Halo: Broken Circle
The Age of Reconciliation
Despite his current status as Minister of Relic Safety, High Lord Mken ‘Scre’ah’ben—the Prophet of Inner Conviction—was always a bit intimidated by the Chamber of Decision. Those he was expected to worship had presumably sat here, at this long, sweeping translucent table within the Dreadnought. The San’Shyuum used their own chairs, but the rest of the room remained just as the Forerunners had left it. The table itself seemed imbued with fractals, animated nesting scrolls that moved into and out of larger forms: three-dimensional, then two-dimensional, then three again. The area faced not a window so much as simply a transparent wall. The hub of the spiral galaxy itself glowed effulgently blue, in places streamed with scarlet and purple nebulae, wheeling with unspeakable immensity, ever transforming, chaotic yet appearing to be an eternal fixed shape.
Who were the San’Shyuum to be here in this vessel, Mken wondered, who were the San’Shyuum to roost here like a flock of
the bony-winged rakscraja that dwelled in the vine-choked trees of ancient Janjur Qom?
But here they were, full of officious self-importance, as they awaited the Sangheili treaty commission.
With Mken at the table were Qurlom, the San’Shyuum Minister of Relative Reconciliation, and GuJo’n, the Minister of Kindly Subjection. War had given GuJo’n, the chief diplomat, little to do until recently—his job had been only a sinecure, purely theoretical. Now as he unconsciously braided the tufts on one of his wattles, he seemed puffed with an exaggerated sense of his renewed status. His new scarlet robe was splendidly sewn in golden thread to represent interlinked star systems. Rather a pretentious garment, in Mken’s opinion. But he rippled his three-fingered hand in the traditional sign of Esteemed colleagues, let us begin, and GuJo’n returned the gesture with a magisterial accent.
Qurlom, the elderly former Hierarch, was more pragmatic, and simply began with “The inscription on the Writ of Union is not quite dry, and already the naysayers, the doubters, the heretics begin to arise.” Qurlom was quite serious about the Great Journey; indeed, he was such a true believer that he didn’t waste effort on any ritual, like the social sort, that wasn’t religious in nature. He always launched into the work at hand. “Something must be done.” Qurlom wore a white robe with a platinum five-spiked fluted mantle; his robe bore a simple design: seven circles interlinked in circular chain—the seven Holy Rings.
“I’ve heard such rumors of sedition,” Mken admitted. “There are Sangheili who resist our new Covenant. But it is predictable—a flutter here and there, soon gone in all probability . . . once we make a few examples.”
“No!” Qurlom writhed his long, wrinkled neck for emphasis.
His wattles shook angrily and his antigrav chair wobbled. “Do not make light of this heresy, Inner Conviction!”
“I would certainly never make light of heresy,” Mken said calmly.
“Perhaps these doubters among the Sangheili do not regard it as a religious matter, but as a cultural one,” suggested GuJo’n smoothly, making an elaborate gesture that meant I do not contradict you.
Qurlom snorted. “Ah, but you do contradict me, GuJo’n. There is no doubt they are heretics.”
“My understanding,” said GuJo’n, “is that the Sangheili object to surrender of any sort—that it is counter to their ethos to ally themselves with their conquerors. They object to subjugation . . . but they can adapt to it, in time.”
“And you truly believe this? I have documentation suggesting that the leader of these heretics, this Ussa ‘Xellus, does not just object to the Writ of Union. He acts!”
Mken remembered the Planet of Blue and Red from several solar cycles earlier, when he had been a mere High Lord. Ussa ‘Xellus had escaped the planet and gone on to fight, with characteristic craftiness, in many ensuing battles against the San’Shyuum, on other worlds.
His voice almost a growl, Qurlom went on. “This Ussa ‘Xellus declares, and I quote . . .” He touched the arm of his chair, summoning a holoscreen that flickered into definition in the air over the table, and read out the text unscrolling there. “ ‘This Great Journey—what is it? Just another surrender, from what I can tell! Did the Forerunners truly summon us to sublimation, in the shadow of these Rings? Or is that an excuse on the part of the San’Shyuum to exterminate us? It is a murky pond in which no Sangheili would dare bathe!’ ”
“Very inflammatory indeed,” GuJo’n allowed. “Who provided this quote? Perhaps some profiteer?”
“Again you rebuke me, GuJo’n,” Qurlom snapped. “You imply my information is fallacious.”
“I am merely curious as to intelligence sources.”
“And I would like to know as well, Qurlom,” Mken put in gently.
“My intelligence source is the Sangheili themselves,” Qurlom replied. “Those who committed to the Writ of Union have no notion of being made fools of—they are quietly providing surveillance of all dissenters for us.”
Mken gave a hand sign of approval. “You’ve been thorough, Qurlom—I am happy to see it.”
“So then, Prophet of Inner Conviction”—Qurlom gave Mken’s spiritual title a fillip of irony—“what shall we do about it?”
“Ideally, it should be something taken care of by the Sangheili,” said GuJo’n.
“Yes,” Mken agreed. “Then let us have the Commission here . . . and I see they have just arrived. We will bring this up with them.”
By the time the Commission arrived, the keyship had turned in space, the enormous, towering Dreadnought structure ever so slowly rotating as it coursed its orbit. And now as the Sangheili filed in, Mken could see the skeleton of new construction through the viewing wall. Destined to become a kind of shell around the former Dreadnought, the mobile capital city dubbed High Charity was being manufactured by robotic and Covenant workers, all toiling on the rocky base, long ago ripped from the homeworld of Janjur Qom. A force field kept in the atmosphere needed by the workers, and held the void and detritus of space at bay. It was already a habitat. Someday it would be far more.
