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A GOD WHO CREATES TOOLS IS STILL A GOD. IT IS NOT FOR US TO IMPOSE QUALIFICATIONS UPON THE DIVINE OR PRESUME TO GUESS ITS INTENTIONS.
(FORMER FIELD MASTER AVU MED ‘TELCAM OF THE SANGHEILI NERU PE ‘ODOSIMA—SERVANTS OF THE ABIDING TRUTH—ON REVELATIONS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE FORERUNNERS)
FORMER COLONY OF NEW LLANELLI, BRUNEL SYSTEM: JANUARY 2553.
It was an ugly bastard, and the temptation to kill it where it stood was almost more than Serin Osman could handle.
It was also pretty upset. Its arms flailed as if it was on some passionate Sangheili rant about politics or religion or whatever they played instead of football, its cloverleaf jaws snapping open and shut like a demented gin-trap. Osman watched from the shuttle cargo bay with her rifle resting on the control panel. Matters could get out of hand with a two-and-a-half-meter alien before you knew it. She was ready to drop the thing before it crushed Phillips.
He could actually speak their language, even if some of the sounds defied simple human jaws. She wondered what he sounded like to them. He was making mirroring gestures back at the Sangheili, and although she couldn't hear the conversation it seemed to be working. The alien did that odd trick with its split mandibles, pressing the two sides together to mimic a human jaw and trying to force out more articulate sounds.
So the hinge-head was mirroring too. It was a good sign. A good sign in a bad deal. No, not a bad deal: a dirty one. Osman stepped down from the bay, careful to keep her rifle close to her leg so she looked prepared but not threatening. Phillips glanced over his shoulder at her, seeming oblivious of the risk.
I'd never take my eyes off that thing. God, what do they teach these academics about personal safety?
She leaned against the hatch frame and waited, glancing at her watch to check Sydney time. Around her, the ruins of New Llanelli felt like a rebuke. The dead tapped her on the shoulder, appalled: And you're talking to these bastards now? On our graves?
A shaft of sunlight struck through a break in the clouds and threw up a bright reflection from a lake in the distance. No … that's not a lake. Her brain had joined up the dots and made the wrong assumption. She eased her datapad out of her jacket pocket one-handed and checked. There was no body of water for a hundred kilometers on the map in the CAA Factbook. The reflective surface was vitrified sandy soil, mirror-smooth, square hectares of it where there had once been rye and potatoes.
When the Covenant glassed a planet, they really did just that.
Phillips gestured to get her attention and distracted her from the uncomfortable thought that the planet was making a point to her. He walked over to the shuttle, looking pleased with himself.
"The Bishop wants a word," he said. "I told him you were the boss woman. His English is pretty good, so play it straight. And don't call him an Elite. Use the proper name. It matters to them."
Osman pushed herself away from the bulkhead with her hip. "What, like bishop?"
"Ignore that." Phillips—Professor Evan Phillips, another respectable academic who'd been sucked down into ONI's drain—put on his serious face again. "They told me he was devout, but I didn't realize how devout."
"Is that going to be a problem?"
"Might be a bonus."
"Yes, they do tend to stick to a plan."
"I meant that he's a fundamentalist. The Abiding Truth. Very, very old tradition of faith."
"Prompt me. I'm not an anthropologist."
"They're said to have squirreled away original Forerunner relics from the time of their first contact. Their equivalent of saints' fingers."
"It must be my birthday." Osman wasn't sure when that really was. Today seemed as good a day as any. "Maybe they've got some schematics in a dusty drawer or something."
"Come on, don't keep him waiting."
"How is he with women? I don't think I've ever seen a female Sangheili. Do they keep them in purdah or something?"
"It's not that simple." Phillips beckoned to her to follow. "The ladies wield a hell of a lot of political power in the bloodline stakes. When you've got a few hours to kill, I'll explain it."
She didn't, and it could wait. She walked up to the Sangheili, steeling herself not to call him an Elite or a murdering hinge-head bastard.
Osman was taller than the average man, and at one-ninety she wasn't used to having to look up at anybody. But the Bishop towered half a meter above her like a monument in gold armor. For a moment she found herself looking into a disturbingly featureless face before she settled on the black eyes and small, flaring nostrils just below them. The Bishop was sniffing her scent. Unsettling didn't even begin to cover it.
"Captain Osman," Phillips said cautiously, looking back and forth between her and the Sangheili. "Let me introduce you to Avu Med ‘Telcam, speaker for the Servants of Abiding Truth. He used to be a field master but he's … renounced the ways of the infidels and cleansed his name, because they've brought shame and misery on the Sangheili … and they deserve to hang from spikes." He seemed to be quoting very carefully, glancing at the Sangheili as if for confirmation. He gave her a don't-say-anything-daft look. "He means the Arbiter."
‘Telcam sniffed again. Osman could smell him, too. It was a faintly leathery scent, like the seats of a new car. It wasn't unpleasant.
