The hole in front of me could have been a grave. It was deep and wide, punched into the ground by the narrow tip of a Scarab's leg. I jumped over it lightly, my M6G pistol snug in my right hand. The sun was going down, and Carter wanted all of us back at the cave by dark. I didn't blame him. I'd had my share of nocturnal combat the night before- I was in no mood to go skulking about in the darkness again, especially after the day's events. I was tired, I was sore, and more than anything, I was disappointed. We all were, I guess. Watching a Covenant supercarrier utterly destroy a UNSC frigate tends to depress people, even Spartans.
I climbed up to the opening and stopped short to look behind me, make sure I wasn't being followed. Then I stuck the pistol to my hip and slipped inside, eager to join the cluster of yellow dots that waited there.
"Glad you made it back," Kat said dryly, looking up from her TACPAD. Carter was a few feet away, helmet on, but from the way his shoulders slumped, I could tell he was asleep. Kat studied me for a moment and her eyebrows lowered a tad. "You're moving a bit stiffly, Lieutenant. Go on, get some R&R while you can. We need you in peak condition for tomorrow's op."
Her words were those of an officer, but there was concern in her speech, and I was grateful for it. It meant I was now one of them- maybe not completely, but I was getting there. I headed for a small dark corner, passing Emile, who was filling the pouches on his belt with ammo. He gave me a nod, acknowledging my presence, and raised one hand in a casual greeting. "How's it goin', lone wolf?" he asked.
"It's going," I replied, and pulled off my helmet. I inhaled the cold air, surprised by how chilly it was. Then I eased down in the corner and set the helmet aside, blinking in the waning light. "Long day."
"I'd rather be out playing boogeyman," Emile said, his voice laden with the same suave, cocky tone he always seemed to use. He unsheathed his knife and held it up, watching the dim light reflect off the blade. "Ever handled one a' these?"
"No," I answered, and it was the truth.
"Maybe if you're lucky I'll let you hold it sometime," Emile remarked, putting the kukri back in its sheath.
I couldn't help the twitch at one corner of my mouth. I would have said something back, but then I saw the familiar combination of sage, gold and red at the mouth of the cave, followed by solid forest green. Kat looked up when Jorge and Jun came in and tapped a few keys on her TACPAD before addressing them. "Holland gave us the green light to proceed with the plan. Better get some rest. We'll be moving out at 0600, Falcon transport."
"Can't believe Sleeping Beauty here was actually able to convince him," Jun snarked.
"I heard that," Carter growled, not even moving an inch.
"It's either follow my plan or lose valuable assets to that supercarrier. It's not like he has a choice," Kat said coolly.
Jorge made his way over and eased down a few feet away from me, his weapon scraping against the rock floor when he set it down. There was a muted hiss as he took off his helmet and set it aside like I had done mine. Then he leaned forward and dug around in the now-open briefcase he had lugged in earlier, pulling out a length of ammunition that was obviously for the chain gun. I watched as he fed the belt into the side of the gun, then closed the hatch and glanced toward me. "Almost didn't see you over there, Six. Hard to spot that armor in the dark."
I scooted forward a bit, out of the shadows. "Old habit," I said, scowling as a dull ache gnawed at my shoulder. I stopped putting weight on that arm and tried stretching it, but that didn't work.
"So you're a pilot," Jorge said casually, tilting his head slightly.
"It's one of those black-ink things, but yeah," I said. "I'm good with anything that flies. Pelicans, Falcons, Hornets, Longswords, Shortswords, Prowlers... I'm certified. Other vehicles, too."
"Like this 'Saber program,'" Jorge mused. "Sounds fun."
"It is," I replied, and I couldn't help the pride that crept into my voice. "I've never liked anything the way I like flying. Risky... but worth it. There's just something about the speed, and the freedom, and..." I stopped short, uncomfortable with going into such detail. "It's nice," I finished lamely.
Jorge gave a short laugh. "Don't worry, Lieutenant, no harm in loving what you do."
I half-smiled. "It'll be good to be in the cockpit again. I thought I'd never see those Sabers again, much less fly one outside of testing."
"You'll have to show me all the fancy stuff," Jorge muttered. When I cocked an eyebrow at him, he sighed. "I'm coming with, Six, I've already volunteered. Felt like I should see this through personally."
"Of course," I said, remembering the anguish in his voice when the Grafton was destroyed.
"Heh. Bet the Covies won't know what hit 'em when we're through. If this bomb works the way Kat says it will, it'll be a good day for Reach and a bad day for the Covenant fleet. Your luck hasn't failed us so far."
"My luck?" I nearly smiled, but something kept me from it. "I'm afraid I might not have enough to go around."
"We'll have to keep you close, then." He picked up his turret and set it across his legs, brushing off soot that had collected around some plasma scoring. "Gotta admit, you had me worried on that spire earlier. At least you've got a good pair of legs. That was quite a jump."
"You caught me," I said, remembering the fleeting I'm-not-gonna-make-it that had flashed through my mind while I was pinwheeling through the air. The only thing that had prevented me from screaming outright was an iron fortitude born from years of training. "Thanks, by the way."
"No need to thank me. It's what teammates do." There was a pause, then he looked up from his turret. "We do make a pretty good team, you know."
This time I couldn't help smiling, even if it was a small smile. "I guess so," I remarked.
