Quirel
This story is already hosted at Fanfiction.net and Spacebattles, but I thought I would post it here as well for people who don't frequent either of those websites.

Not All Who Wander isn't your typical Halo fanfiction. It's not about Spartans, or ONI operatives, or anyone on the UNSC's side. It's a story about the Great Schism, but it doesn't involve the Arbiter or Truth. Some of the characters are soldiers, but it's not about fighting a war. It's about a crew of Jackal merchants with a stolen ship, scrabbling to survive in the world born from the Great Schism. Eventually it will touch on themes like reconciliation with Humanity and how the Covenant faith will adapt and thrive.

But for now, the story is set in the bowels of High Charity, and survival is the order of the day.

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The story before you is a narrative synthesized from news reports, cantina songs, and oral histories collected from the territories of the former Covenant Empire. It is but one of many produced by Project Footprint, a program of the University of New Aberdeen that seeks to chronicle the evolution of Human-alien relations in the years between the War and the current Diaspora. By presenting historical events in the format of a popular narrative, we hope to spark interest in the real events, and preserve history in popular memory for centuries to come.


As Boatswain Quatch stared down the twin barrels of a spiker, he realized that the greatest lesson he would learn from his shipmaster’s last moments was that refusing to make a decision was the worst decision one could make. When two bad choices presented themselves, there was merit in finding a third. But when a pack of Jiralhanae march onto your dock and demand that you join the fight against the treasonous Sangheili, there was really no choice at all.

“Feckless, cowardly Kig-Yar,” growled the chieftain as he wiped the last of Shipmaster Val’s blood from his bayonet. He was a massive warrior, half again Quatch’s height and covered from head to toe in coarse tawny hair and muscles like slabs of stone. What little armor he wore was bloodstained and not his own, but rather the plates from a crimson Sangheili battle harness, riveted to leather straps so that they would fit the Brute’s massive frame. More trophy than armor.

He turned to regard the rest of the crew, most of whom were pinned down to the deck and held at gunpoint. “I should have known better than to ask you to fight. Your kind are weak, but you revel in your weakness and dare call it strength! You have no faith.”

Beside him, Quatch felt one of the other Kig-Yar quiver with rage. It was Taol, one of the engine crew. Like Quatch, she’d served in the war against the Humans. She knew what it was like to leap out of a dropship under hostile fire, and she’d done it willingly. He clicked his teeth to get her attention, break off her indignation before she did something stupid. Her eye flicked toward him, narrowed, and she checked her temper.

The warrior watching the two of them grinned even wider. Quatch made the mistake of meeting his eyes, and quickly dropped his gaze to the warrior’s steel-capped canines, but that only let him see the grin turn into a snarl. The boatswain braced himself for the blow that was surely coming… but it never landed. The warrior didn’t dare interrupt his packmaster’s speech for such a minor offense.

That was Jiralhanae leadership. It was rule by force and terror, all the way down.

The deck rumbled, which made Quatch’s quills stand on end, but the Jiralhanae paid no mind. “The Sangheili knew what you are and they left you well enough alone. No more! Their days have come to an end, and empty promises of piety will not save you. You will fight for the faith, or you will die.”

The deck rumbled again, louder. Within and without High Charity, the vengeful Sangheili and the ascendant Jiralhanae were fighting and dying for the faith, and it was tearing the ancient city apart.

“Watch them,” the chieftain said to his troops. Without another word, he stormed off to the ship. For a moment, his large, shaggy frame was outlined by the light of the cargo bay. Then he was gone.

The Brutes snarled for the freighter crew to get to their feet and stomped on the heels of anyone who hesitated. Quatch scrambled to comply, but the Brute standing over him grabbed his arm and shoved him toward the bulkhead, where in a sane world the crew would be unloading their cargo for inspection. It was all the boatswain could do to stay on his feet, but then Quatch collided with the junior electrician and they both went down in a tangle of limbs.

The Brute kicked them both across the deck. The air was crushed from Quatch’s lungs, but he rolled and ducked under the stamping hooves of his shipmates. He seized a deckhand by the belt and used her momentum as leverage to pull himself up, and then he was on his hooves and running, spitting curses as he caught his breath.

With kicks and jabs of bayonets, the Brutes herded the crew into a corner. Thirty Kig-Yar pressed into a space that would have been claustrophobic for ten. The deckhand fell and almost pulled Quatch down with her. He yanked her back upright, and as her weight spun him around, he saw the Brutes standing in a firing line, with their weapons leveled at the crew.

In that moment, Quatch thought he was going to die. The Brutes were laughing or snarling, but whatever they said to each other was lost in his shipmates’ screams. Anger flashed through him like lightning, anger at the Brutes and their sanguine cruelty. It was the same helpless rage he felt years back when his lance was pinned down by the Humans’ artillery, and back then he’d had to check himself before he did something suicidally stupid.

An eternity later, most of the Brutes lowered their weapons and walked away. Only one was left, a giant of a warrior with a plasma repeater and a savage look in his eye. He shouted for silence, and when he didn’t get it, he lowered his gun and fired a long burst into the floor. The crew was quiet when he stopped, save for the bawling from the injured.

The warrior fired again, panning the gun from left to right. When he was done, he tripped the active cooldown and cleared his throat.

“I am Atroposus. You live at my mercy,” he growled. “If any of you cross this line, all of your lives are forfeit. If any of you speaks above a whisper, I will kill you and all who stand near you.”

Another shudder ran through the dock, one that made the lights flicker. It was as if the gavel of the gods themselves had punctuated his words. The warrior smiled and stepped back from the line he’d blasted into the floor.

His orders were all wrong. There was tension, an undercurrent of panic. Quatch could feel it like a glass rod in the back of his mind, slowly but surely straining under a growing load. Panic was growing, and it was spreading from one shipmate to the because they barely had room to breathe. Someone, maybe him, would snap first, and then they’d all make a blind scramble for freedom. They’d be fools not to. Anyone who didn’t would be trampled underfoot or executed on the spot. Better to die on one’s-

“Steady,” someone said in a stern whisper. “Steady.”

Quatch turned to see the engine chief, Nak, with a ball of tightly-wrapped thallit vine in his hand. The old codger was unravelling and weaving the vine between two claws. In a moment, he had a braid half as long and thick as his finger, which he wrapped in a thin, tightly woven cloth from a roll in his other hand. All the while, he gently admonished the crew with the same stern tone.

“Steady,” he said, before he clamped one end of the thallit stick in his beak and lit the other end. He drew until the end glowed bright red, and then he passed the stick to Quatch.

“Steady on now,” he said. Already, he was braiding another, deftly juggling the ball of vine and the roll of cloth and the lighter around in his callused hands. “Every last one of you had better calm down. Fright and flight will just get us all killed.”

Quatch filled his lungs and passed the stick on to the next shipmate. From experience, he knew that the old T’vaoan had a nearly endless supply of the dry vine, and soon the whole crew would be passing the sticks back and forth like children playing catch. Nak might even have enough to improvise a smoke screen, Quatch thought wryly.

“This was a bad job,” Quatch said. “Never should have come here.” He was echoing the late Shipmaster. Whenever Shipmaster Val had said those words, he’d meant ‘I want us out of this port in five minutes.’

“Keep your head down and your eyes open,” Nak said. “Maybe we’ll live to see the light of Y’Deio again, yes?”

“Yann’s leg was trampled, chief,” a Kig-Yar named Das said to Nak as she pushed by Quatch. “He can’t run, and he’s not the only one. Jiin and Cal-.”

“We aren’t running,” Nak said, shooting a look at Quatch. “Are we, chief?”

If the cook couldn’t run, he couldn’t run. That was the difference between Quatch and most of the others. He was one of the few to have served in battle. Most of the others were civilians, and natives of Eayn at that. Their first instinct was to look after the weakest members of the crew. They passed around their thallit sticks and tended to the trampled limbs and bayonet cuts. They were good people like that.

