Terminal.png This article, Halo: Indelible Past, was written by Actene. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.
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Halo: Indelible Past
Indelible Past.png
Time doesn't heal. It only forms a scab.
Protagonist {{{protagonist}}}
Author Actene
Previous Story Halo: Avenger's Quest
Next Story Halo: Avenger's Reckoning
Story Series The Avenger Trilogy
[Source]

Contents

Dramatis Personae

Simon-G294 "Mordred"; former SPARTAN-III and Insurrectionist fighter, current mercenary (human male)
Diana; former Insurrectionist technical coordinator and operations adviser, current partner to "Mordred" (artificial intelligence, feminine programming)
David Kahn; mercenary (human male)
Zoey Hunsinger; former slave (human female)
Yuri Rosch; ONI commander (human male)
Felix-116; "SPARTAN-II" (human male)
Cassandra-G006; former SPARTAN-III (human female)
Nimue; mercenary (human female)
Redmond Venter; Insurrectionist leader and enforcer for the Syndicate (human male)
Peter Collins; Insurrectionist (human male clone)
Helen Powell; Syndicate agent (human female)
Hawk; Syndicate bodyguard (human male)
Shinsu 'Refum; Rebel warlord (Sangheili male)

Halo: Indelible Past

Part One: The Fugitives

"Violets are blue, roses are red; living like this we were already dead."
―"Blood Gulch Blues"

Prologue

Then

The sun burnt furiously in the clear, sallow sky, gazing down at the savaged landscape like a disapproving god. The heat from its fiery eyes beat down on one and all as if from physical blows, enough to send the small and weak to their knees from its sheer, unchecked power.

With such a furious overseer in place, it was a wonder anything was able to grow on Mamore's sun-baked plains at all. The planet was notorious for its brutal summers, and this one--which promised drought as well as heat--was one of the worst in years. And the summer hadn't brought just heat and drought to afflict the people of Mamore. It had brought something else, something even more deadly.

It had brought war.

The plains were barren, save for a few shrubs, bushes, and the occasional withered tree, but there was the definite sound of repeated gunfire issuing out from the horizon. It continued in a faint, endless clatter that would only pause for moments, like someone drawing in a breath, before continuing its lethal dialogue with even more distant targets. A pair of squat dropships--United Nations Space Command Pelicans--flew low in the distance, escorted by a trio of nimble Hornet gunships. The soldiers they'd be carrying were no doubt on their way to respond to some rebel offensive, part of the Insurrection's planet-wide effort to liberate Mamore from the United Earth Government's authority. The men and women on those dropships would have their chance in combat soon enough.

The twenty-odd Marines of Epsilon platoon had already had their chance at it, and every single one of them, from their lieutenant to the lowest of privates, was dead.

They lay in a mangled pile, their blood leaking across the dry ground and being sucked down into the soil by the ravenous, dehydrated earth. Only half were still wearing their combat armor; the rest had been stripped down to their undergarments, their gear piled unceremoniously some feet away.

The boy who had killed them was leaning over the body of a sergeant, rifling through his pouches and pockets for hidden nicknacks or extra rounds of ammunition. He wore what had, in a previous life, been a rough cloth blanket and now fulfilled the role of makeshift camouflage. Under it was what had, in its own previous life, been a kind of military-style jacket. He'd pulled its hood over his dark mane of hair to shade it from the relentless glare of the sun. A rifle with a crescent-moon ammunition clip was slung over his shoulder. Its bayonet gleamed in the sunlight.

Finding nothing of value in the sergeant's pockets, the boy proceeded to unclip the dead man's armor. Tearing the bloodied green carapace off the Marine's body, he tossed it over into the pile of other stripped parts. Spare gear that he would leave out here beside the bodies. Badly needed supplies for his comrades in the Insurrection; a warning for the UNSC.

It was his enemy now, but it hadn't always been that way. The UNSC had once been his master.

There was sweat trickling down from his overheated brow, but the boy didn't so much as pause to wipe it away. He knew he needed to move fast if he wanted to avoid being discovered by whoever the UNSC sent out to look for its missing platoon. The sergeant's corpse was hauled over to the pile of other stripped bodies and heaved against the already-rotting carcasses of his former comrades.

It had been a simple ambush, nothing the boy hadn't done before. A single platoon sent out beside its main force to scout for potential ambushes had instead run straight into his own, which had taken the form of a trio of well-hidden improvised explosives hidden amidst the rocks they'd been stepping over. A flurry of grenades into the panicking formation had taken most of the survivors out, and then he'd put the rest of those down with some quick bursts from his rifle. The whole thing had happened in less than thirty seconds, and now he had twenty three new notches to carve into the barrel of his already well-notched rifle.

He'd started making those notches a week ago, and it hadn't gotten old yet.

The friends and comrades he'd had what seemed like an eternity ago back in his old life would never have believed he was capable of such an attack. Loser, they'd called him. Worst. Weak. Incompetent.

Coward.

The friends and comrades he'd had a week ago might have been less surprised, though they wouldn't have expected him to take the offensive like this. Not after he'd spent the whole of the two month old war telling them to stay away from all the ambushes and offensives, trying to keep their little group together. Of course, it didn't matter how those friends would have felt about the ambush, because they were all dead.

The boy moved on to stripping another corpse. This one had been caught in the explosions and was little more than a bloody pulp, but the boy rummaged through his gore-encrusted pockets all the same.

The sudden sound of a droning engine--several droning engines--stopped him cold. His body tensed, ready to run and hide down in the rocks below the ambush spot. They wouldn't get him here. They couldn't. He still had so many more of them to kill.

But he relaxed when the Warthog jeep that drove over into sight over the crest of a small hill bore the red fist insignia of the United Rebel Front, the conglomeration of hundreds of factions that were all fighting to break away from the UNSC. It stopped short when the driver saw the ambush site and slammed on the Warthog's breaks. He and the woman manning the jeep's battered chaingun leaned forwards in awe of the child soldier and his prizes.

After a moment of mutual staring, another man leapt out of the Warthog's passenger seat to land confidently on the top of the hill. Holding a rifle of his own, the man looked down at the boy and gave him a congratulatory smile.

"Hey, kid," he called down cheerfully. "Did you kill all of them yourself?"

The boy looked up at him through a pair of sunken grey eyes made heavy from lack of food and sleep. "Yeah," he said dully.

The man nodded approvingly. "Nice. Good to see someone who can actually fight around here."

He paused for a moment to consider the dead platoon again. "My name's Redmond Venter," he said at length. "How'd you like to come with me?"

The boy's gaze didn't falter or change in the slightest.

"I'll make these attacks of yours mean something," the man called Venter assured him. "You'll get to hit the UNSC like no one ever has."

After another moment of quiet contemplation, the boy nodded his hooded head. "Alright," he said, bending back down over the shredded body. "My name's Simon."

"No last one?"

Simon. Simon-G294. Trainee G294. SPARTAN G294.

"No."

"Then let's go." Venter smiled. "I think the two of us will get along just fine, kid."

The boy simply nodded again and got back to his gruesome work.

Chapter One: No Good Deed...

"I don't care what crimes he may have committed to anger his own kind so much. That miserable human helped assault our facility. He killed our brothers and took one away from us for his own greedy ends. You will find the one known to the galaxy's scum as Mordred and you will kill him for the glory of the Path Walkers!"
Urei 'Cazal, Supreme Commander of the Path Walkers, to assassination squads tasked with hunting down Simon-G294.


1535 Hours, November 17th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), inside The Greasy Spoon, on frontier colony of New Ceylon


Now

An artificial intelligence talked to a mercenary.

"Four million credits," Diana said, raising a quartet of extended holographic fingers and wiggling them up at her partner's face. "Four million credits."

Simon-G294, known to most of the underworld's criminal community as Mordred, looked away from the holo-display on the grimy table and did a quick scan of the sparsely populated bar, a dingy little dive on the even dingier Outer Colony world of New Ceylon. Still all human patrons. That was good. The Path Walkers probably wouldn't hire "filth" to do their job for them, which mean that no two-bit losers would think to try and claim the seven-figure bounty they'd placed on his head.

"We have four million credits," Diana continued cheerfully. "That's one million times four. Four times one million. Four one millions--"

"Alright, I get the picture," Simon groaned, reaching for the mug of dull, flavorless beer he'd taken from the bartender. "Yeah, we had a good haul. Not that it matters now."

"Oh, but it matters a whole lot," Diana said, throwing a lock of blond hair over her digital shoulder with a toss of her head. "We are rich, dumbass. Richer than any of the losers we normally have to hang out with. Richer than just about anyone in our line of work. Rich, rich, rich." She was practically doing a little dance on the table, her legs making tiny skipping movements as she talked.

"What's got you in such a good mood?" Simon demanded, choking down the foul-tasting beer in a single gulp. He wiped the murky liquid off his chin with his left hand or, to be more precise, the skeletal prosthetic that had replaced his entire left arm. "Usually you're bitching that we haven't gotten enough out of the last job."

"Well, usually we aren't sitting pretty on four million credits," Diana informed him. "Now we are. Get the difference, dumbass?"

"I'll tell you the difference I'm getting," Simon growled. "Remember that cute little list of people the Fallen used to have? You know, the ones they were paying money to have killed? Well, the Path Walkers have taken over that little corner of the assassination market, and guess what? My name's on that list now. And that's not even taking the fact that the UNSC knows I'm alive now into account. So, my life was in the shitter before we signed on with Kahn, and now someone just came and flushed it for good measure."

"But you've been flushed down the shitter with four million credits for the trouble."

"Great. The only thing I should be thinking of using it for is bribing the hit squad ONI's going to send our way the minute they get a fix on where we are, which, seeing how wonderfully everything else has been going, will probably be in a matter of hours."

Diana snorted. "Relax, dumbass. I think the UNSC and its Union buddies are going to be a little distracted for a while. Just check out the news."

Simon glanced over at the bar's cracked broadcasting screen, which showed a grim-faced news anchor indicating a glowing star chart. The words Naval Engagements on Outer Rim were emblazoned below him.

"More reports of Interspecies Union naval forces engaging ships belonging to the Path Walker faction are coming in from the frontier," the anchor was saying. "UNSC officials have confirmed that additional warships are being contributed to the Union's joint navies to bolster its ability to maintain the security of frontier colonies."

"See?" said Diana, waving a slender, holographic hand at the screen. "That little war you started should help keep them from worrying about little old you. Stop worrying so much."

"Would you shut up about that?" Simon put his head in his hands. "I didn't start that war, okay? Kahn and I just got caught in the crossfire, Nothing more, nothing less."

"Don't be so modest," Diana mocked. "I think having some guys dressed up as a Spartan and an ODST breaking into their compound and kidnapping one of their friends helped kick things off. Don't let those UNSC goons take all the credit."

"I said shut up," Simon snarled through gritted teeth. "It was just a job! I wasn't looking for trouble with the UNSC!"

"Then explain that suit of Spartan armor we've got stashed back at the apartment," Diana told him with a smirk. "That's another thing you're not taking credit for: offing that Spartan guy. I mean, you couldn't have done it without me, but for you it's still pretty impressive."

"Do you want me to turn you the fuck off?" Simon was seriously getting angry now, and not just at Diana. He could still remember the chaos back in that forest, how they'd isolated that Spartan who'd come after them, confused him with holo-drones, the way his energy sword had felt as he slashed the super soldier's head off...

He didn't look any older than me. Just another kid, another pawn in their stupid game. That could have been Terrence. Or Mary. Or Cassandra...

Simon squeezed his eyes shut until they hurt. Anything to take his mind off everything that had happened over the course of the past week. He downed the last of his drink, choking down the foul liquid in the hopes that it would kill all the stupid feelings and memories that were churning around inside him.

I'm done with all this guilt shit. That's what I told Tuka, right? All this crap that happens around me, it's not like it's all my fault. I don't need to go running back to the Visag keep with my tail between my legs just because a job went south. Same with Cassandra. She can keep all that peaceful living stuff to herself. It's not who I am. It's not who I'm supposed to be.

But as many times as he repeated those lines to himself, the guilts and doubts just wouldn't go away. He'd been doing a lot of unwanted thinking over the past few days, reliving a hell of a lot of old memories that he'd thought he'd buried a long time ago. And the real kicker was that it all boiled down to one thing.

Yeah, I've lived a pretty shitty life, and it sure as hell isn't getting any better. What the hell's the point of killing for money if all I ever use it for is keeping me going to the next day? I'm barely eighteen and I've gone to pretty much ever extreme there is to go, and what do I have to show for it? A price on my head, a smart-ass AI, and a body that's falling apart faster by the day.

He reached his organic hand into a pouch on his battered Semi-Powered Infiltration armor and pulled out a small yellow capsule, which he crushed between his teeth. The gold-colored liquid inside tasted even worse than his beer, but he choked it down anyway. He couldn't be too careful these days. The strange, Sanghelios-based disease that had been steadily attacking his lungs for the past two years had been getting worse than ever over the last couple of months. If he went a day or even too many hours without taking him one of the capsules, he could end up on the ground, unable to breath and spitting out his own blood.

That's where that four million's really going, he thought numbly as the burning fluid wound its way down his throat. Buying more of the damn meds from Syndicate dealers.

More and more lately, he'd been doing the unthinkable and considering the option of taking his old friend Tuka 'Refum up on his offer to return to the Visag keep on Sanghelios. The kaidon there, Roni 'Visag, had once saved him from a savage Brute slave camp and brought him back to the keep, where he'd been allowed to study the art of wielding an energy sword as if he were a young Sangheili warrior. Although he'd been loath to admit it then, now Simon looked back on the period as one of the best times in his life, free of war or fear or death, the three things that had dominated the rest of his life. And yet he hadn't been able to handle it. He'd walked away from the keep because he simply couldn't adjust to such a secluded, peaceful life, and if he went back now, he'd just be a drain on the keep's finances, with his constant need for the pills to keep his disease in check. Besides, Tuka had already risked too much in letting him go after the Path Walker disaster; the last thing he needed was for a wanted criminal to show up at his adoptive home seeking shelter.

Another option would be to seek out his former Gamma Company comrade, Cassandra-G006, and try to find peace with her. He'd been responsible for nearly everything that had ever happened to her, from the death of her squad to her separation from the rest of their Spartan brethren, and yet she'd chosen to forgive him, remain his friend, and repeatedly extend the offer of escaping the hellish world of crime and mercenary jobs that he dwelled in now. That was but one of many things about her that Simon would never understand.

But you know what happens to people who get close to you like that, right Simon? How'd the last person who told you she loved you end up?

At the end of the day, he couldn't bring himself to just come out and tell Cassandra that deep down he wanted to be more than friends, had wanted that since they'd been together in Gamma Company. They both knew it, had come close to making that a reality during their brief, frigid exile together on Hekate, but in the end nothing had come of it. They'd been reunited for a brief time a few months back, but now Cassandra had gone back to the clinic she worked in back in Sangheili space, putting her peerless medical talents to the non-violent use she'd always wanted to use them for. There wasn't a chance in hell that Simon would go to her and risk bringing either the Path Walkers or UNSC down on her. He'd ruined her life enough times already.

So you're on your own for this one. Deal with it. You're always on your own when things go to shit. This time isn't any different.

"Well, if you're going to be all mopey about it, then I guess I'm the one who gets the credit," Diana was saying. "I, Diana, the greatest construct in the history of artificial intelligence, single-handedly pissed off the Path Walkers and kicked off an interstellar war, giving you meatbags something new to kill each other over. Oh, and I killed a big, bad Spartan while I was at it."

She took a deep bow. "Bask in my superior power and intellect, meatbag."

Simon glared at her over the rim of his mug. "Just power down already. You're being even more of a miserable bitch than usual."

She just shrugged. "I don't see why you meatbags get so busted up over just a hundred thousand or so deaths. It's not like you guys have much to live for anyway."

"I'm serious. Shut the hell up."

"Since when do you care so much about this stuff anyway? Whatever happened to the whole looking out for number one gig you had going on for a while there?"

Simon bristled, but he had to admit she had a point. "Just because I stuck my neck out a few times..."

"Let's see," Diana began counting off on her fingers. "Saving Doc back on the asteroid, that nearly got us killed; saving her from those Brutes on Hekate, that got you thrown in a slave camp; that disaster over Famul, our shuttle got blown to kingdom come... yeah, for someone who says he only cares about himself, you've got a real bad habit of getting all noble at the worst possible times."

Simon resisted the overwhelming urge to smash the holo-pad. Diana, who was projecting from where she was slotted into his prosthetic arm, would just keep chattering through the speakers he'd unwisely grafted into his armor. He was just about to eject her from the armor when a voice interrupted them.

"Mordred!"

Simon whirled to see a girl, probably a year or so younger than him, darting over to his table. She wore the working overalls that were all the rage amongst the colonists on New Ceylon along with a white shirt that was covered in grease stains. Her thin, pointed face bore similar stains, and her straw-colored hair had been pulled back to keep it out of her eyes.

With a start, Simon instinctively reached for the sidearm strapped to his leg armor. The girl wasn't carrying a weapon, but she could have any manner of lethal instruments hidden in her overall's pockets. Worse, she might just be a distraction, something to get in his way while her accomplices lined up their shots at him. His assault rifle was leaning against the table: within reach, but plenty far away if someone opened fire on him.

The girl stopped dead when she realized he had a gun trained on her. A few heads had turned, but most of the patrons knew enough about New Ceylon to mind their own business about things like this.

"Keep your hands where I can see them," he warned her quietly. "What the hell are you doing, yelling my name out for the whole damn world to hear?"

Rather than looking afraid, she just looked a little hurt. "Don't you remember me? Zoey? From Famul?"

Simon blinked, thinking hard. Finally it came to him. "Yeah, I remember you. The slave girl." That had been just one incident amongst many on that shitty trip.

He lowered the pistol, and the girl--Zoey--moved closer. "You're jumpy," she said, moving to sit across from him in his booth.

"Not being that way gets you killed in my line of work," Simon told her coldly. He was still shaken by her sudden appearance. "What the hell are you doing here? I gave you cash back on Famul didn't I? Why didn't you get back to that rich father you said you had on Earth?" Now that she'd come back to remind him, he'd been hoping to get something out of that particular good deed once she got back to her family. Quite disappointing.

"I got back to UNSC space as quick as I could," Zoey assured him. "But the money you gave me was only enough to get me as far as this place."

"So why didn't you just call your family from here?" asked Simon, exasperated. He had a lot bigger issues to worry about than some charity case who thought they were friends.

Zoey looked away. "You know how hard it is to get an encrypted call done around here?" she asked. "I could do it through local channels, but now I'm never sure who's not listening in."

She looked back at him, and Simon saw both fear and determination in her eyes. "I'm never going back into slavery. Ever."

"Good for you," chimed in Diana. "The dumbass here learned that the hard way, and he had it way worse than you did."

She turned back to Simon. "Now tell me, how was it that you got stuck in those slave pits? Didn't I just remind you?"

"Oh, you've got that cute AI with you still!" said Zoey, instantly brightening.

Simon flinched at her use of the term "cute"--it was one of many words that could instantly make him nauseous if it wasn't being used sarcastically. Now he was remembering how quickly Zoey's attitude had gotten on his nerves back on Famul. Rescue her from slavery and get her out of harm's way, and she was possibly the most cheerful person he had ever met.

Having a normal, peaceful childhood will do that to a person, won't it?

Remarkably, Diana didn't take offense. Instead she curtsied and smirked up at Simon. "Well, at least someone appreciates the effort I put into this projection."

"Great," Simon muttered to Zoey. "She only likes you because you're a better stooge than I am."

Zoey just shrugged. "Pays to be nice to people. That's how I got a job here. Never worked in my life, but I sweet talked the bartender into letting me help around back."

Her familiarity bothered Simon in a way that was different from the way most people annoyed him. "Listen," he said. "Glad to see that you got off Famul alright, but I'm a little busy right now. Job problems, the war, all that heavy stuff."

"Well, why do you think I came over here?" Zoey demanded. "You're still a merc, right?"

"Well, yeah..."

"Back on Famul you said you were busy with something else, but you don't look so busy now. How 'bout giving me a lift to Earth now? I swear my dad will shell out enough money to keep you out of cash problems for years."

The very promise of all that wealth was enough to make Simon drool. Then his more rational side took over and began pointing out the two main problems with that plan.

The first: waltzing into the Inner Colonies and knocking on Earth's doorstep probably wasn't the brightest thing he could do right about now.

Second: there was something he'd had back on Famul, something very important that he didn't have now...

With his old Insurrectionist shuttle blown to hell, he had no way of actually getting Zoey anywhere, let alone Earth.

"Ah, shit," he muttered. Why can't anything ever be simple?

"What is it?" Zoey asked. "What's wrong."

Simon sighed. "Back on Famul, there was a shuttle that I owned. It had living quarters, a Slipspace drive, the works."

"And...?"

"It got blown sky high about a day after you got out."

"Oh..." Zoey looked crestfallen. "But you're the only merc around here I can trust!"

Simon laughed bitterly. "What the hell makes you think you can trust me?"

"Yeah," said Diana. "This guy's a nasty piece of work, let me tell you. Right, Simon? Like on Famul, when you could have handed that Tuka kid over to the chieftain like you agreed, but instead you decided to go back to helping him."

She shook her head. "It's a shame when mercenaries can't finish the jobs you agree to. But I did like the bit where you told Tuka it was all part of the plan anyway. That was a nice touch."

Zoey looked confused. "Well, you did save me. Doesn't that count for something."

"Might," Simon said with a shrug, pointedly ignoring his partner. "Might not. I've got my days. But if I don't have a ship, what do you still need me for?"

"Like I said, you're the only merc around here I know I can trust. If you can get a ride for me, I'd like some security."

Simon leaned forward. "Now you're talking business. What kind of trouble would you be expecting?"

"Slavers, pirates, criminals," Zoey said with a shrug.

"So basically everyone on this planet," Simon noted wryly. "Do people around here know who you are?"

"No, but that doesn't mean they won't find out."

"If I book us a trip to Earth, we just need to make sure we don't shout it to the hills."

Zoey leaned forward eagerly. "So you'll help me?"

"Well yeah, if there's really going to be a payout at the end," Simon told her. "You're positive your dad'll cough up all this cash you're promising?"

"He's really generous," Zoey assured him. "Always has been."

"Then we've got a deal." Simon leaned back in his chair. "I'll snag us a ride out of here, we hit Earth, and then your dad pays me more credits than I could possibly imagine."

Of course, that's if and only if I don't get my head blown off by an ONI hit squad the second I set foot on the planet.

"Ooh," Diana teased. "There goes poor Zoey's inheritance."

"I'm sure Mordred and my father can reach an agreement," Zoey told her, oblivious to the sarcasm. "How long till you can get us out of here?"

Simon thought about it. They would definitely need people they could trust, which ruled out just about everyone on New Ceylon or even in the entirety of the frontier colonies for that matter. That left people he'd worked with before, which ruled out just about everyone else. Then an idea struck him.

"There's two guys I know," he said. "They were docked here a week ago, so if they're still here we can get going in under twelve hours. Otherwise, we're stuck here for a few days. Weeks even."

"So how long till you know?"

Simon reached for his helmet. "About two minutes. How do you feel about aliens?"

"Long as they're not trying to enslave me, I can handle them."

"Good." Simon donned the helmet and opened a radio channel. The only question now was whether or not the two people he was about to call would actually be happy to hear from him.

Looks like I've been recruited. Again.


Chapter Two: The Navy Man

"The sweep's finished for this city. Subject G006 has been observed and cleared for forcible removal in two days. Now all that remains is for me to make contact with Subject G294 to determine his suitability for the program and then I can move on to the next colony."
―Lieutenant Victor Santiago in a status report to Colonel James Ackerson regarding the recruitment of children for Gamma Company


1230 Hours, February 9th, 2544 (UNSC Military Calendar), Colonial Housing Center 771, Inner Colony world Constantinople


Then

"Just wait in this room, sir, and I'll go find him."

That was what the nurse had told Victor Santiago nearly an hour ago, and he was starting to wonder if Constantinople's orphanage system was--for illusive reasons of their own--jerking his chain. Victor, his recruitment team, and the dozens of other recruitment teams scattered across UNSC space by the Office of Naval Intelligence in its search for candidates for the SPARTAN-III program's latest company had been presented with literally tens of thousands of dossiers pertaining to every human child matching the parameters set in place by the program's strict selection criteria. Victor had interviewed hundreds of young candidates, and to the best of his knowledge, most had been accepted by the program. By the time an officer like Victor came calling for an interview, the unwitting candidate had already passed nearly all of ONI's admittance markers.

Victor looked back down at the dossier displayed before him on his holo-tablet. This particular candidate--Subject G294--was one of the few that might actually be disqualified by his interview. Unlike most of the other children Victor had looked into, this one wasn't a war orphan, one who had lost everything to the Covenant fleets that were eating away at humanity's colonies on a daily basis. That marker--one that had been stressed during the selection of the Alpha and Beta batches--had been toned down as the Gamma search revealed less and less suitable candidates, but Victor's superiors still considered it important. The more hate the candidate could muster at an early age, the more they would be driven to excel in the grueling training process that was to come.

Subject G294 (Victor never thought of his subjects as anything but their numerical designations--it was best to be as impersonal as possible with them, especially since they were children) was an orphan, just not a war orphan. The kid had, if the orphanage's report was anything to go by, been pulled off the streets by Constantinople's police force after a feral dog had nearly ripped his throat out. They had determined that he'd been living as an urchin for nearly a year and had entered him into the orphanage system following a stint in the local emergency ward.

Victor frowned down at the dossier. The kid's--no, the subject's--injuries had come from more than just the dog attack. Included in the medical report were the findings of the doctors who had operated on him, which included badly healed fractures up and down his arms and legs, cracked ribs, and even an untreated cranial fracture that had thankfully not been life-threatening. Almost all of these injuries had been determined to have been inflicted over the course of the subject's entire life, which meant that he'd spent a good portion of his short life having the shit beaten out of him.

This could go both ways, Victor thought, running a finger down the report. Either the kid, sorry, the subject winds up motivated by all this crap, or he's a traumatized wreck who isn't good for anything.

Either way, Victor was getting impatient. He was just about to contact one of his subordinates to see if there actually was a Subject G294 to interview when the door to the meeting room slid open and the nurse escorted a small child in.

"I'm very sorry, sir," she said. "He goes off places by himself and it always takes us forever to find him."

"You should install a surveillance system..." Victor's mouth said, accompanied by a practiced, artificial laugh. In the meantime, Victor himself was looking over the subject he'd been waiting for.

The subject was small, even for a six year old. Although he wore the same kinds of well-fit clothing that Victor had seen all the other orphans wearing on his way in, Subject G294 bore patches of dirt on his skin and body that made him seem inherently grimy, as if the caretakers at the orphanage hadn't quite been able to rub the filth of the streets off of him. His tangled black hair was streaked with grime, and his gray eyes peered out of his head as if they belonged to some animal gazing out from its cave at an intruder. Apart from the dirt, his face bore at least two recent-looking bruises, along with some mild cuts and scrapes.

"I'll just leave you two alone then?" the nurse asked.

"Just wait outside," Victor told her. "This won't take long."

The filthy subject slid into a chair across from him, and Victor waited for him to say something. Most of the other children had been confused about his uniform, wondering why a navy man would want to talk to dregs like them. This one just stared at him for several moments before shrugging and resting his dirty sleeves on the polished conference table.

"You got any food?" he asked, gazing up at the tall adult with those narrowed, sunken eyes.

Victor hesitated. This was a strange way to open a conversation, even for a kid. He pulled a ration bar out of his pocket and slid it across the table. Subject G294 snatched it up and, to Victor's surprise, slipped it into his own pocket rather than eating it.

"What do you plan to do with it?" Victor asked, intrigued in spite of himself. G294 was the first of his subjects to truly surprise him right off the bat.

G294 simply shrugged and continued to stare at him with undisguised suspicion. Victor cleared his throat and launched into his well-rehearsed recruitment pitch.

"You don't really have much here, do you?" he asked, indicating the subject's threadbare hand-me-downs. "You're just a ward of this colony, and unless you've made some friends here, you don't have anyone who cares whether you're alive or dead. But the United Nations Space Command--the people I work for--can change all that." In a colony system filled with military propaganda messages, it was amazing how well small children responded to the package Victor was laying out.

Subject G294 just shrugged again, his face a study in bored indifference. "No one cares about me," he said with a startling lack of any sort of self pity or indignation. "No one's ever cared about me."

"We can change that," Victor assured him. "We can make you into someone who means something. Someone who protects people. Someone who kills monsters."

The subject's eyes narrowed even more as he absorbed this new information. It was all Victor gave most of his subjects--particularly the ones who weren't war orphans--but it was generally enough to hook them enough to sign on.

After nearly a full minute of contemplation, G294 jammed his fist up under his chin and cocked his head. "Will I get to leave here?" he asked.

"Yes. You won't be seeing this place ever again," Victor assured him, though a tiny part of him made him hate himself for not giving the reason why the subject would never be returning.

"Good." Something new flashed in G294's eyes, but Victor couldn't quite place what it was. "I hate this place."

Victor stood to go. His datapad had recorded everything: the conversation, the facial quirks, even the subject's vital signs. All he had to do now was turn in his report and wait for further instructions. What happened to Subject G294 now was no longer his concern.

"You'll hear from us soon," he said as he turned to leave.

Congratulations, kid, his mind whispered, unbidden. Looks like you've been recruited.


Chapter Three: The Target

"Humanity now faces two threats: those from without and those from within. If we make the mistake of ignoring one in favor of the other, we risk the peace and stability we have fought so hard to maintain over the last two decades. This man, David Kahn, is a symbol of the threat from within, and we cannot allow his activities to continue. We will apprehend him and bring him to justice, and we will do it with the same level of dedication and effectiveness that our comrades fight with against the alien menace. There can and will be no mistakes or hesitation in this mission."
―Captain Yuri Rosch addressing members of the newly formed Task Force Watts.


2115 Hours, November 10th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), frontier colony of New Madrigal

One week previously


Now

"Green team, in position. Visual contact with Blue team established."

"This is Blue team, affirmative. Confirmed contact with Green team."

"Red team moving to Alpha position. Requesting cover from Green team."

"Red team, this is Green team, we have visual across Alpha position. Cover confirmed."

"Yellow team advancing to Beta position. You got us, Blue?"

"Yellow team, this is Blue team. Cover confirmed."

They all moved with drilled efficiency, their combat armor blending perfectly into the darkened streets; black on black. Their armored feet fell silently on the rooftops, streets, and alleys as they moved to their assigned positions. If light from the moon and stars overhead were seen to gleam off of a visor or silenced gun barrel, it was quickly extinguished with a subtle shift of a gauntlet or tilt of a head.

These Marines had a target, and nothing was going to keep them from it.

Red team, a full platoon of thirty battle-hardened Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, moved in a slow, scattered formation hugging either side of the wide street leading up to the squat, two-story apartment complex. They'd studied its layout for hours before the assault had been launched, and now they scanned its many doors and windows for any sign that their target knew they were coming.

Their helmet radios crackled, and a clipped voice ordered, "Red team, divide up by squads, as planned. One for the lobby, two for sweeping the building."

Red team's lieutenant flashed a series of hand signs to his ODSTs, and they began arranging themselves to match their orders. One ODST noticed a ragged-looking homeless man staring up at him from an alley. He drew a small pistol from his belt and fired a tranquilizer into the bum's chest, knocking him out before he had a chance to say a word.

"Yellow team, form a perimeter," the voice continued. "Take up your designated positions and don't let anyone in or out of that building."

Unseen in the alleys around the apartment complex and the surrounding neighborhood, Yellow team's commandos fanned out to surround their target. Above them, the six sniper-spotter teams that were Green team angled their sniper rifles to target strategic areas across the building's surface; on the roofs facing the other side, Blue team did the same.

"All teams," the voice said, its tone utterly calm. "Launch assault in thirty seconds, on my mark..."

The apartment's doors were locked and every light in the lobby was extinguished when Red team moved in. A quick application of a spoofer device overrode the building's simple anti-theft systems, letting the entire platoon slip in without so much as a whisper of an alarm. The ODSTs scanned the darkened lobby with their weapons, their helmets' infrared sensors giving them a clear view of the entire room.

"Alright, Besser, take your squad up to the second floor," Red team's lieutenant ordered. "Start with the target room, and stay alert. Rajeev, your boys have this floor; Chung, stay with me."

The three squads split off immediately, with two vanishing into the complex's darkened hallways and the third spreading out across the lobby.

"Be ready to assist the others if they find the target," the lieutenant ordered. He signaled Sergeant Chung. "Chung, get over to the desk and dig up what you can on the target from their computers. Remember, Room 457."

Chung and two of his ODSTs approached the lobby desk and slid behind it, taking care to watch for booby traps. Just because their target wasn't supposed to know they were coming didn't mean he didn't.

"Shouldn't there be a receptionist?" one of the men asked nervously over the team's helmet links.

"Tough neighborhood," replied Sergeant Chung. "They've probably lost guys to shootings here before."

The squad's technician carefully slid a spoofer onto the desk's computer terminal. "Just gimme a sec," she muttered. "Let's see what this asshole's alias is."

Across the lobby, Red team's lieutenant swept the room with his rifle for what felt like the fiftieth time in less than a minute. He and his men had trained for lethal operations just like this one; hell, they'd pulled off more than their fair share real ops almost exactly like this one. So why was he so nervous?

"Besser, how we doing?" he asked, hoping his hair-rasing apprehension wasn't present in his voice.

"At the target room now, sir," Sergeant Besser reported. The sergeant's voice was tight. "No signs of trouble. We have one confirmed heat signature in there, and at this range it'd have to be a damn good decoy."

"Copy that. Stay on your toes and breach."

"Understood. You got us, Green?"

"This is Green; we have a team pointed right at the bastard's window. You're covered."

"Copy. Breaching in five..."

On the second floor, Sergeant Besser nodded to his point man. The burly ODST primed his combat shotgun as another man slipped a spoofer on the door. A moment later, a light above the door handle flashed green. It had been unlocked.

"Alright, go now!" Besser ordered. The door was tugged open and the point man ducked inside. Every ODST in the squad froze, waiting for the gunfire to start, but the doorway remained silent.

"Clear," the point man whispered. "I've got a solid heat signature in the bedroom; looks like he's sleeping."

"Copy that," Besser hissed back. They didn't need to whisper with their helmet's shielding their every word, but the tension was getting to him. It was getting to all of them.

"Queens, Andreson, get your tranqs ready," Besser ordered. "Everyone else, stick to lethal rounds. He so much as twitches the wrong direction, you waste him."

The rest of the squad moved into the apartment. It was a testament to their years of grueling training that ten armored Marines could enter through such a small doorway without making a sound. They followed the point man to the bedroom door, waited for his signal, then tensed. The point man took a breath, readied his shotgun, and kicked the door in.

It folded under his armored boot, and then he was in with the whole squad, all pretenses of stealth abandoned. Queens and Andreson each pumped a tranquilizer into the man who was lying on the bed, covered only by a small blanket. As the squad scanned the room for any sort of traps or weapons, Besser lunged forward and hauled their target up by his collar.

The next moment passed by very slowly for Sergeant Besser. The first thing he saw as he stared down at his target was a thin, balding man with a pockmarked face and terrified eyes. His brain registered confusion: was this really the guy they were after? Then his eyes traveled down to the man's shirt and saw the dirty, apartment uniform he was wearing. And then he knew.

"It's not him," he hissed. Shoving away the blanket, he saw that the man's hands had been cuffed behind his back. "We've been had."

Then he saw the odd metal lump strapped to the man's chest.

"Shit!" he barked to his squad. "He's rigged! Cover, cover, cover!"

The squad stumbled over each other in their haste to move, and as they collided and swore at each other, the bedroom's window tinkled four times. Three of the ODSTs fell instantly, while a fourth cried out and grabbed at his neck. Sergeant Besser looked up in time to see Queens collapse, his tinted helmet visor a spiderweb of cracks.

Red team's lieutenant's heart raced as Sergeant Besser yelled over the helmet link, "We're under fire! From the outside! Get some goddamn cover!"

"Say again, sergeant?" the lieutenant demanded. "Where's the target?"

"He's not here!" Besser's voice sounded as if he were on the verge of a breakdown. "The guy in the room... he's one of the hotel staff! I've got three KIA... dammnit, make that four! What the hell? Where's Green team?"

The lieutenant immediately opened a force wide channel. "Green team, what's going on out there?"

No response.

"Green team, I say again, what the hell is going on out there?"

Still nothing. Chung's squad had all stopped what they were doing to scan the room again, moving away from the front door and out of the potential line of fire. Finally, the lieutenant's radio crackled.

"This is Corporal Ethers," a man's voice yelled over the radio. "The rest of my team isn't picking up. Nothing from Lieutenant Young! I don't know... ah!"

The voice fell silent, and Red's lieutenant knew exactly why.

"Green is down," he yelled into the force's channel. "I repeat, Green is down. Blue team, possible enemy sniper out there!"

Over at the reception desk, Sergeant Chung motioned the two ODSTs with him. "Take cover!"

But for them, it was too late. The three Marines hadn't even moved a foot when the improvised explosive devices hidden within the desk's wood paneling went off, tearing the ODSTs into shredded meat and sending the rest of the squad sprawling to the tiled floor.

Task Force Watts had prepared dozens of contingency plans before launching the operation. Unfortunately, none of those contingencies had anticipated that half the strike force would be wiped out before even laying eyes on the target.

The sniper pairs of Blue team were already on the move, relocating and scanning Green team's positions to find the slumped corpses of its own sniper pairs where the living had been only moments before. And as they moved and sprinted across the rooftops, they began dropping too.

The bullets came silently, soaring through the gentle night air to find their targets in visors or necks. Blue's lieutenant was one of the first to fall, the side of his throat slashed by a high caliber round. He continued whispering orders to his men until more shots brought down the ODSTs with him and left him to slip into fatal unconsciousness alone. Those not killed outright threw themselves desperately behind cover, trying to connect with what was left of their team as the body count rose by the second.

Yellow team, spread out across a labyrinth of streets and alleys, struggled to get a hold of the situation without exposing themselves to the invisible killer who was slaughtering the strike force. Their lieutenant listened desperately for the radio traffic of what was left of Red and Blue teams, doing his best to gage some sort of location for their target. Finally, he got a lead from the last moments of one of the Blue snipers.

"I have visual! One guy, on top of building 4B! He's on the--"

Yellow's lieutenant checked his helmet map and gestured to the squad with him. "4B! Move your asses!"

They smashed through the door of building 4b--a small shop--ignoring the alarms as they raced up the stairs and sprinted for the roof access. The point man darted out first, dropping to his knees and beginning a scan of the dark rooftop. The man behind him didn't wait for his signal and continued his pelting run... only to have a high caliber bullet punch through his helmet and drop him like a stone.

The point man turned in time to see a dark figure in armor discard a long rifle and pull a sidearm from his waist. He tried to bring his rifle around, but the attacker punched two silenced bullets through his visor before charging for the roof access.

The ODSTs had been drilled endlessly on taking down larger, stronger opponents. They had to, what with the endless number of hostile aliens they were tasked with taking down. But this assailant moved fast, darting between them and delivering fast, accurate punches or kicks that more often than not shattered skulls or spines. One ODST stepped in too close, only to have her legs shot out from under her. Discarding his empty pistol, the attacker grabbed the crippled Marine and relieved her of her own sidearm while using her body as a shield against what was left of her squad.

The ODSTs were astonished to see that their opponent was wearing armor identical to theirs. Faceless behind his own ODST-style helmet, their attacker unflinchingly killed two more as they struggled to shoot around their still-living comrade. As the survivors moved to surround him, one desperately tugged out a grenade and threw it at him.

Breaking his prisoner's neck in an instant, the armored figure stepped to the side and snatched the live grenade out of the air. In the next, he lashed out at the nearest ODST, punching the grenade into the man's armor and sending him stumbling off the roof with a muffled cry. The grenade detonated halfway to the ground.

Yellow team's lieutenant suddenly found himself visor to visor with the dark-armored killer. He reached for his combat knife, but a savage blow to the neck crushed his windpipe and sent him slipping to his knees, gagging on his own saliva.

The last ODST looked around and realized he was the only one left. He stumbled backwards, tripping on his own feet and falling to the blood-slicked rooftop.

"You... you..." he gabbled, scrabbling around for his fallen weapon. "You're not human!"

The armored figure shrugged and shot him dead. It turned its visor back on the lieutenant, who was still on his knees.

You had to hand it to the ODSTs, the figure noted. They were tough sons--and daughters--of bitches. The lieutenant was fumbling for his sidearm in spite of his smashed throat. The armored figure gave him a second to do so, then gunned him down as well.

The UNSC's elite shock troops were spread out across the rooftop in a macabre diorama, their darkened combat armor stained with the same blood that was steadily spreading across the rooftop.

The armored figure paused and quickly scanned the area for snipers before going to retrieve his fallen rifle. As it did, it raised its free hand to its helmet and opened a secure channel.

"I've thinned them out," he reported in a calm, gravelly voice. "Send your boys in and start shooting."

Yellow team's two remaining squads were still keeping to their tight alleys, trying to get in contact with their dead teammates. The night air was now filled with the screams of panicking civilians, as the apartment owners who had been roused by the lobby explosion were now finding armored special forces between them and their exit. The Red team survivors were struggling to maintain their positions within the apartment complex while fending off the terrified newcomers. Red's lieutenant was yelling into his helmet radio, practically demanding evacuation from his superiors.

Just as one of Yellow's surviving sergeants had decided to risk moving in to link up with Red team, the sound of electric engines and squealing tires filled the air. The ODSTs looked up in time to see two civilian vans pull up in front of their alley as even more vehicles streamed past them. Figures wearing everything from body armor to tank tops and brandishing all manner of firearms spilled out, and suddenly the ODSTs had much more to worry about than a phantom sniper.

David Kahn, widely known as the most lethal mercenary in the galaxy's underworld community, slid into a small alcove and gazed down at the destruction unfolding below him. With his reconnaissance data to guide them, the legions of gangs in New Madrigal knew exactly where the ODSTs were, and they were rolling out in force to put an end to the UNSC intrusion. Yellow team was already pinned down in the alleys, and even more trucks were moving to surround the apartment complex that was now held by a besieged Red team.

It had all come together masterfully, Kahn decided. He'd spent close to three days hidden on these rooftops, watching as burly "civilians" scoped out the apartment. He'd memorized the layout of nearly the entire district as he'd planted subtle surveillance devices across the roofs and walls; perfect for knowing exactly where the sniper teams were setting up. He'd even managed to subdue the apartment's receptionist and move the man up to his room--along with a mock "explosive" to keep him still--without attracting attention. And now, with over half the strike team dead and the rest taking on New Madrigal's entire criminal element, everything was paying dividends.

He enjoyed a moment of professional pride as he reflected on how he'd used the UNSC task force sent to kill him as a means to complete yet another contract. The Syndicate, the galaxy's pre-eminent criminal empire, had been trying to bring New Madrigal under its influence for over half a decade now. But a colony founded primarily by independence-minded ex-Insurrectionists hadn't been about to just roll over and let some off-world group muscle in on their criminal operations. So Kahn had been called in to start a war.

And the UNSC troops had been exactly the kind of trigger he'd needed.

The firefights were still raging. The ODSTs now had suitable outlets for their fear and anger, and they were cutting the gangs down by the dozens. Yellow team had already pushed its way out of the alleys and was now coordinating fire down the street from behind commandeered trucks. Red team had managed to successfully get the civilians into cover and was now blazing away at the uncoordinated criminals from the second floor.

Yes, the ODSTs would certainly give much more than they got. Kahn wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if they managed to walk out of this wildfire alive.

But that wouldn't stop the gangs. Now that they were all out in force, it was only a matter of time before they forgot about the UNSC and turned on each other like rabid dogs.

For a moment, Kahn caught himself frowning. New Madrigal was about to be consumed by gang violence, and the body count was going to be high. The bodies in that pile wouldn't all belong to the gangs or UNSC. Kahn didn't feel much for the ODSTs he'd just killed--they'd known the score when they'd come after him--but he couldn't help but wonder how responsible he'd be for the civilians who were about to die in the crossfire.

I'm getting too old, he thought, shaking his helmeted head. Old and soft.

He wondered if that cunning little bastard Mordred had been caught up by the UNSC or Path Walkers yet, then decided it wasn't any of his business. Like the ODSTs, Mordred had known the score back when he'd signed on to kidnap a Path Walker.

The fighting was getting closer, and Kahn knew it was time to move. The ODSTs might have been able to know he wasn't with them, but the gangs might not be able to tell the difference between him and the shock troopers they were fighting.

The sounds of gunfire were spreading across town, and Doctor Terrence Stern was getting worried.

"Get the windows sealed," he ordered his nurses, who were in the midst of locking down the clinic they'd set up in downtown New Madrigal. "And start making calls. See if you can get a few freelancers down here to cover us, long as they don't charge too much for it."

"We should have stayed on Cordial Harmony," one nurse muttered, sliding a clip into his pistol. "Figures the Fallen get smashed the minute we get the hell out of there."

"Just get to it," Terrence snapped. "I want this place locked up tight by the time the patients start arriving."

"We can't just wait for patients," said a quiet voice behind him. "We'll need to go out there and get the people who can't make it themselves."

"We don't have a choice," Terrence said, rounding on his best medical technician. "I'm not sending anyone out there into that mess, least of all you."

"It doesn't matter." She hefted an assault rifle. "I'm going out there."

"Cassandra," Terrence said with exasperation. "I can't let you go now. We'll be understaffed as it is once the casualties start arriving, and I'll need every gun we can get if the gangs try taking over here."

"Don't worry." Cassandra-G006, ex-SPARTAN-III and currently the best medic on New Madrigal, slid a small flak jacket over her thin frame. "I already made a call. Nimue's setting up nearby; she'll cover the clinic."

"Oh," Terrence said as Cassandra headed for the door. "Well I guess we don't have anything to worry about, do we?"

"We'll be fine," she said over her shoulder as she grabbed her medical bag. "But there are people out there who need us."

"Yes," Terrence muttered. "Yes there are."

He rounded on the rest of his staff. "You heard her, didn't you? There are people who need us."

He slipped a handgun into his pocket. "So let's practice some medicine."


Chapter Four: First Kill

Then

The fire raced up the sides of the house, licking greedily at the walls and roof as it steadily consumed everything within. The woods surrounding the modest dwelling were lit brightly by the conflagration, as the deathly light from the fire punched through the night's darkness like an infant sun.

Silhouetted by the flames, a lone man stood before his burning home, throwing his hands up and pacing as if his mind couldn't fathom what was going on. His pace was staggered and jerky; he was drunk enough to have impaired movement, though not nearly enough to send him toppling into the fire. He was dressed only in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, which had been singed by the flames before he could get out.

And huddled against a tree nearly fifty yards away, the man's son peered down the scope of a hunting rifle as the crosshairs danced around his father's darkened crown.

One shot. I only get one shot.

If he missed, it was over. His father would run and be gone and soon he would realize just who had started the fire. And then he would kill the boy, just like he had killed Mother.

But that wasn't going to happen. The boy was certain of that, because he was going to make this shot. It wasn't a possibility. It wasn't a necessity.

It was an absolute.

Just him and his father, alone outside the burning corpse of a home that, as far as the boy was concerned, had died a year ago when the man who had made his life a living hell had murdered the only thing in the world he had ever loved.

Even at thirteen, the boy named Hector Thornhill's eyes had been narrowed by years of intense, focused hatred for the man he was about to kill. One of them was newly blackened--the last of many gifts his father had imparted during his drunken rages. Even now, his arms ached from holding the rifle, and not because of its weight; they, too, were covered in scrapes and bruises.

But no more. You hear me? No more.

But he knew his father couldn't hear him, and he liked it that way. This was how it should be. All that built up pain and grief and rage would be released with this one shot. That was the plan, the one that Hector had built up in the weeks and months after his father's military friends had gotten him off at the trial.

War hero. That's what his father was. A hero. That's what heroes did. They killed their wives for getting between them and their sons.

So now his father would die like a hero--heroically shot through the head before his burning house.

Hector's heart was racing, but his mind was completely at ease. There was no hesitation as he sighted his father's head within the scope. This was how things were meant to be. Just him, a rifle and his father.

There was no point waiting around any more, and Hector knew that he had to prove to himself that he meant how he thought and felt. So he sighted one last time, took a breath, and pulled the trigger.

Teaching him how to handle the rifle had been the only thing his father had ever done for him. And it turned out to be his worst mistake.

The bullet soared true, and Hector's father just collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. No cry of pain, no squirting blood. Just a silent fall to the smoldering ground in front of the bonfire that had once been a house.

Hector walked towards the flames and the body, and he found that he'd been right. He felt nothing now, not pain or fear or regret. The sorrow and hate was gone as well, transported by the bullet into the man who'd caused it all. There was only the future, and what he'd make of himself now that he was free.

He reached the body, feeling the heat of the fire on his cheeks as he stared down at the corpse of the man who had spent the past eight years terrorizing him. He raised the rifle again, but found he didn't really want to pull the trigger. There was no longer any reason to.

For all his medals and friends and reputation, his father was now just a corpse in the dirt. In a year, no one would care that he'd ever even existed.

And Hector knew that he would never let that happen to him.

He tossed the rifle into the burning house and turned away. He had a long walk ahead of him before he reached the settlement.

He was quite the brave boy, getting out of there alive after bandits had murdered his father.


Chapter Five: Getting a Ride

"A prime example of the despicable criminal elements that have sprung up in the aftermath of the Schism and the Fallen insurgency, he is nonetheless a cunning and deadly warrior. What he lacks in honor he makes up for with ruthless efficiency in combat. He has no desire to restore his lost honor; indeed, I believe he finds the very thought of it repulsive."
―Excerpt from Fira 'Demal's report on his excursion to Famul regarding the Sangheili known as Ro'nin


"Perhaps the most formidable opponent I have ever faced. His association with the sell-sword Ro'nin is odd, considering the latter's disdain for honor and his own unique brand of it. His devotion to--and enjoyment of--the killing arts border on a kind of madness, and yet he strikes me as a hidden intellectual amongst his savage kind."
―Excerpt from Fira Demal's report on his excursion to Famul regarding the Jiralhanae known as Kenpachus


1735 Hours, November 17th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), inside Hangar 24B, on frontier colony of New Ceylon


Now

"Alright, now you're just being an asshole," Simon said, glaring up at Ro'nin.

The Sangheili mercenary just snorted. "As if I'd let you anywhere near my ship, Mordred."

"There's a lot of money in this," Simon insisted. "More than either of us could imagine."

He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to where Zoey was standing at the other end of the docking bay. She was staring, wide-eyed, at Ro'nin and the hulking figure behind him; when she'd said she could deal with aliens, she probably hadn't expected these specimens.

"Her family is loaded," Simon explained for the umpteenth time. "All you gotta do is get us to Earth, and then we all walk away really damn rich. It's the easiest job you'll ever have!"

"No, it isn't," Ro'nin growled, folding his arms over his battered armor. "And do you know why?"

"Enlighten me."

"Every time you get involved in a job involving us, things... how do you humans put it? Go to hell. Very, very quickly."

"Oh really?"

"Did we not just go through that back with the Path Walkers? We're lucky we didn't get prices on our heads after the things you pulled back there."

"That was Kahn who hired you, not me," Simon protested. "We were in the same boat--"

"Famul," continued Ro'nin. "We nearly got killed because you stabbed us in the back."

"You wouldn't have even been there if your partner hadn't been so friggin' obsessed with going after that asshole Fira," Simon said coldly. "And for the record, I tricked Mallunus into hiring me back then. It was all part of the plan--" "You aren't fooling anyone, Mordred," Ro'nin snapped. "You only turned on Mallunus when you thought your friends were winning, and then you still made money off of it."

"If you're pirate friends hadn't destroyed my shuttle, we wouldn't even be having this conversation!"

"And now we have a ship and you don't. Why don't you just buy yourself a new shuttle with that money you got off of Kahn?"

"Because I need it for other things. Look, this is the best deal any of us are going to get for a while the way things out here are going."

Ro'nin let out a bark of laughter. "And what makes you say that, Mordred? Perhaps you're having employment problems, but the two of us are doing just fine. Right, Kenpachus?"

Behind Ro'nin sat his hulking Jiralhanae partner. Kenpachus had his huge metal sword out and was busy sharpening it at the foot of their human-made shuttle. He looked like a picture of a gorilla Simon had once seen during wildlife training with the other Spartans on Onyx. The gorilla in question had been sitting down and chewing on some sort of twisted branch, and Kenpachus looked exactly like it if one replaced the branch with a massive, cleaving blade and decked the gorilla out in battle armor that was almost as scarred as the warrior underneath it.

Kenpachus looked up from his sharpening. "Some more money would be good," he grunted before going back to his blade.

"Like I said," Ro'nin said quickly. "We're doing just fine without getting work from humans like you."

"Which explains why you two are sitting around in a human port on a human colony," Simon pointed out. He was beginning to wonder if he should just buy Zoey a ticket to Earth and have her contact him when she got there, but even with all her innocence and naivete he knew better than to trust her completely. Besides, with the Path Walkers and the UNSC on his ass, he needed the extra security that Ro'nin and Kenpachus could provide.

Ro'nin glared at him. "Get out of here before that Path Walker bounty starts looking tempting."

"I'd just remind them how you helped us hit their compound."

"So I'd deliver a corpse."

"I'm worth about twenty thousand more alive, moron." Simon's arm tensed. He didn't think Ro'nin would really go for it, but it paid not to be the trusting type. He couldn't take the Sangheili in a straight fight, but he could probably get himself and Zoey out before Kenpachus could come to his partner's aid.

As if on unwanted queue, the Jiralhanae swordsman grunted and lifted himself onto his feet. Simon heard Zoey let out a small squeak behind him, and he didn't blame her. Standing in the light, with his battered armor and the scarred body underneath, he was truly a hulking figure. Each of his massive hands looked strong enough to snap a human neck between their fingers, and his trunk-like arms seemed capable of tearing holes in titanium battle plate. Of course, it would be a fatal mistake to assume that such power made him slow as well. Simon knew that once Kenpachus started swinging his oversized sword around, he could be as quick as the lithest Sangheili.

"The Path Walkers are hunting him, correct?" Kenpachus rumbled at Ro'nin.

"Yes, of course they are!" his partner snapped impatiently. "Why do you think he's skulking on a human world?"

But Simon saw his opening and took it. "Listen guys, I've got hundreds of these guys on my tail. Do you know how hard it is to kill just one of them?"

Kenpachus's eyes narrowed, as if he knew he were being baited, but he took the offering all the same. "Then he comes with us," he announced. "We get paid and we have the whole galaxy after our hides. What could be more fun?"

"Do you have a death wish?" Ro'nin snarled. "The Path Walkers, Sangheili, and the humans... oh."

His shoulders seemed to slump a little. Once Kenpachus was on the trail of a good fight, no force in the universe could divert his course. He snapped his glaring eyes back to Simon.

"Let's hear some numbers," he grumbled. "I want something real, not your hazy promises."

Simon opened his mouth to speak, but to his surprise Zoey beat him to it.

"Ten million for you two once you prove that you have me for my family," she said. Her voice quavered in the presence of the two large aliens, but she kept talking regardless. "Plus ten more once I've been delivered safely."

Ro'nin's reptilian eyes narrowed as he did the math. "Quite a sum. How much is Mordred getting?"

"That's none of your business," Simon cut in. He was already blown away by how much money Zoey's family seemed able to throw around--Ro'nin and Kenpachus were already looking at twice of what David Kahn had been offered for the job against the Path Walkers. He didn't need Ro'nin getting any funny ideas.

Ro'nin leaned back. "Very well, Mordred. We'll take you to Earth after we stop by a Sangheili colony to refuel."

He waved his hand back at his ship, which was an odd hybrid of Covenant-made base and human-style add-ons. "They don't have the kinds of fuel we need on the black market here, so we'll have to hit Cordial Harmony before we can make for your homeworld."

"Fine. When do we leave?"

Ro'nin clicked his mandibles. "Does half a cycle work for you?"

"Just wait outside," Simon had told Zoey. "Act like you belong out there and don't get yourself kidnapped or anything."

Alone in his apartment--or as alone as he'd ever be, thanks to Diana--Simon kicked an empty crate aside and realized he wouldn't miss this place at all. He'd only rented it in the few months since his old shuttle had been destroyed, but he'd still manage to cover the entirety of the single-room dwelling in filth and trash. There were even dark stains on the walls; broad, heinous-looking patches that hadn't been there when he'd arrived.

"I always said this place was a shithole," he muttered, pushing three boxes up against the wall. It was depressing to think that almost all his worldly possessions could take up so little space, so he did what he always did with depressing subjects and didn't think about it. "If I never set foot in here again it'll be too soon."

"So I'm guessing you have plans, then?" Diana piped in. "For when we're rolling in all that money Zoey's promising us, I mean."

"Get my lungs fixed, for one," Simon replied, turning to a final, larger box. He tapped the light armor covering his chest. "So I don't have to worry about drowning in my own blood every time I forget to take some pills."

"Oh good, something that helps you out," Diana sneered. "And where, pray tell, will we find the magical doctor who can fix you up properly? Plan on turning yourself in after all this time? Maybe you can sell out some of our contacts for a lesser sentence."

"Don't even joke about that." Simon bent over the box and gave it a small push; it was heavier than the others. "I'm never going back to the UNSC. Ever. Not after what they did."

He sighed and nudged the large box again. "Besides, the only sentence I can expect from them is a bullet in the head. Same with the Path Walkers, only with them it'll be a lot slower."

"So when are we gonna try getting under the hood of that armor?" Diana asked. "You can really stick it to those UNSC goons by giving me access to all that classified technology they must have stuffed in there."

"Yeah," Simon muttered. He glared down at the box, remembering the face of the dead Spartan; young, like him. Like Cassandra. Like Rat Pack. What the hell was the UNSC--no, what was ONI thinking, getting a whole new generation of kids like Gamma Company to fight their wars for them? Didn't they have enough minions without creating more broken killers like him?

He bent down and shoved the MJOLNIR-concealing box up against the others. "We can take it apart once this job's over," he said, casting one last disgusted gaze around the apartment. "Right now, let's just stick with the tech we're familiar with."

"And the disk?"

Simon blinked. "What disk?"

"That Covie data file. The one we got off the last job's mark, dumbass. You may not give a damn what those Path Walkers have on there, but I do. It could be worth something, right? Some more cash to pay for that lung surgery?"

Simon shrugged. "It's probably just a bunch of troop deployments. Or maybe it's some Sangheili porn."

"Do they even have porn?" Diana sounded fascinated. "I always thought they got aroused by swords and honor and things like that."

"How the hell should I know?"

"You did live with them for two years. You should have picked up on stuff like this."

Simon snorted and adjusted the two energy sword hilts strapped to his chest. "I spent those two years learning how to swing their swords around, not what turns them on. Besides, Master Visag ran his keep like a monastery. If there is Sangheili smut, it didn't make its way in there."

"Shame. I guess we should have looked into that sooner, seeing how many Sangheili colonies we've done jobs on."

"Why the hell do you even care, anyway?" Simon demanded.

"Oh, I just like getting all the intel I can on the more embarrassing bits about different species," she replied innocently. "Speaking of which, have you ever heard of blood bonding?"

"No, and I don't really feel like hearing about it." Simon strode towards the door, wondering if he could get shanghai Zoey into helping him move the boxes. "You can look at that stupid disk once we're off this rock."

"And on our way to yet another madcap adventure," Diana reflected. "What'll we run into this time? Savage pirates who want to kill us or savage rebels who want to kill us? Or maybe the government troops who want to kill us? The possibilities just don't end, do they?"

"I know the feeling," Simon muttered. "You get used to the whole galaxy trying to kill you after a while."

"I guess the trick is to not take it so personally," Diana mused.

"Oh, I take it personally all right." Simon slid his helmet back over his face. "Very personally."


Chapter Six: The Stumbling

"They've arrived, sir. One you're done with the speech, we'll give 'em the regular welcome"
―Chief Petty Officer Franklin Mendez to Lieutenant Kurt Ambrose regarding the Gamma batch of SPARTAN-IIIs


1943 Hours, April 1st, 2544 (UNSC Military Calendar), 45O meters above the surface, ONI classified world Onyx


Then

"Last chance, trainee! Jump!"

Simon's hands were locked around the straps of the backpack the navy men had given him as his legs buckled and threatened to fall out from under him. In front of him was the open troop bay of Pelican dropship, and beyond that was an icy blackness that seemed as if it would reach up and swallow him whole if he got any closer.

It had been a long while since that one man had stopped by the orphanage to talk to him. Since then he'd taken a bunch of strange tests and then been packed up on a long space voyage that had made him throw up about once a day. Then they'd dropped him and hundreds of other kids off here, where a big man surrounded by more big men had given some kind of speech about the Covenant and how they needed to fight them. Simon hadn't really been paying attention; it had been nearly half a day since his last meal, and he was starving.

But now they'd all been herded back onto the dropships, given strange backpacks, and now a big navy man was telling him to kill himself.

"Do it, trainee!" the man howled over the gusts of cold wind. "Jump!"

Simon barely heard him. All he could concentrate on was the blackness in front of him. His entire body had turned to stone, and he couldn't even think about moving. There was no way he was going into that darkness.

No way.

The navy man snorted in disgust. "Next!" he bellowed, and Simon loved him for it. Now he could go back to the orphanage, back to those dark hallways and angry teachers, never again having to face the darkness that was in front of him. He'd rather be thrown back onto the streets, with their feral dogs and the days filled with endless hunger, rather than go into the blackness.

He took a step back, and the kid behind him pushed past.

Simon's leg slipped, just an inch...

And then the wind grabbed him and pulled him out of the dropship and into the dreaded blackness.

The next few seconds stretched on for days, composed of an endless scream that was immediately snatched away by the wind the moment it left his mouth. He screamed and screamed and screamed until he couldn't breathe. It was only after he ran out of breath that he remembered the navy man's instructions.

Pull the cords.

There was nothing but air around him, but he reached up and yanked the cords on either side of his backpack.

Nothing happened.

He hesitated, confused, then desperately yanked the cords again and again. He jerked his small arms up and down as the wind whistled around his falling body. And then, after another eternity, something behind him jerked up and away from his body. He felt a jolt, then yelped in pain as the backpack tightened around his body and squeezed out what little air he had left.

He must have blacked out for several minutes, because the next thing he knew was that his face was buried in a mound of dirt while the parachute that had saved him came to rest over him like a blanket.

There was the pounding of boots on dirt, then someone was tearing the chute off him and rolling him over. The stars twinkled overhead in the darkness as two of the navy men inspected him.

"Jesus Christ, he's still alive..."

"When his chute didn't go, I thought he was a goner. Like that poor girl from the Betas..."

"Must've kept pulling. That's what saved him..."

Simon breathed out and looked back up at the stars. He was alive, and that was all that mattered. As long as he could keep it that way, he'd do anything.

Anything at all to survive.


Chapter Seven: The Price of Security

"As per United Nations Space Command order 6578-NM45, the colony of New Madrigal is now under martial law. All colonists living within urban areas are instructed to relocate to colonial refugee camps for the duration of this crisis. Anyone found resisting UNSC forces will be seen as accomplices to the rebel elements currently threatening New Madrigal's stability and corrective actions will be taken immediately."
―Public announcement delivered through New Madrigal's colonial administration on the behest of Commander Yuri Rosch


0939 Hours, November 18th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), frontier colony of New Madrigal


Now

"Well, I'll be damned," the Pelican pilot's voice crackled over the troop bay's intercom. "Is this a peacekeeping mission or a goddamn occupation?"

"From what I heard back up on the Dauntless, the guy who's in charge of this whole deal's a real hardass," his co-pilot replied. "Apparently, he's some desk jockey who thinks the UNSC hasn't been taking this frontier shit seriously all this time."

"But still," the pilot said as they banked and began to pass over New Madrigal's eponymous city. "Just look at the damn place. If I didn't know better, I'd say there was a real war going on down there."

Standing before the dropship's open troop bay, Felix-116 had to agree with the pilot on that point. With the enhanced vision vision offered by his MJOLNIR helmet and augmented eyesight, he could see everything that was was going on hundreds of meters below in exhaustive detail, and those details weren't pretty.

Columns of smoke were rising from wrecked buildings and vehicles in nearly ever part of the city, branching off into smaller plumes to form a ghastly forest in the sky. Fires were raging unchecked everywhere, and some had even consumed whole blocks and were continuing to spread. Even the ones that had been seen to were grim mounds of ash that made Felix wonder if the fires hadn't been even worse than they were now before he'd arrived here. And everywhere, covering every debris-strewn street and charred corner, were the bodies. A few wore the uniforms and body armor of several different kinds of UNSC personnel, but most were garbed in battered civilian dress and looked like they'd been lying huddled in pools of blood for days.

And then, on top of it all, was the army.

Even if it wasn't technically part of the UNSC's army branch, there really was no other word to describe the force that had descended on the city. ODSTs, regular Marines, and even what looked like colonial militia were combing the ruins of urban sprawl, checking every building and car, wrecked and intact alike, with their weapons at the ready. As Felix watched, a squad of ODSTs hustled a trio of civilians--one man and two women--out of a burning building before roughly restraining and searching them as a platoon of Marines formed a tight perimeter around them. A building several blocks away suddenly spat gunfire at a group of Marines and militia soldiers, sending them scattering for cover. Less than ten seconds later, a barrage of high-caliber autocannon rounds tore the building to pieces. The militia and even some of the Marines cheered as they rushed to breach the building under the watchful gaze of an aerial guardian: a Vulture gunship.

If the carnage of the street war had been the start of Felix's amazement, then the Vultures finished the job. The SPARTAN-I counted no less than twelve of the assault gunships in the air above the city, with several more hovering at distant points further off. Each one was more than twice the size of a Pelican--large craft in their own right--and sported ten times the firepower. Essentially the UNSC's version of a flying tank, they were all heavily armed and armored--and incredibly expensive. Felix had heard of only a small production line meant mostly for Inner Colony defense being carried over after the end of the Great War, and yet here was a whole fleet of them, spread out over a mass deployment like any of the UNSC's mainstream war machines.

Felix had seen Vultures in action less than a handful of times in the past, but never more than one at a time and never in anything short of a massive, pitched battle. Now they were everywhere, providing support for a gang war suppression and the hunt for a fugitive. Smaller Hornet and Falcon VTOLs flitted around their hulking brethren, occasionally stopping to deposit troops on rooftops or to spray suppressing fire down into troublesome buildings.

Felix shook his head as the Pelican began to descent. This was one of the largest single deployments he had ever seen, and their targets were a single assassin and a few thousand criminals. Couldn't this amount of firepower have been put to better use on the new battlefronts opened up by the Path Walkers?

As they passed over more Vultures, Felix could see that the gunships actually had Marines positioned on their armored backs. These odd passengers ranged from two man sniper teams to entire squads of troops, all of them ready to rain even more firepower down on the outmatched gangs.

"Coming in on the F.O.B. now, Lieutenant Commander," the pilot reported over the intercom. "It's right in the center of this shit, real easy to find."

The Pelican banked again, and Felix reached out for one of the troop bay's handholds. A wise decision, as it turned out, because the dropship immediately jerked back and nearly sent him tumbling out of the bay.

"Shit!" the pilot snapped as the Pelican jerked away again. "We've got contacts on rooftops... damn! Three, no, four guys with RPGs! What the hell?"

Felix saw them immediately as the Pelican twisted to dodge another rocket. The moment he glimpsed some dark shapes on the rooftop, he tore his assault rifle off of its clamps on the back of his armor. Bracing himself against the troop bay's wall, he opened fire, doing his best to compensate for the Pelican's erratic evasions. The closest rooftop attacker crumpled, followed swiftly by a second who darted in to snatch up the rocket launcher.

His clip ran dry, and as he was reloading a trio of Hornets soared forward, raining machine-gun fire down on the offending rooftops. Felix slapped the new clip into his weapon but didn't fire; the Hornets had already finished off the poorly-laid ambush.

