They're Random, Baby!

Fan Fiction

Vestal Flame: Chapter One: A Long Stay
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 25 June 2010, 4:22 am

Read/Post Comments

1600 Hours, 29 July 2519
CASTLE Base, Highland Mountains, Reach

       He arrived, as usual, well before the appointed time. Reach's Castle Base was a maze of tunnels, warehouses, and offices. Navigating an unfamiliar sector of the base always took time, and he loathed being late. Especially for the man who had summoned him.

       He regretted his decision now. Ackerson was making him wait. His secretary had dismissively told him that the Colonel was busy, and would call him in when he was finished. There was nowhere to sit in the small office, and he felt like a fool standing in front of a secretary who conspicuously ignored his presence. He had heard that Ackerson was a bastard.

       It was perhaps half an hour before the secretary brusquely instructed him to enter. Ackerson's office was surprisingly small and cramped. The walls were lined with books and folders, while the unadorned desk was littered with loose papers and datapads. As far as he could tell, the room held no personal effects.

       The man himself sat behind the desk, scanning something on his computer monitor. It was difficult to tell while he was sitting, but Ackerson appeared to be tall, thin, and well muscled. He had a long face, with roughly hewn features and deeply inset eyes. His brown hair was short and tightly cropped, revealing an unusually prominent brow.

       He threw a salute upon entering, but Ackerson did not immediately acknowledge him. His jaw clenched as he waited.

       "Captain Jacob Raines," Ackerson said at length, shifting his gaze towards him. The Colonel gave a slight nod. "At ease," he said.

       Raines lowered his salute and glanced around. Once again there was nowhere to sit.

       "You come highly recommended, Captain," Ackerson said, leaning back in his chair. His voice was much deeper than his slender frame suggested. "Your record on Eridanus is quite impressive. Of course, it is your contributions to our intelligence services that intriests me most. Your infiltration of the Corsinian Insurrection Cell has received much praise from many of the old hands."

       "Thank you, sir."

       "I must also extend my personal gratitude for your efforts in the cleanup on Bliss. That was my op."

       "So I'd heard, sir."

       "It is remarkable how some of my colleagues look at all the wrong traits when selecting operators. They look at performance reviews, they look at training logs, they look at the number of ops. But they never account for simple discretion. I read your vitae, I reviewed your debriefings, and I see a man born for undercover work."

       "Thank you, sir," Raines repeated stiffly, suddenly uneasy.

       Ackerson smirked. "Another error common amongst my colleagues is their fixation on flaws. They see one blunder, one lapse in the record, and they dismiss the candidate. They seek perfection on paper. They believe a personal misjudgment equals a professional one."

       Raines stiffened and clenched his jaw. He felt terribly exposed.

       "Fortunately, I do not believe that a flaw makes the man," Ackerson continued, leaning forward. "As far as I'm concerned, anyone who volunteers for an undercover op of indefinite duration is either a fuck-up or a suicidal. That doesn't necessarily disqualify one from this job. Hell, it might even recommend him."

       "And what is the job, sir?" Raines prompted, eager to move along.

       "You've heard of Vesta, I presume?" Ackerson asked, not missing a beat.

       "Of course."

       "The whole damn colony is a perennial thorn in the UNSC's paw. They won their independence after the Inner Colonies War and have been making a bollocks of it ever since. The colony has been split along north-south lines for almost a century now. Four years ago the two sides went to war."

       "I read the news, sir," Raines said.

       Ackerson regarded him coldly, but did not comment on the interruption. "The North generally favors integration with the UNSC, while the South wishes to remain insular. The North is much larger, and they quickly overwhelmed the South. Since then, the situation has devolved into guerrilla warfare, and our Northern friends haven't a damn clue what to do. And, of course, to pay lip service to their independence, they are refusing out of hand any UNSC assistance. Nonetheless, they are eager for outside expertise."

       "Private contractors?" Raines asked.

       "Yes. The North's military leadership has recently put out feelers for PMCs with experience combating insurrections and piracy. Our boys were able to negotiate a contract through one of our front companies."

       Raines nodded slowly. "So I'm going undercover as a mercenary?"

       "You will be one of several agents in various theaters. For the moment, it is best that you don't know the identities of the others."

       "What is the mission?"

       "The mission is simple. You're going to help our friends defeat the Southern insurgents."


       "Vesta is of tremendous strategic and tactical value to the UNSC," Ackerson said emphatically. "The colony is strictly a peripheral agricultural world to the popular mind, but in fact it is a key supplier of many essential materials. Of course, the symbolic stakes of this war are even higher. If the North limps home with its tail between its legs, then the Vestal boil becomes permanent. Worse, insurgents in the Outer Colonies will rejoice if David slays Goliath."

