|| This article, Apart, was written by Timothy Emeigh. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
|1000 HOURS, MAY 5, 2547 (MILITARY CALENDAR)
Location: MAPONOS, SIRONA, GROOMBRIDGE 1618 SYSTEM
Sasha didn't take a second look back as she started sprinting down the street. What she had seen hadn't needed two looks to confirm. If they stayed there, they were dead, "Run. Run! RUN!"
Buildings rumbled as they collapsed to her left under the glassing beam of an apparently modified Covenant frigate, a bright glare and cloud of dust growing ever closer. She sprinted a few more seconds, before affording herself one more glance left, helmet polarizing nearly instantly as she saw the beam just a few blocks away. This was as far as they were going to make it, so all that was left to hope.
"Dive!" She shouted behind her as she found a crater in the road to her right, pushing off the ground to pull herself down into it. Pressing herself down to the surface, she didn't dare look up, even as she felt the heat of the passing beam of plasma prickle of her back and pass off into the distance to the right. She counted down from ten, listening to the rumble continue to fade, before finally pushing herself up out of the crater and dusted herself off. Before she could even manage to clear her head, she felt something pulling her into a hug and found Michael in front of her, wrapping her arms around him in return.
"Something tells me that's not what they meant when they told us to find a ship."
Laughing, she pulled herself in tighter. "What? Not even 'are you okay' first?"
The pair parted from her hug only for Michael to fall into a shrug as he looked over his shoulder to the path of destruction left by the beam behind them, gesturing towards it.
"You were further away from... that than I was. Besides, you've always been the tougher of us." She felt him lean in and plant a quick kiss on her cheek, turning away before she could return the gesture. "Come on. Let's get going. We're gonna need some extra time to figure out how to get back, so the quicker we finish up, the better."
Settling for smiling, Sasha nodded and tightened the SRS strap over her shoulder, turning back the way they were headed at first, away from the destroyed swath of buildings. "After you, then, Mike."
The duo pushed their way through the rubble-strewn streets of the city, sticking close to the sides of buildings as they walked, the pattern second nature to them by this point. Day after day they'd been one of the teams sent out into the ruins of Maponos in search for some form of space-worthy vessel, one soldier for defense should fighting be unavoidable, one pilot to fly whatever they find, and a sniper rifle shared between the pair to handle any pesky jackals they found along the way.
Yet the pair knew that stealth would be their ally on this mission. Just a few blocks from the Optican building they'd claimed as HQ, the UNSC presence fell to near nothing, paving the way for Covenant dominance of the streets. Even if they'd sent a full platoon out on this mission, direct engagement would be little better than suicide, especially now that easy reinforcements had been cut off by the frigate's glassing path. No, in order to survive this, they'd need to get in and out while leaving the aliens none the wiser.
And thus, a tense silence fell between the pair, Sasha keeping her eyes peeled on the rooftops for any Jackals looking to take an easy shot on the pair as Michael kept his focus on the ground, leading the way through the twists and turns of the city streets. Sasha found herself strangely calm as they went. Sure, she knew, even with the clarity her cybernetic eye afforded her, that spotting the enemy before they spotted her was more a game of chance than any true measure of skill, but she'd done this so many times before it became harder to keep in mind that she wasn't invincible. That she couldn't look everywhere at once.
Minutes stretched into hours as they wandered the city, Michael only ever breaking the silence to point out buildings of interest and decide with Sasha which were worth the time it would take to investigate. Sasha, in turn, only spoke first to warn of potential snipers, though they'd had the luck of most turning out to be false alarms today. Even those encounters that had been true Jackals saw the couple with the upper hand. Sasha, noticing the Jackals first, took a quick few shots from the SRS each time, taking out the threats. Though one of the times she’d not had the chance to warn him before she fired, having spotted one raising its beam rifle towards them and needing to quickly react.
"For fuck’s sake! Gonna give me a heart attack."
Sasha frowned apologetically. "Sorry, they were setting up to shoot! Had to get them first."
She noticed the look of disappointment on Michael's face and sighed as he responded. "Fine... All clear?"
"All clear." She shook her head and moved in to give him a hug, but she found him continuing deeper into the city before she had the chance, leading to another sigh.
"Let's just get back to it, then."
She knew his apparent crossness was just worry seeping into her words, but she still couldn't help but feel she had let him down by not providing a call-out. They needed to stay focused, though, so she forced the thought out of her mind. And yet, as the pair kept walking, it was slowly replaced by more creeping thoughts, sapping at her hope, pushing the idea further and further into the recesses of her mind. What were the chances they'd even be able to find a dropship? And if they did, how could they be sure it was even still working? Or even salvageable at all? Besides, what good would it do, even then? The Covenant had blockaded the planet, ruthlessly cutting down any evacuation vessels during the first days of the Siege, so what was the point in hoping they'd not do the same this time?
