Warsaw

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
The world has changed. They have made it so. Chimaera has made it so. And Warsaw is a lasting, bitter epitome of the collateral.

Submitted: June 29, 2016

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Submitted: June 29, 2016

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PROCESSION

 

A deep mist blanketed the cold January morning in the capital of the free world. For most, the day was just beginning. Somewhere on the east side of the Potomac, the leader of that free world was prepping for what would be the last several months of his time as President of the United States. Adjacent, those in other positions of power prepared to either stand with him or against him in their daily bouts of legislation.

Around it all, in the commercial fringes, tourists would be starting their day of sightseeing, potentially following a map provided by the powers that be to create the most authentic, informative, and efficient trek of the many different monuments scattered across the landscape. This wasn’t just the hub of power for the country; it was also one of its finest feats of tourism. For all of them, the sun was rising on a new day.

But on the west side of the river, eleven days had come and gone for a group assembled in singular purpose. They were huddled in Arlington National Cemetery, overseeing the quiet, solemn service that was an early burial. Southwest of them, across the highway border and the foliage between, the steel beam framework of a building under construction loomed tall, the locked gates decoratively hidden behind a banner that read, “This is where we reconstruct the world.”

Standing on the topmost floor of that framework was a man, eyes sober and pensive. From where he was, he had a clear view into the cemetery, directly to the small group of individuals mourning the loss of their mutual associate. His glasses were able to zoom at whim, designed to work when he narrowed his eyes. It was a crude design, but it did the job. He peered forward, focusing on the woman of the group. She was a widow now, and the daughter in her arms fatherless.

Over 400,000 graves, and there among them rested Eric Odell. But to the man on the shell of a building, he’d rarely been known as Eric Odell; he had been known as Oslo. They had been partners for five years, one month, and seven days. For the onlooker, the sight was perverse. Oslo had left behind a family, shadows of a life he should’ve kept in his past. Their tenets were framed to remove attachment for good reason. The onlooker had long since abandoned his former name.

Now, to all who knew him and to all who mattered, he was Warsaw.

If he closed his eyes, he could see it all again. The helicopter being shot down, the time spent hiding while waiting for extraction. The way desperation seeped into them both before It arrived. “It” was the only term Warsaw could use to identify the figure. Tall, mechanical, devoid of morality and mortality. An emerald visor that hid what would’ve been the only humanizing factor of the entire ordeal.

And then there was the knife.

Warsaw’s eyes snapped open. The gathered were leaving the grave. Not even the widow and the fatherless daughter remained. He would not approach it now, nor any time in the near future. He had made his peace. He would continue to pay his penance. And the constant blinking message on the screen of his cell phone told him that it was time to continue. Oslo had been dead for eleven days. To Them, that was long enough.

He made a new path back to the ground floor, rappelling down with the help of a rope that would eventually be used to support scaffolding for the north face of the building. His boots hit the wet dirt and left an imprint, which would be filled in by the time the long weekend had passed. Not that any trace of him mattered here. He wouldn’t have had access to the construction site if They didn’t own the property.

The car was waiting where he’d left it, wedged between a minivan and an SUV. It was small, sleek, black, and as close to government-issue as it came. The more official it looked, the more it fit in with the other vehicles moving about in Washington. Inconspicuous was their mastered state of existence, and allowed their organization to flourish.

At least, these were the things Warsaw was told whenever he was not on assignment. Which, up until the past couple of weeks, had not been often.

He drove up and around Arlington and took note of the world coming to life around him. Traffic was starting to build, sounds were taking precedence over the unnerving silence that seemed to resonate from the cemetery. He could feel the hum of the car, low as it may be, and somehow found comfort in it. Being in transit was something he’d gotten used to.

The Roosevelt took him over the river and on the path to HQ. He, like everyone else, had been very emphatically taught the exact location of HQ to prevent there ever being a necessity to write it down or enter it into a GPS. Compromising its location was something no one had dared to do, but in an organization as secret as Theirs, one could only imagine the punishment for doing so.

Them, They, Theirs. It started as a force of habit and developed to the point where he couldn’t call Them anything else. The organization he worked for functioned best when it wasn’t an entity at all. Any time They weren’t operating under a cloak and dagger approach was substituted by a smoke and mirrors ideology. Secrecy was their lifeblood, and without it, all of Their efforts would have been in vain.

His path was designed to wind and turn, to be repetitive and redundant in a way that would either tire out or completely lose an interested party that chose to follow someone on an approach vector. He hadn’t made this particular drive in some time. In fact, January of 2016 was the first time Warsaw had stepped foot on American soil in almost three years. He was as disconnected from current events as possible.

Perhaps it was because of this that made everything seem so off kilter. The way people spoke during their casual conversations, the way the news addressed the public, even the way the city looked. D.C. had never possessed an essence of familiarity to him, but now it all felt strange. Three years was a brief hesitation in the spectrum of the relative world, yet still he felt like a man out of time. It rang true in more ways than one.

The world had changed. Around him, it was in the metamorphic phase of its current pocket of life. Society was reworking itself to adapt to a world that was keen on leaving its inhabitants behind. Some of the adaptations were proper and fitting, but there was still so much to go. It all hinged on the everyday people being able to acknowledge what needed to be adjusted.

Unfortunately, it was the very secrecy his organization depended on that prevented the rest of the world from catching up. He’d heard the mantra enough. He knew its foundations and its permutations, the sequence of events that culminated in what the organization proudly and silently stood for. The words were simple and easy to remember, holding power that extended to reaches deeper than anyone could fathom.

Always to protect.

He brought the car to a stop after keeping a careful eye on his rearview mirror. No vehicle had stayed behind him for any more than a single block, and he had not seen the same vehicle at any two different points along the path. These were just a few of the preliminary safety measures in place before one could access the facility. Only once he had sent a confirmation signal from his phone would the next steps come into play.

He took his right turn between the two buildings while accessing the required app on his phone. There would be no confirmation delivered outside of the facility itself admitting him, which always happened at the halfway point in the alleyway. He continued forward, eyes glancing between the view ahead and the mirror’s sight behind. Only pedestrians passed, and none moved to follow. By all accounts, he was clear.

The halfway point was reached and the wall on his immediate right started its parting. It opened in a way that allowed rapid access in a vehicle, granting him enough leeway to maneuver in through the passage and start his descent into the facility’s hidden parking area. Before he had even started his descent, the walls had begun to close behind him. They were open for no more than five seconds. Anything longer than that was proven to result in curious civilians trying to figure out if there really had been a car in the alley.

The path itself had lights that turned on as soon as the doors were sealed. They illuminated his way down two full stories before he reached the lot, filled with cars similar to his, but only two of the same make and model were permitted to be in use at the same time. The statistical likelihood of a person seeing two of the same car and not giving it a second thought worked in Their favor; the odds of that second thought coming after seeing a third doppelgänger did not.

Cloak and dagger. Smoke and mirrors. It was the only life Warsaw knew anymore.

The facility, known as DSR Base, was a covert masterpiece that had been in place for almost two decades. A multi-level station constructed in short distance from some of the most secure locations in the country, its development had been completed quickly and discreetly, being finished just before the concept would’ve been utterly impossible in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. All sites built after that incident had chosen more remote and rural locations.

Not only this, but the organization implemented a rotating capital methodology to prevent risk of exposure due to heavy lingering in any one facility. DSR Base was the current hub due to the pending presidential election. If murmurs were to be believed, the next location would be somewhere in western Japan, timed to link up with the 42nd G7 summit. In fact, the move itself was already in progress, as was evident by the increased number of unused vehicles in the garage.

Warsaw brought his car to a stop in its designated spot and stepped out. The keys were left in the driver seat and the doors unlocked, as was procedure. He started towards the nearest set of elevators, knowing full well that the two buzzes from his pocket were indicators for him to report for his final debriefing. They could wait a few minutes more and give him a chance to clean up. It would be the first time in eleven days that he’d showered.

Every living quarter in DSR Base was designed the same: two rooms, one occupying two-thirds of the space, the remaining third being the bathroom. The larger room had a bed, queen-sized, a dresser and a wall-mounted hanger rack, a kitchenette with a mini fridge and a microwave, and lastly, two chairs with a table bolted in the middle. The bathroom possessed a corner shower, a sink adjacent with a wall mirror, and a toilet on the opposite wall.

Alterations to the rooms were prohibited, but Warsaw had no complaints. The simplicity and minimalistic setting suited him just fine. He’d become acclimated to it from repeat exposure. It, like the feeling of a moving vehicle, was one of few comforts he could still find.

Upon returning to the facility, he’d received a standard scrub from the onsite doctors and nurses that was intended to check for any illness, malformation, or evidence of tampering that would allow an outside pathogen or entity to gain access. They were thorough in a specific way and very lacking in others. As such, the shower he found himself in was  cleansing in a way he had not experienced in a long while.

His hair had gone through the stages: first stiff, then greasy, and finally hardened to a shape only a firm wash could change. His beard had gained thickness, but not too far past his usual point of management. The sand and dirt under his fingernails were compacted, but not impossible to remove. It was the long-endured dryness of his mouth that caused the most hassle, as it took less than twenty seconds before the toothbrush bristles were stained a pale crimson.

His shower was brief, but still not short enough to prevent a third buzzing from the phone, which he’d placed on the table in the main room. He stepped out and moved to the mirror to make sure he was at least somewhat presentable, but the face that stared back at him was more foreign than the entirety of the base and its upper surroundings. He felt less like he was looking into a mirror and more like he was staring into a blank space in the wall, and through it stood someone who bore a stark resemblance with a million terrors etched into every ridge and wrinkle.

Somehow, despite all of his tribulations, he’d still managed to maintain a youthful aspect that betrayed the truth to his aging stature. He was pushing thirty-four with no signs of a receding hairline to his thick brown hair, nor any hint of gray in the trimmed beard that defined his jaw and mouth. His blue eyes with their flecks of hazel were the only thing that betrayed his otherwise-vernal appearance. They worked with those million terrors to reveal a man who had done and seen far too much.

