A/N: This is the backstory I always imagined for my Noble Six. It is also proof that if you tell me to sit down and write a whole bunch of scenes of people talking, and one scene of people beating up on giant alien monsters, the majority of the story will be taken up by that last scene.
The fact that wordswithout is the polar opposite might explain why in the world we're friends.
In Amber Clad
The base outside Visegrad had been wheeled in seven hours ago. Already it was stuffier inside than on the mountaintop proper, and filled to the roof on some sides with ordinance and the frames for holographic readouts. Carter, the commander of what was left of Noble Team, detached one screen from its bracket and handed the resulting pad to his second-in-command.
"This," he said to the assembled Spartans, "is our new Six."
Kat held the screen up. The face displayed on one side was scarred and sharp; the woman looked down and to her left with lips slightly parted as if she were about to attack something on the ground. Kat thought that it was easy to picture those lips descending into a snarl, but almost impossible to see the potential smile. But then, that might just be because she wasn't used to often seeing beaming grins from people in a war zone.
The MJOLNIR helmet displayed on the other side of the screen was not unlike Kat's own without the scanners jacked in; the triangular jaw plates met at a pert, square chin. The armor was colored bright orange under scratches and status lights.
Kat flipped the pad around and scrolled down to the Spartan's information just as Carter braced his hands behind him on the table and said the name that she read.
"She's Aislinn-B312, rated hyper-lethal, and certified as a Sabre pilot. She'll be joining us tomorrow. Any questions?"
Noble Team looked at him impassively. Jorge and Emile were sitting on tables; Jun had taken a crate near the door, where he sat idly cleaning his sniper rifle. Kat could have sworn he'd been doing the same thing an hour ago. It wasn't laziness that made Jun have an obsessive need to appear busy; just nerves.
She scrolled down some more to see where B312 had been bought in from. She must have been cleared out of Beta Company early just like Kat had; from the records it looked like she had gone on to a classified program on a classified world before being personally requested to join a small force on yet another classified world. Arrivals and departures were both equally blacked out. Kat tried to remember an Aislinn on Onyx, but there had been a lot of Spartans, and she hadn't seen them in years. They'd been replaced in her mind, some with field data, some with tech specs, and some with Noble Team.
There were more files attached to the data Colonel Holland had sent too; sound bytes from the suffixes on them.
Kat said, "One question. These audio files aren't encrypted, unlike ninety-nine percent of this data. What are they?"
"Personal communications. Holland added them on because, as potential reconnoissance recorded by her helmet mic, they might have been useful to the UNSC at large. But they have been tagged inessential and non-mission-specific."
"Hmm." That just meant that no one would bother Kat if she read them. She was curious about what would face her tomorrow. Noble Team had a certain camaraderie; Thom had understood it. This new woman might not.
Carter said, "Any other questions?"
Heads shook all around.
Kat said, "I'll keep this then."
Carter looked at her quizzically a moment, then nodded. "We'll get any further news from Holland on the main computer, but keep that one in the building. We don't want anything missing when this place packs up."
Kat smirked. "I'll pay my fee if the book's overdue, commander."
"That's what I like to hear. Noble, you are dismissed. Stay alert."
Emile and Jun immediately vacated the prefab combat center, lumbering away. Jorge lingered, looking at what Kat held in her hands, while Carter examined the other computer.
Jorge asked, "What do these extra records say?"
Kat scrolled down further. Auxiliary notes said that the audio files were used in a test to prove that B312 was mentally sound after an unspecified trauma. "They ran her through tests for PTSD. She came back negative."
Carter said, "That's good. So what are you curious about?"
"This examination was done in the middle of her placement after she got pulled out of Sabre. And it wasn't a routine test."
"So why did they do it?" Jorge said.
"I don't know," Kat replied. "I'm going to find out."
"Kat," Carter said. "Don't get into anything I'm going to have to get you out of."
She said, "It's all the rest of the data that's black ink. And besides, commander." She smiled. "If I do something really dangerous, you'll never even know."
"I'm not sure that's the kind of attitude I'm looking for."
