_Header illustration by [Erica Lahaie ](https://twitter.com/aurahack)_Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest storiesvia extracurriculars , and following our favorite characters through their adventures together infanfic. See you in 2017!
Captain Price sat onstage, breathing the funk of teenaged hormones. As instructor he had the place of honor, perched behind a table hung with paper bunting and a banner reading MARINE JROTC MILITARY BALL. His commando's eyes—honed by years of government training—scanned the cadets to make sure no one was playing grab-arse on the dance floor. No one was. "Cowards," he snickered, and scratched his nicotine patch.
The Muppets looked good in their dress blues. Cadet-Captain Morrison looked like a real marine already. Despite his baby fat, Cadet-Sergeant Fenix had a martial solidity to him. And Salter…
His eyes fell on Salter, ripping it up to some pop song, all elbows and whipping hair. That girl would change the world, Price thought, for better or worse. (Kids always thought it'd be for the better, but they'd learn.) Her partner Rhodes wasn't so much dancing as twisting around to see if anyone was judging him. Salter noticed and slugged him in the arm so he snapped-to.
That was Rhodes, all right. Haircut always just outside of regulations. Forever bringing in news clippings about bombings and Ebola outbreaks. The boy squinted at you when he talked, as if you were a white-skinned lizard and he could see the pulse of your heart. Price had quietly recommended him for that stay-behind force the government was putting together.
The song ended—thank Christ—and Price checked his watch. "Listen up Muppets!" he roared. "We need to clear the gym in a half hour. Three more songs, you get me?" Disappointed mumbles answered. "Oy! You get me?" "We. Get. You. Sir!" they snapped back.
Price settled back in the chair. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Salter dragging Rhodes out the door, like a determined mastiff pulling its owner down the sidewalk. Normally Price would follow, smelling unplanned pregnancy—but he knew what this was about. "Graduation angst." He shook his head and wished them well.
"Salt, stop!" Rhodes said. "That's a fire door.""Really?" Salter banged it open and dragged them into the stairwell. The concrete inside was humid and shadowy, lit by orange dome lights. "Didn't you see the sign? Alarm Will Sound.""Do you hear an alarm, genius?" she slugged him in the arm.
"Ow. That's not the point." Rhodes rubbed his bicep. She had an uncanny ability to hit him in the same spot every time—he'd had a permanent bruise since sixth grade. "An alarm's supposed to sound."
"But it didn't, so forget it." She backed away smiling, one hand in her pocket. "I've got your graduation present." Salter tossed something through the air.
Rhodes flinched. The object struck him in the chest and he trapped it there, hand-over-heart like he'd been shot. "Shit, Nora! I wasn't ready." "You did okay," she teased. "You gonna look, or what?"
Rhodes opened his hand to find a heavy medallion nestled in his palm. He held it up and it flashed silver in the weak light. In the center, a white enamel skull stood jaw-open, lightning bolts and jutting through its eye sockets. He wasn't sure if it was laughing or screaming. "What is this?" "It's a challenge coin."
Salter pulled a matching medallion from her pocket and flashed it like a police badge. "Next time I see you, I can challenge you. Produce the coin and I buy you a drink. Fail, and you buy me a drink. Cool, right?"
Related, on Waypoint: Make sure to check out our yearbook fanfic on a future that might have been, in Hammer and Pencils.
He chuckled, turning the coin over. "Yeah it's…" he stopped. Turned it over again.
"This is a SCAR logo." "Uh huh…" "You didn't…" "Special Combat Air Recon school. First woman accepted. Ever." "I mean, I believed you deserved it, but…" "I know, right? I never thought it'd happen either… my class ships out two weeks after graduation." Rhodes goggled at her. "Don't tell me you accepted?" The air thickened, like the thump of pressure change when two trains pass.
"Are you serious? Of course I accepted. It's space. When someone offers you a chance to go to space, you accept, because it's goddamn space." "Listen, Nora. This space program all hinges on Earth being stable. Y'all can't live up there without a lifeline. The minute something happens, the astronauts will get cut off." "Paul, you're being ridiculous." Salter crossed her arms. "In the classic sense. Like, you deserve ridicule right now."
