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Spartan Falling

Chapter Text

 

 

 

In the final days of Reach, Jack is little more than the trigger finger to a loaded gun. He unloads clip after clip of useless rounds into Covenant bodies. The neon blue and purple blood, painting the walls of Reach’s capital city buildings in streaks and splatters of gore, cannot undo what has been done. The second day of the assault on UNSC’s biggest naval base, the entirety of the colony world of Reach, begins the way the night prior had ended for Jack, with the sound of explosions rebounding off concrete and atomized dust scenting the air.

 

“We’re moving,” Jack calls out to Ransom, Holster and Lardo, all of who had slept in their armor, helmets on in case of airstrikes in the night.

 

Jack hadn’t slept. He wouldn’t have wanted to, not for long. The suspension of reality that came with sleep dulled him in the morning, made the threat of death just close enough to a non-threat that it became a risk.

 

“Direction?” Lardo was the first to rise, even clad in armor her small form was far more agile than the others. Her voice carried the same tone it had since the start of this, a carefully controlled focus.

 

“Artillery rounds falling to the northwest and the east… Sitrep shows Covenant units moved over night. We’re pinned.”

 

Jack had long worried that one day Ransom’s nerves would buckle and it would be the death of him, or one of his friendlies. But for whatever unknown reason, the impending fall of Reach seemed not to phase him in the way unexpected drills could in the past. As though the smell of ionized plasma launching toward them steeled his reserve.

 

“Advice, Ransom?” Holster asked, checking his rocket barrels before loading in a double cartridge. Jack couldn’t help but notice he was running close to the last.

 

“There is an access to sublevels at the base of this building, down three floors. From there it should be a straight route out of line of fire.”

 

“Should?” Lardo asked from the door, already scouting the first ten meters of hallway between their interior room and the stairs, built unhelpfully at the front of the building and its twenty plus meters of blue-filtered glass.

 

“I’ve not idea what will be in the tunnels.”

 

Jack cut the retort Holster must have mustered with a hand motion, setting Lardo into a careful stride down the hall. The metal sole of her boots scuffing the tile as she went.

 

Jack followed shortly, leaving Holster to take rear behind Ransom who plotted a path through the subterrain across their HUDs. There had been no forewarning of Covenant movement in this area, though Jack couldn’t blame the UNSC much for that. They hadn’t seen a fullon invasion before it had happened, simple troop movements seemed like a snag in the tread in comparison to that oversight.

 

The move from the interior space toward the stairwell was silent for nearly two minutes before Lardo dropped to the floor in time for a volley of plasma rounds, violently green, to fly through the space where her head had been seconds before.

 

“IFF’s didn’t register!” Ransom shouted over comm as Lardo returned fire, the hot retort of her DMR kicked dust off the floor. Jack dropped to a crouch, looking around the corner down an empty hallway which terminated in another bank of windows. Where the glass had been was melted slag, and on the other side a sniper tower bobbed on its bed of gravity-defying energy. The jackal atop was visible by the bruise blue light at its crown.

 

It took two short bursts for Lardo to dismember the creature, and another to debrain the other at its left. They dashed across the open hallways, stopping only when they came upon the open rotunda, the staircase leading down to the ground floor hugging nothing but glass the entire descent. Even at a quick glance Jack could see more than a handful of jackal snipers on the other side, no doubt alerted by the gunfight. It was seconds before plasma shots were piercing the glass wall, cascading melted globules down upon the stairs.

 

“Rapid descent!” Jack called down the line before, after taking a moment to return fire, he leaped over the railing and fell the fourteen meters to the tiled floor below. The fall was quick, his already dense body overweighted by armor hitting the floor with enough force to buckled the tile in a meter radius about him. His armor took the blow of the fall with a strain nearing on damaging. But there was no better way to get down without drawing more attention than they had already. Thankfully there were no Covenant inside. For that they were lucky.  

