|1137 Hours, September 21st, 2556|
Camp Alpha, 1km outside of Avalon
Emerald Cove, Outer Colonies
"Kilo One-One, this is Green Wing, coming in to land. UNO is aboard, repeat, UNO is aboard."
"Copy that, Green Wing. We'll have a security detail ready."
A slate-grey transport vessel dipped beneath the clouds, flanked by a pair of heavily-armed Pelican dropships as it streaked towards the hillside encampment. Wire fences and black tents had been hastily erected around the camp in less than twenty-four hours, with black-armoured soldiers patrolling the perimeter at regular intervals. A tiny patch of land by the cliffs had been left bare, and as the ship's landing gear extended a dozen men stood at the ready, clutching heavy-duty battle rifles.
"Form up!" their Lieutenant barked, waving the group forward.
The men quickly moved to stand by either side of the docking ramp as it extended and the airlock cycled open, revealing a grey-haired man in a dark uniform. Frederick King strode down onto the grassy plain, nodding as his security detail saluted.
"Captain King," the Lieutenant approached, removing his helmet. "We didn't expect to see you down here."
"It's important," King replied, striding forwards into the camp.
"We've already gone over the list of captives you wish to interrogate. They're in separate cells, like you asked."
King nodded again. "The Jiralhanae first, I think."
"Got it. I'll ask that you keep your distance, sir. He killed quite a few of my men during the battle."
"Is he able to talk?"
"Yes sir. We've got him restrained and fitted him with a collar. The Bravo-Kilo knows that he'll have his head blown off if he tries to escape."
The pair walked towards the camp's edge, where a massive tent stood. Inside were what appeared at first glance to be metal shipping containers, albeit with doors welded on one side. Though simple, ONI had found them useful in temporarily holding prisoners; the complete darkness tended to break more people than any physical torture ever could.
"This one, sir,"
The Lieutenant stepped forward and unbolted the latch on one container. It swung open and a pungent odor emanated from inside. King seemed utterly unfazed as he stepped forward, rapping his knuckles loudly against the door as he approached.
"Can you hear me?" he spoke into the darkness.
After a few moments, there was a deep grumbling, and a voice responded to him in guttural English.
"Good. Do you know who we are?"
"O N I," the alien responded, spelling out each letter. "The group all Humans fear."
King flipped a tiny switch, and a set of lights flickered on within the container. Chained up at one end was a massive Jiralhanae, his grey fur matted and stained with blood - both Human and his own - in several places. Several of his teeth had been broken, and his bestial face was a mess of swollen bruises. A pair of heavily-lidded predator's eyes glowered at the man, making it clear that the prisoner was very much awake.
"Have you come to kill me?" he asked.
"Not at all, Saernus," King took delight in revealing that he knew the Jiralhanae's true name. "You see, we've been keeping track of you for some time now. Many of your kind still want you dead after you stole the Fist of Rukt."
"Had they been strong enough, they could have prevented its seizure."
"A fair point, though you were not able to rally the Jiralhanae together as you hoped, were you? They branded you a thief and you fled into the frontier, where you met Wade and her crew."
"You know a lot about me," Saernus chuckled. "How so?"
"Mostly guesswork, though you'd be foolish to think that ONI doesn't have spies among your own people. You see, I believe that the right person in the right place could truly make a difference, if used correctly. Your actions have - for better or worse - incentivized a number of warriors into trying to track you down. Mostly for the hammer, if I'm honest, but can you imagine what would happen if they found you leading a pack against the Sangheili?"
"Are you not at peace with them? The Arbiter is said to grovel and beg before a race he once hunted so fervently."
"I'm not asking you to act against Vadam. I'm asking you to work for us against the likes of Jul 'Mdama."
The Jiralhanae's eyes widened in surprise, only for him to burst out laughing.
"So you would have me as what? Your mercenary? I have fought under similar masters in the past, Human."
"We could kill you, Saernus. I'd prefer not to waste a valuable asset. Besides, wouldn't you like some revenge on the Sangheili, for all the trouble they have caused you? You'd be able to fight with our backing without attracting the Swords of Sanghelios' anger."
There was a long pause as the bloodied alien mulled it over. Eventually, his gaze returned to meet King's.
"You are - What is that phrase your kind use?" he pondered, "Silver-tongued? If I am properly armed and supplied, then I shall fight for you, Human."
King grinned. "Any feelings for Amanda Wade or her colony you failed to defend?"
"Wade saved my life and gave me some purpose, yes, but her pack could only offer day-to-day fulfilment while your kind promise me all I want and more. Free me and I will not begrudge you, Human."
