that you are convinced that what you think does not matter. Even the lowest individual can have ideas that may change the universe. Do not sell yourself short. Do not underestimate yourself. Your rank does not determine the quality of your mind."
He looked at me. "And that is all. Do not allow the inferiority others perceive in you to convince you that what you think has no value. It does."
I took a breath. "Thanks. I think I actually needed to hear that."
"No, it is I who should thank you, Private Lee. For much of the words you spoke to me were that which I needed to hear. I am simply grateful to return the favor."
He let go of my arm. I stepped back.
"Well, it was nice talking to you. Maybe we'll meet again and have another good conversation." I said, being as polite as possible.
His eyes scoured me from head to toe, then leveled at my own eyes. "I will hold on to the hope of that possibility."
I gave a slight wave and left the room, leaving the Arbiter and our conversation behind.