 

Lardo, then Ransom, and finally Holster followed suit, landing in much the same way as Jack had with a resounding crash. Wordlessly Ransom motioned to their left, and as one they crossed the rotunda, dodging plasma shots in their haste. The door to the lower levels was bolted, but not so well supported that a firm kick from Jack couldn’t knock the steel panel directly off its sliding runner and onto the floor.

 

They made it no more than twenty meters down Ransom’s path before a barely heard radio transmission filtered through the whitenoise of the city’s ongoing battle overhead.

 

“Siera one-one-five, are you on this line?”

 

The static almost overwhelmed the voice. The line, however, shouldn’t have had anyone but the three spartans next to Jack on it. His hesitancy lasted seconds before his response.

 

“This is 115, who’s on this line?”

 

“This is Doctor Suzanne Bittle, it is dire that you assist my call.”

Chapter Text

 

“Excuse me?”

 

Jack remained in disbelief as Doctor Bittle relayed the details of her situation in disaffected statements, as though the current threat to her person was purely superficial. The act of parsing what she was saying was made harder by the identity of the woman. Not many outside of UNSC knew that Doctor Bittle was the lead mind behind the SPARTAN-II program, and the progenitor for the scientific advancements which would go on to create Jack and the other SPARTAN-III’s of Noble team.

 

Jack shouldn’t have been surprised by what someone like her would expect of them. Not only was she suggesting that Noble team secure transportation to the research lab where Bittle was hidden, but they would need to do so with an unknown number of Covenant surrounding the immediate premises. With a distance of nearly eighty kilometers between their current position and the lab, of which Jack had little knowledge of its status save that the area was once controlled by the UNSC but had been lost in the prior days of fighting, the idea alone was dangerous.

 

“As I said, you’ll meet me at my position and then take the package to the UNSC Samwellian.”

 

Jack needn’t look to Ransom before he replied, knowing fully the implication of the statement, and the further reality of what Bittle was asking.

 

“Ma’am, the Samwellian is dry docked.”

 

He couldn’t be sure, but it sounded as though a dry laugh filtered down the line. Though perhaps it was the static which seemed to constantly pervade the comm link. He waited only a moment before she confirmed his belief.

 

“Oh I am well aware, Commander Zimmermann,” Doctor Bittle said cooly. “But that does not change my request. The Office of Naval Intelligence said you would be the team for the job, am I mistaken?”

 

Jack didn’t need to worry about his peculiar brand of anxiety depositing meaning where there was none. It was clear that the edge in Doctor Bittle’s statement meant what he thought it meant. Lardo had taken her helmet off, but nevertheless must have heard what had been said over the comm. The look she sent toward Jack was indication enough. There was no fondness from her for this woman, but a direct order from ONI was a direct order even if it stung. Somehow, with their status as an organization who seemed only to employe ghosts, they possessed a great deal of power.

 

“Give us six hours,” Jack said, figuring in the trek, and the likelihood that if they did not secure VTOL transport they would be walking, as the roadways out of the city were completely destroyed.

 

“You have three, see you at eleven hundred hours.”

 

The line went dead as such, and for the first time in several minutes it seemed that the spartans of Noble team were allowed to breathe.

 

“I don’t like this,” Ransom said, even as he began plotting a point to the nearest airfield, where hopefully something would be left to fly out of the city.

 

Of all four, Lardo remained completely silent, reattaching her helmet before Jack could get a further read on her. It was not for a span of minutes before Ransom had a path, and a Sitrep that didn’t suggest their imminent death, thought just nearly.

 

 

Half an hour through the subterranean levels of New Alexandria passed before Lardo registered movement from her scouting position ahead.

 

“Six units, IFF confirm hostiles.”

 

Lardo’s position, where the corridor opened onto the city’s main underground highway, gave her a clear view down nearly a kilometer of road in one direction. To the left, however, the highway fell down and away in a sharp curve that cut the line of sight. It was from there that the distinct neon glow of Covenant tech illuminated the debris strewn expanse. Smoke from burning cars filled the air near the ceiling, bouncing the light about.

