- "Killers aren't born, they're made. The quality of the killer in question depends on the time and effort their forger invests in them."
- ―David Kahn explaining his training methods to Redmond Venter
|Unknown time, November 24, 2567 (UNSC Calendar), planet Guinea IV, Septimus System|
The two assassins landed on Guinea IV in their small spacecraft and then spent the next four days slogging and hacking their way through the thick jungle that carpeted most of the planet. Or, to be more precise, one of them did the hacking. She also carried their M45A sniper rifle along with her own gear and found shelter every night for the both of them. Apart from his own survival gear, her companion did nothing to help her. Even on the second day, when a large feline creature jumped the small girl he was traveling with, David Kahn didn't lift a finger to save her. Instead, he sat down and watched as the girl drew the combat knife holstered on one of her slim shoulders and slit the alien's throat. He didn't say a word and his stoic expression never so much as twitched as she wiped the blood off her face and gathered the gear back onto her back.
It would have been easy for David to handle the rifle and possibly the girl's gear along with his own as they advanced through the jungle. It would have spared the girl a mountain of aches and bruises, cuts and scrapes, and even--at the end of the first day--a sprained ankle, especially since the rifle was too big for her. They might even have moved faster as well. But that wasn't why he was here. David simply shadowed the girl, following her wordlessly at a distance and watching her impassively. The girl, for her part, barely acknowledged his presence as she struggled through thick shrubbery, rushing streams, and clouds of stinging insects. She knew from experience that on a trek like this, any plea for help or even a pained look at her companion would merit a series of sharp blows to various pressure points and other painful areas across her body. And even worse, it would mean that she had failed her mentor.
Yes, this was Nimue's test. And no matter how much pain it caused her, she was determined not to botch it.
At barely thirteen years, the girl known only as Nimue was tall for her age, with slender arms and legs that belied the power that genetic tampering and years of arduous training had endowed in them. Her dark hair--now clotted and filthy with dirt--was tied back behind her head and her skin, which was barely visible under a coat of mud and dried blood, had been bleached by countless hours spent under the unforgiving suns of several different star systems. Both she and Kahn wore dark green jumpsuits that had been fitted with the latest in heat dispersal and surveillance-blocking technology.
By her fourth day in the jungle, every muscle in Nimue's body was screaming for an end to the march. Every step was torture, and as much as she tried to hide it, she knew that her mentor could read the pain through her body language from where he was trailing a few yards back. But she was close to the target now, that much was certain.
She knew this because she'd already had to scramble for cover twice when a patrolling Phantom dropship had passed by and then doubled back. Kahn had melted into the jungle even better than she had, but he wasn't her concern; the Phantom was.
A few hours after the Phantom's second pass, Nimue was taking a short break for water when a trio of Banshee fighters soared overhead. She managed to take cover in time, but they'd flown so close to the treetops that she'd almost broken into panic. Luckily, years of Kahn's rigorous training held, and she'd held her position.
They hadn't encountered any foot patrols yet, and Nimue didn't expect any to show up. This was an arms deal, Kahn had told her as they'd approached Guinea IV's surface. That was good for them because it meant that both participants would be wary of panicking the other by bringing too many troops; their defenses would mostly be concentrated at the actual meeting spot, in case the deal went sour and things got violent. Nevertheless, she was on constant lookout all the same, just as Kahn had trained her to be.
But no squads of guards troubled them, and they reached the designated spot at nightfall on the fourth day. This was the area that she'd designated for them during the mission planning session they had held while their ship was traveling through Slipspace. She'd done all the work for that as well, choosing the equipment they would bring, the clothes they would wear, and, most importantly, where they'd be shooting from.
Using the intelligence Kahn had received from the organization that had hired them for this hit (a rough description of where the meeting would take place, a data file on the Sangheili they needed to kill, and an orbital map assembled by a UNSC surveillance drone) she had picked a small outcropping that jutted over a cliff and was roughly a mile away from the target. With the M45A's high range and powerful S/AP-HE ammunition, she'd be able to kill even a fully shielded Sangheili at this distance without a problem.
Once Nimue had settled down, pulling a camouflage blanket from her pack and draping it over herself, she disassembled the rifle and cleaned it thoroughly. As expected, four days of marching through the jungle had left plenty to scrub out. Once that was done, she reassembled it and checked its sights to ensure they were calibrated. She then scanned the area for as far as she could see, picking out every landmark that stuck out and caught her eye, be it a taller than average tree or a rock formation. All of these were logged away in her mind as possible hiding places for enemy snipers; any changes to them meant that she'd need to immediately scan those areas for movement.