In time, High Charity itself would become an interstellar vessel, as well as the new, traveling center of San’Shyuum power. Thus far High Charity was only a living sketch of its potential, the semiglobular shape catching the starlight as the city gradually accreted. Fairly soon, the former Dreadnought would complete its decommissioning as a weapon and fulfill the terms of the Writ of Union; it would be set upon an anointed altar in High Charity, permanently attached. It had once been the most dreaded weapon in the known galaxy—now it was a symbol of disarmament, at least among the members of the Covenant.
And yet the Covenant still had teeth.
Mken looked over the visiting Commission. They consisted of two Sangheili, Commanders Viyo ‘Griot and Loro ‘Onkiyo. Behind them were two Honor Guards—the San’Shyuum referred to the Sangheili as “Elites,” in part to acquiesce to their appetite for honorifics, but also to adequately express the Sangheili’s uncategorical expertise in combat. In turn, the Elites generally noted the San’Shyuum as “Prophets,” though only a few actually held such formal stations.
The Honor Guard stood in the background, heads bowed respectfully; the commission stood, too—only because they were not being offered seats, as that would imply equality with the San’Shyuum. They would remain standing for hours at a time, like mere petitioners. Mken could barely tell them apart—they both had the mandible-like, four-part jaws that clapped together as arthropodic mouth parts; the multiple rows of sharp teeth; the gray, saurian skin and serpentine eyes. Their massive arms and thighs were thick with fighting muscle, and these two wore gleaming silver cuirasses and helmets, adding to their bulk—but it was Mken’s understanding that they were what passed for diplomatic corps types among their species. He noted that Viyo, on his right, was a
little taller, and his helmet, itself with three fins on it as if echoing Sangheili jaws, sported blue panels alternating with silver.
Viyo flexed his clawed, four-fingered hands as if looking for a weapon that wasn’t there, glancing around uneasily. Mken doubted if the Sangheili had employed any true diplomats at all until the Writ of Union had been executed, and these two were clearly uncomfortable in their assigned roles.
Having concluded formalities, Mken asked, “Commissioner Viyo—what of the deployments? Are your troops en route?”
Mken hoped his chair’s translation device was up-to-date—over time they’d obtained a more comprehensive understanding of the Sangheili language mostly through interrogating prisoners, and cooperation had been predicated on rather vicious torture, which was perhaps not the best way to learn a new tongue.
“The troops are en route, Great Prophet,” Viyo replied. “The vessels are doubly crowded with soldiers of many specialties. They will soon be arrayed in advance of all San’Shyuum expeditions—all discoveries of Forerunner artifacts from this time forward will be fiercely protected.”
“Just as it should be,” said Mken.
“But heed me,” Qurlom put in. “You speak glibly of Forerunner artifacts. These troops of yours—are they truly committed to protecting them? We must know: are they fully devoted to the Great Journey?”
“Indeed they are, Minister!” said Loro ’Onokiyo, with something that might be the genuine enthusiasm of a recent convert.
“The Great Journey is not merely a matter of being ready militarily,” Qurlom portentously asserted, “though that is of importance. But truly, those who seek the light of the seven Rings must be purified within, utterly convinced of the truth of the Prophets,
to the last vestige of their being, and willing to die for the cause without hesitation.”
“It is so, Minister. We are all ready to die for the Great Journey. Always have the Sangheili revered the Forerunners—and now we know at last just how to clearly hear the true word of the Forerunners and obey it. We are purified in the light of the Rings!”
Mken wondered, as he did every day, if he himself was purified within, if he himself was utterly convinced. He was the Prophet of Inner Conviction, because of the intrinsic purity he had once preached—he was hearing his own sermonizing echoed back. But increasingly, as he studied what could be gleaned from Forerunner machines and records, he wondered if the true purpose of the Halos was indeed a mass propulsion into a higher plane, a Great Journey to the paradise foreseen by the Prophets. It was true that the Rings seemed associated with a purification process—but what exactly had they purified, and how?
But he cut these heretical thoughts short. Blasphemy. Prophet of Inner Conviction, indeed—what irony. Find your own Inner Conviction!
GuJo’n meanwhile signified satisfaction with the data on troop movements, using a gesture the Sangheili probably could not read, and added, “Very good—but what of this tale of sedition that’s come to us? I speak of the one called Ussa ‘Xellus. He and his followers have been cited in accounts from your own spies.”
“Ussa ‘Xellus? That crawling fur grub cannot be called a true Sangheili!” retorted Viyo ‘Griot.
“Yet he is a highly effective military strategist,” Mken remarked. “One who should not be underestimated. I have seen it myself, long ago, on the Planet of Blue and Red.”
“Once he served Sanghelios, it is true,” Viyo admitted. “But no more. He rejects the Writ of Union—he claims it is shameful to join our strength with your own! Even to negotiate peace with the San’Shyuum is tantamount to surrender. When his sedition was first accounted, we entreated him and his people, as he was once a warrior like us. But he refused to listen to reason, and brought war to Sanghelios. Our own keeps responded with . . . less subtle means, subjecting the entire state of ‘Xellus to incredible firepower. We intended to cut off the root of treason at the source, but apparently many of his people survived. We suspect he now hides like a coward somewhere in the barrens near the south pole of Sanghelios. A little-known region called Nwari. We have not heard from our spies for some days—it may be that they have been compromised. But we have our assassins looking for Ussa ‘Xellus now. When they do find him, be assured, they will choose their moment . . . and they will kill him. His followers are drugged into madness by his word. It seems likely that with him gone, their cult will dissolve.”
