29 October 2011

FWS: Forgotten Classics- The Comico Starblazers Series (1987)

After FWS resurrected Dynamo Joe, I decide to dig up another great series from the past from the same creator of Dynamo Joe, Doug Rice, the Comico Comics the 1987 Starblazers  limited four-part series. At the time, Starblazers was not avalibe on VHS, only a few imported models, and Japanese-text animation books feed the fans hungry for more Argo action. Then suddenly, the long drought ended in 1987, with the apperance of a limited series by the American comic company Comico who had secured the rights to Starblazers and published a completely brand new story by American writers.
This blogpost will not only cover more than just the Comico series, this will some of my  thoughts on Starblazers as a whole since I cannot do a proper review due to my lacking of the complete series on DVD.







Starblazers...do you remember love?

Starblazers started it all for me, really, all of it. Nothing in the early years of my life is bigger than this. Nothing. This started me loving science-fiction, and Japanese Anime, before Robotech there was Starblazers.
Even in Sunday School, I drew pictures of Jesus wearing a Star-Force uniform...I shit you not. I hummed the theme song for most of my life, and the mere imagine of the Argo/Yamato caused me to break out in goosebumps, that's the kind of impact I'm talking about.



The Plot of the 1987 Comico Starblazers series


Only a few weeks after the costly victory against the Comet Empire, the Earth Defense Force (EDF) only warship, the USS Argo, is in Earth orbit under going repairs and training new crew members after the bloody battle with the Comet imperial city and its guardian dreadnought.
During this, the Earth Defense Force HQ recieves an emergency message from its science outpost on the Joviah moon of Callisto. Derek Wildstar, duty captain of the Argo uses the Callisto rescue mission as a training excuse, and transferring Sandor and Mark Venture back to Star Force Academy on Earth.
Back at Callisto, General Radnar, the commander of the reserve Comet Imperial Fleet, and the last element of the once mighty power as invaded the Sol system on a quest of revenge for the destruction of Prince Zordar's fleet. Radnar himself is quite the religious zealot commit to making his blood path to make Earth a divine sacifice for the Goddess Arishna.  He captures the base and waits on the Argo to arrive then as the springs the trap during the rescue operation. The Argo and it's crew of trainees falls quickly, and Wildstar is forced to surrender the only Earth warship to an alien zealot nutjob, but not before sending an SOS. The EDF is desperate, and gives Sandor and Venture command of the Earth's last heavy cruiser in a hope to find out where the Argo is.
Wildstar is dumped at the outpost, as the Argo leaves on a course for Earth, its human engine crew is forced to choice between helping the aliens repair the Wave Motion engine or being executed.
Derek is pickuped by the Gamilons, also chasing Radnar for taking Leader Desslok prisoner, and they forge a temporary alliance to hunt down the madman. The limited offensive resources of the EDF are pitted against the Argo, which is mainly fighters and battle satellites, despite valiant efforts, the Argo tests its Wave Motion Cannon against Mars then moves closer to Terra. At the despite hour, during a massive space battle, Wildstar leads a boarding party to the engine room, and fails to stop the Argo from firing its powerful cannon at the Earth. The blast is stopped by the Goddess Arishna (it's much better in the comic book, believe me), and entombs the remains of the Comet Imperial Fleet inside the moon.






 Historical Context

The mid-1980's were an exciting time in the USA for Anime/Manga, especially when the Comico series came on the shelves, because Robotech was on the air, more imported products were rolling in and American businesses were starting to see the light on Japaneses animation. One also as to remember that Starblazers itself had not been on TV for years when the series broke, giving fans just what they needed, and sales where in 300,000 range, massive for a small-press comic company.
On a personal note, the moment that I spied this on the new release wall of Starbase 21 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I grabbed it so fast, I nearly ripped it! The drought that Starblazers fans had to live through broke the moment this series hit, and it had been years...long years. I can say now, that I cried reading these. It was overwhelming, Starblazers had such an impact on me, that I had mythaized it to the degree of religious importance. In addition, items of the Starblazers universe were rare and very hard to find, especially in Tulsa...but the few things I had, I loved. Then this series came out, and I finally had a great comic book with superior art, and a dense storyline to digest over months. Gods, it was wonderful...I still own those comics, and they are like they were fresh off the printer, because I took care of them. It wasn't until I was a junior in high school, 1994, that I would see Starblazers again via VHS. On a side note, it was interesting to see the basic story of Starblazers series one and two heavily mined for the 2003-2004 Xindi storylines of Star Trek: Enterprise. iincluding the battle between the Enterprise and the Xindi Superweapon Sphere in Earth orbit, which reminds me of the final battle between the Argo and the Comet empire city-ship.



Modern Review of the Comico 1987 limited series

Writers Doug Rice (of Dynamo Joe) and Philp Foglio created an original story that uses the iconic visual and emotional elements of the TV series, and is perfectly sandwiched between the Comet Empire invasion and the Bolar Wars. It should be stated in plain language that is 1987 American comic is the best product of the entire Starblazers/Yamato catalog. This limited comic series shows what talented writers and artists can do with a 1970's Anime series that itself had lackluster dialog, poor animation and character development. This series fleshed out several characters, especially the underused Nova, and give the Argo a nice edge mixed with humor. In addition, most of the core characters, human and alien are more grown up than in the original Anime. All of this really works within a storyline that was better than anything done in the Space Cruiser Yamato/Starblazers after the original two seasons. 
One of the biggest and most knowagable fans of Starblazers, Robert Fanelon wrote these brilliant introduction essays about the history of the Yamato universe, technical details of the ship, and some of the differences between American and Japanese animation. The odd thing is that later Robert Fanelon comments on this miniseries on the Starblazers official website are less than positive, often dismissing the basic plot of the comics, and that the creative minds behind it. In my opinion, if you want to know about Starblazers and the beauty behind it, than read these.

The Second Comico Starblazers Series (1989) 

Seeing success and glowing reviews, Comico Comics launched a second limited series in 1989 which another original story that did not mine a previous Starblazers or Yamato release. The plot weaved several alien and human stories and backstories together, and deepened fans understanding of the complex Starblazer universe, however, the series took a few issues to gel, leaving fans confused. The 1989 series was spiritually more in-line with the strangle and fantastically elements that Leiji Matsumoto liked to incorporate into the Yamato animated series, like planetary goddess.
The hope was that the second series would pave the way for a permanent monthly Starblazers comic. The failure of the second series's art and odd story failed to attract the positive attention, despite similar sales to the first limited series in 1987. During the second series release, Comico Comics teetering on the edge of bankruptcy due to the end of most of its profitable limited series, like Robotech, Grendal, and Mage all in 1989, leading to filing in 1990.


What Happened to Starblazers?

Historically speaking, Starblazers was one of THE pioneering Anime series that opened the American market, and created a generation of fans hungry for Anime and Manga. Then by 1983, Starblazers  was off the air, and there was long drought for us fans. What happened to Starblazers?
One of the biggest causes for the failure of the continuation of Starblazers was its Japanese source,  Space Crusier Yamato. Unlike Robotech, where three different series were combined to make an Americanized series, Starblazers was completely reliant on the Japanese Yamato franchise to fuel more American Starblazers series, and when the Japanese studios turned out dogshit like the Bolar Wars, the New Voyages, Be Forever Yamato, and the single worst: Final Yamato, the American studio had no where to go.
The last Starblazers TV series was the Bolar Wars and was barely seen due to limited American broadcast, most fans wouldn't even see it until around 1989 or 1990, when the VHS tapes were released by Voyager Entertainment would run up against another factor limitedStarblazers, the age of its fans.
I was three when I watched Starblazers, and then for about ten, there was little or nothing that came out. In the mid-1990's, VHS tapes of all three series, plus some of the original Yamato movies, by this time, fans like me where teenagers and couldn't afford the $450 for the complete VHS Starblazers Saga. Then there were issues of the quality of the VHS footage, the first releases were terrible, adding to "dating" the series in the minds of fans that were moving on to other Anime/Manga or girls and cars. This caused Starblazers to be remembered by only a certain age group that was aging out of buying such things.

The other nail in the coffin was Robotech, because when Starblazers went off the air around 1980-83, fans turned to the other grand Anime military sci-fi series on American airwaves at the time, Mobile Suit Gundam, which features futuristic warfare and mecha. Both of these series paved the way for Robotech in 1985. This 85 episode epic featured cool characters with cool hair, great space battles, love stories, tons of kick ass mecha, and was created by Americans for the American audience and filled the gap left by Starblazers. Robotech would also do something that Starblazers could not, gain widespread acceptance by American businesses. Robotech had a major comic company, Comico, publishing its stories, Matchbox making its western toys, and importers rushing model kits to every comic book store possible. Robotech would also continually put new products out into the mainstream market, like toys, models, comics, and even still be on TV into the mid-90's!

