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Halo: Sanctuary
Avalon Symbol V1.png
Protagonist

Amanda Wade
Ash Mitchell

Antagonist

Magnus

Author Brodie-001
Date Published Started April 16th, 2014

Finished June 13th, 2015

Length 5 chapters, 26 sub-chapters

(Roughly 54,707 words upon initial completion)

Author's Rating 16+ (Some harsh language and violence throughout)
Previous Story Halo: Shrike
Next Story Halo: Salvation
Story Series Sigmaverse
Soundtrack
[Source]

Plot Summary

It has been nearly a year since the NOVA Incident ended, and the galaxy is unstable as ever. Faced with numerous rebellions and a crime epidemic in the colonies, ONI's top agents are moving to eliminate threats both old and new across Human space. Meanwhile, one group is building a new, independent settlement outside of anyone's control on a world long-since abandoned by the rest of Humanity. As hostile forces move over Emerald Cove and Avalon, its defenders embark on a personal mission - one of revenge.

Dramatis Personae

Halo: Sanctuary
Book Two of the Dynasty Trilogy

Prologue

The Man

0436 Hours, September 3rd, 2556

Outpost D-09, near Agadir, Mamore


The walls of the building shook, rousing the cell’s single occupant into consciousness. He groaned and sat upright, ignoring the various twinges of pain from his chest and legs. The man heaved himself out of bed and staggered over to the sink; running water was the only luxury allowed in the prison. He ran it for a few seconds before cupping the liquid in his hands and splashing it over his lined face. It was almost certainly dirty and contaminated, but the icy coldness hit and made him shiver before straightening up.

Still alive. Still here. How long have I been here now?

Ignoring the distant rumbling, the man checked himself over in the mirror. He hadn’t been able to shave for well over a month now, and as a result had developed a straggly beard to go with his unkempt hair. The only remotely fresh thing about him was the bandage wrapped round his head and right eye; something he’d been given after his last and only escape attempt. The jailors had promised to take his other eye if he tried again, so he’d remained in his cell and kept quiet for the last few weeks.

There is no escape. Your lives belong to us. We are your Gods now. Evil bastards.

That was what the wardens told the prisoners here. There were barely a hundred inmates, all here for various supposed crimes. He’d never spoken to the others. Any communication resulted in a beating, as he’d quickly learned. They were like he had been though, in some ways; military men fit and strong, now wasting away in this hole. As the man went to sit back on his rickety bed, the walls shook violently and dust drifted from the ceiling. That got his attention.

“Okay, everybody up! Cell inspection, now!”

The prisoner pulled a grubby shirt over his bruised chest before shuffling towards his cell door. Moments later, the guards thundered past in full combat gear. That was odd. Usually they wore simple olive fatigues, and carried pistols or shock sticks. Something was definitely up. As the last of them ran past towards the other cells, the head warden strode up to his cell.

“Morning Mitchell, you fucking wreck.”

Mitchell nodded. You never spoke back unless given permission to, and never gave them any sort of backchat. The head warden was a native Mamorian named Keller, a thirty-something meathead with a booming voice and a real love for beating prisoners. He’d personally taken Mitchell’s eye out with that knife of his not long ago. He rattled his keychain, and unlocked the cell door.

“Right then, one-eye. You’re out first, Major's orders. You will walk with your hands on your head in front of me. You will not run, you will not look back or I will shoot you. Move.”

Keller never asked questions, only gave orders. Mitchell proceeded as ordered and walked slowly out of the cell block. As he exited, the sounds of gunfire filled the room behind him. He bowed his head as the Warden nudged him sharply in the back with his rifle. The pair walked in silence for several minutes, ascending two staircases until they were on the ground level. It suddenly occurred to Mitchell that the base was probably being hit hard if even the deep cells were shaking. Asking what was going on would only earn him a punch, so he kept going until Keller ordered him to stop.

“Don’t move,” he said in a low voice. “Amenwae ordered us to keep you alive at all costs, but I’m not dying for meat like you. When we get outside you’re going to move with the others. Anything happens and you’ll be the one catching bullets, clear?”

That was a question. Keller was worried; a first for him.

“Yeah,” Mitchell replied. He instantly realised his mistake as the bigger man stamped into the back of his knee, forcing him down.

“Excuse me?” he hissed, taking his boot off for a moment. “I didn’t hear that, you fucking-“

Just behind them, the wall burst inwards with a deafening noise. Keller was thrown sideways into the wall, struggling to grip onto some piping as plaster and masonry scattered into the hallway.

Mitchell had already turned.

It was easy. It was just too easy. Mitchell pushed Keller’s rifle down with one hand while he balled the other into a fist and brought it up onto his chin. The big man fell back, his grip loosening just long enough for the prisoner to snatch the rifle. Mitchell could have shot him in the head there and then, but it would have been far too slow. He brought he butt of the rifle down on Keller’s nose as hard as he could. There was a satisfying snap as blood began to leak out onto his face. Though shoeless and filthy, Mitchell then kicked his jailor in the groin and again in the stomach before he could ball up. With the pain coursing through him, he didn’t have the time to draw the knife that hung at his belt, something that Mitchell took full advantage of.

Payback.

He didn’t bother with taunts or one-liners. Mitchell simply snatched Keller’s knife and stabbed twice, once into each eye. The man screamed in agony, blood and tears mixing as his sight was taken from him. The other man merely took a few steps back and watched him writing around on the floor, wailing and cursing blindly. He briefly entertained the idea of taking his time and bringing the knife to other regions of his tormentor’s body, but time wasn't something he had. Still, Mitchell felt slightly sickened rather than overjoyed at this sight. He raised the rifle.

“Hey, Keller.”

He took aim as the blind man’s face snapped up towards the noise. Even with his sight taken from him, Keller knew full well what came next.

“Ple-“

Mitchell fired once, drilling a hole through the man’s forehead. He fell back and was still. The sounds of gunfire was getting much closer to his location, as were the explosions that struck the compound outside. A chilly wind was blowing in, accompanied by a few snowflakes. He shivered; back on Earth he’d heard the phrase ‘Colder than a Mamorian Winter’. Whoever said that was certainly right. Mitchell ran through the base’s corridors, ducking past windows as flares lit up the night sky around the base’s perimeter. Eventually he burst through a side door into what he assumed were the barracks. Two half-dressed guards scrambled for their weapons, only to be gunned down by his rifle. One died instantly, while the other was caught in the gut and fell with a scream. Mitchell raised the rifle for a headshot, only to have the weapon jam. He sighed in annoyance and checked the side of his gun.

MA3A. Older weapon, almost certainly black market-bought. Typical, Keller never took proper care of the damn thing.

That left him with the knife. He knelt down and slashed the man’s throat, drowning the screams with blood. He died after a few seconds. Mitchell rummaged through the lockers until he found one with fresh fatigues inside. They were dark green, and thankfully lacking any logo that might identify him with this group. He’d seen some uniforms adorned with various symbols belonging to known rebel groups; most of the soldiers here were probably just mercenaries, though. Mitchell spent several minutes getting dressed from what he could find, stealing a pair of combat boots and other clothes to keep wrapped up outside. As he went to leave, he grabbed a pistol from one of the dead men and a better cared-for MA5B from the other.

I’m out. I’m out and I’m getting the fuck off this planet.

Mitchell stepped outside, rifle ready. He’d barely seen the base since he was brought in, and weeks underground had screwed with his senses somewhat; he was glad that it was before sunrise. Several buildings were on fire, and he had to duck towards the wall as a trio of Hornets swooped overhead. A siren was blaring in the distance. Mitchell took his chance and sprinted forward, panting a little from the sudden exertion on his battered body. It seemed that most of the soldiers were heading towards the vehicle bay. Perfect.

“C’mon, mount up!” roared a uniformed man from nearby: An Alliance man for certain. “We’ve got tangos hitting us from the west, and marksmen to the north. Take them the fuck out!”

Darting between two parked vehicles, Mitchell sighted a mechanic attempting to fix a broken-down ATV. The man had his back to the escapee, and couldn’t hear him coming on account of his thick balaclava and headphones. Mitchell pulled it off as he slit the mechanic’s throat, clasping a hand over his mouth and letting him down gently into the dirt. As the officer nearby began shouting once more, he slipped the balaclava over his head, straightening it up as he joined the group of soldiers.

“Right, Echo troop’s engaged the enemy to the north, unknown size. That’ll stop the bastards mortaring us for a while. The rest of you are to hunt down whoever’s sniping our boys. Take captives if you can but otherwise it’s seek and destroy.”

There was a chorus of acknowledgements as a line of vehicles drove up towards the soldiers. From what Mitchell could see, they were mostly retrofitted civilian trucks with machine guns or grenade launchers, though there were several military-grade warthogs. The rear vehicle was even possessed a missile launcher. As they mounted up, the officer glanced towards the building, and back to the group.

"Where the fuck is Sergeant Keller? Bastard's supposed to have the HVI here by now, the fat sack of shit." He pointed towards the two men closest to Mitchell. “Both of you, see what’s taking him so long. I gave that moron a simple fucking task.”

As the pair ran off, Mitchell sighed inwardly. He wasn't sure how he would've reacted to being ordered to find himself back there. All he had to do now was act like he was just part of the group and escape into the nearby city at the first opportunity. After that he’d get off Mamore and run for his life, just like he’d been doing for the past seven months. Mitchell clambered into the cab of a nearby truck, sitting alongside two others. One wore a balaclava like his, while the other had a scarf and woolly hat. He was glad to be sitting on the right side; his bandaged eye was out of sight in the darkened truck as it began to move with the rest of the convoy.

“Who do you think’s out there?” asked the man in the middle. He looked to be in his early twenties, and sounded all too cheerful for someone on their way to a firefight.

“Oonskies, prob’ly,” the driver muttered. He was much older than Mitchell. The young man seemed a little nervous at that remark.

“You sure?”

“Must be.”

Mitchell couldn't help but comment. “UNSC would've flattened this place if they were attacking. It’s probably mercs or a PMC doing this.”

“How would you know?”

“Used to be a Marine back during the war. Usual strategy would be to send in ODST’s from orbit, backed up by Shortsword bombings to incapacitate potential targets and Marine landings via Pelican. The base defences would’ve fallen within an hour.”

The other two remained silent for a few seconds as they continued along the dirt path leading into the foothills. To their right, Mitchell could make out the lights of the nearest city, Agadir. Just have to make it there. Have to escape. The young man gave him a good look before speaking.

“What made you turn?”

“What?”

“I mean, what led you to the Alliance?”

“Oh, right.” Mitchell swallowed, having barely spoken for over a month. “Sick of their bullshit, mostly. I signed up to fight Covenant, not beat down farmers. Left after the war and drifted for a while. Signed up with the NCA not long ago.”

“Ah, right.” Mitchell had told some of the truth there, at least. “I was born on Terceira after the war, myself. Parents grew corn for the colonies. I was gonna be a farmer until the NCA showed up, told us what they were doing for folk like us. I wanted to make a difference. Y’know?”

Mitchell nodded. This kid is gonna die in his first fucking firefight. “What about you?” he asked the drver.

“Mind yer own fuckin’ business,” came the reply.

“Fair enough.”

The truck kept going for a little while, stopping for a little while to wait for one of the lead vehicles to pull itself from a ditch. It seemed like an awful lot of troops to go after a few snipers, but Mitchell wasn’t about to question the NCA's tactical decisions. The cab’s radio crackled to life as the officer who’d sent them out began to shout.

“All units be advised, we have an escaped prisoner. The HVI is loose, I repeat, Ash Mitchell has escaped the facility. He is to be taken alive if possible, and is likely armed and dangerous. A reward will be given from the NCA's leadership to whoever captures him. Escapee is thirty-one years of age with brown hair, a medium build and is missing an eye. Find him and bring him in, over and out.”

As the truck started to move again, the driver snorted. “Hope they kill that fucker, I heard what he did.”

“Yeah,” the young man agreed. “The fucking Butcher of Kuiper, they called him. Should’ve shot that murderer on sight, agreed?”

The driver nodded. As he turned to hear Mitchell’s opinion he froze as the cold steel of a knife pressed against his throat. The older man was quick on the ball and was already reaching for his sidearm when Mitchell shot him in the head. Blood and chunks of bone sprayed against the truck’s windows.

“You drive.”

“I-“

“Do it or I’ll cut your fucking throat. Push him out.”

The young man complied. As the trucks behind them blared their horns, he opened the door and pushed the bloody corpse out onto the side of the road. The driver’s body rolled into the snow and out of sight. Mitchell slowly moved the knife back, but kept the pistol trained on the man’s head. His eyes were wide with fear, but he was evidently smart enough to simply comply.

“You’re-“

“Yes. Keep following the convoy for now. Turn right at the next opportunity.”

“They told us to stay with the-“

“I know. We’re heading to Agadir.”

“Why?”

“Say another word and I’ll shoot you in the head.”

Thankfully, the kid kept quiet and continued to drive. For a few moments Mitchell thought he’d gotten away with it when a loud rapping from behind him caught his attention. There was a sliding panel between the cab and the back, where an entire squad of NCA troops sat. Mitchell kept his pistol low and opened it.

“Yeah, what is it?”

A helmeted man peered through. Is everything okay up there, we heard-“

Mitchell shot the man in the face. With his free hand, he grabbed his driver’s utility belt and unhooked an M9 frag grenade. As the men in the back struggled to raise their weapons in the confined space, he pulled the pin and tossed it back there before sliding back the hatch. “Go right!”

“But-“

“Go right, now!”

As the truck veered off the road and onto a slope, Mitchell opened the cab door and dived out. The dirt was hard, though the snow cushioned his fall somewhat as he rolled down the hill. Ahead of him the back of the truck exploded, sending pieces of scorched metal and human remains flying before the flaming vehicle overturned and came to a halt. Mitchell gritted his teeth to ignore the pain and made his way down the snow-covered slope as quickly as he could. Behind him, two of the trucks had stopped to investigate.

Fuck, gotta make this fast. Arm up, run for my life.

The back of the truck was blown to pieces, but the cab seemed mostly intact after the blast. As he approached, he could hear a voice shouting from inside.

“-Mitchell. He blew up the truck and is on foot, gonna need reinforcements here ASAP.”

This fucking piece of shit had to play hero, didn't he?

One of the doors slid open and the young soldier crawled out, only to see Mitchell striding towards him. He didn’t seem to be armed with anything but a flashlight from what he could see, and backed up towards the truck at the sight of him.

“Look man, fuck you! I’m doing my duty, and if that means dying for the cause to get a motherfucker like you, then it’s worth it!”

Mitchell pitied the kid. Poor bastard was going to let himself die just to rat out a man who’d taken out a dozen men in the last half an hour. He raised his pistol, then lowered it slightly. Mitchell glanced towards the top of the slope and sighted several men with rifles and flashlights making their way down. They’d be on him in minutes. Maybe I’ll let this one go. Just this once, I’ll let-

His thoughts were interrupted by a faint noise, then a piercing pain as something struck him in the leg. Mitchell shot thrice, hitting his attacker in the neck and chest before turning to run away. I almost let him live. Almost. He’d have fucking lived if he’d just sat there. Glancing down, he saw a silver object sticking out of his upper leg. The kid had stowed a ballistic knife on him – ancient technology by any count, but effective. The injury seriously hampered his movement, and the knife was stuck too deeply to pull out for the time being. A voice rang out through loudspeakers over the icy plains.

“Mitchell, throw down your weapons and give up, there’s nowhere for you to run!”

It was that officer again. Mitchell wasn’t going back. He’d die first. With city lights in the distance and the sun beginning to rise on the horizon, he kept on limping past bare trees and the frozen grass towards freedom. A quick glance back showed dozens of armed men heading forward, hampered slightly by the snow and pre-dawn darkness as they hunted down their quarry. In the hills, gunfire rang out, accompanied by several explosions towards the base as the attackers began their bombardment once more.

“Mitchell, don’t make this harder for yourself. Surrender now and we’ll ensure that you are taken offworld safely!”

Bullshit. They’d take his other eye and lock him up in another cell for what he’d done. Two Hornets swooped over the fields with searchlights, searching for the fugitive. It would only be a matter of time before they switched to thermals and picked him out, miles from the city and sanctuary. Mitchell was having a hard enough time seeing through the snowfall, though several structures soon came into sight ahead. At first glance he thought it might have been a farm of sorts, but as he drew closer it became clear by the broken windows and ruined walls that this had been one of the many towns destroyed in one of the many rebel conflicts that blighted Mamore. He panted, and entered a rundown house to catch his breath before the officer’s voice rang out once more.

“We’re closing in, Mitchell. You can’t run forever.”

“Fuck you,” he muttered, breathing slowly and shaking his head. The pain from his bleeding wound was certainly keeping his adrenaline pumping, but Mitchell knew from experience that eventually a man’s legs would simply give way as his body was exhausted. He wasn't exactly young any more, either. The momentary glimpse of a flashlight snapped him to attention, Mitchell crouching by a window as more soldiers entered the abandoned town.

“-footprints end around here. Spread out and find him, now!”

“What about the-“

“Never mind that, our flyboys will take care of it. Just find him!”

Mitchell wondered what was keeping the Hornets off him. A distant explosion may have answered that for him. It certainly spooked the soldiers, several of whom turned to watch something else before searching the houses. That gave Mitchell time to dart out of the back door and move around an alleyway, narrowly avoiding two of the men as they ran past. He slipped into the next building behind them, and shot the pair in the back of the head at close range. They dropped instantly, though by the time Mitchell looted a rifle off one several more began to enter. He barely managed to take one down before another hit him in the chest with a pistol. The low calibre round didn’t penetrate thanks to his combat vest, though it winded Mitchell as he shot the others. “He’s in here, take him out!”

“No, they want him alive!”

“Bravo One-Six is down! One-Five, One-Three, move in to intercept!”

He didn’t have much time to listen to his foes barking at one another. Mitchell scrambled out of the house and spent the rest of his rifle’s magazine hosing down three more before dropping the weapon and sprinting for the edge of town. Bullets whizzed past him, a couple barely grazing the man as he weaved left and right on his mad sprint. Eventually one caught him in the lower back, hitting Mitchell solidly and causing him to fall by another wall. The man cried out for a moment in pain, but rolled into a sitting position as he hit the ground. The next three to run round after him were shot dead, with many more on the way.

Last round. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He was going to escape. He was going to get out alive. Ash Mitchell wasn’t going to top himself in the ass-end of nowhere on fucking Mamore of all places. He had to survive. He had to keep going on. Still, he only had one bullet. It was that or back to being tortured by the New Colonial Alliance.

“Shit.”

There seemed to be a lot of gunfire from nearby. Either they were trying to wound him and missing spectacularly or they’d started killing each other over who got the award for taking him in. Mitchell didn’t want to give any of them that pleasure. Four of the soldiers edged around the wall and were greeted with the sight of a bloody and beaten Mitchell with a gun to his head. “Don’t do it, Mitchell!”

“Why not?”

“You don’t wanna do this.”

“Maybe I do.”

The men glanced round at one another. Clearly some of them were totally fine with Mitchell blowing his brains out in the snow, but they got behind their leader on this one.

“Just drop the gun, we can sort this out.”

Mitchell sighed. “Fuck you and your Alliance shit, I’ll die on my own goddamn terms.”

The leader opened his mouth to speak once more, but was silenced as a hail of bullets tore his squad to shreds. They dropped and bled out in the snow, and silence filled the cold air of dawn. Mitchell wasn’t sure whether or not to point the gun at his head or towards whoever fired those shots. Then, a figure strode into view, carrying two assault rifles.

Well, I certainly didn’t see this coming.

A massive armoured figure peered down at the wounded man from behind an opaque visor. This one clearly didn’t mean him any harm, and wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact he had a gun to his head, or by the incoming rebel troops. Then he spoke.

"Ash Mitchell, I presume. I’ve been looking for you."

The Machine

0302 Hours, September 3rd, 2556

Agadir City, Mamore


The target would be gone by sunrise. That’s what the intel said, at least. From his position fifteen floors above ground, the Spartan had a perfect view of both the rally and the base. The main event had ended hours ago, so its organisers weren't going to be around for long. He checked his datapad one more time for the man he was after: Roger Maxon.

An image flashed up of a male Caucasian with short brown hair and a serious look in his dark eyes. There were a few older pictures of him in the grey uniform of the UNSC Navy, though recent ones pictures him in the dark green dress uniform that identified him as part of the New Colonial Alliance. Maxon hadn't quite been connected to any attacks, but his status as a prominent anti-UNSC orator marked him for death.

This is one of the men responsible for making the NCA as big as it is.

Of course, the Unified Earth Government didn't take kindly to secessionists and turncoats, and had publicly denounced the NCA as a terrorist group. To many the UEG seemed to be ineffective, with stories of NCA raids and mass recruitment schemes spreading across the rebuildng colonies. It wasn’t long before the crackdown started, followed by widespread propaganda and hunting down of rebel sympathisers across multiple worlds. The Spartan had taken part in more than a fair share of these missions in the last couple of years, and this one was supposed to put a huge dent in their forces.

It probably won’t. They’d make a martyr of him and keep fighting.

Standing at nearly seven feet tall, the Spartan would have a hard time working as an infiltrator, especially with the NCA's surprisingly extensive spy network and the various other signs that made it clear what he was to any onlooker. Besides, he didn't feel comfortable outside of half a ton of MJOLNIR armour. The tan-coloured suit had been refurbished with a new helmet and paint job before the mission to replace his older one, and was probably the single most expensive thing on Mamore right now. A nearby computer flashed a red warning sign as a number of vehicles began to move down the street. He crouched by it and brought up the display on a camera he’d set up earlier.

Two trucks, seven cars.

One of the cars possessed tinted windows and was clearly reinforced to withstand bullets, bomb blasts and ramming. Definitely Maxon’s. The Spartan placed his helmet on, allowing the blue HUD to flash up before he flipped a switch nearby. The street below lit up as his explosives detonated, collapsing much of the road in an instant. His camera went down, but the armoured soldier paid it little heed as he sprinted out of the room and down the abandoned hotel’s corridor. By his reckoning he had a little over three hours to make it to his RV point, where a Pelican dropship would be waiting. Any later and he’d have to make it off Mamore on his own.

“Signal came from in here! Search every room, find whoever did this!”

That was fast. Too fast.

Even by the NCA's fairly good standards, they shouldn’t have been able to track this back to him so quickly. The voices coming up the stairs indicated that he had a platoon-sized group rushing up to intercept him, though he hadn't planned on getting down that way. A nearby window had been left open, with a thick steel cable tied round it. The Spartan had no need for rappelling equipment here; he’d just have to worry about the cable snapping thanks to his half a ton of armour. By the time the soldiers reached the top floor, he’d hit the street and was running to check the damage. As he moved to exit the alleyway, he activated his COM.

“Hotel Seven-One, this is BULLDOZER. Target has been hit, I’m moving to identify now.”

A female voice quickly replied. “Copy that, BULLDOZER. Identify and Exifl. Out.”

Talkative as ever. ONI agents weren’t great conversationalists, but they were good at their job. In orbit, the Prowler UNSC Morning Grace was maintaining contact with the Spartan, and would be responsible for getting him back to Earth in one piece. Marco-035 was used to this kind of operation; he’d been doing this sort of thing since the age of fourteen. At the chronological age of forty-five, he was as active as ever.

The street was a mess; blazing cars littered the cracked asphalt. Oddly, there weren't NCA soldiers swarming over what he’d assumed was Maxon’s vehicle. Marco would've thought that one of their speakers would've meant more to them. The two trucks in the rear were mostly unharmed, and were pushing on through the wreckage. From his concealed position, Marco stared for a few seconds until it hit him.

He’s in the goddamn trucks.

Possessing little more than an assault rifle and a pistol, the Spartan sprinted out into the snowy street after his quarry, darting between cars and avoiding the patrolling soldiers. The weather severely hampered the trucks’ speed, allowing him to gain some ground before opening fire. Marco doubted that he’d be able to take out Maxon himself at this range, but after a flurry of rounds hit the tyres the vehicle span out and came to a halt in the middle of the road. Then the rear section’s roof was flung off, clattering to the ground. What was inside there definitely wasn’t Roger Maxon.

Oh, fuck.

He didn't know where the NCA had procured them from, but two Mantis mechs emerged from the broken down truck, raising up on their long legs and swivelling to get a look at the Spartan pursuing them. Then they opened fire.

Even with his MJOLNIR suit and energy shields, the Spartan would’ve been torn to pieces in seconds had he not moved. Marco’s enhanced speed and reflexes kicked in as he sprinted to the side of the road, dodging a hail of machine gun fire as he leapt off the road. One of the mechs lumbered after him, raising a foot to crush the Spartan. Marco leapt as it slammed down onto the frozen dirt and clambered onto the Mantis. The other ceased firing for a moment, unwilling to risk destroying its ally. As the machine tried to shake him off, Marco punched an armoured fist into the bipedal mech, ripping off armour plating before unhooking a grenade from his belt and punching it in.

He managed to leap off as it exploded, hitting the ground hard and rolling over as it staggered around for a moment, fire and scorched metal falling to the ground before the mech collapsed in a burning heap. By the time Marco turned his attention back to the second Mantis, it had already locked its missiles onto him.

“Get down!”

The Spartan dived to the side as several missiles streaked across the road, lighting up the darkened area as they impacted the Mantis. It tried to turn to face its unseen attackers, only for another missile to hit it dead centre. As it fell back, the pilot’s canopy began to open, only for the machine to explode before anyone emerged. Watching from the roadside, even the battle-hardened Spartan winced at the thought of such a fate. He retrieved his rifle from the floor and turned as a trio of figures approached.

“Hey, don’t shoot!”

It was a familiar voice. Marco would've gunned down these newcomers and kept going otherwise. It was a brown-haired woman, carrying a smoking Jackhammer missile launcher and wearing heavily camouflaged gear. The two men behind her dressed similarly, eyeing the tan-armoured Spartan with suspicion as their leader approached. He lowered his rifle slightly as she stowed the bulky weapon in her pack.

“I know you,” he muttered, peering towards her.

“Yeah, and I know who you are, even in your tin suit.”

Marco smirked, and placed two fingers to the camera on his helmet before switching the device off. “Amanda, you do know that you’re still on ONI’s shitlist for what you idiots did last year? Technically, I'm supposed to shoot you on sight.”

“Then why haven’t you?” came the quick reply. Their last meeting had been three years ago, yet she hadn't changed much. “The only reason we didn't kill you was because I need your help.”

The Spartan looked between her and her comrades and doubted that the trio could've done much more than scratch his armour’s paintwork, though he didn't tell them that. Besides, even if ONI wanted Amanda and her crew dead, it didn't mean that he had to dirty his hands with it. That would be official business, and officially Marco was on Earth taking part in training exercises.

“What do you need?”

This seemed to surprise Amanda, but rather than ask questions she continued speaking. “We’re assaulting an NCA-held compound to break out a very important person. We've already set up mortars in the hills to one side and have a sniper on the other. We’re going to attack the camp and free him.”

“Interesting. Who’s this prisoner? Friend of yours?”

“No, but he’s got skills and information that I want. What about you, Marco? What were you doing here?”

“Trying to kill Roger Maxon,” the Spartan replied casually, breaking about twelve different secrecy laws. “Though by now he’s probably reached the base and is getting to his shuttle. Shame, really.”

“So, they sent you in to take out some NCA big-shot??”

“They sent me to kill another rebel who thinks he’s any better than the UNSC. They’d make a martyr of him anyway, but orders are orders.”

“Doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m just glad that you’re helping.”

She held out a hand to Marco, which he shook after a moment’s hesitation. “Where do you want me?”

Amanda pointed in a far-off direction. “Up in those hills. I’ll warn the sniper that you’re heading up. He’ll patch you into our frequency when you reach him and we’ll launch the attack. Got it?”

“Yeah. You’re just lucky I’ve got an hour or two to spare. I’ll keep in touch.”

With that, Marco turned and walked off on his own. With the snow starting to fall a little heavier, Amanda and her comrades moved in the opposite direction; their hour-long recon of the main road had turned out to be much more fruitful than she’d initially hoped. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the others, and the attack could begin.

The Miscreant

0433 Hours, September 3rd, 2556

3km North of Outpost D-09, near Agadir, Mamore


“Third volley fired, they’re mobilising troops already boss.”

“Copy that, keep ‘em pinned down there.”

From her position in the hills, Amanda’s group had the compound in their sights. There were nearly two hundred Alliance troops down there against fourteen of them. Some had considered it a suicide mission, but that hadn't deterred Amanda much. She’d planned things out and only taken people she knew were loyal enough to fight to the end. Just like Remi would’ve done. Even now she felt the spectre of her old leader looming over the little group as it rained down explosives on the edges of the compound, being careful to not hit any structures that might contain their target.

We’re not rebels any more, at least. Smugglers, Criminals, Murderers. That’s what they call us now. Doesn't seem so noble now that we’re not following some political agenda. Still, at least we've got a realistic vision now. Not some vague bullshit that isn't gonna happen. Things are going to be straightforward now. Get Mitchell, steal what we can, go home.

A shout from the left brought her attention towards the dirt road leading up to the hills they’d taken cover in. Damn, they mobilised quicker than we thought. Amanda dropped her binoculars and dashed to the other side of their encampment to grab a Jackhammer. The group handling the mortars also reached for their weapons as the familiar sound of Warthogs roared towards them. One of the vehicles crested the hill a little too fast and skidded out of control. That one was swiftly hit by two missiles and rolled back down as a burning mess. The rest of the vehicles – a motley assortment of converted civilian trucks and older military jeeps – came to a stop nearby to eject their passengers. With a limited supply of missiles, the little group was able to incinerate two more before they came under fire from the NCA militia.

“Fuck, Benson’s hit!”

“Never mind, keep fucking shooting!”

Amanda had only wasted a moment’s glance aside to see one of her crew take a bullet to the neck and topple. She’d help her out once these guys were dead, though chances were that she’d be beyond help by then. After gunning down a pair of rebels running for cover, she calmly tossed a flash grenade over the tip of the hill and waited for it to detonate before resuming fire on the disoriented rebels. Even with their superior cover and elevated position, it would only be a matter of time before numbers overcame their little group. She flicked on her communicator.

“Winston, you there?”

“Yes.”

“We’re taking a lot of fire here. Think you could lend a hand?”

“Yes.”

A few seconds later, one of the advancing rebels collapsed as a plume of blood fountained from the back of his head. The rest soon came under fire, though it was too far-off to respond to. Amanda knew she’d made the right decision in hiring Winston Zhou to help out here. He was an expert marksman well worth the money she’d spent; half-price as he counted her as a friend. Something always seemed a little off about the young man, though. Still, he was a professional. The sight of Alliance soldiers dropping like flies from her far-off sniper was good enough for Amanda.

“They’re down,” Zhou spoke quickly over the COM channel. “Found the Spartan, we’re attacking an incoming group.”

The firefight on Amanda’s side was over in minutes. They’d lost four people. She watched her comrades dragging the bodies back for a moment before turning her attention back to the task at hand.

“Right, we’re moving in. Crawford, Longman, stay here and signal the Dynasty. The rest of us will secure the base. Go!”

They followed her orders without question or hesitation. Some of them might have been older or more combat-experienced than Amanda, but she was the boss. One of the warthogs was still intact, and thankfully hadn't fired anything from its fearsome-looking rocket launcher on the back. She clambered onto it as the others clambered in and began to drive back down the hill. As they did so, a Hornet VTOL swooped towards them, its spotlights illuminating the hijacked vehicles.

“Shit, open fire!”

The light aircraft would've torn them to pieces on the ground. Amanda let loose a barrage of rockets from the back of the ‘Hog, depleting all six as they blew the bird out of the sky. They thundered through the deserted gates almost unopposed, gunning down the scattered rebels as they ran for cover. The main landing pad was already empty, though it had clearly been in use recently. Maxon’s gone. Don’t think Marco would mind too much. All she cared about was extracting the prisoner.

“Boss, in here!”

Amanda leapt from her vehicle and ran into the nearby building, which had clearly taken a few hits from their mortars. Inside, one of her men stood by the body of one of their foes. While he’d died close to a large hole in the wall, it was abundantly clear that he’d been in a fight of some kind before taking a bullet to the head.

“Infighting?” she suggested, crouching to peer at the big man’s grievous wounds. “Or has our man already escaped?”

Her comrade shrugged. She stood up, looking back and forth between the corridor and her vehicle. Eventually she stepped outside through the hole and turned back to the rest of her group.

“Search the prison block. I want a positive ID on Ash Mitchell, alive or dead!”

As they ran off, she and a few others worked their way through the burning base. If Mitchell had escaped then he couldn’t have gotten too far. With a snowstorm brewing and the nearest city in the NCA's hands, he might have tried to disguise himself. In that case, he might have ran into her group, or Zhou. After a few minutes of searching, the others made contact from the cell block.

“Negative on Mitchell here, Amanda. They killed all the other prisoners in their cells, though. They might have taken him offworld already.”