Quatch had been a good citizen once, but that had been burned away in combat. Now he thought in terms of triage. Five years of fighting the Humans taught him that a chain was only as strong as its weakest link. But people weren’t metal rings. Unlike chains, the weakest members of the group spread their weakness, and the group that wasted energy carrying the weak was all the more vulnerable. The weak had to grow stronger, or they had to be left behind.

Quatch looked around. The crew had spread out to within a pace of the Atroposus’s line, and now they had enough room to sit down. He could see how terrified they all were. Terrified of their predicament, terrified of the Brutes, terrified of the fight that they would soon be joining. He saw wide eyes and clasped beaks everywhere, and he caught a whiff of an acrid smell. Someone had already soiled themselves.

When the shooting started, he knew they would shatter like brittle steel. Most of them. Not all. Taol was a veteran from his unit, and she could more than handle herself in combat. And Nak couldn’t have gotten that old without seeing a fight or two. And the pipeliner… he didn’t know her past, but she carried herself like she knew how to survive a firefight.

“Lan,” he said to the pipeliner. “I need you to get Yann on his feet.”

“He can’t walk,” Das protested. She was the doctor’s mate, and the running joke in the crew was that she is too motherly for a female who wasn’t raising a clutch of children.

“If he can’t walk, he’s dead,” Quatch said matter-of-factly. “The Jiralhanae have no use for a crippled soldier, and they’ll sooner kill him than let the rest of us think an injury is the easy way out of the fight.”

“That’s damn right!” their guard shouted. Quatch nearly jumped out of his skin. The guard smiled as he went back to pacing in front of the crew, but only a fool would mistake it for humor. With his nerves still ringing and his heart hammering against his ribs, Quatch turned back to the other Kig-Yar.

“I was going to tell you to get ready to run,” he whispered. “But our guard’s ears are cleaner than the rest of him.”

“They’re not going to make us fight, are they?” Das asked. Her tone made it clear that the Brutes might as well ask her to sprout wings and fly.

“They want cannon fodder,” Quatch replied. “If fighting happens to occur, that’s a bonus to them.”

“We can’t do that,” Nak said.

“We don’t have a choice.”

“We’re not warriors,” Das said. “You’re insane!”

“He’s telling you the way things are,” Taol rebuked her. “If you can’t accept that, then that’s your problem.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Das protested. Her eyes were like saucers of crinkled foil, her pupils narrow pinpricks in comparison. The thallit was either doing too much for her or not enough. “We aren’t fighters. What are we going to accomplish for them? You’re a warrior, you should be talking to them! Convince them to let us go! They can’t all be crazy-”

For a moment, Quatch’s terror cooled into cold fury. He seized her by the wrist and the scruff of the neck and hauled her through the crowd. They came to a stop just short of the line of scorchmarks, where they could see out through the hangar entrance.

The Libation was parked in a dock big enough to handle a vessel three times her length, out towards the end of a spire that rose from High Charity’s ventral spine. Therefore, they had an almost unobstructed view through the canopy airlock to the battle outside, and Halo beyond.

The sacred ring was majestic. Elegant. Breathtaking. The surface outside was covered in designs whose scale and purpose defied the imagination. Just one of the disks on the rim was was bigger than all the megacities of Eayn, and the whole ring could girdle Quatch’s homeworld with room to spare. The inside held oceans and mountains and everything in between. He knew in his heart that, even if he had never in all his life been told that Halo was a sacred artefact, looking upon it would still be a religious experience.

And in the foreground, the magnificent warships of the Covenant armada were doing battle with all the dignity and righteous fury of flies fighting over a scrap of rancid meat. High Charity’s own home fleets had split into two factions, maybe more, and they were blasting away at each other with wild abandon. The warships hurled streamers of light at each other, at the void in between, and some of their light even flickered up toward the sacred ring, though it fell mercifully short. That same fight was raging all over the Covenant’s most holy city.

Quatch wasn’t one for faith, but he knew sacrilege when he saw it.

“The gods themselves have shut their eyes in shame,” Quatch said. He turned upon Das. “Do you see that? The four-jaws and the Jirals are fighting over the Halo ring. They have all taken leave of their senses! You think this is insane? Wake up. Insanity is the rule of the day.”

Das didn’t reply. All the anger and indignation vanished from her eyes, and nothing replaced it. Quatch had defeated her, but maybe he’d gone too far, and there was no taking it back.

“Dasa,” he said. “I need you to get Yann and the others ready to walk. Help them.”

She nodded and fled. Quatch was left feeling something he couldn’t describe and didn’t like.

“Mmm. Nice view,” Nak said behind him. Quatch turned, expecting to see the old engine chief's face creased with disappointment. Instead, he was very deliberately looking at the hangar door above, without any any expression at all. That was worse.

“Yeah, it is a nice view,” Quatch said, looking skyward.

“Don’t change the subject, chief,” Nak said. He tied off one last thallit stick and wedged it between two yellowed teeth. “Violence is how you discipline warriors in the legions. That’s not how we do things on a ship.”

“We don’t have a ship anymore,” Quatch retorted. Some of the crew shot him a wounded look, as if to ask whose side he was on. He pitied their optimism.

“Doesn’t change anything. Do the math. A crew is still a crew.”

“Yeah, we’re also missing a shipmaster,” Quatch said.

Nak looked at him expectantly, but Quatch had nothing more to say. He was staring at the trail of bloody footprints that lead from the group back to the shipmaster’s headless body. There were others lying on the deck, killed in the initial struggle or in the stampede. A curl of smoke was rising from a spike in the paymaster’s head, not far from where the shipmaster’s mate lay. Closer, one of the deck crew was lying limp with bloody footprints all over him. Quatch hadn’t seen him move at all. He was either dead or mercifully unconscious.

Those four were the lucky ones. Barring a miracle, the rest of the crew was facing combat. Most of them were civilians. The rest of their lives were going to be brutal, panic-stricken, and short.

Quatch remembered what he had said to Das. The gods themselves have shut their eyes in shame. The only miracle that could save the crew was one of their own making.

A hovercart entered the hangar and turned smartly toward the Kig-Yar’s corner. It was piloted by an Unggoy wearing a slave’s white rebreather harness and ill-fitting red armor with a blue bloodstain down the side. The Unggoy had the burning eyes of a true believer, and when Atroposus flagged him down, he argued animatedly with the Jiralhanae. After a quick back-and-forth, the guard roared and raised his fist. The Unggoy nearly fell out of his seat in fright, but turned the cart around and drove it for the far corner.

“What was that about?” Nak asked.

“Delivery,” Taol said. “That’s a cartload of shield gauntlets for us, harvested fresh from the battlefield.”

“And weapons?” Nak asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Taol replied. “They won’t trust us with weapons. The guard threw a fit because shield gauntlets alone would make his job harder.”

“But when they throw us into the battle-”

“You’ll have shield gauntlets and whatever you pick up from the dead,” Taol said.

Nak looked to Quatch, but Quatch had nothing for him. Taol wasn’t wrong, even if she could be more gentle about it.

But Nak didn’t look away. And out of the corner of his eye, Quatch saw that some of the other crew were staring at him with the same expectant look. Because they were civilians? Because he’d seen combat, and still bore his service tattoos? He couldn’t save them. He wanted to shout at them. They weren’t warriors, and he wasn’t their shipmaster.

“Stand up and pay heed,” Atroposus barked. “the Fist approaches!”

“My men call me Fist,” the chieftain said as he sauntered up to the crew. “You will call me Marsangtus.”

He towered over the Kig-Yar, sizing them up and not liking what he saw. The Kig-Yar didn’t like what they saw either. He still wore the blood-splattered trophy armor, but in addition to that he’d wrapped his limbs with ballistic weave and slathered his fur with fireproof lotions. Tendrils of greasy hair hung from under his golden helmet. Across one shoulder he carried a longarm spiker with an obscenely long blade, the same blade he’d decapitated the shipmaster with.