Yet, she pushed these, too, out of her mind. Michael had long been advocating for just waiting out the siege, claiming that, if the Covenant hadn't glassed the planet yet, they weren't going to, and they could just hold out in the Optican building until reinforcements eventually came. But compared to making their own way out of their trials, Sasha saw this idea as an even smaller hope. Just as the Covenant hadn't glassed the world yet, help hadn't arrived either. And every day they spent waiting back at the makeshift headquarters, more people—soldiers civilians, it didn't matter—died. She caught him glancing back at her with a smile, once, and knew that staying here wasn't an option. She found strength in him for herself, but she knew just how much others had lost, just how many others didn't have someone here with them to just 'wait it out' with. No. For their sakes, they needed to find this ship, damn the odds.
It seemed Michael had been having thoughts of his own, because, as she found herself once again settling into a more relaxed stance as the sun fell, she noticed a similar change in him. His shoulders losing some of the tension that had plagued them all day, his knuckles no longer white with their grip on his rifle. She knew that they were both ready to push through the remaining hours of the day, find someplace to settle down for the night, and just share in the closeness, the warm food, the cold water.
And then, for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, luck turned in their favor. As Michael rounded a corner, she heard him call back, the smile audible on his whispered words.
"Got a hospital. Probably has an ambulance hangar. Think we should check it out?"
"Even if it's not got any Pelicans, it'd be a good place to settle in for the night. Food, water, medical supplies."
"Plenty of comfortable beds?"
That one got a groan from her, but she knew some sliver of that hope was lingering inside her as well.
"Come on, you know it's true."
"You're horrible, Mike. Let's just check it out." She pushed in front of him, taking the time to cross the street to hide her grin as she pushed inside the darkened building. Flicking the low light feature of her helmet on, she looked around the room, heading across to the other side where she spotted the nearest lighting control panel. Tapping at it a few times, she found it failing to light up and shook her head, before hearing her name called out behind her.
"Yeah! It's me, Michael! Tried the power, didn't work."
"Understood." Sasha heard a pause she attributed to him turning on his own night vision, but something else had her attention now. Movement on her motion tracker sent her spinning around before she even heard Michael call out his warning. "Sasha! Four o'cl..."
She had no time to see what had cut him off as she scrambled backward, hands flailing to get her SRS off her back and lay a sight picture onto the chest of the Elite that had just barely missed ending her with a single swing of an energy sword. Time seemed to slow to a crawl before her, each of the next few panicked moments playing out one by one in her mind. Her foot, catching on something as she scrambled backward and sending her falling towards the floor. The energy sword, missing a second swing by the pure chance of her tripping, skimming inches from where she just was. Her grip, managing to stay on her rifle out of pure luck. And finally, the two shots, ringing out clear and, somehow, true. The first impacting the Elite's shields, taking them off, then second thundering through the beast's neck and sending its body flumped to the floor.
And then, as the air that had been knocked out of her by falling rushed back into her lungs, the next few moments blazed past, and she found herself standing again, facing a horrible scene in front of her, not even quite sure how she had gotten herself there. Across the room, silhouetted against the fading twilight behind them, Michael was dangling, feet of the ground, head clutched in the claws of an Elite just like the one she had just killed. She froze for just a second, some part of her knowing from just that scene that it was too late, before another part of her took over and her rifle raised to her shoulder, her sights lined up with the creatures head, and she squeezed off a shot.
Her knees trembled and she nearly fell herself as she saw Mike collapsing limping to the floor, but Sasha managed to push forward on some raw mix of emotions, slinging her rifle again and making it to her dying lover's side. Cradling him in her arms, she felt tears welling in her one good eye, reaching down to work on removing his blood-splattered helmet.
"Michael! Mike... no! Mike!" She shook him a little, ran her hand along his face, her mind racing with ideas on how to save him, yet that one little part that was still, knowing it was too late, growing ever larger. She saw the clean little marks through his chest now and knew he hadn't been so lucky with his Elite's energy sword.
"No! You can't, please, no..." Even as she recognized his fate, she still scrambled in a panic to remove his armor. To draw her canister of biofoam and seal his wound. Yet even as she pushed the nozzle into place and squeezed, she saw his eyes drifting closed, his breaths getting shallower. Why wasn't he talking? She shook her head, tears falling freely now, and she moved to the other wound, pointlessly spraying the biofoam once again, even knowing it was too little, too late. Why wasn't she talking?
And then she saw it, and her heart broke all over again. His right arm reached across to his left, his glove was slowly pulled off, his fingers slowly scrambled over the watch that sat there, finally managing to hit the latch and pull it free. One last burst of strength seemed to pass through the dying man as she held him there now, his eyes opening to meet hers, not with any look of sorrow or fear, but just a dull acceptance behind a brilliant smile. His hand reached up as his eyes drifted towards her neck, guiding it, and she felt the faintest brush of his fingers against her skin, pulling the metal pendant from beneath her shirt to clasp together with the watch. As her hand clasped around his, his eyes once again met hers, that smile remaining as he choked out one last simple phrase.
"You were... always... the tougher of us..."
And then he collapsed anew, leaving the watch and pendant in Sasha's grasp. For all that her heart had broken again, for all that she had been crying, it shattered now, she sobbed. And yet, no hand reached up to her face to wipe the tears away, no embrace met her to hold her tight. Michael breathed once more, twice beneath her, eyes locked on hers even as he did, before the light seemed to fade from them, and she realized he had died.