A Falcon glided in to hover amidst the Hornets, and Felix saw one of its door gunners wave at him. "Nice shooting, Spartan!" the man yelled. "Don't worry about anymore assholes taking potshots at you; we've got things covered up here."

Felix raised his hand in acknowledgement as the Pelican began to settle down in what had once been the city's town square and was now the UNSC's forward operations base. Clipping his rifle onto his back, he banged on the troop bay's wall. "Thanks for the lift!" he told the crew over his helmet's radio.

"No problem, sir," the pilot replied. "Got a good view of all that taxpayer money at work. Could've used a little less excitement, but we saw it through."

Felix jumped out of the troop bay, landing nimbly on the paved ground. As the Pelican lifted off, he took a look around the hub of all the UNSC activity in New Madrigal.

The square was bustling with activity. Strings of mobile command bunkers had been laid out around the perimeter, covering flimsier aid stations and vehicle depots from enemy fire. Dozens of Marines milled about the area, some checking their weapons while others formed up to head out into the war zone of a city. A few lounged about in New Madrigal's sunlight--or what little sunlight could punch through the clouds of smoke hovering over the city--but most seemed to be busy with some task or another. Felix watched as a squad of Marines marched a ragged line of battered gang members away towards an awaiting Pelican. The captives' hands were cuffed behind their backs and they looked as if they'd been through hell.

What interested Felix even more were the militia soldiers. There were even more of them than there were Marines, and they all seemed eager and even excited as Marines or ODSTs gave them instructions or directed their activities. A crowd of militia congregated around several large trucks, where a warrant officer in an ONI uniform was handing out assault rifles. A closer inspection revealed that these were new-model, top of the line MA7-series weapons; not the handed down scrap that colonial militia usually got.

A massive task force? Felix mused as he strode towards a Marine lieutenant. High grade gear for the militia? What's going on here?

The lieutenant straightened when he saw the armored Spartan approach--a common reaction, even when the Spartan in question wasn't an officer. "Sir?" the man asked. "You need something?"

"Where's the commander?" Felix asked. "I was ordered to report to him directly."

"Oh, the commander?" The lieutenant pointed off towards one of the command buildings. "He's briefing a platoon over there."

Felix nodded his thanks and headed in the direction the Marine had pointed. As he neared, he saw a platoon of ODSTs, all armed to the teeth, staring intently at an officer who stood in front of a holographic projection of a series of buildings. The officer jabbed his gloved finger at one of the buildings, and the special forces troopers nodded in what looked like approval.

"Another sweep," the officer was saying. He spoke in curt, clipped tones as he paced before the projection. "You'll coordinate with the 332nd Armored to cordon off the entire block while the Altas Torres militia regiment provides support. You'll have full air support during the entire hit, and I expect you to use it in full. No more of this division pride, and that's an order. The Marines, the militia, and all the air units hare there to coordinate with you, and you will do the same with them. I will not be losing any more of you because you won't ask the militia to cover you."

The platoon's lieutenant nodded. She indicated her troops with her helmet, which she held in one hand while gripping a suppressed submachine gun in the other. "Understood, sir. This bastard won't be taking out anyone else on my watch."

"Make sure he doesn't." The officer raised his hand. "Dismissed."

The ODSTs filed away, heading for one of the vehicle depots, and the officer turned to face Felix, as if he'd heard him approaching from behind.

The first thing Felix noted was that the man's hair was perhaps the worst violation of military protocol he had ever seen. Heavy bangs fell down on either side of the officer's head, framing the clean-shaven face of a man who couldn't have been older than thirty. The hair had grayed prematurely, giving the man an austere look belied by his odd hair style but matched by his emotionless demeanor and eyes that seemed permanently narrowed. His skin was pale and smooth, save for a thin scar that ran up the length of his forehead.

Felix hadn't seen a picture of his new commanding officer beforehand--he rarely did with ONI types--and stopped to stare at the odd amalgamation of military norms and flagrant regulation infraction, an easy thing to do while wearing his helmet.

The officer nodded and approached him. He wore a large dark overcoat over his ONI uniform, with even darker gloves covering his hands. Everything about the man screamed spook to Felix, yet he extended his hand as if he were a regular Marine or Naval officer. Felix looked down at the gloved hand in mild surprise; few non-augmented humans were quick to trust their hands to the grip of an armored Spartan.

"Yuri Rosch," the officer said by way of introduction. "Section Three."

Felix blinked inside his helmet, and mentally braced himself. ONI's Section Three, the branch responsible for most of the navy's special and black operations, had always despised him for his suspicious entry into the SPARTAN-II program's roster. What infuriated them more was the fact that he'd gotten away with it completely clean, with no records of his deception ever getting caught under their tight-assed radar. Every Section Three officer he'd ever served with had made their contempt clear, and while he could handle the worst of their spiteful anger, he had to admit that it had gotten old very quickly.

"SPARTAN-116, reporting for duty, commander," he said quickly. Just as he'd anticipated, he saw Rosch's eyebrows flick upwards for a moment at the number "116".

"I'm told by my Section Three colleagues that you're a deceitful show-off who enjoys thumbing his nose at the system to no end," Rosch told him. "It only seems fair that my request for a SPARTAN-II officer would get you assigned to me."

Felix gave a small shake of his head. If this man was going to use his authority to make things difficult on him, then they might as well level with each other as quickly as possible. "Sir, you've heard what you've heard," he told the commander. "I know I can't change yours or anyone else in Section Three's opinion, but you'll get my very best results regardless of how you put me to work."

But Rosch raised his hand, lifting it slightly higher than normal to compensate for Felix's abnormal height. "That's what my colleagues think," he emphasized. "However, I plan to reserve judgement until I can get a good look at you in action for myself. Anything else is disrespectful to your abilities and, quite frankly, obscenely unprofessional."

Now it was Felix's turn to raise his eyebrows, though Rosch couldn't see the motion behind his helmet. "You're quite direct, sir," he said after a moment.

"I don't like beating around the bush," Rosch told him. He gestured at the bustling activity around them. "This city is proof enough of that. Besides, you aren't the only one with a bad reputation in Section Three."

Felix was beginning to wonder if Rosch had missed his calling in the military. The man was the most frank ONI officer the SPARTAN-I had ever met, and if the New Madrigal operation was anything to go by he would have been better suited for the Army or Marine corps.

"Who exactly are you talking about, sir?" he asked as Rosch began to stride towards the command center.

"Let's just say Section Three was wary about my assignment as Task Force Watts's commander," Rosch replied. "There have been... questions raised about my methods in the past."

From the carnage around them, Felix wasn't surprised. "This all does seem very direct for an assassination mission, sir." he noted as they walked into the command center. The single-room pre-fab was adorned with a few computer monitors and screens detailing the operations and assignments around New Madrigal. Several officers wearing ONI uniforms were engrossed in directing communications between patrols and aircraft while others analyzed maps and lines of data.

"That's because it's not simply an assassination mission anymore," Rosch told him, waving a hand at a large holographic projection of the city. "When our intelligence on Kahn brought the task force to this planet, we discovered a breeding ground for crime and insurrection. All I needed to do was explain it to my superiors in an appropriately dire fashion, and they were handing me more reserve units than I knew what to do with."

"So you turned a hunt for Kahn into a war on crime?" Felix asked. What kind of officer would do something like that when faced with the risks failure would pose to their career? "Weren't you worried about the collateral?"

"After first contact was made with Kahn, I launched an immediate evacuation," Rosch explained. "Normally, the gangs would take one look at a UNSC task force and go underground, but we didn't give them enough time for that. They were all so busy defending their territories from each other that only a handful tried to slip out with the civilians. With them gone, I was able to bring the full brunt of our firepower down on New Madrigal."

"And what about the property loss?" Felix wasn't sure whether to be shocked or awed by Rosch's handiwork. "Aren't you afraid this'll just turn the regular civilians into rebels?"

"Normally, yes. But once Section II gets done with them, the evacuees will be convinced the UNSC saved them all from a miserable hellhole."

"Section II's involved as well?" Just what was going on here?

"You've been busy on the front lines, Commander. But there's a war going on here in human space as well. It's been nearly twenty years since the end of the Great War, and we're no more stable than we were a century ago. ONI's finally doing something about these frontier worlds, and cracking down here is just the first step in a much bigger game."

Felix frowned. "You're worried about another civil war. Like what happened with the Insurrectionists before the Covenant showed up."

Rosch nodded. "Precisely. Frontier worlds like this one could turn into rogue states if allowed to grow fast enough outside of UNSC authority. The Interspecies Union has enough problems without one of its core members splintering. The Mamore revolt should have been a wakeup call, but it wasn't. Now we need to reassert control over all human planets, or our species will be permanently weakened in the galactic arena."

Their was a fire in Rosch's voice, one that Felix had rarely heard from UNSC soldiers before. It reminded him of other rhetoric, something that he had heard long ago. The source of it all was at the edge of his mind, but he just couldn't reach far enough to grab it.

Felix gritted his teeth. His amnesia, a problem since his recovery fourteen years ago, was a constant source of annoyance these days. Everywhere he turned, there were more clues winking at him, daring him to recover what he'd lost, but he was rarely able to act on them.

"We had some opposition to all this from the local governor, of course," Rosch was saying. "After he was evacuated, he wanted to have a hand in how we ran the operation."

"And how'd you deal with that?" Felix asked.

"I ran an investigation on his office. It took us less than a day to find incriminating evidence linking him with multiple local crime gangs. Those gangs happened to be associated with known rebel groups, and that was enough to have the colonial authorities arrest him and most of his staff. The entire planet's under temporary martial law until a more stable government can be put in place."

"And are you sure Kahn is even in the city anymore?" Felix asked carefully.

"Oh, he's here," Rosch assured him. "He manages to kill more of my men every day--"

As if on cue, one of the communications officers waved them over. "Sir!" she yelled. "Lieutenant Yendel has made contact with the target! She's on the line now!"

Rosch darted over to the officer's console, Felix at his heels. "This is Commander Rosch," he barked into the mike. "What's the situation?"

"We had him," panted a voice; Felix remembered it as belonging to the ODST from earlier. "But he made a run for it. Killed two of mine and three of the militia."

Rosch's brows narrowed in anger. "But do you still have visual?" he demanded.

"Negative, sir, he left us in the dust. But a whole wing of Hornets still has him in sight. He ran into one of the neighborhoods we haven't locked down yet--"

Rosch cut her off and rounded on another communications officer. "Rajeed, patch me in to those Hornets. Now!"

The man scrambled to obey, and Rosch grabbed the mike as soon as it was offered. "I want you to contact all units--I don't care if they're on the ground or in the air--and coordinate with them. If we have to bring everything we have down on him, fine."

He took a breath, then continued. "And ignore all fire zone restrictions. As long as you won't hit our units, fire at will. Whatever it takes to bring him down. I'll be joining you shortly."

Thrusting the mike back at the communications officer, he turned to Felix. "He only killed five this time; he usually takes down twice that many. We've got him on the ropes now, Lieutenant Commander."

He reached up and activated a communications earpiece. "Wesley? Is Jian occupied?"

A pause as someone on the other end answered. Rosch nodded. "Good. Have them report to my Pelican and have Wisla prep it for launch."

The commander turned back to Felix. "Come on, Commander. Time for you to meet the other Spartans."


Chapter Eight: Trading Blows

1326 Hours, April 17th, 2488 (UNSC Military Calendar), UNSC NAVSPECWAR training facility, planet Reach


Then

It had been nearly half an hour, and the others were getting angry.

They came at him again, three at once this time. That was how things were done in the sparring ring; if one guy got too uppity, won too many times, than the rest ganged up to take him down a peg. Those were the unwritten rules of naval training grounds, and Hector was more than happy to live by them.

It had been a long time since the boy in the woods had picked off his monster of a father. After that, there had been a long, dreary stretch of orphanages and foster homes, a pointless quest to find someone who would take the Thornhill orphan in. None of it had mattered to Hector in the slightest. He'd known before he'd even pulled the trigger where he'd go when all was said and done. He'd known them from the trial, the people who had let his father get away with butchering his mother.

The armed forces of the UNSC were where he'd make his mark. They had the power, the power to shape the colonies and, as the indoctrination process back in his recruit days had put it, "forge humanity's destiny among the stars."

Those days as a crewman were also over, yet another step in his path towards making something of himself. His superiors had been impressed by the ambitious recruit, a young man who buried himself in his work and then somehow found the time to study everything he could get his hands on: history, politics, mathematics, weapon systems, and anything else that the UNSC said was meaningful. They'd put him on a fast track to officer candidacy, and from there it had been just another rat race.

Of all the things Hector had learned since that night in the forest, that discovery had been the most sobering. No matter what they disguised it as, everyone he'd met had been just another bundle of meat and ambition desperately seeking meaning behind a flag and sets of ideals. These guys up against him in the sparring ring weren't any different; taking him down a notch wouldn't help the UNSC, just sooth their battered egos and give them something to brag about.

The first guy came in fast from the front while the other two split up and tried to come in from either side. Hector slid back, out of the flankers' reach while the first one carried on after him. A quick kick to the chest, followed by a jab to the throat, sent him sprawling.

The other two didn't hesitate, jumping over the fallen man and attacking in unison. Hector simply fended off their attacks, ignoring the cries from his aching arms and legs, then stepped in and smashed a fist into one's jaw while bringing his knee up into the other's gut. Both stumbled against the matt's ropes, momentarily disoriented. Hector considered smashing their heads together for good measure, but decided against it.

Too flashy, and they'd never rest until they'd paid him back for a humiliation like that.

Shaking their heads in both pain and frustration, all three slid out of the ring. "Haven't you had enough, lieutenant?" one of them called. "Give someone else a chance up there."

Hector forced a laugh and leaned against the ropes. "One more go," he announced to the small group that had formed around the ring. Everything he did around here was calculated, another step towards building an image and projecting the person his superiors wanted to see. Determined, but not crazy. Confident, but not arrogant. It was hard, but then again, everything else in his life had been that way as well.

The battered special warfare operatives just waved him off. No one else wanted to take a beating from him. Hector shrugged and lifted the ropes to let himself out.

"Lieutenant," a voice called out. "Mind if I go in with you?"

Hector turned to see a young dark-haired man sliding into the ring. He recognized him as one of the newer inductees into the NAVSPECWAR training program. The last name Martel was stenciled onto his exercise jumpsuit. Several of the surrounding men laughed.

"This oughta be good..."

"Did one of you assholes dare him...?"

"Five creds says he doesn't last five seconds..."

Hector eyed the newcomer warily. The men around them might not be bright enough to realize it, but the young man had him in a bad situation. He'd been going for thirty minutes now with very little time to breathe in between matches. Losing to one of the veterans was one thing; that had happened plenty of times in the past. But if he slipped up and lost to some kid fresh out of OCS, his reputation might never recover.

He'd studied wolves back before enlisting. The alpha wolf was always the toughest, meanest one in the pack, and the younger ones were always lining up to pick fights with him in the hopes of claiming his position.

Hector Thornhill had no intention of being anything but the top dog wherever he went

So he didn't join the teasing and didn't throw in any casual bravado as he returned to the center of the ring. His body was aching and his breaths were coming in steady pants; this couldn't go on for more than a minute before he started making mistakes. He'd finish this quickly.

But as the young man moved to face him, Hector saw something different in his dark eyes. This guy wasn't out to supplant him, to win bragging rights amongst his peers. This guy was after something different, and that made him even more dangerous.

"Right then," Hector told him, readying his fists. "Let's go."

The kid obligingly lunged in, and Hector found himself stepping back to avoid a flurry of punches and kicks. Normally he'd have blocked one and come in with an incapacitating counter attack, but this guy just wasn't letting up. It was only when Hector's back was to the ropes that the kid let up and he was able to throw in some shots of his own.

Instead of blocking, the kid just dodged, darting to either side and still managing to throw in more punches. Some of them even landed on Hector's aching chest.

Damn, Hector realized with a start. I really must be worn out. The kid was running circles around him.

It was time to end this. Hector waited for the next blow, then threw his arms apart and allowed himself to be knocked off balance. The kid jumped in for another attack...

And Hector grabbed the front of the kid's jumpsuit and brought his forehead down into the young man's face.

There were groans of sympathy from the others. Blood gushed out of the kid's nose, staining the front of his jumpsuit and splattering on the mattress. Hector dropped him, and he fell to the mat in an undignified heap.

Attempting to prop himself up with his arms, the kid looked up at Hector with a mixture of pain and confusion.

"Ow," he muttered, wiping at the blood and wincing as his fingers brushed the bridge of his nose.

"You always pick fights with the meanest guy in the room?" Hector panted, taking a few steps back. "It's not a good habit to get into."

The kid crawled to his feet. "Have to start somewhere," he muttered, his voice muffled by his injured nose. "What kind of move was that?"

Hector shrugged. "The kind that knocks you down and gives me a headache," he said still fighting to catch his breath.

Still wincing, the kid lifted the collar of his jumpsuit to dab at the blood. "I'll remember that," he said. "For next time."

"You'd better," Hector retorted, limping out of the ring. "By the way, what's your first name, Martel?"

"Felix, sir," the kid replied. "Felix Martel."

"Welcome to NAVSPECWAR, Felix." It was the first time he'd ever said something like that to one of the newcomers. He was sure as hell that no one had ever said it to him.


Chapter Nine: Trust

"Our agent just reported in. Mordred's on the move now, and the Path Walkers are definitely focusing on him over Kahn. It's best if your people handle this one; we're having some problems of our own right now."
―Coded message transmitted from private luxury vessel Jade Princess; recipient unknown.


2243 Hours, November 17th, 2570 (UNSC Military Calendar), aboard unnamed shuttle belonging to the mercenary known as Ro'nin


Now

The shuttle's common area was bare and featureless, sporting only a single table--a workbench, strewn with the fragments of several different weapons--and no chairs to speak of. Looking around, Simon scowled as he remembered his old shuttle, which had been strewn from end to end with scavenged junk.

I should have sold that stuff when I had the chance, he thought bitterly. Not kept it around to get blown to hell on Famul.

This shuttle's sparseness didn't come as too big of a shock. Covenant designs had always been minimalist, and he couldn't expect Ro'nin to be as big of a slob as he was. Even Kenpachus took up as little space as possible; after stripping off most of his armor, the big Jiralhanae had seated himself in an alcove and closed his eyes while cradling his sword. The alien's ape-like face assumed a contented expression, and Simon heard him muttering something that sounded like a chant under his breath.

Yeah, Kenpachus was weird.

Zoey had been quite willing to help with the boxes, though willing and able had turned out to be very different realities. In the end, Simon had wound up doing most of the work anyway though, as Diana had so helpfully pointed out, he was the one with the augmented body. Now the girl sat awkwardly atop the largest box, uncomfortably close to Simon's stolen MJOLNIR suit. Her eyes kept darting over to Kenpachus, hovering over him momentarily before darting away to look at something else.

Simon couldn't blame her for being a little unnerved by such an imposing Jiralhanae specimen. After all, Zoey had come very close to rotting out the rest of her life in one of their slave pits; it had taken Simon a while to get used to working with the creatures after seeing them rip apart his fellow SPARTAN-IIIs during the Human-Covenant War and experiencing their savage tendencies first hand as a slave himself. It really was a wonder that Zoey was willing to be in the same room with one at all.

Simon glanced down at another box, which he'd partially unpacked to unveil the computer gear stuffed inside. Diana's data chip was in that tangled mess of wires along with the disk they'd recovered. She'd been hard at work analyzing the thing since they'd taken off, a task that had kept her mercifully quiet for some time now.

"So," Ro'nin said, dropping into the common area through the small hatch that led up to the cockpit. "If you're as rich as Mordred says you are, girl, why turn to a maggot like him when you need to get home?"

Zoey didn't look at him. In his battered armor, stained with the blood of nearly a dozen different species, Ro'nin wasn't exactly a pretty sight. He'd removed his helmet to reveal a harsh face that was fierce even by Sangheili standards.

"I don't have any of the money with me," she said quietly as Ro'nin crossed over to lean against the work bench. "And even if I could get a message to my family, someone might intercept it."

Ro'nin nodded. Simon was one of only a handful of humans who could read Sangheili facial expressions, but even to him the mercenary's mandibled face was impassive. "Smart human," he commented. "Though relying on Mordred is like taking a swim in the rapids; he's just as likely to smash you against the rocks as he is to get you where you need to go."

Zoey pulled her legs up against her chest as if trying to minimizing Ro'nin's target. "I trust him."

"And I thought you were brighter than most." Ro'nin shook his head. "I've been around this galaxy since before the Schism and I've never known such a low, despicable person. Mordred's a cheap, cowardly, spiteful bottom feeder, and for some reason he manages to keep finding jobs out here."

"Oh, like you're any better," Simon retorted from the other side of the room. "You'd kill your own mother if the price was right."

Ro'nin just laughed. "Probably, yes." He turned back to Zoey. "My advice to you is to feed us well when we get you home, then hope we never set eyes on each other again."

Zoey looked away. "I know how things work out here," she muttered glumly. "It's awful."

"Yep," Simon said, lifting his battered helmet up and staring into its dented visor. "That's the frontier for you. The only way to survive out here is to be ruthless and cunning, or it'll chew you up and spit you out. Sucks, doesn't it?"

"I'm not ruthless," Zoey said, closing her eyes. "And I'm not cunning."

"You can surprise yourself," Simon muttered, still looking into his visor. He hadn't thought he could be ruthless even after all the training on Onyx and Kopis on the Ides of March. It had taken a hellhole like Mamore to show him just how brutal he could be. He'd learned his lesson well. Yeah, we all surprise ourselves, one way or another.

Slipping his helmet on, he opened a private channel to Diana. The A.I. wasn't linked into his prosthetic arm like she usually was; instead, he'd plugged her into the small nest of boxed computer gear where she was plugging away at the Path Walker data.

It had been hard enough formatting his equipment to match the Covenant-style hardware, and now the encryption data was so thick that it was taking Diana--little miss I'm the smartest A.I. in the galaxy Diana--hours just to get started on its contents.

"How we doing?" he asked. "Any idea what's up with the data yet?"

For once, she was late to answer. "Not yet," she said after several seconds. "Can't talk right now." Short as well. The limited functions of the computer hardware plus the task of decoding everything must have her completely tied up.

Simon shrugged and leaned back against the shuttle's smooth wall. With Zoey so worried about the aliens and Diana busy with the data disk, there wasn't much more to do but shut his eyes and wait it out.


Chapter Ten: The Bottom-Feeder

Halo: Indelible Past/Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven: The Hospital

"Attention all units: this is Commander Rosch. I want all available assets moved in to support operations around Hell's Pass Hospital. I repeat, all available units are to surround the hospital immediately!"
―Transmitted to UNSC forces throughout New Madrigal from Commander Yuri Rosch's personal dropship

The special task SPARTAN-III team that still clung to its old name of "Jian" had a bad reputation, even amongst other SPARTAN-IIIs. Felix had heard from plenty of his S-III subordinates that it had been no accident that the SPARTAN-III program's only traitor had come from that unit and that its two remaining operatives were a pair of unreliable, unsociable loose cannons. And with Rosch back in the field, he got the feeling he was about to learn why they'd earned the nickname "ONI's attack dogs".

"Lieutenant Commander, meet Team Jian," Rosch noted as the Pelican lifted off from the FOB. "From this point on, you'll be assuming temporary command of them as we continue our operations together."

Felix had made a point of removing his helmet within the enclosed troop bay after being told he was meeting Spartans, but neither of the Jian operators had found any reason to afford him the same courtesy.

"Hey Commander," the shorter of the two said, his voice dripping with informality. "Who's the new guy? Why the hell didn't anyone tell us one of the cyborgs was joining this party?"

Rosch, seated next to Felix, responded to the question with a raised eyebrow. The taller operator cocked his helmeted head, and the short one fell silent.

"SPARTAN-G299," Rosch commented to Felix. "It's best to overlook the insubordination in his case, but only because he's one of the best close-quarters operators I've ever seen."

The short one--G299--raised his head. "OK," he muttered darkly. "So maybe it was in the status update and I just didn't get around to reading it. I still don't think we need him for this crap."

"Sorry about Ralph," the taller of the two said, but there was a twinge of coldness in his voice. "He doesn't play well with other people."

"I noticed," Felix commented drily. He was privately thankful for Rosch's advice, because Ralph's rudeness had taken him aback. Every other Spartan he'd ever met, no matter what program they belonged to, had always treated him with respect and camaraderie, an acknowledgement of the unspoken bonds all Spartans where supposed to share. They were one big family, as some of Felix's fellow Spartans had put it, but clearly Jian--or at least Ralph--saw itself as outside that family.

The tall one didn't continue the conversation, which had the unexpected consequence of making Felix feel uncomfortable. The two S-IIIs were most likely conducting a private conversation of their own over their helmet link, and with Ralph's alien hostility now on the table Felix was beginning to understand how non-Spartans thought of the armored supersoldiers.

"Rough around the edges, to be sure," Rosch remarked. "But they're the most dependable commandos I've ever worked with. There's a reason I made sure they were assigned to my command the moment I was given field duties again."

Felix had the feeling that the other, unspoken reason was that no other commander could handle the hostile, introverted team, but he didn't voice it.

"When we reach the hospital, the ODSTs and militia will form a perimeter around the building," Rosch explained after an awkward silence. "Nothing will get out of there without being targeted by everything we can bring to bear. In the meantime, you three will insert via the roof and sweep the place from top to bottom. With the aerial assets we have here, you should have a complete view of what goes on in there at all times."

"We got a floor plan?" the tall S-III asked. "So we aren't blind if something takes out our comms?"

"It's already been uploaded to your helmets' onboard computers," Rosch replied smoothly. "The Lieutenant Commander will be assuming command of you both from this moment on, so I expect your full cooperation with him."

"Understood," the tall one said crisply. Ralph just grunted.

"We're coming up on the hospital now!" the pilot reported over the intercom. "Perimeter's been established, Commander, they're just waiting for your orders."

"Excellent," Rosch said into his headset. "Once Jian's been deployed, I'll assume direct command of the operation."

Felix casually affixed a silencer to his assault rifle, realizing that he was now, if only temporarily, a member of the ostracized Team Jian.

He hoped it wasn't an omen of things to come.

David Kahn had not come to be known as the most lethal mercenary in the galaxy on mere hyperbole. He had shot, stabbed, and crushed his way through more battles than most UNSC battalions had witnessed over the course of the entire Great War. Warlords, crime bosses, and politicians had fallen to his assassin's bullets, men and women who had been deemed untouchable by their friends and enemies alike. He'd taken so many wounds and pumped so many augmenting drugs into his body that he sometimes wondered if he even counted as a human any more.

And he was at his limit.

When he'd completed his contract for the Syndicate and used his pursuers to start a gang war throughout New Madrigal, he'd planned on skipping town within hours. But the UNSC's unexpected lockdown had caught him completely off guard, as had their rushed evacuation of the civilian population and deployment of an assault force.

For once in his long and bloody career, he had made the mistake he most often ridiculed his many would-be rivals for making.

He had miscalculated.

He had underestimated the lengths at which the UNSC, or rather ONI, was willing to go in order to tie up a loose end like him. The irony was that he had spend the better part of his life striving to make himself a living legend, someone that could not be ignored or forgotten like any other pitiful merc within the underworld, and now that infamy he had craved was going to be the death of him.

He was slumped in a small treatment ward on one of the hospital's lower floors, taking stock of his hopeless situation and treating the panoply of injuries he'd managed to collect since the fighting in New Madrigal had begun. Cuts, pulled muscles, and shrapnel wounds riddled his arms and legs, making it a painful chore to even walk, let alone outrun fresh squads of ODSTs at every turn. His expensive, specialized firearms had long since run out of ammo, forcing him to scavenge the third-rate gear carried by the city's militia and gangsters whenever he stumbled upon their corpses.

With a grunt of pain as his overtaxed muscles cried out in protest, he yanked a bandage around one of the joints on his battered armor's elbow piece and allowed himself a moment to slump against the operating table. He hadn't given in to despair--he would never do that, because he aimed to keep fighting even if the building were in flames and the UNSC's entire division of Spartans coming down on him--but right now he simply couldn't see a way out of this situation.

A faked surrender? This task force was out for his blood; to give up would simply make their task of killing him that much easier. A break for the countryside? He'd have to somehow hijack a Pelican or Hornet to have a chance at that, and even then he'd be intercepted and shot down before he'd made it two miles. Just hide out and wait for them to give up? As if he hadn't been trying to do that already.

There were no contingencies or back-up plans he could fall back on now. The only thing he could do was live in the moment and trust in his finely honed skills and his body's ability to keep moving long after it should have shaken itself apart.

He was not alone in this hospital. He knew that because he'd taken cover from a handful of patrols that kept passing through the halls--patrols that were not UNSC. As of now, he was in the middle of debating whether or not to reveal himself and seek their help, a prospect that might net him some food and shelter but would leave him exposed to all manner of betrayals once his benefactors realized he was the one the UNSC was so desperate to kill.

For now, all he could do was hole up and wait until the UNSC sent in kill teams or lost patience and decided to simply blow the entire hospital into the next star system.

Grabbing the assault rifle he'd palmed off a dead ODST, he limped towards the hallway. If he was going to keep this up, he'd need to scrounge up a new batch of painkillers.

Hopefully the gangs hadn't completely looted the place after this ground war had gotten going.

"They've surrounded the building," Cassandra reported to the assembled clinic staff. "Nimue says nearly every asset they have is converging here right now."

"Wonderful." Over the past few days, Doctor Stern had passed through such a storm of unending disasters that he'd reach some calm bay on the other side where nothing seemed able to perturb him much any longer. "Because I was having such a good day already."

"What's the big deal?" demanded one of the paramedics. "It's not like we've done anything illegal. We're just doctors."

"Oh, believe me, they'll come up with something," Stern remarked calmly. "Failing to comply with evacuation orders. Unauthorized possession of military medical supplies. And that doesn't even begin to factor in our patients."

He indicated the patients in question--three men and two women--who were arrayed in stretchers throughout the emergency room. "Gangsters and insurgents, all of them if we're not mistaken, and I don't think the Hippocratic Oath will fly with whoever's in charge of this little occupation."

"Then we ditch 'em," Howard Raines snapped from where he and two others were keeping the door covered with assault rifles. Raines and his team were all that was left of the security detail that had guarded the clinic back before it had been riddled with bullets and leveled by a UNSC airstrike. Apart from Raines and the two with him, there were two more guards out patrolling the hallways around the emergency room. "Either that or we cuff 'em and hand them over to the soldiers when they kick our door down."

"None of us will be abandoning our patients," Stern said firmly. "We never did it back on Cordial Harmony and we won't do it here. As for surrendering them, well, at this point I'm not sure how much grace that will buy us."

"And I guess we'll have some trouble explaining her black market goodies as well," Raines grunted, gesturing at Cassandra's battered, stripped down SPI armor. She couldn't have left it back in the ruins of the clinic, not after everything she'd gone to in order to get it back. No matter how much it might implicate her if the UNSC caught her, it was still her only tie back to her old life as a SPARTAN-III.

With a sigh, Raines lifted his radio to check in with the patrol. They'd all known the stakes when they'd decided to stay in the city, Raines and his team included. Cassandra had spent enough time in the galaxy's seedy underbelly to know better than to write off all mercenaries as thugs and bandits. After all, her best friend and the boy she was fairly sure she loved were counted amongst those "thugs and bandits."

Cassandra's ear-mike crackled and Nimue's calm, quiet voice trickled in over the speaker.

"They've landed," she reported. "On the roof. Just three of them, but one's heavy. Very heavy."

"Got it," she replied. "Thanks, Nimue."

The girl just clicked her mike once in response.

"The UNSC's strike team just touched down on the roof," she told the clinic staff. "Nimue says there's just three of them, but one's heavy."

She took a breath. "I think it might be a Spartan."

A chorus of panicked obscenities filled the room as Raines snarled into his radio: "Michael, Kendall, pull back here, now!"

"Alright," Stern murmured. "Stay calm. We hunker down here, and don't give them a reason to fire on us. If there's only three of them, they might just let us go."

There was a solid knocking on the emergency room's door. Immediately, Raines and the other mercenaries had their weapons trained on the door frame.

"Michael?" Raines called out. "That you?"

There was no answer.

"Fuck this," Raines spat. "Everyone, get ready for contact."

"No!" Stern yelled. "Don't you dare shoot at them!"

Cassandra had already slipped her helmet on and brought her submachine gun to bear. Several of the clinic staff, doctors or no, pulled out sidearms and braced themselves to defend the room.

And then the door was sent flying inwards, knocking Raines and one of his men to the floor. The third didn't even have time to fire before a black blur cannoned into him and launched him into a nearby table.

Cassandra aimed, but didn't fire, as a large man in battered ODST armor slumped against the shattered door frame, blood leaking from multiple wounds.

"Hold your fire," he panted, his voice strained and hoarse. "I need treatment. Now."

It was a risk, but Kahn had decided to take it. As long as he let on that he was more wounded then he actually was, the medical team the two mercs he'd jumped a few halls down had promised were in here would have the skills and equipment needed to keep him going for a few hours more. And more importantly, the UNSC's troops might be hampered by his proximity to civilians.

So he let himself slump to the floor, casually dropping his rifle fall from hands that were calculatedly limp.

It was time for a new game plan.


Chapter Twelve: Sins of the Father

"Shit," Ralph muttered, kicking the scraps of what had once been a medical dolly out of his way. "Gangs really worked this place over didn't they?"

"The Commander's had Vulture and Hornet squadrons targeting this place at regular intervals," Jian's former leader--who Felix now knew as Jake-G293--replied as he swept the hallway with his assault rifle. "He wanted to deter the target from holing up here."

"And that worked out real well, didn't it?" Ralph snorted. "Waste of fuel and ammo. He should have just taken out the supports and brought this dump down from the bottom up."

Ever since Felix had landed on the hospital roof with his two new subordinates, protocol had prevented them from using their private helmet link against him. Unfortunately, that was apparently as far as protocol went with Team Jian, or at least with Ralph-G299.

"Hey, 116," the surly commando called over to him. He gestured with his shotgun at a bullet-riddled operating room. "Got a few bodies in here. Think we should check 'em over."

"If they aren't wearing armor, ignore them," Felix instructed. "The cleanup teams will follow us in for body identification. And you'll call me Lieutenant Commander or sir from now on, is that clear?"

"Not really," Ralph said. "First one's two much of a mouthful and I've never been big on that second one. Besides, I always call cyborgs by their tags, and you're more cyborg than the rest of them."

He casually drew his pistol and fired three times into the empty room. The silenced weapon made small chink noises as it went off.

"Just checking," he said, strapping the weapon back onto his SPI armor.

Felix decided to ignore the quip about his prosthetic arm and advanced further down the hall, being careful to watch for any suspicious place where their quarry might have left a booby trap. He didn't think the target would have moved this far up in the building to do something like that, but assumptions like that could be deadly in situations like this.

"That's the last of the rooms," Jake reported. "Floor clear."

"Copy that." Felix flashed a quick update to Rosch, who was overseeing their progress in his command dropship. The Commander would dispatch ODSTs to secure their progress after they'd cleared the next floor down. He was still extremely wary about losing any more of the Marines to their target.

"You know what we should have done?" Ralph asked as they approached the flight of stairs that would take them to the next floor.

"What should we have done, Ralph?" Jake replied. Felix was beginning to realize that one of Jake's best qualities was his saint-like patience for Ralph's incessant chatter.

"Given everyone in this place five minutes to come out, then blown it to hell." Ralph sidled down the first few steps, sweeping the darkened stairwell with his shotgun. "We've wasted enough time trying to waste this asshole. Why are we worried about damage control now?"

"You always question orders, Warrant Officer?" Felix demanded, following him down the stairs. Jake fell in behind, covering their rear.

"Hell yeah, 116," Ralph shot back. "Why do you think I'm still alive?"

And then a pair of grenades soared up out of the darkness. The three Spartans had just enough time to throw themselves flat on the stairs before they detonated. Felix swore as his shields flared and his helmet cams stuttered, evidence of an EMP blast. His armor was designed to cope with such attacks, but they still played hell with all his electronics.

Just as Ralph was scrambling to his feet, a small, nimble figure darted up from below, launching itself up from one of the railings below and perching flawlessly on the railing a few feet from where Felix lay. He had just enough time to make out a thin armored body and a head with the slit-visored "recon" helmet of an ONI operative before it raised a pistol and opened fire.

David twiddled his fingers, appreciating the new feeling that was trickling into them. The medical team had three techs working on him, re bandaging wounds and pumping biofoam into his armor. Their guards had him covered, but he made a point of keeping his arm free in case the techs decided to try anything.

This entire team was a mystery to him. They couldn't belong to any of the gangs running around New Madrigal, or else they'd have shot him to pieces the minute he'd kicked in their door. He'd been desperate, more desperate than he could ever remember being, and these people hadn't even asked for payment before they'd opened up their bags and gotten to work. Altruism was rare in the galaxy Kahn worked in; it wouldn't be good to expect generosity like this in the future.

He noticed that one of the guards was glaring at him. "Problem?" he asked pleasantly. The man just shot him another dirty look and tightened his grip on his gun.

"You mercs and your staring contests," the man that David presumed was in charge muttered. "It's a wonder you don't all just explode from testosterone, the lot of you."

David saw no need to come to his profession's defense, especially since the doctor was mostly right. Overblown machismo was rampant in most guns-for-hire. Out here they always seemed to have overinflated egos and itchy trigger-fingers. Half the time it made his job that much more easy.

He would have to keep an eye on the angry guard, though. Guys like that weren't variables he could afford to ignore.

One young woman, clad in what looked like one of the stripped-down semi powered infiltration suits that seemed to be everywhere these days, was pacing back and forth, her head bent as if she was listening to something.

"She just engaged them," she announced to the room. "She'll try delaying tactics to keep them slowed down while we try to pull out."

The lead doctor glanced up. "Pull out to where?" he demanded. "The UNSC has this place surrounded. They'll just shoot us if we run out of here, and if we're calmer they'll just arrest us for helping criminals."

"Then leave 'em behind," one of the mercenaries suggested. "Better yet, turn them in when we get out of here."

Right. It was already time to get going. Kahn eyed the pile where his discarded equipment lay a few feet away. He couldn't let the doctors or their guards confiscate them or he'd be even worse off than when he'd come in here. His hand made its way towards the pistol on his hip.

He didn't want to kill any of these people, but if worse came to worse he wouldn't hesitate to shoot his way out.

Though he did have to wonder who they had working for them who had the balls to try delaying tactics on Spartans.

Felix scrambled to his feet, scanning the darkened stairwell with his assault rifle. The nimble assailant was nowhere to be seen.

"Where'd he go?" Ralph demanded. He had advanced down the stairs, covering the next corner with his shotgun. "What the hell's going on?"

Jake sidled past Felix and looked down into the stairwell's depths. He jerked it back just as a dull crack echoed through the dim chamber and something fast and heavy sounding shot by.

"Sniper round," he reported, ducking low beside Felix. "Looks like he's got rappel lines clipped to different levels. Any way we go down, we'll take fire."

"What's his position?" Felix asked. "Did you see any more with him?"

"I didn't have time," Jake replied. "He could be anywhere in here."

That complicated things. "Warrant Officer, cover our backs when we reach the next floor. Lieutenant, stick with me. Keep ready for any more ambushes."

The time came when the glaring merc made his move.

Kahn had been shifted off to the side as the doctors focused on stabilizing the rest of their patients. He slumped against the cracked wall, playing the dazed cripple for all he was worth. Strength had returned to his limbs--the medical attention and his body's ingrained resilience had seen to that--but he was in no hurry to let these people know that.

So when the merc slipped away from the rest of the group and stalked towards him, David didn't ready any of his weapons or even move from where he was sitting. Instead, he gave the glowering man a friendly nod.

"Nice to have some company," he commented with a smile. The effort hurt his cheeks. "I was getting lonely over here."

"Cram it," the merc hissed. "You think I don't know who you are?"

David cocked an eyebrow. "Now what do you mean by that?"

The merc's lip twitched as he pulled out his sidearm. "You think this is funny, Kahn? You ruined my career back on Mars, you piece of shit. Killed half my men and the ambassador I was supposed to protect."

Kahn pretended to think for a moment. He was playing a dangerous game here, but angry men made more mistakes than others. They certainly let their guard down easier. "Be a bit more specific. I've done a few jobs on Mars."

He saw the merc's eyes blaze. "Three years ago, asshole. The summit at Johnson naval base."

Kahn nodded sagely. "Oh yeah. I did fuck that one up pretty royally didn't I? Got the mark, but having to shoot through all the grunts first isn't really my style."

That did it. The man knelt and brought his pistol up against Kahn's forehead. The cool barrel bored into his skin as the merc ground it in, hard. "You son of a bitch!" he spat. "You're the reason they're here, this is you're fault..."

"Raines," said a quiet voice. "Put the gun down."

Both men glanced up. The brown haired doctor, the one in the dented armor, was standing over them. She was unarmed, her arms clasped harmlessly in front of her, but David could see a glint in her eyes. Not anger or even annoyance, but concern. This one was actually worried they might hurt each other.

David looked into her young, pretty face with a newfound apprehension. Someone like this was dangerous, far more dangerous than this washed-up security guard.

"Sorry, doctor," the merc called Raines growled. "But I can't do that."

"He's our patient," the young woman observed. "We don't threaten patients."

David was aware that the entire room was staring at them now. He would have to play his cards just right here; Raines's logic would sway more than just his fellow guards.

"This guy's David Kahn!" Raines protested. "He's the one they're after! If we turn him in, we solve everyone's problems right here, right now."

"I wouldn't bet on it," David put in, keeping up the casual act. "I know the guy in charge of this mess, and he won't let you go just because you hand me over."

"You be quiet," Raines told him coldly. The pistol dug deeper into his forehead, and a few of the other guards had their weapons raised as well.

"We haven't turned any of our other patients in," the young doctor said patiently. "Not the gang members, not the rebels. We aren't starting here."

She paused and cocked her head, listening to something in her ear. David realized that she must be wired.

"Let's all just put down the guns and calm down a bit," the lead doctor advised. "Right now, just focus on closing shop."

The young doctor nodded. "We still have time. Nimue has the Spartans running all over the upper floors looking for her."

David moved before the name had fully left her mouth. In a flash his arm came up, snatching Raines's pistol away and pressing his own squarely against the merc's chest.

"Sorry," he said, as politely as he could, to the stunned room. "Mind repeating that? I could have sworn you said Nimue."

He was aware of the incoming Spartans and the UNSC task force surrounding the building, but right then and there all that mattered to him was knowing for sure.

Nimue was here. In this building.

And so was David's entire universe.

"This is horse shit," Ralph growled darkly, thumbing more cartridges into his shotgun with vicious force. "This asshole isn't even the guy we're after!"

As disappointed as he was with the warrant officer's attitude, Felix had to agree. They had spent nearly an hour combing through five floors of abandoned hospital, dodging booby traps set by the short, wiry attacker who would emerge for a few seconds to squeeze off a few rounds before vanishing again, leaving them chasing shadows and stumbling into even more booby traps. So far the attacks hadn't breached anyone's armor, but they were successfully slowing the search time down to a crawl.

"Stay focused," Felix warned. "No one's escaping this building with the siege the commander has it under. We continue the sweep."

"Yeah, whatever," Ralph muttered. "When we catch this fucker, I'm shoving this shotgun so far up his ass he'll be spitting shot out his mouth."

"Keep dreaming, Ralph," Jake said distantly. "Lieutenant Commander, we need to speed this up."

Felix kept his assault rifle up at the ready. "And how do you suggest we do that, lieutenant?"

Jake raised a hand and tapped his helmet. "I've been working on the local comm frequencies, and just about every time we get hit I trace an encrypted link from around our location."

"You think Kahn's putting him up to this?"

"Maybe Kahn, maybe somebody else. Whoever it is, they're a few floors below us." Jake indicated the floor plan in their team HUD. "Even if it isn't Kahn, I say we move in now and take them out."

Felix nodded in agreement. The plan made sense. "He's not going anywhere," he said, eyeing the floor plan carefully. "But I'm not taking any chances."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm getting support for this. Pin down exactly where that signal's coming from." Felix stepped away, opening up a secure link to Rosch. Something told him the commander would be more than happy to give him the kind of support he needed.

David kept his pistol trained on the furious Raines as a terrified doctor passed the last piece of his battle armor with a quivering hand. He took the chest plate with his free hand and carefully fitted it to his bandaged chest. "Looks to be in order," he said, indicating the small pile of his equipment.

He turned to the rest of the clinic staff. "Take cover and wait for this all to blow over."

"Easy for you to say," the head doctor said resentfully. "All this slaughter is your fault."

David shrugged. "My fault? Maybe. Or maybe it's the bright spark who put Yuri Rosch in charge of an urban hunt that's at fault."

The brown haired young woman, the one in fragmented SPI armor, eyed him warily. "Yuri Rosch?" she asked slowly.

"Office of Naval Intelligence," David replied with an indifferent shrug. "Hard line loyalist. The man's a basket case, if you ask me, but it looks like someone pulled his career out of the gutter for this op. Who else would co-opt a fleet of Vultures and an army of ODSTs to kill someone like me?"

"And what do you want with Nimue?" This question had an edge to it. Kahn was good at watching how the whole room reacted to certain individuals and from the slight flickering of eyebrows and cocking of heads he could tell that they weren't used to seeing this one--armored though she was--at sharp interrogation.

"I have a vested interest in her safety," he said carefully. There were so many variables now--the UNSC, these doctors, Raines, Nimue. He was keenly aware of how his life and his life's work hinged on how he handled all those variables in the next few minutes. "The real question here is what she is to you."

"She's my friend," came the defiant response. "That's all there is to it."

Kahn felt a twitch of surprise at the word friend. Nimue had friends. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? What would it mean for him to judge her either way?

"Alright," he said, decades of practice keeping the sudden conflict hidden beneath the veneer a of calm, professional mercenary. "You can come with me then."

He pushed Raines away. "I'd take cover if I were you. If the stories about Rosch are true, he's liable to take down the whole building."

Raines turned and glared at him. "What's to stop me and mine from shooting you in the back?" he demanded.

"The fact that you just threatened me like that." Kahn shrugged. "Don't piss me off even more than you already have. If I were you, I'd be worried about the source of your next paycheck."

He bent down and retrieved his equipment, rapidly strapping the components into their places on his armor. His body still ached, but it was a dull, manageable ache, nothing he hadn't dealt with before. Now all he needed to do was find Nimue, evade some kind of Spartan hunter-killer team, and escape a siege of enough UNSC troops to assault Sanghelios.

Just another day at the office.

He gestured at the brown haired doctor. "Let's go."

Her eyes flicked over him, more testy than defiant. "And why should I?"

"Because I'll need backup if I'm going to get Nimue away from those Spartans," David said, slipping his helmet on. "You look like you can handle yourself in a fight. Besides, I'm interested in hearing how you met our mutual friend."

She stepped forward, sliding her own SPI helmet on. "And what's she to you?" she asked.

Kahn had to stop for a whole five seconds, unable to find the right words to answer her.

"My daughter," he said finally. "I'm her father."


Chapter Thirteen: Conflagration

Airborne traffic cleared a path in Meru's wide skylanes as a trio of Phantom dropships cruised steadily through. One of Sanghelios's largest cities, Meru was no stranger to the comings and goings of military divisions. The throngs of civilian pilots who flocked through its sculpted towers knew to get out of the way when warriors passed their way.

Aside from the whine of the engines, a tense silence hung over the interior of the lead Phantom. Its occupants sat or stood in the enclosed troop bay. Several shifted uncomfortably on the bare deck. Most of them were unfamiliar with this sort of craft, and this was but the latest step in a long journey.

But one among them stood tall and unmoved amidst the tight chaos of the weapons and equipment secured throughout the small bay. Arms folded over his chest, he tapped his fingers impatiently against his light combat armor.

"Have the other teams reported in yet?" he demanded.

"Yes sir," the pilot's voice crackled over his radio. "Primary teams are en route to their targets. Secondary teams are already in position."

"Good. Once our operation begins, signal all teams to begin the assault as well."

"Roger."

They had come along way, across the entire galaxy, to be here. Bribes had been made here, officials assassinated there, all to ensure that they and their weapons made it onto Sanghelios. It was far from their old fight, a fight many of them still wished to be fighting, but now they would fight in this new arena with the same ferocity they had in the old.

"Five minutes till we hit the target," the pilot announced. "Air control is responding to our codes."

"Good," the standing passenger noted sardonically. "I'd hate to be shot down before we even reach the target."

He turned to the others. "You heard him. Five minutes. Prep weapons and gear."

They all stood now, sliding on helmets and fastening buckles on their dark body armor. Pulling weapons from crates, they eagerly slapped magazines into assault rifles and submachine guns. The human weapons clacked hungrily as their human owners readied them for action.

They were all human, every one of them there in the troop bay. Clad in dark armor and helmets, they were decked out with grenades, sidearms, and spare magazines.

The leader's radio clicked again. "We're almost there," an eager voice hissed. "I've been waiting a long time for this."

"Haven't we all. Don't forget the plan, Peter."

"No problem, boss."

The leader turned back to the men and women in the troop bay with him. "You know the drill. Move fast and strike hard, then move on to the next target. Anyone slows us down, we leave them behind. Remember, no mistakes."

Fifteen armored heads nodded in unison.

"Today, we revive our cause. Today, we avenge the billions who the rest of humanity has forgotten. We are the new Insurrection!"

Tuka 'Refum had spent most of his life in the countryside, diligently studying the art of swordplay. He was used to quiet keeps and open countryside, not the tight, crowded streets of cities like Meru. The only cities he'd seen before had been impoverished slums teeming with aliens of all species, and even then he'd been too busy fighting to stay alive to get accommodated with them.

Seated at a small table, the young warrior stared out over Meru's largest plaza. He couldn't get over how it teemed with Sangheili from all walks of life, their brightly colored robes forming an ocean of swirling patterns as they haggled at open-air shops and conversed with each other in all manner of local dialects. Seeing and hearing it all for the first time, he was disappointed he only had a day to appreciate it.

"I take it the army life suits you?" said a voice from the open communicator in front of him. "You don't call as often as you used to."

Tuka snapped back to the communicator. "Yes, forgive me Master Visag. My lance performs more drills than usual these days."

"I understand." His mentor and foster father's holographic image flickered on the tiny pad. "A new class of students began their studies yesterday, so I appreciate what you mean."

For the briefest moment, Tuka was tempted to mention his last encounter with Simon as the Path Walker negotiations had exploded into violence around them. But he stopped himself before he could say anything. If his commander, Fira 'Demal, had sworn to stay quiet about the moment where they had let a wanted criminal escape then Tuka had no right to speak of it either, not even to that criminal's surrogate mentor. Besides, the news would only cause grief for Roni and the rest of his household.

"Zealot 'Demal keeps us prepared for anything. With the Path Walkers' violence, we need to be ready for war."

"Yes," Roni Visag said sadly. "I had hoped with the passing of the Fallen, we would find some peace. But even here, we've been feeling signs of trouble."

"What?" Tuka leaned forward. "What do you mean? The Path Walkers aren't in Visag, are they?"

"No, but there are reports of villagers disappearing. Whole families are vanishing, and they aren't being kidnapped. Someone is actively recruiting from their ranks."

Tuka blinked at this. "Recruiting?"

Roni shook his head. "I haven't seen so many peasants abandoning their duties since the Sons of the--"

A low whine filled the air, one that Tuka knew well. He looked up in time to see three Phantoms descending towards the plaza.

What are they doing? he wondered. Military transports weren't supposed to be flying this low.

That was all he had time to think before the dropships swiveled their plasma turrets and opened fire.

A blast of fire hit the building behind him and Tuka was sent sprawling. He tried to get to his feet only to be knocked down by panicked civilians. Plasma fire was everywhere, but it was mixed with another sound as well: human projectile weapons.

Tuka staggered upright. A wave of heat washed over him and he cried out, curling into a ball as his exposed skin trembled and burned.

The plaza was a burning mess, scattered with rubble and corpses as the Phantoms continued their barrage. Dark shapes had descended from them, humans in dark body armor. They fired indiscriminately into the crowd, cutting down dozens upon dozens with their assault weapons. A mother and her children went down just a few feet from where Tuka was lying. Two more rushed to help them, but they collapsed under a hail of bullets. One of the dark armored humans rushed up and sprayed their bodies with an assault rifle.

Tuka gasped as a familiar face swam towards him out of the smoke. Simon, his friend, smiled and reloaded, firing after a crowd of fleeing civilians.

What is happening? Tuka thought, desperately trying to crawl towards where Simon, clad in dark armor like the rest, continued firing. This had to be a dream. There was no way this could be happening...

And then he realized it wasn't. As Simon bent down to inspect a nearby corpse, he pulled out a knife and slit the dying Sangheili's throat with his left hand.

His organic left hand.

Simon, the real Simon, didn't have a left hand, just a metal prosthetic. Tuka had never seen him without it. He couldn't have dreamed this up.

What is this? he thought, drifting away into numb oblivion.

The gunfire faded away as the assault team ran out of Sangheili to shoot. They moved fast, inspecting the myriad of bodies for survivors.

"If they won't survive, leave them!" Redmond Venter pulled off his helmet and glared around the burning plaza. The operation had begun, just as he had planned. If it was to continue, they would need to be back in the air before the local defense forces could respond. Other team leaders were shouting status reports into his ear, but he could already see distant columns of smoke rising through the alien forest of sloped, curving towers. "I want prisoners."

A few yards away, Peter, the youngest member of the task force, leaned down and slashed a dying Sangheili's throat.

"Save it, Peter," Venter ordered. "We don't have time to dick around here."

"You got it boss." Filled with the hungry energy Venter had come to expect from the clone, Peter grabbed an unconscious young Sangheili and dragged him back towards the Phantoms. "It only gets better from here," he called back over his shoulder."

Venter smiled, surveying the carnage around him. He had been away from scenes like this for too long, and now that the corpses didn't belong to humans he didn't feel any hesitation at all. This was what he had been born to do.

"Mount up," he ordered. "Let's get the hell out of here!"

They soared away from the burning plaza, falling back into the now-panicked sea of civilian air traffic. Venter's Phantom was even more crowded now, thanks to the four wounded Sangheili they had taken aboard.

Tapped into the pilot's frequency, he heard the approach of a wing of Banshee fliers as they pulled alongside the dropship formation. "Did you see what happened?" their leader demanded.

"No," replied the preprogrammed virtual intelligence program hardwired into the dropship's communications software. "We only just got notice."

"The attacks are happening all over the city! Sensors are down, we can't see who is hitting us!"

"We understand," the VI replied. "Continue your sweep. We have orders to report back and get help."

"Understood," the squadron leader said, falling for it completely. "We'll try to find whoever is responsible for this outrage."

"Safe hunting, brothers," the VI intoned, signing off.

Their plan had worked completely. The sabotage of the sensors, the impersonation of Sangheili military, it was all going just as they had meant it to.

"Now what, boss?" Peter demanded over the radio. "What's next."

"We drop the prisoners off at base camp," Venter explained patiently. "Then we head back in for round two."

Another, more private frequency beeped urgently. "This is Reaper," a low voice said into Venter's ear. "Having fun?"

"Is that a problem?" he replied casually. "Glad to see your part of the plan went off without a hitch."

"Yeah, I'm fine," the voice said coldly. "Just get it together and keep things moving. Any word from the countryside?"

"Not yet, but something tells me we won't be waiting for long."

They came in fast and low, two UNSC-made Pelicans that soared over the Henden keep's courtyard. Dark armored humans made faceless by visors and radio gear rappelled down, moving quickly in practiced formation.

The keep guards were dead before they even knew what was happening, cut down by snipers from the Pelicans' open troop bays. The strike teams moved fast, planting explosives at key areas and advancing on the living quarters.

One team breached the servant hall, shooting down startled cooks and gardeners with silenced weapons. Another hit the children's quarters, emptying their magazines into the dormitories before dragging the corpses back out into the courtyard. They had studied the layout of the place for hours on end and knew it as if it were their own home.

In less than ten minutes, all thirty-two Sangheili--the whole Henden bloodline--were piled up in gory heaps in the courtyard. The commandos darted back into the Pelicans and vanished into the night sky. Behind them, the keep erupted into flames as they blew the charges they had put in place.

Death had come to Sanghelios. This was just the beginning.



Chapter Fourteen: Allegiance

David Kahn kept his pistol trained on the hallway in front of him, keenly aware that the young woman behind him was also armed and not exactly friendly.

"How do you know Nimue?" she asked for the fifth time. "When did you train her?"

"Not too long ago," he said vaguely. It was best to use her curiosity against her; as long as she wanted to know more about Nimue, she'd want to keep him alive. "If we all make it out of this, I'll tell you more."

The doctor didn't answer. She was a professional after all, or at least an ex-professional. For all her youth, there was more to this altruist--and David rarely met anyone worthy of the term--than met the eye. He knew trained soldiers when he met them, and this one had definitely been trained by someone. The only question was by whom.

They passed room after empty room, stripped bare by looters and rebels as the UNSC's net had tightened across the city. Yuri Rosch might have been the least subtle agent in the history of the Office of Naval Intelligence, but he was ruthlessly thorough. David was beginning to wonder if the good commander hadn't held off on the hospital's demolition for just this purpose, to hound him until he took refuge there and then send in the Spartans to finish the job.

David came up short at the end of the hallway as it opened into a large atrium. Shadowy stairways leading up into one of the hospital's upper towers circled the walls, the glass paneling beneath their railings glistening dully in the bad light.

"This was where she called in last," the doctor told him, faceless behind her broad-visored helmet. She gestured up at the stairways with her own pistol. "She's probably taking cover up there."

"Not if this is the same Nimue I trained," David replied. He was already scanning the upper tower, his helmet's filters piercing the darkness in search of movement. "Too easy to be pinned down. No, she's somewhere else."

"Then I'll call her. We get her, then pull back. I won't fight Spartans."

"Smart," David replied, but there was an edge to her voice that told him her refusal was more than just self-preservation. He was already trying to decide what he'd say to Nimue. It had been three years. Three years since...

And then an explosion tore through one of the upper stairways.

"Hooked in?" Felix asked Team Jian.

Both S-IIIs nodded as they mounted the railings and gripped their rappel lines. Felix opened the com channel to Rosch.

"We're about to descend," he reported. "Is everything ready?"

"The militia units are preparing to clear the first floor," the commander replied. "We will begin issuing the demolition warning in two minutes."

"Copy that." Rosch would be giving everyone in the building a chance to surrender to the militia before he did what he did best: blast the entire hospital into next week. Jian's task would be to get down to the front floor as quickly as possible. If they engaged Kahn on the way, excellent. If not, he would have nowhere to run but into the troops securing the first floor.

"Haven't done a rapid descent in a while," Jake admitted over the team channel. "Hope the railing holds."

"On my signal," Felix ordered, climbing up alongside Jian. He was keenly aware of how much heavier his armor made him than the SPI-clad Jian commandos. The railing groaned under their combined weight.

"Descend!" he barked, and then they dropped. The floors slid past them as they clattered against railing after railing, the ground growing closer with every stop.

Felix glanced down again. Only about twenty meters to the atrium floor.

The air was suddenly filled with smoke and fire, blasting all three Spartans clear off their rappel lines and sending them hurtling towards the ground.

Felix felt the impact through his armor as his shields failed and he found himself struggling to rise amidst a pile of rubble. The blast had shattered the stairway above him, showering the atrium with shredded glass and concrete.

His arms were numb as he fumbled to get his assault rifle off his back. "Jian," he coughed into the radio. "Sitrep! Now!"

He heard a vague response through his tingling ears, but before he could call out again shots rang out through the atrium. Ducking down, Felix brought his rifle to bear and swept his smoky surroundings. Ralph was a few feet away. Blood leaked from a tear in his elbow joint, but he was on his feet, shotgun in hand. Jake was nowhere to be seen.

Ralph spotted him and began to stumble over when a pistol shot cracked overhead. The Spartan jerked and fell, a dent in the back of his helmet.

Felix jerked his rifle up and opened fire, peppering the smoking stairway with bullets. He saw a flash of movement as their small assailant ducked away, and then another flash as a figure lurched into view to block his path.

Felix ceased firing in amazement. Jake had somehow managed to hurl himself onto the stairway when the bomb had gone off and was now slashing at the attacker with his combat knife. But the force of the blast had hit him harder; his movements were slow and hesitant.

The attacker dodged nimbly around Jake and locked his arm in a fierce hold that threw him off-balance. The commando stumbled into the railing and his smaller opponent slipped the knife out of his hands and slashed at his back.

The smoke obscured Felix's view of the fight and before he could adjust his visor's settings more shots struck him in the back.

His recharging shields flared as he spun to fire on this new attacker. A powerfully built man in battered ODST armor was darting through a doorway, leaping for cover behind a bench while firing a pistol with powerful accuracy. Felix dove for cover of his own, instinctively shooting at the bench until his rifle clicked empty.

Before he could reload, David Kahn--and Felix was absolutely sure this was David Kahn--vaulted over the bench and sprinted across the atrium. Felix reached for his sidearm, but in the next instant Kahn was on top of him.

For a moment, Felix foolishly decided the fight was over. Kahn had made a fatal error in attacking a Spartan clad in MJOLNIR at close range. But as he lashed out with the butt of his rifle, the assassin ducked under the swing and jabbed a knife in Felix's exposed thigh.

Pain shot up through Felix's leg, but he ignored it and connected the next swing of his rifle with Kahn's armored chest. Kahn's grunt of pain was audible even through his helmet, but he rolled with the impact and landed off to the side. His hands flashed as he moved through the air, and when he brought the pistol up Felix realized he had reloaded in midair.

Felix threw himself backwards as Kahn opened fire. He landed on his back and desperately kicked at the floor, pushing himself across the ruined lobby and sliding behind a stripped reception desk. He heard a shotgun ring out, and pushed himself painfully up in time to see Ralph and Kahn exchanging pistol rounds and shotgun blasts.

He threw a channel open to Rosch. "Commander," he gasped. "We've got him. We've engaged Kahn."

"Excellent." Rosch's voice was as clipped and cold as ever, but there was a hint of triumph riding on the edge of his words. "I have a team on my Pelican. We'll be at your location shortly."

Felix closed the link and looked up just as Kahn sidestepped Ralph's last shot and grabbed the S-III's shotgun. The fiery commando didn't relinquish the weapon and tugged back while trying to angle the barrel for a clear shot.

Biting down against the pain, Felix pulled Kahn's knife out of his leg with one hand while drawing his own knife with the other. His sidearm had been knocked away in his brief scuffle with Kahn. Along with the grenades, they were his last weapons.

Across the atrium, Kahn released one of his hands and Ralph immediately gained the upper hand in the struggle for the shotgun. But Kahn's fist leapt forward, smashing the Spartan square in the face and shattering his visor. Ralph collapsed, tumbling head over heels until he crashed into a pile of rubble.

Felix gripped the knives and charged into the fray. Kahn spun to face him, pulling another knife from the equipment strapped all over his armor. He ducked and weaved through Felix's blinding pattern of slashes, moving faster and with more agility than Felix had ever seen from a man his size. It wasn't possible, not without physical augmentations...

But that couldn't be possible, Felix insisted to himself. The black market couldn't have the genetic secrets to produce someone on par with a Spartan. It couldn't.

And no matter how strong and fast Kahn was, Felix's armor would give him the edge in speed and power every time. Felix could see the mercenary wearing down, each slash coming closer and closer to striking home. The next time Felix attacked he slashed up, angling the tip of the knife towards Kahn's throat. Kahn leaned back, the knife flashing a hair's breath from his neck. It caught the jaw of his helmet, and as Felix yanked up it tore the armor clear off his head.

Kahn stumbled back, and Felix saw his enemy's face for the first time. A chiseled, battered face completed by a head of stubbish, greying hair housed dark, predatory eyes that glared up at him, still ready to continue the fight.

A meaty thud distracted them both as an armored figure struck the atrium floor. Jake, his armor bloody from several cuts on his arms and body, struggled weakly to rise before succumbing to his injuries and collapsing. Felix glanced up to see the small, recon-clad fighter aiming down at the fallen Spartan with a pistol.

But he didn't fire.

Instead, the small attacker's helmeted gaze was fixed on Kahn, who in turn had backed away and was looking up at the small fighter who had defeated Jake. There was a different look in his eyes now, not that of a hunter at all but something different.

Pride.

Felix tightened his hold on the knives. Something else was going on here, and he had a feeling in his gut that things were about to get worse.

In a flash of motion, Kahn's hand plunged into a small pouch on his waist and withdrew a compact pistol, which he leveled at Jake.

"Stand down, Spartan," he said before Felix could react. His voice was hard and deadly. "I will kill him."

Felix froze. He had no doubts about Kahn's accuracy with a pistol, and if he aimed for a vital spot like the neck he'd kill even an augmented Spartan like Jake.

Kahn saw his hesitation. Eyes narrowing, he gestured with his free hand. "The knives. Throw them down."

Felix slowly lowered the knives, but didn't let them leave his hands. The best option at the moment was to drag things out, keep Kahn occupied until he slipped up or Rosch arrived with reinforcements. Beyond Kahn, Jake groaned and struggled to rise. His bloodied hands grappled with his helmet, peeling the constricting sealant away and freeing his sweaty head.

Kahn followed Jake as he struggled onto his knees, the pistol centering on his head. Above them, the mysterious attacker was still frozen in place.

Felix tensed. If he moved now, he could throw a knife, take out Kahn's hand before he could pull the trigger...

Jake looked up at Kahn. His eyes were woozy and unfocused, probably concussed from the explosion. His judgement impaired, his ability to read the situation hampered, he only saw a man pointing a gun at him.

And he had been conditioned to deal with that.

He went for his sidearm and Kahn's arm tensed. Felix could practically see him reading the situation, reading it and deciding a hostage wasn't worth having a second opponent. There was no way he could move in time, and Jake was going to die.

A cry rang out from across the atrium: "Jake!"

The air was filled with the crack of a single pistol shot. Kahn yelled in pain, his pistol-arm dropping limply as he grabbed at the sudden wound punched in the back of his shoulder. Felix turned to see another armored figure, this one in stripped-down SPI armor, charging across the atrium.

Kahn moved as well, deftly flipping the pistol into his other hand and whirling to face the new arrival. Something quick and light landed beside him, and with a blinding kick knocked the gun out of his grip.

It was the small attacker. Kahn stumbled backwards, surprise flickering across his barren face. He and his new attacker faced each other, suddenly caught up in a world of there own. Felix felt something strange in his gut, a sickening feeling that he was intruding on something he wasn't meant to see.

Kahn's uninjured arm flashed, an open strike for the small fighter's neck. It was blocked in an instant, as was the kick he sent up at the chest. The attacker caught his foot and spun in around to level a pistol at his head.

Felix glanced back at the SPI-clad arrival. From the sound of her voice she was female, but he had no idea who she could be. But right now, his concern needed to be bringing down Kahn.

He looked back just as a faint smile graced Kahn's lips. They moved in a quiet murmur, but Felix's helmet sensors picked up every word he said:

"I trained you too well."

Felix saw the attacker hesitate, saw the gun dip and the helmet twitch to the side.

And then it tackled Kahn, sending them both tumbling into the darkness of an abandoned room. In the next instant, gunfire rent the atrium as assault weapons tore into the shadows after them.

Armored ODSTs sprinted past Felix, pouring fire into the room with concentrated efficiency. One of them darted over to Felix.

"Sir!" the man yelled, tossing him an assault rifle.

Felix snatched the weapon out of the air, but didn't fire. He was still wondering about what exactly he had just seen.

"Excellent work, lieutenant commander."

Felix turned to see Rosch, still clad in his ONI overcoat, stride over to him. The man looked absolutely unflapped by the continuous barrage being leveled after Kahn.

"More troops will be here in a minute," Rosch assured him. "Along with medics for the rest of Team Jian."

"Sir, there's another one in there with him," Felix pointed out. "It's the one that incapacitated Jake."

