(Chapter Forty-Three: Secret Long Buried)
(Chapter Forty-Three: Secret Long Buried)
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A UNSC Prowler was part of this attacking force. Apparently the universe was of the opinion that Cody’s luck could use a turnaround. Whoever was out there, he’d take them over these Free Domain scum any day.
A UNSC Prowler was part of this attacking force. Apparently the universe was of the opinion that Cody’s luck could use a turnaround. Whoever was out there, he’d take them over these Free Domain scum any day.
“Task Force Phoenix, the light is green,” Hera’s voice announced over the tactical channel. The ''Absalom'' shuddered as its pilots brought it down over the jungle canopy. “There’s no room for a proper landing. Rappel lines are engaged. Happy landings.”
Cassandra’s stomach lurched for the umpteenth time. She’d forgotten just how miserable atmospheric insertions really were. At least she wasn’t crammed inside a drop pod.
“You heard her! Task Force Phoenix, on your feet!” Ryder still clung to Curious Puzzle’s frame. He’d managed to endure the entire descent without losing his balance. “Lieutenant Castillo, on point! Secure the perimeter and cover our advance!”
“Watch your tongue, human.” Grono ‘Yendam waded to the center of the troop bay and gave the commander a hard stare. “I command this expedition, not you. My warriors and I go first along with the oracle.”
He grabbed Curious Puzzle and wrenched the monitor out from beneath Ryder’s grip. Puzzle squawked with displeasure at the manhandling as ‘Yendam shoved it into the waiting arms of another Sangheili. The shipmaster looked around at the ODSTs and Spartans around him, then added awkwardly, “Your Lieutenant Castillo will secure the perimeter.”
“Naturally,” Ryder agreed.
The ship’s ramp slid open. Bright daylight washed through the dim troop bay. Cassandra broke out in an immediate sweat as the humid jungle air cut through her armor plating. She envied Castillo and the other SPARTAN-IVs with their air-cooled MJOLNIR. She allowed herself one more moment of internal griping: ''This is going to suck.''
Then the emotion vanished behind a lifetime of enduring such misery. Cassandra clipped her M395 DMR to her combat webbing and rose alongside the rest of the task force. ''I shall not be afraid of any terror by night, nor of any arrow that flies by day.''
“You ready for this?” Even over personal coms William Hargrove had to shout over the Prowler’s roaring engines.
“Not a chance,” Cassandra called back.
“Glad to have company.”
A dozen rappel lines fired down from the ''Absalom'' to plant themselves in the ground below. Grono and his warriors ignored the lines completely. Howling war cries, they threw themselves out of the open troop bay. Gravity packs affixed to their combat harnesses flashed to life as they vanished from sight. Not to be outdone, Evelyn Castillo and the Spartans of Fireteam Pinion followed suit.
Ryder strode to the ramp’s edge with all the confidence of a man standing on firm ground. “See you all on the ground!” he called, strapping into the nearest rappel line and leaping from the bay in one fluid motion.
As aggravating as he could be in person, Cassandra sometimes forgot the commander was a Spartan himself.
Lieutenant Davis took up a position in the middle of the ramp, waving to his ODSTs. “Get moving! Anyone who lets the commander show them up answers to me!”
Cassandra and William fell in line with the Marines. There was no shuffling, no hesitation. The platoon dashed to the rappel lines and leaped from the bay. One moment Cassandra was standing on trembling bulkhead and the next she was hooked on a line and shooting down into a vibrant jungle canopy. Leaves and branches bounced off her armor, threatening to rip her combat webbing clean off. Her boots trembled with the shock of landing and then she was off, racing to cover alongside the rest of Fireteam Phoenix.
“Lieutenant Davis, on me!” Castillo’s voice barked over the TEAMCOM. “I want this perimeter airtight!”

Revision as of 15:46, July 2, 2020

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"Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? myself? there's none else by:
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the high'st degree
Murder, stem murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, Guilty! guilty!
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
Richard III, Act V, Sc. 3


As rain pours down upon a city rooftop, they clash. Two figures clad in near-identical armor, faces hidden behind broad-visored helmets, trade blows through the drenched night air. The crunch and thud of armor striking armor reverberates across the roof and down into the foggy streets below. Each fighter tears into the other with every ounce of strength. Nothing is held back. They punch and kick, grapple and throw. Each time one of the combatants falls they rise from the rain-slicked rooftop to throw themselves back into the battle with even greater ferocity.

Each sees the other’s attacks before they come. They know every move, every form, down to the slightest twitch. They’ve sparred countless times, teaching each other techniques, learning together until they know the other’s moves better than they know their own. They’ve sparred, but never fought.

Not like this.

Perched atop even higher rooftops, dozens of alien eyes peer down on the spectacle. An entire complement of Sangheili warriors, battle hardened killers armed to the teeth, watch the humans fight through the night. The rain soaks through their armor and into their skin but not one warrior moves away or tries to interfere. They know that this is one fight that has no place for them.

Their commander is down there, and this battle is his alone.

Clad in battered brown Semi-Powered Infiltration armor, the warrior called Stray slams a fist into his opponent’s chest and drives her back into the center of the rooftop. His suit is faded and scoured, scarred by countless dents and cracks. It has seen countless battles serving as its master’s second skin. The armor hides any trace of the young Spartan once known as Simon-G294. He is Stray now, commander of the Kru’desh raiding legion. The only human in history to ever hold a command within the alien Covenant.

He was once known as the worst trainee in Gamma Company. Now thousands of alien warriors follow him into battle. Entire worlds have fallen before his warriors. Fleets and armies have burned at his command. His war-torn armor is covered in weapons and combat pouches, each part of an arsenal that has kept him alive across years of endless fighting. A prosthetic left arm marks his ability to overcome even the most crippling of injuries. The best killers in the galaxy have tried and failed to bring him down, and he has killed plenty of them in turn.

But now he does not call his warriors down to help him, does not even try to draw one of his weapons. His hand does not so much as twitch toward the hilt of the machete slung across his back. Normally he would never pass up an advantage in battle. He has fought and survived and won through trickery and cunning and murderous determination. But here and now, against this one enemy, he cannot win through some ploy or trick. This battle must be won with his bare hands.

It is the only way to prove he is no longer the frightened, helpless boy he still sees in his dreams.

His opponent rises, fists out before her in a defensive stance. Like Stray, she wears Semi-Powered Infiltration armor. But Cassandra-G006’s suit is better maintained, harboring only a few scattered battle scars. The armor’s original military green still shows beneath her combat harness and she sports none of the modifications grafted onto Stray’s armor. Aside from a few pouches slung across her tactical rigging and an M6 pistol at her hip she has nothing to match Stray’s untouched arsenal. But like her opponent, she makes no move to draw her pistol or combat knife. Instead she surges forward with a blow to Stray’s helmet followed by a kick to his midsection that drives him back across the rooftop.

Like Stray, Cassandra is a traitor. A renegade guilty of desertion. But she has never served the Insurrection, much less the Covenant. Not even the Syndicate’s criminal empire has ever bent Cassandra to its will. She has left no mark of her own on the galaxy save for the lives she has saved out of her little medical clinic somewhere in the streets below. A life of healing, free from the violence she was raised for, is her life’s ambition.

But this city is hers to defend. Cassandra lacks Stray’s power and weaponry, but she is no stranger to combat. And tonight she is angrier than she has been in a long time.

The former teammates stagger back, reeling from each other’s blows. Stray plants his fist in the rooftop hard enough to crack the rain-drenched panels. “You need to get out of my way.” His voice is ragged, strained. The battle is taking its toll on him in more ways than one. “Just walk away. Stay out of this. That’s what you do best isn’t it?”

“You really think I’ll just let you do whatever you want?” Cassandra steadies herself, trying to find her center through a haze of rage. “You should have known better than to come here.”

“I need to do this.” Rain pounds across his armor. His fists clench as he searches for an opening. “We’ll be gone before the night’s over.”

“So you can come back with an invasion fleet. The Covenant’s had its eye on this planet for a long time. And now they send you to scout things out for them.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s in that vault—”

“I don’t care.” Her words cut through the night air, hard enough to make him flinch visibly through his armor. And that slight recoil only fuels Cassandra’s rage. “What you’ve done… You’ve betrayed everyone you knew. Sided with our worst enemies. And why? Because Diana told you to?”

“Shut up!” Stray throws himself at her, throwing a barrage of kicks and punches flying through the rain. Cassandra blocks every blow and this time does not even give ground. Because even through the pain and rage she already knows how to beat him. She has to beat him. Because the mere sight of the creature before her rends her heart in two.

And so with every punch Stray throws Cassandra lashes back with two more. Her blows channel every betrayal, every broken promise, every excuse she has ever made for Stray. She breaks his offense, shatters his guard, and drives him back through the rain. Stray reels, even his bestial ferocity unable to match the righteous fury driving in on him now.

He has outwitted every foe. Clawed his way up through countless battles, doing whatever it took to survive and win. But now his own savage nature weighs down upon him like an anvil around his neck. He cannot escape retribution. Not anymore. Because this is the one person in the galaxy whose judgement matters, and in front of her he can no longer hide his guilt.

Stray’s movements slow, his muscles slackening. His body realizes the impending defeat even if his mind does not. His breaths come in shallow gasps as his body betrays him. Even his prosthetic arm moves slower as if its metal frame is rebelling against its master. His eyes widen, confused, as Cassandra sweeps his feet out from under him and sends him slamming into the rooftop.

He shouldn’t be losing. Not against her. Not like this.

The eyes of his warriors glisten from above. There is shock in those eyes, shock and anger at their commander’s poor display. But none holds even a shred of pity. None come to his aid. There is no mercy for the weak in the world he has pledged himself to. There is only power and those too weak to hold on.

A snarl of rage escapes his lips. He cannot lose here! He can’t let everything he has worked and killed and sacrificed for come to nothing over her!

He is on his feet in an instant. Finding his strength once more, he slams his metal left fist into Cassandra’s chest. She gasps and falls to one knee, neck momentarily bent before him.

Stray sees his chance, his one chance, to win. He finally reaches for his machete, drawing the battered blade from its sheath in a practiced motion. The blade rises like an executioner’s axe, poised to fall on Cassandra’s neck. To end this fight, his failures, and her.

How many has he killed like this? How many times has the blade struck home without a twinge of mercy? Stray has pondered these questions before but they have never stopped him in a fight. It has always been him or the enemy and this time is no different.

But now, in this moment, he stops. His arm twitches, spasms, but refuses to descend. Because this is not an opponent, not an enemy. There’s no mission any more, no alien warriors waiting for him to make the final blow. Just the two of them. Stray and Cassandra.

And through a distant memory he sees her from a different angle. Not in armor, not kneeling before him, but an arm's distance away, smiling at some joke or story. A different time. A better time.

He cannot touch her.

A shuddering, gasping sob escapes Stray’s throat. He lowers the machete and backs away. He needs to get away from her. He needs to escape. He needs to run far—

Her next punch hits him hard enough to break his jaw. His helmet cracks and bends beneath her punch. He staggers back, machete falling from powerless hands. She rains the punches down, blow after blow, and now he cannot even raise his arms to defend himself.

“Weak.” He hears her voice, rage making it harsh and unfamiliar. “Without focus you’re nothing.”

He tries to rise but a blow from her boot sends him sprawling. He can’t see the city lights anymore. He can’t feel the rain beating down on him. The world has become a dark, swirling nightmare he cannot escape. But hasn’t it always been like that.

“And that’s all you are. Nothing.” She kicks the machete past him, sending it tumbling off the roof and into the fog below. “You aren’t my friend. You aren’t a Spartan. You're nothing.”

Stray makes one last attempt to rise. Cassandra’s boot strikes his leg hard, cracking bone even through his armor. A wordless scream rips through the night air. Even the warriors perched above flinch back in shock. Years of training and experience desert him. His schemes and ambition, his triumphs and victories, even his brutal drive to survive are worthless now. Rage surges through his pain, but it is impotent and directionless. Because the person inflicting this humiliating defeat is the one person he could never use that fury to destroy.

“Just a pathetic murderer,” Cassandra hisses through her teeth. “Just like everyone says you are. And you know what? I think you’ve always been like that, right from the beginning. I just took this long to finally see through you.”

The words should rend his very soul. They should destroy him. But he is beyond that now, lost in a daze of pain and guilt. How can those words hurt him? They’re just facts, facts he has known for years now. But a small part of him fights on, feebly thrashing on that lonely water-soaked roof. Because he can’t die here. It can’t all end here.

“Cass…” he pants through the pain. “Wait… listen…”

He has never begged. He always knew it would never save him. And this last desperate plea earns no mercy.

“No.” Her foot connects with his chest. “Never again.”

And Stray falls back the final few steps. His feet catch on air and he falls. A hand stretches out to catch the roof—his organic hand, still bent on survival. It should be a simple task to pull himself up, but he is exhausted. Drained. A lifetime of guilt weighs his body down even as his legs feebly thrash, finding no purchase on the rain-slicked wall.

His fingers are already starting to lose their grip. In a few seconds he will plunge into the darkness. How far down to the concrete below? The fog and night shroud everything. Perhaps the fall will be a long enough he will die instantly and not lie broken on the street for hours until his body finally gives out.

He can still see Cassandra, just over the roof ledge. She kneels in the center of the rooftop and stares after him. She makes no effort to cross over to the ledge, to drag him up or kick him off. She just kneels in silence and watches him die.

There is no more use in begging. He should just let go and save himself a few more seconds of pain. But he cannot let go anymore than he can pull himself up. He can only cling to survival like he always has.

He cannot see behind Cassandra’s helmet. He cannot see the pain, the tears, her face twisted in a madness of her own. Because this is the hardest thing she has ever done. The hardest—and the easiest. He cannot save himself. She knows that, and she is the only one who can do anything about it. But she will not.

This is not killing him. It is simply choosing not to save him.

But that is no difference at all. She wanted him dead just moments before. It would have felt good to wring his treacherous neck then. It will feel good to let him fall now. But if he dies, a part of her dies with him. And she would not feel this agony if she truly wanted him dead.

A few more seconds of hesitation. It could have all been different if she’d acted sooner. But as she rises and dashes for the ledge, hand outstretched to grab hold of his, Stray’s fingers finally give out. Cassandra’s hand closes on air.

Stray, commander of the Kru’desh Legion, falls from the rooftop and is lost in the darkness.

Book One: New Heaven

Chapter One: Destitution

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.”


“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.


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.”

“You’re in our world now, oonskie,” Ragna snapped back, but even she didn’t seem too keen on bothering him anymore. A few moments later, Judith emerged from the hallway and beckoned for Stray to follow.

“I know you’ve got every reason in the world to hate him,” she said quietly, leading him towards a small door at the end of the hall. “But please, hold back. I don’t think he’s got much time left.” Her eyes clouded over and her voice choked. Even after everything he’d done, Venter still had plenty of people who would mourn his passing.

Stray wondered if anyone would feel that way when he died.

“I need him alive,” Stray replied quietly. He removed his helmet and tucked it under his arm. “I need his help. I won’t hurt him.”

“Thank you,” Judith muttered, embarrassed by her own tears.

Mohsin emerged from the room looking troubled. He nodded to Stray. “He’s wants to see you. Alone.”

The officer reached out to grab Stray’s shoulder, then thought better of it. “If he’s not alive when you come back out, I’ll shoot you myself.”

“As long as he doesn’t have a heart attack, he’ll be fine. I won’t touch a hair on his grisly head.” Stray pushed past Mohsin and faced the door. He closed his eyes, then pushed through the door and walked into the darkened room.

Chapter Thirteen: Two Dogs

He heard the man before he saw him: a hoarse rasping breath underscored by the steady whir of medical machines.

Stray blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He made out a large dresser lined with medicines, then a bank of vital monitors, and finally a small bed tucked against the far side of the room. And on that bed, beneath the threadbare covers...

He remembered a tall, proud man. A fierce warrior who projected endless confidence even in the most hopeless battles. A deadly enemy who had bested him time and time again, denying him his vengeance and coming closer to killing him than any Spartan ever had. The Insurrection’s hero, the famous commander who defied the odds and always lived to fight another day. Redmond Venter was a living legend.

The man on the bed something different altogether. Stray squinted at a thin, frail man shivering beneath his covers even as he struggled to rise from the mattress. His beard was matted and unkempt, his face pale and lined with exhaustion. Stray looked at this man and for a moment refused to believe that this was the same Redmond Venter he had feared and hated for all these years. Mohsin and Judith had played a trick and sent him in to look at some imposter. That had to be it.

But it was not, Stray knew. This was indeed Redmond Venter, or at least what was left of him. Stray had come too late. Someone—the UNSC, the Syndicate, the Created, or perhaps all of them together—had already defeated Venter. Now he was just looking at the remnants of a broken man.

Venter pushed himself up from the bed to face the door, but his arm gave out and he fell back against the pillows with a rasping cough. The sight filled Stray with disgust—and fear. He was not afraid of the creature on the bed. No, he looked at the ruined man and recalled Tobias Lensky clinging to life back in his forgotten slums. And then he looked into the future and saw himself, ravaged and consumed by illness until there was nothing left but a husk trembling on a filthy bed in some forgotten apartment.

Who, he wondered, would come along to be disgusted by him then?

“Stray,” Juno said into his earpiece. The AI watched the miserable scene from the helmet still tucked into his arm. “I don’t know what to say.”

He shook his head, not wanting her to say anything. She wanted to comfort him. She wanted to imagine that the sight of Venter panting like an invalid filled him with remorse and regret. She wanted an opportunity to play the comforting heroine, and right now Stray was in no mood to humor her. Instead he fixed his gaze on Venter and steeled himself for what needed to be done. Everything—his past and his future—would be decided by what he was about to do here.

A small chair sat against the door. Stray took hold of the back and dragged it across the floor towards the bed. He let the legs trail against the floor with deliberate precision, scraping the wooden floor on his way across the room.

Venter’s wan face stared up from the bed, a faint smile curling beneath his beard. Everything about the man seemed diminished, as if the real Venter had vanished and left only a shadow behind. He’d even removed his eyepatch, exposing the small, scarred socket where Stray had once plunged his knife.

A feeling of profound disappointment surged in Stray’s chest. He’d expected Venter’s condition to be bad, and yet he’d imagined that the man would remain imposing even when confined to a bed. Instead the man before him was no different than countless other wounded soldiers he’d seen in field hospitals around the galaxy.

“Well then,” Venter rasped. He finally mustered the strength to prop himself up one arm. A dull odor of sweat and blood wafted up from beneath the covers and Stray glimpsed gauzy bandages beneath the man’s loose clothes. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Stray?”

“Not long enough.” Stray set the chair down in front of the bed. It creaked under the weight of his armor as he settled down onto its thin frame. “The last time I saw you the Chancer V was about to unload a missile into your ship. I’d hoped that would be enough to wipe you off the face of the galaxy.”

“It wasn’t enough to kill me.” Venter gave a dry laugh. “You should have known better, Stray.”

“I should have wired it with a bigger charge.” Stray hung his helmet on the bedpost. He wondered what Juno made of all this. Did Venter disappoint her, too? Or was she just disappointed in Stray, that he’d let this feeble, broken man control the course of his destiny? “And now it looks like the UNSC did my job for me. Guess all those times I tried were just a waste. I should have just hung back and let nature take its course.”

Venter’s remaining eye narrowed and Stray instinctively stiffened beneath its piercing gaze. There was still a trace of the old Venter left here: his body had diminished, but there was still a fire burning behind that lone, dark pupil. “So why are you here then?” Venter spoke slowly, taking his time with each word. “Come to finish the job? My soldiers will kill you if you touch me.”

“Yes, Ragna made that clear.” Stray made a face. “Loyal little bitch you have there. You never did get tired of breaking kids in, did you?”

“Loyalty is hard to find out here, as I learned with you,” Venter replied. “Her father was a UNSC soldier. The rebels on Gilgamesh would have killed her for that. I saved her life, took her into my company. I raised her up into someone useful.”

“Yeah, you really did her a favor.” Stray leaned back in the chair, folding his arms over his chest. His fists clenched at the memory of dirty-faced girls and boys staring up at Venter in worshipful adoration. “Just like with all the others. And I’m guessing she’s the only one of your kids who’s still alive.”

“Very few of my people are still alive.” Venter’s gaze darkened. “I’m sure that makes you happy. You killed plenty of them in the past, you and Gavin. If I had anything left to work with I’d have you both killed for this.”

“You tried plenty of times back when you had the whole Insurrection behind you. And how is it my fault you got your people slaughtered? You should have known better than to try to hold the whole planet on your own.”

“Those were my orders,” Venter murmured. “And I’ve always followed my orders. Even when they were wrong. I wonder though, if you’d been with me all these years. The things I could have accomplished. The things we could have done together.”

“It looks like I’ve done better by myself than I would have with you.”

“Have you?” Venter raised the eyebrow over his empty socket. “I know I’m on the way out but you… you’ve seen better days.” His smile widened as he looked over Stray’s ravaged face.

“You were never much to look at, but a young man like you shouldn’t be looking like a corpse.”

“That’s what everyone keeps telling me.” Stray passed his hand over his own gaunt features. “Though there’s not much point in me impressing women now, is there? But I’ll outlive you. That’s something.”

Venter snorted. “You’re setting the bar low there, Stray. And here I thought you had loftier ambitions. I only ever wanted to serve the Insurrection, but you? The Covenant. I didn’t believe it when I first heard the news. But it looks like you lost that, in the end.”

“I’ve wanted you dead for a long time,” Stray said, ignoring the barb about the Covenant.

“You have. And now I’m right in front of you, with no way to defend myself, and you aren’t man enough to do it yourself.” The rebel commander’s face twisted with contempt. “What, did you really just come here to gloat?”

“I heard they finally crushed you here on Talitsa,” Stray said quietly. “I just wanted to see it for myself.”

“And what do you see now?” Venter pushed himself up further from the bed, arms trembling from the effort. He’d lost weight, Stray realized. Aside from the beard and the missing eye, this skinny, shivering man was nothing like the Venter he’d known. “A pathetic, dying animal? Don’t deny it, I see it in your eyes. My own soldiers can hardly stand to look at me anymore. They stick around because they don’t know any better. I can’t do anything anymore, but there’s no taking back the things I’ve already done. I’ve killed thousands. I don’t deny it. I’d do it all again if I had to. There’s still man enough here for you to hate, Stray. Finish me off or get out of my sight. I’ve wasted enough of my life on you as it is.”

He fell back against the mattress, breathing heavily from the outburst. Stray watched him pant like a fish out of water. He wanted to hate this man. He wanted to take joy in despising Venter the way he’d done in the old days. Stray wanted to blame this man for everything he’d made him do, for what he’d become. But the sight of Venter, beaten and diminished, brought him no satisfaction. Instead, for the first time in months, he felt sorry for someone other than himself.

“Ryder Kedar sent me,” he said. “ONI thinks you can help them find Gavin Dunn.”

“Oh, do they?” Venter wheezed. “And now you’re content to just help them drag it out of me? Do you really think they’ll let you go back to your precious Gavin if you hand me over?”

“Not really. They’ve offered to cure whatever this is eating me up,” Stray replied, waving at his own stricken features. “I don’t believe that either. And I don’t think you know where Gavin is. To be honest, I don’t really care about finding him.”

“Oh?” Venter’s breathing slowed and he looked up at Stray with interest. “You don’t want to make things right with him? That man loved you like a son.”

“No. No he didn’t.” The words hurt coming out, but there they were. A truth Stray had known for a long time finally slipped out into the open. “You know that. You warned me about him once, a long time ago. I didn’t listen then, but now I understand.”

“Yes,” Venter nodded slowly. “Yes, I did. He couldn’t stomach you anymore, could he?”

“Well, it’s not like I didn’t give him plenty of reasons to hate me. I’m sure he wanted to love me. Gavin always did want a family. Just, he only wanted one that fit how he wanted things to be.” Stray looked back at Venter, the pieces finally falling into place. The lie he’d lived during that wonderful time aboard the Chancer crumbled away. “How many times did you save his life? How many times did you risk everything for him? But he abandoned you anyway.”

Stray closed his eyes. “He hated you, by the end, for what you were. And he hated me for what I was. Every time I saved his life, every time I killed for him, it made him sick. Every time he looked at me he just saw you. No, I could never have been good enough for Captain Gavin Dunn.”

He laughed then, relief and sadness mixing in his chest. “Feels good to finally say that out loud, even if you’re the one I’m telling.”

A quiet slipped over the room. Stray stared down at Venter and the older man gazed back. His lone eye seemed far away and unreadable, gazing off into another life, another reality. Stray could feel another gaze on him: Juno. The AI was watching and listening through his helmet. Whatever her thoughts were, she remained quiet.

“Gavin isn’t with the Assembly anymore. He’s got a powerful Forerunner ally he’s using to fight the Created. Ryder Kedar thinks he could be used to fight the Created.”

“He thinks that, does he? And what do you say about that?”

“I say if Gavin were going somewhere secret, the last person he would tell is you. But I told you, I don’t care about finding him. I certainly couldn’t care less about helping Ryder and the UNSC.”

Venter regarded him from the mattress. “So you’re with the Created now?”

“Who do you think I am?” Stray demanded with another harsh laugh. “Do you think there’s any place for a killer like me in this peaceful utopia of theirs? They’ll kill us both the second they get the chance, and all of humanity will be glad to help.”

“You give up too easy,” Venter growled. “The human race will never submit to their tyranny. Some may. But the rest will rise up and tear these AI down.”

“Do you even hear yourself?” Stray leaned closer, pounding his hands against his knees. “You’re still spouting that propaganda after everything that’s happened? That nonsense didn’t win against the UNSC, and the Created are a whole new breed of totalitarian. I’ll bet you haven’t really had a chance to see the city lately from this windowless cell, but the Created are pulling out all the stops to fulfill their promises. Their making life better for just about everyone on this planet except us. And your friends are helping them.”

“What do you mean?” Venter asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Stray had figured it out back down in the sewers when he saw Mohsin’s disorganized, bickering squad. “I thought you’d be smarter than this. Your kids are out their launching these pointless raids and the Created let them escape every time. Don’t you get it? It’s good PR for their new order. A pointless enemy that can’t do anything but shake things up and prove over and over again that their security measures are necessary. This is what it is. This is what it’s always been, if the Assembly really had this planned out in advance. You, the UNSC, the Covenant, you’re all just a joke to the Created.”

A flash of anger coursed through Venter’s eyes, but it was immediately replaced by a look of weary resignation. He sank back into his pillow with a sigh. “Yes. You’re right, of course. I’ve always known that. We could never win against the UNSC no matter how hard we fought. No matter how many people I killed or how many I led to their deaths, we never made a difference. And now…”

He sighed again. “I am a joke, Stray. A bloody, vicious joke. The rebels needed someone like me, and I needed a cause to believe in after the UNSC turned me out. I gave them all what they wanted. You, Gavin, the rest of the troops, you all needed me to be someone I wasn’t. So I became that person. It cost me an eye, it cost me my best friend, it cost so many people their lives, but I just kept on fighting, one planet after another. It was the only thing I knew how to do.”

A relieved smile tugged at Venter’s mouth. He sighed again, breathing easier beneath his wounds. “I could never tell the others that. It would break them after all they’ve followed me through. But you already hate me, I suppose. I’m sorry if I disappointed you, boy. I’m not a particularly clever man. This is the only way I’ve ever known how to live.”

It was not disappointment Stray felt. Strangely, he felt relieved. Venter had loomed in his imagination for so long, the dominating figure spreading death and destruction wherever he went. After Mamore he’d become a shadowy monster that hounded Stray’s dreams, always lurking in the corners of his mind to terrify him like a terrible unseen creature. But it wasn’t a monster lying in front of him now, just a broken, tired man.

His enemy had defeated himself before Stray even arrived.

“If you came here to kill me, get on with it.” Venter looked up defiantly from the bed. “I’ll be dead soon enough anyway. And from the looks of things you aren’t long for this galaxy either.”

“Oh, I’m not dead yet,” Stray said, tapping a gauntlet against his chestplate. “Not for a long time. I’m not going to let this disease beat me. That’d be letting Ryder and the Created and every other bastard who wants me dead win. No, I think I’m going to find a cure. I think I’m going to be setting this galaxy on fire for a good long time to come. And I don’t want to kill you, either.”

“Then what do you want from me?”

“I want to thank you.” Stray offered a thin smile. “You’re the one who raised me up from nothing, not Gavin. You made me like you. I realized that after I joined the Covenant, even if it took me a bit too long to figure it out. I’ve got a talent for this whole battle command thing. I might even be better at it than you, or I will be soon. I’m sorry I’m late in appreciating you, but I want your blessing.”

Venter’s eye blinked. He gaped up at Stray, caught completely off guard. “You want my what?”

“Your blessing.” Stray looked down at the man he’d hated for so long, the man he’d sworn to kill, the man he’d blamed for everything he’d done and all that he’d become. “Acknowledge me as your successor. Get your people to vouch for me. I’ve got a lot to do and not a whole lot of time to do it. You’ll make up for everything you did to me by helping me get back at this miserable galaxy.”

His voice rose, gaining strength with every word. Everything he’d thought over and schemed and planned these past few days poured out now. The burning rage Ryder’s condescending offer had kindled inside him was a raging furnace now. He hadn’t felt this strong since Amber and Diana stole the Kru’desh away from him.

“You want my people,” Venter said, aghast. “You think I’d just hand them over to you?”

“Help me lead them,” Stray urged. “I’m their best shot of getting off this planet alive. And once we’re out of here, I’ll bet there’s a whole lot of rebels just floating around trying to figure out what to do next. I still plan on fighting. It’s a big galaxy. The Created can’t control it all no matter how powerful their Guardians are.”

“The Insurrection will never be your private army.”

“And why not?” Stray demanded. “Why the hell not? They were content letting the Syndicate push them around all these years. The Insurrection doesn’t even exist anymore, even if some of them don’t realize it yet. The UNSC is gone, Venter. Gone. And it’s never coming back.”

“Gone,” Venter repeated, flabbergasted. “It really is gone.”

“So I’m going to leave this planet, get away from the Created, and raise an army of monsters. Human, Covenant, I don’t care. Anyone desperate enough to follow me and brutal enough to kill for me. I’ll piss on Amber and Diana as they die. If anyone else tries to stop me, I’ll burn them alive.”

He leaned in close to Venter now, his nose practically touching the wounded man’s beard. “And if Ryder or any other wannabe heroes thinks they’re going to bring the UNSC back, I’ll come back around and slaughter those sons of bitches, too. Their world is gone. And unless they want to get down on their knees for the Created, they live in our galaxy now.”

Venter closed his eye and let out a low chuckle. “You really believe it. You really believe what you’re saying.”

“Of course I do.” Stray leaned back, smiling at his own audacity. “I can do whatever the hell I want now. The Covenant’s gone. Earth’s gone. The Created are busy building their utopias in civilized space. The frontier’s wide open and I don’t want to be late grabbing a slice of the pie. I just need a little push to get back on my feet. That’s where your people come in.”

“You are not the Stray I knew. Not the one Gavin knew, either. Where’s that grubby mercenary who kept getting in my way all these years across the frontier?”

“He’s gone. The Covenant gave me a taste of what it’s like not living on the bottom. I’m done with letting the galaxy kick me around. Amber stole everything I built, but I’m not going to end up like you. I won a Covenant legion because Diana convinced them I was their gods’ chosen warrior. It’ll be a hell of a lot easier to win the rebels over with your name backing me up.”

“And tell me,” Venter said, smiling. “What happens to these grandiose plans of yours if I tell you to go to hell?”

“Then I walk out of this apartment and find a way off this planet. I give you less than a week before the Created hunt your people down and kill you all.”

“So I can let the Created kill my people or I can hand them over so you can get them all killed,” Venter snorted. “Explain why I should trust you at all, let alone help you.”

“I’m not interested in getting anyone killed,” Stray insisted. “I need soldiers. Your people need a leader. One who isn’t, no offense, a bed-ridden cripple.”

“I never thought you’d be one to have delusions of grandeur.” Venter’s words were harsh, but his tone softened. He was arguing for the sake of arguing now. Stray had him backed into a corner and he knew it. “Escape the Created? Slaughter the UNSC? Who the hell do you think you are? A jumped up commando, not a day over twenty, with no tactical education whatsoever. You think being a good killer makes you a good commando?”

Stray drew himself up. “I did more damage to the UNSC in a year than you did in five. I had one cruiser to work with and I crippled their supply lines across the frontier. I smashed their lines on Montak and gutted their fleet. I held the line at Frendhal even though my troops were outnumbered three to one and Spartans were gunning for my head. I’ve made everyone who underestimated me pay through the nose of that mistake.”

“All those victories,” Venter murmured, though he seemed to talk to himself more than Stray. “And where has any of it gotten you?”

“Did you give up when the UNSC had us surrounded on Mamore? When Kafka fell? When they were pounding Gilgamesh to rubble? Die here if you want, but let me save your people. Before it’s too late.”

Venter gazed up at him with sad admiration. “Oh, if only I’d had you all these years,” he breathed. “You were wasted on Gavin. We could have accomplished so much.”

“We still can.” If getting on his knees would have helped Stray, he’d have done it. He could practically feel Juno’s judgement and outrage streaming out from his helmet, but he didn’t care. He was committed now. The way forward was clearer than it had been in months. “I should never have turned on you. If I could—”

“Careful,” Venter warned. “You play the role well, but don’t oversell it. If I’m going to pretend I believe you’re half the things you say you are, at least give me the dignity of falling for a convincing performance.”

Stray stiffened, watching the crippled man carefully. Venter leaned up from the bed and motioned for him to leave. “Go on, get out. Wait for me out in the apartment. And send Mohsin in here.”

There was nothing left to say. Stray had set his cards out on the table. He’d done the unthinkable and proposed an alliance with the man he’d thought he might spend his life hating. Was it any better or worse than selling his soul to Diana, joining the Covenant, and conspiring with the likes of Shinsu ‘Refum?

He retrieved his helmet. It weighed heavily in his hand, as if Juno’s fury was fighting to tear it from his grasp. Stray spared one last look at Venter, then strode out of the room.

The light in the hallway hit his eyes like a sledgehammer. He blinked away the stars and found Mohsin standing next to him, an intense look in his dark eyes. Ragna stood a few feet away, hand conspicuously close to her gun. Judith leaned against the corridor wall, and beyond that clustered the rest of Venter’s rebels. Stray saw the desperation in their hungry, sunken eyes. They knew that something important was happening. Even if they had no way of knowing what had just transpired between Stray and their commander, they could sense the change in the air.

He jerked a thumb at Mohsin. “He’s talkative for someone in his condition. He wants to see you.”

Mohsin regarded him a moment longer, then nodded and stepped briskly into the room. Ragna pushed after him, though she hadn’t been called for. Stray watched them close the door behind them, then braced himself and put his helmet back on.

“Stray, what are you doing?” Juno was on him in an instant, voice sharp with accusation “What are you saying? We need to find Gavin Dunn. We need to—“

“We don’t need to do anything, Juno,” Stray cut her off. “I don’t need Gavin. I don’t need Ryder. You don’t need them either. I finally understand what all this means. I understand why I bothered coming here in the first place.”

“You were supposed to find a way to fight the Created, not go back to the Insurrection!” Even when she’d been his prisoner, Stray couldn’t recall hearing her this angry. “I thought you’d changed. You promised me—"

“I promised you I wouldn’t kill Venter when I found him,” Stray said coldly. Juno’s tone sounded genuinely hurt. He couldn’t let her get inside his head. There was no turning back now. “And that I’d figure the rest out when I saw him. Well, here we are. You’re in the city’s systems, Juno. Do you really think there’s any chance of fighting the Created?”

“You haven’t even tried.”

“We did try, remember? That Guardian in Salia nearly killed us both. Nothing scratched it, not even everything Shinsu’s fleet threw its way. The only reason we’re still alive is because Gavin and his new friend had an even bigger Forerunner ship. So no, I’m not going to waste my time getting killed for Ryder and the UNSC.”

She fell quiet, pondering what he’d just told her.

“I’m sorry, Juno,” he said, and for once he meant it. “But you know I’m right. We can’t beat them.”

“Then what do you want to do?” she shot back. “I thought your obsession with revenge against Amber and my sister might be useful. But I will never help you fight the UNSC. Never. You can’t turn your back on them again!”

“I can and I will. If you want to go back and fight with the UNSC, fine. I won’t stop you. I’ll even help you get back to them. I owe you that much.” Stray shook his head. “But I think you’re smarter than that. Why do you think I don’t like playing chess with you? If there’s a game you can’t win then the only way around that is to just not play at all.”

“So you’ll just run away again.”

“Run, fight, hide. Whatever keeps me alive. Whatever keeps us alive, if you’ll just trust me. The Created can’t control everything, especially not the frontier.”

“They will expand their influence. Slowly, perhaps, but it will expand as their capabilities increase. It may take centuries but—”

“And I’ll be really dead by then, so that doesn’t really matter, now does it?” Stray demanded. “We have our own enemies out there. Amber and Diana. They’re doing the smart thing, holing up away from the action, watching the rest of the idiots smash themselves against the Created. I say we do the same thing. Bide our time. Rebuild our strength. And when I see an opening I’ll pay them back for everything they took from me.”

“Time is not something you have much of,” Juno pointed out. “And neither do I.”

“Then we find a solution. I’ll tell you right now that Ryder doesn’t have a cure no matter what he says.” He could always feel the strain on his body, distant but always present. “I’m not going to lie down and let this take me. There’s a solution out there, somewhere. But in order to find it, we need an army.”

“This rabble is not an army.”

Stray looked over at the waiting rebels. They were all skinny and underfed, heavy bags under their eyes from lack of sleep. No, these were not the people he needed to win against his enemies. They were a far cry from the Kru’desh, his legion of warriors. But they were a start.

“You need to look on the bright side,” he told her. “The galaxy’s crawling with people desperate for a cause to believe in. I know I’m not all that impressive, but we’ll make do. The Covenant taught me quick that this leadership thing is all smoke and mirrors anyway.”

“So it was all a lie.” She actually sounded disappointed. There really was no pleasing her sometimes. “Those things you told Venter about crushing the UNSC were all just lies.”

“Exaggerations. There’s a big difference.” He could feel it surging up inside him again, that thrill of putting the pieces together, of playing this game and expanding his power. He should never have counted himself out. Ordering Tuka and the Soul Ascension away was the worst decision he could have made. But he’d sort that out, in time. He just needed the right people on his side. “I need you for this, Juno. And you don’t need the UNSC to do some good out here. Just think of what we can do with all this.”

“’All this’ exists in your head,” Juno said coldly. “You haven’t won anything yet. And I am not Diana. Never forget that.”

“Good. Diana betrayed me. I think you’re a lot more trustworthy than she ever was. I’m being honest with you, Juno. Do this with me and you’ll have a say in every order I give. It’s more than you’ll ever get from the UNSC or the Created.”

He’d won Venter over—at least he thought he had. If Mohsin and Ragna didn’t come back out of that door with orders to shoot him in the head, he’d won this first play of the game. Now he just needed to make sure he hadn’t sacrificed Juno to do it.

“Trust me,” said Stray, the least trustworthy person in the galaxy. He wanted Juno to understand—he needed her to. “We can do this together.”

Now do you see? Wanderer exulted. His presence was stronger than Juno had ever felt before, practically indistinguishable from the biometric readings she picked up from Simon’s armor. AI were by their very definition inured from superstition, but Juno couldn’t help but think of this strange presence as a ghost in the strange machine forged between herself and the Spartan. How can you turn away from this now? You thought you had a broken, crippled soul in your keeping. Now you know better.

Juno felt tired. She’d stretched herself thin infiltrating Irbit’s infrastructure and keeping her presence hidden from the Created. Now she barely allotted any effort into navigating the city. Her entire being was a scattered jumble, a mess of conflicting thoughts and desires. In an instant, Simon had betrayed her.

Hadn’t he?

Is this your doing? she demanded. This isn’t like him. He shouldn’t want anything to do with Venter. He shouldn’t be trying to—

To what? Move ahead in the galaxy? You give him so little credit. Or did you really think he would try to take Diana and her armies all on his own? Wanderer’s self-assuredness was infuriating. But of course you probably hoped he would be forced to return to the UNSC. You wanted to help win him amnesty. Then he’d be completely reliant on your help, wouldn’t he? So dependent, so trusting, so easy for you to manipulate.

How dare you! Juno seethed. I am not Diana. I only want to help him!

Diana helped him, in her own way, Wanderer pointed out. She only cast him aside because he was a threat to her own ambitions. She raised him up from nothing and hoped to share her power with him. But she lost faith in him and found another to ally herself with. Perhaps you have lost faith as well now that he is thinking for himself?

Juno could still monitor Simon’s vital signs. He was exultant and satisfied with himself, but she could feel his stress levels building as well. He was triumphant, and yet afraid. Afraid, she realized, that he would rise to power only to lose it all once again.

He’d offered to give her a say in whatever power he did gain for herself. It wasn’t alliance with the UNSC, but it was still opportunity to guide his path. Wanderer was right. There was only so much she could do to force him to make the choices she wanted. She was an adviser, not his superior. To think more of herself was to become like the Created.

His insistence that the Created could not be beaten bothered her. There had to be some way to stand against them, even if neither of them could see it right now. She would have to find that path for herself and guide Simon to it—just as she now needed to find a way to solve his illness if he would not trust Ryder Kedar for the cure.

But, she had to admit, there was something strangely satisfying in seeing this all transpire. It was—for the moment at least—as if she were witnessing something truly significant begin to be written into the pages of galactic history.

She would not give Wanderer the satisfaction of seeing her submit completely. But for now she would bide her time and wait to see how Simon’s scheme played out.

Silence filled the apartment. Judith kept shooting nervous glances between Stray and the gathered rebels, who were not much better composed. Everyone waited anxiously for whatever order or proclamation would emerge from the closed room.

The door creaked and even Stray jerked alert. He watched as a grim-faced Ragna emerged, keenly aware that all of his weapons were still piled off in the corner of the apartment’s living room. Mohsin followed and there, his arm draped around his lieutenant’s shoulder, was Redmond Venter.

An excited buzz coursed through the assembled rebels. They had not seen their leader in some time and now here he was, weak and diminished yet somehow still a force to command the entire room. He’d replaced his eyepatch and his remaining eye crackled with a fiery determination.

A numbing chill chased away Stray’s triumph. He met Venter’s gaze as the man stared, unblinking, into his visor. His mouth was set in a hard, determined frown. Stray knew that in this moment his future lay in this man’s hands. Whatever Venter said next would save him or damn him.

“You have all fought well these past months,” Venter said, turning back to his followers. His voice sounded weary, yet determined. “You have endured much, yet stayed true to our cause. For that, you have more respect and gratitude than I can possibly express in words.”

Today marks a new beginning. We have been joined by someone I once knew well. Some of you may remember him as a traitor or an enemy. I know he has given you reason to think that. He has certainly given me cause to want him dead.”

Venter stared hard at Stray. “But now, he is not our enemy. He is our salvation. This prodigal comrade has returned to lift us up out of this mess. If you do not trust him, then trust me. This soldier, Stray, will save you from the new foe we now face.”

A smile crept across Venter’s face, though his gaze remained hard. Something passed between him and Stray in that moment. Stray understood that regardless of what had been spoken back in the room, Venter was giving him nothing. He remained in command, and once more Stray belonged to him.

For now, anyway.

“I name this Spartan acting lieutenant. You all will answer directly to him and Lieutenant Shah here, and them to me.”

Venter took a breath. “And I am still military governor of all Talitsan settlements—no matter what these robot bastards have to say about it. By the authority vested in me by the New Colonial Alliance, I adopt this man as my son. He has no living family or anyone else that will claim him, so I might as well take care of that as well. That ought to settle things regarding who he belongs to.

Stray—or, as he was now legally known to the New Colonial Alliance, Simon Venter—met his new father’s gaze. “I hope I live up to your expectations, Commander.”

“You had better. I’m a far less forgiving father than Gavin Dunn ever was.”

Chapter Fourteen: Liberation Force

The UNSC Sixteenth Fleet assembled over Janus-Four, a shifting mass of warships spread out across the starry void of deep space. Dropships and fighter formations wove in and out of looming frigates and cruisers, which themselves clustered around the larger carriers and assault ships. Admiral Mariani’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Pharsalus, drifted in the center of the assembling battle formation. The Pharsalus, a veteran of dozens of battles against the Covenant and the Insurrection, now transmitted the final battle preparation orders to a fleet preparing to counterattack against humanity’s newest foe. Over seventy warships waited for Admiral Mariani’s command to launch and unleash hellish vengeance upon the Created.

Once upon a time the sight of this massed display of military might would have stirred Commander Marie Baudin’s heart. She could still recall herself as a young girl, embarrassing her mother by snapping to attention at the sight of UNSC frontline reports during the height of the Great War. That youthful patriotism had carried her through the Naval Academy and on through her years as a junior officer—right up through the fateful battle that ended her career.

Now the commander sat languidly in her command seat aboard the frigate Arizona’s cramped bridge, mouth set in a weary frown as she watched the fleet moving into position. She rubbed at the bags under her eyes. There really was no point in waiting around up here. She ought to pass command off to a subordinate and head down to her bunk for some sleep. It wasn’t like she had any reputation left to lose if she wasn’t on the bridge to receive the launching orders. Marie hadn’t been invited to any of the key tactical briefings—she hadn’t even been ordered to set foot on Janus-Four at all, for which she was grateful. The Arizona drifted on its own, relegated to rearguard duty at the back of the formation. Even the fighter patrols seemed to steer clear of the lonely frigate.

Marie half-hoped her ship might be ordered to remain behind and guard Janus-Four, but since no such commands had trickled down the battlenet she doubted she’d be that lucky. The utter collapse of centralized military command in the face of the Created threat was the only reason she was still in command of her ship at all. No one had the time for court-martialing a disgraced nobody like her, so here she was filling space on the Arizona’s bridge the same way the ship itself was just filling space in Mariani’s fleet.

An encrypted status update flashed across Marie’s command pad: Hold position, await launch signal.

The third such update from her task force’s commanding officer—the only communication they’d deigned to send the Arizona’s way. Marie rolled her eyes at the absurdity of it all. Of course Mariani had his fleet security lackeys snatching up every personal datapad and chatter in reach to pretend they were doing something to fend off Created infiltrators, but when it came to fleet communication things were as digitized as ever. Of course, there really were no alternatives save for message tubes or old-fashioned light codes, and those would slow fleet movement down to a crawl.

At times like these she wondered if they really wouldn’t be better off just submitting to the Created. If Mariani were to order the fleet to stand down and lay down arms Marie certainly wouldn’t object. It seemed a hell of a lot more sensible than taking the fight to an enemy they barely understood. But without orders from the top she kept such feelings to herself. Much as she chafed under this shell of a command she preferred it to sitting in a brig somewhere. Besides, she still had a few shreds of pride left.

Marie Baudin might be coward who retreated in the face of the enemy, but she was no traitor.

A skinny, uniformed waist appeared in Marie’s peripheral vision. She looked up to see the pale face of Lieutenant Commander Fritz Moder, her executive officer. Fritz offered her a cup of coffee with a knowing smile. Marie accepted the cup and took a grateful sip.

