Publicado: 11:41 24/07/2013 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: 3. Noticias
El Puño de Rukt
Ultimo mensaje en este blog. Por razones que no vienen al caso detallar, HALOverso se toma un tiempo en Vandal. Para cualquier cosa podéis seguir contactándome vía mensaje privado, xbox Live o en las siguientes Coordenadas.
FEET FIRST INTO HELL!
Publicado: 12:05 15/10/2011 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: Campaña restablecimiento del canon
El Puño de Rukt
Publicado: 21:24 12/10/2011 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: 3. Noticias
TOR Books y HALO Bulletin han colgado en primicia los dos primeros capítulos de HALO Glasslands.
Secreto: (Pincha para leerlo)
NOVEMBER 2552, LOCATION UNDEFINED. LAST VERIFIED
REALSPACE LOCATION: THE CORE OF THE PLANET ONYX.
It’s a beautiful sunny day. The oak branches are swaying gently in the breeze and the air’s scented with unseen blossom.
And we’re trapped.
Did you ever run and hide as a kid? Ever slam the closet door behind you, giggling because you were sure you’d never be found, and then realize you’d locked yourself in? Did you panic or breathe a sigh of relief? I suppose it all depends on what you were hiding from.
We’re hiding from the end of the world.
For all we know, it’s already happened. If there’s anyone left out there, they don’t even know we’re here. We may be the last sentient life left in the galaxy—me, Chief Mendez, and a detachment of Spartans. Correction: three of my Spartans—Fred, Kelly, and Linda—and five others who are something else entirely, five I didn’t even know existed until this week, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s not knowing.
You’ll explain yourself to me, Chief. I’ve got all the time in the world now. I’ve got more time than I know what to do with.
Mendez takes something out of his pants pocket and gazes wistfully at it like a pilgrim with a holy relic before putting it back.
“You can read Forerunner, Dr. Halsey,” he says, impassive. We’re still ignoring the elephant looming over us at the moment, neither of us saying what’s really on our minds. He has his secrets, and I have mine. “Do you know the symbol for pantry? That would be handy right about now.”
He’s staring up at a sun that can’t possibly be there, set in an artificial sky that runs from summer blue at one horizon to starless midnight at the other. We’re not on Onyx any longer—not in this dimension, anyway.
“Chief, this is the most advanced doomsday bunker ever built.” I’m not sure who I’m trying to reassure, him or me. “A civilization sufficiently advanced to build a bomb shelter the size of Earth’s orbit wouldn’t forget to address the food supply. Would they?”
It’s a permanently lovely day inside this Dyson sphere, and beyond its walls is . . . actually, I don’t know any longer. It was Onyx. Now it’s somewhere in slipspace. Every time I think I have the mea sure of the Forerunners’ technology, something else pops up and confounds me. They must have shared our sense of beauty or bequeathed us theirs, because they made this environment idyllically rural; trees, grass, rivers, almost landscaped perfection.
Mendez pats his pocket as if checking something is still in there. “Better hope they evolved beyond the usual procurement charlie-foxtrot, too, then. Or we’ll have to live off the land.”
“We’ve got unlimited water, Chief. That’s something.”
Mendez has known me a damned long time. Over the years he’s perfected that hoary old CPO’s carefully blank expression that looks almost like deference. Almost. It’s actually disgust. I know that now. I can see it.
But you’re in no position to lecture me on ethics, are you, Chief? I know what you’ve done. The proof’s right in front of me here. I’m looking at them.
Mendez walks away in the direction of the two recon teams waiting under the oak trees. The Spartans—my protégés and Ackerson’s little project, these Spartan-IIIs—look impatient to get on with something useful. They don’t handle idleness well. We made warfare the sole focus of their lives.
Now we don’t know if there’s still a war outside to fight, or even a galaxy left to fight it in.
But that’s fi ne by me. My Spartans are safe here. That’s all that matters. Safe if the Halo Array fi res, anyway. I don’t know if this is the haven it appears. Perhaps it’s already got tenants. We’ll find out the Navy way, Mendez says.
“Okay, Spartans, the camp’s secured, so let’s shake out and see what’s in the neighborhood.” Mendez unslings his rifle and looks at Fred. “Conserve rations until we know if there’s anything on the menu here. Right, sir?”
“Right, Chief. Radio check, people.” Fred, Spartan-104, has been made a lieutenant at the ripe old age of forty-one. “Priorities, in this order—secure the area, locate a food supply, and find a way to revive Team Katana and the others.”
How many Spartan-IIIs did Ackerson create? Five are already in suspension here, with three other men we can’t identify, but we have no idea yet how to open their Forerunner slipspace pods. They’ll have an interesting story to tell when we do.
Fred gestures to take in the terrain. “Treat this as an acquaint. Spartan-Twos familiarize themselves with Spartan-Threes so that when we get out of here, we’re ready to fi ght effectively. Kelly, Dr. Halsey, Tom, Olivia—you’re with Chief Mendez. Linda, Lucy, Mark, Ash—with me. Move out.”
Just as Fred turns to walk away, I catch his eye. He was never much good at burying his feelings, but he can’t hide them from me anyway. I know all my Spartans better than their mothers ever did. He shuts his eyes tightly as if he’s blocking out an unbearable world, just a fraction of a second, and then it’s gone. We’ve buried our dead here. Two of those Spartan-IIIs, just into their teens, just children . . . and Kurt never made it into the sphere.
I thought you were dead already, Kurt. Now I’ve lost you twice.
Fred pats Lucy on the shoulder. “You okay, Spartan?”
She gives him a distracted nod. She’s a disturbing little scrap of a thing, too traumatized to speak. Mendez trained these kids. He knew. He knew what Ackerson was doing with my research. He was part of this all along.
And I won’t forget that, Chief.
Kelly slows and drops back to walk beside me. I’m not twenty-one anymore and I certainly don’t have the stride of a two-meter Spartan, or even these . . . new ones. My God, they’re too small. How can they be Spartans?
“You’ve fallen on your feet again, Dr. Halsey,” Kelly says. “Some rabbit hole. Did you know it was here?”
“I should stop trying to look as if I know everything, shouldn’t I?”
“You think we’re going to lose this war. I know we’re not.”
“I extrapolate from known facts. But I don’t mind being wrong sometimes.”
How far would I go to save my Spartans? This far. I lured them to Onyx, the safest location I could think of, because I knew they’d never abandon their posts any other way. I lied to them to save them.
And they’re all that stands between me and damnation. I’ve done terrible things—monstrous things, criminal things—that were necessary, but I did it to them. Kidnapped them as children. Experimented on them. Altered them terribly. Killed half of them. Made them into soldiers with no life outside the UNSC.