The chieftain singled out Taol, possibly because she was the only one who wasn’t cowed. “Tell me, who is your commander?”

“You are,” Taol said.

That got a laugh out of him and Atroposus. One thing that Jiralhanae and Sangheili shared in common, neither thought that joke got old.

“Your shipmaster is dead,” Marsangtus said. “Tell me, who is next in command?”

“The shipmaster’s mate,” Taol replied. “Your warriors killed her too.”

“And under her?”

“The navigator. He was on the ship. What did you do to him?”

Marsangtus snarled and seized her by the neck. Quick as lightning, Taol pointed to Quatch.

“You want him.”

Those words hit like lightning. Quatch was in command now. In terms of time served on the ship or personal closeness with the Shipmaster, Quatch was the most junior of the officers. He was fourth in command on paper, but that hadn’t mattered. Not until now. That was why half of his shipmates had been giving him strange looks. That’s why Nak was calling him chief. The old man was too proud to ask someone eighty years his junior for orders, and Quatch had been too stupid to catch the hints.

Marsangtus shifted his gaze to Quatch. So did everyone else in earshot. Quatch felt a sudden draft as his loyal shipmates backed away from him.

“You,” the chieftain said. “Tell me your name.”

“Quatch, from the Tennbau clan,” Quatch said as he brought himself to his full height. The chieftain tapped his shoulder with a bayonet, and it took all of the Kig-Yar’s will to not flinch.

“You bear the branding of a warrior,” the Jiralhanae mused, referring to the pattern of ring-shaped tattoos that spanned Quatch’s shoulder blades and spread up his neck. “When did you serve?”

“Ten years ago, by the holy calendar. I fought under Field Marshal ‘Ualothamee in the Select Fleet of Tempered Resolve.”

The Brute laughed. “Rejoice!” he yelled to the other Kig-Yar, loud enough to make some jump in fright. “Here is a warrior who drew first blood on the shores of Bathtet! He shall lead you through what is to come!”

Quatch felt cold dread well up in his stomach. Bathtet. The world where the Humans built a coastal fuel refinery the size of a city. Seven legions landed to claim those fuel-rich seas for the Covenant war machine, and the 56 Dasim of Eayn Dragoons led the assault from the beach. Quatch only remembered those first three days as a chaotic tangle of briney water, burning dropships, and the twisted remains of unfathomable Human machinery.

He glanced over to the Libation, which the Brutes were loading with weapons and crates of supplies. He imagined the Libation storming the shores of Bathtet under the withering fire of the Human stutter-guns. It was a freight hauler. It wouldn’t survive long. Hell, his crewmates wouldn’t last long either. They would all have died on those cold shores, and their bodies would have washed out with the tide.

“Above us is the Spire of Reunion and Want, which even now the Sangheili hold. Our brethren call for aid! In the name of Truth and Mercy, for the memory of Regret, we shall join battle and crush them!”

“But we have no weapons!” someone shouted. Bel, one of the cargo handlers.

“And I trust you with none,” the chieftain said with a smirk that bared his fangs. “When we land, you all will be the first off the ship. You will draw fire from my warriors and take ground as I command. If you survive, you shall have earned a place at my side.”

“And you,” the chieftain said, rounding on Quatch. He took a plasma pistol from his belt and offered it grip-first. “You will watch over them.”

Quatch accepted the pistol, or tried to. Marsangtus wouldn’t let it go.

“You will inspire them in battle, and you will shoot any who flee the fight,” the chieftain said, his voice a low growl. “Or my warriors will kill every last one of you, and throw the bodies into the void.”

Quatch glanced over his shoulder. His shipmates were staring back at him in horror.

He turned back to the chieftain, whose grin now spread from one cheekguard to the other. This was power, and the Brute knew it. Quatch wanted nothing more than to take the pistol and shoot that smug son of a whore dead. But he figured there was a better-than-even chance that Marsangtus would live long enough to lop his head off before succumbing to his wounds. And then every other Brute in the dock would draw their weapons and hose down this whole corner. The rest of the crew would die as surely as if Quatch himself put the gun to their heads and pulled the trigger.

Quatch owed them. He was the one with combat experience. He was the senior officer of the Libation, and it was his duty to see his people to safety. In that moment, Quatch resolved that he’d find a way out. He would go along with the Jiral’s mad plan only until he found a break, a third option. Something was going to come along and draw the Brute’s undivided attention, and he would get every last one of his shipmates away from this insanity.

“I’ll serve you,” he lied. The chieftain released the pistol and said something, but Quatch didn’t hear it. He was distracted by the haunting wail of his break approaching, and he cursed it. It was too soon, there was no chance to get the other Kig-Yar ready-

“Well?” Marsangtus asked.

“Banshees,” Quatch said, looking out toward the tip of the spire.

The chieftain snarled and drew his bayonet, suspecting some kind of trick from the boatswain. Then he heard it too.

“To arms!” he bellowed. “Singleships on the approach! Draw arms and fend them off!”

The Libation rested in a sectioned dock. The dock was designed to handle ships much larger than a medium freighter, but was built with partitions so that it could service many smaller vessels. Those partitions were thick and bristled with machinery, but did not rise all the way to the outer skin of the spire. There was enough room for a patrol corvette to pass above them.

A pair of singleships popped over the partition. They were single-man attack craft with stubby wings tipped with gravetic engines that glowed bright blue. Twin plasma cannons spat a lance of blue fire that cut wide paths across the deck. Brutes died. Crates caught fire and burst apart. A cart of looted machinery vanished in a green explosion that rattled the deckplates.

The rest of the Brute pack drew their weapons and returned fire. Some raced out of cover to get a better shot. The chieftain already had his longarm spiker up, and he was pumping one heavy spike after another into the nearest singleship.

This was the best chance he might get.

Heart hammering in his throat, Quatch lowered his pistol and double-tapped the Brute in the back of the knee. The unarmored joint exploded into ash and strips of hairy flesh.

The Brute bellowed as his leg gave out and he toppled to the floor. Quatch’s follow-up shots to the head splashed across the Brute’s helmet, and in desperation the Kig-Yar switched targets and blew off Marsangtus’s right hand.

“Run!” Quatch screeched. “Over there to the lower levels!”

The other Kig-Yar were stunned by the sudden violence, and many were on their knees. They scrambled to their feet, but not fast enough for him. He hauled Nak and the cargo chief upright and gave them a shove in the right direction. “Go, go, go!”

Atroposus was turning, his plasma repeater venting heat, but Taol was already upon him. She ducked under his swing, scrambled up his back, and drove a long knife into his neck.

The Kig-Yar were confused, frightened, and they weren’t following him. They were scattering. Some ran for the ship, and some ran for cover. Quatch yelled again, but that only drew attention from the other Jiralhanae, so he cursed and sprinted for the turnwise edge of the dock.

Already, spikes and plasma bolts were sailing their way.

He saw two of the cargo handlers change their minds halfway to the Libation and curve to follow him, only to be cut down in the open. He saw Lan and Heik carrying Yann. He saw Taol leap off Atroposus, leaving her knife buried to the hilt in his shoulder.

And he saw the second pair of strike craft pop over the partition. That was the oldest trick in the book, and he was surprised the Brutes fell for it. The first pair comes in fast and low to provoke ground fire, goading the defenders to reveal their position for the second pair.

The fleeing sailors were caught in a hailstorm of spikes and bolts of red energy. Red-hot darts missed Quatch by a finger’s width. Others weren’t so lucky. He saw his friends cut down in the crossfire. Their names flashed through his head as they fell to the deck. Hanhe. Buce. Bel. Hok. He couldn’t help them. He was too near to panic, and long-dormant combat instincts were taking over.

Quatch reached the end of the dock unscathed and jumped off. He landed hard and rolled to a stop on top of Taol, and then he shoved off her quickly in case she had any more knives.

The first thing he noticed was the quiet. The battle was still raging on the dock, and it sounded like Sangheili rangers had joined the fight. There came battlecries and scattered weapons fire overhead, but down here the crew had time to gather their wits.

