|1801 Hours, January 18th, 2556
Hyperion Industries Transport YX-393, En-route to Circumstance
"Thank you for choosing Hyperion transport, offering you luxury travel at affordable prices."
If luxury meant being strapped into a metal chair in a confined space with a hundred others, including half a dozen kids who didn't know the meaning of silence, then Bill Cross would love to see what the non-luxury seating entailed. Probably being tied to the exterior of the ship in a spacesuit. He sighed, and tried to let his mind wander elsewhere, attempting to meditate, something he had been instructed to do while on long journeys like this. It was only a short slip, taking up nearly two days. Not that there were such things as days and nights in space, but there were 'night' periods when the lights dimmed and allowed the passengers to sleep in their crowded quarters.
The main reason Bill had sat down in the first place was due to his dislike for the microgravity on this deck. Though you could quite easily walk across the room, it would also be easy for him to float up to the ceiling, if he chose to. He unclipped his harness, feeling the need to stretch his legs and get to the bathroom before their final approach to Circumstance. The Epsilon Eridani system had been one of the first places reclaimed by the UNSC after the war, and currently there was only one remaining colony there.
Circumstance, he thought back to the travel brochure. Home of the famous Kuiper Gardens and the prestigious Koletre-Browning University. Not to mention it being the site of a dozen terrorist attacks in the past two years alone.
Moving slowly, with the loping stride, or 'space walk' of someone who had spent a significant amount of time in these conditions, Bill was able to work his way around the various seats, cabin entrances, crates and stray children that barred his path to the restroom. He locked the door, and sighed, feeling safe in the claustrophobic confinement of the little room.
He was no stranger to tight quarters; he relished in it, in fact. They had always said that you needed to be a special kind of crazy to become an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. Dropping onto planets in a glorified tin can was something he had become quite proficient in over the years, though he was currently on leave to see some family. As he sat down and began to ponder life in general, as many others in the past had whilst using the lavatory, there was a loud noise from outside, accompanied by the unmistakable sound of gunfire, and screams. He sighed.
Can't a guy get some peace?
Bill wasn't particularly worried about what was going on. It was both sudden and unexpected, but it didn't particularly worry him. Quickly finishing his business, he unwisely took a deep breath of the foul smelling air, kissed the tiny silver cross that dangled from a chain around his neck, and slipped out of the toilet. He was twenty-nine years old, and had put up with twenty seven hours of screaming children and others with poor personal hygiene. Without a single weapon and only in an old, grey tracksuit, he felt ready to take on anything.
Dropping into a crouch, he edged forwards, still hearing screams and gunshots. There was some small relief in the fact that these were human invaders. If it had been Jackal pirates or even Elites, then those on board would have little chance for survival. This deck was completely empty, the raiders having blown through the airlock here before boarding. Looking back into the seating area, the floor was strewn with bodies. Some of them were children. Gritting his teeth, Bill moved to check them, just in case. What he saw didn't shock him, but filled him with rage. They hadn't been gunned down in the crossfire; they had been lined up and shot in the back of the head. Well, now he knew that he couldn't let them live. A hacking cough from nearby caught his attention.
A man lay at the foot of the stairs, riddled with bullets. How he wasn't dead was anyone's guess, but there was no saving this one. As the ODST approached, a bloodied face turned to him, a desperate, pleading look in it's eyes. Bill crouched by him and clutched his shaking hand. After a few seconds, the eyes of the unknown man glazed over. Bill made the sign of a cross across his chest and closed his eyes. As he did so, something on the floor by the man caught his eye: A M6D Magnum, the sidearm for security forces on ships like this. Checking the weapon, it hadn't been fired once.
"Thank you" he whispered to whoever the dead man was, and tucked the gun into his waistband before ascending to the next level.
Now, he had a gun. There were voices coming from up ahead. Moving as slowly as possible, Bill peeked his head round the corner. There were two men up ahead. Both were heavily armed and equipped, clad in black armour and visored helmets. Aside from the spherical shape of the helmet, they could have probably passed for UNSC troops. He levelled his pistol, taking careful aim at the back of the nearest one's head. There was no guilt to be had for shooting a murderer in the back, he reasoned. Two shots, and the first had fallen. Another three, and his friend was down. It was sickeningly easy, but he had no time to dwell on such things. Bill grabbed their rifles and took one of their combat vests, giving himself a little protection at least. Someone had to have heard the gunshots. Moving towards the main living quarters, several voices came into earshot.
