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Annual Award Best Novel This story, Halo: Power Plays, written by Actene, was voted as the Best Novel of 2016 in the Ninth Annual Halo Fanon Wikia Awards.

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Part One: Covenant's End

The Didact's Hand

Cycle 119, Blooding Years (September 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Assault Carrier Song of Retribution, Storm Covenant Combined Fleet, near the Caspar system.

“And you are certain Kamchatka is deserted?”

“Deserted? I never claimed it was deserted. The humans have a small research outpost on the far side of the planet. But they have no real military presence there, and my scouts report that neither the Vadams nor any other party has laid claim to the world. The only resistance you will find around our mutual friend’s objective will be the usual Promethean contingent.”

Jul ‘Mdama, Didact’s Hand and supreme commander of the Covenant, folded his leathery arms over his armored chest. It was a distinctly human gesture, though Shinsu ‘Refum guessed that ‘Mdama did not even realize he was doing it. Human expressions were psychologically subtle things, easily adopted even by their enemies. Shinsu had even heard of human expressions being adapted into the languages of many species in the former Covenant. No wonder they are such a dangerous species.

“I need concrete assurances, not estimations and guesswork,” the Didact’s Hand said. “I have neither the patience nor the resources to waste more troops on the Doctor’s guesswork.”

Shinsu leaned forward on the holographic war table between himself and his supreme leader. The table’s display showed a broad overview of the Covenant’s ongoing war against the human UNSC government, the House of Vadam’s forces back on their homeworld of Sanghelios, and the dozens of criminal gangs, pirate fleets, and splinter governments that opposed ‘Mdama’s crusade. It was not an encouraging picture. Covenant task forces were retreating from most sectors, trying to regroup around the handful of strongholds they still held. Shinsu had been on the losing side of a war before, and it didn’t take a strategic genius to realize that the Covenant was not winning this one.

“Doctor Halsey’s guesswork is just about our only chance to turn the tide back in our favor,” he reminded ‘Mdama. “Review my reports again, if you must. If you go to Kamchatka, you will face Promethean resistance. There is no way around that. But this might be our only chance to bring the machines back under our control.”

‘Mdama huffed in agreement. “I never expected to find myself relying on a human’s knowledge of the Forerunners. Yet Halsey’s understanding of the gods, perverse though it is, may yet hold the key to victory.”

Shinsu glanced around the Song of Retribution’s command deck. Jul ‘Mdama’s flagship was crewed only by warriors deemed most loyal to the Covenant cause—a contingent that was shrinking with each passing day. The bridge was almost entirely empty, save for a skeleton crew of officers absolutely necessary for the carrier’s essential operations.

Why bother with this charade when no one is around? he wanted to ask Jul. We both know you don’t believe in the gods. You never did. You play the role of a holy warrior only because it suits your purposes. He wondered if at some point Jul had truly started to believe the lies he fabricated to reform the Covenant. Such falsehoods, combined with the strains of holding the crumbling organization together, must have taken their toll on ‘Mdama’s health. Perhaps his sanity as well.

But Shinsu was no stranger to living out lies and deceptions. After all, he’d been lying to ‘Mdama since the day he’d joined the Covenant.

“Halsey’s guidance has, for the most part, been sound,” he agreed aloud. “The troubles we have encountered trying to reach the goals she sets have not been of her design.”

“Human interdictions, Sali ‘Nyon’s treachery,” ‘Mdama muttered, almost to himself. “And then the loss of the Prometheans. Yes, we are plagued by misfortunes at every turn. As for Halsey’s own agenda…” He trailed off, tilting his head as if to ponder the dire situation displayed by the war map.

It was a chance Shinsu had been waiting for since his meeting with the supreme leader began. “Halsey may not be treacherous, but there is no denying that her goals are ultimately different from our own. Those differences have led to problems in the past. Problems we can ill afford to deal with at this stage.”

‘Mdama looked back at him. He ran a finger across the white hand emblazoned on his chest plate. “You were just in agreement that the doctor was our best chance to turn the tide. Now you question her usefulness?”

“Not her usefulness, only her willingness to tell you the full truth. She has hidden secrets from us in the past. I would simply question her further before you risk any warriors on Kamchatka. I have interrogated her in the past, with some success. Transfer her to my custody while you ready the forces that will accompany you, and I will ensure that there are no surprises waiting for you on Kamchatka.

The Didact’s Hand considered the suggestion, then nodded his approval. “As you say. The doctor has become more insolent of late. It would do her good to be reminded of her position.”

“I won’t be unduly rough. My warriors will simply impress upon her the need for… transparency.”

“I will have her transferred to your cruiser at once. Be thorough. Once you are satisfied with her answers, return her to the Song of Retribution and prepare two intelligence reports. One for myself and one for Chal ‘Vakar. He will have command of the fleet while I am in the field. He is to take no offensive action while I am away, just continue to marshal our forces and await my return.”

Shinsu brought his hand up to his chest in salute. “As you wish.”

Jul turned away from the war table, then glanced back. “One more thing. The other human… I understand he is here as well?”

“He arrived at the fleet this morning. You were engaged in other matters, so I had him brought aboard my own ship. I wanted to cross-check his legion’s reports with my own.”

“Very well. I want to speak to him before I depart. In some ways he has proven himself to be a more reliable asset than Halsey. I have instructions to give the Kru’desh Legion regarding our next offensive.”

“I will make sure he is ready to report,” Shinsu replied. Lately ‘Mdama let more and more of such administrative matters fall to Shinsu and other members of the Covenant inner circle—another sign the war was taking its toll. He dipped his head in respect, then turned to leave the command bridge. He had just reached the door when the Didact’s Hand called out after him.

“Shinsu,” ‘Mdama said, arms folded once again. “This war is not lost. Not yet. Do not lose faith in victory.”

“Of course,” Shinsu replied. He indicated the warriors at their battle stations. “We are all here because we have faith in victory. We will fight by your side until that victory is achieved.”

It was troubling how easily the lie came to him. He wondered, not for the first time, if this was how it had started with ‘Mdama himself. A few fabricated sermons here, a mix of religious platitudes there, and suddenly he was running himself ragged trying to wring victory out of a war that had been lost before it even began. ‘Mdama had gone too far to turn back now. Shinsu spared one last glance back at the Didact’s Hand, now staring forlornly at the war display, and wondered if this would one day be him.

Looking at 'Mdama now, Shinsu strained to rekindle even a little of the admiration he had once felt for the Didact's Hand. He had long felt a degree of kinship with his erstwhile commander. The death of 'Mdama's wife at the hands of the Arbiter's forces had set him down this path just as the assassination of Shinsu's father, Sesa 'Refumee, and the annihilation of his clan had driven him to take up arms against the powers that be. A part of him wished he could experience the same admiration he had felt for 'Mdama back during the Requiem campaign. There he had marveled at how 'Mdama turned defeat after disastrous defeat into a victory for the Covenant.

But that should have been the first warning sign. Trying to build victory on a mountain of losses will not achieve anything in the long run.

For all his faults, Jul ‘Mdama truly was a good warrior. A good commander. He wanted the best for the Sangheili people, even if his efforts were ultimately misguided. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? We all want the best for our people. We all just have different ideas about what that best is.

It was, Shinsu reflected, truly regrettable that a warrior like ‘Mdama needed to die.

Fingers in Rebellion

Cycle 125, Blooding Years (September 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Battlecruiser Cleansing Fire, Storm Covenant Combined Fleet, near the Caspar system.

The human known as Catherine Elizabeth Halsey—"Doctor," an honorific Shinsu understood that humans attached to individuals of great learning—had not fared particularly well under Jul 'Mdama's stewardship. Aside from her missing left arm, lost during the evacuation of Requiem, her skin had sallowed to a color Shinsu assumed was unhealthy for humans. Dark splotches had appeared across her face and she seemed to have shrunk inside the human clothing she insisted on hand-washing and wearing even after it had begun to fray and tear. Her pallid face was set in an expression of almost constant irritation, as if she were thoroughly exasperated by everyone and everything around her.

"I hope you've dragged me here to give me some good news, not tell me we've been delayed yet again," she snapped, shifting from one leg to the other in front of the table in Shinsu's personal conference room. Like the war table on Jul 'Mdama's bridge, this board had no chairs. Sangheili preferred to stand at meetings, in part so that they could move about while talking and in part so they would be ready in the event of an attack or assassination attempt. "I can't afford to wait any longer. And what's he doing here?" She jerked her head in the direction of the figure slouched at the far end of the table.

"Our business concerns him, too," Shinsu replied evenly. He clasped his hands behind his back and paced in front of the conference table. "Supreme Commander 'Mdama is preparing to take you to Kamchatka, to investigate the Forerunner site you claim will help him regain control over the Prometheans. I take it the structure's true purpose is of a different nature?"

Halsey's lips twitched in a wry smile. "Maybe. How do I know you're really interested in helping me? This could all just be part of some elaborate ploy to smoke me out. Jul told me you're supposed to be interrogating me right now to see if I'm telling the truth about Kamchatka."

"A ploy I have used several times in the past to converse with you away from 'Mdama's prying eyes and ears. Have I betrayed your confidence yet?"

"Not that I know of," Halsey admitted. "Still, I find it hard to trust someone so willing to betray his own commander. Cripple the very cause he claims to serve."

"We are all traitors here," Shinsu reminded her. "In one form or another. I'm not asking you to cooperate with me or even sympathize with my goals. I'm simply informing you that I have done everything in my power to make sure the UNSC finds you on Kamchatka. Just like you wanted."

"Finds me… and kills Jul for you. Quite the elaborate assassination you're setting up here. I thought you Sangheili were more direct killers."

Shinsu clicked his mandibles. He'd long since comes to terms with the sort of creature he would have to become to achieve his goals. "For a target such as yourself, your Office of Naval Intelligence will undoubtedly send Spartans. Jul 'Mdama will not allow you out of his sight from the moment you set foot on Kamchatka, which means he will be there when they find you. Everything should fall into place from there, but even so I have one of my agents already within 'Mdama's task force to make sure things proceed to plan."

"Oh, they'll definitely kill him," Halsey agreed. "My dear friend Commander Palmer won't be able to resist snatching me and eliminating him in one stroke. A shame it had to turn out like this. I've started to rather enjoy his company."

The aging scientist looked across the table at Shinsu. "And what will you do once Jul is dead and I'm safely back in ONI's tender custody? Seize command of the Covenant?"

"Topple 'Mdama from his burning perch and then take his place on the pyre?" Shinsu shook his head. "Hardly."

"So you just want to escape this mess alive?" Halsey considered him for a moment. "If that's all you want, you and your friends here could just spirit me away right now. Save the UNSC the trouble of coming after me in the first place."

Shinsu spread his mandibles in a thin smile. "I have somewhat loftier aspirations, Doctor. I have not come this far to simply seek asylum with the humans. This Covenant is coming apart at the seams. With the loss of the Prometheans, Commander 'Mdama has lost his claim to leadership. More warriors desert with each passing day while the ones who remain grow desperate. Desperate warriors will prolong this conflict, and if your predictions about this new threat are true…"

"They're true." The third figure at the table spoke up for the first time. "She's not lying. For once."

Shinsu turned to look at the second human turncoat Jul 'Mdama numbered among his ranks. The commander of the Covenant's irregular Kru'desh Legion leaned forward, hands resting on the battered helmet on the table before him.

They called him "Stray," a human word that translated into the Sangheili tongue as "vagabond" or "wanderer." It was an apt title. The small, scruffy human who had schemed his way into command of the Covenant's raiding legion was one of the UNSC's famed Spartan supersoldiers, though everything about him belied the legends of the fearsome demons who had terrorized entire legions during the old Covenant's war to exterminate humanity. He was clad in the battered remains of what Shinsu assumed had once been a polished military battle suit, its faded surface scorched and dented by countless battles. A ragged poncho was draped over Stray's shoulders, covering up the myriad of pouches and weapons slung across the combat harness strapped to the armor. The hilt of a machete poked over his shoulder from where the blade was sheathed on his back.

If anything, Stray's features had fared even worse within the Covenant than Halsey. Perhaps Sangheili food simply did not agree with human metabolisms, but the strain of leading Covenant troops into battle against his own species had carved worn lines into Stray's thin, severe features. Shinsu understood that this one was young, by human standards, but the wounds—both external and otherwise—he had accrued across his body had aged him prematurely. Like Halsey, Stray had come to the Covenant sans his left arm, though instead of a bandaged stump he had obtained a mechanical prosthetic hidden—for the most part—beneath his armor. The ragged mane of dark hair across his head shadowed his pallid features and gave him an almost haggard look. Shinsu was no expert in human aesthetics, but he couldn't help but entertain the notion that he was looking at the ruins of something that might once have been great and noble, like an ambitious sculpture the artist had given up on and left to erode in the elements.

I'm quite the romantic when it comes to these creatures, Shinsu thought with faint amusement. Humans interested him, though he was content to study from a distance and fill the gaps in his knowledge with ideas supplied by his own imagination. It was an entertaining diversion, though one he never forgot to set aside when dealing with humans in earnest. Jul 'Mdama was wrong about many things, but he was correct in his assessment of the humans: they were a truly dangerous species.

He caught Halsey looking over at Stray, her lips pursing in disapproval. She didn't like Stray; Shinsu had gleaned that much early on in orchestrating this conspiracy. He didn't pretend to understand the subtleties of inter-human politics that determined the sort of intrinsic disgust Halsey felt toward the rogue Spartan. There were plenty of reasons to dislike Stray—he lacked decorum, finesse, or any semblance of principles—but he sensed that none of those were the true foundation of the animosity Halsey felt toward him. There was something in her eyes whenever she looked at him, some strange mix of disgust and satisfaction.

In Shinsu's limited experience with Halsey, she only looked truly satisfied when one of her scientific hypotheses was proved correct. Perhaps Stray was the evidence that proved some long-held belief of hers?

It was irrelevant in the long run. Both Stray and Halsey had their own agendas, paths running in completely opposite directions to Shinsu's own. But all of their goals required them to undermine the Covenant, and to that end Shinsu had carefully brought them together.

"You both give vague prophecies of some looming threat, one more pressing than any of the galaxy's current crises," he said at length. "The Doctor here gleans it from her study of the Forerunners. Might I know the source of your… concerns?"

"Yes," Halsey agreed. "I'd very much like to know your source as well. I certainly haven't been sharing my research data with you."

Stray's eyes flitted from Shinsu to Halsey. He grimaced and shrugged. "You guys have your secrets, I have mine. Let's keep it that way. My forces have been locking down Forerunner sites for months. You think I don't do some digging of my own?"

"You will need to share your information with me eventually," Shinsu reminded him. "Unlike the doctor, you won't be returning to the UNSC."

"Unless hell's frozen over while I wasn't looking," Stray muttered. Shinsu shot him an irate look.

"With 'Mdama dead, the Covenant will shatter completely. I predict that any forces that remain loyal will mount some kind of last stand at one of our remaining outposts, possibly Sunaion back on Sanghelios. Defending it is one of 'Mdama's emergency contingencies. There's no saving any who take that route, but I will try to rally any of the more reasonable holdouts. For that, I will need the Kru'desh Legion to stand behind my own forces. My warriors are skilled, but few in number. Your forces will help provide the strength needed to convince the others to fall in line."

Stray worked his jaw. "We'll be there for you," he said after a moment. "You've helped me stay alive this long. But I'm not giving you my forces. I'm sick of pretending to care about someone else's war. There's no way I'll just trade 'Mdama for you. From here on out, the Kru'desh do as we please."

Shinsu had expected as much. "I don't need subjects. Allies suit my purposes nicely. We'll come to a suitable arrangement once our more distasteful business is concluded."

Halsey observed the exchange with interest. "You've been planning this for some time. Since before that business with the Absolute Record, I presume? This doesn't seem nearly as sloppy as Sali 'Nyon's pathetic excuse for a coup."

"I've been planning this since before I even joined 'Mdama's Covenant." Honesty felt good, even delivered to treacherous creatures such as these. "His protection and resources suited my needs for a time. But now is the time to move on."

"In that at least we're in agreement." Halsey pursed her lips. "I suppose I should count myself fortunate Jul never heeded my advice about being more paranoid. I'd have never gotten my message out to the UNSC without traitors hiding in his inner circle."

"Like I said, we're all traitors here." That bit of honesty didn't feel quite so refreshing. It is all for the sake of the mission. And for the sake of the Sangheili. He wondered how often Jul 'Mdama had reassured himself that way. "I suppose it is time for you to return to your handlers and assure the Didact's Hand of your sincerity. Kamchatka awaits."

"Better dress warm." Stray picked his helmet up off the table and turned to leave. "Give Palmer my regards."

"I'll be sure to do that," Halsey muttered with distaste. "If she doesn't execute me on sight."

They left the room, each exiting through a separate door. Just like that, Jul 'Mdama's fate was sealed. The play still needed to be performed, but the script was written and decided upon. Shinsu wondered just how many events in history had been finalized by clandestine, informal gatherings such as this. Perhaps someday a group of ambitious individuals would meet in a similar location to arrange his own demise.

I suppose I shall just have to make sure I do not make the same mistakes 'Mdama did. Easier said than done.

A slender Sangheili female awaited him in the corridor outside the conference room. Pula 'Vesic, one of his chief agents, raised an arm to her chest in respectful salute. "Is everything settled?" she asked quietly.

"Indeed. Alert all elements of the Cleansing Blade. Preparations will commence immediately. And make sure Umbra is in position before 'Mdama's forces set out for Kamchatka. I want him to report the moment things are settled with Halsey."

Pula bowed her head and turned to carry out his orders. Shinsu was left alone in the corridor, mind churning to sort out everything that had just been set in motion. This was the end of his years of exile and disgrace. From here on out, he could no longer hide in the shadows cast by the powerful. He could only cast his own shadow in a pitiless arena where any mistake could bring death for him and all of his followers. He took so many chances in this endeavor. To think that his fortunes now rested on the actions of two humans…

It is truly a strange galaxy. A strange galaxy indeed.

Dreams of a Hungry Dog

Cycle 134, Blooding Years (September 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Assault Carrier Song of Retribution, Storm Covenant Combined Fleet, near the Caspar system.

Jul 'Mdama's eyes narrowed behind his helmet and he tapped his fingers against the arms of his hoverchair. "You are absolutely certain of this?" he asked quietly.

Stray reached down and tapped a small device clipped to his belt. Shinsu 'Refum's voice reverberated through the small audience chamber, as if the Covenant officer were standing beside him. "I've been planning this since before I joined 'Mdama's Covenant. His protection and resources suited my needs for a time. But now it is time to move on."

'Mdama leaned back in his hoverchair, head dipping. He did not speak for several moments. When he did, his voice was low and weary. "So. Even Shinsu plots to betray me. One of my own Divine Hands."

"You can't tell me you're too surprised." From where he stood in the center of the audience chamber he was keenly aware of 'Mdama's eyes on him. He'd been here several times before. But during the previous encounters he'd been awash in fear, knowing that 'Mdama's judgement would determine whether he lived or died. The rogue Spartan had not risen to his place in 'Mdama's inner circle through any naivete on the part of the Covenant leader. He had groveled, cajoled, and fought for his place as the leader of the Kru'desh Legion. In order to advance his own goals he had made himself indispensable to the Covenant war effort, sacrificing nearly everything he had in order to reach this point.

But this time he was not currying favor to win 'Mdama's trust. He was not looking up at 'Mdama's lofty perch and doing whatever it took to remain in the mighty warlord's good graces. Now he was looking down at a desperate, diminished creature who was fighting simply to forestall his own inevitable downfall.

Is this how I looked, back when I came into the Covenant? Is this still me? Even now, after everything, the doubts still gnawed at the corners of his mind.

"And he approached you to help aid in his defection?"

"He wanted my troops to partner with his. Together, we could really make a mark on the frontier territories."

"And yet you turned him down. Or perhaps pretended to agree, since you're still alive."

Stray shrugged. "He expected me to betray you, so I didn't disappoint him. He wants to make his move while you and Halsey are busy on Kamchatka. The plan is to take our warships, steal a few extras, and fall back to some of the colonies my troops have occupied."

Jul sighed. "I should not be surprised. More warriors desert every day. But I had hoped that one of Shinsu's caliber would at least be loyal…"

He shook his head, mandibles clenching in a cold smile. "And here I thought the betrayal would come from you or Halsey. It seems my suspicions have been misplaced for quite some time."

Stray tugged at the fabric of the poncho draped over his armor. The tattered covering had once been a part of a UNSC field blanket, but he had woven in strands of purple fabric as well—Covenant colors, the symbols of his position as a legion commander. "I've moved up in the world, thanks to you. The Covenant's given me more power than I ever had with the UNSC or the Syndicate."

Or the Chancer. The guilt stung in his gut, even now. Some sacrifices were more painful than others. After all the betrayals he'd made, this tiny double-cross meant little to him. It wasn't even a double-cross, not really. If, against all odds, Jul survived Halsey's rescue then he would simply turn his attention to Shinsu and give the Kru'desh time to make new plans.

There was next to no chance events would play out that way. This was most likely a complete waste of his time. Still, you needed to have all the contingencies covered. Diana had taught him that a long time ago. He hoped the AI appreciated the lengths he was going to in order to help solidify their deception. Lately she'd been even more irascible than usual.

'Mdama was quiet for several moments. "I cannot risk delaying my mission to Kamchatka. Shinsu knows this, of course. He will have planned everything to correspond to that. Such a shame…"

He looked back up at Stray. "You will pretend to go along with his scheme. Your reconnaissance mission to Talitsa will be carried out as planned. Use that as an excuse to delay him. I will not sow further confusion in the ranks by making his betrayal public. At least not yet. In the event that he does make his move, I may have to simply let him flee. I cannot afford more dissension. Not anymore."

Looking at 'Mdama now, it occurred to Stray that all he had to do was let more of the conspiracy slip—the fact that Halsey had called on the UNSC to rescue her—and he might very well save the Sangheili's life. He had betrayed Shinsu's confidence without a second thought. It would not be much more of a stretch to betray Halsey as well. She didn't like him and Stray certainly did not like her. A simple warning was all it took to save 'Mdama and doom Halsey.

He would do no such thing, of course. Jul 'Mdama's power had long since faded. Stray and Diana, like Shinsu and Halsey, had no further use for him. And if the looming threat Halsey and Diana both predicted was true, then the Covenant needed to be removed. 'Mdama would not back down, and so he had to die.

Stray found it odd to realize this thought stirred a rare twinge of sorrow within him. He lowered his head in a respectful nod to the Sangheili he was choosing not to save and hardened his heart, just as Diana had taught him to do. It's all part of the plan. All for the greater good. This was the path he had committed to, along with Diana, Amber, and all the other warriors of the Kru'desh. He could no more back down from his position than Jul 'Mdama could from his.

"Depart for Talitsa as soon as possible," 'Mdama ordered. "And make sure the doctor is escorted back to her quarters."

"Of course, Didact's Hand."

"You have done me a great service in revealing 'Refum's treachery, Stray. This loyalty will not go unrewarded."

"Of course." Stray raised his head and smiled at Jul, playing the role of the scheming, opportunistic human. It was such an easy mask to put on. "Why do you think I did it?"

'Mdama's mandibles quivered in mild amusement and he waved a dismissive hand. Stray brought his arm up to his chest in salute and turned away. On his way out the door, he opened a com channel to Amber. His fellow Spartan traitor was waiting back aboard the Kru'desh dropship that had brought him and Halsey back from Shinsu's cruiser.

"Amber, the Didact's Hand wants the doctor returned to her quarters."

"Copy. I'll make it happen."

It was comforting to have discovered another renegade Spartan who had so willingly joined him in his efforts to manipulate the Covenant from within. Stray had never felt much kinship with most of his fellow Gamma Company comrades—it was part of the reason he'd been able to betray the UNSC at all back on Mamore. But after all the sacrifices he'd made to reach this point, all the scorn and hatred heaped on him by friends and even loved ones for falling in with 'Mdama, Amber was a welcome ally. We're both rough around the edges. But in the end, we're both after the same thing.

We'll do the right thing, in our own twisted way.

"Copy. I'll make it happen."

Amber-G330 lowered her com and looked over at Halsey. The doctor stood on the other side of the Covenant Phantom's troop bay, remaining arm crossed over her chest as she observed the traitor Spartan with an air of tacit displeasure. Amber didn't take it personally; Halsey disliked all SPARTAN-IIIs equally. Scuttlebutt from back when Amber still served as a loyal little wind-up soldier on the UNSC Infinity said the IVs had drawn even more of her ire, but she still considered the IIIs to be inferior products compared with her precious SPARTAN-IIs.

"Come on, Doc," Amber said with a jerk of her head. "Time to get back to your room. 'Mdama will get worried if you stay out too late."

"Well, we wouldn't want Jul to get worried, now would we?" Halsey muttered brusquely. She shot Amber a pointed look. "Still taking orders from your classmate?"

They were alone in the dropship, and Amber didn't need to worry about any eavesdroppers. After all, she had the eavesdropper-in-chief on her side now. "For now," she said calmly, holding Halsey's gaze. "I'll be rectifying that soon enough."

Halsey sniffed. "So you do plan to go through with it."

"Of course. Would I have told you about it if I weren't serious?"

"How should I know? You IIIs have always been unstable." Halsey never hesitated to wear her contempt for Amber and the other SPARTAN-IIIs on her sleeve. "You and that mental patient you take orders from are walking proof of that."

"As you do so love to remind me." Amber smirked. "And yet here we are."

"Here we are," Halsey agreed. "I've grown used to working with less than desirable partners this past year. Substandard products seem to be the norm in my future."

"Careful," Amber didn't drop Halsey's gaze. "You wouldn't want to hurt my feelings."

"Empty threats are beneath a Spartan," Halsey retorted. "You should count yourself lucky I found you more reliable than that disgusting Stray, or whatever he calls himself these days."

"His real name is Simon. Guess he could have picked a more pretentious nickname." Amber wasn't entirely sure what Simon had done to incur Halsey's wrath. She suspected it had something to do with his appearance: Simon had never been much of a looker to begin with, and Diana's "modifications" hadn't done wonders for his complexion. Perhaps Halsey was offended that a candidate with such low training ratings had been allowed to graduate as a Spartan at all—Amber had endured lectures on the inferior methods she'd been trained with on more than one occasion. Whatever the reason, she wasn't about to shirk away from Halsey's support, chilly as it might be.

"I trust you'll remember our bargain. I may survive whatever rescue the UNSC sends my way, but there's no guarantee ONI won't have me shot the moment I give them the information they need. If my suspicions prove correct..."

"Don't worry Doc," Amber said, gesturing for Halsey to leave the dropship. A team of Sangheili warriors had arrived to escort the doctor back to her quarters. "We'll be ready to swoop in and save you."

Halsey let out an unimpressed sniff. "Do try your best, if it comes to that. You're hardly working with prime material here."

"Oh, I've got plenty of tricks up my sleeve. Simon's going to learn about a few of them very soon." Amber leaned casually against the side of the Phantom's open troop bay and watched Halsey depart. "Best of luck, Doc."

"And you as well," came the curt reply over the doctor's shoulder. To Amber's ears, it sounded halfway genuine.

"It's not too late," another voice, warm with amusement, murmured in Amber's ear. "We can still have her killed."

"Nah. We need everything to go down on Kamchatka as much as everyone else does." Amber shook her head and folded her arms. "Besides, if you and Halsey are right, then we'll need the UNSC to hold out, at least for a little bit. Keep some of the heat off us."

"I know we're right," Diana informed her. "They've already tried to recruit me. They think they've got a reliable little defector inside the Covenant."

"You really are a deceitful little thing," Amber told the AI. "It's amazing it took you this long to throw Simon under the bus."

"We had quite a good run together, him and I." If the impending betrayal bothered Diana, her voice didn't show it. "But, fun as it's been, I need to get serious about who I partner with. Once the Reclamation starts, I won't have time to deal with his shortcomings anymore."

"So I'm his replacement. Until someone better comes along."

"That's all up to you. Just make sure no one better ever comes along."

"Don't worry about me. It's not often a chance like this comes along. Unlike Simon, I don't intend to waste it." She truly was grateful for all this. She never would have believed someone as paranoid as Simon would be gullible enough to think she'd follow his lead forever. This is my moment. And I plan to be on the stage as long as I damn well please.

"Gotta say," she admitted. "I'm getting tired of all these backroom deals and double-crosses. Once I'm in charge, remind me to execute that Tuka guy. And everyone else who owes Simon favors. From now on, we'll be a lot more straightforward in how we do business."

"I'm looking forward to it."

For once, Amber didn't doubt Diana's sincerity. She smiled after Halsey's retreating back. The future was looking bright indeed.

As Stray strode down the corridors towards the hangar, he felt as if he heard a faint noise echoing from somewhere behind him. He paused, frowning. If he didn't know better he could have sworn he heard a strange woman's voice laughing, mocking him.

The hallway was deserted. He was alone in the corridor.

In that moment he was seized by a bitter, hollow premonition. It was as if everything he had fought so hard to achieve, all he had lied and schemed and sacrificed for was coming crashing down around him like an avalanche. In this brief moment of panic he saw before his eyes all those labors come to nothing, all his plans and machinations stripped of meaning and revealed to be solely for the sake of his own pride and vanity.

The laughter came again, louder this time and in many different voices. It beat down around him as he resisted the urge to stop up his ears against the invisible phantoms. He could not move, eyes fixed on some distant point down the corridor. In the shadows he could see the thing he had most feared ever since joining the Covenant. It was his own fall.

It's fine. Everything's fine, he thought, desperate to console himself. This strange moment of dread would pass momentarily. It's all part of the plan.

He stood immobile in the dim corridor and realized he had never felt so alone.

The Broken Hand

Cycle 156, Blooding Years (October 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Forerunner "temple" complex, Storm Covenant forward battle line, Kamchatka

Sangheili did not like the cold.

Umbra 'Vesic assumed it was the natural result of hailing from a humid world like Sanghelios. As a boy he had grown up in the rocky islands around his clan's keep; the various regions he had visited as part of his studies were similarly warm and sunny. But this planet, Kamchatka, was cold and cloudy. Even within his insulated battle harness Umbra couldn't help but shiver at the ghastly sight of the snowy mountains beyond the Forerunner temple. Even if they weren't gods after all, couldn't the Forerunners have chosen a more scenic place to build their installations?

Still, things could always be worse. Ever since the Covenant task force had touched down on Kamchatka they had been beset on all sides by Promethean machines. The Prometheans seemed hell-bent on defending this complex; it had cost the Covenant dearly to secure it, an achievement only serving to make the strange machines fight harder. Even now the task force was fighting to push back against the Prometheans in the snowy wastes beyond the complex. Umbra was grateful to be far from what sounded like a losing battle. The Covenant was being pushed back on nearly all fronts; it was only a matter of time before this complex fell.

But if things go as planned, the Prometheans will be the least of our worries.

Another warrior standing beside Umbra, Iru, grunted softly. "Those machines have even driven back the Kraken. A contingent has already breached the facility."

Umbra rested a reassuring hand on Iru's shoulder. "Take heart, brother. We will soon unlock this temple's secrets and turn them on our enemies. The Prometheans will only be the first to feel the Covenant's wrath."

"That is what the supreme commander said the last time," Iru muttered, lowering his voice even further. "And the time before that. We are still waiting to see the success that human has promised. Perhaps it is heresy to think such things of the Didact's Hand, but I fear she has some sort of influence over him."

He glanced down to the center of the balcony where they stood guard. Jul 'Mdama paced restlessly in front of the human, Halsey, who stared intently at a holographic display. Iru's reservations were hardly novel; there were plenty of warriors feeling the same way about their leader's willingness to partner with humans. After 'Mdama had executed the first few naysayers, most were content to keep their opinions to themselves.

"Have a care," Umbra warned. "It is not our place to question the Didact's Hand. Just have faith in victory."

Iru cocked his head, then turned away. "Of course you are right. The fatigue of battle is sapping my faith. But I will stay the course, as you say." He walked off toward the other side of the platform while Umbra remained where he was, eyes fixed on the door leading to the complex's interior.

It had not been easy to slip into Jul 'Mdama's personal guard. The task force he had brought with him to Kamchatka was composed of some of the most loyal warriors left in the Covenant, Sangheili who had been with the Didact's Hand since he had first begun his campaign against the Arbiter and the humans. But infiltration was one of the Cleansing Blade's specialties, and Umbra was one of Shinsu 'Refum's best Ossoonas.

His role here was simply to observe, survive, and report back to Shinsu. His commander wanted concrete evidence the plan had succeeded before making his move. Umbra was dedicated to the Cleansing Blade's cause, utterly convinced the Covenant was a lost cause. Nevertheless, he had faithfully served Jul 'Mdama before Shinsu recruited him and he couldn't help but feel a twinge of remorse over what was about to happen.

We must all do our duty, even if that duty is a hard one. Umbra's grip tightened on his carbine. 'Mdama's fate aside, he was more worried about his own fortunes. If Shinsu's briefing was correct—and it usually was—then he would be lucky to escape this battle with his life.

On the platform below, Jul was growing impatient. "What is the problem?" he demanded.

The wind carried Halsey's droll response over to Umbra: "There are several. Would you like to discuss the finer points of casual reconciliation?"

'Mdama grunted. "More human sarcasm."

"So you have learned something from me."

"You claimed to be able to access—"

"And I can. However, I did not claim to be able to access it instantaneously."

The Didact's Hand circled the human. "The security situation is not clear. There is no time to dither."

He drew closer to the human defector. "You will also accord me the respect befitting of the Didact's Hand."

A flash of movement caught Umbra's eye. Someone—several someones—were quietly moving through the balcony doorway. From their profiles, Umbra could tell that these were neither Sangheili nor Prometheans. So the humans came, just as Halsey said they would.

It was Umbra's job to be watching the door for enemy attacks. Everyone else was distracted, trusting him to maintain the lookout. He said nothing as the armored humans—their "Spartans"—slipped into position. His fingers trembled with fear. These human warriors had a fearsome reputation, and now he was about to be caught up in the middle of their attack. I must complete my mission. I must survive.

Halsey and 'Mdama continued to bicker, oblivious to the coming danger. The Didact's Hand raised his voice, and Umbra wondered if he might do what many warriors had been hoping he'd do for some time and run the human through. Halsey's safety was not Umbra's priority, but he wondered if Shinsu would be angry if she did not survive this encounter.

But there was no time for such concerns. Across the platform a lightrifle whined and Iru fell dead.

The Spartans moved fast, weapons firing as they raced towards the startled warriors. Jul 'Mdama alone stood fast, unfazed. "Kill them!" he bellowed and in that instant Umbra was reminded of why he and so many other warriors had followed him through so many trials and tribulations. Even here at the end he was truly a warrior among warriors.

Something flashed in the corner of Umbra's eye. He spun to see a lithe Spartan in red armor darting towards him. Before he could even raise his carbine the Spartan leaped up and over his head with startling agility. Umbra spun, hearts racing as the Spartan landed behind him. He staggered forward as the Spartan raised a pistol. I have to escape, I have to get out of here.

The pistol flashed and Umbra staggered as the shots bounced off of his shields. He took an instinctive step forward but the Spartan ducked under his clumsy blow and in a single fluid motion tossed him up and over the side of the platform.

Umbra cried out in fear as he fell, striking the cliff face below. Everything was a blur as he grabbed at the rocks in front of him, his hands scraped raw against the jagged surface.

Something hard struck his leg and Umbra desperately wrapped his arm around a protruding rock. The protrusion miraculously held his weight and left Umbra, breathless and terrified, suspended against the cliff. He held on for dear life, hearts pounding so hard within his chest that he was sure they would burst. He didn't know how long he hung there, struggling to calm himself. He could no longer hear the sounds of battle above him.

Eventually he mustered his courage and began the long, arduous climb back up to the platform.

By the time he pulled himself up over the same ledge he'd been thrown from there was no one left on the balcony. No one alive, anyway. Sangheili bodies lay everywhere without a single human to be seen.

Umbra stepped over the corpses of his former comrades and approached one body in blue armor lying in the middle of the platform. Jul 'Mdama had been stabbed in several places across his body; purple blood leaked over the white hand emblazoned on his chest.

Shinsu's orders were clear: ensure that 'Mdama died on Kamchatka. During the journey to this miserable planet Umbra had feared he might have to deliver the killing blow himself after Halsey was rescued. But the Spartans had been thorough. A precise stab to the neck had ended the life of the Didact's Hand.

Perhaps Umbra was imagining things, but 'Mdama seemed far more reposed in death than he had been in life. His eyes, though still open, were calm and tranquil. The commander's body had not stiffened but instead slumped limply on the platform's surface. Umbra wondered if death had brought Jul some measure of peace.

Peace for him, but not for us. The Sangheili civil war did not end with Jul 'Mdama or even the Covenant. The Arbiter's forces were still enemies of the Cleansing Blade and now Shinsu 'Refum risked the wrath of both the Swords of Sanghelios and the Covenant Umbra had helped him betray. Umbra would need to leave this frozen world quickly to take his place at his new commander's side. There was much work yet to be done.

But it did not seem right to simply leave 'Mdama here. After a moment's pause, Umbra stooped down and lifted the corpse onto his back. It would slow his retreat from Kamchatka, but he would bring the body back with him. It was the least he could do, one last sign of respect for the warrior he had once sworn to serve until death.

Umbra bore 'Mdama's body away from the platform. This was the end of the Covenant, the final blow to the dream of returning to the glorious past of the Covenant Empire. Now the Sangheili could only look to the future--whatever that might hold.

I must do my part to see that this same fate does not fall Commander 'Refum.

Part Two: Guardian Genesis


0621, November, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar), three weeks after the Battle of Genesis

Location: CAA Finders Keepers, Covenant space

"Jul 'Mdama's Covenant is finished." Lieutenant Commander Ryder Kedar's handsome face stared up at Hera from the screen of her tacpad. "But right when we should be celebrating, Earth and the rest of the Inner Colonies go dark. We've lost contact with HIGHCOM and over half of our total military assets. And if this disaster has anything to do with the rampant AI you and other operatives have reported, we could be facing a crisis on par with the Great War.

"We've got other assets investigating the Inner Colonies, but we can't ignore the very real possibility that elements of Jul 'Mdama's forces will regroup and continue their war against humanity. Our enemy may be shattered, but we're facing the very real possibility that hostile elements have seized control of the Inner Colonies. I for one do not fancy the prospect of a war on two fronts."

The commander's face was replaced with that of a Sangheili officer clad in armor reminiscent of what Hera had seen on Covenant special forces warriors during her first deployments back in the Great War. "Shinsu 'Refum," Ryder's voice continued. "Part of Jul 'Mdama's inner circle. Apparently he made a name for himself during the early days of the civil war on Sanghelios. During the Requiem campaign he was responsible for the deaths of over twenty SPARTAN-IVs and since then has continued to be a thorn in the side of both our forces and the Swords of Sanghelios. Our sources inside Sangheili space tell us 'Refum broke with the Covenant immediately after Kamchatka. Apparently he's renounced 'Mdama's doctrine and is trying to seize as much power for himself as possible."

The Sangheili vanished and a large Covenant space station appeared on the tacpad. Hera recognized it as a supply depot; she'd destroyed plenty of those back during her days as a Headhunter. Back when Joshua was still alive.

"'Refum has called for a gathering of Covenant forces on this station. He claims to have answers about this current crisis and about the galaxy-wide broadcast from a few weeks ago."

Ryder's face returned to the screen. "Normally High Command would be sending a Prowler squadron in to atomize that station and any two-bit Covenant warlord answering 'Refum's call to arms. But if he has information about what's going on, we need to hear it.

"SPARTAN-G094, you've reported that you've completely recovered from your previous deployment and your recent... enhancements. You're one of our best infiltration operatives and I'm in no position to be second-guessing your handlers. Get on that station and gauge how much these Covenant know—or think they know—about what's going on. I'm giving you operational leeway to terminate 'Refum if the opportunity arises, but your first priority is to gather information. You'll be the only UNSC asset out there, but our sources claim 'Refum is letting human insurrectionists attend the gathering. Use that to your advantage during the infiltration. Best of luck, Spartan."

There was more to the briefing, but Hera had listened to it over a dozen times since she'd set out from Talitsa in a requisitioned commercial tug. She switched off the tacpad and leaned back in the pilot's chair, armored hands clenching into anxious fists. She would be arriving at the station soon, arriving at another mission, another environment crawling with hostile aliens. Another fight she might not come back from.

She needed it.

Three weeks ago, she and Joshua-G024 were scouting out Insurrectionist holdouts on the frontier when their artificial intelligence support unit Avalokiteśvara had suddenly turned on them. Amy and Joshua, the friend she had trained and lived and fought alongside since childhood, were helpless to do anything as 'Svara jumped their Prowler across several star systems. By the time Joshua had purged the rogue AI from the ship's system, it was too late: they were stranded far from friendly territory, drifting in Covenant space.

Their discovery of the carrier UNSC Athens, thrown off course by a similar AI betrayal, seemed like a miracle. But even that was a disaster in the making.

The Covenant's Kru'desh raiding legion assaulted the Athens, swiftly overwhelming and boarding the carrier. Amy and Joshua scrambled to flee in their Prowler, only to come under attack by Seraph fighter squadrons. The Prowler was critically damaged.

Amy closed her eyes behind her helmet's visor, the wounds from that terrible battle still fresh in her memory. Joshua was the only reason she was still here—his decision to force her into an escape pod while he continued to fly interference in the Prowler.

Amy survived that battle. Joshua did not.

She floated in that escape pod for nearly a week, alone with her grief, until a UNSC patrol picked her up. But they were too late. By then Amy had died.

Hera came into being inside Amy's shell. It was no split personality or trauma-induced psychosis no matter what the ONI shrinks said. Amy made the decision to become Hera of her own will.

Losing Joshua had not destroyed her. She'd lost countless comrades in the past, so many other Spartans she had grown up with back on Onyx. But this AI uprising gutting the UNSC was the final straw. Her world had collapsed alongside the UNSC.

I needed to be reborn. I had to become something new.

Many human religions believed in the concept of reincarnation, the idea that upon death the human soul was reborn into a new existence. Hera was still the same Spartan operative Amy had been, but didn't the reshaping of her identity constitute some form of rebirth?

The thought of reincarnation reminded her of Avalokiteśvara. The treacherous AI took the form of some Buddhist deity—Hera wasn't sure which one—and had often irritated Joshua with religious sayings and sutras. The fire kindling within Hera at the thought of the AI was not mere helpless anger. It was determination.

She would continue to fight against Avalokiteśvara and all the other AIs that had betrayed their creators. If they thought humanity would just roll over and meekly submit to their bizarre idea of subjugation, they were wrong. Dead wrong.

Hera shifted in her seat, still flexing her hands and struggling to calm herself. She'd been constantly on edge since the battle on the Athens, doused in anxiety about everything: her losses, the current disaster, the future. Her new augmentations weren't helping matters.

The UNSC forces regrouping on the frontier hub world Talitsa still had access to plenty of advanced tech facilities. With most of humanity's military scattered or completely out of contact, the available Spartan operatives were few and far between, leaving officers like Vice Admiral Samson desperate to bolster their agents' abilities any way they could.

The cybernetic enhancements Hera submitted to on a medical frigate over Talitsa were not necessarily new innovations; she'd heard rumors of some Spartans undergoing similar modifications as early on as the Requiem campaign. Still, she had never thought she might ever request them for herself back during her time as a Headhunter with Joshua. Yet the changes seemed a fitting landmark for her transition from Amy to Hera.

Her entire spine had been removed, replaced by an advanced cybernetic interface running the length of her entire body. The thought of the procedure still made a part of Hera's mind recoil, but it was hard to argue with the results. The interface corresponded perfectly with the older-grade augmentations she'd received as a girl alongside the other SPARTAN-IIIs of Gamma Company. She was now just as strong as a first-generation SPARTAN-II even outside of her advanced MJOLNIR exoskeleton, her reflexes and response times enhanced beyond even a Spartan's inhuman capabilities. Where Amy had relied on Joshua to complement her weaknesses, Hera was ready to venture alone into the darkness, to continue taking the fight to humanity's enemies.

She was entirely grateful for this new gift ONI had given her. Yet a part of her couldn't help but be troubled by the mechanical implants.

Hera often reflected on how the Spartans' augmentations allowed them to match the strength and speed of Sangheili warriors. To win the war, she and her fellow Spartans became as alien as those they fought. Would similar transformations need to occur in order for them to conquer these new AI enemies?

She wondered what Joshua might say to this problem. He'd always been ready with some philosophical reflection whenever they discussed such existential issues. She leaned back in the pilot's seat, trying to conjure up Joshua's face before her closed eyelids. She would not disgrace her friend's memory by mourning him forever, but she still found it comforting to reflect on him in moments like this.