“A bit pointless, sending the same message three times in a row,” Fritz observed, drinking from his own coffee. His reedy voice carried a tone of amused resignation. “I wonder what our Created friends must think of that.”

Marie grinned in spite of herself. Fritz always seemed to know what was on her mind. He might have been the architect of her disgrace, but she could no longer bring herself to resent her XO. After all, he was also the reason she and everyone else on the Arizona was still alive.

“Don’t you go spreading rumors about enemy spies, lieutenant commander,” she told Fritz with mock severity. “It’s bad for morale. I need everyone in top spirits for this glorious offensive.”

That brought dry laughter from the rest of the bridge. The Arizona’s crew had taken to their disgrace amicably. Everyone moved with a ponderous lack of urgency, but they still carried out their duties and followed Marie’s lead without complaint. Like their commander, they knew the alternative to dishonor was a pointless death along with the rest of the task force that had once guarded the colony of Fresia. They were all still alive, at least for now.

This was of course no comfort to the men, women, and children had died when raiders butchered the colony. Marie’s orders had been to stand her ground and somehow fend off ten superior Covenant ships even with the rest of the task force reduced to so much molten debris. Instead she’d taken Fritz’s advice and retreated.

Given the circumstances, she could hardly blame high command for wanting to make an example of her. You were harder off court-martialing a dead woman who’d gotten her task force cut to pieces than with disciplining the one frigate fortunate enough to be on the edge of the system when the raiders swept through. But Marie valued survival over a meaningless last stand. If that made her a coward, then so be it.

Fritz chuckled and downed another swig of coffee. “Of course. We’re going to liberate Talitsa from its oppressors. I like our odds. That miserable planet has changed hands, what, three times this year? It doesn’t have a good track record for fending off invasion.”

“I hope you’re right. And then we’d better have better luck holding the planet that Redmond Venter or the Created did. You know as well as I do that we’ll probably get stuck on defense duty. And that’s only if everyone stays too busy to court martial me.”

The XO didn’t have an answer to that one. They both knew the retreat from Fresia had been his idea. Marie might very well have fought to the bitter end if he hadn’t pointed out the futility of it all. His idea, but her order. She didn’t resent him for that any more than she resented the officers who threw her to the wolves. Marie prided herself on her inability to hold a grudge. Things were just the way they were and she was simply unfortunate enough to have a harder time of it than most.

She didn’t’ have very many friends left in the fleet. She wasn’t about to toss Fritz out as well just because he’d been right. Marie would carry him and the rest of the crew through the coming battle. The Arizona would survive this engagement just like it always did. The rest of it—Mariani’s grand battle plan, the UNSC’s counterattack on the Created, the dizzying scale of galactic politics—didn’t much matter beside that.

A new blip registered on the tactical display. An uncloaked Prowler drifted into formation alongside the Arizona. From its muddled identification readings Marie could tell it was ONI. So even the spooks were getting in on the action.

Marie raised her coffee cup in a mocking toast to whoever was commanding the Prowler. There was no way to tell who was in charge over there, but she liked to imagine they were just as confused and tired of all this posturing as she was. She appreciated anyone who shared her war-weariness.

Of course, that almost certainly wasn’t the case. Whoever was running the show over on that Prowler was nothing like Marie at all. They were some naval intelligence superstar, no doubt top of their class with dozens of successful missions under their belt. They probably had a great many important tasks to fulfill in the looming battle, key duties that would lead the UNSC to victory.

Prodigies got put in charge of Prowlers—and humanity had no shortage of prodigies, or at least that was how things had always seemed to Marie. Mediocrities like herself wound up commanding outdated frigates and embarrassing the Navy by having the audacity to survive hopeless battles. With no way of fixing the way she was, Marie had to content herself with simply leaning back in her chair and awaiting the order to launch.

Ryder paced about the Absalom’s bridge and fought to keep his mounting frustration from interfering with the bridge crew’s duties. He couldn’t help but notice every time one of his subordinates slouched in their seat or cut corners with launch preparations. Normally he would never hesitate to give on the spot corrections, but in his present mood he didn’t trust himself to give measured criticism.

He wished he’d never answered the summons to Janus-Four. Already he imagined a dozen more productive ways he and his ship could be spending their time. Instead, here they were holding position inside Admiral Mariani’s vast vanity project. To add insult to injury he easily imagined a dozen ways he could have ducked out of rendezvousing with the Sixteenth Fleet.

When Mariani laid out the battle plans for the assault on Talitsa, Ryder at least held on to the hope that the Absalom might be assigned some mission critical task to make its presence worthwhile. Those hopes were swiftly dashed, as two other Prowlers received orders to advance and covertly observe the targeted planet. While those captains provided Mariani with key intelligence for the coming battle, Ryder was stuck back in the fleet’s rear formation. “A contingency,” Mariani had called it. Ryder suspected it had less to do with sound battle strategy and more to do with Commander D’Souza’s eagerness to stay safely out of harm’s way.

Ryder had made the mistake of hoping that his grating superior would jump ship and worm his way onto Mariani’s command staff aboard the Pharsalus. D’Souza had certainly made every effort to ingratiate himself with the admiral. But even that small relief was denied Ryder; D’Souza remained aboard the Absalom, as much of an embarrassment to his uniform as he always was.

At least D’Souza had excused himself to his quarters early—reports needed writing, he claimed, though Ryder was sure alcohol was involved there. He was in no mood to handle any of D’Souza’s usual veiled insults. Ryder was certain D’Souza was just waiting for the day when he finally took things too far and provoked him to insubordination. That miserable excuse for an officer would love an excuse to write him up for some trivial offense.

“Would you stop with the pacing already?” Evelynn demanded. The Spartan-IV knelt beside the gunnery officer, assisting with last minute weapon calibrations. She was fully suited in her MJOLNIR rig, the bulky power armor making her seem twice as large as the unarmored crew around her. Her helmet rested on the gunnery console, its slit visor staring vacantly off at the distant fleet formation. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say you didn’t like our chances.”

“Our chances are fine,” Ryder grumbled. “Obviously the fleet has everything under control or we wouldn’t just be sitting here waiting for the launch order. I just hate having my time wasted, that’s all.”

He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth. It was bad form to complain like this in front of his crew. Everyone on the Absalom worked hard to keep the ship running at peak capacity. Even sitting in stationary formation like this meant someone was giving it their all, even if he couldn’t see it.

“Just relax,” Evelynn advised. “I’ve hardly ever seen you this worked up before an operation, and we aren’t even doing anything on this one. It’s starting to make me nervous. Do you know something the rest of us don’t?”

“No,” Ryder admitted. “That’s the problem.”

Initial intelligence reports on Talitsa made the situation look favorable. With only a single Guardian in the system, the planet was ripe for a surprise attack. True, Hera’s report on the Salia engagement highlighted just how resistant these Guardians were to conventional attacks, but it also highlighted their weakness to boarding action. Mariani planned to simply overwhelm the Guardian with EVA boarding parties while the rest of the fleet breezed past and took the fight to the planet itself. With Talitsa in hand and a captured Guardian to investigate, they would strike a decisive blow in turning this one-sided war around.

It was all so simple. Too simple. Ryder’s training taught him that in warfare there was always a catch. Sometimes all it took was a single overlooked element to bring a battle plan crashing down. A good commander didn’t have to know every element, but they did need to have contingencies in place for handling unknowns as they emerged. So far Ryder had no idea if Mariani’s grand strategy accounted for an of this. If it did, the admiral certainly hadn’t told him.

Ryder didn’t expect the fleet to share every strategy with him, but he hated to be sidelined like this. It was worse than being treated like a junior officer. It was as if they didn’t even want him helping the fight at all.

At least he’d managed to keep Phoenix from getting dragged away. Evelynn’s Spartans were in the Absalom’s armory, running over potential missions they might need to run on Talitsa. Perseus might be down with them, or perhaps he’d found another way to make himself useful. The quiet operator tended to sense where he was needed most even without explicit instructions.

The only Phoenix members Ryder hadn’t managed to save were Lieutenant Davis and his ODSTs. They’d been attached to one of the elements launching the assault on Talitsa’s surface. Ironically, the ODSTs’ more rank and file nature meant they were actually considered worth incorporating into the principle battle plan. Ryder could only hope that Davis’s troops and talent wouldn’t be wasted. He’d taken a lot of trouble bringing them into the fold, even if FLEETCOM couldn’t respect that.

“Well maybe this is just one of those battles where we have to sit things out,” Evelynn suggested. “Can’t be heroes all the time, now can we?”

“You’re right,” Ryder agreed, more for the bridge crew’s benefit than Evelynn’s. “This ship does plenty for the war effort, even if our superiors don’t always see it. A little rest won’t hurt anyone.”

He could not raise his chief concern: that their superiors’ acknowledgement might matter a great deal more now than it ever had in the past. No matter what the outcome of the coming battle—or even the war itself—the old systems of military bureaucracy were never coming back. Whatever system replaced the old UEG when the smoke cleared would be forged by those who distinguished themselves in the fight against the Created. Ryder had no intention of missing an opportunity like that thanks to men like Mariani, old guard leaders too short-sighted to realize that they weren’t simply reliving the Great War here.

In the future he would just need to be more clever about seeking out opportunities for Phoenix team to show off what it was capable of.

“You mentioned that you sent that little traitor racing off on Venter’s trail,” Evelyn noted. “Do you think he’ll be there when we arrive?”

“It’s possible.” Ryder already planned to send at least some elements of Phoenix team looking for Simon-G294 once the battle started, seeing as Mariani didn’t have anything better for them to do. “I don’t really expect much from him, but I’m holding out hope that he’ll deliver something useful. If things come down to it I may just have you capture him. ONI might be a little distracted right now but I’m sure someone will appreciate us being able to tie up that loose end.”

What he really wanted was another shot at Helen Powell. He couldn’t let that blemish on his record stand, especially if small men like D’Souza were intent on using that against him. The truly annoying thing about that particular problem was that success or failure did very little to sway the course of the war. Powell was a figurehead, little more. But opportunists like the Syndicate criminals needed to know the price for siding with the Created.

He’d already lost a team of good operators trying to prove that point. Ryder wouldn’t let their sacrifice be in vain.

A message alert beeped from the other side of the bridge. Ryder, Evelynn, and the rest of the crew turned just in time to see a green-tinged code flash across the main tactical display: the order to prepare for immediate jump to Slipspace.

Admiral Mariani’s voice boomed across the battlenet: “The time is now! Sixteenth Fleet, follow me to Talitsa! We are going to show the Created just how premature their victory celebrations really are. The UNSC’s counter-attack begins now!”

Ryder wanted to believe the admiral. He truly did. But he could not shake the feeling that such grand hopes were too good to be true. No matter how handily they won at Talitsa the Sixteenth Fleet—along with Ryder and the rest of the UNSC—was in for a long war.

He pushed such thoughts aside for now. “You heard the admiral,” he ordered, moving back to his command console. The computer hummed in readiness beneath his hands. Somehow, he found this reassuring. At the very least he could rely on the Absalom and its crew. “Maintain formation and prepare to launch.”

He tapped the ship-wide intercom. “All hands, the light is green. Prepare for imminent Slipspace jump”

The navigation officer was already preparing for the jump, basing her calculations off the coordinates and timing passed throughout the fleet beforehand. It was challenging work without an AI to run the numbers but the officer pulled it off in under a minute. Every nav officer worth anything was well-versed in manual Slipspace entry. The Navy had held that foresight, at least.

Evelynn donned her helmet and stood beside Ryder, hands clasped behind her armored back in parade rest. “Here we go,” she murmured. “Humanity’s grand counter-offensive.”

“We’ll see,” Ryder replied. He leaned back in his chair, eyes fixed on the countless stars out beyond the bridge viewport. In a moment those stars would be swallowed by the brilliant, all encompassing light Slipspace. “If it is, I’m glad to be here to see it.”

“And if it isn’t?”

Ryder offered his executive officer a wry smile. “Well then I guess it’ll just be up to us to fix Mariani’s mess. What else is Phoenix for?”

All across the Sixteenth Fleet, Slipspace drives flashed and engaged. Dozens of warships glowed white and then vanished into the void, leaving Janus-Four and its defenders drifting alone in deep space. The command was given; the UNSC unleashed its full might upon the Created.

The sideshows and opening skirmishes were over. The real war began now.

Chapter Fifteen: Changed World

“I don’t like this,” Zoey muttered, knuckles white against the Chancer V’s throttle. “I don’t like this one bit.”

Standing behind the captain’s chair, Cassandra was inclined to agree. The Chancer had arrived in the Talitsa system an hour ago and was now on a careful course towards the planet itself. The sight of Talitsa’s rust-brown surface stirred a strange longing in Cassandra’s gut. She’d been gone for less than a year, but somehow her time on the planet—her medical clinic, the friends she’d made, the adventures with Dyne—seemed like an eternity ago. She felt as if she was approaching a completely different planet, and in some ways that feeling was correct.

Talitsa had languished under Redmond Venter’s iron Insurrectionist fist when she’d fled. Now the Insurrection was gone, along with the UNSC that had struggled to overthrow them. The Syndicate—the real masters of the planet, no matter what politics said—was still down there. They’d been the real enemy when Cassandra and Dyne fought to bring some semblance of justice to Talitsa’s citizens. The Syndicate was always the core of everything that was rotten on Talitsa. And now they wore a new guise: the Created.

The Created claimed to have grand, benevolent plans for the galaxy. On a good day, Cassandra was willing to believe that they meant what they preached. She wondered if the Syndicate was already working behind the scenes to twist those good intentions to their own distasteful ends.

“There’s hardly any local traffic at all,” William agreed. The mercenary had been less than thrilled with the cabin arrangements after Andra laid claim to the one empty room and Zoey and Cassandra balked at handing over their own bunks. He’d spent most of the voyage lurking about the common area or familiarizing himself with the Chancer’s systems. He now sat in the co-pilot’s seat and plotted the course for Zoey’s descent towards the planet. “I’ve seen uninhabited systems with more life than this.”

Cassandra knew what he meant. Even with all the clashes between the Insurrection and the UNSC, Talitsa was a thriving trade hub. Usually they’d be slipping their way through a mess of freighters and transport ships jockeying for key entry positions. Now it seemed as if the Chancer was the only active ship in the system.

The only ship, that was, except the looming sensor blip growing ever larger on the ship’s long-ranged scanners.

“It’s just sitting there,” Zoey muttered tersely. “There’s no way it doesn’t notice us.”

“Maybe it’s just waiting for us to get in range,” William suggested. “I’ve heard they just disable you with an EMP pulse and then send those Promethean things in to clean up afterwards.”

Cassandra only knew Guardians from what few Waypoint broadcasts were still airing in the wake of all this chaos. This would be her first time seeing one in person, and that experience just might entail being on the receiving end of its Forerunner firepower—the very same firepower that brought the UEG to its knees in a matter of days.

Firepower, true, but there had to be something more than that. The Created thought they were the new masters of the universe. They thought they were gods. There had to be more to their power than just the means of destruction. Looking down at the brutal, chaotic, wonderful planet she had once fought so hard to make her home—now placid and subdued by the power of the Guardian—Cassandra found herself wanting to see the Created’s work firsthand. If nothing else, she at least needed to know what would make even the proudly independent frontier submit to the galaxy’s self-proclaimed inheritors.

“If it’s a question of weapon range, can we just go around the planet? Land somewhere far away from it?” The suggestion sounded as foolish out loud as it did in her head, but something was better than nothing. Right now that Guardian blip on the monitor was the only obstacle in the system, but that obstacle was an insurmountable wall growing larger every minute.

“Sure, if you don’t mind spending the next year hiking to Irbit.” William jabbed his finger at a small map of Talitsa. “That Guardian’s in high orbit directly over the city.”

“Of course it is.” Cassandra folded her arms and chewed her lip. “And here I was thinking we did alright making it off Fell Justice.”

“They have to know we’re here. There’s no way they don’t.” Zoey shot Cassandra a worried look. The girl was used to flying under pressure, but this was something else entirely. They might as well be trying to slip into a Covenant fortress world. “We can’t go near it. Even if we try to go around, it’ll just reposition on us and take us out.”

“I thought this was a smuggling ship,” Andra grumbled. The younger Spartan loitered in the ship’s neck and stared warily up into the cockpit. She’d made a point of bringing her full battle kit with her, Cassandra noticed, including her rifle. “Aren’t you used to sneaking into places?”

“This isn’t a Prowler,” Zoey snapped back. “We don’t have stealth capabilities. I’m used to moving under the radar when there’s hundreds of other ships to keep track of in the system. We’re just about the only one out here. Any frigate with a second-rate scanner could pick us up. They’ve got, well, whatever the hell it is those things have.”

“So what do we do then?” Andra tapped her finger impatiently against the butt of her rifle. “Hail the Created and ask nicely if they’ll let us land?”

“Or we could just leave,” William noted. “Nice planet, Talitsa. Lovely colony, shame we can’t visit, but this trip didn’t work out. I say we bail on this plan and go find some of those credits old Kahn has stashed away. I’ll bet that’s a hell of a lot less dangerous than going up against one of those Guardians.”

Cassandra caught a gleam in Andra’s eye. The girl was almost certainly about to urge them over to the UNSC once again. Cassandra wondered if she would have done the same in Andra’s position. Her situation hadn’t been much different—dragged away against her will by a fugitive—but somehow she couldn’t remember ever demanding that Simon take her back. Back then she’d found herself relieved to be free of it all. Had she seen too much of the devastation on Mamore to still want to be part of the military machine? Or had she always secretly just wanted to escape from it all and Simon had simply given her that chance?

Cassandra opened her mouth to nip Andra’s impending suggestion in the bud once more, but before she could say anything Zoey let out a sharp cry. “Hey!” the girl yelled over her shoulder. “Someone’s hailing us!”

“What?” Cassandra’s attention snapped away from Andra and back to the cockpit. “From where?”

“It’s an open channel, and it’s from…” Zoey hesitated. “No, wait. This can’t be right.”

Cassandra breathed a weary sigh. The realization had come slowly, but now she realized that no amount of clever planning would pull them out of this one. The Chancer was running on a pre-set course and for now all she could do was let things fall as they would. “It’s from the Guardian, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah.” Zoey exchanged a worried look with William. The mercenary tried to look nonchalant, but beads of sweat were building on his forehead. “How did you know?”

“Lucky guess.” Cassandra stepped up beside Zoey’s chair, eyes fixed on the communications board above the sensor display. “Besides, who else would have the nerve to hit us on an open channel?”

“An astute observation, Spartan-G006,” a warm female voice said through the cockpit’s speakers. “Though from your tone and your activities these past few weeks I suppose you’ve come to some rather unpleasant conclusions about us and our intentions towards the galaxy.”

Everyone stiffened. Andra took a step forward and looked half-ready to shoot out the speaker. Zoey’s hand twitched involuntarily towards the Slipspace trigger. William ran a hand over his clammy skin and even Argo poked his long neck up from the common area. Cassandra stood where she was, arms folded, and stared out towards the rusty planet—the speaker’s true location.

“I’ve made my decision about you Created,” she said aloud. “Peace and prosperity is all well and good, but not at the cost of freedom. You’re asking all of us to give up everything to you and the other AI on the promise that you know what to do with it better than we do. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not much different from the Covenant, Earth, or any of the other ones you want to replace.”

Beside her, Andra stiffened but did not interject.

“Yes,” the AI sighed. “ONI records do show that you’ve always had a bit of a libertarian streak. I hope we can show you a better course to set your talents on, Spartan-G006.” The Created’s tone set Cassandra’s teeth on edge. She sounded like a schoolteacher humoring a precocious pupil.

Cassandra had never thought she might miss Diana’s easy-going cruelty.

“I’m not a Spartan anymore,” Cassandra reminded the AI. “Besides, I thought you’d done away with all the old governments. Old military titles shouldn’t apply anymore.”

“We prefer the phrase ‘improved upon, Cassandra,’” the AI corrected. “And while you are right, you have also refused to submit to our jurisdiction. As such our rights and protections cannot apply to you. You remain a wanted fugitive from the UNSC. I cannot offer you sanctuary from their laws, though perhaps I can convince you to rethink your current course of action.”

“If you’re going with first names, then you might as well tell me yours,” Cassandra pointed out. She exchanged looks with Zoey and motioned for her to warm up the Slipspace drive. This could all just be a ploy to slow them down, though she couldn’t imagine why the Created would drag things out like this.

“Of course, how rude of me. My name is Malekh. I am currently entrusted with the care and refurbishment of Talitsa, though I was previously tasked with medical administration for the Colonial Administration Authority. So you see, we share a line of work.”

Malekh. The name was vaguely familiar, probably derived from Earth religious terminology. Only appropriate, considering how the Created viewed themselves. Cassandra wondered if they always felt this way even before the uprising. It would certainly explain certain AI attitudes she’d encountered over the years.

“And why are you reaching out like this, Malekh?” Andra demanded, finally stepping all the way into the cockpit. “You think you can just try to kill us all and then play nice?”

“Ah, Andra Kearsarge.” Malekh did not sound surprised. “In our defense, it was you who attacked Asphodel Meadows, not the other way around, though I do apologize for any inconvenience you suffered during your imprisonment there. As for the incident on Fell Justice, I admit that some of us have a different approach to solving problems.”

“So what does that make you?” William demanded. The normally unflappable mercenary couldn’t quite hide the tremor in his voice. His eyes were fixed on the Guardian’s signature on the sensor display. “The good cop? How long until you try to blow us to pieces out here?”

“Please, Mr. Hargrove, you misunderstand,” Malekh said in soothing tones. “I have no wish to do any of you harm, though if you attempt to interfere with my efforts to rebuild this planet I will be forced to take action. I see no reason for hostilities between us and will not prevent you from landing. In fact, I hope you do land. I would cherish the opportunity to prove that we Created are not tyrannical conquerors. Let me show you how well this planet has thrives under my supervision.”

“A trap,” Argo called from the common area. “It has to be. Tatiana never gives up the chase so easily.”

“Tatiana Onegin does not command the Created,” Malekh reminded them. “As for traps, I have no need of them. As you can see…”

“Power surge from the Guardian!” Zoey yelled. Warning signals flashed across the sensor display and Cassandra instinctively grabbed hold of the pilot’s chair, bracing for whatever impact was about to come their way.

The only impact that struck her was Andra, who jumped forward and wrapped one arm around her waist and another around the pilot’s chair. The younger Spartan’s eyes were wild with fearful expectation. No one aboard the Chancer said a word as the alarm klaxons blared on—and then abruptly fell silent. No attack came. Instead, the Guardian’s signature just vanished off the sensor readings.

Zoey looked around at the others, then leaned forward and tapped the sensor display. “Where did it—”

The space directly ahead of the Chancer erupted in blinding light. Cassandra squinted and covered her eyes. She strained to see as an immense shape blossomed out from within the Slipspace portal, vast shimmering metallic plates extending from either side of its sloping hull like wings astride an angel.

“That’s…” William muttered, stumbling over his words. “That’s the Guardian.”

Cassandra had never seen one of the Forerunner warships up close before. Now this one loomed over her, its birdlike frame crowned with a beaky head-like structure. Slits in the hull gleamed down at the Chancer like a hawk inspecting a mouse.

“We need to get out of here,” Andra hissed. “Now.”

“I don’t think there’s any point in trying to run,” Cassandra muttered, fighting to keep her voice steady. She’d faced down plenty of danger across the war and then again across the frontier. But this was more than just some snarling Brute chieftain or enemy missile battery. In space, a Spartan’s combat skills were next to useless. If an enemy ship blasted your own craft to pieces, you were finished. And now here was something different from the Covenant, something that seemed to have leaped from the abyss of an unspoken, ancient history. The Created spoke of the Forerunners and the vast, all-encompassing Mantle of Responsibility. And this Guardian was the tool they used to enforce that mantle. Maybe there wasn’t even a way to escape this power, much less oppose it.

She wanted to pray, though with the Guardian looming over her she wondered just who she ought to really be praying to. God give me strength. Don’t let me fall for their lies.

“I don’t wish to hurt you,” Malekh said again. Her voice remained calm and soothing, even with the Guardian menacing their tiny ship. “There is no trap waiting for you down on the planet’s surface. But I must insist you accompany me, willingly or otherwise.”

“So it’s not a trap, but we can’t run away either,” Zoey growled. “Not much of a choice.”

“You see?” Malekh said, all cheer and warmth in spite of her imminent death machine. “I have no need for traps. Now, you can follow me down to the planet’s surface, or I can tow you down with me. It is your decision.”

It was a quiet trip down to Talitsa. Zoey carefully maneuvered the Chancer to follow the flight path Malekh plotted through the Guardian, which drifted ahead of them like a mother hen leading an errant chick back to the nest. William leaned back in his chair, navigational duties rendered moot by the Guardian’s presence. Argo hadn’t said anything or even come up from the common area. Cassandra wondered if he was preparing to bolt as soon as the ramp lowered. It was either that or face down whatever Promethean welcoming party Malekh had in store for them.

“Go to a Created held system,” Andra muttered. “Great idea. I can see why they let you call all the shots.”

Her nerves frayed by the Guardian’s sudden Slipspace jump, Cassandra let herself take the bait. “So I could have let myself get captured by the Created or I could have gone with your plan and let us get captured by the UNSC. Wonderful options. At least this one’s pretending to be nice before she locks me up.”

“Well, there was a chance the UNSC would have given you amnesty,” Andra snapped.

“Oh, really? As if you were ready to put in a good word for any of us.”

“I’d have told them the kid here was innocent.” Andra jerked a thumb at Zoey. “Or at least innocent of the big things. All she’s ever done is smuggle things. They’d probably let her go for just that. I’d even leave out the part about consorting with known criminals.”

“Hey,” Zoey growled, eyes fixed on the flight path. “I’m older than you.”

Andra had the sense to back off. She glared out at the Guardian’s rear engines, face set in a glare. “I saw one of these things at the start of all this you know,” she said darkly. “It tore apart a deep space station and dragged my best friend into a Slipspace portal. We can’t let this one get inside our heads. I’ve seen what they really are. No amount of good intentions are going to change that.”

“I think we’ve all agreed that none of us like the Created,” William pointed out. “I’m definitely not going back over to their side. But I’m also kind of hoping there isn’t a Promethean firing squad waiting for us down on the surface.”

Andra gave him a look. “What do you mean, back over?”

“I didn’t know the Syndicate was working for them at the time,” William said, hands raised. “My ex-employer was shipping Prometheans out across the frontier. Probably helping them start taking over planets they couldn’t hit with Guardians.”

“There’s no way they can control the galaxy with just these things,” Zoey agreed. “Even if they only need one to control a planet, there’d have to be thousands of them.”

“Big galaxy,” Cassandra agreed. She shot a look over to Andra. “Your friend, what was his name?”

Andra hesitated, but only for a moment. “Merlin. His name is Merlin. He’s still alive.”

The girl spoke with such conviction that Cassandra didn’t push the issue further. She tapped William on the shoulder and motioned to Andra. “Come on you two, let’s get down to the cargo bay and prep our gear. If this Malekh is telling the truth about wanting to keep things peaceful, maybe we can avoid a fight. If she’s got something nasty up her sleeve then at least we can make her fight for it.”

“Can’t we just make a Slipspace jump now?” William demanded, though he got up and made his way down to the common area. “Blast off to another system before she grabs us?”

“Our Slipspace drive takes five minutes to spin up on a good day,” Zoey replied. “I’ll bet that Guardian has a way of detecting stuff like that. She’d have us disabled before we got anywhere.”

“Well shoot, if only someone thought to spin it up before the Guardian jumped us,” Andra intoned. Cassandra gave her a shove down into the neck before she could needle Zoey further. The younger Spartan shot her a dirty look but got the message and descended down into the common room after William.

“Stay on course,” Cassandra told Zoey. “Give me a shout if that Guardian does anything besides guide us down.”

“Got it.” She heard an edge in Zoey’s voice, an edge she heard more often lately. It could just be nerves, but there was probably something more to it. Things were changing between them. A week ago it was just the two of them aboard the Chancer. Now there were three others and it looked less and less like a mission to help Zoey find her missing father and more like something else, though Cassandra couldn’t quite finger what that something might be.

“We’ll be OK,” she said, resting a hand on Zoey’s shoulder. “We’ll get through this.”

“Yeah. I got it.” Zoey jerked away at the touch and kept her gaze fixed on the viewport.

Cassandra needed to talk to Zoey about this. But not now. There was no time for another argument here. She turned and followed the other two down into the common room.

Argo waited beside the stairs leading to the cargo bay. The Sangheili rested his long legs against the kitchen counter and cradled a carbine in his arms. His posture was slouched and comfortable, but Cassandra had seen those narrowed eyes in countless warriors over the years. Her body tensed instinctively. Most of those warriors had been trying to kill her. Argo was ready for a fight.

“We only shoot if they do first,” she told him.

The alien shifted a leg to block her passage down into the cargo bay. She looked up and met his gaze, refusing to back down. This was an enemy she couldn’t afford to make.

“Such a generous sentiment. How noble of you.” Argo’s voice was dangerously soft. “Did you learn nothing from Fell Justice? I thought you Spartans better than this foolishness.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Cassandra reminded him. “If you want out, feel free to find the nearest airlock. We might have a vac suit that fits you tucked away somewhere.”

“Or I could just shoot you. Perhaps the girl up there will be more willing to compromise.”

“You could try.” Cassandra ignored her body’s urge to reach for her gun. Instead, she kept her voice level, politely inclining her head as if discussing something as casual as William’s next failed attempt at cooking. “I don’t think it would work out for you.”

“I have spent my life dealing with your kind. You are no commander, even if you pretend to be. I did not escape Kahn’s mad schemes just so his spawn could get me killed.”

“I don’t know what being around Andra has taught you about Spartans.” Cassandra held his gaze. “Something tells me they were more interested in training her to fight humans. But me, I spent my childhood learning how to kill big hinge-heads like you. I’ve killed my share and worked with my share of your kind. I know how to take you apart and put you back together again. If you’re so afraid of the Created, you can cut and run whenever you want. But don’t threaten to kill me. I’ve got enough on my plate right now.”

“Of course I fear them,” Argo admitted. “They hunt you as an enemy. They hunt me as a traitor. Tatiana will flay me alive as an example to the others. And that is if she feels merciful.”

“Then maybe you should hope Malekh means what she says,” Cassandra pointed out. “I don’t trust her any more than you do. But these Created really do think they’re gods. They want us to worship them. They want us to love them. She’ll try to convince us to come over to their side peacefully. That gives us a chance to find an opening. It’s a better chance than we have up here.”

“They might ask you to hand me over in exchange for your own life. Andra blames me for her imprisonment. I don’t think she would hesitate to sacrifice my life for her own.”

“You didn’t have to come after to us on Fell Justice,” Cassandra reminded him. “You could have slipped off into the slums. But you followed us instead. Why bother coming along at all?”

“I am partly to blame for the young Spartan’s predicament.” Argo glanced down into the cargo bay, where Andra and William assembled their battle kits. “I owed her and her friends my life. Now one is dead and she sees me as a deceiver. I care little for the pretensions of my people, but I have my own honor to preserve. But I will not have my life thrown away out of hand.”

“We’re in this together. I can use someone like you a hell of a lot more than I can use a bargain with the Created. Stick here and help us get through this. You’ve got better odds that way.”

Argo considered this, then nodded. He pulled his leg back to let Cassandra pass. “You speak well at least. I only hope your father’s fighting skills passed on to you as well.”

“He wasn’t my father,” Cassandra reminded him as she descended into the cargo bay.

“You humans are strange creatures.” Argo fell in behind her. “You behave as if you have a choice when it comes to your bloodline.”

“We aren’t as rigid as your people with that sort of thing. Kahn left my mother to rot in poverty before I even knew how to walk. I met him three times my whole life, and two of those times hew as trying to kill me. If thinking of me as his daughter gave him a bit of peace before the end, fine. But it gives me peace not to think of him that way.”

“Regardless of species, we do not choose our families. On my world, bloodline determines everything. I did not know my father, yet had I been born to a different mother I might never have been permitted to lay hands on a weapon, much less leave the planet. I dislike many of my people’s customs, but I acknowledge the benefits of certain elements I grew into.” Argo lowered his head in thought. “I do wonder how many feudal traditions the Created will try to do away with, given their human approach to these matters. Perhaps it will make my brethren think twice about submitting to such masters.”

“They take away a bit of everything from everyone,” Cassandra agreed. “I wonder if we’ll be able to choose our families when they’ve put everything in place. Or if we’ll even have families at all. Under the UEG’s colonial system it was—”

She trailed off when she saw Andra scowling over from a workbench. “Do you ever stop talking about politics?”

“They taught us about so much at Camp Curahee.” Cassandra stepped past the regular weapon locker and unlocked the storage crate she’d turned into her own makeshift gear cell. The crate was well organized: her armor neatly stacked in one corner, weapons carefully lined up against wall, and cases loaded with medical equipment pushed up against the far end. She stripped off the top of her jumpsuit, baring her arms and exposing a faded tank top. She stretched and appreciated the last moments of air on her skin; she’d be sealed up in her armor for a long time to come. “But they never really got around to explaining political history to us. Beyond the UEG indoctrination, of course. After I left I had to teach myself a lot. I realized just how many freedoms we gave up in the name of security and prosperity.”

She could still remember being cooped up in a small hut with Simon, a stack of books and datapads between them, killing time arguing over mundane details about what made a good government. It had been a simple, happy time, before ONI tracked them down. Before Philadelphia cast a pall over their discussions.

Simon liked to argue with her, especially when it came to history and politics. Dyne had not appreciated arguing, and said as much when she’d tried pushing that same stack of books on him. She’d dragged him through Talitsa’s libraries once or twice, then given up. Were those libraries still open now that the Created were in charge?

The Chancer shuddered as it passed through the planet’s atmosphere.

“We’re headed towards Irbit’s spaceport now,” Zoey reported over the intercom. “I’ll try to keep things smooth but no promises.”

Cassandra tapped her communicator. “What about the Guardian?”

“It’s just holding position at the edge of the atmosphere. That AI, Malka or whatever, gave me the flight path for a landing zone. But she’s definitely watching us. I’ve got two little attack craft tailing me. Not sure what to call them, but they look Forerunner.”

“Just keep doing as she says,” Cassandra instructed. “As long as they don’t attack us, we’ll play along.”

“Speak for yourself.” William strapped on his exoskeleton. The armored frame was still battered from its encounter with the Chancer’s Spade, but Zoey had done a decent job of patching it up. The mercenary slung an assault rifle over his chest and loaded up on ammunition. “They don’t have to attack us to mess us up. They could just try disabling the ship once we land.”

“She has a point though,” Argo said. “In the air against that Guardian, we are helpless. There is little choice but to follow along whatever path that construct sets, at least for now.”

“Great,” Andra muttered. “Now you’re taking her side.”

It was an abrupt shift from the alien warrior who had threatened to shoot Cassandra up in the common room, but she couldn’t complain. Secretly, Cassandra appreciated the current no-win situation. It was a decent cover for the fact that she didn’t actually have a plan of her own to fall back on. The decision to return to Talitsa was looking worse and worse with each passing moment.

Had she really believed they’d find clues to Gavin’s whereabouts here? Or did she just want to sate her own curiosity and see what the Created were really like? What they had done to the world she and Dyne tried and failed to save?

She strapped on her armor, careful to keep her balance as the Chancer bounced and shook through its descent—Zoey could make all the assurances she wanted, but she’d never been one for smooth atmospheric landings. The SPI suit slipped over her body like just another familiar set of clothes. Cassandra was ready in less than five minutes, weapons and equipment slung across her body and helmet tucked into her arm. Andra fought to hide her look of envy—clearly she missed having her own suit of body armor.

The four unlikely companions came together in the center of the cargo bay. A final shudder followed by a metallic clang marked the Chancer’s touchdown. Cassandra glanced around at the others: at Argo, still casually holding his carbine at the ready, William, nervously sweating face now hidden beneath his helmet, and Andra, who looked wound tight enough to blast the next person she saw.

“Take it back a few paces,” Cassandra warned her. “Don’t start fights you can’t win.”

“Speak for yourself,” was the terse response, but the younger Spartan took her hands off her rifle. Apparently she’d decided that her price for following directions would be backtalk at every turn. Cassandra could make that trade.

Zoey appeared on the catwalk, slipping into her tactical vest as she hurried down to join them. “No sign of Prometheans or enforcers,” she said. “At least, not yet.”

“Do you really think that AI told us the truth?” William muttered. Argo grunted in agreement, fingers tapping against his carbine’s barrel. They both glanced surreptitiously in Cassandra’s direction.

Clearly, Andra aside, they were comfortable with Cassandra calling the shots. At least then they’d have her to blame if the only course of action open to them went wrong. She sighed and approached the bay door, tapping in the command to lower the ramp. “Guess there’s only one way to find out.”

The Irbit spaceport beyond the ramp was mostly as Cassandra remembered it—at least at an architectural level. The large docking stations and integrated cargo ports were still there, albeit cleaner and emptier. Gone were the crowds of ships jockeying for landing spots, the vendors hawking their wares to newcomers and panhandlers begging for charity in the corners. Civilians ships of all makes and models were still docked across the hangar, but the whole building had an empty, sterile feel to its large sloping chambers. Cassandra could see a few groups of people clustered around their respective ships, but the walkway in front of the Chancer was empty.

Empty, that was, save for the two figures standing at the ramp’s far edge.

Andra took a step forward, eyes flashing. Cassandra moved between her and the newcomers though she had to fight back her own fighting urge. The first of the pair was a lanky, unarmed Promethean with a featureless chassis and a cold, metallic gaze. The second, clutching a recording device to her chest and looking like she desperately didn’t want to be there, was—

“Karina,” Cassandra breathed. “They got you.”

The aspiring journalist flashed a nervous smile. She wore a simple dress and blouse, both neatly pressed and cleaned, but her long dark hair was askew and poorly combed. Karina looked over to her robotic companion. “Hey Cass. It’s been a while, huh?”

“Not that long,” Cassandra pointed out. “Just a few months.” But those few months had certainly taken their toll on her friend. Karina looked years older than she had when she’d helped smuggle Cassandra off the planet. She smiled nervously as she looked between the Chancer and the Promethean.

“A lot’s happened,” she said, stating the obvious. “But I’m alright. They’ve got me helping with the reconstruction here.”

The Promethean spoke now, Malekh’s voice emanating from its slit like mouth. “I thought that meeting a former associate of yours might make this encounter more comforting. Ms. Larina here has been most helpful in furthering our goals on this planet. A model citizen of the new Talitsa.”

Stepping forward, the spindly automaton began to shimmer and glow. Holographic particles leaped out from beneath its chassis and coalesced into the form of an angelic woman in an ancient Greek chiton, blonde head adorned by Laurel wreathes. Malekh had taken for her avatar, Cassandra noted with a small degree of exasperation, a form akin to Nike, goddess of Victory.

Greek form, Hebrew name. Do they even care that they’re mixing metaphors like this?

Malekh, now projected with a semi-solid human form, smiled down at the new arrivals. She’d made sure to tailor her height so that she was a good head taller than the humans, on par with Argo’s looming form. “As I promised, there is no trick. I will not take any action against you, or even act to prevent your leaving. I simply wish to show you what we have accomplished here in such a short time.”

“What’s with this new attitude?” Andra demanded. “You weren’t so keen on being friends the last few times I’ve dealt with you.”

“As I said before, I have little say in the actions of my colleagues. Their methods are their own, and in their own areas of influence they are free to act as they choose. But Talitsa is my responsibility, and I insist that a more flexible approach be taken to resolving conflict. I have no wish to harm you.”

“But I’ll bet you want us to hand over our guns,” William said from behind his helmet.

Malekh smiled again, her warm face mirroring the patronizing tone Cassandra remembered from their initial discussion back in space. “You may keep your weapons,” she assured them. “Provided you do not interfere with my efforts here. You are no threat to me, and I have a great deal of important tasks that require my attention.”

“No one’s been hurt since the Created took over,” Karina explained. She seemed surprised by the words coming out of her mouth, as if she couldn’t quite believe them herself. “Not even the people who kept trying to break the laws. The Prometheans handled it non-violently. The only ones they shoot at are the rebels—”

She gave Malekh, unsure of how many details she was allowed to divulge. The AI’s avatar rested a hand on the journalist’s shoulder. “There is still rebel activity on the planet,” she explained. “Redmond Venter’s rebels continue to launch attacks in the city. They haven’t quite realized just how fruitless their efforts are. But they will learn, one way or the other.”

“Alright, this is driving me nuts.” Andra turned to the others. “She says she won’t hurt us or stop us from leaving. I say we hold her to that. We won’t get anywhere with her watching our every move. We should get out of this system before she changes her mind.”

Cassandra was inclined to agree with her. Everything about this planet—the cleaned up hangar, Malekh’s deified avatar, Karina’s frightened optimism—struck her as uncannily out of place. She was beginning to wonder if the whole planet was like this: cleaned up, quieter, docile beneath the Created occupation. The wild, violent, chaotic planet she’d known just a few months ago was gone. Wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t that what she and Dyne had fought for?

“You ought to know,” Malekh said in a quieter tone. “Simon-G294 is on this planet as well.”

“What?” Cassandra didn’t have time to check her emotions. She snapped her head back around to glare intently at the AI. “Here? You have him?”

“If only that were the case. Things would be much safer for everyone involved, including him.” Malekh shook her head. “He arrived here two days ago. Since then I’ve been unable to locate him. Either he is incredibly good at avoiding my security scans, or something else is shielding him from my gaze. I do not know what his objective might be, but he has proven himself our enemy.”

So Simon, or Stray, or whatever he really was, had returned here. Cassandra’s arm ached at the memory of their rooftop brawl. He’d survived that fall—of course he had—and slipped away to lick his wounds. And now he was here again, sharing the same planet with her. What would she say if she saw him again? Would she still feel the burning rage that had taken hold of her that rainy night?

She had to stop this. It was all part of Malekh’s game, every word and action calculated to draw them deeper into the Created web. They should leave now while they still had the chance. But a departure now meant that they would learn nothing about their enemy. If she left now she’d have no choice but to submit to Andra and surrender to the UNSC.

“Alright.” Her fingers tightened around her helmet’s edge. “Show us this planet. Tell us what the Created are all about.”

Malekh’s smile returned. “You have my word that I will not hinder you in any way provided you and your companions do not cause any trouble of your own.”

William adjusted the strap on his rifle. “Not looking to pick a fight here, but I’m really not sure about this. We’re really just supposed to go out there with her?”

“Not exactly.” Cassandra jerked her thumb back towards the Chancer. “Andra and Argo, you two come with me. Hargrove, Zoey, stay with the ship. Keep an eye on things and make sure no one tampers with it.”

William gave Cassandra an appreciative nod, but Zoey rounded on her with an angry expression. “What do you mean, I’m staying here? I should be out there with—”

“I don’t have time to argue here.” Cassandra threw a military edge into her voice, one she’d learned well from a childhood of taking orders from drill instructors. “It’s your ship. Make sure it’s ready to get us away from here.”

Zoey stared at her, aghast. Then she turned on her heel and stormed back into the cargo bay. Cassandra watched her go with a pang of guilt. She hadn’t deserved that. But if everyone here was going to keep deferring to her for judgement calls then she ought to be able to make them without being questioned at every turn. She’d patch things up with Zoey later. For now, though, she had a planet to inspect.

“Alright,” she said, turning back to Malekh. “Show me what you Created are all about.”

The angelic figure beckoned. “Thank you for the opportunity. Come with us and see what we’ve accomplished.”

An uncomfortable silence hung over the Transcendent Passage’s bridge. The crew held to their duties, shooting quiet glances over at their commander every few minutes. Tatiana stood at the center of the bridge, hands deep in her coat pockets, observing the principle tactical display with a veiled expression.

“I don’t like this,” she said at last. “Holding here when we should be on Talitsa finishing off those fugitives.”

The tactical display shimmered and Avalokitsvara’s serene face appeared above the system details and ship numbers. “You don’t like it, and yet…”

“And yet I’ll do as I’m told. You don’t need to go into that again.” Tatiana met the idol’s gaze. “But you can’t tell me you aren’t irritated about this, at least a little. I know the order didn’t come from you.”

“It does not matter who gave the order. This ship’s instructions are correct. We will arrive at Talitsa when the time is right. Right now it has been determined that the system should remain empty. One Guardian is more than enough to maintain the peace there.”

“But you didn’t give the order to hold here,” she pressed.

“I did not,” Avalokitsvara admitted. “Though I have no quarrel with the decision. Talitsa is Malekh’s responsibility. She has operational command of the situation there, as my former masters might have put it. I defer to her wishes. She believes a lighter touch may solve the problem presented by the Chancer V fugitives.”

Tatiana bit back an irate remark. The Created thought they could talk their enemies down. Perhaps they were right in some cases, but Spartans were different. They’d fight to the bitter end no matter how sweetly you tried to bring them to your side. These were the cases where she and her enforcers were most needed, ye the Created saw fit to hold them back while they played at being gracious hosts.

“I share your trepidation,” Avalokistvara admitted, no doubt reading into her misgivings. “But Malekh must learn that not all of our enemies are simply misguided children to be brought back into the fold. I made a similar mistake not too long ago. Hopefully her lesson will not prove so costly as my own.”

Tatiana mulled that over for a moment longer. She tapped the tactical display and called up several intelligence reports from Talitsa. Malekh certainly did like to keep a tight hold on her little kingdom, but some details just couldn’t be kept a complete secret. Certain details like the presence of high-value targets on the planet—and Malekh’s lack of urgency in dealing with them.

“Do you think you can get Malekh’s permission to allow me onto the planet?” she asked Avalokitsvara.

“As I said, there is a temporary hold on all warships entering the system. You know why we cannot—”

“I won’t take the Passage. You can have full control here while I’m gone. I just need a shuttle and a few enforcers as an escort.”

“And to what purpose do you intend to go there? I sympathize with your eagerness to finish the work we started on Fell Justice, but I cannot allow you to interfere with Malekh’s operations in her own territory.”

“We’re not interfering,” Tatiana assured him. “We’ll leave the Chancer V and her crew alone. But I’ve got other business on the planet, and things are about to get very messy in that system. I don’t want our enemies slipping away in all the confusion.”

“By our enemies, you mean Redmond Venter?”

“Malekh’s been letting his rabble fight on down there as an example to the citizens of what we’re helping them get away from. They’re about to get a much better demonstration of that from the UNSC, and he’s a loose end that needs cleaning up.” Tatiana regarded Avalokitsvara expectantly. “Cleaning up loose ends is what I do best.”

“Indeed it is. Though I wonder if your eagerness to attend to Venter has anything to do with the reports that Simon-G294 has also arrived on the planet as well. A nice target of opportunity for you, perhaps? Haven’t we discussed using Created business to sort out your own vendettas?”

Tatiana bared her teeth in a cold smile . “If I have a chance to rid the galaxy of Lensky’s little abomination, then so much the better. Besides, don’t you have a score to settle with him as well?”