 

“I don’t have eyes.” Lardo readjusted her grip on the DMR. “Is there a way around, Ransom?”

 

The other processed pathways behind his HUD silently.

 

“Not if we don’t want to walk another kilometer out of our way, there’s not. The closest access to the surface is just around that corner.”

 

“No fucking way I’m lugging—”

 

The rest of Holster’s reply was lost to a distinct rumble in the middle distance. It was the texture of the sound that brought Jack back to reality. A second equally guttural and bassy shuffle echoed down the expanse,  and told him exactly what he did not want to know.

 

Hunters ,” Jack said, in time for the first of the two twin hulking forms to shuffle around the far corner and come into clear view. Even without eyes and through the dim lighting they saw Jack and Lardo instantly.

 

The scream the creature released was only drowned out by the explosion cast by its fuel rod cannon as a volley of blazing green light unfurled across the open air. A wicked sense of pride shot through Jack’s veins as Lardo and the others sprang into motion without a word out of him.

 

As the smallest of them, Lardo vaulted over the edge of the highway and down into the wreckage between two cars with clear ease, dodging around a flaming warthog which had been dissected by an explosion. Jack followed, sliding down the edge of the road way as he unleashed a spray of rounds from his rifle, fully aware they would do little but bounce off the hunter’s nearly impenetrable front armor.

 

The first plasma volley splashed against the cement and steel walkway behind Jack, unleashing a spray of radiation that sent his HUD into a series of red and incessant hazard warnings. The acid green color fell away, replaced by a dull angry white glow as the cement atomized and the steel turned to slag.

 

Holster returned fire, sending a twin rocket blast back up the highway. The first struck the hunter’s shield plate, and the other flew overhead, striking something unseen in the background. The sound of dying screams from grunts was a good sign that the six units were not entirely threatening. Hunters would be easier to handle with nothing more than a few squishies as backup.

 

The second hunter, however, didn’t seem as thrilled by the final death cries heard behind them. It launched a second volley of plasma returned before, with a scream that reverberated through the floor and up Jack’s legs, the hunter charged through a lane of parked and flaming cars. They flew from its path as though they were made of plastic, bouncing off one another and sending sparks cartwheeling through the already clogged and acrid air.

 

“Holster!” Ransom shouted as the second plasma array landed, sending a section of the wall overheard crashing down.

 

“Clear!”

 

Holster was beside the rubble, firing another shot of rockets. They were hit out of the air by a third plasma shot before they could make it more than three meters.

 

In the chaos Jack had lost sight of Lardo. He turned about himself, checking to make sure the spartan hadn’t gotten hit by shrapnel in the blasts. He saw her again as she ascended the far side of the highway, climbing onto the raised narrow walkway which ran the edge of the road. It was from there that her DMR could land blows, nailing three clean shots into the fibrous flesh beneath the armor plating at the creature’s side. Not the most lasting of wounds, but better than nothing.

 

Perhaps the victory was worth less than even Jack had thought, as the hunter simply turned and, in its rage, charged toward Lardo with incredible celerity for its size.

 

Since Jack had woken up long ago, in the early days of his existence as a Spartan, his body had begun to act as though it was the true driving force of his existence, and his mind was simply a witness. In  this way he sometimes found himself in the height of combat, his body moving not just by reflex alone but something else that Jack could not explain.

 

That might have explained how Jack leaped over a car without thought and unleashed a frag grenade, which after a seconds delay sprayed the hunter’s feet with hot metal shards. It was enough to falter the creature in its stride, time that allowed Lardo to act.

 

What Jack did not expect was for Lardo to leap onto the creatures shield plate and use it as a springboard to vault her over the creatures backside. Even as she spun overhead she unleashed a row of shots, each one striking into the wet flesh at the hunter’s exposed back.

