Fingers curling, Kat gripped the rim of her seat. "Take the side roads, Six. Wouldn't want to attract any attention."
The blistering wheels of a UNSC Warthog kicked up dirt and debris upon a lonely bypath. Night was approaching, but the day itself had not grown any quieter. The grumble and hiss of distant glassing, hovering Phantoms, and patrolling Banshees was keeping the Spartans on a tense edge. From the passenger side, Kat could see flashes of brilliant light illuminating the blackening sky far from them amongst the snow-capped mountains. Were it not for the death and destruction that such light signified, it would've been a beautiful sight to behold.
"Got it," Six had said, hesitating but then swerving off the pavement as soon as he'd registered the command. In the aftermath of this decision, it'd occurred to the Spartan that she actually outranked him, being not just a lieutenant, but a lieutenant commander. One infuriating step above. His lone wolf instincts were begging to kick in, but he supposed that her superior rank technically did make her in charge of the situation. Kat was always the smart one in the group, so he couldn't say he didn't see her advice coming in some form or another, at one point or another. As for himself, taking the main road wasn't really a concern. He didn't mind much in the way of trouble if his previous engagement was any evidence of that fact, although, on one hand, it was probably better if he didn't get into another battle so soon after just fighting for hours on end.
"Six..." Kat spoke up.
Wordlessly, Noble Six glanced over before returning his attention to the road.
"Back by the ship yard..." Kat continued. "That was a lot of dead Covenant we passed... What were you doing out there by all by yourself?"
"Emile... died protecting the Autumn. Had to stay behind and take his place at one of the MAC guns... There was nowhere left to go but the fight after that."
"Even by battalion standards, your combat effectiveness is superb. Hyper-lethal vector, right? There's only one other Spartan with that designation."
"So you did read my file," Six remarked.
"The full thing? Only when no one was looking. Mentioned something about you being quiet. I think this is the most I've heard you speak."
"Yeah? I don't usually get along with others so I choose not to. There's a reason I wasn't on a team like Noble before Reach. I'm surprised Holland even took a chance with me on that."
Kat sighed pensively, thinking of all the other members Noble Team had lost. If Six hadn't joined them when he did, she would've been on her own with nothing but the Covenant and nobody to watch her back. If anything, she needed that after nearly getting shot in the head by a sniper. Lack of awareness had always been one of her weaknesses and Six did a good job of covering for that.
"I'm glad he did..." Kat said softly. "You're a good asset, Six, and I don't mean just as a soldier."
Six glanced over again. He snorted in acknowledgement but didn't say anything for a brief moment. "I would hope so," he muttered. "That's all I've ever been used as..."
"If it's any consolation, when you do talk, you're-"
The patch of road in front of them suddenly blew up. Grimey dirt splattered all over the windshield and Kat's voice was cut off by the sound exploding plasma as a huge cloud of debris was kicked up that they drove through.
One rearwards look into the sky told Six everything he needed to know.
"Phantom!" Six warned. "Get on the gun, Kat!"
"On it!" she said.
The hillside provided too much cover for a trailing enemy. They were so focused on talking that they hadn't noticed the Covenant ship pulling in behind them. In a second, it had flown in parallel to the Warthog and lowered its ramps to reveal a large zealot manning the plasma turret. He immediately unleashed the full unbridled force of the turret's power, hammering several shots into the Warthog's hull and shooting out the rear wheel as Kat clambered into the back. With a harrowing pop, Six felt the steering loosen up and the vehicle jerk from side to side, but he managed to keep it steady and avoid a spin out.
Two jackals appeared from within the ship. They saw Kat getting into the gunner's spot. Armed with needle rifles, they began to fire upon Kat and she ducked her head behind the armor plating of the Warthog's gatling gun as it spun up and she opened fire. Precision weapons first. She focused them down with a burst of gunfire from the turret, ducking again as the zealot manning the plasma turret tried to do the same to her.
Glancing to the side, Six saw the plasma cannon at the front of the Phantom start charging up for another blast. His foot was quick to react. The Warthog's engine growled. The speedometer shot up. Pedal to the metal, the Spartan gave it as much gas as he could to make sure that when he braked, he would be able to create the biggest gap possible between him and where the cannon would be aiming for.