Fuck. She could feel her temper rising. She didn’t want to have to explain to the folks back home that they’d lost people on a worthless mission. Some of them had already expressed their thoughts on Mitchell’s capture, even before she decided to break him out. I’ll just find him again. I’ve got to.

“Amanda, you there? Think I've found him!”

That was Marco. “What’s your location?!”

“In the snowfields halfway between here and the city. Bastards are chasing a guy who just blew up one of their trucks. I'm following and taking out as many as I can, but he might need our help.

“Got it. On my way.”

She leapt into the driver’s seat of her Warthog and took off out the other side of the base at some speed. Amanda quickly took the vehicle offroad, holding on as the sturdy jeep bounced and buffeted its way down the slope and into the fields below. The snow-covered plains didn't slow the car down much as it sped towards a ruined town, the sounds of gunfire echoing around it. She braked suddenly, skidding in the snow before coming to a stop by Marco’s armoured form. The Spartan barely gave her a second glance before turning his attention back to the wounded man in front of him.

“Oh, there you are. Have a word with Mitchell, would you?”

Amanda climbed out of the car, checking her sidearm before taking a look at her quarry. This wasn't the Ash Mitchell whose face plastered every news network for months; the feared mercenary that even Remi didn't want to hire back in the day. What she saw was a wounded, angry-looking shell of a man with a stained bandage over one eye and a gun to his head.

“Mitchell, please put the gun down.”

He looked from Amanda to Marco, his one eye twitching slightly. “Who the hell are you people?”

“We’re friends.”

“I don’t have any goddamn friends.”

Oh great, he’s gonna go for the ‘I’m a lone wolf loser who doesn’t need anybody' routine. She frowned, and looked to Marco.

“You do realise that my friend here just saved your life?”

“Yeah.”

“So the least you could do is come with us.”

Mitchell snorted. “You’re with ONI. Fuck that.”

Even Marco seemed slightly annoyed at this. Amanda drew back her hood a little and crouched so he could see her face a little clearer.

“Do I look like I work for ONI?”

“Do you think I know who the fuck you are?”

Am I really been out of the spotlight already? I suppose with guys like Mitchell around I'm not much of a threat.

“Amanda Wade. NOVA Incident, Remi Marshall. All that crap.”

Realisation seemed to dawn on Mitchell. “Oh, I heard about that. Thought you all died.”

“Nope, still around.”

“So, what the hell do you want with me?”

“Information, mostly. That said, we can provide shelter, good friends and somewhere for you to stay put. How’s that sound?”

“Like a fucking advertisement.”

“So, you’ll join us?”

Mitchell tossed the gun aside. “Fuck, I don’t know. Could someone pull me up,” he said with an oddly happy tone. “ I've been here a while and I'm pretty sure I've lost a lot of blood.”

He indicated the redness seeping into the snow around him, and the knife buried in his leg, Marco leant forward and effortlessly pulled him to his feet. Mitchell took two steps and collapsed. The Spartan sighed, and heaved him onto his shoulders.

“Right, where do you want him?”

“I need him aboard my ship. We've got medical supplies.”

“-and this ship is?”

Before Amanda could answer, a craft swiftly descended from the clouds and began to lower itself onto the base’s landing platform. In the light of dawn on Mamore, It was the best thing she’d seen all day.

“It’s right there.”

Marco nodded. “I've got to go, come to think of it. Missions and deadlines. Spartan stuff.”

“ONI stuff, you mean.”

“If I were that loyal to ONI, I’d have killed you and Mitchell right away. We’re not all bad, you know. Oh, I won't tell them you two are here, either. Some people might get mad.”

The Spartan heaved Mitchell’s unconscious form into the warthog before turning to walk away into the snowfields. Amanda climbed into the driver’s seat and watched him walk a few steps before sounding the vehicle’s horn. Marco turned his head to face her.

“Thank you!” she called to the Spartan. Marco simply nodded again and kept walking. Amanda smiled and turned the warthog away, driving as fast as she could towards the small freighter sitting in the ashes of the base. It had been a very strange night.

Chapter One

Awakening

1032 Hours, September 3rd, 2556

Dynasty, Independent Freighter
Slipspace


Ash Mitchell woke with a start. He sat up, wincing as the pain hit him from a dozen places on his scarred body. Most of his torso was wrapped in fresh bandages, as was half of his face. He sat up, blinking under the bright ceiling lights as he attempted to heave himself out of the bed.

I’m on a ship. I know that much.

The last thing he could recall was passing out in the snow on Mamore. Mitchell wasn’t sure what had been said, but since he hadn’t been murdered he had to assume that someone rescued him. He hobbled over to a nearby window. Outside there was nothing but the black void of slipspace, indicating that the ship was in transit to another system. Looking around, he wasn’t sure who this place belonged to. Had it been a UNSC or ONI-run ship, he’d have probably been guarded day and night. While he hadn't actually been aboard a military-run vessel in a couple of years, the look of the place indicated that it might be privately owned.

Pirates or smugglers, then. At least it’s not controlled by the NCA.

Dressed in nothing but bandages and underpants, Mitchell knew he was vulnerable. The old training and instincts came flooding back as he looked around warily for some kind of weapon. This was a med-bay if he’d ever seen one, and it didn’t take too long before he found a scalpel in a nearby cupboard. It was hardly a combat knife, but it would have to suffice for now.

The nearby door was unlocked, allowing Mitchell to step out into a corridor. The ship seemed surprisingly clean for a smuggling vessel, though signs of constant repairs and maintenance indicated that it wasn’t exactly top of the line. The man dropped into a crouch and crept along the hallway towards a large door.

Right, subdue the crew, find weapons and hijack the ship. Shouldn’t be too hard.

The door slid open as Mitchell touched a panel, revealing the room he’d been looking for: the Bridge. It was smaller than he’d expected, lined with consoles and empty chairs; chances were that this was just a small frigate operated by a skeleton crew. A chair by the front of the ship swivelled to face Mitchell, revealing a bearded man in a grey jumpsuit.

“Oh, you’re awake,” he remarked, sounding more bored than concerned at Mitchell’s presence. “How are you feeling?”

That certainly took Mitchell by surprise. He hesitated for a moment before advancing a few steps. “Look buddy, I'm getting the fuck out of here, so do as I say and I’ll let you live.”

The man raised an eyebrow, running a hand through his tied-back hair. Mitchell noticed that he wasn't carrying anything remotely threatening, not even a sidearm of any kind. The ex-ODST could have gone forward and killed the guy in a dozen ways by now, though the pilot didn't seem fazed at all by the danger he was in.

“So, that’s how you’re going to treat the people who rescued you? By stealing their ship?”

“I don’t know who the hell you people are.” He could vaguely recall a conversation with someone before he’d passed out, but his memory was a little fuzzy at the moment. He took another step towards the pilot, then froze as something cold touched the back of his head.

“Move an inch and you’re dead.”

The voice was cold and to the point. Much like the pistol pressing into his skull. Mitchell had been sure the door had closed behind him; how had someone managed to sneak up on him like this? To his right, a side door slid open and several figures emerged. All of them were armed, reducing the chances of success for his little hijacking plan to zero.

“Winston, you can stand down.”

Mitchell felt the gun move away from his head as the other man stepped back. He dropped the scalpel; the sound of it clattering to the floor was the loudest thing on the silent bridge at the moment. He turned to see a familiar woman standing a few feet away, her arms crossed.

“So, what happens now?” he asked.

“You’ll put some damn clothes on first.”

Half an hour later, Mitchell was fully dressed and deep in conversation with the ship’s captain, Amanda. She’d led the operation to rescue him back on Mamore, so he decided to give her a chance. “So, what do you think?”

“Not sure,” Mitchell responded, scratching his unshaven chin. “I guess I wouldn’t mind joining your crew, but why you’d want a washed up, one-eyed killer like me is anyone’s guess.”

Amanda nodded at this. “You managed to escape from the prison on Mamore. I’d hardly say you were that washed up.”

“I got lucky. Besides, I’d have died if your Spartan hadn't found me. Where is he, anyway?”

“Not here,” came the quick reply. Amanda didn't seem to want to talk about it. “He just sort of showed up and helped out when I asked.”

Mitchell shrugged. “Okay. Thank him for me next time you see him, okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that.” She folded her arms and glanced towards the window before looking back towards Mitchell. “Look, if you want out, we’ll leave you on Cascade or Iskandar. I’m just asking you to consider my offer, Mitchell. We’re building up something outside of the UNSC. You can start again.”

“You keep saying ‘we’. Does that just mean you and your crew?”

“No. There are just under a thousand of us right now, but we’re a growing settlement. We take all sorts in; old soldiers, former Covenant, and even so-called ‘butchers’ like yourself.”

That was an enticing offer. In any UEG-controlled settlement, Mitchell would likely be identified and hunted down within a few weeks. On frontier colonies or lawless worlds, people would come after him to claim the bounty on his head. If she wants me dead or captured, she’s certainly putting a lot of effort into making this shit seem real. Fuck it, might as well go for it.

Mitchell sighed. “Fine. I’m in. This ship's a real piece of junk though. You buy it cheap just to break me out?”

Amanda scowled. "This ship faced down the entire UNSC Home Fleet, and won. This ship survived the Caucasus, Mamore and New Albion. This ship helped build a new colony. This ship saved your life. Most of all, this ship is my home, so don't you dare insult it again if you want to stay aboard."

"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it," he muttered, feeling slightly embarrassed. "Look, I'm thankful that you saved me, okay?"

“Apology accepted.” Amanda gave a tired smile and pointed towards the viewscreen. “Looks like we’re already home.”

He hadn’t noticed the ship leaving slipspace. Mitchell stood up and walked over as the impenetrable black void was replaced by far off stars and the slight glare of a nearby sun. The ship began to accelerate towards a nearby planet. Amanda stood by him at the window, looking with pride at the green planet as they approached.

“Just trust me, Mitchell. We’re doing a lot of good out here.”

Yeah, that's probably bullshit.

Home

0937 Hours, September 4th, 2556

Avalon, Independent Settlement
Emerald Cove


The Dynasty’s bay doors slid open, and Mitchell covered his remaining eye as the sunlight shone through. Most of the crew were gathered here, barring Amanda’s pilot. Several of them were overseeing a large trolley. When he glanced over to see what it was, Mitchell was surprised to see several black body bags on top. They lost some buddies trying to bust me out. I’m sure that’ll make me popular around here.

“Amanda, you’re back!”

A bearded man approached the cargo bay, a submachine gun slung over one arm. Several other armed guards followed him, looking over the Dynasty’s crew before helping to unload cargo. Mitchell kept close to Amanda, following her off the ship towards the speaker.

“Rizhan,” she shook his hand. “You guys miss me?”

“It was pretty quiet without you, boss. Mike managed to fix up those M95’s like you asked, and we settled in the new habitation area in the valley.”

“Good to hear it.” It was strange to see her sounding so cheery after their chat aboard the ship. Amanda stepped aside to let Mitchell shake Rizhan’s hand.

“Heard a lot about you, Ash Mitchell. More bad than good, I’m afraid.” Amanda shot him a dark look and he shrugged before continuing. “Still, if the boss trusts you, then I will too. Good to have you with us.”

“Likewise.”

With that, he walked into the ship to give the others a hand with the crates. Amanda beckoned for Mitchell to follow her. They walked in silence for some time, passing through a gate that sectioned off the landing pad from the rest of the complex. Most of the place seemed to have been built through old prefabricated buildings not unlike those seen on outer colony worlds. Mitchell had lived in one for a short time before his fateful trip to Mamore.

“So uh, how many people did you say lived here?”

“Just under a thousand. We’re expanding our living spaces at the moment to accommodate more, though within a few years we’ll probably have to start making restrictions regarding immigration. Food’s all grown here and we’ve got a working water purifying plant nearby. As you might have heard from my friend back there, we’re installing military-grade defense systems in case we’re attacked. We’re currently heading to the command room.”

Mitchell expected her to keep going. “Nice advertisement,” he remarked. “You gonna build a theme park next?”

“We’re building a settlement here, Mitchell,” came the cold reply. “Say what you want, but Avalon is probably the only fully self-sufficient colony that isn't controlled by The NCA or UEG.”

“Sorry.”

They didn’t say anything for a few minutes after that. Eventually Amanda led Mitchell into a large, dome-shaped structure built into the side of a hill. She typed a password into a nearby keypad and the great steel doors slowly opened. Mitchell knew a bunker when he saw one, and by the looks of it this thing was expected to survive an attack. After walking down a flight of stairs, they came to a wide, circular room lined with monitors and chairs. A large holotank sat in the middle, showing a detailed map of the entire colony. The place was much bigger than Mitchell had anticipated, stretching out over several miles and even extending over the nearby ocean via a group of large platforms.

“Impressed?” Amanda asked.

“Yep,” came his reply. “How long did it take you to build this?”

“Four months or so to get the basic infrastructure down, give or take. The URF used this as a place to store goods back in the day so it wasn't hard, and we had a small crew running the place for a few years before I arrived.”

“I see,” he muttered, looking around at the people working in the command room. He wasn’t sure if this place was supposed to be a small town or a military base. A door to his right opened and an old woman walked in, carrying a large box. Amanda ran over immediately.

“Mary, what did I say about carrying heavy objects? You’ll hurt yourself!”

Amanda took the box from the woman, who scowled. “I’m not made of paper, Miss Wade. Besides, if the lazy bastards around here aren’t going to carry things then someone has to do it.”

Mitchell smirked as the workers nearby looked away in shame. Amanda sighed, and reluctantly passed the box back to Mary, who took it with ease. He couldn’t quite determine her age, but she didn’t seem the type to do heavy lifting. She glanced over towards Mitchell.

“Is this the man you went to get?” she asked.

“Yes Mary. This is Ash Mitchell.”

He stepped forward. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.” Mary replied with a curt nod before walking away. Mitchell and Amanda watched her disappear into another corridor before looking at each other.

“Who the hell was that?” he asked.

“That was Mary. No idea what her last name is or where she’s from; she just sort of showed up one day and asked if she could stay. I think she used to be a soldier or something from back in the day; she’s a better shot than half my men here.”

Mitchell laughed. “I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side, then.”

“No, you wouldn’t. C’mon, I’ll take you to see Mike.”

The pair walked along to another room just off the command center. The door slid open at their approach, revealing a blonde-haired man sitting at a desk. He looked up for a moment before returning to his computer. Amanda and Mitchell stood there in silence before he looked up again and sighed.

“Hello, Amanda.”

“Hello, Mike. You don’t seem too pleased to see me.”

“Long night,” he replied, taking a sip from a styrofoam cup and grimacing. “Ech, cold. Been helping to calibrate our defensive systems and upgrade our cyberwarfare systems, just in case.”

“C’mon, Mike. I thought you were a genius.”

“Hey, I don’t doubt my own intelligence, but an AI would help. Do me a favour and steal one next time, when you’re not breaking your boyfriend there out of prison.”

“Very funny. Want to come with us the next time we assault a fortified Alliance base?”

Mike laughed, and moved out from behind the desk. Mitchell hadn’t realised that the man had been sitting in a motorized wheelchair when they’d walked in. Amanda folded her arms as he approached.

“Unless you’re willing to fit this chair with armour plating, rockets and a jetpack, I’ll have to decline your offer. Either that or you pay the billion or so credits needed to have me walking again. I’m not in any particular rush for either.”

“Okay,” she conceded “You’ve made your point. I came here to see if you’d made any progress in finding the guy we’re after.”

“Ah, yes. Mister Hadvir Erikkson. Turns out he’s been the one cutting deals with both sides for the last few months. ONI and NCA are both paying the guy for info and he’s raking it in. Not that he wasn’t a sleazy bastard before the war, though. Now we’ve just got a good reason to grab him.”

Mitchell glanced between the pair before speaking. “So you’re kidnapping this guy because…?”

“Because he’s a rich bastard who’s sold out people to fill his own pockets. In any case, he’s got information on somebody I’ve been looking for, and I’m close to tracking him down.”

“Why, what this guy do to you?”

“Set up the biggest terrorist attack of the decade, killed my best friend and framed him, murdered thousands of innocent people and made me an outlaw.”

Mitchell was genuinely surprised. “Who the hell is he?”

“I don’t know his real name, but everyone calls him Magnus. That ring any bells?”

Amanda had evidently been waiting for Mitchell’s response to that name. He scowled, and clenched his fists at the mere mention of the bastard who’d ruined his life.

“Yeah, I know him. I want to find him, and I want to fucking murder him.”

“Thought that’d get you motivated. How long until you’re combat-ready?”

His ribs and shoulder still ached like hell, but Amanda was right: Mitchell was motivated now. All this time he’d spent running from the galaxy, trying to stay alive while eluding his hunters, was time he hadn’t spent tracking down and killing the man responsible. Evidently, Magnus had pissed off a lot more people than he’d thought.

“Give me a day or so.” His old mercenary habits kicked back in. “Is this a paying job, or do I pay you for the pleasure?”

“This isn’t about money,” came the determined response. “This is about revenge, plain and simple. I broke you out because I heard that you’d worked with Magnus back in the day; since you’re still alive I bet that you wanted him dead more than anyone else.”

Mitchell nodded in agreement. “Revenge I can do. Let’s get him.”

Reclamation

2103 Hours, September 6th, 2556

Dynasty, Independent Freighter
Escala III, Outer Colonies


Mitchell had to hand it to Amanda; she certainly knew how to go about undetected.

The moment the Dynasty touched down on the colony world it should have been swarmed by customs officers and security forces checking the freighter for illegal cargo, weapons or wanted people. Instead, they had simply landed in a spaceport after sending over some codes and left the ship in its cargo truck. As it turned out, she always prepared codes that identified air traffic control that they were delivering agricultural supplies. That was at least partially true; much of their cargo was farming equipment they’d bought cheaply on another colony world.

“Okay, keep your head down and your eyes open. Eye, I mean.”

Mitchel sighed. While he wasn’t totally healed and still hopped up on half a dozen stims, the mercenary felt better than he had in a while. He’d had his injuries mostly tended to, been supplied with clothing and weapons, and had even found a place in Avalon to get a decent shave and haircut.

“Heard this place got through the war unscathed. Is it dangerous?”

“Only if you go to the wrong places. Scared?”

“No, just curious.”

“Just try not to draw attention to yourself.”

“I’m wearing an eyepatch, Amanda. People are gonna stare.”

“Well, at least you don’t look like the Mitchell the news vids show every now and then.”

He nodded. The last thing he wanted was the UNSC finding him here. There were five of them in the truck; two in the cab and three in the back. Mitchell sat up front with Amanda driving, while Rizhan, Zhou and a woman named Carol sat in full gear with the supplies. He hadn’t gotten much time to speak to them, but it was clear that none of them were to be messed with.

“Okay, we’re coming up to the target building. COM check.”

The group activated their earpieces, linking all of them to the same frequency. The city streets were mostly deserted at this hour. That was a good thing; Mitchell didn’t want civilians getting in the way while they grabbed Erikkson. The truck ground to a halt by a pair of iron gates leading up to a luxurious mansion. Lights could be seen in the front windows, accompanied by the distant sounds of music.

“Everyone out!”

Mitchell clambered out of the truck’s cab and dropped to the sidewalk, wincing slightly as his injured leg took the impact. Everyone moved wordlessly, getting into position around the gate and pulling on their facemasks. Amanda tied her hair back into a ponytail and made sure everyone was ready before putting hers on.

“Carol, get the gate open.”

“On it.”

The other woman took out a small device and attached it to the gate’s keypad. After a few seconds, a green light shone from it and the gates slowly shuddered open. The team was in within seconds, moving briskly up the front lawn and readying their weapons. Mitchell brought up the rear, knowing that he was just muscle for this mission. Rizhan stepped forward, and began to unpack what looked like a miniature missile launcher from a metal case.

“You sure this’ll work?” Amanda asked, looking over the weapon.

“We’ll be fine as long as our masks hold. This’ll keep things clean.”

“Fair enough. Do it.”

Rizhan raised the missile launcher and angled it upwards before firing both barrels. Instead of the usual explosive rockets, it fired two long, cylindrical tubes which smashed through the upper windows of the mansion before breaking open. As screams broke out above, Amanda’s group ran for the front door. Mitchell fired his shotgun twice into the left side before kicking it off it’s hinges.

“Move!” Amanda shouted, moving into the foyer as well-dressed civilians screamed and scattered. “Find Erikkson; we’ve got ten minutes, tops!”

Ten minutes was generous considering this colony’s reputation for having excellent and supposedly incorruptible law enforcement. Still, the device Carol had planted on the main gate’s keypad was supposedly a sophisticated jammer that would delay or stop outright any alarm systems within the house. That said, Mitchell had learned never to rely fully on technology, and moved swiftly into the lavishly-decorated mansion.

“Get down! Don’t play the hero and you won’t get hurt!”

Erikkson had probably been holding some kind of high-classparty, judging by the look of the guests here. From what he’d read about him during the journey here, the man was an avid collector of artifacts from the war, both Human and Covenant in origin. All it took were some unscrupulous salvage teams willing to brave the glasslands of burnt-out colony worlds and a few lucky finds over the years to elevate the information broker to millionaire status.

Mitchell sneered at the sight of the expensive paintings and decorations as he and Zhou moved together towards the upper floors. A few gunshots rang out from across the mansion, though it was nothing to be worried about. The two men kicked open another door and marched into a large, circular room filled with bodies.

“Got anything?”

“No,” Zhou responded. Something about him really unnerved Mitchell, though he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“We’ve got to check everyone here; we might’ve got Erikkson with the gas.”

Waving away the dissipating knockout gas Rizhan had fired through the window, Mitchell and Zhou began to check the unconscious people scattered around the room. Glancing over towards his partner, he was surprised that the quiet merc wasn’t bothering to check their pockets for change; he was fairly tempted to do so himself. After several minutes of fruitless searching, he came across the body of a large man in a black suit. Turning him over, Mitchell grinned at the sight of their unconscious target. He called over to Zhou as he lifted Erikkson up.

“I’ve got him, let’s go!”

As Zhou turned to face him, the door behind Mitchell burst open. Burdened by the weight of his quarry, the one-eyed mercenary barely had time to turn as four armed guards levelled their pistols at him. Several shots rang out from across the room, and they fell lifelessly to the floor.

“Come on,” Zhou intoned, slowly lowering his pistol. “I’ll take him.”

Mitchell grunted with effort and lifted Erikkson’s body up before passing it to Zhou. The younger man lifted him without much effort and strode out over the dead guards. Mitchell scowled in annoyance before following him through the door; each man had been taken out with a clean shot to the head.

“Nice shot,” he remarked. Zhou didn’t respond. Amanda’s voice rang out through the COM.

“Any word on Erikkson?” “We’ve got him,” Mitchell replied. “We’ll regroup in the foyer.”

The pair of them emerged into a long hall, lined with glass cases. Zhou didn’t give any of the assembled artefacts so much as a second glance, though one exhibit in particular caught Mitchell’s attention. He froze.

“Motherfucker.”

Zhou turned and raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“That prick’s got my suit.”

In the case before him stood a set of old, battered and scorched battle armour. Mitchell recognised the familiar skull-painted helmet immediately, his eyes looking over every familiar scratch and mark on the suit he’d worn into battle for the pastthree years. He’d just assumed that it had been thrown away when the NCA caught him, not sold to some collector as a curiosity.

It's not theft, I'm just taking back what's mine.

Snarling, Mitchell brought his weapon down on the glass case, shattering it instantly. As he did so, an alarm in the corner of the room began to sound, blaring loudly as he gathered the pieces of armour together. Zhou had left the moment the alarm sounded, carrying Erikkson’s unconscious form to the foyer where Amanda, Carol and Rizhan waited. Mitchell crammed as much as he could into his bag before sprinting towards the exit, helmet in hand. As he ran towards the front door, Amanda snapped at him.

“What the fuck d’you think you’re doing?! His collector’s crap was wired to a separate alarm system, you stupid fuck! We’ll have every cop in the city on us in minutes!”

Mitchell didn’t respond immediately. All he did was remove his facemask and balaclava before lowering the skull-visored helmet onto his head. The familiar HUD lit up once more; these things never seemed to run out of power.

“We should get moving, then.”

The five of them ran across the front lawn, carrying weapons and bags and an unconscious informant as police sirens rang out in the distance. Carol grabbed her device from the front gate as they ran past, immediately tripping half a dozen alarms they should’ve set off earlier during their brief assault. Several cars rounded the corner as they loaded Erikkson’s body into the truck, prompting Rizhan and Zhou to open fire on the incoming police. Several fell before the two men leapt into the truck, which took off at some speed down a side street. Mitchell glanced towards Amanda for a second, seeing her angry, determined-looking face.

“Think the Dynasty will be ready?”

“It always is.”

“Sorry about setting off the alarm.”

She didn’t respond, and merely focused on moving their little truck through the city’s narrow streets towards the spaceport.

“Are you mad at-”

“Mitchell,” she said in a low voice. “Shut the fuck up, I’m busy.”

He kept quiet for the rest of the trip. Surprisingly, the police had a hard time keeping up with their truck as it sped into the nearby spaceport. The freighter’s cargo ramp was already open and several armed guards were stationed in the bay already. The truck sped up the ramp, while the first police car to follow them was hosed with assault rifle fire. The cargo doors slid shut as the ramp drew back while Amanda’s team heaved themselves out of the parked truck.

“Faisal,” Amanda called over her long-range COM. “Get us out of here, get a random slipspace vector in the moment we’ve cleared the atmosphere!”

Mitchell didn’t hear the pilot’s response. While Zhou and Carol heaved Erikkson’s unconscious form from the back of their truck, he made his way towards the cargo bay’s exit; all he wanted to do was sit in his bunk and go over his old armour. Before he could leave, a hand grabbed his shoulder and span him round. The next thing he knew, a fist hit his gut with a surprising amount of force.

“You stupid bastard.”

Winded by the blow, he buckled for a moment before glancing up at his attacker. It was Amanda. Anyone else would’ve been subject to a fatal beating, but he merely backed away from the ship’s captain, nearly dropping his bag full of armour.

“Okay,” he wheezed. “I deserved that.”

“Damn right you did. I don’t know how we got away cleanly, Mitchell, but your bullshit means we won’t be able to come here for a long time.”

He nodded, regaining his breath. “I’m sorry about that, but this bastard decided to buy my stuff after I was captured. I don’t know about you, but I object to my things being used as pieces in that fat fuck’s private museum.”

“That’s fair enough,” came the response. Amanda’s green eyes glinted fiercely as she prodded him in the chest with a finger. “But if you fuck up or endanger my people again, you’re getting spaced. Deal?”

“Yeah, deal.”

“Good. Let’s get the hell out of here. I want to see what this idiot knows about Magnus. He’s in for a nasty shock when he wakes up.”

Chapter Two

Cleanup

1457 Hours, September 9th, 2556

Camp Graves, United Rebel Front Outpost
Talitsa, Outer Colonies


There was nothing quite like the sight of a crumbling fortress.

Alexander Redford stood by the cliff’s edge and watched as the metal supports of the fortified base began to buckle and collapse under the weight and heat. The entire area was strewn with burnt metal, fallen rocks and corpses. The man sighed wistfully as the wall finally gave way and collapsed before turning back towards the base’s single landing pad.

Another one down. I swear, this is getting much easier.

To any casual observer, Redford’s unassuming features and constantly upbeat attitude made him appear like a kindly middle-aged man; silver-haired and seemingly harmless as he walked slowly across the metal platform. In reality, this was all just a cover for his true self, as the inhabitants of this outpost had learned the previous night. Once he and his partner had initiated their attack, the rebels didn’t stand a chance.

“Hey Red!” a voiced called from behind him. Redford turned to see the green-armoured bulk of a SPARTAN-III trudging towards him, rifle in hand. Her MJOLNIR suit was still spattered with blood; by the look of it she’d been taking her time with prisoners again.

“Get anything useful?” he asked.

“Mostly screaming, I'm afraid.”

“Oh well, I'm sure the next one will be better.” His partner nodded, emanating the enthusiastic air of an excited child. Layla-B101 had been Redford’s ally and protector for roughly six months now now, and although he’d hated her carefree attitude and destructive streak in missions - rather uncommon for a Spartan - at first the pair of them had soon gotten used to each other. He was rather fond of her, in an odd pseudo-fatherly sort of way.

“So,” she began, speaking in her deliberately sweet ‘disguise voice’ that Redford hated. “What’s up next for us? We going after more of these guys, the NCA, or some Split-Lips?”

“I don’t know, Layla. We’ll just have to wait for orders. Didn’t you want to go back to your team?”

The Spartan shrugged, and removed her helmet. Her old model had essentially an upgraded version of the iconic ODST variant, and this one was no different. Why she consistently chose a model popular mostly with former Helljumpers instead of a more specialised variant baffled Redford, but it wasn't his place to question a Spartan’s fashion sense. Layla yawned and joined Redford on the landing pad, looking out over the vast wastelands beyond the burning base.

“I don’t know, Red. Thor’s great and all, but there are times when I need a break from the others. We ain't exactly like the other Spartans, you know?”

He nodded, knowing the complicated history behind Thor Team and their infamous record . “That’s fair enough,” he said softly. He sat on a nearby crate and took off the black gloves he’d taken to wearing since his 'accident'.

“Problems?” Layla asked.

Redford shook his head. “Just looking over it. Routine maintenance.”

He flexed his left hand, looking over it as tiny servos moved finger joints and mimicked the movements of a flesh-and-blood organ. He’d lost his original nearly a year ago, having cut his own hand off with a serrated knife to escape a fiery death on New Albion. He’d seen the robotic prosthetic as a sign of shame once; a single mark of failure on an impeccable record of over thirty years working for ONI. Now, it was just part of his everyday life. Just like Layla.

“Storm’s coming in,” the Spartan remarked, breaking the silence. “Hope the evac ship gets here in time.”

“It’ll be here.”

The two didn’t say anything for nearly a minute. It was always like this at the end of missions, sitting by the rubble and ashes following the regular slaughter. It was hardly a regular life by any means, but it was all the pair of them knew. The older man had once looked down on the Spartans for being controlled and brainwashed into service, but as time went by he felt as though he was more like them than he was willing to admit; obedient, loyal and deadly. Those were the hallmarks of his decades of murdering in ONI’s name. Eventually a voice crackled over his communicator.

“BLUEBELL, CAESAR, this is Zulu Nine-Three, do you read me?”

Redford switched on his COM as Layla placed her helmet back on. “Copy that Zulu, we are waiting for now. The mission was a success.”

“Good to hear that, CAESAR.” The pilot paused for a few seconds before continuing. “We’ve uh, got a change of plan in terms of our destination. We won’t be heading back to the Heavens Asunder this time.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, glancing to Layla for a moment. “On whose orders?”

“We’ll transfer you to a secure channel once you’re aboard, sir. Coming in now.”

The pair stepped back from the landing pad as the familiar shape of a Pelican dropship came into view across the nearby canyons. It didn’t even touch down on the pad; merely turning round and opening the rear hatch long enough for Redford and Layla to clamber in. Then it rocketed off and upwards.

“Thanks for giving us time to sit down,” Layla muttered as she braced herself on the Pelican’s walls. Redford sat down without a word as the pilot began patching him through to another COM frequency.

“Right sir, got you through. We’re heading to the UNSC Montreal now. You’ll be transferred from there.”

There was a slight delay before Redford reactivated his communicator. Almost immediately, a familiar voice began to speak.

“Agent Nineteen, it’s good to hear that your mission was successful, old friend. I have an important mission coming up that will certainly require your unique talents, so I diverted your dropship for the time being. I’m sure this won’t be a problem, will it?”

Sitting across from Redford, Layla picked up the subtle facial and body changes in her partner. Whoever it was, the venerable agent obviously hadn’t expected to be contacted by them. He took a deep breath before replying.

“No, sir. No problem at all.”

“Excellent, Nineteen. I’ll see you soon.”

The COM switched itself off as the link was severed. Redford sighed, and merely sat back in his chair as Layla removed her helmet once more.

“What was that about?”

“New mission.”

“This soon? I didn't think they’d have one until we were back on Luna.”

“It’s not from command, Layla.”

“Oh?” the Spartan cocked her head. “You said ‘sir’. Who was it?”

“Agent One. The head of BRUTUS. I haven’t spoken to the man in several years.”

She’d evidently heard of BRUTUS as well. The supposedly secretive organisation was well-known within ONI, even if very few people knew who the agents were or how many people worked for the group. If the Spartans were the UNSC’s most effective and devastating weapon on the battlefield, then BRUTUS was ONI’s equivalent. Redford hadn’t spoken to one of his fellow agents in a while due to his near-constant state of being either undercover or on the move.

“It can’t be bad, right?”

Redford wondered if Layla’s vaguely optimistic tone was merely an attempt to reassure him, or if the somewhat psychotic Spartan really believed that there was anything good about BRUTUS. A chill ran down his spine at the thought of being taken to Agent One himself; one of the most powerful men within Human space. He didn't have a choice in the matter, in any case. For the first time in quite a while, Alexander Redford felt truly afraid.

Extraction

0638 Hours, September 11th, 2556

Avalon Hub, Sub-Level Two
Emerald Cove, Outer Colonies


"How's he doing?"