"Down here" was a utility storage deck, which was to say that it was a quiet space between the elevated dock and a highway where odds and ends tended to accumulate. Canisters of Unggoy food were stacked next to pipelines full of fuel, reactor coolant, and fresh air. Pallets of machine parts were piled high and sealed in tamper-proof wrap.

Quatch took a quick headcount. There was him, and Taol, and Nak, Kess, and Don hiding behind a large engine core due for the recyclers. And Bon with his fellow keelworkers Dith and Pem, the latter of which had grabbed the chieftain’s longarm spiker. Lan and Heik both made it, but Yann was mewling in pain from a spike that had torn through his arm. Sap and Cam were turning over Kheif… who was dead. Landed hard and broke her neck, from the looks of it. Rounding it off was Tair and Dwe, hiding behind an empty crate.

Fifteen. Out of thirty two crewmembers he’d promised to save.

And Quatch’s job wasn’t over yet.

He checked the charge on his plasma pistol and stepped out onto the highway. It was empty, when it should have been chock full of road trains running to the heart of High Charity, or the great cities at the crown. But that was before this outbreak of madness.

“We’ve got to find someplace to hole up and listen for what’s going on. We can’t stay here,” Quatch said to the others.

He beckoned with the plasma pistol. Force of habit. He was used to wearing a shield gauntlet on the other arm.

“Let’s go.”
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Quirel
"Long have I thought about the Jiralhanae, and their sudden elevation. How did they fight so well? How did they earn such dear victory in the early hours of the Great Schism? They came to the Mendicant City prepared for war, that is how. Our garrison forces were unprepared in body and in spirit, and so they were vanquished at little cost to the Jiralhanae..."

"...Had not the Parasite interrupted their plans for conquest, I fear that they would have overrun us. To the shame of my ancestors by blood and by heritage, they would have conquered High Charity."

Field Marshall Oular 'Kandonomee, recorded in the second volume of his untitled memoirs.
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Evening period, Fiefdom Port of Clan Umtalla

It had been years since Quatch had heard the sound of an army on the move.

Armor clanked, engines whined, orders and oaths were shouted to and fro. The footsteps of marching warriors echoed up and down the highway that led to the pier, ringing off the bulkheads to either side and the ceiling above. Traction sleds, used to carry cargo in every port in the Covenant empire, now bore Jiralhanae warriors by the dozens. Alongside them ran lances of Unggoy and Kig-Yar and the Jiralhanae privileged to lead other species into battle.

The noise they made bore down on Quatch like a physical object, drowning out the distant crumps of battle that rattled the deck beneath his hooves. The worst was the battlesong, a call-and-response in rough warrior cant.

“We took up arms for Tartarus!” a warband leader sang, his words rendered harshly by audio amplifiers as big as coffins.

“Sons of Dosiac!” came the thunderous reply from hundreds of Brutes.

“We pledged ourselves in life and death to the Fist!” the officer cried.

“Blood of Dosiac, ready to be shed!” the ranks responded.

Both the officer and his warriors sang in unison to a cadence Quatch knew well.

“Though the Fist was the first martyr,

we will follow him even now!

We’ll quarter the Sangheili who slew him,

and we’ll slaughter ten million more!

With our lives we will avenge

the victims of the heretic hordes.

We live, we die, we’ll be reborn!

The first ranks of the Great Journey,

vanguards of the Covenant faith!”

Any song sang by hundreds of Brutes in a closed area would be loud, and this one shook dust from the ceiling. Worse than that, it made Quatch’s blood run cold. He pushed himself deeper into cover and further out of sight, which was a feat since fifteen other Kig-Yar were hiding back there too. When the crew heard the legion coming, they ran for a service hallway, used by Yanme’e stevedores and Unggoy slaves to get around. But the door was shut, and whoever was on the other side refused to unlock it.

So they hid in the gap between a crate and the bulkhead, praying that none would notice them. All it would take was one warrior to look back the way he’d come, to peer into the shadows by the access door.

Quatch looked down the gap to Taol, who stared back. Between them were fourteen sailors at the very brink of hysteria. Nak was gnawing on an unlit thallit stick. Pem was hugging his stolen longarm spiker as if it was his long-lost brother, and Bon was braiding a length of cable together, either fashioning a weapon or just working off nervous energy.

Beside him, Lan and Heik were probably the worst. Lan was still like a bead of glass in a vice, the feathers in her mane twitching in ripples. Heik could see the legion of Brutes just as well as Quatch could, and the battle hymn was getting to him. The radio operator slumped to the floor and clamped his hands over his ears.

Quatch was terrified. He also felt his bile rise. The warrior cant the Brutes sang in was the same one he’d learned in his time in the legion, a creole of Pan Sangheili diluted with words common to Kig-Yar, Unggoy, and Jiralhanae tongues. The cadence of their oath was the same as the Litany of Salvation in Hardship, and the Creed of the Airborne, and the battle honors of the 56 Dasim of Eayn Dragoons. He’d sung those tunes a dozen times or more, crammed with his cohort into the belly of a dropship as it carried them to an uncertain fate.

He remembered the faith those songs had kindled within him, the sense of companionship that had grown in those dark hours. Even though he would shortly be thrown into battle against the condemned Humans, and though he was led by madmen who thirsted for suicidal glory, he was not alone.

It was different now. The song echoed up and down the hall, so loud and overwhelming, and he felt so very alone.

The noise abated as the sled that bore the warband leader and his amplifiers disappeared around the corner. Now the Brutes that marched past shouted boasts to one another, and fired their guns overhead in jubilation. Gun carriages and assault support vehicles threaded their way through the ranks, followed by a clanking four-legged excavation crawler of all things.

The warriors on foot thinned out and the battlesong faded, and for a moment Quatch dared to think the worst was over.

Then a massive Jiralhanae warrior lumbered around the corner.

Quatch heard a gasp, the quick breath before a scream. Quick as lightning, he clamped his hand around Heik’s beak. The signalman choked and snorted, as loud as thunder to Quatch’s ears.

The Brute stood there, peering into the shadows. Quatch imagined he could see those eyes glittering under the brim of his helmet, daring him to panic, like an apex predator waiting for its prey to bolt so it could enjoy the thrill of the chase.

And even though the singers were gone, their bloodthirsty song still grated on Quatch’s nerves. He could hear its echo in the blood pounding in his ears.

The Jiralhanae cleared his throat.

Quatch slowly reached for the pistol hanging from his belt loop.

And Heik sneezed.

That would have been the end of them if the Jiral himself didn’t explode into a coughing fit at the same time. He doubled over and coughed so hard his armor plates rattled against each other. When he was done, he spat into the corner and turned to stand sentry. It was only then that Quatch got a good look at his face. Half of the warrior’s face was covered in savage cuts that wept blood, from claws or shrapnel the Boatswain couldn’t tell. One of the Brute’s eyes was swollen shut. He was half-blind, and probably couldn’t hear much over the agony of his wounds.

Quatch saw that his crewmates were staring at him, either looking to him for guidance or waiting for a hail of spikes to pin him to the wall. He smiled and leaned over to Lan. “We’re not out from under the knife yet, but if we stay silent, this bastard can’t see us.”

That did something for her. The feathers in her mane calmed, and she turned to whisper to Bon.

Quatch watched the news spread down the line, sailor to sailor. The three keelworkers passed the message to each other with whispered words and hand signals that Quatch couldn’t read, and the last one in line passed it on to Dwe, who closed her eyes and made the sign of soulful gratitude before telling Tair. The atmosphere in the narrow gap changed from near panic to relief, so that the sailors at the end were becalmed before the news ever reached them. And Taol went from concerned to… less concerned. Which was a big change for her.

Nak took out a lighter and tapped it inquisitively against his thallit stick. Quatch clicked his beak in the negative. He was sure that the old man was joking, and if he wasn’t, then his exaggerated disappointment was a wonderful save.