It had to be done, but now I have to do this.
There’s no god waiting to judge us when we die. This is our heaven or hell, the here and now, the pain or the fond memories we leave behind with the living. But I don’t want the forgiveness of society, or Mendez, or even to forgive myself.
I just want to do what’s right for these men and women, whose lives I used. Theirs is the only forgiveness that can absolve me.
Kelly—tall, confident, nothing like the victim I feel I’ve made her—points into the distance. I’m starting to forget we’re trapped in a sphere in the folds of another dimension, because my brain’s getting used to telling me benign lies. I stare across a sea of trees at two elegant honey-gold structures protruding above the canopy some kilometers away.
“That’s impressive, Doctor,” she says. “Hey, Chief, what do you think they are?”
“Better be the chow hall.” Mendez keeps scanning the trees as if he’s still expecting to run into trouble. “Or a way out of here. Don’t forget there’ll still be a hell of a mess to clear up when we get out.”
He’s right. Won or lost, wars never end cleanly. I think we’ve lost already. If the Covenant doesn’t overrun the galaxy then this life-form they call the Flood will, or the Halo Array will fi re and wipe out all sentient life. But if we win—
Even if we win, the galaxy will still be a dangerous, desperate place.
I wonder where John is now. And Cortana. And . . . Miranda.
See, Miranda? I didn’t forget you. Did I?
Secreto: (Pincha para leerlo)
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:
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 what ever 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 hingehead 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-sayanything-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 elder ly 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-beforereading.” 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 pro cession 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 selfpollinating.”
“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 offlimits, 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.”
Secreto: (Pincha para leerlo)
HUMANITY CAN NOW BREATHE AGAIN.
THE COVENANT HAS FINALLY BEEN DRIVEN BACK. THE COST IN LIVES—OUR TROOPS AND OUR CITIZENS—HAS BEEN ENORMOUS.
BUT FREEDOM NEVER COMES CHEAPLY, AND NOW, WE REBUILD.
I PROMISE THIS TO EVERY MAN, WOMAN, AND CHILD ON EARTH AND IN ITS COLONIES. WHILE WE WILL CONTINUE TO STRIVE FOR A PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE WITH OTHER SPECIES, HUMANITY WILL NEVER AGAIN ALLOW ITSELF TO BE THE VICTIM OF AGGRESSION. THIS IS THE MOMENT WE START TO RECLAIM OUR RIGHTFUL PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE.
(INAUGURAL SPEECH OF DR. RUTH CHARET, NEW PRESIDENT OF THE UNIFIED EARTH GOVERNMENT: JANUARY 2553)
CORE 5, OFFICE OF NAVAL INTELLIGENCE, BRAVO-6 FACILITY: JANUARY 26, 2553.
Don’t mind me. BB settled down to watch and learn. I’m no trouble at all. I’ll stay out of your way. I’m just observing.
And he was observing a man who seemed to think his time had come, the idiot. Didn’t he realize the war was anything but over? David Agnoli, Minister for the Colonies, sat on the low oak bookcase with his back to Parangosky’s office. He still didn’t seem to have the measure of UNSC yet.
“Do you think the old bat’s ever going to die, Captain?”
Agnoli reached down between his legs to pull out a volume at random, but BB was pretty sure he was keeping an eye on the office door via the reflection in the glass panel opposite. “Or will she transmogrify into her true basilisk form, and vanish in a puff of sulfur? I’d pay good money to see that.”
He started leafing through the book, a faded and ancient copy of The Admiralty Manual of Seamanship Vol. II. Captain Osman glanced at him with faint contempt.
“The Admiral speaks very highly of you, too, David,” she said sourly. “I think the word was weasel. Well, it began with a W, anyway.”
“Come on, you’re the anointed one. You can get me in to see her, can’t you?”
“If she’d known you were coming, I’m sure she would have made time for you. But she’s got a lot of souls to digest.” She gave him a look of faint disgust as he riffled through the yellowing pages. “Look, do you know how many centuries old that book is? Admiral Hood gave it to me. Don’t get greasy fingerprints all over it.”
Agnoli turned to look over his shoulder as Parangosky’s door opened. Her flag lieutenant, Dorsey, hovered with his hands braced on the door frame as if he didn’t dare cross the threshold.
“The Admiral will see you now, Captain.” Dorsey made a polite show of noticing Agnoli. “Oh, hello, Minister. Will we be seeing you at Dr. Charet’s reception later?”
“Possibly.” Agnoli closed the ancient book with exaggerated care and stood up to put it back on the shelf. He nodded at Osman as Dorsey vanished. “I’ll show myself out, then. Perhaps the lieutenant can make an appointment for me.”
Osman watched him until he was out of sight—but not out of BB’s—then reached out to pick up some files from her desk. BB decided it was time to introduce himself. He projected his three-dimensional holographic image into the doorway and waited for her to react.
How else was an AI supposed to shake hands?
Osman stopped in her tracks and stared at him. “And whose little pet are you?” She cocked her head a fraction as if she suddenly wasn’t quite sure what he was. “You are fully sentient, aren’t you?”
“I’m Black-Box,” he said. “I thought I’d introduce myself before we see the Admiral.”
Osman looked him over with no change in her expression whatsoever. BB’s holographic avatar was a cube, a featureless box picked out in blue light, because he saw no point in masquerading as something other than what he was—pure intellect, his intricate thought processes a closed book to organic life. He couldn’t bear the theatrics of manifesting as flesh and blood.
Faces are for wannabes. I’m not a surrogate human.
“You didn’t answer my question, Black-Box,” Osman said, waiting until he moved aside. “Whose AI are you?”
He followed her for a few meters as she walked down the corridor, as far as he could project himself using her desk terminal. “I report to the Admiral. And she calls me BB. You might like to as well.”
Osman looked over her shoulder to say something, but he’d run out of range and had to switch to another terminal. It took him a fraction of a second to reroute himself through the fire alarm system and the mainframe to project from Parangosky’s terminal and pop up again in front of Osman. She was in the process of turning around again to look for him. Judging by the way she flinched, he’d actually managed to startle her.
“Apologies, Captain,” he said. “As I was saying, I work for Parangosky.”
“Doing what, exactly?”
“Whatever she wants,” BB said.
Look after Osman. Trust her. I’ve kept her under wraps for years, hidden her even from Halsey. She has a job to do. The Admiral thought the sun shone out of Osman’s backside, and even a dolt like Agnoli could see that she’d take over when Parangosky decided to call it a day, even if he didn’t know why.
And if it was good enough for Parangosky, then it was good enough for BB.