Jorge stepped in. "Why don't you have a look at the data at the main computer. Nice and public."
Kat looked to Carter. "Would that be acceptable?"
He sighed. "Sure."
"Then you'll have to move, sir."
Carter pushed off from the table where he had been leaning right in front of the computer. "Go to." He started for the door, Jorge following. "And remember..."
Kat said, "Don't do anything you wouldn't do?"
The men left out the door, leaving Kat to plug the datapad back into the computer frame. The audio files floated in front of her for a moment, promising information about Aislinn-B312's capabilities, service record, and maybe her weakness, in one, personalized package.
And maybe it would teach Kat more about Aislinn as a person too, but the priorities needed to be kept straight here.
Kat opened the oldest file and folded her arms as the timer started trawling its way across the screen and the voice spoke.
I started work under Colonel Stern this morning. The camp at [static] houses [static] marines with a Covenant encampment not ten klicks away. He told me I was the first Spartan he'd worked with. It shows...
Aislinn-B312 hopped out of the Warthog, boots sinking into the muddy grass. Wind off of blue-gray mountains diverted around her dark gray armor. The UNSC camp was a handful of brown prefab buildings in a pine forest. This planet, a long slipspace jump from Onyx, had been terraformed decades ago. The forests had grown bristly and disgruntled with the atmosphere low in carbon dioxide, but clung on and adapted. They spat out enough oxygen for any human to breathe comfortably without a mask, as evidenced by the green-jacketed marines who watched the parked Warthog with interest for a moment before going back to their lives.
Her one escort besides the driver was an Asian man with darkly tanned skin. "The colonel's office is over there, lieutenant." He pointed. It was, predictably, in the building with the largest window and the UNSC flag. "Good luck."
Aislinn marched. Another marine, hard-faced, opened Stern's door for her. It lead to a long, white hallway. There were three doors in the distance, one straight ahead and two others to the left and right. Aislinn was surprised to see such long, blank walls.
Stern's office was marked with a small plaque bearing his rank and his name. Another marine stood next to the door with a UNSC flag in a sconce behind him. He saluted when she was two steps away.
She returned it and stopped. "Spartan-B312, reporting for duty. I was told to speak to the colonel."
This marine was young and expressive; he looked nervously at the door as if something might fly out of it. But he said, "Go ahead. He's waiting for you."
She opened the door, went in, saluted as the door closed behind her.
Stern was sitting at his desk. The room was almost featureless. Instead of corrugated walls, he had proper white ones. There was a computer and a bronze name tag on the desk that matched the one on the door. Aislinn saw no mementos, nothing that would indicate even what branch of the service he was in if she hadn't known.
He was an older man with a square jaw sat on a turtley neck. His bushy eyebrows and crewcut hair were bright white, as was the stubble on his jaw. When he spoke, his tongue tended to dart out between his teeth. The effect was overly reptilian.
He said, "Spartan-B312," and did not salute.
She dropped her hand. "Reporting for duty, sir."
He kept his hands flat on the desk, unmoving except for the occasional twitch, like sunning lizards. His voice was deep, but scaly and peeling. Aislinn waited for it to fall apart. "You are to replace my deputy door guard, lieutenant. You will have seen him already, if he is doing his job. The shifts are ten hours when we're on alert, eight when we're not. You will remain at your post for the allotted time. Do you have any questions?"
"Sir. I was told that I was here to reinforce your troops battling the Covenant in the mountains."
"That you were. For now, though, I am the one telling you why you are here. You are here to relieve the door guard."
Maybe it was a trial. Maybe he would tell her more later. Maybe his door was regularly attacked.
Aislinn said, "Yes sir."
"That will be all. You'll get your orientation at the end of the shift. Dismissed."
Aislinn gave another lone salute.
He says I do not have permission to paint my armor orange. "But it would be fun" is not a valid excuse for proud Colonel Stern.
I'm standing in the hallway right now, external speakers dampened, talking into the comm. I'll get this to you when I can. Until then, you're going to entertain me by proxy.