The ONI agent turned to the man next to him. "Ensure that Saernus is released under heavy supervision and taken care of. Keep him here alongside your men; I will have a ship here within twenty-four hours to extract him. Let's move."
King spoke quickly, wasting no detail in his short, punctuated sentences. The soldier could only nod and wave for several of his men to release Saernus before walking King along to the second container. He had marked only three individuals to personally interrogate on this visit, and had an offer for each of them. As the door creaked open, King found himself looking at a skinny man slumped over in a wheelchair, his hands bound together and blonde hair burnt in several places.
"He's been like this since he woke up," the Lieutenant muttered. "We've not touched him, sir."
"Michael Goldberg?" King's usually-cold voice took on a quality approaching friendliness.
The man in the chair stirred somewhat, looking up towards the old man and his companion. He heaved himself up in his chair, arched his head back, and spat in King's direction. The agent sidestepped, his smile unfaltering as he met Goldberg's furious gaze.
"I'm not telling any of you a fuckin' thing," the captive hissed before King could speak.
"Because it's all pointless, ain't it? Avalon's gone and everyone's dead, oonskie. I've got nothing to say to you."
King shook his head and stepped into the container. The Lieutenant stood by, his face expressionless. King paced around the chairbound prisoner twice, waiting out the silence for a few moments before he sighed and turned to face Goldberg.
"I'm used to this kind of defiance. Truly, I am. Perhaps I could speak to you if you are unwilling to address me, Mister Goldberg. My name is Frederick King, also known as Agent One of the BRUTUS division. It has been my job for the past fifty-six years to dispatch trained infiltrators into known Insurrectionist groups, with the intent of destroying them from the inside or preventing potential attacks before they happen. One such agent and a personal protégé of mine was Alexander Redford, a man I believe you knew very well."
Goldberg's head rose at the mention of Redford's name, his eyes fully alert as he went from sullen ignorance to total, furious attention towards King. The agent allowed a smile to creep across his face as he continued.
"Redford was the man who saved you after your... little incident, I believe? Losing the ability to walk at such a young age must have been devastating, truly. His actions allowed us to limit the damage your group inflicted years ago, thankfully, and since then I have been tracking both you and Amanda Wade closely. It was I who slipped a Spartan infiltrator into your 'Avalon'. It was I who ordered the attack and utter destruction of that disgusting hovel you terrorists dared to call a settlement."
"You fucker!" Goldberg tried to lunge forward, only to fall as King kicked his wheelchair aside.
"I don't like to waste good people," the agent looked down on the man, writhing in impotent rage. "All that you've fought for has been for nothing, Michael. Wade and her fellows will be hunted down like animals and put out of their misery. I'm giving you one chance - one opportunity - to work for me. We've made amazing advances in medical science in the Inner Colonies, far beyond anything you could ever find out here. We could make you walk again, give you a career with a purpose, if only you'd tell us what you know. After the crimes you've committed, I am being extremely generous, Michael."
The crippled man turned around, his back against the container's wall as he gazed up at his captor. Tears seemed to well up in his eyes for a moment before he wiped them away. For the briefest moment, his hand extended towards King, only to clench into a fist as he grit his teeth and stared defiantly up at the ONI agent.
"You bastards killed Isabelle," he muttered.
"Isabelle fucking Marshall!" he roared. "She was done with all this Innie shit, you know. Just wanted to help Amanda in building a home out here, away from the UNSC and everyone else. It's all she wanted, and you went and murdered her. Choked to death, knowing that everything she'd worked so hard to build was about to be burned away. You think getting to walk or spend the rest of my life under supervision while I do your dirty work is a way out?! It'd be my idea of hell! So take your offer and shove it up your ass, you evil old fuck, because as far as I'm concerned, I'm already dead."
At this, King merely straightened up his collar for a moment, stepped out of the container, then turned around and whipped a handgun out of his belt holster. He fired twice. The shots sounded infinitely louder in the confined space of the metal container, ringing out across the campsite. Michael Goldberg slumped over sideways, two dark holes through his chest and forehead. The Lieutenant quietly closed the container door.
"Sir?" he asked, not daring to look King in the eye.
"Tell your men to dispose of everyone else in this campsite at once, barring the Jiralhanae. I'll make my final interrogation and leave this place. I want them burned and forgotten about, just like their settlement. Clear?"
