Noble Six's eyes narrowed as she scanned the path below for any threats. Seeing none, she jumped down from the rocky overhang, bits of shale and stone accompanying her in her descent. She landed with a grunt and broke into a sprint. It almost felt wrong, how tired she was; she'd lasted through battles much longer than this without getting weak, even on low rations and virtually no sleep. So why was she lagging now?
The answer was obvious to her. Losing the team had taken something from her, something she'd possessed when she came to Noble, but somehow let slip away in the past weeks. The first (and most likely the largest) chunk had been ripped out when Jorge threw her through the airlock of the Long Night of Solace and she had to watch as raw Slipspace whisked him away into oblivion, along with the despicable Covenant vessel's entire midsection. A hero's death; a sacrifice for humanity. For her. She wished she could believe she was as strong as reports and hearsay claimed she was, because as she hurtled through the vacuum she'd screamed for the first time since she was a child wailing for her dead parents. The sentiment had been just as intense, if not even more so.
Gradually the remaining pieces had been whittled away. Kat's death had hit everyone hard, especially Carter. While Jorge had been the rock of Noble, the seemingly indestructible force, Kat had been the glue. Her brisk, almost defiant tone and curious accent certainly made her memorable. After a lucky headshot took her life, the remaining three senior members of Noble had become gloomy, almost robotic. Gone was the sense of invincibility and security. All they had left was brute force and a theoretical cache of "luck." Six wondered how long it would take for that luck to run dry… if it hadn't already.
Jun was absent on orders from Carter, escorting Dr. Halsey to CASTLE Base. Six prayed to whatever deity might be listening that he'd make it out alive, because like Kat he seemed to be a long-lost sibling, and though he was cool and customary he had a sort of hidden vulnerability, something born of too many lonely nights on scout duty or shots missed at the team's expense. She wondered if being ordered to leave the team had hurt him any. He was an Alpha graduate, part of the company that had spawned Carter and Emile and most of Six's childhood drill instructors; she knew it probably rankled for him to leave them and go with Halsey.
Carter's suicide had bought Six and Emile's ticket to their current destination, the Pillar of Autumn. The immense explosion brought about by Pelican colliding with Scarab was still flash-burned into the back of Six's brain. It would probably remain there forever, just like the blue conflagration that had taken Jorge. The Commander had sounded so calm, so at peace when he spoke his last words, like he was headed to some important and anticipated engagement. Six had a feeling she knew why. Jorge had died for his home planet; Carter had died for his team… and because Kat was waiting on the other side.
A smile touched her lips beneath the faceplate of her dull gray helmet. Now that she knew their secret, she knew what death would be like for her, regardless of pain. There were friends and loved ones waiting for her beyond the veil separating life from eternity.
Hard, swift footsteps crunched behind her. She could hear faint panting over TEAMCOM. Emile was feeling the strain too, despite his hard-and-inflexible persona. The black-armored assault specialist matched her pace, his shotgun at the ready, and the glaring skull etched on his EVA helmet looked like a vengeful demon with its maw wide open to swallow prey. They weren't close, hadn't had the time to get to know each other. But here, in these critical moments, Six felt a kinship with the feisty Spartan that could only come from the knowledge that death lay ahead, and they had to have each others' backs.
They made their way through steep chasms and tall canyons till they reached a passage littered with the bodies of dead UNSC troopers and dropped weapons. Six replenished her DMR's ammo just in time to hear a hated buzzing sound coming from the darkness. She dodged as a blot of green light whizzed past her, almost grazing her helmet. Drones… buggers, the UNSC personnel had nicknamed them. It was an apt term, for they were quick and loud and in addition to being deadly, quite annoying.