Very few people come to see Stern. It's usually one or two of the same runners all the time, telling him about troop movements. I want to go fight so bad it hurts. It's like being in solitary, not even knowing what's going on out there. I'm trying to pretend that he keeps me in here because they don't need me out there, but this is the Covenant we're talking about. The boys always need me out there.
There are fifty tiles down the side of this hallway, and four across. That means it's fifty feet long and one-hundred and twenty feet square.
The rooms on either side are Warthog bays refitted as conference rooms. They're rarely used. Supposedly we have an AI sconce in there, but she just buzzed my records the first day and hasn't spoken since. Maybe she was told not to.
It's not all gloom here: I bunk with the marines, and they're nice. They're not Sabre Team, but they're nice. We have a common room to play cards. When someone brings in a handheld, they play video games. Mostly, though, it's to the mess, washing up, and going to sleep. There'll be more standing to look forward to in the morning.
Stern doesn't talk to me. Ever.
Like I said, I wanted to requisition some orange. Some of us got to painting our armor in Beta Company, but I never got around to it. It would be nice, though. It'll give me something to look at. Stern says he doesn't have any paint and can't get it.
I figure you can, though. It's not like cargo ships don't come in here. We're not besieged. The battles happen, but they do it on the other side of the planet.
He uses me for intimidation. I see other officers jump when they enter the hallway. They didn't know there was a Spartan on this planet.
I hear him from the office. He leaves the door cracked open so that his visitor can see my shoulder in the corner.
He says, "We have things taken care of here, captain," and "I'm not sure it would be wise for that information to leave this office".
Stern isn't entirely a bad guy; not according to the other troops. He gives them what they want and acts proper. He's taught me the signals they use here, and I do what I'm told. It's a little bit nice to be set to tasks much simpler than we had in Sabre. I can almost hear the teachers on Onyx giving us orders.
Someone's at the door.
Keith Artage was carried into his commanding officer's headquarters with his arms held tight and his feet dragging. His captors were like brothers: men he had served with for years. He wasn't going to struggle. Even if he did get away they'd just have someone else take him to Stern.
So he dragged his feet down the long hallway. The Spartan was there, so still beneath her armor that she might as well have been a symbol herself. A flag without wind. Keith paid about as much attention to that as he would have to a stone statue.
The marines dumped him into the chair in Colonel Stern's office and stood on either side. One, Will, couldn't keep his hand off the butt of his gun. Like they'd have to shoot Keith for this. Right.
Stern leaned forward. His tone didn't permit punctuation. His tongue flicked once like a lizard before he spoke. "What did he take."
Keith said, "You can't hold me. There's a war to fight and I'm a capable man. You won't lock me up for this."
He knew these truths to be self-evident.
Will said, "He took three rifles and a mortar launcher. Tried to sell them to a requisitions officer on a ship leaving for Earth."
Stern said, "Trying to make some money?"
Stern said, "You're right," and they all shifted around in surprise. "I won't lock you up for this. I won't dock your pay, because the next scheme will just try to get you more money when the next supply ship comes in. Leave him here, private. Three-Twelve will see him out."
Will looked at both men over Keith's head. With a salute, his guards left. Will exchanged words with the Spartan.
Keith heard her footsteps and saw Stern make a quick sign with his hand, a chopping wave. Come here. Get him out of my office.
He didn't look up to see the big hand descend onto his shoulder. "All right, all right. I'm going."
As soon as he rounded the arm of the chair, the Spartan clamped the other hand onto his arm. She was taller than him by a head, but skinnier at the waist. He'd seen her around after her shift, but that was all.
He started talking as soon as he crossed the threshold, Stern's door swinging behind him. "What's a little error between friends-"
She hit him across the face, first with the back of her hand and then her gauntlet followed in quick succession. Something in his nose popped. He cursed and braced against the wall; hot blood starting to flow toward his lips. The Spartan picked him up by the front of his jacket.
"Hey. Is this Stern's orders?"
The door to the outside was closed. The door to the office was open.
"Are you crazy? This can't be legal."
She hit him again. He could almost feel his cheek bloom purple.
There wasn't much point in trying to stand up if she was going to hold him a foot off the ground, so he didn't.
