Felix Besart was selling Covenant tosh on Park when he saw the Spartans walk down the opposite side of the street.
The farmer in front of him, standing so close that he could smell the dirt on her overalls, held a purple lens loosely in her hand and looked, deep in thought and cross-eyed, over his shoulder. Felix hadn't quite hooked her attention yet. Scattered shoppers moved around her, visiting the teetering tables of the noisy city market.
"That one's lucky!" Felix said, trying to pull her attention back to his face. "Fine stained glass will bring good fortune to your home."
He spoke English because it was the closest thing to a universal language humanity had, and he spoke it with an American accent because he liked the sound of the round vowels. It made him sound dignified, he thought.
"I saw the same down the street," the farmer said, tugging on the brim of her hat to break eye contact even further. At least she was paying him more attention now. The Spartans were lingering at a table on the other side of the market, between a fruit stand and an idling Warthog.
"This one was found on the fields, right by the edge," Felix said. "Very rare." He watched the soldiers progress along beyond the farmer's shoulder. They wore heavy armor that shone like alien lacquer.
She bartered with him, and he gave up cheap because the Spartans were coming his way, looking like the most well-equipped tourists on Chorus. There were two of them, one in brown and one in gray, not as tall as he had expected from the recruitment commercials that played between grifball matches. He had seen a lot of games from where he sat near the doors of bars, waiting for someone to notice him while he used the working air conditioner or the radiation curtains to help him talk to people who might want him to hunt tosh.
The guns attached to both of the soldiers' backs didn't shine like the armor.
When the two soldiers came closer, Felix walked up to them with practiced confidence, tugging at the straps of the mesh bag full of multicolored treasures slung on his back. There was one piece that was almost complete, and he felt blindly for it while he approached.
Two helmeted heads turned toward him. These Spartans probably spent most of their time somewhere with open fields of trees purged of radiation. Somewhere people had money to spend.
"Afternoon!" he said, and all that steel attention found him. His fingers grasped the alien piece with the moving parts on it. "Genuine alien artifacts. Low price. Even this beauty." He dug out the most complete piece, the one with tabs and turning screws inside like teeth within a jaw.
If the Spartans were impressed, he couldn't tell. The armor held them still, erasing any body language.
"How much?" said the brown-armored one, a woman. Felix named a price.
Again they glanced at one another. Maybe they had radios, he thought. He could get a very good price for a Spartan radio.
Felix heard shouting on the other end of the blocked-up street and turned. A background bustle quickly turned to a dangerous alarm as people panicked after a disturbance he couldn't see. Both a sawhorse and the peaceful feeling around the street cracked. Felix ducked under the nearest table.
People spooked. He noted the ones who panicked; regulars would be less likely to buy. The bag of artifacts jingled as he backed further under the table loaded with bug-bitten, faintly glowing fruit.
A crowd of people shouldered toward the south side of the street, away from a fight teeming with elbows and pugil sticks.
The Spartans waded in.
They didn't reach the center, although Felix wanted to see whether they could pick the combatants up one-handed with that armor. Instead they stood on the crumbling sidewalk, looking at the backs of the crowd. Felix shuffled on ankles that started to twinge, and carefully pushed the alien machinery back into his bag.
He watched the Spartans watch the street, wondering what they were thinking.
Once he flinched, when someone got hit.
The crowd broke up after a long, violent fight. Maybe some territory had been conceded, some small dynasty had fallen. Felix didn't know which of the militias or gangs had been involved, but he would figure it out. He wriggled out from under the table, tossed a salute at its ducking owner, and looked around. Left, right, back to the Spartans walking back down the street, nodding at one another.
He skidded to a stop in front of them again, reaching into his bag, and was interrupted.
"Be careful around here," the male Spartan said.
"This?" Felix raised an eyebrow. "This is Tuesday. In an hour I'll be able to get better prices. The pieces have local color in them now. History. Don't you want to remember your exciting visit to Chorus? Thirty credits."