Tense, Six was at the ready but waited for the perfect moment.
On cue, the cannon ignited and fired. His veins flared, and Six slammed his foot hard onto the brakes. The plasma shot collided with the earth right in front of them, blowing a pothole into the road and kicking up more dirt and debris that flew past or onto the windshield. Kat's aim was thrown off course and her gunfire went spraying haphazardly into the Phantom's hull.
"Keep it steady, Six!" Kat shouted over the symphony of booms coming from the turret.
"For you or for the enemy?" Six shouted back.
That plasma cannon was going to be a problem. Six didn't think the gunner would fall for that trick a second time, and all it would take is one shot and they were toast. Six scanned the area around for any opportunities. Just off the byway and across a stretch of brush were a set of train tracks disappearing into a tunnel that bore through the heart of the nearby hill. It looked wide enough to turn around in. That would be enough for his next manuever.
Six swerved for the tunnel and gunned the roaring engine, the suspension bouncing on the bumpy forest floor. The plasma cannon was preparing for another shot.
Meanwhile, Kat put several bullets into the Phantom's plasma turret, disabling the gun. She felt a wave of relief, but all of it vanished into thin air when she heard the zealot roar, rip it off, and activate his energy sword. The Phantom pulled in closer. She realized he was going to jump. The cold tendrils of fear gripped down her spine as her primary was still sitting in the front passenger seat and she had no time to break his high-powered shields with the gatling gun. He was already taking a step forward. Kat reached for the magnum on her leg with one hand, firing the turret with the other. With speed and weight, the zealot leapt from the edge of the Phantom towards the Warthog and impacted on the other side of the turret, Kat barely getting a few shots off on the Elite's shields as his sheer weight threw the Hog off balance for a precarious moment.
Kat was more focused on the Elite than she was her footing. She slammed chest-first into the turret's metal structure, hanging there for a second until Six got them back on four wheels. Prepared to act, the towering zealot wasted no time. As though he were throwing a vicious haymaker, he swung wide with his energy sword and Kat bent over backwards, yelping as it cut straight through the Warthog's gatling gun like it was made of butter. The gun slid right off its mounting point where the sword had cut, glowing a bright orange-red, and tumbled off into the tracked road behind them, Kat nearly losing her balance and falling off the side along with it.
Before he could bring his sword back around again, Kat threw her entire mass into the zealot, pinning him against the framework of Six's seat. Six glanced back to see what the disturbance was, but there wasn't much he could do; he was occupied with the Phantom's cannon. In the rear of the Warthog, Kat jammed the barrel of her magnum into the zealot's wrist and rapidly emptied the full magazine. The zealot let out a howl of pain and anger into Kat's visor. That seemed to do it. Larger than the Arbiter himself, with a single, clawed hand, he gripped Kat by the neck, lifted her up like a paperweight, and slammed her into the metal floor of the Warthog.
Kat squirmed, wriggled, and floundered.
He was choking the life out of her.
She couldn't breath.
Precious oxygen escaping her lungs, Kat dropped her now useless magnum in a panic. She tried to resist, but she was pinned. Even with both hands desperately fighting to wedge his grip apart, she couldn't hope to pry him loose. It was like trying to dig her fingers into cement. With no other options left, Kat punched the zealot, but it only seemed to anger him even more and make things worse. She felt his grip on her throat tighten further and struggled to even garble for help. Croaking was all that managed to escape her lips. Things had gotten darker all around. They were inside the tunnel now, the Warthog's engine resounding against the stone walls. The Phantom had pulled away to meet them on the other side.
Six slammed on the brakes again. As soon as he'd brought the Warthog to a complete stop, he lurched himself over the center console and stretched into the footwell for Kat's assault rifle with his hand.
Noticing something was wrong, the zealot turned around.
Six didn't hold back.
