|2021 Hours, September 1st, 2557
Tomino Ballroom, New Corsica, Jastolo
"Your pass, sir?"
Winston Zhou tore his gaze away from the marble-columned façade to face the doorman, who extended a white-gloved hand towards him. Reaching into the pocket of his dark coat, he fished out a piece of laminated cardboard and handed it over. Though the doorman flashed Winston a supercilious glance, he quickly scanned and verified the square and handed it back with the falsest of grins before gesturing towards the ballroom's entranceway.
"In you go, sir. Have a lovely evening."
Winston nodded. "Thank you."
The doors swung open automatically as Winston approached, and he advanced at a steady pace into the main foyer, where a few partygoers were milling about. He'd shown up fashionably late - an hour after the planetary governor's birthday celebrations kicked off - and was paid little mind by the pleasantly inebriated guests. Dressed in a plain black suit and tie, Winston looked like any other somebody in the ocean of schmoozers and hangers-on that this sort of event attracted, and passed quietly through the throng of people towards the main function hall, discreetly tossing his coat under a table when none of the red-suited staff emerged to take it for him.
For such an ostentatious event, security seemed far too light. He'd spotted several small and unobtrusive drones whirring over the building as he approached, and the armed sentries at the gates had been less suspicious of a man from offworld in a rented car showing up than the hotel staff at the door had been. If they'd been anywhere close to attentive, they would have done more than take a two-second look at his fake ID. They might have even found the M6C handgun holstered beneath his jacket, or the slightly less conspicuous M6K pocket pistol strapped to his right leg.
That's the Inner Colonies for you, Winston stopped, feeling his nose twitch. War's over and they go right back to partying without a care in the world.
Winston sniffed twice, detecting an all too-familiar scent in the air. Gunpowder. After checking his suit in a discreet manner and looking round for the source, he realised that the source was his coat. It stank of smoke and ammonia; a lingering reminder of a close encounter with some heavily-armed underworld types on Noctus a week ago. No wonder the guy outside was suspicious, Winston clicked his tongue in annoyance. Forgot to wash the damn thing. Sloppy mistake.
With that minor gaffe out of the way and a note to burn the coat in his mind, Winston pressed on towards the main hall. Saccharine pop music bled softly through the walls and under the doors as he approached, slightly surprised that Jastolo's upper crust weren't favouring some tinkly nonsense from a bygone era for one of their functions. He slipped into the hall unnoticed, taking only a moment to stare at the abstract holo-sculptures twirling above the packed dance floor, where a hundred drunkards cavorted in the semi-darkness while others laughed and jeered around them.
Somewhere in this sea of bodies was his target.
Winston moved around the edges of the expansive ballroom at a slow pace, scanning every face he came across. Those few who caught his eye looked away, though a few passers-by traded winks or fluttered their eyelashes at the rough, broad-shouldered stranger in their midst. At one point someone groped at Winston's bicep, though he shook it off and fixed the offender with a sharp glare that sent them packing. As the fast-tempoed pop song came to a close, the lights overhead brightened, giving those on the dance floor time to escape before a crooning love song started to scattered cheers and applause. It was here that Winston caught - just for a moment- the glint of a pair of glasses from one besuited former dancer as he made a beeline for the bar. He followed.
Keeping his distance from the crowd barking drink orders at a pair of overwhelmed bartenders, Winston kept his eyes on the man's back, watching him barge his way towards the counter with a hundred-cred chip in hand. When he emerged with an entire bottle of turquoise liquor, Winston was still watching, and as a beam of light from the roaming spotlights cut across his face he knew he'd found his target. Muttering a curse as he blocked the light with his free hand, the man's eyes wandered to one side, and settled on Winston, standing not three feet away. His face fell.
Winston did nothing, and met his gaze with a cold stare. After three seconds, the man's lips curled into a contemptuous smirk and he inclined his head towards an empty table by the bar. Both men made their way towards it, and Winston quickly unbuttoned his jacket. Though it would be hard to see in this light, anyone close would notice the sizeable handgun strapped to the side of Winston's chest. His target certainly did, and sat down heavily opposite Winston.
