A/N: This is me recovering from the sortof writer's block that happened over winter break. The title comes from the Paul Deane translation of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight".
Faithful Five Ways
"Can they get hurt?" Two of the littlest girls in the camp, some of the rare children whose parents hadn't heard the news until the invasion started, ran toward me over the packed dirt. "Do they eat?"
"Of course they do." I put a hand on her shoulder. The other one, Marta, orbited us, looking at the crumbly little mountain ranges in her tracks. "They're not robots."
"They are robots," said the smaller girl. "Fighting robots!" She spun out of her circle, pretending to fire imaginary guns. "Pow. Sssshaa!"
The Spartans had arrived at our camp mere minutes ago, and immediately disappeared into the prefabricated barracks. Four Spartans.
An evacuation shuttle would be here for us soon, the spokesman of this little military outpost had said. It just was having trouble getting over the snowstorms and the mountains, just like the Covenant were. This is the safest place on Reach right now, he said. It was almost impossible to navigate through the winds and peaks, even with radar and laser scans. Those mountains were capped with snow, but in this valley the ground was still bare, brown dirt with the occasional tuft of grass.
Somewhere, alien feet were trampling grass like this. Lucia, the older girl, spoke. "Are they scary?"
I brought my gaze back to earth from the white peaks. "Covenant?"
She shook her head and tipped her chin toward the prefab UNSC base.
I said, "Spartans?" A pause just enough to call up the memory. "Yes."
"Sara!" I turned to see Lucia's father striding across the treaded road. "The ship'll be here soon. Come on girls, are you packed up?"
Lucia went with him. Her smaller counterpart trailed after; this girl didn't have a father any more. "I'll be there in a minute."
He looked at me with that expression people seem to wear around here a lot lately—that how do I act around someone whose parent is dead expression. Somebody new got it every day.
I'm not sure whether I feel better or worse about the fact that it's not—it was never—just me.
I decided to spy on the Spartans.
It was half likely that we'd be intercepted by the aliens on the way out into space, anyway. I might as well live a little. I knew that Spartans weren't robots; they had faces. I just didn't really know whether they were human.
There was a window on the far side of the corrugated prefab building, where the kids liked to camp out and pretend to play army. One day when Lucia and Marta followed the gaggle of native kids I followed too, and found out that you could hear from inside the building if you had enough quiet outside it. The local soldiers didn't use the room for anything but playing cards.
The Spartans were talking. I crouched under the window, listening to my own knees shuffling on the ground. Could they hear that? I was almost too big to fit under the sill. I tensed…
But I heard them. Footsteps banged across the room. Someone moved something, like putting a heavy piece of plastic down on a table.
A voice, male, said, "I appreciate if you're trying to console me, but I saw your face in your file a long time ago." He spoke in English. Most of the refugees spoke it instead of the Hungarian common in the parts of Reach I was used to to, but I'd started figuring English out through my father's Latin and through having to. I squinted with the effort and still didn't catch all the words.
"I'm not trying to console you." This voice was female. She paused and then resumed."Or maybe I am."
"It doesn't matter. We have to keep fighting."
"But I think you understand what I'm going through."
The man sighed. "This is stupid, Six, you sound like a soap opera."
The window above me slammed open and two forearms like armored steel rods reached through and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.
I screamed and twisted, kicking the side of the building before the arms pulled me through and onto the top of a wooden table. Every obscenity in every language I knew was parading through my head. The Spartan who had been talking, a blonde with white scars flecking her cheeks, slid off the table.
I said, "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'll go back to the camp please don't…" and then wasn't sure what they would do to me so didn't continue.
I blinked. The Spartan woman tipped her head at me and I looked way up to try to read her expression. The man approached, his blue helmet still hiding his face.
The woman said, in Hungarian, "My name is Aislinn."
I took a long, deep breath. "I'm sorry, Aislinn!"
The masked man said, "What's she saying?"
Aislinn sighed. She said, in English, "No idea, sir."
So her Hungarian was about as good as my English.
He said, "Call in the corporal. Keep her here," and left me with the woman.
We looked at one another. She walked around the table and leaned over near me to shut the window, then returned to the middle of the room and clasped her hands behind her back. I could see the helmet that must be hers sitting on a smaller table against the far wall, its wide eyes staring at me over a rounded nose.
Just in time for the silence to get heavy, Blue Spartan returned with the person I'd hoped would be here; Corporal Sajand, the one whose troops had been occupying this base when I arrived with the refugees.
He walked around the village all the time; it was a relief to see him. He recognized me immediately.