"What is this?" The female soldier turned the piece back and forth between two fingers.
Felix shook dust out of his hair. "Dorsal plate from a needler gun."
He let the Spartan hold the plate.
She handed it back without response. The man in gray looked at him for a moment before following.
Felix sighed and waved. After counting in his head the credits that piece could have gotten him, and the price of a ticket off of the planet, he shook his head and went back to work.
Felix was born on Chorus, but it was never his planet.
He took pieces of it, pushed them away, sent shards of things that had been buried in Chorus for years out to planets and space stations light-years distant.
He collected credits from far-away stars to buy himself luxurious food and a room no one else his age, no one on the street, could afford.
Felix recycled Chorus, over and over let the profit of it cycle in and out of his possession.
One day he would put his feet up and feel it wash away from him completely.
There was a locked gate.
Agent Connecticut leaned back and looked at the twist of wire around the horseshoe latch. Signs clustered around the gate, indicating that the hill beyond was a reserved collecting zone, threaded with alarms like a mine field. Behind her, a street very much like the one where a fight had broken out in the market muttered to itself. Crowds growled and tires bumped over uneven tarmac.
"The Director told us there would be a check point," Wash said.
Agent Washington, the by-the-books one, referred to the chain of command so much that most people thought he was a lot newer to the military than his skill set indicated.
"Yeah. See that wreckage on the ridge?" she said.
"The big purple thing? It's hard to miss."
"I bet that's what we're here to check out."
The sky was filled with white clouds beyond the low ridge, but chunks of a crashed spaceship's hull broke up the view. Joists stripped of the pieces that had once connected them to the hull protruded like ribs.
Wash nodded in Connie's peripheral vision, then looked left at a shack with white siding, leaning up against the fence almost a block down. "And there's the command center."
"We should have more than enough time to get through," she said, and started toward the building. Wash fell into step beside her.
"Maybe there's more to the mission than just going into the wreckage and taking pictures, if we have all day to do this," he said. "It doesn't seem like it will take that much time."
"Unless there's something we don't know about."
He nodded again, and later she would remember that particular dip of his head as a shift in their early partnership. It told her that he was willing to pry into the reasoning behind their mission. He had not yet been burnt out by reasonings like not enough fuel or not enough ammo, or had not stopped questioning the blunt inconvenience of the universe. He had, somewhere, learned that questions had answers.
That made something relax in her chest, some layer between her and other people fall away. She might yet consider him a friend.
His agreement felt like he was telling her a secret.
He said, "I don't know why they'd need a sharp shooter and a ... sorry, infiltration specialist?"
"With some training in demolitions."
"Some training?" He sounded happy to have found something surprising about her. "I would hope that you'd gotten completely trained to disarm bombs."
"I read about it on the internet a little."
"I was training to be in demolitions before I switched my specialty to digital infiltration. There was more funding in it. The Director still gave me EOD armor, though."
"As I can see," he replied levelly.
She turned her wrists over, perpetually a bit disappointed by equipment which she felt had been assigned to a Connie with different goals.
As they walked by another residential street, crowded with people, Wash said "I can't figure out this planet. Trade on one side, turf war on the other."
They hadn't yet talked about the brawl on the market street, one of the first events they had seen on Chorus. Both Freelancers were still flush with their promotion to a new project and saw it as a serious calling, even if their first mission was to take photographs in a field that looked about as well locked as the average chicken coop.
Connie opened up conversation like she was extending a hand to pull him up. "The cities on Chorus are more densely populated than the entire population of the planet would suggest. It's because of the radiation in the plants. People band together where they can be shielded."
The radiation was also the reason why Connie and Wash had been encouraged to stay in their armor for the duration of the mission, even the talking stages. Why anyone had settled here in the first place was a mystery to her.
"Maybe that's why they sent a sharp shooter and a infiltrations specialist," Wash said.
"Imagine York taking a look at that gate."