He dressed himself in the topmost set of items he could pull from the dresser, containing things he hadn’t worn or seen since before their first deployment to a location overseas. The room was fairly devoid of anything that would indicate a person lived in it, if one excused the single pair of shoes at the door and the two towels draped across the backs of each chair. He’d never been keen on personal possessions, even before joining this organization. Less keepsakes meant less packing. Easy departure kept him always at the ready.

He returned to the hallway, passing the open and closed doors of his fellow agents. From what he could tell, most weren’t in, but he recognized the sallowness of a few rooms with open doors. Those rooms were emptied, and not by choice. He only knew of Oslo’s death as truth, but the sparse empty rooms were never a positive indicator. No doubt it was the events that led to their emptiness that would be prevalent in his future operations.

Despite what they’d all been told in July of 2013, things had not seen a “drastic improvement across the board.” Those empty rooms were enough of a warning.

The elevator took him to the operational floor, directly under the living quarters. Despite there being some several large rooms meant for briefings and debriefings, he knew which one was meant for him. He’d been in it twice already, with the hopes that this third time would be the final. The details of his latest operation had been disseminated and dissected to the point where the hard truths were no longer prominent among the regular ones.

To Them, the operation was like any other, with some minor alterations. To Warsaw, only one part mattered.

The term “meeting room” was used primarily by officials, because they looked far less like rooms built for meetings and more like chambers made for interrogations. The lighting was poor by design, focusing solely on the middle of the room, twice as long as it was wide. A single table waited ahead, with one chair and a figure off to the side, accompanied by what looked like a rolling whiteboard without the board itself. Warsaw approached the table with his eyes on the dark, knowing full well that there were any number of cameras watching him.

The figure that waited by the rolling board frame was a woman, only a few years younger than him and certainly leaps smarter. He’d known her since his first day in the organization, as she’d been the one to provide his orientation. She worked with the logistics division, and as such, knew everything about their operations, and especially their operatives.

“I assumed after the second buzz, you must’ve stopped for something important,” the woman, Kiev, commented as he took the only open seat, her west London accent shining. Though as he recalled, she’d once preferred to refer to it as an “upper-middle-class” accent.

“Shower,” Warsaw replied, pulling the chair in while offering the woman a smile. She was one of few who deserved it. Kiev was a consistency that served as a reminder for him, especially in times like now. What they were doing was good, and helped people, and would continue to help people. Sometimes it was just her reassuring smile that affirmed the thought.

Her consistency was a constant that had persevered since the moment they met. Her hair, a brunette with the occasional hint of blonde, was always the same length. She’d always had a penchant for black leather jackets, which she currently wore over a cerulean shirt. This particular jacket had more zippers and buckles than Warsaw could imagine the purposes of.

“He should be along soon,” Kiev said, turning to face the rolling board’s empty center area.

“He wasn’t waiting on me?” Warsaw asked, looking up and into the black.

“He doesn’t wait on any of us,” she responded as both of their phones buzzed. Warsaw stared forward while Kiev stood at attention. The formality of being at attention was almost redundant, considering the fact that they never met with him in person. He always did his briefings and debriefings over the intercom. Oslo had once said it was because he was never actually in the building. Warsaw didn’t care to know the truth.

Nevertheless, the simultaneous buzz was enough to make any agent stand at the ready. It meant Control was here.

“At ease,” a voice said from the dark, amplified from the uncountable array of speakers that lined the upper walls of the room. The number of times Warsaw had heard the voice had been terribly skewed as of late; prior to his return, Control had only interacted with him directly three times since their deployment. The level of interaction eased the innate weariness that the voice seemed to instill.

It was smooth and quiet, like the cemetery from earlier. The composure rarely broke, the deep gruff like that of a narrator to some dismal movie nobody wanted to see. In some moments it was modulated, but always was it toneless. The calm nature was deceitful and an alluring distraction from the complete lack of emotional presence. Control had always lived up to his name, because he was never anything but.

“Agent Warsaw, for the purpose of transparency and assurance, I am going to ask that you provide one final testimony in regards to the events that resulted in Agent Oslo’s death,” Control stated, Warsaw noting that he could no longer remember the exact number of times he had provided this testimony across his two previous debriefings. “I will make inquiries once you are finished.”

Warsaw didn’t need any more than a second to recall the incident of discussion. At this point, it was practically scripted. “On December 30th, 2015, Agent Oslo and I were sent on a reconnaissance mission to southwestern Iran in response to a report that Chimaera remnant operatives had been sighted in the Persian Gulf. Our patrol, onboard a VT-01HELS, took us towards the border between Iran and Iraq. It was approximately seventeen kilos from the border that our helicopter was hit.

“The helicopter crashed between two large dunes at approximately 4 AM local time on January 5th, 2016. We had not seen our attacker prior to being engaged and used the wreckage as cover while we attempted to make contact for immediate extraction. Outward communications were minimal and we could not risk leaving the area without being an open target for the assailant. As such, we opted to bolster and remain.

“At approximately 6:36 PM, we were engaged in close quarters combat by what we assumed was our assailant. It attacked us with a fortitude we could not match, and four minutes in to the confrontation, It was able to disarm Oslo while I was briefly incapacitated. It then proceeded to use Oslo’s weapon against him and delivered a fatal blow. It was at this time that a group of Iran’s NAJA Border Guard arrived to investigate the crash. The assailant fled before the new arrivals could reach the bottom of the dune.”

“Agent Warsaw, in your initial statement, you reported and have continued to report that some thing was responsible for the death of Agent Oslo,” Control noted. “Can you clarify?”

“My report indicated clearly that the assailant was armored under a full body suit capable of withstanding customary rounds,” Warsaw said, eyes locked forward. “I was unable to verify a biological signature on initial scan.” His peripheral revealed a slight shift from Kiev as she adjusted her stance. He recognized that move; she knew something he did not.

“Do you believe you encountered an artificial specimen?” Control continued. “Technological in nature?”

It was minor, unnoticeable to those present, but a thin strip of skin under Warsaw’s right eye twitched at Control’s desperate attempt to quantify the most harrowing aspect of the incident. “I don’t know what it was. All I know is, the armor didn’t let anything through. It didn’t bleed.” He gulped, quick enough for the pause to seem natural. “It wouldn’t die.”

“We believe you were attacked by something we have seen in the field before,” Kiev said, her first contribution to the debriefing. Warsaw turned his head to watch as she moved to the rolling board and extended her hand towards the blank space, suddenly triggering a burst of light from both side poles that created an interactive board of information. Projected was the image of a very rudimentary version of the thing he and Oslo had fought.

The primitive nature, however, did nothing to detract from the subconscious fear Warsaw felt at the sight. A metal suit designed as an exoskeleton with additional armor contoured to match and a helmet that was manually removable, it bore resemblance enough to tell him that it was indeed some sort of inspirational predecessor to the figure he had encountered.

“Full exoskeletal armor, potentially utilizing Kevlar, more likely a compound we are unfamiliar with,” Kiev reported, waving her hand and causing the projection to rotate and provide a fuller view of the suit. “A Chimaera agent was found in this prototype some years back. Logic would dictate the one you saw was an upgraded iteration.”

“Communications we’ve intercepted suggest the individual you faced is called Blackout,” Control relayed. “We do not yet know their level of importance nor the significance of the name. It does, however, create a correlation between recent events by revealing a pattern.”

Kiev motioned her hand so the projection of the older suit was moved to the left. “Based on your description and preexisting data, we were able to reconstruct their image.” The right side was then populated by a sight too similar to Warsaw, his inward cringe almost fierce enough to be an outward one.

Black armor, like ink layered across the surface, giving the image of a person but only just the physical attributes. Where the face would go was a visor, a vibrant green that shimmered as the head had moved. It stood several inches taller than Warsaw, who was surpassed at six feet by only a handful of other agents.

He could see it again. The lack of hesitation, the ruthless behavior that was almost animalistic. Its ferocity was what birthed the fear of monsters in the logical man.

“A few weeks ago, Agent Carson was ambushed during a civilian op in St. John’s,” Control continued. “Again, there was evidence of a Chimaera unit equipped with an exoskeletal suit. The results were unfortunately similar to Agent Oslo’s.”

Kiev had turned her attention to face Warsaw. “Whoever killed Agent Carson was calling themselves ‘Iron Grip.’ Whether they’re directly affiliated with Blackout or not is uncertain, but as Control noted, the correlation is strong.”

“How did he die?” Warsaw asked, only having heard the slightest of details before now.

“Virulently,” Kiev replied as she pulled at the projections without turning to look at them, causing a distortion that ended with Carson’s profile being displayed. “CCTV footage showed him go down after a dozen shots before revealing a grenade without the pin. He didn’t make it easy.”

Warsaw stared into the projection’s eyes, feeling the familiar pang of guilt and dread that came with seeing another one of his dead comrades. Carson had been only a few years older than he, making him the same age as Oslo. Warsaw knew that Carson had hailed from those specialized in stealth and reconnaissance, but all agents received an adequate level of combat training.

He’d met Carson on a handful of occasions, and those meetings had never been more than brief. From those crossings, Warsaw had only ever known his fellow agent as a genuine and respectable individual, someone who worked towards and believed in their cause, just like Oslo. It was sickly ironic how those who had the most faith were the ones no longer seated around the metaphorical table.

“It’s becoming more and more clear that Chimaera is attempting to locate and eliminate our agents before we can find and do such to theirs,” Control said, the monotonous drone not enough to draw Warsaw’s eyes from the projection. “This shows their weakness. They are fractured, and in being so, they are desperate. The core of the organization is long gone, and all that remains are the fringe operations. This Blackout is no doubt one of the many individuals who have attempted to reign control.”

Chimaera. From the very moment he’d joined up with this organization to now, Warsaw had grown to hate even the passing mention of the word. A shadow criminal syndicate existing under the surface of society, slowly plotting to shape the world in its desired image. Somehow, Chimaera had been able to keep Them at arm’s length while still wreaking havoc across the globe.