"I'm Captain Osman. I'm a shipmaster." ‘Telcam would get the point. "So I keep my word. May we talk?" She gave Phillips her get-lost look. This wasn't for his ears, and that was as much for his own good as Earth's. "Can you give us ten minutes, Professor?"
Phillips nodded and turned to walk away. This was why Osman didn't like using co-opted specialists. If he'd known what she was about to do, he would probably have gone all ethical on her.
I might be underestimating him, of course. But his job's done. It's not his problem now.
‘Telcam tilted his head to one side. Osman had to strain to make out the words, but it was no harder than concentrating on a bad radio signal. The creature really could speak pretty good English.
"Shipmaster, my people have been punished because they had no faith," he said. A fine mist of saliva cooled on her face every time he hit a sibilant or an F. It didn't look easy to articulate those four-way jaws. "The traitor Thel ‘Vadam and his ilk now say the gods are deceivers, and so they shall die. We have been in thrall to mongrel races long enough. We have let the false prophets of the San'Shyuum corrupt our pure connection to the divine. Now we shall do our penance and bring the Sangheili back to the true path. So what can you possibly want with us? Do you want to agree to a truce?"
"How were you planning on killing ‘Vadam and the other … traitors?"
"We have few ships left now. Few weapons, too. But we have our devotion. We will find a way."
Osman noted the energy sword on his belt. We've got a right one here. A god-bothering, heavily armed maniac. Lovely. I can do business with that. She tried to find genuine common ground in case he could smell fear or deceit on her. A small dash of truth in a soup of lies worked wonders.
"What if we supplied you with some weapons?"
He jerked his head back. "And why would you do that? The traitor sides with humans against his own."
"Humans gamble. I'm betting that your side will win. Dead friends aren't much use."
"Ah." ‘Telcam made a little sound like a horse puffing through its lips. A fine spray rained on her again and she tried not to recoil. She picked up a whiff of something far too much like dog food. "Kingmaker. This is your policy. You help us take control so that you know your enemy and think you can then control us."
"Look, we're never going to be friends, Field Master. But we can agree to stay out of one another's way and lead separate existences. Too many lives have been lost. It has to stop."
‘Telcam leaned closer again as if he was doing a uniform inspection. "You have colonies here. This is part of the war. This is the cause of our enmity."
"Some of our colonies don't like us very much either. Humans kill humans too."
"How tangled your lives are."
"My, you do speak good English."
"I was a translator once. I interpreted your communications for my old shipmaster. I speak several human languages."
Well, that explained a hell of a lot. Phillips obviously didn't know, or at least he hadn't said, but Osman decided to cut him some slack because he'd only been tasked to do one thing: to get her an audience with dissident Sangheili who were likely to disrupt any peace deals. He was lucky to get that far without having his head ripped off.
"Well, Field Master, I think we can help one another keep our troublesome factions in line." Osman turned slightly to keep Phillips in her peripheral vision, just in case he wandered back and heard too much. "It might require some discretion, because we can't be seen to ally with you. But an unstable Sangheili empire doesn't help us, and an unstable human one is a threat to you. Yes?"
"And some of my brethren might not understand my willingness to talk to infidels. So we do favors, you and I."
"Indeed. For the greater good." Osman paused a beat and made sure she didn't blink. Sangheili had a military sense of honor, and the truth she was about to drop into the deceit went some way toward satisfying her own. "If I thought ‘Vadam would survive as leader, I would be doing deals with him instead."
She wasn't sure if Sangheili ever smiled. If they did, she had no idea what it looked like, not with that four-way jaw. But ‘Telcam's expression shifted a little. The muscles in his dog-reptile face relaxed for a moment.
"I have a condition," he said.
"I thought you might."
"You blaspheme about the gods. You spread vile lies about them. This must stop."
"We just showed you what the Halo was." Oh shit. Come on, think. There's a way through this. "We didn't set out to insult your beliefs."
"So the Halos are machines of destruction. So you say the gods themselves were killed by them." ‘Telcam leaned over her, almost nose to nose. He was so close that she couldn't focus on those doglike teeth. They were just cream blurs in a purplish haze of gum. "Your god chose to die for you and that is precisely why you revere him, yes? And why you say he also lives. This so-called proof about the Halos means nothing. Not even to you."
And he uses the plural. Halos.
Osman suspected that he wanted her to agree with him, to reassure him that gods could be both dead and eternal at the same time like some divine Schrödinger's cat, to put some certainty back in his life. She knew that feeling. But the last thing she wanted was a theological argument with a heavily armed alien four or five times her weight. She bit back a comment that her name was Osman and that he was thinking of someone else's religion.
"We've had scientists who claim they've disproved the existence of God, and others who argue you can't prove anything," she said carefully. "But it hasn't made any difference to any of our religions. Faith is quite separate."
"Then you understand." ‘Telcam drew back. "If you arm us … if you stay away from our worlds … then when we take power and restore the rightful ways, we will leave you alone."
