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Hunt the Truth Episode 01: A Hairline Fracture

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Benjamin Giraud: There's a story you tell yourself when the world blows up in your face. There's no way you could have seen it coming. No one could have, so there was no way to stop it. This is what lets you sleep at night. But go back in your mind before it all happened. Replay it in your head, except this time, maybe you'll see it: something small, out of place. Maybe it's just a single thread, but it's the truth. Nobody saw it coming when they arrived: an alien race known as the Covenant.

Before 2552, there was no way anything like that could happen on Earth. On one of those distant planets in the outer colonies, maybe. But an attack on Earth? Couldn't happen. Until it did. It's called glassing. Covenant warships rain plasma down on a planet until everything and everyone on the surface melts. Usually, it's complete world destruction. Earth only got a taste. The prolonged orbital bombardment destroyed East Africa, killing millions before it ended. None of us were safe anymore.

But something else happened that day too. Or someone. You've heard the eyewitness accounts; every skeptic has seen it in the footage. I was there and yet still to this day, it's unbelievable. A massive man in green armor appeared seemingly out of nowhere in New Mombasa, performed superhuman feats to single-handedly repel a global invasion, and then disappeared. This was the Master Chief. The Unified Earth Government's military body, the UNSC, eventually released a statement: who he is, where he came from, and that he's continuing to keep us safe. And that was that. But who is the Master Chief? Where did he come from? Is he continuing to keep us safe? I'm Benjamin Giraud and this is "Hunt the Truth."

For all us cosmopolitan Earth-types who don't venture into the far reaches of space, there's a planet way out in the outer colonies called Eridanus II. If you're thinking of visiting, don't bother. It was catastrophically glassed in a Covenant attack in 2530. But 19 years before it got wiped out, our hero, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, then known as John, was born in a metropolis called Elysium City. That's where I started.

Deon Govender: Do I remember him? Oh yeah, you don't forget a kid like that.

Giraud: (voiceover) That's Deon Govender. He chatted with me in his home in the outer colonies. Deon's retired now, but years ago he taught John at Elysium City Primary Education Facility Number 119. Apparently, schools in the outer colonies don't have the catchiest names.

Govender: (continuing) John was something else. He was sharp and quick always evaluating a situation. Other kids just gravitated to him, you know?

Giraud: (voiceover) Deon seemed most excited to talk about John's athletic ability. The kids used to play King of the Hill after school. You know, the old game where you wrestle and push each other to try to be the last man standing.

Govender: (continuing) I would walk by sometimes, see 'em playing after school, and without fail, I swear, it was always John, standing alone at the top of that hill. (laughs) Every single day. Matter of fact, I think the other kids ended up fighting for king halfway up the hill, 'cause nobody was messing with John.

Ellie Bloom: I definitely remember John. You're going way...

Giraud: (voiceover) That's Ellie Bloom, another lifelong resident of the outer colonies. When she was young, she and John lived on the same street, just a few houses down.

Bloom: Well, he was a little younger than me, but let me tell you, that boy did not look like a kindergartner. He was a big kid! My friend Katrina and I used to meet him in this vacant lot in the neighborhood. The tree of us would build these obstacle courses out of random junk and then just race. You know, just kid stuff.

Giraud: (voiceover) As Ellie talked about her early years in Elysium, it wasn't long before she was getting nostalgic.

Bloom: (continuing) On warm nights, sometimes our parents would let us go out to the green space and lie in the grass... and we'd just lie there; stare up at the stars. It was a nice place to go up.

Giraud: (voiceover) Finding Ellie was a huge win for me. When a planet's been glassed, tracking down former residents can be damn near impossible. Any records kept locally; paper, hardened data storage, even human memories; after a full-scale glassing? They're just gone. Thankfully though, the Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI, had furnished me with a list of interviewees. That's how I'd gotten Deon. But I wanted to go the extra mile with this story, so I'd hit up some of my old connections in the outer colonies looking for more sources. Ellie was my only hit so far. (continuing interview) Did you keep in touch with John?

Bloom: No, I wasn't allowed to use waypoint much when I was little, but I did keep in touch with Katrina. We still talk actually. You know, she probably remembers John. I'm gonna tell her I talked to you. Wait, uh, what was this for again? It's a military thing?

Giraud: Oh. (laughs) No, no, John, uh, John is uh... the Master Chief.

Bloom: What?

Giraud: Yeah, John became the Master Chief.

Bloom: Like the Master Chief?

Giraud: Yup.

Bloom: Oh my God! No way! Are you serious?

Giraud: I'm not kidding you.

Bloom: Oh my God! That's crazy!

Giraud: (voiceover) Ellie lost her mind for a few minutes. I guess it's not everyday you find out that your childhood playmate saved the galaxy.

