It’s late August, 2552. After their victory at Sigma Octanus IV, Blue Team is called to return to their old stomping grounds on Reach. All the remaining Spartan-IIs that are not entrenched in deep-cover ops are summoned as well. Once gathered, they meet with Dr. Halsey who doesn’t hesitate to tell them all the grim truth: in spite of the UNSC’s bravado, humanity will not survive much longer against the Covenant onslaught. And so Operation: RED FLAG is outlined – a plan to send the Spartans to capture a Covenant ship and take it deep into enemy space, then kidnap any an all Prophets they can locate in a last-ditch attempt to broker a truce with the aliens. All the Spartans willingly volunteer for the mission, and Dr. Halsey is able to provide them with some new equipment that just might give them the edge they need. Including Mk. V MJOLNIR Armor that now comes with personal energy shielding technology, and a uniquely created smart AI meant to specialize in infiltration, called Cortana. After testing both these systems and experiencing the impressive results first-hand, the Master Chief is confident that the Spartans just might be able to bring an end to the Human-Covenant War. The series of events that followed would change John-117 and Kelly-087′s lives forever, more than anything either of them had endured before.
Before Anyone Else
After receiving their upgraded armor and their orders, the Spartan-IIs depart Reach aboard Captain Keyes’ vessel Pillar of Autumn, but their trip is cut incredibly short (‘The Fall of Reach’, chapter thirty-two):
Something was wrong.
John felt it in his stomach first: a slight lateral acceleration – that became a spin strong enough that he had to brace his legs. The Pillar of Autumn was turning. Every other Spartan in the storage bay felt it as well; they paused as they unloaded equipment from crates and readied the cryo tubes for their journey.
The lateral motion slowed and stopped. The Pillar of Autumn’s engines rumbled like thunder through the hull of the ship.
Kelly approached him. “Sir? I thought we were accelerating to enter slipspace?”
“So did I. Have Fred and Joshua continue to prep the tubes. Have Linda get a team and secure our gear. I’ll find out what’s going on.”
Naturally Kelly-087 is the first to conference with John-117, and without missing a beat he issues her the task of delegating orders to the rest of their squad. Captain Keyes soon arrives on deck to deliver the reason for their change of course himself. The Covenant have attacked Reach, and both the Autumn and the Spartan-IIs are being reassigned to defend the planet.
Unwilling to give up on RED FLAG so soon, John then explains to the Captain how he and his team might just be able to secure a Covenant ship during the battle and still continue with their previous mission. After dismissing Fred-104 and Linda-058 to do some prep-work, John approaches Kelly with another important task; and the two share another thoughtful moment amid the uncertainty of this new development:
The Master Chief approached Kelly. On a private COM channel, he told her, “Crate thirteen on the manifest has three HAVOK nuclear mines. Get them. I have the arming cards. Ready them for transport.”
“Affirmative.” She paused.
The Master Chief couldn’t see her face past the reflective shield of her helmet, but he knew her well enough to know that the tiny slump of her shoulders meant that she was worried.
“Sir?” she said. “I know this mission will be tough, but…do you ever get the feeling that this is like one of Chief Mendez’s missions? Like there’s a trick…some twist that we’ve overlooked?”
“Yes,” he replied. “And I’m waiting for it.”
The ability to read the cues in body language is something pretty much all the Spartans share as a result of their training, and with regard to the long years they’ve spent together the Spartans know the subtler signs that can be seen between themselves as well. Still, I like how the text here takes the time to emphasize that John knows Kelly’s own signals well enough that her worry is clearly evident to him even without her face being visible.
(In this section I’m going to cite a lot more quotes from the books than I have in the past, and there’s a lot of content to cover. But I feel like most of these moments require word-for-word context to be fully understood, and that a summary just wouldn’t do them justice. So thank you for bearing with me as this is going to get rather lengthy.)