"Erikkson's tougher than I thought, but he'll break. They always do."

This was certainly a side to the settlement that Mitchell hadn't been expecting. Since their arrival back to Avalon a couple of days ago, their prisoner hadn't said a word to them. Amanda had revealed that their base of operations had been a bunker for the United Rebel Front back in the day, and so had several floors beneath ground level harbouring databanks, storage facilities and what had once been a prison. Looking around, he'd been reminded of the appalling conditions he'd been kept in back on Mamore.

"Mitchell, want to take a crack at him?"

Amanda and the old woman, Mary, turned to face him. The latter had spent the last two hours locked in there with Erikkson, trying to make him talk about his connection to Magnus. Something about her made Mitchell feel very uncomfortable. He shook his head.

"No thanks. Beat on a guy for long enough and he'll tell you anything just to make it stop. I don't have the uh, precision you have."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Mary replied, pulling off her bloodstained gloves and apron. "In that case I'll be back to see him later."

As she walked off, Amanda beckoned for him to follow her into the cell. Ever since he'd arrived in Avalon he'd kept to trailing her wherever she went; he wondered if she saw him as some kind of bodyguard or enforcer now he was here. The metal door creaked open, revealing a dimly-lit chamber and a man in a bloodied suit tied to a chair. He seemed barely conscious.

"Mister Erikkson?"

The man sat bolt upright, squirming in his chair. Mitchell closed the thick steel door behind them and paced around Erikkson, who blinked up at the pair through bloodshot eyes. The mercenary leant against the back wall, letting Amanda take care of the questioning.

"Who are you people?" he gasped, looking up at Amanda in horror. "What do you want with me?"

"I'm asking the questions here," Amanda replied coldly.

"What, you want money? I can get you money. Drugs, guns, whatever, just please don't hurt me."

Mitchell had seen this routine a few times in the past. Whatever torture Mary had put him through since they'd got back had already broken through the usual tirade of self-importance and threats of reprisal that men like Erikkson brought up. Now he was already onto the bartering stage, trying to pay them off.

Amanda knelt down, bringing the bloodied man to eye level. "What I want is information, Mister Errikson. Give me what I want and I'll consider letting you go."

"Of course!" he nodded enthusiastically, sitting up straight and adopting a more businesslike tone. "What do you need?"

"I want you to tell us where this man is," she said, pulling out a holopad and bringing up a familiar picture. "His name is Magnus. I know he's dealt with you before."

Erikkson's face fell at that request. "I can't," he mumbled. "Not him, I can't tell you how to find him, sorry. Anyone else, sure, but not Magnus."

Mitchell caught Amanda's glance, and walked up behind Erikkson, cracking his knuckles threateningly. The man winced, looking up in fear at Mitchell's impassive face and single glaring eye. After a few seconds, he blinked as the realisation set in.

"I know you!" He shouted, half in surprise and half in fear. "You're Ash Mitchell!"

Shit. He'd been an idiot to think that a few months of running and an eyepatch would hide the face that had once been plastered across every news channel in the colonies. Judging by the look on Errikson's face, he knew that he was in trouble.

"You stole my armour," he said in a low voice.

"Stole?!" came the indignant reply. "I bought it, sir. While the UEG frowns on such auctions, the goods one can acquire from the black market are simply amazing. I got it for a fair price, too."

"I took it back."

"Did you now? was there anything else you pilfered from my house, murderer? How many people did you butcher this time?"

Mitchell moved before Amanda could stop him, clasping the older man's throat with an iron grip and pushing the chair back. Errikson spluttered and began to choke as Mitchell stared into his small, frightened eyes.

"I was framed by Magnus, you fucking fool. Accuse me again and I'll show you exactly what I'm capable of."

He let go, and allowed the chair to fall backwards. Erikkson coughed and gasped for air as Amanda sighed and pulled him up again, shooting Mitchell an annoyed look. The former ODST had been so close to killing him there and then; he still had the skills to do so, and was itching to use them.

"So you see, Mister Erikkson, my associate and I have a problem. We've both been wronged by Magnus in the past, and would like your help in finding him. So long as you cooperate, I promise you now that I'll have you returned to Escala III. Fail to do so, and not only shall your internment last longer, I will hand you over both to Mitchell and your previous interrogator."

The man seemed to be caught off-guard by Amanda's businesslike tone. "He'll torture and kill me when he finds out," Errikson muttered, looking down at his expensive shoes. "You have no idea-"

"He won't," Amanda cut him off. "You think we're out to make friends with Magnus? We're out to kill him."

For whatever reason, that made Erikkson laugh, displaying several missing teeth. Mitchell wondered what else Mary had done to him in here. Amanda stood with her hands clasped behind her back and waited for him to finish.

"Kill him? Better than you have tried, my dear. Even if you do, who's to say his contacts will come looking for me?"

"How would they know it's you?"

"Oh, I'm hardly the only person able to set up a conversation with the man. Once the others find out, they'll surely come looking for... come looking for..."

Erikkson stopped, and Amanda smiled for the first time. Even Mitchell smirked. He fucked up.

"In that case, what use are you to me?" she said plainly. "If there are others, it would be easier to just kill you now and find someone more cooperative."

"Ah yes, but I, but I-"

"Mitchell, please kill Mister Erikkson. He is of no further use to us." Amanda turned to leave and Mitchell drew the serrated combat knife from his boot. As he approached Erikkson, the man cried out.

"Wait, please don't, please don't kill me!"

"You're useless, sorry." Amanda swiped a keycard on the reader, and the steel door unlocked.

"Kustentov!" Erikkson sobbed, tears streaming down his fat cheeks. "Anatoly Kustentov, on Cascade. He sets up the deals, believe me! I've never even met Magnus in person, please!"

Mitchell had the knife just a few millimetres away from the man's throat. Any closer and he'd draw blood. Amanda turned around, and smiled.

"See, was that so hard? Mitchell, untie him. I'll have food and fresh clothes sent to you Mister Erikkson, you look like you'll need it."

As Amanda left the room, Mitchell cut through the rope binding Erikkson to the chair and glanced down at the puddle forming underneath. He snorted, and walked out, taking the cut rope and closing the door behind him. Once he'd caught up to Amanda, the pair started laughing.

"I can't believe he pissed himself."

"You'd be surprised how much that happens when your life is on the line," Mitchell replied, stowing the blade back in its sheath by his boot. "I've seen it before during the war."

"Yeah, I know, but still. Think I got the ruthless criminal mastermind thing down?"

He nodded. "Oh, you mean that was an act? I hardly noticed."

"Ha ha. You know we're leaving for Cascade tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah, I know. Who's coming along?"

"I'll bring a decently-sized combat team since I don't know what we're up against. You'll be our best gunman on the job, though."

Mitchell raised an eyebrow. "Is that so? What about your sniper friend. The quiet guy?"

"He left. Job was over." Amanda sighed. "The kid's a merc through and through, I'm afraid."

"Oh. How old is he?"

"Early twenties, I think. Zhou's older than he looks."

Mitchell was genuinely surprised by this. The marksman had moved and acted like a professional soldier, not some colony merc that had sprung up by the shipload after the war ended. For an ageing ex-military guy like Mitchell that was worrying; he hoped that Zhou's next job didn't involve hunting him down.

"Well then," he announced before yawning, "I'd better stop by the armoury and see how Carol's coming along with my suit. She said I'd be better off selling it as an antique when I brought it in."

"Get to it then. I'm gonna check with Mike and Isabelle about our AA defences. Heard that our long-range sensors might have spotted a probe in-system, and I want to be ready just in case."

"You worried that the UNSC might find this place?"

Amanda nodded. "Or the Alliance. They'll brand us as outlaws and crush the settlement so they can recolonise the planet themselves. Just a few thousand bodies to add to the foundation. I can't let that happen."

He nodded. While some of them were technically outlaws, Avalon's growing population had many innocents, and seemed like it would grow into a prosperous settlement given enough time. He doubted that any of the other major factions in the galaxy would hesitate to destroy what they'd built here.

"What are you going to do about Erikkson?" he asked. "Gonna kill him when we get back?"

She shook her head. "He doesn't know who we are, or where he is. So long as his info works out I'll let him go."

"Fair enough. Ever heard of this Kustentov guy?"

"Once or twice. Cascade's an overpopulated shithole, but we'll find him. If this prick leads us to Magnus, then I'm not letting him escape."

Orders

1638 Hours, September 12th, 2556

UNSC Point of No Return, Sol System


Redford hated this ship.

As a high-ranking member of BRUTUS, he had attended dozens of meetings aboard ONI's mobile command ship over the years, and something about it always rubbed him up the wrong way. Perhaps it was the eerie silence that was incredibly unusual for a vessel of this size, or simply how immaculate this place seemed for a ship in constant use; he hadn't ever seen any cleaners aboard. The worst part, however, was the waiting they put him through before letting him leave his quarters for the meeting.

"Nineteen," a voice drifted down the corridor behind him. Redford turned to see a tall, bearded man in a grey uniform approaching him. While his facial expression didn't change, he sighed inwardly.

"Thirty-Three," he responded, his voice level. Redford briefly shook the other man's hand with his metal one before joining him as they continued down the white-floored corridor. The pair rarely addressed each other by name, though they had been allies within BRUTUS for over thirty years.

"I heard you were working with a Spartan, Nineteen. Part of Firteam Thor, right?"

"Yes, that's right." Redford ignored his fellow agent's wry smile. "She's been a useful ally. What about you?"

"Deep-cover infiltration on Cascade. Just some scouting for our upcoming mission. It should be fun."

Redford nodded. The pair finally arrived at the door to their meeting point. Flanked by two black-armoured members of ONI's private security force, the 'Odin's Eye' conference room was probably one of the most secure places known to man. The guards glanced at the pair for barely a second before the door slid open at their approach. They entered the room without a sound, and allowed the door to slide back into place before taking their seats at the meeting table.

"Sir," Redford broke the silence. "Nice to see you again."

Sat before them was the founder, leader and first recruit of the BRUTUS division, Agent One. Though old and white-haired, the man's grey eyes shined with a fierce intelligence as he looked at the two men. It was said that he had personally recruited every single BRUTUS agent over the past fifty-one years, and held the distinction of being the most dangerous man in UNSC space. He smiled before speaking.

"It's been far too long, Alexander. You too, Kyle."

The other agent, Kyle White, nodded. He was younger than Redford, though he'd been recruited for BRUTUS just a few years after him. To his knowledge, White was among less than a half dozen of the original fifty recruits Agent One had gathered shortly after the Human-Covenant War broke out; possibly even the oldest alive behind Redford and One himself.

"Well gentlemen," Agent One slid two datapads across the table. "I've called you in here to discuss a rather important mission involving one of our old comrades. Recognise him?"

On the screens, two pictures of a man's face flashed up. They were dated from 2544 and 2556 respectively, one displaying a young man in a black uniform while the second showed him as older, scarred and in the middle of what looked like a deal of some sorts. Redford knew him immediately.

"Kustentov," he sighed. "Agent Forty-Two. Ran away in '49, as I recall. Never could find him."

White turned to Redford. "I took the second picture a couple of months back on Cascade. He's been working there as an information broker, though he sells guns to the local gangs in the slums to keep them fighting the law enforcement."

"So, are we going to eliminate him?" Redford asked his commanding officer.

"Not if you can help it. I want that man captured and brought back to me. We don't let our friends run away, Alexander. Once they're in the unit, it's a lifelong job. I want the pair of you and that Spartan friend of yours to pull that rat from his hole, understood?"

The pair nodded. Agent One gestured to White. "If you'll kindly leave us, I've got matters to attend to with Agent Nineteen."

White stood up and opened his mouth, only to think better of speaking before turning and striding out of the conference room. Once the door shut once more, One sighed and sat back in his seat. Even Redford, who had been suppressing the urge to smile at White's quick dismissal, relaxed slightly.

"Right then," Agent One switched the datapads off. "Enough of the official business, Alexander. How are you doing?"

Redford was taken aback by this question. Years of following orders through COM channels or letters had left him with a very formal approach towards his commanding officers on the rare occasion he met them; to a BRUTUS agent the simple act of asking how one was feeling was considered a major outburst of emotion.

"I'm fine, sir. No problems to report."

"Good, good. While we're here, don't bother with that 'sir' nonsense. We're not being recorded, and I think we've known each other long enough to do away with formalities at a time like this, hm?"

That was fair enough. Redford could scarcely remember the first time he'd met Frederick King, the man he'd addressed as 'Agent One' for the past thirty years. Had it been at his father's memorial service when the younger ONI agent had approached him with a job offer, or even before that? While Redford prided himself on having an excellent memory, certain things did elude him thanks to his age.

"I wouldn't know what to call you, sir."

"Fred will suffice, at least while we're in here."

Fred. It seemed far too mundane a name for a man like King, who had been a constant figure within ONI for the better part of a century. Redford decided to take it as an order.

"Well then, Fred, I'm happy to say that even with the NCA gaining support we've successfully purged most of the remaining rebel bases out of the Outer Colonies. Layla and I are making a lot of progress."

King nodded. "Nice to hear it. I've been busy of late trying to track Alliance movements. Traffic from places like Mamore where they have outposts and so on. Boring stuff. You know, when I assigned a Spartan to you I thought you'd kill each other within a month. It's nice to see that this partnership is working out. I suppose a pair of psychopaths would get along well." He smirked.

"I wouldn't regard myself as one, sir," came Redford's careful response. "Layla's idea of fun is to take a combat knife to her foes until they spill their secrets...or their entrails. I just try to complete the mission."

"That's fair enough. My apologies if I offended you, Alexander. I assure you, the work you're doing is for the good of the UNSC and mankind as a whole. Your father would be very proud of you."

"Thank you." The mention of Redford's father caught him by surprise as well. He was so used to learning everything about his targets while undercover and using it against them that the simple mention of his past or family caught him off-guard. King had told him many years ago how he and Harold Redford had once fought together in a special forces unit. Now that he thought about it, Redford wondered just how old King was; his own father would be well into his eighties by now, yet the man before him looked not much older than he did. He didn't want to ask.

"So, what was it that you wanted to speak to me about?" he asked, itching to leave the room.

"Ah yes," King leant over and fished a third datapad out of his briefcase. "We spotted this ship leaving the Mamore system not long ago."

Redford examined the picture, taken by one of ONI's many spy probes in Mamore's orbit. The freighter's design was unmistakable - the Dynasty, first and last of Hyperion Industries' prototype armoured supply ships built in the last year of the war.

"Where did it go?"

King smiled, and switched to a picture of a planet. "Emerald Cove. The UNSC abandoned it years ago when a blip on someone's radar made them think the Covenant were coming. Nothing happened, and since then it's been used to build this."

The third picture, taken in high orbit, was of a large structure, stretching across several miles of coastline by some mountains. Several unmistakably alien structures sat beside the dull grey of prefabricated Human housing. While he couldn't be entirely sure, it looked like the beginnings of a settlement of sorts.

"So who does it support?" Redford asked.

"It's independent, from what our initial probes picked up. A few ships come and go, delivering supplies and people. A rebel outpost is one thing, Alexander, but this is a settlement. If word gets out about it then people get involved. Politicians, sympathisers, the lot. It's a problem that has to be taken care of."

"If that's the case, then why not send me in? Give me a few days and it'll be a ruin."

"I thought you'd say that, but I'm afraid that it's not an option. You see, the closest thing this place has to a leader is an old friend of yours."

A chill ran down Redford's spine. His left hand curled into a fist. "You don't mean...?"

"Yes. Amanda Wade's been busy for the past year, keeping under our radar. Since you've got a history, I can't send you in. That said, I've got a better plan in mind. Once you've captured Kustentov, I'll go over it with you."

"I understand." While he retained a calm composure, Redford was an inferno on the inside. He'd spent the last nine months thinking of what he'd do to the woman who'd robbed him of his left hand, humiliating him completely after years of exemplary service in BRUTUS. He took a breath before speaking. "If that's all, then I'll be going."

"You may go," King nodded. "We'll speak more when you return, Agent Nineteen."

In a second, King had transformed from an almost fatherly figure to Redford back into the cold, invincible creature that was Agent One. He watched unblinkingly as Redford stood up and left the conference room, acting as though their conversation had never happened. It hadn't actually happened, of course. Not officially. Nothing that went on inside Odin's Eye was recorded or was spoken about without permission. King merely packed up his datapads and walked out a minute after Redford's departure.

He had an invasion to plan.

Takedown

1427 Hours, September 13th, 2556

Volamon, Cascade, Inner Colonies


"Man, this place is hot."

"Whole planet's hot, Carol. Get used to it."

"Can it, both of you! We're here."

The truck moved slowly through the busy city street, filled with traffic and people. Amanda checked her tacpad as they were forced to wait for what felt like the hundredth set of traffic lights, and made a mental note to shoot the next person who tried to clean the truck's windows for money. They'd run into four already. Beside her sat Rizhan Kama, who adjusted his cap before turning back to check on the rest of the group behind them.

"Amanda, you sure that's the place?" he asked, pointing to a large building on their right. "Looks too open for a man like Kustentov."

"He's hiding in plain sight, Riz. Probably thinks nobody cares enough to check the slums."

"Hrm, makes sense. Let's get this mess sorted out, then."

As the traffic began to shift, Amanda moved their truck off into a side alley opposite their target building and climbed out. The hot weather meant that she had to forego the longcoat she usually wore to conceal weaponry, though she still possessed two pistols hidden about her person. Rizhan rapped on the side of the truck twice, and the rear door slid open to let the others out. There were eight people on this mission in total - more than enough to get one man by her reckoning - all ready in case things turned violent.

Mitchell exited the truck last, carrying a large bag containing several stolen rifles. The ex-ODST hadn't been happy to leave his precious armour back at Avalon, but Cascade's sweltering heat even at this time of year would've made it impractical to wear his heavy gear.

"Right," Amanda clapped her hands together, getting her crew's attention. "We're after a man called Anatoly Kustentov. Shouldn't be too much trouble, but we have to be prepared. I'm going in with Ash, Rizhan and Carol. I want everyone but Crawford, who'll mind the truck, to take up positions around the building. Check for side doors and exits. If you hear shooting, I'll contact you over the radio."

While the others moved to their positions, Amanda's group strode out into the sunlit street, weaving through the mass of traffic-jammed cars towards the dilapidated office building. While Cascade had been lucky enough to avoid the wrath of the Covenant during the War, the massive influx of refugees from planets in the Outer Colonies had led to huge slums springing up in cities like Kowloon and Volamon. While Amanda hadn't been there herself, she'd heard rumours of widespread gang violence and drug trafficking spreading through such places in spite of crackdown attempts by the UNSC.

"Keep an eye out," she muttered to her comrades. "We're by the edge of the slums; If Kustentov gets in there we're fucked."

"You're right," Mitchell replied. "Got caught up in there back in '55. Barely made it out alive."

This didn't seem to curb Rizhan's usual enthusiasm. "Buncha drugged-up gangbangers won't be much against a group of professionals, Amanda."

"Say that again when there's sixty of them," came the reply from Mitchell before Amanda could speak. "Trust me, it's better to just leave the guy if he goes there."

Rizhan didn't respond. The building they entered seemed mostly abandoned, save for the odd person walking past clutching a plastic bag. Judging by the smell, this certainly wasn't a corporate office any more. As they made their way down the main hallway, the woman to Mitchell's right mouthed 'Drug Den'.

"You sure?" he whispered.

"I can smell it. They're cooking up Rocket, or something similar."

"Got it." Mitchell loosened the straps on his bag a little. If they were storming a den full of addicts and dealers things would almost certainly get bloody. Carol DuMont, who worked as a mechanic and managed the stores back on Avalon, seemed fairly knowledgeable about the stuff. Mitchell wondered if she'd been a user at some point in the past, but decided against asking.

"Okay, we're looking for a place on the third floor. 'Puskov Procurement'. Fake name, probably."

"Of course it is," Rizhan checked his weapon, an M7 submachine gun. "We kicking the door in or playing it friendly?"

"Friendly," said Amanda. "If we burst in he might be ready for us. Let me do the talking."

By the time they reached the third floor, the sounds of traffic below seemed muted and far-off. Amanda motioned for the others to remain on the stairwell as she advanced down the hall, catching sight of a security camera above an open door. A neatly-printed sign on the wall marked the apartment she was looking for. A buzzer sounded as she stepped through the threshold, and a door across the apartment banged open, revealing a scarred man with a shaved head. He yawned, and walked up to a counter as Amanda approached.

"Welcome to Puskov's. Whatever you want, I can get for you!"

He seemed oddly cheery for someone living in a dump like this. Looking round, Amanda saw that most of the apartment had been sealed off, with only a small gap around the counter so 'Puskov' could deal with customers. Crates littered the room, though there was very little actually on display.

"You own this place, right?" she asked.

"Yes I do. Antonin Puskov, madam. Is there anything you need?"

Amanda had read up on the guy before coming to Cascade. From what she could discern, Anatoly Kustentov was the information dealer, while 'Puskov' sold goods stolen from various planets.

"Do you sell V11 Power Cores? I've been trying to get some for months now."

The man scratched his unshaven chin. "I think we have some from a recent shipment. Just let me check over the inventory."

He took a seat and activated the terminal behind the counter. After a few seconds, a satisfied smile settled over his face. "Is this what you're looking for?"

Amanda leant over to check the screen, and heard a tiny click from under the counter. Fuck.

She barely had time to wrench her body away as Kustentov opened fire. Heavy pistol rounds burst through the wood and hit the adjacent wall. Amanda managed to scramble behind a crate as the man stood up and emptied the rest of his magazine towards her. By the time she'd drawn her own handgun, he already had her in his sights.

"Down!"

From her position she managed to catch a glimpse of Kustentov diving into a side room as rifle fire cut through the room, shredding the wall with high-caliber rounds as Mitchell and Carol entered the room.

"After him!" Amanda roared, picking herself up and leaping over the counter with the others in hot pursuit. Shouts were already echoing across the building as the residents came out to investigate the gunfire. Bringing up the rear, Rizhan dropped to one knee and gunned down a couple of pistol-wielding thugs as they burst through another door on their level.

"Team, this is Amanda," she called over her communicator. "Target's on the move. Keep the building surrounded and don't let that bastard escape!"

The rest of Kustentov's apartment was empty; it was clear that he didn't live here. Ducking around boxes and crates, Amanda kept her handgun raised as her prey burst through a side door and onto the balcony. By the time she reached the stairs, he was already several floors above and ascending towards the roof. Looking up, Amanda sighted a bridge extending between the office building and an adjacent tower. Fucker had an escape route all planned out.

"Amanda!" Mitchell called as he climbed onto the balcony. "I think we pissed off the locals, I'm gonna circle round and head up through the building!"

She didn't answer. Amanda was far too focused on the pursuit of Kustentov to care at this point. This guy was their only link to Magnus, the man who had butchered his way across the colonies and ruined their lives. If he died or got away, they'd lose that chance. She couldn't afford to fail here. By the time she reached the roof, panting, Kustentov was lowering a metal ladder onto the bridge. He turned and fired several rounds her way as she approached, narrowly missing before setting it down and descending. Amanda activated her communicator as she sprinted after him.

"Kustentov's crossing the rooftops now, is anyone out there?!"

As the man reached the adjacent building, another figure appeared across the rooftop, drawing a weapon on him. Kustentov ducked to one side and hit his attacker with several rounds and dropped him before opening a hatch on the roof. As she approached, Amanda recognised the body. It was Longman, one of the gunmen she'd brought on the mission. The explosive rounds from Kustentov's massive handgun had tore through him like paper, killing the man instantly. To make matters worse, the hatch had sealed shut. A noise from behind her announced Mitchell's arrival as he jumped off the ladder and ran across the bridge, reloading his rifle.

"Shit, whole building's packed with them. Where's Kustentov?"

"Down there."

Mitchell peered at the rooftop hatch. It was obviously not part of the building's design, and had been clumsily welded into place at some point. If anything, that made it a structural weakness.

"Right, stand back. I'm gonna blow it."

Amanda did as asked, peering down into the busy street as Mitchell fished a grenade from his pack. In spite of the gunfire echoing around the first building as more local gangsters arrived to back up their friends, the people below went about their business as usual. When the one-eyed merc set the grenade, she ducked and held on before the explosion rocked the roof, showering bits of stone and masonry everywhere. The hatch and part of the roof fell inwards. The pair jumped down into a dimly-lit room. This looked more like a home of sorts.

"There!"

Two rooms away, they caught a glimpse of a figure hurriedly stuffing a bag full of gear. Kustentov's eyes met hers for a second before he turned and ran. Mitchell immediately opened fire on the retreating figure.

"Hold up!" she pushed his rifle down. "Don't shoot him."

Mitchell grunted. "I've got to if you want this bastard alive. Non-lethal shots only."

After their chase across the other building, Kustentov seemed almost trapped in the cramped confines of this one. Chances were that he'd prepared this abandoned building as both a home and an escape route, though blowing through the roof hatch had certainly surprised him. Mitchell insisted on going first, running at an alarming speed down a flight of stairs into a long hallway before taking aim at Kustentov's back. The first few rounds struck the wall beside him, but the fourth hit the man in the shoulder, severing the strap of his bag and sending him sprawling to the floor.

"Don't fucking move!" Amanda bellowed as she advanced alongside Mitchell. Kustentov's handgun had clattered to the floor several feet away, so Mitchell fired a few rounds into it as they drew closer. To her surprise, Kustentov managed to drag himself to his feet and staggered into the next room. As Amanda and Mitchell entered, he hit a button on the wall. A translucent field sprang into place, cutting them off. He laughed.

"Energy shields, you fucks. I win."

No. She wouldn't let him get away this easily. If Kustentov thought that some hijacked alien shielding was enough to stop them then he had another thing coming.

"Mitchell, blow a hole in the wall. We'll go around the side of the building."

Kustentov grinned. "I'll be gone by then, I'm afraid. Got a car below that'll take me away from here. I don't know who you are, but you're out of your goddamn-"

The door behind Kustentov flew open. Two older men in civilian clothing strode forward and grabbed him, one jabbing the information broker in the back with a stun device while the other affixed a metallic collar around his neck. It was over so quickly that Kustentov barely had time to react. The bearded man hefted the now-unconscious target over his shoulder and walked out, while the other turned to face Amanda and Mitchell. He waved a clearly prosthetic hand towards them.

"Hello Amanda. It's been a while, hasn't it."

She knew that voice. It had been a busy years, but Amanda hadn't forgotten about the man who'd spied on their rebel group for years and foiled their biggest attack on the Unified Earth Government. Just the sight of his smiling face made her wish she'd shot him dead back on New Albion. Instead of killing Redford, she'd left him chained to a table with a bomb ticking down and a knife within reach.

"You fucking asshole."

Redford smiled. "Goodbye," he waved again and left, closing the door behind him.

"Shit," Mitchell remarked. "I take it you know him?"

Amanda turned and walked away. One smart remark from Mitchell and she'd probably shoot him. Rizhan and Carol emerged from the other end of the hallway, weapons raised. The former had a bloody nose but seemed otherwise okay.

"Did we get him?" Carol asked. "Please tell me we got him?"

She shook her head sadly. Rizhan spat on the floor and reloaded his weapon. "Mitchell, you were right about this shithole. Soon as the shooting started it was like kicking a Hornet's nest. Some bastard - high on Rocket or some crap - took half a mag and still hit me across the face before he went down."

Mitchell nodded, having dealt with similar foes in the past. "What now?" he asked Amanda.

"I don't know. We just... I need to-"

Something began to ring.

The four of them turned to see a COM pad lying on the floor by Kustentov's fallen bag, alongside folders and various datapads. Motioning for everyone to keep quiet, Amanda stooped and picked up the pad before answering it. A man began to speak immediately.

"Kustentov, this is Magnus. We need another shipment of parts to complete the other suits; we've only completed twenty so far. I want a ship at Sargasso by the fourteenth with the stuff I need. Also, Erikkson's gone dark. ONI may have gotten to him, so take him out as soon as you can. I'll cover the costs. You know what happens if you fail. Understand?"

Amanda switched the pad off, and dropped it to the floor. Then she pulled out her handgun and fired the entire magazine into it. She exhaled, then turned to her companions.

"Forget Kustentov. I got what I needed. We're going home."

Interception

1440 Hours, September 13th, 2556

Volamon, Cascade, Inner Colonies


As the shooting started, Redford and White were getting out of their truck several streets away from the tower block Kustentov had holed up in. Finding the man had been a remarkably simple process; AI's working for ONI scanned through thousands of hours worth of security footage to catch glimpses of their quarry before checking with their ground agents and local law enforcement to pinpoint his location. Now all the pair of them needed to do was stroll in and capture him.

"Small arms fire," White muttered, cocking his head. "Short bursts, mostly. Think it's the local street gangs?"

"Not sure. Let's move in."

With the heatwave sweeping Cascade at the moment, Redford was dressed in a floral shirt and khaki cargo shorts, which in his mind made him look like someone's doddery old grandfather. White, who had been on the planet for several months now, seemed used to the weather. His partner less so. Redford was one for suits and proper clothing, especially on what some would consider a combat operation. Nonetheless, any grumbling to White would simply give the other man a chance to gloat, so he strode into the building behind him.

"Fire's coming from the adjacent building. Going to move up and take a look."

Redford nodded, one hand on his pistol's holster. White drew a large-caliber handgun from his back pocket and walked up the first flight of stairs. There was a shout from above followed by three loud gunshots. By the time he'd ascended the stairs several corpses lay across a hallway. White reloaded silently and motioned for the pair to move up. He wasn't used to taking orders from a lower-ranking agent, but Redford put that aside as the adrenaline began to kick in. This was what he lived for: the thrill of the hunt.

"Place is filled with goddamn junkies," White remarked as they sprinted ahead. "Poorly armed, though. Something else is happening up there."

Before he could reply Redford caught a glimpse of a figure falling from a balcony across in the other tower block. Several people seemed to be climbing up the metal fire escape, though he couldn't quite make out who it was.

"Perhaps we're not the only ones after Kustentov."

"Impossible. The man was in hiding. The police know to keep out of ONI business."

"Now now, Agent Thirty-Two," Redford chided him in a mocking tone. "There's no such thing as impossible for BRUTUS, remember? Adapt and survive."

"Right," White grunted, running a little faster as they ascended to keep away from his partner.

Panting slightly, the pair stopped as they encountered a staircase that had seemingly been sealed off with instacrete or a similar substance. Something told Redford that this particular addition to the building wasn't the work of the city council. White was thinking along the same lines. Kustentov.

"He'd need an escape route."

"Fast elevator behind a panic room, most likely."

"Oddly specific."

"Its what I'd do."

"As would I."

While they surveyed the blocked-off staircase, a steady dripping from the ceiling nearby attracted Redford's attention. He nudged his companion.

"Leaking pipe, by the looks of it."

White smiled. "Structural weakness."

Though the standard operating procedure for BRUTUS agents usually meant that most of their weapons were procured on-site, White had managed to acquire some shaped demolition charges for this mission. Within a minute they had placed a sliver of the potent stuff by the dripping ceiling and retreated down to a lower level as it detonated. As expected, most of the nearby ceiling caved in after the blast, giving them an access point to the upper floor and - they hoped - Kustentov's inner sanctum.

"You know," White said as he clambered up the next level, "When building a refuge, why on earth did he choose a place several floors up?"

"Rent's cheaper, I've heard," Redford remarked.

While the gunfire from the opposite building had all but faded, several shots from nearby and approaching footsteps snapped them back into combat mode. As the pair edged towards a nearby wooden door, a man's voice could be heard. Redford slowly reached into his pocket and took out a collapsible metal collar, while White unsheathed a metallic baton. They waited until they heard the voice again.

"Got a car below that'll take me away from here. I don't know who you are, but you're out of your goddamn-"

Redford and White moved in unison, kicking the door inwards and moving on the man behind it. Taking note of two individuals on the other side of a shimmering barrier, Redford quickly fastened the neural-inhibitor collar around Kustentov's neck after White stunned him with the electrified baton. The other agent then quickly lifted their unconscious, immobile prey onto his back and exited. Redford paused for a moment to catch a glance of their pursuers, and-

Her.

He took a moment to savour the disbelief on the faces of the pair before him. One was clearly a soldier of some kind, heavily built and sporting an eyepatch. The other didn't look like she'd aged a day since they had last met. Brown hair, green eyes, same fierce, determined look. Redford smiled and waved with his robotic hand.

"Hello Amanda. It's been a while, hasn't it?"

As expected, shock turned to comprehension, then absolute fury. Were it not for the alien force field Kustentov had activated, she would have probably shot him immediately.

"You fucking asshole," hissed Amanda Wade. Evidently she hadn't forgotten his role as a double agent within their little rebel group for so long. Perhaps she'd even considered him a friend. Oddly, he didn't feel angry any more. Strange. The mere mention of her name back aboard the Point of No Return had filled him with rage, yet now he felt nothing. Amusement, and perhaps even a little pity. It was time to go.

"Goodbye." He waved once more before turning to leave, closing the door behind him. White was already halfway down the hall.