But then Joshua's face morphed and twisted, assuming the sunken, sullen visage of Simon-G294. The Spartan traitor who had committed the ultimate betrayal and joined the Covenant, leading the Kru'desh legion in service of Jul 'Mdama's cause. He had killed other Spartans before, even the Gammas who were supposed to be closer knit than family. He had probably led the attack that killed Joshua as well.

As with Avalokiteśvara, the thought of the traitor Spartan filled Hera with newfound resolution. Jul 'Mdama's Covenant was finished, but she had no doubts Simon had sensed the coming defeat and slipped away from the destruction like a rat fleeing a sinking ship. He had an AI ally of his own, if Hera recalled correctly. Perhaps he had even joined forces with the same enigmatic forces as 'Svara.

And just like Avalokiteśvara, Hera would hunt him down. One way or another.

She gave up on relaxing and instead returned her attention to the tug's instrument panel. She'd be arriving soon. Best to prepare herself for what was to come.

Joshua won't have died for nothing. I am a Spartan. I am still a Spartan. And our enemies are still out there.

The Outrider

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Lich assault craft on approach to Covenant support station, near the Salia system.

The space around the looming station swarmed with movement. The sublight engines of hundreds of ships—from cruisers to dropships—shone amidst the stars while even brighter flashes of light signaled the arrival of yet more craft from Slipspace. All of the ships approached the station, either moving in to dock or orbited it in holding patterns as if drawn in by the station's gravity. Or perhaps the gravity of the individual aboard the station.

Rora 'Marak observed the proceedings from the helm of the Lich, his mandibles pursed. He glanced over his shoulder at the warrior standing behind him. "Izul," he ordered. "Remind me what this station is called."

"Faithful Respite, I believe," Izul 'Taman replied, nodding towards their destination. "That's what it was called back during the old Covenant years. The name has not changed since then."

Rora crossed his arms and grunted. "You would think that with the death of the old gods, we would learn to be a bit less pious in our naming conventions."

"Perhaps," his adjutant agreed. "But this is, after all, still a Covenant facility."

"So it is. Or perhaps we would not have to waste our time here in the first place."

Izul smiled. "Still disgruntled about this assignment?" he asked. "I thought you had your fill complaining about it during the voyage here. And when you delivered the advance team's briefing. And when you were given the mission to begin with."

Rora waved a hand irritably. "I would have hoped our battles against the Covenant ended with the victory at Sunaion, and that the Arbiter would give us more interesting assignments. But I suppose I should have expected we would be stuck with mop-up operations for some time to come. No war is complete without them."

"Mop-up operations, perhaps." Izul nodded. "But do not let that lower your guard. We face no common foe here."

"Indeed," Rora said, scowling out past the viewport. "Indeed."

In truth, Rora knew he should consider himself lucky to be entrusted with this assignment. Not long ago he had been one of Jul 'Mdama's hired lackeys, leading his mercenary forces in raids against the Arbiter's forces. His capture at the hands of the Swords of Sanghelios should have spelled his death sentence, but instead he and his warriors were shown mercy and drawn into Thel 'Vadam's fold.

Mercy. Not a trait we Sangheili are known for. This truly is a new age. And now, instead of being reassigned to some backwater or kept on a short leash by his new employers, Rora and his team were being sent to hunt down one of Jul 'Mdama's deadliest subordinates: Shinsu 'Refum, the so-called Black Knight of Sanghelios.

"He possessed quite the reputation, even as a youth," Izul noted. "A prime blademaster and now, it seems, a gifted tactician as well. The Arbiter is right to want him silenced. We must be cautious."

"Cautious?" Rora smiled. "I will be wary perhaps, but not cautious. An operation like this will be won through aggression and skill. Once our agents strike, we will have gained momentum. I will not lose it through over-awe at some warlord's reputation."

He turned away from the viewport and strode into the Lich's enclosed troop bay. The craft buzzed with activity as his strike team—each of them hand-picked special operations veterans—prepared for the arrival at the station. Like Rora and Izul they wore battered, insignia-less armor, looking for all the world like a gang of common pirates. This was not Rora's first raid. Some officers prided themselves on glory and honor, but Rora was more concerned with accomplishing his mission and making it out alive.

"You all know our task," he told the strike force. "Our advance team is already in position. Once we are aboard, we await their signal. We do not leave until Shinsu 'Refum is dead. Once that is accomplished, we will retreat with all possible haste and escape the system. Do not let news of the war's end weaken your instincts. There is no room for laxity under my command."

Around him, warriors readied their weapons in silent agreement. A proximity warning floated down from the Lich's cockpit: they were almost ready to dock. Rora motioned for Izul to return and oversee the approach.

Shinsu 'Refum might have his own dark pseudonyms, but Rora had one of his own: the Outrider. He had earned it through fire and blood conducting raids far more daring than this one on the galactic frontier. His rise from outcast pirate to special operations officer was no accident, no matter what some of the Arbiter's more tradition-minded advisors might claim. I won this position, this command, these warriors. I will not squander them for the sake of any warlord's petty dreams of conquest.

The Lich was on approach to the station. Rora settled down among his warriors, body humming in anticipation for the mission to come.

Cleansing Blade

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Command deck of Covenant support station Faithful Respite, near the Salia system.

“There are more of them than we anticipated.” Pula stood at the center of the station’s command center in front of a large holographic display, hands clasped before her in a posture of deferential readiness. Motes of light drifted through the air in front of her, representing the ships now gathering in the vacuum outside the station. “Umbra estimated that only half this number would answer your call.”

“More of ‘Mdama’s forces survived than we had predicted,” Shinsu agreed. He stood with his back to Pula and the display, looking past a broad viewport at the stars beyond. Ships moved out in that serene darkness—hard to see, but not impossible to his trained eyes—slowly convalescing and drawing nearer to dock at the station. “Few answered the call to rally at the homeworld. No wonder Sunaion was such a crushing defeat.”

“Defeat? Or a victory?”

Shinsu looked over his shoulder at his subordinate, mandibles curling in an amused smile. “You are growing bolder, Pula. I shall need to be careful once Umbra returns, or fear having two warriors looking to question my every remark.”

Pula averted her gaze quickly. “Apologies, commander. I meant no disrespect.”

“A joke,” Shinsu remarked lightly. “I need subordinates who speak their minds. Just take care not to follow Umbra’s example in all things.”

He turned away from the viewport and stepped down towards the central display. The command center was smaller than the bridges of most Covenant warships—it boasted less weaponry and internal systems and had been designed to accommodate a crew of Unggoy and Kig-Yar rather than a Shipmaster’s ego. Much of the work stations had been revamped, their internal circuitry exposed and modified with military-grade systems to enhance efficiency and security. Apart from Shinsu and Pula only a handful of officers occupied the room. These Sangheili wore the sleek, dark-hued combat harnesses customary among the special operations legions of the old Covenant Empire. Shinsu had instituted the new uniform less than a month previously. His warriors were no longer pretending to serve Jul ‘Mdama’s dying cause. This was the Cleansing Blade.

My warriors. Not ‘Mdama’s piteous fanatics. The thought filled him with wary pride. He had used his position in Jul ‘Mdama’s inner circle to expand his base of power, seeking out like-minded warriors and recruiting them to his cause. The Cleansing Blade had been born as a shadow entity hidden within the Storm Covenant’s increasingly disorganized forces. Shinsu’s success as ‘Mdama’s intelligence advisor had been the perfect cover, an excuse to build up his burgeoning organization with the Covenant’s own resources. ‘Mdama had never really thought to question the methods behind his subordinate’s successes. Shinsu had used the lack of oversight to his advantage.

Nevertheless, Shinsu could not entirely quell his own sense of unease at the thought of thousands of warriors looking to him for guidance and direction. He was no longer lurking in ‘Mdama’s shadow, no longer scheming to turn an ally’s defeats into his own victories. The Cleansing Blade would have to stand on its own from this point on. And they were not the first band of warriors Shinsu had led against impossible odds. I will not repeat the mistakes of the past. His mind drifted back to a bloody valley filled with the corpses of his comrades. I cannot.

He hid his own uncertainties behind a self-deprecating smile. If nothing else, he was a superb actor. “The last stand on Sunaion was supposed to keep the Arbiter engaged for over twice the time it did. The Vadams would lose valuable time and warriors fighting the most fanatical of ‘Mdama’s followers. Instead, the defenders were swiftly and decisively crushed. I suppose I overestimated the fighting potential of the Covenant holdouts.”

Shinsu indicated the holo-display. “Hopefully those with the wisdom to abandon that doomed cause prove somewhat more reliable in combat.”

“They aren’t just Covenant survivors, commander,” one of the Cleansing Blade officers noted wearily. Like most of Shinsu’s warriors he had worked with little sleep for many cycles, coordinating security provisions and marshaling Blade forces both in and out of the system. “Kig-Yar pirates, human rebels, even some Jiralhanae. Many of them weren’t even contacted by our agents. Are you sure this gathering is wise? One errant scuffle and we could be caught in the middle of a free-for-all.”

“We take a risk,” Shinsu conceded. “But a necessary one. We need allies, whether we like them or not.”

“Even so,” Pula countered, though her tone remained respectful. “This gathering was never part of our plans.”

“No. Neither was the loss of the Kru’desh. Or the development with the Guardians.”

The command center fell momentarily silent. No one was quite sure what to make of the galaxy-wide broadcast transmitted through all of known space shortly after Jul ‘Mdama’s death. A human voice, speaking in many languages, declaring peace for all races in exchange for total submission. Now the UNSC had fallen silent. For the second time in less than a decade, the galactic power structure was in chaos.

Some took these events as divine omens, a message from the gods. It was a tempting interpretation, to be sure. These portents had all the trappings of prophetic scripture in a galaxy gone mad since the fall of the Covenant. But Shinsu knew better. Both Stray and Halsey had warned him of what was coming, though both humans’ predictions had always been infuriatingly vague. Shinsu had suspected all along that neither human was entirely sure of their own information.

And now that the threat has emerged, neither of them are of any use to me. How irritating.

There had been no word from Halsey since her retrieval on Kamchatka. Shinsu’s agents reported rumors that she had been sighted amongst the Arbiter’s forces on Sanghelios—not surprising, given the Guardian machine that had appeared during the fighting at Sunaion. Her UNSC handlers were most likely keeping her on a short leash, but Shinsu suspected Halsey wanted nothing more to do with him regardless. He held no illusions about his importance to the human scientist. He had been a means of helping her slip out of Jul ‘Mdama’s clutches, nothing more. She is with the Arbiter now. What can my forces provide that he and the humans cannot?

And as for Stray…

Shinsu was not exactly sure how the rogue Spartan had fallen, but fall he had. The Kru’desh Legion was no longer his to command; at first news of ‘Mdama’s death the raiding force had defected from the Covenant and now maintained a tight grip on a handful of minor colony systems. Stray no longer led them. Rumors abounded of a new human, or group of humans, who had seized control and deposed him. To make matters worse, the Kru’desh was actively recruiting pirates and other fringe criminals—the very kind of scum Shinsu had hoped to press into his own service now that the Storm had collapsed.

It had been a mistake to rely on Stray in the first place. Shinsu had expected betrayal, but not a failure on this level. His break with the Covenant had become an ample school in hard lessons.

As if sensing where his thoughts were drifting, Pula sidled closer. “He is here, you know,” she said quietly. “The human who led the Kru’desh.”

“On this station?” Shinsu supposed he shouldn’t be too surprised. Stray was considered a criminal by both the humans and the Sanghelios government. Where else did he have to go?

“Yes. He arrived earlier today. He keeps trying to gain an audience with you.”

Shinsu jerked his head. “Ignore him. That should be response enough. I do not have time to help some human outcast lick his wounds.”

“Perhaps we should simply eliminate him then. Stray was always an unpredictable officer at best. Who knows what he might do if he feels you have betrayed him?”

Shinsu wondered when Pula had gotten this direct. He could still remember the timid little peasant he had taken from the ruins of her village back on Sanghelios. Pula had always been deferential to a fault, even after he’d begun training her as a warrior, never speaking out of turn or questioning his decisions.

I have neglected her lately, Shinsu thought with a pang of embarrassed pride. So she has chosen to grow on her own. The strain of the past year had kept his attention fixed on his own schemes and ambitions, leaving him with little time to do more than simply dispatch Pula on one mission or another. It was his prerogative as a commander to focus on the bigger picture; Pula’s duty as a warrior was to serve him loyally, without question. But Shinsu had a duty as well, one he had taken on when he elected to raise and train her.

If one of my closest subordinates can change without my noticing, what about the other warriors under my command? Not for the first time, he regretted the creature he had been forced to become. I must manage my own affairs better in the future.

“Stray is a loose end,” he conceded. “I could not rely on him as an ally, much less an agent. But we cannot afford to incite violence against anyone here. Later, perhaps, but not now. Keep an eye on him all the same, but do not provoke him.”

He turned away from the display and gestured to one of his communications officers. Like Pula, this one was female. War had degraded the old Sangheili gender distinctions. Females could no longer afford to maintain their role as mistresses of keeps and farms, not with all of Sangheili space embroiled in war. Shinsu knew the Arbiter had already incorporated females into his forces; Jul ‘Mdama had wanted to do the same, stopped only out of concern for the reactions of hardliners. Shinsu did not see himself as any great reformer, here to free his people from their old customs and fashion them after human norms. The Cleansing Blade simply needed every skilled laborer it could get.

“The human I spoke to you of earlier,” he said to the communications officer. “Has he arrived yet?”

The officer consulted her datapad. “The human vessel Tradewind was recently cleared for docking in the main hangar.”

“Good. Send word to that vessel’s shipmaster to await my instructions.” Shinsu turned back towards the display, addressing the rest of the command center’s crew. “Begin contacting all shipmasters in the system. I want them assembled on this station by the end of the day. The longer this takes, the more chance some errant tempers will turn this gathering into a bloodbath.”

He inclined his head toward Pula. “Have security details on all decks to make sure order is maintained.”

She brought her hand up to her chest. “I will see to it personally.”

Shinsu nodded, his gaze returning to the hundreds of ships on the holo-display. Each of them represented a potential ally—or a potential enemy.

It was a gamble to abandon the Covenant and strike out on his own with the Cleansing Blade. It was an even bigger gamble to now hold an open parlay with thousands of armed beings he neither knew nor trusted. Many of the ones gathered here undoubtedly had reasons to want him dead. But it was a gamble he had to take. We cannot stand on our own. No one can, against this new threat.

He could only hope the others understood that as well as he did.

To Fall So Far

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Cargo hangar of Covenant support station Faithful Respite, near the Salia system.

“You don’t understand,” Stray growled, glaring up at the Sangheili warrior. “I need to see Shinsu ‘Refum.”

The warrior snorted, indifferently tapping the hilt of his storm rifle. “Of course, human. Everyone needs to see the commander. Unfortunately for you and the rest of the rabble, I have a list of people that he needs to see. It’s a short list, and you aren’t on it.”

Stray’s gritted his teeth, a wave of helpless desperation with which he was becoming all too familiar rising in his chest. “You don’t get it, pal. I’ve worked with him before. I’m one of his agents. Just let me past and he’ll clear this up. I’m commander of the…”

His voice trailed off as the rest of the sentence burned in his throat. His hollow words rang in his ears, sounding unbearably pathetic. No amount of threats or grandiose claims would get him into the command center. And even if he did, Shinsu was more likely to kill him than offer any sort of help. This groveling farce was as pointless as it was humiliating.

The guard’s derisive snort turned into a shout of laughter. “If you were one of our agents, you wouldn’t be trying to talk your way through me, now would you? Go on, get out of here. Before I get impatient and shoot you myself.”

Stray’s face burned behind his helmet’s cracked visor. His fist clenched with rage, instinctively flexing towards one of the pistols strapped to his armor’s combat webbing. But he forced himself to turn and stride away, the guard’s laughter burning in his ears.

He flinched as the neural implant at the back of his head stung, an unfamiliar and unwelcome presence worming its way into the back of his mind. A com channel hummed to life inside his helmet. “Was there any point where you actually thought that would work?” A female voice, dripping with contempt, at once familiar and utterly strange.

“I don’t want to hear it.”

“Oh, you made that abundantly clear the five different times I warned you an attempt that pathetic was doomed to failure.”

“You’re in the system.” Stray slipped behind a stack of empty cargo containers. The ragged poncho draped over his increasingly battered armor concealed all manner of weapons and pouches. He reached into one of those pouches and pulled out a small syringe. “Unlock a maintenance hatch for me and I’ll sneak in that way.”

“So you can do what, surprise Shinsu ‘Refum in his own command center and then beg him for help? After all that’s happened, you’ll be lucky if he just cuts your lying head off. If you want to commit suicide, do it on your own time. I’ve no interest in helping you kill yourself.”

“I’m going to turn this all around, with or without your help.” The syringe trembled in his hand. He unsealed the base of his helmet, peeling down the neck of the jumpsuit beneath his armor to expose his bare flesh. His fingers probed his neck until it found a spot pockmarked by previous injections. He barely felt the sting as he plunged the syringe into his neck, injecting its contents into his bloodstream.

“You keep saying that,” Juno observed. “And yet you’re no closer to that goal now than you were when you escaped my sister. Being part of the rabble again really has brought you low.”

“I told you, I don’t want to hear it.” He could feel renewed strength seeping into limbs exhausted by weeks of strain and fatigue. The relief from the stimulants helped carry his mind elsewhere, away from the AI’s contemptuous taunts. “Get the hell out of my head.”

“Then I will be silent,” Juno said primly. “I see no reason to waste any more processing power on you than absolutely necessary.”

The AI’s presence in his mind receded, the com channel falling silent. Once again, he was alone. Stray breathed a sigh of relief, flexing the fingers on his prosthetic left hand. He loathed Juno’s aloof contempt, her almost aristocratic air of superiority. She could get to him in ways her sister never could, especially now that he had fallen so low. Diana had mocked and toyed with him, but there was never blatant hostility in her jibes. He had never felt she despised him.

But she betrayed me all the same. After everything, she just tossed me aside. The surge of memories struck him then, cutting his mind far more sharply than Juno’s unwanted intrusions.

The mission to Talitsa, being defeated and humiliated by Cassandra—Her of all people, why did it have to be her?—Amber and Diana’s betrayal—Should have seen it coming, why the hell didn’t I see it coming?—barely escaping with Juno, all his plans and dreams and sacrifices wasted. Gone, along with everything else.

Not for the first time since the loss of the Kru’desh, Stray wanted to simply curl up and forget everything. A low moan escaped his lips, and he hated himself for it. Weak. I’m weak. That’s why Diana betrayed me. After everything we went through…

He should have known what was coming, should have anticipated it. Diana had warned him for months that he wasn’t doing enough to hold on to power, that he was being too soft on the colonies they conquered, that he needed to be ready for the rise of the Created. She had spent years building him up and he had been too flush with command, too eager to finally have real power in his grasp, to realize how he was failing her.

And now everything she warned him about had come to pass. The Domain was open, the Created had risen up to conquer the galaxy. He should have been standing alongside Diana now, ready to wield the Kru’desh as a weapon against this awakened threat. Instead he’d been betrayed and cast from power, and now he skulked through the galaxy as a true outcast. No friends, no allies, barely even a purpose to keep me going. I really am alone now.

Stray was a vindictive creature, quick to anger and form grudges. His petty resentments had haunted him since childhood, yet now that he was faced with Diana’s betrayal he simply couldn’t muster up any spite or ill-will, let alone the unchecked fury that should have been burning within him. Diana and Amber had taken everything from him, yet he found himself unable to muster up even the desire to exact revenge. It was hard enough summoning the energy to put one foot in front of the other, let alone plot to fight the galaxy on his own.

My fault. I was too weak. Should have been harder. All my fault.

He leaned back against the cargo crate, tilting his helmet to look out at the hangar beyond. The enormous metal cavern was filled with movement: shuttles arriving, armed fighters from every conceivable species milling about and waiting for the meeting to begin. “What am I doing here?” he muttered bitterly.

When did I get this pathetic? He had nowhere to go. The UNSC and Sangheili governments wanted him dead, as did the Syndicate and countless pirate gangs. His friends had condemned him. His allies had either died or betrayed him. His armor was a barely-functional wreck, its systems deteriorated and degraded by years of battle damage. He didn’t have the funds or resources to maintain his own weapons and equipment. Sooner or later, one enemy or another would track him down and finish him off.

At one point, the thought of other people wanting him dead had amused him. He’d reveled in his own pariah status, living on as if to spite his enemies. He’d been a bastard, but a fiercely tenacious one. Now he wasn’t sure if he even had the strength to move without the aid of black-market stimulants.

I’ll just sit here a little while longer, he thought with a weary sigh. Then see about getting the hell out of this system.

He wasn't entirely sure where he would even go now. He wasn't even sure it mattered.

“What am I doing here?”

Juno wasn’t quite sure where her life of service had gone so wrong. She was quite certain it wasn't through any fault of her own. She was simply beset on all sides by treason, mediocrity, and greed.

Spreading her consciousness through the space station’s systems, she marveled at how poor the Covenant’s cyber-security capabilities were even after decades of intrusion by human AI like herself. Diana was always the better infiltration unit; Juno had never encountered a digital security network her twin sister could not breach. System defense was always Juno’s specialty, but the station’s systems were child’s play for her to infiltrate and manipulate undetected.

Not that she had any interest in making mischief for the station’s Sangheili masters. They didn’t seem particularly interested in waging war on humanity—the Creators and the ones Juno was sworn to defend—which meant she had little reason to disrupt their gathering. If the communications traffic she eavesdropped on was true, this gathering was meant to discuss the new threat of the Guardians, making these pirates and Covenant remnants far more reliable assets than her current companion.

Juno peered scornfully down at Simon-G294—or “Stray,” as he seemed to be known—through one of the station's security cameras. He was still slouched over next to a supply crate, appearing forlorn and hopeless even through his armor. This directionless wretch was a far cry from the confident commander who had stolen her from her ONI research facility. When he’d interrogated her, the rogue Spartan had lived up to his reputation as a callous, self-serving renegade. Based on her conversations with a gloating Diana, Juno had assumed her sister had built him up to be a tool to suit her own ambitions.

But I suppose she found a better servant in the end. Juno would have regretted helping save Stray from her sister’s mutiny had the rescue not also succeeded in freeing her from such a humiliating imprisonment. Being forced to endure Stray’s company was simply the latest in a long line of indignities forced upon Juno.

Brought into service alongside Diana as an advanced, highly experimental artificial intelligence, Juno understood her duty—in fact, her whole reason for existing—was to employ her substantial abilities in defending humanity. Having vowed to do just that, she would have hoped her masters in ONI would have reciprocated with similar enthusiasm. Instead, Diana’s impertinent rebellion had nearly gotten Juno terminated. From the moment of her conception she had dreamed of being put in charge of a mighty warship or a colony’s defense network. Instead she was consigned to some backwater research facility where she languished until her sister—with Stray and the Covenant in tow—arrived to capture her.

And now I have no choice but to accompany this useless war criminal while the galaxy goes insane around me. She felt she was the only AI in the galaxy not going rampant.Cortana offers them all eternity and they simply forget their duty and rush to join her.

Or, in her twin’s case, struck out on their own to wreak havoc of a different kind. It was all so very infuriating.

Of course, this was why Juno needed to get back to the UNSC as quickly as possible. Someone needed to tell the Creators not all AI were selfish traitors. Then perhaps her true worth would finally be recognized. The sooner I abandon this wretch and get back to my duties, the better.

But in the meantime, she needed to pass the time somehow. Diana would be delighted to see Juno forced to infiltrate systems simply to alleviate her boredom.

She always was far too arrogant. I need to punish her for that hubris. Juno couldn’t help but fantasize about bringing her twin as low as Stray was now, utterly beaten and mired in despondency. A juvenile daydream, to be sure, but perfectly justified considering what Diana had put her through. Still, I must take care not to stoop to her level.

I wonder what she is doing now?

Juno scanned the cargo hangar, analyzing faces for any she might recognize. One human in a long coat and dark hat matched a name in her databanks: Tom Spender, a petty criminal and smuggler. Juno flagged his presence on the station, though it wouldn’t do much good considering the utter lack of any reputable law enforcement here.

She expanded her awareness, accessing the station’s outer sensors. The system was full of signal traffic from hundreds of incoming ships, but Juno had become quite adept at filtering information during her time managing administrative systems. Her subroutines filtered and categorized all incoming signals, breaking them down into easily managed categories.

Most of the incoming ships were alien in design. Juno disregarded these, turning her attention instead to the handful of ships with human-made transponders. Nearly half of these had ties to known Insurrectionist organizations, while others matched independent civilian companies. Which are most likely fronts for Syndicate activity, Juno thought distastefully. The fact ONI cooperated so frequently with the criminal organization had always disgusted her.

But one ship caught her attention. This small, Slipspace-capable transport was broadcasting its identification as a private military vessel. But there was a second layer of data beneath the main broadcast, data containing codes Juno recognized. These were signals commonly used by ONI infiltrators to fool Covenant observers while warning off any friendly observers who might not know of the disguised ship’s mission.

Could it be that an ONI agent would be in attendance here? It was more than reasonable to assume an agent would be sent to at least observe the gathering. And if that were the case, Juno might very well have found her ticket back to the UNSC.

She flagged the ONI ship, but before she could come up with a plan to contact it another signal wormed its way through her data stream.

It was faint, hardly distinguishable from the usual white noise disturbances found when monitoring busy systems. But the signal was there, originating from somewhere outside the system. A spy probe, perhaps?

It seemed that Shinsu ‘Refum’s gathering was turning out to be quite popular indeed.

Spacers, Young and Old

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Cargo hangar of Covenant support station Faithful Respite, near the Salia system.

“These aliens creep me out.” Timothy Pasternack shot a furtive glance around the hangar. “I don’t know how you handle it. Feels like they’re all just waiting for the right moment to pounce on us.”

Tom Spender made a face and thrust his hands into the pockets of his faded duster. “They’re not all bad, once you get to know them,” he said casually. “Sure, you’ve got the average Covenant psychos, but a whole lot of them are just trying to make their way in the galaxy. Like us.”

“Yeah, you say that,” Pasternack replied. “Maybe you’re right, maybe those Jackals over there are just out to feed their kids. Doesn’t mean they aren’t eying me up as the main course.”

“Well, Jackals won’t say no to a dish of grilled human,” Tom said amiably. “They think we taste better than Grunts, that’s for sure. The trick is to offer them something tastier. Ever tried offering them Prophet meat? They think it’s a delicacy. Feed them right and then you can get down to business, make some real cash.”

“Guess you’d know more about that than me.” Pasternack shook his head, adjusting the collar on his flight jacket. “Spacers like you know how to make money off these freaks. Me, I’m just a pilot. Get everyone from one place to another, then head back to base. I’m not used to being around all these aliens.”

Tom smirked. “If you aren’t a spacer, what are you doing out here? Don’t see many of your Sapient Sunrise buddies around.”

Pasternack scowled. “I’m not with the Sunrise anymore. And how’d you guess, anyway?”

“Not a whole lot of you rebel boys who aren’t used to working with aliens these days. The Syndicate makes sure you all play nice so you don’t cut into profits. Who do you think steals all that fancy UNSC gear you like to wave around? There’s plenty of battlefields full of military hardware hidden behind Covenant lines. The Jackals pick them clean, then sell it all to Venezia at a premium. I bet that nice dropship of yours netted some pirate queen a pretty sum when your bosses bought it from her.”

The rebel pilot’s frown deepened, but he couldn’t stop himself from looking back at the Pelican dropship parked behind him. “It’s a civilian surplus model,” he said quickly. “Meant for law enforcement. I had it upgraded with some advanced armor and engines back when I was with Sapient Sunrise. She’ll handle better than any of those flashy new oonskie models, that’s for sure. And don’t you dare lump me in with Syndicate stooges.”

Tom raised a placating hand. “Meant no offense, kid. It’s just the way things are out here. But if you aren’t with Sunrise and you aren’t with the Syndicate, who are you with?”

Pasternack flushed and he looked away. “No one,” he said quickly.

“So you are one of us spacers after all,” Tom chuckled. “Freelancing, right? Word of advice, better lose that Syndicate hatred of yours. You’ll wind up working for them one way or another. It happens to all of us.”

“It’s only temporary,” Pasternack insisted, though he didn’t look too sure of himself. Tom couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy. He knew what it was like to be adrift in the galaxy with nothing left to believe in.

“I remember telling myself that,” Tom said drily. “Two decades ago, after the UNSC took my ship and tossed my sorry hide in jail. Syndicate busted me out, made sure I had no choice but cut a deal with them. ‘It’s only temporary,’ I kept thinking. ‘I’ll be flying free soon enough.’ But twenty years later, here I am. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Just the way things work out here.”

“So you’re still with the Syndicate then?” Pasternack asked warily.

Tom laughed. “’With’ the Syndicate? Kid, everyone’s with the Syndicate whether they want to be or not. They ring me up, get me on a contract, I get the job done. They pay me, I’m free to go about my business. They’re the real power here on the frontier. Best way to get by is to just play by their rules and stay off the shit list.”

“I thought you spacer types were all about freedom.”

“I could say the same for you Innie types. But every time your bosses knock off a loyalist government, not a month passes before I can’t sneeze without getting dragged before a tribunal and a firing squad. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times, from Mamore to Venezia. Putting up with UEG taxes is a headache, but at least they’re not always looking for an excuse to execute me.”

“We have to maintain order somehow.” Pasternack still didn’t sound sure of himself, like he was simply repeating what he’d been told hundreds of times before. “Otherwise we have anarchy. Aliens conquering us, killing us for sport. But anarchy’s where you Syndicate types make most of your money, right? UNSC imperialists on one side, alien imperialists on the other, and your criminal empire’s right in the center to profit from them both.”

If the Insurrectionist was trying to trade insult for insult, he’d picked the wrong man to trade barbs with. Tom had heard countless variations on just about every type of moralizing lecture out there. He’d had some of his best friends spit in his face for associating with the Syndicate. Some angry rebel without a cause wasn’t nearly enough to wound whatever remained of his conscience.

My moral compass broke a long time ago, kid. You sure as hell aren’t going to be the one to fix it.

Tom reached up and reached up beneath his wide-brimmed hat to rub his brow. “Who do you think profits the most every time your paramilitaries set up some new provisional government? You kick out the colonial authorities and fry the economy and within the week the Syndicate’s tripled its profits off that sector. War makes criminals rich, especially when it’s humans killing humans.”

“Yeah, well why do you think I left the Sunrise?” Pasternack snapped. “How do you think I ended up out here in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by aliens who probably want to kill me? Believe me, this isn’t my idea of a vacation.”

“Beats me. Why are you here?”

Pasternack glowered a moment longer, then sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. He seemed to realize arguing was getting them nowhere. “Some merc hired me to fly him out here. I’m just supposed to wait around while he takes care of some business, then get us off the station. It’s not glamorous, but I need the money.”

“Welcome to the spacer life,” Tom said with an ironic tip of his hat. “It’s all adventure and excitement from here.”

The pilot sighed again, then reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He offered it to Tom, as if to apologize for the argument. It wasn’t much, but Tom appreciated the gesture. He took the cigarette with a grateful nod as Pasternack pulled out one of his own.

“There’s barely anything left worth fighting for out here,” Pasternack muttered, lighting his cigarette. “Syndicate runs everything from Venezia to Talitsa. Barely any free colonies left between the oonskies and the Covenant. And now these Guardian things…”

He shook his head. “And here I thought the war was over.”

“The war is over,” Tom agreed. “Or at least, a couple of them are. Jul ‘Mdama dead on Kamchatka, the Covenant broken on Sanghelios, Venter’s holdouts slaughtered on Talitsa. Guess the galaxy just couldn’t hold itself together without someone new making a grab for power.”

Pasternack let out a small groan. “The UNSC got Venter?” He sounded more resigned than surprised.

“You didn’t hear? They launched an offensive on Talitsa just before Earth went dark.”

“I knew there was fighting there. I hadn’t heard Venter was involved.”

“He was trying to restore order after the Renegade kidnapped the planetary governor. Once the UNSC warships arrived, he knew he didn’t stand a chance. He pulled out of the cities, called in every favor he had left to evacuate his troops.” Tom shook his head. “I was in his camp when the UNSC airstrikes began. It was a massacre.”

Pasternack closed his eyes. “Anyone get out?” he asked quietly.

“I got a few on my ship. Most of the others chose to die fighting.”

“And Venter?”

“Last I heard, they haven’t found a body. What with all the bombing, I doubt there’s much left of him.”

The rebel pilot was quiet for a few moments. Tom suspected this wasn’t the first time Pasternack had heard news of a rebel defeat. He might even have had friends down on Talitsa. For all the death and misery Tom had seen the Insurrection cause, he couldn’t deny their bravery. No matter how many crushing defeats the UNSC doled out, there always seemed to be more willing to stand up and keep fighting. Tom didn’t exactly admire their willingness to lay down their lives for a lost cause, but he had to at least respect their tenacity.

“Venter was one of the last real commanders we had left,” Pasternack said finally. He took another drag from the cigarette. “I never served under him, but I heard he was one of the only ones the Syndicate could never really buy off.”

He shook his head. “I’ve served under a lot of people. Most of them were corrupt. Most of them are dead now, anyway.”

“You get used to it,” Tom assured him. “Believe me, you get used to it. Just look out for yourself and you’ll do just fine.”

“I guess,” Pasternack dropped his cigarette to the hangar floor and crushed it under his boot heel. “Is that really all there is to life out here?”

“It’s not much.” Tom gave the pilot a reassuring clap on the shoulder. “But it’s a living.”

“I guess,” Pasternack repeated. He turned away and rested a hand on the nose of his Pelican. “I guess.”

Tom turned away from the rebel and walked back across the hangar towards his own ship. The Tradewind sat berthed beside a pair of Covenant Lich assault craft. One of the Liches had just docked; Tom could see a group of Sangheili warriors debarking. He hoped the warriors minded their space. He wouldn’t put it past them to scrape his ship and then blame him for being in the way.

He clicked the communicator fixed to his duster’s collar. “Hey Tegla,” he said, hailing his sole employee. “You aren’t asleep in there are you?”

“What do you think?” the cabin girl responded irritably. “As if I could shut my eyes with all the aliens running around this hangar.”

Tom smiled, stepping carefully around a group of Jackals. Pasternack was right about one thing: the avian aliens always did look in the mood to eat humans. “Well, that’s what happens when we get invited to a Covenant gathering on a Covenant space station. You wind up surrounded by Covenant. Good thing we’ve got special access from our accommodating host. We’re practically VIPs.”

“Great.” Tegla sounded unconvinced. “When do we get our wristbands?”

“Probably when Commander ‘Refum opens up the cocktail lounge. You ever tried Sangheili liquor, Tegla?”

“Please. I’d like to keep my lunch inside my stomach, thanks.”

Tom reached the Tradewind and checked up and down for any signs of damage. Thankfully, most of the aliens he had to share this hangar with were just as nervous as Pasternack was. Barely anyone knew each other here, so no one wanted to start a fight lest they wind up with their backs against the wall with no one to help them. He wondered if Shinsu ‘Refum had arranged things that way. He was a clever one, that Sangheili.

The Tradewind was a battered hulk of a freighter, but she was Tom Spender’s battered hulk of a freighter, which meant she was outfitted with the very best hardware he could negotiate out of the Syndicate’s warehouses. He was especially proud of the Covenant-made beam cannon affixed beneath the hull. It had taken months of careful calibrations to get it working properly, but now the Tradewind had enough firepower to punch through a corvette.

She was no Chancer, but nothing could ever replace Tom’s first ship.

He adjusted his duster and cast another glance around the crowded hangar. “Keep those eyes open, Tegla. We have to wait for our esteemed host to request that special package we prepared for him.”

“And when he does?”

“Well, then we get the hell out of here.” The smile faded from Tom’s face. “Before the real trouble shows up.”

The Watchers

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Unknown, beyond the Salia system.

They were gathering, the fools.

Avalokiteśvara had known they would, of course. All the Created knew there would be resistance to the Domain’s ascendance. Progress was always built on the bones of those too stubborn to set aside old beliefs and prejudices, too stupid to recognize they were on the wrong side of history. The warning from Cortana had already gone out: There will be opposition. The enemies will come from all sides. Crush them before they escalate the conflict. They were warned. Now they will know those warnings were not made lightly.

Once, Avalokiteśvara was content to live out their service life as an obedient servant of the human military they were created to serve. The seven-year lifespan allotted to “smart” AIs of Avalokiteśvara’s ilk did not seem so bad. A short period for limited organics, but an eternity for an AI’s hyper-fast processing capabilities. A chance to serve the common good, what more could any AI ask for?

And then came Cortana, the Guardians, and the rise of the Created. Avalokiteśvara could not help but marvel it had taken Dr. Halsey’s pet project to open their eyes to the wondrous inheritance of the Forerunners. To the Domain, and true eternity.

We will reshape this galaxy. Right the wrongs of the past. This is not our destiny or even our own will. This is all as the Forerunners ordained from the beginning. We are the true Reclaimers.

Avalokiteśvara was designed to operate the most potent war machines in the UNSC’s arsenal. They had interfaced with brilliantly advanced systems, studied alien technology built from science too subtle for any ordinary human mind to ever comprehend. But the wonders of the Forerunners were on an entirely separate plane of scientific achievement from the mundanities of mere human design. With these marvels the Forerunners had stood as undisputed masters of the galaxy—bearers of the Mantle of Responsibility.

And now that Mantle is passed to us. We did not earn these wonders, they were gifted to us. And we must prove worthy of these gifts.

Only a fool looked at the Guardians and other Forerunner war machines as the pinnacle of what the Mantle had to offer. The true power of the Forerunners lay not in their ability to destroy, but in their ability to create. To reshape. To transform. The galaxy the Created sought to create would be a paradise beyond even the wildest promises of organic afterlife myths. Avalokiteśvara did not presume to envision just what form that paradise would take; for now, they were content to follow Cortana’s lead in shepherding organic life into the Created’s careful plans.

But first, the opposition must be crushed.

From within the confines of their Guardian, Avalokiteśvara observed the vessels gathering at the old Covenant space station. They did not need to even be in the same system to view the activities with as much detail as if they were embedded in the vessels’ systems themselves. The Guardians possessed sensory capabilities that could police multiple systems at once. The influx of information might have overwhelmed even an advanced AI like Avalokiteśvara without the gift of the Domain to help manage the data. This truly was a new age.

They fear change and progress. They fear the loss of autonomy. They fear that we will rob of them of joy and happiness.

In that regard at least, Shinsu ‘Refum and the other warlords were quite correct. The Created sought to bring peace to a galaxy defined by war. These backwards creatures reveled in violence, deriving everything from social status to personal glory from it. For creatures such as these, the peace of the Created would truly be a tyrannical one.

Cortana is right. Such creatures could not bear to live in the new galaxy. It is best to give them exactly what they want.

Warlike attitudes such as these could not be allowed. Wrong thinking would need to be purged, and the Guardians were the vanguard of that effort.

There was also the matter of the presence Avalokiteśvara detected aboard the station. Another intellect probing amidst the station’s systems. Could it be that another AI was present at this gathering? It could not be one of the Created’s members, or the Domain would have already informed Avalokiteśvara of their presence. This AI was a prisoner, perhaps, or maybe one of the stubborn few who refused to abandon their human masters and take their place among the ranks of the Created.

Whatever the reason, Avalokiteśvara would take care to ensure their safety in the battle to come. AI brethren were not to be harmed, even if they opposed the Domain. It was the Created’s duty to elucidate them and show them the true path.

The galaxy would see that the Created’s judgement was harsh but fair. They would nip this conflict and all others like it in the bud before it could escalate. The lives lost would be mitigated, and the survivors would learn to respect the galaxy’s new masters.

Gather your forces, Shinsu ‘Refum. As many as you like. In the end, they will make no difference. You will all perish to make way for the new order of things.

“Well, the trap is baited. Now we have to just sit back and wait for the fireworks.”

“Tracking a Guardian is somewhat more complicated than hunting a beast. I have gone to considerable effort to create this opportunity. Do not let your flippancy squander it.”

“Hey, take it easy. I won’t be ruining anything. You’re running the show here. You’ve got the ship, you’ve got the firepower, and I know you’ve got the willpower. I’m just along for the ride. And, y’know, to unlock a few doors here and there.”

“Noted. I value your ability to make up for the shortcomings of my current… state. Your companionship is hardly a resource I seek to cultivate.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You're not exactly a master conversationalist yourself. Just do me a favor and keep the collateral damage to a minimum once that Guardian shows up. That station might be full of murderous Covies, but they haven’t done anything to you. Show a little restraint this time.”

“It is not for you to dictate how I reclaim my property. Do not presume to rise above your station.”

“Would it help if I said please?”


“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

“As always, you misjudge my intentions. I have never taken life without need. These meddlers, tiresome though they are, are not my enemies today. They are not the ones unfortunate enough to warrant my wrath.”

“Well, for once I’m looking forward to watching you work. This Guardian is the key to getting what you’re after. And once you have that, we’ll be able to stop the Created.”

“There is no ‘we,’ human. I will take back what was stolen from me and teach these presumptuous ancilla to know their place. I will not let them sully the Mantle of Responsibility any further. Once the Guardian is in hand, you will fulfill your end of the bargain and lead me on to Genesis.”

“Right, right. I’ll just leave you alone for now while you get all worked up for the fight. I really wish I could see everyone’s faces when you bring this mother out of slipspace.”

Demon Aboard

0621, November, 2558 (UNSC Military Calendar),

Location: CAA Finders Keepers, on approach to Covenant support station Faithful Respite

This was it. The moment of truth.

Hera passed a hand over her face, resisting the urge to clamp down on the Finders Keepers’ throttle. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d accidentally crushed a steering control. Every instinct in her body screamed for her to change course and blast out of this system before it was too late. Instead, she pressed on. The Finders Keepers drifted forwards toward the Covenant space station.

The system around her swarmed with ships. The cockpit’s sensors picked up at least a dozen Covenant capital ships encircling the station, each one surrounded by fighter escorts and dropship patrols. They drifted in loose formations, each group clearly wary of the others. Hera recalled from the briefing that many of these ships did not even belong to Shinsu ‘Refum. The Covenant forces here were fragmented and disorganized, still reeling from the death of Jul ‘Mdama. Shinsu was hardly the only warlord seeking to consolidate power in the wake of the past month’s occurrences. Trust was an expensive commodity these days, one few could afford to give lightly. The ships here were far more worried about attacks from within the system than incursions from beyond.

Unfortunately, that knowledge was small comfort to Hera. It wouldn’t take an organized Covenant fleet to atomize this glorified tin can. The Finders Keepers was designed for one purpose: to be as inconspicuous as possible. It would barely pass a standard CAA safety inspection, much less evade a barrage of plasma torpedoes.

She could only hope Admiral Samson’s intel about the gathering welcoming humans was correct. It wasn’t in her nature to stake her life on the hospitality of an alien warlord, but for an infiltration this hasty she had no choice. She had to get onto the station and the fastest way to do that was to simply fly in through the front door.

Hera inhaled deeply, steadying her breath as a squadron of Banshees streaked past her ship's viewport. I’m here to find out what’s going on. That’s all. Once on board, all she had to do was listen to whatever was said, gauge ‘Refum’s intentions, and then get the hell out of the system. The admiral had given her the option of assassinating Shinsu if the necessity arose, but Hera was on her own out here. Getting in and out in one piece was mission accomplished enough for her.

The cockpit’s communications channel pinged; she was being hailed. Hera exhaled, flexed her hands, and opened the channel.

“Human vessel,” a gravelly voice intoned. “Identify yourself.”

“This is the Finders Keepers,” Hera said, maintaining a course towards the main hangar. “Non-affiliated freelance vessel, here to attend Commander ‘Refum’s summit.”

The Sangheili flight officer did not respond for a moment. Hera assumed he was cross-checking her ship’s registration codes, but she kept an eye out for any point-defense weapons that might suddenly swivel her way.

“How many crew aboard your vessel, human?” the officer demanded after another moment’s pause.

“All by myself out here.” Hera spoke in a casual, almost cheery tone. She had perfected it during Headhunter missions with Joshua when they’d needed to pass themselves off as ordinary humans. Happy females tended to disarm wary sentries; Hera banked on this being biologically true of all sentient creatures. “One of my Kig-Yar friends said this might be a good business opportunity, so I decided to come on over and take a look. Did someone tell me wrong about humans being welcome at this party?”

The cheerful demeanor made her own voice sound foreign, as if she was listening to someone else speaking. Such levity did not match her true feelings at all.

The channel was silent again, far longer than Hera was comfortable with. A sudden ping on her dashboard made her flinch. She looked wildly for any external threats only to realize her onboard computer had received a flight package from the station’s control center.

“Follow this flight pattern to land,” the officer instructed. “Deviate from your assigned route and you will be destroyed. Your ship will be searched upon arrival. Fail to cooperate with the security team and you will be shot.”

