|2001 Hours, December 27th, 2555
The Cavern Tavern, Caucasus Station lower habitats
The settlements on the Caucasus asteroids were a veritable melting pot of race, culture and inevitably, less savoury characters. Located within the furthest reaches of UNSC-controlled space, it was one of the few places that was completely anarchic, yet still functioned. It's shops, bars and weapon dealerships were all independently run, and on the odd occasion that a group attempts to gain complete control, they would unite and destroy them. It was a simple system, but it had worked for nearly forty years. A cheery announcement blared from a nearby speaker.
"Remember: Always deposit your garbage in the appropriate disposal chutes!"
Of course, there were various Insurrectionist groups, but the diversity in their goals and plans meant that they would be little more than gangs populating the asteroid habitats. The closest they had come to being truly united was under a triumvirate of leaders: Mal Roberts, Jonathan Ulan and Remi Marshall, all of whom had been killed shortly before their plans of widespread colonial bombings could be carried out. That was a month ago.
This was the general news, currently circulating around the Caucasus stations. With their leaders dead, many had simply resumed their old ways. 300,000 had been killed on Circumstance, and that kind of damage against the UNSC would be enough for most. The Cavern Tavern, named for it's location deep within one of the hollowed-out asteroids, was one of many dives that dotted the settlement, and always seemingly one spilled beer or stray glance away from a full-on brawl. This did happen, on occasion, but no one ever really got hurt. Unless they pulled a gun out, in which case they would be immediately gunned down by the fifty-or-so other concealed weapons from the bar's other patrons. As such, the bar, like the rest of the asteroid settlement, operated rather smoothly.
At the furthest corner of the bar, Ash Mitchell was perched on a stall, nursing the small beer he had purchased nearly half an hour ago. Like most of the people that frequented the Cavern Tavern, he had quite a weathered, ragtag look to him. Mitchell was wearing what had once been a suit of hardened battle armour, granted to the UNSC's elite Orbital Drop Shock Troopers upon completing their brutal training. Only a year ago it had been in pristine condition, well-maintained and looked after. Now, it had undergone so many refits that barely any of the original material remained. Dents, scratches and the occasional score of a plasma burn adorned the surface. The helmet, which was just as battered, sat on the bar by the slowly disappearing beer.
Ash wasn't exactly menacing. He wasn't a particularly big man, nor did he have the thuggish look of hired muscle everywhere. As for technology, there were some around here with bootleg armour imitating that of the feared Spartans, wielding deadly plasma weaponry. What he did have, was an air of intelligence and the ability to get someone's attention. Survival as a good mercenary in these parts required brawn and brain in equal measure. Sighing, and noticing an annoyed look from the bartender, he finally downed his drink and indicated for another. Things were getting boring, he reflected.
Need another contract, and soon.
He looked at his reflection in the polished mirror behind the bar. It had been put there for decoration, but had the rather unfortunate side effect of making drinkers see themselves. Ash thirty, with cropped dark brown hair. His face was weathered and made him look much older, however; scars of various battles covered his muscled body. He was still quite fit and healthy, though that was largely down to the lifestyle he led. Being a mercenary wasn't exactly the exciting adventure he'd imagined it to be. Most of the money he made went on his own personal upkeep, getting repairs and ammo before feeding himself, and paying the rent for his room on the station. The rest, of course, went to this place.
In the ten months had spent wandering, Ash had never formulated a plan beyond an eventual 'retirement fund' of several thousand credits, a rather meagre sum considering the amount of work he had put in. The problem was, quite simply, that he was directionless in life. Oddly, he found himself looking back with some amount of nostalgia for the days of the Human-Covenant War. As bleak as things seemed, the threat of extinction looming over them all, at least he had his team to back him up.
Was it really less than three years ago that the war ended? Feels like a lifetime.
Sure, they had lost many friends, but he had made it out alive. Him and Mal. Now, he was stuck on this rock, and Mal had gotten himself killed. Ash sighed, and glanced to his right. The atmosphere in the room had changed, and he found himself instinctively reaching for his pistol.
"What the hell are you staring at, freak?"
Freak. Not a word that was used often round here. Since the end of the War, the station had acquired a population of Kig-Yar, Jiralhanae and even a few Sangheili. As with many of the usual derogatory terms used for alien species, they were liable to get the speaker beaten, killed, or in some isolated cases, eaten. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, Ash turned round to see four men, most likely hired thugs for some minor crimelord or another, standing before an incredibly tall man in black armour. He wasn't exactly sure why they would pick a fight with the biggest guy here, but something told him that their numbers wouldn't do much in a fight.
"Excuse me?" intoned the big man coldly.
"I asked you a question, moron," replied one man with a sneer. He glanced back for a second, checking that he had his buddies to back him up.