 

The creature, perhaps feeling pain for the first time, turned to strike her where she landed. Orange blood dripped from the entry wounds in its exposed back, splattering the floor with the luminescence of it. Turning was a fatal mistake on the hunter’s part, as Holster’s third rocket volley hit the creature directly in its glowing back, spraying orange ichor across the highway lane and sending smoke cascading out in all directions.

 

Jack rushed into the space that the hunter’s dying body left in the smoke screen that remained from the rocket shots. In hindsight it would have been best to wait for the smoke to clear, but hindsight had a way of identifying what was missed the first time. The club-like forearm of the hunter, sailing out of the smoke faster than even Jack could avoid, spoke to the error in his judgement.

 

The pain was not what disoriented him the most, but the fact that the blow was powerful enough to send Jack spinning over the charred and tireless chassis of a car and crashing onto the walkway which Lardo had just recently vacated. He landed harshly, his back striking the lip between the floor and the wall of the highway’s edge, the corner crushing into the gap at his back where the armor plates shifted to that he could move. If the blow had been landed on anyone but a spartan, Jack had no doubt they would have died instantly.

 

But the durability that Jack’s spartan body provided could not be underestimated. He followed the momentum of the landing, rolling back onto his feet, if slightly unsteady. The pain from the harsh landing could wait. It was clear that the hunter hadn’t followed through with its blow, thinking Jack dead at the single strike. Rather, it had turned on Lardo, who now stood over the hunter’s deceased twin.

 

The enraged scream was enough to kick Jack’s ass into gear.

 

“Lardo, frag!”

 

Jack lobbed another grenade, this one sailing through the air only to bounce off the front of the hunter’s head and explode mid air. It seemed though that in the midst of combat Ransom had snuck around the hunter, killing the rest of the grunt party with quick bursts of his smgs. It was then, with the frag grenade smoke lingering in the air, that Ransom jumped atop one of the cars and unleashed two clips worth of rounds into the creature’s back. It released a final, wet screech before the armored body crashed to the ground, shaking the very earth.

“We need to move,” Jack said, giving Noble team hardly a minute to regroup before they once again dashed down the highway in search of Ransom’s access to the surface.

 

 

The situation leveled out as Noble team neared what remained of the airfield. Columns of smoke rose slantwise through the air, streaking the already dusky sky with a oil-black haze.

“There’s a single pelican a quarter kilometer ahead,” Ransom said from behind his polarized visor.

 

Holster’s had gone transparent so that he could get a clearer view of the damage his rocket launcher had sustained in the most recent firefight. Jack couldn’t help but notice that he looked exhausted. No doubt they all did. Their schedule was uncompromising. They couldn’t afford to rest, not while Reach fell.

 

The pelican came into view as they rounded a corner, Lardo’s careful watch guiding them forward when the area was confirmed clear.

It was not a pleasant sight. The pelican had been grounded for a reason, the left side armor nearly melted down to the titanium lattice framework. It would be a wonder if it could even get off the tarmac.

 

Before Jack could speak, Ransom was answering him.

 

“There’s nothing else, I’ve already checked.”

 

“It’ll have to do, get the engines warmed.”

 

Ransom scuttled away, clambering inside the pelican to begin the flight prep and check if the VTOL engines would even fire. Jack was too busy checking the rear engine pylon to notice Holster until the other was nearly shaking him.

 

“We need to move!”

 

“What?” Jack asked, confused by the sudden urgency.

 

Somehow in his distraction he had missed the Covenant cruiser slowly arching into position just to the east of the airfield. It’s bulbous purple shape cast liquidyne shadows from the weak sunlight that barely punctured the smoke clogged sky overhead. What had Holster so anxious, however, was immediately evident.

 

The purple column of light pouring from the heart of the alien ship held inside it the largest Covenant vehicle deployment Jack had seen in a while.

 

“Scarab,” Lardo offered, sounding on the verge of genuine unease.

 

“Ransom!” Jack hollered even with the comm connecting them, “Get this bird in the air, now!