As the situation on Reach becomes clearer the closer they come to the planet, the decision is made to divide the Spartans into multiple teams in order to complete two different objectives (‘The Fall of Reach’, chapter thirty-four); one to stop the Covenant forces on the ground from disabling the orbital MAC cannons, and the other to secure the navigation data from a stranded UNSC ship, the Circumference, that hadn’t enacted Cole Protocol:
He turned to face the Spartans…his Spartans. They stood at attention.
Kelly stepped forward. “Master Chief sir, permission to lead the space op, sir.”
“Denied,” he said. “I’ll be leading that one.”
He appreciated her gesture. The space operation would be ten times more dangerous than the ground op. The Covenant would outnumber them ten to one – or more – but the Spartans were used to taking the fight against numerically superior enemies. They had always won on the ground.
The extraction of the Circumference database, however, would be in vacuum and zero gravity – and they might have to fight their way past a Covenant warship to reach the objective. Not exactly ideal conditions.
“Linda and James,” he said. “You’re with me. Fred, you’re Red Team Leader. You’ll have tactical command of the ground operation.”
“Sir!” Fred shouted. “Yes, sir.”
“Now make ready,” he said. “We don’t have much time left.”
The Master Chief regretted his unfortunate choice of words.
The Spartans stood a moment. Kelly called out, “Attention!” They snapped to and gave the Master Chief a crisp salute.
He stood straighter and returned their salute. He was intensely proud of them all.
The particular back-and-forth that goes on in this scene has always fascinated me. And there’s a lot that can be inferred about what might be going on under the surface based on what we know about John and Kelly as characters and their relationship.
Firstly, we see Kelly immediately put herself forward to lead the most dangerous mission at hand. And I can’t help but notice how much this mirrors the way that John offered to be the Rabbit in Kelly’s place from back when they were still trainees. It said a lot about how much John cared for Kelly then, and the same logic applies to her now. Kelly is almost always highlighted for her ability to be the key support player on whatever team she’s on, and though we do know she is more than capable of taking charge of important missions, the fact that she’s offering to lead here comes across as rather unorthodox for her. John acknowledges this in how he says he “appreciates her gesture” – i.e. he knows this is about more than just who leads the space op. Kelly knows the extreme risk of the mission, but she also knows John and how he leads better than anyone. She knows he’s going to take the heaviest burden upon himself. So this offer does indeed seem to come across more as an expression of solidarity on Kelly’s part than anything, and that she is willing to take on that risk with him. Part of me also wonders how much Kelly’s penchant for questioning orders was itching to come to the surface at John’s refusal for her to join him. But in the end she still knows how important this moment is for the Spartan’s as a unit and calls them together for one final salute, continuing to act as her leader and best friend’s right-hand in whatever way she can.
John then goes on to explain that he selected James-005 and Linda-058 to be on Blue Team for the former’s sheer determination and the latter’s unrivaled skill with a sniper rifle, hoping to keep the enemy at long range. Still, why would John not take Kelly with him as well – particularly after her outright request to go on this mission? Or if anything why not have her on Blue Team in place of James? We’ve seen multiple times how John not only relies on Kelly for general support as his long-standing Blue-Two, but also how her speed is consistently used as one of his best trump cards in battle – something that the Covenant can’t match even with their superior numbers and technology. So this is another thing about this situation that seems highly irregular. Thinking about it logically, I can only come up with two explanations…One: because of the inherent danger of the space op, John knew that if something were to happen to him that Fred-104 would be left to lead the remaining Spartans. So for the good of the whole group, he placed Kelly on Red Team in order to make certain Fred (who is known for having issues with letting the pressures of command get to him) would have the best back-up at his side. And two: because John wanted to protect Kelly the only way he knew how. The ground op, though undoubtedly difficult and highly dangerous even by Spartan-II standards, was still considered the least risky of the two operations they were set to complete. Again, stretching all the way back to when they were still trainees, it’s not unheard of for John to put Kelly’s safety ahead of what may be considered more pressing matters of battlefield strategy. Keeping her off the space op in this case was the best he could do to try and ensure her survival – and this time Kelly couldn’t slug him in the shoulder for doing so.