Bloom: (continuing) Oh my God, now I'm definitely telling Katrina! I mean she is gonna freak out!

Giraud: (voiceover) Alright, so maybe Ellie wasn't going to be much help. I needed more of the "young warrior" angle. Here is Deon again.

Govender: (continuing) Oh did I tell you the boxer story?

Giraud: No, what's that?

Govender: Okay, okay, so I taught the primary kids, you know, right? But I also ran this boxing league at the high school. The second week- the second week we're doing drills in the gym. John walks in. Now mind you, John is in sixth grade at the time. I say "Hey John. What's up?", he says "I want to sign up for boxing.", and I say "John, you're twelve", you know, "What are you talking about?".

Giraud: (voiceover) But John was adamant.

Govender: (continuing) But I look at him and he ain't leaving. So I said "okay, what the hell", figure I'd let it be a formative lesson for the kid. So I put him in the ring with one of the smaller guys. John pummeled this boy! It was over in about 15 seconds, okay? So I put him in with this bruiser, real good fighter, okay? Good fighter. Two punches! John laid him out. Twelve years old!

Giraud: (voiceover) I liked talking to Deon. He was warm and funny in that "grandfathery memory lane" kind of way. I realized I'd gotten lost in it all when the narrative took a dark turn.

Govender: (continuing) But then one week, John just didn't show up.

Giraud(voiceover) It was 2524, John was thirteen. That's when the nightmare of the Insurrection that had been plaguing the outer colonies finally landed on John's community. Under pressure from UNSC troops, the rebels were on their last leg, desperately seizing territory in the region and launching paranoid inquisitions to find spies. Civilian abductions and interrogations became commonplace.

Thomas Wu: They would just, you know, question you. Just these meaningless questions for hours and hours.

Giraud: (voiceover) Thomas Wu was living on a neighboring colony when the rebels showed up and hit hard, sweeping up Thomas and thousands of others in raids. What followed was months of horribly overcrowded detainment, neglect, and often constant questioning.

Wu: (continuing) "Did you know this guy? What are the encryption codes for this system? That system?" And you have no idea what they're even asking you.

Giraud: (voiceover) In the final couple months, Thomas says his captors started coming unhinged. And then toward the end they just disappeared, leaving Thomas and hundreds of others locked up, starving. I don't want to play this part of the interview, but I'll tell you it got bad. He talks about being packed in like sardines. Warm bodies, cold bodies, people dying in the dark. The smell. He doesn't know how long it lasted. Maybe weeks. But Thomas, and many others, survived. They made it out.

Wu: (continuing) Well, you know, we helped each other. We looked out for each other. You know, I mean that was the only way. We made it through to the liberation, and then we left. We never looked back.

Giraud: (voiceover) When I asked him where the survivors relocated to, Thomas began to list of which cities were safe for refugees at the time. Decades later, he can still recite them all from memory. I asked about John's hometown. (continuing interview) What about Elysium City?

Wu: No. Insurrectionist cesspool. They got it bad there.

Giraud: (voiceover) Deon Govender confirms this.

Govender: (continuing) In Elysium City, people just disappeared back then. Just happened. Once insurrectionists took over, whole neighborhoods just got scooped up.

Giraud: (voiceover) This went on for months. He talks about watching his community get torn apart slowly everyday. I asked him about John.

Govender: (continuing) Yeah. Him and his parents. John missed the first practice... and the last one. Back then it seemed like everybody... I'm sorry.

Giraud: No, no, no. That's fine. Take your time. (voiceover) It was hard watching Deon brake down like this. He just looked defeated. These kinds of interviews are brutal. I wanted to comfort him, but it just felt condescending. Like I have any idea what it was like for him. So we were quiet for a bit. Before we ended though, he said this:

Govender: (continuing) I think that if anything good can be said to have come from all of this, it's that everyone who went through it can know that their struggle wasn't for nothing. When you have a young man who can rise up from something like this and do what John has done... he honors all of us.

Giraud: (voiceover) Deon believed in John the way that the rest of us believe in the Master Chief. He made it seem like this tragedy that shaped him was almost necessary. I certainly felt like I had the proper beginnings to a hero's origin story. The story made sense, it felt right. Sometimes you have to go back, though. Look again, because maybe you'll see something, something small, out of place. That single thread.

Later that evening after my interview with Deon I was pretty drained. So I spent some time sifting through a bunch of file boxes. I payed this scavenger in the outer colonies to dig around and send over any Elysium City documents she could find. The only local government records left were hard copies, but I took them anyway. I was sorting through a messy box of local census registries when I stumbled across John's name. One line of basic information printed out in black and white. That's when I saw it, a single letter next to his name: D. I was staring at an official document that said quite plainly, that in 2517 John died at six years old. Please join me for the next episode of Hunt the Truth.

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