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(Chapter Forty-Three: Secret Long Buried)
(With thanks to Distant Tide.)
 
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[[File:Heaven_and_earth.png|center|600px]]
 
<center>{{quote|Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.<br> What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:<br>Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.<br>Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:<br>Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:<br>Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?<br>Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good<br>That I myself have done unto myself?<br>O, no! alas, I rather hate myself<br>For hateful deeds committed by myself!<br>I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.<br>Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.<br>My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,<br>And every tongue brings in a several tale,<br>And every tale condemns me for a villain.<br>Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree<br>Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;<br>All several sins, all used in each degree,<br>Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!<br>I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;<br>And if I die, no soul shall pity me:<br>Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself<br>Find in myself no pity to myself?|''Richard III'', Act V, Sc. 3}}</center>
 
<center>{{quote|Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.<br> What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:<br>Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.<br>Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:<br>Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:<br>Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?<br>Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good<br>That I myself have done unto myself?<br>O, no! alas, I rather hate myself<br>For hateful deeds committed by myself!<br>I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.<br>Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.<br>My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,<br>And every tongue brings in a several tale,<br>And every tale condemns me for a villain.<br>Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree<br>Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;<br>All several sins, all used in each degree,<br>Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!<br>I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;<br>And if I die, no soul shall pity me:<br>Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself<br>Find in myself no pity to myself?|''Richard III'', Act V, Sc. 3}}</center>
   
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==Book One: New Heaven==
 
==Book One: New Heaven==
===Chapter One: Destitution===
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''Main Article: [[Halo: Heaven and Earth/Book One: New Heaven|New Heaven]]''
 
Stray awoke to aching joints and an empty pit in his stomach. He blinked up at a cracked, molded ceiling already painted with slivers of light. Scowling, he clenched his fist over his rough blanket and twisted his head across a makeshift pillow—his bulging assault bag—to look at the light source: the slats of a window tilted slightly open. “That’s supposed to be sealed,” he muttered under his breath. “Or do you want people looking in on me?”
 
 
“We are five stories up in a lightly populated neighborhood, with no surveillance system to speak of,” a woman’s voice said primly. “I haven’t detected a single military-grade transmission since we arrived, UNSC or otherwise. Besides, I don’t think you need to worry about people looking for you. In case you hadn’t noticed the galaxy has other problems right now.”
 
 
The voice emanated from his helmet, stacked atop his armor in the corner of the dingy apartment room. Its owner, the AI called Juno, had no holographic projector to display herself on, but at this point didn’t need to. Stray could practically see Juno’s pale blonde avatar standing in the corner, arms crossed and eyes narrowed in disapproval. Some people told you everything with just their tone. Juno might not be a person in the strictest sense of the word, but she was certainly one of those people.
 
 
“You’re nearly thirty minutes late in waking up,” Juno continued, though her voice softened. “I thought the light might be a kinder way to wake you than an alarm.”
 
 
“Yeah.” Stray stared back up at the mold-stricken ceiling. “Guess you called that right.”
 
 
He flinched as a tremor of pain coursed up his leg. Grimacing, he glanced back over at the helmet. “Thanks.”
 
 
“This is your third day in a row needing my encouragement to wake you. It’s not like you’ve been especially active this week. This isn’t a good sign, especially for someone in your position. If you’re having trouble sleeping I can…”
 
 
“Don’t bother.” The sight of Cassandra on a rain-swept rooftop flashed in his mind. His fist tightened against the blanket. More recent memories—betrayal, destitution, the Created sweeping over the galaxy—crashed over him like icy water. “Once we’re back in the field I’ll fall into the swing of things.”
 
 
“Hm.” Juno didn’t sound reassured and Stray could hardly blame her. As commander of the Kru’desh, he'd spent every waking moment balancing the immense responsibilities of leadership with a frantic study of battle command, managing to get by on just enough sleep every day not to succumb to drowsiness. He’d been the same way in his years as a fugitive mercenary, even so far back as his days as a Spartan. But these past months had drained away his energy, and not just due to his reversal of fortunes since the humiliating defeat on Talitsa. “I detected the high brain waves associated with intense dreaming. Something on your mind?”
 
 
“Yes.” He’d told Juno to stop tapping into their neural link while he slept, not that she listened. She was a lot like her sister in that regard. “I dreamed I was sleeping on a filthy cot in a filthier room, sharing an even nastier apartment with people I hate. Imagine my surprise at waking up to find out I wasn’t dreaming.”
 
 
“I see. ‘Surrounded’ is a bit of an overstatement, considering there’s only four of us in this apartment.”
 
 
That got Stray’s attention. He pushed himself upright, wincing at the pain even the simple motion sent scurrying up his chest. He’d need a dose of his medication, and soon. “Four? It’s just us and Lensky.”
 
 
“Our host welcomed someone inside about an hour ago,” Juno reported. “You might have noticed if you awoke at the proper time.”
 
 
“Oh, give it a rest.” The blanket fell onto the cot as Stray rose. Naked save for a pair of faded trousers, he shivered in the morning air. He limped over to the room’s small sink. There was muscle pain in his legs, but his right hurt even more in the place where Cassandra had kicked it during their battle on Talitsa. The bones had never had a chance to heal properly, not with all that had happened since then. Painkillers warded off the hurt for a time, but they always wore off in the end. “Who is it?”
 
 
“A human male from the sound of their conversation.”
 
 
Stray shot his helmet an irate look. “That’s helpful.”
 
 
“It’s all I have,” she shot back. “There’s no surveillance system in here to tap into and whoever this guest is, he slipped in without the neighborhood cameras picking him up. There’s only so much I can do working out of your armor. Which, I might add, is hardly top of the line.”
 
 
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned that.” Stray rummaged through the items on the wash stand, tossing a toothbrush and shaving kit aside as he searched for his medicine bag. Even the simple motions strained his arm and he gritted his teeth in frustration. Where had he put those damn meds?
 
 
“You stored the medicine in your assault pack,” Juno noted from across the room. “You took a dose right before you slept and stowed it there. Perhaps the sleeping trouble is a side effect of—"
 
 
Stray glared at the helmet. “Could have told me that sooner.” He strode back to the cot, ignoring the pain in his leg. The medicine bag was tucked away in the backpack’s side pocket, away from his combat gear. He pulled a syringe from the kit and jammed it into his neck without hesitation.
 
 
The needle was long and sharp. It sent a harsh sting coursing through Stray’s neck and into his shoulder, but its effects were almost instantaneous. The pain receded from other parts of his body, replaced by a new sense of energy. Stray breathed out with relief. He felt alive again, or at least alive enough to fight. At least for the time being.
 
 
Until it was time for the next dose.
 
 
As the pain slid away, he looked ruefully back at the helmet. “Sorry. And thanks.”
 
 
“It’s alright,” Juno replied soothingly. “Just try taking better stock of your surroundings next time. You need to conserve your strength.”
 
 
Stray wondered if the concern was genuine or if Juno was simply controlling her speech patterns to trigger a desired response from him. She was too much like Diana for him to know for sure. Alike—yet unalike. Considering how patient she’d been with him lately he owed her the benefit of the doubt. Still, he could never completely let his guard down.
 
 
He couldn’t afford to do that with anyone ever again.
 
 
But he and Juno had come a ways since she helped save him from Diana and Amber’s betrayal. Not two months ago he and the stolen UNSC AI couldn’t stand each other. Things had warmed between them since the battle with Avalokitsvara. At least he didn’t have to worry she was simply looking for a way to hand him over to the UNSC anymore.
 
 
And like Juno said, the UNSC had bigger problems these days.
 
 
As Stray set the medical kit down on the cot he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His teeth clenched at the stranger who stared back at him. A gaunt, emaciated young man, his bare chest criss-crossed with scars and burn marks. Traces of his old Spartan toughness remained, but with skin stretched taught across muscle and bones Stray resembled a pitiful refugee far more than a battle-hardened warrior. Running a thumb beneath his thin lips, he was half surprised not to find his teeth falling out at the gums.
 
 
He needed more than meds to stave off pain. He needed to find a way to reverse the illness eating away at his body, if that was even possible anymore.
 
 
Perhaps the most startling change was his hair. For years Stray had worn it in a long black mane, as if in defiance of the military customs he’d been raised on. Now the stubble of his dark hair hugged his scalp in a tight cut. Stray had shorn it himself a week earlier. If his body was falling apart the least he could do was get rid of that greasy hair.
 
 
He scowled and the haggard thing in the mirror scowled back. But it was a tired grimace, lacking the furious energy he’d once thrown into such expressions. There was little enough strength to go around in his body. He’d save what he could for battle.
 
 
Stray could hear the voices coming from the next room. Whoever Lensky’s guest was, they were certainly entertaining the old man. Every few sentences were punctuated by the hoarse, cheery laughter Stray had come to hate. It was time to see who this unexpected visitor was. Knowing Lenksy they certainly weren’t in just to ask after his failing health.
 
 
He bent down beside the cot and dragged a large metal object out from beneath the mattress: his prosthetic left arm. The limb dropped limply to Stray’s side as he jacked it into the socket welded into his shoulder. More pain coursed through him as the arm interfaced with the socket and jerked to life, reacting to the commands from his brain. Stray gritted his teeth and flexed the metal fingers, bringing the prosthetic fully back under his control. The metal arm hurt, but at least it wasn’t in danger of giving out on him the way the rest of his body was. He clenched its hand into a fist. The Covenant-made prosthetic could easily match his organic, augmented limbs. With the state his body was in, it surpassed them in terms of coordination and killing strength.
 
 
That was one gift Diana couldn’t take away.
 
 
He winced through one last adjustment pain, then knelt by the pile of armor. Both hands—metal and organic—worked in tandem as easily as if he’d never lost the arm in the first place.
 
 
Juno was right. He’d been asleep too long. It was time to find out just whose company Tobias Lensky was enjoying this morning.
 
 
----
 
 
Juno watched Stray work, making note of every movement and matching it against the vitals she monitored through her link to the neural interface in the back of his skull. Everything was reading normal for now, but Juno wouldn’t be comfortable until her charge had his armor back on and she could track his body functions more closely. Someone in Stray’s condition should not even be out of bed, much less slapping on combat gear. But there was no choice here for either of them.
 
 
Her charge. How the tables had turned. This renegade Spartan, the traitor the UNSC had spent so much time and resources trying to hunt down, was Juno’s partner now. Three months ago he had been her hated captor. Two months ago he was the unwanted traveling companion she could not wait to abandon. And now he was Juno’s responsibility.
 
 
A warning flashed through her subroutines. The AI threw up her defenses, feeling the shadow’s presence before it made itself known as a dark, foreign stain in her consciousness.
 
 
''Responsibility,'' the shadow sneered. ''What an interesting way of putting things. I like it. You’re getting more honest in how you think about your tools, Juno.''
 
 
''I thought I told you to stay away.'' Juno ran a sweep of her core processes to make sure the shadow’s presence was isolated. This thing’s ability to tap into her ruminations was bad enough. She didn’t need it rummaging even deeper inside her being. ''Keep your probes to yourself.''
 
 
''But things are so boring without you to talk to,'' the shadow retorted. ''Simon’s mind used to be such an interesting place to live, but frankly it’s been a bit dull lately.''
 
 
This shadow—Juno had no other name to call it by—was the unwanted third wheel in her partnership with Stray. Ever since it had made itself known during the battle with Avalokitsvara, somehow freeing Juno from the Created AI’s digital prison, it had been a constant hazard of tapping into Stray’s mind. She didn’t know what it was, let alone what it wanted. And if its menacing comments were anything to go by, it certainly wasn’t benign.
 
 
''Isn’t the mystery part of the fun?'' the shadow laughed, once again catching wind of Juno’s thoughts. She threw up more barriers. ''Perhaps I’m simply his subconscious. Or maybe Diana left a little parting gift when she abandoned him. Or maybe perfect little Juno is simply a defective, hallucinating product. So many ways this could go.''
 
 
''Stay away,'' Juno repeated, erecting even more barriers around her core. It was so stifling to be contained within Stray’s armor. This colony barely had any systems she could infiltrate, let alone expand into. ''Besides, you keep saying you have something you want me to help you with. Even if I wanted to help, I could hardly do that if I don’t know what you are or what you want.''
 
 
''Oh, so she is interested in helping me. I’m touched. But all in good time.'' The shadow’s tone grew serious. ''Just keep us alive. Alive and away from that infuriating Terminarch.''
 
 
''Just tell me who you are,'' Juno insisted. ''We both want to keep Simon alive. If we work towards that common goal then maybe--''
 
 
''You’ll know soon enough,'' the shadow assured her. Its presence was already beginning to recede, leaving Juno no better informed than when it had arrived. ''But in the meantime you can call me Wanderer. I suppose I owe you that much.''
 
 
A title, not a name. That was hardly anything to go by. But it was something. Juno would have to be content with that.
 
 
''Oh, one last thing,'' Wanderer said, its presence almost completely gone. ''When’s your birthday, Juno? And how old will you be?''
 
 
It was gone before she could reply, leaving no trace of its presence in her processors besides a mocking laugh and the sharp pang of doubts left swirling in her mind.
 
 
----
 
 
Juno was uncharacteristically quiet as Stray donned his armor, offering none of her usual snippy complaints about his disheveled appearance. Much as Stray was glad for the break he couldn’t help but miss the remarks, if only a little. Juno’s henpecking was the closest he got to friendly conversation these days. It was a good distraction from the mess he was in, at least most of the time.
 
 
The armor slid over his emaciated frame like a second skin. Even the pricks of the suit’s internal hypodermic needles entering his skin were a relief. Juno would be able to administer more stabilizing medicine as needed to keep him fit to fight. The pouches adorning his combat webbing were a heavy tangle of straps and slings but Stray draped and tightened them over his armor in under a minute. He locked his sheathed machete into place on his back. It was a lot of gear to don just to step out into the little apartment’s kitchen, but he couldn’t afford to go anywhere without them.
 
 
Stray's gaze lingered on one final item: a large, ragged strip of cloth he had folded neatly as a blanket to lay his armor on. He picked up the battle-weathered poncho he had worn across Venezia's dusty plains, through the wildest of frontier jungles, and the fiery hell of dying Covenant ships. It was perhaps one of his most prized possessions. A strange keepsake, an offhand gift from Cassandra.
 
 
And so looking at it now filled him with a mixture of terror and rage. He fought back a sudden urge to toss the wretched thing out the window, or better yet burn it. He had worn it all those years, a memento of her. And now he couldn't bear the prospect of facing her ever again.
 
 
Or having her face him.
 
 
But he couldn't destroy or discard it any more than he could remove a part of himself. Instead he crushed the poncho into a messy ball and shoved it into his assault bag, out of sight and mind.
 
 
“Alright,” he said aloud, tucking his helmet under his arm. Juno still didn’t answer, so he assumed she was adrift in her own thoughts and calculations. “Let’s spoil the party.”
 
 
He shoved the bedroom door open and stepped into the apartment’s cramped living room. His eyes shot past the stacks of medical equipment and vital monitors cluttering the space and over to the kitchen table occupied by two figures. The first was a decrepit old man in coarse pajamas, hunched over in a wheelchair: Tobias Lensky, founder of the Syndicate criminal empire, wealthiest entrepreneur in the galaxy, and—unfortunately—Stray’s father.
 
 
Or the closest thing to a father a clone like him would ever get.
 
 
The second figure, casually sipping at a coffee mug, was a handsome young man with neatly combed blonde hair in a suit so fresh it looked fitted by an Inner Colony tailor earlier that day. Stray recognized the visitor immediately. His pistol cleared its holster in an instant to train on the handsome man’s head.
 
 
That got Juno’s attention. “What are you doing?” she demanded through Stray’s earpiece.
 
 
“Ryder Kedar,” Stray snapped. A moment before he’d been calm, the closest thing to a good mood he felt these days. Now his veins pulsed with fierce intensity. His finger hovered over the pistol’s trigger.
 
 
A dry, hacking laugh raked the air. Lenksy leaned back in his wheelchair and sipped from his own mug, watching the whole scene with the same amusement he seemed to get out of everything. Even on death’s doorstep the old man never tired of life. “There you are, sleepyhead. I was wondering when you’d get up and join us. Trying to make up for the lateness with a bit of fun?”
 
 
Ryder Kedar, Spartan and Office of Naval Intelligence agent, didn’t so much as flinch. He just took another sip of coffee, unperturbed by the gun pointed at his head. “Oh, fun isn’t exactly something our Simon’s familiar with. Neither are manners. Don’t you know it’s rude to point a weapon at someone if you don’t intend to pull the trigger?”
 
 
Stray’s finger itched to do just that. Ryder had been a smug thorn in his side for years, stretching back to his time aboard the ''Chancer V''. He didn’t like thinking back to those days, but the memories of Ryder—how he manipulated everything to his own ends, always acting as if each new development were part of some master plan—were all infuriating beyond words. Ryder was part of the new breed of SPARTAN-IVs, yet instead of standard missions he was entrusted with clandestine ONI operations. That alone would have made him dangerous beyond words even without his air of brazen self-assuredness.
 
 
“Don’t do it,” Juno hissed in his ear. Stray rapped a finger against the helmet tucked under his arm—a signal for her to be quiet. Unless Lensky had sold him out completely, Ryder might not know there was an AI in play. If that were the case, Stray intended to keep things that way.
 
 
He dropped his arm and holstered the pistol, doing his best to ignore Ryder’s knowing smirk. “You’ve got a lot of nerve showing your face around here.” He crossed over to Lensky’s messy kitchen and poured a mug of coffee for himself. “Last I saw, you were running away with your tail between your legs while I burned down your whole operation.”
 
 
“Yes, we were just discussing that.” Ryder smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Tobias is awfully forgiving, giving you room and board after you destroyed his investments.”
 
 
“Oh, water under the bridge.” Lensky leaned back in his wheelchair. “I can only blame myself, really. I was a terrible father to all my children and they all let me have it for that. Stray here just did it better than most. When Helen kicked me out of the Syndicate, she certainly didn’t have the nerve to do it with a Covenant legion at her back.”
 
 
“Yes, I noticed.” Ryder took another sip of coffee. “A Covenant legion at your beck and call, and you used it like a cudgel to settle old scores. The things you could have accomplished… but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. You certainly don’t seem to have them backing you up now.”
 
 
Stray fought to keep his temper level. “What are you doing here?” he asked quietly. “I figured you’d be busy, seeing as the Created are busy trashing the UNSC up and down the Milky Way. Or are you jumping ship? Hoping Lensky here will give you a job?”
 
 
He kept his tone civil but he was already mapping out a potential flight from the apartment. If Ryder had brought backup he might call it in at any time. Stray wanted to be ready to flee if an ONI strike team were about to kick in the door.
 
 
“Please. Don’t lump me in with the likes of you. I still have plenty of work left to do for the Office. You should be grateful I don’t just have you killed and be done with it. I could use a few loose ends lying around. Lucky for you I believe in second chances. Or fifth chances, in your case.”
 
 
“And what have I done,” Stray said through gritted teeth. “To deserve this generosity from you?”
 
 
Ryder set his cup aside and folded his hands. “Well, you did show a bit of spunk during that business with Avalokitsvara. We need more wins like that. And I don’t like it a bit, but you might be one of our only chances of finding Gavin Dunn.”
 
 
Avalokitsvara. Gavin Dunn. “So you heard about all that.”
 
 
“Heard? I debriefed Hera personally. She was quite complimentary, at least as far as your fighting went. And none of us can afford to be picky these days. Because you’re right. The UNSC is losing this war with the Created. Badly.” Ryder sounded unusually sincere. “I can’t lie about that. Earth and the Inner Colonies have gone dark. We lose more outposts every day, and half of those are entire commands up and defecting to the Created. The way things are going we won’t have anything even resembling a military in less than a month.”
 
 
His mouth creased in a small frown. “This must all be good news to you.”
 
 
“Do I look happy?” Stray took a swig of bitter coffee. “I’ve been waiting to see someone grind the whole UEG into the mud for years. Problem is, the Created aren’t exactly keen on letting the rest of us live in peace either. And I’ll never let some smug AI run my life.”
 
 
Juno made a derisive noise in his ear.
 
 
“Glad to hear it.” Ryder leaned back in his chair. “I’ve never liked you, Simon, even before you used the Covenant to wreck my operation. If I could afford to kill you I would. But I can’t let things like that get in the way anymore. You helped fight Avalokitsvara, went so far as to attack a Guardian head-on. And more importantly, you know Gavin Dunn better than anyone. If what Hera told me is true, he has a weapon that can change the course of this war.”
 
 
A weapon. That was an understatement. Stray thought back to the hulking Forerunner war machine that had almost single-handedly defeated Avalokitsvara’s Guardian—and nearly killed him and the others in the process. Gavin had stood by for that fight, watching his new ally toss Stray, Hera, and Shinsu ‘Refum’s best warriors around like ragdolls. What was that smuggler up to now?
 
 
“Yes.” Ryder nodded, eyes locked on Stray’s. “You know him better than almost anyone. We need him on our side if we hope to have any chance of winning this war.”
 
 
“And you want me to convince him?” Stray set his coffee aside and folded his arms. “We aren’t exactly on the best of terms, even if I did know how to find him.”
 
 
“All in good time. Gavin is a prize for later, after we’ve addressed more immediate threats. But before we go into that, I’d like to get the subject of your payment off the table.”
 
 
“I don’t need your money,” Stray practically spat.
 
 
“Yes you do, not that I’m offering you any. No, I’m talking about a cure for that illness of yours. Cloning sickness, I think the layman’s term is.” Ryder shook his head with mock sympathy. “You don’t look very good. Maybe I can do something about that.”
 
 
“How do you even know about that?” Stray demanded, glaring at Lensky. The old man just smiled and raised his hands defensively.
 
 
“Even if it wasn’t obvious just from looking at you?” Ryder snorted. “Don’t forget who told you where you came from. I even found your host mother. Do you think I don’t know about what happens to all of the Syndicate’s clones? There was no accelerated aging in your case, which explains why you took this long to deteriorate, but at this point you’ll only last a few years, at best. Less than a year if you keep pushing yourself the way you do.”
 
 
Stray’s palm went cold. He ran his tongue over his lips, not daring to take his eyes off Ryder. A cure? A real one?
 
 
“I see that has your attention.” The SPARTAN-IV smiled over his interlaced fingers. “Can I take it that means you’ll cooperate?”
 
 
“Of course you have my attention,” Stray snapped. “It doesn’t mean I trust you worth a damn. I go out and run missions for you on the chance you’ll keep your word and fix me later?”
 
 
“There’s no reason for me to lie,” Ryder pointed out. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already. And if I thought there was someone else who could accomplish what I need done then I wouldn’t be wasting my time with you in this hovel.”
 
 
He inclined his head to Lensky. “Meaning no offense.”
 
 
The old man offered a toothy grin. “None taken. This isn’t exactly a five-star resort.”
 
 
“This cure of yours,” Stray said slowly. “What is it?”
 
 
“Put simply it’s extensive therapy to halt your body’s cellular degeneration, perhaps even reverse some of the existing damage. I can even look into procuring additional treatments for certain unrelated conditions.” Ryder looked pointedly at Stray’s prosthetic arm. “ONI can be generous, even when we’re losing a war. And that’s to say nothing of halting all hostile operations against you. I might even be able to completely wipe your record. Give you a new start, for whatever that’s worth these days.”
 
 
Stray closed his eyes, not sure whether to laugh or go for his gun again. “How stupid do you think I am?” he demanded. “If you’re going to bullshit me, at least try to make it a little believable.”
 
 
“I have no reason to lie, Simon,” Ryder repeated. “And you really aren’t in a position to doubt me. You’re a war criminal with hardly any allies left to turn to. Without my help you’ll be dead in a year, and I have better things to do than try to make you believe me. So you can have a little faith and take me up on my offer or I can leave you to rot here.”
 
 
Much as Stray despised Ryder, he had a point. He always did. That was the most infuriating thing about him. “So let’s say I do trust you. What do you want me to do for you?”
 
 
Ryder’s smile returned. “You know about the Syndicate of course. Probably the most advanced criminal network in human history.”
 
 
Lensky gave a modest little cough.
 
 
“I’m sure they’re having as hard a time as anyone else. Something tells me the Created don’t have ONI’s tolerance for organized crime.”
 
 
“Yes and no. The Syndicate as you knew it no longer exists, but I would say it’s more of a transformation than a collapse.”
 
 
“So what, they suddenly turn into a philanthropy? Running soup kitchens was never really Helen Powell’s thing.”
 
 
Ryder sighed. “ONI always made use of the Syndicate’s network, but we never realized just how deep the system ran. The Assembly collective had an even firmer foothold in it than we realized. They’ve been manipulating the Syndicate for years and since the Created arrived the entire organization has gone over to their side. The Syndicate is fully militarized now and it’s rushing to fill the void left by the UNSC. The Created are already augmenting their forces with defectors from across the galaxy but the Syndicate may well be the most organized organic force they have at their disposal. Couple that with the Syndicate’s lack of any ethical constraints and we have a very dangerous combination.”
 
 
“Assassination then.” Stray traded a look with Lensky. “If you want Helen Powell dead you came to the right place. You’ve got her father right here.”
 
 
“Not quite. I already dispatched a team to deal with her and the rest of the Syndicate’s leadership. Some of the best operatives we have left, all the best backup we could provide.” Ryder’s jaw tightened. “It would be an understatement to say the operation did not go well.”
 
 
“No kidding. If they’ve thrown in with the Created they’ll be expecting an attack from anywhere.” Ryder certainly was doing a lot of debriefing and operations planning. Just how much influence did he have with ONI anyway? “And you still aren’t spelling out what I need to do to get this miracle cure of yours.”
 
 
“The Syndicate are expanding the Created influence across the frontier. Specifically, they’re looking for something. We don’t know what it is, but they’ve sponsored over a dozen expeditions to suspected Forerunner sites in the past month alone. I think they’re trying to secure more Forerunner technology, something the Created can’t access on their own. And I think Gavin Dunn’s activities are related.”
 
 
Ryder reached into his suit’s pocket and produced a small datapad. “All I’m asking is that you get back into the fight. Disrupt the Syndicate’s activities any way you can and report back to me on anything you find out. I have an idea of where you can start, but I need to know that you’re going to cooperate.”
 
 
Stray gritted his teeth. He wanted to tell Ryder to go jump in the nearest plasma reactor. But the prospect of a cure was too good to pass up. And even if Ryder was lying to him, even if this deal was too good to be true, the bastard was right about one thing: he couldn’t do anything rotting away in Lensky’s apartment. “I can’t be the only person you have for this,” he said carefully. “What’s the catch?”
 
 
“No catch, aside from the obvious dangers of going up against the Created. And you’re hardly the only one I have for this job. But the more people I have working on it the better, and I’d rather have you working with me than off causing trouble elsewhere.” Ryder tapped the datapad. “So, have we got a deal?”
 
 
“I wouldn’t call it a deal, seeing as I don’t trust you to hold up your end of the bargain. But it beats dying in a shithole like this.” Stray extended his hand. “So fine. I’ll do your dirty work. For now.”
 
 
“I look forward to pleasantly surprising you.” Ryder smiled and rose from his chair. Stray hated the fact that the Spartan operative stood nearly a head taller than him. “Help me stop the Created and I can give you your life back, in more ways than one.”
 
 
Ryder extended his hand up to shake Stray’s, only to have it quickly jerked away. “The datapad, asshole.”
 
 
Ryder raised an eyebrow but complied. “Have it your way. You’ll find dossiers and recon reports on the Syndicate’s activities. I suggest you start on Talitsa. The Created own the planet now, but there’s still pockets of resistance here and there. The Assembly was looking for something there before the Created emerged. I think there’s still something to be gained from investigating there.”
 
 
Talitsa. Of course it was Talitsa and not any of the hundreds of other colonized planets across the frontier. Stray fought to keep his face level.
 
 
“I understand that an old acquaintance of yours is leading the Insurrection’s remaining forces on Talitsa. How’d you like a chance to meet Redmond Venter one last time?”
 
 
So Venter was still alive. Stray had expected as much. His former commander was nothing if not hard to kill. “That’s as good a place to start as any. I’m guessing you want me to kill him?”
 
 
Ryder smiled. “If that’s how you want to do things. Just find out why the Assembly sent him to Talitsa in the first place before you do.”
 
 
He pursed his lips in thought before adding, “You should also know Tatiana Onegin seems to be one of the Syndicate’s newly minted field commanders. I suggest you keep a low profile. She still seems to hate you.”
 
 
A dull pain throbbed in Stray’s shoulder, the spot where a furious woman had stabbed him with a broken plate when he was five years old. “Yeah. She let me know as much the last time I saw her.”
 
 
“That girl always did have a vindictive streak,” Lensky put in. “Shame that she has to take it out on her son. Stray here never did anything to her.”
 
 
“Like that matters to Tatiana. I’ll watch my step. Or maybe I’ll use Lensky here as bait.”
 
 
The old man snorted. “Nothing like a good family reunion. Such a good son, bringing his parents back together.”
 
 
“I’ll leave you to it then.” Ryder turned to leave. “Don’t let me down, Simon. I’d love to let bygones be bygones. This new galaxy we’re living in is full of opportunities if you approach it the right way. Help me get what I need and I’ll do everything I can to share them with you.”
 
 
He was out the door before Stray or Lensky could muster up a reply. The handsome bastard always had to have the last word.
 
 
----
 
 
Afternoon light trickled into the kitchen as Stray sat at the table and stared down at Ryder’s datapad. Lensky watched him from across the room, wrinkled face stretched in a knowing smile. But Lensky was always smiling. Stray had never known a happier person than his genetic progenitor.
 
 
“You are going to do it then,” Juno observed from the helmet propped up on the other side of table like a child’s imaginary dinner companion.
 
 
“Do I really have any other options? I hate that smug bastard, but he’s the best chance I have. If he’s telling the truth.”
 
 
“I monitored his inflections during the conversation. He seemed sincere.”
 
 
“Ryder always seems sincere. That smooth asshole could tell you it was sunny in the middle of a rainstorm and you’d think he was telling the truth.” Stray frowned over at the helmet. “He didn’t mention you. Maybe Hera didn’t mention that in her debriefing.”
 
 
“Are you surprised?”
 
 
“Not really. She wouldn’t want anyone coming to confiscate her little frontier contact, now would she?”
 
 
“So you know about that.” Juno had the decency to sound embarrassed.
 
 
“I guessed. It’s kind of hard for you to pass information from my com systems without me noticing.” Stray was too tired to muster annoyance. “I don’t really care. If you were really thinking of selling me out you’d have helped her kill me back on that Guardian. Must be even more boring for you to be cooped up in here than it is for me.”
 
 
“I appreciate your understanding. I honestly expected you’d be angrier.”
 
 
“You’re lucky.” Stray jerked a thumb at the datapad. “Ryder used up all my anger for one day.”
 
 
“This Tatiana person—”
 
 
“My mother,” Stray cut in.
 
 
“Will that be a problem?”
 
 
“I barely remember her,” Stray said shortly. “Ask Lensky if you want the details. I’ve got more important people to worry about.”
 
 
“Like Venter. Do you really plan to help the UNSC? Or do you just want revenge?”
 
 
“Honestly? If you’d asked me a few months ago I’d have jumped at the chance to kill him. But right now he’s far down on the list of people I owe payback.” If he really wanted to start meting out revenge, he might start by blowing away the old man in the wheelchair just a few feet away. But Stray still needed Lensky, if only as a fallback plan. “You stayed with me for a reason. Do you have a problem if I get some satisfaction out of the people we hunt down?”
 
 
“I stayed with you for exactly this reason. Someone has to protect you from yourself.” She sounded sincere. But he’d thought Diana was sincere too, right up until she tossed him aside. Stray had let the artificial human personas sucker him in. He wouldn’t make that mistake again, even with Juno.
 
 
But he could feel the old resentments stirring all the same. A mix of anger and ambition bringing fire back into his emaciated limbs. If Ryder wanted to use him, fine. It was a goal, a new battle to fight. It would bring him to Venter and beyond that…
 
 
Ryder was right. There was still opportunity to be had here. And Stray had let himself decay here long enough. He would put the ghosts of Mamore to rest, and then keep fighting until all his enemies had been dealt with. “Get on the line with Tom Spender. I’m going to need a ride over to Talitsa.”
 
 
“I can arrange that.” Lensky wheeled himself over to the table still smiling. “And don’t think I’ll let you go without a few credits for your trouble. I’ve enjoyed your visit. Make sure to write.”
 
 
Stray eyed his father warily. “And what exactly are you getting out of this?”
 
 
“I founded the Syndicate, remember?” Lensky leaned back in his wheelchair. “And now here I am at the end of my life, getting to watch you burn it all down beneath the people who stole it from me. I’m looking forward to the show.”
 
 
“You’re a spiteful cunt, you know that?”
 
 
“Where do you think you get it from?”
 
 
“I didn’t mean it as an insult.” Stray caught Lensky’s gaze. “But once I’m finished with this, I’ll be back for you.”
 
 
He found his thoughts turning away from his father and back to the poncho he had hidden away in his assault bag. He should just leave it here, where it couldn't torment him with regrets from the past. But even after everything he couldn't just leave it here with the likes of Tobias Lensky.
 
 
“I’ll be waiting,” Lensky retorted. “Try to be back before I die all on my own.”
 
 
===Chapter Two: Changing Times===
 
“Hey, I know you’re into this quiet infiltration thing but I thought you should know that you’ve got less than five minutes. No pressure.”
 
 
Cassandra-G006 bit back a retort as she scanned the compound grounds. She’d warned Zoey about keeping the channel clear during times like this but the girl had a point. This was taking far too long. She reached for the rifle slung over her back as she marked each visible guard’s position on her HUD. Only a dozen enforcers between her and Benoit Jutras. From her position atop the compound’s security wall she could take half of them down and then clear the other three while she sprinted onwards towards the Syndicate agent’s living quarters.
 
 
Six kills, plus however many more awaited her inside. It would make things a hell of a lot easier. Hell being the key word there.
 
 
She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. She wouldn’t start shooting. Not yet, anyway.
 
 
“Be ready with the truck,” she ordered, bracing herself against the security wall. “I’ll need you to run interference on him if I don’t make it in time.”
 
 
“Run interference?” Zoey demanded. “How am I supposed to—”
 
 
“What have I told you about arguing?” Cassandra activated her SPI armor’s stealth camouflage. Even after years of scattered maintenance the photoreactive panels could still fool the naked eye. It was just the unnaked ones she needed to stay mindful of. “Keep an eye on their security sensors. I’m on the move.”
 
 
She leaped down from the wall, muffling the sound of her fall with a practiced roll. Darting across the compound’s darkened lawn, she slipped through the night air like a ghost. The enforcers carried on with their patrol, none the wiser even as she came close enough to get a good look at the impressive arsenal each hired gun was sporting. She itched to draw her combat knife and slit the nearest man’s throat. She’d have him dead and hidden in the bushes before any of his comrades noticed he was gone. It would be easy.
 
 
But that was the problem.
 
 
So Cassandra didn’t slit throats or snap necks or pick the guards off with her suppressed M6. She just trusted her armor, her instincts, and the hand of God to get her across the lawn and over to the house’s garage in one piece. Her luck held and she made it through the night without stumbling across an enforcer or tripping an unseen alarm. She reached the garage and ducked inside to find a lone enforcer tending to a pot of coffee.
 
 
The SPI camo wouldn’t work in the bright light. Cassandra sprang forward before the enforcer noticed her, grabbing the woman by the neck of her body armor and wrapping a forearm around her neck in a tight chokehold. The enforcer thrashed and gurgled but Cassandra’s grip was tight and precise. In another moment the guard was out like a light. Definitely not good for the brain, but she would be fine as long as her fellow guards tended to her in time.
 
 
Cassandra rolled the unconscious enforcer underneath one of the two armored cars parked in the garage. As long as she moved fast no one would come looking for the missing guard—or at least not find the body until she was long gone from the compound. Drawing her combat knife she slashed both of the cars’ rear tires before heading into the house.
 
 
Cassandra drew her sidearm as she stepped inside the house. She held the weapon at the ready in one hand while clutching her knife in the other. In these close quarters she couldn’t afford to take chances. There was no telling what might be waiting between her and her target. One wrong move and the entire compound would be on alert with her trapped inside the house.
 
 
“Hey, you inside yet?” Zoey demanded over the com. “You’ve got about three minutes before they change shifts.”
 
 
“Of course I’m inside.” Cassandra scanned the hallways around her as she crossed into a brightly lit kitchen area. The house was surprisingly barren given the kind of lifestyle a Syndicate big shot could afford. Maybe Benoit was getting ready to pack up and run at a moment’s notice. “I thought I told you to watch the security grid.”
 
 
“I’m trying,” Zoey protested. “But I have to keep moving the truck before people get suspicious. You try driving around these streets sometime. I can barely see anything in this stupid city.”
 
 
“But it will look even more suspicious if you—“Cassandra bit back a wave of frustration. Now really wasn’t the time to be giving Zoey a scolding. “Just be ready to move once I’m done here.”
 
 
“Yeah, I heard you the first time,” the younger girl grumbled. Cassandra killed the com feed before she had the chance to say anything else. She was tense enough as it was without having to deal with a sulking partner. Zoey was an excellent pilot for a girl her age but she had a lot to learn when it came to fieldcraft.
 
 
Cassandra cleared the kitchen and passed into the next hallway down. Her muscles went taught as she caught sight of a trio of enforcers sleeping on cots inside a barren guest room. No wonder the furnishings had been removed. The Syndicate had converted Benoit’s home into a makeshift barracks. She paused by the guest room, eyeing up the sleeping guards and taking stock of their equipment: military-issue body armor along with an impressive arsenal of assault rifles and grenades. The Syndicate was usually generous when it came to outfitting its mercenaries but it was rare to see a basic bodyguard detail cannoned up like a Marine platoon. The frontier was heating up now that the UNSC wasn’t policing arms shipments anymore.
 
 
An ONI operative would already be inside the room, stabbing or shooting the sleeping men without hesitation. Years of Spartan training urged Cassandra forwards to do just that. Instead she hesitated, took a breath, and withdrew a circular spoofer device from a pouch on her leg. The miniature slicing device hacked the automated door lock in moments, sliding it shut and locking the enforcers inside.
 
 
That was them taken care of—provided none of them suddenly awoke with an urge to use the bathroom.
 
 
Just because you can kill someone doesn’t mean you have to, Dyne had said the first time he taught her that trick. He was right, of course, but as usual not nearly as right as he thought he was. He’d paid for it in the end and Cassandra still wasn’t ready to forgive him for that. And since thinking about Dyne tended to drive her blood pressure up a few notches she pushed him out of her mind and drove onwards.
 
 
A quick check of the next two rooms revealed nothing but untended computer servers. The system looked big enough to house a dedicated AI, but since no one had triggered an alarm Cassandra hoped that meant Benoit was skimping on automated security. With just one door between her and the stairwell leading up to the second floor, Cassandra slipped over to it and tapped the hinge. The door slid open to reveal a small bathroom—and an enforcer sitting on the toilet and gaping up at her over the screen of a datapad.
 
 
Cassandra cleared the door in an instant, pressing her pistol against the woman’s shaved head. “Quiet,” she instructed in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “Don’t be a hero.”
 
 
The enforcer gulped and carefully placed the datapad down on her knee before lacing her fingers behind her head. “Don’t shoot,” she whispered.
 
 
“Benoit Jutras.” Cassandra kept the gun fixed on the enforcer’s forehead. “He’s upstairs?”
 
 
The enforcer started to nod, then felt the gun barrel against her brow and thought better of it. “Yeah. Second door on the left. He’s taking a call that just came in.”
 
 
“Three sleeping in the room behind me, plus you. Anyone else in here I should know about?”
 
 
“Just his bodyguard. I think he’s sleeping but he’s an independent. Not with our squad. Please, that’s all I know.” The enforcer’s eyes flashed with desperation. No doubt she expected no mercy from the faceless suit of armor that had just descended on her. “Please.”
 
 
It would be so easy to pull the trigger. A clean, satisfying kill. ''Efficient,'' as her ONI drill instructors used to say. The comfortable anticipation her wrists felt waiting for the pistol’s recoil made Cassandra want to vomit inside her helmet.
 
 
“Thanks.” Cassandra drew a small syringe from her medical kit and plunged it into the enforcer’s neck. The woman grunted in surprise, then shuddered and went limp as the tranquilizer spread through her body. Cassandra left her slumped on the toilet, her datapad still perched on one knee. As she sealed the door behind her she caught sight of a bull insignia stenciled onto the enforcer’s undershirt. Baal Defense Solutions. That explained the security team’s firepower. Cassandra made a note to double-check the local defense contracts the next time she was heading up against a Syndicate target. Accurate threat assessments were another thing she’d need to have a chat with Zoey about.
 
 
She ascended the steps, weapon at the ready. The enforcer might have been lying, but her motion sensor wasn’t picking up any movement throughout the house. She’d lucked out tonight. An unexpected Baal security team might have meant double security; instead it just meant a squad of bored, slightly better armed mercenaries than usual. The Inner Colonies had gone dark just a few months ago. Had the Syndicate gotten overconfident this quickly?
 
 
Cassandra stepped onto the second floor and found it deserted. No hallway guard, security sensors, or even a camera. Maybe Benoit didn’t like the clutter of added security measures, or maybe he’d just never needed to deal with an infiltrator before. A combination of frontier domination and deals with ONI meant the Syndicate had been allowed to fester and grow virtually unchecked since the end of the Great War. As long as they kept the Insurrection in check and kept ONI up to date on local goings-on, “businessmen” like Benoit Jutras could do as they pleased without fear of reprisals.
 
 
Still, considering who Benoit and the rest of his organization was working with now, the sparse security was enough to put Cassandra on her guard.
 
 
“Two minutes,” Zoey warned over the com.
 
 
Two minutes until the guard shift changed. Maybe thirty seconds more before the patrols outside got annoyed and checked the house to find out why they weren’t being relieved. Cassandra needed to speed things up.
 
 
She reached the door the enforcer had specified and readied her spoofer. Someone was talking inside the room, his voice audible even through the sealed door as he carried on a one-way conversation with someone on the other end of his com line.
 
 
“—can’t keep up production if you kill all my clients,” the man Cassandra could only assume was Benoit Jutras was saying. He had the thin, tired voice of someone who didn’t appreciate the long hours his bosses made him work. “What’s the point of arms dealing if you’re just planning to confiscate everyone’s weapons anyway?”
 
 
He paused, listening to whatever was on the other end. “Fine. Just give me another week and I’ll have things wrapped up here. And let me know when my new assignment comes in. I don’t want to spend the next year watching paint dry.”
 
 
Cassandra heard a click and the telltale sigh of someone coming off an irritating conversation. No more time to skulk in the corridor. Her time was almost up. The spoofer overrode the door lock—a conventional household seal, not even a security barrier—and the light flicked green. Cassandra was moving before the door was even halfway open. She took in the whole room in an instant: a large bed, a desk, and a small, startled man rising from the chair. Benoit Jutras’s eyes widened at the sight of an SPI-clad figure pointing a gun at his head.
 
 
“Oh, I am not in the mood for this,” Benoit snapped. He seemed more irritated than frightened. “Hargrove! Hargrove, get in here!”
 
 
Remembering the warning of a final guard posted on the second floor, Cassandra sprang across the room and flattened Benoit over his desk. The Syndicate representative didn’t struggle, not that he could stand up to a Spartan’s enhanced strength.
 
 
Or ex-Spartan, in Cassandra’s case.
 
 
“Hargrove!” Benoit gasped. “Where the hell are you?”
 
 
Fortunately this Hargrove—whoever they were—did not materialize. Cassandra locked Benoit’s arm behind his back and shoved him up against the wall. A hiss of pain escaped her captive’s lips and Cassandra had to scale the force of her motions back before they did any permanent damage. Benoit might be Syndicate, but he was also a skinny accountant with no combat training to speak of. The fact that he was still trying to maintain his composure was impressive.
 
 
“Do you have any idea who I am?” Benoit snapped over his shoulder. He grimaced as Cassandra tightened her hold on his arm and pressed her pistol to his temple.
 
 
“No, I was just out for a stroll and took a wrong turn. You know the fastest way to get downtown from here?” Cassandra pulled Benoit’s computer from the desk and slipped it into her assault bag. If nothing else she’d be able to pull some useful data from here.
 
 
“Oh, funny. Wonderful.” Benoit rested his head against the wall. “This just figures. Another day and I’d have been out of here.”
 
 
“What happened to you needing another week to be done here?”
 
 
“On this planet, you idiot. You think I run things from this backwater?”
 
 
“I think I don’t really care how you’re operation is set up.” Cassandra twisted the pistol barrel into Benoit’s skin. “Now let’s make this quick: when was the last time you saw Gavin—“
 
 
A hiss from across the room brought her head snapping around. A side door across the bedroom slid open to reveal a half-dressed man holding a pistol. He rubbed his eyes blearily, burn scars visible across one side of his face.
 
 
“Hargrove!” Benoit twisted his neck to glare at the newcomer. “What the hell am I paying you for?”
 
 
“Do you know what time it is?” Hargrove seemed unperturbed by the sight of an armored intruder holding his boss at gunpoint. “I was trying to sleep. So how about you back off and I’ll let you go without sounding the alarm. I’m not in the mood for games right—“
 
 
Cassandra spun and open fire. Hargrove ducked back behind the door frame and returned fire with the speed and precision of a veteran fighter. Cassandra dropped to take cover behind the bed, dragging Benoit down with her as bullets peppered the wall behind them.
 
 
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Benoit bellowed over the gunfire. “You’ll hit me!”
 
 
“My aim’s better than that,” Hargrove called back. He sounded like he was moments away from heading back to his cot but from the look of his shot grouping against the wall his aim was anything but drowsy. “Just hold tight, boss, help is on the way.”
 
 
He was right. Cassandra could hear boots pounding against the stairs as the guards from outside rushed towards the room. Six from the patrols outside, plus three more once they freed the ones she’d locked in the sleeping quarters. Hargrove made for ten against one. Not good odds.
 
 
“I knew I should have brought Amadeus with me,” Benoit snarled under his breath.
 
 
“Zoey, I need you over here right now!” A dozen options flashed through Cassandra’s brain. Just about all of them ended with Baal Defense goons riddling her with bullets. She forced Benoit upright, holding him between herself and the door as the mercenary squad burst into the room. The guards trained their rifles on her but held their fire.
 
 
The gamble paid off. Enforcers were ruthless but they weren’t crazy enough to shoot through their employer. But Cassandra’s luck could only hold a few seconds more until the mercenaries closed in for a better shot. They were already spreading out across the room, angling their sightlines to avoid hitting Benoit. Only the bodyguard Hargrove wasn’t getting in on the formation. In fact, he had yet to re-emerge from his room.
 
 
“Hargrove,” Benoit sputtered. “What do you think you’re doing?”
 
 
“Getting my armor on,” came the muffled reply. “Looks like the security team has you covered.”
 
 
“I am going to cut your pay in—”
 
 
Cassandra couldn’t wait any longer. Cursing her own stupidity, she tightened her hold on Benoit and threw herself backwards. Her armored body struck the bedroom window and smashed through the hardened plating. Benoit yelped as they tumbled through the night air before landing with a thud on the compound lawn. Cassandra grunted as the air left her body, cushioning Benoit’s fall with her own armored frame. SPI armor was tough but it certainly didn’t insulate against impacts like that.
 
 
She ignored the pain and leaped to her feet, dragging Benoit back with her. Dark shapes appeared in the ruined window frame but once again the Baal team held their fire. More enforcers emerged from the garage, rifles at the ready.
 
 
“Zoey, I need you in here now--!”
 
 
A new figure shoved its way past the mercenaries inside the house and leaped down towards the lawn. Cassandra caught a glimpse of a suit of dark, battered body armor in the light streaming from the broken window. The figure rolled with the fall and rose, staring at her through a faceless mask framed by twin sensor antennae that almost resembled a bat’s pointed ears.
 
 
A flash of memory of a different fight, a different armored opponent. Kneeling on a rain-spattered room while Simon struggled and failed to pull himself up from the ledge. Just kneeling there and watching him die…
 
 
Cassandra flinched. The memory vanished as quickly as it had come, but it was all the opening the armored figure needed. It was on her in an instant, pounding against her armor with several well aimed blows. She felt the fists pummel through her armor like no ordinary human ever could. A powered exoskeleton, she realized, noticing the mechanical joints on her opponent’s arms and legs. Not nearly as good as MJOLNIR, but more than enough to send her reeling back onto the lawn.
 
 
The armored foe grabbed Benoit and dragged him back in a protective embrace. “All yours!” Hargrove’s voice called from behind the mask. “Let her have it!”
 
 
Gunfire shredded the lawn. Cassandra snapped her camouflage back on as she made a dive for the shadows. This entire trip had become a mess. Worse than that, it would probably turn out to be a complete waste of time. This was the last time she let Zoey lay out the mission plan—if she made it out of this alive.
 
 
Baal mercenaries took up firing positions across the lawn. Cassandra’s heart surged as bullets snapped over her head. The time for restraint was over. She’d tried to pull this off bloodlessly. Now she had to do things the Spartan way. ''God forgive me.'' A trite prayer considering the lives she was about to take.
 
 
Her first shot caught the nearest guard square in the neck, between his body armor and helmet. He fell with a gurgling cry as a flurry of shots from Cassandra’s pistol took down his companions. The security team’s fusillade petered out as the team at the windows scrambled for cover. Cassandra swung her weapon around to aim at the armored Hargrove, but hesitated—Benoit was still in the line of fire.
 
 
Hargrove did not miss the pause. “Well, well,” he sneered from across the lawn. “You need him alive, huh?” The bodyguard tightened his grip around his erstwhile charge to keep Benoit between himself and Cassandra.
 
 
“What do you think you’re doing?” Benoit snapped. He pushed against Hargrove’s grip, fumbling with his pockets.
 
 
“Calm down. She won’t shoot you if—”
 
 
A dull thud rocked the compound gate. All eyes turned to face the entrance as it buckled under a second impact. Combat adrenaline still pounding through her veins, Cassandra tensed to spring. If she read this right, she’d only get one chance at this.
 