"Deal," she said. She almost held out her hand to shake on the agreement but thought better of it. "I'll be in touch very soon."
The Sangheili just turned and loped away to his ship without another word. It was too easy to look at them and see only an ungainly animal with strangely bovine legs, and not a superior force that had almost brought Earth to its knees. Phillips walked up to her but didn't ask what had happened. His expression said he was bursting to find out.
"Are we done?"
Osman nodded. "That's one enemy we don't have to fight for a while." She gave him a thumbs-up. "Well done. I never thought we'd get one of them to talk to us, let alone reach an agreement. We owe you."
"I admit it's satisfying to be able to put the theory into practice. And wonderful to have unique access to Sangheili space with all expenses paid, of course. Good old ONI. My taxes, well spent."
Osman headed back to the shuttle, suddenly aware of small fragments of glass crunching under her boots. Damn, that's not broken bottles. It's vitrification. "You don't feel your academic cred's been stained by mixing with us grubby little spooks, then."
"God, no. I'm not that naive. I know what you're up to. Just don't tell me, that's all. I have to be able to deny it with a straight face."
So he certainly wasn't stupid, and ONI wasn't doing anything that countless governments hadn't done over the centuries to look after their interests. She should have expected him to work it out. "And we're doing what, exactly?"
"Oh, I thought I was helping you establish diplomatic channels with the hard-to-reach Sangheili demographic.…"
"You told me not to tell you."
"Yes, so I did." He winked at her. "Well, you've slapped a saddle on that tiger. Now you better make damn sure you don't fall off."
They settled into their seats and she ran the preflight checks before handing over to the AI. Phillips was whistling tunelessly under his breath, as if he was glad to be leaving. Osman had expected him to be reluctant to go home but he obviously had what he wanted—some dazzling scientific paper, some award-worthy research, maybe even a lucrative book—that nobody else in his field had, and that seemed to be enough.
He wouldn't be coming back here. He probably realized that. ONI regarded him as a single-use sharp.
"Just remember that my enemy's enemy isn't my friend, Professor," she said, opening a secure comms channel. "He's my enemy who's just taking a sidebar."
Phillips burst out laughing. "You sweet, innocent little flower. You've never worked in academia, have you? Red in tooth and claw. Feuds, plots, vengeance. The works."
"I can imagine." The secure channel indicator flashed and Osman lowered her voice. "Osman here, ma'am. Professor Phillips and I are on our way back."
"Thank you for letting me know, Captain." Admiral Margaret Parangosky, head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, never raised her voice and never needed to. "I assume things went well."
Osman could translate Parangosky-isms easily enough. Have you set up the Sangheili insurrection? That was what she meant. Few outside the Navy and the senior ranks of government knew who Parangosky was, let alone knew to fear her. Osman suspected she was the only person in the Admiral's circle who would always be forgiven even if she failed. But she wasn't in a hurry to test it.
"Everything's fine, ma'am," she said.
"Thank Professor Phillips for me. Safe flight."
Osman signed off and the AI took over. The shuttle shuddered on its dampers as its engines reached peak power. In a few hours, they'd rendezvous with Battle of Minden and head back to Earth, where the mission would be over for Phillips but only just beginning for her.
So far, so good.
"Do I get a gold star?" he asked.
"Maybe an extra cookie."
"Where's the best Turkish restaurant in Sydney?"
"I don't know."
"Oh. Really? Sorry."
It always caught her short. She'd never actually said she had Turkish roots, and—odd, for a woman so used to lying for a living—she couldn't bring herself to construct a cover story for herself. She simply allowed everyone to make assumptions based on her name and her Mediterranean coloring. Her real name hadn't been Osman, not as far as she knew, and she had no plans to use her access to ONI classified files to find out who she really was. She could only be who she was now.
Phillips would have treated her very differently if she'd had Spartan-019 on her ID badge. It was better if nobody knew what she was, and what she was not.
"Yes, I've been away too long," she said, relenting. "But I can smell a good imam bayildi ten klicks away."
Anyone could. It wasn't really a lie. Phillips rubbed his hands together, miming delight at the thought of food that didn't come out of a ration pack. The shuttle lifted clear of New Llanelli, and Osman caught one last glimpse on the monitor of that lake of vitrified sand.
That's why I'm entitled to break the rules. To make sure it never happens again.
Osman was sure she'd heard that argument before, more than thirty years ago, but she couldn't remember if it was before or after she met Dr. Catherine Halsey.
"Academia," she said. "Yes, it's a savage old world, isn't it?"
MARK DONALDSON WAY, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: AUSTRALIA DAY, TWO MONTHS AFTER THE BATTLE OF EARTH, JANUARY 26, 2553.
There was just one flagpole left intact on the shattered Sydney Harbour waterfront, and a workman in a hard hat and orange overalls was clambering up a maintenance gantry to reach it.