       "I heard Goliath had it coming," Raines said.

       Ackerson smirked again, and again refused to comment. "This war was started over nothing. It continues over even less. Wars are most dangerous when they are fought over trivial things. The aggressors become frustrated when they can't even accomplish nothing." Ackerson brought his hands together and rested his chin upon them. "This war has gone on too long. Very soon, the North's frustration will manifest itself in increasingly barbaric methods. It will get very ugly if it brought to a swift conclusion, and any victory would be sullied by its means."

       "There is only one thing more dangerous than nothing, sir," Raines said, giving the Colonel a meaningful gaze. "That's a true believer."

       Ackerson's face turned askew and his eyes narrowed. Then he gave a broad smile and chuckled softly. "You should see what happens when the two meet." The Colonel relaxed once more, leaning back. "That is why I would never send a man like myself. That is why I'm sending you. You showed conventional skills at Eridanus, and unconventional skills at Corsini. The North needs both, I think. There is no reason they ought not to prevail if properly led, and you're a good start.

       "As I said, your main purpose is to serve in an advisory capacity. Of course, I want regular reports concerning troop movements, operations, and changes in the leadership—the Northern forces have proven remarkably opaque and infuriatingly uncooperative. As well, you will be a conduit for intelligence we might otherwise feel uncomfortable sharing with such feckless allies."

       "What's my cover, sir?"

       "I've decided to keep it simple," Ackerson said, handing a file to Raines. "The first thirty-odd years of your life I've kept mostly intact, with a few modifications. You joined the Marines at age nineteen, conducted anti-piracy operations on the Outer Rim, and served with distinction at Eridanus. Unmarried, little family left. Only difference is, instead of working for us for the past five years, you've been employed by Metamora Universal, our PMC front."

       Raines grunted. "My life summed up in three sentences."

       "Like I said: you were born for undercover work."

       Raines scanned the file. "Nathaniel Burke, eh?" He paused to consider his new name. He did not feel like a Nathaniel.

       "Familiarize yourself with the details of your cover," Ackerson said. "Also included is some background information on your subject. You can study both on the journey to Vesta. It's about two weeks from this junction. You leave tonight."

       "Yes, sir," Raines said, anticipating his dismissal.

       It did not come immediately. Instead, Ackerson stared at him a moment longer with his hands arched in front of him. "Captain, I strongly suggest you take those two weeks to settle any demons you may have and prepare yourself for what lies ahead. I cannot overstate the frustration that plagues the Northern leadership. They will know you only as a gun for hire, and they will ask of you horrible things. And you must oblige them, whatever the cost."

       "This isn't my first walk in the park," Raines said gruffly.

       "I only mean to prepare you for the unique brutality of civil war," Ackerson returned. "It may be wise to leave your conscience behind with Jacob Raines."

       "Will that be all, sir?"

       Ackerson nodded. "Dismissed."

0730 Hours, 13 August 2519
En Route to Clearwater, Vesta

       "What's it like?" Lieutenant Leslie Bai asked.

       Nathaniel Burke stirred from his reverie and faced his companion. He set aside Ackerson's briefing, disguised as a magazine. "What's what like?"

       "Slipspace travel," she said. "I've never left this system."

       "It's tiring," he said. Remembering his lonely fortnight aboard the tiny Hermes elicited a deep yawn from his aching frame. "Exhausting, actually."

       Burke turned back towards the window to study the view. Despite the altitude and velocity, he could discern some details from the terrain below. There were rolling hills dotted with small towns and sprawling estates. The land radiated a golden hue under the early morning sun, appearing for all the world peaceful and happy from this great height. In the distance he could see the great expanse of the sea and the white sand beaches which bounded it. Against the sparkling water he could just make out the silhouettes of the hamlets and resorts which lined the water's edge.

       "Quite a view, isn't it?" Bai murmured next to him.

       He turned again to face his companion. Lieutenant Bai was the Northern Legion Intelligence Service's contact who met him upon his arrival at the Greve space elevator. She seemed competent, but she was too personable to be immediately trustworthy. She had a pretty face, with soft features and inviting eyes. Her dark hair reached past the shoulders of her small, compact frame, far longer than regulation allowed. He decided it best to blunt her charms with bland agreeability.

       "Vesta is a beautiful world," Burke said.

       "We're over southern Guilin now," she told him helpfully. "This is the Piedmont. It's tourist country… or at least, it used to be."

       "At least it was spared the worst of the war," he said. "It looks like a bucolic paradise from up here."

       "The war was all but over by the time the Legion reached Guilin. I am very thankful for that small fortune. I have many pleasant memories here. My family had a house around these parts before the troubles began. I never found out what happened to it."