The building by the fence looked from the outside like it couldn't contain more than one room, and when she went inside she was proven right. Signs identical to those on the fences were posted along the walls, bright red letters declaring that no one could go into the collection area without a permit.
A desk stretched the width of the building, facing the door. Behind it Connie could see four cubicles, their walls decorated with calendars showing beaches or puppies. A heavy woman sat behind the desk, purple hair falling to her shoulders, her off-white shirt wrinkled and sweat-stained.
Connie took three strides to the desk and spoke before she could ask about the armor.
"We're from section 17," she said, not sure of what response she would get.
"I've never heard of section 17," the woman said.
Connie said, "Do you get military units in here often?"
The woman spidered her fingers against the check-in list on the desk. "No."
Out of the corner of her eyes, Connie saw Wash shift his right hand from hip to thigh. The movement was loose, but that, she thought, was an unconscious tell too. They didn't want to intimidate the desk worker before she showed her credentials.
"We have UNSC permits to take recordings of the crashed ships for R&D," Connie said, and passed the woman a data card. "Our science officer was in touch with a Mary Warston?"
"That's me," the woman grumbled, and pressed the chip into her computer. She didn't look up while she kept talking. "Science officer. Thick accent, slow voice?"
"That sounds right," Wash said.
"I'll have to print you passes," Mary said, and disappeared among the cubicles.
Connie looked around and found one bench, nearly in the doorway. It didn't look like the building got much foot traffic.
"So, now we just sit here," she said.
Wash said, "You know those people who sound like they're asking a question even if they're making a statement?"
"Yeah." She backed up, thought about sitting down, remembered that armor tended to break chairs, and sat anyway. The bench was made of some severe concrete, square and sheer-edged.
Wash shook his head. "You're not one of them."
"I don't see how that's relevant."
"Even if you're not sure what you're doing you...go ahead like you are."
"I don't chance it."
"What does that mean?"
He mimicked her glance at the bench before he sat. It didn't crack.
Connie said, "I talk when I think I know what I'm doing. And sometimes...I'm wrong." She looked down. Cold air from a vent above them hit the part at the top of her head. Decent infrastructure for a ragged city.
She moved the words around in her head like a new taste. She didn't like not knowing what was going to come out of her own mouth, and it hadn't been professional.
"You were right about coming here instead of going through the gate," Wash said.
Footsteps echoed in the small space as Mary emerged from behind the counter.
She said, "Your passes don't check out."
Wash looked up. "That can't be right."
Mary shook her head, her purple hair bouncing. "No such thing as section 17. Take it to your science officer."
Connie looked between Wash and Mary, waiting for one of them to give her an answer.
"Run it through again," Wash said.
Mary scooped the data card off the desk and handed it back to Connie. "I ran it through three times."
"We'll call the Director," Wash said. "He'll know what to do."
Mary had ceased to be interested in them, although some other employees were peeking their heads around the corkboard partitions and looking the Freelancers up and down.
Wash lead the way out the narrow door. Instead of heading back toward the gate, Connie loitered, creating a mental list of other possible entrance points.
"I meant that you sounded confident," Wash said. It took her a moment to realize that he was continuing their earlier conversation.
"I guess I shouldn't have been." Connie's eyes wandered. "Hey. Isn't that the boy who tried to sell us something?"
The boy was sitting on the wide curb next to the shack, maybe waiting for something. Black hair fell across his wide eyes, and he pawed it away. The mesh pack on his back looked emptier now than Connie remembered.
"I have a feeling you need my help," he said quite suddenly to the ground, and got to his feet. He looked up at the two Freelancers. Connie's first opinion was that he hadn't quite perfected his endearing stare yet.
"We don't want to buy anything," Wash said. "Although that spiral wire is neat."
"That's a charm for good fortune," the boy said. "Or to make people fall in love. Are you trying to get into the tosh fields?"
"How do you know that?" Connie said.
"That's the only thing that building is for."
"Did you follow us here?"
