David Kahn used with Actene's permission.
|2005 Hours, February 1st, 2540
Illios, Outer Colonies
The rain had barely begun to subside when the doorbell rang, pulling David Kahn out of his reverie. Sat back in a threadbare armchair, a half-empty glass of scotch in one hand, he had been content to spend the evening in a state of quiet relaxation, watching the kaleidoscope of changing colours through a rain-soaked window that looked out across the river towards the city centre. With an annoyed grunt, Kahn got to his feet, carefully set his glass down on a coaster on a nearby coffee table, and padded across the apartment, stopping for only a moment to slide open his coat closet.
Reaching up to a tiny shelf above the meagre collection of jackets and thick winter coats, his fingers found the cool metal grip of a handgun, and he fished it out before approaching the triple-bolted door. Beside it sat a wall-mounted panel, which lit up as the doorbell sounded a second time to show footage from the thumbnail-sized camera placed just outside Kahn's apartment. A dark-haired man in a grey suit stood on his doorstep, shaking rain droplets from a collapsible umbrella. He glanced up towards the camera and smiled, waving towards it with his free hand. Kahn felt a jolt of recognition, and let out an annoyed sigh.
Guess this had to happen eventually.
Kahn flipped the handgun's safety off and kept it in his right hand, pressing its barrel against the doorway while he undid the locks with his left. Most apartment complexes in the city made use of automatic doors, but with high rates of crime involving hacking tools sweeping the district it had become more common for residents to simply invest in sturdily built lock-and-key entrances instead. After fumbling with the last latch, Kahn pulled the door open a crack, one finger ready on the handgun's trigger.
No attack came. No gunshots rang out, and no armed soldiers came rushing forth. Stood atop the flight of stone steps leading to Kahn's apartment, holding his gloved hands up as if surrendering, was Alexander Redford. Younger than Kahn by some years, he looked very out of place in this part of the city, and greeted him with a warm smile and an appraising look.
"David!" Redford said brightly, as if greeting an old friend. "My apologies for coming by at this hour. May I come in?"
Illuminated by the glow of an overhead lamp, Redford stood out against the darkness of the street below. After a second, Kahn stood aside and gestured for the younger man to enter.
"Make yourself at home."
Redford nodded politely and stepped across the threshold, accompanied by a gust of cold wind that made Kahn shiver. It had been a long winter on Illios, and the weather hadn't helped much lately. Quickly stuffing the handgun into the back of his track pants, Kahn quickly shut the door and bolted it while Redford took in the sights of his little apartment.
"Sorry about the mess," Kahn waved a hand towards the near-immaculate kitchen area, where an unwashed plate stood out like a sore thumb by the sink.
Redford made an amused noise and dropped his still-dripping umbrella into a stand by the door before taking off his coat, acting deliberately and making no sudden movements. Kahn held out his hand to take it, and tossed it onto a peg inside the still-open closet. Removing his gloves, Redford slowly began to pace through the apartment, his eyes roving over every surface and door.
"What a lovely place you have here," said Redford, turning back to Kahn. "It looks..." He paused for a moment before finding the right word. "Cozy."
Kahn returned the polite smile, and crossed the room alongside Redford, keeping a few paces away from his visitor. "It's not much, but it's home."
"I'm sure you're both very happy with it." Redford lowered his voice as he pointed towards the closed bedroom door. "Is your lady friend sleeping?"
Kahn shook his head. "She's at a friend's place tonight."
A moment of silence passed between the two men. Though their postures were relaxed and their faces calm and happy, Kahn could feel himself tensing up inside like a coiled spring. Already his mind was calculating distances and draw times, while his eyes searched the besuited Redford for any signs of weakness. Taller than him by at least six inches and more powerfully built by far, Kahn knew that any physical confrontation would likely end in his favour, but he knew that it couldn't come to that. Redford knew it too.
"Can I get you anything?" Kahn said at last, inclining his head towards the kitchen. "Coffee, beer, soda...?"
"Coffee, please," Redford exhaled, and the tension dissipated a little. "Shall we sit down?"
Kahn and Redford crossed to the kitchen, and while Kahn busied himself with the coffee maker his visitor took a seat at the little table, placing both of his hands palm-down on the faded gingham tablecloth. Neither man said a word until they had two steaming cups between them, placed on slightly chipped porcelain saucers. Redford took a sip of the beverage, nodded approvingly towards Kahn, and broke the silence once more.