It was a damn long way to fall.
Corporal Vaz Beloi wandered out onto a stump of a girder that had once been part of a pedestrian overpass, trying to get a better view. A piece of dark blue fabric dangled from the workman's back pocket. Vaz couldn't see a safety harness, but then there wasn't much left of the crumbling building to secure it to.
And they say ODSTs are crazy.
He watched the man with renewed curiosity. Mal Geffen caught up with him and leaned on what was left of the overpass safety rail. It creaked as he put his weight on it.
"Come on, we've only got an hour." Mal gestured irritably with his wrist, brandishing his watch, then frowned at something on his sleeve. "Sod it, I'm covered in crap already. We can't rock up in our number threes looking like this. It's the Admiral."
"It'll brush off," Vaz said, distracted by the reckless workman again. He held up a warning finger. "Wait. I have to see what this guy does."
He knew Mal wasn't being disrespectful. He was just nervous about being summoned to ONI without explanation, and Vaz understood that, but they had another mission to complete. A visit to Sydney was rare.
And we made a promise. Admiral or no Admiral.
A small crowd watched from the shore, a mix of construction workers, firefighters, and sappers who were still digging bodies out of the rubble two months after the bombing. The workman, now teetering on the end of the gantry, lunged at the flagpole and managed to haul in the halyard. He clipped the flag to it and wobbled for a moment before tugging on the line to reveal the white stars of the Southern Cross on a deep blue ground, with a single gold Commonwealth star on green ground in the canton.
Everyone cheered. A fleet tender in the harbor sounded its klaxon.
Mal seemed to be working something out, lips moving as if he was counting. "Well done, Oz. Seven hundred and sixty-five not out." He nudged Vaz in the back and strode off. "Come on, we've got to find the bar. If we don't do it now, we won't get another chance for years."
Vaz watched the workman edge back down the gantry to relative safety before he felt able to turn away and catch up with Mal.
"Okay, why seven hundred and sixty-five?" he asked.
"Seven hundred and sixty-five years since the first migrants landed here. It's Australia Day." They walked across a temporary walkway that spanned a crater the full width of the road. It vibrated under their boots like a sprung floor. "You understand not out, don't you? Don't make me explain cricket to you again."
"I understand cricket just fine." Vaz bristled. "What's your problem?"
"Sorry, mate. Parangoskyitis."
Both of them had done more than a hundred drops behind enemy lines and accepted they might not survive the next one, but the prospect of being hauled before a very elderly woman with a stoop and a lot of gold braid had kept them awake every night for the past week. Even ODSTs were wary of Margaret Parangosky.
"She's over ninety," Vaz said. "None of those stories about her can be true. She just spreads them for effect. Like my grandmother used to."
"Look, we said we wouldn't play guessing games about this. We'll know soon enough."
"You started it."
"Well, she's not invited us for tea and medals, has she? It'll be a bollocking."
"You want ODSTs to do a job for you, you ask for a fire team. Or a company. A battalion, even."
"You know how paranoid ONI is. Top-secret-eat-before-reading." Mal picked more specks off his sleeve, frowning. "Ah, come on. It's just a bloody meeting. It's not like we're storming a beachhead."
But why us? Vaz checked the tourist map again. "This thing's useless. I can't see any landmarks."
Mal fumbled in his pocket and took out the ancient button compass that he always carried. "Fieldcraft, Vaz. Back to basics. If we can't find a bar, we're not worthy of the uniform."
There wasn't a living soul in sight, not even a cop or a construction worker to ask for directions. The hum of activity—bulldozers, trip hammers, drills—was receding a street at a time. The bank that should have been standing on the next corner was a tangle of metal joists and collapsed masonry.
There was no sign of the plaza full of pavement cafés, either, and the shopping center that was supposed to be on Vaz's left looked like a slab of honeycomb with the wax layer ripped off. All he could see was a procession of composite block walls, now just a few courses high. Red-and-white cordon tape fluttered between steel poles. The smell of raw sewage hit him.
"You lads look lost."
A civil defense warden popped up like a range target behind a barrier fifty meters away, and Vaz almost reached for a rifle he wasn't carrying. It was hard adjusting to a place where there were no threats.
"Yeah, I think we are," Vaz said.
"You trying to find Bravo-Six?" The warden meant the UNSC headquarters. "Wrong direction, son."
"No, a bar," Mal said. "The Parthenon."
"It's gone." The warden glanced at his watch as if he thought it was a bit early for a drink, then studied Mal's uniform, peering at the death's-head insignia with a baffled frown. Maybe the Corps had taken the low-profile special forces thing a bit too far. "What are you, then, marines?"
"ODSTs." Mal paused. The guy didn't seem to be catching on. "Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Yeah, marines."
"So how do we get to the Parthenon Bar?" Vaz asked.
"I told you. It's just rubble now. They're clearing the site."
"We don't want a drink. We've got something else we need to do."