Ah . . . Hogarth. An alert rippled through BB, detected by extensions of his program that he’d distributed throughout the communications and security systems in key government buildings. There he goes. He’s on the prowl. Even if Captain Hogarth hadn’t put a private appointment with the UEG in his diary, his comms handset made his movements trackable, and each secure door that he passed through betrayed his identity. He was moving around the president’s suite of offices. So you’re off to do some lobbying, are you? You really do fancy your chances as head of ONI. Shame that you’ve backed the wrong horse. What possible deal could the civilian government offer you?
In the time it took BB to run all his monitoring systems and check intelligence reports from fifty ships, Osman had only just begun her instant reply.
“I never knew she had an AI,” Osman said, walking straight through BB’s hologram into Parangosky’s office. Humans didn’t usually do that to AIs. They’d walk around them. He wasn’t sure how to take it. “Well, nice to meet you, BB.”
Parangosky gave him a wink as he moved in behind Osman. “I see you two are getting to know each other,” she said, gesturing Osman to a seat. “That’s good. Don’t worry, Captain, you can trust BB with your life. Not a phrase I use lightly. Or figuratively.”
“And am I going to need to, ma’am?” Osman asked.
“Very possibly.” Parangosky leaned forward, slowly and painfully, to check the status panel on her desk. The office was secure, door seals shut and soundproofing activated. BB had his own defenses to keep unfriendly AIs out of the Admiral’s systems, but the benign dumb ones needed dissuasion too. He exploited them to spy and expected other AIs to do the same. “Which is why I decided that you needed your own AI. And why this conversation is strictly between you, me, and him.”
Osman looked BB over, chewing her lip. He couldn’t tell if she was pleased with the appointment or not, but she certainly seemed a little uneasy. Everything he could observe told him so. He could infiltrate any electronic system and ride its vectors, seeing, hearing, and sensing far more than a limited human—even a Spartan—ever could. From the minute feedback adjustments in the environmental controls, he could detect how much CO2 Osman was exhaling. The security cameras enabled him to see her in any wavelength, including infrared. She looked rather flushed in that spectrum, which mirrored her increased respiration.
“Are we talking about Kilo-Five or something else?” Osman asked.
“Something else.” Parangosky twisted a little in her seat as if she was trying to ease her arthritic hip. “I’ll come on to the squad later. But this is about Catherine Halsey.”
“You’ve found a body.”
“Oh, she’s still alive. I can feel it in my water. But, more to the point, Glamorgan’s ELINT has picked up something much more concrete.” Parangosky indicated the screen. “BB, do the honors, please.”
BB pulled up the files he’d collected from the ONI corvette. The holographic display unfolded itself just over the desk between the two women, showing a chart of the system that once contained Onyx before the artificial planet had deconstructed itself. Slightly irregular concentric rings radiated out from the Onyx coordinates. One forlorn blue light was set within the red lines, a pinprick that marked a signal from a Spartan armor transponder, the only KIA that had been confirmed—Lieutenant Ambrose.
BB had left a fragment of himself in Glamorgan’s system to alert him as soon as anything else was found. The corvette’s nav AI didn’t seem to mind the intrusion.
“Sifting for debris out there is a slow process.” Parangosky reached into the display and enlarged the detail. “You know what it’s like. Hard to spot anything smaller than a family car. It’ll take the rest of the year to complete a visual search, but Glamorgan’s picking up massive electromagnetic anomalies. Something’s still there, but we can’t see it. And unless every single sensor’s malfunctioning, it’s enormous, the size of a solar system. We knew there were areas underground that we couldn’t access, but now we know that Onyx was wholly artificial, it’s starting to support the theory that it was built as a citadel. A last-chance saloon.”
Osman was staring at the chart with a slightly openmouthed expression that told BB she was forming a theory. “That’s not any slipspace signature I’d recognize, but it looks a hell of a lot like it. Makes me wish I hadn’t sent a wreath.”
“You didn’t. You may yet get the chance, though.”
“Well, it was only a matter of time before she found enough pieces to put together. You can’t keep that much information completely quiet for that long. But are you sure?”
“Oh, I never assume anything where Halsey’s concerned, and she might well actually be dead, of course, planning or no planning. But there’s a logical progression.” Parangosky counted out on thin fingers, joints swollen despite her doctor’s best efforts.
“We have the Onyx battle reports from Dusk. We know she kidnapped Spartan-Zero-Eight-Seven. We know she persuaded Hood to deploy Spartans to Onyx. And we know damn well just how many Forerunner artifacts there were on that planet and what they might be. So she had her Spartans, and she had access to Forerunner technology. Now—your turn.”
“So she jumped ship,” Osman said. “She’s used something the Forerunners left behind.”
BB felt free to chip in with his own theories. “And after reading her journal, I think she’s cleansing her conscience by hiding her Spartans.”
“That’s big of her. Hiding them from us?”
“Who knows?” BB said. “The woman rewrites her own reality as she goes along.”
Parangosky sucked in a breath. “Osman, she’s effectively abducted some very scarce special forces personnel as well as Chief Mendez. She can steal all the paper clips she likes, but she does not get to stroll off with billions of dollars’ worth of UNSC resources in the middle of a battle. If she had a military rank, she’d have faced the death penalty for that. She still might.”
BB noted Osman nod involuntarily. There was no love lost there, and it wasn’t just because Osman had taken on her mentor’s loathing of Halsey.
“When did you last have contact with her, Captain?” BB asked.
“You already know that,” Osman said stiffly. “But if you don’t, then you ought to. When she discarded me as breakage from her program. That’s when.”
“Just testing for potency of venom, Captain. . . .”
“Savored cold and all that, BB. The best way.”
Parangosky turned to BB and gave him her don’t-be-a-naughty-boy look, a rueful half smile. He suspected that Parangosky had been the kind of little girl who kept pet scorpions and doted on them the way other children cooed over puppies.
“We don’t do pointless vengeance in ONI, BB,” Parangosky said gently. “We do vengeance with a pragmatic outcome in mind. Revenge might give you a warm feeling, but unless it delivers some lasting results you might as well have a nice cup of mocha instead.”
“So you want me to take Kilo-Five to Onyx,” Osman said, obviously in a hurry to move on from the personal stuff. “Or the gap where Onyx used to be. So who’s going to handle the Sangheili mission?”
“That’s still our top priority. We’ve got Elites to neutralize and the rest of the Halos to locate. Just stand by to divert to Glamorgan if and when we find something. Mendez and some of the Spartan-Threes could still be alive too, but don’t forget you’re going to have Spartan-Zero-One-Zero in your squad, and she thinks that Halsey walks on water. They all do. Hence my preference for this private briefing.”