"It's been close to a year since your last check-in, David," Redford spoke matter-of-factly. "I'm told that you cut ties with your handlers, destroyed any communications devices you had, and simply vanished into the ether."
Kahn took a long sip of his own black coffee. It was foul even by this colony's low standards, but it kept him alert. "That does about sum things up, Alexander."
"Might I ask why?"
Kahn leaned back in his chair, making it creak as he folded his scarred, muscular arms across his chest. "Call it a crisis of faith," he said seriously.
"A crisis of faith," Redford repeated. Though the smile never left his face, his eyes grew cold. "In what, exactly?"
Kahn had been asking himself that same question for almost a year now. Out there, far away from Illios, raged a war of total annihilation against an alien empire known as the Covenant. Billions had already perished in the fighting, and despite the best efforts of humanity and its defenders - the UNSC - the human race was starting to lose. Kahn had fought that war for over fifteen years now, eliminating threats both internally and externally as part of the Office of Naval Intelligence's feared BRUTUS division, and had spent decades as an active participant in the war before that. He'd lived many lives under many names, honing himself into a living weapon without equal.
And despite that, he'd given it all up. Thrown away a lifetime of training and work within ONI to eke out an existence on this backwater. He'd even started living under another name - his birth name - , which had felt almost alien to his ears after so many years of disuse. David Kahn had gone dormant, living the simple life of a labourer with his own worries, far away from the complexities of the criminal underworld and the intelligence community, and blissfully ignorant of the encroaching horror of the war. He'd even found something resembling love here, and with it the first steps towards a 'proper' life.
"Alexander," Kahn adopted a more friendly, genial tone with Redford. "I've been in this game for a very long time. Fighting innies has been one thing, but I'm sure that you're more than aware of how badly things are going out there. It seems to me that no matter how many I kill, there's no difference that one man can make in a war that's going to be won by fleets and armies. That's why I left."
"So you're afraid of the Covenant?" Now Redford's smile was gone, his voice sharp and perfectly attuned to injure Kahn's ego.
Kahn snorted. "I'm being realistic, Alexander, so enough of the low blows. Do you really think that BRUTUS is going to bring about any real change in this war?"
"Don't you?" Redford said seriously. "Do you remember Operation: STARFALL, six years ago? What you and I accomplished on Sargasso?"
Kahn nodded. The pair of them - Agents Nineteen and Twenty - had worked together for the first time to foil a terrorist attack on Sargasso's orbital elevators. They'd been outgunned and outnumbered, but had saved thousands by successfully intercepting and eliminating most of the insurrectionists before they could do any real damage. Looking back, it had certainly been one of Kahn's prouder moments.
"That was a good op." Kahn took another sip of his coffee. "But you're talking about one mission, and it was a damn close one at that."
"I'm talking about making a difference here." Redford finished the rest of his drink in a single draught. "Now David, I'm afraid that I simply don't have the time to spend all night reminiscing about past missions, so allow me to skip any further pleasantries and get right down to business."
Kahn spread his arms, welcoming this change of tactic after dealing with Redford's false smiles and faux politeness. "Go ahead."
"I am here because you decided to go AWOL following the completion of a mission, cutting off all contact with command in the process. You then made an effort to conceal your continued presence on Illios and began working as a civilian under a different name, even entering into a relationship with one of the locals."
Kahn didn't bother asking how Redford knew so much. With ONI, 'how' and 'why' were never the right questions. It was always 'who'.
"You had people watching me." Kahn's eyes narrowed. "BRUTUS agents?"
Redford smirked. "A waste of resources. Had we wanted you dead, we would not be having this conversation right now. In truth, a security camera in a local liquor store caught a glimpse of your face a month ago and hit a match with our database."
Knew I shouldn't have bought that scotch. Kahn felt a pang of annoyance at having been caught out like that. In his years as a mercenary and infiltrator, he'd preferred locally-owned businesses or bought shopping through alternate identities to avoid detection. He'd let a longing for one of his favoured beverages - a rare import on Illios - get the better of him, and was now paying the price.
"Always the grid, isn't it?" Kahn forced a smile.
"Not always." Redford raised a finger. "Even with Smart AI programs, ONI's facial tracking software does occasionally lead to mistakes. From what I've been told, while this piqued our interest in sweeping Illios for signs of your presence, it was your choice of moniker that sealed the deal as far as tracking you down went."