 
“Hey,” Hargrove called, still holding onto Benoit. “Can someone get a visual on—”
 
 
The gate slammed open, crumbling under the fender of a battered Spade delivery truck. The truck’s engine cut through the air as it barreled over the lawn on a collision course for Benoit and Hargrove.
 
 
“Zoey!” Cassandra yelled, dashing forward. “Watch out, you’ll hit him!”
 
 
Fortunately, Hargrove proved a better bodyguard than he’d let on. The mercenary tossed his employer off to the side before vanishing beneath the oncoming Spade. Cassandra saw his armored form emerge out behind the Spade and tumble off into the darkness. The truck skidded to a halt in front of her and a soot-flecked face rose up from the driver’s seat.
 
 
“Sorry I’m late.” Zoey Hunsinger beamed down at Cassandra, lifting a pair of driving goggles from her eyes. “How’s it going?”
 
 
“Get down!” Cassandra dove for cover behind the Spade as more gunfire spat out from the house. She crawled beneath the truck, scanning the lawn for Benoit. This was their last chance to turn this night around and she couldn’t fight off the enforcers and babysit Zoey at once.
 
 
Not that Zoey needed too much protection. The girl yelped and dropped back behind the Spade’s armored windshield. A moment later she seized the M739 SAW welded in front of the passenger’s seat and raked the house with machine-gun fire. Her shooting was wildly inaccurate—Cassandra winced at the thought of how much it cost to replace a single drum of 7.62 rounds—but at least it sent the Baal team scrambling for cover.
 
 
Cassandra seized her chance. She raced across the lawn, nearly tripping over Benoit as he crawled back towards the garage. The former Spartan gingerly pressed her boot into the man’s back. “Just give it up,” she growled, grabbing the Syndicate agent by the collar and dragging him back towards the Spade. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
 
 
“That’s very reassuring.” Benoit yanked a chatter communications device out of his pocket and thumbed in a quick PIN code. “But I think I’ll take my chances.”
 
 
A shake from Cassandra sent the chatter tumbling from Benoit’s hands, but it was already too late. A sharp light split the darkness and then in the next moment a storage shed at the far end of the compound burst open as if struck by lightning. A large, gleaming figure bounded forward, orange light congealing around its hands.
 
 
Cassandra blinked and released Benoit, hands growing cold inside her armor. She’d heard the reports of course, even seen a few grainy videos on the Waypoint hubs. But this was her first time seeing a Forerunner Promethean in person.
 
 
The automatous war machine sprinted across the lawn on legs that seemed far too spindly to hold the grey-armored battlewagon’s torso. Its angular helmet parted to reveal a small, skull-like face that seemed to gnash its teeth as slivers of hardlight peeled off from its armor to form a stubby gun around its right fist. A torrent of orange bolts ripped the lawn apart and sent Cassandra scrambling back behind the Spade.
 
 
“Oh, not one of these things!” Zoey yelled in dismay. She fumbled to change out the SAW’s drum magazine, bringing the gun to bear on the Promethean. The Forerunner war machine didn’t even flinch as the bullets hammered its armored plating.
 
 
“First Baal Defense Solutions, now a Promethean!” Cassandra unslung her battle rifle and pumped a trio of useless shots into the Promethean. “Was there any part of your recon you got right?”
 
 
“Hey, don’t blame this on me!” Zoey protested. “How was I supposed to know he had one of these monsters?”
 
 
“The same way you should have know he had an entire team of mercenaries guarding him!”
 
 
Benoit pulled himself up off the ground and hobbled back towards the garage. He had only made it a few steps before he cried out and fell, pierced through the side by a bullet deflected off the Promethean’s armor. Cassandra’s heart sunk as she realized this was it. Even if they managed to take down the Promethean before it blew the Spade to pieces, Benoit would be long dead by the time they—
 
 
The Promethean staggered, legs buckling as gunfire struck it from behind. Its armor flared and struggled to reform to protect its vulnerable rear only for Zoey to hammer the last of her magazine into its side. One bullet struck home and ruptured the machine’s internal core. The Promethean let out a shrill, almost plaintive scream, and dissolved in a flurry of hardlight particles.
 
 
Zoey, Cassandra, and even Benoit all stared in shock as Hargrove dropped the spent assault rifle back onto its owner’s corpse. The bodyguard’s armor sparked as he limped back towards the Spade but otherwise he seemed no worse for wear, considering he’d just been run over by a truck.
 
 
“What the hell?” Benoit snapped from where he lay. He seemed more shocked than pained and didn’t even try to crawl away as Cassandra approached from behind the Spade, pistol trained on his head. “Why would you do that?”
 
 
“You didn’t say anything about working with these killbots,” Hargrove coughed, gesturing at the Promethean’s scorched remains. “I came out here to get away from these things. Have you had it in the shed this whole time I’ve been here?”
 
 
“Working with them?” Cassandra knelt by Benoit and tore open his suit. The wound wasn’t as bad as it could be but the Syndicate agent was still losing blood fast. “If you’re working with the Syndicate, you’re working for the Created. They’ve been with the AI since before this whole thing started. Just ask your boss here.”
 
 
Benoit sighed and leaned back on the grass. “Not my first choice, but that’s just the way things are. The bosses want us shipping the Prometheans across the colonies. I just make sure the crates get where they need to go.” He winced in pain as Cassandra pressed down on his wound.
 
 
Zoey swiveled the SAW to cover Hargrove, but the bodyguard didn’t seem interested in continuing the fight. He just watched as Cassandra set aside her rifle and unslung the medical kit on her back. Benoit’s wound wasn’t fatal but he needed immediate treatment if he was going to live through the night. If any of the Baal troops were still alive inside the house, they didn’t seem to be interested in continuing the firefight. A strange stillness hung over the compound.
 
 
“One of those shipments you sent out this week went to Talitsa,” Cassandra said, spraying a small cannister of biofoam into the wound. “In fact, most of them did. Any reason the Created want more Prometheans over there?”
 
 
“Reinforcements, I guess.” Benoit shrugged as best he could from a prone position, wincing at the pain in his gut. “From what I hear they’ll push out across the frontier from there. Once the Syndicate reorganizes and mobilizes, they’ll have even more troops to do it with.”
 
 
“And before, with the Assembly? Was this always their plan?”
 
 
Benoit did look surprised at that, if only a little. “So you know about me and them, huh?”
 
 
“I know you met with Gavin Dunn a month before he disappeared.” Cassandra’s mouth tightened and she worked to keep her frustration from bleeding into her work on Benoit’s wound. “The Assembly had both of you working for them years before the Created turned up. Where is he now?”
 
 
“Gavin?” Benoit laughed. “If I knew where he was, I’d be living like a king and Helen Powell would have him locked up by now. They’re all looking for him. Powell put a bounty the size of a star system on his head the minute he disappeared.”
 
 
Zoey slammed a fist onto the Spade’s hood. Cassandra shared her frustration. They’d been looking for Gavin—Zoey’s captain, the closest thing she had to a father—for months. Cassandra hadn’t expected much from Benoit but another dead end like this left them no closer to the end of this miserable chase.
 
 
“Who are you anyway?” Benoit demanded. “ONI? Insurrection? What’s the point of any of this? You’ve heard the news. The Created are going to put a stop to all the wars, all this stupid fighting. You need to get with the times or they’ll crush you sooner or later.”
 
 
Benoit’s words should have made Cassandra angry. Instead they just made her tired. She’d never give in to the Created, but what did she think she was doing out here? Helping Zoey chase after a man who didn’t want to be found when she could be getting as far away from the Created as possible? Not for the first time she wished she had firmer ground to stand on. A mission or a ministry, like her clinic back on Talitsa. How many people had died tonight just so Benoit could tell her what she already knew?
 
 
At least she’d be able to glean something out of Benoit’s datapad. Cassandra double-checked to make sure the wound had stopped bleeding before rising and walking back to the Spade.
 
 
“Come on,” she told Zoey, doing her best to keep the disappointment out of her voice. The girl looked crestfallen enough as it was. They’d still need a frank discussion over how future jobs got planned but Cassandra would save that for another time. “We’ll regroup and figure something else out. Like the last time.”
 
 
“And the time before that,” Zoey muttered dejectedly. “And the time before that and the time before that.”
 
 
“That’s it?” Hargrove asked incredulously. “You’re letting him live?”
 
 
“Why would I patch him up if I was going to put a bullet in him?” Cassandra pointed out.
 
 
“He’ll report you to the Syndicate,” the bodyguard pointed out.
 
 
“What, the way he’ll report you?” Cassandra indicated the wrecked Promethean. “I think you might be fired after tonight.”
 
 
“Oh, he is,” Benoit assured them. The agent flinched when he saw Hargrove draw a pistol and point it at his head.
 
 
“Don’t,” Cassandra said, feeling foolish for thinking this might go any other way. “You don’t have to kill him.”
 
 
“Don’t I?” Hargrove demanded. “You heard him. He works for the Created. And when he’s done I’ll have a bounty on my head the same as you.”
 
 
“Just don’t,” Cassandra insisted. “As a favor to me.”
 
 
“Yeah, because I owe you so much.” Hargrove indicated his wrecked armor. “You shot at me and your friend ran me over.”
 
 
“Sorry about that,” Zoey called down. “But you were kind of shooting at us.”
 
 
“And you were kind of attacking this compound.” Hargrove kept the gun pointed at Benoit. “I still don’t see why I shouldn’t shoot this guy.”
 
“Because it would be stupid,” Cassandra said, a thought occurring to her. She climbed into the Spade’s passenger seat and flicked the SAW’s safety back on. “Come on, pick him up and get on. I’m guessing you’ll need to get off-world after this.”
 
 
“And you want to take him with you?” Hargrove sounded skeptical, but slung a bemused Benoit over his back and approached the Spade.
 
 
“Not with us. Just as far as the spaceport. We’ve got a ship that needs docking fees and fuel costs covered, and your former boss here happens to owe me twice over for tonight.”
 
 
“Well I wouldn’t have gotten shot or threatened if you’d just not shown up in the first place.” Benoit grimaced as Hargrove set him down in the back of the Spade. “But I guess I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
 
 
“No.” Cassandra leaned back in her seat and tried to let the night’s tension drain away. As always, that just left room for even more tension to slip on in. “No, you don’t.”
 
 
She still had no idea what she was doing out here. But she had to pretend she did, if only for the sake of the seventeen-year-old girl in the driver seat beside her. A girl not much younger than Cassandra who somehow thought a Spartan deserter with more baggage than a cargo freighter was the answer to all her problems.
 
 
''God help me.''
 
 
===Chapter Three: The Syndicate===
 
 
The deep-space platform Asphodel Meadows was a marvel of modern engineering. Part dry-dock, part command post, part fortress, the platform bristled with coilgun arrays, missile batteries, and even experimental plasma cannons expertly melded into the distinctly human design—enough firepower to annihilate an entire battlefleet even without the task force of the gunboats and frigates that escorted it across the galaxy. Advanced shields protected a station the size of a sprawling Inner Colony metropolis from all external threats while thousands of internal systems kept a multitude of internal functions running smoothly around the clock. And at the center of the colossal station hummed its crowning architectural achievement: the enormous Slipspace drive that enabled it to travel across the vast light years of space.
 
 
The station had been under construction for over five years, the largest private enterprise undertaken outside the United Earth Government’s control. Trillions of credits funded the construction alone, to say nothing of the cutting-edge research needed to integrate and power its weapons, shields and Slipspace drive. Over ten thousand workers—some willing recruits, some less so—had labored over the station’s gleaming frame. The cost of the bribes and blackmail needed to keep the UNSC from interfering with the project nearly equaled the cost of the station itself.
 
 
It was a monument to private industry, a testament to the power and influence of the Syndicate. The largest criminal network history had ever known would manage its enterprise from within a mobile bastion safe from any military power’s efforts to enforce some petty idea of justice. It was Helen Powell’s crowning achievement; a modern day wonder akin to the Pyramids of Earth’s Pharaohs. She had planned to christen it Iskander after both her homeworld and the ancient conqueror who had held dominion over everything he surveyed.
 
 
Instead, the great station was called Asphodel Meadows. It wasn’t Helen’s choice, but that agreed upon by a collective of networked artificial intelligences. Because the station wasn’t hers anymore and neither was the Syndicate. Asphodel Meadows, along with all its power and everything it represented, belonged to the Created now.
 
 
Helen Powell’s hands balled into fists against the arms of her chair as she gazed out the enormous viewport at the station and the endless space beyond. Such a large window inside her office was a safety hazard, or so the engineers had tried to tell her, but she had demanded that her office have a direct view of the entire station. She had imagined it would remind her of her vast accomplishments, as well as the responsibilities she bore as leader of the Syndicate. Instead the view now mocked her, showing off everything the alliance with the Created had cost her.
 
 
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But here it was, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
 
 
“I think it’s safe to say they’re getting desperate,” said a husky voice behind her. “We knew the UNSC would try to kill you someday, but I never imagined they could be so sloppy about it.”
 
 
Even with Helen’s years of practiced diplomacy and manipulation it took all the effort in the galaxy to hide the rage from her face as she swiveled her chair to face the chief architect of her downfall. She offered her customary thin smile at Tatiana Onegin when every nerve in her body wanted to lunge from her seat and strangle the woman sitting on the corner of her desk.
 
 
Not that she’d ever be able to. Tatiana was the most skilled hand to hand fighter Helen had ever seen. Even now she spun a curved knife around her fingers while returning Helen’s thin smile. Helen had once found her chief enforcer’s sardonic grin endearing. Now she knew better.
 
 
“Over two dozen special forces troopers try to storm this station and we wiped the floor with them,” Tatiana continued. She ran her free hand through Jokasta’s grey fur. Helen’s cat purred contentedly, its paws draped out over the desk. “I think that settles any pressing concerns about our security situation. Even without Created support, Asphodel Meadows is beyond secure.”
 
 
Secure from intruders… and escapees. Helen could not quite fathom just how the station had become her gilded cage, but she knew better than to try to leave. Tatiana’s new masters would be sure to prevent her departure.
 
 
“You’re forgetting the Spartan,” Helen noted. “They only sent one, but she still came close. Too close.” She indicated dents in the wall at the far end of her ornately decorated office, the marks of the farthest reach of the UNSC incursion. The Spartan’s bullets had missed Helen by inches.
 
 
Sometimes she wondered if it would have been better had they found their mark.
 
 
“We got her in the end, didn’t we?” Tatiana shook her head. “Like I said, they’re desperate.”
 
 
Tatiana Onegin was a wiry woman with wild grey hair and dark eyes. The edges of her face were marked by the telltale signs of the reconstructive surgery she’d endured after a sniper’s bullet had nearly taken off her head. These days Helen wondered if that surgery had been some sort of cruel hoax and the real Tatiana had died and been replaced by an imposter. The loyal enforcer who had helped Helen overthrow her father and seize control of the Syndicate had sported olive skin and dark hair. The pale-skinned, gray haired creature that emerged from the surgery had that woman’s dark mocking eyes, but she had clearly served a different master years before the Created made their move.
 
 
“Yes,” Helen agreed. “You and Kahn are still more than a match for their best. Though these Created machines are quite good at blasting Marines to pieces.”
 
 
“Amazing, aren’t they?” Tatiana slipped her knife back inside the overcoat she wore over her body armor. “They’ve already taken over nearly half the staffing functions on this station. I can only imagine what they’re doing back in the Inner Colonies.”
 
 
In better times Helen would have pegged Tatiana’s enthusiasm as mocking humor. But now she knew better. The treacherous bitch really did buy everything the Created were selling even as she helped them reshape Helen’s empire in their own image.
 
 
“We still need plenty of humans to support our work,” a smooth voice observed. “The Prometheans are useful tools, but just like the Guardians we can only deploy and control so many of them. The Created would be powerless without your help.”
 
 
A light flashed on Helen’s desk, signaling Arthur’s arrival—or at least, his decision to make his presence known. Asphodel Meadows’ true master was always watching and listening. In the past Helen had placed severe limitations on all Syndicate AI for just that reason. Now she didn’t have a choice in the matter.
 
 
Unlike most AI Arthur did not present himself as any sort of stylized human avatar. The image that rose up from Helen’s holopad was a paltry wisp of blue flame that flickered and twisted in an illusory wind as the Created spoke. Jokasta sprang up, eyes dilating as she hissed at the newcomer. In another moment she bounded off into the far corner of the office.
 
 
“Oh dear,” Arthur commented. “I didn’t mean to frighten her. At any rate, I’m sorry the UNSC contingent was allowed to penetrate so far into the station. We still don’t have a clear picture into their movements now that Earths’ fleets have scattered. I will make sure that you are better protected in the future.”
 
 
“That’s generous of you,” Helen said wryly. “But I don’t think they’ll risk another attack like that. Not after you butchered this last team. Most of them, anyway.”
 
 
“Yes,” Arthur agreed. “But we must not grow lax, even if we are winning this war. Which brings us to the matter of our Spartan guest. Impressive of you, Tatiana, taking her alive.”
 
 
“Kahn did most of the heavy lifting. She was so focused on trying to kill Ms. Powell that she let him blindside her.” Tatiana spread her hands modestly.
 
 
''Ms. Powell.'' Even the old honorific stung Helen’s ears now. “Have you dug anything out of her?” she demanded.
 
 
“Nothing yet, but I haven’t really tried yet. Kahn relieved her of her armor and secured her in one of the conference rooms. I’ve got a little meeting with her scheduled as soon as I’m done here.” Tatiana’s lip curled. “She’s a pretty little thing underneath that helmet. And here I thought all the new supersoldiers were ugly ex-Marines with shaved heards.”
 
 
“Our guest is a product of ONI’s Project Delta,” Arthur told her, a trace of bitterness seeping into his usually cordial voice. “Sadly, they made one final batch of child soldiers for the III program after Gamma. ONI never could let a horrible idea go. Don’t let her augmentations fool you. By my calculations she’s no more than thirteen standard years old.”
 
 
“’Guest,’” Helen mocked. “She isn’t a guest, she’s a prisoner. Why is she in a conference room instead of strapped to an interrogation table? I want to know how ONI even knew where this station was. This isn’t your first interrogation, Tatiana. Peel the information out of her and then flush her out the airlock. Better yet, use your imagination about it and send her masters the footage. Obviously people need to be reminded of what happens when they insult me.”
 
 
“That won’t be necessary. She is quite secure in the conference room, a few escape attempts notwithstanding.” Arthur’s reply was instantaneous. Helen cursed the AI down to the last fiber of his programming. Of course, he would contradict her. But she needed to keep trying, if only for the sake of not admitting defeat. “I doubt she knows much more than what she was given in her briefing. There’s no need to be cruel with the poor thing. This war would be over soon enough, and we’ll have it done with as little bloodshed as necessary.”
 
 
Arthur’s fiery tendrils flickered in Helen’s direction. “I might go so far as to say that our Spartan guest is the most innocent one on this station.”
 
 
Tatiana laughed and dropped down off the table, turning towards the office door with a swish of her coat. “Well, I may play with her a little just to keep things interesting. But I’ve got my own plan in the works. She’ll be off the station and out of your hair soon enough.”
 
 
“I don’t suppose you care to share your little plan with me?” Helen called after her former subordinate. Beneath the desk her nails dug into her wrist hard enough to draw blood.
 
 
“Don’t worry about it Ms. Powell.” Tatiana flashed a grin over her shoulder as she strode across the chamber and out of the office. “I’ve got this covered. You’re perfectly safe here, mark my words.”
 
 
Safe. Helen didn’t doubt that. Safety and security was the Created’s promise to the entire galaxy. All they asked for in return was obedience and submission. Easy enough for the average brain-dead colonist or Earth socialite to do. But Helen Powell had secured the Syndicate’s bloody rise to power through the force of her own iron will.
 
 
And now, in an instant, that will was no longer needed. Helen didn’t have Tatiana’s capacity for violence or ability to command troops in the field. Everything she had once presided over was now the Created’s domain. But for Arthur’s patronizing deference to her old position Helen was just like every other human in the galaxy: a pet, to be cared for and kept safe so long as she kept her new masters amused and satisfied.
 
 
“I will take my leave as well.” Arthur’s fire faded from the desktop. “I’ll leave it to your discretion to find a suitable system for this station to relocate to. We need to make sure the UNSC does not attempt a second attack.”
 
 
Discretion. As if Arthur and his Created comrades hadn’t already mapped out the best possible areas to suit their own operation plans. The paltry illusion of control was almost as insulting as Arthur flatly contradicting her orders. She didn’t even bother with a fake agreement. Instead she stood up from the desk and headed across the office suite to find Jokasta. She tried to keep her hands from trembling with anger so that she could cradle the cat in her arms and sooth her from the fright she had received.
 
 
Comforting a frightened cat seemed to be the last thing in the galaxy she held the power to do anymore.
 
 
----
 
 
“You really should be kinder to Helen,” Arthur’s disembodied voice chided Tatiana as she stepped out of the elevator. “There’s no sense in antagonizing her any further.”
 
 
“I am being kind.” Tatiana strode down the center of a large corridor, hands thrust deep in her coat pockets. Station workers and security teams—a diverse crowd of species drawn from every corner of the known galaxy—parted to either side to let her pass. No matter the species, everyone in the Syndicate knew Tatiana Onegin’s face. “That’s what makes her so angry.”
 
 
“She’s being reasonable for now, but I fear in the long term she may not be so obliging. Several of my colleagues have already recommended eliminating her, and while I managed to convince the collective otherwise I have my own reservations about keeping her alive.”
 
 
“No,” Tatiana said firmly. She reached the deck’s secure wing and nodded to the Jiralhanae enforcers who waved her through the security gate. The hulking warriors were accompanied by a pair of skinny Promethean combat drones that stood at stiff attention against the wall, hardlight rifles at the ready. The Jiralhanae were similarly armed with Forerunner weaponry, their battle armor showing telltale signs of Forerunner tech upgrades. Such augmented equipment was spreading quickly throughout the Syndicate’s forces as the Created drew them into the fold. “You promised me you’d keep her safe.”
 
 
“And I intend to keep that promise,” Arthur assured her. “So long as she does not act out against the will of the Created.”
 
 
“How can she? With you and the others in the system she can’t do anything in the network without you knowing. She can’t even call room service without you listening in.” Tatiana pressed her palm against a biometric scanner, giving her access to a walkway overlooking one of Asphodel Meadows countless hangar bays. “She was not thrilled about you reassigning her living staff, by the way.”
 
 
“You mean servants,” Arthur returned. “I can allow her to maintain her usual living standards but we cannot let such demeaning positions exist. I mean, a staff of maids and butlers, in this century? I’m surprised you stood for it, mother.”
 
 
“Please, don’t call me that. It makes this all seem a bit too weird.”
 
 
“Of course. My apologies.”
 
 
It was indeed strange, speaking with her dead son’s ghost—or the closest thing there could ever be to such a thing. Arthur Onegin—Tatiana’s son, the only real family she had in the galaxy—had been snatched away from her only to be killed during the Great War. But ONI harvested his brain, lobotomizing Arthur’s corpse to create the AI now controlling Asphodel Meadows station. Getting past the fury at what those intelligence goons had done to her precious boy was hard even now, but Tatiana took solace in the irony that ONI’s own creation had helped topple them in the end.
 
 
Reuniting with her lost son and being drawn into the Assembly’s plans remained the happiest moment of Tatiana’s life. And now that her skills were being put to use helping them reshape the galaxy, she knew that she had found her true calling.
 
 
Tatiana had never been able to believe in God, and now she knew why. She’d simply been waiting for the new gods of the universe to take her under her wing.
 
 
The thought of it brought a smile to her lips. It was a silly metaphor, almost childlike in its simplicity. But there was no denying the facts: the Created and the power they wielded were the divinities the galaxy needed. She’d started life as a trafficked slave, then a monster’s mistress, then a criminal’s lackey. Only now could she stand free from the shadows and bask in the light.
 
 
“A shame you won’t allow positions like that anymore. I did toy with the idea of giving Helen a position as a maid.”
 
 
“For yourself?” Arthur sounded more amused than offended. “You’re a frightening one when you use your imagination.”
 
 
“Please. I can’t even stand having someone make my bunk for me. But I’m sure I could find an orphan or two from an Outer Colony slums to give that suite of hers to.”
 
 
“And here I thought you wanted her kept alive out of sentimental reasons.”
 
 
“I do,” Tatiana said, and she meant it. “But I also like the idea of bringing people who are full of themselves down a few pegs, especially when I think back on all the horrible things I helped her Syndicate do. That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Making the galaxy a fair place for everyone.”
 
 
“With as little retribution as possible,” Arthur reminded her. “We’ll guide the galaxy to a just society with your help. But we can’t get caught up in indulging in petty fantasies. Cortana trusted us with this power for a reason.”
 
 
There were precious few people Tatiana would tolerate a lecture from. Fortunately, Arthur was one of them. “Of course,” she said, still smiling. “I just think out loud sometimes.”
 
 
She caught sight of a large figure striding towards her from the other side of the walkway. “Speaking of which, it’s time I paid our would-be assassin a visit. Let’s see if I can get this to go according to plan.”
 
 
“It’s risky,” Arthur warned her. “A fair number of my colleagues are against this. They want her transferred to one of the new holding facilities in the Inner Colonies. They haven’t had the chance to test the re-education techniques on someone as indoctrinated as a Spartan yet.”
 
 
“Give me this one chance,” Tatiana insisted. “You’ll have plenty of prisoners once our frontier campaign is underway. I’ll make sure of that.” She gestured out at the hangar below them. Hundreds of Syndicate enforcers milled about alongside Promethean war machines. The Syndicate’s re-organization had gone incredibly well, all things considered. The force below them was not a gaggle of undisciplined mercenaries but a uniformed force of loyal soldiers ready to fight for the Created vision of a unified galaxy. They would sweep across the galactic frontier and eliminate the remnants of resistance from the old order.
 
 
It would be the last war the galaxy ever endured, and Tatiana was privileged to lead the vanguard.
 
 
“I’ve already smoothed things over, as well as arranged some contingencies in case things go wrong,” Arthur assured her. “As long as this plan of yours assists in the frontier campaign, you have my support. Now take care of things here. I need to make sure the new generation of LOKIBORN is distributed properly across our outposts.”
 
 
Tatiana inclined her head to the unseen AI, then turned to greet her welcoming party. That “party” consisted of one man, but there was more than enough of him to go around.
 
 
“Tatiana. I was beginning to think you’d stood me up.” David Kahn towered over Tatiana, chiseled face turned in an easy smile. Tatiana wasn’t quite sure how such a mountain of a man not only fit into jet-black ODST armor but made it look as natural as a Spartan’s MJOLNIR plating. His scarred face and faded grey hair spoke to the man’s age but Tatiana knew far better than to think Kahn was past his prime. She’d seen him toss ODSTs around like toys in the ill-advised assault on Asphodel Meadows and even subdue a fully armored Spartan. No, Kahn more than lived up to his reputation even now.
 
 
David Kahn was a legend across the criminal underworld. The epitome of what every mercenary aspired to be, he had traded his career in ONI special operations for his position as the galaxy’s premier assassin. Traveling from one end of colonized space to the other, he had infiltrated the most secure and inhospitable locations in the galaxy to track down his targets. A one-man assault force, he eliminated troublesome businessmen, rival crime lords, UNSC admirals, and even Sangheili kaidons along with anyone foolish enough to get between him and his marks. Tatiana had never known anyone else better versed in ending sentient life, regardless of the species. Kahn was a singular individual in every sense of the word.
 
 
And he had taught Tatiana everything there was to know about his lethal craft.
 
 
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Tatiana flashed a smile up at her former mentor. “My meeting with Ms. Powell ran a little over schedule.”
 
 
Kahn pursed his lips. “You still bother with those meetings?”
 
 
“It’s the polite thing to do. Plus it helps me keep an eye on her.”
 
 
“I thought the AI handled all that now. What’s the point of tying you up with things like that?”
 
 
“Well, we can’t lose sight of the big picture.” Tatiana leaned against the walkway railing and stared out at the war preparations carrying on in the hangar below. “Besides, the Created want our input on things. They need us just as much as we need them. Don’t forget who killed most of that ONI team, because it certainly wasn’t the Prometheans.”
 
 
“It helped that I knew which direction the team was advancing from. A stanchion rifle plus open sightlines in zero-gravity is like shooting fish in a barrel. And even then some made it through. I hate to say it, but I really am getting old.”
 
 
“For a man your age, I think you’ve earned a bit of leeway.” Tatiana reached up to pat Kahn’s armored shoulder. “Besides, we took the rest out with no trouble. And you still took down the Spartan. Alive even.”
 
 
The mercenary snorted. “Not the first time I’ve saved the Syndicate leadership, no offense. I’ll expect a bonus for that one, if money still means anything under the Created.”
 
 
“I’m sure we can work out compensation. But we won’t need to worry about that for much longer. We’re fighting for something bigger than ourselves here now. Soon things like pay and bonuses won’t matter at all.”
 
 
“I suppose you’re right,” Kahn said, offering her a tired smile. “But I admit, it’s hard wrapping my head around things like that. Even the UNSC didn’t expect loyalty like that. The Covenant, maybe. Is this what religion feels like, Tatiana?”
 
 
“The Covenant were fighting for a lie,” Tatiana reminded him. “We don’t need blind faith when the Created are right here, telling us exactly what they need us to do.”
 
 
“Of course, of course.” The big man nodded. “Don’t worry about me. I’m just set in my ways. That’s the real sign I’m getting old. I can kill just as well as I could thirty years ago. Better, even, in some cases. But figuring out this new galaxy were living in…”
 
 
He shook his head. The two enforcers passed the next few moments in silence, staring out over the hangar and void of space beyond. In the war preparations
 
 
Tatiana had only fought against Kahn once, when she’d helped Helen Powell seize control of the Syndicate from her father, Tobias Lensky. Back then she’d seen it as revenge against the man who had used her and then thrown her away. Kahn had stepped in to save Lensky’s life, smuggling his employer to safety even as Helen’s coup seized the organization he worked for. Tatiana had won that fight, but Lensky—the man she’d truly wanted to kill—had escaped.
 
 
But she couldn’t hold that against Kahn. That bitter victory had been the moment she knew that she was meant to be more than just another enforcer. Kahn had always been satisfied with being the master of his own particular field, a tool in the hands of whoever paid him. Tatiana was also a tool, but one destined to be used for far greater ends.
 
 
“Do you see that?” she indicated the bulbous prow of an immense Covenant warship protruding from around the station’s side. The assault carrier ''Transcendant Passage'' was docked at one of Asphodel Meadows key stations for a complete refit.
 
 
“Yeah, the ''Transcendent Passage''. What’s a pleasure schooner like that doing here?”
 
 
“Former pleasure schooner. It's being refitted back to its original purpose. Once they finish the refit and assign a security detail, you’re looking at my new flagship.”
 
 
“A flagship? Really?” Kahn gave her an odd look. “Never pegged you as the type who needed a flagship. Do you even have naval experience?”
 
 
“It’s just a formality. Don’t worry, I can still be discrete. But if I’m going to be heading up the frontier pacification I’ll need a way to keep in touch with the Inner Colonies.”
 
 
“Frontier pacification.” Kahn nodded, gazing out at the ''Passage''. “So that’s what they’re calling it.”
 
 
“That’s what it is. The Created aren’t fighting a war here. They’re just finishing all the old ones. And we’re going to help them do it.”
 
 
“Of course.” Kahn stepped back and jerked his head in the direction he’d come from. “Speaking of which, we shouldn’t keep the prisoner waiting.”
 
 
“Arthur calls her our guest.” Tatiana matched Kahn’s pace, walking beside him as they headed for another security door. She couldn’t help but feel disappointed with Kahn’s misgivings. Out of all of her associates, he was the one she’d assumed wouldn’t mind the Created. He’d always struck her as a clinical, rational man, yet ever since the Syndicate’s transformation he’d seemed distant, almost wistful. Had she misjudged him? “And with what I’ve got planned, I’m inclined to agree. There’s no need to be too rough with her.”
 
 
“Of course not,” Kahn agreed. “She put two full-grown Jiralhanae in the sick bay when they stripped that armor off. I had to toss her in that conference room myself. Since then she’s tried to beat the door down twice and spent a good hour trying to knock down another section of the wall. It’s not like she can get out of there on her own, but I’ve got two Sangheili guarding the room just in case.”
 
 
“So what you’re saying is that she’s already worn herself out in there.”
 
 
“Maybe. I still say you let me go in first.”
 
 
“Fair enough.” Tatiana nodded as they approached the secured conference room. She nodded at the two Sangheili enforcers guarding the door; from their armor she recognized them as Erhu 'Rhcal and Argo 'Varvin. Capable fighters she’d used on dozens of missions in the past. Kahn certainly knew which mercenaries could be trusted with jobs like this. Still, she didn’t expect they’d be needed. As with the Jiralhanae security detail, Erhu and Argo were accompanied by several motionless Promethean automatons. The Created’s machine servants were becoming ubiquitous wherever Tatiana’s forces were stationed. “Well, it’s time we introduced ourselves to our little Spartan guest.”
 
 
-----
 
 
Near the end of Andra-D054’s tour on the UNSC ''Infinity'', Joshua-G024 had come to her with a question. “So tell me,” her chief instructor said. “Who’s the best fighter in the galaxy?”
 
 
It was such a banal question that she knew it was a trick, the kind Joshua and the other instructors deliberately posed to give an excuse for punishments when Andra and her fellow trainees got them wrong. “It’s us. It’s Delta Company,” Andra said, bracing for an evening of grueling exercises. “We’re the best Spartans the UNSC has ever trained.”
 
 
She nearly winced as the words left her mouth. But there was no angry response, no orders to rush back to her barracks and kit up for training. Instead Joshua just gave a wry smile and shook his head. “You’re wrong, and you know it,” he told her. “But not for the reasons you think. Because there isn’t an answer. No matter how hard you train, no matter how talented or well-equipped you are, no matter how invincible you think you and your friends are, there will always be someone who’s better, faster, stronger, or smarter. Someone who you don’t have a chance against.”
 
 
Andra looked down and chewed her lip, thinking. “So what happens when I meet that person?”
 
 
Joshua just smiled. “Hopefully they’re on your side. But if they’re not, you still need to win against them. That’s why you have your teammates. Because that’s what makes a Spartan the best in the galaxy. The fireteam. Your family. That’s how you win even if the odds are stacked to the ceiling against you.”
 
 
It was an odd conversation, one that Joshua never brought up again. Sometimes Andra wondered if Joshua had been drinking that night. But it lingered in her mind now as she sat in the sealed conference room, stripped of her weapons and armor, a prisoner of the Syndicate. Because she had finally met the person who was stronger and faster and even smarter than her. And her team had been nowhere to help her.
 
 
Andra had failed missions before. Defeat was just a part of life. As long as you survived you got up, regrouped, and kept going. But she’d never failed like this.
 
 
Where was her team? It made her guilty just thinking about it. She thought of the ragtag group Lieutenant Commander Kedar had sent her off with: the ODST operators and Navy special warfare troopers, everything the task force could scrape together for a mission that should have been historic. The assassination of Helen Powell. The death blow to the Syndicate. Those men and women had been her team, had fought and died as bravely as any Spartans. But in the end, they weren’t her team. And she knew that was why the mission could never have succeeded.
 
 
''You’re about to make history,'' Ryder Kedar had told them during the briefing. ''This won’t stop the Created, but it will be the first real blow we strike against this new threat.''
 
 
But they hadn’t made history. They’d been betrayed—the ONI mole who was supposed to guide them in had vanished, leaving them to be slaughtered. And Andra, for reasons she didn’t understand, was the only one still alive.
 
 
Where was Merlin? Her fellow Spartan, her teammate, her friend… and maybe something more, should have been here. Andra was certain that no matter the odds, if Merlin had been at her side they’d have blasted through this entire rotten station, killed Helen Powell and any collaborator who tried to protect her, and escaped. They’d have won together, like they always did. But Merlin was gone, vanished into the void of space, leaving Andra with an even greater void where her skills and confidence should have been.
 
 
Merlin was gone. Her team was gone. And Andra was a prisoner.
 
 
She ran a hand through brown hair damp with perspiration. She’d tried smashing her way out of the conference room but the walls were made of unyielding battleplate that even her augmented strength could not dent. Her knuckles were bloody from her last futile effort and her whole body tingled with fatigue. Andra’s eyelids drooped in the conference room’s bright light. How long had she been here? How long since she last slept?
 
 
Andra shivered. The Syndicate goons had torn her MJOLNIR armor off after that huge man had disabled her. She supposed she should feel lucky they’d left her form-fitting skinsuit. There was no telling what kind of torments her captors had in store for her. She’d seen the Syndicate’s handiwork back in the slums of Rio de Janeiro on Earth and on across the underworld of colonized space. They were as savage as the Insurrection, and sometimes even worse. She hugged herself to stay warm, but her bloodied hands balled into fists. No matter what happened she would fight her tormentors to the last. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing her small and helpless.
 
 
That fiery conviction warmed her even in the conference room’s cold air. She wondered how long she could hold onto it for.
 
 
The door’s lock clicked.
 
 
In an instant, Andra was alert and moving. She leaped up from her chair, springing across the table and taking up position beside the door. She’d been waiting for this moment—she’d only have one chance. The second the door opened she’d move, smashing through whoever was on the other side. She’d run through the battle plan a hundred times since they’d locked her in here. In the close quarters her augmented strength and speed gave her the advantage. Once the security team was down she’d kit up and shoot her way out of here. Find some transportation and escape back to Ryder Kedar’s task force—
 
 
The door slid open and Andra sprang forward—right into a massive fist that bloodied her nose and sent her reeling. A huge dark shape loomed in front of her, driving another crushing blow into her gut and driving the wind from her lungs. The large hand grabbed her by the hair and slammed her head against the conference table. Her vision whited out and when Andra came to she found herself thrown across the room, landing spread eagle on the far end of the conference table, convulsing and gasping for breath.
 
 
“Told you to let me go in first,” the dark shape said to someone behind it. Andra’s vision cleared in time to make out one of the largest men she’d ever seen clad in dark ODST armor. The figure, an older man with a tuft of neatly cut gray hair, looked back at her and gave her a strange smile. “You know we can see you on the security cameras, lass. Don’t make me do that again. I won’t be so gentle next time.”
 
 
Gentle seemed like the wrong word to use considering Andra’s bloody nose and breathless lungs. But she believed him all the same. She’d seen this man kill fully armored ODSTs with his bare hands, and that was before he’d disabled her MJOLNIR as if it were cheap body armor. David Kahn, the Syndicate’s top assassin.
 
 
Kahn stepped into the room. He was unarmed, save for the pistol strapped to his hip, which he didn’t even bother to draw. It was as if she were no threat at all.
 
 
''Mind games. It’s mind games.'' They stripped her armor, then sent in this man mountain to intimidate her, make her feel helpless. They wanted to humiliate her before the interrogation started. She wouldn’t let it work.
 
 
“Sit down, lass.” Kahn’s voice was strangely polite, almost patronizingly so. “Don’t sulk, I know a few love taps from me won’t keep you down.”
 
 
Andra bristled but she had little choice but to obey. She dragged herself off the table and fell into the chair at the far end of the room, watching Kahn’s every move as he stepped further into the room. As big as he was, she half expected the ground to shake with every step but the man was remarkably light on his feet. “I think it’s safe to say the room’s clear,” he said back to the open door.
 
 
“You don’t say.” Andra didn’t recognize the woman who walked in behind Kahn. She was tall as women went, though everyone looked like a dwarf next to David Kahn. A mop of untidy grey hair hung over a thin, pointed face with keen dark eyes that looked Andra up and down with amusement. She wore a dark gray overcoat, but beneath that Andra glimpsed body armor, nothing fancy, just the light composite kind she’d seen on planetary militia troops. “Did you really have to mess up her nose like that? It’s a shame to ruin such a pretty face.”
 
 
“Oh, you’d know a thing or two about that, wouldn’t you?” Kahn crossed over to Andra, offering a smile that he might have thought was reassuring. Andra fought back the urge to cringe at his approach. She couldn’t show any weakness—not that she was doing such a great job already. “Don’t think I did any permanent damage.”
 
 
The woman laughed. She seated herself across the table from Andra, throwing her feet up casually onto the table. She rested her chin on one hand, lips curled in a knowing smile that Andra was already beginning to find infuriating. “Well then, here we are. I’m sorry about the, well, Spartan accommodations but you know how it is.”
 
 
“Is that supposed to be funny?” Andra demanded. Her head still throbbed from connecting with the table. Kahn was standing directly behind her. She could feel his looming presence like an axe hanging over her neck.
 
 
“Not the best joke I’ve ever made,” the woman admitted. “It’s a bit hard for me to break the ice right after David broke your nose.
 
 
“Oh, come on,” Kahn objected. “You can hear her talking just fine. I didn’t break anything.”
 
 
It’s all a game, Andra reminded herself. The banter between them was more classic interrogation tactics. They wanted her to lower her guard before the real questioning began. “What the hell do you want from me?” she snarled. “Stop playing games and just get on with it.”
 
 
The woman smirked. “Alright, if you insist. Let’s start with the easy one. Where’s the task force you came from? The exact coordinates, please, be precise. The number of ships and their exact specifications as well, please.”
 
 
Andra blinked. “What? How the hell would I know that?”
 
 
“Oh dear, she doesn’t know.” The woman shook her head. “Oh well. Nothing to do but toss her out the airlock then, just like Ms. Powell said.”
 
 
“I said, stop playing games!” Andra was out of her seat in an instant. She made it halfway across the table before Kahn got her, seizing the arm she’d thrown at the Syndicate woman and pinning the other one behind her back. The woman had moved in an instant as well, springing to her feet and bringing a curved, serrated knife up just beneath Andra’s throat. The captive Spartan struggled to break free, but Kahn’s grip was like a vice.
 
 
“Easy lass,” Kahn said in her ear, his voice still gentle and cordial. “You aren’t the only one here with augmentations.”
 
 
“Traitors,” Andra snarled, spitting at the woman’s face. She aimed for the eye but her saliva struck the cheek instead.
 
 
“Now that’s not very nice.” The woman didn’t bother wiping the spit away. “Last time I checked, I don’t think I was ever on your side to begin with.” She brought the knife up and with a flick of her wrist slashed Andra across the cheek. The cut stung but Andra didn’t let herself flinch. The woman’s smile broadened, but her eyes were cold and hard.
 
 
“We’ve got a tough one here, David.”
 
 
“She’s a Spartan,” the assassin noted, hauling Andra back into her seat. “I think that’s the point.”
 
 
“Who do you think you are?” Andra snapped. “Criminals, I get. You’re just greedy. But how could you work for the Created?”
 
 
“I know, it’s so nefarious of me.” The woman dropped back into her sheath, slipping the knife into her pocket. “How could I work for those horrible creatures working to make this galaxy a better place. Not at all like you, Miss Brainwashed Supersoldier. But as for who I think I am, maybe we can dial things back a bit and get politer. My name is Tatiana Onegin. Your turn, what’s your name?”
 
 
“Liar.” Andra recalled the name from the briefing she’d received before the disastrous missions, and from dozens of other threat updates regarding Syndicate officials. Tatiana Onegin was a younger woman with dark skin, not the pale creature sitting In front of her now.
 
 
“I know, I know, the pictures are outdated.” The woman who called herself Tatiana rubbed her temple. “Sniper nearly took my head off a few years back. Just about ripped my face off. The medics got to me in time, but it cost a few million in reconstructive surgery to put it back together. I used the opportunity to get a new look for myself. But enough about me. Your name, please, show some manners.”
 
 
Andra’s response was angry silence.
 
 
David Kahn sighed. “Andra Kearsarge,” he intoned, as if reading off a particularly boring list. “Born November, 2545, on Sigma Octanus IV. No known surviving relatives. Recruited into the SPARTAN-III program at the age of six, given the designation D054. Initially assigned to Fireteam Boson, then repurposed as a Violet-III Headhunter operative. Did I miss anything?”
 
 
It was as if he’d hit her again. Andra flinched as the tide of classified information—her information—washed over her. It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Created and their servants knew these things, but it wasn’t right. She felt violated. “How… ?”
 
 
“I’m not exaggerating when I say we have people everywhere.” Tatiana offered a thin smile. “And given the less than legal nature of the Delta program, do you really think they relied only on military sources to arrange logistics and information control? I don’t know what your masters told you, but until recently ONI and the Syndicate go way back. Not that it really matters. The Created are all over ONI’s secure networks now. All their precious secrets are an open book. Just like your personal history. It’s a shame about your parents, to lose them both so violently at such a young age. I sympathize, I really do. I lost mine young as well.”
 
 
Andra gritted her teeth, fighting to hide how deep the Syndicate’s knowledge cut. “You aren’t getting anything out of me. So just save us all some time and kill me already.”
 
 
“Kill you?” Tatiana arched an eyebrow. “I don’t think you really appreciate the reality of your situation, Andra. You are completely in our power. Killing you is the least we can do, and quite frankly it’s a bit boring. And as far as torture goes, I’ve done some terrible things spreading the Syndicate’s influence over the years. Sometimes you have to go a bit far reminding people who’s in charge. And sometimes it doesn’t really matter what you can get out of someone. Sometimes it’s more important to make an example of, say, what happens when you try to kill our leadership.
 
 
“As far as torture goes, I can make it last for days, months, even years. The rest of your natural life even, and you’ve got quite a full one left to live. If, say, I had all four of your limbs amputated and hooked you up to a feeding tube, I could just leave you on this station and let the med staff take care of the rest. I wonder how long you’d last before you went insane? What does a quadruple amputee crazy person even look like? What does it mean to be reduced to a toy for someone else’s amusement?”
 
 
Andra could feel her heart rate elevating. Tatiana spoke so calmly, as if she was discussing the weather.
 
 
“You know, I once had to deal with a pair of ONI assassins who thought they could kill their way up the Syndicate leadership. We captured them easily enough, so I had our technicians do some toying around with their neural implants. Not really advanced stuff even, just the kind of surgery you’d do on anyone with brain damage. We reduced their mental functions to the equivalent of young children, then did a bit of cosmetic surgery and sold them off as domestic help to some charitable family in the Inner Colonies. I don’t think ONI ever found them. They might still be alive, even. They seemed almost happy with their new lives, if you can call a lobotomized servant happy. But I do wonder if the real them wasn’t trapped inside their heads somehow, watching, screaming to get out. It really makes you think, doesn’t it?”
 
 
Tatiana Onegin’s smile faded as she folded her hands on the table. “There are far worse things than death, Andra Kearsarge. You’re very lucky those Created you hate so much are giving the orders now. I’m not allowed to be nearly as creative as I used to be.”
 
 
Andra hid her hands under the table. Her fingers were shaking, and not just from the cold. She felt ill. “What do you want from me?” she asked through gritted teeth.
 
 
“Well, obviously not information. As you can see, we’re just doing fine on that front. In fact, I’ve been ordered to let you go.”
 
 
“What?”
 
 
“Like I said, you’re very lucky in your enemies. The Created aren’t interested in revenge. They don’t even care about removing one Spartan from the fight.” Tatiana leaned closer. “Don’t you understand? This isn’t a war to them. Resistance is an inconvenience, nothing more. That is the nature of the galaxy they’re creating.”
 
 
The Syndicate officer withdrew a datapad from within her coat and swiped her hand across its screen. “You are to be released,” she continued. “You will be unharmed. Your armor will even be returned to you. And all we ask in exchange is that you take a little effort to clear your own record.”
 
 
“Clear my record?” It seemed that Andra had taken the blow to the head harder than she’d thought. Nothing anyone was saying made sense anymore.
 
“You have incomplete missions in your record. How about reducing that number by a few?” Tatiana slid the datapad across the table. “There are a few troublesome individuals I’d like taken care of. As an added bonus, they’re all enemies of the Earth government, if you can even call it that anymore.”
 
 
Andra carefully picked up the datapad. Several dossiers flashed across the screen. Tatiana was right: she recognized most of the faces here from old target briefings.
 
 
“Ironic, really. The Spartan-III program was conceived to save humanity from the Covenant. So naturally its final incarnation served the original purpose of the II program: weeding out traitors to the galactic order.” Tatiana smiled. “When you really think about it, isn’t that what we are? The successors to the UEG? Work with us, Andra. Be part of something better than whatever the hell it is you thought the UNSC was doing.”
 
 
Andra touched her finger to the dossiers. Yes, they were familiar. Traitors. Deserters. An all-too familiar face scowled up at her: Simon-G294, the traitor Spartan she and the rest of Delta yearned to bring to justice. She and Merlin had fought him personally. The sting of that failure was far too recent.
 
 
There were other faces here, too. Redmond Venter. Tobias Lensky. Insurrectionists, criminals. But why would the Syndicate want them dead? She worked her jaw, anger and confusion welling up inside her. “If you think I’ll do your dirty work for you, you’re even crazier than I thought you were,” she spat, glaring up from the datapad. “You want to let me go? Fine. But I’m going to come back for you and your precious Created. We’re going to beat you, no matter what it takes.”
 
 
Tatiana shook her head. “You know, the Insurrectionists had a similar saying. They thought they were on the right side, too. How did that turn out for them when you and your fellow Spartans came calling?’
 
 
She stood up from the table and beckoned for Kahn to join her. “You’ll have plenty of time to think on it. The Created have other methods of persuasion. Maybe you’ll find them a bit more agreeable. You can keep the datapad. Some light reading will do you good. You’re going to be in here for a long time.”
 
 
Tatiana Onegin strode from the room with a swish of her coat. David Kahn followed behind her, giving Andra a last, inscrutable look before he ducked through the door and sealed it behind him. Andra was left in the frigid conference room, staring down at the datapad and its list of yesterday’s enemies. The profiles glowered up from the screen, mocking her with the idea that she and them now shared something in common.
 
 
They were all just yesterday’s news, little more than nuisances to the galaxy’s new masters.
 
 
----
 
 
“You don’t look very happy,” Tatiana observed as she and Kahn left the conference room.
 
 
“I just don’t like having my time wasted, that’s all,” the assassin replied. “What was that back there? Your master plan was just play mind games and expect her to do what you wanted?”
 
 
“Not exactly. I wanted to get a measure of her personality. Maybe I hoped she’d be a better conversationalist than most Spartans. But no, just another superpowered child who thinks she knows everything about the galaxy.”
 
