- "When they are silent, they cry out."
Three days in was the first time any one of them opted to talk to me. Sure, we'd all done our fair share of speaking to one another, all in orders and acknowledgements and go here do this kill stuff sorts of things, but we hadn't really talked. Me, I guess I was just used to keeping mum by then. I walked the walk, I kept my weapons clean and loaded, I did whatever I was told to do. Wasn't really that much time to get to know my new teammates, what with the planet facing a Covenant invasion and all.
That said, I put up a good front, but I was curious about my new squadmates. Noble Team. It was an uncommon name and these were certainly uncommon Spartans. My first day on the job with them taught me enough to be sure of that. The years had molded me to view coworkers as names and numbers and statistics, not actual people, so when they got killed (which was always bound to happen) there wouldn't be any bonds to sever, no attachments that would get broken. But these Spartans... these people... it wasn't enough to view them in that light.
I just needed a little push to come crawling out of my shell, is all.
After we took out the Covies that were harassing Sword Base, I took a few minutes just to watch as their ships got shot down out of the sky. I wanted to watch as the debris fell, glittering and burning in a strangely beautiful rain of destruction. We did it. We... I caught myself, realizing I had just included myself with the Noble bunch. Huh. Guess I really am on this team after all.
"Beautiful, ain't it. Someone should take a picture."
I glanced to one side just in time to see Noble Five emerging from the shadows of some fallen beams. He came close enough to stand beside me and clapped me on the back, a friendly gesture. "Nice work, by the way."
Beneath my reflective visor, I blinked. Usually people took my skills for granted. Treated me like an important tool, a worthy cog in the war machine, but nothing more. I would have said something nice back, but at the time the only two languages I knew were military and sarcasm, and sarcasm was the least impersonal of the two. "I aim to please," I replied smugly.
The conversation, if it even was one, would have lasted longer if I could have helped it, but then Carter ordered us to come inside and meet Dr. Halsey. I was intrigued by the opportunity, having heard a lot about the woman through the grapevine over the years; she was a heroine to some, a villain to others, and an enigma to most. Though from the way Jorge picked up his pace when we neared the rendezvous point, I supposed she might have been something more to him.
He's not like us.
Something snide Emile had said rankled in the back of my mind whenever I thought of that.
Halsey came across as the cold, calculating type, though I could tell she was driven by a mixture of worry and haste. She knew Kat had kept the data module I'd found at Visegrad, but her initial hostility was quickly countered by Carter, who threw Winter Contingency and the penalty for civilian interference in her face. That shut her up, though I honestly doubt she was actually intimidated. She was far too self-assured for that. There was something about us that bothered her, though; I don't know what it was. She pretended to be absorbed in the data module when we filed out, but I saw her eyes shift. She was suspicious.
Suspicious of what? I didn't know. Such things were far above my concern.
I decided to stop mulling over Dr. Halsey and instead focused my attention on the man I'd been having little questioning thoughts about ever since we left Visegrad. Jorge didn't show it outright, but he seemed disappointed that the meeting with Halsey had gone south. He had removed his helmet and carried it under one arm as we headed back to the surface, our armored forms casting long shadows down the blue-lit hallway. He shows his face more, puts more feeling behind what he says. He very much reminded me of Lieutenant Commander Ambrose, my old CO back on Onyx.
I made sure to bump his shoulder plate with mine as I passed him, returning his gesture from earlier. It was the most reassuring action I could think of, and I didn't look back as we all headed toward the sunlight and Carter started filling us in on pickup details. We all had jobs to do, and no time to waste in getting to them.
The remainder of daylight was spent mopping up pockets of Covie resistance situated in the hills and cliffs that surrounded Sword Base. Once sunset came, there was nothing left but bodies and blood and twisted metal. I stepped over a Jackal corpse and resisted the urge to stomp the thing's elongated skull into smithereens. Emile trailed after me, scraping indigo-pink gore off the blade of his kukri, with Jun and Jorge following. The setting sun cast an intense glare on their visors when I looked back for a head count. We made our way into the open area where Kat and Carter had set up shop, using an Army comm unit to get in touch with Noble Actual. I could hear Colonel Holland's voice over the low moan of wind in the trees and waves crashing against a nearby seashore. He's a good man. Cares about us, more than most superiors would.