And then a detective came along and singlehandedly dismantled the entire thing by first taking out its weakest pillars, then sacrificing himself to destroy the heart, all culminating in a move They now referred to as the Collapse.

Yet even the supposed loss of their leader, marked by the quote about a drastic improvement across the board, did not seem to be enough. Chimaera had continued to survive for almost three years, going from an organized syndicate to a splintered shadow that clung to life by striking only the most open and vital points while remaining in the dark. Scattered fragments lived on simply because they were too small to pinpoint and were still lethal enough to terminate any who came too close.

Warsaw, like most of the other agents, had spent the past three years chasing the umbra of the criminal syndicate, and now their efforts were being rewarded with the deaths of their finest. From his perspective, the unremitting quarrel with Chimaera was nothing more than a guarantee of mutually assured destruction. And though his insight was minimal, he could only assume that Control possessed some manic, baneful disposition for the person who had steered Chimaera to power.

Their entire war was birthed in a petty feud.

“What’s next?” Warsaw asked, eyes finally moving from the projection when he realized nobody had spoken in quite some time.

“We’re finalizing our countermove now,” Control said. “We will contact you in a few days to give you a full rundown. For now, unless you have anything further you would like to add in regards to your testimony, you are dismissed.” Warsaw offered no response, and received no confirmation on whether Control had stayed long enough to listen. The only way he knew Control was gone was by waiting enough to deduce that he couldn’t possibly have lingered so long.

“Did you go?” Kiev asked.

Warsaw glanced over and saw that Carson’s profile had been replaced. Now he stared into a pair of light green eyes set on a pale face. The way the projection gave everything a blue hue didn’t show these details, but he knew them anyways. He always would. The hairstyle had been new, primarily focused on the top with the sides relatively short. He’d taken to shaping it in a way that gave it substantially more volume than normal.

And, of course, the hint of a smirk. Maybe smirk wasn’t the correct word, but it was something that had always fit, from Warsaw’s perspective. The image itself was recent. It was probably one of the last good ones that existed of Oslo.

“From a distance,” Warsaw replied, watching the projection rotate. The nostalgia-birthed lump in his throat was rapidly becoming an inconvenience.

“Were they there?” Kiev continued, her eyes focused on the informational panel in the bottom-left of the projection. That small panel had every identifier one would need for a summary on Oslo: his real name, date and location of birth, date and location of death, eye color, most recent hair color, blood type, fingerprint scan. It was just another way for Them to quantify the agents.

Oslo. Eric Odell. Born May 23rd, 1980, in Peoria, Illinois. Died January 5th, 2016, near Ahvaz, Iran. Olive green eyes. Brown hair. Blood type B+. A whorled thumbprint. And though the panel wouldn’t list their names, it did have a footnote that simply read “wife and daughter.” Warsaw knew their names too. Oslo had married Lara on August 10th, 2002. Their daughter, Rachel, was born on March 19th, 2013.

Though he didn’t care to ever dwell on it, Warsaw had at one point absent-mindedly done the math. Rachel would’ve been the product of a two-week hiatus that occurred just before they all relocated to London. Warsaw had spent that leave in a hotel in east London, counting down the days until he was back in the field. Kiev had come to visit him twice. She’d always been accommodating like that.

“How many have we lost?” Warsaw asked, glossing over her previous question.

“Seven, including him,” she replied as she shut down the projector screen. “All in the past three months.”

“And he keeps sending us out after them,” he jeered, standing and looking into that waiting darkness ahead.

“Hey,” Kiev snapped, grabbing his arm forcefully. “You and I both know what Chimaera was capable of. What they almost did. What we’re doing matters.”

“That’s him talking,” Warsaw replied as he pulled his arm free of her grasp. He pushed his chair in and turned, starting back into the black towards the exit. He knew she wanted to reply, to be the balance so desperately needed in a period of doubt and misery. He was glad she instead opted for silence. This wasn’t a matter she could convince him on. Not anymore.

He passed Oslo’s empty room on his somber walk back. Despite there usually being a promptness to how quickly an agent’s room was flipped, it looked like they had only done minor cleaning and had yet to remove any personal belongings. The picture frame on the center table was an arrant and stalwart monument to lives gone by and abandoned. It showed Lara holding a newborn Rachel. Oslo had placed the photo on the center table almost three years ago. Warsaw had never seen it move.

The next time he would pass the room, it would be gone. And he knew in all likelihood, it would be thrown away. There was very rarely any form of contact between former families and Them. They would tell the grieving what had happened, present them with a body if possible, and arrange proper restitution. Then there would be no further contact, and They would seek to fill the gap in their ranks.

Warsaw locked his room door behind him and sat on the edge of the bed, his uneasiness finding no solace in the pearl-white walls or the matching floors or the blank ceiling, or the way all three seemed to blend together without definitive edges between. He may have enjoyed the simplicity of his surroundings, but he had never been at peace with them. The same interim nature implied by the living quarters helped fester the sense of impermanent purpose.

They were expendable.

“We operate in pairs,” Warsaw said quietly to himself, eyes falling to the floor. “And my partner was just killed.”

 

 

PROGRESSION

 

“Time is kind to some, but to most, it is purely objective, and in being so, it is cruel.”

It was a line Warsaw had read in a dossier some years ago, a quote from a key player in Their game. It was spoken by a pseudo-philosopher who had a unique way of not existing while being omnipresent thanks to the power of digital anonymity and a lack of concern from the general public for a person who would title themselves a modern-day philosopher.

Warsaw and Oslo had been tasked with making an attempt at identifying the individual responsible for the quote and many others. They had, like all others, been unsuccessful. Still, the quote itself had remained with him. Often times he felt it was his own personal adage. Nothing was more poignant and fitting to him.

It had taken Them four days to fully prepare a plan, and to line up what they considered to be a suitable replacement for Warsaw’s active partner. He was slated to meet her shortly before the briefing today. All he knew about her beforehand was that her name was Sofia, and that she came from reconnaissance, just like Carson had. Oslo had come from combat expertise, specializing in knives. Warsaw also hailed from combat, with a medical background.

He waited in the barracks, under Kiev’s instruction, expecting his new partner’s arrival before the hour was up and the briefing began. Kiev had arranged the meeting, though she wouldn’t be present. She said it would be a good opportunity for them to break the ice before being deployed. Warsaw understood the logic behind it. He didn’t necessarily agree with it, but he understood it.

He’d never been one to set expectations about other people, especially his fellow agents, but he’d also only worked with one agent for an extended period of time outside of his training. His exposure to other agents over the past few years had been minimal, and They were expanding and restoring their ranks constantly. He was ill-prepared for the individual who entered the barracks in issued attire.

When she did enter, he found himself looking at someone who he immediately considered a child. She was inexplicably young, to the point where he couldn’t distinguish if she was a teenager or not. He knew she had to be in her early twenties to be working here, but her looks betrayed her age. In that regard, they were similar.

He knew the truth. It wasn’t that the newer agents were getting younger; he was simply getting older. There were some agents who had been around far longer than him, and it showed. But he knew this person who stood before him truly was fresh. Every instinct told him she was a child, when in fact she was his peer. She wouldn’t have been assigned as his new partner if she was anything less than sufficient.

“Hi,” she said as she approached him, extending her hand. “You must be Warsaw. I’m Sofia.”

He rose to take her hand and shook, her voice light and perky in a way that unnerved him. Her hair was colored like Kiev’s, except Sofia kept it taut in a ponytail which ended below her neckline. Her eyes were a deep brown, wide and lively in a way he wasn’t familiar with. She possessed a sense of excitement that almost perturbed him.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he replied, realizing he had no immediate thoughts on anything else to say. Simple pleasantries had consistently been the one area he fell flat in. Oslo had been one of few exceptions for people he could talk to freely and without considerable thought.

“Agent Kiev told me about your partner,” Sofia said, evidently being the type who could keep a conversation going. “I’m so sorry.”

That moment, like many, was one that embodied a core part of socialization that Warsaw never saw the point in. Condolences birthed in sympathy that tried to mask itself as empathy was this odd attempt to bridge a gap between people in light of tragedy or misfortune, but he could never see it for anything more than what it was. She did not know Oslo, and while he understood her intentions, he found the act itself to be hollow.

But she didn’t deserve any sort of backlash for her attempt. He had to remind himself frequently that he was the outlier, not everyone else.

“He was a good man,” Warsaw said with a curt nod. “He did good work here. Let’s hope we can too.” She smiled and echoed his nod before allowing a brief silence to fall, one that made him second-guess his initial inference on her personality. If they petered out now, the assignment ahead could be more strenuous in unnecessary ways than he first thought. Maybe he did need to make an effort for this. “Is this your first deployment?”

“Outside of training, yes,” she replied. “But I was in Houston for a low-level operation last week, and before that I assisted with the recovery and analysis of Agent Carson’s death scene.” He thought to ask if she’d known Carson prior to his death, since they came from the same division, but it seemed like she was already keen on letting him know. “He was the one who trained me. It was hard, seeing him like that. I really liked him.”

Whether she meant it in that way or not, Warsaw interpreted her words to be more than just congenial. It was a reflection on his social lacking, but he felt like it was some sort of inevitability that happened when two people worked in such close proximity to each other for an extended period of time.

“Workplace relationships are dangerous,” he said, not so much looking at Sofia as he was in her direction. “And in our line of work, they’re a death sentence. You either lose someone or they lose you. There’s no happy medium.” It sounded so much more relevant in his head. Maybe she’d see his use of “relationship” as just any sort of connection between two people, like he’d intended.

But then again, he wasn’t sure if he said it for some deviated form of comfort for her, or for himself.

The way she peered her eyes to the side in thought before nodding eased his concerns. “That makes sense.” He wasn’t sure what kind of response he expected from her, but that had certainly been tame. Maybe his assumptions had been completely incorrect, which would be no surprise. He had a lot to learn about this kid. It would probably start with adjusting to not acknowledge her as a kid.

