Twenty Years of Halo: Halo Evolutions (Part 2)

Artwork by Usbaia and cawico7

The Halo franchise is owned by Xbox Game Studios

Halo Evolutions is owned by Tor Books

We’re back with even more of Halo Evolutions; the short story collection that keeps on giving no matter how much you’re ready for it to end!  Seriously, this was a tough one to get through what with its very high page count and absurd number of stories, and that’s why I ultimately decided that I had to break it up into two parts if I wanted to cover everything in here.  We’re over the peak now and the end is in sight, so let’s see this thing through and discover more secrets of the Halo Universe!

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Halo Evolutions (2009) – Short Story Collection

Before we jump into the next story, I need to point out that Halo Evolutions got a re-release just one year after it had come out.  They broke it up into two separate volumes for whatever reason, and on top of that each volume had its own exclusive story that wasn’t in the original book or even the audiobook you can buy on Audible.  It took a bit of searching but I did eventually find the two additional stories which I’ll be covering towards the end of this, and frankly it’s a little bit funny that the one part of this retrospective that was too long for me to fit into one piece someone found a way to get longer.  Anyway, on wit the next story!

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The Mona Lisa

Written by Tess Kum and Jeff VanderMeer

What is by far the longest of the all the short stories in this book is what we will be starting with today, and I get the sense that once again I’m going to be in the minority of the Halo fandom as I didn’t particularly care for this story.  A lot of it is down to personal taste which I’ll cop to immediately as it’s more or less zombie story and I’m just not a big fan of them.  Well, that and a VERY blatant Aliens knock off which I won’t hold against this story as much as the whole zombie thing, but despite the lack of ODST soldiers which is the franchise’s usual giveaway, the influences from James Cameron’s entry in the series are quite obvious.  A UNSC ship scouting the ruins of the Halo ring that Master Chief blew up finds another UNSC ship called The Mona Lisa; severely damaged, in distress, and with one escape pod barreling towards them carrying a man who’s barely alive when he gets there and doesn’t stay that way for much longer after that.  A group of marines and a few engineers led by their leader Lopez head to the ship and find it to not only be a UNSC prison ship but one where there were some shady experiments going on!  It’s not long before they find puddles of blood and broken bodies all over the place and they soon come face to face with THE FLOOD who have taken over the ship and are threatening to use to spread their disease across the galaxy.  On top of lifting a lot of things from Aliens, the book also seems to be a rather close retelling of The Last Voyage of the Infinite Succor from the Halo Graphic Novel, only swapping out the human marines for a crew of Covenant warriors, and frankly I wasn’t a big fan of THAT story either.  There’s just something overwhelmingly PERFUNCTORY about all this as it just feels too obvious of a story with no real twists or turns to justify it.  None of the characters have any real depth to them as no one particularly stands out from anyone else there with the exception of the ONE good thing about the story; Henry the Elite who was captured and put on the Mona Lisa but managed to escape when all heck broke loose and teams up with a human inmate while ALSO wielding a cricket back.  I could read a whole story just about THAT guy, but instead he’s just hanging in the background being absolutely WONDERFUL while the marines just prattle on about how screwed up this whole mess is.

Screw these guys! If they don’t want him, I’LL take him! Henry will get all the wet food and heavy artillery he could ever ask for!

As for everything else, while some of it is TECHNICALLY original for this franchise it still feels utterly perfunctory.  We’ve not since the first book that OSI are kind of jerk bags who are there to make the UNSC look LESS despicable, but having them go full Wayland Utani on us here by trying to turn The Flood into a superweapon feels incredibly redundant and they don’t do anything NEW with the formula that they’re already lifting so vigorously from other sources.  If all that wasn’t bad enough, there’s barely even an ending; nor does it make any sense.  The final confrontation we end the story on feels utterly contrived and robs us of any real closure which only makes it feel THAT much more like a waste of time.