Jun immediately sat down, cross-legged, and began disassembling his sniper rifle to clean it, while Emile ambled off to the side and stood there in a sentry position, his shotgun at the ready. Again I found myself wondering what had driven him to carve a death's head onto his helmet, but I wasn't about to ask. I strolled over to the cliff's edge, watching as the sun dipped lower toward the horizon, and looked down to see what looked like fire playing on the ocean's surface.
I sensed a presence beside me and a quick glance at the FOF tag told me who it was. "It is beautiful," I said, clamping my DMR onto my armor's magnetic strips.
"Reach is famous for its military value," Jorge grunted, removing his helmet. I envied him. The wind was blowing and I wanted to feel it on my bare skin, but I didn't feel like taking my mask off just yet. "But she's got a pretty face to go with her big guns."
I could see smoke rising in a thick line somewhere to the east, where the Covenant lay in wait. Too bad she's getting some nasty scars now, I thought.
I took the liberty of sitting down on the edge of the cliff, letting my legs hang over the precarious drop to the icy water below. I remembered something he'd yelled during the initial skirmish at Visegrad yesterday, something that had stuck in my mind. Get off my planet. "Your homeworld?" I asked casually.
"I was born here," Jorge stated, noticing the same strip of smoke I had. His eyes narrowed and he set his jaw, and I refrained from saying anything else. I listened as the waves crashed and Jun snapped his rifle back together and Carter traded barbs with Kat over which frequency was more secure. "What about you?"
"Charybdis IX," I answered, frowning. I didn't like discussing my origins. Never had. But he didn't know that, and I wasn't going to be rude. Not when he's the first friendly person I've met in months. Years.
"Oh." His tone was carefully neutral, but disappointment seeped through. "Sajnalom."
It was the same thing he'd said to that girl at Visegrad, the one whose father had been killed. It sounded like an apology. It struck me how different Jorge could be; he roared in battle, cut down Covies without hesitation, acted the part of a literal walking tank, and yet here he was apologizing to me over something that happened almost twenty years ago.
Normally it would have annoyed me, but today it intrigued me.
We set up camp for the night, moving back into the trees. Carter ordered me and Emile to take the first watch. I found a nice, elevated boulder with a cleft in it and sank into the shadows, my motion tracker set to enhanced mode, my senses attuned to the environment. After a few minutes of listening, I realized something: there were no birds. No nocturnal animals, nothing. It was like the arrival of the Covenant had scared all the creatures into silence.
Half an hour into the first watch, I picked up a thermal signature, but it was just a Moa that had gotten away from its flock. I let the flightless bird pass by unhindered, figuring it could be useful. If it got spooked, that meant there were hostiles nearby.
Three hours later, Jun and Kat moved in to take our places. As I approached the campsite, I saw Emile stalking through the brush, moving like some night predator. He reached camp before I did and passed by Jorge, who was repairing his machine gun, without giving him so much as a glance. Jorge didn't look up. I figured they were still at odds over what had happened the day before.
"Big man forgets what he is sometimes."
Never had I seen a Spartan get so worked up over such a statement. I'd seen fellow Spartan-IIIs get pissed off over stuff like dead comrades or a teammate failing their objective, but the way Jorge had reacted to Emile's jab... it had almost startled me.
I sat down near Jorge, my back to Carter, who was fiddling with his gauntlet's datapad. The glow of an electric lamp illuminated the campsite, but I could still see the stars overhead, though the treetops. I rolled my shoulders and looked up at the sky, then at Jorge. He finished working on his gun and set it aside, a casual movement that would have required both arms if I had been the one doing it. For a few minutes all was silent, and I contemplated dozing off, since I barely pulled an hour of sleep the night before.
"You certainly are quiet," Jorge remarked, breaking the silence.
I turned toward him, not knowing what to make of his statement. But his eyes were kind despite the scar that ran across the right side of his face. "Not that it's a bad thing-- just means if I want to know something, I'll have to ask."