       "You vacationed here?" Best to keep the conversation on her.

       "I was born and raised here," she answered, her voice subdued. "My family moved to Massilia when I was a teenager. We kept the house, though, when the winter was too much."

       "You're a Southerner?" he asked, genuinely intrigued. "You must have conflicted feelings about all this."

       Bai shrugged. "Not really. We are right. Right makes up for a lot of things—even sentiment."

       "I see," he said with a tone of finality. After a pause, he opened his briefing and continued reading.

       "How about you?" Bai asked, brushing past his attempt to end the conversation.

       Burke sighed. "What about me?"

       "I told you my story…"

       "That was your whole story?"

       "No," she said with a smile. "But it was a start. Look, I've been appointed as the liaison between your organization and mine. We'll be working together for the foreseeable future. Might as well get acquainted."

       Burke carefully studied her features as she spoke. He could not tell if he was being played, despite his usual perceptiveness to that end.

       "There's not much to tell," he said slowly. "I was born in the old country. I enlisted with the Marines out of high school, then I joined Metamora when my term was up."

       "That's all you're giving me?" she pressed with a smirk. "At least tell me what Earth is like. I've always wanted to go."

       "I skipped off on the first UNSC ship I could find," he said bluntly. "If you're looking for a list of all the sights, I'm not the guy."

       "Ever been back?"


       "I see."

       He scratched the beard he had let grow during his slipspace journey and decided to add a personal touch to his story. "I joined the Marines just about as soon as I was able. I got my freedom and I become a mercenary. I don't think I'd be happy settling anywhere."

       "You just want to keep moving?" she asked.

       "I wouldn't read too much into it," he returned. "I just like to fight."

       Burke glanced back out the window as a long pause fell between them. The landscape below had changed, becoming more mountainous and covered in dense foliage. The clouds became thicker, until eventually the view was obscured by thick white mist.

       "We're close to Clearwater now," Bai said some time later. "It shouldn't be long."

       Gradually, bright lights began to penetrate the mist as the shuttle dropped its altitude. Slowly, the outlines of towering skyscrapers emerged from the fog. The airspace was busy with traffic, and the streets below were illuminated with thousands of headlights sluggishly moving to and fro. He could just make out the waters of the Bay of Capri to the east, marked by the serene lights of distant cargo ships.

       The shuttle continued past the skyscrapers of the downtown core, slowly approaching ground level. The pilot made a sudden about-face and the craft began to descend vertically above a non-descript landing pad.

       "We're here," Bai said unnecessarily, rising from her seat. Burke followed suit.

       The shuttle's doors hissed open, and they stepped onto the landing platform together. Immediately, Burke was struck by the oppressive heat and the humidity which accompanied it. He wished he was not wearing his suit.

       A man stood on the platform and approached as they exited the shuttle. He was of medium height and build, a little shorter than Burke himself and substantially slighter. Nonetheless, he appeared fit and strong, and to Burke's practiced eyes he appeared to be a man well able to handle himself. His greying hair was short, about the same length as his well groomed beard.

       "Lieutenant Bai," he said in greeting. His voice was smooth and precise.

       "Sir," she replied, saluting him.

       The man turned to Burke and frowned. "Mr Burke, I presume?"

       He nodded. "That's right."

       "Does your organization confer any rank?"

       "'Mr' will do fine," Burke said.

       "Very well, then. I am Colonel Marcos Costa, head of NLIS Operations in the South."

       "Straight from the top," Burke remarked.

       Costa frowned again. "I will be assigning your missions as per the request of General Braddock. The General has requested to meet you. He will be attending a unification rally this evening at 2000 hours at the Francis Perry Convention Center. You will meet him there."


       "Lieutenant Bai will show you to your hotel," he said shortly. With that, he turned and walked away towards a waiting car.

       "I think he likes me," Burke said.

       Bai chuckled. "I'm sure he does not relish the idea of General Braddock turning to outside help. Costa was only just recently assigned as operational chief of the NLIS after his predecessor was dismissed on corruption charges."

       "What kind of corruption?"

       Bai gave a single harsh laugh. "Every kind you can imagine. Colonel Jack Halloway was the most venal creature the Legion ever called an officer, and everyone knew it. He finally went down when it was discovered that he was using NLIS assets to run black bag ops for Southern corporations. Apparently he stole from the wrong people."

       Burke whistled. "Good Lord."

       "So, General Braddock hired you before Colonel Costa ever got a chance to prove himself," she continued. "At any rate, Costa does not trust people easily. As you might expect, in our line of work."

       They walked together in the opposite direction of Costa. They appeared to have landed in an industrial neighbourhood, surrounded as he was by low, sprawling warehouses and the mechanical whirring of cranes. The streets were busy with automated freight trucks.

