I still have a choice…
December 3, 2536 — 2148 Local Time
Michael studied the young woman staring at him as she cradled an older man in her arms. His timing had indeed been exceptional as his Pelican detected Phantom dropships close to the target area. To avoid detection, Michael had the Pelican drop him further out. He’d made a cautious approach, but when his audio sensors detected Covenant and human weapons firing, he picked up the pace. He arrived to find a unit of Special Operation Elites firing on a farmhouse.
The Elites didn’t notice his presence as their attention and focus was on the farmhouse. From the way they’d positioned themselves for their attack made it easier for Michael to take them out, moving on each Elite and disposing of them with his knife. The unit leader proved to be the most troublesome when he realized there was a Spartan attacking them. It was the explosion and weapons fire that brought Michael to the back of the house, taking out the last Elite.
Michael was now dealing with two civilians. The younger woman looked to be in her late teens to early twenties with short auburn hair. He recognized the older man as his mission target... John Larson. He hadn’t expected to locate his target this easy. There was the temptation to just grab his target and head back to the LZ. His mission would be over and he could get back to fighting the Covenant rather than being ONI’s hatchet boy, but it wasn’t that simple. Watching the pair, memories flashed along with his doubts surfacing. Again, the temptation to end his mission pulled on him, what he didn’t expect were the words that escaped his mouth before he could act on the temptation.
“Is he going to be all right?”
The woman continued staring at him as if she didn’t understand him. Michael was going to repeat the question when the man groaned and moved slowly, shaking his head.
“I’ll be fine Andrea,” John said, waving her away as he sat up. He paused as he focused on the huge armored man standing in the remnants of his living room, “Who the hell are you?” he asked.
Michael couldn’t help but smirk at seeing how Larson was playing it cool as his target leaned over and spit out blood before standing up. This mission was going sideways on Michael as this wasn’t going as he’d imagined it would. He found himself in unfamiliar territory unsure of how to play this situation.
“I’m from the UNSC,” Michael said, deciding to take the straight-on approach. He noticed Larson’s face tighten up at his response. Memories of Anders hanging from the tree flashed and his doubts came storming back.
They’re human, Michael thought. He knew his duty and his orders, but despite his training and indoctrination he questioned everything. He tried to understand why his own species had the propensity to tear at itself when the Covenant was the greater threat. These people were just at risk from the Covenant as everyone else.
Michael realized the pair were staring at him. He glanced to the young woman... Andrea. She gave him a hopeful expression as she doted on Larson. He wasn’t sure of the connection between the two, but it was obvious it was a strong one. Guilt weighed on him knowing whatever he decided would impact her. He gave his head a shake to refocus on the here-and-now, the past and the future were luxuries to deal with later.
“Is there anyone else around?” Michael asked.
“No… It’s just my Grandpa and me,” Andrea responded.
Michael filed away that information now he now understood the connection between the two.
“What about the rest of those Covenant bastards?” John asked. The anger in his voice was obvious.
“They’re all neutralized. This area is secure for now,” Michael replied.
John’s face took on an astonished surprised look, “Y-You took out all those Covenant by yourself?” he asked, not quite believing what he’d heard.
Michael nodded, taking some strange satisfaction in noting Larson’s astonished expression getting bigger.
John wasn’t sure what to do next. First, the Covenant attacked his farm and then the UNSC show up. He was too old to believe in coincidences as his apprehension grew, “So what now?” he asked, trying to get a handle on what was going on.
Michael pondered the question as he studied his target and his granddaughter. An internal struggle raged inside as he debated on what to do. It would be so easy just to grab his target and leave, but what about the granddaughter? If he left her here, she was just as dead as if he’d pulled the trigger himself. A wave of guilt hit him at the thought of abandoning Andrea. He also knew ONI would use the granddaughter as leverage on Larson if they got their hands on her.
In terms of physical age, Michael was young, but his training, indoctrination and combat experience made him feel older. Images of Anders and the others he’d tortured on orders from ONI danced in his head. He excelled at his work, but he also realized it was like a cancer eating his soul. Fighting the Covenant gave him a sense of purpose... he knew who and what he was. He’d never delved into deep philosophical introspects of what his purpose and role in the greater scheme of things was... he was a Spartan, and that was it. Yet, he realized that if continued doing this work, he would lose all traces of his humanity.
Yeah… So what do I do now? he asked himself.
Maybe, the Master Chief has it right… John always focused on the mission and being a good soldier... just disconnect yourself and not feel…
It seemed like hours, but it was only seconds as competing thoughts and emotions struggled with each other. What was his duty? Was he required to follow orders that conflicted with what he thought was right and wrong? In seconds, in true Spartan manner, he decided on his course of action.
I still have a choice… As long as I have that...
“We get the hell out of here! I’ll call in a Pelican for pickup and we get a lift back to one of the evacuation areas,” Michael answered, noting the looks of relief on the pair. He opened a channel to the Pelican.
“Pelican-287… This is Sierra-113… Do you read me? I need a pickup at map co-ordinates Romeo-23 by Juliett-41, using my beacon. Come in Pelican-287.”
Michael waited for a moment, the radio responded with heavy static, “Sierra-113… This is Pelican-287… Negative on that pickup! We have heavy Covenant air activity in this whole sector and we’ve had to fall back. No go on alternate pickup site due to Covenant activity.”
Shit… It doesn’t get any easier does it, Michael thought. He now had to find another way out.
With all this increased enemy air activity that left them few options. If they tried to use any vehicle, they would be a nice easy target for the Covenant to spot from the air. The only way out would be on foot as Michael pulled up the map of the area on his helmet display to study. He’d planned alternate fallback and backup LZ’s, but the current enemy activity compromised them too.
