So, I've been gone for a little while... Approximately 2-3% of my life (if being verrrry optimistic). Continued subscriptions and a review or two guilt tripped me, you terrible people.
The man before her was unlike anyone she'd met. Not quite as tall as her dad had been, but layered in muscle and a coating of confidence she'd never seen before. "Nine-years-old. Orphan. Huh. So, now the sniveling politicians are throwing homeless kids onto the battlefield to get rid of them. That how it is?" His accusing gaze moved to the social worker at Alyss's side.
The young woman faltered under the Sergeant's eyes. "Of course not, sir… we only… we'd never…"
Alyss watched for a second in wonder before finding her own voice. "I don't know much about sniveling politicians, but I volunteered, Sir. Er, Sergeant," she fumbled respectfully, unsure of proper protocol. He had a rank that wasn't Private, so that meant she had to be extra respectful. Right?
"Is that so, little lady?" He knelt before her. The social worker slinked into the background, all too happy to no longer be the focus of the fiery man's wrathful attention.
"Yes, Sergeant, sir."
His youthful face was offset by the aged wisdom in his eyes. Her own gaze fell to the ground beneath the weight of his.
"That's fine and dandy, girl, but no child belongs here. I don't think you know what you've signed up for. I've got it in my head that I should turn you right around and send you back to whatever life you came from."
Fear bubbled up in her belly. "You can't!" she countered frantically, eyes meeting his. "You can't make me." She gritted her teeth at the outburst. "I mean, I won't, Sir."
"Yeah? And why is that?" There was a flicker of something in those eyes.
Her hands pulled at each other nervously. " Because I know what I signed up for. To learn to fight. To protect myself and other kids like me, so that they don't have to end up alone like me. I don't have anywhere else to go...anywhere I want to go."
There was a moment of silence, his stare dissecting her as she worried over whether or not she'd said the right things.
But then he pulled out a pen and signed off on the clipboard. "I don't have to like this," he muttered as he scribbled away at the forms the social worker had brought along. "Hell, you're too much like my daughter." He tore a pink piece of paper out from beneath the one he'd written on and held it out to the forgotten young woman standing off to the side. " Thank God I'll be shipped out of here soon enough and this selling of souls will be left to the pencil pushers."
Alyss watched and listened in puzzled silence until he took to his feet and looked down at her. She felt insignificant in the shadow of his frame but refused to let it show. Am I in or not? she wondered. She was about to voice the question when the Sergeant's hand snapped into a salute like the one she'd seen some of the other men and women on base giving each other. "Welcome to the UNSC, soldier."
The way he said it, so serious and certain, nearly made her mouth fall open. Yet, she caught herself, clenching her teeth tightly as excitement, worry, and relief tangle themselves into a knot in her stomach. Alyss straightened her spine as she mirrored his form. "Thank you, sir."
Another soldier came forward to usher her away, but before he could, she gave the confident man a smile. "Thank you, Sergeant, Mister…"
"Keyes," he filled in tiredly as she was taken by the hand and guided away. "Sergeant Keyes…"
The rest of what he said was muddled as she was pulled clear of the tent. The scrawny youth mulled over those final words, trying to decipher them as she and her escort wove between trucks and squads of men and women, yet she always seemed to return to the same sentence – one which she just knew couldn't be right.
"Sergeant Keyes, the man who signed away your humanity."
Yet, had she peered back at the man who watched her walking away, she might have seen the sorrow in those eyes and known the truth of it.
Her eyes opened to such blackness that it was neigh impossible to tell whether or not they truly were open. After a few moments of staring, she felt the need to blink and knew the truth of it. She wasn't dead after all.
Though, the splitting pain in her head as she tried to sit up made her wish she was. Alyss's efforts ceased under the onslaught of agony. "Damn." The curse fell from her parched mouth in a weak, raspy, painful groan. Shoring her strength with deep breaths, she gritted her teeth and tried again more slowly. Her vision blacked as her body straightened, but she managed to brace herself up with her quivering arms. Sitting in silence and waiting for the pounding in her head to slow, she realized she was lying on a poorly padded cot, a thin woolen blanket still draped over her legs. Her armor was gone. Its absence was strange – after living in it for weeks, being free of it felt like the equivalent of being naked.
