My name is Charles VanKeerk, and for the last five years I’ve been working alongside your husband to protect he dreams that demand so much from us. I am sorry that in all the time I’ve spent with Sam I never had a chance to meet you in person. As you know, our situation prevents us from being able to move about as we wish or see those we fight for, and because of this I am a stranger to you…and it pains me that you have to receive this message from a stranger:
Sam is gone.
For your protection, I can’t give you any details on where or how he died, but know that he was a hero, and he died as one. Everyone who fought alongside him these last years loved him as a brother, and his determination and gentle spirit were strengths to us all. It is a tragedy that Sam was forced to this fight, but forced he was, as we all are, by the most important need we have – the need to be free.
I know words can’t help right now, but please don’t doubt the value of Sam’s sacrifice or the wisdom of our fight, even in these terrible times. You will ask why, in the face of such an overwhelming external threat, we would take up arms against our own kind rather than fight against the Covenant. We struggle with this question every day…Sam fought with it every day. But what keeps us going is the certainty that there’s no future in helping those who would only put us in a cage for helping them win.
You’ve seen how the UNSC treats us, taking and taking but only offering empty promises in return…any planet outside their precious inner circle is plundered and left to suffer starvation, plague, or the onslaught of the Covenant. If only more of us would find the strength Sam had, perhaps we could make the UNSC recognise that it doesn’t matter if you come from Earth or Harvest or anywhere…we’re all equal, and we should all be treated like equals. Until that day comes, however, we have to fight every threat to our way of life….be it Human or Covenant.
I write all of this to try to give you some comfort, some justification for such a terrible loss. I hope you can believe in our cause as much as Sam did, and I hope you can believe me when I say we all miss him terribly. Despite whatever you may have seen or read recently in the UNSC controlled media, Sam’s death was a proud death. A noble death. He died for all of us, and I know for a certainty that he died for you.
My heartfelt condolences on your loss
[to be transcribed]
[to be transcribed]
Petra Janecek was not a woman who could abide an undotted i.
The heavy cotton curtains drifted backward away from a decidedly pedestrain view of Forseti Northern Terminus 37, teasing the hotel room’s dark interior with shafts of the very daylight Petra had been hoping to escape. he Four Wind’s impeccable climate control and the spoils of her ample (if sadly short-lived) per diem should have provided Petra with a modicum of comfort in her few remaining hours on the ‘burbworld without having to avail herself of the stale air perfumed by the aging spacedock nearby. But Petra felt compelled to open the room. She hadn’t planned to do much more than grab a quick shower, shuffle her things in a pretense of packing, and hit whatever sauce shop was walking distance from her ride home. This wasn’t supposed to be the kind of trip where Petra did much in the way of planning at all.
Her knuckles rapped against the inside of the autoserv, tugging at Mokyshan Red Ale she couldn’t, in fact, remember ordering up. Petra sighed, her gaze creeping around the dim room s her mind idly fingered the weighty decision of whether to sit or stand. Shake it off, she snapped at herself, you’re acting like someone just sat on your cat or something. Whatever this is- if it is anything- this is an asterisk, Petra; this is not an exclamation point. Asterisk. It was a lovely sentiment. Sensible. Reassuring. But her gut said it was a half-truth. At best.
Forseti was one of the lucky worlds- not unlike her own home on Lenapi- which had been pretty much left off the guest list for the Great War, a blissful little bubble in space far from the senseless glassings and the kamikaze tactics that had pressed humanity within spitting distance of extinction. Petra could imagine the half billion occupants of this little residential slice o’ heaven buzzing to one another in remorseful indignation, the random scraps of carnage and atrocity downed from the news-feeds giving them something to kibitz about in between jetting their kids to football practice or scarfing down fusion sushi with their boyfriends. Their horror would be much discussed. But she was pretty sure the few folks who actually lost sleep over the war hadn’t exactly taxed Forseti’s energy grid by keeping the lights burning night after night.
