Three months had passed since the last time the Master Chief had tread these grounds, but he was nonetheless surprised by how quickly the local flora and fauna had retaken the crash site. Thick patches of grass peeked through the near-solid carpet of ash, and lush green vines resembling ivy were already threading their way through the Forward Unto Dawn's spindly remains. Shadows of birds flitted across the exposed panels of steel flooring, their alien songs echoing through decomposing hallways.
Perks of Forerunner technology, he assumed.
The violet sky was a stark contrast to the hopeless, smoke-stained one that he'd seen when he'd first explored the crash site, but still not wholly natural; faded by the artificial sun's brightness was Requiem's inner shell, miles above them, patterned with the planet's veins and arteries, glowing like spent embers. As another reminder to the alien nature of the landscape, hovering monoliths — which had once been obscured by smoke, when he last stood in this location — erupted over the horizon, the distance not impressive enough to hide the fact that they were moving and reshaping themselves, catching the light of the sun in brilliant, pleasant flashes.
The entire area seemed like a brutal metaphor to the Chief, who chose to ignore it and simply turned around to face the Pelican.
As soon as Covenant presence on Requiem had been confirmed in a "first-hand experience", several scout teams had been deployed to areas presumed to hold "potentially revealing UNSC data" and were given orders to destroy said data. The Master Chief had been selected for the one-man team that would spearhead the operation; not coincidentally, he was the one that would be exploring the coordinates for the Dawn's main crash site. It would be a low priority mission. No enemy contacts had been recorded in the area for months, and it was far from where the actual conflict was happening. As consequence, the Chief was sent in alone, while the same Pelican would carry troops dozens of miles east. In a couple hours another Pelican would pick him up, and he would be carted off to another location across Requiem.
The Pelican's thrusters' glow increased in intensity as the pilot prepared to take off. With an exasperated huff from the servos, the hatch began to slowly draw shut. A blast of hot air struck him as the Pelican finally lifted, sending ripples in the grass around the landing zone, and the dropship awkwardly lunged into the air. Within moments, it was drifting over a skyscraper-sized chunk of metal that wrapped around the valley's ridge.
Relative silence took the place of the Pelican's engines. Slinging his rifle over his shoulder, John knelt down and scooped up his helmet in time to catch a burst of radio static from the pilot.
"-Call in when you've hit all the locations that Roland uploaded to your HUD. We're not reading any enemy contacts, but keep your eyes open. We'll ring if we see trouble. Ellsworth out."
Static marked the pilot's real exit, and with it he was truly isolated.
The Master Chief turned again to survey the crash site. He chinned a control, and nearly immediately, navigation points appeared on his helmet's display. Stepping off the grassy knoll, he began a steady march toward the first arrow.
The data pad was half submerged in ash, but the screen was still flickering faintly, etched with static and thin lines of error messages. He grabbed the edge of the screen and tugged it out of the ash. The trauma of removal seemed to finally kill the device, however, and the screen deadened, the last remnants of light fizzling away. The Chief frowned slightly before casting it down into the ash again.
Apparently technology could survive for four years in the vacuum of space, but not for the five minutes it would have taken to retrieve the data.
The next arrow led him to an armored case of sorts, resting behind a couple of boulders on the far side of the crash site. The case had handled the fall to Requiem's inner core considerably worse than he had; the hard shell was partially cracked open and filled with solid ash.
So, that made two things that weren't going to be of any use.
The last arrow pointed several kilometers away, beyond the crash site and the valley. For a few seconds, the Chief didn't move to follow the nav point.
The arrow would lead him through the small tunnel and through a brief cave system. The cave would have natural forming crystals in them, and if the sun were just right, they would catch the beams filtering through the gaps in the ceiling and toss refracted light all over the walls. Then the tunnel would angle upward, and he would be standing on a cliffside. The Forerunner structures — hovering miles above the ground, shifting and reshaping themselves almost absent-mindedly — would be just miles in front of him. And then, to the left, would be the last remains of the Forward Unto Dawn.
The Chief checked his mission clock. He had another two hours before the Pelican would arrive.
There were a few Warthog parts scattered about; wheels laying like discarded toys, and rusting, peeling chassis sitting half-sunk in pools of rainwater. Massive steel frames hung on the mountainside, already alive with the same plant life he had seen in the valley.
The Master Chief stood at the cave exit, surveying the landscape and looking for familiar objects. Most of the items he saw the last time he was here were now absorbed into Requiem's environment — the ammunition crate, the spare gas cans, the carcass of a Mongoose vehicle. He could hardly recognize the detached segment of the Dawn itself, what with the way it was collapsing in on itself and growing long grass on its top. The only thing that differentiated it from the rest of the mountainside was that a woman's voice was clearly emanating from it.
He grip on his rifle tightened. It would figure that the final nav point would lead him to the last recorded trace of Cortana's distress signal.
The Chief entered the Dawn's remains and paused. Sunlight dappled the steel grid floor, and pervasive roots were prying their way through the left wall. There was a panicked flurry of wings as a flock of birds escaped his presence. And then —
"Mayday mayday mayday, this is UNSC AI Cortana—"
It had been months since he'd last heard her. Even then, it hadn't even been her; he'd been reviewing mission logs with an ONI interviewer, during one of many debriefings that would follow his return to Earth. It was a recording of one of her many rampant moments. Just tears, yelling, and not the real Cortana at all.
So he stood still, alone in the ship's husk. Listening.
"—UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn, hailing on all frequencies—"
John slung his rifle over his shoulder and walked toward where the arrow on his HUD indicated. He found the data module behind a stack of tires, presumably where it had been shaken loose by the Dawn's descent into Requiem, and picked it up.
"—This is UNSC AI Cortana—"
John tightened his grip, and sparks sputtered out of the module. Cortana's voice undulated and clipped, then abruptly cut out entirely.
Carrying the crushed module with him, John left the Dawn and walked to the edge of mountain, overseeing the Forerunner structure below. John knelt down and carefully set the module on the grass.
He stared at it for a second before rising again.
Then, the sun ducked behind one of the monoliths, and he was plunged into shade. With the sound of alien birdsong in the Dawn behind him, John looked up and watched the clouds form around the floating structures.