The Spartan-IIs then split up and rush to their assigned stations. Even then though we see John still wishing that things could be different:
He took a long look out the front of the Pelican. Their sister dropship initiated a burn and hurtled toward Reach.
Kelly, Fred, Joshua…all of them. Part of him longed to join them in the ground action.
Blue Team makes it to where to the Circumference is docked, but encounter heavy Covenant resistance. Sadly James is lost early on as his thruster pack is damaged by enemy fire, sending him flying uncontrollably into space. John and Linda proceed, and with the help of a small group of marines (including Sergeant Johnson) they are eventually able to destroy the ship’s navigation data. Unfortunately during their escape from the station Linda is shot and killed by plasma-fire at the last moment of their exit. The group takes a Pelican and falls back to the Autumn, and Linda is quickly placed in a cryotube in the hope that she can be resuscitated later. Once again we see a mission completed successfully, but at a terribly high cost. John then approaches Captain Keyes to ask what will now become of the rest of his Spartans who deployed to Reach (‘The Fall of Reach’, chapter thirty-seven):
“Sir,” the Master Chief said, “when will the Pillar of Autumn rendezvous with my planetside team?”
Captain Keyes turned from the Master Chief and stared out into space. “We won’t be picking them up,” he said quietly. “They were overrun by Covenant forces. They never made orbit. We’ve lost contact with them.”
The Master Chief took a step closer. “Then I would like permission to take a dropship and retrieve them, sir.”
“Request denied, Master Chief. We still have a mission to perform. And we cannot remain in this system much longer. Lieutenant Dominique, aft camera on the main screen.”
Covenant vessels swarmed though the Reach System in five-ship crescent formations. The remaining UNSC ships fled before them – those that could still move. Those ships too damaged to outrun the Covenant were blasted with plasma and laser fire.
The Covenant had won this battle. They were mopping up before they glassed the planet; the Master Chief had seen this happen in a dozen campaigns. This time was different, however.
This time the Covenant was glassing a planet…with his people still on it.
He tried to think of a way to stop them…to save his teammates. He couldn’t.
The hopelessness of this moment and John’s desperation to try and find a way to save his family always gets me here. Bound by duty, there is nothing he can do but accept Captain Keyes’ orders and leave Reach on the Autumn. Just like with Sam’s death however, John steels his will and is determined to balance out the weight of this loss by making it count for something:
John remembered Chief Mendez’s words – that they had to live and fight another day. He was alive…and there was still plenty of fight left in him. And he would win this war – no matter what it took.
As fate would have it, the crystal that Kelly saved at Côte d’Azur is revealed to be a Forerunner data-crystal. Aboard the Pillar of Autumn, Cortana is able to extrapolate data from it into coordinates and uses them to direct the ship’s slipspace jump away from Reach. From here the story progresses into the events of the game ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ – where the Master Chief and Cortana explore the mysteries of the Halo ring (Installation 04) and discover the ancient biological horror known as the Flood.
After the destruction of the Halo, John comes across a group on UNSC soldiers that also managed to escape the ring – once more meeting up with Sergeant Johnson. Together the group then manages to board and clear out a nearby Covenant flagship, the Ascendant Justice, and effectively commandeers the vessel. At this point the rest of the soldiers onboard, and even Cortana, are in favor of returning to Earth in order to give a full report to UNSC HQ about what was discovered on the Halo as well as give them the chance to examine the advanced starship they’ve just acquired. John on the other hand is still intent on carrying out RED FLAG, especially now that they have a Covenant vessel at their disposal (‘First Strike’, chapter nine). Lieutenant Elias Haverson is ardently opposed to this, and makes it no secret that he does not like the Chief. Even going so far as to subtly goad John over the loss of his fellow Spartans:
“What’s on this ship,” Haverson said, “can save the human race. And wasn’t that the goal of your mission? Let’s return to Earth and let the Admiralty decide. No one would question your decision to clarify your orders given the circumstances…” He paused, then added, “And the loss of your entire team.”