The warden gave Vaz a sideways look. Maybe the man thought his English wasn't so hot because of his heavy accent. "Just keep going that way," he said, indicating forty-five degrees and slowing his speech down a bit for the hard of understanding. "You'll see the bus station. It's two streets north of there."
Vaz was starting to sweat as he walked away. It was midsummer and his formal uniform was frying him, not that he had the option of showing up in shirtsleeves. Mal somehow still looked pristine despite the concrete dust on his elbows and boots.
"What are we going to use for a drink?" Mal asked.
"I don't know. Maybe we just say what we have to say and leave it at that."
They'd promised Emanuel that if they ever passed through Sydney, something Vaz had thought highly unlikely, then they'd find the man's favorite bar and raise a toast to his memory. It had been a very matter-of-fact conversation. ODSTs didn't think of getting killed as an if. It was more like a when.
Doesn't make it any easier, though. Doesn't mean we miss him any the less.
"Ah," said Mal. As soon as they turned the corner and looked up the road, they could see the bulldozers at work. "Ripe for development."
Some of the clearance crew stopped to watch them walking along the center line of the road. Vaz counted the stumps of internal walls and decided that 21 Strathclyde Street had stood where there was now a ragged crater fringed by the remains of four bright turquoise Doric columns. Mal looked them over, uncharacteristically grim.
"Manny never did have much taste in bars," he said quietly. "Poor bugger."
One of the construction workers took off his hide gloves and picked his way over the rubble toward them, head down and eyes shielded by the peak of his hard hat. It was only when "he" looked up that Vaz realized it was actually a woman, a nice-looking redhead. Vaz sometimes tried to imagine how alien he must have looked to a civilian these days, but he could guess from the slight frowns he'd been getting this morning that he didn't come across as the nice friendly boy next door. He decided to let Mal do the talking and stood back to look down into the crater. A pool of stagnant water lay at the bottom like a mirror, busy with mosquitoes.
"What can we do for you, mate?" the redhead asked.
Mal pointed at the complete absence of a bar. "Was that the Parthenon?"
"Yeah. Better stay clear of the edge. You can see it's not Happy Hour."
"We've got a promise to keep to a mate who didn't make it back."
The redhead cocked her head on one side. "We're supposed to keep people out of this road. Safety regs. You know what the council's like. But what they don't know won't hurt 'em."
Vaz pitched in. They had half an hour to do this and then make themselves presentable to report to Bravo-6. "We just want to raise a glass to him, ma'am. Then we'll go."
The redhead stood with her hands on her hips, inspecting Vaz. "Did you bring a bottle?"
It was a good question. They'd expected the bar to be open, not demolished, and they'd run out of time to find a bottle shop, as the locals called it. Mal shrugged, doing his I'm-just-a-lovable-rogue look that usually worked on women. The redhead gave him a sad smile and turned to her crew with her hand held out like she was asking for a tool. One of the men picked up a lunchbox from the seat of a dump truck and tossed her a plastic bottle. She handed it over to Mal with due reverence.
"Best we can do, Marine," she said. "Go ahead, but don't fall in and break your neck."
After some of the jumps Vaz had done, that would have been an embarrassing way to go. Mal read the label and smiled.
"Fruit juice. He'd see the funny side of that. Thanks, sweetheart."
The clearance crew moved back a little but they were still watching. Vaz squirmed. It felt like taking a leak in public. So what did they do now? All the vague plans to get hammered and reminisce about Emanuel had gone out the window, and Parangosky would be waiting.
Mal unscrewed the cap and handed it to Vaz. He took a swig—passion fruit or something, warm and fizzy—and handed it back. Mal took a pull and held up the bottle like a glass of vintage champagne.
"Emanuel Barakat," he said. "Helljumper. Brother. One of the best. We miss you, Manny."
Vaz forgot the audience of hard hats. All he could see was the water trickling from a broken main into the pool at the bottom of the crater. "Yeah, Manny. Rest in peace."
Mal handed the bottle back to the redhead. "Thanks again. We'll get out of your hair now."
"No worries. I'm sorry about your mate." She paused. "Is it all over, then? Is the war really over?"
"I don't know." Mal turned and started to walk away, Vaz following. "But it's pretty quiet out there for the first time I can remember."
They were a few paces down the road before the clapping started. It was the strangest thing. Vaz turned around, and there they were, a dozen men and women in high-viz tabards and rigger's boots, just clapping and looking at them. And it wasn't a general reaction to Mal's comment on the war, either. The workers were applauding them.
Nobody said a word. Vaz couldn't have managed one even if he'd known what to say. They'd reached the end of the road before Mal spoke.
"That was decent of them."
