|This article, Derelict, was written by Ahalosniper. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.|
|March 20th, 2558 (Military Calendar)/|
Stavros, Frontier Space
Far below, Kodiak-G114 could hear the ebb and swell of waves filter through his helmet’s speakers, seawater piling into crests and folding on themselves to crash against the sides of a bulbous, violet monolith stranded in the surf. The resounding booms and angry hiss vanished as he free-fell into the shadows of a gap in the leviathan’s back.
Violet laminate rushed up to meet him. Bending so his knees took the fall, Kodiak landed on all fours and got a look at his surroundings. The room was just as empty as it looked from above, no lurking enemies to leap from the lustrous purple walls into the makeshift skylight beam created by the gash ripped in the sloping ceiling. Unusual for a Spartan aboard a Covenant starship.
This starship, however, was long dead. The transport had crashed in the ocean shallows years ago as it brought Jiralhanae colonists to the unclaimed world. Once the passengers had scavenged all they needed for their new lives, none of the alien warlords to hold dominion over Stavros since had deemed the unarmed craft worth dragging back out of the planet’s gravity well. Ever since, it was left to slowly rust where it ran aground in the blue-green wake a kilometer offshore.
None of this made the alien vessel’s bones feel any safer to a Spartan who’d trained most of his young life to kill what such ships carried. Each dim lighting panel was still intact, leaving the chamber as if the last being to leave had simply turned out the lights behind them—and could be back at any time.
Shuffling to put his back against a wall, Kodiak tapped a screen embedded in his MJOLNIR armor's white-and-orange wrist. Now that he was under the vessel’s radiation-shielded skin, a scan could be projected through its every section. The UNSC had devised dozens of redundant means of tracking a target, but his quarry knew them all well enough to circumvent—except one. In his Heads-Up Display, a bar graph spiked as the scanner found a concentration of an element the Covenant weren’t prone to using: titanium.
He was on the right track. The next step in the trail lay somewhere in the broken vessel’s hull, and if he’d been fast enough, perhaps its end. He set his scanner to track the source’s distance—a counter appearing in the corner of his HUD—and reached over his shoulder.
His hand touched a rifle stock, unlocking it automatically from the magnetic clamp on his back. Pulling it over his head, he briefly inspected the weapon—magazine secured bullpup-style behind the grip, blue glow from the ammunition counter on a small dorsal readout, steel sheath wrapping the barrel—and paused. He shunned the moment of indecision as soon as he knew it was there, and flicked off the assault weapon’s safety. There wasn't any more room for hesitation on this mission than any other.
Kodiak advanced slowly, sparing an eye every few seconds for his motion tracker. No red blips disturbed its blue field. The counter beside it ticked down only as fast as Kodiak moved forward. His target, if they were here, appeared to be holding position. They either didn’t know he'd arrived yet, or were lying in wait.
When he came to a door, the interlocking panels failed to slide out of his way. The alien vessel was so excessively advanced that nothing worked without power. Checking again to be sure he was alone, Kodiak found the circular panel at its center and used the friction of his open palm to turn it, then rotated one of the side panels up and into its door pocket the same way.
The counter dropped steadily. Fifty meters. Forty. Twenty-five.
At twenty, Kodiak second-guessed the placement of his every step, fixated on the open door ahead. The deck beneath him was uneven, the ship's tilt sweeping shrapnel and discarded bolts to the gutter where one wall met the corridor floor. Darkness filled the room beyond around a single shaft of daylight, revealing a twisted mess where scavenged structural supports had given way and toppled several decks into the room below. The debris seemed to cultivate shadows, setting the glowing shaft in sharp enough contrast to blind Kodiak’s VISR and night vision filters.
The counter placed his target on the other side of the room, unless they’d simply abandoned their titanium armor. He didn’t think it likely. But then, the target hadn’t moved since he’d arrived. Kodiak took up a crouched position by the open door, rifle up and level. Had he caught them sleeping?