Where am I? The thought bubbled up through the pain. Her eyes quickly honed in upon a crack of light near the floor a few yards away, giving away the position of a door. Swinging her legs off the edge of the bed, the soles of her feet found the cold comfort of a steel floor. Six made to stand only to find her balance all but gone. Yet her feeble hands found the wall in front of her before it was too late. Leaning heavily against the surface, she made her way to the door.
Her fingers fumbled, finally finding the knob. The surface fell away as she turned it, revealing cave walls lit dimly by a small fire built from little more than twigs. A silhouette crouched beside it, still unaware of her presence. Squinting as her eyes adjusted, Alyss stepped away from the support of the door frame and towards the light. Her stiff joints and muscles protested immediately. "Damn…"
The silhouette jolted, twisting to face her but still unrecognizably thanks to the combination of Alyss's blurred vision and the writhing shadows. "Six?"
The accent gave it away. "Kat." Alyss felt her cracked lips curling into a smile, but the expression froze half-way at the realization that her legs were giving out. "Oh crap."
The ground rushed towards her, but before they could meet hands, one human, one robotic, snaked beneath her arms, slowly pulling her upright.
"Thanks," she mumbled.
"You wake from death and can't even wait ten minutes before trying to wander out of bed?" The Lieutenant Commander chastised more worried than angry. She tried to turn them around and return to the room Alyss had just stumbled out of, but the pilot wasn't having any of it.
"Six, you need to rest…"
"Fire, please," she repeated like a broken record.
Two sighed, caving in after a moment of struggle. "You'll kill yourself yet, and then where will I be?"
"Sorry, mom," Alyss replied cheekily as she was guided to a place beside the fire. The room swam around her, but she tried to ignore it, focusing on the Spartan supporting her. "I guess I'm just not a very restful person." The sandstone she settled on was rough and uncomfortable, almost making her regret her refusal to go back inside. It had been a long time since she'd had the privilege to simply lie back on an actual bed of any sort. Yet, she knew that if she tried to sleep now, her aching, half-awake muscles would thwart the attempt. "Where are we?"
Alyss watched Kat settle down to her right; there was something off about Two, but whatever it was, the pilot pain-hazed mind couldn't quite figure it out.
"The mining outpost… where we found the Mongooses." The techie frowned.
The expression stole Six's attention; the planes of Two's face, lines deepened and peaks illuminated by the dancing firelight, was suddenly extraordinarily fascinating to Alyss in her stupor.
"What do you remember?"
Alyss blinked. "What?"
"What's the last thing you remember?"
Biting her bottom lip in concentration, Six tried to focus on something other than woman beside her. Her thoughts clawed their way back through the blackness. "Aszod."
Images of the base came flooding back. Images of the battle, of a small shack and Kat's fingers working over the console. The sound of an electric hum outside the door.
"We were at the remote firing site. I held the door but… but they grenaded it." She tried harder, but nothing else would come. "That's all I've got," Six admitted, looking at the fire anxiously as the weight of their situation rushed back to her alongside a million questions.
"Hey." A hand settled on her shoulder. "It's okay."
Meeting the reassuring, green-eyed gaze of the woman beside her, Alyss nodded and tried to swallow only to find the motion impossible. "Water?"
"Of course." Kat sprang to her feet and moved out of Six's line of sight. The worse-for-the-wear pilot didn't have it in her to turn and watch her companion.
Her return was heralded by quiet footsteps and the coarse softness of a rough blanket being settled on Six's shoulders.
"Thanks," the pilot offered with a small smile as the other Spartan settled back down. She watched the woman's movements; she still felt that there was something different about her teammate, but couldn't quite pinpoint it.
Kat just nodded the gratitude away. She put a bottle of water and a protein bar in Six's hands. "At least the team here before us left plenty of emergency rations behind."
Taking a long draw from the bottle, Alyss felt her body begin to come back to life immediately, but her stomach still felt queasy at the thought of solid food. Setting the energy bar aside, she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. "So, what did I miss?"
Kat drew her knees to her chest and stared into the flames. "The package was damaged by the explosion but had an emergency protocol to transfer itself to another viable host – your armor. It used your suit's resources to mask our vitals long enough that we were taken for dead." She released a heavy sigh and ran a hand through her shorn hair and stretched out, back resting on the rocky earth. "Everything went to hell from there.
"The explosion damaged the remote controls. I couldn't uplink DOT. The skies were too hot for the evac bird to wait for long. The package uploaded as much non-sensitive data to the Pillar of Autumn as possible, but at the cost of giving our position to the enemy. I managed to wake you up long enough for us to make it to the mongoose. You lost consciousness shortly after. This was the safest place I could think of taking you."