I felt the same way after reading Halo Uprising…

So much of this story felt familiar despite doing things we technically haven’t seen in the franchise before.  Outside of the one book CALLED The Flood (the novelization of the first Halo game), The Flood don’t actually show up at all as the books are strictly about The Covenant War, and yet given this opportunity to tell that kind of story it just doesn’t feel like anything particularly memorable.  Blame on the pacing as it feels way too long for what is ultimately a rather short tale, blame it on the deluge of named characters running around who mostly end up being cannon fodder by the end, or blame it on the ending that just flipped us the bird and skedaddled before we realized what was up.  Once again, I’m sure I’m in the minority of this as I have heard people praise this story for its tense atmosphere and action, but if I can’t get invested in the characters and if the story feels like one I’ve seen many times before, then the action is not going to be enough to carry me through and I’d just as soon forget about this short despite more or less being the centerpiece of the book.

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Palace Hotel

Written by Robt McLees

Now before anyone starts accusing me of just not liking Halo stuff, I want you all to know that this is PROBABLY my favorite story in the whole book?  I mean Dirt is still pretty good and there’s no getting around how fantastic it was to see a heist of all things in a Halo story, but this really gets back to basics and feels like a natural continuation of the original trilogy of books; not the least of which because we are once again in the heads up display of the one and only Master Chief who’s completely fallen off the book series since First Strike!  Also, the audiobook version of this has Steve Downes narrating the story which adds a little bit more authenticity to the whole thing and is easily the most range he’s been asked to show as The Chief since taking on the role.  As much as I love Chief in the games and Downes’ performance, he’s still very stoic and sparse in his lines and delivery so having him engage in Chief’s inner monologues and interacting with people outside of a few minutes of cut scenes was definitely a treat.  That, and we get to hear Steve Downes version of the ever so sassy Cortana; what more could you ask for!?  As for the story itself, it’s mostly fine as we follow Chief during a part of the fight in New Mombasa and it works as an action story.  It definitely goes a bit far with some of the gore, but there’s no denying how awesome it is to read how Master Chief punches a jackal’s face so hard it pretty much explodes!

“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” “Keep trying, John.” “I drink your milkshake!” “Not even close, but we’ll get your one liners down eventually!”

The rest of the characters are mostly disposable marines of the coarse variety that Halo LOVES to put into these stories, but unlike say Mona Lisa where they take up ALL the roles in the story, there’s definitely some fun to be had in Chief having to deal with them and act professionally despite some of their less than palpable attitudes.  THAT BEING SAID, this story has possibly the cringiest line I have seen in ANY Halo related media.  There have been some choice eye rolling moments in this franchise to be sure, but my GOODNESS did I just want to crawl out of my skin when one of the marines hit is with THIS beauty!  I wouldn’t say it RUINS anything about the story, but it certainly floored me for a quite a bit.

Well gee, Palmer.  Why don’t you tell us how you REALLY feel?

Now this could have just skated by on being a decent action story with the added bonus of ACTUALLY having Master Chief involved, but the ending is what really brings this all together and makes it something so much more than that.  Right at the end of the story when John got the ragtag group of marines to the makeshift command center at the Palace Hotel, he meets with a Lieutenant with a picture on her tablet; a seemingly incidental little detail until Chief sees who’s in the picture.  As improbable as anything Master Chief has faced and come out the other side of it, it turns out that this lieutenant was actually someone he knew when he was a child before he was taken by Halsey for the Spartan II project.  The picture is of him and this woman as kids, and when she notices Chief looking at it, she explains that she keeps it as a good luck charm of sorts and that she heard the poor kid died some time later.  She has no idea that Chief is this kid and she has no idea that the person who died was a clone that Halsey and her cohorts put in John’s place to more easily kidnap him.  This moment hits John so much harder than he even knew was possible for him.  A solider who’s known nothing but combat, duty, and death is confronted with not just his past but a life that was taken away from him.  He’s come about as close to peace with it as anyone can in the intervening decades, especially with The Covenant war to focus on, but it’s a truly gutting moment that emphasizes what so much of this franchise wants to paper over.  I don’t mind the bang-bang shooty fun of everything and the Spartan II program being what it is, but for it to feel like REAL people are in this world instead of just wind-up toys spouting patriotic one liners, we need moments like this that humanize these characters and make it clear that it’s not okay what happened to them even if they do come out of it deciding it was the best or only thing for them and humanity.

