The Room – 5 minutes ago
The cast iron lampshade swung.
An explosion had just gone off outside, shaking the old warehouse to its foundations, and had been accompanied by the horrible sound of corrugated steel being torn, no, not torn, peeled back by the blast. The battle, it seemed, was getting closer. Jeremiah’s people were charging down the corridor outside, slamming new clips into their assault rifles, and hollering macho slogans to each other, the kind you heard in actions films that meant nothing, but made them feel like bad-asses, nonetheless.
Gary’s prone figure dipped in and out of the grey murk; the cone of light passing over him, as though drawn by morbid curiosity, before growing too repulsed and having to avert its one eye, looking to the inoffensive dark corners of the small room, before interest got the best of it and it returned to cast stark light over the mutilated man.
James sat in silence at the tableside.
The huge, black form of Ripper gave a nod that his work was finished, running an old, blood-soaked towel between his hands, getting the worst off, before departing, fading out of importance with the spoils his boss had been promised.
Jimmy starred at the young man; his chest cavity open and nearly empty, his augments, probably already listed on some black market site somewhere, a small collection of machines his only tie to the mortal coil now, and even they would soon abandon him.
“I want…” the seated figure began, leaning forwards, resting his elbows on his knees and running his hands through his long, black hair before looking up at the kid. Death graciously waited to take his prize, letting him finish speaking, “I need you to know, Gary; the kill is for Pierre. He warned you. The method…” he sighed, leaning back, “The method was for Ramirez”
Silence joined them, sitting close enough that even the frequent pops of gunfire seemed muted in his presence, as though they were being fired at someone else, in another back alley shootout, up the road.
“Jesus, Kid…” he said, standing suddenly, his chair stabbing at Silence’s heart as its metal legs scrapped painfully over the concrete floor, sending a shrill, jarring sound into the air, “How could you be so stupid?! You always wanted to be a Runner, that’s what you told me…a real Runner, not this shit…” he threw out a hand at nothing in particular; the men outside, the situation, his own empty chair.
He looked up at one of the drones, now under his control; they hadn’t been recording for a few minutes now, only the main event was important.
Outside Orban Inc. – 3h 15 minutes ago
He looked up at one of the drones; they must have been recording them for weeks now.
It, no doubt, rendered his helpless expression in pixel-perfect HD. The camera whirred gently, the focusing mechanisms making the most of the light available and recalibrating to taking into account the angle and the distance.
So that was it?
This was the pay off for getting life back on track? This humiliation?
In the last year he had lost everything.
Only to be giving this chance, to get a way back in, and even that was fake? Life, he contemplated, was a cruel mistress.
Glancing up towards Lanche’s truck, where he knew Gary was housed, he tilted his head slightly, as though looking at something entirely alien to him, not the vehicle he had sat in a thousand times.
Even from here he could feel the burning fury of Pierre, who paced dutifully towards the side door, while Lanche followed.
Their anger was justified, he couldn’t deny it.
But he…he wasn’t angry.
Betrayed. Hurt. Disappointed, maybe, but not angry. Mostly, he felt…normal. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he felt like himself. A strange smile positioned itself on his lips as he contemplated the last few moments carefully, he would have to think on them longer, but now wasn’t the time – all he knew was that Steele’s actions had freed him, to a degree; all the loathing, pain, and anxiety which he had been turning inwards for over a year had found a few focal point.
The smile remained as he started to pace towards the van, ignoring the gunfire in the distance. He messaged the others.
“Don’t kill him; too quick. I have a plan”
The Room – 2 hours ago
Jimmy sat in silence.
He had been in too many rooms like this.
Glancing behind him, he found Pierre leaning against the far wall, who gave him a nod, indicating everything was ready. As he did a huge black man entered the room in an apron. He nodded once, before going to a sink at the back and starting to scrub up.
Gary started to stir; good, he didn’t want to have to wake him. His eyes flicked open suddenly, moments after trying to move and realising he was restrained.
“Wha…what’s going on?” he asked, struggling a little more.
Jimmy pulled his packet of cigarettes from his coat, calming himself, trying to look nonchalant. He flipped the packet open and drew one out with his lips.
“Well, Gary,” he said, tucking the packet away and fishing for his lighter, “it turns out you’re not as clever as I thought you were…and you’re certainly not as clever as you think you are”
A series of noises indicating a lack of comprehension escaped the Kid’s mouth. A wall of syllables rather than a cohesive sentence; his mind, no doubt, a mess after the massive amount of electricity Pierre had put through him.
Lighting his cigarette he look a long toke. Nath had been right – this was different. Different to all the others. Harder.