"-couldn't find any others, sir."
"Keep searching. The man we want is here, I know it."
"Yes sir, we'll keep looking."
"Get on with it. Mitchell, if any UNSC ships come poking their noses in, tell them we'll execute the hostages."
Bill froze on the spot. The three voices he had heard were quite distinct. The first was that of a man, probably just a low-ranking grunt. The fear in his voice was also evident. The second was rather interesting. Though it was obviously spoken through a mask, it carried the tone of command, albeit in a threatening manner. Whoever this person was, he was obviously in charge here. It was the final voice that had shocked him. It was an unremarkable voice, though it spoke with a little more authority than the first. The man speaking there was probably a second in command, or something along those lines. However, from these two words, Bill already knew who it was, and that truly scared him. He had never feared death in all his years as a soldier, but this time something was different.
That was Ash Mitchell.
The man in the next room, who had taken part in this massacre, had been his former commanding officer before disappearing eleven months ago. Mitchell was a man of strong convictions, and one of the best soldiers he'd ever seen. The thought of him becoming an insurrectionist was truly terrifying. Bill remembered watching him just a couple of years prior, gunning down scores of aliens on a mission as their team caused havoc in an enemy facility. He had even survived being taken prisoner. Bill shook his head, dispelling all these thoughts and settling back into the logical, almost robotic mind of a trained soldier, as he usually did while in combat. Mitchell was an enemy to be eliminated. Nothing more.
A flash of movement to the left caught his eye. In less than a second, he had swung round and had his gun trained on a young man, who had frozen like a rabbit in the headlights. The man raised his hands in surrender, and was visibly shaking. Bill sighed and lowered the weapon, gesturing for him to come over. He was probably barely out of his teens, with an unruly crop of black hair. In an instant, the frightened look disappeared, being replaced by a determined grin.
"Oh, thought you were one of the bad guys, had to put on a little act there."
"That's gutsy. How'd you survive?"
"Ran for the storage section the moment I heard gunshots. You?"
"I was taking a shit. These guys are either sloppy or desperate not to do a thorough search. Do you have any military training?"
Bill smiled. "Kid, I've been on Draco III, Fargad, Tribute, and a dozen other places in my time. I'm an ODST, and pretty much your best chance of survival right now." The younger man's eyes widened with surprise at this.
"Okay then, I guess we're gonna have to pull some heroics. What's your name?"
"Bill Cross. What's yours?"
"Devin Harland. Let's do this."
Bill had to admit, he was surprised at the courage the young man displayed, though it could just as easily be recklessness. He handed Devin his rifle and went to retrieve the other one from his second kill, tossing another combat vest over. Devin weighted the weapon in his hands, and raised it, taking aim. Bill watched him for a few moments before going over to stop him blowing his own head off.
"Okay, have you ever fired a gun?"
"I did in Militia training a couple of years back, but nothing else. I'm en-route for a transfer to the Army right now, actually."
"So no actual combat experience?"
"Nothing that wasn't shooting cardboard cutouts, no."
"Well, it's better than nothing."
Muffled gunshots from further along the ship brought his attention back to the situation at hand. People were dying, and he was messing around. Motioning for Devin to follow him, Bill moved cautiously, his weapon at the ready. Heading along the deserted corridors of the ship, dotted with the occasional bloodstain or corpse, he became increasingly concerned that the mysterious boarders had moved on. None of the people on the ship had been robbed of their possessions, just cut down or moved along.
"Bill, over here!"
On the wall to his left, Devin was watching a monitor, which showed a live feed from the ship's canteen. There were roughly two dozen people sat on the floor, hands on their heads. In the middle of the room stood a huge man, dressed entirely with black with a facemask covering his mouth and nose. Towering over his comrades, the leader seemed to be giving orders while one man clad in heavily modified ODST armour, stood at his back. A skull had been painted onto his visor. After a few seconds, the leader looked up at the camera, and casually shot one of the civilians in the head. He nodded straight in it's direction before raising his gun. The feed went dead. Looking over at the young man, Bill saw a look of sheer terror in his eyes.