Another mistake. Kahn's face didn't so much as twitch as Redford continued.
"While our own records only have you by your current name, David, it was Captain King who recognised you. You see, he recalled working with one 'Hector Thornhill' many years ago, and could easily put the name to your face. After that it was a simple matter of closely monitoring local surveillance grids that brought me to your doorstep."
Of all the men and women serving BRUTUS, only its leader knew of Kahn's birth name. Long ago, at the height of the Insurrection, he and another young officer named Frederick King had been among those recruited for the ORION project, which had fielded biologically augmented special forces personnel against the growing number of rebel groups in the Outer Colonies. Redford's own father, Harold, had also been among Kahn's comrades during those dark days of gruesome black operations and barely justifiable operations launched in the name of colonial stability. It was King who had recruited Kahn into BRUTUS decades later, wanting to add the assassin's talents to his own little coterie of killers, but he'd not expected the man to be personally involved in tracking him down.
"So," Kahn sighed. "What does King want?"
"Your safe return to the fold, of course." Redford's face suddenly looked aghast. "You didn't think that he'd have you killed for something like this, did you?"
Frankly, yes. Kahn held up both his hands. "Like I said, I've been in this game a long time. Rogue agents get killed or disappeared."
"Most, yes." Redford shifted his gaze away from Kahn for a moment, glancing towards the rain-spattered windows. "But you aren't most agents, David, and Captain King is aware of the strain a life like ours can put on one's psyche. We can provide proper help and - should you require more time away from your duties - make arrangements in-house. What we cannot have is a possible security risk wandering unattended through the general population."
There was a poorly-hidden note of pity in Redford's voice that instantly irked Kahn, who placed both elbows on the table and clasped his hands together. "Alexander," he spoke in a calm, flat voice, eyes locked with Redford's. "What's going on right now isn't the result of some mental breakdown. I've not cut and run because I'm frightened, or because of PTSD, or anything like that."
"Oh that's not-" Redford began, only to be cut off.
"All this-" Kahn gestured around the dilapidated apartment, with its cheap furnishings and sparse decorations. "-this was my choice. It's a change of scenery."
"And the woman?" Redford asked. "What about Miss Engel?"
Kahn swallowed. "She doesn't know anything."
Redford raised an eyebrow. "I find that difficult to believe."
"Believe what you want. As far as Dara knows, I'm just some labourer from offworld."
"With those scars?" Redford's eyes fell upon the old injuries that criss-crossed Kahn's bare arms and parts of his neck and face.
"I said I was a soldier." Kahn brushed him off. "She's too smart to try and pry."
"Or too afraid?"
Redford was deliberately trying to press Kahn's buttons now. Each response, framed as an innocent question, was backed up by a dozen unsaid accusations. Years ago he might have leapt across that table to beat Redford bloody for such an insinuation, but the years had taught him patience.
"She doesn't know a thing, Alexander." Kahn repeated, deadly serious as he locked eyes with Redford. "You think I'd spill my guts about everything I've done to anyone? To a civilian? You're out of your mind."
Redford blinked first. "All right, but you know this has to stop. "Enough playing house, David. Time for you to come back inside."
This was the what he'd been waiting for: the ultimatum. Despite the pleasantries and the questions and the hints, Alexander Redford had tracked Kahn down for one reason and one reason alone. The Office of Naval Intelligence was not an organisation that treated desertion lightly, and a man like Kahn was a walking security breach a mile wide if allowed to roam free. Kahn kept his mouth shut, eyes trailing off to look around the room once more, with its cracked walls and dim lights. Somewhere outside, a dog howled.
"What's the penalty?" Kahn asked, his tone suddenly much more businesslike.
"A reprimand and a tighter leash for a few months."
"Captain King," Redford began before sighing. "Has decided to show leniency in your case. In light of your exemplary service record and good standing within BRUTUS as one of his best men - his words, by the way - he wants to put this down as an error of judgement and put you back in the field as soon as possible."
Kahn tried hard not to appear too pleased. After all, Frederick King was not a man known for giving out compliments freely. "You don't seem entirely pleased with this arrangement," he said.
Redford drummed his fingers on the table for a few moments. "Do you remember agents Thirteen and Twenty-Two?"
It took a second to put names and faces to numbers, but Kahn nodded. "Worked with them a couple of times. Why?"
"They're dead." Redford's voice grew bitter. "The pair of them chose to elope together after a successful operation on Kholo, which was attacked and glassed by the Covenant shortly afterwards."