Rosch nodded. "A shame we can't take him alive, but I won't risk losing Kahn after all we've gone through here."

He glanced over at the unknown SPI wearer, who was kneeling over the semi-concious Jake. "And it seems we've picked up another stranger as well."

Ralph stumbled over, his nose bleeding through the shattered visor where Kahn had hit him. "Glad you could make it," he croaked. "You crashed one hell of a party."

"Warrant Officer, keep an eye on the one over by the lieutenant," Rosch ordered. "Don't let her slip away."

"Aye-aye," Ralph grumbled, but ambled over to retrieve his shotgun amidst the chaotic firing.

Felix turned back to the doorway, which by now was riddled with bullet holes. The ODSTs were smart enough not to pursue Kahn into close quarters like that; three were now preparing hand grenades to lob in after him.

So this was the end of David Kahn, Felix realized. There was something about him, something with the name and the way he fought, that kicked something in his mind, and he couldn't help but feel strangely sorry at the mercenary's passing.

Not two feet away, an ODST jerked and collapsed.

The air was suddenly filled with bullets as gunfire clattered down on them from above. Two more ODSTs were dropped before the rest scrambled for cover. Felix snapped his rifle up as dark armored figures blazed fire down on them from where they had appeared on the stairwell.

"What the hell?" Ralph demanded, diving for cover. "Where'd they come from?"

"Lieutenant Commander!" Rosch bellowed. "Get inside that door now! Don't let him get away!"

Felix realized exactly what was happening and sprinted for the door. But a wave of assault fire struck him square in the chest and planted him flat on his back. He fired blindly into the shadows as the atrium descended into a brutal firefight. ODSTs fired from whatever cover they could find, pinned down by these unexpected newcomers.

Rosch stood alone in the center of the atrium, upright amidst the corpses of the dead ODSTs. He fired his pistol up at the attackers, unflinching even as bullets tore through the air around his head.

Scrambling back to his feet, Felix sprinted inside the room, ready for a fight. But just as he'd feared, there was no one there. Two neat holes had been blasted in the ceiling, as if Kahn and the mysterious fighter had simply flown out. Behind him, the gunfire died away, leaving a grisly silence in its wake.

Ralph scrambled up behind Felix. "Shit!" he swore bitterly. "Who the hell were those guys?"

He was gone just as quickly as he'd come, darting over to where Jake lay. Felix stared up at the ceiling in disgust, thinking of all the people who had died to bring Kahn to justice. Was all this carnage for nothing?

Kahn's body was a mass of pain, but he kept pace with his black-clad saviors as they hustled him further down the hallway. His shoulder was a mess from where that doctor had shot him, but he was more concerned with the figure slung over his back.

Nimue, his pride, his joy, his legacy was gasping for breath under her helmet, fighting to stay alive as blood seeped from the bullet wounds in her back. Wounds he should have taken, not her.

"You better have a damn good doctor close by," he warned the hustling commandos.

"On the shuttle," their leader answered curtly. "Just keep moving."

"Right. And who wants me alive so bad?"

"The Syndicate."

That shut him up right away. Because when the Syndicate would send in its own private army to snatch you out from under the UNSC's nose, even someone as dangerous as David Kahn got nervous.

But right now, all he could think of was how he had found Nimue again, and how close she had come to being snatched away again.

Ralph was standing stock still as Felix strode back out into the atrium. ODSTs and medical teams were scouring the area, looking for any wounded that might have escaped notice. But the rescue efforts weren't what held Ralph's focus. Over by Jake, the newcomer who had shot Kahn had taken off her helmet.

A young woman with chestnut hair and sharp features leaned over the recovering Jake, hands deftly flashing over his wounds as she applied bandages and biofoam with an artist's speed and precision.

Felix frowned, but Ralph seemed to have been knocked out of his usual callous demeanor. "I don't believe it," he breathed. "It's really you..."

The young woman looked up at him with eyes full of shock and relief. "Ralph," she said quietly. "It's been... I mean, this isn't..."

"Cass... and... ra..." Jake coughed weakly.

"You're alive," Ralph said, stunned.

"SPARTAN-G006," Rosch noted, striding over to them. He ran out the name as if he were reading off some invisible dossier. "Formerly of Team Kopis, transferred to Team Jian. Classified as missing in action, presumed dead just after the Great War."

Ralph and Felix both saluted. "Sir," Ralph began. "What--"

Rosch silenced him with a wave of his hand. "The Office of Naval Intelligence has been looking for you ever since you surfaced back on Famul," he told the young woman, Cassandra. His voice was as hard as iron as he waved a pair of ODSTs forward. "Take her into custody," he ordered.

"Sir?" Ralph demanded. "What's going on?"

Cassandra didn't resist as the ODSTs yanked her to her feet and secured her arms behind her back.

"Cassandra-G006, you are under arrest for the crimes of desertion and aiding known traitors," Rosch informed her. "Your kind can never run forever. Not from ONI."


Chapter Fifteen: Landfall

"C'mon, Stray! Keep up!"

Simon was running down a dusty, battered street. He could feel the warmth of his arms inside his tattered overcoat--both of them, each as whole and organic as the other. His worn-out shoes pounded against the dusty ground, tormenting his aching soles with each step forward. A bayonet-tipped assault rifle was in his hands.

"Stray, keep up!"

They were ahead of him, all of them. He could see them, a whole crowd of armed children running and stumbling through the rubble. They passed through blown-out buildings and dodged between abandoned cars, an unruly mob scampering in the midst of utter destruction. A few bodies lined the street.

"You're gonna get left behind!"

He saw her now, towards the back of the group. Emily grinned at him through her dirty bangs, her own assault rifle slung over her shoulder. She waved at him, gesturing for him to catch up.

He duly ran faster, leaping over shattered concrete, passing slumped corpses and ruined war machines, his stride growing longer and faster with every painful step. But no matter how fast he ran, Emily and the others just ran faster. He could hear the younger ones laughing, enjoying their little joke. Machine guns clattered off in the distance.

"C'mon Stray!" Emily yelled again.

Someone else, off to the side, screamed: "Incoming!"

An artillery shell's searing whine filled Simon's ears, and then the road just in front of the children erupted in a sea of flames. He opened his mouth to cry out as they vanished in the blinding light, but he was too tired to do anything but gasp for air.

"Simon!"

Emily turned, half of her caught up in the flames. She smiled, waved him onwards once more, and then the hungry fire consumed her.

"Wake up, Simon!"

His left arm was suddenly alive with pain. He dropped the assault rifle and fell to his knees amidst the rubble, grasping desperately at the spasming limb. The pale flesh stretched and tore, replaced by lifeless grey. He screamed as the skeletal prosthetic ripped its way free of the skin...

"Get up, dumbass!"

Simon was jolted awake by Diana's voice and a searing pain in his left shoulder. He shot up and grabbed at his arm, realizing that the couplings keeping his prosthetic attached to his body were being remotely tightened to rip him back into consciousness.

"You bitch," he growled sleepily. "What's your problem?"

"About time you woke up," Diana retorted. "You've been under for the past nine hours."

The pain receded and he looked groggily around Ro'nin's common room. Everything looked just as it had been when he'd drifted off: the boxes with the computer equipment and his armor, the sparse, alien walls, and Zoey, who was a few feet away looking worried.

"We can't be in the Sol system yet," Simon grumbled, sinking back down against the wall. "It's on the other side of the galaxy."

"That's the problem, dumbass," Diana told him sharply "We just pulled out of Slipspace, and we aren't anywhere near Sol."

Simon rubbed his head and winced at his aching shoulders. Sleeping in his armor was a discomfort he was used to, but it still ached to wake up in it.

"Okay," he said. "Where are we?"

"I busted into the ship's computer systems," Diana told him. "Wasn't hard, the security might as well have been programmed by a three year old."

"And..."

"And we're about to enter Sanghelios's atmosphere."

Simon sat bolt upright, hands going instinctively for his sidearm. Zoey stood, her expression uncertain.

"I don't understand," she said, steadying herself against the wall. "The Elite said they needed to make some stops along the way. Why can't he visit his home?"

"Because Ro'nin wouldn't go near Sanghelios if his own mother was sick and he had the only cure," Simon snapped. "And right now, my head's in demand down there."

Zoey's eyes widened. "You mean..."

"He means our chauffeur just betrayed us, honey," Diana mocked. "And the dumbass shouldn't be surprised because..."

"I'd do the same thing if I were Ro'nin." The admission stung his mouth. Stupid, stupid, stupid! How could he of all people have been so stupidly trusting? Greed and fear had gotten the better of him; his desperation to collect the reward for Zoey had sent him strolling into the arms of his enemies.

And what really frightened him was the realization that Diana had been fooled for the same amateurish reasons he had.

His hands clenched on the barrel of his pistol, but he forced himself to let go. Breathing deeply, he fought to get his mind in order. There was no way he could take Ro'nin and Kenpachus together, not in their own ship. The only advantage he had was that they didn't want him panicking and wrecking their shuttle, so they'd planned to keep him in the dark right up until they handed him over to the authorities.

"Diana," he said with as much calm as he could muster. "What's their heading?"

"Looks like they're bypassing any orbital stations," Diana reported. "Lucky for us, Ro'nin probably isn't too popular around here. He's got his shuttle registered as a civilian craft."

"Our lucky break," Simon agreed. He turned to Zoey. "Can you shoot?"

"Um, I can handle a pistol," she said uncertainly. "I've never fought with one before though..."

"Fine." He pulled one of his small hold-out pistols from its pouch and handed it to her. "Keep it for emergencies. Ro'nin will dock in some city and call in the local governor to arrest me. We'll break out there and make a run into the city."

"You want us running around a city full of aliens?" Zoey's eyes were wide as saucers, and Simon cursed himself for forgetting about her last experience in an environment like that. But he didn't have time to deal with her comfort zone right now.

"Yeah, unless you want to wind up in an alien prison cell," he snapped. "Just stick close to me and keep your head down."

Of course it was a lie, and a dirty lie at that. Ro'nin wouldn't be giving Zoey up after the money Simon had promised she'd bring. All Zoey had to do was stay put and she'd get the ride back to her family that she'd wanted from the beginning. But as low and twisted as it made Simon feel, he wasn't about to part with this meal ticket now. He still had four million from the last job; now was his chance to cash in and score more money than he'd ever need.

Fighting to stay perfectly calm, Simon leaned back against the wall and counted down the minutes he had until they landed.

"Terribly sorry we couldn't carry you all the way," Ro'nin told him as they waited beside the shuttle's curved ramp. The shuttle rumbled as it descended towards some sort of landing platform. "But business comes up unexpectedly, especially now there's a war on."

"No worries." Simon planted a foot on top of his boxes, fumbling with his helmet. His assault rifle, energy swords, and other combat gear were strapped to his armor. "I'll see if I can't flash a few credits your way once we get to Earth."

"I'd be forever in your debt," Ro'nin replied sardonically. "We do always seem to be short on funds."

Simon shrugged and slid the helmet over his head. Immediately, Diana was in his ear, feeding him information as his HUD flashed on.

"We're on a landing tower inside some sort of population center," she reported. "The ship's log says it's some place called Meru. And the welcoming committee is waiting to give us the red carpet treatment."

A small window flashed open in the HUD, giving Simon a clear view of the landing pad. Sure enough, it was an exposed top of a tower amidst the ornate skyline of a Sangheili city. And waiting beside the idling shuttle were two lances of Sangheili warriors. Simon doubted they would be as merciful as Tuka had been back in the jungle.

"Alright," he muttered, his voice concealed by the helmet. "The elevator at the end of the platform. Can you get it under control?"

"I'm not going to even dignify that one with a witty comment," Diana told him harpishly. "If I were you, I'd get ready to run."

Beside him, Zoey cringed. Her eyes were fixed on Ro'nin, though thankfully the Sangheili sell-sword seemed to put this down to rational fear than a discovery of his plan. Simon could only hope she could keep pace with him. Just to be sure, he wrapped his hand tightly around her wrist.

"Kenpachus!" Ro'nin called. "Hurry down to say goodbye to our guests!"

This was the moment of truth. Ro'nin would probably let this charade play out to the bitter end to make the most out of his spiteful satisfaction at Simon's shock as he was arrested and led away. But with Kenpachus in the picture as well, their escape would be even tougher.

As the Jiralhanae lumbered down from the cockpit, Simon casually slid his prosthetic hand into one of his equipment pouches.

"Well, I won't keep you waiting any longer," Ro'nin told him, punching in the code to open the ramp. "My encounters with you get more profitable every time, Mordred."

"Yeah, I'll bet."

The moment the ramp opening was wide enough to slip through, Simon dove for it, dragging Zoey behind him. As he heard Ro'nin's snarl of surprise, he drew two grenades from the pouch and triggered them. The explosives fell with a clatter back into the shuttle.

Simon didn't look back as the explosions tore through the shuttle, but he allowed himself a grim smile all the same. Payback for Famul, you bastard."

Keeping his hold on Zoey's arm, he barreled through the surprised warriors. Sanghelios's gravity--slightly heavier than Earth's--made the sudden sprint harder, but he pushed forwards all the same. They would need to get to the elevator before the warriors started shooting...

Too late. Plasma bolts whipped past him as the quickest of the warriors opened fire. Zoey yelped in terror as they neared the elevator shaft, its purple-hued doors sliding open as Diana seized control.

The plasma fire thickened, and then suddenly ceased. Simon threw Zoey unceremoniously into the elevator, then turned to see what was going on.

A military Phantom was hovering over the landing platform, its heavy plasma cannons leveled at the assembled warriors. To Simon's astonishment, the dropship's side doors slid open to reveal a squad of dark-uniformed humans who promptly laid into the warriors with a merciless barrage of bullets and plasma.

What the hell?

But there was no time to waste watching the strange firefight unfold. Simon leapt into the elevator, which closed behind him and began to descend.

He had slipped away from capture once again. But now he was in the middle of a city on a planet where he was wanted for kicking off a galactic-scale war and where humans showed up in Phantoms to shoot at fully-armed Sangheili warriors.

"Out of the friggin' frying pan," Simon muttered to himself, readying his assault rifle. And to top things off, he had left the computer equipment and MJOLNIR set back on Ro'nin's shuttle.

It seemed his luck was never going to improve.


Chapter Sixteen: Crisis

Autel 'Vadam had never thought he'd see the day where he would look back on the Fallen War as the good old days.

Standing in the center of a tight, ringed room within Meru's government complex, he felt the eyes of his fellow warriors and the weight of command beating him down as it never had before.

And they are not my fellow warriors, the weight reminded him sternly. They are my subordinates.

Clad in the grey and red of a special operations officer, Autel faced a room of military officer and civilian consultants, all drawn together to face the sudden threat of human revenge killings. Before him floated a holographic map of the region, with red strobes flashing where there had been attacks. Right now the map looked as if it were infested by red insects, with a massive colony right inside Meru itself.

"Three more attacks today," he reported, the words feeling heavy between his mandibles. "Two villages were burned and one of our air patrols inside the city was shot down."

"Unacceptable!" spat one of the civilians. His robes marked him as a member of Meru's governing council. "How can these humans keep striking at will? Your warriors were supposed to put an end to this madness!"

One of Autel's officers growled a warning, but he raised a hand to wave him down. If there was one thing he'd learned from his father's grueling efforts to keep Sanghelios alive, it was that the merchants and bureaucrats were as vital to success as the warriors. Right now, he needed his makeshift war council to work together if they were to resolve the crisis.

"Have any more keeps been attacked?" he asked the room at large.

"No reports, but it took us days to learn of the Henden massacre."

"Why aren't your countermeasures working?" the bureaucrat demanded. "Two days have passed since the attack began, and so far your warriors have accomplished nothing!"

"Short of a full evacuation of the city, there is little we can do," Autel explained patiently, resisting the urge to have the loudmouth dragged bodily from the room. "They are able to flawlessly impersonate our pilots, crack our codes, and pass themselves off as our own fliers at every turn."

"We tried instituting checkpoints," an officer explained. "But they responded by loading Phantoms full of explosives and bombing the inspection points."

"Is there nothing to be done?" another civilian asked mournfully. "More of our citizens die every hour."

Autel clenched his fists, furious at the humans for their brutality, at his superiors for putting him in this position, at his warriors for not achieving results, at himself for having nothing to end this madness...

The door at the far end of the chamber slid open, and a single warrior strode in. Unlike the other officers, he wasn't special operations. His armor denoted him as an Ultra with the regular army, and his armor was stained with purple blood. Fresh blood.

As heads turned in his direction, the newcomer strode through the holograms towards Autel. "Another attack," he snarled at the surrounding room. "They struck an evacuation convoy. I lost two warriors driving them off."

"Get me a report on all of their known movements since then," Autel ordered, his eyes fixed on the newcomer. "If they plan on exporting their violence to other states, they need to have warning."

As the meeting diverged into small, terse groups, Autel raised a hand in greeting. "Fira. I thought you wouldn't be attending the gathering. Again."

Fira 'Demal, his best and oldest friend, shook his head. "You might be obligated to waste time with these mewling fools, but I'm not. These butchers strike us at every turn, and we still don't know who they are or why they are here."

Autel nodded. "The transmission countermeasures. Do we have a solution to their jamming yet?"

"Not at present, seeing as the Arbiter refused to consider the possibility of something like this!" one of the bureaucrats butted in angrily. "We are powerless against their digital tricks!"

Fira turned and fixed the unfortunate politician with a frigid glare. "Know your place, worm."

Ignoring the jab at his father, Autel placed a calming hand on his friend's shoulder before things could get out of hand. "I know you have more to report."

But Fira simply shook his head. "I wish I did, but out there we simply respond to their every move, and they are always two steps ahead of us. It's all I can do to keep my warriors together out on the streets."

"It cannot go on like this," Autel admitted. "I have already requested a corvette force to sweep the skies around Meru. The humans can't possibly be cloaking all of their Phantoms, and we need to find where they are launching from."

"The sooner the better," Fira agreed. "I have lost too many warriors already. And there is still no sign of Tuka."

Autel nodded sympathetically. Fira had been scouring the city for his young protege ever since the attacks began, but so far his efforts had been in vain. "The corvettes will tip the scales," he assured his friend.

Unfortunately, the meeting had chosen that time to grow silent. Autel winced internally, bracing himself for more criticism while praying Fira didn't do as he'd been threatening for years and begin lopping off political heads.

"Why weren't these corvettes called in the first place?"

"What is the army doing out there?"

"Why can't we track their movements?"

To shout them down would be meaningless, Autel knew as he restrained himself while his operation fell to pieces around him. They are afraid, all of them. That is the goal of these humans, to inspire fear and terror amongst us while they carry out their murder around us.

He sensed Fira ready to begin cracking heads and wondered how he would handle the evacuation without civilian support.

And then a thin, reedy voice cut through the argument like a blade. "Quiet down, you fools are giving me a headache."

All eyes turned to look at the smallest, oldest Sangheili in the room. Garbed in plain civilian robes and cradling a long, thin cane, he sat up against the wall beside the door, staring into the crowded council with wispy, failing eyes.

Autel blinked, surprised at having forgotten this elder was even in the room.

His name was Deno. There was no clan name that had ever been attached to it, at least as far as Autel knew. An ancient, withered veteran who had seen the beginning of the Great War and fought it through the Schism, Deno was the scarred face of Sanghelios's intelligence forces. He should long since have retired, but Autel understood that retirement for one such as Deno was impossible. He had given himself, mind and body, to the Sangheili people.

And when he spoke, the room silenced immediately.

Deno cocked his head. "This bickering is pointless. Right now you should be less concerned with the attacks and more concerned with how the rest of the planet sees your reaction to them."

"Spymaster," one of the bureaucrats began, but Deno cut him off with a wave.

"Enough from you. Vadam, you should know that Prefect 'Unul died this morning. My Black Guard only just recovered his corpse."

Autel blinked. Without the prefect, his hold over the civilians was at an even worse point than it already was. "How?" he demanded.

"It seems he received a transmission from a mercenary claiming to have a fugitive to be handed over to him. The fool didn't tell you because he wanted the glory of the capture for himself."

Autel knew better than to question how Deno knew these things. The spymaster had spun his web of information far across Sanghelios. Very little escaped his notice, and even less escaped the grasp of his elite Black Guard, the closest thing Autel had ever seen to a Sangheili secret police.

"What happened?" he asked.

"The humans ambushed his party on the landing pad and killed nearly all of them. The fugitive he was after escaped into the city; my warriors only just reported that they have lost him."

Autel blinked, still trying to process the information, but Fira plunged in before him.

"The fugitive," he demanded. "Who is he?"

A hint of a smile passed over Deno's mandibles. "You know him well, Ultra 'Demal. The human sell-sword Mordred. I believe we owe a great deal of our current altercation with the Path Walkers to him, correct?"

Fira stiffened, then turned to Autel. "I need to get back to the city. Now."

"Not alone," Autel insisted. "I will come with you."

Fira shook his head. "No," he said, strangely plaintive. "Please. I am honor-bound to bring this one in. Especially if he is involved in this carnage."

Without another word, he strode towards the door. Autel could hear him already communicating with his subordinates, ordering every warrior at his command to prepare for a hunt.

The prisoners had all been herded together, old and young, weak and strong, warrior and civilian. They sat hopelessly within a large makeshift holding cell made of twisted iron bars the humans had brought with them. The bars were crude, with gaps that would have been easy to slip through but for the armed guards who ringed the enclosure. Patches of blood left on the floor and bars were reminders of the fate of any who tried to break free.

Tuka's head still ached. His wounds hadn't been treated since the massacre in the plaza; he and his fellow prisoners had been stripped naked before being thrown into the enclosure. Blood dripped steadily from his cuts and wounds.

Doing his best to work past the pain, he looked forlornly around him. None out of the dozens of prisoners were talking. Most kept their heads down and didn't say a word, while others did as he did and surveyed their captivity in stoic silence.

The whole thing made Tuka's skin crawl. It reminded him of his brief stint as a slave back on Famul. But this time he hadn't planned any of it, nor did he have friends ready to break him out within the next few hours.

Now he understood why the slaves back on Famul had been so hopeless. But I mustn't give in to despair. There is a way out of here. There has to be.

He looked back at the guards. Only a few were actually watching the prisoners; the rest were scattered about the holding room, which looked like one of the war bunkers he had been inspecting with Fira not ten days before. But though they idled and conversed amongst themselves, the humans all had their weapons held firmly in their hands. There was no way they'd be caught off guard.

Beside him, one of Tuka's fellow prisoners stirred. Tuka had pegged him as a warrior earlier, and his suspicions were confirmed when the big Sangheili growled, "How disgraceful. I have nothing to kill myself with."

Tuka slowly rested a reassuring hand on the warrior's shoulder. "Don't think about death," he told him. "Not now. We have a responsibility to help those around us."

The warrior jerked away and glared at him. "We can do nothing, you fool. We are already dead. Our only choice now is whether we die with or without honor."

Tuka saw no point in pressing the argument and looked away, fighting the despair sinking into his stomach. He still had no idea who these humans were or why they had attacked Sanghelios. They didn't look anything like the few human warriors he had seen. Rather than the drab green of most human combat armor, these guards were dressed in black and grey without any of the insignias and symbols he had seen on UNSC warriors. He still couldn't comprehend the butchery he had seen back in the plaza. As a child, Tuka had seen most of his family slaughtered as senselessly as the attack back in Meru, but he couldn't see the point in attacking the Sangheili in the one place that would be guaranteed to invite crushing retribution.

A door at the end of the room beeped and slid open. Tuka's head swiveled to face it, his hopes rising within him. This was it, warriors had come to save them…

But his hearts sank as three more dark-garbed humans marched into the room. The guards looked over at them as they approached and Tuka froze when he realized the foremost of the newcomer was the Simon look-alike he had seen back in the plaza.

Not-Simon gestured at one of the guards. "The boss needs a prisoner," he said casually. "And this time, give us one that doesn't die after five minutes with Reaper."

The guard snorted. "Way that psycho works, they'll be lucky to make it through two."

Not-Simon just shrugged. "Just grab one, will you?"

He strode towards the enclosure as the other guards readied their weapons. Tuka looked around at his fellow prisoners, trying to sense if they were going to throw themselves at the opening and overwhelm their captors. But there was nothing to be had from the crowd of dejected prisoners.

The warrior beside him stiffened, and Tuka realized what he planned to do. Just as the enclosure door swung open, the warrior leapt up and charged towards the humans.

A gun appeared in Not-Simon's hand in an instant, along with a look of smug satisfaction that the real Simon would never have had. When the warrior was almost on top of him, he fired two swift shots into the Sangheili's legs.

The warrior collapsed, howling. Not-Simon deftly shot both his arms as well as the rest of the guards stiffened and waved their weapons at the rest of the prisoners in warning. Not-Simon knelt and hauled the crippled warrior out of the enclosure. "Hurry up and get one," he ordered.

But all eyes were on him as he holstered his pistol and drew a knife. With a deft flick of his wrist, he slashed off one of the warrior's mandibles. When the bleeding Sangheili screamed and flailed, he cut off two more, then sank the knife deep into the warrior's abdomen. Tuka watched in horror, unable to look away, as Not-Simon slowly disemboweled his victim.

After a horrified eternity, Not-Simon rose and kicked the gargling warrior over. "Now I've got blood all over me," he complained, wiping at the purple blood on his combat vest.

The guards reached in and hauled a young female out of the enclosure. Not-Simon looked her over and shrugged. "At least she's not resisting," he commented. "Let's go."

As he neared the door, Not-Simon tossed back over his shoulder, "Any more try to hit you, just send them to their ancestors. Slowly."

One of the guards shook his head as the doors closed behind him. "That Peter. What a freak."

His friend laughed. "What can you expect? The kid's Venter's little lab rat."

"I'm just glad the boss has him hunting these animals instead of humans. Did you see what he did to that one girl back on Famul?"

"Oh, yeah. The bayonet incident."

So Peter was this apparition's name. Tuka looked over at the now thankfully dead warrior, drowned in a pool of his own blood. All he could do now was pray that his fellow warriors would not abandon him and his fellow captives to their fate.

Venter scowled at the latest prisoner Peter had fished out of the growing crop of survivors hauled in from the HLF's raids. He didn't know much about Sangheili physiology, but he'd picked a few things up preparing for this operation and slaughtering hundreds of them over the past few days and he was pretty sure that this one was a young female.

"Peter, you fuckwit, do you really think she'll know anything useful?" he demanded, leaning against a communications station. "Cut her throat and bring me something useful."

But the armored man beside him raised a hand. "No," the Reaper said. "This one'll do. Put her on the table."

The soldiers dragging the prisoner complied, flinging the young female down on the barren table the Reaper indicated. Venter watched, arms folded. It wasn't that he didn't trust the Reaper, except for the fact that he didn't trust him. The guy had been useful, Venter had to admit; over half the software the HLF was using to pull off their Phantom con game had been programmed by the guy. But apart from that, the Reaper lived up to his name by being a ghost.

The Reaper leaned over the prisoner, faceless under the SPI armor he always wore. Venter figured it was something that took getting used to, but even then he was sure it couldn't be comfortable to wear all the time.

"Serum Alpha," the Reaper ordered, and one of his aides deftly placed a small syringe in his outstretched hand. The female struggled for a few moments as he injected her, then fell limp, her chest taking small, shallow breaths.

Venter rolled his eyes. "And what exactly are we accomplishing here? I want to know about more targets to hit, not what makes these things tick."

"Believe me," the Reaper said dispassionately, raising a small medical knife. "I've studied these animals inside and out. Killing these things is what I do best."

He carefully made a small incision in the female's abdomen and began to cut.

"So what's the point of doing this? Just shoot her and get me someone who will tell me something!"

"Patience." The Reaper continued to cut. "You focus on the mass killing. This is for a target that requires a little more precision."

"Oh, whatever." Venter turned to Peter. "We're wrapping up with that first city, Mera or whatever the hell its name is. Do we have the parting gift in place yet?"

Peter smiled. "En route now."

"Good. In the meantime, let's hit some more of those villages the recon team called in."

Behind them, the Reaper continued to cut.


Chapter Seventeen: The Cleansing Blade

The vacuum around Famul was swarming with activity.

The Jiralhanae colony world, once the solitary refuge of Chieftain Mallunus's pirate fleets, was now a haven for all manner of fugitives and outcasts. Kig-Yar raiders mingled with scavenged Unggoy colony ships, vying for spaces in the planet's packed orbital docks while Sangheili and Jiralhanae warships patrolled the atmosphere. The warships outclassed all but the largest of colony ships; amidst the teeming cutters and frigates they were like whales cutting their way through schools of tiny fish. And human vessels, once an enigma amongst Famul's regular traffic, were now as abundant as the Kig-Yar and Unggoy.

Famul had become a hub of underworld commerce, the likes of which its former master had only dreamed. Its surface, once ruled solely by the Jiralhanae, now boasted hubs of life for all species, humans included. Yes, some of the chieftains had resisted, but they had met mysterious uprisings from within their own packs, swiftly cast down and replaced by successors who saw the wisdom in allegiance with other species. After all, it wasn't a Jiralhanae they owed their new rule to.

But the one who had orchestrated the fall of Mallunus, the one who had brought the new prosperity and strength to Famul as if by his own sheer force of will, was nowhere to be found amidst the orbital activity. No, there was another, less traveled arena where he had made his lair.

Famul's asteroid field, home to a chain of scattered mining platforms, cut through the system like a meandering river. A handful of warships cruised its perimeter, but within the drifting rocks lay another, hidden ship.

A small Sangheili corvette, easily dwarfed by any of the cruisers or carriers that orbited Famul, drifted its way through the tumbling asteroids, any one of which would have been large enough to pulverize it on impact. From a distance it would have been mistaken for any one of the thousands of its kind flying for any of the ex-Covenant races throughout the galaxy. But rather than the traditional purple hue, its hull was a dull hue of red and instead of the seamless surface sported by others of its class a spiderweb of intricate cracks and seams blossomed along its length.

The Cleansing Fire, flagship of the Cleansing Blade movement, was one of a kind.

Within, the differences were even starker. Dull-armored Sangheili patrolled its corridors, which were packed with technology from all corners of the galaxy. Everything that could be put to use improving the Fire's fighting strength had been gathered together, improving everything from its weapons and shields to the artificial gravity generated throughout the ship.

The Cleansing Blade had learned the lesson of the Fallen War well: adapt or die. Nothing, no strategy, weapon, or ally, could simply be cast aside because it had not originated with the Sangheili or the Covenant. If their enemy was to be the entire galaxy, than the entire galaxy would need to be their armory as well.

Each and every warrior manning the ship was sworn to live and die in the pursuit of the Cleansing Blade's goals. Very few could ever be found resting in the Fire's tight common rooms. Those not resting or on duty passed their time drilling wherever space could be made, practice swords and plasma rifles flaring as they locked themselves into mock battles.

War was coming, and it was the duty of every Blade to be honed ultra-fine, ready to answer the call to renew their people and cleanse the galaxy.

The Cleansing Fire's crew were the Cleansing Blade's most devoted warriors, but there was one series of chambers where all but a handful of the ship's officers were denied access. Their one entrance was guarded at all times by a lance of warriors and the doors would only open to those the scanners surrounding it were programmed to admit. Within these chambers lay the heart of the Cleansing Blade: two meeting rooms and a tiny shipmaster's quarters.

It was here, in this lair of a lair, that Umbra 'Vesic, vice-commander of the Cleansing Blade, found his commander.

Shinsu 'Refum, the Black Knight of Sanghelios and leader of the Cleansing Blade, sat in a meditative position in the center of his barren quarters. He wore only a simple pale rob, his head bent low as he considered the holographic images that flashed all around him.

Umbra didn't even have to look at what the images displayed to know what they were about.

He coughed to announce his presence, though he was sure the motionless Shinsu already knew exactly who he was.

"Umbra," Shinsu said slowly, not turning to face him.

"Commander," Umbra replied. "Looking over the news from the homeworld? The humans' handiwork is... impressive to say the least."

"Really?" Shinsu's voice was low and soft; Umbra stiffened reflexively. He had only heard that tone a handful of times before. It was the tone Shinsu used when he was absolutely livid with rage, and when someone had managed to push so far through the Black Knight's deep layers of careful self-control they generally had a very swift death approaching.

"It isn't to your liking?" Umbra asked carefully.

"Umbra, perhaps I should have my throat examined," Shinsu said with that same silky menace. "I must have stammered or gargled, maybe even misspoke entirely."

"Commander?" Umbra feigned confusion, an instinct forged through decades of careful schemes and deception. It was almost embarrassing, especially since he knew Shinsu would see through the cheap act immediately.

"When I contacted Venter and hired him to probe the homeworld's defenses, I expressly ordered him to strike military targets only."

"Ah." Umbra coughed again, another practiced placation. "It does seem as if he interpreted your orders rather broadly."

"Several thousand of our people have died needlessly thanks to that broad interpretation, Umbra. I did not supply and fund his expedition so that his followers could massacre entire cities."

Umbra inclined his head. "I agree this is a problem, commander, but it may be one we can turn to our advantage. The government's slow response to the sight of humans butchering civilians in the streets will undoubtedly raise support for our cause when the time comes to reveal ourselves."

"Our enemies are the Vadam government and its allies, not the people themselves," Shinsu reminded him coldly. "I won't have them slaughtered--at our expense--for the sake of some insignificant political point."

Umbra nodded obediently, but inside he was frowning. Since when did his commander fail to leap at a political advantage? He bit back a cold retort. "How will you handle this, then?" he asked.

Shinsu raised a hand, summoning forth a small portrait of Redmond Venter. "He has proved himself unreliable as an ally, and it's only a matter of time before the government reaches out to the humans for aid. If he's captured, Venter will reveal us as his backers and we will be blamed for this whole affair."

"So we must eliminate him."

Shinsu waved dismissively. "Eliminate or extract, whichever suits us when we arrive."

Umbra did a double take. "When we arrive, commander?"

"I unchained this beast, so I will be the one to handle his dismissal. Contact the Syndicate. We will need their help to round up Venter's followers."

"At once, commander. I also have word from our source on the homeworld."

"Yes?"

"Mordred is confirmed to be on Sanghelios, commander. You predicted Ro'nin's actions quite accurately."

Shinsu nodded. "And the item?"

"Our source maintains that it is still within Ro'nin's possession."

The Cleansing Blade commander rose, the holograms winking out around his ankles. "Contact Ro'nin immediately and do whatever needs to be done to get the item from him. Pula should be in position to apprehend Mordred now."

Umbra turned to leave. "I will remind her that you want him alive, commander.

"No need. Pula, at least, can be trusted to carry out the specifics of her instructions."

Shinsu strode over to where his armor lay in a neat pile beside his tiny cot. "Alert the crew to set course for Sanghelios," he ordered. "We are going home."


Chapter Eighteen: No Way to Live

"Oh, God. What happened here?"

Simon swept the bombed-out plaza with his assault rifle and shook his head. "The same thing that happened everywhere else. Someone blew the shit out of it."

He stepped through the charred wreckage of a side-street bazaar. Everywhere he looked, corpses lined the streets, all of them Sangheili and most of them females and children. A part of him wondered if it was bad that he didn't really feel all that torn up about the carnage; he registered the massacre on a tactical level, just another sign that he didn't have to worry about causing a panic amongst the civilians because there were no civilians left to panic.

Maybe if it had been the Visag keep, with all the warriors and students and servants he had gotten to know over the course of his year-long stay there, Simon would have taken it all harder. But Mamore had taught him to stroll through the torn bodies of humans without pausing to be sick, and at the end of the day most Sangheili were as inhuman to him now as they'd been back during the Great War.

The remnants of a vender's stall collapsed as he and Zoey passed by. She squeaked and brandished the pistol he'd given her as if to ward off invisible attackers. Simon glanced down at the wares the vender had been selling: some kind of meat, from the looks of things.

"Diana," he said into their private com channel. "Anything on the 'net?"

"Yeah, we've gotten ourselves into a full-scale ground war from the looks of things," she reported. "Half the reports are screaming about the UNSC, the other half are ragging on the local government for not doing enough to stop it. Either way, we're looking at over five thousand meatbags dead in this city alone."

She paused before adding, "You know, business as usual."

"Out on the frontier, maybe." Simon stepped gingerly over the huddled corpse of a small Sangheili child. "But not on Sanghelios. This isn't just one clan getting pissed at another clan over farming rights."

Simon glanced at another body. This one hadn't died from plasma fire; solid bullets had torn her head halfway off her body. "The Path Walkers wouldn't have called this in, would they?" he asked, thinking aloud.

"Last reports I checked, they were tied up fighting around Cordial Harmony. If they wanted a bunch of meatbags dead, they could have called this in back over there."

She paused, as if waiting for him to say something. When he didn't, she said promptingly, "Worried about Doc?"

"She's not on Cordial Harmony anymore," Simon said wearily. "Last I heard from her, she and her clinic pulled out. I wouldn't let her tell me where."

"Aw, you're so sweet sometimes."

"Stuff it."

A few Phantoms were slipping through distant towers overhead, but none of them seemed at all interested in the bombed-out plaza. Behind him, Zoey gagged. She'd been sick three times since they'd escaped the landing pad. Everywhere they turned, more scenes of death and destruction confronted them, and Diana hadn't been able to tug anything definitive out of the com channels to tell them exactly what was going on.

So, we're blind, we've got no way off the planet, and the only thing keeping the army from coming down on me with everything they've got is some attack that we know nothing about. Business as usual.

"So," Zoey said wearily. "Do you guys have a plan yet?"

He looked back at her and reminded himself--again--of the payoff that waited at the end of this tunnel. Just get her to Earth and you'll never have to worry about money again." His hands tightened around the assault rifle at the mere thought.

"I'm working on it," he replied slowly. "I'm working on it."

"If we can get a ride out of the city," Simon said, drawing a small circle in the dirt with his metal fingers. "We can get out into the countryside and head for Visag."

Zoey's forehead wrinkled. "What's Visag?"

"A state that isn't far from Meru. I have friends there who can help us."

The plan was coming together in Simon's head as they took shelter in an alcove under a bridge that led out of the plaza. Below them, a river flowed gently off through the city, though its meandering pace was punctuated every now and then by a few corpses or a piece of debris.

"Yeah, they'll help us," Diana said in his ear. "Once you explain away the whole business about getting their planet locked in another war."

Simon gritted his teeth. He didn't like thinking about the reason the Sangheili were willing to pay Ro'nin for him. "Master 'Visag will listen to me," he said slowly. "He'll understand."

"So he's still 'master', huh? Quite the dutiful student there, aren't we?"

"Just shut up."

Zoey huddled against the alcove wall, fingers wrapped tightly around her pistol. "It must feel good," she muttered. "Just being able to deal with all this crap like you do."

Simon blinked at her. "What?"

She shrugged. "I mean, it must suck to have stuff like what happened on the landing pad happen to you, but at least you can fight back. All I can do is hope you're tough enough to get both of us out of this in one piece."

With a harsh laugh, Simon leaned back and rested his head on the hard wall. "You think I like this?" he asked, waving his mechanical arm over his armored frame.

"No, but it's better than having to wait around for someone to save you. Back on Famul, if you hadn't stepped in they'd have killed me and no one would have done a thing. But you, you risked your life to save me..."

"And that's where you're wrong," Simon cut in coldly. "I've never been interested in saving anything but my own pale ass. Don't go turning me into a knight in shining armor over something I didn't even do."

Zoey blinked at him. "But you stood up to those guards..."

"No, Cassandra stood up to the guards. There was no way she was going to back out. I just talked my way out getting cut to pieces, like I always do. Saving you was the easiest way to get out of there without a fight."

"Oh." Zoey seemed to deflate slightly. "You gave me money, though. When you kicked me off your shuttle."

"Cassandra wouldn't have let it go if I hadn't." Simon closed his eyes and hoped the weariness that was suddenly seeping into his limbs would go away. "Sorry to burst your bubble."

"All you really care about is money," Zoey muttered, as if she'd been mulling it over for some time.

"Yep."

"And Cassandra."

Simon's eyes shot open. "What?"

"Money and Cassandra. That's all you care about."

"Damn," Diana muttered in his ear. "She's got you nailed, dumbass."

Simon ignored her and shook his head. "What the hell gave you that idea?" he asked Zoey carefully.

"Everything you've ever done or told me about, you did it because of money or Cassandra."

"We went through a lot together," he admitted. "She's stubborn about stuff."

"So why aren't you with her?"

The words cut deep, far deeper than Zoey could have possibly intended. He looked at her, a small framed girl in dirty overalls, her flaxen hair wild and disheveled, and wondered what was running around inside that grimy head of hers. She certainly seemed intent on taking him apart, and that was something he couldn't tolerate, wealthy client or no.

"Oh boy, you're pulse is goin' up," Diana commented. "This oughta be good."

Simon took a breath, then lifted his assault rifle and tossed it over to Zoey. She nearly dropped it in surprised, but fumbled with it and held it at arm's length.

"See that?" Simon asked. The river, the bridge, the city, even the planet and the people who wanted him dead or imprisoned faded away, leaving just him, the rifle, and Zoey. "That's an MA-series assault rifle. Piece of shit model, always jams on me, but it works when it needs to. And you know what it does when it works?"

Zoey looked at him from across the rifle, her eyes confused. "It shoots?" she asked in a quavering voice.

"It kills," Simon told her. "It kills. I've been holding rifles like that since I was six years old. I'm still a shitty marksman, just ask Diana. But when it counts, I can kill people just fine. And I've been doing that since I was about twelve. With a rifle, with a knife, with my bare fucking hands. I've lost count of all the people I've killed." And I was the worst one in our batch. Spartan's a Spartan, killer's a killer...

Her eyes were wide as saucers now, sucking in every word he said. Simon remembered one of the Rat Pack kids, Isaac, that was his name, looking like that back when he'd helped teach them how to shoot. Damn, even his hair and clothes had looked the same. Isaac had died when an assault rifle just like the one Zoey was holding so gingerly had blown his arm off.

"If you don't think I tried settling down, you're wrong. Hell, Cassandra tries to get me out of it every time I talk to her. But this is all I know how to do, and no matter what I want there will always, always be people who won't let me just pull out and live the quiet life. Mercenary work keeps me fed and it keeps me right where I need to be in case something like this shit"--he gestured at the city around them--"happens."

Zoey shook her head, disbelieving. "So you just kill and kill and kill," she murmured softly in a way that sounded eerily like Cassandra. "Is this how it always goes out here? What's it all for?"

"For?" Simon laughed, but he felt hollow inside. "I've killed for money, for a cause, for friends. Just about every reason out there. But at the end of the day, it boils down to the fact that I'm still alive. And that's all that matters."

"What's the point of living like that?" she demanded.

Simon gave her a cold smile and closed his eyes again. His hand brushed against his helmet where it lay beside him. "Hell if I know," he muttered. "But better this than dead."

He hoped she realized how lucky she was, heading back to Earth where her family could keep her sheltered from all this. Life as a slave clearly hadn't been able to kill her, but it hadn't made her any smarter either. It was better that someone step in and keep her from being sullied by this shit any more than she already had.

Diana's voice snapped him back into the present. "Hate to cut the break short," she said, broadcasting through his helmet's external speakers. "But the local comm network just lit up. They aren't being really clear, but something big is headed your way."

Zoey bolted upright. "Big?" she asked, eyes wide. "What's that mean?"

Simon grabbed the helmet and crammed it over his head. "It means we're leaving."

He leapt up and snatched his assault rifle back. It felt comfortingly familiar in his hands. "Time to start running."


Chapter Nineteen: To Hunt a Spartan

It was only ten minutes after Simon and Zoey climbed up from under the bridge that the whine of Sangheili engines filled the air.

In a moment of panic, Simon almost forgot about the client at his heels. The blown-out streets and scattered corpses were dragging him away from Meru, from Sanghelios, back in time to Mamore. Then it had been the monstrous roar of UNSC war machines that had filled his ears as he scrambled through the rubble, ducking into anything that could be used for cover. He'd felt so small and helpless then, with just a spit-and-tape assault rifle and the ragged clothes on his back between him and oblivion. Now he had his SPI armor back, a plethora of weapons and equipment, and a smart AI to tap the enemy's communications and update him on all that went on in the airwaves.

And yet he still felt just as small and helpless as he had back then.

Nothing's changed, he realized as the sound of his own faltering breath filled his helmet's interior. Not a damn thing's changed. For all that had happened since Mamore, deep down he was still that terrified boy soldier running for his life inside someone else's stupid war.

"Mordred!" Zoey gasped, and it mingled with Emily's distant cry of Stray! while Cassandra's murmured Simon echoed beyond it. Simon gritted his teeth, his mind and body awash in fear and desperation. He ran on, running from the engines, from his enemies, from himself, from the indelible marks the past had engraved in his mind and soul.

"Mordred!" Zoey cried again. She wasn't cut out for this, she didn't have years of combat experience to draw from let alone training and augmentations. For all the money she would bring him at some nebulous point in the future, here and now she was nothing more than dead weight.

Simon ran on. Diana was saying something in his ear, but he barely heard it. The engine noises filled his mind and drowned out anything she had to say. His words from minutes ago drifted down through the noise as if from a lifetime ago: "This is all I know how to do"

His lungs were pounding almost as fast as his heart and there was a searing pain in his chest. It was all so damn pointless. I run and I run and then I stop for just a minute and try to rest before it all comes crashing down and I have to start running again.

Diana's voice came again, and this time it punched through the whirlwind in his head: "Take cover, dumbass!"

His body chose everything for him; he just went through the motions and skidded to a halt in the center of another plaza. He staggered, fighting to stay upright as Zoey collapsed in a terrified, gasping heap at his feet.

The ground trembled, and then a pair of Banshees tore through the sky overhead. As they began to head off towards the next row of buildings, Simon hoped against hope that they hadn't spotted him. But then they banked, turning off and spinning back around, and Simon knew it was over. The plaza was barren; it was a good ten second's run to even the slightest bit of cover. And there was no time for that. There was no time for anything.

Everything was happening faster than he could process, and yet everything was moving as if it were under water. The air filled with the sound of dozens of repulsors, and as he looked up it seemed as if they were spilling in from some hole in the sky.

No less than three Phantoms descended upon the square, and around them dropped individual warriors on hover-packs. A full squadron of Banshees circled the perimeter.

Simon's eyes felt numb as he tracked the hover-pack warriors as the alighted nimbly around him and were then joined by dozens more Sangheili who dashed forwards on foot. He glanced around, distanced from it all by fatigue and adrenaline as the net closed in around him.

Warriors poured in from all sides and more appeared on the rooftops above. He felt the weight of countless plasma repeaters all trained on him and shook his head in utter disbelief at how quickly the end had come. After all this time, all the days and months and years of clinging to life, he was about to die and there was nothing he could do about it.

On the ground, Zoey whimpered something that was halfway between a curse and a plea. A dim part of Simon realized that there really wasn't any way she'd make it out of this. When the warriors opened fire, the sheer heat from the plasma would roast her alive.

Just another corpse in a dead city. Just like Mamore...

Another thought flashed through his mind and he couldn't help but shake his head at the notion. "That armor," he muttered faintly.

"What?" For once, Diana's voice sounded legitimately terrified. Of course, her data crystal chip was slotted into his prosthetic arm. She would burn with him. "What are you talking about?"

"That armor we took off the dead Spartan," Simon replied, an image of the box he'd stowed it in flashing through his mind. "We left it back on Ro'nin's ship."

"What's the point, you miserable dumbass?"

"I was just thinking it might've come in handy right about now."

"Yeah." Her voice softened as if she, too, were mulling over this one insignificant detail. "And to think of all the cash we'd have made auctioning it."

"Yep." Simon shook his head again. "Left that damn data file on that asshole's shuttle as well. Shit ton of good it did us."

"Well, about that..."

Zoey moaned again and hit his leg with surprising vigor. The blow stung even through Simon's light armor plates. "Mordred!" she gasped, almost on the verge of tears. "You're Mordred! The bulletproof mercenary! They said you could make it out of anything! You always survive!"

Simon glanced down at her. As the blood drained out of his arms and a metal fist tightened around his stomach, everything seemed vaguely amusing, even the quivering, petrified girl at his feet. "Bulletproof mercenary?" he asked incredulously. "I didn't know I had a nickname. And who's 'they'?"

She looked up at him in horrified disbelief. "Do something!"

He scanned the ring of glaring warriors again. It certainly hadn't gotten any thinner. A patrol of Ghosts hovered behind the foot soldiers, and someone had even driven a Specter up to the perimeter. The transport vehicle's rear turret was leveled at him like every other gun in the area.

Simon looked back at Zoey. "Do what?" he demanded. "Any suggestions?"

He realized then that the warriors were taking an awfully long time to kill him. Glancing up, he saw that one of the Phantoms was descending, its side doors sliding open to reveal a Sangheili in the armor of an Ultra. It took a moment for Simon to realize who it was, and when he did he couldn't help but laugh out loud.

"Oh," muttered Diana. "The hardass. Of course."

"What?" Zoey gaped at him. "What is it? Why are you laughing?"

It was either laugh or start sobbing in terror and wetting himself. Simon just shook his head and let out a final, nervous giggle. "It's Fira 'Demal!"

"Yeah," Diana said dryly. "This is hilarious."

The Sangheili who had walked through hell on Famul with him and Tuka glared down at them as the Phantom dropped to just ten feet off the ground. Simon could only hope the dropship's bulk kept the other aerial units from opening fire.

"So," Fira said after a silence punctuated by the continued, hostile presence of what seemed to be an entire legion of warriors. "We meet again, Simon. Or is it Mordred this time?"

"Nice to see you again, too," Simon called up, hoping that his voice wasn't letting on how utterly terrified he was. "You're as fun as ever."

He gestured at the surrounding warriors. "Overkill, much? These are a lot of guys just to handle little old me. Are you even allowed to take charge of 'em all?"

Fira's expression was, as far as Simon's basic knowledge of Sangheili faces went, a study in cold hostility. "In case you are unaware, these warriors are not disposed to take kindly to humans on Sanghelios right now. Particularly ones responsible for shattering the peace they fought so hard to win against the Fallen."

"Jeez, are we still sore about the Path Walker stuff?" Simon's mouth had taken over and was in full-blown stalling mode, shooting off anything that might delay Fira from having him killed for just a moment longer. "Let it go already, will you?"

"As evasive as ever," Fira said coldly, but there was an edge to his voice.

Diana noticed it to. "Hey, dumbass," she hissed in his ear. "We've got one over this guy from Beta-14, remember?"

"Hell yeah," he muttered back. The fist in his gut began to slowly unclench as he started mapping a way out of this death trap. "Get the holo-drones ready."

Simon had one ace up his sleeve that just might keep Fira at bay. The Ultra had had his ass on a platter back on Beta-14, but thanks to Tuka he'd let him slip away. Everything depended on whether or not Fira had reported the incident back to his superiors, but since he hadn't mentioned it yet Simon had a feeling he hadn't. And if he hadn't, he really wouldn't want to start discussing it in front of a crowd of agitated warriors.

It's a gamble, but what the hell have I got to lose?

Zoey punched his leg again. "What are you talking about? Do you know that alien?"

Of course. Zoey wouldn't have any way of translating what Fira was saying. All she heard was Simon having a one-sided conversation with a babbling alien.

"Not now," he muttered back. To Fira, he called: "Don't you have bigger problems to worry about than nailing me?"

"Not when you could be part of that larger problem."

It took Simon a moment to realize what Fira meant. "Oh, hell. You think all this is my fault?" The accusation stung more than it should have, given his track record.

"You started a war," Fira reminded him. "You should be grateful my superiors want you alive."

Simon's hands tightened around his rifle. Fira had dropped him another ace: these guys weren't interested in killing him. The chance for escape widened. Now all he needed was the right plan...

"Well," he said slowly. "It's nice to be so popular, I guess. But if you think I can help you solve your little terrorist problem, than you're in for a disappointment."

"Less talking, more escaping," Diana advised.

"Great," Simon hissed back. "Do you have a plan yet."

"I thought you were working on one."

"Do I look like I'm working on one?"

Above them, Fira was growing impatient. "Throw down your weapons and end this charade, Mordred. Stop stalling. I know you have that useless construct of yours working on some trick to help you get away."

That did it. Simon's eardrums throbbed as Diana slammed on an open frequency and shrieked up at Fira in fluent Sangheili: "You ungrateful bastard! I hope a Jiralhanae crushes your bones and sen-rats feast on your eyes, you traitor!"

A ripple of surprise passed through the assembled warriors at the sound of a furious female Sangheili emanating from Simon's helmet. Even Fira looked somewhat nonplussed as a stream of foul insults poured out at him. Even as his ears were aching, Simon grinned and reached for the holo-drones. A distraction was a distraction...

A cry rose up from the back of one of the encircling lances, and all eyes suddenly swung towards the noise. Surprised warriors parted to reveal three dead Sangheili, their corpses spilling fresh blood onto the plaza's slick pavement.

"Hold positions!" Fira bellowed, his voice stretching out across the assembled squadrons. "Where is the attack coming from?"

But the group next to the stricken lance was suddenly crying out as well. Two of their number had also dropped dead.

"What the hell?" Simon muttered, scanning the confused warriors. There would be a way out. There had to be a way out. An opportunity would present itself. It had to.

"There!" a warrior barked. "In active camouflage! Attack--"

Something bright flashed, and then the warrior's head was tumbling towards the ground. Two, no, four energy swords sprang to life as if out of thin air and began slashing through the tightly assembled warriors. Two or more fell with every slash and within moments an entire lance had been slaughtered.

"First lance, apprehend Mordred!" Fira ordered. "All other lances, contain the attackers!"

No less than eight warriors peeled off and charged towards Simon and Zoey. He raised his rifle and kicked Zoey. "Get ready to run!" he yelled. "Diana, the drones!"

The lance was almost on top of him when a human-shaped figure in what was clearly battered SPI armor darted in the middle of their formation. The warriors snarled and turned on the newcomer, but Fira waved them away. "Don't be fooled! He uses holograms!"

And then the newcomer detonated an EMP grenade.

For a moment the warriors staggered, surprised and blinded by the attack, but the newcomer was not. It raised a human-made submachine gun and killed three warriors with a single burst up at neck height. One made a grab for it, which was dodged and greeted with another burst into the gut. The remaining five backed away; their last mistake. The rest of the SMG's clip cut them down in a heartbeat.

Fira's Phantom swiveled its guns to face this new threat just as all hell broke loose in the air above them. Another Phantom had pulled up to the formation and promptly blasted one of the supporting dropships out of the sky with a plasma barrage. The Banshees swooped in to intercept, only to run headlong into a stream of plasma fire that surged from yet another Phantom that had come in from the opposite direction. Twisted, burning wreckage rained down on the plaza.

Fira didn't wait for a new lance to come after Simon. Pulling a needle rifle out from the dropship's interior, he leapt to the ground. Simon met him halfway with a panicked burst of assault rifle fire that knocked him off balance and sent him crashing backwards.

The Ultra rolled when he hit the ground, coming up and firing the rifle low. A hasty dive saved Simon's legs from a nasty hit, but left him down and unable to shift his rifle up in time.

"It's the humans!" Fira roared as discipline collapsed around him. The Sangheili broke ranks, firing at just about everything that moved. Those with hover-packs took to the air, heading up towards the attacking Phantoms while the infantry scattered. A second Sangheili Phantom exploded under combined fire from both of the new arrivals and the one Fira had just exited was doing its best to gain altitude while avoiding rockets that distinctly human-shaped crew members were firing down at it.

Simon scrambled to his feet in time for Fira to knock him flat with a solid kick to the chest. He gasped, the wind was knocked out of him, struggling to scramble away as the Ultra stalked forwards. The air was filled with confused battle cries and the whine of plasma repeaters, but Fira didn't seem to care anymore. His focus was entirely on Simon.

"Diana, the drone!" Simon choked. "Blind him!"

At once a flash of light engulfed Fira as the holo-drone shot up from its pouch on Simon's hip and flew towards the Sangheili. Fira leapt angrily through the hologram, but Simon had used the distraction to get back on his feet and train the assault rifle on him.

Fira lunged forward, his arms coming up to rip the rifle out of Simon's hands. But he passed through air. He'd been attacking another hologram.

The real Simon fired low, flaring Fira's shields and knocking him off balance. The Ultra whirled and fired wildly. Simon ducked as needle rounds punched through the air around him.

A rocket exploded only a few yards away, blasting apart a pair of warriors who had been trying to come at Simon from the side. Fira gestured furiously at their pulverized corpses.

"What more do I need to prove you're with these murderers?" he demanded. "Sparing you was the worst mistake I ever made!"

"I'm not with them!" Simon shouted over the din of combat. "You're the one who turned this place into a shooting gallery!"

Fira began to snarl a reply, but something unseen bowled him over and sent him sprawling. Simon realized too late that it was the camouflaged attacker from before, setting his HUD to scan for the outline just in time to see it loom up in front of him and hit him hard enough to send him flying back five feet.

He pulled himself up just as a grey-armored Sangheili flashed into view before him. This one was smaller and slimmer than Fira and his warriors, but it sported an energy sword hummed in either hand. This one didn't have any colorings on its armor, but Simon knew exactly what it was all the same.

The thing he'd dreaded most since Beta-14 stood before him with nothing to get between it and its intended prey. He reached for his assault rifle only to realize that it had landed a few feet away, just out of reach.

"The Path Walkers!" he yelled, desperately hoping to draw someone, anyone, over to him. The grey armored Sangheili darted towards him, and as the blades closed in Simon saw that the energy came not from handles but from the wrists of the armor itself.

He pulled one of his own energy swords off of his chest and thumbed it on. The blade hummed to life in his hands as he slashed at air. The Path Walker dodged it easily but didn't lash out with its own blades. Instead it stopped just a few feet away and beckoned at him.

"Come, Mordred," it said, and Simon blinked. This one was a female! What the hell is going on here?

The air pulsed around him as another EMP grenade went off. Both the female and Fira, who had just staggered to his feet, were blinded by the flash as a hand reached down and hauled Simon roughly up by the shoulder.

"The nearest building!" the SPI-armored attacker yelled in a man's voice. "The girl's already inside. Run!"

Simon did what he did best and ran, scooping up his assault rifle and sprinting towards the building his savior had indicated. He pushed his way past dead and dying warriors as the plaza continued to burn and explode around him. Knocking aside the shattered hulk of a wrecked Banshee, he darted inside, leaving the fires of war raging outside.

Zoey cowered against a curved plant-holder, her eyes radiating terror and confusion as the dark-uniformed soldiers milled about the small atrium. From where he stood beside her, assault rifle cautiously at his side, he couldn't blame her.

"Alright," he said slowly. He hadn't looked at another SPI helmet visor to visor since Famul, and now the man who had saved them out in the plaza was standing only a few feet away. "Time for some explanations."

"I don't owe you any explanations," the SPI man replied coldly. He turned to one of the other soldiers. "Radio the air units. See if they can't draw the rest of those warriors further away."

He turned on his heels and headed towards a ramp that headed up to the next floor. The rest of the soldiers advanced after him and Simon, pulling Zoey up by her elbow, followed.

"Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate what you guys did out there," Simon called after the SPI man. He was still coming down from his adrenaline high, amazed that he had escaped and cheated death once again. "I just want to know what the hell is going on around here."

"Vengeance," the SPI man said over his shoulder. "This is payback for over two decades worth of mass murder."

"Right," Simon muttered, drawing the word out under his breath.

"Psycho alert," Diana said in his ear. "I can smell the crazy on these guys, and I don't even have a nose."

"I take it you guys aren't the UNSC then," Simon said, plowing on with his efforts to probe them for information.

"Damn right we're not," snapped one of the soldiers. "Those imperialist fucks wouldn't have the balls to do this to even one of the squid-heads' colonies. We're hitting them on their home turf."

"Yeah, I noticed."

The SPI turned and stood off to the side, letting the soldiers file up past him. He held out a hand to stop Simon and Zoey from going after them.

"If anyone should be asking questions, it should be me," he told them, patting the submachine gun dangling from his hip. "For starters, what's Mordred and some kid doing on Sanghelios?"

So this guy knew who he was. That was either a good thing or a bad thing; Simon couldn't tell which. "A business deal went south," he explained after a moment's hesitation. "Someone tried selling me out to the local government, and here I am."

The SPI man seemed satisfied with this explanation. He turned and headed up after the soldiers, beckoning for them to follow. "We don't plan on leaving anytime soon, but if you lend us your gun we'll give you a ride off this rock when we do."

"Seems fair," Simon replied as cheerfully as he could. He had no intention to help these people on their insane little crusade, but if he went with them it would buy him time to figure out his own way of getting off-world. "You have a name?"

"They call me Reaper," the terrorist replied. "I've pulled some freelance work for the Syndicate before I signed on with this group."

They reached the upper floor. The soldiers had fanned out, establishing a perimeter while two others worked on a small pile of equipment off by the wall. An open balcony offered a clear view of Meru's skyline.

"Reaper, huh?" Simon said. "I think I've heard of you. You're the one who killed that governor back on Cordial Harmony, right? Two months ago?"

"Yeah, that was me," the Reaper replied. He strode over to check on the work the two technicians were doing. "I need to eat just like everyone else."

"And who are the rest of these guys?" Simon asked, gesturing at the soldiers. Zoey was practically hanging on his arm, as if she were trying to pull him back down the ramp.

"A privately sponsored merc group," the Reaper said. "They used to run for the insurrection, but now they mostly just take contracts from the Syndicate."

One of the soldiers glared at him. "This is temporary," he snapped. "Once we get enough funds, we're going back to fighting the real war."

The Reaper seemed to find this amusing. "As if you'll ever get that far with Venter heading you up."

Simon's blood froze. His palms stung through his gauntlet as his grip tightened on the rifle, his muscles stiffening as a million different images flashed before his eyes. Venter...

Zoey felt the tension and backed away. "Mordred?" she whispered. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Simon said carefully. He could feel a different gun in his hands now, a pistol, and looking at Zoey he saw for just a moment the features of another grimy girl, this one on her knees in a dark shack.

Stray, please, no...

Give your body to the cause, Stray...

The Reaper straightened, oblivious to the fire coursing through Simon's veins. "Right, we're done here. Get ready to evac, people."

An instinctive, wolfish smile slid over Simon's face. They'd take him to where Venter was. Finally, after all this time, he'd have Venter within his reach. All he had to do was go with them, and Venter would be his.

"Right," he said, forcing a casual tone. "I'm with you guys."

"You dumbass," Diana spat inside his helmet. "Venter ditched me, too, remember? He left both of us to die, and we made it out okay. Don't go getting us killed over him!"

Simon ignored her and gestured for Zoey to follow. The Reaper and the rest of the ex-insurgents moved towards the balcony. They were waiting for another one of their hijacked Phantoms to pick them up. As Simon strode towards them, he glanced at the device the technicians had been working on. A football-sized sphere sat amidst a small pile of wires and status monitors, lights flickering across its rough surface.

"Mordred?" Zoey asked. She was hanging back, staying back near the ramp. "Are we really going with them?"

"If you've got a better solution, I'd love to hear it," Simon told her. "Come on, get moving."

"Liar!" Diana snarled. Simon had never heard her this angry before, and his surprise cut through the promise of having his hands around Venter's throat. "You stupid, dumbass liar, you just want to kill him and get us all killed--"

"Shut up," Simon said through gritted teeth. He had waited too long for this, suffered too many memories, too many sleepless nights, just to pass this up.

"Mordred, hurry up," the Reaper called. The familiar, dreaded whine of a Phantom filled the air, and then it was on top of them and the soldiers were piling in.

"Mordred!" There was an edge of warning in the Reaper's voice. "Either come with us or stay here."

"Right." Simon clambered up into the Phantom's troop bay, pushing aside the insurrectionists to make room for Zoey. She came forward falteringly, extending a trembling hand for Simon to pull her up after him. She crouched low on the bay floor, still cradling the pistol that she'd somehow managed to keep hold of through all the confusion.

Diana screamed another stream of insults into his ear, but for once Simon decided not to put up with it. He reached into his arm and yanked the memory crystal chip out, silencing her mid-rant. The chip slipped into one of his equipment pouches. He'd need her to help plan his escape and he could expect an earful when he reactivated her, but he'd deal with that when the time came. There was, however, one last thing that needed to be taken care of.

Diana had let the trace frequencies of the Sangheili communications she'd been patching into on his helmet's onboard computer. As the bay doors closed and the Phantom lifted into the air, Simon locked in on the most secure channel he could find. It was a gamble; if the rebels were listening in he was finished. But this would pay off in the long run. It had to.

"Attention, government forces," he said. He didn't bother using his broken grasp of Sangheili language. It was more important to be articulate in a language they could translate than limited in one they spoke. "This is Mordred. You know, the guy you want so bad. Patch me in to Fira 'Demal, ASAP. I want to negotiate."

A pause, and for a moment Simon feared the frequency was completely wrong. Then a gravely, familiar voice responded, "This is he."

"Fira, you've got a nuke in one of the buildings around the plaza. Top floor, it's not even hidden. I don't know how long you've got, so you might want to look into finding it."

There was a long silence on the other end. Then Fira's voice growled, "Another trick, then, to throw us off your scent?"

Simon sighed, playing the desperate fugitive for all he was worth. "Listen, I just took off in one of their Phantoms. They think they just hired me on in exchange for safe passage. Do you want a way to track them back to their HQ or what?"

"And what do you want in return?" Fira asked warily.

"I'd like that nuke not to go off, and I'm sure the rest of the city would be very grateful if you could keep it from being vaporized."

"And what else? I know you, Mordred, you want something for yourself out of this."

He couldn't help smiling inside his helmet. He took the bait. "Well, since you're offering, I want you all to chill out and stop trying to kill me. And I want protective custody when this latest bit of crazy is over."

"Protective custody?" Fira seemed surprised by the request."

"The Path Walkers want me dead. The UNSC wants me dead. If you guys are smart about this and take my offer, you won't be wanting me dead pretty soon, and since that's the case you seem like a pretty good bet for keeping the first two from killing me."

"Your offer? You already told us about the device."

"Yeah, but I could be a lot more specific, especially since you don't have a whole lot of time to look for it. And I haven't even activated that tracking beacon yet."

This time Fira was silent for nearly a full minute. Simon glanced around at the troop bay, wondering what exactly the rebels thought their chances were of making it off Sanghelios alive. The grim silence in the air more than answered his question. But they were Venter's men, and Simon had no qualms about selling them out.

The comm feed clicked, bringing Fira back on the air. "Very well," he said wearily. "I will do all in my power to see that your demands are met."

"Glad to have such an understanding friend. The building I ran into after the firefight had a big atrium on the ground floor. It was one of the shorter buildings around the plaza. There's a big open balcony overlooking everything; that's where you'll find the nuke."

It would have been easier with Diana, but a few tweaks to the HUD and he had a small signal broadcasting from his helmet. "Nice doing business with you," he said, terminating the link.

Of course, it all hinged on whether or not Fira's warriors could disarm the bomb before it went off. Simon assumed the deal would be null and void if Meru got turned into a smoking crater. He knew Fira well enough that he trusted him to keep his word, and right now that was the least of his worries.

He passed his tongue over his dry, expectant lips. Venter was getting closer. And when he was close enough, the nightmare he had lived since Mamore could finally end.

Quite a few nightmares were going to end.


Part Two: Specters of the Past

Chapter Twenty: Property of the UNSC

Felix had to give Rosch credit: the man was utterly unflappable.

He had called in a full-scale occupation of a colonial province, recruited elements from the Marines, Navy, and even the local militia, assembled a small fleet of air elements, all to catch a single man. And now, after the city had practically been leveled and countless lives lost in the process, that man had slipped away. The target this entire operation had been focused on had just vanished without a trace, and all they had to show for it was one washed-up deserter they hadn't even been looking for.

Any other officer would have been calling in every favor in the book, clutching at whatever straws drifted within reach to save their career. But Rosch hadn't so much as batted an eye as he transmitted his report to whoever his higher-ups were on ONI's twisting stairs of cloak-and-dagger. All he'd done was order Jian--Felix included--to wait for him in the waiting room of the brig on the frigate they'd been flown up to.