The clock on the wall brought an end to a moment that Warsaw couldn’t quite define as awkward, followed by buzzing noises from both of their pockets. They were due for their briefing.

In a move that did not astonish him in the slightest, the briefing was to take place in the exact same room that his previous debriefings had been in, and it was this repeated usage of the same room that made him question the presence of any other meeting rooms in DSR Base. He’d seen the schematics and the maps, but somehow he was only ever exposed to the same few places. He wondered if it was some sort of secret security measure put in place, but it wasn’t a thought he cared to entertain.

Though only a brief amount of time had passed, Warsaw took concise opportunities to observe Sofia as they walked from the barracks to the meeting room. He pinned her age at somewhere around twenty-two or twenty-three, but no more than twenty-five. She was only a few inches shorter than him, so it wasn’t her height that enforced some childlike demeanor to his first impression. It had to be something else.

It wasn’t until they were in the elevator that he caught it. A smile directed at nothing that crossed her face when the doors closed. She’d merely been looking ahead. He couldn’t fathom what the source of it could have been, but seeing that brief moment somehow enlightened him to that slight offset that made him feel like their pairing was an oddity.

He’d spent three years with the United States Armed Forces before finding himself in his current position. He’d seen the world as it was. Sofia was new, and young, and completely unfamiliar to what they were fast approaching. To him, she lacked grit.

It was the one thing she’d need to survive.

They entered the meeting room side by side, and Warsaw was shocked to see the lights were turned on. The layout of the room was much like he’d imagined: white featureless walls, panel ceiling with three rows of lights running down the length of the space, and pale floors that looked unmarked. Speakers were set at intervals along the long walls, with cameras evenly placed between them, all focused on where the single table usually sat.

Now, the table was gone, but the projector frame was present, and in the company of two additional frames. All three were currently active and in use by Kiev, who was moving between them without abandon. The leftmost screen contained news feeds from the top networks, the rightmost had a topographical map of the small country of Alsra, and the center contained several data fields that were constantly updating with Kiev’s interactions.

This was also the first time Warsaw realized the wall opposite the entrance possessed a one-way window that stretched the length of the facade. Thought he couldn’t see him, he could picture Control on the other side, watching patiently as the agents walked towards the center of the room. This briefing had to be important. Turning on the lights was practically the next step to Control himself walking through the door.

Funnily enough, it had been so long that he could barely remember what Control looked like. All he associated with the man now was the voice, disembodied and infinite.

Kiev turned as they approached, giving them both a smile and a nod. “Glad to see you both were able to connect beforehand.”

“What have we got?” Warsaw asked, eyes on the screens. Talks of a new planet in the solar system, an ex-Russian spy’s murder being “probably” approved by Vladimir Putin, Academy Award nominations, ongoing memorials for David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Snippets pertinent to people who didn’t know their way of life rested on an unbalanced plank perched over a pit of despair. It almost made him sick.

“Your next assignment,” Kiev said as she swiped the contents of the left screen away. She knew how petty news made him feel. “Hopefully one of your last in this regard.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Warsaw commented, glancing between the projectors at the one-way window.

“Believe it,” Kiev retorted, allowing the leftmost screen to repopulate with video feeds from earlier this month. “There’s a lot at play right now. He thinks someone is about to blow Chimaera out of the water and put them on display. Out the entire organization.”

He knew what that meant, but he still couldn’t trust it. Chimaera had operated on a level of secrecy that matched Them for years, potentially for as long and as thoroughly. Even after their major actions in early 2013, they’d remained under the radar, right up to their leader disappearing shortly after what would’ve been his crescendo.

They all knew the reports and the dossiers. Chimaera’s leader, a theatrical cape-wearing cane-toting tyrant who called himself Moriarty, had supposedly lived a double life. His daytime persona was a politician named Jameson Montorum, who also disappeared after the Collapse. But even They had no genuine proof to link the two individuals. 

“Who could do that?” Warsaw asked, his brow furrowed. “Who would do that?”

There was a glint to Kiev’s eye as she met his gaze. “I can think of one person who would.”

“Agents.”

All three straightened up, Kiev’s attention turning to the window. The rigid familiarity of it all was starting to go stale for Warsaw. Most of his work had become lackluster as of late and still, he would stand at the ready and enter his next assignment without haste or contempt. It’s what made him an exemplary soldier.

“Events are transpiring quickly, so I will attempt to keep this brief,” Control said as the three stood at attention. “The recent breakdown between Iran and Saudi Arabia may have been the work of a remaining Chimaera occupation in Alsra.” The leftmost screen’s contents adjusted to show just newsreels from the Middle East. “We have reason to believe Blackout is involved and need the situation resolved as quickly as possible.”

So not only was the identity of the assailant confirmed, but now They were addressing them by their self-given title. It wasn’t something Warsaw found any point in, as it only seemed to entitle and empower their enemies, but he lived in a changing world where such concept was no longer foreign nor strange.

“Agent Warsaw,” Control continued, drawing Warsaw’s eyes from the leftmost screen. “We are aware of any misgivings you may have in regards to this mission and hope you will overcome them.” Warsaw nodded, his reservations resting in areas Control more than likely did not take into account when addressing him directly.

“Our plan as it stands is to deploy you both to Alsra promptly. Due to the sensitive nature of this mission, we will be deploying you in one of our prototype stealth transports. We’ve commissioned a mass cargo ship to take you into the Persian Gulf. From there, you will launch and infiltrate. Our contacts on the ground are members of the SEF. Expect Alsran militant resistance.

“You will link up with the SEF at the current hot site, where we have ongoing reports of action from unknown parties with a handful of notes mentioning experimental weaponry similar to what we’ve seen Chimaera use before.” The central screen populated with the image of a gun that Warsaw had seen some time ago, designed to emit sonic wave pulses that would disorient and even physically move its target. It was one of many ideas Chimaera had implemented that caused creative endeavors in the field.

“Once the situation has been contained, you are to move on an abandoned temple several miles southwest of the hot site. We believe this is where Chimaera is operating from. While we wish we could put you up against Blackout in a similar suit, our prototype is still under development with limited field usage, and the only other suit we have access to is being tested under Agent Halifax’s supervision. You will have to rely on Kevlar.”

“Should you require assistance, we will be keeping active communication links to you both and will have support and recovery teams on standby. Discretion is key in this operation.”

A pause. Warsaw was familiar with these. Control only did them in the most harrowed of moments, when he was to give information that was vital and paramount to the task at hand. It was an operatic tendency of his that Warsaw had come to associate with importance. Moments such as these had been few and far between.

“Our intel suggests this is the last bastion for Chimaera.” And there it was. This was not simply a cleanup operation, tying up the loose ends of a previous mission gone wrong; this was the final nail in a coffin sealed for years. Except Control wielded the hammer, while Warsaw and Sofia were to be the nail. “Time is of the essence in making sure it ends as the last.”

For the first time in a very long time, Warsaw recognized the congruity of the situation. He’d seen it before, some recent, when there was a glimmer of hope for the masses. Saddam Hussein’s capture. The death of Osama bin Laden. Landmark events in recent history. Turning points that served as keystones to a better tomorrow.

If he was to be part in what would bring Chimaera to an end, finally, he would go forward without hesitation. But he refused to be considered a nail in a coffin while the coffin lay empty. He was the bullet.

“Do either of you have any questions?” Control asked, pulling Warsaw from his focused daze. He offered no response verbally. Sofia followed suit. “Very well. Your travel will be lengthy but accommodated. Agent Kiev will provide you with the rundown. After that, you are dismissed.”

Their attention shifted to Kiev, who now had all three screens displaying two airports, a cargo port, and a map of their entire trip. “We will be transporting you to Potomac Airfield at 0200 tomorrow. From there you will be taken to Cape Town aboard a VT-03PAKS and will airdrop to one klick outside the port, where you will link up with our commissioned ship. All of your gear for the mission has been prepared and will be waiting for you onboard the boat.

“I should warn you both, Control wasn’t lying when he said the commute would be lengthy.” The rightmost screen changed to show exact times for the different intervals of the trip. “Our estimates have room for fluctuation, but right now, you will leave here at 0200 on January 22nd and arrive at the airport at 0230. From there, you will be airborne for roughly fourteen and a half hours and will arrive above Cape Town around 2250 local time. The boat portion will take the longest. Estimated arrival time to your departure point is 0600 on February 2nd.”

Warsaw was used to long bouts in less-than-pleasant situations, but even he had to admit, spending almost ten days straight on a boat would be a challenge. And since the arrangements They usually made with contractors didn’t involve a lot of face time with the agents, he assumed they’d be sequestered away.

“Will the boat have a space for us to stay?” Sofia asked.

“Yes,” Kiev replied, the left screen showing just how they would be housed on the 10-day sail. “Intuitive albeit ample living quarters have been arranged for your journey.”

Sofia seemed content. Warsaw had no complaints either, but he would’ve accepted sleeping inside the cab of the stealth transport for the ten days if they’d asked him. He wasn’t one to question orders. Oslo had said he was loyal to a fault, and that the trait was admirable. He’d started to lose himself in thought again when he realized Sofia had left, possibly after trying to say goodbye to him to no avail. Now it was just him and Kiev, who was jotting notes down on the center screen.

He turned to leave, assuming the pleasantries had finished.

“How are you doing?” Kiev’s voice asked from behind him, drawing his short pace to a halt.

“Fine,” he replied, hoping she would take the bait and not press him. “As fine as I can be.”

“Winnie said she heard shouting from your room a couple nights ago,” she continued. The bait had not been taken. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

He glanced over his shoulder and saw the genuine concern in her eyes. The potential for her to pry existed no matter how he answered, but he knew if he was honest, she was guaranteed to do so. If he tried once more to convince her otherwise, she may just be willing to accept it. He gunned for the latter, and opted to add a personal touch to help cement her assurance.