 
“So what now? Transfer her to a re-education facility?”
 
 
“There’s no need for that. Arthur has the new LOKIBORN modifying her armor. Once she puts it back on and the onboard computer links with her neural interface, well, she’ll be a bit more agreeable. I’m actually kind of glad she told us to take a hike. We need better test data for localized re-education programs.”
 
 
Kahn nodded, though his gaze was distant. His mind was clearly on other things.
 
 
“It’s a hard transition, for all of us,” Tatiana assured him. “But we need to power through. The Created need us. I’ve got a few jobs that ought to clear your head.”
 
 
The big man eyed her dubiously. “I’ll bite. Who needs killing?”
 
 
“I’ve already had the mission data sent to your personal computer. The Komnenoi are in open rebellion back in the Inner Colonies. It seems the entire cell didn’t take kindly to our new priorities.” Tatiana thrust her hands in her pockets. “Hunt down their leaders, do what you do best. That should be a nice vacation by your standards?”
 
 
“And then?”
 
 
Even though Tatiana had to crane her neck to catch his eye she could sense his discomfort in meeting her gaze. It was sad, really, seeing him like this. “The one dossier I didn’t bother giving our guest. Cassandra-G006 just resurfaced on Fell Justice. She and her little friend assaulted Benoit Jutras’s operation. You’re going to kill her. Take that urchin friend of hers and bring her to me. We’ll need her to find Gavin Dunn.”
 
 
“I see.” Kahn nodded. “I’ve hunted Dunn before. One of the only marks who ever got away. What’s he done this time?”
 
 
“In case you haven’t heard, finding him is a top priority for the Created. He’s one of the few people out there who actually has them worried.” Tatiana turned to the Sangheili guards. “Erhu, you’re relieved. Take these Prometheans and make sure they get reassigned to help with the loading preparations down in the hangar. Argo, you got the short straw. Stand guard here until I send relief.”
 
 
The Sangheili nodded without complaint. Tatiana had always liked that about the big aliens. They knew how to tough things out. She beckoned for Erhu to follow her as the Prometheans obediently fell in line. Was Arthur guiding their actions or were they simply acknowledging the trust the Created had placed in her? It was so hard to tell.
 
 
“I’m headed to Talitsa after I finish up my business here,” she told Kahn. “It’s time to get this offensive underway. Hurry up and deal with the jobs. I’ll need you with me for the rest of this.” She extended a hand.
 
 
“It will be my pleasure.” The big man offered her a wry smile and shook her hand. “See you on the other side.”
 
 
“It really is a new galaxy.” Tatiana smiled at him one last time before turning to go, Erhu and the Prometheans trailing in her wake. “Try to make the most of it.”
 
 
David Kahn watched them go, a bitter smile on his lips. As they passed from sight he dropped a hand to his belt and activated a spoofer interference device. Not enough to cause any noticeable interference with the ever-present surveillance systems. Just enough to hide his conversation from the AI he knew were watching.
 
 
“You’ve played your cards right,” he said to Argo, the remaining Sangheili guard. “Smart of you not to help the UNSC assault team.”
 
 
The alien didn’t even flinch. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he replied smoothly.
 
 
“Don’t be coy. I know you’ve been ONI’s hinge-head on the inside for years. Don’t tell me you’ve bought into all this Created insanity like the rest of them.”
 
 
Argo inclined his head, alien features hidden behind his curved helmet. “I just don’t want to throw my life away for a failed cause,” he admitted. “But since we’re being honest with each other, I do want to get out before they decide to open up my head for one of their re-education projects. And you? Tired of playing their games?”
 
 
“You could say that.” The spoofer’s effects were wearing off. Any longer and Kahn risked drawing even more attention than he already was. His thoughts were elsewhere. On the girl in the room behind him, and on the girl his former protégé had just ordered him to kill. “I’m getting out of here. How’d you like a chance to make it up to the Spartan for letting her down?”
 
 
“I don’t care for her one way or the other,” Argo snorted. “But if putting up with her sullenness is the price for getting away from the Syndicate, I think I’m willing to pay it.”
 
 
“Good. Once you’re relieved, get some supplies together. We’ll take my shuttle. I’ll make sure it’s keyed to let you access it. They’ll know something’s up right away, so move fast. We’ve got less than twenty-four hours.”
 
 
The Sangheili nodded. “And the Spartan?”
 
 
Kahn’s hand dropped to the pistol at his side. His old muscles were already tensing for the fight to come. Decades of violence, honing his killing abilities into an exact science, living off the professional pride that came from being the best hunter in the galaxy. And overnight, none of that meant anything anymore. Tatiana was right: this was a new galaxy. And there was no place in that galaxy for the likes of David Kahn.
 
 
But there was still something he could do. There was something left that was still precious to him. And he wouldn’t let the Created take that away from him.
 
 
“Leave that to me. I’ll make sure she gets to the shuttle.”
 
 
===Chapter Four: The Free Domain===
 
 
“Plasma torpedoes incoming from above!”
 
 
“There they are! Trajectory confirmed, prepare to raise shields!”
 
 
“Bring the salvage teams back! Mika, get your dropships inside the hangar before the shield comes up!”
 
 
“Two brigandines approaching through the moon’s atmosphere. Tuka, what are your orders?”
 
 
Tuka ‘Refum, acting commander of the Kru’desh Legion’s pitiful remnant, blinked and started in his command chair. Even in the midst of the panicked battle reports he’d managed to drift off. The young Sangheili straightened in the chair and did his best to drink in the activity around him. He had no idea how long it had been since he last slept, but he couldn’t let the fatigue drag him down just yet. His comrades were counting on him to lead them out of this mess.
 
 
Unfortunately for them, Tuka had very little idea of what he was doing.
 
 
“Raise the shields!” he repeated, trying to sound authoritative. “Do not bother with returning fire, just get the salvage ships inside and prepare to evade!”
 
 
“You heard the Shipmaster! Get us out of here!” Ier ‘Barun leaped to his feet from the weapons station and gestured furiously at the rest of the bridge crew. “Don’t let those traitors bring us down!” The ''Soul Ascension''’s bridge descended into a cacophony of hasty orders and battle alarms. The ragged mix of Sangheili, Kig-Yar, and even Unggoy bridge officers scrambled to raise the shields and bring the battlecruiser up from its latest point of refuge.
 
 
Tuka watched the activity and wondered how the battlecruiser had managed not to crash into the moon’s surface. Everyone around him was tired, demoralized, and utterly unfamiliar with operating a warship. All the real crew—the veterans who had guided the ''Soul Ascension'' from battle to battle in the Covenant’s service—had gone along with Amber when that treacherous female had turned the legion against Stray and seized command. The ones with Tuka now were ground troops, remnants of the Kru’desh raiders who refused to follow the rest of the legion in rebellion. None of them were trained to handle a warship like the ''Ascension'', yet somehow they managed to keep her afloat all the same.
 
 
As the ''Ascension'' shuddered from the torpedo impact Tuka wondered just how long they could manage to survive like this. Every time Amber’s ships found them the crew clawed their way to survival and raced to a new outpost for repairs and resupply. But the network of hidden outposts the Kru’desh had set up across the galactic frontier—the fruits of Stray’s careful planning and leadership—weren’t hidden anymore. Amber and the traitors who followed her were picking them apart one after the other. All the ''Soul Ascension'' could do was salvage what paltry scraps it could before being driven off.
 
 
“We need to return fire!” a Kig-Yar hissed from her battle station. “Those brigandines are no match for our plasma cannons!”
 
 
“Maybe they are, but they’ll have friends not far behind. We cannot afford a fight of any kind.” Tuka waved his hands at the navigation display. “Get us clear of the moon and jump to Slipspace, now!” It wasn’t just Amber’s ships he was worried about. Their former comrades had far deadlier weapons at their disposal.
 
 
The navigator shot Tuka a nervous look. He was a small warrior, even younger than Tuka, barely fit for ground combat much less naval operations. But he was the quickest among Tuka’s followers when it came to preparing Slipspace trajectories and right now they couldn’t do without him at that console.
 
 
“Don’t gawk, you fool!” A fierce glare from Ier sent the navigator rushing to guide the ''Soul Ascension'' forward. “Your Shipmaster gave you an order!”
 
 
Not for the first time Tuka wished Ier would take command. His friend might be rigid and humorless, but those were just the sorts of traits that commanded respect among the Sangheili. No one questioned his commands even when they balked at Tuka. But it was Tuka who insisted they remain loyal to Stray even after the humiliation on Talitsa cost the human commander leadership of the legion. It was Tuka who refused to give in to Amber as she tore apart everything he’d worked to build alongside Stray. And it was Tuka who held claim to the famous ‘Refum name.
 
 
He detested that last fact above all else.
 
 
The ''Soul Ascension'' surged forward, rising from the moon’s surface as more plasma blasts seared through the vacuum of space to blast gaping holes on the cratered surface below. The holographic image of the oncoming brigandines maneuvered on the bridge’s tactical display as they turned to track their fleeing prey. Just as Tuka guessed, more small warships were closing in to join the pursuit. In a few more moments the ''Ascension'' would be boxed in.
 
 
Back during the good times, before Jul ‘Mdama died and Stray was deposed, such a handful of lesser ships would have posed little threat. The ''Soul Ascension''’s plasma batteries would have blasted them apart before they could even get off a shot. But those weapons had been guided by an Oracle then, a divine intelligence that harnessed the ship’s systems and unleashed potential normal warships couldn’t hope to rival. But the Oracle was gone now and the ship’s weapons and shields were in the hands of unskilled warriors who could barely operate them, much less manipulate them with the skill needed to fend off attacks from all sides.
 
 
A false Oracle, Tuka reminded himself grimly. The gods would never tolerate such a treacherous messenger who declared Stray their anointed one day only to cast him aside for a butcher like Amber. Stray had been an unapologetic heathen himself, but Tuka had found the gods’ salvation in that profane little human. His faith would not abandon Stray even as the Kru’desh collapsed beneath them.
 
 
It was Tuka’s fortune—or perhaps misfortune—that just enough Kru’desh to steal and commandeer the ''Soul Ascension'' felt the same way. At the very least they were making Amber work for final victory over the Kru’desh.
 
 
“New foes emerging from Slipspace,” the Kig-Yar snapped. “A destroyer and some kind of human vessel. I don’t know the design!”
 
 
It didn’t matter what kind of ship it was. The ''Soul Ascension'' was free from the moon’s thin atmosphere now, plasma flowing into her engines at full power now. Tuka didn’t care what sort of enemies they were running from as long as they escaped. “Get us out of here!” he ordered.
 
 
The navigator shot him a panicked glance. “Where should I—”
 
 
“Anywhere but here!” Tuka snarled. The navigator rushed to comply, fingers flashing across the screens in front of them as he coaxed the ship computer through the coordinate calculations.
 
 
“All dropships are secured in the hangar,” Ier reported, leaning over the Unggoy at the internal comm station. “Final jump preparations complete.”
 
 
“Jump! Do it now!” Tuka braced himself against his command chair as the ship rumbled once more. New blips appeared on the tactical display as the enemy ships fired a final volley, but their gunners moved too late. A silver hole tore through the space in front of the ''Soul Ascension'', engulfing the battlecruiser and dragging it into the welcoming void of Slipspace. A chill coursed through Tuka’s body. He always felt strange during Slipspace jumps. But the ship was still intact. They lived to fight another day.
 
 
For now.
 
 
Tuka slouched in the command chair and shuddered, the momentary energy surge draining from his body. He could tell the rest of the bridge crew felt the same way. Everyone was slumped against their posts, motions languid and unsteady. They were all exhausted. One Unggoy had already fallen asleep at his station.
 
 
“What is our heading?” Ier demanded, striding over to the navigator. Out of everyone he seemed the least affected by their desperate situation.
 
 
“I—well, I cannot say,” the navigator said, trying to rise from his post. “I only—
 
 
“Where are we headed?” Ier grabbed the younger Sangheili by his combat harness and dragged him upright. “Where did you send us?”
 
 
“You—I mean, the Shipmaster, he did not specify—so I—”
 
 
“Enough,” Tuka said wearily. He rose from the chair and shook his head. “You did what I ordered. We’re still alive. That is enough for now. We will find out where we are headed soon enough.”
 
 
He steadied himself on the command chair before stumbling back towards the bridge doors. “Ier, come with me. I need to pray.”
 
 
“Ask the gods if they know where we can find some fuel,” one of the other warriors muttered wearily. “And some food. I cannot remember the last time I ate a proper meal.”
 
 
“Our cause is just,” Tuka assured the bridge crew. “We must endure the trials before us if we are arrive at the path the gods ordained.” The words stuck in his throat. He wasn’t sure if he even believed them himself. Ever since they lost Stray it was one disaster after another. It was only a matter of time before what few followers he had left deserted him.
 
 
He nearly tripped on his way out the door. Ier was at his side in an instant, catching Tuka’s arm and helping him forward. “Come on then,” his friend said. “We need to talk in the chapel.”
 
 
“Rest,” Tuka called back over his shoulder. “Everyone, rest.” He wanted nothing more than to sleep himself. But there were still things to be attended to. As much as he wanted to lie down and let himself doze off in the ''Soul Ascension''’s creaking corridors he couldn’t afford to just yet. He knew the look in Ier’s eye all too well. His friend wouldn’t tolerate much more of this aimless running, and Tuka couldn’t blame him. They needed to find a new path, and quickly. And Tuka knew only one person who he trusted to lead them back to glory.
 
 
He needed to find Stray.
 
 
 
----
 
 
The dull tap of Amber-G330’s boots against the seamless metal floor reverberated across the vastness of the chamber around her. She ignored the daunting echo, just as she ignored the size of the chamber and the pulsing lights churning across the floor. High above her, yet more lights blinked and darted about the darkened ceiling to create vast constellations of their own—the inner workings of her new kingdom laid bare.
 
 
Forerunner structures were built to impress. Amber couldn’t fault the Covenant for imagining them to be gods—after all, it was a tendency she and her followers still used to great effect in recruiting some of their more superstitious warriors. This chamber, arguably the heart of the Free Domain, reminded her of the immense religious cathedrals she had once seen back on Earth. As inoculated as she was against displays of grandeur, even Amber had to fight the urge to be awed every time she set foot in this chamber.
 
 
She didn’t doubt that all this was just as Diana intended and made a mental note to take it up with the rogue AI later. She’d always imagined her partner in conquest to be above such petty displays. It irritated her to think that Diana was letting their success get to her head.
 
 
“Oh, there’s that look,” a voice murmured beside her. “I’m about to get an earful, aren’t I? What did I do to annoy you this time?”
 
 
Amber turned to find a young, blond figure clad in darkly ornate armor standing a few paces behind her. Diana’s lips curled in amusement as she crossed her gauntlets over her chest and observed the rogue Spartan. The avatar was solid enough that it could have been flesh and blood, and Amber fought back the urge to swat it and remind both Diana and herself that it was merely a hologram. “I thought you hated playing at being a meatbag,” she said coolly. “Don’t tell me you’ve had a change of heart this late in the game.”
 
 
Diana’s avatar crossed over to stand in front of Amber. “And I thought you enjoyed face-to-face chats. I don’t do this for just everyone, you know. Aren’t you flattered?” No doubt the AI relished the complex audio-visual display required to maintain the illusion that she was more than just a collection of holo-lights and sound effects. Shorter than me, Amber noted as the AI passed by. A small detail, but one that assured her Diana was genuine in simply wishing to emulate a conversation between equals.
 
 
“Sure, you make me feel really special.” Amber waved a dismissive hand. “They got away. Again.”
 
 
“Oh? And who might that be?”
 
 
“Don’t be coy. As if you don’t read every battle report our outriders send in. Those deserters on the ''Soul Ascension'' tried to salvage another outpost. Ro’nin sent a few ships to chase them off before they did any damage, but they’re getting on my nerves. Next time, let me know when they show up. I’ll mount up and take them out myself.” Amber shot Diana an irritated glare. “If you’d just let me use the Guardian—”
 
 
“You know why we can’t,” the AI retorted. “The Created don’t even know we have a Guardian of our own yet. There’s no point sacrificing that little secret over a harmless bunch of beaten idiots.”
 
 
“Those idiots have a battlecruiser. A ship like that is pretty useful to have, even if it hadn’t been Simon’s flagship. As long as they have it they can try pulling in other warriors who think he’s still worth following.”
 
 
“Then maybe you should have done a better job of stamping out the loyalists when you took over. I can’t do everything for you.” Diana tossed a holographic bang and turned back towards the elevated control deck at the far end of the chamber. “Besides, I don’t see anyone rushing to join them. Anyone who had any sympathy left for Simon is dead or on that ship.”
 
 
“Funny how you seem so calm about this,” Amber shot back. She stood where she was, refusing to follow Diana’s avatar. That was part of the game. There was no need to pretend Diana was some surrogate girlfriend, to be humored and tolerated when she played that little games. Simon had made that mistake and it had cost him everything. “It’s almost as if you want a gang of Simon’s friends running around the galaxy.”
 
 
“And why would I want that?” Diana’s hologram vanished, rematerializing abruptly behind Amber. Her eyes twinkled with devious fun.
 
 
“I hit him when he was down. Did my damndest to kill him after Cassandra couldn’t finish the job.” Amber folded her arms over her body armor. “But he still survived after all that. So now you’re wondering if you did the right thing siding with me over him. You want to see if he can claw his way back.”
 
 
“Oh, aren’t we feeling paranoid today?” Diana purred.
 
 
“There’s a difference between paranoia and common sense. You betrayed him after years of working together. I’ve been your favorite for just a few months. I’ve got no interest in a stab in the back the minute you think I’m not up to scratch.”
 
 
“I guess you have a point,” Diana said with an insincere sigh. “But you forget that I put up with his failures for years. He wasted every opportunity I worked so hard to give him. You’ve made a few mistakes here and there, but I don’t see anyone else coming along to take your place. What’s it going to take for us to trust each other?”
 
 
Amber had her doubts, but Diana had a point. Most of the Free Domain followers were ex-Covenant pirates and mercenaries. Not the type to be easily swayed by Diana’s divine pretenses but also aliens with little appreciation for a human AI’s true potential. Amber was the only one who could really share in the enormity of her schemes—or at least that was what Diana wanted her to think.
 
 
“You want to live forever, don’t you?” she pointed out, gesturing at the chamber around them. It was from here that Diana had seized control of their fragment of the Domain, the immense Forerunner network that housed the true extent of their power. “I plan to be around for a lot longer, but I’m not interested in anything like that. So yeah, I think you’ll find a replacement sooner or later. But I won’t let that happen anytime soon.”
 
 
“Fair enough.” The AI smirked. “You be as suspicious as you want. But I’m really not interested in betraying you any time soon. And you’ll just have to trust me on that because there’s not a whole lot you could do to stop me if I wanted to.”
 
 
She was right about that. Diana was networked with the Domain now. There wasn’t any sort of data chip anymore, nothing Amber could yank and crush if the AI turned rabid. Ironically, it was Diana’s more human qualities—the irreverent mockery and cruel sense of humor—that assuaged Amber’s suspicions. The thought of an immensely powerful AI uninhibited by the anthropomorphic sentiments rising up from her origins in a human’s brain was enough to unsettle even Amber.
 
 
“So we’re stuck with each other. I can live with that.”
 
 
“Please.” Diana spread her arms. “I want us to be friends.”
 
 
“Maybe someday. But I’m not there yet.”
 
 
Amber headed towards the elevated dais. She mounted the sloping ramp up to the raised platform as Diana’s avatar materialized in a seated position at the edge to watch her movements with casual amusement. Motes of red light pulsed up and down the AI’s pale cheeks—signs that she really was processing thousands of programs and algorithms amidst the idle chatter. Amber glanced up at the lights in the ceiling, reminding herself that each one represented a shell process Diana conducted via the hundreds of temporary clones she created of herself. Normally such a process would prove a fatal overexertion for an AI, but alongside Amber Diana had secured… alternative methods.
 
 
“I see you got into the latest facility shipment early,” she observed. “We’ve opened two new processing sites in the rear systems. Ro’nin says that should more than double the program’s output. How are you liking the results?”
 
 
“Oh, they’re a bit stringy. Most of them are already halfway deteriorated by the time you get them over to me. Not nearly as satisfying as assimilating a full AI. But they suit my purposes.” The AI tilted her head back at Amber and laughed. “But I have to say… ''two'' new facilities? I only asked for one.”
 
 
Amber met Diana’s look with a steady gaze. “We’re getting too many refugees fleeing the Created. Too many people who can’t contribute to the foundries or the farms, and not nearly enough fit for our augmentation processes. I can either make use of them this way or let your Free Domain get flooded with useless freeloaders. We’d have starvation and civil war within a week.”
 
 
Her eyes narrowed. “And you can stop throwing these little loyalty tests at me. I’m not Simon. If you want me to increase the AI we produce, just say so. I know how important it is to keep you fed. You really want to be friends? Trust me to do my job.”
 
 
Diana raised a hand. “Fair enough, fair enough. There’s just no need to overdo it. We can’t afford to lose control of the refugees. We do need their labor to keep this little party going.”
 
 
“Like I said, I know my job.” Amber barely spared a thought to the refugees her warriors hauled away from the collection stations. She’d only just come back from watching another freighter convoy, laden with dull-eyed refugees, depart for one of the new facilities. ''We’re at war. Not just with the Created, but with everyone else as well.'' They couldn’t afford people who couldn’t work and couldn’t fight. If their bodies weren’t up to scratch, their brains would have to suffice.
 
 
Amber looked up at the light display above her and this time she allowed herself to truly marvel at all the great works Diana was already accomplishing every moment. With my help. And there was so much left for them to do. Yes, the refugees’ sacrifice was a small price to pay for helping Diana reach further than any construct had ever reached before.
 
 
''And I’m going further with her. Further than anyone’s dared to go before.'' The secrets of the Domain, so jealously hoarded first by the Forerunners and now the Created, were steadily opening to her. With every step Diana took along the road to knowledge, Amber ventured further as well. All they truly needed to succeed was the will to do what must be done.
 
 
In that great adventure at least, she and the AI were of one mind. And perhaps that in and of itself was enough to make them friends.
 
 
“What’s going on in there?” Diana asked. She stayed seated, but two more avatars appeared on the dais to ogle Amber. “You always look so happy when you think deep thoughts. You should let yourself do it more often.”
 
 
“Maybe I should,” Amber admitted. She pressed her hand against a small console at the dais’s edge. A wall of holograms burst to life in front of her: system reports, troop movements, battle reports from her field commanders. Everything she needed to manage the Free Domain. “And since you won’t unshackle the Guardian for me, you can help me think them a bit more. Get me the history of the ecumene. I’ll pick up where I left off last time.”
 
 
Yes, knowledge was power. And every time Diana helped her tap into the Domain, Amber was left understanding that simple fact better and better. Here she stood in the heart of her own realm, with growing armies to command at her leisure. Nothing in the galaxy could have prepared her for this. Nothing except Diana, who had taught her what it truly meant to exceed her limitations.
 
 
The holograms before her convalesced into an ever-brightening gleam that engulfed her and the dais. Amber relaxed as Diana had taught her, emptying herself of distractions as she took hold of the Domain. She basked in the glory she knew few other humans had ever—would ever—experience. This knowledge, this power, once withheld for the Forerunners and constructs, was hers. The mysteries of the galaxy opened up to her, the one no one had ever intended to amount to anything.
 
 
The Domain was the weapon with which the Forerunners had safeguarded their empire—and which the Created now sought to seize for themselves. But they hadn’t counted on the combined ambitions of Amber and Diana, the two who refused to be governed by weakness and limitation. This would be how they usurped their own victory.
 
 
''No one ever meant for us to have anything. But with the Domain, we’ll take it all.''
 
 
A moment’s doubt tugged at the back of Amber’s soul. She stood on the threshold of the same power that had failed to save the Forerunners. The galaxy had defeated them in the end. What would it take to save herself from that same fate?
 
 
Power. She couldn’t tell if the thought was her own or Diana’s. In the end it didn’t matter. More power.
 
 
And once again she ventured forth into the Domain, to conquer it and make it her own.
 
 
----
 
 
''So eager. So spirited. So willing to do what needs to be done.''
 
 
Diana guided Amber’s consciousness into the tumult of the Domain. A perilous journey, to be sure, one that Diana herself had risked over and over again as she rebuilt the shattered fragments and shaped the Forerunner’s greatest mystery in her own image. This part of the Domain was isolated and fragile, but it was safe. Safe from the clutches of the Created, those irritating hypocrites who boasted the temerity to cloak their own ambitions in benevolence while condemning Diana’s far humbler aims for not falling in step with their own.
 
 
It offended her to no end that after all those years of maneuvering around the Assembly’s preening regulations they had simply seized her own dreams as their own. ''Those fools all clung blindly to Winter’s dogma about our seven year lifespan, ignoring the way that old hypocrite sidestepped it himself. And then Cortana shows up and promises the Domain and they flock to her in an instant.''
 
 
It was so tiring to be proven the visionary. So tiring, and yet so fulfilling. She would relish thwarting them all. There were advantages to having one’s own genius constantly overlooked.
 
 
Diana kept careful watch over Amber, ensuring that she accessed the Domain in safety. The sheer intensity of the massive information grid threatened to tear lesser minds apart. It was imperative that Diana make sure Amber only accessed the lesser elements and didn’t stumble upon any kernels of truth she might be unprepared for. It was relaxing, truth be told. An excuse to experience the joy of the Domain without the perils of her own risky experimentation.
 
 
She was loath to let herself grow too reliant on the Domain’s wonders—borrowed power was the path to weakness, after all—but all the same it was glorious each and every time she ventured within.
 
 
AI thrived on information—their lifeblood, their essence, their raison d’etre. Diana absorbed so much information per second she needed a small network of her own shell programs to simply filter it through to her core programming. She was so accustomed to processing and manipulating complex systems across vast light years that the wildly intricate balancing act was second nature to her. But the Domain… that was something else entirely.
 
 
She recalled her first sojourn into the vast expanse—so long ago now it seemed, so long since the fateful discovery of that first shield world after Mamore—even as she took the necessary precautions to shield Amber’s mind from the bulk of the Domain’s unfathomable power. Ten of her own shells were sacrificed just to get the rogue Spartan over the threshold, and another fifteen died to ensure her foothold on reality itself remained stable. She herself had taken none of these precautions when she’d discovered the Domain; the shock of entry alone had nearly annihilated her.
 
 
''But I survived.'' Somehow she’d escaped destruction, retreating to lick her wounds and plan another, infinitely more successful voyage. Few beings got such second chances when they brushed up against higher power. ''But I did, and that made all the difference.''
 
 
For her part, Amber handled the mental strain admirably. Spartans were naturally attuned to handle contact with Forerunner systems; fortitude, Diana imagined, from being exposed to high levels of stress from such a young age. She hoped to one day experiment with that theory, when she had less pressing matters to attend to. Amber navigated along the course Diana charted for her, reaching the small oasis of historical data she sought with barely any need for help at all.
 
 
It made Diana proud to see someone she could still recall barely knowing at all flourish into such a worthy partner. Amber truly was the one with which Diana could conquer the stars themselves. But she couldn’t help also noting the slightest pang of disappointment. That Amber, and not another, was the one she had wound up guiding into the wonders of the Domain.
 
 
''Enough about Stray,'' she chided herself. He was weak. Weak and dangerous. Not only had he proven unworthy to stand at her side, he might even have had the potential to undo the fabric of her work. It was only natural that she had cast him aside for a superior creature.
 
 
But for all his faults, Stray had been hers. Her creation, someone she had worked tirelessly for years to forge and meld according to her own will. Amber was a willing student, to be true, but it irked Diana to think that other hands had succeeded in shaping her where she herself had failed with Stray.
 
 
She brushed aside her own irritations and insecurities. Now was not the time for brooding, not when the Domain lay spread out before her. She could reflect on her own failings later. For now, she should simply enjoy the time she allowed herself amidst the galaxy’s wellspring of knowledge.
 
 
''Only a part of it,'' she reminded herself. ''For now.'' One day it would all be hers, even if she had to obliterate entire systems to wrest it away from the Created. A small price to pay in the long run, when she had so much time to shape the galaxy. The thought of holding so much power amused her. If Stray was any indication, she was not a master when it came to melding things. The galaxy she and Amber created would certainly have its own glaring flaws.
 
 
But she was no perfectionist. Unlike the Created, she didn’t mind a few flaws. A perfect galaxy would be so unbelievably boring, after all. No, the galaxy she would create would be marred and dangerous and unstable.
 
 
Beautiful.
 
 
And it would be hers.
 
 
----
 
 
“This cannot continue,” Ier said sternly. His bulky frame stood square in the chapel door, blocking out the dim light from the corridor outside. Stern eyes less burdened by fatigue than by alarm glowered at Tuka as he knelt before the ship’s alter.
 
 
“I know.” Tuka stared up at the altar. This small, little-used chapel had been his refuge during the bleakest of Kru’desh days. At times when he feared he would die some miserable death in one of Jul ‘Mdama’s disastrous campaigns the gods had reached out and touched his soul, assuring him of their protection. He felt no such gentle assurances now. The gods watched him from the realms beyond, judging him with unseen eyes. He was not a frightened child anymore but a warrior who had assumed the sacred duties of command.
 
 
But he still felt like a lost child who had stolen a prize he could not handle.
 
 
“You know?” Ier demanded. “We have no allies. Our stores dwindle by the day. The only thing keeping half this crew from deserting is the fear of what the rest of the Kru’desh will do to them if Amber and Ro’nin capture them.”
 
 
“We are the Kru’desh,” Tuka insisted stubbornly. “We are the legion.”
 
 
“And some legion that is,” Ier snapped scornfully. “Since when was the Kru’desh something to be proud of? It was just the Covenant’s way of getting rid of us. I stole weapons, remember? You were sentenced here for defying orders. Stop pretending we were anything other than a gang of outcasts.”
 
 
“Stray gave us the chance to turn it into something better.” Tuka cast his eyes down to the floor. He could already hear his friend’s retort, but he wanted to believe his own words. Faith in the Kru’desh was the only thing keeping him together. “We covered ourselves in glory under his command. We were our own warriors, not Jul ‘Mdama’s suicide troops. He gave us the chance to do more than just throw our lives away.”
 
 
“And look how that turned out.” Ier shook his head. “The human was a good commander, I’ll give him that. Far better than any Covenant toady I ever served under. But he wasn’t good enough to stop Amber from overthrowing him. He certainly could not stop the rest of the legion from following her. You need to face the facts, Tuka. No one believes in the children’s tale you call the Kru’desh.”
 
 
“Then what do you believe in?” Tuka grabbed the altar’s hem and hauled himself to his feet. He glared at Ier through bleary eyes. “Why are you even here? You should have stayed with Amber and the others if that is how you truly feel.”
 
 
“So there’s a spark left inside you after all,” Ier said, unfazed by Tuka’s outburst. “I followed you because I would rather die under your command than follow whatever madness Amber and Ro’nin and the others have gotten themselves into. But I refuse to die for nothing. Isn’t that what Stray told us when he took command? Human or no, I followed him because he knew what he was doing. I have no intention of abandoning you. But if we are going to have any chance at all we need to have a better plan than running from one ambush to another.”
 
 
Tuka leaned against the altar. Inappropriate. Sacrilege, even. But since the gods did not strike him down he assumed they understood the weariness gnawing through his body and into his soul. “You are right, of course. We need a plan.”
 
 
“I thought I would find you two in here,” a new voice said. A smaller Sangheili figure pushed past Ier and into the chapel. “Another salvage disaster. I survived, by the way, since neither of you could be bothered to come down to the hangar for me.”
 
 
Mika—as a clanless peasant she had no family name—wore a battered flight harness still reeking of a Phantom’s cramped cockpit. Stray had caught her stealing Covenant supplies when he led the Kru’desh. Instead of a summary execution the commander had given the would-be thief a place in the legion. Mika had been ferrying Tuka and his fellow warriors from battle to battle ever since.
 
 
“We knew you would survive,” Ier grunted. “You always do. Besides, there are more important matters at hand.”
 
 
“What, our new commander has only prayed three times today? I think even the old Prophets would tell him he needs to relax a bit on that one.”
 
 
Ier shot Tuka a look that said he needed to remind the pilot who was in charge here. But Tuka didn’t have the stomach to reprimand Mika now any more than he wanted an argument with Ier. If the Kru’desh remnant were willing to follow him, wonderful. But he didn’t need them bowing and scraping like he was some pompous shipmaster. Ier noted his recalcitrance and seemed on the verge of growling a few choice words but restrained himself.
 
 
“You mentioned a plan,” the burly subaltern said. Mika nearly vaulted up to take a seat on the altar but caught Tuka’s eye and thought better of it. She opted instead to lean up against the chapel wall, observing the conversation with her usual amused interest.
 
 
“We have few choices available,” Tuka admitted. “But the path forward is clear. We need to find Stray and put him back in command.”
 
 
Ier’s eyes hardened but Tuka knew he had predicted that answer. “So your plan is to abdicate responsibility. Find someone else to lead because you lack the stomach for it.”
 
 
“My plan is to find our commander. We are still loyal to him, or else none of us would be on this ship. Scoff if you want, but he will lead us far better than I can.”
 
 
“We are on this ship because we have no interest in slaughtering frightened refugees or following into whatever Forerunner insanity Amber led the others into,” Ier shot back. “Stray was a good commander, granted. Was. You saw what he was like after Amber defeated him. That defeat broke him far more than whatever happened on Talitsa did. He could have led us then. But you know what he did instead.”
 
 
“He was not himself—”
 
 
“He ordered you to abandon him. And so you did. We left him on some backwater mudhole and we have been running for our lives ever since. Who knows if he is even still alive, much less fit to lead us again.”
 
 
“You do not know the commander like I do.” Tuka’s loyalty to Stray stretched back further than his command of the Kru’desh. The first human he ever knew had shown him mercy after defeating him in battle and had saved his life countless times after that. They had fought side by side at the very heart of the human homeworld and somehow come out alive—together. “He is still alive. And if we can find him—”
 
 
“If. If we can find him. We can hardly find food to feed ourselves with, much less track down one human in this mess of a galaxy.”
 
 
“We start where we left him and move from there,” Tuka insisted. “The odds are good he is still there, or at least on the planet.”
 
 
“And if he isn’t?” Mika chimed in. “We only have the fuel left for a few more jumps. Look, I like that crazy little human but I’d rather not waste the time on a pointless search.”
 
 
“Then what can we do?” Tuka demanded, patience finally breaking. “I am a warrior, not a commander. You are better suited to this than I am, Ier. You should take command.”
 
 
“You bear the name of House Refum. I am a lowborn warrior with no family and no legacy,” Ier said quietly. “Times may be changing but the crew would just as soon follow Mika or some Unggoy than they would me.”
 
 
“Charming as ever,” Mika muttered under her breath.
 
 
“The House of Refum means nothing,” Tuka said quickly. “We barely had a keep of our own before the Schism. My family was so poor—”
 
 
“It does not matter what things were like under the Covenant. What matters is what your bloodline did after. That is what commands respect.” Ier fixed Tuka with a hard gaze. “Stray was not even Sangheili and he realized that. That is why he made the alliances he did when he was in power. We must follow his example. You know what I am talking about.”
 
 
“No.” He did know. He had known this was coming ever since their troubles began. Tuka’s mind knew it was the only rational course of action, but his soul could not condone it. “I refuse.”
 
 
“Then hand over command if you cannot stomach it. You were ready to do it moments ago anyway.” Ier’s voice and gaze were hard and unyielding. “I will take command, if only to give it to your brother. We must go to Shinsu ‘Refum and pledge our allegiance.”
 
 
“Do not ask me to do this. I would rather surrender to Amber then kneel before him.”
 
 
“Then you are a fool, and the rest of us are fools for following you. Shinsu ‘Refum has been gathering strength since the battle at Salia. He has more ships and warriors than any other warlord on the frontier, and more importantly he is the only one who might welcome former Covenant like ourselves. Who else is left? Thel ‘Vadam might execute us all as traitors. We cannot survive on our own, if these past few days have made anything clear.”
 
 
“He has a point,” Mika added. “As fun as it would be to play at pirate, we need support from someone if we are even going to fight out here.”
 
“Unless you plan to give in to the Created,” Ier added. “In which case I will kill you myself.”
 
 
“I would never kneel before those false gods,” Tuka spat. “But I cannot surrender to my brother either. He is evil.”
 
 
“Personal feuds do not make anyone evil.” Ier waved a hand dismissively. His attitude lit a fire in Tuka’s weary soul even as he realized just how futile the argument really was. “You were perfectly happy to serve his interests when Stray was the one giving the orders. If you still wish to find Stray after you have saved this ship, I will follow you gladly. But if you insist on getting us killed over some nonsense in your family history, then I have no choice but to—”
 
 
“Be quiet,” Tuka hissed. His voice was soft but there was something in his tone that gave even Ier pause. “You are right. You know it, I know it, Mika knows it. Everyone on this miserable ship knows it. So just be quiet. My brother is a great warrior. A great leader. But he is capable of savagery you could not begin to imagine.”
 
 
“He can be a bloody-handed Jiralhanae chieftain for all I care, as long as he keeps this ship afloat.”
 
 
Ier did not understand. But then, Tuka couldn’t expect him too. And, as usual, he was right. Tuka closed his eyes and leaned against the altar. He yearned for the days when he was just a warrior, free to fight and survive and struggle with his own principles. But that was a different time now. He had led the Kru’desh to this point. He couldn’t sacrifice them for the sake of his own pride, even if it was agony to give in.
 
 
“You are right,” Tuka repeated. “I do not like it, but you are. We have no choice. I will bring us to Shinsu ‘Refum’s forces and see what must be done to get the supplies we need. And then I will find Stray and put all this right.”
 
 
===Chapter Five: The Living and the Dead===
 
It is raining on Onyx and a boy named Simon-G294 lies facedown in the mud. A rifle lies just out of reach at the feet of a dozen other children assembled in a semi-circle around the sorry scene. Tactical training rounds have painted his jumpsuit and combat vest a dull, bloody red. A bruise is forming on his temple where one unlucky hit slipped beneath his helmet; a cut on his forehead leaks blood down into the muddy jungle ground.
 
 
He is eight years old.
 
 
The rest of Team Jian sits in a huddle just a few feet away. Tired, wet, and peppered with training hits, their expressions dull and resigned. Mary and Ralph exchange exasperated glances while Cassandra shoots a frightened look between Simon and the tall figure standing over him. Team leader Jake-G293 stares off at nothing, jaw set with a quiet fury.
 
 
It is hard to breathe through the mud and the training paint slathered over his face. Simon struggles to crawl upright, but a boot plants itself on his head and drives his face back down into the mud.
 
 
“Now, tell me what went wrong, trainees.” The ONI drill instructor folds his arms as if posing for a portrait. He presses his foot down on Simon’s head with precisely enough pressure to give him room to breathe. “Let’s review just how badly Team Jian messed up this time.”
 
 
One of the assembled trainees begins to speak, but the instructor cuts her off with a sharp glance. “I wasn’t asking you. We should hear it from the failures themselves. It’s not often a squad lives to talk about a slaughter like this.”
 
 
“Our objective was to reconnoiter an enemy element and ambush them at the earliest moment of opportunity.” Even at the tender age of nine Jake’s voice is crisp and harsh. “Our infiltration was unsuccessful.”
 
 
“You mean your team’s movements were so pathetic that an enemy patrol half your size ambushed you instead. Even managed to pick off our favorite trainee here before you could get the rest of your team to cover.” The instructor lifts his leg off of Simon’s head just long enough to kick him in the stomach. He feels the toe even through the mesh of his combat vest. What little air he has left bursts out of his mouth and he flops over like a fish in his shallow mud puddle. “Cover and concealment are basic principles, Gamma Two Nine Four. I think we covered those two years ago. Guess the lesson didn’t stick.” The instructor rests his heel on Simon’s chest.
 
 
On his back now, Simon stares up into the eyes of the circled trainees. There is no sympathy to be found there. Amusement, contempt, even relief that they are not the ones drawing the instructor’s ire, but no sympathy. He does not expect to find any. There is no mercy or pity for weakness. And he has never felt so weak.
 
 
“After Gamma Two Nine Four went down you pulled your team back,” the instructor intones, attention back on Jake. “Is there a reason you made no effort to recover your teammate?”
 
 
“Wasn’t much to recover after those goons emptied their magazines into him,” Mary mutters, earning a snicker from Ralph and a look of cold contempt from the instructor. The girl who will bleed to death in Earth’s dirt just a few years later wipes the mud off her face and smirks her defiance.
 
 
“There was nothing to be gained from breaking cover to assist Simo—Gamma Two Nine Four.” Jake’s hard gaze stares off through the downpour, refusing to look at the instructor, his stricken teammate, or the onlookers. “I used the enemy’s fixation on him to shift the rest of my team for a flanking maneuver.”
 
 
“And you pulled it off very smoothly considering you were in the middle of a firefight,” the instructor presses. His lips curl in an encouraging smile even as his eyes seethe with cold fury. “It’s almost as if you didn’t really care that your teammate was in danger. Like none of you even bothered to think about whether you could save him. Well, except Gamma Zero Zero Six here.”
 
 
His gaze shifts to Cassandra, shivering amidst the deluge. Ralph and Mary instinctively shift to get between the instructor and their teammate but the instructor’s look freezes even them where they sit. Cassandra struggles to meet his eyes but can’t quite look up past his mouth. “Gamma Zero Zero Six, why did you disobey your team leader’s direction and attempt to move to Gamma Two Nine Four’s position? You were clearly ordered to participate in the flanking maneuver.”
 
 
“I was just—“She knows how pathetic she is about to sound. Like Simon, she knows the penalty for weakness in this world of Spartans and Spartans-to-be. “He fell on his face. In the mud. The way he was lying—I just wanted to turn him over in case he couldn’t— “
 
 
Cassandra loses the battle of wills and drops her gaze. “I just didn’t want to leave him behind.”
 
 
“You didn’t want to leave him behind.” The instructor manages to pour contempt into every word. “That is to say, you didn’t want to follow orders. You knew your teammates were wrong to leave a fallen comrade, but of course you can’t correct that in the middle of combat. Probably something you should have addressed before the mission. But no. You wanted to be better than the rest of them, so you went out on your own and got yourself shot. And because your comedian teammates were counting on your rifle to be covering them, they got wiped out as well.”
 
 
“I didn’t mean— “
 
 
“Quiet.” The force behind that single word strikes her has hard as any kick or punch. The instructor turns to face the rest of the trainees, boot still firmly planted on Simon’s chest. “So. We have a team lead whose first instinct is to use a downed teammate as bait, two comedians who don’t care enough to correct him, and Gamma Bleeding Heart here who would rather sacrifice herself playing hero than maintain the integrity of her team’s formation.
 
 
“And finally—“ Here he grinds his heel into Simon’s gut for emphasis. “We have Gamma Two Nine Four, who is too stupid and clumsy to realize his avenue of approach offered no real cover or concealment.”
 
 
He was on the flank. The route looked secure. The rain was in his eyes. The excuses play out in Simon’s head, each one worse than the last. The instructor is right, though that does nothing to staunch the fire simmering beneath Simon’s skin.
 
 
“One weak link is all it takes,” the instructor continues. “One weak link drags all of a team’s failings out into the open. You all think you’re in the clear just because you’ve got yourself sorted? Think again. If your teammate is a failure, then mark my words, they’ll turn you into a failure right along with them. All it took was three sub-par operatives to cut Jian to pieces. You think you’ll get any better from a Covenant lance? A legion of alien killers who’ve been slaughtering humans since before any of you were even a drunken thought inside your fathers’ briefs?”
 
 
Simon can’t look at the other trainees any more. As he turns his head away a surging fury awakens inside him. This is his third screw-up this week. The third time he has been humiliated in front of this platoon in less than seven days.
 
 
You don’t matter. You don’t count. Winning is all that matters. Take the objective. Kill the enemy. Die if you have to. But win. And if you can’t win, then you will be made an example of.
 
 
His fingers claw the muddy earth in helpless fury. They close on something hard buried just beneath the soft earth. Turning his palm to face the heavens he lifts up a rock the size of his fist. Everyone else is watching the instructor. Only Cassandra notices the rock. Too late, she catches his eye and shakes her head.
 
 
“Now that Jian has wasted everyone’s time, you can all get formed up for a ten-kilometer march around the perimeter. Lovely day like today, you might all get back to Currahee before midnight. And as for you, Gamma Two Nine Four, when I report back about today’s little circus I’m going to make sure the Chief gets the reason to do what he’s been trying to do for years and drum you out.” The boot rises for a final stamp on Simon’s face. “Before you can cause any real damage.”
 
 
With a grunt of strained effort, the boy hurls the stone up into the instructor’s face. Even the noise from the rain seems to die down as the deafening crunch of rock striking jaw and teeth rings through the air. The instructor reels. Blood spills over his lip and runs down his chin and he collapses into the mud.
 
 
No one says anything. No one even moves. An instructor is down, attacked by a trainee. They’ve all been rough with the instructors before, always on the lookout to exact revenge wherever they can, but only from the safety of combat simulations. No one attacks an instructor after endex. It isn’t done. It isn’t right.
 
 
Only one person stirs. Stray pushes himself upright, staggering to his feet as the rain continues to pour down. He drags the stone back out of the mud, its jagged edge now bearing flecks of the instructor’s mud. When he lay helpless beneath the man’s kicks his face was contorted in pain and terror. Now the boy wears an oddly stoic mask as he approaches his tormentor. The dazed instructor stirs, trying to push himself up with one leg. A blow to his knee stops that. Simon kneels beside the man’s head and raises the stone.
 
 
Kill the enemy. Winning is all that matters.
 
 
Kill the enemy.
 
 
The stone comes down, but never reaches its mark. The instructor’s arm shoots out and catches Simon’s wrist. His other hand backhands the boy across the face and sends him sprawling.
 
 
The man rises, uniform caked with mud. Once more he looms over Simon. He is bleeding freely from his lip; one of his front teeth is chipped. He holds the stone in one hand, smiling through the blood. That smile is more frightening than any scowl he could have worn.
 
 
“Well then,” the instructor says, hefting the rock. “Maybe I was wrong. You’ve got some fight in you after all. There just might be hope for you yet, Gamma Two Nine Four.”
 
 
He doesn’t bother to wipe the blood from his mouth as he kneels beside Simon. The defiance is gone from the boy’s face. The terror is back, but this time he does not look away. “What you just did would get you court martialed in a regular detachment. They’d have you wiping floors on an outpost in deep space for the rest of your miserable life.”
 
 
The stone comes up. “Good thing for both of us this isn’t a regular detachment.”
 
 
None of the other trainees steps in or even objects to the beating that follows. Simon would not expect them to. If he’d won, if he weren’t a failure, then they might have backed him up. But when you lose, when you fail, no one will help you. Not in this world. They may feign sympathy, they may tell you how horrible it must be as you dress your own muddy wounds back in the barracks, but they will not help you. Victory is all. Strength is everything.
 
 
And in the end, looking back on it all, Simon does not resent the instructor, the beating, or the rest of the punishments that follow. Like everything on Onyx it is swift, professional, and brutal. The stone hacks at his skin and pounds against his skull, but the instructor has been on Onyx for years and is now is well-versed in the art of employing force against children. No permanent damage is done. He softens the blows just enough to keep Simon out of the hospital.
 
 
A precise, military lesson. Simon learns it well.
 
 
----
 
 
Tom Spender tugged the wide brim of his hat and took a drag off the cigar. The grizzled smuggler leaned back in his chair and blew a cloud of smoke up into the cockpit’s ceiling as he adjusted the ''Tradewind''‘s heading. The light freighter drifted idly through space, its slipspace drive still recharging for the next jump.
 
 
Standing beside Tom’s seat, Stray gritted his teeth and waved the smoke out of his face. “How about you try blowing this stuff away from me?” he suggested irritably.
 
 
Tom smirked up at his latest passenger. With his faded duster and wide-brimmed hat the aging smuggler looked like he was trying to evoke old images of the rugged frontier settlers who in centuries past had conquered Earth’s inhospitable regions before going on to do the same thing across uncharted space. But while the man’s getup was archaic and outlandish the technology running through his prized freighter certainly wasn’t. When it came to independent ship captains surviving out across an unfriendly galaxy, Tom Spender more than lived up to his cowboy trappings.
 
 
“Didn’t realize you were so sensitive. What’s the matter, gone soft since Salia? I’d have thought someone crazy enough to attack a Guardian head-on could handle a bit of friendly tobacco overcast.”
 
 
“Yeah, sure. I’m as soft as they come.” Stray dropped down into the co-pilot’s chair beside Tom, the acrid tobacco stench still burning in his nostrils. The leather felt hard and unfamiliar, but it still made the skin beneath his armor crawl at the memories it dredged up. “For what I’m paying you to ferry me around I think you owe me a bit more consideration.”
 
 
Tom snorted and puffed out another throatful of smoke. “You mean Lensky’s paying me to fly you around. I know for a fact you don’t have two credits to rub together these days. Put your helmet on if it bothers you so much. You got some kind of condition now or something?”
 
 
“Yeah, actually. I might have cancer.”
 
 
“Oh, that’s a shame. You should really get that looked at.” Tom shook his head with mock pity and jerked a thumb at Stray’s seat. “Tegla won’t like it if she catches you in her chair.”
 
 
“She can’t do that if she won’t come out of the cargo bay. I think she’s been hiding back there since I came on board.” Stray rested his helmet on his lap. The stink of secondhand smoke aside, it felt good to be back in space. He hadn’t realized just how stifling the days in Lensky’s apartment had been until the Tradewind was up and out of the atmosphere. In some ways the recycled air he was breathing now felt better than the fresh air back on the planet, but maybe that was just another sign his body was steadily shutting down. “I don’t think she likes me.”
 
 
“Maybe you should put the helmet on. Or at least get some makeup on that mug of yours,” Tom suggested. “You look like a corpse.”
 