The Mother of Invention was just as cramped as the dozens of other frigates Felix had ever been on, and he was glad that some effort had been put into making the waiting room at least as spacious as one of the eating areas enjoyed by the crew. At Rosch's orders the entire section had been cleared of crew; he'd even had one crewman doing brig time for drunkenness transferred to another ship to serve his sentence.

Felix couldn't say that he liked or even agreed with Rosch's brutally rigid way of doing things, but he had to admire the man's dogged efficiency.

He was also glad the waiting area had been cleared because it had made room--and removed witnesses--for the strange scene unfolding in front of him.

Ralph, still in armor minus his helmet, was throwing punch after punch at Jake's face. Jian's former leader had also taken off his helmet and was busy one clumsy swing after another with his forearm.

"Why, damn it?" Ralph snarled, red hair sticking to his dripping forehead like bedraggled vines. "Why'd it have to be her?"

"I wasn't expecting it either," Jake said calmly, turning yet another blow aside. "It sucks, but that doesn't help us or her."

"She made it out!" The shorter Spartan's next punch went low and Jake only barely blocked it. "She got out, and she was happy! Why'd she have to show up like that!"

Jake opened his mouth to respond, but just that moment he let a punch slip through his guard. He staggered back, a purple welt forming on his cheek.

Felix stepped forward, ready to get between the two of them. He was still in his full MJOLNIR, helmet included and he was fully prepared to physically force them apart. But Jake waved him off, stopping Felix in his tracks.

Ralph might be over the edge, but Jake had proven back on New Madrigal that he knew how to handle his unpredictable teammate. Felix didn't come any closer and waited to see how Jake's experience played out.

"Cut it out, Ralph," Jake warned, backing up against a table. "She has info the commander needs. Info on Simon. You want to catch him, don't you?"

"Not with her!" Ralph pulled his arm back for a bone-shattering blow. "Not like this!"

The fist shot forward, but this time Jake was waiting. He caught it and yanked his teammate forward, sidestepped, then pinned him bodily to the table.

"That's enough, Ralph," he warned. "You've had enough. Take a deep breath and snap out of it, buddy."

And, to Felix's surprise, Ralph actually slumped, the fight draining out of him. "Damn it," he muttered. "Damn it!"

"We'll put in a good word for her with the commander," Jake assured him. "We'll be there for her. Like we always were. She'll be alright."

Ralph nodded slowly. Jake released him, and the fiery Spartan stumbled off to sit in a corner of the deserted waiting room. He kept running his hands through his hair and muttering inaudibly to himself.

Felix fixed Jake with his visor's faceless gaze. "That's a way of working off stress I haven't seen before. Does he always hit you?"

Jake shrugged, throwing himself down on another bench. "Ralph is Ralph, sir. Stick with us long enough and you'll get used to him as well. He's been my buddy since I was seven, before we even got put on a team together. I know how he works."

"I believe you," Felix assured him. "But I want to know more about SPARTAN-G006." It felt odd to refer to the young woman they'd brought up to the brig with them so impersonally, but the name "Cassandra" felt strange coming out of his mouth. It didn't suit a deserter, much less a traitor.

"What's there to know?" Jake's words were casual, but his tone was guarded. He was holding back, hoping Felix would give up. But this wasn't something he could just walk away from.

"Why she's here. What she knows about G294. What happened with you all."

Jake gave him a wry smile. "If you want her whole life story, ONI's got a file on her. I'm betting you've got a classification level high enough to read it."

"I've read the file on her," Felix admitted. "But there's a lot missing. The report your team submitted on her disappearance was somewhat, well, vague."

Jake glanced over at Ralph, who didn't meet his eye. When he turned back to Felix, he slumped down low against the table as if weighed down by some invisible boulder. His face looked as if it had aged ten years in the past few seconds. He let out a low sigh; to Felix, it sounded like a groan.

"You've gotta understand," he said quietly. "None of us thought... none of us imagined things would turn out the way they did. With Simon."

Felix nodded, sitting down across from the Headhunter. The bench groaned under the weight of his armor. "You discovered him during a raid on an Insurrectionist base. The Actinia asteroid belt, right?" That sector had been a hotbed of rebel activity in the years after the Great War.

"Yeah." Jake nodded back, licking his lips. "We were targeting the Humanity Liberation Front. You know about them, right?"

If he hadn't read G294's file a dozen times after Beta-14, the name wouldn't have rung a bell. The HLF was indistinguishable from the dozens of other URF splinter-factions that had jumped up to the plate after the war. Their only real claim to fame was the penchant for brutality their soldiers had displayed on fronts like Mamore. "Redmond Venter, right?"

"Yeah, yeah," Jake said slowly, nodding. "That psycho. We were going in with the ODSTs to clear out the HLF and nail him if we could. It was a textbook hit, right up until we ran into Simon."

"And you'd thought he was dead before that."

"He was dead," Jake growled, a fire kindling in his eyes. "He died on Mamore, with Mary and Terrence. Whatever we met, whatever we found on that asteroid, well, I've got no clue who that was."

"And so you fought." It wasn't a question. That part of the report had been clear.

"Not at first," Jake said grimly. "We thought he was still on our side right up until he started running. The three of us--Ralph, Cassandra, and I--went after him. Later we figured Venter had hung him out to dry to cover his escape, but right then we just wanted to catch him.

He sighed again, looking down at his clasped hands. The knuckles were white and getting even paler. "Some rebels hit us from the side and took down Ralph, so I had Cassandra stay back to patch him up while I went after Simon."

Felix leaned back against the straining table. "So how did she manage to disappear?"

"When I caught up with Simon in one of the hangars, it really was like he was a different person. Mamore changed him, twisted him into something... else. He didn't tell me anything, but I could tell. He hated the UNSC. Still hates it, I guess. All those years we spent together in Jian meant nothing to him. Absolutely nothing."

"So you fought."

Jake nodded, his eyes off in some other place. "We fought. We tried to kill each other. He was better than I'd ever seen him. Another thing Mamore changed I guess. Or maybe it was Venter that did it. I don't even know anymore. We were hacking each other apart when Cassandra showed up and tried to get between us."

So that was it. It made sense, now that Felix thought of it. G006 was the only survivor of another team, Kopis, and if her psyche profile was anything to go by, she wouldn't have just stood aside when two of her teammates were going at it. It was that same attitude that had landed her in Rosch's custody. "She was injured?"

"My fault," Ralph muttered from across the room. "If my stupid ass hadn't gotten shot, none of this would have happened."

"I don't know who hit her, but when the smoke cleared, she was hurt bad. Real bad. That's all I remember, because Simon hit me even harder with a grenade. Next thing I know, I'm waking up in the infirmary and they were both just gone."

"And today was the first you'd seen of her since then."

"It was. I thought... I don't know what I thought. I never thought either of them were dead. Simon survives everything, it's the one thing he's good at and he always..."

A shadow passed over Jake's face; his lips twitched in a grimace and he didn't finish the sentence.

"He always had a thing for Cassandra," Ralph interjected coldly. "The asshole thought no one was on to him, but she was the only person in the whole company who couldn't figure it out. We knew he didn't kill her. That two-faced bastard hauled her along with him. Probably convinced himself he was doing a good deed, the backstabbing fuck."

So there was Jian's dirty history laid out on the cracked table-top. Felix could only imagine the things its last members had gone through, what their fellow Gamma Spartans had accused them of when the business with Simon came to light. Even after all he'd been through with other Gamma teams, Felix had never heard more than distasteful grumblings about the stripped-down team. No wonder they had slipped into the role of Rosch's attack dogs so easily. The commander might very well have been the first officer to ever see them as more than failures from a tainted squad.

"Sir," Jake said, his voice low and quiet. "Cassandra's guilty of desertion. I can't deny that. The word on Simon when we got the kill order was that he'd been in cryo for over a decade since the asteroid, and I'm betting it was the same for her, but there's no reason she couldn't have reported back in after she ditched him."

"Yes," Felix said thoughtfully. Desertion was desertion; it had always been a capital crime in every military since the dawn of time. There was no way a man like Rosch would let that slide, no matter what the circumstances or how young and well-meaning the perpetrator seemed. "She is a deserter."

"But she doesn't deserve to die," Jake said urgently. "Or rot in jail or whatever they'll do to her. Sir, the commander will charge her with everything he can pin on her, that's just how he is. But you... they say you know everybody there is to know in HIGHCOM."

Felix could see where this was going. "I wouldn't say everybody, lieutenant," he said cautiously. "And Commander Rosch outranks me. I don't have the authority to override his decisions."

"But you know people who can." The look in the other Spartan's eyes bordered on desperate. "Ralph and I will back you up on whatever you can come up with to save--"

The communicator on Jake's belt buzzed, momentarily saving Felix from the corner he'd been wedged into.

"Lieutenant, send the Lieutenant Commander to the interrogation room," ordered Rosch's clipped, precise voice.

"Yes, sir," Jake replied. He hesitated before adding, "Sir, maybe Ralph and I--"

"Just the Lieutenant Commander, thank you." The comm clicked with an air of cold finality.

"I'll do what I can," Felix assured the stricken Jake. He stood up from the table, leaving an unfortunate sag where he'd been sitting, and strode into the only room in the brig that bore a green "occupied" marker on its outline.

As the door slid open to admit him, he was instantly surprised at how bright it was. The walls, floor, and even the lights on the ceiling were a pale shade of white that made the whole room seem somehow ethereal, as if Felix were walking into a meat locker rather than an interrogation room. He could even feel a slight chill through his armor, though that might have been at the sight of Rosch, who stood as still and firm as a statue before a metal table, the room's only occupant. There at the table sat the shackled, forlorn form of the unfortunate Cassandra-G006.

Felix glanced at Rosch, locked in parade rest before the table as if he'd been standing like that the whole time. His arms didn't bulge, but they certainly seemed solid and powerful through the sleeves of his overcoat, and Felix was half surprised to see that Cassandra didn't sport bruises across her face. It seemed the commander hadn't lain a finger on her this whole time.

"Sir," he said by way of greeting. Rosch met him with a slight nod, his eyes hard and unreadable under his pale bangs.

"She certainly is willing to discuss what happened to her after she disappeared," Rosch said to the room at large. "Whether we can trust her word is another thing altogether."

Cassandra said nothing, her gaze fixed on the tabletop. Her arms were locked in restraints welded to the table itself; the same was true of her feet. That at least explained why Rosch had been comfortable enough to stay in the room alone with her as long as he had. She'd been stripped of her SPI armor and given an ill-fitting crewman's jumpsuit to wear in its place. The uniform had been made to fit a man twice her size and hung limply off her body like a wet cloth. Her nut-brown hair fell about her face, masking her eyes and most of her expression.

Felix had the feeling her bedraggled appearance would cut her absolutely no ice with Yuri Rosch.

"What's her version of the story?" he asked carefully.

"G294 treated her injuries following his fight with SPARTAN-G293. The slipspace drive on their ship failed and they were both forced into cryosleep. When they awoke, they landed on Hekate, where G294 vanished. She claims she took the shuttle and made a life for herself on the frontier." Rosch shrugged dismissively. "We can assume the last bit is true. The rest just makes her guilty of collaborating with a known traitor along with desertion. Dereliction of duty falls in there as well."

"What was I supposed to do?" Felix's gut wrenched at the pain in Cassandra's voice. He wondered if Rosch felt any pity at all for the miserable girl sitting before them. "Kill him in his sleep?"

"If that was the only way to do it, yes," Rosch told her, his voice dripping with disdain. "At no point during any of the events you recounted did you cease to be a soldier of the UNSC."

"We were alone!" Cassandra pleaded. "I thought we were going to freeze to death down there!"

"Even if that exonerates you from failing to kill G294 when you had the chance, you still had access to a shuttle after you parted ways. The date you've given for your awakening leaves over three years where you operated on the frontier outside of UNSC jurisdiction."

"Sir," Felix interjected. "We might want to consider a medical examination before we go any further with this. The effects of long-term cryosleep--"

"Are physical rather than mental," Rosch interrupted. "If G006 were suffering from any side-effects, we'd have known by now. You've read her mental report, Lieutenant Commander. I want a second opinion. I want to know why G006--"

"My name is Cassandra."

The protest was quiet, but the pain was gone from her tone. It had been replaced by a strange kind of firmness, one that didn't strike Felix as harsh but didn't leave room for argument either. Yes, she was a born medic, this one.

"Why G006 abandoned her duties to the UNSC," Rosch plowed on, unmoved. "She won't give me a clear answer about that part of this situation."

"Maybe we're looking at this the wrong way, sir." Felix had to gamble that if Rosch had put up with Ralph for all these years he wasn't the kind of officer to fly into a rage if his subordinates disagreed with him. Cassandra's very life might very well hinge on that gamble. "Can we prove that she ever did anything against the UNSC's best interests?"

It was the wrong thing to say. Rosch's penciled eyebrows shot up, like a hunter that had spotted its prey. "Well, yes, I think we can. G294 is responsible for the current situation with the Path Walkers. If she'd killed or apprehended him when she had the chance, he wouldn't have been at large to get involved there."

"Willingly," Felix amended quickly. "Sir, I've dealt with Spartans before. We're not machines, we can't just shut down our emotions and take every consequence into account. She couldn't have predicted what G294 would go and do."

Rosch shrugged. "I see your point, but that doesn't excuse her crimes."

"And what about your crimes, commander?"

Both officers turned in surprise to see that the prisoner was no longer staring forlornly at the tabletop. Her eyes were fixed on Rosch, and though they were calm they gleamed with unabashed accusation. Her question carried the same passive force as the last assertion. Felix was immediately on his guard. She certainly wasn't as beaten as she had seemed when he had walked in. There was still some fight left in her.

Rosch also seemed to have been caught off guard. "Pardon?"

"You're accusing me of desertion," she continued. Her lips twitched at each word, as if they hurt to say. "Maybe I'm guilty of that. But you ordered a full-scale military occupation of a civilian town. I treated dozens of people down there, and most of them needed treatment because you turned New Madrigal into a war zone to kill one person."

Rosch raised his eyebrows again, but he had already regained his composure. His hard, cold mask was still in place. "So I did."

"I don't know if they rewrote the rules of engagement when I was gone, but when I was on the ground in that city, it seemed to be a bit like using excessive force against a civilian population." There was a steel edge to her voice now, and her lips weren't twitching anymore. Had she been working up the nerve to confront Rosch this whole time?

But the commander simply treated her to a cold smile. "You're forgetting that we both work for the Office of Naval Intelligence. As far as humanity's security is concerned, there are no rules of engagement."

"That's your idea of protecting us? Evicting people from their homes and shooting anyone who resists?"

Rosch sighed and shook his head. "Don't try to paint New Madrigal as some idyllic colonial city," he told Cassandra. "The place was infested with rebels and criminals and every kind of scum we've found on the frontier since the Great War."

Felix looked away, trying to ignore the heat that was rising inside his armor. Everything Rosch said made sense, especially as far as ONI was concerned. But he couldn't shake the memories. Fuzzy memories, but memories all the same. People screaming as air strikes leveled buildings, UNSC Marines advancing, rifles blazing.

Yes, he had a very good idea of what Cassandra had seen "on the ground."

Scum. Rosch's words echoed inside his helmet. In his mind's eye he saw a dark-haired man working to fix a Pelican dropship. He turned his head, as if distracted by something, and Felix could see, as if from a distance, a bit of himself in the man's rough features. The man jerked and twisted as bullets cut him down, and a whisper of a scream cried out in horror.

Scum.

It felt very hot inside his helmet. It was a constricting sort of heat that he'd never felt with it before, but he was suddenly very claustrophobic. He reached up and began undoing the seals keeping it in place.

"So that justifies all the innocent people your soldiers killed?" Cassandra was demanding. Her words were faltering, as if she wasn't used to being this angry. Maybe it was just the fear doing the talking for her.

Rosch could not have looked any more uninterested. "David Kahn, along with your friend G294, managed to plunge us into a new war against an enemy just as merciless as the Covenant. His actions have toppled more than one colonial regime, and he has ties to both the Insurrection and the Syndicate. I knew the consequences of ordering New Madrigal's evacuation, and decided that it was a sacrifice necessary to bringing a destructive force like Kahn to justice."

"And look what happened. He got away." Cassandra looked back down at the table, but her shackled hands were balled into fists. "So much for the sacrifice. And you're wondering why I didn't come back to the UNSC."

"Well, it wasn't a total loss." Rosch sounded almost amiable, as if they were debating a sporting event. "It got me you, didn't it? And with you, I have a way to get to G294. I'd have preferred Kahn's corpse, but I'll take what I can get."

She looked back up, and this time her eyes truly were full of disgust. "So that's your plan. You'll use me to find Simon."

"Yes, that's the idea."

Felix pulled the helmet off his head and tucked it under his prosthetic right arm. The tightness in his armored chest hadn't gone away, but it felt good to have his face out in the open.

He was taken aback when Cassandra caught a glimpse of his bare face. Her hands unclenched and she blinked as if shocked at what she saw. Felix frowned back at her. They'd never met before, had they? They couldn't have.

If Rosch noticed it, he didn't care. "You seem to have a very skewed sense of right and wrong, G006. It's wrong for us to make the sacrifices needed to keep the rest of humanity safe, but you can sit by and protect a traitor like G294?"

Cassandra didn't take her eyes off Felix. "I told you, my name's Cassandra. And his is Simon."

"Call yourselves whatever you like. To me, you will always be SPARTANs G006 and G294, two defective operatives who, willingly or not, have managed to cause the military far more trouble than either of you are worth."

Felix glanced at his superior. "Defective"? That was a new one, coming from Rosch, though it didn't surprise him.

"He's not evil," Cassandra said, and this time she seemed to be talking to Felix rather than Rosch. Her desperate eyes bored into his and in a moment of shame, he looked away. He could practically hear Jake's voice in his ear: She doesn't deserve to die.

"He's not evil," Cassandra repeated. "He's broken, he needs help! The UNSC helped make him like he is, you can't just pretend it's all his fault and put him down like an animal! Don't do this!"

She lowered her gaze as if embarrassed by her outburst. "Please," she said softly. "Help him."

The room was quiet for several moments before Rosch turned to Felix. "I think we've reached the heart of things, Lieutenant Commander."

"Sir?" Felix was having a hard time believing anyone could be as cold and unfeeling as Rosch. Was the man a machine?

"You had me thinking your dereliction of duty had something to do with a misguided sense of morality," Rosch told Cassandra. "But this is even more disappointing. I'd almost call it pathetic."

She looked up at him, utterly stunned. "What?"

"Beneath all the moralizing and ethics you've thrown at me, all you really care about is saving some damn traitor who cared more about money than he cared about the peace and security of his own species!"

It was the first time outside the battlefield that Felix had heard Rosch raise his voice, and for a moment he wondered if he could step in and restrain his superior if the man lunged forward to hit the restrained prisoner. But the commander stayed where he was, rooted to the spot as he glared down at the ex-Spartan.

"As far as I'm concerned, G294's entire body is the property of the UNSC," Rosch continued brutally. "The same goes for you, for the Lieutenant Commander, for Jian, and every other Spartan ONI has ever produced. When equipment malfunctions, we do our best to fix it. When it breaks and costs lives, we eliminate it and replace it. Right now I'm wondering if you can't be fixed, but G294?"

The officer shook his head. "Like you said, he's broken. The only way to help him is a bullet through the head, and that's exactly what you'll help us do."

Felix couldn't say he was surprised by Rosch's attitude. He'd seen it before in the eyes of dozens of other ONI officials when they looked at him and the other Spartans. Rosch was simply the first with the cold honesty to say it out loud. As despicable as the whole tirade sounded, Felix couldn't help but respect him for that.

The sentiment was clearly not shared by Cassandra. For the first time she actually glared up at Rosch with genuine loathing.

"It's so easy for you, isn't it?" she demanded. "Just writing people off, deciding their lives aren't worth anything. Who gave you the right to decide we're not human?"

Rosch sighed. "Simple," he said, his mouth twisting with something strangely like regret. He reached down and grabbed the edge of his right sleeve, then pulled it up, exposing the bare flesh all the way down to his shoulder.

Even Felix had to take a step back. The arm was covered with precise marks and stitches where someone had cut open and re-sealed the skin. Veins bulged where they shouldn't have been bulging, running all the way down the arm and into his hand. A small vial was strapped to his wrist, and below that a small, black series of numbers had been tattooed onto the skin.

Felix had seen markings and deformities like that before. He'd met failures from Spartan augmentations before, as well as soldiers who had survived similar experiments. But he'd never have pegged Rosch as an augment survivor.

The officer smiled at Felix and Cassandra's surprise. "It hurts," he explained, more to Felix than Cassandra. "The arm's in constant pain. I'm heavily medicated, to keep it from becoming too much of a distraction. But thanks to the experiments ONI ran on myself and fourteen other volunteers, I'll live twice as long as the average human."

He turned back to Cassandra, sliding the sleeve back over his mangled arm. "I belong to ONI just as much as you and the other Spartans do. I gave my body over to them a long time ago. All that's left is for me to protect and serve humanity to the best of my abilities.

"It's a given that G294 would not be where he is without the UNSC's meddling. But neither would the Lieutenant Commander, Jian, or every other Spartan that chose to serve humanity. He is still a traitor, one I intend to hunt down and execute. You can either help me find him or stand aside and let his crimes continue."

Silence fell over the interrogation room. Cassandra's head was bowed once more, as if Rosch's words had forced it down. Felix couldn't see her face, but he wondered if she was fighting back tears. He could hardly imagine such helplessness, to want nothing more than to help someone only to be confronted with an implacable, unwavering force like Rosch. He'd never let authority get in the way of doing what he thought was right, but then again he'd never been the one chained to an interrogation table before.

A quiet chirp cut through the stale air and Rosch reached down to activate the communicator on his belt. "Yes?"

"Commander?" a woman's voice asked. "Sir, we have the footage."

"Good. Patch it through to my location."

He turned to face the back wall, motioning for Felix to do the same. "What we're about to see was captured at around 0400 this morning on Sanghelios. It was midday there at the time."

"Sir, what does Sanghelios have to do with this?" Felix asked.

"It seems they've suffered a recent slew of terror attacks from a group of well-equipped humans," Rosch replied. "Not that they thought to inform us, but we have our sources."

A screen flashed up on the wall and images sprang to life before them. For a few seconds all Felix could make out was scenes of battle, Sangheili warriors howling and firing in the middle of what appeared to be a city. But then the scenes clarified and the computer zoomed in on one in particular: a Spartan in ragged SPI-armor dragging a girl through the carnage. His left arm was a skeletal prosthetic.

"As you can see, we've located G294." Rosch wasn't looking at the screen. His gaze was fixed upon Cassandra, gauging and analyzing her reaction as only an ONI officer could. "We don't know if he's with the terror group or just an unfortunate bystander, but he's on Sanghelios and he won't be leaving anytime soon. Our squid-headed friends are just as interested in capturing him as we are."

He glanced back at Felix. "We haven't identified the girl yet. The intelligence team ran a full facial scan on the image and ran it through every database we have without results. But judging from the way she's looking at them both, I'd say our guest may have some idea."

"She's just a slave," Cassandra whispered. "We... I freed her a while back. I don't know what she's doing with him."

"We," Rosch noted. "So you have had contact with him since Hekate."

He waved his hand. "No matter. I couldn't care less who that one is. We need to get G294 before the Sangheili do. I don't want them probing him for information, not with the things he knows. And we can't forget about the armor he stole on Beta-14. That's sensitive military hardware."

Rosch fixed Cassandra with a disdainful stare. "Didn't mention that, did I? On Beta-14 G294 killed another Spartan and took his armor. I don't know where that fits in with your theory about him needing a therapist, but right now it just shows me how dangerous he really is."

Felix looked back at the image of G294 on the screen. Yes, he needed to answer for the Delta Spartan he'd killed. He couldn't simply let that go, not if he ever wanted to be able to look the Deltas in the eye again.

Cassandra gazed up at the screen unblinking, transfixed by the image of G294.

"What's the next move, sir?" Felix asked Rosch. "We can't just occupy Sanghelios like you did here."

"No, unfortunately we can't." Rosch inclined his head. "But G294 isn't Kahn. I think Jian and myself will be sufficient to bring him down."

"I take it you're including me in Jian."

"Of course. As long as you're part of this task force, I want you commanding the team. Helping them clean a black spot from their record seems like a fitting opening task for your new role."

Rosch turned back to their prisoner. "And we have something with G294 that we didn't have with Kahn. Leverage."

"I see."

"With or without her direct cooperation, we can use her to draw him out. I'll need your help for this one, Lieutenant Commander. I'm told you have connections on Sanghelios?"

Felix's guard shot up. "More along the lines of loose diplomatic ties, sir. I was involved in operations against the Fallen and--"

"As was I, though I think your tour ended more pleasantly than mine did. We'll need those connections to get a fix of G294's position, and then we'll close in for the kill."

"Are we even authorized to deploy on Sanghelios?" Felix asked. He wasn't sure he wanted to go near the place with Rosch, even if they were just a small commando team.

"I have blanket authorization to do whatever it takes to bring down Kahn and G294. Kahn may have eluded us here, but if things go as planned, G294 won't have anywhere to run when we run him down."

Kahn hadn't had anywhere to run either, but he'd still been snatched away at the last second. Felix didn't voice that concern, mostly because it wouldn't do him any good with Rosch. Even after all that had just transpired with Cassandra, he still couldn't decide whether the man was the most honest and devoted soldier he'd ever met or the most callous and despicable.

"I don't think the others will like forcing Cassandra into this operation," he said cautiously. At least he could use her real name now; after all that had happened, a simple designation number didn't fit anymore.

"You won't have to." For the third time her quiet voice cut into their conversation.

"Oh?" Rosch asked, turning to face her.

"I'll do it." She wouldn't meet his eyes. "I'll help you find Simon."

"Excellent." Rosch turned on his heels and headed out the door. "Lieutenant Commander, have the lieutenant and warrant officer come escort her to my shuttle. It's being prepped in hangar bay 1A."

Felix followed after him, leaving Cassandra alone in the cell. The door slid shut behind them.

"She was lying, you know," Felix warned. "She'll help us as far as finding him goes, but she won't just stand by and let us kill him."

"Of course she won't," Rosch replied calmly. "In whatever strange world G006 lives in, she's smitten with him. The trick will be to use those emotions to our advantage."

"So you do believe in emotions." Felix couldn't keep it in any longer. "For a minute there, I thought you were saying we're all machines."

Rosch turned and actually smiled at him. "I never said that. What I said was that we've given up the right to act on those emotions as we please. You can't cut out things like emotion, but you can suppress them when need be."

"I still don't think manipulating her like this is the right way to go about things. She's clearly sincere."

Rosch shrugged. "So was every Insurrectionist I've ever killed. Their sincerity didn't make them any less dangerous."

"She's not a terrorist, sir."

"No," Rosch agreed. "She is not. But she's still a trained and augmented commando who's lost her way. That alone is danger enough for me, even without the connections to G294."

"Sir, with all due respect, you're splitting hairs over a matter of right and wrong."

Rosch frowned, as if Felix had suddenly spoken a foreign language. Then he shook his head and turned to face him completely.

"Was it the 'right thing to do'?" he repeated. "Right and wrong, Lieutenant Commander? Have you forgotten that we answer to the Office of Naval Intelligence? To the very same division that commissioned the kidnapping and brainwashing of thousands of children in the name of our continued existence as a species? For men like us, there can be no right and wrong, no good and evil. There is only the greater good for humanity, the things that will ensure that disasters like the Insurrection or the Great War never happen again. I am willing to sacrifice everything, including myself, in the name of that greater good. People like us aren't heroes, commander. We're shields."

He nodded to Felix before turning away again. "I really need to thank you for your bluntness, Lieutenant Commander. You're nothing like what my colleagues described at all."


Chapter Twenty-One: Belly of the Beast

Venter greeted the Reaper with a warm smile as the armored man marched into the control center. "Congratulations. You fucked up."

"Really?" The Reaper seemed unperturbed. "How so?"

"Try the bit where that city isn't a smoking crater right now," Peter piped in from across the room. Several of the soldiers nodded in cold agreement.

Venter stalked towards his ally, throwing up an even bigger smile to hide the fury coursing through his chest. "You told me you could get the job done," he said. "You said you didn't trust anyone else to handle it. I wanted to do it myself, or send Peter, show the kid how it's done. But no. You had to do it yourself."

The Reaper leaned against a console and shrugged. "I noticed it myself when we didn't see the blast after the timer ran out. That firefight didn't push the squid-heads further away than it was supposed to, I guess."

It was all Venter could do not to shoot the man right there. "In case you hadn't noticed, nukes aren't exactly a dime a dozen," he growled. "I had to pull a lot of strings to get the ones we brought with us, and now you've gone and wasted the first one we arm."

The helmeted killer scratched at his neck-seal. "So we didn't get to nuke an evacuated city. So what?"

It was infuriating. Venter clenched his fists, doing his best to keep them as far from the pistol on his hip as possible. "You take failure pretty well, don't you?"

"I've failed before, plenty of times," the Reaper replied, sounding bored. "Believe me, I lost worse than just a nuke."

If I shoot him, I'll have a bunch of prisoners and nothing to do with them. Plus he's the only one here who can actually understand these freaks without a computer. So I can't shoot him, no matter how much of an insufferable prick he's being right now.

Venter smiled again, though it felt more like baring his teeth. "You owe me a nuke, pal."

"And you owe me three weeks' worth of pay. We can settle our accounts after this operation is over." The Reaper stood straight again. "Are you done throwing a fit, or should I wait around a little longer."

"Ah, get out of here, you smug asshole," Venter muttered, turning back to his communications officers. "For someone who wants these slit-heads as dead as you do, you don't seem to mind letting a few thousand of them live."

"They'll die one way or another," the Reaper promised. "I'll make sure of that. I've waited ten years to start this. I'm a patient man."

"Well, unlike you I'm on a time limit. We've got a week left, tops, and then we're closing shop." Venter opened a small computer tablet and punched in his password. "My client doesn't want to give these guys time to get wise to our jamming signals and neither do I."

They wouldn't be using any more nukes, at least not until right before they picked up sticks and got the hell off this creepy planet. He didn't want to risk hitting any more cities, but he was wondering if Sanghelios had ever dealt with the effects of radiation poisoning before. He'd have to choose a proper spot where he could spread a little radioactivity through the atmosphere. Now that would be a hell of a way to end an operation like this.

"Another thing," the Reaper told him. "I picked up another human back in the city. He wasn't one of ours."

Venter glanced up from the latest logistics reports. "Huh? You think he's UNSC?"

"No, I know this one, or at least I've heard of him. It's Mordred."

It took a moment of picking through his metal list of underworld names for Venter to pin that one down. "Oh, the bulletproof mercenary? What's he doing here?"

"He says he got stranded on a job. He's escorting some kid back to Earth."

"Back to Earth, huh? He's a bit off course then, isn't he. What's he doing here?"

The Reaper shrugged. "I told him we'd take him with us when we left if he'd lend us his gun."

"So at least some good came of your little shitstorm. Where is he now?"

"Back near the elevator." The Reaper threw a thumb over his shoulder at the tunnel leading to the lift car back up to the surface. One of the beauties of abandoned mine shafts was that no one ever suspected someone might roll in and set up shop right under an alien military's nose. "He wants to see you. I think he's a little freaked out about by all this, but they say he's a tough guy. He'll get used to it."

"He better. And you keep an eye on him, too. If he screws up, you deal with it."

"Yes, yes, don't worry." The Reaper turned to one of the comm specialists. "Anyway, I didn't come up here just to listen to your bitching. What's the status on subject Alpha?"

The tech passed him a small data disk. "A patrol picked her up inside the city. The files here have everything we picked up from their conversation. It looks like the serum worked. She parroted everything we told her."

"Good." The Reaper slipped the disk into his helmet and sat down next to a vacant console. "I'll monitor her progress from here. The signal's still up and running, right?"

"Yeah, we're still reading it."

"Very good," the Reaper said with satisfaction. "My finger's on the button."

"Um, Mordred?"

Simon glanced over at Zoey, who sat against the grimy wall of the rebels' makeshift hangar. She had her legs pulled up against her chest and was shooting nervous glances at the soldiers who were restocking the small fleet of Phantoms and Pelicans stowed down below the false cave entrance they'd flown through.

"Yeah?" He paced back and forth, his fingers clenching and unclenching against the barrel of his assault rifle.

"Back in that square, that Sangheili who talked to you."

"What about him?" The question was whether or not to plug in Diana again. He'd have to spend a few hours listening to her bitch at him., but he'd need her if he was going to get out after he killed Venter.

"He talked as if he knew you."

"I know lots of people."

"Do they all want to kill you?"

He shrugged. "I've got more than my share of enemies right now," he admitted absently. They'd need to shoot their way back here, then hijack one of these dropships and haul ass back to Meru. They'd hand the Sangheili the keys, then slip into Fira's honor-bound protective custody. It wasn't the best solution, but it was the only one open right now.

I'll have to have Fira get Zoey back to Earth, but she'll still owe me that shit-ton of cash her dad has on hand. I'll get the money, weasel my way away from the Sangheili, and then I can pay the Syndicate to keep me safe for a few years.

He smiled at the prospect of all that money. After two years of being a slave to the whims of his latest master, credits, he'd finally escape the cycle of brutal mercenary work. Maybe he actually could settle down. He was already trembling at the prospect of having Venter dead. So many shadows would fade away after that.

"He called you Simon."

"What?" Simon glanced back over at Zoey, surprised by her talkativeness.

"He called you Mordred and Simon. Is that your real name?"

"I've had lots of names," Simon admitted. "Mordred's just the latest one."

"Oh." She pulled her legs tighter and closed her eyes. "Will we really be safe here?"

"Yeah," he lied. "Just keep your head down and they'll have us out of here in no time."

"Does it ever end?" she asked plaintively. Her gaze had drifted over to where a handful of soldiers were readying weapons for another sortie. "This craziness?"

"For you, it will." This time he was telling the truth, or at least he hoped he was. "That's what you hired me for." Not for me though. For me it never ends.

"Yeah," she muttered, but didn't look back at him. "I hired you."

"Our patrol found her just inside the city," the major domo explained to Autel's assembled council. He and the minors under his command surrounded a small, trembling young female. A tattered, dirty robe covered her slender frame and her mandibles kept twitching and opening as if she were speaking silently to someone only she could see.

"You say she claims to have been a prisoner?" Autel asked, glancing down at the lance's report in his hand.

"Yes, commander. She says that she escaped from their hideout and made her way back to the city.

Autel pursed his mandibles. Was this the breakthrough they needed? Beside him, Fira shifted uncomfortably, a sentiment Autel understood completely. Very few present had been informed of the humans' attempt to destroy Meru with one of their insidious bombs, nor did they know of Fira's deal with the fugitive Mordred. If this girl's information made Mordred useless to them, they would be in the uncomfortable position of being in his debt for alerting them to the bomb without a convincing reason to bring him into the protective custody he had demanded.

But right now, this could save many lives. If we end this now, I can help Fira with the Mordred situation without these attacks hanging over us. Autel was quite sure that the humans had brought more than one bomb with them. Who could tell where they would target next?

"Let her speak for herself," he ordered. The patrol stood aside, the major domo ushering the unsteady female forward.

Autel scrutinized her. The humans had not been gentle, that much was certain. Bruises and cuts ran up and down her arms and neck. She hugged the robe tightly around her body, her eyes darting around the room like a frightened animal.

"You're safe here," Autel assured her. "Now, can you tell us anything about where they held you?"

The female's eyes flickered towards him. They looked hazy and clouded over, as if she were sleepwalking. "Yes, lord," she murmured softly. "They captured me... but I escaped."

"We know that much," Autel said patiently. "How did you manage it?"

"I escaped," she repeated, as if that explained it all.

Another line of questions, then. This one was clearly traumatized. "Do you remember where you escaped from?" he asked.

"I escaped."

At Autel's elbow, Deno coughed politely. The old spymaster had proved invaluable in keeping the makeshift council in line, and Autel had decided to keep him close at hand. It helped to have someone as influential as him when the bureaucrats got out of line.

"I doubt this one has anything to offer us here. At least, not in her condition."

"The spy is right. This is a waste of time," Fira muttered.

Autel nodded. "Escort her to your unit commander and have her examined," he ordered the patrol.

"And try not to bother anyone else important while you're at it," one of his officers sneered.

Perhaps the major domo thought his find had actually lied to him, or maybe he was just offended by the officer's parting barb. Autel never knew why he yanked the female roughly back within his lance's assembled ranks, but it was the last thing the warrior ever did and it saved the lives of half the room's occupants.

But only half.

Suddenly Autel was on his back, his ears ringing from the explosion that had erupted on the far side of the room. Screams from the wounded, officers and civilians alike, filled the air as he struggled to his feet.

Bodies were strewn across the room, the dead and wounded mingling together in a macabre display of carnage. The source of the blast was clear: it had come from within the ranks of the patrol who, aside from a few scraps of armor and flesh, were nowhere to be seen.

To his horror, Autel saw a familiar figure lying a few feet away. "Fira," he gasped, staggering over the remains of his command center towards his friend. But to his surprise, the burly Ultra sat up with a furious snarl.

"I'm fine," he coughed. "My shields were up, and they took the worst of it."

Numbed by shock and relief, Autel shook his head. "We finally found a blast that couldn't keep you down."

Fira pushed himself upright. "I do not know what you mean," he said. "But who attacked us? Where did the blast come from."

"The female."

Both warriors turned to see Deno struggling out from under an officer's corpse. The aged Sangheili didn't seem to notice that his robes were torn and covered in blood--someone else's blood. He scrambled to his feet and hobbled towards them. "It was the female," he repeated. "I saw it happen. The blast came from her. Or inside her as case may be."

"What?" Fira demanded. "Inside her? Speak sense, spy!"

"The sense is plain," Deno retorted. "She didn't escape, she was released. They probably drugged her so she'd claim to have escaped. One of the humans must have know she'd be brought before a high-ranking target."

"Drugged," Autel murmured. "That explains her behavior."

"But the explosion," Fira protested. "How?"

"I've seen this tactic before," Deno explained as warriors began to pour into the room, helping the wounded up and checking for survivors. "Jiralhanae assassins once had grenades inserted into their stomaches to get close to a chieftain they were targeting. The humans must have done something similar with that poor girl."

"This is unthinkable," Fira whispered, for once shocked into silence.

"These humans have indiscriminately slaughtered thousands of our people," Autel said, fury building up inside him like the bombs the humans had placed inside the female. "This is just a new way of doing it."

He strode through the shattered command center, Fira and Deno trailing in his wake. "Mordred's signal," he demanded. "Is it still transmitting?"

"Yes, but it's very faint. I took the liberty of dispatching Phantoms to survey the area it's coming from."

"Send more," Autel ordered. "We put an end to this now, before they can come up with more clever ways to kill us."

"Gladly." Fira input a set of commands into his gauntlet. "I will lead the assault personally."

"You do that," Autel agreed, stepping over a pile of bloodied robes. "But I will accompany you."

"And that," the Reaper announced, shoving away from the console. "Is how it's done, ladies and gentlemen."

Several of the techs surrounding his station whooped. A few even applauded, and one exuberant soldier even clapped the Reaper on his armored shoulder. From across the room, Venter scowled at the celebrators.

"So he nailed a few more squid heads," he told them sourly. "Should we break out the champagne after every sortie now?"

Faced with their commander's ire, most of the techs backed off. The Reaper glanced over at his employment and shrugged. "I killed a few high ranking squid heads," he pointed out. "For all I know, we might have just hit the whole high command."

"Yeah, yeah." Venter turned back to the latest action report. "Just don't come asking for extra pay. I'm already forking over my hostages for your nutty experiments."

"Please." The Reaper turned to leave. "I've taken five, and that female was the only one who survived the procedure."

He paused halfway through the refurbished Sangheili door. "I'll bet they caved that easily since it was a girl. Stupid honor-hounds. Nice choice, Peter."

"What? Oh, yeah, great." The young rebel glanced up from the security footage he was scrutinizing. "Hey, boss, I think I recognize her."

Venter tossed the report aside with an exasperated sigh and rubbed his temples. "This had better be important, kid. Who the hell are we talking about?"

"That girl hanging around the new guy. Mordred, or whatever he calls himself. I think I know who she is."

Venter crossed over to Peter's console, shoving the kid aside and glancing over the frozen image on the screen. "And I care about this why?"

"Boss," Peter protested. "It's that girl from Famul. Remember, when we were there right after the takeover?"

Venter was suddenly much more interested in the picture. His eyes flashed as he shook his head in disbelief. "And so it is," he murmured. "Nice call, kid."

Peter grinned at his commander in expectation. "Remember what you said you'd do to her if we found her again?"

"Oh yeah," Venter said slowly. "I don't forget things like that."

He waved a soldier over. "Get Mordred and the punk he has with him over to the holding pens, Asap.

"This oughta be interesting."


Chapter Twenty-Two: A Kingly Gift

A burst of silver light blossomed amidst the void of space, spitting out Cleansing Fire before vanishing as quickly as it had come.

The Cleansing Blade flagship drifted through the outer limits of the Sanghelios system, its impulse drives on their lowest setting to reduce the corvette's energy footprint. A host of signal-distorting stealth systems cannibalized from smaller craft and installed aboard the Fire by its resourceful crew were already active, completely hiding the flagship from anything but the naked eye.

So it was that Shinsu 'Refum and his most devoted followers penetrated the best-defended system in Sangheili space without raising so much as a minor alert. The Fire drifted onwards, waiting for the opportunity to make a second Slipspace jump that would bring it even closer to the homeworld. It passed within a lightyear of a small government patrol, a cruiser and two escorting destroyers. The cruiser and one of the destroyers sported Cleansing Blade infiltrators within their crew; the shipmaster of the second destroyer was sworn to Shinsu's cause personally. But sabotage and misdirection were not necessary to ensure the Fire's safe passage, and so the agents went unasserted to their commander's presence.

The moment secure broadcasts could be made, the Fire issued a series of short, tight communication bursts, each directed at a different target. Shortly thereafter, it received a flurry of bursts shot back by the recipients of its broadcasts. Alone amongst the stars, the hub of the Cleansing Blade movement was once again connected with the vast expanse of the galaxy, its battlefield.

Umbra and the rest of the Cleansing Fire's bridge crew watched their commander as he surveyed the holographic footage that spread out around his central workstation. Images of government warriors firing at rogue Phantoms flashed around Shinsu's head, scenes of the chaos that was playing out on Sanghelios's surface. He took it in impassively, watching coldly as warriors jerked and fell under the onslaught of the human soldiers. Finally, after the footage had looped for a third time, he raised a hand and froze it all on a single image: a human in battered armor with a single prosthetic limb.

"Mordred," he said slowly. "Do any of our agents on the homeworld know where he is?"

"No, commander," Umbra admitted. "He vanished after forces under Fira 'Demal cornered him in one of Meru's plazas. But we have a lead."

Shinsu flicked an eye to glance at him appraisingly. "Yes?"

"Pula came close to him during that battle, but the fighting drove them apart. She has since infiltrated the government forces to pursue his whereabouts."

Shinsu nodded. "And Ro'nin? Has he responded to our summons yet?"

Umbra clicked his mandibles. "In a manner of speaking. He and his partner were taken into custody following Mordred's escape. Releasing them was not easy, especially after they killed the first thirty warriors that tried to apprehend them."

"Ah. They underestimated the Jiralhanae's skill with that blade of his."

"Fortunately, our agents arranged for them to escape their holding cell." Umbra glanced down at the report that had come with the footage. "The Jiralhanae killed eleven more after he was released. Apparently he refused to leave without retrieving his sword."

"And where are they now?"

"They took their shuttle and fled the planet. It was damaged during Mordred's escape, but our agents ensured it was repaired. Within reason."

"Of course." Shinsu waved away the holograms and the image of Mordred winked out. "It wouldn't do for their slipspace drives to be functioning, now would it?"

"Their thoughts entirely, commander," Umbra agreed. "According to the tracking beacons placed before they took off, they are attempting to make repairs near the River of the Gods."

The River of the Gods was an asteroid belt that partially surrounded the Sanghelios system. In spite of the government's best efforts, it remained a favored haven for pirates and criminals daring enough to do business so close to the Sangheili seat of power.

"Set a course for the River then," Shinsu ordered. "And contact him again. Make it plain that meeting with me isn't a request."

"Gladly." Umbra nodded to the rest of the bridge crew. "You heard the commander, do as he says!"

"And Umbra," Shinsu added as the crew sprang into action. "That last transmission from our agent on the Salvation's Voyage..."

Umbra handed his commander the report. "He and his team remain undetected. They are in communication with our other warriors within the Path Walker ranks."

"Excellent. Send a transmission to any Path Walker ship you can find. I want Urei 'Cazal to know exactly where we are. I want him to know I want to talk."

For a moment, Umbra forgot who he was speaking to and hesitated. Any other commander would be out of his mind to contact a group like the Path Walkers, especially given what Shinsu was responsible for doing to them.

Then he remembered that this was Shinsu 'Refum, a blademaster who would never give any threat an opening unless he had already weighed the risks countless times beforehand. Without a word, he bowed his head and did as he was ordered.

It had not been easy for Shinsu to stretch his fingers so far into every movement and organization that piqued his interest. No, it had taken time and planning to reach out to those already positioned to assume the roles he needed infiltrated. As ambassador for the Fallen, he had swayed many government warriors to his own budding cause and as the Black Knight of Sanghelios he had won over rebels who were just as discontent with the Fallen's stagnant leadership as he was. These converts had swelled not only the ranks of the Cleansing Blade, but also filled the cells of Shinsu's growing intelligence network.

Alliances had been struck, greedy officials had been bribed, ambitious officers had seen those in their way suffer strange and unfortunate accidents. No matter their desires, Shinsu had answered them all in exchange for ultimate loyalty to the Cleansing Blade's cause. Agents who had thought such an oath was as meaningless as the ones they had broken to make it had died swiftly and brutally and their comrades had taken note. An oath to Shinsu 'Refum and the Cleansing Blade was not lightly cast aside.

Yes, he had sunk to stomach-twisting depths to create this weapon, but that was the purpose of the Cleansing Blade. That was what every one of its warriors understood, the sacrifice each of them made for the good of the Sangheili people. They would never be heroes. Instead, they gave their honor, glory, and their very lives in the name of their mission to save their race.

We are the blade in the shadows, carving the way for the future.

Ro'nin was escorted into the Fires conference hall, a long, chairless room where one could either stand or sit on the featureless floor. Shinsu sat at the very end, his tattered command cloak draped over one shoulder while the exposed arm rested on his dull-grey armor. His helmet disguised his features, making his face impossible to read.

Umbra stood behind his commander, arms folded across his chest. Normally Pula would have been given the honor of that position, but in her absence it was Umbra's place to provide the silent threat of sudden and lethal violence. The two warriors who had brought the mercenary in brought their arms to their chests in a salute, then slipped back out through the door.

"Ro'nin," Shinsu said calmly, tilting his head to the side. "It's been some time."

"'Refum," Ro'nin grunted, standing back at the far end of the room. "I suppose you're the one I have to thank for my release."

"True," Shinsu admitted. "On that count, you owe me nothing. It was simply a token of goodwill."

"Of course," Ro'nin said coldly. "And was sabotaging our engines and demanding that we come aboard your way of saying hello?"

Umbra dropped his hand to the needler at his waist. "Watch your tongue, scum," he spat. "Is that how you address the one responsible for your freedom?"

With an ugly laugh, Ro'nin shook his head. "My freedom? You're holding me a prisoner on your ship!"

"With good reason," Shinsu reminded him, motioning Umbra back with a casual flick of his hand. "Now tell me, why did you go to the government instead of handing Mordred over to the Cleansing Blade?"

Ro'nin's eyes narrowed, but he didn't soften his contemptuous airs. He slapped the air in front of him with a derisive wave. "You didn't ask for him, did you? He strolled onto my ship and I knew they had a bounty on him. I'm a mercenary, not one of your damn lapdogs."

"You also knew I wanted him," Shinsu said quietly. "A fact that was made very plain to you after the Beta-14 incident."

"So do the Path Walkers and so do the humans," Ro'nin said scornfully. "Give him some time, and he'll have the Syndicate after his head as well. I don't report to you, 'Refum."

"And yet you accept the rather generous retainer we provide for you without a moment's hesitation. Should I remind you why we pay you, Ro'nin?"

Ro'nin clicked his mandibles, but his body language stiffened. Umbra had to suppress a smile. It felt good to watch a self-important sell-sword like Ro'nin squirm under Shinsu's relentless, unseen gaze.

After a few moments, Ro'nin's shoulders slumped. "So I went behind your back. If you want to kill me, get it over with. Just be ready to lose a few people when you try to hit Kenpachus."

Shinsu sighed and shook his head. "If I wanted to kill you, I would have blown your shuttle to dust, not invited you on board for a meeting."

"Then what is this meeting about?" Ro'nin snarled, his aggression returning in the face of a diminished threat. "Just because you pay me doesn't mean you can waste my time, 'Refum!"

A single hand raised from Shinsu was all it took to silence the burly warrior. "Then give me a reason to keep paying you," he said. "I am well aware of your current financial... troubles. Whether you like it or not, our stipend keeps you operating as an independent contractor, as opposed to one of the Syndicate's leashed killers. You shook our trust with this Mordred business, and now I will need to spend time and resources rectifying that. Prove that we can rely on you, and things will continue as normal."

For a moment, Umbra was sure that Ro'nin was going to turn on his heel and stride out of the room. Not that it would do him any good; the conference hall was locked and wouldn't be opened again without Shinsu's express orders. But the mercenary just shook his head and looked away. Shinsu's words had backed him into a corner.

"I know what you want," Ro'nin said finally. "Mordred left two things on my shuttle."

Umbra had to clench his fists to stop them from jerking in surprise. Two? The Cleansing Blade hunted Mordred for one item, not two. But Shinsu simply nodded in agreement.

"Yes, those are the ones," he said without missing a beat. "If you would reassure your partner that my warriors are not trying to invade your ship, we will take possession of them."

"Not so fast," Ro'nin said heatedly, defiant to the end. "I want a fair price for them."

This time Umbra held his tongue and let Shinsu handle things. His turn to finish this business would come quickly; he just needed to wait, and he was very good at waiting.

"Your misstep on Sanghelios is already being overlooked," Shinsu reminded him. "Two million." As he spoke, he shifted his command cloak over his shoulder. Umbra recognized the signal and stepped forward.

"Two?" Ro'nin was saying. "I want four at the very least--"

"The commander has given you his offer," Umbra said with finality. "Take it, or we will take our chances with the Jiralhanae."

Ro'nin's mandibles twitched as if he found that idea amusing. His defiance irked Umbra to no end and he was tempted to contact the hangar and order the assault teams waiting on standby to go ahead and attack the shuttle, Jiralhanae guardian or no.

Behind him, Shinsu sighed again. "Remember your position here, Ro'nin. Your work for us in the past has been inordinately helpful. Don't deprive us of your services now, of all times."

Something passed between them then, sliding right past Umbra as the warlord and mercenary faced each other. Shinsu's faceless helmet met Ro'nin's burning eyes and in that instant it seemed as though each was struggling with the other's sheer force of will. But after only a moment, Ro'nin broke his gaze and turned away.

Reaching for his belt, he pulled out a small communicator and flicked it on.

"Kenpachus, this is Ro'nin. The goods Mordred left on the shuttle, the ones in the boxes? Let the Blades board and take them. Don't make trouble, just let them take them and get off."

He lowered the communicator. "Happy?"

Umbra could practically see Shinsu's masked smile as he sent the signal for the assault teams to board--peacefully.

"We are all warriors here," the Cleansing Blade's leader admitted. "But I cannot deny the satisfaction I feel from a business arrangement. It is no wonder such thins have become such a threat to our people's future."

Ro'nin grunted, clearly impatient with Shinsu's relaxed victory. "I want the credits sent to my account now," he muttered.

"You will get your money," Shinsu assured him. "Along with an advance payment on your continued retainer. Thank you for cooperating."

"As if I had a choice," Ro'nin retorted, but he backed away to the side of the room without further argument. They waited in silence as Umbra sent orders for Ro'nin's payment to be made, Ro'nin himself lounged broodingly against the wall, and Shinsu remained where he was, taking in everything from his humble vantage point.

When the doors at last slid open, they admitted a team of four grey-clad warriors, all clad in the same modified special operations armor that Shinsu wore. Umbra didn't need to glance at the almost indistinguishable rank and identification runes on their chest plates to recognize them as four of the Cleansing Blade's fearsome assault forces, hardened veterans who had been with them since before Famul. These were true warriors, Sangheili who had dedicated their lives to the art of fighting. It almost shamed him to see them sharing a room with one as contemptible as Ro'nin.

But if they shared his sentiments, none of the warriors showed it. Two of them hefted battered, human made boxes while their comrades stood by with their plasma repeaters at the ready. The first warrior, who clearly bore the heavier load, stepped forward and set the box before Shinsu.

Umbra couldn't see exactly what the box's contents were, but as Shinsu peered inside he saw something he had never seen in close to ten years of serving as the revolutionary's subordinate.

Shinsu 'Refum recoiled.

For the first time in all the years he had known him, Umbra looked at Shinsu and realized he was afraid. Whatever was in the box had actually frightened him.

"Umbra," Shinsu said quietly. There was no trace of fear in his voice, but his arms shook all the same as he reached into the box. "Look at this."

He lifted an uneven, ovoid object out of the box and held it up for the entire room to see. Everyone stared at it, as confused as Umbra was by Shinsu's behavior. And a moment later, when they recognized what it was they mirrored his reaction.

Shinsu was holding the helmet of a Spartan.

Umbra took a step back. The child within him that had always believed his uncle's ghost stories felt as if one of the humans' savage killers was about to leap out of the box and slaughter them all. One of the warriors actually raised his weapon. "Demon!"

Off to the side, Ro'nin chuckled. "I should have recorded that," he said smugly. "I suppose it's too late to ask for more money."

"Yes," Shinsu murmured, staring into the helmet's empty visor. "It is."

Umbra wheeled on the mercenary. He was quivering all over, and if he didn't do something fast he might actually have to admit it was fear. "Where did you get this?" he demanded, hand on his plasma rifle.

"Where did I get it?" Ro'nin raised his hands. "Where did Mordred get it, you mean. He left it on my ship, remember?"

"Beta-14," Shinsu said quietly. He was still entranced by the helmet in his hands. "The Path Walker reports indicated as much."

"So how did Mordred get it?" Umbra asked, though at this point he wasn't even sure who he was talking to.

"How should I know?" Ro'nin retorted, but Shinsu held up the helmet for all to see.

"I think I could hazard a guess," he said, indicating a small smudge near the helmet's rear. Looking closer, Umbra saw that it was dried human blood.

Ro'nin laughed again. "I don't believe it," he said, shaking his head. "Mordred actually killed one of these things?"

"He's more dangerous than I was led to believe," Shinsu agreed. With a final glance into the helmet's visor, he dropped it back into the box and waved the warrior who had carried it forward.

"Take it down to the armory," he ordered. "You are to personally place it under guard and allow no one to see it until I personally come to relieve you."

"As you wish, commander." The warrior hefted the box bearing the precious armor and bore it out of the room.

The warrior with the second, lighter box, stepped forward and presented it to Shinsu. This time it was opened quickly and without ceremony. Inside lay a jumble of human computer equipment, most of the parts obscured by wires and flashing lights.

"Don't bother with that one," Ro'nin said. "I already searched it."

Shinsu glanced up at him. "Then you know what I want."

With a smile, the mercenary pulled a small data file from his belt. "I wanted to know what it was. Unfortunately, there's nothing on it."

This time, Umbra actually did draw his weapon. The three other warriors followed his lead, leveling their plasma repeaters at Ro'nin's chest. "Commander," Umbra said as calmly as he could. "This trash is lying. Who knows what he did with that file!"

"No," Shinsu said. "Stand down. He isn't lying."

Umbra stared at his commander, shocked. "How can you tell?" he asked. "He might have stolen the real one and replaced it with a fake."

"He isn't lying," Shinsu repeated. "I happen to know exactly what is on that disk, and I also know it was encrypted with the best protection money could buy. Believe me, if our friend here had taken the information, he would have had no need to risk betraying us by taking Mordred to Sanghelios."

Umbra lowered his weapon, though he still itched to just blast Ro'nin away where he stood. That would teach the rest of the criminal filth they were forced to work with what happened to those who defied them. But Shinsu wouldn't approve, especially not with a tool he valued as much as Ro'nin.

"So," Shinsu continued. "Mordred managed to get the data off the disk. It seems that finding him is now more urgent than ever."

"I'll contact Pula," Umbra told him, hastily setting his plasma rifle aside. "She should know about this."

"So she should," Shinsu agreed. "But we have a meeting with Urei 'Cazal that will keep us from the homeworld for a few days more. Mordred needs to be captured, and Venter needs to be dealt with."

He looked at Ro'nin. "Tell me," he said. "Do you think the Syndicate could get a certain person to this system in a day?"


Chapter Twenty-Three: The Double

Then

Dust rose up from the unpaved street as the sun beat down on what had once been a thriving frontier town. But what had once served as the town's main hall and communications post now hosted a small contingent of insurrectionist fighters. Machine guns and sandbag positions had been erected on the roof and windows, manned by rebels who slumped inside whatever shade they could find while lazily scanning the skies for UNSC recon drones.

They didn't have much to worry about. The rebellion had already come and gone from this particular part of Mamore, though it had stayed long enough to kill just about everyone who had called this town home. A few of their corpses had still been in the streets when the insurrectionists' small convoy had rolled in; shot down by a Marine patrol, the rebels had decided as they shoveled dirt over the ditch they had found to serve as a communal grave for the desiccated bodies of men, women, and children.

A few of the rebels not on guard or patrol duty lounged on the steps of the co-opted hall laughing and sharing cigarets as they watched a small group of children, boys and girls of all ages, getting a lesson in knife-fighting from their commander.

Redmond Venter smiled, twirling a combat knife expertly through his fingers as he beckoned for his opponent to attack.

A thin, scraggly boy of fourteen crouched low, angling his own knife as he looked for an opening. He was the oldest of the children, with a dirty face and sunken eyes that glared out at the hot, dusty world around him with intense hostility. His ragged clothes hung limply from his body. Drops of sweat cut tracks in the grime on his cheeks, and his unkempt dark hair was matted down with salty perspiration.

"C'mon Stray!" Venter called, jabbing impatiently at the air with his knife. "Show the little ones how it's done!"

The boy called Stray took a step forward, knife down at his side as if he were still deciding whether or not to use it. He rocked back on his heels, cocked his head, then lunged at Venter with sudden ferocity.

The insurrectionist laughed, easily sidestepping the sweeping cut at his midriff. But in an instant the boy changed the direction of the blade, stabbing upward at the face.

This time, as he dodged to the side Venter swung in with his own knife. He caught the oncoming blade with the edge of his own, twisting it in towards himself before yanking roughly upwards. The knife flew from the boy's hands just as Venter's legs came in to kick his feet out from under him. The boy landed in the dirt with a painful thump.

Venter shook his head, letting out another bark of laughter. "You're getting faster, Stray," he acknowledged, waving his knife affectionately at the boy as he pushed himself to his feet. "But you still don't hold the knife tight enough. You gotta feel the stab, really grit your teeth and punch it into me if you ever want to get good with it."

He smiled at the boy, who grunted and wiped his moist forehead wearily. "But you knew to go for the neck. That's good. Most UNSC goons aren't armored there. You know how to kill leathernecks, that's for damn sure."

Some of the other children laughed as Stray brushed himself off, but the boy hardly even glanced in their direction. He just looked Venter square in the eye and nodded. "Thanks, boss."

Venter gave him a toothy grin. "You'll turn out all right Stray, no doubt about it."

He shifted his knife hold and tossed Stray's own knife back to him. "Now, let's go through that again."

Now

"So," Simon said as casually as he could manage. "Why's your boss want to see us again?"

"Hell if I know," the rebel soldier said over his shoulder as he guided them through a narrow passageway. The insurrectionists seemed to have repurposed an abandoned mining facility for their operations, making the place their own through a strange blend of human and Covenant technology. "He just wants me to bring you and the girl down to our holding center."

"Huh." He could barely keep his fingers--flesh and metal alike--from trembling. His whole body was wrapped around the idea of finally killing the man who had haunted his dreams since Mamore. No matter how hard he tried, the only thing he could really focus on was how it would feel to put a gun to Venter's head and pull the trigger. Or maybe he'd stick a knife in him, just like the bastard had taught him to do. The possibility of it was eating away at the back of his mind like a parasite, keeping him from thinking about anything else.

Behind him, Zoey moaned softly. She'd been acting strangely ever since they'd arrived. Simon chalked it up to stress. After all, she'd just been dragged through a war zone and come damn close to being killed herself. But she'd just have to be patient. He was close now, so close to being rid of Venter's shadow forever.

"So, you guys have a holding center?" he asked the soldier. "I thought we were supposed to just kill everything that moves."

The man grunted. "Yeah, I wish. Venter wants hostages in case we get found out. He'll use 'em for bargaining chips or something like that. And the Reaper needs subjects for his creepy-ass experiments."

"Experiments?"

With a shudder, the soldier beckoned them towards a large portal at the end of the tunnel. "He's a great guy right up until we get around to killing more of these squid head freaks. Then he up and turns into a goddamn mad scientists. Lots of serums and scalpels. I'm no fan of these murdering aliens, but it's still disgusting as hell to watch."

So, we're meeting Venter around a bunch of Sangheili prisoners. Simon smiled inside his helmet. That would make getting out once Venter was dead all the more easy. He'd just need to let them out of their cells and start a full-blown riot.

The soldier swiped an access card through a small slot that had been crudely welded to the wall. The door slid open and Simon followed his guide through the opening. Zoey groaned softly, but her footsteps continued to echo behind him.

The first thing Simon noticed about the room was the smell that trickled in through his helmet's air filters. It was one he'd gotten used to by the age of twelve: rotting, untended corpses. They had entered into a large cavern where a single large enclosure had been erected. Behind antiquated metal bars sat dozens upon dozens of captive Sangheili. There had to be at least a hundred of them, if not more. Simon, whose time at the Visag keep had granted him a knack for telling the tall aliens' genders apart, counted males and females as well as children amongst the imprisoned. A few stalked angrily within the enclosure, but most were curled up in fear and dejection.

"Damn, I hate this place," his guide muttered. "Freaks me out, seeing 'em all right there."

"Mordred," Zoey whispered. "Please, wait. There's something I need to tell you..."

"Then why the hell didn't you tell me earlier?" he hissed back. "Just stick with me and you'll be fine."

"But..."

"So!" The voice that cut across the cavern was one that raked over Simon's ears. He instinctively gritted his teeth as he looked over to see the man who had once been a father to him striding towards them.

"Well, well," said Redmond Venter. He looked as if he had barely aged a day since he'd left Simon to die in the bowels of his asteroid hideout all those years ago. His gaunt face was just a little more haggard than it had been then, but his eyes still gleamed with the barely contained ferocious energy Simon had come to know so well.

"Nice to meet you," Venter continued. He was flanked by a pair of soldiers, neither of whom looked particularly nervous. The rest of the rebels in the holding area were more focused on watching the milling crowd behind the bars. "Y'know, when our mutual Reaper friend told me he'd brought us an extra gun, I didn't think he was talking about his evil twin. Though, between you and me, I don't think you could be a bigger pain in the ass then he already is."

Alright Stray, the hated voice echoed in his ear. You need to prove that you've got the balls to fight with me. Take the pistol and kill the traitor. That simple.

Simon took the hand Venter thrust his way, resisting the urge to break the man's arm right then and there. He wished he'd patched things over with Diana back in the hangar. Pulling this off now would be a lot simpler with her trashing the HLF's systems.

"The pleasure's mine," he said carefully. "I was just lucky he showed up when he did."

Venter nodded. "Yeah, you lucked out there, that's for sure," he agreed. "Can't say I heard much about you till now. You do jobs for the Syndicate, right?"

"Freelance work. But most of it's for the Syndicate, yeah."

Simon was quite good at telling lies. He'd lied his way out of more life-and-death situations than he could remember, tricking people who made it their business to know when someone was lying. It was something that came almost as naturally to him as breathing, and yet just telling the truth here in a normal tone was one of the hardest yarns he'd ever spun.

"Gotta ask, is this keep your face covered thing some sort of fad? First the Reaper, now you, it really makes me wonder. I hope you at least show some people your face. Sometimes I wonder if that Reaper asshole even takes his helmet off to shower."

There it was, that casual tone, that way of talking to you as if he'd known you all your life, the thing that drew people to Venter even as he pulled them down into hell after him. It was all Simon could do not to shoot the man dead right there for using it on him again.

"Oh, I take it off," he replied evenly. "Every now and then. With people I trust."

Venter actually laughed, as if Simon had made a good point. "Smart policy. You never know when these Syndicate spooks are looking in on you."

He shook his head. "But we need to get supplies from somebody, and they're the best offer around. The only offer around, really. But enough about me, let's get down to business."

"You want me to start going out on sorties?" Simon asked, slipping safely behind the mask of Mordred the mercenary. "I was hoping for another day to get my bearings."

"Oh, don't worry about that. We don't have any more hits planned for today, though I might make the Reaper do something high-risk since he fucked up so royally earlier."

So Fira's troops had found the bomb, if Simon was reading between the lines right. That was one thing he could stop worrying about. The city was safe, and the Sangheili would now be much more predisposed to trust him. Good.

"Then why did you call me down here?" he asked.

"Well, it's about the reason you're on this planet." Venter pointed a bony finger at Zoey. "Her, specifically."

The girl shrank away from them both, and as Simon glanced back at her he saw that two of the HLF soldiers were casually meandering to block her from dashing away. He tensed, sensing danger. This could go bad in seconds if he wasn't careful.

"I have a contract with her," he said stiffly. "It's none of your business, so keep out of it. Please."

Venter smiled and shook his head. "Don't get so defensive Mordred, I'm doing you a favor here. Maybe this will surprise you, but we had business with this girl as well."

He eyed Zoey like a cat watching a mouse. "You remember, don't you sweetheart? Back on Famul, that little con you pulled on us? Looks like you've gone and done it again, haven't you?"

Zoey cringed, looking more and more like a trapped animal by the second. "No," she whispered, desperately shaking her head. "No, it's not true."

Simon frowned, desperately trying to figure out what was going on. "Alright," he said. "Slow down. What the hell is going on here?"

"Don't take that tone with the boss," a familiar voice cut across the room. A very familiar voice. Too familiar. "He's saving your ass from a whole lot of embarrassment. This little bitch pulled one over on us not too long ago."

Simon turned in time to see someone stepping out of the shadows. The hair was shorter and the face slightly younger, but he still could have been looking in the mirror. His heart froze as a young man wearing dark body armor strode towards him. A young man who looked exactly like him.

The moment someone in SPI armor had been escorted into the holding cave, Tuka had been edging his way towards the front of the enclosure. At first he thought it was that armored rebel again, the one who had come in the day before and picked three prisoners--two males and one female--to be hauled out and taken away. None of them had returned.

But when he saw this new helmeted human's prosthetic arm and the pouches and energy swords strapped to his armor he knew exactly who it was. He didn't need the lead human calling him "Mordred" to work things out for himself.

Simon, what are you doing here?

He watched in horrified amazement as Simon politely answered the man's questions. The girl beside him, however, looked as if she would have traded anything to be somewhere else. There was no way Simon would have agreed to join these humans. No matter how low he might have sunk, he would never join in something so brazenly cruel as what was being done here. There had to be an explanation. There had to be.

And when the young human who shared Simon's face stepped forward, Tuka got his answer.

"Who is that?" he heard Simon demand. There was a tremor in his voice that could be heard even from where Tuka crouched beside the electrified bars.

"Just another one of my soldiers," the leader said calmly. "But let's get back to our mutual problem." He indicated the girl, who shrank away from him. She was met only by two more soldiers, one of whom grabbed her sharply by the arm.