 

The three dashed into the back of the pelican, Lardo continuing down the parallel rows of seats to join Ransom in the cockpit. Outside the craft the ground shook as the purple beam cut out and the scarab fell the odd few meters to the ground. There was no denying it was moving in their direction.

 

The sound of the engines misfiring was enough for Jack’s blood to suddenly chill in his veins. He couldn’t afford to let it affect him.

 

“Ransom, do we need to abandon the bird?” Jack asked, watching as the scarab walked through a building with ease, sending two stories of cement crashing to the ground. A row of squat metal towers near the building was spared the onslaught of debris by a canopy of steel overhead.

 

“We need a couple minutes,” Lardo called, the shape of her smaller frame poking out from an opened panel, wires falling out from their bundles in the wall.

“We don’t have that kind of time!”

 

Holster stepped off the ramp of the pelican, hoisting his rocket launcher with ease.  He had to know, as Jack did, that his remaining cartridge would do next to nothing against the gargantuan alien siege platform which lumbered toward them.

 

He fire, sending two rockets not at the body of the scarab, but something Jack hadn’t thought to consider fully. Next to the destroyed building, a commercial hangar for titanium ore freighters, stood the metal towers. The towers which held freighter fuel.

 

The explosion was for more satisfying than something so destructive really had the right to be. Black smoke launched immediately into the sky as the flames rounded about the scarab’s legs, engulfing its body in the blast. For a moment the billowing smoke was the only movement, and Jack had half a mind to congratulate Holster and single handedly killing the giant vehicle.

 

“Hell yeah!” Holster shouted over the crackle of the flames and settling shrapnel from the punctured fuel tanks.

 

Then a lance of plasma lit the smoke plume from within, incinerating the debris which remained in front of the scarab. It took two step forward and revealed the front of its looming form. It was entirely unscathed from the blast.

 

“Hell no!, Ransom ” Holster said, his bravado lost now that the scarab was up and moving.

 

Sudden liftoff was Ransom’s reply, the scarred tarmac falling suddenly away. Jack had to fall forward and grab Holster by the arm, or the other spartan would have been left behind as the pelican jerked upwards. Even airborne, they were no safer. In reply to their sudden ascent, the scarab’s anti-air cannon turn skyward, releasing a stream of light in their direction.

 

“Hold on,” Lardo said as the craft pitched suddenly, spinning wildly through the air to avoid the incoming flack.

 

On their second full rotation Jack’s stomach fell as the pelican caught the peak of its acceleration and shot nearly straight up. How the wing on the left side was holding together during this, Jack had no idea, nor did he really want to know.  

 

Holster let out a whoop of relief as the second plasma volley missed remarkably. In minutes they were out from under the Covenant cruiser’s shadow. Jack allowed himself to sit down in one of the rows of chairs, letting relief wash over him.

 

“We’ll reach Doctor Bittle’s location in under twenty,” Ransom said.

 

Jack only hoped their arrival would go unnoticed.

Chapter Text

 

The pelican fell from the air like a stone. Everything, even the call over comms from Lardo to brace for dust down, was lost to the scream of the wind as it tore through the craft’s exposed flank. Plasma had hit the pelican’s good side, eating through the armor plating with an ease that was sickening to Jack. It seemed that having failing VTOL engine flanks on both sides was more than the pelican, or her pilot, could handle.

 

Jack struggled against the g-forces as the craft spun rapidly toward the ground, breathing through the sudden tripling of his weight as he forced his way to the aft of the bird. Pulling the lever, and thus opening the rear boarding ramp, was far easier after that.

 

The cold, tearing wind off the Babd Catha ice shelf over northern Eposz greeted Jack, gushing into the personel bay like water into a sinking craft. From his view at the top of the ramp, Jack could see the ground rushing up to meet them.

 

“Holster, we’re abandoning this bird. Grab what you need!” Jack hollered over comms. The other spartan replied with a raised thumb.

