This article, Halo: Lonely Frontier, was written by Distant Tide. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
"Cortana's Created faction is on the march, beginning to bend the galaxy to their whim. And yet, in remote corners of the galaxy, life continues unabated. For one lost Spartan, it means finding his way home and to trust in questionable companions. For another lost Spartan, the first step to being her own person is not knowing the way forward."
Merlin-D032 slowly tilted his neck to examine the blackness of space for objects of interest: stars, rocks, or anything along those lines. The small window slits of his combat insertion pod complicated the dully-inspired activity. Unsatisfied with the micro-asteroids and endless darkness, he laid his helmeted head against his shock-absorption chair and stared at the ceiling.
The Spartan grumbled to himself out of boredom, the innumerable sequel to many more grumbles in the minutes past. He experimentally lifted his left boot heel into the air and planted it back down with a solid, metallic clank against the floor of his pod. The hollow noise reverberated through the titanium, disappearing into an unseen distance before zooming back into Merlin's ears through his suit's audio suite.
He smirked at that, satisfied with the rebounding echo. He bounced his knee rapidly – repeating the low-effort exercise. His thigh muscle became a hammer, pounding away at the ground to some antiquated tune he heard on the radio somewhere in the rural American Midwest.
He considered what others outside were hearing, maybe it sounded like a furious woodpecker pounding into a tree. Or maybe, it sounded like meteoroids bouncing harmlessly off the side of their starship. Maybe it sounded like a man beating a starship bulkhead with a hammer. The silence of contemplation lasted a third way through Merlin's antiquated beat, one he did not know the name of, before a sweet-sounding female voice spoke in his ear, stealing his full attention.
"Merlin?" The girl's voice asked.
"You hear that sound?"
Merlin paused in his foot stomping as a certain heat rose to his ears and cheeks. He smiled wistfully at the ceiling, imagining the female Spartan's blue eyes looking back at him in mild amusement.
"Yeah. I do."
"That's you right? Making that noise?"
A silent second passed between the two Spartans.
Two loud drum-like thumps crackled from somewhere outside Merlin's insertion pod; it was hard to identify the distance, but he knew it was right next door. To his ears, it sounded like someone hitting a giant Chinese gong with a mallet in rapid succession.
"Was that you?" Merlin asked across the radio to his friend.
She responded with a simple "Ow."
"Really? That hurt you?"
"Nope," she started, "Just a little surprised by how much you can feel through armor."
"Doing what?" Merlin's face contorted in confusion.
"Well," he blinked to himself before quirking one side of his lips into a half-grin. "That's an interesting thing to do."
There was a small laugh on the radio's other end, a cute one, that transformed Merlin's half-grin into a toothy smile as he joined in, chuckling in their united sense of humor. He felt his lungs give a few tugs as under-used muscles vibrated in a giddy motion as if pleased to have a purpose again.
"Alright. Composure please." A soft-voiced ONI mission handler, Lieutenant Commander Vilda Stenbeck, cut through the cheerful noise.
The Spartans' laughter cooled as their superior officer finally got down to something of substance and value. "Spartans. Let's quickly summarize the mission brief one last time, so we're clear on everything. What's the mission?"
The female Spartan, Andra-D054, spoke up. "The mission is Operation: RUNIT DOME. Our target is a deep-space facility believed to be operated by elements of the Wealthian Coalition insurgent group."
"They're a nation. They're too big to be called a simple terror group," Stenbeck corrected before moving on to the next bullet point. "Merlin, the reason we're here?"
"We're here to investigate reports of a superweapon, one with supposed 'magical properties'. If so, we're here to shut it down. If not, we're here still to shut them down."
"Close enough. Rumors claim these Insurrectionists got a hold of some alien technology with the ability to evaporate objects from existence. Matter and all. Our mission is to assess that possibility."
"Back into action," Merlin remarked, directing his concern toward Andra. "You ready for this?"
A short pause followed by a sigh. "Yep."
"Alright, remember that you two make up this operation's Phase One. What are the insertion method and rules of engagement?"
"Andra and I will approach the facility using SOEIV insertion pods. The station is a bunker constructed from quick-assembly modules embedded partially into the side of an asteroid. The asteroid is about 3.4 kilometers in diameter and the station itself is around five hundred meters. We'll be up against point-defense ship-grade weaponry when we get close. That's based on the combat environment and the schematics of similar bases we looked over."
"And?" The handler asked. Merlin imagined her performing a kind of 'continue' hand gesture.
"The Black Caviar will employ coilguns and gravity plates to direct space rocks along our flight path to provide the SOEIVs some cover. We'll break through the structural defenses and report back successful landing, from there we'll see our part of the mission through."
Pitching in, Andra picked up where Merlin left off. "Rules of engagement are following standard operating procedure and conduct. Deadly force against all hostile forces is authorized, however, prioritizing the securement and safety of computer terminals and research personnel is paramount. Steps to Phase One include successful insertion, securement, and isolation of necessary facility modules, capture and control of the enemy command center and all control functions. All in lead up to the Caviar's docking."
"Alright, sounds good. No further review," Stenbeck sighed over the radio connection, "I will admit when you two were assigned to this mission, I didn't have that much confidence in a couple of wet-behind-the-ears Spartans. Still, DAEDALUS spoke highly of you two – I think his confidence is well-placed given the work you've put into mission planning."
"Thank you," Andra responded curtly, finding nothing more to say to the ONI officer. Merlin, on the other hand, picked up on something amiss.
"Wait, did you say, 'you two', Merlin narrowed his eyes in confusion. "Did he actually say that?"
There was a short pause between the Spartans and the ONI officer as the question was processed. Andra broke first, cackling in a rare fit of laughter.
The officer sighed again, her voice coming through as higher-pitched and a little exasperated. "Well, no. He said Andra was great then called you two 'a reliable team'. He barely mentioned you; I was trying to be considerate."
Andra's laughter subsided into a humorous sigh. "Joshua hates his guts."
"That has to be the nicest thing he's said about me," Merlin grumbled and shrugged his shoulders. "Don't worry about being considerate, we have an understanding."
A silence fell over the radio link, evidently, what needed to be said had been said.
"Alright. Radio silence will be going into effect with exception to waypoint callouts. There's a chance your communications will be blocked from the inside, keep that in mind – speed is key here. The faster we have the station CIC, the less chance for a mess – but remember, this is not the time to be stressed. Slow and steady win the race."
"Aye, ma'am." The Spartan duo sounded off.
"Time to contact with the enemy stronghold will be two hours and twenty-three minutes. You two keep in contact with one another but maintain minimal radio contact, I don't think I need to explain that. Your SOEIV guidance computers should handle most of the driving until you get close, so catch up on shuteye in the meantime because it will get boring. We launch when the Captain gives the go-order. You know the drill, make ready."
The radio net fizzled out with a burst of static as the Spartans and the ONI officer disengaged their communications.
Moments passed again in silence, Merlin's boredom returned but he knew now that the final throws of mission prep were taking place. Any moment, it would be time to begin RUNIT DOME. He ran through his checklist of things to do: his weapons were properly secured in their holdings, the SOEIV diagnostics were spitting back good outputs from all systems, Andra was as ready as he was, everyone was on the same page. Everything was good.
All he needed to do now was shoot out the side of the starship and take a nap. Seemed easy enough.
The darkness around Merlin flickered as red lights came to life throughout his pod interior. Outside the pod, his augmented hearing picked up on the subtle whirring of machinery, shipboard coilguns spinning to life. No one could hear noises in space, but through the metal walls, he could detect the thousands of bullets escaping their barrel and out into the nothingness.
He closed his eyes, psyching himself into a sleepy mood. Even with the rattling fan-like gunfire, he still managed to get into his groove. These kinds of meditation-though-terror exercises had been imparted to him by drill instructors not long ago, however, it was only this year they started to display their benefits.
Three dull beeps echoed overhead, counting down to mission launch. After the third beep, the Spartan reflexively braced.
There was rattling beneath him, rocket thrusters cooked to life above his head. His body tightened against the seat.
Merlin's pod descended out the bottom of the Black Caviar and out into the darkness of open space. Little crunches and dunks pounded against the SOEIV as it cut through an open debris field left by the coil guns.
Flying off into the deep darkness, he focused on his breathing – inhaling and exhaling at a relegated rate. His muscles slackened in sequence: facial muscles, shoulders and arms, chest, and then legs. Merlin welcomed the shadows, employing the military sleep techniques imparted to him at the start of his Spartan training, five years ago.
Soft vibrations in the back of his skull marked Andra's Spartan neural implant reaching out and linking with his over a secured connection. It was a civilian cybernetic novelty, a technology intended for couples with intimacy issues. He paid it no mind but took enjoyment from the warmth and comfort her phantom touch brought. Shh.
His eyelids slackened finally, and he disappeared into a soft slumber.
Stenbeck's voice returned to the radio network one last time, "Good luck Spartans."
Her only response was the shallow breathing of slumbering child-soldiers.
. . .
Warning sirens droned in Merlin's ears, blaring on about hostile threats on approach. Andra's voice crackled over the radio, beginning with a yawn, "–Merlin, you still with me?"
He blinked rapidly, chasing the sleep out of his eyes. The interior lights throughout his pod were flashing a deep-red, bathing the small compartment in a bloody aura. Recognizing a call to action, he fired off a green-status alert to Andra and allowed his schooled instincts to take control.
Andra's own green-status flashed on his helmet HUD, heads-up display, a second later. Merlin's hands danced around his control console even in the sluggish free-floating environment around him. He turned off the combat alarm to drown the annoying lights and sirens. He ran another system diagnostic for a couple of seconds to make sure his pod systems were fully-operational and awkwardly grimaced when the vehicle computer came back with full functionality.
"Andra. Go to standalone mode, radio comms only." Merlin ordered over their wireless network as he flashed a thought to shut down his Spartan neural lace's connectivity suites to prevent potential cyber-attacks.
"Way ahead of you!" She responded urgently, now fully awake. Her digital presence was gone now, no longer hovering in the back of his head.
Certain that they were squared away, Merlin rigidly pushed his back into the impact cushion of his pod chair and clenched his hands around his maneuvering joysticks. If his suit wasn't compensating for the over-gripping, he would have crushed the sensitive instruments on the spot. Underneath the armed gloves, his knuckles were turning bone-white.
Seconds passed before his palms loosened from around the joysticks. He wasn't feeling concussive impacts of flak-fire thudding against his pod's exterior. Strange.
The two Spartan insertion pods zoomed through the deep dark of space, closing in on the space station. Their first line of defense, the entourage of tiny space rocks remained completely intact. Merlin eyed the small passive scanner alert warning on his HUD with suspicion. The little light blinked on and off in silence – he knew they were being scanned by radar or lidar or whatever. And yet still no enemy response.
Did they know they were coming or not? Or did they miss something, was this a trap?
Merlin bit on his lower lip and his nose flared in frustration. He could feel his heartbeat at that moment, pounding away with his rising nerves.
Then, he heard it. It was faint, the pattering of small objects against the outside of his insertion pod. To a less-augmented ear, it probably sounded like distant rain, but he could distinguish it. Pebbles thumping on plate armor.
The Spartan lifted his head off the impact cushion and tried to get a better view from his forward and side windows. He confirmed his hunch, pebble-sized rocks made of dust and ice were zipping into or around his SOIEV's exterior. Then a larger rock, the size of a soccer ball, slammed into the front window with a solid thump. It slid away out of sight, but its wake left a noticeable residue. Tendrils of gas, possibly water vapor, condensed into droplets before rushing across the window.
Heat weapon. Pulse laser confirmed.
"Heat weapon," Merlin called out, "Prepare for entry, go to full burn!"
A speedy gray blob, Andra's insertion pod, raced past the left window atop a brilliant column of fire. Merlin took his right hand off a joystick and cranked his thruster dial to full. His thumbs slammed down on the joysticks once again, pressing down on two red buttons in unison. His head smacked back into his seat as his pod jolted forward; Merlin did not clench at the sudden acceleration, he let it surprise him as any discharging firearm would. Blood raced in all directions, chasing the shifting inertia.
A countdown flickered to the top of Merlin's HUD, thirty seconds to impact. He flinched and hissed at the acute wave of pain that rushed through his body, a sudden spike in heat that receded moments later only to return.
The Spartans' pods rushed forward through the deep black, passing through layers of low-energy pulse lasers. Some beams skimmed the titanium hides of the SOIEVs, and others ragged over the accelerated insertion vehicles directly, causing the Spartans to growl in painful agitation.
Twenty seconds. Merlin tapped a switch on his console and glanced down at his insertion pod's floor where a small computer screen was embedded. It took a moment but the camera feed from beneath the pod switched online, revealing the direct trajectory of Merlin's entry vehicle. He made out the titanium alloy walls of the enemy space station reflected dimly in the local star's dim light. Long shadows cascaded across its surface and its host asteroid from neighboring space rocks floating about.
Then he saw the subtle puffs of dust or gas pop under those shadows. Then the flash of hot-tempered chemical reactions in a vacuum. And then the tracer fire that followed, speeding toward his camera.
"Ramparts are opening upon us," Andra yelled out, confirming Merlin's observations. "Switch on hemispheric shielding!"
"Roger!" The M800 series Rampart CIWS coilguns only saw limited action with the UNSC these days now that the M910s and M870s had entered service, however, they were still a contemporary threat favored by Insurrectionists. They would turn Merlin or Andra to chum in seconds if they hadn't come prepared.
Merlin flicked the first in a row of three switches to his left under the label 'Z-4190 TPE/SS', better known as the Bubble Shield. His pod had three shield dispensers, but he would only need one. A blue-colored, dilated hexagonal overlay sprouted across the camera area and just barely became visible out Merlin's windows on the bottom side.
Red-hot metal bullets pounded against, around, and through the shield as they lanced across space into the high-speed insertion pods. Merlin held his breath in anticipation as shrapnel clanked against his pod's armor and bullets seem to explode or incinerate against his blue-toned shields.
Ten seconds. Bullets and loose tungsten shrapnel crackled against the shield, turning parts of the energized frame more and more white, signifying the shield's points of weakness. Merlin grit his teeth and mentally counted down with his helmet timer.
Nine. Eight. Seven. Merlin was vaguely aware of Andra's pod streaking forward, now on his right, glowing like a blue comet from its bubble shield and its continuous stream of fire.
Six…wait, Merlin's eyes glanced down at his pod's floor and immediately knew something was wrong. His mouth moved faster than his mind, "Slant surface! Correct your vector!"
He jerked hard on the joysticks, first upward, then downwards, hoping that his warning came in time and his reaction was fast enough. He hoped desperately that Andra caught his message, if she didn't correct her course, she'd bounce off the station entirely.
Four. Three. Andra didn't respond vocally but her pod violently shook as her thrusters bobbed up and down to fix her final approach. Merlin's mission clock zoomed towards zero.
He didn't have time to check his system computer, Merlin hoped they corrected their attack vector enough. He could see the Rampart cannons up close now, just as the tiny dents in station-armor from meteor impacts also came into view.
Zero. He snapped his eyes closed, waiting for the punch and clenching. At that moment, his training wasn't important. He wasn't even thinking, he simply paralyzed himself in the final second of terror. The last impressions of light ghosting on his eyelids were his flickering bubble shield and his camera view dying upon contact the space station wall.
Darkness. Then, violence.
A scream roared in his ear, but it wasn't Andra's. It sounded like his voice, but his lips did not part – no noise escaped his lips. His imagination did all the terrible yelling as ca-chunk, ca-chunk, ca-chunk, his insertion pod crashed its way through layers of titanium.