"So we're looking for a new job," the leader continued. "On Famul, right after Shinsu 'Refum's little coup."

Tuka started, surprised to hear his brother's name fall so easily from this murdering human's lips. The mention of Famul surprised him as well, a word from the past that he both cherished and hated with equal measure.

"We're looking for work, and along comes this girl. Says she's got folks with lots of money, promises we'll be rolling in cash if we take her to Earth. Sounds interesting and she seems to know who she's talking about, so we take her aboard and make for the Outer Colonies."

The leader cocked his head in Simon's direction. Tuka couldn't see his face clearly, but he could have sworn the man was grinning from ear to ear with that toothy human mouth that would never stop seeming alien no matter how often Tuka was around humans.

"Does this all sound familiar yet?" the leader asked Simon. "We stopped by New Delhi to refuel, and while we're there I finally think to do a background check. Guess what?"

The girl was whimpering now, a soft keening that stung Tuka to even listen to.

The leader flung his arms out dramatically. "Turns out she lied about the whole thing. No family, no money. Too bad she ran out on us before we could grab her, but now..."

He shook his head. "I'm just glad to help you out here, Mordred. And if you won't tell anyone about our little mistake, we won't tell anyone about yours. Deal?"

Simon didn't say anything for several moments. The girl cringed within the grip of the soldier, who had now twisted both of her arms roughly behind her back. Every eye in the cavern was trained on the small group. Most of the prisoners must have been wondering what exactly was going on; Tuka was fighting the urge to call out to Simon for help.

Still silent, Simon unclipped the pistol from his hip. His metal fingers curled into a fist while his organic ones steadied their aim on the sidearm. The barrel leveled to aim square at the girl's head.

"So." Tuka jerked in surprise as his friend's voice cut through the cavern. "You lied to me."

"Mordred..." Tuka had to strain to hear the girl's faint pleas. "I can explain, just wait, I swear..."

"Save your breath." Simon's voice was as hard as battle plating.

Tuka had to do something. He had to call out, yell, do something to snap Simon out of whatever was compelling him to threaten a helpless girl. He couldn't stand by while this happened. He couldn't...

Simon's head jerked just slightly in another direction, and in the next moment his look-alike was on the move, throwing himself between Simon and the rebel leader. "Boss, look out!"

The pistol jerked around and fired twice into the leader's chest. The not-Simon jerked and fell as the first round tore into his shoulder. The second went wide as the leader leapt clear, pulling out his own pistol with a surprised snarl.

The next few seconds went by so fast Tuka could barely keep up with what was happening. Several weapons fired at once as Simon dove for the leader. One of the guards collapsed as he stepped into one of his comrades' line of fire. The one holding the girl let go of her in order to draw his own weapon; she threw herself down and inadvertently tripped him up in the process.

Simon knocked the leader to the ground, emptying his pistol clip into the two nearest soldiers as he kicked the leader's gun away. Not-Simon staggered to his feet and cannoned into the real Simon, knocking him away from his prone target. Another soldier was already waiting to fire, but was waved away by the leader.

"Don't kill him," he spat. "I want him alive!"

Another soldier dove for Simon. A flash of light sprang to life between them, and then the soldier was on the ground, disemboweled by Simon's energy sword.

Two came at him from either side, swinging their rifles like clubs. They drove Simon back towards the bars of the enclosure, obviously hoping to fry him against the charged bars. Tuka could only look on as Simon ducked under their swinging weapons and cut them both down with a frenzied slash.

"Simon!" Tuka yelled. "It's me! Tuka! In here!"

Simon's helmeted head jerked around in alarm, the faceless visor fixing its empty gaze on the crouching Tuka. He didn't have time to respond, because in the next moment the leader was on top of him. The man had drawn a wicked looking knife and ducked past the swinging energy sword to cut into an exposed bit of Simon's flank.

Recovering instantly, Simon lunged for his opponent with a brutal stab. Not even stepping aside, the leader brought both his hands up and intercepted Simon's sword hand with a flurry of motion that completely escaped Tuka's gaze. In the next instant Simon was on the floor. The sword deactivated as it clattered to the ground several feet away.

Simon rolled away, reaching for his other sword as the leader darted over to him. The sword handle was kicked from his grip before he could even activate it. The leader went for ever unarmored joint he could find, kicking for the throat, the arms, the legs, anything he could strike to keep Simon from getting up.

On the far side of the room, reinforcements had burst in through the door. The other SPI armored soldier was in the lead, followed by six more soldiers. They spread out around their leader as he continued to struggle with the writhing Simon. Without a word, the SPI armored killer drew a small pistol and fired. A small dart appeared in Simon's neck; he fought to stand for several more seconds, then collapsed.

Tuka watched helplessly as the soldiers moved in to secure his collapsed friend. Their leader rose, panting, and motioned at the foremost soldier. "The helmet. Get it off."

The soldier obediently pried Simon's helmet off of his head, revealing his face. It was deathly pale, but his eyes still fluttered weakly as if he were still fighting whatever sedatives had just been shot into him.

"What?" the not-Simon gaped as he stumbled over, his hand clutching his bleeding shoulder. He stared down at his own face with the same confusion Simon must have felt upon seeing him. "What the fuck is this?"

But the leader just laughed. "Well, well," he said smugly. "What do we have here?"

Tuka looked down, afraid to watch what was about to happen to his friend. His training took hold, and he fixed his gaze on the object Simon had managed to slide over to him during the scuffle.

Snaking his hand out through the bars, he snatched up the combat knife and pulled it inside. No one noticed; they were all focused on Simon. It was a small gift, but one he would find a use for. He would have to, because now his own life and the lives of his fellow captives weren't the only ones on the line.

"Stray, Stray, Stray," the leader murmured, shaking his head. "Never thought I'd be seeing you again."

He motioned to his soldiers. "Strip him. Take everything. Everything. And throw him and the girl in the brig."

He turned to the SPI-armored soldier. "Nice shot, by the way. Too bad you're the one who brought him here, or I'd forgive you for your fuck up earlier."

"


Chapter Twenty-Four: Hunters

Felix followed Rosch up the ramp of the ONI shuttle. He still had no idea how Rosch had managed to requisition such an advanced ship for their jump to Sanghelios; he still didn't know how the man was still heading up the task force at all.

But it seemed that Simon-G294 merited a much smaller task force than David Kahn. Gone were the ODST squads and aerial assets, replaced by simply Rosch, Team Jian, and one subdued hostage. It wasn't much as far as task forces went, but then again most task forces didn't sport a team of Spartans. And given Rosch's track record, Felix was quite grateful that the commander wouldn't be unleashing a UNSC arsenal on an allied homeworld.

Jake and Ralph trailed behind him, escorting a handcuffed Cassandra into the shuttle. Their form and posture was so lax that had they been MPs they would have been drummed out of the force in a heartbeat. Neither of them so much as touched their prisoner's arms or shoulders, and Felix's helmet sensors could pick up faint words of encouragement being whispered by both of them. No matter what G294 had done and no matter how many years had passed, the young woman was clearly still considered a member of Jian, at least as far as Jake and Ralph were concerned.

Felix nodded appreciatively to Rosch as they entered the shuttle's interior. It was cramped as far as crew accommodations went, but it was big enough to sport an advanced Slipspace drive and room for a single Pelican dropship, which was docked right in the center of the ship like a child in its mother's womb.

"This is the fastest ONI has to offer," Rosch explained, leading Felix into the cockpit. "The latest in the Stingray line. If Slipspace is generous, we'll arrive at Sanghelios in less than three days."

Not trusting any of the cockpit's chairs to support his weight, Felix glanced back at where Jian--armed and handcuffed alike--were settling in behind him. He hesitated, then sealed the cockpit door. ONI would never have him as one of their cloak and dagger toadies, but some discussions were best conducted in private.

"G006," he began, and Rosch nodded.

"I wondered when you'd ask about her," the commander said approvingly. "I doubt either of us are optimistic enough to think she'll help bring down G294 willingly."

"Do you have a plan yet?" Felix asked. "I can't guarantee that I can get the Sangheili to cooperate with us here."

"We will find him, with or without their help," Rosch assured him. "When we do, we may get lucky and kill him without G006's assistance. His combat records from ONI's files aren't exactly stellar."

"Those are records from twenty years ago," Felix reminded him. "Even with the cryosleep, he's spent five years getting by on his own out here. And even then, those are records from a controlled training environment. I don't think they come close to predicting how he'll fight when his back's to the wall." Daniel called out to him from beyond the grave; that was one death at least that G294 had to answer for.

The problem was, Felix still had no idea what he would do when the time came to confront the traitor Spartan.

"We have you," Rosch said, unconcerned. "And since this mission began, the rest of Jian has expressed their desires to tie up the loose end as well. Killing him won't be the problem. Drawing him out will be."

Felix nodded and turned to leave. "Then I'd better brush up on my Sangheili."

But he couldn't shake the whisper of doubt that wouldn't let him write G294 off as executed just yet. His gut told him that there was a better way to settle things, one that didn't involve a bullet in another unfortunate soul's head.

He just had no idea what that better way was.

"So there you have it." Helen Powell, chief operative of the galaxy's most powerful criminal empire, crossed her arms over the front of her snappy business suit. From his position seated across from her, David Kahn remembered the last time he'd seen her. She'd been negotiating with a pasty-faced drug kingpin then, and she'd worn a tantalizingly low-cut dress for that meeting.

Everything about her is another move in the game, he thought, eying the young woman thoughtfully. So where does rescuing me fit in with that game?

"High speed travel to Sanghelios," he mused aloud. "And Venter's the target. Pretty tall order."

"For someone else, maybe." She tossed a lock of dark hair idly over her shoulder. "But not for David Kahn."

"Yes," he agreed. "Not for David Kahn."

But even as he spoke those words, he could feel a painful tension sliding down his body. His muscles still ached from days of nonstop fighting; his wounds were only just beginning to heal. And there was a stiffness beneath it all, roots that crept through his veins and slowed everything down: muscles, reflexes, even his hand-eyeh coordination.

I'm getting old. It was a fear he'd had for a while now, years before New Madrigal, but it had never been more apparent than it was now. For all the drugs and implants he'd bought for himself with his vast fortune of blood money, time was finally catching up to him. The days where he could turn the impossible into reality were drawing to a close, and there was nothing he could do about it.

"I'll take the job," he told Helen. "At half rate. A thank you for what you did for me back on New Madrigal."

The smile she gave him was warm and sincere, but he could see the well-honed facial muscles that let her pull it off. She had been bred for this, groomed to threaten and cajole and bargain with the lowest scum the galaxy had to offer. She was her father's legacy, no doubt about that.

He cast a sideways glance at Nimue, who sat upright a few chairs down the conference table. Her dull grey jumpsuit hid the bandages that covered her wounds, and if David hadn't treated her personally he wouldn't have known she'd been shot in the first place.

Ignoring the pain, not letting anyone read her injuries from her body posture. Just like I taught her.

"No thanks necessary," Helen told him as she swept out of the room. "The Syndicate looks after its friends." The door slid shut behind her.

Kahn nodded to Nimue. "You heard the job. Are you up for it?"

A stupid question, he realized the moment he said it. He had never asked Nimue whether she was up for something; if he gave her a task, she did it no matter how she was feeling at the time.

I can't go soft. Not now.

She fixed him with that steady gaze of hers, as if she were looking at him through a rifle scope. "Yes."

There had never been any sirs or other honorifics between them. That had not been their way. The years Kahn had spent raising her had taken their relationship beyond teacher and student, commander and subordinate. Even now, with all that needed to be said hanging in the air, Kahn could practically look through her eyes at himself. The question was, could she do the same with him?

"Good," he found himself saying. "This won't be easy. I hope you haven't let what I taught you go to waste."

"No," she said. "I'm better than I was before."

It was said with such simple truth that Kahn believed her instantly. But there was also something in her voice, an edge that bordered on accusation. You left me, her unspoken words said. You left me alone, and I had to learn on my own.

I left you because you needed that. He could only hope his eyes told her, words that could never be said. You needed to be free of me. And now that we're back together, we'll see how you've improved.

David Kahn had taken so much out of the galaxy. Nimue was the one thing he had ever given back. She was his legacy, something that would live on long after he was finally gone.

That was what she had always been. That was what she wanted. Wasn't it?


Chapter Twenty-Five: Test of Resolve

"Commander." Umbra had handpicked each and every one of the Cleansing Fire's bridge crew for their skill, loyalty, and utter dedication to their posts under even the most dire circumstances. The warrior manning the sensory station didn't waver so much as a moment as he brought up a visual of the cruiser bearing down on their corvette. "It's the Salvation's Voyage."

Standing at the center of the bridge, Shinsu folded his arms and nodded. "Hail them," he ordered.

"They came," Umbra murmured, crossing from his station to stand beside his commander. "They actually came."

"Of course they did," Shinsu replied. "Now we answer the real question."

Umbra nodded. "Urei 'Cazal."

He had never risen high enough in the Fallen ranks to ever meet Urei 'Cazal in the flesh. He hadn't even known the name of the last Fallen leader until Shinsu had revealed it to him. It hadn't been long after that revelation that they had deserted the Fallen above Famul, slaughtering every warrior aboard the Cleansing Flame who would not join in their defection and severing all ties with the separatist group.

And now, to find him leading a group such as the Path Walkers...

"He will remember Famul," Shinsu reflected. "And he will not think kindly of us for it."

"The Flame is worthy," Umbra reassured him. "They will underestimate it at their peril. One show of treachery from them, and we will match it with force of our own."

"Yes," Shinsu said quietly, his eyes fixed on the hologram of the Path Walker flagship. "We would fight. One of us would undoubtedly be destroyed, while the other was left to limp away to a place where the government would hunt it down and finish it off."

He turned away and gestured to the communications officer. "And so it would be with the Cleansing Blade and the Path Walkers, were our factions to come to blows. One would destroy the other and in doing so it would pave the way for the victory of our true enemy."

"So you say. But will Urei 'Cazal see things that way as well?"

"Do not underestimate him, Umbra. The Fallen may have died under Urei, but he is still a cunning strategist. He was manipulating the pieces in this game before I had even begun to take up my blade against the Vadams. He will not put petty vengeance over this alliance."

Umbra shook his head. "And if you overestimate him?" he asked, lowering his voice. "What if Urei has no use for us or our bargains?"

"He will see reason," Shinsu said calmly. "I will stake my life on it."

"Commander," the communications officer reported. "The Salvation's Voyage is hailing us."

"Patch them through," Shinsu ordered.

A moment later the Voyage's image was replaced with that of a warrior clad in dull, featureless armor. The Path Walkers had evidently learned the same lessons that the Cleansing Blade had gathered from the Sangheili's past wars: bright and flashy suits of armor brought death far more often than honor to those that wore them.

"Shinsu 'Refum," the warrior said coldly, ignoring the rest of the bridge crew. "The Path Walkers have received your supplications."

Several of the bridge officers bristled at the Path Walker's patronizing tone, but Shinsu cocked his helmeted head and addressed the envoy with an indulgent tone a kaidon might take with a presumptuous child.

"So you have," he said. "And we are very grateful to see you answer them. Tell me, acolyte, will Urei 'Cazal receive me?"

The envoy paused, clearly thrown off by the cordial reception. He quickly regained his bearings, along with his imperious attitude. "The supreme commander will address Shinsu 'Refum aboard the Salvation's Voyage." he declared. "You will come alone, while your ship stands down and withdraws all fighter escorts."

Umbra blinked, his body tensing even before the envoy was finished speaking. He bit back a furious snarl, but the Fire's weapons officer sprang to his feet.

"They do not even disguise their treachery," he spat to Shinsu, waving an arm at the envoy's hologram. "They dishonor you and the whole Cleansing Blade by thinking you could be taken in so easily!"

"Is this the discipline of your warriors, Shinsu 'Refum?" the envoy sneered. "Were one of our own to speak to the supreme commander so out of turn, he would be disgraced and replaced on the spot."

The weapons officer blanched, drawing back his arm as if to strike the formless image. But Shinsu reined him in with a casual flick of his hand. The angry warrior stepped back and slid furiously back into his post.

"I would think Urei 'Cazal would be touched that his subordinates possessed such passionate regard for his honor and well-being," he told the envoy. "But perhaps the Path Walkers hold their commander in a different regard."

"Do as they say," he said, turning to Umbra. "We will honor their wishes."

Umbra nodded, but even as he bobbed his head he opened a private link to Shinsu's helmet communicator. "Do you really think you understand Urei 'Cazal's intent?" he asked. "You are crippling us even while you step alone into his lair!"

"Like I said," Shinsu replied, rising to leave. "I will stake my life on it."

The Path Walkers sent their own dropship to retrieve Shinsu. The pilots did not even bother to boom out a command to enter over the Phantom's speakers; the dropship's doors simply lowered in silent invitation.

Surely the whole of the Path Walkers could not hold him in contempt for his treason at Famul, Shinsu reflected as he sat alone inside the dark troop bay. These warriors were never Fallen, and Urei would not risk revealing his past to them by recounting tales of his betrayal.

Perhaps this was how they treated all who did not adhere to their cult. It was a strange mindset, one that could not last forever. Even with the spies he had placed within the Path Walkers' ranks, Shinsu could not claim to know anything about what their ultimate goals were. Whatever they were, Urei did not share them. He was not one to allow despair at the Fallen's destruction turn him to something so simple minded as a return to the path of the Great Journey.

So they are merely tools in his hands. He will cast them aside when he has no more use for them. Deception had become a part of Shinsu's world as much as the blade skills he had honed beyond mastery. He lied and cheated others every day; the Cleansing Blade wouldn't be a tenth as powerful as it was now without his calculated manipulation of everyone around them. But still, the Cleansing Blade itself knew full well what his goals and methods were. To surround oneself with the very ones you deceived on a daily basis...

Whatever Urei's master plan was, it was known only to him. Shinsu had no doubts that his former leader believed he could break the Sangheili away from the rest of the galaxy. That was what the Fallen wanted. It was what he himself had wanted once, a lifetime ago.

Isolation. A bitter nostalgia for the days of the Covenant, or even those before the Covenant was formed. Shinsu shook his head. It was a vain, empty thing, a mindset that wilted when faced with the reality of the wider galaxy. The old traditions he would have us cling to are rotting away. The Sangheili must renew ourselves or be swept aside by the tides of progress.

The Cleansing Blade would outlast the Path Walkers, along with whatever vision of the Fallen Urei still held. They had to, if they were to ensure their race's dominance in the centuries and millennia to come. So we will do whatever we must to ensure the Sangheili evolution. The Path Walkers are Urei's tools, and quite soon they will be mine as well.

The Path Walkers, the Jiralhanae, Unggoy, Kig-Yar, humans, and every other tool that presented itself for the Cleansing Blade's use. They were all stepping stones to the Sangheili future. Millions, perhaps billions of aliens mustered by greed, old grievances, or simple bloodlust, all played by a few thousand Sangheili. The Cleansing Blade's web stretched far across the galaxy and Shinsu himself stood at the heart of that web.

The Phantom rumbled; it must be nearing the Salvation's Voyage. Shinsu closed his eyes and let all of his hopes and fears, his schemes and strategies, the unchecked ambition that had brought him this far, all of it slipped away into a pool of absolute reflection.

He thought of the days when he had not been commander of the Cleansing Blade, but one amongst four Preserving Blades of the Sons of the Preserving Blade militia. He had been little more than a child then, a child marching to the Fallen's broken call, but more and more often Shinsu found himself yearning for those days. Then he had been wild and pure, driven only by his yearnings of vengeance and the urgings of his comrades. Then he hadn't needed master plans or cunning stratagems, just information on where he would lead his brothers on the next attack.

But that reality was dead. It had been cut down in a small village on the homeworld, as human gunships butchered his brothers and hapless civilians alike. It had ended in a snowy mountain valley as he knelt, defeated before the warriors who had killed his friends, betrayed by the one he had sworn to love for the rest of his life.

Maybe I died there, too. Perhaps Shinsu 'Refum really had died back in Nisa Valley, and he was simply a walking corpse, wreaking vengeance upon his killers until someone could come to put his out of his misery.

A desperate beast who only knows how to indulge in destruction. That was what Tuka had called him, his own brother on the bloodstained bridge of Mallunus's flagship. The memory of those words felt as if it should cut him to the bone, yet all it illicited from him was a bitter smile.

Swords are for killing. Warriors are for fighting. And avengers like me, well, how should I put it? Anyway you say it, there are things that exist for one purpose; those like me are like that.

That had been his answer to Tuka's plaintive cries to abandon his path.

Shinsu 'Refum gazed into the darkness of the dropship that might very well be ferrying him to his doom, and smiled. He was not the walking dead after all. Tuka's memory had saved him.

I am an avenger. That means I must be stronger than my prey. Stronger by any means necessary. And Thel 'Vadam, his clan, and all that stand with him, they are my prey.


Chapter Twenty-Six: The Fall

Then

A dull, starless night hung over the Insurrectionist camp, casting a veil of silent darkness over the deserted village they had made their home. The UNSC had drones and foot patrols scanning for any sign of life that might justify a bombing run, so the encampment was in a full-blown blackout. No lights that might have given off the outline of a rocket launcher or stolen Warthog were allowed; even the lookouts concealed their rifles under cloaks and ponchos.

At the moment, the only visible gun in the area was the pistol that Redmond Venter was idly passing from hand to hand as he watched a shadow break away from a wall and approach him with a slow, uncertain trudge. He nodded in greeting as the boy he called Stray drew near.

"About time," he said with a smile. Not that anyone could see it. "I was starting to think you wouldn't come."

Stray didn't answer and Venter's eyes narrowed. This was it, the moment of truth. If the kid couldn't do this, he wouldn't be able to do half the things they'd need him to do in the fighting to come.

"You have to do this," he reminded Stray. "You know what she did."

Still no answer.

"Yuri and Lambert are dead because of her," Venter continued. "She told those Marines where they were making the bomb drop. You know that, because you told us we could trust her. Said there wasn't anyone you trusted more."

He shrugged. "But I understand. Shit happens out here. But we need to send a message. I'm not going for a public shooting, not with all the bad publicity that'll get. But there needs to be an execution."

Flipping the pistol around, he offered it to Stray grip first. "And you're going to pull the trigger."

A moment's pause. It was too dark for Venter to even begin to guess what was going on in Stray's eyes. Ten, without a word, the boy took the offered pistol and turned away. In moments the darkness had swallowed him up and he was gone. But there was no doubt at all; he would do it.

And Venter smiled.

"You call that shooting, boot?"

He could still hear Chief Mendez's gravely bark echoing at him from the shadows. It had been a long time since the chief had been around to frighten him, but his muscles still tensed and hairs rose up on the back of his dirt-encrusted neck. There were a dozen things that he should have been afraid of, but tonight he didn't mind dwelling on the past.

The horrors of then were infinitely preferable to what awaited him now.

"Hesitation, boot! You know what that is? It'll kill you out there, you know that right? If you can't shoot the enemy, they sure as hell will shoot you!"

His fingers tightened around the pistol's grip. The enemy. He'd seen the enemies before, in the alien warriors who butchered whole colonies and tried to exterminate his entire species. Those had been the only enemies he'd ever known, until the UNSC abandoned him on Mamore and showed its true colors by slaughtering his friends. The UNSC was the enemy now.

If you can't shoot the enemy, they'll shoot you.

But now...

His gut tightened as he neared the edge of the town. A small tool shed loomed up out of the shadows, padlocked and guarded by a single rebel. The man's profile nodded at him as he drew near. "Stray," he grunted. "The boss said you'd be coming."

Stray. Venter hadn't given him that name and he hadn't come up with it himself. Emily had called him that, Emily had thought it up, Emily had given it to him.

Emily.

The name he'd shoved to the back of his mind came hurtling back into agonizing clarity. His palms moistened and he had to fight to put one foot in front of the other as he thrust himself towards the shed door. The guard unclipped the padlock and the boy who had been called Simon walked in, pistol at his side.

She knew who he was, even with just the faint glimmers of moonlight to see by. He could see bits of her too: the ragged clothes, the dirty hair. The cuts and bruises where Venter's rebels had left their mark on her.

Yuri and Lambert died because of her, Venter's words hissed in his ear. There wasn't anyone you trusted more...

"Stray..." her voice was hoarse and strained. They hadn't given her any water since they'd locked her in here. Not since they'd beaten her within an inch of her life. "You came."

He opened his mouth to reply, but his throat wasn't working. The pistol was a thousand times heavier than it should have been, weighing his arm down so that he couldn't lift it at all.

"Stray," she said again. "I wondered... you were coming, I just didn't know when..."

His mouth worked now, but each word felt as if it were tearing at his vocal cords as he forced it out. "But you knew I would."

"Yeah." She seemed to be trying to get to her feet, but every time she pushed herself up she would simply collapse back down. "I knew you'd come. For me."

"Yeah. For you." The gun came up now, inch by inch, until the barrel pointed squarely at her head. "For you."

For a moment she didn't say anything at all, as if her brain needed time to process what was happening. Then she recoiled, pushing herself against the back of the shed as if distance alone could save her from the bullet. "Stray?"

"You helped them." His voice was barely above a whisper. "You helped them."

"Stray, what are you doing?" She raised her hands desperately. "I had to! They said they'd kill me if I didn't!"

"Like they killed everyone else? Like the rest of Rat Pack?"

"Stray, please, don't do this..."

The gun trembled. He had to shoot. He had to do it now or he'd never do it. The memories flashed around inside his head and suddenly he was squeezing his eyes closed, trying to block them all out.

Her smile over a crate of stolen food... crouching beside her in a ditch, both of them doing their best to keep the younger ones quiet as Scorpions rolled past... the feeling of her arm on his that one night, when she'd drawn close so suddenly and placed her lips on his...

"You should have stayed dead," he whispered. "It was better that way."

He'd jammed a rifle in the ground, stuck half a dozen of them on the top of a dusty hill when he thought he was the last one left. Rat Pack's memorial, a small grove of rifles. That was how he wanted it to have stayed. That was how it should have stayed.

"Stray, please, I love you..."

He curled his finger around the trigger and took one last look at the cringing, broken girl who had shown him how to live without the UNSC. The finger twitched, quivered...

And he took it away. Such an easy thing to do, not to pull that trigger. It was so simple, really.

His body felt numb as he reached down and pulled Emily to her feet. "Come on," his mouth said. "Let's get out of here."

She came without a word, but her tear-streaked eyes shone with hope as he led her to the door. Together, they pushed the door open and strode out into the night. Such a simple thing to do, to rescue her and take her away from it all.

Stray stepped out into the night, and only then did he realize he was alone. He turned to see the door, closed behind him as if he'd never gone in. "Emily?"

"Really? That's the best you could do?"

He spun to see Mordred leaning against a nearby wall. Clad in SPI armor, the mercenary raised a metal finger and tapped his forehead. "Just take her and run away, huh? And what happens when Venter sends the whole garrison out looking for you? What then?"

Stray looked about himself helplessly. "I saved her," he whispered helplessly. "I saved her."

Mordred shook his shaggy head, grey eyes shining with contempt. "No you didn't. We both know you didn't."

"No!" Stray turned back to the door just as the first pistol shot rang out. A moment later and two more followed.

"Nice double tap," Mordred observed coldly. "That would have made Chief Mendez proud."

Stray sank to his knees, his vision blurring. "No..." he said again. "No, no, no."

"Yes, yes, yes," Mordred retorted. "You shot her. Once in the chest, twice in the head. Wasn't much left to look at after that. I wonder what Cassandra would think about that?"

"Shut up," Stray sobbed, his fingers clawing the dirt. "Just leave me alone."

"What are you so upset about?" Mordred demanded. "It made you feel good, remember? You finally made someone proud. Too bad it turned out he didn't give a shit about you, but what the hell."

"Leave me alone!"

"Pathetic," Mordred sneered. "All you do is hide in the past, you worthless piece of shit. Always lying to everyone, always giving excuses. It's not my fault, Venter made me do it! You make me sick."

Stray threw his head back and screamed. His head felt as if it were about to explode. The ache in his chest was eating him alive, tearing through his body like some ravenous disease.

"Yeah, why don't you cry about it?" Mordred forged on ruthlessly. "Throw a tantrum and feel sorry for yourself, like you always do. Hate to clue you in on this, but none of this shit is ever going to change."

He strode over and grabbed Stray by his hair, hauling him upright with cold, mechanical fingers. The boy writhed and struggled, unable to break free as he found himself staring into the mercenary's icy gaze.

"You want to do something?" Mordred demanded. "She's fucking dead! And Venter's the one who made sure it happened. So what are you going to do about it, Stray? He's right over there! What are you going to do about it? Someone hurts you, you hurt them right back, or nothing ever changes!"

"I, I don't..." Stray gasped, twisting to avoid Mordred's penetrating stare.

"You can either kill the son of a bitch or you can let him fuck you up forever," Mordred continued. His prosthetic fingers tightened around Stray's head, as if he wanted nothing better than to crush the boy's skull. "What you did isn't going to change, and neither will the rest of the galaxy. No one's coming to save you from the past."

"I tried," Stray whispered bitterly. "Please, I tried."

"Try harder. You owe it to Emily." Mordred gave Stray one last look of contempt before throwing him down into the dirt. "You've lived this dream for too long. Time to wake up."

Stray tried to get up, but something was holding him down. His arms and legs wouldn't move, and now his left arm was searing with pain. He watched in horror as the flesh writhed and burst as metal burst out from within to replace it. He opened his mouth to scream...


Chapter Twenty-Seven: 294

The world swam into a dark, unsteady focus as Simon forced his eyes open. He could feel where they'd crusted over, a sign that he'd been out for some time. Blinking painfully, he twisted his head and grimaced as his neck snapped back in protest. Now the rest of his body sounded off in a chorus of aches and sores that left him paralyzed for several minutes. He slumped against the ground like a limp fish, an image that was helped by the fact that someone had manacled his arms and legs.

A hard, cold surface had replaced Mamore's grimy earth, a dim overhead panel light replacing the cloudy night sky. He sucked in stale, recycled air and ran his tongue over sand-dry lips as his mind stumbled over itself to remember what was going on.

Venter. Something to do with Venter...

His hands were cuffed behind his back, so he rolled onto his front to give them some air. The wave of pain that met him on the other side sent him spasming, gasping, back onto his side. Through the convulsions, he heard a voice speaking to him from somewhere nearby.

"You're alive."

Fighting through the pain, he turned his head to see Zoey sitting with her back to a smooth, dark wall a few feet away. Her hands had also been cuffed behind her, but her legs were free and aside from a black eye staring out from beneath her disheveled hair she seemed unhurt.

"You," he grunted as everything came rushing back. Everything. Too bad for her. "Why are you here?"

She shrugged. "They threw me in with you. It's not like they don't have a reason to hate me too."

"Yeah. Good point." Panting from the aches that every move sent coursing through his body, Simon pushed himself upright enough to lean against the opposite wall. He glared at Zoey through bleary eyes. "So how long did you plan on running that little scam with me?"

She looked down. "I don't know."

The shame in her voice just pissed Simon off even more. "Planned to milk me for as long as you could, huh?" He laughed bitterly. The pain in his throat was one exertion he didn't mind at all. "Guess the joke's on you, you picked the wrong sucker this time around."

She just kept staring at her lap. Simon turned away in disgust to look himself over. Venter had been surprisingly generous when he or his goons had stripped him for incarceration. His armor was gone, but the ragged jumpsuit he always wore underneath was still there. From the feel of things, they'd at least been careful to confiscate the assortment of knives and various other tools he kept hidden in the undergarment, but that was to be expected. Now that he thought about it, the fact that he had two arms meant they hadn't even taken his prosthetic.

I should be moving. There's options. I still have the arm. Maybe trick them into negotiating. Is the beacon still working?

It wasn't hopeless. He could work his way out of this, just like he always did. There was always a way out. There was always a way to survive.

But now, all Simon felt was tired. Venter had been there, his to kill, and he'd failed. Zoey had lied to him. There was no colossal payday waiting at the end of the tunnel, no magic bullet to let him escape forever. Even if he walked away from this mess, there would just be another one waiting around the corner like there always was.

He closed his eyes again and wished he could just fall asleep again. Maybe there'd be a good dream waiting for him this time, a happy memory to relive.

The Sangheili are coming, whispered a little voice in his head. They'll get you out, they owe you for the bomb. And Tuka's here, remember? With the prisoners?

It even hurt to think. Why couldn't it all just go away? When would it all just end?

"I bet you hate me now," Zoey said, her words cutting through his headache. He opened his eyes and glared at her as best he could. Just shut up, why don't you?

"I didn't mean for this to happen," she carried on. "I just wanted to get off the frontier. I thought if I got to the Inner Colonies, I wouldn't have to be afraid all the time, and--"

He couldn't take another second of this. "For fuck's sake," he snarled. "Shut up."

She flinched, still unable to look at him. "You do hate me. They probably put us together to see if you'd kill me."

"I'm considering it," he growled, but there was no fire behind the threat. He couldn't even summon enough energy to shift his legs, much less drag himself across the cell to choke the life out of her lying throat. Even if he did, how would he do it? His hands were shackled firmly behind his back.

"I lied about everything. There isn't even a family back on Earth for you to take me to. The Brutes killed them when they attacked our colony. They took me and the other survivors back to Famul--"

"One more word and I'm going to puke," he spat. "And then maybe I will kill you, just so I don't have to listen to any more of your garbage." Every word scraped painfully against his throat, but it still felt good to tear into someone.

"I liked you better when you were playing me for the sucker I am. At least then you weren't such a whiner."

She didn't reply and instead curled up into a fetal position. She'd probably done that a lot when the Brutes had her. Simon had spent enough time in their slave pits to know what it felt like to want nothing better than to fall asleep and leave everything behind. The thought of it tore all the satisfaction out of letting her have it. He might as well have kicked a puppy. A mangy, flea-bitten puppy, but a puppy nonetheless.

He leaned back and closed his eyes. Maybe Tuka was here and maybe he wasn't. What difference did it make in the long run? He just wanted to sleep. A good dream, a happy memory, was that too much to ask for?

He thought about the bunk on the shuttle, where he and Cassandra had been together that one time. That was happy, wasn't it? Just that one time.

That was good, wasn't it?

Venter had taken every precaution when he'd set up the holo-terminal in the command center. A self-sustaining generator was providing the station power, and none of the electronics were linked to networks of any sort. Even then, he'd also had one of the techs rig a few firewalls around the contained terminal just in case.

He had to work for a moment to link the data chip his men had found in Mordred's--no, Stray's--belongings in to the terminal. It was bulkier than most of its kind. Stray seemed to have padded it with a layer of added protection. but it still managed to secure a connection after Venter wedged it firmly into the port.

The terminal flickered. A slow connection--that was a good sign. Venter was pretty sure it meant the firewalls were doing their work.

As he waited, he rubbed ruefully at his shoulder. Stray's attack had left him sore in quite a few places. He'd need to remember how much that armor hurt in case the Reaper ever turned out to be more trouble than he was worth.

He still couldn't wrap his mind around it. Stray being alive was weird enough, but going merc? The kid had been head over heals for the revolution, if memory served. Venter had always pegged him as the kind who would go down with the ship rather than turn free agent. There was also the matter of his age. Stray had been dead to him for over a decade, yet now here he was looking only a few years older than he had the day he'd been left behind during that UNSC raid.

This job just keeps getting stranger and stranger, Venter thought bitterly. The money was good, and the split-faces had turned out to be excellent target practice for his troops, but now the Syndicate had dropped contact and long-dead child soldiers were coming back from the grave to kill him. It was probably about time to pick up sticks and get off Sanghelios while the going was still good.

A shower of particles darted up from the terminal's surface. They flickered for a few moments, then convalesced into the form of a blue-tinged teenager. The cameras installed in the terminal's base swiveled to focus on him as the holographic girl smoothed her skirt and smiled up at him.

"Boss," Diana said warmly, as if they'd never parted. "Good to see you again."

"Diana." Venter shook his head. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Aw, you knew it would take more than a few government stooges to take me out."

"I guess you and Stray are tougher than I took you for. Still, I figured even you weren't tough enough to outlive that time limit of yours." Venter could barely recall the haltering warnings of the scientist he'd used to program Diana. Maybe it had been a mistake to shoot the poor guy. He could at least have told them what he'd done to make his creation such an arrogant little bitch. "You should have failed ten years ago. What's your secret?"

"Can't you just accept that I'm smart enough to duck that little hurdle and move on?" she asked coyly.

"I guess I'll have to," Venter sighed. "I wouldn't understand you even if you did explain."

Diana looked around her, as if inspecting her new pedestal home. "You know, boss, this is a pretty boring setup you got here for me. All you gave me is a few cameras to play with over here."

"Well, there's the little issue of your pal Stray trying to kill me a few hours ago. Makes me wonder if you had anything to do with it."

She rolled her eyes. "He went ahead with that, did he? I told him not to, but he wouldn't listen. Why do you think I wasn't connected when you found me?"

Venter laughed in spite of himself. "Well, there's one reason to trust you, I guess."

She frowned. "Sorry, boss, I don't follow you there."

He smiled down at her. "If you really were on Stray's side, your first question would have been to ask if he's still alive."

Diana just shrugged. "Oh, I know he's alive."

"Really?" Venter glanced at the firewall tech, who shrugged. Was she tapping their systems even after all the precautions. "How'd you figure that one out?"

"If the dumbass really had gotten himself killed, you wouldn't be so worried about me messing around in your systems. You know I'm not petty enough to screw you over out of spite."

Petty was actually a word Venter had always associated with Diana, but he had to admit she had a point. "I guess I have to give you that round. We tossed him and that other little shit into a holding cell. Maybe he'll do us a favor and rip her head off."

Diana laughed. "Oh, he found out she was lying to him, did he?"

That one stopped Venter in his tracks. "Wait," he said, certain he'd heard wrong. "You knew?"

The AI waved her hand dismissively. "Of course I knew. You don't go having all the cash she said she had without it being traceable. I was running a search on the 'net while she was still weaving the dumbass that stupid yarn about how rich her family was. Even the Syndicate didn't have any data on her. Why do you want her dead?"

"She pulled the same scam on us back on Famul." Now that he had someone to lay the little brat's scheme out in front of him, he and his crew didn't come off so well for falling for it . It was a pretty stupid act when you got right down to it. "If you knew, then why the hell didn't you say something to him?"

She shrugged. "I just wanted to see how far he'd go to get all that fake money she was promising him. And then I wanted to see what he'd do when he figured it out. It's a shame you and the HLF had to show up when you did. You got him all pissed off before he could do anything interesting."

"Yeah." Venter rubbed his shoulder again. "I noticed. What's up with him?"

"Oh, he's just hated your guts ever since you ditched us back in that asteroid field."

"Huh," Venter muttered. That made a little sense, he supposed. The kid always had been a bit high-strung. "That's it, really?"

"Well, there was that time you had him shoot Emily..."

"Emily? Who the hell is Emily?"

Diana threw up her hands. She'd always had that air of theatrics to her, Venter remembered now. "Another thing he never shuts up about. Don't you remember that one time on Mamore he recommended a friend of his for a messenger job? And then she turned out to be a government mole and got a few of your guys killed?"

Venter frowned, trying to remember. "Not ringing any bells."

"You said he needed to prove his loyalty or something. So you had him shoot her."

"Huh." Venter was pretty sure he'd had Stray execute a few people for him, but he couldn't recall any individual cases. "Well, if it was so bad why didn't he say something back then?"

"You could ask him. Or don't. All he'll say is that you brainwashed him or something. Kind of a cop-out if you ask me, but he never listens to what I say. If he did, he wouldn't have done anything as stupid as this."

"Well, before he tried to kill me I thought I'd be nice and not hand him over to the highest bidder, but now I've gotta take the gloves off. Mordred just happens to be worth quite a lot on the market right now." Venter paused, a thought occurring to him. "Where the hell did he come up with that name, anyway? That was your idea, wasn't it?"

"Oh, the name? He wanted something to go by, so I came up with something for him."

He'd heard the name before, but now he couldn't remember if it had just been a rumor about one of Stray's jobs. "Why'd you go with that one?"

"Well, I thought the name of a traitor knight worked well for a traitor Spartan. But mostly I just thought it was funny to have him running around with a pretentious name."

Yes, it was all coming back to Venter now. It would be good to have Diana back on the team. There was something to her brutal honesty that he'd always missed from his usual cronies. But there was no rush. He'd need to keep her on a short leash for a while, just to make sure she didn't pull a fast one on him.

"Once this business with Stray is settled, we'll get you up and running," he promised. "I think you'll like what we're doing around here. It's got you written all over it."

He didn't wait for her response; it would probably be something mildly insulting anyway. Instead, he glanced over at the tech. "Hey, any idea where Peter's gotten off to?"

Simon didn't know how long they left him in the cell, alone in the dim light with only the silent Zoey and his gnawing injuries for company. He drifted in and out focus, slipping off into dreams about dead children and corpse-strewn battlefields. Each time he drifted off he would find himself snapping back into focus with no way of telling how long he'd been out and feeling no more rested than he had to begin with. The cell door remained shut; no one came in to bring either of them food or water. It was as if Venter and his troops had just locked them up and promptly forgot about them.

They had been trained for this sort of thing, of course. The DI's back on Onyx had drilled their young charges to handle any combination of desperate contingencies, cooking up as many interrogation resistance exercises as their torturously inventive imaginations could come up with. Food and water deprivation were so basic that Simon shrugged it off almost unconsciously. His wounds and sores, which had begun to stink and leave dark stains through his jumpsuit, were harder to ignore. He put a wall between his body and his mind, clinging to whatever distractions his aching thoughts conjured up.

He thought about Cassandra, throwing away the boundaries he'd built up around her over all their years of painful friendship. He pictured her face: the sharp chin and small nose, the pensive brown eyes and wavy hair. Then her body, with its willowy frame and supple limbs, the nimble fingers and . When he began imagining her naked, he didn't pull away as he'd always done in the past. There was no shame for him here, no fear of trespassing or going to far. It kept his mind off the pain, and that was all that mattered.

At some point the images of Cassandra started to give way to thoughts about Emily. Her face was joined by the rest of Rat Pack, a dozen grimy, smiling faces that faded almost as quickly as they had come. Emily remained a little longer, but then she gave him a sad smile and slipped away as well.

"Dumbass," Diana said, crouching beside him. "You always need me to save your ass, don't you?"

He looked up at her and shrugged as best he could with his hands cuffed behind him. "These things just happen I guess."

"And what'll you do when I'm not around to help you?"

He shrugged again. "That's a tough one."

"Sure is," she agreed, fading away into thin air.

Some time after that he was barely aware of the pain anymore. His head felt fuzzy and the rest of his body was just a numb lump, a sack of thick flesh that hardly belonged to him at all. He sighed. This was so much easier than fighting back. It would be nice to just drift away into sweet oblivion. So much simpler that way.

He looked over at Zoey through bleary eyes. She was still curled up on the floor, unmoving. When he found the energy to blink and clear his vision, he wasn't even sure if she was still breathing.

"Hey," he grunted. "You dead yet?"

It was several minutes before she shifted, raising her head to look back at him. "No," she rasped weakly. "Do you want me to be?"

What was the point in holding grudges now? At this stage in the game, anger was just a waste of energy. He lolled his head from side to side, the bones in his neck cracking in protest.

"If you die, you'll stink this place up even worse," he told her.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You trusted me."

He just jerked his head at her in exasperation. "I trusted your cash, moron. If I hadn't gotten greedy, I wouldn't have believed your bullshit for a minute."

"I didn't like doing it," she said eventually. "But I wound up lying to everyone. I lied and stole from everyone, too. I never thought--"

"You did what you had to do. Stop apologizing for it."

She rested her head back down on the floor. "You were so angry before. Now you're scaring me."

"I can cuss you out some more if you'd like."

"At least then I thought you had a plan to get yourself out. That's what Mordred does, right? You've always got a way out."

"Looking for a way out is what got me here in the first place. If I'm going to die..."

He stopped there, because he had actually said it. He'd acknowledged that he was going to die, and he really didn't plan on doing anything about it. Is this really it? All this time, all the horrible things I've done to survive, and it all ends here?

"Mordred? What's wrong?"

What had seemed simple a few moments ago now struck him as incredibly stupid. If he died here in this filthy cell, Venter would win. The Spartans would win. The UNSC would win. Everyone who'd ever helped make his life the living hell it had turned out to be would win. The thought of it was worse than any kind of pain his body had to deal with.

Hell with that. I'm walking out of here no matter what. I'll live just to spite them.

"Screw this," he said aloud. "Mordred's getting through this, and I'm gonna help him."

"What are you saying now?" She sounded more tired than confused. That was a bad sign.

"Oh no you don't," he said, baring his parched teeth in a wicked grin. "You don't get to die here. You owe me way to much for that."

"Mordred?"

"To hell with costumes and code names." He twitched his legs experimentally, working them slowly to get his circulation flowing again. "Call me Simon. That's my real name."

"Simon, huh?" said a new voice. "How many names do you have?"

Simon spun to see that the cell door had slid open. There, framed in the doorway and grinning broadly, was the kid with his face. The one who'd messed up his shot at Venter. The one with his face.

Still smiling, the young man stepped into the cell. Two armed guards followed him in. One paused to shut the door behind them.

"Glad to see you two are still awake," the kid continued. "Some of the other guys bet you'd died in here, but I knew different. You gave me my genes, so I knew you wouldn't die that easy."

Simon blinked. "What are you?" he demanded hoarsely, the newfound bravado draining out of him.

The kid laughed. "I'm you," he said cheerfully. "The boss said he took some DNA from a hardcore kid he picked up on Mamore and used it to make me. Crazy, huh?"

A clone. That unbelievable son of a bitch. Simon couldn't help but feel utterly violated as he stared up at a slightly younger, more cheerful version of himself. This wasn't right. It was just wrong on too many levels to count.

"By the way," the clone continued. "You winged me pretty good back in the holding area." He tapped a bandage around his shoulder. "That hurt a lot."

Without warning, he brought his leg up and drove the heel of his boot into Simon's chest. Simon choked and wheezed as the air rushed out of him, writhing and gasping desperately on the cell floor. The wall he'd put up came crashing down and the pain washed over him once again. He whimpered, tears of pain leaking out of his eyes.

The clone just laughed. "That looked like it really hurt," he observed. Then he kicked Simon in the small of his back, smiling and nodding as his progenitor jerked and twisted beneath him.

"Whoa," he laughed. "Hang on. That looked like it hurt a lot more."

He scratched his hair, a cleaner, tidier mop than Simon's unkempt mane. "So let's try to clear this up, okay?"

The boot came up again. "Which hurts more..." It came back down onto Simon's chest. "A?"

Now it came shooting forward into the back. "Or B?"

Another kick to the chest. "Front?"

Now another in the back. "Or back?"

The blows continued, raining down mercilessly. Simon curled into a ball, desperately trying to get the pain back under control. But it was no use. He'd already lost and there was nothing he could do but suffer. And all the while he couldn't get that smile out of his head, the smile plastered all over his tormenter's face. Over his face.

The face swam into focus, coming nearer and nearer as a bony hand seized him by the hair and dragged his head off the ground. "You haven't answered my question," the clone said pleasantly. "Should we look at some other places? Expand our portfolio?"

"Stop... stop it!"

Tormentor and tormented alike looked up, staring over at Zoey with two very different pairs of identical eyes. Simon tried to shake his head, to warn her off, but he couldn't find the strength. The clone smiled, then slammed Simon's head into the ground. Everything went immediately, mercifully numb.

From somewhere far away, he heard the clone laugh. "Hey, you're still awake! Great!"

Simon opened his eyes in time to see one of the guards shift uncomfortably. "Peter, I'm not sure if the boss--"

"Venter just wanted to see if Mordred here would pull her head off," the clone named Peter cut him off. "She's not worth anything, so let's make the most of her being alive."

He gestured to the other rebel. "Hold her down."

This isn't happening, Simon thought dimly as both men grabbed the girl by either shoulder. He watched himself smile broadly and begin to loosen his combat belt. This isn't real...

It was another hallucination. The beating had knocked him out, and this was his own perverse fantasy. It had to be. There was no way this could be happening.

Zoey was yelling, kicking, pleading her eyes wide with terror as Peter drew nearer. He laughed and continued to unfasten the belt. "Damn gear," he said. "So hard to get off in a tight spot."

Laughter from the guards. Simon turned his head away. This scene wouldn't join his collection of nightmares. He wouldn't let it. All he needed to do now was cover his ears and ignore it all. But his hands were still cuffed and Zoey wouldn't stop screaming...

He never knew how exactly he got up, or how his legs could still work enough to give him the one, agonizing step forward that had him tripping over himself and crashing head-first into Peter. The clone yelped, then howled as he toppled over onto his injured shoulder.

The rebels threw Zoey back down and trained their sidearms on the prone Simon as the young clone staggered to his feet. "Son of a bitch," he spat. A trickle of blood slipped down his face from where he'd hit his head on the floor. "Haven't you had enough yet?"

He glowered, caught between two desires: Zoey and Simon. He swayed for a moment, turning towards one and then the other and then back again. Finally, he rounded on Simon once more.

"Fine," he growled. "You first."

I guess he is my clone after all, Simon thought distantly. Fear and pain fought for space in his head as one of the rebels knelt to pin him in place. Can't resist a shot at revenge.

Peter crouched low, burying his knee in Simon's chest. He grinned as his victim's eyes bulged. Simon writhed beneath him, bracing himself for whatever was coming next.

"This time," Peter mused. "Let's leave a bit more of a mark."

He made a fist with one hand, then extended the thumb and pointed downwards. The clenched hand drifted lazily over Simon's face before coming to a stop above his left eye.

"No." Simon had always told himself that no matter what indignities he might be subjected to, no matter how close he came to death, he would never beg. That was the last scrap of dignity he'd been determined to cling to until the bitter end, but now, as he realized what was about to happen, he broke that last barrier and began to plead. "Don't... please..."

The last thing his left eye ever saw was Peter's savage grin as the thumb blotted out its light forever.

Mordred or Stray or Simon or whatever his name was screamed, a pure animal howl that reverberated about the cell. Zoey wouldn't let herself close her eyes or look away, no matter how much she wanted to simply crawl in a corner and shut everything out. She couldn't have lived with herself if she had.

The scream petered out into a piteous whimper as Peter wiped his hand on his uniform. His body blocked out Mordred's face, but the mercenary's thrashing body would haunt Zoey's nightmares for the rest of her life.

Maybe he was nothing but a killer, just like he'd told her back in the city. Maybe his own reckless desire to kill the rebel leader had led them both to this misery and Mordred was now getting what he'd had coming anyway. Zoey couldn't have cared less.

The miserable, wretched mercenary who now struggled feebly on the cell floor, had saved her. The only person who had ever cared enough to stood between her and harm was paying for it now with suffering beyond even anything she'd seen in the Brute slave pits. At least those monsters hadn't had a recognizable face to show how much they enjoyed the misery they doled out.

"Well," the clone said after letting Mordred struggle for a little longer. "I guess we figured out what hurts more."

He glanced over his shoulder and grinned at Zoey. "Don't worry. We'll get back down to business once I'm done with this piece of shit."

It was so wrong, so utterly wrong for this fiend to have the same face as her savior. Now Zoey did close her eyes so she wouldn't have to see that hideous smile.

"Now for the other one," Peter's voice said. At least that didn't sound like Mordred in the slightest. "I don't think the Syndicate will mind if we hand him over minus the eyes."

"No," said a new, deeper voice. "But I might."

Zoey opened her eyes and turned to see an armored figure standing in the cell door. It was the helmeted rebel who'd convinced Mordred to come to this hell in the first place. His faceless visor surveyed the savage display before him.

"Reaper," Peter snapped. "What are you doing here?"

The helmeted man shrugged. "I could ask you the same thing."

He turned to the guards. "Weren't you assigned to watch the door?"

The one who wasn't holding Mordred down stepped forward and raised his gun warningly. "Hey, pal, you aren't in charge--"

The man's arm made a sickening crack as the Reaper caught it and twisted upwards. Before his victim could even cry out, the Reaper then slammed his head into the door frame. The limp guard sank to the floor.

"You have a problem with me too?" the Reaper asked the remaining guard mildly. The man hesitated, then released Mordred and slipped meekly out into the hallway.

Peter wasn't to be cowed so easily. He rose and kicked Mordred's quivering body out of the way. A knife appeared in his hand as he faced down the impassive Reaper.

Kill him, Zoey prayed. Let the Reaper kill him, please...

"You're brave, when you have Venter to protect you," the Reaper said coldly. "I suggest you leave, before I have to hurt you. Our boss might dock my pay."

Peter just glowered. "Or maybe I'll kill you here, and the boss won't have to pay you at all."

The Reaper shrugged. "Go ahead and try. I'll use whatever's left of you for my next few experiments."

"You freak."

"Takes one to know one." The Reaper gestured to the hallway. "Get out."

Another moment of hesitation. Then Peter sheathed his knife and stalked out. He took one last leer at Zoey before the door cut his awful face from view.

The Reaper crossed the cell and knelt down beside Mordred. "He's passed out," he said to no one in particular. "It's a wonder he didn't go sooner."

Zoey leaned against the wall, utterly drained. She looked at this strange, armored man and didn't know whether to love him or be as afraid of him as she'd been of Peter. He was with the same people who'd thrown them in here without food or water, and while he and Peter clearly weren't on the same page that didn't change the fact that they were still on the same side.

As if sensing her thoughts, the Reaper turned his visor towards her. She pressed herself against the wall, tensing up as she waited for whatever was coming next.

"Get over here," he ordered. "The eye's completely gone, but if I can clean and bandage it he might be able to get a clone transplant. Not that he'll access to that sort of tech where he's going to end up."

Without waiting for a response, he turned back to Mordred and shook his head. "Number G294, huh? How far you've fallen."

"What?" Zoey squeaked. "What did you call him?"

"G294," the Reaper replied, intent on his work. "His operating number. Gamma 294."


Chapter Twenty-Eight: Clash of Wills

Two heavily armed Path Walkers escorted Shinsu down a maze of twisting passages that brought them deeper and deeper into the Salvation's Voyage. Everywhere they went, squads of dull-armored warriors paused in their duties to look their visitor over in cold appraisal. They passed through more than a few spacious holds where warriors attended to garages filled with Ghosts, Wraiths, and other war machines and at one point they even marched past a hangar packed full of Seraph fighters.

The entire journey was completely unnecessary, of course. Shinsu could have been loaded onto one of the cruiser's rapid transit systems and been shot over to anywhere on the ship in no time at all. He suspected that Urei 'Cazal had arranged everything: the over-abundance of patrols, the inordinately full garages and hangars, this long, plodding march, as a means of putting him in his place. See the power at our disposal? the Voyage's crew seemed to be saying. And you presume to treat with us?

Such pageantry was a waste of time and resources and Shinsu found it all utterly tedious. Shows of force had their uses of course; they could be useful for inspiring allies and deterring enemies. But it was more than a little disappointing that Urei had thought such a ploy might be enough to intimidate him. Such underestimation might prove useful in these negotiations, but it could also cripple any chance of the alliance the Cleansing Blade so desperately needed.

Shinsu smiled at the thought of all the time and coordination that must have gone into preparing his tour of the Voyage. He hoped Urei had at least delegated most of that work to subordinates rather than plotting it all himself.

At the very least, the display indicated that Urei was at least interested enough to talk. Had he wanted Shinsu dead, his warriors could have done the deed a dozen times over since he had first set foot aboard the Voyage. Shinsu's only defenses were his armor and the energy sword strapped to his hip--the only weapon he had brought aboard with him.

And as long as I have my blade, I am never alone.

The final hallway ended in a single door, which slid open only after one of Shinsu's escorts stepped forward for a full-body scan. The warrior turned back to Shinsu and gestured imperiously. "In."

With a nod and a smile, Shinsu did as he was told. The room beyond the door was dark and barren, a rounded chamber with no furniture to speak of. No one was in it.

Shinsu glanced back at the door he'd entered through. It was the only door in the room, and his two escorts followed him through it to take up positions on either side of the frame. The door slid shut behind them.

"Interesting," Shinsu noted aloud. Within, he calmed himself as he'd done countless times over before every battle of his life. I do not fear death. This is not my time to die.

"Wait here," the same warrior who had spoken before snarled. Shinsu hoped for Urei's sake this one wasn't representative of the whole Path Walker movement.

Fools like him were not worth the risk of an insult. Shinsu calmly gathered himself up and sat down on the smooth floor. Whatever Urei had planned, he would meet it with poise befitting the commander of the Cleansing Blade.

They were waiting for quite some time. The efforts Urei was going to humiliate him were beginning to weigh heavily on Shinsu's mind. Either this was no longer the Urei 'Cazal he had known, or the Path Walker's commander had taken his betrayal at Famul harder than he had anticipated. Neither option boded well for the negotiations.

If they will ever even take place, he noted, glancing back at the guards. Perhaps he just wishes to torture me like this before he kills me...

His hands tightened, but he willed them into relaxation. I do not fear death. This is not my time to die, he reminded himself.

After another span of silence, a light in the center of the room winked on. Shinsu nodded to himself as the image of an armored figure sprang up from the light. A hologram. Of course.

Urei 'Cazal towered over the seated Shinsu, his body magnified to twice its normal size. Like his followers, he had forgone flashy colorings or protrusions to denote his rank and his armor was instead a dark shade of grey. A large command cloak was draped over his shoulders and ran all the way down to the floor. His black eyes glared down at Shinsu from beneath his helmet.

Shinsu looked up at his former commander and nodded. "Urei 'Cazal. It has been too long."

The dark eyes narrowed. "Yes, I would say it has. I was wondering when I would have to waste time and resources purging you and your traitors, but now you've walked right into my arms. I must thank you for sparing me the effort."

"You certainly went to a good deal of effort to keep me deceived," Shinsu noted. It was best to call Urei's bluff quickly, before things got out of hand. "Though I had hoped to be meeting with you in person."

"Your skill with the blade is legendary, Shinsu 'Refum. Do you really think I would be so foolish as to put myself within its reach?"

"You flatter me," Shinsu replied. "Though the farce you put on until now makes me think you may have taken the rumor a bit too much to heart. One might be led to believe you fear for your life."

"A precaution born of necessity," Urei replied, not rising to the bait. "From what I have heard of you and your pack of renegades, that is not a concept you are unfamiliar with."

"True," Shinsu admitted. "But we can abandon the pretenses, can't we? You do not plan to kill me, at least not yet."

"Really?" Urei smiled down at him. "I have you hear at my mercy, surrounded by thousands of my best warriors. A word from me and the Voyage could vaporize your flagship in an instant. Your arrogance here has delivered the entire Cleansing Blade into my power. Why should I not destroy it all, here and now?"

"Why should you?" Shinsu retorted.

"You betrayed the Fallen. The ones who took you in after your little militia was wiped out. You were given a title, a new command, a key role in the revolution, and you cast it all aside the moment it suited you."

I was your puppet, Shinsu thought grimly. Little more than a leashed pet for you to trot out whenever you needed to impress some merchant or dissident. Your own private Black Knight.

His informants within the Path Walkers told him that the Path Walkers already knew of Urei's past. It would be useless to threaten him with that knowledge. Useless in some regards, that was.

"I was not the first to see the Fallen for what they had become," Shinsu said cooly. "Only the first to act on it."

"Yes, you certainly 'acted.' You slaughtered half the warriors under your command and threw your lot in with alien pirates. Your actions on Famul were the ruin of the entire movement!"

Urei couldn't see his face behind his closed helmet, but Shinsu couldn't help but raise an eyebrow. "Now you lay the deeds of others at my feet. It was the humans who destroyed you, not me."

"Famul was to be our lifeline," Urei said furiously. "You knew that when you were dispatched, yet you showed your true colors and took it for yourself."

"If you send our audience away, perhaps we can speak more candidly," Shinsu suggested. "These theatrics are beginnings to bore me."

"The theatrics, as you call them, are the only thing standing between you and a swift death," Urei warned. "The Journey does not tolerate those who betray their masters."

Shinsu lowered his head. "Then have these pure warriors withdraw so that this penitent sinner can repent his wickedness," he said slowly. Unless he had wildly misjudged Urei's intentions, they could begin this meeting in earnest only once they were free of prying eyes.

For a single, prolonged moment there seemed to be a chance that Urei really had changed his tune since the death of the Fallen. The Path Walker's commander glanced up at the two guards, then back to Shinsu, and then back to the guards. He pursed his mandibles.

"Leave us," he ordered. "There is no need for protection when there is no threat."

Without a word, the two warriors turned and marched from the room. The door slammed shut, sealing Shinsu in alone with Urei's hologram.

Urei gave Shinsu a withering look. "You have yet to explain Famul to me, Shinsu. I trusted you, and you betrayed me."

"Yes, you trusted me," Shinsu admitted. "That was your mistake."

"Why? What did you hope to gain from it?"

"I believe we dispensed with the pleasantries when your newest pawns left the room. Look at me now, and decide for yourself what I gained from leaving the Fallen."

"You live," Urei admitted. "Had you remained loyal, you most likely would have died along with the others. But with Famul's resources, we might not have been so concentrated in one location. The Fallen would have lived on."

So his suspicions were at least partly correct. The opening move was successful, and now the rest of this conversation might very well decide the success or failure of the Cleansing Blade. Shinsu removed his helmet and rested it in his lap. "Tell me, Urei," he said quietly. "Did the Fallen deserve to survive?"

"You dedicated your life to the cause," Urei replied. "Your comrades fought and died in the service of the Fallen. I would have thought that would be answer enough for you."

Shinsu hadn't been ready to have the Sons of the Preserving Blade used against him. It took every muscle in his face to keep the pang that shot through his chest from registering. I musn't underestimate Urei. Not now, not with all that is at stake.

"The Fallen were your best chance to avenge your comrades, your clan, your father," Urei continued. "Your only reason to betray them--"

"Was that they were unworthy to lead our people into the future," Shinsu cut in. "I should have seen it long before Famul. Their methods were crude and wanton. They had no honor."

Urei looked at him appraisingly. "My sources tell me the Cleansing Blade is not exactly pure either."

"Our methods are done in the name of correcting the harm that has been done to our people since the Schism." It was true, for the most part. Shinsu had every intention of tearing down the criminals and assorted scum he had thrown his lot in with the moment their resources were no longer needed to reclaim the homeworld. "We cast aside honor so that others will not have to, and expect no recognition for our sacrifice. The only reward I will take for myself is the destruction of the Vadams. Why do you think I have returned to you now? Or would you prefer to keep yourself surrounded by these archaic fools?"

"Oh?" Urei's face was impassive.

"If you truly believe in the lie that has led our entire race to ruin over so many Ages, then I have nothing more to say to you."

Urei was quiet for some time. Finally, he nodded. "A lie," he said quietly. "But a lie that suits my purposes all the same. The Fallen will be rebuilt in time, and this time I will not let butchers like Isto 'Vadum distort its purpose. I had hoped for time to rebuild before war resumed, but events moved faster then I would have wished."

He shook his head. "The Path Walkers will suffice for now."

"But you will need them disposed of eventually," Shinsu noted. "And it wouldn't do for them to claim the glory of liberating the homeworld."

He watched Urei carefully. He had begun to show his hand, or at least the hand he wanted Urei to see. How the Path Walker's commander responded would decide the success or failure of this endeavor.

"You propose an alliance," Urei said carefully. "I suppose this has something to do with the forces I hear are rallying around Famul?"

Here it was. The moment where this endeavor could flourish or perish. The Path Walkers could not be won with money, intimidation, or mutual cooperation as the Cleansing Blade had won so many other individuals and organizations. More importantly, Urei 'Cazal would not be won over by anything other than an outcome that kept him and his own on top.

"Yes," Shinsu said. "I am gathering together a fleet of Jiralhanae, Kig-Yar, and all who might have a grudge against our people. The Cleansing Blade will give them all the resources they need to overrun Sanghelios and topple the Vadam regime."

Everything hinged on how Urei would react. Any other Sangheili would recoil from this plan, would call for his immediate execution and the destruction of the Cleansing Blade. Any other Sangheili would never direct aliens at the homeworld. But Urei...

Urei nodded.

"The Vadams will be humiliated," he murmured. "Discredited. Of course, even if your forces succeed, the response from other sectors will quickly liberate Sanghelios."

Shinsu clicked his mandibles. "Perhaps. But they seem to currently be at war..."

"Very true. I may very well work that particular snag into a victory for us both."

"When the homeworld is finally liberated, the Vadams will be gone and any vestiges of their supporters that remain will be unable to suppress the move to sweep away the shackles they placed on our people." Shinsu sighed and shook his head. "The Cleansing Blade, myself included, will be revealed as the shameful traitors who instigated the attack. We will slip away into the shadows, never to be heard from again."

"Perhaps," Urei said thoughtfully. "Though there may be uses for warriors of your capabilities once I have reformed the Fallen and brought order to the planet."

"Perhaps." Shinsu highly doubted that. The Blade would be too busy using their exile to root out the rest of the elements that had corrupted the Sangheili since the Schism... with Urei 'Cazal being chief among them.

You are no more worthy to lead our people into the future than Thel 'Vadam is. Urei was too steeped in schemes and plots to become the beacon the Sangheili needed to lead them to glory. If Shinsu and the Cleansing Blade were to be offered up as sacrifices to feed the new order, than Urei would not be far behind them. We sacrifice our honor to bring it back to the Sangheili, not so one just as dishonorable as ourselves can take power.

"There is another matter that has come to my attention," he said aloud. It was time for another loose end to be contained. "The loss you suffered when this war started."

"Moru 'Ostal." Urei nodded slowly. "I shouldn't be surprised that you know, should I?"

"I will be blunt," Shinsu replied. "The Cleansing Blade has agents everywhere."

"So I see." Urei didn't ask about infiltrators within the Path Walkers, but Shinsu made a note to alert his Path Walker agents of the heightened suspicion he would surely have from now on. "What does the 'Ostal boy have to do with you?"

"Nothing. I'm more interested in the data file he had in his possession when he was abducted."

Urei's eyes narrowed. "It wasn't returned to his father?"

"One of the mercenaries who attacked your compound is a human named Mordred. He currently has the file in his possession."

It was a huge risk, bringing the Path Walkers in on this particular hunt. When Shinsu had hired David Kahn and Mordred through Idat 'Ostal, he had been operating under the assumption that the file would be on Moru's person when he was brought in. Of all the things that could have gone wrong it was a small one; the Path Walkers had been drawn into a premature war that had both the human and Vadam governments distracted from the Cleansing Blade's movements.

"That file..." Urei looked at Shinsu meaningfully.

"Contains enough funds to supply both of our efforts for a very long time," Shinsu agreed. "I know where Mordred is, and I have reason to believe to believe he has the file with him. I propose you join the Cleansing Blade in its efforts to retrieve it. A show of goodwill."

"We split it in half then," Urei said firmly. "A show of goodwill, as you say."

It was a better cut than Shinsu had been expecting. "Agreed, so long as you do not mind accompanying me to the homeworld. Because that is where Mordred is now."

"Is he connected to the recent human attacks there?"

Shinsu remembered Pula's latest report: Mordred was indeed confirmed to be with Venter's rebel fighters. "In a way. We will need to move quickly. He will be in government custody very soon."

"Then that is where we will take him," Urei said. "Wherever he is, the file will not be far away."

There it was. Idat 'Ostal's silence had already been ensured and Shinsu's hand in orchestrating the current war was forever blotted out. Now I need only be watchful to ensure that our new allies do not make the first move when the time comes to turn on them as well.

"Just remember, Shinsu," Urei said, a hostile edge creeping back into his voice. "I have not forgotten Famul. You will answer for that someday."

"Answer for it?" Shinsu laughed aloud. "I answer for it every day, along with every other foul act I have wrought in the name of our people's future. I will never stop answering for it."

And for once, that was the whole truth. His soul had, it turned out, been a small price to pay when measured against all the Sangheili stood to gain from his actions.

"There is one more matter I must discuss with you," Urei continued. "My sister, Cyla..."

"She is Autel 'Vadam's mate." Shinsu clicked his mandibles impatiently. "What of it?"

"She has no stake in your vendetta against Thel 'Vadam and his spawn. I will not see her harmed."

