Corbulo's Last Stand
April 27, 2526\
The Pelican was silent as it finally flew into space. Orenski and Sullivan were fast asleep, enjoying the rest that only someone who is physically and mentally exhausted can achieve. Master Chief was as he had been since boarding the Pelican; silent and watchful. The other two soldiers with child faces talked quietly between themselves, content to ignore everything else, although they also had an air of watchfulness and readiness about them. And then there was Lasky who was trying really hard to stay awake. It wasn't so much that he didn't trust the soldiers that had rescued them. On the contrary, he trusted Master Chief completely. He was just afraid to sleep. Afraid of what his dreams would hold after the events of the night. Afraid that Chyler's face would haunt him again and that he would see her die over and over.
"You need to sleep." Lasky glanced over at the other human on the Pelican. Kaine wasn't even looking at him. She was leaning against the sealed rear door, her eyes closed. He'd thought she was asleep.
How had she become so important to him? She had been a bit of a loner amongst the cadets, having senior standing despite only being at the Academy for one year. An apparent genius when it came to military subjects, she'd aced every test the instructors could give her. She did not interact with freshmen cadets. At least, she didn't until recently. Was it really only the day before yesterday that she'd inserted herself in Lasky's life? Apparently, she was more than comfortable staying there. "Lasky, seriously, you need to sleep."
"I'm afraid," he mumbled, too tired to make the words distinct. Kaine rolled her eyes behind her eyelids before reaching over and tugging the tired boy into her arms. Her hands carded through his blood soaked hair as she hummed a mindless tune. Across from them, Lasky knew the soldiers were giving them strange looks, but he didn't much care. Kaine's voice and hands were soothing him into the sleep that he had been avoiding for so many hours.
"Sleep, Lasky. I won't let anything happen to you. I promise." Too tired to give a verbal reply, Lasky nodded before finally allowing himself to drift away. He could feel the nightmares on the edge of his mind, but they were chased away as he fell deeper in the black depths where even his fears could not find him. The only thing to accompany him was the haunting humm that shielded his mind.
April 25, 2526\
Circinius IV, Corbulo Academy of Military Science
"You're dismissed," Orenski nearly spat, so clearly disgusted with the both of them. Lasky slid into attention, hoping this would be the end of the humiliation. He knew Vickers was going to get back at him for this. How exactly he would retaliate was unknown, but no way was the bastard going to let this punishment go without remark. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Vickers twitch and prepared to about-face with him.
"Cadet Lasky, stay." Lasky very nearly jumped, but he held himself in check, barely. His eyes darted over to meet the cold gaze of one of the other cadets. He didn't know her personally, but her name tag read Faldon. Her red hair was shorn outrageously short, making it very easy to mistake her for a boy and she was taller than almost all the female cadets, nearly taller than some of the men. Her muscles were evident, though not bulging, and the way she held herself was that of a soldier who knew they were deadly and didn't have any problem proving that point over and over. Pale skin that looked like it had never seen sunlight, which didn't make sense at all considering the training of Corbulo. Yet it was her eyes that stood out the most. They were a silvery color Lasky had never seen before in a human being. Their depths seemed to surge and swirl like the molten silver he had once seen at a metal shop as a boy. Or maybe his thoughts were just waxing poetic again.
Faldon glanced over at Orenski. "Do you mind if I talk with cadet Lasky?" she asked. Some of the cadets snickered. Obviously they had an idea of the thrashing the male cadet was about to receive. The mere thought made Lasky break out in a sweat.
"Permission granted," Orenski said, a slight smirk in the corners of her mouth. She knew how hard and unforgiving Faldon could be, and she couldn't wait to see Lasky break down and cry.
No more relaxed, despite having permission to rip the cadet a new ass, Faldon met Lasky's gaze again, her eyes flashing an even brighter silver in the light of the mess hall. "Where did you get those blisters from, cadet?" Everyone around the table sat straighter in surprise; what blisters was she talking about? Lasky twitched away to hide the marks from her gaze but clearly it was far too late for that.
"I'm not sure, sir," he answered, hoping the senior cadet would let the subject drop. The tightening of the skin around her eyes informed him that she would not.
"You're not sure? That blister covers the whole side of your hand, cadet. And I'm sure you have more that are covered by the uniform. Blisters on your feet are normal. Blisters on the palm of your hand and your fingertips are normal. The two blisters I've seen, the one on the side of your hand and the one on your neck, are not. Now what is wrong with you?" All the senior cadets were staring at Lasky now, trying to see what Faldon was talking about. Once pointed out, the two blisters were so painfully obvious, they all wondered how they had missed them, Orenski more than the others.
"Dr. Hughes thinks the blisters come from the cryo training, sir," Lasky responded, hoping the answer would get her off his back. Instead her eyes just narrowed further. She didn't go so far as to question the doctor's prognosis, but she was obviously unhappy.
"And the difficulty breathing?" she queried, eyes nearly daring him to lie to her. Inwardly, the freshman cadet was nearly in a panic. How was she doing this?! For crying out loud, how did she even know about his breathing issues? Was she watching him or something?! "I can understand your squad not noticing the blisters, but surely they would realize that something was wrong when you couldn't keep up while running in formation." Well, they hadn't, and Lasky could see Orenski was nearly kicking herself by that point.
"He is unsure, sir," was his response to the question. Really, what else could he say? "At the moment he seems to be of the opinion that it is taking my body longer to adjust to the cryo training than the average time." Okay, so Dr. Hughes hadn't said anything of the kind, but it was what Lasky thought. Faldon was clearly skeptical. The other senior cadets, Orenski included, were also giving him looks of disbelief.
Then the redhead shook her head and waved her hand in a clearly dismissive manner. "Get the blisters looked at again, cadet. If you go into a fight injured you'll only be a burden and a liability to your team. And figure out what is causing your breathlessness. You haven't been in cryo at all today, and you're still struggling to breathe right."
This time it was Lasky's eyes that narrowed the slightest bit. Yes, he was having some problems still, but how did she know that? She tensed slightly, almost like she'd said too much, before meeting his gaze.
"Understood, sir," he answered smartly. To Lasky's immense surprise, Faldon's eyes actually glinted at him. He thought that sort of stuff only happened in books and movies. The redhead nodded once, dismissing both him and Vickers who had had to stand beside him the entire time. Together, they executed a flawless about-face and started walking away.
"Must be tough on your mom," Vickers said, voice quiet but still carrying well the short distance to Lasky's ears. "Her real son is never coming home." Lasky froze, rage instantly roaring through him. It wasn't the first time Vickers had made some offhand comment about Cadmon and Lasky was ready to brush the statement off as he always did. But this time was different. This time he felt a pair of silver eyes watching him, curious about what he would do, how he would respond. How she had even heard Vickers over the bustle of the mess hall was a mystery but she had and she was waiting patiently.
She didn't have to wait long. With a tiny growl, Lasky snapped his elbow back and nailed Vickers in the face. The fight was on.
April 26, 2526\
Circinius IV, Corbulo Academy of Military Science
Having a bright light shined straight in your eyes wasn't the best way to wake up, Lasky mused. Even less so when you feel like your chest is bound with steel bands and your head is throbbing hard enough to explode. Then he recognized Dr. Hughes' face and realized that he must have screwed up big time. Trying to ask what was wrong, the cadet could only hiss in pain and cough roughly. That hurt. Gathering his strength and thoughts, he finally gasped, "What happened?"
"You passed out during a training exercise," the doctor answered, opening a floodgate in Lasky's memories. He remembered now. The game, his plan, running through the forest behind Chyler, the flag right before him, and then everything suddenly going black as he felt his lungs catch and he couldn't catch his breath at all. Talk about embarrassing.
"My chest feels like it's on fire," he croaked.
"Turns out the cryo blisters and your difficulty breathing are an allergic reaction to the cytoprethaline," Hughes explained. "It's a drug we inject to keep ice crystals from forming in your cells during cryosleep. Occurs in about one in every fifty thousand, or so."
"So I won't be able to breathe every time I wake up from cryosleep," Lasky summed up, feeling the words nearly crush him. How was he supposed to be a UNSC soldier if he couldn't go into cryo?
"The intensity of your allergy is still undetermined," Hughes tried to reassure, but the attempts fell flat. "I'll know more in a few hours. I want you to take it really easy the rest of the day, cadet." Lasky could only stare at the ceiling, trying to process everything. All his plans, all his hopes and dreams, were falling apart right before his eyes. It took everything he had to acknowledge the order.
"In the meantime," Hughes said, getting to his feet, "I've brought cadet Faldon to talk to you." Startled, Lasky glanced over to see the redhead leaning against the far wall, watching him. "Faldon has the same allergy," the doctor explained. "She can answer most of your questions while I run some tests." Glancing at the female, he nodded once and she returned the gesture before he left the two cadets alone.
For several long moments, there was silence in the room. Lasky finally sighed, "Why are you here, sir?" He got a look that seemed to mix amusement and exasperation as the girl finally sat on the spare bed.
"Dr. Hughes just told you, cadet," she replied blandly. "I'm here to answer questions. However, if you'd rather rest and think through things yourself, that's fine too." Pulling out the standard pad that was assigned to every student, she pulled up an article and started reading. For a while silence returned, but then she quietly said, "Rest, Lasky. I'm here if you need me." For some reason, he believed her and let himself fade back into sleep, wondering what Cadmon would say if he was there.
It was Cadmon's voice that woke Lasky up again. Confused, the cadet looked around for his brother, but instead saw Chyler sitting at his desk, watching one of the recorded COMs, while Faldon was stretched across the far bed, still reading off her pad. Deciding that the redhead could wait, the male turned to his friend instead. "What are you doing?" he asked, trying not to sound overly accusatory. Chyler glanced at him in surprise before clearly struggling with her words, unable to maintain eye contact.
"Why do you torment yourself with these?" she finally asked. Lasky had a feeling that wasn't what she was actually worried about, but the question still hurt and he looked away. She wouldn't understand. Those COMs were all he had left of his brother. They were his last connection to a man that he would never see again. Sometimes just hearing his voice was enough to brighten Lasky's entire day. It also gave him something to cling to. Everything he did now, every choice he made, was to honor not only Cadmon, but the sacrifice he had made. That was an idea that Chyler couldn't grasp. She wanted revenge for her parents. Lasky wanted to change things for his brother.