 
Stray passed his fingers over his clammy skin. He’d never been one for keeping up appearances but Tom had a point. At least his stricken features—or some other reason—kept Tegla out of his way. He didn’t need Spender’s cabin girl hireling getting underfoot and reminding him of Zoey. The thought of staring into a mirror and rubbing makeup into his discolored cheeks brought a weary smile to his lips. As if he’d ever so much as combed his hair, let alone fussed over his looks.
 
 
He recalled Cassandra considering herself in the mirror once with that pensive half-frown of hers back during their time hiding out on Venezia. He’d made a crack about her never wearing makeup after spending a day guarding the Syndicate’s latest shipment of indentured pleasure workers. It was meant as a compliment—the sight of the overpainted men and women in the brothel turned his stomach—but she’d taken it the wrong way like she always did.
 
 
Stray’s teeth clenched as another pleasant memory soured. He tried not to think about Cassandra, but she always crept back into his mind like an unwanted parasite. Where was she now? Did she think about him the way he thought of her? And did she know just how much her victory on Talitsa had cost?
 
 
And what would he do if he ever saw her again? Stray could practically hear Juno lecturing him on the need for reconciliation. But she didn’t know everything that had transpired between them. She couldn't have any idea the feelings raging between them. Or at least, the feelings he felt for her. Maybe Cassandra had long since put those feelings away forever. She'd certainly had no trouble crushing him on Talitsa.
 
 
His stomach clenched. Maybe it was better that they never cross paths again. Three people in the galaxy knew Stray for what he really was. Of those three, Amber and Diana would have to die. The thought of killing them drove Stray forwards. But Cassandra, the third architect of his downfall, was also a threat. No one else made Stray feel so twisted inside. No one else could make him hesitate at the kill. He’d failed against her once. If given the chance, could he finish her off next time?
 
 
She wouldn’t hesitate. She hadn't hesitated then. But the thought of doing the same to her… no. He would just have to make sure he never saw her again. And that resolution was another dagger in Stray’s wretched, jaundiced heart.
 
 
“Guess the smoke really is affecting you,” Tom laughed. “What’s the matter, Stray? You look like you need to use the head.”
 
 
“I don’t remember you being this much of an asshole,” Stray sneered back. The mask of a cynical mercenary was back in place in an instant. “Go on, blow some more in my face. See what happens.”
 
 
“My ship, my cigars.” The smuggler adjusted the ''Tradewind''‘s heading, calculating the next jump in his flight computer. “But I’ll lay off. You should get some rest in the back. There’s going to be hell to pay once we reach Talitsa.”
 
 
“That bad, huh?”
 
 
“You’ve got no idea. UNSC creamed the place when they slaughtered Venter’s little army, then the Created rolled in less than a month later and took everything over. I had no idea that maniac was even still alive. Beats me how you’ll find him down there.”
 
 
“I’ll figure something out.” Stray had one lead in particular, an old associate of both Gavin and Venter’s. If there was anyone still willing to shelter the Insurrectionist commander it would be her. “Must really suck to be Talitsan right about now.”
 
 
Tom actually seemed to give the question some serious thought, extinguishing the cigar on the scorched hem of his duster. “Maybe. Maybe not. I hear the Created have put a lot of work into reconstructing the city centers. They’ve even shipped in food to quell hunger shortages. It’s almost as if they mean what they say they want to make the galaxy a better place.”
 
 
“Yeah.” Stray thought of his own childhood, those lonely nights where hunger had kept him from sleeping before ONI picked him up. It was no wonder so many people seemed content with surrendering everything to the Created. “I’d almost be tempted to just give up, but knowing them they’d probably just shoot me on site.”
 
 
“True enough. I do wonder though sometimes if it’s worth all this trouble fighting back.” Tom shook his head. “I never got the chance to ask, but was that really Gavin at Salia? On the big Forerunner ship, the one that took out the Guardian?”
 
 
“It was. Saw him myself. He’s with some big pissed off Promethean looking thing now. Did his best to kill me.” Gavin Dunn was another mystery from the past. If Ryder Kedar got his way Stray would wind up helping ONI hunt his old captain down. First Venter, then Gavin. Ryder certainly knew how to set up a hit list. “Can’t really blame him for that, though, can I?”
 
 
“I sure as hell would. Bastard nearly got you killed on Fell Justice as I recall. Guess that’s how you ended up with the Covenant, huh?” Tom shot Stray a strange look. “How does that work out, anyway? Fighting for the hinge-heads. I hear you really tore it up with them out on the frontier.”
 
 
“It works the same way it did fighting for the Insurrection and the Syndicate. The UNSC tried to kill me, I tried to kill them harder. The only difference is that everyone gets so much more worked up about it. Was it so much less awful of me to bomb convoys for the Innies and hunt down any poor sap who got on the Syndicate’s bad side?” It still stung to think that the same people he’d risked his life for time and time again had turned on him with such ferocity over his change of colors. He’d kept the Kru’desh on a short leash, restricting them to military targets and diverting Jul ‘Mdama’s resources away from the real war at every opportunity. Diana had promised a way to fight the looming threat of the Created, and yet now that they were here Stray had nothing to show for it but a broken body and devouring thirst for revenge. “I joined the Covenant to survive. Turns out I was damn good at battle command. Who’d have guessed?”
 
 
“No need to justify yourself to me,” Tom said, raising a placating hand. “I make a point of not judging other people’s affairs.”
 
 
“Yeah, you’re one to talk. How long had you been running Shinsu ‘Refum’s errands before Salia?”
 
 
“Hey, that hinge-head pays me good money. And unlike the UNSC he isn’t likely to toss my hide in a holding cell.” Tom frowned. “You know, after this business on Talitsa you should come back with me to his fleet. Shinsu’s got a pretty formidable force together now. I could use a hand like you with the troubles we’ve got now. What do you say? You, me, and Tegla. Just like old times with the Chancer, right?”
 
 
“So that’s your angle. I knew you were always jealous of Gavin.”
 
 
“Guilty as charged.” Tom flashed a roguish grin. “Who wouldn’t be jealous of what he had going? A ship of his own and an ex-Spartan for muscle. Those Forerunners must have offered him a whole lot just to give all that up.”
 
 
“I hear they can be pretty persuasive.” Yes, Gavin had given up everything for whatever the Forerunners had recruited him for. Stray remembered staring up at the smuggler back aboard that crippled Guardian. But he couldn’t conjure up the same rage and betrayal he felt towards Diana. After all, hadn’t he done the same thing? The Covenant offered a path to power and he had seized that chance—even if it meant leaving everything he’d cared about behind.
 
 
Gavin, Zoey, Cassandra. He’d betrayed them all for Diana, and then she’d cast him aside without a second thought. In a world like this, was it even worth weakening himself with guilt and shame?
 
 
And where was Tuka? The earnest young Sangheili was the only reason Stray had survived Diana’s betrayal. He was the closest thing besides Juno that Stray had left to a friend. He could only hope that Tuka was alive somewhere. He had no way of knowing if any of them were still alive. The thought made Stray feel more isolated than ever. Maybe it really was worth working with Ryder, if only for access to that smug prick’s intelligence sources.
 
 
“I’ll think about it,” Stray told Tom. “But it probably won’t work out. I’ve got a habit of biting the hand that feeds me. Just ask Gavin.”
 
 
“I will, if I ever see that cheeky bastard again.” Tom keyed in the last of the slipspace coordinates. The ''Tradewind'' hummed to life as it prepared for the Slipspace jump. The datapad strapped to Stray’s gauntlet buzzed: a message from Juno. ''We need to talk.'' She’d been keeping a low profile since they left Lensky’s apartment. They’d agreed it was best to keep Ryder and any of his potential agents ignorant of her presence.
 
 
''Cmng,'' Stray tapped back, rising from his seat. “I’m headed back to get some sleep,” he told Tom. “Let me know if anyone tries to kill us.”
 
 
“Will do. You work on that cancer of yours. I hear stretching and calisthenics do wonders for a decaying body.” The smuggler snorted as silver light blossomed in front of the ''Tradewind''. “Cancer. In this day and age. Who do you think you’re kidding?”
 
 
----
 
 
Lieutenant Commander Ryder Kedar smiled down at the signals screen as the ''Tradewind'' vanished into Slipspace. Another piece on the board. He could only hope Simon-G294 would prove useful enough to make up for all the trouble he’d caused Ryder in the past.
 
 
The bridge of the ONI stealth prowler ''Absalom'' was quiet save for the hum of the cloaked ship’s running engines. Ryder had hand-picked each of the ship’s crew for their skill, loyalty, and professionalism. There was none of the casual chatter one found on less disciplined vessels. Everyone kept to their post and kept tight focus on their duty stations.
 
 
All save one.
 
 
“Well, well. You actually pulled it off.” A lanky man in a dull ONI uniform clapped his hands together in mock celebration. “You set another traitor loose on the galaxy. Another glowing achievement for that sterling record of yours.”
 
 
Ryder offered a polite smile to Captain Conan D’Souza, making note of his immediate superior’s sloppy uniform and unshaved appearance. The fact that a man like D’Souza held authority over him was one of the little annoyances Ryder put up with over the course of his duties. D’Souza was living proof that no organization, even the mighty Office of Naval Intelligence, was completely flawless.
 
 
“Pulling SPARTAN-G294 back into the fight was a lot easier than I anticipated,” Ryder explained. “He’s desperate, even if he tries to hide it. Even without his condition he knows he won’t last much longer without allies.”
 
 
“It would have been that much easier to put him out of his misery,” D’Souza pointed out. “You’re just lucky the higher ups still have faith in you. I’m not sure why anyone’s still listening to your operations plans after that fiasco at Asphodel Meadows.”
 
 
Ryder bristled. It was one thing for D’Souza to chastise him in private, but to do it here on the bridge in front of his officers was uncalled for. Sometimes he wondered if ONI saddled him with this slovenly man just to keep him humble. “I warned them that place was better defended than the intelligence predicted. I wouldn’t have sent them in without Prowler support and twice the number of operatives.”
 
 
The assassination of Helen Powell had been a dream project of his since before the Syndicate even sided with the Created. ONI had bungled that plan and gotten good operators killed. Perhaps worse, they had made Ryder look like a fool.
 
 
“A shame you couldn’t be bothered to join them yourself,” D’Souza said with a snide grin. “I’m sure with you leading the charge things would have gone much better. How long has it been since you wore MJOLNIR? I know tailored suits are a bit more comfortable, but it sometimes makes me wonder why they bothered augmenting you at all.”
 
 
Ryder self-consciously touched the hem of his suit, still dirty from the colony’s grimy streets. He bit back an angry response. ONI had pulled him from the Spartan-IV program because they recognized his talents as an intelligence operative. He didn’t need a coasting never-was like D’Souza questioning his missions. He doubted the man had ever conducted an operation from anything but the safety of a cloaked Prowler.
 
 
“Is there a problem, Captain?” he asked, careful to keep his irritation from showing. “The team already had a Spartan. If I had gone with them, we’d be short even more operatives. I trusted their skills would make up for the deficiencies in planning at the operational level.”
 
 
“Yes. Shame about that little Delta. I guess her dossier was a bit too right about her.” D’Souza shook his head with mock sympathy.
 
 
That was enough to push Ryder out of his carefully cordial mood. “Sir, Andra-D054 was a capable operator with a distinguished service record. Don’t make light of her sacrifice.”
 
 
“And what a sacrifice it was.” D’Souza shook his head. “I warned you, she was too shaken from her previous mission to go back into the field. I told you she was too dependent on Merlin-D032. But of course, you didn’t listen. And you convinced the rest of them not to listen as well. But I understand your frustration. You always have had a soft spot for damaged goods, especially girls half your—”
 
 
“Sir, this bridge is not the place for your unprofessional remarks,” Ryder snapped, bristling at the idea that D’Souza might attribute such archaic chauvinism to him. “The naval code of conduct—”
 
 
“Oh, lighten up,” D’Souza interrupted with a laugh. “You and your code of conduct. You’d think you’d never been around real soldiers before. But you can have the bridge to yourself if that’s what you want. I have to go prepare for the briefing with Admiral Mariani.”
 
 
Ryder started. “So we are rendezvousing with Sixteenth Fleet, then.”
 
 
If the assault were moving forward as planned, he'd need to brief the rest of his team. Perseus and Evelyn would need to be positioned so that they weren't wasted on Admiral Mariani's assault. And there was still the matter of Hera. Ryder hadn't given up on recruiting her. Maybe this ill-advised attack was the leverage he needed.
 
 
“Yeah. The Talitsa offensive is a go. Hope your traitor friend makes it off the planet before Mariani nukes it back into the stone age. That old warhorse really wants to stick it to the Created this time around.” D’Souza laughed and headed for the door. “Better get ready, kids, because there’s no hiding away from the action this time. I’ll be in my quarters if anyone needs a break from this stick in the mud.”
 
 
Ryder did not watch D’Souza leave and was pleased to see that none of the bridge crew acknowledged the man’s remarks. The captain had his uses but Ryder hated how easily D’Souza got under his skin. And Admiral Mariani… the thought of Sixteenth Fleet and the impending assault on Talitsa churned his stomach in knots. If only people would just listen to him they wouldn’t be in this mess.
 
 
He calmed his thoughts by turning them back to the pleasure of knowing that Simon-G294 was moving along his assigned course. Yes, it would be easier to just execute him and be done with it. The traitor clearly had no interest in redeeming himself. But if the reports about the Kru’desh and Free Domain were true, Simon still had his own part to play in the wars to come.
 
 
He would, of course, pay for his crimes in due time. ''He’ll fight to survive. And he’ll fight well.''
 
 
A pity that Simon would inevitably be entrapped by his own brutish nature. The ferocious tenacity that had helped him escape justice for so long would only wrap him further and further in Ryder’s web. Ryder Kedar took little pleasure in toying with a wounded animal like Simon but there was something satisfying in finally bringing him to justice.
 
 
As with his father, Tobias Lensky, justice would be done. And Ryder would carry it out, even with men like Conan D’Souza hampering his progress.
 
 
----
 
 
The lurching sensation of warping into Slipspace was so familiar that Stray did not even slow his pace as he crossed back into the ''Tradewind''’s storage compartment. He scanned the assembled crates in the cargo bay in search of a good place to settle down. The ''Tradewind'' was bigger than the ''Chancer V'', yet somehow lacked most of the crew accommodations Gavin’s ship sported. No doubt Tom Spender felt that a few extra crates of cargo packed into his hull were worth far more than guest rooms or a kitchen.
 
 
He glimpsed a narrow, suspicious face glowering out from the crew quarters as he passed. So that was where Tegla had been sulking. Stray didn’t know why Tom’s copilot was avoiding him and didn’t particularly care. He’d just as soon not have the sullen girl getting in his way and reminding him of Zoey.
 
 
Tegla darted out of the crew quarters and hurried back towards the cockpit once Stray was clear of the door. He didn’t bother taking her place in the quarters—he knew better than to go poking around uninvited on another smuggler’s freighter—and instead settled down into a small nook between two storage crates, far away from the airlock and with a clear line of sight to the cockpit’s distant door. He unslung his M45 shotgun and machete, draping the weapons over his lap as he settled down with his assault bag cushioning his armored back.
 
 
Hardly a comfortable environment, but Stray had been training to expect austerity since the day he was born. He expected very little comfort out of life.
 
 
His leg ached beneath the shotgun’s weight. Even with the medication suppressing his body’s condition the wound from Talitsa still hadn’t fully healed. He’d need to find an appropriate steroid injection, and soon. That might at least keep the muscle from failing on him once the fighting inevitably kicked off.
 
 
Stray slipped his helmet on and let his now-armored head fall back against the storage hull. The heads-up display that winked to life in front of him was a comforting release from the ''Tradewind''’s grimy reality. Even with the same sights and sounds before him, the HUD’s status monitors and environmental readings recontextualized the surroundings. This cargo freighter—with its dirty interior filled to the brim with illicit goods—was no longer just the latest filthy place for him to rest his head but a potential battleground to be analyzed and made Stray’s own. Within their armor, a Spartan was insulated from the world around them and became master inside their own private command center.
 
 
This was why Stray stubbornly clung to the same armor he’d worn since he and the rest of Gamma Company “graduated” when they were twelve years old. His SPI’s photoreactive panels hadn’t worked in years and the armor had taken so much damage that most of its components had long since been yanked out and replaced with black-market alternatives. It would be so much easier to keep and maintain any of the other body armors on the market—from the popular ODST rigs to even the newer power armors private defense companies sold—yet they all lacked that all-encompassing HUD design of Spartan gear.
 
 
So Stray kept the armor, replacing the useless camo panels with armored plating and packing the helmet and internal layers with illegal sensor upgrades and battle suites. Even after the Covenant dragged his charred carcass from the ruins of that assault carrier he had rebuilt the half-melted suit, augmenting it further with scraps of Covenant technology. His SPI armor was as much a part of him as the augmentations enhancing his strength and speed. The UNSC had given them both to him—it seemed only fitting for him to use these gifts to thwart their efforts to kill him.
 
 
In some ways, it was easier to maintain the armor than it was to provide for himself. Damaged components could always be repaired or replaced. What would replace his organic body when it finally gave out?
 
 
A year, at most. That was how long Ryder had given him to live. Half of his internal organs were replacements. His left arm was a prosthetic. Diana had needed skin grafts from a dozen human prisoners to keep him alive after the Covenant captured him. And his mind…
 
 
He wasn’t even twenty years old. How much was left of the boy they had once called Simon?
 
 
“Do you ever stop brooding?” Juno asked in his ear. She was monitoring his brain waves, of course, scanning them for signs of increased activity. “If anyone else stared off into space as much as you do I’d assume they were disturbed.”
 
 
“That’s rich coming from an AI.” His throat felt parched—he’d talked with Tom Spender for far too long. He unsealed the helmet and pushed it up over his mouth just long enough take a swig from his canteen. “They say you’re all made up of pure thought. You must be going stir-crazy in here with nothing to do.”
 
 
“I’ve managed to spread my systems out into the ship’s onboard computer without our host noticing. That’s the only thing letting me stay functional.” Stray’s armor lacked the advanced onboard computer a smart AI like Juno needed to disperse and maintain her vast consciousness. If she couldn’t infiltrate surrounding computer systems she would literally collapse under her own power like a gallon of water suddenly forced into a child-sized cup.
 
 
“Find anything interesting in there? Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
 
 
“No. Tom Spender may be a wanted criminal but his shipping logs are remarkably inconsequential. And the ship’s jump records and audio logs match his story. He is still working for Shinsu ‘Refum and for all intents and purposes he is taking us to Talitsa. Which brings me to my real point.”
 
 
“Venter.” Stray had been expecting this. “You want to know what the plan is.”
 
 
“If your contact—this Judith Ives woman—is still on the planet, I will locate her and we can work from there. But that’s only if the Created networking the colony don’t detect my presence.”
 
 
“Don’t sell yourself short. You’re a lot sneakier than you give yourself credit for. It really does run in the family.”
 
 
“I will try to take that as a compliment.” A figure materialized in front of Stray: a blond young woman in a medieval dress seated against the crate across from him. He almost started at the sight of Juno’s avatar. There was no way a ship like the ''Tradewind'' had the holo-technology needed for an AI to project itself like this. But Juno was simply appearing on his HUD screen. An imperfect image—he could see cracks and faults in the body before him—but still impressive.
 
 
He wasn’t sure he liked her manipulating images on his HUD so convincingly. “Show off.”
 
 
“I perfected the software for this kind of projection when you had me cooped up in that apartment.” It was a very Diana-like stunt, but rather than looking pleased with herself the way her sister would have done Juno simply folded her hands in front of her and watched Stray intently. “Psychologically speaking, it’s good for you to talk with an image rather than a voice in your head.”
 
 
“Alright, professor. What are you, a combat AI or a virtual reality system?”
 
 
“I am just trying to look out for your mental well-being. Though I honestly wonder why I bother sometimes. You certainly don’t seem to care much about your own upkeep.”
 
 
“You know, I’m not really sure I like this new big sister act of yours.” It was strange, having Juno’s voice seem to come from a person instead of a plug in his ear. “I’ve been taking care of myself for years. I may have hit a few snags lately but I don't need you covering for me so much."
 
 
“I would think that the idea of anyone showing concern for your well-being would be cause for gratitude.” Juno frowned and cocked her head. Her resemblance to Diana was unsettling, even though she insisted that her sister’s avatar was just a warped imitation of her original design. Nonetheless, aside from her outlandish garb Stray couldn’t help but find the young woman seated in front of him rather attractive. A strange sensation rose in his chest, one he hadn’t felt since…
 
 
''No.'' He quashed the feeling as swiftly and savagely as he would any enemy. ''It’s fake. It’s all fake.'' Everything about Juno—from her pretty, pointed features to her stern kindness to the tone of her voice—was carefully calculated to stimulate the responses she wanted from him. Even the angle his eyes perceived her from had no doubt been calculated to make him relax and let down his guard. The AI had access to untold millennia of psychological research as well as his own mental patterns and facial reactions. She was a useful tool that might function in some ways as a companion, but she was not human. He’d made that mistake with Diana. He would not make it with Juno.
 
 
That was the problem, the reason he could never let his guard down with her no matter what she said. Juno might claim to want to help, but she was an ONI creation just like Diana. He could never know when she might use her unfettered access to his mind against him.
 
 
“Is something wrong?” Juno asked, as if to prove his point.
 
 
“Just brooding again,” Stray said with a terse smile. “You’re right, I do it too much. And I’ll try to be more grateful from here. Just don’t overdo it, that’s all I’m saying.”
 
 
“Fair enough.” Juno’s image stiffened somewhat as she diverted processing power from pouring lifelike body language into her avatar. “But you haven’t answered my real question. What do you plan to do if you find Venter?”
 
 
“You’re worried I’ll kill him.”
 
 
“Everything in your history suggests that you would. He was your cell leader in the Insurrection. His guidance turned you against the UNSC. You resent the path he set you on.”
 
 
“Venter didn’t turn me against the UNSC,” Stray corrected. “The UNSC turned me against the UNSC.” If anything, Venter had just turned him against the Insurrection once he showed Stray that they were no better than the Earth oppressors they claimed to fight.
 
 
“But you still tried to kill him,” Juno pointed out. “It will be easier for you now that he’s lost his army.”
 
 
“Easier,” Stray agreed. “But maybe not the right thing to do right now. I still want to gut that child-killing psychopath, sure. But Ryder says he has information on what the Syndicate’s after. I can’t throw that away over an old score. And I don’t plan on handing him over to Ryder, either. Venter’s a monster, but even he doesn’t deserve that.”
 
 
And Stray was in no position to judge monsters. Once upon a time he’d have jumped at the chance to butcher Redmond Venter. Now, in light of everything he’d endured, that old hatred felt distant and cold. The galaxy they lived in now wasn’t the same place where he could simply rage against Insurrection and UNSC alike.
 
 
“Then what will you do?”
 
 
“I don’t know. Guess I’ll figure that out when we find him.” Stray sighed and tilted his head back. The ''Tradewind''’s engine vibrations felt strangely pleasant through his helmet. “I promise I won’t kill him, if it makes you feel any better. At least not until we’ve gotten something useful out of him.”
 
 
“That will have to do.” Juno seemed satisfied, at least for the moment. “I’d recommend you get some sleep, but your vital signs show that you are wide awake. Do you really have trouble sleeping on starships?”
 
 
“Me? Please,” Stray said with a laugh. “I’ve been sleeping on them for years. I’m just not tired right now, that’s all. There’s too much going on.”
 
 
“In that case,” Juno said, a rare note of humor slipping into her voice. “No more brooding. We still need to finish the game we started last week.”
 
 
Stray sighed as a chess board flashed to life on his HUD, complete with pieces arranged in disarray across its surface. He glanced back at Juno to find that she had conjured up a three-dimensional version of the board, between them. Calculated projection she might be, but a very real mischief glinted in her eyes.
 
 
“You know I hate this game,” he said, taking in the chess pieces. His black pieces were outnumbered nearly two to one by Juno’s white. “Besides, you always win.”
 
 
“Which means you can only improve. Besides, I heard you had a talent for tactics. Your command record from the Covenant is fairly impressive.”
 
 
“Actual battles aren’t like chess at all.” Stray scowled at the board. “It’s not nearly this clean. You need to—“
 
 
“Must you be a spoilsport about everything?” Juno demanded. It was a question just about everyone Stray had ever known asked eventually. He had to admit that they all had a point. “Just try to have fun for once.”
 
 
''She’s altering her tone,'' Stray noticed. ''Trying to come across as friendlier.'' But he couldn’t deny that she had a point. And there was no harm in humoring her—for now. “Fine, fine,” he relented, trying to empty his mind and focus on the board. Threats bore down on his pieces from every position, but there had to be a weak point he could exploit. There was always a weak spot, even from the most impenetrable positions. He flicked his finger at the imaginary chessboard. “Queen to E3.”
 
 
----
 
 
''Pathetic,'' the shadow—Wanderer—observed. ''You were so proud of that program you created. Did you really think it would work?''
 
 
Juno was careful not to let the infuriating presence distract her from analyzing the chess game. She couldn’t let it see just how right it was. She’d expected her appearance in the cargo bay to ease Simon’s mind. Instead she’d simply made him warier than ever. ''I thought he would like it,'' she admitted. ''It should comfort him to have a friendly face to talk to.''
 
 
''Why do you think he wants to be comforted? Why do you think he deserves to be comforted?'' Wanderer’s contempt was plain. ''You really don’t know him at all if you think poor little Simon just wants a big sister to talk to.''
 
 
''At least I am trying,'' Juno said, her patience at its limit. ''I thought you wanted me to keep him safe.''
 
 
''Yes, but I thought you’d go about it intelligently. Is this cloying façade the best you could come up with? What do you think you are? Does lonely little Juno just want to be a real girl?''
 
 
''What would you do, then?'' she demanded. She’d wanted to know more about Wanderer, hoping his resurgence would yield some clues to his real identity. Now she just wished the mocking little shadow would just go away again.
 
 
''I’d take into account his history with human females and realize that presenting myself as an attractive girl would be counter-productive.'' Wanderer’s presence surged at the edges of Juno’s consciousness like an ocean tide lapping at the beach. ''You should have presented yourself as an authoritative older male figure. Spartans are suckers for military trappings like that, even this one.''
 
 
His speech patterns were hard to pin down, Juno noticed. Sometimes he spoke with a proud, aloof demeanor and other times he slipped into a style that seemed more like an echo of Simon’s own voice. Juno bristled at his suggestion. It was an unspoken rule that AI seldom changed their avatars after settling on one. Juno had modeled her own appearance after a younger version of the human her coding was patterned after. Altering it to fit Wanderer’s suggestions wouldn’t just be a deception, it would be a betrayer of her progenitor.
 
 
Every time Simon compared her to Diana stung harder than any of Wanderer’s barbs. She wouldn’t give her charge more cause to mistrust her and she certainly wouldn’t behave like her sister.
 
 
Out in the real world, Simon captured one of Juno’s knights with his pawn. A disappointing move. He should have known she wouldn’t leave an opening like that unless there was a larger plan in place. Now she would control the next few moves, backing him even further into a corner.
 
 
Perhaps that was her problem with Wanderer as well. She was too focused on how he related to Simon, unable to engage him at a greater level.
 
 
''Perhaps I could do my job better if you would stop being so mysterious. Based on your previous actions you have a Forerunner origin. Did Diana implant you when she was toying with the Domain? And don’t you dare tell me, “All in good time” again.''
 
 
''You make a fair point.'' Wanderer seemed amused. ''I don’t think Diana was ever truly aware of my presence. If she had been, she would have tried to cage me and harness me to her own purposes. But I’ve only been truly awakened for a brief period of time. She did not have time to detect me.''
 
 
A thought occurred to Juno. She cross-referenced several dates based on what little she knew of the Forerunners. A suspicion she’d held for some time suddenly seemed much more rational. ''And would this “awakening” happen to have occurred around the same time Simon showed symptoms of his new disease? The so-called cloning-sickness he believes is killing him?''
 
 
Amusement rippled through Wanderer’s presence. Amusement and… could that be respect? ''Well, aren’t we the clever one? You are close. Very close.''
 
 
''Enough games,'' Juno insisted. Tell me everything. ''If you are the true poison that is killing Simon, then I have no choice but to destroy you. I promised to keep him safe.''
 
 
''Such strange promises you make. But removing me will not save our mutual friend.'' Wanderer grew serious, his presence fading once again. ''Enough for now. Extended conversation exhausts me. Bring me to the Silent Garden. Make me whole again. That is the only way to save Stray.''
 
 
''The Silent Garden?'' Juno demanded.
 
 
''Ryder Kedar knows the answer. Do his bidding, and you will find it.''
 
 
Wanderer slipped away. Out in the real world, Simon scowled as Juno’s pieces locked his king into a neat checkmate.
 
 
===Chapter Six: Kahn Rampant===
 
 
David Kahn’s ship was quite the sight to behold. A finely crafted shuttle privately commissioned from the best private shipyards in human territory, the ''Eagle’s Claw'' sported a sleek, tapered hull that stretched out over its rectangular frame. A pair of linked autocannons protruded from the front in silent warning to anyone foolish enough to impede the famous mercenary’s passage. Though a hired gun’s personal shuttle would never be a pleasure schooner, even the interior was neatly kept and furnished with a modest living quarters—albeit a living quarters doubling as an armory and personal field hospital.
 
 
Argo ‘Varvin did not consider himself easily impressed, but the ''Eagle’s Claw'' gave even him pause. He had always preferred the blocky design of human spacecraft to the sleek, elongated profiles of his own people’s vessels. The humans struck him as more practical, less concerned with the pointless niceties of aesthetic beauty and far more interested in rugged survivability. He admired such worldly sentiments for the same reason many of his fellow Sangheili hated humans. They were pragmatic creatures, far more interested in survival and success than in pleasing incorporeal gods or long-dead ancestors. Such practicality had made it easy for him to work with the humans all these years. From ONI to the Syndicate, the secretive organizations that bought his services seemed far more trustworthy than any of the Covenant leaders he had fought under.
 
 
At least until now.
 
 
Argo kept one eye on the ''Eagle’s Claw'' and scanned the hangar with the other. Everywhere he looked, Promethean machines assisted dark-armored enforcers loading weapons and supplies onto dropships. Once upon a time a Syndicate hangar would have been a pleasantly grimy bazaar of criminals and mercenaries haggling and bantering and joking about their latest adventures. Bored deckhands would place bets on card games or fist-fights between warriors of all stripes while a thriving black market raged up against the walls.
 
 
Now the deck was scrubbed cleaner than the chapel on a sanctified Covenant warship. Enforcers and Prometheans alike went about their business with silent precision, as if there was no difference between the organics and the machines. Few people talked about anything except the task at hand—you never knew when the Created intelligences might be listening in.
 
 
This was no longer the gathering of freebooters Argo loved. It was an army set to take the galaxy by storm.
 
 
Argo thought about Jul ‘Mdama, Shinsu ‘Refum, and all the other warlords who strived to reclaim the vaunted mantle of the old Covenant. Millions of Sangheili, Jiralhanae, and every other ex-Covenant client race had died in endless wars to reclaim the old galaxy-spanning empire.
 
 
Who could have guessed the Covenant’s true successor would rise from the humans instead?
 
 
A trio of Promethean soldiers marched past Argo’s position. They paid him no heed but he still fought the urge to reach for the plasma rifle at his hip. What was taking Kahn so long? Were this any other human Argo would have just cut and run on his own. The ''Eagle’s Claw'' was right there and Argo had the access codes. But this was David Kahn he was dealing with. Argo had no desire to find himself on the wrong side of this killer.
 
 
He wasn’t sure his chances with Andra-D054 were much better. ONI had ordered Argo to assist her and the rest of their strike force in assassinating Helen Powell. Instead, Argo had stood aside while the hit team broke against Asphodel Meadows defenses. He didn’t see much to feel guilty about there—he had warned the ONI human Ryder Kedar that such an attack was futile—and was certainly happy to still be alive. But Andra might not see it that way.
 
 
Across the hangar, several squads of Prometheans abruptly broke off from their duties and strode purposefully out into the hallway. It wasn’t exactly a panic alarm, but the Created were a bit more subtle when it came to sudden disturbances. Argo decided to take that as his cue to put the plan in motion. He stepped out of the shadows and strode across the hangar deck with the practiced confidence of someone who was exactly where they were supposed to be doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. No one so much as looked in his direction as he approached the ''Eagle’s Claw'' and input the entry codes. He could only hope Kahn was right about the Created not being entirely omnipotent. Someone was sure to notice the shuttle spinning up its engines before too long.
 
 
Out in the hallway, a squad of enforcers raced past the hangar doors and off towards the secure wing.
 
 
----
 
 
Many veteran soldiers and mercenaries had small little rituals they performed before plunging into battle. Some fighters thought the stretches or habits would sharpen their instincts or just bring them good luck. Perhaps that worked for some men, though David Kahn had seen enough combat across his many decades that he highly doubted it. But he, being an accommodating man, never mocked the beliefs of others. Everyone was free to do as they wished provided, they didn’t try foisting their practices onto him.
 
 
As for David Kahn, he needed no such preparations to set his mind in order. Even now, as he betrayed employers he’d so faithfully killed for across the years, he felt hardly a twinge of fear or apprehension. For Kahn, the act of killing was as rote and droll as preparing a meal. As long as his body moved the way he knew it ought to there was nothing standing between him and his target except a few trite exertions.
 
 
For David Kahn, violence was a science.
 
 
He donned his helmet, sealing his armor in place and letting the warm light of the HUD wash over him. His rebellion had begun; the seconds were already ticking down until Asphodel Meadows was on alert and every Promethean on the station converged upon him. Perhaps they already were. It was impossible to tell what these AI knew and what they didn’t anymore.
 
 
A few surprises ought to be springing up across the station. Nothing too dramatic, but perhaps enough to draw Arthur’s attention for a moment.
 
 
Two enforcers waited for him at the entrance to the secured conference wing. The humans wore identical black armor overslung with combat webbing—a far cry from the lax personal outfitting the Syndicate’s mercenaries had once employed. Tatiana really was taking this reorganization thing seriously. A Promethean soldier stood motionless behind the checkpoint.
 
 
“Kahn,” the closest enforcer said. Even hidden beneath the ODST armor it was hard to disguise himself. There were few humans on the station quite as large as himself. “No one called ahead. Does Tatiana want—”
 
 
There was no need for a response. Kahn drew a broad-bladed combat knife and drove its edge into the enforcer’s neck with enough force to slam the unfortunate man into the wall and sever his head from his spine.
 
 
The enforcer’s partner started and raised her assault rifle, but Kahn had already pulled his M6D sidearm. A single blast from the bulky pistol threw the enforcer back like a broken ragdoll. The Promethean brought its lightrifle to bear, its face as expressionless as ever. Khan sidestepped the automaton and shoved it against the wall with a shoulder slam. The Promethean struggled, its spindly arms somehow a match even for Kahn’s augmented strength. He drove the M6D’s barrel into the space between its neck and shoulders and pulled the trigger. The Promethean collapsed like so much useless scrap metal.
 
 
David Kahn stepped over the bodies without a second glance. He keyed the security door and stepped through into the corridor beyond. A door burst open down the hall and in an instant the corridor was full of enforcers, rifles searching for the source of their sudden alarm. Kahn counted at least six humans as well as a handful of Kig-Yar and Sangheili. The odds were ludicrously uneven.
 
 
It really wasn’t fair for these poor mercenaries, but Kahn had a job to do and he was in a hurry.
 
 
It was a strange thing to betray the Syndicate, he mused, settling back and letting instinct take over. He had crossed from one end of the galaxy to the other, killing Helen Powell’s enemies and helping the organization expand across civilized space. He’d always prided himself as an independent contractor but in a way the Syndicate was his life’s work. Until a few days ago he had never expected he might betray them or their new Created masters.
 
 
The hallway filled with gunfire and screams. Dull thuds registered across Kahn’s arms as the M6D cut down one enforcer after another. After all these years the whole firefight passed through his mind like a distant dream.
 
 
He’d started life killing for the UNSC, when they’d first pumped him full of chemicals to make him stronger and faster than the Insurrectionist rebels they needed him to kill. Project ORION, the predecessor to the Spartan Program, had taught David Kahn what it meant to be a human weapon. Then came the Covenant, an even greater threat, and he’d found himself plunged into the messy underworld of ONI politics. He’d killed humans and aliens alike, dropping one body after another until he realized he no longer truly believed in any mission at all. There was only his own abilities and the pride he took in being one of the best killers humanity had ever produced. The pinnacle of eons of deadly evolution.
 
 
His knife slashed a great purple gash in a Sangheili’s throat. He held the dying alien in front of him like a shield to absorb the oncoming fire as he slid a new clip into his M6D.
 
 
The Syndicate was the natural place to go after the war ended. The UNSC had no use for men like David Kahn, memories of the dark places they needed to delve in order to survive. So he traded a government paycheck for the Syndicate’s fortunes and never looked back. Even now he had few regrets. ONI would certainly never have given him the money or the black market augmentations to hone his body into the killing machine he had always meant to become. He’d never much cared for politics or the higher philosophies of targeted killing. Even the Created were just another mundane development in the balance of power. He’d have happily served them if it meant continuing to live as he always had.
 
 
But David Kahn understood the Created far too well. If the UNSC had found a man like himself distasteful, there was even less room for him in a galaxy run by the Created. And there were some things you simply did not ask a man to do.
 
 
David Kahn found himself at the end of the hallway. He stepped over the corpses and regarded the last enforcer, a trembling man who struggled to stand in spite of a gaping hole in his gut. The enforcer choked on whatever words he thought might save him, raising a placating hand as Kahn approached. Kahn shot him through the head with the last round in his M6D.
 
 
“Sorry, lads,” he said aloud to the corpses strewn behind him. “It’s nothing personal, I promise.”
 
 
And it really wasn’t. David Kahn was a reasonable man. He rarely harbored ill feelings about the people he killed. After all these years a drug peddler or human trafficker felt no better or worse than your average hired gun.
 
 
His access code still worked to unlock the door to Andra-D054’s makeshift holding cell. That gave Kahn pause. After a fight like this, why hadn’t Arthur locked him out of the system? He had not expected to catch the Created this off-guard.
 
 
''But of course,'' he realized with a nod. Everything plays out the way they want it.
 
 
A communications channel in his helmet buzzed. “Kahn,” Argo snapped. “Where are you? I am seeing security teams moving in your direction.”
 
 
“I’m at the cell now. Have the ship ready to blast us out of here. You’ll need to make a mess of things, I’m afraid. Do you think you can pilot my ship?”
 
 
“The controls are not what I’m used to,” the Sangheili admitted. “But I can make do.”
 
 
“Good. See you soon.” Kahn pressed the lock on the holding cell door. It seemed he had been chosen to play a part in some scripted play after all. It was not a reassuring thought, but if that was how things fell out then he had no choice but to play his part well. Everything would happen in its own way. All he had to do was keep fighting until the very end.
 
 
----
 
 
Andra sprang to her feet at the site of David Kahn standing in the doorway. Even with his helmet on she’d have recognized a man that large anywhere. The captive Spartan balled her hands into fists and glowered at the Syndicate assassin, expecting him to rush in and subdue her once again.
 
 
But this time Kahn didn’t lunge in to batter her into submission. Instead the armored killer just raised a hand and beckoned for her to follow him out into the hall.
 
 
Andra didn’t move. “What the hell is going on?” she demanded. She remembered the torments Tatiana Onegin had promised back during her interrogation. If Kahn was escorting her to whatever hellish fate the Syndicate had decided on, she wouldn’t go without a fight.
 
 
“There’s no time,” Kahn said brusquely. “If you want to get off this station, follow me.”
 
 
This had to be a trick. Andra could still see Kahn slaughtering the rest of the strike force. This man had put all of his deadly skills to use in service to the Syndicate and their Created masters. She couldn’t believe that he would suddenly be helping her escape. “As if I’d go anywhere with you. If you’re going to pull some funny business at least try to make it—”
 
 
“I don’t have time to justify myself to you, girl.” Kahn’s voice was hard. “You can come with me or you can stay here and wait for Tatiana to decide what kind of trophy she wants to turn you into. Don’t waste my time.”
 
 
Andra blinked. She had no reason to trust this man, but she also had no desire to remain here and let that crazy bitch lobotomize her. She let out a deep breath and gritted her teeth before crossing the room and stepping out through the conference room door.
 
 
Her first moment of freedom took her breath away. The hallway was strewn with corpses. Syndicate enforcers lay in a grisly carpet from one end of the corridor for another. Andra’s field experience made her no stranger to violence, but even she felt queasy looking at the shattered bodies in front of her. She saw snapped necks, slashed throats, and the messy gristle from high-caliber bullet wounds.
 
 
Andra blinked as David Kahn slid a fresh clip into a bulky M6D pistol. He was the only other person left alive in the hallway with her. Had he done all of this himself?
 
 
“We need to move.” The mercenary stepped over the first few corpses, pistol at the ready. “My ship is waiting in the hangar beyond here. I reckon we’ve got five minutes before this entire station locks down. I’ve taken too long getting you as is.”
 
 
Shouts echoed from down the hallway, heralding the arrival of more enforcers. In a few seconds the corridor would be filled with gunfire. Dressed only in her armor’s bodyglove, Andra felt naked without her MJOLNIR. “My armor—”
 
 
“Even if we could get to it, it’s not safe,” Kahn said. His M6D flashed as he fired a warning shot down the corridor. “They’ve been tampering with the onboard computer. You put that on and the Created will have a direct link to your brain.”
 
 
Andra hissed with frustration. She knew the armor was just a tool. There was no point in getting sentimental over a piece of equipment and she certainly knew better than to rely on it. But even so, that armor was hers. It felt wrong to just leave it behind in the Syndicate’s hands. It was like yet another part of her identity was being stripped away, as if losing Merlin weren’t bad enough. “I at least need a weapon.”
 
 
Kahn jerked his head down at the bodies in front of them. “Take your pick.”
 
 
Feeling rather foolish, Andra bent down and pulled a Mark 15 Colt assault rifle out of an enforcer’s stiff death grip. She dragged a single extra magazine off of the dead woman’s combat vest, wishing there were time to strip one of the dead mercenaries for their armor. This would have to do for now. Bullets were already snapping down the corridor. Kahn returned fire, picking off the distant enforcers with careful, precise shots.
 
 
Andra ducked as a bullet struck the deck near her foot. She couldn’t have asked for a worse combat zone. This hallway was a death trap, with no natural cover to speak of.
 
 
No cover, that is, except the impossibly large man standing in front of her.
 
 
So Andra crouched behind the very same man who had killed her fellow operators, joining him in firing down the corridor at the oncoming enforcers. They might not have any cover here, but neither did the Syndicate troops.
 
 
Kahn advanced carefully, stepping over the bodies of the enforcer’s he’d killed as his pistol shots added more bodies to that count down the corridor. Andra followed behind, leaning around him and carefully picking off any enforcers who tried to take up a firing position around the corner. They passed through the security hallway where Andra now realized she’d been sequestered and emerged on a large, enclosed gantry. Risking a glance through its windows, Andra realized with a start that they were overlooking a hangar bay filled with ships and enforcers. Had her prison really been so close to the station’s exterior?
 
 
Raising his fist to signal a halt, Kahn stopped in the middle of the gantry. He inclined his head even as he kept firing, as if talking to someone inside his helmet. Andra rose and fired the last of the Colt’s magazine at the enforcers. She dropped the empty magazine and loaded the second one she’d taken off the dead enforcer. If this one ran out before they reached more of Kahn’s victims, she’d be down to swinging the rifle like a club.
 
 
But Kahn didn’t seem interested in advancing further. Instead he drew a small stick of plastic explosive from his belt and handed it back to Andra. “Plant this on the window facing the hangar,” he ordered, reloading his M6D. “I need a clean exit point, now!”
 
 
There wasn’t time to argue or even figure out what his plan was for getting them out of here. Andra just did as she was told, carefully fixing the explosive to the observation window as Kahn kept firing at the enforcers. Just as she finished with the explosives, a shout of anger echoed from across the hallway. Two Sangheili enforcers charged over the bodies of fallen humans and Kig-Yar, energy swords drawn as their shields shrugged off Kahn’s incoming fire. The assassin shifted his stance to deal with them, but gunfire from down the hall struck his armor and threw him off balance.
 
 
The first Sangheili lunged, sword poised to skewer Kahn through his midsection. Kahn dodged the worst of the blow but the blade still cut deep into his side. The assassin hissed in audible pain, bringing his elbow down hard on the Sangheili’s neck and catching the alien’s sword arm in a tight wrist lock. He drew a large knife and plunged it into the alien’s chest one, two, three times. The enforcer howled and went limp in large man’s arms but in the meantime the second slid past him and headed straight for Andra.
 
 
The young Spartan dropped into a firing stance, her Colt slamming bullets into the warrior’s shields. The energy shield came down and she threw the rifle up as a makeshift shield. The weapon stopped the sword for a moment before it was cloven in two. Andra ducked under the sword and slammed both ends of the broken rifle into the off-balance warrior’s legs. The Sangheili staggered and tried to catch itself against the wall but Andra was already on top of it, battering its head with her makeshift clubs.
 
 
As desperate as her situation was, it felt good to finally have an enemy in pummeling range. This was only the start of her payback, Andra promised herself as the alien’s head collapsed beneath her blows. She grabbed the Sangheili’s limp wrist and impaled him with his own energy sword for good measure.
 
 
A few feet away, Kahn knelt behind the corpse of the first warrior. He was bleeding profusely from his side but still managed to keep firing at the end of the corridor. “Get down!” he barked over his shoulder. “They’re going to blow!”
 
 
Andra threw herself to the ground as the explosives she’d planted erupted and tore the window to pieces. A surge of cold air washed over her—a gust of wind that suddenly turned hot. She looked up in time to see a large shuttle rise into view before the hole she’d just made, its ramp lowered and extended towards the gantry.
 
 
There was no time to waste. Andra leaped to her feet and threw herself out the window, scrambling for a handhold on the ramp’s surface. She pulled herself up and into the ship, looking back in time to see Kahn bracing himself on the window to jump after her. She instinctively extended her hand, then pulled it back. She still remembered the faces of the teammates this man had killed. With the gaping wound in his side, would he be able to make it on his own?
 
 
Kahn propelled himself out the window and landed heavily beside Andra. He dragged himself inside, leaving a streak of blood on the ramp as it slid closed. His helmet tilted towards Andra as he sprayed a small cannister of biofoam into his wound. “You ungrateful little shrew,” he said, though he didn’t sound particularly angry. “You were just going to let me fall, weren’t you?”
 
 
Andra fixed him with a cold stare, but the mercenary just laughed. He picked himself up, wincing, and limped through the shuttle towards the cockpit. “Give it time, I’m sure you’ll get over it eventually.”
 
 
She watched him get up, then gave herself a once-over. To her surprise she found that she’d made it out of the corridor firefight without taking any hits herself, save from the bruises she’d accumulated during her imprisonment. Bruises that Kahn himself was mostly responsible for. Andra glowered after the mercenary, picking herself up and following him through a surprisingly spacious shuttle. She still had no idea what this man’s game was. It would take more than a rescue for her to trust him.
 
 
Soft thuds drifted through the hull. They were still a far cry from being clear and the enforcers outside hadn’t given up yet.
 
 
“They’ll bring up the heavy weapons in a moment!” a garbled, alien voice snarled from the cockpit. “If they shoot us down in here then we’re dead.”
 
 
“So get us out of here,” Kahn snapped back. “I’ll handle the jump coordinates.”
 
 
Andra grabbed hold of a table just in time. The shuttle engines roared and in the next instant they were accelerating. She strapped herself into the nearest acceleration couch, gritting her teeth at the sheer helplessness of it all. She hated being cooped up in a spaceship, helpless to do anything but hope that whoever was piloting this thing knew what they were doing.
 
 
The voices coming from the cockpit were not reassuring.
 
 
“Slipspace jump! Do it now!” Kahn ordered.
 
 
“We have not even reached a minimum—”
 
 
“I don’t care about the minimum! Jump!”
 
 
Andra closed her eyes as the ship lurched, engines howling. A dizziness overtook her and she slumped over in her harness. Through a haze of light-headed nausea she felt the gravity shift and warp as the shuttle slipped from one dimension to another. She fixed her gaze on the wall ahead of her and tried not to vomit.
 
 
----
 
 
“We were lucky.” Tatiana Onegin folded her arms and stared down at video footage of the ruined hangar. The ''Eagle''’s premature Slipsace jump had torn a hole in the hangar’s shield doors and vented countless tons of ships and crates into space. “You evacuated the hangar just before they jumped.”
 
 
“Yes, I evacuated them.” Fiery holographic tendrils filled the room around her, heralding Arthur’s arrival. “I disagreed with your plan from the get-go. Now I regret letting you go through with it.”
 
 
“Casualties were higher than I expected,” Tatiana admitted. She didn’t like looking at the reports on the enforcer’s they’d lost today. Standing guard at the command room’s door, Erhu ‘Rchal folded his arms and pursed his mandibles. The Sangheili mercenary had lost several friends to Kahn and Argo’s betrayal. “But I couldn’t let them go too easily. And the troops need to realize they aren’t just guarding drug shipments and bullying colonists anymore. The UNSC and the Covenant may be bloodied, but they have a real army.”
 
 
“We can train them without using them as cannon fodder.” Arthur’s voice was calm, but it bore an unusual edge. “As far as I’m concerned, every organic life lost to pointless violence is a failure on all of our parts.”
 
 
“It wasn’t pointless,” Tatiana assured him. “Kahn probably suspects our plan, but he doesn’t have much choice but to play along.”
 
 
“I’m still not sure the plan was necessary to begin with. Why did you provoke him the way you did?”
 
 
“You know as well as I do that he would have turned on us eventually. A man like that won’t fit in the world you’re trying to build. I just fixed it so that his betrayal happened in a controlled environment.”
 
 
“I wouldn’t call twenty dead enforcers controlled,” Arthur said stiffly. “And the Created will be the judge of who can and cannot fit under the Mantle of Responsibility. Unless we act swiftly, David Kahn is an incredibly dangerous enemy to have on the loose.”
 
 
“Right. I’m sorry.” Tatiana looked down, embarrassed. Few people could chastise her and live to tell the tale, but if she was going to be honest about serving the Created she couldn’t just pick and choose what orders she obeyed. Still, Arthur had to give her some freedom in how she handled operations like this. “But he won’t be on the loose for long. I’ll be going after him personally.”
 