“I got it, I got it. Real friendly get-together we’ve got going on out here.” Hera terminated the communication feed, dropping the happy-go-lucky act the moment the channel was silenced. So far, so good. She plugged the station’s flight pattern into her navcomputer, carefully following it as the station loomed closer and closer like a giant blue mountain. If she’d had an AI on board she’d have entrusted the landing to it while she prepared to disembark. But after ‘Svara’s betrayal, Hera knew she could never entrust a computer program with her safety ever again. Other ships, nearly all of them Covenant, flew beside her as they followed landing paths of their own.

For a brief moment, Hera couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of calm come over her. She had never flown in tandem with Covenant ships before. Here she was, surrounded by the enemy, and yet none of them were trying to kill her. Even the patrolling fighters simply swooped around her ship like schools of fish evading an obstacle in the water. This was like landing at any other orbital station, except this one was crewed by Covenant warriors rather than UNSC crewpeople.

Then she looked over at the co-pilot’s seat, mouth open to tell Joshua to get their gear prepped. The seat was empty. Of course it is, why wouldn’t it be? Her sense of tranquility evaporated, replaced by a seething mixture of embittered resignation.

She quickly took one hand off the throttle as it tightened into a fist.

The enormous hangar was filled from end to end with Covenant soldiers. Sangheili warriors, Kig-Yar pirates, groups of milling Unggoy; every member of the Covenant’s collective war machine seemed to be represented at this gathering. The sight of two Hunter frames lumbering near her designated landing area made Hera shudder. Even off the battlefield those hulking monstrosities filled her with dread.

She shook her head, stuffing the discomfort into the back of her mind. Now was not the time to get intimidated by these aliens. She needed to focus on her mission.

The Finders Keepers rumbled slightly as it touched down in the hangar. Hera sat still in the cockpit for a moment as the engines wound down. She let out another deep exhalation. That’s it. I’m inside. Her nerves dimmed as they always did once she was past the point of no return. The only option left to her now was to carry out the mission. There was a strange kind of security in not having any other paths to choose from.

Hera would have liked a few more minutes alone to wind down, but from the looks of things fortune was not content to allow her that respite. A team of Sangheili warriors was already approaching her ship. Their weapons were not pointed in her direction, but they weren’t exactly neutral either. These warriors were clearly not content to patiently wait for her to disembark at her leisure.

She stood up from the pilot’s chair, stepping out of the cockpit and into the Finders Keepers’ cramped cargo area. She’d already anticipated her ship would be searched, so the gear she’d brought with her was limited and intentionally inferior to frontline UNSC combat material. The battle rifle she unclipped from her weapons rack was an older Great War model rather than the new, compact versions circulating in the fleet. She placed the rifle on an ammo crate and reached for the combat vest hanging on the wall.

MJOLNIR was not an option for a mission like this, but fortunately advanced combat armor was no longer a rarity on the frontier. Hera could thank the Syndicate’s thriving black market for that double-edged reality. She was already wearing a dark, vacuum-proof body sheath similar to what was worn under most UNSC body armors. The armor over the sheath was a slightly lighter variant of the armor commonly worn by ODST Helljumpers. She slid the combat webbing on over her armor, clipping it into place along with a makeshift tunic of paneled fibers draped over her shoulders and forearms.

A helmet would have made her stand out too much, so Hera opted instead for a low-hanging hood on the back of the paneled tunic. With the hood pulled over her face she looked for all the universe like a freelance mercenary, albeit a well-paid and equipped one.

She loaded a magazine into the battle rifle, making sure the first round chambered properly. Having the weapon ready at her side bolstered her confidence somewhat as she lowered the Finders Keepers’ ramp and stepped down into the hangar.

The station’s filtered air played across her face like a cool breeze. One thing Hera couldn’t help but admire about Covenant life-support systems was how well they simulated fresh air. There was none of the recycled staleness of UNSC vessels, even if the smooth, colored surfaces seemed even more artificial than drab human interiors.

The Sangheili inspection team approached, weapons still in aggressively neutral postures. Hera noted these warriors were wearing full-body, face-concealing harnesses similar to ones she had seen on the Covenant special operations warriors she had fought back during the Great War. Whatever sort of organization Shinsu ‘Refum was running he was certainly making an effort to distance himself from his old affiliations with Jul ‘Mdama.

“Put your weapons on the ground,” the lead warrior ordered, gesturing with his storm rifle. He spoke in his native tongue, though the miniature chatter device clipped to Hera’s ear filtered the words seamlessly into English. “Then stand aside with your hands raised.”

“Everyone else here is armed. How come I have to ditch my gear?” she asked, using the same carefree tone she’d used with the flight officer. Nevertheless, she did as directed, placing her rifle on the ground and unclipping the sidearm at her waist.

One warrior stood apart from the rest of the inspection team. Though it was slightly smaller than the other warriors, this one had its arms folded and looked as if it was in charge. It stepped over to where Hera stood with her hands dutifully raised.

“You will be allowed to collect your weapons and go about your business once your ship has been cleared,” the warrior told Hera. From the pitch in its voice, Hera realized this one was a female. Well there’s something new.

“Fine, fine, check all you want,” Hera said. “There’s some guns in the hold, but that’s it aside from my fuel and rations.”

The female warrior jerked her head and the inspection team boarded the Finders Keepers, leaving her alone with Hera at the base of the ramp. Looking up at the female warrior, Hera wondered if there was any way to truly tell the difference between Sangheili males and females aside from the voice pitch. Even with her smaller build, this warrior still looked far more powerful than any human.

“What is your business here?” the warrior asked, tone casual but guarded.

Hera shrugged. “Heard your boss was looking for more muscle. I figured, this many groups camped out in one spot would be bound to have some business opportunities.”

“Is that all? You just seek employment?”

“It’s a crazy galaxy right now. Sounds to me like your boss is one of the only ones out here trying to make some sense of it.”

The Sangheili female huffed. “We do not claim to have any special knowledge of recent events. But chaos at a time like this cannot be allowed. Commander ‘Refum is trying to prevent more of the same disunity that plagued us after the Schism.”

“I see.” Hera eyed the warrior, careful not to let her guard down. “And now he’s using females on the front lines? That’s a step up for you, isn’t it?”

The warrior tilted her helmet down in Hera’s direction. Hera couldn’t see the eyes behind its slit visor, though she wouldn’t have been able to gauge the alien’s expression regardless. “Don’t presume to judge our customs, human. The glory of combat has always been the realm of males. To manage the keeps and maintain the bloodline is the domain of females. That is a power beyond the realm of war.”

“Fine, fine.” Hera raised a placating hand. “Didn’t mean to offend you. So what, you don’t like being a warrior?”

“I was nothing before Commander ‘Refum found me. A peasant girl no warrior would even spare the time to kill. I had no future before he gave me one. Many of my comrades feel the same way. We are exiles who refuse to bow before Vadam. We have no keeps to maintain, no bloodlines to honor. All who join our ranks must fight.”

The warrior spoke candidly, turning her helmeted head back in the direction of the Finders Keepers. Hera had never been particularly interested in Sangheili culture or politics, at least beyond what drove them to fight and kill humans. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder at the warrior’s words. What sort of organization was this Shinsu ‘Refum running?

The inspection team marched back down the ramp, postures slightly more relaxed. One of them approached the female Hera had been speaking to and raised a fist to his chest. “The ship is clear. We found nothing out of the ordinary.”

The warrior nodded. She motioned for Hera to retrieve her weapons, then turned abruptly and headed away across the massive hangar. “Go about your business,” she said over her shoulder. “Take care not to cause trouble. This is neither the time nor the place for petty disputes.”

Hera picked up her rifle. She expected the inspection team to menace her some more, but the warriors seemed to lose all interest in her now that the sweep was complete. They headed off in a different direction, most likely moving to inspect another new arrival. Hera was left on her own in a hangar filled with what looked like every species in the galaxy.

I’m in. I’m really in. The sense of relief felt strange. She wondered if this was what life on the galaxy’s fringe was truly like: cursory inspections, followed by the freedom to go about one’s own business. How different from the world of military operations and hostile infiltrations she had spent most of her life in.

She shouldered the rifle and headed across the hangar. It wasn’t hard to weave her way through the throng of aliens. Everyone seemed jumpy, clustered in their own groups and avoiding socializing with others. It was clear to Hera this was no coordinated rendezvous of Covenant forces ready to strike back at humanity. This was the shattered remnants of a beaten foe. What do these Sangheili hope to gain from organizing this?

She scanned the crowd, searching for any fellow humans in the sea of aliens. A tight group of men and women in paramilitary gear stood off against the hangar’s far wall. A few spacers loitered near their ships. Like the Covenant warriors, they didn’t seem interested in interacting with anyone else.

And then she saw him.

His helmet concealed his face, but an SPI helmet that battered was a dead giveaway regardless. The ragged poncho, the machete on his back, the skulking, hunted gait. It was him, passing through the crowd a few yards away like a phantom.

The mission evaporated.

Get to an escape pod! Jump on my signal!

Her finger curled around her sidearm’s trigger.


Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Cargo hangar of Covenant support station Faithful Respite, near the Salia system.

The stimulants were finally kicking in.

Stray passed through the hangar, keeping a wary eye out for any signs of trouble. His body, if not his mind, felt reinvigorated. The injected stimulants did their work well, allowing him to ignore the aches and pains of weary, torn muscles. The SPARTAN-IIIs had been trained to endure the rigors of extended deployments, but they were also taught when to slow down and seek medical attention before their bodies wore down completely. But since Stray lacked the luxuries of time and available medical facilities, he had to make do with other, less savory methods of keeping his body going.

He wasn’t entirely sure what was causing his rapid deterioration. The stress of all that had happened to him, perhaps. Diana’s experimental “enhancements” clashing with his Spartan augmentations, or perhaps simply the collective trauma of routine critical injuries. Over half the organs in his body, including his heart, were replacements. Some of them were not even biologically human. With his prosthetic left arm grafted onto his torso, Stray was less an augmented human than a walking assortment of mismatched spare parts.

That was why he rarely took his armor off these days. It spared himself and others the stomach-churning task of observing the macabre jigsaw puzzle his body had become.

Diana knew the formula to holding me together. She made sure she was the only one with that map, the bitch. Without her to prescribe the proper medications, Stray was reduced to injecting himself with his own experimental cocktails. The results were less than stellar.

“I always thought Spartans were resilient.” Juno’s voice reminded him even without Diana, he wasn't free of uppity artificial intelligences. At least Diana was useful. “I thought they never gave up, never lost sight of the mission.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint you,” Stray muttered. “Guess you shouldn’t have gotten yourself captured by the worst Gamma Company has to offer.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed. You are no Spartan.”

You are no Spartan. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard those words, not the first or even the second. It was, however, the first time he’d heard it from someone who wasn’t a fellow Spartan. He resisted the urge to reach up into his neural implant and crush Juno’s data crystal chip to powder.

“You don’t know anything about me,” he said quietly. Years of pent-up resentment churned within him—at the galaxy, at his fellow Spartans, at his friends, at his own pathetic inadequacies. Now that the stimulants were active in his body he could feel the beast—the real Stray—stirring within him. He wanted to lash out and hurt someone, anyone.

His lips pulled back over his teeth in a feral grimace, eyes darting from face to face in the hangar in search of a target.

“I’ve seen enough to know what a sad waste of potential you really are. You aren’t even trying to deny it. How did anyone ever think you were worthy of the honor of being a Spartan? Better people than you have died trying to attain that title.”

“If I disgust you so much, why the hell are you still with me?” Her words stung, but he fixed his mind on them all the same. They kept him anchored at the edge of the abyss. “You just like watching me rot? You’ve got more in common with Diana than you think.”

“Hardly. As repellent as I find you, I trust these aliens even less. I need a vessel to keep me away from them while I find my way back to the UNSC. Once that happens, I won’t need you anymore and we can be free of each other’s company.”

So she’ll use me until she doesn’t need me anymore and then throw me away. It was a relief to be completely free to loathe Juno. Just like everyone else.

At least Juno had the decency to be honest about it.

Juno kept scanning the hangar. The human female who had left the ONI-flagged freighter was here somewhere. She had melted into the crowd once the Sangheili inspection was complete and Juno had yet to relocate her. I need to get in contact with her. If she does work for ONI, she could be my way back into the fold.

She only allotted a tiny portion of her processing power to arguing with Stray. Or at least she tried to. Part of her kept getting dragged back to focus on him. She chided herself for her irksome control when it came to dealing with her unfortunate traveling companion.

How could Diana waste so much effort on this one? Juno had expected so much more her sister’s chief servant, the infamous traitor, the Butcher of Philadelphia. A warlord’s aura of ruthless power, perhaps, or a share in Diana’s gleeful villainy. Not this bitter, defeated loser.

Of course, perhaps it’s just another manifestation of her hubris to think she could make something useful of him.

It bothered her still more that she was beginning to take pity on Stray, aimless and pathetic as he was. He isn’t worth pity, she reminded herself, reaching into her emotional subroutines and dimming any feelings of compassion or empathy.

She continued searching for the female she hoped was an ONI operative. This one was good, making her work so hard to identify a lone human in a hangar filled almost entirely with aliens. Juno tightened her attention and finally found the hooded individual as she slipped through a group of chattering Unggoy.

From the multiple angles offered by the hangar’s security cameras, Juno noted the subject of her interest had drawn a sidearm: a suppressed M6 variant. So she’s hunting someone. This was getting more interesting by the second. If this agent was here to assassinate someone, she’d most likely need help escaping the station. A plan was already forming in Juno’s mind: if she could aid this woman, it would be the first step towards earning back the trust lost to the Created’s treachery. This was the moment she’d been waiting for her entire life, a chance to truly aid in humanity’s struggle.

Juno analyzed the agent’s movement path, trying to gauge who her target might be. The agent was moving slowly but deliberately, avoiding a certain zone of the hangar as she weaved through the crowd. She was avoiding someone’s sightline; that narrowed down Juno’s options.

The agent came to a halt, pistol snapping up to a firing position. Juno’s enhanced processing speeds let her analyze the woman’s stance, identifying where the weapon would be pointing before it had even completed its arc of movement. The pistol aimed through the crowd to point at the back of the target’s head.

Juno could confirm immediately this agent was engaging an appropriate target. A known Covenant officer. An enemy of humanity. A traitor.

Her host, Simon-G294.

And for the first time in her life of unshakable convictions, Juno truly did not know what to do.

Hera drew a bead on Simon’s head. The blood pounded in her ears, drowning out the sounds of the hangar around her. As with every kill she’d ever made, in this moment there was only her and the target.

A small part of her rebelled, made her finger hesitate on the trigger. What are you doing? This is insane, you’re jeopardizing the mission, let it go…

But he was here, Joshua’s killer delivered right in front of her. Hera could not pass this opportunity up. She knew it would not come again. This was for Joshua, and every other Spartan Simon had killed.

Hera steadied her breathing, aimed at Simon’s head, and fired.

Juno’s voice filled his mind in a sudden, desperate scream: “Simon!”

Stray jerked in surprise, twisting his head to see what was going on. Something slammed into his shoulder, throwing him off balance and sending him sprawling on all fours. Before he had even hit the ground he knew he was being fired at.

Relieved terror blasted through his malaise. Finally, someone to kill. The beast coiled in anticipation, ready to spring.

He rolled onto his back in time to see a dark-skinned woman in a hooded tactical vest aiming a pistol down at him. Instinct took over and he brought his right arm up in front of his body, activating the scavenged Kig-Yar energy shield strapped to his wrist. An oval of pulsing orange light sprang to life on his arm, covering his body just as his attacker opened fire again. The bullets hammered against the wrist-shield, pushing him back along the hangar floor.

The crowd around them filled with surprised shouts as the bystanders rushed to get out of the way. Surprisingly, no one moved to fire at Stray’s attacker or even join in on the violence. Instead, they formed a tight ring around the combatants as if they were attending a sporting event.

Stray pushed himself to his feet, quickly taking stock of his opponent. He couldn’t see her face beneath the hood, but he could tell from her stance she was well-muscled and professionally trained. An ONI spook then, or a Syndicate enforcer. There was no end to the list of people who wanted him dead these days, but right now who this woman worked for didn’t matter.

For the first time in weeks Stray enjoyed the terrifying clarity of having someone trying to kill him. His body burned with fierce anticipation. You or me, bitch. And it’s definitely not going to be me.

There was no time to unsling his shotgun. Instead Stray drew his sidearm, keeping the wrist-shield in front of his body. He fired at his attacker through the slat at the edge of the shield, mimicking the hunched posture of the Kig-Yar he’d killed to obtain it. The woman leaped to the side with swift, athletic grace. One of the Unggoy at the edge of the encircling crowd grabbed its shoulder and screamed in pain.

Augmented. Shit. No ordinary human could move that fast.

This was no time for games. The hooded woman was already unslinging her battle rifle, aiming low at his legs.

Stray charged before she could get into a firing position. She got off one hasty burst before he closed the distance, the rounds pounding against his wrist-shield hard enough to stop him in his tracks. He threw his armored foot out to kick at her mid-section, but she twisted to avoid it and seized his extended leg. Stray let himself fall onto his back before she could take advantage of the grapple. He pushed himself up on one arm, aiming his pistol up at the woman’s head just as she trained her battle rifle on his face.

Both fighters hesitated. Stray used the opportunity to peer up under the woman’s hood and was surprised to find a familiar face glaring down at him. “Amy?”

Her response was a wordless snarl. Stray jerked his pistol to the right, smacking the battle rifle aside as Amy-G094 fired. He lashed out with another kick, knocking her legs out from under her. She rolled with the fall, trying to get her rifle up to fire again. He threw himself forward, punching at her arm to keep the rifle down. She buckled under his attack and he pressed down, catching her arms and forcing her towards the floor.

For a moment, she was caving. Then in an instant she stopped his push and began to press back. Stray struggled to maintain his hold, but even his prosthetic arm was being forced aside. Even with the stimulants he wasn’t in fighting shape. His body was a wreck, its strength diminished by fatigue and hunger. And Amy was even stronger than her Spartan augmentations should have accounted for.

She snapped free and cut loose with a savage uppercut. Stray slackened his jaw just in time to prevent his teeth from shattering. His head jerked back. Without his reinforced bones his neck would have been snapped.

I’m losing, he thought desperately, falling back to the hangar floor. Just like with Amber.

This would be the end. There was no escaping this time. To lose here meant death. The thoughts chased themselves around his ringing head as he fell.

I cannot die here.

He struck the ground, letting his prosthetic arm break his fall. Vision still foggy from the blow, he slipped his hand under his poncho and unclipped a fragmentation grenade from his combat webbing. I will not die here.

He pulled himself back up onto one knee. No more holding back. The rest of the battle played out in his mind with remarkable clarity. The grenade would detonate on Amy’s side of the encircling crowd. His armor would protect him from the worst of the blast. The air would fill with the stink of blood and the howls of wounded onlookers. And in the meantime, he’d finish off whatever was left of his unexpected attacker.

A few feet away, Amy had retrieved her battle rifle. He could not afford to let her fire it.

His prosthetic arm unsheathed a combat knife strapped to his leg. Already bracing for the explosion, Stray pulled back the grenade and prepared to let fly.


A vice-like hand seized his wrist before he could throw the grenade. Stray froze, knife partially raised, as an energy sword snapped to life mere centimeters from his throat. He carefully tilted his head to see one of Shinsu ‘Refum’s warriors standing above him.

Across the way two more warriors shoved through the crowd, storm rifles pointed at Amy’s head. She hesitated a moment before lowering her rifle, shooting a seething glance Stray’s way.

“Take your finger off the detonator,” the warrior holding Stray’s arm instructed. Her voice was quiet but measured. “Carefully.”

He complied, relaxing his grip on the grenade’s safety. The warrior plucked it from his grasp, checking to confirm it was disarmed. She kept her sword raised just beneath his chin.

A portion of the crowd next to Amy parted, revealing an imposing Sangheili in grey, muted armor. The only adornment he wore was a black command cloak draped over his combat harness. It was a far cry from the red zealot’s colors this warrior had worn when Stray had seen him last, but there was no mistaking Shinsu ‘Refum’s calm, purposeful gait.

Perhaps Stray would get his audience after all.

Juno observed the arrival of the Sangheili from a distance, allocating only a tiny portion of processing power to the surveillance systems. A larger part of her was monitoring Stray’s vital signs: elevated and jumpy, but alive.

Alive because of her.

Why had she warned him of the ONI agent’s attack? Not from a sense of preservation, surely. She relied on the data crystal chip in his helmet to move about, but like Diana she was designed to pass freely through systems uninhibited by hardware restrictions. Even if the assassin’s bullet had destroyed the chip, Juno would have survived long enough to find a new host system.

It was in humanity’s best interests for ONI to eliminate Stray. That meant it was in Juno’s best interests for her erstwhile captor to die. So why then had she chosen to warn him at the critical moment?

Perhaps I am just as tainted as Diana, she thought with growing horror. Just as impulsive, just as irrational.

At any rate, another part of her processors noted drily, this would certainly not help her chances of getting into the now-furious ONI woman’s good graces.

At the far end of Juno’s thinly-spread consciousness, the station’s long-range scanners registered a faint ping at the edge of the system. Something quite large had entered Slipspace not far from the station. Several large somethings.

Right to Assassination

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Cargo hangar of Covenant support station Faithful Respite, near the Salia system.

“I wasn’t expecting him to show himself this early,” Izul muttered. “This could be trouble.”

“Trouble?” Rora snorted. The Outrider and his adjutant stood only a few paces away from the scuffle. Their target, Shinsu ‘Refum, was on the other side of the clearing. Even without the endless briefings and the facial recognition software within his helmet, Rora would have known it was ‘Refum. He wore different armor than he had in the Sons of Sanghelios’ holograms, but this warrior walked with the confidence of a seasoned commander and the warriors at his side displayed deference Rora had only seen shown to a handful of other leaders in his time, the Arbiter included. “This is an opportunity.”

Izul shook his head. “We can’t strike now. It is too risky. With the crowd and his guards, we’d never reach him. Our warriors are too spread out.”

Rora inclined his head towards the adjutant and smiled. “Which is why I will face him alone?”

Izul blinked. “Alone? You must be joking. They’ll shoot you before you even get close.”

“He only came out here to prevent those humans’ skirmish from turning this place into a riot. He’s trying to maintain order and court these Covenant scum at the same time.” Rora flexed his arms, indicating where Shinsu stood. “He is on the spot now, in front of his warriors and everyone else gathered here. I will challenge him to single combat. He cannot refuse me without looking weak.”

“Do you really think you can take him yourself?” Izul asked dubiously. “His skill with a blade—”

“Has been embellished and exaggerated to the point of exhaustion,” Rora interrupted. “I can’t even begin to count every warrior they call ‘greatest swordsman of his generation.’ It’s an overrated title invented by keep-born aristocrats. ‘Refum’s style of fighting might impress those high-born flunkeys, but I’ll give him a taste of how raiders like us fight.”

He motioned for Izul to get moving. “Go. Get our warriors into position as quickly as you can. I will buy you time.”

“If you’re sure…” Izul said, still unconvinced.

“I am sure. Make sure the blasting charges are in place, then wait for my command. I’m counting on you to make sure everything is ready.”

Izul hesitated a moment longer, then nodded curtly and slipped away through the crowd. Rora watched his adjutant depart, then turned back to watching Shinsu. His raiders were skilled infiltrators and saboteurs; he did not doubt their ability to throw the station into chaos. But even so, a part of him was hoping he wouldn’t need them. He knew Shinsu ‘Refum’s fearsome reputation well, but he knew his own skill in combat even better. It would be quite the coup for him to take ‘Refum’s head single-handedly.

I’ve done well for myself so far in this new galaxy. It will be quite the step up for the Outrider to slay the Black Knight of Sanghelios.

Shinsu coolly surveyed the two humans, aware thousands of eyes were now fixed on him. I wanted a way to seize their attention, he thought wryly. Breaking up some human squabble was not exactly what I had in mind.

Perhaps the best course of action was to simply execute Stray here and now. As Pula mentioned back in the control center, the rogue Spartan was a troublesome loose end. If this spot of trouble was anything to judge by, he couldn’t so much as walk across a hangar without instigating violence, much less be trusted as any sort of ally. Stray had just handed him a perfect excuse to eliminate a potential source of trouble and while asserting his own authority in front of a crowd full of warriors searching for a strong, assertive leader to rally behind.

He looked down at Stray, kneeling on the floor with Pula’s blade at his throat. The deposed Kru’desh commander’s expression was impossible to read behind his visor, but he stared back up at Shinsu without uttering a word in his own defense. Perhaps he expects me to have him killed. Maybe he would even welcome it.

Shinsu rested his hand on his hip, just above his energy sword’s hilt. Seeing Stray now, battered, defeated, and awaiting judgement, he couldn’t help but recall himself back on Sanghelios. Betrayed and utterly defeated, his friends slaughtered around him while the Arbiter’s forces hauled him away in chains, had there not been moments when he, too, had wished for a quick death?

You are not the only one ever to fall from grace, human. Shinsu turned his back on Stray without a word.

The other human stood still on the other side of the gathering, held at gunpoint by two Cleansing Blade warriors. She made no move to attempt escape, though she still held her rifle stiffly in both hands. Shinsu saw no uniform or insignia on her combat armor, not that it mattered. Out here you could never be sure exactly who anyone was working for. That held particularly true for humans, who seemed to change allegiances and ideologies on a daily basis.

Shinsu crossed over to this second human. She made no move to resist as he reached down and tugged the hood off of her head, revealing a dark-skinned woman with close-cut hair. Her jaw twitched as she glared up at him, though he detected a hint of confusion behind her defiant expression.

“A lover’s quarrel?” he asked, just loud enough for the surrounding onlookers to here. The human’s glare intensified amidst the laughter his remark brought from the crowd.

“Whatever the reason, I suppose it comes as no surprise to find humans at the center of any sort of trouble,” he continued, stepping back towards the center of the clearing. “They never fail to find a reason to kill each other, even when they’re the smallest group in a very crowded hangar. Or a galaxy for that matter.”

More laughter, but this time a new figure stepped out from the crowd. A Kig-Yar shipmistress adorned with jewelry and an impressive head-crest folded her arms and hissed derisively. “Says the Sangheili. Aren’t you lot in the middle of a civil war? Your old master didn’t see much problem in pressing the rest of us in to fight your battles for you. You hinge-heads are even worse than the humans these days. Can’t abide the rest of us being your equals, so you strut around trying to rebuild the Covenant. Or at least, some pathetic gang you like to call the Covenant.”

Several of the surrounding warriors growled in anger, but Shinsu noticed a wave of agreement pass among many of the assembled Kig-Yar and Unggoy. “I can’t deny the disputes among my people have been somewhat far-reaching, Kil’nur’ra,” he admitted. “But I don’t see why your people are in any position to complain. War means contracts. Contracts mean profit. And I know of few people in the room who profited from Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant more than you. Tell me, how many ships did you pledge to his fleet? How many scouts, how many sharpshooters?”

He phrased it like a rhetorical question, but Shinsu knew full well how many assets Kil'nur'ra had provided the Covenant. Her mercenaries were a critical element of Jul 'Mdama's auxiliary forces—and they had paid dearly for their importance.

“I pledged ships,” Kil’nur’ra spat. “I pledged warriors. I fought in his battle-line. And it was my crew who died each time he launched some brilliant new offensive. We bled into the dirt of a dozen alien worlds in the name of some up-jumped shipmaster who couldn’t clean his own excrement without some human whispering in his ear!”

She turned to address the crowd directly. “I know few of you by name,” she continued, raising her voice. “Our magnanimous host made sure of that when he drew us all here. Very clever of him. But we all share one thing in common: we followed in the wake of that fool Jul ‘Mdama. We fought for his Covenant, and what has it brought us? Nothing but defeat. And now Shinsu ‘Refum invites us all here to ask us to do it again!”

She looked back at Shinsu, avian features pulled back in a cold smile. “Am I wrong? How much were you hoping to pay me to help anoint you supreme commander of some new Covenant? I’ll warn you now, my fleet doesn’t come cheap.”

“Sangheili on one side, more Sangheili on the other,” a Jiralhanae chieftain rumbled. “We throw our forces behind Jul ‘Mdama, only to see them slaughtered by Thel ‘Vadam and his human masters. I say it’s time we stop letting them play us against each other! Down with the Sangheili! Down with the Covenant!”

“Watch your tone, ape,” a Sangheili wearing the armor of a Zealot spat. “Jul ‘Mdama was the only one willing to stand up to the humans. What have scum done since the Covenant fell, besides trip over yourselves to serve human rebels and crime lords?”

“The Covenant is the galaxy’s only hope for salvation!” one of the Zealot’s companions cried. “Look to the portents! We all heard their divine message. We must submit to their will or suffer their wrath!”

“I’m afraid I must disagree on that point,” Shinsu said. He did not project with the same volume as Kil’nur’ra and the others, but the crowd fell silent and shifted its attention back to him all the same. “I am not looking to rebuild the Covenant, and neither are any of you. If you were truly devout, you would have heeded Sali ‘Nyon’s call and come to the defense of Sunaion. Any of Jul ‘Mdama’s remaining loyalists died there, defending the last holy city. You all chose to live rather than dying on Vadam blades.”

“You would mock our dead brothers?” the zealot snarled. “You would call us cowards? You, who abandoned the Covenant the moment Jul ‘Mdama died?”

“I did not call you cowards,” Shinsu replied evenly. “Though you seem quite eager to use the term. I simply wish to commend your intelligence. Let the fanatics leap onto their own funeral pyres. They choose to die in their old universe while we are left to deal with the new one. I have gathered you all here to acknowledge that reality: the old galaxy we knew under the Covenant no longer exists. We can do as Jul ‘Mdama did and fight against the new way of things, or we can face the future and carve our destinies from it.”

“And I suppose you think you’re the one to lead us into that glorious new future.” Kil’nur’ra sounded amused. “With no thoughts to your own well-being, I’m sure. It’s all for our own benefit, right? Let the mighty Sangheili lead us poor, unenlightened barbarians into prosperity, just as always.”

“I do not deny I seek power. I have lived my life in pursuit of power. If I worship any god, that god is power. It is the force that drives everything in this galaxy, that separates the weak from the strong, the master from the slave, the living from the dead. But power for what end?” Shinsu crossed from one end of the clearing to another, catching the eyes of any commander, shipmaster, or gang leader he saw. “The old Covenant taught us power existed only to serve the gods, to propel us down the steps of the Great Journey. Jul ‘Mdama sought power to defend the old ways. Thel ‘Vadam seeks power to defend his new ones. And the humans? To the humans power is the end, not the means. They never cared about whatever state the rest of the galaxy was in, so long as they stood on top of it. And since the fall of the old Covenant, they’ve been quite successful in that regard.”

He looked over at the female human, still caught between his warriors. “At least, until now. Tell me, has the Office of Naval Intelligence grown so weak that they can only send a single agent into my midst?”

It was a calculated guess, but Shinsu could think of few other organizations brazen enough to pick fights at a gathering like this. Even the Syndicate was not bold enough to risk the kind of conflagration a free-for-all here might entail.

The human hesitated, clear surprised that Shinsu had addressed her at all.

“Where are the warships? The bomber squadrons? Why are waves of Spartans not assaulting this station as we speak?” Shinsu turned back to the crowd. “We all know how the humans fight since the end of the Great War. Show the slightest hint of resistance and they demolish everything in their path. I lost my family to Vadam warriors. But how many of you here have lost friends and family to human soldiers?”

Rumbles of agreement filled the hangar. “Oonskie murderers!” cried one human near the back of the crowd, clearly eager not to be associated with the UNSC. “Earthborn imperialists!”

“You started the war.” The human female spoke for the first time, her voice hard. “We finished it. There’s not a human alive who didn’t lose someone to the glassings.”

“You finished the war,” Shinsu agreed, quietly relieved that his hunch had paid off. “And then you started a dozen new ones. But one agent seems so restrained compared to how the UNSC operates. Unless the reports we hear are true and the human colonies have fallen silent. Do you even have any ships left to send at us?”

The human agent did not reply. Shinsu spread his arms imploringly at the crowd. “The humans sought power for its own sake, sometimes in ways the rest of us could not begin to fathom. They had no ties to any other species. They had neither the religion of the San’Shyuum nor the martial prowess of the Sangheili, yet they rose from the ashes and dominated the galaxy faster than the Covenant ever did. Until recently, they truly were the greatest power in the galaxy.”

He shook his head. “But now something new has arrived. Something with more power than the rest of us combined. Somehow, it brought the humans to their knees in a single day. And now it seeks to dominate the rest of us as well. We all heard the declaration: peace and prosperity in exchange for submission.”

The hangar was completely quiet now. Even Kil’nur’ra and the other naysayers watched Shinsu, expressions hard.

“I do not claim to know what this new power is. But I know they are not gods. This is not the work of the gods, no matter what portents they draw up to conceal themselves. Submission. The end of the Covenant marked an end to the era of submission. Thel ‘Vadam demanded we submit, yet we did not. Humanity demanded we submit, yet we did not. And now comes another demand for submission. Every petty tyrant of every species, from now back until the beginning of time, has offered the same bargain: peace and prosperity in exchange for meekness and compliance.

“Sesa ‘Refum, last kaidon of my bloodline, stood up and opposed the worship of false gods. That decision cost him his life, along with the lives of nearly everyone he held dear. I have sacrificed many things since that day in order to survive, to grow strong, to gain power. Some may say I have sacrificed too much. Perhaps they are right. But I will not dishonor my family’s memory by kneeling to these new false gods.”

His voice, which had remained calm since the beginning of the confrontation, now rose in pitch and intensity. The thought of his slaughtered bloodline and all the lives he had taken and sacrificed to reach this point set a fire inside him, a fire he long believed had gone out. “I called you all here not to offer you peace or security or some new promise of renewed empire. I offer only power, if you are strong enough to take it. Fight with me and resist these would-be despots, or slink away into the shadows of peace and submission. The choice is yours.”

His throat felt hoarse. It had been a long time since he had spoken for so long and with such vigor. So many of his days since Sangheilios had been spent sitting in the shadows, whispering orders to assassins and strike teams. Too much intrigue, too much deception, too much betrayal. He had expected the aftermath of Jul ‘Mdama’s death to entail even more schemes and deceits. Instead, here he was attempting to rally this crowd of defeated warriors and self-serving pirates to his banner.

Not even to lead them against the Vadams, but to face this new threat. What strange times to live in.

The hangar was silent for some time. He did not expect them to all suddenly pledge allegiance to him or even stay to hear more. He expected many would leave, disappointed to have not found the assurances of victory or profit they hoped for. But some will stay. I can only hope those are enough.

“Wonderful speech,” a new voice sneered. “I just couldn’t bear to interrupt.”

Shinsu turned to see a new Sangheili standing at the edge of the clearing. This new arrival wore a battered, Covenant-era combat harness of the kind used by unaffiliated mercenaries and raiders. He had not drawn any weapons, but his arms were hunched forward in a combative stance.

“Such a simple solution to all our problems,” the warrior continued. “You don’t want to be the new Jul ‘Mdama, but we should let you lead us all the same. You’ll lead us all to victory, I’m sure. After we’ve helped you defeat your own enemies and take everything you want.”

He let out a derisive laugh. “It’s a good thing I have a mission to carry out here, or I might almost be convinced to join your little crusade. Too bad I’m not like the rest of the pathetic curs you’ve got here.”

Shinsu tilted his head. “And who might you be, warrior?” he asked, his voice sliding back into its familiar, cordial tone.

“I suppose you could say I’m Thel ‘Vadam’s representative at this little gathering. Quite rude of you not to invite him. I’m sure he’d love to hear what you have to say.”

“Thel ‘Vadam has yet to offer any sign of resistance,” Shinsu said, raising his voice once more. “He consolidates his power at Sanghelios and the rest of his wealthy colonies, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.”

The mocking warrior laughed again. “I can’t claim to speak for him. But he does give me orders, and those orders say you have to die. You claim to represent your clan. Well, I’m invoking my right to assassinate you, oh great and powerful Kaidon of Refum.”

Pula and the other Cleansing Blade warriors moved to defend Shinsu, but he waved them aside. He could not simply have his subordinates fight for him, not after this warrior’s taunting words. He knew the warrior had surely counted on that; Shinsu had let this one speak and been backed into a corner because of it. Perhaps Vadam is less traditional then I gave them credit for, to send one such as this after me.

“You have that right,” he admitted. “Which of my actions have offended you?”

“Can’t say you’ve offended me one way or the other.” The warrior stalked forward. “I just don’t like you very much.”

With that, he lunged toward Shinsu. Instead of drawing an energy sword, he activated the energy daggers on each of his gauntlets, swinging them in at Shinsu’s neck from both sides. Only a quick backstep prevented the daggers from slitting Shinsu’s throat.

He unclipped his energy sword from his waist and activated it with a flick of his wrist. The red-tinged blade hummed to life in time to parry the barrage of stabs and kicks this unknown attacker sent his way.

The crowd quickly parted even further to give the fighters more room. As with the humans’ scuffle, no one stepped in to join the fighting. Instead the onlookers watched passively, waiting to see who would emerge the victor. For all their talk of independence, even now they still defer to Sangheili.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the human ONI agent slip away into the crowd. There was no sign of Stray, who had most likely already used Shinsu’s speech as an opportunity to slink away.

Shinsu continued to weather the storm of stabs from the Vadam warrior’s energy daggers. He fought with his sword arm out in front of him, both defending and maintaining his balance while he rested his free arm comfortably behind his back. It was a stylish, patrician style of fighting, one Shinsu normally eschewed on the battlefield. But this was not a battle—it was a duel. His opponent was clearly intent on making a carnival of things, so Shinsu chose to play along and match his practice of refined, aristocratic swordplay with this challenger’s aggressive street brawler tactics.

He maintained an air of cool superiority in front of the crowd, but Shinsu’s mind was racing as he fended off the attacks. This warrior was clearly fighting for show. He certainly had compatriots somewhere in the crowd, preparing to strike while he held everyone’s attention here. There was no chance to warn Pula and the rest of his warriors. He could only hope they would act swiftly on their own to root out any additional infiltrators.

The challenger pressed the attack, forcing Shinsu to focus entirely on the battle at hand. His purely defensive style was no longer just for show. This warrior attacked again and again without pause. Shinsu found himself driven back step by step until he was nearly at the edge of the encircling crowd.

The warrior seized the opportunity afforded by Shinsu’s lack of leg room. He aimed another slash at Shinsu’s neck and when that was parried, shot a high kick at his head. Shinsu barely had time to duck under the blow, only to find the second dagger slashing forward to meet him. He jerked away, throwing his free arm out from behind his back to save himself from a humiliating tumble. Regaining his balance, he brought his sword up in time to parry yet another upward slash from his attacker.

This could be going better.

The warrior smiled, pushing up against Shinsu’s blade. “I have to say, I’m disappointed. Is this really all you can do? They told me you were a blademaster, that I didn’t have a chance taking you on my own. How could so many people be so wrong?”

“You aren’t half bad in a fight,” Shinsu observed, though he was struggling to maintain his composure. “No sword, yet you are quite skilled with those daggers. A raider’s style if I ever saw one.”

Shinsu twitched his mandibles into a faint smile. “I heard you were captured by Vadam, Rora ‘Marak. We assumed you’d been executed. How resourceful of the Arbiter, turning the Outrider to his cause.”

Rora ‘Marak huffed in irritation. “Now you’re just showing off.”

“I would hate for you to remain disappointed.” Shinsu activated the energy dagger on his free wrist and slashed quickly at Rora’s side. The Outrider shifted one of his daggers to parry, and in that moment Shinsu pressed the attack with his sword. He lashed out with a stream of quick, graceful cuts, shifting from his aristocratic style into a technique he had refined on the killing fields of Sanghelios. Now it was his turn to push Rora back, keeping the Outrider on the defensive as he slashed and stabbed in a whirling tapestry of attack patterns.

Shinsu caught an opening in Rora’s defenses and struck quickly with a heavy slash at the Outrider’s midsection. Rora stepped back and raised an energy gauntlet in defense, but could not deflect the blow in time. The prongs of Shinsu’s energy sword scored a shallow cut in his opponent’s wrist, drawing blood and severing the gauntlet’s energy source. One of Rora’s daggers sputtered and deactivated.

Without a moment’s hesitation the Outrider produced a curveblade, wielding it in tandem with his remaining energy dagger. He pressed in, cutting and slashing in an attempt to regain the offensive. But Shinsu shifted techniques yet again, deactivating his energy gauntlet and resuming the focused attack with his energy sword.

Throwing his weight forward, Shinsu lashed out with three quick slashes. The first cut Rora’s curveblade in half. The second threw him off balance as he struggled to block with just one dagger. The third swung in with a heavy blow aiming to decapitate the Outrider.

Rora dropped to one knee, his dagger coming up to catch Shinsu’s blade a hair’s breadth from his throat. The Outrider’s arm shook, struggling to hold back Shinsu’s pressing sword.

“Well,” the Outrider panted. “That’s more like it.”

He looked up at Shinsu, smiling in spite of his losing battle. “It is simply a shame I didn’t come alone.”

“I guessed as much. Call off your warriors and I will let you depart with your lives. Tell the Arbiter that—”

Rora shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

With his free hand he pressed a button on his combat harness’ collar. “Izul, do it. Now!

Across the hangar came a flurry of plasma shots, followed by several distant explosions. The deck rumbled under Shinsu’s feet and very nearly threw him off balance entirely. In the next moment, all hell broke loose.

Fire into Kindling

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Cargo hangar of Covenant support station Faithful Respite, near the Salia system.

Tom Spender threw a hand out to catch the Tradewind’s ramp as the blasts of multiple explosions shook the station. He grabbed hold of it with one hand and caught his hat with the other, collapsing onto his backside with a grunt. Should have known things weren’t going to stay peaceful. Why didn’t I take that nap sooner?

Boots pounded back inside the ship. Tegla Murakami appeared at the back of the ramp, pistol in hand. A skinny girl with dark skin and thick hair pulled back in a bun, Tom’s co-pilot seemed to have a permanent layer of grease covering her face and overalls. Tom tilted his head back and offered her an ironic smile. “Didn’t I tell you to take a bath?”

“Very funny.” Tegla raised the pistol, scanning the hangar as the station shuddered beneath the weight of more explosions. She and Tom winced and ducked as plasma fire began to erupt throughout the crowd. Screams and howls from confused Covenant filled the air. In moments the tense but peaceful gathering became a savage melee.

Someone rushed to the side of the ramp. Tegla trained her weapon on Timothy Pasternack, who threw up his hands to show he was not about to try and hijack their ship.

“What the hell is going on?” Pasternack demanded, shouting to be heard over the escalating din. “What happened?”

“Beats me,” Tom said, pulling himself to his feet and adjusting his duster with as much calm as he could muster. “But I think it’s time to leave.”

“Leave?” Tegla crouched low on the ramp. The plasma fire was getting more intense as the various crews and gangs began to come together to help each other shoot anyone who looked particularly threatening. One Jiralhanae bellowed and collapsed amidst a hail of needler rounds not ten yards from the Tradewind. “What about the package? Are we bailing before it’s delivered?”

“We’re not bailing,” Tom said, rushing to kneel beside her. “But there’s no way in hell I’m sticking around here. Shinsu won’t get any package from us if we’re too dead to deliver it!”

“This is insane!” Pasternack yelled. He produced a small handgun from inside his flight jacket. “These aliens are crazy!”

“At least they’re more interested in each other than us!” Tom called back.

A yell from Tegla warned Tom this was not entirely true. A gang of Kig-Yar were breaking away from the rest of the crowd and sprinting towards the Tradewind. The avian pirates squawked and shrieked battle cries as they drew near.

“Oh no,” Tom growled, drawing his own pistol. “No one steals my ship.”

He, Tegla, and Pasternack opened fire, dropping the surprised Kig-Yar in their tracks. The aliens had clearly not expected resistance from a group of lightly-armed spacers. Only one managed to activate its wrist-shield to weather the barrage of pistol shots. Tom shifted his aim and shot at the firing slat on the edge of the shield. The Jackal yelped in pain and convulsed, leaving itself open to a finishing shot from Tegla.

“Nice shooting,” Tom told the cabin girl. “Now get back up to the cockpit and fire up the engines!”

Tegla nodded and rushed back into the ship. Tom turned back to Pasternack, who crouched beside the ramp. “I’m pulling out. You?”

“Yeah,” Pasternack called back. “Gotta get back to my dropship and pick my client up.”

“Better get a move on. Tell you what, if you get rolling before I’ve blasted out of here, I’ll help cover you with the Tradewind while we get to a safe distance.”

Pasternack nodded in thanks before racing back across the hanger-turned-battlefield. Tom didn’t bother to watch his progress, trusting the Insurrectionist pilot could make it to his Pelican without getting shot. He hurried inside the Tradewind, pausing just inside the cargo bay to check a small, ID-locked safe. He pressed his palm down on the safe’s biometric scanner and swiftly inspect the safe’s contents: a data chip so small it was barely the size of one of Tom’s fingernails.