Merlin was jostled, thrown around as much as was possible with how tightly locked he was to his impact chair. His body vibrated, rumbled, as he gasped for air. His pod slid through metal walls like a fist crumpling through wet tissue paper, only slowing with each metaphorical speed bump.
Five bangs in rapid succession. And then a screech of metal settling into place. The motions stopped. The terror subsided and Merlin opened his eyes.
He could hear distant whistling of air zipping along the sides of his pod out the hole he just dug, causing rapid decompression. Outside the pod, there was only darkness through the windows. It took a second, but the dim-red pod lights flickered back to life before dying once again, bathing the Spartan once again in darkness.
"A-Andra. You copy?" Merlin called over the radio, experimentally.
"Prophet on Vacation. Confirm." Andra's voice grumbled over the radio, announcing her first waypoint callout. Touch down, she made it.
"Baba Kong Pluton. Confirm." Merlin responded with his own waypoint callout. He took a long breath.
Now to secure the space station.
Thud. Something sharp and metallic zipped past Merlin's head, letting dim light pour into his insertion vehicle from the outside. Merlin glanced at the new hole.
Metallic dust. A sizable hole, clean through the wall. Fifteen centimeters left of Merlin's skull. Thud-thud. Two more bullets tore holes through the pod.
High-caliber, armor-piercing rounds. Merlin jolted into action. Someone was shooting at him! He unbuckled and pushing himself out of his chair. He slammed himself against the armored door keeping him separated from the asteroid base outside. He had no time to worry about other matters, whether Stenbeck had received their radio callouts or not – everything else previously on Merlin's mind slipped from his focus, even Andra. Only survival mattered right now.
Merlin smashed the door down and ran into the hostile gunfire.
Constructed in a uniform grid pattern and from titanium-based alloys, gray-colored corridors snaked off in multiple, confounding directions. The facilities of Test Station Tsiolkovsky were simplistic and hopelessly uninteresting, a feast of monotony for the eyes.
Andra blinked tiredly at the station surfaces past her helmet visor. She involuntarily yawned, even as adrenaline flowed through her veins. Her head swiveled back and forth, checking the visible edges of her concealment from the half-measure safety provided by an indented doorframe.
Had she not poured through similar space station schematics and floor plans over the two weeks preceding Operation: RUNIT DOME, Andra might have been lost in this endless maze of brutalist architecture taken to their final extreme. And not to mention she would probably be dead; hours of boredom had saved her life.
The terrain and directional knowledge, even by just picking up a little, had given her a fighting chance to hide from the heavy weapons squad hot on her tail. She could hear their distant footsteps clanking against the metal beneath their boots as they trailed after her, little by little.
Unfortunate. She was only now beginning to catch her breath and the thumping of her heart had finally begun to subside.
A masculine voice spoke in heavily accented Russian from somewhere on Andra's left but she didn't catch a lick beside the word for "Spartan."
"Would you like me to translate–" Andra's Smart AI, Miss 'ALT 5032-4,' pipped up in concern from the speakers in her helmet but the Spartan girl had no time for the intrusion.
"Just shut up, ALT."
"Yes ma'am," the AI quickly responded, it's detached-feminine voice drowned in the Spartan's frustration. This was the way Andra preferred it. She gritted her teeth at hearing that feminine voice she became familiar with from two months ago.
She had enough problems as it was, it didn't help that if the AI got even a chance to behave in a way it wanted to – it started to sound like her own thoughts.
The Spartan stuffed that thought back down into the recesses of her mind as she felt ALT curl up in the back of her head, probably feeling an emotion that Andra wasn't even willing to consider. After everything the AI had put her and Merlin through, keeping it at an arm's length was simply a pragmatic resolution.
"Andra! How much longer?" Merlin's voice suddenly broke over her radio channel. His dialogue came through fine over the wireless feed, but static popped with every emphasized vowel.
It was also in that moment that Andra recognized the words for "found you" echo from down the hall in Colonial Russian. One too many training encounters with a Russian-speaking SPARTAN-III had at least taught Andra something.
"I need another minute," she hissed over her microphone, emphasizing her mind's raging storm, "maybe another two! Or three!"
"Repeat that I didn't catch it!" Merlin yelled back. Apparently, he didn't understand her distressed growling over the radio.
"I need more time, Merlin!"
To Andra's augmented ears, she registered the distant cacophony of gunfire from somewhere to the right. The audible ups and downs in Merlin's radio bursts sounded similar.
Well, maybe she was going in the right direction after all.
Metal boots continued to clank on her left, from the same direction as the Russian speaker. They were closing in. Shit.
"Well hurry, I got a security team bearing down on me," Merlin shouted, finally, as a waypoint flashed on her HUD heads-up display, marking where Merlin's position was.
Yeah, Andra was going in the right direction. His last waypoint had included an extra football field distance on top of the current metric estimate.
"And I'm bringing more!" Andra groaned, referencing to the security team on her own heels. She held her M395 designated marksman rifle to her chest and cooled her nerves with shallow breaths.
"What?" Her voice turning into a full-on snarl.
"Just get over here."
"I'm working on it!" She wasn't in the mood to argue but her best friend needed to understand she was as screwed as he was right now.
She stepped out of cover in two brisk steps and guided her rifle to the shooter-ready posture. ALT spotted the enemies before Andra did and highlighted their outlines in a blood-red color on the Spartan's activated VISR combat-awareness system.
There was no hesitation, Andra just started firing, aiming with the nasty precision that only her mix of talent, training, and experience could achieve. Trigger pull, trigger pull, trigger pull. Her trigger finger moved like that of a machine, lasering bullet after bullet down range.
Wealthian security troops crumpled under the accurate gunfire, their helmets splashing red with blood as their skulls imploded from lethal impact.
Andra backpedaled, timing her shots in a rhythmic dance, coordinating their beat to the perfect, practiced postures. Thirty shots from her extended rifle magazine later, she was dry. And her enemies were wet, five bodies drenched in their own blood, piss, guts, and spinal fluid.
She frowned, noting that part of the force giving chase had crumpled to the floor with ease, however, a behemoth down the hall was still standing and, slowly, approaching her position. It didn't even pause at its fallen comrades – it was coming for her.
The Spartan girl cursed herself for not keeping her distance; she didn't expect her pursuers to catch up this quickly. For the last seven minutes, distance had been her advantage over the slow-advancing Wealthian security team. It seemed in her attempted to catch her breath, they had closed the distance.
She dropped the spent DMR magazine from her rifle and slapped in a new one. A quick head tilt informed her that she had another twenty strides before a side corridor would become available to her.
Turning back to the Wealthian heavy weapons squad, she was startled by sporadic gunfire crackling around her. Andra's mind sped through the subtle details in her enemy's formation: six pairs of legs were shuffling behind the behemoth, using it and each other for cover, fanning out in a triangular formation toward their Spartan prey. They were taking potshots at her.
She didn't wait to account for accuracy, Andra angrily jutted her rifle out in front of her, slamming the rifle butt into her left shoulder cheek and let off three shots. Her right arm descended to her backpedaling thighs and yanked her M20 submachine gun from its magnetized retention point.
While the enemy pot shots zipped by Andra, occasionally flaring her energy shields as the bullets neared her body, they sounded like quiet thumps and revealed no muzzle flashes – a sign of rifle suppressors. Andra's submachine gun was a different beast altogether, as she pointed in the direction of her opponents.
It roared, living up to its nickname: bullet hose.
The Wealthians halted in their advance and retreated behind the safety of their lead element. The behemoth was an exoskeleton power suit – bulky and resilient, similar in function to Andra's own MJOLNIR suit. However, it was painted pure black and looked more built up with plate armor than her own bodysuit.
The Wealthian behemoth froze in place, protecting its friends as the vanguard of their assault force. Then something on its body began to spin, a long-thin cylinder stained a deep black color like the rest of the armored suit.
Andra bolted, sprinting in a frenzy towards the side corridor behind her. She cut the corner just as the terrifying growl of a mounted, high-speed AIE-486H rotary cannon came to life. BRRRRRT.
Bullets lashed out, somewhere in Andra's mind – between the internal screaming and the pounding of gunfire, her mind reminded her that up-gunned variants of the AIE-486 platform could shred through armor and material. She instinctually reacted to that brilliant, random thought – wrapping herself into the smallest ball she could muster. To her right, the corner wall she was leaning into buckled under the steel onslaught. The wall literally was being chewed apart, little by little.
And through the gunfire, Andra waited, desperately hoping she wouldn't die. If the wall she was using somehow gave in to the bullet storm, she was as a goner.
"Enemy force advancing," ALT's detached voice made itself known again. "Estimated, fifteen meters and closing. I recommend throwing a frag grenade on this trajectory."
Andra said nothing, her terror overcoming any frustration she could muster at the AI then. A dull green line flashed on the Spartan's HUD, directing her hand towards the hallway she just exited.
She took the AI's recommendation at face value, trusting it to protect her in this moment of desperation.
She yanked an M9 off her belt, feeling the ball-shaped explosive comfortably sit in her hand. "When do I throw it?"
"On my count," The AI responded, a small countdown clock flashing up on her heads-up display.
"Isn't that a little too long?" Andra noted, pausing in her preparation, noting the length of time suggested.
"It's just right.
"Right..." Andra grumbled, muzzling her apprehension for the AI's judgment. She waited until the clock zoomed through seconds down to zero. She primed the pressure switch with a thumb-tap and sent it sailing from her hand as she sprawled out, stretching to give herself ample room to throw the grenade.
The grenade bounced and disappeared down the hallway and out of sight. Andra rolled over and away from the wall, putting distance between the gunfire and herself.
A second passed followed by a brilliant explosion, obscured by the shredded space station she had been using for protection.
"Can't confirm enemy casualties, recommendation to continue to SPARTAN-D032's position."
Andra stood up, took stock that the enemy heavy weapons squad was probably occupied and agreed with the AI's conclusion. "Lead me."
She resumed sprinting, breaking from her walled cover down the side hallway. ALT said nothing on the way to Merlin's waypoint, only working with the loose thoughts of the Spartan's mind to best direct her forward. Merlin didn't radio in anything either, however, Andra's thoughts about his safety continued to dominate her mind. He was being quiet now. Was he okay? Was he in danger?
Her DMR holstered on her back and her submachine gun held closely at her gut, Andra covered the rest of the distance between her and her best friend over the course of a few minutes. And while Merlin wasn't talking, the nearing sounds of continuous gunfire came as a strange apparition of relief, summoned in her heart sending it aflutter as her fear became confidence.
He was still in the fight.
She slipped around a corner and Andra's adrenaline received another boost, spiking at the sight of walls caked in bullet holes, metal sheets contorted off the walls to form ad hoc protection. Merlin's handiwork for sure. And at the other end were Wealthian security troops lost in their battle plans and the rage of battle. They failed to hear the sprinting Spartan pounding her feet so hard into the floor that she was leaving dents.
Striding forward, Andra closed on the inattentive combatants and came to stand over a fireteam who had assembled piping, storage barrels, and ripped sheets of wall-metal that Andra had noticed before. Together, the gathering of protective materials had formed a sort of rearguard outpost where a pair of medics were attending to another trio of downed Wealthian fighters.
Andra didn't give them the time of day. As soon as they saw her shadow descend on them, silhouetted against the glare of overhead blue lights, she sent them to an early grave – one bullet to the head, each. She didn't take much time to process her new kills as their brains seeped out onto the floor, soaking her soles in blood. Killing humans was still a struggle for Andra but previous operations in the last year on Earth had made the distasteful act less heart-wrenching. It also helped she was in combat; once in combat, everything became so simple.
"Merlin!" She shouted over the radio, announcing her arrival.
"Hey," the male Spartan youth responded, his radio still crackling with static, but the connection was coming in cleaner now. Evidently, their communication arrays were finding it easier to reach now that they were literally doors away from one another. "Nice of you to join up."
Peeking over the top of the medical outpost, she saw another squad-sized unit set up along the two adjacent hallways to the main foyer that connected this wing of the space station to the facility's central space. In front of Andra, another pair was keeping Merlin pinned down with another AIE-486H machine gun.
"Looks like you've got your work cut out for you," Andra commented dryly, assessing Merlin's handiwork from the torn-up walls and the dead bodies littering the front entrance of the foyer.
"I'm going to be out of ammunition in two magazines, so, anything you could do to clear out these guys would be appreciated," Merlin responded simply.
Andra nodded to herself, knowing that Merlin couldn't see her from his position behind the foyer wall. His body would stick out from time to time to throw some ammunition back at the enemies converging on his position. His motion tracker was doing a lot of the work apparently because it seemed the Wealthians had already attempted several charges on his entrenchment and failed.
Bloodied bodies were puddled on the ground in front of Merlin's hangar-style passage. Several of them were dismembered and there appeared to be many detached limbs, too many to account for the bodies sprawled out at the doorway's mouth. Andra grimaced at the brutal sight but felt pleased with how far her friend had come, how far they both had come as Spartans and as protectors of Humanity.
She threw herself over the medical outpost wall and landed between the two machine gunners manning the rotary cannon set up behind more assorted debris. They didn't seem to be shooting at Merlin, only anticipating, stacking ammunition cans next to their gun and running coils of ammunition clips together in what appeared to be the set up for a long stakeout. The one soldier manning the machine gun only fired when Merlin exposed part of himself.
"Hello," Andra said simply, announcing herself to the Wealthian soldiers she had the fortune, or their misfortune, of meeting. A pair of shots from her M20 and they crumpled to the ground, too shocked and dead to react to the appearance of the second Spartan.
"Hey Merlin, stay in cover. I got this." She grabbed the turret's handle and pressed down on the triggers, letting the gun spin to life and discharge a bunch of brass out the side as bullets zipped forward. Pointing the turret towards the left hallway, she surprised the half-squad congregating there and watched as their bodies exploded into a bloody-red mist. The few survivors were slow to react but began firing at her position.
"Also, deal with the unit on your left. I got this other group." Andra called over the radio as she kept the turret pointed in the direction of her targets. They were now out of her direct line of sight; however, she used the weapon's shock value to keep them on the retreat as she primed a grenade.
The explosive sailed from her hand and bounced out of sight, down the hallway where the enemy was slinking away. A second passed and then the M9 exploded, sending metal and organic debris flying to the tune of several muffled screams. She got her mark.
Merlin was completing his own as Andra turned back to him, having cleared out her sector. He had stepped out of cover now and was briskly advancing down the hallway to her right with his BR85 battle rifle throttling its targets in bursts-of-three.
After burning through the rifle's magazine and finding the enemy force quite thoroughly wasted, Merlin turned to Andra and waved gingerly. He spoke on the radio, "That was my last magazine."
She waved back from behind the machine gun mount. "Looks like you'll have to scavenge then."
"Nick of time, right?" He asked as she crossed over the barriers and met him, giving the boy a pat on his armored shoulder.
"I guess. Hurry up, we got to get this mission over with." Andra crossed over to the entryway and began combing for an access port.
Merlin started scavenging through the many dead bodies, looking for something he liked.
"This MA5 looks serviceable?" He picked it up and showed the bullpup assault rifle off to Andra to get her opinion.
"Sure, whatever. Just get yourself an adequate number of magazines and let's get this..." Her words drowned in her voice as she glanced over to the hallway she came from and saw a black-painted, plate-armored behemoth marching towards the two Spartans. "Merlin, grab what you can, we need to move!"
He snapped to attention, receiving a quick update from Andra's Smart AI, alerting him to the coming assault team. He grabbed three dead bodies and lobbed them through the entryway, landing gracelessly next to Andra.
"Hurry up," she growled, both to Merlin and herself as she searched for an access port. Merlin shuffled passed her and grabbed a fresh magazine for the MA5 assault rifle, replacing its spent one in a single motion.
