Tor Books and 343 Industries™ present this excerpt from Halo: Mortal Dictata by Karen Traviss, available in January 2014. Traviss has penned #1 New York Times bestselling novels in the Star Wars universe, as well as bestselling novels for the Gears of War franchise, and this winter she completes the “Kilo-Five” story, her trilogy set in the Halo® universe.
Wars end. But hatred, guilt, and devotion can endure beyond the grave.
With the Covenant War over, the Office of Naval Intelligence faces old grievances rising again to threaten Earth. The angry, bitter colonies, still with scores to settle from the insurrection put on hold for thirty years, now want justice—and so does a man whose life was torn apart by ONI when his daughter was abducted for the SPARTAN-II program. Black ops squad Kilo-Five find their loyalties tested beyond breaking point when the father of their Spartan comrade, still searching for the truth about her disappearance,prepares to glass Earth’s cities to get an answer. How far will Kilo-Five go to stop him? And will he be able to live with the truth when he finds it? The painful answer lies with a man long dead, and a conscience that still survives in the most unlikely, undiscovered place.
New Tyne, Venezia: March 2553.
My name is Staffan Sentzke, and I never planned to be a terrorist.
It’s not the kind of life you aspire to. It was simply what I had to become. Terrorism is Earth’s word for it, a moral judgment, as if your warfare’s somehow noble and mine’s cowardly. But it’s just a unit of measurement; nothing more, nothing less. When your enemy is an empire and you’re just a few guys, a handful of little people, then the biggest punch you can land is called terrorism. That’s all you’ve got.
Like I said, it’s a measure of magnitude, not morality. And I’m really particular about measurements. I spent years working in a machine shop in Alstad before Sansar was glassed by the Covenant, and I still like to make things to keep my skills fresh. Here: what do you think of this? It’s a scale replica of an 18th Century Gustavian dining chair—I’m making a dolls’ house for Kerstin. Edvin says I’m spoiling her, but what else is a granddad for?
I’d give anything to be able spoil Naomi again.
There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. She’d be nearly 42 now—well past the age for dolls’ houses, but still my little girl.
Anyway, I need to finish this chair before dinner. It’s so delicate that I use a set of dental drills for the small detail. The upholstery’s the hardest thing, getting the right fabric so that the stripes are to scale, but I can make just about anything. If I can’t make it myself, then I can acquire what I need because I know people who can get me pretty well anything—a scrap of satin brocade, a birch plank, even tiny brass pins.
Or a Sangheili warship. I can get one of those, too.
I think I’ve got one now, but I have to see Sav Fel again today to iron out some details about that. Earth thinks it’s back in business since the Covenant fell, so it won’t be long before it tries to stick its nose in here again. We need to be ready, and what better time to prepare than when the black market is awash with weapons and ships? When empires fall, there’s always a fire sale.
For the moment, though, I’m making dolls’ house furniture, not arming Venezia. The workshop door opens behind me. This is the only place I’d ever sit with my back to the door, but then I know everyone who comes and goes in my own home.
“She’s going to love that,” Edvin says, peering over my shoulder. “Is it a set?”
“I’ve still got to make the matching table.”
“Nice work, Dad. I wish I had your patience.”
Yes, I’m patient. When you have to wait for answers, for revenge, for justice, you can learn to wait as long as it takes.
I was forty when Edvin was born, and Hedda came along two years later. This is my second family and my second homeworld. I had a wife and a daughter on Sansar, but it wasn’t the Covenant that took them from me—it was my own kind. Humans. Maybe it was the colonial government or might have been Earth’s, but it was humans nonetheless.
And that’s how I ended up as a terrorist. That’s your word for it, remember. Not mine. I bet there are UNSC personnel out there right now doing exactly what I’m doing. I’ll use any means necessary, so I can’t object if my enemy does the same thing. Rules of engagement are just cynical games for politicians to play.
“So did you visit your sister today?” I ask. I know what’s coming next.
“Yes, Dad. She sent you some surströmmung. She says it’ll do you good.”
“God Almighty, you’ve not brought it in here, have you?”
“No. Take it easy. I’ve set up a cordon around it.”
“Good. Otherwise I’ll have to have the place fumigated.”
“Mom said you’d say that. Just pretend it was yummy, will you? For Hedda.”
“You can have it. Just take it outside the city limits before you open it.”
I’m not much of a Swede at heart. I don’t even like pickled herring, let alone the fermented kind, and anyway, we don’t have herring on Venezia—just some oily eel-type thing that’s even worse when it’s been turned into surströmmung. Hedda, on the other hand, clings to her diluted heritage more fiercely every year, even though she’s never seen Earth, let alone Sweden. Cultures can get pretty warped in diaspora. They become weird fossilized parodies of themselves that seem to distill their worst features, but I’m afraid Hedda’s like me. She focuses, and then she can’t see anything else to either side. Edvin takes after Laura. He lets everything wash over him.
But they both know they had a half-sister who was abducted, and that when she came back she was… different. And then she got sick and died. They know I think the government took her and replaced her with a double. You think I’m crazy? Everyone did. Even me, for a while. But then I started looking and found a few other families out in the colonies who’d lost kids exactly the same way. The kid went missing, came back a little later, a little different, and then went down with multiple organ failure or some metabolic disease.
So either we’re all mad, or something awful was going on long before the Covenant showed up. A few dead kids aren’t even a drop in the ocean considering the billions who’ve died in successive wars. But they’re our kids. Thirty-five years doesn’t even begin to numb the pain. I still need to know what happened to Naomi and why. Before I die, I want to know.
It’s getting late. I really need to finish this and call Sav Fel. It sounds too good to be true, but if he has a warship to sell, he’s come to the right place. Imagine it; he just strolled off with a vessel that can glass entire planets. Would you trust a Kig-Yar crew to look after your battlecruiser? The Sangheili took their eye off the ball.
Never turn your back on someone you’ve screwed over. You might want to make a note of that.
I rub down the tiny legs of the chair with an emery board, then blow off the dust. Now I’ll put on the primer. It’s going to look great when it’s finished.
Edvin laughs to himself. “If your buddies could see you now…”
“Yeah. They say Peter Moritz knits. Real hard case.”
“You want me to go check out that new shipment?”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll be finished soon. You’ve got a living to make.”
What, you think terrorists sit around scheming and playing with firearms all day? We’ve got factories to run, food to grow, families to raise. We’re pretty much like you. This is our home. We have a functioning society, and the Covenant never found us. We do okay. Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.
I’ve got time to put a coat of primer on this chair before I leave. This is one of my many regrets: I never did get around to making a doll’s house for Naomi. She really wanted one. I planned to make one when I had more time. She was such a bright, happy kid, always out exploring, always with lots of friends around her, which makes it even harder to understand how nobody saw her being taken.
I want to believe she could still be alive. She might not know that I survived, and that’s why she hasn’t come looking for me, or maybe she doesn’t even know who she really is. They say that happens to kidnapped kids.
But if she’s still out there somewhere, I hope she’s among friends.
There. Finished. It’s a lovely little chair. But now I’ve got to go talk to a buzzard about a warship.
Halo: Moral Dictata © Karen Traviss 2014