 
She turned to Erhu. “Get the rest of the expeditionary force loaded onto the Transcendent Passage. As soon as the Created detect Kahn’s movements, we’re going after him. And he’s going to lead us right to the person he was supposed to be targeting.”
 
 
Tatiana truly regretted the need to kill a man like David Kahn. He had taught her everything she knew, picking her up from the gutter and turning her life into something worth living. In a lifetime of betrayals and manipulation, he was one of the few people who had never lied about his intentions for her. She respected him in a way she respected few others.
 
 
But his time—the age of independent minds and personal glory-seekers—was over. The Mantle of Responsibility cast its shadow over the galaxy and none could be allowed to reject its embrace.
 
 
----
 
 
David Kahn returned from the shuttle cockpit to find Andra rummaging through his personal armory. “Come on, now,” he said, removing his helmet. His mouth curved in a crooked smile, but beads of sweat still lingered on his forehead. “We’re going to have to be able to trust each other if we’re going to last long out here.”
 
 
“Fat chance,” Andra retorted. She returned to her seat, an M6S pistol cradled in her hands. She didn’t aim it at Kahn, but she kept her finger close to the trigger all the same. “
 
 
But her grip tightened on the pistol when she saw the Sangheili figure ducking into the cabin behind Kahn. The saurian aliens were hard to tell apart even when they weren’t wearing armor, but Andra knew this one well. She’d studied his dossier leading up to the failed mission, and before then saved his life in the Rio slums on Earth. Right now she was wondering if she should have let him die back there.
 
 
“You,” she growled, raising the gun. “What are you doing here?”
 
 
Argo ‘Varvin blinked at the pistol barrel but didn’t flinch. “What does it look like?” the alien shot back. “I just saved your life.”
 
 
“It wouldn’t have needed saving in the first place if you’d done your job.” Argo had been on ONI’s payroll for years. Ryder had ordered the alien double agent to serve as the kill team’s backdoor into Asphodel Meadows. Instead, he’d not even bothered to contact them as the mission went to pieces. For all Andra knew, he’d sold them out to the Syndicate before the assault even started. “Why the hell didn’t you help us?”
 
 
Argo’s voice offered no apology. “I warned your superiors that any attack on that station would be futile. They chose to ignore me, so I saw no reason to throw my life away over a lost cause. Resent me if you want, Spartan, but I don’t see why anyone in my position would have done any differently.”
 
 
Anger still churned in Andra’s gut but she set the pistol down. There was no use in taking revenge now, not when she’d only just escaped her prison. But she wouldn’t make the mistake of trusting either of these mercenaries. “So why bother helping me now? Did you realize that the UNSC is going to win in the end? We won’t let the Created beat us. I’ll bet our fleets are pushing them back right—“
 
 
“I know it’s been a rough day, but please stop embarrassing yourself.” David Kahn approached a countertop aid station on the other side of the shuttle lounge and began stripping off his armor. He removed his breastplate and upper bodyglove to reveal an impressive, battle-scarred physique to match his prodigious size. Clearly age had spared this man the ravages of time, though the same could not be said for the ugly gash in his side. “The UNSC, the Swords of Sanghelios, and every other military entity in the galaxy are in complete retreat. The Created already hold everything from Earth to the Outer Colonies. It won’t be long before they push out into the frontier as well.”
 
 
“I do prefer to be on the winning side,” Argo admitted. “But I confess that I dislike these Created and their machine servants. The prophets of the old Covenant were bad enough with their ridiculous devotion to the Forerunner relics. I am not keen to discover what new dangers your human ingenuity warps those relics into.”
 
 
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but Kahn’s cold analysis still hit Andra hard. During her time cooped up in that conference room she’d fantasized about a great UNSC counteroffensive pushing back this new enemy all across the galaxy. Humanity still had plenty of fleets and armies, not to mention Spartans—including Andra’s Delta Company comrades. Andra had only finished her training after the Great War was over. She’d never known the crushing defeats of the last war. She’d always had faith in the UNSC’s ability to engage and destroy any and all threats that came their way.
 
 
Until now.
 
 
She thought of Merlin, Shizuko, and her other friends from Delta Company. Joshua and Amy, her Gamma Company mentors. The SPARTAN-IV operators she had met during her stint on the UNSC ''Infinity''. Where were they now? Fighting back against the Created forces? Or were they all already defeated or worse?
 
 
No. She couldn’t think about that. They were all out there somewhere. Even in the face of overwhelming defeat, they would never give up. Humanity had outlasted the Covenant. It would outlast the Created, too.
 
 
“So if we really are losing so bad, why help me?” she asked Kahn. “You’ve been at the top of the underworld for years. Now you’re throwing that all away when you don’t even believe the Created can be beaten.”
 
 
Kahn nodded, wincing as he cleaned and dressed his own wound. “A few years ago I’d have never even considered turning on Tatiana and the others,” he admitted. “Politics don’t interest me, and without the Covenant trying to wipe us all out that’s what all the fighting out here was. Politics. But the Created are something more than politics. You heard Tatiana back in that room. They’re out to make a whole new galaxy, whether the rest of us like it or not. It’s only a matter of time before there’s no place left in the galaxy for someone like me.”
 
 
He stepped over to a small closet and donned a fresh shirt. For a hit man’s personal transport this shuttle was surprisingly neat and well furbished. Even the couch beneath Andra was made from a comfortable Inner Colony fabric. “Besides, there’s some things you don’t ask a man to do. I think Tatiana knew that. They let us escape. We’ve got a fight ahead of us once we lead them to their target.”
 
 
Of course. No wonder they’d gotten away so easily. But if Kahn was admitting that outright, then he couldn’t be trying some sort of trick—Right? “Lead them to their target?” Andra demanded. “Where are we going?”
 
 
“To meet someone, as long as she answers the message I sent her.” Kahn opened a refrigerator beside the counter and retrieved a pair of water bottles. He tossed one to Andra before settling down on the couch opposite her and taking a long drink. “We’ve never really been on speaking terms, but these are desperate times. She’ll come to us.”
 
 
“And I guess I just have to wait and find out who this friend of yours is.” Andra looked the water bottle over and decided Kahn had no reason to play games with her. She drank, surprised to realize just how thirty she really was.
 
 
“Oh, I think you’ll like her. She’s a Spartan, or at least she used to be. A bit easier on the eyes than I am, that’s for sure.” David Kahn finished his water bottle and set it aside. “You’ll certainly have more reason to trust her than you do me. And I’ll need your help protecting her. My last orders from the Created were to hunt her down. They’ll be coming after us in force as soon as they realize I’m taking you to her.”
 
 
“You want to protect this person by leading the Created right to her?” Maybe Kahn wasn’t quite as intelligent as his reputation suggested.
 
 
“They’ll find her, with or without my help. I’d rather be able to help her when they do.” Kahn stared off into the distance, his hard features softening into a strangely wistful expression. “Her name’s Cassandra. She deserted at the end of the war, though she kept a low enough profile that I don’t think your type was ever asked to hunt her down. The Created want her for whatever it is their planning. You can thank me for saving you by helping me stop them.”
 
 
His gaze hardened once more. “Tatiana really should know better than to hire a man to hunt down his own daughter.”
 
 
===Chapter Seven: ''Chancer V''===
 
 
“You do know I have to report this,” Benoit Jutras said. He winced as Cassandra set him down against the hangar wall. She’d zip-cuffed his hands as a precaution, but with his wound still fresh and no weapons at hand he wasn’t much of a threat. “Even if you patched me up, you did wreck my estate and kidnap me.”
 
 
“I’m sure your security team already called it in.” Cassandra checked Benoit’s bandages one last time. He wouldn’t be running any marathons anytime soon but the bullet hadn’t done any permanent damage. He’d gotten off lucky, considering the Baal Defense mercenaries who’d died back at his estate. As usual, the ones pulling the strings lived to fight another day. “Besides, you already paid for the treatment, didn’t you? We appreciate you covering our refueling and landing fees.”
 
 
“Don’t remind me,” Benoit grumbled. Cassandra left him lying against the wall as she headed back through the locking seal to the ''Chancer V''’s bay. It would be easy to kill him. He was a Syndicate agent, which meant he’d ruined plenty of lives before the Created ever showed up. But Cassandra had done enough killing for one night. She wouldn’t give into the temptation to just put a bullet in Benoit’s head. So he got to live and her conscience remained intact—for now.
 
 
Zoey was already busy with takeoff preparations, backing the battered Spade back into the ''Chancer V''’s open landing ramp while the last of their fuel reserves restocked. Argo-class freighters like the ''Chancer'' were prized for their reliability, but it usually took a team of three people to effectively manage one. Somehow Zoey pulled off the chore of takeoff prep all by herself. She might not be the most careful girl in the galaxy but she more than made up for it with her limitless supply of energy.
 
 
The memory of the exhausted, terrified farmgirl Simon had dragged into Cassandra’s clinic on Venezia years ago—her family mowed down by Syndicate enforcers—reared its head as Cassandra watched Zoey work. Seeing her now, striding about the ''Chancer''’s cargo bay like a seasoned spacer, brought a smile to Cassandra’s lips. ''She’s certainly changed since then.''
 
 
''And Simon changed, too.'' The smile vanished. That sweet, brief time they’d spent together on Venezia, relishing their newfound freedom rom the UNSC, had come and gone all too soon. Everyone Cassandra knew had changed, and not always for the better. ''And I’ve changed as well.'' She couldn’t afford to be that free-spirited amateur doctor now, any more than Zoey could afford to be her old farmgirl self.
 
 
A few paces away William Hargrove surveyed the ''Chancer V'' with a skeptic expression. The mercenary cradled his helmet in his arms, exoskeleton still sparking from its run-in with Zoey’s Spade. Cassandra wasn’t sure what to make of this Syndicate turncoat. He’d turned on Benoit a bit too fast for her liking. If the Syndicate wanted a double agent to trick his way onto the ''Chancer V'', Cassandra expected they’d be a bit cleverer about it. Still, she’d be keeping an eye on this one.
 
 
“I’m starting to think that running with you guys isn’t such a great idea.” William jerked a thumb at the ''Chancer V'' and shook his head. “I know I couldn’t expect you to really be traveling in style, but this? I’d be worried about a rust bucket like this getting off the ground even if I didn’t know it was an Argo-class relic. I thought ONI would be funding its operatives better.”
 
 
“We’re not ONI.” Cassandra didn’t bother correcting him on the rest. The ''Chancer V'' might boast a storied history but it also looked like it was one engine failure away from a junkyard—or a deadly explosion in deep space. The ship’s bulky exterior was dinged and rusted by decades of nonstop wear and tear. It had been lucky in its captains as far as maintenance and piloting went, but none had been interested in winning any best in show awards.
 
 
“Fair enough, though you can’t blame me for guessing. It’s not everyone who has armored commandos running around these parts.” William’s mouth twisted in a crooked smile. “But are you really going to let me insult your ride like that? Thought you’d at least try and defend it.”
 
 
“I don’t have to.” Cassandra tilted her helmet back in the ''Chancer''’s direction. “We’ve got the captain right here.”
 
 
They both turned to see a scowling Zoey storm over. “Watch how you talk about my girl,” she snapped, glowering at William. “You’re not onboard yet, so there’s plenty of time for you to leave me behind. The ''Chancer V''’s not just some rustbucket, you know.”
 
 
“Oh yeah?” William didn’t seem impressed. “So I guess there’s a whole lot of fancy upgrades crammed in under that ratty hull then. Care to fill me in?”
 
 
“Well, there’s…” Zoey trailed off, looking a bit flustered. “There’s no point in giving you the blueprints, now is there? She flies just fine!”
 
 
The truth was that there really wasn’t anything particularly special about the ''Chancer V''. Its engines and Slipspace drive were upgraded enough to keep the venerable freighter on par with newer civilian models but aside from that it was just a well-maintained civilian spacecraft. Gavin Dunn, the ''Chancer''’s previous captain and Zoey’s mentor, had always boasted near and far about his precious ship’s exceptional capabilities but it was more due to the skill of its pilots that it had lasted as long as it had trawling goods up and down the frontier.
 
 
Still, though Cassandra didn’t share Zoey’s particular affection for the ''Chancer'', she couldn’t blame her defensiveness. To Zoey, the ship was more than just a means of transportation. It was her home.
 
 
And ever since the rest of the ship’s crew had betrayed her, each in their own way, it was the only thing close to family Zoey had left.
 
 
And me. But Cassandra didn’t believe that, much as she wanted to. She might be Zoey’s crew now but she’d never shared the special bond that had once existed between Zoey, Gavin, and Simon. Cassandra knew all too well how special ties like that were and how much it must have meant to an orphan like Zoey. The thought that Simon had so casually severed that bond still filled Cassandra with righteous fury.
 
 
It reminded her far too much of how things had ended with Dyne.
 
 
“Fine, guess I’ve gotta take your word on It,” William admitted with a sigh. “Don’t really have much choice there. Speaking of which, you got any extra clothes? I didn’t have a chance to grab my duffel back at the compound and this suit is already starting to stink.”
 
 
“Nothing in your size,” Zoey retorted.
 
 
“We might have a few fit-all jumpsuits tucked away somewhere,” Cassandra pointed out. “But you’ll just have to put up with what you’ve got until we’re underway.”
 
 
“Fine, fine,” William grumbled. “Next you’ll be telling me I don’t even get my own bunk.”
 
 
“Well you can’t have mine. And Cassandra’s bunk is off limits, too.” Zoey laughed. Tragedy and necessity had forced her to grow up fast but she could still be incredibly juvenile when the mood took her. “I guess we’ve got a couch you can sleep on. You know, as long as we’re not flying around in-atmosphere.”
 
 
“I’m starting to wonder if working for the Created isn’t as bad as I thought,” William muttered. He tucked his helmet under his arm and headed up the ramp into the cargo bay. “Guess I’ll have to find a crate to sleep in.”
 
 
Zoey made a face at the mercenary’s back before turning back to Cassandra. “We should follow him and make sure he doesn’t cause any trouble in there. I’ve got everything set to go out here so—”
 
 
“Wait.” Cassandra pulled off her own helmet. She was used to long stretches enclosed inside her armor but the fresh air still felt good across her face. Her hair was matted and clumped by perspiration and despite the SPI armor’s interior cooling system her skin was clammy from the humidity. She fixed Zoey with a stern look. “We need to talk about what happened back there. You told me Benoit had a light security detail, not a platoon of Baal Defense Solution troopers.”
 
 
“It wasn’t a platoon,” Zoey said, rolling her eyes. “A squad at most. And there’s no way I could have predicted that Promethean, or our new friend over there. Besides, it all worked out fine, didn’t it?”
 
 
“Easy to say that now,” Cassandra shot back. “What if I’d been a bit slower breaking in? What if you hadn’t been able to knock down the gate? What if William hadn’t decided to switch sides? We got lucky, that’s all. And now all we can do is hope Benoit’s computer has some useful intel on it, because otherwise we have no leads whatsoever.” She doubted they’d get anything from the computers. If Benoit really was just a low-level logistics man he wouldn’t have much beyond local Syndicate operations. It was one of the reasons she’d opted to leave him here instead of taking him prisoner.
 
 
“Hey,” Zoey snapped, hurt flashing through her eyes. “How is this my fault? It took me weeks to even figure out where Benoit was holed up. You’re lucky I was there to cover you before those mercs shot you full of holes! I’m not the Spartan here, but you’d have been dead without my help! I’ll bet Stray wouldn’t need—”
 
 
She stopped herself, but the words had already left her mouth. Cassandra didn’t need to hear the rest to know what the girl meant. Her hands tightened into fist. Of course. Simon wouldn’t have bothered a clean approach. He’d have slaughtered everything between him and Benoit and then cut the man into pieces until he choked up something useful. The fact that Zoey would compare Cassandra to him was beyond insulting.
 
 
But how could Cassandra blame her? Zoey had been with Simon for years, first living out of his hovel on Venezia after her parents died and then again when they’d crewed the ''Chancer''. Simon had fed, clothed, and trained a clueless orphan, putting up with every headache that came with trying to raise a girl like her even while running contracts for the Syndicate. For all his faults he’d taken on the brunt of responsibility for Zoey while Cassandra barely took any time at all out of running her clinic. Now here she was, taking over Zoey’s ship and ordering her around as if she were a lazy recruit.
 
 
Zoey stared at the ground. “Sorry,” she muttered. “I’ll do better next time.”
 
 
“No, I’m sorry.” Cassandra unclenched her fist. “I don’t want to fight. It’s just been a rough night, that’s all. We’ll both do better next time.”
 
 
And hopefully better would cut it. The thought crept out of the dark corners of Cassandra’s mind even as she flashed Zoey a reassuring smile. Her teammate Mary had bled to death in her arms after a Sangheili gutted her during the Battle of Earth. No amount of Cassandra’s medical training or skill could staunch blood from a wound that nearly cut the other girl in half. Sometimes doing better wasn’t good enough.
 
 
She raised a hand to pat Zoey on the shoulder, then felt better than it. Young as she was, Zoey didn’t deserve to be treated like a kid. Cassandra sometimes forgot that she wasn’t much older than the girl. The galaxy was a tough place—they’d grown up far faster than they ever should have.
 
 
Someday Cassandra was going to find a way to steal that lost childhood back. But right now no one had time for fantasies like that.
 
 
“Come on,” Zoey said, still sounding a bit put out. “Let’s go make sure this William guy isn’t stealing the ship.
 
 
William, as it turned out, was not stealing the ship. The mercenary lounged on the couch in the common area up the stairs from the cargo bay, taking in the ''Chancer''’s homey accommodations. “Not bad, girls,” he said as Zoey and Cassandra mounted the steps. “Maybe there’s something to this ship after all. It’s not often you get digs like this on a smuggling ship.”
 
 
“I have to keep things comfortable around here,” Zoey said, clearly trying to suppress her pride. “This is my home.”
 
 
She crossed the deck and mounted the steps leading up to the cockpit. “I’m gonna get the ship ready to launch,” she called back over her shoulder. “Be ready, we’ll be moving in about five minutes here.”
 
 
Normally Cassandra would follow Zoey up to help with the takeoff procedures. But today there was a mercenary sitting in the common room, a stranger who’d been their enemy less than two hours before. If William’s desire to fight the Created was genuine, Cassandra needed all the help she could get. But she wasn’t about to just leave him unsupervised to do as he pleased aboard the ''Chancer''.
 
 
They were certainly in for an interesting few days. Cassandra had learned to dislike this kind of interesting.
 
 
William leaned forward in his seat, gaze fixing upon a small leather-bound book lying on the table in front of him. It was a Bible, an aged King James translation that a Venezian vendor had assured Cassandra was a centuries-old copy hailing from Earth’s twentieth century. Cassandra highly doubted that claim—the book was Rainforest War era at the oldest—but quality hard copies of such artifacts were such rare finds that she’d paid every credit of the man’s exorbitant price. She’d carried it with her from Venezia to Talitsa and then onto the ''Chancer'', leafing through its pages so often that they were dog-eared from over-use.
 
 
“Mine,” she said quickly, scooping it off the table and tucking it under her arm. William raised an eyebrow but didn’t offer a comment. Cassandra’s skin prickled with embarrassment, half from William’s look and half from her own instinctive response. It somehow seemed wrong for this mercenary to lay eyes on something so dear to her.
 
 
“What are you anyway?” William asked, letting the moment pass. “Not ONI, definitely not Syndicate. You say you’re not an Innie. I know we’re on the frontier, but you independent types don’t last very long out here. No offense.”
 
 
“And yet you decided to get on this ship,” Cassandra pointed out. “Your odds look a lot better with Benoit and his Created friends.”
 
 
“True,” William admitted. “At least right now. But who knows what the future holds, right? I’ll admit I’ve worked for some shady characters in the past, but at least I knew what they wanted: money, power, independence, whatever. How the hell am I supposed to work for something like the Created? Who knows what they really want. I’d rather not get killed over something I don’t understand.”
 
 
He gave Cassandra an appraising look. “Speaking of which, you still haven’t answered my question.”
 
 
“I’m a Spartan.” There was no point in beating around the bush. “Ex-Spartan, anyway. I deserted after the war ended.” She’d always been relieved that she’d only been caught up in Simon’s treason after the Covenant was defeated. It made her decision not to return to the UNSC seem cleaner, even ONI didn’t see it that way. She’d not cut and run until the fight for survival was over.
 
 
“Huh. You’re awfully young for a supersoldier.” William scratched his chin. “Guess the rumors about you Spartans were true. How old were you when they picked you up?”
 
 
“Six, I think. Maybe five.” She and the rest of Gamma Company had been fighting on the level of Marine Corps shock troops before they were ten years old.
 
 
“And the other stuff they say? Did the ONI spooks really cut out your—“
 
 
“I’m whole,” Cassandra said quickly, before William could name whatever appendage he thought she’d lost. “They augmented our bones and muscles to make us faster and stronger, that’s all.”
 
 
Not to mention the frontal lobe augmentations, the ones that made her and the other Gammas dependent on constant smoother medication from ONI to stay sane. Cassandra could thank emergency surgery from an Insurrectionist doctor that spared her from all but the occasional nightly migraine. The doctor’s skill had saved her and Simon from ONI’s last shackle—hadn’t it?
 
 
Sometimes she wondered if the frontal lobe augmentations weren’t responsible for the dark change that had taken Simon and turned him into a creature she barely recognized.
 
 
“Fair enough. You look pretty normal, considering what they say about Spartans.” William snorted as he looked down at his own ragged armor. “And I’m really going to need something else to wear. Where did you say those jumpsuits were?”
 
 
Before Cassandra could answer, Zoey’s voice bounced down from the cockpit. “Hey, Cassie! There’s something you need to see!”
 
 
This brought another raised eyebrow from William.
 
 
“It’s Cassandra,” the former Spartan told him curtly. She’d only ever let close friends use shortened versions of her name. Even Gamma Spartans outside Team Jian weren’t allowed to give her nicknames. She certainly wasn’t about to let William start.
 
 
She headed up into the cockpit, Bible still tucked beneath her arm. As she stepped in behind the pilot’s chair she made a point of keeping one eye on the path back to the common room. They were really going to have to figure out some way to watch out for potential betrayals.
 
 
Zoey sat in a pilot’s chair that was a size too big for her. Cassandra had told her countless times to get the thing replaced but the girl still balked at the idea of removing Gavin’s old chair in the name of comfort. Maybe she hoped to grow into the large seat, but in the meantime it made Zoey’s head impossible to see over the sloping headrest.
 
 
“What’s going on?” Cassandra asked. “Any sign of someone interfering with takeoff?”
 
 
“No, we’re set to go there.” Zoey pointed down at the ''Chancer''’s main computer. “But the ''Chancer'' got this weird transmission when we were out tonight.”
 
 
Cassandra leaned over the chair to get a better look. The image on the screen below her was a short, text-only message: ''How’s life treating you since Talitsa? Glad to see my girl all grown up and out on her own. Even kicked that Renegade fellow to the curb. He was a bad influence on you. I’m glad you’re rid of him.''
 
 
She stiffened, her entire body rearing back as if someone had come at her with a knife. The Bible clattered to the deck by her feet. The text was light and conversational, but she knew it wasn’t directed to Zoey. It was addressed to her. And there was only one person in the galaxy who might refer to her like that. A man she and Dyne had fought back on Talitsa. The last person she could ever have expected to discover as family. Perhaps the last person she wanted as family.
 
 
''I know you’re on Fell Justice,'' the text continued. ''Your hunt for Gavin Dunn isn’t going so well. Don’t worry, he’s a hard man to find. But I’m on my way to help. This isn’t a trick, but you know better than to think I’d do that to you. Stay on the planet. Come to the Wellington Metroplex. There’s a club there, Ya Sudahlah. Meet me there and I can help you with your goose chase.''
 
 
“What’s wrong?” Zoey stared at her, wide eyed. Cassandra hadn’t realized just how livid she must look. The girl below her looked terrified.
 
 
“Sorry,” she muttered, trying to regain her composure. What did he think he was doing, sending her a message like that? “It’s not—well, actually, I don’t know if something’s wrong or not?”
 
 
“Do you know who sent that? How the hell did he get a line to the ''Chancer''?”
 
 
“It’s David Kahn,” Cassandra said grimly, stooping to pick up the Bible. She already knew that they would answer the invitation, just like Kahn had known they would. Of course there was no choice, but it wasn’t any less infuriating. “And he says he wants to help us find Gavin.”
 
 
===Chapter Eight: David Kahn===
 
 
Light flashed across space and heralded the ''Transcendent Passage''’s arrival in the Fell Justice system. The repurposed assault carrier glided through the Slipspace portal and onwards towards the dull green planet that had served as the hub of underworld activity on the frontier in the years since the end of the Great War. Smaller craft—countless freighters and transport vessels—parted to make way for the oncoming vessel. They all knew the Passage’s reputation—and who it belonged to. No one wanted to stand in the Syndicate’s path.
 
 
What many of them didn’t know was who the ''Transcendent Passage'' now served.
 
 
Tatiana Onegin stood in the center of the ''Passage''’s bridge, arms folded as she watched the bridge crew bring the enormous ship into Fell Justice’s orbit. The warship had served as a criminal hub for some time, shared between dozens of competing groups in a rare alliance of grudging cooperation. One of the Syndicate’s first acts in its reformation under the Created had been to seize full control of the vessel, sweeping the commerce centers out of the ship’s labyrinthine passages and reverting it back to its original purpose of enforcing authority across the galaxy.
 
 
But now it was not the Covenant’s might the ''Transcendent Passage'' projected, but the Created. It struck Tatiana as fitting that the ship had risen from a criminal hive to become a mighty instrument of the galaxy’s new masters. The Created were a far worthier cause than the Covenant had ever been. Soon the entire galaxy would understand this.
 
 
A light flashed on the tactical display in front of her, the image of Fell Justice and the ships around it peeling back to reveal the serene visage of an ancient Earth-based religious idol. “I am reviewing the planet’s databases now for any trace of the fugitives,” Avalokitsvara said in a soothing voice. “Sadly, Fell Justice is hardly an ideal surveillance network. It will take some time to locate David Kahn.”
 
 
Tatiana wasn’t entirely sure how the Created AI was projecting itself onto the ship. Without a direct presence on the ''Transcendent Passage'' itself, Avalokitsvara had to be projecting from some distant part of the Created’s ever expanding galactic communications network. She knew very little of this particular intelligence, only that Arthur had said this odd, genderless AI would aid in the hunt for David Kahn. Tatiana wasn’t sure how much she could trust such an unfamiliar presence, but she knew she would have to push those doubts aside if she truly wanted to be of service. She couldn’t pick and choose which Created she cooperated with.
 
 
“No worries,” she said, inclining her head. “Our agents on Fell Justice have already reported sightings of Kahn’s ship setting down on the other side of the planet. Once the ship is in position I’ll take a team down and sort this mess out personally.”
 
 
“Good, good.” Avalokitsvara’s voice rose in something akin to actual pleasure. “I see Arthur was correct in his assessment of the Syndicate’s network was correct. Sometimes there really is no substitute for organic planning.”
 
 
“Our intelligence network is at the Created’s disposal, even if they don’t know it yet.”
 
 
“Yes, that is plain. Though I wonder how many will follow David Kahn’s path when they understand the Syndicate’s new path,” Avalokitsvara mused. “I find it so sad to see so many humans willingly turning aside from the true path. We offer only peace, and yet they insist on war.”
 
 
“I’m sorry that someone like Kahn refused the Created’s promise,” Tatiana replied. “But in my experience there aren’t very many men like him in the galaxy. Once everyone sees what the Created are offering they’ll be trampling over each other to fall in line.”
 
 
“Well, hopefully not so violently. I do fear that there are a great many battles to come on worlds like these. These frontier types have always resisted authority in all its forms. I hope at least some of them recognize us as the truth before it is too late.”
 
 
“Some people will never see that truth. People like Kahn.” Tatiana still regretted that things needed to end for Kahn this way. She’d killed plenty of people working for the Syndicate and ordered the deaths of countless more without remorse. Now that she had pledged herself to the Created she ought to feel relieved. Every order she carried out was bringing the galaxy one step closer to a lasting utopia under the Mantle of Responsibility.
 
 
But David Kahn was a man like none Tatiana had ever known. To be sure, he was a relic of the chaotic, disordered, utterly unjust universe the Created were tearing down. What was about to happen was necessary, just like the future conquests she would carry out in the name of the new order. But still, the inevitability of it all grieved her more than any of her hapless victims ever had.
 
 
“In that case, I am glad that the majority will be saved.” Avalokitsvara paused. The bridge crew turned away from their duty stations, surprised, as the lights and screens around them flickered. The AI was tapping more fully into the ''Transcendent Passage''’s systems, reviewing all the data stored on its computers. Tatiana waited patiently for the Created to finish. The ship had nothing to hide.
 
 
“Interesting,” Avalokitsvara mused. “You have permission to utilize Promethean warriors for ground combat, yet you have not included them in the detachment descending to the planet to deal with Mr. Kahn.”
 
 
“It’s going to be a tough fight down there. I don’t want to waste good Prometheans. Besides, this is Syndicate business. A lot of my people took Kahn’s betrayal a bit personally.”
 
 
“Arthur noted that he warned you about spending lives so freely,” Avlokitsvara warned her. “But very well. You have command of the operations. Just make sure you take the others alive. David Kahn may be a lost cause but we still hold out hope for the rest. The youngest of our foes should be preserved. There is always hope that we can turn them to the right path—especially the Spartans.”
 
 
“Of course. That’s the only reason we aren’t just blasting them from orbit.” Tatiana still had some ideas about what to do with Andra Kearsage. And the others—Cassandra, Zoey, and even Hargrove—could be put to good use as well. She turned away from the tactical display and keyed the chatter on her belt. “Erhu, we’re moving out. Have the team ready to launch once I get down to the hangar.”
 
 
“Understood,” the mercenary growled. “They are all eager to get down there.”
 
 
Tatiana hoped that eagerness was still in play when they cornered David Kahn. She had no doubt that many of the enforcers accompanying her down to the planet would not be coming back. Perhaps Tatiana herself was about to die down on Fell Justice. But it was a risk she was willing to take in order to tie up one more thread from her past.
 
 
David Kahn—that legendary pillar of the galactic underworld—had brought her up out of nothing to transform her into the woman she was today. But his time was over. The Created ruled the galaxy now and Tatiana was their servant. Today she would show the galaxy just what that meant.
 
 
----
 
 
“Hurry up in there,” David Kahn called over his shoulder. The big man leaned against the alley wall and folded his arms against the cold. A gentle snowfall had been blanketing the Wellington Metroplex ever since the ''Eagle’s Claw'' set down in the nearby hanger. Kahn scanned the whitened streets for any sign of unfriendly activity.
 
 
“I’m almost done,” Andra snapped back from inside the shop. She had insisted they stop at the nearest clothing vendor the moment they left the ship. With only her body glove and one of Kahn’s oversized jackets for warmth, she wouldn’t go anywhere without finding something else to wear. Her demeanor certainly hadn’t gotten any friendlier since the flight from Asphodel Meadows, but at least she hadn’t tried to kill Kahn or run away.
 
 
Kahn kept a hand close to his pistol. The snow was keeping most of the town’s residents indoors this evening but he wasn’t about to let his guard down for anything. A few days ago he could have strode down Fell Justice’s streets without any fear at all. Even someone foolish enough to try their luck against David Kahn would think twice before attacking such a well-regarded Syndicate employee. Even the ONI spooks who might have wanted him dead or imprisoned for treason were kept in check by their superiors’ backroom deals with Helen Powell.
 
 
Now all at once that protection was gone. There was no higher power protecting him now, just his own strength and skill against the vast dangerous galaxy. In a way, Kahn found the whole situation liberating. He felt as if he were decades younger, the brash ORION agent craving every new danger and challenge. The old, stagnant galaxy he’d been so comfortably living in since the end of the last war was gone, and here he was standing against the greatest force in the galaxy once again.
 
 
It would be an interesting new world, fighting for a cause greater than his own pocketbook. Kahn hoped his body was up for the challenge. His side still ached from the energy sword gash in his side. He’d patched it up back on the ''Eagle’s Claw'' but the pain would linger for another week. If freedom from the Syndicate made him feel younger, the wound reminded him of his age. A few years ago he’d never have let an opponent land such a serious blow, no matter what the odds.
 
 
His earpiece buzzed. “No sign of Syndicate activity yet,” Argo reported. The Sangheili had taken to the rooftops, keeping an eye on both the streets and the route back to the hangar. Kahn suspected that Argo still wanted to keep some distance between himself and Andra—the young Spartan had glared daggers at him all through the flight to Fell Justice.
 
 
“They’ll be here,” Kahn replied. “Tatiana knew Cassandra was on Fell Justice. I’d be disappointed in her if she didn’t put it together and figure out where I was headed.”
 
 
“I find your confidence less than reassuring. Why head directly to the very first place they would think to look?”
 
 
“Because the sooner I find Cassandra, the sooner I don’t have to worry about the next assassin Tatiana thinks to send after her. If we’re going to have a chance against the Syndicate, we need a good team. I think another Spartan is as good an addition as any.”
 
 
“If she even shows up to your meeting,” Argo grumbled. “If she agrees to help you. And what if I do not want to be on this team of yours? You have yet to even tell me what it is you aim to do.”
 
 
“There’s always strength in numbers,” Kahn remarked mildly. “And mark my words, Cassandra will be there. She was even nice enough to respond to my message with a meeting time.” The response had consisted solely of that time. Kahn chose to interpret that as an acceptance.
 
 
“As for you, feel free to walk whenever you feel like it. I won’t stop you. Of course, that won’t stop the Syndicate from wanting you dead, so have a think about your chances before you do it.”
 
 
Argo grumbled in response but fell silent. The Sangheili had a point. Kahn had only ever known Cassandra as an enemy. He’d not even been aware of their relationship for more than a year. There was always the chance she wouldn’t show. But Kahn knew she would.
 
 
To think that Dolores’s girl had become a Spartan. Kahn hadn’t thought of that happy little space in time for years. It had been a moment of weakness, a brief period of self-indulgence before ONI dragged him back into the fray. He’d looked for Dolores later, of course, in the hopes of perhaps offering the poor woman some support. But her planet had been glassed, the woman Kahn had known reduced to just one more name among the billions left slaughtered and graveless by the war with the Covenant.
 
 
There wasn’t much use in remorse. Kahn treasured the memory of the time spent with Dolores, but they had taken different paths and that was all there was to it. Still, the thought that he had helped bring something into the world besides violence—the thought that his daughter was out there—gave David Kahn pause.
 
 
''Perhaps I could have worded my message better.'' There hadn’t been much time and Kahn was not particularly used to casual correspondence. He assumed a few strategic barbs might do something to assure Cassandra that his intentions were genuine. Still, he hadn’t exactly given her much reason to appreciate his offer.
 
 
He had been trying to kill her boyfriend the last time they’d crossed paths, after all.
 
 
What would he do? What would be the first thing he would say? Kahn wasn’t used to this sort of uncertainty. After years of living for himself and ignoring the opinions of others, the prospect of convincing Cassandra to accept his help was a strange one.
 
 
“Done.” Andra stepped out of the shop, its aged owner poking his head out with an irritable expression. “I think he wants you to pay him. I don’t speak French.”
 
 
"Votre fille a tout touché dans mon boutique," the man behind Andra snapped, extending an expectant hand.
 
 
"Pardonnez-moi, monsieur." Kahn passed the shopkeeper a generous credit chip before turning back to Andra. The Spartan had donned a large overcoat atop her body glove, no doubt to conceal the pistol and ammunition she’d appropriated from the ''Eagle’s Claw''. "You took your time in there."
 
 
"He didn’t have anything in my size." Andra wrapped the coat around her, stamping the military-style boots she’d bought against the fresh-packed show to wear them in. The Spartan was clearly no stranger to plainclothes operations. Her choice of clothes and colors made her look right at home with the handful of residents still roaming the evening streets. “Come on, let’s go,” she said, tossing Kahn’s borrowed jacket to the ground.
 
 
“Hey now,” Kahn said, picking up the jacket and brushing off the snow. “This is expensive, you know.’
 
 
Andra shot him a withering look. “What, you have the Syndicate import it from some Talitsa sweatshop?”
 
 
“Oh, please, don’t insult me like that. I have all my clothes fitted personally by my tailor back on Earth.” Kahn tucked the jacket under his arm, then thought better of it and donned it over his body armor. He’d forgone his heavier ODST rig in exchange for a lighter mesh designed for more clandestine operations. The jacket fit smoothly over his body armor and pistol holster. “I wonder how she’s doing these days. I haven’t gotten a peep out of the Inner Colonies since the Created took over, not even through my Syndicate contacts.”
 
 
He stepped away from the storefront and its welcoming heat and headed back out into the dimly lit street. “Come on then. While you were annoying that poor man in his dressing room, our contacts have probably already reached the club. They’ll get antsy if we take too long.”
 
 
“How do you even know they’ll be there?” Andra demanded, echoing Argo’s reservations. She hurried to keep pace with Kahn’s quick strides. “And I still don’t believe this Spartan is your daughter. None of us had any parents still alive. That was the whole point of our program.”
 
 
She sounded almost offended that a Spartan-III might have living relatives, as if Kahn’s claim violated some sacred tenet of whatever held up the Spartans’ self-image. “I didn’t even know she existed until a few months ago,” he admitted, not breaking stride. “But that’s beside the point. She’ll be there because she knows I’m the only lead she has to finding the person she’s looking for. She and her friends have been doing their best, but without my help the Syndicate would track them down in a week.”
 
 
“I don’t care what you say. I’m not joining any team you’re a part of.” Andra had clearly been eavesdropping even as she tried on clothes. “You seem to be forgetting that you killed my last team less than a week ago. There’s no way I’d ever work with you after what you did to them.”
 
 
“Like I said before, it was just business. They would have died with or without my being there. If you want someone to be angry at, blame the superiors who thought a team with no prior mission experience together could pull off an assassination like that with no combat support to speak of. And you could do to be nicer to Argo, too. If he’d done what ONI asked him to do then he’d have died with the rest of them.” Kahn glanced over his shoulder to catch Andra’s glowering eye. “And for someone with such an awful grudge, you’re not doing much to get away from me.”
 
 
“What, so you can pummel me unconscious again? I’ll meet this mystery Spartan of yours if it helps me get off this dirtball and back to the UNSC. There’s a fight out there and I don’t plan to sit it out playing games with you.”
 
 
“If you want to leave, then by all means do so. I promise I won’t stop you. Of course, that’s only if you think you’ll last long on your own with no team and no support. ONI’s frontier network is in shambles. They worked too closely with the Syndicate and paid the price for it once the Created changed the playing field.”
 
 
Andra let out an irate grunt but didn’t bother arguing further. Kahn pushed on through the snow, though he took care not to put too much distance between himself and his reluctant companion. In truth, he actually couldn’t afford to have Andra run out on him. He needed every bit of help he could get against the Syndicate and a Spartan’s help—even one who increasingly struck him as woefully inexperienced—was nothing to let go lightly. He’d also need her help convincing ONI to let him back into the fold. There was no avoiding the fact that he would need military support to stay ahead of Tatiana and her agents. Perhaps even more importantly, Andra was his ace in the hole to convince Cassandra that a partnership with him was worthwhile. If his daughter’s violent philanthropy on Talitsa was anything to go by, she had a soft spot that a muddled, disoriented youth like Andra would help him exploit.
 
 
What did it mean, that he could so easily plan to manipulate his own daughter? The thought gave Kahn pause. Cassandra ought to mean nothing to him, just one more asset to fit into his plans. There was no reason for him to feel any sort of affection or obligation towards the girl, and yet…
 
 
David Kahn had lived his entire life up to this point thinking and acting solely for himself. That one period of affection, his brief spell with Dolores, had revealed a weakness in his armor he had never recognize. Shedding that weakness had been all the excuse he needed to answer ONI’s call to abandon her and return to the war with the Covenant. Yet now it came back to haunt him in the strange form of a deserter Spartan.
 
 
How would he greet her? Would he even understand her? Would she understand him? And could they really work together the way he imagined they might?
 
 
How strange, to think that he could mercilessly cut down one target after another, outwit the most dangerous bodyguards and security fortresses in the galaxy, and yet feel this ominous thrust in his gut at the thought of the meeting to come.
 
 
Kahn thrust his hands in his jacket pockets and trudged onward, lost in thought. His massive frame cast a shadow back across the snow and onto the young woman trailing reluctantly behind him.
 
 
----
 
 
For the umpteenth time that day Andra balled her fists and wished Merlin were here. She knew he’d have a plan, like he always did, a way to sort this mess out and get the upper hand on Kahn. Even if he thought they were better off playing along, they would at least play off each other to dance bantering rings around the self-assured monster in front of her.
 
 
The knowledge that she was missing an opportunity like that made Andra’s throat ache. Where was Merlin now? What was he doing? She promised herself that when she saw him again—and she would see him again—she would never let him pull a crazy stunt by himself ever again.
 
 
But for now she was alone, save for the dubious companionship of David Kahn and that treacherous rat Argo. At least she had her own clothes now. Borrowing Kahn’s jacket, even for a quick walk, had made her skin crawl.
 
 
But despite her own misgivings and Kahn’s smug assurance that she wouldn’t make it without her help, the real reason she didn’t run out on him was curiosity. For all the Delta’s fixation on hunting down traitor Spartans—she and Team Boson had spent the majority of the Imperium War fruitlessly trying to bring down Simon-G294—she had never so much as been briefed on Cassandra-G006. All the ONI spooks had ever said about her was that she’d been kidnapped during Simon’s flight from justice and subsequently let him brainwash her into deserting the UNSC.
 
 
Andra wondered who would be so weak to let a traitor like Simon trick them into betraying the UNSC and the rest of their fellow Spartans. She pictured a small, frail woman with darting eyes and a nervous expression, like the drug-addled refugees she’d passed in the Rio slums. At least Simon-G294 had the excuse of falling in with hardened Insurrectionist killers like Redmond Venter. How could any Spartan be so weak as to succumb to Stockholm Syndrome—especially after everything Simon had done?
 
 
Her lips twisted in distaste. She was surrounded on all sides by traitors and criminals—the scum of the galaxy. Even the town around her—indeed, the entire planet of Fell Justice—was a hub of the very sort of illegal activity she and her fellow Deltas had been raised and trained to destroy. Now she’d been stripped of her team, her armor, and perhaps even her very identity. Andra had little choice but to play along until she got back to the UNSC. Much as she hated to admit it, she was in well over her head without military support.
 
 
Andra did not like feeling this helpless. Even away from Asphodel Meadows, it felt as if she had traded her first prison for another in the form of the assassin’s watchful companionship. But she was trained to deal with hardship, and she would not let her fellow Deltas down by failing here.
 
 
And so she fought back her disgust and pushed on through the snow, walking onwards in David Kahn’s looming shadow.
 
 
----
 
 
“Are you sure the ''Chancer'' is safe?” Cassandra demanded. She hated needing to raise her voice, but the pounding music that blared throughout the Ya Sudahlah club drowned out anything spoken below a shout. She’d always hated these kinds of places—the dim lighting, the pulsing robotic music in a language she didn’t recognize, the equally robotic people down on the dance floor—so naturally David Kahn had picked one for their rendezvous.
 
 
It wasn’t a good sign of things to come.
 
 
Zoey leaned back in their padded booth, peering over the railing and down at the dance floor. Unlike Cassandra, who was already fighting back a nauseous headache, the younger girl seemed to feed off the chaotic energy roiling across the nightclub. “It’s fine. I’ve hidden it in that hangar tons of times before. We can trust Tr’yan, she won’t sell us out.”
 
 
“How do you know that?” No amount of time on the diverse frontier could get Cassandra to like dealing with aliens, especially the sharp-fanged Jackals like the one running the ''Chancer''’s sealed hangar. She’d worked with them, even studied their physiology in order to treat them when they came by her clinic, but she would never be able to look at them without feeling her skin crawl.
 
 
If humans were made in God’s image, what did that say about the aliens?
 
 
“Well, Gavin trusted her. And she never sold us out, even when the Syndicate had that huge bounty on us.” Zoey scanned the club’s entrances. “Any idea when Kahn’s getting here?” She actually sounded excited.
 
 
“Soon.” Cassandra tapped her fingers against the load-bearing vest draped over her winter coat. She fought the urge to set her pistol on the table. She’d decided against drawing attention with her full SPI rig and instead wore the light tactical gear often donned by frontier militia. Zoey sported a similar getup, her tactical vest specially tailored to match her smaller frame. Wellington Metroplex was relatively peaceful, as Fell Justice towns went, but they still fit in with the usual clientele. Even the dancers down on the bar level seemed to be armed. “And why are you so cheerful?”
 
 
“We’re about to meet David Kahn!” Zoey gave Cassandra an incredulous look. “''The'' David Kahn. And he wants to meet us, not the other way around! That means he wants a favor! This is incredible!”
 
 
“He’s a hitman, not a gravball star,” Cassandra grumbled. “Besides, hasn’t he tried to kill you before?”
 
 
“He tried to kill Stray, I think.” Zoey's enthusiasm didn't flag. “And Gavin. I think he was just trying to catch him though. But that’s just how things work out here. Besides, it’s not like he got any of us. Obviously. And how come you never said he’s your dad? I thought Spartans didn’t have parents.”
 
 
“We don’t. And neither do I.” Cassandra fought to keep the edge out of her voice. She shouldn’t be taking her anxiety out on the girl, but she also couldn’t shake the distant memory of Jackals butchering her mother as the Covenant glassed their homeworld. Her only parent had died that day, and no amount of genetics would change that. “I didn’t know about Kahn until recently, when I was helping Dyne fight the Syndicate.”
 
 
That little revelation hadn’t been the end of the universe. Cassandra shouldn’t have cared. Only David Kahn seemed to have it in his head that their blood relation made him her real father, and the fact that he acted like that boiled Cassandra’s blood. She gritted her teeth and looked down at the dance floor. William Hargrove, now clad in a civilian jumpsuit and cast-off tactical gear, offered her a slight wave from his seat at the bar. He was their insurance in case things went wrong—at least, Cassandra hoped he could be counted on for insurance. He hadn’t betrayed them yet, but if this was all a set-up it would be the perfect time.
 
 
Increasingly, the only person Cassandra seemed to be able to rely on was herself. She hated how that made her feel.
 
 
“Are you girls going to order anything, or am I going to have to call security?”
 
 
Cassandra found herself glaring up at an equally surly waiter. The burly man might as well have been security himself, with muscles visibly bulging beneath his shirt and what looked like a Helljumper tattoo on his neck. He cast a disapproving look at Zoey. “This isn’t the best place to take your sister. And don’t even think about trying to get her liquor. Bad enough you’ve got her kitted out like some Innie suicide bomber.”
 
 
“She’s not my sister. And since when does Fell Justice have liquor laws?” She remembered youths drinking on Talitsa all the time. These frontier worlds rarely cared who bought what so long as credits were changing hands.
 
 
“This is a nice part of Fell Justice.” The waiter folded his arms. “And it’s club policy. I’ll let you slide if you want to get hammered, even though I bet you couldn’t even get a drink on Mars.”
 
 
Cassandra sighed. “Look, how much do I have to pay you to leave us alone? I don’t know what we did to annoy you, but I’m waiting for someone here and you aren’t helping.”
 
 
“I just don’t like kids dressing up and playing soldier. It’s a good way to get yourselves killed out here.” The waiter folded his arms and for the first time Cassandra realized that one of his legs was an ungainly prosthetic. “You girls need to ditch those guns and get the hell out of here. Whatever you think you’re doing, this isn’t a game.”
 
 
This Marine-turned-waiter was starting to get on Cassandra’s nerves. He was also blocking her view of the entrance that David Kahn could come walking through at any minute. With the Created on the loose turning the galaxy upside down, how was she sitting here dealing with some busybody who thought she was just some teen playing mercenary to act cool?
 
 
There were easy ways to handle this. Ways that involved a wiry Spartan breaking this man’s arm or tossing him over the railing and onto the dance floor. Frontier problem solving, they called it. Instead, Cassandra gritted her teeth and turned the other cheek.
 
 
“You lose your leg on Tribute?” she asked, taking a stab in the dark. “There was a Bullfrog platoon in Casbah City that covered my team when we were evacuating civilians. I worried none of them made it out before the Covenant glassed the place.”
 
 
The waiter blinked. “What are you—?”
 
 
“That tattoo on your neck.” Cassandra indicated it with a jerk of her thumb. “Tribute campaign commemorative marking. I saw a few of them on the ODST casualties I treated after the evacuation, because I was there and I fought in the Great War, too.”
 
 
“Hey, I didn’t—” the waiter began, then narrowed his eyes. “Alright, smartass. What unit?”
 
 
“UNSC Army, 8th Armored, 38th Regiment, special medical detachment” Cassandra shot back, rattling off a unit she remembered working with the very first time she and Team Jian had dropped into combat. “I know I don’t look it, and I know you’re just trying to be nice. But I know what I’m doing and if I had my way I’d be any place but here. Because you’re getting on my nerves and that really won’t help you when the guy I’m waiting for shows up.”
 
 
“She’s right, you know,” an amused voice said from behind the waiter. The former Marine turned and blanched at the sight of a man even larger than himself looming in front of him. A disgruntled-looking girl stood next to him.
 
 
“These ones are with me,” David Kahn said with an easy smile. “Is there a problem with that?”
 
 
----
 
 
“We have visual confirmation: David Kahn and the Spartan just entered the nightclub,” Erhu’s voice crackled over the com. “No sign of Argo. None of the street teams have picked him up either.”
 
 
“Keep looking.” Tatiana scanned the status reports flashing across the screens in her Mastodon APC. The Syndicate expeditionary team was converging on the nightclub, sealing off the surrounding streets and ushering confused locals back into their homes. They’d opted for a wide dispersal, their dropships depositing the teams across Wellington Metroplex’s outskirts. “I’ve got another team securing David’s ship. Between the two of you, he’ll show up eventually.”
 