Kahn grimaced. He'd heard about the attack on Kholo, which very few had escaped from. "And our lovebirds?"
"They made it as far as Minab before they were identified. Captain King signed off on their disposal, and the rest is history. Do you see my point?"
"Yeah. You think I'm getting preferential treatment."
This was the first time Kahn had seen the usually unflappable Redford look anywhere close to uncomfortable. "Our rules," he said, working hard to reassume his usual expression of mild amusement, "Are usually absolute. Consider yourself lucky."
Kahn smiled, and finally drained his cup of now-lukewarm coffee. "I always do."
"Your answer, then?"
Redford was done playing games. Kahn took his time to answer, leaning back again in his chair while weighing up his options. Refusal meant death, naturally, either at the hands of Redford here or by whatever hit squad ONI almost certainly had on standby to bring him down. The agent sitting across from him didn't appear to be armed, and if Kahn was quick with the double-tap be could easily be in his bedroom and suited up within a few minutes at most. In an alcove cut into the wall inside his closet sat a duffel bag containing pieces of armour meant for UNSC special forces, a submachine gun, and a sheaf of documents that when presented to the right people would have him off Illios and headed for some other dirtball by sunrise. Even ONI would have a hard time finding Kahn then.
As long as he was alone.
Kahn's thoughts, which had immediately concerned themselves with his own self-preservation, now drifted to Dara Engel, the woman whose world he had stepped into close to a year ago. They had met at a munitions factory she worked at, and unlike most of the locals who avoided the mysterious offworlder, Dara had taken the time to get to know 'Hector Thornhill'. It had been slow at first, but Kahn had hit it off wonderfully with the younger woman and found himself living with her just a couple of months later. After years of living with one foot in the criminal underworld and the other in the intelligence community, found Dara's simpler life tremendously refreshing; from her there were no lies, no tricks and no hardships beyond those your average worker faced. He'd even come close to pushing ONI out of his mind. Almost.
Kahn swallowed heavily. "Is this offer just for me?"
At this, Redford let out a hearty laugh. "Of course not!" he shook his head. "You'll have to do some travelling, of course, but Captain King is more than willing to accommodate all three of you back on Earth. Congratulations, by the way."
Even though he knew not to be surprised, Kahn couldn't help but feel a slight jolt in his stomach. He knows about the baby.
A little over three months ago, Dara had arrived home with news that she was pregnant, leaving Kahn speechless. The pair had been living quietly together for a while, with few plans beyond living through the next few months on their respective wages, and suddenly everything was going to be turned on its head. Kahn had welcomed the news with joy at first, but in the afterglow of this happy news came his first doubts. A child - his child - would bind him to this planet, grounding him here just as Dara had. There would be no running away if ONI came or mercenary work to take up - not that there was much on Illios. Kahn had agonised over what to do for weeks, and spent many a sleepless night staring at the ceiling of his little bedroom as his mind raced. Despite his decision to live the live of a civilian, Kahn had tried his best to plan ahead. A child, and all that came with it, was nothing but chaos and unpredictability.
More than once, Kahn had considered running away. He'd written notes late at night, only to burn them by sunrise. Once, half a bottle into his favourite brand of scotch, he'd even stood in the doorway of his room with a loaded M6, having thought in a moment of madness that he could solve things in the only way he knew how. He'd abandoned such an idea quickly and shamefully, and as weeks turned to months had almost come to accept these new circumstances. Then, Redford showed up at his door.
"They'd live in an ONI facility, then?" Kahn thought of the housing complexes he'd seen in military bases, and tried to imagine Dara living in one.
"Oh, naturally," said Redford. "Somewhere a little more secure than your average base housing, of course, but they'd be safe. Men like you and I have plenty of enemies, after all."
Yes, we do... Kahn tapped a finger against the side of his empty cup.
In his mind he imagined returning home to an apartment - one nicer and cleaner than this one - to find Dara waiting for him alongside their child. He hugged these apparitions, enjoying their smiles and company, before turning back and heading out into the field, where yet another mission awaited him. Dara and their child - a girl in his mind, though neither he nor Dara wanted to know its sex at this juncture - stayed behind, safe and secure and locked away from the galaxy's troubles, until he returned once more.