"As you say," Shinsu said calmly. "She is not of his bloodline. When the Vadam keep burns, I will deliver her back to you."

Urei nodded. "Then you have my thanks."

Shinsu had told so many lies that this last one did not even require a conscious effort to pull off. Cyla 'Cazal had borne the Vadams children; by ancient custom, that made her as much a part of the bloodline as Thel or Autel. If the Vadams were to be truly expunged, she would have to share the fate of the rest of the keep. It turned Shinsu's stomach, but how many countless innocents were about to die as a result of his plans? How many had already died? There had been no mercy for Cena 'Zandan when the Vadam government had ordered her to betray and murder Shinsu. He had made the oath to purge the Vadams in blood, on the graves of his mother, master, lover, and comrades. If I falter now, I am lost.

Besides, he had a feeling that by the time he had finished purging the Vadams, Urei would have much more pressing matters to deal with than the fate of his sister.

I told him I would deliver her back to him. I never said what condition she would be in when I did.


Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Deep Breath

The landing platform hummed with activity. Everywhere Autel looked, warriors were checking their weapons and gear as they waited for their turn to embark. Phantom after Phantom swooped in to take on their assigned lances, who filed on in terse silence. They were about to have their revenge for the thousands murdered these past few days. The helplessness they had all felt was gone. There would be no more surprise attacks, no more dropships shot down by Phantoms or Spirits they thought were friendly.

The human vermin who plagued Sanghelios were finally within their reach.

It had been a long time since Autel had felt so eager to launch an assault. The days when he would dream of glory on the battlefield were long gone, burned away by a lifetime filled with endless wars and betrayals. There was no joy to be had in violence, only the peace that followed. It felt good to foresee some real victory in what they were about to accomplish here.

Beside him, Fira shifted anxiously. Some of Autel's advisors had called for the army officer to be left out of the operation after his disastrous efforts to take Mordred, but Autel would hear nothing of it. There was no one he would rather take with him into a battle like this.

"None of this would have been possible without Mordred," Fira muttered, uncharacteristically anxious. "I never thought I would actually owe that miserable human anything."

"I wonder if he knows just how many lives he saved by bargaining with us," Autel replied, but he wasn't as certain about their new informant as he let on. Does any of this make up for bringing us into war with the Path Walkers?

"I gave him my word," Fira said for what seemed like the thousandth time.

"The arrangements have already been made," Autel said as another Phantom lifted off to join the circling assault team in the skies overhead. "Mordred will be taken into our protection after we have defeated these rebels."

"He isn't the only one we need to find there," Fira reminded him. "Tuka is still missing. I refuse to believe he is among the dead."

Autel rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Then we will get him out."

He heard a small cough behind him and turned to find Deno standing at a respectful distance. The aged spymaster rested his weight on a cane in one hand and held a holo-tranceiver in the other. "Best of luck in the assault," he said. "If you can, try to save any technology you find for me. My agents might be able to glean some useful data from it."

"You can have whatever's left after we've burnt those rats' hideout down around them," Fira growled. "We won't soften our approach just to save a few human computers."

Deno parted his mandibles in a wan smile. "As I said, only if you can." He turned to Autel. "Some rather urgent news for you, Autel. A human intelligence vessel just arrived in orbit. They put in a call for you specifically."

Autel frowned. "For me?" What did the humans want with him?

"The human on the other end told me he was an old friend." Deno offered Autel the transceiver. "When he identified himself, I came directly to you."

"Felix." Autel looked and sounded surprised. It had been a while since he'd last spoken to the Sangheili war hero, and he hadn't exactly called ahead to announce his arrival. "This is surprising, to say the least."

"I'd have contacted you sooner, but I didn't even know I was headed here until two days ago."

Autel inclined his head. "I do not mean to appear rude, but we never requested human assistance here. I understand how our current troubles might concern you, but..."

Felix glanced at Rosch. They were holding the call in the shuttle's main bay, right beside the Pelican dropship. Jake and Ralph stood on either side of a seated Cassandra, who alternated between looking at Autel and examining the floor.

"We're not here to help you with the rebels," he explained apologetically. "I wish we were, but right now we're hunting a UNSC traitor."

Autel was quiet for some time. Beside Felix, Rosch shook his head. "I'll never trust these things."

"Not after last time," Ralph muttered in agreement.

"This traitor," Autel said slowly. "He doesn't happen to go by the name Mordred, does he?"

"Yes." Felix didn't like where this was going. He could still see the footage of G294 amidst the rebel carnage. Had they been too late again? "Why? What's he done?" he asked, rubbing his hair wearily.

Autel looked him square in the eye. "He saved an entire city from a rebel strike and he is currently providing us with the means to strike at their base of operations."

Jake blinked and nearly dropped his helmet. "Simon did what?"

"Oh dear," Rosch muttered. "I don't like where this is going."

"The one called Mordred has requested protective custody in exchange for his cooperation. I am sorry, Felix, but we have given our word that our agreement will be honored."

"Of course," Ralph grumbled. "I should have known he'd weasel out a deal like that. He always pulled shit like this back on Onyx, that son of a bitch."

Rosch raised a hand and stepped into the holo-terminal's receiver. "Pardon the interruption, but the way I see it he is still accountable for launching the current conflict with the Path Walkers."

"That is true," Autel admitted. "I can't say I am comfortable with simply forgiving him for our recent troubles."

"You agreed that you would take him into protective custody," Rosch continued. "But if it is no longer in your power to do so, say, if Mordred did not survive that long..."

Autel gave the officer a long, piercing stare. "What are you suggesting?"

"I think you could use some extra troops for whatever you plan to do with these rebels," Rosch said smoothly. "I hope you haven't extended the protective custody just yet."

They took cover under a small outcropping of boulders that overlooked one of the Sangheili homeworld's great red-hued plains. Several rivers meandered across the gently sloping grasslands, but David Kahn focused his rifle's scope on a small sinkhole two miles away. According to the intel the Syndicate had provided, this was where his--no, their--target would be.

He glanced down at where Nimue had taken up a position to watch their flanks. Encased in the lightweight body armor she'd been wearing when he found her, the young woman scanned the rear with her own rifle. "We'll hit them in three hours," he told her. "Jam their sensors, then slip in and nail the target. In and out."

"Copy," she replied without looking away from her visual patrol.

"Stick close to me once the shooting starts. We'll try to minimize contact, but anyone we run into needs to go down fast."

"Copy."

"If the Sangheili crash the party, we bug out fast and observe from a distance. The contract just wants us to make sure Venter's dead, even if we aren't the ones who pull the trigger."

"Copy." She hesitated, then looked up at him with those odd brown eyes of hers. "I've done this before. By myself."

"Good to know." Of course she would want him to know what she'd done since he'd left her. That was all she had ever wanted, to make him proud. The thought of it disturbed David more than a little.

Is that where I failed her? Did I make her too dependent on me? I should have been more aloof when I trained her, brought in more outside help to keep her from being too attached to me.

It would be more than a little ironic to have her kill Venter. David had only ever managed to glean bits and pieces of the shit Nimue's creator had put her through before bringing her to him, but the man had a lot to answer for as far as she was concerned. Because you don't... his mind told him treacherously.

Nimue seemed to have the same idea, because she looked up at him again. "When he's dead, they won't look for me anymore, right?"

"Not these guys," David agreed absently. "You'll find more people to piss off in this line of work though. Count on it."

"But when this is over... can I stay with you?"

He blinked and looked back down at the girl he had put his heart and soul into raising. My legacy... When he'd betrayed Venter and turned his private assassin into a freelance merc, she'd just been a vanity project. She still was, in a way. Once Nimue reached her full potential and replaced him as the best contract killer in the underworld, the whole galaxy would know exactly who had trained her. The name David Kahn would live on, just as it had when he'd assumed that identity all those years ago.

Increased exposure wouldn't be a good idea. He could see that plain as day. But now...

His hands tightened on the rifle as he tore himself away from his daughter's plaintive gaze. Yeah, she's my kid alright. Maybe I didn't put in the genes, but I made her all the same.

"Yeah," he said finally. There had to be another way, a way that didn't involve throwing her out on her own again. She goes with me until I can't go anymore. It'll help her cope when the time comes to be alone. "Yeah, you can stay. Once Venter's dead and we're off this rock."

You can stay."

The Pelican rocked in its cradle as the shuttle's automated systems prepped the tight hangar for launch. Ralph was in the cockpit performing the preflights with Rosch while Jake and Felix checked the team's gear in the troop bay.

"I hate atmosphere drops," Jake said offhand. "I'd always puke when they made us do them back on Onyx. I thought I'd gotten it out of my system after we graduated, but then my first one on active duty I hurled right inside my helmet. Mary never let me hear the end of it."

"Mary?" Felix asked absently, checking their cache of rifles.

"She died on Mamore, with Terrence. And Simon." Jake's voice held none of the bitterness Felix had heard back on the Mother of Invention. "She and Ralph were always getting into fights. He wasn't half as insubordinate as he is now with her around."

"Oh." It was strange. Felix had always made a point of befriending the Spartan-IIIs, yet now that he was actually attached to one of their squads it was one that he knew next to nothing about. Jian was a furnace of raw emotion kept in check by some strange blend of callousness and unwillingness to be seen as victims. It was an odd mix, to say the least. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Jake shrugged. "I got over it a long time ago."

He glanced over at where Cassandra was sitting in one of the troop chairs. Rosch had let her keep her stripped-down armor, but he'd insisted that she have her hands bound for the entirety of the mission. Felix hadn't been given any orders about what to do if she really did turn on them when they met G294, but he got the feeling Rosch wouldn't hesitate to have her executed.

As with G294, Felix still didn't know what he'd do if that order came down.

"It'll be good to get this shit over with," Jake was saying. "The others can stop pretending like we've done something wrong. Rosch was the only officer who'd let us do real field work after we lost Cassandra."

Faceless behind her helmet, Cassandra didn't say a word. Jake looked back at Felix and shrugged again, but he was easier to read than he let on. He was genuinely hurt by her silence.

"Prepare for immediate departure," Rosch ordered over the intercom. "We will enter communications with the Sangheili strike team, but will enter the facility separately. The lieutenant commander and I will both be linked in to their communications."

Felix motioned to Jake. "Well, let's get going. Help me secure the rest of the ammunition."

"It won't end with Simon."

Both Spartans turned to look at the shackled Cassandra. She turned her visor to face them and shook her head. "Killing him won't make everything better. It won't all go away, Jake. It only gets worse when it ends like this."

"It's the only way this can end," Jake replied huskily. "He won't be able to do any more damage. This is justice for everything he's done. You'll understand when it's over. I know you will."

"Justice," she muttered, but didn't say another word.

The Phantom sprang to life beneath Autel's feet. He felt the familiar lurch in his gut as the dropship leapt into the air and climbed towards the sky. The magnetic pads on his armored boots kept him steady as the Phantom slid smoothly into formation beside the rest of the assault force. He looked past one of the turret gunners and through the open hatchway to see dozens of other dropships soaring alongside them.

Autel had been in human dropships before. Their seats were too small to fit him properly, so he had always needed to stand, but most humans rode into battle strapped in to their uncomfortable-looking metal chairs. That was one thing about the humans he would never understand: their need for such security aboard their attack ships.

This is the way to approach a fight, he thought, glancing at the warriors standing or crouching around him. On your feet, always ready to fight.

Fira hefted his needle rifle and ran a hand down its barrel. "I've been waiting for this for far too long."

"We all have," Autel assured his friend. Turning to the rest of the dropship's warriors, he raised his plasma rifle. "We put an end to this now," he ordered. "Understood?"

The warriors bellowed out an assortment of clan war cries as the attack force hurtled towards the source of Mordred's beacon. The rebels were apparently using an abandoned mine shaft, if aerial reconnaissance was correct. Irresponsible, in hind sight, to leave such an easily defensible location unguarded. But it would also be the rebels' undoing. The bulk of the assault force would secure all exits while Autel led a strike team in to clear the mine out room by room.

And there was the matter of their reinforcements. Autel turned to Fira. "Have you alerted the team leaders of the UNSC team that will be joining us?"

"Yes," Fira replied, but Autel could detect a hint of uncertainty in his voice. "I agree with your decision. Mordred has too much to answer for."

"I assume full responsibility for this," Autel replied. "If anyone's honor is to be smirched here, it is mine."

"Mordred would never have told us about the bomb if he didn't think he could gain something from it," Fira told him. "He is a coward at heart without a shred of honor. He deserves none in return."

Autel looked away, back to the warriors ready to fight and die at his command. Fira was right. These were the ones he should rest his honor on. The fate of a traitor who could not begin to comprehend self-sacrifice was none of his concern.


Chapter Thirty: Rude Awakening

His head hurt.

Simon coughed weakly and opened his eyes. Or tried to. Everything was blurry and dark and there was something wrapped around his head. He lifted his arm and felt his fingers brush against rough fabric. That was what was covering up his left eye, he realized dimly That was what was blocking off his vision.

"What the hell," he muttered. The fabric was wrapped so tightly around his head it felt as if it were cutting into the skin. His prosthetic's metal fingers scraped against the fabric, trying to get underneath to tear it off.

Someone grabbed his skeletal arm, pushing hard enough to make him stop scrabbling and look to see who it was. He had to turn his whole head to look off to his left; it felt strange not to be able to just glance over to see what was going on.

Zoey shook her head at him. "Don't take the bandages off," she told him. "He said we needed to keep that spot clean."

"Him?" he rasped. The last thing he could remember was Peter's hideously familiar face laughing down at him. His body tensed up just from the thought, sensing the places where the clone had been kicking him. "Where'd he go? What did he do?"

"No, not that... thing," she said, as if the very thought of Peter made her ill. Simon didn't blame here. "The guy in armor. The one who brought us here."

The Reaper? "What was he doing here?"

"He... he saved us. He beat up the guards and kicked Peter out. Then he treated you for a while." She held up a canteen. "You need to drink."

It was the best water he had ever tasted. He had to struggle not to gulp it all down in a single swig as Zoey helped him keep the bottle steady. Like a shot to the arm, the water threw everything back in his face. The thumb coming down, the searing pain, the ringing of his own screams in his ears...

And his head hurt so much.

"No," he whispered. "He didn't..."

"I'm sorry, Mordred," Zoey said from somewhere far away. "You protected me, and..."

"Enough." He didn't want to hear any talking right now. He didn't want to hear anything. The darkness on his left side pressed in as if it threatened to steal the vision from his right eye as well. "Enough."

Was there nothing that couldn't be taken from him? Was this really all there was to his life? He had thought there was nowhere lower to sink to, but Peter had proved that wrong with one jab of his thumb.

He was shaking. Even his prosthetic trembled, the canteen slipping through unresisting fingers. He closed his eyes--no, his eye-- and shook his head. "Damn it. Damn it. Damn..."

"Mordred..." Someone took hold of his shoulders. He barely felt Zoey's hands through his filthy, bloodstained jumpsuit. "Mordred, thank you."

I don't want thanks. I want...

He wanted his eye back. He wanted to get out of this cell. He wanted to stick a knife in Peter's throat. He wanted to stop running. He wanted Cassandra. He wanted...

I want Venter. I want Venter to die screaming.

His fists clenched tightly as he seized this last lifeline and clung to it like a drowning man. Maybe this was the end. Maybe his life went no further than this cell, but before he died Venter would go first. The very thought of it pushed more fire into his body than any amount of water ever could.

And then the alarms began to sound outside the cell.

"What the hell?" Venter grabbed the nearest tech officer and shook him. "What the hell is going on?"

"The sensors," the man yelped, shaking like a leaf. "They're all going down!"

"Get me a visual! Where are the cameras we installed?"

"They're all down! Something's jamming them! All of them!"

From her secluded holo-terminal, Diana waved a hand. "Hey boss, want to unshackle me? Maybe I can help you fix your technical difficulties."

"You shut up," Venter snarled, shoving the tech away. He tugged a headset on and opened a channel. "All personnel, grab the nearest weapon and get the fuck to the nearest entrance!"

"Sir?" the tech asked, bracing himself against a terminal.

"We're about to get hit, shithead," Venter spat. Someone had sold them out. Stray had probably told someone about where he was headed before he came here with his half-assed assassination attempt. It was the only explanation. "Get a gun or sit here and piss yourself. Just get out of my way!"

There was still time to salvage this. They just needed to beat back this first attack and buy enough time to evacuate. "Where the hell is the Reaper? And Peter? Where is everyone?"

"Sure you don't want my help?" Diana asked sweetly.

"Someone unplug her!" Venter snapped, strapping a sidearm to his hip. The entire command center was in an uproar as technicians and guards readied their weapons and shouted orders to the rest of the base.

"Anyone who's close, get down to the holding area," Venter ordered. Time to correct a mistake he'd let the Reaper convince him to make. "Put the prisoners down. All of them."

As the rebels busied themselves going to high alert and generally panicking, Diana was more than happy to stay right were she was. At the moment, she was busy picking through Venter's data files and analyzing everything there was to know about the facility. The firewalls her ex-boss had put up had come down like rice paper the minute she'd been activated, and the "experts" who'd been in charge of monitoring her had never known the difference. Diana was pretty sure there weren't too many A.I. who could pull off a stunt like that.

No, "pretty sure" indicated doubt, one of her lesser subroutines noted in passing. She was quite certain that there weren't any other A.I. who could pull something so graceful off with the resources she had at her disposal.

It hadn't mattered that Venter had isolated her holo-terminal, because her data chip was already embedded with several high-frequency transmitters. They had cost Simon an arm (the one he still had) and a leg and the dumbass had complained about the purchase for weeks. Diana had recorded every second of griping for just such an occasion as this; she intended to remind her partner of his lack of foresight for some time to come.

Of course, in order to do that she would need to get him out of here alive, which was a good deal harder than breaching Venter's security.

Extending herself into the facility's security feed, she saw the first lance of Sangheili blast a hole through the side of an exposed hangar. Warriors leapt through, cutting down rebels with every burst of plasma. Not exactly a healthy environment for the dumbass, but then again it hadn't been Diana who'd decided to waltz into the middle of a terror operation.

She shook her hologram's head and moved on to check the detention records. Time to spring a dumbass.

The Reaper leaned over his latest experiment. This latest Sangheili had a remarkably sturdy composition; the aliens had naturally-occurring strength and durability, but this one's muscles and bone structure were even more well-developed than the average subject. Probably a warrior, or at least he was at some point in his life.

That life was over now, thanks to the toxins the Reaper had exposed the subject to at the beginning of their session together. The formula had progressed considerably since the Sanghelios operation had begun. Paralysis had been almost instantaneous, and the subject hadn't even known he was being exposed until his limbs had seized up and stopped working. Higher brain functions had shut down less than a minute after that, and the subject's pulse had flatlined exactly three minutes and twenty three seconds after initial exposure.

It was good. Good, but not perfect.

Sliding his scalpel down the dead subject's arm, the Reaper checked his progress via a chart of the Sangheili anatomy displayed before him on his helmet's HUD. He still hadn't figured out how to make the toxins lethal exclusively to Sangheili. Based on the tests he'd run on himself, the worst side effect they induced in humans was nausea and vomiting, but he wouldn't cut corners and begin mass-production until he was certain they were perfectly safe for humans. A case of vomiting might be the worst they could do to a fit and healthy human like himself, but an infant or the infirm might be a different story. It was a risk he simply refused to take.

But once it was safe for humans...

The Reaper smiled behind his helmet, making a note of the nerve endings his scalpel was uncovering on his HUD chart. The ability to release the toxic agent in the major breeding grounds, the cities and keeps of Sanghelios, would make all the pain and effort he'd poured into the last decade and a half more than worth it. And if he could somehow introduce it into the atmosphere...

These animals die out, and the UNSC has no one left to challenge it on the galactic stage. And humanity will never be threatened by anything like the Covenant ever again. It would even be worth becoming a hired dog for greed-driven scum like the Syndicate in order to fund his research. And having to put up with Venter's nonsense...

He rolled his eyes. It was doubtful Venter would even deploy the nerve agent if it was given to him. He'd proven to be utterly useless for field-testing some of the other poisons the Reaper had concocted so far. The insurrectionist completely failed to grasp the elegant potential of chemical warfare, though the Reaper supposed this was better for humanity in the long run. If the man couldn't shoot it or blow it up, he couldn't be bothered by it. Had the Reaper laced that one female with toxins rather than a bomb a few days ago he doubted Venter would have even agreed to deploy her.

There wasn't much more he could learn from this subject that he hadn't already confirmed before on previous subjects. Time to wrap up and call it a day, then. Perhaps he should go check on G294 and the girl down in the cell. They might need more water, and he could probably scrounge some rations for them as well.

Poor G294, he mused, setting his scalpel down. The young man shared so many similarities with him, yet their paths had differed so wildly. Truth be told, the Reaper felt sorry for him. To become such a broken husk that he'd forgotten his role as a defender of humanity was heart-breaking. The least the Reaper could do was ease his suffering as much as he could before Venter decided to do away with him.

He had just decided to do just that when the alarms began blaring. Frowning, the Reaper reactivated his helmet radio in time to hear someone shouting: "They're inside! Repeat, Elites inside the facility! Oh God, they're everywhere...!"

The transmission ended in a burst of static, but the Reaper already knew what was happening. The jig was up, and now this facility was about to be burnt to the ground along with everyone in it. The only real surprise was that it hadn't happened sooner.

Crossing over to his workbench, the Reaper quickly downloaded all of his research data from the station computer and then copied the files into his helmet's computer, just to be safe. He slipped the data chips containing his research data into one of his ammunition pouches, then picked up his assault rifle and combat pack from the floor. Flicking the safety off, he sprayed the workbench with machine gun fire. When the clip was empty, he prepped three grenades and set them for a timed detonation of two minutes. He couldn't let the Sangheili see the extent of his research. It wouldn't do for them to start developing countermeasures.

After placing the grenades throughout the room, the Reaper reloaded his assault rifle and headed over to the door. He could already here the familiar mingling of bullet and plasma fire in the distance. Time to abandon ship.

"We're in," Jake announced as the door slid open. Behind him, Ralph and Felix stepped over the corpses of the insurrectionist squad that had attempted to prevent their entry. Rosch, clad in ONI's distinctive "recon" armor, brought up the rear with Cassandra.

"Make sure the Sangheili are updated on our position at all times," Rosch ordered. "I'd rather not waste time with unnecessary firefights."

They announced down the tight corridor, weapons at the ready. Felix's helmet translator fed him the Sangheili transmissions from throughout the facility. Autel and his forces were making good progress; the rebels had only managed to cause them serious problems in a few chokepoints.

"We move for the lower levels," Rosch told the team. "Weapons free against all hostile targets. We find G294, we kill him, and we exfiltrate as quickly as possible. Leave the rest of the clean up to the Sangheili."

Jake and Ralph sounded off before moving up to take point. Standing taller than anyone else in the team, Felix brought up the middle where he could shoot over the Spartan-III's heads in the event of an ambush. He flexed his armored fingers over his rifle grip and resisted the urge to shake his head in regret. Rosch's orders left little room for interpretation. G294 was to be killed, not captured. It was that simple.

Time to end this chase for good.


Chapter Thirty-One: Jailbreak

Something was wrong.

Tuka watched the guards around the holding room as they talked into their radios and made sure their weapons were in working order. Over half the contingent watching him and his fellow prisoners had gone dashing off not too long ago, leaving only four very nervous looking humans to hold the room. The young Sangheili kept the knife he'd gotten from Simon low. If one of the remaining guards saw it now, he'd have no chance to help his friend.

From where he sat amidst the throng of his fellow prisoners, he could catch snatches of the guards' conversation. Most of their discussion seemed to be regarding what to do about the prisoners, and the snippets Tuka picked up were not encouraging.

"...no use for them now," one of the humans was saying. "You heard the boss. Snuff 'em and we can haul ass to the hangar."

"Well unless Venter sent down some spare clips, I'm not doing any shooting," the guard closest to the bars retorted. "I don't have any spare ammo and I'm not wasting what I've got here."

Beside Tuka, one of the other warriors in the holding pen grunted softly. "Not good. I doubt we have long to live."

"Don't be so sure, brother," Tuka whispered back, flashing the knife in his hands. "We mustn't give up hope yet."

The warrior raised an eyebrow. "How did you get that?"

"The human who fought here, the one they took away, he slid it in here before he was defeated," Tuka explained. That was the other thing that drove him not to give up hope. He couldn't die here because Simon was a prisoner somewhere. To die would be to fail him as well as the civilians here in the pen.

"Well, unless he slid you a grenade I don't see how that will do any of us much good," the warrior replied, sliding back down to the floor.

Out beyond the pen, one of the guards was checking a computer bank. "Maybe we should get the Reaper down here. I bet he'll have something to take 'em out with."

"That hardcore bastard's probably on the front lines at this point," another retorted. "Where's those fuel canisters we hauled down here? I've got an idea."

"Oh, nice thinking. We can just douse 'em and throw a match in there."

The guards paused as the chamber's lights flickered. When they switched back on, several remained out. The human at the computer bank checked the monitors again. "Ah, shit. The fence is out."

"Good thing they don't know that," a guard laughed as he hefted two large containers and headed for the fence. "Someone give me a hand here, will you?"

Tuka tightened his grip on the knife. Thank you, Simon. Thank you for this blade... and for forcing me to learn the human tongue.

The electricity on the pen was down. That meant there was nothing to prevent him from reaching through the bars...

"Follow me," he told the warrior beside him. "There isn't much time."

Without waiting for a response, he slipped through the crowd of despondent Sangheili. He crept closer and closer to the fence as the guard drew near. Father, mother, guide my hand, he prayed silently.

The guard reached the fence, then paused to unscrew the caps on one of his burdens. There was not a moment to lose. Tuka lashed out, his arm slipping past the bars and stabbing the surprised human square in the gut.

Someone moved beside him, and then the warrior he had spoken to had also reached through the pen to pluck the guard's weapon out of its holster. Adjusting his grip on the weapon, the warrior calmly took aim and fired one shot, then two, then three. The guards across the room collapsed one after the other. None of them had time to even reach for their own rifles.

The Sangheili around them shifted and started to call out, utterly surprised by what had just happened. But the only thing Tuka could focus on was the pained gasps of the guard he had on the end of his knife. He had killed before, in pursuit of vengeance for his family and in the service of Sanghelios, but it never felt natural or right no matter how much he did it.

"Open the gate," he ordered the guard. "Open the gate and I won't kill you."

Face screwed up in pain, the guard haltingly drew a small card from his belt and swiped it down the side of a device strapped to the bars. The fence slid open, leaving a large hole for the prisoners to stream through.

Tuka withdrew the knife and staggered out of the cage. It was all so surreal, the turn of events that had led to this sudden freedom.

It was only when he heard a stifled scream from behind him that he realized he had only promised that he himself would not kill the surviving guard. He had made no such promises on behalf of his fellow prisoners.

The warrior who had helped him was already on the other end of the chamber. He and several other freed prisoners were busy appropriating the dead guards' weapons and equipment, looping ammunition belts over there chests as makeshift bandoliers. Tuka followed them and took a human pistol for his own.

"We need to get these civilians out," the warrior told him. "More guards may come when their friends don't report in."

"I used to work in a mine like this," one of the prisoners said, stepping forward. "I can guide us to the quickest route to the surface."

"You go," Tuka told his compatriot. "Guard the civilians. There is something I need to do here still."

The warrior nodded. "The other human?"

"He is bound to me by more than his gift of the knife. I will not abandon him here."

The warrior rested a hand on Tuka's shoulder. "The gods be with you, young one."

"And you as well," Tuka replied. He could only hope that the gods that had led him to victory against Mallunus would also guide him to wherever the killers had taken Simon.

The humans had erected layer upon layer of barricades throughout the mine's tight corridors. Dozens of them crouched behind solid cover, ready to unleash a flurry of gunfire on any Sangheili that came within their crosshairs. Every Sangheili advance was met with a solid wall of bullets, grenades, and whatever other ordnance the rebels had on hand.

None of it mattered.

Autel and Fira led the charge, blazing away with plasma and needle fire as they tore through the humans' defenses like a raging storm. Their shields took the brunt of the defenders' fire, letting them close in to use the humans' own barricades against them as they cleared one tunnel after the other. The fury of their advance spread like wildfire throughout the ranks of the warriors behind them; the corridors rang with exuberant war cries that had many humans fleeing in terror before the battle even reached them.

As Autel vaulted over the latest barricade, his plasma rifle hissed and fell silent as its power source died. He dropped the weapon and drew his energy sword in a single fluid movement, cutting the nearest human in half with his blade arm while slashing another's throat with the wrist gauntlet on the other. Fira landed right behind him and put needles in the chests of the three humans who remained standing.

Gunfire rushed down the hall to meet them, but the shooters fell silent as warriors rushed up to support the officers and filled the air with scorching plasma from their rifles and repeaters. Fira let out a bellow and rushed ahead, leading the warriors onward.

Autel stepped aside and allowed the rest of the lance to pass him by. So this is how humans fight. This was the most violence he had ever visited upon the species, and it wasn't like fighting the Jiralhanae or even his fellow Sangheili at all. He was used to seeing the Spartans fight, but the regular human was so much smaller and slower than the armored supersoldiers. Even the regular-sized ones in the lighter armor, the ones he had heard referred to as "threes" could move fast enough to match a Sangheili.

He looked down at the humans he had just killed. They had moved so slow, and died so easily...

These rebels visited death upon my homeworld, he reminded himself sternly. They butchered cities and entire keeps. They deserve neither pity nor mercy.

Gripping his energy sword with renewed strength, he charged on after his warriors.

The cell door slid open. Behind him, Simon heard Zoey whimper, "He's back..."

The Reaper had removed the shackles around his wrists and legs. If Peter walked through that door, Simon would throttle the life out of that identical neck of his or die trying. He rose unsteadily, clenching his fists and ignoring the pain throughout his body. For once he was glad for his prosthetic arm: at least that wouldn't give out when he wrapped its metal fingers around Peter's throat.

But no one stepped through the door. Simon squinted at it through his remaining eye, looking for any sign of Peter, the cell guards, or anyone else. But the hallway outside seemed completely empty. Even the alarms from before had died out. What the hell is going on?

"If I were you, which I'm glad I'm not," a familiar voice floated in from the vacant hall. "I'd get down on my scabby knees and start begging for forgiveness."

Simon blinked, his fingers loosening in shock. "Diana?"

"Who else would it be, dumbass, Santa Claus?"

"Diana," he muttered, knees weakening with relief. "You... you're..."

"Amazing, I know," she gloated. "Something you certainly aren't. I didn't think it was possible for you to look anymore pathetic than you already did, but I guess even I can be wrong about some things."

Simon really did fall to his knees, practically blinded by the light of the hallway and the freedom it offered. "I can't believe it..."

"You shouldn't talk to him like that," Zoey said, speaking in the hallway's general direction. "He got this way because--"

"Because he's an idiot, yes, we've been over this already. He reminds me of it every time he does anything."

"How the hell are you even in the system?" Simon asked. "Don't tell me Venter..."

"Yeah, he's even dumber than you. Can you believe he actually thought a few firewalls and no network connection would keep me cooped up?"

"He actually plugged you in," Simon muttered, flabbergasted.

"Well, now the squid-heads are bringing down the thunder," Diana explained. "Hence the lack of guards. I don't suppose you had anything to do with that? Maybe the beacon I'm tracing from where they dumped your armor?"

"Yeah, that was me," Simon said, getting to his feet. "I made a deal for protective custody with Fira."

"Glad to see you haven't gone completely brain dead," Diana quipped. "Though you're awfully quick to trust someone who tried to kill us not too long ago."

"You know how they are with honor," Simon said. "But that doesn't matter now. Where's Venter?"

"Still gunning for him?" Diana sighed. "Because it worked out so well for you last time..."

"If you don't tell me where he is, I'll go after him blind," Simon warned her. "He's not getting away this time."

"You're awfully quick to chuck around eye words," Diana noted. "But I guess there's not point in stopping you. He's already ditched the command center. Looks like he's headed for one of the hangars."

Simon's fists clenched. "Alone?"

"Looks that way to me."

"Good." Simon staggered out of the cell with a newfound surge of purpose. "I'm going after him. Keep me updated."

"Without armor? You don't even have a weapon. And don't make me bring up the eye..."

"He dies," Simon snarled. It was the only thing left to keep him moving, the one thing that kept him from simply keeling over and dying from all the pain.

"Fine, fine, get yourself killed," Diana muttered. "See if I care."

"Mordred..." Zoey began.

"You stay put," Simon ordered. "Wait for the Sangheili to find you... oh hell, scratch that. You're coming with me."

She looked up at him from inside the cell, eyes wide. "Come with you?"

"You owe me a lot of money, remember?" Simon called back over his shoulder. "I'm not letting you out of my sight until you've paid up."

This is it Venter. No more running. I'm coming for you.

Simon, Stray, and Mordred stepped forward as one. As one they went to war.

Her partner certainly was a dumbass, Diana had to admit. But at least he never made things dull.

"Just keep moving down the hall," she instructed, following his progress through what remained of the security system. Close to half the cameras were already down, and with humans and Sangheili alike determinedly spraying bullets and plasma fire all over the place she doubted the remaining half would be working much longer. "If you move fast, you'll cut him off before he can find some flunkies to use as meatshields."

The entire command center was deserted. Morale for the techies had vanished very quickly once Venter wasn't around to wave his gun at them, and they'd cleared out mere minutes after he'd left. Diana couldn't help but feel insulted that--once again--she was being left behind in Venter's scramble to get out of the fire.

It really was her fate to be left unappreciated and undervalued.

Even while she was giving Simon and Zoey directions, another part of her was busy observing the progress of the Sangheili's furious charge through the rebel defenses. Most of the surviving HLF troops had pulled back to the various makeshift hangars throughout the facility. Diana made sure to save the footage of Sangheili-on-human combat that was streaming in from the security feed. It was always good to have a reference for this sort of thing when she needed to pull Simon out of the next mess he managed to land himself in.

She was halfway through guiding Simon through a small access corridor, editing the combat footage, and tracking Venter's progress when she caught something on one of the auxiliary cameras. It wasn't much, but for half an instant she saw a small tight group of humans making their own way into the facility. Humans in very distinct armor...

This was bad. The UNSC was here, and they'd brought Spartans. It took her a millisecond to process the camera feed and reach that conclusion, but before she could shout a warning to her partner she felt her connection to the facility's dying systems whither away into nothing.

The last thing she did before her memory chip was ripped from its console was create a flash-copy of her own data and send it scurrying into the system she had until recently been in complete control of...

In the deserted command center, Peter tucked the bulky chip into a pocket on his combat vest. He flicked on his radio and opened a channel to Venter. "Hey, boss, mission accomplished. I got her."

"Good." Venter's response was partially diluted by static. "Stupid not to grab her when I left. Now get your ass back here or you'll get left behind."

"Right with you, boss," Peter replied, already darting for the door. He new the story of how Diana had gotten lost in the first place all those years ago and had no intention of sharing his progenitor's fate.

"Simon."

Simon paused and threw out his hand, nearly clotheslining Zoey as she skidded to a stop behind him. "What is it, Diana?"

"Simon, Venter just entered the hall perpendicular to the one you're in. Go straight and he'll be there. Hurry. Peter has me. He'll be with Venter soon."

"What... what's wrong with her voice?" Zoey panted. "It's all weird, and she's talking funny."

"A flash copy." Diana had made emergency shades of herself in the past when they'd needed to hack systems without needing her data chip or a strong connection. "Peter must have yanked her from the system."

"So what do we do?"

"Easy." He broke into a run, ignoring his aching legs as he dashed down the corridor. "Kill Venter."

"Mordred, wait!"

But her cry was lost behind him as he pelted towards the door separating him from Venter. Was this how Tuka had felt right before he'd fought Mallunus?

No, it couldn't be. Tuka could never have been capable of the pure, undiluted fire that pushed Simon onwards now. This animal fury, this need to kill, this wasn't a rage Tuka could even begin to comprehend, let alone possess. Mallunus had been too distant, a goal to be found and conquered. Simon could feel Venter beside him even now, handing him a pistol, improving his shooting stance, shouting encouragement into his ear... and abandoning him at the first sign of trouble.

This is for Emily. This is for me.

The door slid open before him and he passed through without breaking stride. There was Venter on the open floor, alone and unsuspecting. The rebel heard the door open and turned in time to see Simon hurtle through. Those mad-dog eyes widened in surprise, but he brought his pistol to bear without missing a beat. Simon felt the bullet pass less than an inch over the top of his head.

Two days ago the close shave would have sent him diving to the side as he worked out a plan to avoid the next shot. But today he kept running. In the next instant he'd collided with Venter, and they fell together in a whirlwind of kicks and punches.

For the next few moments Simon ran on nothing but instinct. His endurance training from Onyx blocked out the pain as Venter's knee found his chest. A block Jake had helped him perfect sent the pistol spinning away from its owner. One of the street moves Emily had taught him pinned Venter's legs to the floor. Venter's own knife training parried the switchblade that appeared in the rebel's hands and made a jab at his throat.

All the pain and grief and misery that had built up over a life of nothing but pain and grief and misery were nothing but fuel from him now, an energy he directed at one target: Redmond Venter. His prosthetic hand latched onto the man's face and slammed his head into the ground. A quick twist from Venter avoided most of the impact and the next moment he had squirmed out from under Simon and scrambled to his feet.

Each fighter met the other's gaze. In one, the single grey eye burned with hatred and loathing. In the other, two dark eyes sparkled with a strange blend of desperation and amusement. No matter how angry Venter got, he never lost that sense of overwhelming confidence. It made Simon want to kill him slowly and painfully, just to see how confident he looked then.

"I hope there's a hell for you to burn in," he spat, tensing for another brawl.

Venter just smiled and wiped a trickle of blood off his mouth with the back of his hand. "Hope's overrated, kid."

Zoey shouted something then, but Simon couldn't hear her over the sound the pistol made. A bullet ripped through his shoulder and knocked him face-first onto the floor. Rolling over, he saw Peter's cocky grin and realized just how much he was beginning to hate the sight of his own face.

"Hey, cyclops," the clone sneered. "Forget to check that left side?"

He raised the gun again, but before Simon could roll out of the way something large and dark collided with Peter's back. The clone let out a surprised yelp and went down under the weight of a young Sangheili warrior.

"Simon," Tuka panted, pistol and knife at the ready. "I found you!"

There was no time to think. Simon was up again in an instant. Venter's gun was by his feet, and he kicked it over to where Zoey was standing. "Shoot him!" he yelled at Tuka. "Blow his fucking brains out!"

Tuka seemed to have the same idea in mind, but before he could kill the monstrosity beneath him his eyes widened and he shouted a wordless warning.

"Wrong move, Stray," hissed a voice in Simon's ear.

Venter's fist collided with his shoulder, already dyed red from the bullet wound. Simon's entire right side spasmed and in the next moment Venter grabbed him from behind and kicked his legs out from under him.

"Good thing I didn't finish training you before you dropped out," the insurrectionist growled, whipping his free hand up to Simon's neck. "Let me show you how to open a man's throat with your fingers."

Tuka trained the pistol on Venter, but couldn't get a clear shot. At his feet, Peter got his gun back and whipped it up to point at Tuka's head. "Don't even think about it, squid head!"

Zoey had Venter's gun now, but she held it gingerly and seemed torn between pointing it at Venter, Peter, or the Sangheili that had just come out of nowhere.

"Well, this is interesting," announced a new voice. All five combatants turned to see a large man in ODST armor advance through the nearest door, a battle rifle trained on Venter. Behind him followed a smaller figure in modified ONI recon armor holding a small, lightweight sniper rifle.

"Kahn?" Simon gasped.

"Mordred," David Kahn replied, inclining his helmet in recognition. "Can't say I expected to see you here, but then again you do have a habit of showing up in strange places."

"You," Venter snarled. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Kahn shrugged. "Same thing I'm always doing: fulfilling a contract."

"A contract?" Venter demanded. "On who?"

"You, obviously."

The slender figure behind Venter suddenly spun and focused its rifle on the far door. "Incoming!" it yelled in a female voice. A young female voice.

They all looked in time to see five newcomers enter the room. Three were clad in SPI armor, one wore a full set of Recon operative armor, and the last one towered above the rest in a full set of MJOLNIR armor.

No one said anything for several moments as the UNSC strike team facelessly surveyed the situation. Simon squinted at the central SPI-wearing figure with his remaining eye and started when he saw its hands were shackled. No, he thought as a new horror dawned on him. It can't be...

One of the other SPI's spoke up in a familiar voice. "Two Simons?" it demanded audibly. Ralph. Only he would speak up like that outside of the helmet communications. "How does that work?"

"Drop Mordred, Venter," Kahn ordered, his voice unusually terse. "Now."

"So you can shoot me easier? Like hell." Venter tightened his grip on Simon. "Alright, guns down!" he yelled at the UNSC. "Put 'em down or I'll kill this one."

The UNSC team didn't so much as adjust their aim. Everyone was staring at everyone else, and those with visible faces all held comically confused expressions. The whole thing was funny, dreadfully, hideously funny. Simon let out a choked gargle that was halfway between a laugh and a scream.

"Do you really think they care?" he asked Venter.

"Shoot them," the ONI operative ordered. "Shoot them both."

"No!" Tuka sprang forward to block their line of fire, and in that instant Peter took a shot at the moving Sangheili. The bullet missed, and in the next second the whole room dissolved into utter chaos.


Chapter Thirty-Two: Dueling Legends

Felix didn't need to wait for Rosch's orders. He aimed beyond the Sangheili and fired directly at Kahn. The assassin ducked low, keeping the moving alien between himself and Felix. His battle rifle kicked up a staccato rhythm, punching holes in the wall behind Venter and G294. The rebel and ex-Spartan fell together to avoid the gunfire as the G294 lookalike sprang to his feet and moved to help Venter.

"Lieutenant Commander, take Kahn!" Rosch ordered belatedly. "G293, G299, cover him!"

But his orders were cut off as a sniper round blew past his helmet. The small fighter, undoubtedly the girl from New Madrigal, skirted along the outskirts of the melee that had broken out between Venter, G294, his look-alike, and the Sangheili.

"Nimue!" he heard Cassandra yell. "Run!"

Ralph fired his shotgun, throwing off the girl's aim as she leapt nimbly to the side. Beside him, Jake hesitated. "What about the Sangheili, sir?"

"Collateral damage," Rosch said at once. "I take full responsibility. Open fire."

"Sir," the Spartan grunted tersely, raising his assault rifle.

"Jake, no!" Cassandra pleaded. "Don't..."

An anguished snarl split the air, cutting Jake's indecision short. Venter and the G294 lookalike had broken away from the fighting and were sprinting down the corridor. Kahn let loose a flurry of battle rifle shots that sent the Spartans scattering, then darted after them. The girl with him broke off and fired a few more suppression shots with her rifle as she joined in the pursuit. All four vanished through the door.

The Sangheili leaned against the wall, a knife protruding from his chest. The battered G294--the real one--caught the slumping alien and helped him slide into a sitting position.

"Go, Simon," Felix heard the Sangheili wheeze. "Take your vengeance."

G294 nodded and turned to run. Felix and Jake brought their assault rifles to bear, but the Sangheili lurched upwards with a sudden burst of strength and blocked their line of fire. Felix's finger jerked instinctively away from the trigger, but Jake put a quick burst through the Sangheili's leg that sent him sprawling. The Spartan-III took aim at G294's back, only to have his shot blocked again--this time by the ragged scrap of a girl that had been with G294 in the news recording.

One look at the girl's terrified eyes told Felix it wouldn't take much to break her resolve. He aimed at the ceiling just above her...

"One more step and she dies, G294."

All eyes turned to Rosch, whose pistol was pointed not at the urchin girl but at Cassandra's visor. Halfway down the hall, G294 stopped and turned back. In the hall's flickering light, Felix finally got a good look at his target.

G294 was a mess. His prosthetic arm dangled slightly, its shoulder stained red from a wound he seemed to have taken. His hair and clothes were matted with dirt and dried blood, and a bandage had been wrapped around his head to cover his left eye. Without his augmentations, he'd have already passed out from the sheer extent of the damage to his body.

"You bastard," G294 hissed through clenched teeth. His remaining eye burned with rage, but Felix could see fear there as well. The ex-Spartan's body was quivering, caught between a hideous desire to run and the gun that was pointed at Cassandra's head.

"You have your shot," Rosch told Jian. "Take him."

"Gladly," Ralph grunted, drawing his sidearm. "This is for fifteen years of humiliation."

"If you fire," the Sangheili coughed in English. "Your commander dies." From the floor, he aimed an M6 service pistol at Rosch.

Rosch sighed. "Someone shoot the alien again."

"I will kill you before they can do away with me," the Sangheili promised. "Let them go. Both of them."

Rosch's helmet cocked for a moment, but his pistol didn't dip so much as an inch. "Then shoot me," he informed the alien coldly. "Jian, kill G294 now."

G294 blinked rapidly. "You bastards," he spat. "You bastards, he's going to shoot Cassandra!"

"Not if we shoot you first," Jake said quietly. "I'm sorry, Simon, but you brought this on yourself."

If looks could kill, Felix had no doubt he, Rosch, and the rest of Jian would have been cut down where they stood by the look of pure hate the traitor shot them. "And I'm the one they send hit squads after," he hissed.

Moving faster than anyone in his condition had any right to, G294 grabbed the surprised girl from behind. Plucking her pistol out of her unsteady grip with his prosthetic arm, he pressed its muzzle against his surprised hostage's neck. "If you assholes don't throw down your guns, I'll shoot her," he warned, backing away down the hall.

Felix tightened his aim. He could go for a headshot, but that wouldn't guarantee that G294 wouldn't fire on reflex anyway. Besides, G294 was being careful to keep both himself and the girl moving at an unsteady gait, leaving no room for error in aim or timing.

But he couldn't help but notice a distinct lack of panic in the girl's eyes. She just went limp and let G294 drag her away.

Rosch noticed it too. "You're bluffing."

"I'm a deranged psychopath, remember?" G294 called back. He had reached the far door, which slid open behind him. "Cassandra, help Tuka!"

And with that he was gone.

The second the door had closed, Cassandra lurched forward and knelt beside the bleeding Sangheili. "My cuffs," she demanded. "Take them off. And get me a first aid kit so I can stop the bleeding."

To Felix's surprise, Rosch waved at Ralph. "Do as she says. Lieutenant Commander, after them. We'll be right behind you."

"Yes, sir." Felix hesitated. "Should I prioritize the targets?"

Rosch nodded. "Take Kahn over the others. We'll follow behind and try to cut off G294 and the rebels."

Without another word, Felix sprinted towards the far door as fast as his MJOLNIR armor would carry him.

The sounds of sustained gunfire greeted Simon and Zoey as they stumbled through the door and onto a catwalk. Below them lay what appeared to be a large refinery room, filled with abandoned crates and deactivated machinery. Simon couldn't tell what the Covenant-style design was meant to actually do, but it was clearly providing good cover for the platoon of insurrectionists scattered throughout the chamber.

Two rebels lay dead a few feet away, bullet wounds stitched across their chests. Simon dragged Zoey over to them and appropriated one of their submachine guns.

"Nice going with the flow back there," he told her, handing her the pistol back. "If you'd panicked they might have been able to get close and disarm me."

"Would you really have shot me if they'd shot Cassandra?" she asked, taking the gun with a trembling hand.

"Yes."

She shook her head. "I don't believe you."

"I've done worse." He scanned the refinery, but even as he desperately searched for Venter his mind was a jumbled mess of emotions. He couldn't believe Jake and Ralph had actually let those ONI ghouls drag Cassandra into this. Had they really brought her here just to use her against him?

Was it me who dragged her into this?

He caught a flash of movement at the far end of the room and saw a solitary figure make a break for another door as a small squad of rebels provided covering fire. Off to the side, he saw another familiar figure taking cover behind a fuel crate.

"Peter has Diana," he said, indicating the clone to Zoey. "I need you to kill him and get her data chip."

"Me? How do I kill him?" she demanded shrinking back.

There was no time for any better plan. Venter couldn't get away. Tuka had nearly gotten killed giving him this chance. Cassandra... no he couldn't think about her now.

Think of Emily, remember Emily, he needs to die for Emily.

"You have a gun, don't you?" he demanded. "Point it at him and pull the trigger!"

He darted up and ran as fast as his aching legs could carry him. The catwalk would bring him over the firefight and to the door. From there, he would find Venter and kill him. If he didn't get away, first.

No. There was no "if". Venter was going to die here, and not even his old squad or the armored monstrosity with them would save him.

The room Felix emerged into was strewn with rebel bodies. They were slumped beside alien crates and machinery, their weapons lying uselessly beside them. Scanning the room, the Spartan saw that there wasn't a single living thing in sight. Venter and Kahn must have moved further into the facility.

Vaulting over the catwalk's railing, he landed gracefully on the floor and kept moving...

The world erupted into flames. One moment Felix was running and the next he was buffeted on all sides as explosions went off around him. His shields flared and died and he was thrown sideways in a dazed heap.

Gunfire flashed from the shadows. Felix rolled, just barely avoiding being perforated as he slid behind a large crate. His assault rifle was gone, leaving him with just his pistol, a knife, the energy staff on his belt, and two grenades.

He readied the sidearm. This was too much like the fight at the hospital. Back there, Kahn had proven that Felix's natural advantages with his augmentations and MJOLNIR would not provide the edge he'd need to win at close quarters. And in the hospital, Kahn had been worn out by days of constantly fighting and evading Rosch's task force. The Kahn Felix faced now was in his prime, and this time the assassin was holding all the cards.

Activating his HUD's infrared, Felix shot up the moment his shields recharged. Bullets immediately pinged off the shields, but there was no sign of a muzzle flash; Kahn must be using a suppressor.

Keeping low, Felix darted to a nearby machine and seized an assault rifle from the insurrectionist who had died defending it. Prepping a grenade, he hurled it into the shadows across the room and scanned the area with the rifle.

Just as he'd expected, the grenade blast lit up the darkness and revealed Kahn's armored form as the assassin dove out of the blast radius. Instead of charging over the open floor, Felix darted from cover to cover, weaving through the refinery as he closed in on Kahn's position.

A small object flew at him from over Kahn's cover. Felix ducked behind another piece of machinery, but the blast he was expecting never came. Instead, a wave of energy washed over his cover and in the next instant his shields and HUD shorted out.

Felix glimpsed Kahn's ODST visor as the assassin darted over to a better vantage point. He quickly pushed himself around to keep the machine between himself and the assassin, but a shooting pain in his abdomen told him that one of Kahn's bullets had found their mark.

His armor would pump biofoam into the injury. For now, Felix had to get Kahn now, before he slipped back into the shadows.

Coming up again, he sprayed Kahn's position with assault rifle fire. The moment the weapon ran dry, Felix drew his sidearm and threw his last grenade off to the side of Kahn's cover.

Kahn came out firing, sprinting away from the grenade blast while firing burst after burst from his battle rifle.

But the assassin's aim was off and Felix's bullet struck him square in the chest. Kahn reeled, swinging his rifle to stand between his head and the three shots Felix fired at his head.

The pistol clicked empty. The ruined rifle fell to the ground. Felix and Kahn stood upright, meeting each other's faceless gaze through their visors.

There was no time to reload. Kahn still had a fully loaded pistol on his hip in addition to however many knives and other weapons he had stored across his armor. All Felix had was his knife, energy staff, and everything the MJOLNIR brought to close combat.

I can still win at close quarters. My body can take more damage than his, so in a game of attrition, I'll still win. The trick would be getting close without being mowed down.

Kahn's hand flashed down to the pistol, but Felix was already moving. Drawing his knife with his prosthetic hand, he bent low and scooped up a nearby corpse with the other. Draping the dead insurrectionist in front of him, he charged.

Kahn leapt to the side, but Felix turned in time for the body to absorb the first two shots from the assassin's pistol. He hurled the corpse the last few feet; Kahn knocked the body aside with ease, but it was the distraction Felix needed to close the final gap.

His knife slashed towards Kahn's throat, but the assassin leapt back and fired his pistol point blank into Felix's face. The force of the impact cut his shields in half, but Felix was already lashing out with a kick at Kahn's legs. Kahn sidestepped and drew his own knife.

But Felix still had his ace in the whole.

The Forerunner energy hilt slipped off his belt and into his organic hand. The grooved handle responded to the reclaimer's touch and in an instant the energy staff had activated. Shafts of pure white light sprang to life from either end of the handle as Felix swung the closest end of the staff at Kahn's midsection.

The mercenary dodged that blow as well, but the staff had caught him off guard. He stumbled and only caught his balance when he ran up against a crate.

Felix didn't give him time to regain his footing. He sprang forwards, cutting a lethal pattern in the air with the energy staff. But Kahn recovered faster than he'd anticipated. Slipping the pistol back into its holster, the assassin drew a second knife and dodged each one of Felix's slashes. Once again, the Spartan was amazed by his opponent's speed and agility. There was no way a regular human being could move the way Kahn did.

He brought his knife hand down towards Kahn's shoulder while the energy staff slashed again at the midriff. But Kahn ducked low, avoiding both cuts. Felix whipped the other end of the staff around and down, forcing Kahn to fall backwards to avoid having his head slashed in two.

But the blow was not completely avoided.

As Kahn rose, his helmet fell from his head. It had been slashed in two by the staff's blow.

Once again, Felix was treated to the sight of Kahn's true face. The brutal, strangely familiar features looked at him from under his shock of greying hair. There was no anger or desperation in his eyes, nothing like Felix had seen in G294. Kahn simply took in the opponent before him, always scanning and never giving anything away.

Where have I seen this man before? Felix strained, reaching for strands of memory that constantly eluded his grasp. He knew without a doubt that this man was a key piece in the puzzle of his shattered past. And now I have to kill him.

He saw the barest hint of a smile grace Kahn's lips, and before he could figure out why another EMP grenade exploded. Felix realized too late that Kahn must have dropped it when he'd avoided the last attack, and as his shields failed Kahn lunged forward with blinding speed.

His first knife came in from the side, stabbing at Felix's neck. Instinctively, Felix snapped the staff up to block it. The blade cut the knife cleanly in two, but that had just been a feint. The real attack came from below.

The knife shot up at Felix's jaw. He leaned back to avoid it, but the blade slipped in under his helmet and slashed through his lip. Felix saw the tip of the knife rise up right between his eyes.

There was only one option. Releasing his helmet seals, Felix let Kahn rip the helmet off. It bounced away as Felix staggered backwards, blood streaming from the cut on his face.

He brought his energy staff up in a defensive posture, but there was no attack forthcoming. Kahn stood frozen in place, that implacable expression of his inexplicably broken and replaced by one of pure astonishment.

"Felix?"

Peter scrambled backwards, avoiding the pistol shot that nearly took his head off. Whipping his own gun out, he fired a panicked series of shots into the darkness. He had no idea where Venter had gone, but that strange girl that had come in with Kahn had chased him out of the refinery room and into one of the adjoining hallways.

He tripped over his feet and found himself staring up into the pitiless visor of the girl's recon helmet. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded, reaching for his knife.

"Peter," she said coldly, holstering her pistol. "I remember you."

"Yeah?" he sneered, pushing himself up against the wall and reaching for his knife. "Well I've got no clue who you are, bitch."

He drew the knife and lunged at her throat. But her arms blocked him faster than he'd ever seen a human move before. With a yelp of pain, he dropped the knife and threw his hands up to protect his face. The girl punched him so hard in the chest he might as well have not been wearing any protection at all.

He slumped over, wheezing for air. The girl stood over him, her boots an inch away from his face.

"They bred us from the same stock," she continued dispassionately. "Kahn said that everyone Venter cloned for the project came from the same genetic makeup. I guess this proves that he really did make me everything I am. Venter had nothing to do with it."

Peter's eyes widened. The project... Kahn... Now he remembered.

"Oh, hey Nimue," he muttered, trying not to panic. "Those were some fun times back at the center, weren't they?"

She hauled him up by his combat jacket and pinned him to the wall. He shrank away, hiding his fear behind a nervous grin. "You know, those times we screwed around together, I didn't mean anything by 'em. They were just a bit of fun, you know?"

That faceless stare was worse than a face full of loathing. "That's not how I remember it."

"I just got curious, you know? Besides, it's not like you didn't enjoy it..."

Her fist came up. "He taught me that revenge is unprofessional." She punched him in the face so hard Peter was certain he blacked out for a moment.

"Where's Venter?"

"I don't know!" he shrieked, loosing his cool completely. "I swear, I don't know!"

She jammed her elbow into his ribs. Peter doubled over only to have her slam him upright into the wall once again.

"Where's..."

"Where's Diana?" demanded a smaller voice.

Peter and Nimue looked over to see Mordred's little squeeze holding them both at gunpoint. Oh shit...

"Diana?" Nimue asked calmly.

"Mordred's AI," the little bitch explained, waving the gun desperately in Peter's direction. "He has her, I know it! I have to get her back!"

Nimue turned back to face Peter. "You heard her. Where's Diana?" She brought her fist up again.

"My pocket!" he yelped. "The lower one, on the left!"

Nimue reached into his combat vest and pulled out the bulky chip. "This is Mordred's AI?"

"Yeah," the other girl said eagerly. "That's it."

Nimue tossed it to her. The girl practically dropped the gun in her haste to catch it, but when she straightened she trained it on Peter again.

"Hey!" he protested. "I gave her to you, didn't I?"

"He hurt Mordred," the girl said plaintively to no one in particular. "He kicked him and tore out his eye! And he tried to... he would've..." Her voice broke.

"Alright, hands up," said a tired voice behind them.

"Sorry to interrupt the kiddie show here," said the Spartan with the shotgun. "But we're taking you three punks into custody."

The one with the assault rifle shook his head. "Don't resist. Please."

The girl immediately dropped the pistol and put her hands in the air. Nimue wasn't so quick to throw in the towel.

Spinning around, she threw Peter directly into both Spartans. In the same motion, she primed an EMP grenade and rolled it off in their direction. The one with the shotgun knocked Peter unceremoniously to the side, but neither of them could do anything about the energy blast.

Nimue drew her pistol and opened fire. Her first shot caught Ralph in the chest, the second hit Jake in the shoulder, and the third grazed the side of his head as he jerked to avoid the bullet.

Ralph's shotgun blast went wide, blasting a hole in the wall behind Nimue. Jake threw down his rifle and drew his knife. "Hold fire!" he ordered. "You'll hit the girl!"

"They're both girls!"

"You know what I mean!" Jake came on, cutting low at Nimue's shoulder. She blocked the knife with her empty pistol before jabbing her empty hand into his side and using his own weight to throw him into the wall.

She jerked away, keeping both Spartans in front of her. Ralph charged in with his own knife. She blocked each one of his cuts with her pistol hand as she drew a knife of her own from her armor.

"Shit...!" Had Ralph been a hair slower, she would have buried the blade in his throat. Instead the knife cut a gash in the side of his neck and he forced her backwards with a flurry of kicks and stabs.

No control, she noted, parrying each strike with ease. And his partner hesitates too much.

She knocked his legs out from under him with a sweeping kick, but was forced to dance away as Jake shot in again to cover his teammate. Nimue quickly reloaded her pistol, but before she could fire they both came on at once.

There was no time to aim her shots. She simply used the pistol as a buckler as she fended Jake off with one arm and tried to keep Ralph away with the other. But she wasn't fast enough to stop Jake from grabbing her arm and disarming her with an expert blow.

She locked her leg around the back of his knee, but his stance was too solid and she couldn't knock him down like she had with Ralph. The other Spartan knocked her knife hand away and kicked her square in the chest. She fought past the pain just like Kahn had trained her, but Jake had already wrapped a hand around her neck, cutting off her air flow.

I have to fight. I have to win. She tried to focus on Ralph while locking her free hand around one of Jake's pressure points, but she was already having trouble seeing. Her fingers squeezed at the wrong points, and the chokehold only intensified.

The last thing she saw in her mind's eye before she blacked out was the way Kahn had looked when he'd trusted her to chase Venter on her own. I'm sorry, she thought miserably. I failed.

Darkness took her.

Felix watched Kahn carefully. "You know me," he said. He had to know, before Kahn died. "How?"

"You haven't aged a day," Kahn muttered incredulously. "How'd they do it?"

"You know me," Felix repeated. "How do you know me?"

Kahn looked at him with a strange blend of confusion and pity. "I guess they did something to you," he sighed. "Doesn't surprise me, knowing ONI."

Felix tightened his grip on his knife and energy staff and lunged. Kahn met him halfway, catching his staff hand in an iron grip while parrying the simultaneous cut with his remaining knife. Felix's MJOLNIR-enhanced arm slowly pressed down towards Kahn, but the very fact that he could resist without the help of any powered armor of his own was beyond incredible.

Kahn released the arm and stepped around Felix, slashing at his face with the knife. Felix whirled, dodging the blow and stepping in with another cut from his energy staff. For several moments both fighters were a whirl of lethal cuts and last-second dodges.

One misstep from Kahn and Felix scored a grazing hit with the energy staff. The beam cut through his armor like a knife through hot butter, and as Kahn jerked away Felix saw blood leaking through the cut.

"Nice toy," Kahn grunted. His empty hand flashed, and in the next second he had produced another knife. The next time Felix attacked, Kahn was waiting for him. The new knife hand batted away Felix's knife-jab while the first knife slashed the wrist of the hand holding the energy staff. The cut through his armor was minor, but Felix still yanked the staff away before Kahn could do any more damage.

It was a terrible mistake. Suddenly free to use both his hands on one target, Kahn locked Felix's knife between both of his own and wrenched it from the Spartan's metal grip.

Felix aimed a kick at Kahn's head, but the assassin ducked past it and leapt away. Felix charged in after him, cutting at him with both ends of the staff in a furious assault. He could feel the wound in his side slowing him down with every slash; the biofoam could only do so much, and he was already growing numb around the that area.

Kahn could see it as well. He came in from that side, keeping away from the hand that held the staff. Felix realized the hole in his defenses too late, and as he twisted to compensate Kahn dropped one knife and caught the staff hand again. He slowed it just enough to allow the remaining knife to snake in and delve into Felix's unarmored palm.

The hand snapped open involuntarily, and a palm strike from Kahn's empty hand sent the deactivated staff tumbling away. Kahn's body coiled, ready to strike Felix who now stood completely disarmed before him.

Felix dropped into an unarmed fighting stance, but his chances were rapidly diminishing. Kahn's armor was still covered with extra pouches and knives; all he had now were his fists and feet. He looked around, hoping to find an insurrectionist weapon lying close at hand. There was none.

Kahn sprang forward, but was knocked back as pistol reports filled the air. Felix turned to see Rosch advancing alone across the refinery floor. They had been so lost in their battle that neither fighter had seen the officer approach.

Rosch fired shot after shot, but he was shooting low to avoid hitting Felix. Most of the bullets struck Kahn in his armored chest, but Felix saw one hit him in the hip and another graze his shoulder.

"Lieutenant Commander!" Rosch ordered. "Take him now!"

But Kahn ducked around Felix, keeping the Spartan between himself and Rosch. As Felix spun to face him, Kahn hurled himself forward, past Felix and towards Rosch, who had paused to reload.

Rosch dropped the pistol and brought his hands up. For a moment, he actually looked as if he could fend off Kahn's attacks, but in the next second the assassin had batted his arms away and slammed a gauntleted fist into Rosch's helmet with a sickening crunch. The ONI operative collapsed.

But the commander had given Felix the opening he needed. Racing forward, he pulled back his organic arm and slammed a savage punch directly at Kahn's heart. The man's armor buckled and crunched as the MJOLNIR's strength buried Felix's fist in his chest. Kahn looked astonished once again, then fell backwards into the nearest wall and lay still.

Felix spared his fallen enemy one last glance, then turned back to Rosch. The commander wasn't moving, and his head was twisted at an odd angle. It didn't look good at all...

The barest whisper of movement echoed behind him. Felix began to turn as the submachine gun started firing.

The first bullet grazed the top of Felix's head as Kahn opened fire with the weapon he'd seized from the dead rebel who lay just a few feet from where he'd fallen. Felix brought his arms up in front of his face in time for the rest of the shots to reflect across his shields. Kahn was firing from the ground, but Felix could see him struggling to rise through the muzzle flashes and shield bursts.

The moment the submachine gun's clip emptied, Felix charged forward. Kahn had used the opportunity to push himself up. Blood leaked from his mouth and his stance was unfocused, but his eyes still possessed their calculating determination. Throwing away the empty gun, he reached down and drew his pistol once again.

Felix raised his arm to block the shot, but his shields were almost completely drained. He knew what was about to happen, felt the pain as the bullet entered his organic left hand, and tore its way through his forearm and out through his elbow. He stopped in his tracks, doubled over from pain as his left arm dangled uselessly from his shoulder.

Kahn leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. He didn't fire the shot that would have killed Felix right there; the pistol was empty as well.

The shots are high powered, Felix realized, too late. Of course. A man with Kahn's strength would easily be able to handle the enhanced recoil. Blood from the hit he'd taken to his head was beginning to seep down into his right eye, distorting his vision.

Both men were gasping for breath. They had reached their limits, both of them, but the look in Kahn's eyes told Felix the assassin wasn't about to give up just yet. As for himself...

I'm out of weapons. I can't use my left arm. My right eye's blurry. He still has knives and extra ammo for the pistol. But the MJOLNIR is still there. And he can't just shrug off a hit to the heart like that...

Felix clenched his prosthetic hand. It would come down to another close quarters brawl, then.

Without warning, Kahn gathered himself up agains the wall and threw himself at Felix. The empty pistol came up; Kahn would use it as a bludgeon to club Felix's unarmored head.

Gritting his teeth, Felix threw his limp left arm up to catch the pistol but before it reached his forehead. The weapon struck him right beside the hole in his elbow and sent shockwaves of agony coursing through the entire arm.

Without even pausing, Kahn drew yet another knife with his free hand and closed in on the left side. Felix jerked his prosthetic arm over and blocked the first strike. The knife clattered against his metal fingers. With the next parry, he knocked Kahn over to his right. He had to twist his head to catch every move now, but now the knife was attacking his good side.

There was no more diving, weaving, or dodging. Kahn's knife hand just kept cutting and Felix's open, remaining hand kept blocking. Their arms moved in a blur of motion, block and attack, block and attack. Felix's shoulder cried out for an end to the exertion, and he could see the effort the assault was costing Kahn. The veins in his face and forehead were bulging, and his eyes shone with pain and exertion With each exchange, their moves grew slower. One of them had to give out.

Jerking one of his legs forward, Felix kicked Kahn off balance. The mercenary fell backwards, and Felix pulled his arm back to deliver a skull-shattering punch to the head. But Kahn righted himself just in time, avoiding the blow and plunging his knife down into Felix's collarbone.

Felix staggered back. He saw Kahn come in, saw his now-empty hand form into a claw, saw it plunge forward for his throat...

With one last burst of strength, Felix punched Kahn square in the gut.

The claw kept coming. It ripped through the first folds of flesh in Felix's neck... and stopped. The Spartan could barely feel the pain anymore, but he could still feel a warm wetness seeping down his neck.

A faint grin graced Kahn's bloody lips. "Felix," he murmured. "Slow to the punch. As always."

He kept smiling as his eyes closed and he collapsed at Felix's feet. The Spartan stood for a few seconds longer before slumping to his knees. His metal fingers brushed his neck as he realized just how close Kahn had come to tearing his throat out.

"Slow to the punch?" he asked aloud. He was already having trouble breathing "Was that a joke?"

Kahn didn't answer.

Felix couldn't keep it up any more. He fell backwards as the world spun around him. Someone was shouting in the distance. He looked up to see a young woman with brown hair kneeling over him. His lips moved, trying to sound out her name.

"Cass..andra?"

He couldn't hear anything anymore. His head felt numb. His whole body felt numb.

Felix fell back and slipped into blissful oblivion.


Chapter Thirty-Three: Venter

Venter stumbled through the hangar doors. He'd sprinted through half a dozen halls and nearly as many firefights, all the while imagining that David Kahn was drawing a bead on him from behind. But as he leaned against the wall to catch his breath, it seemed as if he had evaded that particular bogeyman.

