" Look at this place. Used to be the crown-jewel. Hmph. Not anymore…"
The room's mood was unquestionable as Six silently strode in, and even if the others didn't voice it like Jun, the atmosphere of the space made it clear they felt no differently. Kat, the only one taking immediate notice of her arrival, and who nearly always had some snarky comment, gave her but a grim nod of acknowledgement as she tinkered with a radio pack. It was the sort carried by Marines and ODST officers in the field.
Its owner was probably gone – one more broken body lost in the ruins of the city.
They'd all been through hell in the past few hours. The whole planet had. But right now, Six understood that it was loss of one man that was weighing her team down more so than the loss of this city, or even the looming potential loss of Reach. Soundlessly, the newest member of Noble took a place leaning against a decorative strut in the civilian office they'd setup a base in, settling in and letting her gaze wander across the room.
"Hey, you made it." Jun's greeting confirmed his natural, seemingly superhuman hearing as his helmetless gaze turned to her, his mouth offering a weak smile.
"It's a regular family reunion."
The bluntness of the pained voice tore both their gazes away. Slowly, Six's gloved hand wandered down her thigh to her tactical case. The snaps came free, and within seconds she grasped the container's sole content. Her eyes left the visor's skull engraving and settled on chain in her hands as she held it out to Emile. A set of dog tags dangled, tinkling gently at the chain's end.
After a moment, the sound of a knife running over steel filled the near silence. Emile shook his head. "Keep 'em. He gave them to you." He stopped his sharpening and looked straight at her, brandishing his knife in a gesture of commitment. "I'll honor him my own way."
"Jorge always said he would never leave reach."
Jun's reminiscing was cutoff as Emile let out a chuckle. "The big man always was sentimental."
Six let their fallen comrade's tags slide back into the pouch as Carter stirred for the first time.
"He gave his life thinking he'd just saved the planet," the Commander countered, striding over to the wall of windows where Jun was putting his binoculars to work. "We should all be so lucky."
Six grimaced. She wasn't afraid of death. Doubtlessly, none of the soldiers in this room were. They'd all been conditioned to accept the possibility, had seen it happen endless times in the field, and did their best to minimize its chances.
But Spartans never die.
Perhaps the tags she now kept disproved the ideology she'd seen in so many pamphlets and heard in so many speeches and pep-talks. He wasn't alive. No one would remember him; no one would be there for him to live on in, except for a few acquaintances and Noble. But maybe that would be enough. And, unless they managed to make their way off the planet and to safety, so that they might finally turn to debriefing and records, it would have to do.
"Sir." Jun broke the silence uncertainly. "That true about Gauntlet, Red, and Echo teams assigned to civilian evac ops?"
The question hit Six like a tank, her shielded eyes flickering back and forth, unable decide whether to settle upon the Carter or Two.
"Those are senior-level communiques," the Commander began accusingly as he turned toward the techie.
"I hear what I hear." Kat's matter-of-fact voice cut him off without a thought as she half turned to face him. "Point is, why put Spartans on defensive deployment?"
"I need that link to SATCOM, Kat." He was dodging the subject and it was beginning to put Six on edge.
"Chasing it, but this console has got more shrapnel in it than transceivers. You didn't answer my question."
"You want to know if we're losing?"
"I know we're losing. I want to know if we've lost."
One turned away, his cobalt-armored back facing the team in silence. He seemed about to speak when a harsh beeping filled the room, stealing everyone's attention. Kat's effort had come to fruition.
"Colonel Holland. Hailing us. What's he doing on an open channel?" she asked mindlessly as she played with the signal.
"Let's hear it."
"Southwest quadrant of the city, over? …Sierra 259, if you're receiving, I'm authorizing over-ride of radio-security protocols to link with this channel." The message was barely decipherable through the crackling static.
"How long for a secure link?" Carter asked.
"I can't guarantee secure anymore," Kat replied.
"Could the Covenant trace it to us?"
"… I could."
"Noble leader. This is a priority one hail. If you are receiving, acknowledge immediately."
All eyes were on the small bundle of wires and silicon until Kat suddenly snatched up the ear piece. Without looking, she lifted it over her shoulder and set it in the Commander's hand. "Keep it brief.