The major reason, to me, that Starblazers as not enjoyed the success of Robotech or even Gundam, transforming into a more stale property is due to it's creator, Leiji Matsumoto and his odd ideas.
Don't get me wrong, I loved Galaxy Express 999 and Captain Harlock, but his concepts of planetary goddess, uber-soft science, unrealistic, almost cartoony battle scenes, and two-dimensional thinking on the plot causes Starblazers to seem flat and more-kid like when compared to Robotech or even the comics of Starblazers. That's the really sad thing to me, I have owned the complete Robotech saga on DVD since 2008, and watched it each summer since, and enjoyed it each time, I cannot say that about when I've watched Starblazers recently. That's a shame to me as a 32 year fan of the series, that this landmark Anime series has not aged well at all. 

The Future of Starblazers/Yamato

There have been several aborted attempts at relaunching the Yamato brand over the years. In the mid-1990's there was the Yamato:2520, where the 17th ship to bear the Yamato name was launched during a bitter peace between the Earth Federation and the Seiren after a 100 year war. The studio only developed three episodes before money problems. Since that effort, the rights to Yamato transfer back to Yoshinobu Nishizaki, causing new projects to move forward. Unfortunately, the Japanese studio is again recycling tired old stories with their Space Battleship Yamato: Resurrection, that takes place 17 years after Final Yamato, however, it does have CGI effects and some of the best art in a Yamato series. Released this year was the Japanese live-action Space Battleship Yamato that re-imagined the original storyline along with elements from the new Battlestar Galactica.

While in this country, Starblazers as had the benefit of a dedicated company, Voyager Entertaintment that believes in Starblazers and maintains an impressive, often updated website, complete with webcomics that are quite good  In addition to selling DVDs of the Starblazer and Yamato movies and shows, they designed a tabletop ship combat game, called Starblazers: Fleet Battle System complete with miniatures. The technical manual to this game is a must-have for any Starblazers fan. My hope is that, Starblazers is one day able to complete remake the original two series into something more modern and mature.

                                                                



LINKS

The Starblazers official site covers the 1987 Comico series:

The 1989 second Comico limited Starblazers series:
 http://www.starblazers.com/html.php?page_id=190

25 October 2011

Sample of the new HALO book: Grasslands

This is a free sample of the new post-war HALO novel from Karen Traviss that was released today.
Here is the summary:

Though the Covenant has collapsed, humanity's war is far from over...



"The galaxy is in chaos. The aftermath of a star-spanning war has left everything in doubt - and the ruins of two once-mighty civilizations teetering on the brink of collapse. From this chaos, new adversaries will emerge, including a cruel and dangerous organization bent on exploiting the still-fresh passions and prejudices of the war for its own gain (and that's just on the human side). The Covenant-that-was, a seething mixture of religious zealotry and rival alien species, is trying to regain its primacy and find a new path back to its former glory."
"Secrets and tragedies from humanity's distant and recent past will return to haunt us, and familiar heroes will be lost and found. And out of the chaos could come a new hope for mankind: a weapon unlike anything the galaxy has ever seen... but only if Dr. Catherine Halsey and the secrets she vanished with still survive and can be brought back home."''



PROLOGUE


NOVEMBER 2552, LOCATION UNDEFINED. LAST VERIFIED


REALSPACE LOCATION: THE CORE OF THE PLANET ONYX.


It's a beautiful sunny day. The oak branches are swaying gently in the breeze and the air's scented with unseen blossom.

And we're trapped.

Did you ever run and hide as a kid? Ever slam the closet door behind you, giggling because you were sure you'd never be found, and then realize you'd locked yourself in? Did you panic or breathe a sigh of relief? I suppose it all depends on what you were hiding from.


We're hiding from the end of the world.

For all we know, it's already happened. If there's anyone left out there, they don't even know we're here. We may be the last sentient life left in the galaxy- me, Chief Mendez, and a detachment of Spartans. Correction: three of my Spartans- Fred, Kelly, and Linda- and five others who are something else entirely, five I didn't even know existed until this week, and if there's one thing I can't stand, it's not knowing.

You'll explain yourself to me, Chief. I've got all the time in the world now. I've got more time than I know what to do with.
Mendez takes something out of his pants pocket and gazes wistfully at it like a pilgrim with a holy relic before putting it back.
"You can read Forerunner, Dr. Halsey," he says, impassive. We're still ignoring the elephant looming over us at the moment, neither of us saying what's really on our minds. He has his secrets, and I have mine. "Do you know the symbol for pantry? That would be handy right about now."

He's staring up at a sun that can't possibly be there, set in an artificial sky that runs from summer blue at one horizon to starless midnight at the other. We're not on Onyx any longer-not in this dimension, anyway.

"Chief, this is the most advanced doomsday bunker ever built." I'm not sure who I'm trying to reassure, him or me. "A civilization sufficiently advanced to build a bomb shelter the size of Earth's orbit wouldn't forget to address the food supply. Would they?"

It's a permanently lovely day inside this Dyson sphere, and beyond its walls is . . . actually, I don't know any longer. It was Onyx. Now it's somewhere in slipspace. Every time I think I have the mea sure of the Forerunners' technology, something else pops up and confounds me. They must have shared our sense of beauty or bequeathed us theirs, because they made this environment idyllically rural; trees, grass, rivers, almost landscaped perfection.

Mendez pats his pocket as if checking something is still in there. "Better hope they evolved beyond the usual procurement charlie-foxtrot, too, then. Or we'll have to live off the land."

"We've got unlimited water, Chief. That's something."

Mendez has known me a damned long time. Over the years he's perfected that hoary old CPO's carefully blank expression that looks almost like deference. Almost. It's actually disgust. I know that now. I can see it.

But you're in no position to lecture me on ethics, are you, Chief? I know what you've done. The proof's right in front of me here. I'm looking at them.

Mendez walks away in the direction of the two recon teams waiting under the oak trees. The Spartans- my protégés and Ackerson's little project, these Spartan- IIIs-look impatient to get on with something useful. They don't handle idleness well. We made warfare the sole focus of their lives.

Now we don't know if there's still a war outside to fight, or even a galaxy left to fight it in.
But that's fi ne by me. My Spartans are safe here. That's all that matters. Safe if the Halo Array fi res, anyway. I don't know if this is the haven it appears. Perhaps it's already got tenants. We'll find out the Navy way, Mendez says.

"Okay, Spartans, the camp's secured, so let's shake out and see what's in the neighborhood." Mendez unslings his rifle and looks at Fred. "Conserve rations until we know if there's anything on the menu here. Right, sir?"

"Right, Chief. Radio check, people." Fred, Spartan- 104, has been made a lieutenant at the ripe old age of forty- one. "Priorities, in this order- secure the area, locate a food supply, and find a way to revive Team Katana and the others."

How many Spartan- IIIs did Ackerson create? Five are already in suspension here, with three other men we can't identify, but we have no idea yet how to open their Forerunner slipspace pods. They'll have an interesting story to tell when we do.

Fred gestures to take in the terrain. "Treat this as an acquaint. Spartan- Twos familiarize themselves with Spartan- Threes so that when we get out of here, we're ready to fi ght effectively. Kelly, Dr. Halsey, Tom,
Olivia- you're with Chief Mendez. Linda, Lucy, Mark, Ash- with me. Move out."


Just as Fred turns to walk away, I catch his eye. He was never much good at burying his feelings, but he can't hide them from me anyway. I know all my Spartans better than their mothers ever did. He shuts his eyes tightly as if he's blocking out an unbearable world, just a fraction of a second, and then it's gone. We've buried our dead here. Two of those Spartan- IIIs, just into their teens, just children . . . and Kurt never made it into the sphere.

I thought you were dead already, Kurt. Now I've lost you twice.

Fred pats Lucy on the shoulder. "You okay, Spartan?"

She gives him a distracted nod. She's a disturbing little scrap of a thing, too traumatized to speak. Mendez trained these kids. He knew. He knew what Ackerson was doing with my research. He was part of this all along.

And I won't forget that, Chief.

Kelly slows and drops back to walk beside me. I'm not twenty-one anymore and I certainly don't have the stride of a two- meter Spartan, or even these . . . new ones. My God, they're too small. How can they be Spartans?

"You've fallen on your feet again, Dr. Halsey," Kelly says. "Some rabbit hole. Did you know it was here?"

"I should stop trying to look as if I know everything, shouldn't I?"

"You think we're going to lose this war. I know we're not."

"I extrapolate from known facts. But I don't mind being wrong sometimes."