"Friend of yours?" he asked nonchalantly.

"Hardly. Just an old acquaintance who survived cleanup."

"Was she the one who took your arm?" Now it was his turn to act smug. White didn't have to wait for a reply. "Thought so. No matter, we'll soon have her group exterminated, Nineteen."

"Of course, Thirty-Two."

The rest of their trip was fairly simple. The collar Redford had placed on Kustentov kept his vital organs working, but completely paralysed him from the neck down. They had been banned by some convention or other many years ago, though ONI kept a supply lying round for the capture of dangerous individuals; sometimes the mere paralytic sensation of the collar would be torture enough to get prisoners talking. Redford activated his COM device.

"Blackbird, this is Agent Nineteen. We have the target and are making our way out of the target building now."

"Copy that, Nineteen," came the swift reply. "Touching down for quick evac north of your position in five mikes. Over and out."

Clicking off his COM, Redford felt fairly satisfied as he and White loaded Kustentov into their car and reversed out of the alley they had parked in. They had been lucky enough to avoid pursuit by Amanda Wade or one of her cronies, and now all they had to contend with was this city's legendarily bad traffic for a few minutes. White drove them out into the busy streets, edging into a lane of traffic for a few moments before heading off a side road towards the edge of the city. ONI's extraction Pelicans were known for their punctuality and complaining crews, so they had no intentions of turning up late.

"You know we're going to have to wipe it out, don't you?"

"Hrm?"

"Wade's settlement." White sighed. "I read the report. One's sending an infiltrator to deactivate their comms and offensive systems, then ONI takes care of the rest."

Redford nodded. "Thought as much. I take it that he doesn't want her paraded around as the captured rebel?"

"No martyrs. As far as the official records go, there never was a settlement on Emerald Cove after it was abandoned. Cordon off the site for a few decades and everything will be forgotten about."

"It will be for the best," Redford replied. "Who's the infiltrator?"

"A friend of yours."

Chapter Three

Daybreak

0756 Hours, September 14th, 2556

Avalon, Independent Settlement
Emerald Cove, Outer Colonies


"Uh, Amanda? Sorry to wake you so early but there's a ship coming in, and its not one of ours."

"For fucks sake. Give me a minute."

Amanda groaned and rolled over in her bed, wondering why she'd even installed that intercom system. Five days left. Their 'meeting' with Magnus was on the fourteenth, which gave her little time to prepare for the day that they'd finally kill the sadistic fuck once and for all. Yawning, she heaved herself out of bed and made a mental note to shoot Mike if he woke her up again. Still, the presence of any ship on Emerald Cove was a cause for concern; if it wasn't pirates looking for salvage or easy prey it was either the NCA or the UNSC. Neither of them would have any good intentions for Avalon.

Since they'd got back from Cascade and buried their dead, Amanda had let Erikkson go; he was en-route to Escala III now in the back of a shipping crate, sans a few teeth Mary pulled out during his interrogation. She'd neglected to mention how Magnus had decided to kill him. At least that way he'd be out of the way before long. After a few minutes she exited her quarters and headed towards the landing pad, nearly bumping into Mitchell as he hurried past.

"Where are you going?"

"Armoury," he replied. "Going to grab my gear, just in case. Isabelle thinks it might be a UNSC ship so we can't be too careful."

"Shit. Don't come out unless you're called, okay?"

"Got it."

As Mitchell headed off, Amanda stifled another yawn and headed towards the control room. Mike was sat there, speaking over the long-range COM.

"Unknown vessel, please identify. This is an independent settlement and we will take action if you do not comply, over."

He glanced up as she approached. "Sorry to wake you."

"It's fine. Any idea who it is?"

"Not a warship. We'd already be under attack if it was."

"Scavengers?"

"Can't be. Still, I'm going to bring the M95's online if we don't get-"

A female voice crackled through the COM. "This is the UNSC Demeter. We are an unarmed exploration vessel, crew of seven. Requesting permission to land."

Mike hesitated before answering. "Your call," he whispered to Amanda.

She had to consider it for a few seconds. While it would be easier to blow the ship out of the sky and call it a day, chances were that more UNSC ships would come looking for the missing vessel. That would only lead to more conflict. Still, a great deal of Avalon's weaponry was stolen UNSC property, not to mention the fact that it was run by people the UNSC would consider terrorists. She sighed.

"Let them land."

He reactivated the COM. "Permission granted, Demeter. I'll activate a beacon on one of our landing pads."

"Thank you. We're coming in now." The COM clicked off.

Mike turned in his chair and flipped a switch. A light lit up on one of his consoles. "Right then," he cracked his fingers together and stretched. "Got them coming in on pad five. Might want to head there now."

"That's on the sea platforms, right?"

"Yeah. Don't worry, it'll take the weight. If things to go shit then they'll be easy targets."

Amanda nodded. "Thanks Mike. Where's Isabelle?"

"Still getting dressed, I think. She thinks this might be a chance for a diplomatic meeting or something."

"Right. Keep an eye on things from here, okay?"

"Will do." As Amanda left the room be muttered; "Not like there's anything else I can do here."

It didn't take long for Avalon's security team to assemble by the landing pad. Rizhan arrived shortly after, hefting a missile launcher.

"A bit much, don't you think?"

"Can't be too careful, Amanda." Her security chief was right, though she doubted their guests would appreciate having one of those pointed at them the moment they touched down.

"Head to the upper platform then, just in case."

As he walked off, a large figure lumbered into view. Amanda's guards looked at each other nervously as he approached, towering over them all.

"Amanda Wade."

"Saernus," she replied cheerfully. "Nice to see you out and about for once. What's the occasion."

"A ship is coming. I wanted to see what it was."

Typical. Standing at over nine feet tall, Saernus was the only Jiralhanae living in Avalon. Amanda had encountered him three months ago on a far-off outpost after he killed half a dozen Kig-Yar bounty hunters with his bare hands. The grey-haired alien had been badly wounded, so she had him brought aboard the Dynasty to be treated. To repay her kindness, the surly warrior now helped out around the settlement and was often useful in breaking up particularly heated arguments.

"It's Human, Saernus."

"Hrmph. UNSC?"

"Yes."

Saernus growled. "Why have you not killed them yet?"

"Because then they'd send a fleet. This is easier."

"I see." The hulking Jiralhanae crossed his arms. "I wish to greet them with you."

Amanda was truly surprised by this; usually Saernus kept to himself and spent time fixing up that old hammer of his. Still, his presence might be good; a lot of people in the colonies were in favour of mixed-species settlements even after the war and years of resentment to former Covenant races.

"Fine, just don't do anything rash."

He didn't respond. She took it as a 'yes'. Flanked by four armed guards, Amanda and Saernus strode out towards the landing pad as the craft began to descend. It was smaller than she had expected, with signs of multiple repairs and a faded UNSC logo imprinted on the side. Before Amanda could cross the bridge, the door behind her slid open.

"Amanda, wait!"

A tall, blonde-haired woman stood there, panting slightly. She'd evidently been running.

"Isabelle, nice to see you. Here to meet our guests?"

"Yes, I am," she said as she regained her breath. "You're not, though."

"Wait, what?"

Isabelle shook her head and strode towards Amada, grabbing her arm. "So, were you planning on walking right up and saying 'Hi, I'm Amanda Wade and this is my settlement. Yes, everything is stolen!'"

"No," she lied. Isabelle glared at her, and she couldn't help but smirk.

"Look, as soon as they find out who you are, they'll make a few calls and before you know it we've got a fleet bearing down on us. I'll handle this."

Ah. Amanda hadn't quite thought of that possibility. While she hadn't been on the UNSC's radar for the past year, they probably wouldn't just let her get away with what she'd done.

"Hold on, you're just as much of a fugitive as I am, Isabelle. We did break you out of prison, remember?"

"Oh, I'm hardly high-priority compared to Driscol and those other bastards. Just let me deal with it, okay?"

Amanda sighed. "Fine. I'll wait inside."

Feeling dejected, she walked back inside and began heading back to her quarters when she caught a gimpse of Mitchell heading towards the pad dressed in full mercenary gear.

"Hey, what the fuck are you wearing!?" she called.

He turned, revealing the distinctive skull-painted ODST helmet that screamed 'I'm the Butcher of Kuiper'. Mitchell seemed to realise and removed the helmet before joining her as they headed away from the arriving delegation.

"Forgot about that. Carol just finished fixing the suit up so I thought I'd try it on again."

Amanda was fairly glad that she wasn't the only stupid one in Avalon today. "Isabelle wants us out of the way today. Thinks we might piss people off."

"Right, the woman who helped steal a NOVA bomb and the man who butchered a city block. That might upset some people."

"'fraid so. Isabelle will deal with things. Saernus is over there as well."

"The Brute? Didn't think that big ape spoke to anyone. He mostly just turns up to eat and stink up the place."

"He doesn't smell any worse than the Unggoy, Ash."

"Yeah, but at least the Ungo..., the Ungag, the Grunts make good conversation. The little bastards are surprisingly smart. Weird to think how many I killed in the war."

"People are people," Amanda replied, her gaze lingering for a moment on Mitchell's skull-faced helmet. "I've met plenty of aliens I like better than Humans."

After walking for some time, Mitchell announced that he was heading off to the firing range; the loss of an eye had decreased his accuracy a lot lately, leaving Amanda sitting outside Avalon's administrative building. A few people passed by, including a scarred Unggoy named Ranag. She wondered how many Humans he'd killed during the war. It was better not to ask. Eventually, the sound of voices drifted towards her as a group of people emerged from a side room.

"-our meeting room is here, Miss Touré. If you'll follow me then we can begin sorting things out."

Isabelle barely looked at Amanda as she walked past, speaking to a well-dressed woman who she presumed had spoken to them over the COM earlier. Aside from a single guard and Saernus, who entered the meeting room with them, a familiar armoured figure accompanied the group. He stood by as the door closed and turned around before facing Amanda.

"Fancy meeting you here."

"Marco?"

The familiar tan-armoured Spartan sat on the bench beside her, making it creak slightly. "Guess who got the shit mission?"

"Were they that mad that you let Maxon get away?"

"Well, I'm too valuable to kill or imprison, so I suppose accompanying an exploration vessel is the best punishment ONI could come up with. This your place?"

"Yep. What do you think?"

"Not bad. Saw the missile turrets as we came in, though. You've been stealing."

"Well, we got those on the black market. Someone else stole them for us."

The Spartan chuckled, looking round at the nearby houses. "How many people live here?"

"You going to report back to ONI?"

"I was just curious."

"Just a few hundred, more or less. Mike's always worrying that the Unggoy will breed out of control in a few years if we let them."

"They do tend to do that. Who's Mike?"

"Our tech guy. Grumpy bastard, but he keeps everything running. Don't think he'd like you much, though."

"Why's that?"

"One of your Spartan buddies put a bullet in his spine back in '54. He's been in a wheelchair ever since. He's a little bitter about that."

"I can imagine." Marco turned to glance into the meeting room. "So, who's your friend?"

"Isabelle? She runs things around here on a day-to-day basis. Takes care of expansion, hydroponics, and makes sure we don't all kill each other."

"I thought you were in charge."

"I am... sort of. Avalon was my idea and I've been the one going round procuring things, but she holds it together."

"Right. I like the name. If we're sticking with the Arthurian references then does that make Ash Mitchell a knight in shining armour?"

"What?"

"Forget it," Marco shook his head. "How is he, anyway? Didn't die, I hope?"

"Mitchell's fine," she replied, still trying to work out what Marco's last comment meant. "Dealing with the loss of his eye, mostly. Shame we can't afford a cybernetic one right now. Money's rather tight."

"They are expensive."

Marco slowly lifted his helmet off, a faint hiss coming from it as it unsealed itself. He turned towards Amanda. For a few seconds, all she could do was stare.

"You look...older."

The Spartan's face was lined with scars and wrinkles; many more since the last time she'd seen Marco's face. His brown hair was already flecked with grey in places, and the stubble around his mouth seemed to be slowly forming into a beard.

"As you can see, I've been through some shit." Marco seemed to find Amanda's shock funny.

"I can see."

There was a long, drawn-out silence. Eventually, Marco pulled out a datapad and swiped it for a few moments before handing it over to Amanda. A picture of a laughing child flashed up. She frowned.

Amanda shrugged. "Who's this?"

"Michael's kid."

"How old is she now?"

"Just turned six."

"Is she okay?" Amanda asked.

"Yeah, fine. They're still living on Earth, though Michael's considering moving to Asphodel. Get some peace and quiet."

"Does she ever ask about me?"

Marco sighed, and shook his head. "She knows she's got an aunt somewhere on the run. Michael doesn't like talking about you either, I'm afraid. Don't know if he's mad at you for running off to join the Marines, or mad at himself for being a dick about it."

She nodded, smiling sadly. Out here, Amanda never spoke about where she'd come from or what family she used to have. All that mattered was her crew and her new home, Avalon. As the meeting room door opened, Marco hurriedly placed his helmet on and stood up. Isabelle and the ambassador exited and shook hands.

"I hope that the council will consider, Miss Touré."

"Please, call me Iris," the ambassador responded. "I'm sure that the United Earth Government will recognise your settlement as an independent nation once the new bill is passed."

She walked off with Marco and her guard in tow towards the landing pad. Isabelle waited for them to leave the room before turning to Amanda.

"Well?"

"It looks like there are some Human beings in the UEG after all," Isabelle smiled. "I was expecting an Earth-centric rant about loyalty and unity, to be honest."

Amanda smirked. "Looks like you made a friend."

"So did you. Didn't think Spartans were that talkative."

"Neither did I," Amanda brushed her off, unwilling to tell her how she knew Marco. "So, how was the ambassador?"

"She's certainly more progressive than some back on Earth, I can tell you that. I just explained that we're not Innies or part of the NCA, but we'd like to remain as a self-sufficient settlement with partial control of Emerald Cove."

"What did she say?"

"We won't get to keep the whole planet, naturally, but she's going to give our proposal to the UEG back on Earth. Iris says that the President is under a lot of pressure to recognise independent factions even if we're trying to wipe out the New Colonial Alliance."

Amanda nodded. "Did she ask about our supplies? Weaponry?"

"No, nothing like that. Just a brief outline of our population and long-term expansion goals. We might be able to get a deal going with some other colonies to trade our crops for supplies, since there are food shortages at the moment on a few worlds."

Amanda nodded slowly, barely listening to what Isabelle had to say. She was more concerned about what might happen if the UEG rejected their offer, or found out that they were led by criminals. Nonetheless, the meeting had gone better than expected. Saernus chose to interrupt Isabelle's speech with a loud cough.

"Human politics bore me," he announced. "You talk and talk when action is needed."

"You wanted to join the meeting, Saernus." Isabelle folded her arms. "I never asked you to accompany me."

"True, but I wished to see how you would handle it. If this is to be my home then I have the right to observe, Isabelle Marshall." He grunted, and turned to leave. "We shall speak another time."

Isabelle and Amanda glanced at each other as the Jiralhanae walked off, probably to find food. "He's a weird one," Amanda commented.

"Remind me again why he's allowed to stay?"

"He pulls his weight around here, at least. Also, I think he's fairly docile for one of his kind. Most of the ones I've met only care about fighting and food."

"True. I'll need that meeting room cleaned out, though. The ambassador was too kind to complain, but Saernus really smells. Brutes must not know much about bathing."

"Yeah, but Mike smells too and you two are practically married."

Isabelle laughed. "Good point. I'll have him clean up his office too. I think he's collecting empty coffee cups in there. Speaking of that, when do you think we'll be able to get another shipment in? We're running low?"

"I'll speak to my guy on Falaknuma when I get the chance. I heard a rumour that they're trying to crack down on-"

Amanda was cut off as the nearby intercom activated. "Amanda, Isabelle, I need you up here now. There's trouble."

Without hesitating the two broke into a sprint, running towards Avalon's control room.

"How the hell does he know how to find us?"

"Cameras, Amanda."

"Does he have them everywhere?"

"Maybe."

As they descended the stairs into the bunker that was both Mike's office and Avalon's main control room, the holotank in the centre brought up an image of what appeared to be a ship drifting through space. Mike entered through a side door, his motorised wheelchair stopping by a console so he could bring up the image.

"What's that?"

"Some kind of ship. Not UNSC. Whatever the hell happened, it's in trouble."

"What happened to the ambassador's ship?"

"Don't worry, Isabelle, they jumped the moment they left the atmosphere. This ship arrived a few minutes after."

The craft on the holotank seemed to be a Human vessel, not much bigger than the Dynasty in size. One of the engines was missing and scorch marks dotted the hull. The fact that it had made a slipspace jump at all was a miracle, considering the state of the ship.

"Pirate attack?" Amanda suggested.

"Probably. Or at least a Covenant vessel. That is definitely plasma damage."

"You think there are survivors?"

"Well, someone had to make that jump."

Amanda sighed. She'd been awake for barely an hour at this point. While part of her just wanted to leave the ship where it was and hope it went away, she couldn't just leave it there if there were survivors.

"Right, we're going after them. Where's Faisal?"

Mike checked one of the security screens. "Eating breakfast with Saernus. Aw, I think they're friends."

"I want him at the Dynasty's helm in ten minutes. Get Mitchell and ten others, too. We're going on a rescue mission."

"Great," Mike said unenthusiastically. "Busy day already."

Return

0943 Hours, September 15th, 2556

HIGHCOM Facility Bravo-6, Sydney, Earth


It hadn't taken long for Anatoly Kustentov to talk. Once the sedative wore off and he found himself in an ONI interrogation room, the ex-agent knew that there was no way out. Redford and White, who had worked with the man on multiple occasions in the past, stood by and allowed King to talk to their former comrade. Within ten minutes, 'Agent 42' agreed to reveal everything he knew.

"I don't know if I should be pleased or disappointed, Anatoly," King smiled. "I was under the impression that BRUTUS agents didn't crack under interrogation."

"I didn't crack, sir," Anatoly replied, sweating visibly. "I'm just familiar enough with our methods to know what you'll do if I refuse."

"Oh, is it 'our' methods now? I was under the impression that you'd left the unit."

King slid a dataslate across the metal table. Kustentov hesitated for a moment before picking it up. Reacting to his touch, it displayed a picture of his younger self in the black uniform of an ONI agent. Beside him stood several others; BRUTUS assassins all.

"You've been hiding away for a long time, Anatoly," King clasped his hands together. "Now, I'd like to know why you ran off."

Kustentov took a deep breath, and passed the dataslate back across the table. Compared to his image in the picture he'd aged considerably; scars and wrinkles lined his face, while his hair was greying and thin. "I'd had enough, sir. We were murdering innocent people in the midst of a war against the Covenant. I'd had enough."

Behind King, Redford and White exchanged glances and shook their heads in discuss. "Necessary sacrifices, my friend. BRUTUS was not formed as oppressors or murderers, but as stabilisers. With decisive actions and quick strikes the men and women of this organisation have ended dozens of would-be rebellions."

"Not everyone was a mad terrorist," the other man complained, running a hand across his face. "Some were just people asking for a better life. It's not our fault the UEG couldn't provide for the people."

"The UEG had to deal with a war the likes of which mankind has never seen, Anatoly!" King snapped, making Kustentov and the others flinch. "Human stability at all costs, that's what matters. Had we not destroyed all chances of uprisings wherever we could, we may very well have lost the war. All our agents know that."

"On your orders, I slit the throat of a man who spoke out at a protest. We blamed it on a mugger. I blew up a bus of thirty people to kill five suspected dissidents. We used that as an excuse to raid half a town!"

Kustentov began to stand up, but thought better of it as Redford and White reached for their sidearms. King barely moved at all. The man merely put away the dataslate and produced a recording device from his briefcase before setting it down on the table. He inclined his head slightly towards the two agents behind him.

"Leave us."

They did. King continued once the door hissed shut behind them.

"Anatoly, for how long do you think I've been working against rebels and terrorists?"

"Sir, I don't-"

"Guess."

Kustentov took a few seconds looking at King before answering him. "Forty years, maybe less."

King shook his head. "Sixty years. I've seen countless would-be rebellions rise and fall in that time. All that matters is keeping Humanity unified, by force if need be."

Opposite him, the former agent was still trying to work out King's exact age. "I had to leave," he whispered.

King sighed. "I understand, Anatoly. Sympathy for the rebel plight. Disgust at our harsh actions in keeping rebels and dissidents down. It's a sad necessity, I'm afraid."

There was a long pause. Kustentov eventually spoke. "So what now? You gonna execute me?"

"Not if you cooperate, which you have done so far. I may even have you reinstated, should the information you provide me turn out to be fruitful."

"Thank you, sir."

King pushed the recorder to the centre of the table and activated it. Kustentov remained still, having been through several similar interviews in the past.

"This is BRUTUS Agent One, Captain Frederick King, interviewing former BRUTUS Agent Forty-Two, Anatoly Kustentov. Mister Kustentov, please provide me a detailed account of your activities in your long absence."

Interviews. Kustentov tried not to smirk at the terminology ONI still used. 'Interrogation' worried the prisoner, while this made it seem as though he had simply turned up for a job. I may well get my old one back if I play my cards right.

"After I departed our facility on Luna in 2549, sir, I travelled to Venezia...

***

Outside, Redford and White watched the proceedings. Both agents sported looks of smug satisfaction as their former comrade told King everything. While they often enjoyed making tougher detainees crack, it was somewhat pleasing to watch a former agent get the same treatment. Redford stifled a yawn.

"Think King will let him back into the agency?"

"Maybe," White seemed to consider it for a moment. "Every other rogue agent died before capture or is still on the run. The boss might need his contacts for further missions."

"True, though he's probably a dead man in any case. I wouldn't take my chances."

"You've spent too long in the Outer Colonies, Nineteen. Kustentov's older and a bit rusty, but far from useless."

Redford smirked. "If he's old then what does that make us?"

"Invaluable. In case you haven't noticed, not many BRUTUS agents grow old."

"I suppose they'll need someone who knows where the bodies are buried when One dies."

White glanced towards his comrade, smirking. "And who might that be? Me? You? Perhaps they'll bring in someone new to keep us under control. You never know."

At the end of the corridor, a pair of elevator doors clanked open. A grey-haired man flanked by two black-armoured security guards strode forwards, his gaze set on the two BRUTUS agents. They saluted him as he drew close.

"Admiral," White nodded.

"Agent White, Agent Redford." The man glanced through the interrogation room's window for a moment before folding his arms.

"Will Captain King be long?"

"I'm not sure, sir. Why?"

"I've been trying to contact him all morning and the man's damn hard to find when he wants to be. I take it that's the rogue agent in there?"

"Yes sir."

"Right, I'll have to speak to the Captain about-"

The door slid open. King barely registered the Admiral's presence as he handed his dataslate to White. Kustentov walked out behind him, now handcuffed.

"Please escort Agent Forty-Two upstairs to be briefed. Uncuff him when you get there, will you?"

White nodded. He and Redford set off without a word, the prisoner between them. They'll have words with him on the way up, I'm sure.. King turned towards the officer next to him and saluted.

"Admiral Samson, to what do I owe the pleasure?"

"We need to talk about your planned operations on Emerald Cove, Captain. Now."

King's tone immediately became much more businesslike. "I understand. Care to speak in here?"

He gestured towards the room he'd been interrogating Kustentov in. Samson motioned for his guards to wait outside and entered, taking a seat across from the door. King took his chair once more, and waited for the door to slide shut before speaking.

"So Admiral," he leant back in his chair. "What do you want to discuss?"

Samson passed a datapad across the table. It contained the information King had passed on to ONI's offices yesterday pertaining to the newly-dubbed 'Operation GLASS HOUSE' on Emerald Cove.

"I can pass along your requested equipment and manpower within a couple of days, and have Section Two ready with a cover story. If the recon from our probes was correct then the settlement should offer minimal resistance against your force, too."

"So then, what's the problem?"

"It's not that we couldn't easily pull off this operation, Captain. It's if we should pull it off."

"What do you mean?"

"Our initial reports display a small settlement with a projected population of less than a thousand. They have farming facilities and military-grade defences, though it appears to be an independent settlement rather than a simple rebel base. Captain King, what I'm asking is why we should destroy them."

King smiled, sliding the datapad back across the table. Ryan Samson was a good man and no one doubted his credentials as current head of the Office of Naval Intelligence's Prowler Corps, but there were times when the BRUTUS head wished he possessed the cruel streak that other agents possessed. Samson had certainly surprised everyone, King included, when he successfully wrangled his promotion a year ago in the wake of the NOVA incident. Due to their itinerant nature moving throughout the colonies, BRUTUS had been relying on the Prowler Corps for years to transport them.

"Admiral Samson, I see your point, I really do. However, my division has been tasked with the destruction of any and all Human dissidents for nearly three-quarters of a century now. I know how this works. While it would possibly be beneficial to strike up an alliance with this settlement and work with them during the resettlement process, there is a chance for larger consequences later. We let one settlement out there get out of control and now we have the NCA trying to stir up more dissent. What if this one expands and decides to join them? Or worse, if it creates a new government? It is better off to snuff the flame quickly before it spreads out of control, I say. Would you take a chance with this, Admiral?"

Samson did not reply for over ten seconds. Then, he nodded. "I'm inclined to agree with you, Captain. Harsh choices for a harsh universe and all that. Are you aware of the information that came down half an hour ago about Avalon?"

"Avalon?"

"It's what they called their settlement. You see, while you were interrogating Kustentov, it turns out that one of our exploratory vessels happened across Emerald Cove, and the settlement."

King did not react. He had learned how to keep a calm composure in these situations a long time ago, and merely nodded to allow Samson to continue.

"In a report transmitted and eventually relayed to me recently, the UNSC Demeter not only travelled to Emerald Cove, but made contact with the locals there. Now, while such vessels are usually lightly-armed, this one had a Spartan aboard."

"Ah, I remember. The one assigned to bodyguard duty for failing to kill Maxon?"

"Yes. While the Spartan does have control of his helmet feed, it remained active long enough for the data to show several interesting figures living there, as I'm sure you're aware."

"My probes did detect the presence of the Dynasty leaving and arriving at the settlement several times. The one responsible for taking the NOVA bomb from Earth last year, as you might recall."

"I remember," Samson frowned. "Agent Redford nearly died protecting us that day."

"Indeed. Now, the captain of this vessel is none other than one Amanda Wade, one of the few terrorists involved with the NOVA incident left unaccounted for. My agents encountered her trying to capture or kill Kustentov not long ago. I believe that she may be involved with this settlement in one way or another."

Samson nodded. "You're correct. The Spartan's footage not only captured Wade at the facility, but several other known criminals. Isabelle Marshall, whose brother led a dangerous terrorist cell, Rizhan Kama, who once sold weapons to criminals, and a man who is believed to be none other than Ash Mitchell himself."

This impressed the venerable agent, who smiled and clasped his hands together. "How interesting. If anything, Admiral, this makes my job so much easier."

"How so?"

"Well, the massacre of an independent settlement by our forces would spark uproar and ruin us if it ever came to light, but the strategic elimination of a compound housing several wanted criminals and terrorists would be a huge boon, in my opinion."

"Excellent." Samson stood up, pocketing his datapad. "When do you want to launch your attack?"

"Soon. I'll require some time to prepare once I have the resources. Also, we can't have the Demeter's crew bringing in word of Avalon before the government or anyone else. The Spartan can keep a secret, but everyone else must go."

"Of course. How do you want it to look?"

"BRUTUS will handle the elimination. Have Section Two prepare a piece for the media. Should help strengthen the popular support at home if we're lucky."

Samson nodded. Ash Mitchell's death at the hands of UNSC forces would certainly make for an excellent story to feed the public while 'Avalon' would just be another rebel base destroyed before it could launch another terrorist attack on the Inner Colonies. He turned to a holotank by the table.

"Odin?"

A hologram immediately flashed up above the tank. A besuited man turned to face Samson, hands clasped behind his back.

"You need assistance, Admiral?"

"Contact the Prowler Corps. Have a ship ready at Helios Station within three days. Also, I want no less than two hundred members of ONI Security fully armed and ready aboard the vessel."

Odin turned so he could face both Samson and King. While his chosen form appeared like any other Human, his holographic representation lacked any facial features, so they could not tell who the AI was looking at. He waited a few seconds before speaking.

"Admiral, might I recommend a larger vessel for a deployment of that size? Taking into account the amount of troops and presumed landing forces, one of our Light Frigates would be more appropriate."

Both men nodded. Samson clicked his tongue, thinking it over for a few moments.

"Good point. We'll need at least a dozen Pelicans, with a few Sparrowhawks for support."

"Understood, Admiral. Will that be all?"

"Yes, thank you."

Odin nodded and winked out. King sighed. Odin was one of ONI's best-kept secrets: an artificial intelligence that had operated independently since the dawn of the century without experiencing the same problems that any usual AI would suffer; the immortality of a Dumb AI twinned with the immense processing power and ingenuity of a later-generation Smart AI. Without him King doubted that Bravo Six would last a week.

Samson stood up. "Well, that takes care of our invasion force. Their defences may be a problem, though."

"Don't worry," King smiled. "I already have a solution in place for that particular problem."

Rescue

1012 Hours, September 16th, 2556

Dynasty, Independent Freighter
Emerald Cove System, Outer Colonies


"We're five minutes out. Prep weapons."

"Expecting trouble, Amanda?"

"Just a precaution. I don't want us getting jumped if something's following this ship."

"Got it."

Amanda turned away from her pilot as he maneuvered the Dynasty into position by the other ship's airlock. It was a miracle that the ship had survived a slipspace jump considering the condition it was in; the amount of plasma fire it had taken would've torn most ships that size apart.

"Right, we're latched," Faisal turned to speak to her. "You sure you want to go with them?"

"Someone has to. Why?"

"Because we have no idea who we'll find over there. Could be a trap."

"Could be that you're just paranoid."

"Maybe. It's what has kept us alive for so long."

Amanda sighed and walked off the bridge. Faisal was right to be cautious, but it would be a cold day in hell when she sat back and allowed her crew to go off into the unknown without her. Still, she doubted it was a trap; if someone wanted the Dynasty taken out it wouldn't take too much firepower to destroy the ageing freighter, even with her pilot's decades of experience with the vessel. The ship jolted slightly as cables fired, securing it to the damaged craft. A helmeted man rounded the corner ahead of her, hefting a large bag and a submachine gun.

"You suiting up, boss?"

"Yeah, I'll only be a minute. Wait at the airlock with everyone else, Riz."

"Got it."

She entered the armoury as Rizhan joined the rest of the team. Everyone had already suited up, leaving a single black vaccum suit for Amanda. She quickly changed into it, checking the pressure seals and suit diagnostics for any potential leaks. The ship's equipment regularly underwent maintenance, but it didn't stop her from making sure each time she prepared for EVA. Better safe than sorry. Getting spaced is a nasty way to go. She grabbed a heavy pistol from a nearby table, holstering it before exiting the room with a helmet in the other hand.

"Amanda!" Rizhan called as she entered the airlock. "What's our MO here, exactly? We looking for salvage or is this a humanitarian mission?"

"Both." There was a low murmur among the others at this as Amanda put on her helmet. There was a short hiss as the seals clamped shut. She sealed the door behind her, and red emergency light bathed the cramped airlock. Mitchell would take point with several others to clear through the ship and search for any potential hostiles. The rest of them would take care of survivors and salvageable material from the doomed vessel they were boarding. With any luck, the survivors (if there were any) wouldn't be armed or see them as pirates. If not, then at least Amanda's group were well-armed.

"Opening airlock," Mitchell waved for the others to prepare as he tapped a command into the door's control panel. It hissed open, as did the doorway into the wrecked ship. Her suit's indicators flashed up that they were entering an environment with no oxygen, and the filters immediately kicked in. They had over an hour's worth of air; more than enough time to get in and out of the damaged vessel.

"Move in, I want this ship clear in five."

The others did as commanded. Mitchell's group edged forward into the vessel. Metal panels hung littered the floor and loose cables trailed from the walls. Whoever attacked this ship had done so with maximum efficiency, looking to take out key systems and kill the crew rather than destroy it. Amanda still couldn't believe that it had made a slipspace jump in its current condition. Rizhan's voice filtered through her COM.

"You think anyone actually survived?"

"I don't know. Worth a look, at least."

The team spread out, moving slowly through what remained of the ship and picking through the wreckage. A few emergency lights were still active, indicating that the vessel still had some limited power. The gravity generators were still functional, at least. Amanda plodded slowly down one of the ship's corridors, halting as a body slowly drifted into view. It came to a halt by one of the bulkheads, allowing her to get a better look at it.

"Male, I'm guessing early forties. Can't tell what killed him though."

"Think he died when the oxygen cut out?" Rizhan asked, peering at the corpse. "Can't see any entry wounds or signs of physical trauma."

"Maybe. Let's keep going."

Their search of the ship proved to be nearly fruitless. Her team reported at least a dozen more bodies, not all of which were Human. By the state of the ship's portside airlock, which had been clumsily welded shut, it appeared that the crew had been attacked by Kig-Yar pirates before someone made the jump to slipspace. Signs of a short, if brutal battle littered other portions of the ship, though it was clear that the Humans had been losing.