"Hate to interrupt the heart-to-heart," Emile drawled, "but I'm kind of in the mood for a nap, since we're gonna go on our little space race tomorrow."
Jorge grunted disparagingly, then picked up his helmet and put it on. A moment of silence passed. I saw him point at his helmet, then at mine, and it dawned on me what he wanted me to do. I slipped it on and opened a private comm channel between our suit systems. "There. That fixes things," Jorge's voice rumbled through my internal speakers.
"I'm too excited to sleep," I admitted somewhat sheepishly.
"You should. You got beat up today." He raised up slightly and slid over two feet, within arm's length of me. He reached out and indicated a conspicuous dent in the plating that shielded my right shin. "Me, I'm a walking tank. You, not so much, though you're pretty damn destructive in your own right. We'll have to be more careful in the future."
"I can take care of myself," I said, almost defensively.
"I've no doubt of that." He set one hand on my shoulder affably. I considered shrugging it off- how dare he act like I'm fragile, like I can't handle myself, who does he think he is- but then I remembered how he'd talked to that Sorvad girl and that he was just showing he cared. And really, I couldn't be angry, not like this. Not when my heart rate increased ever-so-slightly in a non-fight-or-flight way. "But we're not invincible, as much as we'd like to be."
His voice sounded tired at the end of that statement. I knew the appearance of the supercarrier had done more to his morale than it had to the rest of us. After all, this was his planet.
His hand left my shoulder, and when he let it rest on the ground by his thigh, I gestured at a deep gash that ran diagonally across the bracer on his forearm. "Maybe you should take your own advice," I told him, running a finger along the fault. "What did this?"
"Energy sword," he replied nonchalantly. He raised his arm and looked at it. "Must've happened back at Visegrad, when those Zealots came charging in. Nasty buggers, swords. They'll take your shields with one swipe and a limb as well."
I remembered what had happened with crystal clarity- the girl screaming, our rifles spitting, one of the purple-pink armored aliens tackling me and roaring in my face. Then I spotted another gash and pointed at it. "And this?"
"Oh, that. Keep meaning to have that painted over," Jorge grumbled. "Innies. Sniper clipped my shields, then tried for my head. Missed, too." He snorted and shrugged. "Could write a bloody memoir of all the damage I've taken."
My hand lingered on his bracer as I studied the plasma scoring there, as well as little dents that probably came from human weapons. He had at least a decade and a half more combat experience than the rest of us under his belt, and the marks on his armor were a testament to that.
"Nobody's shot me full of holes yet. And I intend to keep it that way," he told me. "All these marks, they're just reminders that I've got to keep my head in the game."
I removed my hand and placed it on top of my thigh. In my experience, one Spartan placing a hand on another outside of combat assistance was a gesture that spoke volumes. Something usually reserved for consolation after a staggering defeat, or perhaps greeting after long separation. All this touching, as professional as it was, bothered me, but at the same time I was desperately grateful. It meant we were friends, or maybe... I doubted it was anything more than that, given our situation and the fact that we were, in every sense of the word, Spartans. There wasn't any room for feelings, not the kind I kept fancying I had.
(Or so my 'programming' told me.)
After ten minutes or so, Emile's helmet lolled to one side just a fraction, and when I pulled up his bio signs they were slow and steady. Carter had woken on the other side of the cave, and now Kat was asleep, her prosthetic hand still clutching the TACPAD. Jun, ever watchful, stood at the larger entrance, his rifle angled downward but not quite in a relaxed way. Beside me, Jorge slipped off his helmet, but I left mine on. He scratched at the stubble on one side of his chin, then emitted a rough sigh. His breath showed on the cold air. I wanted to ask him where and how he got the scar over his right eye, but couldn't. I felt as if I'd already said too much.
(I wanted to somehow ask him whether the things I felt and thought were right, but I was almost afraid of what the answer might be. Better to leave it up in the air, if only for a little while longer.)
"So. Tomorrow," he said in a low voice, though it still came out as a growl instead of something soft. It nearly startled me. "After we blow that supercarrier to hell, I say we do something fun. Maybe another card game. I could teach you blackjack."
I smiled, and I was glad he couldn't see it because it felt silly. "I'd rather learn more words," I replied, drawing my knees up and gripping my shins with my hands. "So I won't sound like an idiot trying to read off a map around here."
"I'll teach you the whole damn Hungarian dictionary," Jorge chuckled. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, resting his right elbow on his helmet. "Sweet dreams, Six. We've got a busy morning ahead of us."
"I know," I said quietly.
I didn't know how much time had passed, but once I heard low breathing coming from Jorge's direction, I carefully took off my helmet and set it down beside his. I took one last look around the cave, heard the distant humming of a Covenant dropship, and decided I didn't care. I stifled a yawn and let my shoulders rest on the cave wall, while my head turned at an angle for comfort. My forehead touched something cold, and when I opened one eye I realized it was the edge of Jorge's right shoulder plate.
Protocol told me to move, but I shoved it into the back of my mind and let my eye drift shut. Jorge was right; tomorrow would be busy, extremely so. So I let go of my thoughts and tried to relax, rummaging up memories of flying through space and watching the stars streak by. Getting back into the cockpit would be like going home, almost. But, oddly enough, I felt more at home now than I ever remembered feeling, even on Onyx.