"He knows. He saw us."
"Calm down?! He's a freaking giant, he'll just gun us down like the rest, we're-"
"Shut up." Bill grabbed Devin by the shoulders and shook him. "We're going down there to save those people and get off this ship. Now, you're young, I can understand your fear. Stay here if you want, but the escape pods are down there too, Devin."
"But there's just two of us! We don't have anyone else on our side!"
Bill shrugged. "You've got me."
Devin snorted derisively, but froze when he saw the look the ODST had returned him. "What, seriously?"
Bill shrugged again. The odds of the pair of them taking down an entire group of well-armed mercenaries, along with their leader, who could probably crush their skulls in a second, were very bad indeed. Still, in his mind, it was better to walk into danger with some peace of mind about what would happen if he died. It generally helped with some of the crazier plans he'd come up with over the years. Checking the stolen rifle, he flicked the safety off and began to march towards the canteen. Devin watched him for a few seconds before sighing.
"Hold up, I'm with ya. Any plans?"
"Sort of. I was hoping to get the jump on them, gun a few down and get the rest chasing me so you can rescue them and escape."
"That's it? I don't hear anything about you escaping there."
"Never said I would."
"Oh" As they descended the stairway that would lead to the corridors adjacent to the canteen, he spotted a hatch in the side. Now, he had no real idea of what was in the vent, if it was trapped or just unopenable. He had never held or fired a gun before this day, or killed a person. What he had done, however, was watch a lot of movies. Vents were generally good things.
"Mitchell, have you acquired our cargo?"
"Yes sir, Mister Durovin is cooperating."
"Good, what about our guests?"
"You think that some people survived?"
"One of your teams isn't reporting in. I'm guessing that someone up there is playing hero."
"They're not my men. They're cheap, loyal and shoot straight."
From his position in the centre of the room, Magnus was overseeing the entire operation. Once his contacts had reported to him about the cargo being carried in this innocuous little transport, he just couldn't pass up the opportunity. ONI still thought they were so clever. Eight AI's, all packaged up and ready to be used on Circumstance as it recovered from the devastating attack last year. They were 'dumb', of course, only fit for working within their set parameters, but they were still worth a lot of money on the black market.
"Mitchell, I want everything out of here in three. Send Durovin over to me."
The skull-visored man stood up, carrying a small crate, and kicked a middle aged, besuited person over. He was trembling in fear, looking up at Magnus with a look of sheer terror as the massive man strode towards him, lifting him up by his collar and placing him on his feet.
"Now then" he intoned, his deep voice slightly distorted by the mask "So, you're the head of Durovin Industries? One of the richest men in UEG space, I hear"
"Please, I'll give you anything you want. Money, equipment, anything! Please don't kill me!"
"So, would you trade the lives of all these people for yours?"
Durovin barely gave the crowd a second look. "Yes, yes! Look, I'm worth billions. Get me to a biomet scanner at any bank, and you can have it all!"
Magnus inclined his head to one side, his cold eyes boring into Durovin. "How generous. All your money, your assets and the lives of these people." He turned to the other hostages. "Good news, everyone! Mister Durovin has volunteered to die in your stead. Bravo sir, bravo!"
The colour drained from the businessman's face. He fell to his knees, grovelling for mercy. "I have kids, please don't kill me! I'll give you anything you want, anything-"
Magnus' knee shot up under his chin. There was a dull crack and he fell to the floor, dead. "Thank you, Mister Durovin. Your children are better off without you."
At once, two men walked up and put the body into a black bag. They would need his biometric data-fingerprints and eyes-to access his accounts. Magnus deactivated the tape recorder. That was the voice. He was having a lovely day, but they had what they had come for. Time to leave. Already, Mitchell was setting up the fireworks. Two gunshots turned him round to see one of his mercs, unwary after watching the proceedings, fall to the floor. A man, dressed in a grey tracksuit, stepped out, rifle pointing right at him.