He let his trigger finger rip and obliterated the Elite's face until it was nigh unrecognizable. Fully automatic, the rifle kept chambering and casings spit out the side. When the face was gone, he aimed lower and only stopped firing when he saw the alien's grip on Kat's neck loosen up. By then, the zealot was already dead. His body keeled over, slamming with a dull thump next to Kat on the Warthog's metal floor, devoid of absolutely any life.
Kat burst into a few dry coughs. Pushing the zealot's heavy arm off of her, she sat up and massaged her neck with her hand. "Thanks," she said plainly.
"Now we're even," Six said. He passed Kat her assault rifle. "Reload your magnum. You're gonna need it in a second."
"What for?" Kat asked. She stowed the assault rifle away onto the magnetic plate on the back of her armor, picked her magnum back up, and began to stuff a new magazine in. "Did we lose the Phantom?"
"Not exactly, but you'll see. Turret's gone and I've only got one grenade. I hope you're a good shot."
"In a pinch, I'm whatever you need me to be," Kat assured him. Six wasn't sure, but the way she said it and it was almost as if she was winking underneath that helmet of her's.
With great pleasure and disdain, Kat rolled the zealot's body off the Hog as Six settled himself back into the driver's seat. Twisting the wheel all the way, he gunned the engine and did a reversal to come back out from the way they came. Tunnel darkness turned into dim night air. They were back on the road. There was no Phantom, but he gave it a second, and sure enough it appeared over the hill, having caught on to his little duping trick right on schedule.
Six glanced back. "Kat, you ready?"
"Ready to rock!" Kat confirmed, raising her magnum.
The Phantom dove in from above, firing another shot from it's plasma cannon. The bad angle made it easy to dodge. Instead of braking this time, Six gave it more pedal, swerved off course, and the plasma shot exploded violently on the other side of the road, behind the Warthog. As he expected, for a better shot, the Phantom flew in closer and matched speeds with the Hog.
Six grabbed the only grenade he had on his person and nestled it between his fingers. "Here it comes! Three... Two..."
Six relinquished the wheel for a split second, tore off the pin, and tossed the grenade at the Phantom's plasma cannon. Then it was on Kat. Hours of practice on the firing range funneled into one shot. A single tap from her finger was all she needed and she shot the grenade into a million pieces. It exploded, mangling the cannon and rendering it inoperable.
There was no way for it to attack them now. Defenseless, the Phantom lingered for a few moments beside the blazing Hog before its pilot seemed to realize this and peeled away. It flew off into the distance but stayed close enough to keep a stark visual on them.
Kat hastily clambered back into the passenger's seat. "We need to lose this guy!" she said. "No doubt, he's calling for help."
"I'll do my best," Six said.
Six killed the headlights. He tore off the dirt road and into the shadows of the deeper forest. The canopy was patchy, but provided adequate cover in some spots, enough to make deceptive use of. Through a mix of misdirection and doubling back, Six managed to lose the lone Phantom in the foliage, but no sooner had he done so was the area filled with even more Covenant activity, a whole swarm of aircraft hungrily searching for them. He had no idea where they were anymore, although that wasn't their biggest problem at the moment.
"Get us out of here, Six. If we don't leave soon, their army is going to have this whole area locked down and we'll be fish in a barrel," Kat said.
"Working on it," Six said.
Six knew one thing. The Covenant had a general clue of their location but didn't know exactly where they were. That meant the hard part was over. He could exploit that fact to his advantage. All he had to do was pick a direction and stay undetected, so that's what Six did.
Despite the Warthog being an off-road vehicle, it was a tough journey through the forest. A Mongoose would've been more appropriate. Spacing was tight and the ground was muddy, but after some heavy albeit careful driving, he managed to get them out of the hotspot they were in and into quieter territory. There were still fighters and gunships flying around, but not as much as before and not too close for comfort.
"Lost 'em..." Six murmured. "I think we're in the clear."
"Good..." Kat said. "All right, stop here, Six. We should lay low for the night. Wait for the heat die down. Not gonna be able to do much with this many eyes."
"Sounds like a plan. I could use a nap."