Something moved inside the room on his left, one of the indistinct shapes his mind created in the darkness suddenly shifting over another—right where the point he’d naturally taken was most open. Hair-trigger reflexes jumped him left and put the door frame’s other side between him and it.
A rattling cough dragged out into a drone as a swarm of glowing lead flew at him—from the right, exactly where his counter said the target would be!
A feint, and one perfectly executed. Submachine gun fire spanged off his MJOLNIR’s energy shield, making it flare gold and dropping the shield status bar in his HUD enough to set off alarms. It was directed at his faceplate, trying to blind him with the shield’s distress and make him hesitate longer in the open.
But the M7 they were shooting wasn’t accurate enough, almost half going wide. Instead of choosing between the meager cover on either side of the door, Kodiak threw himself flat and trained his assault rifle on the enemy’s muzzle flash.
He was an augmented body, custom-fitted to a reflex-enhancing suit, locked tight around a lethal firearm—all parts of one fine-tuned system. Eyes and reticles guided the alignment of hands and barrel. Finger depressed trigger, released pin to discharge round, returning fire in a controlled burst.
A figure appeared in the darkness, Kodiak’s eyes filling out their form between a spiderweb of golden lines on a personal energy shield, flaring in response to his hits. The ambush foiled, they bolted, sprinting deeper into the shadows of the half-collapsed chamber. Not about to lose them now, Kodiak sprang to his feet and pounded after.
His quarry was fast, and knew the terrain, but he kept pace. Where she could dodge fallen beams and dangling power cables just a bit faster than he could, his advantage in strength proved enough to batter some obstacles out of the way. She took notice, and shoved her gun-filled fist his way to fire a few discouraging rounds. The debris she’d led them into, however, now blocked her shots, unable to even stop Kodiak’s shield from starting to recharge.
Kodiak nearly closed the distance, could’ve brought the chase to a halt by dragging her into a hand-to-hand fight, but his target had thought ahead about her escape. She swung her weapon forward and lit her way with its flash, hurling tracers into an oncoming wall. Struggling to see her target through the overlapping debris, Kodiak thought he saw the subdued glow of a plasma battery the second before the wall blossomed into brilliant fire.
Instinct stopped him short of the explosion, but his target fearlessly charged on. As the opening fireball flickered out, its flames survived in myriad colors atop pools of leaked plasma fuel, probably staged long before Kodiak’s arrival. In their hellish green and orange and violet glow, Kodiak at last saw his target clearly: a MJOLNIR suit, familiar not only because it resembled his own. It was painted vibrant orange, awash with colors of the flames she dashed through unhindered.
An open corridor lay on the other side of the blaze, which his target dove down, leaving Kodiak far behind—but giving him a long, unobstructed shot at her back. Kodiak brought up the rifle and sighted down the optics, holding until he was steady…
The shape of her HAZOP armor resolved in the crosshairs. The variant allowed her to walk through flames with impugnity, like on Stratos when she’d taken on the danger of scouting alone through caustic fumes to rescue a teammate, or the countless times she’d ducked inside a burning building to pull someone out as he braced the exit for her. He wasn’t stabilized yet. Not enough to—
She was gone. Turned a corner at the far end of the hall. Kodiak released the breath he’d held to steady his shot. He hadn't been ready. The shot wasn't clean enough yet, had it? Had he been ready?
He could wait to follow her down the cooling corridor in just a few minutes, but she was expecting the delay. There had to be another way through, and in a moment he spotted it. The deck above, blown out by the explosion, led into corridors of its own running parallel to those below. Shouldering his rifle, Kodiak began to climb.
He was right about her expectation. As soon as she entered the next open room—a hangar shorn open to a view of the bright horizon and the surging sea below—she slowed up. That was when Kodiak dropped beside her.
Startled, she tried to bring the submachine gun to bear. Kodiak intercepted her wrist and slapped the arm aside, but she turned with it and spun away, dancing just out of his reach—only to be cornered against the deck’s edge, with nothing behind her but the starship’s bared ribs jutting into open sky. Nonetheless, as Kodiak advanced, she carefully trotted out onto one of the spars like a balance beam, looking to jump to the next. Kodiak unshouldered and raised his rifle, unhurried. He’d already seen the jump was too far.