How far would I go to save my Spartans? This far. I lured them to Onyx, the safest location I could think of, because I knew they'd never abandon their posts any other way. I lied to them to save them.

And they're all that stands between me and damnation. I've done terrible things- monstrous things, criminal things- that were necessary, but I did it to them. Kidnapped them as children. Experimented on them. Altered them terribly. Killed half of them. Made them into soldiers with no life outside the UNSC.

It had to be done, but now I have to do this.

There's no god waiting to judge us when we die. This is our heaven or hell, the here and now, the pain or the fond memories we leave behind with the living. But I don't want the forgiveness of society, or Mendez, or even to forgive myself.

I just want to do what's right for these men and women, whose lives I used. Theirs is the only forgiveness that can absolve me.

Kelly-tall, confident, nothing like the victim I feel I've made her- points into the distance. I'm starting to forget we're trapped in a sphere in the folds of another dimension, because my brain's getting used to telling me benign lies. I stare across a sea of trees at two elegant honey- gold structures protruding above the canopy some kilometers away.

"That's impressive, Doctor," she says. "Hey, Chief, what do you think they are?"

"Better be the chow hall." Mendez keeps scanning the trees as if he's still expecting to run into trouble. "Or a way out of here. Don't forget there'll still be a hell of a mess to clear up when we get out."

He's right. Won or lost, wars never end cleanly. I think we've lost already. If the Covenant doesn't overrun the galaxy then this life- form they call the Flood will, or the Halo Array will fi re and wipe out all sentient life. But if we win-

Even if we win, the galaxy will still be a dangerous, desperate place.

I wonder where John is now. And Cortana. And . . . Miranda.

See, Miranda? I didn't forget you. Did I?



CHAPTER ONE

A GOD WHO CREATES TOOLS IS STILL A GOD. IT IS NOT FOR US TO IMPOSE QUALIFICATIONS UPON THE DIVINE OR PRESUME TO GUESS ITS INTENTIONS. (FORMER FIELD MASTER AVU MED ‘TELCAM OF THE SANGHEILI NERU PE‘ODOSIMA- SERVANTS OF THE ABIDING TRUTH- ON REVELATIONS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE FORERUNNERS)



FORMER COLONY OF NEW LLANELLI, BRUNEL SYSTEM: JANUARY 2553.

It was an ugly bastard, and the temptation to kill it where it stood was almost more than Serin Osman could handle.

It was also pretty upset. Its arms flailed as if it was on some passionate Sangheili rant about politics or religion or what ever they played instead of football, its cloverleaf jaws snapping open and shut like a demented gin- trap. Osman watched from the shuttle cargo bay with her rifle resting on the control panel. Matters could get out of hand with a two- and- a-half- meter alien before you knew it. She was ready to drop the thing before it crushed Phillips.

He could actually speak their language, even if some of the sounds defied simple human jaws. She wondered what he sounded like to them. He was making mirroring gestures back at the Sangheili, and although she couldn't hear the conversation it seemed to be working. The alien did that odd trick with its split mandibles, pressing the two sides together to mimic a human jaw and trying to force out more articulate sounds.

So the hinge- head was mirroring too. It was a good sign. A good sign in a bad deal. No, not a bad deal: a dirty one. Osman stepped down from the bay, careful to keep her rifle close to her leg so she looked prepared but not threatening. Phillips glanced over his shoulder at her, seeming oblivious of the risk.

I'd never take my eyes off that thing. God, what do they teach these academics about personal safety?

She leaned against the hatch frame and waited, glancing at her watch to check Sydney time. Around her, the ruins of New Llanelli felt like a rebuke. The dead tapped her on the shoulder, appalled: And you're talking to these bastards now? On our graves?

A shaft of sunlight struck through a break in the clouds and threw up a bright reflection from a lake in the distance. No . . .that's not a lake. Her brain had joined up the dots and made the wrong assumption. She eased her datapad out of her jacket pocket one- handed and checked. There was no body of water for a hundred kilometers on the map in the CAA Factbook. The reflective surface was vitrified sandy soil, mirror-smooth, square hectares of it where there had once been rye and potatoes.

When the Covenant glassed a planet, they really did just that.

Phillips gestured to get her attention and distracted her from the uncomfortable thought that the planet was making a point to her. He walked over to the shuttle, looking pleased with himself.

"The Bishop wants a word," he said. "I told him you were the boss woman. His English is pretty good, so play it straight. And don't call him an Elite. Use the proper name. It matters to them."

Osman pushed herself away from the bulkhead with her hip. "What, like bishop?"

"Ignore that." Phillips- Professor Evan Phillips, another respectable academic who'd been sucked down into ONI's drain- put on his serious face again. "They told me he was devout, but I didn't realize how devout."

"Is that going to be a problem?"

"Might be a bonus."

"Yes, they do tend to stick to a plan."

"I meant that he's a fundamentalist. The Abiding Truth. Very, very old tradition of faith."

"Prompt me. I'm not an anthropologist."

"They're said to have squirreled away original Forerunner relics from the time of their first contact. Their equivalent of saints' fingers."

"It must be my birthday." Osman wasn't sure when that really was. Today seemed as good a day as any. "Maybe they've got some schematics in a dusty drawer or something."

"Come on, don't keep him waiting."

"How is he with women? I don't think I've ever seen a female Sangheili. Do they keep them in purdah or something?"

"It's not that simple." Phillips beckoned to her to follow. "The ladies wield a hell of a lot of political power in the bloodline stakes. When you've got a few hours to kill, I'll explain it."

She didn't, and it could wait. She walked up to the Sangheili, steeling herself not to call him an Elite or a murdering hingehead bastard.

Osman was taller than the average man, and at one-ninety she wasn't used to having to look up at anybody. But the Bishop towered half a meter above her like a monument in gold armor. For a moment she found herself looking into a disturbingly featureless face before she settled on the black eyes and small, flaring nostrils just below them. The Bishop was sniffing her scent. Unsettling didn't even begin to cover it.

"Captain Osman," Phillips said cautiously, looking back and forth between her and the Sangheili. "Let me introduce you to Avu Med ‘Telcam, speaker for the Servants of Abiding Truth. He used to be a field master but he's . . . renounced the ways of the infidels and cleansed his name, because they've brought shame and misery on the Sangheili . . . and they deserve to hang from spikes." He seemed to be quoting very carefully, glancing at the Sangheili as if for confirmation. He gave her a don't-sayanything-daft look. "He means the Arbiter."

‘Telcam sniffed again. Osman could smell him, too. It was a faintly leathery scent, like the seats of a new car. It wasn't unpleasant.

"I'm Captain Osman. I'm a shipmaster." ‘Telcam would get the point. "So I keep my word. May we talk?" She gave Phillips her get- lost look. This wasn't for his ears, and that was as much for his own good as Earth's. "Can you give us ten minutes, Professor?"

Phillips nodded and turned to walk away. This was why Osman didn't like using co-opted specialists. If he'd known what she was about to do, he would probably have gone all ethical on her.

I might be underestimating him, of course. But his job's done. It's not his problem now.

‘Telcam tilted his head to one side. Osman had to strain to make out the words, but it was no harder than concentrating on a bad radio signal. The creature really could speak pretty good English.

"Shipmaster, my people have been punished because they had no faith," he said. A fine mist of saliva cooled on her face every time he hit a sibilant or an F. It didn't look easy to articulate those four- way jaws. "The traitor Thel ‘Vadam and his ilk now say the gods are deceivers, and so they shall die. We have been in thrall to mongrel races long enough. We have let the false prophets of the San'Shyuum corrupt our pure connection to the divine. Now we shall do our penance and bring the Sangheili back to the true path. So what can you possibly want with us? Do you want to agree to a truce?"

"How were you planning on killing ‘Vadam and the other . . .traitors?"

"We have few ships left now. Few weapons, too. But we have our devotion. We will find a way."

Osman noted the energy sword on his belt. We've got a right one here. A god- bothering, heavily armed maniac. Lovely. I can do business with that. She tried to fi nd genuine common ground in case he could smell fear or deceit on her. A small dash of truth in a soup of lies worked wonders.

"What if we supplied you with some weapons?"

He jerked his head back. "And why would you do that? The traitor sides with humans against his own."

"Humans gamble. I'm betting that your side will win. Dead friends aren't much use."

"Ah." ‘Telcam made a little sound like a horse puffing through its lips. A fine spray rained on her again and she tried not to recoil. She picked up a whiff of something far too much like dog food. "Kingmaker. This is your policy. You help us take control so that you know your enemy and think you can then control us."

"Look, we're never going to be friends, Field Master. But we can agree to stay out of one another's way and lead separate existences. Too many lives have been lost. It has to stop."