“If you can’t trust a Spartan, then who can you trust?”
“I’m not saying they can’t be trusted. I just don’t want to put that loyalty to the test if we find Halsey, that’s all. I’m not briefing the ODSTs about it, either. Just so that we don’t have any slipups. We stick with our story. Halsey died a long way from Onyx, all suitably sacrificial and heroic. But that’s for the UNSC’s benefit, not hers.”
“You could have made her vanish a long time ago, ma’am,” Osman said. “There has to come a point where the irritant factor outweighs her usefulness.”
“She’s reached it now she’s compromised our ability to fight.” Parangosky turned her head slowly and glanced at the virtual window. The image it projected from above ground was a bright, sunny summer day. She looked almost wistful, as if she wanted to be outside for a change. Tomorrow’s a bonus, BB. She said that quite a lot these days. “So I want to find her alive. It’s keeping me going, believe me.”
BB had access to every record in the ONI archives, and in the six months since his creation Parangosky had answered every question he’d put to her. Even so, it was hard for an AI to extract as much data from a human as he needed, even from an articulate and succinct one like Parangosky. Flesh and blood was so very, very slow. The question that most fascinated him had still to be fully answered.
What made you dislike Halsey so much, Admiral? ONI has plenty of unpalatable, unlikable, dangerous people in its ranks, but you tolerate them. What did she do?
She had answered, in a way. Halsey had lied to her, she said.
But ONI was all about lies. They were now about to tell some more.
“So, on to today’s business.” Parangosky shut down the holoimage. “BB, are they all here now?”
“Yes, ma’am.” BB checked on the monitors in each separate waiting room, where the candidates sat isolated by specialty. “Staff Sergeant Malcolm Geffen, Corporal Vasily Beloi, Sergeant Lian Devereaux, Naomi-Zero-One-Zero, and Dr. Evan Phillips.”
Osman didn’t say a word for a moment. Sometimes Parangosky didn’t tell her everything. But then Phillips had been a last-minute change of mind on Parangosky’s part, and BB still wasn’t convinced that the professor understood what he’d agreed to in a matter of seconds. Phillips craves knowledge, like an AI. Can’t exist without it. Gorges on more and more every day. I think we’ll get on just fine. Phillips had rushed to Bravo-6 so fast that he was still repacking his holdall in the waiting room.
“I didn’t know he was coming,” Osman said at last.
Parangosky looked almost apologetic. She always took care not to offend Osman, but BB knew there were things she didn’t tell her for her own good. The time was approaching, though, when she would need to be told everything, and when the name Infinity would finally mean something to her.
“He’s a gamble I took two hours ago,” Parangosky said. “You might need his expertise, even with BB around. I’ll worry later about how I get him to keep his mouth shut.”
She eased herself up from the chair and reached for her cane. She needed it for the walk to the elevator down into the core of the HIGHCOM complex, but somehow she made it look like a weapon she had every intention of using.
“Time to put Kilo-Five together, then,” she said. “BB, you’re formally assigned to Captain Osman as of now. Lead on, Captain.”
PRIVATE QUARTERS OF FORMER SHIPMASTER JUL ‘MDAMA, BEKAN KEEP, MDAMA, SANGHELIOS: JANUARY 26, 2553 IN THE HUMAN CALENDAR.
Nothing had changed since the Covenant had fallen, just the deceptive surface of events, but Jul ‘Mdama despaired of making the Arbiter listen.
“They’ll be back,” he said, running a polishing cloth over his armor for the tenth time that morning. “They’re like the Flood. They expand to fill every available space. They devour everything in their path. Except they can plan and wait, and persuade our more gullible brothers with clever argument, which makes them even more dangerous.”
Raia didn’t say anything. She was still looking out of the window, jaws moving slightly as if she was talking to herself, and passing a stylus from hand to hand. The sound of youngsters squabbling in the courtyard below rose on the breeze as Great-Uncle Naxan waded in to restore order, yelling about discipline and dignity.
“And even you don’t listen to me,” Jul said. He stopped short of seizing Raia’s shoulder to make her look at him. Within the family keep, her word was law. “Am I the only one who can see that the humans are just catching their breath? They won’t forget, and they won’t forgive. They certainly won’t stop their colonization.”
“Jul, we face far more immediate problems than humans,” Raia said. “I want you to look at something.”
She stepped back from the window and gestured to him with the kind of weary patience she reserved for small children. Jul humored her. From the third-story window, he had a good view of the landscaping that surrounded the keep. To the east, the hills were stepped with terraces of fruit vines, designed to catch the sun. Looking west, he could see fields in a neat mosaic of green and gray-blue on either side of the lake. Set against the gold midmorning sky, it looked exactly like every image he’d ever seen of this landscape; it hadn’t changed for centuries, and generations of his clan had worked hard to make sure it didn’t. He had every expectation that it would look that way to his sons’ children and their grandchildren too.
The Sangheili might have been betrayed and defeated—temporarily—and their faith upended, but Mdama never changed.
“I don’t have time for this,” Jul said. “I have to go to the kaidon’s assembly. The Arbiter’s going to be here soon.”
“Then you make time,” Raia snapped. “A world needs more than warriors to survive. The San’Shyuum knew how to make their servant races weak—they confined us to one skill.” Nobody called them the Prophets now. It was too painful, but it was also a hard habit to break. “And, of course, we lap that up, vain fools that we are. We all want to be warriors, nothing else. Now we have no engineers, no traders, and no scientists. How will we feed ourselves?”
“I leave the estate management to you and Naxan.” Jul hadn’t noticed any food shortages. It had only been half a season since the Arbiter had killed the last treacherous Prophet of the High Council and every certainty in life had evaporated, but there was still food on the table. “I know better than to interfere with my wife’s business.”
Raia drew back her arms, head thrust forward a little in that don’t-you-dare posture. He hadn’t seen her this angry for a long time. “That’s the problem!” She hissed. “Thousands of years doing the San’Shyuum’s bidding, each species made as dependent as children, and we never asked ourselves what would happen if it all fell apart. The San’Shyuum made us reliant on savages. Now we have to relearn their skills just to restore basic communications. We built starships, Jul. We were a spacefaring culture long before the San’Shyuum arrived and turned us into their personal army.”
Jul could still hear the youngsters in the courtyard. Sticks crashed against sticks. “No, not like that!” Naxan, Raia’s grandbrother, roared his head off, probably putting on the angry theatrics. “Control yourself! If that had been a blade, you would have taken your own arm off!”