Realizing she'd said the wrong thing, Chyler asked, "Are you okay?" Still a little peeved at her, Lasky lifted his shirt silently, showing off the blisters that he knew covered most of his chest and abdomen. "Whoa!" the female said, clearly shocked. Across the room, Lasky noted that Faldon didn't bother glancing up. If she really did suffer the same allergy, she knew what he looked like.
"I've been better," he finally told Chyler dryly. Unbidden, anger and frustration bubbled in his chest. He'd been suffering for weeks and no one in the squad had deigned to notice except Sully. It wasn't that he doubted her concern, but it was still annoying that she had basically ignored his struggles until then.
"What did Dr. Hughes say?" she asked, clearly struggling to make sense of everything. She was always so analytical.
"That it's nothing," Lasky sniped, covering himself back up. He could see the look of disbelief from the corner of his eye, but he could almost feel Faldon arch an eyebrow at him. However, when she stayed silent he decided not to concern himself with her reactions. It was clear that she was letting him handle things.
"Really?" Chyler asked, voice dripping with doubt. Fed up with the questions, the male cadet just turned to give her another look before turning away in an obvious snub. It was enough to convey that he was not willing to discuss the situation any further. Sighing, the female conceded and instead said, "You know, we won today. Your strategy worked."
Deciding that the comment could be taken as a peace offering, Lasky chose to see it that way and smiled slightly. "That's just me, being a leader," he teased, both echoing her earlier words and reminding her that he had once been team leader. Just because Cadmon's death had given him different goals, he was still the same man underneath. Still a good strategist and leader. It rankled a bit that everyone seemed to forget that because he'd been given the title of Innie lover.
"Lasky, wake up," the COM unit suddenly beeped as Sully called him. "Oh, hey Chyler." Not liking the suggestive tone in his friend's voice, Lasky decided he needed to intervene quickly.
Ignoring Faldon's warning look, Lasky got up, replying, "What's up, Sully?"
"Get in here, you guys got to see this," was the response, voice nearly bursting with excitement. Confused, Lasky glanced at Chyler but she was giving him the same look. Across the room, Faldon sighed in frustration as she turned off her pad and got to her feet. Giving them both looks, the redhead sarcastically gestured towards the door, indicating that she knew they would go, regardless of any warning she might give. With a slight smile, Lasky got on his feet, but he still watched her closely. He'd noted how she'd suddenly jerked her hand back before hitting the wall with her gesture. However, she hadn't moved like someone trying to avoid a painful situation. It had looked more like someone checking a movement because they were giving too much away.
Down the hall in Sully's room, the rest of Hastati was already gathered. Sully gave a startled look when Faldon stepped in behind Lasky, but when the injured cadet gave a nod to his friend, the sneaky cadet decided to trust her for now. "You look like crap," Vickers said to Lasky, but the usual malice was gone from his voice. In fact, he ended up nodding to Lasky in respect while Sully started boasting.
"Okay, so feast your eyes on Grade-A, classified, non-illicit intelligence vids I pieced together," Sully gushed, clearly very proud of himself. Lasky could hear Faldon snort good-naturedly behind him, leaning against the nearby wall. She obviously didn't have much trust that the young cadet could live up to the claim. Lasky wasn't so sure. He'd seen Sully get plenty of information that he really shouldn't have. "Super pain in the ass to do," Sully continued as he pushed play, "but so worth it."
On the screen, the cadets could see that the vid was recorded by HUD camera. It showed narrow concrete hallways and they could hear the sound of gunfire. "This is beyond top secret," Dimah purred, obviously pleased to be part of the group watching. Lasky, however, got bored pretty fast. From the looks of the video, it was a standard ops. No reason to make it classified.
"I've never seen something encrypted so hard, but I cracked it," Sully continued to boast. Somewhere behind him, Lasky could feel Faldon shifting. He couldn't tell if she was bored or interested in what was happening on screen. "It's crazy, huh?" Sully asked as one of the other cadets whispered an exclamation of surprise.
Then, quite suddenly, the assembled cadets heard a voice say, "Target located," and Lasky could feel Kaine suddenly turn into a stone statue as she tensed up. No one else seemed to notice as Sully told them to look at the hand. "Target acquired," the voice said as a humongous hand appeared in the frame and lifted the Insurrectionist in the air. While the cadets started exclaiming about what they were seeing, the quiet sound of Faldon's surprised grunt was lost. Lasky tried to glance back at her but only managed to note how her already pale skin had turned nearly white before the vids commanded his attention again.
The Insurrectionists had surrendered, but several of them were saying, "They're coming! They're coming!" Lasky had thought they had meant the UNSC troops, but then he saw that they were looking in the other direction. They'd been running, but from what?
"Squad, we have an unknown hostile," the voice from the HUD said, making Faldon twitch. "Falling back." A man suddenly sailed through the air screaming, drawing exclamations of surprise and disbelief from the cadets. The area started to flash with glowing green as Sully asked the others who they thought the people were running from.
"Are they fighting together?" Chyler asked, apparently unable to move past that point. Lasky risked another glance at Faldon to see that her eyes were locked on the screen, wide and unblinking. He wasn't sure how, but the cadet was willing to bet that she understood more of what they were seeing than anyone else.
Then the person doing the recording suddenly turned and the vid froze on the image of something the cadets had never seen before. It looked like a soldier, but not one that any of them had ever seen before. The armor was strange, impossible to mistake for ODST gear. Not to mention the person looked as big as whoever was filming the entire mission, making them massive beyond the imagination of most of the cadets. Lasky noted the three numbers on the chest piece, 104, but more than that, he heard the almost inaudible whisper from behind him. "Fred."
"It is now 1800," the academy AI suddenly chimed across the intercom systems. "All cadets, report to the mess hall." Slowly, the cadets in Sully's room obeyed, restraining themselves from talking about what they'd just seen. Faldon remained the longest, staring at the screen like a man dying of thirst would stare at a glass of water, before she slowly turned away and followed Lasky, who had waited for her.
In the mess hall, Faldon sat with Hastati, waving the questions away by tersely informing the squad that Dr. Hughes had told her to remain with Lasky until he said otherwise. She then proceeded to ignore them all, eating her meal in a deceptively calm manner. Lasky seemed to be the only one to notice that she would occasionally pause in order to force herself to relax. Twice he saw her suddenly unclench her hands and subtly attempt to unbend whatever poor utensil she'd bent out of shape. The cadet's discussion about what they had seen didn't seem to faze her at all, and she offered no opinions of her own. The only time she reacted to anything was when Chyler said, "Guys, you're missing the point. What matters is that our soldiers were fighting alongside the Insurrectionists. Why would we protect the enemy?"
"You must have missed the fact that whatever they were running from was strong enough to throw a fully grown and armored man through the air and into a wall," the redhead suddenly said, catching them all off guard as they turned to stare at her. "Clearly, whatever they were facing was a threat to both Insurrectionists and UNSC. It's simple logic to ally yourself with people that aren't trying to kill you in the face of something that is." Glaring at the other female cadet, the senior coldly said, "The universe isn't black and white, Silva. You might find yourself in a situation some day where the only way you and your men will survive is if you work with someone you consider an enemy. Will you damn your men to death because you are too proud to let go of a grudge?"
Silence fell on the table for a few seconds before Dr. Hughes suddenly called, "Cadet Lasky." Surprised yet again, all the cadets looked up at him. "Col. Mehaffey would like to see you." Realizing that it had to be about his allergy, Lasky felt a cold dread settle into his chest. Jerkily, he nodded and got up, fixing his uniform as he walked. He heard Faldon rise to follow, but the firm voice of Hughes stopped her. Whatever was about to happen, Lasky was on his own. In some ways, he was happy about it. Faldon always had a sense of seriousness about her that set him on edge, even knowing that she wasn't a threat to him. If she'd come along, Lasky doubted he would be able to relax at all as he made his way through the hallways. Not that he did much better on his own.
Reaching Col. Mehaffey's office, Lasky knocked once and received an order to enter. Obeying quickly, he snapped to attention before her desk, only for her to quickly tell him to stand at ease. It was surprising enough that it took him a few seconds to obey. "How are you feeling?" she asked, voice gentler than he had heard in a very long time.
"My chest burns, sir," he answered, caught slightly off guard. He hadn't ever entertained the idea that Col. Mehaffey could actually be nice. "Quite a bit."
Not looking surprised, the Col. spun the piece of paper that was on her desk and slid it over towards Lasky's side. "This is for you." Already having a bad feeling, he took the sheet reluctantly. "Seems like you have a choice to make, Thomas," she said as he started reading. Even though he understood every word on the page, he was struggling to make sense of the sentences. It almost looked like a discharge, but that couldn't be. They wouldn't kick him out, surely.
"I don't understand, sir," he finally admitted, even as part of him berated him. What was that really old saying that Cadmon had loved to use? De Nile is not just a river in Egypt.
"It appears Dr. Hughes' test has revealed that the level of your allergy to cytoprethaline is serious enough to warrant a medical discharge," Mehaffey explained patiently. "If you feel that you are unfit for service, all you need to do is sign the release and bring it to the Tether." Her words carried a level of finality that finally broke through all of Lasky's disbelief. This was real. One piece of paper could decide his entire future. All he had to do was sign it. The very idea was so immense and incredible, it was hard to wrap his mind around it. Just that morning, all Lasky had been able to think about was how to lead Hastati squad to victory in the training exercise. Now he was being told to decide what path his life would take forever more.
"When would I leave?" he asked, not wanting to make a brash or hurried decision.
"Tomorrow," was the unforgiving answer.
"Tomorrow," he repeated, incredulous. He knew he was on the very edge of being insubordinate, but Mehaffey didn't react. Deep down, Lasky recognized that she understood how hard this was for him. The shocks and surprises had been beating him over the head all day, and this was his first opportunity to lash out. Rather than get angry, Mehaffey was willing to let him vent on her.
"You know, Thomas," she said gently, "your memories, your choices are all you'll have left. At the end of the game the king and the pawn go into the same box. You have to decide what you're willing to sacrifice." The way she said it, Lasky wondered if she had sacrificed something that she regretted. However, her words still managed to soothe something that was hurting inside him. Without a word, Lasky saluted. To his shock, Mehaffey got to her feet and returned the salute, whispering, "Axios," as she did. It was the first time he felt as if she was proud of him.