‘Telcam leaned closer again as if he was doing a uniform inspection. "You have colonies here. This is part of the war. This is the cause of our enmity."

"Some of our colonies don't like us very much either. Humans kill humans too."

"How tangled your lives are."

"My, you do speak good English."

"I was a translator once. I interpreted your communications for my old shipmaster. I speak several human languages."

Well, that explained a hell of a lot. Phillips obviously didn't know, or at least he hadn't said, but Osman decided to cut him some slack because he'd only been tasked to do one thing: to get her an audience with dissident Sangheili who were likely to disrupt any peace deals. He was lucky to get that far without having his head ripped off.

"Well, Field Master, I think we can help one another keep our troublesome factions in line." Osman turned slightly to keep Phillips in her peripheral vision, just in case he wandered back and heard too much. "It might require some discretion, because we can't be seen to ally with you. But an unstable Sangheili empire doesn't help us, and an unstable human one is a threat to you. Yes?"

"And some of my brethren might not understand my willingness to talk to infidels. So we do favors, you and I."

"Indeed. For the greater good." Osman paused a beat and made sure she didn't blink. Sangheili had a military sense of honor, and the truth she was about to drop into the deceit went some way toward satisfying her own. "If I thought ‘Vadam would survive as leader, I would be doing deals with him instead."

She wasn't sure if Sangheili ever smiled. If they did, she had no idea what it looked like, not with that four-way jaw. But ‘Telcam's expression shifted a little. The muscles in his dog- reptile face relaxed for a moment.

"I have a condition," he said.

"I thought you might."

"You blaspheme about the gods. You spread vile lies about them. This must stop."

"We just showed you what the Halo was." Oh shit. Come on, think. There's a way through this. "We didn't set out to insult your beliefs."

"So the Halos are machines of destruction. So you say the gods themselves were killed by them." ‘Telcam leaned over her, almost nose to nose. He was so close that she couldn't focus on those doglike teeth. They were just cream blurs in a purplish haze of gum. "Your god chose to die for you and that is precisely why you revere him, yes? And why you say he also lives. This so- called proof about the Halos means nothing. Not even to you."

And he uses the plural. Halos.

Osman suspected that he wanted her to agree with him, to reassure him that gods could be both dead and eternal at the same time like some divine Schrödinger's cat, to put some certainty back in his life. She knew that feeling. But the last thing she wanted was a theological argument with a heavily armed alien four or five times her weight. She bit back a comment that her name was Osman and that he was thinking of someone else's religion.

"We've had scientists who claim they've disproved the existence of God, and others who argue you can't prove anything," she said carefully. "But it hasn't made any difference to any of our religions. Faith is quite separate."

"Then you understand." ‘Telcam drew back. "If you arm us . . . if you stay away from our worlds . . . then when we take power and restore the rightful ways, we will leave you alone."

"Deal," she said. She almost held out her hand to shake on the agreement but thought better of it. "I'll be in touch very soon."

The Sangheili just turned and loped away to his ship without another word. It was too easy to look at them and see only an ungainly animal with strangely bovine legs, and not a superior force that had almost brought Earth to its knees. Phillips walked up to her but didn't ask what had happened. His expression said he was bursting to find out.

"Are we done?"

Osman nodded. "That's one enemy we don't have to fight for a while." She gave him a thumbs- up. "Well done. I never thought we'd get one of them to talk to us, let alone reach an agreement. We owe you."

"I admit it's satisfying to be able to put the theory into practice. And wonderful to have unique access to Sangheili space with all expenses paid, of course. Good old ONI. My taxes, well spent."

Osman headed back to the shuttle, suddenly aware of small fragments of glass crunching under her boots. Damn, that's not broken bottles. It's vitrification. "You don't feel your academic cred's been stained by mixing with us grubby little spooks, then."

"God, no. I'm not that naive. I know what you're up to. Just don't tell me, that's all. I have to be able to deny it with a straight face."

So he certainly wasn't stupid, and ONI wasn't doing anything that countless governments hadn't done over the centuries to look after their interests. She should have expected him to work it out. "And we're doing what, exactly?"

"Oh, I thought I was helping you establish diplomatic channels with the hard- to- reach Sangheili demographic. . . ."

"You told me not to tell you."

"Yes, so I did." He winked at her. "Well, you've slapped a saddle on that tiger. Now you better make damn sure you don't fall off."
They settled into their seats and she ran the preflight checks before handing over to the AI. Phillips was whistling tunelessly under his breath, as if he was glad to be leaving. Osman had expected him to be reluctant to go home but he obviously had what he wanted- some dazzling scientific paper, some award worthy research, maybe even a lucrative book- that nobody else in his field had, and that seemed to be enough.

He wouldn't be coming back here. He probably realized that. ONI regarded him as a single-use sharp.

"Just remember that my enemy's enemy isn't my friend, Professor," she said, opening a secure comms channel. "He's my enemy who's just taking a sidebar."

Phillips burst out laughing. "You sweet, innocent little flower. You've never worked in academia, have you? Red in tooth and claw. Feuds, plots, vengeance. The works."

"I can imagine." The secure channel indicator flashed and Osman lowered her voice. "Osman here, ma'am. Professor Phillips and I are on our way back."

"Thank you for letting me know, Captain." Admiral Margaret Parangosky, head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, never raised her voice and never needed to. "I assume things went well."

Osman could translate Parangosky- isms easily enough. Have you set up the Sangheili insurrection? That was what she meant. Few outside the Navy and the senior ranks of government knew who Parangosky was, let alone knew to fear her. Osman suspected she was the only person in the Admiral's circle who would always be forgiven even if she failed. But she wasn't in a hurry to test it.

"Everything's fine, ma'am," she said.

"Thank Professor Phillips for me. Safe flight."

Osman signed off and the AI took over. The shuttle shuddered on its dampers as its engines reached peak power. In a few hours, they'd rendezvous with Battle of Minden and head back to Earth, where the mission would be over for Phillips but only just beginning for her.

So far, so good.

"Do I get a gold star?" he asked.

"Maybe an extra cookie."

"Where's the best Turkish restaurant in Sydney?"

"I don't know."

"Oh. Really? Sorry."

It always caught her short. She'd never actually said she had Turkish roots, and- odd, for a woman so used to lying for a living- she couldn't bring herself to construct a cover story for herself. She simply allowed everyone to make assumptions based on her name and her Mediterranean coloring. Her real name hadn't been Osman, not as far as she knew, and she had no plans to use her access to ONI classified files to find out who she really was. She could only be who she was now.

Phillips would have treated her very differently if she'd had Spartan-019 on her ID badge. It was better if nobody knew what she was, and what she was not.

"Yes, I've been away too long," she said, relenting. "But I can smell a good imam bayildi ten klicks away."

Anyone could. It wasn't really a lie. Phillips rubbed his hands together, miming delight at the thought of food that didn't come out of a ration pack. The shuttle lifted clear of New Llanelli, and Osman caught one last glimpse on the monitor of that lake of vitrified sand.

That's why I'm entitled to break the rules. To make sure it never happens again.

Osman was sure she'd heard that argument before, more than thirty years ago, but she couldn't remember if it was before or after she met Dr. Catherine Halsey.

"Academia," she said. "Yes, it's a savage old world, isn't it?"

MARK DONALDSON WAY, SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: AUSTRALIA DAY, TWO MONTHS AFTER THE BATTLE OF EARTH, JANUARY 26, 2553.

There was just one flagpole left intact on the shattered Sydney Harbour waterfront, and a workman in a hard hat and orange overalls was clambering up a maintenance gantry to reach it.

It was a damn long way to fall.

Corporal Vaz Beloi wandered out onto a stump of a girder that had once been part of a pedestrian overpass, trying to get a better view. A piece of dark blue fabric dangled from the workman's back pocket. Vaz couldn't see a safety harness, but then there wasn't much left of the crumbling building to secure it to.

And they say ODSTs are crazy.

He watched the man with renewed curiosity. Mal Geffen caught up with him and leaned on what was left of the overpass safety rail. It creaked as he put his weight on it.

"Come on, we've only got an hour." Mal gestured irritably with his wrist, brandishing his watch, then frowned at something on his sleeve. "Sod it, I'm covered in crap already. We can't rock up in our number threes looking like this. It's the Admiral."

"It'll brush off," Vaz said, distracted by the reckless workman again. He held up a warning finger. "Wait. I have to see what this guy does."

He knew Mal wasn't being disrespectful. He was just nervous about being summoned to ONI without explanation, and Vaz understood that, but they had another mission to complete. A visit to Sydney was rare.

And we made a promise. Admiral or no Admiral.