As they strode across to the final container at the other end of the camp, the black-armoured ONI troopers began to drag prisoners from their cells and out towards the rocky cliffs nearby. King took the time to properly straighten himself up, acting as though he were in his finest dress blues as the cell door swung open. Inside was an elderly woman in tattered clothing, sat with her back to the cold metal walls. The agent considered stepping inside, only to halt at the last moment.
"Lieutenant, have her brought to my ship at once."
"That's an order."
King quickly exited the tent for some fresh air, watching as the surviving citizens and dwellers of Avalon were taken away. Some accepted their fate in silence, while others screamed and kicked and cried, unable to fight back against their masked executioners. He stood in grim silence, unsure of what to feel for the briefest of moments before simply shrugging the scene off and walking around the perimeter, taking the longest route possible towards his ship. King knew that such actions would only benefit mankind in the long run, and while distasteful, were just a sad necessity in this seemingly endless war. The Lieutenant awaited him at the ramp of his transport, looking slightly perturbed.
"We've put her in the living quarters, sir. Two guards."
"Good. Let's get this over with."
King strode up the ramp and made his way along the cramped corridor of his transport towards the room, which was little more than a table and numerous chairs alongside a small kitchen area. The woman was sat at the table, looking down in complete silence. King nodded at the guards, and took his place across from her.
She didn't look up. King glanced around at the Lieutenant.
"Was she injured or interrogated before I arrived?"
After a few moments, he realised what was up. "Leave. All of you."
"Sir, we can't-"
"Just stand outside, Lieutenant. Get the pilot to take off, too. Don't make for orbit just yet though, I want us to keep at an altitude until I give the order for us to return to the Iberia. Go."
The troopers did as ordered, filing out of the room. The door clanked shut, and silence reigned for nearly half a minute.
"You know," King attempted a smile. "You're probably a better torturer than I am."
The elderly woman slowly raised her head. Her white hair had been tightly bound into a bun, wrinkles lining her weather-beaten face. It was a face Frederick King hadn't seen in thirty-nine years, though the one thing that hadn't changed was her brown eyes, which met his grey ones with a stare that even he found uncomfortable. She exhaled slowly, and spoke.
"In all my years, I never thought I'd come face to face with the devil himself. But here I am."
"Marion, it's been so long."
"I thought you were dead for years, especially the war on. Even BRUTUS couldn't find you."
"I learned how to hide from the best."
"And yet here we are, after all this time. We've both gotten old."
"So," King drummed his fingers on the table, "When was the last time you saw Earth. We have to-"
"Fred, where's my son?"
Her question stopped King in his tracks, his faint smile dying instantly. Marion had barely blinked, her face dull and lifeless.
"Our son is fine, he's alive and well."
"I don't think you have the right to call yourself a father, Fred."
King stopped himself before he spoke. He was about to use the exact same words he'd used so many years ago that had provoked their violent parting. With one hand, he traced the deep scar that ran across his face, feeling something akin to nostalgia.
"I did what I did to save mankind, Marion. Even you should know that we wouldn't have won the war without the Spartans. Our son's entire life-"
"He didn't have a life," Marion said coolly. "That thing you replaced him with didn't have a life, Fred. You've sat for years up in your ivory tower, playing with lives like pieces in some big, fucked-up game. Does he know who you are?"
"Would you like to meet him?"
This caught Marion off-guard. She got to her feet, as did King. For a moment she looked as though she were about to spring towards him and continue their fight from decades prior, but in the end she simply sighed and crossed her arms.
"There are some things, Fred, that you can never undo. It sounds simple, but I don't think you've ever understood that. Every life you've destroyed doesn't mean a damn thing to you compared to the big picture, does it? We had a chance once to create something good, something just between us, and you ruined it. I don't know if I could ever face my son, knowing what you'd done to him. You can't imagine what it feels like, can you?"
King sighed. "You know my beliefs, Marion."
"Yeah, I do."
"So what now?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are you going to try and kill me again? Perhaps you'd like to return to wandering the colonies, doing whatever it is you've been doing for almost four decades. Maybe you want to go back to Earth and live in peace. I know enough to understand that I'll not be forgiven by you, Marion, but you've got a choice to do whatever you want with your life. Not many people get that."
For the first time, Marion Hollister smirked. "I'll be tracked and watched till the end of my days, won't I."
"That's how you'd like everyone, isn't it? Moving around, doing their own thing, but with you watching their every move. Forever."
"Better that than risk chaos."
"I thought as much. Just toss me in the brig and take me back to Earth already. I don't want to see you ever again."
"As you wish. Lieutenant!"