"Axios," he said back. Dismissed, he quickly left the office and made his way through the halls. He felt like his head was stuffed with cotton, muffling the world around him. It was amazing how his world could be shaken up, turned upside-down, and blast out of an airlock, yet life continued like normal. Everyone around him had their own worries and concerns and final tests and exercises were rapidly approaching. None of them had any idea that Lasky was lost in a sea that made no sense to him anymore.
Back in his room, Lasky read the single sheet of paper again and again. A part of him was hoping that if he stared at the printed words long enough they would change to something he could accept easier. However, the words stubbornly remained the same, almost taunting him. Hoping to clear his mind, even just a little, Lasky keyed his display to play Cadmon's next COM, but he'd forgotten that Chyler had been watching them earlier. The COM that appeared wasn't from Cadmon, but their mother, and Lasky's insides went cold as he realized what this COM was about.
"Thomas," she started, composed and unruffled. It was like nothing affected her anymore. "It is with a heavy heart that I must inform you that today, your brother Cadmon was shot down by Insurrectionist forces on Andesia. All of his squad perished. I've been told it was a quick and painless death." Maybe not for him, but Lasky could feel the invisible wound in his chest open more and more every time he listened to this message. His mother's words began to echo as her son rubbed his thumb over his brother's dog tags. It had been all they'd been able to recover. "There are no remains to bury," his mother continued. "With this in mind, I have decided that you shall not leave Corbulo to attend services." He couldn't hear anymore. What right did she have, to deny him that closure? His brother had died, and Lasky hadn't even been given the opportunity to openly mourn him. Corbulo wouldn't give him time off to cry and scream like he'd wanted. His squad had tried to understand, but their flexibility only went so far when each one was focused on their own future and goals. With Cadmon gone, Lasky had nobody.
"Lasky!" The word triggered sluggishly in Lasky's mind. That wasn't his mother's voice. "Lasky," Sully suddenly repeated as he barged into the room, snapping his friend out of his thoughts, "move over, I've got to show you something!"
"Now's not a good time, Sully, okay?" Lasky tried to argue, but he was soundly ignored.
"No, it's important," Sully insisted, quickly typing away at his friend's display. In seconds he'd called up the classified vids that he had been working on, revealing the final image of the mystery soldier. Then, he zoomed in on the HUD. Startled, Lasky sat up straighter and stared at what he could see now. Something very, very strange was reflected on the soldier's faceplate. It was alien looking, some kind of creature with a glowing...thing. "Now what the hell is that?" Sully asked. Unlike all the questions before, this one wasn't excited or curious. In fact, Lasky thought that his friend almost sounded afraid.
Then, without warning, the display died, taking the image with it. "Whoa," Sully said, utterly confused as he tried to bring everything back.
"It's offline," Lasky noted, still too lost in the shock of the day's revelations to muster much of an emotional response.
"I'm screwed man," Sully suddenly deadpanned. "It's ONI. They must have flagged those COMs." Lasky had enough time to give his friend an incredulous look, he'd assumed his friend was smart enough to not hack into ONI vids at the very least, before Sully quickly left, saying, "I gotta talk to Dimah." Rushing out of the room, he yelled down the hall, "Dimah! Did you tell your mom?!"
Wondering if he should chase after his friend, Lasky finally decided to let him figure it out. The older cadet had enough on his plate and he was barely able to function as it was. Thinking that Chyler could help him straighten things out, he picked up the paper and went next door to talk to her. "Chyler," he called, but the room was empty. Now that he was up and moving, he couldn't stand the idea of going back to his room, so Lasky picked a new destination and started out.
His chest was still burning as Lasky carefully trotted outside. He had no idea where Chyler was and, honestly, he was too tired to go looking for her. Thoughts were whirling about his mind so damn fast and he couldn't sort them out. It was times like this that he went out to his "spot". Most people weren't insane enough to willingly sit on top of a crate filled with explosives, so he was guaranteed some privacy when he went there. It was a place where he could find some quiet and sort through the mess of thoughts that he dubiously called his mind. But this time he wasn't the only person on the crate.
"I figured you'd come out eventually," Faldon said, laying peacefully on the crate and looking up at the stars. She didn't move as Lasky hesitantly sat next to her but somehow he knew she was aware of his every move. "I talked to Dr. Hughes after you left," she said. "He told me about the recommendation he gave to Black and Mehaffey. Full honorable medical discharge." The paper in Lasky's hand rustled as he made a fist around it. "Are you going to sign it?"
"What ever happened to patient confidentiality?" Lasky asked, hoping to throw off this line of questions. Faldon just smiled, clearly on to him.
"Remember, Dr. Hughes thinks I can help you." She finally sat up, apparently tired of star-gazing. Considering the calm and relaxing activity she'd just been enjoying, Lasky was a little surprised to see a very hard and dangerous look in her eyes as she glared out at the forest. After a moment she shifted her gaze to him and attempted to soften the glare. "Do you have any questions about what you should do?"
"Why did you stay?" was the only thing to come out of Lasky's mouth and he could have shot himself for it. This was supposed to be about him, not her! But Faldon just chuckled, the dark look finally fading entirely.
"I stayed because this is what I'm meant to do, Lasky. Being a soldier is the path that was chosen for me and I'm helpless to do anything but follow it." Her eyes dimmed as they shifted back to the forest, apparently highly restless. "I've defied my fate as much as I can, choosing how, when, and where I would be a soldier, but I can't escape my ultimate destination. When I learned about my allergy it wasn't a way out for me. It was just another bloody obstacle I had to face and overcome." Again their gaze met, and again she seemed to be trying to tell him something silently. "It is a way out for you, Lasky. I'm sure Col. Mehaffey gave you the talk about how your memories and your choices are ultimately all you'll have left in the end. How does she put it? 'At the end of the game the king and the pawn go into the same box.'" Lasky snorted quietly, a bitter smile on his face. That was it exactly. "If you stay in the UNSC you will go into cryo again. Every time you do there is the risk of you dying. If you don't die, you will be a liability to whatever group you are a part of, because they will need to protect you while you're vulnerable."
"Sounds like you're telling me to get out," Lasky noted bitterly. He was thus surprised when Faldon started laughing quietly.
"Does it? Well, that's not what I'm saying. I'm just telling you what you're risking by staying in. Now I'll show you what you're gambling by getting out." She handed him a small stack of stiff paper. "Sorry they're not digital. I'm old-fashioned." Lasky blinked as he realized the papers were actually photos. Each one was a different person and there really wasn't anything cohesive about the group.
"Why are you showing me these?" he asked, holding a picture of a baby up to see it better. They weren't even really good photos. Candid pictures done by amateurs no doubt. He put the baby picture back in the pile and was about to move on when a hand stopped him. Startled, he looked up at his companion.
"Those are people who probably would have died if Lieutenant Michael Jarvis had allowed his allergy to cytoprethaline stop him from becoming an ODST. Jarvis was the person Dr. Hughes called to talk to me when he discovered my allergy. He basically had the same talk with me that I'm having with you." Carefully, she took back the photos and returned them to her pouch. "Those people were being held by Insurrectionists as hostages. Jarvis dropped behind enemy lines and managed to rescue all of them. He gave me the photos to remind me of the good that comes from staying despite the risks."
Too overwhelmed for words, Lasky leaned back and took up Faldon's star-gazing. "That's amazing," he finally forced out. "What happened to him?"
"He died a month after talking with me," she answered with a shrug, although her voice hitched slightly. "The allergy finally caught up with him and his lungs shut down. He was dead before they could get him out of the cryo tube." With an ease Lasky could only envy, she smoothly jumped to her feet and stood casually. "This isn't a game Lasky. You will be gambling with your life if you stay. But maybe by staying you'll keep other people alive." The silence stretched before Faldon suddenly gave a barking laugh. "Listen to me. I sound like one of those really old men that think they know everything just because there's a generation or two of difference between them and you." To Lasky's surprise, a fun-loving grin spread across the other's face as she looked down at him. "It's your life, Lasky. Do what you want." Again her eyes flicked to the woods and a frown crossed her face. She took a deep breath through her nose before releasing it with a very quiet growl. "You should get inside."
"Why?" Lasky asked. By then being difficult was an ingrained response. "And what is your name? I mean, your first name." The smirk she shot him was back full force and was really starting to get annoying. She shook her head before turning and casually loping away.
"Gut instinct for the first," she called, not even bothering to look over her shoulder. "Kaine for the second." She'd barely stepped off the crate when the alarm went off, making both cadets freeze in shock. Lasky had never heard the alarm before. Well, not this alarm. By the time he'd gotten to his feet, Faldon was gone, racing up the hill faster than he thought was humanly possible. He didn't even notice that he was running right after her.
"To the Tether, now!" one Marine yelled, cadets and staff racing by him as the alarm continued to blare. "This is not a drill! Let's go, let's go, let's go, come on!" It only took a moment for Lasky to lose Faldon in the crowds. At some point he ran into Chyler and JJ, and the three of them rushed inside. Col. Mehaffey was hurrying cadets along, telling them all to get to their squads, quickly. Her eyes met Lasky's for a split second and the sight made Lasky stumble. The surge of humanity kept him moving even as he felt frozen to the spot. It was the first time he had seen fear in the Col's eyes.
"Hastati!" Orenski called, gesturing frantically. "This way! Hurry up! Right here, right here!" The squad all stumbled in around her, quickly forming a small cluster and trying very hard to stay together. "We're going to stand in line. Lasky! Chin! Let's go." Once they were all together Orenski fell into squad leader mode and took command, even as her voice shook the slightest bit. "Okay, hold tight. Stay in line."
"What is this, Insurrectionists?" Lasky asked, feeling a pit open up in his stomach. His mind flashed him an image of Faldon, glaring out into the forest at an unseen target. Gut instinct, she had said. She had known the attack was coming. But how?
"I have no idea," Sully panted, fear in every line of his body. Every member of the squad was looking around, straining to make some sort of sense out of all this chaos. Orenski continued to try to calm them, or maybe she was trying to calm herself, but her words weren't helping much.
The sound of a falling objects caught everyone's attention and their eyes shot up towards the glass ceiling. They watched with wide and fearful eyes as pods fell from the sky to strike the ground, soldiers emerging from those pods with weapons ready. "What the-?" Vickers breathed, hardly daring to believe what he had seen. Fear swept over the group anew as the situation crystallized painfully in their minds.