Alyss frowned, picking at the sandy floor. "You should've taken the package and made it to the evac site," she reasoned.
The sharp response she received made her regret the statement immediately.
"And leave you there to die with the others?" Kat asked coldly.
Alyss's eyes darted to her teammates'. "The others?" she prompted after a moment.
Kat closed her eyes and sighed again. "The Commander woke up and helped Emile hold the anti-air gun long enough for the ship to escape, but… they overheated the cannon so that the reactor would become unstable. Blew the whole place to Hell, Covenant and all," she finished tightly.
Wide-eyed, Alyss tried to soak it all in. Emile and Carter… Gone. In the blink of an eye, just – just gone. She was a soldier. She'd seen men and women die in the heat of battle. She'd seen more than she cared to. Yet, her heart caught in her throat. Looking at the techie, she realized that the loss she felt, after only a few months working together, couldn't possibly hold a light to what Kat was going through after years spent being a Noble.
Six wasn't very versed in the way of comforting; being a lone operative never afforded anything in the way of emotion or connections. But somehow she found the nerve to place a hesitant hand on the robotic one beside her. "I'm… I'm sorry," she half-whispered. The apology was weak; she cringed the moment the pair of insufficient words left her mouth.
But synthetic fingers squeezed her own all the same.
"You've been asleep for the better part of five days," Kat admitted after a moment.
"Five days?" Alyss parroted incredulously.
"Serious concussion. You absorbed the force of several grenades at near point-blank. Luckily, there were medical supplies here. If I hadn't found the IVs, you'd probably be dead of dehydration."
Six automatically took another swig of water, draining half the bottle. "You've been mothering me for five days?" she puzzled, trying to figure out why someone would put that much effort into her survival. It was tactical stupidity – the Covenant would be glassing this planet soon enough, and when that happened… well, anyone who cherished life would make sure they were already long gone. A comatose Spartan, weighing in at over a quarter-ton in her armored glory, was nothing but dead weight.
Yet, it was the sort of tactical stupidity that made her feel a little warmer inside.
"Infer that I'm your mother one more time, Six, and I may start to regret my decision to save your ass."
"Sorry...mom." Even with one foot in the grave, she just couldn't help herself.
The light in Two's eyes was well worth the false frown on her mouth.
"So," Alyss continued, at last prying her eyes from the other woman's lips, "what's our plan?"
"We wait until you're ready to travel," Kat answered, sitting up to face her cross-legged. "Then we find a way off this planet."
Six opened her mouth to argue against waiting but got no further.
"You've been running wounded and on fumes since Alexandria. I'm not going to try dragging you halfway across the planet just so you can die somewhere along the way." She paused, her determined gaze holding Alyss's. "Especially not after investing five days into keeping you alive."
It was hard to argue with that. The thought of walking made Six's head spin all on its own. Or perhaps it was just the daze she was still struggling with. Or maybe, it was the look she was receiving. Underneath its fierce certainty laid something softer – magnetic. Her eyes drifted down the planes of Kat's face, stopping at a patch of mottled purple resting on her jawbone. "You're bruised." Without a thought, Alyss's fingertips rose to the injury, ghosting over the discolored skin.
"You throw a mean hook, even when half-asleep," Two joked quietly.
Alyss's eyebrows furrowed. New Alexandria, she recalled. She'd woken up from her injury, her fists swinging at ghosts in nightmares only to nail Kat instead. It had only been two days ago, yet the memory held the fogginess of years.
She frowned, the bruise pulling at her until she began to lean towards it. The movement made her light-headed, yet her lips brushed the injury's surface, trailing feather light kisses from where her fingers cradled Two's chin to the corner where her jaw hinged. Kat sat wide-eyed and stock-still as Alyss pulled back to find her gaze again. "Better?" she half-mumbled in askance.
Kat nodded, lips parted and gaze flickering to mouth that had just traced a path across her skin.
A triumphant grin spread across Alyss's features as her eyelids drooped shut. "Good," she whispered, squeezing the synthetic hand still grasped in her left. Her head dropped to Two's shoulder as sleep pulled at her consciousness once more. "Good."
And there you go. Whew. That's been around, waiting to be posted for a long while. Any other updates will be a bit sooner... hopefully.