Quatch turned back to the highway, and wondered why such a crippled warrior was stationed as a sentry. Was he a fanatic, or sworn to a callous commander? Even the most hidebound warriors Quatch ever had the misfortune of serving under would have considered such grievous wounds grounds for days of rest.

The answer coasted into view. It was a large traction sled, the kind used to carry large starship components, and the bed was piled high with loot. Crates, clothes, machines and urns of beer, the wealth of thousands of worlds. And that was just in the first sled. Two more followed in its wake, flanked by assault vehicles and troop carriers, and then came the irregulars.

Wave upon wave of Kig-Yar and Unggoy marched after the loot wagons, though if Quatch had ever marched with such poor form in the Dragoons, he would have been beaten. They slouched and skipped and adjusted armor that they were clearly unaccustomed to wearing. They were civilians looted from the city, and they would either be cannon fodder or slaves. Jiralhanae barrier troops marched alongside them, herding them with harsh words and the lash.

Quatch sat down next to Heik, fearing that one of the warriors would glance in this direction and see him. Heik tried to pry Quatch’s fingers off his beak, so Quatch gave him a good shake until he stopped.

Heik would have to be patient. They all did. They would get out of this mess just fine so long as they waited for the right moment.

Waiting was the hardest part of all.

Too hard for some of the crew, apparently. Bon pushed past Lan and peeked around the corner. Quatch motioned for him to get back in cover, but was ignored. Bon studied the procession for a while, and when he was done he pulled a grease marker from his coveralls, wrote the interrogative glyph “Next?” on the shipping container, and offered the marker to Quatch.

Quatch took the marker and wrote “Stay and wait.”

“What’s the plan, Chief?” Even in writing, Bon’s habitual sarcasm bled through. There was a line by the symbol for “chief” that could either be the diacritic for newly bestowed status, or the diacritic that indicated a temporary nature.

Quatch circled his previous statement and added “Until Brutes are gone.” Then he scratched off the diacritic with his thumb.

“Could take a long time,” Bon wrote.

“Not that long. Once was pinned down by artillery and airstrikes in the legions. Three days.”

Quatch kept writing. It wasn’t a good memory, but he’d already made peace with it, and the act of writing it down kept his mind off the Brutes. Besides, as long as he held the marker, he didn’t have to read Bon’s bellyaching. “Three days cooped up in a cellar built by the Humans as their artillery shelled our half of the city. Shell strikes like earthquakes. Our shelter caved in on the second day, but we dared not reposition. The barrages halted only to let their armor advance. I saw Mgalekgolo and strike teams battle the Human growlers and creepers in the street outside our pile of rubble. That time passed. So will this.”

Bon snorted in frustration and turned to walk away, but Quatch grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Can you talk to the others with hand signals?”

Bon fished another grease marker out of his coveralls and wrote “Yes. Why?”

Quatch showed him the communication unit strapped to his wrist. The whole crew had them, either wrist-mounted and stowed away in pockets. The casters couldn’t talk to each other directly. Instead, their communiques were relayed through the Libation’s comm mast, and were therefore independent of the port’s infrastructure. And Quatch’s unit couldn’t find a signal.

“The Libation is gone,” he wrote.

“What about local channels?” Bon replied.

“I don’t trust the local channels,” Quatch wrote. Bon clicked his teeth and circled that statement.

“We can talk with keelworker signals,” Bon wrote. “I’ll tell the others.”

“You stay with me, Dith stays with Taol, Pem and the others stay with Nak. Taol and I scout forward, Nak’s group stays behind. If I am lost, Taol takes command, then Nak. Pass it on,”

Bon circled Taol’s name and added an interrogative. Quatch ignored him. He knew that wasn’t going to be a popular decision; Taol wasn’t well-liked by the rest of the crew. But she was crafty, and besides Quatch she was the only one with any military experience.

“You’ve got a plan?” Bon asked.

“We run away or we hide. For now, we wait.”
--------------------------------------------------

Midday, Hidden in the Upper Moorage

Burning with shame and rage, young P’thon ‘Umtalla vowed that he would would run no more. He vowed a swift and bloody end to the Jiralhanae who taken the dock and slaughtered his kin, and he swore that he would take up arms and personally correct the family’s fatal mistake.

He wasn’t a warrior, not yet. His blooding years were nearly here, or they would be in a time of relative peace. Like every other of his male kin who came of age, he was to be pledged to the service of a shipmaster known to his family. Serving aboard his warship, he would learn the virtues and earn the honor that his family’s status dictated. He would learn naval strategy and grand tactics, how to fight pirates and how to curry favor with the Ministries. Above all, he would learn the art of logistics, how to keep open the supply lines that feed a navy on the move.

Only when he proved his merit would his kin take him back. Then he would learn a new life, the life of a merchant and manager of the family’s vast fortune. This was true of all the Umtalla men. The Umtalla family’s naval tradition was long and broad, and their connections to the officer corps of their home sector were deep and personal. From this, the family had profited handsomely even before they came to High Charity. After all, did warriors not need to eat? Did their weapons spring from the ground? No, it was sold to them, and the Umtalla’s keen knowledge of naval affairs had turned the tide of a dozen wars.

But for all that experience, not a single Umtalla warrior in living memory had ever fought in a ground war. And so, when the Jiralhanae horde marched onto the family’s dock, P’thon’s kin were blown away like leaves in the wind. The young Sangheili had watched helplessly as his mother and his brothers were cut down in the crossfire, and it was cold comfort that his closest uncle had taken him by the nape of the neck and ordered him to run and hide. He was too young to fight.

Anger coursed through his veins, hot and impotent anger. He couldn’t fight, and he was afraid to die, and he hated himself for it. He crept in the shadows like a loathsome insect, scurrying through the halls reserved for the stevedores as the hairy savages destroyed the world he knew. He hated the Brutes for slaughtering his family and plundering their warehouses like animals. But he couldn’t stand up to them. He wasn’t even sure he could take a lone Brute on his own. And, shamefully, he hated his own family for dying so easily. Even the Umtalla, a merchant clan, acknowledged that war was the true measure of the Sangheili. How could they just lay down and die without felling a single Jiralhanae?

But P’thon would avenge them. The Heirarchs themselves had gone mad and sparked a civil war, one which would not soon be over. P’thon intended to take one of his family’s finest vessels, one of the convoy escorts. He couldn’t run it on his own, and he didn’t have the resources to keep it going in a time of war, but he could sell it to someone who did. With that money, he could outfit an entire legion of the Covenant’s finest warriors, and then he would find the Field Master to lead them into battle. The young Sangheili would learn how to wage battle, the bloody and violent art of the infantry, and when he was a learned man he would seek out the Brute who killed his family.

For that reason, P’thon stayed in the shadows long enough to hear the Jiralhanae warriors chant the name of their chieftain. Then he crept through back alleys and the tunnels reserved for the Yanme’e stevedores until he reached the highest of the Umtalla clan’s docks, the ones reserved for the fast ships and the convoy escorts. The Silent Resolution-class escorts lay in their cradles like predatory fish held in suspended animation. Their engines, though cold, were swift and powerful, and their weapons were the sort that commerce raiders feared. And P’thon, young as he was, knew how to fly them.

But the Jiralhanae had beaten him there.

The young Sangheili watched in disbelief as the hairy warriors took up guard positions at the entrance to the dock, and three more marched to a convoy escort. It was the near one, the Dying Vow of Rhi ‘Umtalla. He expected the Brutes to batter down the main airlock with their fists, or cut it open if they were particularly intelligent for their species. Instead, the lead one with white, bloodstained fur pulled a severed arm from a bag and waved it under the airlock’s biometric scanner.

The scanner whined. The airlock doors flashed scarlet light and went still. Nothing else happened.

The white Brute tried again, with as much success.

One of the other warriors suggested that he massage the arm to get the blood flowing. The white Brute snarled at him to shut up. Again and again he submitted the severed arm for the scanner’s inspection, to the same level of success.

