Halo: Mortal Dictata (Excerpt)

    Tor Books and 343 Industries™ present the following excerpt from Halo: Mortal Dictata, the final book in Karen Traviss’ Kilo-Five trilogy, available January 21st. Before reading chapter two below, you can get caught up with the prologue and chapter one over on Waypoint!

    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.





    Every vessel counts. We can’t yet replace what we lose, so the war against the arbiter and the other blasphemers may be won or lost on a single hull. We need to recover Pious Inquisitor from the Kig-Yar. The simplest way to find her is to pay another Kig-Yar to betray his own kind. They have no honor—fortunately.

    —Shipmaster Avu Med ’Telcam, Servant of the Abiding Truth, adressing rebellion commanders at his headquarters on Laqil,
    formerly the human colony world New Llanelli



    Smooth icing,” Mal Geffen said, gesturing at Adj. “Come on, BB. Can’t you make him understand? I thought you’d fixed his translator.”

    BB projected his plain, box-shaped avatar into Port Stanley’s galley, where Mal, Devereaux, and Adj were putting the finishing touches to a cake for Osman. Adj floated around the table, occasionally reaching out a tentacle to tease a layer of navy blue frosting into even more ragged peaks. On closer inspection, the curved tips of the frosting turned out to not to be random; they were fractals. Huragok didn’t do anything by halves. The common name for them, Engineers, didn’t even begin to cover their skills.

    “Serves you right for using the galaxy’s most sophisticated organic computer as a food processor, Staff.”

    “I was trying to be inclusive,” Mal said. “You know. Team building.”

    BB projected two holographic tentacles to begin signing. Huragok appreciated someone talking to them in their own language. <Fractals? Smartass.>

    <I cannot do random things.> Adj’s translucent mantle shimmered with a hint of violet bioluminescence. If he’d been agitated, he’d have lit up like a Christmas tree. <And an uneven surface makes the substance taste more appealing to humans.>

    <They need it to be smooth and level,> BB signed. Huragok knew best, and it baffled them that humans sometimes didn’t want what was best. <It has to be written upon.>

    <Mal should have specified that.>

    <You know what humans are like. Vague. Just make the surface completely smooth.>

    Mal leaned against the counter, arms folded, and fixed Adj with a narrow-eyed stare. “Is he pissed off because he thinks cooking’s beneath him?”

    “No, he’s fine, and he understands you perfectly well.”

    It was clear to BB that Mal was joking, but maybe not to Adj. “Just being arsey, then.”

    “Let’s say perfectionist.”

    Huragok didn’t care what they were doing as long as they were busy and improving things. Sometimes that meant more elegant patisserie; sometimes it meant a more lethal nuclear missile. They didn’t seem to make moral judgments. BB marveled at the human capacity to see that as innocence rather than an inherent danger.

    Adj switched to his translator’s quiet, monotone male voice. <It would have tasted better with an uneven surface.>

    He’d had the last word, which seemed to make him happy. His mantle sparkled with bioluminescence as he reworked the frosting. BB wondered if that was the Huragok equivalent of whistling while he worked.

    “Can you write ‘Congratulations Rear Admiral Osman’ on the top as well, please?” Devereaux asked. “In gold?”

    <Yes.> Adj waited.

    “And in English,” Devereaux said, taking the hint.

    <You were imprecise again.>

    BB took that as a scolding. Adj pounced on the cake and in seconds it was as smooth as a Johansson block. His tentacles plunged into the bowl of sugar again, worked furiously, and strands of gleaming gold paste emerged. One paid out like a rope trick onto the top of the cake to form the lettering, and two more—one wide strip, one narrow—appeared as a replica of a rear admiral’s lace. How he’d managed to build metallic color into the sugar was anyone’s guess.

    Adj placed the sugar braid around the sides of the cake, then licked one tentacle with a tiny anteater tongue. Huragok could adapt to survive on any energy source, and even recharge from a power outlet, but when given a choice they seemed to prefer something sugary. It just added to their deceptive cuteness as far as BB was concerned.

    “Thanks, Adj.” Devereaux put her hand on his back like a favorite child. “You’ll never be unemployed. Do you want us to save a couple of slices for you and Leaks?”

    Adj drifted away, job done. Sharing food was one thing, but the minutiae of human social customs appeared to be of no interest to him. <Puréed, please.>

    Mal slid the cake onto a tray and stood back to admire it. It really was very professional. “Okay, BB. Where’s Phillips?”

    “Moping around on the hangar deck. ”


    “He’s preoccupied.”

    “The hinge-heads.”

    “He felt he should have saved them.”


    “He sees them as women and children.”

    “Okay, I’m going to put my boot up his arse and un-preoccupy him.” Mal would probably take Phillips to one side and give him a sympathetic sergeantly chat instead, but BB could translate Geffenese now. The time to brace for impact was when he went quietly polite. “Christ, you can’t save every stray in the kennels. Are you going to round him up, or shall I?”

    “I’ll do it,” Devereaux said. “I’ve got the special touch. ”

    “Don’t leave any bruises.”

    Devereaux made a show of tucking her shirt in her belt and tidying her hair as she headed for the door. “Poor old Phyllis. He’s got to learn not to make pets of species we might have to kill.”

    She had a soft spot for Phillips. BB wondered whether to give the relationship a gentle nudge in the right direction, but decided to mind his own business for once. Mal adjusted the cake on the tray and sighed.

    “Do you want a single red rose to put with that?” BB teased.

    Mal raised a middle finger. “Vaz is the one with a thing for Spartans. Not me.”

    “Oo-oo-ooh…” Sometimes Mal would respond to a heartto-heart, but sometimes dressing things up in a joke worked better. “Is it Naomi you’re worried about, Staff? Or are you missing Vaz? You do get stroppy when your little chum’s away.”

    “I worry about everybody. It’s my job.” Mal fidgeted with the cake again. “Osman doesn’t seem delirious about her promotion. Is she okay?”

    “Oh, it’s just the sobering reality of coming one step closer to omnipotence. That’s much healthier than the alternative. Look, would you excuse me a moment? I have to pay a courtesy visit to Admiral Parangosky.”

    Mal opened the galley lockers to collect plates and napkins. “I thought you could do fifty things at once.”

    I can, but you get confused by it. Linear time. Don’t you just hate it?”

    BB could spread his attention through a thousand separate systems in locations light-years apart, but he tried to keep his visible presence restricted to one place at a time. I’m not going soft. No face, no limbs, none of that cutesy-pie corporealist nonsense. Really. It’s just good manners. He wasn’t trying to be human, just considerate of his human crewmates. He split off a fragment of himself and rode Stanley’s instant comms channel to appear in Margaret Parangosky’s office, light-years’ away in UNSC’s Bravo-6 HQ in Sydney.