Vaz wasn't sure if he meant the fruit juice or the applause. But maybe the war was finally over. Everywhere they'd stopped off in the last few days, at every shop and transit point, the atmosphere was a strange blend of dread, bewilderment, and elation. Civvies were still getting used to the idea. He'd expected it to be like the newsreels from the end of the Great Patriotic War, with people dancing in the streets and climbing lampposts to hoist flags, but that war had only lasted six years, however bloody the battles. People in 1945—and 2090, 2103, and 2162—could recall what peace felt like and knew what they'd missed.
But now there were two generations that couldn't remember a time when Earth wasn't at war with the Covenant. Nobody had signed any surrender or cease-fire yet, though. Vaz wasn't taking anything for granted.
Mal quickened his pace and Vaz matched it, deciding not to tell him he had a splash of mud drying on his pants leg. He'd sort it out later. They headed back to the nearest intact main road to hail a cab. Even in a city smashed to rubble, there was still a decent living to be made from ferrying UNSC personnel around, and one of the few places that remained untouched by the attack was the massive underground complex of Bravo-6. The driver who picked them up just glanced at them in the rearview mirror and said nothing for a while. When he caught Vaz's eye, he looked away.
"Were you here when the Covenant attacked?" Vaz asked, trying to be sociable.
"Yeah." The driver nodded. "Hid in the sewers. Didn't even know where I was when I came out." He licked his lips. "Is it all over, like the news keeps saying? I mean, you'd know better than anybody, wouldn't you?"
"I don't know," Vaz said. "But the Covenant looks like it's fallen apart. Maybe that's the same thing."
It wasn't, and he knew it. It just meant the certainties of Us and Them would be replaced by a ragbag of trouble from unpredictable quarters, just as it always had on Earth. Aliens were a lot more like humans than anyone liked to admit.
But, like humans, they could all be dropped with the right ordnance, too. That wasn't going to change. Vaz was glad there were still some things he could rely on.
"Come on," Mal said as they showed their ID to the duty sergeant. "Practice your nice big smile for She Who Must Be Obeyed. Whatever she wants—it's only pain."
FORERUNNER DYSON SPHERE—LAST DEFINITIVE POSITION, ONYX: THREE HOURS INTO RECONNAISSANCE PATROL.
Catherine Halsey jerked her head around and stared into the bushes.
She realized she was the last person to react to the rustling in the leaves. Mendez, Tom, and Olivia already had their rifles trained on the same spot and Kelly had sighted up and was edging toward it. Something small and green shot up the trunk of the nearest tree to cling to the bark and stare at them.
"Not much meat on that, I'm afraid." Kelly lowered her weapon. It was a lizard with a narrow, almost birdlike face and a frilled crest. For a moment it paused, crest raised and absolutely still, then zipped down the tree again to vanish back into the bushes. "Still, it confirms we have a food chain here."
"Just as long as we're at the top of it," Olivia murmured.
Halsey wished she still had her sidearm. While she respected the Forerunners' vastly superior technology, they hadn't been around to mind the shop for a very long time, and there was no telling what might have evolved since they'd left this place ticking over. There were plants here that definitely weren't from Earth. If the fauna here was drawn from all the worlds the Forerunners had visited, then anything was possible.
She didn't need to point that out. All unknown territory was presumed to be potentially hostile.
Mendez came to a halt and fumbled one-handed in his pockets. "Why?"
"Why what?" Tom asked.
"Why did the Forerunners put trees and animals here? Just to make the place nicer while they sat out the holocaust, or is it some kind of zoo?" Mendez tapped his radio and Halsey suddenly heard the crackle and hiss from the receiving end. "Lieutenant? Mendez here. We're seeing some wildlife now. Lizards. Anything your end?"
Fred's patrol was now on a parallel path a kilometer away. "Not yet, Chief. But we've got blossom on some of the trees, so I'm guessing there'll be pollinators around."
"Insects, birds … small mammals."
Halsey couldn't bear assumptions. "Or they're self-pollinating."
"Some of the plants look like Earth species, but so far we haven't … seen anything confirmed as edible." Fred sounded as if he was climbing something, pausing for breath. "Keep looking."
They were spread out in patrol formation with Mendez on point and Kelly walking tail. Halsey was suddenly conscious of being the misfit rather than the boss here, the theoretician who'd created a generation of Spartans but had never actually served, and all the small soldierly things that the Spartans seemed to do automatically—constantly scanning the branches of the trees, turning to take a few paces backward and check behind every so often—leapt out at her. She simply didn't move that way, and not just because she was lugging a bag that seemed to get heavier by the minute and burdened with a skirt. It just wasn't part of her unconscious fabric as it was with them.
It unsettled her. Nobody expected her to behave like a Spartan, even if she'd trained a generation of them. She wasn't sure why that troubled her.
"Bird?" Tom said to nobody in particular, pointing. He sighted up. "I can't tell, even with the scope."
Halsey followed his gesture to see a few tiny black dots making lazy passes high above them. Something about the movement wasn't birdlike. It reminded her of a bat's flight, but much slower.
"If it is, it doesn't fly like any avian species I know," Kelly said. "We're going to have one hell of a nature table."