Haverson’s expression was carefully neutral, but the Chief still bristled at the further mention of his team – and at the attempt to manipulate him. He remembered his order sending Fred, Kelly, and the others to the surface of Reach, thinking that he, Linda, and James were going on the “hard” mission.
Eventually John’s command is overruled, and it is decided that they will be returning to Earth. However, due to the Cole Protocol still being in effect, they cannot slipspace jump to Earth from their current location. Fortunately John has an ace up his sleeve. He then proposes that they return to Reach first and use it as a halfway point, and gauge what the Covenant are currently up to before making a final decision on how to proceed. This idea is accepted by the group and a course to Reach is plotted. John’s plan is not without some major ulterior motives though:
The Master Chief sighed and relaxed a little. There was another reason for choosing Reach, one he didn’t reveal to the Lieutenant. He knew the odds of anyone surviving on the surface were remote. Astronomical, in fact…because once the Covenant decided to glass a planet, they did so with amazing thoroughness. But he had to see it. It was the only way he could accept that his teammates were dead.
I love how John perfectly wheels the situation in order to service both the mission at hand as well as his own personal desires. It really does show how much his Spartans mean to him and the lengths he is willing to go to simply get closure for himself on their possible deaths.
After arriving at Reach, they discover that a small portion of the surface of the planet remains unglassed. They also manage to pick up a UNSC coded transmission: a six-note tune, “Oly Oly Oxen Free”. No one on the bridge recognizes it’s meaning, except for John – it is a call he and his teammates devised during training as an all-clear signal, and is exclusive to the Spartan-IIs. Now truly hopeful that some of the others are still alive, John takes his crew aboard a dropship to the planet’s surface. And once there he quickly manages to locate one of his comrades (‘First Strike’, chapter nineteen):
A private COM channel snapped on: “Master Chief, relax. It’s me.”
Another Spartan stepped out from the cover of the rock. His armor – while not as battered as John’s – was covered with scuffs and burns; the left shoulder pauldron had been dented.
The Master Chief felt a surge of relief. His teammates, his family, hadn’t all been killed. He recognized the Spartan from his voice and the subtle way he glanced right and left. It was SPARTAN-044, Anton. He was one of the unit’s best scouts. The two stood there a moment and then Anton moved his hand, making a quick, short gesture with his index and forefinger over the faceplate of his helmet where his mouth would be. That was their signal for a smile – the closest any Spartan got to an emotional outburst.
John returned the gesture.
Along with Anton-044, John finds Li-008, Grace-093, and an Admiral named Whitcomb. After exchanging their stories about what has happened to them since the attack on Reach, John finds out that Whitcomb did indeed have contact with the rest of Red Team before they disappeared near CASTLE Base. Confident that his Spartans are holed-up in the underground tunnels beneath the base, John (with the staunch approval of Admiral), goes to rescue them – even with the great tactical risk this poses to their group safely getting their captured Covenant ship and the data from the Halo back to Earth. After fighting off the aliens pursuing Red Team in the caverns below ground, John finally finds what he has been looking for (‘First Strike’, chapter twenty):
From a pile of shattered stone, a pair of battered Elites struggled to rise. Blood and bone exploded outward from their chests, and they spun around toward the source of this force – boulders pushed away from the blocked passage. Three Spartans emerged from their cover, assault rifles smoking from their recent discharge.
John knew instantly the three were Kelly, Fred, and Will.
He ran forward to meet them.
Fred lowered his weapon. “Anton…Grace…John?” he said disbelievingly.
The Master Chief opened a COM channel to his Spartans. “It’s me. I wish I had time to explain everything. I will – later. Let’s get the hell out of here first.”
Kelly quickly reached out and swiped her two fingers across John’s faceplate.
I’ve already mentioned in the past just how much is communicated between Spartan-IIs through the smallest instances of physical contact, and just prior to this moment we are told how important the ‘Spartan Smile’ gesture is to them. So the emotional significance of Kelly’s unique touch to John’s helmet is clear. Aside from the obvious happiness and relief she’s expressing, I also can’t help but wonder just what else might have been conveyed between her and him in that instant…to the point that I would even go so far as to say this could be something along the lines of the closest thing we’ll ever see to an “I love you.” between Spartan-IIs.