    Parangosky looked up from her elevenses—Kona coffee, one sugar, two ginger nut biscuits—and smiled. “Morning, BB. How’s our brand-new admiral?”

    “We’re waiting for the List to be formally promulgated before we wheel out the cake, ma’am.”

    “I’ll send her a Bravo Zulu later. Everything okay?”

    “We’re expecting a sitrep from Venezia in a couple of hours. ”

    “I’m not stepping on Osman’s turf.”

    “Of course you’re not.”

    “Just curious. Mainly about the Naomi situation.”

    BB thought that over for several nanoseconds, an AI’s eternity. It was a delicate topic. “How would you feel if you discovered your father was not only still alive but living on Venezia under surveillance by DCS counter-terrorism?”

    “That wasn’t quite what I was asking.”

    “Naomi’s a Spartan, ma’am. And a Spartan-Two, at that. If you can’t rely on a Spartan, who can you trust?”

    That wasn’t what I was asking, either.”

    “Ah. I see.” BB read between the lines. “Kilo-Five is very closeknit. Very supportive of their oppos. Very loyal. But they do the job, regardless of their personal feelings, or else Dr. Halsey would be frozen solid and floating somewhere in space by now. Wouldn’t she?”

    Parangosky laughed, a throaty chuckle. “I’ll cherish that image on dull days, BB. It’ll be my happy place.” She checked her watch. “CINCFLEET’s releasing the List at noon, Alpha Time. Do you think Osman’s getting cold feet about doing the job?”

    The job meant only one thing; Parangosky’s job, Commander in Chief of the Office of Naval Intelligence. BB fully understood her fixation with making sure she was succeeded by someone with the right stuff, which in ONI’s case was best described as the bad stuff. Parangosky had transformed the branch from just another tribe within the rivalry-ridden intelligence world to effectively its sole power—clear in its purpose, unflinching in its resolve, and free of the budget squabbles that made agencies put preserving their own existence before the needs of Earth. BB had no illusions about the bodies that Parangosky had buried to achieve that, but only the very mean-spirited would deny that the woman was brilliant. Even as a mere captain, she’d punched well above her weight and brought down senior officers. When nobody wanted the Department of Colonial Security after the CAA fell from grace, she took it on as a doer-upper and acquired her own instant spy army of civilians with no preexisting loyalties to anyone else in the UNSC.

    That took vision. Parangosky had it in spades. It extended beyond her own lifetime, too, which was where Serin Osman came in, because this wasn’t about empire or the exercise of power, but the pursuit of a goal that would span generations. BB, doomed to a seven-year life span, took enormous comfort from a human who refused to let a small detail like being dead stop her from finishing what she’d started.

    “I think Osman just needs a sustained run of unsavory choices to harden her casing,” BB said. “That’s the trouble with spending her formative years in the Spartan program. Her default setting is to seize the initiative and go it alone. To take one for the team. Not to send someone else to die in her place.”

    “And to bond with her squad. I am aware, BB.”

    BB picked his words as carefully as someone trying to avoid the coffee cremes in a box of chocolates. Coffee cremes. Why did I think that? I’ve never even seen them. “I know you couldn’t possibly have set this up, Admiral, but I imagine the dilemma presented by Naomi’s father will be rather character-forming for Osman.”

    There was a hair-fine line to walk between serving Osman and knowing what not to tell Parangosky, and Parangosky made it clear that she knew BB walked it. Sometimes he wondered whether it was a test to check that he would side with Osman instead of her if push came to shove—as he had to, as Osman would need him to when she became CINCONI. Parangosky was ninety-two and had ruled the Office of Naval Intelligence with a rod of unforgiving iron for decades, making some people disappear and others wish that they could. Osman was only forty-one, which was nowhere near enough time to build a throne of skulls like Parangosky’s. On the other hand, her early childhood had been one of life-or-death survival in Halsey’s boot camp on Reach, so he wondered how fast the adult Osman would revert to that primal ruthlessness when her back was against the wall.

    And she’d been raised on the concept of killing a human enemy, colonial terrorists, not the clear-cut and easily digested threat of invading alien monsters. She was used to morally dirty warfare. No, she’d be fine. BB was sure of it.

    He felt he’d been waiting minutes for Parangosky’s reply, but that was the price of being an AI, running so fast that a blink for a human was an hour’s internal debate for him. She’d simply paused for a second to brush a crumb of ginger nut off her jacket. The biscuits sounded like concrete when she crunched on them. Even in her choice of cookies, the old girl liked something that put up a fight.

    “Very well, BB,” she said. “Keep me posted.”

    He rode the comms channel back to Port Stanley in an upbeat mood. There was good news to impart, even if it wasn’t actually news to anybody, and he enjoyed being the bearer because it was always in short supply. He changed his box-shaped avatar into a gold envelope and projected himself at eye level above the desk in Osman’s day cabin.

    “Ta-da.” His hologram glittered with a ripple of light. The latest Fleet promotions list, known simply as The List in every wardroom across the fleet, was the UNSC’s official notification of which officers had been promoted and which were doomed to toil in the same rank for another year, or maybe forever. BB opened the envelope’s flap and slid out a holographic sheet of paper with an accompanying drum roll. “And the winner is… gosh, not Captain Hogarth! Not even nominated for best-supporting minion. No, it’s Rear Admiral Osman.”

    Osman leaned back a little, almost cringing from the news. “I’m not breaking out the Krug for this, you know. Maybe a cup of ONI’s finest Jamaican, though.”

    “Oh, go on.” BB reverted to his blue-lit box form. “Allow yourself some pride in achievement.”

    “I haven’t done anything to earn it yet.”

    “I meant surviving the bear-pit of ONI thus far. Not the admiral bit.”

    “Thank you, BB.”

    Osman didn’t even smile. She’d known it was coming for years, part of the necessary process to groom her as the most powerful officer in the UNSC—in reality, if not on paper—and by default the most powerful person on Earth. It was a prospect that BB knew weighed more heavily on her with every passing week.

    Osman shrugged and looked past him, apparently studying her reflection in one of the nav displays. “I didn’t have this many gray hairs six months ago.”

    “They’re admiralty highlights, dear.”

    “Well, at least I won’t look too young for the job when the day comes.”

    “Cheer up. Your loyal ship’s company has a surprise for you.” BB drifted to the door. “Would you care to come to the bridge?”

    Osman managed a smile. “And be it understood, I command a right good crew.

    “Oh, I do so love comic opera. Are you going to give us a tune?”