Six was careful to dodge and weave appropriately, shielding the precious package attached to her back from the barrage of plasma pistol fire. According to Dr. Halsey, the A.I. Six was acting as transport for was the key to winning the war against the Covenant. How one artificial intelligence could have that much power, Six didn't know, but Jorge had had the deepest respect for Halsey, even a kind of emotional attachment, so Six could afford to trust the woman, at least this once. Even if the doctor had eyed her like a bug under a microscope…
A red dot had circled on her motion tracker and become obscured by all the other red dots that formed a little cloud, and Six looked up to see a Drone hovering high overhead, and a ball of overcharged plasma heading straight for her. She tried to get out of the way but it struck her and shorted out her shields. More plasma sliced her way. She moved to dodge it but somehow her leg twisted and she fell, her mind screaming stupid, stupid, stupid at her like an angry DI, and she braced herself for the onslaught of plasma that was sure to come in the next split second.
Then a pair of armored heels dug in before her and Emile let out a fearsome battle cry as he blasted the nearest Drone to shreds with his shotgun. He fired off blast after blast until all the Drones were downed, taking the time to step on the head of the one that had simply taken damage to its wings and fallen on its back.
Six stood, feeling shaky and unnerved. She had never messed up like that before. Ever. She couldn't afford to do that anymore, especially with so much at stake. She could see the soft blue glow from the package reflecting in a puddle of water nearby, a reassurance that she could still get this done. Six pulled her MA37 from her back and clipped the DMR in its place, hefting the assault rifle and approaching Emile. She didn't say anything, because apologies were meaningless and thank-you's were mutual at this point.
The two Spartans hustled through the caverns, picking off more Drones and even some Skirmishers along the way, inching ever closer to their objective.
The Autumn loomed large and majestic across the yawning expanse while Six raced up the steps. Her calf muscles were aching along with most of the other ones and her lungs felt like they were on fire, but she kept fighting, cutting down some Grunts and using a grenade to wear down an Elite Zealot's shields before finishing him off with a full clip from her AR. The purple-armored alien gurgled and spasmed as it died at her feet.
Six didn't want to look up at the mass driver platform where Emile lay. She could hear his ragged breaths over TEAMCOM, could hear every sound he made as he died slowly. It comforted her that he'd taken out his killer before succumbing to shock; it was his way, his definite style. Now it was her mission to pick up where he'd left off and man the mass driver so the Autumn could make a break for it without taking too much damage. There was a large vessel incoming, along with many Spirits and Banshees, so it was imperative that Six get up there and finish the job.
Wasn't like she had any other choice. She'd refused Captain Keyes's offer and chosen to remain behind, turning down her option of escape. But who else could do this task but a Spartan?
Six took out the Grunts easily and played ring-around-the-rosy with the Elite Zealots, using every trick in the book to lure them in and pound them with heavy fire, weakening and finally popping their shields. After she stole one's fuel rod gun it became easy. Soon all the Zealots were dead, and Six dashed toward the mass driver platform, hurrying up the steps. She saw Emile slumped over and took a moment to examine him. He was barely alive, breaths coming slow and ragged, fists clenched in defiance. "Stay alive. Wait till I finish this," she told him, hoping he heard. Then she ascended the ladder and proceeded to man the mass driver, targeting the nearest Spirit and blasting it to pieces.
The next few minutes were tedious; the Spirits and Banshees fired at her, but most of the shots missed because they were trying to weave and dodge her aim. Their efforts were in vain, though. Six systematically blew them apart until her comm crackled and Captain Keyes's voice came over the channel, ordering her to take out the gigantic Covenant ship that was heading toward the Pillar of Autumn. One shot into the beast's belly and it exploded. Mission accomplished. Six watched as the Autumn rose up from the dock and ascended upward through the atmosphere, headed for the freedom and peril of space.
Then she scrambled down from the cockpit and, detecting no nearby enemies, knelt by Emile. One of the Banshees had fired on the platform and the plasma had burned through his leg armor, leaving charred skin and exposed bone beneath. Feeling anxious, Six reached for the Warrant Officer's helmet, but he slapped her hand away weakly. "No. Leave it," he rasped, then choked down a cry of pain.