 

From the cockpit came Ransom, struggling as Jack had against the force of their descent.

 

“Lardo says she’s staying on, it’ll lose further control without her.”

 

“Lardo, you hear me?” Jack called.

 

“Aye,” her strained voice barely carried over the howling wind.

 

“You give us enough time to leave this bird, then you disengage, you hear me?”

 

A green blip rose from her comm channel, enough of an indication to know that Jack had gotten all he would out of her.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

He waited for the next revolution before, without taking too much time to regret his choice, Jack threw himself from the craft and into the open air. The spinning of the pelican hauled it away from his descent path, and he could watch, fleeting, as two more outlines fell from the rear hatch before the ground caught up to him.

 

Landing hard atop frozen earth from 60 some meters was far less forgiving than touching down on a tile floor had been. His armor system immediately locked up, sending static down his limbs as his muscles strained to respond to the sudden impact against the rock face he’d landed alongside. A screech echoed out as some piece of his armor buckled and gave way. Red lights flashed across his HUD, making apparent the fact that Jack had just destroyed his shields and was taking damage directly to his armor’s framework.

 

He came to a stop as the armor released and, with a bit of luck, the slope of the hill came to a gradual plateau.

 

“Noble team, sound off!” Jack said into the oppressively silent air. In the middle distance between what must have been Doctor Bittle’s research base, and Jack’s position, the pelican dropped from sight, only to be replaced by a tremendous plume of smoke.

 

“Noble team!”

 

“This is Ransom, Holster and I are ground-side. The big guy landed rough, might have a broken arm.”

 

Two accounted for, then.

 

“Do you have eyes on Lardo?” Jack began moving in the direction of the crash site, knowing well that the Covenant in the area wouldn’t have been able to miss the landing even if they wanted too.

 

“No, we lost line of sight as we fell.”

 

It took nearly three minutes for Jack to scale a rock face and, moving as fast as his slowly recovering systems allowed, flip over a structure of exposed titanium ore and down into a valley on the other side.

 

The crash was better than Jack could have expected. Most of the bird’s framework was still in place, the majority of the smoke coming from the engine pylons, most of which had been shorn off in the crash and were burning themselves to cinders in a line of trajectory from the initial touchdown.

 

“Lardo” Jack said over comms, moving slowly toward the crash.

 

A single sniper shot lanced across the valley, splashing Jack’s newly recovered shields with enough force to knock him from his feet. Pain screamed through his right shoulder as the heat seeped deeper into the armor.

 

He rolled along the ground, dodging a following shot before shoring up behind an exposed length of titanium.

 

“Jack?” Lardo’s voice carried over the comm line as another series of sniper shots took divots out of the barrier in front of Jack.

 

“Lardo, sitrep,” Jack said, returning fire with a burst or two before one of the snipers dropped dead, only to be replaced by another.

 

“I didn’t make it from the cockpit, the g-forces were too strong for me to get out. My leg is injured, and there’s a shattered armor plate.”

 

“Understood. Stay put, we have hostiles about the crash site.”

 

“I have eyes,” Lardo replied before the telltale sound of her DMR echoed out from the shattered view glass of the cockpit. The shots didn’t connect, but surprised the jackals enough to push two out of hiding. Jack took them with his own shots.

 

When it became clear that a break in the Covenant presence had come, Jack dashed the distance between the divot carved into the earth and his hiding spot. The back of the pelican looked like someone had taken a tank overtop a civilian sedan. The ramp, which had been extended at some point, was bent into a curling spiral of metal, having carved a scalpel sharp wound into the earth.

 

Lardo stepped gingerly from the craft, her normally deep purple armor tint gone black from the smoke which clogged the interior space. An exposed wire panel flickered threateningly, ready to unleash a peel of honest-to-god flames at any moment.

 

“How are the boys?” She asked, as though she hadn’t just managed to survive a crash by luck alone. Her left leg’s armor was showing the worst of the damage. Biofoam poked from the insertion socket. No doubt the space around her thigh was filled with it.