    “No, and you’d thank me for it.”

    Mal was already on the bridge with Devereaux and Phillips. Stanley was a strangely empty ship at the best of times with only six humans on board, but she felt far emptier with Naomi and Vaz deployed to the surface. Mal had placed the cake under a small metal dome that looked suspiciously like part of an environment filter. His hand hovered over it, waiter-style.

    “Is that the head of John the Baptist?” Osman asked.

    “Not unless he’s a Victoria sponge, ma’am.” Mal lifted the cover. “Congratulations.”

    Phillips clapped and handed her a knife. “We’d have brought balloons and party whizzers, but there’s a war on. Sort of.”

    Osman cocked her head as if she was calculating and cut the cake into eighths. It was funny how dividing up a cake could tell BB everything about her. Four portions would have meant she didn’t think beyond the crew present on the bridge. Six would have omitted the Huragok. They all ate and made small talk for a few minutes—pay, pensions, how best to preserve Vaz’s and Naomi’s share of the cake until they returned—and then the chat died away.

    “Okay, so where are we now, people?” Osman peeled the gold icing off her portion of cake and put it aside. “Vaz and Naomi—establishing their cover on Venezia. Mal and Dev on standby to relieve them. Primary objective—find Pious Inquisitor. Secondary—map the weapons supply routes, which we can roll up with keeping the supplies flowing to ‘Telcam.”

    “I’ve been listening to ‘Telcam’s radio chatter overnight,” Phillips said. “He’s getting more agitated about Inquisitor. Piecing it together, I think he’s going to hire someone he can trust to track Sav Fel and get the ship back. I wouldn’t want to be Fel when he finds him.”

    “Is that pride or desperation?” Devereaux asked. “I know he’s short of vessels, but there have to be easier ways of getting another ship.”

    “Maybe he wants the data on board. Don’t forget Inquisitor’s been through a few hands. The Brutes had her when they fought the Sangheili, and then the rebel Sangheili under the Arbiter. There’s probably loads of dirt and intel in the computers.”

    “And he’s got to be as worried about asset denial as we are,” Osman said. “Okay, keep monitoring that until you get a lead, Evan.”

    Phillips nodded enthusiastically. “I bet ‘Telcam calls in renta-crow. It’ll take another Kig-Yar to find Fel.”

    BB could have monitored all the channels simultaneously for Phillips—and did anyway, discreetly, just in case Phillips missed anything in real time—but humans preferred to do things for themselves. Phillips came into his own on the face-to-face interaction, though. He was very persuasive with Sangheili, completely at home with their language and culture, and he wowed them with his skill with an arum puzzle ball. It looked like a toy to humans, a sphere of complex, interconnected pieces that had to be moved in a precise sequence to release a stone held at the center. But to Sangheili it was a powerful cultural and political symbol on multiple levels, the embodiment of patience, discipline, and acceptance of the rigid order of society to achieve outcomes. Mastering it made Phillips something of a celebrity to them.

    “ ‘Telcam’s due another arms shipment from us in a couple of weeks, Evan,” Osman said. “You want to ride along for that?”

    Phillips nodded. He never refused an opportunity. “Can I have some more firearms training first, though?”

    “You did okay with that plasma pistol back on Sanghelios,” Mal said. “You could tool up with one of those. It’s not like we haven’t got a hold full of them, is it?”

    He said it innocently, but Phillips flinched. BB made a note of that. Osman either didn’t notice or thought it was wise to move on. She finished her slice of cake, checked the level in her coffee cup, and sat down to read through the overnight signals, if night had any meaning 200,000 kilometers off Venezia. BB monitored every scrap of data that came in or left the corvette anyway. In a sense, he was the ship.

    Phillips went back to the hangar deck, where he’d laid claim to a small compartment as his listening station. Leaks—Leaks Repaired, the other Huragok conscripted into Port Stanley’s service—had taken to upgrading it whenever he was allowed in. BB still wasn’t sure why Phillips had holed up down here when he had an entire corvette to choose from, but Mal had muttered something about the compartment being Phillips’s gardening shed. BB had had to look that one up.

    He followed Phillips, zipping through the decks via relays and conduits for cameras, environmental monitoring, and power controls, a hundred roads for an AI to travel, and projected himself in the doorway.

    “I’m going to intrude,” BB said. “Are you all right? Please don’t keep beating yourself up about Nes’alun. That’s what happens in a civil war. The natives kill each other. The ones you save may very well end up killing you. So best let nature run its course and stop blaming yourself.”

    Phillips busied himself with the console. “But we’re not doing that. We’re throwing arms on the barbecue to keep the war simmering.”

    “I know. Humans do that. Despite numerous lessons from history that arming third parties who don’t like you almost always backfires at some point.”

    “Oh, you’ve got a better idea. I see.”

    “I’d rather launch an all-out biological war of the kind ONI keeps in the freezer in places like Trevelyan. But those backfire quite often as well.”

    Phillips scratched his scrubby beard. He looked more like a student than a professor. “Actually, I was thinking about Naomi.”

    “You’ll need a ladder. But I admire your pluck.”

    “I meant how far this might go with her dad.”

    “Are you asking if ONI plans to terminate him in their signature way?”

    “I suppose I am.”

    “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

    Phillips looked as if he was going to press BB on it but stopped short. He changed tack. “So how are you doing? Have you come to terms with your broken fragment yet?”

    “As much as any human comes to terms with their own mortality.”

    “I nearly died once.”

    “I know. I was there. Thanks for getting me damaged as well. ”

    “No, I mean I nearly drowned myself off Bondi years ago. Being a dick, naturally. And when I really thought that was it, I’d bought it, it was surprising how ordinary it felt. An anticlimax, almost. So I don’t worry too much about dying now.”

    “Oh good. I won’t feel too bad about volunteering you for suicide missions, then.”

    Phillips managed a grin and paused for a moment, listening to the audio in his earpiece. Everyone’s routine was slipping back to normal, or at least normal for Kilo-Five. BB did a quick check to locate the crew—Osman on the bridge, Adj and Leaks tinkering with the water reclamation a couple of decks below her, Mal and Devereaux in their respective cabins—but felt frustrated that Naomi and Vaz had gone silent between sitreps. He was used to monitoring them. Not being able to sense them felt like his path was dotted with bottomless black pits. Planned absence of data had never bothered him before he’d reintegrated the fragment of himself that had been damaged on Sanghelios when Phillips was caught in a bomb blast. The data gaps that it left felt like harbingers of rampancy. It was what Devereaux described as the sensation of someone walking on your grave. BB knew exactly how that felt. Without a body, he shouldn’t have been able to, but his mind had its foundations in the pathways of a real human brain, donated by an individual man who’d lived and breathed, and its most primal components underpinned his existence. Somehow, he recalled how some things felt.