Jul heard a loud thwack—followed by absolute silence—as if Naxan had rapped one of the children with his dummy weapon. There was no yelping or sniveling. It might even have been one of the girls; Naxan taught them all basic combat skills, the young females of the keep as well as the males. Daughters would probably never serve in the front line, but they had to be able to defend the keep if the worst happened.
Raia was right, as usual. Every Sangheili judged himself solely by his combat skills. Jul definitely couldn’t remember any of his brothers or cousins saying they wanted to be an administrator or a cook. The shame would have been unbearable, and yet keeps and assemblies had to be run and food had to be provided. Sangheili had stopped thinking about how the Covenant kept itself running a long time ago.
“It’s only been half a season,” Jul said. “The world hasn’t ground to a halt yet. We can import food if the crops fail. We can hire engineers.”
“No, we can’t,” Raia said. “We might find Kig-Yar traders willing to do business, but do you really think Jiralhanae can maintain our technology now the Huragok have fled? And even if you don’t give a damn about the domestic side of things, at least worry about your fleet. What happens when our ships and weapons need replacing? Think of that before you choose to carry on fighting the war.”
“We’ll discuss this later,” he said, picking his moment to escape. “I have to see the Arbiter.”
He heard her hiss irritably again as he made his way down the passage. It was a simple problem to fix. There were still a few loyal Unggoy and Jiralhanae around, weren’t there? They could easily learn to be farmers or factory workers. Or engineers. It was simply a matter of giving them clear instructions and making sure they didn’t drug themselves into a stupor or start too many fights.
But it was far easier to vaporize every living thing on a planet than reform an entire culture from scratch.
The humans don’t have this problem. Clever little vermin. Backward, small, and not the best at anything. But good enough at everything. Survivors.
That was all the more reason to make the Arbiter see sense and crush them before they started recolonizing.
Jul looked down over the windowsill on the stairwell to make sure that it wasn’t Dural or Asum who’d received the smack around the ear from Naxan for careless swordsmanship. No. It’s Gmal. Not my boys. They’re better than that. It was hard not to show his sons favor, but that would have told them who their father was, and no Sangheili male was allowed to know that. Jul’s sons had to make their own way in the world, judged solely on their merits and without any assumptions based on their bloodline.
But I still wish I’d known who my father was. I think we all do.
Sangheili mothers might not have been frontline fighters, but they certainly held the real power, the knowledge and selection of bloodlines. Being a Sangheili male could sometimes be lonely and uncertain.
Jul had to pass through the courtyard to get to his transport. The youngsters were still doing weapons drill, taking the wooden sticks very seriously as Naxan stalked up and down in front of them, tapping his baton against his palm as he watched the parries and thrusts. He gave Jul a nod and didn’t break his stride. None of the children looked Jul’s way, either. Focus. It had to be taught and reinforced from the crib.
Jul was almost at the gate when Naxan called out to him. “Tell the Arbiter to watch his back.”
Jul found that funny. He looked over his shoulder. “I don’t think he needs me to remind him of that.”
Jul’s young aide, Gusay, had been reduced to his personal driver now. Ships were in short supply and there were more crew than positions to be filled—and no tangible war to fight anyway. It was the first time in living memory that any Sangheili had to face the prospect of being idle and purposeless. Even the vehicles at the keep’s disposal were a painful reminder of the disarray and confusion the entire world seemed to find itself in. Gusay collected Jul in a Revenant that still had hastily repaired shell damage all over it, with a particularly spectacular gouge a hand-width deep running from the nose to the driver’s seat.
Jul wondered if the occupants had survived the attack that caused it. The plasma mortar was intact. He leaned over the open cockpit and stared at the seats, trying not to show his dismay.
“Did you raid the scrapyard? Making a virtue of frugality, are we?”
“Sorry, Shipmaster, but there are a great many Revenants around, and very little else.” Gusay always did his best. Jul tried to keep that in mind. “Better that you arrive to greet the Arbiter in a vehicle that’s seen action, though, yes?”
“Is the mortar operational?”
“I didn’t think it was going to be that sort of a gathering, my lord.”
Jul could never tell whether Gusay was being literal or trying to be funny. He decided to take the comment at face value. “I’m sure we’ll all listen reverently to what the Arbiter has to say.”
The Revenant swept north across land that was a lie in itself. Much of the landscape outside the cities looked like the neat agricultural terrain of an ancient Sanghelios long gone. Even the keeps—the regional assembly houses and the clan settlements—tried hard to at least nod to the old architecture. Jul had always thought of it as a splendid regard for tradition and lineage, but not now. We still pretend to be farmers, like we deluded ourselves that we were still warriors, when we were only cannon fodder for the San’Shyuum. Keeping up appearances wasn’t going to change anything. Sangheili needed to remember who they were long before the San’Shyuum came. They needed to reclaim their honor and independence.
Very well, Raia. You have a point.
“So we find ourselves like the humans,” Gusay said. “Licking our wounds and learning lessons.”
“We’re nothing like them,” Jul snapped. “Don’t let me hear you say that again.”
Gusay didn’t breathe another word for the rest of the journey. Jul settled back as best he could in his seat—the metal frame was buckled, he was certain—and inhaled the scents on the breeze, eyes shut. The smell of the ocean mingled with the sharp scent of roadside herbs bruised by the Revenant’s thrust. It was a fragrant and familiar mixture that he’d missed during his years at the front.
“The Arbiter’s drawn a good crowd, my lord.” Gusay slowed the Revenant to a halt and Jul opened his eyes. “I believe the humans would call that a full house.”
Every elder entitled to bear the ‘Mdama title seemed to be here already. An assortment of transports sat along the sweeping road up to the kaidon’s keep, mostly Revenants and Ghosts, but also a human vehicle, a hydrogen- powered thing of which he’d seen far too many: a Warthog. So somebody had brought home a battlefield trophy for his clan. Well, there was no edict against tasteless eccentricity. It might even have belonged to Kaidon Levu ‘Mdama himself. Whatever his reputation in combat, old Levu had such vulgar tendencies that it made Jul wonder if his mother had consorted with a Kig-Yar.
“Wait here,” Jul said, climbing out of the Revenant. “I doubt this will take long.”
Levu was a traditionalist, so Jul forgave him his undignified taste. The kaidon still had a huge tiered chamber at the heart of his keep, the kind that ancient Sangheili warlords had once held court in, albeit with the latest comforts and technologies provided by the San’Shyuum. The walls were an electric blue, almost painfully intense, and shiny with lacquer. Jul nodded at the clan elders he knew well and caught the eye of those he didn’t, then took his seat. The purplish-black upholstery was just as glossy and awful as the walls. He wondered if Levu was trying to emulate the leather cushions and lapis paneling of Old Rolam.