A small crowd watched from the shore, a mix of construction workers, firefighters, and sappers who were still digging bodies out of the rubble two months after the bombing. The workman, now teetering on the end of the gantry, lunged at the flagpole and managed to haul in the halyard. He clipped the flag to it and wobbled for a moment before tugging on the line to reveal the white stars of the Southern Cross on a deep blue ground, with a single gold Commonwealth star on green ground in the canton.

Everyone cheered. A fleet tender in the harbor sounded its klaxon.

Mal seemed to be working something out, lips moving as if he was counting. "Well done, Oz. Seven hundred and sixty- five not out." He nudged Vaz in the back and strode off. "Come on, we've got to find the bar. If we don't do it now, we won't get another chance for years."

Vaz watched the workman edge back down the gantry to relative safety before he felt able to turn away and catch up with Mal.

"Okay, why seven hundred and sixty- five?" he asked.

"Seven hundred and sixty- five years since the first migrants landed here. It's Australia Day." They walked across a temporary walkway that spanned a crater the full width of the road. It vibrated under their boots like a sprung floor. "You understand not out, don't you? Don't make me explain cricket to you again."

"I understand cricket just fine." Vaz bristled. "What's your problem?"

"Sorry, mate. Parangoskyitis."

Both of them had done more than a hundred drops behind enemy lines and accepted they might not survive the next one, but the prospect of being hauled before a very elder ly woman with a stoop and a lot of gold braid had kept them awake every night for the past week. Even ODSTs were wary of Margaret Parangosky.

"She's over ninety," Vaz said. "None of those stories about her can be true. She just spreads them for effect. Like my grandmother used to."

"Look, we said we wouldn't play guessing games about this. We'll know soon enough."

"You started it."

"Well, she's not invited us for tea and medals, has she? It'll be a bollocking."

"You want ODSTs to do a job for you, you ask for a fire team. Or a company. A battalion, even."

"You know how paranoid ONI is. Top-secret-eat-beforereading." Mal picked more specks off his sleeve, frowning. "Ah, come on. It's just a bloody meeting. It's not like we're storming a beachhead."

But why us? Vaz checked the tourist map again. "This thing's useless. I can't see any landmarks."

Mal fumbled in his pocket and took out the ancient button compass that he always carried. "Fieldcraft, Vaz. Back to basics. If we can't find a bar, we're not worthy of the uniform."

There wasn't a living soul in sight, not even a cop or a construction worker to ask for directions. The hum of activity-bulldozers, trip hammers, drills-was receding a street at a time. The bank that should have been standing on the next corner was a tangle of metal joists and collapsed masonry.

There was no sign of the plaza full of pavement cafés, either, and the shopping center that was supposed to be on Vaz's left looked like a slab of honeycomb with the wax layer ripped off. All he could see was a pro cession of composite block walls, now just a few courses high. Red- and- white cordon tape fluttered between steel poles. The smell of raw sewage hit him.

"You lads look lost."

A civil defense warden popped up like a range target behind a barrier fifty meters away, and Vaz almost reached for a rifle he wasn't carrying. It was hard adjusting to a place where there were no threats.

"Yeah, I think we are," Vaz said.

"You trying to find Bravo- Six?" The warden meant the UNSC headquarters. "Wrong direction, son."

"No, a bar," Mal said. "The Parthenon."

"It's gone." The warden glanced at his watch as if he thought it was a bit early for a drink, then studied Mal's uniform, peering at the death's-head insignia with a baffled frown. Maybe the Corps had taken the low- profile special forces thing a bit too far. "What are you, then, marines?"

"ODSTs." Mal paused. The guy didn't seem to be catching on. "Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Yeah, marines."

"Oh. Them."

"So how do we get to the Parthenon Bar?" Vaz asked.

"I told you. It's just rubble now. They're clearing the site."

"We don't want a drink. We've got something else we need to do."

The warden gave Vaz a sideways look. Maybe the man thought his English wasn't so hot because of his heavy accent.

"Just keep going that way," he said, indicating forty- five degrees and slowing his speech down a bit for the hard of understanding. "You'll see the bus station. It's two streets north of there."

Vaz was starting to sweat as he walked away. It was midsummer and his formal uniform was frying him, not that he had the option of showing up in shirtsleeves. Mal somehow still looked pristine despite the concrete dust on his elbows and boots.

"What are we going to use for a drink?" Mal asked.

"I don't know. Maybe we just say what we have to say and leave it at that."

They'd promised Emanuel that if they ever passed through Sydney, something Vaz had thought highly unlikely, then they'd find the man's favorite bar and raise a toast to his memory. It had been a very matter- of- fact conversation. ODSTs didn't think of getting killed as an if. It was more like a when.

Doesn't make it any easier, though. Doesn't mean we miss him any the less.

"Ah," said Mal. As soon as they turned the corner and looked up the road, they could see the bulldozers at work. "Ripe for development."

Some of the clearance crew stopped to watch them walking along the center line of the road. Vaz counted the stumps of internal walls and decided that 21 Strathclyde Street had stood where there was now a ragged crater fringed by the remains of four bright turquoise Doric columns. Mal looked them over, uncharacteristically grim.

"Manny never did have much taste in bars," he said quietly. "Poor bugger."

One of the construction workers took off his hide gloves and picked his way over the rubble toward them, head down and eyes shielded by the peak of his hard hat. It was only when "he" looked up that Vaz realized it was actually a woman, a nice-looking redhead. Vaz sometimes tried to imagine how alien he must have looked to a civilian these days, but he could guess from the slight frowns he'd been getting this morning that he didn't come across as the nice friendly boy next door. He decided to let Mal do the talking and stood back to look down into the crater. A pool of stagnant water lay at the bottom like a mirror, busy with mosquitoes.

"What can we do for you, mate?" the redhead asked.

Mal pointed at the complete absence of a bar. "Was that the Parthenon?"

"Yeah. Better stay clear of the edge. You can see it's not Happy Hour."

"We've got a promise to keep to a mate who didn't make it back."

The redhead cocked her head on one side. "We're supposed to keep people out of this road. Safety regs. You know what the council's like. But what they don't know won't hurt 'em."

Vaz pitched in. They had half an hour to do this and then make themselves presentable to report to Bravo- 6. "We just want to raise a glass to him, ma'am. Then we'll go."

The redhead stood with her hands on her hips, inspecting Vaz. "Did you bring a bottle?"

It was a good question. They'd expected the bar to be open, not demolished, and they'd run out of time to find a bottle shop, as the locals called it. Mal shrugged, doing his I'm-just- a-lovable rogue look that usually worked on women. The redhead gave him a sad smile and turned to her crew with her hand held out like she was asking for a tool. One of the men picked up a lunchbox from the seat of a dump truck and tossed her a plastic bottle. She handed it over to Mal with due reverence.

"Best we can do, Marine," she said. "Go ahead, but don't fall in and break your neck."

After some of the jumps Vaz had done, that would have been an embarrassing way to go. Mal read the label and smiled.

"Fruit juice. He'd see the funny side of that. Thanks, sweetheart."

The clearance crew moved back a little but they were still watching. Vaz squirmed. It felt like taking a leak in public. So what did they do now? All the vague plans to get hammered and reminisce about Emanuel had gone out the window, and

Parangosky would be waiting.

Mal unscrewed the cap and handed it to Vaz. He took a swig-passion fruit or something, warm and fizzy-and handed it back. Mal took a pull and held up the bottle like a glass of vintage champagne.

"Emanuel Barakat," he said. "Helljumper. Brother. One of the best. We miss you, Manny."

Vaz forgot the audience of hard hats. All he could see was the water trickling from a broken main into the pool at the bottom of the crater. "Yeah, Manny. Rest in peace."

Mal handed the bottle back to the redhead. "Thanks again. We'll get out of your hair now."

"No worries. I'm sorry about your mate." She paused. "Is it all over, then? Is the war really over?"

"I don't know." Mal turned and started to walk away, Vaz following. "But it's pretty quiet out there for the first time I can remember."

They were a few paces down the road before the clapping started. It was the strangest thing. Vaz turned around, and there they were, a dozen men and women in high-viz tabards and rigger's boots, just clapping and looking at them. And it wasn't a general reaction to Mal's comment on the war, either. The workers were applauding them.

Nobody said a word. Vaz couldn't have managed one even if he'd known what to say. They'd reached the end of the road before Mal spoke.

"That was decent of them."

Vaz wasn't sure if he meant the fruit juice or the applause. But maybe the war was finally over. Everywhere they'd stopped off in the last few days, at every shop and transit point, the atmosphere was a strange blend of dread, bewilderment, and elation.

Civvies were still getting used to the idea. He'd expected it to be like the newsreels from the end of the Great Patriotic War, with people dancing in the streets and climbing lampposts to hoist flags, but that war had only lasted six years, however bloody the battles. People in 1945- and 2090, 2103, and 2162- could recall what peace felt like and knew what they'd missed.