 

Jack sighed in exhausted release, for once relieved at the unspoken tenacity of Lardo.

 

“They’re in one piece. Let’s go get them.”

 

 

Sneaking into Doctor Bittle’s research base, which proved to be an extension of an ONI facility, was a different beast to tackle. Jack finally took a breath after the last elite fell, leaving the interior space free of hostiles but no more hospitable because of the fact. Whatever the building had been like prior to Covenant’s arrival on Reach, what was left reminded Jack of New Alexandria, and the rest of the developments for that matter. A burnt out husk of what had been.

 

Their nav point directed them to a hallway which ended in blank panels, devoid of any indication for the way forward.

 

“This is a waste, there’s nothing here” Holster said, his left arm held at an angle that suggested the pain he was in. He busied himself by kicking at a chunk of ceiling which must have collapsed during one of the attacks on the site. “We should fall back, find a lift out of here.”

 

“Ransom?”

 

“The intel you received from Doctor Bittle points to these coordinates… wait.”

 

On Jack’s HUD, and the map he shared with the rest of Noble team, the nav point blinked from view before returning, nearly a kilometer below where they stood.”

 

“I don’t mean to be a dick, but I didn’t bring my shovel with me for this op, Commander” Holster said.

 

As if something had heard Holster’s complaint, a panel behind him opened with a soundless slide. Ransom jumped back, whispering something about ghosts. Lardo peeked inside the doorway, which revealed behind the panel a long corridor which running lights at the floor and ceiling.

 

“Let’s not keep the doctor waiting,” Jack said, leading Noble team into the heart of the base.

 

 

The tram which carried them deep underground was relaxing up until a screen flickered to life. Doctor Bittle, it seemed, had been watching them. The background was obscured by lack of focus, the view only showing Bittle closely. She was a short woman, her blonde hair, when it caught the light of a nearby display, showing signs of grey. She looked every bit the ONI scientist her voice (and her track record) suggested.

 

“Noble team,” her voice carried over the tram speakers, for once choosing not to use direct comms like she’d done prior. “Commander Zimmermann, your presence here is appreciated.”

 

Outside the tram’s windows, a horizon line of blue ice unfurled as the track pushed into a suddenly open cavern. What must have been the foot of the Babd Catha ice shelf brushed up against a bed of exposed rock. Rising from the rock into the ice sheet, nearly stitching the two mediums together, was a structure of the kind Jack had never seen before.

 

“Before you is an artifact neither human nor Covenant in origin. Advanced beyond our understanding, until now.” Bittle spoke quickly as the tram slowed its descent and Noble team stepped from its unto a lift which brought them even closer to the the structure.

 

“My team has been excavating it with the hopes of decrypting the data it holds.”

 

“Where does that place us? The package you spoke of...” Jack asked, stepping from the lift onto the landing space. The area before the giant structure showed clear signs excavation, as well as a significant amount of completed infrastructure. This was by no means a haphazard operation.

 

“You are here to buy me time, first and foremost.”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I need as much time as you can give me, the date herein is the only way we will be able to defeat the Covenant. That is the package you came all this way to get.”

 

Overhead a slab of ice the size of a building broke free and cascaded down upon the excavation site below. The hole it left sent a pillar of sunlight in, the color of it hazy, but strong enough to reflect off the blue ice. The illumination did little to make the cavern appear less haunting.

 

Jack couldn’t help but think the collapse was less than natural.

 

“Do the Covenant know of this site?”

 

“It would be foolish to think otherwise.”

 

As if they had been waiting in the wings for their cue, a pair of covenant phantoms fell through the gap in the ceiling ice, dropping steadily toward landfall. Their bearing pointed in the direction of a large entrance gate which no doubt held access to Bittle’s final location.

 

“Commander I promise you, this is the most important thing left on Reach. Please, buy me all the time you can.”