P’thon didn’t know how the Brutes came here so fast, or from whom they learned of the biometric locks, but he wasn’t about to stay and find out. There were two convoy escorts in the dock, and the far one was as yet unguarded. He’d steal that one, but he needed a distraction. Something to draw the Brutes’ attention.

He looked around his corner of the dock, where all the regular supplies were kept. He was hidden among barrels of lubricant and specialized heat transfer fluid, and further away were barrels of cleaning solvent. The young Sangheili had plenty to work with.

P’thon stalked through the barrels and tanks like a shadow until he came to a barrel full of oxygen-scrubbing chemical. That would do. He pried at the spigot with a hard knife until a seam gave way and cold liquid poured out, and then he left a small plasma blade lying on the floor nearby. The liquid washed over the blade moments later, vaporized, and then caught fire. A loud report rang out through the dock. Sheets of flame and oily black smoke rose through the equipment racks to the ceiling above. A cry of alarm rose up from the Brutes, soon drowned out by the fire suppression systems.

By then, P’thon was sprinting through the shadows beneath the cradles, hearts hammering, the taste of blood in his mouth. He could almost hear his family’s battlehymn as he swung around a pylon and drew a bead on the escort’s airlock. This sprint, he knew, was the first steps on the long road to revenge, and he savored every hoofbeat.

White hot pain lanced through his right leg, and his feet went out from under him. P’thon stumbled and fell to the ground in a heap.

He tried to get up, but his leg wouldn’t respond. More pain washed over him every time he tried to move. The young scion of the ‘Umtalla clan looked down and saw two red-hot spikes embedded to the bone in his thigh.

A shadow fell across him. P’thon thought it was the white-furred Brute, but the pain battered him like waves against the shore, and his thoughts were carried away on the tide. He felt the Brute lift him by the arm, and he saw the Jiralhanae smile cruelly as he inspected the tattoo on P’thon’s wrist, and he heard the Jiralhanae growl in satisfaction.

“You’ll do.”
Quote 0 0
Quirel
Historical Note: Quite understandably, primary accounts of the first day of the Great Schism are hard to come by. The sudden escalation of the conflict caught many observers by surprise, and the complete loss of High Charity means that the traditional methods will never be able to fully separate fact from rumor.

Project Footprint is deeply indebted to the Umtalla clan for opening their archives to our researchers. Their presence on High Charity was extensive, but the bulk of the family's mercantile and recordkeeping operations were based on their homeworld. The final, apocalyptic messages from the doomed station were meticulously catalogued by the annalist. Working with his successor, our research team was able to confirm a number of legends about the final hours of the Covenant's most holy city.

--------------------------------------------------

Evening Period, Fiefdom Port of Clan Umtalla

Quatch had never seen a battlefield from this angle. Not the aftermath, anyway.

The Brutes passed through the port offices on their way to the docks. The merchant family that held this section of the spire as a fiefdom had fought back. Poorly. Puddles of blood from dead Sangheili and their Yanme'e stevodores littered the ground where they'd fallen, and there was not a sign of a single dead Jiral to be seen. Now that the fighting was over, the victorious Brutes were pillaging. Smoke leaked out of the windows of the office buildings, and hairy warriors were plundering one warehouse after another.

Overhead, unseen, Quatch and Bon clambered up a decorative arch that landed on the roof of the port authority.

"Don't look down," Quatch whispered.

"We're not that high," Bon replied curtly.

"I'm not worried about heights," Quatch replied, looking at a row of Sangheili corpses. Execution hadn't been enough for the Jiralhanae. The corpses were dismembered as well, and likely belonged to the very young or very old who couldn't fight back.

Brute warriors wandered around, directing empty hovercarts and carts full of loot from the warehouses. They were in a state Quatch had learned to fear in his time in the Legion; drunk on victory as they came down from their bloodlust, at once joyful and gregarious yet prone to fits of cruel violence. A pair of them were laughing, pounding fists and helmets, while a third took potshots at dark corners where survivors might be hiding. The pair stopped a cart and flipped it over before the driver could scramble out of the cab, and then they laughed harder.

It at times like this that Quatch and his fellow Kig-Yar learned to make themselves scarce. The Brutes were more of a danger to their fellow warriors after a crushing victory than they were when they were roaring drunk.

Quatch shuddered and kept climbing. Lights were out and smoke filled the air, but he was likely to be spotted by any warrior who looked up. Just a little bit more, and they would reach the roof. Just a little bit more until he and Bon were safely out of sight.

--------------------------------------------------

Evening Period, Office of Jarl ur ‘Umtalla

The office of the port authority was low and squat, shorter than the control tower down the street but undeniably the center of the Umtalla clan’s activity. It looked like a stronghold, but that simply reflected the Sangheili taste for thick walls and arrowslit windows. The inside was more like a palace, richly furnished with exotic hardwood and alloy tiles. What impressed Quatch the most when he first visited were the holograms.

The holograms rose from the windows like shafts of light reflected from a harsh yellow sun, and another, larger hologram speared down from the oculus in the roof. One by one, they brightened and dimmed, and they all tracked from east to west as if simulating daytime on a faraway world. The holograms from the arrowslits displayed the names and statuses of each of the ships docked in port, and the one from the oculus extolled the virtuous acts of the family’s long-dead ancestors. Parables written in spidery script wreathed the images of these exemplars, exhorting the living to live up to their name.

There was nobody left alive to heed those holograms, which was just as well, because the holograms were out too. From his perch on a second-story windowsill, Quatch could only see one shaft spearing up from the lower level, flickering on and off in the haze that filled the office.

Bon came in behind Quatch, looked around, and hissed a long curse. Quatch didn't blame him. Machines were smashed, desks torn up and thrown aside, and smears of blood showed where bodies had been dragged to the balcony and thrown down.

“Where now?” Bon asked.

“We’re where we need to be,” Quatch said. The ground level was where clerks and inspectors did their business with outsiders. The second level was where the Umatala family conducted their own business. The upper level encircled a large atrium, so that the elders could monitor their inferiors. It was typical Sangheili architecture.

“Look around, find someplace for the others to hide,” Quatch ordered.

“In here?” Bon was incredulous.

“The Brutes are finished in here. They won’t come back. And whatever you do, don’t look down there.”

Plasma pistol at the ready, Quatch stalked through the mess of overturned desks. Broken dataslates and vellum contract pages crinkled underfoot, where they weren’t matted down by bloodstains and bloody footprints.

In his mind’s eye, he could see how the fight went down. The largest and heaviest desks lay askew by the stairway, clearly dragged there to serve as a barricade. There, the noble defenders readied what weapons they had (and knowing the Sangheili, there was an arsenal somewhere nearby, or they’d all keep blades in their desks) and vowed to defend their territory to the last. The Brutes suppressed the defenders with gunfire and a volley of grenades, then they charged the barricade and effortlessly shoved the desks aside. Then they laid into the poorly armed and unarmored defenders with unspeakable savagery. Blades, fists and teeth. That was the Jiralhanae way.

It was the way of the Sangheili too. To them, there was no distinction between soldiers and civilians. Both fought as was required of them, and anyone who refused to fight was a coward and a criminal. They would have fought to their dying breath, no matter how hopelessly outmatched they were.

Quatch stared at the harbormaster, beheaded and pinned to the wall with a spear. What kind of lunatic, he wondered, would consider that to be dying with honor?

There were rooms at the far end of the office. Quatch searched them one after another. The first was a lavatory, and it looked like the Brutes had thrown a bundle of grenades through the door rather than search the stalls.

The next two were conference rooms, which the Brutes had largely left alone. The last one…

The last one was a kitchen. Not a large one, just big enough to prepare meals to serve the workers at their desks. Quatch’s stomach groaned, and he remembered that he hadn’t eaten since that morning. It wouldn’t hurt, he thought, to search this room a bit more thoroughly.