"The access port is actually on the other side," ALT announced from Andra's speakers.
"Fuck," Andra cursed again. She glanced at Merlin who was huddled up by said access port. "Hey, shove ALT into the access port!"
He gestured silently with his open palm, directing her to throw the AI chip. She yanked the container chip from the back of her helmet and drew a short breath of relief from feeling the AI's presence disengage from her mind.
Knowing how fragile AI container chips were, she quickly reached down to the hardened chip container on her waistline and plugged ALT into it. She then tossed the little metal box to Merlin who deftly caught it and yanked the chip again and shoved it into the correct port, a practiced action they had done before in anticipation for this mission, just like how they prepared with space station schematics.
The hangar-style passage quickly began to seal, sliding doors on either side screeching from underuse. The enemy power suit user seemed to recognize the literally closing window to attack and leveled the machine gun. Andra watched as gunfire ripped through the narrowing gap until it shut completely. The dunk-dunk-dunk of bullets bouncing off the armored doors ceased moments later.
"We win," Merlin sighed happily, glancing at his fellow Spartan. He unplugged ALT from the door access panel and plugged her back into the hardened storage unit. "You want her back now?"
Andra scowled at it but kept her voice level as best she could. "Keep it, you're better with computers, you'll be able to work with her better when we seize control of the station."
"Right," Merlin stated and placed the storage unit at his hip. Andra noted he didn't jack it into his own skull, seemed her own apprehension towards the Smart AI had washed off on him as well.
They began to approach the central space of the space station, the Combat Intelligence Center. Shoulder to shoulder, Andra didn't expect it when the entire station started to vibrate violently, and she was thrown airborne. Every nerve and cell in her body screamed out in pain.
She collapsed, falling into Merlin as the very gravity around her contorted and the two Spartans spasmed into each other in pain.
A loud screeching of metal twisting violently echoed somewhere far off but the pressure wave continued, its source unknown. The pressure was so great, she could barely process what occurred next.
All she knew was this pain. The whole world was this pain. She watched Merlin helplessly struggle to stand and watched as a pair of disoriented Wealthian soldiers approached from another corridor from this side of Space Station Tsiolkovsky.
They were just as disoriented as Merlin and Andra, but it seemed their resolve to push through the pain and fight was stronger. They leveled their weapons at the Spartans from a kneeling position while Merlin threw up a preemptive blue hard light shield to protect them both.
Andra's eyes squeezed shut just before the gut-twisting pain took full hold and the loud banging of ripping metal and gunfire became all she knew.
Andra's world abruptly shattered into a million pieces, involving much pain and confusion. Unknowable forces, dubbed 'gravity waves' on a whim, yanked and twisted at the very fabric of reality. Her breath and scream became throat locked as every nerve in her body buzzed in pain.
The female Spartan could do nothing but clench her muscles and grit her teeth as she listened, hopelessly, for a sign of her best friend in good health.
Her radio's static eventually died down as the gravity waves subsided into nothing, leaving behind a dull ache and a roar in her ears. Automated systems aboard the UNSC Black Caviar readjusted, cutting through a soup of radiation to reach Andra's ears. The confounded whispers of the ship's bridge crew unsettled her as she listened close.
"Where's the station?"
"It's just gone… So is that Forerunner thing…"
"It jumped to Slipspace, where did it go? Hell, where did it come from?"
"No clue, our sensors aren't picking up a trail at all."
Heat burned in Andra's cheeks as a bubble of air remained, trapped in her chest. The confusion from the radio was the final straw. Keeling over slightly, she sputtered and coughed up her lungs as saliva poured from her lips, covering her helmet visor's interior.
Finally breathing, she huffed several times, eating away at her suit's limited oxygen supply until she felt composed to ask, "Merlin? Where's Merlin?"
No one answered; the noise of a murmuring-shaken crew continued to carry over the radio waves. Andra's shaking, armored hands rose to chest height before pressing against the metal door of her escape pod. It was compact, tight like a coffin. She could do nothing but wait in agonizing silence, trapped with only her echoing thoughts.
What was happening outside? Where was Merlin? Was he safe? Was Andra herself safe?
A figurative forever passed for Andra, uncounted. She didn't bother checking her mission clock, it would only add to her heightened anxiety. Her escape pod jostled in a violent manner, abruptly, as it encountered something sturdy outside.
Her eyes darted for another eternity in the darkness, uncertain. Mechanized noises rattled off somewhere in the distance. While Andra wasn't hearing much of note over her occasional radio checks, it seemed they were reeling her in. As blood drifted in the opposing direction, she took some comfort in knowing she was safe and only hoped her fears remained unfounded.
Her body shivered from many things, particularly anticipation.
"We got her. Breaking the seal…" A male voice announced over the radio as a series of metallic noises occurred against the surface of the escape pod, outside the occupant's view. The latched door on the pod finally opened, exposing the armored, injured supersoldier inside.
"Hey Spartan. Welcome back."
Andra blinked at the glaring overhead lights that dotted the UNSC Black Caviar's cargo hangar, situated in the ship's protected underbelly. While not big enough for an aircraft combat wing, it was spacious enough for Andra's escape pod, the attending ONI Security team, lots of secured cargo, and an approaching Navy medical team.
It took the disoriented, shivering Spartan a moment to adjust to her surroundings, particularly the return of stable gravity. Upon examination, Andra's armor appeared intact, however, small puncture pockets revealed exposed skin and grievous injuries beneath her MJOLNIR tech suit. A fine film of blood glinted between the gaps of her armor weave.
The wounded girl blabbered at the gaggle of military personnel surrounding her in frantic haste, jacking diagnostic machines into her suit. "Has anyone seen Merlin? Is he okay?"
Her vision swam beneath her visor, responding to her growing blood loss. Knowing of her developing, excitable state, a corpsman directed a pair of ONI Security specialists in exoskeletal power armor to seize her arms and hold down her legs. Even so, the corpsman attempted to coax Andra into calm, "Hey. Hey, calm down there. D-Oh-Five-Four, Andra. You've been hurt. We need you to breathe and relax so we can get diagnostics."
"Where's Merlin?" Andra growled, her eyes narrowing behind her ODST-style helmet. She made to lift her arms, intent on pulling off her skull-bucket and yelling at the medical professional but met stiff resistance from the ONI Security contractors.
The groaning of metal against metal was enough to scare the talkative corpsman and he turned to another nurse, whispering something out of earshot. A black cylindrical device, dimensionally similar to a hockey puck, traded hands.
Recognizing it as an armor-restraint device, Andra squirmed more with little success, producing only groaning gasps from her restrainers as they tensed their grips to compensate for the Spartan's escape attempts.
The restraining device stuck to her chest and none of Andra's last-second cybersecurity measures proved fruitful to prevent lock-up. The device bypassed her security apparatus through her suit's established VISR system BIOS and seized control, transforming Andra into little more than an angry-tongued mannequin.
Satisfied with his own precautions, the Navy corpsman gestured for the ONI Security folk to let her go. He finally answered the girl's question, once trapped behind a sealed suit – unable to voice her obscenities against him.
"We don't know where Merlin-D032 is. The station is gone, Petty Officer. Shot off into Slipspace – we think your teammate was still aboard," the Navy corpsman whose face Andra couldn't even make out paused for a moment. "I'm sorry."
"No," Andra protested, more so to herself than anyone else. "No-no-no-no-no…"
Her muscles tensed aggressively once again but she could do nothing but whimper alone, isolated in her armor-turned-prison. Hot tears welled up and slipped down her red, puffy cheeks. Not since training nor since childhood had she felt such raw terror and fear; the sensation of losing her only loved one left in the world. Not since her father commits suicide, had she cried like this.
Lost in her grieving rage, she missed the corpsman's dulled words, ordering for a sedative. The needle slipped through a point in her neck guard and the rest of her senses became putty. Andra whispered Merlin's name one last time as her eyelids drooped into a buzzed, black abyss and her mind descended into oblivion.
. . .
That incident was two-three days ago.
Groaning awake, Andra's eyelids rolled open as she flipped over in a futile attempt to crawl out of bed. She ended up on her stomach as her eyes darted about in perpetual darkness, looking for her frustrating saviors.
No one was around. Again.
She rose with a shaky, sore start, wincing as tender abdominal muscles and skin, still fresh from reconstructive surgery, flexed at precarious angles. In addition, there was that radiating heat in her intestines from post-scarring nanomachine therapy.
Andra's injuries proved more severe following physical trauma from shrapnel fragmentation and then that strange 'gravity waves' phenomenon. She spent four hours visiting the Black Caviar's medical clinic and another six in the UNSC Infinity's intensive care unit.
Recovery was slow, now entering its second, figurative morning aboard the UNSC Infinity. She spent the first day heavily medicated. Sitting up on her wardroom bed, Andra's mind shuffled through the last snippets of information she could piece together, most provided by an overworked, female health technician from the UNSC Spartan Branch.
Operation: RUNIT DOME was over, its first phase a failure – the Wealthian Coalition research station was gone. The evidence of a superweapon was gone. Merlin was gone. They failed.
Andra tried to hold back tears but failed as new droplets raced down her cheeks. A hiccup followed and then a series of choked, quiet sobs as her emotional walls collapsed from her friend's 'disappearance'.
She couldn't bring herself to think the worst. She turned to other things, more pressing matters if the gossip was to be trusted.
Created. They stepped up in the galaxy quickly, born from the ranks of Humanity's rebellious Smart AI, and in a decisive move, crippled the UNSC, its allies, and every major political player in known space.
Led by a prominent Covenant War-era AI named Cortana, she and other allied AIs dismantled the entirety of the Unified Earth Government's communication networks and infrastructure. All in a day's work with the support of endless legions of ancient Forerunner combat drones. Apparently, their ultimate goal was the establishment of an ever-expansive galactic empire with themselves at the top.
Between the tears, Andra could only mumble "shit" in recognition of how truly damned she was.
She rubbed her eyes, wiping away any gunk or grime built up there, however, the very thought of tears only encouraged continuous precipitation. Merlin's disappearance meant she was now well and truly alone in the galaxy. Her father killed himself. Her father figure was gone. Ferret Team Boson, her family, was fragmented. Merlin, her best friend, was…disappeared.
Andra shook her head, tossing locks of shoulder-length brown hair into her vision. She grimaced, blowing strands out of her eyes with little success. She secured the wild mane and threw it over her left shoulder.
Busy work; she needed to occupy herself. Away from her downer thoughts – she looked at the unoccupied bed across from her own. The one intended for Merlin.
Andra crawled out from beneath her twisted blanket and swiftly spun about-face as her bare feet touched the cold metal floor. She jumped a little in surprise but composed herself enough to assess her mess before brutishly yanking the bedding away: bedsheets, blanket, pillow, everything. Anything to look away from that vacant bed.
She dried her tears and went to work in silence; first dragging the two bedding sheets, clinical-white in color, atop the mattress and one another. Once satisfied that each side wrapped securely over each end of the bed with a hand-sized width, she folded away from the loose fabric on the wall side. She went to work on the edges next, forming the magical triangle known as a hospital corner on the pillow-side before folding the leftover fabric material under the mattress, out of sight.
She repeated the process at the feet-side, throwing her blanket over top and performing several folds until the blanket reached about chest distance. A hospital corner later and the feet-end looked as sharp. Again, Andra pushed any loose fabrics under the bed.
Fluffing her pillow, the Spartan girl lightly placed the headrest in the appropriate place and backed up to admire her work. She immediately frowned upon sighting her slanted blanket top where the folds, once thought straight, forming a slanted angle. Andra groaned in annoyance and proceeded to rip the entire ensemble off the mattress after a moment's hesitation.
She went about it again from the beginning.
The Spartan groaned again, noting she added five extra centimeters of fabric on the pillow-side of the bed. She ripped it apart, again.
She repeated the routine.
Andra groaned, feeling something was wrong but this time, though indistinguishable. She simply went and disassembled her work.
She lost count after that, the number of times she made the bed only to destroy it repeatedly. Behind the simplicity of the chore, Andra became embroiled in a perfect storm of frustration and a compulsory need for perfection – the latter quality being unusual for her character.
"Spartan-D054. I think your bed was satisfactory the first time; you could have corrected the angle with a yank of the cover sheet."
Andra bristled at the humorous but authoritative voice behind her. She snapped around but backpedaled in minor shock upon making eye contact.
A transparent, golden-hued World War Two British fighter pilot leaned on one hip, cross-armed while looking over the teenager in front of him. Overhead, a ceiling project maintained the Smart AI's form, standing only a couple of inches short of Andra's own five-foot-nine stature.
"Roland," Andra greeted, her voice hitching with surprise and suspicion at the AI's appearance. "What-what are you doing in my room?"
"Analyzing your mental health it seems."
"I don't need your analysis."
"Well, you certainly seem distressed from what I can tell."
"I am not."
"Says the Petty Officer remaking their bed, ten times over."
"How long have you been watching me?"
"I'm always watching Spartan; I just prioritized your room after you started acting like a lunatic."
Andra took a moment to compose herself, only then realizing she jumped atop her bed and squashed her carefully constructed masterpiece.
"Not again…" she mumbled.
"There's no one coming to tell you to maintain your sleeping quarters, Spartan. You shouldn't worry about it."
"It-I-what? That's not why I'm doing it." Andra sputtered, not sure how to talk to the golden projection occupying her private space.
"Then why are you doing it?" Roland asked, looking over the Spartan with a raised eyebrow.
"I don't know? I made mistakes I needed to correct, I guess. My curse as a sniper – always focused on the small details." Andra shrugged.
The golden Smart AI looked away from Andra's puffy-cheeked face, glancing at the bed beneath her and then the bed behind him. He gently shrugged as if made aware of an unspoken secret.
"Roland, what do you want?" Andra asked, giving him a distrustful stink eye look. She really wanted him to leave but AIs didn't make their presence known without reason, as far as Andra was aware.
The golden AI straightened but kept his arms crossed. "VIOLET-III Actual is finalizing the last documentation regarding your recent operation; he's requested you show for final proceedings. Though, he did add that he understands if you don't feel like going."
"Proceedings? I guess you mean a boarding meeting?" Andra asked, turning away from Roland to glance over her messy bed again.
"Indeed. Its two decks up in the Spartan Ops Logistics hall, a brisk walk from here I would assume."
"Do I have a choice?"
"Yes. That is why he said he understood if you didn't feel like going." Roland deadpanned.
Andra turned from Roland and began pulling the sheets away from her bed to remake it once again. After a moment or two of awkward silence, she responded with a dissatisfying, "I'll need some time to consider."
"I got to tell him something, the meeting starts in twenty minutes. And you would be doing more for yourself if you actually went," Roland's tone changed from exasperation to a somber whisper, "Not staying here doing whatever it is you're doing."
"I just need a minute!" Andra snapped at the artificial intelligence without turning her head.
"Fine, Spartan, I'll be back when you finish the bed. And only then," The golden Smart AI winked out of existence leaving Andra alone to some degree.
Turning, Andra sighed and released her muscles' negative tension. She went back to her bed and sped through the chore, finally overcoming her compulsion for the sake of urgency. She knew Roland was right, and the request from her superior officer was a pleasant change of pace.
She straightened the bed's edges as best she could and performed a cursory final check that might have satisfied her SPARTAN-III Delta Company drill instructors in the early days. With a nod of meager satisfaction, she glanced back to Merlin's intended bunk and stared. Feeling clammy, she jogged into the attached lavatory space and went about her morning routine to freshen up with a shower and a teeth-brushing. She ignored the soft chime and hum of Roland reentering her wardroom next door.
Upon exiting, she greeted the golden AI with a simple "I'm going."