       "Should I watch my back around him?"

       Bai shook her head. "I don't expect so. The Colonel is dedicated and loyal. He wouldn't act against you, so long as orders hold. Course, as operational chief, he may put you in a position where you could die easily."

       Burke laughed, but said nothing.

       They approached a dark blue sedan parked around the corner from the landing pad. Bai unlocked it with a touch, and opened the passenger door, letting Burke inside.

       "They've supplied you with an apartment not far from here," Bai said as she began to drive off. "You will also have a car, field kit, and clothing waiting for you there. Your own luggage will be delivered later."

       "Alright," he said. He leaned forward to turn on the climate control, heaving a pleasant sigh as the cool air washed over his face. "Is it always so hot?" he asked.

       "Clearwater falls right on the equator," Bai said. "It's hot and humid year round, and it rains every other day. You get used to it after a while. Besides, most of the city is connected by underground tunnels."

       He turned to study the passing city as the warehouses were gradually replaced by pleasant looking townhouses. The streets were lined with vibrantly green trees. There was an abundance of restaurants and cafes, and early morning commuters could be seen emerging with mugs of coffee in hand. Schoolchildren walked along the sidewalks in tightly knit groups, their small frames bent under the weight of heavy looking satchels.

       "I must say, Lieutenant," Burke said lightly, "this is the nicest damn warzone I've ever seen."

       Bai did not respond immediately, her stalwart gaze plastered on the road ahead. At length, she said, "You fought at Eridanus, correct?"

       "You're well informed."

       "I read your file." Silence fell between them for a moment longer. "So?"

       "So what?"

       "How was it?"

       Burke paused to consider the question. His mind wandered back to Eridanus, and his chest tightened uncomfortably. "It was six months of hell," he said. "Those bastards were angry, and full of hate. It made them fierce fighters."

       Bai nodded as she listened. "I never fought in the invasion proper," she said guardedly, as if it were a confession. "I enlisted after Talavera, but the Presidium surrendered before I was deployed. All I've known is guerrilla warfare. There are no uniforms. There is no front. You never know who's gonna try and take a shot at you, or from what direction they're gonna come. Don't be fooled by the placid surroundings. There's bombings or assassinations that go on here at least once a week. These people are either putting on a brave face, or they're spotting you for an ambush."

       "Alright, then," he said, noting the harshness of her tone.

       She cleared her throat. "I simply don't want you to mistake your circumstances. At any rate, Clearwater is an exception. It's well secured, and its people were reluctant to go to war in the first place. The countryside is full of partisans, and it only gets worse the further south you go."

       As she spoke, he spotted a civilian warthog with tinted windows parked off the side of the road. His eyes followed it as they passed, and he tensed for action.

       "You can relax, Burke," Bai said, apparently matching his gaze despite her concentration on the road. "That's just Massilia PD. They monitor Clearwater's suburbs and the surrounding environs."

       "The police do that?" he asked, surprised. "Not the army?"

       "The Legion patrols the downtown core and keeps watch over high value targets," Bai explained. "But we're stretched pretty thin across the South. Police departments were about the only Southern institutions that survived intact after the war, and it plays well to give the locals a role in maintaining the peace. So far, reconstituting the Southern Armed Forces has proven... difficult."

       Burke nodded slowly, and lapsed into silence. He contented himself with viewing his surroundings. The vegetation was lusciously green, and the low rise homes were cheerfully colourful, both appearing all the more vibrant against the white sky above. It might be a nice place to live, the weather and bloodshed aside.

       "Here we are," Bai announced, prompting Burke to realize that he had been drifting off. She pointed to a long townhouse ensconced in a well groomed garden. "You're on the second floor, room 215. Your car is around back, a blue Intera. Your biometrics have been uploaded to both."

       "Very handy. Thank you." He opened the door and stepped out, but turned around and poked his head back in the vehicle. "Will you be attending the soiree this evening?"

       "I don't believe so," she said. "I think the Colonel wants to gauge you one on one."

       "That's disappointing."

       She smirked. "Is it?"

       "Of course. You're the only person I know on this whole planet."

       She laughed. "I suppose so. Tell you what, I'll see what I can do. Now get some rest. The rally isn't for twelve hours."

       She drove off, abandoning Burke to the heat. He could feel the sun's penetrating rays beating on his skin despite the thick cloud cover. As he walked towards his apartment, he almost immediately felt himself sweating. He climbed the outside staircase to his second floor room, his muscles groaning in protest. He was reminded how exhausted he was.