She carried him to the door. The faceted mask almost glowed gold.
The Spartan opened the door and let Keith Artage fold to the ground.
I have received your package. Thanks. I owe you one.
The fog burned off. I think you'd like to fly today.
How's the old ships? I think that G2 might miss me. I haven't seen anything except the big carrier ships in a long time. They come in from Earth after months and months of nothing. There's a full cook staff here, and they know what to make from the local plants. A lot of it isn't that unusual: carrots and asparagus and onion can make almost anything taste okay.
There's talk about packing up and moving out, though, since the Covvies seem to be settled in just as well as we are. They have a stockade a few klicks from here. I've only seem pictures, but it's a giant ring of their weird purple building blocks surrounding some grounded ships that they use for bases. I've never seen any lift off, but we've got a pretty good satellite mission system here. Starfighters would be almost useless, and the Covvies would lose a lot getting offworld.
So they're doing a pretty good job of pushing in on us. The marines were talking about Hunters they spotted in the woods, at least two pairs. I'm thinking Stern might finally let me out to fight.
I know it's a dream job to just have to stand here, out of the weather and, more importantly, out of the gunfire. That doesn't mean I like counting tiles.
Kat stood at the corner of the prefab office, holding the computer. The screen was darkened by the bright afternoon sun, but it was the audio that was important.
She paused it with a finger-swipe when the next letter started with that name again, Tacoma. Kat kept her head down, looking at the screen, as she went back inside.
Half an hour later, her shoulders jumped when a footstep tapped on the threshold.
"What did you find?" The Spartan-II stepped inside. "It must've been engrossing for you to have been out here all this time."
"She did a lot of talking. Aislinn was basically a bouncer and personal assassin; stood at a doorway or went out into the field alone and hit who she was told to. She went after human war criminals as well as special Covenant targets. She got bored really quick."
"But you didn't."
"After thinking about the psych evaluation I did some more digging. Aislinn's closest friend was a woman named Juliet Johnson. They met in the Sabre program. Juliet Johnson was a pilot who died in action two days after one of Aislinn's voice recordings was transmitted to her. Her call sign was Tacoma."
Emile pocked his head around the corner. "Why is this important?"
"Why have you been listening outside the door?" Kat demanded.
"I was in the area."
Jorge said, "So why is Johnson important?"
"Because if her death date and the dates on Aislinn's recordings are right, a lot of these recordings didn't get sent. At least, I don't think. She was just recording. Pretending that her friend was still alive."
"Great," said Emile. "Another pity party."
"Hey!" Jun said from outside.
Jorge folded his arms. "That sounds like something that could get her called in for a psych evaluation."
Kat nodded. "Yep. I'm thinking that someone found out about both Stern's behavior and the recordings. They pulled Aislinn out, did who-knows-what to him, and, well...saw that she fit the requirements for Noble Team."
"She'll have not worked with Spartans in years."
Kat shrugged. "She'll learn."
The colonel left in a hurry today. Whether he was going off to his bunk or the battlefield I don't know. The runner stopped and looked at me though. His name's Kinsky, and he's brother to the guard who used to do my job.
Kinsky says that Stern rushed out because he got a message from his daughter.
It's rumored around the whole camp. The one who calls is his second daughter. Her half-sister died when she was young, seven or so. She had leukemia. And he thinks she was a Spartan.
I don't know, it's all third-and-second-hand. It doesn't make sense that they'd return the kid to her family after she failed the testing, even if the family was military. I'm not sure how much he knows. But that explains some of the attitude. Maybe he thinks the testing killed her.
As soon as I went off-duty I got out your paint.
Even Stern folded out the comm controls from under his desk. The time, displayed on the tiny screen, was 17:50.
He activated his assassin's comm line. "312, report to my office."
Stern sat back, folding his arms. He hadn't wanted to let the Spartan out yet, but now the Covenant were moving in. The UNSC hadn't predicted an offensive. This was a minor base on a quiet planet. It was a safeguard.