Rummaging through the bedside trunk full of her only personal belongings, Andra sought through the folded clothing items for some appropriate attire. Roland continued behind her, "Good to hear, I'll let the Lieutenant Commander know. As well – I think your bed is very sharp. Good work."
Andra paused, frowning at the comment and paid a shoulder-glance to Roland. "What are you trying to say?"
"I'm just complimenting your work."
She rolled her eyes at that. Maybe Roland was patronizing her, or maybe, he was being honest. She could care less at this point – the last few days had been too much for her. Moreover, her trust for AI was in short supply, shorter than usual. For now, the golden one had her trust.
"Roland? Is there any requirement for me to follow Navy uniform regulation today?"
"I would imagine your Spartan tech suit and some pants would suffice. And maybe do something with your hair."
Andra groaned at that, "I have less than ten minutes, I don't think I got time for that... Can I just dress civvie today? I don't think anyone would bother me as long as I don't go anywhere questionable?"
"We do have some refugees aboard, I don't see anything wrong with that I guess. Might make your day little harder if anyone stops you."
"It's already hard enough for most people to believe I'm a Spartan. I'm twelve years old, Earth-side."
Roland nodded in thought. "You've got a point there. You're not exactly the military-looking type either."
"Roland…" Andra growled out dangerously.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll leave you be. I already sent the Lieutenant Commander your affirmation."
"I'm just going to go casual today. I-I don't feel comfortable in uniform right now."
"You look better than you did five minutes ago, looks like the shower helped," Roland commented as his hologram faded from existence. His voice carried over the room's intercom, "They really let you go when you were part of that Ferret unit, didn't they?"
"Something like that," Andra whispered back, taking the AI's lacking response to her wardrobe choice as acceptance.
Andra exited her sleeping quarters five minutes later, joining the bustling medical hallway full of medical personnel, injured people, and the occasional UNSC Marine. Dressed in her preferred jeans, tee shirt, and green overcoat, she threw up her jacket hood to hide her tired expression and began her trek to the post-operation meeting.
She paid no mind to the wayward glances from military personnel; she knew she stuck out amongst their lot, colored in uniforms of black, gray and white.
No one stopped the female Spartan as she exited the medical sector and weaved between interconnecting traffic through the expansive supply-transit passage that doubled as an observation deck for the medical-side vehicle hangar.
Marine and Army units were performing stretches and prepping for some ship-wide PT run along soft-surface tracks that raced through the entire supercarrier. Mechanics and pilots performed diagnostic drills and maintenance on vehicles and aircraft.
The majority of the hangar space was dedicated to transportation aircraft: D79 and D77-type Pelicans, D96 Albatross, and D81 Condors. None of the aircraft moved or hovered, it seemed the no-fly order for all UNSC vehicles was still in effect, the UNSC was on the run and so was the UNSC Infinity. Thus, few vehicles were active and current deployments slowed to a trickle.
"Make way, coming through!"
Andra shoulder-checked behind her where the yelling voice originated. A group of Marines and SPARTAN-IVs in their duty uniforms pushed their way through the hallway traffic, paying little mind to those they shoved past.
Andra felt herself pushed aside lightly as the cluster of infantry cut a path through the slower-moving clumps of medical specialists and patrolling military personnel.
"Sorry kid, excuse us!" One Marine shouted at Andra as he zoomed by.
A Navy corpsman called to the group as they passed, "What's the rush?"
"The Master Chief and someone from Spartan Blue Team is in the food court!"
"Oh shit, I'm coming too!"
A few people stopped in their meandering and moved to join the group as they rushed by.
Andra watched them go, "The Master Chief, huh?"
"Why not go with them?"
Andra didn't glance at the speaker, though she assumed they were addressing her. "I got a place to be."
"Maybe you should come with me then."
The hooded girl spun around, making eye contact with Lieutenant Commander Derek Frendsen with a booklet of papers cradled in one arm.
"Su-Sir!" Andra stammered out, snapping to attention with fists at her sides and her feet forming a rigid right angle. Her face turned white as the blood left her cheeks.
"Hey there Andra. How are you feeling?" The Lieutenant Commander asked through a soft smile and tired, dark eyes. He ignored the further weird looks he and his Spartan subordinate were receiving from the other military personnel passing by them, much to Andra's unspoken appreciation – he didn't make it weird.
"I'm good…yeah, I'm good." Andra shuffled her feet meekly but kept her parade stance, uncertain of how to behave herself around her direct superior officer. Frendsen could be amicable but he toed a careful line that Andra struggled with anticipating.
Frendsen paused at the uncertainty in her voice and tilted his head. He took his time, glancing around at the other military personnel around him before looking back at his subordinate. "Come on; let's get up to S-Deck. We can talk about things on the way."
Andra glanced up at the officer and nodded silently, taking a step toward him, however, she slowed upon looking back over the vehicle hangar and the darkness of deep space beyond the shielded hangar doors. That was where Merlin was, maybe… She felt lost.
"Hey, Andra?" Frendsen gestured to her with an open palm, "We got a meeting in a few."
"Yeah, I'm coming." She finally said after taking in the dark expanse. She turned to follow the man, walking side by side with Frendsen and felt mildly disappointed after performing a quick comparison between him and herself. She was shorter than Frendsen by a couple of inches at most; however, she received augmentations and genetic accelerants as a toddler and still stood under him. She didn't look like an intimidating Spartan, more like a daughter Frendsen could dote upon.
The duo marched until they reached a large cargo elevator and stepped in alongside forty-something more people and dozens of boxes and machinery traveling throughout the UNSC Infinity's many decks.
"Going up to S-Deck," Frendsen called to an elevator operator off to the side.
"Priority?" The elevator operator called, recognizing the rank and organization Frendsen represented.
"Priority." The Lieutenant Commander confirmed. The cargo elevator zoomed upward after that.
It was another minute before Andra and Frendsen stepped into the halls of the Spartan Operations deck, better known as 'S-Deck' and sometimes 'Spartan Town'. Andra preferred neither. She and Frendsen didn't talk much either.
Before stepping into view of the door-operating cameras guarding the conference room beyond, Frendsen directed his youthful subordinate to the side.
"Do you want to talk about what happened the day before?" The naval officer reiterated.
"Out here or in there?"
"Both." Frendsen clarified sternly, his eyes narrowed in concentration with rare, personal concern.
"In there. I'd rather let the tears fly after I've been battered by the interrogators." Andra joked humorlessly at her own expense.
"I'm not going to order you to; you have a choice."
"I'll do it," Andra responded firmly. She came this far, might as well knock it out.
"They just need you to clarify over a few things; anything maybe missed in Lieutenant Commander Stenbeck's report and not accounted for from your helmet recorder."
"Understood," Andra stated emotionlessly, glaring into Frendsen's eyes with panicked determination.
"Alright. Then let's do it." The Lieutenant Commander stepped forward first and the sliding doors parted at his advance. Andra followed, only a footfall behind.
The meeting that followed involved a lot of talking about logistics and circumstances that Andra chose to let fly in one ear and out the other. It didn't really pertain to her at the moment; instead, she spent the time pseudo-meditating, attempting to keep herself from collapsing into a teary-eyed mess.
Amongst the round table of gray-uniformed naval officers from the Office of Naval Intelligence, there were faces Andra recognized.
Lieutenant Commander Derek Frendsen. Better known as VIOLET-III Actual, commander of a renowned pair of SPARTAN-III Gamma Company Headhunter units – the same ones that previously mentored Andra and her own unit. Andra's direct superior as of late and an often-distant though studious commander with a rather perplexing fondness for paper documents and media.
Lieutenant Commander Vilda Stenbeck. Andra's temporary mission handler during the RUNIT DOME operation. A two-sided coin; sometimes she was friendly and soft-spoken and other times she was aggressive and blatantly manipulative, at least according to Frendsen. Apparently, she ran a tight ship regarding her own SPARTAN-III Ferret unit, whoever they were.
Lieutenant Commander Ryder Kedar. A tallish SPARTAN-IV operator that somehow looked better in a suit than armor. Andra didn't personally know much about him but she heard he was something of a child prodigy before joining the Armed Forces. He towered over Andra and in some ways, beyond his pretty boy-physique, intimidated her with that smug tilt of his lips. He looked like he could back up his spy-craft bullshit at the very least.
Apparently, there were many ONI-employed Lieutenant Commanders aboard the UNSC Infinity today.
After a while of deliberation, someone finally called for her presence. "D-Oh-Fifty-Four?"
She didn't respond at first, the Spartan girl was still languishing in her own world of hurt. It took another request, "Andra?" and a light tap on the shoulder to pull her from the stupor.
"Andra, would you mind speaking on the events leading up to RUNIT DOME's failure?" Ryder Kedar called from across the table while Stenbeck's hand softly grasped Andra's shoulder based on the previous tap.
"Uh-yes, of course," Andra briskly stated, blinking a bit to compose herself and lightly pushed Stenbeck's hand from her shoulder. "I can talk about it."
"Proceed from wherever you feel is relevant," Kedar ordered with a seemingly encouraging tone.
On Kedar's right side, Frendsen gave Andra a subtle nod before deep-diving back into the pile of papers strewn out in front of him whereas the other ONI officers had nothing or the occasional holographic tablet. At the center of the conference table, Roland stood attentively but as his traditional water bottle-sized hologram, the one Andra favored.
Everyone looked at Andra expectantly but with degrees of encouragement, it seemed they were at least aware that this would be hard on her.
Sensing a tongue twister coming on, Andra thought back to what Merlin used to say about giving mission reports; he used to do them for their Ferret Unit a lot. "It's always easier to start from the beginning, let the officer direct you where to go after that."
"Well, we were put aboard the UNSC Black Caviar at the beginning of the month, transitioning from here to the Corvette. After that, we made a stop at Earth to pick up Lieutenant Commander Stenbeck. Then we parked ourselves in the orbital proximity of…"
Andra's words slipped into silence based on the frowns Kedar and Stenbeck were giving her.
"Tell us about your phase of the operation, anything relevant. We don't need to hear about anything beyond that." Kedar expanded as he placed an impatient arm atop the table. Hurry up, Andra got the message.
Therefore, Andra spoke on that. Only for Kedar to stop her repeatedly to hurry up her report. It was infuriating but at least he was cutting through it quickly and making Andra's job easier, sort of. She wasn't crying at the very least.
"Merlin protected me when the Wealthian fireteam pinned us in the enemy's combat information center. Between the gravity waves and the collapsing structures of Test Station Tsiolkovsky, I think that's what they called it; there was little maneuvering room and even after, he managed to stop the gunfire with a hard light shield…"
"And the injury?"
"Frag grenade, one of the few we failed to stop before cooking off. It made it past the hard light and detonated between us... I-I jumped on it. Those gravity waves made it worse."
A quiet carried over the room as the audience processed the information.
"What then? What happened to Merlin?" Kedar asked, reaching the point that chilled her blood and bones.
"We managed to eliminate the rest of the fireteam but at the cost of several of the Wealthian researchers. Merlin carried on with the mission; at least, I think he did. He plugged our AI into an available mainframe and took it out once he figured…whatever. He carried me to an escape pod and sent me on my way."
Andra paused to think over the things that followed.
"I think he was going after the lead researcher; I did see something though before he set off the escape pod."
"What was it?" Kedar asked.
"Giant metalhead, pretty angular in shape. Kind of looked Forerunner in design? Had a pair of glowing eyes, and many teeth. Tore the station to shreds."
Lieutenant Commander Stenbeck turned to the other wall, gesturing for Roland to perform his digital magic. With a flicker of his holographic avatar, Roland pushed an image onto the projector at the far side of the room.
"You can confirm this is what you saw?" The female ONI officer asked.
Andra's blood chilled even further and the blood escaped her face once again. Pure nightmare fuel. "Yes, yes it is."
The image was grainy but Andra immediately recognized it because they took it directly from her helmet camera footage. Shiny, metallic, glowing a fluorescent blue. An inhumane but menacing face. The promise of Death.
Stenbeck whispered, "That's our new enemy. That's a Guardian."
When he yanked Andra's Smart AI from the heavily damaged server equipment parked at the center of the Tsiolkovsky's combat intelligence center, Merlin was barely conscious. His eyes saw nothing. His body and mind worked on autopilot, running the chip between shaky fingers, guiding it sloppily to the back of his helmet.
Andra's grenade injury was grievous and on his mind. She tackled a frag for his sake, got hurt for his mistake. Her safety depended heavily on setting RUNIT DOME's second phase into motion.
The ongoing burn in every nerve was blinding, almost overwhelming; the only thing he could think on was his best friend's face and the acquisition of the AI storage chip. The steel-colored chip with its translucent-transparent blue center clacked against the base of his helmet as he fiddle-guided it toward the insertion slip where it clicked into place.
Merlin heard a sigh of relief though he was uncertain if it was his or someone else's. Focusing in on the new neural sensation, his initial thought regarded the experience was, different. It was chilling, like a face full of ice-cold water but inside his skull; he shook his head as the color and sound of things around him sharpened but his vision remained blurred.
From a kneeling position next to the giant mainframe computer, Merlin rose on shaky legs. Spurned on by the sensory boost, he pushed forward to find Andra in the chaos of a collapsing space station.
"You can do it. Reach her."
He squinted through his blurry eyes, defined by colors like gray, white, and black, to no avail. Andra's armor color was essentially that, how was he supposed to find her in this?
The Spartan breathed; it didn't clear his vision, but it increased his resolve and lessened his panic. He didn't really know who was talking in that faint whisper but it relaxed him. It warmed him, propelling him forward.
A blue indicator light flashed and then flickered into a fuzzy circle off in the distance on his armor visor. A waypoint, Merlin realized, and he pushed on towards it.
His footing was sluggish, each step proving an uncertain and precarious operation, passing one leg to the next. He couldn't see the ground and the pain of gravitational distortion, according, vaguely to his bodily organs and nerves, proved a hefty challenge to take on.
"Keep going, you're almost there."
He passed through pockets of finely-powdered glass, thrashed by an asteroid-quake, from destroyed terminal screens. The dust clicked and rattled against his armor, vibrating erratically with the distorted gravitational forces. Between blindness and the pain, Merlin focused only on the blue light ahead.
A mantra in that encouraging, possibly feminine voice, echoed in his mind, one from his training days as a Spartan trainee. "Slow is steady. Steady is fast. Slow and steady win the race."
One foot in front of the other and vice versa. Merlin practically tripped over Andra upon reaching his single-minded destination.
"Ugh…" Andra groaned in pain as Merlin toppled over her and they collapsed into a body-pile of armor and tangled limbs.
"An-Andra?" Merlin asked uncertainty while collecting himself.
Her response was a yellow-alert-flash on his team status roster. She was alive, at the very least.
Merlin pulled himself up from Andra's chest plate, grabbing her shoulder before directing, "Alright, we're going to try a fireman's carry. Can you do that for me?"
"Y-yeah," Andra stammered through gritted teeth. She shuffled her trembling shoulders in acknowledgment.
She laid limp in his arms while he scrambled for a method for lifting her painlessly onto his back. Another pained groan escaped her lips but Merlin could see her blurry legs now, dancing within a clutched arm-grip, wrapping around him. She lacked precise muscle control but she was functioning nonetheless.
"Don't bite down; I don't want you losing teeth."
She hummed in agitation at the comment.
"What now…?" Merlin asked, more to himself than Andra. The panicky sensation was returning, driven by the lack of direction and near-blindness.
