April 3, 2552 (Military Calendar)/
UNSC Prowler Stiletto, orbiting New Rome
SPARTAN-G087, Andrew, flexed his gloved hand, tapping his armored fingers against the grip of his rifle. Other than that, his body remained still in expectation.
"Team Falchion, five minutes till drop."
Andrew resisted the urge to check his straps. He'd secured them not ten minutes ago, pulled them tight. He resisted the urge to tell the rest of his squad to check, too. He knew them, knew they'd check already, and there was no sense giving them any second doubts. He was troubled enough on his own.
"Hey, boss, breathe," a voice crackled in his helmet.
The team leader realized he had, in fact, stopped breathing, and pushed air through his lungs. "What makes you think I wasn't breathing, Carly?"
"It's just your vitals," Carly, G086 replied. "Heart rate's up a bit." Andrew cursed silently. Even if his heart rate had been steady as a drumbeat, she would've known. Andrew closed his eyes regardless and kept the air flowing at a steady rhythm.
"Happens to the best of us," she continued, seeming to read his mind. "Never met a Spartan that likes orbital drops, anyways." She was right, Andrew knew. The HEVs were coffins, cramped and uncontrolled boxes flying to the world below. All you could do was wait out the ride and hope that by the time you were being shot at you could shoot back.
"Hey, I like these buckets," Scott, G016, said, sounding indignant. "A bit of a rush, y'know?"
"So's getting shot at," Monique, G187, replied flatly. "Doesn't make it fun."
"I kinda like that from time to time, too," Scott said, chuckling. "But that's just me, I guess."
Andrew felt a chuckle escape from his lips, and the tension eased, just a little. This was just another mission, just another drop. "You want to weigh in, John?" he said. The fifth squad member, SPARTAN-G209, had been so far silent.
There was a moment before the reply came. "Well, I don't like getting shot, and I don't like drops," he said. All of Team Falchion managed a laugh, and Andrew felt the last of the pre-mission tension easing away. Sure, they'd only been activated as a unit a little more than month ago, but they'd done these kinds of drops in training time after time, and already had successfully completed a few missions.
They'd do fine.
Scott shivered, the cold wind ripping through his loose t-shirt, and wrapped his arms tightly around his chest. Even in the cramped ship, what the Navy man had called a Pelican, there wasn't any warmth. It was all sucked out roaring through the back. That was where the Navy man stood now, looking like a grumpy old lion in a uniform.
"Recruits!" he barked. "Form a line here!" The Navy man gestured to the floor in front of the open bay door, the air rippling through what little hair he had. "You will then jump, one by one! You will count to ten, then pull this!" he said, indicating a red handle on the backpack he wore.
Scott didn't move; neither did any of the other children in the bay. He was cold, tired, hungry. He missed his friends, his family, he wanted to go home. He shook his head. He wanted this nightmare to go away. Ever since the monsters had shown up, nothing had gone right.
At the bay door, the Navy man looked almost like he was laughing. "You'll do this, or you won't be Spartans," he said, and Scott's head snapped up. The man they'd seen on the field, the tall man that looked like a machine, all glistening emerald metal—he'd been a Spartan. And he'd said Scott could be one, too.
Scott shook his head. No, this was a dream. The green man wasn't real, and his friends, his parents were all okay. He'd wake up soon.
The Navy man saw him, though, and grinned sinisterly. "No?" he asked. "Then you're useless. To us, and to your family."
At that, Scott felt his ears redden and his anger blossomed. He didn't want to deal with this, just wanted to wake up. And this was a dream anyways, right? Without thinking, he found himself walking to the open door, saw the Navy man's grin blossom into a full smile, and without a moment's hesitation, fell back into the night.
Scott's stomach lurched, the wind tearing at his clothes. He felt his heart pulsing, and closed his eyes until the word ten escaped silently from his lips. His fingers had unconsciously found the cord the Navy man had shown them, and he ripped away from his chest. His entire body shuddered, and then he slowed, drifting lazily to the ground.
From up high he could see everything, could see the field where they'd met the Spartan, where the ships had landed, and for a moment, the monsters weren't even a dream: they were forgotten.
Scott gripped the sides of the HEV in anticipation. His leg tapped steadily to the countdown mirrored in his HUD. He couldn't see it, though. Behind the mask of his SPI armor, his eyes were closed, a silly grin pasted to his face.
"Team Falchion, one minute until drop," a voice crackled in his helmet comm, and Scott felt his grin widen.
Scott was odd, he knew. Spartans liked solid ground. They liked what they knew they could depend on, and if they couldn't depend on it, they liked to at least be able to control it. Starships and drop pods were two places where they had neither comfort.
Scott didn't mind, though. He enjoyed the lack of control, the fear. Reveled in it, even. Ever since that first midnight drop, he'd conquered any fear of harm that could come upon him.
He still felt fear, though. He'd just learned to love it. Fear told him he was alive, and he appreciated life no greater than when he feared he could lose it.
He'd tried to explain it to the others early on in his training. They hadn't understood, though. They saw snags and danger—Scott saw challenges and thrills.
It all had had another purpose, too. Those first few weeks of training had been difficult for them all, and Scott had felt the toll especially when the dream he was living had never ended. So like he had that first night, he had thrown himself at every challenge, every risk, and slowly the past began to fade. Never, though, had his anger at those monsters, the Covenant, diminished.
"Team Falchion, radio silence. Drop in five
one," the voice said, and Scott's grin shifted. No longer was it the silly grin of a thrill seeker, but the hungry grin of a predator.
The Covenant had taken everything from him, and for that Scott would fight to his last breath. But in taking all he had, they'd given him purpose, and in a twisted way, he appreciated his life that much more for what he'd lost. That wouldn't stop him from taking his due from the Covenant, though.
But Scott let all that drop away as his stomach lurched, just as it had that first drop, years ago, and he was at peace. He watched the display as his HEV throttled through empty space, then through the atmosphere. He'd rather be nowhere else than he was now, with his team in the air, about to face the enemy. This—this was his purpose.
Scott's smile disappeared suddenly. Something didn't feel right. He looked to the HEV's display, seeing no problems, and then listened intently. The sound of the pod seemed
off. Not the same. Almost an instant later, a rattling emerged from the background noise, and Scott closed his eyes. No
"No!" he yelled, the word tearing through his throat. There was so much more to be done! The Covenant were below, and they hadn't yet paid.
"No!" he roared, all fury, thrashing in his restraints, the drop pod thrashing in time with him. His life was being taken from him, and there was nothing he could do, and he understood why his fellow Spartans hated the drop pods. At least the Covenant didn't take it from me
he thought bitterly.
He tore his helmet off, shaking, and struck the instrument panel, smashing it, and another roar escaped from his lips, and he breathed deep, the last breath of air dead and lifeless in his new coffin, and he roared again, simply against the sheer unfairness of it all.
He felt the pod's path become erratic, felt the Gs tearing at his vision, and was glad for the radio silence. At least his team wouldn't hear him like this
An alert sounded from Andrew's console. He looked to the display, and felt his stomach drop, worse than any orbital drop. It wasn't even ten minutes in, and they hadn't even reached the surface yet.
Andrew was all alone. The display showed his HEV starting into a tumble, and pretty soon it would be a full-out tumble. On Andrew's HUD he could see his friend's heart rate rising, and he knew soon he would pass out from the Gs, or maybe burn up during reentry, and all Scott wanted was to break silence and speak to his friend one last time.
This is gonna be a shit mission.
HBOFF: You're Doing it Write