But now there were two generations that couldn't remember a time when Earth wasn't at war with the Covenant. Nobody had signed any surrender or cease-fire yet, though. Vaz wasn't taking anything for granted.

Mal quickened his pace and Vaz matched it, deciding not to tell him he had a splash of mud drying on his pants leg. He'd sort it out later. They headed back to the nearest intact main road to hail a cab. Even in a city smashed to rubble, there was still a decent living to be made from ferrying UNSC personnel around, and one of the few places that remained untouched by the attack was the massive underground complex of Bravo- 6. The driver who picked them up just glanced at them in the rearview mirror and said nothing for a while. When he caught Vaz's eye, he looked away.

"Were you here when the Covenant attacked?" Vaz asked, trying to be sociable.

"Yeah." The driver nodded. "Hid in the sewers. Didn't even know where I was when I came out." He licked his lips. "Is it all over, like the news keeps saying? I mean, you'd know better than anybody, wouldn't you?"

"I don't know," Vaz said. "But the Covenant looks like it's fallen apart. Maybe that's the same thing."

It wasn't, and he knew it. It just meant the certainties of Us and Them would be replaced by a ragbag of trouble from unpredictable quarters, just as it always had on Earth. Aliens were a lot more like humans than anyone liked to admit.

But, like humans, they could all be dropped with the right ordnance, too. That wasn't going to change. Vaz was glad there were still some things he could rely on.

"Come on," Mal said as they showed their ID to the duty sergeant. "Practice your nice big smile for She Who Must Be Obeyed. Whatever she wants- it's only pain."

FORERUNNER DYSON SPHERE- LAST DEFINITIVE POSITION, ONYX: THREE HOURS INTO RECONNAISSANCE PATROL.

Catherine Halsey jerked her head around and stared into the bushes.

She realized she was the last person to react to the rustling in the leaves. Mendez, Tom, and Olivia already had their rifles trained on the same spot and Kelly had sighted up and was edging toward it. Something small and green shot up the trunk of the nearest tree to cling to the bark and stare at them.

"Not much meat on that, I'm afraid." Kelly lowered her weapon. It was a lizard with a narrow, almost birdlike face and a frilled crest. For a moment it paused, crest raised and absolutely still, then zipped down the tree again to vanish back into the bushes. "Still, it confirms we have a food chain here."

"Just as long as we're at the top of it," Olivia murmured.

Halsey wished she still had her sidearm. While she respected the Forerunners' vastly superior technology, they hadn't been around to mind the shop for a very long time, and there was no telling what might have evolved since they'd left this place ticking over. There were plants here that definitely weren't from Earth. If the fauna here was drawn from all the worlds the Forerunners had visited, then anything was possible.

She didn't need to point that out. All unknown territory was presumed to be potentially hostile.

Mendez came to a halt and fumbled one- handed in his pockets. "Why?"

"Why what?" Tom asked.

"Why did the Forerunners put trees and animals here? Just to make the place nicer while they sat out the holocaust, or is it some kind of zoo?" Mendez tapped his radio and Halsey suddenly heard the crackle and hiss from the receiving end.

"Lieutenant? Mendez here. We're seeing some wildlife now. Lizards. Anything your end?"

Fred's patrol was now on a parallel path a kilometer away. "Not yet, Chief. But we've got blossom on some of the trees, so I'm guessing there'll be pollinators around."

"Insects, birds . . . small mammals."

Halsey couldn't bear assumptions. "Or they're selfpollinating."

"Some of the plants look like Earth species, but so far we haven't . . . seen anything confirmed as edible." Fred sounded as if he was climbing something, pausing for breath. "Keep looking."

They were spread out in patrol formation with Mendez on point and Kelly walking tail. Halsey was suddenly conscious of being the misfit rather than the boss here, the theoretician who'd created a generation of Spartans but had never actually served, and all the small soldierly things that the Spartans seemed to do automatically- constantly scanning the branches of the trees, turning to take a few paces backward and check behind every so often- leapt out at her. She simply didn't move that way, and not just because she was lugging a bag that seemed to get heavier by the minute and burdened with a skirt. It just wasn't part of her unconscious fabric as it was with them.

It unsettled her. Nobody expected her to behave like a Spartan, even if she'd trained a generation of them. She wasn't sure why that troubled her.

"Bird?" Tom said to nobody in particular, pointing. He sighted up. "I can't tell, even with the scope."

Halsey followed his gesture to see a few tiny black dots making lazy passes high above them. Something about the movement wasn't birdlike. It reminded her of a bat's flight, but much slower.

"If it is, it doesn't fly like any avian species I know," Kelly said. "We're going to have one hell of a nature table."

They were moving through knee-high grass now, rolling downs dotted with stands of trees, some of which were made up of the terrestrial oaks that seemed to be everywhere. Others had bloated gray trunks and tiny, deep red, frondlike crowns that Halsey didn't recognize at all. It still didn't answer the Chief's question as to whether this was ornamental or part of a conservation project.

So how many did they expect to shelter here? The whole Forerunner population? Or just the great and the good? And for how long?

The quiet was as unfamiliar as the vegetation, layer upon layer of small, wild sounds that merged into the white noise of a countryside that sounded utterly alien. Humans had their own template of normal ambient noise, Halsey decided, and it remained unnoticed until they didn't hear it. She noticed the absence of hers now; no familiar birdsong, no distant rumble of traffic, no aircraft overhead. It kept her on edge. Every sound seemed suddenly magnified. The Spartans' armor clicked as their weapons shifted slightly with each pace. Mendez reached behind him and took something out of his belt pouch, making the material rasp against his webbing.

Then something touched Halsey's shoulder. She yelped and spun around.

"Sorry, ma'am." It was Olivia, one of the Spartan- IIIs. She held out something between her thumb and forefinger. "This was crawling up your back. Might be harmless, but I'm erring on the side of caution here."

Halsey's heart was hammering. She hadn't even realized the girl was behind her. "For God's sake, don't creep up on me like that."

She felt like a fool as soon as she said it. Olivia didn't react. But when Halsey looked around, embarrassed, she caught Mendez giving her a long, unblinking stare. She could see what he was holding now- his one weakness, a Sweet William cigar, or at least the last few centimeters of one. He rolled it between thumb and forefinger for a few slow moments like a rosary before stowing it in his belt pouch again.

"Let's you and me walk awhile, Doctor," he said, ambling back down the line toward Olivia. "Up you go, O. Take point."

"O" must have been Olivia's nickname. Halsey found herself the outsider again, not the matriarch. The girl lifted off her helmet one-handed to take a closer look at the creature that was squirming between her fingers, a beetlelike thing about ten centimeters long with bright orange stripes and a long tapering spike of a tail. Olivia couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen. She had poreless coffee-brown skin and delicate features that made Halsey think her origins were in the Horn of Africa.

"Just a tail. Not a sting." Olivia let the insect go and replaced her helmet. "But you never know."

Halsey glanced around. Kelly had now fallen back a distance and Tom had moved well to the right. Halsey realized the Spartans had instantly given her and Mendez some fight space, apparently without a single gesture or word passing between them. That was a testament to good shared situational awareness.

Full size"Is there anything you want to say to me, Doctor?" Mendez said quietly. He took out his cigar butt again and parked it in the side of his mouth without lighting it. "Because we've been awfully civil so far."

You knew. You damn well knew. "Is that your last one?" Halsey asked.

"I've got three left. I'm rationing myself for the good of the mission."


"Spoken like a smoker."


"Don't worry. I won't light up anywhere near you."


"Always the gentleman."

Mendez was a hard man to read but it was safe to assume that the less emotion he showed, which wasn't much at the best of times, the more he was keeping his reaction battened down. He just gave her that dead- eyed look. It was probably the last thing that a lot of Covenant troops ever saw.

"Okay, ma'am, if you won't open the batting, I will. You are, I know, ticked off that there's a whole batch of Spartans you didn't bless or know about." Mendez took the cigar out of his mouth and pocketed it again. "Now, while I'm happy to discuss all that, I'm asking you to do one thing. Treat the Spartan-Threes the way you treat the others. If you've got a problem with the program, Doctor, direct it at me. Not them. They're Navy. They've earned respect."

It stung in the way that polite rebukes always did, with a little extra smack in the mouth for disrespecting men and women in uniform. Am I really that rude? Yes, I suppose I am. Halsey bit back the indignation that had been fermenting since she'd first seen complete strangers on Reach daring to wear the Spartans' Mjolnir armor.