       The door opened obediently to his touch. The moment he stepped in he felt to cool embrace of air conditioning, and swiftly closed the door to preserve the sensation. His apartment was small and rather bland, but it was well appointed and seemed to be clean. To his left was a bed, a television, a small bar, and, in the corner, some exercise equipment. To the right was a kitchenette and the door to the bathroom. He let out a long breath. The small, simple space seemed very inviting to him.

       He relieved himself in the bathroom, took off his shirt, and splashed some cool water on his face and neck. He went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, but thought better of it and instead fixed himself a drink at the bar. He turned on the TV, which was set to a news program. The story had something to do with an ambush of a Legion convoy in Barracas, but he was not really listening. He only wanted the comfort of human voices without the demands of their company.

       He lay down on top of the comforter. His head did not quite make it to the pillows, but he did not bother to adjust himself. He finished the rum in a single gulp and stretched to place the glass on the bedside table. Now that he was still and alone, he felt every muscle ache with weariness. The cramped and uncomfortable Hermes had not granted him one decent night's sleep, and the unnerving vagaries of slipspace travel had not helped. He had wanted to continue reading his brief, but the sheets were soft, and the air was pleasing, and he soon fell asleep.

       Burke awoke of his own accord as the rays of the setting sun cut through the clouds and into his eyes. He reached for his phone and looked at the time. 1830. He would not be late.

       He rolled out of bed and took a shower—his first real shower in a fortnight. With a towel around his waist, he walked to the closet and found it full. He pulled out a pair of light grey pants, a grey blazer, and a white shirt. It all fit impeccably. He decided against a tie, given the heat and the nature of the event.

       He left his apartment and quickly located his car. He punched in the location of the Francis Perry Convention Center on the GPS, and the route ahead was painted green through the windshield. Taking a moment to gather his still groggy mind, he set off down the unfamiliar streets of Clearwater.

       The streets were busy with commuters heading home, but as Burke was heading into the downtown core, most of the traffic was moving in the opposite direction. The sun had set, and the skyscrapers ahead were now illuminated brightly against the dark clouds above. The city looked more beautiful at night, and he could begin to see the appeal of living here. He found himself enjoying the drive, to some surprise. The car was an Intera, a company based on Vesta. Intera had a reputation on Earth of building cheap and unreliable vehicles, but he found the car was comfortable and handled well. He suspected there was much to Vesta that was misunderstood.

       As he became enveloped on either side by ever higher buildings, he finally saw evidence that Clearwater was in the midst of a warzone. A military checkpoint lay about sixty meters ahead. The four lane road had been narrowed to two by barbed wire and Warthogs, bottlenecking traffic and creating a long line of vehicles slowed to a crawl. A few Legion soldiers helped direct traffic, while others patrolled the stopped vehicles with automatic weapons and explosive materials detectors. The patrolling soldiers randomly questioned some of the vehicles' occupants, leaning into the driver's windows for brief interrogations.

       After almost fifteen minutes of inching forward, he finally reached the checkpoint. A hulking soldier approached his window and he rolled it down.

       "ID, please, sir," he said stiffly, as if the request were a recorded soundbite.

       Burke wordlessly passed the ID card that Lieutenant Bai had issued to him in Greve. As the man scanned the badge, Burke stole a quick glance around. The barricade was manned by over a dozen soldiers, with two heavy machine guns pointing in each direction. He wondered what percentage of the Legion's forces was tied up defending this small piece of real estate.

       "Go on through," the soldier said, handing back his ID. He obliged. The line of cars on the far side of the checkpoint was much longer, stretching back several blocks. The unfortunate commuters at the end of the line, just leaving a long day's work, would be detained from their families for at least another hour. Burke imagined the bitterness that must be festering amongst the city's denizens after four years of this treatment.

       The convention center was not far from the checkpoint, and with most traffic heading out of the city center, he was soon upon it. The building was a stately-looking stone affair, with a long, low rising stairway leading up to the impressive domed edifice. The stairs were thick with soldiers scanning the waves of people ascending towards the building. Stopped on the curb before the building were a good number of limousines and cars of high-end, off-world make. He pulled around the side of the convention center in order to find a parking space.

       Once he had parked, he pulled out his phone and called Leslie Bai. He got her on the second ring.

       "So, did you decide to throw your voice in for unification?" he asked without an introduction.

       "Yes," she said, rather humourlessly. He guessed Costa was with her. "We're in the lobby. We'll meet you there."

       Definitely Costa, then.

       He studied the crowd that climbed the low steps of the convention center as he joined them. The dress was distinctly black-tie, and they carried with them a notably high bearing. He began to lament his decision against a tie.

       There was another checkpoint at the door, but the soldiers were much more courteous as they inspected the attendants' ID cards. A number in the crowd wore dress uniforms, and the soldiers on duty paid them great deference.

       The lobby was spacious, but he had little difficulty spotting Bai and Costa, looking dour amid the mass of people surging past them.