They were moving through knee-high grass now, rolling downs dotted with stands of trees, some of which were made up of the terrestrial oaks that seemed to be everywhere. Others had bloated gray trunks and tiny, deep red, frondlike crowns that Halsey didn't recognize at all. It still didn't answer the Chief's question as to whether this was ornamental or part of a conservation project.
So how many did they expect to shelter here? The whole Forerunner population? Or just the great and the good? And for how long?
The quiet was as unfamiliar as the vegetation, layer upon layer of small, wild sounds that merged into the white noise of a countryside that sounded utterly alien. Humans had their own template of normal ambient noise, Halsey decided, and it remained unnoticed until they didn't hear it. She noticed the absence of hers now; no familiar birdsong, no distant rumble of traffic, no aircraft overhead. It kept her on edge. Every sound seemed suddenly magnified. The Spartans' armor clicked as their weapons shifted slightly with each pace. Mendez reached behind him and took something out of his belt pouch, making the material rasp against his webbing.
Then something touched Halsey's shoulder. She yelped and spun around.
"Sorry, ma'am." It was Olivia, one of the Spartan-IIIs. She held out something between her thumb and forefinger. "This was crawling up your back. Might be harmless, but I'm erring on the side of caution here."
Halsey's heart was hammering. She hadn't even realized the girl was behind her. "For God's sake, don't creep up on me like that."
She felt like a fool as soon as she said it. Olivia didn't react. But when Halsey looked around, embarrassed, she caught Mendez giving her a long, unblinking stare. She could see what he was holding now—his one weakness, a Sweet William cigar, or at least the last few centimeters of one. He rolled it between thumb and forefinger for a few slow moments like a rosary before stowing it in his belt pouch again.
"Let's you and me walk awhile, Doctor," he said, ambling back down the line toward Olivia. "Up you go, O. Take point."
"O" must have been Olivia's nickname. Halsey found herself the outsider again, not the matriarch. The girl lifted off her helmet one-handed to take a closer look at the creature that was squirming between her fingers, a beetlelike thing about ten centimeters long with bright orange stripes and a long tapering spike of a tail. Olivia couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen. She had poreless coffee-brown skin and delicate features that made Halsey think her origins were in the Horn of Africa.
"Just a tail. Not a sting." Olivia let the insect go and replaced her helmet. "But you never know."
Halsey glanced around. Kelly had now fallen back a distance and Tom had moved well to the right. Halsey realized the Spartans had instantly given her and Mendez some fight space, apparently without a single gesture or word passing between them. That was a testament to good shared situational awareness.
"Is there anything you want to say to me, Doctor?" Mendez said quietly. He took out his cigar butt again and parked it in the side of his mouth without lighting it. "Because we've been awfully civil so far."
You knew. You damn well knew. "Is that your last one?" Halsey asked.
"I've got three left. I'm rationing myself for the good of the mission."
"Spoken like a smoker."
"Don't worry. I won't light up anywhere near you."
"Always the gentleman."
Mendez was a hard man to read but it was safe to assume that the less emotion he showed, which wasn't much at the best of times, the more he was keeping his reaction battened down. He just gave her that dead-eyed look. It was probably the last thing that a lot of Covenant troops ever saw.
"Okay, ma'am, if you won't open the batting, I will. You are, I know, ticked off that there's a whole batch of Spartans you didn't bless or know about." Mendez took the cigar out of his mouth and pocketed it again. "Now, while I'm happy to discuss all that, I'm asking you to do one thing. Treat the Spartan-Threes the way you treat the others. If you've got a problem with the program, Doctor, direct it at me. Not them. They're Navy. They've earned respect."
It stung in the way that polite rebukes always did, with a little extra smack in the mouth for disrespecting men and women in uniform. Am I really that rude? Yes, I suppose I am. Halsey bit back the indignation that had been fermenting since she'd first seen complete strangers on Reach daring to wear the Spartans' Mjolnir armor.
It had all fallen into place. Parangosky putting Onyx off-limits, Mendez dropping out of sight all those years ago, Ackerson raiding her data around the same time … all she'd needed was the video logs and the information from Cortana to add the Halo Array and the Flood into the equation, and then she had a fairly reliable set of signposts. Parangosky must have had a good idea of what might be on Onyx even if she didn't know the full nature of the threat and couldn't access any of it.
It was why Halsey had picked Onyx. It was about more than realizing there were Spartans there, Spartans she had to save. It was a gamble on the Forerunners' meticulous survival precautions.
I'm lucky. But we make our own luck.
"I don't have a problem with them, Chief, or I wouldn't have come here to save them, would I?" she said. Maybe that sounded too messianic. She watched his eyes harden a little more. "But it's not easy finding that someone you've worked with for years kept something of this magnitude from you."
"It's called need-to-know, ma'am, and I don't decide who needs to. I just follow lawful orders." He gave her that look again, heavy-lidded, as if he was shaping up to spit on her. "But you knew more about Onyx than you're telling me."