Resting the M45A's bipod on the ground in front of her, she honed in on the location they'd been told the arms deal would take place. Two Phantoms, both painted with different markings and colors were parked in the designated clearing. One was guarded by a trio of Sangheili wearing the simple colors of regular mercenaries and a squad of the bird-like Kig-Yar. The other was guarded by four Sangheili in bright white armor; a fifth's was painted violet. Those were the ones she needed to pay extra attention to. Her target belonged to that group: the Sangheili faction known as "The Fallen."
But the arms deal wouldn't take place until the early hours of Guinea IV's morning, and the sun was only beginning to set. Biting back a weak groan of exasperation, Nimue steeled her nerves and fell back on the patience training Kahn had given her.
It was going to be a long night.
David Kahn chose a secluded spot in a clump of moss-covered rocks a stone's throw above Nimue's position. He'd brought a camo blanket identical to hers, and he settled down under it with a high-powered scope in hand to scan the area for himself. From where he was looking in the fading sunlight, he could barely see where Nimue had settled down even after having seen her get into position. She'd taken everything he'd drilled into her, ingrained it into herself, and in some cases even made her own improvements to it.
He'd spent close to a decade training her; the longest job he'd ever undertaken in his long, brutal mercenary career. The Humanity Liberation Front wanted an assassin, so they'd played around with a bunch of test-tube babies' genes, trained those that survived their artificial birthing, and given this one--they'd called her "Nimue" and she'd never answered to any other name--to Kahn and asked him to teach her everything he knew.
The three year old child had also come with a ten million credit advance payment and a well-equipped, secluded bunker to live in, David reminded himself. He wasn't doing this out of the kindness of his heart; when he did things like that, he preferred that they be more along the lines of holding doors for the elderly instead of taking ten years out of his life to turn a little girl into a killer.
And that was exactly what he was doing. He'd been paid to ensure that the girl lying under that camo blanket became the deadliest killers he could make her. That's what Redmond Venter had told him when he'd accepted the contract.
"Teach her to do what you do best," the Insurrectionist had told him. "Make her better than anyone else: I don't even want the UNSC's Spartans to be able to top her."
Looking down at Nimue's hiding spot now, David's mind was entertaining two extremely contradictory thoughts. The first thought was wondering if he was succeeding in his task. Was Nimue on her way to becoming the master assassin that Venter had hired him to train? Her skills were top-notch to be sure, even better than David had hoped they'd be. But from what he'd seen on the trek here, he clearly hadn't honed her endurance enough. Had he been alone, he probably would have cleared the march in two days or less; it had been good that he'd timed their touchdown with plenty of margin for error. Of course, even with all of the augments that had been pumped into her before she was even born and a life consisting of literally nothing else besides training, Nimue was still just a thirteen-year old girl. He couldn't expect everything from her at this point in the game.
But that was just the problem: Nimue had turned thirteen less than a month ago. This mission would be her first kill, the first time she graduated from merely helping David in some of his jobs to actually doing the job herself. This was the point at which she started taking lives, and if things went according to plan she would have a long, bloody road ahead of her after this.
David didn't like to reminisce about the path he had taken to end up as he had; that dredged up memories, painful memories that he preferred not to think about. But he could still remember the first time he'd ever sighted down a scope and pulled the trigger on someone else's life. He'd been thirteen then, if he was remembering that murky haze correctly. But he was absolutely certain that all of the choices he'd made had been his alone. He had chosen this path. Nimue hadn't.
There was no end to the terrible things David saw in the galaxy. Hell, he waded through terrible things every day of his life. He did plenty of those terrible things. But to do this to a child...
He shook his head. No, he wouldn't get into this debate with himself again. He'd gone through with this for nearly ten years and he'd live through it now as well. They lived in a dangerous galaxy that seemed to go out of its way to offer up new doses of death and destruction at every turn. Nimue would be more fortunate than the average human being because she'd been trained and equipped to stay alive in it.
Survival of the fittest. Eat or be eaten.
Besides, even if he did stop Nimue from killing here, there was no going back from the depths he'd already taken her to. She knew how to maintain and operate almost every weapon in the galaxy, could show him dozens of ways to kill all manner of species with her bare hands, and was an even better shot than many veteran sharpshooters in the UNSC military. To have all that knowledge, all that skill, and to not be able to use it... it was a special kind of horror that only men like David could fathom. If he cut her loose, she'd probably wind up killing anyway because that was all she knew how to do.
And he'd seen the way she looked at him. The abject worship and--Could he say it?--love he saw in her eyes whenever she gazed at him disturbed David; it reminded him more of a faithful dog than of a human being.