Kahn blinked, more than aware that Redford had watched him trail off. As this vision of a future faded from his mind, Kahn felt a sudden sense of revulsion, as though these saccharine thoughts had compromised his unshakeable focus and mind of steel. Of course Dara wouldn't leave Illios, he realised. She'd argue, and I'd have to explain some things. Then ONI would tie her down somewhere and that would be the end of it.
"Are you all right?" Redford asked, cutting through Kahn's thought process.
"Of course." Kahn sat a little straighter in his chair, running a massive hand through his cropped, silver-streaked hair. "Though I've just had some thoughts."
"Do tell." Redford leaned forward.
"This change of scenery I was talking about?" Kahn waved once again around the little apartment. "It was more like an unplanned vacation."
"One that landed you with a child."
Kahn chuckled, and a cold edge settled over his voice. "It's not my problem."
Even Redford seemed a little taken aback by Kahn's sudden callousness. "You'd abandon it?"
"I'll leave some money." Kahn liked the fact that he'd finally said something to shock that repulsive snake. "Besides, Dara's a tough woman. Illios isn't like Troy or Cascade, so she'll get through fine without me."
Kahn spoke such conviction that even Redford clearly couldn't tell if he was lying or not, but every word was like a sudden breath of fresh air. Perhaps it was Redford's prodding or just the thought of being tied down as a father, with Dara and their kid stuck at home waiting for him in an ONI base for the rest of their lives, but Kahn felt as though he was seeing properly for the first time in a year. This rundown apartment wasn't home, and working as a labourer for some factory wasn't where Kahn belonged. He'd ridden down to planets inside orbital insertion pods and watched rebellions end through a sniper scope; humans and aliens alike had fallen by the dozen before David Kahn, whose name was still spoken in hushed tones by certain circles across a dozen worlds and who had lived life after life before and alongside this one. Why would he exist in obscurity, scraping by on an impoverished backwater when he could live as well as he wished between missions, with ONI's resources backing him every step of the way?
Kahn laughed suddenly, feeling relief at last. All that had happened since he had gone AWOL on Illios - working as a civilian, meeting Dara, living yet another life - had been like living a very strange dream, where a domestic existence had suddenly become appealing. Now it all seemed very, very dull. He'd spent his life training and killing and reaping the rewards that came with it, and all it had taken was a reminder of that life to snap him out of this nonsense.
Redford tilted his head quizzically. "David?"
"All right," Kahn said, turning his attention back to the expectant Redford. "Yes, I'll do it. I'll come back."
"Wonderful!" Redford clapped his hands together, showing none of his previous concern about Kahn's dismissal of his pregnant lover. "Then I will have two of our men meet you at the spaceport in three days time for your return to Earth. It will be a discreet journey, but a comfortable one."
Kahn got to his feet alongside Redford, and shook the man's hand. "Straight to King, I'd imagine?"
"Of course. I'm sure that he'll be glad to see you back, Agent Twenty."
With that, the visit was over. Redford took his coat, said his goodbyes, and was out of Kahn's apartment within half a minute. All it had taken was a simple 'yes'. After bolting the door shut, Kahn found himself alone once more. Gone were the sluggish feelings of a man content to spend his night relaxing in his own home, enjoying the quiet and awaiting whatever tomorrow brought. Kahn felt energised; ready to fight and eager to return to the galactic stage, where his reputation had undoubtedly diminished in his year away. All that remained here were a couple of loose ends.
Kahn had the notepad ready within a few minutes, and was hunched over the kitchen table with a pen in hand by the time the first pangs of regret tried to worm their way into him. In front of his fellow BRUTUS agent he'd indulged his selfish side, eager to abandon the pregnant Dara if it meant reclaiming his old life, but even Redford had shown surprise at his willingness to leave her behind. Kahn thought of her again, sat within ONI's clutches like a bird in a cage for the rest of her life. He'd been against that not out of any logical thought, but out of a gut feeling born from decades of well-founded paranoia. Or at least, that was what he thought it was.
It would be close to midnight before David Kahn's pen finally touched the paper. It was a brief note, barely containing a fraction of a fraction of what he wished to say, but it explained enough. When it was finished, he carefully folded the note, took it into the bedroom, and placed it into a worn duffel bag, where it would sit for two more days. Dara would return tomorrow, after all, and Kahn wouldn't have offworld transport for another three days.
Seventy-two hours left in the dream, Kahn noted, returning to his old chair across from the window. The city lights across the bay were brighter now, their colours clearer and less streaked now that the rain had passed. He'd enjoy it while it lasted.