"Why are ODST's dropping here?" Sully asked, wanting to deny reality as much as he could. His voice begged for someone to tell him that he and the assumptions he'd made were wrong. Lasky knew they weren't.
"Because we're under attack." Four words that shattered whatever lingering hope or optimism they had held. More pods fell, adding to the chaos that was surrounding the academy. Orenski made a quip about the situation not being good to which Chyler replied dryly that, "ODST's dropping is never good." The pressure finally became too much to stand and Dimah snapped.
"Screw this," she said. "I can get us on this wagon." Her voice didn't waver but her eyes were so full of fear no one could doubt what had prompted the reaction.
"No, no, no, we will hold our position," Orenski ordered, seeing the very dangerous fractures in her squad. She knew they were scared, hell, she was scared too, but as squad leader she was determined to maintain a sense of order amongst the people she was responsible for.
"Guys, come on," Dimah insisted, fear finally creeping into her voice. She could see everyone wanted to take her offer but their training held firm and no one moved to join her. "Suit yourself." She hurried away, ignoring the calls of her name behind her. In her haste she bumped into another cadet but kept going without looking to see who. Still, her skin prickled as silver eyes followed her. Those same eyes then glanced back at the squad she'd left behind and narrowed. Things weren't going the way any of them had hoped.
Lasky watched as Dimah talked her way past the marine in charge of loading the wagon. She boarded successfully and finally turned to look at them, worry on her face. Sully commented that it was taking too long and they should have taken Dimah's advice but Lasky didn't think so. Gut instinct, Faldon had said. Well his gut instinct told him that getting on the wagon was the worst thing he could do just then.
The wagon went up as the squad watched. Their gaze quickly became horrified as right before their eyes a very large and very strange ship appeared out of nowhere. Two more quickly followed the appearance of the first and seemed to fill the sky. "What the hell are those things?" Lasky breathed. Before anyone could respond, even with an "I don't know," the first ship shot right at the Tether and struck the ascending wagon, blowing it to pieces. The Tether swayed for a few moments, no longer having the support that it had been built on, and then the base collapsed, imploding upon itself and falling upon the corridor where everyone was waiting. "Go!" Lasky yelled, but for some, he was already too late.
In a panic, every human turned and ran. Those near the front never stood a chance, as the corridor collapsed around them, smothering them instantly. Others fell as they ran and everyone else was too busy escaping to help, leaving their fallen comrades to be buried and, ultimately, to die. Lasky tried to hurry, but his lungs hadn't recovered from the cryo and he was struggling. He nearly fell at one point but hands appeared under his arm and hurriedly drug him along. In the flashes of light that were available, he thought it was Faldon but he wasn't sure.
He was eventually released and crumpled just at the edge of the collapsed section of the corridor. Coughing through the dust, he struggled to his knees only to discover Chyler and Orenski beside him. He was attempting to get his bearing and stave off the faint he could feel coming when something struck the window beside him. Three pairs of very frightened eyes instantly snapped towards the glass to see a slumped, dead body leaning against it. Then out of the gloom, like one of those cliché horror movies from ancient Earth times, came a monster, illuminated with violet light. It shouted in a strange tongue before suddenly cleaving the statue of Corbulo in two with what seemed to be a sword made of pure energy. Suddenly, something clicked in Lasky's mind. He'd seen the creature before. It was the same as the image reflected in the HUD of that soldier from Sully's vids.
"Tom, come on," Chyler said, quickly pulling Lasky away from the window and his thoughts. He stumbled to his feet, still in shock. How many more surprises were going to blindside them tonight?
"What was that?" he asked, the question falling from numb lips. He knew he was going into shock - literally. Cadmon had told him about it once. The human mind could only take so many surprises before it just shut down. It was pretty safe to say that he was quickly approaching that point. Orenski's voice gave him a focus and he struggled to catch up with the conversation when something suddenly struck the roof above them. Lasky didn't even bother looking up as he started running again, wanting to believe it was just rubble from the Tether but hearing screams that abruptly ended with crashes. ODST's were still dropping in and he was afraid that some weren't even making it to the ground.
The three burst out of the ruined hall and chaos swallowed them whole. Dust and smoke were everywhere, restricting vision to just a few feet. People were yelling and screaming and running and shooting. Bolts of purple and green flew about freely, accompanied by the sharp reports of rifle fire that came from everywhere. Every now and then a creature would appear through the gloom, overpowering anyone unfortunate enough to get near it. Orenski was long gone, vanished into the belly of the creature that Lasky suddenly realized was war. Chyler was also gone, lost somewhere amongst the sea of pain and death. Lost and not sure where to go, Lasky started calling, "Chyler! Hastati!" trying to find his friends. Then a silhouette that Lasky knew well appeared.
"Get to the dorms!" Col Mehaffey yelled, pointing in the direction he should go. Her name fell from his lips but was swallowed up by the greater roars of the beast. He wasn't even sure she had actually heard him or if she was yelling for the benefit of all cadets in the area. "Go, go, go, go!" she screamed, actually meeting his gaze for a split second before four purple spikes suddenly embedded themselves in her, silencing her forever.
That was it. That was the last surprise he could take. Lasky could feel his mind deactivate as he stood there, numbly. He saw everything around him. The ODST's fighting. The monsters appearing and disappearing. The bullets and bolts that came disturbingly close to him. None of it mattered though.
"Tom!" Chyler's voice destroyed the bubble as she suddenly appeared and pulled him after her. "Come on, let's go!" The pair weaved themselves through the fighting, picking up JJ as they went, occasionally hearing people yell out for groups to fall back.
By some miracle they all made it to the dorms and ran into Orenski, Sully, and Vickers within. Most of the room doors were already closed and locked, leaving the squad in despair until Sully found that Lasky's door was ajar. The six hurried in, instinctively placing something to their back and trying very hard to catch their breaths. Except for their ragged breathing, silence reigned until Sullivan shattered it.
"Oh my god," he said, his voice catching in the back of his throat to give it a sob like quality. "Dimah, she's dead."
"Col Mehaffey," Lasky breathed, adding a name to the list they all knew was very long. Thank god they stopped there, no one wanting to speculate on just how many people they knew were now dead.
"Yeah, well, we will be too if we don't do something!" Vickers nearly yelled, quickly coming apart at the seams as the stress piled on. Sully attempted to activate Lasky's COM but to no avail as all communications had been knocked out by the creatures. The moment was solidified for them all when Vickers stated, "It's a whole new war."
A whole new war. Again, Faldon's eyes flashed through Lasky's memory. Her glare at the forest, her stargazing, her restlessness. A whole new war. A war she had sensed and had been attempting to locate.
No, that didn't make any sense. Humans couldn't sense war. There were stories about animals that could sense natural disasters before they happen but humans were never among them and besides, war was not a natural disaster. Yet Lasky's gut kept informing him that yes, she could sense it. She knew it was coming. And if she knew it was coming, maybe she also knew how to survive it.
A terrified scream from the hallway snapped Lasky back to reality, freezing his blood. Everyone's hearts stopped when the scream was suddenly cut off. "That sounded close," Vickers exclaimed, earning the title of Captain Obvious in Lasky's mind. But that was a thought for a different and safer time. Lasky carefully peeked around his door into the hallway only to be met by a walking nightmare. Just down the hall stood one of those monsters, a cadet's body speared on its sword. It shouted something as it shoved the body free before, literally, vanishing in front of Lasky's very wide eyes.
"It's invisible," he said, his voice nearly numb. It had gotten to the point where he was positive nothing could surprise him anymore.
"What the hell's invisible?" Vickers asked dumbly.
"One of those things is inside and it is invisible," Lasky snarled. It took a moment for everyone to process his words. During that moment he looked out in the hall again. Everything was still but then there was a slight distortion in the air just before one of the doors shattered. The creature must be checking each room for survivors - and Lasky's room wasn't that far away.
"Let's go," he said quickly, his mind already racing ahead to make plans. "We need to get out of here." He wasn't entirely sure where they would go but he knew they would be helpless if they waited for the monster to come to them.
"No, no, no, no, screw that," Sully denied instantly, eyes wide in fear. "We stay here."
"Where are we gonna go?" JJ challenged, trying to control the shaking in his hands. The whole squad was falling apart, torn between staying and making a break for it. Lasky spun around, looking to the open door. For a moment, just a brief moment, he could have sworn he'd heard Faldon's voice in the hall. Great, now he was totally losing it.
"No, no, no," Orenski finally said, having something to work from at last. "We're gonna-we're gonna go to the training room, we're gonna get decked out, we're gonna get some weapons." The hall was still echoing with the tinkling of glass as the monster took out another door. Lasky wasn't sure who to watch, shifting back and forth between paying attention to Orenski and looking over his shoulder. If only he could say if he was watching for the monster to appear or Faldon.
"I'll take point," JJ said, finally stopping the shakes. Like Orenski, he could function once he had a clear idea of what was needed from him. So long as he had a plan, everything would be just fine.
"Come on, come on, line up!" Orenski ordered, voice starting to shake as the crashes got closer and closer. The squad scrambled to obey, falling into a line behind JJ. "Alright," she finally breathed, falling into her own place while Lasky chose to take the rear. "Tell us when. Tell us when, alright?" For the half second that there was calm Lasky wondered why Orenski kept repeating herself. Wasn't telling them once enough?
JJ peered around the door frame, watching the seemingly empty hallway. For a moment everything was still and he wondered if the monster had possibly passed them by. Then the door next to their hiding place shattered and the thing went in. "Now," he said, quickly ducking into the hallway, the others scrambling after him. The monster roared as they ran through the halls, following JJ as he frantically tried to not slip. When they came to an intersection he paused, knowing both ways would take them to the training room but unsure of which was faster. Behind him, he heard Orenski tell him to go so he quickly chose one path and started on it - only to pause a few steps later despite his squad leader's continued orders to go. He couldn't see anything except empty hallway but he could feel it. Something, something breathing, was right in front of him. Realization dawned and JJ knew he was about to die.
In the flash of a moment, a sword of energy appeared, skewering JJ and lifting him up into the air. "JJ!" Vickers screamed; complete terror dripping from his voice. Lasky could only stare for a long moment at the suspended body, knowing JJ was already dead. A breeze behind him, as if someone had rushed past, is what snapped him from his paralysis.