“Drop your weapon, Amber!” Kodiak barked. “There's nowhere to run.”
Before the last word left his mouth, her pace faltered, slowing up as the beam narrowed beneath her until it had no more footing to offer. She froze, neither looking for an escape nor turning to face him. The beam hadn't extended far enough to carry her out from under the vessel’s shadow, casting her stocky silhouette dark against the sky beyond.
“Nowhere to run.” Amber sighed through the crackle of her helmet speakers, softly catching the last of her breath. “Now that I think about it, they've been telling us that our whole lives: you have a place with us. They just leave out the ‘or else.’ ”
Kodiak choked up on the rifle's stock. His pulse pounded in his head, heart beating strong enough after the chase he feared it would throw off his aim. Every moment could be crucial, some disguised trap ready to snap shut now that she'd suddenly left herself open. “Then you knew it would come to this,” he called. “So just put the gun down and come with me.”
The command went unheeded, weapon slung idle by her side. Amber's voice broke into weariness as she replied. “I don’t know what I thought was going to happen.”
All Kodiak's resolve was undone by the regret pouring out of those few words. The mental image he'd clung to since the mission briefing—of a hard-hearted traitor who'd rejected her duty—shattered by the reality of his friend, sorry for what she'd done and looking to him for help... through the reticle of a gun sight.
Fingers numb with shame, Kodiak's grip on the rifle weakened, all the system’s lethal precision rendered worthless as its muzzle dipped from the target. A selfish, recriminating part of him demanded justification for letting down his guard, the conflict driving him to ask, “Then why did you have to get in the way? It was just one village, ONI probably does worse every week—and so do the Covenant that come from places like those.”
“So we should just be like the rest of them?!” Amber shouted, turning to face him at last. The sealed titanium had no expression, but in the thousands of hours their team had spent together, their helmets were a second face: a mask, but a familiar one, no less associated with the person beneath it than their own faces. The mirror sheen of Amber's electrum visor stuck out amid the painted metal, and with her chin tucked low, its upper rim became a hostile, convex curve. “We can bend steel bare-handed, but we're still so weak total innocents threaten us? Is murdering them what makes us safe?”
“They... they knew about the map room.” Kodiak struggled to think back to the briefing during his orbital pod drop. To the officer's rhetoric he'd heard but never in his life really cared to listen to. “They might have known where it led. If the Covenant had found them, they could've—”
“Might, if, could.” Amber shook her head. “I know you don't believe that.”
“I don't.” Kodiak admitted. “But what were we supposed to do?”
Something about the question made him feel like a coward. It felt less like searching for an answer he really wanted, and more like an excuse. He feared there were better questions he was too afraid to ask.
The way Amber tilted her head, softening the angle of her helmet as if from anger to surprised pity, seemed to confirm it. As though expecting him to know. “You could've been a hero.” She replied quietly. “That's what you always told me we were supposed to be.”
“Did...” The question caught in his throat as he tasted its accusation, but the sting of Amber's disappointment forced it through. “Did being a hero have to mean killing Morgan?”
“IT WAS AN ACCIDENT!” Amber screamed, arm swinging wildly to fling her submachine gun away. It rebounded off the beam hard enough to bend its stock, and spun away over the abyss toward the water below. Without it Amber stood defenseless, but stared him down with head bowed and fists clenched at her sides.
“Then come back with me!” Kodiak pleaded, letting go of his rifle to answer Amber's fists with an open hand. “We can explain it to them, Erin can help—”
“Help what?” Despair overtook Amber's voice as the anger drained from her shoulders and out through un-clenching fingers. “I sabotaged their black op and killed another Spartan. Nothing can help that.”
Amber placed her gauntlets on either side of her helmet. With a subtle twist, she released its airtight seal and pulled the helmet free to turn it over in her hands. Dark bangs veiled her ashen face as she stared into its mirrored visor.