"Just putting two and two together. Following the crumbs."
"And I'm sure you're too professional to withhold any information from us that we need to stay alive."
Ouch. "My only aim is to save the Spartans. I think you can count on that."
Mendez looked away in silence and kept walking. Halsey realized she was matching his pace, struggling to keep up with him. I really wish I'd worn pants. And I wish I was fitter. We're the same age, for goodness' sake. She was following his lead, one of those little psychological tells. He was the dominant individual now because this was his natural environment—the concrete, the physically dangerous—and not hers. She didn't like that at all.
"Who told you not to mention the Spartan-Three program to me?" she asked. There was a chance it would never matter, but she had to know. Colonel Ackerson had hacked her confidential data, but that didn't mean that his was the only score she'd have to settle. "Ackerson? Parangosky? Or both?"
"I was only told who I could tell. But I wouldn't have told you anyway." No, this wasn't quite the Chief she was used to, the one who looked away and kept his counsel: rounding on Olivia had definitely provoked him. "You'd have spent all your time arguing that we didn't have good enough candidates and trying to get it shelved. And I'd have told you that attitude trumps genetics every time."
"I know that. I—"
Halsey didn't have a personal radio, but everyone else did. Mendez turned away from her instantly and responded to a call she couldn't hear.
"Go ahead, sir." It had to be Fred. "Where?"
Where. The word made Halsey spin around, left then right. It was pure instinct. But when she caught sight of Kelly, the Spartan was looking up.
"Damn, he's right," she said, and aimed.
Halsey could see now. There was a black dot in the picture-perfect blue sky, getting bigger by the second. Something was swooping down on them.
Tom was nearest to her. "Ma'am, down!"
It was a fluke. If anyone had the lightning reflexes and sheer speed to reach her, it was Kelly. But Tom cannoned into Halsey and pinned her down just as a charcoal gray cylinder the size of a wine bottle whisked by so close that she felt the rush of air on her face. For a moment she couldn't see where it had gone. She was looking up at the lower edge of Tom's visor, wondering for a moment why she could still breathe.
That SPI armor was light, cheap stuff. Thank God. Three hundred kilos of Mjolnir armor would have killed her. But Tom was kneeling over her on all fours, shielding her from whatever had decided to target them. He'd just pushed her down.
"It's okay. It's okay." That was Kelly. Halsey heard her rifle click. "I've got it. It's not doing anything."
Tom got to his feet and helped Halsey up. Kelly had her rifle trained on the cylinder, frozen at a silent hover two meters off the ground.
"Is that some kind of mini Sentinel?" Mendez asked. "Because if it is, we've already seen the big ones. And you know what happens when those bastards link up."
For a moment, Halsey was totally distracted by the matte gray device and completely forgot her moment of ignominy in the grass. It wasn't a defensive machine like the deadly Sentinels they'd encountered on the surface. It gave the impression that it was waiting for something, although it had dived on them like a fighter. Halsey edged closer despite Kelly waving her away, and looked at the underside. A cluster of lights—no, illuminated symbols she couldn't read—was visible, two blue and one a greenish white. The blue ones were blinking.
It could have been counting down to detonate, of course. The Forerunners would have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure no unwanted life-forms contaminated this sanctuary. Halsey still had no evidence that the sphere's apparent tolerance of human intrusion was anything more than luck.
"No telling what'll happen if I shoot it," Kelly said. "And size doesn't mean something isn't lethal. Right, O?"
Olivia suddenly appeared from nowhere. Halsey really never heard her coming. Maybe old age was creeping on.
"Shall we—well, catch it?" Olivia asked. "We're supposed to be acquiring technology here."
Kelly reached out, slow and cautious for once. She was a finger-length from the cylinder when it shot up in a perfect vertical and vanished before she could target it.
"Damn, I've finally been outrun," she said. "Oh, the shame of it."
Mendez watched from a distance, lips moving. He was talking to Fred's squad on the radio. Halsey's stomach growled, reminding her of the top priority.
"It'll be back," she said. "And I'd like to take it alive." She turned to Tom, who'd taken off his helmet and was scratching his scalp. He was just as luminously young as the other Spartan-IIIs, with dark hair and a bruise on his chin that was already turning yellow at the margins. "Is that from when Kurt knocked you out?"
"Yes." Tom stared at a point between his boots and blinked a few times. "I'd never have left him to hold off the Elites on his own."
"It's okay, I know you wouldn't." Halsey wasn't sure if she was trying harder because Mendez had snarled at her or if she really did feel a pang of regret. "Saving someone is a reflex. Nobody who's wired that way thinks about it. Do they?"
Tom just shrugged. "No point taking chances, ma'am. You're the only one here who can read a Forerunner menu, aren't you?"
"Thanks, Spartan," she said. Do I mean that? Yes, I think I do. "I'll try to find you a steak."
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