“I’m fine, Kyrie,” he said, using the name he knew she still held on to for when she called her sister. “Really.”

She sighed, but he could sense her resignation. “I don’t believe you. I wish you trusted me like you trusted him.”

He granted her the smallest of smiles, his last great effort to put her mind at ease. “It’s part of my charm.”

“You don’t have any charm.” She returned her attention to the projection. He looked at her profile for a few seconds more, taking her in as she was, as she had been since they met. He’d always been hard-pressed at forming meaningful connections with others, especially when it mattered most. The only ones that lasted were when the other involved party put forth the real effort.

Just another quality of his that someone may have found endearing and aggravating in another life.

He wanted to be honest with her. The relief that came with honesty had brought him tranquility on numerous occasions, but his confidant had been the necessary constant, and now that option was gone. And the wistfulness and emptiness that came with that knowledge made him reluctant to repeat the mistake again.

He could stomach his qualms on his own. He could cope with the guilt and the paranoia that came with being a survivor in a game of shadows. He could survive the nightmares and the lack of sleep they created. At this point in his life, he had weathered far worse than anything he could conjure himself. The real world was what mattered. He was the product of war; he could handle the petty manifestations of his thoughts.

A lifetime ago, his confidant would’ve told him he was at the bargaining phase in the process of grief. Ironically, that confidant was, now and forever, the sole fount from which that grief came. 

 

 

PEREGRINATION

 

Cold, metallic, savage. This was not a battlefield, and they were not soldiers. This was what could’ve been a thick grass meadow nestled in isolation. They were prey. And somewhere out there, It stalked. It hunted. It called out to them with promises of swift ruination. It taunted them. And all they could do was wait and hope that help would come.

Cold in a place that should not have been. Metallic in a way that detached it from humanity. Savage to instill an endless essence of fear. The voice beckoned to them, calling from the shadows that did not exist. It defied logic and comprehension by relying on the very fear it manifested. It had a voice, Its words were cogent, but It was not a man. It was a monster.

He could feel the cold of the fissured plate pressed against his back. The metallic constant was his only support as he stared forward, the corpse of his comrade laid on its chest, the blood staining the sand. The pure savagery was something he could not halt. There was nothing left for him to do, nothing left for him to save. Nothing left for him to live for.

There are no saints to be found in the devil’s world.

Warsaw’s eyes snapped open as he lurched forward, banging his head on the metal siding of his living compartment. He let his head fall slowly to its resting point against the bundled up jacket, one of its buttons digging into the back of his ear. Again with the same nightmare, day in and day out. He couldn’t remember what a restful night felt like anymore.

He waited for the pounding above his right temple to dull before he rose, swiveling his feet from the cot and rubbing his eyes. If his math was right, they should’ve been approaching their deployment point soon. They’d made excellent time working their way up the coast of eastern Africa and would be early. Their infiltration would be by cover of night.

He dressed quickly, fitting his shaped Kevlar plates under his shirt and pants to allow maximum protection while still being agile. He grabbed the jacket from the cot and fanned it twice before slipping it on, feeling a lack of familiar tightness in the arms. He hadn’t eaten as well and frequently as he should have lately.

His last touch, the one thing he’d kept on his person at all times since receiving it, was a small knife with a retractable five-inch blade that fit into a sheath clamped snugly to his belt and its loop on his middle lower back. The knife had been a birthday gift from Oslo, who had gone to great lengths to discover Warsaw’s birthday prior to giving him something so genuine and meaningful.

It was the last material thing he possessed that linked him to his former partner.

Warsaw pushed the metal slab of a door open and stepped out into the main area that he and Sofia had inhabited for over a week. Designed to appear externally like two standard cargo crates, the interior had been retrofitted to be one large space with two side rooms and a bathroom. The side rooms were about the size of a standard hallway, and the bathroom was self-sustaining in a way he didn’t care to think about.

It was the vehicle that occupied the majority of the space that really drew attention. The technology They implemented for most major operations served consistently as a testament to the timeless ideology of organizations stealing assets in the form of ideas from one another to advance themselves, especially in an era like now where stealth was being prioritized as society and its governing bodies became easier to monitor on a global scale.

The helicopter Warsaw and Oslo had been on was modeled after a scrapped stealth project the United States designed before the turn of the century, but Their take on it was vastly improved and modified to suit different purposes. The jet he and Sofia had taken across the Atlantic was built using schematics stolen from a secret Russian confederation who’d been as constant and present a threat as Chimaera.

And then there was the Rover, which sat before him in all of its prestige. Still in its prototype state, the Rover was the product of a cooperative effort with a technological conglomerate named Kirin GSK. The vehicle itself looked like something one would see in a film depicting a civilization far more avant-garde and militaristic than the one in present existence. From a distance, it could easily be mistaken for a short tank with black armor plating.

Warsaw had no doubt that this aesthetic choice was intentional.

He climbed up into the cab of the Rover and found Sofia in the co-driver’s seat, her attention on the contents of a folder. Maybe it detailed their current mission, maybe it was an early briefer on her next assignment. Whatever the case, he didn’t see fit to pry. Their time together had progressed in an arrested manner. She quickly learned how social he was not and promptly adapted.

What surprised him most was how matured she seemed now that they’d spent over a week with only each other’s company. She knew the geographic details of Alsra in a way he was almost envious of, if not for the distaste he felt for their nearing location. It wasn’t necessarily that the country itself was bad. It had become a reminder of unfortunate memories. Plus, the way it had dominated the news cycle a few years back was one of his last memories prior to major deployment.

Alsra was an example of how foreign intervention in Middle Eastern politics had contributed to one of the worst periods of civil unrest in the region’s recent history. Substantial inequality fueled by corporate greed and fanaticism had sent the country into complete chaos in 2009, and though the overall conflict itself had simmered down by the end of 2010, Alsra had yet to see a return to any form of peaceful order. Even to the point of their current operation, there had yet to be any sort of officialization of a governing body.

The country’s basic resting pulse was discord.

“You talk in your sleep,” Sofia said, it being the first thing he’d heard from her in over forty-eight hours. “It sounded like you were having a nightmare.”

“That’s not an inaccurate assessment,” he replied as he settled in. He noticed that she was already in her gear, a pistol at her side even though one of the rear compartments was filled with enough weaponry to keep them armed for a month-long assault. “Where are we at?”

“1:10 AM local time. Captain said we’d be cleared for launch in a few minutes.”

“Good. I was starting to forget what the sun looked like.”

“You heard the part where I said AM, right?”

He grinned, a reflection of the unusual comfort he’d started to find in her company. “Just making sure you’re paying attention, kid.”

The sideways glance she tossed him was no doubt for the “kid” remark, which he’d used more and more up until the point where she’d stopped talking to him altogether. But he also saw a hint of interest, almost an accusation, like she knew the grin was fake and the jovial chatter empty. He just wanted to move from the nightmare topic as quickly as he could.

He returned her stare and stole a chance to quickly read the contents of the file folder, and immediately he regretted his decision. The folder was not directly in regards to their current assignment, nor was it a briefer for her next. Instead it was a dossier, loosely created and filled with side-notes, scribbles, and suppositions about the single most important person, and target, on Their watchlist. Warsaw thought of him as part-myth, part-lunatic, but there was no denying his existence. Someone was responsible for Chimaera, and by all accounts they were let in on, that man was Moriarty.

Moriarty. Never before had Warsaw seen or known of someone so capable of disappearing. A task force had managed to find him in late 2013, and surprisingly, They had not been responsible, though a considerable donation had been made to the group of retired military soldiers in the best and most opportune of ways. Naturally, it had been another one of Control’s plans to make someone else the bullet while he could stand idly by with his finger on the trigger.

What happened after the task force stormed Moriarty’s location was uncertain. The crime boss had vanished in the aftermath of that incident, and not a single mention had risen since. Evidence and correlated logic would’ve suggested he did not walk away from that final stand, but the occasional whisper was all it took for Control to mobilize the agents and investigate with an unrivaled meticulousness.

“Deployment imminent,” a voice said from the earpieces they both wore. If he recalled correctly, it belonged to the ship’s captain, who was now unwittingly a part of Their network from which escape was near impossible. Deployment would mean the front of the compartment falling down and offering a ramp, where the Rover would depart and travel across a short passage of water before reaching the beachhead.

“Five-One-November-Two-One-Echo, copy,” another voice chimed in. Kiev, monitoring from over six thousand miles away, who was forced to rely on camera footage relayed from inside the compartment and audio transmissions.

“Solid copy,” Warsaw replied, closing the hatch to his left and securing its lock. The hiss as the cab stabilized and sealed itself resonated above him as he looked out at the metal wall ahead.

“Four-Two-November-Two-Five-Echo, copy.”

“Solid copy,” Sofia said, closing the folder and sliding it under her bucket seat.

“Stand by.”

This was Warsaw’s favorite part. To see Their technology in action, especially with something like the Rover, was always a thrill, especially with something as new as the present vehicle. A VT-05RVRS/p, it was one of three currently produced and in use. Its speed and stealth made it the perfect infiltration vehicle, and its versatility was a substantial bonus. Which, by Warsaw’s estimate, would debut itself in less than ten seconds.

The metal wall fell away and revealed the dark prospect, the Alsran beach a thin line on the horizon ten miles off. Warsaw brought the Rover to life and waited, the windshields coming to life with data and enhanced imagery of their view, preventing the need for headlights or any sort of viewports. His estimation was confirmed: they were 10.517 miles from the shore. And if the Rover moved as fast as R&D boasted, they would reach that coast in less than three minutes.

“Launch.”

He gunned the Rover forward, feeling the wheels rumble against the metal before ceasing, the digitally-enhanced view shifting as the waterline rushed to meet them. Outside he knew the four wheels were turning, orienting themselves horizontally as their additional function kicked in. The hub and spokes were designed to work in tandem with a set of suspended movement engines placed along the undercarriage that made the vehicle go from land-based to air-based.