"Oh my god!" he yelled, reaching forward to grab Chyler's shoulder just as the body dropped. That shattered the spell for everyone and they broke back into a run, scrambling back a few steps to go the other way, yelling, "Go," so quickly that they couldn't be sure who was yelling or who they were yelling to. The monster yelled and followed, not bothering to chase as it was already sure of its victory, leaving behind JJ's body, broken and bleeding on the floor.
The training room doors suddenly loomed before them, already slightly open so that Orenski just had to use her shoulder to push them apart so they could all stumble in. "Lasky, send the distress beacon," she ordered, heading straight to the lockers where their gear was. "Chyler, help me get the weapons." The others followed her example while Lasky instead stopped at the control panel, furiously pushing in codes while the rest of the group attempted to unlock the lockers. It only took a couple of seconds for them to realize the codes weren't working and the lockers were staying locked, much to Chyler's horror. Voices raised again, some encouraging Chyler to try the codes one more time, while Sully called for Lasky to close the door. He repeated the order when it appeared that Lasky hadn't heard him.
"Yeah, I'm trying!" Lasky yelled, frantically attempting to keep from going back into shock. There were more exclamations of dismay from the squad as the lockers stubbornly refused to budge. The doors finally started to close with a tone, leaving Lasky to return to his original mission of sending a distress beacon. "Mayday! Mayday, mayday. This is Cadet Thomas Lasky. I repeat, mayday! Mayday! There's been an attack on Corbulo Academy! Extensive casualties. I repeat, extensive casualties!" Somewhere in the distance he could hear Orenski mention something about land NAVs but he was focused on the screen which flickered in a strange way, reminding him of when AI's hacked into programs. "I-I think the beacon's down as well." After all, there had been no reply, no response. Just that flicker which could mean any number of things.
"We're dead," Sully said, quickly approaching the numbness of shock himself. In a moment of terror induced hysteria Lasky wanted to ask Sully if he was always so optimistic but he managed to hold his tongue. Orenski had her hands in her hair, trying to come up with a plan, repeating the word 'think' like a mantra.
"We can't stay in here April," Lasky finally said, voice gentle to avoid her going into a full meltdown. He remembered Cadmon talking about times like this. Times when newbies were thrown into combat and totally lost grip on themselves. Cadmon had said those people needed a very special type of person to help them. A person that could get them refocused, yes, but also one that would allow the newbie to vent. A person that could take their abuse and not become offended. Orenski needed that now and so he'd have to be the one to help.
"We can't go out there," she yelled at him, looking at him as though he'd lost his mind. Before Lasky could respond, everyone's attention was grabbed by Vickers as he grunted, slamming a missile round into the locker grating. He repeated the action several times but the grating didn't even dent. The others yelled encouragement, or maybe not depending on how you looked at it, but then there was an even louder crash and everyone froze, realizing it hadn't come from Vickers. It came from the door. They all turned and stared for a few long moments, wondering if it was even worth it to continue to try and survive. Another crash. Lasky's eyes noticed the screen near the door flickered again. The terror was clearly affecting him as he could have sworn he saw a face in that moment. "Hide," Orenski breathed. Another spell broken as they all scrambled to obey; Lasky, Sully, Orenski, and Chyler going one way while Vickers went another.
Of course, Vickers quickly realized he wasn't where he wanted to be and turned around to join the others as the monster's strange language swept over them but sparks from a live wire stopped his progress. Instead, he ducked behind one of the large lockers as the thing hit the door again. Repeatedly he would glance around the edge of the locker to see Lasky on the other side, gesturing for him to join them, only to duck back behind the metal as the door was further abused. Finally, it was too late as a final hit resulted in the door flying off the hinges, allowing the creature access to their hiding place. Instantly, everyone moved farther back, trying to remain in the shadows as they knew they would soon have company. In his panic, Vickers' breathing became painfully loud, alerting everyone to his location. Lasky leaned around the locker, catching Vickers' eye and held a finger to his mouth, telling Vickers to shh. A nod was the only reply before footsteps approached, driving them back into hiding.
Even though it was invisible, Lasky was still aware of the thing's progress. Its breath disturbed the steam that was leaking from pipes and it jostled the fallen door. When the footsteps had reached the far back of the room Lasky knew they had their only chance. Turning to the others, he started nodding for them to move further towards the front, mouthing the word 'go' in case they didn't understand. When they hesitated he took the lead, ducking under fallen beams and trying his best to avoid the live wires that still sparked at random times. Crawling on the ground, he made his way to the open space just before the doors, Chyler on his heels. Eventually all four made it through and huddled close together.
"Lasky, go for the door," Sully whispered, managing to sound like he wasn't totally scared out of his mind. Lasky shook his head, said something about not leaving Vickers while looking over his shoulder in the direction he knew the cadet was hiding. Chyler asked where the creature was, a good thing to know before they tried to make a break for it. Knowing he couldn't risk looking around the edge, Lasky lay down so he was looking underneath the rows of lockers. For a moment everything was still and he realized it was always that way just before something really bad happened. True to form, a puddle not three feet away from them was disturbed as an invisible foot stepped in it. Lasky scrambled back up, eyes wide. "It's right there."
Another wire spark revealed the creature for the briefest of moments, outlining its massive form. Then the footsteps resumed, approaching their hiding place while that horrible sword again appeared, glowing with hot, blue energy. They all leaned back but didn't bother trying to get away. It was pointless to resist anymore. Even when the thing revealed itself, they didn't move. It was almost a relief to accept death.
"Hey!" Vickers yelled, stepping out from around the locker, missile raised to throw. "Guys, run!" Before he could throw the round the creature shot him, catching him off guard and killing him instantly. Sully cried out for Vickers before throwing his hand across his mouth, realizing he had given them away.
Sure enough, the creature came around the locker, yelling at them in its strange tongue, sword held low and ready. They had no clue what it was saying but the intent was clear. They were going to die. It laughed, coiling itself in preparation to strike-
-before suddenly screaming and falling down dead, the knife being pulled out of its neck. In its place stood the tallest damn robot the cadet's had ever seen. It stepped forward, turning lights on and sweeping a beam over each face. Then, to their even further astonishment, it spoke. "We don't have much time. Let's go." Lasky could only blink and nod.
The cadet's scrambled to their feet, Chyler instantly rushing back to check on Vickers. It only took her a moment to realize he was dead. Meanwhile, the robot got on its radio, calling someone. "Kelly, inform command I have four survivors. Take your team north. Rendezvous at evac Alpha for Pelican extraction. We'll meet you there. Chief out." It turned back around, observing the cadets again. Lasky was very disconcerted by the fact that he couldn't see its face. Hell, he didn't even know if it had a face. For all he knew, all that lay behind the mask was a mass of wires and circuit boards. But even robots were expected to answer certain questions.
"How did you find us?" he asked, wondering if by chance Faldon had something to do with this. Gah, why did he keep thinking about her? A cadet he hadn't even spoken to until the day before and didn't know the name of until maybe an hour ago.
"A distress beacon," it answered as though the answer should have been obvious. Honestly, it should have been and Lasky knew it as he looked away. He heard Sully ask why the robot had come for them. "You're the only survivors." Lasky's head snapped back, his eyes wide. They were the only survivors from the whole school? Sully put words to his thoughts but the answer floored them all.
"On the planet."
The mere idea was so absurd that they couldn't process it. There were several thousand people in the school alone, millions across the planet. It was impossible for there to be four survivors out of an entire world. However, the robot gave them no time to contemplate the thought. "We've got fifteen minutes to get to the evac point. Armor up."
"It-It's locked," Sully informed him, still reeling from the revelation. The robot looked his way before walking over to one of the lockers, ripping the grating off and tossing it away as if it was nothing. The crash of the grating was loud enough that the cadets didn't hear the quiet footsteps but the robot did. It whirled around, lights flared and gun leveled at the door.
"Holy shit!" Faldon yelled, stepping back, eyes wide. "What the hell is that?!"
"Faldon!" Lasky said, suddenly feeling better. There were other survivors out there! This robot thing was wrong; they weren't the last.
Faldon blinked at Lasky, still keeping a wary eye on the robot that had yet to lower its weapon. "Lasky, Orenski, what is going on?" She glared at the robot. "And you, put that down! I'm human, in case you haven't noticed. Save your bullets for the nightmare monsters outside." The gun was lowered slowly and everyone knew the robot was observing this new addition before it visibly shook its thoughts away.
"No time," it said, still gruff while remaining unruffled. "Armor up with the others; we have to move." For a moment, Orenski was sure Faldon would refuse the orders. She was, after all, infamous for doing things her own way. There wasn't a single officer who didn't loathe getting stuck with her for any type of lesson. So it was a great surprise when the redhead just nodded, quickly entering the room and approaching the open locker.
In no time they were all suited up and moving through the halls. The robot took the lead, Faldon directly behind it, Lasky on the right side, Orenski on the left, Sully covering the rear, and Chyler in the middle. It was a standard formation, made slightly awkward by Faldon's extra presence, but she managed to slide in seamlessly. They were all silent as they moved through the hall, the only lights to be seen coming from their guns and the robot's armor. Around them, wires were sparking and parts of the building were giving into gravity, collapsing where it stood. The dust was thick and Lasky's already damaged lungs were struggling, resulting in a few coughing spells. During the first one the robot had turned to face him but Faldon had slid between them, silently rebuking the thing. "Here," she whispered, offering Lasky some water. After a drink, Lasky's throat was soothed and they moved on, the robot ignoring the following coughs.
Suddenly the robot stopped dead, lifting a hand in the signal to cease movement. Faldon was already frozen, having stopped in the same half moment as the robot, weapon up and ready. Her eyes were trained down the hall, seeming to see things they could not. Actually, that wouldn't be a surprise at all.
"Stay quiet," the robot ordered, turning to face them. "Do not leave, no matter what you hear outside."
"Wait," Lasky said, a thought popping into his mind. "Who are you?"
"Call me Master Chief," the robot answered. Without waiting for anymore questions, the robot turned back around and moved down the hall, vanishing into the darkness.