But for whatever reason of culture or bloodthirstiness or because they'd finally gotten bored, the Covvies were pushing through the forest trying to gain ground, and actually doing it. His morning had been filled with distress calls. They had enough equipment, and reinforcements from other bases. What his marines needed on their side was surprise.
So he would have to spare the Spartan the cozy confines of his hallway and actually send her out.
She knocked on the door before letting herself in. He thought for a moment that another Spartan had been brought in without his knowledge, but the shape of her armor and the ID markings were the same; it was just all a uniform orange.
He said, "I'm giving you a new assignment first. Then we're talking about this color."
"It's regulation, sir." Her words sounded rehearsed. "Approved before I left the Sabre program. You can check with my previous director."
"Nonetheless, I hope you are happy with this choice when I tell you to walk into a war. The Covenant are pressing forward. You're to lead a group of men and thin the aliens' numbers. The gray would have served you better in the forest."
"If it's an order, sir, I can have it changed."
"It's not. I just didn't want you to think that I approved. We are in a terraformed forest, not some alien orange place."
"Permission to speak freely?"
Maybe she would say something that would enable him to let his anger out. "Go on."
"Camouflage was not my top priority. Our enemy has heat-detection and laser-guided weapons. I don't think the color of my armor will matter."
That was true. No argument there. Nothing to hide in.
He thought of Natalya's voice over the phone, reporting the small things. She had told him that she put up a swing set for his granddaughter yesterday.
The colonel looked at his assassin. "I know how they do it."
B312 said, "Sir?"
"I know how they make you."
"Know how they make who, exactly?"
"Spartans. Our last, best heroes. Our wonderful, expendable, action-figure army. ONI stole children and left clones to their unsuspecting parents."
She tipped her head at him. "That's the second generation, sir. My parents are dead because of the Covenant. Then the UNSC got me. I'm part of the third generation of Spartans. They did not use clones for us...by the way, sir, the existence of those clones is highly classified."
"If anyone besides you or ONI asked me, I wouldn't talk about this if you threatened me at knifepoint to get at it. But you aren't the only one who knows. I did some digging. I know. Flash clones, designed to die before they reach double digits."
"I had nothing to do with that. Sir."
"Your teachers did. Your creators did."
She stared like always.
He said, "So no matter what you do, what petty little changes you think you're making to your life, I know that you're mine through and through. You don't have anything else to be, do you? No one you can give the name of Spartan has anywhere else to be. That's what makes you so very special."
The golden mask was expressionless. Maybe if he tried, he could find a quizzical raised eyebrow in the brim of her visor. Maybe, in the sharp curve of the faceplate, he could find the whimpering growl of a kicked dog.
He said, "I'm uploading the coordinates of your route, and the enemy troop movement. Keep the enemy out of the immediate vicinity. Push them back, Spartan. Report to Captain Johnson at Building One."
She stood looking at him.
"You are dismissed, soldier."
As stiff and straight as the tile floor under their feet, she saluted and marched out.
Aislinn crept through the underbrush. On either side of her, six marines crouched low, trying to get their olive-green clothing to blend into the shadowy forest. A spindly-legged aircraft buzzed overhead, leaving twin jet trails.
"We've got enemy aircraft," Captain Johnson said. "Flagging them now."
Aislinn clicked her helmet comm in acknowledgement. Johnson was a young man with more poise than most old ones, and his team knew him well. Although she was technically their leader, she knew that he would be the best voice for the marines to hear. He also knew the paths through the forest much better than she did. It had been a long time since she'd felt her cloven-armored feet crunch through sticks and undergrowth.
She had dismissed the conversation with Stern. No matter why he disliked her, it was all extraneous. It didn't make her eager to go back to the hallway again.
But neither, on the other hand, did the crowd of Covenant waiting for the thirteen soldiers on the other side of this forested hill.
"Where the heck did they all come from?" One marine asked.
"The fiery circles of heck itself, Topher," another one laughed.
"You're going to die saying 'drat', aren't you, Toph?"
"We all gotta die sometime."
Johnson raised a hand. "We've got four groups of contacts over this hill. Our second and third squads are flanking east and west. If this group makes a run for it in the front our job is to make sure that those Covvies don't set a toe inside land claimed by her majesty the UNSC. Does that sound too difficult to you?"