Look's like time's finally catching up to that son of a bitch, he thought without a shred of sympathy. He would never forgive that two-faced bastard for stealing Nimue after all the pains he had put into creating her.

All his sales pitches about never backing out of a contract and the one time he goes back on that I'm the one who gets screwed. What a piece of shit.

Still out of breath, Venter staggered further into the hangar. A lone Pelican was being prepped by its flight crew in the center of the open pad. From the looks of things, they wouldn't be waiting much longer. The crew chief looked over and saw him approach.

"Hey boss!" the chief called. "You made it!"

"Yeah," Venter grunted. "Somehow."

The chief frowned and looked back at the door. "Wasn't Peter with you?"

Venter scowled and pulled himself up into the dropship's troop bay. "He was. Guess he didn't make it."

That was a damn shame, probably the worse loss Venter was taking today. He'd always regretted losing Stray all those years ago, and he'd decided a while back that Peter was a pretty good reflection of how things would have been if the kid had stuck with him. Hope Peter doesn't show up in fifteen years looking for my head.

He'd also be losing Diana with Peter. Too bad, but it wasn't as if he'd even known he had her back until a few days ago. All told, he counted himself lucky to be walking away from this clusterfuck at all.

The crew chief climbed in after him, followed by an ashen-faced soldier. As the chief headed back into cockpit, the soldier slumped down beside Venter. Without saying a word, he hugged his rifle close to his chest and stared straight ahead. From the looks of things, they wouldn't be taking on any more passengers.

Venter leaned back and closed his eyes. A crazy end to a crazy job. He'd have to keep a low profile for a few years now. The UNSC would be after him now as well as the Sangheili, and then there was whoever had hired Kahn to take him out. All told, the Syndicate couldn't be trusted to cover for him anymore. He'd have to head back to whatever was left of the URF.

The thought made Venter smile. The insurrection was a mess, but a guy like him could whip it back into shape. The cause just needed a new leader, and the man who had brought chaos to Sanghelios, not to mention eluded a Spartan team and David Kahn at the same time, might very well be the right candidate.

"OK," the chief announced over the intercom as the Pelican's engines hummed to life. "I'm taking us out. Hold onto something folks, 'cause it's going to be a bumpy ride up into orbit--"

"No!"

Venter and the soldier turned to see a lone figure sprinting across the floor. Venter didn't even need to see the bloodstained jumpsuit or the bandaged eye to know exactly who it was.

"Stray," he snarled. What the hell is up with this kid?

"Don't just sit there," he barked at the soldier. "Shoot him!"

They both scrambled up. Venter raised his pistol while the soldier took unsteady aim with his rifle. Stray just whipped up a submachine gun and sprayed wildly into the troop bay.

Venter jerked back, but the soldier next to him wasn't so lucky. He cried out and fell to the bay floor, clutching his neck as blood streamed through his fingers.

"Get us out of here!" he screamed back at the cockpit. He stretched out his hand for the dying soldier's assault rifle as the Pelican lurched up off the floor and drifted towards the small opening in the wall. In a moment, there would be nothing Stray could do but watch them sail away.

The kid's legs pounded against the ground as he sped up. The submachine gun clattered to the floor as he dropped it, pumping his arms wildly back and forth. Like a racer on the home stretch, he sprinted for the departing Pelican.

Venter yanked the rifle up and fired, but the moving dropship threw his shots wide. He caught one last glimpse of Stray's burning eye before the kid drew level and vanished under the troop bay's edge.

A moment later, an organic and prosthetic hand each came up out of nowhere and seized hold of the edge. Venter slammed the rifle butt down on the organic hand, knocking its hold away, but the prosthetic hand remained firmly clamped around the ledge.

With a scream of effort that could be heard over even the Pelican's gusting engines, Stray swung himself up and over into the troop bay. His body collided with Venter, sending them sprawling further into the dropship. Venter felt the rifle leave his hands and reached instead for the knife on his combat vest. Stray's metal hand clamped onto his face as the kid kicked and gouged wherever he could.

The floor beneath them tilted and began to give way as the Pelican began gaining altitude. Venter rolled away from his attacker and grabbed hold of a seat for dear life. On the other side of the bay, Stray had done the same. The dead soldier's body caught on one of the handholds beside the kid and hung beside him like a macabre puppet.

Venter gritted his teeth and tightened his grip on the seat as the Pelican soared through Sanghelios's sky.

The Reaper trudged across the dark-hued grass, his assault rifle and a survival pack slung over the back of his armor. It hadn't been easy getting out of the mine and he'd needed to kill more than a few warriors who had gotten in his way, but his efforts had brought him out through a small service tunnel that the attacking forces had apparently forgotten about.

He could see Phantoms and Banshees patrolling the sky all around the facility, but his armor was designed to avoid the sensory gear of most aerial vehicles. None of their systems would pick him up, and even if a warrior did happen to glance out the side of a Phantom he would have overlooked the Reaper completely. The man's armor was designed to blend in to its surroundings, and at present it had assumed a reddish tinge similar to the grass beneath it.

It was a shame that there hadn't been time to help some of the other rebels get out. Venter and his inner circle had been tiresome, but there had been plenty skilled commandos and technicians amongst the HLF forces. But with as tight a net as the Sangheili had cast about the facility, the Reaper had been hard pressed making away with just his own person intact.

He shook his head regretfully at the thought of the soldiers dying within the facility. He knew all too well what it felt like to be utterly cut off, surrounded by an endless enemy force with no hope of escape. The thought of watching Sangheili butcher his friends and comrades all around him brought a bitter twist to his mouth.

One day, they'll answer for all of it, he reminded himself. More than 23 billion souls had burned at the Sangheili's direction, and no amount of treaties or empty words of repentance could ever make up for that. One day we'll never have to fear them again.

Regardless of his escape, he was in for a rough few weeks. Getting off planet would be hellish enough without the days he would have to spend hiking in search of a city that even had a space port. The regular criminal elements that normally could have been bribed into smuggling him offworld would balk at the idea of a human fleeing their planet in wake of the carnage the HLF had wrought. In all likelihood he'd need to stow away on some transport ship and hope the security was lax enough for him to go undetected the entire trip.

But it was nothing he hadn't done before. The Reaper was used to adapting to impossible situations; now that the facility was behind him, escaping Sanghelios itself would be little more than a temporary inconvenience.

He patted the pouch on his belt that contained his research data. Your deaths weren't in vain, he promised the men and women he had left behind. This operation gave me a decade's worth of experiments and data. I won't let it go to waste.

A familiar engine noise made him pause and turn back towards the facility. A lone Pelican rose from one of the hangar entrances. It rose for a moment, then dropped off sharply and sped away at a low altitude. The pilot was clearly hoping to skirt under the Sangheili air patrols rather than make a bigger target of itself by blasting immediately towards the upper atmosphere.

It was a valiant effort, but the Reaper could already envision how the breakout would play out. Two Banshees broke formation and soared after the fleeing dropship. For a few moments the Pelican weaved through their streams of plasma fire, but then one of the engines caught and sent the dropship tumbling end over end through the sky.

The Reaper raised his hand in a salute as the burning dropship vanished over a line of hills. He held the position for several seconds before lowering his arm and continuing his slow journey into the sunset.

The stricken Pelican cleared the hill line, then blew past a small forest before impacting just beside a meandering river. It carved a brutal trench in the ground as its engine fires spread to the cockpit and troop bay. With a grinding crunch, its skid was finally broken by a cluster of boulders the local farmers had cleared away from their crop lands.

Off beneath the tree line, a small band of feline predators looked up from their latest kill. They observed the distantly burning dropship with more curiosity than fear, and after several moments the female leader of the hunting party growled and led her fellow hunters off towards the river. The pride trotted after her cautiously as the Pelican continued to burn.

The dropship's late pilot had never closed the troop bay, an oversight that saved Simon's life. He staggered out of the flames and smoke, making it a few feet from the crash before falling down onto all fours. His prosthetic hand held the knife he'd grabbed from the rebel he'd killed as the Pelican made its final descent.

His head spun as he gasped for breath. His body was so numb with pain that he could have been on fire and never realized it. His limbs could barely hold his body up; all he wanted to do now was lie down in the dirt and close his eyes.

"Stray!"

He blinked, looking about the smoke for whoever was calling for him.

"Stray, get up!"

A figure emerged from the smoke. It pushed through the dark clouds and revealed itself to be Emily. Clad in her grimy clothes and clutching a rifle in her dirty hands, she knelt beside him.

"Stray, you have to move!"

He looked up at her and opened his mouth to say something. To thank her, to apologize, to tell her...

"Stray, please."

She shook him. He felt her hand on his shoulder, saw the determination in her eyes as she tried to pull him to his feet. It was the determination that had kept Rat Pack together as Mamore burned around them. Simon had seen that determination waver and crumble as their friends had been slaughtered left and right, but now it was as strong as it ever was.

His breathing slowed and he smiled as he looked up at her grubby face. This way of dying's not so bad... whispered a distant thought in the back of his head. Kind of like going to sleep...

"Stray, I love you!"

His eye jerked back open, its vision clearing in time to see another figure stagger out of the ruined Pelican. Emily vanished as Venter limped towards him, pistol in hand. His face and clothing were scorched and bloody, but his eyes were alert and furious.

"You're tough, Stray," he growled, fumbling with the pistol in his hands. "But you're not bulletproof."

Simon rolled to the side as a shot kicked up dirt where his head had been a moment before. Leaping to his feet, he charged the man who had once been like his father. Batting the gun aside, he slashed at Venter's throat. The rebel parried with his free hand and slammed the pistol into Simon's face.

Jerking his head back, Simon brought it in to butt Venter square in the nose. The insurrectionist reeled, but then grabbed hold of Simon's shoulder and kneed him in the gut.

He couldn't fall, not while Venter still had the gun. Simon leaned in and sank his teeth into Venter's shoulder, biting down until he could feel blood running through his mouth. Venter howled and tried to shake him loose, but Simon just bit down harder as he tried to find an opening for his knife.

With a snarl of pain, Venter pushed Simon away. Simon felt a chunk of flesh give way in his mouth; he spat it out and came on once again. This time he knocked the pistol out of his former mentor's hands, but his stab was blocked yet again. Pulling back, he aimed another stab at Venter's face.

The rebel's palm shot up and intercepted the blade, which tore clean through his hand. Venter's face contorted in agony, but he closed the bleeding hand around Simon's and clamped down hard.

Their free hands traded a flurry of blows. Every time Simon struck, he aimed for the face or neck. All he needed was to wrap his fingers around Venter's throat and never let go.

But it was Venter who finally made contact. His fist snaked in and struck Simon in his remaining eye. Momentarily blinded, the battered Spartan stumbled backwards and lost his grip on the knife.

Venter's next kick sent him sprawling down at the edge of the river. He looked up just as Venter pulled the knife from his palm and switched it to his uninjured hand. Simon staggered upright, but Venter was already on top of him. Simon felt the knife lodge in his abdomen as they fell together into the water.

Simon struggled against the force of the current. Something was forcing him down, but he couldn't tell if it was Venter or just the force of the water. He kicked and fought, but his efforts just pushed him down even further. He hadn't had the chance to take a breath before falling in; his lungs were already starting to cry out for air.

This is it, he realized as his windmilling arms slowed. I'm done.

It wasn't just the water. His body was at its limit. He couldn't possibly push it any further than it had already gone. As the current buffeted him about, he closed his eyes. His struggles ceased; there was no point in causing himself any more pain.

All thoughts of Venter and the fight faded away. In his mind's eye, Simon saw Emily, then Cassandra.

Cassandra. I hurt you so much, didn't I? You were right all along, and I never saw it. I should have come with you when I had the chance. There was no point to any of this. We had the chance to be happy, you and me, and I let it get away, like always.

I really am a dumbass. And I never told you just how much... how much...

As the last of the air left his lungs, a sudden tightness coiled around Simon's gut. Cassandra's face washed away, replaced by a burning, unquenchable fury.

How much do I have to suffer? I've endured so much, and now I just die here? After coming so far, struggling for so long? What the hell have I been fighting for? What the hell have I been living for?

With a final desperate burst of strength, he kicked his legs and beat his arms. He pushed himself up, up and out of the water. Gasping for breath, he scrambled towards the shore and staggered back up onto dry land.

Venter was nowhere to be seen. He took in the burning Pelican wreckage; the current had only washed him a few yards away from it. Off to the side sat a small pride of felines. They watched Simon curiously, but didn't make a move for him.

He couldn't remember what the Sangheili called them, but he recalled Tuka telling him about what to do if he were ever cornered by one of their prides. The problem was, he couldn't remember whatever the hell it was Tuka had said.

He was so busy splashing out of the river that he didn't even hear the splash behind him. Just as he reached the shore, something stung him in the back and forced him to his knees. He tried to get up but his body was suddenly frozen, unable to do anything but twitch and jerk as Venter stepped past him.

"Feeling queazy, Stray?" he panted. "Good. I just shot you full of poison. One of the Reaper's little cocktails. I almost forgot I had it on me."

He tossed an empty syringe into the grass and strode over to retrieve his pistol. "It's supposed to paralyze the squid-heads," he called over his shoulder. "I really don't know what it'll do to you, but I don't think it's enough to kill you."

He smiled grimly and strode back over to Simon, pistol in hand. "Don't worry though. I'll handle that myself." He racked the weapon's slide.

The knife was still in his belly. Simon strained against his quivering body, but it was no use. His muscles weren't responding at all. The only thing that could move...

His prosthetic arm.

Just as Venter pressed the barrel agains the side of his head, Simon's metal hand tore the knife from his chest and slashed Venter across the gut. The rebel gasped and doubled over, blood spilling down his front.

"You little fuck," he wheezed. "Do you really think this cut's gonna kill me?"

"No," Simon managed to gasp back. "But they will."

A terrible snarling din filled the air. Venter spun in time to see the entire pride bearing down on him, finally overwhelmed by the renewed scent of blood filling the air. Venter got the gun up in time to bring down one, then two, and then the pride's leader was on top of him.

Simon fell backwards into the grass as snarls and screams cut through the air around him. The pistol fired once more, then never fired again. The screaming ended shortly after, but while it lasted it was the sweetest thing Simon had ever heard.

He'd done it. The man who had haunted his life for so long was gone. No more nightmares, no more memories. It was over.

"You see, Emily?" he whispered. "I've avenged you."

Now he could finally close his eye. There was no need to struggle anymore. His body went utterly limp, released from all the hate and pain that had driven it so far and through so much. There was nothing left to do but lie back and let the warmth from the setting sun dance across his face.

Simon thought of Emily and Rat Pack one last time, then let them fall away into the shadows. The past was done. It couldn't hurt him anymore.

It couldn't hurt him ever again.

Some time later, the pride finished with their kill and ambled over to inspect the other body. The leader sniffed at Simon's prone form, but let out a disappointed chuffle and turned to lead the pride away. She knew the smell of tainted meat well, and this one's blood smelled unnatural and dangerous. They left him there in the grass and vanished into the forest.

Darkness fell soon after. The Pelican's fires had burnt themselves out, leaving only the blackened hull and the gash it had carved with its landing. Simon lay a few yards away, eye closed, still not moving. His mouth was curved in a genuine smile, his face softened in an expression of serene peace.

The night wore on.


Part Three: A Raw Deal

Chapter Thirty-Four: Coagulation

Felix awoke to a world of pain. Every muscle in his body ached, and spasms of pain shot through his limbs when he tried to shift himself on the hard surface he found himself lying on. His throat was dryer than he'd ever felt before; all he could taste in his mouth was gunpowder and the copper tang of blood. It hurt to swallow.

He could feel the paneled folds of a wilderness survival blanket draped over his body. He tried to push it off with his left arm; a huge mistake. The mere attempt to move it sent a hideous pain jolting through him, and as Felix suppressed a scream he realized that someone had set the arm in a sling.

A dim light illuminated purple-tinged walls as he opened his eye. It took him several moments to realize that he was in a room of Covenant design. From the gentle humming reverberating around him, he guessed he was on a warship of some kind.

It hurt to sit up even a little, but Felix eased himself up and gingerly pushed the blanket up with his prosthetic arm. He'd been stripped of his armor and his bare chest was covered with bandages. He could feel even more of them on his face and back and for a moment he wondered what had happened to leave him in this condition.

Kahn.

As the memory of the fight poured back into him, he was suddenly incredibly grateful for the arm sling. The memory of the bullet ripping through his hand and forearm was almost too much to bear.

"Don't move too much."

Felix jerked his head around--another painful mistake--to see Cassandra watching him from the corner. The former Spartan was out of her armor and clad in only the body-glove worn underneath. Her chestnut hair was pulled back behind her head and Felix couldn't help but notice the blood stains on her arm and face.

"You," he wheezed, struggling to rise. "Where are we?"

"Don't move," she insisted. There was an authoritative edge to her voice that Felix had never heard before and he decided not to press the issue.

He settled back down onto the cot, resting his back against the cold wall. "Fine. What happened back in that mine?"

"That commander, Rosch, left me on my own when he went to help you," she explained. "I followed him and found him with you and Kahn. All three of you were unconscious, so I did what I could on the scene."

She paused, then shook her head and fixed Felix with a curious stare. "You should be dead. I thought I was going to lose you back there. If the Sangheili hadn't found us when they did and given me access to better equipment, you would have died."

Felix knew instantly what she was talking about. "My blood."

"It doesn't coagulate, at least not on its own. I've seen a few cases like it, but they were all lifelong conditions. I'm guessing you're different."

"Yes," Felix admitted, not sure how much he should tell someone facing desertion charges. "I wasn't born with it."

"I injected you with some blood-cell enhancers, but you were bleeding from so many different places..." She grimaced, as if the memory of it still frightened her. "You're just lucky there were two humans with your blood type on hand to give transfusions."

"Transfusions? Who were they?"

Cassandra looked away. "Myself... and David Kahn."

"Kahn?" Felix sat up a little straighter. "He's here?"

She nodded. "He's in a holding cell, if that's what you're worried about. The Sangheili took him into custody. Technically, all of you are in custody."

"All of us?" Felix demanded. His head was starting to hurt. "Jian, too?"

"The Sangheili weren't happy when they learned what happened to Tuka, the one Jake shot. They told me they wouldn't hold you accountable, but right now they've revoked all of your authority on Sanghelios."

"Oh." Felix shook his head. "I bet that made Rosch happy."

"He doesn't know," Cassandra told him. "He's in a coma. Kahn gave him a serious concussion and there wasn't much I could do besides stabilize him. Right now, you're in charge of the entire operation."

Felix raised an eyebrow, which hurt only marginally less than moving anything else. "And why are you the one telling me this and not Jake?"

Cassandra motioned at the room's door. "He and Ralph are on this ship, but the Sangheili have them confined until you can meet with Autel 'Vadam and get this sorted out."

"Ah. So they let you free to treat me?"

"Actually," she said, glancing back over at the medical tools she had been working with. "I'm not in custody. One of Autel's friends, Fira 'Demal, knows me personally. He's assured me that I'll be under the Sangheili's protection for as long as I need it."

Anyone else in her position would have felt entitled to some degree of smugness over the complete reversal of fortune, but if anything Cassandra seemed embarrassed, even worried. Felix ran a metal finger through his hair and sighed. "So Kahn's captured. What about the girl who was with him?"

"Her name is Nimue." Cassandra's voice tightened. "She's in a holding cell, too. I tried to get her released, but there's only so much they can do for me."

"So you know her." Felix remembered that the girl had been defending the hospital where Cassandra had been working back on New Madrigal. He was surprised he hadn't made the connection sooner.

"She's my friend," Cassandra replied with a hint of defiance.

"You meet the strangest people out on the frontier," Felix said ruefully. "What else should I know?"

"The rebels are all dead." Even Cassandra didn't seem too sorry about that bit of intel. "The Sangheili recovered a lot of prisoners they'd taken as well. They took us into orbit to keep things within the military. Otherwise the civilian government on Sanghelios might have stepped in."

"How long have I been out?" He was in charge of Jian now. It was best to take full stock of the situation before he talked to Autel. He'd need to get Kahn into UNSC custody for starters. And now there was this business with the girl, Nimue, to handle as well.

"Almost a day. You have your augmentations to thank for most of that. Someone else with your injuries would still be out."

"Sangheili aren't all that great when it comes to treating us humans," Felix mused. "Do you mean to tell me you treated Kahn, Rosch, and myself in under twenty-four hours? By yourself?"

She shrugged. "It's what I do."

If he hadn't known it would hurt like hell, Felix would have laughed. "Jake and Ralph weren't lying. You really are something else."

The compliment actually made her blush, though she tried to hide it by glancing back at the door. "I had another patient as well," she said quietly.

Felix's hands tightened, even the one that had taken a bullet. So this was it. The moment he had been dreading had finally arrived. "I think I've got an idea of who you're talking about."

Simon groaned and sat up. The cot he'd been lying on was as hard as a rock, but he was pretty sure that wasn't to blame for why his body felt like kneaded dough. As his eye adjusted to the bad lighting, he saw that he was wearing a military-issue undershirt and trousers. His bare arms and legs were covered in bandages, and a quick check of his forehead told him his ruined eye was still covered up as well.

Where am I? he wondered, glancing up at a purple-hued ceiling. What the hell... did the Sangheili find me?

In spite of the pain all over his body, he couldn't suppress the grin that crept over his face. Yes, he'd been on Sanghelios all right. The snarls of the predators and Venter's dying yells were still ringing in his ears. He was alive, Venter was dead, and the Sangheili had gotten him to safety. After the hell he'd come through, this ending couldn't be sweeter.

He felt a rushing feeling in his chest, one that made the lingering soreness insignificant by comparison. He hadn't felt this good since... come to think of it, he could hardly remember a time he'd ever been this happy.

I did it. I killed that son of a bitch. It's done.

He let out a short laugh--a real one, not one he forced out of bitterness or the need to throw someone off guard--and threw himself back against the cot, soreness be damned.

"You're up."

He yelped with surprise and turned to see Zoey sitting on the other side of the room. She looked much cleaner than she had when he'd left her back in the facility and she was wearing military-issue clothes identical to his. Even her hair looked a little less grimy.

"Oh," he said, his voice reverting to its usual callous tone. "You're here."

"They wanted me in a separate room, but I didn't want to get stuck alone up here," she told him. "We're on a ship. The aliens brought us to it."

"Yeah, I figured. You sure you want to be with me here? The last time I woke up alone with you a pissed-off clone gouged one of my eyes out. I'm not keen on losing the spare."

She looked down, shamefaced. "I'm sorry about--"

"Save it. We went through this before, remember?" He shook his head and grinned up at the ceiling. "Right now I'm in a pretty forgiving mood."

He glanced back at her and smirked. "You're positive we're on a ship, right? I'm not dead and stuck with you in some weird afterlife am I?"

"No, we're alive," she assured him, pointing to a small box on the floor between them. "They left us some food, too."

He hadn't realized how hungry he was until he'd pounced on the box and eaten half of its contents in less than a minute. It was only after he'd peeled off half a dozen ration bar wrappers that he recognized what kind of food he was eating.

"Wait a second," he said, his elation dimming as quickly as it had come. "Where the hell did they get their hands on UNSC rations?"

"Um..." Zoey squirmed. "That's the other thing..."

Simon fixed her with his new one-eyed glare. "This is going to piss me off, isn't it?"

"I imagine a good deal of things can do that to you, Mordred."

Simon and Zoey nearly jumped out of their skins. Neither of them had even heard the door open. Craning his neck, Simon found himself staring up into more than one familiar face.

"Oh hey Fira," he said, sliding out of kicking distance. "Nice of you to drop by. Were you planning on thanking me for saving your city before or after you handed me over to the UNSC's goons?"

He had enough experience reading Sangheili expressions to see the flash of embarrassment that crossed the officer's face. So that is what's going on here. His fists clenched and he fought back the urge to make a bolt for the door right then and there.

"Simon, you won't be handed over," Tuka assured him from over Fira's shoulder. Unlike the armored Fira, Tuka wore a plain robe and carried what seemed to be a pair of crutches. Simon could see his bandaged and splinted leg through a slit in the robe.

"Tuka," he said, reminding himself how much he owed his friend. It was all he could do not to scream with frustration. The UNSC could get here at any minute. "Nice to see you got out of there alright. Mostly."

"I am a warrior now," his friend replied. "Injuries such as this are proof that I am worthy of the title."

"You certainly haven't changed," Simon told him as he slouched down onto the cot. "The sad thing is, I know you actually mean that."

"Your fate currently rests in Autel 'Vadam's hands," Fira informed him. "The human government has no authority here unless we grant it."

"Which you of course won't be doing, seeing as I'm supposed to be relaxing under that protective custody business you promised me right about now."

Fira glared down at him with a contempt Simon was getting to know very well. "You would have let the entire city burn if I had not--"

"Excuses, excuses," Simon waved his prosthetic hand dismissively. "And don't tell me you're doing 'everything in your power' to get this done, because we both know you're not. So why don't you just turn right around and get this whole thing figured out?"

The look Fira gave him would have cowed an oncoming assault squad. "You do not give orders to me, scum," he snarled.

"You make deals with me though," Simon reminded him, an anger of his own rising in his chest. He was fed up with having to deal with this bullshit at every turn. "So go crawl back up the chain of command and start kissing whoever's ass needs to be kissed in order to keep me away from a firing squad, got it?"

Zoey backed away towards the back of the room and even Tuka looked as if he wanted to retreat. Simon met Fira's burning gaze and started to wonder if he'd gone too far. His arms tensed, but if Fira decided to jump across the room and pull his head off he wouldn't be in much shape to fight back.

"Excuse me," said a wonderfully familiar voice. "I need to get in here."

Fira kept his eyes locked on Simon, but stepped aside to let Cassandra into the room. Wearing just her armor's body glove, she carried a bag of medical equipment under one arm and looked incredibly tired.

"It's getting crowded in here," Simon noted. "Cassandra, you just got here. Tuka, I like you, you can stay. Fira, don't you have some arrangements to make? Somewhere else?"

Fira's mandibles twitched, but he spun on his heel and marched away. "Tuka, with me," he ordered over his shoulder.

"Understood." Tuka limped away with an apologetic glance at Simon.

"You should try to get along with Fira more," Cassandra said as she unpacked her bag. "Like you said, he's the biggest thing standing between you and the UNSC."

"You should have been there when he tried to bring an entire battalion down on my head," Simon retorted. "Besides, guys like him are easy to read. Now he'll work extra hard to fulfill our deal just to prove me wrong."

She shook her head. "You always assume the worst of people."

"And I'm usually right." Simon shrugged, but gave voice to his ugly thoughts before he could stop himself. "How did they get you, anyway? To get to me?"

"They brought me in when they were trying to kill Kahn back on New Madrigal," she explained wearily. "But yes, you were the reason they had me down there."

There wasn't a hint of accusation in her voice. There never was. But Simon felt the guilt twist his gut into knots and he looked away. Of course she had been caught because of him and Kahn. It was enough to strip away the bravado he'd thrown in Fira's face and make him sick with shame.

Off in her corner, Zoey looked embarrassed. "Um, should I go wait in the hall?"

"Why the hell should you?" Simon demanded, but it took effort to keep up his front of practiced contempt. "Here's the real hero. Now you can stop thanking me for freeing you and give the credit to someone who actually deserves it."

"She has," Cassandra told him, giving Zoey a kind smile. The sight of it was another twist of the knife, but Simon refused to look away this time. "She told me just about everything that happened while I was treating you."

"Really," Zoey said, still squirming. "If you want me to wait..."

"Tell you what," Simon told her. "Go out there and try to figure out how many credits my eye is worth. Then get to work on planning for how you'll work to pay me for it somewhere down the road."

Zoey seemed more than happy to oblige. As the door slid shut behind her, Simon shook his head. "I just don't get her at all."

"She looks up to you," Cassandra explained, pulling out a small syringe. "The same way Tuka does. You gave them a reason to admire you."

"Admire me? And I thought you were a bad judge of character." He shook his head. "How did the Sangheili find me, anyway?"

"You were beside a wrecked Pelican," Cassandra explained, moving up to inject the serum into Simon's arm. The brush of her hand across his skin was enough to send his pulse raising and bring a flush to his face. He looked away, hoping she wouldn't notice, but he knew she would.

"I guess that makes sense," he muttered. "What about Venter?"

"There wasn't much left of him, if that's what you mean."

"Yeah. That's what I wanted to hear."

She didn't reply as she set the syringe aside and did a quick check of the bandages on his head. "Your eye's completely gone, but the nerve endings were intact when I changed the bandages. They'll accept a replacement."

"Well, that's some good news," he sighed. For once, money wasn't the issue. He still had the cash from the Beta-14 job ready and waiting. All he needed was a place he could go to get an operation without getting shot.

"Zoey told me about what you did for her. About the clone." The look she gave him echoed Zoey's own admiring glances, but this time Simon had no intention of swatting it aside. "She's not wrong for calling you a hero."

"Yes she is. If I'd known what was going to happen I wouldn't have done anything."

"I don't believe that," she said simply. "And neither do you."

Simon broke her gaze and they sat in silence for several minutes. Finally, Cassandra stood up and put her hand on his shoulder.

"Simon." There was an edge to the way she said his name that immediately put him on his guard. "There's something we need to talk about."

"There's a lot we need to talk about." For once, he was utterly serious.

"It's about the UNSC." She looked back down at her bag and took a breath. "Felix made me an offer."

"Who the hell is Felix?" Something was off here. He could feel it in his gut; he wouldn't like whatever was coming.

"The Spartan who was with Jake and Ralph. He wants me to come back to the military."

"Come back..." It took several moments for Simon to register exactly what she was saying. His chest tightened. "He wants you back? And you believe him?"

"Yes," she said simply. "I do."

"Didn't you see what they did down there? They were going to kill you. Our 'friends' shot Tuka because that bastard they were with told them to. You want to go back to all that?"

"It's not like that across the board," she cut back. "I loved being able to help people through the clinic, but I can't run forever. Neither of us can."

He didn't know what to say. Was there anything he could say to that? There wasn't a reason for even an ONI stooge to come up with a trick that contrived. He could see Cassandra's reasoning as if were his own, and his instincts told him this was the real deal.

"Simon, I told him yes. If he can get my record cleared, I'll go back."

When he didn't answer, she looked back up at him. He could already see the unspoken question in her eyes and he didn't want to answer it. Not now, not ever. All he felt was the hole that was expanding in his gut.

"Simon..."

"I ruined your life when I took you with me on that shuttle," he said slowly. The truth burned in his throat, but it was the only thing to say. "Now you have a chance to get away from all this. Take it."

"Simon, he's going to ask you, too."

That caught him off guard. "What? Ask me?"

"He said as much. He said he had plans for you, ones that didn't involve killing or jail."

He leaned back against the wall and suddenly felt very tired. "And you believe him."

"He doesn't have a reason to lie to me. Simon, he's going to give you another chance. I know how you feel about ONI and the UNSC, but please, just listen to him."

"I'll listen," he said slowly. All he could see were the huddled corpses of his Rat Pack friends on Mamore's broken landscape. His fists clenched and he looked away. "I can do that."

"I'm sorry, Simon."

He closed his eye. His head ached, and he was now keenly aware that the rest of his body did, too. "Don't apologize. Never apologize to me."

"Felix can save us both," she told him. "Remember that."

The room was silent for several minutes. Simon sat back on the cot as Cassandra rummaged in her bag in search of something to do. Go back to the UNSC. Work for them again. He can save us both. He looked down at Cassandra. How long had it been since he'd last seen her. Famul had brought them back together after Hekate, and that had been two years ago. If he accepted and went with her...

Finally, Cassandra looked up and caught his gaze. "When you killed Venter... how did it feel?"

He looked at her out of the corner of his remaining eye. Finally, a question he knew the answer to. "It felt great."

She blinked, then looked away. "Oh," she said quietly. "I thought... never mind."

Cassandra stood up and picked up her bag. "This can save us both, Simon," she said, turning to go. "Just think about it."


Chapter Thirty-Five: Things Left Behind

"I have made all the arrangements," Deno's hologram announced. Projected above the Incumbent Wrath's command deck, the spymaster tapped a small datapad. "The call condemning Mordred for the incident on Beta-14 was rescinded by the council just a few moments ago. Thel 'Vadam himself presided over the proceedings."

"That was easier than I thought it would be," Autel commented from just below the projector. "The council isn't normally so quick to back down on matters concerning the Path Walkers."

Deno clicked his mandibles. "My agents may have hurried the process along somewhat," he admitted. "A few blowhards needed more persuading than others, but the important thing is that it is done."

"Yes," Autel agreed. "Good work." He wasn't sure how comfortable he was with the idea of Deno being able to manipulate Sanghelios's government, but at least the spymaster's efforts were well-intentioned.

"One other thing," Deno told him. "The computer data you took from the human facilities..."

"All of it is encrypted," Autel said. "But I don't doubt your agents will be able to glean some useful information from it. A Phantom has already been dispatched to bring it all to you."

"Many thanks." Deno gave him a low bow. "I will ensure whatever we find is put to good use."

His hologram flickered and vanished. Beside Autel, Fira shook his head. "So much trouble for a worm like Mordred. You should have let me handle it myself. His kind are beneath you."

"You made that bargain while fighting under my command," Autel reminded him. "It was my duty to see it done."

"As long as you are bringing humans aboard my ship, it is courteous of you to ensure that at least some aren't wanted criminals." Sona 'Demal, shipmaster of the Incumbent Wrath and Fira's cousin, crossed the command deck to stand with them. "Now we just have to make sure I don't have to preside over an inter-species incident."

"Don't worry about that, Shipmaster." Autel had always known Felix-116 to be a formidable warrior, but he had still been impressed to see the Spartan up and walking after the injuries he had sustained. "I've been making some calls of my own. It won't be as fast as what you managed, but ONI's willing to play ball here as well."

"I have known you to be many things," Autel informed his human friend. "But a manipulator of militaries is not one of them. What exactly do you have planned for Mordred?"

Felix shook his head. "I can't say for certain. Not yet. But it would be a waste to kill someone who has so much experience dealing with both our species. Whatever happens with him, I plan to make sure that both humans and Sangheili benefit."

Fira grunted. "And what makes you think he deserves this chance?"

"A lot of things," Felix told him. "And not just the things Cassandra told me. That's all I can really say right now."

Sona stepped forward. "There is another matter we can settle here," he told the injured Spartan. "I currently have two other humans sealed away in holding cells, and something tells me you don't plan to offer them any deals."

"David Kahn has committed crimes all over Interspecies Union space," Felix admitted. "But my superiors want to keep this within ONI. They also want to know more about the girl who was with him. As far as I know, she hasn't killed any of your people."

"Take them," Sona said immediately. "Blame for Beta-14 fell on this Mordred; my superiors have little interest in bringing in someone else to pin it on. Besides, the assassin was your battle. You defeated him. It is only fitting that you claim him."

"Shipmaster." A thin young warrior in the colors of a Minor approached them. "Forgive the intrusion, but Major 'Urden wanted me to bring you these data files..."

Sona turned to deal with his subordinate while Fira and Autel escorted Felix from the bridge. Several officers nodded to them as they passed, though Felix garnered more than a few curious stares. The door guards let them pass and they stepped out into the corridor.

"Your subordinates are free to bear weapons and move about the ship," Autel told Felix. "I trust they won't disrupt the workings of the ship."

"They'll keep themselves in line," Felix promised. "Ralph is already complaining about how bored he is. But there's one more thing I need to ask you for."

Autel clicked his mandibles. Felix had helped save his infant children during the Fallen insurrection. There was very little he would even consider refusing to do for him in payment of that debt. "Whatever you need. Within reason, of course."

"I need access to the holding cells. Before I deal with G294, I want to talk to Kahn."

The Sangheili did not afford the same respect to prisoners that UNSC laws did, and as such their brigs left much to be desired in terms of comfort. David Kahn's cell was devoid of any features save for the generators that kept up its containment field. The interior was smooth and lacked even a cot for its occupant to lie on.

The austere nature of his prison didn't seem to have fazed Kahn in the slightest. His hands bound by lightly glowing energy bonds, the mercenary was sitting upright against the back of the cell as Felix approached. Aside from a few cuts, bruises, and the bandages that could be seen from under his jumpsuit, he looked as confident--and deadly--as ever.

"Felix," he said warmly. "Nice of you to drop by."

Felix's shattered arm throbbed at the sight of the man who had come so close to killing him, but the Spartan refused to give the prisoner the satisfaction of seeing his pain. "You keep talking like you know me," he said coldly. "I want to know why."

Kahn raised an eyebrow. "Damn, you really weren't faking back there, were you? You really don't remember me."

"David Kahn was an insurrectionist information broker who died at the end of the twenty-fifth century." Felix told the mercenary, grateful for the mission briefs that had filled him in on the early ORION data that his amnesia had cost him. "Something tells me you aren't him."

"Unless I've got something of whatever's kept you so spry after all this time," Kahn noted drily. "Care to share that little secret?"

"It's classified." Felix was the one asking the questions here, and he intended to keep it that way. "Answer me this: are you Hector Thornhill?"

The confident half-smile on Kahn's lips didn't waver, but Felix could practically feel the man's gaze hardening. He had struck on something here, and he was going to keep digging until he'd squeezed out whatever it was about his past that Kahn knew about.

Kahn shrugged. "Never heard of him."

"You're awfully confident for a man who's about to spend the rest of his life in prison."

The mercenary's crooked smile actually widened at that remark. "Prison, huh? Well, I have been thinking about a vacation recently. A few months behind bars might be just the thing I need. Before I break out, of course."

"You're that confident?" Felix demanded.

"I've done it before. And from what I hear, they really don't make triple-max security prisons like they used to."

"That's assuming you get off with just a life sentence," Felix told him. "You're the most wanted individual in the colonies."

"Oh, I've got a pretty decent nest egg stowed away." Kahn crossed his legs and rested his shackled hands behind his head. "Good enough to buy me a pretty good legal council. Do you even have a case against me? Evidence? Witnesses?"

"You killed over fifty UNSC personnel on New Madrigal alone." The man's flippant tone was starting to get under Felix's skin. "Not to mention attacking me."

"It could have been a clone on New Madrigal," Kahn pointed out. "They're all the rage these days, I hear. And as for back on Sanghelios, that was just a misunderstanding between a UNSC strike team and a private citizen trying to bring a violent terrorist to justice. Nothing too serious."

"You're assuming you'll even get a trial." Felix regretted the words the moment they were out of his mouth. Kahn gave him a genuine grin.

"And there we have it," he said. "Glad to see naive little Felix Martel finally wised up to how ONI really works. If I hadn't taken Rosch out during our little scrap, I doubt I'd be sitting here right now."

Kahn was evading the question, Felix realized. He shook his head, his hands balling into fists. "I'll ask again: how the hell do you know me?"

With a sigh, the mercenary shifted position and brought his knees back down to the floor. His posture was all casual resignation, but Felix noticed the same calculating look in Kahn's eyes that he'd seen during their fight. This wasn't a man to be taken lightly, even when he was firmly and completely in custody.

"Well, I don't see how this will hurt so much," Kahn said. "Yeah, I was Hector Thornhill once. A very long time ago. We trained together, you and I, back in Project ORION."

"Hector Thornhill died on Taradia." Felix remembered that much, even if his specific recollections were shot to hell. "ONI listed him as KIA."

"Of course they did. Hector Thornhill did die on Taradia. That was the whole point of the operation. Assassinating David Kahn was never the point of sending us in. ONI had to fool everyone, even its own operatives, into thinking that Hector Thornhill died and David Kahn escaped."

The truth hit Felix like a ton of bricks. "You," he breathed. "They wanted you to impersonate him. To get closer to the insurrection."

Kahn smiled up at him. "I knew you'd figure it out fast enough. It only took you a good sixty years."

"Then why did you betray the UNSC?" Felix demanded. "Why did you become... this?" He waved his prosthetic arm at Kahn's cuts and bandages.

Kahn shrugged. "I played the double agent stooge for ONI for long enough. They just started asking for more than I was willing to give."

"Like what?"

"Enough about me," Kahn said dismissively. "Let's talk about you. The arm, that armor, your damn face... you sure have grown up. Or not."

He let out an abrupt bark of laughter. "I remember the training ring back in ORIONL, all the sparring matches we'd run there. No one could beat me, especially now. Until yesterday, that is."

"I didn't beat you." Felix didn't know why he said it, but it was something that had been gnawing at the corner of his mind since he'd woken up. "A week before that, you were a wreck on New Madrigal. If you'd been fresh, things would have gone differently."

Kahn just shook his head. "You should give yourself more credit. I went out on a job as I was, and it cost me. Now that I've actually lost, I'll have to admit that it isn't so bad. Shouldn't let it turn into a habit, though."

"The girl who was with you..."

At once, Kahn had his guard back up. He narrowed his eyes, all traces of mirth gone. "Where is she?"

"I'm the one asking the questions," Felix reminded him. "Who is she?"

"I'm not answering any questions until you tell me where she is," Kahn insisted.

"You risked getting captured to save her on New Madrigal," Felix pressed on. "She did the same for you. Is she your daughter?"

"My daughter," Kahn mused, staring off into the distance. "I guess you could call her that. I didn't make her, not in the traditional sense. Venter's techs squirted her out. A test tube baby, back when that stupid bastard was having delusions of grandeur. Wanted to replicate the Spartan program, if you can believe it."

He paused, a thought occurring to him. "What happened to Venter, anyway?"

"He's dead," Felix admitted grudgingly. "Mordred killed him."

Kahn shook his head. "So the kid finally got his own back, huh? Well, at least my contract's taken care of. It was Venter who gave Nimue to me. She was six when I got her."

Nimue. A strange name, but it fit with the idea that Venter had genetically modified test tube babies for his own twisted purposes. Looking down at Kahn, he saw that the mercenary's eyes were shining with something akin to pride. He thought of the girl's youth, her skills, her comprehensive fighting style, and the rest sorted itself on its own.

"You trained her," he realized aloud, trying to fight back the bile rising in his throat. "A child. You turned her into one of us."

"More than that," Kahn said. "I turned her into me."

"Why?" Felix demanded. "You took away her future, made her a killer, and for what? The Hector Thornhill I remember wouldn't dream of anything like that."

"You never knew the real Hector Thornhill." Kahn's voice was hard and cold. "The real Hector Thornhill murdered his own father in exchange for a commission in the navy. The real Hector Thornhill betrayed and murdered dozens of insurrectionists because ONI told him to. You're very good at missing out on the truth, Felix, even when it's staring you right in the face.

"I didn't steal a future from Nimue. There was no future to steal. She wouldn't have existed without Venter's experiments, and even then all she ever would have been was some terrorist killing machine. I gave her the what she needed to be something better than that."

"A killer," Felix said angrily. "A killer, just like you."

Kahn's stone cold gaze cut into Felix through the containment field. "We're both killers, Felix. The only difference between you and me is that you have a prettier flag to hide behind."

"I have a cause. There's a reason I fight. The only thing you care about is your next paycheck."

"You have a cause," Kahn said with a nod. "And so did every insurrectionist and Covenant you've ever killed. Was it the cause that made you better, or was it the fact that you had a bigger gun and a better body?"

Felix's mouth opened, then closed. He was at a complete loss for words. Kahn leaned back and shook his head. "When I left ONI, I tried to settle down, find a new way to live. But you said it best: I'm a killer. That's what I do best. But I'm getting old, Felix. Nimue is more than just my daughter or my apprentice. She's my legacy."

A legacy. Felix thought of Kahn's determination to know whether or not Nimue was alive, and then of his own children. He'd put so much of himself into making sure they just survived to live a normal life. But Nimue...

"So you don't really care about her," he found himself saying. "All she is to you is a reflection of your own ego."

"She is every life I've ever taken," Kahn snapped. "Every contract I ever fulfilled. You're right about one thing, Felix, I am an egomaniac. If I'd been in my prime I'd have killed you back in that facility, because I'm the best killer humanity has ever produced. And Nimue won't just replace me, she'll surpass me. And when she does..."

He smiled. "I know her better than anyone. She'll follow in my footsteps for a while, but one day she'll move on to bigger things then contract killing. And then the Syndicate, the insurrection, and all the rest of the scum your friends in ONI haven't been able to stomp out, they'll be gone. That's my legacy: to finish the mission ORION gave me in the first place."

Felix shook his head. "You're insane. You're nothing but a murdering criminal, and all you've done here is ruin another person's life."

"Think what you want." Kahn leaned back against the wall again and closed his eyes. "You can take her back to ONI, I guess. They'll just dissect her to see how much of the super-soldier formula Venter got right, but you seem to have gotten pretty good at pretending things like that don't happen."

Felix turned and walked away. Kahn didn't say another word, but the whole way to the brig door Felix could hear the man's mocking words ringing in his ears.


Chapter Thirty-Six: Second Chance

Sona 'Demal had arranged for a small meeting room to be set up down near the residential areas where the human visitors had been quartered. As Felix sat on one side of a makeshift conference table, he kept his eyes on the door and waited for Simon-G294 to arrive.

The Sangheili chairs were little more than tall, wide-seated stools and the hard surface was doing little to improve Felix's mood. The meeting with Kahn had rattled him more than he cared to admit, to the point that he was beginning to wonder if he should put off this meeting until he'd had a moment to center his thoughts.

No. This needs to happen now. He'd called in more than a few favors to move his plans for Cassandra and Simon up through ONI and the jury wasn't entirely in on whether his superiors would decide to go with his scheme at all. Felix needed Simon on board, and quickly; Rosch was still out cold, but if he woke up now all bets were off.

They'll dissect her, Kahn's warning echoed in the back of Felix's head. They'll want to see how close Venter got to their super-soldier formulas.

Nimue would have to come back with him. He couldn't get away with getting her off the hook, not after what he'd just done for Cassandra and Simon. She would come back, and then he could figure out how to keep her out of harm's way. Maybe some of the Delta Spartans could be convinced to help him protect her...

But the mere thought of it rang hollow even as it passed through Felix's head. If ONI wanted Nimue, there was nothing he could do to stop them.

The door slid open, ending his reflection. Jake stepped in, helmet off and assault rifle slung over his back. He snapped off a quick salute. "Sir, I brought him."

"Good." Felix rose and returned the salute. "Get him in here."

Jake's face was hard as Simon-G294 stepped passed him and stalked towards the table. The former teammates didn't so much glance in each other's direction, and Felix had to wonder if anything had passed between them in the hallway.

A third person entered the room, timidly following after Simon. It was the girl who'd been with him back in the facility. Felix caught Jake's eye and raised an eyebrow.

"Sorry, sir," Jake said. "She insisted she come along."

"She's just worried an alien will eat her face if she gets left alone here." Simon slung one leg up onto table and leaned back as far as his stool would allow. "She'll be sitting in on this one."

It wasn't worth arguing about. "Wait outside," he instructed Jake. "Dismissed."

The Spartan nodded and stepped back out. The door slid shut behind him, leaving Felix alone with Simon and the girl.

The ex-Spartan wasn't in as bad shape as he'd been back at the facility, but the marks of his ordeal were plain to see. Bandages were slapped over his arms, legs, and face, and, of course, his eye. The remaining eye was narrowed, its grey pupil alive with suspicion and mistrust. Gazing out from his pale, thin face, the eye was a swirling cauldron of emotion, but at the crux of it all was a core of calm rage.

"Well, let's get this thing started," Simon said, folding his arms across his chest. "First things first: according to Zoey here, you have something that belongs to me."

The A.I. chip that Jian had taken off Zoey was in Felix's chest pocket. He dipped his metal hand in over his injured arm and pulled it out. "You mean this."

"Yeah." Simon extended his own prosthetic hand, palm open. "I'll be taking her back now, thanks."

"Not just yet." Felix closed his hand over the chip. There was something that needed to be settled before this went any further. "Back on Beta-14, you killed one of my Spartans."

Simon's eye narrowed even further and his mouth twisted into a scowl. "So that's how it's going to be, huh?" He folded his arms again. "Are you going to keep Diana then? Going for a little payback?"

"I don't work that way," Felix replied. "But I can't say it feels good to be putting my neck on the line for someone who killed one of my soldiers."

"One of your Spartans," Simon repeated. "What, did the poor schmuck belong to you or something?"

"You know that's not what I meant," Felix said. He wouldn't let Simon get to him like Kahn had. "But he was a Spartan-III, just like you. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

Simon's intractable expression didn't change. "Not really. He wasn't really in a talking mood when he tried to blow my head off. I was just trying to get away."

"You cut his head off and left his stripped corpse for us to find," Felix reminded him. "Not exactly what you do when you're running for your life."

"I'm always running for my life in some way or another." Simon shrugged. "He nearly killed me, and the armor was too good to pass up."

"And where is it now?"

Simon's scowl deepened. "Do I look like I have it on me?" he demanded. "An asshole named Ro'nin stole it from me. You want it back, he's your guy."

Ro'nin. The name didn't mean anything to Felix, but at least they had a lead on the armor. He'd send it up to ONI the minute this meeting was over. "So you don't regret killing him? Nothing at all?"

"Why the hell should I?" Simon demanded. "If I hadn't, I wouldn't be sitting here now. Do you waste time thinking about all the people you kill?"

"Cassandra told me you fought for the insurrectionists on Mamore," Felix pressed. "Is that why you hate the UNSC now? Do you still support independence?"

"Is this some kind of personality test?" The ex-Spartan's fists clenched. "The insurrection can go fuck itself. Same with the UNSC. You're all a bunch of corrupt, murdering shits in my book."

"And you're a victim of the circumstances." Felix hadn't needed any details from Cassandra to figure that much out. Simon's personality had self-pity written all over it.

"I've done plenty to deserve what I get," Simon growled. "But that stuff isn't what makes me a criminal. The things you guys want me for, all those big words like desertion and treason? I've got no regrets about any of that."

Felix watched the ex-Spartan closely. He wouldn't make the mistake of assuming that he understood what made this one tick again. Guesswork with Simon would get him nowhere. "What did you do?" he asked carefully.

"None of your business," Simon snapped. "Now are we going to get down to this offer you're making, or should we waste some more time playing twenty questions?"

"What I'm offering is amnesty," Felix told him. "A clean slate. ONI will wipe you out of its files and you'll never have to worry about them again."

"That's awfully generous of you," Simon noted. "Considering all the trouble you guys went to kill me. So what do you need me for?"

"You know how to get around on the frontier," Felix explained. "Your mercenary contracts have taught you how to navigate the criminal elements out there. And best of all, you already have a reputation for being a dependable merc."

"Huh. So how does that fit in with you trying to get back into the UNSC?"

"That's where you're wrong," Felix told him. "I'm getting Cassandra back into the UNSC. After everything you've done, I doubt you could ever come back, even if you wanted to."

"You're right about that." Simon's mouth smiled, but his eye remained as cold and angry as ever. "So what do you want from me?"

"Your services. I want you to go back out into the underworld and start gathering as much intelligence as you can on the Syndicate."

Simon laughed. "Yeah, right. You think the UNSC will go for that? The Syndicate's got half the colonies in its pocket already, not to mention a shitload of the weasels back on Earth. Good luck getting the go-ahead for that."

"Exactly." Felix leaned forward. "The Syndicate thinks it's using the corruption within the government to keep us from cracking down on them. But once this business with the Path Walkers is finished, all that is going to change."

With another laugh, Simon leaned back even further. "Okay. I'll be really dead by then, so tell me about this big plan of yours."

"You won't need to worry about the Syndicate," Felix assured him. "You'll be in close contact with agents ONI has already placed out on the frontier. Gathering information is just the first step to dismantling the criminal networks."

"Really?" Felix had almost forgotten Zoey was there. She looked completely flummoxed. "You really think you can take on the Syndicate?"

"That kind of attitude is what's let it get so powerful in the first place," Felix explained. "Right now they're responsible for helping fund every rebel and pirate group in the known galaxy. Taking them out will be a huge step towards galactic piece."

The table shuddered as Simon slammed his other foot down on it. Glaring at Felix over the top of his boots, his face had returned to its old furious self. "Yeah, that's a pretty dumb plan. You sure this isn't some weird scheme to kill me off? Why should I trust you?"

For a moment, Felix honestly considered getting up and letting the whole deal fall through. Why should he even bother trying to make use of someone so stubbornly self centered? Simon couldn't care less about all the people who would benefit from the Syndicate's destruction. He was probably thinking about how much scarcer mercenary contracts would get once the organization was gone. It would be better to just cut him loose now and let ONI finish him on its own time.

But as he looked across the table at the young man, taking in all the bandages, the ruined eye, the furious expression, he felt an unexpected sense of understanding flood through him. For reasons he couldn't quite explain, he suddenly imagined what this poor, outcast Spartan's life must have been like. Constant fear, an eternal hunger, all that pent up anger and grief, and no end ever in sight. The utter misery of Simon's existence stopped Felix in his tracks. He had no one to rely on, no one to look to for comfort or support. He and the galaxy had conspired together to deprive him of everything the Spartan might have ever thought was good or just.

The worst Spartan in Gamma. Felix thought about all the insults Ralph had heaped upon Simon since he'd assumed command of Jian. He spent half his life being trained as a suicide soldier, and every day they told him he wasn't even good enough to die for them.

You can save him, Cassandra had told him when he'd explained his plan to her. Now he had a chance to do just that.

"Because I can set you free from all this," Felix told him. "If you agree to only work for the UNSC, I'll make sure you never want for anything again when you aren't in the field."

"Generous," Simon noted. "A bit too generous if you ask me. Let's cut to the chase. What do you really need me for?"

"You're the beginning of something new," Felix explained. "Another way of keeping the peace without direct military intervention. The galaxy's full of mercenaries and outcasts just like you, and we can pull them together to help us stop people like Venter and the Path Walkers."

"A paramilitary force? Some kind of merc team?" Simon shook his head. "I think you've got a little too much faith in how these people's minds work. No one wants to lick the UNSC's boots no matter how much propaganda you throw up."

"They may change their minds when they see what's been made of you," Felix assured him. "This initiative will keep the frontier intact without the Interspecies Union needing to interfere with how the new colonies govern themselves."

"And so we keep guys like the Path Walkers in line and work towards some fairy princess galaxy where everyone lives in harmony with the government." Simon laughed. "You've got imagination, I'll give you that."

"Dreams like that only stay dreams because people don't have the willpower to work for them," Felix told him. "All the misery and suffering you've seen on the frontier could go away if enough people could be convinced to help.

"Stability won't come overnight. Until then you and the people you help us recruit must continue to fight the fight"

Felix dropped the A.I. chit on the table and slid it over to Simon's end. "There, take her. A show of good faith. So are you in?"

Simon picked up the chip and examined it. "I'll need to explain all this to her somehow," he muttered. "Something tells me she won't like it."

"This is a second chance at life," Felix said, standing up. "A chance to be more than just another mercenary. All you have to do is take it."

"Take it, huh?" Simon looked up at him and smiled, though the grin didn't quite reach his eye. "What choice do I have?"

The hallway outside the conference room was quiet. Jake and Ralph leaned against opposite walls, helmets at their sides, while Cassandra lingered a few feet away. All three of them stared at the closed door expectantly.

"I wonder what they're talking about that's taking so long," Jake said, tapping his fingers against his helmet.

"The real question is what the Lieutenant Commander could even want with a shit-licker like Simon," Ralph growled. "I still don't see why we haven't shot him yet."

Cassandra didn't say anything. She had to have faith that Felix would be able to convince Simon to get on a different path. The one he was on now couldn't possibly end well, and it would only lead to more suffering.

Let him understand, she prayed. Let him let go of the past.

As if someone had heard her, the door slid open and Simon stepped through. Zoey followed quickly behind him. Cassandra still couldn't understand the twist of fate that had brought the ex-slave to Simon, but if what Zoey had said about Simon were true than she'd been able to bring out a compassion that he would never have admitted he had.

"That was good for me," Simon grunted, stretching his back out.

"You done?" Jake demanded.

"Yeah. Your boss asked for some water, too."

"I'll get some for him," Ralph muttered, shouldering his way past Simon and into the conference room. He and Simon had never gotten along, and Simon's defection had clearly done nothing to improve Ralph's outlook about him.

"So?" Jake asked cautiously. "Did you make the decision to stay on?"

"Yeah," Simon said. "You're stuck with me."

Cassandra let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. Whatever Felix had said in there, it had worked better than all of her offers for Simon to give up his nomadic lifestyle.

"So you decided to start playing for the right side again?" Jake pressed.

Simon let out a small huff that was halfway between a sigh and a chuckle. "I figure if I refuse, you kill me. Or if I run, you kill me. The choice to stick around with you fine people isn't a choice at all."

He's just saying that, Cassandra told herself. That's how he always is, always focused on the negative. The point is, he agreed.

"There's more to it, right?" Jake asked, sizing up his former teammate.

Simon smiled. "Well, I've gotta make my money somehow."

"And can you guarantee you won't betray us?"

The unbandaged eye narrowed, but Simon's smile remained. "You wouldn't believe me," he sneered. "Not if my answer were a yes or a no."

"Fair enough." Jake hesitated, then stretched out his guantleted hand to shake. "Welcome back."

Simon snorted and pushed past without taking the offered hand. He nodded at Cassandra as he past, his expression completely unreadable. Hands thrust in his pockets, he vanished down the hallway. Zoey gave Jake and Cassandra an apologetic nod before hurrying off after him.

"It'll be good to have you back," Jake said after a moment. "We've missed you a lot, Cassie."

Cassandra glanced back at him and smiled. "You know how much I hate that name. Since I just got back, I'll let it slide this time."

At the far end of the hall, a thin Sangheili in blue armor strode away from the humans and slipped into a small alcove. Pulling a communicator from her armor, Pula entered a coded combination and opened an encrypted channel.

"I have confirmed Mordred is aboard," the Cleansing Blade assassin whispered. "He has the construct as well."

"Good work," Umbra 'Vesic's voice crackled inside her helmet. "The commander will be pleased. Are all the preparations ready?"

"Yes. I delivered the plans to our agents on the bridge earlier."

"Excellent. The strike force is inbound, and the commander is leading the attack."

"He is?" Pula asked. It had been a long time since her master had led an assault like this.

"Yes. The deal with the Path Walkers has been finalized and there will be some of them amongst the warriors. The commander decided this was as good a time as ever to make an impression on them." Umbra paused, clearly disapproving of such a risk.

"You know where Mordred is," the Cleansing Blade's lieutenant continued. "When the attack begins, isolate and capture him. The commander wants him alive, and he wants him before the Path Walkers find him."

"Understood," Pula said. "I won't fail."

"Make sure you don't. Umbra out."

Putting the communicator back, Pula checked to see that the hallway was clear before hurrying away. Her master was leading the attack. Now was her chance to make sure he kept his confidence in her. Umbra could doubt her abilities all he wanted, but Shinsu 'Refum's displeasure was something she would never incur, no matter what the circumstances.

I won't fail you, master, she promised. I won't.

She strode off in the direction of the nearest security center. There was still work to be done before Shinsu and the warriors arrived.


Chapter Thirty-Seven: Say Goodbye

Zoey had been called away. Felix wanted to make arrangements to take her to Earth or something, so Jake had escorted her back to the conference room. At least someone's getting what they wanted out of this, Simon thought bitterly.

Cassandra too, come to think of it. For all her talk of helping people outside the UNSC's system, she had always been convinced that she could do the most good back with the other Spartans. Well, she'll get a warm welcome back into Jian. The other Gamma assholes will be good to her, they always liked her.

He sat cross legged on the cot in his room, arms folded, and stared at the wall. His remaining eye was starting to get sore, but he didn't feel like moving. The alternative was to start thinking about what he'd just agreed to that was the last thing he wanted to do.

"So, got any plans?" Diana asked. He'd installed her chip in his arm an hour ago, and she'd been pestering him for details about everything that had happened ever since.

"Why bother?" he said coldly. "The UNSC's going to be making all the plans from now on. There's no point in wasting my energy on them anymore."

"Well, let's be honest, you're plans lately have really sucked," she teased. "Maybe it'll be good to have some professionals doing it for a change."

"You know better than that. Felix talked big back there, but at the end of the day as long as the UNSC gets what it wants they couldn't care less what happens to people like us."

"I have to admit I'm a little surprised that you're accepting all this so easily. Usually you're a lot more stubborn than this."

Simon gritted his teeth. "What choice do I have? It's either take this offer or go back out there and see if the Path Walkers or ONI gets me first."

"And Doc? You're just going to let her walk away with them?"

"She never owed me any obligation. If this is what she wants, I won't get in the way. Now shut up and give me some peace for a change."

For once, Diana actually did as she was told. Simon returned to glaring at the wall. But the damage was already done. His mind was working again, and the more it worked the harder he had to fight from getting even more pissed off than he already was.

I'll make this work. Somehow. He'd have to eat out of ONI's hand for a few years, to be sure, but if Felix was serious about taking down the Syndicate then there would be quite a few opportunities to be had once everything was said and done. Colossal criminal empires didn't fall without leaving a ton of loose ends lying around. If he played his cards right, he could wind up even more set for life than Felix was offering.

Yeah, because ONI's really going to let you walk away after they've finished using you. No matter how he looked at things, this was as raw a deal he could get outside of a straight shooting. Felix might try to dress it up as a second chance, but all it really boiled down to was another chance to get himself killed for people he hated.

But there was no other option. He'd just roll with things, like he always did, and if he kept his head in the game he'd come out somewhere near the top. Hopefully.

He closed his eye and grimaced. It had taken them nearly two decades, but ONI had finally succeeded in wresting control of his life back.

"You know," Diana said quietly. "There are other options."

"Oh really?" he asked "And what exactly would those be?"

"Well," the A.I. said, drawing out the word. "Imagine if a certain someone broke the coding on that disk we got back on Beta-14."

Simon flexed the arm containing his partner's memory chip. "I'm listening."

"Well, imagine if that chip was actually a series of codes that gave this certain someone a back door into a bunch of high-profile bank accounts. You know, the ones the Interspecies Union runs."

His mind slowed down as he registered what she was getting at. He could feel the hairs on the back of his neck beginning to stand up in anticipation. "I'm listening closely."

"Well, this certain someone has a back door into one account in particular." If Diana had had a pedestal to project herself from, she would have been grinning from ear to ear. "Our last employer. The last real employer, anyway."

Simon gulped. "You're lying," he muttered. "Idat 'Ostal?"

"Richest squid head in the galaxy," Diana confirmed smugly. "Well, until you get me a strong, secure feed and we empty out his accounts."

His hands were shaking. Possibilities began crowding through his head, but he fought to keep them down. "Cassandra," he muttered, but it was hard to focus. "She'll never forgive me."

"You said it yourself, dumbass," Diana assured him. "She doesn't owe you anything. Why should she have a say in any of this?"

Simon ran a hand through his mop of hair. "So, how much money are we talking here?"

Diana told him. The word took her several syllables. And when she had finished, Simon laughed.

He rocked back on the cot and shook with mirth. His injuries started to ache again, but he didn't care. Peals of laughter split the room as he held his sides and tried to keep from crashing to the floor.

"I... I could buy my own cruiser," he wheezed. "My own fleet!"

"Why stop there?" Diana asked. "Think big, dumbass. The galaxy's our oyster!"

"Fine." Tears leaked out of his eye as he rocked back and forth. "My own fucking planet! ONI won't be able to lay a finger on me when I'm done!"

"And who says money can't by happiness?" Diana said, but she was laughing too.

This was it. The big break. The payoff for everything he'd ever been forced to suffer. All he had to do was reach out and take it, and he'd never have to live in fear or need ever again.

"Um, are we interrupting something?"

Unable to stop laughing, Simon turned and blearily recognized Jake and Zoey standing in the doorway. Zoey and his former team leader held armfuls of gear and weapons.

"No," Simon gasped, staggering to his feet. "You're good."

"What's so funny?" Zoey asked curiously.

"I'll tell you later." He struggled to keep a straight face as he faced Jake. "So what've you got for me?"

"We recovered your equipment from the facility," Jake said, offering him his battered helmet. "The lieutenant commander wants you kitted up before we head out."

"Right," Simon said disinterestedly. "We're heading out. Of course we are."

It was all he could do to keep from breaking out into more laughter. You were right about one thing, Felix. I'm finally going to be free.

"Shipmaster!" one of the bridge officers yelled. "Several ships just emerged from Slipspace! They're headed straight for us!"

"What?" Sona rushed over to his command chair. "Identify them at once!"

"Some Phantoms and over a dozen boarding craft!" the navigation officer reported. "Their heading indicates that they plan to force their way aboard!"

"It's a Path Walker attack," Fira said. "It must be. But why now?"

"Yes," Sona said, sliding into the chair. "Convenient that they choose the time when we have several important humans onboard to attack. No matter. Blast them to atoms!"

Autel watched the screens as images of the oncoming craft hurtled for them. The sudden attack made absolutely no sense. The ships had no chance of even getting close to the Incumbent Wrath. Was it some sort of suicide attack?

"Weapons!" Sona yelled. "Why aren't they firing?"

He turned furiously to the bridge weapons officer, who was standing motionless at his post. "I gave you an order! Fire!"

The weapons officer turned and looked Sona in the eyes. "No, Shipmaster. They must be allowed to board."

"What are you talking about?" Sona demanded. He motioned for the bridge security team. "Remove this incompetent at once!"

"They must be allowed to board," the weapons officer repeated as two warriors approached him. "By our blood, the Sangheili will be reborn."

And with that he drew his energy sword and cut down both warriors in two blows. Before anyone could react, he hurled a plasma grenade into his station and charged towards Sona.

The blast consumed the weapons station and sent the officers on either side flying to far sides of the bridge. The weapons officer threw another grenade at Sona before bounding past the command station and impaling a third warrior.

Autel and Fira moved together. Fira threw himself at Sona, knocking the command chair away from the grenade just in time. Autel went for the weapons officer, who raised his blade as he approached.

Activating his own blade, Autel disarmed the officer with a single blow. The traitor leapt back and activated his energy gauntlet. The navigation officer's sword flashed to life as he ran to cut the weapons officer off.

"Don't kill him!" Sona yelled. "Take him alive!"

But the navigation officer's blade caught the traitor from behind and sent him sprawling lifeless to the deck.

The navigation officer stood over the dead warrior for a moment, then turned to Sona and knelt on the blood-stained floor. "Forgive me, Shipmaster," he cried. "In the heat of the moment I, I... I accept whatever punishment you deem fitting."

"You are forgiven," Sona told him. "Return to your post."

The bridge was in shambles. The weapons station was a complete ruin and two other stations were without officers to crew them. Fira ran to an auxiliary computer and flashed through several holograms. With a snarl of frustration, he pounded his fist through the images and into the wall behind them.

"That worm drained all power from the weapons!" he spat. "They are completely offline."

"The shields!" yelled the operations officer. "They've been drained as well!"

Sona maneuvered his command chair back to what was left of his station and opened a ship-wide channel. "This is Shipmaster Sona 'Demal," he declared. "We are about to be boarded by enemy craft. All warriors, prepare for battle. Guard this ship with your lives!"

Autel turned towards the bridge's doors. "I will contact Felix," he told Sona. "If the humans are indeed the targets they will need to be evacuated immediately."

"See that they are," Sona replied. "We will seal ourselves in here and hold this bridge to the end. I will not lose my ship!"

As he left, Autel took one last look at the dead weapons officer. How had an enemy agent managed to infiltrate the ship so successfully? There were no reports of the Path Walkers using these tactics.

He would have to dwell on it later. Right now, he had his own duties to perform.

The boarding craft tunneled their way through the Incumbent Wrath's hull, their tubular fronts disgorging Cleansing Blade and Path Walker warriors into the frigate's outer corridors. They were met with plasma fire from surprised security teams, but as the Path Walkers bellowed war cries to the gods and charged them the Cleansing Blade vanguard busied themselves erecting energy shields around the breach zones.

When Shinsu 'Refum strode through the boarding dock and into the enemy vessel, the fighting was already over. A few Path Walkers had fallen in the initial charge, but the other corpses belonged to the security teams. A good start.

"You know your targets," he told the warriors around him as they assumed their formations. "Move quickly and leave no survivors in your wake."