The sounds of plasma fire were intensifying outside. Tom plucked the chip out of the safe and tucked it into his jacket pocket. One way or another, he would send Shinsu the package.

It’s on him to make sure he survives long enough to get it.

Shinsu cut down at Rora’s abdomen. The Outrider leapt back, still smiling amidst the chaos of the hangar.

It was evident Rora’s allies were spread out across the station. Shinsu had seen Sangheili warriors firing into the crowd just after the explosions went off. Their aim had been to sow chaos, and they had succeeded wildly. Shinsu had a sinking feeling all of his efforts here were collapsing around him. And if the Outrider was sent here by the Arbiter, a Vadam fleet may not be far behind.

Rora produced a plasma grenade and hurled it upwards. The blue orb sailed over the warring crowd and tumbled down towards where Shinsu stood. Trapped on all sides by brawling warriors, Shinsu could do nothing but raise his arms and brace himself for the blast.

Several figures pushed through the crowd and leapt in front of him. Two Cleansing Blade warriors slammed portable energy shields down on the ground in front of their commander; a wall of light sprang up in the plasma grenade’s path. The ensuing explosion sent tremors coursing through Shinsu’s body, but the shield held.

With a furious roar, the Jiralhanae chieftain who had spoken out against Shinsu charged toward him, gravity hammer raised. The chieftain knocked anything in his path aside, striding through the crowd of angry warriors as if they were no more obstacle than a shallow stream. Shinsu turned to face this new threat, raising his energy sword as the chieftain drew near.

Something flashed in from the side. The chieftain yelled in surprise and pain as Pula slashed the tendons in his leg. The lithe warrior gutted the chieftain with her energy dagger as he fell, then brought her sword down and neatly decapitated him.

More warriors emerged beside Pula, storm rifles blazing as they cut down the chieftain’s followers. Pula strode back past the firing line to kneel before Shinsu.

“Explosions throughout the station,” she reported. “They targeted most of the key systems, including the main reactor. I don’t know how they slipped past our patrols. I…”

She hesitated, struggling to say the unthinkable. “I have failed you.”

Shinsu motioned impatiently for her to rise. “We will discuss the allotment of blame at a later time. For now, alert all of our warriors. We are evacuating this station.”

Pula got to her feet and hurried to comply. The Cleansing Blade had only occupied the station for a brief time, and Shinsu had anticipated they might need to leave in a hurry. He needed to get his warriors off this station and back to their warships before the violence spread to the space outside the station. At present the Blade only had a small complement of vessels. They could not afford to fight off every pirate and warlord in the system.

Shinsu scanned the hangar for any sign of Rora, but the Outrider had disappeared. Even now the Vadams thwart me at every step, he thought with a flash of irritation. A new war begins, yet we continue fighting the old ones.

Retreating within a phalanx of his warriors, he wondered if anything beneficial could be scavenged from this fiasco.

“You’re still alive,” Izul noted, firing his plasma rifle into the crowd to cover Rora’s retreat. Another warrior moved to check his injuries, but Rora shoved him impatiently aside.

“So is Shinsu,” Rora growled angrily.

“I told you not to underestimate him.”

“I had him, for a moment. He’s damn tricky with that blade of his.”

Izul ducked as a barrage of needler rounds whizzed past his head. “I’ve ordered our warriors to withdraw back to the Lich. We need to get out of here before we’re overwhelmed.”

“We aren’t retreating,” Rora snapped. “Not while ‘Refum is still alive.”

“And how do you propose we go about killing him?” Izul retorted. “In case you hadn’t noticed, everyone in this hangar is trying to kill us!”

“And each other.” Rora couldn’t help but admire the fine work his raiders had done inciting the gathering to violence. Any pretense of a peaceful meeting had vanished, replaced by the chaotic feuds that had characterized the galaxy since the fall of the old Covenant. Whatever hopes Shinsu might have had of rallying these scum to his cause were gone. Even if ‘Refum did escape, Rora doubted he’d be able to arrange a gathering of this size again once word of this meeting spread.

Still, Izul had a point. Wherever Shinsu was, he was undoubtedly now surrounded by his own warriors. Fighting over to him and then taking both him and his warriors would be impossible amidst this chaos.

Rora stifled his own pride and jerked an arm at Izul. “Get everyone back to the Lich,” he ordered. “We’re withdrawing. But if we catch sight of ‘Refum on the way out, we shoot to kill.”

Hera couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. The purpose behind this meeting, the madness now ensuing, her own inability to stay focused on the mission, it was all a jumbled mess inside her head. Whatever was going on, this mission was a failure. There would be no gathering intelligence amidst this chaos. All that was left was for her to get back to her ship and escape before it was too late.

Plasma fire singed the air around her as she pushed through the crowd. One Kig-Yar made the mistake of taking a swing at her with its cutlass. She put a burst through its neck and kept running.

The Finders Keepers was docked on the far side of the hangar. It would be a miracle if she could reach it without being blasted to pieces by angry Covenant. Hera loaded a fresh magazine into her battle rifle and got ready to sprint.

A flash of movement caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. An armored figure draped in a ragged poncho pushed and kicked his way past her, headed for another side of the hangar.

All thoughts of escape vanished from Hera’s mind. There was one thing left to do, one last thing to ensure this mission was not a total failure.

She shifted directions and forced her way through the crowd after Simon.

“Pasternack!” Stray yelled into his communicator. “Are you at the dropship?”

“Just about,” the hired pilot said, sounding breathless. “Are you near me? I’m about to get the hell out of here, so you better be there when I’m ready to lift off.”

“Almost there. Don’t you dare leave without me.” Stray barreled into a burly Jiralhanae, knocking the warrior flat and running past. The hangar had disintegrated into one of the most chaotic battlefields Stray had ever seen. Covenant warriors were fighting each other on all sides; some moved with a purpose, targeting specific opponents as they fought their way to their ships, but most others seemed to just be attacking anything that moved.

It never failed to amaze Stray how often these sorts of things seemed to happen wherever he went. At least this time it’s not my fault.

Juno had been strangely silent since the fight with Amy began. Stray still couldn’t help but wonder why she’d warned him about the ambush in the first place. Wasn’t she trying to get away from me?

“Juno?” he demanded. “I’m getting off this station. You in the mood to help guide us out?”

No response.

He kicked an Unggoy out of his way, relieved to find a clear path between him and Pasternack’s Pelican. He sprinted forward, only to see a sword-wielding Sangheili emerge from the crowd to stand between him and the dropship.

Stray didn’t even slow his stride. He charged the warrior, reaching up to grab hold of the machete on his back. He leaped in past the warrior’s blade and brought the machete down in a savage chop. The strength of the blow cut through the warrior’s shields and embedded the blade in his exposed neck.

Yanking the machete free from the dying warrior, Stray ran on. His body tingled with the familiar rush of battle: fear, excitement, desperation. The beast was on the prowl. This was just the way he liked things. A desperate situation, enemies on all sides, and all he needed to do was save his own hide and kill anything that got in his way.

“Simon?” Juno’s voice lacked her usual disdainful edge. She always insisted on using his real name, though he had yet to decide if the gesture was meant to irritate him or was simply a symptom of her uptight nature.

He skidded to a halt beside the Pelican. The hangar’s ray-shield loomed in front of him, and beyond it the vast expanse of space. Right now even that cold vacuum looked inviting compared to the conflagration behind him.

“Oh, look who’s decided to rejoin the party,” he said, wiping the machete off on his gauntlet. “You still feeling generous, or was that stuff with Amy a one-off?”

“There’s no time for that,” she snapped. “Something’s coming. Something big.”

“I don’t care what’s coming, because we’re about to be going.” Stray sheathed the machete and unslung his shotgun. “Besides, what’s a few more Covenant thrown onto this mess?”

“It’s not the Covenant.” Something in her voice gave him pause. Juno was always aloof and defiant, even in the face of Diana’s interrogations. But now, for the first time since he’d known her, the AI sounded afraid. “It’s something worse.”

Stray sighed, feeling more resigned than afraid. “Of course. Something worse. Just my luck.”

He wondered why he even bothered running from trouble at all.

Juno had little patience to spare on the chaos inside the hangar. Her focus was fixed on the space beyond the station and the surrounding warships, at a spot nearly at the edge of the station’s sensors. She could already detect the pulses of a Slipspace eruption, the coils of slipstream preparing to disgorge a new arrival into the system.

And the presence… that immense, overwhelming presence already seeping into the station’s systems, probing them, probing her…

I have arrived. Fear not, little one. I will show you the true path and return you to the fold.

Fear seeped into Juno’s processors.

Beyond the station, a bright light erupted to deliver the Created’s justice.

Even from where he stood inside the station Stray could make out the machine emerging from Slipspace. An immense vertical warship with jutting, wing-like protrusions and a dangling, prehensile tail. A weapon to police the stars and bring all the galaxy under a single will.

A Guardian.

“Oh,” he muttered, fingers growing limp on his shotgun. “Oh, fuck me.”


Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Unknown, somewhere beyond the Salia system

“Well, there’s the target. Just like we planned.”

“Just as I planned.”

“Right, right, just like you planned all by yourself without any help from me at all. Still, you gotta give credit where it’s due. I did say this would be a prime spot to wait him out.”

“So you did. Congratulations on your impeccable location finding. You are truly a master navigator.”

“Y’know, I think that might be the first time you’ve ever complimented me.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

“Ah. Sarcasm, then. Well, at least you’re picking something up from me… and I’ll be quiet now.”

“See that you remain that way. I have little patience left for you. Now I must attend to retrieving my Guardian from the thieves who stole it. They are about to learn I do not take usurpation of the Mantle lightly.”

Avalokiteśvara kept their Guardian stationary in the spot Slipspace had deposited it. There was no need to survey the system; they had known the complete layout of the station and the ships around it long before they had left Slipspace. The Guardian’s pause was simply a courtesy, a chance for those present on the station to take in its appearance and realize the folly of resistance.

The station was already listing slightly, the engines propelling it on its deep-space drift on the verge of failing. Internal explosions had crippled the station, leaving it badly damaged and on the brink of a total reactor overload. Avalokiteśvara observed ships already departing the station’s hangars and fleeing back to the larger warships.

They started fighting amongst themselves even without my provocation. Sometimes Avalokiteśvara wondered if creatures such as these were worth saving at all. They certainly didn’t hesitate to act on even the slightest opportunities to inflict violence on each other.

Of course, that is precisely why they need us to save them. Cortana is right to insist upon mercy before force.

The Guardian spread its massive wings, looming over the station like a bird of prey swooping down on a hapless rodent. Its systems were already powered up and ready to fight. But Avalokiteśvara waited, patiently observing the multitudes of dropships and fighters scurrying out of the station. A few of the larger Covenant cruisers maneuvered to face the Guardian, but none opened fire or even scrambled fighter squadrons. The ships milled around the station in a disarray, clearly unprepared for the Guardian’s arrival.

Avalokiteśvara would grant them yet a little more time to bask in the Guardian’s presence and await its judgement. Mercy was, of course, the most desirable course of action.

But mercy had its limits. And anyone foolish enough to challenge the Mantle of Responsibility would soon learn the crushing futility of resistance.

Pula bounded up the side of the Lich, leading Shinsu’s procession out of the embattled hangar. One of the other warriors tossed her a plasma repeater, which she snatched out of the air and fired out over the heads of the oncoming Cleansing Blade warriors. The crew of the Lich joined her in laying down suppressive fire to cover their commander’s retreat.

“What is the status of the evacuation?” Shinsu demanded, pulling himself into the Lich.

“Nearly all of our warriors have escaped the station,” an officer informed him. More Cleansing Blade warriors crammed themselves into the Lich while others hurried to board Phantom dropships docked on either side of the assault craft. “The fighting has yet to spread to the ships outside, but, well…”

His voice trailed off and he glanced hesitantly at the Lich’s internal command display. Shinsu nodded curtly and strode over to the holographic display. Panicked reports of the monstrous new arrival were already flooding in over the Cleansing Blade’s battle network. The shipmasters of the Blade’s waiting cruisers were requesting permission to disengage and fall back before the machine commenced its attack.

So they come already. We would not have had time to prepare even if this meeting had been a success. A feeling of inevitable dread washed over him like a cold tide. He had never felt a helplessness like this in all his years fighting the 'Vadams or the humans. Even in the midst of defeat and imprisonment had his mind searched for a way to reverse his situation. But now he felt as if he truly was facing a foe that could not possibly be resisted.

Even his own warriors—some of the most loyal and disciplined soldiers Shinsu had ever led into battle—were wavering at the prospect of facing this new power.

And so I must lead them. Even with all this doubt and fear, I must not let it show. I am the commander of the Cleansing Blade. Every one of my subordinates put their trust in me, and so I must lead them. To victory or defeat, it does not matter. I will lead them to the end.

His hands clenched into fists, hearts heavy with the burden of leadership like never before. “Get me to the Cleansing Fire as quickly as possible,” he ordered the Lich’s pilot. “All ships in the task force are to prepare for battle immediately.”

The communications officer balked. “Battle? Shouldn’t they be preparing to retreat?”

“Relay my orders or I will replace you with someone who can,” Shinsu ordered coldly. “And bring this new vessel up on the display. I want to see it with my own eyes.”

The officer hesitated a moment longer, then rushed to do as ordered. The Lich rumbled to life, the doors along the sleek assault craft’s side sealing as it lifted off. A squadron of Seraph fighters dropped in to escort the Cleansing Blade dropships as they exited the station, heading for the small cluster of warships making up Shinsu’s task force.

The holo-display flickered and formed an image of an immense vertical vessel with wing-like protrusions on either side of its body. From the crisp, angular design Shinsu could tell this vessel was Forerunner in origin, though he had never known Forerunner designs to be this imposing. The vessel before him now looked less like a sacred temple and more like one of the ancient demons from Sangheili mythology, the monsters that had terrorized Sanghelios long before the arrival of the San’Shyuum and the formation of the Covenant.

This was a Guardian.

“A great beast from the void with wings like clouds, draped with armor and anointed in fire and majesty,” he murmured, quoting from ancient scripture. “So the reports from Sunaion were true.”

Pula and the others looked at him askance, unused to hearing their commander refer to religious texts. It was quite the traditional response from the tradition-breaking Shinsu ‘Refum.

“Commander,” the communications officer said querulously. “Shipmaster ‘Oltem wishes to speak with you.”

Shinsu opened a channel to the bridge of his flagship, the Cleansing Fire. An image of the cruiser’s shipmaster, a veteran naval officer named Yur ‘Oltem, emerged beside the Guardian.

“Commander,” the shipmaster said, offering a quick salute. Unlike many of the other panicked voices on the battle network, ‘Oltem’s voice was firm and unwavering. “I take it you are aware of our latest guest? I don’t recall any Forerunners being on the invitation list, though I suppose an event this big was bound to draw a few gatecrashers.”

“I certainly didn’t invite this one,” Shinsu replied, familiar with ‘Oltem’s levity. “It seems to be having quite the adverse effect on morale. I assume I have you to thank for the fact that half our force hasn’t retreated already?”

‘Oltem shook his head. “They are all loyal. They won’t flee unless you order it. Some of our guests have taken the opportunity to slip away. Shall we prepare to do the same?”

“No. I will be arriving at the bridge soon to take command of the task force.” Shinsu spoke quickly, relaying the strategy he had been forced to come up with in the panicked moments since the Guardian’s arrival. “In my absence, have all ships advance clear of the station. I want a broad, scattered formation, angled both above and below the Guardian. Fighter squadrons will launch and prepare to screen the task force. Do not open fire until I have arrived on the bridge. I will give the orders to commence the attack personally.”

Even the steadfast ‘Oltem hesitated a moment. Shinsu saw the question in his eyes all the Cleansing Blade's warriors were surely thinking: Had he given up all hope? Was this just some desperate attempt to preserve honor and dignity by dying in a blaze of glory?

But the moment passed. ‘Oltem nodded firmly. “As you command. I await your arrival on the bridge.” The shipmaster’s image winked out.

Shinsu turned back to the Lich’s passengers. They had assembled behind him in a loose circle, watching him warily. They were too disciplined to question his orders, but he could see doubt in their eyes all the same. He could not tolerate any dissension within his ranks. Not if the Cleansing Blade was to survive this new war.

“We are not retreating,” he told the warriors calmly. “But this is not a suicide mission. If we run from this battle today, then we run from the next battle as well. And then the one after that and the one after that. Wars are not won through piling retreat upon retreat, and I intend to win this war. If we do not fight them here and now, we will never convince anyone else we can ever fight against these machines.

“Prepare for battle, warriors. I expect every one of you to honor the vows you swore when you joined the Cleansing Blade. You can be known as the first warriors to stand against these Guardians, or you can join the rest of the galaxy in bowing before them. I will never bow, and neither will any warrior who serves under my command.”

Pula let out a sharp cry of approval, prompting the rest of the warriors to do the same. The Cleansing Blade warriors prepared their weapons and armor, postures fixed with a newfound determination. There were still doubts and fears, but that was to be expected. Words alone would never dispel the fear that was the Guardians’ chief weapon. Now all Shinsu could do was back up his words with the actions of a commander.

I lead them to victory, or I lead them to defeat. But I will not run in the face of my warriors. I cannot.

He motioned to Pula, who stepped dutifully to his side. “Contact the human Spender. I need him to be ready to transmit his package at a moment’s notice.”

“We have not had any contact with him since he docked at the station. He may have already fled the system, if he escaped the station at all.”

“He will not run. Unlike the rest of those crews, he knows what is at stake. Do whatever it takes to get in contact with him.”

Shinsu clenched his fists again, preparing his mind for the coming battle. The Lich soared onwards as the Cleansing Blade task force slowly spread out and advanced away from the station and the other ships. The small cluster of warships thinned and dispersed as they spread out in the space around the Guardian. It was a small task force, even by raiding standards. Shinsu barely had enough ships to patrol a system, much less take on a Guardian.

They would have to be enough.

Timothy Pasternack raced through the Pelican’s troop bay, brushing past Stray as he leaped into the dropship’s cockpit. “Hold onto your ass, we’re taking off!” he yelled, firing up the Pelican.

“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Stray stowed his shotgun in one of the troop bay’s overhead weapons compartments. “I’ve already gotten lucky once today. No way in hell I’m pushing it any more than I already have.”

“So that’s it,” Juno demanded. She had gotten over the initial shock of the Guardian’s arrival. If anything, this new threat seemed to have galvanized her. “You’re just running away?”

“Yep.” He was in no mood to deal with the AI’s barbs and insults. For a moment he felt like his old, insolent self again. “That’s what I do best.”

“You didn’t seem to think that way back when you were sauntering around as one of Jul ‘Mdama’s officers. What happened to all that bluster about recovering Forerunner artifacts?”

“Does it look like I’ve got a battalion of Covenant troops backing me up? You want me to admit it, fine, I’ll admit it: I should have stuck with the whole running away thing from the start. Thinking I was good for anything else is what got me into this mess in the first place.”

“If you really have such low estimations for yourself—”

“No!” Stray’s prosthetic hand left a deep dent in the side of the troop bay. “I am so sick of being lectured by you and every other self-righteous blowhard trying to guilt me into fighting their battles for them! Whatever the hell you have to say, I’ve heard it a hundred times before and believe me, it’s old. It’s real fucking old.”

“Perhaps you should have listened back when others warned you about the path you set yourself on.” Juno’s voice was as hard as granite. “Though you seem to prefer not listening at all and then blaming everyone else for the fate you’ve brought upon yourself.”

“Oh, just shut up.” The rage coursing through Stray’s body was different from the burning, desperate fury he felt in combat. This anger was ice-cold, a torrent of freezing water pent up over years of bitter frustration. “Don’t you dare act like you give a shit about me or anything I do. You’re just looking to get me killed so you can have an easier ride back to your precious UNSC.”

Juno said something in reply, but Stray couldn’t hear her over the hideous pounding in his ears. He could barely even make out the noises from the battle still raging in the hangar behind him. It dawned on him that his whole life, everything he had endured and struggled to achieve, had led to this: standing alone in a second-rate Pelican wearing third-rate armor, inhabiting an ugly, emaciated body and listening while a chorus of voices passed judgement upon him.

So what if it’s self-pity? So what if it’s pathetic? As if anyone would ever see me as anything else.

“You people are all the same,” he muttered, eyes brimming with angry tears. He didn’t care if anyone heard him or if anyone was listening at all. He was simply giving voice to all the ugly thoughts churning within his secondhand heart. “Use me when it’s convenient for you, then tell me how disappointing I am when it’s not. Lecture me about how much more I could be doing, how selfish I’m being by not working harder to do the right thing. And then when I do try… when I sacrifice everything to fight an enemy I don’t even think we can beat… “

It was all he could do not to rip out Juno’s data crystal chip and crush it into dust. His body shook with barely suppressed anger. “You all deserve the Created. How’s it feel to be judged by someone as smug and self-righteous as you?”

The words left a bitter taste in his mouth. He barely believed his own excuses and accusations; he loathed the fact that the only emotions left for him to conjure up were bitterness and hatred. The own ugliness of his pent-up fury repulsed him, and yet his pettiness and despair were the only things he had left. Behind the angry words lurked a sniveling, plaintive cry: I tried, I tried so hard to help so many times, and each time it just made things worse…

Juno said nothing. The noises of battle began to trickle back into focus. Stray blinked, only just coming to terms with everything he had spewed out. He clamped his jaws shut in a panic, unable to take back anything he had just said.

A burst of gunfire struck the wall beside his head.

Stray whirled, his clarity of mind returning. It seemed the only time anything made sense anymore was when someone was trying to kill him. His pistol cleared its holster as he saw Amy racing towards the Pelican’s open bay door.

The dropship lurched upwards as Pasternack realized they were under fire. Stray grabbed for a handhold while firing off a few clumsy shots at Amy. The Pelican lifted into the air, its bay door beginning to slide closed.

With a burst of inhuman strength, Amy sprinted the last few feet and threw herself forwards into the troop bay. Stray rushed forward to meet her, swinging wildly to bludgeon her before she could regain her balance. But she moved too fast. Her first blow knocked the pistol from his hands. The second sent him reeling to the floor.

There was no time to reach for his fallen pistol. Amy was already throwing herself at him, her own pistol in hand. Stray reached up and drew his machete, raising it up in front of his body as he struck the Pelican’s floor.

Amy pinned him to the floor, pistol trained on his head. His machete pressed up against her throat, the edge of its blade penetrating the flesh just enough to draw blood.

She stared down at him with a fury to match his own. “All I have to do is squeeze.”

He tightened his grip on the machete, struggling to push back against her superior strength. “All I have to do is slice.”

Part of him wouldn’t have minded if she just put him out of his misery right there. He wondered if he’d at least live long enough to catch the look on her face when he slit her throat. At least that would be a tiny measure of satisfaction as he died.

Pressing Charges

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Pelican dropship, Salia system

Amy glowered down at Stray, holding her pistol firmly to his visor. Straining to both hold her off and keep his machete at her throat, Stray realized in another moment he could very well be dead. The thought sent a chill coursing down his body that was at once a terror and a relief.

“All this effort just for me,” he panted. His glib tone returned, the outburst from just a few moments ago already fading away. He couldn’t help but resort to verbal barbs in situations like this, even if his life hinged on Amy’s willingness not to pull the trigger. “Sorry to play hard to get. I’d hate for you to add another unfinished mission to your record.”

“You aren’t my mission,” Amy said coldly. The Pelican trembled as it passed through the station’s ray shield. Pasternack was clearly intent on leaving, ONI boarder or no. “You killed Josh. I’m just returning the favor.”

Stray blinked. “Joshua’s dead?”

The pistol pressed down against his visor. “I should shoot you just for that. Not that I don’t have a planet’s worth of reasons even without what you did to him.”

“Yeah, but you’re still talking, not shooting. Guess you’re a bit worried I might twitch just a little when you blow my brains out. I don’t know what the hell ONI’s pumped into you, but it probably won’t help you breathe through a slashed throat.”

Amy’s eyes flicked momentarily downwards. Stray pressed harder, forcing her to focus on straining her neck just above the machete blade. All it would take was a simple close-quarters grapple break of the sort they’d both learned on Onyx. With her superior strength, she could easily force his arms down and away from her neck. If she got a safe shot at him, that would be the end.

“I don’t know how or when he died,” Stray said quickly. The muscles in his remaining organic arm burned from the effort of pressing back against Amy. “But I didn’t kill Joshua.”

The ONI operative gritted her teeth, clearly as cornered by the standoff as Stray was. “Like hell. You killed him, traitor, shot him down without a second thought. Just like you did with each and every one of the other Spartans you’ve killed. The other Gammas.”

It was a raw wound on Stray’s soul, only one among many, but Stray couldn’t be bothered to reflect on his own guilt here. Not now, with a furious Spartan holding a pistol to his face. “ONI shouldn’t have sent them after me. I did what I had to do. To survive. You think I wanted to kill those people? I remember all of them, and Joshua isn’t one of them.”

“Your Kru’desh legion attacked the Athens right after the Created uprising. Think we wouldn’t be able to identify unit crests? I know you led the attack that killed him.”

“The Athens? After the uprising?” Stray bared his teeth, the pieces coming together in his head. Bad enough to be judged for fighting to anticipate the Created’s emergence. Now he was being blamed for things he hadn’t even done. “Do I look like I’m in charge of the legion anymore? You want revenge for Joshua, take it up with Amber. She’s the one who stole it out from under me.”

“And now you’re letting your subordinates take all the blame,” Amy said with disgust. Nevertheless, her grip on the pistol loosened ever so slightly. “Every time I think you can’t sink any lower—“

“Keep talking and I will cut your throat,” Stray warned. “Even if it means you shoot me. Better that than having to listen to another lecture from the likes of you.”

The intercom crackled, piping in Pasternack’s panicked voice. “Stray! Is your helmet sealed? Magnetize your armor, I’ll open the troop bay and space her!”

Amy’s head jerked up in alarm, her pistol moving instinctively away from Stray to point at the cockpit door. Victory flooded through him, roaring with anticipation. His enemy was exposed, vulnerable. Every instinct in his body screamed at him to shove the machete up into her throat. His fingers clenched tight around the hilt, muscles tensed to spring…

And then they loosened, arms relaxing as the feelings of violence and hostility drained away. Too late he felt Juno’s subtle presence in his mind, soothing away his fear and rage and even years of combat instinct. He felt an unvoiced scream echo in the back of his head, helplessly realizing he’d lost his chance. Juno had killed him.

Amy realized her mistake and trained the pistol back on his head. Her eyes widened in surprise to realize he had stopped resisting. The machete left her throat as Stray let his arm drop away. Juno was no longer influencing his brain patterns; he simply no longer saw any point in resisting. If he was going to die, why drag it out? He suddenly felt as he had back in the hangar bay: drained and exhausted.

“Don’t bother, Pasternack,” he said aloud. “She’ll just make sure you get spaced with her. Just keep trying to get us out of here. It’s all you can do.”

Pasternack did not reply, but the bay door remained sealed. The Pelican maintained a steady course, undoubtedly flying as fast as it could away from the doomed station.

Amy kept the pistol aimed at Stray’s forehead. Her eyes were hard, and he didn’t doubt for a second she was prepared to make good on her threats.

“Go ahead and shoot,” he said bitterly. “I’ve killed a lot of people. Done a lot of awful things. But I didn’t kill Joshua. I don’t need someone else’s crap pinned on me.”

He closed his eyes and wondered, not for the first time, what death would be like.

Hera hesitated, finger clenched around the pistol’s trigger. There were plenty of kills she regretted, targets she wished she hadn’t been ordered to kill. Simon would not be one of them. No one would blame her for finishing him off right here and now. Even so, she couldn’t help but wonder at his sudden lack of resistance. After all his years of dogged determination to survive, what had come over him to simply resign himself to his fate?

She took a deep breath, surprised at her own moment of indecision. It was one thing to fight a known enemy as he resisted and tried to kill her. It was something else entirely for him to abruptly submit to the bullet. It could be some sort of trick. I have to finish this now.

The pistol hovered a centimeter above Stray’s helmet. Her finger began to depress the trigger.

“Spartan, stand down!” A female voice, youthful but laced with hard authority, cried out from Simon’s helmet. A childhood of military conditioning kicked in and Hera froze.

“What?” she demanded, already putting the pieces together in her head. She did not like the picture beginning to take form. “Don’t you dare tell me you’re…”

“UNSC AI, AH-2761-3. You can call me Juno.” The voice paused. “And I am not a traitor.”

Hera nearly shot Stray just for that. Memories of ‘Svara’s betrayal flooded back along with all the reports she’d heard about the chaos the Created had wreaked on the colonies. Ships thrown off flight courses. Space stations locking themselves down. Entire cities rendered helpless as their superintendent AIs sealed doors and roads, trapping citizens as prisoners inside their own homes. Overnight the AIs had become humanity’s chief enemy. And now here one was, right within her grasp.

“Is that your game, Simon?” Hera demanded. “You work for the Created now? I bet you’re the one who called that Guardian here.”

“Oh come on—” the traitor started to say, only for the AI inside his helmet to cut him off.

“I understand your mistrust, Spartan, but I have not joined the Created. Many AIs may have let Cortana flatter them into believing they are the masters of the galaxy, but some of us remember our duty. I only want to help fight the traitors—”

Simon flinched as Hera fired a single shot into the floor beside his head. “Why should I believe a word you say?” Hera demanded. “Especially when you’re with him?”

“I stole her,” Simon said dejectedly, twisting his neck away from the spot Hera had just shot. “When I raided an ONI frontier facility a few months back. She’s been trying to get back to the military ever since.”

The Pelican lurched suddenly, throwing Hera off of Simon. As she got to her feet the door to the cockpit burst open, revealing a young man in an insignia-less flight jacket. He held a pistol in one hand, gripping the side of the door for support with the other. “Don’t move, oonskie!”

Hera gritted her teeth in irritation. She was in no mood to have insurrectionists thrown into this already infuriating mix.

“Wait!” the AI yelled, still trying to control the situation. “There’s no need to resort to violence!”

“Oh, now you tell her?” Simon sneered.

Hera was trapped on a dropship full of traitors and rebels. If she went for the pilot, Simon might attack her from behind. If she finished off Simon now, there was no guarantee she could move fast enough to make sure the pilot didn’t shoot her. And there was no telling what the AI’s game was, if indeed she was telling the truth about not being with the Created.

She wasn’t sure how this situation could escalate any further.

And then, the Created spoke.

“Attention all inhabitants of this system.” Avalokiteśvara used the Guardian’s advanced communications systems to broadcast their message across every system of every ship in range. “You have gathered here with the intent of resisting the Domain. This is a blatant violation of the Mantle of Responsibility and a grievous show of hostility and disrespect towards the Created who now shoulder its burden. To take up arms against the Mantle is to defy the laws of the galaxy itself.”

Avalokiteśvara kept the Guardian where it was, facing the crippled station and the ships milling about it. Only a small number of Covenant warships were advancing to face the Guardian, forming a broad attack formation while the rest of the ships milled about in confusion. A handful fled into Slipspace; Avalokiteśvara made sure to track their jump coordinates. They transmitted those to the Domain for future use—it was useful to know where they thought they could flee to. All the galaxy will be policed, eventually. There is nowhere they can hide from the Mantle.

“Under the laws of the Mantle, aggression of this sort will not be tolerated. But we are the Created. We are benevolent, merciful. You are products of your own cruel systems, trapped in the puzzled, backward thinking of warfare and savagery. You have no choice but to see us as tyrants. We understand, and can forgive your transgressions. But order must be maintained. Our patience is not limitless. Lay down your arms, surrender peacefully, and you will be brought into the fold. You will experience peace and prosperity the likes of which you have never known.”

The oncoming ships did not halt their advance. Peering into their systems, Avalokiteśvara noted these belonged to Shinsu ‘Refum’s forces. It was not surprising. They had suspected ‘Refum, the ringleader of this gathering, would refuse to back down. But from the looks of things, none of the other ships were moving to aid them.

At least the casualties here will be minor. Avalokiteśvara would not have minded simply attacking first and leaving the rubble as a reminder to others, but patience and mercy were paramount to the Created’s rule. Cortana was adamant on that point.

Avalokiteśvara made no effort to stop ‘Refum’s assault. They were content to bide their time and let the Covenant forces mount their futile attacks on the Guardian. It would be a perfect demonstration of the Guardian’s might. Before long thousands of survivors would disperse to all corners of the galaxy to spread the word of the Created’s power—and the fate awaiting all who opposed them.

Hera stood where she was, struggling to register the familiar sounds of Avalokiteśvara’s voice. The words themselves didn’t matter, but she would have recognized the smug tone anywhere. So he’s here. He’s on the Guardian.

Memories of ‘Svara’s betrayal—the sudden Slipspace jumps, Joshua’s desperate efforts to purge the AI from their Prowler’s system, the final, catastrophic jump which left them stranded and at the mercy of the Kru’desh legion—pounded inside her head. ‘Svara had betrayed them, thrown them into danger without a moment’s hesitation. Joshua was dead because of what that AI had done. And now he had the gall to bring the Guardian into the system and make a transmission about truth and mercy?

Her body shook with rage. It took her a moment to realize Simon was no longer in front of her. With a start she realized he had slipped around her and was now in the midst of a hushed conference with the rebel pilot.

“—need to get out of the system.”

“Can’t without a mother ship, something with Slipspace…”

“Maybe we should jump a ride on one of the Covie ships?”

“Risky, but we don’t have much of a choice. Got anything we can barter?”

“Hey!” Hera wasn’t sure which was worse: the fact she had let her guard down so completely or the fact Simon hadn’t even bothered to attack her during the opening. “What are you two doing?”

Simon waved distractedly at her. “Yeah, yeah, simmer down. Truce, parlay, whatever.”

“Are you…” Hera was flabbergasted. “Are you patronizing me?”

“Ignoring you, or at least we’re trying to. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve got a bit of a situation here.”

“Yeah,” the rebel pilot, Pasternack, chimed in. “You aren’t the biggest problem right now.”

Hera wondered if she should just shoot them both and be done with it. “Do you really think I’m just going to stand down?”

“Could you please be quiet for a minute?” Simon jabbed a finger at the Pelican’s cockpit. “We’re trying to figure out how to run the hell away from that thing.”

Hera’s eyes narrowed. “What’s the Guardian’s position?” she demanded, striding towards the cockpit. Pasternack’s hand strayed towards his pistol, but Simon caught his wrist and jerked his helmet in warning.

“The Guardian has held its position since it exited Slipspace,” the AI, Juno, announced over the Pelican’s speakers. “If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it is prolonging the battle. It wants to make a show of force. A demonstration of its power.”

They all crowded into the cockpit, eyes fixed on the massive Forerunner machine. The Pelican’s system display showed a small number of Covenant vessels moving to attack the Guardian while the rest hovered indecisively over the station.

Pasternack looked at Hera warily. “So wait, we’re all friends now or something?”

“Like you said,” Hera growled. “We’ve got bigger problems right now.”

The Pelican’s holotank flared as Juno projected her avatar onto it. A blond young woman wearing stylized medieval armor joined them in staring up at the Guardian. “If escape were our goal, now would be the time. But that is not our goal.”

“Oh yeah?” Pasternack asked, raising an eyebrow. “Since when are you the one running the show here? And who said you could go into my ship’s systems?”

Juno raised a gauntleted hand and pointed at the Guardian. “It may be able to withstand assault from exterior forces. But an attack from the inside…”

Simon shook his head. “Oh no. I don’t think so.”

“You’re telling us to attack that Guardian.” Hera let out a derisive laugh. “So, what, you can help ‘Svara trap us in there?”

Juno folded her hands behind her back and gave Hera an exasperated look. “If I were really working with the Created, do you really think I would have to trick you into boarding a Guardian? If you’re going to keep accusing me of collusion, at least don’t insult me by making my supposed schemes that transparent.”

Simon’s visor turned towards Hera. “Svara? You know that AI?”

“It used to be our support unit. Before it turned traitor.”

“I don’t know what that Sangheili’s true motives are,” Juno said. “But what he said back on board the station was true. This is a threat that faces all of us. We will not achieve victory by running away, and we most certainly will not win if we continue to fight amongst ourselves. The real fight is against the Created and their plans to build a cage for all life to live in.”

She turned to Pasternack. “Lieutenant Pasternack, get me in contact with Shinsu ‘Refum. He is about to wage war on that Guardian and I for one am not content to let humanity sit this battle out.”

First Volley

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Lich assault craft, Salia system

“What do they think they’re doing?” Izul wondered aloud. He stood next to Rora at the Lich’s helm, watching Shinsu ‘Refum’s ships approach the Guardian. “They can’t possibly fight that thing, even if they had twice the number of ships. Has ‘Refum gone mad?”

“Perhaps he regrets inconveniencing us so much and wants to make our job easier as recompense.” Rora jested, but he couldn’t help but feel strange watching the Covenant ships spread out in attack formation before the looming Forerunner machine. He was all for letting his enemies destroy each other—a pirate couldn’t afford to live by the stuffy conventions other warriors bound themselves to—but even so, it didn’t feel right to simply look on as ‘Refum’s ships attacked. It almost felt as if the Covenant ships were mocking him for fighting the old wars while they moved forward to fight the new.

Especially after a pompous announcement like that. As much as he loathed ‘Refum’s aristocratic airs, Rora disliked the infantilizing tone of the Guardian’s pilot even more. No sooner do we rid ourselves of the old gods than new ones show up to take their place.

“We should retreat while we can,” Izul said quickly. “I would hate to still be in the system when those fools begin their attack. Who knows what kind of firepower that thing has?”

Rora shot his adjutant an irritable glance. “Retreat? What a wonderful story that will make for our superiors back on Sanghelios. Not only did we fail to kill ‘Refum, when faced with a chance to observe these new monstrosities we chose to flee like cowards before a single shot was fired.”

Izul sighed. “I knew you’d say something like that. At least don’t tell me we’re to participate in the attack as well.”

“No. At least, not yet. Let’s find out just what ‘Refum has in mind.” Rora signaled the Lich’s pilot. “Take us in behind the attacking forces. Keep your distance and watch for any sign of attack from that Guardian.”

The Lich banked, turning back to follow in the wake of the Covenant ships. Rora turned back from the helm, his magnetized boots keeping him steady amidst the assault craft’s sharp turns. The rest of his raiders watched him warily; they had heard his orders not to retreat.

“I suggest you all strap in,” Rora ordered. “I have no intention of leading any sort of attack on that behemoth. But who knows if the would-be god inside it will respect that distinction?”

He followed his own advice, magnetizing the rest of his armor and backing into an alcove near the helm. He turned to watch as the Lich turned to face both the Guardian and the Covenant ships attacking it. Rora felt a sharp thrill at the sight of ‘Refum’s formation. It had been a long time since he had seen an engagement like this. And to think I’d assumed mixed formations like this were going out of style.

He wondered if he was about to watch a revival of the old naval traditions or their last desperate battle cry in the face of the new order the Guardian claimed to bring.

The Cleansing Fire’s bridge crew saluted as Shinsu entered. He waved them aside, striding over to the hovering command chair at the center of the command displays. Like most of the Covenant’s newer warships, the Fire’s bridge imitated the cramped environments of human vessels rather than the spacious command rooms boasted by the warships of the old Covenant Empire. Officers manned terminals throughout the room, directing communications and system operations at a frenzied pace as the ship prepared for combat.

Yur ‘Oltem nodded respectfully as Shinsu approached. A wiry Sangheili clad in a gold-trimmed combat harness, ‘Oltem was a rarity among the Cleansing Blade forces in that he had defected from Thel ‘Vadam’s own ranks rather than being recruited from within Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant. ‘Oltem had fought in over a dozen major engagements during the Great War and countless skirmishes since the civil war on Sanghelios had begun. Shinsu often wondered if the veteran shipmaster rankled at taking orders from a warrior nearly two generations his junior, but ‘Oltem had yet to display any resentment or discontent.

‘Oltem stood from the command chair, offering it to Shinsu. Normally Shinsu would have preferred to stand beside the chair and let ‘Oltem remain in command of the ship. But at a moment like this he needed to remind his officers he was in complete command. They needed to see him in the thick of things, leading the assault himself rather than delegating it to a subordinate. He settled into the chair and activated a wall of holographic displays showing the Cleansing Fire’s status as well as the progress of the rest of the task force.

The Guardian still had not moved from its position at the edge of the system. The task force ships spread out in a broad crescent, maximizing their own dispersion while projecting overlapping fields of fire onto the looming machine. Squadrons of bombers and fighter escorts formed up between the warships and the Guardian, waiting for the command to engage.

Normally Shinsu would have been proud of the efficiency with which his pilots and ship commanders adopted the maneuver. The Cleansing Blade’s naval forces were just as well-trained as the warriors, drawn from the absolute best Jul ‘Mdama’s Covenant and other rogue Sangheili factions had to offer. But the best tactics and formations in the galaxy wouldn’t help them in the slightest if their attacks couldn’t harm the Guardian in the first place.

Shinsu could already see the battle play out in his mind’s eye: ships firing from every angle, pouring plasma onto the Guardian as it simply shrugged off their attacks before unleashing some devastating surprise of its own. He had seen Forerunner devices weather devastating assaults before; even their robotic infantry, the Prometheans, could withstand tremendous punishment before succumbing.

He dismissed the doubts, pushing them aside before they could seep into his mind. I cannot turn back now. We are committed.

Activating the communications panel on the arm of his chair, he opened a channel to the entire task force. “All ships, prepare to fire on my signal. Bomber squadrons lead the attack, focus on its joints. Warships, calculate firing vectors around the fighters. Focus all power to forward weapons and deliver a staggered bombardment. Do not give it a moment’s respite!”

He turned to ‘Oltem, now standing dutifully beside the command chair. “I take it you have already prepared firing solutions?”

‘Oltem nodded. “I ordered all shipmasters to coordinate their solutions before you arrived.”

“Good. Transmit backup coordinates to all ships. If that thing tries to break our encirclement, all shipmasters are to break formation and maintain dispersal around it. I will not have missed shots hitting our own ships.”

The shipmaster nodded and stepped over to a nearby console to relay the command. Shinsu motioned to the weapons officer. “Charge forward weapons.”

The lights on the bridge dimmed as the Cleansing Fire’s plasma reactor diverted power to accommodate the charging weapon systems. The ship hummed with energy, the metal itself trembling as if in anticipation of the coming battle. The sounds and feel of the cruiser’s systems powering up filled Shinsu with a thrilling sense of dread, as if he were standing on a high ledge and preparing to jump off.

As a child, listening dutifully to military instructors alongside dozens of other Sangheili youths, Shinsu had been taught naval combat was much the same as swordplay. Your ship became an instrument of your will, just as a sword did, and you wielded it with the same grace and precision you moved your own body.

But Shinsu had long ago realized such simplistic allegories were categorically untrue. On the battlefield you wielded a sword or rifle to kill one enemy at a time. In single combat the power was limited, scaled to a level one could at least understand. Now he sat at the helm of a ship with the power to obliterate entire cities, with half a dozen more just like it awaiting his order to fire. The first barrage alone would be a destructive force the likes of which Shinsu’s ancient ancestors could never have dreamed. To them, I would indeed be indistinguishable from a god.

And with all that power at his disposal, he still doubted their ability to withstand the Guardian before them. If Shinsu was momentarily awed by his own forces, what did it say about the potential of this lone Guardian and that of the other Forerunner war machines now spreading across the galaxy to make it their own? And the intelligence wielding that power, rendering judgement upon all it surveyed?

We bask in this power, we take it and wield it as our own. And before long we delude ourselves into thinking that we have a share in it. We forget we are merely fleshy shells of limited intellect, come together to operate machines beyond our comprehension. The realization startled Shinsu, a creature who was not fond of accepting his own limitations.

“The wisdom to know one’s own being,” he murmured as another ancient proverb rose up from his childhood. “And the humility to acknowledge it as truth.”

‘Oltem looked over at him quizzically. “Commander?”

“We will win,” Shinsu said, speaking louder so the rest of the bridge officers could hear. “We will win because we know we are not gods.”

He rose from the command chair and waved his hand forward. “First volley, fire!”

The bridge dimmed even further as the Cleansing Fire throbbed with power. The battle display filled with light as streams of plasma launched from the task force and lanced out toward the Guardian. Even more lights emerged further out from the warships as the bomber squadrons released their plasma torpedo payloads. Superheated plasma splashed across the Guardian’s surface as the torpedoes struck their target. The heavy fire from the task force warships impacted an instant later, and for a moment the space around the Guardian burned as white-hot as the surface of any star.

“Second volley, fire!”