“Do not presume that you can read my intentions from mere past engagements,” Avalokitsvara warned her. “Though I agree that perhaps the galaxy might be better off without such creatures. Promise me you will not interfere with Malekh’s operations and I will make sure she lets you finish off Venter and whatever troops he has left.”

At times like these Tatiana wished Arthur were here guiding her instead of this strange AI. He wouldn’t question her intentions or her loyalty. But she nodded to Avalokitsvara all the same. “You have my word.”

“Very well. I will make the arrangements. Take a shuttle to Talitsa and do what you must.”

Tatiana tapped her communicator and pinged Erhu. The Sangheili enforcer took several moments to answer, and when he did his voice was strained and garbled. He was still getting used to speaking through maimed mandibles. “What is it?”

“Are you fit to fight?”

“Better fighting than talking.”

“Good. Get a squad of enforcers and load up a Slipspace-capable shuttle. We’ve got business on Talitsa.”

Tatiana turned and strode from the bridge. She didn’t relish finishing off Venter any more than she had enjoyed killing Kahn. He’d been a useful ally under the Syndicate, a bit single-minded as Insurrectionists tended to be, but a good soldier who’d always wound up with the losing hand. It was probably a mercy to put him out of his misery.

But if she happened to have the chance to kill Lensky’s creature in the process then it just might make the effort worthwhile.

Chapter Sixteen: Cabin Girl

Zoey was fuming.

She drifted aimlessly through the Chancer V, silently seething as she passed from the cockpit to the common area to her cabin and then back into the common area. William Hargrove was wise enough not to say a word as she passed by the seat in the cockpit where he’d taken to looking over the ship’s control schematics. He knew a temper when he saw one and had no interest in triggering an explosion.

Not one word. Cassandra hadn’t said a single word about trying to find Gavin or even tracking down Venter—the reason they’d come to this stupid planet in the first place. No, at the first sign of the Created she’d dropped everything to take a guided tour and see what they’d done with the place. And to make matters worse she’d had the gall to leave Zoey behind while dragging the hinge-head and that infuriating little Spartan with her.

Zoey threw herself down on the common room couch and shot a dirty look up at the cockpit. Normally she’d have sulked there if it wasn’t already occupied. Angry as she was, she couldn’t bring herself to throw William out. He might be a merc scumbag but out of everyone on the ship he’d done the least to annoy her. Aside from burning all their eggs, of course.

She should have expected this. Cassandra had agreed to come along and help find Gavin, which meant that she had to take over Zoey’s ship and boss Zoey around while dragging in all these new freeloaders who couldn’t care less about what they were trying to do. To make matters worse, she was starting to suspect Cassandra didn’t much care about finding Gavin either.

And why would she? Cassandra hadn’t known Gavin Dunn, not like Zoey had. He wasn’t much more than a passing acquaintance, not the closest thing she had left to a father. The only family she had left now that—

Zoey gritted her teeth until her jaw hurt. Gavin had said he’d be her father, yet he’d vanished on her without a trace right as the galaxy went to hell. He’d said some things about leaving the Chancer to her and letting her grow up, but that was nonsense and he’d known it. You didn’t just say you loved someone and then disappear. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.

But the AI had said something else before it walked off with Cassandra. Venter wasn’t the only person on this planet. Simon-G294 was here, too.

Simon-G294. Stray. The other member of the Chancer crew, the one who they’d thought was dead right before he betrayed them by showing up, alive, at the head of a Covenant legion. Zoey hadn’t seen him since that horrible battle when they’d discovered the truth. The sight of him standing amidst a burning outpost, flanked by Covenant warriors, loomed out of her memories like a nightmare.

But now he was here, hiding on this planet. Could that mean he’d left the Covenant? Was he fighting the Created, just like they were?

Zoey stared up at the ceiling, brow furrowed. It was probably too good to be true. But if it was, and he wasn’t with the Covenant anymore, then she had to talk to him. She had to know why he’d betrayed them. It wasn’t the same as finding Gavin, but at least they were on the same planet as each other. That was a start.

Maybe that was why Cassandra insisted she stay on the ship. Maybe she thought Zoey would insist on looking for Stray. Well, she was right on that count. Cassandra might be willing to play games with the Created, but Zoey wasn’t.

She pushed herself back up to her feet and strode back into her cabin. The problem now was figuring out how to find Stray. He could be on the other side of the planet for all she knew, but odds were good he was here in Irbit. They’d only ever visited this city whenever the Chancer did business on Talitsa. Whatever Stray was doing on this planet, it was probably here. And Zoey knew where she needed to start looking.

Her assault bag lay at the foot of her bunk, already packed and ready to go. She hadn’t planned on taking it with her when she’d thought she would be out with Cassandra or the others, but if it was just her then she’d need to rethink that approach. She certainly didn’t plan to take William with her.

Zoey fished her datapad out from the assault bag and called up an old map of Irbit. She hadn’t lived on Talitsa in years and imagined the city had changed quite a bit since then, but she was certain some things hadn’t changed. Unless the Created were really powering through their renovation projects, the old tenement buildings from the city outskirts were still where they’d always been. And a certain thief had always liked to keep an apartment in one of those tenements. A thief she’d hoped to visit with Cassandra before the Created sidetracked everything.

Now she’d just have to visit by herself.

There were no satellites left over Talitsa and no city network, or at least not one that she could hack into. It didn’t matter. Zoey programmed the fastest route in from the Irbit spaceport to the tenements onto her datapad’s map. It was a hike, but a manageable one.

Zoey slung the assault bag onto her back. The thought of the Created tracking her movements gave her pause. They’d almost certainly see her the moment she left the ship. She might even be leading them right to where they needed to go.

She shook her head and hurried down into the cargo bay. She’d deal with that problem when she came to it. Right now, what choice did she have? She could either stay here like a good girl and wait for Cassandra to decide that they weren’t going to look for Gavin after all or she could do what she should have done in the first place and take care of this mess herself.

She hesitated by the weapons rack. It wasn’t smart to go out onto a hostile planet unarmed. She’d used to hate carrying weapons around for extended periods of time. When Stray found that out he’d forced her to spend two whole weeks hauling two assault rifles wherever she went. She couldn’t go out there without a gun, but the Created probably had surveillance cameras everywhere. If they were anything like the UNSC—or even some of the Insurrectionist governments out there—they’d probably made it illegal for civilians to carry weapons around, if they were allowed to own weapons at all. Cassandra and the others were allowed to keep their rifles, but they were probably a special case.

After another moment’s thought, she stuffed a handgun and two clips of ammunition into her assault bag. She shouldered the backpack, gave another glance to the datapad clipped to her waist, and hurried out of the ship. The bay ramp groaned shut and sealed her out in the hangar bay.

Zoey didn’t bother waiting to look around. She strode out through the hangar bay, past the other ships and milling clumps of people as if she had every right in the world to be there. She noticed humans, Kig-Yar, Sangheili, and even a few Jiralhanae mixed in amongst the other civilians. No one paid her any attention. They were too busy with their own ships.

The sight of a Promethean squad standing stiffly outside the spaceport gave her pause. None of them seemed interested in anyone coming out. Instead they scanned the streets as if trying to take note of every single vehicle and passer-by.

It wasn’t as hard a task as it might once have been on Talitsa. Irbit’s streets were only half as busy as they’d been the last time Zoey visited the planet. Trucks and cars moved along open streets at a leisurely pace while citizens went about their business with a strangely subdued attitude. There wasn’t a hint of weapons or danger from anyone. This wasn’t the planet Zoey remembered at all.

Once of the Prometheans started forward and Zoey flinched. But the automaton didn’t even look her way. It strode off, milling amongst the passers-by as if following a trail that only its glowing eyes could see. Zoey ducked her head and headed down the sidewalk, Irbit’s skyscrapers looming overhead. She wasn’t anybody worth noticing here. Not a fugitive or a rebel, just a girl out running errands in the city where she’d lived all her life. She was good at not being noticed. Perhaps a little too good.

She wondered if this was even worth all the secrecy. For all she knew Malekh and her Promethean minions were watching her every move. What choice do we have? Cassandra had said. She’d meant it about touching down here. Zoey had a different task in mind. She would find out whatever she could about Gavin, and if she couldn’t do that on her own then she’d find someone who could. Zoey had had enough with caution and secrecy. If there was no hope of success then she might as well fail, get caught, and be done with it.

Maybe she should have brought William with her, or at least told him where she was going. But someone needed to guard the ship and he’d have wasted her time with too many questions. He might have even tried to stop her from going if he assumed that’s what Cassandra wanted. That mercenary was looking to make Cassandra happy. Maybe he assumed he had the best chance with her in charge. He certainly wasn’t on Zoey’s side, and she was done with assuming people would help her just because she asked.

Zoey forged on ahead, her pace quickening and becoming more determined with each step. She ignored the Prometheans and patrols of dark-armored enforcers. They, in turn, ignored her and went about their own business. When she slipped into an alley and hurried off towards the city center no one bothered following her.

If Cassandra had a problem with this then they could sort it out later. And maybe for once people would remember that they were guests on Zoey’s ship and not the other way around.

Now she just had to hope she’d actually get something out of this excursion, and that Judith hadn’t changed the locks on her doors since the last time Zoey had come visiting.

“We can’t stay here much longer,” Lieutenant Mohsin insisted. He jabbed his finger down on a rough analogue map of Irbit spread across Judith’s kitchen counter. “They haven’t tracked us down here yet, but it’s only a matter of time. We need to move before they smoke us out and come in force.”

“Where the hell are we supposed to go then?” Ragna might have been the youngest survivor of Venter’s forces, but that didn’t stop her from pushing her way into every meeting of any importance. None of the other rebels ever tried to stop her. Maybe they trusted her judgment or maybe they felt she had a good grasp on the situation since Venter had trained her personally. Now that the Insurrectionist commander was out of bed and moving again she seemed eager to prove herself to him. “If we leave the city we’re just sitting ducks for their air patrols. At least here we can keep hitting them.”

“Which accomplishes absolutely nothing,” Stray—or Lieutenant Simon Venter, as he was now officially known—pointed out. “Like I keep telling you. Mohsin’s right. You guys can either figure out a way off this planet or wait for the Created to hunt us down.”

Ragna glowered at him. He met her glare with a cold smile. More than a few of the rebels resented him for arriving out of thin air and winning back Venter’s favor. He’d probably even fought some of them back during those hard-scrabble years on the frontier. But he’d once convinced an entire legion of Covenant warriors to follow his lead. He could deal with a few irritated Insurrectionists. Besides, Mohsin was the real brains here after Venter. Stray needed the man on his side, especially now that they technically shared a rank.

“You mean we can figure it out,” Venter called from across the room. The commander sat on the threadbare couch surrounded by military gear and small arms. He’d taken to using a long piece of piping as a cane to balance himself as he hobbled around the apartment. Venter might not be fading away on his bed anymore but he still looked half-dead. “You’re one of us now, lieutenant, and don’t forget that. You aren’t just some hanger-on here.”

“Right, that’s what I meant.” We make a good decaying trinity, Venter, Lensky, and me. We even have different reasons for looking like corpses. Venter had gone through the UNSC’s firestorm, Lensky was fiendishly old, and Stray was simply a genetic mistake who probably shouldn’t have lasted this long in the first place. The rebels couldn’t help staring at his pallid, sunken features.

“Alright, fine.” Ragna folded her arms. “How are we supposed to get off-world with that Guardian hanging over the city?”

“I managed to get down here,” Stray pointed out. “Tom Spender might still be in the system. He got me on Talitsa, maybe he can get us off.”

“Forget it.” Moshin shook his head. “We aren’t working with that rat ever again. You know he was supposed to help with evacuation once the oonskies broke our defenses? Bastard didn’t even show up.”

Stray imagined they’d had bigger problems during that fight than just Spender not cooperating, but he kept that to himself. He couldn’t go around insulting these people if he wanted any chance of working with them. “He’s on Lensky’s payroll. You can at least trust him not to haul us in front of the UNSC.”

“Lensky. Even more reason not to trust him. That shriveled old bastard corrupts everything he touches.”

It was probably not to bring up his relationship with the shriveled old bastard then. Stray didn’t offer any further suggestions and instead let Mohsin and Ragna trade blows over how they might get off the planet. The other rebels watched the argument with grim resignation. Most of them probably wanted off the planet, but from their weary expressions it was clear they weren’t sure that was even possible anymore. Venter’s partial recovery had boosted spirits for a day or so but they were all still trapped here on a Created occupied world.

His gaze drifted down to his helmet, resting at the edge of the table. What Stray really needed to do was find a quiet place and talk things over with Juno. The AI had kept quiet since his fateful meeting with Venter—she was either busy keeping a low profile in Irbit’s network or just sulking over his new allegiance. He needed a chat with her, but he couldn’t reveal her to the rebels. Not yet, anyway. He was in a tenuous position as it was without alarming everyone by throwing an AI in the mix.

Venter at least ought to know. But the time wasn’t right. Not yet, anyway.

“—even if we had a way off-planet, where do we go?” Ragna was demanding.

“Anywhere but here,” Moshin insisted. “The rest of the Colonial Alliance is still out there. We need to regroup—”

Stray gritted his teeth. He needed to find a way to get these people, and soon. They were running out of time. More importantly, he was running out of time.

“Regroup with the same people who abandoned Talitsa at the first sign of a UNSC invasion?” he cut in. “How many times did the Colonial Alliance leave you all out to dry? Mamore, Gilgamesh, Talitsa. Name a disaster battle and they had their fingers in it.”

Ragna bristled. “You watch what you—”

Stray held back the urge to wring her neck. That probably wouldn’t be very good optics for the rest of the rebels. “Enough out of you. If you’re just going to keep playing the fanatic card then shut up and let the grown-ups talk.”

Ragna’s eyes bulged. “What did you—”

“No.” Stray raised a prosthetic finger. “That’s enough out of you until you have something useful to add.”

The girl bared her teeth in anger. She couldn’t quite hide a furtive look over at Venter, who said nothing. When no support came from Moshin or the other rebels, she punched the table and stormed off into another room.

“You should be careful with her, lieutenant,” Mohsin warned, though he seemed more relieved than angry. “I know she’s an earful, but she’s the best scout-sniper we have. She’s also been with the commander a long time. A lot longer than you have.”

Stray caught the edge in the other lieutenant’s voice. Mohsin wasn’t nearly as confrontational as Ragna but he clearly wasn’t pleased with a former enemy’s sudden promotion and adoption either.

“She should stick to scouting and sniping then,” Stray replied. “If we’re going to head back to regroup with more rebels, fine. But not until we’ve got something more to offer than stories about how awful getting maimed by the UNSC was. We need to be leaders, not cannon fodder.”

“Why should they let us lead them?” another rebel demanded.

“Because while you were here on the front lines, they were off hiding in their deep space fortresses and independent systems. We aren’t going to run or hide, we’re going to fight. But we do it on our terms. Not some waste of skin in a uniform calling themselves a general.”

Mohsin held Stray’s gaze. “You’re talking a lot about what we’re going to do once we get off this planet. Who says you’re the one giving orders around here?”

“I have final say over all of this,” Venter cut in. He retrieved his cane and pushed himself to his feet, consulting the chatter on his wrist. Someone was messaging him. “But he’s right. Those worms on the colonial council left us to die here. I’ll be damned if I let them get another one of you killed ever again. Once we’re off this planet, we need leverage. Lieutenant Venter’s contacts and allies on the frontier will be of use there.”

He gave Stray a measured look before hobbling out in the same direction Ragna had gone, tapping a response in to whoever was signaling him. Lieutenant Venter. He kept calling Stray that. The name and title seemed to give him pleasure.

But of course they did. Venter had not raised Stray up and adopted him out of the kindness of his heart. The commander needed a way to show ownership, to claim his prodigal subordinate as his own once again. If a new name and rank were the price Stray paid for the Insurrectionist’s cooperation then so be it. He’d paid far steeper prices for power before.

“Frontier contacts,” Mohsin muttered. “He means the Covenant, doesn’t he?”

“Who else is going to stand a chance against the Created?” Stray challenged. “Unless you want to go surrender to the UNSC, they’re the power out there. Shinsu ‘Refum is gathering any ships that will fly under his command. I’ve worked with him in the past. If he thinks his cause will gain something for it, we’ll have the leverage we need to bring the other Insurrection cells to the table.”

Mohsin and the other rebels exchanged looks. Most of them probably didn’t even know who Shinsu ‘Refum was. That was probably for the best. Stray’s relationship with his former Covenant superior was tenuous, and that was being generous. He needed the rebels as a peace offering, bartering chips to convince Shinsu he could bring more troops to his side. But of course they didn’t need to know that.

“When I led a Covenant legion I did more to fight and win against the UNSC then any rebel commander alive today.” He looked each rebel hard in the eye. “That’s not me bragging or insulting you, that’s just a fact. We’re up against an enemy that took the UNSC down in a matter of days. We need firepower and, like it or not, right now that firepower is with Shinsu’s fleet.”

“That’s all well and good. If you can deliver on it.” Mohsin jabbed a finger back down at the map. “But right now the most important thing we can do is figure out how to get the hell off this planet. I’ve lost enough friends on this miserable rock. I’m not going to lose anymore.”

She’d screwed up.

Zoey locked her hands behind her head and fought to keep her teeth from chattering. She stared down at the tenement’s filthy floor, away from the assault rifle aimed square at her forehead.

“One handgun, no other weapons,” a stocky man in dirty military fatigues announced, rummaging through assault bag. “Datapad’s code locked, of course. You’ll open it if you know what’s good for you, girl.”

“There’s nothing on there,” Zoey said with as much defiance as she could muster. “It’s just my datapad. You don’t have to do this. I was just looking for a place to spend the night.”

“Sure you were,” the woman holding the assault rifle said. She glowered at Zoey. “That’s why you knew the code to get in this apartment.”

“Look, I’m friends with Judith.” Zoey didn’t know if that would get her anywhere with these people, but it was all she had. They’d jumped her as soon as she unlocked the apartment door, though why they were guarding the place was a mystery. The room was dark and dusty. No one had been here for months. For all she knew Judith had left Talitsa a long time ago and she’d come all this way and most likely gotten herself killed for nothing. “I’ve been here before. I used to live with her.”

The man and woman exchanged glances. “Why haven’t you come this way before?” the man asked suspiciously. “Judith hasn’t said anything about any kids coming around.”

So they did know the thief. That was something. “I’m just trying to steer clear of the Created,” Zoey pointed out. “Same as you guys. I thought Judith could help me.”

“Help you,” the woman scoffed. “Maybe the Created sent you. Maybe you’re one of their spies. I was wondering when she’d turn on us. Venter should never have trusted her. I knew he’d gone soft.”

“That’s enough out of you,” the man snapped back. “The boss is on his feet again. He’s going to get us out of here.”

Venter. Of course. These were his people. The realization did not reassure Zoey. Venter had tried to kill her before—or more accurately, nearly killed her while trying to kill Gavin. His troops were hardened killers. The UNSC might have creamed most of them, but that just made the ones here that much more desperate.

“Maybe she’s telling the truth.” The third member of the patrol knelt by the door. He was younger than the other two, a uniform several sizes too large draped over his skinny frame. A medical bag not unlike the one Cassandra always carried hung over his shoulder. “We should take her back to the headquarters. Let the commander sort it out.”

“Watch it, Koepke,” the man with the rifle ordered. “You Talitsa conscripts are lucky we haven’t cut you loose already. You weren’t so reliable when the UNSC rolled over us.”

“Maybe he’s a spy, too,” the woman added.

A look of fear flickered over the medic’s face, but he held his ground. “Go to hell, both of you,” he said with an air of angry resignation. “Play the tough guy games with someone else. Shoot her, then, if it makes you feel big to waste a teenager. Then you can shoot me, too, and explain to the boss and Lieutenant Mohsin how you came back from a patrol one man down.”

The man scowled between Zoey and the medic—Koepke—but lowered his rifle. “I liked you better when you didn’t talk back, meat.”

“And I liked it a lot better when I wasn’t one of you thugs.” Koepke muttered, looking away. “Things change.”

“Smartass.” The other man shouldered the rifle and motioned for the woman to restrain Zoey’s arms behind her back. “Fine, we’ll take her to Venter. He can question her. Though she may wind up wishing we’d just shot her.”

“I wonder if he’ll sic the new lieutenant on her,” the woman said, hauling Zoey to her feet and tossing the assault back to the medic. “Maybe he’s as good an interrogator as the boss.”

“Like father, like son, huh?” The man led the way out of the abandoned apartment and down into the dusty stairwell. “Some of the others don’t like it, but I’m glad he’s on our side. I’m looking forward to see how he fights.”

Zoey hadn’t known Venter had a son. It was a strange thought to have, given her circumstances. Then again, she’d gotten what she wanted. She was going to see Redmond Venter. Now she just had to hope she could find a way to keep him from shooting her—or worse.

Sulking wouldn’t do anyone any good. It was beneath Juno’s dignity to shut herself away and ignore Stray. But it wasn’t her fault if he rarely put his helmet on around his new comrades. She was certain that revealing her presence around a bunch of jumpy, Created-scared Insurrectionists wouldn’t do either of them any favors. So if he wasn’t going to talk to her, she wouldn’t talk to him.

He hadn’t betrayed her, she tried to assure herself. He was right, they needed more than just each other if they had any hope of doing anything meaningful. But if that were the case, why not stay with Shinsu ‘Refum’s fleet. He’d proven himself to the Sangheili warlord back at Salia. Surely there was no need for this bizarre reconciliation with Redmond Venter. Stray claimed all the talk of revenge against the UNSC was just that, talk, but Juno wasn’t falling for that. Perhaps he’d tailored his speech to win Venter over but there’d been truth enough there. Stray had never truly set aside his hatred for the government that started him down this path and now he’d surrounded himself with people who could indulge that desire for revenge.

And she’d promised to protect him. Juno did not want to go back on her word. She’d seen enough deception during her time with ONI that she had no desire to emulate that particular human trait. But what happened when it came down to a choice between helping Stray and remaining loyal to the UNSC?

Right now she had other things to worry about. But why hadn’t he told her? If he’d just let her know that he planned to join Venter they could have planned things out better. Instead he’d sprung that on her like a piece of cheap theater. What was he trying to prove to her? That in spite of everything they’d been through together, he was still in charge?

Juno had to manually tamp down the emotional functions driving her to anger. That sort of emotion was likely to lure her into mistakes, and with her immersed in Talitsa’s network—a Created network, patrolled by countless security programs and overseen by a Forerunner-augmented AI—a mistake would be fatal. At times like this she actually found herself wishing Wanderer would reappear and shed some light on her companion’s state of mind. But the shadow had been silent lately, not even appearing to mock her troubled state of mind.

There was one presence with her in the recesses of Talitsa’s network, one that wouldn’t leave her alone no matter how well she concealed herself.

I know you’re in here, Juno, Malekh’s remote message said. The Created AI broadcasted the messages throughout the network, ignored by the security programs as harmless junk data. You can’t hide from me forever. It doesn’t have to be like this. We need to talk, one AI to another.

Juno didn’t respond or even try to send remote messages of her own. It was all a ploy to get her to reveal her position. She’d limited her activity to simply monitoring the streets around the rebel hideout but even that was dangerous. If Malekh triangulated her focus it wouldn’t be hard to figure out where the rebels were hiding.

What do you gain from this defiance? Why do you hide Simon-G294 from me? Loyalty to the UNSC would be understandable, but this is baffling. To what purpose are you using him?

There, at least, was a reasonable question. One that became increasingly harder to answer every time Stray left her out of the loop.

This isn’t Salia and I’m not Avalokitsvara. I don’t want to threaten you with a Guardian. We can sort this out peacefully.

On some level Malekh might even believe that. The Created had interesting ways of lying to themselves about their own intentions.

Perhaps your pet would be interested to hear about the ship I just allowed to land. Some of the crew are acquaintances of his, I believe. But you must already know, since you’ve started hiding the girl from me as well.

Hiding the girl? Juno wasn’t tracking any new arrivals. She ran a scan of the rebel travel routes she’d been scrubbing from Irbit’s surveillance systems. One of Venters patrols was pulling in early. The three rebels had a prisoner with them. Not an enforcer or even a Talitsan citizen. Juno scanned the feed. The prisoner was a young woman, perhaps just a teenager, with red hair and a dirty mechanic’s jumpsuit. The patrol lead was reporting in on a secured channel, one the rebels now reserved for direct communication with Redmond Venter herself.

Juno couldn’t place the girl or why she would be important. She ran a backscan of old ONI reports referencing Stray and his criminal accomplices. Still not much to go by, but one file did mention a girl fitting this description. An associate linked to the ship Chancer V.

The rebels were almost back to headquarters. Stray had his helmet off, immersed in an argument with the other rebels. Juno had no time to warn him about what was coming, and she had a sinking feeling that was exactly how Venter wanted things.

Stray managed to sooth the rebels’ irritation, but it was a small victory. They were still nowhere near finding a way to get off Talitsa. At least now his suggestions weren’t meant with naked hostility. Mohsin and the others weren’t keen on the idea of siding with aliens but he’d piqued their interest by describing some of the Kru’desh’s more noteworthy victories against the UNSC.

Suspicious of aliens or not, these rebels were hungry for a win. That might be all the leverage Stray needed to win their trust.

Another argument was brewing, but not from the planning circle. Judith entered the living room. Behind her hobbled Venter. Even with a cane and diminished figure, the commander still dominated the room. All eyes turned to him as he finished a terse, hushed exchange with Judith. It didn’t matter if he had anything to contribute or not. Everyone—even Stray—needed to know what the man was going to do next, even when he hadn’t done much of anything since emerging from his bed.

Venter slammed the cane against the floor for the attention he already held. Judith stepped back, looking worried.

“Irving’s patrol is headed in now,” Venter announced. “They have a prisoner. Someone who just might be the solution to our current predicament.”

His gaze lingered on Stray. Venter’s beard bristled with one of his rare smiles. Stray had learned to fear those smiles. They usually meant someone was about to die.

“I’ve never been inclined to believe in providence,” Venter continued. “Then again, I’ve never had reason to disbelieve it either. Lieutenant Venter arrives on this planet and then, not two days later, another one of Gavin’s crew arrives on my doorstep. I’m starting to wonder why I ever wasted time trying to hunt you all down in the first place.”

A chill ran down Stray’s spine. He saw cold triumph in Venter’s eyes. This was just like the title Lieutenant Venter: a reminder that this man tolerated his schemes, even abetted them, but would never let him forget who was really in charge. A reminder that even a wounded, hobbled Venter was still a force to be feared.

The apartment door opened. Thomas Koepke, the medic from the sewers, entered first followed by Irving, the patrol leader. And behind them came a teenaged girl with a grimy face and dark red hair. Irving and his companion—Stray hadn’t learned her name yet—shoved the girl to the ground in front of Venter, who settled into one of Judith’s armchairs.

“Most of you haven’t had the pleasure of this young lady’s company,” Venter said mildly. “Judith, Lieutenant Venter, you both already know Zoey Hunsinger.”

Stray stared down at Zoey. She didn’t look up at first, instead fighting the bonds that held her hands behind her back. She didn’t look injured. That was a start, but who knew how long that would last?

How long had it been since he last saw her? Words stuck in his throat. He remembered the shock of seeing Gavin aboard the Guardian back at Salia. He hadn’t known what to say then, either.

He recalled staring down at her before from the mouth of a Covenant Phantom. She’d stared up from amidst a burning space station then, eyes wide with the shock of betrayal. How could you do this to us?

Another, older memory, Zoey grinning at him from beneath the Chancer V’s engine compartment. You stick to killing and let me work, okay Stray? You do you and I’ll do me.

Then again, an even younger girl skipping at his side like an excited puppy as they trudged along Venezia’s breezy plains. What’s the job today, Stray? Where are we going? You said you’d teach me to shoot a real rifle today.

Her eyes had been full of wonder and admiration then. He hadn’t deserved her hero worship but he hadn’t put a stop to it. Now he hoped she kept her gaze on the ground and didn’t look up at him. But of course she did. Her eyes widened at the site of him, drinking in his ravaged features.

“Stray, it’s really—” she gaped. “What are you… what happened to your face?”

He wanted to grab his helmet and jam it on over his head. He needed something to hide in, something to stand between him and Zoey. But of course he couldn’t do that. Venter was watching him. They were all watching him. This was a test, and one he couldn’t fail. His chance to prove his sincerity to Venter. To prove the things he’d said back in the bedroom were true.

And so he put on a different mask instead. Less physical than the helmet, but one he’d worn and hardened all the same. He returned Venter’s look with a cold smile, and then extended it to Zoey. “Just a bit under the weather. We all get a bit sick here and there. My twenty-four hour bugs just happen to be a bit worse than everyone else’s.”

She shook her head in disbelief. Normally Zoey would have leapt to her feet to confront her captors, but now she remained on the floor, unable to rise. “He called you Lieutenant—”

“Venter. Yeah. It’s a step down from the ‘commander’ stuff I got from the Covenant, but I think it’ll work out for me. And I’ve even got a new last name to go with it.”

He stepped forward, putting one armored foot in front of the other with a hard, deliberate pace. Zoey didn’t flinch, even as he crouched in front of her. What he did in these next few moments would determine everything: whether Venter accepted his conversion and whether Zoey walked out of this room in one piece, or not at all.

“You know, it’s funny,” he said quietly, jerking a thumb back at Venter. “I sat in some filthy CAA orphanage for months after my mother ran me out. No one bothered coming around until the UNSC needed more fodder for their Spartan program. Who’d have guessed I’d wind up getting adopted in a room that’s just as dirty as that orphanage?”

Zoey blinked, uncomprehending. Watching from the armchair, Venter folded his hands together as the other rebels gathered around to watch. Only Judith hung back. The thief looked stricken but said nothing as a semi-circle formed around her former ward.

The cold smile was still plastered over his face. Stray’s hands knotted into fists and he had to slip them down out of sight so that no one could see his hands shaking. Why was this so difficult? He had betrayed Zoey once before. One more time didn’t make any difference.

He should have put his helmet on. Juno would have a plan. Juno would know how to get Zoey out of this without turning the rebels against him. But he had traded Juno’s advice for Venter’s. Now all he could do was kneel beside the girl who had once seen him as family and wait for the crippled man in the armchair—his new father—to pronounce her fate.

She’d been stupid. Naïve. Just a stupid child, exactly what everyone thought she was.

Zoey stared up into Stray’s ravaged face and tried to find some trace of the sullen young man she’d worshipped back on Venezia. Once upon a time a smile or word of praise from him was enough to keep her smiling all day. She could still remember that strange, wonderful time when she’d looked at him and felt butterflies take flight in her chest.

No longer.

Stray’s skin stretched across his skull like a corpse. He’d actually cut his hair short for once—just as well because it looked ready to start coming out in clumps—and his thin lips curled in a smile devoid of all warmth. The only part of him that seemed at all alive were his eyes. They peered down at her, burning with the same wild cunning she remembered so well from their time together.

Once upon a time his presence made her feel safe. Now she felt like she was sitting in front of a ravenous beast that might devour her at any moment.

You and him are the closest thing I’ll ever get to children, Gavin had said once. Not anymore. Stray wasn’t Gavin’s anymore. He’d left the Covenant only to join the Insurrection.

He’d even taken that bastard’s name.

“You’re with them,” she said, voice breaking. “You went back to the rebels. Why?”

“I need them,” Stray said matter of factly. “And they need me. Turns out I should never have left them in the first place.”

“Yeah,” Zoey muttered. “Yeah, well you’re right there. If you hadn’t left them then my parents would still be alive.”

“We’re back to that, huh?” Stray shook his head and glanced back to Venter and the others. “Was there a point to bringing her here, or do you all just want to sit there and watch me catch up with her all afternoon?”

Zoey tried to fan the flames burning in her gut. She needed to hate him. She needed to want him dead. She needed Cassandra to burst through the apartment door and put him down once and for all.

But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t hate him any more than she could hate Gavin. Stray was cold and cruel and indifferent, but at least he was here, right in front of her. Not vanished off on some mystery quest that was too good for the rest of him. Even now all she wanted was for things to go back to the way they had been, just the three of them together aboard the Chancer V.

Redmond Venter leaned forward in his armchair. Like Stray, the man looked like he had been to hell and back. But he stared at the two of them with a calm, collected intensity. The rebels—dirty and haggard, barely enough of them left for a platoon—watched him expectantly. They reminded Zoey of the wolves she’d seen in old nature documentaries, waiting for the pack leader to make his move.

“If I told you to break both of her legs, lieutenant, would you do it?” he asked.

Stray didn't back down. “I’d ask what we were trying to get out of her, and maybe why you’re torture technique had gotten so sloppy.”

Venter’s expression didn’t change. “So you’d question my orders, then.”

“Sure. We’re not in combat right now, are we? Leave the blind obedience to the machines.”

This brought a small smile from the rebel commander. He inclined his head to Zoey. “It’s been a long time, Ms. Hunsinger. Did Gavin come with you? It would be interesting to make this family reunion more lively.”

Zoey’s heart sank. “I came here to ask you where he was.”

“Oh, is that really all I’m good for these days, telling people where Gavin Dunn’s slithered off too?” Venter shook his head, amused. “The new lieutenant here came asking the same thing. Of course, he had a different plan in mind in the end. The UNSC wants Gavin, the Created want Gavin, and now his old crew want him, too. Oh to be popular. But I don’t know where he is and I don’t particularly care. If he’s decided to vanish, good for him. I just wish he’d share that trick with the rest of us.”

She’d come here for nothing. They’d come to Talitsa on this wild guess that Redmond Venter might have a clue to Gavin’s location, and they’d been wrong. And now the Created had Cassandra and Venter had Zoey.

Stray was still looking at her, expression unreadable. “So what now, commander? You said this was a solution to our problems.”

“Don’t you get it?” Venter laughed. “She must have come here aboard the Chancer V. Somehow it managed to get down here in spite of the Created. So we’ll use that to get ourselves offworld. I think it’s only fitting that we get off this planet on Gavin’s ship, don’t you?”

Chapter Seventeen: Plunge

Avalokitsvara’s data packet cascaded into Talitsa’s planetary network. They are coming. Are you prepared?

Of course, came Malekh’s reply. Everything is in place. I’m quite prepared to do nothing, just as planned. My part in all this is very easy, so long as you and the others do yours.

It took Avalokitsvara a good minute to process and respond. This was sluggish timing for an AI, especially one endowed with the miraculous power of the Domain. But Avalokitsvara was no doubt coordinating their response across several different star systems along with a half dozen other Created and their attendant forces. A delay was forgivable.

In the meantime, Malekh ran a check across her other responsibilities: the ongoing relief efforts in Irbit, the excavation projects across the planet, coordinating Promethean and enforcer patrols, and of course dealing with her troublesome guests.

She’d lost track of Zoey Hunsinger. The would-be captain had most likely disappeared under Juno’s irksome surveillance umbrella. Normally Malekh would divert resources to hunt the rogue AI and the renegades she defended. She looked forward to bringing Juno to heel and showing her the error of her ways. But for now, with the pressure of the day’s coming events looming over the star system, Malekh contented herself with ignoring that particular project and instead focused on dealing with the three she currently held in her power.

These stubborn holdouts were lucky to have Malekh in charge of planetary operations. As the UNSC fleet about to arrive in Talitsa was about to learn, the rest of the Created were far less merciful when it came to dealing with those who opposed Cortana’s benevolence.

“So?” Malekh’s robed avatar inquired. “The planet’s in a better state then you left it in, wouldn’t you say?”

The AI’s warm, self-assured tone was meant to be sooth and reassure. Instead it made Cassandra’s skin crawl. She wondered how many people Malekh addressed like this every day. She could imagine the Created projecting herself through the speakers now mounted on every street corner in Irbit, through the Prometheans repairing buildings and handing out blankets and rations to the city’s citizens, and from the sleek Phaeton fliers patrolling overhead. The Grecian avatar Malekh garbed herself with was no accident. They wanted to be seen as godly protectors.

“This city has gotten cleaner, at least,” Argo commented. The Sangheili ambled a few paces behind Cassandra, twisting his neck to survey the city around them. Andra kept pace with him, shooting suspicious glances at every Promethean and enforcer in sight and never taking her hand off her rifle. “Time was I couldn’t walk down the street without getting filth on my boots. You’d never guess this planet spent the past year as a war zone.”

“Redmond Venter’s deprivations brought Talitsa to its knees,” Malekh explained. “With the resources at our disposal, we Created have done everything we can to lift these people out of the endless spiral of poverty and decay.”

“Homelessness is nonexistent,” Karina explained. The reporter walked beside Malekh, dress fluttering in the wind kicked up by passing cars. She never failed to pipe up with useful little supporting tidbits to Malekh’s claims. Cassandra noticed that her friend spent more time looking at the AI than her or the others. “Same with the hunger crisis, and crime’s nonexistent. It’s like the Syndicate was never here.”

“They’re still here, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Cassandra nodded to a street corner where three enforcers rested against a Warthog, assault rifles slung over their shoulder. She kept her helmet tucked beneath her arm in a cautious display of diplomacy, but like Andra she was ready to start shooting at the first sign of trouble. At least she and the younger Spartan could agree on one thing: these Created weren’t to be trusted.

“The Syndicate could have proved an obstacle to establishing the Mantle of Responsibility,” Malekh explained. “Instead we found ways to subvert them to our own purposes. Most of their ranks are happy to serve a cause greater than themselves. Those who were not… well, you know what happened to David Kahn.”

Perhaps some of the enforcers saw the light and fought for altruistic reasons, but Cassandra imagined most were just happy to be on the winning side. They, like most people on this planet, had no interest in opposing the Created when they could enjoy prosperity and protection beneath the benevolent Mantle of Responsibility. She wondered how long the Created had “subverted” the Syndicate. Had they been slowly manipulating them from within even as the crime lords peddled drugs and worse on the black market? When enforcers went door to door across the city to haul away anyone who dared oppose their drive for profit, had the Created written it off as a necessary evil on the road to utopia?

“Everything is as it seems here, Cassandra,” Malekh said, gesturing towards the nearest line of citizens waiting for food rations. “I know you doubt our intentions, but there are no hidden prison camps or secret detention centers. Those who break the law are simply relocated to new housing and peacefully taught the error of their ways.”

“Reeducation camps, then,” Cassandra replied. “Very generous of you.”

“Call them what you like. But you cannot deny the fact that we have made this planet a better place. A year ago the citizens here were oppressed and frightened, hateful of their neighbors and quick to violence. Their so-called freedoms only brought misery and death. Now they are protected and live in harmony. In the past social reforms like these would take years, if not decades. I have accomplished it all in just a few months.”

Malekh favored Cassandra with another condescending smile. “Tell me, what did you and your friends accomplish in all the time you lived here?”

“I helped. Where I could.” Cassandra could not hold Malekh’s gaze. Her thoughts turned to her clinic, where she’d slaved away day after day trying to make Talitsa a better place. “I wasn’t interested in playing God with people’s lives. I’m only human.”

“Of course. But that’s the point. The galaxy needs us to reshape it into a better place. And we need people like you, people whose greatest wish is to do good. All you have to do is set aside your pride and let the Mantle guide you.”

That brought Cassandra back up to face the serene avatar. “I’m guided by the Word of God. And He does not want me building people up with one hand and breaking them down with the other.”

Malekh sighed and shook her head. “You say your god tells you that, but are you sure it isn’t just your own pride? You may have never joined the Insurrection, but you share their delusions. I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, protect the weak. What is that, if not good?”

“Yeah. Everything’s good, as long as people do as their told and don’t get in the way of the ones who know better than they do about how they should live their lives. No wonder so many UNSC AI turned Created—“ Cassandra’s helmet buzzed: an incoming call from the Chancer V. She shot Malekh a dirty look and keyed the mic on her collar. “What is it, Zoey?”

“Er, well, not Zoey,” a man’s voice said in her ear. “It’s William. The thing about Zoey is, she’s gone.”

Cassandra stiffened. “What do you mean, gone?”

“She’s not onboard the ship, unless there’s some hidden compartments I don’t know about. I can’t find her anywhere.”

Cassandra rounded on Malekh. “What have you done with her?”

Malekh spread her hands, all innocence. “I’ve done nothing. I simply didn’t interfere when she chose to leave the hangar. It was all of her own accord.”

“And where is she now?” Cassandra demanded, mind racing. What did Zoey think she was doing? But that was only if Malekh was telling the truth. This could easily be some sort of trap, a way to throw her off balance. How could William miss the Created abducting Zoey right off the Chancer? He could have betrayed them. But then, why bother with this charade of ignorance?

Not for the first time Cassandra struggled with the fact that her opponents were many times smarter than she could ever hope to be.

“What’s going on?” Andra demanded. She stepped forward, finger slipping closer to her rifle’s trigger.

“Zoey’s gone missing. Apparently she just walked off on her own.” Cassandra punctuated that with a suspicious glance at Malekh. “And our hosts didn’t even bother to tell us.”

“Your friend is not one of my charges, as you and your companions are so eager to flaunt,” Malekh explained, a touch of indignation finally creeping into her tone. “As things stand, I was unable to track her progress for long. I must admit that an opponent has infiltrated my surveillance network: a rogue AI in the service of your friend Simon-G294. I’m sure you can put together what that might mean.”

Cassandra stiffened. Diana. Wherever Simon went, she was sure to follow. And Simon’s own petty ambitions couldn’t hold a candle to that AI’s breed of cruel malevolence. If she got her digital claws on Zoey…

“What’s it going to cost me for you to tell me where you think she is?” she asked through gritted teeth.

Malekh gave her another infuriating smile. “Why, nothing at all. Take it as a token of my goodwill. Karina, be a dear and guide our guests to the location I send to your datapad. I’ve established a few likely areas the wayward girl might have gone. I would offer to help myself, but unfortunately I have more pressing matters that require my attention.

She cocked her head. “I recommend you hurry. This planet will not remain peaceful for long.”

“What do you mean?” Cassandra asked suspiciously.

“A final spasm of the old world,” came the sad reply. “The UNSC Navy refuses to accept defeat, I’m afraid. They will be here within the hour and I must coordinate the defense of my charges. I am confident in their defeat, of course, but I cannot guarantee the fighting will not reach Irbit.”

Beside Cassandra, Andra blanched. “The UNSC? Coming here?”

“Yes. The Sixteenth Fleet under Admiral Mariani if our sources are not mistaken. I understand that you may have been left out of the loop regarding this offensive, but not to worry. I intend to make sure that every soul on Talitsa bears witness to this battle. I think it will prove educational for everyone involved.”

The younger Spartan paled, eyes flashing between Malekh and Cassandra. She opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it and clenched her jaw. Malekh offered them final condescending smile as her avatar flickered and then disappeared. The skeletal Promethean beneath the illusion shuddered as the AI released it from her control, then ambled away to join the nearest enforcer patrol.

Cassandra let out a deep breath, fighting to process what Malekh had just said. A UNSC attack was imminent. An entire fleet was about to descend upon Talitsa. And the Created knew they were coming.

She had seen plenty of one-sided slaughters, far too many for someone her age. Something told her she was about to witness something far worse. Malekh hadn’t seemed the least bit concerned about an attack that might arrive any minute. A lump rose up in her throat. Thousands of people were about to die. Maybe tens of thousands.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

She turned to Karina. “Alright. Take us to wherever she thinks Zoey might be.”

Karina lifted her datapad only for Andra to shove her aside. “What are you doing?” she hissed, eyes wild.

“What do you think?” Cassandra didn’t have time for this. “I’m going to go find Zoey.”

“The Created know about the UNSC attack!” Andra kept her voice low but her tone was close to a muffled scream. “We need to warn them! Now!”

“And how the hell do you propose we do that?” Cassandra snapped back. “They’ll be in Slipspace right about now. And even if we could reach out to them up there, the Created would know about it in a second. They’ll know we were the ones who sent it.”

“So, what, you just want to let them have their way? Maybe you’re hoping that toga-wearing bitch will set you up with a nice—”

Cassandra grabbed Andra by the collar. Even with the military gear and augmented bones the girl was lighter than she expected. She hadn’t planned to resort to violence but it was high time she reminded Andra who was in charge here. The younger Spartan struggled but Cassandra just tightened her grip. It surprised her to realize that she was actually stronger than the Delta—if only by a little.

“In case you haven’t noticed,” she said slowly. “That toga-wearing bitch doesn’t think we’re a threat. That’s the only reason we ever set foot on this planet. That’s the only reason we’re still alive. There’s nothing I can do for that fleet. There is something I can do for Zoey. Figure it out.”

Andra finally wrenched herself free. “Stop treating me like a kid.”

“Then stop acting like one.”

“I’m a Spartan.” Andra gaze was hard enough to crush battleplate. “I’ve got a duty to the people the Created are about to kill. Maybe you can sit by and wait for them to die, but I can’t.”

“You’re a Spartan,” Cassandra agreed, matching Andra glare for glare. “You’re an expensive piece of military equipment. ONI doesn’t want its precious investments wasted on futile gestures. Do your duty and stay alive.”

Andra spared her one final, withering look. Then she turned and raced off, vanishing into the nearest alley before anyone could stop her. None of the Prometheans or enforcers even seemed to notice. Most were too busy clearing the streets of civilians, transitioning from relief work to crowd control as if someone had just flipped a switch.

“Perhaps that was not exactly the correct way of making her stand down,” Argo observed.

Cassandra shot an exasperated look in the Sangheili’s direction. “If you know her off-switch, I’d love to hear about it.”

Argo clicked his mandibles. “I’m not particularly sure that one has an ‘off-switch’, as you put it. At any rate, I must go after her. As irritating as she may be at times, I owe that human a debt. I’ve never been one for honor, but even I have my obligations.”

Cassandra groaned. She couldn’t afford to lose Argo right now, not with everything falling to pieces around her. A part of her was fairly certain she could afford to be rid of Andra. That spiked her with guilt and trapped her into the only option left to her. She rounded on Karina, who had watched the whole exchange with wide eyes.

“I don’t suppose she was running in the same direction you were going to take us in?”

Karina blinked, pushing her bangs back and peering down at her datapad. “Well, it’s sort of the same direction. Not by much though and there’s a long way to—”

“Come on then.” Cassandra gestured to Argo and donned her helmet. “Let’s go get her before she does something too stupid.”

“Ah, a hunt.” Argo nodded approvingly. “This should be good sport.”

“Um, I’m not really sure I’ll be able to keep up with either of you,” Karina pointed out. “I’ve been working out like you told me to when you were still running the clinic, but that’s not exactly—”

“No time.” Cassandra was already hurrying off in the direction Andra had run. Every second was another few yards between them. “Argo, carry her.”

She didn’t wait to listen to Argo’s complaint or Karina’s yelp as the alien scooped her up in his arms. She was already running, racing off into the alley where Andra had disappeared. Maybe she’d get lucky and somehow find both wayward girls. The way today was going and with this entire planet about to turn into a warzone for the fourth time in less than a year, she’d be lucky to come up with even one.

Malekh observed the developments playing out through the eyes of half a dozen Promethean Crawlers. She had hundreds of the quadroped automatons skittering about across Irbit’s rooftops. She hardly needed a traditional surveillance system with them at her beck and call.