“Will it dissolve?” Mken wondered aloud. “Have you never heard of martyrdom?”
A Sangheili Mining Colony on the Planet Creck
The Age of Reconciliation
The mission was a failure.
Ussa ‘Xellus and his mate, Sooln, had traveled to the Creck colony, to recruit new followers into the resistance. Creck, named after ‘Crecka, the Sangheili who’d discovered it a generation earlier, was in the Baelion system—the seventy-sixth of designated worlds explored by Sangheili. It was now a Covenant mining
colony, operated, largely underground, by Sangheili. A few translucent meteorite-scarred colony domes rose above the rugged, methane-choked surface of the planet. They were the tips of the colony’s iceberg. On the other side of the mountains that brooded over the domes was a great sea of half-frozen hydrogen cyanide; there were said to be simple lifeforms, like great swimming worms, surfacing from time to time in that opaque ocean of toxin.
But the Sangheili were here for the minerals and metals—the minerals to power their ships and the metals to sheath the hulls of those vessels. They delved deep into Creck, following mammoth crystalline veins down, with other shafts running to magma used to provide the base energy of their colony.
Ussa and Sooln were riding a lift up a shaft from one of those scorching power plants. They’d spent some time there, traveling in the guise of engineers pretending to check for heat-fatigued walls, and talking as discreetly as possible to those who toiled over the generators. A defector from Creck had told Ussa there was discontent here. Who wouldn’t feel ill used, working in the geological energy plant? The structure couldn’t be climate controlled efficiently—and the heat was unbearable.
But his primary contact, Muskem, had perished the day before Ussa arrived. Muskem had inexplicably fallen into a throbbing pit of magma, where he was instantly incinerated. Ussa had a strong intuition, after speaking with a supervising officer, that someone had arranged the unfortunate accident.
Ussa almost hadn’t come to Creck at all. It seemed foolishly risky. But there was another, too, who’d contacted Ussa. A Sangheili who called himself ‘Quillick, which was an ancient word, from Sanghelios, for “small hunter,” a little animal known to catch mammals for farmers. Clearly it was this Sangheili’s code name. ‘Quillick’s communication was folded in with Muskem’s: There is
a place where much can be found to help you. It is a world no one knows. But I know . . . I fought beside your uncle at Tarjak, under the stone trees . . .
What could this mean? Was this the fantasy of some eccentric? But the remark about Tarjak and the stone trees referred to a story his uncle had told him—one his uncle was reluctant to tell. Covenant agents were unlikely to know about Tarjak and the stone trees—the gallery built of petrifactions, a long-extinct forest. There a small but vicious battle, clan against clan, had gone on for several bloody cycles.
The note had promised a place where much can be found to help you. It is a world no one knows. Ussa had been intrigued enough to take the risk of visiting the colony at Creck.
He had little hope in finding this ‘Quillick now, and it was difficult to know who else to contact here. No sane Sangheili would talk openly of joining the resistance to the Covenant—and few would talk even secretly. The Writ of Union is written, was the phrase Ussa had heard so many times that he wanted to scream when it was repeated to him. It cannot be unwritten.
Now Ussa repeated the trite point to his mate, but his voice was bitter. “The Writ of Union is written—it cannot be unwritten. This was said over and over. Someone has gotten to these Sangheili.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“To hear them all repeating the same declaration—they have been told to do so. And every Sangheili I spoke with appeared miserable. They knew they were being dishonorable cowards.”
Sooln tapped one of her mandibles thoughtfully. “What else can they do? It’s not as if there is some clear enemy of Sanghelios left to fight. If that were the case, they would be there in the heart of battle. But this is the Council of City States—it is Sanghelios
itself, threatening them. Yet they know we should not be surrendering to the San’Shyuum.”
“And Muskem was our contact for finding ‘Quillick. Our visit here could be a waste of time.”
The lift hummed on for a few moments, getting cooler almost by the second as it left the zone of active volcanism. Then Ussa looked fondly at Sooln—compact, perhaps a bit uppity and bold for a female Sangheili, but also delicate and petite . . . or so it seemed to Ussa. Her mind was quicker and more analytical than his, he knew; she had a genius for science that he lacked. “Sooln, perhaps you’re speaking this way about the Writ of Union to please me. Perhaps you wish, for the sake of our lives together, that I would accept the Covenant . . .”
She clamped her mandibles in amusement. “I believe as you do. I do not trust the San’Shyuum. Their vision of a Great Journey is fantasy.”
“I fear that I should not have brought you. Do you believe anyone has detected us? The death of our contact concerns me . . .”
“I haven’t noticed any drones following us; I haven’t seen any spies lurking about watching us. There was that elder Sangheili yesterday, but—he never spoke to us . . .”
“What elder Sangheili?”
“You failed to notice him? He followed us from the mines, back toward the spaceport. But he was slow, weary, scarred . . . He could not keep up. I thought perhaps he wanted to join us, but when I looked back again, he was gone. He seemed too feeble to be a Covenant operative.”