"You're going to die if I don't do someth—" Six began.
"I'm gonna die anyway," Emile moaned. He leaned back, resting his head on the railing. "Doesn't hurt… so bad now…"
"Emile," Six said, half-pleading. "Stay with me."
"Heh. You care," Emile grunted. There was a detectable amount of sarcasm there. "Job's done. Package safely delivered. Now we can rest. Now we can… sleep…"
Six removed her helmet. Her pale hair fell over her eyes as she lowered her head in sadness. She could see her reflection in her own faceplate: her face was bruised and pallid, there were dark rings under her eyes, there were little red streaks in the whites of her eyeballs. "I thought of all people, you'd make it out alive," she murmured, shaking her head.
"Yeah, well life sucks," Emile coughed; it was a wet, strangled cough. "So what are you gonna do, sit here till I decide to give up the ghost? Don't be so sentimental. Get outta here. Find… a way off this rock… at least kill some more of the bastards…"
"Sentimental." Six repeated the word, turning her helmet over in her hands. "Right."
Emile was silent for a few minutes and Six suspected he'd died before he moved his head and coughed again. "Sorry," he rasped, and Six almost reeled. Emile was apologizing to her?
"Shhh, don't waste your strength—I'm going to find a health pack—get you some meds…"
"No." He clamped his hand around her wrist and though he was so weak she could have flicked his grip off, she sank back down onto her knees. "You need to know… something. For the record." Six listened intently, her eyes meeting the gold hollows of the skull carving; it was the closest thing to a face Emile would show her. "Jorge was like a brother to me. Sure, we had our… differences… but I swear I woulda never let the big man down. Ever."
"I believe it," Six said. "Why are you telling me this—"
"I told you to keep the tags, right?" Emile demanded, his voice growing fainter. "I'm not blind… or stupid. Heh… I'm solitary by nature. Wasn't always. But… I've seen how Carter looked at Kat, and Jorge looked at you, and… well, I guess I'm just tryin' to say… it was right, you know?"
Six shook her head. He was obviously hallucinating or in some kind of fugue. "Emile, I—"
"Aislinn." She nearly jolted when he said her name. "I envied him, from day one. How he could look at normal people without imagining their dead faces. Like that Sorvad girl. I guess… I was jealous." Emile sagged, and his hand dropped from her wrist, his arm gauntlet clanging on the metal platform. "There. I said it. Now let me die in peace."
Aislinn-B312 blinked and found that her eyes were wet. She tried one more time. "Emile…"
"Make him proud," Emile managed… then his helmet turned slightly, TEAMCOM grew quiet, and he seemed to wilt even in his MJOLNIR armor. Aislinn sat there for a moment, then picked up the purple-stained kukri knife from where he'd dropped it. She flicked off the congealing blood and slid it into its sheath on Emile's right shoulder plate. There. Now he looked like he was sleeping. The lack of blood was unnerving, but energy swords did cauterize what wounds they made…
He'd said Carter's exact words to her, words spoken in New Alexandria, but now she had no barriers left and the tears came freely, running down her face and dripping onto her chest plate. They gummed up her vision, making everything a blur of red and yellow and brown.
Six wandered out of the complex and stood there for a moment, looking up at the tortured smoky skies of Reach, then set out to find Rally Point Omega, where the survivors of Spartan teams Gauntlet, Red and Echo were supposed to meet up… and hopefully, find a way offworld before the final glassing began.
Despite the doomed atmosphere and all the dead bodies, human and Covenant, that littered her path as she walked, Aislinn couldn't help but notice a slight spring in her step, a new sense of vigor and purpose. Perhaps this was the end, and she would die soon. Perhaps she would never get to see how the blue A.I. would save humanity or what great victory would be had over the Covenant. But she had faith that it would happen—she believed that as strongly as she believed that as soon as life left her body, she'd be reunited with those she cared for. Especially one specific person whose dog tags dangled around her neck, safe under her armor.