    He could have found out who that donor was, but he’d stopped himself from accessing the data so that he was never tempted to look.

    Whoever he was… I’m me. A distant relative with a few characteristics in common.

    It was a step beyond the measures he’d taken to firewall Osman’s data so he never accidentally blurted out something she didn’t want to hear. That was forgotten. His own data was not known. He understood exactly why Naomi was the only Spartan who’d taken up ONI’s offer to open their background file.

    And look what she’s found. Awful, awful pain. No thanks.

    Not even Osman had looked into her own past. She’d had ONI clearance to do it for years. BB blocked his recall of the detail, but he remembered how he’d felt when he read her file.

    Oddly enough, it had felt like… relief.



    “Naomi, are you okay?”

    The vehicle had gone. No matter how long she looked down the road, she couldn’t change what she’d just seen. She’d been confident—completely confident—that it wouldn’t make any difference to her, but it had.

    Naomi-010, Spartan and UNSC Petty Officer, couldn’t recall ever being Naomi Sentzke or living on a colony world called Sansar, but she’d just seen the proof drive past her in a truck— her own father, a man she couldn’t remember, talking to a KigYar in the passenger seat as the vehicle waited at the stop lights. She recognized him from a photo in an intelligence folder. But it was one thing to look at a photo without feeling anything, and another entirely to see someone in the flesh.

    Halsey had convinced Naomi and her fellow conscripts that they were immune to the weaknesses of normal humans, but she’d probably never planned for the unlikely event that a Spartan would come face-to-face with their real family again. A crack had opened in Naomi’s world. Her curiosity drove her to peer through it.

    For a moment, she wasn’t sitting in a Warthog on a potentially hostile planet, and she wasn’t operating undercover. She was…

    She was…

    She just didn’t know. She couldn’t remember. She simply felt, and it wasn’t a feeling she could define or name. She only knew that it made her uncomfortable.

    “Naomi, did you hear that?”

    She replayed the footage on her datapad. Look at him. That’s me. That’s who I take after. That’s my father. She tried to connect the thought to some emotion, but it only triggered a vague sensation of guilt, as if she knew she’d done something wrong but couldn’t recall what it was.

    “Naomi, I said did you hear all that?” Vaz Beloi nudged her with his elbow, almost peering into her face as he leaned over the steering wheel. His finger was pressed against his concealed earpiece. “Did you hear what Spenser said?”


    “He ID’d the Kig-Yar in the truck as the one who hijacked Pious Inquisitor. It’s Sav Fel.”

    “Yes, I heard, Vasya.” Maybe that was too abrupt. “I keep my comms channel open. I always do.”

    Poor Vaz: he’d gone out of his way to be kind to her. He’d even read her background file to find out who she’d been before she was abducted and what had happened to her family, because she couldn’t face reading it herself. He’d shouldered the burden of deciding what was too harrowing to tell her, the first person she’d truly trusted outside her narrow Spartan circle.

    “Okay, no point trying to tail Fel now,” he said, as if Staffan Sentzke had never been part of the equation. “We’ll pick him up again later.”

    “Say it.”

    “Say what?”

    “What you’d say if I was Mal.” What should she call her father? Sentzke, Staffan, Dad? Every possible name seemed wrong. “You’d speculate about Fel supplying… Sentzke with a warship to use against Earth.”

    Vaz started the Warthog and pulled out of the parking lot to turn onto the main road. “Naomi, every human here has some grudge against Earth. The aliens probably have a grudge against Earth and their own governments. Welcome to Venezia. It’s Grudgeworld.”

    Damn: they were less than two days into this op and her personal connection to it was already putting Vaz in an awkward position. She wasn’t supposed to let anything get in the way of her mission. But Halsey and Chief Mendez had never taught their Spartans how to deal with friends who felt outrage on their behalf.

    “So who’s calling this in?” she asked. “You or me?”

    “We need to talk to Spenser first.”


    “You ever wonder why BB had no idea your father was here?” Vaz kept checking the rearview mirror. “I don’t know why I didn’t ask sooner. Because Spenser hadn’t put him on any database that BB could access. He keeps it all on his personal datapad.”


    “Old DCS habit, maybe. Spooks live in a permanent state of paranoia. And he’s a civilian spook. I bet he keeps intel to himself without even thinking about it.”

    “But DCS have been reporting to Parangosky since she was a captain.”

    “Yeah, but he’s been around since the colonial insurgency. ”

    “We don’t tell him everything, either.”

    “Well, what we do to others, they probably do to us. Never mind. Parangosky allows for that.”

    Naomi did the math. Spenser must have been sixty or so, then, older than he looked. But she had no reason to mistrust him. Not sharing low-level intel seemed a natural precaution for an agent who lived undercover most of the time. It must have been hard for him to decide which was the real Mike Spenser, the DCS agent or his Mike Amberley persona, electrician and ne’er-do-well ostensibly seeking a quiet and unnoticed life in New Tyne. He spent more hours being the latter.

    How had he come across her father? Dad had never been a colonial rebel, not according to her file, so all he’d done was show up here and plot his vengeance against Earth. Had he ever done any more than that? What had he done between leaving Sansar and arriving here? Her file said that Dad had worked out half the story for himself—that his daughter had been abducted and replaced by a short-lived double, that it was all part of some government conspiracy. He just didn’t know the rest, or how right he was. It was an impressive feat for a factory worker.

    Oh God. I’m thinking of him as Dad. How did that happen?

    It caught Naomi off-guard. She shook herself and focused on keeping an eye out for potential trouble. Venezia, untouched by the Covenant, looked strikingly normal to her in a way that few other colony worlds did. Few? I don’t think I’ve seen any intact. And I don’t even remember Sansar. New Tyne’s houses and stores were undamaged, with a patina of sun-fading and lichen that said they’d been there for a long time rather than rebuilt after a Covenant attack. It was a world that had somehow been spared.

    She watched a Brute drive past in a small troop carrier, heading south with a Grunt sitting beside him. On the sidewalk, a woman strolled with a shopping basket in one hand and a small boy hanging on tightly to the other. Aliens that had been Naomi’s deadly enemies a few months ago were still a sight that made her uneasy, but New Tyne didn’t exactly look like a hotbed of insurrection. Spenser said that anyone with a reason to avoid the authorities—human or non-human—could find sanctuary here in Venezia’s unique multiculture of shared risk, the common bond of being on the wrong side of something or someone.