Ussa growled softly to himself. “We shall soon know, one way or the other. Because—”
But he broke off then, as they’d reached the colony’s residence level. The lift doors opened and the two stepped onto the
darkened street, between the stubby, utilitarian buildings, and walked together toward the spaceport, where their ship waited. Ussa was careful not to hurry as they walked by two sharp-eyed guards on patrol, though he’d have liked nothing more than to pick up his stride. He wondered if Ernicka the Scar-Maker was keeping order in the caverns back on Sanghelios. Perhaps they had already been found, and routed. But surely he would have received a communiqué if there had been an attack . . .
He wondered, too, if he and Sooln were still safe in this place. He’d brought his mate because she had access to engineer’s documentation—she was able to create a suitable cover identity for them. She knew the proper terminology on visits to the mines and power plants. But suppose their disguise had been penetrated? He might very well have led her to a tragic end here.
Still, they crossed the square without incident. The two edged through a crowd of sullen-looking Sangheili, dusty miners coming off work shifts, and then scurried between two processing structures to the port.
They were permitted past the gate guards, a young Sangheili scarcely glancing up at them from his talkscreen, and headed to their spacecraft.
The Clan’s Blade, a blue-and-red vessel shaped like a dart and just large enough for a handful of travelers, was fueled and prepped for departure. Ussa ‘Xellus confirmed this remotely through his wrist interface. But as he approached the hatch, he noted someone step out of the shadows.
It was an ancient Sangheili in a much-repaired subcommander’s uniform. Most of the teeth were missing from his jaws, and one of his eyes had long ago been scarred over.
“You . . . This is the one who was following us yesterday!” Sooln exclaimed.
Ussa reached for his pistol, and then saw the old warrior raise his arms in the air. His left hand was missing.
“Do not fire on me, brethren, until you have at least spoken to me,” he croaked. “I have no weapon.”
This one makes Ernicka look young, Ussa thought.
“Who are you, old warrior?”
“I am ‘Crecka,” said the elder Sangheili simply.
Ussa snorted. “Nonsense.”
“I am he. I may also be known to you by another name: ‘Quillick.”
“You are ‘Quillick?”
“Yes—and I need to speak to you alone. Inside.”
“And how do we know you’re not just some cunning old assassin?”
“You would have been under arrest by now, if they were aware of your identity here—not targeted by an assassin. You are too important to simply assassinate, Ussa ‘Xellus. Please, you may search me for arms and then permit me into your ship, if you choose, and I will tell you why I am here.”
Ussa grunted. But he did search the old one for hidden weapons and found nothing. And, too, there was something inexplicably trustworthy in this Sangheili. “Come in, if you must. But we are leaving the planet very shortly. It will not take us long to get proper clearance. I will only give you a few moments.”
The three were soon in the tiny bridge of the craft, Ussa in his pilot’s seat, Sooln checking systems beside him. But Ussa had his seat turned toward the old warrior, who stood on the deck behind the control panel, his maimed arms folded over his chest.
“Make it quick,” Ussa told him. His hand was not far from that pistol as he spoke.
“I am who I said I was. I have been watching for you—Muskem and I expected you. But I wasn’t sure if you yourself were being watched. I was reluctant to speak.”
“Speak now. We are alone.”
The old warrior rubbed thoughtfully at his scarred eye socket. “Many cycles ago, I was the last survivor of a vessel brought down by hostiles—we never knew what race it was. They did not speak a civilized tongue. All this was on the far side of the galaxy from here, in the System of Miasmic Giants. I managed to escape, piloting the ship through slipspace to another system—one chosen almost at random. It was the farthest I could reach. There I saw something most peculiar . . . a world made out of an alloy I’ve never seen.”
“You mean a space station of some kind.”
“No. A small planet. But encased entirely in metal. I had never seen the like. An artifact so large—it was beyond belief.”
“It is difficult for me to believe as well.”
“No doubt,” said ‘Crecka. “I had to see for myself. I landed on the outer hull, in a place that looked like it might have an entry point—and found a portal. I descended into the metal skin—and on a lower deck, a machine came floating out to greet me. It was a machine intelligence, built by the ancients! It had already sorted through my ship’s computer, with some kind of scanning device. I believe that’s how it was able to speak our language. It told me a few things; but it refused to divulge its origin. It had a name—Enduring Bias, it called itself. It had been left to oversee the planet—the ‘shield world,’ in truth is what it called this place—until its creators should return. It ordered that I should provide it with information about the Sangheili and make myself available for study. But I escaped. It was . . . confused; many of its systems no longer worked and it was not so difficult to get away. I managed to get into slipspace . . . and ended up here, near what is now called Creck. A scan told me there were valuable minerals here. I reported this world—but not the other. The other was
full of relics, of things from the ancients. The Forerunners. I was afraid that Enduring Bias would kill anyone I sent. For so it had threatened, should I depart . . .”
“And you kept the secret of that place until now . . . with all those relics there?”
“I did. I was a warrior, not a scientist. I fought and was maimed in sixteen of the great Clan Battles on Sanghelios. The eye I lost fighting beside your uncle under the stone trees!”
Ussa nodded. “He mentioned someone called ‘Quillick—because he would scout out the enemy for them, the way a ‘Quillick would slink silently through the shadows.”
“It was I! But it is not my friendship for your uncle that brings me here. I know your cause. It is my cause, too. This world can be a refuge and a resource for your people—for our people. Away from the Covenant.”
Ussa pondered this. If the elderly warrior—who had fought beside Ussa’s own uncle—could be trusted, then he might be offering a key to something that could truly empower the rebellion against the Covenant. Again he wondered if this could be some kind of trick or trap—but then why go to these lengths? Old ‘Crecka was right: they could simply have arrested him. And few could know the tale of ‘Quillick and the stone trees.