Someone leaned forward from the tier above and behind him to tap his shoulder. “So what are we going to do for a High Council now we’ve kicked out the San’Shyuum, Jul? An assembly of kaidons? We don’t even have a global capital to meet in. The keeps will argue about that until I grow a damn beak.”
It was Forze, another shipmaster without a ship. “Do we even need a council?” Jul asked. “All we need to worry about is holding an army and a fleet together. We can manage that.”
“Of course we need a council. The only reason we didn’t have one was because the San’Shyuum told us what to do, the—”
He was interrupted by a growing rumble of murmurs as the doors on the lower level opened. Jul looked down from his second-tier seat to see Levu usher in the Arbiter, Thel ‘Vadam.
I wonder if he’s missing his pet humans. Why does he think any of them are worth sparing?
‘Vadam wasn’t quite as tall as Jul had imagined. Somehow Jul had expected someone iconic, unreal, as befitted a fleet commander, but ‘Vadam simply held himself as if he were much bigger. He seemed to have slipped automatically into the role of pulling Sanghelios together whether it wanted him to or not.
“Brothers, it’s time to listen to what Thel ‘Vadam has to say to us,” Levu said. “So let’s be gracious while he speaks.”
“Has the human Admiral given you permission to talk to us, then?” someone jeered. “How generous of him.”
The Arbiter ignored the jibe, looking around the chamber as if he was settling on a target, but Levu brought his fist down on the balustrade with a crack. “Courtesy, brothers. Hear the Arbiter out. He has the floor.”
‘Vadam took a few circling, slow strides, picking his moment. “Arbiter is a title I would prefer to forget,” he said. “I’m simply a kaidon again. As such, I’ve come to appeal for unity. I know there are . . . misgivings about my recent cooperation with humankind, and strong opinions on both sides. But this is not the time for another civil war. We have to rediscover what unites us. And we have to repair the fabric that the San’Shyuum have left in tatters. We must learn to be an independent people again for the first time in millennia.”
It was hard to object to any of that. ‘Vadam was talking like a politician, bland and conciliatory, switching back and forth between the formal language of authority and a comradely, I’m-one-of-you informality. Jul waited. He was itching to make his challenge, but he also wanted to see if the elders from the larger, more powerful keeps would reveal their positions first.
A voice drifted down from one of the upper tiers. “Now, Kaidon ‘Vadam, tell us something we don’t know.”
“We think we’ve lost the gods, but we haven’t,” ‘Vadam said. “We’ve lost ourselves. Millions of our finest, our young males, have been killed—not fighting humans, but in the Great Schism. Are we insane? Our bloodlines have been weakened and our ships have been lost in a civil war, all because we were deceived into loyalty to the San’Shyuum. Brothers, we must consolidate what we have, whether flesh and blood or machine, before we can decide on a common purpose. But it will be our purpose. Not another empire’s.”
“Perhaps our purpose is just to survive without being exploited by false prophets,” Levu said.
The Arbiter made sense. There had been a time when the San’Shyuum had made sense, too. Jul wondered if he could actually speak up now, but the words formed and suddenly he could hear his own voice filling the chamber.
“What do you plan to do about the humans?” he asked. “Gods or no gods, they’ll return to their colonies and rebuild them, and they won’t forget what we did to them and how much they loathe us.”
“We’ll consider that if and when it happens.”
“Instead of finishing them off before they regain strength?” There. It was out in the open now. “We should regroup now, while their guard’s down, and exterminate the threat once and for all. Unless you’re too fond of them as pets, that is.”
The chamber was horribly silent now. Jul could suddenly hear the slow shuffling of boots as elders squirmed. He expected Thel ‘Vadam to round on him, but the Arbiter just snapped his jaws together a couple of times in amusement as if there was something he should have told Jul but chose not to.
“The humans say that a fool does the same thing twice and expects things to turn out differently.” ‘Vadam lowered his voice. “It might have escaped your notice that we never managed to defeat them, and we’re in worse shape now than we were a year ago.” Then his expression changed, as if he was steeling himself to break bad news. “We’ve stopped fighting. We need to stop because we can’t rebuild without stability. Therefore I plan to reach a peace agreement with the humans, to formalize what has already taken place. Both sides have finally run out of blood to shed, brother.”
“But you can’t do deals with humans. Have you forgotten already?” Jul was appalled. Not pressing home Sangheili superiority was one thing, but willingly giving in? That was close to treason. “They’re liars and thieves. All of them.”
‘Vadam walked over to the balustrade that separated the floor of the chamber from the first tier of seats to look up at Jul. It wasn’t a threatening gesture. It seemed more like curiosity to see what this upstart, this young elder of a small keep, looked like at closer quarters.
“There are honorable humans,” ‘Vadam said, resting his hands on the balustrade. “I’ve fought alongside them. None of us would be alive now if there weren’t. But I plan to agree to a treaty, not because I have any fondness for humans but because I love Sanghelios.” He pushed away from the balustrade and walked back into the center of the chamber, suddenly the charismatic leader again, the hero of the fleet. “The law is clear. If anyone disagrees, you have a remedy. You may attempt to assassinate me. That is your legal right.”
Jul sat there for some minutes after the address ended. The rest of the elders filed out and he found himself staring at the empty chamber floor with just Forze behind him. He could hear him fidgeting with his holster.
“I think we’re going to live to regret that,” Forze said.
We? Jul had felt like the lone voice of reason. “Challenging him? He seemed amused.”
“No. We’ll regret letting the humans off the hook.”
“So . . . are you with me, then?”
As soon as Jul said it, he realized he wasn’t even sure what with me meant. He just knew that whatever dismissive things he’d said about his enemy, humans were not all the same, Thel ‘Vadam’s honorable pets were the exception, and the rest would go back to doing what they’d always done as soon as they recovered their breath. Jul had to galvanize the Sangheili into stopping humankind while they still could.
“Yes, I’m with you,” said Forze. “What now?”
Jul got up and wondered how he would explain this to Raia.
“I’ll think of something,” he said.
THREAT ANALYSIS WING, BRAVO-6, SYDNEY: JANUARY 26, 2553.
Mal Geffen had never liked corridors, especially dimly lit ones.
It was a weird phobia for a man who was happy to freefall into the pitch-black unknown or drop from low orbit behind enemy lines in a glorified coffin. He’d given up trying to fathom it out. He just knew that he didn’t like what he could see, or couldn’t see in this case. The double doors at the end of the passage were picked out by emergency lighting, the kind you had to follow in the event of a fire.
“You still with me, Vaz?”