It wasn’t that the Rover could fly; it could hover so long as it was above water, and its hover distance was roughly ten feet above the surface. Its ability to sustain this was severely limited, however, which stressed the importance of its speed. For that, it relied on potential energy reserved in a backup engine that functioned with a high-velocity propeller fitted to the back of the vehicle. One feature kept it up while the other pushed it forward, and fast.

“Kirin tech,” Sofia commented as they hit the water, or rather as they reached their minimum altitude and the propulsion systems kicked in. “It never ceases to amaze me.”

“It only took them eight years to put us on the moon after the Soviets put us in space,” Warsaw said as he steered the Rover, eyes on the growing line of sand that was coming up quick. “It’s remarkable what humanity can do when it focuses on something other than itself.”

It was one of few things he appreciated about Them. Even with their petty quarrels against a shadowed adversary, extreme technological advancement was still a priority. They had overseen great leaps in numerous fields that, when properly distributed, would make the world a better place. Medical breakthroughs, technological triumphs, scientific feats that reminded him of what made his effort worthwhile.

They were now to the point where the shoreline filled their view. In seconds they would reach a spot where the undercarriage boosters would recognize a fast-shrinking distance between them and the seafloor. It would be at that moment that the initial function would take control once more and allow land travel. Warsaw clutched the steering yolks as the Rover received a major vertical boost, the water left behind and the sand now below as the wheels returned to their normal state and the primary engine came to life, his ears tuned into the humming beat that echoed throughout the cab.

The wheels touched down spinning and ready, setting them immediately on their path at a speed that, while not as fast as their hovered travel, would still outmatch anything in the country and its neighbors in a test of velocity. The hot site was inland, forty-seven miles from their land contact point. They would reach it in under twenty minutes, even with the varying terrain that had so far consisted of sand dunes with inconsistent heights.

The initial thrill was subsiding, and Warsaw knew it was ebbing away as the ugly head of his inner turmoil reared itself once more. It was becoming less of a nuisance and more of a constant that he didn’t want but couldn’t remove. It festered within like a tumor he was forced to cope with, and though he disliked it, he knew he deserved it. His penance was not yet through.

“Our contact with the SEF is named Shahid al-Kartal,” Sofia stated, data being interlinked with her side of the Rover’s windshield. “They’ve secured the perimeter of a location that was used by the Alsran militia in 2013 as a base of operations before they relocated. Their preliminary investigation suggests Chimaera has been to the location recently.”

“The hot site isn’t an active zone?” Warsaw asked, steering them over a dune.

“Not at the moment,” Sofia said. “al-Kartal reported that it’s been vacant for almost fourteen days.”

Warsaw glanced at the remaining distance counter in the corner of the windshield’s overlay and pondered the potential explanations for a militant hot site with Chimaera involvement going dark just before their arrival. If they somehow knew agents had been dispatched, it would reveal a major security breach. If they’d set a trap regardless, it meant they were taking the bait without hesitation.

Control could hear all of their vocal interactions, but he had not yet made his opinion known. So either he didn’t believe they were going into a trap, or he wanted the trap to spring so the responsible parties would reveal themselves. Once more he toyed with the lives of other people for his own personal gain.

Though Warsaw could hardly admit to being objective in the situation. He had slid far onto the jaded side of the spectrum.

They climbed the final precipice and looked down on a village of sorts, intermixed with foliage and occupying the base of a bowled semi-canyon that offered only one point of major entry and exit. Power lines accompanied by dull street lamps moved along the central dirt road towards the largest building at the center, where he could see a handful of vehicles parked. Judging by their markings, they belonged to the SEF.

The sight was all too similar to the gorge he and Oslo had crashed in, except the base of that one had been desolate, and they had crashed during the day, whereas now it was a clear night with a vast array of stars above and a waning moon in the distance.

“On approach with the contact, half a klick west,” Warsaw said as he started their way down the dune. The time was nearing 0130 local time. If it was an ambush, the militants would have the cover of night advantage. If they stayed in the Rover, that advantage would be lost, but protocol dictated the Rover be parked and secured so they could enter the central facility for further investigation.

Sometimes he hated protocol.

He stopped the Rover just short of being in line with the SEF vehicles, tan trucks with gun mounts in their beds. The door to the facility was guarded by two armed soldiers, and as Warsaw and Sofia exited the Rover, a third figure emerged. Warsaw moved to the passenger side of the vehicle, accessing the weapons cache and pulling out his own pistol, a Kimber Custom he’d taken a liking to several months back.

Sofia was already interacting with the third man when Warsaw approached, sizing him and his guards up as best he could. He looked to be about the same age as the agent, his hairline receding and a faint outline of a goatee present. He wore a uniform similar to the guards, save for the vest and a patch insignia on his shoulder displaying his rank of major.

“Shahid al-Kartal,” the man said, shaking Warsaw’s hand. The agent knew introducing himself was a moot point; either Sofia had already done it or Control had briefed the SEF major on how the proceeding would go. “Please follow me.”

The interior of the facility had certainly been a headquarters for something, but the tech seemed so outdated and run-down that Warsaw had a hard time believing Chimaera had been present. Then again, if they were in such a state of disarray as Control suggested, perhaps this was the best they could muster. Discontinued machines with CRT monitors lined the walls, with wired telephones arranged at unusual intervals between.

“We secured the facility when we received confirmation that you had entered the Gulf,” al-Kartal said, leading them to the staircase. “We haven’t seen anyone since.” The path moved up in a clockwise manner, the second story looking relatively the same as the first with a few exceptions. The main one was a central computer, slightly newer than the rest and isolated. “My technicians have tried accessing this unit but the lock is strong.”

“I might be able to help with that,” Sofia said, moving to sit in front of the computer. Warsaw stood directly behind her, glancing around at the rest of the room. He’d counted twenty-eight soldiers total, with thirteen on each floor and the two standing guard outside. al-Kartal was the 29th. If he knew what to expect from either the Alsran militants or Chimaera, he’d have made a better assessment on whether that number would be sufficient or not.

Below him, Sofia had started tapping away, bringing up several consoles Warsaw didn’t know existed and forging a steady path into the digital gamut. He leaned down and watched her fingers move deftly between the keys, entering code that somehow told the computer to bypass every measure it attempted to use as a line of defense.

“Are you sure you can break their lock?” he asked, eyes drifting towards the guards standing against the walls. “Some of their best systems were rigged to do a wipe as soon as any cracking attempts were made.”

“I graduated with an MS in Computer Science from MIT in 3 years,” she snapped up at him, eyes not leaving the screen. “I can handle this.”

He didn’t doubt it. The kid was clearly far more capable with a computer than he was. His concern rested in what signal the computer might send out once all of its safeguards had been removed. If Chimaera played like history suggested, waiting for the computer to give them the go-ahead when all vital parties were gathered would be clever.

And if they played dirty, the computer could be rigged to explode upon success.

“You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks?” Sofia asked.

“Yes.”

“Same principle here. Old computer, new software. Security’s not as secure as they’d like.” He watched as the screen went blank and revealed a series of directories, pages upon pages of files and subfiles. She pored over the contents across a few different panes before sighing and tilting her head.

“It’s a communications depot with a native data cache,” she said, pointing to one of the directories. “Like a hard drive backup of their main server, except the data doesn’t make sense. Some of the stuff is new.”

Their earpieces chirped to life. “Secure and transmit the data as soon as you can.” It was the first thing Control had said since their departure from D.C.

“What do you mean ‘new?’” Warsaw asked.

“There’s a lot of back and forth with something called Slade,” she replied, opening a cached email with a graphic reading SLADE across the bottom. It looked familiar somehow, but he couldn’t quite pin where it was from. Sofia glanced up at him as another email displayed itself, discussing Chimaera Op Four-Three-One-One. “Is that another soldier like Blackout?”

Several voices shouted from outside, the two guards at their posts calling out in Arabic. Warsaw followed al-Kartal to the window as four soldiers exited the building with their guns ready, the two guards pointing down the road. Warsaw couldn’t see anything from the window due to the presence of a lamp just to the left of his view, but his memory was jogged as he peered his eyes to the black.

“Sofia,” he said as he turned around, “there were several security cameras linked up on the power lines. Are those on the network?” She went to work on the machine and nodded as he reached her, bringing up a multi-panel display of the security footage. The bottom row displayed the feeds from the outer perimeter cameras, and though they were dark, he could see movement on all four.

“Harakat!” one of the guards outside yelled, followed by a series of gunshots.

“We’ve got company,” Warsaw said as he grasped Sofia’s shoulder. She plugged a USB into the computer’s only slot and stood, pulling her pistol from her hip and nodding at him. The soldiers on the second floor took up positions in the windows while al-Kartal followed them, shouting orders at the troops on the first floor as the trio moved through.

“Tamin muhit!” al-Kartal yelled as a group of soldiers fanned out. “La ‘ahad yahsul min khilal!”

Warsaw could see the flashing muzzles at the outer reach of the settlement and a mixture of shouts from al-Kartal’s soldiers and those on the fringe. He and Sofia took cover against the driver side of the Rover while the SEF soldiers set up positions on their vehicles.

“I heard Persian and Luri,” Sofia noted, looking around the Rover at the outer reaches.

“How long will it take the drive to upload the data?” Warsaw asked, watching an SEF soldier take a bullet to the shoulder.

“It should be done already.”

Warsaw watched the different muzzles in the distance, counting at least eight attackers currently firing.

“Yukar? ta??!”

“They’re advancing,” Sofia translated, nodding at a blurry group moving in the shadow of the tallest dune to the south. Warsaw gestured to al-Kartal before nodding at the south dune. The major shouted an order to his soldiers, who turned and fired in the direction. The sound of the distant rifles was not so far off anymore, meaning the front line group was moving forward too.

“There can’t be more than two dozen,” Warsaw said as he turned the safety on his pistol off. “Watch the north dune. I’m moving to cover.”