Ussa’s hearts thudded with excitement as the possibilities glimmered in his imagination. But it could all be a trap—without ‘Crecka knowing. If the Covenant knew of the planetoid.
“Think back: you must have told someone about this metal planet. Someone—somewhere.”
“No! I was afraid I would be executed if I spoke of what I had seen. What I learned on the shield world—ah, I might well have been put to death for having entered the planetoid and communicating with the machine, which was heresy back then. That
is no honorable way to die. But then . . . when you were in the mines, I was conversing with my son. He is an engineer here. And I overheard you speak, railing against the Covenant. I have heard something of Ussa ‘Xellus, and his mate. You fit the description. So I came here to help—because I have a wish to return to that world—and I believe it will offer a refuge for you and those who follow you. You and I . . . are of a like mind. We should never have surrendered to the San’Shyuum.”
The old warrior paused to cough into a mangled hand, and Ussa pondered again in silence. Could ‘Crecka simply be senile, addled by war, imagining things? But the ancient Sangheili had a character that rang true, like the well-seasoned metal of a sword forged on Qikost. And he truly had fought beside his uncle. Ussa could not help but believe the tale, as fantastic as it was.
Sooln spoke up then. “Such a place, a world that is one great Forerunner relic—it should not fall into the hands of the Covenant. We should at least see if it is real, Ussa. What have we to lose? He is right—it could be our chance! Think of the potential of such a place!”
“You believe it is real, then?”
“We have to see for ourselves. We must take the chance. We have so few prospects for the cause . . .”
Ussa paced the deck, and at last said, “It would be difficult to imagine the spies of Sanghelios contriving such a tale.” He turned to ‘Crecka. “Can you show us this world covered in metal—immediately?”
“I have the waymarkers. I’m ready to take you there. It will probably be my last journey anywhere. I’m dying, you see. But—I want to see those marvels again, one last time, and I want to help you. You are right: the Covenant is wrong. It is that simple.”
Their disguises had held up: departure from the spaceport was granted. Within a few minutes they were in orbit, burning their way into the slipspace aperture that was like a glowing wound in space-time.
They passed through and into slipspace, where time is not easily reckoned. There was opportunity to rest, eat, and hear stories from ‘Crecka about the Clan Battles of Sanghelios. By degrees, Ussa increasingly came to trust the old fellow.
But still—he could be on a fool’s mission. He had failed to recruit more converts, unless old ‘Quillick could be counted as such.
Perhaps this voyage was just a desperate stab in the darkness of space.
An Uncharted World
The Age of Reconciliation
They were in orbit over something extraordinary.
Ussa waited, his fingers hovering over the controls, ready to begin high-acceleration evasion maneuvers. He half expected defensive measures of some kind to be fired at them from the colossal sphere of silvery-gray alloy. But though there was a regular pulse of internal energy signatures from the shield world, as ‘Crecka called it, no attack was forthcoming.
“Come, let me show you the portal,” ‘Crecka told him. “It’s on the farther side . . . the only one I know of.”
They accelerated into a faster orbit and homed in on the coordinates. They descended, spiraling down carefully, Ussa still wondering the whole time if this was some kind of trap—but he was far too intrigued, too caught up in a sense of inexorable destiny to turn back now.
The metallic hide of the planet loomed, details defining through thin mists of a pseudo atmosphere. Seams showed; here and there curiously shaped antennas sprouted.
Ussa ‘Xellus shivered as the Clan’s Blade approached the rectangular object, almost flush with the curved surface, which ‘Crecka identified as the portal. Ussa felt a superstitious fear as he settled the ship into the rectangle. Its outlines seemed to grow within themselves, walls rising up around the spacecraft, rather than from inside the planet.
In a few moments, a ceiling had formed over them—and the ship’s instruments soon showed pressurization and breathable air. There were no indications of dangerous microorganisms.
“Come along,” said ‘Crecka, looking almost excited. “Bring weapons—the intelligence has access to them. It may be annoyed with me. But it also may have been bluffing.”
“If it is still operating at all,” said Sooln.
“I may be along in my cycles, but not by that much,” said ‘Crecka. “I was not quite young when I found this place. But it is unbelievably ancient. You will see. How many times I have wanted to return. But I felt it unwise to come alone—and until now there was no one I trusted. And no great need. It is the cause—that is the need now . . .”
“Wisdom is the fruit of age,” Ussa said, quoting a Sangheili homily and briefly placing a hand on the elderly warrior’s shoulder.
Ussa and Sooln carried plasma rifles, ‘Crecka a pistol Ussa had given him. Together they emerged from the ship’s hatchway and descended the ramp to a flooring that was more than mere metal.
A door opened, as if beckoning to them. They passed through it, finding their way down a series of gently descending corridors, to a platform that overlooked an awe-inspiring sight: a world enclosed within a shell, like the tank that scientists sometimes kept small animals in, back on Sangehelios. But this “tank” was on an unthinkably gigantic scale—it could house a planetoid itself. Light shone from shafts in the ground below, and from panes in inverted structures projecting from the convex artificial ceiling; they were tapered formations like giant artificial stalactites.
Below the craggy remnants of some ancient planetoid, it bristled with plant life, gleamed with streams and waterfalls. Flying creatures he couldn’t clearly distinguish flapped through roseate mists, which thickened at the distant horizon. A mechanized transport flew past, just a sort of aeronautic wagon with what looked like pieces of machinery piled in the back. A freight mover of some kind. It was there, and suddenly gone.