 

Nobel team was entirely silent in the wake of this. It seemed Doctor Bittle wasn’t waiting for a reply, or simply hadn’t expected one. Her comm cut, and in the wake Jack was left to watch as the Covenant descended upon them.

 

“Noble team, let’s give the doctor the time she needs,” Jack said, unknowing of whether or not this was an altercation they would all survive.



The wraith blast knocked Jack from his feet and sent his rifle spinning somewhere to be lost amidst the debris kicked up by the explosion. He hadn’t but a second to recover before an elite came down on him from the side, a plasma sword thrumming in their four-fingered grip. Jack’s body acted autonomously, taking the elite by the wrist and snapping their forearm with a quick, clean jolt that sent a thrum down Jack’s limbs.

 

The elite screamed as Jack pushed their own sword across their chest, flaring bright white shields before the sword finally cleaved flesh and halted the elite’s life.

 

Jack rolled the body from atop him, wielding the sword around to sever a jackal’s arm from its thin body. Despite his arm, Holster had found a spartan laser and was slowly directing its crimson beam at the heavy armor across the excavation site. With a violently blue light, the wraith exploded, incinerating all the surrounding units within a three meter radius with the intensity of the blast.

 

“Ransom, get covering fire on Holster” Jack called, too far away himself to stop the pair of elites which had fallen from an overhang and were assaulting Holster with plasma rifles and a worrying amount of grenades.

 

Ransom was on them with fury, bringing a pair of startled cries as he meleed the first, crushing its mandibles, and point blanked unloaded a peel of rounds into the second’s exposed under jaw. Jack didn’t need to keep watching to know both would be dead within seconds.

 

There finally came a point where, the current Covies dead or dying, Bittle’s voice called over the comm.

 

“Come inside while you can.”

 

Inside, it proved, was a walkway which extended from the rock and entered the alien structure. At the end stood an atrium filled from end to end with panels and data arrays, and at its heart was Doctor Bittle. Behind her and outside, streams of light flowed like refractions off water, bouncing in the half-dark of a cavity space. Above a depthless pit was a giant sphere of light, incomprehensible to Jack.

 

Bittle turned to acknowledge them, revealing at her side something else. Inside a sphere of light which seemed to mimic that outside, sat an AI. They looked young, even for an AI, and perhaps their youthfulness came from the crossed legs, such a human position for something so artificial.

 

Jack didn’t need to speak.

 

“What is this stuff?” Holster asked, his attention held by the light outside the windows.

 

“Knowledge, a birthright from an ancient civilization. This AI is its custodian, and he has chosen you as his couriers.”

“Chosen, by an AI?” Ransom asked.

 

“By this AI, yes. His measure of you carries as much weight as my own, perhaps more.” Bittle made final adjustments to a display. “You are to take him to the UNSC shipbreaking yard in Aszod. There you will find the Samwellian, retrofitted and waiting to get him off planet.”

 

The pieces began to fall into place. Jack had hear rumors, some of them shared by Lardo herself, of a ship being crewed for a non-standard, vital task. Neither the details of the task, nor the name of the ship, had ever come to light.

 

“I understand,” he said.

 

“Do you?” Bittle said. “Humankind is outmatched. When Reach falls – and it will fall… our annihilation is all but certain. Unless... we can glean from this artifact a defense against the Covenant.”

 

“And what if we can’t?” Jack asked, watching as Bittle began to shut down the arrays.

 

“An apt question, if there was somewhere else to place our hope.” The blue sphere about the AI fell away. “There’s not.”

 

With a sure twist, she pulled from the plinth the AI’s armored storage vessel. It glowed with the same blue light the AI had been bathed in beneath the sphere. Inside the cylinder, the he would wait until Jack and the rest of Noble delivered him to the Samwellian.

 

“Take it, Commander. Hee has made his choice,” Bittle said, hoisting the cylinder forward, waiting for Jack’s hands. “Do you have it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Say the words, please.”

 

“I have it,” he said.