Last week, when you read my usual dumping of Halo-related tidbits, I mentioned I was leaving Redmond to explore the land on the other side of the pond. As I'm still soaking in the sights, I'm a full eight hours ahead of my usual Pacific Northwest time zone. To skip straight to the awesomeness, that means this Bulletin is coming to some of you from THE FUTURE. As if that weren't exciting enough, I have another treat for you. Instead of being forced to ingest my customary incoherent ramblings, I have a present in the form of an exclusive book excerpt—Halo: Glasslands chapter two. Halo: Glasslands will be available on October 25, 2011, but you can visit http://www.tor.com/ to get access to chapter one, and then come back here for chapter two. Here is a very special intro, written by Frankie himself, followed by chapter two of Halo: Glasslands. Enjoy!
“Taking place in the days, weeks, and months after the end of the Human-Covenant war, Karen Traviss’ Glasslands explores the harsh realities of a post-war humanity, and the chaos and unrest that follows. The novel will not only detail events and scenarios that will eventually lead up to Halo 4, but also—and perhaps more importantly—introduce new characters, worlds, and threats to an already rich universe. This is a very different Halo book than you’re used to reading, and the sense of urgency and peril it imbues the fragile peace with, erupts in the first few paragraphs. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.”
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.”