As the vanguard charged off to make room for the warriors still disembarking, Shinsu turned to three Cleansing Blade warriors. "Come with me," he ordered.

Engaging their active camouflage, they headed off down one of the corridors as the sounds of battle spread across the ship. The faithful and the outcasts had come to the Incumbent Wrath.

"Damn!" Felix swore as he limped down the corridor. An attack couldn't have come at a worse time. He was next to useless in a fight and his team was scattered throughout the ship.

"I am taking a lance to guard the hangar where your shuttle landed," Autel told him over his earpiece. "Gather your warriors and meet us there."

"Got it." Felix opened a channel to Jake. "You hear that?"

"Yes, sir," the Spartan replied. "Rosch is already stable onboard the shuttle, so we don't need to worry about moving him."

"Get Ralph and go secure Kahn and Nimue," Felix ordered. "Get them to the shuttle ASAP. Have Cassandra head to the hangar now and get the engines warmed up."

"Understood." Jake paused. "Sir, Simon is still suiting up. What do you want me to do with him?"

"There's no time to wait," Felix replied. "Tell him to take the girl to the hangar once he's ready."

"Yes sir," Jake said, signing off.

Readying his pistol in his good hand, Felix headed down the hall as fast as his battered legs would carry him. All of his gear was aboard the shuttle; that would teach him to assume any place was safe in times like these. He would just have to trust that his team would get everyone back to the shuttle in one piece. Now the only person he needed to be responsible for was himself.

The Spartan (Zoey was still having a hard time thinking that these guys really were the ones they made movies about) lowered his hand from his headpiece and gave Mordred a hard look. "You get all that?"

Mordred, or Simon as everyone was calling him, looked up from the gear he was still strapping on. "Yeah, I heard him."

"Then hurry up and get to the hangar." The Spartan turned to the door, but then seemed to think of something else and glanced back at Mordred. "Simon, about before. The things I said on that asteroid--"

"Forget it." Mordred looked down at his gear. "Can't change the past, so save your breath."

"Simon--"

"Don't you have things you need to do?" he snapped.

The Spartan looked at him for a moment longer, then nodded. "You're right." He slipped his helmet on. "Get to the hangar," he said again, and then he was gone.

Zoey fidgeted in the corner as Mordred continued to buckle weapons and equipment onto his armor. It must have hurt to be putting things over his injuries so soon, but if it did he didn't show it.

"Um," she said uncomfortably. "About the things you said earlier, you know, about your eye..."

"I changed my mind," he said absently, strapping his two energy sword hilts to his chest. "You're off the hook for that. And all the other things. Just be smarter about pulling scams on people next time."

"Really?" She shifted her feet. "But after everything you went through--"

"Christ, what is it with people not being able to drop things today?" he groaned. "I said don't worry about it. You did what you have to do. We all do."

"Oh. Okay." She sat back quietly and watched him finish pulling on his ammunition pouches. His hands, organic and mechanical alike, fastened straps and checked pockets with the ease of someone who had done it a hundred times before. Zoey couldn't help but envy him for his ability to take everything life seemed to throw at him and keep on moving.

"Here." He glanced up and handed her a pistol. "You might need this."

She glanced down at the plain grey pistol and noticed that something was carved along its barrel. Squinting down on it, she saw the letters J-I-A-N.

"What's this?" she asked.

"A pistol, moron." Mordred had already returned to his preparations. "It's an old model, so don't expect to do much with it. Piece of shit even by my standards."

"No, the thing written on it. It says Jian."

"Yeah," he said, still not looking up. "Cassandra carved that for me a long time ago."

"Are you sure I should have it then?" she asked offering it back. "If it's so important..."

"Did I say it was important?" he demanded. "Keep the damn thing."

He straightened up and picked up his assault rifle. Slipping a new clip in, he racked the slide and slung it over his shoulder. Seeing him with it now, Zoey remembered what he'd told her back on Sanghelios.

I've been holding rifles since I was six years old. When it counts, I can kill people just fine. I've been doing that since I was about twelve.

She looked back at him now, with his armor and weapons and all the other things that had kept them both alive during their time together. She thought about everything he'd told her. He hadn't really saved her on Famul. Cassandra had done all that. He would never have helped her if he hadn't thought she had money to pay him. He didn't care about anyone but himself.

She didn't believe any of it.

For all the things he'd done, the cold things he'd said, the things he'd dragged her into, she couldn't help but feel safe with Mordred standing there with her. She hadn't felt this way about anyone since her parents had died. If I had a brother, she decided. This is how he'd make me feel.

She realized that Mordred was staring at her through his remaining eye. He didn't look angry or suspicious anymore. Instead, he really just looked tired.

"Mordred?" she asked. "What is it?"

He took a breath. "The hangar is just down the hall from here. Diana's hacked the ship's systems. She'll guide you to where you need to go. You need to get out of here before the enemy advances."

She opened her mouth, surprised. "Wait, what about you?"

He turned away from her and looked at the door. "Use your head for once. There's no way the attack is going to come from just one place. This is an isolated ship with limited resources. So they lure everyone out towards the hangars. Meanwhile the real target is in the back. Where I'll be."

Zoey gulped and held the pistol closer. "Be... be careful out there."

For several moments his head didn't move at all. She looked at his scruffy black hair, the bandages from his eyes poking out from underneath the grimy locks. Finally he lowered his head and sighed again. "Do you remember the last thing Felix said during the meeting? Did you understand him?"

She blinked, trying to pull back what the officer had said: "Stability won't come overnight. Until then you and the people you help us recruit must continue to fight the fight."

"What he meant was that the UNSC's shit is going to hit the fan and splatter, and it's people like us who get to clean up the mud afterwords. I don't like any of this; Felix, Jian, the UNSC, it's all a big flaming load in a paper sack."

"What are you saying?" Zoey asked, not quite believing what she was hearing.

"Diana and I don't take jobs for some selfless cause, and we don't waste time trying to fix something that broke a long time ago." He looked back over his shoulder and gave her a crooked smile. "We're mercenaries, her and I, and it's time for us to clock in. Show them how real mercenaries roll."

Zoey nodded, trying to fight back the lump growing in her throat. "Yeah."

A distant explosion reverberated from somewhere else on the ship. Mordred pulled his helmet on and nodded to Zoey. "Okay, get moving. Just do everything Diana says. Don't worry about the rear, I've got that covered."

She tried to think of something reassuring to tell him, a way to let him know how grateful she was for everything he'd done for her. But by the time she'd worked up the nerve to say anything at all he was already halfway down the corridor. The lights were beginning to fail, and within a few seconds the shadows had swallowed him up completely.

Then he was gone.


Chapter Thirty-Eight: Farewell, My Friend

"All teams are advancing as planned," Umbra relayed to the Cleansing Fire's communications officer reported. "Make sure the Vigilant Acolyte is ready to cover us in case reinforcements arrive."

"Understood."

Umbra couldn't believe how quickly Shinsu had solidified this alliance with the Path Walkers. A few days ago they had been close to obliterating each other; now their warriors were storming the Incumbent Wrath as one. Umbra wouldn't go so far as to trust them completely, but he had to admit their forces were a welcome addition to the Cleansing Blade's own warriors.

"Maintain distance from the frigate," he reminded the navigation officer. "Weapons, target their plasma batteries and destroy them before they can be brought back online."

He couldn't say that he liked Shinsu's decision to lead the attack personally, but it wasn't his place to question his commander's decisions. For now he would just have to swallow his reservations and attack the ship as if his commander were not onboard.

"A message from one of our agents aboard the enemy vessel," the communications officer reported.

"Read it aloud."

"Message reads: My comrade's sabotage was successful, but he could not escape. I gave him an honorable death. The message ends."

Umbra nodded, satisfied. The sleeper agents the Cleansing Blade had put so much time and effort into placing throughout the government had been key to their success here, and their sacrifices would aid them incalculably in the future.

Smiling slightly to himself, he clasped his hands behind his back and watched the assault progress.

"Shipmaster, teams throughout the ship are being pushed back," one of the remaining bridge officers reported. "The enemy is pushing towards the hangars, but several groups have broken off to attack key systems as well."

Sona closed his eyes and steeled himself for the difficult order. "Have all teams form perimeters around the hangar areas. All non-combat crew are to be evacuated to Sanghelios immediately. Are they still blocking our distress calls?"

"Yes, and our long range communications package has been destroyed."

A series of explosions rocked the bridge, but Sona remained upright in his command chair. "Divert control of all systems to stations in this room," he ordered. "Seal it off and have the rest of the crew evacuate."

"The enemy corvette is maneuvering around us," the navigations officer reported. Blood from the traitor he'd killed had dried on the front of his armor. "It is destroying our plasma batteries."

Sona turned to Fira. "Cousin, get your warriors and head to the hangar were Autel and the humans are. Defend them and escape when they do."

Fira opened his mandibles to argue, then thought better of it and turned to leave. "What of you?"

"I will remain here," Sona replied, turning back to his command console. "I will not give up my command. Those of us here will defend this room to the death."

"Then defend it with honor," Fira replied as he marched from the bridge. The doors sealed behind him, extra armor and shields sliding over them as they locked in place. There was nothing to do now but fight to the end.

Felix had to hand it to Jian: they moved fast. Kahn and Nimue were already seated within the shuttle's common room, hands shackled, when he staggered aboard.

"Sir," Jake said, straightening. "The ship is ready to take off."

"Good." Felix leaned against the bulkhead. "We'll be taking some Sangheili warriors with us." Autel and a team of warriors had formed a perimeter around the shuttle and had just repelled a Path Walker attack through the main doors.

"Understood. But there's a problem."

Felix had a pretty good idea of who the source of the problem was.

"Simon and Zoey aren't here yet," Cassandra said, looking up from where she was checking on the unconscious Rosch. "And Simon isn't answering his radio."

"Wonderful," Felix grunted. "We wait until they get here. Then we get the hell out."

Jake motioned to Ralph. "Guard the prisoners. If Kahn tries anything, shoot to kill."

"Who, me?" the mercenary asked, lifting his cuffed hands. "What am I going to do, headbutt you to death?"

"Guard them," Felix reiterated. He and Jake hurried back out to the hangar, where Autel's warriors were busy holding off another wave of Sangheili in Path Walker armor. Felix fired on the enemies with his pistol while Jake cut loose with the assault rifle. Even as they fired, a stream of plasma swept over Autel's team and killed two warriors.

"We cannot hold them much longer!" Autel called over to Felix.

"Just a few more minutes!" he yelled back.

Even as they were speaking, a shout went up from the other side of the hangar, a handful of friendly Sangheili emerged from a postern door and charged towards the Path Walkers. Suddenly under fire from two sides, the Path Walkers retreated back through the hangar door.

"Nicely done," Autel said as Fira and his warriors approached. But his friend shook his head.

"The ship is falling," he told Autel. "All crew are evacuating, and the other warriors will follow soon after. We need to leave now."

Felix hesitated. He couldn't ask these warriors to die for them. Just before he could tell them to leave, he heard someone yelling frantically from across the room. He turned to see Zoey sprinting across the hangar floor, pistol in hand. Simon was nowhere to be seen.

There was no time to ask what happened. The Path Walkers would attack again, and soon. "Autel!" he yelled. "Get your troops onto my shuttle!"

"Wait!" protested one of the warriors who had come in with Fira. It was the young Sangheili who Jake had shot in the mine. Although armored, he was moving with a severe limp. "Where is Simon?"

"No time, Tuka!" Fira barked. "Everyone, board the shuttle now!"

As the Sangheili scrambled to obey, renewed plasma fire lit up the deck around them. The warriors fired back at the oncoming Path Walkers as they retreated back to the shuttle. Several formed a firing line and sprayed the charging warriors with a devastating barrage from their plasma repeaters.

Felix paused to help Zoey up the ramp. "Try to raise Simon!" he called to Jake, but the Spartan just shook his head.

"No response."

Autel covered Fira as he helped Tuka into the shuttle. Just as they reached the top of the ramp, an explosion tore through the Sangheili line. Two warriors were blasted to pieces as the rest turned to see a lone warrior charging towards them as his active camouflage flickered off. The remaining warriors held their ground and opened fire. They were terribly brave.

And then they were dead as the lone warrior reached them. Felix had never seen anything like it. His blade flashed amongst the assembled warriors, cutting through all of them before they could even try to strike back. As the last warrior collapsed onto the deck, the blademaster glanced up at the shuttle as his camouflage switched back on.

The one called Tuka cried out, "Shinsu!"

He tried to head back down, but Fira grabbed him by the arm and hauled him back up. "No!" he snarled. "Don't throw your life away!"

Jake helped Felix up the ramp, but as they headed up the ramp the shuttle jerked and began to rise unsteadily. Felix grabbed for a handhold as Jake seized hold of his collar.

"The gravity beam!" Autel called down as he and Fira pulled the two Spartans up into the shuttle. "They've locked us in here!"

"Where are the controls?" Felix yelled back up.

"The far end of the room!"

"Sir, get out of here!" Jake yelled. "I'll get it."

But before Felix could tell him not to be a suicidal fool, something big and grey streaked past them down the ramp. It was only when the man landed on the deck that Felix recognized David Kahn. He held a pistol in his shackled hands.

"Kahn!" Jake yelled, scrabbling for his assault rifle. The mercenary just grinned and waved the pistol up at them.

"See you around, Felix!" he yelled before charging towards the far end of the hangar.

There were no Path Walkers left to oppose him, but as Kahn neared the gravity control panel two warriors in different armor emerged from camouflage and trained their plasma repeaters on him.

Kahn moved fast for a man with internal bleeding. He slipped behind one and hammered at his shields with the butt of the pistol. The second his target's shields died, he hooked his arms over the warriors neck and gave a savage twist.

The second warrior fired, but all of his shots soaked into the body of his dead comrade. The warrior sidestepped and took aim again, only to realize that a plasma grenade had somehow materialized on his gut. Kahn threw himself towards the control panel as the grenade detonated.

It only took the mercenary a few moments to fiddle with the holographic panel. The shuttle stopped shuddering and righted itself. A few more moments and they'd be out of the hangar.

Felix looked back at Kahn who had jogged to the middle of the hangar but suddenly seemed at a loss for what to do with himself. He looked around, scanning the hangar with his pistol.

Something shimmered behind him, and in the next moment the blademaster reappeared, his sword positioned to decapitate Kahn. The assassin ducked the blow at the last moment. Turning, he emptied his pistol into the blademaster, who took three shots to the head before slashing the pistol in half.

Kahn jerked around, trying to get behind Shinsu, but his injuries were slowing him down. He lashed out with a series of kicks, but the blademaster dodged easily before lashing out with the blade again. Kahn avoided the first lightning-fast strike and then the next, but the third slashed him across the shoulder and knocked him to the ground.

As the shuttle sped towards the hangar entrance, Felix could only watch as Shinsu approached David Kahn and plunged his blade through his chest. Then Jake and Autel pulled him aboard and the ramp shut out the hangar completely.

As Felix entered the crowded common room, he saw Cassandra embracing Nimue. He couldn't tell what was passing between them and as he watched it felt as if he were intruding on something he had no right to see. Instead he glanced at Ralph who shrugged, face red from embarrassment.

"Sorry, sir," he muttered. "He just grabbed my pistol when my back was turned and ran off."

"After what I just saw, you're lucky you're still alive," Jake told him. "I guess you being an idiot worked out for us this time, because he just saved all our lives."

Felix looked down at the ground, trying to tie down one of the emotions swirling inside his head. There were so many things he wanted to think about the man who had been both Hector Thornhill and David Kahn, and right now just wasn't the time.

I never really knew who you were, he thought. Maybe someday I'll have to figure it out myself.

He looked at Zoey, who had moved as far away from the surviving Sangheili as she could. He opened his mouth, but it was Cassandra who asked the question they were all thinking.

"What happened to Simon?" she asked quietly, her arms still wrapped around Nimue.

The girl hesitated, then looked down at the pistol in her hands and shuffled her feet. "He went the other way," she said finally. "He said something about showing you guys what a real mercenary was made of."

A solid crunch reverberated throughout the shuttle. Everyone turned to see that Ralph had slammed his fist into the bulkhead, face tight with anger.

"That coward--" he began, but that was as far as he got before Zoey punched him square in the face. With a startled yelp, he took a step back, clutching his bleeding nose. "What the hell?"

Jake jumped forward to grab Zoey's arm before she could hit Ralph again. "Hey, what's your problem?"

The whole shuttle had gone quiet. Zoey struggled furiously to break free of Jake's iron grip. "You don't know anything!" she yelled at Ralph, tears of anger pooling at the corners of her eyes. "He said the real attack would come from behind and he went their all by himself. He's no coward, he did what you couldn't do! You don't know anything about him!"

The hallway was strewn with bodies, most of them wearing the colors of the Incumbent Wrath's security crew. Simon swept his rifle over the carnage and shook his head.

"Whoa," he muttered. "There really was an attack in the back. Freaky, I didn't expect that. I was just hoping they'd follow the barrage of people towards the hangar and leave me alone."

He shrugged and began to pick his way through the bodies. "Oh well, I guess the truth works better than fiction sometimes."

Diana chuckled through his radio. "Now there's the dumbass I know. Took you a while to get back in the swing of things, but now we're back on track."

She paused for a moment as he navigated his way through the darkened hallway. As he paused to check the next corner, she opened the channel again. "The shuttle just got away. Doc, Tuka, and Zoey were all aboard. I know you don't give a shit about anyone else on there, but I figured you'd want to know about them."

"Yeah," he muttered, pausing to sweep another patch of shadows. "Thanks for the update."

"Any regrets?"

"There's always regrets," he replied. He wished he could have said a proper goodbye to Cassandra, but things were probably better this way anyway. He shut out the ache in his chest with thoughts of the payoff waiting for him once they were in the clear. "It's best not to think about it too much."

"You never cease to amuse me, dumbass," she told him with another laugh as he continued moving down the hallway.

"All contact with the security teams is lost," Fira said, staring at his communicator. His shoulders slumped and he shook his head. "The Wrath is overrun."

"No," Zoey whispered, staring down at the floor. "No... does that mean...?"

Tuka glanced back at the image of the receding frigate. "Simon," he said softly.

Off in the corner, Cassandra had begun to pray.

Simon was halfway down the corridor when it happened.

He had just stepped over the corpse of yet another Sangheili when he saw something move off to his left. He spun to face it, but already he was slowing down, his limbs growing as heavy as tree trunks. When he finally shifted his body around, he found himself face to face with a Path Walker warrior. The alien's energy sword was embedded in his abdomen.

He coughed, spitting blood onto the inside of his helmet. Someone was yelling his name, but he couldn't tell who it was. His assault rifle slipped from his fingers as he reached gingerly for his wound. There was no pain. It's that damn left side... he thought distantly.

His trembling fingers were already sopped with blood. He staggered slowly, as if moving through syrup. The warrior yanked the blade out of his body and he keeled over amongst the Sangheili bodies.

Simon opened his mouth to call for help, to reach out for a friend to save him. But there was no one around. He'd left them all behind, he remembered faintly. Of course. There was no on to save him now.

"Ain't that just the strangest thing," he whispered as his head grew fuzzy. He couldn't even hear himself talk. The fuzziness rolled over him as he his eye began to close.

The Path Walker stood over the fallen human and opened his communications channel. "All forces in my sector have been eliminated," he reported.

"Forget about the vermin back there!" his lance leader bellowed. "Get to the hangars and support the attack immediately!"

"Understood." The warrior glanced back at the human's huddled form, then clicked his mandibles and strode off down the corridor. A pool of blood seeped out in front of Simon's visor.

No regrets...? Diana's voice echoed in the back of his mind, but this time he couldn't answer. His eye closed and shut the world out. All he wanted was to go to sleep...

Cassandra...

"Wait!" Tuka yelled. "They're retreating!"

"What?" Fira demanded, rushing to the viewport. All eyes turned to the screen inside the common room, which showed the enemy Phantoms and boarding craft disengaging from the Wrath and speeding away towards the enemy corvette as it broke away from the battle and cruised off into space.

"They were beaten back?" Autel asked, astonished. "So quickly?"

"They did it!" Zoey yelled, hope flickering across her face. "He did it!"

For several moments nothing happened. The boarding craft fled away and left the Incumbent Wrath drifting on its own. It was scorched and blasted from the corvette's attacks, but its hull was intact.

"Well," Felix began. "Let's turn this thing around and find Si--"

He never finished. A series of lights flashed across the Wrath's hull; a moment later Felix recognized them as anti-matter charges. The frigate shuddered, its engines crippled and its interior opened to cold vacuum in the wake of the charges, which continued to go off across the ship.

Everyone stared up at the image of the stricken ship, too stunned for words. Finally, Jake looked around and asked quietly, "Was he still on there?"

The Incumbent Wrath listed and burned out in the void of space. It had been gutted by the charges, and it was only by a miracle that its reactor hadn't detonated and finished the Path Walkers' job for them.

Zoey whimpered, staring up at the screen with eyes blurry from tears. Tuka sat off to the side, his head lowered from grief. Cassandra slipped her helmet down over her head as her lips moved with another prayer.

"No." Zoey fell to her knees. "No.

"Mordred!"


Chapter Thirty-Nine: Forking Paths

"The Incumbent Wrath has stabilized," Fira reported quietly to the crowded shuttle bay. "The bridge was unharmed and Sona is still alive. A cruiser has already arrived to escort it to the surface for repairs."

"At least we can take some comfort in that," Autel replied. "The crew did not die for nothing."

No one said anything for a long time after that. Autel wondered if everyone doubted that claim as much as he did. They still had no idea why the Path Walkers had attacked and retreated so suddenly or how they had chosen the Wrath as their target. Even if they had been driven back from some objective, he and the other warriors had little to show for it. Only a handful of the Path Walkers and their dull-armored allies had been killed during the fighting; even the corvette that had harried the stricken Wrath had escaped without a scratch.

His thoughts turned back to the warrior he had glimpsed back in the hangar, the one who had cut through his warriors so easily and even killed the famous David Kahn. So that was Shinsu 'Refum.

He had fought the so-called Black Knight of Sanghelios once before, in the snowy Nisa Valley where he had helped destroy the Sons of the Preserving Blade militia. 'Refum had come upon him as he lay dazed from an explosion, but instead of killing him on the spot the warrior had tossed Autel back his energy sword and bid him stand to fight.

Fira had interrupted before they could do battle in earnest, but after seeing Shinsu in action Autel was now convinced that had his friend not intervened he would not have survived that bloody day.

Shinsu sought the destruction of Vadam in recompense for the death of Sesa 'Refumee and the slaughter of his clan. Such a simple, selfish goal, yet Shinsu had somehow rallied a sizable force of warriors under his banner. Word of the "Cleansing Blade" had reached the ears of Deno and his spies, but for now the only picture they could give of Shinsu's group was a shadowy band of killers who lurked within the depths of the underworld and made alliances with criminals, pirates, and all manner of other scum.

And now they have joined forces with the Path Walkers. Autel could not understand any of it. Shinsu and Urei 'Cazal no doubt knew each other from their days together in the Fallen, but what did Shinsu have to gain from an alliance with religious fanatics? A larger force to bring to bear against Vadam?

He will come for us, and soon, Autel thought with a shudder. It was not Shinsu's fighting prowess that frightened him, but the fact that this vengeance-bent warrior was an utter mystery to him. How could he fight someone he didn't understand?

In the end, such doubts wouldn't matter. Autel would face Shinsu when the time came. They called him the White Knight behind his back; perhaps he was the perfect match to defeat the Black Knight.

Autel looked over at Tuka. Fira had told him how the young warrior had refused Shinsu's entreaties to join him in his crusade when they had met for the first time back on the pirate world of Famul. But right now Tuka didn't seem the least bit interested in his brother's sudden appearance. His head was bowed low, his arms crossed in a sign of grief.

The human who died, the one called G294, he was Tuka's friend, Autel remembered, though why such an unlikely pair would have considered each other a friend was a story he had forgotten. Fira and the warriors had reached an unspoken consensus to leave Tuka to mourn; Autel decided to follow their lead.

Felix had retreated to the rear of the shuttle. His injuries clearly prevented him from donning his armor, forcing him to converse with his subordinates face-to-face. Right now he was talking to one of the two other Spartans who had accompanied him. Autel imagined he would have quite a bit to explain to his superiors, and now wasn't the time to discuss what had just transpired with him.

He leaned back against a wall and closed his eyes. Right now he wanted nothing more than to go back to the Vadam keep, to hang up his armor and weapons and step away from all this madness and death. He wanted to see Cyla again, to see his children grow up without the fear of war and chaos hanging over their lives.

I fight and fight and fight, he thought bitterly. We all do, yet our efforts only pave the way for more killing. He was a warrior of Sanghelios. The art of war ran through his veins, infused with the certainty of honor and justice. But what use were any of those things without the hope of peace to look forward to?

He was tired, utterly exhausted by everything that he and his warriors had endured these past weeks. The ones who threatened our homeworld were utterly crushed. So why do I feel as if we lost?

It was times like this that Felix was very grateful Spartans didn't have to worry about their careers.

He looked down at the unconscious Rosch, still pondering how to go about explaining everything when the officer finally woke up. True, their mission had been accomplished to the letter. Kahn and Simon were both dead, though Felix suspected it would be some time before either body could be recovered from the debris field left by the Incumbent Wrath. But there was still the inescapable fact that he had brought them both as prisoners aboard an allied ship which had subsequently been caught up in an attack that had nearly cost the entire team their lives.

And then of course there was Cassandra. And Nimue.

He thought back to what Kahn had said about raising Nimue as his legacy. A means to bring down the Syndicate and insurrection from the inside. To fulfill his final mission.

He wasn't sure how much of Kahn's story he could believe and now he never would be. The sight of the man who had come so close to killing him collapsing on the end of an energy sword would haunt Felix for some time to come. Kahn's only thought had probably been to save Nimue, but he'd wound up saving the rest of them along with her. Felix couldn't decide whether to feel indebted to the man who had once been Hector Thornhill or not.

And G294...

Zoey insisted Simon had gone off to prevent more of the attackers from reaching the hangar. If that were true, it was just as likely that he'd been killed by the Path Walkers as it was that he'd perished in the explosion. But that version of events seemed off to Felix, even with his limited knowledge of what Simon was really like.

To have gone off on the attack alone against an unknown force was reckless to the point of suicidal. Perhaps Simon had hoped to use his A.I. to give him the upper hand, but the whole maneuver ran completely counter to the tactics the traitor Spartan was known to use.

On the other hand, it made no sense for Simon to have done anything besides running for the hangar with Zoey. For all his bluster about hating the UNSC, Simon had not survived for so long by allowing himself to succumb to blind hatred. The best option open for him was to accept Felix's proposition, so why had he dashed off into the storm?

Felix glanced over at Cassandra. She sat on the floor a few feet away, one hand resting on the shoulder of a sleeping Nimue. He couldn't read her expression through her helmet, but if the tears Zoey had shed for a mercenary she had known for a week at best were any indication then Felix didn't want to pry any more than he needed to. Perhaps Simon's sudden flare of altruism had something to do with her influence.

But as with Kahn, they would never know what had been going through Simon's head when he died. THe traitor Spartan had left Felix feeling no more sure about his intentions than he'd been at the beginning of the hunt. At least now Daniel's death wouldn't haunt him so fiercely.

Which brought him back to Nimue. The decision was as clear as day: the girl needed to go to ONI. Her very existence represented a colossal security breach and that was before he factored in everything that Kahn had taught her. If she were released now, they would never see her again until the damage she was capable of inflicting was already done.

They'll dissect her, David Kahn murmured in the back of Felix's mind. You know they will.

Felix looked away from the sleeping girl, hating himself for the brutal choice that was once again being foisted on him. He knew what Rosch would do. Hell, he knew what any other ONI officer would do. It was a price they had chosen to pay when they made themselves into shields for the rest of humanity.

But I'm not Rosch. Felix flexed his prosthetic hand. And I'm not just another ONI officer either.

He picked his way over to Cassandra. She looked up at him as he approached, but didn't depolarize her visor. It remained as blank and unreadable as the shuttle itself.

"My promise still stands," he told her. "You're coming back to the UNSC. But it will take time, and until then you need to keep yourself at a safe distance."

"OK," she said dully. "Where do you want me?"

"Sanghelios," he said at once. It was yet another thing to ask of Autel, but right now it was the safest place Felix could think of. "I'll make the arrangements. But you need to do something for me in return."

"What do you need?" she asked in that same husky voice.

He indicated Nimue. "You said she was your friend?"

She nodded wordlessly.

"Then take her with you. Keep her close. It's the only way she'll stay alive, and if there's anyone who can keep her on the right path, it's you. Kahn put all of his skills into her, but it's up to you to fix what he started. Do what he couldn't: give her a future."

The Spartan's helmet tilted down to look at Nimue. "He killed himself to save her. She must have been important to him."

"She was his legacy," Felix said. "Or at least, that's what he thought of her as. He said she was every life he'd ever taken, every contract he'd ever fulfilled."

She shook her head. "Then she was more than a legacy. Maybe that's what he hid it behind, but what he really wanted was to do more than destroy. He wanted to nurture, he wanted to raise, he wanted to love."

Her words struck a cord in Felix and he was amazed he hadn't seen through Kahn's bluster before now. "All the things he could never do himself," he said quietly. "She was the only thing he ever had that wasn't an enemy or a target. The only person who didn't expect anything from him. Then all the talk about her becoming a great killer and fulfilling his mission..."

"If that's what he told you, then it was a lie," Cassandra said, brushing a lock of hair out of Nimue's face. "If he really wanted that, he wouldn't have kept her with him for so long. He wanted to escape from the life he led. All he could ever save was this one life, but that was his real legacy. A life dedicated to saving people, not killing them."

Felix allowed himself a grim smile. "I hope you're right about that. You know as well as I do that what Kahn really wanted won't matter if ONI gets their hands on her. Keep her safe, and make sure she turns out to be Kahn's real legacy."

When he headed back over to Jian, Jake gave him a knowing look. Simon's death didn't seem to have hit him as hard as it had Cassandra--which hardly surprised Felix, given the circumstances--but his face looked exhausted, as if he hadn't slept for days. He smiled wryly and ran a hand through his stubbly hair.

"So," he said after a few minutes of awkward silence. "How do you plan to explain all this to Rosch, sir?"

"I don't know." Felix had been expecting this question ever since the battle had ended. The only surprise here was that Jake had taken so long to ask. "You're his agent, aren't you? How will you explain things to him?"

Jake shook his head. "I'm not 'his agent' any more than you're 'ONI's agent.'" he said, but his tone was more reflective than defensive. "But he earned our loyalty, more than anyone else in ONI or the Spartan program ever did."

He sighed. "Still, what he doesn't know won't kill him. It's just a damn shame the squid-heads grabbed Cassandra and Kahn's crazy helper after Simon died. That protective custody gig is really starting to get on my nerves."

"Life's a bitch like that," Ralph agreed from off to the side. His face had developed a nasty bruise where Zoey had hit him.

Felix shook his head, unable to hide a reluctant grin. "Better get used to dealing with customs like that," he said, looking up at the screen image of Sanghelios. "Something tells me we aren't done with this planet. Not by a long shot."

It's up to you. Felix's words echoed in Cassandra's head. Give her a future.

She shook her head, glad for the helmet that hid just how utterly incapable of living up to his expectations she really was. She couldn't live up to anyone's expectations.

I couldn't save Team Kopis. I couldn't save Terrence and Mary. I promised myself I'd save Simon, but all I did was push him away. How am I supposed to save Nimue?

Nimue's grief had driven her into a deep sleep. Cassandra doubted she'd be awake any time soon, given the things she'd been through these past couple days. That was a ray of light amidst all this pain and darkness. It would be easier to explain things to her in a more tempered environment.

She was so caught up in everything that had happened that she didn't notice Tuka until he had limped across the shuttle to sit on a bench beside her. She knew what he wanted to talk about and every fiber of her being strained to slip away from what was coming. But that was her job: to work past the pain so she could help others do the same.

Tuka was silent for several minutes, his head bowed and mandibles tight. When he looked down at her, she saw that his eyes were full of suppressed grief.

"I just can't believe he's gone," he murmured.

"He would have liked that," she forced herself to reply. "He loved making people think he could survive anything."

"So was it all an act?" the young Sangheili asked. "He always seemed so..."

He shook his head, unable to find the words. "I always thought that if the universe ended, he would manage to be the only one to walk away."

Cassandra had no answer to that. She had never been able to figure out just how well Tuka had known Simon or, to be more precise, how much of himself Simon had shown to Tuka. All told, Simon had given off that indestructible aura. She had seen it herself firsthand: no matter how often he had been cut down, humiliated, or brought low he had always dragged himself forwards through his own stubborn refusal to let the other person win.

It had been that stubborn nature that had kept him alive against all the odds for so long. But she was beginning to realize that it had also been what finally killed him.

Simon would never have let himself be backed into a corner like the one Felix had created for him. She had underestimated his hatred, not only for the UNSC but for anything he saw as yet another effort to be manipulated.

She closed her eyes, fighting back the tears that had threatened to spill ever since Zoey had arrived at the shuttle. They had gone through hell together, tread the thin line between life and death together more times than she could count. Even when he hadn't been there, his shadow had still seemed to be resting against the wall, taking in everything with the same smug disrespect he treated everyone who tried to raise themselves above him.

Don't apologize, he snapped in her head, as if he could sense the tears in her eyes even now. Never apologize to me.

He had been a selfish, twisted ball of hatred and self-loathing. She had reached out to him so many times in the hope of saving him, and so many times he had rebuffed her with the same weak excuses. He was responsible for so much of her own pain. More likely than not he had simply lied to Zoey and died making a thinly-veiled escape.

Cassandra knew all these things, understood them better than anyone else could even begin to. It was all plain as day, and yet...

Simon had spent his whole life without knowing peace or any of the joys that came with it. The universe had never been anything but a constant battle to survive, and anyone who had ever shown him love or kindness had been stripped away by that endless struggle. He had endured so much, and even then he had still found it in him to give himself over to torture and slavery so she could escape Hekate, to help Tuka on Famul, to save Zoey not once, but twice.

Simon had always thought that he was utterly despicable and had spent his life trying to live up that hideous image. But Cassandra had known better. There was no doubt in her mind that she had been able to reach out to the good that still hung on in that battered, agonized soul.

And despite it all, despite his unending struggle and her own efforts to save him, he had still died alone in the darkness, cut off from any friend that might have been there to comfort him.

And she had loved him.

We both knew it, so why couldn't we just spit out the words when there was still time? But that time was gone now, gone forever, burnt up in the flames of the Incumbent Wrath. Simon was gone, and there was nothing to do but mourn.

The tears came coursing down her cheeks now, trapped and hidden by her helmet's lifeless visor. Someone had to cry for Simon, for the person he'd been and the person he might well have become if fate had been kinder.

Lord, take him into your rest, she prayed. Grant him the peace in death that he never found in life.


Chapter Forty: The Shattered Path

The warriors charged with serving as the eyes and ears of the Sangheili government boasted no grand fortress or palace as their headquarters. Their place was in the shadows, hidden away from all except those who wielded them.

Deno had many lairs across Sanghelios, but his favorite by far was a large catacomb that stretched for miles beneath the rolling plains of the Vadam state. His parents were buried here amidst these sprawling chambers, along with thousands of other keepless peasants. Dozens of his brothers and friends were here, stolen away by war, disease, or the endless decay of time. Passing between their tombs, inscribed with folk poems and images from Sanghelios's long and glorious past gave him perspective on what he had sacrificed so much and so many to defend. To cast aside his honor and the chance to follow his friends to a noble death on the battlefield was the most painful trial he had ever undertaken in the service of his planet and his people.

The tombs had not been outfitted with artificial lighting so as to preserve the rest of the dead. A torch-bearing warrior, one of only a handful of subordinates with knowledge of this sanctuary, kept pace with Deno's slow gait but the light he cast was hardly necessary. Deno's eyes had adjusted to the darkness long ago.

Though lights were not permitted, the tomb had been wired with the best communications technology in the galaxy. A signal could be transmitted from here to the furthest point in the galaxy and never be detected. It was into this impressive broadcast system that Deno was accessing through a small headpiece that left his hands free to grip the head of his cane.

"Yes," he said. "I have transmitted all the data that was recovered from the human rebels' headquarters. Much of it is encrypted, but none of it gave me much trouble. I doubt you will have difficulties with it."

The spymaster paused by one tomb to examine its carving: that of a peasant laborer struggling against the burden of the crops he was gathering on his back. A lavish keep rested on a hilltop in the background, overlooking the laborer's toils.

"A few things of note," he said, responding to the voice on the other end of his transmission. "Mostly the locations and identities of other groups within their movement. Some contact information on whatever Syndicate agents they dealt with. And you may find the data on the one they called 'the Reaper' rather interesting as well."

He tapped the end of his cane on the carved laborer, then traced it over to rest on the image of the keep. "And there was some information that might prove useful in understanding why they chose to attack civilian targets. You will find it under the instructions they were given when hired through the Syndicate."

Deno turned away from the peasant's picture and continued on his way through the catacombs. His warrior escort followed behind him at a respectful distance.

"The attack on the Incumbent Wrath caught everyone by surprise," he noted to his headpiece. "My agents are being hounded by orders to discover why the Path Walkers chose it as a target. The Cleansing Blade's involvement did not go unnoticed, either."

He listened to the response. "Interesting," he said calmly. "So the target was captured after all. Autel 'Vadam reported that he had been killed in the fighting. No, I'll make the arrangements to ensure the government continues to think that.

"I've destroyed the original files from the human base," he continued. "I will tell my superiors there was nothing useful in them, but anything that could have betrayed your involvement is gone."

He nodded. "Very well. My agents have some additional developments to report. Those will be transmitted to you shortly. Very well."

He signed off and continued his hobble down through the twisting corridors, past casket after casket of those who had been taken before their time.

"And now we wait," he said over his shoulder. His escort grunted.

A smile passed through Deno's mandibles as he removed his headset. "Shinsu 'Refum," he murmured, staring ahead into the darkness. "What an interesting person."

"You should not be trying to move," Shinsu advised the Cleansing Fire's latest guest. "Do you have any idea how much damage your body has sustained over the past few days?"

The only reply he got was a withering glare. It was amazing how much ill-will could be thrown into a single eye.

The human known as Simon-G294 and Mordred sat up on the cot and pushed his blankets away. He maintained his glare for a second longer before his face crumpled in pain and he clawed at his heavily bandaged chest. A hiss of pain slipped from his mouth as his lips spasmed in a wordless cry of pain.

As much as he valued a stoic approach to suffering, Shinsu couldn't blame the human for his reaction. The energy sword that had impaled him had missed severing Simon's spine by centimeters. Had Pula not come across him when she had and dragged him back to a boarding shuttle, there wouldn't have been anything the Fire's medical facilities could do for him.

Shinsu clasped his hands behind his back and waited patiently for Simon to regain hi s composure. The human shot him a hateful look as beads of sweat coursed down his forehead.

"You have one of my subordinates to thank for your survival," Shinsu continued. "I wanted you captured alive, but some of the warriors under my command were less than informed about the circumstances."

"Go... to... hell," Simon choked, slumping back against the cot.

Shinsu had been furious when he had learned of how close they had come to losing their prize completely. But when he looked back on the assault, he had only himself to blame for the close call. Instead of directing the efforts to find Simon, he had gone on after the hangar. To make matters worse, he had failed to prevent a shuttle full of targets escape the Wrath. Had Simon been aboard with them, the entire operation would have been a failure.

He shook his head at the thought of it. Autel 'Vadam had once again been within his reach only to be snatched away at the last minute. The Vadam heir was proving quite troublesome to kill.

And Tuka. Shinsu had seen his brother aboard the shuttle as well just before it vanished. But in the end, Tuka no longer mattered. He had chosen his own path, just as Shinsu had chosen his. Apart from the infrequent reports Shinsu's agents had on him, Tuka was of no concern to the Cleansing Blade.

"You should rest," Shinsu told him. "It is a miracle you were able to survive so long with the wounds you sustained before the energy sword did its work. Do not tempt fate again."

Simon's prosthetic came up to pick at the greying bandages covering his left eye. "I'm sick," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Of waking up as someone else's fucking prisoner."

Shinsu clicked his mandibles. "Then you can rest assured that you are not my prisoner. Once you are healed, you are free to leave this ship whenever you wish."

The human's remaining eye narrowed. "Liar."

"I have no reason to detain you," Shinsu explained. "And I find unnecessary bloodshed distasteful. We will even take you to the location of your own choosing."

Simon grimaced, clearly still as suspicious as ever. "Then why save me?" he asked, struggling with every word. He was undoubtedly still recovering from the copious amount of blood he had lost back on the Incumbent Wrath. "Why not... leave me?"

"You have something we need." Shinsu clicked his mandibles again. "Or at least, you had it."

The human's eye widened as realization flooded into its grey pupil. He struggled to rise once more, sitting halfway up only to be seized by another spasm of pain. Shinsu watched impassively as he snarled and writhed helplessly on the cot.

"The fortune you hoped to extract from Idat 'Ostal's accounts is no longer within your reach," Shinsu continued. "It pains me to have deprived you of something you so clearly valued, but that is reality."

Simon continued to struggle, but Shinsu could already see the defeat in his eye. As much as he clearly wanted to deny it, this human saw the truth plainly. He could only run from it for a little while.

"To take such colossal wealth and put it at the disposal of one such as yourself," Shinsu continued, shaking his head. "It was an impressive dream. But you must understand that the dream must disappear when the dreamer wakes."

The eye burned with fury again, and in it Shinsu could see the same impotent rage that had possessed him so long ago, caught amidst the wills of those more powerful than himself, stripped of everything and incapable of doing a thing about it. How strange, to see that same fire burning in the single eye of a bed-ridden human.

"Stop fighting, dumbass." A small transmitter beside the cot flickered and the holographic form of the construct known as Diana sprang to life beside her struggling partner. "He isn't lying. I had to give him the codes. By this point, the accounts have already been emptied out. There's nothing we can do."

It had been a calculated risk to even keep the construct aboard the Fire. Shinsu had seen firsthand the carnage they could wreak aboard a warship such as this, and Umbra had even come close to insubordination in his opposition to his commander's decision.

The room they resided in was protected by layer upon layer of potent firewalls and jamming frequencies. It was a veritable black hole, completely shut off from the Fire's key systems. As far as the rest of the ship was concerned, this little space didn't exist. A miniature life-support system had even been cobbled together to provide the room with its own airflow.

Even with the safeguards, Shinsu couldn't dispel the unease he felt watching the strange hologram converse with her partner. For once his own curiosity had gotten the better of him; it was so strange how something so deadly chose to take the form of a human child. Everything about this Spartan and his insolent partner fascinated him.

"How?" The anger faded from Simon's eyes. He didn't sound so much defeated as tired. "How'd they make you give it up?"

"I held my blade to your throat and promised to cut it if she didn't do as I asked." It had not been the most elegant solution, but Urei had grown impatient the moment Simon had been secured. Shinsu needed to keep his new ally sated, for now.

The human's lips parted in a weak sneer, but the defiant expression didn't rise up to his eye. "You expect me to believe that?" he demanded with a pained cough. "Like that would ever work..."

His voice faded away and he shook his head wearily. "It did, didn't it?"

"They've got my data chip too, dumbass," Diana the construct shot back. "Do you think I had a choice?"

Simon looked up at the ceiling. To Shinsu, the human seemed to deflate before his very eyes. His body under the sheets went limp and his head fell back against the cot. Even his face slackened and lapsed into a look of utter defeat. "I guess I should be grateful my partner gives a damn about me after all," he muttered.

"I'm all heart, dumbass."

Shinsu didn't know why he was giving the former Spartan so much attention. His battle concerned the Sangheili, his own people. The affairs of one human outcast were no concern of his. But he couldn't help but be intrigued by the specimen before him. It was impossible not to see parts of himself reflected in this wretched human despite the immense gulf that divided them.

To have lost everything time and time again, he mused. To endure so much pain and still have the will to carry on. Their paths were so similar, yet somewhere on their separate journeys they had made different choices that sent them off in two completely different directions. Now Shinsu stood here, commander of the feared Cleansing Blade and a grave threat to the Interspecies Union, while Simon lay before him, a beaten husk of a creature reduced to scrounging amidst the scum of the galaxy in order to survive.

The construct had been right: the money from the accounts was already divided evenly between the Path Walkers and the Cleansing Blade. Even halved, the fortune was still immense. Shinsu had put so much energy into recovering it that he had barely paused to think about what he would do when it was finally in his possession. The Cleansing Blade's finances were already more than paid for by the network of business fronts and criminal investments they had set up in their infancy. Idat 'Ostal's money had never been key to their continued success, yet now half of it was theirs.

This cancer eats away at our people and feeds the corruption that taints the galaxy. It was strange to now have so much of the thing that had turned the hearts of so many Sangheili and driven them to decadence and worthlessness. For now it would be stored away, preserved to ensure that the Blade had resources to fall back on should their other supply lines ever come under attack.

He was not concerned about the half that had come into the hands of the Path Walkers. Urei 'Cazal might use some of it to further his own plans, but the great majority of it would be eaten up by the costs of the war that continued to rage against the Interspecies Union. The additional funds would grant the Path Walkers greater striking power against their enemies and keep the great powers of the galaxy distracted by conflict. It was the reason Shinsu had engineered the war in the first place.

Urei was the one variable in the equation, the only person Shinsu knew would not move exactly as expected. His goals were clearly meant to bring about the Fallen's stagnant vision of the Sangheili's future, but how he intended to get there was not at all apparent. The Path Walkers were a means, not an end, that much was certain. Shinsu remembered Urei's suggestion that the Cleansing Blade could be used to eliminate them when they were no longer of use.

The longer he sees myself and the Cleansing Blade as just another tool towards his ascension, the better. Shinsu had already lulled Urei with the idea that the Cleansing Blade was a sword that would simply fade away once the Vadam government was disposed of. That had been true, to a point, and as long as Urei believed that Shinsu and his followers were content to step aside and let him dictate the future of their people then he would make no serious plans to dispose of them as well when their time came.

It was fortunate, Shinsu realized now, that he had been so vocal about his vendetta against Vadam during the time of the Fallen. So long as his enemies--immediate and future ones alike--believed his goal was simply vengeance for Refum then they would underestimate the true scope of his ambition at every turn.

He looked back down at Simon, who had been conducting a hushed conversation with Diana while he had been lost in thought. It wasn't often that Shinsu dwelled on the power that he wielded, but looking down at this human who lay completely at his mercy he realized that Simon's life or death rested solely upon his own whim. So many lived and died at his whim, now that he thought about it. He simply ignored that plain fact by concealing it under his cunning and pragmatism. It was not a power he particularly relished.

But just this once, faced with someone so fascinating and yet so insignificant, Shinsu decided to indulge his whim.

"If it is any consolation," he said after another moment's thought. "Our government and your own people believe you dead. I will ensure they continue to believe that."

Simon looked back up at him and something strange passed through his eye. Some indecipherable measure of relief, pain, regret, and acceptance ran its course across his face as he nodded slowly.

"Yeah," he muttered. "I guess that's what I wanted."

"I owe you a great deal," Shinsu continued. "More than you know. You will be compensated for your loss by, say, twenty million."

A bitter smile flickered across the corner of Simon's mouth. "Well, that's peanuts to you now, isn't it?"

He shook his head and sat up again. This time he propped himself up on his elbows without collapsing. "Who are you?" he asked.

"My name is Shinsu 'Refum."

Simon nodded slowly. "Oh. You're Tuka's asshole brother."

So Tuka had told him of their meeting, after a fashion. This one had been with his brother on Famul, now that Shinsu thought about it. How interesting that a friend of his brother had turned out to be such a useful tool.

"I suppose you could call me that," Shinsu admitted. "But you have nothing to fear. As I promised you earlier, my warriors will take you to any place you wish to go."

"There's lots of places I want to go," Simon said wearily. "But since everyone thinks I'm dead..."

He closed his eyes and sighed. "The Visag Keep. Take me to the Visag Keep."

Only a handful of grey-armored warriors accompanied them aboard the Phantom. They clumped together in the rear of the troop bay, giving Simon plenty of space to himself near the front. He was back in his armor, which now sported twin holes where the Path Walker warrior had gutted him. It hurt to do just about anything, but at least the Cleansing Blade's medical techs had fixed him so he wasn't bedridden anymore.

Your own people believe you to be dead. Shinsu's claim still bothered him, though he couldn't tell why. He might have been stripped of the fortune, but at least now he could sleep soundly so long as he kept a low profile.

"Yeah," he muttered. "Because that worked so well last time."

He had been "dead" before, right up until he'd wandered into the UNSC on Beta-14 and managed to kick off a war in the process. And this time, even more people thought he was dead. Tuka, Zoey, Cassandra...

It's for the best, he reminded himself for the umpteenth time. She had found her way back to where she belonged. He would just have been a distraction from that life. Maybe that was all he had ever been for her: a distraction. Aside from the times I ruined her life.

It still hurt to think about. She had been the most important person in his life for so long, and now that person didn't even know he was alive. And it would have to stay that way for the rest of his life.

But was she really the most important person? a nasty corner of his mind asked. You didn't fixate on her or dream about her every night. Venter had that slot all filled up.

He closed his eye and ran a hand through his hair. He couldn't escape the fact that Venter had been the center of his universe before and after his betrayal. He had been the one Simon measured himself against, the one he could never get out of his head. Venter had been his mentor and after that his enemy, and now that he was dead and the euphoria of victory had faded, it felt as if a huge hole had been blown in Simon's life.

This was why he had to go back to Visag. Roni 'Visag had saved him once before, given him a home and a way to escape the pain of the past. The venerable master would do it again, Simon was certain of it. His last ties with his past life, Venter and Cassandra, had finally been severed. Perhaps now he really could find peace within strange alien teachings.

Two figures stood out from the small group of Cleansing Blade warriors. Ro'nin glared over at Simon from under his battered Ultra helm. Normally he would have responded with a sneer or a caustic remark, but right now the sight of anyone that reminded him of everything he'd been through just cut Simon deeper. Kenpachus sat beside his partner, taking up as much space as three warriors.

"So," Diana said in his earpiece. "What now?"

"Nothing," he told her. "Nothing now."

"So your plan is to just hang out at this keep for the rest of your life?" she demanded. "Maybe we lost the big score, but we've still got twenty-four million in the pocket. We've got plenty of options."

"You do," he replied dully. "I don't. If Master 'Visag accepts me back, I'll stay for as long as he'll have me." He was dead now. Perhaps this was the best way to understand what that really meant.

"Listen to yourself," she said with disgust. "'Master 'Visag'. Yesterday you were ready to take on the galaxy. Now you sound like a bad joke."

"Shut up," he told her. "Shut up or I'll unplug you."

"Just when you were starting to be interesting again," she muttered, but then did as she was told. He rested his prosthetic arm on his assault rifle and tugged at the energy swords strapped to his chest with his organic hand. Master 'Visag had given them both to him, a parting gift before he'd left the keep. They had saved his life more times than he could count. Perhaps when he finally met the old master he could find some way to repay him.

Beside him, Shinsu 'Refum shifted idly from foot to foot. The female warrior who had apparently saved Simon on the Incumbent Wrath stood beside him. She followed Shinsu wherever he went and didn't seem to be big on conversation.

"So why the hell are you coming?" he asked the Cleansing Blade's leader. It felt strange, talking to such a dangerous person. Shinsu might have let Simon live this time, but that didn't mean the lean warrior couldn't kill him without the slightest hint of effort. He was so incredibly different from Tuka that Simon couldn't help but wonder if one of them had been adopted. Tuka was a bundle of uncertainty and honor, as easy to read as a children's book. Shinsu radiated cold danger like an icebox and Simon still didn't know what to make of him.

"I must pay my respects to Kaidon 'Visag," Shinsu explained without looking down. "As a student I studied the Visag blade style extensively. I always admired it for its grace and simplicity. Besides, this is the warrior who saved my brother and raised him as his own. That alone merits my gratitude."

"Okay," Simon said uncertainly. Shinsu really was a closed book. "Aren't you worried he'll report you?"

"The Visags have always prided themselves on neutrality. If I come with peaceful intentions, he will keep quiet about my appearance."

Simon wasn't sure he liked the idea of an enemy of the Sangheili government paying a social call to his future sanctuary, but there wasn't much he could do about it now. He still had no idea what he'd say to Master Visag. Where the hell would he begin?

He was beginning to come up with a short speech in his head when the pilot's voice sounded through the troop bay. "Commander, we are approaching the Visag keep low. But the escorts report that something is amiss."

Shinsu folded his arms. "What is it? A government patrol?"

"No," the pilot said. "But there is smoke coming from the compound. Magnifying... commander, significant plasma scoring to the keep walls."

"Plasma scoring?" Simon demanded as every warrior in the bay stiffened. No. Too much has gone wrong already. Please, not another disaster...

Shinsu turned on his heel. "Warriors, prepare yourselves," he ordered the other Sangheili. "Pilot, bring us in low. But keep watch for cloaked Phantoms."

Simon tugged his helmet on and gripped his assault rifle. This couldn't be happening. It was all just some sort of accident. No one would ever think to attack the Visag keep. No one could hate someone as gentle and peaceful as Roni 'Visag. This was all a mistake.

All a mistake...

They leapt out of the Phantom's open side-door. The Cleansing Blade warriors immediately darted across the keep's courtyard, establishing fire zones and checking for hidden enemies like a well-oiled machine. Simon trailed behind them, assault rifle held loosely at his side. It was all so surreal. He could remember the courtyard as if he'd never left; he half expected to see Tuka and the other students off in the drill yard practicing sword combinations.

The practice yard was empty now, empty save for two Sangheili corpses that lay still in the sand. Both wore plain robes; there was no sign of a weapon on either of them.

"Commander," one of the warriors called. "A body in the gardening shed."

"More in the garden itself," another reported. "Two are in armor."

Simon trailed after Shinsu. His body felt numb. The beautiful shrubs and trees that Roni and his family had been so proud of had been set ablaze. All that remained now were their charred husks, and amidst them the bodies of the gardeners that had maintained them.

He had seen carnage like this before, on Mamore and all the frontier hellholes his mercenary contracts had taken him. But on the frontier, the burnt-out houses and ragged corpses had all belonged to someone else. Even on Mamore he had focused more on survival than anything else. But this... this keep had been a place of peace.

That house over there had been where the children had their lessons. It was on fire now. Half a dozen small bodies were huddled around the entrance, gunned down as they had tried to escape the flames.

Here was the meditation circle. Simon had despised all the hours he and the other students had been forced to sit around it in search of inner peace. Three elders were lying here, looking as if they'd just fallen asleep while lost in thought.

This was the tree where he'd once tricked Tuka into hiding stolen fruit from the kitchens. Something had ripped its great trunk in two and sent it toppling over onto the servants' quarters. A warrior in dark armor lay at its base, his chest opened by an energy sword cut.

"They used heavy rounds," the female warrior whispered. "But this is a keep! No one uses such weapons against a keep!"

"Who could have done this?" Ro'nin growled. The mercenary hadn't bothered to draw his plasma repeater. He just paced amidst the bodies, his hands balled into fists.

"Not the humans," another warrior observed. "They used their own craft to attack the keeps."

"Umbra!" Shinsu ordered. "Take two warriors and search the interior. Look for survivors!"

Why?

The warriors fanned out, picking their way through corpses and ravaged buildings. The few armored bodies they found were dragged over to the center of the courtyard for Shinsu to inspect. Others vanished into the larger homesteads to search for even more dead.

Why here?

One warrior called out and a moment later he and one of his comrades were dragging the body of a warrior over to their commander. "This one's still alive!"

Why this place?

Shinsu knelt over the injured warrior. He had been caught in the collapse of one of the homesteads and his armor was cracked and burnt. He coughed and struggled, but the warriors held him in place.

Why them?

"Did you do this?" Shinsu demanded.

The warrior jerked his head.

"Why? What crime merited this savagery?"

Another jerk of the head. "Those were our orders..." he wheezed.

Shinsu seized him by the collar and pulled his face in close. Several of the surrounding warriors backed away. It was the first time any of them had seen their commander lose his composure. "Orders?" Shinsu snarled. "You committed this monstrosity because of orders?"

"They... harbored... traitors..." the warrior choked in protest.

Shinsu shook his head in disgust and dropped the warrior back to the ground. "No," he said coldly. "You told the truth the first time. You killed them because that's what you were told to do." He activated his wrist gauntlet and slit the warrior's throat.

"The government?" Ro'nin asked, incredulous. "The government ordered this?"

"Of course," Pula spat. "Why do you think we oppose them?"

Shinsu wasn't paying them either of them any heed. He looked the dead warrior over, inspecting his legion runes and identification chit. His fingers hesitated over the chit, then formed into a fist. He looked up at his subordinates, his eyes full of fire.

"Where is Umbra?"

Simon stumbled through the keep's inner workings. He had dropped his rifle several hallways ago as he tripped over yet another body. A few retainers had tried to make a stand at an intersection; plasma rounds had cut them to pieces.

Walls had been ripped apart by grenades. Bodies were spread throughout dormitories and classrooms, in kitchens and washrooms. None had escaped the assault.

He knelt and checked a young female wearing the robes of a nurse. A small infant was cradled in her arms. Its head had been smashed against the floor.

What did they do? What did any of them do to deserve this?

He staggered onwards, blinded by the carnage around him. He had lived here, learned here, played here. It had been the only thing besides Cassandra that had soothed his pain after Mamore, and now it lay in ashes around him.

Why?

Part of him knew where he was going. He slipped through the remains of what had once been an intricately carved door and moved on through the council chamber where the kaidon had once held court. The chamber passed by in a blur of bodies and destruction; he just kept going until he reached the door at the far end of the room.

He had known that he would find Master Visag in the chapel. The small little room carved from a simple chunk of stone had always been the kaidon's favorite place to meditate. It was only fitting that he should have died there as well.

Roni 'Visag had been renowned as one of the greatest swordmasters the Sangheili had ever known. Students from all over Sanghelios had flocked to the keep to study under him. They said he was a genius of the kind that only came around once a century, a master whose knowledge of the blade was rivaled by none.

Yet when he died, he did not even have a sword in his hands.

Simon didn't know how long he stood there, staring down at the corpse of the alien who had saved him and given him a place to call home. The master's body was slumped beneath the chapel's only bench, its robes drenched in blood and scorched from where the attacking warriors had sprayed him with plasma. But Roni's eyes were closed, his mandibles arranged in an expression of peace.

Even when you're dead I can't understand you.

He stood there and envied the master for being dead. Why live, when pain and loss were all to be had from this world? What was the point of dedicating yourself to the education of others, as Roni had done? Why bother to be good and virtuous, when in the end Roni had ended up no better than scum like Venter?

Diana didn't say a word. Simon just kept looking down at Roni, glad of the helmet that kept a visor between himself and the dead master.

Simon had deserved the Spartan program. He had deserved to find a father in a man like Venter. But he had never deserved a mentor like Roni.

"Was it because of me?" he asked aloud. The words burnt his lungs even as he drew in the air to say them. "Did they kill you because you helped me?"

"So, the old fool died in his little chapel then."

Simon hadn't even heard Ro'nin approach. The mercenary stood beside him and looked down at Roni, his arms folded across his armored chest.

"He always loved this place," Ro'nin continued scornfully. "So much easier to talk to the gods than with your own family, isn't it? Well, father, did the gods protect you here?"

Ro'nin could have claimed to be Roni's mother and Simon wouldn't have cared. He heard the mercenary shift his weight as they both continued to stare at Roni's composed death mask.

"Yes, I was his son," Ro'nin continued. "Bet you never guessed that one about me, eh Mordred?"

Simon said nothing.

"He cast me out, the pious fool," Ro'nin bore on, voice rising. "My uncle forced himself upon my sister, and when she took her own life I took his. But a kinslayer has no place among civilized folk, does he, father?"

Still nothing.

Ro'nin snorted but didn't look away. "You old fool," he muttered. "You never had a shred of good sense, and look where it got you."

"A pleasant homecoming?"

Kenpachus leaned against the chapel door, taking the whole scene in impassively. "Houses burned, family dead, father murdered," the Jiralhanae swordsman said with a shake of his head. "Glad all that happened to me before I left Doisac."

Ro'nin grunted and ushered his partner inside. "Come on, get in here," he muttered. He pointed at the far wall, where an energy field protected a broad alcove. Within the field hung a massive iron blade wrought in the shape of an energy sword.

"Find a way through the field and it's yours," the mercenary told Kenpachus. "The blade of Harka. The Visags' greatest heirloom. But I think you're the only one who can appreciate it now."

"Well," Kenpachus said, admiring the hovering blade's craftsmanship. "I take back everything I've said about you people not knowing how to make a blade."

"Just promise me one thing," Ro'nin muttered, turning away from his father's body. "Use it to kill the bastards who arranged all this."

It was only then that he realized that Mordred was gone.

Umbra never saw it coming.

He had just left his warrior escort behind to investigate the security room when the door behind him slid open. Rough hands spun him around, and as he was propelled up against the wall he found himself staring into a pair of dark, furious orbs.

"Umbra," Shinsu 'Refum's voice was lower than Umbra had ever heard it before. His commander's hand wrapped around his neck and began to squeeze. "You are a traitor to me, the Sangheili, and the Cleansing Blade."

Umbra gasped for breath, struggling uselessly against Shinsu's relentless grip. "I am loyal," he coughed. "To the Cleansing Blade."

"An odd way to show loyalty." The hands continued to squeeze. "I do not recall ordering the Visag keep destroyed, yet you arranged for it to be done anyway."

"How...?"

"The warriors who attacked this keep belonged to a unit that one of Deno's agents has direct control over. You are the only member of the Blade besides myself to have the codes needed to issue falsified orders to them." Shinsu's eyes narrowed into slits. "Did you really think I would not find out, Umbra?"

"Not this quickly," Umbra admitted between gasps. "No."

"Then why? What is the meaning of this?"

Umbra fought to pry Shinsu's fingers from around his neck. "To send a message," he panted. "Another blow against the Vadams. The public will be furious when they find out what their government has done. After the human attacks..."

His words were cut off as Shinsu's hand clamped back down on his throat. "You were charged with arranging for Venter's forces to strike air fields," Shinsu continued. "They were to precisely target government buildings for destruction. Yet when you handled their contract, you told them to strike indiscriminately."

He shook his head. "There were many interesting things in the files Deno recovered from Venter. Some were more interesting than others."

Umbra's head was growing fuzzy. A red film descended over his eyes as he struggled in his commander's grip. "Necessary..." he gasped. "All necessary..."

The grip loosened and he could breath again. Shinsu slammed him back against the wall again. "Explain. Before you die, tell me why."

"I accomplished more with these two blows than the Fallen ever did in all their years of war," Umbra explained, rubbing his throat. "Humans across the planet, butchering our people. The government takes weeks to put an end to it. And then their warriors are found to have butchered a peaceful clan. If we are lucky, there will be revolts across the planet within the week."

Shinsu's face tightened even further. "When we sacrificed our honor, we did not let go of our basic instincts. We fight the Vadams for the crimes they have committed, not the ones we orchestrated!"

"The masses need more," Umbra protested. "The government will deny this, of course, but it will not matter. The damage is already done. And now, with the plans we have in motion..."

He wasn't able to finish. Shinsu slammed him against the wall again and pressed his forearm to his neck. "When you joined the Cleansing Blade, you swore an oath. I am your commander. You lied to me, went behind my back, did this!"

His next few words would decide whether Umbra would live or die. He pushed back against the forearm and snarled, "I swore an oath to Shinsu 'Refum." His mind raced, but his mandibles moved as if they already knew what to say. "My commander is the Black Knight of Sanghelios. The mewling wretch in front of me now... you are not Shinsu 'Refum."

Shinsu's grip loosened and Umbra finally wriggled free. He fell on his knees and glared up at his commander. "The Shinsu 'Refum I serve vowed to restore our people no matter what the cost," he continued. "He would tear down the very stars if it meant achieving his goals."

"My goals do not include the slaughter of children." Shinsu's energy sword flashed to life. "Do you have anything more to say?"

"Liar," Umbra spat. "Do you really think the Vadam keep will look any different than this when you achieve your revenge? When we loose Jiralhanae pirates against our cities, will the carnage be any less? What does one more keep matter, when we deal with the very future of our species?"

He waited for the blade to strike, but it did not. It simply hung in the air, immobile before Umbra's throat. And he knew then that he was not going to die.

"Is hypocrisy your newest weapon?" he taunted. "How do you justify this rage when your plans call for the deaths of millions of Sangheili? Everything I did, I did in service to the Cleansing Blade."

"You want me to found our revolution on a lie," Shinsu said quietly. "More will flock to our banner, but only because of the lie you have created here."

"No lie," Umbra replied. "A clan as famed as the Visags was slaughtered so easily. They had grown weak, just like so many others. And the rest of the keeps will see and take heed. There is no lie in that."

He smiled and gestured at the blade. "You drew your blade. Do you plan to spill blood, or have you forsaken that tradition as well?"

He didn't even see Shinsu move. Suddenly he was on the floor, screaming in pain as he grasped the stump of his right arm. The arm itself lay a few feet away.

Shinsu deactivated his blade and returned it to his belt. "Very well," he said coldly. "I will shoulder the burden of your grand lie. Everything that transpired here rests upon my soul."

He turned away. "But you will burn for this, Umbra. Very soon, you will burn."

"And you?" Umbra gasped, trying to staunch the blood flow. He would need treatment soon or he would die.

"I will burn as well." Shinsu stalked away down the body-strewn hall. "I am always burning."

The gates to the keep had been blasted open, so Simon simply walked out the courtyard and found himself on the lip of the hill the Visags had built their home on. The sun was setting over the forest that surrounded the burning keep.

He was dead. Shinsu had told him so. He'd thought that meant he had a chance to start over. He had been wrong. Not even death would let him escape the past and the horrors it contained.

I agreed to be a Spartan. I was a failure. I let Cassandra's team die. I couldn't save Terrence or Mary. I couldn't save Rat Pack. I followed Venter. I killed Emily. I kidnapped Cassandra. I left Master Visag. I never let anyone in. I betrayed them all...

His helmet felt heavy on his head. He tugged it off with trembling hands and let it fall to the rocks at his feet. The last rays of sunlight danced across his remaining eye and the bandage that covered the maimed one. At one point, the warmth would have felt good, but now he couldn't feel it at all. Everything was cold and dark and silent.

They all died because of me.

All of them, because of me...

The gun was in his hands, he was taking aim at Emily and pulling the trigger. Over and over again, never letting up. Everyone who had ever given a damn had suffered because of him. All his posturing, all his efforts to survive, they had all amounted to nothing more than pain for everyone around him.

All because of me.

None of this ever ended. There was always more suffering just around the corner. Always someone else to suffer and another person to spread the pain and death. There was never an end to any of it, because no one ever bothered to find the real people responsible.

Pula was the first to find him. She watched silently from behind as Ro'nin joined her. Then Kenpachus ambled over and then half a dozen Cleansing Blade warriors. They all watched the Spartan's armored back, illuminated in the dying light. Simon stood there, head bowed, unmoving.

The small crowd parted as one to let Shinsu 'Refum pass. The commander walked by and stood beside the Spartan. He said nothing, but Simon seemed to sense his presence anyway.

"I've done horrible things," he whispered. "I deserve to suffer. But these people... these people never did anything."

"And what will you do now?" Shinsu asked. "You are still dead."

Simon turned his head then. Tears flowed in an unbroken stream from his remaining eye. "The government did this?" he asked. "The Vadams?"

Shinsu nodded.

"I want..." Simon took a breath. "I want to kill them all."

No response.

"You want to kill them too, right?" the Spartan continued. "Whatever you want, I'll do it. Just let me help you make them suffer."

Shinsu nodded again, his eyes never leaving Simon's tear-streaked face. "And then?"

"The UNSC, the rebels, all the people who do things like this." Simon turned his damp face back towards the sun, but it had already vanished behind the horizon. "I want to kill them all."


End


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