"Winston Zhou!" He exclaimed, nodding his head with a smile. "I've gotta say, I didn't think this was your scene."
It was a name that had sat unpleasantly in the back of Winston's mind for well over a year now. Back when he was first making a name for himself in the criminal underworld, Winston had taken up a contract on the life of one Toby Maxwell, a ludicrously wealthy and obscenely unpleasant young man that the galaxy was better off without. Unfortunately, he had greatly overestimated his skills and the machinations of the idle rich and was drawn into a trap sprung by Maxwell's bodyguard, one Gordon Mills. That day, Winston lost his right eye to the gunfighter and would have died were it not for sheer luck and the intervention of a kindly stranger. He'd pulled off the contract eventually, but Mills escaped with his life.
"You don't look too happy to see me," Mills laughed, filling a tumbler with liquor. "Still sore about Madrigal?"
"Not exactly." Winston kept his eyes on Mills, waiting for any sudden movement. "I'm here on business."
"Uh-huh?" Mills downed half his glass in a single gulp, and shook his head. "Me too. You hear about Driscol?"
Winston nodded. Months ago, Mills had worked under Carlos Driscol, a notorious mercenary and former rebel leader who had seized control of an independent settlement on the abandoned colony of Madrigal. Driscol, who had saved Winston from certain death several years ago, had run the place like a king until the UNSC got themselves involved. The whole incident had ended with the settlement retaken, a military destroyer obliterated, and Driscol and many others dead. Winston survived Madrigal - begrudgingly - due to Mills sparing him after an ambush, as both mercenaries had been working there on orders from the Office of Naval Intelligence, but enduring such a humiliation had lit a fire in Winston. Only training and self-control kept him from reaching for his gun.
"Madrigal was a mess," Mills continued. "Still, that bastard lost his army and I got paid. What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You still working for ONI? I know they like to keep you contractors at arm's length, but if what I heard about you and that destroyer is true then they'd be stupid not to have you on payroll."
A crack formed in Winston's stoic demeanour, and one corner of his mouth twitched upwards. "Yeah. I am."
"That so? Who're you after, or is it on the need-to-know?"
Mills let out a soundless laugh, and refilled his drink. "I'd ask if you were joking, but I know you're a humourless bastard, Zhou. Who wanted you to do me in? Was it Redford? Smug prick's never liked me."
Winston took a moment to answer, taking great pleasure in watching Mills' subtle breakdown. Though he retained his flippant demeanour, it took only a few seconds for the signs of panic to register: a quiver of the lip below his moustache, a widening of the eyes, and a barely perceptible shake in the hand clutching his half-full drink. The enormity of the situation hadn't fully sunk in yet for Mills, but even he had realised in the past few seconds that if ONI's BRUTUS division wanted you dead, then nothing could save you.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the specifics of my contract," Winston raised his voice slightly as the love song reached its crescendo. "Now, how do you want to do this?"
Mills' eyes darted around the ballroom, searching for exits. They both knew that a single gunshot in here would cause immediate panic, and any trouble at a gubernatorial event like this would have the hammer of law enforcement brought down hard on them in minutes. It was then that Winston realised something: Mills was still with ONI. Even working with a low profile as all BRUTUS field agents did, he'd have some identification ready and waiting. Winston had nothing. There were no documents detailing his mission here, and aside from a brief conversation in an ONI office that was already scrubbed from the records he had no proof that he had been acting under orders.
And Mills knew it.
Winston's right hand shot to his holster at once. Mills yelped in surprise and scrambled backwards, knocking over his chair as he grabbed his bottle of expensive liquor and flung it towards the assassin. The ballroom darkened as another song - this one with a fast, thumping beat more at home in a nightclub - began, leaving the two in darkness for several critical seconds as Winston knocked the bottle aside and tried to level his handgun at Mills. The retreating agent lunged for a service door close to the bar and pulled it open, briefly illuminating himself in a shaft of light as he pulled himself through it. Unable to get a clear shot, Winston gave chase.
