“What are our options?” asked John
“I could crash-land the Forward Unto Dawn, but I doubt that even you would survive, Chief. Our only other option is for you to get to one of the ships’ hangar bays and fly a Pelican to the surface. Once there, I’ll land the Dawn as best as I can.” Explained Cortana
“I’m not leaving you behind, not again.” Stated John
“Chief you don’t have a choice; if you stay you’ll die. Falling from the sky is one thing, but falling from the sky in 300,000 metric tonnes of frigate is another. Flying a Pelican to the surface is your only option.” Said Cortana
John stared at Cortana as he weighed the possible options. No doubt every conceivable plan that he was going through in his head had already been examined, summarized and discounted by Cortana along with another ten thousand options within the blink of an eye. Her calculating abilities were only matched by his stubbornness, something that Sgt Johnson had remarked on more than one occasion. But deep down, he knew that she was right and reluctantly agreed.
“Where’s the nearest hangar bay?” he asked.
“Two decks down, the damaged lift shaft is your best way of getting there. Once there, I’ll try and steady the ship long enough for you to fly out, but once your out it’ll be one hell of a ride.” Replied Cortana.
“I can handle it.”
John grabbed the assault rifle and attached it to his armour before boosting himself off the stasis chamber and towards the darker section of the ship. Cortana had activated several waypoints on his NAV computer all of which illuminated a small section of his display like a trail of proverbial breadcrumbs. Ahead, the hull shuddered under the increasing stress of re-entry. Although they were still some way out before the ship would start to burn, John knew he had a maximum of fifteen to twenty seventeen minutes. Then, as if sensing his thoughts, Cortana activated a small timer display in the upper left section of his helmet which read: 17:28 before it began to count down.
“This is how much time you have Chief before the Dawn becomes too unstable for you to leave!” Cortana shouted. “So I suggest you hurry.”
John glided towards the lift shaft ahead of him and then placed an armour-encased hand on the twisted door. John planted his feet on the floor before exerting pressure on the broken doorway. After several seconds of pulling, the metal gave way and the door glided slowly away from him, revealing a dark lift shaft that seemed to descend into infinity. After increasing the power to his helmet mounted lamp and boosting the gain on his night vision sensors, John quickly dived into the bowels of the Dawn.
All around him shapes and shadows fleeted and warped in the changing light, giving the illusion that he was travelling with company. John only wished that were true. He would have given anything to be with his old team again.
Cortana snapped John back to reality with a progress report on their re-entry; he was surprised to discover that almost five minutes had passed since he left the upper deck. John once again focused on his lonely descent just as the hangar lift doors came into view. Unlike the ones that he had left behind, these doors were untouched, which presented more than just one problem. As there was no damage to the doors it left John with very little to hold onto.
“Cortana can you spare any power for the doors at the hangar level?” asked John.
“Not at the moment, Chief, I’m using all I have just to keep us pointing the right way. You’ll just have to use your head,” Cortana replied.
“Good idea,” Whispered John.
John pushed gently away from the hangar entrance and towards the opposing wall of the lift shaft where the magnetic guide rails for the lift carriage were located. After slowing and positioning himself properly John pushed as hard as he could towards the lift doors and smacked into them with the force of a small tank. The impact sent stars swirling around his head and momentarily lowered his shield strength to 76 percent before re-charging.
Cortana immediately noticed the change in his status and asked what was happening.
John replied with his usual sense of wit. “Just following your advice.”
The encounter with the lift door had left it bent and buckled with enough surface gain for John to twist the metal into a more appropriate doorway. After passing through the gap, John found himself in a large room that barely resembled any sort of hangar.
All him around were various and untidy piles of logistical containers that had either been left unsecured or had been shaken from their mountings. Ahead of him were six Pelicans; four were clearly damaged to the extent that flight was no longer an option and two of those had been ripped from their ceiling mounted transit clamps. The other two seemed intact and were still fixed to the large mechanical clamps on the hangar ceiling, but as John glided closer he noticed that one of them was covered in a series of large, deep gouges that meant re-entry would be more than a little warm. The last remaining Pelican, apart from a couple of dents, was still perfectly flight-worthy, and the automated release system for that particular clamp was still working. It seemed that John’s unusual run of good luck was still with him.
John swam in the zero gravity towards the working Pelican and hauled himself inside through its rear deployment ramp. Despite the outward appearance of the drop ship its interior was anything but calm as John made his way to the cockpit across an internal sea of scattered weapons and ammunition cases. Regardless, the cockpit was a welcome sight and despite his bulk John managed to secure himself in the small pilot’s chair and activated the controls.
Lights and display screens flickered into life giving the cockpit a strange glow that was more reminiscent of a Covenant cruiser. It had been a while since he had flown himself, but he had a huge area to land on–the planet below. So getting down would not be a problem.
John glanced at the timer display in his SPARTAN helmet. He was down to just four minutes.
In a series of quick stabs at the control panel the engines erupted into life and John released the Pelican from its transit clamp and turned the ship around before stabilizing the drop ship in a small hover.
“Cortana, status!” bellowed John.
“The Dawn’s a little sluggish but I think I’ve managed to stabilize her trajectory. I see that you finally got yourself a means of transport,” answered Cortana. “Opening outer doors.”
As Cortana opened the hangar doors John was greeted with a blaze of light from the rising sun on the planets’ horizon. His faceplate polarized to compensate for the intense glare.
“Chief you’ve got less than three minutes, get out!”
John answered with a light push on the engines thrusters, which sent the Pelican towards the illuminated opening. The Dawn shuddered several times in the increasing turbulence before Cortana regained control long enough for John to activate the afterburners on the drop ship, sending it hurtling outwards and into the violent atmosphere. The Pelican jerked suddenly as it came into contact with the rushing air, sending Johns head down with the g-force. After a couple of seconds John regained his control on the nauseating dive and turned to follow the descending frigate just as the Dawn’s forward hull began to glow red from the re-entry manoeuvre. John fired the afterburners a second time and sped towards the falling frigate.
“Cortana what’s your status?” shouted John.
“I still have control of the descent and expect impact in twenty two minutes, after I have made a series of-.” Cortana’s conversation was cut short as the antenna array was ripped from the Dawn in the glaring inferno.
John followed closely behind in the Pelican trying to raise an answer from his artificial comrade.
(To be continued…)