"What do you want to know?"
"Have you got a name?"
I winced. Of course. Should've expected that. "No," I replied, a bit of frost creeping into my tone. "I don't."
A pause, then: "But surely you've got some kind of--"
"I don't have a name," I said bluntly, and it sounded more icy than I wanted it to. Something that sounded remotely like a snort came from Emile's direction, and I felt a sting deep down. I turned away and pulled a worn rag from my utility belt, and started cleaning my DMR. I heard Jorge sigh, more of a huff than anything, and I felt vaguely guilty for what I'd said and how I said it. He didn't deserve that from me. But I didn't know how to make it right just yet, so I clammed up and made sure there wasn't any dirt jamming up the workings of my weapon.
I woke up around two in the morning, seated upright with my back resting against a stump. My DMR was cradled in my forearms like a baby, and I scanned the area as I pulled out of grogginess. Carter and Jorge were gone, and Kat kept vigil over the comm equipment, her artificial arm gleaming in the dim light. Someone had turned off the lantern, so I activated my night vision to compensate. There wasn't much to see, just trees and rocks and patches of snow on the ground.
I got up, clamped the DMR to my back, and set off in search of Jorge. My conscience (something I thought had died long ago) was bothering me, and I felt entitled to explain my conduct earlier. Kat watched me pass, but did not try to stop me. "Stay sharp, Lieutenant," she muttered, a statement that was half admonishment and half warning. Lay low and don't do anything stupid. Got it.
I hunted for one yellow dot in particular, moving stealthily through the underbrush. My dark gray armor was specifically tailored for creeping about in the shadows, though the moonlight made creeping difficult. At last I found the Spartan I was looking for and approached him carefully from behind.
A slight crackle sounded as Jorge opened a private comm channel between our helmets. "Watch your step," he said, and I looked down to see a sloping rock face that ended in a sheer drop. The ravine below was filled with snow. Jorge was leaning against a large boulder, his face obscured by the red-gold of his visor. I picked my way over and stood a few feet away from him, my boots sinking into snow that was six inches deep.
"Sajnalom," I said in a low voice, even though our words weren't audible outside of our helmets.
Jorge tilted his helmet to one side just a fraction. "You learn quick," he muttered, then he gestured for me to move closer. "Don't worry, no harm done. Shouldn't have pushed the issue."
"But you need to know why." I forced the words out and waited for his response, distracting myself by studying the nighttime landscape. It was oddly peaceful; the night obscured the scars that the Covenent had left in their wake. Overhead, the stars winked and shone, and I shivered inside as I thought of all the worlds that were now dust and ash.
"Do I?" He was asking permission, attempting to feel me out and see if knowing my reason for anonymity was really worth it.
I took a deep breath. "Yes."
I felt pressure on my shoulder and glanced over to see his armored gauntlet clamped there, and it dawned on me how small my shoulder looked in his grip. "If you don't want to, don't."
I ignored his statement. "I've done things I can't talk about," I said, fixing my eyes on a far-off point on the horizon. "Things I won't ever be able to talk about. Some... bad things." I held up one hand and looked at it, tracing the lines between the armor components with my eyes. "They took my name away so I'd be able to do those things without question. A weapon doesn't have a name. It only has a number." I shrugged off his hand as memories I liked to suppress came to mind. A burning Outer Colony village. Child soldiers carrying guns too big for them, eyes wide as I loomed above. The bodies of dead men littering my path as I approached a cowering Innie leader. Flecks of crimson blood scattered across my visor as I pulled my combat knife from a dying sentry's throat...
"I remember having a name. I could tell you if I wanted. But I'm not that person anymore. I'm something... else."
I went silent after that, feeling awkward. Having that many words come out of my mouth at one time was something I was unused to. I felt like turning around and going right back to camp, because I felt embarrassed. The part of me that desperately wanted to be human and the part of me that wanted control, cold logical control, were battling, and I wasn't sure which was winning.