Keeping the flame on, leaned forwards in his seat and tickled Gary’s palm with it. A shriek filled the air, Jimmy prepared himself – game face on – he focused and brought an illusion to life, sending the fire spreading up Gary’s hand, spiralling slowly around his wrist and on up his arm. He needed Steele to focus, to cast off the grogginess, to react, or this was for nothing. As the fire enveloped his whole body, the screams grew louder.
He flicked the lighter shut, and the fire was gone.
“We have a simple rule, Mr. Steele, we three…we can fuck each other over from time to time; it’s not a courtesy we extend to outsiders”
Gary’s chest was rising and falling as though a pneumatic piston inside him had flipped into over drive, he hadn’t blinked for almost a minute, “Wait, I…You’ve got it wrong…”
The huge man in the apron paced over, looked warily at the seated figure, “Mr. Steele” he said, cutting him off abruptly, “let me introduce you to Dr…”
“Ripper…” the man said, a thick Caribbean accent making the word rhythmic, almost soothing. An odd juxtapose.
“Dr. Ripper,” James continued, only to be corrected.
Gary’s eyes widened, fear gripping him; a drone picked it up perfectly.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure he got his degree from a very credible website…anyway, I’m going to leave you in his capable hands” he said pushing himself to his feet.
He wanted to say so much more.
Wished he had let Pierre beat the rookie out of him; wished he had had the time to teach him the rules…instead he simply turned and left.
Ignoring the Kid’s cries for help, his begging, as Ripper set to work.
The Matrix – 3h 4minutes ago
A white room. No furniture.
He wore a black suit, shirt, and a blood red tie.
“I’m not sure I want to help…” the small man was saying, a look of slight concern on his face. He repositioned his round-framed glasses on his nose and bit the inside of his cheek.
“I need the drones to record and send the feed; a strong message to this Ramirez clown”
“And the kid is…what? Collateral damage?”
Jimmy sighed, “Unavoidable”
Nath turned from him and paced away, his hands behind his back, “You know who you sound like?”
“Don’t fucking do that…” James protested waving a finger negatively.
Turning on the spot slowly, his friend fixed him a look; a look that told him he knew he was right.
“Could you not try yourself? I seem to remember you are no slouch at infiltration and extraction”
“I tried…the Kid’s good…got a nice security suite set out”
Nath gave a half laugh, “You admire his skill…”
Jimmy was caught off guard by the question, he hesitated for a fraction of a second; an eternity to the entity before him, he could not have failed to notice, for him, simulated universes had gone full cycle, their programmed suns exploding and consuming all else, before his friend regained the composure to respond, “That doesn’t matter…he made his choice.
Nath nodded, “Has it occurred to you that he was trying to do you a favour?”
The other man’s face twisted into a mixture of disbelieve, instant repulsion, and childish contrariness, “How’s that work?”
“This is a very lucrative market he has got you involved in” As Nath spoke he raised a hand, and over it appeared a constantly scrolling read out of information – the feed channels, pay figures, and viewing numbers of some of the biggest shows in the genre, “You would be very well paid for your trouble”
James sighed and shook his head, “For how long? As Chrome has just found out – when the masterminds behind it get bored of the current roster they cut you lose without so much as a “Thanks for your time”. Then where are we? No real employer will touch you then – you’re burnt. Done”
Nath tilted his head slightly, contemplating this in silence for a long moment; he had known the economic argument would not work. Despite his taste for the finer things in life, money had never been a driving force behind James.
“Then I will come at it from another angle. You are good at these things, James. You always were…you have a flare for cruelty and a good imagination; not the most desirable of personality combos, if you don’t mind me saying”
He paused, and walked back towards his friend, “But when we worked together you were working on dissidents, runners, terrorists…not people you knew and cared about. Not people you liked” he added this last comment rather pointedly, glancing up at the bigger man, before continuing, “What you took away from that job was an impressive tolerance for alcohol, even given the filth you interrogated. Doing this on the kid is going to be different…harder. Are you prepared for that?”
James said nothing.
He looked up, his mouth opened then closed again, the small man noticed a slight reddening around his eyes, “I…I have to be” he finally admitted, a look of helplessness on his face which Nath had never seen before.
“Why?” he asked, the lecturing tone dropping from his voice, replaced with concern.
“Because if I’m not, my family is going to die tonight…Ramirez won’t just let us walk away, Nath. You know that! We need something to make him sit back and think long enough to get out…to cover our tracks”
“And the boy’s life is worth that?” Nath asked, trying to keep judgment from his tone.