But sadly time is still of the essence, and John – though he wants to – is unable to return Kelly’s smile before all hell breaks loose. Not only is it revealed that Dr. Halsey managed to escape CASTLE Base with Red Team, but that she is in possession of another Forerunner data-crystal and a massive host of Covenant is closing in on them. Eventually the Spartans and the others with them are cornered in a large cavern, and a series of events happen then that probably marks the greatest testament to the strength of John and Kelly’s bond (‘First Strike’, chapter twenty-two):
John tensed as he watched the thousands of Covenant crowding on the galleries surround him and his team. He didn’t dare move; his team was on the wrong end of too much firepower.
They couldn’t win this fight.
On the third gallery off the floor of the great room, at the four o’clock position, a Hunter pair roared with anger. They raised their fuel rod cannons and then leveled their weapons – and fired.
Kelly moved before anyone; she was a blur of motion and stepped in front of Dr. Halsey. John and Fred moved to either side of Kelly, while Anton grabbed the Admiral and threw the older man behind them.
The blinding white-hot plasma charges struck the Spartans’ shields and splashed over their chests.
John’s shield drained completely. The overpressure forced him to take a step backward, and the skin on his forearms blistered.
Then the heat was gone, and he blinked away the black dots that swarmed in his vision. Kelly lay at his feet. Her armor smoldered and hydrostatic gel boiled from the emergency release vent along her left side.
A thousand more shots rang out from the gallery, and John instinctively crouched to cover his fallen comrade. He braced for the inevitable burning energy impact.
Kelly takes the brunt of the Hunters’ cannon-fire, and pays for it dearly. And once he sees her downed it’s like a switch is flipped in John. Even though there are still other Spartans, normal soldiers, and two very important administrative personnel behind him in need of protection, his thoughts and actions are only for his injured best friend. John’s armor’s energy shield is also still depleted, so if the Hunters do fire again the only result will be instant death for both Kelly and himself – John knows this. Yet he moves to cover her anyway. The slightest chance that he can protect Kelly is more important to John in that moment than the mission, his own life, the other Spartans, the Admiral, and even Dr. Halsey. Kelly is more important to him than literally everything else that has helped define and direct his life up to this point. We have never seen (and have yet to see) John take this kind of risk purely for the sake of any one individual. Ever. And honestly I don’t really know what else to say about that – I think it speaks for itself.
Clearly this is more than just a gut reaction to protect a teammate, not with everything else going on around him that should also be warranting John’s concern as per his Spartan training. This goes on even as the situation changes too. John’s luck seems to hold out, as the blasts of plasma he was expecting from the Covenant never come:
Three heartbeats pounded in John’s chest. Neither the humans nor the Covenant hosts in the great room moved.
“What the hell is this?” Sergeant Johnson muttered. “Shouldn’t we be dead by now?”
John linked to Kelly’s biomonitors; she was in shock, and her suit’s heat pumps were strained to the failure point. He had to get her to safety.
As it turns out the Covenant are looking to obtain the Forerunner crystal, and a Zealot Elite commands the other aliens not to fire on the humans in order to protect their desired prize. So even though his group is no longer under threat of immediate vaporization, John still continues to give Kelly priority before anything and everyone else. And I can’t help but be struck by the finality of the tone in that last line: he has to get Kelly to safety, because losing her now is simply not an option. Dr. Halsey is able to further assess Kelly’s critical condition, and John still keeps his attention on his best friend’s status as they make their escape:
Dr. Halsey stuffed the alien crystal into her lab coat pocket and knelt next to Kelly. She checked her vitals on the data pad and shook her head. She looked at John, her expression grim. “She’s alive…barely. She needs help.”
“Let’s not be rude,” Admiral Whitcomb barked. “Welcome our guests, Master Chief!”