Rhodes absorbed the scorn and pitched his voice low. "Look, you've seen the state of the world. Society's already tearing at the seams. Add in one little push—bird flu, cyberattack, climate change—and they'll leave you stranded up there. Or worse, they'll throw you away to gain control of a mining station. That's what generals do Nora, they trade you for dirt."
Salter wiped her mouth. She hated the tic—it was what her mother would do before a dinner fight. "Unbelievable. You know, I really thought you'd be happy for me. I'm moving on to a higher level. Literally. Exploring and securing space… it's the dream, the highest calling. SCARs are a multinational coalition. The best of the best, showing what humans can achieve if we work together. Alone we're small, together we can reach the stars."
"Reach the stars," he laughed, not attempting to disguise the cruelty. "Will you listen to yourself? Starships? Outer space? You're talking centuries…"
"Nothing wrong with planning for the future."
"We need to plan for getting through the next decade. The world can't blow resources on pipe dreams when survival is at stake. Look around. Climate change or a superbug will kill us long before we set foot on Mars. Something will knock us out, and we need to be ready. You used to be realistic about this stuff before idealism got to you."
Salter's lip curled. "And you weren't always so paranoid. The world has problems, Paul? No shit! Humanity's been though it before. We survived World War II, the Black Plague…"
"Medieval Europe didn't have hydrogen bombs."
"…but we still made progress. Sometimes in the worst times. We had a vision that things could be better. We had hope."
"Hope." He blew a raspberry. "Hope won't protect you when looters are breaking down your door."
She slugged him, a little harder than necessary. "I've told you before: that doesn't happen. People come together in a disaster. When I was a kid Lebanon, during the war, my family survived because neighbors took us in and shared with us. People might scavenge food and water from shops, but it isn't chaos. You think you're being realistic, but you're just being negative."
"Wait five years or so—we'll see who's right."
"We still made progress. Sometimes in the worst times. We had a vision that things could be better. We had hope."
Salter's jaw worked, molars feeling to big for her mouth. She tried to dial her anger down, but instead it went icy. "You know Paul, I finally get it. Six years of friendship and I finally got you figured. You cling to these stories of the apocalypse because you want it. You like the idea of a world where everyone's as selfish as you are."
Rhodes' eyes narrowed. "Want to talk stories? Okay, fine. You spin these Star Wars fantasies because you can't face reality. Newsflash, sister: this world is chaos, but we like to hide that with stories of progress. Truth is, the higher we build ourselves up, the further we drop when civilization fails. But that's too scary for little Salter, so she's gonna play with starships."
Salter got in his face. He got in hers. They squeezed their challenge coins so hard the skulls had a reason to scream. "Couldn't let me have this, could you?" she said. "Like always, it has to be about you."
"What am I supposed to do, cheer?" He waved the coin. "Graduation gift? This is just an announcement that you're ditching me dirt-side." "It's a promise I'll be back." He sniffed. "Don't varnish it. SCARs don't come back."
She didn't answer. A far-away announcement reverberated up the stairwell. Last dance, cadets. Make it count.
Somewhere on the other side of the horizon, music began to play. "Maybe I'll find a partner who actually enjoys dancing." Salter turned on her heel and punched open the fire door. "Hey, wait. Salt," said Rhodes. She waited.
He chewed on his next words, trying out how they tasted. "You can take this back if you want." He held the coin out for her. "It's a big honor, and you should give this to someone who appreciates that." He shuffled, and smiled, staring at her ribbon rack because he couldn't look her in the face. "Besides, you know me. I'm not much for drinking games. Don't get invited to many parties. Can't even stand beer."
Salter looked at him. Her eyes were those of a SCAR operative, a woman who kills for a living. "Keep it," she said. "Bet it gets lonely down there in the bunker."
The door shut with the sound of a shotgun slide. Rhodes stood in concrete and shadow. Far off, he heard the long notes of the last song.
It wasn't so bad. Nora was going to the stars, and he was going to survive. That was the only way it could've ended. A collapse. And if Paul Rhodes knew one thing, it was that collapse was inevitable.
At least the bruise on his arm would finally heal. Rhodes ran his thumb along the enamel skull. When the world fell apart, when he was fighting for life and Salter was floating dead in the darkness, he would use it to remember her.