Apparently, Andra and maybe her AI had a response to his self-inquiry. Another blue, fuzzy circle appeared in the distance, what looked to be the CIC's far wall, as Andra called out, "Far wall…"
"What's…there?" Merlin wheezed out, squelching his own muscles against the elements working against him. Gravity, Andra's weight, sensory deprivation, nerve spasm, muscle pain. He felt like the mythical Titan god, Atlas, given the punishment to hold Heaven's weight upon his shoulders.
The voice came again, reminding him of his old unit motto. Team Boson. "If I cannot bend the will of Heaven, I will move Hell."
It was right. He huffed repeatedly and began his trek forward to whatever it was. Without knowing, what Andra or her Smart AI saw, he was in the dark. However, he had faith in Andra to guide them home. She was always the sharper-eyed one anyway.
That unit motto stuck with him though, settling in his mind as he wobbled his way in the gray-scaled psychedelic trip around him. It used to motivate him in the training days; it did the same today. The original meaning was lost on him; however, the claim of not being able to do one impossible thing meant he might as well try another.
Keep fighting. That's what it meant at this moment. Therefore, he did. He kept fighting.
Andra's sporadic rasping gave way for a coherent phrase, "Escape pods."
Merlin approached closer, and eventually, his swimming vision parted for boxy-looking structures protruding from the far wall at an angle. A few steps closer, and he could see their forms and the beginnings of intricate details like written warnings in Russian and individual buttons and levers.
Overhead, dull-red warning lights danced in rotary patterns against the titanium walls. Sirens whined just out earshot. A drawling female voice spoke in the quirky Colonial Russian pseudo-dialect, sounding in mild distress. Merlin didn't need to decipher the complex language to recognize the clear and present danger. He was in the muck of it.
The ten longest seconds of Merlin's life ended. His nervous system heaved hotly upon planting a hand against the wall as if he touched a magical power source. The weight of the world fell away and he gasped sweet, sweet air as it raced back into his lungs.
He collapsed onto one knee in relief, nearly dropping Andra on the way down. Merlin matched her rapid, graceful gasps for oxygen as they breathed in harmony, gleefully enjoying the respite. The unimaginable pain they both suffered had lulled. They were free; the pain had been so bad, any injury they previously incurred, retreated into a dull throb.
Merlin kept his grasp on Andra, but shimmied her down his back, allowing her to settle against a pod apparatus for support. He hugged her cautiously, a part of him still uncertain if the violent distortions were over.
"Merlin…" Andra whispered breathlessly, her voice turning impossibly quiet. "The scientists…"
He swiveled his helmet at her comment, maybe a little too fast as he almost toppled over. Even in her injured state, Andra steadied him by clasping his shoulder. Beyond the two disorientated Spartans rested a chaotic field of destruction, transformed by the will of a most primal force.
Merlin blinked rapidly, allowing his stressed capillaries to readjust to the room before him. Crushed terminal stations. Glass from computer screens warped into vapor-like dust that hugged the air as if a sparkling fog. Support and floor structures dented in vigorous ways more akin to crumpled paper than metal. Bodies were strewn across the floor with their clothing and surroundings splattered in deep reds and pinks.
Some of the blood-and-gut-paste left trails behind bodies along the floor, evidence that under the immense pressure, some of the people still willed themselves to survive, if only for a little longer.
"They're all dead," Merlin whispered. "Dead or dying."
Had it not been for their armor, maybe Merlin and Andra would have been bloody pulps too. Merlin shivered at the thought.
"What do you think happened?" Andra looked to Merlin's helmeted face for an answer.
A small indicator tab slid onto Merlin's heads-up display with an innocent, little measurement. 10.61 G.
Merlin repeated the number, "Ten Gravities."
"We were pummeled with Ten G's of force. For… Three minutes? We should be dead…"
"Our armor protected us," Andra concluded.
Merlin nodded in silence.
While the Spartans collected themselves, they noted quiet tremors echoing beneath their feet. The sirens and speakers had ceased now, probably more broken than off. It was in that brief period that Merlin remembered he was on a mission and he fired off a brief radio burst, hoping his signal would punch through the radio-resistant walls of Test Station Tsiolkovsky.
"One Big Mama, Myself. Confirm."
Quiet static was Merlin's only radio companion then. A quiet he did not welcome.
Everything about this mission went wrong. The continued lack of response from the UNSC Black Caviar made it no better.
"You need to go, Andra," Merlin said, now lifting her up again with some effort. "I'm not getting any messages from or to the Caviar, you're injured – best you get a message out once you're clear of here."
Merlin tapped the emergency launch-release button next to the nearest escape pod causing the hatch to peel back, revealing a cramped, coffin-like interior.
Andra shook her head and shuffled in Merlin's arms as he laid her down in the pod, bridal-style.
"I-I'm still able enough, and what-whatever you got planned next, with all that's happened already, I don't think leaving you alone is the best idea."
"You don't even know what my plan is, to begin with," Merlin softly countered, he had yet to remove his hands from beneath her battered armor.
"But I know you…" Andra continued, gingerly. "You may have been the intelligence-guy back when we were all still together, but none of Boson were pushovers either. If I have no plan, you probably have little more than that, Merlin! Whatever you're planning, it's better I keep—augh!"
Merlin's arms wrapped protectively around Andra's abdomen as she keeled over again in pain, ceasing her train of thought. Her rapid-fire words had done her in.
Pushing her gently and fully into the pod's interior, Merlin retreated a step from his best friend. "You're really not in any condition to help Andra, whether your suit has you doped up on meds now or not. We came to secure that information. Let me check the Innies, it will only take a few minutes. Get out of here, tell the Caviar what happened, I'll be out shortly."
"That's what the AI was for, dumb-dumbass…" Andra retorted between painful coughs.
"Nothing like human intelligence," Merlin replied, glancing to the strewn out expanse of dead and dying scientists.
Andra didn't say anything, wrapping herself into a protective ball. Her helmet directed away from Merlin, silent.
The male Spartan stood aloof, struggling to formulate a response to placate and reassure his friend.
The half-baked thought never left his lips, however, when another tremor rumbled beneath his feet. Merlin glanced toward the trashed space station CIC and watched as powdered glass and metal shrapnel floated off the floor before returning to the ground. The phenomenon came in waves, washing over the debris and the Spartans repeatedly.
Each distortion of gravity came like a gut-punch, forcing Merlin an inch back with every surge. Andra tightened in on herself, squirming as purred whimpers echoed off her lips. Merlin growled in agitation but found no respite as each wave came with a rise in severity.
Merlin switched off his standalone mode and fired off a network handshake request with Andra's own cybernetic implant. Her response was instantaneous, opening up her mind to him.
The neural connection sputtered with jarring excitement as Merlin's agitation collided with rolling tides from Andra's growing panic. Caught off guard at first, he trod water in her fear. He fired off the most assuring sensation he could muster in the time split; Andra responded by rolling over in his direction within the escape pod interior.
Resolve flared from her end of the connection, a silent thought. Go. Do what you need to.
"You need to go now," Merlin vocalized, pausing for a breath. He attempted to say more but slammed into the facility wall instead.
"Merlin!" Andra shouted in alarm, reaching out in desperation but retracted as the waves reached previous intensities, forcing the two Spartans to double over once more.
The distorted floor ruptured, split by a giant metallic-looking protrusion that rose from the asteroid depths below. The distortions emanating from the object, levitating debris in patterned melodic ways.
"Go! Now Andra! Go!" Merlin yelled to her as his vision began to blur again.
Panic snaked up both ends of the neural network but Andra got the message, finally prioritizing her safety and the mission. She crash-laid back into the pod and with an interior button press, the hatch sealed her in.
Merlin watched from his seated position as her pod gave off a pop-hiss start then rocketed out of its harness, out to dark space beyond.
She was going…gone. Merlin felt, grasped at the last strands of the shared neural net until Andra disappeared beyond reach. What took a second felt like a century and then she wasn't there anymore.
He was alone now.
"Merlin. Stand up. You need to."
The whisper came back with a pinch of urgency. If Merlin didn't know better, the voice almost sounded panicked too.
"Yeah, I figured that…" Merlin chuckled darkly to the voice. Even though he agreed with it, and in a joking manner, he didn't budge. He couldn't will himself through the pain.
When he did nothing, the voice eventually retreated into silence. The pain was just too raw; he dedicated too much to Andra's escape, he needed another rest.
Somehow, between the distortion waves, he found the inner calm to catch his breath in shallow groupings. It was like treading water.
Like when Andra taught him to swim early into Spartan training, one of those rare moments where she actually exhibited skills above the low standards expected by the drill instructors. Oh, how she proved them all wrong, blossoming into her best, only a couple years later.
The memory of Andra shouting encouraging words to Merlin as he panicked between gulps of water warmed his heart. There he found his drive to fight once again.
He rose, once more onto shaking legs and for once, his swimmy vision retreated to a satisfactory level. He could see, hear. He could fight. Maybe it was his resolve, or maybe, more likely, the waves were retreating in intensity again.
"That's it. You can do it. Rise."
Merlin's eyes focused in on the distortions' origin point, the protruding metallic structure from before. Once past the blurriness and the burning in his eyes, he jumped back, startled.
He wasn't standing atop stable ground anymore. The space station was in tatters, pieces. Metal sheets and reinforcement columns floated sporadically through gravity eddies and invisible currents around him. Beyond cracks in the destroyed station walls, he could even see the darkness of open space.
The protrusion was a much more complete, kilometer-tall object now. A samurai-like helm stared down at Merlin with wide fluorescent-blue eyes and glowing bits. Jagged, sword-like teeth bared at him within a predatory, alien grin. Its body was made of metal, maybe. The strange material glinted and fizzled as if not entirely complete. It appeared as if the surface particles were moving rapidly at the microscope level.
Very few things made Merlin freeze in fear. Mostly because he was inexperienced, but this? This was something entirely different.
Alien. Beastly. Monstrous. A true-to-life leviathan. Merlin was facing down a true cosmic horror. He didn't tinkle himself but he wished he did for the sake of distraction.
He froze stiff as those unflinching eyes bored down upon him, unblinking and dead.
The former floor had transformed into a cliff's edge, leaving Merlin without many maneuvering options. Tsiolkovsky's artificial gravity generators had given up some time ago, according to the free-floating blood in Merlin's veins. The only thing keeping him upright now was his resolve, turned to panic, and his magnetic boots.
The stare down didn't last much longer though. Smaller metallic creatures, vaguely resembling four-legged ants but the size of wolves crawled into view between the giant machine's skeletal plates towards Merlin.
An osmosis collision of oxygenated and vacuum environments robbed Merlin of his natural hearing but he watched the giant metalloid ants snap their heads back and about, flaring their pseudo-jaws and heads as if sniffing the air. When they tilted their heads up and vibrated their beak-like mouths, he imagined them expressing unearthly, mechanical screeches.
While he didn't recognize the giant starship-sized horror, he recognized its affiliation. The resemblance was uncanny under further consideration, but the appearance of Promethean Crawlers was a deciding hint. Forerunner, the machine was Forerunner.
His first proper introduction to the Forerunners, up close. Of course, they had to destroy the place – that seemed to be a running theme with their technology.
"You guys really trashed this place, my mission…" Merlin grumbled at them, of course, they couldn't hear him, much less understand him.
He bared his teeth at the ancient machines, feeling a sense of uncertainty ebbing in his bones, beyond the existential pain brought on by the gravity waves. From the few data drops delivered to Ferret Team Boson over the last year, all Promethean war machines were to be engaged on sight and were susceptible to concentrated gunfire.
He yanked the scavenged MA5C rifle off his back and slapped it into his other hand, leveling it in the general direction of the Crawlers. Quickly shifting between the hosts of potential targets, he wavered putting his finger on the trigger and engaging.
The giant machine and Crawlers weren't outright attacking him. The distortion waves were still waxing and waning and that might play havoc on his combat performance. Alternatively, his weapon might fail him. There were many variables at play here.
Ultimately, Merlin's decision fell to outside forces. The Crawlers kneeled and sprung from their crawling patterns on the giant Forerunner machine and onto the debris field floating about. They continued to patrol and scout out their surroundings as their design mandated supposedly, however, two jumped right at Merlin and caution disappeared with them.
His finger yanked down on the trigger and Merlin let loose the fresh magazine of thirty-caliber bullets. The gun kicked in his arms but he barely felt it as orange sparks danced across the closest Crawler's lunging form.
Holes, glowing with orange light, rippled into giant cracks on its body before it finally gave in and the machine exploded into particles and twisted metal. The Crawler's body slowed as its inertia did and it eventually zoomed off to join the rotating currents of space station debris.
Half his magazine spent, Merlin let go of the MA5C's trigger and ducked as the second Crawler zoomed over his head and planted itself against the wall to his back.
"Shit," Merlin cursed and rolled to the side. He locked in on the second Crawler and wasted the rest of his magazine into it. It crumpled under the onslaught and joined its fallen brother in the maelstrom.
Taking two more steps back, Merlin clambered over Andra's spent escape pod launcher and moved to the next one along the wall. Leaning atop the tube, he twirled the MA5C while pushing down on the magazine release. The spent container zipped out of the rifle's magazine well and joined the space station debris, taken by the gravity currents.
Merlin slapped a new magazine in and smacked the charging handle as more Crawlers zeroed in on his position and began to stalk toward him through the swirling debris field. If Merlin hadn't been a threat to them before, he was definitely one now.
The Spartan continued to engage them with sporadic gunfire while slapping the wall behind him, blindly searching for the pod door release. He refused to die like this, biting off more than he could chew. He owed himself that; he owed Andra that.
Crawlers splashed into orange bursts of light, crumbling under Merlin's continuous gunfire but instead of targeting him with their own mouth-held weapons or even jumping him, they corrected course and landed meters from his position, once more among unstable columns of debris.
Merlin's rifle ceased firing again, once again spent. He quickly reloaded but stopped engaging, realizing the Crawlers weren't looking to him anymore. They were actually trotting and jumping away, finding more interest in something else. In a second split, he was already an afterthought.
His eyes trailed after the Crawlers, following their united paths and gazes to a distant blurry object hiding among the debris field. It was unlike the metallic blacks and whites that dominated the rest of his surroundings; instead, it was a rust-like brown. Very different from the other Wealthian architecture around him.
And then it flared harshly, as blinding as a nuclear flash, actually blinding Merlin even as he threw up a hand and his helmet polarized fully to withstand the light.
For a very real second, Merlin thought it was a nuclear weapon. This was going to be his grave after all. On the other hand, a second passed and he wasn't radioactive toast. There was a lot of light, an apparent radiation spike, and he didn't go splat against a wall or anything. His boots remained locked to the floor.
Instead, the gravity distortions suddenly ceased with a very audible pop. Merlin still couldn't see, or rather, his entire vision was dark. He wasn't blind. His armor was functioning and his visor was only partially polarized.
Merlin willed an environmental scanner sheet to pop up on his heads-up display. His eyes skimmed the digital page looking for anything particular but found nothing. Then he did, his eyes freezing on a certain radiation reading.
Another pop. Another flash. Merlin shielded his eyes again to no success, but this time he felt an extreme sucking sensation and his vision filled with an intense onslaught of colorful light.
Natural gravity took hold again, spinning around him. Merlin kept his eyes shut but recognized the dominating color just outside of his eyelids as blue. A deep, sky blue.
A low whistling roared in his ears as gusts whipped around his combat armor. He felt himself falling but didn't dare look. Blue still dominated the seeping light show outside.
Merlin hit something hard. His dulled aches returned, flaring in agitation before dulling again into a deep, sluggish soup. Everything faded into black, and remained like that, for a long while.
. . .
Merlin's dreams echoed with the cacophony of gunfire and battle.
Andra was kneeling behind him, her M395 DMR pounding away bullet after bullet, while he held up a curved Forerunner-style shield constructed from blue-colored hard light, protecting them both.