Another part of him said to simply stuff his mouth and take what he could carry. That was the hard, selfish part of him, born in the days when the Legion’s rations were thin and the supply lines uncertain. The Brutes had ransacked the kitchen, but they were amateurs. Quatch was a learned master of the art of scrounging for food.

Before Quatch could properly search, he heard a noise like a man choking to death and ran for the door. In the darkness, he saw that Bon was running too, huddled over and dry-heaving as he dashed away from the balcony. He must have looked.

“Bon!” Quatch snarled. “Bon!”

The keelworker skidded to a stop and looked at Quatch, blinking as if to wipe away what he’d just seen.

“If I say that something is a bad idea, I’m not just clicking my beak.” Quatch said. “Come on, I need you to signal to the others.”

Dazed, Bon followed in his wake. Quatch didn’t much care for Bon or his bluster, but he had to admit that this was the first time he’d ever seen Bon rattled.

“You knew,” Bon hissed. “Do Brutes always- with the bodies, they-”

“It’s called a charnel house,” Quatch said as he surveyed the street below. There was nobody to be seen, and no sign of the Jiralhanae. “Now tell the others to come up as quietly as possible. Single file up the arch, not through the ground floor.”

Bon waved his hands at the darkness, and someone in the darkness waved back. Soon, about a dozen Kig-Yar were clambering up the arch toward the roof.

This was the moment Quatch dreaded. If anything could go wrong, it would be here, when everyone was out in the open and Quatch couldn’t help them. All he could do was watch and wait for a Brute’s cry of alarm. Then they’d all die in a crossfire of grenades and hot spikes.

But then they were all on the roof and coming down through the window one after another, and Quatch was sorting them as they came through.

“Dwe, go hide in there, second door from the left,” he ordered, pointing toward the conference room. “Sap, Cam, Kess, follow Dwe and stay quiet. Heik, stay here. You too, Lan. Nak, you and Pem follow Kess, and keep them calm. Hide in that room and don’t move until I come for you. Don, I need you and Tair over in that kitchen, far door down. Find something for us all to eat. If there’s enough, pack the rest up to go, we aren’t staying here long.”

“Something to eat?” Don asked. “From a Sangheili kitchen?”

“That’s what Tair is for,” Quatch said. “She’s worked in a restaurant.”

“That doesn’t mean I know what’s edible. It’s Sangheili food!” Tair said.

“Figure it out!” Quatch snarled as the last two crewmembers swung through the window. “Taol and Dith… Where’s Yann?”

“He’s safe,” Taol replied.

“How safe?”

“If I told you that I slit his throat and stashed his body under a bus, would you quit worrying?”

Quatch had to think about that one. “You didn’t really slit his throat, did you?”

“Yes,” she said flatly.

Dith,” Quatch asked, turning toward the other Kig-Yar.

“We didn’t slit his throat!” the keelworker protested. “He’s fine! He’s fine! Well, he lost consciousness again, but his vitals were good. I think. He’s not bleeding again. We left him behind a-”

“Yes, fine,” Quatch said, holding up a hand. “You two watch the stairs. Taol, keep him quiet. It’s ugly down there.”

Taol clicked her beak in acknowledgement, though that motion was cold and mechanical. That was the way she was, ever since her time in the Legion. She didn't feel fear, and she didn’t feel much else either. She was remote, like a distant ship or smoke on the horizon, but most days she put on a good show of being normal.

In times like these, the mask slipped off.

Quatch wanted nothing more than to take her aside and ask how she was doing. But that would only undermine her standing in front of the others, and definitely annoy her too.

“Stay safe,” he said, but she had already gone.

“Heik, find a quiet corner and patch into the Agora. I need to hear any news you can find. I need to know what’s going on out there. And Lan…”

Lan Esaki looked at Quatch like a critter caught in sudden torchlight. Lan was the ship’s junior pipeliner. Her job was to diagnose and repair, if she could, the machinery aboard the Libation. If anyone could pull data out of a broken computer, it was her.

“Lan, I need you to find a ship.”

“Find a ship?” she asked. “We came all this way to find a ship? We could have done that out in the docks.”

“How many of those ships are ready to cast off?” Quatch asked. “Which ones have provisions for Kig-Yar? Can’t tell from out there until we pry an airlock open. We can search the records in here, lie low in the meantime.”

“The Brutes own these docks, Chief,” Nak said. The old T’vaoan worked his beak, as if looking for the right words. “Maybe we should keep moving.”

“Keep moving?” Quatch asked, though he’d seen that suggestion coming. He knew his crewmates. He’d worked with them for the better part of a decade. They would fight to defend what was theirs, but they weren’t pirates. “Where should we go?”

“It’s a big station,” Nak said.

“I know it’s a big station. Where, in particular, can we go?”

“The docks on Yis-level,” Heik suggested. “They’re owned by the Szethoat clan. They might take us in.”

“We’ve got no money, and we’ve got no ship,” Bon said. “They’re not going to help us. Nobody is.”

“Then we hide,” Nak said. “All we have to do is wait out the fighting.”

“We’d starve,” Quatch said.

Everyone, even Bon, stared at him incredulously.

“The fight’s not going to last that long,” Nak said.

“Civil wars usually do.”

“It’s not a civil war!” Nak protested. “Not a proper one! It’s the Jirals against the Sangheili. There can’t be that many of the hairy barbarians in all of High Charity!”

“The Brutes are going to be crushed,” Heik agreed.

“One Hierarch is dead, and the other two have thrown their lot in with the Jiralhanae,” Quatch said. “When they’re all put down, there will be another civil war to determine who the next triumvirate will be.”

“There’s two sides today,” Bon said. “I’d bet your life there’s a dozen tomorrow.”

“It won’t be that bad,” Heik said. He didn’t sound convinced of his own words.

“Tell you what,” Bon said. “When we leave this dump, why don’t you stick around and see just how peaceful an interregnum can be.”

“Look here, the discussion is over,” Quatch snarled. “Heik, tune into the Agora and listen for news. Nak, get over there and keep the others quiet. Lan, come with me.”

Quatch stormed off into the ruins of the office. Lan fell in behind him, and so did Bon. He led them to a heavy desk near the Harbormaster’s decapitated corpse.

“Right here,” he said. “The Harbormaster’s terminal should have access to records and manifests. Maybe we can forge a title here.”

“Maybe,” Lan said, walking around the desk. Her mane of feathers was fluttering doubtfully. She ran her hands over the hologram projectors and the other devices set into the hardwood. Most of them were broken, and a small forest of metal spikes were embedded in the desktop. “The damage looks superficial. If this is a terminal, it doesn’t store any records. They’ll be kept in a central computer, which the Brutes might have missed.”

“Where would that be?” Quatch asked.

“Doubtlessly, someplace where the Harbormaster could keep an eye on it,” Lan said. She drew a knife from her coveralls, buried it in the side of the desk, and pried a panel loose. “Right here, yes,”

She drew more tools out of her coveralls. She was a T’vaoan, from a similar denomination to Nak, which meant that she wore a particular style of coveralls loaded with all the tools of her profession. But she was a pipeliner, a technician who diagnosed and repaired sanctioned technology. She’d had a whole cart full of tools, and another full of reference manuals, both of which were left on the Libation. Quatch could only hope that she carried everything she needed to do the task at hand.

“What am I looking for?” she asked as she picked up one tool that looked like a set of three-handled pliers.

“A long-range trader,” Quatch replied. “Something with a clear maintenance record and cargo manifest. And an inventory for the nearby warehouses.”

“A trader,” Bon asked. “Why not one of the convoy escorts in the upper moorage?’

“Those have got guns, Bon. They’re the first ships that the Brutes would go for.”

“Fine,” Lan said. “I’ll be as fast as I can.”

She searched the desk drawers until she found a working dataslate, then she crawled into the desk. Bon pulled up a chair and propped his legs on the desk, as if he had nothing better to do.