She took a hit off the beer, which she realized hadn’t been touched since she opened it; the wash of hops was a little too bitter but at least it made her feel like she was doing something other than stewing. Petra knew it was ugly to be so dismissibe of Forseti just because they’d never had to worry about the plasma ICUs or tent cities or the salvage showers that rained chunks of the UNSC battle fleet back down on the planets they’d sacrificed themselves to protect. Unfair, sure- but Petra had spent the sunnier part of ten years shoveling those stories as a feed stringer. A kid’s puppet show would probably have been less distilled than some of her stories once they made their way downstream; to the citizens of the cozy little planets like Forseti, the Covenant were little more than the boogeyman under the bed, painted in Technicolor by reporters like her. Places like Forseti just made Petra uncomfortable.They made her either a liar, an incompetent, or an accomplice to a conspiracy no one had bothered to explain to her.
Petra finally took a deep breath and looked back at the small coffee table where she’d dumped her kit after she got back from meeting with her contact, a retired major who’d settled here but had kept a few souvenirs of his time in the service. The cheap holopad idled silently, an island away from the rest of the clutter.
You can scratch all the phantom itches or fiddle with the light-to-dark ratio of the curtains all you want, Petra, old girl. This just smells like you obviously think there is, so can we please just get to the part of the show where we figure out if anyone’s flight itineraries gotta change, eh sister?
The assignment Petra had been working for the last few weeks on was really a no-brainer. The Magellan, one of he bigger feeds Petra sold stories to, was looking for a memorial piece on the anniversary of the Battle of Voi. Even though the details of the extragalactic conflict undertaken by human and Sangheili forces had become (mostly) public knowledge shortly after the return of what was left of the UNSC frigate Forward Unto Dawn, the action in Africa was celebrated by the masses as the turning point of the war- or at least that was they way it was spun to the Press Corps, and there didn’t seem like any good reason to fight the current on that one. The edit staff at The Magellan liked Petra- she made her deadlines and during the war had a habit of landing material that would usually have been accompanied by a next-of-kin announcement She was the logical choice- the hatful of awards she’d scooped up for her coverage of the SPARTAN-IIs (once the flaks at Section Two had decided they wanted the Spartans covered) made her fodder for this kind of job, and she’d been ground zero at both New Mombasa and Voi, reporting those slugfests “all up-close and personal-like.” Mostly, though, Petra’s impressive sources within the UNSC establishment had made other war journos like like they were pounding the leisure beat, and The Magellan was hoping that through her deep ties, she’d find a way to outfluff all the other fluff pieces that were bound to hit the nets for the anniversary.
The gig was good, if a bit dusty for Petra’s tastes- she much preferred things that were happening to those that had happened. She dutifully scanned all the newsvids and shuffled through all the declassified docs (just like they taught me in Cub Reporter school all them years ago…). And within a couple days, she had pasted together what she imagined pretty much every other newsie would already be sitting on- something “nice.” Commemorative/thorough/boring/etc. A good first draft, but nothing to write home about. Then Petra started rolling some calls.
Voi was about more than just a pointy Covenant ship and some big metal crater appearing in the desert. Everybody knew that. The word “Forerunner” had become part of the lexicon of the late war regardless of whether 90 percent of the people out there knew what exactly it was referring to or even if it was a person, place, or thing. There were the Halo rings- those most of the human population did not know anything about- but in military circles, the whispers were just a little too soft to publish. And that final battle- the place referenced in the Voi after-action reports and the debriefing statements from that Sangheili Arbiter. The Ark. There were seeds, all right. Petra was pretty sure she could get her contacts to slip her enough sugar to put together a real story; maybe not another award magnet, but at least a tale with a bit more kick than the sort of thing her mother would paw through on Sunday afternoons. As things turned out, though, Petra had been to modest in her thinking.
A picture started to form… Petra chuckled aloud as the phrase spun into her head, visions of some schticky old psychic waving a gloved hand over a much-abused crystal ball at one of the carnivals she and her buddy Tom went to as kids. Well, something formed, all right, she thought. Petra hadn’t expected her sources to serve up, piece by piece, a roadmap to the final months of the war, much less the interesting narrative they told about the Spartan Master Chief Petty Officer who had been at the center of all.