The stress overwhelmed them again and Chyler broke formation, sitting down while leaning against a wall. "I knew those ONI vids were bad news," Sully moaned as Lasky went to kneel beside Chyler. "Now we're the only ones alive." Orenski tried to cut him off but there was no stopping him now. "What the hell is going on? We're all following a giant robot." Faldon twitched. "Who knows if he's even coming back?"
"He's gotta come back," Lasky said, looking into the darkness as if he could will Master Chief to reappear. "I believe him." Chyler was crying by that point, so Lasky gave his attention to her, trying to stop a mental meltdown from occurring.
Sully took breath to retort but was stopped by Faldon grabbing his shoulder. "Sully, shut up," she growled, eyes sparking. She grabbed the weapon he'd lowered, shoving it at his chest. "Gear up, soldier, or I'll save these bastards the trouble and shoot you myself." Lasky watched her closely as Sully quickly started settling his gear. Maybe it was just because more time had gone by since the attack, maybe he hadn't seen her initial panic, but he couldn't help but notice how calm she was. The four of them were falling to pieces but she looked barely ruffled. For a moment their eyes met and she raised a brow at him, challenging him to speak his thoughts. He chose to look away instead.
A very loud thud down the hall startled them all into stillness. Footsteps started coming towards them, loud and lumbering. Orenski had her weapon trained down the hall, but was shaking so bad Lasky seriously doubted she would be able to hit anything. By comparison, the calmest of the group was Faldon, who kept her weapon in a low-ready position. She was still tense and watchful, but didn't seem overly concerned.
Then the lights flicked on, revealing Master Chief. The hall echoed with sighs of relief although Lasky wasn't the only one to notice that Faldon snorted in amusement instead, although she scowled soon after. "Couldn't turn the lights on before and save us all from heart attacks, could you?" she chided.
The Chief looked her way again before turning away, clearly ignoring her. Before they could ask where the robot had gone it asked, "Who's the best shot here?"
"You, probably?" Sully answered uncertainly. Orenski glanced at Faldon, knowing her records on the range, but the glare she received in return was enough to quell her tongue. She wasn't sure what the redhead's deal was with the robot but she knew said redhead wasn't above kicking her ass, even in an emergency situation.
"Chyler is," Lasky said, slightly proud. The female in question nodded and echoed that she was good.
"I am too," Orenski chimed in, drawing the robot's gaze to herself. It stared at her for a moment before swiveling over to Lasky.
"Cadet Lasky, can you drive a Warthog?" Lasky straightened up, shock clearly written on his face. Warthogs were reserved for officers and their aides. Cadets never even got to ride in one unless it was an emergency. Granted, this counted as an emergency, but what sort of question was that?
However, the robot kept waiting so Lasky finally had to respond, "Yeah, sure." Another snort from Faldon. At least someone was amused.
"Good," the robot said. "That's where we're headed. Shooters on the left and right, driver in the center." Everyone nodded, shifting back into formation. "Stay close to me. It's your best chance of survival." They all noticed that it said nothing about guaranteed survival. It was pointless to promise things that could not be ensured.
They silently moved down the hall, finally stepping outside the walls. Lasky instantly regretted that step, as they were confronted by a large field of dead bodies. He had to fight down the urge to hurl as he looked at all the twisted, mutilated bodies of people he knew. Cadets he had trained with. Teachers he had studied under. Officers he had busted his ass to impress. ODST that had jumped feet first into hell just to save them. They were all dead, sprawled across the grounds like a morbid work of art. There had been no discrimination on the part of the monsters. They killed everyone, regardless of age, rank, gender, or race.
"Lasky," Faldon called, voice barely noticeable but still loud enough to catch Lasky's attention and make him turn to face her. "Focus on the now. We can mourn later." If anyone else had said those words, Lasky would have lashed out against them but he found himself unable when he met her gaze. Those silver eyes were filled with pain and understanding. She was just as hurt by the scene but was forcing herself to continue. He had to do the same.
The progress across the grounds was a very slow and very tense journey. Every little sound seemed amplified, resulting in a very jumpy group of cadets. Master Chief never even twitched, carrying steadily on, but it was a robot so that was to be expected.
At long last, the group reached the last stretch, the Warthog at the end of the path. But Lasky was worried. The last few hundred yards Faldon had become very twitchy. Her gaze kept flicking up to the top of a building across the parade grounds. It was reminiscent enough of how she had acted on the crate hours ago that Lasky also became twitchy. Twice he opened his mouth to ask her what was wrong, but both times she would glance his way, silently telling him to keep quiet. Each time he obeyed.
Of course, it was all too good to be true. Sully, who had been lagging behind a bit, shakily asked, "Where did they all go?" By the time the sound of the shot reached their ears, Sully was already dropping with a cry, the needle round cutting right through his leg. Another weapon report made him look towards the building Faldon had been glancing at for so long. Time seemed to slow as the next round came towards him, trained on his head. Before he could even comprehend the fact that he was about to die, Master Chief's arm blocked his view and the needle shattered on the armor.
That needle was the only warning they received before heavy fire had them all, minus Chief, diving behind the wall for cover. "Get down!" Chief yelled, throwing Sully behind the wall to join them. The barrage continued, forcing them all to stay low while Chief stood strong, ignoring the needles that shattered ineffectively against the metal. "Get to the Hog!" it ordered, pointing down the path. "I'll draw their fire." A close explosion distracted Lasky, but when he looked back the Master Chief was gone.
"Chief!" he yelled, panic invading his mind as he wondered if he was losing it even more. But the rain of projectiles wasn't easing up so he couldn't afford to dwell on the thoughts.
"Cover me!" Orenski yelled, moving into a better fighting position. Faldon responded, yelling something that sounded like 'Working on it!' as she carefully looked over the wall to fire at the offending creatures. "Lasky, go!" the squad leader yelled, taking a position that would allow her to cover the path to the Warthog.
"You okay?" Lasky asked Chyler, noticing her freezing up again. She nodded, even though it was shaky.
"I've got Sully," she told him, pulling herself back together. "Go!" Lasky nodded back, hoping this wouldn't be the last time he saw her.
"Moving! Cover me!" Lasky yelled before jumping to his feet and taking off down the path. It was only about a hundred meters to the Hog but it was the longest hundred meters he had ever run. The needles flew by him, interspersed by some green stuff that hissed and spit like plasma. He could hear Orenski and Faldon continuing to shoot, giving him as much cover as they could.
It felt like years passed, but Lasky eventually reached the Warthog. Ducking behind it for cover, he noticed a body hanging out. He wouldn't be able to get in with that body in the way, so he hurried over to pull it away. His heart nearly stopped when he realized that he was tugging on General Black. Then the moment passed and he resumed his pulls. In moments like this the living had priority and there was no time to give respect to the dead. That would have to wait until he wasn't being shot at anymore.
Quickly swinging into the driver seat, Lasky realized he had his own set of troubles. The Warthog did not want to start. Granted, he wasn't entirely sure how to start the thing in the first place, but he knew it had something to do with pushing buttons and giving it gas. This seemed more a power problem as the lights kept fading in and out. Groaning, he kicked the machine in frustration. Couldn't one thing go right?
Growling curses under his breath, the cadet was only vaguely aware of a strange cry that echoed across the grounds. It sounded like a cat getting its tail stepped on. Not that it mattered much, with the Warthog remaining stubbornly dead. He had resorted to attempting to hot wire the thing in hopes that it would make the vehicle start. With a final twist of the wires and a passionate, "Come on!" the Hog finally roared to life. Relief swept over him, but the screams of the creatures made him look up. Three sharp weapon reports rang out over the already chaotic battle and three monsters fell. Startled, Lasky turned to see Master Chief running across one of the upper ramparts, pistol out and firing. With a calmness that could only be found in robots and AI's, it ran along, taking out a monster with every shot. The scene was so amazing that all the cadets paused their actions to watch.
Orenski soon appeared, nearly throwing Sully into the back section of the Warthog's cab. It was cramped at the best of times, but the injured cadet cried out as his leg hit the back. Nothing about this situation was ideal, but he wasn't keen on the idea of suffering more.
Chief continued its devastating fight, running to the end of the rampart before leaping off, barely missing an explosion. Landing expertly right behind Chyler, it pointed to the Hog. "Go!" it said sharply, leaving no room for argument. Chyler ran, Faldon hard on her heels. While Chyler swung into the front next to Lasky, Faldon scrambled into the back, taking care to not step on Sully who was nearly delirious with pain. Orenski climbed in beside Chyler, hanging half out of the vehicle. Chief sprung onto the back, taking control of the gun. "Drive!" it yelled, bracing itself. It was the only excuse Lasky needed to slam the gas and the Hog shot forward.
In seconds they were lost among the trees. The Hog was much more powerful than Lasky had expected and he fought to keep it on the road. They swerved wildly, managing to get out of one rut only to land themselves in another. In the back Sully groaned, his wounded leg loudly protesting the rough treatment it had received thus far. "Lasky!" Orenski yelled, having to grip the side of the warthog as it swerved again. The vehicle had only been built for three people after all and only two were supposed to be seated.
"It's harder than it looks," Lasky yelled back, trying to avoid another crater. He didn't remember the road being so rough, but then realized there had probably been fighting out this way as well.
Sully screamed again as a sharp jerk from Lasky banged his legs against the seats. "Hang in there Sully," Orenski called even though she knew full well that words were meaningless. Faldon hunkered down as much as she could, trying to hold Sully's body still so he would not injure himself any more.
"Sorry," Lasky called back to his friend, slowly getting the warthog mostly straight.
"You're doing fine," Chyler assured him. "Just keep it steady." Lasky wanted to retort but was cut off.
"Bear right, cadet," Chief ordered. "There's an exit directly ahead." Nodding, even though the robot couldn't see, Lasky spun the wheel to guide the Warthog on to the other path. The maneuver went smoothly, so he knew something else had to screw up. When Faldon snapped around to stare behind them a few seconds later he wasn't surprised.
"Something's following us," she hissed, pulling her weapon up in a ready position. Chyler and Orenski followed suit while Lasky pressed the accelerator harder. The forest was flying by them, but it wasn't fast enough. It was never fast enough.
"Faster, cadet," Master Chief ordered, settling itself further at the gun. "Four minutes to the Pelican. We have to get off the planet." Despite his better judgment and the subconscious knowledge that a hot wired Warthog couldn't handle top speeds, Lasky pushed the accelerator to the floor. Their speed increased phenomenally, to the point where Lasky almost didn't have enough time to realize a grenade had just been thrown at them. With a yell he spun the wheel, trying desperately to avoid the glowing blue orb, but there was a reason the vehicles were called Warthogs and their lack of agility and maneuverability was part of it.