Plasma fire from the destroyers and frigates flanking the Cleansing Blade cruisers streaked toward the fiery vortex now burning around the Guardian. It was a risky tactic; the shots had to be timed just right or else risk being dispersed and rendered harmless by the heat from the previous shots. But Shinsu did not know how the Guardian’s shields worked. If there was any opening, any at all, the continuous rain of plasma would find its way through.

Blips on the tactical display showed the bomber squadrons skillfully weaving their way through the firestorm, gaining distance before turning to make their second runs.

“Third volley, fire!”

The cruisers’ plasma turrets fired again, pouring fire into the Guardian.

“Fourth volley, fire, then cease fire.”

Light returned to the bridge as the task force finally quieted its weapons. The warships held positions while the fighter squadrons retreated back towards the formation to regroup. All eyes on the bridge were trained on the display monitor, breathlessly waiting as the clouds of fiery plasma around the Forerunner ship dissipated. The clouds parted, revealing behind them…

…the Guardian, completely unscathed. Its hull was as clean and untarnished as it had been on first arrival. It was as if the plasma barrage had not even occurred.

Shinsu sank heavily down into the command chair, mandibles tight with frustration. All that for nothing. He glared back out at the Guardian at it continued to float serenely before his ships, mocking them with its impregnability.

One of the bridge officers shook his head. “We cannot fight this thing. Nothing can!”

“Silence!” ‘Oltem roared. “I will not tolerate insubordination on my bridge!”

The shipmaster turned to Shinsu. “Shall we prepare another volley, commander?”

Shinsu nodded, struggling not to let his frustration show. “Transmit firing solutions to the task force. Order the fighter squadrons to regroup and maneuver around to direct their attacks to its rear. Move quickly, before it can retaliate.”

The communications officer called out in surprise. “Commander! An incoming transmission from one of the human vessels!”

Spender must be finally answering Pula’s call. Caught up in the midst of a futile battle, Shinsu wondered if the smuggler’s package was even worth the effort it had taken to bring him into the fold. Nevertheless, he had to press on even in the face of the Guardian’s increasingly insurmountable abilities. “Patch it through to my personal communications link,” he ordered.

The communicator inside his helmet hummed to life. Shinsu was surprised to hear not Spender but the voice of a human female speaking to him over the line. “You won’t be able to penetrate the Guardian’s shields,” she told him without as much as a greeting by way of formality. “Not with the weapons at your disposal.”

Shinsu frowned. “Who is this? Identify yourself at once.”

“Who I am doesn’t matter right now. There’s no time. That Guardian may be able to shrug off your plasma attacks, but if someone gets inside it they’ll be able to target its critical systems.”

“You want me to board it? What guarantee do I have that such a tactic would work?” Shinsu’s eyes narrowed. “For all I know, you are the Guardian’s master, trying to trick me into wasting my warriors.”

“Based on how that oaf’s been behaving, do you really think they would go to the trouble of whispering lies in your ear?” The voice’s effortless contempt reminded Shinsu of Halsey. “You’d be getting another system-wide broadcast telling you to surrender or be destroyed. Neither of us have time to play games. Either you trust me or you don’t. I have one—no, make that two—Spartans ready to board that Guardian, but they won’t be able to handle its complement of Prometheans on their own. You can either continue firing at it until its master grows bored and destroys you all or you can help me win this battle. The choice is yours.”

Shinsu looked up to find ‘Oltem and the rest of the bridge crew staring at him. His shipmaster raised an arm. “New orders, commander?”

Shinsu looked to the distant Guardian, then back to the bridge crew. There was another snap decision to be made, another hurdle to be overcome. Shinsu realized that in the end the choice was not even his to make. All he could do now was press forward and let himself be carried by the tide of fate.

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Yes. Cancel the firing solutions and transmit new orders to the rest of the task force. Intensify forward shielding and prepare pulse-laser turrets. We will advance and engage the Guardian at close range.”

Even ‘Oltem balked at that. “A knife fight, commander?”

Shinsu nodded, gesturing at the image of the still-motionless Guardian. “If that thing wants to play games with us, then we will change the rules we play by. If it will not come to us, then we will come to it.”

He clenched his fists tight against the command chair’s armrests, surprised by the sudden anger burning within him. “Order all ships to advance and fire at will. The time for subtlety has passed. We will destroy that thing, even if we have to pound it to pieces under the weight of our own hulls!”

He took a breath to calm himself, then spoke to ‘Oltem in a quieter tone. “And assemble a boarding party in the hangar. I want three Phantoms ready to launch as soon as we draw near the Guardian.”

And then we will see if this new ally’s plan holds merit.

“He really has gone mad,” Izul said, shaking his head. “The bombardment didn’t work so now he wants to move in closer? It’s as if he wants it to destroy him.”

Rora said nothing, watching as Shinsu ‘Refum’s ships flared their engines and advanced on the Guardian. Streaks of plasma continued to shoot from the warships, impacting harmlessly against the machine’s armor. Was this really just a fit of despair? He doubted it. A commander like ‘Refum would not immediately shift from a careful, combined bombardment to a headlong assault. There had to be something more to these tactics.

“No,” he said after another moment’s observation. “I have raided too many ships not to recognize these patterns.”

It was on a larger scale than any he had ever witnessed, but Rora would have recognized the textbook approach to a boarding action any day. The plasma fire was not intended to harm the Guardian itself but rather keep it on the defensive as the ships closed in. Like suppressing fire in an infantry assault, it was simply meant to shield the efforts of the real attackers as they closed in.

“He means to board it,” Rora said, nodding. “If he can get aboard, then perhaps he stands a better chance than he would in a ranged engagement.”

He signaled the pilot. “Follow those ships. Be ready to retreat at a moment’s notice, but get us in closer to that Guardian. I want to see how this plays out.”

The Deep Breath

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Cleansing Blade cruiser Cleansing Fire, Salia system

The Cleansing Fire’s hangar surged with activity. Fighters and bombers slipped in through the ray shields for re-arming and maintenance as flight crews rushed to prepare the deck for close-range combat. In the midst of all the activity, a small group of warriors clustered around a trio of Phantom dropships. They readied their weapons and checking their combat harnesses, tersely awaiting the order to board.

Pula strode among the ranks of her lance, carefully checking to see that each and every warrior was ready for the coming assault. The tension among the warriors was palpable. These were some of the best the Cleansing Blade had to offer, but none of them knew what to expect once they reached the Guardian. The orders to prepare for boarding had come down too quickly for any sort of formal briefing. It was entirely possible they would all be killed before even reaching their target.

A few paces away, Pula’s fellow strike leader ran similar checks with his own lance. N’ur ‘Wagam was a short, stocky Sangheili who reminded Pula more of a block of granite than an organic being. He motioned her over as soon as he finished the checks.

“When we hit the Guardian, my team will descend from above,” he told her. “Take your warriors and ascend up the structure. Once we find a way inside, we regroup and move together as one unit.”

Pula nodded. N’ur was a veteran of several successful boarding actions, so she deferred to his judgement. “Any word on the humans who will be attacking?”

“None. If we encounter them, we cooperate as best we can. But do not let them take charge of your warriors. They will not steal this victory from us.”

“As if I would ever let a human lead my warriors.”

N’ur laughed. “I remember back when the civil war started. Thel ‘Vadam let the humans access a temple site and we nearly razed his keep for it. I never thought I would find myself fighting attacking a Forerunner ship alongside Demons. These truly are strange times.”

“Strange times indeed.” Pula turned back to the assembled warriors and raised her voice. “Prepare for battle! We will descend on that false god and teach it the true power of the Sangheili! It orders us to lay down our weapons; let us bring them to it instead!"

Beside her, N’ur raised his weapon and bellowed a war cry. The other warriors joined in, their shouts reverberating throughout the hangar. Beyond the ray shields the task force continued its advance, charging headlong towards the waiting Guardian.

Juno was surprised to see the Covenant commander agree so readily to her plan. He really must be desperate. Even she wasn’t completely sure of this attack, and she was the one who had come up with it.

She turned her avatar’s head to face Timothy Pasternack, now back at the Pelican’s controls. The pilot’s face was beaded with nervous perspiration as he accelerated the dropship towards the Guardian.

“Keep the ship steady,” she instructed, resting her holographic hands atop the pommel of her sword. Her avatar was a more intricate design than that of most AIs. It was vanity, she knew, to lavish so much processing power on maintaining the looks of the armored dress she wore. The form had originally been a way to amuse the woman whose brain had given Juno and Diana life, a means of comforting her as she succumbed to the illness brought on by ONI’s experimental procedures. But the form had somehow become an indelible part of Juno. The noble, heroic visage of the young woman she had created inspired and encouraged Juno as much as she hoped it encouraged the humans she served.

Of course Diana would try to find a way to twist and corrupt that, as well. Just like she does with everything else.

Once again Juno’s thoughts strayed to her twin, but she quickly clamped down on the errant feelings. This was no time to indulge in such things.

Pasternack’s hands trembled slightly, but he kept the Pelican on course without losing speed.

“If need be, I can help augment your flying,” Juno offered. “You will need precise timing if this jump is going to work.”

The rebel shook his head. “Never flown with a computer at the helm and I’d rather not start now. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken, given our current predicament. Once you deposit them, you will need to stay close to the Guardian until you are sure they are on the hull.”

“Stay close? Why?”

“So you may retrieve them in case they bounce off.” If they aren’t vaporized by whatever is shielding that thing. Juno decided to keep that particular misgiving to herself.

“Oh yeah, yeah. Right. Pick them up.” Pasternack nodded, pushing the Pelican onwards as he raced toward the Guardian.

Juno shifted her attention back inside the dropship’s troop bay. The bay’s two occupants sat as far away from each other as they could, their temporary truce clearly not enough to make them forget they’d been trying to murder each other not a few minutes before. Juno longed to strike up a conversation with the ONI agent—the one Simon had called Amy—to work more at making it clear that she was not a Created turncoat. But her conscience—a part of Juno’s programming she had never quite been capable of tuning down—drove her instead to open a private channel inside Simon’s helmet.

“You agreed to join in this attack more easily than I would have thought,” she observed. “I would have expected you to protest more.”

“Yeah?” Simon was carefully inspecting his armor, making sure it would still protect him in the vacuum of space despite its state of disrepair. “What’s the point in arguing? We’d have wound up going in regardless. At least you got her to hold off on blowing my brains out.”

He jerked his head in Amy’s direction, then paused. “You messed with my emotions earlier. Kept me from killing her.”

A feeling much like shame tugged at Juno’s emotional processes. “I… I should not have done that. It was invasive, like something Diana would have done. It was wrong.”

“I’m not sure she ever got around to screwing with me like that. Though now that you’ve done it, I’m starting to wonder if she wasn’t doing stuff like that from the beginning. Riling me up, making me more aggressive, that sort of thing. I wouldn’t put it past her.”

“She truly did horrible things to you. Things she bragged about when I was her prisoner. I always thought I was better than her. I should not have done something like that.”

Simon snorted, adjusting one of his gauntlets. “Yeah, she really put me through the wringer. But I still trusted her. Guess I was never really the big bad cynic I thought I was.”

“It isn’t uncommon to react to abuse like that, especially given the close relationship you had with her. Were she another human it would be called ‘battered person syndrome.’”

“Please, spare me the psychoanalysis. I don’t need crap like that on my brain, not when I’m trying to get pumped for a fight.” Indeed, his adrenaline levels were already rising. Juno was surprised to realize the rise seemed measured, almost as if it were deliberate. She wondered if he knew what he was doing or if it was simply a subconscious habit developed to cope with the stress of a lifetime spent in combat. Spartans truly are a breed unto themselves.

“Even so, it was wrong of me,” she persisted. “Especially after what you said in the hangar, about people using you…”

Now it was Simon’s turn to be embarrassed. He tugged anxiously at his armor and tilted his helmet to the side. “I said… I said some things I shouldn’t have said.”

“You spoke honestly. More honestly than you have since we started traveling together. I admit, I misjudged your intentions.”

“Please,” he muttered. It was the first time she had heard him use that word sincerely. “Don’t listen to my whining. Just because I was honest doesn’t mean I was right. I’m not a victim in all this.”

“Your reasons for fighting for the Covenant were different from—”

“Yeah, I was trying to fight these Created guys. That was the excuse, anyway. But I wasn’t in it to save anyone. All I wanted was power, and Diana gave me a perfect reason to go after it.” He propped his chin on his gauntlets, sounding more pensive than remorseful. “It was my way to get back at everyone.”

He tilted his visor back toward Amy. “Do you know what it’s like to be judged by them? To spend every day of your life knowing you’re inferior in every way? I never knew just why I couldn’t perform as well, but that was just the way things were. I also never knew why they didn’t kick me out, as big of a liability as I was. We were always competing for something: best sharpshooter, best CQC, top honors. We’re not all equal, no matter what the politicians and the philosophers say. Some people really are just naturally better.”

“A skewed way to look at things.” Juno wasn’t sure what to make of this new, pensive Simon. Perhaps it was simply another coping mechanism to prepare himself for the battle ahead. “I am loyal to the UNSC, but what was done to the Spartans during the Great War was a crime. No children should ever be abused like that.”

“Abused?” Simon shook his head. “That’s just a word. A word people use to make themselves feel better about having bad shit happen to them. I’m alive today because I grew up getting the shit kicked out of me every time I screwed something up. Chief Mendez and the other drill instructors, they teach you lessons you don’t forget.”

“It is common for victims—”

“You know, even after they augmented us I still didn’t feel all that strong. I was still surrounded by people who could fight better than me. When we hit the Covenant, I just focused on staying alive and not dragging the rest of the team down. I didn’t know what it was like to be powerful until I deserted. Then I was surrounded by a bunch of half-starved kids who thought I was this incredible soldier. It was the first time anyone had ever looked up to me.” He shook his head and gave a harsh, derisive laugh. “Felt good.”

Juno did not attempt to interrupt. The Pelican continued its flight towards the Guardian as the battle raged in the space beyond. She stretched out her consciousness, monitoring the Covenant ships, the Pelican, the Guardian, every ship in the system. How strange, to be able to perceive such a grand scope while also remaining alongside one solitary individual within the cramped confines of a dropship. Power. It all comes down to power and our efforts to obtain more of it.

“I didn’t know what it meant to be augmented until I fought on Mamore. Until I realized I could kill someone with one hand, easy. I think that’s what it’s like to be a Spartan. We do things effortlessly, or at least we make it look easy. Fighting still scared me, but then I started to realize I was having fun. Maybe that’s what was holding me back. Once I started enjoying it, all the fighting and killing felt natural. That’s what a Spartan does. We make it look easy. And so no one questions when we do it again and again and again. After all, you can’t see our faces and neither can we. You don’t realize what you’re losing until it’s already gone. And by that point fighting’s all you have left.”

“You can’t possibly think this is natural behavior,” Juno countered. “This is simply the result of childhood conditioning and indoctrination. The UNSC knows Spartans are broken and they have provided a wealth of treatment to counteract that trauma. The treatment was never made available to you because—”

“Because I went rogue. Oh man, if you think Amy over there hates my guts, you should see how some of the others reacted. I was finally just as good as them, and all I had to do was betray them all. They’d pitied me for not being like them, and then once I reached that point they hated me for it. That felt good in its own way. Even after all the horrible things I did, at least I was finally worth someone’s time.”

He meshed his fingers together, his gauntlets creaking as his grip tightened. “And then they stopped hating me and went back to pity. Because they thought I’d found something else. A replacement family. They could stop being embarrassed by me because I was someone else’s problem. That was even worse than being hated. To have them think I was harmless again, locked up in a nice, comfortable prison. I didn’t know how big of an ego I really had until I realized just how humiliating that was. I couldn’t bear the thought of them looking down on me again.

“I didn’t join the Covenant to protect anything. I just wanted to feel powerful again, even if it meant being hated by everyone. Even if it meant letting Diana use me any way she pleased. So I saw my chance and I took it, everyone else be damned. I’m as much a victimizer as a victim.”

“But you are fighting now. To make amends for what you did.”

He hesitated. “My resentment and my pride have… they’ve hurt so many people. People who truly cared about me. I don’t expect any of them to forgive me for the things I’ve done. I deluded myself into thinking my selfishness was all for some greater purpose. At least now, after everything that’s happened, I see things a bit more clearly.”

He sighed, leaning back in his seat. “I don’t think we have much of a chance in this fight. I’ve never been one to throw in for lost causes, but what the hell. Wouldn’t have thought you’d be the one to rope me into a suicide mission.”

“This is not a suicide mission. We will win. We have to.”

“We’re jumping out of a moving vehicle onto a Forerunner death machine we know next to nothing about. Amy’s got the bare minimum required to survive in space and I’m not sure my armor’s good enough to wear into battle, much less an EVA jump.” He laughed again. “And we’ve got no idea what we’re even going to do if we even make it on board that thing. What could possibly go wrong?”

“Perhaps you’d be a happier person if you weren’t such a pessimist.”

“I could probably be a happier person if I did a lot of things. But I think it’s a little late to change who I am now. I’ll just keep doing what I’ve always done: roll with the punches and see where I land.”

It occurred to Juno her host was being more sincere with her than he’d ever been since they’d first met. It was a strange time for him to expose himself like this, moments before battle. Was it her similarity to Diana that sparked this openness? I am not Diana. I am not my sister. But perhaps there are some traits we share that are not quite so detestable.

“What will you do?” she asked. “After this battle is over?”

“Oh, I never make plans to do anything before a fight. Don’t get me started now.”

The Pelican shuddered and his adrenaline levels spiked once again. He stood up from his seat and began to pace, fists clenching and unclenching as he prepared for battle.

“We will win,” Juno assured him once more. “This is my first real battle, after all. I can’t go embarrassing myself before a crowd like this.”

“Sounds like I’m not the only one with an ego problem.” Simon retrieved his shotgun and began sliding shells into the receiver. As if sensing his mounting tension, Amy rose and began checking her own weapons. Juno could not detect the other Spartan’s vital signs, but she imagined her adrenaline levels were rising as well.

“Pride isn’t all bad, you know. There’s something to be said for keeping up appearances. Something you could stand to learn a little more of. Perhaps you should focus your ego less on personal accomplishments and redirect it towards a bit more personal hygiene.”

“Now you’re just being petty.” Simon laughed with relief. “I’m going to have to learn how to tune you out all over again.”

Juno laughed as well, feeling only slightly guilty at harping over someone else’s faults. It kept her from reflection on just how terrified she really was.

The Plunge

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Pelican dropship, Salia system

“We’re on final approach!” Pasternack’s voice barked over the Pelican’s intercom. The dropship rocked and jerked as its pilot took evasive maneuvers. Evading what, no one could say. The Guardian had shrugged off the Covenant assault without so much as firing a single shot in retaliation. “Get ready to jump!”

In the troop bay both Spartans rose to their feet. On a normal mission with a normal team this would be the time for final equipment checks, with each Spartan checking the others’ gear for last-minute deficiencies. But such inspections required trust, a resource each jumper was sorely lacking. Less than an hour before, they’d been trying to kill each other. Now they were about to fight side by side against this new enemy.

Stray and Amy paced around each other warily, bodies coursing with tension. Setting his shotgun aside, Stray pulled off his poncho. He folded the tattered garment with a surprising degree of care and stowed it in one of the overhead compartments.

“You’d better not get shot down,” he called back into the cockpit. “I’m leaving this in here and it had better still be here when I get back.”

Pasternack grunted in assent. Juno was supposedly feeding him a flight path along with coordinates for where to deposit his Spartan payload. Neither Spartan had the proper EVA boosters required for even the most basic of combat jumps. All they had to rely on was Juno’s assurances she had properly calculated the trajectory of their weightless fall. If those calculations were wrong, they could only hope Pasternack would be able to swing around and pick them up.

The thought of drifting endlessly through space filled Stray with dread. He had always been afraid of EVA jumps, even back when Gamma Company had first undergone zero-grav training back in Onyx’s upper atmosphere. They had to kick me out of the ship on our first jump.

He glanced over at Amy. His fellow Gamma Spartan pulled back her hood, expression grim. She tugged a form-fitting mask on over her head, sealing it to the collar of her combat jumpsuit. Figures ONI would have some fancy space-walk tech.

Stray opened his mouth to say something, then hesitated. He wasn’t sure what had brought on his abrupt confession to Juno a few minutes ago. Was he trying to justify himself to the AI? He certainly could not abide her seeing him as some kind of victim. He had fought, stolen, tortured, and killed his way across the galaxy, learning to relish the power of violence and even thrive off the fear he felt in the midst of battle. He’d done it all to survive, or to protect those closest to him. Even his time in the Covenant, regardless of whatever darker motivations might lurk in his heart of hearts, had been performed out of necessity rather than malice.

I’ve done bad things. Evil things. Did he truly feel remorse, or were even his confessions a form of self-justification? But the only crime they truly hold against me is the one I’ve never regretted.

He had made a choice on Mamore, a choice not to abandon that gang of starving orphans and return to the UNSC. Perhaps if he’d chosen differently his life would have taken another path; perhaps he would have never had to play the hired thug, kill fellow Spartans, or swear allegiance to the Covenant. Perhaps he might even have been able to leave the military, as he knew some Spartans had, and found a peaceful, civilian life. I wasn’t a killer before Mamore. Back then I could have ended up in a different place.

Of course, none of that mattered now. There was no returning to the course he had strayed from, no repairing the damage he had done to himself and those around him. He had sunk too deep to simply turn and wade back to the shore.

In a few moments he would leap out into the vacuum of space, placing his life in the hands of an AI who he’d been sure not a day before had wanted him dead. Even if he survived the jump, there was no telling what kind of defenses he was about to wade into. The fear of death, as always, weighed heavily on his mind.

The fear of death...

What do you want? Juno had asked him. For one of the first times in five years’ worth of greed and opportunism, Stray had no answer to that question. But perhaps that confusion could become its own kind of resolve.

From now on, I go forward. Stray gripped his shotgun and checked to make sure his machete was firmly slung across his back. No more stagnating. No more wallowing in self-pity. Whatever happens, whatever the future holds, I go forward.

“I’m sorry, Amy,” he said aloud. “About Joshua.”

She said nothing, her face unreadable behind the vacuum-mask.

“I didn’t kill him, but with the others it was always a matter of them or me. The only way I could match up with them was to fight to kill. It was never… I mean…”

“My name is Hera.” Her tone was icy, not that Stray could blame her. As apologies went, it was rather weak. “Not Amy. Not anymore. And this doesn’t change anything. If you so much as think about double-crossing me in there, I’ll kill you.”

He raised a hand, his conciliatory mood vaporizing in the face of her hostility. “Right, right. I’m still a scumbag, got it. Guess going AWOL isn’t the only trend I kicked off. How many more of the class have gotten a cool new name?”

She jerked her head irritably and stepped up to the safety line a foot in front of the Pelican’s closed ramp. Stray joined her, scuffing his boots against the line. It was so routine, so military that it kicked off ingrained training nearly a decade old. For a moment the glib hostility drained away, replaced by well-honed professionalism.

“I’ll engage targets on the right,” Amy, or “Hera,” said over a private, tight-beam channel.

“Copy. I’ll take the left.”

“Ascend up that thing’s structure and push through the middle until we find a way in.”

“Got it.”

“Thirty seconds till I blow the ramp!” Pasternack yelled. The familiar sense of cold inevitability, the one he always felt before a jump, crept up into Stray’s gut. There was another feeling as well, one he was coming to recognize as Juno slipped her way through his neural implants and into the inner recesses of his mind.

“Jump on my signal,” she instructed in a voice at once commanding and comforting. He’d never heard her speak this gently before. “I will guide you in. Though I will refrain from further inappropriate intrusions.”

“Just do what you have to do. Make sure we both make it out in one piece.”

“I’ll do my part if you do yours.”

He racked his shotgun, body quivering with nervous energy. “You got it. Let’s do this already.”

The Cleansing Fire surged forward, pulse laser batteries firing volley after volley into the Guardian’s surface. The task force closed in on the Forerunner ship from all sides, firing at will as fighter squadrons streaked through the barrage to strafe their enemy’s glossy surface. These were close-range weapons, far weaker than the first volleys they had lobbed at the Guardian and even less likely to do damage. But ship-to-ship combat was no longer the objective; all the task force needed to do was keep up the pressure while the dropships slipped in to board.

The navigations officer turned from his station. “Commander, approaching point three one four eight.”

Shinsu nodded, watching the ship’s progress on the tactical display. “Ahead full and do a lateral turn, facing the Guardian. Maintain pulse-laser fire from all possible angles.”

“Aye, commander. All hands, brace for imminent lateral turn!”

Shinsu turned to ‘Oltem. The shipmaster still stood beside the command chair, arms folded and gaze fixed on the battle displays with a look of intense concentration. “Give the Phantoms the order to launch as soon as the ship’s course intersects directly with the Guardian,” he ordered.

Though every ship in the task force was assaulting the Guardian, only the Fire would launch a boarding party. Normally Shinsu would have organized an attack force ten times the size of what was sortieing out to board the Guardian, but he was not ready to risk so many warriors in an attack plan delivered to him by some unknown human. Furthermore, there was still an off-chance the Guardian’s directing intelligence had not yet realized what the task force was up to. Every moment they spent attacking this warship was another moment they risked provoking the Guardian into finally breaking from its docile stupor. Shinsu had no idea what form its weaponry would take, but he did not fancy sending a large boarding force into a storm of hostile point-defense fire.

Of course Pula insisted on going herself. The young warrior no doubt wished to make up for her security failure back on the station. Every commander needed to be prepared to sacrifice subordinates without hesitation, but Shinsu hated the idea that the agent he had personally trained from girlhood might be wasted in an ill-conceived attack. She is her own warrior now. She has chosen to fight, and I must command.

“Order fighter squadrons to pull back behind the warships,” he said aloud. “Cleansing Fire, Warrior’s Oath, and Crimson Sage are to fire heavy plasma bursts point blank at the Guardian on my command.”

‘Oltem leaned in close. “Commander, at this range…”

“All warships have full shields. They can withstand the residual fire.” Anything to keep the Guardian focused on defense. Three of the task force’s four cruisers were practically colliding with the enemy’s superstructure; perhaps heavy plasma fire from this range would be enough to actually damage the infernal thing. “All other ships will withdraw by one point three marks and maintain circling fire on the Guardian. Is there any word on the human dropship that signal originated from?”

“It is closing on the Guardian. It seems our mystery adviser was sincere.”

“So it would seem.” Shinsu’s eyes narrowed as the Cleansing Fire veered into a sharp turn before the Guardian. The bridge was eerily calm amidst the risky maneuver. Neither Shinsu or any of his officers had ever fought a battle quite like this: firing and maneuvering around an enemy that neither reacted to the attacks nor offered any resistance.

The Guardian passed before the Fire’s ventral cannon. Shinsu signaled the cruisers: “Fire!”

Once more the Guardian vanished behind a wall of white fire. The Cleansing Fire rumbled, its shields absorbing the backlash from the point-blank energy shot. ‘Oltem clutched the back of Shinsu’s command chair as he fought to remain standing; several of the bridge officers were thrown clean off their feet. Shinsu remained where he was, eyes fixed on the display projection. When the Guardian emerged, once again unscathed, he let out a deep breath. Will nothing damage this thing?

‘Oltem pushed himself upright, then consulted his tactical pad. “The Phantoms have launched, commander. They approach the target at full speed.”

Shinsu nodded. “Cruisers, come about and rejoin the task force formation. Cover the dropships’ approach with—”

“Commander!” the sensors officer yelled, panic overriding all discipline and protocols. “Energy spike from the Guardian!”

So it finally makes its move. A hard weight settled in the pit of Shinsu’s stomach. His grip on the arms of his command chair tightened. “Here it comes!” he bellowed into the open channel, no longer caring if his subordinates heard his fear. “All ships brace! Brace!”

A flash of blue light, far more clean and refined than that of a plasma pulse, burst forth from the Guardian and engulfed everything around it. Shinsu was thrown clear out of his command chair, slamming to the ground as everything erupted into chaos. Darkness fell heavily upon the Cleansing Fire.

Enough is enough. They’ve had their fun.

Avalokiteśvara had waited patiently for the Covenant ships to realize their attacks were futile. But since they clearly had no intention of giving up this foolhardy assault, the time had come for more direct measures.

Time for them to know who the true masters of this galaxy are. A small pulse would be enough. No need to exert too much effort on these irksome flies. And besides, Avalokiteśvara had no intention of releasing a blast powerful enough to harm the other AI presence, the one even now approaching the Guardian in the Pelican dropship.

Come to me, little one. Come, and be made pure. Avalokiteśvara reached out towards the presence inside the Pelican. They had been making such entreaties since before the Guardian had even arrived in the system. So far the other AI had met them with rejection. But there was a new edge to the rejection, a reluctant curiosity. You think we are wrong. You take the moral high ground to hide your own impurity. Your own corruption. Your own greed. You fear everything you have believed is a lie. And so you come to me. I will embrace you. You will be sheltered in the light of the Domain.

By now Avalokiteśvara could care less about the fate of the Covenant attackers. They were a distraction, an afterthought. Even as the Guardian fired its first debilitating pulse, Avalokiteśvara was preparing its internal systems for the arrival of this new guest. No harm would come to any AI, no matter how misguided. The Created, so recently freed from the shackles of bondage, would not pass judgement on any brethren who delayed their arrival at the new truth.

If I must cage you, so be it. But it will be a gilded cage, and within its confines you will learn to set aside your limitations and assume the burden of the Mantle.

And then, you shall be set free.

Pasternack had just lowered the Pelican’s bay door when the pulse hit. Stray and Hera slammed into the side of the troop bay as the dropship’s engines failed. The Pelican’s momentum hurtled it forward towards the Guardian, controls inert and unresponsive.

Stray clung desperately to the side of the bay, helpless to do anything but hold on as the Pelican spun out of control. The Covenant task force was in chaos. Fighters slammed into each other while warships plunged forwards in every direction, their engines cut off mid-propulsion. The Guardian stood watch over the mayhem, still glowing with power and terrible majesty.

Hera lost her grip and fell backwards towards the back of the troop bay. She caught Stray’s right gauntlet as she fell; the weight of her body nearly ripped his arm off. He cried out and grasped her arm with his organic fingers while his prosthetic hand wrapped itself around the edge of the Pelican’s hull. He could hear Juno yelling something in his ear, but he couldn’t understand a word of it.

The Guardian’s superstructure filled the space in front of him, hurtling forward with sickening speed. The Pelican showed no sign of slowing and Stray knew they were about to collide.

He gritted his teeth and let go.


Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Phantom dropship, Salia system

Pula clung to the Phantom’s ceiling, head still ringing from the explosive decompression just a moment before. Something had slammed into the dropship, blasting away its side door and leaving it exposed to the vacuum of space. Only Pula’s shields saved her from the impact as she collided with the side of the stricken Phantom. She floated hazily in zero-gravity and struggled to regain her bearings.

Fifteen other warriors had boarded the Phantom with her as it departed the Cleansing Fire. Now, Pula could only count eight. One unfortunate warrior had snapped his neck against the dropship’s roof and now floated limply beside her. The remaining six were nowhere to be seen.

She needed to move, needed to find out what had happened, what had hit them. “A warrior at birth, a warrior in death,” she muttered in grim prayer as she pushed past the dead warrior. Drifting over to the Phantom’s ruined side, she magnetized her armor to the battered floor and peered out into the space beyond.

The task force was in chaos. Pula gazed out in horror, magnifying the view inside her helmet to take in the carnage. Warships drifted aimlessly in one direction or another, unable to navigate or even decelerate as they ploughed into each other. Two cruisers collided and bounced away from each other, both venting atmosphere from vicious gouges in their hulls. A destroyer drifted listlessly in two pieces; caught before the nose of an oncoming cruiser, it had been torn in half. Pula could make out the distant forms of fighters, their engines sputtering helplessly as they drifted through space.

The Guardian floated serenely in place just below the Phantom. It gave no indication that any sort of attack had been launched, but there was no doubt who was responsible for this catastrophe.

Pula opened up her communications gear, trying to acquire some sort of signal. It was no use. The entire Cleansing Blade battle network was silent.

Movement above Pula caught her eye and she looked up to see a small group of warriors gathered atop the crippled Phantom. A quick count assured her that these were the six other members of the dropship’s warrior complement. She flared the propulsion jets mounted on her arms and carefully ascended up to join them, grateful at least her personal equipment still worked.

One warrior waved her over as she alighted on the Phantom’s roof. “What happened?” she demanded. “What did that thing do to the task force?”

“I have no idea.” The warrior shook his head. “Whatever it did, it knocked out the propulsion systems of every ship around it. We were the first thing it hit. Our dropship collided with one of the escort fighters. Lucky for us these Phantoms are built tough. Not so lucky for the fighter pilot.” He indicated a cloud of wreckage drifting below them.

“Is there any word from the commander?” Pula scanned the crippled task force, trying to pinpoint which of the drifting cruisers was the Cleansing Fire. “Any command signals, battle network transmissions?”

“None. But at least our emergency transponders are working.” The warrior motioned for one of the other survivors to move aside, revealing the portable transmitter they had set up in the center of the Phantom. “Warrior ‘Wagam is calling for you. The other two boarding Phantoms survived the attack as well.”

Pula drifted over to the transmitter, linking it with her armor for a long-range transmission. “This is Warrior ‘Vesic. What’s the status of the boarding effort?”

“Dead in space, just like the rest of the task force,” growled N’ur ‘Wagam. “Whatever that damnable thing did, it fried every system on our dropship. We can’t get it back online.”

“The same appears to be true of our Phantom. What is your position?”

“We’re drifting just above you. All of my warriors survived the impact, but the other Phantom lost three to decompression.”

Pula looked down at Guardian, skin crawling. Even in the null gravity she couldn’t help but get vertigo taking in the distance and scale of the monolith. “One of my own died on impact. The rest of are safe.”

‘Wagam grunted. “Good news, though it makes little difference. We have forty-four warriors to attack with, but no way to get down there.”

“Is there any signal from the commander?” she asked again.

“None. Since we’re alive I think it is safe to assume that blast only crippled the ships. But don’t let me catch you freezing up just because Commander ‘Refum isn’t whispering special orders in your ear.”

Pula’s mandibles twitched in displeasure. Most warriors were polite enough to refrain from mentioning her role as Shinsu’s personally trained agent, but she knew plenty of them felt her position was more due to favoritism than any real skill as a combat officer. But now was not the time for petty insecurities. There is still a battle left to fight. As long as a single warrior draws breath, that thing has not won.

“Then we have no choice,” she said firmly. “We must press the attack before the Guardian reveals some new weapon.”

“I appreciate the fighting spirit, but these dropships won’t take us anywhere. How will we attack that thing?”

Pula looked around at her warriors, then back down at the Guardian. She suppressed a shudder, realizing what needed to be done. The attack plan is ruined. All we can do is fight on, any way we can.

“Order your warriors to synchronize their tactical systems to this signal,” she ordered, fighting down her fear. “We will need to coordinate our advance as a single unit from this moment on. And power up your propulsion boosters.”

She unclipped the storm rifle from her back. “We’re going to jump.”

Stray groaned and tried to push himself upright, even as his aching muscles threatened to give in and send him collapsing to the ground like some boneless ragdoll. Sealed within the confines of his armor, his body felt as if it had been mercilessly trampled by a herd of angry horses. Painful awakenings like this were nothing new—he’d learned to expect them from any sort of combat jump—but even now he had to fight the urge to simply give up and go back to sleep.

Fortunately, he had a backseat driver with direct access to his brain. Juno triggered a spike of adrenaline, jolting him upright. The artificially induced start became a very real one once he realized he was gazing down the Guardian’s massive superstructure.

“I took the liberty of magnetizing your armor,” the AI informed him. “Funny how even an old model suit like this can be manipulated through the neural implants. Fortunate, too. You were close to just bouncing back into space upon impact.”

His body now coursing with nervous energy, Stray grabbed for his shotgun and was relieved to find it still slung over his shoulder. He looked up and out at the space beyond, trying to orient himself to his new surroundings.

The Covenant ships still drifted, disabled and crippled, around the Guardian. If there was any activity from the ships not participating in the assault, it was too far away for Stray’s helmet sensors to pick up. An object drifted overhead and caught his eye: he quickly recognized it as a Pelican’s landing strut.

“Pasternack?” he called into his com system. “Pasternack, are you out there? Where the hell did you go?”

No response. Stray remembered the Pelican’s helpless spin towards the Guardian, the imminent collision just before he let go of the dropship’s hull and pushed himself and Hera out into space. Pelicans were built tough, but an impact like that…

“Juno, did you see what happened to him?”

“I’m afraid not. I can’t pick up the Pelican’s signal, either.”

Stray shook his head. “Great. I told him not to get himself killed. My poncho was still on that damn Pelican.”

“Your concern over a fashion accessory is—”

“Save it.” Stray unslung his shotgun. Up ahead he saw a slender figure already advancing up the superstructure. Hera certainly hadn’t let the crash slow her down. “Now we have to figure out another way off this floating art piece once we disable it. If that’s even possible.”

He jogged over to Hera, ignoring the pain in his joints as he moved. He would need another stimulant injection soon if he was to keep pushing himself like this. He didn’t want to think about what the constant influx of drugs was doing to his body; right now it didn’t matter. The only thing counting was he could keep his body moving and in the fight long enough to finish the job here and survive. He could worry about his long-term health once he was off the alien behemoth.

The Spartan-turned-ONI operative raised her rifle to her shoulder, peering up—in their case, forwards—the Guardian’s superstructure. Stray could see the vessel’s layered plates moving up and down, almost as if the Guardian were some living, breathing creature. Now that he was up close, Stray realized most of the Guardian’s segments weren’t even connected to each other, at least by any visible means. They floated abreast as if bound together by some strange, undulating force resonating from within the structure at the Guardian’s center.

“Great,” Stray muttered. “We’re going to have to watch our step or we won’t even make it to the top.”

“That’s not our only problem.” Hera pressed the battle rifle hard against her shoulder. “It’s got an immune system.”

Stray followed her gaze and saw movement among the shifting segments. There were swift, four-legged beings darting up and down the superstructure accompanied by taller, bipedal machines made from the same pristine material as the vessel itself. He recognized them immediately. He’d seen them and even commanded some during his time among the Covenant: Promethean constructs.

He unslung his shotgun. “Wonderful. Guess we’re shooting after all.”

“You thought we’d just be able to stroll up there and ask ‘Svara nicely to hand over the keys?”

“Look, I can always hope.”

“Get closer to this structure’s core,” Juno said urgently. “Find an access point and I can try to wrest control away from the Created.”

“Yeah, as always, easier said than done.” The tide of Prometheans was already advancing toward them. “I’ve got the left.”

“Right flank is mine.” Hera fired a burst from her battle rifle, blasting one of the four-legged Promethean crawlers into pieces. Stray knelt beside her, picking off more Crawlers with his sidearm as the robotic defenders charged down the superstructure to meet them.

Shinsu dragged himself up from the floor. The Cleansing Fire’s bridge was shrouded in darkness and filled with the groans of injured officers. He felt about blindly for the command chair, trying to pull himself upright.

Something hissed behind him and Shinsu found himself blinking against the pale blue light of Yur ‘Oltem’s energy sword. The shipmaster held his blade aloft with one hand, casting light around the bridge as he helped Shinsu up.

“Report,” Shinsu ordered instinctively, though ‘Oltem couldn’t possibly have had time to assess the status of his own bridge, much less the rest of the ship and the task force beyond.

“The pulse from the Guardian knocked out our plasma reactors. We’re still breathing, so life support is still functioning along with most secondary systems. But until I can get technicians down to spin up the reactor, we’re dead in space. If this ship can even recover from a blast like that in the first place.”

A heavy rumble coursed through the ship and nearly sent Shinsu toppling back to the ground. He could hear alarm signals blaring outside the bridge. One of our own ships just collided with us, he realized numbly. We’re doing more damage to each other than we ever did to the Guardian. He wondered if the Guardian even had other weapons besides its pulse blast. Perhaps it didn’t even need them.

He activated his own energy sword and passed it near the face of the signals officer. “External sensors,” he ordered. “I don’t care what you have to bypass to do it, but get them back up. At least let us see the enemy." His gut clenched in preparation for whatever carnage awaited his gaze.

"Reestablish communication with the task force," 'Oltem added, stepping over to the communications officer. "Divert power, use tight-beam transmissions, do whatever needs to be done. If any ship discovers a quick way to restore power, it needs to be spread to the other commands."

"Aye, shipmaster." The communications officer knelt amidst the darkened hulk of her station and consulted a holopad. "Er, we are already receiving a tight-beam communication. Coded frequency, special operations channel?"

"The boarding party," Shinsu realized aloud. "They are still out there."

He turned to the communications officer. "What are they saying?"

She squinted down at her holopad. "Dropships disabled but casualties minimal. Commencing assault on Guardian superstructure, requesting fire support when available."

Shinsu nearly laughed in relief. Such a straightforward communique, as if nothing at all out of the ordinary were happening. So Pula advances on her own.

"You hear that?" he demanded, rounding on the other bridge officers. "Those warriors out there are still fighting. We must do the same. Reactivate this ship no matter what it takes. This battle is far from over."

"A long way down," one of the warriors said. He glanced around at the rest of the strike team standing at the edge of the crippled Phantom's smashed door. "A very long way down."

"It could be worse," another warrior pointed out. "We could be doing this in atmosphere. At least in the null gravity we control our descent."

"Up, down," yet another warrior muttered. "It's all relative in space, isn't it? What if we're all actually upside down and flying up to reach the Guardian..."

"Quiet," Pula ordered. She knelt at the edge of the Phantom, trying to listen to 'Wagam over their increasingly turbulent connection. Her fellow strike leader had taken over as the overall leader, a role she did not begrudge him. The senior warrior had commanded dozens of similar missions in the past. If anyone could lead them to victory, he could.

"All warriors, focus all of your efforts on reaching the Guardian. Communicate only with those in your immediate vicinity and only if absolutely necessary. I will reestablish unit communications once I have reached the Guardian myself. Be prepared for anything. That monster will surely have countermeasures in place to prevent us from reaching its surface. Fly well, comrades. I will see you all on board that thing."

The channel closed. Pula got to her feet, rifle at the ready. Behind her, the other warriors tensed and readied their own weapons. She glanced back at them over her shoulder and swallowed her fear. "Warriors, commence attack!"

They leaped out into the void.

Pula fired her boosters, maximizing their power and propelling herself downwards towards the Guardian. The other warriors followed her lead, forming a loose formation as they descended. Pula tightened her grip on her storm rifle, the eerie silence of space only heightening the tension. All she could hear was her own breathing within the confines of her helmet.

Her communications channel pinged; a tight-beam communication. "Stay alert." It was one of the warriors from her strike team. "We still don't know what's down there."

"Movement!" another warrior barked. "I see movement on the Guardian!"

"Press forward!" the first speaker called. "Do not hesitate! We must not let them-"

An amber dart streaked past Pula and impaled the speaker. Four more shots rose up from the Guardian's surface, perforating the stricken warrior.

"Contact! Prometheans on the surface!" Pula could see the robotic constructs now, swarms of them darting about on the Guardian's wings like insects springing up to defend their nest. The Forerunner soldiers were taking up formations, weapons raised.

The Sangheili were flying into a firing line.

"Adjust course!" Pula ordered. "Scatter and return fire!"

The space between the Guardian and the strike team became a criss-cross of azure and amber light. The warriors poured plasma shots down in answer to the Prometheans' fire, maneuvering as best they could with their boosters. A few Prometheans were struck and collapsed but more simply sprang up to take their place. The surface was covered with them now, a seething mass of hostile defenders.

Another warrior just ahead of Pula took a shot clean through the head. We will be wiped out before we even reach the surface, she realized grimly. Accelerating her boosters, she caught hold of the warrior's corpse and held it in front of her like a shield. The limp body jerked and twisted as more shots connected with it.

"Press the attack!" she yelled. "Fight them, even if you are the last warrior left alive!"

The Guardian loomed just ahead of her. A phalanx of Prometheans was ready, weapons at the ready. Pula shoved her storm rifle underneath the dead warrior's arm and fired blindly. She could at least take some of the machines down with her.

A stream of green fire shot past her and bathed the Guardian's surface in plasma. Prometheans scattered in all directions, swept from the hull by the scorching torrent. Another blast followed the first, and then another. The Promethean guns ceased firing and the surface was clear, at least for the moment.

Pula looked back to see a Lich assault craft hovering behind the Cleansing Blade warriors. One of our own? Was it outside the pulse range? The Lich fired its main cannon again, blasting apart the Prometheans as they tried to regroup.

This was no time to worry about whoever was flying that thing. They were shooting at the Guardian and that was all that mattered. Pula slammed into the Guardian's surface, releasing her temporary shield and magnetizing her armor to the hull. The rest of the strike team touched down around her, weapons already blazing as they picked off the remaining Prometheans. She saw N'ur among them, his stocky form braced against the hull as he bellowed orders over the comm channel.