"I'm sorry. I was just…"
I was just wondering why there were four. There were six, last time, if it was the same group. I was pretty sure it was. I remember the one with the scary face and the one with the bright orange armor. Aislinn.
"Just what, Miss Sorvad?" He said in Hungarian.
He sounded like a disapproving teacher. He knew that I was the leading research assistant in this sector—heck, probably the leading researcher left on this planet.
Not that a leading researcher was very important right now, if she didn't specialize in anything.
I looked at my knees. "I've seen these Spartans before and I wanted to see them again."
Sajand looked up at Blue. "Noble One?"
"I think she's right. We met you at Visegrad, didn't we? You were stationed there."
Sajand translated. It was strange to be talking to Spartans like we were equals, or like I might even have more knowledge than them. I heard that Spartans aren't just stronger than the rest of us; they're smarter too. I'd assumed that the one that saved me knew Hungarian because he had been programmed to.
Usually it's the smart ones that end up cautious, though, so I don't know how they worked that.
I said, "Yes sir." I couldn't remember the last time I'd called someone sir, but it wasn't a chore to say such a small word.
Aislinn glanced at both of the men in turn. "She was apprehended by Noble Five, sir."
"Rescued, you mean," said Blue. "She went through a lot. I thought she was headed to a base."
"She was," said the colonel. "Then the invasion happened."
That was true. The Spartans had handed me over to what remained of the base's human occupants, and then they had somewhere to go. I talked to three different doctors. I'm supposed to see more on Earth, if we ever get there.
Sajand said, "Then it's understandable that you wanted to see them again. If we weren't supposed to leave this hole in a day I'd be a little less understanding, miss. You've highlighted a breach in our perimeter."
"Kids play here all the time here, sir. I think the marines know. They just play cards."
Sajand looked nervously at the Spartans, who didn't seem to care.
Blue said, "That's your jurisdiction, colonel. We're just passing through."
"Come on, Sara," Sajand said. "I'll escort you back to the village."
I hopped off the table, too nervous to think about how nervous I was. (The attack had been like that too. I remembered a flash of orange as that alien jumped overhead. Its breath was an acidic tang over the pervasive smell of dust and fuel. But thinking about it now, it wasn't a big deal. It was just something that happened, just like this is.
The nicest out of the doctors told me that it might not feel like that for ever, that the farther I get from the incident—they always call it 'the incident, and I guess mentally I call it 'that day I lost my father'—the more I'll need her help.
That's why I'm not raring to go off-world.)
I followed Corporal Sajand across the bare room. Blue left in the opposite direction, still nameless and faceless. Aislinn kept looking at me. She even followed a few steps, bits of hair ticking at her eyebrows so very unlike the immobile helmet face on the table.
Sajand said, "You are dismissed, Noble Six."
Aislinn stopped in her tracks. "Colonel. I wanted to speak to our visitor."
"Do you have information related to her presence here?"
Did she look…uncertain? Did she look relieved to be able to answer? "Yes."
I felt suddenly very nervous that this soldier was angry at me. I had, after all, been spying on them, if very obviously. I'd figured out that she and Blue had known I was there since they started their conversation; they'd just kept talking so I'd listen to the words instead of her footsteps moving across the floorboards.
Sajand said, "Tell us, lieutenant."
Aislinn looked at Sajand, decided that he didn't matter, and looked at me. She said, "Sara Sorvad?"
She reached behind her head and pulled two sets of dog tags from beneath her armor, just heavy silver with lettering I couldn't read. She didn't have the uncertainty any more, and Colonel Sajand didn't exist. "The Spartan who talked to you at Visegrad was Noble Five." Her hands kept fidgeting at the back of her neck until one chain came loose and pooled in her palm.
"He was a good man. He gave this to me. I'm giving it to you."
She held it out. It was a light little pile of silver the same temperature as my skin, and I took it entirely automatically, without touching her glove. I couldn't think about moving any other way.
I said, "What happened to him?" Sajand translated, quietly.
"He went MIA two days ago." She retracted her hand.
I looked at the dog tags and up and back. "Don't you want to keep this?"
"Yes. But I want to keep them safe. That's enough, Colonel. Thank you for this indulgence."
All this in one, measured breath. Then Aislinn turned and picked her helmet up. She was snugging it down around her neck and leaving the way Blue did when Sajand patted me on the shoulder blade in a move toward the door now sort of way.
So I went with him and draped the tags around my neck and wondered, in that idle way that I realized now might be the surface the doctor said I'd break through some day, where the sixth Spartan was. Maybe she was MIA too.