“They have places for people who cause them too much trouble. Places like Midnight, where they can lock me away to starve for anything but my own company. And if they're feeling generous, that won't just be the lie they tell you about what happened to me.”
“I won't let them.” Kodiak vowed.
A pained laugh grated through Amber's teeth. She looked up, and despite a fond smile, tears streamed from the corners of her gray eyes. “If you could make that choice, you wouldn't be here.”
The helmet hanging by her side from a limp arm slipped from her fingers. It tumbled away, glinting briefly in the sunlight before Kodiak lost sight of it below the deck’s edge. His eyes flicked back up to find she'd taken a step back.
“Amber—... wait!” Kodiak started, panic both urging and keeping him from stepping onto the beam after her.
“I won't let them tie up every end and forget they ever did anything wrong.”
“Stay where you are!”
Amber's smiling lips closed as her hair was caught up in a rush of wind, sending ripples to the end of each dark strand—as she stepped from the side of the beam and dropped.
Kodiak sprang to the edge on his knees—both hands grasping the brink, his rifle gone—and tracked her descent. Amber plummeted as a golden flash, hair foxtailing behind her. In seconds she hit the water and disappeared, folded under waves and into the darkness below.
Frantically, Kodiak scanned the surface of an ever-widening area around her impact, hoping against reason she would resurface. Bolted into her MJOLNIR suit, she’d sink like a stone and be anchored to the bottom. With her helmet, the armor could supply her with air for ninety minutes. Without it… maybe ten, twenty at the most, if her augmented physiology stretched whatever oxygen hadn’t been torn from her lungs by the fall. Only one heart-rending thought kept him from diving over the edge after her: that she didn’t want him to save her.
Desperate to feel less useless as he knelt frozen on the brink, Kodiak’s fingers fumbled for the visor controls on the side of his helmet, mind too feverish to ask if he really wanted to see a figure struggling desperately for air. Infrared showed nothing below the water’s surface, ultraviolet just different colored nothing, night vision little more than static.
Staring at the fizzling wall in his Heads-Up Display, Kodiak realized he was stalling, working through irrelevant options so he wouldn’t have to see. Returning his visor to normal, he checked the simple point-to-point distance tracker and the counter appeared in the lower corner by his motion tracker. It held steady, rolling up and down only by a few decimal points at what must’ve been almost fifty meters underwater—dangerously low.
Ten minutes passed, and Kodiak waited. No change came from the counter, or the water’s surface. Another ten, the pit in Kodiak’s stomach growing as each passed, and still he waited.
An hour. Ninety minutes. A hundred. A hundred ten.
At a hundred eleven, Kodiak crawled back from the edge. He couldn’t bear looking any longer. How long had she been dead while he sat staring? An hour, or only choked the last reserves from her helmet a few minutes ago? Maybe she’d freed herself from the MJOLNIR somehow—but she couldn’t have resurfaced without him seeing, and as he hadn’t… Amber was dead. And all he'd done was sit there.
Without so much as a sound, Kodiak picked up his rifle and re-secured it over his back. He didn't speak when he contacted the dropship waiting for pick-up, nor say anything outside curt answers to the ONI handlers' questions during his debriefing on Infinity. Dyne was gone by the time he'd made it back, and they asked if Kodiak knew where he'd gone or how, neither of which he did.
They told him he'd be working with a new team for ONI, not Spartan branch, from now on, and so would Erin. It seemed all the same to him. When he went back to Team Machete's quarters, the lights had been left off, all four bunks empty. No one had made them while he was gone, still in the particular disheveled patterns their former owners—alive and dead—had left just days before.
Except for Dyne's. Atop his crumpled, standard-issue blanket rested his MJOLNIR MP helmet, removed from where he'd seen it last in the armory. When he took it up, a status light revealed it running on battery charge. Half-curious, Kodiak slipped it over his own head for a moment and found a text document left open, unsaved.
I'm going somewhere there's something I can do.