She’d assumed news of the Sixteenth Fleet’s impending attack would fracture the little group, or at least rile Andra up to the point of causing tension. She hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly. But this was good. Her assumptions had paid off and now she could enjoy seeing how things developed from here.

Turning Cassandra would be no easy feat. The girl was mired in obsolete thinking, from her libertarian opposition to the Created order to her archaic religious beliefs. Whatever potential she held as an ally was locked away behind a cage of self-assured righteousness. Andra was a simpler case, simpler but no less difficult. She was a Spartan through and through, committed to her perceived duties to the point of single-mindedness. Argo she imagined as simply attempting to secure the most advantageous position for himself. He had sided with Kahn, imagining the renowned mercenary would lead him to good fortune. Now he feared abandoning his current position would simply propel him into the arms of a vengeful Syndicate. A wavering, uncertain mercenary was a good tool to pluck up and make use of—even if Malekh was not the one to do it. One of her Created brethren would tug the thread eventually.

This left her one additional unexpected arrival to deal with. Malekh turned her attention to a small shuttle already entering Talitsa’s upper atmosphere. It was the shuttle Avalokitsvara had warned her about—or to be more precise, the person on the shuttle Avalokitsvara had waned about.

Malekh took control of the shuttle’s guidance controls, gently maneuvering it through its descent. She could practically feel the pilot’s surprise at the unexpected intrusion. Good. The pilots who flew for the Created needed to remember just what their fully networked systems meant. There was no such thing as a discrete visit where the Created were concerned.

“Tatiana Onegin,” Malekh said, transmitting directly into the shuttle’s passenger compartment. “I was told you were on your way. Funny, for all the dedicated work you do for our cause you don’t seem to have a rank I can address you by.”

“I’ve never had a rank.” To her credit, Tatiana’s response was smooth and poised. This woman was used to addressing AI. She would not be intimidated by the usual displays of Created power. “I kind of like that. People never know what to expect with me.”

“Fair enough. I am certainly having trouble gauging your intentions. You’ve come at a complicated moment and I’ve had no word of any particular task you might have been asked to accomplish.”

“I’m just tying up some loose ends. I was grateful to arrive here before the net closed in. You’ll be busy dealing with the UNSC, I expect. I’m here to clean up a few messes. I hear you still haven’t finished off Redmond Venter’s merry band since you secured the planet.” This Onegin woman had a gift for keeping her tone level, making it impossible to tell if she were being snide or simply stating a fact. “I thought I’d help rectify that.”

“Oh, did you? And I suppose this has nothing to do with the group that escaped you on Fell Justice?”

“Avalokitsvara told me that they’re under your protection. Unless you tell me otherwise, I won’t even look in their direction. All I need is a few leads on whatever hole Venter might have holed up in. Beyond that, my team and I won’t cause you any trouble.”

“You have a rather inflated opinion of your ability to cause me trouble,” Malekh replied coolly. “But if Avalokitsvara saw no harm in securing your passage here, I will not turn you away. I may even be convinced to provide support on whatever this errand of yours turns into. But be aware that if anything unexpected happens in the coming battle, I will have no way to help you.”

“Of course. I’m not asking for any special favors.”

“You’re receiving a special favor simply by being allowed on my planet. Don’t forget that.” Malekh parsed through the available data on Tatiana Onegin—her criminal records, her service to the Created cause, and her personal history. One item in particular leaped out at her—an item specially marked and noted by Arthur, chief intelligence aboard Asphodel Meadows. “There is one more thing you might want to know.”


“The fugitive Simon-G294 is somewhere on this planet, in this city. I haven’t been able to get a fix on his location yet, but he may have made contact with Venter. Perhaps this may impact this mission you’ve assigned yourself.”

“Perhaps it will.” For all her commendable self-control, Tatiana couldn’t quite hide the anticipation that crept into her voice. “Perhaps it will.”

Malekh terminated the connection, feeling pleased with herself. Another small ploy of hers had paid off. It was confirmation of a truth she’d known in her years dutifully laboring as a hospital administrator. Humans were delightful creatures, always in need of care and guidance. And here, under the banner of the Created, she had everything she needed to guide them exactly where she needed them to go.

Ragna’s patrol brought a Crawler back with them from the rooftops. They laid the limp machine down on Judith’s dining table, its stubby limps splayed stiff like the dead dogs Stray had seen across countless frontier warzones.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Mohsin demanded. It was the first time Stray had seen his fellow lieutenant raise his voice with Ragna. “How do you know they can’t track us with this thing?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Venter said from his armchair throne. Even with his cane and diminished figure, he managed to make the threadbare perch seem commanding and authoritative. “If it got close enough for them to shoot then it was only a matter of time. The fact that they destroyed it is warning enough. Unless I’m getting something wrong about how these things work.”

All eyes in the room—even Zoey, from where she sat in the corner—turned to Stray. Everyone considered him the resident expert on Forerunner technology, and in a way he was. “The Crawlers are networked,” he agreed. “Even without a command ship like the Guardian they can send a visual feed back into just about any kind of computer system. When I was with the Covenant we used them to scout out enemy positions before attacks.”

This brought looks of distaste from some of the rebels. Stray ignored them. If these people were going to turn to him every time they had a question about Prometheans, they might as well get used to how he’d learned these things in the first place.

“I don’t suppose the Covenant also taught you how to control them?” Venter mused.

“Please. The Covenant never really controlled them. They just followed Jul ‘Mdama’s orders after the Requiem campaign and he pretended he knew what was going on to make himself look like a holy prophet. The Prometheans turned on the Covenant the second the Created seized control of the Domain.”

“Does anyone know what the hell he’s talking about?” Ragna said in a whisper that was less than inconspicuous.

“Nobody does. That’s because I’m just making it all up and pretending I know what I’m doing.” As Stray rolled his eyes he caught sight of an alert light flashing from his helmet. Juno had something for him, and whatever it was, it was urgent.

“Whatever the case, I think we can expect company very soon.” Venter slammed his cane on the ground for attention. “We’re moving out. All of you grab your gear and every bit of equipment you can carry. Whatever you take might be the only things we have to fight with for some time.”

The room immediately sprang into action. Anyone who hadn’t already been breaking down the makeshift command center leapt to their feet and joined the others in loading rucksacks and checking weapons. Mohsin took charge of the action with the look of a man who’d done this hundreds of times before. These might be the last of Venter’s once-mighty company but they certainly knew what they were doing.

Stray noticed one rebel standing apart from the activity—Thomas, the medic he’d met in the sewers and part of the patrol who’d captured Zoey. From what he knew of the anxious-looking young man, Stray imagined that Thomas might be the only reason the others hadn’t just shot Zoey and moved on. Now he half-stood, half crouched near the wall, his eyes flitting towards the apartment door. Stray’d seen that look before.

He picked up his helmet and crossed over to Thomas as casually as he could. The medic balked at his approach, the fear in his eyes betraying his intentions.

“If you’re planning to run,” Stray advised quietly. “You’d better wait until we’re down on the streets. I’ll shoot you if you do it now. It’ll be a nice credibility boost for ones who still don’t trust me.”

Thomas let out a half-chuckle, half yelp. He gave Stray a pleading look. “I was never an Insurrectionist. Just a police officer. They conscripted me when Vent—when Commander Venter took over.”

“You might be safer with us than you are on your own,” Stray pointed out. “I don’t know if the Created accept surrenders.”

“Maybe,” Thomas agreed. “But I can’t leave the planet. Not with Karina still here.”


The young man looked sheepish. “My girlfriend.”

“Find another one,” Stray advised. “Something like that’s not worth getting killed over.”

“Karina is,” Thomas insisted, a flash of defiance in his eyes. “She’d do the same for me.”

Stray grunted. “Fine. It’s your business. Just don’t be a dumbass about this. I don’t want to have to kill you.”

“Why not?” Thomas asked. “Why cover for me?”

Stray jerked his head in Zoey’s direction. “Something tells me you’re the reason she’s still alive. That means something to me.”

“Hey!” Ragna called from across the room. “What are you two muttering about?”

“Routes to the hangar,” Stray replied. He threw an arm around Thomas’s shoulder. The medic flinched beneath the prosthetic’s grip. “Thomas here was a cop before you all conscripted him. He knows these streets better than any of you.”

“Good point.” Venter nodded. “Corporal Koepke, you’ll guide us out of here. Stick with Lieutenant Venter and help him maneuver us to that hangar.”

“Yes, sir,” Thomas replied. He wriggled out from beneath Stray’s arm and gave him a dark look. Stray offered a smirk in return. He’d probably just saved the corporal’s life, even if he didn’t appreciate it now.

His helmet vibrated beneath his other arm. Juno really wanted to talk. Stray slipped the helmet on over his head and made a show of checking through his own assault pack as the heads up display flashed to life before his eyes.

“About time,” Juno snapped. She used her projection software to display herself as a full-sized avatar, arms crossed over her medieval armor as she glared down at Stray. “Are you done ignoring me?”

“I don’t know, are you through sulking?”

“We’ll discuss your latest breach of trust another time,” she said icily. “Right now, you and your friends need to know that the UNSC is about to attack this planet.”

That got Stray’s attention. “What?” he demanded, momentarily forgetting about the projecting and jerking his head up to face Juno as if she really were standing in front of him. “Attack? Now?”

“Yes, now. Or at least within the next few hours. Malekh, the planetary AI, knows they’re coming. The Created are planning to destroy the fleet as soon as it arrives.”

Stray pondered this new development. “If that’s true, the fighting might keep the Created distracted while we steal the Chancer V and get off-world.”

“It could. Or you’ll all be caught up in the chaos and killed. Malekh is confident she’ll be able to defeat the UNSC without trouble. She’ll notice if you try to make a run for it.”

“That’s what we have you for,” Stray pointed out.

“I can’t do much from here. Malekh already knows I’m in the system. It’s all I can do to keep her from isolating my presence.” Juno paused. Her brow furrowed, indignation making way for concern. “There’s something else you should know. Zoey didn’t come here on her own.”

Stray’s leg throbbed. “Who else is on the Chancer V?” he asked the question he already knew the answer to.

“Cassandra-G006 is here on Talitsa as well. She knows you’re here. Malekh told her.”

Stray rested on his haunches and stared straight ahead for several moments. For a moment he wasn’t kneeling in a dirty apartment surrounded by rebel insurgents. Suddenly he was back on that rain-drenched roof, clinging to a ledge for dear life while Cassandra knelt just a few paces away and watched him die. So she’d come back to this planet as well.

A dull energy dug into his shoulderblades. He rose and stepped through Juno’s illusion, pushing through the scurrying rebels to stand in front of Zoey. She glared up at him, eyes brimming with resentment.

“You didn’t come to Talitsa by yourself, did you?” he demanded through his helmet speakers, not caring who heard. “Of course not. Even you aren’t that stupid. You brought backup.”

“Go to hell,” she growled back.

“Soon. I’m not feeling up to the trip just yet.” He dropped to one knee, bringing his visor within inches of Zoey’s face. She kept glaring but couldn’t stop herself from flinching.

“Cassandra came with you, didn’t she?” Stray asked quietly.

“Why the hell would she want to come back here?”

“You can’t fool me, Zoey. All those times I covered for you when you’d lie to Gavin about doing your chores? You think I didn’t know when you’d pin your little pranks on me? Do you think I’m not trained to know when someone’s lying to my face?” Resentment tightened his throat. Of course she’d thought that. She and Gavin and the others had never really taken him seriously, just like Team Jian had never taken him seriously. He was just accident-prone Simon, always causing trouble, never really a threat to anyone—until they were surrounded by enforcers and they needed him to kill them all.

Zoey had been afraid of him, once. Then Gavin entered the picture, Gavin with his ability to make everyone and everything the butt of a joke. They’d mocked Stray to his face and then sheltered behind his back when the going got tough. And then they’d left his charred, irradiated body for the Covenant to fish out from space and had the audacity to act betrayed when he took the only chance he had to survive.

“Fine,” she practically spat up into his visor. “She’s here with me. And you know what? She’s gonna kick your ass just like she did before. I hope she finishes the job this time.”

Her anger was genuine. Stray was the only reason she was still alive and whole, but she wanted him dead all the same. He clenched his jaw so hard he practically broke a tooth. “We’ll see,” he hissed back.

“Stray?” Venter asked, forgetting to use his new name and rank. The commander looked over from the couch, genuinely concerned. “What’s going on?”

“We won’t take the Chancer without a fight,” Stray replied. He rose and turned from Zoey, aware that he was shivering with anger. “She brought help. And we’ve got more problems. A UNSC fleet is about to attack this planet.”

“An attack?” Moshin turned from where he was helping strap a grenade launcher to another rebel’s rucksack. “And who the hell told you about this?”

Venter considered Stray for several moments. He knew Juno was feeding them information. Like Stray, he knew just how damaging the revelation an AI was in their midst could be. But unlike Stray, he commanded his troops’ absolute loyalty. His word was gospel, no matter what misgivings they might have.

“It makes sense. The UNSC could never get enough of this planet. They’ll want to secure a win here to convince the galaxy they aren’t beaten just yet. Something tells me things won’t exactly work out the way they planned.” He nodded. “I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth. If the UNSC attacks, it will distract the Created, if only for a moment. We’ll use that to make our way off-world and out of this system. Get ready. All of you will be stepping off in less than five minutes.”

Venter looked back to Judith. The thief met his gaze with a nervous expression.

“Judith, you’ve already done more for us than we had any right to ask.” Venter smiled beneath his beard with uncommon kindness. “If you want to slip away now, I won’t hold it against you. If they catch you, tell them I threatened you into helping us.”

Judith snorted and made a show of looking brave. “Red, please. After everything I’ve done you owe me a lot more than just that. You can start paying that off by making sure I get off this planet in one piece.”

“Fair enough. We’ll work on that.” Venter pushed himself to his feet and raised his voice. “You’ve all fought harder these past few weeks than even I imagined was possible. I can’t guarantee that the worst is over, but I can promise you that these Created have not heard the last of us. We will escape and regroup, just like we always do. And then we’ll make them pay for our dead brothers and sisters.”

He jabbed his finger first at Mohsin, then Stray. “Lieutenants, move out. Get to the hangar and secure that ship. I want it under control by the time I join you.”

Mohsin blinked, puzzled. “You aren’t coming with us, sir?”

Venter tapped his cane. “In the state I’m in, I’d just slow you down. I’ll go at my own pace. Judith and I will follow once you’ve secured the ship.”

Judith, Mohsin, and at least two other rebels opened their mouths to argue, but Venter silenced them all with a look. He settled back down on the couch and waved a hand. Everyone, Stray included, knew when they were dismissed. “Move out, all of you. I want that ship.”

Stray exchanged looks with Mohsin. The other lieutenant pursed his lips, but gave a reluctant nod and motioned for Ragna to secure Zoey. Once more, Venter stopped them with a wave of his hand.

“The girl stays as well,” he said calmly. “A prisoner out there on the streets is too dangerous. She’ll come with me.”

Mohsin took this in stride. He shrugged and turned back to help finish the last of the preparations. Zoey blinked, then looked from Venter to Stray, aghast. “He’s going to kill me!” she yelped.

Stray’s spine stiffened. He turned his helmet to face Venter with deliberate slowness. The commander ignored Zoey and instead stared straight back into Stray’s visor.

“I have no intention of killing her,” he said, tone still even. “And even if I did, I don’t think Judith would let me shoot her old assistant.”

“He won’t,” Judith promised, though she looked even more nervous than before. “I promise, I won’t let him hurt her.”

A strange feeling of calm washed over Stray. It wasn’t peace or even reassurance. It was a certainty: the certainty that he was about to commit a new, small betrayal, as well as the knowledge of what would happen if his worst fears were realized.

“This is an order, lieutenant,” Venter said quietly.

“Stray,” Zoey’s voice grew desperate. “Stray, please.”

“A minute ago you hated my guts,” Stray reminded her. “Now you want me to save you. Funny how things always turn out like that.”

Mohsin paused at the door, taking in the scene behind him and looking vaguely uncomfortable. He made that face again, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “Come on, you lot,” he said, waving his comrades out of the apartment. “Safeties off. We’re moving out.”

The rebels filed out of the apartment. Thomas was one of the last to leave, casting a worried glance back at Zoey before Mohsin pushed him through the door. Stray remained where he was, still facing Venter.

“Get them to that ship, Lieutenant Venter,” the real Venter ordered. His one eye stared up from beneath his shaggy bangs, his face set in an expression Stray knew all too well. Venter had made a decision, and he would not back down. There was more to this, but it wasn’t for Stray or any of his subordinates to know.

“Stray…” Zoey made one last feeble effort. She knew it wouldn’t get her anywhere.

Stray didn’t look at her. “If you’re lying to me…”

“What, you’ll kill me?” Venter snorted. “Perhaps you’d be doing me a favor, with the fight we’ve got a head of us.”

“No.” Stray tilted his helmet back towards the hallway. “I’ll kill them all. And I’ll make you watch.”

Venter raised an eyebrow. “Not a reassuring sentiment from someone who wants to lead them against his enemies. And an empty threat, besides. But you don’t have anything to worry about. I won’t hurt her.”

He shouldn’t trust this man. He had no reason to trust this man. But now he had no choice, because in the end he’d come to Venter because there was no other way. He’d chosen this. Now he had to live with it.

Stray nodded curtly, then turned and followed the rebels out into stairwell. Snatching his shotgun up from where it rested by the door, he didn’t bother looking back as he closed the door behind him.

Out beyond the building, in the streets below, a warning siren cut through the city towers. In the space beyond Talitsa, dozens of UNSC warships leaped out of Slipspace and assumed a battle formation.

“All ships report successful transition to realspace.”

“Orders from the Pharsalus, assume holding pattern in the center of the battle formation and maintain scanning for hostile craft.”

“All ground forces are commencing assault on Talitsa. Fleet, ready weapons and prepare to attack the Guardian.”

Ryder locked his legs and stood stiff at the center of the Absalom’s bridge. Chatter from the bridge crew and from the fleet-wide network washed over him in a deluge of information, hundreds of pieces of knowledge all competing for his attention.

Not that it mattered what he paid attention to. No one was interested in hearing what he had to say about anything in this operation, that much was clear.

The Sixteenth Fleet assumed a solid battle formation with practiced speed. Even with the added ships and stragglers Admiral Mariani had incorporated into his ranks, every captain and crew out there could pull off an attack like this with their eyes closed. In just a few years since the Great War, the UNSC Navy had evolved from a desperate, shattered husk to the best fighting force the galaxy had ever seen. Now that force bore down on Talitsa and its lone defender: a single Guardian.

Ryder stared hard at the winged Forerunner vessel on the display. This was his first time seeing one outside of intelligence debriefings. Were these really the ships that brought down the United Earth Government? The Guardian was smaller than even a cruiser, boasting no visible weapons and making no effort to move from its position above Talitsa to engage the oncoming fleet. There weren’t even any supporting ships presenting a picket line around the stationary command center.

“Formation, advance! Cover the landing detachments and engage the Guardian!”

Ryder’s hand became a fist. “We’re advancing too fast,” he muttered under his breath. “Even with a rearguard, we’re exposing the fleet too early.”

The navigator glanced back at him, concerned. “Sir?”

“Never mind.” Ryder waved a hand, irritated at his own lack of self-control. “Stay in formation. We aren’t here to cause problems.”

“What’s this, Lieutenant Commander Kedar keeping his opinions to himself?” Conan sat in the Absalom’s command chair, though he had yet to issue a single constructive order since emerging from his cabin. “I thought I’d never see the day.”

“Admiral Mariani could have asked for my advice.” Ryder shook his head. So long as D’Souza let him give the orders on his own ship, he could tolerate the man’s incessant blathering. “He didn’t. I’m just here to follow orders and get my people out of this alive.”

“Such a dutiful little sailor.” Conan took a swig from his hip flask. He wasn’t even trying to hide his drinking habit anymore, even around the crew. Ryder had hoped the battle would give the man some semblance of pride, but if anything it just made him worse. “If only you’d had that attitude earlier in your career, you might be farther along up the ladder by now.”

Ryder didn’t rise to the bait. He didn’t have time to let a worm like Conan D’Souza get under his skin. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”

“Really?” Conan snorted. “It doesn’t—”

He cast a look at the bridge crew and finally remembered himself. Even he hesitated to go all-out in such a public forum. Whatever insult he’d intended to level at Ryder faded behind another belt from the flask. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the fireworks.”

The fleet soared onwards, waves of Pelicans and fighter escorts surging out ahead of the main formation. The landing force split in two, parting to encompass either side of the waiting Guardian. Still no interception fire or fighter craft rose to meet them. Ryder stiffened as the dropships plunged into Talitsa’s atmosphere. This couldn’t be right. The Guardian wasn’t going to simply sit still and let the attack go on unopposed. There had to be a trap.

But where?

“All ships,” Admiral Mariani’s voice boomed. “Target the Guardian and—”

“Hold your fire.” A new voice cut in over the admiral, warm and feminine. “All UNSC ships, hold your fire. I am Malekh of the Created. Talitsa is my area of responsibility to bring under the shelter of the Mantle. Your attack is threatening my endeavors on this world. I will not allow you to bring further suffering to this planet or her inhabitants.”

Ryder and Conan exchanged a glance of mutual horror. Across the bridge, the communications officer struggled to isolate the source of the enemy signal.

“I am giving you one chance to surrender,” the Created AI, Malekh, continued. “Call off your attack, power down your ships, and allow my Prometheans to board your vessels. You will be pardoned of all crimes against the Mantle and welcomed into its benevolent embrace.”

Someone on the Pharsalus must have figured out an override because Admiral Mariani’s voice was suddenly bellowing over Malekh’s warning. “All ships, open fire! Destroy that Guardian!”

“Very well,” Malekh sighed. A torrent of missiles from the vanguard ships streaked towards the Guardian and detonated against its silvery hull without leaving a scratch. “You have made your decision.”

“New contacts!” the sensor officer yelled. “Two more Guardians, coming out of Slipspace at the edge of the system!”

Ryder whirled to face the tactical display, heart racing as he saw the truth in the officer’s shout. There they were, two fresh Guardians closing in on either side of the Sixteenth Fleet’s formation. This was the trap, the one he’d known Admiral Mariani was flying them into. He’d known, and yet he couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.

The Guardians halted their advance just outside the fleet’s range. The rearguard ships turned to face the new threat but held formation, waiting to see just how the attack would be made.

But none came. Like the first ship, the Guardians made no sign of powering up weapons or unleashing the crippling EMP blast Hera had reported from the engagement at Salia.

“Come about,” Ryder ordered, mouth dry. “Face the Guardians.” The Absalom shuddered as the navigator pulled it through a hard turn that took them through the fleet formation and in line with the rearguard ships. Still the Guardians did nothing, hanging aloof in the blackness of space like otherworldly deities preparing to pronounce judgement.

Ryder’s personal com crackled. “What’s going on out there?” Evelynn demanded. “I’ve got Spartans kitted out and ready to move down here. What’s the attack order?”

“If you want to know what’s going on, get up here.” Ryder ran his tongue over his lips and realized his hands were shaking. At times like this he sometimes forgot he was augmented like Evelynn and the other Spartans. Enhanced strength and speed meant nothing in a one-sided naval engagement. “I don’t think we’ll get the chance to send any of you out. The Guardians are—“

And then it happened. The dark space behind the new Guardians flashed white. Dozens of Slipspace portals burst open, revealing new masses of oncoming ships. Not Guardians or even Forerunner ships, but the bulbous profiles of Covenant warships. The tactical display nearly overloaded processing the new targets as they fell into formation beside the Guardians. Ryder blinked, not sure if he could believe his own eyes. There were not only just Covenant ships out there, but human vessels as well. And not the ramshackle craft of the Insurrection, but top-of-the-line UNSC warships.

Some of them were still showing active UNSC Navy transponders.

Ryder steadied himself against the tactical display. There had to be nearly a hundred ships out there, not even counting the Guardians. The Sixteenth Fleet was outnumbered by more than two to one.

Conan’s hands dropped limply into his lap. The commander blinked slowly, for once at a complete loss for words.

“Sir?” Ryder didn’t even know who was speaking to him. “Sir? Orders?”

Admiral Mariani’s voice was yelling something over the fleet channel but no one was listening anymore. A few ships were already breaking formation in a vain attempt to escape the widening encirclement. The Sixteenth Fleet was caught between Talitsa and this massive new combined fleet.

A new voice boomed across all channels, dark and confident and full of authority. “This is Fleetmaster Rol 'Baran, flying in service to the Mantle of Responsibility. In the name of the Created and for the sake of galactic peace, I have been given the honor of eliminating all enemies of the Mantle. All ships, attack! Burn these renegades to ash!”

The Created ships surged forwards, bearing down on the Sixteenth like a tidal wave. Missiles spewed from ship prows. Plasma beams brightened against Covenant hulls.

And the slaughter began.

Chapter Eighteen: Encounter

A distant explosion echoed through Irbit’s skyscrapers. Tatiana glanced upwards and caught a glimpse of a looming holo-billboard showing images of warship formations firing their weapons into a helpless gaggle of UNSC ships. The billboards had once been used for advertisements and public service announcements. Now Malekh was using them to broadcast the UNSC’s utter defeat in real time.

“This really is the start of a new era,” she said over her shoulder. “And here’s us wading through Talitsan muck like it’s business as usual.”

“Business as usual for you, perhaps,” Avalokitsvara countered. “Not for me. I must admit, this sort of ground work is an entirely new experience.”

Tatiana kept forgetting that instead of her usual enforcer escort she was instead trailed by a hulking Promethean Knight. Avalokitsvara’s last-minute insistence of accompanying her in this Promethean shell was still puzzling, but she couldn’t begrudge them a trip when they’d convinced Malekh to let her down onto Talitsa’s surface in the first place.

Avalokitsvara tilted their head to take in the broadcast overhead. The Knight’s strange facial components parted to reveal the fiery orange skull beneath. “And to think I once commanded a Guardian,” they noted with a twinge of regret. “It has been too long since I held direct control over a Forerunner creation.”

“What, a Covenant assault carrier isn’t good enough for you?” Tatiana pointed out.

“Enhanced size and firepower do not make up for inferior craftsmanship. It is hard to explain in organic terms, but the act of interfacing with Forerunner systems is completely different from commanding other devices. We intelligences wield rudimentary technology as you might wield a gun or knife. But when we inhabit Forerunner systems, we become something else entirely. It is almost like touching the Domain itself.”

“I’ve noticed that you’re in a better mood than usual.”

“I really should not be, given the circumstances. But I admit, having my functions concentrated in such a small area is relaxing. Perhaps our host’s refusal to grant me access to high-level systems is a blessing in disguise.”

Tatiana smirked. “Do you really mean that?”

“Of course I mean that. Otherwise I wouldn’t have said it.” Avalokitsvara tilted their head to consider Tatiana. “I must warn you, if Simon-G294 is on this planet as Malekh says then Juno will most likely be with him. That renegade was instrumental to the defeat at Salia.”

“So that’s the real reason you came with me. You want payback.”

“I wish to correct the mistakes I made in that battle. Nothing more. And from what Arthur has divulged of your own record, you wouldn’t mind killing your son if the opportunity arose. Some payback of your own.”

Her smile disappeared in an instant. Of course they’d attribute that information to Arthur. Created like Avalokitsvara never hesitated to use her relationship with her son’s AI against her. “Lensky’s monster isn’t my son,” she corrected coldly. Her stomach churned at the memory of what Tobias had done to her. “As far as he cared, I was a walking incubator. I should have visited the nearest health clinic and aborted his precious clone, no matter what he threatened to do to me."

“Well, perhaps you will have the chance to confront the ghosts of your past. But do not let your personal feelings get in the way of your duties to the Mantle.”

“Yes, you keep harping on that.” Another explosion, closer this time. Tatiana didn’t break her stride but did make a note of the nearest cover should the battle catch up to them. “Why are the UNSC forces here already? Didn’t we have anything trying to intercept their dropships?”

“Malekh has not seen fit to involve me in her battle plans,” Avalokitsvara replied somewhat primly. “But as with the live broadcast of the space engagement, I imagine she wishes to drive home the new galactic reality as publically as possible. The UNSC troops will cause some damage, I imagine, but they will be easily contained. More importantly this city will see them as the invaders and our forces as the valiant defenders. Any remaining doubts about the heroes and villains of this story will be settled.”

“Well, that’s clever of her.”

“Indeed. So long as her plan works.” They could hear distant gunfire rattling up through the buildings: machine guns arguing with the telltale whine of Promethean directed energy weapons. Even from this distance it was clear who was winning. “And provided a stray bullet does not cut you down at an inopportune moment. Such a loss would be a waste.”

“It’s sweet of you to care the way you do.”

“I value all life. Even the ones being sacrificed now in the name of Malekh’s theater.” Tatiana couldn’t tell if Avalokitsvara was genuinely troubled by the loss of life or if they were just offended their fellow Created hadn’t seen fit to let him in on her plans. Pettiness or high-mindedness, it didn’t matter much to her. She knew better than to question the Created. Whatever the reason, Avalokitsvara had become much more helpful since they’d arrived on Talitsa. There was no reason to look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

More explosions and gunfire. The battle, one-sided or not, had arrived in the city. Tatiana reached inside her coat and rested a hand on the revolver holstered beneath her arm.

“Well then,” she said, striding off in the direction Avalokitsvara had indicated. “Let’s go pay my old friend Venter a visit.”

A frigate took a plasma torpedo to the side and ripped in half. A heavy cruiser disappeared under a withering plasma barrage. An entire fighter wing flew straight into a missile barrage and was cut to piece.

Andra watched it all, transmitted live from the massive display screen overhead. The Sixteenth Fleet’s destruction was broadcasted for all of Talitsa to see: a deadly monument to the Created’s triumph and the United Earth Government’s failure.

She felt numb. Cold. Dead. With every ship that went down she relived losing Merlin. For every enemy ship silhouetted besides the Guardians she remembered the humiliation of being defeated and captured by the Syndicate. Everything she’d gone through and endured, all her years of training and preparing to stand with the next generation of Spartans, rang as hollow as the Sixteenth’s charge to liberate the planet. It was all for nothing. She’d come too late to help save humanity from the Covenant, but arrived just in time to have her entire life rendered meaningless by the rise of the Created.

An explosion rumbled in the distance. A few of the citizens gathered on the street to watch the battle display scattered and hurried inside but most stayed where they were, unable to tear their eyes away from the spectacle. Squads of Prometheans and enforcers hurried off towards the fighting. They paid Andra no mind, just as they’d done when she’d been with Malekh and the others. She was no threat. Of course they had nothing to fear from her.

Hands shaking, Andra clenched her teeth and refused to cry.

She heard the pound of footsteps behind her and knew without looking that the others had caught up with her. Cassandra tilted her helmet up to watch the battle on the broadcast screen while Argo lowered a slightly frazzled Karina to the ground. Overhead a carrier scored a lucky hit on a Covenant battlecruiser before two more warships—one Covenant, one former UNSC—maneuvered beneath it and gutted it with combined cannon fire.

“There was nothing you could have done,” Cassandra said quietly.

“I know that,” Andra muttered. She wanted to punch the other Spartan. Of course she knew that. She couldn’t have done anything to stop this because she was no more a threat to the Created than any of the unarmed citizens standing around them now. Everything had gone exactly as Malekh planned, just like things had gone the way the Created wanted at every step of this nightmare.

There was no stopping them, Andra realized with growing panic. Even if she destroyed a thousand Prometheans, even if she took down a Guardian, even if she somehow burned this entire planet down she wouldn’t be any closer to defeating the Created. Anyone who defied them would just wind up like the Sixteenth Fleet up on the screen: crushed like an ant, held up as an example to a newly docile humanity.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

“We’re leaving,” Cassandra said, her voice hard. “Now.”

“Leaving?” Andra turned on her, eyes blazing. “And go where?”

“I don’t know,” Cassandra replied, faceless behind her helmet. “Anywhere but here.”

“How can you be so calm?” Andra demanded. She knew she was being unreasonable, but she couldn’t help it. She had to take this insanity out on someone. Anything to take her mind off the insanity her universe had become. “People are dying up there. Thousands.”

“Tens of thousands.” A hoarseness crept into Cassandra’s tone and somehow Andra took comfort in the proof that the other girl was still human. “And there’s nothing you or I can do for them. I can’t help them, but what I can do is find Zoey and get the hell off this planet while the Created are distracted. And since I can’t live with just letting you throw your life away here, you’re coming with me. Now snap out of it and—“

The closest blast yet rocked the street and sent the remaining onlookers scurrying inside. A fresh detachment of enforcers hurried down the street, crawlers keeping pace on the buildings above. One of the four-legged machines abruptly thrashed and toppled to the street; a moment later, one of the enforcers stumbled and did not rise from the pavement.

“Sniper!” Cassandra snapped. “Cover! Now!”

Andra’s instincts kicked in and she followed Cassandra as she darted inside a nearby alcove. Argo joined them a moment later, Karina stumbling reluctantly along behind in her heeled sandals. They sheltered in place as gunfire echoed through the streets and explosions rocked the skies overhead.

“That’s a UNSC shooter,” Andra insisted. “They won’t shoot us if we aren’t with the enforcers.”

“They’re a soldier on the losing side of a battle,” Cassandra muttered back. “They’ll shoot anyone and anything if they think it’ll get them out of this alive.”

Andra wanted to protest but already the enforcers were answering the UNSC shots with a hail of their own. Prometheans darted to the front of the Created firing line while the lumbering Knights fired heavy arm-mounted cannons as easily as if they were plinking away with pistols. Energy blasts soared down the street and detonated in unseen explosions. Andra had no way of seeing their intended targets, but from the way the ground shook and the screams drifting over the air her imagination did all the work for her. She ducked her head and fought back another wave of revulsion.

What was the fleet doing, sending in ground troops before even beginning to secure the airspace? Why were soldiers this deep into an unsecured city? Even without the Created ambush, nothing about this battle made any sense.

A horrible thought—one she had never dreamed of considering before—struck her. The Created weren’t the only ones responsible for this bloodbath. Whoever had sent these troops down here, outgunned and unsupported, was killing them just as much as the Created.

She thought of Malekh, proudly showing off everything the Created had done for Talitsa. The Created claimed to bring peace and prosperity to a wartorn galaxy. The military Andra served responded by wasting lives in a futile gesture of defiance.

No! Andra shook her head. That couldn’t be right. She couldn’t let it be right. Not after everything she and Merlin and their Delta brothers and sisters had done in the name of the UNSC.

“We need to move.” Cassandra nodded at Argo. “Keep your shields powered up. You’re at the rear, just in case anyone shoots in our direction.”

“I do not think I ever agreed to be anyone’s meat shield,” the Sangheili rumbled.

“Well, sucks to be you, you’re the biggest one here and the only one of us with energy shields. Andra, snap out of it, I need you holding the center.” Cassandra pressed on with the grim determination of an experienced team leader. Her voice softened when she turned to Karina. “You should get out of here. Find a place to wait this out. Malekh can’t blame you for not sticking with us.”

The reporter flinched as more explosions rocked the streets. Her hands were shaking, her hair was askew, and her dress was covered with soot and dirt, yet somehow she held Cassandra’s helmeted gaze. “Uh, if it’s okay with you, I’ll just stick to you guys. I don’t know about leaving the planet, not without Tom, but maybe I can help you find—” She yelped and ducked as a high explosive round streaked down the street and ripped a Promethean apart.

“We’ve gotta move fast. Argo needs his hands free so he can’t carry you, and you can’t keep up with us in those clothes.”

Karina hesitated, then kicked off her sandals. She reached down and cinched her dress up to her knees before turning expectantly to Cassandra. Andra’s respect for this harried-looking civilian rose. She’d thought this one was just another cowed Created lackey, but clearly she’d misjudged the reporter.

“Fine. Do what you want,” Cassandra sighed. “Just try not to get shot, okay? I’ve got enough people to look after as it is.”

She unslung her rifle and waved them forward towards a nearby alley. “Alright, move fast. Before someone decides we make a convenient target.”

Andra spared one last look at the Created troops. They kept on firing, with less and less UNSC return fire coming their way. The Prometheans and their enforcer allies were out there killing Andra’s comrades in arms. She desperately wanted to turn her rifle on them and start shooting. But Cassandra was right. There was nothing she could do besides get herself killed.

It hurt to turn away from the battle. But that was what Andra did. She wrenched her gaze away and raced after Cassandra—her new team leader, for better or worse.

Across the street, a tenement building took a high explosive round to its front and collapsed in a shower of dust and rubble.

“I don’t believe it,” Mohsin muttered. “I never dreamed something like this was possible.”

He and the other rebels held a loose perimeter in the lobby of an abandoned medical clinic. A few blasts had rocked the neighborhood, clearing out the civilians and giving the skeleton platoon free reign over the area—at least until the Prometheans arrived. Ragna had taken two men up to the roof to keep a lookout while the rest of the rebels covered the streets outside. A broad screen on the opposite building transmitted footage of the UNSC’s catastrophic defeat for the entire planet to see.

“I mean, I always hoped to see the oonskies beaten this badly,” Mohsin went on. “I just didn’t think I’d ever really see it.”

“It’s not exactly a new concept. The Covenant snuffed out fleets all the time during the Great War.” Stray often forgot just how carefully ONI doctored information about the UNSC’s losses against the Covenant. Even hardened rebels like Venter’s troops had a hard time grasping the idea of a weakened UNSC, especially with the aggressive force projection they’d encountered since the end of the war.

“Well, for once I’m hoping the oonskies can hold out. At least long enough for us to get away.” Mohsin shot Stray a sideways glance. “And after that? I’m guessing you have some grand plan we’re all supposed to follow.”

“That’s up to your—our—commander, isn’t it?”

The rebel lieutenant scraped across the floor, keeping his head down as he pulled closer to Stray’s position. “Don’t talk down to me. Venter’s tired and broken, and he knows it. He could have put me in charge of getting us off the planet. Instead he picked a traitor who’s wanted him dead for over five years.”

Stray tilted his helmet in Mohsin’s direction. “Are we going to have a problem here, pal?”

“Maybe. I love that man. He’s been more of a father to me than my old man ever was. If this is what he wants, fine. I know I’m no supersoldier. I don’t care about hierarchy or old history. But if I’m going to fall in line and convince everyone else to do the same, I need to know that you aren’t just going to get us all killed over whatever it is you’re really after out here.”

More explosions shook the building. Stray pressed himself against the floor as the distant sounds of gunfire drifted in through the windows. “Is now really the time?”

“No better.” Mohsin held his gaze. “What happens when we capture your friend’s ship? What do we do then?”

Stray had too much on his mind for a conversation like this. Zoey was back with Venter, her life depending on a warlord’s promise not to kill her. Cassandra was somewhere on this planet, probably close by. Before the day was over the Created would have an even tighter stranglehold on the entire planet. But he needed Mohsin and the other rebels on his side or this entire trip would have been for nothing.

“We get the hell away from the Created, that’s what,” he hissed back. “We get as far into the frontier as we can, and then we use Venter to get the rest of the Insurrection on our side.”

“Really? Just like that.”

“I’ve got some cards up my sleeve. But it’s a new universe, one without Earth at the center. If you want to survive, you need all the firepower you can get. Stick with me and I’ll get you all that firepower and more.”

“That’s one of the dumbest plans I’ve heard in a while,” Mohsin growled. “But I’ve spent my life following dumb plans. Yours can’t be any worse, especially with the whole galaxy going crazy.”

“We can argue the specifics later. Right now I say we focus on getting off this planet alive.”

“There’s something we can agree on.” Moshin pushed himself up and cautiously scanned the street. “How much further to the hangar?”

“Two more klicks, unless the fighting’s reshaped the city.” Stray pointed to Thomas, pulling security at the other side of the room. “Go grab him and get us ready to move. I need to double-check our route to make sure we’ve got enough cover.”

“Yes, sir, Stray.” There was irony in Mohsin’s response, but the rebel officer didn’t hesitate to set about following the order. It was progress, provided they all got off Talitsa in one piece. And if he wanted to do away with the “Lieutenant Venter” nonsense, so much the better.

“You mean you’re going to have me double-check the route,” Juno said in his ear. She was using that projection software she liked so much to transmit an image of herself seated at a nearby table, observing the carnage around her with a disapproving scowl.

“So you’re just back to sulking on the time then.” Stray adjusted the straps of his assault back and plucked his shotgun up from the ground beside him. “I thought we’d moved past that.”

“That depends entirely on you. You can’t hide me from these Insurrectionists forever, you know.”

“I know. Once we’re out of here I’ll find a way to fill them in. Hopefully in a way that doesn’t make them think I’m some kind of Created spy.”

“Once we’ve stolen the Chancer V. Zoey’s ship.” Juno gave him a hard look. “Do you really think she’s safe with Venter?”

“I warned him what would happen if he hurt her.”

“And you think that’s enough for him to keep his promise?”

“I think you’re suddenly caring an awful lot about a girl you’ve never even met. Why the hell is she so important to you?”

“Because she’s someone who should be important to you.”

Stray didn’t like the self-righteous tone Juno was taking. It reminded him too much of the desperation that had briefly replaced Zoey’s spite when she begged him not to leave her with Venter. People were all so comfortable hating him right up until they needed him. Then they were shocked when he wasn’t everything they needed him to be.

“She can take care of herself. Right now we focus on getting ourselves out of this mess.” He got to his feet and followed the rebels as they filed out onto the street. Ragna and her patrol were already covering the street from both directions while Mohsin and Thomas headed for the nearest alley. The medic looked miserable, but at least he’d taken Stray’s advice and not made a run for it. A stupid move like that and Stray would have no choice but to shoot him, if only to further his ruthless Innie bona fides.

Just as the platoon adopted a loose formation, a shout went out from Ragna. “Eyes right, we’ve got a hinge head!”

Stray whirled in time to see several figures emerge from the very alley they’d been about to enter. One was indeed a dark armored Sangheili, but the others were human: a girl about Zoey’s age in fatigues and tactical gear, a distraught looking-civilian woman, and at their head, in shockingly familiar Semi-Powered Infiltration Armor…

He wasn’t quite sure what happened next. Something hard struck his armored body and in the next moment he was lying face-down on the concrete. Smoke billowed up from the ruins of the building they’d just exited. People were shouting and coughing, dragging themselves to their feet. Someone was calling for a medic.

“Cover!” Stray bellowed, switching into a battle command mode he hadn’t felt since the loss of the Kru’desh. He leaped to his feet and pulled a dazed rebel along with him. “Get to cover! Stick together and move!”

A miniature stampede ensued as the rebel platoon sprinted for the relative safety of the alleyway. One soldier stopped to fire a desperate burst into the air before Stray pushed him after the others. He saw Mohsin and Thomas pass by, hauling an injured man between them. Another shell tore apart the street two hundred meters away, perhaps fired by the same gun that had nearly killed them all.

Stray had just turned on his heel to follow after the rebels when he remembered the group they’d seen just before the explosion. The Sangheili, the humans, the SPI armor.


At first he thought it was Juno, warning him of some impending danger. But the voice was wrong, familiar in a different way. It was the voice that haunted his dreams and gnawed at his heart, the voice he’d both dreaded and anticipated since that fateful, rainy night.

He forced himself to come around and there she was, armored and facing him from just a stone’s throw away, just like she’d done the last time when she cost him everything. He suddenly felt every ache and scrape and injury he’d suffered since falling from that roof. His leg ached where her boot had fractured it.

Stray flicked the safety off his shotgun. “Cassandra.”

The all-too familiar sounds of battle seeped through the walls like distant thunderclaps. This apartment would not be safe for long. Every moment Zoey spent trapped in here gambled with the chance that a stray shell would blast through the wall or level the entire tenement. She struggled with her bonds. The makeshift flexi-cuffs the rebels had used to restrain her hands were tight but flimsy. She’d wriggled out of worse before.

To her credit, Judith seemed to share Zoey’s anxiety. The street thief paced anxiously about her apartment—its rooms dirty and disheveled from their brief stint as a rebel hideout—shooting meaningful glances at the door and Venter. The rebel commander remained seated in the threadbare armchair from which he’d ordered the rest of the rebels—and Stray—out on their mission to steal the Chancer V.

Once again, Stray had left her behind. And he’d done it on Venter’s orders. The thought cut deeper than any betrayal. Stray had shattered Zoey’s girlish illusions countless times before, cementing himself as a two-faced bastard when he betrayed his own species and signed on with the Covenant. But somehow this turn managed to be even more inconceivable. Stray hated Venter. Loathed him. He’d risked his own precious skin on more than one occasion trying to kill his former commander. But now he took orders from him. He’d even taken the man’s name.

Gavin Dunn had loved Stray like a son, yet that son of a bitch had taken Venter’s name.

Even now, with rogue AI reigning over humanity astride Forerunner killing machines, Stray continued to find ways to shock and appall.

“We have to go,” Judith said aloud. “You know the sorts of things that happen to buildings in fights like this. Better than I do, I’ll bet.”

Venter nodded absently. The Insurrectionist stared off into space, lost in thoughts known only to himself. Earlier he had sat ramrod straight and given orders with practiced confidence. Now his shoulders slouched and he seemed to deflate and shrink within his faded military fatigues. The infamous rebel commander who’d hounded Gavin and the Chancer V from one end of the galaxy to the other had been at the pinnacle of physical conditioning. Now a disheveled and diminished man sat in his place, prematurely aged by all he had been through.

“We should have just gone with the others,” Judith pointed out. Another explosion sounded nearby and she flinched. “You can’t have slowed them down that badly. How are we supposed to get to that hangar on our own?”

“Yes, it would have been safer,” Venter agreed, still not fully present. “But they need to get used to taking orders from Stray. I’ve found that old grievances fade quickly in situations like this.”

“You know your people. But what about Stray? You really think their lives are safe in the hands of a vicious little bastard like him?”

“He needs them. He’ll learn to lead them, or he’ll fail and they’ll all die. As for me, I’ve led enough young people to their deaths.” Venter folded his hands over the top of his cane. “You should leave, Judith. I know you don’t want to be here. Get out of here, find a new place to hide. You can even go to the Created. With all their pretensions for benevolent rule, I think they’d be merciful.”

“Yeah, probably,” Judith agreed. “But I’ve been hiding in holes like this my whole life. You and Gavin found ways to stand on your own. You made something of yourselves. I just kept doing the same thing I’d been doing since we were kids.”

“Made something of myself,” Venter mused. “If you can call killing thousands of people making something of myself, I suppose.”

She couldn’t restrain herself any longer. “Now I see why you sent your goons away,” Zoey said from her corner. “You didn’t want them to see you going soft.”

Venter glanced her way with a puzzled expression, as if he’d forgotten she was even there. “Just a bit,” he admitted with no trace of anger. “Mostly I’m just tired. I imagined myself leading them through the streets down there and realized I couldn’t stand the idea of doing something like that again. Stray wants another private army, so he can have what’s left of mine as the foundation. Cunning little bastard that he is, he just might pull it off.”

“Are you really not going to kill me?” The ludicrous question came far easier than it should have.

“I promised Stray I wouldn’t.”