The door clanked open and the three troopers clambered into the confines of the living quarters. King glanced out of a nearby window, looking down towards he shimmering seas of Emerald Cove. As he looked away, there was a momentary scuffle from behind him as Marion attempted to violently push one of the guards. The man smacked her in the stomach with the butt of his assault rifle, making the old woman double over in pain. King leapt over, grabbing the man by the throat and pushing the gun of the other trooper aside.
"How dare you!" he roared, spittle hitting the guard's visor. "This woman is my prisoner, soldier, and not some thug for you to knock around. I'll have you sent-"
There was a tiny click from his left. In the momentary confusion, Marion had snatched something from the guard's belt: a grenade. The pin hit the metal deck, King barely having a moment to register the manic grin on Hollister's face as she tossed the device out to one side. His eyes followed it, wide with horror as it bounced through an open door into the tiny transport's engine room.
Before its Pelican escorts could react, the rear of King's personal transport burst into flame, the craft suddenly veering off to one side as it plummeted down through Emerald Cove's skies. The sudden destruction of the engine sent it into a death spiral, parts rapidly breaking off as the flames spread throughout the vessel. Just as it hit the ocean, it exploded with an almighty flash.
|0247 Hours, September 22nd, 2556|
UNSC Iberia, Emerald Cove Orbit
"Yes ma'am, we've recovered the vessel."
"Are there any survivors?"
"Hard to say at this point. We've got seven in the med bay now with various heavy injuries, though they say it's a miracle that we recovered anything at all. As for whether they're dead or alive? That's up to how fast the surgeons work."
"I understand. In any case, I believe it's time we speak about your position."
Standing within the ship's COM room, Agent Alexander Redford tried his best not to look exhausted as he delivered his report to Admiral Serin Osman, the head of ONI. He'd gotten a few hours sleep after his last mission, only to be awakened with news of some disaster down on the planet's surface. Captain King's ship had - it seemed - suffered some kind of malfunction mid-air and crashed, and while the Iberia's crew had scrambled as quickly as they could, it was doubtful that there would be any survivors.
"My position, ma'am?"
"Captain King has made it clear that he regards you as the best-qualified successor to run his organisation, Agent Redford. With Agent White's recent demise, it is clear that there is no one else he trusted more."
"So I'm to lead BRUTUS?"
"If King is either dead or fully incapacitated, then yes, you are. Full promotion and all."
"I see. Thank you ma'am."
"I expect a report on Captain King's condition within the next twelve hours. I've already prepared the necessary clearance data, access codes, and file updates, just in case. Osman out."
The moment the Admiral's hologram winked out, Redford turned and left the room at a jog, moving past crewmen and officers as he raced down to the ship's medical bay. Teams of surgeons were working as hard as they could to save any survivors of the crash, though it had been made clear that they were to prioritize a single man's life over all.
"Any change?" he spoke to one of the medical officers, a portly man who was replacing a set of rubber gloves.
"We're trying our hardest, sir. The initial procedures are complete, but for a man of Captain King's age, it's difficult to say if he'll pull through. The burns and scarring were quite extensive, not to mention the severe lacerations and near-dismemberment of the right leg. That will almost certainly have to be removed."
Redford nodded, arms clasped behind his back as he watched the cocoon of bandages and IV drips that was his mentor be wheeled across the surgery theater. They had attached devices that kept his higher brain functions going strong while they operated, though if he didn't pull through in time, then they would have to declare him legally dead.
"May I see him?"
"Go ahead," the officer waved him forward as the surgery team departed King's bed.
Feeling oddly helpless, the middle-aged agent stood above Frederick King, his face etched not with worry, but with vague interest in the man's plight. He'd spent decades as little more than a field agent, fuelled mostly by his extreme loyalty towards Humanity and the UNSC. Now though, Redford realised that his entire life could change if this man lived or died. He wouldn't interfere, of course. Merely watch. The officer approached him, clutching a datapad.
"Sir, Commander Sadiq wishes to see you. He wants to know if he can make the jump to Slipspace. We've been granted permission to rendezvous with the UNSC Hopeful."
"Hold on. I'll just-"
From the nearby bed, a set of monitors flared to life, bleeping as a strong, steady heartbeat emanated from King's chest. Even the medical officer seemed surprised at this.
"I'll not lie to you sir, I thought he was a goner."
"So did I. Will he awaken any time soon?"
"Hard so say, sir. Could be a few days, considering the anaesthetic, could be years if he's in a coma."
Could be years? Interesting.
At this, the agent gave a polite nod and strode out of the room, taking out a buzzing COM pad. It was the Commander.
"This is Captain Alexander Redford. Report."