They would need a new LZ, and they would have to go farther to get clear for pickup. They would need to stick to areas that would give them cover from being spotted from the air. He scrolled the map, bringing up an area that looked like it would meet the requirements, but there were still things that a map couldn’t tell you. He needed to get an idea of what the terrain was really like to calculate how long it would take them to travel the distance.
Michael turned to the older man, “How well do you know the terrain to the south-west of here?” he asked.
John studied the soldier, trying to figure what was going on. He got the sense that something wasn’t right, “I know it like to the back of my hand. It’s a mix of forest with low thick brush. Lots of hills with small cuts and valleys. There are trails that cross through there, but it can be rough if you don’t know what you’re doing. What’s wrong?”
“The Covenant are making it impossible to get a Pelican in here to pick us up. We can’t use the roads and the only way that gets use clear of them is walking out. If we go south-west that will give us cover while we make our way out of here. We’ve got a long distance to cover, and I figure it might take us six... maybe seven days to walk it,” Michael replied. He was already trying to determine how much food and water they could carry to supply them for the trek.
“What if we used the horses?” Andrea blurted out.
Michael looked at Andrea, surprised at her suggestion. He shook his head at his own ignorance for not realizing that with this being a farm that there might be horses. This changed the situation for the better as they could travel faster and carry more supplies to keep them going over the distance they needed to cover. He did rough calculations, given they could cover the distance faster now.
Michael opened a channel to the dropship to let them know the new plan, “Pelican-287… Looks like we have a change in travel plans. New pickup zone is at map co-ordinates Tango-23 by Juliett-40. We have some distance to cover... rendezvous scheduled in seventy-three hours from my mark... Mark! Will pop orange smoke at LZ... repeat orange smoke will be the signal. I will attempt to send burst updates on an eight hour schedule. Do you copy Pelican-287?”
“We read you Sierra-113 and confirm new pickup rendezvous. We’ll update command on current situation and be on station at designated time… Good luck, Sierra-113.”
“Thanks, Pelican-287,” Michael replied cutting the channel. He turned to John and Andrea, “Okay, we need to get moving. We need to gather and pack enough food and water for four days and get the horses loaded ASAP. I know it won’t be long before the Covenant send in more troops when this group doesn’t report in. I don’t think we want to be around here when they come a looking.”
Though John hated to leave his farm, he nodded his understanding, glancing at his granddaughter, “Andrea… Grab the packs and let’s load up quickly. I’ll get the weapons and extra ammo. We’ll meet up at the paddock and saddle up the best horses... we’ll set the rest free.”
Michael appreciated the pair getting organized, but at the mention of weapons, he suddenly experienced hesitation, “Uh…”
John studied the soldier, giving him a face that showed he wouldn’t change his mind, “What? You don’t expect us to head out with the area swarming with Covenant unarmed… Do you?” he said, using his old command tone to add to his expression.
Michael wasn’t sure what to do, but then they’d held off a group a Special Operations Elites. He didn’t want them to be defenseless in case something happened, so it made sense for them to have weapons.
“No… No, I don’t,” Michael replied, sounding a little sheepish.
The older man gave Michael a smirk, seeing he’d gotten his way, “Well, then… let’s get a move on. We’re wasting time here,” John said, bending down to pick up his MA5.
Major Oan ’Valisee wandered around the scene of the battle, trying to maintain his composure at the sight of dead Sangheili warriors lying strewn on the ground. He stopped, kneeling down beside the lifeless body of Khurn ’Mantakree, finding himself struggling to control the growing grieve and rage.
A lifetime of memories flowed through his thoughts, looking down upon the body of his closest comrade. They’d served together for years since coming of age and entering military service together. It was him who’d recommended Khurn for his promotion and command of this unit.
’Valisee’s unit was in another sector, trying to locate the demon, when Khurn’s unit missed their status check in. They came quickly, but arrived too late. Now, there was only the body of the Sangheili he regarded as close as any brother.
Oan touched the top of Khurn’s head, trying not to stare at the rest of the mangled body. He lowered his head, whispering a brief Sangheili prayer. The grieving would come later as there was still much work to do… plus, there was also now a blood debt that required repayment.
’Valisee’s second-in-command’s respectful tone interrupted his thoughts. He tried to focus on the mission rather than Khurn’s body as he slowly stood up to face his underling.
“I didn’t want to disturb you sir, but I felt you should know what we have found.”
’Valisee waved his lieutenant to continue his report as he tried not to look at Khurn’s lifeless body.
He is on his own great journey now… That is only an empty shell now…
“Sir, we examined the buildings and found tracks. It appears there were at least three humans, and they appeared to have taken pack animals. The tracks head out towards the south west quadrant.”
’Valisee detected in his lieutenant’s voice there was more to his report, “What is it Toha?”
“We have identified one set of tracks… they belong to the demon.”
A surge of hate and anger flowed through ’Valisee. It took all his self-control to keep from roaring out.
“How much of a head start do they have?” ’Valisee said, trying to keep his anger in check.
“We estimate they have at least a four hour head start.”
“Gather everyone! We will pursue… Now!”
“Sir, should we not report this information and co-ordinate with our other units, and bring in air patrols?”
’Valisee’s grief got the better of him, “NO!” he roared as his self-control exploded, causing his lieutenant to draw back.
“This demon is MINE! I have a blood debt to repay! We will track the human down, and I will stand over its dead carcass pulling my energy sword from its body. Now, gather the unit! We will start our pursuit while we still have light on this cursed planet!”The Sangheili Lieutenant nodded quickly, moving to assemble the strike team for the hunt. ’Valisee stood alone, beside the body of his friend, as dark thoughts of what he would do to the demon coursed through him.