Bill raised his rifle soundlessly, never taking his eyes off the terrorist leader that stood before him. Five others turned to him, weapons raised. He knew full well that he'd be dead in a second. The leader held a hand up, and his men stopped. The hostages were sat at the other side of the room, cowering. This was definitely the craziest plan he'd ever come up with. The man with the painted ODST armour moved forward, and stopped to peer at him.
"Hey Ash, this is a surprise."
"What the hell are you doing here?!"
"I could ask you the same question."
The leader, evidently smiling behind his mask, chuckled, and placed a gloved hand on Ash's shoulders. The former trooper shuddered involuntarily at his touch. "Will there be a problem, Mitchell?" He asked calmly.
The other men had begun to plant charges around the room. They were C-13 det packs, powerful enough to hit the engines and obliterate the ship when set off. One hostage attempted to crawl towards the door, and was executed without a second thought. Bill raised his rifle, and was met by his former comrade's own. He'd known Ash Mitchell for years, and was almost certain that he would win in a situation like this. The problem was, however, that Bill just couldn't allow that to happen. He looked back over his career, all the battles, secret missions and people lost. Surviving Tribute and Earth. Facing the skull-painted visor, he grinned.
"What's so funny?"
"You know, I never expected things to end like this."
"How did you think you'd die?"
"Well, though I'd love to die in my bed at a hundred surrounded by loved ones, I always imagined it'd be a Covvie, not an old pal turned traitor. Guess you switched sides just like Mal did, eh?"
"Don't you mention him. I'm nothing like that man. This is just business."
That comment had really gotten to him. Before he took another step, the leader's hand came down in front of him. "Mitchell, back to the ship."
Ash paced slowly around Bill, closely followed by three of his masked compatriots, who kept their guns trained on him the whole time. Aside from the man guarding the hostages, it was just the two of them now. The leader surveyed him curiously, eyeing the cross around his neck. Bill stared back into two fathomless red eyes. He felt strangely at peace. Devin's plan might have failed. For all he knew, the kid might have abandoned him and headed for the escape pods, or even perished in there. It was okay. He understood.
"So, you haven't tried to shoot me yet, what are you waiting for?" asked the man, his arms folded.
"Nothing. Who are you?"
"Just a simple revolutionary. If it's names you want, then Magnus will suffice."
Magnus. Bill had heard of him, or at least the spook stories told about the figure. Though ONI had done their best to try and cover it up, many things had cropped up over last few years. As with most legends, there were many versions. Some believed that Magnus was merely a pseudonym for a group of Insurrectionist leaders, while others saw him as a single man controlling the rebels from afar. Others labelled him as a talented mercenary. Whatever, or whoever, Magnus was, the name had terrified some of the prisoners they had taken and even instilled fear into some UNSC leaders. He wasn't even sure if the person in front of him was the real Magnus; he might just be using the name to cover his tracks.
"Magnus, eh? I've heard of you. So, what happens now?"
"Now, I'm afraid that you and everyone else on this ship dies, while I escape. If it's any consolation, you helped pave the way for a bright future, friend."
"Bullshit. I've met enough innies in my lifetime to know what you are: A psychopath. Plain and simple. It's the illusion of sophistication that usually gives people like you away. It's pathetic how-"
A gloved hand had shot forwards in a blur and seized him by the throat, lifting him off his feet. He hadn't even had time to take a breath. Bill kicked to no avail as the life was slowly squeezed out of him. Looking down, back into those eyes, he could, or at least imagined he could, see fire reflected in them. His vision began to blur, everything slowly fading from focus. There was a loud crash from the other side of the room and the sound of gunfire. His attacker dropped him to the floor and opened fire with his own pistol several times before leaping over him and sprinting down the corridor.
Taking frantic, gasping breaths, Bill crawled across the floor as his vision returned, picking up his rifle and pointing it at a blurred shape moving towards him.
"It's me!" shouted the blur, which after a few seconds became Devin, looking nervous and panting heavily. He held out a hand and helped the ODST to his feet. Across the room, another guard lay riddled with bullets. In spite of his survival, Bill felt a twinge of disgust at allowing the young man to kill his first human being, even if it was to save him. The hostages were on their feet, and making a racket.
"Bill, we'd better go, right now."