The air smelled like exotic plants, and water, and minerals, and there was a smell of ozone somewhere, too, carried on the artificial breeze.
Suddenly the platform they were on detached itself, startling Ussa and Sooln, before descending, slowly, to the ground. They were in an area that looked too haphazard to be a cultivated garden, but too orderly to be wilderness.
Ussa walked to the stream flowing nearby. Its perfectly transparent water showed no algae—but something swam by, and was gone.
“This place is so . . . intact!” Sooln whispered, in awe.
“Yes,” said ‘Crecka. “The machine told me it has been here for many, many millennia. He called it the ‘eco level.’ It is built to last. And it is safe for us to live in—for your people to live in.”
A shadow passed over them—Ussa glanced up, hearing a soft male-inflected voice, speaking the language of Sangheili.
“I welcome you to Shield World 0673. I am Enduring Bias.”
A floating, roughly hexagonal mechanism, with three lenses glinting on its nearer side, moved easily about in the air, bobbing, shifting to get a better view of them. It was about the size of a Sangheili’s chest, in some parts intricately surfaced, in others elegantly simple.
“I am Ussa ‘Xellus.” There seemed no point in trying to maintain an alias. “And this is my mate, Sooln. You know ‘Crecka, I believe.”
“Yes. I might have prevented his escape, but I’m afraid a sort of existential fatigue slowed me—a desire for company, really. My original bias, my general programming intent, is fogged by the ages, and, to the extent I’m aware of it, apparently irrelevant now. I perceive that you are genetically related to one of the races reseeded by the Librarian . . . and so it is not inappropriate for me to permit you shelter here. Now . . . you will inform me of your intentions.”
The Age of Reconciliation
Young and strong but without a mature Sangheili’s musculature, Tersa ‘Gunok had difficulty keeping up with Ernicka the Scar-Maker, but he was thrilled to be allowed to be of service to so great a warrior.
They were carrying crates of dried food from the drays into the vessels perched on the rocky floor of the volcanic crater. Snow skirled down from time to time, blown from the edges of the
crater by the frigid winds of Sanghelios’s south pole, and Tersa’s lungs ached with the cold; his knuckles burned with it.
But he hurried after Ernicka and into the ship, proudly stepping onto a lift beside the Scar-Maker. Usually silent though he was, Ernicka emanated respect for everyone who did their tasks. They were all united, after all, in the blood oath of Final Decision: We are prepared to die fighting beside Ussa ‘Xellus, in the struggle against the Covenant. This is honor, and honor is meaning.
Every one of them had spoken that oath—and every one of them had heard it spoken.
The lift stopped and Tersa, arms aching, carried the crate to the hold and placed it with the others.
“Commander,” came a voice from the grid on the bulkhead. “We have news of Ussa ‘Xellus. He returns with important information. Come to the bridge for a full briefing . . .”
Both of Tersa’s hearts beat in pattering tandem. This hiding in the caverns would soon be over. Ussa would take them from shadows and into the bright solar glare of renewed honor.
Perhaps it was foolish to make Ussa ‘Xellus his hero—his mother had warned him not to follow Ussa. But she had been back home in their own keep; she had not seen what Tersa had witnessed . . .
The memory was still sharp, burned into his mind.
Tersa had been training in Ussa’s keep because his small clan had an ancient pact with the ‘Xellus family. And there Tersa had seen what happened to those who did not hold with the Covenant.
He had heard, the cycle before, Ussa speaking to a crowd in
the flagstone plaza of the keep: “If you wish to follow the Covenant, then leave here now! For myself—I will not surrender to the San’Shyuum! Nor will anyone loyal to my clan! And do not be deceived—the tale that this is alliance and not meek surrender is a lie! What is a Sangheili but his honor? His honor is equal to his soul, and his soul to his honor! We cannot submit to the Covenant. It is better to die than to live without dignity.”
Deeply moved, Tersa had joined those shouting in agreement and hailing Ussa.
But he saw some others walk away from the plaza that day. He spied two of them setting out in flyers for distant places.
Perhaps it was they who precipitated what happened next. Who spoke out against Ussa, doubtless to curry favor with the Covenant.
Tersa was on the wall, overlooking the plaza on one side and the rolling, austere hills outside ‘Xellus Keep on the other, when the attack came. He was carrying out an exercise with two friends, with distance glasses. As he raised the glasses to his eyes, he saw the black specks swarming the horizon. In the scope, the specks became nine low-level attack fighters, roughly shaped like the flying, leatherwinged predators called ‘sKelln.
“Shout the alarm!” Tersa yelled.
“Yes, alarm and so on,” his cheerful friend N’oraq called back, yawning.
Tersa realized N’oraq thought this was only an exercise—that Tersa was just fooling about. He hadn’t seen the attackers. “Look, there!” Tersa said, handing him the glasses. “Look!”
Tersa himself shouted an alarm, and startled faces turned toward him. Some scowled, thinking he was but a panicked youngling. But a moment later they knew who was mistaken, as the matte-black fighters dove in and loosed explosive charges on the plaza. Projectiles strafed, one of them tearing N’oraq in half.
Then pillars of fire rose; dark blue blood gouted up in fountains. Sangheili shrieked as they were tossed, broken, through the air, and others ran helter-skelter, looking for surface-to-air weapons.