It had all fallen into place. Parangosky putting Onyx offlimits, Mendez dropping out of sight all those years ago, Ackerson raiding her data around the same time . . . all she'd needed was the video logs and the information from Cortana to add the Halo Array and the Flood into the equation, and then she had a fairly reliable set of signposts. Parangosky must have had a good idea of what might be on Onyx even if she didn't know the full nature of the threat and couldn't access any of it.

It was why Halsey had picked Onyx. It was about more than realizing there were Spartans there, Spartans she had to save. It was a gamble on the Forerunners' meticulous survival precautions.

I'm lucky. But we make our own luck.

"I don't have a problem with them, Chief, or I wouldn't have come here to save them, would I?" she said. Maybe that sounded too messianic. She watched his eyes harden a little more. "But it's not easy finding that someone you've worked with for years kept something of this magnitude from you."

"It's called need- to- know, ma'am, and I don't decide who needs to. I just follow lawful orders." He gave her that look again, heavy- lidded, as if he was shaping up to spit on her. "But you knew more about Onyx than you're telling me."

"Just putting two and two together. Following the crumbs."

"And I'm sure you're too professional to withhold any information from us that we need to stay alive."

Ouch. "My only aim is to save the Spartans. I think you can count on that."

Mendez looked away in silence and kept walking. Halsey realized she was matching his pace, struggling to keep up with him. I really wish I'd worn pants. And I wish I was fitter. We're the same age, for goodness' sake. She was following his lead, one of those little psychological tells. He was the dominant individual now because this was his natural environment- the concrete, the physically dangerous- and not hers. She didn't like that at all.

"Who told you not to mention the Spartan- Three program to me?" she asked. There was a chance it would never matter, but she had to know. Colonel Ackerson had hacked her confidential data, but that didn't mean that his was the only score she'd have to settle. "Ackerson? Parangosky? Or both?"
"I was only told who I could tell. But I wouldn't have told you anyway." No, this wasn't quite the Chief she was used to, the one who looked away and kept his counsel: rounding on Olivia had definitely provoked him. "You'd have spent all your time arguing that we didn't have good enough candidates and trying to get it shelved. And I'd have told you that attitude trumps genetics every time."
"I know that. I-"

Halsey didn't have a personal radio, but everyone else did. Mendez turned away from her instantly and responded to a call she couldn't hear.
"Go ahead, sir." It had to be Fred. "Where?"

Where. The word made Halsey spin around, left then right. It was pure instinct. But when she caught sight of Kelly, the Spartan was looking up.

"Damn, he's right," she said, and aimed.

Halsey could see now. There was a black dot in the picture-perfect blue sky, getting bigger by the second. Something was swooping down on them.

Tom was nearest to her. "Ma'am, down!"

It was a fluke. If anyone had the lightning reflexes and sheer speed to reach her, it was Kelly. But Tom cannoned into Halsey and pinned her down just as a charcoal gray cylinder the size of a wine bottle whisked by so close that she felt the rush of air on her face. For a moment she couldn't see where it had gone. She was looking up at the lower edge of Tom's visor, wondering for a moment why she could still breathe.

That SPI armor was light, cheap stuff. Thank God. Three hundred kilos of Mjolnir armor would have killed her. But Tom was kneeling over her on all fours, shielding her from whatever had decided to target them. He'd just pushed her down.

"It's okay. It's okay." That was Kelly. Halsey heard her rifle click. "I've got it. It's not doing anything."

Tom got to his feet and helped Halsey up. Kelly had her rifle trained on the cylinder, frozen at a silent hover two meters off the ground.

"Is that some kind of mini Sentinel?" Mendez asked. "Because if it is, we've already seen the big ones. And you know what happens when those bastards link up."

For a moment, Halsey was totally distracted by the matte gray device and completely forgot her moment of ignominy in the grass. It wasn't a defensive machine like the deadly Sentinels they'd encountered on the surface. It gave the impression that it was waiting for something, although it had dived on them like a fighter. Halsey edged closer despite Kelly waving her away, and looked at the underside. A cluster of lights- no, illuminated symbols she couldn't read- was visible, two blue and one a greenish white. The blue ones were blinking.

It could have been counting down to detonate, of course. The Forerunners would have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure no unwanted life- forms contaminated this sanctuary. Halsey still had no evidence that the sphere's apparent tolerance of human intrusion was anything more than luck.

"No telling what'll happen if I shoot it," Kelly said. "And size doesn't mean something isn't lethal. Right, O?"
Olivia suddenly appeared from nowhere. Halsey really never heard her coming. Maybe old age was creeping on.
"Shall we- well, catch it?" Olivia asked. "We're supposed to be acquiring technology here."
Kelly reached out, slow and cautious for once. She was a finger-length from the cylinder when it shot up in a perfect vertical and vanished before she could target it.
"Damn, I've finally been outrun," she said. "Oh, the shame of it."

Mendez watched from a distance, lips moving. He was talking to Fred's squad on the radio. Halsey's stomach growled, reminding her of the top priority.

"It'll be back," she said. "And I'd like to take it alive." She turned to Tom, who'd taken off his helmet and was scratching his scalp. He was just as luminously young as the other Spartan- IIIs, with dark hair and a bruise on his chin that was already turning yellow at the margins. "Is that from when Kurt knocked you out?"
"Yes." Tom stared at a point between his boots and blinked a few times. "I'd never have left him to hold off the Elites on his own."

"It's okay, I know you wouldn't." Halsey wasn't sure if she was trying harder because Mendez had snarled at her or if she really did feel a pang of regret. "Saving someone is a reflex. Nobody who's wired that way thinks about it. Do they?"

Tom just shrugged. "No point taking chances, ma'am. You're the only one here who can read a Forerunner menu, aren't you?"

"Thanks, Spartan," she said. Do I mean that? Yes, I think I do. "I'll try to find you a steak."

19 October 2011

FWS Flash Fiction Serial: Empty Places- Part Four: "Meatgrinder"

“Oh…damn…shit…I…feel like shit.” The girl, I had met on the runway; back on Earth was vomiting hard all over the tarmac. I tried to help her, but I got sick as well. Some warriors we were. I flopped down on the hard warm surface of what appeared to be a warehouse. My head was reeling, and I couldn’t shut out the stream of thoughts and information that poured out from my fuzzy brain. Spread out on the hard floor was hundreds of fresh meat from Earth, all sick and confused. I attempted to roll on my side and take stock of where the hell I was. I could feel wind on my face, and I directed my eyes to the source, it wasn’t until I noticed a VTOL armed aircraft lifted off that I realized I was another world.

“On your feet, recruits! Welcome to Foward Operating Base Shin!” Someone barked at us from inside the warehouse.

“Relax your speech, Nguyen.” From the landing pads, was high, nearly girlish voice, but hanging from her lips was fat yellow cigarette.

“We can’t be soft on them!” He snapped back, I watched the unimpressed look form across her angelic face.

“If you’d been through what they have, you’d want a day or so.” He stormed off, hitting a few cargo containers on the way out.

“Thanks…” I said to her.

She took a long drag, shaking her head. “Oh, you won’t thank me come tomorrow, he’s going to ride you twice as hard; just enjoy it now. The only easy day was yesterday, you know?”

“Not really…ah, miss?”

“Hawksworth, Captain, Hawskworth, your Hopper air group commander.” I was taken aback by how stunning she was, even with the patches of black grease and torn cover-alls.

“Should I salute, ma’am?” I asked genuinely, but I’m sure it came out shitty. The word ‘Hopper’ got my attention despite the brain-fog. In my previous life, the word ‘Hopper’ had no meaning, but here on Abaddon, in my new life, the anti-gravity armed transport aircraft or ‘Hopper’ was regarded as the finest creation of 10,000 years of human civilization. For some reason my newly loaded brain kept repeating the phase: “Dr. Tischenko love-child” over and over.

“No…not now, but, you’re buying me beers when I pull your ass out.”

“Out of what?” She just pointed to beyond the tarmac littered with VTOL pads and armed insect-like craft…to a vast lush forest of oddly colored alien tree-like growth that seemed to overtake the entire horizon. I gazed on the truly alien vista, obscuring the not-quite-right blue sky. My mind that caught up to the sensory input, informing me they were called ‘rope-trees’.

The native Abaddon flora, grew hundreds of meters tall, all of FOB Shin was constructed on top of them, the strength of these ‘rope-trees’ came from their intertwined roots that clumped and twisted around, spiraling up to the light blazing off Sigma Draconis, and topped off by a tuff of blackish leaf-like material. They looked more a magnification of bread mold then trees. However, for the first time since I first heard the Off-Worlder speech at Market, I felt the gravity of my decision.
“Oye, get up, fresh meat!” A boot-kick smacked me over, cutting of my scientific study of the alien flora. “You’ve all got orientation!” We all were dazzled by the veracity of his voice. “MOVE!” Seemly in unison; we leaped up, running down the stairs, into the building beneath the landing pads, and packed into tight corridors. Where an icy-looking tall man and two guards intercepted us in the grey corridor.