Vaz’s parade boots clicked behind him on the tiles. “I warned you that it’d make you go deaf. . . .”
“It’s the Wendy House.”
“This is where the fleet brass used to war-game and run tabletop exercises.” Mal’s voice echoed. He dropped to a whisper as they came to a halt in front of the doors. “Wendy House. You know. Where kids play at being grown-ups.”
They stared at the security panel. Vaz shrugged, still miserable as sin. It was going to take Mal some time to make him forget that useless tart who dumped him. He’d keep trying. The kid needed to get out more.
“Cheer up, it might be a stripper in a cake,” Mal said. He still had no idea why they were here. It wasn’t going to be a celebration, that was for sure. “Surprise party for the conquering heroes.”
Vaz put his palm on the entry panel, unmoved. “Yes. I tripped over all the rose petals on the red carpet.”
The security doors opened and Mal took a pace inside. The smell of cleaning fluid and musty carpet hit him. The room looked like it hadn’t been used in years, its walls lined with old chart display panels showing trouble spots that hadn’t been active for decades: Earth colonies in a dozen systems, human-on-human violence. War had been a lot simpler then, or so his grandad had told him. He walked around tables pushed together into a rectangle, wiping his finger across the unconvincing oak-effect surface but finding no dust at all.
“Are you here for the free sandwiches? ’Cause there aren’t any.”
It was a woman’s voice. Mal guessed Canada, northeast. She emerged from behind one of the tote boards where make-believe generals had once tallied imaginary KIAs in counterinsurgency battles that never happened; about thirty, Asian, and wearing a flight suit with a pilot’s brevet and sergeant’s stripes.
And an ODST 10th Battalion badge. One of us. Well, that’s something.
Her name tab said DEVEREAUX L. Either she hadn’t been told this was a number-threes occasion or she’d come straight from a sortie.
“You’re not a stripper,” Mal said.
“No. Are you? Because if you are, I want my money back.”
“We better keep our clothes on, then.” Mal held out his hand for shaking, seeing as formalities had fallen by the wayside. “Mal Geffen. And this is Vaz. Vasily Beloi. He isn’t a stripper either. Any idea why we’re here, Sergeant?”
“Lian Devereaux.” She looked Vaz over. Mal hoped she was just checking him out, because Mal was always ready to dive in and ask what the hell was so interesting. Civvies stared at scars. ODSTs knew better, and Vaz didn’t need reminding that he didn’t look as good as he used to. “No,” she said. “Not a clue.”
Mal stood there in silence for a moment, just looking around and evaluating the environment. It’s some psych test, isn’t it? Some study into how damaged we are and how they can save money putting us right. It didn’t take long for the bean counters to crawl out of their holes once the shooting was over.
Devereaux tilted her head on one side and gave Vaz a mock-wary look. Maybe she hadn’t even noticed the scar. “Weren’t you the guys who hijacked a Spirit to exfil from Imber?”
“The hinge-heads left the keys in the ignition,” Vaz said. “So we took it for a burn.”
“But where is it now?”
Mal winked. “That’s for us to know and the Corps to find out.”
The doors opened and cut short any more bragging about the Covenant dropship. That was the problem with most of the meeting rooms and offices in Bravo-6. They were soundproofed, and nobody could hear anyone coming until it was too late. The tallest, scariest woman Mal had ever seen stalked into the room.
Even without Mjolnir armor, it was obvious what she was. Mal had never seen a Spartan in the flesh before. She looked more unreal in her UNSCN uniform than she would have in armor, he decided. He cast an eye over her sleeve.
“Morning, Petty Officer.” He outranked her but he still had to tilt his head back to look her in the eye. Christ, she had to be over two meters tall, easy. “Good to see the Navy’s managed to drag itself out of its bunk before lunch.”
Mal expected to get a bit of abusive but friendly banter back from her. That was the way of interservice diplomacy, the custom of centuries. But the Spartan just looked down at him, unmoved. He couldn’t work out if she was very blond or completely gray.
“Naomi-Zero-One-Zero, Staff,” she said. “I believe we’re waiting for Admiral Parangosky.”
“That’s the idea.” Mal couldn’t read her at all. She’s a bloody Valkyrie. She really is. “Yeah, we are.”
Mal edged away to the tote boards and feigned intense interest in the list of unit acronyms scribbled beside actions on the incident timeline. Vaz and Devereaux sidled up to him. The three of them had already closed ranks without even thinking about it.
“Here we go,” Mal murmured. “They’re going to inject us full of crap and put bolts through our necks. Frankentroopers.”
“Ah, that’s just stories,” Devereaux said. She didn’t sound convinced, though. “But if it’s not, I’m sure as hell not volunteering.”
Naomi the Valkyrie interrupted. “Officer on deck.”
Mal turned and snapped to attention, the reflex of fifteen years, slipping instantly behind the facade of the stony-faced, unreadable ODST. He decided his guess about a psych test was right.
So this was Parangosky.
Admirals never retired, technically speaking, but Mal was sure nobody really expected the old salts to front up and earn it for real once they were past seventy. Parangosky walked in slowly with a cane for support, somehow managing to be both frail and terrifying at the same time, the crazy old woman who scared all the kids in the neighborhood. But she obviously wasn’t crazy. Mal met her eyes for a disturbing second and fully believed the rumors that she could erase anyone stupid enough to cross her.
“Stand easy,” she said. “My apologies for the location, but Strength through Paranoia is my motto. Meet Captain Osman and Professor Phillips. They already know all about you. Take a seat.”
Phillips was a bearded bloke in his thirties who had civvie hired help written all over him. Osman was tall, not Spartan tall, but conspicuous just the same. Parangosky settled down at the far corner of the tables and gestured to them to sit. The old girl handed six datapads to Osman, who passed them around. Mal didn’t get a chance to look to Vaz for a reaction before his screen flashed into life and told him the captain was Serin Osman, ONI, and Phillips was a Sangheili expert from Wheatley University.
Debrief, then. About what? The bloody Spirit? What was so special about that?
“I’ll get to the point,” Parangosky said. “You’re under no obligation to undertake this mission.”
That sealed the deal for Mal. ODSTs didn’t turn down tasking, any tasking. They’d automatically volunteered for everything and anything, now and forever, world-without-end-amen, on the day they’d turned up for the selection board. Being RTU’d—Returned to Unit, sent back to their original regiment or ship or squadron in whatever country because they didn’t make the grade as a Helljumper—was the worst thing that could happen to them. Death was a minor embarrassment by comparison.
Parangosky fixed Vaz with a watery but intimidating gaze. “Corporal, when’s the best time to kick a man?”