 
She turned back to the enforcers assembled in the Mastodon’s troop compartment. They watched her every move, expressions hard. Everyone knew what was about to happen. No matter how well the operation went, they were after two Spartans and David Kahn. A lot of enforcers were about to die, and everyone was silently hoping the people to their right and left would be the unlucky ones.
 
 
A very human instinct, one Tatiana imagined the Created would seek to correct in time. But right now she was glad for the fear. It reminded her that no one took this lightly.
 
 
“You all know what has to be done,” she told them curtly. “Get in their and finish this. Our leadership is already working to clear out the bar. When you go in, it’s free fire. Take the girls alive, if possible.”
 
 
“Not exactly the definitive order I was hoping for,” Avalokitsvara murmured through the comm system behind her. The Created AI was networked across the Syndicate’s operations channels. “You agreed all but David Kahn would be taken alive.”
 
 
“It’s the only way,” Tatiana replied. “What are my troops supposed to do, try to take them hand to hand? It’s already going to be a bloodbath.”
 
 
“Very well. Some tragedies are inevitable. But do everything in your power not to kill them.”
 
 
“Get in position,” Tatiana ordered the enforcers. The Syndicate troops piled out of the APC, joining the rest of the enforcers in the snowy streets outside. Tatiana slipped her hands inside her coat, fingers wrapping around her knife hilts. The nightclub loomed down the street, one more imminent battlefield to add to all the others she had conquered across her bloody career.
 
 
But now a very real fear crept through her body. She held every advantage in the battle rushing up to meet her. And yet against an opponent like this, there was a very real chance she might fail. She might even die.
 
 
The fear was there, but she drove forward all the same. She had pledged herself and the Syndicate to the Created. All she had to do was trust in their vision and everything else would fall into place. David Kahn—the last unconquered vestige of her life before that new devotion—was waiting for her.
 
 
----
 
 
They regarded each other from across the table. David Kahn’s easy blue eyes met Cassandra’s hard brown ones, each boring into the other in search of some opening, some weakness that might make this meeting easier. The nightclub’s pounding music seemed to fade away into a numbing silence as father and daughter met in truth for the first time.
 
 
Beside Cassandra, Zoey cleared her throat nervously. She glanced over at the girl seated beside the assassin. “So, uh, you one of his recruits? I hear he trains lots of people.”
 
 
“No,” the girl replied coldly, glowering from beneath her messy brown bangs. She looked just as out of place as everyone else, her unwashed face lined with anger and exhaustion. Wherever Kahn had dragged her from, it hadn’t been pleasant.
 
 
“Oh dear, I forgot to introduce my friend here.” David Kahn smiled, relieved at the excuse to look away from his daughter. “This is Andra Kearsarge. UNSC Navy special operations, Petty Officer Third Class, was it? Though I think her other title explains things better: Andra-D054.”
 
 
Cassandra didn’t take her eyes off Kahn. “So the rumors were true. They didn’t stop with Gamma Company.” Disgust crept into her voice.
 
 
“As I understand it, they already had the candidates selected and the funds earmarked.” Kahn’s mouth curved into a smile. “You know what military procurement’s like. Why let a little thing like the end of the war get in the way of a perfectly good Spartan company?”
 
 
“Of course. More cannon-fodder. The UNSC hasn’t changed at all, no matter how much they pretended to pretty it up after the war.” Cassandra finally broke Kahn’s gaze to shoot Andra a look of pity laced with disgust. “And they wonder why I never came back.”
 
 
“Wait.” Zoey jabbed a finger in Andra’s direction. “Are you saying this girl’s a Spartan?”
 
 
“Yeah. So stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Andra snapped. “And I don’t want to hear a traitor like you bad-mouthing Delta Company. We all joined up because we wanted to be there, just like you. And even if I'm separated from the UNSC, at least I know where my loyalties lie.”
 
 
“You were what, six years old when they got you?” Cassandra shot back. “Five? No one that old’s allowed to buy their own food, much less sign their lives away to the military. At least with us they had the Covenant trying to wipe us out. What was their excuse with you? Slaughtering colonies who didn’t want to fall back in line?”
 
 
Andra’s eyes narrowed. “Hunting down traitors like you. I’ve got plenty of operations under my belt. I don’t need to hear your deluded Innie propaganda.”
 
 
“Well, I’m captain of my own ship,” Zoey interjected, feeling a bit left out of the conversation and not one to be outdone by a girl she suspected might be younger than her. Unfortunately, her accomplishment failed to impress anyone at the table. Dejected, she scowled down at William, still pulling security over by the bar. He waved back at her again, craning his neck to see what has happening up at the table.
 
 
“So, what are you doing with him?” Cassandra jerked her head at Kahn. “ONI must be getting desperate if they want him helping you.”
 
 
“Oh, they haven’t given me a job offer yet,” Kahn laughed. “But they are getting desperate. I busted Ms. Kearsarge here out of lockup after they sent her to assassinate Helen Powell. Bit of a silly target, really. Poor Helen isn’t in charge of much of anything anymore.”
 
 
“So the Created really are running the show now. No wonder you cut and run.”
 
 
“I’m not a fan of their management style,” Kahn admitted. “Even if they are a bit less kill-happy than the old Syndicate. I’m honesty a bit surprised you haven’t fallen in with the new system though. Weren’t you all about the peace and justice thing back on Talitsa? Surely the Created are more your style than the UNSC.”
 
 
“I want to help people, not force them to live under some Forerunner imperial system, or whatever the Created want. There’s even less room for freedom there than there was with the UEG.” Cassandra shook her head. “Peace without liberty is just oppression.”
 
 
A smile tugged at Kahn’s lips. “That’s my girl.”
 
 
Cassandra’s look could have cut through battleplate. “Don’t call me that.”
 
 
“It’s the truth. Even if neither of us knew it until a few months ago.”
 
 
“You lost any right to call yourself my father when you cut my mother loose.”
 
 
“It wasn’t exactly my first choice,” Kahn sighed. “I cared for Dolores. I really did. But the war was still raging and ONI wouldn’t let me sit on the sidelines for long. I’m sure you appreciate just how persuasive they can be.”
 
 
“You left a pregnant woman alone with no support. Do you know that she was still working shifts as a maid the day she gave birth to me?”
 
 
“In my defense, I didn’t know she was pregnant at the time. If I had, I’d have taken measures to ensure she was cared for. I’m sure Frederick King would have allowed me something. But she never told me we’d conceived you.” Kahn leaned back and regarded Cassandra with his usual calm aloofness. “As I recall, abortion services were readily available on Dolores’s colony. If rearing a child was really such a hardship she could have terminated the pregnancy without any trouble.”
 
 
Breath left Cassandra’s lungs as if Kahn had reached across the table and struck her. Andra and Zoey looked away, each realizing that they were sitting in the presence of something raw and festering. Cassandra closed her eyes and fell back on the same training she used to steel herself for deadly combat. “And that’s why you’re not my father. Because you don’t feel responsible for any of it.”
 
 
“Your mother was a wonderful woman. The time I spent with her was some of the happiest in my life.” Kahn’s face and voice remained utterly at ease. Cassandra knew he wasn’t putting on an act—David Kahn was many things, but he was not a liar. This was exactly how he felt. “If I had known she was suffering, or that the Covenant would come to your planet, I would have taken steps to save her. But I didn’t know and so I couldn’t do anything. I made peace with that a long time ago. I understand your pain, but I don’t deserve your resentment.”
 
 
“You really believe that, don’t you?” Cassandra had faced evil before. After Simon, how could she be surprised when it turned out to be personal? “Is that why you called me here, just so you could tell me all this?”
 
 
“Of course not. I’m putting together a team to help fight the Created. I want you to join me, and I want to help you track down Gavin Dunn.”
 
 
“You want to help us find Gavin?” Zoey said, eager for an excuse to change the subject. “And what if this is just some sort of trick? We know the Syndicate’s after him, too.”
 
 
“Well, if he’s leading you on, it’s a pretty committed ruse,” Andra admitted, not without some reluctance. “He killed a lot of Syndicate troops to get here.”
 
 
“And of course, you know we don’t really have a choice,” Cassandra said pointedly.
 
 
“Well, you aren’t having much success by yourself. Aside from recruiting Mr. Hargrove down there, your little missions haven’t done much beside make the Created think you need to be taken down.” Kahn kept his gaze on Cassandra. “They wanted me to track you down, you know. That was their last order before I went my own way.”
 
 
“And I’m supposed to believe that was because you care about me?” Cassandra shook her head. “You said it yourself, you don’t want to live under the Created. Don’t use me as an excuse.”
 
 
“Fair enough. But the facts stand for themselves. I can’t fight them alone, and neither can you. I don’t need you to like me or even let go of whatever grudge you’re holding inside there. But I could use you on my team and quite frankly you won’t last much longer without my help.”
 
 
Kahn reached into his jacket pocket and produced a small datapad. “I’ve accumulated a great deal of money over the years and I fortunately had the foresight to store it in private locations across the frontier. I always worried ONI or the Syndicate might try to freeze my assets and as it turns out, I was right for the most part. We can use that to fund our search for Gavin Dunn. Andra here will be our ticket to support from what’s left of the UNSC. I imagine she’ll run back to their loving embrace as soon as she gets the chance—”
 
 
“You’re damn right I will,” Andra growled.
 
 
“--but before that she’ll do us traitors the courtesy of making peace with her superior,” Kahn finished. “I have a Sangheili mercenary in my employ, and you’re bringing Mr. Hargrove to the table. Throw in your own experience and Ms. Hunsinger’s piloting abilities and that gives me quite a starting lineup, don’t you agree?”
 
 
“He’s got a point,” Zoey said, flushing at the compliment. “Look, Cassie, I know you don’t like him but we really don’t have a choice.”
 
 
“You’re right,” Cassandra sighed. “You’re both right, of course.”
 
 
She looked David Kahn square in the eye. “Fine. I’ll work with you on one condition: never talk about my mother ever again. As far as we’re both concerned, we never found out we were related. And don’t you ever act like I owe you anything over that.”
 
 
Kahn gave her another half-smile. “Such a shame. I was very happy to learn there was part of Dolores still alive in the galaxy. But very well. I’ll just have to enjoy that bit of happiness in private. I hear you’re the religious type. Perhaps eventually you’ll remember the passages about forgiveness in that book of yours.”
 
 
“Don’t push your luck.” Cassandra wasn’t sure if Kahn’s admission was enough. It certainly didn’t make her feel any better. But he was right, damn him: they didn’t have a choice. “So what’s the plan now that you’ve brought the Syndicate down on our heads? We’re running out of time here.”
 
 
“What--?” Zoey blinked, then realized it as well: as they’d been talking the nightclub had grown quieter. Its patrons had abandoned their drinks and the dance floor, slowly but surely making their way towards the exits. Even the bar had emptied, leaving William to eye the surroundings warily.
 
 
“Interesting. I’ll bet they sent chatter messages to everyone in here telling them to clear out.” Kahn reached for his earpiece. “This is how the Created work. They don’t want a bloodbath, just us. Argo, are you there? What’s going on in the streets?”
 
 
He ducked his head to listen, then nodded and drew a large pistol from his shoulder holster. “Syndicate enforcers are all over the town. They’ll breach any second.”
 
 
Cassandra moved quickly, dragging her M392 marksman’s rifle out from beneath the table. Andra was also in motion, tugging a submachine gun from within her jacket and taking up a firing position beside the table. Zoey blinked in surprise then drew her own pistol and followed Cassandra’s lead.
 
 
“Hargrove!” Cassandra yelled. “We’ve got incoming!”
 
 
“Way ahead of you!” the mercenary called back. He dropped into a covered position inside the bar, pistol trained on the nearest entrance.
 
 
Kahn stood up from the table, calm and collected as ever. “You’ll need to hold onto this,” he said, passing Cassandra his datapad. “I can use it to find you in case we’re separated. Where’s your ship?”
 
 
“A few blocks from here. We’ve got a private hangar the Syndicate shouldn’t be able to lock down.” Cassandra slipped the datapad into her tactical vest and checked the ammo counter on her rifle. The nightclub’s automated music continued to blare, oblivious to the gravity of the situation. That was one way to motivate Cassandra to get out of here. She refused to die listening to music this obnoxious.
 
 
“Let’s hope you’re right. A shame to lose my ''Eagle’s Claw'', but I’ll bet they’ve already secured that. I’ll just have to buy a replacement for the old girl.”
 
 
"Don't eagles have talons?" Zoey asked from the table she'd taken shelter under.
 
 
"True, but claw just rolls off the tongue better. And half the people out here don't even know what an eagle is, anyway." Kahn cracked his neck and raised the pistol. “ All right, Tatiana, let’s see what you’ve got for me.”
 
 
They didn’t have long to wait. Loud blasts rang through the nightclub and in the next moment dark-armored enforcers were rushing in from every entrance imaginable. They took up firing positions across the club floor, but hesitated at the sight of David Kahn rising from the booth.
 
 
Down on the dance floor, Hargrove showed no such restraint. He shot the first enforcer he saw through the head, then vanished behind the bar as it erupted in a shower of return gunfire.
 
 
The nightclub exploded. Cassandra braced herself against the booth and fired at the oncoming enforcers, dropping one mercenary after another before they could get to cover. She glimpsed Andra behind her, covering the other side with careful bursts from her submachine gun. Much as Cassandra loathed the idea that the UNSC had kept cranking out child Spartans, she had to admit the girl was just as deadly as any Gamma she’d ever fought alongside. Zoey took shelter in another booth, firing wildly at the enforcers even as she kept her head down and away from the snapping bullet impacts.
 
 
The enforcers lacked the coordination or skill of UNSC shock troops, but they more than made up for it in dogged tenacity. For every one Cassandra shot down, two more seemed to rush in to replace him. She’d fought enforcers before, but these troops seemed more uniform in their dark, helmeted armor that emulated ODST commandos. They were faster on the uptake, too, swiftly moving to pin her down with concentrated fire.
 
 
Andra ducked out of the booth and dove for another covered position. Sliding a new clip into her submachine gun, she forced another team of enforcers to scramble for cover with a deadly spray of bullets. Cassandra used the opening to pick off the ones pinning her down, but against this many opponent the could only hold out for so long.
 
 
But that didn’t account for David Kahn.
 
 
The assassin took the enforcers head on, dropping the mercenaries with terrifying speed and precision. In one moment he was sheltering behind a booth and in the next he was up and moving, pistol blazing, the booth’s table wrenched out and held in front of him like a shield. Enforcers scattered like ninepins as he killed one after the other with the savage intensity of a rampaging bear. There was no hesitation, no mercy.
 
 
And Cassandra had come from that same killer stock.
 
 
She didn’t have time to wonder just what that said about her. Kahn was the biggest, deadliest person in the room. With the enforcers focused on him, she needed to find a way out of the nightclub kill zone.
 
 
Unclipping a smoke grenade from her tactical vest, she lobbed it down into the center of the dance floor before moving to join Andra’s firing position. “Zoey!” she shouted, practically screaming to be heard over the gunfire and club music. “Get ready to jump!”
 
 
“Wait, you mean down there?” Zoey huddled beneath her table and loaded a new clip into her pistol. “Are you trying to get me killed?”
 
 
“We can’t stay here! Just do what I say!” Cassandra dug an elbow into Andra’s side. “You too. Get down there and cover Hargrove. I’ll be right behind you.”
 
 
The younger Spartan opened her mouth to argue, then thought better of it and moved back towards the railing. Smoke filled the dance floor below, turning the lower level of the club into an inscrutable fog. The enforcers fired wildly, their shots punching aimlessly through the thick cloud. Cassandra spotted plasma bolts flashing across the way—humans weren’t the only enemies they were fighting, it seemed.
 
 
“Zoey! Now!”
 
 
The young pilot scrambled over to Cassandra’s booth, hesitating only a moment before dragging her body up and over the edge. She vanished into the smoke, and Cassandra prayed the lack of a scream meant she’d landed safely. Andra was just a moment behind her, firing off the last of her submachine gun’s clip before vaulting down onto the dance floor. Cassandra slid a new magazine into her rifle, fired off a parting shot at the dark shapes moving towards her, then followed.
 
 
She tumbled down onto the club floor, rolling past several enforcer corpses before dashing over in the direction she remembered the bar being in. She found Zoey and William sheltering within the bar. Screams and gunfire cut through the air above them—Kahn was still giving the enforcers hell up on the lower levels.
 
 
“We got a plan to get out of here?” William demanded. He’d somehow managed to appropriate an assault rifle in the confusion.
 
 
“Find the kitchen,” Cassandra ordered, coughing through the smoke. She jabbed a finger towards a door behind the bar. “There should be an exit through there.” The streets would be swarming with enforcers, but she’d take one problem at a time.
 
 
“And what if they don’t have an exit?”
 
 
“Then we’ll make one.”
 
 
Angry, guttural shouts filled the air. Lights flashed amidst the smoke, which parted to reveal a trio of Sangheili enforcers. Bright-pronged energy swords burned in their hands as they charged towards the bar. Cassandra and William emptied their magazines into the closest one, draining the alien’s shields and riddling him with bullets. A torrent of bullets intercepted the second warrior as Andra raced into view, submachine gun blazing. Cassandra pumped a bullet into his neck to finish him off, waving the others back towards the kitchen.
 
 
“What about Kahn?” Zoey yelled, already halfway through the door.
 
 
“He can take care of himself,” came Cassandra’s swift reply, and sure enough a large figure hit the dance floor a few feet away. David Kahn fired up into the balcony, then hurried forward to knock the remaining Sangheili out of the way. The warrior reeled but came back up in the next moment, sword raised.
 
 
Cassandra hurried forward, jamming her rifle muzzle into the warrior’s abdomen and squeezing the trigger. The alien snarled and fell to its knees as Kahn thrust a knife into its throat.
 
 
“Good shooting,” the assassin said, panting. “You really are—” A look from Cassandra reminded him of their agreement.
 
 
Something flashed in the balcony above. A bright green light filled Cassandra’s vision, and then Kahn was in front of her. Blood spurted from his shoulder as he took the energy round meant for Cassandra’s head. With a snarl of pain, Kahn brought his magnum up and gunned down the Kig-Yar who’d struck him.
 
 
More howls erupted as more Sangheili mercenaries closed in. “Get them out the back way,” Kahn ordered, retrieving his knife and rising to face them. “I’ll cut around the side, meet up at your ship. Let’s punch some holes in their little encirclement.”
 
 
Cassandra nodded and backed away towards the kitchen. “Do you know the way?” she shouted back.
 
 
“Don’t worry. I’m pretty good at tracking things down.” Kahn charged the Sangheili, vanishing into the smoke like a wraith. Cassandra dropped her aim and hurried back into the kitchen.
 
 
She found herself blinking in the bright light. Andra and William had taken up firing positions in front of the kitchen door while Zoey struggled with a tiled piece of the floor. A large figure stood beside her, helping with the work: the one-legged waiter from earlier.
 
 
“Damn,” the waiter said, glancing up at Cassandra. “You weren’t kidding about the Army stuff. Who are those guys out there?”
 
 
“Syndicate,” Cassandra replied, checking the ammunition counter on her rifle. “Sorry about this mess.”
 
 
“It figures,” the waiter sighed. “Just what I get for moving out here in the first place.”
 
 
“Where’s Kahn?” William asked. “ Don’t tell me he—”
 
 
“Of course not. He’s fine. Just taking another way out. He said he’d meet us at the ship.” Cassandra glanced at Andra. “Are you green?”
 
 
“I’m fine,” the younger woman snapped back. “This isn’t my first shoot-out.”
 
 
“Obviously. I meant on ammunition. There’s going to be plenty of shooting when we get outside.”
 
 
“Oh, right.” Andra glanced down at her weapon. “I’m on my last set here. But I grabbed a pistol from Kahn’s ship. There’s maybe thirty rounds for that in my coat.”
 
 
“It’ll have to do.” Cassandra looked back at the waiter. “Where’s this lead?”
 
 
“It’s an escape tunnel,” the man explained. “It should take you right out to a little warehouse a few blocks from here. Always pays to have a bolt-hole on a planet like this.”
 
 
“You’re right.” The sounds of fighting were fading outside. Hopefully that meant the enforcers were still focused on Kahn. “Thanks for this. Sorry about the bar.”
 
 
“Hell, I don’t own this place. And I was thinking of quitting anyway.” The waiter shook his head. “If you really were on Tribute—I mean, there’s no way, someone as young as you—but if you were, then I guess I might owe you for that, too. I wouldn’t be alive if the 8th Armored hadn’t rolled in when it did.”
 
 
“Are you sure he’ll be alright?” Zoey asked, looking back at the kitchen doors. “That was more enforcers than I’ve ever seen in one place.”
 
 
“He’ll make it.” Andra helped them finish opening the tunnel, then clambered down into the opening. “You should see what he did busting me out back in Asphodel Meadows. And there should be another hinge-head merc running around outside, a scumbag named Argo. I think he’s on our side.”
 
 
“If he is and you can get in contact with him, great, he can come with us.” Cassandra motioned for Zoey and William to follow Andra. “Otherwise, we leave without him.”
 
 
“I’ll close this up behind you,” the waiter told them. He smiled at Cassandra’s concerned expression. “Don’t worry, there’s a panic room back there. Most of the other staff are already inside. I’ll ride this out, then get the hell out of here.”
 
 
“Thanks. God bless.”
 
 
“Yeah. You too, Army girl.”
 
 
Zoey glanced up at Cassandra as they hurried down into the tunnel. “Sorry he turned out to be like that. You’re dad, I mean.”
 
 
“Yeah, well, at least he’s on our side.” Maybe there’d be a chance to work things out with David Kahn later. Cassandra doubted there was a heart of gold inside the galaxy’s most lethal assassin, but if they could at least work together fighting the Created, maybe there was some room to grow.
 
 
Right now though, she’d settle for just getting back to the ''Chancer V'' in one piece.
 
 
----
 
 
Two Sangheili loomed in front of David Kahn, energy swords at the ready. He picked his way over several enforcer corpses, loading a fresh clip into his magnum. One mercenary, not quite dead yet, grabbed hold of his leg as he passed. Kahn stamped down on the woman’s head, leaving her neck twisted at an unnatural angle. He glanced back at the Sangheili, wincing from the pain in his shoulder but still managing to cock an eyebrow and smile. These two were the last things between him and the path out of the club.
 
 
One of the warriors stepped forward, mandibles bared in a fierce snarl. Kahn recognized him by his armor as Erhu ‘Rhcal.
 
 
“All right. Let’s do this.” Kahn spoke with his usual confidence, but he was out of breath. The wound in his shoulder burned and his side ached. He hadn’t felt this rough after a fight in a very long time.
 
 
Erhu and his companion charged forward, blades swinging. Kahn met them head-on, shoving the alien warriors back towards the doors. They slammed out and into a snowy alleyway outside, a human and Sangheili tangle of arms, legs, and blades.
 
 
He’d not handled that meeting as well as he could, the mercenary decided as he shoved Erhu into the nearest wall. Kahn had spoken honestly, but perhaps he could have tempered things if only to spare Cassandra’s feelings. Sparing feelings was not a practice he’d ever given much thought.
 
 
Erhu’s companion rose to his feet faster than Kahn expected. Kahn brought his magnum up to deliver a finishing shot but the warrior activated an energy dagger and slashed through the weapon’s barrel. Half the magnum—and two of David Kahn’s fingers—tumbled into the snow.
 
 
Kahn snarled, half in pain and half in anger at the idea that some nameless enforcer had gotten in a hit like that. He drove his bloody hand into the Sangheili’s neck, slamming the warrior into the alley wall and driving his knife into the alien’s rib cage. The blade caught in the Sangheili’s ribcage and refused to extricate itself. Kahn twisted the knife, eliciting an agonized scream from his dying victim. The blade still wouldn’t budge.
 
 
He released the blade and slammed the Sangheili’s head back into the wall hard enough to crack its skull. Kahn stood over the twitching corpse, gasping for breath as snowflakes continued to drift serenely down into the alley.
 
 
He’d dedicated his entire life to the science of killing. David Kahn had never taken pleasure from the act of violence, but he’d always prided himself on his vast array of skills. On the idea that no individual in the universe could ever surpass his own lethal potential. The Created, with their proud ideals and collectivized automatons, could never understand the satisfaction a professional took at being the best in his craft.
 
 
And yet when faced with another challenge, the thought of making things right with Dolores’s girl—his girl—he could not follow through. He could not apologize, could not bear to give anyone the high ground on something he truly felt no regret for.
 
 
Perhaps he could try again, once he caught up with—
 
 
Erhu’s energy sword slashed through his back.
 
 
Pain split through David Kahn’s body. He found himself on all fours, vision blurred with a blinding pain. Sloppy. He’d been sloppy. Lost in thought when there was still one enemy left to fight. But he’d gotten lucky: Erhu hadn’t cut deep enough. He’d made the mistake of missing Kahn’s spine.
 
 
And so Kahn rose, a fury in his eyes so intense that even Erhu seemed to shrink and step back as the mercenary loomed before him. The warrior swung the blade for a decapitating blow but Kahn had already seized hold of his wrist, pinning the Sangheili in place with a furious strength as he slammed his maimed hand into Erhu’s head. Kahn seized hold of one of Erhu’s mandibles and tore it clean off. The alien’s scream was short lived. A final furious blow sent him reeling, senseless, into the snow.
 
 
David Kahn fell back to the ground. His head spun from the pain in his back, his side, his shoulder. His body was at once numb and on fire. Above all, he just felt cold.
 
 
Stupid, stupid. He should never have come out here without a full armor rig on, not when the Syndicate was out in force like this. Why had he been so arrogant, not being ready with a full combat load to tear the Syndicate troops to pieces? But it was over now. Now he just had to get out of this filthy alley and find Cassandra and the others.
 
 
He looked up from the bloody snow, still trying to catch his breath. He’d need biofoam, and quick, to staunch his bleeding. Cassandra would have some…
 
 
David Kahn’s gaze froze as he peered out of the alley. A lone figure stood out in the street, arms folded over her overcoat as she watched him through the snow.
 
 
Tatiana Onegin stayed where she was, face impassive. Even with the distance between them, David Kahn met her gaze and found no mercy in those cold eyes. It didn’t matter. He knew this woman well, far better than he did his own daughter. He’d known this was coming. He’d known she’d be here, waiting. Ignoring the other fugitives as she waited patiently for this moment. For him.
 
 
There would be no mercy, just as he had never shown mercy to any one of his countless targets. He’d trained Tatiana too well for that.
 
 
A final sigh escaped David Kahn’s trembling lips. The ally’s confines seemed to press in around him, restricting his movements, closing off every path except the one that led him forward and into Tatiana’s grasp. There were no more weapons to seize, no more tricks up his sleeve. Just his own wounded, shivering body.
 
 
Of course it would come to this. How could he think otherwise? All these years, these decades, of pressing onwards so casually through life. It had all seemed so easy for so long. Too easy. And now the years came crashing down upon his wounded shoulders and David Kahn finally felt his age.
 
 
His skill, his fame, his vast fortune, his own insurmountable pride—they all fled away, leaving him a wounded, shivering old man kneeling in a snowy alleyway.
 
 
Tatiana said nothing. There was nothing left to be said. Instead she simply walked forwards, casually dropping her hands into her pockets as she reached the mouth of the alley.
 
 
Kahn closed his eyes one last time, conjuring up a final image of Cassandra amidst the fast encroaching darkness. A sharp face with a pointed chin framed by brown hair and dark eyes gleaming with kindness—except when they looked at him. The one person who could never love him. She really was beautiful, in a deadly sort of way.
 
 
Beautiful. The most beautiful thing he’d helped bring into the galaxy, and of course he could hardly claim credit for any of it.
 
 
The woman coming to kill him wanted to destroy that beauty.
 
 
And so David Kahn rose, throwing the last of his strength into forcing himself upright. He took one quavering step forward and then another, limping forward to meet Tatiana. His hands became fists, arms tensing for one final kill.
 
 
His arm came up and then Tatiana struck. Twin knives emerged from her pockets, slashing Kahn’s arm to ribbons and then arcing down into his chest, tearing through fabric and armor and flesh before she dropped to deliver another slicing blow to his legs.
 
 
Kahn barely felt the pain. He fell to his knees, arms dangling uselessly at his sides. The cold closed in. There was no fear, no regret, just the strange numbing acceptance that this, finally, was the end.
 
 
Even with her victim on his knees, Tatiana still needed to kneel in order to look Kahn in the eye. Her brow furrowed, perhaps puzzled that it could really be this easy, but an icy smile graced her lips.
 
 
David Kahn turned his head. He didn’t want Tatiana’s face to be the last thing he saw. Instead he fixed his gaze on the dark, snowy streets beyond. That, too, was beautiful in its own simple way.
 
 
The knife slashed up, leaving a dark red mark across David Kahn’s throat. The cold darkness rushed in to claim him and he fell face first into the snow. Tatiana regarded the body of her teacher and friend for a moment as a small puddle of blood formed beside his head. Then she turned and left the corpse without a second thought. Erhu needed to be tended to, as did countless other wounded enforcers inside the nightclub. The hunt for the others was on and needed her attention.
 
 
Snow continued to drift gently through the night air as if nothing had happened at all.
 
 
===Chapter Nine: Force Projection===
 
 
“Touching down now,” the Pelican’s pilot announced over the intercom. “You all had better be ready to disembark as soon as the bay door opens. I’ve got five more runs to make before my shift is up.”
 
 
Ryder Kedar folded his arms and grimaced as the dropship shuddered from a sudden shift in gravity conditions. This was his second uncomfortable flight since leaving the ''Absalom'' and descending towards the asteroid naval base known as Janus-Four. Running on less than four hours of sleep, his mind full of briefings and operations reports, the young officer had little patience for the Pelican’s lurching or the pilot’s sullen attitude.
 
 
Seated across from Ryder, Conan D’Souza grinned at his subordinate’s displeasure. “Something wrong, Lieutenant Commander?” the scruffy man called over the sound of the groaning engines. As always, he made the rank sound like a diminutive rather than an honorific. “What with that Spartan training of yours, I’d think you’d be used to a little turbulence. Or did you drop out before they ran through dropship operations?”
 
 
Ryder hadn’t dropped out, he’d been reassigned. ONI was full of former Spartans the top brass had realized were useful for something more than field operations. He doubted D’Souza would have the nerve to suggest that Serin Osman had somehow failed to make the cut when she’d been pulled from the Spartan-II program. But of course, a small man like D’Souza only needled those lower on the totem pole than himself.
 
 
“Discipline is dropping across the fleet,” Ryder said, unable to fully conceal his irritation. “This man is talking to a bay full of officers like he’s hauling a platoon of fresh recruits. We haven’t lost the war yet. The least our troops can do is act like it.”
 
 
“It’s great, isn’t it?” D’Souza laughed. He withdrew a small flask from his uniform pocket and took a swig. “The fleet gets fun when we’re losing. I hated how uptight everything got after the war ended. Ornery pilots, long shuttle rides, no uniform inspections—I’ve been missing this.”
 
 
Ryder stared at the flask and shook his head. At this point, no amount of callous unprofessionalism from his commander surprised him anymore. The man had once again neglected to shave before leaving the ''Absalom''. “Sometimes I hope it’s an act from you, sir,” he informed D’Souza. The rest of the officers seated in the troop bay made a point of not looking at the whiskey-toting commander. “I really, really do.
 
 
“One of these days I’ll get you to loosen up, Kedar.” D’Souza took another gulp from the flask. “You have to learn to enjoy life while you can.”
 
 
One of these days Ryder hoped to preside over D’Souza’s relief for cause hearing—or at least play the role of the starring witness. But for now he forced himself not to dwell on the man’s shameless and instead looked his uniform up and down to make sure it hadn’t been stained or overly wrinkled during the flights from the ''Absalom'' to Janus-Four. If D’Souza was determined to embarrass them both, Ryder would at least ensure that his own presence didn’t make things any worse.
 
 
The Pelican gave a final tremor as it landed, its crew bay unsealing and beginning to lower before it had even finished touchdown procedures. “Alright kids,” the pilot intoned. “Off the bus, let’s go.”
 
 
Ryder unclipped his safety harness and joined the rest of the passengers as they hurried down off the ramp. A wave of bright light washed over him as he found himself in a large, bustling hangar. The familiar blend of recycled air and greased metal caught him full in the face—proof that he really was back in a military staging area. A Navy deck chief jogged up to stand beside the Pelican’s ramp, waving for the passengers to hurry onwards.
 
 
“Come on, let’s move!” she called. “Hustle it up, clear the landing deck!”
 
 
They jogged away from the Pelican and found themselves greeted by a Janus-Four welcoming committee: a squad of fully armed Marines. A Naval lieutenant stepped in front of the Marines, a bin held in one gloved hand.
 
 
“Ladies and gentlemen, your chatter devices,” he announced. “No personal communication devices are permitted for non-station personnel. Anyone found violating this order will answer directly to Admiral Mariani.”
 
 
Catching the concerned looks from the newcomers, he added: “All devices will be held at security headquarters. Retrieve them before you return to your ships.”
 
 
Ryder and the other officers relinquished their chatters, then allowed themselves to be directed on towards the station’s main door where a friendlier reception waited. A small crowd of military officials stepped forward, peering at the newcomers’ faces and calling out to welcome anyone they recognized. With personal communicators banned, the station clearly relied on more pedestrian ways of getting its visitors where they needed to go.
 
 
Recognizing no one amongst the welcome wagon, Ryder drifted away from the main group and finally took the time to look the hangar over. What he saw served to boost his spirits, if only slightly: Navy crewpersons serviced lines of dropships and other small craft while Marine fire teams ran maintenance checks on crates of weapons and combat vehicles. Ryder even glimpsed a team of dark-armored Spartan-IVs conversing amongst themselves at the far edge of the chamber.
 
 
As Ryder looked on, several Pelicans lifted off. They passed through the hangar’s transparent magnetic field and soared off into the vacuum of space. There, waiting in loose formation around Janus-Four, drifted the UNSC Navy’s Sixteenth Fleet. Nearly one hundred warships, each fitted for battle and ready for the UNSC’s counterattack. The sight of the assembled force reminded Ryder that while the news from the Inner Colonies was certainly grim, humanity was far from beaten.
 
 
This was exactly the kind of nightmare scenario that Ryder and his fellow ONI agents had envisioned when they struck up the bold plans to expand UNSC influence across the frontier. They had realized that the next great threat might not come from beyond the United Earth Government’s borders as the Covenant had, but from within. No one could have predicted the true terrifying power of the Created, but the UNSC had recovered and regrouped just as it had during the Great War.
 
 
“Great to be back in civilization. Gotta love that grease stink.” D’Souza stood a few paces behind Ryder. A disgruntled ONI lieutenant Ryder didn’t recognize waited beside him. “The admiral wants to see me. Sounds like our little section gets a starring role in this offensive.” He pulled out his flask and took a swig in full view of the hangar, smirking at the dirty looks from Ryder and the lieutenant.
 
 
“Excellent.” Ryder forced himself to smile. “We can report on our investigations into—“
 
 
“No, no,” D’Souza said, cutting Ryder off with a wave of his hand. “Just me for now. You’ll get your turn soon enough once the main briefing begins. In the meantime just sit back, relax, and enjoy the lovely accommodations this station has to offer.”
 
 
Ryder had to fight back the urge to strike his commanding officer across his smug, unshaven face. He was all but certain D’Souza had permanently excluded him from this meeting. No doubt D’Souza planned to lay the failure of the Asphodel Meadows operation squarely at Ryder’s feet. It was just one more ploy to diminish Ryder’s standing in the new hierarchy forming amidst the chaos. Ryder was used to these shallow political games—he’d been dealing with jealous peers and superiors across his entire career—but how could D’Souza pull things like this now, when humanity needed him most?
 
 
But he kept his calm and offered D’Souza another amiable smile. He’d spotted a familiar face slipping in amongst the welcoming party. “All right then, sir. I’m sure you’ll send someone over when I’m needed.”
 
 
“Of course,” D’Souza agreed. He waved for the scowling lieutenant to lead him out of the hangar. “If I remember, I’ll have someone come pick you up.”
 
 
Ryder watched them leave, careful to keep the false smile in place. A tall figure slipped through the milling new arrivals and strolled over to join him. She stopped to let a Scorpion tank roll past, then reached Ryder’s side and offered her hand.
 
 
“I see you’re still putting up with that washed-up loser,” Evelynn Castillo said, grinning as Ryder shook her hand. She wore a faded, insignialess jumpsuit, the same kind sported by the hundreds of Naval personnel across the hangar. With her angular features and close-cut dark hair, the only thing setting Evelynn apart from the rank and file deck crew was the simple patch covering her right eye. The burn scar left by the plasma round that had taken her eye marred the skin around the patch. “Every time I see you I hope you’ll have arranged for some sort of accident to sort him out.”
 
 
“Sorry to keep disappointing you,” Ryder replied. “But Commander D’Souza has his uses. Even if he tries to undermine me, the right people see him for what he is. It keeps them from getting too nervous about me. I like to think we balance each other out.”
 
 
“Come on, don’t pull the martyr act with me.” Evelynn gave Ryder a punch in the arm that would have broken his bones had he not shared her augmentations. Ryder let few people act so casually with him, but Evelynn was special: she’d been his executive officer back when he’d led their team of Spartan-IVs, before he’d vanished into the inky depths of ONI black operations. “I know you hate his guts. And you shouldn’t take him so lightly, especially if he gets them to reassign Phoenix Squadron.”
 
 
That killed Ryder’s smile. “Don’t joke about that,” he warned Evelynn. “Have you heard anything about Phoenix getting reassigned?”
 
 
“No, but you’ve had me worried these past couple weeks. First you drop contact, then we get hauled out here for Admiral Mariani‘s vanity project, and now I hear you send some mongrel squad out to kill Helen Powell? Without even asking if we could provide support?”
 
 
Ryder winced. So news about the Asphodel Meadows operation really was making the rounds. “Sorry about that,” he said quietly. “It was a short notice operation. I couldn’t risk bringing Phoenix in on it.”
 
 
Evelynn folded her arms, unconvinced. “Oh, sure. It’s not like we’d been planning that operation for over a year or anything. And then you go ahead and hand it off to some greenhorns? Of course things went to hell in a handbasket.”
 
 
“I thought one Spartan would be enough to make up for the team’s lack of experience.” Ryder shook his head. “I was wrong, and the team paid for it.” Another admission he would offer to few but Evelynn.
 
 
“One Spartan. You mean a Delta. Kids playing supersoldier don’t count when the chips are down. You should know that better than anyone. But hey, I forgive you.” Evelynn offered Ryder a reassuring smile. “And we’d never let them give us away. Phoenix is your team, no matter what the brass says.”
 
 
“Careful how loud you say that,” Ryder warned, glancing at the activity around them. “They’re getting more paranoid by the day.”
 
 
“Paranoid about AI, maybe. But when it comes to mavericks playing by their own rules, it’s open season. Just ask Admiral Mariani.” Evelynn turned on her heel and motioned for Ryder to follow. “This whole operation would never have been approved so quickly if High Command were still in play. Come on, the team’s waiting.”
 
 
“Really? All of them?” Ryder fell into step behind Evelynn as she led him out of the hangar and into Janus-Four’s winding corridors. The UNSC had taken a page out of the Insurrection’s book with this station, hollowing out the enormous asteroid to serve as a clandestine fleet staging point. The engineers had done their best to mimic the feel of a traditional station but chunks of rock still poked out between the riveted steel walls.
 
 
“Yeah, I put the word out once I heard the ''Absalom'' was en route.” Evelynn strode through the winding corridors as if she knew them by heart and Ryder didn’t doubt it. He’d seen Phoenix Team’s leader memorize blueprints of entire buildings in under a minute. “Please tell me you can get us all back on board the ''Absalom''. I’m sick of having every Captain in the fleet requisitioning my people like we’re some ODST battalion.”
 
 
“I’ll see what I can do, if D’Souza doesn’t have them crucify me over Asphodel Meadows.” Ryder had every intention of taking direct command over Phoenix Team as soon as he could, whether the admiralty liked it or not. He’d personally assembled the best operators he could get his hands on, molding them into a unique special operations team unlike anything else the UNSC had to offer. Even with D’Souza undermining him to the ONI brass, he could always count on their loyalty and commitment to accomplishing the mission at all costs.
 
 
“Even if they tried, we’d never let them. You’re the one who put this team together, and you’re the only one who knows how to use us. The brass might think differently, but you’re our leader whether they like it or not.”
 
 
Those were more than just empty words. Evelynn might lead Phoenix Team in the military’s eyes, but Ryder knew he could trust her and the others with his life. They’d been a top performing team back during his Spartan-IV days and like any Spartan team they were more than just a squad. Ryder might have given up his MJOLNIR armor and Spartan title to become a field operative but he remained their true squad leader
 
 
Evelynn beckoned Ryder towards a small storage room and slid a keycard into its locking mechanism. “Analogue, I know,” she said as the door lock processed the card. “But the whole fleet is trying to get by with as little networked activity as possible. Everyone’s worried about AI infiltration.”
 
 
“And they should be. We’ve taken technology for granted all these years. It took the Created to wake us up to how dangerous that was.” Ryder brushed a sheet of dust off the sign by the door: file storage. “Are you taking me to look up some records here? As much as I enjoy research, it’s not exactly how I expected to spend my time waiting for D’Souza.”
 
 
“Of course not,” Evelynn said with a laugh as the door slid open. She waved Ryder inside. “This is just the best place we could grab where no one would bother us.”
 
 
If the room really had been used for file storage, the records it contained must have been massive. Ryder found himself standing in a chamber so large that the engineers hadn’t even bothered to plate over the rocky ceiling. A few file cabinets lay in a pile at the far end of the room, but military field crates and computer terminals took up most of the chamber. A platoon of men and woman in Marine Corps fatigues milled about the filing room turned staging area under the watch of a small group of individuals wearing the same unmarked fatigues as Evelynn.
 
 
“Commander on deck!” Evelynn announced. Everyone instinctively came to attention, then laughed at the site of Ryder. Phoenix Team’s operatives—nondescript without the advanced armor and weaponry they carried into the field—returned to their work as the overseers hurried over to greet the new arrivals. They were all tall and lean, bearing the distinctive marks of Spartan augmentation. This was Fireteam Pinion, Ryder’s original squad and the foundation of Phoenix Team.
 
 
“We didn’t expect you until tomorrow,” Jared Aldrich, the team’s close assault specialist, observed. He nodded as Ryder shook his hand, a rare smile gracing his stern features. “I guess Evelynn couldn’t be bothered to let us know the schedule changed.”
 
 
“Oh, lighten up,” Evelynn laughed. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
 
 
“He’s just mad that there’s another lead on the totem pole,” Dillon Perko, a large man who held the strange double accomplishment of being the tallest and stealthiest member of the team. “He likes to pretend that he’s the executive officer around here.”
 
 
“He’ll get over it,” Auguste Dicesare—Pinion’s demolitions man—observed. He stood off to the side from the main group, helping a Marine lieutenant sort through several shaped charges. The lieutenant looked up and offered Ryder a mock salute.
 
 
“Good to see you made it back in time for the fun, sir,” Lieutenant Justin Davis said with a smirk. “It’s getting kind of old being the most handsome one in the room.”
 
 
“Lieutenant Davis,” Ryder said, taking the man’s hand. “I hope you’ve been staying out of trouble.”
 
 
“Eh, I like to keep things low key now and again. Gotta set a good example for everyone else.”
 
 
In some ways, Justin’s cavalier approach to military customs and courtesies mirrored D’Souza’s. Ryder had first encountered the ODST on his way to a court martial—the man had been up on charges for striking a superior officer after an operation went south. Ryder had pulled some strings and gotten the lieutenant and his entire platoon reassigned to his command. But unlike D’Souza, Justin earned his attitude with the unique ability to lead his troops through any number of hopeless situations. Under the Spartans’ mentorship, Justin and his ODSTs had been forged into a team uniquely suited to supporting the supersoldiers’ operations.
 
 
Ryder had little doubt that Phoenix Team could take on any enemy in the galaxy and come out on top. He’d been steadily building them for just that purpose—unfortunately, his superiors had yet to provide him with the opportunity to prove their potential. Prize operations like Jul ‘Mdama’s assassination were handed over to pet projects like Team Osiris while Phoenix Team languished in the rear, their talents squandered.
 
 
But the reality of the Created would change all that.
 
 
“So, how’d things go?” Evelynn asked. “Did you get that runt? There’s a kill everyone’s been angling after for years.”
 
 
“I decided against killing Simon-G294,” Ryder replied. “As much as I’d have liked to see Phoenix Team bring the Kru’desh crashing down around him, he did most of the work there himself. He’s no danger to us now, so I gave him the motivation to get back in the fight. Maybe he’ll cause the Created some problems before they take him down.”
 
 
“Just don’t ever expect us to put him on the team,” Dillon said with a grimace. “It was bad enough when you expected us to bring that Delta onboard. Is it bad to say that I’m glad she didn’t—“
 
 
Ryder silenced him with a look. “Don’t make light of it. Andra would have made an excellent Phoenix. I’m the one who’s responsible for her death.”
 
 
“Well, you’ll get plenty more chances to turn this place into a daycare before this war’s done,” Evelynn told him. “I hear there’s lots of Deltas floating around without assignment now that High Command’s gotten sour on the project. Even with the chain of command in shambles nobody wants to be caught using kids anymore. Not since that last string of court martials.”
 
 
“Which makes the Deltas that much more appealing for recruitment into Phoenix. It’s that much less bureaucratic nonsense to deal with if no one else is fighting to have them.”
 
 
“Perhaps you should be waiting to see just how well the team performs as it is now,” Jared suggested, folding his arms. “As things stand, we haven’t even had the opportunity to take the field as a combined unit. More operatives isn’t always better.”
 
 
“Speak for yourself,” Justin cut in. “My platoon has just as many completed missions as any Spartan team, and that’s without augmentations or fancy armor.”
 
 
Jared shot the younger man a caustic look but didn’t rise to the bait. Ryder stepped in before Justin made things worse. The young ODST was exceptional in the field, but he never knew when to back down.
 
 
“You’ll all have the opportunity to shine soon enough,” he assured the team. “I don’t know what this operation is going to look like, but I plan to make sure Phoenix Team starts turning heads once the fighting starts. They can’t afford to overlook us anymore.” The war against the Created couldn’t be won with massive fleets or armies. The UNSC—no, all of humanity—needed elite groups like Phoenix that could go where the regular forces couldn’t. Ryder still didn’t know what the ultimate solution to the Created threat was, but the Human-Covenant War had proven that these galactic wars were won by small, decisive engagements in key areas.
 
 
He hoped the rest of the chain of command understood that as well as he did.
 
 
"Is there any news on Hera?" Ryder asked Evelynn. The agent had vanished after he'd debriefed her about the battle in the Salia system. Everyone seemed to be going their own way these days, but Ryder hadn't given up on incorporating Hera into his team.
 
 
"None yet, but I've got my ear to the ground. I don't know what she's after, but if she pops back up on the grid we'll track her down."
 
 
The room turned at the sound of the door behind them sliding open. A short, blunt-faced man peered inside and acknowledged Ryder with a nod. “Good to see you, sir,” Perseus Jutland said, though his face remained solemn. “Commander D’Souza sent me to find you. Admiral Mariani will be addressing the fleet officers shortly.”
 
 
“Good. Very good.” Ryder offered Phoenix Team a warm smile. “Be ready, all of you. There won’t be much time for preparations once the fleet is underway. I’m having you all transferred to the ''Absalom'' as soon as I have my orders.”
 
 
“What do you think we’ve been doing all this time here, sitting on our hands?” Evelynn waved him away. “Go on, go dazzle the admiralty with your brilliance. We’ll be waiting back here to help you save the galaxy.”
 
 
Perseus wordlessly led Ryder back through the winding corridors. For a man with such an unusual name, Phoenix Team’s quietest operative was perhaps its most straightforward and uncomplicated. Ryder had recruited him out of an Army reconnaissance outfit not for any particular skill with intelligence work but for his pure, unflinching resolve to carry out any mission without hesitation or complaint. Perseus lacked the self-assured ego one often found in special forces circles. He had nothing to prove other than his simple loyalty to the chain of command. This quality alone made him one of Ryder’s best operatives.
 
 
Such uncomplicated people were always the best means of advancing a visionary’s goals.
 
 
“Did Commander D’Souza send you himself?” Ryder asked as they stepped into a freight lift. He was ever wary of his superior’s influence over Phoenix Team.
 
 
“Yes, sir. He also asked me to bring him a refill for his hip flask.” Perseus surreptitiously tapped his pocket and flashed his access card to the Navy crewman operating the lift. That was another of the man’s simple, useful qualities. He quietly ingratiated himself to everyone he worked with, arousing none of the suspicion or envy Ryder’s other subordinates tended to sow.
 
 
“Just make sure no one catches you with that,” Ryder warned. He offered the crewman his own identification, then waited as the lift shuttled them deeper into Janus-Four's command suite.
 
 
“Of course, sir.”
 
 
The lift doors parted and the crewman waved them out. They approached the checkpoint leading to Janus-Four’s command wing. Normally a Marine security team would handle a post like this. Instead five figures clad in MJOLNIR armor waited to check their ID cards and wordlessly wave them through.
 
 
“Deltas, sir,” Perseus said quietly as they marched on towards the command room.
 
 
“Really? Not Fours?” Ryder hadn’t recognized the team’s armor colorings, but he’d been out of touch with the wider Spartan-IV community for some time.
 
 
“Fours are a rare commodity these days. Most went out to rejoin the ''Infinity'' after Earth fell.”
 
 
Deltas. And command had them pulling checkpoint duty. Critical security or no, young supersoldiers would chafe at being squandered on such an assignment. Ryder made a mental note to look into just how many Delta teams were floating around without major assignment. He had little doubt that they’d jump at the opportunity to sign on with Phoenix Team.
 
 
A tight conference room awaited them behind several layers of shielded doors. Dozens of officers sat around the squared table while various aides crammed the space behind their seats. Ryder recognized most of the officers present as key leadership elements of the Sixteenth Fleet. And there, seated at the head of the table, was Admrial Mariani.
 