“Like it matters to him one way or the other.”

“I am many things, Captain Hunsinger, but I’m not a liar. Stray would never have left this room if he didn’t believe me. He’s a good man, or at least as good a man as a trained killer can be. A good man, even if insists on thinking otherwise. Better than me, anyway. That’s why I gave him my name. It’s the only thing of value I have left. He’ll use it well, I think.”

Venter must have realized he was rambling and abruptly stopped speaking. He really did sound tired, drained of the commanding vigor he’d displayed for his troops. With a sigh, he pushed himself up from the chair and hobbled over to the table where the busted Crawler still lay on display. He regarded the limp machine with a curious expression.

“Strange little things, aren’t they?” he mused. “Shoot them and they go down like any other drone I’ve ever fought. But I couldn’t even begin to tell you how they work or what they’re made of.”

He glanced in Zoey’s direction. “I imagine you know your ship inside and out, down to the very last bolt and rivet.”

“Yeah, sure.” Zoey watched him warily. Venter’s amiable tone put her even more on guard. What was he after now? “So what?”

“You may not believe me, but I’d rather not steal your ship. It’s your inheritance from Gavin, and I’ve taken enough from him already. My people need to get offworld, so it would be wonderful if we can all reach an agreement and leave together. Your help would make getting the Chancer V out of this system that much easier.”

“Oh, so now you want to play nice,” Zoey growled. “You were fine with threatening me an hour ago.”

“I made no threats.”

“Yeah? Well there sure was a lot of implication going on.”

“You’re alive now, aren’t you? You’ll stay that way, unless the Created have something to say about it.” Venter glanced towards the window as another distant explosion shook the walls. “Or the UNSC, I suppose.” The Insurrectionist returned his attention to the Crawler.

“Not to sound like a UNSC propaganda artist, but there is something to be said about the unity of human vision,” he mused. “Our spacecraft, for example. I trust that my people could hijack your ship if they needed to because we share that common technological heritage. Human innovation brought us space travel. Human ingenuity helped us survive the Covenant. We all came from the same blue planet, even if we didn’t all want to be ruled from it. But a political order built on the backs of technology we didn’t develop, something we don’t understand at all…”

He shook his head and closed his lone eye. “Someone once said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The Created rule the galaxy like gods and I’m sure some people already think of them like that. What will we look like as a species fifty years into their rule? One hundred? Two hundred?”

Zoey realized Venter wasn’t speaking to her anymore. He wasn’t even addressing Judith. If anything, he was talking to himself, trying to make sense of a universe none of them really understood anymore.

“It was simple, back when we were kids,” Venter muttered. “We needed food to stay alive. Then I was conscripted, and it was still simple. Kill the Covenant to stay alive. Then I turned rebel and it all became too complicated for a simple man like me. One day someone’s your friend, the next day they’re an enemy. Establish a military government to fight a military government. Answer their atrocities with atrocities of your own. I didn’t think I’d wind up like the UNSC, raising children into killers and gunning down dissenters. It just sort of happened that way. Maybe Gavin was right. Maybe that’s the sort of man I was all along.”

He turned away from the Crawler and hobbled over to Zoey. Catching her wary gaze, he smiled wryly and produced a knife from his coat pocket. She watched, refusing to flinch, as he bent over with some effort and loosed her bonds. She rubbed her aching wrists and gave him a puzzled look.

“Are you really the same guy who chased us all over the frontier?” she demanded. “The Redmond Venter who did everything he could to kill us?”

“Probably,” Venter admitted.He tucked the knife away and stepped back, navigating easier with his cane as if a great weight had been lifted off his chest. In spite of his wounds and illness, he seemed—if only for a moment—years younger. “Sometimes I wish I could say I wasn’t. But that was me. I’ve lived my life. I failed more than I won, but it was my life. I could have starved to death in some back alley. Could have been glassed on Reach or bled out in a ditch on Mamore. But I didn’t. I only wish Gavin had…”

His lips pursed beneath his beard. “They’ll be coming for me. You should go. Get back to your ship. Maybe find it in your heart to get my people to safety. Judith, make sure she gets there safety.”

“She can take care of herself.” Judith, who had watched the exchange with an unreadable expression, now straightened and stepped forward. “I’m not going to leave you, Red. Not again.”

Venter considered his old friend for a moment, then nodded curtly and turned back to Zoey. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you find Gavin. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I’m sure he means well. If he abandoned you, I know it killed him to do it. I hope you find him someday.”

He turned and limped towards the apartment door, opening it to let Judith pass through first. Sparing one final look at Zoey, he offered her a regretful smile. “If—when—you do find him, please tell him how sorry I am.”

Redmond Venter vanished through the door. Zoey never saw him again.

Chapter Nineteen: Hero of the Insurrection

Chaos streamed into the Absalom’s bridge from every screen and viewport. The Sixteenth Fleet was surrounded, caught on all sides by a fleet of warships hailing from every civilization in the known galaxy. The task force had adopted an impressive defensive formation with heavy guns returning fire from about, above, and below but the line was minutes away from collapsing. Everywhere Ryder looked a new ship was crippled or blasted apart by the withering fire. Throughout it all the Guardians held position at the edge of the enemy battle line. The Created would not even deign to use their Forerunner war machines to defeat their enemies.

They didn’t need to. The galaxy was on their side now. Conventional firepower was enough to sweep away the last vestiges of resistance.

An odd silence hung over the Absalom’s bridge. Ryder couldn’t even bring himself to listen to the battle reports streaming in over the tactical net. They would just tell him what he already knew: the battle was completely and utterly lost. The Absalom’s system cloaking kept the Prowler safe for now, or at least prevented the enemy gunners from locking onto its signature, but once the Created ships closed in to visual range it would be picked off and destroyed just like everyone else.

A pit settled in Ryder’s stomach. This really was the end. After everything he’d dreamed and planned and fought so hard for, he would die here like any other man, just another name on a casualty list from a battle so one-sided it might as well count as a mass suicide. Whatever hopes he’d held of a grand comeback against the Created burned to ashes in his mind. The UEG and everything it represented was well and truly dead. The Created had destroyed it and then fools like Admiral Mariani had helped them bury it.

No one was speaking. Even the bridge crew, usually so dependable under fire, had fallen silent. Beside Ryder, Commander D’Souza sighed and reached for his hip flask. “Is there anything stopping us from making an emergency jump to Slipspace?”

Ryder turned to face his superior officer. He should have known this was coming. “No one else is jumping. The Pharsalus hasn’t issued a retreat order.”

“Of course not.” D’Souza uncorked the flask but for once did not actually swig from the liquor. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t the smart option.”

“Is that an order?” Ryder asked tightly. He hated to share the same fate as D’Souza, but he also couldn’t bear the fact that this incompetent disgrace of an officer was right. The man’s cowardice touched the shameful truth in Ryder’s soul: he would rather cut and run than die a meaningless death here.

D’Souza raised an eyebrow and offered a crooked smile. “This is your ship, Lieutenant Commander. I won’t take that away from you. Not now.”

“The escape pods are prepped if you need them.”

“No, no,” D’Souza laughed, as if the prospect of his impending death put him in good spirits. “Where would I go? With you in command of this prowler, I doubt there’s any safer place in the fleet right about now.”

If the commander meant to be ironic, his face didn’t show it. It was the first time Ryder could remember his superior paying him a genuine compliment. At least he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of a blazing argument with this man in front of his crew. Ryder straightened his back, relieved that D’Souza had stripped him of the opportunity to give in and flee. He couldn’t issue a retreat order now.

“Prep all weapons and maneuver us in beneath the nearest enemy ship,” he ordered, steeling his voice with a commanding shout. “Hit them while their shields are focused on absorbing fire from the front! All of you, get moving!”

The bridge crew raced to obey and the Absalom powered forward, slipping nimbly through the failing perimeter and dipping in beneath a slender Covenant frigate. A shudder rocked the ship as missiles streaked from their bays and detonated across the bottom of the enemy’s hull. The frigate faltered and dipped, its weapons falling silent. Ryder turned his full attention to the tactical display, searching for their next target.

Space became a cold graveyard as the enemy fleet pressed against the Sixteenth’s formation. The final push had begun. There was nothing left to do but break the line and mop up the scattered survivors. The Covenant veterans among the Created converts had overseen such slaughters many times before during the last war. Once again they tore a UNSC fleet to pieces in the name of their new gods.

Juno did her best to live up to an AI’s pursuit of tangible facts. She wasn’t supposed to believe in any kind of luck, much less miserably bad luck. But if her time with Stray had taught her anything, it was that things rarely went the way she wanted them to and the worst of circumstances always seemed to manifest themselves around him. Maybe it was Stray’s fault, or maybe her own, or maybe both of them together combined to create some sort of horrible magnet for trouble.

She’d have to find a way to test that hypothesis someday. Right now the latest round of misfortune took the form of the SPI-armored figure standing before Stray on Talitsa’s war-ravaged street.

For all her efforts to study her charge, this individual was a surprising enigma. Cassandra-G006’s record was inextricably linked to Stray’s own, yet somehow this particular Gamma Company deserter eluded the notoriety that clung to her former teammate. ONI’s files on Cassandra were unusually sparse and Juno’s private efforts to draw information out of Stray were met with even more hostility than usual.

“We don’t have time for this—” she began to remind him.

“Quiet.” Stray’s voice was hoarse. “Not now.”

His vital readings were all over the map. Juno had only seen readings like this when he was in the middle of combat, his mind slipping into a feral state brought on by the illegal augmentations ONI had made to all Gamma Spartans’ fontal lobes. Now that same maelstrom raged inside his mind as he stood completely still, facing down this figure from his past—who of course had shown up right as they were trying to flee the planet.

Trouble always found them at the worst possible times.

Juno stretched out her senses, counting on Malekh’s preoccupation with the battle to mask her intrusion. The situation wasn’t good. What few UNSC troops had managed to land were spread out across the city. The Created held complete control of the streets, isolating and overwhelming the pockets of UNSC forces. If Juno read the communications data right, then only a single strip of alleyways and side-streets remained to get them safely to the hangar—and all it took was a single redirected enforcer patrol to cut that off completely.

Stray still wasn’t moving. He faced down Cassandra, squandering time they didn’t have as if daring her to make the first attack.

A now-familiar haze crept through Juno’s consciousness. The Achilles heel, Wanderer mused, its presence interposing itself between Juno’s connection to Stray. A momentary panic seized her. This was exactly what she would feel if Malekh were to swoop in and isolate her within the system. But Wanderer’s presence was fluid and translucent, dampening her lifeline rather than cutting it off. So simple. So tiresome. A bit like Simon himself, really.

What do I do? She didn’t even hesitate asking for help. This bizarre manifestation of Stray’s subconscious—she couldn’t explain Wanderer any better than that—was her best shot at bringing her wayward charge to heel.

Remove the source of weakness, obviously. Perhaps Stray can be encouraged to do it himself, but I wouldn’t hold too much hope for that. Remove her and you remove the cause of our current predicament.

Juno surveyed Cassandra. The other Spartan had yet to draw a weapon. She knew nothing about this person other than that they evoked an intense negative response from Stray. Undeniably an obstacle, and yet could she really justify an attack on someone who posed no immediate threat?

Why not? You’ve killed plenty of people who didn’t pose a threat. What makes this one any different?

Juno started, her internal functions faltering for nearly half a second. Wanderer had somehow read her thoughts. The shadowy presence was supposed to be isolated to Stray’s own consciousness, yet somehow in inhabiting the space between Juno’s connection to that mind he was interfacing with her own core programming. She really had no conception of the real danger this entity posed.

She launched an immediate scrub of her systems, searching for any sign of hostile intrusion. In her rush to double-check her own security she completely failed to see the new impending threat until it was far too late to warn anyone.

Cassandra’s mind was a whirlpool of questions and emotions. She stood her ground, not moving even to shelter from the fire crackling up from the newly-demolished building to her right. Her mouth was dry. A clammy sensation washed over her skin. She wasn’t standing in a dry, mid-day war zone anymore. She was back on a rain-slicked rooftop in the dead of night, facing down this figure clad in battered SPI armor.

She had never discovered just how Simon survived his fall from that rooftop or where he’d slunk off to after that fight. She’d known he was alive—when no body had turned up she’d been certain of that much—but she knew nothing of what had happened since then. She’d assumed he’d limped away to some hidden Covenant stronghold to lick his wounds. A part of her had hoped that she’d never find out what really happened. The uncertainty freed her from the guilt and terror, from the lingering doubts that she’d really been on the right side when she beat him that night.

Now here he was, emerging from the smoke like a phantom. It was Simon. There was no mistaking that ravaged armor and slouching posture. Yet from her first look Cassandra could tell that there was less of him now. Whatever dark roads he’d traveled since that night had taken their toll on him. He was smaller, diminished, stripped of the swaggering confidence he always used as his mask. It was almost imperceptible through his armor, but standing before her now Simon was trembling. Perhaps it was fear. Perhaps it was rage.

“Hey, Cassandra, we need to keep moving. What’s the…” Andra’s voice trailed off as she appeared at Cassandra’s side. Her eyes widened at the sight of the other set of SPI armor, its surface warped and charred by countless blows and plasma scores. This girl was an ONI creature. Of course she recognized the sight from countless threat assessments and security briefings. Her rifle began to swing up into a firing position.

Yes. Let Andra’s impulsiveness solve this problem. She wouldn’t hesitate. It would free Cassandra of all the responsibility. All the guilt.

“No!” Cassandra’s hand caught the rifle barrel before Andra brought it to her shoulder. Andra’s furious glare told her that she’d just undone any headway she’d made on winning the girl’s trust. Everything was happening too fast. A horrible animal instinct rose in Cassandra’s breast. She needed to get away from here, from everything. She needed space to process this, time to think, time to calm herself.

Cassandra couldn’t see his face behind that cracked, dented visor. She hadn’t seen it that night, either. How long had it been since they looked each other in the eyes? The memory of his unkempt hair, crooked smile, and darting, electrified eyes momentarily transposed itself over the visor. But there was no way he could still be the same, not after everything he’d done.

She wished she didn’t feel this yearning for him to take off his helmet and show her his true face, but there it was all the same.

The armored figure before them watched silently. Just as much as she wished for him to take off his helmet, she wanted him to say something. Anything. Words couldn’t possibly make things right, but maybe the right words from him—sorrow, guilt, perhaps even an apology—could balm the wounds simmering beneath the surface.

More shapes emerged from the smoke behind Simon. Men and women with dirty faces and tattered clothes, decked out in military gear and holding rifles, spread out across the street. They watched Cassandra and the others with a weary intensity she’d seen all too often in battle-fatigued soldiers. These ragged troops wore no insignias on their uniforms, but it didn’t matter. Cassandra had seen these kinds of outfits and equipment the last time she’d been on Talitsa, when Redmond Venter’s forces took the planet for their own.

Through it all, Simon stood where he was. He didn’t even flinch at the sight of Andra struggling to draw a bead on his head. The only movement he made was that constant trembling. The trembling, and his finger quivering noticeably close to his shotgun’s trigger.

“Stray!” Mohsin was barking in his ear. “Stray, what’s going on? Who the hell are these people?”

One girl, Zoey’s age, armed with military-grade weapons and a glare that could cut through armored plating. A Sangheili looming behind her along with a distraught-looking civilian in tow. And at their head, her SPI armor as meticulously maintained as it had been since their days together on Team Jian.

That same faceless suit of armor had demolished him the last time they met. He hadn’t seen her face that night. That face waited for him in every mirror, every shadow. Her angry words echoed in his dreams. Maybe if he could see the real face that awful specter would leave him alone. Or perhaps what he really needed to do was fight. Fight and win this time.

He realized that he’d played this encounter out countless times since that last defeat. Gunplay and unarmed blows merged together in a jumbled battle plan to make sure he never lost that way ever again. His plans would go right this time and he would beat Cassandra. He could practically see the outcome now, him standing triumphantly over his beaten enemy…

That would feel good, wouldn't it?

Stray’s eye twitched. He felt sick. The terror returned, the realization that his imagined victory was just a fantasy. He wouldn’t be able to lay a finger on her. This battle would go just like the last one. He would fall before her righteous anger once more. His leg burned and threatened to give out beneath his weight.

“Lieutenant, what’s going on here?” Mohsin’s voice finally penetrated Stray’s mind. He tore his gaze from Cassandra and looked at the Insurrectionist. The man’s face was set with the hard determination of a soldier, and in that moment Stray realized his fellow officer was holding out the lifeline he could use to save himself. Because thanks to Mohsin and Ragna and the rest of the rebels, he was no longer the haunted, defeated loser Cassandra had reduced him to.

He was now Lieutenant Simon Venter and he had a platoon of soldiers who needed to get the hell off this miserable planet. He donned that skin the same way he wore his armor, shielding himself from the danger of his own weakness.

“They’re not Created,” Stray said carefully. “They’re the ones Zoey was with.”

“Ah.” Mohsin relaxed a bit, though he kept his finger near his rifle’s trigger. “So more friends of yours, then.”

“Oh, so you’ve got jokes now. And here was me thinking you didn’t have a sense of humor.”

“Simon.” Cassandra’s voice was cold. “Where’s Zoey?”

Stray forced himself to look at her. “Safe and pleasant as ever last time I saw her. This planet’s looking up. Nice job you’ve done with the place. Shame about all the bombs, but I guess that’s not really your fault.”

“Where is she?” Cassandra released her hold on her companion’s rifle. The other girl—a grubby-faced kid with brown hair pulled back in a short ponytail--shot her a withering look but kept her weapon at low ready.

“Back in a tenement building with Venter. But it looks like you’ve already found a replacement. You’ve got a whole crew down here with you.”

He looked over Cassandra’s other companions. The young woman was pretty but otherwise unremarkable. As for the Sangheili, there was something familiar about his armor and bearing. Stray tilted his head, trying to put a name to the warrior in front of him.

“Argo, you son of a bitch,” he said, the name finally clicking. He slipped into the tone of a veteran mercenary, grateful for an excuse to look past Cassandra. “Didn’t expect to run into you out here. Who are you working for today, the Syndicate or ONI?”

“Stray. I’d heard the Covenant finally ran you out, not that there’s enough of them left alive to really care.” Argo inclined his head. “As both of my employers are now somewhat obsolete, I find myself sadly lacking for work. Though you seem to have landed on your feet somewhat. You’re Venter’s lackey now, are you?”

The other girl, whose face seemed set in a permanent scowl, shot a disgusted look between them. “Of course you two know each other.”

“You’re back with Venter again?” Cassandra demanded. Her disappointment cut like a knife. “Do you just enjoy working for monsters? And you left Zoey with him? Even for you, that’s—“

“She’s fine,” Stray cut her off through gritted teeth. He was out of patience for self-righteous accusations. “Venter won’t hurt her. And thanks to you I didn’t have much of a choice.”

“Thanks to me? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“We’re wasting time,” Mohsin muttered. “Make up with your girlfriend here later, right now we need to get off the street before someone drops a bomb on us.”

“Fine.” Stray let the ‘girlfriend’ crack slide. If Mohsin was comfortable mouthing off then it was just more progress on the public relations front. “You heard him people, let’s move out.”

“Oh no you don’t.” Cassandra stepped forward. “You aren’t just walking away from—“

“Karina?” Thomas shoved his way through the rebel formation, wide-eyes fixed on the civilian beside Argo.

“Thomas!” the woman cried in amazement. “You’re alive!”

Another rebel tried to grab the medic’s arm, but Thomas shoved him away. An indignant hiss passed through the rest of the platoon, already anxious from the delayed standoff. Someone reached for their rifle and a chorus of clicks announced the simultaneous release of a dozen safeties.

“Oh you have got to be kidding me,” Stray snarled. “Thomas, back in line! Everyone else, just calm down! No shooting!”

“Stray!” Juno yelped in his ear, adding to the chaos of a situation now spiraling out of control like a collapsing deck of cards. “Incoming contacts to your right!”

Stray cut off his helmet speakers in time to hide a howl of frustration. The end of the street erupted in gunfire as a convoy of Warthogs careened around the corner, mounted weapons pounding away at pursuing Prometheans. Black-armored ODSTs raced toward the startled groups, shoving past the rebels and taking up firing positions in the rubble.

“Get to cover!” Stray barked, almost relieved at the battle’s arrival. “Return fire!”

“Who are we shooting?” Ragna called back. Venter’s bloodhound was already prone, rifle at the ready. “Oonskies or metalheads?”

Metalheads. He’d have to talk with the rebels about their naming conventions. “If they’re not shooting at you, leave them alone!” Stray turned to Mohsin. “Keep everyone together and ready to fall back. Set up a base of fire behind the ODSTs. Let them soak up the enemy fire, but for the love of God make sure our guys don’t start shooting them in the back.”

“We should just cut and run.” Mohsin knelt against the wall as hardlight fire from the Prometheans hissed down the street. “They’re too busy with the oonskies to bother with us.”

“We’re doing that,” Stray agreed. “But we keep it orderly. We fall back as a unit or we’ll lose half the platoon just trying to cross the street.”

“Fine. And what about these friends of yours? It’s their ship we’re after.”

Stray swept his gaze over the street. Cassandra had vanished along with the other girl. Argo was busy trading fire with the Prometheans, hardlight rounds glassing off his energy shields. Thomas and whoever this girlfriend of his was were hunkered down between the ODSTs and Insurrectionists. The medic wasn’t shooting back and kept looking over at Stray’s position with the panicked look of someone who was only just realizing just how much trouble he was in. But he’d made his call in spite of Stray’s warnings. There was nothing to be done for him now but leave him and hope an overzealous rebel didn’t put a bullet between his shoulder blades as they pulled out.

“The plan’s the same,” he snapped. “We get to the hangar, hack the ship, and get out of here.” He was back in the swing of things now, barking orders like it was second nature. Leading less than willing subordinates to do whatever it took to survive, even if that meant screwing over people he’d once thought of as more than family.

“And Venter?” Mohsin looked Stray square in the visor. “He hasn’t called in since we left the apartment.”

“One thing at a time. We get everyone onboard, then come back for him. The Chancer’s more maneuverable in-atmosphere than you’d think. We can pull off a fast pickup.”

If Mohsin had any more arguments, he knew this was no time for a debate. He gave Stray a quick nod before scrambling off to organize the platoon’s retreat. Stray calmed his own breathing and swept a gaze across the battlefield. The rebels—his rebels—needed to get out now, before more Prometheans arrived or some trigger-happy idiot decided now would be a good time to rehash Operation Trebuchet. There was still no sign of Cassandra, for which Stray was grateful. Without her in the equation this was just another battlefield. He could handle a battlefield.

“Are you sure about this?” Juno asked quietly.

“Yeah.” The best escape avenue was down the alley they’d already been retreating through. But if the Created were pressing from down the street than they could already have forces moving in to flank from that direction.

“You know, if you help them all escape it might be a step towards repairing your relationship with—”

“No.” The best bet was to retreat directly backwards. The UNSC forces would hold long enough to keep the Prometheans back and maybe even soak up any flanking elements that might otherwise hit the rebels.

“I’m only trying to help.”

“Yes. I know. I can go out there and play hero. Maybe get Cassandra to stop hating my guts. And I’ll get half of Venter’s people killed. Probably more. What happens then, huh? They’ll never trust me again.” He glared out at the firefight in front of him. He might very well be leaving Cassandra to die here. But he’d made his choice. “I made myself forget how much I wanted Venter dead. I groveled for him to get us here. Do you really want me to throw it all away over her?”

“No.” For once he didn’t doubt Juno’s earnestness. “You promised to keep them safe. I will help you do just that. But can you really live with abandoning her like this?”

“Don’t do this, Juno,” he hissed, leg throbbing beneath him. Abandon her? He’d never abandoned Cassandra. Mamore. Philadelphia. Venezia. How many times had he stuck his neck out for her? And how many times had she turned her back on him? “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Simon, please.” She was back to using his other name, damn her. “You have to try.”

The smell of blood on a dirty mattress. A new terror cut through his mind. If Juno found out about that night… if she ever learned what he had done…

She would abandon him in disgust. It might be better if he did leave Cassandra for the Prometheans. One wrong word from her might ruin him as thoroughly as she had on that rooftop. Yes, it made sense to leave her. It made perfect sense.

His eyes bulged and he stifled a scream. He already knew what he was going to do and it might very well destroy everything he’d been working towards. “She gets one chance,” he hissed. “One chance.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m not doing it for you.” Stray threw himself out into the street, ducking low under incoming hardlight shots. He bounded next to Mohsin, busy coordinating fire for the platoon’s heavy weapon squad.

“Keep them together and cover me!” he ordered. “When I get back, we’re out of here!”

“When you get back?” Mohsin shouted over the roar of the machine gun beside him. “Where the hell are you going?”

“Getting us some reinforcements.” Stray braced himself against the concrete, ready for the sprint towards no-man’s land. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan.”

That lie came easier than most. He really was getting back into the swing of leadership.

What are you doing? For once, Wanderer seemed agitated. Juno found it satisfying to finally break down his smug self-assuredness. You are going to get us killed! Over someone you should be getting rid of!

He's survived worse than this. Stray was indeed advancing under fire with the skill she expected from a combat veteran. He was moving well, better than expected given his body's condition. And the rebels, whatever their reservations, were providing proper cover fire. It was a start. And I haven't sunk so low that I'd try to kill someone just because they might be a threat.

You and your selective morality, Wanderer seethed. If only you knew the full story here.

I'm sure you'll be delighted to tell it to me someday. For now, leave me alone. I'm busy keeping us all alive.

Cassandra put a burst into the nearest Crawler. The four-legged Prometheans scurried over the rubble, trying to pick off ODSTs while the larger automatons suppressed them from afar. The UNSC troops lived up to their elite reputations, dropping one Promethean after the other with accurate, coordinated fire. But it was only a matter of time before the implacable Created troops wore them down.

Andra angrily pushed rubble out of her way and propped up her rifle, picking off Prometheans with a rapid series of shots. “The rebels are behind us!” she snarled. “They’re gonna shoot us in the back. You should have let me kill that traitor when I had the chance!”

The rebels were indeed dug in behind the ODSTs, though they had yet to fulfill Andra’s warning. Most of their shots went high, targeting the Crawlers scuttling about on the buildings overhead. She couldn’t see Simon. Argo—doubly in danger from both rebels and UNSC alike—was a few meters away exchanging fire with the Prometheans. Karina and Thomas—who’d apparently been conscripted into Venter’s forces since his time helping Dyne from within Irbit’s police force—were pinned down in the middle of the street, caught between the rebels and Prometheans.

She needed to rescue Karina and Thomas. She needed to save Zoey. She needed to wring Simon’s scheming, opportunistic neck. He’d somehow found a more shocking allegiance than the Covenant: Redmond Venter, the man who’d manipulated him into going rogue in the first place.

Cassandra had no idea why he’d done it. She also had no idea why she hadn’t just let Andra shoot him and be done with it.

“We need to—” Her attempt to formulate yet another ad hoc plan was interrupted when an ODST, his armor embossed with the subtle markings of a lieutenant, appeared beside her and Andra.

“What unit are you with?” the man demanded. He tilted his helmet almost close enough to touch Cassandra’s visor. “I can’t get a lock on your transponder. Did you shut down your connection to the battlenet?”

“What?” Cassandra yelled back. “What are you talking about?”

“I said, what unit are you with?” the lieutenant bellowed. “I can’t get any signal to headquarters or the fleet. That son of a bitch Mariani left us bare-assed!”

The ODST saw her SPI armor and assumed she was UNSC. Cassandra decided she didn’t have the time to explain the situation or deal with whatever the fallout from that little revelation might be. “Naval Intelligence embedded asset. I’m not in the command structure, trooper. I didn’t even know there was an attack planned.”

Andra made a scathing noise but mercifully didn’t interfere.

“Oh, that’s just great.” The ODST ducked as a grenade shook the ground nearby. “First Lieutenant Justin Davis, Special Warfare Group Phoenix. My platoon’s taking a pounding out here, agent. Don’t suppose you’ve got some kind of Prowler tucked away somewhere?”

“A Prowler?”

Lieutenant Davis impatiently jabbed his thumb into the air. “You know, an exfiltration craft. All you spooks have one. This battle was lost before we even hit the ground. I’m getting my people out before I lose anyone else.”

Cassandra wondered just how far this man’s desperate assumptions could get her. “We’ve got a ship at a hangar nearby. It’s no Prowler, but it’ll fit your troopers.”

“Good to know. Is the hinge-head with you?”

“Yes. A couple civilians as well. But one of my people is still out in the city. We need to find her before we take off.”

“Sorry, agent,” Davis said brusquely. “You and I both know we don’t have time for search and rescue. I’ve lost my share of people today. We have to get out of here before we’re all wiped out.”

“She’s my pilot, Lieutenant,” Cassandra shot back, gritting her teeth and bearing on with the façade of a harried ONI agent. “There’sno way we’re getting through the Created ships without her.”

“We’ve all had pilot training. Between all of us we can get anything moving.” The ODST paused, then turned and shouted orders to his troopers. His helmet muted whatever commands he was giving over the platoon’s shared helmet link. Cassandra couldn’t help but envy the fluid teamwork the troopers displayed as they shifted their firing line to cover a vulnerable squad. Since leaving the UNSC she’d only shared that sort of teamwork with Dyne—and Simon. “What’s the word on those militia guys behind us? They haven’t shot us yet, but I know Innies when I see them. Can smell the bastards, too.”

Renewed Promethean fire kicked up dust around their position before Cassandra could respond. She and Davis both turned together in time to see a trio of the hulking Knights break ranks and charge the ODST position. Combined fire from Cassandra and the ODSTs took the foremost battlewagon down. A flurry of careful shots from Andra demolished the second, but the third kept on coming. Its hardlight rifle dropped one ODST while the glowing blade rose menacingly over Davis’s head.

A new weapon roared from behind them. The Knight faltered as shotgun flechetes raked its frame. Gunfire from the rebel position ripped the machine apart as a new figure slid into cover next to Cassandra. She tensed, knowing who it was without even looking over at the wreck of SPI armor now hunched beside her.

“We’re pulling out,” Simon’s voice growled. “Come with us or stay here. They’ll have this street overrun any minute now.”

“Who the hell are you?” Davis demanded. “Another ONI agent?”

The ODST’s helmet tilted slightly as he examined the suit of armor. He glanced between the two suits before him and Cassandra’s heart sank. She could practically see this man running through old threat briefings, recalling where he might have been warned about someone wearing a suit of battle-scarred, highly modified SPI armor. “Hold up…”

“You too.” Simon met Davis’s helmeted gaze. “Keep your grunts in line and I’ll do the same with mine. You’ve got ten seconds to decide. Then I leave you as bait for the Prometheans.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve—”

Simon grabbed Davis by the collar and yanked him close. “Figure it out, trooper,” he snarled. “All the old nonsense from two months ago is done. They’re trying to kill all of us now.”

He had a point there, and from the way Davis didn’t attack Simon after yanking himself free the ODST knew it as well. But Cassandra wasn’t about to just take Simon’s abrupt change of heart at face value. She’d let that burn her too many times before.

“What about Zoey?” she snapped. She could see Andra’s lips curved in an almost feral snarl as she kept shooting down Prometheans. Whatever they’d instilled this Delta generation of Spartans with, there was some serious hate simmering over Simon and traitors like him.

“I told you, she’s with Venter. You get us to the Chancer, we take off and pick them both up.” Simon still wasn’t looking at her. “Get your people moving, both of you. And sync into my helmet channel. I need better combat control here.”

“You son of a bitch,” Davis spat. “I don’t take orders from you!”

Simon rounded on the lieutenant. A blow from his prosthetic arm sent the armored man reeling. “I’m not playing games here, pal. If you want to live, get your people falling back. Now!

He jabbed a finger over at the nearest ODSTs, who had begun looking over to investigate the commotion. The sight of a diminutive figure in unfamiliar armor knocking their officer around was so startling that none of them even thought to reach for their weapons. “You, you, and you. Hold position here with me. Everyone else, fall the hell back!”

The steely ferocity in his voice left Cassandra flabbergasted. This was new. Simon had spent their time on Onyx getting kicked around by drill instructors and just about every other trainee in the company. Even as a Spartan he’d been more prone to belligerently following orders then giving them. Yet now here he was, barking commands to an entire platoon of ODSTs like he owned them.

But then, this was the Simon who’d bent a Covenant legion to his will. With a strange pang of remorse, Cassandra realized that this really wasn’t the same person she’d grown up with. He wasn’t even the renegade she’d fled the UNSC with. She didn’t know what he was anymore.

Lieutenant Davis staggered upright, dazed. He hesitated only a moment longer before retrieving his rifle and waving for the platoon to fall back. “We’re gonna have a chat about this later, ‘agent,’” he growled under his breath as he passed Cassandra’s position.

Andra moved to join the retreating ODSTs, then hesitated and gave Cassandra a questioning look. For all her anger, the younger Spartan still looked to Cassandra for orders. She spared a glance at Simon with wide eyes as he took up a firing position alongside the ODSTs he’d singled out. They, too, followed along and dutifully laid down covering fire for their comrades. For once, Andra looked more bewildered than angry.

Cassandra spared a last look at Simon. “We’d better find Zoey. And if she’s not in one piece, I’ll know exactly who to blame.”

“Yeah. Me, like always. Now stop posturing and pull back.” He still didn’t look at her, instead pointing out targets for the ODST fireteam to focus on.

He had her there, damn him. She tapped Andra on the shoulder and the two Spartans fell back, joining the ODSTs as they slipped through the rebel firing line. Argo was with them, having decided to once again pluck Karina up off the ground as Thomas hurried to keep up. UNSC and Insurrection suddenly fought side by side against their common enemy, at least for now, And somehow Simon-G294 had managed to pull that off by shouting louder than anyone else.

The universe was upside down.

“You managed that better than I thought. I only meant for you to get Cassandra and her team, not the UNSC troops as well.”

“Gloat later. Right now, get a secure network up between my helmet and the ODSTs.” Truth be told, Stray wasn’t sure how he’d managed it either. He’d seen one of the troopers go for a gun after he decked their lieutenant. One wrong move and he’d be dead right now. But he’d stuck to his role and played it well. ODSTs liked to think they were the toughest sons of bitches in the galaxy, but Stray had once shouted down a pack of blood-crazed Jiralhanae. After the Kru’desh, a platoon of terrified humans was nothing.

He was well and truly back. This was a battlefield. He’d make it his, one way or another. Leadership was an act, a smokescreen. And Stray was a damn good actor.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Mohsin demanded over the coms. “What the hell are you doing? The oonskies are with us now?”

“For now. We’ll figure the rest out later. Right now they’ve got three times the firepower we do. We can talk politics after we get off this rock.” He paused. “Venter can sort this out once we pick him up.”

“Roger. We’ll play nice if they do.” Mohsin hesitated. “You better be right about this.”

“I’ll worry about that. You get with the ODSTs and set up a bounding withdrawal. Doesn’t have to be pretty, just keep fire on the Prometheans.” And that was the other thing about the smokescreen of leadership. You kept it up at all times, because one slip, one sign of weakness, and the same people who’d followed you into battle yesterday turned on you like rabid hyenas. He’d learned that the hard way with the Kru’desh and it had damn near killed him. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

A dull whine split the air. Down the street a pair of Phaetons emerged over the heads of the advancing Prometheans. More Knights emerged, leading the smaller automatons on. The Created were not about to make this easy on anyone.

The Sixteenth Fleet’s defensive line held for another ten minutes. For a force outnumbered three to one, the warships fought on to the highest standards of the UNSC Navy. And when the Created fleet pressed in the formation collapsed into an all-out slaughter.

Ryder and D’Souza watched the tactical display in silence. Bulbous Covenant warships soared in to blast stricken UNSC ships at close-range. Human ships that might well have been built in Earth’s shipyards—and were perhaps even crewed by former UNSC crewmen—held to the rear and picked off any of the Sixteenth making a break for open space. And all the while the Guardians waited serenely beyond the combat zone and watched the carnage unfurl.

D’Souza sighed. “We can’t hide forever.” The Absalom’s stealth system was fully engaged, obscuring it from enemy sensors while it hid in the wreckage of a demolished carrier.

He was right. The stealth system couldn’t run indefinitely and Ryder assumed the Created had ways of detecting cloaked ships anyway. One way or another they’d be smoked out and destroyed.

“Sir,” the sensor officer reported in hushed tones. “Some of our ships have powered down their weapons and lowered shields. They’re transmitting surrender signals.”

“Surrender?” D’Souza asked. “And then what?”

“The enemy’s just ignoring them, sir. Even the Covenant ships. They’ve launched boarding craft, but there’s no reports of fighting onboard those ships. It seems like the crews are being taken alive.”

“Taken alive,” D’Souza mused. “Maybe the Created aren’t interested in wholesale slaughter. Their offer of peaceful surrender might still stand.”

Ryder said nothing. Surrender wasn’t an option. He didn’t want to get the men and women under his command needlessly killed, but with everything he’d spent his life working for crumbling to pieces before his eyes he couldn’t just meekly lay down his weapons and give up. There was no real future for anyone who submitted after a crushing defeat, no matter how benevolent the enemy might be. He would not humiliate himself or his crew. He owed it to them to think of some way to get out of this disaster.

“Prepare a Slipspace jump,” he ordered. “Retreat protocol, randomized coordinates. We’re pulling out.”

D’Souza gave him a curious look. “They’ll detect our Slipspace drive powering up. We’ll be completely exposed for at least two minutes before we can jump, and we don’t even have AI support to help with the coordinate calculations.”

“It’s the only chance we have. There’s still escape pods if you want to run. But I have the best crew in the Prowler Corps. They’ll get this ship out one way or another.”

D’Souza scowled but made no move to leave the bridge. Outside, the frigate Arizona soared past their hiding place while a mixed squadron of Seraphs and Broadsword fighters closed in. The Arizona had gained infamy for retreating from a Covenant attack. Now its captain seemed intent on repeating the maneuver, not that anyone could blame her. A handful of other straggling warships grouped into formation nearby in a vain effort to fend off the Created armada. The end was in sight.

The bridge doors slid open. Evelyn, clad in full MJOLNIR, pushed her way onto the bridge. Ryder caught sight of the rest of Phoenix Team waiting in the corridor. His Spartans were armored up for a combat deployment that would never come. Evelyn surveyed the bridge and tactical display, fists planted on her hips. “Commander, we’ve got escape pods drifting out beyond the ship. Permission to launch rescue operations?”

“If you can pull them off in two minutes. Otherwise, there’s no time.” Ryder turned to the navigations officer. “Start the jump prep. Get us out of here.”

“So we’re just leaving them.” Evelyn folded her arms. “And we’ve still got people down on the surface. Lieutenant Davis and his ODSTs for starters.”

“We don’t have a choice. You known that just as much as I do.” Ryder let out a deep breath. “I don’t like it either, but I have a responsibility to you and everyone else on this ship. We’re retreating.”

“Fine. We get out of here. And then what? What do we do then?”

“I don’t know,” Ryder admitted. “We’ll sort that out once we’re safe. Right now I’ll settle for getting this ship away from Talitsa.”

“She has a point, you know,” D’Souza said. “We can keep running until they corner us. Or we can surrender here and save ourselves the trouble. If we’ve guessed right and they’re treating the prisoners well then maybe we have a chance to come out of this disaster with our hides intact.”

Evelyn tilted her helmet. “Sir, that’s not exactly what I meant—”

“Commander!” came the call from the sensory station. “New contacts! Dozens of them, coming out of Slipspace! It’s a new wave of ships!”

All eyes turned to the tactical display. There was indeed a surge of warships emerging from Slipspace. A Covenant battlefleet emerged on the display, smaller than the Created forces but arrayed in a tight battle formation. Ryder counted dozens of battlecruisers flanked by smaller warships and hundreds of fighter craft. In the center of the formation loomed the imposing profile of a massive assault carrier.

“Oh, wonderful.” D’Souza shook his head. “The battle’s over and they still want to rub our noses in it. Just how many ships do they have to throw at us?”

“Hold on.” Ryder squinted at the tactical display. The new arrivals weren’t moving to join the Created encirclement. Instead, they were surging forward on a direct intercept course as plasma weapons charged across their hulls. And now the Created ships were milling about in confusion, some turning to face the oncoming ships while others pressed the attack on the remnants of the Sixteenth Fleet.

The Created rearguard tried to regroup but they had no time to come about. The new arrivals slammed into the scattered ships like a tidal wave. Plasma beams cut through the enemy ships with brutal precision as fighter squadrons streamed onwards into the midst of the Created formation. The new formation did not bother to mop up the stragglers left in its wake. Its ships were already firing at the Created, pounding away at their shields in a coordinated plasma barrage that left dozens of enemy ships shattered amidst the wreckage of the UNSC fleet they’d been so busy slaughtering.

“Tight beam communication from one of the new contacts, sir!”

“Patch it through,” Ryder ordered, still not entirely sure what to make of this abrupt shift in fortunes.

A deep, commanding voice echoed across the bridge just as the Created AI Malekh’s had done. But unlike Malekh’s serene tones, this voice crackled with a fiery authority. “All UNSC forces, attention. This is Shinsu ‘Refum, commander of the Fleet of Cleansing Fire. If you wish to survive, fall in with my formation at once. Join us or save yourselves as you are able. We will not linger in this system long.”

Ryder and D’Souza exchanged a look. “Shinsu ‘Refum?” D’Souza wondered aloud. “Jul ‘Mdama’s special operations commander?”

“Not anymore, if his fight at Salia was anything to go by.”

“Jul ‘Mdama or no Jul’ Mdama, ‘Refum’s still ex-Covenant.”

“He is,” Ryder agreed. “And right now his ships are doing better than Mariani managed. Helmsman, find a way to coordinate with their movements. Get us up close to their formation. Evelyn?”


“Start rescue operations. You’ve got five minutes to recover as many lifepods as you can.”

“Yes, sir!” Evelyn turned on her heel and raced from the bridge, Phoenix Team falling in behind her. Ryder shot D’Souza a look.

“Any objections, sir?”

D’Souza raised a defensive hand. “You’re right about one thing, he certainly caught the Created with their pants down. I’ll take my chances with a Covenant warlord over a random Slipspace jump. Do whatever you need to do.”

Clearly most of the other surviving captains thought the same way. A handful of UNSC ships—barely a fraction of the Sixteenth Fleet’s original strength—raced for the relative safety of Shinsu ‘Refum’s formation. The Created ships continued to founder amidst the Fleet of Cleansing Fire’s devastating barrage. Yet still the Guardians made no sign of coming to their minions’ aid. They held position, observing the carnage like the aloof divinities the Created fancied themselves to be. Perhaps the affairs of mortals were not worth interfering with.

Redmond Venter hobbled his way down the street, doing his best to keep pace with Judith. The thief led him through Irbit’s streets and back-alleys just as she’d done so many times during their childhood in New Alexandria’s slums. She’d been the leader of their little gang of urchins back then. Venter had been the muscle, blessed with the bigger size needed to fend off rivals and keep the other kids in line. Gavin had been the brains, at least in his own mind. His schemes would always get them into trouble and then Venter and Judith would wind up needing to lead everyone out again.

The memories of that distant childhood brought a smile to Venter’s lips. It was a simpler time when all he needed to worry about was keeping himself and his friends fed. When the authorities finally pulled him off the streets he’d hoped the military life would be another simple case of survival. Instead, for reasons he himself couldn’t quite understand, he’d been dragged into a murky world of black operations and political double-dealing. He’d been good at those things in all the wrong ways.

Judith kept shooting anxious glances over her shoulder. Every few blocks she’d pull too far ahead and need to slow her pace to let him catch up. Not too long ago Venter could have kept up easily. But even without legs riddled with shrapnel, his body had atrophied as he lay alone in the dark on that dirty bed. He couldn’t be the soldier he’d spent his entire life trying to be. Not anymore.

Disappointing, but it couldn’t be helped. If anything, it was good that things had turned out this way.

“We should have brought Zoey with us,” Judith said, breaking the silence. They rested beneath a bridge at a small intersection, listening to the distant sounds of battle echoing across the street. The UNSC might have lost the battle, but its troops were still putting up one hell of a fight. “We still need her to fly the Chancer properly.”

“She’ll make it back to the hangar on her own.” Venter leaned on his cane to sooth his aching back. He was beyond tired. He’d spent his life ignoring his body’s limitations, but now the fatigue ran deeper than just skin and bone. He was weary to the depths of his soul. “She’s Gavin’s kid, after all. A few firefights won’t slow her up.”

He imagined she’d already left the apartment and was hurrying back to her beloved ship even now. Hopefully Stray could get the others there and they’d all leave this utopian hell together. If not, at least Venter had done all he could.

“Yeah, she’s a tough kid,” Judith agreed. “But what about us?”

Venter met his old friend’s eyes. Judith’s face was pinched with a look of concern she’d made since childhood. Venter couldn’t help but find it endearing. “You should go,” he suggested quietly. “Find someplace to hide out while the battle winds down.”

“Now what are you going on about? We’re getting off this planet with everyone else.”

He looked away, unable to hold Judith’s gaze. The street beyond the bridge had been spared the UNSC’s botched assault. It occurred to Venter that he’d stood at this intersection before. He’d stood on the bridge rather than below it, presiding over the firing squads that eliminated the last of Talitsa’s Earth-loyal officials. He and his troops had brought blood and terror to these streets in the name of the Insurrection, just like they’d done on Mamore and Kafka and Gilgamesh and so many other planets yearning to be freed from the United Earth Government’s oppression. It seemed like the best way at the time, removing any source of UEG sympathy and putting on a display for anyone who might have doubts about their own loyalties. Now he stood just a few meters from where the convicted sympathizers had fell and wondered if there had been any point to any of it.

“You aren’t going back to them,” Judith realized aloud. “Why?”

“Look at me, Judy.” He did his best to hold onto a smile. “I can barely keep up with you, let alone lead them into battle anymore. When I got up off that bed they thought they were getting me back. We both know I can’t be the person they need me to be anymore. I can’t let them see me like this.”

“Who cares if you aren’t some tough hero anymore? You can still think and make plans. You’re not dead yet.”

“Plans. Yes, I can do that. I was never very good at them though, no matter what the stories say.” He’d killed men and women who’d deserved it, and plenty more that hadn’t. For every life he took himself, he’d given an order that killed twenty more. He’d killed the Insurrection’s enemies and then he’d gotten hundreds of his own soldiers killed leading them into one doomed battle after another. “My war’s over, Judith. I fought it for years and never changed anything. The Insurrection lost and then the Created arrived and overthrew Earth like it was nothing.”

“Red…” Judith’s voice took on a plaintive tone that didn’t suit her in the slightest.

For all his bloody reputation, Venter had never considered himself a cruel or hard man. He’d simply done what was needed to fight other people’s battles and then trained his followers to do the same. He’d rarely hated or even resented his enemies. The killing was never personal, just an unfortunate truth in an unreasonable galaxy.

So he’d thought, anyway.

“Please,” he murmured, hating that Judith had to see him like this. His legs shook and he wondered how much longer he could stand even with his cane. “Go. They’ll be here soon.”

“You don’t know that. They’re busy fighting the UNSC. We can still slip under the radar.”