“Of course not!” James barked, cutting the flat of his palm through the air categorically, “but he can’t live; not now – Pierre will never allow it, and if he’s going to die, it might as well not be a total waste! He fucked up and he’s going to pay the price. It’s not how I would have wanted it – but it’s how it has to be now”
Nath put a hand on his shoulder comfortingly, hearing his friends frustration and genuine remorse put pay to a lot of his concerns“ I suppose you are still trying to shake off the last tech nerd you took under your wing” he joked, trying to lighten the mood.
James looked up and forced a half smile, “It was never like that with you, man…you were a geek, but always clever enough to know the rules…understand the game. Not like this mess. He’s not a bad kid; hell, you might even be right – maybe he was trying to do us all a favour. But he fucked up, went about it all wrong. And this game leaves no room for mistakes”
Nath nodded his understanding.
“I will help” he concluded, “You know they will be able to track the action, and while I can take over 5 drones without directing even 0.000000001% of my attention to it, sooner or later, when they check my output, someone will find it”
“I know…but hopefully we’ll be long gone by then” he paused, then looked up quickly, an urgent worry in his mind, “I can still see come see you, right?”
Nath gave a wide, warm smile, “Of course! But I will not be able to assist you like this for some time to come, if ever…depending on how they respond”
Jimmy nodded his understanding, “You’ve done more than enough for me” he said, offering a hand, which Nath took warmly.
There was a moment of total silence as they looked at each other, then Nath gave his hand a warm squeeze and said, “Good luck tonight, Colonel – it sounds like you’ll need it”
Before he could respond the room was gone.
A Beach – four years earlier
A troll standing ankle deep in sea water wearing Bermuda shorts was a strange sight. It was difficult to tell if Lanche was enjoying himself or simply trying to fit in.
Pierre lay on a towel in the sun, suspiciously glancing back towards the veranda every few moments.
Jimmy gave him a friendly wave, chuckling as the other man responded with his middle finger.
“He still doesn’t trust me, you know?” he said, taking a sip from the beer which sat on the wooden railing which marked the edge of the decking.
“I don’t think he trusts anyone” June replied with a smile, “I wouldn’t take it personally”
“He trusts you” he noted, turning to face her.
“And you trust me…”
“Do I?”she grinned playfully.
He nodded, “Yes…but I can’t work out why yet…”
She walked towards him, depositing her drink on the table the veranda gave a home to, and came to stand in front of him, close enough that he could smell her, that intoxicating scent of lilies, mixed with the coconut sun screen she wore, she glanced up at him, standing almost half a foot talker than herself, “I’ve known enough guys with troubled pasts to know all they really want is somewhere safe to hang their hat,” she grinned, “And I think you know you’re onto a good thing here, with us” she nodded towards the beach, where Lanche now sat awkwardly, letting the waves wash half way up his shins. “But mostly,” she said, reaching up and pushing the sleeve of his t-shirt up in an action of familiarity which caught him off guard, “because I know what this is…” she said, tapping her index finger-tip against the tattoo on his upper-arm, “My father had one” she smiled, “so I know what it means, and what you are”
“Were” he corrected her sharply, and tugged the material over his paint quickly.
She giggled at his clear awkwardness in the moment, “It’s ok” she said conspiratorially, dramatically glancing each way to ensure no one had seen, “I won’t tell anyone – It kinda makes me feel safe, actually”
He laughed, “You’re quite possibly alone in that!”
She shrugged, “I like to be different” and turned away from him, going to lean on the wooden railing, she stared out to sea, taking in Pierre’s sunbathing, trying hard to not make it look like he was checking up on them, while Lanche sat, knees in line with his chin in the shallow waves, currently inspecting a piece of seaweed which had clung to his ankle. Reaching over she found his beer and took a long sip, handing it off to him as he approached, leaning on an upright and sharing the view.
“Your past is your own, James” she said flatly, not looking up at him, “All I know is that we work well as a team, our bank accounts are looking relatively healthy, and you seem happy at present…”
He made a face which implied agreement of some level, if not unequivocal.
“So, really, what you have to decide is if you want to join this little family of ours, or keep going it alone…”
“Family?” he asked, trying to imagine Pierre being related to anyone; the man’s Mohawk, currently a lurid red, matching the long shorts he wore.
She laughed at his reticence, then standing she shrugged, “I don’t have anyone else…what would you call them?”
He gave a warm smile; a look of understanding, “Family is as good as anything” he admitted, then turned back to watch the waves rolling in, then running away, as though afraid they had annoyed the troll enough for him to take a swing for them, only to regain their courage and crash forwards again.
Turning to get her drink, he gave it to her, before clinking his beer against it, “To Family” he said.
She grinned up at him, “Good decision”
He sat upright suddenly, gasping for air.
It took his eyes a long moment to focus, but finally the stark images of the back of Lanche’s truck started to make sense. Looking around him, he found Chrome stood a few feet from him, but as he reached for his gun, he felt Pierre’s hand on his shoulder, “I’ll explain later; we got the drones?” he said hurriedly in French.