       "Mr Burke," Costa said with a nod as he approached them.

       Burke made a show of looking around. "This is not exactly what I had in mind when you said 'rally,'" he said, rubbing the front of his shirt where his tie would hang.

       Costa grunted. "This is no time for pickets and crowds. Any open air gathering would be an easy target for a bombing. A lesson this city has learned many times."

       "Of course," he said.

       "Shall we?" Bai prompted, gesturing towards the doors.

       They emerged into the main hall of the convention center. It was impressively grand, and the high dome gave the impression of infinite space. Clearly, however, the building was larger than the size of the gathering warranted. Much of the space had been deftly closed off and narrowed by moveable walls so as not to give the impression of a small turnout. Doubtless the location had been deliberately chosen to suggest a larger rally than the meager affair on offer.

       "This rally is meant to be a show of unity and friendship between Northern and Southern dignitaries," Costa explained as they approached the cordoned off section of the room. "Limited access is being given to cooperative press, and all the major players will want their faces seen here. It's a good opportunity for you to meet the effort's key players."

       "You want to show me off?" he asked. "I'm touched."

       "I suspect you're little more than a snake oil peddler who charges an exorbitant fee," Costa returned in an even tone. "If you're ineffective I want your failure well known. On the off chance you prove yourself useful, I want some of the credit."

       "That was blunt," he remarked.

       "I'm a blunt man, Mr Burke," Costa said.

       He looked over at Bai, but her face was inscrutable. He turned his attention instead on the gathering before him. An assortment of large round tables had been set up before a stage at the end of the hall. The tables were flanked on either side by long buffets covered in elegantly prepared food trays. They were attended by a small army of wait staff dressed in pressed white shirts, black vests, and black ties.

       "I'll introduce you as a private contractor," Costa said to him quietly as they approached one assembled group of dignitaries. "Those who should know will know what that means. For those who ask, you will say nothing. Understood?"

       "Yes," he said.

       None of the guests were yet seated, instead mingling and talking animatedly with each other. He glanced around for the cameras.

       They sidled up alongside one group of guests at Costa's direction. One of the men, a large fellow that Burke took to be a bodyguard, nudged a second man to get his attention. The man turned, spotted Costa, and broke into a broad smile.

       "Colonel Costa," he said loudly, extending a hand. "I didn't think you'd be here."

       Burke could tell by the Colonel's strained smile that the comment was meant as a veiled slight.

       "Good to see you, Premier," Costa replied smoothly. "You remember Lieutenant Bai?"

       It was evident that the man did not remember Bai at all, but his face lit up when he laid his eyes upon her. He grasped her hand and raised it to his lips. "A pleasure as always," he said.

       "And this is Nathaniel Burke," Costa went on hastily. "Mr Burke, this is Premier Sukrit Chatree."

       "Please, Colonel," Chatree said, holding up his hand in protest. "My friends call me Sunny. And we are all friends here, no?"

       Costa nodded slowly. "As you say."

       Chatree examined Burke closely, and he returned the favor. The Premier must have been in his sixties, but his chubby face was smooth and radiant, clearly the work of surgery and makeup. It was expertly done, but as his face was attached to a bent and paunchy frame, the effect was unnatural and therefore unnerving.

       "Mr Burke," Chatree exclaimed. "I've heard about you. Some fresh blood to kick start this sorry little exercise, no?"

       Costa's eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. "Please, Premier," he said quietly. "We are in mixed company."

       "Of course Colonel," Chatree returned with insincere deference. "A thousand apologies. The prospect of actually ending this war always drives me to excitement. Not that you and yours aren't welcome in my land in perpetuity."

       There followed an awkward pause, with Costa staring intently at Chatree and Bai looking uncomfortable. "Well, Premier," Costa said at length, "it is always good to see you."

       "Hold on, now, Colonel," Chatree said. "I've barely had a chance to meet your fine new warrior. Tell me, Mr Burke, how does Vesta strike you so far?"

       "Vesta is a fine world, from what I've seen," Burke said, his tone neutral.

       "And how much have you seen? When did you get in?"

       "Just this morning, sir."

       Chatree laughed throatily, just long enough to be discomforting. "This morning! You mean you've not yet seen the North?"

       "No, sir."

       "Very amusing! You haven't even see the land for which you fight."

       "I was under the impression it was all the same land," Burke said.

       Chatree gave another barking laugh. "The same land! Very good."

       "As I was saying, Mr Premier…" Costa interrupted.

       "Yes, yes," Chatree said with a wave of his hand, not bothering to say goodbye.

       Burke followed his two comrades to one of the buffet tables where they were partly separated from the rest of the crowd. Costa made a show of pouring himself some champagne. "What is your opinion of the Premier, Mr Burke?" he asked without looking at him.