Quatch thought back to the argument with Nak. Of all the sailors to be on Quatch’s side, it had to be Bon. Bon was like a father to his subordinate keelworkers and a close friend of the late shipmaster, but everyone else he treated with a trademark mixture of derision and scorn. He was almost universally disliked by the rest of the ship.

More than anything, Bon reminded Quatch of a carrion bird. He was shifty and opportunistic and, thanks to spending most of his life wrapped in a vacuum suit, his head was completely bald. One could almost mistake him for a woman, though nobody dared joke about that to his face.

But for all Quatch disliked Bon, he had to admit the old man was experienced, just like Nak. Both of them were senior officers. They’d started their careers years before Quatch had broken out of the egg. Quatch was at a loss as to why Shipmaster Val had promoted him to boatswain over Nak and Bon. Where they too complacent to take the promotion? Too secure in their own compartments to learn a new role?

“Something on your mind, Chief?”

“Yeah,” Quatch said. He sighed to give himself precious moments to think of a lie. “Truth. Why would he throw his lot in with the Brutes? How can they possibly replace the Sangheili? Why now, when they’ve just found Halo?”

Bon cackled. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “That nonsense is so far over our heads, it could go supernova and we wouldn’t see the flash for a year.”

“Yeah? Then what’s all this?”

“This?” Bon said, looking around the ruined office. “Like you said, this is just the first day. It’s going to get worse. Just keep your eye on the here and now.”
--------------------------------------------------

Evening period, Overlooking the Charnel

Dith Oalarch was a keelworker, born and raised. He came from a long line of vacuum-suited hardasses who plied their trade on the dangerous side of the airlock. It defied all odds that multiple generations would follow each other into such a hard line of work, just as it did that each generation survived long enough to sire the next. Sudden, life-changing, life-ending injuries were a part of the job, and beyond that was the ever-present danger that stellar radiation posed to certain glands.

Accidents happened. Blood got spilled on the job. Dith was reminded of the second year of his apprenticeship, when the Libation set anchor in the home system to overhaul the engine cores. It should have been a simple matter of cutting the power, popping out some hullplates, and installing parts from a kit. But as it turned out, the hullplate’s orbit around Chu’ot converged slightly with the Libation’s orbit, and one of the other keelworkers had been too engrossed in his work to notice the hullplate inching toward him until it was too late. Rok’s arm was pinned and sheared off below the elbow.

When the hullplate rebounded off the engine nacelle, Dith was the one who pulled Rok out of there and hauled him to the airlock. He still remembered the sight of arterial blood gushing from a crimped spacesuit, boiling and crystalling and then glittering in the light of Y’Deio.

Since that day, he’d seen his fellow keelworkers holed through by micrometeorites and cooked by shoddy electrical work. He’d seen enough of them die that he thought he knew what death looked like. Now he knew better.

The death he knew was bloodless carnage. In fact, it wasn’t carnage at all. It was a special kind of industrial accident, where the injuries were either flash-frozen or sealed off by vacuum suits. It didn’t smell, not like the bottom floor of the office smelled.

The Brutes came. They conquered. They killed. They’d dragged the bodies from all over the port and thrown them in here. Dead Sangheili and dead Yanme’e were piled on top of one another. It looked as if the Brutes had gone to the trouble of stacking the bodies like cordwood, only to give up halfway through and throw them wherever there was room.

“That was close,” Taol said, startling Dith out of his horrified reverie.

“What?” he asked.

“That last one. That explosion,” Taol replied. “It wasn’t very far away.”

Dith could hear it too, the crumps of explosions and the staccato pops of weapons fire, muffled by distance and intervening bulkheads. When the crew was skulking around outside in search of shelter, every report had played on his nerves. He’d thought that he could gather his wits when they found someplace to hide, but the gloom of the administration office only made it worse. He couldn’t tell how close the fight was or how fierce the conflict, but his imagination conjured no less than five legions locked in mortal combat mere blocks away.

“How close,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Taol replied. “I’ve never fought in a station before. The sound is all turned around. It doesn’t carry right.”

Dith was buzzing with questions, all of which he was too afraid to ask. Taol scared him almost as much as the charnel. He was more terrified of Taol because of the charnel, and how little she seemed to think of it. It churned his stomach to look down there, yet she was sitting there at the top of the stairs as if she was waiting for the bus.

But the questions tumbled out of his mouth anyway. “Why the bodies? Why stash them here? I don’t understand why the hairy apes would go to the trouble of hauling the bodies from all around the port to throw them in here!”

“The bodies got to go somewhere,” she replied. “In here, they’re out from underfoot.”

She’d found a spike pistol in the wreckage of the office, a small unit with only a triangular spoon for a bayonet. She pulled out the magazine, reinserted it, and then did something else to it that he didn’t quite follow. The light was too dim to see by, and all he could hear were little mechanical clicks.

“The Brutes mean to occupy the port for a while, maybe take it for their own after the war,” Taol said as she safed the gun. “They brought the dead here to keep them out of the way. Maybe the’re going to burn them, like we did with the Humans sometimes. But they won’t be back for a while.”

She passed the spiker to Dith. “There’s eleven shots in the magazine, and the safety catch is on. It better be that way when I get back.”

“Get back?” he exclaimed. “Where are you going?”

She looked at him with both eyes. “I’m going to search for passkeys. Identification. Signets too. Anything we can use. After that, I might have a look around the block.”

Taol trotted down the stairs and vaulted onto a stack of bodies. Dith watched with macabre fascination as she worked her way down the pile, deftly moving from one body to another, searching officers and inspectors alike with alacrity normally reserved for pickpockets.

She searched bodies like a battlefield scavenger. Like a soldier who learned to do it because a few scraps of spare kit could make the difference between life and death. It made Dith sick to watch, but he couldn’t look away.

Then Taol jumped down from the stack and landed on a corpse so hard that the ground rippled around her. That was when Dith realized that what he thought was a marble floor wasn’t. It was a wall-to-wall puddle of blood, purple and brown flowing together but never mixing. He didn’t see much after that. The whole world collapsed and fell through to the far side of a tunnel.

When Dith stopped shaking, he realized that he’d curled into a ball under a desk. His heart was hammering in his chest, and his fright-and-flight instinct was screaming at him to pick a direction and never stop running.

Instead, he cursed the Brutes, and then he cursed the mad Heirarchs for starting the fight, and then he cursed the old shipmaster for stranding the ship on High Charity and the idiot boatswain for leading the crew here.

Dith heard a noise and searched all about him for the spiker, but by the time he found it and remembered that the safety was on, Taol was there. She cocked her head, as if wondering why Dith was hiding there. Then she saw the gun.

She had a knife. She had other things in her hands that he couldn't see, but the knife was pointed right at him.

“Put the spiker down,” she rasped in a voice that brooked no argument. Dith complied immediately, and was relieved when she stowed the knife in her waistband.

“No need for us to shoot each other,” Taol whispered. “There's enough hairy-assed Jirals out there willing to do the job for us.”

“Lots?” Dith asked quietly.

“More than before, but they've stopped wandering around.”

Dith sighed, and immediately regretted it. The miasma wafting up from below was bad enough, but now he was getting used to it. It was becoming familiar to him, and he was beginning to recognize the individual scents. He could smell burned flesh and offal and-

“Anything else?” He asked in a low voice. He didn't care what Taol found out there, he just wanted to distract himself from the wave of nausea that washed over him.

“Bodies were clean,” Taol replied, digging through her bundle. “Brutes searched them good before they stashed them in here. I didn't find so much as a money purse.”

She held out a snack bar, wrapped in foil. “I found food, though. You hungry?”

Dith doubled over and vomited.

“Try again, Dith,” she said. “I don't think the Jirals heard you that time.”

He tried to tell Taol what he thought of her and the whore that incubated her, but all that came up were dry heaves.

She stepped around the puddle of bile and dragged him deeper into the desks that formed the barricade. “Stay here. Shout if you hear anyone coming up the stairs. I'm going to report to Quatch.”
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