“Aljanib alakhar!” Sofia called out, SEF soldiers responding by moving to keep an eye on the opposite dune’s base. Warsaw ducked and met with al-Kartal, who was firing an M4 over the top of one of their jeeps.

“Damn militants,” al-Kartal commented as Warsaw poked his own head over the hood and fired a shot, catching a running attacker in the leg.

“Your report said you’d seen them with Chimaera tech?” the agent asked while the major reloaded his gun.

“They hit a border town between here and Kuwait,” al-Kartal replied, shouting another order before continuing. “The KNG took down a soldier using a rifle that fired metal-warping rounds. It almost destroyed the side panel on one of their Shorlands.”

“Secure as much of the tech as you can,” Control’s voice buzzed in Warsaw’s ear, almost making him remove the earpiece out of annoyance. His priority was not by any means securing tech for Them to disassemble and recreate. His focus was getting these people out of an ambush alive.

He looked back to see Sofia aim and fire her pistol around the back of the Rover as two SEF soldiers moved up and around the vehicle to push their perimeter out. Three SEF soldiers had gone down, and as far as he could tell, only five of the militants were incapacitated. There were still a number of them in the distance, blanketing the open space with covering fire. Movement was severely limited while the militants had the dunes for cover.

Then came a familiar sound in the most unsettling of ways, the noise of air being ripped as a wave of energy forced its way through like a sonic boom. He searched desperately for the source and found it just as Sofia stepped around the Rover’s back, an SEF soldier just ahead of her. The soldier blocked his view of the militant wielding the Chimaera-conceived weapon, but his partner was now an open target.

Kid!” he yelled as the SEF soldier went down, his chest riddled with bullets. Sofia kneeled and brought her gun up, not hearing his warning yell in time. He heard the sonic blast once more and watched, not seeing its path but knowing its trajectory. Sofia was knocked back and into the air, falling several feet behind and her pistol flying from her grasp.

Warsaw charged out, firing his pistol in the direction of the militant as he grabbed Sofia’s pistol with his free hand and secured it against his hip. He slid next to her body and fired twice more, making sure the militant had no ample shot while he wrapped his arm around her and dragged her back to the Rover’s side.

Only when he was certain that they were out of firing range did he lower his pistol and check her vitals. She was unconscious and her nose was bleeding from the blast, but her pulse was steady. The weapon was more volatile at close range, and her Kevlar had no doubt taken most of the impact. She would survive, he knew that for certain, but not if the militants were able to overrun the SEF.

He would not lose another partner.

Warsaw rose and circled around the front of the Rover, his own pistol in his left hand and Sofia’s in his right. One militant stepped out of cover and was caught instantly in the shoulder as he fired, his next bullet going to his left and catching another militant that had charged out from behind a building. The SEF soldiers moved with him, giving him cover as he fired across the plaza at a group of militia members.

It had been a long time since he had dual wielded anything, and the instant aching from his wrists up to his shoulders reminded him why. The alternative was waiting for the weapons cache on the passenger side of the Rover to open, which would take too much time and leave him vulnerable for longer than he cared to be. He pressed his back against the nearest building’s wall and fired again, catching a militant in the side.

“Tahark!” al-Kartal yelled, moving to give Warsaw backup as the agent pressed the attack. The muzzles in the distance had ceased as the militants moved for cover, but the SEF had taken the dune perimeters and were closing in now. Warsaw heard the left pistol click as he used the right to drop a fleeing militant, seeing the empty chamber in the ejection port on Sofia’s pistol after.

He pressed both magazine releases and swiveled the left pistol on his trigger finger to grab the barrel while his right hand brought up a fresh mag and held it waiting against the grip, bringing the Kimber down and inserting the ammunition. He repeated the motion with his right hand, reloading the standard M1911 in just as speedy a fashion. It was a technique he’d learned when he first started using the akimbo style, and one he’d appreciated since.

The militants were dwindling fast, and he trusted the SEF to be capable of cleaning up what remained. He spun and returned to the Rover, once again checking to make sure Sofia’s pulse was stable. The gunshots were becoming distant again as the SEF gained control of the settlement. He cleaned the blood from her face before hoisting her up and carrying her to the driver hatch.

It had been ten seconds since the last shot rang out by the time he had finished laying her in the driver seat. The nosebleed had stopped, but he didn’t expect her to return to consciousness for some time, and the mission was still at hand. The Alsran militants had possessed Chimaera tech, and the attacker in particular who had shot Sofia was not in the immediate vicinity of downed individuals. He’d need to continue on.

Leaving her behind in the settlement was out of the question, even though the Rover was intended for transportation to the temple some thirty miles away, near the heart of Alsra. He could lock the Rover with her inside and send out the distress signal. They would be prompt in retrieving her and he would be able to continue the assignment. He didn’t bother asking for permission. It was what Control would advise him to do anyways.

He gave her one final glance, his eyes falling on the pin pressed into her shirt above the left breast. It was Their mark, simple but memorable. A symbol that was meant to inspire hope, for those who knew it. He couldn’t say with pride or confidence that the pin instilled such feelings in him, but when he looked at her, he was willing to believe it, if only for a moment. Maybe she was what they needed to stay true to their foundation.

“Take care, kid,” he said as he hit the emergency transponder and sealed the door, stepping back to let it close with Sofia safely inside. He waited to hear the soft hissing as it stabilized the interior before he stepped away, moving around to the weapons cache. He wouldn’t take much, just enough to handle whatever Chimaera may have been holding back.

He holstered his own pistol against his left hip and Sofia’s pistol in a new holster on his right. He hoped she wouldn’t mind his appropriating it, but it felt symbolic for him to use it in what could be the pivotal act to bring Chimaera down. He also grabbed an M4A1 variant and slung it over his shoulder, with extra magazines in his back pockets. Enough firepower for at least fifty people.

And if it was just the one Warsaw hoped to see, he prayed it would be enough.

“Major,” he said as al-Kartal walked by, escorted by three SEF soldiers. “I’m continuing with the operation. I ask that you and your troops keep this location secure until my people arrive to extract our vehicle.”

The soldier nodded. “Of course.” He started back on his path towards the main building.

“I’m sorry for your losses,” Warsaw added, causing al-Kartal to stop. The major turned with his eyes narrowed, first looking at Warsaw, then at the dunes beyond. 

“Send them back to Hell, Agent.”

Warsaw gave his own nod and started off heading southwest in the direction of what was once known as Alsra’s capital, Akkitan. Intel suggested the city had long since been abandoned, which made it the perfect place for Chimaera to have set up shop. If his memory was right, Akkitan was indeed roughly thirty miles from the Alsran militant settlement.

His purpose made no distance seem too far a length to go to see this operation to its end.

 

*

 

The sun had risen and started its slow trek across the open sky. It was to be a clear day, one of the finest Alsra had seen as of late. That sun glowed down on Akkitan, which was less of a former capital and more of a remnant echoing back to traditional architecture in the few buildings that still stood. It had been ravaged by war, and now the most prominent structure that remained was the temple at the heart of the city.

Warsaw looked down on the capital and its solitary temple and knew this was where Chimaera had gone. That temple was their fortress. He knew that the people inside were, like him, assembled in singular purpose. They were the last great bastion of a criminal syndicate that came close to shaping the world in its image. And now they rallied and waited. Warsaw could remember the banner from weeks back. Above the temple, he could see a new one of his own design. “This is where I deconstruct your world.”

He had no way of knowing how many operatives waited within. Without technological assistance from the Rover or Control, there was only one way to definitively find out. He started his approach, pistols in hand, his resolve bolstered on a level of intent he had not felt in quite some time. He was doing what he did best.

He had no knowledge of the layout of the temple, nor did he know what to expect inside. If this was Chimaera’s last base of operations, there were any number of possibilities. Another communications depot, a weapons cache, a contingency base. All of these possibilities were quickly fleeting for him, because while Control may have wanted Chimaera taken down so he could fill their gap, all Warsaw wanted to do was finish the mission.

The front entrance to the temple was ahead, and two operatives stood at each side, their attention not focused up. This was how it started. These would be the first of Chimaera to fall that day. He charged forward, his energy still present despite him having journeyed so far in nine hours. He was prepared for this.

The gap closed between him and the operatives, and by the time they heard his footsteps clapping along the stone path, it was too late. He fired twice, once from each gun, both bullets passing through their skulls. He rolled through the entrance and came up crouching, guns pointed in opposite directions so as to prevent a cheap shot while he gathered his bearings. Three paths he could choose from, and he knew the temple had at least three levels.

He would work his way from the ground up.

The temple’s central space would be a place of worship, and would occupy all three stories. Access stairwells would be at either side of the central chamber. If there were ever a place for Chimaera to set up shop, it would be that room. He moved forward, careful to keep his ears tuned to the sound of echoing footsteps. They were far off, moving halls and halls away. His gunshots had scattered them.

An operative jumped at him from the next corner, his gun swinging round at a speed just slow enough for Warsaw to manipulate. He fired a shot into the operative’s extended arm, then another into the man’s chest. He dove forward as a series of shots rang out from down the hall, followed by shouts about flanking maneuvers. He pivoted around the corner and returned fire, pushing the distant operative into cover.

If they were fanning out from the center, he would be pinned in less than ten seconds, but if the group moving to flank was expecting him to be preoccupied, they were more vulnerable than the operative down the hall. He ran further up his hall of choice with his pistols aimed, the next intersection approaching and the open central chamber ahead. He rounded the corner and fired instinctively, catching one of the three approaching operatives off guard and forcing the other two to fall back.

Gunfire prevented him from returning to the hall, so his only option was pushing the central chamber. When he did, he was surprised to find it lacking in anything he’d expected. In fact, it was completely devoid of any sign of being used to house the last members of a criminal syndicate, which made him reconsider the temple’s purpose. Chimaera may not have chosen this place as their final stand by choice; it may have simply been the end of the line.

Two operatives moved in from the right as he ducked behind a pillar, firing once with the Kimber and hitting one in the leg. The other shouted for reinforcements, giving Warsaw the time needed to circle the pillar and fire again, catching the remaining man before he could retaliate. At least three would soon be following him as he bolted across the worship center towards a stairwell.