As far as pursuits went, it was not a particularly spectacular one. Winston moved as quickly as he dashed through a sparse corridor after Mills, passing through several storerooms. Though he had taken the man off-guard, Winston had no way of knowing if Mills was armed, and kept his M6C levelled, catching only glimpses of his prey as Mills rounded corners and crashed through doors. The pair eventually found themselves in a long, narrow passage, and as Mills threw himself towards an exit door Winston finally opened fire. The first shot went wide, smacking into the masonry by Mills' head, though the second ripped past his upper shoulder, sending the man reeling to one side as he all but fell through the door with a pained cry.
Eager to finish the hunt, Winston ran after Mills, emerging on a balcony that overlooked a garden of ornate statues and finely-kept topiary. The moment he rounded the corner, Mills lunged forward, brandishing an M6K - the same kind of pocket pistol Winston was keeping as backup. The first shot flashed close enough to make Winston flinch and Mills quickly closed the gap, trying to knock his opponent's high-powered handgun aside. Fighting too closely to land a reliable shot, Winston used his pistol as a cudgel, slapping Mills' sidearm aside before he launched himself at the older man knee-first. Reacting quickly, Mills grabbed Winston's leg and wrenched him sideways. Both men fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs, and their guns skittered away across the concrete.
Mills was first on his feet, and immediately seized his advantage with a kick to Winston's ribs that winded him. Gritting his teeth, he weathered three more blows from the wiry fighter as he struggled to his feet. With his stocky build and muscular frame, Winston could easily overpower Mills with a few solid hits. Keenly aware of this, the agent evaded the assassin's first lightning-fast punch and leapt for Winston, crashing into him with all of his weight. Taken aback by this unorthodox attack, Winston stumbled backwards and soon found himself toppling backwards over the balcony's low railing. Grabbing the side of Mill's head as they fell, Winston twisted his body round, putting his attacked between him and the stone steps several metres below. As his glasses flew off, Mills made a panicked noise and struggled in vain before they both hit the ground with a heavy crunch. Hearing the familiar crack of bones breaking, Winston knew the fight was over.
Mills howled in agony, looking down at the piece of splintered bone poking through the side of his right knee before fixing Winston with a hateful stare. "You piece of shit!"
Winston stood up and brushed himself off, hoping that the fall hadn't torn his suit. Mills crawled pitifully down the stone steps, dragging his useless leg as he tried in vain to escape into the ballroom's gardens. Reaching down, Winston extracted the pocket pistol from his leg holster and thumbed the safety off before approaching Mills, who had given up after the first few feet.
"Is this about the eye?!" He spat angrily towards Winston. "Christ, it was business! You of all people should know that it wasn't anything personal, but hell, why follow your own rules? You might've thought you were hot shit because you spent a year doing dirty work and making a name for yourself, Zhou, but it ain't gonna last, you hear me? As good as you are, your name's already dirt with anyone who's anyone, and you know why?"
His curiosity piqued, Winston deigned him with a response. "Why?"
Mills grinned through a mouth of bloody teeth. "Because you're a whore, Zhou. Because you'd lie down with anyone who paid you and didn't give two shits about who you killed as long as the money's good. Everyone knows your word's worth shit as long as the other guy pays more, and that's why you've run to ONI: because they're the biggest criminals of the bunch. That's why you're killing me. too."
Winston sighed, and brought his free hand up to the side of his head. He tapped two fingers against the faint white lines of surgery scars and blotches of synthetic skin. Then, he pointed towards his right eye, and its dull, mechanical stare. "I'm killing you because you beat me."
"What?" Mills breathed, still in horrible pain.
"I'm killing you because you beat me. An eye's one thing, and you betraying Driscol is another, but I can't let what you did stand. Especially not twice."
Mills muttered something incomprehensible, unable to find the right words. Eventually, he shook his head and met Winston with a final, defiant glare. "You're crazy."