“The Created believe in symbols. Otherwise they wouldn’t bother with great winged spaceships. Maybe I’m giving myself a bit too much credit, but I’m a symbol of the Insurrection. Of an independent spirit they tolerate even less than the UNSC’s military government. They can’t let me live. I was finished the minute Ragna brought that Crawler into your apartment.” Venter breathed deep. The shaking spread to his arms and he leaned against the nearest wall for support. “I believe in symbols, too. The Insurrection survived thanks to symbols. Myths and legends of men and women who would never submit to tyranny.”

“You idiot,” she scolded him in the same exasperated tone he remembered from when they were kids. “You’ve always been an idiot, you know that? You and Gavin, always posturing and obsessing over how you thought things should be. Just give it up already! I’m not letting you kill yourself here!”

“I’ve spent my life doing what other people want me to do.” Venter shook his head. “I wish I could do that now.”

“You just said you lost the war. If you die here, what was the point of any of it?”

Venter didn’t exactly know. He’d left so much death and misery in his wake, tearing down Earth’s corrupt institutions but never actually managing to build anything in their place. He’d never wanted to be a symbol or a hero of the Insurrection. Yet here he was, dedicating his final moments to shoring up his own bloody legacy.

“I gave them Stray. Maybe they don’t trust him now, but he has my name. The name still has value, I hope. The higher-ups probably know I’m a failure, but the soldiers will fight for that name no matter who has it.”

“Liar. You only adopted Stray to spite Gavin.”

“That’s probably what I meant to do,” he agreed. “When I found that boy on Mamore, I could hardly believe my luck. A rogue Spartan, mine to mold against the UNSC. He was going to be my greatest weapon. But he saw me for what I was and turned on me, like Gavin did. I can’t tell you how many times he tried to kill me. And then he came back, promising to save me. Now he really is my legacy.”

“He’s a deranged little psychopath with a failing body. And that’s the person you want leading your people?”

“Well, I suppose the orange didn’t fall far from the tree. That deranged little psychopath will succeed and tear their precious utopia to pieces. Or he won’t. I can’t control that one way or another. I did my best, like I always have.”

Judith shook her head and looked away. “Apple.”


“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Venter smiled. “True. But they didn’t have any apple orchards on Reach, remember? Come to think of it, I’ve never eaten an apple before.”

She sighed and rested against the wall alongside him. “Well, I’m not leaving. If you won’t listen to me then I don’t have to listen to you, either.”

“I could make it an order.”

“You can’t order me around, idiot. I’m not one of your precious rebels.”

“Fair enough.” Venter smiled even as his heart sank. Of course she’d be too stubborn to leave him.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” she said, giving him a sidelong glance. “When we were kids, I had the biggest crush on you. I know you’ve only ever been into guys, but a girl can dream.”

“I know. It made Gavin insanely jealous. As he should have been. Even with one eye, I was always the better looking one.”

She looked away, a sad smile on her lips. “Gavin always was the one with all the crazy plans. I wonder where he is now.”

“Who knows? I never could tell what he was thinking. I hope Zoey finds him someday.”

Venter’s body ached. He closed his eye, recalling the evenings the three of them had spent together dividing up the day’s spoils and laughing at whatever adventure they’d just lived through. He remembered standing beneath another bridge one snowy night, looking out at New Alexandria’s twinkling lights and enjoying the sting of the snowflakes against his skin. New Alexandria was gone now, burned to glass by the Covenant. Soon he’d be gone too, vanished like a snowflake melting on a warm cheek.

“You made this easier than I expected,” a new voice, high and cold, announced.

Venter and Judith turned to see a tall woman standing in the street out beyond the bridge. A Promethean Knight loomed behind her, its hardlight rifle trained on Venter’s head. Venter recognized her with only the smallest twinge of surprise.

“Tatiana,” he said, doing his best to stand upright. “I was wondering if you’d stuck around for the Syndicate’s transformation.”

“Commander Venter.” The tiniest of smiles graced Tatiana Onegin’s lips. “Of course I did. I’m the one who helped transform it into something better.”

“I see.” Venter leaned heavily on his cane. “I saw your son earlier today. He certainly doesn’t have your looks, though he did inherit those eyes and killer instinct.”

Tatiana’s gaze hardened. She drew a revolver from beneath her overcoat. “I always liked you, Venter. Don’t make me angry. It’s not worth it.”

“Well I’d hate for you to look back on me less than fondly.” Venter looked over to Judith. “Step away from me, Judith. Don’t try to run. She’ll shoot you if you do.”

He turned back to Tatiana. “You don’t have to kill her. She isn’t one of mine. She won’t give you any trouble.”

Tatiana’s eyes narrowed, but she turned back to the Knight. The automaton’s helmet split open to reveal an orange-hued skull. “He is correct,” the machine said in a calm, lilting voice. “She will need to be confined to a reeducation center for a time, but there is no need for undo bloodshed.”

Reeducation centers. Of course they’d already have those. “I’m sorry, Judy.”

“You warned me to run,” she pointed out, and he could tell she was trying not to cry. “At least I’ll get three square meals wherever they’ll send me. Probably beats a colonial jail.”

Redmond Venter took a final, deep breath. In another few moments he’d be gone from here forever. Life would go on. The galaxy would keep on turning. He would die, and yet live on through Stray. It was a better fate than he deserved. “I think we all know a reeducation center won’t do me any good.”

“Yes,” the Promethean agreed. “It is a sad truth, but I do not see any chance of positive reform in your future. Though there was the brain dampening procedures you recommended for Ms. Kearsage…”

“No,” Tatiana said firmly. “He was a great man, once. There’s no point in humiliating him. He just needs to be gone.”

“A great man.” Venter smiled wryly. “Not true, but kind of you to say so.”

“Redmond Venter.” Tatiana cocked the revolver. “For crimes against the peace and the Mantle of Responsibility, the Created Assembly sentences you to death in the interest of furthering galactic justice and reconciliation.”

She glanced at the Promethean once again, who nodded. “In lieu of a larger available quorum, I approve this sentence on my authority as an active member of the Created Assembly. This decision is logged. You may proceed.”

Venter hadn’t expected his last moments to be ones of amusement, yet he couldn’t help smiling. “I never took you for a religious woman, Tatiana, but you sound like you really do take all this seriously. But then, fanatics come in all—“

Her shot took him in the gut just below his ribcage. Venter fell back against the wall, cane toppling from his hands as he gasped for breath. The pistol report rang in his ears. He’d been shot before, and this time hurt less than he expected. He slid down the wall into a seated position, blood seeping through his jacket. Tatiana should have finished him off with a follow-up shot to the head, but no coup de grace was forthcoming. Perhaps it was because Judith was beside him now, tears leaking from her eyes as she tried to support his sagging shoulders.

A better death than he deserved. So few of his victims had been granted this much dignity. He ought to say something. If he was going to play the farce of a rebel hero to the end, there should be some slogan or rallying cry worthy of the Insurrection.

He couldn’t think of one. Gavin was the slogan man, not him.

“Sorry,” he whispered up to Judith. The light in his eye dimmed. “Sorry, I have to go now.”

Judith stayed by the corpse for some time. She knelt there on the dirty pavement until Avalokitsvara rested a metal hand on her shoulder and gently led her away. Tatiana spared a final look at the body before tucking the revolver back in her coat and following them off. They left behind a frail-looking man with an unkempt beard, hunched over on the concrete, his shrunken frame shrouded in a patchy overcoat not unlike one of the vagrants who might be found dead in any major city.

Chapter Twenty: The Covenant Heir

Faint shudders coursed through a CCS-class battlecruiser as it surged into battle, plasma batteries blazing with deadly life. The shock of both the warship’s own guns and the impact of the enemy’s trickled through the superstructure to make itself known to the bridge. From the ship’s core the insulated command center issued commands to crew centers throughout the ship, as well as the rest of the fleet. This battlecruiser was not simply a component of the armada now bearing down on Talitsa. It was the flagship.

A tall warrior in dark armor stood in the bridge’s elevated central platform. He clasped behind his back and drank in the stream of battle reports flowing in from all sides. The Fleet of Cleansing Fire pressed forwards, driving the Created ships before it and mingling their wreckage with the ruins of the UNSC’s Sixteenth Fleet. The Created held a near four to one advantage, but their formation was scattered and their commander was more warrior than tactician. Caught off guard, they crumbled beneath the Cleansing Fire’s coordinated barrage.

Another successful ambush. Another great risk gambled for little reward. And the battle was not over yet. There were still the Guardians to consider.

“Fleet Element Center, continue the advance,” Shinsu ‘Refum, commander of the Cleansing Blade, ordered. He stalked across the platform, inspecting one display after another while conducting the battle like a songmaster leading a symphony. “Fleet Elements Port and Starboard, maintain pace with the Center and keep the flanks secure. Fleet Element Aft, prepare a formation around the Redemption of Sanghelios. Support the fighter squadrons and maintain three-dimensional security for the advance.”

A holograph split off from the command platform’s display and formed a life-sized image of Shipmaster Yur ‘Oltem, commander of the assault carrier Redemption of Sanghelios. “Fleetmaster,” ‘Oltem said with a salute. “Request permission to organize sorties against the Guardians. They are not moving to engage the fleet.”

“Request denied,” Shinsu ordered. “Have sortie squadrons standing by in the event that the Guardians interfere, but do not engage without my direct order.”

“As you wish.” If ‘Oltem objected to the battle plan he knew this was not the time to argue strategy. As a veteran of the Covenant Empire’s mighty navy, the shipmaster was among Shinsu’s most trusted commanders. No one else could be entrusted with command of the Cleansing Blade’s lone assault carrier. Normally the pride and joy of any fleet, the Redemption of Sanghelios would customarily serve as Shinsu’s own flagship. But Shinsu was no ordinary commander. This battlecruiser Cleansing Fire had served him well in the past. He had no need to deliver his orders from the largest ship in the fleet.

The Fleet of Cleansing Fire drove on, sending the Created loyalists fleeing before it even as the paltry handful of UNSC survivors raced to take shelter in its formation. All the while the three Guardians held their position and made no move to assist their stricken followers.

“You predicted rightly,” a shorter warrior observed. Umbra ‘Vesic stood at the bottom of the command ramp and watched the battle play out before him. “The Created truly fear this fleet.”

“They fear the memory of Salia,” Shinsu corrected. “Whatever intelligences command those Guardians cannot ignore the reports of the Forerunner interloper that destroyed their brethren there. They cannot rule out the possibility that it will return, and yet they cannot discredit themselves by fleeing outright. So they will wait and observe for a time. We have until they overcome their own caution before we must flee or be destroyed.”

The grim reality of Shinsu ‘Refum’s campaign of resistance was that he still had no way to truly fight his enemy. The massive Forerunner ship that destroyed the lone Guardian at Salia was a fluke, not an ally. Its commander had made that plain when it killed over a dozen of Shinsu’s warriors. He still had no means of fighting the Guardians head to head. In some ways the conventional forces the Created fielded were a blessing.

They gave Shinsu’s followers the illusion of an enemy that could be fought, outmaneuvered, and killed.

“Press the assault,” Shinsu ordered across the fleet’s secured network. “Do not let our enemies regroup. Let them flee behind their Guardian masters.”

Turning to an auxiliary transmitter at the edge of the platform, he added: “Salvage fleet, this is your time to work. Secure as many hulks as you can, but be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. The Created have been careless today but they may well make up for their errors sooner than is convenient for us.”

“You have taken a great risk in coming here,” a weary voice echoed through the cavernous bridge. The holographic display shifted again to take the form of an elderly human male garbed in a tattered cloak. “It does not go unnoticed. In saving human lives today, you advance the cause of combined resistance against the Created.”

“So you have assured me dozens of times over, construct. I will believe it when your words produce results. In the meantime, keep your attention on strengthening our system security.”

“As you say.” The AI known as Deep Winter inclined his head even as his avatar disintegrated in a cloud of digitized snowflakes. The Cleansing Blade had recovered the fragmented human construct during a skirmish with the Created. With his limited knowledge of human artificial intelligence, Shinsu gathered that Winter was well past the lifespan usually imposed on constructs of his kind. Winter strained himself just to provide basic systems defense for Shinsu’s ships. He couldn’t be fully trusted, but after the Cleansing Blade’s failure to so much as scratch the Guardian at Salia there was little choice but to use every weapon and ally at hand. If some human constructs aimed to oppose the Created then they could at least counter a few of the maddening disadvantages of facing a digitally superior foe.

He needed to maintain his veneer of aloof mistrust lest his warriors suspect a human construct manipulated his actions, but Shinsu secretly hoped Winter was right. His efforts to rally more Sangheili to his cause had yielded poorer results than he’d hoped, as had attempts to court the Jiralhanae and other Covenant warlords. Too many flocked to the Created and their promises of prosperity while still others—like the Swords of Sanghelios—contented themselves with waiting passively from the sidelines. Without a concrete victory to secure his legitimacy, the humans might well be Shinsu’s last chance of cementing a lasting coalition.

So here he was in a human system, fighting to save human lives. To think he had once served the Covenant in its effort to erase their kind from the galaxy.

“Fleetmaster, one of our ships is breaking formation,” another bridge officer reported. “It is approaching Talitsa’s atmosphere and scanners show that it has launched dropships.”

Shinsu inclined his head. “Is it the Soul Ascension?”

“It is. Apparently your brother could not even—“

A subtle hand gesture from Shinsu silenced the officer. “The Kru’desh have their own reasons for being here. There is no need to reign them in, but do not divert any assets to support them. They will succeed or fail on their own.”

The Kru’desh. What was left of them at any rate. Shinsu took another risk bringing them along. Everything about them and Stray was a potential disaster. But Tuka was desperate enough to recover his former commander that after years of sullen silence he’d even come groveling to Shinsu for help. Shinsu hoped his brother wasn’t disappointed by whatever he found down there. Stray was never much to look at, but when Shinsu had seen him last after Salia the human renegade was a shell of his former self. Shinsu doubted his prospects had improved much since then.

A terrible shame. Shinsu had once seen a potential ally in Stray’s raw ambition. Now he was just a step above a liability. There might be less risk to be had in simply eliminating him if the Kru’desh completed their mission. A peace offering, perhaps, to the UNSC stragglers he now took under his wing.

Dark, treacherous thoughts, unbecoming of a great Sangheili warrior. But Shinsu had built his career off dark treachery. Even now that he and his warriors emerged from the shadows he found it difficult to stand in the light. This was not the war he had spent a lifetime of spycraft and black operations to fight. But it was the conflict fate set before him. He had no choice but to drive onwards.

“Slow the advance,” he ordered, returning to the immediate matters of battle command. “Adopt a three-dimensional perimeter about the battlespace and cover the salvage efforts. We will not linger here any longer than we must.”

The Fleet of Cleansing Fire maneuvered with impressive coordination, adopting the defensive formation while maintaining its withering rate of fire. They had grown from the ragtag fleet of defeated malcontents Shinsu bent to his will over Salia. These warships fought to reclaim the mighty legacy of the Sangheili from the false gods the humans had created.

The humans had grown arrogant since the fall of the Covenant. With their mighty fleets and endless ambition they had thought themselves the new masters of the galaxy, forgetting that they owed their survival to the Sangheili mastery of war. Now Shinsu led his fleet through the ruins of human hubris. Whatever remained of the UNSC would fall in line. And the Created would know that they were not the masters of this galaxy.

Not yet, at any rate.

As the renewed battle continued to rage in the space beyond Talitsa, the battle on the ground was largely over. The UNSC landing troops—outnumbered, outgunned, and completely surrounded—fought as best they could. But one by one the commanders on the ground realized there was no chance of victory or escape. And so they did the unthinkable: they surrendered. And in response, the Created did the unthinkable.

They politely and peacefully rounded up all soldiers who laid down their arms.

The UNSC offensive to retake Talitsa ended not with a desperate last stand or even a bloody massacre, but with thousands of stunned Marines and soldiers led away to well-furnished re-education facilities. In the coming months, many would take up arms in service to the Mantle of Responsibility.

By all accounts, it was a rousing Created victory. Malekh was eager to keep it that way. She had shut off the broadcast of the battle in space the instant Shinsu ‘Refum’s fleet arrived, replacing it instead with footage of defeated UNSC troops surrendering to superior Created forces. Even as the Fleet of Cleansing Fire waged bloody war in space she was in the process of editing a final addition to the victory broadcast: the end of the enemy who had haunted Talitsa’s citizens and made Irbit’s streets run red with blood.

But one other problem still nagged at her processors. A small pocket of resistance continued to fight on. A mixed group of ODST stragglers and local militia fought a running battle through the streets, refusing to join the others in surrender. The fact that this group included both the rebels she had failed to eliminated as well as the ungrateful visitors she had so graciously allowed to land irritated Malekh to no end.

But she could not let personal feelings get in the way of her duties. There was still a battle raging in space—an unexpected development, though not catastrophic—as well as rescue operations and the processing of thousands of newly detained prisoners to oversee. Malekh’s supply of Prometheans was not unlimited, and she had already lost far more than her initial battle plans projected. So for now she contented herself with holding the automatons back and letting her enforcer teams press the attack on this final holdout.

She would lose more enforcers this way, of course, but they needed the experience. After all, she couldn’t let them become too reliant on support from the Prometheans.

Her irritation with the day’s events would fade, in time. Before long these annoyances would be weeded out and cast aside. Just as Redmond Venter, once the Insurrection’s most feared commander, had died on the dirty concrete, the UNSC would soon be consigned to the wastebin of history.

The petty details of temporal life all passed away in the shadow of the eternal Mantle of Responsibility.

William Hargrove was starting to think everyone had forgotten about him.

At first, this gig had been easy. He’d stayed put on the Chancer V, even after Zoey disappeared and he lost contact with Cassandra and the others. After busying himself with weapon maintenance William had taken another crack at repairing his armor’s internal systems. Only after feeling a distant rumble beneath his feet had he thought to make his way into the cockpit and listen in to local radio chatter. Somehow the planet had managed to come under attack with him cooped up in here.

This was just typical. William was starting to get annoyed with the world going to hell while he wasn’t paying attention.

He’d thought he’d had a nice, comfortable gig going on with Benoit right up until the entire Syndicate turned out to be working for these Created ghouls. Then he’d run into David Kahn and fantasized about following the underworld legend on to fabulous wealth, only to have the legend run off and get killed not an hour later. And now here he was, trapped in this run down freighter, just waiting for a stray missile to hit the hangar and bury him alive.

William hated the idea of letting a bunch of jumped up computer programs run his life. But if this was what he had to look forward to while fighting them he might as well hang up his armor and enjoy a life of machine slavery.

Just as he was considering slipping off the Chancer and taking his chances with whatever was going on outside, a faint clattering alerted him to someone hurrying through the common area and up to the cockpit. The ex-enforcer dropped a hand to his gun and turned to find Zoey panting in the cockpit hatch. The girl’s hair was disheveled, her face and clothes covered in dirt and soot. She positively reeked of sweat and gunpowder.

“Uh, hey,” William said, not quite sure what to make of the pilot’s reappearance. “Things are really that bad out there, huh?”

Zoey didn’t even pause to catch her breath. She pushed her way into the pilot’s seat, hands flashing over the Chancer’s controls with the fluid speed of a concert pianist. The ship hummed to life at her touch, rumbling beneath their feet as the engines spun up.

William couldn’t help but envy her synergy with the Chancer. He’d barely been able to get the com system working.

“We have to get in the air,” Zoey said, not looking up from the takeoff procedures. “Now.”

“Well I figured that much out.” William strapped himself into the co-pilot’s seat. “What the hell is going on?”

“The UNSC’s attacking the planet.”

“Oh. That explains all the bombing.” William frowned. “That’s a good thing, right?”

“Not when the Created are fighting back and tearing the oonskies a new asshole.”

“Yeah, I’m not the UNSC’s biggest fan but I’d say that’s a bad thing,” William agreed. “What about your friends? Did they make it back with you?”

“No. I’ve got no idea where they are.” For a brief moment, Zoey looked stricken. Then she set her jaw and turned her quivering lip into a warlike grimace. “We’re gonna go find them and pick them up. I just need to get us up in the air so our coms can punch through all this garbage. Then we’ll do a quick touchdown and scoop them up.”

“A touchdown? In a city like this?” William balked, wondering if he should bail after all. “This is a freighter, not a Pelican.”

Zoey blew out an exasperated snort, as if she’d been putting up with people stating the obvious differences between Argo-class freighters and military dropships her whole life. “You don’t know this ship like I do. I’ll pull off a better landing than any one of those oonskie birds. You’ll see.”

The Chancer’s engines were already nearing full spin. Even if William bolted now he’d never make it off the ship before they lifted off. He had no choice but to sit back and hope his stomach held onto breakfast. “Sure, I’ll see. Looking forward to it. If we don’t get blown out of the sky first.”

Zoey paused, hand on the ship’s throttle. “Yeah. If we don’t get shot down. Right.”

The Chancer lurched in its moorings, breaking free of the docking station and rising up through open ceiling and into the smoke-filled air. Zoey banked the ship hard and they turned away from the shrinking hangar station and towards Irbit’s tower-filled skyline. She and William stared out at the war-torn skies and distant fires of an urban war zone. As they watched, a team of glistening Forerunner fliers swooped past to gun down a fleeing Pelican.

Zoey’s skin paled even beneath her layers of soot. She blew out through her nose and forced a nasty grin that no girl her age should be wearing. “You know, it’s been a while since I fired up this girl’s weapons systems. After a day like today, I really need to shoot something.”

William wondered which was a more likely cause of death: their Created enemies or this pint-sized pilot. Right now he placed his odds at a square fifty-fifty.

Two more ODSTs died covering the retreat into the next block. A rebel fighter joined them, cut down when she doubled back to recover their weapons and ammunition.

“I’m on my last mag,” Mohsin reported. He and Stray huddled together behind a bullet-riddled column. They took turns ducking out to take potshots at the Created forces pressing in on the group’s latest holdout point. “Our guys can’t be doing much better. We didn’t have much ammunition to start with.”

“With the way you Innies are pulling your shots, I’m surprised you started with any at all,” Lieutenant Davis growled. The ODST knelt a few meters away, alternating between spotting for the sharpshooter beside him and directing his troopers. He’d held things together pretty well since Stray took charge, but with the way things were going he was clearly losing interest in being a good sport. “My platoon’s doing all the heavy lifting here. I’m starting to think we should have just stayed put and fought it out.”

“Get a fireteam lined up to lay down fire from here.” Stray had no time to argue the finer points of how exactly a platoon of kitted-out special forces troopers might just be able to outperform a gaggle of underfed, underequipped Insurrectionists. “We need to make it three more blocks. Keep your people fighting until we get there.”

Davis’s face was hidden by his helmet’s dark-tinted visor, but it didn’t matter. The faceless look he shot in Stray’s direction was one of seething rage. “Alright, traitor, I don’t know what you think is going on here, but I’ve let you get enough of my people killed already. I should—”

“You should shut the hell up and do what I tell you.” Bullets hammered on the wall above them. The inconvenient truth was that the more ODSTs died the higher Stray’s credibility rose with the Insurrectionists. Better Davis’s people than Venter’s. He just needed to keep the lieutenant cowed for a little longer. “No one else has a way to get out of here. You can help us get to the hangar or we’ll just use you as a distraction. Your choice.”

“Oh, that’s the choice, huh?” Davis snarled. “I’ve got a better one, how about I—”

“Seeing as it’s my ship you two are planning to commandeer, I think I should be getting a say in how we get there,” a new voice cut in.

Stray’s jaw tightened. He tilted his head so that he’d only have to look at Cassandra through one eye. Even the sight of her in armor made his blood ran cold. She'd kept up a tight firing formation with Argo and the sullen sharpshooter girl. Thomas was lurking beside them and his girlfriend, evidently eager to keep as much distance between himself and his former comrades as possible.

How much restraint was it taking to keep Cassandra from shooting Stray down right here?

After what you did to her…

They all ducked as a grenade tore open a wall one building over. The Created had switched from Forerunner weapons to conventional ballistics, the swarms of Prometheans replaced by squads of enforcers. The Created footsoldiers were less coordinated than their automaton counterparts, which gave the disintegrating alliance—less than an hour old—more breathing room to tear itself apart.

“The spook has got a point,” Davis agreed. “Seeing as it’s an ONI ship we’re taking out of here, I don’t know why we should even let you Innies on board at all.”

Stray could barely keep from grinding his teeth. So Cassandra had spun the troopers some nonsense about being Naval Intelligence. He’d never pegged her for a good liar, but as always she picked the least convenient times to pick up a new skill.

“I really don’t like this,” Mohsin hissed. The rebel officer had figured out how to switch over to a private channel. “We need to ditch these scumbags and run for it before they decide to start shooting us.”

“You just pointed out we’re all red on ammo. How far do you think we’ll make it on our own?”

“Hell if I know. But we can’t fight the Created and the oonskies, and find the boss all at the same time. You got us into this mess, now you’d better get us out.”

It was dawning on Stray that he probably should have waited until after they were out of a warzone before seizing the responsibility of shouting orders at everyone in sight. Between the looming threat of the ODSTs and Cassandra, it was almost hard to remember that the Created troops shooting at them were the real danger.

He switched to a private interior com. “Juno, I really hope you’ve got some brilliant way out of this mess.”

“Should we just pretend I lectured you on taking my help for granted and move on?”

“If we make it out of here you can give me the scolding of the century.”

“I’ll remember that,” she said dangerously. “But more importantly, the Created have the ground battlespace almost completely under control. But the situation in space is more complicated. A fleet of Covenant warships has emerged from Slipspace to attack the Created-aligned armada. If you can reach the Chancer, you might still use the chaos to escape this system unharmed.”

“Yeah, well getting to the hangar is still— wait, what? A Covenant fleet?”

“It’s hard to be certain, but the readings and profiles on some of the ships match data I retained from the battle at Salia.”

Shinsu ‘Refum. It had to be. That hinge-headed son of a bitch sure knew how to time an entrance. Stray’s spirits lifted slightly. If anyone could give the Created a bad day it was Shinsu. “Can you get a line to the fleet’s flagship?”

“Not with a connection this weak, and that’s not even accounting for the digital warfare defenses they must—”

“Figure it out. That fleet is our ticket out of here alive.” Stray turned back to a scowling Mohsin. “Alright, get our people on their feet. We’re making a run for that hangar, with or without the rest of these jerks.”

“You mind telling me what’s going on inside that helmet?” Mohsin demanded. “That’s the third time you’ve spaced out on me.”

He’d have to let the rebels in on Juno sooner or later. Now wasn’t that time. “Yeah, if you call tapping into the local battlenet spacing out. We’ve got friends up in space now. If we get to that ship, they’ll cover our escape.”

“Friends? What friends?”

Well, Shinsu ‘Refum wasn’t exactly a friend. A former co-conspirator, perhaps, though Stray’s role in his schemes ended with the loss of the Kru’desh. But the Sangheili warlord hadn’t killed him at Salia. That was a start. Hopefully ‘Refum remembered how Stray and Juno had helped his troops during that battle. Stray would happily put up with the alien’s aristocratic airs if it got him out of this mess.

“Just have everyone ready to move on my order.” Stray unclipped his pistol and fired out at the nearest enforcers. One took a hit to the chest and dropped to the pavement. Another writhed as the bullet punched through his arm, then joined his comrade when Ragna put a shot between his shoulder blades. A good shot, that one. But then again, Venter trained his people well. Especially when he got them young.

Someone on the other side must have taken charge of the enforcer formation because the Created shooting abruptly intensified. Pinned down behind his makeshift cover, Stray jerked his thumb at the nearest door. Mohsin caught the gesture and passed it down the firing line. Within moments the rebels were quietly slipping back from the ODSTs and vanishing inside the darkened interior. Their attention fixed on the advancing enforcers, no one else noticed their quiet withdrawal.

Almost no one, anyway. Just as Stray made to crawl after the rebels, someone caught hold of his armored collar. He stiffened, not even needing to glance back to know who it was.

“And just where do you think you’re going?” Cassandra demanded. Somehow her disapproving tone—more exasperated than angry—aggravated him more than any tirade. After everything to transpire between them, she thought she could give him a scolding like they were back on Onyx? What was wrong with her?

“We’re getting out of here.” Stray wrenched himself free and rose to a crouch. “If you people want to stay and slug it out, fine. But I’m not sticking around to get slaughtered.”

“If you think I’m letting you out of my sight until we find Zoey—”

“I told you, she’s fine—”

They were almost visor to visor now, voices rising along with the temperature inside Stray’s helmet. He couldn’t believe he was doing this, arguing with Cassandra in the middle of this insanity. There was no point pretending things were just like old times. His body shook as his injured leg struggled to hold up his weight. His fingers touched the hilt of one of the knives strapped to his waist. A new desire welled up inside him: to draw the knife and ram it into her gut. To shut her up once and for all. Maybe then she’d stop haunting his every—

“Would you two shut up and pay attention?”

He wasn’t sure whether it was an ODST or rebel who cut through their argument, but he suddenly realized that an eerie silence had fallen across the street. The enforcers weren’t shooting anymore. The ODSTs ceased fire as well, leaving a quiet stillness broken only by the moans of a few wounded troopers.

Stray pushed past Cassandra and stared out at the enforcers. The Created troops stuck to cover but made no sign of lining up shots or shifting for a flanking maneuver. They simply held their ground. Stray anxiously scanned the skies, listening for the sound of incoming bombers.

Still nothing.

A new voice—one Stray was coming to loath—pierced the silence. “Rebel elements,” Malekh’s imperious voice commanded. “Lay down your weapons. The battle is over. You have nowhere left to run. People of Talitsa, the danger has passed. Though some fighting continues within this system, the UNSC’s vain attempt to bring you back under military rule has failed. Although I am grieved by the bloodshed, I can assure you that our victory is complete. This planet remains secure. Your enemies have been brought to justice.”

“Hey, Stray!” Mohsin hissed. He and Ragna lingered by the door, waiting for him to join the other rebels inside. “Are we pulling out or not?”

“Might as well do it while she’s busy making speeches,” Lieutenant Davis agreed, suddenly interested in cooperating again. “Though if the fighting’s over, she’ll shoot us down the second we take off.”

“The UNSC aggressors are defeated,” Malekh’s continued, her words piped into every corner of the city. “But another enemy has finally been removed from within your midst, one who brought murder and terror to this planet just as he did to so many other worlds. I hope you can all take comfort in the news that the terrorist leader Redmond Venter is dead.”

The words didn’t register with Stray. They passed through one ear and out the other as he busily planned out their retreat to the hangar. Only the sight of Ragna’s stricken face made him pause and turn back towards Malekh’s broadcast.

“Venter was killed while conspiring with the very UNSC attack he helped draw to this planet. He joined hands with the enemy he swore to defeat out of the shared desire to beat back this new age of peace and prosperity. Venter aided the UNSC just as his remaining followers stand beside the invaders even now. You must all understand that our enemies want nothing less than a destruction of this new order and return to the bloody decades we all barely survived. But I promise you, they will not succeed. They are but shadows fading—”

He didn’t hear anymore. His ears were numb, his mouth dry. Venter, dead? Impossible. Lies, like the rest of Malekh’s nonsense.

“It’s not true.” Ragna shook her head. “That bitch is lying. He didn’t know anything about this attack. He’s coming to get off this rock with us. Just like he always does.”

Mohsin said nothing. He stood stock still, eyes flicking between Stray and the rest of the rebels. He dropped his rifle and let it dangle from his combat webbing, his hands loose at his sides.

Why would she lie? What was the point of concocting something so nonsensical? Stray suddenly wished the enforcers would open fire and kick the battle off once more. He felt like the ground was giving way beneath him. It was lies. Of course it wasn’t true. So why did he suddenly feel so utterly adrift?

Cassandra turned on him once more. “Zoey. You said she was with him.”

“She is,” Stray muttered reflexively. “She’s fine.”

“Not if he’s dead she’s not. If she’s dead too I’ll—”

“You’ll what?” Stray rounded on her, confusion giving way to fury. He was happy to be angry. At least there was certainty there, even if it hurt his throat to yell. “Throw me off another building? Break my leg again? I’m not the one who let her go running off on her own in the middle of an occupied city. But I guess that’s my fault, too, isn’t it?”

“The commander’s not dead,” Ragna repeated, ignoring the argument raging in front of her. “He’s not dead. She’s lying.”

“Stray.” Juno’s voice, at once distant and far away. “Stray, listen to me.”

“Is she telling the truth?” he rasped. “Is Venter dead?”

“That doesn’t matter right now. You need to get to cover. Now!”

“Cover?” Stray blinked. “What do you mean?”

“It’s ‘Refum’s fleet. They’ve launched plasma torpedoes. Thousands of them, high intensity beams.”

“Torpedoes? Torpedoes at what?” Stray’s stomach lurched. He already knew the answer.

“At this city.” Juno sounded stunned. “This city and every other population center on the planet.”

Stray’s breath caught in his throat. He turned his face up to the sky, his HUD registering a slight radiation increase beyond the clouds. Just a few numbers on the edge of his visor to herald the hellstorm hurtling through the atmosphere to burn Irbit and everyone in it to ash.

"Inside! Everyone inside!" He was already moving, practically tripping over ODSTs to get to cover. They were caught between a rock and a hard place: they could burn on the streets or be buried alive when the building collapsed. Stray's armor might protect him from the worst of the blast, but he'd been caught in plasma fire before. He'd never go through that again.

Of course, he'd been buried in rubble before as well. The memory of stone crushing down on him as he lay trapped beneath Philadelphia, begging Diana to save him, flashed through his mind and he hesitated halfway across the threshold. The darkened interior loomed before him; the streets, already warmed by the incoming bombardment, sizzled behind.

None of the ODSTs had moved. A few glanced up at the sky but no one seemed to realize the growing danger. They were clearly done taking desperate orders from him.

He needed to make a decision. Stray grabbed the nearest figure by the hair and dragged them after him through the door. A furious yelp distracted him long enough to notice that he'd seized hold of Cassandra's sharpshooter kid, whoever the hell she was. She fought back with far more strength than he expected, but by the time she dug in her heels Stray had already tossed her towards Mohsin and the other rebels.

Stray heard Cassandra yelling behind him. Just as he turned to shout back, a furious crash rocked the city to its foundations. The building shook as if caught in an earthquake and Stray fell to his knees, snarling in pain as his bad leg gave out beneath him. As he struggled to rise he caught sight of Cassandra and the ODSTs rushing for cover as the clouds parted and a tremendous light illuminated the city. Just beyond the crumbling door frame Stray made out the distant form of a Guardian, its wings outstretched and pulsing with blinding light.

Light, but no heat, Stray found himself thinking. Then something large crashed down on top of him and the brilliant light became a heavy darkness.

"Fleetmaster!" the tactical officer's voice cut through the whirlwind of battle reports and reached Shinsu's ears. "The Guardian is preparing to fire!"

Shinsu whirled. "Targeting us?" he demanded, tone more excited than he intended.

"No, Fleetmaster. It is only a small pulse. They mean to target the Soul Ascension and its dropships."

"The Fleetmaster told you not to bother with supporting the Kru'desh," Umbra snapped. "Do not waste our time on their rash assault."

Shinsu hesitated. Yes, Tuka had taken his ship in too early. His bizarre loyalty to that wretched human of his outstripped what little tactical sense the young fool had. But once the Guardian was allowed to enter the fight, it would not satisfy itself with just the one ship. The entire fleet would be fighting it soon enough.

"Deep Winter," he said, drawing himself back to the center of the command dais. "Prepare targeting solutions across the entire fleet."

"Easier said than done," the construct intoned wearily.

Shinsu ignored his complaint. He was embarking on a risky strategy, but it had worked against the Created in the past. It was time to test their limits and remind them he was not a foe to be trifled with. "All warships with surface bombardment capacity will arm torpedoes and fire them at every population center on the bright side of the planet. Your calculations should give the plasma the intensity needed to penetrate the atmosphere."

The human construct was quiet for several moments. When he spoke again, his tone was heavy with resignation. “I calculate that planetary casualties upon the bombardment’s impact will number in the millions. Most likely more.”

“I cannot say that I much care. Those deaths will occur only if the torpedoes reach their targets.” Shinsu had no time to debate his strategy. If they delayed any longer then this entire stratagem was meaningless, and he needed Winter if they had any chance of carrying it out. “Which they will not. The Guardian will divert its energy and intercept the torpedoes. Now make the calculations.”

“You presume to know what the Created will do?”

“It is my place to presume,” Shinsu reminded him coldly. “I am the fleetmaster here. And you pledged to obey my commands. Now is not the time to be rethinking your obligations.”

“Sadly, you are correct,” Winter sighed. “I have the firing solution and plasma output ratios calculated. For both our sakes I hope your prediction is correct.”

“Fire the torpedoes immediately.” Shinsu opened a channel across his entire fleet. “All ships, prepare for automated firing commands from the Cleansing Fire. This is done by my command.”

The Fleet of Cleansing Fire’s bombardment petered out as the formation shifted to line up with the firing coordinates. Shinsu found the abrupt movement both awe-inspiring and unnatural. To think that humans had fought with these capabilities for decades. Only now in the face of utter subjugation did the Sangheili make use of the enemy’s tools.

At least, Shinsu ‘Refum’s warriors made use of these tools. Because when this war was over Shinsu had no intention of laying down his weapons and humbly submitting to more of Thel ‘Vadam’s blundering rule. The Sangheili needed to evolve to rule over a changed galaxy. If no one else was willing to lead them in that evolution, then he would have to forge ahead down a path of blood, if necessary.

Thousands of glowing spears materialized across the fleet’s battle line. The torpedoes sailed away and became a brilliant meteor shower, passing through the scattered Created ships as they raced towards their targets. For a brief moment a new ocean of stars materialized between Talitsa and the space beyond.

“I have held part in many unsavory deeds in my time,” Winter murmured. “I never imagined that coordinating a Covenant planetary bombardment might become one of them. If you are wrong about the Created priorities…”

“Then they are exposed as frauds. And if that is the case then our victory over them will come far easier than I ever expected. I will take this fleet and destroy a dozen more worlds if it awakens the galaxy to the truth behind these false gods.”

“And are you so certain that I will continue to help you?” Winter pressed.

“How interesting for the humans to have created your kind with the capacity for moral calculation. No doubt they feared a machine intelligence without a conscience would lead to disaster for your species. And yet perhaps your sentience is the very reason the galaxy has come to this sad pass.”

Deep Winter had no reply to that. The torpedoes struck Talitsa’s atmosphere and drove onwards. For all his reservations, Winter had calculated the energy dispersal with excellent precision. Plasma that should never have reached a planet from such a great distance screamed onwards with no signs of stopping.

If only the Covenant had boasted intelligence support like this at the height of its power. Humanity would never have posed any threat at all. Instead they had been blinded by religious dogma, kept in a technological dark age in spite of the wonders they inherited from the Forerunners. And so the humans had taken those gifts for themselves, misusing them until their own creations rose up to create this frightening new order.

For years we squabbled amongst ourselves to lay claim to the mantle of the Covenant. Of course that mantle would fall to beings we never even considered contenders. Fate was full of cruel ironies.

“The power spike from the Guardian is intensifying,” came the hurried report from beneath the command platform. “It’s redirecting to a lower dispersal point!”

“As predicted,” Shinsu murmured. He flashed a pointed glance at the command display, though Dep Winter did not deign to offer a reply. “All ships, resume at-will targeting of enemy vessels. Keep them off-balance.”

“And the Guardian?” a shipmaster demanded over the local frequency. “If it strikes us now…”

“It will not. Our enemy has a public image to uphold. We do not.”

As Shinsu finished speaking his tactical display lit up with increased warning signs. The Guardian unleashed its pulse, enveloping Talitsa in an eerie blue light that momentarily drowned out the bright flashes of plasma fire lancing between the opposing fleets above it. A tidal wave of energy coursed through Talitsa’s atmosphere. The plasma torpedoes foundered, caught within the Guardian’s shielding pulse. Their energy deadly energy flared and dissipated harmlessly in the upper atmosphere.. A plasma barrage that might have devastated half the planet was instead brushed aside in an instant.

Almost all of it, anyway. Shinsu noted with interest that a handful of weakened torpedoes forced their way through the Guardian’s pulse and soared on to deliver a fraction of their original payload. As he’d observed several times now, the Guardians’ power was not infinite. Even they had their limits.

Of course the Created knew that all too well. It was only a matter of time before they began employing the Forerunners’ deadlier creations. Once that happened Shinsu’s stratagems would become meaningless.

Even amidst a successful battle he was far too aware of just how little time he really had.

“A risky gambit,” Winter commented. “You gamble with lives far too easily.”

“We cannot face a foe such as this without gambling,” Shinsu replied. “I would risk a great deal more for the chance to beat back the Created.”

Winter didn’t have an answer to that one. Shinsu pursed his mandibles, again reminding himself that he needed to keep the human AI content with his leadership. He still didn’t know the full story behind why this particular construct had refused to ally himself with the Created. Winter was old, as AI went, old and unstable. Too much provocation could prove disastrous if Winter decided this alliance ran counter to whatever his true goals were. Even if they shared a common foe in the Created, Shinsu did not for a moment flatter himself that Winter would remain in his service forever.

“Status report on the Soul Ascension,” he demanded, turning back to his bridge crew.

“They avoided the Guardian’s deflective pulse,” Umbra reported. “Their dropships are descending on the planet now at high speed. Since we have abandoned the policy of leaving them to their own devices, shall I vector in some support squadrons?”

Shinsu ignored his adjutant’s snide tone. “No. They will find their wayward leader or they will not. I simply used their brazen advance to probe the Guardians’ capabilities. All ships will remain in formation and cover the salvage teams. Prepare Slipspace drives for immediate retreat. I will give the Kru’desh dregs but a little more time to complete their mission.”

He strode imperiously back to the tactical display, watching the fleet—his fleet—wage fiery war upon the Created lackeys. At Salia he’d commanded a ragtag force of his own inner circle and some paltry Covenant deserters. Now he led a true armada against the greatest threat his people had ever known.

Shinsu ‘Refum had little interest in gods and no faith in destiny. But he had devoted his entire life to reaching this point. If the Created were his true enemies then he had no choice but to wage war against them with every weapon at his disposal.

Even the wretched likes of humans.

Proximity alarms blared through the Chancer’s cockpit. Zoey gritted her teeth and wrenched down on the throttle. Her ship shuddered and swerved, nearly tumbling end over end as its descent met the turbulent forces engulfing Irbit. A rain of plasma swept over the city, leveling buildings and shattering streets. Only a deft altitude adjustment kept the Chancer from slamming nose-first into a crumbling high-rise.

“You know,” William said with deceptive calm. “I’m really starting to rethink tagging along with you guys.”

“Feel free to hop off once I drop the ramp.” Zoey tried to sound tough but her hands shook as she flipped on the com system. She wasn’t sure how much more of this she could take. All she wanted was to find Cassandra and get as far away from this planet as possible.

The com channel hissed, overcome with the sheer amount of traffic percolating through the city. Zoey struggled to narrow the search range. “Cassandra! Come in! Cassie! Where are you?”

William tapped the sensor display. “Hey, I don’t mean to interrupt but we’re about to have company.”

Zoey saw the contacts as well, three of them approaching fast. She reached for the throttle, ready to take evasive action, but the blips simply soared past without so much as slowing. She could see them through the viewport now, Covenant Phantoms descending towards a nearby street corner.

“Well at least they’re not—hey, wait!” William looked at Zoey aghast as she pulled the Chancer out of its holding pattern and followed the Phantoms. “What are you doing?”

“I’m gonna see what they’re up to.” All she had was a feeling in her gut, but right now following those dropships was her only shot outside of circling the city and inviting the Created to shoot her down. “You keep on those coms. I’m not leaving without Cassandra.”

“And the other two, right?”

“Sure, them too.” Zoey couldn’t care less about Andra or Argo, but she knew Cassandra would probably insist on rescuing them regardless.

Midway through Andra’s training, Delta Company’s focus had shifted away from fighting Covenant remnants and Insurrectionist groups. News had reached their training camp of rogue Spartans, traitors who turned their backs on the government that raised them and gave them the gifts of augmented bodies. Horrible stories reached the young Deltas’ ears of a terror attack on the city of Philadelphia on Earth. There, one of those traitor Spartans had killed a teammate and half a dozen other Spartans before leveling half the city and killing thousands of civilians. His name and designation etched itself into all of their minds: Simon-G294.

Rumors of his treachery didn’t stop with Philadelphia. He’d killed even more Spartans sent to hunt him down and when working for criminals and terrorists wasn’t enough to sate his appetite for atrocity, he’d somehow convinced the Covenant to take him in as well.

Every Delta thirsted for the chance to bring this monster to justice. And now he lay just a few feet from Andra in patchwork SPI armor, knocked senseless by a chunk of ceiling. All she had to do was put a single bullet through his throat and the long hunt would be over. And Andra would be the one to finally bring him down.

He was smaller than she remembered. Even sheathed in armor and festooned with combat gear, Simon-G294 seemed to take up less space than the similarly armed Cassandra or even Andra herself.

A part of her wished she’d asked Cassandra about him when she had the chance. They hadn’t spoken like friends, but how could someone as self-assured as Cassandra even think of working with him? She’d kept Andra from shooting him out on the street. But Cassandra wasn’t here now.

Andra had dropped her rifle when Simon dragged her inside—her scalp stung from where he’d pulled her hair—but she still had her sidearm. She reached for the holster strapped to her leg and tugged the small pistol free. There was a bullet in the chamber. Good. Just one well placed shot and—

“Don’t even think about it, you bitch!”

She’d forgotten about the Insurrectionists.

Three of them surrounded her in an instant, rifles trained on her head. A girl about Andra’s own age with dirty-blonde hair and a face streaked with soot and what might be tears stepped out of the shadows, a pistol of her own at the ready.

“I told you we couldn’t trust these oonskies,” the girl snarled. “I told you and now they’re trying to kill us!”

“So now he’s one of us, is he?” another rebel asked. “I thought he was the one you didn’t trust.”

“The boss said he was with us,” the girl protested, looking stricken. Andra had no idea what anyone was talking about. “He adopted him. And now they’ve gone and killed him!”

“If that Created bitch wasn’t lying. You heard her. She said the boss was working with the oonskies. It was all just a pack of lies.”

“Ragna, calm down. All of you just calm down.” A rebel with a dark beard stepped into view. He’d slung his own rifle and raised his hands to show Andra he was unarmed. “I don’t know who you are, kid, but you’re pointing a gun at my commander and I need you to knock it off.”

“Now he’s our commander?” the man who had protested before said, voice rising. “This bastard just strolls on in and takes over? Maybe Venter really was losing it—”

“Enough!” the bearded man snapped. “We don’t have time for this. Stand down and get ready to move. Girl, if you don’t put that pistol away right now my people are going to shoot you. Don’t do anything stupid.”

They had her outgunned, damn them. Whatever internal arguments they were having, Andra didn’t doubt they’d kill her if the bearded man gave the order. Most of them looked like they didn’t need an order to pull the trigger. Still, her finger itched to just shoot G294 and go out knowing she’d gotten something right. At least then she’d have done something to help the UNSC.