The grenade went off, and while Lasky managed to avoid the main explosion, the Hog took the plasma hit, severely damaging the energy relays. The explosion also threw up a lot of dust, blinding them all to the oncoming attack.
For the second time in minutes, the air was filled with pink needles and green plasma. Chief immediately responded by firing the large gun, swinging freely to cover both sides of the road. Chyler and Orenski also opened fire while Lasky struggled to keep the Hog moving straight. In the back, they could all hear Sully's cries of pain until Faldon physically shifted him so that she was under him and could wrap her body around his, holding him still and shielding him from the worst of the bumps. It also took her out of the fight. "Controlled bursts," Master Chief called to them, taking out another creature. "Don't spray and pray." He swung to cover Chyler's side while yelling to Orenski, "Cadet, two o'clock." She lifted her weapon instantly, firing in the direction he'd called. Though she couldn't see anything she could still hear the creatures scream as they were hit.
Some needles were getting dangerously close to Lasky, making him lean farther and farther into the cab. Whatever these creatures were, they understood that the fastest way to stop the vehicle was to kill the driver. "Chyler, cover!" he yelled, leaning as far in as he felt safe doing.
"Covering!" Chyler replied, leaning over him and out of the Warthog to shoot the creatures on her side. With cool precision she shot them both, striking the one area their shields didn't cover.
And just like that, the fight ended. Everything vanished. The projectiles, the monsters, the yelling. It was as still and quiet as it had been before the attack. Chief took advantage of the quiet and quickly got onto its radio, knowing they would be a few moments late. "Kelly, track our position for evac."
"I think we're clear," Orenski called, not seeing any more adversaries. Chyler crawled back into the Hog, sighing in relief. Despite the warning beep from the hog's power system, all the cadets managed tiny smiles. Even Faldon managed a happy sigh, though she maintained her grip on the prone Sully.
"Good job," Lasky told Chyler, risking a second to look away from the road and glance at her. That risk cost them as he didn't spot the monster in time and ended up running into it, jarring them all and wrenching another yell from Sully. The good news was they killed the creature on impact. The bad news was it was enough of a shock to stall the Hog and bring them all to a screeching halt.
The Chief leapt off the vehicle as soon as it stopped, already knowing it was pointless to try and resurrect the thing. "Everyone okay?" Faldon had asked, before Chief suddenly appeared beside the opening. Wordlessly, she grabbed Sully and lifted him up slightly so that Chief could carefully pull him out and carry him to the side of the road. Orenski remained on guard, cursing herself for lowering her weapon earlier while Lasky tried desperately to restart the Hog.
Chief set Sully down on the side of the road, careful to not jostle the leg but that was the only care it took. "Hand me the biofoam and man the gun," it called to Orenski who scrambled to obey. Lasky continued to struggle with the Hog while Faldon crawled out and took stood guard, knowing it was pointless to stay inside. The Warthog was dead and wasn't coming back. "This will help you walk," Chief told Sully as it filled the wound with the biofoam. It was obvious that the action caused Sully pain but he didn't try to move away.
"Tom?" Chyler said, voice layered in shock. Lasky didn't hear her but Faldon did, turning to look back at the vehicle where the two cadets were still seated. The forest was echoing with the calls of the creatures, but it was distant enough to worry Faldon and Master Chief. No way were they getting out that easy. "Tom?!" Chyler asked louder, finally catching Lasky's attention. He turned to look at her, question on his tongue, before looking down where her hands were hovering over her abdomen - and the broken off spike that was embedded in her. "Tom."
"Chief!" he yelled, snatching the robot's attention back to him as Chyler screamed in pain. "Chief! Chyler's been hit!" The robot hurried over, leaving Faldon to stand guard over Sully. It checked the wound quickly only to report that they were out of biofoam. Her only chance was to get her to the Pelican for some medical treatment.
"Sir!" Faldon yelled, catching Chief's attention for herself. The woods behind them were bathed in a sickly green glow which could only signal something bad coming their way. Around them they could hear the sounds of the other creatures rushing in the opposite direction, retreating.
"They're retreating," Orenski said, looking around but not yet noticing the glow behind them. "Why would they do that now?!"
"We're being hunted," Chief answered, gauging how close the monster was to their position. "Keep moving north," it told them all, but the order was mostly for Lasky and Faldon, as they were the only two to consistently keep their heads. "You'll see my team. Run as fast as you can and don't stop for anything. Including me." With those words he raced off, intent on stopping the thing from reaching the cadets. Lasky and Faldon leapt into action, Lasky and Orenski supporting Chyler between them while Faldon helped Sully to his feet.
"We've got to get her somewhere," Orenski stated, trying to ignore the roar of the creature coming towards them.
"The blind," Sully suggested, remembering the small structure that they used during combat exercises. Surely there were medical supplies there if they would be anywhere in the woods.
"Let's go by-," Orenski started to say but was interrupted by a roar. They all turned to see a creature towering over Master Chief.
"Guys, go!" Lasky yelled. The five turned and ran as fast as they could with two cripples heading straight into the woods. Behind them rang the sounds of battle, roars from the creature and the reports of Chief's weapon as it was fired. The terrain was rough, causing them to stumble several times but none were willing to slow down, though Faldon glanced back several times.
"Sully, you with us?" Lasky called back, worried about losing his friend. Said friend moaned back an affirmative, gritting his teeth as Faldon helped him jump over a small log. He knew he was slowing them down, but the older cadet kept pace with him, so he wasn't as afraid as he could have been.
They finally reached the blind and hurried inside. Orenski propped her weapon against one of the walls, using it to light the area as she searched for any type of medical supply while Chyler was laid down on the floor. She started coughing, her breathing raspy from all the blood that was filling her lungs, but the fit ended as Faldon carefully propped her up on a pack, opening the airways slightly. Grunting, the injured cadet tugged at her helmet, trying to remove it so that she could rest comfortably. Lasky had to help her. "April, stun rounds," Sully suggested, remembering how he was always numb after getting shot by one of the damn things. Hopefully it would be enough to take the edge off of Chyler's pain. But even though Orenski opened up a few of the rounds and poured the liquid into the wound, they could all see that the pain was not affected.
"You're doing great. Hang in there, Chyler," Lasky encouraged as his friend was gasping against the pain. "Hang in there!" Outside the blind, Faldon stood guard, her eyes trained on the dark woods. She could hear the cadet's rattled breathing and knew the situation was hopeless. She and her fellows were all too familiar with that type of sound, having heard it every time there was a training exercise against marines. Their trainer's had called it the Death Rattle. Unless there was a hospital nearby, that sound was always followed by death.
Gathering the last of her strength, Chyler reached for her dog tags and yanked until the chain broke. Lasky started shaking his head even before she handed them to him, trying to deny what he knew she was saying. "It's okay, Tom," she tried to soothe him. "I'm sorry." Lasky shook his head harder; refusing to believe what he knew was true. He begged her to stay with him, even knowing she was too far gone already.
And then she was gone. No fanfare, no trumpets, no big finale. Just gone. Forever.
"Chyler!" he called, holding on to her hand as though it was his only lifeline. Tears fell as he called for her again. His grief was so great, Orenski had to stand and turn away, giving him as much privacy as she could. They all turned away, knowing it was a moment they could not intrude on. That was how the Master Chief found them. Faldon acknowledged it with a short nod as it approached the blind and it paused, observing her again. She met its gaze, not caring if she gave herself away in that moment. Eventually it moved on, kneeling beside Lasky, already knowing that the female cadet had not made it.
"I'm sorry," it said, true emotion simulated in its voice. Faldon glanced back, wondering just what had happened to allow the Chief to feel sympathy. That had never been its strong point. But then the moment passed and the robot was back to business. "I need your ammo, cadets. It took everything I had to bring that thing down."
"We don't have any," Sully told him, shifting the weight off his injured leg.
"Just stun rounds, sir," Orenski confirmed, voice rough with the tears she could not shed. Silently, Lasky reached into his pouch and pulled out a frag grenade that he had grabbed on a whim back at CAMS. He handed it to the Chief, still not looking away from Chyler's body.
"Thanks," the robot told him but received no response. A noise from the forest made them all jump. "There's another one. Move! Now!" It ran off, Orenski grabbing her weapon and following with Sully on her heels. Faldon also moved in that direction, but stopped and looked back at the motionless Lasky.
"You have to leave her, Lasky," she said gently, knowing how close he was to breaking. "I'm sorry." The creature roared again, closer and very angry. In the distance they could hear Sully calling for Lasky to follow, but it still took a moment for the cadet to get to his feet. Trapped in a daze, he stumbled in the direction the others had gone, pausing once to look at himself in the reflective surface of the blind. He remembered doing the same thing only a couple of days ago after being shot by Orenski during that exercise. It seemed like a lifetime ago. He couldn't believe that the young man he'd seen then was the same person as this broken shell that he saw now. But then Faldon grabbed his shoulder, pulling his attention away from the wall. No words were spoken aloud, but he still understood her and nodded before turning and running into the trees once more.
They caught up with the others in no time, Master Chief in the lead while Orenski ran in the back, making sure they didn't lose Sully. The sounds of the creature were getting steadily closer, to the point of the ground shaking with every step it took. A shot was fired in their direction, missing them but too close for comfort. Their progress suddenly halted as they reached a ravine that none of the cadets could remember. They were just about to figure out a new plan when they were washed in the light of the creature, taking that option away. With yells, they jumped; Lasky, Orenski, and Sully landing hard and awkward while Faldon and Chief landed firmly, hardly fazed. "There," the Chief ordered, pointing to a hollow under the ravine large enough for them all to hide in. They all obeyed without thought, trembling as the thing got ever closer. In an attempt to remain hidden as long as possible, they extinguished all lights and Chief got back on its radio. "Kelly! Negative, need more time. Cannot make it to the rendezvous." Lasky's eyes went wide, noticing that Chief was holding the grenade at the ready. "You have to hold the Pelican." Faldon watched the Chief closely, knowing that statement wasn't going to go over well. "I won't leave them," Master Chief snapped, obviously angry at the mere suggestion. "Chief out." Faldon's quiet snort was covered by the creature's grunt. Yeah, she knew Kelly wasn't going to like it.