"What am I staring at? Well, a quartet of primates who have nothing better to do than start fights, for one."
Oh, boy. He'd always remember what happened next, as though the events were etched into his skull. The lead man's punch seemed to travel in slow motion as the stranger sidestepped and brought his knee up with pinpoint accuracy into his groin with an unpleasant sound that had a dozen pairs of eyes watering in sympathy.
"Now for the rest of you."
The rest couldn't be called a fight, exactly; it was a cacophony of breaking bones, forceful punches and cries of agony. As the stranger swept away towards the bar, the Brute bouncer walked over, unbidden, and carried the shattered bodies out. Within moments, the room had gone back to minding it's own business. Ash downed his beer and ordered another, making a mental note of how much change he had.
"Please, allow me to pay."
"No thanks," said Ash without looking. He tended not to trust anyone in these places, where generosity was about as common as honesty. The stool next to him creaked as the stranger moved next to him. Already, he was prepared to draw and fire his pistol. Then, he looked over. The man was massive, almost completely covered in dark clothes. Even as he took his own drink, Ash noticed that he was wearing gloves. It was the face of this man, however, that got his attention. He was bald, with a dark, well-trimmed beard over his strangely pale face. His eyes, rather oddly, were red. He'd seen people like that before; shambling addicts desperate for another hit on the latest designer drug; Rocket seemed to be back in fashion.
This guy looked nothing of the sort.
"Oh, it'd be my pleasure," he intoned in his deep voice. It had a subtle hint of malice about it, making the former ODST reconsider his position, considering the state of those other guys.
"Okay then, big guy. What's the deal?"
"Excuse me?" replied the stranger, sliding some money across the counter as two more drinks came in.
Ash took the glass, and looked over. "I don't know if you're new around here, but people don't offer to buy others drinks around here. Not in these bars, at least."
The man took a sip, and smiled. "Well, you're a perceptive one. If you'll allow me to cut to the chase, I'm looking to hire you for a job."
"Pay?" came the automatic response.
"Ten thousand, plus whatever we find. I've done my homework, Ash Mitchell." he waved his hand, gesturing at the old trooper as a whole. "Twelve years of exemplary service to the UNSC, before you went AWOL in February. You've spent the last ten months drifting through the colonies as a hired gun. You're very good at your job, too. Not the best, but proficient, at least"
Ash felt his blood turn to ice. This guy knew a lot about him. Was he ONI? A Spartan? He certainly had the build.
"Any details on it?"
"Hit-and-Run on a cargo ship in the Outer Colnies. It's got some things I want."
"Why should I trust you?"
A small data pad was slid in front of Ash at this. The stranger motioned for him to look at it. Activating the pad, a security feed flashed up. It was from another part of the Caucasus stations, where the old leadership used to be. The feed showed this man marching into a meeting room, packed with most of the old crime lords, rebels, and top-tier mercenaries, and slaughtering them. It took about thirty seconds. Ash gasped as he noticed a man with a shaved head crawling along the floor for a pistol. Mal. As he reached for the weapon, a boot came down on his neck. The feed cut out several seconds after that.
"Times are changing, Mitchell. You left the UNSC to search for Mal Roberts, your old friend. Over the years, you got sidetracked, and ended up on a wild chase after Carlos Driscol after he escaped from prison. Where has that got you? You're a directionless mess walking into an early grave. I killed Roberts. I killed Marshall, and Verensky, as well as everyone else who had any power here. I'm offering you a chance to be my ally."
Ash licked his lips, and took a breath, his heart thumping in his chest. "You're Magnus," he whispered.
He didn't move an inch. This was the man who had killed Mal. He'd known about his old friend's death of course, which was part of why he was spending his time here drowning in cheap beer. But to face the killer? He couldn't do anything here. Not. A. Damn. Thing.
"Yes, I am."
"What if I refuse?"
"Then you leave this place forever, dead or alive. You've seen my abilities."
"Well, you've certainly got a knack for hurting people. I guess I'll join up, if the pay is good."
Magnus stood up, towering over Ash as he grinned. For the first time he realised how his false his smiles were, how they never quite reached those cold, dead eyes of his. The mercenary flinched as a gloved hand was placed on his shoulder. a small chip was placed by the datapad on the bar.
"The chip will carry all the information you need on how to find me. We're going to accomplish great things, my friend."
He took the chip without hesitation and pocketed it. Magnus nodded, and strode away. It was only now that Mitchell realised how dead silent the bar had become. It was only after he'd exited the establishment that regular conversation resumed. He inserted the chip into the nearby datapad and it lit up as details of a civilian transport ship, shipping routes, and black market weaponry scrolled past.
Well, he thought to himself as he pushed his half-drunk beer aside, This ain't the first time I've jumped into hell. Might as well see where this takes me.