Winston shot Mills twice in the head, and watched as he flopped limply against the stony ground. He slowly breathed in a lungful of fresh garden air, then let it all out again, and laughed. It was flat and monotonous, but a laugh nonetheless. Now he would have to leave. If he was lucky and their brief fight hadn't been detected, then Winston had a good chance of walking right through the front doors like nothing happened. If not, then things would get interesting.
Winston turned to leave, and found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He had heard no one approach, and its owner stood beneath the darkness of a stone pillar behind him,
"Fine work," a refined voice spoke from the total blackness in front of Winston, who had frozen. "I must confess, I worried about how you would execute this mission, but this is an agreeable outcome."
The pistol slowly lowered, and its owner stepped out from the shadows. It was an older man, pale and grey-haired, clad in a black suit and coat. He twirled the weapon round and offered it to Winston, who recognised it as his own discarded M6C. He took it without a word, feeling the newcomer's piercing glare upon him.
"Captain Redford," Winston said, calm once more. "I wasn't expecting you."
"Few do." Alexander Redford smiled. "I did consider sending someone else to observe your task, but for an unprecedented event such as this I thought it better to manage things myself."
"What?" Redford raised an eyebrow. "Did you think that BRUTUS would give up one of its agents so easily, Mister Zhou? That we would simply hand Gordon Mills to you on a platter simply because he is your most hated foe? We are not so kind as to hand out favours without wishing for something in return."
Winston swallowed. "As I understood it, our deal was that I would eliminate an underperforming agent in exchange for a new identity. One that would throw the syndicates and pirate factions off my trail."
"And that is what happened here. Winston Zhou, an assassin on the run, was tragically killed by a BRUTUS agent during a botched hit-job. His killer, one Gordon Mills, gains reputation as a man who put down the infamous hitman, and the criminal underworld's fear of Naval Intelligence is reaffirmed."
Winston blinked, processing this information. "You want to give me Mills' identity? I thought-"
Redford cut him off. "That Winston Zhou would simply fade into legend? I prefer to keep loose ends tied. Besides, I feel that your skillset would make you much more effective as Agent One-Six-Zero than the coarse gunman my predecessor chose for the role."
One-Six-Zero. Not exactly an appealing title, but he'd prefer being called that than 'Gordon Mills' for the rest of his life. "And now?" Winston asked.
"Now, we return to Earth," Redford waved for Winston to follow him as he made his way out of the garden and back towards the ballroom. "I'm not one for parties like this, though I am pleased that you didn't disrupt the festivities. Colonial governors tend to have short tempers and long memories when they discover meddlers from Earth."
As they walked, a quartet of black-garbed men marched past, carrying heavy backpacks. Redford gave them a polite nod as they passed, heading towards Mills' corpse.
"Will I require any more changes?" Winston asked as an unpleasant thought hit him. "My face, will I-?"
This got a genuine peal of laughter out of Redford, who waved the idea away with his black-gloved prosthetic hand. "Not at all, Mister Zhou. Section Two will disseminate the proper information about your demise, and reworking things like Mills' eye and finger scans will take seconds. I think you'll slip quite neatly into his former life, with a few added perks."
"Ones you'll discover once we return to Earth, Mister Zhou. Given your unique status within my organisation, I think that you deserve a few bonuses that the average BRUTUS agent sadly cannot enjoy. After all, you'll be working directly under its leader from now on."
Winston said nothing, and followed in the older man's footsteps as they bypassed the still-lively party within the ballroom through a service passage, with each exit guarded by a black-armoured soldier that fell into line as they passed. By the time Redford and Winston reached the building's front entrance, they were flanked by an entire squad and greeted by the open door of an armoured personnel carrier. Looking around, Winston saw no sign of the snobbish doorman who'd let him into the ballroom, or any other civilian, for that matter. Redford was first into the vehicle, and stooped for a moment to pick a neatly-folded object off the nearest seat. As Winston craned his neck to see what it was, Redford flung it into his face. It was soft, and reeked of smoke and gunpowder. Of course.
"One more thing, Agent One-Six-Zero. Leaving personal items at the site of a mission is generally considered something of a faux pas in the intelligence world, so try not to do it again. "
Winston nodded, pulling on his coat. "Understood, sir."