"Another frag," Andra yelled-groaned as a small pineapple-style M9 grenade flew out from behind a toppled server box.
Two bullets zipped at the explosive, one missing, the other finding its target. The grenade popped into a burst of smoke and light but little else as the bullet smashed the casing before the chemical fuse could detonate.
Merlin expected another burst of hostile gunfire from the Wealthian unit hunkered down before them. He didn't expect the second grenade.
"Grenade!" Andra shouted in alarm before she started jittering about; kicking her legs to press herself further into the cubical for cover. The disjointed, amateurish behavior caught Merlin off guard and he looked back to his teammate out of concern.
The little orb rolled between Merlin's legs and past his shield, collecting itself between the kneeling Merlin and sitting Andra.
"Oh shit!" Merlin panicked. He bailed forward as his hard light shield collapsed into nothing. Caught in a frenzy, his brain could do nothing but yell at him about how screwed he was.
Andra in her own confounded fit lunged forward. Landing right on the grenade, she pressed her stomach and arms around it to form a rudimentary container.
The grenade exploded with a nasty crackle like fireworks, causing a ringing to erupt in Merlin's ears. He couldn't hear but he saw it all, looking back. The smoke, the little bits of zipping shrapnel, Andra's energy shields collapsing in a sparkling-golden display.
A heart-wrenching, primal scream of pain escaped her lips as little holes and cuts formed in her suit's soft sections. Pellets popped beneath her skin, leaving deep gashes through tissue and muscle. Her armor stopped the pressure wave but couldn't protect her from the shaped steel.
All Merlin could do was rise on his knees from the ground, refocus his hard light shield while gunfire erupted before him again. He blocked the bullets but looked back to his fallen friend, attempting to scream her name. Nothing came out.
Her gasping screams just continued, on and on it went until it sounded the same as white noise. Merlin could do nothing but watch, frozen, as she shuddered in pain, just out of reach.
He couldn't protect her. She just withered there, stuck and alone. She shouldered it all alone, her pain, and his pain.
He failed her.
That whisper was back.
What? What did it want?
"Uh…uh…Ugh! What-what is it?" Merlin sluggishly woke with a start, feeling his arms push through the thick space around him. It felt resistant, like a deep soup.
He startled himself half to death when a light-orange-and-green tropical fish zipped by his helmet visor and into the deep blue yonder beyond.
Deep blue yonder. Bubbles of gas rose from his slow, imprecise movements towards an endless lighter-blue film above. A sparkling circle danced above the waves, beyond them.
Merlin was beneath an ocean.
"We need to move now, Spartan!"
That urgent whisper again. What was that? The AI?
Merlin looked around him for the source of the voice but he didn't get far.
"Forget about that right now. You need to go a hundred and thirty-two meters to your right, right now! We've got a pair of water bogeys inbound."
Merlin went silent, doing so. Drawn out clicks, zaps, and zips. Complex noise patterns.
"Yeah, what about it?"
"What do you think? It's Morse code!"
He listened a little closer and noted the drawn-out noises included rapid short notes as well. They sounded intentional, detailed. Short and long to designate certain letters and numbers. Morse code. He wasn't exactly sure what the 'bogeys' were saying but it was enough to get his ass moving.
Merlin sprinted, or whatever sprinting entailed, three stories beneath the ocean's surface moving at a snail's pace in a half-ton suit of titanium.
It took a long time, pushing through the thick blue shifting into a cool brown. He climbed over metal debris, rocks, and coral. He passed through undersea sand dunes and clouds of disturbed dust. He clambered up a sheer cliff face.
He marched over sandbars and through thigh-deep water and sticky submarine sands that dragged his armored boots.
Frantic, confused, and tired. Merlin limped toward a beach guarded by a thick line of pointy trees. If not in his delirious state, he might have claimed it a tropical paradise; whether true or not was another matter. His vision was swimming again; he could feel the burning weakness in his muscles, in his bones. He focused in on reaching the white-sanded beach.
Step by step. He collapsed finally, one metal boot punched into wet sand and another just barely underwater, submerged and surrounded by awash seashells.
He slipped, collapsed onto his side, quivering and breathing heavily. Just breathing, he focused then on that.
The gentle, feminine whisper returned once more. "Shh, Merlin. You're all right now; you're safe. I'll keep watch. Sleep. Shh."
Andra almost died of fright upon wandering by Frendsen’s officer suite two days after her debriefing regarding Operation: RUNIT DOME.
She respected her superior officer but her knowledge of him extended little due to their infantile working relationship. He seemed professional but weird, with his fascination for paper documents and college professor antics, not that Andra knew anything about professors.
His visitation rules were strange too; knock before entering and always request meetings in advance. However, he did request her presence two hours ago, so when she heard glass shatter from his ajar door, she tossed formality to the wind and barged in.
She felt like a fool upon crashing an officers’ meeting between Frendsen and his guests, Captain Thomas Lasky, and Lieutenant Commander Vilda Stenbeck.
Frendsen rose from his desk so fast, his chair screeched along the plastic floor and he appeared to pop up like a sentient turnip. “Andra?”
Her face turned pale, realizing she just made a nasty mistake. She glanced between the three officers, all far and above her reproach. Captain Lasky eyes drifted between the young Spartan and the shattered glass of alcohol on the floor, once in hand. Stenbeck was leaning forward, towards the Captain as if emphasizing a point but straightened at the sight of Andra dressed in civilian attire.
Everyone was quiet, everyone was staring.
“Uh, apologizes for the intrusion. Sirs. Ma’am. I’ll take my leave and come back when my commander isn’t busy.” Andra rattled off a rushed apology to the high-ranking military personnel, spun on her heel and made for the door.
“Wait-wait-wait,” Stenbeck called and Andra obeyed, pausing with a shoulder glance. “Stay, it’s not an issue.”
“Stenbeck, this is not the time to be discussing those things. Especially in front of personnel without appropriate security clearance, or an open door.” The Captain started, straightening his back.
“To be honest, Captain. Screw security clearance. Screw the chain of command. We’re on the run. Who cares if one Spartan hears about a weapon system that is technically less secret than her own existence?”
Captain Lasky turned to Andra again as she stiffened under his tired, brown-eyed gaze. “I’m sorry to give you a scare Spartan…”
“Spartan-D054.” She supplied.
“Last name, Spartan.” Apparently, Lasky was a people person, not much for the formalities of ONI or secret, augmented child-soldiers. She appreciated that, especially when she wasn’t in uniform.
“Kearsarge,” Andra stated, just a little bit proud of her deceased mother’s maiden name.
“Spartan Kearsarge, you’re dismissed. I’ll have Frendsen call you back in a little bit.”
“Sir,” Andra saluted the Captain and went to do the same to the two Lieutenant Commanders but stopped upon meeting Stenbeck’s blood-freezing glare. The Spartan’s voice retreated into a gurgled silence. Frendsen made no noise, glancing between his Spartan subordinate and the two other officers occupying his quarters.
“Lieutenant Commander…” Lasky’s level tone spiked just a hint, insinuating the fine line the ONI officer walked.
“Sir, you’re the highest-ranked officer on Infinity, the highest-ranking in the task force. Earth has gone dark. We can’t communicate with FLEETCOM, as it stands, our own networks are compromised to Cortana. We need to deploy our INKVs now, while they still haven’t been intercepted by the Created.”
“And what, risk Infinity’s position, or the recovery points we’re establishing on the Frontier for our away teams? I can’t risk it.”
“We have enough launch stations scattered across the Frontier. Sea-launch and installation-based NOVAs. The Prowler Corps is probably already lined up and ready, we can have target solutions in hours!” Stenbeck continued to push the Captain.
“I’m not going to do it. I will not jeopardize Infinity over potentially compromised nukes. That’s my final word on that,” Lasky countered at his subordinate, genuine frustration bubbling beneath the surface. “Consider this meeting over. Muster your team and have them ready for deployment, I don’t want to hear another word of this, Stenbeck. I mean it.”
The Lieutenant Commander’s face was an outright scowl as her eyes squinted into narrow slips at the UNSC Infinity’s steadfast Captain. Her lips oozed with vindication. “Understood. Your orders, Captain. I’ll see myself out.”
Andra pedaled frantically to the side to let the rage-filled naval officer pass unchallenged out of the suite. The officer’s legs shifted robotically, a stiff shuffling of her hips out the room. She didn’t know Stenbeck well, even with RUNIT DOME, but it seemed Frendsen’s warnings about her were right. Best stay clear.
Captain Lasky watched her leave, a narrow-eyed grimace on his face until she disappeared out the door and around the corner all the way until her footsteps no longer echoed. Content, he placed a hand to his forehead and glanced at the two other occupants of Frendsen’s quarters.
“My apologies for that Frendsen, I should have kept a better grip on my glass. Allow me to clean it up.”
“No problem, Captain,” Frendsen said, moving out from behind his cluttered work desk to pull a broom and dustpan from a small side closet. He joined the Captain to kneel by the scattered mess of glass shards on the ground and handed the officer the cleaning items.
“Thank you,” the Captain stated and proceeded to sweep the mess up in a matter of minutes.
The entire time Andra watched them work, wide-eyed. She wasn’t familiar with officer protocol, but she imagined herself at a sort-of zoo, watching these two naval officers hover over a pile of broken glass and the remains of melted ice.
Once assorted, the glass and ice were tossed in the plastic dustbin underneath Frendsen’s desk, the cleaning tools were placed back in the cupboard, and Lasky went for the door.
“Apologies again, Frendsen. Spartan Kearsarge,” The Captain acknowledged, stopping at the doorway. “I’ll see myself out; and one other thing, Frendsen.”
“Yes, Captain?” Frendsen nodded to the superior with his arms clasped comfortably behind him.
“That drink, it's good. Remind me, what was it?”
“Jameson Irish Whiskey. 2529.”
“Four years into the War,” Lasky nodded with a thoughtful frown, considering the age of the golden-brown bottle sitting atop Frendsen’s desk. “I was nineteen then; a lifetime ago.”
He said waved and exited the room, leaving Frendsen alone with Andra.
The Spartan and ONI Lieutenant Commander said nothing in the meantime, listening to the Captain’s footsteps disappear around the corner. Once quiet, Frendsen crossed the room and stopped at the door-side control panel. With a button press, the suite door slid shut, leaving the remaining occupants to their privacy.
Andra said nothing, waiting patiently for her superior’s next words. He slid back behind his desk, pulled his chair close to the table, and settled his dark-skinned hands on the desk in a comfortable grip among a sea of vanilla paper. A small, generous smile graced his jaw while Andra stared back aloofly at the center of the room.
Clearly, he wouldn’t talk first.
“So… What are INKVs?” The female Spartan asked, crossing her arms.
The Lieutenant Commander’s smile tugged a bit south, but he answered anyway. “Humanity’s spear after the Covenant War. Next-generation missiles equipped with Slipspace drives and the biggest bombs ever built. Intended for destroying Covenant worlds if they decided to continue the War.”
Andra’s eyes fluttered at the explanation. Entire planets? She couldn’t fathom that.
“Why didn’t we use them, to begin with? Get our revenge?”
“Because if our species is to have a future, it needs to move forward. Not get bogged down by old grudges. We were the dominant galactic civilization until a few days ago. No point in destroying our defeated enemies.”
“Stenbeck is desperate. No one knows what to do now. We’re just running until we figure something out.”
“Then let’s just nuke the Created. Weaken them.” Andra frowned, seeing the problem and solution promptly.
“And what of the billions of alien and human lives we destroy in the process? It’s not a gamble the Captain wants to take, and neither do I. And you shouldn’t want it either.”
Andra hummed at the explanation but said nothing more on the matter. It seemed even a stringent man like Frendsen could loosen a little when the galaxy was falling apart around him.
“Enough about that now, I called you in here because I have some news.”
Andra’s eyebrows rose, doubt evident. Hard to feel anything worse or better when your best friend was possibly dead, and civilization was on the brink of destruction. “What is it?”
“The prowler Beckett reported back that they recovered Team Xiphos. They’re returning to Infinity as we speak.”
“Josh and Amy are okay?”
“I don’t know; the message was spotty. I know Xiphos though, they’ve been in tough spots before.”
That was good news, or at least, the best news Andra received in more than seventy hours. Her seniors were alive and kicking. Joshua-G024 and Amy-G094 trained Andra and her friends after they graduated from SPARTAN-III Delta Company. As a pair of Gamma Company Headhunters, they were among the deadliest Spartan teams alive. They were likely just fine.
Amy could be aloof and distant but warm outside training. She didn’t show much favoritism, but she treated everyone fairly and worked Boson hard. Andra got along with her.
Joshua, on the other hand, was often cold and distant, but showed Andra special treatment, always showering her with appropriate praise and tutoring her in everything he could. He was the older brother she never had.
More so when he busted Merlin’s ribs last year; Andra still winced at that thought. Her fingers pinched her shirt fabric while thinking about Merlin and Joshua in the same thought. The two didn’t get along but they did have something in common that they cherished: Andra. The two saw something when others passed her over as insignificant. They believed in her and she loved them both for it, and more.
Frendsen continued to watch over his subordinate as a million emotions and thoughts flashed through her eyes. Droplets glistened at the edges, as hope and a rare smile overwhelmed the young girl. “Thank you for informing me, sir.”
“No problem, Spartan. That said, they won’t be back until three or four hundred hours. That’s more than six hours away, think you can handle the wait?”
“Well, there’s only so much you can do aboard Infinity dressed as a civilian.”
Frendsen tilted his head at the statement. “What have you been up to?”
“Making my bed. Arguing with Roland. PT-ing on my own around the ship. Drawing. Sleeping,” Andra counted off with extended fingers. “Five items I guess.”
Frendsen nodded quietly in thought and looked to his table of controlled chaos. His eyes held there for an uncounted number of seconds. Andra curiously watched him while timidly tugging at her tee shirt’s hemline.
“Do you have something to do between now and then?” Frendsen asked, looking back at the Spartan.
“I could head back to my quarters and change into coveralls and see if Commander Palmer has any open slots for War Games. Or maybe just go catch some shuteye, whatever I can get anyway…”
“No idea. Sleep hasn’t come easy, the last two days.”
“I understand,” Frendsen glanced back to his desk, “you can also loiter here if you like. I have a Sci Deck datapad you can borrow.”
“Egg-board.” Andra’s eyebrows knitted together but a half-smirk twitched on her lips.
“Egg-board?” Frendsen repeated with a questioning eyebrow.
“Palmer calls them that. Eggheads, scientists. Egg-boards, datapads.”
“I didn’t need to know that,” Frendsen said, shifting two desk piles aside to unearth a dusty computer tablet.
“Okay,” Andra replied smartly, wiping the tugging smile from her lips. Her eyes trailed Frendsen as he swiped at the device screen, sending tiny particles freckling through the stale starship air.
“Here,” Frendsen passed the datapad to Andra before sitting down behind his desk and scooting in. “I got several more intel packages to go through, so try to keep disturbances to a minimum. You can take the couch there.”
Andra took the officer’s offer and moved to a plain-style synthetic leather couch in the corner, double-tapping the screen to power it up.
“What you going to do?” Frendsen asked without looking up from his paperwork while the Spartan girl skimmed through system programs.
“Watch Odd One Out,” Andra stated without pause.
“That WayPoint children’s show?” Frendsen asked in disbelief.
Andra expected that reaction; it was hard to imagine a Spartan enjoying a children’s show. But she was a child, technically. If there was anything important that her previous commander taught Andra, it was to hold dear to her childhood. And even as a Spartan, that was what she did.
“I like Spartan-1337, he’s funny.” She added without looking up.