Five sweeps the enemy made over the keep, and only one of the nine attack flyers went down, shot by Ussa ‘Xellus himself with a fire-wand launcher.
The keep burned . . . and hundreds died. The flyers simply departed without further incident. But everyone had seen the Sacred Rings sign of the Covenant on the wings.
Tersa spent a long day helping to cope with the dead and dying.
And from that day forward, Tersa vowed he would do nothing for the Covenant. Nor would he give them quarter.
Then the war widened, became a civil war on Sanghelios that in some places was of magnitude enough to damage Forerunner relics, sacred machinery kept underground. Ussa took his followers to Nwari, where they might seek cover. And it was there that the ships waited. Ussa had used most of the fortune of the ‘Xellus clan to pay for those vessels, to have them brought to the sleeping volcano.
Now, as he worked in the cavern, Tersa sighed. He had taken an irrevocable course that day. Follow a clan’s hero to battle, his mother had said, and you have a chance to fight honorably and return. Follow a rebel and you will be overwhelmed, shot down without a chance to return fire . . . or executed.
Would he see his mother again? Was she safe from the Covenant? He did not know, and he ached to realize he might never find out.
He mustn’t think of that. Especially not with Ernicka glowering down at him. “You, youngling—go back and help organize the weapons. I’ll bring you the news soon enough.”
Tersa hurried off, slightly annoyed to be called a youngling, and wondering if Ussa had recruited the soldiers they needed for the revolt . . . or if he had some other plan entirely.
With Ussa, one never knew what was coming until it had already been decided.
The hills of Nwari were desolate, forbidding. But many of the caverns hidden beneath them were warm, bubbling with volcanically heated springs. Warmth, Ussa knew, was not enough.
He stood on a natural balcony of stone, overlooking the Sangheili clans as they milled below, his followers doing tasks he had given out mostly just to keep them busy. There was a pervasive restlessness among them, and many times the clansfolk glanced up at him, as if wondering if he’d brought them here only to meet some ghastly end.
The Sangheili had evolved in tropical wetlands, and their instincts rebelled against extended stays in these dark, natural amphitheaters. The coldly reverberant spaces, the clamminess whenever one strayed from the bubbling pools, the shadowy reaches of the place that seemed resistant to their lamps—perhaps resistant because of the thick mist from the sulfurous springs—all this made any normal Sangheili look about the encampment with distaste and mistrust. But Ussa had led his people here, remembering that in ancient times the clans had often taken shelter in deep places under the mountains of Sanghelios.
Having retreated here, Ussa had ordered the subterranean approach from the north closed with plasma beams—melting
the rock to seal it off as quietly as possible. The caverns were vast and labyrinthine, but Ussa knew that the Covenant authorities might well have guessed his general whereabouts; if they chanced upon the southern entrance within the dead volcano, all would be lost.
Ernicka the Scar-Maker approached Ussa, grimly gnashing his teeth—which indicated that the news was not good.
“Great Leader,” Ernicka rumbled, “the listeners have detected new perturbations. The searchers are probing the sealed passages. They seem to know where we are.”
“It is soon for them to know that,” Ussa observed, watching the silvery mist undulate, a low, hot fog churning in the lamplight over the milling clans. “What does that suggest to you?”
“Perhaps we were not as careful in our relocation as we had hoped?”
“That is a possibility. Another is . . .” He looked about them—no one was nearby. But he gestured for Ernicka to follow him to one side, close against the wall. There was a good deal of noise from the clans, and the sounds of springs; now that they had moved away from the ramp, no one should be able to overhear them. But even so, Ussa lowered his voice and Ernicka could just barely catch his words. “Another possibility is there are spies among us, with some means of transmitting messages.”
“How shall we deal with this?” Ernicka whispered urgently.
“I’m pondering that.”
“It would be a hard thing to interrogate our clansmen . . .”
“Yes—and which ones would we interrogate? Where are the suspects? Everyone? We have no time for such matters. And I would not lose the loyalty of innocents by torturing them—or their clanfellows.”
“Then what are we to do?”
Ussa paused for a moment, thinking, and then asked, “How close are we to having the transports loaded and fueled?”
Ernicka scratched thoughtfully at a battle scar on his chest. “All three are nearly prepared—indeed we could go now, leaving some supplies behind. But—we cannot go with spies aboard.”
“We might be able to bring at least one of our hypothetical spies out into the open. Perhaps there is only one, after all. That’s more than enough. Ernicka, if we leave quickly, taking everyone with us, we can see to it that no one reveals where we’re headed. Only three of us know the route. The San’Shyuum aren’t aware of it; those loyal to the Covenant among the Sangheili also do not know of it. The spies will not be given a chance to transmit from our destination . . . if any of them survive what I plan now.”
“And what is the plan, Ussa?”
He leaned close to Ernicka and whispered something. Then he added, “Stay within a few paces of me. Defend my back.”
Then Ussa turned to the crowds below the natural stone balcony and held up his arms, calling out in a carrying, resonant voice, “Clansfolk! I speak to all!” His words echoed from the stalactites jutting from the curved ceiling; below, mist-blurred faces turned toward him, their murmuring now silenced, all listening raptly as he went on. “Males! Gather up the armaments and convey them to the transports! Females! Those of you brooding eggs, take them up in your arms and do likewise!
“We will go quickly! I have a means with which to strike at those loyal to the Covenant! I will strike at the high clans who would force us to crawl for the San’Shyuum! Then we will take to the skies; we will conceal ourselves in the dark places of the galaxy, and we will create a new Sanghelios! We will restore the pride
of our people! We alone will embody its pride! We alone will fight for its pride! Clansfolk—do your hearts beat with mine?”