    Naomi had no idea how long alien fugitives had lived here alongside humans. But given that the rest of the galaxy had only just ended a thirty-year war, even months would have been impressive feat of tolerance.

    She hadn’t seen any Sangheili, though. She had no illusions about them. Arming their rebels was something she did because she was ordered to, not because she liked the idea. She’d killed thousands and she had no regrets about that at all. Was that wrong? No, she’d seen too many ravaged worlds. She’d been taught to take satisfaction from a necessary job done well.

    They deserve what they get.

    “Weird, isn’t it?” Vaz said.

    “What is?”

    “All those Covenant aliens, walking around like the war never happened.” He glanced at a passing pickup with a couple of KigYar in it. “Did you ever plan for a life outside the service?”

    It was the hardest question Naomi had ever been asked. To plan, you had to want something. What did she want? A little voice murmured warnings at the back of her mind, more a vague uneasiness than anything audible or articulated. She was still trying to remember something that just wouldn’t crystallize. She hadn’t felt that for a long time.

    “I didn’t know it was even possible,” she said. “Or that I’d live long enough to have the luxury of wondering about it.”

    “Yeah, it’s easy to forget there’s still a world out there.”

    “I wonder where Jul ‘Mdama is now.”

    “Well, if he’s still alive, he’s plotting his revenge.” Vaz pulled his dubious expression, wrinkling his nose. “Especially if he’s found out his wife’s dead.”

    “I’d still rather deal with him than ‘Telcam. At least he tries to kill you to your face.”

    Vaz laughed, but she wasn’t joking. It troubled her when that happened. She felt gauche, as if she’d missed something that normal people understood but that she didn’t. She wasn’t used to feeling inadequate. She’d only ever been told she was exceptional, mankind’s best hope.

    “Ah, the mad monk,” Vaz said. “But he does speak good English for a hinge-head. Even if he can’t say Phillips.”

    “Do you ever wonder how many ODSTs he’s killed?”

    Vaz slowed for another set of stoplights. New Tyne seemed to have an awful lot of controlled intersections for a small place. “All the time,” he said. “Elites don’t have full-time interpreters. He was an armed ’terp. When the time comes to kill him, I’ll volunteer. And sleep easier.”

    A shadow fell across the front seat as another vehicle pulled up next to them at the lights. Naomi braced, hand on her sidearm. This was when ambushes happened. She could see the driver out of the corner of her eye, a thickset middle-aged guy in a plaid shirt, but he just glanced at them and looked away again. If he’d seen her, she hadn’t reminded him of anyone. The lights changed and the vehicles moved off.

    She slid her hand under her coat for the reassurance of her magnum again, still a little disoriented without her Mjolnir armor. It was about more than just missing the augmentation and electronics. She felt more conspicuous in a drab gray parka and shabby combat pants than she ever did in three hundred kilos of gleaming titanium alloy. The Mjolnir face was who and what she was, the tribal identity she shared with the family she’d spent most of her life with—her fellow Spartans. Her civilian-looking self was flayed, peeled, missing both its protection and its selfimage. She took her cap out of her pocket and pulled it down hard on her head. It was a poor substitute for a helmet.

    “It’s the eyes,” Vaz said.

    “What is?”

    “It’s not your hair that makes you look like your dad. It’s your eyes.”

    The arms dealer they’d just sold an MA5B rifle to had definitely recognized a family resemblance. He hadn’t said the name Sentzke, but then he hadn’t needed to. Naomi had seen the look on his face. She ducked her head to check herself in the wing mirror and saw her father’s pale gray eyes blink back at her. Dying her white-blond hair some other color wouldn’t change that.

    “I need some colored contacts,” she said.

    Vaz studied her face for a moment as she turned to him. “Adj can whip up a pair. I’ll ask BB on the next radio check. He knows all your biometrics, seeing as he’s been in your neural interface.”

    “Yeah, I don’t have any secrets,” she said. “Except from myself.”

    She realized that she’d put her hand on the back of her neck, a reflex reaction to cover the external port of the interface at the base of her skull. Adj had remodeled it to reduce the profile. If anyone got too close—closer than she’d tolerate, anyway—all they’d see through her hair would be something that looked like the regular implant that most UNSC personnel had. It supported the simplest of cover stories, that they were Naomi Bakke and Vaz Desny, two deserters looking for a quiet refuge in New Tyne. It was easier to play a soldier with a reason for hiding on Venezia than to try to walk, talk, and behave like a civilian. Some things were hard to conceal.

    Her thoughts drifted back to the kid walking along the road with his mother. What was it like to grow up in an outlaw community? It didn’t look that different from what she thought of as normal life.

    “There.” Vaz indicated left and turned down a ramp into the grim concrete housing estate where Spenser lived an outwardly regular Venezian life. “Nobody tailed us, either. So far, so good.”

    Spenser was making sandwiches in the kitchen, filling the place with the smell of hard-boiled eggs. He was a rumpledlooking, everyday guy with gray hair and a lot of lines, as far from the movie image of a spy as it was possible to get. It made him perfect for the job.

    “I’ve got to go to work,” he said, putting the sandwiches in his lunchbox. He did contract maintenance shifts at the local militia base, a testament to what Mal Geffen called his spook-fu. Naomi was always impressed by the power of ordinariness. What better place for a spy like him, a civilian used to working in military environments, to infiltrate? He fitted in seamlessly. “So… Sav Fel’s shown up here. How do you want to play this?”

    Vaz didn’t look at Naomi. “Our priority’s Pious Inquisitor. Are we going to have to do this the old-fashioned way?”

    “Yeah, we’re going to have to tail him. I’ll see what I can glean at work, but he’s got to have access to a small atmospherecapable transport, because he’s going to have a hard time hiding nearly two kilometers of battlecruiser on the surface. I’m assuming Oz hasn’t detected anything that size in orbit.”

    Naomi wondered if Spenser would still call Osman “Oz” when she became CINCONI. “We’d have heard if she had.”

    “Okay, so we follow Fel somehow,” Vaz said. “Or Sentzke. ”

    “Where do they hang out?”

    “Not sure yet. I’m still putting the pieces together on Sentzke.” Spenser sealed his lunchbox with a snap. “Some of the locals are known quantities from my DCS days, but he’s a new face to me. I’ve only been here a couple of months, remember. Did I tell you how I pinged him?”

    “No,” Naomi said. “But I did wonder how you got the photo.”