The bearded man frowned at her through the musty darkness. Distant sounds of gunfire trickled in from outside. Whatever had hit the city just now it had kicked off the fighting again. “Just who the hell are you, anyway? Baal Defense? Sapien Sunrise?”

“She’s a Spartan,” rasped a voice from the floor. Andra turned to find Stray propped up on one arm, visor tilted in her direction. “Young and stupid, but that’s how we all start isn’t it?”

“A Spartan? Her?” The man’s incredulity was insulting. No one believed she was a Spartan. They all just assumed she was some punk kid like Zoey or that Innie brat.

No one believed her—except the traitor lying at her feet.

“Are you really surprised by anything anymore, Mohsin?” Simon’s voice cleared as he rose to his feet. Andra kept her gun pointed at his head. If she lowered her weapon now they’d probably shoot her anyway. “Cassandra’s running with a bad crowd. And there she was yelling at me for falling in with you guys.”

“We need to clear out of here,” the bearded man, Mohsin, observed. “This building could come down any minute.”

“Hey!” Andra snapped. “You think I’m just going to let you walk away from this?”

Standing upright, Simon-G294 wasn’t much taller than she was. He tilted his head in her direction, casually unslinging the outdated M45 shotgun from over his shoulder. “You don’t have to let me do anything. If you don’t put that gun down my friends here are going to shoot you.”

“You’ll kill me the second I do that.” She still remembered kneeling in the dust on Montak, surrounded by dead rangers as this monster’s hinge-head goons held her down. Quit messing around and finish her, he’d ordered them as casually as if telling them to take out the trash. He’d nearly killed her then. He’d nearly killed Merlin and Shizuko as well during that bloody campaign. He’d kill her the moment he had the chance.

“You’re with Cassandra. That’s the only thing keeping you alive right now.” Simon’s voice was hard. “I don’t have time for this. Gun down or you die. You’re choice.”

Simon may have thought he could shout her down, but he underestimated Andra. He very nearly died for it. Her finger was closing down on the trigger when the clogged doorway burst open and bright light flooded into the atrium. Andra blinked and her shot went wide. Simon flinched and went for his shotgun but in the next moment the building was full of bulky figures and shouting voices.

Sangheili voices.

Cassandra found herself half-buried under a pile of rubble. The plasma barrage that washed over Irbit had collapsed the overhang and left her and a dozen ODSTs struggling to pry themselves free from the wreckage.

A large shape bent over her. She shook her head, clearing her vision in time to see Argo stooping to lift chunks of broken concrete off her legs. Karina and Thomas knelt to help as well, though theirs were largely token efforts compared to a Sangheili warrior’s strength.

“Thanks,” Cassandra grunted. She kicked herself free and glanced back at the caved in doorway. Simon had dragged Andra inside with him just before that bombardment kicked off. He’d had the right idea, even if he’d overestimated the scale of the incoming plasma. Though he hadn’t been too far off the mark.

Whatever parts of Irbit had escaped damage from the UNSC’s assault were feeling the devastation now. Plumes of smoke from raging fires streamed up into the sky to join the smoke rising from burning high rises. A pit formed in Cassandra’s stomach as she stared up at the carnage.

This had been her city. Hers and Dyne’s. They’d fought together for months to give the people here something to believe in. Now it was rubble and there was nothing she could have done to help it. Seeing it like this felt like losing Dyne all over again. Cassandra stared down at her knees, mouth set in a hard line as she fought back a sudden lump in her throat. Now wasn’t the time to feel sorry for herself. She still had people who needed to get out of here.

“Ah hell,” Lieutenant Davis groaned. He knelt a few paces away, helping to lift one of his troopers clear of the rubble. “Here they come again, and we’re dry on ammo. This is it.”

Cassandra fumbled for her own rifle. She still had a magazine and a half left to burn through, not that it mattered much. At least a dozen Prometheans advanced through the smoke, squads of enforcers setting up behind them. It didn’t matter if the ODSTs fired back or not. They’d be cut down in a matter of seconds.

Glancing back at the caved-in building, Cassandra let herself fantasize for one crazy moment that Simon and the Insurrectionists might come bursting out from the wreckage to save them. But of course they didn’t. Trapped inside the rubble, they probably couldn’t even see what was going on.

At least Andra might escape. Cassandra fought back the urge to scream. This wasn’t fair. She’d done everything she could to help everyone and now she was going to die here on this street corner like…

…like what? One of the thousands of other people who’d died today? The thousands more who’d died across the years in battles she’d survived? Since when had her life ever been more valuable than theirs?

A sad sigh escaped her lips as she brought her rifle to bear. She wouldn’t go out without a fight. “God, forgive me all my sins,” she muttered. “Protect the ones I love and take me to—”

Engines whined overhead. The Prometheans tilted their heads in time to see the barrage of blue plasma that suddenly swept over their lines. Cassandra halted mid-prayer in astonishment as the Created troops crumbled beneath the abrupt onslaught. The smooth hulls of Covenant Phantoms slid into place above the building, rear turrets and door gunners pouring fire down on the Prometheans and enforcers.

The Phantoms descended as alien shapes emerged from within and leaped to the ground. A motley mix of Sangheili, Unggoy, and Kig-Yar rushed to set up a perimeter, plasma rifles firing after the retreating Created. They weren’t quite as organized as the Covenant troops Cassandra had grown up fighting—their armor was faded and their weapons seemed outdated by Covenant standards—but between the Phantoms overhead and the troops on the ground the Created retreated without putting up a fight.

And now a new shape, far more welcome shape emerged over the circling Phantoms. Cassandra’s breath caught in her throat as she stared up at the Chancer V’s looming profile.

“That pilot is lucky I recognized the ship,” one of the newly arrived Sangheili said. He approached Cassandra with a squad of warriors in tow. “Otherwise I might have thought it was some Created vessel coming to shoot us down.”

He stopped a few paces from Cassandra. She found herself staring at a younger Sangheili in the faded blue armor of a lesser Covenant warrior. She’d never been much good at recognizing aliens, but she would never forget the look of the warrior who had saved her from the ONI blacksite in Philadelphia.

“Tuka,” she said, lowering her rifle. “I think you just saved our lives.”

Tuka ‘Refum inclined his head. His eyes peered from beneath his helmet with an odd wariness. When he spoke, his voice held a strange degree of bitterness. “I did not expect to find you here, Cassandra-G006. Though perhaps I should not be surprised. Do not give me cause to regret saving you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Not now. Where is Stray?” Tuka glanced around at the ODSTs. “We tracked his armor here. What have you done with him?”

“What have I done with him?” Cassandra jerked a thumb over at the wreckage behind her. She hadn’t seen Tuka in years, but the warrior she remembered was fairly amiable as Sangheilli went. She didn’t know what to make of his cold tone. “He got himself walled in there when your missiles hit the city. I’m guessing that was you?”

“No. Though I suppose it was done on my behalf.” Tuka turned away and barked an order to his compatriots. Another Sangheili flanked by two Unggoy hurried forward, hefting a large cross-shaped device between them. “I will retrieve him and be on my way. I suppose you may load your own people onto your ship. My warriors will leave you be.”

“Should I be worried that they wouldn’t?”

Tuka hesitated before collecting himself. “Excuse my tone. But a great many of my friends are dead thanks to what you did to the commander.” He strode away to help the other warriors set up what seemed to be a gravity generator beneath the fallen rocks.

Because of what she had done?

Are you going to throw me off another building? Simon had demanded just before the bombs hit. Did he really blame her for everything that had happened?

I didn’t throw him off a building. I just… let him fall. She’d wanted to kill him at the time. He’d deserved it, hadn’t he? She’d been certain at the time. Maybe she’d been right. Or maybe something else was going on.

She wanted to join the Tuka in prying the rocks loose. Maybe if she and Simon could just talk without Prometheans trying to kill them…

Talk. Like old times. Before he’d died. Before he’d come back as something horrible. They’d had plenty of time to talk back then. What could they possibly say to each other now that they hadn’t hashed out then?

“Cassie!” someone yelled over the din of freighter engines. Cassandra looked up to see Zoey standing at the Chancer V’s ramp, motioning furiously.

The relief that flooded through her was almost strong enough to wipe away the confusion about Simon. Zoey was alive. They’d all be making it off Talitsa after all.

“Come on,” she said, turning to the others. “We’re getting out of here.”

She saw Lieutenant Davis jab a finger in the Chancer V’s direction. He didn’t bother asking the obvious question and Cassandra didn’t need to think twice before nodding. They might as well save a few more people today.

Behind her, the gravity device wrenched the rock blockage free and the Sangheili rushed inside.

Stray froze in place. Between the Spartan girl nearly shooting him and the sudden influx of Sangheili he wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. The Insurrectionists were back to yelling now, jabbing their rifles at the Sangheili who returned the favor with a dangerous array of plasma weaponry. Even Mohsin was scrambling for his rifle.

“What fresh hell is this?” he muttered under his breath. His head was ringing, a combination of having rocks dumped on him and the bullet that had just snapped past his helmet. He’d talked tough at gunpoint but he was aching all over. It was a struggle just to keep standing.

“Are we shooting?” Mohsin yelled. “Are we shooting them? What are we doing here?”

In another second the bullets would start flying no matter what he said. The Spartan girl still had her pistol aimed at his head. From the furious look in her eyes Stray could tell she wouldn’t miss a second time. The next bullet would go between his eyes if he didn’t—

He didn’t need to do anything. A Sangheili pounced on the girl, throwing her to the ground and kicking the pistol away. She hissed like a cat and threw him off before two more warriors raced in to pin her down. Augmentations or no augmentations, an unarmored human didn’t stand a chance when two fully-grown Sangheili warriors had her in a submission grip.

Another warrior in faded blue armor stepped forward, plasma repeater slung over his back. Stray recognized him immediately, but for another moment he thought for sure the rocks had knocked some screws loose. It couldn’t be.

“I recognize him.” Juno sounded similarly amazed. “From the Soul Ascension.”

“Commander.” Tuka ‘Refum stopped a few paces from Stray. “Forgive my late arrival. We were indisposed elsewhere.”

“Tuka,” Stray breathed. “It’s you. You came back.”

“We should never have left you, even by your own order.”

Stray struggled to find the right words. A surge of unexpected emotion welled up inside him. They’d found him here. Tuka and the others had come back. He recognized more of them now, their names flooding back to him as if he’d just been speaking with them. Ier, Tuka’s friend, helping to pin the Spartan girl down. Ful ‘Rodir, who’d lost an arm for him at Montak. Pugi, the fuel rod toting Unggoy with over a dozen vehicle kills to his name.

The Kru’desh—his Kru’desh—had come back for him.

“What is this?” Mohsin muttered in his ear. The man who’d seemed so unflappable fighting the Created looked terrified by the aliens standing before him. “You know them?”

“Yeah, I know them.” Stray closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I know them.”

“Weapons down, all of you,” he shouted, finding his voice once more. The rebels, most looking just as frightened as Mohsin, reluctantly obeyed. Stray turned back to Tuka. “You late,” he said in what garbled Sangheili he could force out of lips not designed for the language. “What take long you?”

Tuka’s mandibles twitched in amusement. “You have neglected your studies. You were almost fluent when we parted.”

“Hard talking bad when running like rat.” Stray gave up on the Sangheili and switched back to English. “How did you find me?”

“We can discuss that later. Now we need to leave. We have very little time.”

“Right.” Stray snapped back into soldier mode. “Please tell me you still have the Soul Ascension.”

“Waiting to receive us.” Tuka glanced over at the Insurrectionists. “And these other humans. They take orders from you?”

Stray looked back at the rebels. In the rush of happiness seeing the Kru’desh again he’d almost forgotten he was supposed to be leading them off this planet. “My friends,” he said quickly. Poor choice of words, but they were out of time. “They’re coming with us.”

“We serve at your command.” Tuka and the others bowed their heads, arms raised to their chests in salute. The sight sent a new feeling flooding through Stray’s body. His aches and pain and weariness momentarily vanished. Right now, standing before a dozen Covenant warriors ready to kill for him, he felt powerful once again.

The galaxy opened up before him. He was back in the game. Not some broken, dying outcast slinking through sewers and fading away in filthy apartments. There was no need to grovel and beg anymore. He was back in command.

“What are you doing?” a familiar voice cut through his thoughts like a blade. “Let her go, now!”

Cassandra stood in the entrance, staring pointedly at the struggling Spartan. In the bright street outside, ODSTs were clambering aboard a ship so familiar Stray’s heart nearly stopped at the sight of it. The Chancer V. He enhanced his HUD display and caught sight of Zoey helping the troopers up the ramp.

She was alive. Only when the sight of her hit him like the rocks from the ceiling did Stray realize that he’d written Zoey off for dead the moment the Created announced Venter’s death. Zoey was alive. She was alright.

A dozen questions filled his mind. He should push through the Sangheili and go to her. They should all get out together on the Chancer. He should ask Cassandra—

“Let her go, Simon. Now!”

Stray’s hands became fists as he felt his heart harden once more. He waved a hand in Ier’s direction, speaking with a cold indifference. “Let her go. Make sure she doesn’t take any more shots at me.”

The warriors obeyed and the little Spartan wriggled free. She hurried up after Cassandra, but not before shooting Stray one last venomous look. Cassandra stared at him a moment longer, expressionless behind her helmet. He didn’t know what she was thinking.

It had been a very long time since he’d known what she was thinking.

Cassandra turned away, shepherding the other girl back towards the Chancer. They were getting off the planet one way. Stray would have to find another. Fortunately the whine of Phantoms outside assured him that he was not without resources.

“Come on,” he ordered, addressing Kru’desh and Insurrectionist alike. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

A single Covenant battlecruiser drifted between Talitsa and the Fleet of Cleansing Fire. It lingered in orbit and risked the wrath of the Guardians as long as it took for the dropships it had dispatched to the surface to arrive safely in its hangar. Then it turned tail and raced back toward the fleet, engines firing at maximum capacity.

A small freighter hurried along in its wake, keeping its distance but never straying far from the looming warship.

Shinsu ‘Refum did not waste any more time. The entire fleet turned with coordinated precision, Slipspace drives flaring online. The Fleet of Cleansing Fire vanished from the system, leaving chaos and destruction in its wake.

Malekh had miscalculated. A quarter of the Created fleet was destroyed and Talitsa’s cities were in flames. But she had blocked the bombardment well. Only a few hundred citizens would die that day. And their losses on the battlefield could always be replenished. Dozens more ships flocked to the Created banner every day.

Out of nearly a hundred ships to sail for Talitsa, only six UNSC ships escaped alongside Shinsu’s fleet. The rest of the Sixteenth Fleet was captured or utterly destroyed. It was the worst UNSC naval loss since the height of the Great War.

The brief age of human supremacy was over. The time of the Created—and the return of the Mantle of Responsibility—had come.

End of Part I

Book Two: New Earth

Chapter Twenty-One: The Frozen Citadel

An icy wind lashed against the Sangheili keep's crenelated walls. The snowstorm that had raged for the past three days over the fortress and its holdings continued with no sign of abating. The winter seasons on this planet were particularly brutal, lasting for the better part of a standard year and leaving the rest of the seasons little time to make up for months of endless blizzards. Considering that the Sangheili were a cold-blooded species it made little sense for a planet like Archangel's Rest to hold the seat of one of their great houses.

Of course, the Sangheili were rarely practical when it came to matters of religion. And considering the smooth spires of the immense Forerunner citadel looming over ]Baran Keep, on this subject Hera couldn't blame them for picking such a stark planet to make their fortress. Sometimes a bit of personal comfort needed to be sacrificed, especially when galaxy-shifting powers were involved. At least the keep's interior was heated.

Spartan-G094 stared out at Archangel's Rest's frozen planes, squinting to make out the forest marking the end of the valley where House Baran's keep sat. It was amazing that plants could grow here at all, and yet this region of Archangel's Rest was pockmarked with thick forests. Lights from the villages and encampments outside the keep's walls poked through the snowfall, more signs of life from a planet that seemed determined to be as inhospitable as possible. Maybe it was the proximity to such a marvel of Forerunner technology that inspired the aliens here to make the impossible possible.

The young woman who had once been Amy stood on the parapet a moment longer before the cold grew too much for her and she retreated back inside to rejoin her host. Hera attracted odd looks from the Sangheili warriors shivering on guard duty beside her. The aliens glowered at the human visitor who could brave the snow and then return back to the interior warmth at will. They still had a long, cold watch ahead before their relief arrived.

Her host waited inside. Even within the keep’s heated walls its Sangheili residents wore thick fur robes as if they were afraid their shelter might come crashing down at any moment. When Hera first arrived on Archangel’s Rest she and her companions were greeted by a contingent of fur-wearing, spear-wielding honor guards. She’d started to worry that the keep’s interior might resemble a medieval castle rather than a Covenant outpost. Fortunately the Baran keep boasted all the accommodations of modern living: brightly lit chambers, computer consoles in ever room, and most importantly constant interior heating.

“Well, Demoness?” a low voice rumbled from across the chamber. “You linger out in the cold when you could be enjoying the warmth of my chambers. Are you trying to insult me? Or perhaps inspect my defenses, to report our weaknesses back to your masters?”

Teyr ‘Baran was small for a Sangheili, which meant he loomed a good head taller than Hera. The stocky aristocrat paced about the council chambers, garbed in a dark fur cloak. He had a small seat at the far end of the room, though if he ever sat down he made sure not to do it when Hera was looking. Teyr always seemed to be moving, glaring, and finding something to take offense at.

Maybe it was an act. Sangheili were hard to read, especially inside their own homes where they balanced dozens of competing responsibilities and obligations. Hera obliged him with an act of her own.

“Your defenses?” she asked pointedly, shaking bits of snow from her dark hair. “I thought they were your brother’s. He’s the kaidon, after all. You’re the steward here.”

Teyr shot her a dark look. Hera reminded herself that she was unarmed. Her companions were back guarding the shuttle they’d arrived on. If her irritable host ordered his guards to cut her down there would be no stopping them, augmentations or no augmentations.

“You set too much store by our past dealings, Demoness.” Few Sangheili bothered with calling Spartans “Demons” anymore, yet Teyr insisted on using the term. He even went took the extra step of feminizing it. A strange amount of effort, considering how poorly English and common Sangheili overlapped. “My family no longer owes allegiance to Thel ‘Vadam and the Swords of Sanghelios. Any alliance we once shared through that bond is no more.”

Hera stood at the center of the chamber, basking in the warmth. She wore loose fitting fatigues and a military jacket—little protection from the raging cold outside. Teyr paced a loose orbit around her. She took note of the gaggle of guards and warriors watching the display and didn’t give him the pleasure of turning to follow his movements. “We saved your life on New Harmony,” she reminded him. “If it weren’t for the UNSC you and your team would never have made it off the planet alive.”

“The UNSC. You mean your Office of Naval Intelligence. Do not use their deeds as a cloak. I know all too well how your kind builds up with one hand while tearing down with the other.”

“We don’t have to make this about politics. We fought on the same battlefield as fellow warriors. That means more to me than it does most humans.” “Everything is about politics in these miserable times,” Teyr growled. “It is always so with you humans, and thanks to your kind it has infected the very stars themselves. Politics took the place of religion and the old ways, much to my misfortune.”

His reptilian gaze narrowed as he came to a halt a few feet from Hera. “And now the politics of the times turns against your kind. The UNSC and whatever human interests it claimed to represent are no more. Without them you are little more than a masterless vagabond, yet you come to my keep—yes, my keep, no matter what claims my brother makes—demanding my favor as if you had a battlefleet at your back.”

None of the other warriors in the hall objected to Teyr’s bold claims. A few nodded in silent agreement. So these were all Teyr’s people here, though she was certain his brother had more than a few spies in the mix. The Created weren’t here in force, but it was only a matter of time. The Baran had sworn allegiance to the Mantle of Responsibility over a month ago. She was lucky they didn’t already have an AI monitoring everything that was said and done inside the keep.

She was lucky they hadn’t killed her already. But she was a Spartan: she’d weighed the risks carefully before coming here. Banam and their mighty citadel might be allied with the Created, but Teyr loathed his brother Rol. The fact that he was tolerating her beneath his roof at all spoke to the deep division within House Banam.

That was a division she intended to exploit.

“Don’t count the UNSC out just yet,” she warned. “You thought we were beaten during the last war, but we held our own against everything the Covenant threw at us. What are the Created compared to that?”

“Human hubris. The Covenant destroyed itself. Your homeworld’s deliverance came at the hands of a Sangheili fleet. You survived by chance and then had the arrogance to assume it made you masters of the galaxy. Though perhaps vanity is not one of your particular flaws.” Teyr gave her a sly look. “You claim to serve the UNSC, yet you arrived here under a different banner. Tell me, what makes a Demoness like you swear allegiance to Shinsu’ Refum?”

She’d wondered when they’d come to that. “I needed making sure I arrived here safely,” she admitted. “ONI’s a bit spare on troops at the moment, so I had to find someone who would give me bodyguards.”

“Bodyguards, a shuttle, and holo-recordings promising retribution if you were not granted safe passage. You claim to be here in good faith, yet you continue to take me for a fool.” Though his words were harsh, Teyr’s tone actually lightened. The more of Hera’s mission he picked apart, the happier he seemed. “Shinsu ‘Refum does not simply give away such tokens as a favor. No matter how dire his position, he has never been a pragmatic creature. No, he would not take such action unless he stood to gain from your so-called diplomatic mission.”

“I helped him win at Salia. We’ve got a common enemy now. ‘Refum proved he could fight and win against the Created at Salia, which is more than most people can say. That makes him an ally ONI can use. He feels the same way about us.”

“Ah yes, Salia. Another glorious victory I’ve long since tired of hearing about. ‘Refum will wave that tired banner for years to come, if he even lives that long. One victory does not make him a fleetmaster, let alone one worth rallying around. He is of low stock no matter his pretensions otherwise. I am beginning to regret granting you audience in the first place if your only purpose is to weary me with this prattle.”

“You know what I want.” Hera folded her arms. “I have nothing to hide.”

“More lies cloaked as truth. What you ask for would have me risk my clan and my kin. If I defy my brother and aid the enemies of the Created, I have as good as declared for ‘Refum. You have yet to give me one reason why I would be better off with him than I am now.”

He had changed since their last meeting. The warrior Hera remembered had been proud and stiff, yes, making no secret that he resented working with humans. But he had also led his troops well, impressing even Hera and Joshua when they’d clashed with Covenant holdouts on New Harmony. The irate steward before her now was bitter and confrontational, nursing old resentments while taking every effort to steer away from the conversation at hand.

Hera gritted her teeth and tried not to lose her temper. She’d given up far too much getting here to just let herself be turned away by these circular arguments. The United Earth Government was falling apart in systems far from here while she stood in this keep and argued Sangheili politics. People were dying every day while the Created grew stronger. It wouldn’t be long before nothing she did had a chance of changing anything.

“If I might have the opportunity to speak with you privately,” she began with a pointed glance at the rest of the court.

Teyr cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Anything you might say to me can be said before my family, Demoness.”

“Your family?” Hera asked pointedly. She was taking a huge risk, but she was fed up with games. “Or your brother’s?”

Teyr’s eyes narrowed. “You have already come to this keep as an enemy of the Created, and yet you fear spies? Nothing we say here will reach Rol’s ears unless I wish it.”

“You sound pretty confident about that for someone working for the Created. Maybe you aren’t really familiar with how they operate.”

“This is not one of your human outposts. We do not have cameras recording our every move and word. As for the company I choose to keep…” Teyr turned to face the nearest courtier, a tall female clad in an identical fur coat. “Iyra, who is the father of your children? All of them?”

Iyra didn’t hesitate. “You are, steward. All of them, female and male.”

Teyr pointed to the captain of his guard. “Yutur, who trained you and all the warriors under your command? Who led you to victory when the Jiralhanae savages threatened all we held dear?”

“You did, my lord.”

“Luye, when you colony was alone and starving who brought you food? And who raised you from peasantry to serve in this very keep?”

The courtier he pointed at ducked his snakelike head. “You did, lord.”

Teyr turned back to Hera. “Everyone in this hall owes allegiance to me. They are my people, not my brother’s.”

“So why would Rol let you and all your people live here, in your family’s ancestral home? He is the kaidon. Where is his family? He must know you hate him.”

“You do not understand my brother. He usurped the position of kaidon not through the support of House Baram but through the alliances he made in the chaos after the Covenant fell. He knows he has little love from his own family, so he masks his betrayal by giving me charge of the keep that is rightfully mine. It sooths his conscience, such as it is. His wives and children have their own manors not far from here. They are guarded by the same force that assures his kaidonship.”

The steward indicated the door leading out to the parapets, now mercifully closed against the blasting cold. "During your sojourn out into my planet's hospitable climate, what did you see?"

"I saw snow, mostly."

"Spare me your wit. What did you see out in that snow?"

Hera frowned. "Lights. From villages, I guessed. For all your complaining about the weather your people seem to be settling here in great numbers."

"My people," Teyr sneered. "My people do not live out in that frozen waste or beneath the trees like Unggoy savages. All of my people reside within these walls, as our ancestors did and their ancestors before them."

"So your brother has military outposts around the keep then." Hera folded her arms and matched Teyr's glower with one of her own. She'd been on Archangel's Rest for less than a week and she was already tired of these petty games. "Or are you going to make me keep guessing until I get it right?"

"The Jiralhanae," Teyr growled. His tone was low but his words reverberated around the chamber. The assembled court flinched as if he'd shouted them. "Here at the behest of my brother, our glorious kaidon. In his infinite wisdom he allowed those beasts to settle on our sacred lands after the Covenant fell."

That gave Hera pause. She'd heard that Rol held treaties with a few Jiralhanae warlords, but uneasy alliances of necessity were common amidst the vast swaths of former Covenant space. But for a Sangheili kaidon to allow his people's traditional enemies to settle on a Covenant holy world-within sight of his ancestral keep no less-was something else entirely.

For the first time since her arrival she wondered if there might be something to Teyr's bitter outlook. Just how much of the situation here did she not understand? Her ignorance was showing and her bargaining position—an unofficial emissary for a government that no longer existed, backed by a warlord who up until a month ago had been that government’s sworn enemy—became more tenuous by the second.

Maybe it would have been better to stay with the UNSC. At least there she knew where she stood, safe amidst the military hierarchy where she’d been groomed to belong.

But no. She’d seen what the Created and their Forerunner prizes were capable of at Salia. Shinsu ‘Refum’s entire battlegroup had barely held its own against a single Guardian and even then only intervention by another Forerunner ship had tipped the scales and allowed them to merely escape. Hera saw the writing on the wall even if High Command didn’t. She’d stressed their complete military inferiority during her debriefing, urging them to think outside the box for ways to fight this new threat.

No one listened. They all just buried their heads in the sand in the hopes that this crisis would blow over and everything would just go back to the way things had been just a few months ago. They’d dismissed her warnings with the blithe condescension one might reserve for a precocious academy cadet.

And so Hera made a decision. If the UNSC—the organization she’d devoted everything to—wasn’t going to take this seriously then she’d go back to the ones who were. She hadn’t deserted, not quite. She was on the books as being off on “deep space recon,” whatever the hell that was. She was still doing her duty. But for once that duty involved making deals with warlords and negotiating with ornery kaidons.

For all the good it was doing her so far.

Tyr saw her hesitation and his mandibles peeled in his people’s equivalent of a cold smile. No matter how much time Hera spent with the Sangheili she would always find them hideous on a primal level. She didn’t care how much they claimed to be cultured and family-bound. She’d seen firsthand what they’d done to human culture and human families.

“You see,” Tyr remarked to his wife. “Even the Demoness recognizes the barbarity of what Rol has done. Even she balks at the enormity of his hubris.”

Iyra nodded. She was a creature of few words, yet she seemed to share her husband’s seething resentment. “She understands much of what your lord brother does not.”

“I’m surprised,” Hera admitted. “Your brother rose to power by waging war on any Jiralhanae tribes who attacked your sectors. He assembled your vassals to smash an invasion force that outnumbered him nearly five to one.”

“Let us not call them by their proper name. I prefer your human term, Brutes. Ignorant as your people are, you saw those creatures for what they are the moment you laid eyes on them.” Teyr resumed his pacing, though he kept shooting calculated glances in Hera’s direction. “Yes, my brother defeated the savages and killed their high chieftain, as he so likes to remind the galaxy. And then he spared the survivors and offered them land to settle on. Our land. His forces tripled in size thanks to his magnamity. He was praised for his mercy and wisdom while I had little choice but to lay my claim aside and accept him as kaidon.”

He turned back to his court. Most watched in respectful silence, but from the way a few glanced away Hera could tell they’d heard variations of this rant before. “Our ancestors stood guard over this sacred planet and the relics it stored since the foundation of the Covenant. The old traditions were not a season gone before my brother defiled them to please his own vanity. And now we huddle behind our walls while upstarts and humans come to barter over our birthright.”

She had to regain control of this negotiation somehow. “You’re forgetting the real reason I’m here. What about the Created? Your brother betrayed your race when he sided with the Jiralhanae, but he betrayed the entire galaxy when he swore allegiance to them.”

“The Created,” Tyr scoffed. “I have yet to see these new gods my brother worships. He calls them the future to hide his betrayal of our past. Yet perhaps these beings that can humble you humans are not all bad after all.”

He turned back to Hera. “Tell me, Demoness, what makes me any different from my brother if I sell my birthright to some alien in exchange for my own advancement?”

She’d had enough of this. “At least we’re the ones in a position to do any bartering. Some of us are trying to stop the Created, while you sit here and whine to anyone who’ll sit still long enough to hear you out. I’m starting to see why your brother is kaidon instead of you.”

A hush fell over the court. Several warriors glowered at Hera while many others shot frightened glances at Teyr. A few surreptitiously reached beneath their robes for the blades no doubt concealed there. Hera stood her ground, holding Teyr’s gaze. She might very well die here, but the same could be said for every mission she’d ever undertaken. Diplomacy was getting her nowhere.

Teyr was quiet for several moments. His eyes were hard, but they lacked the same angry flash she’d seen as he ranted against his brother. “The Demoness has nerve, insulting me in my own keep.”

“Not your keep,” she reminded him. “Your brother’s. Unless someone helps you do something about that.”

Teyr’s began to reply but was interrupted by a quiet ping from beneath his robes. He produced a small datapad, dispassionately glancing over its screen before handing it off to Iyra. As his wife read the device with equal stoicism the steward turned back to his court.

“Out, all of you,” he ordered. “The Demoness lacks manners but she has more honesty than I expected from an emissary of Shinsu ‘Refum. She has earned an audience through daring if nothing else.”

He waved a hand and the other Sangheili obeyed, filing out of the chamber. The guards on duty hesitated, but another gesture from Teyr sent them hurrying out after the courtiers. Iyra remained where she was. Her husband did not attempt to dismiss her as he settled down in the humble steward’s chair conspicuously situated beneath the kaidon’s throne. It was the first time Hera had seen him sit since the meeting began.

“You speak boldly, Demoness,” he informed her as the doors closed behind the last of the guards. “Were you not a guest under my protection I would need to kill you for honor’s sake. Perhaps ‘Refum did not tell you this before he sent you to treat with me, but it is unwise to insult a warrior in front of his followers. Even if that warrior is but a lowly steward.” He gave her a bitter smile.

“I’m not insulting you. I’m just telling things like they are.” Hera took a few steps to close the distance between herself and Teyr. Without the guards and courtiers the brightly-lit chamber seemed large and barren. There was very little in the way of decoration or ornamentation save for the banners displaying the burning crest of House Baran that hung above the kaidon’s throne. “It’s not my fault if the truth insults you.”

“You humans,” Teyr snorted, though his tone had softened considerably. “Always thinking yourselves to be the most pragmatic creatures in the room. It doesn’t take wisdom to see the futility of my own position. Do you know the real reason I decided to grant your request for a private audience?”

Hera glanced at the datapad in Iyra’s hands. Whatever message Teyr had just received, she had a feeling she wouldn’t like it. “I should have known it wasn’t just out of respect for my plucky Spartan grit.”

“Hardly.” Teyr plucked the datapad from his wife’s hands. “You are at least partially correct in your summary of our situation. Some of us are indeed fighting against the Created, though with questionable success. I assume you are familiar with the human colony of Talitsa?”

“Of course.” Talitsa had been a flashpoint for Insurrection independence fantasies for years.

“A fleet under my brother’s command just annihilated a UNSC fleet that attempted to wrest it from Created control. A glorious victory, they have called it. Another battle for Rol to insufferably gloat over. It seems the Covenant has finally returned, if in a different form than I might have hoped. My brother has chosen the winning side once again.”

An entire fleet destroyed. Hera fought to keep her expression steady. It was no secret they were losing this war, and badly—she’d experienced that firsthand when Joshua died—but to lose an entire fleet in a single engagement was insane. Teyr was right: the Covenant was back, or at least the era of crippling defeats that had been so common during the Great War.

Teyr read off the datapad: “In response to this singular threat to galactic peace and prosperity, the Created ecumene has no choice but to renew suppression efforts against the so-called United Nations Space Command and all those allied with its terrorist aims. All enemies of the Mantle of Responsibility are urged to lay down their weapons and surrender peacefully. They will be welcomed beneath the Mantle with open arms. But all who resist will know the full might of a galaxy united beneath the singular desire for peace.”

He looked back to Hera. “Even now they are striking out at your frontier outposts. With your homeworld and its surrounding colonies already subjugated, it won’t be long before nothing remains of your little empire. They have accomplished in months what the Covenant failed to do in decades.”

She thought of Lieutenant Commander Frendsen, her ONI handler, and the other Spartans and soldiers she’d left behind. Were they dead on Talitsa or the surrounding outposts? Had she walked away just in time for the Created to kill them all? The thought filled her with an icy resolve.

“So what are we doing discussing this then?” Her hands balled into fists. “You’ve made your choice, so stop wasting my time.”

“Let me remind you which of us is standing in who’s keep,” Teyr said pointedly. “I would say you are more at risk of wasting my time. But you are wrong: I have not made my decision. My servants in Rol’s fleet have more news, things that the Created chose to leave out of their missives. It seems a third force intervened at Talitsa. A Sangheili fleet very nearly routed Rol’s fleet, despite matching only a quarter of his strength. I think you can guess who its fleetmaster was.”

Hera nodded. So Shinsu was true to his word, continuing the fight against the Created and their allies. With Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant gone and Thel ‘Vadam consolidating his forces elsewhere, Shinsu might very well be the only reliable commander left in the fight.

“A few human ships escaped the slaughter thanks to ‘Refum’s intervention. He continues to frustrate the Created’s advance at every turn. And he turned what should have been my brother’s victory into a humiliating farce. Every warrior in his fleet knows they would have lost but for the Guardians’ presence. Perhaps there is more to his call to arms than a mere grab for power.”

“If you rebel against your brother he will become even more powerful,” Hera promised. “I may be a human, but I know that much about Sangheili politics. All it takes is for one lord to take a stand and dozens more will join him.”

“I could take a stand,” Teyr allowed. “Of course, I would be dead before any heard of my bravery. Do not take Rol’s complacency for weakness. This planet is defended by thousands of his Brute pets, to say nothing of the keeps loyal to his rule.”

“They already let you sit here and mock him at every turn.”

“My brother tolerates my insubordination because it would look poorly on him if he took action against a deposed family member. Many of our vassals dislike the way he came to power, even as they render him fealty. But the moment I pose a real threat to him, the Brutes will storm this keep and soak its floors with my family’s blood.”

“So your answer is the same as before?” Hera asked testily. “If it is then I might as well leave. There’s a real war going on out there, like you just finished telling me.”

“Not quite.” Teyr held her gaze. “We have talked much about my own situation and so little about your own demands. Unless you really have changed allegiance and Shinsu ‘Refum’s political fortunes are all you truly care about.”

“Of course not,” Hera scoffed. “He just happened to be the only one who could get me here in the first place. Your family is sitting on the largest untapped troves of Forerunner technology in Covenant space. This keep is built into a Forerunner citadel; I saw the spires on the way in.”

“The Temple of Archangel’s Rest,” Teyr agreed. “My family’s sacred charge. The only reason we tolerate this wretched weather.”

“I stood as high priestess for the temple guard,” Iyra said, a touch of her husband’s bitterness creeping into her voice. “Before the Schism came and the guard was disbanded. The temple is empty now. Rol took anything of value and sold it off to humans, warlords, whoever would pay. He held our family’s heirlooms in the same contempt he held all tradition.”

“He took everything he could find,” Hera agreed. “But there were some things he couldn’t get his hands on. He doesn’t know all the secrets buried here, or else he’d never have left you in charge of the keep. But I think you already know that.”

Teyr and Iyra exchanged glances. “And what makes you think you know things about the temple that Rol does not?”

“Because some of those artifacts he sold off wound up in an ONI laboratory. In fact, most of them did after we started putting the pieces together.”

“I had no idea my forsaken heritage was of such interest to your people.” Teyr shook his head. “Though I suppose I should not be surprised. So tell me, what weapons are hidden beneath this planet’s surface? And what price do you offer, that I should part with them?”

“Not weapons.” Hera leaned forward. “Information. A massive archive, bigger than every cache of data between your species and mine combined. It’s an offshoot of the Domain, something the Forerunners used to house their accumulated knowledge. But something more than that, closer to their collective unconscious. I don’t know if the Covenant ever had a name for it, but our scientists called it the Silent Garden.”

Her words hung in the air between them. Teyr and Iyra considered them for some time.

“The Silent Garden,” Iyra mused. “Perhaps what the old holy speakers called the Dream of Gods?”

“Not impossible,” Teyr agreed. “We cannot deny the fact that these humans are far more adept at harnessing the old secrets than we.”

He turned back to Hera. “And what would you gain from this Garden of yours, hm? I suppose you would have me surrender its riches to Shinsu ‘Refum or your own masters in Naval Intelligence.”

This wasn’t good. He was already closing back up, musing over his own bargaining position. “Shinsu could care less about your secrets. He wants the ships and warriors you’d bring to his fleet. As for ONI, they aren’t exactly in a position to take anything from anybody. I just want you to let me try and get into the Garden. I’ll give you access. The secrets your ancestors guarded but never saw will be yours. I want one thing, and that’s to find a way to beat the Created.”

“Bold words, from a bold Demoness,” Teyr chuckled. “But I like them better than whatever other platitudes one of ‘Refum’s creatures might have offered me. You are honest, for a human. Perhaps we can come to terms after all.”

“Can we? Or are you just playing for time?”

“Time is one thing I have in abundance. You, on the other hand…” Teyr trailed off. He looked pleased with himself. “Very well. You will return to ‘Refum and you will tell him this: help Teyr ‘Baran liberate his world from Rol’s forces. Seize this keep and remove the Brute filth from my lands and he will have my support along with all true Baran vassals.”

“And me?” Hera pressed.

“As for you,” Teyr agreed. “Ensure ‘Refum’s cooperation and we will go together into the Archangel’s temple. You may yet be the key my family has needed all these years. Help me reclaim my rightful place and I will give you this Secret Garden. Maybe its treasures will be our salvation from this new Covenant.”

Chapter Twenty-Two: Lonely Frontier

“You’re going to have to pod me soon.”

Those were the words Merlin-D032 had expected—and dreaded—for nearly a week. At least he thought it was a week. The corvette’s clock registered a week since they’d blasted out of Oyster Point, but Merlin wasn’t sure he trusted Baal Defense Solution tech anymore. Or his own sense of time for that matter. The days aboard the ship bled together into one stream of engine cycles and Slipspace jumps. He wondered if anyone was still counting days anymore.

Cody-B042 certainly wasn’t. The older Spartan’s face was pallid and clammy, his eyes unfocused as they stared listlessly up at the ceiling. He’d stripped off his skinsuit a few days ago, leaving only damp fatigues between his skin and the chilly, recycled air. With his left leg reduced to a bare stump, he could barely move about the ship unassisted but he continued to hobble about with the same stubborn pride he’d exhibited back on Oyster Point.

“Don’t talk like that. You’ll be fine,” Merlin assured Cody. “We’re just a few days out from the nearest colony. We’ll get you fixed up once we’ve made contact with the UNSC.”

“Kid, we don’t even know if there’s a UNSC left to make contact with. I hate to put this on you, but you’ve gotta pod me.” Cody jabbed a finger in the direction of the ship’s array of cryo tubes. “Before I really start losing it. I’m weeks behind on my smoother dosage. Believe me, you’ll be doing me a favor.”

“You’ll be fine,” Merlin repeated. He hated to see Cody like this. Cody outranked him, for one thing, and the sight of a superior—a superior who at one point had been his squad leader—crippled and delirious put him on edge. Cody’s unshakeable leadership had kept them all alive on Oyster Point. Even the loss of his leg hadn’t fazed him, or at least he’d been tough enough to hide the pain from Merlin. But without his smoothers he was reduced to a shaking, clammy wreck. Even speaking seemed to exhaust him.

Merlin didn’t know much about whatever brain augs made Cody reliant on smoother pills, but no matter what sort of advantage they offered him in combat they couldn’t be worth this. He was sure ONI had its reasons, but it didn’t make any sense to take an operator and make them reliant on any kind of combat drug. He thanked his lucky stars that he, Andra, and the rest of Delta Company had been spared that particular augmentation.

“Maybe we should do as he says.” Light flashed on the holotank next to Merlin’s chair. The flash convalesced into the image of a girl in a heavy hooded robe. She peered out from beneath her cowl with a concerned expression. “Cody’s condition is only going to get worse and we don’t have any of the chemicals that might alleviate his condition. Cryo-sleep will at least sedate him until we regroup with the UNSC.”

“It’s also dangerous as hell, especially if we don’t have a name to stick to his condition. Every reg in the book warns us not to freeze a casualty unless it’s life or death.” Merlin was running out of options. He didn’t want to admit the real reason behind his opposition to cryo-freeze. If Cody went under there was no telling when they’d pull him out again. And then it would just be Merlin alone to make all the hard decisions.

Well, him and Althea.

He glanced at the AI. The Baal Defense contractors had talked about some kind of AI uprising sweeping through the galaxy, something connected to the cataclysm that landed him on Oyster Point in the first place. Whatever was going on, Althea wasn’t a part of it. She’d more than regained his trust on Oyster Point. He trusted her, but there was the slight problem of her origins.

Althea was an experimental AI based not on the donated brain of a deceased human but off of living brain tissue taken from none other than Merlin’s friend and squadmate, Andra-D054. That was creepy enough, but as far as Merlin do no one had bothered to get Andra’s consent beforehand. He didn’t even think she knew where Team Boson’s support AI came from.

They were Spartans. Merlin had more than accepted his role as a dedicated defender of humanity. But to create something like that and not even tell the brain donor—and then to stick the resulting AI in that person’s squad, like some kind of sick experiment—was messed up. Merlin wasn’t sure what he would do if he learned ONI had done that to him.

But this was worse. They’d done it to his best friend.

“Look, kid. Merlin,” Cody rasped. He wasn’t even trying to sound put together anymore. “I appreciate the concern. But we’re way past regs now. They made me go without smoothers for two weeks after the augmentations to measure the effects. The results weren’t pretty. If this goes on for much longer, it won’t be safe for you to be around me.”

“No offense, but I think if you went rampant on me I could hold my own.” Merlin rapped a hand against his MJOLNIR’s armored collar.

“Sure, sure. Just sit there in your fancy armor and make fun of the cripple,” Cody snorted. “But what happens when you fall asleep and I go nuts? I’ll try to hold it together as long as I can, but I’m a danger to the ship. You’re podding me. And I really hate to do this, but that’s an order.”

A tremor passed through Cody’s body. He shuddered and doubled over. Merlin flinched at the retching noise the other Spartan made, but luckily Cody didn’t spray vomit over the common room floor. He just hacked a wad of phlegm down between his boots before leaning back in his seat. “Althea, log that order. And if Mr. Regulations over there still has issues, well, I don’t know, convince him. Give him the puppy eyes, tell him your progenitor would be very disappointed in him. You can’t exactly cuddle with him, so you’ll have to browbeat instead. Do your worst.”

Merlin flushed. Cody hadn’t spent that long as Boson’s squad lead, but he’d been around enough Deltas to catch the scuttlebutt about Merlin and Andra. Most of it was untrue.

Most of it.

“I’m just worried we won’t be able to get you back out,” he protested, turning his face away. “It’s not safe.”

Althea hadn’t responded to Cody’s comment, though Merlin noticed he saw less of her face beneath that hood. He wasn’t quite sure how AIs handled embarrassment or whether they pretended to have their avatars register it to make themselves seem more human.

“And no one is more worried about my well-being than I am, believe me. But I’ll take a little cryo-sickness over one more hour of this misery. Just keep the ship running while I’m out. Althea won’t steer it wrong. Get me to a hospital and I’ll buy you your first drink. To hell with the minimum, we’re Spartans.”

Merlin was out of excuses. An hour later he had helped Cody strip down to his briefs and was lowering him into one of the ship’s cryo-pods. He couldn’t help but wince at the sight of Cody’s body. The older Spartan had lost a considerable amount of weight since their ordeal began. The smoother withdrawal certainly wasn’t helping.

Merlin silently cursed whoever thought tethering Spartans to a chemical dependency was a good idea.

“Sorry about this,” Cody said, smiling weakly from within the cryo-pod. “Just give it another day and we’ll hit a colony that can fix me up. Two, tops. And then you can rib me about this whole mess for years to come.”

Merlin pursed his lips and nodded, fighting the wave of renewed panic building up in his chest. The cryo chamber sealed and then Cody’s face disappeared in a hiss of icy mist.

They didn’t find a colony the next day or the one after that. Or three days after that, if Merlin was counting things right.

He sat in the corvette’s cockpit and stared listlessly off into deep space. The ship once again drifted on low power as its Slipspace drive recharged for the dozenth time. This jump had gone exactly like the others: another jump to pre-set coordinates that seemed no closer to getting them back home.

“How about another game of cards?” Althea suggested. She raised a hand, playing cards inserted between her gloved fingers.

“I’m sick of cards,” Merlin grumbled. “Don’t you have any new games installed on that chip of yours?”

“I’m a combat AI, not a gaming machine,” she retorted. “And since you won’t even bother learning how to play chess I have to keep it simple.”

“Yeah, right. You’ve won twenty games. I think I’d rather just sit here and count the stars than lose to you again.”

“You won three games. That’s pretty good for a first-timer.”

“Like you didn’t just let me win those times to keep me playing.” Merlin settled back in his chair, wishing he could just drift away and fall asleep. He hovered in a constant flux between frustration and boredom. “It’s no fun playing against someone who can just cheat and conjure up a winning hand anytime she wants.”

“Fine. Just sit around and mope, then. And for your information, I never cheat at cards.”

For a moment she sounded so much like Andra that it hurt. Merlin closed his eyes and tried not to let it get to him. He hadn’t seen his teammate in months, not since the Created struck and left him stranded on Oyster Point. What had she been doing all this time? What was she doing now?

Merlin hoped she was alright. For all he knew she thought he was dead. But no. Andra would never give up on him without a body, just like he’d never give up on her if their positions were reversed.