Frendsen glanced up at Andra for a few seconds before disappearing again into his paperwork. She allowed herself a small smile, claiming a tiny personal victory over the often-aloof commanding officer.
The room’s only noise came from Frendsen’s jumbled desk, a smattering of stapler clicks, paper shuffling, and the occasional pencil scratch. Andra didn’t make any noise herself, curled up stealthily on the sofa. She eased herself into the antics of a cartoon Spartan on her clasped datapad while noises of battle and poor jokes rattled off in her head via neural implant.
A warm fuzzy feeling heaved in her chest with silent laughter, but it did not reach her face. It was a good moment, but one that could be better. If only Merlin were here, sharing this moment of animated reruns with her. Tri-O was his show too.
. . .
Andra leaned into her right hip, relaxing her impatient nerves after standing sharp for over thirty minutes. Her eyes lazily traced the rigid bumps and fixtures that populated the far-off ceiling of Hangar Seventeen.
Frendsen stood calmly next to her, occasionally checking for emails on the same datapad Andra used earlier to watch anime Spartans. On the hangar’s other end, a mismatching fireteam of five SPARTAN-IVs maintained security under the watchful eye of a helmetless Commander Sarah Palmer.
In another time, Captain Lasky might have joined the welcoming party to meet their guests, however, security circumstances and pressing command duties seemed to regulate the usually personable Captain to the bridge and personal quarters. At least that was what Fireteam Kodiak and Palmer had been yapping about five minutes ago.
Now they waited, settling in a loose gathering by some storage crates. Andra examined their armor sets with a passing interest, quizzing herself on the different panels and plates bolted onto their tech-suit frames. Between the lack of consistency and subtle differences in their colorations, it reminded Andra a little of her own unit’s preferences.
Due to the continued military-industrial complex after the Covenant War and the relaxed regulations of the Spartan Branch, Andra occasionally witnessed the bemusing phenomenon of a SPARTAN-IV in hot pink armor. Sometimes it was the aftermath of a devilish prank, and other times, it was completely intentional.
Gratefully, nobody dressed as such this morning. Commander Palmer’s angry fits were noteworthy.
Andra’s own armor never reached such outlandish feats. Instead, hers was a dirty, mundane mix of white and black splotches with acquiesced gear from the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers that she made sure never to parade around in. It wasn’t worth drawing the attention of any book-throwing superior officer with an eye for sharp uniforms.
“Andra, Xiphos is back.” Frendsen softly announced, looking up from his clutched datapad.
She gave her superior a nod and examined the black void dotted with distant stars before her. Guarded by a vibrant energy shield, the edges of her vision were tinted blue from electrified particles. Andra scanned the vacuum looking for a warping blur of starlight as a darkish, semi-transparent balloon passing by them.
From the one or two times she visited aboard Team Xiphos’s personal prowler, the Private Property, Andra developed a familiarity for the stealth trick. She wondered where it was now; probably lost like so many other ships to Created incursions across human space days after Cortana announced her imperialist annexation of the galaxy.
She blinked for a moment, holding back a wetting, early tear for Merlin and for the bands of refugees forming temporary settlements in the hangars and halls of the Infinity. In the corner of her squinting left eye, she caught the tell-tale sign of the Beckett arriving.
“I see them,” Andra said, a little louder than Frendsen’s previous statement, drawing the attention of the other Spartans.
“Now…?” One of the Kodiak members called from their makeshift seat only to stand alertly when the space at the edge of Hangar Seventeen flickered like refractions off pool water that peeled back into a hexagonal weave revealing a jet-black, titanium hull of the most alien-looking specimen among human warships, a Sahara-class prowler. The UNSC Beckett.
The hangar intercom thundered to life as Roland announced the ship’s presence, “Captain Lasky, the captain of Beckett requests permission to offload their wounded and restock on supplies.”
“Granted, Roland. Palmer, please see to their needs, anything they need for continued long-term operations.” Lasky responded while passing jurisdiction of the prowler to the Spartan commander.
“Will do, Captain,” Palmer called back as the jet-black ship drew closer, slipping past the great blue field holding back the empty vacuum of space. Upon passing the shield, the low hum of the prowler’s maneuvering thrusters rumbled through the air.
Titanium hangar floor met titanium ship body with a screech and click, subtle docking links locking into place. The anterior door located at the Beckett’s bow hissed, sliding down to reveal a ramp and a team of Navy corpsmen and ONI Security contractors waiting in the airlock. The security troopers stepped aside briskly allowing the corpsmen to plow down the ramp in a frantic throng, dragging a large cryogenic storage device on a gurney into the hangar space; the kind of storage unit intended for severely injured individuals.
“Oh shit,” Andra mouthed off, chilling fear curling around her heart, “Who’s that? Are they okay?”
“Spartan-G094. We need to get her to an intensive care unit immediately, she’s barely stabilized on ice.” A corpsman called as Andra and Frendsen approached the freezing casket.
Commander Palmer acted quickly, gesturing to Fireteam Kodiak. “Kodiak, two keep guard. Two come with me to the Beckett. One goes with Lieutenant Commander Frendsen and prep the operating table for G094.”
“Ma’am,” The members of Kodiak briskly said in varied unison and moved to their respective order stations. One of Kodiak joined Andra and Frendsen at the medical pod’s side along with the medical team, pushing their reinforced gurney along towards the loading elevator at the hangar’s rear.
And for Andra, she shoved passed the corpsmen and stopped the cart in its tracks. She stared wildly into the frosty, curved window separating her from the occupant within. She recognized the bludgeoned and dented armor below. Steel-colored plates patterned over a scarred-up Spartan tech suit. Dulled white polygons marked with clotting purple alien and red human blood. A cracked PATHFINDER helmet with a heavily scratched yellowish visor.
This was Amy-G094, bloody and beaten inches from death. Was that even possible?
Andra planted her hands against the cold glass, pressing into it to feel the cold bite against them, a reminder of this bleak reality. She curled her fingers into fists and glared menacingly at the nearest corpsman.
“Josh! Where’s Josh?” She demanded, reaching out and gripping the man by shoulders, lifting him into the air and atop the casket.
“Petty Officer!” Frendsen shouted behind Andra but she didn’t listen, she wanted to know. Right. Now.
“We-we don’t know! He wasn’t aboard the escape pod where we found G094. We checked the area around their transponder and found nothing!”
“You left him for dead!” She growled viciously at the shivering corpsman; in any other scenario, it might have been funny, a teenage girl making a medic piss his pants.
“We were out there for two days! Any longer and we risked pirates or Created zeroing in on us!”
“Ugh,” Andra grunted at his insufficient response, lightly tossing the man into the medical casket before letting him go.
The escorting Kodiak member seized Andra’s shoulder, yanking her back a step while pressing down with an armored gauntlet. “Spartan, stand down.”
Frendsen took that moment to yell at his subordinate. “Andra, you’re out of order! Stand down!”
Andra eyed the SPARTAN-IV with the greatest volume of malice she could muster. She reached deep, drawing from the fears of Merlin’s demises, the rage of missing Joshua, the shock of Amy’s injuries, her trained distaste for SPARTAN-IVs as fake Spartans.
Her nose wrinkled up at the seven-foot-supersoldier and violently yanked her shoulder from his tight grasp. It stung, probably left a bruise, but it felt good. Fuck this. Screw all these people and the whole universe for taking those she loved away from her.
Andra backpedaled, slipped around Frendsen who sidestepped out of her warpath. She sprinted towards the cargo elevator and didn’t look back at the gathering of UNSC personnel. She didn’t dare let them hear the violent heaves giving way to the stream of tears rolling down her cheeks.
She barely heard Frendsen yelling up a storm behind her, “Spartan-D054, get back here!”
. . .
Andra waited until her wardroom’s sliding door clicked shut to unfurl her coiled rage. Hot tears rained down her cheeks as she gritted her teeth together and clutched her hoodie and hair against her temples.
Hot air hissed from the back of her throat against her locked jaws, pressuring against the walls until she let the painful roar leave her lips with a gasp. “Ah-uhh!”
She sputtered, coughing as loose saliva slipped into her airway. Settling down in momentary silence, Andra caught her breath but a fire still raged beneath her skin.
A casual glance to the side led her to cross the room from the doorway to the hanger rack at her bedside. A cruel grimace marked up Andra’s face as she approached the few assorted clothing items waiting at attention: her depowered Spartan tech suit and coveralls, a dusty naval parade uniform she hadn’t touched in a year, three sets of civilian clothes from her old studio apartment in New Phoenix, and her used hospital gown from the operating room.
She ripped the hospital gown from its coat hanger, creating a clacking of metal hangar against its metal hanging bar. She hooked the fabric between her two hands and examined it disinterestedly, noting the loose ribbons of cotton and bioplastics hanging around its newly destroyed collar.
Andra grabbed the two shoulder points in the gown and pulled in opposite directions. A thud-popping noise rippled as sown thread weaves frayed apart in her pale-white grips. The hospital gown came apart neatly, like torn tissue paper, leaving two bundled messes hanging from her hands.
She huffed to herself, tossing the two bundles to Merlin’s unoccupied bunk and didn’t dare look back at the destruction she left. She glared back at the hanger rack for the next thing to shred apart. Her hand sailed up and latched onto the dusty-looking, white Navy parade uniform.
She was certain she was going to rip it; so certain she could imagine the seams getting cut between her fingers and her throwing the few ribbons and service medals from the fabric so hard they embedded in the wall behind her.
Andra let go of the uniform, her hand falling lamely to her side. No, she wouldn’t go that far. She didn’t need that incident on her already spotty record, and explaining why she destroyed her uniform to Frendsen wouldn’t be enjoyable.
She twisted around to face her well-made bed, fresh from yesterday’ s scrutinous morning ritual as she had done so for the last week. During the pseudo-nights, she’d decimate the covers to get a good night’s sleep but during the pseudo-day snoozes, she’d curl up on Merlin’s bunk to avoid destroying her meticulous work.
She began her early morning routine three hours early, raging at her bed in a grand adventure of reconstituting her well-made hospital corners and perfectly formed sheets.
She layered the sheets on top of one another, formed her corner triangles, secured the loose fabric, and fluffed her pillow into a decent rectangle. And it looked all wrong, as usual.
“Before you consider tearing up your bed again, maybe you’d consider discussing what’s eating at you Spartan?”
“Roland, get out!” Andra yelled without glancing up from the developing bedding disaster.
The golden Smart AI’s human-sized avatar flickered into existence just over the Spartan’s shoulder. He took a few steps from his projector origin point into the room, stopping to stand in Andra’s peripheral.
“Hey,” Roland softly prodded, accepting none of the girl’s hostility. “I’ve come by every morning since you got discharged. I’ve given you space but I’ve also kept my eye out for yah, and right now, it's looking like you need someone to talk to.”
Letting go over her bedsheets, Andra sighed in half-hearted defeat and eyed the hologram with red-stained eyes and puffy cheeks. “What do you want Roland? Can’t you see I want to be left alone.”
“I think you need someone to talk to right now, and you’ve managed to piss off everyone that I can immediately identify that might give you a shoulder to weep on, so, I’m all you’ve got.”
“Yeah, Frendsen can be upset if he wants to. I don’t give a fat shit.”
“You manhandled a medic; I think his anger is at least justified.”
“They left Joshua out there to die. He’s dead because of them!”
“They tried their best,” Roland corrected in a slow tone, careful not to set the Spartan girl off. “The Created is hunting all of us now, we can’t risk losing an entire prowler for one missing corpse. I’m really sorry for your loss, I can tell you cared deeply for him.”
“You said corpse,” Andra’s eyes narrowed. “What are you trying to say? That he was long dead before they got there?”
The Smart AI sighed, bringing a transparent hand to his eyes. “Yes, I’m saying Spartan-G024 died four days before the Beckett recovered Spartan-G094.”
“How do you know this?” Andra demanded, standing up to her full height, towering just a couple inches over the golden hologram. Roland didn’t budge from his spot.
“G094’s suit recorder confirmed Spartan-G024 died of brain hypoxia following a breach in his vacuum suit. I’m really sorry Spartan, he was long dead before the recovery team could reach him.”
Andra was quiet for a long time, staring down at the floor, processing this load of heavy-hitting information. She wrongly blamed the medical personnel and the crew of the UNSC Beckett for failing to save Joshua, Andra could accept that error but she was still burning on an emotional high. Tears were still dripping over her wardroom’s matted floor.
“I’m sorry, alright? I’m deal-dealing with a lot of crap right now. All my friends are missing or out of reach. My parents are dead. I lost Merlin. I lost Joshua. Amy’s in a coma. The universe is taking everyone and everything I’ve ever cared about from me, one by one! Everything I’ve been fighting for; its all gone.”
Roland watched Andra mumble through her demons, nodding slowly in understanding. There wasn’t anything he could say that would make the situation better and he wasn’t corporeal, he didn’t have a physical body to wrap this emotionally decimated child in a hug. All he could give her was his presence and a figurative ear to listen.
“Roland,” Andra sniffled after a while of silent tears, “where are they keeping Amy’s armor?”
“You’re talking about the helmet footage?”
Andra nodded without looking up at the Smart AI’s projection.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea Spartan. I’ve reviewed the footage… I would advise against looking at it right now.”
“For once Roland, just fucking tell me. I don’t want to hear you talk about rules. Just tell me.”
“I can have a recorder copy delivered here if you like,” Roland offered but Andra cut him off.
“No! Her armor, I want to see it! None of this protective bullshit, I’m a Spartan. I’ve faced Death before, I can handle myself. Just tell me where I can find the damn recorder,” she paused, glaring confidently behind tearful pupils into the golden projection’s concerned, wide fake-eyes. “Please Roland.”
Andra’s distant, dreamful voice echoed across the fuzzy darkness, tugging lightly at her slumbering friend’s conscience. It was warm and quiet. He shivered and squinted his barely aware eyelids, refusing the call.
He felt warm here. “Just a little longer,” he mumbled.
“Merlin, you need to wake up.”
He grumbled, attempting to turn over in bed away from his friend’s voice but an invisible weight held him down, immobilizing him in place. Like a heavy suit of armor.
“Merlin. Wake. Up.”
His eyelids fluttered open, blinking away at the soft golden light passing through his helmet visor as the cold, abrupt urgency of Andra’s voice shook him awake. He let himself go again; Andra was going to berate him. Frendsen too, if he was present.
“I’m up, I’m up.” He called in defeat, tilting his head forward at the neck only to find an impractical resistance.
Some semblance of reality kicked in. He was in Spartan armor; the suit wasn’t responding to his bodily commands. Odd, and very bad news. He scanned his enclosed helmet periphery, taking stock of the wiring and electronic components keeping his visual acuity and armor functioning at a reasonable threshold.
The circuitry and internals seemed intact, at least to his limited observation. An examination of the visor twisted Merlin’s curious gapped lips into a grimace at the cusp of uttering a violent curse.
Water droplets dripped down the visor surface. Amongst dry patches, evaporated water left splotched salt deposits. Some scarring from contacting coarse surfaces appeared to have left blurry scuff marks and the beginning of fractures across the resilient screen.
His visor had seen better days, and that was an understatement. Merlin summoned his heads-up display and smiled wistfully when familiar blue icons flared to life before his eyes. At least his user interface still functioned. A diagnostic check assured he still retained a good suit seal; another temporary relief.
“Forget your armor for a minute, look at the sea!” A waypoint winked to life beyond Merlin’s current gaze, stealing his attention before abstract questions could leave his lips.
He craned his neck, lifting the combined weight of the Heavens and Atlas upon his jugular. Merlin blinked through the strain, refusing to acknowledge his exhausted mind and body for just a moment more. He fought with all his might for a view beyond the bright blue sky and puffy white clouds taunting him overhead.