       Burke thought back to his meeting with Ackerson. "He seems… indiscrete."

       Costa gave a small laugh, the first sign of mirth that Burke had yet seen. "Indiscrete! A fine word for him, if understated. The man is a buffoon, and probably a liability. But the powers that be wish him to remain in office. So there you have it."

       "What's his story?" Burke asked. He had already read the ONI file on Chatree, but he did not wish it to appear so. At any rate, he wanted to hear the Colonel's estimation of the Premier.

       "Sukrit Chatree was a one-term governor of Touros about fifteen years back," Costa explained. "He quickly fucked it all up while ratcheting up numerous personal scandals. He left office a deeply unpopular man. In the interim he experienced something of a renaissance as an itinerant public speaker. Unfortunately for us, he was about the only Southern public official that was still alive and willing to take the reins of this Godawful mess."

       "There was no one else?" Burke asked in disbelief.

       "None who were willing to have a bullseye painted on their backs. Any Southern public figure who has shown any support for the North has been systematically assassinated over the past four years. Chatree ran virtually unopposed, though of course turnout was abysmally low. It's a miracle—or a curse, rather—that he's still sucking air. He must have made a deal with someone. Possibly the same people who told him about you."

       "He wasn't supposed to know about me?"

       "No," Costa said darkly. "Chatree's a straw man, or at least he's supposed to be. We certainly didn't tell him about you. Christ, you've been here a day, and already you're compromised."

       "This is one leaky Goddamn ship you're running here, Colonel," Burke growled.

       Costa took a step closer to Burke, but Bai intervened, half stepping between them. "We have company, sir," she said, gesturing with her head.

       Three men approached them; two bodyguards flanking a man of importance. Burke recognized his face from his profile.

       "Mr Lee," Costa said curtly, extending his hand

       "Colonel," Lee said coldy. He was tall and thin, with a dignified bearing and an immaculately crisp suit. He had high cheekbones and a prominent nose which, in combination with his height, gave the impression that he was looking down on whomever he was speaking to.

       "I heard you had arrived," Lee continued. "And that you brought our mutual friend."

       "Yes, sir," Costa said. "This is Mr Nathaniel Burke."

       Lee shook Burke's hand. Bai shifted to the side, apparently ignored.

       "Mr Burke, it is good to meet you."

       He nodded graciously. "Likewise, sir."

       Lee seemed to blink only very occasionally, and Burke was quickly made uncomfortable.

       "Your file is impressive," Lee said, his words clipped and precise. "You've shed blood on many worlds. You will shed some here, too, I think. There is much to be done."

       "So I understand."

       Lee nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Burke. "Your employers were very sparing in supplying the details of your vitae. But you are from Earth, no?"

       "I was born there, yes sir."

       "What do the people of Earth think of Vesta and its war?" he asked.

       "I have not been to Earth in many years."

       "The people of Reach, then," he said irritably. "Or anywhere else. What is the perception of this world?"

       Burke pondered the question for a moment. "Mostly people do not think about Vesta. When they do, they see you as the new barbarians, the result of insularity against civilization."

       "Civilization being the UNSC?"

       "Yes, sir."

       Lee's severe expression broke into a wry smirk. "I see. It is not difficult to see how bitterness may arise amongst my people in the face of such contempt. But, it is only the instinctual response of the large to the stubbornness of the small. Like the lion and the hyena."

       Lee paused for a long while, evidently awaiting a response from Burke. "I suppose so," he said at last.

       "I am always interested in the opinions of offworlders, especially as they are so rare these days. The perception of outsiders is everything, especially when we're such small fish in such a big pond."

       "Not so small," Burke said. "Over one hundred million people. I confess I had no idea. Most people think Vesta is an agricultural backwater."

       "Small enough," Lee returned. "One tenth the size of Reach. One one hundredth the size of Earth." He chuckled quietly. "Small enough."

       There was movement on stage, and the whole room quieted perceptibly. People began taking their seats at the elegantly arranged tables, and the waiters began bustling around the buffets.

       "I believe it is time we take our seats," Costa announced brusquely.

       Lee cast a quick dismissive glance at Costa, then gave Burke a brief nod. "Good to meet you, Mr Burke," he said. He turned and left without another word.

       "Come with me," Costa grumbled, leading them away.

       "What was that about?" Burke asked Bai as they kept a few feet distance from Costa.

       "That was Lee Enlai, chief administrator of the Provisional Government," Bai explained. "He's the Massilia Council's man down here. He runs the show. Chatree's just the front man."

       Burke recalled the file he had read on Lee. "And what's your estimation of him?" he ventured.