Of course Petra had heard of the guy- was pretty sure he was part of one of the Spartan-II squads she’d seen in action, in fact. In the days following the return of the Forward Unto Dawn, Petra remembered random mentions of “Spartan-117” popping out of the ethereal chatter on numerous occasions. The Master Chief was obviously a “soldier of note” and as such a fairly well-protected asset by ONI, but this business with the Forerunner doomsday weapons and the parasitic Flood- this was something else entirely. This man’s actions deserved to be known. Others felt the same, and so Petra Janecek’s Voi segment was soon reframed into the context of how a single human soldier had single-handedly changed the entire course of the war.
And then she was on Forseti. The whole trip should have been a footnote. In order to appease the powers that be, she’d decided to use Voi as the wrapper around which the Master Chief story would be told. It made sense, but the way she saw it, that approach would necessitate intimacy- her audience needed to walk where the Chief walked, see what the Chief had seen. Difficult considering the glassings carried out in the African basin by the Elites, but there was more than one way to put people in the Chief’s shoes. Which is how Petra had stumbled upon the message.
The message… Petra sank into the couch, letting her weight drag her down into the cushion depths that she prayed would protect her from her own inquisitiveness. She noodled the holopad with the toe of her sneaker, sighing. For God’s sakes, you’re such a friggin’ drama queen- THIS IS NOTHING! It’s not a smoking gun! It’s not going to blow the lid off anything! It’s… it’s…
It was an undotted i.
A thing unresolved.
Most likely with a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Petra played the message back again.
“Chief! High Charity, the Prophets’ holy city, is on its way to Earth… with an army of Flood!” The blue-purple hologram’s impassioned plea tugged at Petra, even though she had always been vaguely creeped out by smart AIs.
“I can’t tell you everything- it’s not safe,” Cortana continued. “The Gravemind- it knows I’m in the system. But it doesn’t know about the portal… where it leads.”
Petra closed her eyes, as much to shut out whatever paths this message might lead to as to focus harder on the AI’s words.
“On the other side, there’s a solution. A way to stop the Flood- without firing the remaining Halo rings.”
Whatever approximated pain in an AI coursed through the tiny hologram’s features- something immediately unpleasant.
“Unnh! Hurry, Chief- the Ark. There isn’t much time!”
The recording ended. Without hesitation, Petra leaned forward and scrubbed backward through it again, bluish light flickering over her furrowed brow.
“-side, there solution. A way to stop the Flood- without firing the remaining Halo rings.”
Petra had already packed the Ark dossier she’d put together, but she didn’t really need it anymore; she’d memorized the big beats. The UNSC and Elites had gotten lucky when the Flood had come to them en masse, and the Master Chief had used the replacement Halo ring the Ark was constructing o wipe the out i one full swoop.
A way to stop the Flood. Without firing the remaining Halo rings.
A way to stop the Flood.
Was she talking about the replacement ring? Absolutely possible; she was obviously knowledgeable about the Portal and where it led, so perfectly reasonable that she could have known there was another Halo installation. Technically, it wouldn’t involve firing the “rings” plural, right?
Could the Ark have been a weapon? Details are fairly sketchy- OK, very sketch- but as the mother of all Forerunner artifacts, it’s certainly not out of the realm o possibility. Although it was meant as a fallback position to fir the Halo rings from, so why would you need to fire them all if the Ark itself possessed a weapon that could stop the Flood?
With a surly stab, Petra quickly toggled the holopad off. The “or” was what she knew with certainty would keep her sleeping hours o a minimum for the forseeable future. “Or” couldn’t be bargained with, it won’t get bored and run of to lay with its little friends, it wasn’t going to show up at her door at 11 PM a week from now claiming it was all a i misunderstanding. The only cure for “or” was to find out what the hell the little glowstick was on about. If there was some other instrument of destruction Cortana ha set her sights on to use against the nigh-undefeatable Flood… well, that certainly wasn’t going to be a footnote, now, was it?
Petra’s hand flopped onto the ouch, smoothing the cushions as if she were petting her folks’ dog, Handsome, back home on Lenapi. The pillows were soft and cool from the breeze blowing in through the balcony doors. Petra mussed her hair, taking a last quiet moment to watch the curtains reverse course and get dragged out towards the city beyond. Then she was up, and on the phone with the cruise line to see i her ticket could be exchanged for the next flight to Earth.