“I’m your instructor, and you’re all mine for right now.” He spoke coolly. “You’re lucky; the last group we got in was deployed immediately to the field.” We followed him down a labyrinth of narrow metal hallways, dotted with offices, and bunks, familiar smells of coffee, old food, and glue reached my nose. All of this bewildered me, I was completely disordered here on Abaddon, I had no usually indicators of time, space, or even location.

Several people dressed like soldiers, passed us in the hall, all had limbs of various sizes, it was so odd that the line stopped to gawk. The instructor wasn’t pleased. “Tell me what you’re seeing! Quickly!” We jumped, and only one managed to speak.

“Nano-regeneration.” The soldier had a thick accent that made him difficult to understand.

“Very good, nice to know that Scotland still exists.” He commented.

“Always, non oblitus, sir!”

The room we entered into was cold, octagon shaped, colored in grays, accented with blue LED lights along with walls and baseboards. “Take a seat, this ani’t school, so, no sittin’ in the very back.” The seats were arranged around the center stage in a stadium style. I took a seat near the front, and the girl I got to know while waiting on the shuttle joined me.

“I love that these people keep things cold!” She remarked.

“Yeah, being in the desert most of my life, I always waited on night.”

She motioned with a finger that bounced between us, “Australian accent? Are you from Perth?”

“Naw, far from the big towns, near Tanami Desert.”

“Always heard stories of how dangerous the open country was…”

“I heard the same about the cities,” I countered. The lights dimmed and the instructor took to center of the room, a holographic star field was projected around him, like he was god himself.

He pointed to a star; the computer zoomed in on a ten planet star system. “Your newly upgrade brains are hardwired with a database and complete training for your role in this war. I’m not going to spoon feed what already know.” He moment the star system materialized, I knew that I was sitting on the fourth planet from the star, which was Sigma Draconis. The planet’s name I had known since before leaving Earth…Abaddon.

“By now, your brains will unlock the files on our enemy, the Wyrd,” he was right, my head seemed to click on information of the Wyrd, complete with the entire encyclopedia entry on the origin Anglo-Saxon mythological term. This was shocking to me, since I never learned how to read or write properly! The instructor opened a hologram of the alien Wyrd warrior, the Synchronized. Seemingly suspended in the filtered air of the octagon-shaped grey-hued room was a bulky, bulbous, multi-colored colossus, fitted with thick stringy armor and dotted with unfamiliar weaponry.

“This, as your brains are telling you, is the Synchronized, or Sync,” he nodded and the holographic imagine was fully animated and topped off with sound. “The Wyrd themselves are rarely seen, but their pacified minions of previous conquests inform our Scholars that the Wyrd must control a vast empire of other alien races, including our own subjugated colonies.” He paused, and allowed the information to sink in.

“Excuse me, sir?” The instructor looked and the female recruit next to me, and then was silently informed that the she could ask her question. “Do you mean that what you and my brain are telling me is that these aliens use captured humans as soldiers?”

“Yes, pray for a clean kill” He answered simply. The image of the running Sync soldier was stripped layer by layer. “At the base of the bio-armored warrior is a control host, in this case, a meek little human farm-worker girl” The little girl, who looked about thirteen, had an innocent smile. With a snap of his fingers, the instructor re-skinned the Sync under its biologic-armor, and it sprayed the room with incoming holographic fire. All of us leaped to a hard-point, only to hear laughter.

“Anyone piss themselves?” No one made a single sound. “Good, you’re first dose of Courage is starting to work.” Courage? I wondered. Gone was the 3-D assault image of the Sync. “Recruit Samantha Porter is correct, the Wyrd have perfected organic-based technology that allows a host bio-matrix to subdued and inflect any subject. Then they are used to pilot the basic combat element, the Sync warrior you just witnessed.” I could tell from his tone, that our instructor had been on the frontline lines of Abaddon for too long, his flat even delivery with regards to an alien species that possessed the technology to use our population against us in a sickening fashion displayed his immunity.

“Abaddon is the frontline, and FOB Shin was setup as spear-tip of the Colonial response to haul them here on region of the planet, and you’re sorry asses are the muscle behind that spear.” With a flicker, the holo-imagine hanging in the center of the octagon room was a suit of armor, and it obscured any hint at we were members of the human race. This”, the instructor hit the chest plate of the armored warrior, “is your life from now on. Your enemy will be wearing something similar to this. When you shit, it’ll take care of it, when you piss, it’ll recycle it, when the enemy bombards you with chemical or biological baddies, it’ll scrub’em out.”

“And when we’re shot?” Asked a smartass from above me.

“Hope it’s not too big of a bullet.” That drew whispers and cuss words, but I instinctively, touched the shoulder scar of my first GSW. I personally thankful for the full-body armor, despite the how inhuman it made us look, I had enough scars. The instructor had the armored soldier hand over his long rifle with a lens for a muzzle, and the rifle was attached to the armor via cable. “Now, onto the good news, you’re new toys. This is the standard issue weapon, the Steyr-Phoenix MILSPEC PLC-3 5Kj laser carbine,"He tapped on the lens "and for Christ’s-sakes don’t point it at one another!”  Like everything before, a stream of data was unleashed about my new best friend, the PLC-3 HEL DEW carbine. I took my turn picking up the inert lightweight weapon, and marveled at how gun-like the blaster was, with a barrel and 1.5x optical sight. Near the pistol grip was a selector switch, besides the safety and semi to full automatic settings, there seemed to be power-output settings.

“Sir?” I asked the instructor, and he shot me a cold eye. “What’s with these two settings?”

“The small looking sun is the 5 kilojoules, good for antipersonnel, and this” He clicked the larger sun, “is the 40 Kj anti-armor shot.” He pointed to the stock. “Dr. Phoenix’s amazing -density super-conducting coil batteries made these possible and give us the upper hand, but don’t get cute recruits, and blast every single Sync with a 40!” He roared. “It drain ya, and you’ll be fucking around with your pistol when a Sync will come knocking. Remember, only shoot at what you can hit!” He threw the weapon back to my arms, I quickly turned over the PLC-3 to one of the Scotsmen.

“Laser guns,” mocked the Scottish recruit with a Mohawk and the thick accent, as examined the lens at the business end. He tapped another soldier on the shoulder, “should’ve kept my AK, it doesn’t need batteries or have fancy gyros to stead me hands.” They shared in a hardy laugh.

“Your AK wouldn’t even dent their biological armor,” The instructor snapped. “So don’t be a wiseass, or you’ll be picked up and be dumped into their ranks” Our instructor leveled a finger at the recruit, “and I’ll burn ass if I see you “He took up the Styr-Phoenix toys, and we returned our seats.

“And now, it’s time to talk about the bad news…” The hologram switched from the armor to a complex chemical formula. “Before you made the Singularity Jump to Sigma Draconis, you were processed at Deimos, and there, you were given medical treatment, the implanted training, and this drug.The drug is called Courage, and it was designed to give you just that on the conditions you will find yourself on this planet. The drug is automatically injected into your bloodstream by the armor, and-” The room erupted in viscous angry, the guards got nervous swinging their PDWs around the crowd. Questions were hurried like grenades.

“What the hell is this shit?!”

“I ani’t no fucking junkie!”

“Courage…It’s like a booster, you know.” Added another voice to the chaotic chorus.

Samantha looked at me and then back down to her veins, “it makes suicide painless, I guess…”I had seen that look before, in the faces of people that sold themselves for drugs on the streets of the market, or were shot for robbery…all their sins were in the name of keep the junk flowing into their bodies. That mostly was by choice though, what the colonials just did was nothing short of a violation.

The guard fired a burst into the ceiling; we ducked, but again, there was no fear. The instructor used this to regain order. “Listen to me, you dirty Terrans! When you make to Elysium, we’ll nano-detox you! It’ll be like it never happened! But until then, you’re going to need this drug to get through the shit out there, trust me! The Courage will be your best friend out in the bush, and you don’t feel hunger, fear, or you miss your mommy! Your unit designation will be Meatgrinder. Good fucking luck.” He stormed out of our education room, while we all looked at one another woth stunned expressions. That was until 1st Sergeant Nguyen showed up to put the rod up our collective asses.

“On your feet! Form up and march down the hall to armor processing, then the armory, then you get to eat! MOVE!” Just as we cleared the door, I saw Nguyen take aside the two Scotsmen. “Not you…we have something special for your skill-set.” We ran out and down the hall, that’s when I shook my head, and said to Samantha, “I’m going to need a drink.”