“When he’s down, ma’am,” Vaz said quietly. “And preferably in the nuts. Hard as you can.”
Mal could have sworn that Parangosky smiled. It was more like a twitch of the lips, but he was pretty sure Vaz had hit the target.
“A man after my own heart,” she said. “Very well, I’m asking you all to go and kick the Sangheili in their collective nuts in ways that might seem foreign to you. I want you to sow discontent and strife. They’re already infighting and I want to keep that going until we’re ready to finish the job. Anyone not keen on that? There’s no shame in refusing. I’ve seen your service records and you’ve all more than earned the right to say no.”
Yeah, Mal was pretty sure she knew every last thing about them, right down to how many sugars they took in their coffee. So she had to know the answer she’d get. It was still a decent gesture, though. Nobody said a word. Osman seemed to be keeping an eye on the Spartan, and the Spartan kept giving her a furtive glance as if something was bothering her. They were both roughly the same age, so maybe there was some weird alpha female power struggle going on. Mal made mental note to stay well clear.
“I’m up for it, ma’am,” Devereaux said. “But how foreign is this going to get? Because we’re fine with assassination and sabotage.”
“I know. I’m talking about arming Sangheili dissidents. Misinformation. All deniable.” Parangosky squinted at her datapad for a moment. “You’re going to have to think on your feet. Intel’s very patchy now and we’re not sure exactly where the fault lines are forming between the various factions, so you’ll be gathering information as you go. I wish I could prepare you more thoroughly.”
Mal knew that ONI were a law unto themselves, and the one question he’d learned never to ask was why. It was always how and when. He certainly didn’t plan to ask if every member of the UNSC security committee was on board with Parangosky’s op.
Devereaux didn’t seem to worry about all that. “We’ll manage, ma’am. So no peace treaty, then?”
“Admiral Hood believes it’s possible to reach a formal deal with the Arbiter,” Parangosky said. “But he’s going to be busy dealing with the colonies now that we need to bring our wayward sheep back into the fold.”
Mal thought she’d avoided the question until the answer sank in. Oh God. She’s even sidelining Hood now. Never mind. That’s so far above my pay grade that I’d need a telescope to see it. Had he been given a lawful order? Well, he hadn’t been given an unlawful one yet.
Phillips was still sitting there with the expression of a rabbit about to be hit by a truck that it just hadn’t seen coming. He hadn’t said a word yet. Vaz glanced at him.
“So what’s the professor’s status, ma’am?” Vaz asked. “We’re looking after him, yes?”
“No, he’ll be armed and he’ll take his chances, just like you.” Parangosky hovered on the edge of looking concerned. “You’ll have to forget the chain of command and make your own decisions out there. Our comms are a shambles, we’ve got relays down, our people out there are struggling to get word to us, and the colonies—well, where they’ve gone silent, we don’t know whether they’re a smoking heap of charcoal or if they’ve just decided to sever links with us.”
Mal wanted to ask why she’d picked them. He could understand the professor, the spook, and the Spartan, but there were still plenty of ODSTs around, and any of them could have done the job. It obviously wasn’t a lottery or else Vaz wouldn’t have been here too.
He’d find out sooner or later. It didn’t make any difference anyway. He was going.
“We’re shipping out in the morning,” Osman said. “If you want to do any drinking tonight, do it within the complex. Your personal effects are being brought over from the barracks. We’ll transfer to the ship at Midpoint—it’s Port Stanley. She’s got the latest Forerunner enhancements to her drives, so we can cover a lot of space fast. A corvette’s a big vessel for six, but we’ll have an AI to handle her.”
Parangosky laid her pad down like a winning hand of cards. “Come on, BB. Don’t be coy. Introduce yourself.”
Mal had never worked with smart AIs. A ship would drop him and his mates, and if they were lucky it would show up again and extract them when the job was done, but he didn’t get to play with any of the technology that ONI took for granted. He waited for the hologram to appear. When a blue cube materialized in the center of the tables, it was a bit of an anticlimax. He’d expected something a little more exotic. He’d heard all the hairy stories about the weird forms that AI avatars took.
“That’d be me,” the blue cube said in a news anchor’s tenor voice. “The taxi driver. Black-Box. Airport runs my specialty.”
Mal leaned back in his seat and caught Vaz’s eye for a second. He looked carefully blank, like he always did.
We don’t do psyop. We’ve never worked with Spartans before. And we’re definitely not trained for this spook stuff. But how hard can it be?
They were ODSTs. They could do anything. It was all about the right attitude—a commando’s state of mind.
“Hi, BB,” Mal said. “Take us to Hinge-head World, then.”
El Puño de Rukt
Podéis leerlos más comodamente desde las webs de TOR Books y Waypoint: Capítulo uno y Capítulo dos. Yo he preferido esperarme a tener el libro entre mis manos.
¡Mañana actualización de mi colección de HALO! Eso si, no esperéis ver al jackpot xD
Publicado: 22:26 10/10/2011 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: 2. Comunidad
HALO: The Fallen está basado en los eventos que suceden el 19 de septiembre de 2552 durante la batalla de la Instalación 04
HALO Helljumper es una serie de cortos que presentan la vida de un ODST desde su alistamiento hasta la Caída de Reach. Al contrario que otros soldados, ha sido afortunado para sobrevivir veintisiete años de batallas perdidas contra una civilización alienígena conocida como el Pacto. A través de sus experiencias sentirás un universo fantástico lleno de devastación, dolor y esperanza.
El Puño de Rukt
Publicado: 22:08 07/10/2011 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: Campaña restablecimiento del canon
El Puño de Rukt
Publicado: 21:55 27/09/2011 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: 7. Merchandise
Titan Books ha puesto a la venta la edición limitada de The Great Journey HALO The Art of Building Worlds en su página web por 60 libras.
El Puño de Rukt
Aqui tenéis algunas fotos colgadas en halo.bungie.org. Secreto: (Pincha para leerlo)
Yo estoy pensando en hacerme el regalo de cumpleaños con esta pedazo de edición
Publicado: 20:19 23/09/2011 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: Campaña restablecimiento del canon
El Puño de Rukt
Publicado: 22:29 21/09/2011 · Etiquetas: · Categorías: 9. Varios
El Puño de Rukt
El Puño de Rukt
El Puño de Rukt
Este final de año se espera apasionante con los films Faith y Operation Chastity, la conclusión del comic A Fistful of Arrows y con el trabajo de 343i en HALO CEA y Glasslands. No puedo casi a esperar a Noviembre.
Actualización. Acabo de hacer mi pedido y he recibido confirmación de Louis Wu que soy el numero 21. ¡Toma, toma!