"What do you want to do with the bodies?" someone asked over the COM.

"I don't think we've got the room to carry them back. Leave them and take anything of value."

It was a tough decision, but Amanda couldn't afford to waste time moving corpses that they could spend salvaging the ship. She and Rizhan had just cleared the living quartrers, and were moving to meet up with Mitchell's group by what she assumed was an armoury of sorts. The door was sealed tight, and still appeared to have power.

"Someone didn't want people getting in here," Mitchell muttered. "Should we blow it open?"

"Don't risk it. Use the Hacker."

Mitchell nodded, and took out a small device from his pack. Hackers were very illegal in Human space for obvious reasons, though she'd been able to procure a few on the Black Market a while back. They weren't powerful enough to break into any well-secured system, but a simple electrical door lock would be no problem. He placed the black rectangular box up against the wall and inserted a wire into a small slot below the door panel. The Hacker lit up for a few seconds, and the door's red light chimed green before sliding open.

"Lights are on," muttered Rizhan, one hand slowly raising his SMG. Mitchell nodded, drawing his own weapon as they edged into the room. Amanda waited a few seconds before following them in.

"Amanda-"

"I know."

Across the still-lit armoury, lined with half-empty weapon racks and space suits, lay a figure curled up in a ball. Half a dozen empty oxygen tanks lay strewn around the floor. Amanda motioned for her allies to move closer as she knelt down to get a better look. The survivor was a tall woman, clad in an olive green jumpsuit like the rest of the crew and clutching an oxygen mask to her face. For a moment they had thought her to be dead like the rest of her crew, until she took a shuddering breath from the mask. She seemed barely conscious. Amanda knelt down to check the woman's air supply. It wasn't good.

"Mitchell!" she stood up quickly. "Get her to the Dynasty, now!"

He didn't argue or ask questions. The heavily-armoured mercenary stooped and, with some effort, was able to lift the lone survivor up into his arms before moving as fast as he could out of the room and back towards the airlock.

"Think she'll live?" Rizhan remarked, looking around at the empty canisters. "Jeez, how long was she stuck here like this?"

"I don't know." Amanda moved to leave the room. "Salvage what you can and get back to the ship. I want to go home."

Preparation

1101 Hours, September 17th, 2556

Avalon, Independent Settlement
Emerald Cove


It was another busy day in Avalon. With all her recent excursions lately, Amanda hadn't been dealing with many of the settlement's day-to-day problems, leaving them with Isabelle and Mike. Sitting atop one of the watchtowers that lined the outer walls, she scrolled through a datapad listing various expenditures around the colony. Yawning, she briefly checked through food expenditures. Saernus eats enough for thirty people alone, the greedy bastard.

"Amanda, you up there?"

Sighing, she stood up to find Rizhan standing at the base of the tower, arms folded. Never a moment's peace in this bloody place, is there?.

"What is it?"

"The woman from that wreck just woke up. She's in the sick bay."

"Yeah, and?"

"Isabelle's managing a cargo shipment from Venezia right now. Come on, it won't take long."

She switched off her datapad and clambered down the ladder, wondering silently how the hell they'd managed to get a shipment from Talitsa in its current state; the planet had been more or less occupied by the UNSC after a massive invasion a few months before the NOVA incident. Still, at least it meant that the black market was still flourishing, which meant she could barter for certain goods they still needed here. Good. I haven't had bacon in months.

"Think she'll be useful?" Rizhan asked as they walked across the courtyard towards Avalon's medical centre. A few Unggoy passed them, carrying crates marked with the symbol of a far-off alien colony.

"Perhaps. She managed to survive the Jackal attack."

"Yeah, but that might have just been luck. From what we could gather she was some kind of engineer aboard the ship. I'm just worried about what we might have to do if it turns out that she's useless."

"What do you mean by that?" Amanda said coldly.

"You know what I mean. We can't let the Inner Colonies know about us just yet. If this woman had just died in the ship then we'd have nothing to worry about."

"Rizhan, we're not killing someone just to hide Avalon. Besides, with that ambassador woman heading back to Earth we'll probably be exposed to the public soon anyway. Hell, we might get some supporters from it."

"I still don't like it," he muttered. "What if the UNSC comes?"

"We'll deal with that if and when it happens."

They walked in silence to Avalon's medical centre. Two of Rizhan's men stood guard outside one of the rooms, carrying assault rifles. Amanda rolled her eyes and walked in alone. Turning on the light, she walked towards the bed where the sole survivor of the attacked ship lay, apparently asleep. Amanda coughed loudly and her eyes snapped open. She sat up quickly, glancing around the room.

"Who are you?!" she demanded.

"I'm the one who saved your ass from that ship, thank you very much." Amanda had never had a great bedside manner, and folded her arms sternly. The woman seemed to calm down slightly.

"T-thank you. I didn't know what else to do when we were attacked. The Captain made the jump through Slipspace, and all I did was hide."

She fell silent. After a few seconds, Amanda sighed and spoke.

"I'm afraid you're the only survivor, miss...?"

"Elizabeth. Elizabeth Shaw. I was the ship's engineer."

"Well Elizabeth," Amanda drew up a chair and sat by the bed. "I've got to ask now: Are you working for the UNSC?"

"No." She stared unblinkingly at Amanda. "We were an independent salvage vessel. Who do you work for then? The NCA?"

Amanda shook her head, easing up slightly. Something about this woman unnerved her a little. "We're not on either side, I'm afraid. Just a group of outcasts trying to make a living here."

"Oh? Where am I then?"

"Avalon. We're on Emerald Cove. Ever heard of it?"

"Emerald Cove..." Suddenly, her eyes lit up. "Wait, wasn't this planet abandoned during the war when the Covenant invaded?"

"I'm afraid not. The UNSC says that, but in reality they evacuated all the colonists because this place was of so little importance to the overall war effort. They abandoned the colony until I founded this place a months ago."

"They evacuated everyone on a planet because they couldn't be bothered to defend it?"

"Pretty much."

Elizabeth sighed, and got out of bed. Amanda stood back slightly as the other woman towered over her, wearing only a medical gown. "Where are my clothes?" she asked?

"On the table over there," Amanda replied, pointing across the room. She turned away as Elizabeth grabbed them and walked behind one of the privacy screens. After about half a minute the tall woman emerged, dressed in the dark green jumpsuit they'd found her wearing.

"So what happens now?" she asked.

"It's really up to you. You can stay here if you want, or we can drop you off at the colony world of your choice. Preferably one of the Outer Colonies. My ship's probably not welcome back on Earth."

"I'm staying," came the incredibly quick reply. "It's not like I've got anywhere else to go."

Amanda wasn't sure if she felt glad or annoyed that she wanted to stay. On one hand, they had a new and presumably skilled person to help out in their little community. On the other, it was one more mouth to feed. Still, she'd leave the numbers to Mike. Amanda briefly shook Elizabeth's hand and led her outside, where the guards stood by apprehensively.

"You had me under guard?!" she exclaimed.

"Just a precaution," Amanda held her hands up. "They're not needed now anyway. Follow me. I'll introduce you to Isabelle."

***

On the other side of Avalon, Ash Mitchell swore as he reloaded his pistol.

"Six out of ten!" A woman's voice called over the firing range.

"Bullshit."

He raised the pistol as the next round of targets popped up down the range. Breathing slowly, he fired with methodical precision as each one moved into sight. As one moved to the right, he fired thrice and missed each shot, running out of ammunition as it slid out of view.

"Nine out of ten. Your best yet, Ash."

"Fuck. That's enough."

He stood up, reloading his sidearm before holstering it. The door to the firing range slid open. A pale, short-haired wman walked in holding two Styrofoam cups of coffee. Mitchell took one without a word. and walked out into Avalon's main armoury.

"You did pretty well today, all things considered."

Mitchell took a sip. "God, this tastes horrible."

"We're on the cheap stuff until Amanda sorts out something with the Talitsans, sorry. Anyway, good aim in there."

"Not good enough." He grimaced, and downed the entire cup. "I would've been dead if that were a real firefight, Carol."

She sighed, and put her half-drank cup down on a nearby table. "Like I said to you yesterday, you're still adjusting to compensate for your missing eye. Anything on the left is mincemeat."

"It's harder than I thought, to be honest. Might end up needing an ocular implant or something."

"Hey, if you can cough up that much money for one then be my guest. For now though, you've got to make do."

"That meeting is in four days. I've got to be at the top of my game."

She looked over Mitchell, who had sat down at the table to clean his pistol. He was in incredibly good shape considering the torture he'd underwent in captivity, though his time living rough and fighting on the frontier had certainly taken its toll on the former Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. Carol had been the one to fix up his armour when they'd recovered it from Erikkson's mansion, and barely any of it had belonged to an original suit; quick patch-ups and self-repair had made Mitchell's distinctive armour a lot tougher, just like the man who bore it. Still, even with a weakness with his missing eye, the fugitive mercenary was most likely the best fighter in Avalon, barring perhaps Saernus.

"You almost sound as if you're looking forward to it," she said, watching him slowly take apart the weapon.

"Magnus will be there."

"You gonna kill him?"

"I damn well hope so." For a fraction of a second a shadow passed over Mitchell's face as he scowled, making him look a lot more gaunt than usual.

"Well, be sure to leave some room for me and everyone else. We've all got a score to settle with that bastard."

"Oh?" He looked up, curious. "What'd he do to you?"

"Killed my parents."

There was a long, awkward silence.

"I'm sorry to-"

"Doesn't matter," she cut him off. "They weren't anybody important. Just got in his way. It's not like what he did to you."

Mitchell coughed and turned his attention to the gun. Shot me and tossed me out of a window, then blew up a city block and blamed it on me. That'd earned him the 'Butcher of Kuiper' title, and that was after weeks of piracy and terrorism against the UNSC. Magnus might have been a sadistic bastard, but even he wasn't to blame for all of Mitchell's actions.

"I probably deserved it. Your folks didn't."

"Maybe. Doesn't change the facts. Magnus has to die."

He nodded. Mitchell could remember the first time he'd heard the name; hushed rumours on the Caucasus Station shortly after beginning his mercenary career of a legendary figure that had quickly risen to become a major power in the criminal underworld. Soldier, Freedom Fighter, Terrorist. He'd been called a lot of things by a lot of different people, and his existence was denied by just as many. When he'd appeared suddenly after he NOVA incident to recruit the out-of-work mercenary, Mitchell had found it difficult to say no. From there it had been a downward spiral of increasingly vicious attacks culminating in a betrayal that should have left him dead.

Maybe I should have died there.

Finally giving up, Mitchell dropped the pieces of his handgun. Thoughts like that had been following him for the last couple of months, and definitely weren't helping with matters. He looked towards Carol, who was finishing off her own foul-tasting coffee.

"What do you plan to do, once he's dead?"

"I don't know. Get on with my life, I suppose. I kinda like it here."

"Yeah, me too. Not too sure what I'd do though; are we always gonna need dumb muscle?"

Carol laughed for a moment before catching the serious look in his eye. "I'm sure we'll find something for you to do. I mean, we've got Mary working and she's like a thousand years old."

There was a clatter as a side door banged open and a stooped figure stepped through. The elderly woman's white hair had been tied back in a bun, and by the stains on her jumpsuit she'd been trying to fix up Saernus' 'Chopper' in the garage.

"I'm not deaf, you little shits."

"Sorry," came the mumbled reply. Carol was trying hard not to burst out laughing.

"Damn right you are. And I'm eighty-three, thank you very much." She seemed very proud of herself. "Anyway, Mister Mitchell, I couldn't help overhearing all that whining you were doing and I thought I'd give you some advice. Want to hear it?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Strike while the iron's hot. Kill him now or you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

"Which probably won't be too long," he chuckled.

"I'm serious," Mary shot him a stern look. "A man I once knew betrayed me, and I've spent most of my life wishing I'd killed the bastard there and then. You can't show mercy, dear. Kill Magnus and be done with it."

With that, she turned and walked back out into the garage.

"Well then," Mitchell shrugged. "Does she usually do that?"

"Nope. Usually she's content to shoot targets and fix things. I think you've made a friend."

"I'll have to ask her about what happened when we get back," he muttered, making a mental note.

"She'll probably reveal that she's secretly your mother or something."

"Oh, shut up. My mom isn't that old. She'd be..."

He spent a few seconds trying to work it out, before sighing. He'd simply forgotten. He hadn't been back to Earth to see his family in nearly five years, give or take. Aside from sparse correspondence with his sister, Ash Mitchell had no idea how the rest of his family was. His parents could be dead for all he knew. Eventually he just shook his head.

"Want to give the course another go?" Carol suggested half-heartedly.

Mitchell glanced at the half-assembled handgun on the table, and smiled. He still had three days to train up and prepare. Some would make peace with themselves in the face of what was likely a suicide mission, but he'd had enough of living each day as though it were his last. All he had to do was focus on one man, and how he'd end his life.

"I think I will."

Precaution

1034 Hours, September 18th, 2556

New York City, URNA, Earth


It was a chilly morning in New York. Marco strode along the street, hands in the pockets of his overcoat as he tried to ignore the stares of passers-by. Beside him, Iris Touré walked briskly to keep up with his long strides, wrapped in a heavy coat and scarf. The Spartan felt oddly vulnerable out of armour, even moreso when his large stature and heavily-scarred features drew attention from a number of civilians.

"You nervous?" he asked.

"No. Why should I be?"

"Because in three hours you'll be speaking to representatives from every colony in Human space on what's probably the most hotly-debated issue in today's politics, Miss Touré."

She laughed. "So, no pressure then?"

"Just making sure you won't crack."

"I've got everything prepared, Marco. Don't suppose you want to do it?"

"I'd rather be fighting Covenant, ma'am."

"Fair enough."

Since their departure from Avalon, Marco had spoken with Iris for some time regarding their stance on the independent settlement. Unlike the Caucasus Station, which had been entirely created by outlaws and deep-space miners during the Human-Covenant War, Emerald Cove was still technically a world established and colonised by the UEG. Even if the UNSC had abandoned it years ago, those living there would likely be seen as little more than squatters by some members of the Senate. Still, with Alliance attacks increasing across the Outer Colonies and the UNSC stretched thin to contain multiple uprisings, diplomacy was looking like a good option to restore peace across Human space.

"Where exactly are we going?" he asked, looking around. "The UEG Headquarters is north of here, by the river."

"I know, it's just that there's this coffee shop nearby I like and I'll be damned if I make my speech without going there first."

Marco sighed. "Not really one for coffee myself."

"You don't have to come with me if you don't want to. Go back to the ship if you want."

"I am still technically your bodyguard until you get to HQ, Miss Touré." He considered his options for a moment. "But I could do with getting out of this cold."

"Splendid. Follow me."

The pair continued down the street, moving through the crowds until Iris pointed out a small establishment down a deserted side road. Marco looked around anxiously; something had been bugging him all day. Looking up and down the street, he nodded and joined his companion. He'd found her company fairly enjoyable, considering he had spent the majority of his life around military types and ONI agents. While Marco did not agree with Iris on several issues, he found her advocacy of a diplomatic solution towards the Alliance and colonial self-rule admirable, if a little naive in his opinion.

"Marco," she turned slightly, stopping. "What do you think they'll do if my proposal is rejected. To Avalon, I mean."

"I don't know," he lied. They'll kill them all.

"Well, I guess we'll see. Shall we go in?"

As Marco moved to open the door, his communicator began to beep. He sighed and shook his head. Iris looked at him quizzically as he fished the device from his pocket.

"Go on ahead, I'll be with you in a minute."

"Sure."

The Spartan turned and walked a few paces down the street before answering the call. Only a few people could contact him, so it had to be important. Oddly though, it wasn't displaying a caller ID.

"Hello?"

"SPARTAN-035? It's been a while, hasn't it?"

He knew that voice, though he hadn't heard it some time. "Agent White."

"Good to see that you still recognise my voice, Spartan. Now, please listen to what I say very carefully, for your life is in danger."

Immediately, Marco's body tensed up. His one eye darted round, already plotting possible zones of cover and avenues of escape. Most of all though he had to protect Iris Touré. He wondered who would want to eliminate her at a time like this? The New Colonial Alliance were a good bet, considering their unwillingness to compromise with the UNSC and gradual coercion of colony worlds to join their cause. On the other hand, there was the likelihood that some hawkish figures within the UNSC had found out about her speech and wanted her silenced before she could sway the minds of the UEG's Senate away from the current zero-tolerance policy towards dissenting colonies.

"What do you need me to do?" he muttered.

"Move away from that cafe as quickly as possible."

"Why?" he turned sharply. A few civilians had entered and exited since Iris went inside, though he couldn't be sure if they were assassins or not.

"Do as I say, quickly!" yelled White. Marco complied and jogged further down the windy street. fallen leaves swirled around him.

"Now what?"

"Get down."

Behind him, the building exploded. Glass and stone fragments burst outwards as a fireball swept out into the street, overturning several cars and scorching several trees. Marco instinctively ducked behind a nearby car as the shockwave swept past him, and the screaming began. Switching off his communicator and silencing the BRUTUS agent's cries, the Spartan raced towards the devastation. The entire front portion of the coffee shop was a smouldering ruin; the remnants of a few tables and chairs lay scattered about, along with a number of near-unrecognisable corpses.

"Fuck."

Marco carefully stepped through what had once been a window, treading lightly over the blackened floorboards as he surveyed the grisly scene before him. Every so often he came across a body part or scrap of burnt clothing. By the remains of the counter lay a briefcase, twisted and blackened by the heat but otherwise undamaged. It belonged to Iris. Kneeling down, the Spartan easily pried apart the weakened case, revealing a metal interior that contained her detailed analysis of Avalon and the speech she had prepared. A body lay nearby, one arm reaching out for the fallen case. Marco sighed deeply, closing his eyes for a moment. The sound of screeching tyres nearby cut through his momentary reverie, snapping him back to attention. Picking up the case with one hand, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his sidearm with another as a black car pulled up just outside.

"Marco!" a figure called, stepping out of the vehicle.

He had been a microsecond away from pulling the trigger when he recognised the voice. Dressed in plain civilian clothes and clutching a submachine gun was Elena-071, his oldest friend. Marco froze for a moment, his handgun raised. She waved for him to come forward, glancing up and down the street as sirens blared in the distance.

"Get in!" she yelled, prompting him to quickly exit the bombed-out coffee shop as a car door opened. He heaved himself into one of the back seats as Elena entered, quickly slamming the door behind him before the vehicle moved off at some speed. In the front seat sat Agent Kyle White, with another black-suited agent driving. Nobody said a word for nearly a minute as they moved quickly through the busy New York streets.

"So," Marco finally spoke, his voice low and threatening. "Would someone kindly explain what all that was about?"

"We don't have to-" White began, but was cut off with a glare from Elena, who turned to him.

"Marco, I'm sorry about all this. Truly, I am."

"What's going on?"

"We had to act fast when we picked up you with Touré today. For some reason they hadn't factored you into the plan."

"Plan?"

Elena sighed, trying not to look directly into Marco's good eye. "Iris Touré could not be allowed to make that speech today, Marco. Orders came down to ensure that she didn't make it to the UEG. Since she'd been visiting that coffee shop just about every day as far as ONI's surveillance records show, that was our primary point to eliminate her."

Marco didn't reply. He'd holstered his gun, but his fists were clenched in fury. He simply nodded and allowed Elena to continue.

"You see, her report on that settlement - Avalon - would have incited too many bleeding hearts. Too many reporters, investigators and worst of all, sympathisers. Can you imagine how attractive a settlement outside the UEG's laws would be to so many people? Worse still, what if this led to people thinking that maybe the NCA's got the right idea? I mean, if we allow one colony to remain independent then what happens to the rest? We couldn't take that risk."

"So a bunch of innocent people are just collateral damage, right?"

"Compared to the millions we'd lose if the war escalated? Yes."

"How the hell are you going to cover all this up?"

White turned in his seat and handed Marco a datapad. The file of a middle-aged man flashed up, including a freshly-added assortment of crimes.

"Officially, Miss Touré was murdered by Anatoly Kustentov, a reputed terrorist out to murder political figures in the name of the New Colonial Alliance. After blowing up her ship, he managed to murder her and is scheduled to die in half an hour's time in a shootout with New York City's SWAT Team."

"We saved your MJOLNIR suit, though," Elena interjected.

"What about the crew?"

"Incinerated in the blast. What a tragedy," White said dryly. Marco could have easily reached forward and snaped his neck, but managed to resist the urge, sinking back into his seat with a sigh.

"Is that Touré's personal case?" the other Spartan pointed to the box at Marco's feet. "We'll be needing that."

"Take it."

"No need to sound so glum, Spartan," Agent White spoke up, sounding almost jovial. "We're sure to see a surge of pro-Earth patriotism and new recruits for the military after this terrorist attack in the heart of mankind itself. By this time tomorrow, we'll have reports spreading across the colonies about NCA's atrocities."

"What about the fall guy, Kustentov? What's he done?"

"Oh, we got him for desertion, smuggling and illegal trading not long ago. We'll keep him alive for another week or so for one more operation then turn in his body."

Marco nodded once more. "So, what'll happen to Avalon?"

"It will have never existed. Wiped off the map."

"It's just the way things are," Elena said softly. "Orders are orders, Marco."

"This one came down from the top?"

"It might have well have. From the King himself." White chuckled at his own joke.

Elena looked like she was thinking about killing him too. "You okay?" she asked Marco.

"I'll manage."

"Good. I hope you understand why this has to be done."

"Yeah. It's just ONI being ONI."

Chapter Four

Showtime

0812 Hours, September 20th, 2556

Dynasty, Independent Freighter
Emerald Cove Orbit


This was the part that he'd always hated.

The waiting.

Sitting in the Dynasty's workshop on the lower deck, Ash Mitchell stared into the faded skull he'd painted onto the outside of his helmet back when he'd started his brief mercenary career. The paint he'd used was the same stuff they used on starships, and had definitely stood the test of time, considering what he'd been through. That skull-faced helmet had been his mark while travelling the frontier, and in the end had simply served as a way for people to vilify him once his crimes had been brought to the light. The cargo bay door shuddered open, and a large figure stepped into the room.

"Mitchell."

"Saernus," he nodded, taking note of the massive hammer the Jiralhanae carried. "Need anything?"

"A drink and a good meal, perhaps. You Humans are far too sullen before battle for my liking."

"Well, it is an important one. We all know what we're going to do."

The ape-like alien let out a rumbling laugh and approached Mitchell, carefully setting his hammer down on the floor in front of him before sitting down himself. Mitchell found himself slightly scared to be sitting in such close proximity to a creature whose kind had nearly killed him dozens of times during the war; The battle-scarred red armour now worn by the grey-haired Jiralhane only served to accentuate his fearsome creatures.

"Aye, we'll each have our chance at revenge on the demon who has blighted our pasts for so long."

Mitchell snorted. "Demon, is it? I thought your kind only called Spartans that?"

"I am not so superstitious to consider your finest warriors to be creatures of myth, but what else do I label a creature like Magnus? All I know is that I shall rest easy knowing that he's dead."

"Good to hear," he remarked, wishing he could feel the same. Saernus might have been a venerable warrior of many years, but he still possessed a fairly simplified outlook on life like many of his kind. For Mitchell, killing Magnus would not undo his betrayal, nor the irredeemable actions he had taken while under that man's command. This was simple revenge, nothing more.

"Staring at my weapon, are you?" the alien said with a toothy smile.

"Yeah," he lied; Mitchell had gone back to staring at the skull etched into his helmet.

Saernus took the massive weapon in one hand and held it aloft, blocking out the ceiling lights. Mitchell could not help but stare. At first glance it seemed like a simple stone cudgel used by primitive Jiralhane, but closer inspection revealed the marks of heavy augmentation; several devices had been welded over the original weapon, and the grip had been overlaid with decorative markings.

"The Fist of Rukt!" Saernus boomed, giving it an experimental swing that nearly took Mitchell's head off. "Both my greatest possession, and the source of my greatest shame."

"What do you mean?"

Saernus put the gargantuan hammer back down, clearly delighted that Mitchell had asked; he reminded him somewhat of his grandfather when he was a kid, always wanting the children to sit around for stories of his youth.

"For some time after the Great War, I travelled colonies belonging to many species. With the loss of our Covenant, my kin had little to live for. Some returned to Doisac in an attempt to live in peace, while others became raiders and were swiftly hunted down. The Humans feared and shunned me, while the Sangheili spat at my feet, called me Jir'a'ul and saw me as little more than a beast. After my journey brought me home, and I realised then that if the Jiralhanae are to prosper then we should organise. Not as lapdogs for the Prophets or servants for the Sangheili, but as our own people. My clan followed me, but I was laughed out by the others. How dare I challenge the barbarism that has held us back for centuries?!"

At this, Saernus got to his feet, snarling in anger. Mitchell backed up slightly, ready to draw his weapon as the Jiralhane paced the cramped confines of the room.

"So then, Human, I knew what to do. I bargained and bartered with Sangheili warlords and Kig-Yar traders until I found the location of the Fist of Rukt, knowing that its last wielder had led our people without question. When I found it the hammer was in the possession of some old grey-maned fool who saw it as little more than a trinket; the Sangheili had broken most of the Hammer's strength before selling it off. I stole the Fist of Rukt for myself in an attempt to unite my peoples, and what did I get? Betrayal! They called me thief, liar, murderer! So blinded by tradition and short-sighted that they could not see that they were marching our kind towards the grave! I left Doisac that night and have been travelling since."

Mitchell did not say a word for a few seconds, allowing Saernus to calm himself down. The last thing he needed was a berserk Jiralhanae aboard a cramped ship. While he now wished to join Amanda and the others up top before they made the jump to slipspace, some part of him wanted to hear the rest of the old warrior's story.

"So what happened then? How did you meet Magnus?"

"He came offering shelter and friendship," Saernus growled. "In exchange for assisting him in coercing a group of disobedient Humans to follow his command, I was to have protection from those hunting me. After several months, Magnus and his comrades ambushed and nearly killed me in an attempt to gain the Fist of Rukt. I was able to escape, and eventually came across Amanda Wade and this vessel. I am thankful that she has given me a chance for revenge."

"Yeah, me too."

So that was it. In her time going around and slowly building up her settlement, Amanda had also been slowly building up an army. Not of soldiers or those particularly loyal to the ideals surrounding the construction of Avalon, but those who had been wronged by Magnus in the past; those who bore no love for both the UEG and the NCA and needed a home. Now, after months of waiting, they were finally ready to strike and take down a monster who had ruined thousands of lives and ended countless more. He and Saernus stood in silence for a few moments before the Jiralhanae spoke.

"Your friend was able to repair my weapon. When I join the battle today you will see why it earned its name."

"And you'll see why they call me 'The Butcher'. Let's head up and see what's going on."

***

For the first time in what felt like forever, the Dynasty was fully-crewed, carrying fifty-nine people overall. Amanda had been particularly choosy when it came to recruitment for this mission. Over the past year she had called in every favour she had and spoken with every contact she'd made for help, though only a small fraction were capable in combat, and fewer still had been survivors of Magnus' reign of terror.

"How long till we're ready to jump?" she asked Faisal. Her pilot checked a nearby readout.

"Give it ten minutes or so, Amanda. Still waiting on the others."

She sighed. Alongside the Dynasty, several other smaller freighters had been brought in to keep Avalon well-supplied, and in recent months had been outfitted with enough weaponry to take on anything up to the size of a Frigate. When they launched their assault, the other ships would bombard the area and give Amanda's vessel enough time to unload its troops. It wasn't a particularly original or detailed plan, but she hoped it would get them on the ground and fighting before either Magnus or the NCA could mount a proper defence. The door to the bridge slid open behind her.

"Hey Amanda," Ash Mitchell sauntered in with Saernus in tow. "What's the hold up on the jump?"

"Final preparations," she remarked without turning round. "We'll go in a minute."

"Good. Never did like waiting for this sort of stuff."

"Neither do I, but we've got to make sure we're one hundred percent ready for this. We don't even know what kinds of defences they've got on Sargasso."

Mitchell walked over to the bridge's holotank. The slowly-rotating image of a half-glassed planet sat a few inches above it. The resort world had suffered from a massive Covenant invasion back in 2546, and although the Covenant had failed to render the entire planet uninhabitable most of the population had either died or fled in the short, bloody battle.

"They'll probably be on the northern continent," he remarked, pointing out a few pinpricks of light in the globe. "Since the UEG left it alone for so long, it's mostly home to pirates and smugglers now."

"So it's like the Caucasus Station?"

"Well, you're more likely to get shot on Sargasso, but there are a couple of trading outposts. Hung around one for a while last year."

"So that's the problem," Amanda looked over the list of possible settlements. "We don't have their exact location."

From behind her, Saernus grunted loudly. The Jiralhanae edged forward, his massive bulk forcing the others to step aside as he gazed at the hologram of Sargasso.

"I remember this planet," he muttered. "I fought here, years ago. Many of my packmates perished trying to advance towards the final Human strongholds as you evacuated the planet. You fought well that day."

The entire bridge fell silent for a few moments. Nobody wanted to bring up the war now, especially considering what Saernus and his kind had done during the conflict. Mitchell cleared his throat loudly, and pointed to one potential location near the planet's north pole.

"Now if I were a lunatic like Magnus, and I'm not, then that's where I'd have my secret base. Hard to reach, easy to defend, I'd go for it."

Faisal laughed loudly, leaning back in his pilot's chair. "You know, that might actually work."

"It might," said Saernus. A couple of other crew members nodded in agreement while Amanda looked round incredulously.

"Seriously? We're heading there because that's where the bad guys like to build their bases, right? This isn't some fucking cartoon, this is real life! I say we scour each settlement until we find who we're looking for. Faisal, just make the jump."

The Dynasty's pilot complied immediately. The vessel shuddered slightly as the FTL drive activated. The freighter led the way as four smaller ships alto initiated their own jumps. The trip to Sargasso would only take a few hours; a few decades earlier and it would have been nearly a week's travel just to get to the other planet. Amanda stood behind Faisal as the stars faded and their viewscreen filled with the infinite blackness of slipstream space.

"Not long now," she whispered to herself. "By the end of today it'll all be over."

Convergence

1322 Hours, September 20th, 2556

The Bastion, Landing Pad A-09
Sargasso, Outer Colonies


God, I wish something would actually happen on these drops.

Sitting in the back of a battle-scarred Pelican Dropship, Kyle Lans yawned loudly. It had been nearly an hour since the transport ships and their escort craft had touched down at the base, and still their contact hadn't shown up. Some of the newer guys were grumbling loudly about the weather conditions and the impracticality of building an outpost so far away from any other Human settlement, but he knew better. Magnus was a secretive sort, and rarely met with Alliance troops in the same location twice.

"Gunner!" a loud voice boomed from nearby. Lans sat upright and peered out as a heavyset man in a longcoat approached his Pelican.

"Major Amenwae, sir!"

"Just making sure you're awake back there, Lans," Amenwae laughed. "Can't have one of my best men falling asleep on the job now, can we?"

"No sir."

The Major clambered into the dropship alongside Lans, brushing past the rear gun carefully before removing his officer's cap and sitting down. Amenwae was one of the NCA's top field commanders, and had served with Lans on a number of missions before. Were it not for the iron grip that the likes of Mattias Drake and his lackeys had, then he'd be the one most likely to take over the organisation. He swept the snow from his beard before giving the gunner a toothy grin.

"I think I'll start charging Magnus more if he keeps making me come out here. Think that'll work, Lans?"

He smirked. "Depends on how badly we need his AI, sir. Fleet's in bad enough condition as it is."

"Aye, that's true," Amenwae nodded solemnly. "Heard a group of Spartans took out one of our outposts a few weeks back. Sixty men against five of them. It was a massacre."

"I can imagine."

The pair sat in silence for a few moments. In what seemed like a hopeless war against the UNSC, they needed every bit of support they could get their hands on in their quest to liberate the colonies from under the United Earth Government's strict control. The sudden surge of the near-mythical supersoldiers in the last few years just as the NCA began its campaign had only proved to greatly hinder their efforts across multiple systems. Eventually, Amenwae took out a beeping communicator, and answered it.

"Yes, we're outside. Copy that, I'll have my men on guard. Out."

He switched off the device and got to his feet. "Eyes on, Lans. Magnus' contact is here with the supplies."

"Got it."

Lans rapped on the side of the Pelican as their men ran to get into position. The dropship hummed to life as the pilot activated it. Lans knew his role in situations like this; circle the area and be ready to blast anything the moment the order came in. Amenwae walked out into the open, carefully placing on his hat as four heavily-armed commandos moved in to flank him. Both Lans' Pelican and another, a gunship variant, rose swiftly into the air as a sleek grey corvette broke through cloud cover several miles away and continued on course towards The Bastion's main landing pads.

"Hey Lans," the pilot's voice filtered through his headset. "You recognise that thing?"

"Negative. Haven't seen this one before."

"Copy that. Keep an eye out."