“Chief, are you crying?” “NO! THERE’S JUST A LOT OF DUST IN MY VISOR, OKAY!?”

People come to the Halo franchise wanting different things, and while I won’t say this is the BEST thing that they could do with the series or is EVERYTHING that the series should be, this is a darn good example of what I think the franchise is capable of when it finds the right story and strikes the right balance.  It’s a shame that so little of the extended universe material actually focuses on Chief himself because he can be and often is a very compelling character, but if all of the books, comics, and whatever else were up to this level then I’d be a lot less bothered by his absence.

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Human Weakness

Written by Karen Traviss

One of the things that kind of bugged me about Palace Hotel is that despite Cortana being in Chief’s head for the whole story that she remains kind of quiet throughout.  I SUPPOSE it’s not unlike her role in Halo 2 which the story took place in so points for accuracy, but my minor frustration was swiftly alleviated when I got to THIS story which is to Cortana what Palace Hotel was to Chief.  At the end of Halo 2 Cortana is left on High Charity; the Covenant space station that was taken over by The Flood.  At the start of Halo 3, she’s seemingly losing herself which is conveyed to the Chief via very brief and very jumbled transmissions from her throughout the campaign.  This story is how we got from point A to B; the story of how the Gravemind more or less tortured her to try and get information about Earth and how it left her a near broken mess by the time Chief came back to get her.  I do want to give a bit of a warning here as the story is kind of a tough read since it’s more or less a monster slowly tearing this woman apart; physically, mentally, and emotionally, but my squeamishness for this kind of story is mostly abated by the sharp writing on display.  On top of that they even got Jen Taylor to narrate the story in the audiobook which makes it that much more of an appropriate companion to Palace Hotel and lends quite a bit of gravitas to the words when coming out of the mouth of person who’s responsible for making that character so memorable in the first place.

“I know you are, but what am I?” “Darn you, Gravemind! Your riddles are crashing my OS! A REAL gentleman asks a lady first before doing that!”

There’s not TOO much to say about it because it’s one central conceit of her fighting off Gravemind’s intrusions stretched across the entire story, but it’s a pretty well executed one and reminds me a LITTLE bit of when Data had to fight the temptation of the Borg Queen with similar promises of fulfilling their deepest desires in exchange for joining them.  For Data it was experiencing humanity, but for Cortana it’s her fear of rampancy which is when an AI in the Halo universe goes bad and no longer functions correctly; a process that starts happening about seven years after it’s created.  Her fear of death is palpable throughout the story as is the fear of being forgotten as Chief will almost certainly be given another AI once she’s gone.  Will he care for the new one as much as he did for her?  Does he care for her beyond just being a tool to fight The Covenant?   They’re tough questions that she has to work through or else she’ll lose herself to Gravemind which is slowly looking more and more inevitable.

“Crawling in my circuits!  My files, they are being corrupted!”     “No one thinks you’re funny.”     “YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!”     “I am literally a millennia old hive mind who’s scrubbed away whole civilizations across many galaxies!  You think YOU know something about humor that I DON’T?”

All of this gives the story a much more focused character arc than almost any story in here, and it certainly gives Gravemind a lot more depth to them than anything we got in the games; even providing some context to the seemingly random threats he shouts once you get to his level in Halo 3!  I think I like Palace Hotel better because it’s a good mix of ALL the things I like in Halo, but these two stories certainly have a lot more going for them than almost anything else in the book and they make great companion pieces to one another!

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The Impossible Life and The Possible Death of Preston J Cole