"No sir!" All of them replied at once, shout-whispering through their radios like a crowd of many more.
No sooner had she stopped speaking than Aislinn heard Johnson call her name. "312. I want you to scout ahead a little bit. Don't go far. Find out where they've positioned their weakest and strongest troops. That's where we start lobbing grenades on my mark. Chester, Watt, follow her and get a spot on top of the hill where you can use your rockets. We're going to lay down heavy fire to split the group and drive them into the pincers so they don't get any closer to home. Understood?"
Aislinn started down. The trees thickened as the ground started to slope. The Covenant army was a red blob filling up her HUD. She peered through the gaps in the trees, using her helmet camera to zoom in. She started tagging Covenant groups as she saw them, and calling them back to Johnson. "It's so polite of these Covvies to organize into species. We've got two packs of Grunts near the front and three Elites deeper in the valley. Looks like the flanking teams will have mostly Jackals to deal with. There's a patch of Grunts in the back." As she spoke, she blinked, thought, and turned her head so that the hyper-sensitive HUD controls flagged the groups she was talking about on Johnson's display as well. She kept moving in a crouch, one hand on the rifle magnetized to her hip.
"Looks like there's two pair of Hunters near the southwest corner. There's-"
Then one of the Hunters moved. They were the largest known Covenant species, hulking things with two-foot-thick armor plates and green, venomous-looking spines on their wide backs. One of them lumbered around and hefted the weapon attached to its forearm.
A moment later, a glob of green energy spewed out of the weapon and crashed into the trees to Aislinn's left, near the western flanking group.
"Johnson," she called. "Group three is under attack. Repeat, group three has been spotted."
"Heavy weapons, engage! The rest of you, keep back! Get their attention. Aislinn, regroup."
She turned and rejoined her team. The marines were crouched among the trees in their proper formation. Aislinn readied her rifle and watched as half of the Covenant engaged the third group of marines, to her left. The other half were given pause by the volley of firepower coming out of the forest from the first group's rockets and grenades.
"Watch for air support!" Johnson shouted as another atmospheric craft cruised overhead. Aislinn just had time to look at it before purple bolts of plasma started spearing through the forest. She reared and fired in an attempt to hit the pilot or the steering vanes as the ship curved around for another pass.
A wash of green energy blanketed her vision. Marines screamed. Aislinn spun around to see one of the four Hunters pushing through the forest toward her group. From her HUD and the sounds in the valley, she could tell that the first group had engaged too.
Heat washed against her armor and her hands hit the dirt as another shot from the ship set the forest on fire. Marines scattered. Aislinn stood up, caught at a tree trunk, and rounded it to find Topher on the ground with blood bubbling out of his mouth.
His last word was too garbled to tell whether it was an obscenity or not.
Johnson's voice in her ear was still calm. "Fall back to point alpha. Aislinn, you still here?"
"Two Hunters coming your way; looks like they're going to pass you and make for the camp. Keep them out."
"On it." The camp is nearby; just on the other side of the small forest. That's why this attack was so important, and why it commanded all their forces. The camp itself was designed to be mobile; the patch of ground it stood on was not particularly important, and right now the support crew would be working double time to fold up buildings and pack air and ground vehicles. But that didn't mean they wanted Hunters walking on their pathways before everybody was out.
"We lost Topher, sir."
"Marked. Second and third groups are in the valley," said Johnson. "The flanking worked. We've got them trapped-" His comm crackled for a moment as he switched position, and she heard gunfire near him. She kept moving toward the two dots that must be the Hunters.
Aislinn heard human weaponry chattering through the trees. The other groups would have a pair of rocket launchers too, to match the Covenant Hunters. They would be all right.
She was equipped with an assault rifle and a pistol, and she hefted the former as she kept moving, looking left and right. It shouldn't be hard to find a giant Hunter around here somewhere-
A Grunt ran through the undergrowth, screaming and waving its empty hands. Aislinn shot it in the back of the head, alien blood pluming.