       "That was actually the first time I've ever met him," she said, sounding embarrassed. "Rumor has it he's pocketing money from the big Southern corporations. They say he ran Halloway, then sold him out."

       "What do you think of those rumors?"

       She shrugged. "He seems genuine enough in his beliefs."

       It was a strange answer. He did not press her.

       Their table was apparently near the back. They followed Costa as he wound through the rows of tables, navigating the people milling about their seats. Costa did not slow down to allow them to catch up.

       "What about Lee and the Colonel?" Burke asked after a pause.

       "I don't know," Bai said, immediately taking his meaning. "Clearly he did not seem to like him very much."

       Burke laughed. "Does anyone like the Colonel?"

       Bai did not smile. He recalled how she had defended Costa earlier, and regretted his question.

       "General Braddock likes him," she said simply. "Trusts him, at any rate. And that's all that matters."

       "Ah yes," he said. "General Braddock. Will I get to meet the great man himself?"

       "I don't know about that," she said. "But you can certainly see him." She pointed up at the podium on the stage, where General Braddock sat nearby. "He will be our speaker for the evening."

       They finally took a seat at one of the tables furthest from the stage. Most of the other attendees at the table were in military dress uniforms. They all looked rather uncomfortable in this setting. Burke could sympathize.

       Onstage, Braddock rose and walked to the podium. The man who needed no introduction. His name resonated even with Burke as perhaps one of only two names to be cited in the news reports on Vesta.

       "Ladies and Gentlemen, of North and South, East and West," the General began, his deep baritone ringing clear in spite of the size of the chamber. "Greetings to you all."

       The room was brought to silence almost immediately. "We are gathered here this evening for a singular purpose: to plead, with one voice, for an end to the bloodshed. We have suffered four years of killing. The flower of Vesta's youth has been called to arms in order to kill each other. It must stop.

       "We are one people. One hundred and twenty years ago, this colony was founded on the principle of liberty, of independence. Do we squander that legacy now? For over a century we have prospered, side-by-side, in peace. We fight now over empty differences and imagined slights. Too much blood has been spilt already. It would take so little to end it. We must simply lay our anger to rest."

       The room was entirely still and silent but for the General's speech. Burke had to admit that he spoke well. A warrior poet of sorts. He was a commanding presence despite the distance and the size of the crowd. He was tall and broad, and his voice was booming.

       In a war that was laden with missteps and blunders, General James Braddock's reputation was golden. As far as Burke could tell from the ONI's file on him, Braddock had used a combination of cunning, skill, and good fortune to associate his name with all the war's greatest successes. He had made the final push in Talavera, turned the tide at the Vejle Pass, trounced the South at Greve, and personally accepted the Presidium's surrender at Clearwater. Despite his spotty record fighting the insurgency, he still retained enormous popularity in the North. For that reason, he was appointed supreme commander of the Legion forces in the South.

       Braddock paid deference to the occasion by offering more rhetoric, but he soon delved into more particular, more soldierly details.

       "As many of you know, Legion forces are currently conducting operations in Barracas to neutralize rebel strongholds and cease the transportation of firearms. This is another tragic chapter in a war that has already gone on too long. Yet it is necessary if we are to end the killing. In order to bring this action to a swift conclusion, it is incumbent upon all leaders, North and South, to legitimize this operation by a formal declaration. We must all be united on this. This operation—and, by extension, this war—must not be presented as North versus South, or the UNSC versus independence. It must simply be presented as right versus wrong, as peace versus war. It is in the power of all those in attendance to do so."

       A few people in attendance clapped to show their support, and it gradually turned into a subdued applause. Braddock stopped his speech to allow the applause to run its course.

       Bai leaned to his ear even as she clapped. "Ah," she said. "Now we come to the nub of this little gathering."

       "A touch of desperation, no doubt," Burke agreed.

       "Barracas is the most problematic Southern state," Bai said as Braddock continued his speech. "Walking around there in a Legion uniform is tantamount to throwing rocks at a hornets' nest. The campaign is already going poorly."

       "At least Braddock seems to have control of the elites," Burke said, referring to the applause.

       Bai snorted derisively. "Do not be fooled by what you see. They'll sanction Braddock's operation, alright. Then half of them will turn around and funnel arms and supplies to the rebels." She leaned even closer to him so that Costa would not hear. "This war is more fucked than you know. You should prepare yourself for a long stay."

       She leaned back to continue listening to Braddock's speech. He looked around the room, studying the guests. The Legion military brass, dressed in their black and red dress uniforms, all sat together. Those in civilian dress, mostly Southern elites, were likewise clustered together. Despite what Braddock said, it was impossible not to see North versus South.

       Prepare yourself for a long stay. He did not doubt it.