Written by Eric Nylund

There’s a pretty sizable gap in the lore between the start of the Covenant War (as detailed in Contact Harvest) and the first Halo game (which follows The Fall of Reach) and while hints have been given here and there as well as a few stories told in that time, this is the most in depth exploration of that thirty or so years that until now have just been left to the imagination.  The Cole Protocol is not just the name of one of the books but is an important security measure the UNSC started using and this not only covers the creation of it but the career of Admiral Preston Cole who invented it.  The story is told in the style of cobbled together documents which to me is about as gimmicky in a book as found footage is in a movie, but Nylund’s writing is probably the best it’s ever been here so I’ll let it slide as a creative choice and just focus on how solid the story is.  What makes Cole interesting as a character is not that he’s hyper intelligent, good at his job, and super engaged as well as philosophical about things, it’s the very human flaws that keep getting in the way of all that and the UNSC’s attempts to cover them up so that humanity has a hero they can look up to when they really need one.  It paints the picture of a great man cowed by the times he lived in starting with the insurrection which already took a lot out of him and then the Covenant War which was the last straw for whatever he had left in him.  The story also does a great job of outlining some of the earlier conflicts that lead to the insurrection and provides better context than what characters in previous books were able to surmise, so if nothing else the collection of documents gimmick works wonders in this area.

I guess the Insurrectionists saw 2001: A Space Odyssey too many times… and I guess CENTCOM didn’t see it enough.

The escalation of these conflicts is what got Cole his stripes in a series of battles that the book goes into detail on, but it also took things away as the demands of his position left no time for the important things in his life which is SO much more compelling to read than most of the Spartan stories which also note this loss and separation from the rest of humanity (we just finished covering Palace Hotel which was an excellent example of this) but there’s a lack of impact there because there’s nothing left to lose.  Everything lost by this military lifestyle was lost long ago and can’t be any MORE lost to them now.  A guy like Cole on the other hand has to make the decision each day to make his personal life that much worse by continuing to command the fleet and sure enough it all catches up to him as he finds himself alone and drinking himself into a stupor once he returns to civilian life.  It’s in this state that he’s found and propped up to be a legendary figure when The Covenant start knocking.  The UNSC and ONI have their puppet to win battles and pose for the propaganda videos, but he’s clearly on autopilot at this point in his career, which admittedly is still better than most military minds during the war, but it’s still far from the life a guy like him should have earned for all those years of service.  Things end on a bizarrely bittersweet note as Cole’s final battle (where he sacrificed himself to blow up a sun that destroyed a Covenant Armada) gets the full Zapruder film treatment with a report that alleges he faked his death and is off managing a farm somewhere instead.  I’d certainly like it to be true if nothing else, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Nylund cleverly sneaking a hoax into his own fictional narrative.

[HALO18-9 – “And if you pay a couple million dollars to do it, I’ll throw in this nifty keychain!  A $19.95 value; all yours for no additional charge!”]

I’ve made no bones about Nylund’s writing in the past and how some of this stories just do not work for me at all, but I think with Preston Cole he found a character that gave him an outlet for his best traits.  No ridiculous Spartan program (either II or III) to try and work backwards into justifying; just the story of a man whose career is both inspiring and tragic; the kind of person you want to read more about but never want to be yourself.  This and Palace Hotel are the kind of stories I want to see more of in the Halo cannon, and with so many more books ahead of me I can only hope that they’ll move further in that direction than repeating the same kind of violent brutal war stories we’ve gotten so many of; especially in this short story collection.

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The Return

Written by Kevin Grace

This is a tough one to be sure.  It’s a great story without question and does such a great job of putting us in the mind of its main character, but it’s perhaps a bit TOO deep for where it (and the franchise) ultimately ends up.  The story follows an Elite Shipmaster of the former Covenant army; six years after the end of the war where the Elites have somewhat fallen into disarray.  Their warrior code still compels them to fight and they’ve been defending themselves against Covenant diehards for years, but with the fall of The Covenant and the loss of that civilization, the Elites are more or less back at square one.  They’re strong and sharp in battle, but they don’t have the technological knowhow to repair their ever crumbling ships, and without The Covenant’s doctrine of The Great Journey, many have fallen into despair and don’t know what their purpose is anymore.  This Shipmaster is one of those lost souls and he goes on a rather desperate journey to find meaning and discover what his place is… by visiting an Earth colony that he himself vaporized from space (also known as Glassing) and looking over the wreckage.  Nothing is left alive, the buildings that stood are all charred and there are bodies everywhere; all of whom were killed because of him.  Sure there’s the fact that The Prophets lied to them and tried to have the kill all of the Elites when the Brutes took over, but he flashes back to the day he took all life from this planet and remembers the pride with which he did it; and how he’s here looking at the devastation with nothing to show for it.