"Carter here. Uh huh…"
Six tried to listen but Jun stole her attention. "We've got movement. Multiple Covenant vehicles vacating the area, and they're in a hurry."
"How often you see Covenant retreat for no reason?" Emile asked thoughtfully, grabbing his shotgun and picking himself up from the floor.
"Radiation flare." Kat stared down at a data pad. "Big. Forty million roentgens."
Six felt her stomach plummet. They can't… not yet. Are they going to -
Carter turned to them. "I just lost Holland. What's going on?"
"Atomic excitement scrambled the signal," Two explained, her voice hard and focused. Six honed her gaze on the window, searching as Kat updated the reading. "90 million now."
A sudden flare of light illuminated the room, followed promptly by a ground-shaking boom.
"That close!" Kat yelled in reply as she tried to take to her own feet.
A fraction of a second later Six found herself in a cloud of flying glass accompanied by a powerful gust of hot air. Fighting to keep her bearings, she turned about to see Noble team stumbling towards the elevators, Kat still struggling to stand.
"C'mon." Grabbing Two's helmet with one hand, Six hoisted her teammate to her feet with the other and propelled her towards the open doors. The other three were already in one of the two rides, its doors closing as the two late-comers sprinted towards the other. Kat beat her to it, slamming on the buttons the second Six stepped in.
Six fought the adrenaline surging through her veins, trying to remain calm and slow her breathing. As she returned the helmet in her hands, she felt a bit embarrassed by its owner's seeming air of calm.
The lieutenant stared at Six's face as if she could see through the visor between them. "First glassing?"
She sounded almost casual, but Six found she was quickly becoming able to read her teammate, sensing the underlying hint of tension in her voice. Not entirely trusting her own voice, she replied with a nod.
"Me too." Deftly sliding her helmet on, Kat turned her attention to the rest of the team. "Don't worry, I'm on it. Our best option is a fallout bunker on sub-level two, 96 meters northeast. We get orders from Holland, Sir?"
Carter's voice crackled to life inside of Six's helmet. "We're being re-deployed at Sword-Base."
"Sword!" Jun asked incredulously. "The Covenant own it now!"
"Which is why they want us for a torch-and-burn op, keep Halsey's excavation's data from falling into enemy hands."
"If it hasn't already," Kat quipped.
The elevator doors slid open, revealing the three other teammates sprinting away. Six let Kat take the lead, following close on her heels.
"Maybe, but according to Holland, the Covenant are still hunting for something." His voice made Six realize that even though they were grasping at straws, Carter wasn't planning on backing down from orders, no matter how utterly suicidal they might be. But she didn't take the effort to think about it much, staring up cautiously at the patch of open sky in the ceiling above her.
Kat's broadcasted protests sounded distant as a hovering Phantom came into view. It only took a fraction of a second for Six's gaze to hone in on a needle-rifle-wielding Sangheili leaning out the side, the barrel of the weapon pointing straight at them. Shit.
"No!" Six activated her sprint enhancement and plowed into Kat's figure, trying to cover her body with her own as they both went flying forward.
"Six, what are you-"
A shot rang out and pain seared through the back of her shoulder. Suddenly her legs lost their strength, sending the two of them both toppling to the ground. Their momentum skidded their tangled bodies clear of the opening and through the open doors into the bunker. Oh no.
"Six!" The female voice, it's Slavic accent broadcasting shock and fear, rang out in Six's helmet. "Commander, Noble down!"
The newest Noble tried to turn herself onto her back but her limbs refused to respond. Hands grasped her arm and a moment later she was staring up at Noble Two's visored face.
"Six, stay with me. Stay with me."
Strange, everything seems off-colored. Her field of vision was interrupted by splatters of crimson. By the time she finally realized it was blood, her chest was convulsing in fits; more of the scarlet liquid flew from her lips and onto her visor with each painful cough.
Kat. Six struggled, trying to say the name, but couldn't. Her teammate's figure was becoming harder and harder to discern as her surroundings began to turn black. A thought struck before the world left her.
But Spartans never die.