    “Sorry. Old spook habit. Sometimes he does maintenance work at the barracks. It’s not his main job—I think he does it as a favor. Anyway, you know what they’re like for insisting on passes, so I just poked around in the admin filing cabinet one night.” He looked at Naomi as if she’d reacted, but she was sure she hadn’t. It was still just words: father, Staffan, Sansar. “I knew when he went off-planet because getting to and from Venezia is a big logistics job. Think about it. Even if you’ve got your own small vessel, you need to get a ride with a slipspace-capable ship if you’re heading for another planet. The bigger vessels tend to belong to the militia. I overheard someone arranging it. One thing you need to remember about the culture here—it’s cautious. These people don’t trust tech that can be hacked. Nobody’s ever created better security than pieces of paper you can burn and conversations you have face-to-face.”

    Spenser played his cards close to his chest, just like the local population. Naomi wasn’t sure if that was simply his ingrained secretiveness or if he was trying to be diplomatic about her father. But she had to ask.

    “Do you know where he lives?”

    Spenser’s expression changed for a moment, as if he’d slipped out of character and was trying to ground himself again.

    “Fifteen, Mount Longdon Road—on the south of town, next to the old slate quarry. But I promised Mal Geffen I’d leave him to you. So I haven’t been near him yet. Just keeping my ears open.” Spenser shrugged, looking embarrassed. “I’m sorry. This must be awkward for you.”

    “Not at all.” Naomi had learned long ago to lock down her own expression and shut out all external distractions. She was still uneasy, but she couldn’t pin it down to whatever her father was doing right now. “If it was, I’d ask Osman to redeploy me.”

    “Well, I plug into the Kig-Yar bush telegraph. The Jackals get around. If Fel’s selling off that warship, I’ll get to hear. He definitely isn’t hanging out with Sentzke to attack Earth, though. Kig-Yar couldn’t give a rat’s ass about Earth, not unless we want to buy something.”

    “No use for a battlecruiser themselves, then.”

    “Not their style. A big warship isn’t much use for a lot of the things they do, and it’s goddamn expensive to maintain.” Spenser took his jacket off the hook on the back of the door. “I’ll leave you to tell Osman. Okay, I have to go now. You’ve got your map, yeah?”

    Vaz tapped his pocket. “All the recommended hot spots.”

    “Don’t forget there’s a bounty on your head for offing those Jackals on Reynes.”

    “They don’t know it was us,” Vaz said. “We didn’t leave any witnesses, did we?”

    Spenser chuckled. “I’m glad to see ONI’s teaching you something. Did you sell the rifle, by the way?”

    “Got eight-seventy-five for it.”

    “Not too shabby. Remember to secure the house if you go out.” Vaz didn’t say anything for a long time after Spenser left. He topped up the coffee machine, humming to himself. He was picking his words. Naomi wanted him to just speak his mind.

    “Well, if Sentzke’s in the market for a warship, I wonder how he’s going to pay for it,” he said at last.

    “And he’ll need a crew. Unless he’s got an AI as good as BB.”

    “Well, that’ll take him some time. I bet the Covenant didn’t have anything.”

    “Isn’t it time we called this in to Osman? ”

    “What do you want me to say?”

    “That we’ve spotted Sav Fel, and that he was with my father. That’d be a start, I think.” There: she’d done it again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be abrasive. Okay, I’m going downstairs to call the ship.”

    Vaz just nodded. He knew she needed to do it herself. She didn’t need to explain.

    Spenser had set up a mini listening station in the basement, complete with a fridge and a battered sofa. It was probably a lot more comfortable to work in than the disused mine shaft he’d lived in on Reynes while he was monitoring the Sangheili. Naomi opened the secure link to Port Stanley and BB responded

    “Remember to call Osman Admiral now,” BB said. “It’s official. We baked a cake. We’ll send you some on the next resupply run. Anything you need?”

    “Cosmetic lenses. Blue, hazel, green—anything to darken my eye color. Just in case anyone spots the resemblance.” Words: still just words. But she did feel odd. She was trying to remember and wasn’t sure what or why. “We just made a positive ID of Sav Fel in New Tyne. We eyeballed him less than an hour ago. He was in a vehicle with my father.”

    That even silenced BB for a second. “Oh,” he said. “At least that narrows your search area.”

    “Tell Osman we’re going to work on a way to track Sav Fel to Inquisitor. Next radio check in two hours.”

    “Is that all you want to say?” BB asked.

    “Yes. Naomi out.”

    She cut the link and leaned back on the sofa, picking at a rip in the leather while she worked out a search pattern to locate both the truck and Sav Fel.

    We need to know when they leave the planet. Dad might be a red herring. He might be involved with Fel for some other reason, but common sense says the ship’s the most likely reason. So… how do we do this?

    Tagging Sav Fel—or her father, if her suspicions were right—was going to require face-to-face contact anyway. Whatever they did, they’d have to get personal.

    Dare I risk that?

    And I’m calling him Dad again.

    She waited for Osman to call back and pull her out because the risk of recognition was too high. But no call came. She looked at a six-pack of sodas on top of the battered gray filing cabinet, debating whether to just go back upstairs and tell Vaz the deed had been done and the sky hadn’t fallen in. No, she had to sort out this uneasiness first. Spartan or not, she was human, and the brain always tried to complete the pattern: a gap had now been filled in her memory, the one that said Father.

    So how about Mother? What did that evoke?

    Naomi tried to grasp the thought as she poured a soda into the only clean glass she could find. The absence of hostile aliens—obvious, dangerous, lethal—was allowing thoughts that she hadn’t been aware of before to surface. She watched the soda bubbles rise and vanish.

    Bubbles. They only form a running bead in carbonated liquid when there’s dirt on the glass.

    For a second the surface of the soda was completely still, a perfect mirror before it shivered and broke up. Now she remembered what she’d wanted. It was the last thing she’d truly longed for, other than wanting to go home to her mom and dad.

    She’d been five years old, maybe six. And she’d wanted a doll’s house.



    Skirmisher Kig-Yar were a lot like birds, Staffan Sentzke reminded himself, and that explained everything he needed to know about dealing with them.

    Kig-Yar weren’t canine, despite the nickname most humans used—Jackals. Their ancestors were reptiles. Some sub-species still looked very lizard-like to Staffan, but others were more like birds, just the way Earth’s lizards had branched off to grow feathers and beaks. The most birdlike were the Skirmishers from T’vao. They liked shiny, glittery things, they squabbled, and they displayed. He suspected it was the legacy of an ancient ancestor that collected blossoms and pebbles to impress prospective mates. As he drove up the track to Sav Fel’s grand house, he couldn’t help but notice the fragments of brightly colored glass set in the concrete gate posts.

    An armed Grunt stood guard. Staffan peered down at him from the truck window.

    “I’ve come to see Shipmaster Fel. Staffan Sentzke.”