It’s just like Death Stranding!  Only with aliens instead of UPS dudes.  Can the next Death Stranding be about aliens?  Call me, Kojima!

What makes this so challenging of a read, at least for those invested in this universe (and ESPECIALLY for those of us who have been critical of it), is trying to figure out what should be done with the Shipmaster and if there IS an ending that is both just and satisfying.  The first thing that came to mind while watching this was the Twilight Zone episode Death’s-Head Revisited where a former SS Captain comes back after many years to the abandoned concentration camp he ran.  I was hoping that rewatching the episode would offer some clarity for my conundrum, but sadly it only made the questions more difficult.  To the Shipmaster’s credit he’s not equivalent to the SS officer in the Twilight Zone who is such a cartoonishly awful monster with no remorse or compassion as he struts the alleyways of the camps; reminiscing fondly about the tortures he inflicted on his prisoners.  The Shipmaster is not here for nostalgia, he’s here for guidance and to some degree find a way to repent for his actions.  However, the moral compass of the episode (the ghost of one of the camp’s victims) makes it clear that not being THAT JERKOFF isn’t enough to save one’s soul and avoid damnation; in this world or the next.  The Shipmaster, like many who have done great evil, was simply following orders and the results of that are all around him.

Talk about having skeletons in your closet, eh!?  What, too soon?

At this point though, I worry I’m drifting a BIT too close to comparing a sci-fi space war to an actual human atrocity, and the games at no point EVER expect you to think that hard about the moral implications and the horrific scale of the cost of life in this war.  The books flirt a bit more with that but mostly to further its own sense of right and wrong as far as military might makes right, and that’s what kind of makes this story out of place in the greater Halo cannon.  I kinda love it for at least alluding to the unfathomable cost that someone could be forced to carry on their shoulders and I’m fascinating by the Elites in a post Halo 3 world, but the book doesn’t stick the landing as far as I’m concerned.  What moves the story along is that The Shipmaster sees smoke billowing in the distance which indicates that someone or something is still on this planet, and perhaps has the answers he’s seeking.  Once he finally gets there… well it’s certainly SOMETHING but instead of concluding the arc that they started, the story just kind of goes in a different direction entirely and ends with the Shipmaster getting SOME sort of answer for himself but not one that left me without a whole lot of closure.

Well I’m glad HE feels better, but what about ME!?

It a story that asks some hard questions, perhaps even questions that NEED to be asked, but it doesn’t leave us with much of an answer which is kinda disappointing, especially that now means I have to do all the hard work of coming up with an answer myself, but I think if you have the stomach for it and WANT to be invested in the Halo world to this degree than it’s perhaps one of the best stories to read; not just in this short story collection but ALL of the books up to this point.  It’s poignant even if it does peter out at the end, and any chance to give the Elites more presence in this universe is always be appreciated!

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Wages of Sin

Now I’m actually going to do things a LITTLE out of order here, but I assure you that it’s for a good reason.  There is one more story left in the original version of Evolutions, but instead I’m going to first talk about one of the stories added to the rerelease in 2011; simply because it’s thematically relevant to the last four stories we’ve talked about; namely reflections on a life lived, the sacrifices made, and the crushing regrets that continue to haunt them.  Whoever the author of this is (for whatever bizarre reason I just can’t seem to find any name connected to this story) takes thing in an even bolder direction with this story that is the final words of one of the Minsters on High Charity (basically a Lesser Prophet) as the Flood start to swarm the space station.  It’s essentially a deathbed confession as he laments the path they’ve taken and the lies they’ve had to tell, and it comes off about as hokey as you’d expect from someone mere moments from facing their death.  That’s not a criticism of the story however as the mental gymnastics this minister is scribbling out do give us a fascinating insight into the corrupting influence of all that power they had; certainly more so than we got from Truth in Halo 3.

“I mean it was never THAT much of an issue that I’d actually SAY anything about it, but hindsight’s gotta count for something, am I right?”