The final invocation had a ritual response, as ancient as sunlight warming eggs.
And the response was given.
“With your hearts do ours thunder!” they cried out, in ragged but deeply felt unison. For Sangheili, with their binary vascular systems, each had two hearts working in tandem.
“Then I come to walk among you, and I will help you prepare for the journey! I will use my own hands to work beside you!”
Cries of joy and mutters of trepidation arose then, but already Ussa ‘Xellus was descending the ramp of stone from the balcony to the floor of the cavern. He smelled the happy reek of small offspring running about their brooders; he heard more cries of “With your hearts do our hearts thunder!” He heard exclamations of awe as he strode into the crowd—for some ironically regarded him as a kind of prophet as well, a divine being.
The throng parted for Ussa; he was aware of Ernicka, as per orders, a few steps behind him, watching warily.
Ussa stopped at a warmer for brood eggs, lifted an egg up himself, and placed it gently in a carrier—though this was normally a female’s work, a great leader sometimes did it as a sign of love for his people. A general murmur of approbation followed. The applause of clashing jaws followed, and he walked on, patting the unhelmeted, scaly head of a Sangheili childling; stopping to closely examine a plasma launcher being prepped for transport; lifting a crate of dried meat onto an autodray. All around him, not to be outdone by their leader, his adherents busied themselves, frantically packing up.
“Great Leader!” called a lanky, helmetless male, carefully
setting a box filled with burnblades on another dirty, scarred old autodray. The Sangheili kept one hand on the open box of swords as he turned to Ussa, ducking his head in respect. “May I inquire . . . ?”
Ussa recognized him: a known weapons dealer. “Yes, Vertikus, anyone may inquire of me. What do you wish to know?”
“On the world to which we go . . . how will we bring new weapons there? We have some here—these are genuine Qikost swords. Their blades are ever fine and true. But can we learn to make such in this new world? Is it so far that we cannot find a way to send a secret delegation from there to Qikost?”
“You wish to know if it is near or far from Sanghelios?” Ussa asked, glancing at the box of murderous burnblades. They were forged of metal, heated from within for extra destructive power. “It is indeed far—but I will not tell you, or anyone, where it lies. I will guide us all there. I will say only that we must go there immediately, for I take an action that cannot be reversed. This cannot wait.”
Vertikus made a resigned hissing sound, the equivalent of a Sangheili sigh, and then blurrily fast, he snatched a sword from the crate. Slashing viciously at Ussa’s throat, he snarled, “Truly this cannot wait!”
But Ernicka the Scar-Maker was suddenly there, leaping in front of Ussa, his own burnblade intersecting Vertikus’s weapon, so that red sparks spat at the contact. Ernicka’s weapon stopped the would-be assassin’s sword the width of a childling’s tooth from Ussa’s exposed throat; Ussa could actually feel the heat of Vertikus’s burnblade lightly scorching his flesh.
Larger and vastly more experienced, Ernicka forced Vertikus back with a single powerful thrust, so that the would-be assassin staggered and fell to the ground.
Other Sangheili rushed in, tearing the sword hilt from the traitor’s grasp.
“Fools!” Vertikus shouted, scrambling to his feet. “Ussa will lead you into damnation! The Covenant is our only hope for redemption!”
He tried to run, but the crowd closed in around him.
“Wait!” Ussa called. “We need to interrogate him! He might have knowledge of—”
Jaws flashed, talons slashed, purple Sangheili blood spurted, and Vertikus—attacked by ten at once—was already torn to gouting shreds.
“It is too late, Ussa,” Ernicka said, sheathing his sword. “But you cannot blame them.”
“No, I cannot. So be it. Have the traitor’s body disposed. Load up the transports. We will depart before the Covenant knows we are gone.”
“You spoke of an action to be taken? Do you intend to strike before we go, or . . . ?”
Ussa made a rachitic sound that expressed dry irony. “No. That was merely to draw out the spy.”
“You took a terrible chance, Ussa, walking among them all so boldly.”
“I have great trust in you, Scar-Maker. I knew you would protect me.”
“I wish, Ussa, that we could strike at the Covenant’s slaves before we go—I am ready if you order it.”
“In a way, we already strike at those fools. We have escaped them—and when they learn of our escape, that will strike hard at their confidence. We go to the shield world that ‘Crecka found. In time we’ll use that world as a base to prepare a return to Sanghelios, rearmed and fortified by a new generation. It may be that
the Covenant will find us in time. But if they do, they will lose us again. We will grow, we will build a new population, and with it a new army. And one day we will destroy the Covenant. So it shall be, Ernicka. Now . . . let us inspect the transports. It is almost time to leave Sanghelios.”
“To leave our home forever—it makes me ache inside, Ussa.”
“We may return someday, or our children will. For now, Sanghelios is wherever we go, Ernicka. We are its true soul.”
Then, together, they went through the stone passages to the transports that lay a short distance away, waiting on the rocky floor within the cone of an extinct volcano.
From here, gazing up, one could see the sky—Ussa saw the moons of Sanghelios, and a cluster of stars beyond the volcanic mouth.
And somewhere up there, Ussa and his clansfolk would build a new world.
It was nameless, so far. And yet Ussa ‘Xellus had seen it, and he knew it would come cracking into being as surely as an egg hatched in the sun. The shell must break for new life to appear . . .