The Hunter stepped into a patch of light behind her. The sound of the gun charging next to her ear was eerily serene, like wind over a canyon.
Aislinn ducked. The elephantine feet stamped around her as she slid between two Hunters, feet digging into the loam. For a moment, both giant backs were to her. She shot four rounds into the bare, exposed flesh at the nearest back. Orange blood pattered onto the ground, but the Hunter started turning toward her.
The second one shot. Aislinn simply ran as the green bolt charged into the ground behind her. The dirt turned into black char.
The hill behind her dropped off quickly, leading toward the site of the human camp. Aislinn ducked behind the ridge and reloaded while the Hunters moved around above her, snuffling like pigs. One of them started to move off down the hill, but if she came up behind it the other one would have a clear shot at her.
So she darted the other way. "Hey! Over here." Marines and smaller Covenant troops chased each other across the hill as Aislinn straightened up, trying to get the Hunter's attention. She couldn't yet tell whether this was the one she'd wounded. Either way, it would take plenty more damage even to the open skin.
She dodged two more blasts, thankful that she had come this way with the squad earlier and learned where the largest roots and rocks were dug into the ground so that her footing was relatively secure. When she moved too close for the large gun to hit, the Hunter swiped at her with its arm. It was so close that she felt her gauntlet shake, but she narrowly caught the swipe and ducked under the Hunter's arm. Its forward momentum carried the beast's massive weight into a full-on charge down the hill, and Aislinn used the opportunity to unload half of her remaining ammo on the exposed back. The Hunter tripped and crashed to the ground on its shoulder even as it rolled to protect its back and bring its gun to bear. A marine stumbled into the clearing, blood coating the side of his face. Aislinn saw that he'd been hit on the shoulder and splashed. A Jackal with an energy shield followed him, the shield depleted to pale pink.
The Hunter's gun started to glow green. As the marine looked around, Aislinn grabbed the Jackal by the shield.
The Hunter shot, and Aislinn spun. The Jackal's shield absorbed the damaging plasma and died with a growl. The spindly alien, though, had been dragged along with its equipment. As it raised its energy pistol Aislinn grabbed it by the shoulders, sinking her fingers in along the lines of stringy sinew.
She threw the Jackal at the Hunter.
The stumbled together, and the Hunter stood up with a growl to push its wounded comrade out of its way.
Aislinn got downhill of it in two long jumps and shot the Hunter in the back again. It growled but crashed to the ground, stilling as its blood speckled the ground. Yellow tracers scored the air uphill as the marine shot the Jackal through the jaw.
"Nice work," Aislinn said.
"Yeah you too!"
"Another Hunter took off down the hill. Find Captain Johnson and tell him to get more guys down here. I lost his signal."
"He's alive; I saw him. You don't want me to come with you?"
She hadn't even thought about it.
A gray-bodied Elite stalked through the trees above her, its long neck arced as it looked around. Human shouts followed it as the marines regrouped.
Aislinn said, "Stay here."
She started down the hill.
It was so sunny. She could see clearly as she skidded into camp that the support staff wasn't getting everything out fast enough. People in fatigues with bandanas tied over sweating foreheads carted crates toward waiting trucks and Warthogs as engines growled in idle. The sounds of the battle in the forest spiked through the air. Some buildings had been partially disassembled, and some completely folded. The building she had stood inside for months was now a large, table-sized corrugated stack in its former position, ready for transport.
The lone Hunter was waddling right toward it.
Some of the support staff had pistols out and fired at it until a green blast left them a crater. The syringe-shaped tubes of fluid in the Hunter's weapon arm glowed.
Aislinn shot it in the back of the legs. It turned just as her rifle clicked to empty.
She dove and rolled under its arm, almost slipping on the edge of the corrugated slabs that had once made up Stern's office. She clipped the rifle to her side and grabbed her pistol with the other arm. Unarmored workers scattered. The marines were still up on the hill, gunfire and plasma bursts occasionally shooting out of the forest like fireworks.
These were not good odds.
The Hunter lumbered around. Aislinn tallied weak points; the bend of the legs, the patches of orangish skin on the back, the long neck supporting the eyeless head. The Hunter's skin seethed.