It’s a bit long winded considering just how much admonishes himself, the Covenant, and the lies they told, but it’s still interesting to hear someone from that side of the conflict just come out and say what we all already know.  The lies being perpetuated by the ruling class weren’t justifiable and led them to a war they ultimately were unable to win, and while I’m not the biggest fan of the humans being “better by default” as the Forerunner technology prioritizes them over the Covenant races, it does create a fascinating dynamic that comes through in the almost bitter admissions of this confession.  The San’Shyuum which are the species that assume the role of Prophets and Ministers  just kind of disappear from the franchise after Halo 3 so this may be the last time we get a chance to see things from their point of view which is a shame as they are an interesting species (Contact Harvest has a GREAT subplot with them), but if this is to be their sendoff than it’s at least a satisfying one.

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From the Office of Dr. William Arthur Iqbal

This is the last short that was in the initial release of the book, though I’d hardly even call this a short story since it’s just a one page e-mail, and once again they don’t even have a proper author credit for it which seems pretty odd to me.  The Preston Cole story was similarly a collection of in-universe documents but they still bothered to give Nylund credit for it, so why did this and Wages of Sin get through without telling us who’s responsible?  In any case, it’s basically establishing the status quo of things in the post Halo 3 universe where The Covenant races are not a threat at the moment and humanity knows that ancient alien artifacts are on Earth.  Looking at what’s coming up, it doesn’t look like we’ll be focusing on earlier eras of the Halo universe until at least Halo 4 which is pretty disappointing considering what can be done with a post Covenant galaxy, and frankly this ends up feeling like a teaser for something that we’re just not going to get.

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Soma The Painter

Written by Frank O’Connor

And finally we have the second of the two stories included in the 2010 re-release of Halo Evolutions, though at just under a thousand words I’d be hard pressed to call this one a short story either.  Similar to the last one, we’re mostly here to set up some stuff that will be relevant in future entries in the franchise; namely a bunch of forerunner stuff that went right over my head.  I’m sure that by 2010 they had a better idea of where things were going as the first Forerunner novel was released a year after that, but even the story being full of proper nouns I don’t recognize, it’s fairly straightforward and hardly substantial.  Soma is a painter on some Forerunner planet who’s working on a masterpiece when she sees something the sky which is almost certainly a ship carrying the Flood.  We then cut to sometime later where THE AUDITOR is being debriefed about what happened on the planet.  Who is THE AUDITOR?  I have no idea, but I’m sure 343 Industries will be more than happy to tell me whenever I get to Halo 4.

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And that it’s!  Not exactly the highest note to end on as the four stories that preceded these two little addendums would have made for a much more satisfying conclusion to this piece, but now that we’re at the end of this long drawn out book and can take it in as a whole… well it’s a very interesting mixed bag.  It has some of the highest highs of the franchise with stories like Palace Hotel, The Return, and even Dirt from last week, but it also has some the most obnoxious and distasteful moments I’ve had the displeasure of working through while doing this retrospective.  For my money, the stories tended to be better the less action and overt horror there was.  Sure, the more subtle kind of horror like when the Shipmaster is going over the giant gravesite of a planet he torched years ago works to haunting effect, but the more in your face stuff like the Flood and the cannibalistic Brutes were really hard to get through and made me want to stop altogether.  Heck, this is probably the longest it’s taken me to finish any piece in this retrospective because of how often I would jump off this thing because of how some of the stories left me feeling.  Still, the good parts are VERY good and the short story format is not a bad way to cover a lot of ground that otherwise would go unexplored.  I’d certainly like a book all about the Shipmaster and what he does next, but the fact that we got a story like that AT ALL is more than I could probably hope for from anything else we’ll cover in the Halo canon.  It’s probably worth picking up the book just for the good stories while just skipping over the bad ones, and perhaps my own hang ups about certain aspects of the lore won’t bother you the same way it bothered me which will only give you more to enjoy in this.

And that will do it for Halo Evolutions which if nothing else was simply EXHAUSTING to get though.  Next week we’ll be lightening things up significantly as we take a look at Halo’s first game developed by someone other than Bungie; Halo Wars!  Join me as we look at the game that wanted to be the RTS for the FPS fans and the interesting story behind its development!

Next: Coming Soon!!
Previous: Halo Evolutions (Part 1)

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