"So that's it, then." I was half shocked and half irritated at how casual he sounded when he said that. "I was afraid it was something nasty, like they erased your memory or something." My shock/irritation levels drained when I realized he was trying to be funny, and something quirked one corner of my mouth. "But do you honestly think people like me were made just to fight Covies? That may be our forte now, but that wasn't what the bigshots had in mind for us before Harvest got hit." His tone became serious, almost somber. "Not all of us were deployed against aliens, Lieutenant. Some of us had to kill our own kind. Kill lots of them. And sometimes, we enjoyed doing it."
People like me. He was talking about the S-IIs, the knights in shining armor that all of us Spartan-IIIs had looked up to when we were kids. I tried to imagine seeing Jorge, the Jorge who mowed down Covies like they were made to eat his bullets, pitted against Insurrectionists. The mental image was... unpleasant, at least for the Innies.
"There came a point where I had to remind myself that I was human. I started thinking of people as targets and collateral damage instead of my own kind. Those were... tough times," he continued, a bit reluctantly. "Then one day I looked at what I had done and I didn't see contacts or tangos. I saw people, all strewn about like a bunch of broken toys. And it scared me because I'd seen a Covenant Elite kill with more mercy."
His voice had gone from a conversational tone to more of a growl, and I was almost glad I couldn't see whatever expression lay under the reddish visor because it would have been so different from the kind eyes I'd seen earlier.
"You've changed," I said, in as comforting a tone I could manage, which wasn't much. But I was trying. "I saw you with those civvies. You cared about them."
"Yeah." It sounded hollow, but perhaps a bit optimistic. "Guess I've gotten soft in my old age. Way I figure it, if humanity's as doomed as everyone says it is, the least we can do is help each other along, y'know? Waste of time fighting to save humanity if we don't even know how to be human."
"That makes sense." I shifted my weight. This was territory I was unfamiliar with, and I felt like the ultimate greenhorn. So I went with my gut, trusting that somehow I'd end up saying the right thing. "Maybe if I stick around long enough I'll get the hang of it."
"Heh. Feel free to stay as long as you want. Noble needs a Six," Jorge said, then he turned his helmet toward the sprawling, wild landscape and sighed. "Reach needs us, all of us. Especially if she's going to put up a fight against these alien bastards."
"I said I aim to please," I replied, and there was a slight hiss as the seals along my jaw opened, and my helmet came off. I held the encasing headpiece with both hands and squinted as the night wind struck my face. It was cold, nippy, but oddly refreshing. I glanced over at Jorge and managed an awkward smile, like my face didn't quite know how to pull one off anymore. "I'm not going anywhere."
"So there you are," Jorge rumbled, and I wondered what he thought of my shorn dark hair and pasty white skin, all laced with scars that ranged from hair-thin to ragged, thick lines. I'm not like them. I haven't seen the sun much for a while. "Well, Lieutenant, I'll hold you to that."
"Call me Six," I said, watching as an object-- either a falling star, or something more sinister-- trailed across the sky, leaving a wake.
There just wasn't much more to be said-- words lurked, hopeful, but I didn't give them utterance. Jorge resumed his watch and I watched with him, taking a seated position on the rocky edge of the precipice. As my nose went numb from the chilly wind I began to really notice just how beautiful Reach was, even in the dark of night. Everything was deceptively peaceful, like the calm before a raging storm. I had seen so many planets similar to this one before, but Reach was definitely more than just a military hub. It was a paradise, a crown jewel. A home. Maybe not mine, but... it was Jorge's home, and that had to count for something.
"You said I was quiet," I mused after fifteen minutes, somewhat perplexed at how different my voice sounded when it wasn't being filtered through speakers. "Maybe we should talk more often, fix that."
"Nah. Nothing to fix," Jorge replied, and he bumped one massive shoulder plate against mine. "You say loads even when you're not saying anything at all."
I remembered my tentative, wordless attempt at a friendly gesture earlier and smiled, and my face felt less cold as I watched more falling stars cross the sky, and even though I knew deep down they weren't innocuous meteors at all, I let myself enjoy the pristine beauty of the night sky. This'll be the fourth day, I thought, my fourth day on Reach. My fourth day as a Noble.
Whether it would turn out for the better or worse remained to be seen, but something had changed, and now the future, though dark, appeared a bit less lonely.