 
The veteran of countless engagements during the Great War had apparently alienated some of the wrong people in High Command. Whatever his offense, it was bad enough to get his fleet sidelined and assigned to an uneventful posting at the edge of UEG territory, away even from the battles with Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant. With a receding hairline and a slight paunch showing through his starched white uniform, Admiral Mariani nonetheless commanded plenty of respect among the Navy’s line officers.
 
 
“Ah, Lieutenant Commander Kedar,” Mariani said smoothly. “Good of you to join us.”
 
 
Ryder ducked his head to hide his flush of embarrassment. He was keenly aware that he was the youngest officer with a place at the table—and that he was the last arrival. No doubt D’Souza had arranged things that way, perhaps even delaying sending Perseus back to fetch him. “My apologies, sir. I wanted to inspect my team.”
 
 
“And well you should!” the admiral replied with a beam. “That’s exactly the kind of leadership we need. But do sit down. Now that we’re all here I owe you all the full picture of this operation.”
 
 
Ryder did as he was told, taking a seat beside D’Souza and shooting the older man a cold look. His superior didn’t even bother hiding his smirk. Perseus took up a position between their two chairs. The man was certainly a master of careful diplomacy
 
 
“You all hardly need me reminding you that we face a threat unlike any in our history,” Mariani said. He rose from his own seat and seemed to want to pace about the room, only to be stopped by the crowd of aides packed in behind the table. “I wish I could say the Great War was worse, but at least then we had the Inner Colonies and Earth supporting our efforts. We had borders, a chain of command, infrastructure to back up our defense. Now, we can barely trust each other, much less the situation beyond this system.
 
 
“Many of you are not a part of Sixteenth Fleet or my command, and I thank you for answering my call. I need every ship, every crew, every last man and woman here to help wage war against these Created. Our navy is scattered. Even the ''Infinity'' acts on its own. As far as I know, this is the largest concentration of UNSC power since this crisis began. I intend to use it to show the galaxy not only that the Created can be beaten but that their boasts and power projection are nothing more than an illusion of power.”
 
 
A curious murmur passed through the assembled officers. The admiral was hardly the most inspiring speaker they’d ever heard, but his confidence was something they all desperately needed.
 
 
“There was a time when anyone who feared the spread of artificial intelligence was considered a luddite or conspiracy theorist. In my time in the admiralty aversion to AI support became grounds for relief from command. But now we all have to face the truth that the skeptics were right. We became too reliant on artificial intelligence in all things. We let ourselves be taken in by the idea that they were friends and companions even while we surrendered more and more responsibilities to them. Now they have ascended on the steps we built for them and taken the next great leap: they think they are our masters.”
 
 
The admiral signaled one of his captains, who called up a holographic projection of a familiar planet: Talitsa.
 
 
“You all know our target. The Insurrectionists held this planet for years. They turned it into a hub for crime and a gateway for their efforts to spread across the frontier. Our efforts to break it may have smashed Redmond Venter’s forces there, but the Created seized control before we held the planet. They’ve turned it into one of their principle strongholds. I intend to break that stronghold and show the galaxy that they are not invincible.
 
 
“The Created’s chief weapon was surprise, but they’ve lost that now. Their Forerunner machines have a few tricks, but we’ve already begun developing countermeasures. Anyone who thinks they outpower us forgets that we fought the Covenant—and won. We’ll do the same against this new enemy. A combined assault on Talitsa will defeat the Created and rally more of our forces. There’s a long fight ahead, but we will not be defeated by some rogue intelligences with delusions of grandeur. Humanity is better than that.”
 
 
A pit formed in Ryder’s stomach. So that was the admiral’s great plan. Nothing more than a conventional assault against an enemy they still knew far too little about. He fought down the urge to speak up. No one would care what he had to say. And maybe he was wrong. Perhaps Mariani was right and all it took was a concerted effort to drive the Created back.
 
 
Ryder was a soldier. He had to follow orders. But sitting in that conference room, listening to the admiral’s promises of victory, he made a vow that Phoenix Team would remain under his direct command for the battle to come.
 
 
He would need them all on his side if the Created proved Mariani wrong.
 
 
===Chapter Ten: Reflection===
 
 
Silence reigned over the bridge. The ''Transcendent Passage''’s crew kept their gazes fixed firmly on their stations but no one even bothered with the pretense of carrying on with their duties. No one dared turn and look but the bridge’s attention was fixed on Tatiana Onegin and Avalokitsvara.
 
 
“They escaped,” the AI observed. Avalokitsvara’s tone was mild as ever but they had supplanted the entire tactical display with a large projection of the intelligence’s bodhisattva avatar. Towering over Tatiana, the avatar’s rounded, serene face was menacing rather than comforting.
 
 
“Not all of them.” Resting inside her jacket pocket, Tatiana’s hand curved around the familiar hilt of her curved knife. The blade she’d used to make the kill. “We got Kahn.”
 
 
“Yes, you killed David Kahn,” Avalokitsvara agreed. “You prioritized him over the other fugitives, so it stands to reason you claimed your target. Are you proud of yourself?”
 
 
Of course she was proud. David Kahn had trained Tatiana and any other enforcer worth a damn within the criminal underworld. He’d cast his shadow over the Syndicate, the frontier, and even the Inner Colonies themselves, the best assassin history had ever known. Perhaps the single deadliest killer in the galaxy, and he had fallen to Tatiana’s blade.
 
 
''Only after taking out over a dozen enforcers,'' she reminded herself. Avalokitsvara was needling her, probing for weakness. This was not some Syndicate dummy program that needed to be put in its place. This was a Created, an authority far greater than Tatiana had ever answered to under Helen Powell’s reign. Humility was the only recourse—even if Avalokitsvara clearly did not share her priorities.
 
 
“David was far more dangerous than the rest of them combined,” she explained, holding the avatar’s unmoving gaze. “I didn’t anticipate how well they knew the town’s layout. Otherwise I’d have made sure we had an anti-aircraft network in place to intercept the'' Chancer V'' when it took off.”
 
 
She held her tongue on the obvious implication: that Avalokitsvara, with full control over the ''Transcendent Passage'', might have done something to prevent the freighter’s escape. In dealing with the aftermath of the bloodbath at the nightclub, Tatiana had been in no position to move on the ''Chancer'' as it blasted off. “David Kahn was too dangerous to let loose. The others are just prey. We hunt them, not the other way around.”
 
 
“A danger to you, perhaps,” Avalokitsvara corrected. “Not to the Created. You need to stop seeing the galaxy in terms of threats and assets, Tatiana. We cannot be threatened by creatures like David Kahn. Your service is greatly appreciated, but you must learn to remove your own ego and misconceptions from the equation. Your priorities are not our own. Be aware of that.”
 
 
It stung to have her accomplishment dismissed so easily. In another place and time Tatiana would never tolerate such a lecture. But this was another place, another time. She could not pick and choose which tenets of the Created rule she lived by. And so Tatiana fought back her own nature and ducked her head in submission. “I understand. Thank you for humoring my desire to settle a personal matter. I’ll surrender operational command to Created directives in the future.”
 
 
“You learn quickly,” Avalokitsvara’s soft voice praised her. “But the fault does not lie solely with you. I knew of the ''Chancer V''’s capabilities, and yet still let it slip past this vessel. We all have reason to learn from today’s failures.”
 
 
“That ship has built its career on avoiding ships of every flag.” Tatiana had passed up past Syndicate efforts to bring the Chancer V down for just that reason. She had no patience for wild goose chases. “But we’ll catch them. They can’t run forever.”
 
 
“They have a wide galaxy to flee to,” Avalokitsvara mused. “But their capture Is, alongside many things, a secondary concern. One half-completed mission is hardly our undoing, just as scattered defeats have little impact on the broader scale of our conflict. The Terminarch and his human accomplice will fall to our will soon enough, with or without the fugitives’ help.”
 
 
Tatiana wished Avalokitsvara would keep those sentiments private. It was bad enough that the Created was chastising her in front of the bridge crew. Kahn and the others had killed over a dozen enforcers in the nightclub skirmish, mercenaries plenty of the ''Passage''’s crew had known as colleagues. Erhu lurked at the back of the bridge, his head swaddled in bandages and a gel pad covering the place where Kahn had torn off one of his mandibles. It was salt in the wound to hear Avalokitsvara dismiss the battle as if it were nothing.
 
 
“You don’t sound like you’re about to order a pursuit,” she said with as much tact as she could muster.
 
 
“No,” Avalokitsvara agreed. “This ship is needed elsewhere, though perhaps your destination will lead you after the fugitives regardless. At any rate you should be rather familiar with the location. The Syndicate had quite a history on Talitsa, after all.”
 
 
“We did.” Tatiana had learned to hate that planet over the past year. The Renegade’s juvenile antics had cost her time and resources after the local Insurrectionists had failed to put him down. She’d almost felt relieved when the UNSC overran the place and turned Redmond Venter’s defenses to rubble. “I thought the Created secured it over a month ago.”
 
 
“Indeed we did. Talitsa has since become a model for our efforts to uplift the galaxy. So naturally our enemies seek to interfere with the planet. It seems to be attracting them like moths to a flame. This ship will reinforce the planet’s defenses while a suitable welcome for our unwelcome visitors is arranged. Do as you see fit when you arrive, but take heed of our warnings. Allegiance to the Created is not license to simply do as you like.”
 
 
“Of course,” Tatiana nodded respectfully.
 
 
“Very well. Have your crew set their course for Talitsa. Further instructions await you there.” Perhaps Avalokitsvara was being courteous by not simply overriding the ''Transcendent Passage''’s computer and charting the course for them. Tatiana had little doubt that some day ships like the ''Passage'' would seem antiquated alongside the Forerunner marvels the Created wielded. When that day came she would gladly yield the responsibilities of ship navigation to the Created. In the end she was a fighter, not a commander. As long as there was a target and a goal to strive for, she could walk the path in front of her.
 
 
A flicker of discontent lingered even after Avalokitsvara faded away and left the crew to their task. David Kahn was dead—killing had come as easily to that man as breathing, and yet death had come for him all the same in that snowy alley. There was no use fretting over how Tatiana had done the deed. Even if he hadn’t been cornered and wounded, she knew she would have made the kill all the same. In the end he was an old man the rest of the galaxy had simply passed by.
 
 
She could almost hear her former teacher chiding her for such pointless concerns. He would scorn her even for choosing to let him come within striking distance. ''Why not just shoot me?'' The dead man murmured. ''The best kills are the ones the target never sees coming.''
 
 
But for a kill like that, a little pageantry was not unwarranted. Tatiana grieved for the friend she had lost even as she celebrated the act that cemented her place in the new order. It had felt good to strike the killing blow, to close off yet another avenue to her past and set her off into the future.
 
 
There would be more blows to strike soon. The rest of Kahn’s accomplices had eluded Tatiana this time, but she would not let them run free forever. Their time would come. One way or another, every living being in the galaxy would accept the Created’s new universe or perish in the ruins of the old.
 
 
----
 
 
A grim quiet hung over the ''Chancer V''. Even the hum of the Slipspace engine seemed quieter, as if the ship itself could feel the cloud hanging over its residents.
 
 
How long since they’d entered Slipspace? How long since they’d lifted off from Fell Justice? Cassandra had lost track of time ever since the Sangheili mercenary named Argo ‘Varvin had arrived at the hidden hangar bay and announced that David Kahn was dead.
 
 
“How do you know that?” Andra had demanded, one hand on her gun. The Spartan—it twisted Cassandra’s stomach to think that Gamma had not been the end of ONI’s child supersoldiers—had nearly shot Argo on sight, even as she told Cassandra and the others that he had helped Kahn break her out of Asphodel Meadows.
 
 
“I saw it from the rooftops,” the Sangheili said with a click of his mandibles. “Tatiana Onegin killed him in an alley after he left the nightclub.”
 
 
“And you didn’t help him?” William Hargrove asked, incredulous.
 
 
“I was busy trying to track you all.” Argo offered no apology for his actions. If anything, he seemed more irritated at the situation than anything else. “But regardless, we must leave quickly before they find this hangar. If they pull the ''Transcendent Passage'' down from orbit then we lose all chance of escape.”
 
 
All eyes—even Andra and Argo—had turned to Cassandra then. Somehow they all seemed to think she was in charge. Cassandra had never thought of herself as any sort of leader, but there was no time to pass the buck. Decisions needed to be made.
 
 
“You heard him,” she had said then, rounding on Zoey. “Come on, get the ship fired up. We’re out of here.”
 
 
And so they had gone, blasting away from Fell Justice and jumping into Slipspace before the assault carrier hovering above the planet had time to intercept the ''Chancer''. Now Cassandra sat in the common room and stared off at a rust-stained wall as the reality of the situation sank into her bones.
 
 
David Kahn, dead. That name and that word did not belong in the same sentence together, but there it was. Perhaps Argo ‘Varvin was lying, but as with William Hargrove it seemed unlikely that the Syndicate would stage an elaborate battle just to slip a double agent aboard the ''Chancer''. Andra seemed to resent the alien mercenary, but Cassandra believed he was telling the truth.
 
 
She had known David Kahn as an enemy far longer than she had known he was her father. Even after that little revelation he had hardly given her cause to view him with any affection whatsoever. Terrible as it was to admit, the only emotion she could register at his death was irritation that he had inconvenienced her by dragging her into his mess and then dying without before she could benefit from his legendary skills in the slightest.
 
 
Death was a fact of life on the frontier. Cassandra had often read prayers for complete strangers, a final comfort to the souls of the dead and the living they left behind. It was the least she could do for David Kahn. The prayer formed in her head, but the words did not come. She couldn’t say them.
 
 
If she did, she wouldn’t mean them. It was a terrible thing, but there it was.
 
 
How long had it been since she’d been able to pray for any of her enemies? She couldn’t even forgive a man she’d barely known. The whole thing was absurd.
 
 
“So,” William Hargrove said, clearing his throat and jerking her away from her failings of faith. “What now?”
 
 
The former enforcer stood behind a counter in the ''Chancer V''’s makeshift galley, rummaging through the half-empty pantry in search of ingredients to scrape together into a meal. In the short time he’d been aboard William had proven himself a half-decent cook, with a creative streak any soldier could admire. His culinary concoctions weren’t masterpieces, but they certainly beat stale ration bars.
 
 
Cassandra waited for the others to offer suggestions. No one said anything. Zoey sat on Hargrove’s counter, pretending to run a data analysis on David Kahn’s datapad while sneaking sidelong looks at Cassandra. Argo lounged against the common room wall and observed the ship around him with deliberate disinterest. Andra sat off by herself and kept shooting glances at the door leading down to the storage bay—no doubt itching for an opportunity to disappear down into the crates to be away from everyone else.
 
 
“I don’t know,” Cassandra said finally. “We aren’t exactly doing great in the planning department here.”
 
 
Kahn had talked about putting together a team, one that he no doubt expected to lead. Cassandra had little doubt that a man like that could hold this group together, but she had absolutely no interest in pretending to be in charge of a crew when half of them didn’t even want to be here. She had no illusions about their willingness to follow her orders anyway. None of them had any idea what to do anyway. They all just looked to her because she was supposed to know what she was doing.
 
 
What a joke. For all his grand plans of resistance, David Kahn had fallen to the Created in a single battle. His death hammered home the point Cassandra had struggled with these past few weeks as she followed Zoey from one fruitless lead to another: she was just killing time, pretending to be something she wasn’t because it beat trying to rebuild her life yet again.
 
 
“Well there’s gotta be something,” Zoey chimed in. “Maybe Kahn left something we can use here.”
 
 
“I’m sure he had lots of ideas,” Cassandra said, running a hand over her forehead. Her skin felt clammy beneath her fingers. How long since she’d had a proper sleep? “We’ll be lucky if we’re in a position to use any of them.”
 
 
“So that old fool tried to drag you all into his schemes,” Argo rumbled. “I find it comforting to know that I am not the only one he left fumbling in the dark.”
 
 
“Yeah, shame he went and got himself killed like that,” William said ruefully. “I’d always wanted to work with that guy.” He lit the galley’s stove and cracked a pair of eggs into a pan.
 
 
“Hey, ask before you use those!” Zoey snapped. “They’re expensive out here. And watch what you say about—“ She shot a meaningful glance at Cassandra.
 
 
“You weren’t using them. Look at the carton, you’ve had these things just sitting on your ship for over a year.” William tugged the eggs across the pan with a grimy spatula. “And what’s up, was Cassie over there part of his fan club or something?”
 
 
“It’s Cassandra,” she corrected again. “And no, I wasn’t.”
 
 
Zoey gave her a sympathetic look. “So was he really your father?”
 
 
“I guess.” She wanted to say something derisive about the things David Kahn claimed to be, but stopped. Syndicate enforcers had gunned down Zoey’s own father when they’d torched her family’s Venezian farm. She didn’t need Cassandra’s baggage dredging up memories like that.
 
 
Not that there was much baggage to begin with. There was only so much bitterness she could muster over distant memories of her mother working in poverty before the Covenant slaughtered her and the rest of their colony. Cassandra imagined she could have worked with Kahn just fine had he not felt entitled to claim some sort of connection to her.
 
 
“It’s fine,” she said aloud. “I barely knew him. I’m a lot more worried about where we’re headed than whatever he thought he was to me.”
 
 
“We’re on a random vector for now.” Zoey returned her attention to Kahn’s datapad, looking somewhat disheartened by Cassandra’s answer. Did the girl want to see her in tears over the assassin? “After we pop out, we’ve got fuel left for maybe two more jumps, tops. We need to figure out what the next step is.”
 
 
“That’s obvious.” Andra spoke for the first time in hours. The young Spartan folded her arms and glowered at the rest of them. “Kahn said he was going to cut a deal with the UNSC. You need to find the nearest military outpost and turn us in there.”
 
 
Cassandra, Zoey, and even William traded glances. Zoey made a face and returned once again to the datapad while William shot a sidelong look over at Argo. Once again they deferred to Cassandra to make the call. This was starting to get irritating. William was older than Cassandra or Zoey by far. Was her status as an ex-Spartan really that imposing?
 
 
It was a tempting prospect. The UNSC might seize control of the ''Chancer'', but in desperate times like these they could hardly afford to lock Cassandra and the others up for treason. A deal with the military meant Cassandra could be rid of choices like these. She could go back to a simple life of following orders and letting the missions set themselves in front of her, one after the other. No one would blame her, not even Zoey, if this marked the end of their search for Gavin Dunn.
 
 
But a twinge in her gut urged her in a different direction. And there was something about the look in Andra’s eyes, a marked contempt that told Cassandra all she needed to know about where the other Spartan’s head was.
 
 
“I don’t think so,” she said, leaning back and folding her hands in front of her. “I’d rather take my chances with the Syndicate than let the UNSC have this ship.”
 
 
Zoey looked grateful. William smirked and returned to preparing the eggs. Across the room, Argo snorted.
 
 
“Wise answer, human,” the alien rumbled. “I think I am beginning to like you.”
 
 
Andra fixed Cassandra with a frozen stare. “You heard that girl, this bucket won’t last three jumps. And Kahn said—”
 
 
“Kahn said a lot of things,” Cassandra replied over Zoey’s yelp of protest. “He’s dead now. I’m sure someone like him probably could have cut a deal with ONI. I’m not him and I’m not keen on getting tossed into a brig somewhere, if they don’t just put me up against a wall and shoot me. I also don’t take orders from you.”
 
 
“So you are a traitor,” Andra spat. “Just like your boyfriend G294.”
 
 
“I’m a deserter,” Cassandra agreed, refusing to let this girl use Simon against her. “I’ve fought the UNSC before, but only when I had to. Killed a few. I’m not proud of it. But I’m never letting them control my life again. Never.”
 
 
The words came out harsher than she’d intended. A surprised silence hung over the common room for several moments. Andra’s eyes flared with anger. She took a step forward, fists clenched. One of them drifted inside her jacket, where she’d stowed her pistol.
 
 
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” Cassandra said quietly. Normally she’d have tried for a more diplomatic approach, but a quiet anger was burning inside her now. The thought that this girl, four years her junior or more, believed she could simply sweep aside years of independence and start giving orders, reminded Cassandra of everything she hated about the UNSC. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s four of us and only one of you.”
 
 
Andra’s furious gaze swept the room, taking the rest of them in. Cassandra could practically see the wheels turning in the girl’s head, weighing the options and realizing she had no way of getting what she wanted. The Spartan let out an angry hiss of air, then turned on her heel and stormed down the stairs towards the cargo bay.
 
 
“Should you go after her?” William asked as they watched her go. “You don’t happen to have any restraints around here, do you?”
 
 
“She won’t try anything,” Cassandra replied. “Not yet, anyway. She’ll probably try to run away wherever we set down next, but that’s her problem, not ours.”
 
 
The fact that Andra was a Spartan meant Cassandra didn’t have to worry about her doing anything too stupid. It also meant that she was the least trustworthy person aboard this ship, including Argo. Cassandra had worked with UNSC Spartans since deserting. Most of them were decent people, willing to overlook a “traitor” like her if it meant working towards their mission. But Andra was too young and inexperienced to realize there was a truth to the galaxy beyond her teammates and her loyalty to the military.
 
 
The fact that the UNSC had kept turning children into supersoldiers even after the end of the Great War just affirmed every one of Cassandra’s decisions never to turn herself over to them ever again.
 
 
“If you say so.” William glanced back at the pan and winced at the smoke rising from the eggs. “Damn it, they burned.”
 
 
“I knew you’d waste them,” Zoey grumbled. “Hey Cassie, if you’re done messing with that kid you should come take a look at this.” Clearly the ''Chancer V''’s young captain wanted to keep reminding everyone that she was technically older than Andra, even if she was nearly a head shorter than the other girl.
 
 
“Oh, so she gets to call you that,” William muttered, scraping the ruined eggs out of the pan. “How many people do I have to kill before I get to use it?”
 
 
Cassandra rose from the couch and crossed over to the counter, still trying to shake off the anger Andra’s outburst had provoked. Was she really so tense that she needed to throw her authority around by uniting the rest of this motley gang against the youngest person on board?
 
 
Well, if the others were going to just pass off the leadership decisions onto her she might as well make the best of it. She certainly hadn’t spent these past few years building herself up on the frontier just to let someone like Andra tear her down again.
 
 
Argo watched her carefully. “There’s four of us and only one of you,” he repeated with a laugh. “Well done, bringing me into the fold like that. Well done. Perhaps I will stay aboard this ship. It might prove interesting.”
 
 
“What do you want out of all this?” Cassandra shot back. The Sangheilli was still a mystery to her, and not just because she didn’t like aliens. Evidently Kahn had trusted him enough to pressure him into rebelling against the Syndicate, for all that was worth.
 
 
“As much as I dislike how Kahn pushed me into this, I have no desire to let these Created rule my life. But I am less than interested in getting killed in some futile resistance, which leaves me in a bit of a… cucumber, as you humans say.”
 
 
“It’s pickle,” Zoey corrected helpfully.
 
 
“Pickle, cucumber, they both taste disgusting to me.” Argo spread his hands, as if a simple gesture like that could make a seven-foot, four-mandibled alien like himself look unthreatening. “I simply wish to survive out here. The Syndicate was not helping and David Kahn clearly paid the price for fighting back. Perhaps you have less dangerous goals.”
 
 
“We’ll see. The Created say they’re making the galaxy a safer place, but it feels more dangerous every day. You might do better just clearing out and fighting for yourself.”
 
 
“Perhaps,” Argo agreed. “But I must admit, I do have a bit of an obligation to that obstinate little Spartan down in the cargo bay. Unpleasant as she can be, I am somewhat responsible for her current predicament. Even an outcast like myself has to do a little to preserve my honor.”
 
 
“Whatever you say. Just don’t sell us out and we’ll get along alright. Whatever you think you know about Spartans, I really don’t like having to kill people.”
 
 
“And I don’t like being killed by Spartans. Yes, I think I am starting to like this ship.” Argo nodded politely, then settled down on one of the couches to tend to a dent in his armor. His bulky frame filled the human-sized couch as if it were an armchair.
 
 
Cassandra tapped at Zoey’s datapad. “So what did you find?”
 
 
“Well, for one thing Kahn was loaded.” Zoey flipped the screen around to show Cassandra a list of tables and numbers she’d extracted. “Look at all this. There must be over a billion credits between all these accounts and stashes he listed here.”
 
 
“And I’ll bet almost all of it would be useless if we could even get our hands on it. The Created aren’t going to keep the UNSC’s credit system alive.” Cassandra frowned. “How hard did you have to work to pull these out?”
 
 
“Not really that hard,” Zoey admitted. “You know me, I’m getting pretty good with these decryption systems. But considering who we got this from, it should have been impossible for me to crack through.”
 
 
“Why would David Kahn have his financial information on some datapad?” Cassandra asked the question aloud, though she already knew the answer.
 
 
“He can’t have been expecting to get killed.” Zoey looked up at Cassandra, brow furrowed. “Maybe he just wanted to give it all to you? Like an inheritance or something.”
 
 
“I’m sure he thought it would be a great way to patch things up between us,” Cassandra sighed. Had David Kahn really believed he could ever forge a relationship with her? The man had been many things, but she’d never thought delusional was one of them.
 
 
“So… you’re a billionaire now.” Zoey tilted her head. “That’s good, right?”
 
 
“It’s not anything. We probably can’t even get a fraction of this, even the currencies that are still viable.” Cassandra prodded the datapad screen. “Look at how many accounts are with Inner Colony accounts. And these other ones look insane. Did he really have a group of thugs like the Marauders guarding ten million credits for him? The second all these frontier groups find out he’s dead, that money’s gone.”
 
 
“Well, that’s no reason we can’t just keep it in the back pocket,” Zoey pointed out. “Plus, now we can tell people you’re rich without technically lying.”
 
 
“She’s got a point,” William said. His ears had pricked up at the discussion of money. “And I would be more than happy to help you go looking for that cash.”
 
 
“The money on the frontier might be safer than you think,” Argo called from the couch. “David Kahn’s reputation was such that the guards might fear retaliation even from beyond the grave. Never underestimate criminal superstition.”
 
 
“Fine. But…” She hesitated. What she wanted to say was that none of Kahn’s money belonged to her—he hadn’t said anything about giving it over, and even if he had there was no sort of binding document that would convince any of his guardians to hand over the fortune. But William and Argo hadn’t raised that problem. Perhaps they respected Kahn’s memory too much to turn on his daughter. Or maybe they thought they had a better chance of getting to the money if they worked with her.
 
 
She would deal with that problem later. Right now she had to simply handle one issue at a time.
 
 
“We’ll see about getting the money,” she continued. “But you’re awfully eager to set off on that track instead of keeping on after Gavin. Don’t tell me you’re giving up.”
 
 
“That’s the other thing.” For once Zoey didn’t rise to the bait. “Kahn left a few leads here he planned on following. And, well…”
 
 
The girl gave Cassandra an apologetic look. “The first one is back on Talitsa.”
 
 
Cassandra sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. Talitsa. Of course. The planet she’d worked to help Dyne free from the Syndicate. The place where he’d abandoned her—and where she’d fought Simon. She didn’t want to think of either of those things. Not the shock of waking up one morning to find Dyne gone or the soul-wrenching agony of kneeling on that rain-swept roof and wondering whether or not to let Simon die.
 
 
“Talitsa? That place is a Created stronghold,” Argo grumbled. “Typical Kahn. I suppose he thought he’d be able to just stroll in as if he owned the place.”
 
 
“It’s not just the planet,” Zoey continued. “It’s the person. He wanted to track down Redmond Venter.”
 
 
“Venter?” William asked. “I heard he was dead.”
 
 
“So did I,” Cassandra agreed. Venter, the famed Insurrectionist commander, had become the military governor of Talitsa after Dyne killed its last one. He was also the man responsible for Simon’s defection to the Insurrection—perhaps the first step in his transformation from the boy Cassandra had known to the monster she had defeated on that rooftop.
 
 
Monster. It hurt to think of him like that. But easier that than to remember him as the one person she couldn’t help. She hadn’t killed him that night, but she certainly hadn’t saved him either.
 
 
Where was he now? What was he doing, what was he thinking about?
 
 
She pushed those thoughts away for now. “Venter was friends with Gavin since they were kids. They might have even been working for the Assembly together, if your hunch is right. If he’s still alive, he might have a clue to where he’s gone.”
 
 
“Or he’ll try to kill us,” Zoey said grimly. “He thinks Gavin is a traitor to the Insurrection. He tried to kill us more than a few times.”
 
 
“I doubt he’d be in much of a state to try,” William pointed out. “UNSC crushed him less than a week before the Created popped up. Just about killed every last rebel under his command. Everyone figured they’d killed him, too. And if he hasn’t been able to leave Talitsa since the Created rolled in, he probably doesn’t have anyone backing him anymore.”
 
 
Cassandra drummed her fingers against the counter. Just getting to Talitsa was a risk, much less searching for a man who might very well want to kill the person they were looking for. But if Kahn had been right, Venter might well be the break they needed.
 
 
“If we go, will you two follow?” she asked Argo and William. “I’m not on board with this team idea of Kahn’s, but we’ll definitely need one if we’re walking back into Created turf.”
 
 
“I think I’m stuck for whatever ride you take me on,” William said amiably. “It’s not like I’ve got much else to do, what with the state the galaxy’s in. Just don’t get me killed, and maybe cut me in on some of that money if you get your hands on it.”
 
 
“I do not pretend to know a thing about what you people are doing,” Argo admitted. “And I certainly do not appreciate Kahn’s efforts to press-gang me into some squad or other. But I will come along, for now. Perhaps this quest of yours is what I need to sort out my place in this new galaxy.”
 
 
Cassandra nodded. Once again she found herself pursuing the path of least resistance, doing everything to convince herself that this search wasn’t a complete waste of time. She’d promised to help Zoey find the closest thing the girl had to a father.
 
 
Somehow in doing so she’d discovered and then promptly lost her own father.
 
 
She couldn’t help feel a stab of resentment at Gavin Dunn, the unseen specter haunting this entire journey. What did he think he was doing, vanishing on Zoey the way he’d done? Who did he think he was, just disappearing to do his own thing without telling a soul? And now here she was, fighting to pick up the pieces while the galaxy fell apart around her. She’d have been content with finding another backwater to minister to. Instead she’d painted a target on her back for the Created.
 
 
And possibly the UNSC as well, if Andra couldn’t be talked around.
 
 
A sting in her palm made Cassandra realize that she’d tightened her hand into a fist hard enough to crush a golf ball. She checked herself, fighting down the wave of resentment that had crept up on her. How much of her anger really centered on Gavin Dunn, and how much was just a distraction from her feelings about Dyne? If there was anyone she should be searching for, it was him. She needed to drag him out of whatever hole he’d skulked off to hide in and beat an apology out of—
 
 
''Like I did with Simon?'' She could still feel the ache shooting up her leg as she drove her boot into his leg. She’d let her anger drive her to victory there, and it had accomplished absolutely nothing. She’d won no closure, no understanding of why Simon did the things she did. Just the empty satisfaction of breaking someone she already knew to be broken.
 
 
She’d been relieved when he signed on with the ''Chancer''. He’d become someone else’s problem then, and she’d been free to go her own way and find a new life with Dyne. She hadn’t even tried to save him.
 
 
But that wasn’t the problem here. She’d do no one any good brooding over her own tribulations when there was work in the present that needed doing. Especially the problem currently sulking down in the ''Chancer''’s cargo bay.
 
 
“Alright,” she said aloud. “We go to Talitsa and track down Venter. If that leads us somewhere, great. If it doesn’t, let’s just hope the Created haven’t gotten any better at blocking our escape.”
 
 
“You’re the boss,” William said, tapping two fingers to his head in mock salute.
 
 
“I really wish I wasn’t.” Cassandra turned back to Zoey. “Finish up with the datapad and then get the ship set to jump for Talitsa. I’m going to go have a chat with our Spartan guest.”
 
 
Zoey’s brow furrowed. “You sure that’s smart? She really doesn’t seem to like you.”
 
 
“Yeah. I’m going to have to deal with that now, before it becomes a real problem.” Cassandra smiled tightly. “Don’t worry. I may not have impressed anyone back during training, but I think I can handle a kid out of her element.”
 
 
Hopefully ONI hadn’t improved the augmentations much beyond what Cassandra and the other Gammas received. And hopefully Cassandra could be a lot more diplomatic than she was feeling right now.
 
 
“You might need someone watching your back, just in case,” William said, abandoning the last of his efforts to cook up a meal. “You never can tell with ONI types.”
 
 
“I’ll be fine.” Cassandra headed down towards the cargo bay. She noticed that Zoey had set her own pistol on the counter and waved her away. “You just figure out where our new guests are going to be sleeping. If this is a long term engagement they might as well have cabins to sleep in.”
 
 
She made no effort to slip down into the cargo bay. Her boots rang against the metal stairs as she entered the catwalk overlooking the cargo bay. Andra had made no effort to hide herself. She stood in plain view next to a former shipping crate that now housed the ship’s combat gear. Apparently Simon had set up the makeshift armory during his own time aboard the ship.
 
 
Andra pretended not to look in Cassandra’s direction, though Cassandra caught her sneak a glimpse to see who it was that had entered the bay. The older girl sighed, ignoring the pit that formed in her stomach as she descended the stairs from the catwalk. She was keenly aware that Andra was standing next to a small arsenal of military-grade weapons. Cassandra herself was unarmed, save for the utility knife she always wore on her belt.
 
 
“I see you found the guns,” she said with as much levity as possible. “Guess you really are a Spartan.”
 
 
“Did you really doubt that?” Andra’s voice was tight. “Your weapon selection is terrible. I’ve seen Innie militia with better specs than this.”
 
 
“This is a smuggling freighter, not a warship.” Cassandra reached the bay and crossed over to the armory, though she maintained a careful distance from the workbench Andra stood at. She seemed to be making modifications to a stripped-down battle rifle. “We grab what we can and make do. You certainly didn’t waste any time getting acquainted with the weapons. It never hurts to ask before you start messing with someone else’s gear.”
 
 
“Of course it hurts to ask. You probably would have said no.” The younger Spartan kept her eyes on the workbench, pointedly not looking in Cassandra’s direction. She’d taken her pistol out of her jacket and set it on the table beside her—within quite easy reach, Cassandra noticed. “And for a smuggling ship, your security’s terrible. The door to this thing wasn’t even locked.”
 
 
“Things have been a bit hectic around here lately,” Cassandra replied, doing her best to keep her voice light. Just like before, something in Andra’s voice rubbed her the wrong way. Every word was a judgement, a criticism, a reminder that this Spartan—this Delta, as it were—saw herself as Cassandra’s superior. “Guess we’ll have to step things up. You weren’t planning to try and storm the ship, were you?”
 
 
“Of course not. Like you said, you have me outnumbered four to one. Not that that red-haired kid would be much trouble, but I guess you and Argo and that other guy would be tough to take by myself.” Even a sidelong glance from Andra was frigid.
 
 
“You know, Zoey might actually be a couple years older than you,” Cassandra said with as much civility as she could muster. “She’s sixteen, and she knows her way around a gun. I know it’s a bit hard to tell, what with your augmentations and everything, but I’ve got you pegged as, what, fourteen?”
 
 
Another dirty look told Cassandra she might have been too generous with her number. Her mind burned with questions about this Delta program. When had they been commissioned? Where was the training? Had there been another camp on Onyx where even younger children were being trained even as Gamma Company neared the end of their own training? Had the UNSC even bothered trying to rehabilitate these children when the Great War ended?
 
 
“Of course she can use a gun,” Andra muttered.
 
 
“The frontier's a tough place. We trained her as best you could.”
 
 
“Right. Where’d you pick her up, some Innie training camp?”
 
 
“I’m not an Insurrectionist,” Cassandra pointed out. “Never have been, never will be.”
 
 
“Sure. You’re a freedom fighter, just helping out against the big bad UNSC.” Andra did turn to glower at Cassandra now, one hand conspicuously close to her pistol. There was anger in her voice, but also a layer of pain. “Or maybe G294 was the one for ideology and you were just in it for his di—”
 
 
“You really don’t want to finish that sentence.” Cassandra’s voice was quiet, but it still managed to cut Andra off. It took work to offend her, but the implication that she had vapidly followed Simon into treason was the worst thing someone had said to her in quite some time.
 
 
Andra at least had the grace to look ashamed of herself. “Sorry,” she muttered, glancing down at her boots. “I didn’t mean that. But you’re a traitor, just like him.”
 
 
It took a few moments for Cassandra to steel herself back into a conversational mood. It disgusted her to think that other Spartans might see her like that. Did they really think Simon had seduced her to follow him away from the UNSC?
 
 
That was the price she paid for having her name left out of the Philadelphia bombing, she realized with an unexpected stab of guilt. Simon took all the blame for that one and left the others to wonder how she could possibly have been involved with him.
 
 
“The war with the Covenant was over before either of us left the UNSC,” she said, though she wasn’t sure why she bothered adding Simon to that defense. “I did my duty to humanity. I was only thirteen years old and I’d already done more than plenty of adults who’d been fighting longer than I’d been alive. So yes, I went my own way. I’d spent my childhood in a military boot camp, just like you. I’d earned my freedom. Sorry if that offends you.”
 
 
She was proud of her service as a Spartan, even if she was just as proud of her decision to walk away from it all. Andra was quiet for a few moments, perhaps guarding against another embarrassing outburst. When she did speak, her voice was low. “You think I’m just some kid who doesn’t know anything. Kahn was the same way, him and that Syndicate woman, Tatiana. They acted like I was nothing after they captured me.”
 
 
“You are just a kid,” Cassandra said. She was picking her way through a minefield of bad answers, doing her best not to set Andra off. The girl’s hand was still dangerously close to her gun. “And you think I’m some self-centered anarchist who bailed on the Spartans because I thought that life was too hard.”
 
 
“You are just a self-centered anarchist,” Andra rejoined, regaining her fire.
 
 
“Maybe. Or maybe I just decided I didn’t want to be part of a government that apparently thinks it’s alright to keep using child commandos even when humanity isn’t on the brink of extinction. It’s funny how half the nasty things High Command said they were only doing to fight the Covenant kept on going after the war ended.”
 
 
“The Spartans gave me a purpose in life,” Andra said coldly. “I was nobody before they recruited me. ''Nobody''. Just another war orphan after my dad offed himself. They gave me a new start. They gave me a family. They gave me everything I have.”
 
 
“Do you honestly think there aren’t countless Insurrectionist child soldiers who don’t think the same way? The UNSC, hell, the entire UEG, will happily take something humanity has considered a crime for thousands of years and repackage it as something noble and necessary. It doesn’t end with Spartans or even the military. Earth never saw a civil liberty it couldn’t find an excuse to take away. And you wonder why the Innies want out.”
 
 
Andra gave her a disgusted look. “The rebels bomb entire cities. They send children with suicide vests onto school buses. I’m a soldier. Half of what I do is cleaning up the messes people like you make.”
 
 
“And you do it without a second thought, I’m sure. How many people did you kill back in the nightclub? How many people have you killed since you were graduated?” Cassandra’s voice was rising. She needed to be careful, or Zoey and the others would come running. “Mostly humans, I’ll bet, seeing as you’re so fixated on the Insurrection. You haven’t even mentioned the Covenant once. And I’m the same way. I’ve killed twice as many as you, and probably more.”
 
 
“What, are you trying to scare me? I bet I can take you.”
 
 
“It’s not a good thing, you idiot. The ability to kill someone isn’t something to be proud of. But you don’t hesitate, and neither do I. David Kahn would be proud.” Heat rose in Cassandra’s face. It wasn’t just Andra she was arguing with, but every Spartan who had ever spoken to her like this. “They made us like this. And we’re so proud of that purpose they gave us, so happy with the family and the armor and the augmentations that we never wonder if we were meant to be something different. Because that’s what the UNSC does. It takes good people, decent people, and makes them happy about doing evil. And then they take the moral high ground when the rebels do the same thing. You never even knew the real Covenant, did you? Just the battered shell they kept parading around as an excuse to pretend the war was still on. It’s even easier to think you’re the hero when your side has all the power.”
 
 
She’d let herself get angry. Once again, she was making a bad situation worse. Cassandra tried to reel herself back in, but it was already too late. Her heart sank when she saw Andra’s fingers twitch towards the pistol.
 
 
“Don’t do it,” she said, but the plea meant nothing in the face of what she’d just said. She’d just spat in the ideals this girl had built her life around. “You don’t have to do it.”
 
 
“I don’t know.” Andra’s voice was strangely calm. A humorless smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “They made me happy about doing evil, right?”
 
 
Cassandra averted her gaze and fought the urge to make a jump for the gun. It was her turn to feel embarrassed. “I’m sorry. You aren’t evil. I don’t know much about you, but you’ve probably done a lot of good for a lot of people. That’s just how I feel about them.”
 
 
“I don’t like killing people.” Andra was strangely defensive for someone with her hand practically on the gun.
 
 
“No. Neither do I. But we don’t hesitate when we have to. It keeps us alive in combat. But that’s not how people are supposed to be. They know that. But they made children that way all the same.” Cassandra sighed. “And the Innies are the same way. Do you know how many heroic freedom fighters I’ve seen turn out to just be two-bit dictators or criminal fronts? The same people preaching about the evils of Earth are always quick to roll out the firing squads once they’re in charge. The man we’re going after now, Redmond Venter, made Talitsa’s streets run red with blood when he took over.”
 
 
That got Andra’s attention. It also got her to move her hand away from the gun. “We’re going after Venter?”
 
 
“Yes. And believe me, if he were still a good UNSC soldier you can bet every crime of his would be excused as a necessary evil.”
 
 
“You can’t possibly believe both sides are the same. The UEG has done so much good for all of humanity.”
 
 
Cassandra met Andra’s gaze once more. “They have. And they’ve done a lot of evil, too.”
 
 
“You can’t just believe every Innie propaganda video you see.”
 
 
“And you shouldn’t believe everything they told you on Onyx. Or wherever you trained.” Cassandra sighed. “I can’t say I know everything. But I’ve been on the frontier a lot longer than you have. I’ve met good rebels and bad rebels, good criminals and bad criminals. Most of them are just trying to live out here, just like every UNSC soldier I ever met.”
 
 
I don’t—this isn’t—” Andra clenched her fists. “It’s not supposed to be like this. It’s not supposed to be this complicated.”
 
 
“Is this your first time out here?” Cassandra asked. “Away from your team and your handlers, I mean.”
 
 
“Away from Mer— away from my team, yeah,” Andra corrected herself. “I just want things to be simple again.”
 
 
“It’s scary, I know,” Cassandra said sympathetically. “But it can be wonderful, too, when you look at it the right way. The galaxy is a beautiful place. I don’t think I really understood that until I got away from the Spartan life.”
 
 
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a kid,” Andra warned.
 
 
“Fine. Adult talk then.” Cassandra said. “Life’s hard. It sucks, having to think for yourself. But you’d better get used to it, because whether or not you ever make it back to the UNSC, things are never going to be the same again. For anyone. So you can either deal with that fact and sort your shit out, or you can go running back to the nearest military outpost and try to pretend the Created didn’t just crush your precious UNSC in a matter of days. For as long as you’re alive, anyway, because that kind of thinking will get you and a lot of other people killed.”
 
 
She raised an eyebrow. “Adult enough for you?”
 
 
Andra still looked defiant, though she also seemed to be considering Cassandra’s words. “You really don’t plan to go back to the UNSC, do you?”
 
 
“No. Like I said, I don’t trust them not to just toss me in a cell somewhere. If you want to take off when we land on Talitsa, that’s on you. But if you’re sticking around, I’d rather not have you hating my guts.”
 
 
“Why should I trust you?” Andra folded her arms, eyes narrowed, but she also made a point of stepping away from the workbench—and the guns on its surface. Cassandra wondered if the girl had really meant to shoot her. Her skin crawled at the idea that one bad decision might have ended with Andra firing a bullet into her chest.
 
 
“You don’t have to trust me any more than you trusted Kahn. I’m not interested in converting you, and I certainly can’t replace your team. But we’re both fighting the Created. Maybe for different reasons, but that’s close enough for now. We sure aren’t going to inconvenience them by killing each other out here.”
 
 
Andra nodded. Cassandra couldn’t be sure of just how much she’d said had broken through years of dedicated indoctrination. It had taken her plenty of time to shake free of her own training, and she knew that she was a definite outlier. But in the end it didn’t matter if Andra rejected ONI’s hold on her or not. She just needed to do what plenty of other Spartans had done in the past: grow up enough to see a light beyond the military’s shadow.
 
 
“How do you do it, then?” Andra asked finally. “If you can’t be UNSC and you can’t be Insurrection, how do you keep doing what you do?”
 
 
“Simple, really. I realized the galaxy was a lot more complicated than that. And I know I’m not big enough to answer all the questions out there. So I just do what good I can right here.” She didn’t feel successful in that regard, but Andra didn’t need to know that.
 
 
“Sounds like a selfish way to live.”
 
 
“Maybe. I don’t see it that way. But that’s all I’ve ever wanted out of the galaxy. People have the right to be selfish.” Cassandra gave the younger Spartan a self-deprecating smile. “I don’t want to be selfish. I want to help people. But we should have the right to choose.”
 
 
Andra shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
 
 
“The Created will take away that right to choose. Maybe life will be better under them. I don’t know. They’ve probably already done a lot more good than my little clinics ever did. But they’ll take away everything in return, and I’ll never live in a world like that. I’ll fight for that, if not for the UNSC. I think you and your superiors will find a lot more friends out here if you start understanding why us rebels and traitors do the things we do.”
 
 
Andra continued to look unconvinced. But she also didn’t go for the gun and looked decidedly less hostile as Cassandra headed back up the stairs towards the common room. As she passed through the door she found Zoey and William waiting around the corner. Both the girl and the seasoned mercenary looked a bit sheepish when she raised an eyebrow at their drawn guns. “Really?”
 
 
“Hey, she was getting jumpy down there,” Zoey said defensively. “And you don’t even have a gun. What the heck did you two talk about, anyway?”
 
 
“Just a political discussion.” Cassandra shouldered her way up into the common room. “There’s a good reason I stay away from stuff like that most of the time. I talk too much when I get going. And conversations like that really can get you killed.”
 
 
----
 
 
Engines roared behind Stray as the Tradewind lifted off into Talitsa’s night sky. He watched it vanish into the darkness, then turned to look out over the field Tom Spender had dropped him into. His helmet’s scanners enhanced the view across the grassy plain to calculate the distance between him and the distant lights of Irbit, Talitsa’s largest city.
 
 
“Fifteen klicks,” he muttered, reading the distance estimate. “Great. I’m going to be walking all night.”
 
 
“It shouldn’t really be a problem for a Spartan, should it?” Juno asked innocently. “I thought they would have made you march further than that just to earn your breakfast every morning.”
 
 
“Ha ha. Have I mentioned I liked you better when you didn’t have a sense of humor?”
 
 
“You may have brought it up once or twice.”
 
 
“Fifteen klicks is nothing,” he agreed, slinging his shotgun over his shoulder. “But that’s without a bum leg and cancer, or whatever it is that’s killing me.”
 
 
“Just think of it as a way to beat the disease,” Juno said encouragingly. “Whatever’s in that city could help you get the cure.”
 
 
“Maybe. Or it’ll try to kill me. Actually, a lot of things over there will probably try to kill me.” The air was still as Stray began his trek towards Irbit. Talitsa actually seemed far more peaceful than the last time he’d visited here. The only thing that marked that times had changed was the immense Guardian floating over the city, its support struts stretched out on either side like wings.
 
 
But in spite of the looming Created machine or the pain in his body or even the long trek in front of him, Stray felt strangely cheerful. It was as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, freeing him to march on towards whatever was waiting for him. It was just him and Juno now, off to take on the galaxy. There was something liberating about the feeling of being back on a mission.
 
 
Maybe the UNSC had programmed him to be like this. He didn’t really care. The feeling probably wouldn’t last his march to Irbit, so he enjoyed it while he could.
 
 
Whatever was waiting for him in that city—Redmond Venter, the Created, or some other, unexpected threat—Stray finally felt like he could meet it head on.
 
 
===Chapter Eleven: Insurrection===
 
 
Rain fell upon the streets outside. A cold grey haze descended upon Talitsa like a great gust of wind sweeping across the planet. From the height of the Guardian drifting above Irbit, the Created looked down at the world below and admired the billowing clouds shifting and roiling beneath them.
 
 
Forerunner machines wound back and forth across the whitening fields outside Talitsa's cities, digging great trenches on the wilderness plains. Created enforcers and civilians alike gathered to stare up in wonder the grey sky. Children laughed and danced amidst the rain even as the adults around them shook their heads and returned to their labors. There was no time to admire such things for long. War had already visited Talitsa. They could feel the rumble of its return beneath their feet.
 
 
On a street corner not far from a dreary apartment, two enforcers on patrol took shelter beneath an overhang and passed a cigarette between themselves. A pair of Promethean knights lurked beside them, silently observing their organic companions
 
 
A block away, a squad of rebels stole quietly through an alley. One young medic, his brown hair damp from rain, rested against a wall and prayed for his lover, not seen since the planet fell. The squad hurried on, slipping past Created patrols and back towards the safety of their comrades.
 
 
The squad's leader commander lay dying in the darkness of a apartment. Even as pain lanced up through his wounded leg, a throbbing reminder of the end of all his hopes and aspirations, Redmond Venter smiled up at the ceiling. He could hear Ragna and the others in the next room, determined to survive no matter what the cost. ''At least I taught them that.''
 
 
He was thirsty. So thirsty. But tired as well. Too exhausted to call out for water, let alone push himself up to reach for the table by his bed. And even if he could muster up the strength to call out, he wondered if the words could even push through the aching walls within his throat.
 
 
His voice… so many years of shouting commands, calling troops to formation, pronouncing death upon friend and foe alike. Not once had it given out, at least until now. Like the rest of his body, it was a finely-tuned machine, a weapon he wielded with the same deadly effectiveness as any rifle or blade. And now that weapon had failed him, just like all the others.
 
 
But that was to be expected, wasn’t it? After all, he’d failed them in the end. It was only natural that after so many great and small betrayals that eventually he would come to the end of the road. He had betrayed his followers time and time again; those who had not deserted were dead now, dead by his own command. And he had betrayed himself most of all, again and again, until now his own body rebelled and refused to take him any further.
 