Back on the ground, Robert Amenwae straightened up as the ship descended onto the adjacent landing pad. Usually Magnus already had the supplies ready for them, but it seemed that his supplier had been a little late with the goods this time. He'd paid for a large shipment of the latest military-grade assault rifles and ammunition for their training centres on Eden V and Minerva, along with four navigational AI's to assist the NCA's rather ramshackle fleet. It had cost them much less than it would have through the black markets of the Caucasus Station or the now-strugglng Venezia, but Amenwae couldn't complain. It seemed as though Magnus seemed dedicated to assisting the Alliance, in spite of his desire to remain hidden. Even the NCA's leadership were unaware of who Amenwae had exactly been dealing with these past couple of years. To his left, two heavy doors leading to a nearby structure clanked open, revealing a number of black-armoured soldiers and a large, hooded man.

"Major!" he shouted over the howling winds. "Welcome back to Sargasso!"

Amenwae froze in place as Magnus strode towards him, wrapped in a thick hooded coat that only seemed to enhance his already formidable physique. His soldiers spread out across the area, the Major taking notice of how well-equipped they were compared to his own men. Not surprising that he'd keep the best stuff back for his own people - whoever the hell they were. Even his bodyguards seemed a little wary around Magnus; the man had been the stuff of legends in the criminal underworld for nearly a decade now, and it was easy to see why he was so feared.

"It's been a while," he spoke, trying to ignore his teeth chattering. "No problems, I hope?"

"None that would concern you."

"Good."

"I heard over the news that you bombed a cafe on Earth itself. Killed some bleeding heart and a bunch of civilians, apparently."

He scowled. The NCA's command had been in uproar about the sudden accusation that they had launched a terrorist attack, and had quickly dispersed a statement to the colonies denying their involvement. Amenwae personally despised launching assaults of any kind on civilian targets, as if they were to be seen as a legitimate group they could not fall down to common terrorism as so many secessionists had done in the past.

"It wasn't us."

"Of course it wasn't," Magnus smiled.

As the corvette's landing ramp extended, both Amenwae and Magnus' troops raised their weapons, ready for the slightest bit of trouble. A lone figure emerged, shrugging on a coat as he descended with arms raised high above his head.

"Kustentov!" Magnus called.

"Yeah, it's me!" came the hurried reply. Magnus stared at him for a few seconds before nodding and beckoning for him to approach. Amenwae remained silent as a middle-aged man with a scarred face walked forward, slowly lowering his hands. Though Magnus certainly seemed familiar with him, there was something off about Kustentov that the Major couldn't quite place.

"Do you have the cargo?"

"Wouldn't be here if I didn't."

"Good. Start loading it up as soon as possible and I'll sort out your payment.

Kustentov raised a communicator to his ear and spoke softly into it. While Amenwae couldn't quite make out what he was saying over the wind, he noticed that the man was sweating heavily. In a snowstorm. He exchanged glances with Magnus, who seemed to have picked that up as well. A cargo ramp slowly lowered from the corvette, packed with four large crates filled with what he assumed to be his supplies.

"Magnus," Kustentov took a step towards him, eyes darting around nervously. "I'm so s-sorry, it wasn't my fault. I-"

Before he could say another word, his whole body jerked violently and he fell to the ground. Magnus ripped the man's coat open, revealing a thin metal collar around the man's neck. Amenwae had seen devices like that before, used by pirates and mercenaries on the edge of Human space. A shock collar. Keeps prisoners obedient.

"Bastion, this is Magnus," the large man spoke quickly into his own communicator as he stalked back towards his bunker. "Get our AA weapons up and fire on that ship, now!"

It was then that the cargo crates burst open. Amenwae barely had time to swear as a barrage of missiles flew towards them, streaking across the landing pads towards the assembled soldiers. Both he and Magnus threw themselves to the floor as explosions erupted all around them. A nearby Warthog was blown across the floor and smashed into a group of Amenwae's men, scattering them as the second volley rocketed past. Glancing towards the corvette, he could make out dozens of figures in heavy armour throwing down spent missile launchers and taking up rifles. While some moved forward to engage with the assembled troops across the landing pads, many more ran towards the bunker's walls, already firing as several turrets activated nearby.

"Bravo 2-2, Bravo 2-3!" he screamed over the COM to the circling Pelicans. "Get some goddamn fire on that ship, now!"

As the pilots responded with affirmatives and his gunners let loose a torrent of gunfire towards the UNSC troops, another shape rocketed through the clouds, deploying thrusters to slow its rapid descent. For a moment Amenwae thought it was another enemy ship dropping off reinforcements, until it came in low enough for him to make out the name, imprinted on the side in faded white lettering: Dynasty.

"No-"

The freighter cast a long shadow over the base, momentarily interrupting the firefight as both sides peered up at it. Then it opened fire, blasting huge chunks out of the bunker's side with its cannons before the cargo ramp opened up. Two large metal objects dropped to the ground, gouging huge chunks out of the landing pad and raising a massive cloud of smoke. A third figure soon joined them, aided by a thruster pack that allowed him to descend safely before the frigate's secondary guns blew one of Amenwae's Pelicans out of the sky.

"Lans," he yelled over the COM. "This is Major Amenwae. Get me out of here, now!"

Through the smoke stepped two fully-armed Mantis mechs, followed by a hulking, red-armoured, grey haired alien hefting an even bigger hammer. There was a moment of complete silence on the battlefield before all hell broke loose.

Confrontation

1341 Hours, September 20th, 2556

The Bastion, Landing Pad A-09
Sargasso, Outer Colonies


In the first few months after Avalon's founding, Amanda had been in charge of sorting out supplies. Food and equipment had to be imported until the colony's hydroponics had been properly set up, and as both the Dynasty's captain and unofficial leader of the settlement she was trusted with most of their money to spend on the black market. So naturally, she spent most of their saved-up credits buying two military-grade mechs from a desperate trader and brought them back to Emerald Cove before anyone found out where the stolen goods had gone.

After that, she was no longer given full control of Avalon's money.

While that incident had gotten Amanda into a lot of trouble with the more well-meaning members of her crew and both Mike and Isabelle had limited her funds after that, she always knew that one day her purchase would come in handy. Unable to find someone willing to purchase them, she'd kept both machines well-maintained in a garage, waiting for a chance to use them. Her last meeting with Magnus last year had shown her that trying to take on a man who single-handedly took on three SPARTAN supersoldiers without an extreme amount of firepower on her side. From inside the mech's cockpit, she grinned as it slammed into the ground. I'm gonna enjoy this.

"Lots of contacts!" yelled Carol over the COM. She'd learned to pilot her own Mantis in her spare time, and had spent a lot longer painting it with black and yellow stripes. Amanda had left hers untouched, and was already jealous.

"Shoot anything that's not us!"

"Got it!"

The pair opened fire, scattering NCA troops and ONI agents in all directions as their heavy machine guns ripped men to shreds. A flurry of missiles from Carol's machine gutted two turrets atop the bunker as they swivelled to face them, while behind them Saernus roared in triumph as he smashed his way into a nearby transport craft. The Dynasty rained down fire on the base's defences, blasting several holes in the structure's roof as it slowly circled round towards one of the larger landing pads. The remaining Pelican kept its distance, and though it dodged the freighter's attacks was forced to stay far out of range as Amanda and Carol made their slow advance towards the heavy blast doors, shrugging off small arms fire. The ship's ramp lowered for a few brief moments and over a dozen people stormed out onto the corpse-strewn landing area. Mitchell's voice filtered through the COM.

"Amanda, we've got more ships heading our way with reinforcements. We'll try to hold them off out here. Get your ass inside and do what you've gotta do!"

Glancing up, she saw a number of unfamiliar dropships descending on the site. Amanda wasn't sure if they belonged to ONI or the NCA, and didn't want to waste time finding out. Some of the vessels that had joined the Dynasty en-route to Sargasso had already broken through cloud cover and were raining down hell on what remained of the base's automated defences. Though she hated to admit it, they'd be expendable distractions to buy her as much time as she needed. It was strange to see what felt like most of Avalon's population standing alongside her in battle; just a few weeks ago some of these people had been engineers, farmers or regular security guards. Now, they were the closest thing to an army she had. Avalon's Army. Not a bad name.

"Carol, get that door open!"

"Got it."

The other mech lurched forward and let loose a barrage of missiles, which bent the metal door inwards slightly as her Mantis kicked it at full strength. It took a few tries, but eventually the thick steel door buckled inwards and fell to pieces. It was wide and tall enough to allow for both of them to access it, stepping over burnt-out chunks of metal as some of their troops moved in to secure the entranceway. As they stepped inside, the Dynasty rose, having unloaded all its personnel. It's pilot, Fasial Khan, spoke happily into their COM channel.

"That the lot of them, Amanda. Just picked up a couple of UNSC ships in the vicinity that are a bit above our tonnage, so I'll drop a few beacons and lure them away from you for a while."

"Be careful, Faisal."

"Don't worry about me. I've flown into worse situations in the Dynasty and I've not broken her yet!"

The ship roared off into the distance. Though they had their support vessels to rely on, it wouldn't be too long before enemy troops were swarming all over the base. The pair moved swiftly into the base, passing through the entranceway with ease before a large group of heavily-armoured soldiers burst from a side passage, hefting missile launchers and heavy machine guns. Though most fell in seconds, some managed to score a few decent hits on the Mantis mechs. Amanda's took three rockets to the chestplate and knee that dissipated its energy shields and made it buckle slightly. Though Carol provided covering fire, Amanda soon realised that in a tight space like this their vehicles would be more of a hindrance than a help, even with the heavier firepower. Unsealing the outer hatch, she clambered out of her Mantis as it powered down.

"What the hell are you doing?" Carol called.

"It'll be easier on foot!" She switched on her COM. "Mitchell, change of plan. I want you and ten men in here with me now. I'll sent Carol back with the Mantis to provide support. Get someone in her who can pilot my one, over."

"Copy that," he replied over the sounds of gunfire. "UNSC troops are landing just outside the base. Give me five minutes, max."

Five minutes? I could be dead in five. As Carol's mech lumbered back out into the battle, she spotted a large hatch in a nearby wall, sealed off with a flimsy grill. Three bullets later, she pulled it off with ease and pulled herself inside. Mitchell's group could fight their way through the base if they wanted to. She was going to take a shortcut into Magnus' inner sanctum.

***

They had been prepared to meet some resistance. Alliance troops, hired mercenaries, and even a few armoured vehicles wouldn't have been much of a problem. Even with the neural collar they knew that Kustentov would try and escape his predicament at the first opportunity. What they hadn't been prepared for was a damn airdrop by two military-grade mechs and an incredibly angry Jiralhanae warrior.

"Keep moving!" Alexander Redford barked, ducking out of cover for a moment to gun down a couple of the newcomers. They weren't trained soldiers, he could tell, but they had numbers and surprise on their side. Most of his men - special forces personnel recruited by ONI for the mission - were busy trying to keep that Brute pinned down while he led a few others into the bunker. A large hole had been blown in the side, giving them a good point of entry.

"Fleet's moving in," Kyle White remarked, sounding bored as he reloaded his weapon. "We'll have Helljumpers on us in half an hour."

"I intend to be gone before then, Agent Thirty-Two."

The two men had been placed in charge of this operation by Captain King himself, and Redford had no intention of being shown up by a bunch of armoured meatheads upon the inevitable massacre. Glancing towards the courtyard outside the base, he caught a glimpse of Kustentov's prone form among the scattered bodies and rubble. He hadn't been hit as far as he was aware, though the neural collar's paralysing effects would keep him from escaping. The man probably felt terrified; helpless and alone in the midst of a bloody firefight. He'd play dead if he knew what was good for him.

"Did you get eyes on Magnus?" White asked.

"I believe so."

"Well then? Are the rumours about him true?"

"I don't care much for gossip, Thirty-Two."

In truth, Redford had heard all about the reports on Magnus' true identity; he'd given a few himself to ONI over the last couple of years alongside several others. He had been fortunate enough to survive an encounter with the man many years ago, before he'd adopted that ridiculous moniker. Unfortunately, Admiral Osman had neglected act on the story of a rogue SPARTAN-II masterminding the growing rebellion in the last year or two for fear of a potential leak, and so a number of atrocities had been committed. Only the head of the Prowler Corps, Admiral Samson, had made the death of Magnus one of his top priorities, though details of who the man really was were kept among a select few.

"Well, we'd better hurry then."

"Agreed. I'll take point."

As White and two others covered him, Redford nimbly leapt up atop a pile of twisted metal and peered through the hole. The errant bomb had blasted straight through the bunker and into a room below. Motioning for the others to follow, he slowly clambered down, pistol ready in one hand. The brightly-lit white-tiled corridor was completely deserted, save for a number of spent casings littering the floor and a bloody corpse wedged into a door at one end. His comrades soon joined him as Redford moved towards the door.

"Didn't think these guys would already be this deep into the base," White remarked. "Think they're mercs?"

"No."

"Pirates, then? Doesn't seem likely."

"That freighter was the Dynasty. Amanda Wade's ship."

"You sure?"

"I lived aboard that vessel for several years, Thirty-Two. I know what it looks like."

"Fair point, but why's Wade here?"

"Revenge, I'd imagine. Magnus did kill the ship's old captain, Remi Marshall."

"What, she lose her husband or something?"

"Just a good friend. Best not to ponder the motives of known terrorists right now though. Let's focus on eliminating her."

"Agreed."

Redford's team moved through into the next room, passing various corpses along the way. Some were dressed in the plain black fatigues of Magnus' troops, while others were clearly part of Wade's militia. Creeping down two flights of stairs that led deeper into the bunker, the fighting had evidently increased. Eventually Redford motioned for them to halt as they approached what looked like a security room of sorts. Leaving the others outside, he and White moved in and quickly checked over the monitors.

"Got him," White said, pushing a bullet-ridden body out of a chair and taking its place at a console. "Damn, this place goes deeper than I thought. Magnus is three floors below us, heading to what looks like a command room of sorts. No cameras in there, but there is a hangar of sorts on that level."

"This far down? What's it housing?"

"Small civilian vessel, looks slipspace-capable. Must be for emergencies. There's a Pelican near a cargo lift, too."

"Movement?"

White clicked his tongue. "Mostly his guards fighting a retreat against Wade's troops, and..."

"What?"

"Well, look what we have here."

Through a camera displaying a corridor two floors below them, the agents watched as a large grille clattered to the ground, followed by a grenade that blew apart several soldiers. There were bursts of silent gunfire for a few seconds, and as the smoke began to clear a figure in body armour emerged, reloading a submachine gun.

"Her," Redford whispered.

"Odd that she's separated from the rest of her troops," White glanced towards another monitor. "The rest of her men are still engaged in a mess hall of sorts one floor down."

"She must have gone ahead on her own. Again."

"Is she that dangerous, Nineteen?"

Redford's robotic hand curled into a fist, recalling the pain and humiliation of their encounter. He'd been meaning to repay her for his injury.

"More than you'd think, to look at her. I'd imagine that time on the frontier helped hone the woman's skills somewhat, though at range I doubt she'd be a challenge to either of us."

"Well then, let's get a move on."

White got out of his chair and followed Redford out of the security room. The other agents followed as the BRUTUS agents dashed towards a nearby elevator. Unsurprisingly, it wasn't working.

"Magnus cut the power."

"Obviously."

Sighing, White knelt down and fished a small, round device from his utility belt. The others backed away as he attached it to the elevator doors before retreating. A few seconds later, it detonated with a surprisingly quiet noise, blasting the metal inwards and sending both halves tumbling down into the elevator shaft. Though the elevator itself seemed to be situated on the bunker's lowest level, they still had access to two floors below them. With only a moment's hesitation, White leapt onto the cable and began to slowly descend towards the lower levels. One of their men followed in suit, though Redford clasped the other's shoulder.

"Wait. I want you to go topside and signal our fleet. Give them explicit orders to destroy any ship leaving Sargasso. Understood?"

"Yes sir. Best of luck to you."

"Good man."

With that, Redford followed his comrades in their descent. He briefly wondered how Magnus had managed to build such a facility, considering the many reports of the limited money and manpower the tattered remnants of the United Rebel Front had these days. He certainly wasn't part of the NCA, which in spite of its massive inferiority compared to the UNSC at least had a number of footholds throughout the Outer Colonies. He clung tightly to the metal cable as White set up another of his miniature explosives on the second level, and braced himself as the resulting shockwave shook the entire elevator shaft. Sighing, he lowered himself down and leapt across into another bloodstained corridor as White gunned down two of Magnus' troops with his handgun.

"Clear!" he barked.

Redford slid into cover, drawing his own weapon as a number of others emerged from a side room. White and their other agent immediately opened fire, sending two sprawling to the floor while the others dashed into alcoves and side rooms to avoid the hail of fire. We're wasting time, he frowned, taking out one man with a headshot. The longer we take here, the more chance Magnus has to-

A blur of movement caught Redford's attention, and as his eyes registered the spherical object bouncing down the corridor behind them his body had already begun to react. He leapt sideways into the elevator shaft and fell for a brief moment before clinging to the cable with his metal hand. Above him, there was a loud bang followed by a fresh volley of gunfire and finally, a loud explosion. He remained where he was for a few seconds, one hand still grasping his handgun. Eventually, Redford heaved himself up the cable and back into the corridor.

That's not good.

The brightly-lit corridor was now blackened and bloodstained, with corpses now on both sides of their position. The agent accompanying them lay face down in a pool of blood; his arm was halfway down the hall, still holding onto an assault rifle. White was gone, though it looked like they had been ambushed by some of Wade's men if the other bodies were anything to go by. Picking up some ammunition, Redford silently made his way across to a side room as the odd burst of gunfire broke the silence. He could hear voices shouting in the distance.

"Bastard!"

"Move right, try to pin him down!"

Creeping through an open door, all Redford had to do was follow the bodies until he emerged into a wide open area, lined with metal shipping containers. Glancing over a railing onto the lower level he spied White ducking behind a fallen crate as five others closed in on him, peppering the area with rifle fire. From the other side of the room two others had already cut off his escape. Smirking slightly, Redford leapt over the railing and onto one of the containers before levelling his weapon and blasting away at their exposed backs. They crumpled to the floor, dead before they knew what had hit them. White glanced up, and seeing Redford, made a dash to grab a rifle from one of the fallen. There was a loud blast and he was sent flying into a wall, yelling in agony.

"Fuck!" White's composure broke. "Red, help!"

The other agent didn't need to be told twice. He leapt away as shots whizzed past him and rolled into cover as he hit the ground, fishing through his pack for a flash grenade. He tossed it towards his attackers and leant out of cover, drawing one arm over his eyes as it detonated. Reacting quickly, Redford raised his gun and fired three times, killing two men and narrowly missing a third figure, who had dashed aside in time. Ignoring the groans of his wounded partner, Redford took out a frag grenade and tossed it towards the crate, ready to open fire the moment his last foe emerged. As it tumbled through the air, a man in heavy armour dashed forward and blasted it out of the air before charging towards him, shotgun raised. Redford caught a glimpse of his attacker, and couldn't hide his surprise as a familiar skull-painted visor emerged from the dust.

Ash Mitchell. The Butcher of Kuiper.

He barely had time to dive out of the way, narrowly evading the shotgun blast and ducking behind some crates before returning fire with his handgun. The second blast hit the wall behind him, and the third ripped apart the top half of his crate, making him flinch. Knowing that he'd be dead if he remained where he was, Redford expended the rest of his magazine on a flurry of shots to drive Mitchell back before dashing further into the warehouse.

"Not bad for an old man!", Mitchell called, "But you're not getting away that easy."

The ONI agent glanced left and right, looking for anything that might give him a moment's advantage. He still had two mags for his handgun and two frag grenades, in addition to his emergency knife. It wasn't much against a seasoned fighter like Mitchell, but he had to try. Redford leapt to the side, holstering his gun and taking out two of the explosives. As the sound of his foe's heavy boots drew closer, he unpinned one and tossed it towards the trooper. Before Mitchell could properly evade, the second grenade was already hurtling to the air towards him. Emulating Mitchell's own marksmanship from earlier, he drew the handgun and shot both grenades, creating an explosion that sent the former ODST flying backwards into a crate. The shotgun clattered to the ground, scorched and embedded with shrapnel.

Did I kill him?

Redford slowly crept from cover, peering towards Mitchell's motionless form. It was possible that he'd only been knocked out, and would need to be finished off. As he strode across the room, he briefly considered merely crippling Mitchell and bringing him back to ONI for questioning. He knew that King would certainly enjoy interrogating him, and once he'd been put through the wringer by BRUTUS they'd throw him to the wolves and let the media have their field day before his execution. He briefly looked over Mitchell's comatose form. His armour had evidently seen better days, and fresh shrapnel poked from a dozen places. The skull painted into his visor was chipped away in some places.

"Truly, I expected more from you," he said softly. Still, this man wasn't the skilled ODST that emerged from the Great War, nor was it the terrifying mercenary that stalked the Outer Colonies. He was barely even the bloodthirsty monster who had claimed the 'Butcher' title after the massacre earlier this year.

This was Ash Mitchell: A washed up has-been. A mad dog ready to be put down. Redford would be happy to oblige. He raised his magnum, and took a deep breath.

No.

The man's arm snapped up faster than he could've believed. Redford jerked back violently, his shot missing Mitchell's head by a few inches as he twisted his entire body to avoid the barrage of pistol rounds. Several struck him in the side, but didn't penetrate his chest armour. Mitchell sprang to his feet, tossing the empty weapon aside and leaping straight towards the agent as he scrambled away. For all his speed, Redford couldn't evade the first punch, and staggered backwards as his handgun dropped from his fingers. Mitchell drew a serrated combat knife, staring Redford down from behind that skull-faced visor of his.

Redford tasted blood in his mouth, and spat out a tooth.

Mitchell went for him before he could draw his own blade, a wild slash narrowly missing Redford's jugular as he evaded and brought his knee up into the younger man's groin. His bodysuit protected him from the worst of the blow, but Mitchell still grunted and struggled to keep his balance. The ONI agent drew back slightly, wary of further engaging the man at close range. He knew full well what kinds of killing techniques they taught the UNSC's special forces; even his own skill as an assassin couldn't stand up to the raw power and strength of a trooper, even one in Mitchell's condition. The bunker shook slightly and the lights flickered off for a brief moment.

More than enough time.

Leaping through the air, the agent struck Mitchell in the lower chest with a kick that staggered him and easily evaded two wild blows. With his heavy ODST armour on, he couldn't properly attack any vital organs and even weak points like the joints or neck would be very difficult to reach. He still had his backup knife, and if he moved quickly he could probably reach the weapons dropped by Mitchell's comrades earlier. Redford ducked under another punch and slowly moved backwards as Mitchell swiped at him with the knife in his other hand. Deftly jumping backwards over a corpse, Redford quickly stooped and grabbed a half-empty submachine gun, intending to hit Mitchell in the head and be done with this nonsense. In the split second it took to snatch up his weapon, Mitchell had taken a flying leap towards Redford.

"Fuck!"

The gun skittered away as the much heavier man landed on the ONI agent, his suit pressing down on Redford as the menacing visor impacted against his forehead. He reeled backwards, twisting to avoid his head smashing against the floor as they both hit the ground. Mitchell grasped the knife with both hands, slowly trying to force it down into Redford's neck as the weight of his body and armour kept him pinned to the ground. With one shaking arm barely holding back the blade, his prosthetic left hand curled into a fist and smashed into Mitchell's chest armour again and again. Synthetic skin tore apart, revealing hard metal that rapidly slammed against the already weakened ceramic-titanium plate. A bloody smile flashed across Redford's face as his foe suddenly rolled off him, just as the plate shattered and his fist broke through, making contact with the bodysuit underneath. Gasping for breath, Mitchell clutched his chest as he backed away, still holding the combat knife. Redford drew a thin blade from his boot, holding it in one hand as fake skin fell from the other. The two men stared at each other in absolute silence for a brief moment, catching their breath.

Mitchell readied his blade and ignoring the shooting pain from his ribs, ran straight towards Redford.

Redford flicked the knife up and threw it, aiming directly for Mitchell's visor as the other man moved.

Then the ceiling came crashing down.

***

He hadn't been unconscious for long. Redford lay on his side in the corner of the room, and brushed some rubble off as he unsteadily got to his feet. Most of the lights had been knocked out, though a few still remained; enough for him to see his way out, at least. For the ceiling of a bunker this deep to collapse, the UNSC had to be bombing the area from orbit with something big.

Did that boy tell the fleet that we were still here when he contacted them?!

He felt as though he'd aged a decade in the last few minutes. Every bone and muscle in his body seemed to burn from exertion as the adrenaline wore off and the pain set in. He was bleeding from three different places, though it was nothing to be concerned about at the moment. Picking his way across what remained of the warehouse room, he saw no sign of Mitchell. The rubble had cut right across before he could finish the man off. Lucky for him. Redford sighted the familiar shape of a handgun lying under an overturned shelf, and pocketed it before moving to exit the room. A long trail of blood led out into the brightly-lit hallways before turning off into a side room. With barely a glance to check for enemies, he strode in and was greeted with the sound of a pistol being cocked.

"Thirty-Two," he smiled.

"Fuck, you're still alive," Kyle White mumbled, lowering his gun.

"Afraid so. You?"

"Not bad."

He was lying. Judging by White's paler-than-usual complexion and the sheer amount of blood covering the room's tiled floor, his fellow agent was in serious danger. He'd evidently been trying to bandage his grievous wound with some success, and if Redford was any judge the empty Vodka bottle nearby had acted as both a painkiller and an antiseptic. Still though, there would be no moving him in this condition.

"I don't think I can move," White said appropriately. "Call for an extraction team."

Redford smiled. "Of course. They're on their way already."

"You think of everything, Red."

"Someone has to, Thirty-Two."

White regarded him with bleary eyes. "You can call me by my actual name, Red. Ya prick."

It was then that Redford spied a second empty bottle nearby. You're kidding me. He'd been wounded in several firefights over the years, and had never had the idea to get totally smashed as a response. Unless...

White smirked. "I know what you're thinking, Red."

"Is that so?"

"You think I'm done for. That some fucking murdering merc bastard was the one to kill me! Well let me tell you something: I've had worse than fucking Mitchell in my time. Alex, and-"

"Alexander, if you must use my name," Redford snapped. It was a pet peeve of his.

"-whatever the fuck you are. You know, I killed a Spartan once? One of the originals. ORION and all that shit. Bet you've never gotten a mission like that in your life, eh?"

"Who?"

"Some prick King wanted dead. Back in '27 or '28, I don't know. I just remember what he was."

"Crowley..." Redford murmured. "Tobias Crowley."

"Yeah, probably. You know, when I'm leading BRUTUS, and I will be in charge, I'll do a lot more than the old man's ever done for us. No more traitors in the ranks, no more uprisings because some prick brought in a crate of guns and decided it was open season against the UNSC. Total. Fucking. Control," He jabbed a finger towards Redford for emphasis.

Redford wasn't listening to the man's drunken drivel. His thoughts were still on Crowley. The man had served in his father's squad alongside King and several others, over fifty years ago. The old agent prided himself on having an excellent memory, and could recall his brief conversation with King regarding the man's death. 'Heart Attack', he'd said. Why did I ever believe him? No matter.

He drew his handgun and span round, lazily kicking the pistol from White's hand. The other man's expression hardly changed.

"You've been shot in the gut with a shotgun. Were you an ordinary man it would've killed you, but I can respect the determination that got you this far with your intestines hanging out. You're not leaving this place, nor will you ever be in position to lead our organisation. In the official report, you will have died a hero fighting Ash Mitchell. For what it's worth, both myself and BRUTUS appreciates your long service, Kyle White."

White grinned, blood streaking across his pallid face and grey beard. "Knew it," he said.

Redford pulled the trigger. The man's brains splattered across the wall behind him. He left the room without a second glance and approached the elevator. With any luck, he'd be able to climb the cable and exit the bunker the same way they came in before activating his personal beacon. Weather and enemy conditions pending, he'd be off this godforsaken planet in an hour. As he stepped towards the shaft, a moment's hesitation made him look back towards the warehouse. He could've tried chasing Mitchell. Finding Wade. His prosthetic hand flexed reflexively at the thought of her. He sighed.

Another time, perhaps.

Revenge

1422 Hours, September 20th, 2556

The Bastion, Sublevel Five
Sargasso, Outer Colonies


The last two guards slumped backwards against the wall, their bodies riddled with bullets. Amanda reloaded her submachine gun and pulled out the last charge from her backpack. She'd used several of the expensive devices already as she massacred her way towards Magnus' command room, where she'd blasted through and murdered everything standing in her way. A barely-functioning monitor showed her target making his way towards the base's hangar, flanked by a number of bodyguards.

You're not getting away. Not this time.

She placed the small, oblong brick on the sealed door in front of her, and stood well back. A few seconds later she triggered the device and the door burst forward with such force that the entire frame collapsed, showering the room with shrapnel and debris. Amanda dashed forward, leaping over the ruined metal and edging through the room. A man had been blown to pieces by the explosion. A single flight of stairs led to the underground hangar. Glancing out of the window, she sighted a number of figures loading crates into a sleek black freighter. They hadn't heard her rather loud entrance above.

"Move!" a familiar voice erupted as a black-armoured man emerged from the ship. "I want to be off this rock within the hour!"

To Amanda's left sat an array of controls. While she wasn't familiar with them, a quick glance towards the hangar bay and the shaft of light at the end of what appeared to be a very long tunnel made her realise just what she could do. With barely a moment's hesitation, she began to press every single button. The results were predictable.

"What the fuck is going on?!"

The far-off hangar doors clanged shut as warning klaxons blared throughout the bay and the lights flickered on and off. Utility cranes shot from their cradles and crashed to the floor, while an automated forklift crashed into a nearby wall. Amanda would have laughed had she not seen the look on Magnus' face. Their eyes met, and a chill ran through her as he strode across the hangar towards her. Exhaling, she ran to the stairs and raised her gun. There was no hesitation as she squeezed the trigger. Magnus raised his left arm, and an energy shield popped into place as a device lit up. This deflected most of the fire as he continued his slow advance, dropping low as Amanda tried to aim for a weak spot; Jackals using those shields would often use a small gap in the shield to fire from, which also made them vulnerable. The gun clacked empty.

"Shit!"

Amanda threw the SMG at him and slammed he door, fishing into her backpack for something - anything - that would give her the upper hand. She fished out two plasma grenades and activated the pair of them, tossing one towards the control panel and affixing the other on the door. The woman barely had time to escape the room as both detonated in a bright flash. All Amanda had left now was a plasma rifle and her snapshot pistol. Glancing back, she barely registered her foe's immense form as he burst through the near-vaporised door, yelling in anger as he noticed the smoking ruins of the hangar's control panel.

"Wade!" he spoke, taking out a handgun of his own as he prowled the halls, searching for her. He may have possessed the benefits of inhuman speed, stamina and reflexes, along with combat skills that rivalled that of the UNSC's Spartans, but Amanda had a certain talent that she surpassed even Magnus in: Running away.

"Fuck you!" she shouted, sprinting down a hall and ducking into a side corridor. Magnus' heavy boots clanked far behind her as he broke into a run, denting the white tiles with every step as he pursued her. Amanda turned left again, glancing back to see him round the previous corner before putting everything she had into a desperate sprint. She crashed through an abandoned server room and nimbly leapt over tables in an adjacent office. Behind her objects were simply smashed out of the way. Before long, she was facing the hangar's entrance door and ran straight through, leaping down the stairs and tossing her backpack aside as the plasma rifle was unearthed. The remaining workers and guards panicked at the sight of her.

"Oh shit!"

"Don't shoot!"

"Fuck Magnus, let's get the hell out of-"

She kept running, gunning down each and every person in sight. In her mind, working for that monster was worth a death sentence. Those who tried to fight back died before they could get a shot off, while a few fled aboard Magnus' vessel. As she ran towards the ramp, she spotted something hurtling towards her out of the corner of her eye. She barely had time to turn as a metal crate struck her side, toppling Amanda instantly. The plasma rifle clattered to the ground as she wheezed for breath, waves of pain coursing through her. A shadow approached.

"You." Magnus whispered. He put one boot on her chest, immobilising her. If he wanted, he could easily press down and crush her chest. She glared up at him as he returned the look.

"After all this time, you're still after me." He ground his boot in ever so slightly, making her wince. "Was it worth it? To go to all this effort, only to die like those before you? You are an insect, Wade. Nothing more."

Amanda coughed. "Yeah? Someone's gotta try to take down a bastard like you. Came closer than the UNSC ever did, didn't I?"

At this, he smirked. "I'm impressed. I'll give you that much. Any last words?" He raised the handgun, pointing it at her head.

Shit. She didn't feel anything. No fear or sorrow, no regret or hatred. Facing the barrel of a gun, she smirked.

"Yeah. Kill me if you want, but you're gonna go down eventually. My big brother will find you, Magnus, and he'll rip your fucking throat out for this. Marco might be a Spartan, but he's family. We avenge our own."

The gunshot never came. Whatever it was, Magnus seemed shaken by her words. His fingers trembled slightly as his expression changed from surprise to fury. He lowered the gun, and lifted his heavy boot to smash her skull. "Die," he whispered.