But wasn't that the point of all this? To make her something completely inhuman, something that could kill and destroy without a shred of mercy? If so, then he'd succeeded brilliantly. Throughout all of this ordeal, Nimue hadn't once questioned why they were going to kill this one Sangheili. Perhaps it was because he'd explained to her dozens of times that assassins never questioned the why in a killing unless it could affect their chances of success in any significant way. But he suspected that the real reason was that it had never really crossed her mind.
And perhaps the real reason that he was so apprehensive about this was because he'd violated the code of non-attachment he'd manage to maintain throughout most of his life.
Oh, he'd tried. When he'd taken Nimue in to train, he'd vowed that he'd remain as aloof and detached as possible, that he'd force him to care as little for his young apprentice as he did for his clients or the people he was hired to kill. But in the end, he couldn't do it. For every painful punishment he administered to her as the penalty for failure, he found himself delivering praise or other rewards for success. It had been all he could do not to help her during their long hike to this position; he wasn't sure what he could do to her if she failed now. Knowing her, her own guilt and sense of failure would be far worse a punishment than anything he could inflict.
Perhaps that was one of those little things about human beings. As much as people like David tried to cut away or hide those weaker, more tender impulses, the universe always found ways to bring them to light. Maybe that was why, even after her life of violent training, Nimue's face could still radiate warmth, joy, and even friendliness when she was prompted enough.
As much as he tried not to admit it, Nimue was David's daughter in every sense of the word other than the genetical one. She was the only thing he was giving to the universe that wasn't death and destruction; and yet, she would be a killer just like him.
Perhaps that was a fitting legacy for David Kahn to leave behind. Perhaps he was as much a monster as the Covenant aliens who had butchered billions of humans or the insurrectionists he was forging this weapon for. But even if he was a monster, he still had a job to do and a reputation to uphold.
David refocused his scope and waited, alone with his swirling thoughts, for the long night to end.
The morning dawned bright and steamy. Nimue hadn't slept at all the entire night. Now both her mind and body were beyond fatigued, but her training forced it away into the back of her mind. Now was the time for concentration.
She saw the meeting kick off. The Fallen and the mercenaries they were dealing arrived in two separate Phantoms, and both groups brought plenty of troops for security. The mercenaries hauled crates off of their own Phantoms; clearly these were the weapons that were being haggled over.
Nimue scanned the milling aliens with her rifle. None of the Sangheili she could see met the description Kahn had given her of their target: they were looking for one in gold armor, the one who had somehow irked their employers enough to warrant Kahn's excessive price tag.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly down at the arms deal. Both groups had clearly made arrangements beforehand; this deal was just the manifestation of what must have been weeks of negotiation. For a moment, a terrible thought struck Nimue: what if her target never showed up? What would she do then?
Then she caught a flash of gold, and her fears were assuaged. There was the target, swaggering around amidst his own troops like he owned the entire planet.
A sense of deadly purpose flooded through Nimue, the one that always did when Kahn pitted her against opponents in unarmed sparring matches. This was what she had been born to do.
She waited until the gold-armored Sangheili strutted out from behind a gaggle of his Fallen followers, and then she fired. The high calibre bullet left the rifle's barrel, and the weapon kicked lightly against Nimue's tight, practiced grip.
In her scope, the gold-armored Sangheili's head exploded in a purple mist. The rest of his body kicked and jerked in the throes of death, but none of that mattered to Nimue. All she felt just then was a strange mixture of victorious joy and a violent urge to be sick.
The meeting fell apart. The Fallen troops seemed smart enough to not jump to conclusions, but some of the mercenaries panicked and opened fire. Within seconds the air was filled with plasma bolts as the two parties went at it.
That would keep them busy; busy enough for Nimue to make her escape. She darted out from under the camo blanket, stuffed it into her pack, and had both it and the rifle over her shoulder in a heartbeat. She moved to dart away from the outcropping and made it about three steps into the jungle before leaning over and vomiting into a shrub.
She stumbled, fell... and a strong, firm hand grabbed hold of her shoulder and pulled her upright. Her head snapped up and gazed into the hard, chiseled face of her mentor.
Tears of shame and failure filled her eyes. She had failed. She had come so far, tried so hard, and had been so close to success when, somehow, she'd done something to mess up.
But there was neither disappointment nor anger in Kahn's eyes. Instead, if Nimue hadn't know better she'd have said that he looked relieved.
"Nice shot," he told her, the first thing he'd said to her in four days. "Mission accomplished, Nimue. Let's go home."
"But I..." the protest formed on her lips.
"You did it," Kahn interrupted her before she could even begin. With a mild grunt of effort, he slung her--pack, rifle, and all--over his back and began to stride into the jungle. "Welcome to my world, kid."
Years later, even after she had gone through so much and learned so much more about herself and the galaxy, Nimue would be able to say with confidence that it was one of the happiest moment of her life.