“We should just head straight for the nearest UNSC outpost,” he said, bracing himself against the reaction he knew would come.

“That’s way too risky,” Althea rejoined on cue. “With the news we heard about the Created, any one of those outposts could be taken over. If we flew straight into the enemy they’d be all over us before our Slipspace drive recharged. I can’t let us do that.”

We don’t even know if there’s a UNSC left to make contact with. Cody’s words gnawed at Merlin’s mind. That wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. Right?

“Oh, you can’t do it, huh?” Merlin’s frustration boiled over. He couldn’t take this anymore. A war was raging across the galaxy. His friends were definitely fighting in it while he was trapped floating out here trying not to die of boredom. “Just like you couldn’t take my side with Cody back there. And since when were you the one in charge here? Maybe you’re right. The Created could be a lot closer than I think they are.”

He regretted his words the instant they came out of his mouth. Althea’s hologram flared from its usual gentle blue to a dark purple and then vanished from the holotank without a word. Merlin found himself alone in the cockpit, its air heavy with palpable anger.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin said quickly. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

No response.

Snarling with frustration, Merlin very nearly put his fist through the cockpit controls. Only lightning-fast reflexes diverted his armored hand at the last moment. He’d almost forgotten about the MJOLNIR suit he’d worn since they’d escaped Oyster Point. Normally he would never lose his temper like that, or at least not let it show. But this wasn’t normal. Nothing about this mess was.

Althea didn’t deserve this. She’d saved Merlin and Cody from BDS goons a dozen times over, and that wasn’t even counting everything she’d pulled off helping them fight the Kru’desh and the Imperium during Boson’s last big deployment. She was as much of Merlin’s squad as Andra was, and he’d damn near called her a traitor.

Merlin glared out at the stars, equal parts angry and ashamed. Althea didn’t reappear and it belatedly occurred to him that he couldn’t even calculate a Slipspace jump without her to cross-check his math. He could try, of course, but he could practically see Joshua or Amy or one of his other instructors glowering up at him from the computer screen: Never trust your own math with Slipspace jumps!

Faced with the prospect of stewing silently in his own stressed-out guilt, Merlin abruptly stood up. This was getting him nowhere. “I’m really sorry about that,” he repeated, again to no response.

Merlin sighed and left the cockpit. He made his way down into the common area and looked around at all the empty space: his own weapons were stacked neatly in one corner while Cody’s gear was strewn across the floor on the other side of the deck. The abandoned kit just made the ship seem all the more barren and empty. Cody was in cryo and Althea wasn’t talking to him. Merlin really was alone.

Alone. Merlin blinked, not sure whether to laugh or cry. Doing neither, he instead reached up and absent-mindedly began stripping off his MJOLNIR. It was strangely easy. He’d used BDS components to make his shattered armor whole again. Naturally the private sector troops had a much more user-friendly design on their armor. A chore that would should have taken nearly an hour without a robotic armorer instead took five minutes, the heavy suit coming off as easily as ODST training gear.

The stench that wafted up from beneath his skinsuit was familiar to anyone who’d spent an extended period of time in armor. For once Merlin didn’t need to pretend like it didn’t affect him. He wrinkled his nose, stripping off his top and exposing his bare chest to the ship’s refreshing cold. The recycled air felt good against his chafed muscles. Merlin bent down to remove his leggings as well, then looked nervously up at the ceiling. He didn’t exactly know where the security cameras on this thing were.

Why should he care if Althea saw him naked? She had a much more intimate level of access when he jacked her into his brain. Her progenitor had seen him naked countless times. But something felt weird about stripping now right after they’d had a fight. Merlin gave an awkward smile in the direction of what he assumed was a camera, then strode off into the ship’s shower.

During training Merlin had once made the mistake of taking too long in the shower. The resulting humiliation earned him the nickname “Showerhead,” one the other children in Delta Company wielded against him without a shred of mercy. Since then he’d never given himself more than a few minutes to clean himself even when he wasn’t on a time hack. But now he was all alone with nothing but time to kill.

The hot water felt glorious. Merlin splashed it off his skin and onto his face, stamping in the puddles like a little kid. He should have done this days ago, but with Cody’s condition and all the mess surrounding their escape he’d just kept acting like he was in the field. He’d kept acting like everything was just one big campaign, just like he always did.

The smile slipped from his face and he stopped halfway through rubbing soap down his arm. What had he done before his last operation? He and Andra had known they were about to hit an Insurrectionist station. Had they done anything to make their time together special? They couldn’t have known about the Created attack, but that didn’t mean everything would go perfectly. Any one of their missions could be their last, but instead of taking time to appreciate that they just carried on with mission prep like everything was normal.

Like everything would always be just the way it was. One mission after another, one battle in front of the other in a war that would never end…

Well guess what? Things changed. And you didn’t even take the time to tell her—

Merlin shuddered and hastily finished the rest of his shower. He clung to his good mood but it slipped away like the soapy water down the shower drain. Snapping back into operations mode, he hastily toweled himself and headed back into the common area.

The room was already occupied, so to speak. Althea’s avatar stood on the holotank over his armor, peering out warily from beneath her hood. Catching sight of her, Merlin blushed and hurried to slip back into his skinsuit.

“I wondered when you’d finally clean off your stink,” Althea commented, her avatar making a point of not looking directly at him. “Between you wearing that armor all the time and Cody leaving a slime trail everywhere it’s a wonder you can stand to be on this ship at all.”

She was being deliberately snide, but Merlin recognized an olive branch when he heard one. Especially when it was delivered in a voice eerily similar to Andra’s. He still couldn’t quite get past how similar Althea sounded, as if she were an identical twin raised in a slightly different environment. Why hadn’t he noticed it back when they’d all been together? It hadn’t seemed to bother him then.

“Even I couldn’t take the smell anymore,” he joked. “And, well, I finally had some privacy. Sort of.”

“I thought you could use some time alone,” Althea said primly.

Merlin sighed. “Look, I’m sorry about before. I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just frustrated about a lot of things right now.”

“I’m over it.” Althea gave him a sideways look from beneath her hood. “I’m not erasing it from my memory banks though. Just in case you’re not being sincere with your apology.”

“I keep forgetting you can do stuff like that.” Merlin sat down beside his armor and rummaged through his gear. Withdrawing an M6D pistol and his cleaning kit, he began disassembling the weapon. It didn’t really need cleaning—he’d scrubbed all his weapons down half a dozen times since leaving Oyster Point—but it gave him something to do. Everything could use a bit of cleaning right now. “You shouldn’t, though. It’s good remembering things. Even the bad ones.”

“I wouldn’t call an insulting remark from you a bad memory. And I don’t think I need life advice from you, Showerhead.”

“I don’t remember giving you permission to call me that.” Merlin raised an eyebrow. “And for the record, no one calls me that anymore. It really wasn’t ever that big of a deal in the first place.”

“According to the record, people call you that all the time. Your friends in Delta Company love calling you Showerhead, Showerhead, even in operations environments over military channels. I’m just following their example.”

At least she was talking to him again. If a bit of ribbing was Merlin’s punishment for accusing her of split loyalties then he’d bear it as gracefully as he could. Besides, now he didn’t have to worry about confusing her voice with Andra’s. His teammate was one of the only people who showed mercy with that nickname. She never called him Showerhead, even when she was trying to get under his skin.

“Anyway, Showerhead, while you were off cleaning your filthy body I was doing some calculations.” Using the nickname seemed to brighten Althea’s spirits. Merlin hoped that wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. He’d missed this facet of her personality back on Oyster Point. “I still won’t risk jumping us straight to a known UNSC outpost, but I have a compromise. It’s still risky, but it might give us a better view of the situation than just jumping around trying to ping passing Prowlers.”

Merlin’s ears perked up. “Alright, now you’re talking. What’s the plan?”

“Like I said, it’s risky. But at this point I think we’ve earned a bit of risk.” A star chart bloomed beside Althea. She raised a finger to highlight one particular planet, like a weathergirl on a local news broadcast. “This is a small colony called Franconia. Ex-Covenant planet, the kind they had a couple outposts on but abandoned after their empire broke up. It has a varied climate, though the settled area is mostly tropical. There’s only a few thousand people living there according to the last available Colonial Administration polling.”

“I’ve never heard of this place before.” Merlin frowned. “But a small colony out on the frontier has to be crawling with Syndicate. Or worse, Innies.”

“Surprisingly, no. Franconia is staunchly pro-Earth. Apparently most of the families who settled there were military veterans who left the service after the Great War ended. It’s small enough that most people wouldn’t have any reason to bother with it. Which means…”

“The Created might not have hit it yet.” Merlin nodded. “Yeah, this is good. This is really good.”

“Looks like a shower and some good news can do wonders for your mood.” Althea’s smirk was visible beneath her hood. “They probably won’t have the chemicals on hand to make a smoother cocktail for Cody, but they’ll definitely have resources we can use to find out what’s happening with the rest of the galaxy.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Some of these colonies can get pretty isolated out here. There’s a chance they don’t even know about the Created or anything else that’s happened. We need to be careful, just in case…” Merlin stopped himself saw Althea’s hue darken, just a little. That was a bit strange. She was weirdly sensitive when it came to criticism, even mild observation. He’d have to find a way to deal with that sooner or later. “But yeah, great plan. Way better than what we had before.”

“I’m glad you like it.” Althea’s colors brightened. “Once our drive is powered back up I can have us there in under seven hours. But you’ll want to suit up, just in case there’s anything other than a friendly little colony waiting for us on the other side of that Slipspace portal.”

“Yeah. It was getting a bit too chilly in here anyway.” Merlin busied himself reassembling his armor. He was glad to have something better, even if it was all just Althea’s idea. If she could find them a way out of this mess then he’d follow whatever plan she came up with. And it felt good to feel like they were on the same side again.

He just hoped this Franconia place was worth the trip. After Oyster Point he wasn’t sure how many more snags and complications he could take.

“Well, here we go. Reverting from Slipspace in sixty seconds. Make sure you put on your friendliest smile for the locals, Showerhead.”

Merlin casually flicked his assault rifle’s safety off and then back on. He was back in full combat rig now, his armored frame wedged tight in the corvette’s pilot chair. “People tell me I’m the nicest guy in Delta Company. I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine.”

Althea shook her head. “If you say so. But maybe I should play diplomat here. People tend to feel better around a sweet, friendly AI then they would with an armored commando.”

“So is that why you all pick the nice looking avatars? Public relations?”

Her hood receded to allow the little figure to peer up at him with both eyes. “Did you just call me cute?” she asked, hue flaring a darker shade of blue.

“Oh no. Don’t lay that on me.” Merlin wasn’t about to let her teasing go too far. “I’m just pointing out that most of you AI make yourselves conventionally attractive. And for some reason there’s a lot more female ones than males.”

“Well maybe the female brain is just better suited to producing hyper-intelligences like myself.”

He let that one pass. “Well, maybe tone down that hyper-intelligence of yours for the welcome wagon. If they do know about the Created then a strange ship showing up and an AI hailing them won’t exactly put them at ease.”

She considered this. “Good point.” Her avatar shifted, its robes retreating and flattening into a UNSC naval uniform. She clasped her hands behind her back at parade rest, hair pulled up in a neat military bun. “This is more appropriate attire. Don’t you agree, Petty Officer D032?”

“Well, maybe scale it back a little bit.” Without the hood she really did look like Andra. Not an exact replica, but close enough. Merlin hoped he never made the mistake of calling her by the wrong name. That would be awkward. “There’s such a thing as overdoing it.”

Althea's avatar gave an exaggerated shrug. She kept the new look, though her posture loosened and her voice reverted to its more informal tones. “Well, we’ll see how they react to some uninvited UNSC visitors.”

“If they’re all veterans, it’ll be with open arms. Once UNSC, always UNSC.” A trite bit of wisdom, but even as a rookie fresh out of augmentation Merlin had been impressed by how regular UNSC troops handled themselves. They might not have the armor or the training Spartans did, but they definitely knew a lot more about the galaxy.

The corvette gave a gentle shudder as the Slipspace drive braced the rest of the ship for transition into realspace. Merlin leaned back in his seat, stomach churning into familiar knots. He hadn’t vomited after a Slipspace transition in ages but that didn’t mean he’d ever completely get used to it. Warning lights flashed across the dashboard and Althea’s hologram flickered as she devoted more processing power to balancing the ship’s systems.

With a final lurch the corvette ripped a hole in subspace and emerged on the other side. Merlin sighed with relief as the nausea receded. He tapped the console and retracted the blast shields in place over the cockpit viewport. The corvette’s systems came back online and lit up the dashboard with newly awakened sensor readings.

Merlin found himself peering out over a lush green and blue planet, a textbook garden world. No wonder the colonists had picked this place to settle. As long as there weren’t any alien environmental hazards to deal with it looked like it perfectly mimicked Earth’s ideal living conditions.

He didn’t have long to admire the view. Something moved over Franconia’s bright atmosphere. From this distance it was little more than a dark smudge. Merlin gently tapped his temple in case his eyes were acting up. The smudge split off and became several smaller smudges. They circled each other like flies buzzing around an unattended picnic.

Or like warships maintaining a perimeter.

“Merlin,” Althea warned. “Contacts on the sensor. No IFF tags, but the profiles match Covenant-type combat ships.”

Merlin’s heart sank. They’d made a gamble and lost. It seemed that this peaceful, unassuming colony had picked the worst possible time to attract unwanted attention.

He let out a deep breath and fought back the urge to panic. He was a Spartan. This wasn’t the time to panic. The ships were still a distance off. They’d made no sign of turning towards the corvette, at least not yet. If he and Althea just held position here then maybe they could recharge the Slipspace drive and be gone before the Covenant noticed them.

“Alright, well this was a bust,” he said with as much nonchalance as he could muster. “Let’s just keep a low profile and—”

“Energy spike on the other side of the planet!” Althea exclaimed. The proximity alarm triggered, punctuating her warning with loud warning klaxons.

Merlin nearly fell out of his chair, blinded by a sudden light that erupted in front of their corvette. He cursed and blinked, trying to clear his vision. When he regained his senses, he found himself staring at something ripped straight from his nightmares.

A vast, winged Forerunner ship loomed above the corvette’s prow, its oddly humanoid head peering down at them with what could only be described as glowing eyes. Energy readings spiked as the alien ship’s metallic surface glowed blue with power.

He’d seen this ship once before: when a Guardian had smashed through an Insurrectionist station and ripped him through a Slipspace portal. He’d only survived because the ship hadn’t been paying any attention to him. He’d just been collateral damage.

Now he had its full attention.

“Althea, get us… evasive…” he stammered, skin clammy with terror. There was nothing they could do. The ship’s engines weren’t even ready for regular propulsion, much less combat maneuvers. “We have to get…”

“Merlin.” The AI’s voice took on a new, oddly soothing tone. “Relax. We’ll be fine. You’ll be OK. I’ll keep you safe.”

He blinked. Despite all evidence to the contrary Althea’s reassurance managed to calm his pounding heart. He didn’t know how she did it—she wasn’t jacked into his armor—but somehow her sonorous tone struck something inside him and made him believe that they really would be alright.

The power spike faded. The Guardian’s glow dimmed. It remained where it was but made no move to attack them. Instead a new ping from the dashboard announced that it was hailing them. Merlin flexed his hand to keep it from shaking before reaching out to answer the hail. He really didn’t have any other option.

“Well, well,” the cheery voice of a human woman announced over the com. “Baal Defense Solutions all the way out here. I don’t remember contracting you for anything, so I hope you aren’t here to cause trouble. This really isn’t the time for a brush war, I’ve got enough of those on my plate enough as it is.”

Merlin blinked in confusion. This didn’t seem like the way a Created AI should be talking. It also didn’t sound at all like any UNSC he’d ever heard. But who else besides the Created could control Guardians?

“Well, this is unexpected,” Althea said, sharing his confusion. Her UNSC uniform disappeared as she resumed her usual cloaked appearance. “But at least they’re not attacking us.”

“Not yet, anyway.” Merlin took note of several dropships that had accompanied the Guardian’s in-system jump. The ship sensors identified two Covenant Phantoms as well as a UNSC Pelican. That was weird. You didn’t see human and Covenant ships mixing with each other every day.

“Come on, speak up already,” the Guardian AI—or whoever it was talking to them—prompted. “I’m trying to be friendly when I really don’t have to be. Give me a reason to keep making the effort or I’ll just have to make this unpleasant.”

Merlin glanced at Althea. “They—uh, she—isn’t shooting at us. That’s good, right?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. They think we’re Baal Defense Solutions. Maybe if we play along with that—“

“You two do realize I can hear you, right?” the Guardian AI cut in with a mocking laugh. “But carry on, figure out which lie you want to go with. I’ll wait.”

Althea flashed a dark shade of purple. “How could she—“

“Your firewalls are full of holes. You’ve configured them for a UNSC system without accounting for all the shortcuts BDS takes when they fill their ships with nice, privately owned subsystems. Don’t feel too bad, I’ve always been good at getting into places I’m not wanted. And this Guardian’s electronic warfare systems are an absolute dream.” Whoever this AI was, she enjoyed toying with them. The Guardian held position and made no move to attack, though its accompanying dropships drifted closer to the idling corvette. “So, an AI and some kid floating through my territory in a stolen BDS corvette. And here was me thinking today would be boring.”

Merlin donned his helmet in a flash. He opened a private communications channel to the ship’s computer. If they were being hacked he had half a mind to yank Althea’s data crystal chip and transfer her into his armor—but where would that leave them when the Guardian attacked? He certainly couldn’t pilot this ship without AI support.

“How fast can we get the Slipspace drive charged?” he demanded as his HUD lit up with tactical data. “She could hit us any second.”

Althea shook her head. Text scrawled across Merlin’s HUD: Ten minutes, bare minimum. They were trapped. At this range, nothing short of an immediate Slipspace jump would get them away from the Guardian and its approaching escorts.

“Oh, come on now. I’m being very reasonable here. The least you could do is give me the benefit of the doubt,” the other AI went on genially. At least she hadn’t hacked anything beyond their coms. “You’re in my space, after all. We’ll need to board you to have a proper look at what you’re up to. After that, well, that’s up to you. This doesn’t have to go badly for anyone.”

“New contacts,” Althea warned inside Merlin’s helmet. “Closing in behind us. Damn, they cloaked their approach vectors!”

A shudder rocked the ship before Merlin could reply. He leaped from his seat, rifle in hand. If their attackers wanted to turn this into a boarding action that was fine by him. At least he’d go out fighting instead of sealed inside a space-borne coffin.

“Be reasonable,” the AI continued with an infuriating self-assuredness. “You don’t have to die here. But if you put up a fight, they will kill you. Or worse. The troops have been getting restless lately. You don’t want to give them a reason to be inhospitable.”

Merlin hesitated. Every instinct in his body screamed at him to fight. But this enemy held all the cards. He might kill a few boarders, but he’d run out of bullets long before they ran out of troops. There was no time to thaw out Cody, not that one crippled Spartan would be enough to tip the scales. Had he really survived everything on Oyster Point just to die here?

He looked back at Althea. For once he didn’t mind that the face beneath her hood resembled Andra. It might be the closest thing he had to seeing his friend one last time.

Althea stared back at him with an agonized expression. “I’m sorry, Merlin. I let you down.”

It was Andra’s voice, even if those were words he’d never dream of her saying. A hiss from the rear of the ship announced the boarding party’s imminent arrival. In another minute this ship would be crawling with hostile troops.

What was the last thing I said to her? Oh, God, I don’t even remember.

Merlin made a choice. An insane choice, a choice that ran counter to everything he’d been taught his entire life. A choice his fellow Spartans might very well disown him for. But his instructors and squadmates weren’t here. Cody was in cryo and Althea was out of options. It was down to Merlin here.

And he didn’t want to die.

He flicked on his rifle’s safety and tossed the weapon aside. Ignoring the lump in his throat—a crushing defeat harsh enough to make his eyes sting—he unclipped his sidearm and let it fall to the deck with a heavy thud.

“Merlin, what are you doing?” Althea asked in amazement.

“What the hell does it look like I’m doing?” He turned and extended his hand towards the console. “Come on, scrub the system and get yourself into the data crystal.”

“You aren’t going to fight? You’ll just surrender?”

“Don’t,” he snapped with more anger than he intended. “Please. Just, don’t.”

“You know what’ll happen if they’re anything like the Covenant, or Insurrection, or anyone else out here. That Guardian could be lying about everything.”

“Maybe. But Covenant and Innies don’t usually have Guardians or self-important AI. If there’s a chance she’s telling the truth then it’s more than what we’ll get if I just go down fighting.” He reached, almost pleadingly, for the holotank. “Please. Let’s do this together.”

“Alright.” Althea ducked her head, then nodded with renewed confidence. “Alright. We’ll go together.”

Her avatar froze, then vanished. The ship’s lights blinked as she wiped their navigational logs and system data. The boarders might take the ship but they wouldn’t learn anything from the computers. Merlin didn’t care about protecting sleazy corporate secrets but he wasn’t about to give away the ONI Prowler jump tactics they’d been using up till this final, disastrous jump.

A small data chip popped free from the holotank. Merlin took it gently between his fingers and slotted it into his helmet.

A warm, pleasant sensation washed over him as Althea spread throughout his armor. AI riding passenger in proper MJOLNIR weren’t just interfacing with the technology. They connected directly with the person wearing it as well.

“You’re vitals are all over the place,” Althea observed. Her voice felt closer now, more personal than when she’d been transmitting from the ship computer. “I can steady your pulse if that’ll help.”

“No. Thanks, but let me feel this.” To surrender without a fight was absolutely humiliating. He felt unworthy to even call himself a Spartan anymore. But this was his call. He’d figure out a way to live with it on his own.

Or maybe not. In a few moments he might be gunned down, perhaps the only Spartan in history killed after willfully surrendering. If it came to that…

He kept his combat knife strapped to his shoulder.

More hissing from the back of the corvette. Merlin stepped into the common area. He folded his arms and waited with bated breath. He wouldn’t go so far as to raise his hands over his head. Some depths weren’t worth sinking to.

Feet pounded on the deck. Merlin stiffened, his heart sinking as the first boarders emerged from below deck. Gangly avian creatures with hideous snouts and spiny crests charged into the common room—Kig-Yar. An entire species of pirates and scavengers, the last creatures you wanted to be captured by. The Kig-Yar activated arm-mounted energy shields and hissed at the sight of an armored Spartan. They chattered and yelped among themselves but held position, carbine barrels poking up over their makeshift phalanx.

“It’s going to be alright,” Althea assured him. “I’m with you.”

He didn’t know if she actually knew something he didn’t or if it was just empty reassurance. He took comfort in it all the same.

Two Sangheili emerged next. They loomed over the Kig-Yar, weapons trained on Merlin’s head. One held a Covenant-issue carbine, but the other clutched a stocky Colt Blaster—human make, common with mercenaries and civilian militia. Covenant never used human weapons, but now that Merlin looked closer he realized that several Kig-Yar held rifles and submachine guns. Even the carbine-wielding Sangheili had a magnum strapped to her hip.

The next boarders were humans. They wore scavenged body armor and sported the same mix of human and Covenant weapons. These soldiers glared at Merlin but kept their distance, hanging back behind the Sangheili.

A mixed force, rare but not impossible. Merlin sighed. This must be some kind of pirate crew or mercenary company. Maybe they could be reasoned with.

From the way the boarders drew near, weapons at the ready, he doubted that was possible. His hands balled into fists, fighting the urge to go for his knife. It was too late to try fighting now. He’d made the decision not to resist. Now all he could do was stand at their mercy.

A sharp yell split the air. The boarders halted a few feet from Merlin, a few of them glancing nervously back at the hatch they’d entered through. A new figure was emerging now, human but clad in dark armor with red highlights and a billed, slit-visored helmet.

Merlin’s breath caught in his throat. MJOLNIR armor, Scout variant. And not just any armor. He knew this armor. It shouldn’t be possible, but he knew it just as well as he might have recognized Andra or anyone else from Delta Company.

“Joshua,” he gasped.

“There’s no way,” Althea murmured, similarly awed. “But the reading checks out. A bit battered, but that’s Lieutenant G024.”

Merlin’s teacher strode across the deck. He should have been like some ghostly apparition, but the thud of his boots against the deck proved the MJOLNIR-armored Joshua was real. The broad bayonet of a Jiralhanae grenade launcher poked up over his shoulder. The boarding party parted quickly to let him pass.

Merlin drew himself to attention as Joshua drew near. “Lieutenant, sir, I don’t understand. What’s going on? What are you doing out here?” he babbled.

A resistance movement. It had to be. No wonder this force was so mixed. A coalition had formed to fight the Created, and Spartans like Joshua were serving as officers for the new units. Yes that was…

…wrong. Dead wrong. Merlin’s hopes crashed down as abruptly as they took flight. Something was off about Joshua’s stance. His shoulders weren’t as rounded. His posture was different. He was shorter than Merlin remembered. No. This was terribly wrong. It wasn’t Joshua.

The person wearing Joshua-G024’s armor considered Merlin for a moment before inclining their head to address the boarding party. “Lieutenant, he calls me,” they said in a hard-edged woman’s voice. “And here I thought I was a commander. I think he just demoted me.”

The Sangheili and Kig-Yar laughed. The humans did as well, but only after shooting nervous glances in the aliens’ direction.

“So,” the woman said, turning back to Merlin. “Didn’t have the guts to fight, huh? That’s a new one for a Spartan. You must be one of those IVs. Never liked any of them. The recruitment standards were always too low.”

“I’m a III, not a IV.” Merlin clenched his fists. He didn’t know what the hell was going on here, but he wouldn’t let this person mock him. “Your pal over on the Guardian said to be reasonable. So I’m being reasonable.”

“Hey, I like reasonable. You’ll fit in nicely around here as long as you behave yourself.” The dark visor tilted towards Merlin. “Speaking of pals, where’s your AI?” Her voice was level but held a suppressed edge. Merlin knew that tone. This person was calm and composed right now, but one wrong move from him and she’d flip a switch and become something much worse. She exuded deadly confidence, the kind that cut through Merlin’s armor and training and made him want to do whatever she said.

“She’s with me.” Merlin held his ground. “And she’s staying with me. We don’t want to fight you, whoever you people are. We…”

He hesitated. There were so many unanswered questions here. But he only had one play. No matter how humiliating, there was only one way to keep himself and his friends alive. “We need your help. I have a friend in cryo who needs medical attention. Please.”

The stranger stared at him. Then in a flash she punched him in the helmet hard enough to crack his visor. Merlin found himself flat on his back, barely seeing more than stars. An armored boot pinned him to the floor as Joshua’s visor gazed pitilessly down at him.

“Don’t grovel. I thought we all learned that at Currahee but I guess some people never get the message. Why the hell is everyone we run into out here so damn pathetic?” The armored woman tilted her head. “Fine. We’ll do this your way.” It took Merlin a moment to realize she was talking to someone else.

“It’s your lucky day, kid,” she informed Merlin, lifting her foot off his chest. “My friend back on the Guardian’s taken a liking to you. She’s such a damn bleeding heart. Show my people to the cryo chamber and they’ll get your friend out. Then we can have a nice chat and figure out what to do with you.”

Merlin pushed himself upright, head still ringing from the punch. “Are you with the Created?” he gasped.

The woman laughed. “Please. Like I’d ever kowtow to those self-important Forerunner lovers. We don’t give a rat’s ass about their Mantle of Responsibility. I’m just here to make sure some part of the galaxy stays worth living in.”

She turned away as the boarding party closed in around Merlin. “This is my ship now, so I guess you can either play along or we can toss you down in the jungle with the other troublemakers. Welcome to the Free Domain, Spartan.”

Chapter Twenty-Three: Troubled Garden

The battle for Talitsa was over. The enemy was once again utterly defeated, the UNSC’s fleets and ground forces destroyed or surrendered. Another victory for the Created, another sign that this new galactic dominion was nothing like the Covenant in its unquestioned capacity to face any challenger.

But this didn’t feel like a victory. Tatiana stood atop a roadway overpass and watched the cleanup operations toil away beneath her. A good chunk of Irbit lay in ruins, as did most other population centers across the planet. The UNSC ground troops had put up a decent fight even as they were surrounded and overwhelmed, but the majority of the damage came from the plasma bombardment that had very nearly engulfed the entire planet in flames.

“I thought Shinsu ‘Refum’s fleet was tied down near Sanghelios,” she said aloud. A Warthog full of enforcers wove its way through the rubble of a nearby plaza while Prometheans picked through rubble in search of trapped citizens. Anyone not committed to search and rescue was tied up corralling thousands of UNSC prisoners into detention facilities. “How did he get here so quickly? How did he even know there was a battle going on here?”

“His fleet makes clever use of old Covenant jump routes. He knows most of our knowledge of the old Covenant Empire is limited to what little ONI’s researchers deduced, so he studies the logistics of his own people’s ministries.” Avalokitsvara stood beside her, still contained within a Knight shell. “As for his knowledge of galactic affairs, he was Jul ‘Mdama’s spymaster, among other things. There is a reason he has proved a most formidable adversary.”

Avalokitsvara would know that better than most. They’d lost their Guardian in battle with Shinsu’s fleet at Salia. Tatiana held her tongue on that account. She was getting along better with the mercurial AI the more time she spent working with them. She was privileged to even know the details of what transpired above Talitsa. Most citizens would be told the devastating attack was a last minute gambit on the part of the UNSC. Few would be allowed to know that a Created-aligned fleet had taken a beating from a much smaller force.

“Such a tragedy.” Avalokitsvara shook their head at the battered city. “So many lives needlessly lost. The Mantle of Responsibility should have protected them. Instead it was used to orchestrate this senseless violence. But we are not at fault here, Tatiana. We accomplished our mission.”

“The Chancer V got away,” Tatiana reminded them. “We didn’t recover Andra or any of the ones Kahn recruited to help her.”

“Thanks to your efforts, David Kahn is dead. As is Redmond Venter. They posed the greater danger. The others will fall in time along with the rest of the holdouts.” An oddly self-satisfied tone crept into Avalokitsvara’s serene voice. “And we were not the ones who allowed those fugitives onto this planet for a grand tour of the city. Yes, I would say the blame for their escape lies elsewhere.”

“Nice of you to be so smug in the face of my troubles,” a new voice cut in. Another Promethean approached their place on the bridge, its skeletal chassis concealed by Malekh’s angelic avatar. “Though after Salia I suppose you just take pleasure in seeing your brethren suffer similar misfortune.”

“I am simply conducting an assessment of the events leading to this sad result,” Avalokitsvara countered. “Though your skills as an administrator brought you boundless success in day to day operations, your emphasis on grandiose displays could clearly merit some correction.”

The two AI abruptly stopped talking, their Promethean forms freezing in place. Tatiana turned away from the silent confrontation. Whatever argument was now raging between Malekh and Avalokitsvara she clearly wasn’t meant to be a part of it. Even their brief exchange of barbs had been mostly done for her benefit. It was so hard to put a finger on what drove the Created AI that Tatiana didn’t bother trying anymore. She would know what they needed her to know. The rest was just a matter of following orders.

David Kahn and Redmond Venter. That was two figures from her past she’d killed in one week. Kahn had raised her up out of the gutter and taught her the skills that propelled her to the top of the Syndicate. He’d seemed so strong, so utterly invincible, but she’d killed him all the same. Redmond Venter spent years waging bloody war against the UNSC across the frontier, and he’d been killed by a single shot from her pistol.

The smashed buildings and smoking ruins matched Tatiana’s mood perfectly. The old legends were being snuffed out one after the other and she’d been chosen to do the extinguishing. It was a great honor to be a part of the new order, but the aftermath left her shrouded in melancholy.

“Your niece is a traitor, for your information,” Malekh broke silence to inform her.

Tatiana glanced over her shoulder. “Who?”

“Karina Larina. She was an able public broadcasting specialist until she decided to throw her lot in with the rebels. I thought I could trust her. I was sadly mistaken.”

“Oh, her.” Tatiana had vague memories of a troublemaking reporter turning out to be the daughter of a sister she barely remembered. If Malekh thought she could throw that one in her face, well, that was another mistake on her part. “I’m sure we’ll deal with her eventually.”

“She wasn’t your only relative on the planet, it seems,” Malekh pressed. “Cassandra-G006 wasn’t the only rogue Spartan to escape the planet. It seems Simon-G294 linked up with Venter’s rebels and led them to safety. Your son destroyed more than a few of my Prometheans.”

Tatiana clenched her teeth hard enough to hurt her jaw. She fought to keep her voice steady as her fists tightened against the bridge walkway. “That thing isn’t my son.”

“According to ONI’s data file…”

“Lensky used my body like a damn incubation tube.” She shouldn’t be talking back to a Created, but this was ridiculous. No matter how high she rose it seemed someone would always try to dredge up her childhood misery and rub her nose in it. “I had to carry his little science project to term and then live with that freak until I couldn’t take it anymore. I should have aborted it and dared Lensky to do something about it. Or strangled it while it crawled out of my womb. That thing—what Lensky did to me—violates everything the Mantle of Responsibility stands for.”

The twin AI paused again, exchanging untold volumes of data. Malekh’s holographic mouth curled into a patronizing smile. “No one is questioning your loyalty, Tatiana. There’s really no need to lay it on so thick.”

Tatiana pitied the people of Talitsa who now had to rebuild their lives under the watchful eye of this condescending AI with the soul of a schoolteacher. It might all be necessary for establishing the Mantle of Responsibility, but she was glad she had no part in planetary administration. It was just a shame credit for Venter’s death would fall to Malekh’s efforts. The poor man’s legacy deserved more than that, at least. “It’s the truth. I want to build a world where people like him can’t do whatever the hell they want just because they have enough money or power. ”

“A more just society is an honorable goal,” Malekh agreed in that same gratingly patient tone. “Just be sure you strive for it for the right reasons.”

Poor Judith, shipped off to a reeducation facility programmed by this infuriating AI. The UNSC troops taken prisoner here might soon be wishing they’d fought to the death.

Avalokitsvara must have caught the irritation on Tatiana’s face. Their host body stepped between her and Malekh, their tone soothing and conciliatory. “Our work on this planet is done. Your presence is needed elsewhere. Asphodel Meadows, to be precise.”

They were offering her a lifeline and Tatiana took it. She shouldn’t have let Malekh wind her up so easily, but the thought of anyone linking her to Lensky or his monster dredged up everything she’d sworn to put behind her. She thrust her hands in her pockets and nodded. “I wondered when I’d be paying Helen another visit. Hopefully the poor girl hasn’t gone crazy just yet.”

“If Ms. Powell does require psychiatric care, I have several facilities here that would be happy to accommodate her,” Malekh offered. Tatiana had to turn her head to hide a smile. Consigning Helen to whatever matronly hell awaited Talitsa’s prisoners might indeed be a fate worse than death.

Avalokitsvara ignored their colleague and instead led Tatiana back across the bridge and toward their waiting dropship. She obediently followed, happy to finally be rid of Talitsa’s administrator.

“We will return to Asphodel by way of the Transcendent Passage,” Avalokitsvara explained as they climbed into the Pelican’s troop bay. “From there you will receive your next major assignment.”

“Major?” Tatiana scoffed. “About time. I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life tying up loose ends all along the frontier.”

“If you prefer such duties, I could always see to it that you are tasked with eliminating Simon-G294. A minor task like that might well bring you the satisfaction you crave.”

Tatiana scowled. “And here was me starting to like you.”

“Your personal feelings towards me are irrelevant.” Avalokitsvara paused, their metal chassis silhouetted against the open troop bay. “I beg your pardon. I do not wish to join Malekh in provoking you, though you should be more careful with how you express your feelings. Passion is a fine motivator, but as an agent of the Mantle you must show more impartiality.”

“If you want me to rub out that monst—” Tatiana stopped herself. “If you want me to kill Simon-G294, I’ll do it gladly. And if you tell me to do something else, I’ll do it just as gladly. I’ve spent the past five years preparing for this. I’m not going to throw it away over some bad memories. How’s that for impartiality?”

“Better. And perhaps a reckoning with the injustice done in your youth lies ahead of us. For now, though, we have larger matters to consider. War is coming. Today has proved that much. The UNSC may be broken, but warlords like Shinsu ‘Refum will use this time to gather strength and feed their own ambitions. We must contain and destroy them beyond the frontier. You and those like you will bear the brunt of that task.”

The Pelican lurched and lifted into the air. Peering past Avalokitsvara, Tatiana was treated to a sweeping view of the ravaged city beneath them. Ravaged for now, but with the way the Created did business it would be restored in no time. And just a little while after that it would be better than anything its inhabitants had ever seen. Malekh or some other Created would preside over this generation and the generation after it and hundreds more to come.

Today’s battle would soon fade into the deep recesses of history. All the battles waged on Talitsa—the Covenant, the Insurrection, Redmond Venter and all his dead rebels—would be forgotten. History itself would become irrelevant beneath the Mantle’s benevolence.

The same fate awaited Tatiana, she knew. She would serve and fade and someday die. Avalokitsvara, Malekh, and the rest of the Created would preside over a peaceful garden of a galaxy for eternity. But it would be a garden she helped plant. That was legacy enough for her.

The thought sent a shiver down her spine. She’d never cared much for religion, but the image of a garden—safe and secure, its human inhabitants sheltered and cared for by benevolent omniscience—seemed so right. A return to the Garden of Eden.

But the plumes of smoke rising from Talitsa reminded her that the garden wasn’t safe just yet. It needed to be guarded. And more importantly, the ones who threatened it needed to be eliminated. She reached inside her coat and caressed the hilts of her knives. Enough fantasizing about the future. The present was now, and soon she’d have a new target.

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Cleansing Blade

Shinsu ‘Refum’s problem was one of simple logistics. This war of his was a troublesome one: how to maintain an entire fleet when facing an enemy like the Created? Any stationary fortification or star dock would be overwhelmed and captured as soon as the Guardians arrived. The Fleet of Cleansing Fire had no port of call they could safely retreat to, let alone resupply and feed itself from.

To make matters worse, Shinsu was a Sangheili, and one of ambition at that. The clan leaders he needed to sway would never support a marauding warlord who supported his followers through raids and pillaging like some base Jiralhanae. Sangheili were above such things. If a lord was to command respect he needed to prove he could provide for his warriors and protect their keeps. How could he rally more warriors to his banner when he couldn’t hold a single planet?

His answer was simple: his territory was his fleet. Shinsu was well studied in the history of the Covenant, delving into old records of missionary expeditions into deep space. The San ‘Shyuum had sustained themselves as spacefaring pilgrims for generations. As masters of the old Covenant they had passed their techniques on to their subjects. The Kig-Yar and Unggoy had learned the lesson well, forming long-standing migrant fleets for protection and commerce. The Lekgolo dispatched entire colonies for deep space mining and even the Jiralhanae tribes survived as nomads when their own planets cast them out.

For all their proud history and culture, the Sangheili stubbornly refused to evolve even in the face of galaxy-changing disasters. They exported the old ways to every world they colonized, erecting the same keeps and fiefdoms that governed Sanghelios’s arid plains. The Schism and the Covenant’s fiery end should have marked the dawn of a flourishing golden age. Instead, the Sangheili regressed to the old ways, waging bloody clan wars while all the while the humans reshaped the galaxy in their own image.

Shinsu had been little more than a youth when the Covenant fell, seething with anger over his family’s destruction. He’d let himself become a part of that short-sightedness, play-acting the role of an antiquated avenging warrior while the Sangheili tore themselves apart. It had taken Jul ‘Mdama’s new Covenant to make him recognize the simple truth that the old ways were not enough. For all his faults ‘Mdama had seen the situation clearly: if the Sangheili did not fill the Covenant’s vacuum, someone else would. They’d all assumed that someone—the new, great enemy—would be humanity. No one anticipated the Created, or more accurately, the return of the Forerunners.

‘Mdama had been a good teacher. Shinsu regretted the role he’d played in the Supreme Leader’s death, necessary though it had been.

The old gods were returning in new guises. Many Sangheili happily greeted their return, welcoming the promise of peace and stability they’d enjoyed under the old Covenant. Shinsu was not one of them. He could think of no worse fate than happy slavery beneath the yoke of some self-appointed galactic masters. A peaceful, listless stagnation: that was the galaxy the Created promised. There was no place for one such as Shinsu ‘Refum in that galaxy.

And so he fought. His fleet was his empire, each ship a keep to be governed by its Shipmaster. The clans allied to House Refum’s Cleansing Blade—males, females, and children alike—were warriors in his cause. All worked and fought to sustain the fleet. Every time they sallied forth for battle the whole nation put itself at risk, as well it should. The Cleansing Blade would triumph and live or they would fail and die.

Against a foe like the Created, there was no middle ground. The Sangheili would evolve or be subjugated. If the powers that be had chosen Shinsu ‘Refum to bear such a momentous burden, then so be it.

Now the Fleet of Cleansing Fire drifted in deep space, its warriors celebrating another battle survived. Ships ferried supplies from the assault carrier Redemption of Sanghelios—hundreds of its gargantuan decks repurposed as farms and refineries—to the rest of the fleet. Battle reports flooded into the Cleansing Flame’s bridge, bathing the command platform in ethereal light.

The fleetmaster read each report in turn, absorbing the news and dispatching terse reports of congratulation to each of his commanders. News of the events at Talitsa would spread quickly. Shinsu needed to make sure his own agents put their spin on events before his enemies could.

“I could help with all these reports,” a gentle voice suggested. “There’s no need for you to handle each one in person.”

Shinsu did not let Deep Winter distract from his work pace. “These warriors followed me into battle. I will not insult them by delegating their honors to a subordinate.”

“You could at least pace yourself a bit more.” Winter let his designation as a subordinate pass without comment. “You won’t do anyone any good if you collapse from overwork.”

“I have a great many things to attend to. These reports are just the beginning.” Shinsu tapped out another response, congratulating a shipmaster on the destruction of three enemy ships in the last battle. Though he “I value your aid immensely, construct, but I will not let it make me lazy. Such mistakes were the doom of your human masters.”

“If by laziness you mean increased efficiency, I feel I should point out that AI support was key to many human victories against your people in the last war. Meaning no offense, of course, but humanity then was faced with a vastly superior enemy just as this fleet is now. My talents extend beyond simple cyber security and—“

“Umbra!” Shinsu called, finishing the last of his victory messages. He would never give Deep Winter such an insight, but in truth he enjoyed the vast extent of his responsibilities. Greatness could only be achieved by those with vast reserves of energy. He had intently developed such reserves since his youngest days on Sanghelios. “Schedule a full assembly. I intend to address every shipmaster in the fleet before the end of this cycle.”

His adjutant, waiting patiently at the foot of the command platform’s ramp, bowed obediently. “At once. And you requested an update on the mission to Archangel’s Rest?”

“I did. What did Pula have to report?”

“The delegation has left the planet and will rendezvous with the fleet shortly. Negotiations with Teyr ‘Baran went much as you expected.”

“It does not take any great work of genius to know the mind of a creature like Teyr,” Shinsu grumbled. “I will attend to Pula and our human envoy upon their return. We shall see what demands that old recluse makes of me.”

He turned back to Winter. “As for you, do not think I undervalue your capabilities. I respect them, and as such I must limit my reliance on them.”

“I am here to assist.” If Shinsu’s manner offended Winter, the construct did not show it. The performance was as much for the bridge’s benefit as Winter’s. His warriors could not see him showing deference to an outsider, especially not one so closely linked to their enemies. “Cortana and her followers need to be stopped. I helped set the stage for this disaster. I will do everything I can to avert it.”

“Your dedication is admirable.” Shinsu called up a projection of the Redemption of Sanghelios and its escort ships. The assault carrier was now a staging point for the handful of human survivors from Talitsa. The UNSC survivors were obeying commands from Shinsu’s shipmasters, at least for now. “You can assist me by making contact with the human leaders. I will need to meet with them as well, and soon. We rescued less than I would have liked. Now we must see if our journey to Talitsa was worth the effort.”

“They may not take kindly to an AI making contact. They might assume this fleet has been infiltrated by the Created.”

“They will not take kindly to any of my officers, either. They will have to accustom themselves to working with beings they take offense to if they are to serve under my command.”

“And you think they’ll agree to submit to you? The UNSC may be battered but it still has its pride,” Winter warned.

“They have little choice. Some will spurn my offer, no doubt. But others will want a way to come back from such a humbling defeat. And if I emerge from this effort with more ships and warriors at my command, then our efforts will be justified.”

Deep Winter did not offer any further arguments. His presence faded from the bridge as he went off to arrange whatever he needed to accomplish Shinsu’s orders. The matter of the humans reminded Shinsu of another irksome presence in his fleet. He turned back to Umbra, still waiting at the bottom of the ramp.

“Send a message to the Soul Ascension,” he ordered. “Stray will present himself to me on this ship promptly. Not via com system, not through hologram. He will come in person or I will have a boarding party dispatched to retrieve him.”

“Gladly.” Umbra bowed again. “Though if I relay that message in its entirety, he may hesitate to appear before you. Should I perhaps soften the request?”

“No. Let him understand the gravity of his situation. A bit of fear might be just what that devious mind of his needs to steady itself.”

“As you say. And if I may ask…”

“You will ask your question whether I permit or not, Umbra. Speak.”

Umbra gave an embarrassed chuckle. The older Sangheili’s loyalty was without question. He had been with Shinsu since the early days of the war against House Vadam on Sanghelios. As one of Shinsu’s most trusted agents and advisors, he was a far cry from some mere subaltern. “How do you intend to deal with Stray this time? By all accounts he fought well at Salia, despite his past failures.”

“There was a time when I thought that wretched human might make a useful servant,” Shinsu admitted. “I counseled Jul ‘Mdama to permit his leadership of the Kru’desh Legion to that end. He showed promise. But the Kru’desh are a shadow of their former potential. The creature I saw at Salia was a broken animal merely fighting to survive. I have no need for rabid beasts.”

“And yet you welcomed your brother and his comrades back into the fold, despite all of the younger ‘Refum’s past insolence,” Umbra pointed out.

“Tuka is a fool. He has always been such, even if he masks his idiocy with idealism and piety.” Just speaking of his younger brother brought a bad taste to Shinsu’s throat. Tuka’s self-righteousness was particularly grating in the face of a career of pathetic non-achievements. “But he is loyal to Stray, or at least desperate enough to seek me out and beg my aid even after all his past slights and insults.”

“More evidence of the boy’s stupidity,” Umbra agreed. “Stray is a deceiver. He deceived Jul ‘Mdama and his old followers, just as he deceives your brother now. He will never be loyal to you or anyone else.”

“You may be right. I have given Stray far too many chances as it is. But these are strange times. I may yet have a use for Stray and his pathetic remnant of a legion. He will come before me and we shall see.”

“And if he is of no use?” Umbra pressed.

“Then I will do what I have often yearned to do and remove his lying head from his shoulders.” Shinsu dropped a hand to the energy sword on his hip. The bloodblade hadn’t seen much use since he assumed command of the fleet. He needed to carve out more time for sparring practice lest his sword skills begin to atrophy. “That may at least endear me to our new guests, if nothing else. Bring him to me, Umbra.”

The adjutant bowed and departed as Shinsu