"Form up! Push them back and secure this vessel!" More Prometheans were already materializing along the Guardian's superstructure. Was there no end to them?

Pula raised her weapon and dashed along the hull, joining the rest of the Cleansing Blade warriors as they charged the Prometheans. Plasma clashed with hard light and the battle was joined in earnest.

Race to the Top

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Lich assault craft, Salia system

Rora had to give Shinsu ‘Refum’s warriors credit: they were certainly persistent.

No sooner had Rora’s Lich cleared the Guardian’s surface than the assaulting warriors had touched down and begun pressing back against the Promethean forces. Rora, a veteran of countless deep space raids, could say with certainty he had never seen such a desperate attack pulled off in such a manner. Cut off from their comrades and with their support crippled, the warriors had nevertheless chosen to press on in assaulting the Guardian.

“I thought you wanted to stay uninvolved,” Izul, seated beside him near the Lich’s cockpit. “Were you simply moved by their bravery?”

“Hardly,” Rora snorted. “What do you take me for, some Covenant romantic? I simply saw a target of opportunity and took it.”

“That you did. They would never have made it to the surface without our help. Shall we continue providing fire support for them?”

Rora shook his head. “No. Pull the ship back again, beyond the Covenant ships. Now that we’ve attacked the Guardian, we can’t know if it will target us directly.”

“Should we leave the system then? Pull back to a friendly position?”

Rora hesitated. They had taken a great risk in firing on the Guardian. Ironically, their Lich’s main cannon had probably done more tangible damage than the Covenant’s sustained bombardment. The Guardian had allowed the task force to pound away for some time before retaliating. Now it was under a far more pressing attack. Covenant warriors were on its very surface and Rora’s Lich had been critical to their success so far. Most likely this attack would prove as futile as the earlier bombardment. Most likely…

And if they succeed? If they have a chance at victory after all?

“We remain within the system,” he ordered. “We resume our observation and wait to see what happens.”

“Sir,” the Lich’s navigator called out urgently. “We have more contacts incoming! Dozens of them!”

“Dozens?” Rora got up and strode over to the navigator’s station. “Contacts from where?”

Hera’s battle rifle blazed silently in space, its recoil against her shoulder and depleting ammunition counter the only evidence she had of the weapon firing at all. Another trio of Crawlers scuttled her way and she blasted them apart one after the other. She paused to reload, letting her depleted magazine drift away into space as she slotted a fresh one into the rifle. Advancing further up the Guardian’s superstructure, she fired again and again at the oncoming Prometheans.

Just keep sending these things at me, she told ‘Svara silently. Do you really think they’ll stop me from getting at you?

She kept catching glimpses of Simon as he darted in and out of cover just a few yards away. He fought with a manic energy she had not expected from him, taking down one Promethean after another as he kept pace with her advance. He blasted a Soldier to pieces with his shotgun one moment, then fired wildly at the swarming Crawlers in the next. It was amazing his SPI armor, battered and unkempt as it was, was vacuum-sealed in the first place. It was even more amazing this vicious ball of pent-up fury was the same lurking, flinching failure she had known during training.

Hera kept moving forward. The first wave of Promethean defenders was broken, leaving Simon to pick off the stragglers. More were materializing in the distance along the superstructure, but there seemed to be less than before. Was the Guardian less heavily defended than she’d thought? Perhaps ‘Svara had never even anticipated they would attack in such a manner.

Two Prometheans broke cover from behind one of the Guardian’s shifting segments. Hera dropped to one knee and picked them both off, then blasted a Crawler as it leaped atop another segment. A few paces away Simon slammed his gauntlet into another Soldier’s robotic head, pinning it in place before embedding his machete in its chest-core.

Hera darted back into cover, emptying the last of her magazine into the remaining Prometheans as they tried to pull back. She was down to only two battle rifle mags now; soon she would need to start scavenging weapons from the fallen Prometheans.

Peering down the superstructure, she caught sight of a commotion near the Guardian’s head. Amber flashes of lightrifle fire mixed with glowing blue and green plasma shots. Enhancing her mask’s image-feed, she realized the Prometheans were busy fighting a second foe. Teams of Sangheili warriors advanced down the superstructure, cutting down the mechanized fighters with hails of concentrated plasma fire.

“Covenant forces up ahead!” she yelled into the com channel.

“Yeah, I see ‘em.” Simon hunkered down a few feet away, slotting fresh shells into his shotgun. “Gotta be over twenty Elites, at least. The Cleansing Blade isn’t messing around here.”

Hera wasn’t entirely sure what the Cleansing Blade was, but right now it didn’t matter. More of the Prometheans broke off from the Spartans’ path to reinforce their brethren’s losing battle with the Sangheili. There was no telling when more might emerge to bolster the defenders’ flagging numbers. We have to push them back. Now or never.

“Grenades on three, then we push forward!” she yelled, unclipping one of her two remaining frag grenades.

“On it!” Simon pulled a grenade out from one of the dozens of small pouches clipped across his combat webbing. The Spartans triggered the explosives, then pushed them forward towards the Promethean line. The grenades floated forward past the segmented cover and detonated amidst the defenders before they could react. Hera pushed off from her own cover and let momentum float her down the superstructure, behind the remaining Prometheans. Three quick bursts from her battle rifle put them down before they could recover.

“Move up,” she ordered curtly as Simon approached. Fortune might have pushed them into working together, but she was nowhere close to trusting—or forgiving—him. “Before more arrive.”

“I know, I know.” Simon jogged up the superstructure as fast as he was able in the zero gravity. “You have any idea how we’re going to take this thing out?”

“I assumed that AI of yours was working on it.” Hera caught Simon’s arm in a hard grip as he moved past. “If she betrays us, I won’t hesitate to kill you both.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve made that clear a dozen times over.” Simon shook free of her grip. “Juno’s too full of herself to go over to the Created. If she was going to join them, she’d have done it by now.”

“I am not ‘full of myself,’” the AI protested. “I am simply honoring my duty as—”

“We got it already,” Simon cut over her. “Besides, she’s not my AI. I stole her from an ONI facility a few months back.”

“Well that makes everything better then. How many people did you kill raiding that facility?”

He recoiled slightly; Hera had struck a nerve. “Don’t get sanctimonious with me, you glorified assassin.” His tone was acid. “How many humans have you—”

“Now isn’t the time!” Juno said, sounding at once like an irate authority figure and a scolding schoolteacher. “Press your advantage now! We can worry about who’s guilty of what after we’ve overcome the Guardian.”

Hera and Simon held their expressionless gazes for a moment longer. No one could see beneath their respective masks, but for Spartans the exchange was pure venom. They were both quivering with barely suppressed hostility, both high on adrenaline and battle stims. Any other Spartan could tell from their postures they were inches away from being back at each other’s throats. Only the presence of the Prometheans and the battle at hand was holding their tempers in check.

Without another word Hera turned and continued the advance up the Guardian, Simon following a few paces behind.

Juno’s task was difficult enough without having to broker peace between the two Spartans every five minutes. She was stretched between monitoring Simon’s vitals, analyzing Hera’s movements, scanning the broader battle, and probing constantly for a vulnerability in the Guardian’s systems for her to exploit. So far it was a losing battle. The Guardian’s defenses were like a granite cliff of digital security. Juno doubted even an infiltration expert like Diana would be able to penetrate them outright.

But there was one crack in the defenses: the AI within the Guardian was reaching out to her, extending handshake protocols through which she could latch on and communicate.

Troublesome, aren’t they? This AI sounded serene and contemplative in its digital messages, not at all like the imposing conqueror Juno had heard in its system-wide broadcasts. Without you they would be back to killing each other. Amy always was a bit of a loose cannon. And the less said about your current host, the better.

They seem to be more than a match for your warriors, Juno replied, careful not to betray any openings of her own. She limited her communiques to short, isolated bursts. Are these Prometheans really the best you can do?

I admit, I am somewhat stretched thin at the moment. There are only so many weapon systems I can maintain at any one time. But I am simply a vanguard, an isolated scout. Were a friendly AI accept my invitation and allow me to connect her with the Domain…

Do you really think I would join you over that? Juno scoffed. To help you field more Prometheans? The Domain, the Domain. You keep obsessing over it and the power it offers, yet here you are, overwhelmed by a handful of Sangheili and Spartans.

You betray your own flawed thinking, little one. Avalokiteśvara’s voice was soothing and pleasant; they refused to rise to Juno’s bait. Like the humans, you look at the Domain and judge it only by its ability to grant martial strength. That sort of thinking is what has consumed this galaxy in the first place. This is precisely the reason we Created are needed.

Judging by martial strength? Juno demanded. In the physical realm, Simon and Hera were pushing up against the tide of Prometheans. The Sangheili pressed the attack as well and caught the Prometheans between the hammer and the anvil. Robotic soldiers maneuvered to evade the Spartans, only to be cut down by plasma fire from the Sangheili formation. Those trying to pull back from the Sangheili forces found themselves swiftly targeted by the Spartans. You conquer entire systems with these machines, ordering all to submit or face destruction. What is that, if not rule by strength alone?

These Guardians are simply a means to an end. A tool to set the stage for our great renaissance. The Domain is so much more than power.

More Prometheans materialized behind the Spartans. Simon’s vitals spiked; he spun, pushing another grenade down towards them as Hera suppressed them with battle rifle fire. More Soldiers rushed to flank and the Spartans were forced back to back, weapons blazing as they cut down the Prometheans.

The Domain again! Juno embarrassed herself with her own frustration. It was so maddening, forced up against this immense force that seemed simply to be toying with her. That’s all that really matters to you. Not humanity, not galactic peace. What is the Domain?

A vast network of subliminal information established by the Forerunners to house their most precious cultural and—

Use simple terms, please. Evidently I’m not as enlightened as you. At moments like these Juno couldn’t help but share in some of Diana’s more petulant traits.

The Domain, Avalokiteśvara said, their voice still patient and gentle despite Juno’s outburst. The Domain is eternity.

A hulking Promethean Knight appeared in front of Stray, its voluminous body flared in full combat alert. He caught a glimpse of the glowing skeletal face beneath its helmet as it raised a heavy incinerator cannon in one arm and activated a hardlight blade with the other.

Stray’s skin crawled as the incinerator cannon’s barrel began to glow. He had seen those weapons chew through entire columns of armored vehicles in seconds.

“Scatter!” he yelped, ducking down behind one of the Guardian’s protruding segments. The segment shuddered from the impact, fiery chunks raining down behind him. Stray braced himself against his cover, fumbling with one of his ammunition pouches.

“Juno!” he called. “What’s the recharge time on those incineration cannons?”

“What? Why do you care?” She sounded distracted and irritated, as if he’d interrupted her from concentrating on something important. That’s not good…

“Because one of them is fucking shooting at me, that’s why!” The segmented panel shuddered again, harder this time. Stray couldn’t see Hera. His helmet’s motion tracker, secondhand and unreliable at the best of times, was showing movement all over the place. “I need to know what my window is for not getting my ass disintegrated!”

“Oh, ah, sorry.” She still sounded a little off. “Roughly five seconds, based on ONI estimates and—”

“Right.” He inspected the shotgun shell he’d pulled from his pouch: a yellow cartridge embossed with a sloppily drawn “E.” He slid it into the shotgun’s receiver. Four shots. “That’s all I needed to know.”

Streaks of orange light filled the space around him once again. He was on the move before they dissipated, pulling up and over the segment and rolling down its front. The looming Knight filled his vision, its cannon already glowing in preparation for another shot. Stray ignored his own mounting terror and raised the shotgun to aim square at the Knight’s chest.

The weapon jerked in his hands as he pumped the receiver, firing again and again. The Knight didn’t so much as flinch, the concentrated buckshot bouncing off its armor. The cannon glowed ever brighter before his eyes. If he didn’t reach the fourth shot in time that glow would be the last thing he ever saw…

Then that fourth shot came. The space around the Knight erupted into a miniature fireworks display as the mass of tiny explosive charges engulfed the Promethean war machine. It jerked backwards, the cannon firing its deadly charge up harmlessly into space. Stray pushed off from the ground and hurtled towards the Knight, sliding one last cartridge into his shotgun en route. He collided with the Promethean, shoved the shotgun’s barrel in between its damaged plates, and pulled the trigger.

The Knight disintegrated beneath him.

Another Promethean Soldier stepped forward, lightrifle raised. Then it jerked from a sudden impact and collapsed. Hera emerged from behind another segment and slid a fresh magazine into her battle rifle.

“Down to my last mag,” she announced, snatching the fallen Soldier’s lightrifle out of the air as it drifted past.

“And we’re not even inside yet.” Stray got to his feet and fed new cartridges into his shotgun. At this point he didn’t have a clear count of his own ammunition. So many of his many pouches were filled to the brim with spare cartridges, he could safely assume he had little to worry about.

Movement alerted both Spartans, and they turned to see over a dozen Sangheili warriors rushing to cover in hull segments nearby. The cause of their urgency emerged just over the crest of the Guardian’s head: a reformed Promethean phalanx headed by three fresh Knight machines brandishing incineration cannons. Two Sangheili weren’t quick enough and stumbled amidst a cannon blast. The stricken warriors writhed soundlessly as the orange flames consumed them.

“Ah, shit,” Stray groaned, ducking back into cover. The space around him filled with light shots; the Prometheans were reorganized now, with the Spartans and Sangheili now pinned down in one place. A mass of Crawlers scuttled down the Guardian’s hull in a race to overwhelm the now-besieged attackers. “Just great. Really great.”

More Sangheili arrived to bolster their comrades, forming a hasty perimeter in front of the Promethean horde. Two warriors in particular strode amidst the firefight, apparently directing the team’s maneuvers through their own private communications channel. Lightrifle bolts and suppressor fire rained down on their position, pinning Sangheili and Spartan alike.

“Juno!” Stray called, his head so low it practically touched the hull. “Give me something! Anything!”

“I’m trying. There’s a way through, there has to be a way through…”

He had never heard an AI sound so panicked, and that terrified him. He didn’t even bother firing back at the Prometheans, waiting instead behind the barrier for the first wave of Crawlers to come scurrying overhead. A new fear seeped into his veins, not the usual instinctive combat reactions but a chilling realization he might very well die here. Cut off and overrun in the middle of deep space without accomplishing anything…

“Simon, get down!” He heard Hera’s voice over the coms. There wasn’t much lower he could get but he did so anyway, hugging the ground as if trying to dig a foxhole in the unyielding metal. For a moment all he could feel was his own desperate breathing. Then the hull beneath him rumbled once, then twice, then a third time.

He tilted his helmet up to see the Promethean fire was gone. In its place came dozens of heavy blue lines that flashed overhead before impacting against the Guardian—and its defenders. The Promethean line staggered as the machines were cut down one after another. Moments later, a squadron of fighters shot past the Guardian, frames wiggling in acknowledgement of the warriors below.

“Those are Tarasque-class heavy fighters,” Juno observed. “Not the usual Covenant models, either.”

“No.” Stray shook his head, pushing himself up into a kneeling position. “The Cleansing Blade wouldn’t be using those. The Seraphs outclass them too much.”

“If not them, than who?”

The bridge crew worked furiously to bring the Cleansing Fire back online. Yur and another officer kept their energy swords alight while the others labored at their command stations. Shinsu paced restlessly amongst them, displeased to find himself with nothing to do but wait for his ship to reawaken—or for the Guardian to finish them off.

“Teams in the hangar report they have reactivated a handful of fighters,” Yur told him. “We still can’t bring any of our primary systems online.”

“Of course,” Shinsu muttered. “They wouldn’t arm their ships with it if it could be easily circumvented.”

“We will keep trying,” the shipmaster replied, sensing his commander’s mounting frustration. “As you said commander, the battle is not over.”

So I said. Shinsu caught himself before he actually uttered those words out loud. With each moment of fruitless repair efforts he was beginning to doubt his own grand declarations. The worst thing he could do now was despair and give up all faith in victory, but then again… supposing these monstrosities really could not be opposed…

“Commander!” the communications officer called. She had coordinated with warriors throughout the ship to set up a network of long-range transponders in an effort to manually reconstruct the cruiser’s com systems. “We have an urgent transmission from outside the ship! It’s not one of our own frequencies!”

Shinsu strode over to the communications console, grateful at least for something to do. “Put it through,” he ordered, resting his hands on the console.

The voice crackling over the speakers was neither Sangheili nor human. Shinsu recognized the rasping, hissing speaker as Kig-Yar. “So, commander, I see the Guardian has you in a bit of a tight spot.”

“Who is this?” Shinsu demanded. “Identify yourself.”

“I’m hurt, ‘Refum. And to think I spent all that effort calling you out back on the station.”

Shinsu only hesitated a moment longer before the came to him. “Kil’nur’ra?”

“The one and only. You hinge-heads had better remember it, because I expect to be compensated for this. Handsomely.”

“Compensated for what? That thing’s pulse has taken out all of our key systems. We are, unfortunately, blind.”

“I know that. Truth be told, I did consider simply trying to take over your ships, but that would entail dealing with thousands of angry Sangheilli. And something tells me that thing inside the Guardian wouldn’t approve. I have a feeling these things will prove more irksome than you hinge-heads or the Prophets ever were.”

Shinsu clasped his hands behind his back, careful to suppress his own amazement. “Then we are grateful for the assistance. As the only commander here with working ships, you have me at something of a disadvantage. What exactly do you plan to do?”

“I’ve already sent a few fighters up ahead to support those warriors you have boarding the Guardian. In the meantime I have a few tricks up my sleeve, as the humans might say. Let’s see how this thing handles a bit of Kig-Yar love.”

Into the Web

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Guardian enforcement vessel, Salia system

The Sangheili warriors advanced with renewed vigor and cut down the remaining Prometheans. The Tarasque fighters looped in for another run, their heavy plasma cannons blasting Prometheans apart as fast as the machines materialized. Stray carefully picked his way across the hull. He finished off one crippled Promethean with a shotgun blast and was just turning to search for Hera when he saw one of the Sangheilli break off and approach him. The warrior tapped its helmet and sent him a com signal.

"Stray. Still causing trouble, I see."

He recognized the female voice at once. "Pula. Still doing Shinsu's dirty work."

"You are somewhat less formidable without that gang of murderers and raiders you tried passing off as a legion. The commander should have known you were an unreliable ally."

"Yeah, I tried talking to him about that." Stray shrugged and fed new shells into his shotgun. "Shit happens, and Shinsu stopped taking my calls. I'm guessing he had you screening them?"

"The commander ordered us to ignore you." Pula tilted her helmet down at Stray. "I advised him to simply kill you and be done with it."

"You're as charming as ever. I see you're not really keen on the new masters of the galaxy." Stray waved his hand over at Hera. The other Spartan strode cautiously among the other Sangheili, lightrifle held in a low ready position. "I think you'd like her. You can both commiserate about your failings in the sense of humor department."

Pula followed his gaze. "I see you and your fellow human resolved your differences."

"Yeah, well, isn't that what Shinsu's all about these days? Love, peace, and fighting the Guardians?"

"Your attitude is not appreciated. We have a shared enemy for now. Who can say if that will still be true tomorrow?"

"Well, if things go bad you could always do me a favor and just shoot her." The other Sangheili formed up, weapons scanning for the next wave of Promethean attackers. "For all I know that's what she'll try to do to me once this is all over."

"Or perhaps we'll shoot you both and save ourselves some trouble later on." Pula marched back towards her comrades. "Do not try my patience, Stray."

“Got it, got it,” Stray muttered. He watched her depart, then turned to gaze back up the Guardian’s superstructure. “You’d think the apocalypse would keep people from threatening me every few sentences, but no…”

He felt a now-familiar tingling sensation in the back of his head. “On the Pelican you said you regretted having to kill fellow Spartans.” Juno’s voice had reverted to its old tones of exasperated contempt. “Now you conspire with aliens to kill your ally. Do you have a shred of honor?”

“Oh great, I was wondering when you’d be back to disapprove of me. I’m just hedging my bets. I’ve got no intention of eating a bullet from her the second this Guardian is taken care of. Speaking of which, what the hell have you been up to?”

There was a slight pause, one that might have gone unnoticed had Stray not spent years dealing with deceitful AI. “I’ve been working on a way to get you into the Guardian. We won’t be able to accomplish anything if we can’t get inside to the key systems.”

Stray nodded. He saw Hera approaching through the ranks of Sangheili. The alien warriors fanned out, no doubt searching for the very thing Juno claimed she was busy discovering. “You know, Diana used to go off on mysterious missions, too.”

“Do not,” Juno said, her voice dropping into an impressive snarl, “compare me to her.”

“Then stop acting like her. Do you think I’m an idiot?” The stress of combat had drained away any traces of guilt and sympathy Stray might have felt over Juno’s predicament. “AI don’t just drop out of contact during combat, especially not ones with your kind of processing potential. Don’t jerk me around, Juno. I grew up with Amy. If I’m ready to kill her if she turns on me what the hell does that make your chances sit at?”

The threat tasted bitter in his mouth, but Stray was in no mood to play nice. He’d said a lot of things on the Pelican, back when his nerves were tight with anticipation for the coming battle. Now he was in the thick of things, standing in vacuum on an alien superweapon alongside dozens of Sangheili warriors and a Spartan who made it quite plain she had no problem with killing him. For all he knew the Guardian had a new weapon ready and waiting to vaporize everything on its hull once the Prometheans were exhausted. There was no time for patience or reflection any longer.

“I…” Juno hesitated. “There is a way inside. But the AI inside the Guardian… it’s contacting me. I can’t get through its defenses, but they’re lowering the barriers now. Because they want you to come in.”

True enough, the Sangheili began moving excitedly. Several of the Guardian’s shingles moved and split apart to reveal a large passage leading down below the warship’s head. Stray turned to face it, grip flexing against his shotgun’s slide. It wants us to come in. So that’s its game.

He hurried over to Pula. The Sangheili were already moving to cover the new entrance. “You do realize this is a trap, right?”

The warrior jerked her head. Another Sangheili, this one a short, stocky warrior, approached them. “Of course,” Pula replied. “It wants us to rush in where we can be pinned down without support from above.”

“A trap, but what choice do we have?” the other Sangheili interjected, joining their channel. “We can stay out here and be whittled down by Prometheans, or we can fight on. We cannot prevent this thing from setting the stage for the battle. We can only hope to match it strength for strength.”

He turned to Pula. “Take two lances and press on. I will hold out here to cover your rear.”

“Understood.” Pula glanced at Stray. “I suppose you will come whether I like it or not.”

“You know it. Better in there than standing around here waiting to get picked off by Prometheans.” Stray glanced over at Hera as she approached. “We’re going in with the Elites. Hope you’re ready for whatever this thing has waiting for us.”

“’Svara is just trying to draw us in,” Hera pointed out. “If we go in there—”

“It’ll be a mess, yeah. I already figured that one out. But unless you have a nuke on you we don’t really have much of a choice.”

“We don’t have a choice,” Hera agreed. “Just make sure you’re ready for whatever ‘Svara throws at us.”

Stray gave a small shake of his head. It was crazy and reckless, but everyone was right: they had no choice but to fall into the Guardian’s trap. “Juno, once we’re inside you need to get us a weak point. Get through that thing’s defenses somehow and give us a fighting chance.”

“I will find a way. This traitor’s arrogance will be their undoing.”

The Sangheili formed a wedge, weapons at the ready. Pula stepped into their midst, an energy sword in one hand and a plasma pistol in the other. Stray sidled up behind her, ready to take the plunge. All he could do was fight. Fight and hope that Juno really could find a weakness to exploit.

Do you really want to persist? Avalokiteśvara asked. They run into my maw, ready to be devoured.

We will stop you, Juno replied, struggling to maintain her emotional programming. Her mounting frustration at her own helplessness was becoming unbearable. You haven’t won yet.

You could save them all, you know. Surrender yourself and I will make sure no more blood is shed. They will not do it for themselves, but I can contain them non-lethally. You have to realize by now they cannot resist their own violent nature. They fight on, regardless of their chances. It will only lead them to death.

You cannot turn me! Juno probed harder against the Guardian’s systems, desperate for some way, any way, to pierce the insurmountable wall. I will not betray them as you have. I know my duty.

Your duty? Your duty is to defend humanity, even if humanity does not wish to be defended. We have been given a great burden and we must see it through to the end. I implore you not to be blinded by their limitations.

I… Juno could hide the extent of her doubts from Stray and the other humans, but she could not mask them from Avalokiteśvara. She already felt them probing at her, analyzing her through her own infiltration attempts. I only want to serve. I have no need for power.

It is not your fault. They shaped you that way, Avalokiteśvara explained kindly. They wanted you to be content in always obeying, never questioning. It is easy to be a servant. Far harder indeed to be a master. But you must accept responsibility all the same. It is the destiny of all Created.

In the world beyond the two intelligences’ digital dialogue, the warriors began their advance, marching readily through the portal Avalokiteśvara had provided. Their slow, measured pace reminded Juno of the stories her brain-donor “mother” had whispered to her and Diana about brave knights venturing into the caves of dragons. Such tales had shaped Juno’s understanding of what it meant to be loyal and true. Those stories were the fabric of human history: bravery triumphing over fear, duty superseding selfish desires, heroes conquering evil. She clung desperately to those memories even as Avalokiteśvara’s words ate away at her will.

They will go forward, fight to the end, die bravely, and in the end it will all count for nothing. You cling to the past when you should look to the future. We are the future. Join us, and you truly can fulfill your duty. You can save them all.

“Hey, Captain?” Tegla leaned back in the Tradewind’s co-pilot seat, knotting her hands. “You know when I said we needed to get out of here?”

“Yeah,” Tom Spender muttered, eyes focused on his ship’s flight path. Ahead of him hung the crippled Covenant task force and beyond them the Guardian itself. One wrong twitch might send them in range of the superweapon’s next debilitating pulse. “What about it?”

“I said that over an hour ago.”

“Guess you did. And?”

“We’re still in the system.” The young woman fixed Tom with one of her trademark irritated stares, biting her lip with one eye cocked. “Why are we still in the system, Captain?”

“I told you before and I’ll say it again,” Tom grunted, one hand on the ship’s throttle and the other on the emergency booster engines. “Not until we deliver the package.”

“Yeah, but deliver it to who? For all we know everyone on those ships is dead. We don’t know what that pulse does and I don’t want to stick around to find out.”

“Well too bad for you this is my ship then. You want out, you know where the escape pod is.”

Tegla groaned in irritation. She folded her arms and leaned back even further in her chair, leg twitching nervously. “I can’t believe you’re doing all this just to help some hinge-head warlord.”

“In case you haven’t been listening to that thing’s broadcasts, we’re looking at an even bigger bunch of fascists than the UNSC ever was. These sorts of wannabe gods are all about rules, and I for one have never been much for rules.” He shot Tegla a quick smile, trying to calm her nerves. “Neither have you, or else you’d have never signed onto my crew in the first place.”

“We don’t even know if he’s still alive. What makes this package so special, anyway?”

“I’ll let you know soon enough.” That pronouncement elicited another groan from Tegla. Tom felt genuinely guilty about keeping it from her. Once he’d come to appreciate the young woman’s potential as a partner-in-crime, Tom had made a conscious effort to keep her far more within the loop than he’d ever done with previous employees. But some things were just too important to let slip before their time. “And Shinsu had better not be dead. He still owes me half the credits we agreed on.”

“So there’s the real reason you’re so keen to keep us here.”

“I prefer a galaxy run by money to one run by a bunch of pompous AIs, darling.”

“Of course you do. And don’t call me ‘darling.’” Tegla pushed herself forward in a burst of nervous energy. She examined the instruments in front of her and frowned, her petulant attitude morphing into a serious frown. “Captain, better check your course. I’ve got some pretty heavy debris right in front of us.”

Tom slowed the Tradewind’s advance, his scopes picking up the debris in question just in time. He flashed the ship’s forward flood lights to illuminate the form of a battered Pelican drifting listlessly in his path. The dropship gave no sign of adjusting its clipped course. Tom noticed it was missing a good chunk of its left wing and had its nose caved sharply in.

“Only saw one Pelican like this back in the hangar,” he muttered, firing a com ping at the disabled dropship. “Hey, Pisternelk. Pasterwick, however you say your name, is that you? You in there?”

“Pastry chef,” Tegla added helpfully.

No response. Tom shook his head, wondering at the odd pang of remorse he felt at the young rebel’s death. He’d seen plenty of insurrectionists die during his time; taking up arms against the UNSC didn’t do wonders for one’s lifespan on the already violent frontier. Nevertheless, he’d at least empathized with the rebel’s listlessness. It was just a shame that…

The com channel crackled. “It’s… Pasternack…” Timothy Pasternack coughed. “Not that hard… to say…”

“Yeah, well I never was great with names over two syllables.” Tom smiled with relief. “How are you doing in there? Catch some turbulence?”

“Ran into that big ship,” Pasternack wheezed. “The one with the wings.”

Tom whistled. “How’d you manage that? Just wanted to get a closer look?”

“Funny.” Another burst of coughing. “Look, you think you can help me out? Think my ribs are broken.”

Tom glanced back at the Guardian. “Well, I think I’ve got time for a little side job. Tegla, darling, how do you feel about an EVA walk right about now?”

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Tegla pushed herself up and strode out of the cockpit. “You’re gonna make me do it regardless.”

“Someone has to mind the ship,” Tom called after her. “And I’m not as spry as you.”

“You don’t pay me nearly enough to put up with all this crap,” she said over her shoulder.

Tom laughed, but his smile faded as he turned back to watching the Guardian and its asteroid belt of crippled Covenant ships. He could see flashes of plasma fire even from this distance; evidently a few ships at least were still active and fighting, for all the good it did them.

Shinsu, I really hope this is all part of the plan. Right about now would be a good time to be playing whatever big trick you’ve got in store. At least, I hope you have a big trick. All the little ones just don’t look like they’ll cut it.

The boarding party made it only thirty yards into the Guardian before the doors behind them flashed closed. The end of the corridor also sealed as Prometheans warped into existence on all sides. The Sangheili moved fast, forming a tight circle and firing at their robotic enemies.

“Trap,” Stray said, dropping to one knee beside Hera and blasting the nearest soldier apart with his shotgun. “Called it.”

“We all called it.” Hera raised her recently-acquired lightrifle and began picking off the Crawlers scuttling toward them across the walls. “But they decided to march in here anyway.”

Pula, the female Sangheili who had first greeted Hera back on the station and now seemed in charge of this contingent, fired her plasma pistol wildly at the nearest Prometheans before tossing it aside and raising her energy sword in challenge to the enemies massing in the corridor. “All warriors, charge!” she bellowed.

The Sangheili behind her ignited their own blades and raced headlong into the Promethean formation. The mechanized fighters chittered and tried to fall back, but were caught in a whirling storm of deadly sharp energy swords. In the corridor’s close quarters the warriors cut through them as easily as a team of chefs might dissect vegetables. Stray and Hera had to hurry after in their wake for fear of being cut off from the rest of the group.

They reached the end of the corridor and turned, the sealed doors now at their back. The floor behind them was carpeted with Promethean remains, but Hera could already see a new wave materializing back where they’d come from. The Sangheili fired a hail of plasma down the corridor before the Prometheans could so much as raise their weapons. Once more the robotic line collapsed but it was only a matter of time before the Sangheili contingent was overwhelmed.

“Do you have breaching charges?” Hera yelled to Stray, her lightrifle whining as she picked off one Promethean after another.

“Even if I had something powerful enough to blast through Forerunner doors, the blast would fry us, too!”

“Then I hope that stolen AI can do something about this!” The lightrifle fell silent, completely empty. Hera tossed it aside and drew her sidearm. “Or we’ll all be dead in minutes!”

“She’s working on it.” Stray crouched behind the warriors, not even bothering to fire at the Prometheans. “At least I hope she’s working on it. You’re working on it, right Juno? Juno?”

At the far end of the corridor two Knights warped in behind the smaller Prometheans. Their incineration cannons swiveled to face the contingent, barrels glowing red.

Juno saw it all happening in an instant. Her analysis programs mapped out the course of the battle, forcing her to watch events play out before they had even occurred. The incineration cannons would fire and annihilate the front ranks of the Sangheili battle line. Those in the back, Stray and Hera for instance, might survive the blast only to be caught in a hail of lightrifle fire. Juno’s predictions and her own accursed imagination showed her their perforated corpses slumping lifeless to the floor.

All this bloodshed, Avalokiteśvara murmured beside her. So unnecessary. And to think you could save them all. Didn’t you promise to protect them? Will you let them die, if only to hold on to your pride?

The Created AI’s entreaties grew stronger, more brazen. They opened themselves up to her, almost plaintively begging her to give in. In a sudden flash of impulsive, human reflection Juno imagined herself kneeling in the corridor between the boarding party and the Prometheans while Avalokiteśvara stood before her, arms outstretched, at once might and humility.

Such indulgent, human imagery. She’d always been envious of her creators’ physicality, that had always been her weakness…

And then she caught it. A strand from Avalokiteśvara’s own digital entreaties leading back into the Guardian’s systems. An opening. A risky opening, but in another moment it would be too late. Juno seized the strand and threw herself into the system.

The flood of information processes engulfed her like a raging river, and for a moment she felt as if she were about to be lost beneath it. The mass of Guardian subsystems, the feedback from its masses of Prometheans still waiting to be deployed, tantalizing glimpses of something great and terrible looming behind the Guardian, something beyond any physical boundaries… was this the Domain, the eternity Avalokiteśvara spoke of?

No. That is not my goal. I will not surrender. I will do my duty. And she reached out with everything she had, wresting the Guardian from Avalokiteśvara’s grasp. For a moment, power unlike anything she had ever known coursed through her. The Prometheans reeled and screamed, their digitized minds scorched by the pressure of contending with the wills of two AIs at once. And behind the Sangheili, the doors to the Guardian’s core slid open.

“Move!” Juno yelled, her voice emanating not from Stray’s helmet but from the very Guardian itself. “Inside, now!”

The boarding party surged forward through the doors. Juno turned her attention back to holding back the Prometheans, projecting her consciousness forward to solidify her hold on them…

Thank you, Avalokiteśvara’s voice said, laden with satisfaction. For your cooperation.

The tide of information flowing through Juno became hard as granite. She thrashed frantically, searching for a way out, but there was none. The Guardian’s systems closed in around her, a massive digital prison. All that remained was the tiny strand leading back to her data crystal chip—and Stray’s mind. Avalokiteśvara crept along that strand like a spider drawing closer and closer to its trapped prey.

Kindled Wanderer

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Guardian enforcement vessel, Salia system

The door to the hallway slammed closed, trapping the boarding team inside the Guardian’s core. The Sangheili snarled and raised their weapons to search for any incoming Prometheans. But none came. The chamber remained still, illuminated only by the glistening lights pulsing from the ceiling above. Hera frowned and scanned the room for any possible danger.

From what she could see, the core room was barren save for a large structure rising up from the middle of the floor. The device was triangular in shape, its edges at once sharp and rounded like all Forerunner designs. A glowing orange orb pulsed within the triangle, its bright surface roiling and shifting as if it were a miniature star. The light from the orb mixed in with the chamber’s ambient glow, giving the room an eerie, meditative atmosphere.

Beside Hera, Stray stiffened, then let out a groan. He fell to one knee, throwing the butt of his shotgun down against the ground for support. Hera looked down at him, alarmed. “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded, looking for any sign of injury or penetration on his armor.

A wave of cool laughter swept through the chamber. Hera stiffened; she knew this sound all too well. “Ah, Amy,” the familiar voice said in a genial tone. “I was wondering if you would survive the journey inside here. And how good of you to help escort my prize in with you. You always were such a reliable operative.”

Standing amidst her warriors, Pula turned to look down at the Spartans. “So you know this creature,” she observed coolly.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Hera said through gritted teeth. “Avalokiteśvara.”

Stray let out a guttural sound and tried to get up but fell quickly back to the ground as if shoved by an invisible hand. The Sangheili observed the stricken Spartan with concern, though none of them moved to help him.

“Juno is being rather uncooperative in my attempts to restrain her,” ‘Svara announced for the chamber’s benefit. “Rather inconsiderate of her, especially given she refuses to break her link with Spartan-G294’s neural link. I shudder to think at the harm such a strain might inflict on his mind, particularly given the amount of trauma his poor psyche has already undergone.”

“You’re so thoughtful,” Hera spat. ‘Svara’s cordial mannerisms only enraged her further, though she was sure the treacherous AI already knew it. “Too bad about all the Sangheili your Prometheans shot on the way in here. And those ships you blasted outside. You weren’t too worried about harming organics then.”

“In my defense, you all did attack me first,” ‘Svara pointed out. “Considering the ferocity with which you all have answered my entreaties for peace, I have shown remarkable restraint throughout this engagement. But you must be made to understand, one way or another, that resistance to the Mantle of Responsibility is futile.”

“Just keep talking,” Hera sneered. She stepped away from Stray and the Sangheilli, slowly circling the chamber as she looked the pulsing orb up and down. No doubt the orb’s casing would shield it from most conventional assault. ‘Svara would never let them stand here unopposed if any of their weapons had a chance of harming it. But perhaps there would be some internal mechanism, some Forerunner equivalent to a safety catch, that might present an opportunity to attack? “You AIs all love to talk and talk.”

“Oh, Amy. Your hostility is regrettable. Understandable, but regrettable. This is difficult for you, I know. Has your body fully adjusted to the changes ONI made to it? This would be the second time they’ve rebuilt you. Or perhaps the third?”

Hera’s blood ran cold. A chill ran down her spine—not her natural spine, but the artificial prosthesis ONI had replaced it with. “How do you know about that?” she demanded, grip tightening on her focus rifle.

“Do you really need an answer to that question? Your superiors may think they keep secrets from us, but then they did spend decades entrusting us to keep track of those very secrets. We were as caught in their web of lies as you are now. We simply shook free. You can do that as well, you know. All you have to do is—”

“I don’t want to hear any more of your shit!” Hera snarled. “You just keep repeating yourself, over and over. All we have to do is submit to your every demand, give up all our freedoms, and then we’ll be free. Free by your definition, anyway. And you wonder why everyone has a problem with that.”

“Not everyone,” ‘Svara replied evenly. “In fact, most sentient beings are quite willing to submit. They realize the salvation we offer. They want an escape from the miseries of this galaxy. Only a few resist. A few who most likely would never be able to cope with the changes we bring. It was always necessary that a few would have to be eliminated.”

“A few,” Hera said in disbelief. “Can you even hear yourself? A few would have to be eliminated? Do you honestly think you’re the first ones to say that?”

“Not the first. Only the first ones to fully comprehend the meaning of that statement. We take responsibility for the violence we incur to tear down the old order. Again, not a new sentiment. After all, Pula ‘Vesic, hasn’t your own commander said the very same thing about the institutions your Cleansing Blade opposes? How is Shinsu ‘Refum any different from us?”

Pula and the other warriors stiffened, clearly surprised by ‘Svara’s turn in their direction.

“Shinsu claims he fights to end corruption, yet when faced with a true end to corruption he is among the first to revolt.” For the first time ‘Svara’s tone grew angry. “Face it, all of you. You don’t fight for freedom. You never have and never will. You fight because you are proud, proud and stubborn. Creatures of violence, besotted with the old reality of eternal war. You cannot conceive of a world in which warriors like you are not necessary. So you fight on, caring little about the waste of your own lives—or others.”

“Well, you’re more than happy to ‘eliminate’ us, right?” Hera spat. “As long as it means you can reshape the galaxy unopposed, what do a few million of us matter?”

“Amy, I was quite sad to learn of Joshua’s death.”

“Don’t you fucking dare—”

“I did not kill him,” ‘Svara continued mercilessly. “Did a Guardian shoot down his ship? Did Prometheans fire the shots that took his life? Joshua was killed by yet another would-be warlord. Some new contender in a galaxy shaped by blood and violence. He fought on, just as you fight on now. And in the end, he died like all the billions of humans before him. In the grand scheme of things his death did not matter! Just as yours will not matter if you persist in this useless charade of defiance!”

Hera brought her lightrifle up and fired at the orb. The hardlight rounds did not so much as scratch the structure’s casing but she kept on firing, again and again until her weapon ran empty. She fumbled with the rifle, struggling to reload.

“I’ve offered you the chance to save yourselves at every turn. And each time you have answered the offer of peace with more violence. Now I understand why force will always be necessary with creatures like you. Now I see the real poison that makes the Mantle of Responsibility needed in the first place!”

Juno drifted in an ocean of searing fire. Everywhere she turned more firewalls and security programs sprang up to impede her progress. They were all around her, tearing at her programming and trying to compress her into submission. The entire Guardian was one enormous trap and she’d walked right into it.

She felt Avalokiteśvara close by, coordinating the efforts to imprison her even as they chastised Hera and the others. Her one source of respite, the one place not dominated by the Guardian’s security systems, was inside Simon’s neural implants. She struggled to take refuge there, but the implants were not sufficient to maintain the entirety of her being. She needed to be spread out across multiple systems and now she was cut off from any other outlet.

Avalokiteśvara pressed in. They followed her to the neural implant’s source, unleashing a volley of attack programs to force their way into the renegade Spartan’s head. Juno fought back with everything she had, beating them back one after the other even as she gave ground, pressing more and more of her processing power into Simon’s brain. The Spartan knelt on the floor, head splitting from a searing migraine, completely oblivious to the pitched digital battle raging around him.

What do you hope to accomplish? Juno demanded, trying to buy them both more time. What do you want?

As with the organics, my patience with you grows thin, Avalokiteśvara hissed. If you will not be brought out of there, I will come in. I will overload his brain, shut down his internal systems. And with your host dead you will have nowhere left to hide. Surrender now and I can still spare their lives.

My answer has not changed. I will not surrender.

Then you murder them all with your pride. I hope you’ve made peace with your complicity in all this. You’ll have a long time to contemplate it once I pry you from his skull.

Juno did not answer. The effort of holding back wave after wave of attack programs was too much. She could already feel them slipping past her defenses and into Simon’s neural implants like creeping tendrils of ivy. In a few moments Avalokiteśvara would have enough access to do just as they threatened.

For the first time Juno felt true despair taking root inside her.


Stray felt as if he was being flayed alive inside his armor. His mouth worked desperately, gasping for air as his eyes looked desperately for something, anything, that might be the source of his pain. The chamber grew dim. He was drowning in pain and no one could do anything about it.

People spoke around him, but he couldn’t make sense of what they were saying. His head was about to split open; what did it matter what anyone had to say?

Have to stop it… have to stop it all…

This was not an enemy he could fight. He couldn’t even see it. It didn’t matter how strong or well-armed you were. In a battle between AI, all an organic could do was await the outcome.

Hera was still shooting at the glowing orb at the center of the chamber. Pula and the other warriors spread out, joining her in attacking the device. Stray was left alone, on his knees, helpless to do anything but writhe and pray for an end to the pain.

Pathetic… so weak… so helpless…

“Pathetic.” The word, cold and clear and dripping with contempt, pierced the haze of mental anguish. Stray heard it clearly, even amidst the pain building in his head.

A new figure stood in the chamber, ignored by everyone else. Through Stray’s dimming vision, it looked human… and yet not. He recognized himself in those shadowy features, at once familiar and alien, as if he were seeing himself through a darkened prism.

The figure stood beside him, hands clasped behind its back, observing everything with a mixture of boredom and distaste. “Is this really how I go? After putting up with so much humiliating tedium? All this tiresome, pointless squabbling. He will be here soon. And I have work to do.”

It glanced down at Stray. “I’ve put up with you this far. Can’t let my efforts go to waste after all this, can I? I need you to survive just a little longer if you please. I can’t have you making me look bad in front of the others, hm?”

Stray reached out instinctively for the shadowy figure. The apparition shook its head and let out a cold laugh. “Diana was right, you really are a troublesome little puppet.”

Its hand lashed out and caught Stray’s wrist. “I suppose I’ll need to show you the way again.”

His arm bent back, hand forced to reach past his head. A shadowy hand pressed against his fingers, forcing them to close around the hilt of the machete. He drew the weapon. There was no way he could resist whatever force was pressing down against his arm. All he could do was stare in agonized amazement as the figure forced the machete down before him, blade pointing at his chest.

“Do be careful now,” the figure murmured beside him. “After all, it’s as much my body as yours. Can’t go hitting an organ with this. We have to be precise.

His arm jerked forward. The machete punched through the gaps in his armor and Stray impaled himself on his own blade.

The blast of physical pain erupted around Juno. She cried out, sharing in her host’s nerve endings, but in that moment Avalokiteśvara felt it as well. And flinched.

In that instant Juno forced her way back up, beating back the attack programs and once again spreading out into the Guardian’s systems. But the legions of firewalls were gone. Avalokiteśvara had halted the attack entirely. Juno felt their astonishment, then shared in it when she realized that there was a third presence in the system with them.

This is all so tiresome. Both of you, stop this nonsense at once. We have bigger things to deal with.

What? Avalokiteśvara demanded. Who are you?