"No. Maybe. My last spot got a bit...Tuesday. Look, I can show you where the serious prospectors get in, not the ones with the pieces of paper. Do you want the love charm?" "Where else can we get to the alien artifacts?" Connie said.
The boy shrugged. "Everything has its price. 50 credits." He looked over his shoulder at the administration building. "You know. For the love charm."
Connie held up one finger and called Wash on their internal channels. She could see the boy trying to follow the conversation through body language alone.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Wash said.
"But - " Connie started.
"But we were told to do whatever it takes."
"That's what I was going to say."
They had been told that. A special unit, the Director had said, meant that many unconventional approaches could be forgiven.
She looked up. A crowd of people were approaching the white building, accompanied by a rumbling Warthog.
"Hey, UNSC!" A woman near the front of the group shouted. "Finally decide to help Chorus?"
"What?" Wash said. His voice cracked, and his tone of having honestly been taken aback surprised Connie.
The man in the Warthog leaned his head out the window. "How many wars we fought to keep our homes, and you ignored us!"
Connie had the sudden sinking feeling that she had been dropped into a diplomatic position she was entirely unprepared to handle. She hadn't heard of this planet before the briefing two days old infrastructure and chaotic streets certainly implied a government that could barely hold itself together.
"We're special agents!" Wash said. This had no effect on the seething crowd.
The boy knocked on Wash's arm with his knuckles. "55 credits under duress."
Someone threw a bottle. Blue glass shattered around Connie's face, edged with sunlight, tinkling on her armor. "Get the kid out of here," she radioed to Wash. "Break on two. Synch."
She started a countdown. At the two count both Freelancers turned their backs to the crowd, creating a solid armored wall. Connie waited for something else to hit her, but the citizens of Chorus were still waiting, holding in their old anger until the new situation changed it and made it mobile.
Wash put his hand on the boy's back and pushed so that the kid had to scramble forward in front of the armored figures. "Show us."
The boy glanced over his shoulder and jogged forward, toward the back of the building. The crowd followed, pebbles crunching under the Warthog's tires. A few moments later, the woman from behind the counter leaned out of the building and began to yell in Chorutian, diverting some attention.
The boy lead Connie and Wash over a curb and into a stand of trees. The three of them crouched among leaves whose green veins glowed in the shadows.
"This is the entrance?" Wash said. "We're still so close to the road."
"Are these the same guys that caused the fight last time?" Connie whispered, transmitting both via radio to Wash and externally.
"Don't think so," the boy said.
"Can you still get us through the gate?" Wash asked sharply. Connie wasn't sure whether he was focused on the mission or simply impatient.
"I can take you to another gate," the boy said. "One that's even closer to the edge. This? This isn't even the most complete cash site we have here. Crash site. I mean crash site."
"Then let's go," Connie said.
Wash was watching their backs, glancing up and down the cracked road. Connie followed the boy.
"What's your name?" she asked.
He looked over his shoulder. "Felix."
Connie could hear the crowd, arguing with the woman and bringing the Warthog slowly closer. They wouldn't be delayed for long. Maybe she should talk to them, explain how the UNSC allotted resources and how aliens were taking planets left and right.
"55 credits," Felix said.
The Warthog revved beyond the trees. Connie looked back and curled her right hand into a fist. "We bypass them or we fight them."
Wash paid Felix with Chorutian credits.
"This is the entrance," the boy said, and pushed further into dense foliage that bent against Connie's armor and scratched at it like fingers. She heard Wash rustling in the trees behind her as the road became more distant. The forest became thick and strange quickly, and she wondered whether it would damage Felix's skin.
"Here." Felix knelt down next to the wire fence, and resettled his pack. Through the fence, Connie could see that they were on the other side of the gentle hill on which the alien ship had crashed. The administrators wouldn't be able to see them from here. The larger deterrent, she saw, was that there were even more alien ships, scattered along a field thick with weeds. Red signs, like the ones at the main gate, were posted every few feet, some leaning and vine-choked.
"Take all the pictures you want," Felix said, and saluted.