    The Grunt checked a datapad. “Your name’s not on the list, and if your name’s not on the list, then—”

    “Cut the crap and try spelling it with two Fs,” Staffan said. “Oh. Yeah.”

    “I didn’t think you guys liked Kig-Yar.”

    “He pays on time.”

    Staffan took that as a sign that he could mistrust Fel a little less. He’d learned to assume that everyone he dealt with from the time he’d lost his daughter was a liar with an ulterior motive, and that nothing he saw was what it seemed, but there was a spectrum of bastardry. Some bastards were at the shoot-onsight end of the curve; some were otherwise regular people with occasional but repellent flaws. In the middle lay the wide spread that the world wouldn’t miss if they met their deserved fate. Kig-Yar generally scored as less objectionable than many humans because they didn’t have ideologies. They liked stuff, pure and simple—acquiring it, smuggling it, stealing it, selling it, trading it, possessing it.

    It’s a game. Shiny stones. Bower bird mentality. But at least they make sense.

    Sav Fel made sense too. He had his own agenda that happened to be running in parallel with Staffan’s for a while. He wanted what Staffan had a great deal of, and Staffan wanted something that was little direct use to Fel: a warship.


    One of the paneled front doors eased open just before he reached out to knock. A beaklike snout poked out of the gap, then the door creaked open fully to let Staffan in.

    “He’s in the office.” The Kig-Yar minion was the more common reptilian kind. He took a few paces toward a corridor and let out a stream of ear-splitting chatter. “Wait here. I’ll get him.”

    The hall wasn’t quite as luxurious as Staffan had expected. The whole place smelled slightly of ammonia and what he could only describe as mud. The furniture was an odd mix of styles, but every piece had some gilding or polished metallic detail. Fel had the typical Kig-Yar weakness for glitz. It was echoed in his beaded, studded belt as he emerged from the passage.

    Staffan caught a glimpse of another Skirmisher before Fel closed the door behind him, and heard a burst of angry jay-like noises. The shipmaster flinched.

    Oh, it’s his wife. It has to be his wife. Staffan tried not to give in to a smile. The idea of Shipmaster Fel being squawked at by an angry female was too funny. Staffan kept forgetting their society was matriarchal, because most of what he saw of it was the males toiling for a living. Henpecked. Literally. Hah…

    Fel’s minion trotted into the room to be dismissed again with an imperious gesture and a long rattling hiss. Fel might have been doing the Kig-Yar equivalent of kicking the cat, or just reminding his more reptilian cousin of his place in the pecking order. Skirmishers definitely thought they were a cut above other Kig-Yar.

    “Welcome.” Fel’s black head feathers lifted a little. He reminded Staffan of a pterodactyl in the process of turning into a crow, with rows of little teeth set in a long beak. The vertical pupils in his yellow eyes were pure reptile, though. “Were you followed?”

    “If I thought I was,” Staffan said, “I’d have driven to the grocery store and wasted his time, whoever he was.”

    “There are spies here, you know.”

    “There’s spies everywhere. But you know they don’t last long here.” Venezia was a colony of dissenters—and criminals. Strangers were treated with due caution, and a spy would have to be very good indeed to escape Staffan’s attention for long. “So you have one at last, do you?”

    Fel almost preened. He knew he’d pulled off a coup. “The opportunity presented itself. I seized it.”

    The Kig-Yar opened another inner door and led Staffan through into the main room. It was full of gilded mirrors that gave the place the feel of a home decor showroom. He could hear other Kig-Yar now, a mix of adult voices with higherpitched ones in the distant background—children. Chicks. Staffan wondered if they were cute and fluffy when they hatched. He settled in the most comfortable-looking seat without being asked, just so that Fel understood who held the power here, and crossed his legs.

    “Tell me exactly how you took the ship,” he said.

    “Don’t you believe me?”

    “Oh, I believe you. I just want to be sure that this isn’t some elaborate setup.”

    Fel jerked back his head, offended. “The Sangheili are falling apart. They’re not capable of scams. Certainly not scams that cost them warships.”

    Everyone’s capable of scams,” Staffan said. “Especially when they’re desperate. Although I can’t think why the Sangheili would suddenly take an interest in Venezia, unless you’ve pissed them off some other way.”

    The Covenant had either never found Venezia during the war or never bothered. The planet was unglassed, untouched, and in pretty good shape, which no doubt irked the Earth authorities. Staffan missed little. He had enough deserters from planetary militias to maintain a pretty good listening station, and pieced together with reports from Kig-Yar ships, the information formed a useful picture.

    As useful as you can get now that the Covenant’s collapsed, anyway.

    “The Sangheili were so used to the San’Shyuum thinking for them that they’re still struggling without them,” Fel said. “They’re in chaos. And the Arbiter certainly isn’t uniting them. It’s what you call a free-for-all when it comes to keeping track of their assets. One of their rebel factions asked me and my crew to transport a warship from one of their yards.”

    “Which faction?”

    “A religious one.”

    “And you transported it.”

    “We did.”

    “Except you didn’t transport it to its destination.”

    “It was a battle. I don’t like that kind of destination. Not when it isn’t my fight, anyway.”

    “So you just took it. Easy as that.”

    “Yes. Because, as I’m trying to tell you, the split-faces were too busy fighting each other to come after us. ”


    “I thought it would come in useful for a customer. It is, as you say, a planet killer. A battlecruiser with a ventral beam. Pious Inquisitor.”

    Staffan hated those sanctimonious Covenant names, albeit in a theoretical kind of way. The Covenant had never troubled Venezia. Earth was the only power that had ever done that. He hated some UNSC ships’ names a lot more; they were about ferocity and bravery, when all he could see was an imperial power that didn’t do much for its empire except bleed it dry and leave it to save itself when the Covenant came.

    I got out of Sansar in time. Millions didn’t.

    “That name…”

    “The Sangheili are very upset at losing her,” Fel said. “Apart from hulls being at a premium in these uncertain times, I understand she has quite a history.”

    “Is this making the Sangheili extra-pissed off?”

    “I wouldn’t risk offering her to the Arbiter.”

    “Very wise.”

    “But I did check the stored data in the navigation computer, and this ship has deployed to Earth in the recent past, so given your interest in acquiring a more compact warship and your relationship with Earth… I thought of you immediately.”

    Staffan tried to recall if he’d heard the ship’s name before. “Have you ever seen a planet after it’s been glassed by one of those beams?”

    “Of course I have. I used to serve the Covenant.”

    “I mean one of your own.”

    “No. But you have—yes, yes, I know all that. Just tell me who you might use this ship against.”

    “None of your customers, Fel.”