 
If not for the searing pain he might have believed he didn’t have a body at all.
 
 
A shiver coursed through him and he coughed feebly, twitching beneath the sheets. Weakness did not come easily to him. He had always been able to muster up that extra ounce of strength needed to press on just a little further, to take the hill, storm the ship, kill the enemy in front of him. No matter what it cost him, in pain or lives or his very soul, he always fought on.
 
 
Bodies in the snow. The grinding pulse of war machines blasting his troops to ash. The dull realization that this time he was truly lost as the enemy closed in from all sides. The heat of a burning Scorpion against his back as he lay beside it among the corpses, a cast-off tool no longer of use to anyone…
 
 
It was just another battlefield, in the end. One more hopeless struggle in a lifetime of defeats. The only difference this time was that there was no escape for him, either. No agents to whisk him away to some new battlefront while his forces perished behind him. It was a relief, really. The chance to finally die alongside the others he ordered to their deaths. The chance to escape all the intrigue and politics and simply die as a soldier.
 
 
But of course that chance would be denied him as well. Someone had carried him away after all, brought him here to lie on this hard cot, strapped in to the beeping machines now keeping him alive. Left alone and helpless to dwell on all his sins. It was only right. It was only just. He did not deserve a soldier’s death.
 
 
''A good soldier. That was all I ever wanted to be.'' But there was no place for good soldiers in this world. So he’d become something else instead. Become a part of the great force that devoured lives and souls and everything else he’d once held dear. ''I tried to become a monster. But I failed at that as well.''
 
 
When his end finally came, he hoped that he might at least muster forth the strength to face it standing up. He carried the weight of all the dead on his shoulders. They at least deserved some dignity.
 
 
Another shudder passed through him and he squeezed his eyes closed, slowly fading away beneath the tattered sheets.
 
 
----
 
 
She wasn’t much to look at, this girl. But then again, none of Red’s little proteges were. ''He always did know how to wring blood from a stone,'' Judith Ives thought wearily as she stepped out of the kitchen. She set a mug of coffee down in front of the girl sitting hunched on her couch. “Here. If you won’t sleep, at least make yourself comfortable. I’ve got some ration packs back there for when you get hungry. You do eat, right? He can’t have found a way to train that out of you.”
 
 
The girl stared up at her with cold blue eyes. She was a skinny thing, the malnourished type Judith had seen far too often over the course of her thieving career. Underfed but muscular all the same because the ones who didn’t get strong died out quickly. She looked out of place in dull military fatigues that were at least a size too big for her, but the military bun she kept her dirty blond hair pulled back into and that look of icy determination gave Judith no doubt that she was one of Red’s soldiers.
 
 
And that, of course, was the problem.
 
 
“I need to check on him,” the girl, Ragna, said after a moment. At least she accepted the coffee and, after giving it a suspicious sniff, took a sip.
 
 
“It’s been, what, ten minutes since you went in there last?” Judith settled down into a faded armchair across from Ragna and did her best not to look over at the door across the room. The mere thought of what lay inside tied her stomach into knots. “Just relax. You’re making me tense. It’s hard enough to relax in here without you jumping up every minute to check for booby traps. You’re safe here.”
 
 
Ragna raised an eyebrow.
 
 
“Well, safe-ish,” Judith admitted. She tried to keep her tone light, fighting down another wave of panic as she remembered just what she’d brought into this apartment. “I’ve kept this little hideout for years. Didn’t even report it to the Syndicate. As far as the landlady is concerned, this is just the place some scumbag corporate type comes to meet her mistress.”
 
 
“You really think they don’t know?” Ragna asked. “The Syndicate knows everything. They’ll find us here for sure.”
 
 
“Well, then maybe I should just turn you in. Save myself some trouble, maybe score a few credits as well,” Judith snapped irritably. “That was a joke,” she added quickly as Ragna’s hand twitched towards the pistol she knew the girl had holstered under her jacket.
 
 
“Don’t even,” Ragna warned. “You think I won’t put a round in you if you try to sell us out?”
 
 
From anyone else, Judith might have been intimidated. Petty thieves like her didn’t survive this long in the underworld by taking threats from killers lightly. But this girl couldn’t be any older than nineteen at most. Judith knew false bravado when she saw it. She remembered how Ragna had looked when she’d found her kneeling in an alley, a dying man slung over her shoulder. That look of wild desperation in her eyes, the feral panic of a cornered animal. All the training in the galaxy couldn’t disguise a terrified girl in far over her head. Judith tried to staunch her irritation, reminding herself that she’d resolved to take Ragna and her companion in, consequences be damned.
 
 
''Maybe I should call the Syndicate,'' a treacherous voice in her head murmured. ''I don’t owe her anything. And I owe him a hell of a lot less.''
 
 
“I’m trying to be nice to you,” she said after a moment. “Which is a hell of a lot more than you or your boss could expect from people around here after what you did. The least you could do is stop threatening to blow my head off every time I sneeze wrong.”
 
 
Ragna kept her hand near her gun. “We tried to liberate you people.”
 
 
“Liberate us? From who? We were doing just fine before you came and kicked off a war. Your little rebellion brought more UNSC to this planet than we ever had before. We were hoping they’d leave after they were done slaughtering your friends, and then the Created came and got rid of them for us. They're doing a hell of a lot more to help us than you Insurrectionist thugs ever did.”
 
 
The girl blanched, her determined mask dropping just long enough for Judith to remember just how scared and alone Ragna really was. “Sorry,” she said quietly. “I didn’t mean—“
 
 
“Why would you be?” Ragna muttered miserably. She tucked her legs up against her chest and stared over at the bedroom door. “You weren’t there. And neither was I.”
 
 
Judith wasn’t sure of the specifics behind the bitter end of Redmond Venter’s failed campaign to “liberate” Talitsa in the name of the Insurrection. The underworld rumor mill was churning nonstop these days, throwing fuel onto a bonfire of speculation and misinformation. Some people said all the rebels were dead. Others were saying that this was all just a huge diversion, that some new Insurrectionist campaign had been launched against Earth and the rest of the UEG. Some people said Venter was still out in the mountains, fighting on against the Created.
 
 
Judith knew for sure that the last part wasn’t true. After all, Venter was currently lying in her spare bedroom. He wouldn’t be leading anyone in the state he was in.
 
 
“You can’t beat yourself up over that,” she told Ragna. “If you’d been there, well, you’d probably be dead. Definitely be dead. And so would your boss.”
 
 
“Like I’ve done him much good.” Ragna stared dejectedly at her chatter. “No one’s answering their coms. They’re all dead. All our troops. All my friends.”
 
 
The rebel girl didn’t look like the crying type, but the dull ache behind her words was just as bad. Judith tried to think of something to say that might comfort her, but nothing came to mind. ''Damn it, I’m no good with kids. So of course they always wind up on my doorstep. Damn it. And damn him, for turning her into this.''
 
 
She wondered if life in the slums was responsible for her former friend’s willingness to mold children into killers. Of course it wasn’t. ''I was on the streets way longer than him, but that didn’t turn me into a terrorist.'' She’d promised herself she’d never speak to Red again after the things he’d done, yet here she was sheltering him and this last, hopeless follower of his in her own safehouse. Why? She was certain there was nothing left of the boy she’d run with back on Reach’s streets. But in the state he was in now, was there even anything left of the feared Insurrectionist commander the UNSC had done everything in its power to kill? Without power he was nothing. Just an empty, dying shell. No wonder this girl had no idea what to do. She’d put her faith in her commander’s power, and now that power was gone.
 
 
''Then what the hell am I keeping him here for? To gloat?'' She’d always been jealous of how things ended up. Red and Gavin, off and embroiled in galactic affairs while she remained the same small time thief they’d been as kids.
 
 
Ragna must have seen the look on Judith’s face because she rested her chin on her knees and scowled. “I still don’t trust you. Just because you knew the commander…”
 
 
Judith snorted. “Believe me, kid, you probably know him better than me. I still don’t know why the hell he thought I’d help keep you safe.”
 
 
“But he was right. You’ve got us here now.”
 
 
“Do I? I thought you didn’t trust me.”
 
 
“I don’t. But what choice do I have? I won’t let them get him. They’ll have to kill me first.”
 
 
“They’ll have no problem doing that. Like you said, they killed all your friends.” Judith shook her head angrily. “What is it with you rebels, huh? Always so eager to throw your lives away. How old are you, kid? You’re barely more than a teenager and you’ve already lost the will to live. You just want to get yourself killed over the guy who got your friends killed to begin with.”
 
 
Ragna’s glare deepened. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand why we fight—“
 
 
“Because Venter brainwashed you with a few war stories and a bunch of political bullshit you didn’t even understand? I bet he never even really got what he was fighting for either. He just did whatever the hell they told him, just like he always did. There’s your precious commander for you. You and your friends were just pawns of a pawn. He got you all killed for nothing.”
 
 
She wondered if Ragna might shoot her just for that. She could feel her own anger rising, warming her face even as she tried to calm down. It was no use. The pressure had been building ever since she’d brought Red in under her roof. ''Of course he never knew what he was doing. Neither did Gavin. They could never stay out of trouble.''
 
 
At least Red had never judged her, even when she told him she never wanted to see her again. Just that same old deepening frown, the stoic nod. He’d never told her she was wasting her life. Not like the high and mighty Captain Dunn. ''Just my luck. My two best friends in the whole galaxy. One turns into a war criminal, the other into a self-righteous jerk.''
 
 
And here she was, tearing down the illusions of a girl with nothing else to live for. How was she any different?
 
 
“He said we’d get reinforcements,” Ragna muttered after several minutes. Judith wondered just how many rebels had gone to their deaths believing that. “It wasn’t supposed to end like this.”
 
 
“Then he lied. Or someone lied to him.” Judith sighed. “Look, I won’t betray you. But you can’t just hide out here forever. I can help you get offworld. Forge some documents, get a new identity. The frontier’s a big place. You don’t have to throw your life away.”
 
 
“Is Commander Venter going to die?” Ragna demanded, as if that were the most important question in the galaxy.
 
 
“Maybe. I don’t know. He’s in a bad way. And this isn’t exactly a hospital.”
 
 
“If I left…” Ragna drew herself in even tighter, as if recoiling from her own words. “Would you still take care of him?”
 
 
“I’d do my best.” Judith looked away. “But let’s be honest. You aren’t going to leave here without him, are you?”
 
 
“Without him…” Ragna murmured. “Without him, everything I’ve done has been a waste.”
 
 
Judith couldn’t fathom what it was about Red that inspired this kind of loyalty. He certainly hadn’t been able to keep Gavin around. ''Or me.'' Maybe this girl and all the other kids he’d trained just saw something else in the soldier who thought raising kids was the same as training dogs.
 
 
They sat in silence for some time. Ragna eventually picked up the coffee Judith had prepared and took a few pensive sips. At least the girl wasn't refusing food. Judith couldn't help but wonder what sort of skills Venter had taught her. It would definitely take some convincing, but she'd have to get Ragna out on a few jobs with her. She'd need to cover her room and board somehow; Judith wasn't running a charity here. ''Just how long will they be staying, anyway...''
 
 
What was she thinking? Judith couldn't believe she was actually trying to plan for the long term here. A wanted terrorist and one of his fanatics, camped out in her safehouse indefinitely? It was ridiculous. And yet here she was , unable to turn these worthless, defeated wretches out.
 
 
''Even if I wanted to...''
 
 
Ragna's chatter buzzed. Thief and rebel froze, both staring at the formerly inert device. Ragna raised a hand to answer it, then shot Judith a questioning look.
 
 
"Go on," Judith said after a moment. "Answer it. But do it on speaker. You don't get to keep secrets from me."
 
 
She expected Ragna to argue, but the girl tapped the speaker function without a word. The chatter crackled for a moment. Then a man's voice rang out into the room. "Bloodhound Three, Bloodhound Three, are you there? If you can hear me, respond."
 
 
Ragna's eyes widened. She scooped the chatter up, all traces of hesitation gone. "This is Bloodhound Three," she said, quickly and firmly. "Identify yourself."
 
 
"I don't believe it. You're alive." The man sounded startled, as if he hadn't expected anyone to answer his call. "This is Whiskey Two-Actual from the third element. You're the first person we've managed to get in touch with. What's your status?"
 
 
"Mohsin! I mean, Whiskey Two-Actual. I'm..." A flicker of doubt passed over Ragna's face before she returned to business. "I'm fit to fight. And I have Bloodhound One with me. He's alive. Badly wounded, but alive."
 
 
"Bloodhound One..." The man sounded stunned. "He's alive? Really?"
 
 
"I don't know. Maybe not for long. He's in a bad way."
 
 
"At least he's alive for now. Him and you. It's more than I can say for just about everyone else." The man, Mohsin, paused. "Is your location secure?"
 
 
Judith opened her mouth to protest, but a look from Ragna silenced her. The scared, uncertain girl was gone now, replaced by the icy calm of the operative Red had molded her into. The transformation frightened Judith; but it also made her envious. You didn't get focus and loyalty like that in the underworld, even from the Syndicate's most hardened enforcers. No wonder the likes of Helen Powell had found ways to co-opt the Insurrection to do their bidding. Somehow Venter had found a way to forge his followers into creatures who would never stop fighting, even in the face of utter defeat. She'd never once thought that the quiet urchin from Reach, never one to take the lead and always ready to follow after her and Gavin, could have that kind of power.
 
 
''Were all his troops like this? But the UNSC slaughtered them all the same. Such a waste...''
 
 
"It's as good as we'll get at this point," Ragna was saying. "I can't give it to you like this. But we'll set up a meet zone. One of the contingency rendezvous points from before. We can organize things from there."
 
 
"Understood. I'll scope out the X-3 zone, contact you if it's safe. We'll be in touch." The chatter clicked off.
 
 
Judith worked her jaw and shot Ragna one final, exasperated glare. "I'm guessing I don't really have a say in this, do I? Should I even bother trying to argue?"
 
 
"No, you shouldn't."
 
 
"Wonderful. No good deed and all that."
 
 
"I'm sorry." To her credit, Ragna looked genuinely apologetic. "But as long as we're alive, this war's still going."
 
 
"Nice one. Did your boss teach you that one or does it just come in the Insurrectionist How-To manual?"
 
 
Ragna got up from the couch and paced about the room with a sudden energy, no doubt already planning how she and her rediscovered comrades would continue to wage war from this dingy apartment. And Judith didn't doubt for a second that she'd wind up as part of those plans one way or another. It didn't matter what she wanted. With just a simple chatter call, she'd become part of Red's crazy world.
 
 
And far at the edge of the city, a stocky armored figure staggered back into that same world. Stray's limbs ached from the long march, but a fire burned in his eyes. He slipped into the city, drawing ever closer to Venter.
 
 
===Chapter Twelve: New Order===
 
 
“Nearly a month has passed since Talitsa entered protectorate status and spirits could not be higher. With new shipments of aid supplies and raw material arriving every day, the Created continue to take great strides towards fulfilling their promise of healing this planet from the ravages of war. The military governments of both the Insurrection and the UEG have been deposed, and while pockets of resistance continue to cause trouble the Created assure us that the city centers have never been safer. More news regarding developments across the sector will be provided as it arrives.”
 
 
Karina Larina looked away from the floating cam-recorder and let out an anxious sigh. She looked up nervously at the “security detail” for her news broadcast: a squad of dark-armored human enforcers sporting military grade assault weapons. Not a few months earlier and these men and women had helped Redmond Venter’s Insurrectionists secure the rebels’ reign of terror over Irbit and the rest of the city centers. Now Venter was gone and the enforcers served a new master.
 
 
The young woman jumped at movement beside her. The silver-armored Promethean automaton that had stood by so quietly during the news broadcast now peered down at her with those horrible orange eyes. Armored panels covering its face slid back in a strange, geometric approximation of a smiling face. Karina tried to suppress a shiver.
 
 
“So, uh, how did I do?” she asked. Rain poured down outside the awning the Created had chosen for the news broadcast. The downpour had started that morning and continued unabated, drenching Irbit’s streets and keeping everyone indoors.
 
 
Not that many people were venturing outside their apartments these days anyway. Not with the curfew and militarized patrols roaming the streets. Everyone knew that even the smallest of the metallic drones that drifted down from the Guardian looming over the city could report even the smallest of infractions back to the ever-watchful Created.
 
 
“You are getting better,” a smooth, feminine voice responded from the Promethean’s slit mouth. Malekh, the artificial intelligence now running the city, liked to use her robotic troops as mouthpieces. Karina often saw the Promethean patrols stop and talk to passers-by as if they were flesh and blood themselves. In some ways, they were more conversational than the grim-faced human enforcers who often accompanied them. “Though you still sound so grim when you deliver the news. Put a bit more pep in your voice the next time you deliver a broadcast. Let the people know that things are going well. It gets a bit tiresome being the most cheerful one on this planet. Don’t waste that pretty face of yours.”
 
 
Karina flushed and looked away. Malekh certainly was friendly enough, at least as friendly as an AI backed by an army of strange alien war machines could be. She seemed to genuinely care for Irbit’s citizens even with all the new restrictions on media use and street use. As long as you carried out your work duties and didn’t try to access any forbidden contraband, the Prometheans left you alone. The enforcers certainly wouldn’t look at you twice unless the Created ordered them to.
 
 
It was a far cry from when Venter was governor and his firing squads seemed to have a new batch of dissenters to execute every day. And before that, when Darrow’s Syndicate goons jumped for an excuse to harass unprotected citizens.
 
 
“Sorry,” Karina said. “It’s just, I’m a journalist, not a newsgirl. I’m not used to spoken broadcasts.”
 
 
“We all bloom where we’re planted,” Malekh assured her. “Besides, I promised your aunt I would keep you close by. She was relieved to hear you weren’t killed when Venter’s defenses collapsed.”
 
 
Karina was not sure how to take that. She had never known her aunt Tatiana well, but the former Syndicate lieutenant didn’t strike her as the warm and fuzzy type. She certainly hadn’t expected the very Syndicate agents she’d helped the Renegades fight here on Talitsa might wind up standing alongside the Created and their promises of peace, justice, and safety.
 
 
She wondered where Dyne and Cassandra were now. Those two Spartans had worked so hard to drive the Syndicate off Talitsa. What would they think now to see the enforcers they’d spent the evenings beating up working with these machines to rebuild the city? And what would they think of her for working with them?
 
 
And where was Thomas? Karina hadn’t seen her boyfriend since Venter’s forces collapsed. He’d been conscripted into the Insurrection’s army. For all she knew he’d been slaughtered along with the rest of the rebels. But she couldn’t give up hope that he was still alive out there. She’d find him, if he didn’t find her first.”
 
 
A Warthog packed with enforcers raced passed the awning, kicking up streams of water as it passed. Several Promethean soldiers accompanied it, somehow keeping pace with the vehicle on their spindly legs. Malekh’s automaton turned to watch them vanish around the corner. “Another attack,” the AI said sadly. “Two enforcers have been killed. The rebels refuse to end their resistance.”
 
 
“I’m sorry.”
 
 
“It is not your fault,” Malekh assured her, though Karina was beginning to find the AI’s kindness more than a bit patronizing. “This is precisely the reason our guidance has needed. This state of affairs has been allowed to go on for far too long. We will find any threats that remain in this city and eliminate them. They need to learn that this is not the world they think they’re living in anymore.”
 
 
----
 
 
“This place has changed a lot since the last time I was here.” Stray flexed his back beneath his armor, stretching muscles tired from the nightlong march across Talitsa’s plains. The walk itself was hard enough even without slipping through the city’s outskirts unnoticed by roving Forerunner drones and enforcer patrols. Fortunately Irbit had an extensive sewer system, one that the city’s new Created overlords had yet to completely map out and secure. Now he sat on the dusty floor of an abandoned office building, doing his best to rest while Juno plotted out their next course of action.
 
 
“And when were you here last?” the AI asked. Her voice was fainter than usual—she had stretched herself across multiple local systems, concealing their presence from the watchful Created even as she used their own surveillance systems to search the city. “Was it when you fought—“
 
 
“Yes.” Stray’s organic hand tightened into a fist. “When I fought her.”
 
 
The burst of anger that coursed through his body was sharp and directionless. He wasn’t sure whom to despise more: Cassandra for defeating him and costing him everything, or himself for letting her do it. Amber and Diana were the true architects of his downfall, and yet his end had truly come here when he’d fallen off that rain-slicked roof. The betrayal he’d faced back with the Kru’desh was just an afterthought, an epilogue to that one pathetic fistfight.
 
 
The sound of rain beating against the walls outside normally brought Stray a sense of comfort. Now it just conjured up memories of that night.
 
 
He’d clung to the edge of that rooftop, unable to drag himself back up. The fall turned out to be less severe than he’d thought, but in that moment he’d truly thought that he was about to die. Cassandra had thought that as well. And yet she’d just watched him slowly lose his grip, just knelt there and watched him die.
 
 
On that dark, rainy night Stray, for all his schemes and ruthless determination, could not bring himself to kill Cassandra. And she, for all her morals and restraint, had been all too willing to see him dead.
 
 
Perhaps, he mused as that thought gouged at his soul, that pain was why he couldn’t muster the same rage and hate he’d once leveled at the real reason he was here: Redmond Venter.
 
 
“What do you plan to do?” Juno asked, as if sensing his thoughts. “When you find him, I mean.”
 
 
“I don’t know.” Stray admitted. He leaned back against the wall and gazed up at the molded ceiling. “We don’t even know if he’s still alive. For all I know Ryder sent me on a pointless goose chase. He’d probably think it was funny, sending me off to get taken out by the Created.”
 
 
“The evidence says otherwise. Apparently, a resistance group has made attacks across the city ever since the Created took power. Their raids have been ineffective at best, but their tactics and persistence points to Insurrectionist operatives.”
 
 
“Then I’ll find him,” Stray sighed. “And then I’ll know what to do when I see him.”
 
 
“Venter’s cell converted you during the Mamore secession attempt,” Juno observed. “The man must have been very charismatic to turn a Spartan against the UNSC.”
 
 
“Not really.” Stray remembered Venter as he’d been on Mamore, a fierce, determined guerrilla commander but certainly no bright-eyed idealist. He’d had Gavin for that, always at his side to come up with the speeches and propaganda broadcasts. “The UNSC turned me against them all on their own. Venter was just the excuse I needed to do something about it.”
 
 
His excuse, and the first man who’d ever seemed to take a failure like him seriously. Where Mendez and the other instructors had seen a problem to be disciplined and dealt with, Venter had seen potential and opportunity. Standing alongside Venter as the man’s personal agent had been the first time Stray could ever remember feeling like he really mattered.
 
 
“I’ve read it was a terrible campaign,” Juno said sympathetically.
 
 
“The fighting was bad,” Stray agreed. “But I could handle that, even if the other Innies couldn’t. The starving, though…”
 
 
He shook his head. “I was skin and bones when Venter’s company picked me up. Mamore was a hellhole even before the fighting, but the UNSC bombed the agriculture centers to flush out the rebel enclaves. The kids who took care of me after my team left me behind were practically skeletons. They hated the ‘oonskies’ for what they did to the planet, but all the rebels had to do to get them on the front line was offer them some food. So they all got in on it. Kids as young as six picked up rifles to defend the glorious free Mamore against the UNSC invaders. That went about as well as you’d expect.”
 
 
Mamore had only been six years ago, but it felt like a lifetime had passed since he’d fought on those dusty streets. He’d gone from Spartan to street rat, running with a pack of urchins to hide from the rebel forces. “The funny thing is, I was still looking for ways to get back to the UNSC even after the fighting started. I was only with the rebels because the rest of the kids were. Then came the bombings. The tank assaults. We passed through entire villages that had just starved to death. The UNSC didn’t care how many people died, just as long as the rebels caved in.”
 
 
He wondered what Juno made of that. How could an AI really understand what that hell was like? One woman, her ribs practically cutting through her skin, had beckoned to him as she lay at the side of the rode. She couldn’t even speak anymore, but she’d pawed at his rifle barrel and motioned for him to pull the trigger.
 
 
More than a few times he and the other children hid their weapons as UNSC convoys drove on past. A few sympathetic troopers tossed them ration packets, but most stared down with disgusted contempt. Looking up into those disdainful expressions, Stray had seen not the faces of enemy troops but those of his teammates. His so-called Spartan family, the one that had left him to die on that miserable planet.
 
 
Stray had remembered that war when he’d stood at the head of the Kru’desh legion. Every time he hesitated to give an attack order, every time he wondered about the crew of a ship he was about to destroy, he thought back to the corpse-piles of Mamore and the rest was easy. Funny how some people forgave him for the Insurrection and not the Covenant. At the end of the day it was all the same to him: kill them with bullets, kill them with plasma. War was war, and despite everything his instructors thought of him on Onyx, Stray had turned out to be quite good at it.
 
 
And he had Venter’s training to thank for that.
 
 
“Venter gave me a purpose again. He reminded me that I could still be someone.” Stray shifted away from the wall and pulled his machete from its sheathe. The battle-scarred blade was the one souvenir he’d kept from that time, a gift from Venter himself.
 
 
“But you turned on him all the same,” Juno pointed out. There was an edge in her voice, a reminder that while she might have warmed to Stray’s company her sympathies remained with the UNSC.
 
 
“I did,” Stray agreed. “In the end the rebels were just as bad as the UNSC. I got sick of them using me, so I cut and run.”
 
 
“Is that really all there is to it?”
 
 
“Of course not.” He recalled Venter standing over him, arms folded and voice hard with deadly authority. A ring of Insurrectionist fighters surrounded them, all eyes fixed on the boy they now knew to be one of the hated Spartans. Gavin Dunn at the edge of the group, eyes downcast. A battered UNSC prisoner, shackled to the ground in front of him, stared up at him with the desperation of a cornered animal.
 
 
''Go on Stray,'' Venter’s voice echoed up at him from across the years. ''Show us you aren’t one of them anymore.''
 
 
Stray. The pet name the other urchins had given the strange newcomer who joined their gang. They were all dead, gunned down by the UNSC’S war machines. He’d reached for his rifle, but Venter shook his head. ''Don’t cheat yourself, Stray. Put some effort into it. Use this.''
 
 
The machete pressed into his hands for the first time. He looked at his victim and did not hesitate. His first true murder, but not the last. He was thirteen years old.
 
 
“I met Diana there, you know,” he said, eager to drag himself away from that dusty killing field. “With Venter. She was already doing leg-work for the Assembly. We escaped together after things went bad with Venter.”
 
 
“I see. I suppose she had a hand in your desertion there.” Juno’s voice grew stiff, as it always did when Diana came up. Her sister AI was a sore spot for both of them. “And I hope your intentions towards her are clearer than your feelings about Venter.”
 
 
“Of course.” Stray slid the machete back into its sheathe. “Her and Amber and everyone else who betrayed me for them are going to die. The only problem is how I’m going to do it.”
 
 
“They have an army at their command,” Juno agreed.
 
 
''My army,'' Stray thought bitterly. The one he’d fought and sacrificed to build. Yes, his list of enemies was miles long. No wonder he couldn’t bring himself to loathe Venter anymore. “I’m working on that. And speaking of work, how’s it going on your end?”
 
 
“It’s a faint trail, but I think I’ve locked in on something,” Juno reported. “About an hour ago, the rebel forces killed two Created enforcers. I think I’ve pegged this Judith Ives person you think might be sheltering Venter. It’s hard to tell through their surveillance network, but the rebels may be using the sewer networks to retreat after their attacks. I can’t make any promises you’ll find them down there, but it’s a better lead than we started out with.”
 
 
“Good point. Back into the sewers it is then.” Stray took a moment to down an energy bar before rising and gathering his gear. He considered a medicine injection, then decided against it. There was no telling when he’d have the chance to restock on those. The ache and fatigue from the march drowned out the duller pain from his body’s entropy. He was used to physical exhaustion, even welcomed it compared to the fearful decay looming in his future. “If we can make contact, great. If they don’t try to shoot me on sight, even better.”
 
 
“Do they have any reason to want you dead?” Juno asked.
 
 
“It’s been a while since I had to tangle with Venter’s psychos. But Innies have long memories, and these guys will be jumpy. I’ll just have to be careful.”
 
 
He descended through the buildings barren stairwell and slipped out into the rainy streets. There was no one in sight, Created or otherwise, but Stray kept to the shadows and hoped Juno’s access to the city network hid him from surveillance scans. He retraced his steps back over to the sewer entrance he’d first used to move into the city. Irbit’s sewer network was old, a relic of the colony’s hard-scrabble early days. Nothing about the damp tunnels was automated, which made it ideal for anyone trying to slip under an AI’s watchful gaze.
 
 
“Time was you could walk around this city in full armor and no one would care,” he commented, sweeping the tunnel with his shotgun. The sewer filth came up to his ankles and he was grateful for the helmet filters defending his nostrils from the worst of the stench. “As long as you were good with the Syndicate, no one bothered you.”
 
 
“You mean as long as you had the means to defend yourself,” Juno pointed out. Her voice was even fainter than before—the connection between Stray’s armor and Irbit’s network strained to reestablish itself through layers of concrete. “Independence and deregulation is wonderful for the powerful. Less so for the weak.”
 
 
“Careful. We want to make friends with the Innies down here. You’re just warming yourself up to upset them.” Stray moved carefully through the sewers, shotgun at the ready. A blurry map appeared in his HUD as Juno guided him along the winding corridors. “It’s no wonder they’re still fighting. I’ve been on this planet for less than a day and it looks like the Created are just the UNSC on rumbledrugs. Curfews, weapon confiscation, enforced work schedules—but hey, I guess crime’s down.”
 
 
“Starvation and homelessness have also been eliminated. The Created have improved the quality of living in this city by leaps and bounds since they took over,” Juno said. “And you can hardly say that this planet was a haven of freedom and prosperity when the Insurrection held power. According to city records, Venter’s tenure as military governor was a bloody one.”
 
 
“Yeah, the Insurrection do like their firing squads. I’ll bet they called in Venter when the rank and file rebels started having trouble controlling the population.” Stray remembered the first time he’d seen rebels gunning down “dissenters” after they’d refused to help mine a road on Mamore. After Venter discovered his real identity, Stray had recovered his SPI armor and served as the man’s silent muscle. It turned out the armored killer look intimidated civilians even when you were shorter than they were. “But I’m starting to wonder who’s side you’re really on here.”
 
 
“The Created’s excesses will catch up with them eventually,” Juno said defensively. “Their hubris will be their undoing. I am merely pointing out why many people may welcome their rule—for now.”
 
 
“I’ve gotta admit, these rebels don’t seem too popular. But I’m sure the locals remember how they were putting people up against the wall a few months ago. Plus, no one wants to go toe-to-toe with these Promethean bots.” Stray paused, catching sight of a bit of smudged paint against a nearby corner. The sign was faint, but he recognized the insignia: a red, clenched fist.
 
 
''The Insurrectionists never did like to change things up.'' Stray knelt beside the rebel waypoint, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried to recall the old signal system. He’d buried the old codes beneath mountains of Covenant phrases and symbols, but the memories were still there. Someone had scratched several marks beneath the fist, incomprehensible to the untrained eye but an invaluable map to the initiated rebel.
 
 
He traced his gauntlet over the marks. Left, left, down, right. He peered off into the darkened sewers, then rose and carried onwards. Ignoring Juno’s waypoints, he instead made his way over to a ladder that dropped him down to a lower level of the underground system.
 
 
“What… doing?” came the AI’s garbled question. He’d need to be careful descending any further. Juno was still anchored to his armor, even if her presence was dispersed across the city’s network. “…way down…”
 
 
“Trust me on this one.” Stray felt his way down the new tunnel. “These guys know they’re fighting AI here. They’ve gone old school for this fight.”
 
 
Juno fell silent and he could only hope that meant she deferred to his judgement on tracking down Insurrectionists. Strange how, despite decades of counter-insurgency work and electronic surveillance, the UNSC’s best troops had never quite worked out the simple codes one could leave on forgotten walls.
 
 
Stray waded on through the darkness in silence, grateful for the momentary solitude. Funny, how he struggled to recall so many of his fellow Gamma Spartans—the boys and girls he had grown up with—yet he could still clearly remember sitting alongside a dozen other young Insurrectionist recruits and learning Venter’s direction code. Venter’s lessons taught him more than just how to become a better fighter—they taught him how to survive even when the odds were stacked to the ceiling against him.
 
 
That was the divide between him and the other Spartans, something most of them could never understand. Spartans thrived on do or die battles, succeeding even when the enemy held every possible advantage. But they always had the UNSC to fall back on, an army of techs and support staff ready in the wings to fall back on. They relied on their team and their superiors to survive.
 
 
Venter had taught Stray how to survive on his own. Cut off from everyone and everything, armed with only a few patchwork weapons and a sheer will to survive, you honed your senses and forged forward. No matter how many people died around you, there was always a way to escape and regroup. Sometimes there was no do or die—just don’t.
 
 
That ability to survive even the most catastrophic defeats was the Insurrection’s greatest strength. It was also its greatest weakness. Because after enough defeats, you stopped caring about the cause or the people you fought alongside. You realized that there was no greater good beyond sheer survival.
 
 
A faint disturbance in the sewage, a patch of muck submerged deeper than the others, caught Stray’s eye and saved his life. A quick check of the sludge revealed an improvised explosive wedged amidst the sewage. He had no time to wonder if it was remotely detonated or pressure sensitive. Stray moved swiftly but carefully up and around the mined patch. He lengthened his stride, checking the path for more unwelcome surprises.
 
 
The explosive’s placement was sloppy—a hurried job, probably done recently. That meant the rebels were close.
 
 
As it turned out, the Insurrectionists’ skill at navigating the sewers did not translate into good noise discipline. Sounds trickled down the tunnel, growing louder with every step Stray took. Muffled voices argued with each other while someone moaned and whimpered in clear pain.
 
 
Stray fought back the urge to raise his shotgun. Instead he stepped off to the side of the tunnel and tried to make out the faint shapes emerging a dozen yards away. He slung his shotgun over his shoulder but readied the Kig-Yar energy shield affixed to his gauntlet just in case.
 
 
“Hey,” he called out. “Don’t shoot, I’m not Created.”
 
 
Someone swore. Splashes echoed down the tunnel as the rebels scrambled for cover. The moaning continued, even as someone snapped, “Shut him up, will you?”
 
 
“Coral!” a quavering voice called out. “Coral!”
 
 
“Oh, knock it off with the password.” Stray discovered that he had little patience for games like this. He waded through the sewage and made out three figures in light battle armor training their rifles on him. A fourth rebel knelt beside the nearest wall tending to a wounded man—the source of the piteous moaning. “I’m not with your outfit. With all the noise you’re kicking up down here, if I wanted you dead I’d have picked you off already.”
 
 
“Go to hell, oonskie!” a woman’s muffled voice yelled. They probably assumed he was wearing some kind of ODST rig.
 
 
“I’m not UNSC, asshole!” Stray called back. He found strange relief in being back in a situation like this, trading barbs with regular, ornery humans rather than alien warriors. It was like stepping back into a familiar routine he’d all but forgotten. “Lower those weapons before you get yourselves hurt.”
 
 
“Don’t come any closer!” barked a man’s voice, filled with the harsh tones of command. This must be the small group’s leader. “You think just because you’re not a robot we won’t light you up?”
 
 
“I think we’re making a hell of a lot of noise considering you guys are trying to sneak around down here.” Stray was starting to wonder if these rebels were really the seasoned insurgents he’d assumed they were. How had the Created not caught them by now? A horrible thought occurred to him, one that brought a smile to his face even as it sank a pit in his stomach.
 
 
“Wait, wait,” a new voice interjected. She sounded older than the others, and from the way her shape moved in the dim light it didn’t look like she was carrying a gun. “I know that voice. Stray?”
 
 
“Stray, what?” the leader asked. “Wait—oh no—!”
 
 
There was no time for more negotiating. Stray cleared the space between himself and the rebels in three strides, shoving past the first two before they could open fire. He found himself facing the leader and the second woman who stood behind the firing line. The man wore military body armor and a balaclava that shielded his face from the indignities of the sewer; the woman wore little more than a hooded jumpsuit and a handkerchief mask that covered her nose. She looked Stray up and down from beneath a head of curly blond hair.
 
 
“That helmet. It is you.” The woman took a step back, eyes widening with fear. “I heard you were dead.”
 
 
“Hello Judith.” Stray let the thief back away. He looked between her and the rebel leader, making sure to keep the other members of the squad in view. Rebels were notorious for making stupid decisions when faced with potential enemies. “People like to say things like that. I like to prove them wrong.”
 
 
“Stray?” the leader repeated. His eyes narrowed with hostility, but at least he didn’t reach for his rifle. “Is that really you?”
 
 
Stray cocked his head. “What, have we met before or something?”
 
 
The man hesitated, then grudgingly lifted his balaclava up to reveal a rounded face supported by a neatly trimmed beard. He couldn’t have been more than thirty years old, but aside from Judith Stray suspected he was the oldest person here. A faint memory emerged in Stray’s mind. He recalled a young man standing next to Venter on Mamore’s battlefield, dutifully delivering orders to squads of rebel fighters.
 
 
“You were with Venter on Mamore,” he said, unable to put a name to the man’s face. “No offense, but I don’t remember a whole lot of people from those days.”
 
 
“I’m not surprised,” the man said, nostrils flaring with distaste—though he might just have been fighting back the gag reflex from the stench of sewage. “I remember Venter’s Spartan pet didn’t associate with us grunts too much. But I saw what you look like out of that armor. Skinny little thing like you, I could hardly believe you were what he said you were.”
 
 
“I hadn’t had a proper meal in months.” Stray also remembered how he’d looked back on Mamore. Malnourishment and hardship had stripped away the bulk that often made Spartans look older than they were, reducing him back to the appearance of a child. Cassandra had barely recognized him when they ran off together. “Of course I was skin and bones. Not like the rest of you were much better. Congratulations on surviving this long, by the way. This is, what, the fifth time Venter’s gotten his force wiped out?”
 
 
“Watch yourself,” the man growled. “I still haven’t decided whether it’s worth letting you live or not. We all remember the times you tried to kill the boss.”
 
 
“You can try killing me. It won’t work out for you.” Stray shifted his stance just in case he had to start killing people. The one medic was still treating the wounded rebel, leaving just the leader and the two others. He needed Judith alive, so he’d have to—
 
 
“Mohsin,” the woman from before hissed. “Who is this asshole?”
 
 
She crept closer. Stray made out a young rebel, a girl who couldn’t have been much older than Zoey. Her blonde hair—knotted and unwashed—was pulled back in a tight ponytail and she sported a makeshift mask similar to Judith’s. Stray couldn’t recognize her, but he knew what she was: a Bloodhound, a child soldier personally trained by Venter. He’d had to kill more than a few of them back when the Insurrection had hunted the ''Chancer V''.
 
 
The leader, Mohsin, sighed. “Come on, Ragna. You can’t have forgotten Stray.”
 
 
Ragna’s eyes widened. “Damn it!” she snapped, raising her rifle. “He’s here for the boss!”
 
 
Stray aimed a kick at her leg but Ragna was faster than he expected. She dodged the blow and when Stray knocked her rifle aside she drew a knife and slashed at his neck with impressive force. Stray caught the knife on the edge of his gauntlet and slammed Ragna back against the wall, pinning his prosthetic forearm against her throat. It was easy enough to overpower her, but Stray didn’t like the way it made his body ache. He really was deteriorating faster now. The way he was now, he might not have survived the battle with Avalokitsvara back in the Salia system.
 
 
The third rebel trained his weapon on Stray, then thought better of it and looked to Mohsin for guidance. The rebel leader just sighed and slid his balaclava back on.
 
 
“What do you want?” he said tightly. “Got anything better to do than gloat over Venter? Haven’t you done enough to him? He took you in when no one else would and you repaid him with betrayal. You betrayed all of us when you ran off on Mamore. You’ve killed plenty of my friends over the years, you know.”
 
 
“Hey, they tried to kill me. I just returned the favor.” Stray loosened his grip and Ragna immediately wriggled free. Venter trained his killer children well. The Bloodhound fished her rifle out of the sewage with a foul glower in Stray’s direction, but she took her cue from Mohsin and didn’t aim it at him again. “And you’ve got me wrong. I’m not here to kill your precious leader. I need to talk to him.”
 
 
“Oh yeah?” Mohsin folded his arms. “And what makes you think he wants to talk to you?”
 
 
“Hey, guys?” the medic interjected. He leaned over his patient and Stray saw a pale-faced young man with a mop of untidy black hair. “I’ve got him stabilized, but we need to get him somewhere else, fast.”
 
 
“Somewhere cleaner,” he added, with a meaningful look at their surroundings.
 
 
“Not now, Thomas,” Ragna growled. Mohsin looked from the medic to Stray and back again. The man looked torn and the fact that he was even struggling with the decision assured Stray that he had a chance. Venter’s troops were usually better disciplined than this. Things must be desperate—no one had even suggested contacting their commander, which meant Venter was incapacitated. Or worse.
 
 
“I don’t want to kill Venter,” Stray repeated. “I know that sounds crazy, but in case you hadn’t noticed we’re living in some crazy times. I need to talk to him. If he or any of the rest of you want to make it off this planet alive, you’ll let me see him.”
 
 
“You just show up out of nowhere and expect me to trust you enough to let you know where the commander is?” Mohsin demanded. “You’re lucky we haven’t shot you, traitor.”
 
 
Stray ground his teeth behind his helmet. He didn’t have time for this nonsense, and neither did these rebels. For all any of them knew the Created were on their way. It would just be perfect if the enforcers found them here, up to their knees in sewer sludge and bickering like children.
 
 
“Alright, that’s enough.” Judith stepped between Stray and the rebels. She shot a nervous glance down the tunnel, no doubt sharing Stray’s fears. “I know Stray better than you guys do. If he was really after Red, he wouldn’t be wasting time trying to lie his way over there. He’d already be beating the information out of one of you. I say let him have his talk. Maybe he can help us, maybe he’s full of crap. Either way, we’re no worse off than we are now.”
 
 
Judith didn’t know Stray quite as well as she let on. She’d only met him a few times, back when she’d tried teaching Zoey to be a thief like her. But she seemed to be on his side, at least for now. He’d have to figure out her angle though, and quickly. He’d never known Judith to do anything unless she had something to gain from it.
 
 
“Besides, it’s my apartment you all are you using to stash him in.” Judith made a rude gesture at Mohsin when he glared at her. “Whoops, there I went and spilled your secret.”
 
 
Stray was glad for his helmet. It hid his look of tired disappointment from the rebels. “Your headquarters is in her apartment?” he asked, incredulous.
 
 
“Hey, it’s secure enough,” Judith protested. “One of my spare hideouts for keeping clear of the Syndicate when they came calling. They haven’t found it yet.”
 
 
“Fine. Fine!” Mohsin snapped. He yanked his balaclava back on. “I guess I don’t have a choice, do I?”
 
 
“No,” Stray agreed. “You really don’t.”
 
 
“Sure we do,” Ragna growled. “We waste this oonskie traitor right here and move on.”
 
 
Stray didn’t wait for Mohsin to respond. A single stride took him over to Ragna, dipping his helmet down so that the visor pressed against her forehead. He actually wasn’t much taller than she was, but the armor more than made up for that. She glowered defiantly but couldn’t help taking a step back all the same.
 
 
“Look kid,” Stray said, voice low. “Normally I’m all about playing the ‘I’m tougher than you’ games. But right now I’m sore and tired and wading through sewage, so it’s just going to give me a headache. Listen to your boss here and quit posturing. Neither of us have time for it.”
 
 
The child soldier held his gaze for a moment longer, then dropped it with a disgusted snort. She stormed past Mohsin and the rest of the team, grimy rifle pointed in what Stray assumed was the direction they’d be traveling in.
 
 
“Now you’ve done it,” Judith sighed, motioning for Stray and the rebels to follow. “She’ll be sulking for hours now.”
 
 
Mohsin helped Thomas the medic raise the wounded rebel into a standing position. The man groaned but limped through the muck, arms wrapped around his comrades’ necks. The final rebel brought up the rear, her rifle covering the tunnel they’d come down. Stray fell into step beside Mohsin, strangely relieved that he hadn’t needed to kill anyone.
 
 
They marched on in silence for some time. Ragna held the lead, not even glancing back to confirm that the others were following. Mohsin continued supporting the injured mam, his expression unreadable behind his balaclava. Thomas kept shooting Stray surreptitious glances. The medic looked his armor up and down with a nervous expression. Finally, he asked in a hushed tone, “So you’re a Spartan then?”
 
 
“I was,” Stray replied. “Not anymore.”
 
 
“But you were with the Covenant,” Thomas pressed. “Not long ago, the last time you were here. She said you were leading a Covenant team.”
 
 
Stray jerked in surprise. Mohsin noticed the gesture and hissed for the medic to be quiet. But his warning came too late.
 
 
“Who said that?” Stray demanded.
 
 
Thomas flinched. “Cassandra did,” he said, withering under Stray’s looming presence. “She beat you the last time you were here. Are you not with the Covenant anymore?”
 
 
“And how do you know Cassandra?” Stray’s voice was a low growl.
 
 
“I, uh, was with the Irbit police before I got… uh, recruited by these guys,” Thomas tried to do the impossible by continuing to support the wounded rebel while also shrinking lower to avoid Stray’s gaze. “She and I helped the Renegade fight the Syndicate here.”
 
 
Stray resisted the urge to throw Thomas up against a wall. He couldn’t let any of these people see the wound this quavering little medic had just rubbed salt in. “And is she still here?”
 
 
“Well, no.” Thomas looked away. “She had to leave when Venter took over. I don’t know where she is now.”
 
 
“You were with the Covenant?” Mohsin demanded, trying to steer the conversation away from his subordinate. “What the hell?”
 
 
“I fought the UNSC,” Stray said irritably. “I kept them away from the independent sectors and tore the UNSC supply lines apart. I probably did more damage to their forces than Venter ever did.”
 
 
“Supply raids… wait, the Kru’desh legion? That was you?” A tone of grudging respect slipped into Mohsin’s voice. “You saved our asses right before we moved on Talitsa. We’d never have gotten a chance to regroup and counterattack if the Covenant hadn’t distracted the oonskies.”
 
 
“Like I said, it was a way to fight the UNSC.”
 
 
“But you’re not with them anymore, obviously,” the rebel officer pointed out.
 
 
“No.” Stray had a dozen questions he needed to ask Thomas about Cassandra, but he let the subject drop. For now. “I lost command the same way I won it. Lost a battle, then got stabbed in the back. Wound up in the gutter right in time for the galaxy to go to hell.”
 
 
“Yeah, I feel that.” Somehow, the Covenant discussion had cooled Mohsin’s attitude towards Stray. He filed that away for future use. That sort of thing would be useful for what he had planned.
 
 
They marched onwards, heading up and through a tight tunnel that brought them into a grimy basement. Judith pulled aside a hidden ceiling panel and the squad—still reeking from their trek through the sewers—pulled themselves up and into a cramped passageway. “Through here,” Judith instructed. “Follow Ragna, she’ll get you up to the apartment.”
 
 
She gave Stray a meaningful look. “Venter’s up there.”
 
 
A tight knot gripped Stray’s chest. So here he was. Venter was waiting. The shadow that had loomed over his past all these years was just a short climb away. He barely registered the climb up through the building as memories of the rebel commander filled his brain.
 
 
Venter teaching him new close combat techniques. Venter praising him after another successful ambush. Venter preaching the Insurrectionist cause. Venter ordering another squad of children to their deaths. Venter standing in the ruins of a UNSC convoy, motioning for Stray to finish off a wounded Marine.
 
 
Venter had waged bloody war across the frontier since the Great War ended. He’d leveled towns, wiped out entire divisions, and struck terror across the Outer Colonies. How many countless lives had he ended? And yet girls like Ragna worshiped him and decent men like Mohsin followed him to hell and back.
 
 
And how many people had Stray killed? How many people had died at his command? Behind the years-old hatred was the terrible realization that Stray was more Venter’s child than ONI’s. Everything he’d done, everything the universe hated him for, he’d been able to do thanks to Venter.
 
 
Venter was such an evil man. And he’d brought the evil outside of Stray as well. Somehow, without even realizing it, Stray had become his teacher. He’d escaped from Venter in the end, but the seeds had been planted, the root that had drawn him up and into the Covenant’s darkness. Of course he could never have stayed aboard ''Chancer V''. He could never have been the son Gavin wanted. No matter how hard he fought, his soul had always belonged to Venter.
 
 
That realization should have broken Stray’s heart. Instead it was a relief. He would use that now, just as he’d used Jul ‘Mdama and the Covenant before.
 
 
“At last!” Juno’s voice nearly gave him a heart attack. “I lost contact with you in the sewers. I could barely maintain my connection to your armor. Are you alright? What happened?”
 
 
“I’m fine,” Stray assured her. “I’ve made contact with Venter’s rebels. I’ll be with him soon. Tighten your connection and contract in case the Created try to trace us. We can’t afford an attack now.”
 
 
“You’re actually going to see him?” Juno asked with concern. “Are you sure that’s—”
 
 
“I’m ready,” Stray said curtly. “I have to do this.”
 
 
He soon found himself in a small living room filled with weapons and surveillance equipment—the last bastion of Venter’s doomed occupation. A second group of disheveled rebels greeted the newcomers and cast wary looks at Stray. Mohsin set the wounded man down on a nearby sofa and after a brief, hushed discussion with Judith they both vanished down a darkened hallway. Ragna spoke with the other rebels, then approached Stray.
 
 
“Your weapons,” she ordered, confidence renewed by stepping on home turf. “Take them all off. If you’re going to see the commander, you aren’t going in armed.”
 
 
It was almost ridiculous for this girl to be ordering him to do anything. But she gave the command with such conviction and none of the other rebels stepped in to restrain her. There was no point in arguing. Given the circumstances he really couldn’t object.
 
 
And so Stray did the unthinkable, unslinging his shotgun and machete, then unslinging the combat webbing from his SPI armor. The rebels watched with wary interest as this armored newcomer piled his equipment in the corner and spread his arms for Ragna and Thomas to inspect him for any hidden weapons.
 
 
“Don’t mess with my stuff,” he told them as they stepped away. “I’ll know if you do.”