Looking over, the C-13 charges had began to pulse, a little red light slowly blinking faster. That wasn't good. Red blinking lights were never good. As he recalled, looking at the sign on his way here, the escape pods were a deck below. They'd better move. He fired his rifle into the air, ignoring the frightened screams.
"Everyone with me, NOW!"
The ship had detached itself from the civilian transport. The survivors of the raid sat at their stations while Magnus took the helm. They had acquired the package of AI's, and Durovin's corpse, which had been put in a cryo-chamber immediately. In spite of the loss of a few men, the operation had been a complete success. Ash Mitchell sat by his console, the battered helmet on the floor by his chair. Meeting Bill had been unexpected, at least. The ship juddered slightly as the civilian one exploded behind them.
"Mitchell, check if there are any survivors. They may have reached the ship's lifeboats."
He brought up the console, and scanned the debris. Mitchell was unsure why Magnus had chose to flee rather than kill the interlopers, probably due to the fact that someone had 'accidentally' started the timer for the charges. Something flashed up. Dozens of little orange heat signatures within little metal boxes, slowly moving away from the doomed transport. Deactivating the screen, he turned to his boss.
Magnus nodded, and returned to navigating their ship outsystem. Ash Mitchell picked up the helmet, and turned it over in his hands, examining the skull he had painted on months ago. It was a little worse for wear than it had been when he'd left the UNSC, but constant repair and upgrades had given him the much-needed edge. He thought back to what Bill had said about Mal Roberts, a former comrade from long ago. Of course, they had left the UNSC for different reasons, but over the years he had done a lot of things that he hadn't been proud of. He owed Bill, at least.
Next time, they'd be even.
Aboard the cramped confines of one of the ship's lifeboats, Bill Cross watched as the transport ship blossomed with flame and broke apart. They'd launched with less than half a minute to spare, and were currently drifting within pickup range of Circumstance's defence fleet.
"Did everyone make it?" asked Devin, who was sweating profusely.
"Those assholes got away."
"Yeah," he said tiredly, staring at the rapidly-dwindling shape of Magnus' ship as it disappeared into Slipspace. "We're alive though. Are you okay?"
"Not bad," he wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Adrenaline's wearing off, you know? Not every day you get involved in a hijacking."
Bill nodded. "You did pretty well today, Devin. Was it the Army you were going for?"
"Here's my advice: Join the Marine Corps instead, and in a couple of years apply to join the Helljumpers. You'd make a good trooper."
His eyes lit up. "Really?"
"Sure. I'll even put in a good word for you."
"Well, I'll think about it."
Bill stood up and clambered through towards the tiny one-seat cockpit, ignoring the stares from the still-terrified former hostages. He'd been stretching the truth a little with Devin's competency, but he figured that the kid needed a morale boost after going through all this trauma. Besides, he'd never get any glamorous assignments in the goddamn Army. The nearby COM crackled to life.
"This is the UNSC Boston, Circumstance Defence Fleet. Lifeboat craft, do you copy?"
He switched on the speaker. "This is Gunnery Sergeant Bill Cross, 11th ODST. Our ship was just destroyed in a hijacking. Most of us passengers made it out, but the hijackers got away. Over."
There was a long pause.
"Copy that. Divert course towards our Destroyer's landing bay and we'll pick you up, over and out."
Bill switched the COM off and leant back in his chair. He wasn't looking forward to the next few hours of interrogation he'd surely face at the hands of the ship's crew regarding the incident, and he sure as hell wasn't looking forward to telling them that one of the hijackers was a former highly-decorated ODST officer. He and Ash had been friends, once. Still, a thought was niggling at the back of his mind:
Why didn't they just wipe us out?
Surely a professional hijacker like Magnus and a former ODST like Mitchell would have taken out the lifeboats? They had no defences and would've made for easy targets for that heavily armed freighter. Perhaps it was just luck that had saved them, but Bill couldn't help but wonder if Ash had either convinced Magnus that they weren't worth destroying or lied about their status. It was probably just something convenient his mind had cooked up; an excuse to not see his former friend as a vicious criminal. He mulled it over for a few seconds as the hull of the UNSC Boston loomed overhead, and eventually sighed.
Consider yourself an anonymous terrorist when I'm asked about you, Ash. For old times sake.