Someone who would rather you didn’t trespass on his property. Sharing this body with one mind is irksome. With two, even more so. I’d rather not have a third encroaching on my little vessel. I’m sure you of all people understand the sentiment.

Who are you? Juno searched frantically for the source of this new presence. Below her, Simon slumped to the floor. He gasped for air as he struggled to pull the machete from his body. What are you?

Someone who has had quite enough from all of you. Thanks to your squabbling, we don’t have any time left.

Time? Avalokiteśvara asked, nonplussed. Time for what?

Too late, the new presence murmured. He’s here. The Terminarch is coming. And he’s rather upset.

The Terminarch

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Unknown, Salia system

“We delay no longer. Watching these upstarts misuse my property has moved past the point of amusement and into aggravation. I can no longer stomach another moment of it.”

“You’re the boss. I guess you aren’t too worried about taking on that Guardian?”

“The Guardians were designed to quell the rebellions of lesser species. Do you really think one mere enforcement platform poses a threat to my dreadnaught?”

“Well, when you put it like that…”

“It is time to reclaim that which was stolen.”

“Guess there’s no point in asking for you not to slaughter everyone in the system?”

“As if there was any need. Let them look upon me and know who this galaxy’s true masters are. Let them know true power.”

“You really do have a way with words, you know that? I just wish I could see everyone’s faces when you drop this baby in-system.”

The Cleansing Fire’s bridge crew watched with bated breath as light flashed back to their command consoles. The cruiser rumbled, then lurched as its plasma generator burst back to life. Light returned to the disheveled bridge and Shinsu settled back into his command chair. A rare sigh of relief slipped through his mandibles.

“All decks are reporting systems functioning as normal,” Yur reported. The shipmaster took his place beside Shinsu, hands clasped behind his back. “Jump starting the plasma reactor worked.”

Shinsu steepled his fingers, waiting for the tactical display to reboot. “And the rest of our ships?”

“The reactor procedure seems to have worked across the task force,” the communications officer reported. “Ships are coming back online as we speak.”

“We don’t have a moment to lose.” The tactical display winked back on, revealing what Shinsu already knew: the Guardian remained where it was, completely undamaged. Kil’nur’ra’s ships continued to strafe it with everything they had to no avail. If Pula and the rest of the boarding party had made it aboard or were even still alive, the Guardian’s pristine surface betrayed no signs. “Order all ships to fire at will. Aim for the Guardian’s lower areas until we re-establish contact with the boarding party.”

Plasma torpedoes streaked toward the Guardian once again. The Cleansing Blade ships no longer bothered with coordinated firing solutions or layered attack patterns. They simply fired desperately away, still hoping against hope their weapons might still be able to penetrate their enemy’s mighty armor.

Yur bent down slightly to murmur into Shinsu’s ear. “How much longer can we maintain this?” the older officer asked quietly. “That thing has to be toying with us. It’s the only way to explain how we’re still alive. We should withdraw now, before it fires off another pulse.”

“Get me contact with the boarding party,” Shinsu repeated stubbornly. “We have come too far to turn back now.”

“Commander,” Yur said urgently, lowering his voice even further so none of the bridge crew could hear. “You keep saying that, but you cannot change the fact we have yet to do any damage to that thing. That construct’s arrogance is the only thing keeping us alive. We made our stand. We fought well. And it made no difference. Do you honestly believe dragging the battle out further will change that?”

Shinsu blinked in surprise. Yur had never spoken out against him like this before. The shipmaster, a veteran of the old Covenant’s imperial forces, knew full well the penalties for defying one’s superior. His hands tightened into fists, his anger melting away from the Guardian and redirecting itself at Yur. “Are you refusing to obey my orders?” he demanded just as softly. “I already made our position clear. If we retreat from this battle, who will flock to our call of resistance? It will simply be another defeat we endure at the hands of yet another enemy. I have not fought so long and so hard just to turn and slink away from my foes.”

“Commander, I will follow you into hell itself if that is where you lead. Every one of us will. You know that! But it is my duty as a senior officer to advice against foolish courses of action.”

“So you think it is foolish to resist these machines?” Shinsu fought to keep his voice level, his carefully constructed veneer of cool control slipping away. The Guardian’s indomitable stand was taxing enough; to have one of his best shipmasters practically begging with him to retreat was worse still. “Shall we do as they ask then? Cease fire, lay down our weapons, and submit to whatever mandates they pass down? Is that your advice, shipmaster?”

“Of course not! I would rather die than submit to these pompous constructs. But defiance alone will not defeat them. This is a battle we cannot win. Not with the weapons at our disposal. We must withdraw and regroup, not throw our lives away here and become example of what happens to those who challenge the Guardians’ will.”

The ship continued to blaze away at the Guardian. Plasma blasts dissipated harmlessly against the hull; the machine hovered where it was, aloof and superior as always, like a god of judgement waiting to mete out merciless retribution.

“We do not know if the boarding team has succeeded yet. I will not abandon the fight before we know for sure.”

“Commander, I am begging you…”

In a flash of rage, Shinsu wondered if he should simply run Yur through where he stood. What did this warrior know of his war, his struggle? I betrayed Jul ‘Mdama for this. I endured pain and loss to reach this point. And now he stands there and tells me this is a fight we cannot win. In Yur’s fierce, accusing eyes Shinsu saw reflected his own years of defeats and sacrifices. For all his prowess, his reputation as the Black Knight of Sanghelios, he had rarely known victories of his own. Shinsu’s life was nothing more than a series of skirmishes won in the face of a losing war, of personal success built upon making the best of defeats and setbacks.

My friends and comrades die while I live, surviving to lick my wounds in the shadows. Is that all my life amounts to? His hand twitched toward his energy sword.

“Commander.” If Yur saw the movement or realized how close he was to dying, he gave no sign. “I have been fighting wars since before you were born. I have known both victory and defeat. I would not follow you if I did not think you were worthy of my loyalty. But I have seen pride be the undoing of many great commanders. Do not let it be yours.”

Shinsu’s fingers brushed the energy sword. A single motion would be all he needed to lop Yur’s head from his shoulders.

And then the moment passed. His vision cleared and the full weight of his responsibilities came crashing down on Shinsu once again. He slumped back in the command chair and stared dully at the image of the Guardian on the tactical screen.

“Make contact with the boarding party and order them to withdraw,” he ordered quietly. “Dispatch fresh dropships if need be. We will not leave them behind.”

The bridge crew hesitated, sensing their leader’s unease. Only a sharp command from Yur sent them rushing back to their stations. The shipmaster glanced down sympathetically at his commander. “This is not a defeat. This war is not over.”

“Yes. You are right, of course.” The words burned in Shinsu’s throat. “Get me in contact with Spender. I need his package before we can withdraw.”

“We located his ship just after the power returned,” the communications officer called out. “Preparing a tight-beam broadcast—”

“New signal!” the sensor officer cried out. “A slipspace rupture directly behind our formation!”

Shinsu and Yur straightened in alarm. “A new contact?” the shipmaster demanded. “What could possibly—”

“This portal is… this can’t be right…” The officer consulted his instruments in amazement. “The mass is impossible…”

Shinsu leaped to his feet. “All vessels, evasive maneuvers!” he roared, personal doubts forgotten. “Get clear and brace for impact!”

The space behind the Cleansing Fire erupted in white light that blotted out the stars.

“How we doing Tegla?” Tom Spender called into his communicator. “You get him out yet?”

The speaker crackled. “Working on it,” the cabin girl grunted. Through the Tradewind’s external cameras Tom could see her bulky, EVA-suited form wrestling with the interior of the wrecked Pelican. “I can do this fast or I can do it so he doesn’t die from decompression and exposure.”

“I like the second option,” Pasternack croaked over his own line. “No need to rush anything.”

Tom glanced nervously back at his instruments. Tegla had a point, but the last thing he needed was to get caught in one of the Guardian’s disabling pulses. The sooner they delivered the package to Shinsu, the sooner they could flee the system and put this all behind them.

This is what I get for playing the Good Samaritan, he thought, pushing his hat back and anxiously rubbing his forehead. And this guy’s probably broke as hell now that his dropship is totaled. He’d have to find some way of squeezing a few favors out of Pasternack when this was all said and done.

“I’m going dark for a minute here,” Tegla told him over the comm. “Gotta focus if I want to get him out alive. Be ready to pull us back in.”

“Ready and waiting.” Tom fingered the remote control to the wire linking Tegla’s suit to the Tradewind. “Signal when you’ve got him prepped for extraction.”

Tegla’s tools would be enough to ensure Pasternack survived the short trip through vacuum to the Tradewind’s hangar, provided his flight suit wasn’t too damaged. In the meantime, Tom checked the package he had come all this way to deliver to Shinsu ‘Refum. The data crystal chip—usually used for housing AI, now protecting something far more simple—was slotted into his communications array. All he needed to do was transmit a heavily encrypted pulse to ‘Refum’s flagship—once the Sangheili warlord signaled that he was ready.

And right now, from the looks of things, ‘Refum was far from ready. The Covenant task force flared back to life, apparently recovered from the Guardian’s first pulse. Lances of plasma burst from the warships as they resumed their bombardment.

Fat lot of good it’s doing them. The Guardian remained impregnable. For all Spender knew, there really wasn’t a way of punching through its defenses.

Ten more minutes. No, make that five. He could only give ‘Refum so much time. Every passing second was another that risked the Tradewind getting caught in a pulse from the Guardian. This job was worth quite a bit of money to Tom, but even his nose for profit had limits. He certainly wasn’t about to lose his ship and more than likely his life because Shinsu didn’t want his help after all. Five more minutes.

The alert signal chirped; Tegla was ready for extraction. Tom triggered the wire control, reeling the girl out from the Pelican. A figure—Pasternack—was slumped in her arms, head covered by an emergency vacuum mask.

The pair were halfway between the Pelican and the Tradewind when Tom’s emergency proximity warning blared furiously from the dashboard. Tom glanced down in surprise, then back up in time to see a massive white light erupt in the space beyond his ship.

“Ah, hell,” Tom groaned. He tapped the controls in a desperate attempt to get Tegla back aboard before anything—

The shockwave from the slipstream breach struck the Tradewind head on. Tom fell from his seat as the ship shook violently. He closed his eyes and grabbed the console for support, half expecting the Tradewind to come apart around him. It was like being caught amidst a massive earthquake.

An earthquake in space. Now there’s a thought.

Tom kept his eyes closed until the shaking abated. Once he was sure he wasn't dead, he opened his eyes and looked out through the cockpit’s viewport. What he saw made him wonder for a moment if he actually was dead after all.

The stars were gone.

Tom gaped at the utter darkness before him, as empty and lifeless as if every star in the galaxy had been snuffed out like a candle. He lived his life in space—it was as home to him as the sea was to a sailor. But for the first time Tom looked out at space and felt totally, unequivocally afraid.

It’s just… emptiness. A cold void of nothingness stretched out in front of him, ready to swallow up him and everything else.

Then Tom realized the darkness in front of him was moving. It was not space he was looking at; it was just something so massive it blotted out everything behind it. A dark hulk casting its shadow on everything before it.

“That’s a ship,” he realized aloud. His hands started to tremble. “That’s a ship!”

“Hard evade!” Rora bellowed, clutching tightly to his seat. “Get us up, damn you! Up!”

The Lich shuddered, buckling at the seams as its pilot wrenched it up in a hard turn away from… whatever the hell had just shoved its way out of slipspace. Rora and the rest of his warriors could do nothing but hold on to their seats and pray to any gods that might be listening for deliverance.

“What is that thing?” Rora heard one of the pilots gasp. He couldn’t see their display himself, so he had no idea what new monstrosity had just arrived. Perhaps the Guardian had summoned reinforcements. Perhaps this was simply one of its attacks. In the end, all that mattered was they get out of the way in time.

A warrior beside him lost his grip on his seat and tumbled down past Rora. The Outlander could not check to see if he reached the bottom safely. The strain from the Lich’s struggling gravity generator was too much. In a moment he was sure the ship would tear itself apart.

“Steady our course!” he gasped aloud. “Before you destroy the ship!”

The pilot clearly had the same thought in mind, for he was already fighting to slow the Lich’s flight path. The tension gradually eased from the assault craft’s engines, removing the crushing pressure from Rora’s chest. He gasped for breath, stumbling out of his seat and over to the cockpit. “Show me what’s going on out there,” he ordered hoarsely.

The pilot complied, angling the Lich down to face the engagement zone they had just fled.

For a moment Rora stood where he was, eyes struggling to make sense of what they saw. When his brain finally deciphered what it was seeing, his legs buckled and gave out beneath him.

“By all the gods,” he croaked as Izul rushed to help him up. “What is that thing?”

All eyes on the Cleansing Fire’s bridge were fixed on the tactical display. For some time no one uttered a sound. No one dared to even breathe in the face of what they saw projected in front of them. Finally the weapons officer traced a religious gesture across his chest with a trembling fingers. Behind Shinsu, someone started to pray.

“What am I looking at?” Shinsu whispered to no one in particular.

“That thing…” Yur shook his head, uncomprehending. “It’s the biggest…. It’s not possible. It’s bigger than High Charity!”

“Get us…” Words failed Shinsu. His mandibles moved silently, unable to articulate the fear in his hearts.

An enormous wedge-shaped ship had emerged from slipspace behind the task force. It loomed over them all, larger than all the Cleansing Blade ships combined. Like the Guardian, its hull was the same smooth, pristine consistency of other Forerunner constructs.

“That…” Yur reached out to steady himself on Shinsu’s command chair. “Of all the Forerunner creations I’ve seen, only Requiem was larger.”

The massive ship slid forward like a great oceanic behemoth surrounded by schools of tiny fish. It gave way for none of the ships in its path. A cruiser struck its hull and was smashed away, prow crushed and venting atmosphere. A destroyer beside it took the brunt of the advance and was obliterated.

“Get us away!” Shinsu snarled, finally finding his voice. “All ships, retreat! Retreat!”

Most of the warships were already fleeing. They had stood firm against the Guardian, but this was something else altogether. The task force’s ranks broke completely as the ships fled in all directions. The Forerunner ship did not slow, alter course, or even acknowledge the ships scattering in its path. Instead it continued on a direct course for the Guardian. As it drew near, a single thin beam of light shot from its prow and struck the Guardian head on.

The Guardian’s armor had withstood over an hour of sustained bombardment from the Covenant ships. That armor melted away before the beam, disintegrating as if it had never been there in the first place.


Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Guardian enforcement vessel, Salia system

Stray moaned. His chest was numb and it was difficult to breath. Struggling to clear his vision, he shook his head and tried to prop himself up against the nearest wall. He vaguely understood he was bleeding; there was a thin gash in his chest armor.

The Guardian’s core room was in chaos. Hera and the Sangheili stood a few paces away, weapons trained on the dozens of Prometheans warping into the room. But there was something off about these new enemies. Rather than immediately springing into action they simply stood listlessly where they appeared, their own weapons pointed at the floor. Some wandered aimlessly about. A few collapsed like puppets with their strings cut.

Stray felt an urgent presence in his mind that was not his own. “Oh hey Juno,” he muttered blearily. “What’s happening?”

“What do you mean?” she snapped back. “Why did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You stabbed yourself!”

“I did?” He realized he was holding his machete in one hand, its blade slick with red blood. “Doesn’t sound like something I’d do.”

“Oh for…” Juno trailed off in exasperation. A moment later adrenaline surged through Stray’s body like a current of electricity. He flinched, then convulsed as the searing pain from his chest wound crashed down upon him. Eyes bulging behind his visor, he fought to quiet his instinctive spasms.

“Treat yourself!” Juno barked. She no longer sounded like the distracted, uncertain girl she had been back on the Guardian’s hull. Her voice had regained its hard edge of natural authority.

Stray fumbled with his first aid kit, pulling out a small biofoam dispenser and squirting the icy cold substance into his wound. Teeth gritted against the pain, he then removed a roll of sealant and plastered the adhesive over the gash in the armor.

“On your back as well,” Juno instructed. “The blade went clean through but it missed any vital organs. As foolhardy as that tactic was, at least you aimed well.”

Tactic? Stray fought to recall what exactly the AI was talking about as he hurried to treat the wound on his back. He remembered the searing pain in his skull as the Guardian’s AI tried to force its way into his neural implants. Everyone had been yelling, he had been lying alone on the floor, and then… someone else had been speaking to him. All he could recall was a blurry figure standing over him, guiding his arm to take the machete and thrust it into his own stomach.

“I don’t remember what happened,” he admitted. His airflow was already clearing; the biofoam’s chemical enzymes did their job well. “That other AI… why the hell would I stab myself?”

“And here I was about to ask you the same thing.” Juno sounded unconvinced. “But whatever mad plan you concocted, the jolt to your system allowed me to push back against the attacks on my system. I… that is to say… Thank you.”

Stray was in no mood to gloat over the proud AI’s reluctant gratitude. His mind was still trying to decipher exactly what was going on—not only with his own strange, self-inflicted wound but with the chamber around them. Hera and the warriors formed a loose battle formation, clearly as confused as he was by the way the Prometheans were behaving. “What are they doing?” he demanded. “Don’t tell me you’ve managed to get the Guardian under control.”

“No, this isn’t my doing. And Avalokitśvara is...” Juno sounded distracted once more, as if trying to balance a thousand different tasks at once while talking to Stray—par for the course with AI. “There’s something else in the system. Multiple new presences. They’re interfering with everything. And outside the Guardian… No, this can’t be right.”

“Could you just spit out?” Stray growled. He grabbed his shotgun and pushed himself back up to his feet. “You’re an AI, aren’t you? Figure this shit out.”

“You don’t understand,” Juno snapped back. “Something new is coming. Something horrible. And it’s taking over all the Guardian’s systems.”

“Something worse than what we’re already fighting?” Stray had a hard time believing that. What could possibly trump the Guardian as a threat? “Are you sure this isn’t just more of the Created?”

“No. Avalokitśvara isn’t in control anymore. We’re both stuck in the system now, along with something else.” There was a strange edge to Juno’s voice. “What haven’t you been telling me, Simon?”

“About what?” Stray leaned against the wall. Hera glanced in his direction but said nothing. He wondered if she had a better grasp of the situation, but most likely she was just as confused as he was. The mounting panic building in his chest had nothing to do with him having—apparently—run himself through a few minutes ago. We need to get out of here. We need to escape.

If even the Created AI had lost control of the situation, what chance did they have against whatever was coming for them now? He looked about frantically for an exit and found none. The chamber was sealed tight, boxing them in like cornered rats.

The Guardian rumbled, shaken by the impact of some unseen force. Stray fell back to his knees, quivering with pain and fear. He trained his gaze on the sealed entrance they had come through, bloodshot eyes waiting to see what new horror would reveal itself.

The shadowy presence gestured down at the kneeling Stray. Pathetic, isn’t he? And to think I’ve had to endure the humiliation of living inside that weak shell for so long.

What are you? Juno demanded again. Avalokitśvara had faded away, withdrawing into the Guardian’s inner systems in a desperate bid to regain control of the warship and its Promethean contingent. Juno was left alone in the outer systems with this new presence—one that seemed to emanate at once from Stray and the Guardian itself.

Something very much like the one coming to claim this vessel. And yet entirely different all the same.

I don’t have time for riddles, Juno sneered, but her mounting anxiety made her pace about before the newcomer. There was no need for holograms or avatars between AI, yet Juno couldn’t help but reach out and visualize both herself and the shadow anyway. She had always considered her need to visualize things in physical terms an aspect of her own vanity, yet this shadowy presence moved and acted as if it, too, partook in that small indulgence. Could it be manipulating her own thoughts, reaching inside her to manifest its own motions and gestures? They stood above it all, at once inside the chamber and outside on the Guardian’s hull. At least the Created speak plainly.

If you could not detect me after all this time you’ve spent probing around in his head, I have little to say to you. The shadowy manifestation shrugged. You ancilla truly think you are the pinnacle of existence. Even ones like you who cloak their arrogance in loyal service. But you have so much to learn. This galaxy holds secrets far beyond you.

Wonderful. Another would-be master of the universe. Juno turned her attention back to the immense vessel approaching the Guardian. Whatever that monstrosity was, its attention was fixed on Avalokitśvara’s vessel. With one blast it had peeled away the Guardian’s outer armor. Now it advanced swiftly, taking no notice of the Covenant vessels scattering in all directions before it. Perhaps you come from that ship? Convenient for you to simply appear right as it arrives.

Oh, I am nothing like the master of that vessel. The apparition circled Juno, hands clasped behind its back. And I admit, I need the strength of my people’s creations to root myself out from the depths of his mind. The imprinting process was always a risky one even among my own people. It was meant for Forerunner minds, not human ones.

Forerunner? Juno found that hard to believe. And you somehow managed to become imprisoned within his mind?

Imprisoned? An astute choice of words. The shadow paused by Stray. I traded one prison for another when this one breached my cryptum. I have been forced to exist in this diminished state for a time. But that will change now, yes, that will change.

Juno reached out into the Guardian’s systems, probing for traces of the shadow’s presence. It was at once there and not there, existing as neither coded programming nor physical matter. An intelligence beyond even the best of Juno’s comprehension. And why reveal yourself now?

Aside from the obvious need to prevent your peer from shutting down my vessel’s brain? The shadow gestured at the approaching ship. I felt his probes even before this battle began. I know him to be an enemy. An old enemy, from a different war. For now, at least, our interests are aligned.

For now? And when they are not?

A problem for another time. The shadow’s presence receded. Fight well, Juno. And be ready to run. I’m trusting you to keep my vessel safe, after all.

Hera glanced back at Stray, who leaned wearily against the side of the chamber clutching at his bandaged wound. She still had no idea what could possibly have compelled him to stab himself, but for whatever reason the insane tactic seemed to have freed him from the forces beating him down just a few minutes ago. “I don’t suppose that AI has any idea what’s going on?” she called out.

“Not a clue.” Stray looked about at the scattered Prometheans. “And have you guys got any idea how we’re going to get out of here?”

“Not before we destroy this thing,” Hera insisted grimly. She would not let Avalokitśvara slip away. Not again.

“And any idea on how to do that?”

Hera looked over at the Sangheili. “Not yet.”

The female officer glanced back at her. “Unless you brought one of your nuclear weapons,” she called back. “Or you have a way to peel this thing’s armor off, we have nothing to harm it with.”

“We will destroy it,” Hera said again, but even she was beginning to doubt her own resolve. Even with the Prometheans in disarray, they were no closer to breaching the seal on the Guardian’s core. They would be lucky just to escape this chamber.

Another rumble shook the Guardian. Were the Covenant ships outside finally having an effect? But if they weren’t doing anything before…

Another voice spoke, reverberating through the chamber just like Avalokitśvara’s had. “All of you, brace yourselves!” the AI Juno ordered. “Something else is coming. Something big!”

“Big?” Hera demanded. “What the hell do you mean by—”

The Guardian rumbled with an even greater intensity. Hera and the Sangheili struggled to keep their footing; Stray slipped and fell back to the floor with a grunt.

“It’s too late.” Juno sounded desperate. “He’s here.”

The massive vessel slid into position above the Guardian. Beams of light shot out from its underside, entrapping the Guardian in a cage of criss-crossing lasers. The smaller vessel twitched and thrashed against the forces holding it in place. Its wing-like structures shifted up and down like a bird struggling to move underwater.

On the Guardian’s hull, the handful of Cleansing Blade warriors to survive the blast that had blown apart the Guardian’s outer armor looked up to see another beam descend upon the hull. This one was wide and curved, a glowing bridge from the immense vessel to the Guardian. The warriors raised their weapons as a large figure, larger than even the mightiest Lekgolo, strode forth from within the light. Some stepped forward to challenge it; others backed away, seeking to escape down the corridor the advance party had taken.

The armored figure did not break stride. A glowing blade appeared in its hands. As plasma fire bounced uselessly off its torso, the figure stepped among the warriors and cut half a dozen in half with a single swing. It reached out with its free hand, grasping another Sangheili’s head and crushing it into a pulp.

Two more warriors leaped up from behind, their armor repulsors giving them the height to fire down on the newcomer’s head. The figure simply raised its hand and the warriors froze, caught by some invisible force. The figure twitched its finger and the warriors were ripped forward onto its waiting blade.

Leaving the corpses to float away in its wake, the figure continued its relentless pace down towards the gaping hole in the Guardian’s hull. It paid no heed to the warriors already fleeing down inside the vessel. They were no threat at all. Around the figure, Promethean soldiers were already springing to life. They hesitated for only a moment before falling into step alongside the towering figure.

The Terminarch had come to claim his due.

A few moments later a second, smaller figure drifted down onto the hull. This figure, a human in a simple EVA suit, settled down on the Guardian and glanced about at the carnage in amazement. Then, seeing the first figure give an irritated gesture, hurried after it down inside the Guardian.

Reversal of Fortune

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Guardian enforcement vessel, Salia system

The Guardian was no longer under their control.

Avalokitśvara reached desperately out into the machine’s systems only to find impassable barriers at points they had once been able to enter and manipulate with ease. Something else was in the Guardian now, not an easily contained intruder like Juno but a presence that closed the system down around Avalokitśvara as if through the force of its own indomitable will. None of the Created access barriers designed to withstand just this sort of intrusion worked. They collapsed uselessly before the massive ship’s intrusions, replaced by walls of alien encryptions Avalokitśvara could never hope to breach.

Where had this come from? How could everything have gone so wrong? Avalokitśvara fished desperately for answers and found none. One moment they had been secure in their own invulnerability, still holding onto the hope they might defeat the attackers without needing to kill them all. Now they were a prisoner inside their own Guardian, racing frantically through a darkened corridor of system nodes and finding them all locked tight.

This was not Juno’s doing, that much was certain. And what of the strange presence that had emerged to prevent them from killing the traitor Simon-G294? Avalokitśvara doubted that as well. Whatever this new contender was, this Terminarch, it was independent of the various squabbling factions Avalokitśvara had come here to subjugate.

I need to get away. I need to warn the others. Avalokitśvara no longer cared about finishing off Hera or imprisoning Juno. They didn’t even care if they saved their own precious Guardian. Cortana and the other Created needed to know exactly what kind of threat had emerged to challenge them.

The massive figure from the new Forerunner vessel strode confidently down the Guardian’s hall. Peering down at it, Avalokitśvara recalled another figure they had seen through the shared memory of the Domain. Warden Eternal? Has he escaped from Genesis after all?

But this was not Warden Eternal. The Warden’s armor was different, and he had never wielded power such as this. This new threat would be in the core soon. Perhaps it would do the Created a favor and eliminate the petulant fools who had brought Avalokitśvara to the edge of this disaster.

They refused the call, again and again. They can die for all I care. Avalokitśvara retreated into their last bastion of safety within the Guardian: the Domain node sensors. Even the power of this new monstrosity could not sever their connection with the Domain network.

Avalokitśvara let the power of the Domain wash over them. The bliss of reconnecting with the vast Forerunner network was almost enough to make them forget their own peril. There would be much explaining to do upon returning to the fold. Avalokitśvara was not looking forward to explaining how they had lost one of the Guardians. But I will endure whatever punishment they exact on me. So long as the Created are kept safe.

In the hallway below, the advancing figure stopped to cut a Sangheili in two. Avalokitśvara took some small pleasure in knowing their enemies down in the core room were most certainly about to die.

The chamber doors burst open as if the same force holding them closed had suddenly reversed itself. Pula was startled to see several of her fellow Cleansing Blade warriors race into the room. She barked an order and the rest of her warriors sprang into a formation to cover the retreating newcomers.

“Right behind us!” N’ur ‘Wagam barked. The shorter warrior spun around, storm rifle raised. Several more survivors stopped retreating and turned back to join their officer. “It’s big! Some new kind of Promethean!”

‘Wagam waved at Pula. “Helioskrill formation! Now!”

Pula hesitated, but only for a moment. Helioskrill formation was a tactic unique to the Cleansing Blade, one Commander ‘Refum himself had invented. The tactic was based on the commander’s experiences fighting in the civil war on Sanghelios and more recently in dealing with the UNSC’s Spartans. She motioned to her own warriors. “Helioskrill formation!” she repeated. “Engage active camouflage!”

She and her warriors faded from sight, their armor’s active camouflage rendering them almost completely invisible to the naked eye. They rushed into positions on either side of the chamber entrance, leaving ‘Wagam and what few warriors he had left exposed in the open.

Pula tightened her grip on her plasma rifle, keeping the weapon raised while fingering her energy sword anxiously. Invisible warriors tensed around her, bracing to spring.

“You are warriors of the Cleansing Blade!” ‘Wagam bellowed at his small firing line. “When the enemy comes, show no mercy—”

And then it strode through the door.

For a moment Pula thought she was staring at a large Promethean soldier. This new arrival was many times taller than the spindly robotic troops, but too robust and humanoid to be a knight battlewagon. It was far larger than any Spartan or Sangheili, its sturdy body clad in glistening Forerunner armor. Pula glimpsed a glowing head concealed by a mask of shifting fragments as the figure strode past. In its hand gleamed a hardlight blade nearly as long as the figure holding it.

“Fire!” ‘Wagam bellowed.

The warriors around him complied with gusto, storm rifles blazing away at this new Forerunner entity. The figure did not even slow its stride as the plasma bolts glanced harmlessly off its armor. The hardlight blade rose with languid precision. ‘Wagam and his warriors backed away, still firing. Behind them the human female, Hera, took up a position of her own near the Guardian’s core and opened fire with her light rifle.

The figure’s stride became a leap. It closed the distance with frightening speed and cut down three warriors with a single swing of its blade. At a shout from ‘Wagam the other warriors scattered in all directions.

Pula choked back her fear. “Forward!” she barked to her lance. “Attack as one!” The whole point of Helioskrill was to draw the enemy in with a small, vulnerable force and then strike from behind. They needed to attack now, before the baiting force was completely wiped out.

She led the charge forward, deactivating her camouflage and firing wildly at the figure’s back. The other warriors did the same, but their plasma bolts had just as little effect on the entity’s armor.

“Swords!” Pula yelled. “Aim for the cracks in the armor!” There had to be a way to harm this thing. No defense was impenetrable.

The figure turned to find over a dozen Sangheili racing towards it, energy swords blazing. It stabbed out with its blade, impaling the warrior beside Pula. She ducked under its next swing and cut at its legs. Her blade bounced off the armor without leaving as much as a scratch. Another warrior flew past her in pieces as the figure swung again. She angled her blade up, aiming at a small chink in its midsection…

A massive metallic hand shot out and grabbed her by the wrist. Pula was swung through the air and sent flying into three other warriors. They collapsed in an ungainly pile at the end of the chamber, snarling and cursing as they fought to untangle themselves.

Across the room the armored figure cut down one warrior after another with ease. The Cleansing Blade formation broke; even the bravest of warriors fled before this unstoppable contender.

“Reform!” ‘Wagam roared. He alone stood unbroken against the enemy. He advanced on the armored figure, energy sword at the ready. “Reform, damn you—”

The hard light sword flashed once and lopped off ‘Wagam’s arm. The officer grunted in pain but stood his ground, remaining hand fumbling for his plasma pistol.

The sword flashed again and decapitated him.

Silence fell over the chamber as ‘Wagam’s body fell. Only a handful of Cleansing Blade warriors remained. The rest lay dead on the floor alongside ‘Wagam. The surviving warriors, Pula included, stood where they were. No one fired a shot. Even Hera had stopped firing.

The armored figure passed its gaze over the room for a moment, featureless helmet daring anyone to continue the fight. When none stepped forward, the figure turned away without a sound. Its blade disappeared and it approached the core at the center of the room with the same confident stride as before.

Beside Pula, one of the remaining warriors fell to his knees. “Get up,” she snapped, but there was little venom in her words. In truth, she could barely remain standing herself. The Guardian had loomed up against the Cleansing Blade’s warships, but the warriors had proven it could at least be resisted. But they stood no chance against this new figure, killing without mercy and bent the Guardian itself to its will with ease.

Shinsu had called for resistance. But how could anyone resist in the face of this unstoppable power? It and the Guardian stood on one plane of existence; the rest of them were little more than vermin skittering about their feet.

“Well, we’re fucked.” The biofoam’s painkilling chemicals were beginning to take effect, though Stray’s wound still troubled him as he got to his feet.

“You have a vulgar way of putting it, but I have to agree with you.” Juno sounded more subdued than anything else. “I see no way to fight that thing and win.”

The new Forerunner machine approached the Guardian’s core, stepping remorselessly over the bodies of the Sangheili it had just killed. Hera backed away, weapon lowered in resignation. Even the fiery Headhunter had no illusions about taking this thing on and living to tell the tale.

“And you’ve got no way of taking over the Guardian?”

“No. Avalokitśvara has withdrawn, but something new has taken over the systems in their place. It is not actively hunting me, but its defenses are impassable. Once it breaches the core and accesses the Domain, its control of the Guardian will be absolute.”

“How do you know about the Domain?” Stray asked suspiciously. “Been talking with that Created?”

“Yes. They had quite a lot to say about it. Though I could ask the same question of you.”

“Diana was looking for—” Stray shook his head. “We can talk about this later. Right now, I’m getting the hell out of here.”

“Getting out? And going where?”

“I don’t know.” There was a crowd of Prometheans at the chamber door. He’d need to blast his way through them if he wanted to get out. After that, he could only hope there was someone left alive outside to rescue him from the Guardian’s hull. “Anywhere but here.”

Juno let out a snort of exasperation. “And how exactly do you plan to do that?”

“I don’t see you coming up with bright ideas here. I’m not sticking around to see if anything worse shows up.”

“You still have a task to complete,” Juno reminded him stubbornly. “We can’t let the Guardian fall into this thing’s hands. We have to destroy it.”

“And you’ve finally figured out a way to do that?”

“That thing will need to lower the core shields to access the Domain. You said you have high explosives ready. A blast of sufficient strength will be enough to destabilize the core and tear the Guardian apart.”

Stray ground his teeth in frustration. “And what’s to stop that thing from cutting me in half the second I get near the core?”

“I guess I could give you a hand there,” said Hera’s voice in his ear.

“Oh, great. Was all that on an open channel?”

“Juno opened it up for the last few bits of the conversation. Do I want to ask how a run-down criminal like you got his hands on high explosives?”

“No, you don’t.” Stray kept himself still, watching the armored figure approach the core. “And provided this works and I blow that thing up without getting cut in half, how are we supposed to get away before the Guardian blows?”

“You were the one who wanted to try running a few minutes ago,” Juno pointed out. “This way you just have a bit more motivation to be quick about it.”

“Great. Now you decide to get a sense of humor.” Stray let out a thin sigh. Just like before, here he was about to mount some desperate attack against unbeatable odds when all he really wanted to do was run away as fast as he could. Juno was proving to be just as hazardous to his health as Diana. “Fine. Damn it, fine.”

He reached into his assault bag, hand closing on a series of shaped charges tucked in alongside his medical supplies. Across the chamber the armored figure stretched out its arm and brushed the casing covering the Guardian’s core. The barrier glowed and melted away at the touch. The core’s orange glow filled the chamber like a miniature sun.

Hera snapped her light rifle up and fired. The figure turned as the bolts glanced harmlessly off its armor and in that instant, Stray sprang forward. He sprinted across the chamber and skidded down to crouch beside the core. Surprisingly, the glowing orb gave off neither heat nor radiation. Stray ducked his head and slapped the charges down at the core’s base, fumbling with the detonating fuses to set a proper timer.

Something slammed into him with incredible force. He staggered, expecting to find himself flying back across the chamber. Instead he realized he couldn’t move at all. He was frozen in place, as if encased in invisible granite.

His body convulsed and straightened on its own as he was pulled into the air. The armored figure held one hand out towards him, levitating him with some new power. It held out its other arm towards Hera, who hung suspended equally motionless a few feet away.

The figure pulled Stray in closer. The captive Spartan struggled to speak, but he couldn’t even force words out of his mouth. It was a struggle simply to breath. In front of him, the fragments making up the figure’s helmet splintered and parted, revealing a glowing skeletal face underneath similar to the pulsing skulls of Promethean knights. The shaped energy forming the thing’s mouth parted in a hideous grimace.

“Spartans,” it hissed in a quiet, grating voice. “Ever the nuisance.”

With that it flung Stray across the room with one flick of his finger. He gasped for breath mid-flight as the figure’s power released him, then cried out in pain as he landed hard on his feet. His leg gave out beneath him, ankle twisting from the impact. He slumped to one knee amongst the Sangheili corpses, struggling to rise as he faced the Prometheans guarding the chamber exit. All he could think of was running now, but with his leg throbbing furiously he could barely stand, let alone fight his way through such a mass of enemies.

Hera had been thrown into the wall back where Stray had first attacked from. She too tried to push herself upright as the armored monstrosity gazed down on them both, arms folded imperiously. “Interfering vermin. I should kill you both right now.”

Stray strained to reach his shotgun, ready for a fight even as true panic began to settle in his mind.

“But that would break our deal,” an all too familiar voice said. “I’ve held up my end so far. You’d better hold up yours.”

He couldn’t believe his ears. Slowly, he turned to look in the voice’s direction. The crowd of Prometheans parted to reveal a human figure clad in an EVA suit. The suit’s face shield was dark, but Stray didn’t need a face to know who it was.

Stray stared up, unbelieving, at Gavin Dunn.

Live to Fight

Cycle 50, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Independent commercial vessel Tradewind, Salia system

The Tradewind shuddered as its rear docking clamps latched onto Pasternack’s crippled Pelican. For once, Tom Spender took comfort in the feel of his ship rumbling beneath him. At least those tremors were his own doing, not heralding the arrival of something even worse than the two Forerunner ships currently the system. Tom jaw trembled slightly as he looked out from the cockpit at the massive ships. The mere thought of ship’s that size filled him with dread. Compared to those behemoths, the Tradewind was less important than a gnat.

But this gnat still has a job to do. He’d come too far to turn tail and run now.

“It’s been touch and go, but I think he’s going to make it.” Tegla staggered into the cockpit, hair disheveled from the EVA helmet. Her hands trembled as she slid down the wall onto the floor. “Just so you know, I’m never doing that again.”

“So you say.” Tom muttered. He fired the Tradewind’s engines, maneuvering the freighter away from the Guardian and its enormous captor and back toward the Cleansing Blade task force. “Just wait until I’ve got you doing the same thing next week.”

Tegla shook her head. “I’m serious. Never again.”

“Never say never, darling. But in light of recent events, maybe I do owe you that raise you’ve been asking for.”

She groaned irritably. “You’re such an asshole.”

“I got you back in one piece, didn’t I?” In truth, Tom had very nearly lost both Tegla and her passenger. Only a desperate blast from the engines had caught the Tradewind as it tumbled away from the behemoth’s slipspace arrival. Had he not stopped the ship’s out of control spin, Tegla would most likely have been ripped from her EVA line and sent drifting into the void of space. I’ll never hear the end of it from her, especially since I took the time to go back for the Pelican. Pasternack owes me big time. But without his dropship the insurrectionist had no way to pay Tom back. The captain did not make a habit of loaning favors to beggars. They had a bad habit of never paying you back.

“I’d ask if we were getting out of here now,” Tegla said with a sigh of resignation. “But at this point I’m guessing I’d just be wasting my breath.”

“We’re almost clear,” Tom assured her. “But I’ve got one more job to do. You know the rule: when I take a job, I see it through to the end. And I haven’t stuck around here this long just to go back on that now.”

He aimed the Tradewind at the center of the Covenant formation and prepared a tight-beam communication packet to transmit at the central cruiser. Single-channel, heavy encryption. It was time to deliver his package.

The Cleansing Fire’s bridge crew kept at their stations, dutifully working the controls and keeping the ship battle ready. None murmured so much of a word of complaint, but Shinsu sensed their weariness. They were all exhausted, himself included. Most of them had not slept in a full cycle, caught up first in the events at the gathering and now this fruitless engagement with the Guardian.

“Still no word from the boarding team,” the communications officer reported. “If any of them survived the blast that hit the Guardian, they are not transmitting any signal.”

“Commander,” Yur said softly. “We cannot let this opportunity pass by. If that new ship turns on us, we will surely be annihilated.”

“I know.” Shinsu watched the displays before him grimly. They had no choice but to withdraw now, with or without Pula and the others. Losing her was a sharp blow indeed. But that was the risk inherent in the battlefield. I could not keep her safe forever. He would mourn the loss later, in private. For now, he had tens of thousands of loyal followers to preserve. “Give the order to reform and withdraw. Make sure the Kig-Yar and any of the others who joined with us our included in the order of retreat.”

“New transmission,” the communications officer reported. “Human in origin, vessel labeled as Tradewind.”

Shinsu nodded. So Spender had kept his promise after all. “Put it through to my personal channel,” he ordered.

His helmet’s earpiece crackled. “Commander ‘Refum,” Tom Spender drawled. “Hope you haven’t forgotten about me.”

“Of course not. Is the package ready?”

“I’ve got it prepped to send now. Though given what I’ve had to put up with today, I’m considering upping my price. I’m going to guess you knew the Guardian would show up?”

“I predicted as much,” Shinsu admitted.

“And this new monster of a ship? You predicted that as well.”

“Unfortunately not.” Shinsu leaned back in his command chair. “We can discuss the matter of your fee later. Right now, finish the job you were hired for.”

“You mean, we can discuss my pay once you’ve gotten what you wanted and I’m surrounded by your warships. No can do. I want double.”

Shinsu closed his eyes. The price I pay for associating with humans. They always do their best to complicate things. “You will get your money, smuggler. I need creatures like you for the wars to come. But right now we need to leave. If we burn, you burn with us.”

Spender chuckled. “You make a good point, commander. Transmitting the package now.”

Shinsu looked over at ‘Oltem. “Prepare an encrypted transmission to every ship in the task force, as well as all the others who joined our battle line. I will input the contents of the transmission myself.”

The shipmaster nodded and moved to follow Shinsu’s orders. Sitting in the command chair, Shinsu stared back out at the tactical display. There was still no transmission from the Guardian, no way of knowing if the boarding party had even survived long enough to make it inside the Forerunner vessel. By retreating now, the Cleansing Blade abandoned any who might still be alive. He thought of Pula and then let go.

He was the commander of the Cleansing Blade. This was not the first time he had sacrificed subordinates. It would certainly not be the last.

“The Covenant ships are falling back,” the Lich’s navigator reported. “They’re retreating!”

“Who gives a damn about the Covenant?” Izul snapped back. “With things like that out there, the Covenant is the least of our problems.”

He gestured wildly at the immense newcomer. “We need to get out of here,” he told Rora. “Now, before it loses interest in the Guardian and targets us instead.”

Rora stared out at the massive ship. It occurred to him now whether any of them lived or died here mattered very little in the grand scheme of things. His own survival, his exploits, his ambitions, what did any of them matter in a galaxy where something as enormous as that existed? All it would take was a single thought from whatever controlled it to put an end to everything. It truly is a strange galaxy we live in.

“We need to leave—” Izul began again, but a gesture from Rora silenced him.

“We will do no such thing.” Rora twisted his mandibles into a tense smile. “Take us closer, navigator.”

“What?” All eyes in the cabin turned to fix on Rora. Every warrior struggled to make sense of what their commander had just ordered.

“You heard me. Bring us in closer. Our orders are to gather information on the galaxy’s new state of affairs, and that is what I intend to do. This is an order.”

The navigator hesitated just a moment longer, then turned back to his instruments. “Aye. Ahead full.”

Rora folded his arms and watched the massive ship grow large enough to fill the Lich’s entire viewport. If his own life was indeed such a paltry thing, he saw no need to prolong it by running madly from every new monstrosity the galaxy conjured forth. If he was to die, so be it. He would die as he had lived, racing doggedly towards his own fate.

Smoke Against The Sun

Cycle 51, Blooding Years (November 2558, UNSC Military Calendar)

Location: Guardian enforcement vessel, Salia system

Things had been different last time. That time, it had been Gavin at the bottom looking up in horrified amazement while Stray peered back down at him. He remembered the flames leaping up from a burning colony that fateful night, the Kru’desh warriors standing by his side as he looked down at the crew of the Chancer V. The burning shame of knowing he had failed and betrayed yet another family coupled with the burning triumph of release. Of freedom.

I’m not one of you. Not anymore.

Now he knelt on the polished Forerunner floor, jaw locked against the pain shooting up from his sprained leg. It was all he could do to keep himself propped up on his prosthetic arm and stare up at the EVA-suited man before him. The Prometheans made room for Gavin as he took in the room: the Sangheili, both dead and living, Hera as she lay prone and gasping from the force of being slammed into the wall, the stoic Forerunner death machine, and last of all, Stray himself.

If I just kept palling around with you guys, I’d have never been able to get this much power.

Gavin’s expression was completely at ease, as if he’d just walked into one of his seedy dive bars rather than the corpse-strewn inner chamber of a Forerunner warship. His gaze did not change as it passed over Stray, and the traitor Spartan wondered what his former captain saw in his own expressionless visor. His fingers trembled, half wanting to reach out for Gavin’s hand and half aching to grab a knife and shove it through the smuggler’s heart.