It was at that moment that someone tackled Magnus at full speed, knocking him off balance and sending the black-armoured giant toppling to the ground. Amanda rolled over, groaning, and sprang to her feet as she watched Ash Mitchell plunge a combat knife into one of Magnus' palms, dragging the blade down as far as he could before the other man flung him off. Sparks flew from the gloved hand. A prosthetic? Amanda briefly wondered just how much of the man was cybernetic.

"Amanda!" Mitchell yelled just as Magnus' other arm threw him into the side of the ship. The battered mercenary managed to stagger to his feet. He was already spotted with blood, shrapnel and a dozen other wounds, yet he still stood his ground. Their foe dropped the knife, staring in shock at his wound before springing towards Mitchell. Amanda flicked her wrist, and the Snapshot pistol sprung out of its concealed holster. As a weapon of last resort it wasn't much good at close range, but it would have to be enough.

She emptied the entire magazine into Magnus' unprotected side. In his mad dash to kill Mitchell for actually damaging him, he'd lost track of Amanda. At least some of the rounds found their mark and he veered off course as Mitchell rolled away, grabbing for a weapon from one of the fallen guards. As he raised a stolen rifle, Magnus shot the man six times with the handgun, toppling Mitchell as he was hit across the upper chest and arms. With the immediate threat incapacitated, he turned to Amanda, who had picked up her plasma rifle and had him dead to rights.

"This is for Remi."

Even Magnus wasn't fast enough to dodge the torrent of searing plasma bolts flying towards him. His already-damaged hand was scorched and blown off as he raised it to protect his face, and as Magnus staggered back up the ramp of his craft, she aimed low and struck his lower right leg at least half a dozen times before that too fell away. Panting, he slammed a button and the hatch closed shut as the scorched part of his metal leg rolled out onto the hangar floor. Amanda tossed the empty weapon away and watched as the freighter fired two missiles, blasting the end of the tunnel wide open as it rocketed forward and left the ruined base. Feeling spent, she sighed and turned to Mitchell, ignoring the pains across her body.

"Hey, are you alive?" she prodded him with her foot. He flipped her off.

"Goddamn," he muttered. "Did you get him?"

"Blew off a hand and a leg. Didn't even slow him down."

"Shit," Mitchell pulled himself up. blood oozed from cracks in his armour and his breathing was laboured. She hadn't noticed before, but his skull-painted ODST helmet was badly cracked from a breach in the middle. He took it off, and Amanda saw that he had a fairly deep cut just above his nose.

"Had a run in with your friend - that old man - upstairs."

"Redford?"

"That's the one. We did a number on each other, but then the ceiling crashed in. I was lucky to survive."

She nodded. There was no use asking more about it. Either that bastard was dead or he wasn't. Amanda helped to steady Mitchell as he stood up. The base shook around them as another bomb struck above. Despite being several stories below ground, the presence of light at the end of the tunnel would suggest that there was some emergency exit nearby. All they had to do was make it that far and pray that the Dynasty could pick them up.

Amanda activated her communicator. "Faisal, this is Amanda. We need immediate evac; Mitchell's wounded and Magnus got away. We're heading for what I really hope is a way out. Pick up whoever's left and then home in on my COM signal, over and out."

Her pilot's voice came through almost instantly. "Copy that Amanda. I'm pulling every trick I know to keep us from getting blown out of the sky. Our little fleet's in tatters though, so I give us ten minutes before we're overrun, tops."

With that, the two began their slow journey down the hangar's tunnel.

Flight

1454 Hours, September 20th, 2556

2km above The Bastion
Sargasso, Outer Colonies


"Lans, can you see Amenwae?"

"Not yet. Shit, five more minutes and we're gonna have to bail!"

Their extraction ship had notified them of the presence of an entire UNSC Battlegroup heading towards the planet, and while they were currently mopping up whatever remained of the ramshackle fleet of vessels that had appeared now, it wouldn't be long before they cut off all escape routes for the Alliance's ships. Clinging to the machine gun at the rear of his Pelican, Kyle Lans squinted through the snowstorm towards what remained of the base. That freighter had passed over several times now, nearly blowing them out of the sky with each run. It was a testament to the skill of Lans' pilot that they were still in the air.


"Bravo 2-3," a voice crackled over his COM. "Are you still there?"

It was Amenwae. They hadn't seen the Major since the initial firefight broke out, and despite his own lacklustre combat skills his bodyguards were all seasoned military veterans who would lay down their lives to protect one of the NCA's strategic masterminds.

"Copy that, Major Amenwae. What's your position, we can risk one landing to pick you up."

"Thank God you're still alive, 2-3. We've exited the base from the east and are heading out into open ground. Looks like they're too busy fighting to notice."

The Pelican rapidly descended, circling around until Lans spotted a few distant specks moving away from the smoking ruins. The Freighter had touched down atop one of the larger landing pads, and appeared to be taking on survivors. Lans had no clue who these people were or what they wanted, but so long as they weren't shooting at him, he'd be content to ignore them. As they trundled through the heavy snow, one man pitched forward. Tracer rounds zipped by as Amenwae and four others turned and returned fire at their attackers; UNSC men, by the looks of it. The dropship turned and Lans let loose a barrage of machine gun fire, the M247 raking across the battlements and dropping at least three in a single sweep. That would keep them at bay for a few seconds.

"All right, we're touching down now!"

"Copy that. Sir, you've got thirty seconds to get aboard!"

Their Pelican hovered as low as possible, the thrusters melting snow underneath as it stabilised. Lans grabbed an old BR55 from a nearby seat and hopped out, letting off a couple of bursts as the UNSC troops began firing again. Aside from Amenwae, only a single bodyguard of his remained; a heavily-muscled man who was shielding his commander with his own body and firing a pistol one-handed as they neared the dropship.

"Major, get in!" the bodyguard yelled, pushing the older man forward while he reloaded. Lans helped Amenwae up into the Pelican's blood tray and waited for his comrade to back in before signalling for their pilot to lift off. He then moved his machine gun aside and closed the rear hatch, sealing them in as they made their swift ascent into orbit. Amenwae leaned back in his seat, sweating profusely. The gunner momentarily feared that he might be suffering a heart attack by the way he was breathing, only to be surprised when he burst out laughing, clapping his bodyguard on the shoulder.

"At least some of us made it, right Wallace?!"

"Better some than none, sir."

The pair shook Lans' hand as he sat down across from them. Amenwae had managed to secure a heavy metal briefcase, which sat between his legs. Whatever it was, he hoped that it was more important than the weapons and AI systems the Alliance had came here to collect.

"This is Lieutenant Graham Wallace," Amenwae nodded towards his bodyguard. "Ex-ODST, screwed over by the oonskies just like everyone else. He's one of our best."

"Pleasure to meet you," Lans smiled. Wallace merely nodded.

"And this is Sergeant Lans." The Major paused. "Been with us for a few runs now, haven't you?"

"Yes sir."

Amenwae paused for a few moments. "Consider yourself a Lieutenant now, Lans. You saved my life today. I won't forget that."

"Thank you, sir." He saluted, and glanced down at the briefcase. "I take it that you got something out of this mess, at least?"

"Yes," Amenwae said flatly, with a sidelong glance to Wallace. "We did."

The atmosphere in the Pelican seemed to change drastically. The trio sat in silence for nearly half a minute, Lans beginning to sweat himself as both Amenwae and Wallace appeared to be making a decision. Wallace began to slowly stand up, only for Amenwae to wave him back down. He sighed, and spoke in a low whisper.

"Lieutenant Lans, the contents of this briefcase are a matter that has only been discussed between myself, Lieutenant Wallace, and Admiral Drake himself. The New Colonial Alliance's future, and our chances in this war, could very much depend on what we proceed to do with it. Understood?"

Lans nodded silently.

"Good. Now, since my personal bodyguards have been all but wiped out, I need replacements; loyal men who work not only for the NCA, but for me personally. Would you be willing to join our ranks?"

"What would that entail?"

"As you know, the NCA relies on remaining hidden. While our supporters spread into the Inner Colonies, it is imperative that we maintain a strong fighting force to combat the UNSC where necessary. We may lack the resources to take them head-on, but our numbers are rising and we need an edge. The contents of this case, when replicated, will give us that edge."

"How so?"

Amenwae leant forward. "Physical weapons aren't the only reason we came to Sargasso, Lans. What I have here are chemicals that when correctly injected, form the basis for physical augmentations that will make our soldiers stronger, faster, and more capable on the battlefield."

"Like the Spartans?"

"Not quite as advanced, but a similar concept. I don't know where he procured them, but Magnus assures me that they have been tested on field agents and they have become much more lethal as a result."

Lans nodded. He knew that the Alliance had and would most likely always be the underdog in this fight. They'd be lucky to get a truce with the UNSC at this point after the past few years of scattered conflicts. Still, the thought of chemical augmentations worried him somewhat. If they could field augmented soldiers on a mass scale, however... Possibilities ran through his mind.

"So," he asked. "Where now?"

Amenwae lightly tapped his briefcase. "HQ. Drake will want to see this."

As the UNSC closed in on Sargasso's icy north, the Pelican slipped away into the darkness of space, streaking towards a nearby asteroid belt where their extraction vessel lay in wait. 'The Alliance Endures', was the motto Roger Maxon had tried to spread across the colonies in his speeches. If Amenwae's plans for the future went well, then they certainly would.

Victory

1317 Hours, September 20th, 2556

The Bastion, hangar exit
Sargasso, Outer Colonies


Amanda clambered slowly up the ladder, keeping her head down as the icy wind blew past them. She and Mitchell had reached the end of the hangar to find it overlooking a deep gorge, though an emergency elevator sat nearby, presumably as a means of last resort should the base itself be overrun. Naturally, the power was out, so Amanda and the wounded mercenary had to make do with a single ladder built into the side of the gorge leading all the way up to the snowfields. One misstep would mean death for both of them.

"Shit," Mitchell panted. "I don't think I'm gonna make it."

"Don't say that!" she yelled, resisting the urge to kick him. "We're nearly out of here."

"Yeah," he glanced down, and gulped. blood from his armour dripped onto each rung he climbed. Over the howling wind, they could distantly hear gunfire. Amanda reached the grate, which despite being half-frozen yielded easily to a strong push. With that, they were at the top of the cliffs. A Pelican dropship streaked overhead and out of sight. The familiar bulk of the Dynasty lifted off from what remained of Magnus' base, and headed towards them, homing in on Amanda's beacon. She jumped up and down and waved as the freighter slowly turned, lowering its rear ramp as it hovered a few feet above the ground. They both leapt aboard, piling into the ship's cargo bay.

"You survived!" Saernus bellowed from across the bay. The Jiralhanae's armour lay at his feet, badly dented and scorched. While his fur was streaked with blood in several places, the alien warrior seemed in good spirits. The Fist of Rukt's head was covered with dark stains.

"Looks like you made it," Amanda looked him up and down. "Have fun?"

"It felt good to be in a real battle again. I've not experienced such joyous combat like that since the war!"

It was then that he saw the look on Amanda's face.

"...No offence intended, of course."

She shrugged it off. Only one Mantis had survived, and it wasn't hers. The mech's left arm was missing and one of the legs was in three parts. A few haggard-looking men and women sat around the bay as well. While Saernus had survived with what his kind likely considered superficial injuries, not many others had made it back.

"I should go."

Saernus suddenly stood up. She instinctively began reaching for a weapon when she realised he was looking past her. Mitchell had collapsed.

"Fuck, get him to the med bay, now!"

The Jiralhanae picked the man up effortlessly and lurched towards the upper deck, clearing the stairs in a single bound with Amanda in tow. In her blind pursuit of Magnus, she had never once considered how many casualties they might take. Ducking through the med bay door behind the massive alien, she saw that it was filled with wounded men and women. The medics they had ran from patient to patient, distributing painkillers and biofoam where necessary. Saernus placed Mitchell down on a free bed and left without a word, nodding towards Amanda.

"Miss Wade!" one of the doctors called. "Are you injured, ma'am?"

"No, but he is." She pointed towards Mitchell. The man frowned upon seeing the cracked skull visor.

"The-"

"If you say 'Butcher', Doctor, I'll make you a patient myself. Save him."

He sighed, and nodded. "I'll do my best."

There had to be at least a dozen injured in here. How many dead and dying had they left behind? As she turned to leave, she spotted Carol DuMont laying on one of the beds, unconscious. Most of her upper torso and the side of her head was wrapped in bandages, stained with dark blood. Amanda shook her head and walked out, heading for the bridge. The freighter had already cleared orbit, and was heading as far away from Sargasso as possible. Faisal sat at the helm, beads of sweat visible on his forehead.

"Faisal," she spoke softly. "How long until we can jump?"

"A few minutes. Usual evasion procedures?"

"Please."

She threw her longcoat over the back of her captain's chair and sat down, head in hands. She felt exhausted. The first thing she'd do when they got home was take a long shower, everyone else be damned. She'd failed to kill Magnus. Again. At least this time she'd injured him, proving that the boogeyman of the criminal underworld was mortal after all. But were the losses worth it? The casualty list would plague her for months. Isabelle would almost certainly berate her, and Mike would surely have some sarcastic remark when they got back.

Still, she was alive and mostly unhurt. A few cuts and bruises were nothing; Amanda Wade was nothing if not tough.

"Spinning up FTL drive." Faisal said calmly, wiping his face with a damp rag.

"Did the ship take any damage?" she asked.

"Small arms fire, and a couple of dents to the outer hull from that Pelican. Nothing some paint and tape won't fix."

"That's good to hear. Sorry for risking it."

"What, the ship?"

"Yeah."

He laughed. "It's just a ship, Amanda. Worry about yourself and those around you."

"I thought you would've been attached to it. How long have you had it? Four years?"

"Something like that. Sure, it's home to me, and I love piloting her, but that aside? It's a machine. A tool. I'd ask to upgrade if we had the money; these Hyperion ships are tough, but there's stronger, better ones out there."

"I disagree."

"How so?"

"The Dynasty's freedom, Faisal. It means I can go where I want, when I want, without anything to hold me down. That's what it means to me."

He nodded. The star-speckled view of space had been replaced with the empty blackness of slipspace as the Dynasty made several random jumps to elude any attempts at tracking them. The process could take hours.

"So," Faisal said, turning around in his chair. "The whole spirit of anarchism must be entertaining, but now you do have something to hold you down: Avalon."

"Who said anything about anarchy? I don't go for politics."

"Oh, come now. The settlement more or less runs itself, and regardless of how you and Isabelle run things, I think it could be self-sustaining. Everyone works enough to keep things going, and everything else is provided free of charge by what you and the others bring back from the colonies."

"Now you're making it sound like a utopia."

"Not quite. The very nature of a utopia means that it's an unobtainable dream; something for man to strive for, but never achieve. Avalon's just a good place to live, for now."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Population growth, outside aggression, supply and demand. All sorts of things are going to affect the settlement. Do we let it grow, or keep it small and manageable? I'll be frank: I can't see you running a city."

She snorted. "Neither can I. I don't want to turn people away though. We'll take anyone willing to work and live with us in peace. We have the right to live outside of the UEG's control if we want."

"Fair enough. All I'm saying is that it's going to get harder from here, Amanda. How long before the UNSC comes sniffing, and finds out that the people running this colony are former Insurrectionists? To them, we're terrorists. We killed, robbed and raided. Call it a good cause if we want, but people remember. They're going to come seeking blood."

At this, Amanda sighed. It was that lingering feeling of dread that had been clawing at the back of her mind for some time now. How long do I have? For her crimes, the UNSC and ONI would offer no redemption, no leniency. She'd be dead or locked up for the remainder of her life. That was why she had to keep running.

"Maybe Avalon is just a dream," she said sullenly. "Maybe I should move on when the time's right, leave things in the hands of Isabelle and Mike instead. I don't want the people of Avalon to be caught up in my business when they come for me."

"If you left, then you'd need a ship. And a pilot."

They both smiled. "I would. But who'd want to leave their new home to go around looking for trouble with someone like me?"

"I'm sure plenty of folks would be willing. Remember what you said to me, after Remi's death?"

"Vaguely."

"You said you wanted to do some good. Now I'll be honest, I thought you were a bit mad, but we could make a difference."

"Or we could take on new identities, find an overpopulated colony, and get real jobs."

"I'd rather take my chances on the frontier."

The ship's computer beeped. The first of four random jumps was complete. Of the original Dynasty crew Amanda had met back in 2555, Faisal had been a constant fixture on board. She admired his easygoing attitude towards just about everything, and could rely on him to offer an ear when she had doubts. She turned to leave the bridge, yawning as she thought of her bunk in the crew quarters.

"I'm gonna take a nap. Wake me when we're home."

Sanctuary

1905 Hours, September 20th, 2556

Avalon, Independent Settlement
Emerald Cove


The heavy steel door slid open with a slight hiss, red emergency lighting spilling out into the corridor. Elizabeth Shaw glanced left and right before stepping inside and thumbing the switch to close it again. While she'd only been in Avalon for four days, she'd quickly gotten used to the settlement's layout, particularly the central building which housed the command room and power generators. She'd also been proving her worth to the others; fixing machinery, helping with vehicle maintenance and so on.

They're far too trusting.

She had expected imprisonment at worst, but their easy acceptance of her into their community was surprising. The possibility that it was simply a ploy to make her let her guard down was there. It hadn't taken long to realise that there was an extensive camera network across Avalon, though it was only watched by one man - Mike - at any time, and even he had to sleep. Though he usually had someone on watch while he slept, they were away with Amanda's team. Elizabeth had crept past the security room on her way down here, and saw him asleep in his chair. Now was the time to act.

The room she had accessed was fairly dark, and lined with large servers. At the other end sat a console in standby mode. She crept along, keeping to the shadows as she approached. Content that she had not been seen, the woman reached into her mouth and with surprisingly little difficulty, pulled out one of her back teeth. It was hollow; a fake. It opened up to reveal a minuscule chip, barely a few millimetres wide, and a small, covered device that made up the rest of her tooth. She took the chip in one hand and uncovered the device with the other before pressing her thumb down onto it. It lit up, flashing green for a few seconds.

Now the fun begins.

She moved to the console and booted it up, sliding the chip into the side of it. It automatically cycled through several passwords and counter-intrusion software before bringing up exactly what she wanted: A layout of Avalon's defensive network. During this place's years as a storage site for the United Rebel Front, they had cobbled together a system of stolen or illegally-purchased weaponry; M95 missile batteries, several SAM sites, and even an old Covenant Type-38 'Mantis' set up by the cliffs. These defences wouldn't stand up to fire from most UNSC ships from above, but for the operation her superiors had planned, such devices would be a real problem.

So, she deactivated them all.

Usually such an action would require confirmation from at least three sources, even in an emergency, but the chip she carried also contained the most advanced infiltration software the UNSC could provide short of an actual Smart AI. As each weapon emplacement shut down on the monitor, she closed the window and pulled up Waypoint. Due to Avalon's isolation and lack of any official communications outposts, attempting to use it would be useless. However, she knew for a fact that someone was listening. She input a lengthy numerical sequence and pressed the call button. Eventually, the dial tone stopped, but no one answered.

"This is BLUEBELL. Operation: GLASS HOUSE may begin now."

She waited for at least half a minute with no reply, wondering if she'd been connected at all. Eventually, an all-too familiar voice came through; one she'd spoken to shortly before going out on this assignment.

"BLUEBELL, this is UNO. Proceed to the pre-arranged coordinates for pickup. You've done us a great service today."

The line went dead. Layla closed the program.

She sighed, turning as the door behind her opened to reveal several armed figures. Elizabeth leapt behind one of the servers before they saw her, edging into a small gap between two of them. Three men and one woman filed in, weapons raised. One ran to the console and after a few seconds of furious typing, slammed his fist into a wall.

"Fuck, we're locked out."

"Why wasn't this room locked?" demanded the woman - Isabelle. "There should at least be someone watching the door."

"We didn't have the manpower with everyone away. Besides, this thing's protected by at least a dozen access codes. There's no way we should have a breach like this."

"Shit, get Rizhan. I want this place on high alert until we find out who did this."

Isabelle's communicator buzzed. She put it to her ear and turned to face the console.

"What is it, Mike?"

"Got footage from the sever room just after the motion sensor tripped," he said urgently. "It's that girl Amanda picked up in-system."

"Elizabeth?"

"Yeah. Look, she's somewhere in there and could be dangerous. Get the hell out of there and wait for-"

The communicator went flying as a boot struck Isabelle's back, toppling her instantly. The first guard turned and had the pistol yanked from his hands. Elizabeth then slammed him into a server with one hand and gunned down the other two with the stolen weapon. They dropped instantly, gaping holes in their heads. She then shot the man she'd struck and kicked Isabelle over as she went for a dropped submachine gun.

"You little bitch," she wheezed, gasping for air. "Why'd you do this?"

She sighed. This was the part she really hated. She had no idea how Alexander could put up with crap like this for so many years. Still, she seemed like a nice woman, and deserved to know the truth before she blew her head off. She crouched by her, grabbing Isabelle by the throat.

"Firstly, my name's not Elizabeth, it's Layla. Layla Beta One-Zero-One. Not much of a surname, I'll admit. Also, I'm a Spartan. Hence the size and the muscles, duh. Really, it should have given me away sooner. The whole 'doomed ship after Jackal attack' thing was made up so you morons would take me in. ONI needed to have someone on the inside to help prepare for their big invasion."

Isabelle's face had turned red. Tears streaked down her cheeks as Layla's grip tightened. She rather enjoyed the part where she revealed everything to a victim. Cliché and slightly unprofessional though it was, she just couldn't help herself.

"For what it's worth you don't seem like bad folks, but orders are orders. Hey, at least you won't live long enough to see this place getting torn down, so there's that. Bye."

With a flick of her wrist, she broke Isabelle's neck. The woman went limp after a few seconds. Layla sighed and got up, taking a nearby submachine gun. She didn't anticipate much resistance, but time was certainly of the essence as she'd just signalled ONI's invasion force. Her exfil point was on a beach half a mile up the coast, and the only way out was to swim. Good thing Emerald Cove was a fairly tropical world, so she wouldn't have to worry about cold waters.

Just another day at the office, I suppose.

Avalon would have probably been a nice place, she reflected. Shame it all had to burn.

***

"Avalon control tower, this is the Dynasty. Do you copy?"

Static filled the COM. Faisal Khan frowned, and thumbed the communicator once more.

"I repeat, this is the Dynasty, coming in to land. Mike, are you there?"

It had been a number of hours since their departure from Sargasso. The medics had reported no more casualties, though most of the wounded were still bedridden. Carol DuMont had stubbornly refused to stay put, and sat at a nearby console. The Freighter approached Emerald Cove with no answer from their settlement. Usually Faisal would put it down to a faulty transmitter or solar interference, but he had a bad feeling all the same.

"Trouble?" Carol suggested. He shrugged.

"Mike might've just fallen asleep. You know what he's like."

The bridge door opened, and Amanda walked in wearing a fresh jumpsuit. She sat in her captain's chair, and yawned as Faisal double-checked the COM channels.

"What's up?" she asked.

"Not getting a response from the control tower."

"Think they took down the long-range COM for maintenance?"

Faisal shook his head. "Doubt it. I'll check the scanners."

Amanda waited in silence as they neared Emerald Cove. The freighter slowed as it began to enter the planet's atmosphere, passing through the thick cloud cover as it headed towards the settlement. The moment they exited the clouds, a large shape came into view.

"Fuck!" the pilot yelled and yanked at the controls. The Dynasty veered right to avoid hitting another ship; a UNSC Frigate, by the looks of things. The vessel's point defence guns fired off a few shots that streaked past the freighter as it continued its descent towards Avalon.

"Shit," Carol shook her head. "That's a UNSC ship. We're screwed."

"It's not pursuing," Faisal sounded the ship's alarm, prompting the surviving crew members to report to combat stations. Amanda sat in her chair, gripping the armrests tightly as she pondered what to do. Then, Avalon came into sight below them. It was burning.

"Oh, no..." whispered her pilot.

Fire raged across the settlement as Pelican dropships hovered overhead, supported by a number heavily-armed VTOL craft. Tracer rounds occasionally zipped through the air towards them, indicating that there were still some fighters left. There was a tremendous explosion as one of the methane-filled buildings that housed part of Avalon's Unggoy population ignited, blasting chunks of metal into the darkening skies. Amanda stood up, grabbing her longcoat.

"Amanda?" Faisal and Carol turned to her for guidance.

"Get me to a landing pad." Her voice was cold and resolute. "Then I want you to start blasting those ships out of the sky, got it?"

They nodded. She turned and swept out of the door, running for the ship's armoury. Several others were already in the process of suiting up for battle. Amanda took an assault rifle and a handful of grenades before affixing a snapshot pistol to her inner sleeve, grabbing a rucksack as she exited. The Frigate rocked slightly as something impacted the outer hull, but it was nothing serious. She and the others ran to the cargo bay as the Dynasty lowered itself onto one of the remaining landing pads. Saernus stood there, holding his gravity hammer aloft.

"Amanda Wade!" he bellowed; Amanda wasn't sure if he possessed any other volume level. "It seems that the enemy is at our door."

"Yeah," she sighed, marching towards the cargo ramp. "Let's drive these bastards out."

In truth, she had no idea if they could drive off the UNSC. The Dynasty wouldn't last too long should that Frigate get involved, and though she felt she could trust Faisal and Carol, the couldn't shake the thought that they might abandon her should things go to hell. Still, it was all she could do. Her mind was clear. She thumbed the button that opened the rear hatch, and took a deep breath. Perhaps the sight of the settlement she'd worked so hard to build aflame had broken something in her, or that she was simply content to go down fighting. Amanda wasn't sure. As soon as it was open, she leapt out onto the landing platform and broke into a sprint, running towards the sounds of gunfire.

"This is Amanda," she called over a short-distance COM. "Rizhan, Mike, Isabelle, can anyone hear me?"

The hallway that led to the primary landing pad was spotless, and evidently hadn't been touched by the UNSC yet. She paused for a moment as the lights flickered before crouching behind a door.

"Saernus, take three others and head for the prefabs. Get anyone you can and take them back here."

"I will do what I can."

The Jiralhanae nodded, and motioned for several militiamen to follow him through a doorway that led to the main civilian section of Avalon. Amanda wondered how many civilians were still alive; their settlement had numbered at just under a thousand less than a week ago. After today, how many would be left?

"Let's move!" she palmed a nearby switch and the heavy security door slid open. The hallway beyond this was hazy with smoke, and several bodies lay among scattered masonry and piping. The staccato of gunfire could be heard in the distance, indicating that someone was still fighting. Her COM buzzed and a familiar voice echoed though heavy static.

"Amanda, it's Rizhan. We're pinned down near the control room. Bastards came out of nowhere!"

"Where's Mike and Isabelle?"

"Can't reach 'em. Something's up, though. Our AA defences never came online; we got half a minute's warning from Mike before they landed and hit most of our COM towers."

That would explain why the Dynasty couldn't get a proper signal. Amanda's team edged down the corridor, stepping over bodies and moving as quickly as they dared. She couldn't bear to look down and potentially recognise someone she'd seen or spoken to recently. At an intersection lay a soldier in jet-black armour in a pool of blood. Amanda kicked the corpse over and saw he'd been shot in the head. Other than that, there were no proper unit insignias or markings that identified the man. Not even dogtags. She felt a chill run down her spine. Conventional forces or ODST's were something she understood, but unmarked troops meant ONI were involved. Worse still, it meant that they were trying to wipe out Avalon - her home - in an off-the-books operation.

"Motherfuckers."

More than anything, she felt pissed off. Amanda grabbed the dead man's submachine gun and tossed it into her rucksack before advancing down another corridor at some pace. Most of the people had been unarmed when ONI's troops had stormed in, leaving little time for defence. It seemed that for every enemy soldier killed, Avalon had lost a dozen of its citizens. The gunfire was close now. Amanda dropped down and peeked through a half-broken doorway into a courtyard. A squad of the black-armoured soldiers were spread out, firing in bursts towards several figures in a nearby structure. Avalon's command room was on the other side, though the thick outer doors had been sealed already.

"Rizhan," she murmured over the COM. "That you pinned down across from command?"

"Yeah," he replied. "Only three of us left; Myself, Jaron, and Mary."

"Mary?" Amanda blinked in surprise.

"She's a good shot."

"If you say so. We're coming out into the courtyard now, so watch your fire. Gonna hit those bastards in the back."

"Copy that."

Amanda fished out one of her grenades, and waved for two of her allies to take up positions at another doorway. She pulled the pin, kicked her door open, and flung it towards the enemy troops. She watched is it bounced off the flagstones and towards their unexposed backs, scattering several as Avalon's militia opened fire from two directions. Four of them were blown to pieces by the grenade while the other three fell to a barrage of gunfire. Amanda ran out, finishing off one man with a burst of fire to the head.

"Clear!"

The others spread out, securing doorways in case of enemy reinforcements. Rizhan Kama emerged from the supply building he'd been holed up in, followed by Jaron and Mary. The elderly woman had ditched her usual clothes in favour of an old camo uniform and had tied her hair back in a bun. The effect was startling.

"You guys okay?" Amanda asked.

"Never better," Mary replied, checking her weapon, an old BR55 rifle. "It's been a while since I've been in a real fight. I missed the adrenaline."

Amanda shot a quizzical look at Rizhan, who shrugged. "We've got the Dynasty on standby. Once we get Mike we can fall back to the landing pad for pickup."

"We're abandoning Avalon?" Rizhan looked heartbroken.

"What alternative is there?"

There was a long silence. Everyone present had helped build this settlement from the ground up. Leaving it to burn was a tough decision, but it was either that or die.

"Did you kill Magnus?" Mary asked.

"No, he got away. Not without a few scratches, though." The old woman nodded sagely.

Rizhan spoke up. "Where's Mitchell? is he-?"

"He's alive, but hurt. Might need to grab some medical equipment for when we get back to the ship. Speaking of which..."

Amanda walked towards the large, bunker-like structure that made up Avalon's command building. Though the immediate threat was gone, the entranceway was still shut. She tapped her password into the nearby keypad, but there was no response. Rizhan tried the same. Nothing.

"Mike!" she called, stepping back and looking directly into a security camera. "Let us in, you bastard!"

There was a brief delay, then the thick steel doors slowly began to open. Amanda, Rizhan and Mary moved in, leaving the others to stand guard as they strode towards the command room. Most of the consoles were switched off, though the holotank displaying Avalon remained on at the centre of the room, displaying the ongoing battle in real-time. It became clear that despite Amanda's intervention it had been little more than a massacre. The Dynasty rocketed by, pursued by several SkyHawk fighters that Frigate had evidently deployed. Behind the main desk sat Mike, clutching a loaded Magnum.

"Put the gun down," Amanda said in a loud, cold voice. He did as ordered, and covered his face with his hands.

"We're dead," he said, looking over the ruins. "I'm sorry Amanda, I really am."

"About what?"

"I fell asleep at my chair again, and that new girl fucked us over."

"Elizabeth? The one we rescued?"

He nodded. "She broke into the server room and shut down our defences. I woke up when she tripped the room's motion sensor, but I couldn't counter whatever program she used to overwrite our passcodes. Isabelle and some others went to stop her, but it was too late."

"What happened to them?"

Mike tapped a few commands into his console and brought up the server room's security feed from nearly an hour ago. It displayed Elizabeth inputting commands and slipping out of sight as Isabelle's team entered. Then, she burst from cover and killed them all with inhuman strength and speed. Amanda felt bile rising in her throat as she watched one of her best friends being choked to death by the other woman. Then, Mike switched on the sound.

"...ONI needed to have someone on the inside to help prepare for their big invasion."

The anger inside her flared white-hot. She'd kill each and every scumbag ONI sent at them if it meant avenging Isabelle and all the others they'd killed today. Mike turned to her in his wheelchair, his eyes red.

"We can still get the defences up if you reach the server room. It's not too far away."

"How?"

"I've overwritten whatever that bitch did to our system, but I can't reactivate them from here. You'll have to do it manually."

"That's ridiculous. Who designed this shit?"

"I did."

"Oh."

"Look, communication's not great but I can guide you through the COM and keep an eye out with the cameras I have left. Didn't take long for those oonskie bastards to start shooting them down though."

He checked another screen. "Southern habitat's more or less gone. They landed two Pelicans there and are rounding folks up. Shit, we've got to get those guns online and leave ASAP."

"Agreed. Mary, could you stay here with the others and guard Mike? We'll be back soon enough."

Mary snorted. "Think I'll get in the way?"

"You're well over eighty. I don't want to take that risk."

"If you say so, dear."

Mike fished a datachip out from his console, and held it out to Amanda.

"What's this?"

"Security footage from across Avalon. It's being automatically transmitted here live from the camera feed. We need to spread the word about this."

"What do you mean?"

"We've got to show the people that this is what the UNSC does to colonies who won't play ball."