Six slowed down. He pulled up into the thickets nearby, stopping under a dip in the forest canopy that would hide their Warthog from any Covenant that might fly overhead, and shut the Warthog off. The engine sputtered into silence.
"What now, Commander?" Six glanced over from the driver's seat.
"Commander?" Kat chuckled, raising an eyebrow from behind her visor.
"You are in charge now, aren't you?"
"I am, but it feels weird having you call me that. If you're tired, you should get some rest. We'll head out at sunrise."
Six couldn't possibly have heard words any more beautiful than that. At their utterance, he started clambering out of his seat and into the back of the Warthog. "And what about you?" he asked.
"I'll stay up and keep watch," Kat said.
"Doesn't feel right."
"If we're going to get through this together..." Six said, sitting down and finding a comfortable spot against the framework, "you should sleep as well. It's better if we're both fresh in the morning."
"Oh, so, you're calling me by name now?"
"And what if someone comes in the middle of the night, Lieutenant?" Kat asked with a grilling tone. She said that but it wasn't the real reason, of course. At least not entirely. After everything that had happened, a nightmare was the last thing she wanted to add to her list of problems. She had enough on her plate.
"I took care of that already," Six said. "No one is going to find us."
"No..." Kat maintained.
"If I asked you to trust me, would you do it?"
"I already trust you."
Six looked back at Kat who was still in the passenger seat. She was looking at him too. If they could see each other's eyes, they would most certainly be on each other.
"I know, but I'm asking you to trust me now..." Six said.
She stared blankly at the Spartan. His resistance was making it harder to decline him.
"Fine..." she relented. "You're a bit persistent."
Six shrugged. "Yeah. My enemies don't seem to like that either."
Kat climbed into the back of the Warthog and plopped down next to Six. She shifted in place until she found a comfortable spot, as comfortable as one could get wearing a half-ton suit of armor on top of a four-wheeled chunk of metal, and then leaned back into the framework. The feeling wasn't that bad. She had slept in far worse conditions before.
Kat was shoulder to shoulder with Six. If they weren't talking, there was still a lot to hear as they sat there. Amongst the occasional forest chirp, they had been left with the distant hum of Covenant Banshees and Phantoms to lull them to sleep. Far, far away, the sound of glassing was still ongoing, always in the background like an approaching devil.
Kat nudged Six. "Hey..." she chimed up in a murmur.
Six rolled his head over to look at Kat.
"I'm not gonna lie, I was a little worried earlier, but you've got your work cut out for you," Kat continued. "That was impressive, Lieutenant. Don't know if I could've made us disappear like you did."
"I had to do that a lot as part of my former operations," Six said. "Before I was inducted into Noble Team, I used to go on a lot of missions alone. When you're by yourself, you either learn how to escape or you die."
"Doesn't sound easy."
"It never was..." Six said. "And I don't think tomorrow will be either. So what's the plan? Have you thought of anything?"
"For getting off Reach, you mean?"
"Well, the Covenant aren't exactly going to lend us a ship," Kat said. "Our best chance is probably one of the Sabre launch sites. There are several planetside that we could try."
"Then what? Sabres aren't interstellar-capable."
"Which is why, once we're in orbit, we commandeer a Corvette. Only difference this time is we're not going to destroy it. To be honest, I..." Kat hesitated, the confidence draining from her voice, "I don't even know if there are any sites still left standing."
"Guess we'll find out," Six said.
Kat snorted pensively. "Do you think we'll get off Reach?" she asked.
"Why? Are you scared?"
"I don't know..." Kat said, rubbing her shoulder into his. "I suppose as much as any other soldier would be in our shoes. There are still things I want to experience."
"If the Covenant doesn't kill us, at least death by glassing will be quick."
"That's one way to look at things..." Kat said, warming up a little. "But glassing is too fast. I'd prefer to go out a different way... fighting, rather than... what I almost got."
"We'll get off Reach, Kat..." Six reassured her.
"How can you be so certain?" Kat asked with a sideways look.
Behind that visor, Six met her hidden gaze full force. "Because two's a team, and Noble always gets its mission done."
Kat looked away.
She didn't think she would be having any nightmares tonight.