“We got the drones” he confirmed, still panting deeply.
The Room – 1h 27 minutes ago
His lungs had been removed a few minutes before; Ripper was carefully placing them in a large container of fluid for safe storage and transport. The array of machines were still keeping him alive though, prolonging the pain, and making the show that bit more graphic for Ramirez.
James would never forget the sound of his ribs being removed…or forgive himself for ensuring he was awake for it.
But he was not James. He had heard Nath’s words loud and clear. He was Colonel Dark, the mask had come down and was staying firmly attached until he was through this hell.
A pathetic mental game, but one that worked; viewing the horrors of your work through a metaphorical mask, another set of eyes, rather than experiencing it fully with your own senses, so when you take it off, return to normality, day-to-day life, they didn’t feel as real. He had been taught to do it, and now that training was the most valuable of his life.
Gary, spluttered, and Dark continued the performance, starting to ask Ripper questions about the various internal organs,
“So that one is next, right?”he said, pointing with two fingers, a cigarette clamped between them. The big man nodded, “Yeah; controls the enzymes – not worth much, but since we’re taking it all…”
“Fascinating” he marvelled, tapping off his cigarette into the Kid’s chest, the ash covering the pancreas and hissing slightly as the blood took the burn from it.
For the first time since their initial discussion, he caught Gary’s eye, the look went through him and it took all his resolve, all his training, to stop him from turning away. He simply curled his lips up into a warm smile, and took a long toke, offering the cigarette to his former colleague, then shrugging impassively when Gary didn’t take it.
He finally turned away, slowly, not rushing – how much longer until he died? He couldn’t keep doing this…
La Maison Rouge – 2h 31minutes ago
Lanche pounded the horn with his huge palms as the van screeched up. As soon as the wheels stopped spinning, James and Pierre barrelled out.
Dakota and Celeste walked hurriedly from the front door upon hearing the horn, and Pierre went straight to the Madam, taking the package with his gun from her.
“So, I guess you’re going again…” Dakota said, her accent as endearing as it had been on their first meeting.
James nodded, “Only two ways this night is going to end…best case scenario, you won’t see me for a while…worse….” he left the sentence hanging.
She nodded, her face pallid, her eyes dark. He smiled at her, pulling her chin up with a finger gently, “No pouting; it’s bad for business” he teased.
Her lips betrayed her, giving a momentary smile despite herself, there was a moment of silence, then she launched herself forwards, wrapping her arms around his waist, “Make sure you come back…” she said, her voice muffled against his chest.
He embraced her gently, running a hand through her shoulder length, brunette hair, “I’ll do my best” he said.
She looked up at him, her blue eyes likes lakes in the centre of her face, “I mean it…” she said, a hint of fire behind her words.
“So do I” he said, and leaning down he planted a gentle kiss on her forehead, “Take care of yourself, kid” he said, then glancing to Celeste said, “And her…I know she likes to think she’s invincible, but she’s not…she needs help like everyone else”
Clearly fighting back tears, the girl nodded quickly, “I will” she said, and stepped back, rubbing the back of her hand across her nose, as Pierre stalked behind Jimmy and got in the van.
James followed suit, and Celeste came over, putting an arm around Dakota’s shoulders; the pair stood as the side door slammed shut, and the van disappeared into the night.
The message arrived less than a minute later, appearing in the corner of his retina. It was simple – “Don’t die; you owe me a beer. C”
“I always pay my debts. See you soon x”
The Room – 2 minutes ago
“I know it doesn’t count for much now, kid…” he said, all four drones closed in on Gary Steele’s face, recording, taking in every aspect of his visage, “But I owe you for this…and I have this thing about debts…. I promise you that when I find Ramirez – and I will – he’ll pay for taking advantage of your eagerness, your naivety…”
He ran a hand down the dead man’s face, pushing his eyelids closed, but more importantly, feeling the skin texture, remembering every contour and imperfection, “Your face will be the last thing he sees before I put a bullet between his eyes”
He stood, took one last look at the kid, the boy he had just butchered, then turned and headed for the door.
As he stepped out, he heard jackboots running towards him on the right. In one fluid action, he pulled his pistol from his coat and fired a single shot. The sound of running stopped, and the gun was gone again before most even knew it had been out.
Lanche, who was running from the other direction raised an eyebrow and bobbed his head lightly, impressed.
“We should go” James said flatly, putting a cigarette between his lips and lighting it, taking a long toke, before glancing up at his friend.
The Troll nodded his agreement then turned and headed down the corridor, giving a wave of his hand, indicating the other man should follow.