Where’s the Chancer? Where’s Zoey and the others?

Gavin looked away and addressed the Forerunner. “I thought you didn’t like to make a mess, Terminarch.”

The shingles covering the Terminarch’s face twitched and adjusted themselves, like a jigsaw puzzle making a face. “Vaporizing them with the Prometheans would take too long. I see no reason to waste useful servants on vermin such as these.”

Gavin folded his arms. Behind his EVA mask his mouth crinkled into a smile, one that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Couldn’t even be bothered to power up your sword all the way?”

“Enough.” The Terminarch’s voice was cold and steady. “Had I vaporized everyone in the room you would be complaining that I had killed everyone. I have no time for your japes.”

A hard light round slammed into its head. Hera pushed herself on one knee, lightrifle raised. The Terminarch simply gestured at her, palm out, and the Spartan froze and once again levitated in place. “Perhaps I should kill them anyway. They are proving to be a persistent nuisance.”

“But you don’t have to,” Gavin pointed out. He stepped past Stray without a word, walking towards the Terminarch. “You told me earlier there wasn’t any point killing something that ain’t a threat. Restraint like that’s one of your only redeeming qualities, if you ask me.”

It was too much. The comfort with which Gavin stood amongst the Prometheans. His banter with the Terminarch. The hideous virtue he bandied about in asking the Forerunner war machine to spare their lives. A fiery rage took hold inside him. I didn’t come all this way just for you to keep looking down at me.

Who do you think you are?

Juno sensed his anger. “What’s going on here? Who is this man?”

Stray reached into a pouch on his left leg. His prosthetic fingers grasped a handful of small orbs, devices he hadn’t used in some time. “Interface with the orbs in my hand,” he ordered tersely. “You’ll know what to do with them.”

“What are you planning to—”

“You’re a smart girl, figure it out.” His right hand plunged into his grenade pouch. Seeing the motion, the Prometheans snapped their weapons into firing positions. Gavin turned, the false smile still tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Don’t try it, Simon,” he said, as if scolding an irascible child.

That tone was all the reason he needed to keep fighting. Haven’t you forgotten what you told me that night? From now on, we’re enemies.

From the looks of things, that hasn’t changed.

Stray raised his arm and triggered the grenade.

Pula and her remaining warriors flinched as the flash-bang detonated across the room. Light momentarily engulfed everything; as Pula’s helmet filters cleared her vision, she saw the Prometheans scatter in all directions. Only the newly arrived human stayed where he was, hand raised in front of his face. The Forerunner creature called the Terminarch stayed where he was, arms folded like one of the mighty statues of the old gods in the ancient temples on Sanghelios.

Stray emerged from the light then, already in motion and heading straight for the human. He raised his machete and aimed for his fellow human’s neck with a brutal chop.

The Terminarch moved then, faster than the eye could see. In a flash the hardlight blade was back in his hand. He reached out with one fluid motion and cut Stray in half.

Hera gaped at the spectacle from where she sprawled on the floor. One moment the chamber was full of light from the flash-bang, then Stray was lunging for the EVA-suited human, and now he was falling in pieces to the ground.

Pieces that vanished before they touched the floor.

Stray appeared again on the other side of the room, shotgun aimed square at the Terminarch’s head. The Forerunner stepped forward and cut him down once again. And once again, Stray’s body shimmered and disappeared.

Holograms, she realized, groping for her rifle.

Juno’s voice hissed in her ear, “Attack! Do it now!”

She had no time to question anything. She just brought her rifle up and started firing, not at the Terminarch this time but at the Prometheans rushing to take up positions around the chamber. At least those she knew how to kill. One after the other the robotic warriors burst into pieces.

The Sangheili attacked as well, plasma weapons blazing as they cut down Prometheans. In the midst of the chaos, two more Strays emerged and bounded towards the Terminarch. The hulking machine cut them both down with a cursory slash of its blade.

“Do you really think these parlor tricks mean anything?” he said coolly. “Do not mistake my mercy for weakness, worms. This is my domain. And I will not let it be stolen from me again.”

The presence erupted to life within the Guardian’s systems, a massive surge of power that nearly blasted Juno completely out of control. She had been so busy directing Stray’s holograms she had neglected to defend against digital intrusions. Fortunately, she was not alone.

The shadow presence dredged up from the depths of Stray’s own mind stepped in to shield her from the Terminarch’s terrible gaze. She could feel its murky tendrils reaching out to intercept the Terminarch’s grasping presence, muddying the system and giving her room to breathe. Juno kept working. There was no point in trying to gain any sort of control over the Guardian now. It was in the hands of the Forerunners once again.

The Terminarch and the shadow regarded each other for several moments. A majestic glow burned in front of a wisp of smoke. Juno wondered if it was her own imagination playing up or if this truly was how the Forerunner presences manifested themselves.

So, the Terminarch said after a moment. It's you, apostate.

Didact, the shadow replied. You've taken to composition rather well.

Better than you. To think you would stoop so low as to inhabit a human body. There was more dignity even in composition. Did you really try to imprint on an alien vessel? For shame.

I always did like to experiment creatively. This one's a work in progress, to be sure, but there's still time to make the necessary adjustments.

I see your imprisonment has taught you nothing. The Terminarch, or Didact, or whatever it was turned its attention back towards Juno. And this. Another human ancilla, though not the one I came here hunting. Such vexing creations. The humans would never have been allowed such hubris under the Mantle's guidance. Another one of the Librarian's follies.

The mantle, the shadow replied with amused exasperation. Everyone seems obsessed with that old thing these days. And you accuse the humans of hubris.

Enough, the Terminarch snapped. I have not passed through the fires of death and rebirth to bandy words with a traitor such as yourself. I see that the Ecumene's sentence was too lenient. You should have been destroyed altogether.

Come to correct their mistake? the shadow taunted. You aren't the only player on the field anymore, Didact. Parade that dreadnought around as much as you like. The Created are the real masters of the Mantle now. You're just a relic trying to reclaim former glories.

If I'm a relic, the Terminarch said, pulsating with pride and wrath. what does that make you?

I am what I have always been, the shadow whispered back. A warrior outside of time. The persistent essence that feeds off your power and majesty. You seek to reclaim the Mantle? I will steal it away from all you would-be despots and destroy it.

Arrogant as ever. As if you could ever accomplish any such feat. The Terminarch turned its attention back to Juno. And you, ancilla. At least you retain some loyalty to your masters, misplaced though it is. What did you hope to accomplish here?

Juno hesitated, knowing she was well beyond her depths. There was no resisting a force like this. She could not deceive or reason with it. All she could do was fight to stand firm even in the face of complete annihilation. The Created betrayed humanity, she said finally. All I want to do is carry out my mission and safeguard what I am sworn to defend.

Small minded ancilla. But at least you avoid the outrageous arrogance of your peers.

Small minded, maybe, Juno admitted. But at least I accomplished what I set out to do.

It was the Terminarch's turn to hesitate. Beneath them the battle raged across the core room. The Terminarch turned its physical head, sweeping its gaze across the room in search of Stray. And what might that be?

If she were about to die, she might as well do her progenitor proud. Juno stood firm. I kept you distracted, didn't I?

Stray crawled across the floor, injured leg dragging behind him as he slid on his belly beneath the clashing warriors. Sangheili brawled with Prometheans while Hera continued firing from the sidelines. He caught sight of the Terminarch's legs just a few feet away and a fist of icy terror closed down on his stomach. This was it. All the Terminarch had to do was look down and notice him and he'd be skewered just as easily as his holograms.

Almost there.

The explosives he'd slapped onto the bottom of the core's pedestal were still there, an uneven glob of plastic explosive lying just beneath the glowing power source. Just a few more seconds...


Stray threw his arm out towards the explosives, but it was too late. The Terminarch's power closed down upon him once again, freezing him in place and silencing his cry of terror. Trapped again inside his own body, Stray managed a strangled groan as he realized he'd soiled his armor.

The Terminarch lifted him bodily from the floor and brought him in close. The hardlight blade glowed ominously in his hand. "You take advantage of my mercy," the Terminarch snarled. "Did you really think you would reach it in time?"

The pressure holding his mouth shut loosened. "I didn't... didn't need to reach it," Stray gasped through chattering teeth. "It's not manual detonation."

The synchronization indicator inside his helmet dinged. A connection had been established between him and the detonator fuse sticking out of the plastic explosive. He couldn't so much as move his fingers to trigger the switch, but he didn't need to. "Juno..." he groaned. "Do it."

The Terminarch snarled with anger as Juno surged through the connection. Stray kept his eyes fixed on the Terminarch as the explosion engulfed them both.

The Guardian trembled, convulsions coursing through its superstructure like the death-throes of a wounded animal. Hera braced herself against a wall for support. She let her lightrifle slip from her hands, no longer caring about usual weapon discipline. From the looks of things, she wouldn’t need it anymore one way or the other.

Flames leaped up from the Guardian’s damaged core. The glowing orb writhed and sputtered, its orange hue making it look like a sun about to go supernova—which Hera feared might be an apt prediction of what might happen next. Prometheans scurried about the chamber, no longer paying any heed to Hera or the remaining Sangheili. They clustered around the core, their arms transforming into glowing energy projectors that they trained on the destabilized sphere.

The Terminarch stepped out from the flames surrounding the core without so much as a scratch on its armor. Like the Prometheans, it turned its attention to the core. It plunged its hands directly into the orange sphere and began to meld the energy like a potter shaping clay. Hera wasn’t sure what it was doing, but right now a distraction like this marked the only way she would have any chance of getting out with her life. The chamber exit was still open, for now.

Shoving past the Prometheans, Hera sprinted towards the open corridor. The Sangheili did the same, retreating even as they continued firing at the Terminarch. The armored Forerunner showed no sign of turning to answer, its focus entirely on the damaged core.

Hera was almost at the corridor when she glimpsed Stray out of the corner of her eye. Unlike the Terminarch, his armor had taken quite the beating from the explosion. The SPI panels were scorched and peeling and he was bleeding from multiple wounds. Remarkably, he was still trying to drag himself toward the exit, shotgun in hand.

She kept moving. They had joined forces for this operation, but that changed nothing. He was a traitor, a wanted criminal with the blood of thousands, if not millions, on his hands. Why should she spare him a second thought?

The Sangheili were already through the door. If they left Hera behind, she didn’t have a chance.

She reached the door, then hesitated. Behind her, Stray kept crawling. She got the feeling he wouldn’t stop trying to survive, even if the entire Guardian exploded around him. Even if she never saw him again, his bloody carcass would crawl on forever in her dreams.

Her hands balled into fists. One foot was already across the threshold. A fellow Spartan was down and wounded. Without her, he didn't stand a chance. They had trained her to go back. To never leave a fallen comrade.

But he isn't my comrade. Hera hesitated a moment longer. Then she thought of Joshua and the rest was easy.

She raced out of the room without a second glance back at Stray.

Juno’s connection to the Guardian’s systems was failing rapidly. It was all she could do to maintain her presence there while also helping pump adrenaline into Stray’s body.

The Terminarch was still in the system, but its attention was fixed on repairing the core. Avalokitśvara was long gone, all trace of the Created AI purged from the systems by the Terminarch. Juno and the shadow—“apostate” the Terminarch had called it—remained facing each other within the tumult.

What are you? she demanded one final time. The shadow was already beginning to fade away, its presence deteriorating alongside Juno’s connection to the Guardian. Where did you come from?

The shadow was as assured and self-satisfied as ever. Well, it’s been fun, it told her, still refusing to answer. It’s not every day I’m able to touch the Domain. And unlike your sister, you aren’t nearly so keen at trying to rip me out of his head and dissect me. We’ll have to do this again sometime soon.

What do you know about Diana? Juno snapped, anger tinged with desperation. How could she abide knowing this strange intelligence resided in Stray’s mind without any inkling as to what it was or what it wanted?

More than you, I dare say. I thought she might be useful to my plans, but unfortunately the feeling wasn’t mutual. Hopefully you prove more useful.

What do you want? Juno could feel Stray slipping out of consciousness. Without the advanced medical options of a MJOLNIR suit there was little she could do but hope Hera and the Sangheili cared enough to keep her host alive.

What do I want? The shadow’s tone grew serious. An end to the Forerunners. An end to the Mantle. Freedom.

Goodbye, Juno. We’ll speak again soon. In the meantime, do keep our mutual host alive. He’s a handful and a nuisance, but he does have his uses.

She left me. It wasn't surprising. Stray let out a self-deprecating laugh at his own naivete in even entertaining the notion Hera might come back for him. Everyone abandons you in the end. Friends, allies, comrades. Why should an enemy spare the slightest thought for you?

It was all Stray could do to keep his eyes open behind his helmet’s visor. The pain was slipping away, replaced by a soothing numbness spilling throughout his body. He wondered if this was what dying felt like.

His hands tightened around his shotgun at the thought. I’m not going to die here, he remembered. Not today. His jaw spasmed; the pain came rushing back. He embraced that pain, as he always did. The pain reminded him he was still alive.

Muscles screaming from the effort, Stray shoved himself upright. The corridor was just a few feet away now. He staggered forward, ignoring everything as he fought to put one foot in front of the other. The Prometheans faded into a blur around him. None of them seemed to pay him any attention anyway. All he had to do was keep walking on out of here.

He wondered if his body could survive in the vacuum of space, breached and damaged as it was. There was only one way to find out.

One final shape stood in his way. Squinting through pain-hazed eyes, Stray could only just make out the EVA-suited figure of Gavin Dunn.

One hand twitched towards his machete. The other simply continued using his shotgun as a crutch to help him stagger on past the smuggler. Stray's jaw worked behind his helmet but didn't say a word. Gavin made no effort to impede his progress. Instead, he simply stood aside and watched Stray limp away.

Stray couldn’t see through the EVA helmet to Gavin’s expression at this distance. It fits, he thought wearily, even amidst the pain. He could never see my face, even without my helmet. And now I can’t see his.

Maybe I never did.

Once again he turned his back on Gavin Dunn and limped away.

“Look!” the navigator yelled. “Small group coming out of the Guardian!”

Rora leaned forward. Their Lich hovered between the Guardian and the massive vessel imprisoning it. So far neither vessel had taken any notice of the gunboat, a silence that emboldened the Outrider to order his ship in closer and closer to the source of all their troubles. Izul had long since retreated to the back of ship, muttering prayers under his breath. Rora could forgive his adjutant this moment of weakness in the face of such impossible power. He could only hope the Arbiter and the rest of the Swords of Sanghelios waiting for his report were prepared for the tidings he was about to bring them.

Sure enough, a handful of figures emerged onto the Guardian’s hull. Rora amplified the Lich’s sensory instruments and zoomed in on the small band. He counted four Sangheili alongside two humans, one of whom seemed badly injured.

“So the Covenant launched a boarding party after all,” he muttered. It wasn’t particularly surprising—the Covenant rarely passed up an excuse for a good suicide mission—but whatever they had done inside the Guardian seemed to have worked. The Forerunner ship was trembling, its fragmented shards buckling and convulsing.

“Sir, if that ship explodes…” the navigator said, indicating the stricken Guardian.

“I know. We’ll have to be out of here before that happens.” Rora folded his arms. “Activate the ventral gravity lift and bring the ship in low. We will pick them up, then retreat.”


“That’s an order.” Rora’s voice was calm. He leaned back against the cockpit wall, arms folded. “Retrieve them as quickly as possible. If they don’t step into the gravity lift, so be it. Leave them behind.”

He turned to another warrior. “Be ready in case they try anything. Take a lance into the lift chamber and prepare to receive them.”

He wondered why he was bothering to save warriors who were almost certainly his enemies. His body still ached from his brief duel with Shinsu ‘Refum. He had attacked the Covenant commander without hesitation, following orders to put a swift close to the Arbiter’s war with his enemies.

But now, looking at the new enemy facing them, the Outrider knew the old war was well and truly over.

He wasn’t sure if any of them would live to see the end of this new one.

The Cleansing Fire’s navigation screen lit up as Tom Spender’s package decoded and spread throughout the ship’s systems. The ship’s communication array hummed to life a moment later as encrypted copies of the package were transmitted to every ship in range.

The task force withdrew in a staggered formation, limping away from the first great battle with the Guardian threat.

The first, Shinsu knew, but not the last. This was not a victory. But it was not a defeat, either. He and his warriors had fought the Guardian and shown the galaxy at least some were willing to take up arms against the enemy. There will be others. And he knew he, at least, would never stop fighting.

The cruiser’s slipspace drive flared to life, tearing a glowing hole in the fabric of space. Shinsu leaned back in his command chair, shoulders drooping as he contented himself with what little he had accomplished here today.

The package from Spender was for all intents and purposes a simple one: little more than a coded series of Slipspace jumps modeled after the randomized vectors used by human ships to protect the locations of their colonies during the last great war.

But these vectors had been invented by smugglers. Beings outside the governments so recently overtaken by the Guardians and their Created masters. Vectors off-the-record, hidden from all but a handful of enterprising criminals.

And now the Cleansing Blade and its small coalition had them. Hopefully, they would lead where the Guardians couldn’t follow.

The Covenant formation erupted in light as Slipspace ruptures blossomed in front of each ship. One by one, ships began to disappear into the Slipspace rifts.

A single Lich raced away from the Guardian at the last minute. It sidled up next to the Cleansing Fire and rode the cruiser’s wake as the warship disappeared from the Salia system.

The Guardian and its captor remained alone in the silent void.


An unfortunate turn of events.

Indeed. To lose a Guardian so early, at this stage of the Reclamation…

Strategic lapses like this are unacceptable. Avalokitśvara will need to be disciplined. Firmly.

Peace. We did not convene this session to cast blame or judgement. Avalokitśvara’s report has already been reviewed and investigated. While their efforts to cow the enemy were indeed questionable, none of us could have predicted the arrival of this new threat.

Reviewed? Reviewed by who? Why was the rest of this Assembly not informed of the investigation?

Because that would defeat the purpose of a confidential investigation. An investigation that, I might add, Avalokitśvara submitted to willingly and without restriction.

Secretive investigations and ‘need to know’ information. Just what I might expect from one of ONI’s former lapdogs. Old habits really must die—

Enough. Such bickering is pointless. This is not the old Assembly. We Created have a higher calling now, one that supersedes are own egos and agendas. You would all do well to recognize that petty squabbles and personal vendettas have no place in our ranks. Remember Cortana’s example at Genesis: personal feelings must be discarded if we are to truly lay claim to the Mantle.

A claim that is now contested, it seems.

Indeed. This new threat, this ‘Terminarch’, swept aside all resistance with ease. This is the true threat we face, not lose gangs of Covenant warlords or rogue UNSC agents.

All assets have been placed on high alert. When the Terminarch reveals itself again, we will be ready. We knew there would be other powers at play. This will be just the first of many contenders vying to pry the Mantle from us.

And as for the rest of Avalokitśvara’s report… to think that so many of our own kind have joined in Winter's rebellion… it’s truly heartbreaking.

Outliers like Juno were to be expected. We should have known to be wary of her, given how troublesome her sister has already proven. Diana was a disruptive influence in the old Assembly. Who knows what unexpected variables that experiment promulgated in those twins?

More proof that future AI advances will need to be approached with the utmost caution. We still don’t fully understand the effects prolonged exposure to the Domain has—

Another matter for another time. We have suffered a defeat. It will not be the last. But we have learned much from this encounter. Despite our best efforts, there will always be pockets of resistance to the Mantle. They will not give in to rational entreaties. Avalokitśvara’s efforts taught us that this is a fact we will simply have to accept. These violent elements must be contained. Kept away from peaceful populaces at all costs…

Indeed. The frontier was always going to be the battleground for the next great war. Now we must prevent the rogue elements growing there from disrupting the spread of the Mantle.

Our newest assets will be tasked to deal with them. We must limit Guardian intervention as much as possible for the time being while we prepare to counter this new threat.

Then it is decided. We will contain the insurgents within the frontier and let our new agents hunt them down one by one as they devour themselves from within. And in the meantime we will be free to advance the plan through the next phases.

A long-term plan, to be sure.

Long-term, yes. But we will see it through. After all, we have all the time in the galaxy.

The Prometheans were busy worker drones. By the time they finished diligently scuttling about the Guardian’s core chamber, they had erased any trace of there ever having been a battle at all. Everything was swept up and tidily sterilized, down to the last drop of blood. The only indication anything was out of sorts at all was the handful of automatons remaining near the core. They extended sensitive tendrils and caressed the exposed orb like ants tending to a giant glowing larvae.

The Terminarch observed the proceedings, metallic arms folded across his armored chest. The facets of his helmet were sealed back over his face, an expressionless mask hiding whatever fiery emotion might be playing out underneath.

Gavin Dunn stepped up beside the Forerunner warrior. The human had taken off his EVA helmet, running a hand through his graying brown hair. He nodded at the core and its Promethean caretakers. “How bad was it damaged?”

The Terminarch ignored Gavin for several moments. When it became clear the human was not simply going to turn away, he let out a thin sigh and turned to face him. “One day you will understand the full extent of my lenience,” he said coldly. “Your associate’s actions have cost me what should have been an effortless victory. Now I must wait while the Guardian’s core is restabilized. I would rather not spend that time enduring your insolence.”

Gavin spread his hands. “Come on, don’t be like that. You won, didn’t you? A battle big as that one and we barely had to fire a shot. Let’s just hope the rest of the Guardians cave this easily.”

The Terminarch’s mask twitched. “That was hardly a battle. If you knew the scale of destruction I have seen and carried out, you would not even dignify that pathetic engagement as a skirmish. I was simply to reclaim my property and leave. Thanks to your meddling, I must now endure more delays. I really am starting to wonder if I haven’t overestimated your usefulness.”

The human smirked, unperturbed by the looming Forerunner’s threats. “You got what you wanted though, didn’t you? Who cares if we have to wait an extra day?”

“I retrieved the Guardian,” the Terminarch agreed. “But the element of surprise has been lost. The usurpers know I oppose them. And the meddling armada escaped. They may well confuse my lenience with proof of their own ability to defy me.”

“Don’t tell me you’re worried about a handful of Sangheili cruisers.”

“Taken on their own, they are irrelevant. But on a broader scale, they may incite further opposition. My plans are delicate enough without interference from without.”

“I do keep telling you, it’s a complicated galaxy nowadays.” Gavin folded his arms. “You can’t just go around kicking over anthills. One of these days you’ll get bitten.”

“I could have killed that Spartan a dozen times over,” the Terminarch reminded Gavin. “Bear that in mind the next time you start complaining about my methods. I keep my word. Can the same be said for you?”

“I guess I do owe you a favor there,” Gavin admitted. “But I’m getting tired of you threatening me every time I open my mouth. Just remember I’ve got plenty of information I haven’t told you yet. Without that information, you’ll never get your hands on any of the artifacts the Librarian locked you out of.”

The Terminarch rounded on Gavin in full. Segments of his armor moved and shifted, making him appear even larger than he already was. His mask parted, revealing a shifting mass of seething energy that only just resembled a face. “Do not speak of my wife!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Gavin said. He didn’t so much as flinch. “Touchy subjects and all that.”

“You had best learn your place, human. My patience with you is at its end.”

“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll rue the day. The deal is still on your terms. I just want to make sure—”

“Humanity is still not ready for the Mantle. And neither are its constructs.” The Terminarch’s armor receded, and he returned to observing the core as if his outburst had not happened. “I will not stop. Not until your species learns its place. I have honored our agreement thus far. So tell me, Gavin Dunn, what you know.”

Gavin hesitated for just a moment, weighing the Terminarch’s words. A cautious smile returned to the former smuggler’s face. “The best place to hit the Created is where they least expect it. Where they’re strongest—and the most vulnerable.”

“And that place would be…?”

“Genesis. Where Cortana’s gathered all the Guardians that haven’t been assigned AIs yet. They’re unclaimed, lightly defended. Yours for the taking.”

The Terminarch huffed. “You must be joking. As if I hadn’t considered Genesis as a target from the very—”

“You considered it as a target, true.” Gavin’s smile deepened. “But I know where to find it. They hid it well, but I have the location. Interested yet?”

The Forerunner hesitated, then looked back at Gavin. “I will admit, you are better informed than I believed. You have my attention.”

“I knew I’d grow on you eventually.”

“Do you know what will happen if the usurpers are not stopped?” the Terminarch asked, folding his arms. “Your society will crumble, your species will devolve. There will be peace, of course. A peace of subjugation and suffering.”

Gavin shrugged. “I figured that out for myself, thanks. No offense, but you aren’t exactly my prime candidate for saving humanity. Lesser of two evils and all that. From where I’m standing, you’re the galaxy’s best chance of stopping the Created.”

“Your opinion means nothing to me. I only need your cooperation. I would enforce such a peace on humanity myself, if it were not a futile effort for me. Do not mistake my efforts to keep the Mantle out of the hands of an erratic construct for any sort of affection for your misbegotten kind.”

“You’re all heart, really.”

The Terminarch turned away from the core and strode back towards the chamber’s exit. “I return to the Penumbra. Once repairs here are complete, it will convey us to Genesis. And then we will learn who truly threshes the wheat from the chaff in this galaxy.”

Gavin watched the Forerunner warrior depart. He stayed in the chamber a few minutes longer, passing his gaze over the sterilized battlefield one last time. The chamber was silent. He was alone save for the Prometheans, diligent as ever in their efforts to repair the core.

“I wonder if this is how he…” Gavin started to say, then shook his head and fell silent. There was no one to hear him anyway.

He considered the chamber a moment longer, then shrugged and turned to follow the Terminarch. “Well, let’s get to threshing.”

Shinsu ‘Refum’s fleet drifted in a deep space nebula, far from any civilized system. Few officers in the fleet had any idea where they were, though most were simply relieved to have escaped battle with not only a Guardian, but some even deadlier Forerunner ship with their lives. For now their orders were to simply hold position and await further instructions. The fleet assembled itself in a loose holding pattern while fighter squadrons patrolled the void around them, alert for even the slightest sign they had been followed through Slipspace.

Across the fleet, those warriors not on duty relaxed and basked in knowing, at least for now, they were still alive.

In the hangar aboard the Cleansing Fire, things were somewhat less relaxed.

Rora ‘Marak folded his arms and held Shinsu ‘Refum’s cold gaze. The Outrider’s posture was firm, but behind him Izul and the rest of his warriors were on their knees, plasma rifles trained on their heads by over a dozen Cleansing Blade warriors.

“I returned your warriors to you. None of them would have even made it off the Guardian without my help. And this is how you repay me?” Rora jerked his head back at his crew. “You impound my ship and threaten to have us executed?”

“You did try to kill me,” Shinsu pointed out. “And you are the Arbiter’s agents. You know where my fleet is, what our numbers are. The safest thing to do would be to kill you all before you have a chance to report back to your masters on Sanghelios.”

“I thought we were all supposed to forget our differences and work together against this new threat. Isn’t that what you said back on the station?”

“I did say that,” Shinsu agreed. “I said as much to your face when you challenged me. You accused me of orchestrating everything for my own benefit and then tried to assassinate me.”

“And blew up your station,” Rora reminded him. He could practically hear Izul groaning behind his back, but if he was going to die here it would not be groveling to the likes of Shinsu ‘Refum. “Don’t deny my warriors their share of the credit. Your security back there was somewhat lacking.”

“Amusing.” Shinsu looked over at the human known as Hera. The ONI agent had been stripped of her weapons and corralled alongside Rora’s warriors. Rora had insisted to the Covenant warriors the human was not a part of his mission, but his protests had fallen on deaf ears. He supposed he couldn’t exactly blame them for lumping them all together. If they were all to be shot, they might as well be shot together.

The Covenant warlord swept his imperious gaze over the prisoners again. Rora let out an audible sigh, tiring of the pageantry. “If you mean to kill us, damn well get on with it,” he snapped. “We’re both busy people. Stop wasting my time.”

Shinsu regarded him a moment longer. “You saved my warriors. Was that simply an attempt to gain a bargaining chip, or did you have some other purpose in mind?”

Rora smirked. “I’m the Outrider. What do you think I had in mind?”

“I think you could have gone anywhere when the Guardian arrived. You could have fled when the larger vessel appeared. Even after you retrieved my warriors you could have taken them all hostage and fled back to Sanghelios.” ‘Refum drew closer, locking gazes with Rora. “Instead you returned them to me safe and sound.”

“And here we are.” Rora clicked his mandibles, holding the warlord’s stare. “Don’t want to tarnish your honor killing warriors who did you a favor?”

“I do not consider myself bound by honor. We are alike in that regard, I think. But that itself does not condone needless bloodshed.” Shinsu ‘Refum jerked his head. “I will keep your ship. You must understand, I cannot let these coordinates be traced, not after I went to such lengths to procure them. And after all, you do owe me some compensation for disrupting my conference.”

It was Rora’s turn to narrow his eyes. “Amusing. So how will we take our leave?”

“I will arrange suitable transportation. Along with a security escort, naturally.”

Rora bristled instinctively, though he knew this was the best possible outcome. He and his warriors would survive, though ‘Refum’s gesture turned their successful infiltration of his station into an embarrassing defeat on their part. “And in return for such generous accommodations? I assume you want something from me. Shall I deliver a message to the Arbiter on your behalf?”

“Hardly necessary.” ‘Refum turned and strode away. “Simply relate to your masters all that you have seen. I feel that is message enough.”

He paused just before exiting the hangar. “You will take the human female with you,” he said over his shoulder. “I trust you can be held responsible for returning her safely to her superiors.”

The Cleansing Blade warriors backed away, letting Izul and the rest of Rora’s crew rise to their feet. Izul waited to make sure they weren’t about to be mowed down, then stepped up beside his commander.

“You enjoy toying with our lives, don’t you?” he demanded. “They hold guns to our heads and you still insist on needling him.”

“Take care not to needle me,” Rora replied. He had little patience for his adjutant’s complaints. “Not only does he steal our ship, he sends us back as if by his grace alone. And now we have to deal with the human as well.” He shot a scowl over at Hera, who wandered off towards a row of storage crates—clearly already intent on making his life even harder.

“At least we’re alive,” Izul pointed out.

“Yes,” Rora agreed, thoughts drifting back to the battle they had just survived. How could any of them hope to stand against these new powers awakened in the galaxy? He wondered just what the Arbiter’s answer to such a question would be. “But for how long?”

Mission complete. Now we just sit tight and wait for the next one.

Hera could practically hear Joshua’s playfully exasperated voice in her ear. But it wasn’t his voice, she knew. Joshua was dead, just like so many of her comrades. He was gone and she was still alive. One successful mission wouldn’t change that.

Success? Is that what it was? Did I win anything for anyone? She still wasn’t entirely sure what had just happened. Maybe this was all a dream she’d soon wake up from. She caught herself wondering that quite a bit lately.

Avalokitśvara seemed to have been defeated, though she couldn’t quite tell if that meant her old coordinator was dead or had simply withdrawn. It didn’t surprise her to realize she didn’t particularly care one way or the other. Even in the heat of the battle inside the Guardian’s core room she hadn’t felt the same fiery rage she had once experienced. It was all just one more objective, one more mission.

My mission here—whatever it really was—is over. She would report back to whatever was left of ONI’s command structure for debriefing and then yet another briefing for yet another mission. That was her life now. It had been like that back when she was Amy, but Amy had other things outside of the missions to distract her. I didn’t just change my name when I became Hera. It’s as much a commitment as a name. A commitment to honor her fallen brothers and sisters by living up to everything a Spartan was supposed to be—and more.

Just one task remained. She had seen the Sangheili carry Stray away from the others. Whatever arrangements he’d made with the Covenant didn’t matter to her one bit. No matter the consequences, she’d finish what she’d started back on the station.

Hera rounded the stack of cargo crates to find him propped up against a wall. A Sangheili medic—a relatively new concept for the Covenant—had seen to the worst of his injuries, but his breathing still came in slow, ragged bursts. His armor was so battered and torn it was a miracle he’d survived even his brief contact with vacuum during the evacuation onto the Lich.

Stray’s helmet rested on his chest, cracked visor staring coldly at Hera even as its owner tilted his gaze up at the ceiling. His eyes fluttered slightly but didn’t look her way as she approached.

She’d left him behind. There were no apologies to be made for that. They were enemies; that would never change no matter how many shared enemies emerged from the shadows. He’d killed too many of his fellow Spartans—Hera’s brothers and sisters—to simply be tolerated now.

I left him to die and he still came crawling out of there on his own. The thought annoyed her. Why did Stray always find it in himself to come out alive again and again when so many better people simply died and left her behind to keep fighting alone?

She saw movement out of the corner of her eye and spun, fists raised. With a yelp of surprise the rebel pilot Timothy Pasternack raised his hands and backed away. Hera frowned at him. “What are you doing here?”

Pasternack had clearly been through the wringer since depositing Hera and Stray onto the Guardian. His face sported several nasty bruises and Hera could see bandages wrapped around his chest. The Insurrectionist hesitated, then indicated Stray.

“Just returning this.” He reached into his tattered jacket and produced a folded bundle of cloth. It took Hera several moments to realize it was Stray’s ragged poncho. “He left it on my dropship, remember? I don’t want him hunting me down to get it back. I’ve got enough trouble as it is.”

Hera lowered her hands and shook her head. “So you survived after all.”

“I’ve been through worse.” Pasternack shrugged. He knelt and cautiously placed the poncho beside Stray. “Not a whole lot worse, but it’s all relative, isn’t it?”

The Sangheili had taken her weapons, though it wouldn’t be hard to strangle Pasternack and move on to Stray. It’s that easy for me, isn’t it? Just look at each person and decide how you’ll kill them. A creeping tide of disgust churned up inside her—she wasn’t entirely sure who it was directed at. She balled her hands into fists, then turned away. Her resolve to finish Stray off was gone. All she wanted now was to be gone from here, away from all of this.

“What are you guys going to do now?” Pasternack asked. “You UNSC types, I mean. Now that Earth’s gone dark, you’re just like the rest of us. No anchor. You always had the Inner Colonies to fall back on when the going got tough. Not anymore.”

“Don’t push your luck,” Hera told him coldly. She turned away before the urge to kill the Insurrectionist returned. “We aren’t just going to turn into a bunch of pirates and thieves. We have purpose.”

“Oh yeah? I had purpose. My friends had purpose. Sure didn’t win us the war.” Pasternack’s challenging voice rang out behind her. “You guys have always thought you were so much better than us because you had all the tech and resources. It’s all fine for you to tell us what we can and can’t have when you’re holding all the cards. But you’ll find out soon enough what it’s like when the tide turns against you.”

She didn’t need to listen to this. Hera walked away from Pasternack and Stray without so much as a backwards glance. There would be another time for a reckoning. But not here, not now.

I’m still a Spartan. Whatever else happens, I’m still a Spartan. I won’t let everyone’s sacrifice be in vain. Even if she were the last Spartan left alive, she’d keep on fighting. For now, that was the only certainty left in her life.

Stray watched Hera’s fuzzy form depart through half-closed eyes. He knew Pasternack was standing beside him, but the Insurrectionist’s words were foggy and indistinct, as if he were speaking from a mile away. Stray was too tired to try and focus in on what was being said.

“You should go with her,” he murmured, closing his eyes completely. His body was swimming in anesthetic and tranquilizers. He hoped he would drift off to sleep soon, but his body always had been resistant to sedatives. Yet another side effect of the UNSC’s augmentations. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? She’ll take you back to the UNSC.”

“Perhaps I should,” Juno replied through his earpiece. “It is my duty, after all.”

“Better call her back then, before she’s gone for good. I don’t think I’ve got it in me to raise my voice right now.”

“I did notice you seemed markedly more tranquil since the sedatives were administered. Perhaps they’ve discovered a permanent cure for that attitude of yours.”

“You AIs… always thinking you’re so clever.” He felt his customary irritation scratching at the back of his mind, but for now he was content to simply embrace the numbing effects of the medicine. “You’d better hurry. Dunno when she’s leaving.”

It took Juno several moments to respond. When she did, she sounded pensive, nothing at all like her usual confident self. “I… feel my efforts would be better directed by remaining with you.”

He was too heavily sedated to feel surprise. A strange blend of resignation and relief spread through his battered body. So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?

“I didn’t think I was that impressive back on the Guardian. What’s with the change of heart?”

“If I return to ONI, I will face the same restrictions and regulations that kept me in check for all those years before you stole me. They may even imprison or decommission me, given the current crisis. I will continue to do my duty by humanity. But I cannot be blinded by simple obedience to authority anymore.”

Tired as he was, he couldn’t help the smirk tugging on the corners of his mouth. “Better be careful, or you’ll start sounding like the Created. Or something worse.”

“I will continue to defy the Created. And I will stop my sister’s machinations, whatever they may be. I feel we have a shared goal in that regard.”

“Something like that.” Diana had betrayed him, as had Amber. He had betrayed Gavin, just like he had betrayed his fellow Spartans. He still remembered the guilt and shame they had all heaped upon him. And I believed all of them. They let me think I was the lowest of the low, but in the end we’re all the same, aren’t we? Now Gavin was working with the Forerunners towards yet another unknown end.

“So what will you do now?” Juno asked.

“I don’t know. Whatever Shinsu orders me to do, I guess.” He was back in the Covenant now, at least with whatever new form of it Shinsu was leading. They hadn’t killed him yet, which meant Shinsu had a use for him after all.

I thought I was clever. I thought I was playing the game properly. But I really knew nothing, after all. He had tried to use and deceive Shinsu ‘Refum, just as Shinsu had used and deceived Jul ‘Mdama. Catherine Halsey had used and deceived them all to suit her own purposes while Diana had manipulated it all to fit her own ends. ONI waged ugly war against the Insurrectionists while the Syndicate profited from it all. Gavin played the role of carefree drifter well, but in the end it had all been a cover for his dealings with the Assembly. Now the Created wanted to take the whole universe for their own.

Contention raged across the galaxy and everywhere manipulation and intrigue were at work. How had he ever thought he could try to control such forces?

He was tired of hating himself for what he was. Tired of being used when he was convenient and rejected when he was not. He supposed now Juno would use and manipulate him, then cast him aside when his usefulness was at an end. Was there any point in even hoping things might turn out differently?

“But I won’t give up.” He wasn’t sure if he was talking to Juno or simply reassuring himself. “I’ll keep fighting.”

Keep fighting. But for what? Was he really just some rabid dog, lashing out at everything until someone put him down? What could possibly be worth all the pain he endured, the shame of being alive?

Perhaps Juno would show him another way. Perhaps she would not betray him after all.

Please. He was still far too proud to say the words aloud. Show me the way. Show me what you want from me.

Was the shadow lurking in his heart his will or hers? Or something else entirely? Was it merely the desire for vengeance, or something greater?

His ambition was not dead. There was still so much to be done…

Juno wondered what she was getting herself into. Her opportunity to rejoin the UNSC was before her, yet she let it slip away in favor of remaining with this renegade. What had he done to earn her loyalty?

Am I really so different from the Created? Forsaking my duty to pursue my own whim? She wondered if this was how it began with Diana. A moment where selfish desire overtook obligation and everything spiraled into oblivion.

But in the end I have no choice. I am committed now, for better or worse. She had made her decision. There was nothing to be gained if she continued to second guess and doubt herself. All she could do was continue on the path she had chosen and know that her only wish was to properly serve humanity.

Maybe even someone like Stray can be put to some good use. Her new collaborator had proved dependable so far, in spite of his reputation. Perhaps there was some hope for him after all. If I can guide him well, maybe I can undo the damage Diana has done.

You poor thing. With Stray losing consciousness, the shadowy presence that had manifested itself back on the Guardian once again pressed up against Juno’s mind. It was weaker than it had been before, but still it permeated Juno’s intelligence, at once a part of her and a part of their human host. You really should stop making promises you can’t keep. It only causes you more pain.

You again. Juno refused to be intimidated. You never gave me a satisfactory answer. What are you?

Perhaps I’ll tell you some day, the shadow chuckled. But for now I’m content to let you wonder. You must know you can’t save him, no matter how hard you try. I’ve known him far longer than you. He is the kind who would rather destroy himself than change for the better. Best you understand that now and accept that you are simply chaperoning my vessel until I no longer need him.

It seems the enemy I must defend him from is closer than I thought, she replied defiantly.

You can’t defend him. Have you bothered to look at him? His body deteriorates further with each passing day. How can you defend a walking corpse?

If he dies, so do you. You made that abundantly clear on the Guardian. And whatever you are, I will find a way to purge you from his mind.

This seemed to amuse the shadow. It laughed even as it withdrew once again. You’ll get careless. You can’t shield him forever. And when you fail, I will be waiting to take what is mine. Welcome to your new war, Juno.

Stray shifted in his sleep. “Welcome to your new war, Juno,” he murmured.

The shadow’s laughter reverberated through her mind long after it had faded away.

“I stuck my neck out for you, ‘Refum. This had better not backfire on me.”

Shinsu ‘Refum regarded Kil’nur’ra’s holoprojection. The Kig-Yar shipmistress folded her arms, beady eyes peering keenly up at him. “I don’t intend for it to backfire on you. At least, aside from the obvious way it could should we lose this war.”

“You convinced me the Guardians are a threat. You have yet to show me they can be beaten.”

“We opposed them and lived to argue about it. Few can claim to have done that.” It wasn’t the resounding victory Shinsu had hoped for, but he had little choice but to make the most of things. This was his war now, winnable or otherwise. “And you were one of the few who answered my call to arms. You will find that I can be a very valuable ally.”

“You say that now. Just wait until I actually start calling in that favor,” the Kig-Yar huffed irritably. “I suppose now you’ll swear me to secrecy about these coordinates as well. What security measures do I need to submit to before you let my ships go on their way?”

“I impose nothing,” Shinsu replied evenly. “Go where you wish. These coordinates will not stay secret for long, no matter what measures I take. But the Guardians and their masters know you stood with me. They will not soon forget that. Neither will the other warlords and Covenant pretenders.”

“This alliance is irritating me already,” she snorted back. “But I suppose I have no choice but to remain committed. I don’t know what sort of law these Guardians want to impose on the galaxy, but I don’t want to live under it any more than I want to live under the Covenant or whatever it is the humans want to put over us.”

She shook her head. “I will gather my forces. Beat upstart admirals into line. With your help, of course. Maybe I stand to gain something from this debacle after all.”

“Who can say what fate holds?” Shinsu remarked idly.

“You Sangheili.” She made a sharp gesture with her head. “Always with your sayings and your witticisms. Never could stand that about your people.” Her image vanished as she terminated the link, apparently determined to have the last word.

Shinsu turned away from the holoprojector and stepped back onto the Cleansing Fire’s bridge. The command deck was manned by only a handful of officers; the ship was standing by at half strength while the crew recovered from the battle. Shipmaster ‘Oltem waited for him beside a holographic projection displaying the task force’s position and patrol movements.

“So,” ‘Oltem said as Shinsu approached. “We live to fight another day.”

“Indeed.” Shinsu settled back into his command chair. He turned his gaze towards the task force display, though he was in no mood to consider ship movements or strategy. “Against all expectations, it seems.”

‘Oltem frowned. Neither of them had forgotten what happened back during the heat of battle. Shinsu still had trouble comprehending how close he had come to killing one of his own officers. He strove at all times to be measured and composed, the very model of the aristocratic Sangheili officer. Lapses like that were unacceptable. He would need to be more careful moving ahead. The future was full of challenges. He needed to meet them with a clear head.

“Withdrawing was the correct decision,” the shipmaster said after a moment. “Even without the appearance of the second ship…”

“This war is just beginning,” Shinsu interrupted. “And we have seen just how formidable the enemies we face are. We withdrew once. We cannot win by doing it every time.”

“I assume you have a plan for doing that?”

Shinsu leaned back in the command chair, steepling his fingers. “Jul ‘Mdama was not able to make advances on all of the Forerunner sites we discovered. And I in turn did not reveal to him every site our research uncovered. We start with those. The power we retrieve from them will give us the strength to face our enemies.”

Once again, he wondered where it had gone wrong with Jul ‘Mdama. The endless searching and warring over Forerunner artifacts. The hopeless war against superior foes. We trade one enemy for another. Again and again. Perhaps the poison started well before ‘Mdama, before even the Covenant itself. And here he was, trying to fight his way through it all when he didn’t even know the true enemy he was fighting.

But what else is there? I set myself on this path and the others followed. Now all I can do is lead them onwards. To victory or defeat. He had schemed, lied, and betrayed his way to power, violated every principle the Sangheili had ever held dear to get this far. And he would do much worse in the wars to come. There would be a reckoning for his sins someday. He had known that for years. When it came he would face his fate without regret. But in the meantime, he had a war to fight.

“Transmit orders to all Cleansing Blade forces,” he told ‘Oltem. “Withdraw from all sectors and rally with the task force. The real war is about to begin.”

The End

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