“Perimeter fire,” the Master Chief ordered. “Keep it tight. Dispersion pattern Delta. Go!”
The Spartans simultaneously stepped into a semicircle, assault rifles pointed outward. In unison they thumbed their weapons’ safeties and opened fire. Right behind them Locklear, Johnson, Haverson, and the Admiral took up position inside the circle. They primed and threw grenades.
John paused and turned his attention to Kelly. He hauled her limp body off the floor and draped her over his shoulder.
Under direct orders from Admiral Whitcomb, John reestablishes his control over his team and they carve their way through the enemy forces to their dropship:
The hatch sealed and the Master Chief moved forward, toward the cockpit. As he passed through the compartment, he saw Kelly. She was slumped over; thin trails of smoke curled from the holes in her armor.
He helped Dr. Halsey strap Kelly down. Halsey’s eyes locked onto the wounded Spartan’s erratic vitals as they squiggled across her data pad. She set the elongated crystal next to Kelly…but it didn’t lie flat. It defied gravity, floating – one sharp, slender end pointed at the surface.
“How very odd,” Halsey whispered.
John had to agree; it was unusual. Almost as odd as being under the guns of a thousand angry Covenant soldiers – yet none of them had fired a shot.
“Take care of her,” he told Dr. Halsey, then he stood and made his way to the cockpit.
Again we see that, even with a swath of angry Covenant after them and another mysterious crystal on hand, John makes sure Dr. Halsey takes care of Kelly first and foremost.
After a harrowing escape from the Covenant on the ground and in space as they return to the Ascendant Justice, and the tragic loss of both Li and Anton in battle, they manage to rendezvous with those aboard the UNSC frigate Gettysburg. They then make their way to the Eridanus Secundus asteroid belt and forge an uneasy alliance with the insurrectionists hiding out there. During this time Dr. Halsey is able to stabilize Kelly and successfully teat her injuries, as well as revive Linda from her cryostasis – much to John’s relief. The situation is still not good though, because whilst infiltrating the Covenant’s systems previously, Cortana managed to discover that the aliens had in fact figured out Earth’s location. As the group plans their next move, John enjoys a moment of peace with his reunited team in their makeshift barracks as Kelly, Fred, and Will playfully banter with Linda about her own miraculous recovery (‘First Strike’, chapter twenty-nine):
Without looking up from her rifle Linda said, “Now I know what you have to do to get a couple of days’ R-and-R in this outfit.”
“I heard,” Fred remarked, “that you spent the whole time sleeping, too.”
“That’s why she likes to snipe,” Will replied. “I caught her snoring last time she posted in that tower on Europa.”
John was glad they could joke about her return from the dead. He couldn’t bring himself to join in, though. He had accepted the mantle of command, and CPO Mendez had taught him to repress his external emotional reactions to preserve his authority. Right now, he resented that.
This part always makes me a little sad. Because though John is so happy to have his Spartans back at his side, including his best friend that had been on death’s door and another that had in fact died right in from of him, his dedication to his position as their leader prevents him from actively participating with them during this rare instance of downtime. Still at least he seems to take comfort in their interactions in his own quiet way. Their revelries are interrupted however by a message for Kelly over the intercom:
The COM pulsed to life. Dr. Halsey said, “Master Chief?”
“I need Kelly to report to Medical Four,” she said. “She requires one last injection of dermacortic steroids. And I could use her assistance on another matter.”
John nodded to Kelly.
She slowly stretched, stood, sighed, and marched out of the room. “I’ll be right back,” she said, flexing her burned hands. “Don’t plan the overthrow of the Covenant Empire without me.”
Little did John or Kelly know though, her innocent quip about overthrowing the Covenant would be their last exchange and the last time they would see each other for several long years…years John would have to spend suspended in cryo out in deep space after having fought through the end of the war without her, while Kelly in turn would have to carry on and continue Blue Team’s legacy after being told he was lost and most likely dead. Yet in spite of that, the connection between these two Spartans wold prove to be able to stand the tests of time and separation until they would meet again.