Wash turned to him."How exactly do you make lucky charms out of alien guns?"
"The artifacts have many magical properties."
"They're not artifacts. They're pieces of guns!"
"Very lucky guns. They may be inactive now, but once...You won't know until you try! Want a love charm?"
Connie moved out onto the field, looking carefully left and right for any other visitors. Behind her, she heard Felix lean closer to Wash and whisper "Do you like her?"
Another fence snaked its way over the top of the hill, separating the two sites. This one had to be closed off for a reason.
"I'm not supposed to go in there," Felix said without prompting. "I'd need a suit, like you. When we say the edge, we don't mean the part of the field near the road. It's the part where the ground gets rocky and the tosh stays near the surface. It's like walking on razors."
Connie gestured Wash forward, and Felix faded into the shadows. His brown clothing blended in, leaving only an impression of large eyes with green reflections.
He had been right about the ground. Connie stepped over and around slivers of ship had not only crashed but exploded - ripping into the earth, sitting in the dirt for how long she did not know.
Wash looked back and forth and fidgeted, then hunched his shoulders under his gun. Probably feeling the same eyes on him that Connie was, but they could get in and out of this site before the administration knew they were there - and their mission was more important, more pressing than small town bureaucracy on a destabilizing planet.
(Hubris, Connie thought. Shouldn't the UNSC help Chorus?)
The ship's shadow came over them. Connie began recording, knowing that Wash would see the indicator on his HUD. He approached the side of the ship, which was skewed and half buried in the grass, and began ripping new growth vines away from an open door.
Connie almost forgot about the boy as she stepped into the tiny room beyond the door. The ceiling had collapsed, leaving a triangular cavern. She looked at each corner of the room to create a complete video and walked back out, leaving Wash investigating the join of the wall and the door.
The next hour was taken up quietly examining the ships, sweeping flashlights and zooming in on images. More than one alien had crashed here. They found another entrance to the largest ship, and a bridge where dust floated over control panels in golden specks. Connie examined the mostly flat control panel as she moved her helmet cam over it, searching for something recognizable as a button. Something creaked as the ship settled, and she looked over her shoulder to see whether Wash had touched anything.
Her drifting hand found the edge of the console and grasped a smooth curve that didn't quite match the shape of her palm.
"You know, some of these things look active," Wash said, and Connie looked down. The nub she had pressed didn't glow or otherwise indicate that the ship had any power at all, but she squeezed it again just in case.
A compartment near the back of the ship opened. Both Freelancers moved into the center of the room as tiny wall panels climbed over one another to make room for a head-sized metal sphere, which slipped out of its compartment and floated into the center of the room. Silver metal flared up around lacunae to either side of a purple robotic eye.
Wash reached over his shoulder for his gun. "What is that?"
"I don't know...We come in peace?"
The eye began to glow. Connie took two steps to the side and pulled her gun at the same time, smashing into the console just as a thick flare of light drilled a hole in the central part of it. "Wash? Wash!"
"That kid was right!" Wash's voice came through the comm even as he was obscured by the black smoke rising from the ship. Connie's HUD found the floating robot and locked on, assigning it a red marker.
"What was that?" Wash shouted.
"I don't know!"
The sound of the laser started revving up again. Connie raised her rifle and saw Wash's beacon shift slightly toward the daylight now visible through the hole. "I'm still recording it!"
It fired again, sweeping the boiling beam around and sheering through the ceiling.
"Get out of there!" She shouted, and fired.
The shots hit the floating machine without much effect. Gold splotches flared around it as the bullets hit a shield.
Wash fired toward the ceiling, and if he had intended to spook the machine, it worked. The sphere floated serenely out onto the lawn, its purple glow fading with the smoke. "Maybe that's why no one comes out here," Wash said.
As they watched, the sphere began to fire erratically, targeting patches of ground without any complete ship parts in them. Another blast shot out into the air toward the bottom of the hill and continued until it dissolved.