Keeping to the strategy that had worked so far, Aislinn dodged left, away from the arm-mounted gun. The Hunter's turning radius was large, and she soon outdistanced it. Two pistol shots sank into the skin of its back. It caught up with her turn and started to charge. She started to move.
She was a second too late. The Hunter first slammed into her, leaving her dizzy and her legs weak, and then wrapped its clawed hand around her throat. The edges of the claws scraped against her armor like swords, and she felt her feet leave the ground. She fired the pistol without looking where she hit, tucking her legs up in case her luck was really running out and something ricocheted. The Hunter raised its gun as she kept shooting, but at this angle it couldn't hit her without hitting itself.
An individual strand of skin separated from the rest. One eel-like filament seemed to stretch out of the Hunter's neck and look at her before almost gently reaching out and wrapping around the pistol. It pulled, trying to wrench the gun from her hand. Other filaments started to separate, revealing cavernous darknesses inside the Hunter's neck.
Aislinn thought, That's disgusting.
The claws scratched and tightened around her neck.
She kicked out. The tendril fighting her for her gun flew onto the ground when she hit it, and immediately she shot the Hunter in the neck. It reeled back and she got a toehold on its chest armor as the claws loosened. The darknesses welled with orange blood.
She put two more rounds into its neck before it started falling backwards. The clawed hand loosened and Aislinn fell forward onto what would have been the Hunter's face, shooting into the neck for all she was worth.
She realized a moment too late that with its arm out of the way, the Hunter could fire its main gun over its belly.
The world exploded in green.
Colonel Even Stern rushed through the camp with one hand on his pistol and the other pressed to the radio headset at his ear. Reports were coming in far and fast from the field. The flanking maneuver had worked. Some Covenant had retreated and other reinforcements lurked, but all of those who encountered his men in the valley had been driven off. It wasn't a sweeping victory, but the camp could switch locations in peace, and the enemy had lost more troops than he had. Now he was calling a large group of the soldiers back to the camp to help with moving.
His white uniform had been stained with dirt and loosened by work. The radio jabbered in his ear, and he carefully sectioned which messages were important to continuing strategy and which were crazed cries of dying soldiers. To the latter, he flagged down medics and tried to keep his breath from catching. To the former, he narrowed his eyes and listened.
As he walked around one of the fully-loaded trucks toward what had once been his office, he found himself face-to-face with a Hunter.
It was dead. The semblance of a face stared up at him, its underside coated with orange blood as thick as paint. Its neck had been torn apart. Filaments were strewn around the grass as if someone had simply reached into the creature and started pulling things apart.
Which, judging by the gory aspect of B312's hands, was exactly what had happened.
The Spartan stood hunched above the Hunter, a pistol held loosely in one hand, her shoulders heaving. The shoulder plate on her right side had been blackened down to a stump. As she stepped around the Hunter's massive arms to start walking toward him, he could see that the back of her armor had been more severely damaged too. It was burnt black, although the thick plates hadn't been worn away.
Whereas the back of her armor was black from the near-miss, the front was splattered with orange blood. Patches had painted her black belly plates. Orange washing over her visor made it look like the helmet, though intact, was melting across itself.
Aislinn straightened up in front of him.
She said, "Am I camouflaged now, sir?"
Kat and Jorge stood outside the shelter as the sun went down over Reach mountains.
Kat had been speaking about the final recording she had heard. "Her last letter is a goodbye to Tacoma and a brief report on a battle at Colonel Stern's campsite."
Jorge said, "So the psych workup happened after this pilot was killed, and then nothing more is said about it."
"Good. She'll be starting with a clean slate here."
Kat stared out at the warm colors as the sun disappeared behind cloud. Mountains in the distance still had snow in the summer, and were so tall that their tops disappeared as surely as the sun.
This new Noble Six was going to leave her own problems behind and not take on Noble's. Thom was not her problem, and not her pain. Kat and the others would deal with that on their own. Each would pull their own weight.
Or at least, they better. From what Kat had learned, Six would do fine.
She'd just have to leave that lone wolf stuff behind.