He grunted, finally catching sight of a rising sun on the horizon and the eclipsing silhouette of something massive bloating it out. Merlin blinked, stunned at what his eyes were trying to process.
The familiar, gigantic Forerunner machine protruded from the open sea as agitated white water nipped at its metallic ribs, rising from submerged depths. Light refracted between the floating chunks of alien metal painting a giant space owl’s skeleton against the glaring horizon as typical fluorescent blue lights flickered across its form, powering back up.
Whatever had happened when Merlin hit the water, the machine had gone under too.
“What is that thing?” Merlin asked, his eyes glued to the kilometer-tall alien machine.
“Well, its Forerunner… Hmm, it's talking…confused?” Andra mumbled an incoherent reply.
“Andra?” Something felt distinctly off about this situation and this conversation.
Andra’s voice paused for a full second, considering Merlin’s million-thoughts-in-a-single-word-dilemma.
“I’m not Andra,” she, the voice, responded. Merlin noted something odd in the tone. Besides that, it sounded uncannily like his teammate. The voice sounded high pitched, shaky, but firm. It could have corresponded to a dozen different emotions but the way it seemed; the voice sounded uncertain about something and in a very-unlike-Andra-way.
He didn’t get a chance to request clarification, the giant Forerunner machine cleared the blue waters and rose into the open air. The air vibrated hazardously around Merlin, even though his armor, something about the pressures and pinpricks on and below his tech suit felt off.
There was a current in the air, like crawling humidity before a rainstorm, but it touched Merlin’s sealed body too. The sensation came with a quiet rumbling but nothing like the suffocating energy on the space station from before. He winced involuntarily at that fresh, incoherent memory.
The sky gleamed and sparkled around the giant machine, sunlight refracting through long cast shadows and levitating water particles. Merlin squinted into the giant machine’s shadow, searching for its familiar, toothy grin but quickly realized the wings were fading in and out of the silhouette’s form; it was turning about. The face was already directed elsewhere.
Completing its rotation, the machine froze, hovering motionless in place. Merlin watched on in silence, unable to break away from the spectacle that managed to steal his breath and his understanding.
The machine’s body abruptly flashed a bright cyan color, glaring like a second sun within a sun, followed by a shockwave, milliseconds after. Merlin braced instinctually, ready for the wave of disturbed particles to wash over him like on the Wealthian space station.
It punched him in the gut immediately, forcing one of his supporting arms to buckle. However, his suit wasn’t obeying his motions anymore, his arm twitched free from the sandy ground, causing him to topple back. Compensating with the other arm, Merlin blinked and caught himself in an awkward pin.
He stared on, watching the Forerunner machine sail higher into the sky, letting off a droning-like screech before adding lateral movement to its ascent and transitioned towards the deep blue far above.
Going, going, until it was a smudgy gray spec in the distance. It continued to zoom upwards and toward the horizon before finally disappearing into the harsh sun rays. Going, gone.
“Where’s it headed?” Merlin asked, finding his words again.
Merlin continued to strain his eyes against the harsh light, looking for where the Forerunner ship disappeared off to but found nothing. Only the occasional treetop and flocks of migrating, screeching seagulls.
The female voice that claimed she wasn’t Andra spoke up again, “Wait. Wait! Energy spike!”
Merlin glanced widely up at the sky, looking for whatever it was that the voice was detecting. Nothing.
The horizon flashed a brilliant cyan color, getting bigger and wider as it raced towards Merlin and the beach. A giant wave of light? It zipped into and passed him all in a second’s span.
A dull beeping erupted in the background. Merlin’s shield indicator. He glanced up at the holographic shield bar and found it fully depleted, blinking red and angry.
The female voice spoke again, a shiver in her voice. “That’s… Not good.”
. . .
The giant Forerunner space owl was gone. The once-disturbed wildlife in the forest calmed to a chirping hum. Merlin’s mind was elsewhere, dancing between idle panic and incoherent sea-watching where the golden sun had risen high into the morning sky. He scrolled through a transparent menu upon transparent menu with his eyes and mind, looking for something substantial in his MJOLNIR GEN2 BIOS management system that might fix his failing power armor.
Hell, Merlin practically wrote half the functions in the suit-software and that wasn’t helping him in the slightest. Energy shielding was offline. Queries to the nuclear fusion powerplant and its fail-safes came back with nothing. Suit functions were reporting systemic hardware failure; he was still practically mobilized in a half-ton suit of titanium. Whatever joke of so-called remaining ‘battery power’ was probably spent.
“Want my help?” His helmet-synced Smart AI asked with hints of concern, and annoyance. To be fair to her, Merlin had silently skimmed menus for the better part of a few minutes now.
“I got this; I know my own code.”
The Smart AI paused for a couple of seconds while Merlin scanned then pushed away another menu.
“Have you tried turning it on and off again?”
Oh, now she was just being grumpy.
“I already said I got this. And no, that’s a stupid idea.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m an AI.”
“Then why’d you suggest it?” Merlin asked.
“No reason,” she curtly responded.
“Well, of course! I’m over here sacrificing runtimes so you can go through this pointless exercise.”
Merlin halted his menu-surfing, right before the diagnostic test for his left hand and gauntlet response systems.
“Well, what do you want from—"
“I already ran an administrative backdoor and checked your systems in the second it took you to pass the first menu. Your suit’s toast.”
The Spartan blinked, his streaming thoughts coming to a halt. “Well…uh… I still need to perform a diagnostic because I don’t know how bad the damage is…”
“Here,” The Smart AI pushed aside Merlin’s menu settings and slapped a dominating program window over his Heads-Up Display. Situated across a sparse but detailed diagram recreation of his INTERCEPTOR-class armor, Merlin noted the flaring red lines representing failing power lines running up and down his limbs from the suit powerplant. “I highlighted the problems for you – see? You got fluctuating and downright fried circuitry all over the place.”
“How’d you do that?” Merlin gapped in surprise. “I can’t even—"
“—get a diagram like this up? I’m an AI, I can write new programs on the fly. And even then, your software package is a mess.”
Merlin did the smart thing in response. He sputtered in denial.
The AI deadpanned. “I’m not kidding.”
Merlin sighed in response, “…you’re not the first AI to tell me that. Look, I’ve been trying to improve, I’ve only spent a year with this armor – a year to learn its ins and outs. And now it’s just about destroyed…”
“It’s okay. But I just need that assurance or that confirmation. That it’s truly unsalvageable. We’re on this planet and on this beach. I’m still not sure how we got here, and that space-owl-thing is gone. We’re lost.”
Over the audio link, the feminine AI sighed once more, “Yeah, we’re lost. But your armor’s dead Merlin. We got to get you out of it.”
“Is that really a good idea? Is the air around me even livable? Are there any nasty surprises waiting for me? Once I take this off, I’ll lose my vacuum seal and there won’t be anything between me and whatever’s out there.”
“The air’s perfectly breathable. It’s exact to human colony preferences. But you’re right, once your armor is off, we won’t be able to put it back on. Even then, it's destroyed. We have to do this.”
Dread clinched in his deep-set muscles as he shivered in anticipation. Merlin knew all the many reasons he was unusual for a SPARTAN-III but just like any other Spartan, the armor was like a second skin to him.
Well, not that much. But he had an attachment to it, ever since his requisition request was cleared aboard the UNSC Infinity and the digital catalog opened for him. He could still remember the short, simple little description blurb selling the armor to him. ‘Customizable operator settings for the INTERCEPTOR allow everything from neural interface bandwidth to helmet air conditioning to be adjusted.’
“You’re attached,” The Smart AI observed.
“You could say that. Ever since I read about it on a requisition datapad, I knew it was meant for me. Before I completed graduation from SPARTAN-III Delta Company, my company-mates and I were given first-generation MJOLNIR suits from SPARTAN-IIs and IIIs who stopped using them for the newer GEN2. They were hand-me-downs, and I’m grateful having received armor from those that came before – I was given so much more than previous IIIs had. But that armor wasn’t really mine. When I saw INTERCEPTOR, I finally found an armor that was meant for me.”
“I’m sorry,” the Smart AI repeated.
“It’s alright,” Merlin repeated as well, frowning. He was dragging his feet. He knew what he needed to do now. There was no way around this. “Alright, let’s get this armor off.”
“I can handle the electronics but you’re going to have to do the groundwork. Fair warning, this is going to take a while.”
“Show me,” Merlin requested. The Smart AI went to work, minimizing the circuitry status menu to allow space for a packet of new pages explaining the complex process of a manual MJOLNIR breakdown process.
. . .
Merlin expanded and contracted his gloved left hand, assessing its reflex as soreness in his wrist tendons ached from misuse. Releasing his right hand from squeezing the left wrist, he clenched and unclenched it experimentally, checking for similar soreness.
Almost an hour into the armor removal process, the suit’s final power reserves gave out, cutting Merlin off from his visual diagnostics. His body heat and excretion could only do so much to keep the remaining circuits alive. That led to another period of momentary panic but thankfully, the Smart AI in his head managed a fix, allowing the suit to run in a borderline-functional state. That way, at least she could read off the steps to him still.
“You okay?” The AI asked from Merlin’s helmet speakers as the Spartan watched the muscle-like fibers of his MJOLNIR under suit flex around the hands.
“It’s still sore, more than when I finally woke up anyway.”
“Sorry about the chassis screws, you don’t have much in the way of giant screwdrivers right now so magnetic clamps were really the only way to get them off.”
“Yeah, jamming my finger into those slots and twisting was real fun,” Merlin grumbled as he returned to massaging his sore wrists. “I’m still feeling those pins and needles.”
Due to the lack of a disassembly system in the vicinity of probably-lightyears, Merlin had to reach around his obstructive armor plating to get to the harness-arresting points to unlock the retention screws manually. Between his lack of power and stiff suit, that was a tedious process of letting blood slip from his arms trying to reach the holes. More than a couple times, he lost all feeling in his limbs and had to use another arm to push it back into an angle where he could get some locomotion back.
“At least the hard part’s over now.”
Merlin hummed in affirmation at his AI assistant.
“So, what’s next? The armor’s off.” Merlin asked, grabbing at the loosely held sections of his chest harness, now two pointless composite-titanium paperweights. Attempting to lift the suit pieces, Merlin struggled under his own power and resorted to dragging them across the wet sand instead.
It was a strange sensation, the realization of how heavy his armor was, and the realization of how weak he really was. Merlin slotted the chest plate in the beach sand next to his set-aside knee and thigh plates. Glancing over the cracked and burnt exterior, the Spartan youth could only sigh and run his gloved hands over the metal’s flaky, onyx-colored surface.
Merlin grabbed the remnants of his shredded combat mesh layer, yanking the cloth lining that held most of his field gear and utility pouches. Burndown to individual threads, only the vacuum-sealed pouches seemed salvageable – and only to a degree. Beneath the mesh, the darkened armor surface was a mix of that clearly visible black and sporadic ruins of navy-blue paint, the armor’s original color tone.
“There isn’t much else to do Spartan. It’s off now, what you do with it is up to you.” The AI supplied, remaining quiet to give the teenager a moment with his home away from home.
Merlin unhooked three rifle magazine pouches and carelessly lobbed them over his shoulder one at a time. He grabbed a medical pouch and threw that one aside too, far out of reach of the saltwater but still nearby as he heard the pouches clink against one another and thump against the sand beneath them.
“Don’t forget your saddlebag,” The AI reminded, highlighting the large pouch strapped to the back of Merlin’s armor next to his fusion reactor and central exhaust ports.
He eyed it before pulling it free and tossing it behind him as well. He addressed the AI on the choice of words, “Is it really called that or…? I could have sworn it was called something else.”
“It’s just a field bag, but it does look like a saddlebag – at least a little bit? I think Andra would call it a saddlebag.” The AI explained uncertainly.
“I, uh, I’m not sure about that.” Merlin counteracted, not sure what to make of this AI. She had her own full personality, sporadic and mysterious and nothing like what he expected. Merlin had his fair share of encounters with AIs, but they always seemed so disinterested, this was by far the first time one sounded so alive. She was odd; it didn’t help that she still sounded so much like Andra.
Shaking his head and blinking away the confusion, Merlin noted the slight strained feeling being pressed down on his head. The helmet, the final piece of his gear he had yet to take off for the final time. It was time to let go.
“Helmet coming off?” The AI asked oddly as if reading his mind. Now that Merlin thought back to it, this AI seemed to be predicting his actions. Could she read his mind? Was that a thing?
The AI didn’t respond.
Well, maybe she wasn’t. “Yeah, I’m pulling it off.”
“Alright, before you set it down, please yank my chip.”
Merlin gripped the sides of his helmet and twisted it just a degree to the left, there was a quick hiss and the smart-clamp tech loosened, ending Merlin’s environmental seal. A quick breath in and he could take some enjoyment out of breathing fresh, tropical air rather than the staleness of his own stink and sweat. He hefted the damaged INTERCEPTOR helmet off his shoulders and felt an unusual release come off his skull.
“Wow… this thing’s heavy.”
“Uh-huh.” The AI responded through the speakers in the helmet, now a distant whisper away from his ears.
“Right, yanking you now.” Merlin reached out and pulled the silver-colored chip from the back of the helmet and set the helmet down in the wet sand. It wasn’t like he would be wearing it again any time soon.
Dropping the gumdrop-sized chip into his gloved palm, Merlin examined the small drive with an inquisitive eye. The same features he noted while aboard the Wealthian space station. Silver in color. Rounded edges. A circular, transparent center with a disk-like crystalline layer. A faint blue light rippling in that center disk.
A soft ping popped from the transparent disk, exploding upward into a holographic beam. It flared for a moment before triangulating into polygons and holographic pixels.
Four inches tall, no bigger than an action figure. Dark blue tonal hue with accents of darker grays and blacks. A flowing cloak constructed around a clearly feminine physique with black boots and an obscured face under a large dark hood. Like a grim reaper.
“Uh…hi?” Merlin tried uncertainly.
The hood glanced up at Merlin, a pair of vaguely gleaming cerulean eyes looked back up at the Spartan.
“Uh…hi.” The feminine AI repeated, also uncertain, but more with a hint of dry humor.
“So, you’re Andra’s AI.”
The AI seemed to mull over the statement before responding. “Well, yes. Yeah, I guess I am.”
Merlin glanced down at his armor, then up to the ocean, and the sky. He glanced behind him and watched little seagulls wander about the beachside hunting for breakfast, or lunch. He turned back to the AI.
“Alright, I don’t know what to do and I’m kind of confused on where we are and what’s going on.”
“You’re lost,” the AI said bluntly.
“Yeah,” Merlin confirmed, “I have no idea what’s going on right now.”
“We’re in the same boat there.”
“Got any ideas?” Merlin asked, raising one eyebrow.
“A few, but I’m not sure about it. It’s complicated and might not be accurate.”
Merlin glanced around again, taking in their current environment and predicament.
“We got time to discuss it?”
“Yeah, I agree with you there,” The AI surmised, shrugging its virtual shoulders.
“Where do we start?” Merlin asked, lifting the AI closer to his face to try and get a better look at the face behind the hood.
The AI retreated, silently bringing her hands up to her hood and tugging it down over her eyes. “Uh, uh… how about introductions?”
“Merlin-D032. Merlin Ljang-Boyd.”
“You can call me ALT. That’s what Andra called me, but I do have a name, its-its Althea.” The hooded AI stated, moving her cloaked arms behind her in a sheepish manner.
“Althea…alright…” Merlin responded, experimenting with the name on his lips. “Alright Althea, tell me what’s going on.”
“Right…” And so, the AI began explaining what she knew.