    “Humans, then.”

    “I may have scores to settle with the Covenant, but those with my own species come first.”

    “Because you know—”

    “Yes. Glassed cities are cities that can’t do business. Glass a city and you glass the merchandise. Don’t glass the customer. I get it.”

    Only a Kig-Yar would turn down the chance of keeping a battlecruiser that could reduce the surface of a planet to molten slag. But it wasn’t morality. Kig-Yar simply didn’t fight that way, not if they had a choice. Staffan tried to recall any human culture that had abandoned an empire before over-expansion and hostile subjects brought it to its natural and inevitable end, but he couldn’t. Yet the Kig-Yar had done just that. It was hard to think like them. They progressed, they expanded, and then they reverted to their tribal, piratical, scavenging selves.

    No ideology. No manifest destiny. No mission to civilize or enlighten or save souls. No obsession with dominance. They just do it because they’re good at it, and they actually enjoy the acquiring and winning more than they enjoy what they’ve taken.

    Staffan needed to understand motives. If he knew why someone did something—an individual or an entire culture—then they rarely caught him out. Kig-Yar didn’t need big capital ships because they didn’t want to invade or destroy worlds, and most warships weren’t built for raiding and slipping away. Kig-Yar preferred to be free and agile. They preferred to travel light. Even a relatively modest warship like Pious Inquisitor was a little too big for that.

    That’s what they do. Strike, peck, collect, fly. Carrion rather than prey. Opportunists. They’re turning into birds. Vultures.

    No, magpies. And magpies can be nasty little bastards.

    The universe made perfect sense again. Staffan knew that it would if he thought about it long enough.

    “So what will you pay for it?” Fel asked.

    Staffan stared him out. “I’ll tell you when I see it.”

    “I need particle beam rifles, dropships, and plasma pistols. ”

    “Plenty of pistols and dropships, but the rifles are temporarily in short supply.”

    Temporarily? You’re one of the biggest arms dealers on Venezia.”

    “Meaning I’ll see what I can do. I need to see the ship first. ”

    “That means a trip to… another system.”

    “Fine. I didn’t think you’d park it in your yard. And I want to test the ventral beam, so let’s find a quiet backwater where we can do that.”

    “I shall. There’s something else. It’s extra. ”

    “What is?”

    “I’ll show you when you see the ship.”

    Fel looked almost excited. Kig-Yar didn’t have any facial expressions in common with humans, but they did have little gestures that gave a lot away if you knew how to look. Staffan did. There was a little back-and-forth jerk of the head, almost imperceptible. Most Kig-Yar males displayed color changes when their moods shifted, but Staffan had never seen any real change in Skirmishers at all. Sometimes he thought he caught something, but it was simply iridescence on their feathers.

    “If this is a bait and switch, Fel,” Staffan said, “ask your compatriots what happens to business associates who try that on with me. You told me you had a ship with a ventral beam. That’s all I want. Don’t try palming me off with anything else.”

    He hoped Fel would ask around. Venezia had its laws, whether people believed that or not, but it was fairly relaxed about how its residents settled disputes. It didn’t need a police force.

    “Wait to hear from me,” Fel said. “What are you going to do about crewing this vessel?”

    “I can find plenty of willing hands,” Staffan said. “I’ll let you know if I have recruiting issues.”

    As he drove back into town, Staffan racked his brains to remember the name. Pious Inquisitor. He’d have to look it up. He wanted as much information as he could get on the vessel, not just the sales brochure detail that Fel would peddle. He checked his mirrors for vehicles that might be following, because Fel had a point about spies. Tribal rivalries, business feuds, and even foolhardy outsiders employed by some Earth or colonial agency weren’t unknown here, and the one thing Venezia didn’t have and didn’t want was a border patrol recording who went in and out. It was a safe haven for people who couldn’t show a passport anywhere else. Small ships were almost impossible to control anyway.

    But Staffan took comfort from the fact that the border was almost self-policing. If someone wanted to get to Venezia, they couldn’t exactly catch a scheduled flight. They’d have to pay someone with a ship to bring them in, or they’d need the kind of money to have a ship of their own. And sooner or later, unless they wanted to live like a hermit on a diet of grass and mice, they’d have to come into town. Eventually, they’d be spotted.

    And then we remove them. Permanently.

    Edvin was sitting in the garden with Kerstin when Staffan got home. She rushed up to him, excited and giggling. “Grandpa! Grandpa! I’ve been drawing!”

    “That’s my clever girl.” He gave Edvin a look: you haven’t mentioned the doll’s house, have you? Edvin just blinked slowly to indicate that he hadn’t. “Grandpa’s got to do some work first, but I’ll come and look, okay?”

    There was a little bit of Naomi in Kerstin, Staffan was sure. It was the long blond hair. If she’d been any more like her, though, that would have been too painful.

    When do you let go? When is it time to close the book and move on?

    Staffan asked himself that once in a while, and the answer was always the same: never. This had to be done. The question had to be answered, and the price had to be paid. It had just taken a lifetime to reach the stage where he had the power to demand an answer with the only kind of persuasion that Earth understood—a warship.

    Kerstin picked up a toy bucket and trowel and began digging holes in the flower border. She liked to keep busy. Edvin got up and walked slowly out of earshot with his father.

    “Well?” Edvin asked. “Was it true?”

    “Yes. We may have a battlecruiser.”


    “I still have to check it out and make the payment. But this thing exists. Imagine it—the mighty Sangheili, losing a battlecruiser to the Kig-Yar.”

    “Fel’s a cheeky old crow, isn’t he?”

    Pious Inquisitor. That’s the ship.”

    Edvin stared into the mid-distance for a few moments, then put on his concerned face. “Are you sure this is what you want, Dad?”

    “What, to have the clout to get some respect from Earth?”

    “I meant are you sure that you shouldn’t just hand the ship over to the militia. Isn’t that what we all want? Some justice for all Earth’s done to the colonies over the years?”

    “When I’m done with the ship, I will,” Staffan said. “But I need answers. And I’m doing it for Remo, too. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d have signed myself into a mental hospital long ago.”

    “Okay,” Edvin said. “I know you won’t do anything dumb. Just trying to put things in perspective.”

    “Son, I’ve had thirty-five years of perspective. Whatever I do won’t be rash.”

    It was too late for Remo, but at least he’d died knowing that someone else would continue the search for information on what really happened to his son. Staffan wanted something that few people would ever get. He wanted the government—somebody’s government, anyway—to tell him the truth.

    And if that meant reducing Sydney or some other major city to glass, he’d do it.


    Halo: Mortal Dictata © Karen Traviss, 2014


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