She took the chip, holding it lightly for a few seconds before pocketing it. It probably held days worth of useless crap, but with Mike's penchant for security cameras and the right editor, it could make a powerful statement in the hands of the right people. Not the NCA, though they'd try and use it to their advantage, but people wanting to reform the UEG from the inside.

"Thanks, Mike."

Suddenly, several speakers blared to life, hissing static. Amanda glanced towards Mike, who began to rapidly input commands into his console.

"Transmission coming through. It's on an open channel."

"Let's hear it."

He shrugged, and pressed a button. A male voice filtered through, speaking with an incredible amount of malice.

"You think you can just run away and start over, after all you've done? Actions have consequences, and this is your retribution."

"The fuck's he talking about?" Rizhan muttered. Mike was sweating nervously, while Mary had gone incredibly pale. Her hands shook slightly as she grasped her rifle tighter. She closed her eyes for a moment before turning to Amanda.

"Get moving, Wade."

"Mary-"

"Go!"

Amanda turned and walked out, Rizhan in tow. The server room was a five minute walk from here, though with ONI's death squads roaming the settlement she doubted it would be that easy. She ordered four others to go back into the command room and sealed the door behind them, before setting out with Rizhan and the remaining three fighters. The hallways beyond this point were battle-scarred and heavily damaged, with evidence of explosive use in addition to small arms fire. While it appeared that ONI's forces were busy subduing the majority of Avalon's population at the moment, their presence had not gone unnoticed.

"Incoming!" Rizhan yelled as a white and black grenade smashed through a nearby window. They hit the deck as the flashbang burst, momentarily deafening them as more ONI troopers stormed towards them. Amanda spent the rest of her rifle's magazine laying down suppressing fire as she scrambled backwards and tossed a frag grenade to push them back further. One of her men fell to a gunshot halfway down the corridor, and was hit again as he tried to crawl back. Amanda grabbed Rizhan as they retreated round another corner and a familiar door fell into view.

"Hold them off, I'm making a run for the server room!"

"Got it." Rizhan clacked another magazine into his gun. "Hold the line!"

She sprinted down the hall and burst into the server room, nearly tripping over the bodies. By the console lay Isabelle's corpse, her still-open eyes staring lifelessly at the ceiling. Amanda took a deep breath before kneeling and closing them. She didn't have time to mourn, or even recover her friend's corpse. The AA guns would simply act as covering fire while they fled the settlement. Amanda activated the console, which thanks to Mike was already overseeing Avalon's weapon systems. All she had to do was activate them.

She pressed the button.

Though a number of AA guns had been taken out during the initial landing, many were still concealed or were left untouched. Now, with the majority of Avalon's power diverted to said systems, the UNSC would realise that this settlement wasn't going down without a fight. Machine guns blared loudly, dropping enemy aircraft from the sky while M95 missile batteries let loose a torrent of rockets towards a group of incoming dropships. Though the UNSC Frigate was well out of range, that would dissuade them from sending any direct reinforcements for the time being. Amanda turned to leave the server room just as an armed figure burst through the door raising a rifle.

"Shit!"

She fell back as a bullet zipped though her side, ripping through her clothing and splashing the floor with blood. Amanda flicked her wrist and the snapshot burst into her hand for the second time today. In less than three seconds she'd emptied it into the black-armoured soldier, who pitched forward with a loud thump.

Ah, fuck.

While the wound to her side wasn't fatal, it stung like hell and burned with every movement. Amanda picked herself up and fished the stolen SMG from her rucksack, which she then abandoned. Outside, only Rizhan remained alive, panting. He'd been hit in the shoulder and shrapnel had cut the side of his forehead, which was covered in blood.

"Time to go?" he asked, reloading his weapon and breathing slowly.

"Yeah, let's get back to Mike and-"

She froze as the entire building shook. Parts of the ceiling fell inwards down the hall, while explosions sounded off outside.

"What the fuck was that?"

Rizhan shrugged. "Bomb?"

"From where?"

He glanced upwards as two shapes shrieked overhead at a tremendous speed.

"Shit. SkyHawks."

The ageing fighter craft might not have been a match for the Dynasty, but its speed allowed it to dodge most AA fire from Avalon. Amanda guessed that orders had come down from the Frigate to start bombing whatever sections of Avalon ONI hadn't already taken. The pair tried to pick their way through the rubble, but found their way back blocked.

"Mike," Amanda called over the COM. "Mike, you okay? We're cut off from command, so we're gonna try and head around."

"Copy," came the hurried response. Bastards just hit the courtyard, but we're okay. Gonna try and make a move for the landing pad while we've still got time. Good luck."

She sighed, and ran along another corridor with Rizhan in tow. They went on for several minutes without a word, halting occasionally to look out for any more patrols. It appeared that with most of the civilian population captured, ONI was content to hold their ground and smoke out any armed resistance after heavy bombing. Eventually they came to a corridor marked with 'Under Construction' signs. These led to a group of platforms that stretched out around the nearby mountain and over the ocean. Amanda had intended for these to end up as landing pads, storehouses and possibly even living spaces within a year or two. Now they would never be completed.

"How far did we get with these things?" Rizhan asked as they walked out towards the first platform.

"We got the base down on three of them, and managed to get walkways down leading to the main landing pads."

"...and we're going to cross them?"

"Yup." She kept walking, keeping low as she emerged into the evening light on the exposed platform.

"Did I ever tell you that I never learned to swim? Not outside of a pool, anyway."

"Don't fall in then."

Rizhan shook his head as they strode across, bathed in the setting sun's red glow. Far ahead of them sat the platform they'd touched down at, where they would rendezvous with Mike, Saernus and the other survivors. As they approached the last walkway, Amanda stopped to glance towards several black dots rapidly approaching from across the sea. Eventually, she stopped and turned.

"Get down, now!"

Rizhan ducked behind her, clasping his wounded shoulder just as Amanda held her side. A trio of Shortsword bomber streaked across the ocean, slowly gaining altitude before rocketing upwards at the last minute and loosing a barrage of bombs that blasted parts of the mountain and most of Avalon's remaining fortifications to pieces. Their far-off landing pad emerged as a twisted, smoking ruin that slowly sank into the sea.

"Shit," she whispered. "This isn't good, this isn't good..."

Amanda grabbed her communicator. "Mike, Mary, Saernus, is anyone still out there. Can anyone hear me?"

There was no reply. She tried again and again, but to no avail.

"Amanda," Rizhan spoke softly. "It's just the COM. They might still be alive."

"They're trapped in there!" she yelled in his face. She'd never felt so powerless, even during the time she'd spent directly fighting the UNSC. Her comrades had no way out that didn't involve fighting through a better-equipped, better-trained army of soldiers. As for her?

I can't stay here.

I can't abandon them either.

I don't have a choice.

So, she did the worst thing she'd ever done, and called the Dynasty.

"This is Amanda to the Dynasty. Faisal, I need an immediate pickup from the outer platforms, over."

"Got it," her pilot said, sounding strained. "Be there in half a minute!"

and so, they sat there and waited as the freighter shot towards them, having shot down or lost all pursuers. It span slowly as it approached them, opening the rear ramp to reveal a heavily-bandaged man holding a rifle.

"Ash!" Amanda clambered aboard to berate him. "You should be in bed."

"Yeah," Ash Mitchell said weakly. The injuries accumulated over the past few weeks had really taken their toll on him; he could barely stand. "You all that made it?"

"Yeah."

"Shit."

Using the rifle as a makeshift walking stick, Mitchell turned and hobbled back up towards the med bay. Amanda and Rizhan followed him, walking towards the bridge door. The Dynasty was already on the move, circling Avalon as quickly as it dared.

"Faisal, we're leaving."

"What?!"

"If we go back, we're dead. I'm sorry."

For a moment, she thought the man would berate her. Instead, he merely sighed and nodded. The freighter turned and rocketed off, getting as far away from that UNSC Frigate as possible. Amanda sat in her captain's chair and winced. Oh right, I've been shot. She threw off her coat, and glanced down at the dark stain spreading across her shirt. Carol noticed too, and ran to lift her out of her chair. Suddenly, she felt rather faint.

"Crap, get her to the med bay, now!"

"I've got her," Rizhan insisted, offering his uninjured shoulder to help lift her.

A warning klaxon blared across the bridge. Faisal glanced at the long-range radar and swore before thumbing several anti-missile countermeasures.

"Fuck, we've got Longswords incoming!"

"Can we lose them?!" Carol called from the door.

"I'll see what I can do."

The battered ship twisted and turned as volleys of fire and the occasional missile streaked past, breaking through Emerald Cove's atmosphere with a number of fighters in hot pursuit. In the med-bay, Amanda's vision blurred as several others helped her into a bed, their shouting sounding oddly muted to her. As someone clamped an oxygen mask over her face, everything went dark.

Her last thoughts were of Avalon.

Epilogue

Unity

0940 Hours, September 21st, 2556

UNSC Iberia, Stalwart-Class Light Frigate
Emerald Cove Orbit


"Has the ship been found?"

"No sir. It managed to perform a Slipspace jump before our figher squadrons could finish it off, and tracking it has proven difficult."

"I see. Keep me updated, Commander Sadiq."

He switched off the comlink. Captain Frederick King stood aboard the Frigate's observation deck, which he had turned into a temporary office of sorts. Most of the ship's crew were completely unaware of the true nature of their mission, and had only been informed that they were carrying out counter-terrorism operations on Emerald Cove. Despite taking heavier casualties than expected, they were able to subjugate the settlement - Avalon - within a single day.

And yet Wade's ship escaped.

King had heard about the mission to Sargasso. A report had already arrived detailing what had happened there, and he wasn't particularly pleased that not one, but three of their targets had escaped his men. Worse yet, Agent Thirty-Two was dead. Though he maintained a strictly professional relationship with those under him in BRUTUS, King couldn't help but feel sad that Kyle White, whom he'd first met and mentored many years ago, had been killed in what was not even considered a particularly dangerous operation. He looked out towards the nearby planet, sighing. The door buzzed behind him.

"Enter."

He turned as Alexander Redford walked in. His prosthetic hand glinted under the light - he hadn't replaced his synthetic skin yet - and there were several visible cuts and bruises across his face and arms. The venerable agent placed a datapad on the room's conference table and slid it across to King.

"How many did we take alive?" he asked.

"Forty-six," Redford smiled. "Including that Jiralhanae. Took half a dozen stun grenades before he went down."

"Do we have an ID on him?"

"Yes. His name is Saernus. Quite the rabble-rouser from our dossier on him. Turns out that the High Chieftains of Doisac have a considerable bounty on his head."

"What for?"

"He stole the 'Fist of Rukt'. It's a hammer of great cultural significance to their people."

"Did we retrieve it?"

"According to the report, yes."

"Good. We might be able to use it as leverage in the future. Sorry for bringing you here at such short notice, Alexander, but with everything going on I need another agent to keep on top of things."

"Not a problem. The pad's got a list of known prisoners. Thirty-nine are Human, with six Unggoy and one Jiralhane. We've identified some already."

King took the pad and briefly looked over it before turning back to Redford.

"We can't let new spread about what happened here. I want hunting down the Dynasty to be our top priority."

"I'll get people on it right away," Redford nodded. "Oh, and I've put Kustentov on a transport ship back to Earth."

"Is he still alive?"

"Barely. The neural collar almost killed him outright when I activated it. Our friends in Section Two will ensure that he officially perished in a firefight several days ago when they hand over the body. The NYPD are simply awaiting our 'examination' before making his death known to the public."

"That kills two birds with one stone, then. The NCA are already denying that the bombing was their doing, but we've actually got evidence of him dealing with them in addition to what's going on the official statement. I doubt the public will question our story."

"I doubt they will."

King turned to face the window, clasping both hands behind his back. "You should get some rest, Alexander. You've not stopped for the past few days. I'll look over the files now."

The other man nodded and left without a word. King sat down as the door closed, thinking not about the renegade ship or Anatoly Kustentov, but of the future of BRUTUS. With White dead, that left only Redford as his potential replacement as head of the organisation. Still, even he was getting on in age. Twenty years ago, not even the likes of Ash Mitchell could have so much as touched Alexander Redford in combat. Would relegating him to a non-combat position be a reward or a punishment? He wasn't sure. The man was like him; no living family, no ties outside of BRUTUS and a complete dedication to their cause. King sighed, absent-mindedly going through the mission report once more and thinking of a better cover story to give Section Two when the story broke to the media. They'd have to re-settle Emerald Cove eventually, so disposing of the settlement was also a priority.

Ah, the things we do for stability.

King felt little sympathy for the inhabitants of Avalon. They had chosen to live outside the UEG, forfeiting the UNSC's protection and the relative safety it brought. By this point, just a few years after the war, the Navy's capabilities had grown tenfold and even the once-fearsome sight of Covenant ships paled in comparison to the terror of having a fleet of UNSC craft arrive at a lawless world. Still, it just wasn't enough. Avalon proved this. The NCA's continued existence proved this. The fact that people on far-off colony worlds had the audacity to declare open support for what he considered little more than a movement of terrorists and rebels sickened King. This was why harsh measures were needed. They had to stamp out dissent, crush schisms and destroy traitors, lest it weaken Humanity's position in the galaxy. His comlink buzzed and he activated it.

"Captain King," Commander Sadiq spoke with some urgency. "We've just received a transmission from Earth."

"Who from?"

"The head of ONI. She's requesting your immediate return for an emergency meeting."

"Did she say what it was about?"

"No sir. Should we leave now?"

"Not yet, Commander," King picked up the datpad Redford had given him again. "I'll send for my personal ship. I need the Iberia here for the time being to dissuade any newcomers and hold our prisoners."

"Copy that sir. Sadiq out."

While not on Earth or travelling across the fleet, King's place of residence was aboard the Nightingale, a mid-sized Prowler with advanced communication upgrades that would allow him to contact BRUTUS agents across the colonies. Currently it was orbiting Circumstance, but a quick transmission would have the ship here in a matter of hours. He briefly considered asking Commander Sadiq if he was interested in serving in the Prowler Corps; BRUTUS agents often required quick getaways, and the man knew to keep his mouth shut when ONI was around, which was smart.

I'll look over his profile later. Now though, it's time to see if there's anything worth salvaging here.

The prisoner list flashed up on his screen. Each one was currently shackled and detained in a hastily-constructed prison camp outside Avalon's ruins, and had been subjected to fingerprint, hair and blood analysis by King's men immediately to quickly see if anyone important had been caught. The corpses recovered would undergo the same process, though they weren't a priority. Thanks to their advanced surveillance technology and the Iberia's helpful AI, almost each and every prisoner had already been identified in one way or another. As the first and only person to view these reports, King would decide the fate of each and every one. He smiled.

Useless, Useless. Useless. Criminal. Tax evader? Really? Nothing on most of the Grunts. One was arrested last year for reminiscing a bit too loudly about his days during the war...

While most would consider it a tedious process, the old man rather enjoyed this. Each dossier told a story; some were relatively uninteresting, while others were much more interesting to him. Towards the end came a list of those who'd holed up in Avalon's bunker-like control room towards the end. Judging by the reports, the 'shoot to kill' orders had been quickly changed after a frontal assault ended in nearly two dozen casualties, prompting the use of knockout gas and stun grenades to secure it. Even then, the files had been wiped clean by then. As for the man at the helm...

Michael Goldberg. Twenty-Six. Certainly the brains of the operation, considering the sophisticated counter-intrusion programs he had running to combat our cyberwarfare suite. Nearly got bagged by agents back in '53 when thought he'd be a whistleblower. Disgusting. Spent a few years with Remi Marshall's crew but was crippled by a Spartan raid in '54 after being shot in the spine. He'd been saved by an undercover Redford, funnily enough. Dropped off the radar entirely early last year after being involved in a number of cyber attacks on secure networks run by the UEG. I guess this is where he ended up.

King pondered how useful the man could be. Would he take a plea deal? It would be very lenient considering his crimes. Could his loyalty be bought with promises of safety and money, or would he remain loyal to the likes of Amanda Wade and - eventually - die alone, with all traces of his existence completely erased. He marked the file as ' Interrogate' and moved on. The Jiralhanae, Saernus, was a no-brainer considering how many of his kind were after him. Interrogate.

Then he moved on to the least file. A lengthy wall of text flashed up alongside several pictures, and his eyes widened.

"No," he whispered to himself. "It can't be."

Marion Hollister.

King gripped the edges of the datapad tightly, staring at the picture of the elderly woman taken only yesterday. Looking past her lined, tired face and the weathering that only old age could bring on a person, he could see it was her.

"Marion..." her name escaped his lips. It was one he hadn't spoken in a very long time. He scrolled through the rest of the file.

Eighty-three years of age, minus a few decades physically thanks to cryo. UNSC barcode removed; she did it herself judging by the scar tissue. Served from 2492-2504. Mostly classified, though I know exactly where she'd been and what they had gone through together in those years. Some history of mental instability, though she checked out by '09. The official record lists her as a disappearance in 2517. After that, even BRUTUS couldn't find her.

Yet now, so many years later, here she was. In Avalon. Alive. The old man's hands trembled at the thought. He could order her death. She'd be dragged off by a couple of his men, shot, and buried in an unmarked grave. If they were feeling particularly careful, they'd travel into unmarked territory and space the corpses, out where nobody would ever find them. No. Osman and the others on Earth could wait. This was important. As far as he knew, no one else had found their connection. She was just another, if elderly, combatant defending the settlement. King had to go down there and speak to her. He activated his conlink.

"Commander," he rose from his chair, marking Marion's file with 'Interrogate'. "I'm heading down to the planet. Tell the Nightingale to wait for me when it arrives."

Right now, he had important matters to attend to. A momentary break from his actual work. After that, he'd go back to making sure the UNSC didn't fall apart.

Control

1723 Hours, September 21st, 2556

URF Hydra, Strident-class Heavy Frigate
Watts System, Independent Space


"How're you feeling?"

"Like shit."

"They go for the whole works?"

"Yep."

"That'd explain things. You've been out for nearly two days."

Magnus sat outside of the ship's medical bay, exposed from the waist up. Without his usual black garb and body armour, his pale, muscled body stood out against the black and grey cybernetics that replaced his hands and lower body. Wires criss-crossed beneath his skin and scar tissue covered much of his back. He curled the metallic fingers of his right hand into a fist, and sighed.

"Petrovich did the surgery, didn't he?"

"Yes." Before him stood a black-haired woman in her forties, clad in the slate-grey uniform and peaked cap that marked her as a member of the United Rebel Front's leadership. Not that there was much left of the organisation outside of a few hundred men and women and roughly a dozen outdated warships. The Hydra was the closest thing they had to a headquarters right now, drifting far away from UNSC space.

"Is he still here?"

"Yeah. You're not going to speak to him, are you?"

The large man shrugged, and stood up. He wondered if she'd been given orders to keep him where he was. Not that anyone aside from Doctor Simon Petrovich could order her around. General Miriam Bakos was more or less the last surviving military leader in the URF, ever since Adam Makosky had been assassinated and lost his flagship during the Noctus Incident ealier this year. Out of everyone within the organisation, she'd been the closest thing Magnus had to a friend.

"I don't think he'll want to see you," she said, raising her voice slightly as he towered over her.

"Miriam, I don't care about Petrovich. If he's here I want to leave as soon as I can."

"Not addressing me by my rank?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

He snorted. "What, you gonna court martial me?"

"I could try."

They both knew that he was an indispensable asset for the URF, and had been responsible for a number of victories in their seemingly endless fight against the UNSC. Even his failures tended to leave their organisation in a favourable position. His involvement during the NOVA Incident, for example, had helped spark the same wave of colonial discontent that he NCA had gained support from. He turned and began making his way towards the officer's quarters and the little-used room he had to store clothing and armour on his rare visits to the Hydra. The General followed silently, moving quickly to keep up with his long strides and swift pace. Suddenly, a nearby intercom crackled to life.

"Magnus," spoke a familiar voice that stopped both of them in their tracks. "Where are you going?"

He turned, glancing towards a nearby security camera. Of course he won't just let me leave in peace.

"I was going to suit up and leave, now that I'm better."

"Not yet you aren't. Report to the operations room at once. You too, General."

Magnus and Bakos glanced at each other, then began walking towards a nearby elevator. His prosthetic legs clanked on the hard floor; aside from a pair of sweatpants he'd put on when he woke up in the medical bay, the cyborg was more or less naked. A few steps behind him, she couldn't help but stare at where flesh met metal on his body. His cybernetics were much more than your average limb replacement; Petrovich had built an entire life support system that took care of things like waste disposal after he'd more or less been cut in two years ago. Bakos had barely been part of the URF back then, but the rumours she'd heard from older rebels over the years seemed to imply that Magnus - a name he'd been given after his recovery - had been active as a member of the organisation for many years beforehand. Some even suggested that they knew his real name, though none would dare reveal it for fear of his legendary temper.

"Think he's got a mission for us?" she asked, trying to get some form of conversation out of him as they entered an elevator.

"I don't know." He had to stoop slightly while inside. "Bastard probably just wants to gloat."

"He might not be too happy about you losing the Bastion. I know I was pissed when I found out. Those supplies were hard to come by."

"'Might?' I thought you were supposed be clued-in on these things, Miriam."

"I should be, yeah. Thing is, I've spent the last three months on Madrigal with my men."

"Madrigal? I didn't think there was anything left there."

"After the glassing? Not much, but in the last few years people have tried re-colonising it. Just a few scavengers picking through the rubble at first, but after they set up a couple of outposts in what remained of the cities, settlers started to arrive."

"I'm surprised the oonskies haven't moved in yet."

"You and me both. There's a few thousand there now, and with UNSC spies crawling all over the Caucasus Station these days and Talitsa taken, Madrigal's becoming popular. Black Market's already flourishing and they've started rebuilding things without Earth's help."

"Surely they can't keep it a secret for that long?"

"Probably not, but they're very careful. Biggest settlement there is the 'Ciudad de Hueso', or 'City of Bones', built up in the ruins of one of the old cities. The New Colonial Alliance already has a presence there."

The elevator stopped and the doors clanked open. Magnus allowed Bakos to step out before continuing his walk towards the ship's op room, albeit at a much slower pace than before.

"Who's in charge there?"

"They never let us see him. Some new Colonel who's running the place like a damn king."

"Don't they know who you were?"

She smirked. "Officially, the NCA want to distance themselves from the United Rebel Front. They want to act like a legitmate force for change while we're the terrorist group. Didn't want to risk being shot on sight."

"And all the while they take supplies from me. They're hypocrites through and through."

"Hey, at least they're fighting the oonskies. Giving us a chance to gather our own resources and nudge them in the direction we want. Once the public finally sees the UNSC for what it truly is, then perhaps we'll get the independence we deserve."

Magnus merely nodded as the door ahead slid open. The operations room was more or less empty; usually it would be filled with technicians and ensigns monitoring communications and conversing with far-off rebel cells. In deck above sat the lab, and the headquarters of the URF think tank known as the 'Omega Group'. Magnus and Bakos looked up and saw a man standing behind a window, looking down on them. He was middle-aged, with a head of greying curly hair and a heavily-lined face. Leaning forward, he tapped his speaker button.

"Magnus," Simon Petrovich spoke, smiling. "It's been far too long since we had a proper conversation, face-to-face."

"Still hiding behind glass, Doctor?" the cyborg snarled. "I wouldn't call that a 'proper conversation'."

"Precautions, my friend. Precautions. Wouldn't want your anger getting the better of you now, do I?"

The General stepped forward, seeking to defuse the situation. Unlike Magnus, she knew full well that the glass above was reinforced to the point that a direct missile strike would barely scratch it, so the cyborg's thoughts of throwing something towards the scientist would all be for naught.

"What did you want from us, Doctor? I don't appreciate being ordered around."

"My apologies, General," Petrovich tapped a nearby console, and a screen to their right flashed up.

Magnus crossed his arms. "What is this?"

"A recording of what appears to be a UNSC attack on an independent settlement on Emerald Cove. It was leaked to both Waypoint and the Chatternet less than twenty-four hours ago."

The pair watched in silence as CCTV footage showed unarmed civilians being massacred by black-armoured UNSC personnel while Pelican dropships tore apart buildings with missiles and grenades flew through windows into people's homes. Magnus watched without flinching as wounded men and women were finished off with brutal efficiency and the few who did submit to capture were beaten into unconsciousness by the troopers. Brief flashes of fighting from the settlement's defenders was also shown as a small group took down an entire squad of soldiers, though all their efforts seemed to be for nothing. The final images transmitted were of Shortsword bombers levelling large portions of the settlement before the feed was cut.

"The colonies are in uproar right now," Petrovich explained, switching the screen to display protesters already gathering across several Outer Colony worlds. "Seems that ONI wanted their actions to be kept secret."

"I'm surprised that we hadn't heard of this colony. It been around long?"

"Not even a year, from what the video reported. They called it Avalon. I would've thought that you'd have heard of it with your connections, Magnus. After all, it was run by an old friend of yours?"

"Oh?"

Petrovich replayed the video, pausing as a group of the settlement's defenders rounded a corner. Sure enough, they were being led by none other than Amanda Wade. He could already feel his temper flaring as his hands balled into fists. She'd escaped him twice now, and was directly responsible for his recent injuries. I've killed armoured Spartans with my bare fucking hands, yet a smuggler and a washed-up merc nearly did me in. Unacceptable.

"Don't smash the screen," Petrovich said calmly as he stepped forward, holding up a small, circular device in the palm of his hand. Magnus froze and stepped back carefully while Bakos glanced between the two in confusion.

"Don't," he muttered.

"I wouldn't. Not while you're still valuable, at least. I need you to take your ship and re-contact General Amenwae of the NCA. You're to provide total - albeit discreet - support to the organisation from now on. No more trading unless you really need it. Feel free to contact us if you truly need assistance."

"I understand," he turned and marched out.

"Touchy, isn't he?" the man remarked before switching off the intercom and walking away. Despite his less than polite manner, Petrovich had been URF's top scientist and robotics expert for many years now. No one else had the capabilities to directly operate on and repair Magnus' fairly complicated cybernetics. It was he who had more or less led their faction since the United Rebel Front fell apart in the wake of the Human-Covenant War despite Bakos' position as their military leader.

"Ass," she muttered as she left, catching sight of Magnus as he approached the elevators once more. She let him go. There was no point trying to talk to him now. Miriam Bakos had joined by choice and spent years working her way up the secretive organisation's hierarchy, but Magnus? He was more or less forced to do whatever Petrovich said. If that meant being the scariest man to grace the criminal underworld or a renowned galactic terrorist, then he'd do it. In many ways, she felt sorry for the man.

Her thoughts drifted back to the video they'd been shown of Avalon being destroyed. Made for good propaganda, but to most who sided with the URF's cause, it was a reminder of what they were fighting for. If their foes were willing to wipe out any settlement not under UEG control, then it would only bring more to their cause. She sighed.

Guess we'll just have to keep fighting the good fight.

Freedom

1004 Hours, September 22nd, 2556

Dynasty, Independent Freighter
Herschel, Outer Colonies


The door to the medical bay slid open. Faisal Khan walked in, holding a tray of food. In the bed at the end of the room lay Amanda, who listlessly stared at a nearby datapad.

"Hungry?" he asked, holding out the tray. "It's just chicken and rice for I'm afraid, but at least you can eat now."

She took the tray without a word, placing the pad on her bedside cabinet. On it were images of the latest protest, this time on Earth itself. Turns out their little video had spread further than they expected. Mike's datachip had kept recording until the Dynasty had jumped to slipspace, and while Amanda had been treated for her gunshot wound, Faisal and Carol had pieced together the footage of ONI's attack on Avalon and released it for billions to see. The reaction was substantial. Civilian ships had been forcibly turned away from Emerald Cove and news of communications blackouts and coverups had been spreading faster than ONI's propaganda machine could put it down.

"Looks like people are finally seeing the UNSC for what it is," her pilot continued, putting on a weary smile.

Amanda nodded, eating in silence. After emergency surgery from their medics had saved her life, she'd been confined to this bed for several days with only a bland nutrient paste for sustenance. As such, she was famished. Faisal pulled up a chair and sat beside her.

"How're you feeling? Not trying to play psychiatrist here, but the others want to know how you are. Carol's repairing the ship and Ash is out trying to get supplies right now, so I thought I'd ask."

"Well, aside from getting shot and losing my home, not too bad," came the reply. "Though the painkillers might have something to do with that. Seriously, how strong are these things?"

Faisal shrugged. "No clue. You were out for a day and a half at least."

"You know," Amanda sighed, pausing from her meal. "I think we might've been able to save the others. Mike, Mary, Saernus and everyone else."

"What makes you say that?"

"I mean, we could've turned around for a quick pickup. I'm sure you would've been able to manage that."

He shook his head. "Doubt it. Look, you were right at the time. There was nothing we could do for Avalon by the time we arrived. Hell, we were lucky to hit slipspace before those fighters blew us to pieces."

A spasm of pain crossed Amanda's face as she looked back down at her plate. Guilt, Faisal frowned. She blamed herself for Remi's death too.

"Avalon's gone," she said sullenly.

"It is."

"What now, then?"

"You're the captain, not me. We do what you say."

She wasn't sure what to do, really. For the last year, Avalon had been something to work for. With that gone, they could just go back to travelling throughout the colonies as smugglers, as they had done following the NOVA incident. That life had appealed to her, though something about it felt incredibly empty compared to trying to build a settlement from scratch. Could they start again? She was certain that there were still plenty of abandoned planets the UEG hadn't gotten around to re-colonising that they could go to. Chances were that it would simply end the same way. She'd be arrested and imprisoned or shot as a terrorist if she tried going back to Earth, while the NCA would most likely do the same. Amanda was stuck in the middle, trying to remain independent with two factions constantly looming overhead.

"I'll think about it."

There was a long silence before Faisal finally stood up and walked out. She finished her food and lay back. The lack of sound was troublesome. While the Dynasty's secondary systems were always active and mostly silent, she'd become so used to the low hum of the ship's engines over the years that simply being inside the powered-down ship felt strange to her. She tried to swing out of bed, but was hit by a wave of nausea that forced her down again.

Fuck. Why the hell did I go and get myself shot? The recovery time's worse than the damn injury.

The med bay door opened again and she raised her head. It was Ash Mitchell. Despite having sustained heavier injuries than Amanda, it seemed like he was in a much better condition. He'd cleaned himself up, too. While he'd not shaved since his arrival on Avalon, he seemed to be cultivating a well-trimmed beard and had cleaned his blood-spattered eyepatch. A few more scars and another foot in height and he'd look similar to Marco.

"Hey," she said, wisely deciding not to stand up again.

"You're up," Mitchell replied, stating the obvious. "Thought you'd be out longer."

"Says you. You were hit worse than I was."

He shrugged. "Armour took most of the force. Back when I was in the ODST's we all tended to recover quickly. Don't know if it was the training or what."

"Did anyone recognise you?"

"No. Looks like losing an eye worked wonders for making me go incognito."

"Good. What did you get? Who did you trade with? Please don't tell me you got ripped off; Herschel's like that."

Mitchell raised an eyebrow, and tossed a bag onto her bed. Inside were a bunch of grapes. She stopped talking.

"For our recovering Captain," he gave an exaggerated bow. "Carol's idea. Not mine."

"I don't even like grapes."

"It's traditional. If you don't want them..."

"...but I am hungry. Thanks."

"You're welcome. I know this might be a bit early, but any idea of what we're gonna do now? With Avalon gone, ONI's gonna come looking for us again, even with that little video. Might serve as a convenient smokescreen for a while, though."

"True."

Taking a deep breath, she finally pulled herself out of bed, steadying herself with the cabinet for a few seconds while Mitchell watched impassively. Clad only in a green patient's gown and pants, she felt surprisingly cold. She managed to shake off the feeling and took a few careful steps forward.

"Where's my clothes?"

"In your quarters, I'd assume. You didn't answer my question."

"I don't have an answer, Ash. I'll figure something out in the next few days."

"You know, Magnus is still out there. We could keep going after him."

Amanda had half-expected him to end the sentence with 'now that we don't have Avalon to tie us down'. That would've earned him a punch. Still, he had a point. Going back to Emerald Cove at this point would be a suicide mission, so she had to assume that the others had been killed. They couldn't risk hitting UNSC prison ships in the vague hope that their friends were confined aboard, either; without Avalon or the rebel network they simply lacked the manpower and equipment to pull off attacks like that these days. Magnus was out there, after all. Hurt, but presumably alive. The chase would give her and the crew something to strive for, at least. It was all she needed.

"Good point," said Amanda Wade, slowly walking towards the med bay's exit. "Once we're loaded up I'll talk to the others about it. I take it you're staying with us, then?"

"Of course. Might as well, since we've got the same goals in mind."

"Good to hear it. I guess we should get back to work."

She walked out, heading towards her personal quarters. Avalon was gone; burned away by the UNSC. She couldn't afford to dwell on it or look back. Pressing forward was the only thing she could do at this point. Amanda had her ship, she had her crew, and she had a mission. Her mind felt oddly clear, and it wasn't because of the lingering painkillers. With nothing else to fight for, she'd continue her quest for revenge, and neither the UNSC or the NCA would stop her now.

THE END

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