The next one hit the trees near Felix's hiding place and lit a branch on fire.
Wash cursed and fired again, hitting the sphere twice on the run as he angled up the hill toward the collapsed room the Freelancers had first explored. Felix emerged, stumbling up the hill, waving at the smoke in front of his eyes.
"Hang on," Connie yelled.
"I'll watch Felix," Wash said.
Connie squeezed the trigger with fingers that felt disconnected to her body. Her idea had come with a sickening, floating sense of determination.
The bullets were bringing the shield down, at least; she could tell that the gaps in the golden sheen were widening, the ancient power source maybe laboring to run. The purple eye spun to point toward her.
Without looking backward she ran, dug her toe into a spongy hillock of grass, and jumped toward the ship. The armor augmentations sent her on a flailing arc toward the roof, and she struggled to wrench herself forward before tumbling onto her back. With bent knees, she landed solidly on the roof and turned just in time to see the robot beelining toward her, coming so fast that it looked like it would run back into the bridge of the ship.
That was exactly what she wanted. For a moment she backed off, sunlight gleaming off of the skin of the ship. The sphere rose as if it might menace her there on the highest point of the tosh field. She fired again, trying to herd the robot like Wash had done. She saw him pick up Felix by his elbow and push the boy behind him.
If the sphere crested the side of the ship she could jump off the other side and buy herself more time, but she was committed to being the bait for now.
The sphere drifted under the broken ceiling, glowing up at her. She squeezed the trigger, felt the gun rock as the counter ticked down.
For a moment, the purple eye stared up at her. Then the laser fired, and Connie ran, tripping over ground suddenly unstable and falling. Her left foot hit empty air and pitched her backward. Metal clattered and crashed around her. She clutched her gun against her chest, waiting to hear the laser blast charging again. Instead, the wreckage blacked out the sun and she settled on her back, wedged into what had once been the bridge.
Eyes wide, she sat back and slackened.
Chorus was such an honest planet, she thought - honest in its razor ground and its packed layers of incomprehensible history. Honest enough to die on.
She blinked, shutting off her recording.
Metal groaned. The first light she saw was through the crook of Wash's arm as he lifted a metal piece off of her. Felix leaned down beside him, holding that little spiral piece of metal, of all things.
"For luck!" he said when she raised her head and braced herself on her elbows, kicking away the debris around her legs.
"Thanks," Connie groaned. "Is it dead?"
"I think it's buried," Wash said.
"Good. We can retrieve it if we need."
Felix looked surprised. "Do you think you're going to need to?"
"I don't know. It could be valuable." She shook metal splinters off her armor and holstered her gun, stretching protesting arms. Felix nodded vigorously.
"You planned all that out?" Wash said.
The three of them picked their way over the wreckage. The Freelancers watched Felix move agilely, walking with a swagger that belied his earlier warnings. When they reached the trees, he looked up at them with a serious expression.
"Look, you saved my life," Felix said. "Maybe I could help you out, if you stick around."
"Stay on Chorus?" Wash said. "We have the video we came for."
"More than we expected," Connie said.
Felix straighten his back and his mouth. "I could go with you.
"I'm sorry," Wash said.
"It was our mission to come here," Connie said, struggling for words that were both fast and kind. "But now we have to leave. We aren't getting paid to stay here. But we'll tell our Director that there are people on Chorus who need help."
"Everything has its price," Felix muttered.
It was early in the program and they were not comfortable with going off-mission; they were eager to please and not yet practiced at leaving with grace or severing ties.
In the New Republic army, watching Agent Washington fall a moment before the rocks and dirt of the cave collapse obscure the view, Felix chides himself for mistaking Freelancers for Spartans, and moves on.
In an audience with Locus, bruised and angry and feeling a dawning sense of futile revelation, Wash remembers broken hulls in a city on Chorus that could be days or minutes away now.
CT had talked on the way back about whether they might see Felix again - in what world where he grew up and found his way off Chorus (as an enterprising person surely would), in how much time.