"I'll engage," Chief told the cadets, ignoring Faldon's instant glare. "Get to the Pelican as fast as you can." Lasky clenched his fist around Chyler's tags, a moment of clarity sweeping over him. He knew Chief was going to sacrifice himself so that the four of them could make it to safety. He also knew there had been enough deaths that day. Like hell was he going to sit back and let it happen again.
"No sir!" he said firmly, reaching out to grab the robot as it moved to engage. Said robot looked down at him in what would be shock if it had been human. "I'll be the decoy!"
"Lasky, no!" Orenski said sharply but Sully noticed Faldon nodding silently. She knew what Lasky could do.
"You sweep him from behind," Lasky continued, ignoring his squad leader's objections.
"Cadet," Chief said but stopped when he saw the determination. Lasky knew exactly what he was suggesting and what would probably happen. It was alright. This was what he wanted. Tucking Chyler's tags in his armor, Lasky took a deep breath, ignoring Orenski as she said his name again.
He took off running, thinking only that he had to make sure to draw the creature away from them. It appeared at the top of the ravine, yelling at him in a language he didn't think he'd ever comprehend. He just kept running, praying to a god he didn't even believe in that he would not trip. The sounds of a weapon powering up met his ears seconds before the ground behind him exploded, lifting him into the air. He was thrown a short distance, face down in the mulch but uninjured. Glancing back, he saw the thing clearly for the first time and felt his heart stop. How could he win against something like that? But then he remembered that he wasn't supposed to fight; he was just supposed to run which he should probably get back to doing. Especially as it was powering up its gun again.
Lasky got back on his feet, taking off through the trees once more. He needed to get farther. He needed to get that thing down to where Master Chief could engage it. Finally he felt the ground shudder as it jumped, landing heavily right in front of the space they'd been hiding in. There were sounds of a short scuffle, but they ended quickly. Then the monster focused on Lasky again. The cadet could feel it; every cell in his body screamed that he was about to die if he didn't move faster.
The next blast was painfully close, catching Lasky in the blast radius and throwing him hard. He felt the pain sweep through him and heard the roar of the explosion, and then everything faded into darkness. For a few blessed moments, he floated in nothing. There was no pain of any kind. Then, suddenly, he knew that Kaine was waiting for him. He wasn't sure how he knew, but it was as true to him as the fact that he was still alive. So, reluctantly, he decided to go back.
His eyes opened at last, unfocused and blurry but full of life. The first person he saw was Faldon, who had been leaning over him while Sully and Orenski stood nearby. Relief flooded them all before Sully and Orenski helped pull him to his feet, Faldon moving behind him in case his legs gave out. Before they could ask anything, the area was filled with the sounds of a Pelican, announcing their rescue. Chief told them to go, pointing in the direction of the clearing where the Pelican would land and they all scrambled, anxious to finally get off the planet. It only took them a couple minutes to reach the site, the perimeter guarded by marines. As they jogged up to the ship, another giant robot came off the Pelican and trotted over towards them, intent on the Chief. The larger robot paused, allowing the cadets to board the Pelican while it gave its report.
"We have four survivors," Chief said briskly.
"I've alerted command," the other replied, sounding oddly female.
"Let's go," Chief ordered, signaling for the marines to re-board the Pelican. It and the smaller robot followed, sitting in the seats across from the cadets. They were joined by yet another robot, one that looked very familiar. Sully's mind was already spinning with conspiracy theories about the robots, Chief could see that, but he kept his tongue. By comparison, Faldon was showing no interest in the trio of large metal things. Her focus was on the woods as she stood near the open rear doors, still on guard for another attack. It wasn't until they were in the air and relatively safer that she ceased her vigil, leaning against the side and resting her eyes at long last as she settled onto the floor since there were no empty seats.
Cresting a hill, the cadets could see the burning remains of Corbulo. A sober silence fell upon them as they suffered yet another mental blow. Then, to their apathetic surprise, the smallest robot reached up and removed its helmet, revealing itself to actually be a human girl. A young girl. Fifteen, sixteen-years-old tops. Her skin was very pale and freckled, her eyes a dark green, and her hair dark and short. Next to her, the other robot also removed its helmet, showing that it was actually a he, the same age as the girl. Skin slightly darker, eyes pale, hair just as short, though with a strange nick in the design, like a scar that the hair would not grow over. They both had scars on their faces, pale and faded with age. Both teens turned towards Master Chief, silently asking a question, but the Chief ignored them, continuing to watch out the open side. Numbly, Lasky realized that Chief must be the same as them. A young human teenager behind all that armor. The idea was mind blowing. Having their answer, the two former robots turned back to the cadets.
"How old are all of you?" Sully asked at last, unable to keep quiet. The two unmasked glanced at each other, silently debating how to answer. The female, who had to be Kelly, finally answered that the information was classified. No one noticed Faldon's tired smirk at the response. However, Faldon noticed when Orenski tiredly removed her helmet and Kelly nodded towards her. For all their lack of basic social behavior knowledge, the teens knew what it was like to be in hopeless battles. Even as they acted coldly towards the cadets, they actually respected them for surviving without falling to pieces. That's what Kelly was silently trying to say.
As they made their ascent into the upper atmosphere, Chief finally turned towards Lasky who had been watching him for a long time. He reached out; handing the cadet what appeared to be a piece of rock but was actually a piece of the worm monster's armor. "Well done, soldier," he said, surprising Lasky before returning to his vigil. Silently, Lasky clasped the armor tighter, knowing that everything would be different now. This time, he thought he was ready for the change.
The rear doors finally closed as the Pelican rose too high. The moment the ship was sealed, the cadets shifted around, each hoping they could manage a few minutes of sleep. Going an entire night without sleep was bad enough, but add in a night of fighting for your life and watching people you know and love die, and the result is four humans who wanted nothing more than to lose themselves in the dark oblivion of sleep for as long as possible. But for some, like Lasky, sleep was not something that would come easily.
April 27, 2526\
Aboard the UNSC Intrepid
"Lasky. Lasky, wake up." Slowly, Lasky opened his eyes. The Pelican was silent, unmoving, and empty. "Come on Lasky, time to get up. We're on the Intrepid." Looking up, he saw Faldon leaning over him, her eyes kind and tired. "Have a nice nap?"
"Don't know," he yawned, finally sitting up. "Too busy sleeping." That brought a chuckle from the other cadet. They both got to their feet, Lasky still a little unsteady from sleep. He actually had to lean on Faldon as they disembarked from the craft.
The silence that greeted them was out-of-place enough for Lasky to look around. They were in a hangar bay but it was devoid of life. No engineers, no pilots, nothing. Just vehicles of every type and size. Faldon didn't seem perturbed at all by the unnatural moment, moving confidently through the maze of metal. "Come on, Lasky. I convinced everyone to let you sleep as long as possible, but you should eat something soon. Not to mention this ship as real beds. Infinitely better than the floor of a Pelican." Smiling, Lasky could only agree and hurried to catch up to the cadet he was starting to consider as a friend.
"Ah, you finally woke up." Jumping in surprise, Lasky spun around to see another of those child soldiers, helmet removed so that his face could be seen. Messy black hair that fell into his face, electric green eyes, pale skin, and a killer smile. "Chief said you'd wake up eventually, but I was beginning to wonder. You landed hours ago." He held out a hand, still smiling. "I'm Zach. Nice to meet you."
"Thomas Lasky," Lasky replied, shaking the offered hand with a smile of his own. There was something about this soldier that made him feel comfortable. "Sorry about the wait." Once his hand was released, he jerked a thumb towards Faldon, who was watching them both with a very strange look on her face. "That's my friend, Kaine Faldon."
Zach froze, eyes wide as they locked on Faldon. In a matter of seconds, Lasky felt the temperature free fall till he was positive he should be able to see his own breath. Before he could begin to even form a question, Zach vanished. It took another half second before a sound behind him made Lasky spin around to see the raven haired boy standing where Faldon had been, arm outstretched like he had just punched something. Another half second preceded a loud crash as Faldon's body hit a different Pelican, tearing right through the metal and leaving a gaping hole.
"What the hell are you doing?!" Lasky screamed, eyes wide, feet already scrambling towards the damaged dropship. He'd hardly made it four steps before a rock hard arm came down, blocking his path. Furious, he glared up at the soldier, wishing he had a weapon so he could shoot the man. "What was that for?! You killed her!"
"Yeah right," the other snorted, eyes narrow in anger. "No one who survived augmentations can be killed that easily." Lasky opened his mouth to yell some more, but was cut off by a crash from the Pelican. Turning, he gaped as Faldon crawled back through the hole she had made, clothes a little more battered than they had been and a trickle of blood from her mouth, but otherwise fine. Right before his eyes, she reached up to wipe the blood away and cracked her neck, eyes cold and hard as she glared at Zach.
"Nice to see you again, too," she muttered, eyes narrowed. "Now let Lasky go."
"What the hell are you doing here?" Zach challenged, taking a more aggressive stance. "You should be dead right now; we all thought you were dead! But since you aren't, I can gladly fix that."
"I let you hit me, Zach," she warned, voice icy. "You know you could never touch me if I didn't want you to. If you have an issue with me, fine, but Lasky has nothing to do with this."
"If I have an issue with you?! It's been a year! A whole damn year! You couldn't just drop a short message to us all, telling us that you'd survived?! Do you have any idea what your death did to us? To John?"
"Would you have done anything different? ONI thought me dead and the only way out of the program was to die, so I wasn't anxious to correct them! If I had contacted any of you I would have been hunted down like a-"
"Quiet!" Lasky yelled, cutting them both off. Two sets of hard eyes fell on him and he almost gave in and crawled under a ship but then Faldon's gaze flickered and she rocked back on her heels, giving him the courage to continue. "What the hell is going on here? Why are you at each other's throats? Aren't we all on the same side?" The silence stretched, Faldon and Zach exchanging looks, before the redhead finally sighed and focused fully on Lasky.
"I'm one of them, Lasky. I'm a Spartan."
Babble Time: This chapter is based off the movie Forward Unto Dawn. Betaed (FINALLY!) by the lovely Mira. So if any typos have survived, let them be. They deserve a break.