He was surprised by the lack of usual Chimaera weaponry, but if they’d banked all their resources on the Alsran militants being able to stop him, they’d wagered poorly. Though the current lack of involvement from the only thing he’d hoped to find concerned him. The mission mattered, but finding that monster was paramount. He wouldn’t leave here until he did. He reached the stairwell and glanced back, letting off one potshot to deter the trio that would be on his tail.

The pathway up would give him brief windows into the central chamber, which was exactly what he needed. He moved up to the space just before one and counted, recalling the time it had taken him to cross the central chamber. He stepped forward and aimed out, firing four times in rapid succession and catching two of the three as they ran. Shouting reverberated up through the chamber, like a distress call to any other operatives who may have somehow still been unaware of the ongoing actions.

He reached the second floor and fired again, blasting the foot from the operative waiting at the end of the new hallway. That operative fell forward and into his line of sight as he let loose another shot, this one catching the woman in the neck. He was starting to feel the fatigue now, a hot patch in his upper leg becoming noticeable. He moved forward regardless, rounding a corner and looking back for the operative he expected to come up the stairs.

Instead his ears focused in on a different set of footsteps thumping from above. If he’d mapped the place correctly, those footsteps were heading towards the stairwell in the next hall, which would bring them down to him in full force. He counted at least four distinctive sets of steps on approach, and the next stairwell offered him no windows to catch them as they descended. He’d need a new strategy. He glanced down both ends of the halls before blinking twice and holstering the pistols, a new thought sparking in his head.

The four operatives entered the hallway and moved cautiously, guns aimed between the open expanse and the slotted half-walls that gave way to the central chamber. They knew the gunshots had been just below, and that the assailant couldn’t have circumvented them fast enough since the second floor was dedicated to rooms with only a few hallways between. The agent couldn’t have vanished so easily.

They moved forward as a unit, arms at the ready, bringing them halfway down the hall without any inclination on where the assailant could’ve gone. Warsaw used this confusion to his advantage, his body suspended from the ceiling using a cable and suit-loop hanger that was standard-issue for their agents. He counted his seconds and watched the operatives’ paces as they moved on just enough for him to be confident in his next move.

He detached from the cable and fell softly to the floor, bringing up the carbine and letting loose ten shots that dropped all four enemies. He couldn’t believe the tactic had worked, but he hardly had time to question it. The operative who had been following him was at the other end of the hallway and wasted no time in unleashing a barrage, forcing Warsaw into cover halfway up the stairwell.

He’d covered two-thirds of the temple without seeing his target, and only now was he starting to worry that the entire assignment was going to be a bust. He secured the carbine on his back and reacquired the pistols, listening for the sound of approaching footsteps from the pursuer. None came, and he was spending too much time in the space between floors for him to be comfortable. He continued up to the third floor and felt part of his stomach sink.

This floor was another area of worship, but designed to give ample space for people focused on the central chamber while the outlying area was another network of rooms and hallways. From what he could see, this floor was also empty of Chimaera-based necessities for a functioning base. Everything about this was starting to feel off, but he was too deep into the mess now to reconsider. Especially when several shots rang out from the other end of the praying room.

He rolled down and crouch-walked to the nearest archway, glancing back through and firing three times to divert his attacker. The operative fired back as they moved across the room, heading towards a pillar that would block Warsaw’s line of sight. He took in a deep breath and waited two seconds before jumping out and firing, the shot catching the running operative in the inner shoulder and sending them spiraling.

The Kimber clicked in his hand, and the series of shots that came from the stairwell behind him kept him from reloading. He dove back to his previous place of cover, holstering his pistol and bringing Sofia’s up to return fire, finally catching his pursuer in a crouched position and sending them toppling back into the stairs.

The fatigue was worse now, and he could feel another burn in the muscles of his left shoulder. He turned back into the hallway and fired at the blur of an individual at the far end. Sofia’s pistol clicked now, and though he was certain he’d brought extra magazines, his normal tactic for reloading seemed too time-consuming and theatric to chance doing while someone was waiting for him to pause.

At least, he’d assumed they were waiting for a pause. He hadn’t differentiated the metallic clinking noise from the gunshots or footsteps and saw the circular object take its last bounce towards him too late. He dove back as the grenade exploded, sending shrapnel and rock shards everywhere as the walls of the hallway splintered and cracked. He’d been far enough away to avoid damage, but the secondary effects hit instantly.

His ears pounded and the stone floor shimmered as he attempted to gather his bearings. Dust and smoke filled the hallway behind him, which made for good cover as he struggled to situate himself on his stomach. He reached out with his left hand and dragged himself back towards the archway that would lead him to safety, but his path was interrupted when he saw a figure standing there, attention focused on the praying room. The sight shouldn’t have perturbed him, if it had made any logical sense.

Standing under the archway, casual and careless, was his former partner. He looked as fresh and lively as he’d looked in the months and years before their last assignment. The way he gazed into the praying room was like he belonged here, and Warsaw couldn’t begin to process how this series of events could transpire.

Eric,” he said hoarsely, his own voice just barely piercing the ringing in his ears. His former partner looked over at him, down at him, and smiled.

The hollow sounds of a gunshot drew Warsaw’s attention back, seeing the clearing smoke and the charging operative. He turned on his side and brought the carbine around just before the operative could fire another shot, riddling him with as many bullets as he could let loose before the shaking gun convulsed its way from his grasp. The operative tumbled forward while Warsaw glanced back, finding the archway empty.

He struggled to his feet, holding the wall to steady himself. The carbine was still on the ground, the pistols discarded. His gaze swelled and swayed as he took three steps forward, desperate to orient himself properly. None of his senses were functioning properly, not even his smell, which bombarded him with the scents of scorched rock and gunpowder and the sharp tang of blood.

He managed his way to the stairwell, trying to tally how many operatives he had encountered so far compared to the number he had taken down. He couldn’t remember if he’d missed anyone. He didn’t have a ballistic weapon on him to handle them if he had. He limped fast down the hallway as his thoughts raced, homing in on the one operative from the first floor that he wasn’t sure was accounted for.

The blast hit suddenly and ubiquitously, forcing him to the floor once more. It hadn’t been a grenade, nor had it been in the hall itself. Somehow it had been everywhere, a boom that again deafened him as he strained to regain a foothold. The rumbling started low beneath him, then worked its way into the stone his hands were pressed against. It was like a quake contained to the hallway, but he knew it was more than that.

First the stones above him started to fall from their places, then the walls began to give way. He forced himself forward, the increasing amount of dust clouding his path and filling the half-walls that would’ve revealed the central chamber to his right. The floor shifted and morphed as the entire hallway itself lost its shape, and suddenly his entire orientation was lost when the path crumbled and gave way.

Calculated blasts from critical points along the first floor of the temple resulted in its total collapse, the stone pillars falling in on themselves, the third floor collapsing into the second, the second disintegrating into the first. It was a process that lasted all of fifteen seconds, and when it was done, the temple was reduced to rubble, piles of stone in varying stacks that buried all who had remained.

Warsaw pushed the rocks away and crawled up, coughing as he pulled his body free from the debris. Of course it had been a trap. He’d made the mistake of underestimating them, but in his blindness, Chimaera had played their hand. If he could survive the explosion, so could any of the operatives still inside. But as he clambered to the top of the stones and stared out at the dissipating dust, he saw It.

It approached slowly, with several operatives marching alongside. Not several, no; seven. Its armor was black, like before. Its visor was green, like before. It could see him, he knew that. And yet they moved as a group in his direction, the direction of the temple ruins, and though all seven operatives were armed, none of them opened fire. Warsaw wondered if they considered him dead, even when he quite visibly struggled to his feet. But no. No shots came.

They were close enough for him to hear them speak. The operatives were silent, but It was not. The same voice that had taunted him and taken Eric’s life not so long ago filled the air once more.

“Secure the area,” Blackout ordered, marching onward. “He’s mine.”

There. This wasn’t some grand plan to kill him in the temple. Blackout had banked on his survival. This was just an elaborate move to create a showdown. Theatrical as ever, and fitting to Chimaera’s history. Warsaw could still feel the earpiece in place, and knew Control and Kiev and any other interested parties back home could be listening in. They would have to rely on sound alone.

He limped from the rubble slowly, tensing his leg and easing it to relieve the pressure. He would not give his adversary the advantage of fighting a crippled enemy. He would give no quarter in whatever was to come. This was what he’d wanted all along, whether he’d admitted to it or not. This was why he had gone on this assignment.

Blackout’s visor retracted up into his helmet as he approached, giving Warsaw his first look at the real, human face of his foe. And even though Blackout had now been personified, he still saw a monster.

“Come to let me finish the job?” Blackout mocked, stopping several feet ahead of the agent.

“You and I weren’t done,” Warsaw groaned back, straightening his back to stand at full height.

Blackout smirked, eyes going between two spots on Warsaw’s body. “Looks like you’re already done.” Warsaw followed the monster’s eyes down and realized why he’d felt such specific sensations from his upper right leg and left shoulder. It wasn’t fatigue that had set in to cause muscle pain and spreading agony; he’d been shot twice. Somehow in the mix of it all, he’d failed to notice that.

The adrenaline rushed. The operatives at the sides seemed to fade from existence. All that mattered here and now was Blackout.

His foe charged first as the visor returned to its place, gloved hands launching a series of pummels that Warsaw blocked with his arms, taking cautious steps back while maintaining a strong stance. He knew his weaknesses, his disadvantages. Whether Blackout knew them as well was irrelevant; he simply needed to keep his foe from robbing him of his hold.

Blackout’s style was vicious and aggressive, geared at landing blows in succession to catch Its target short. Warsaw had been taught to tire his enemy, especially when one was injured or outnumbered. He let Blackout throw Its punches, Its kicks, and even though the monster was armored, It was agile and quick to a point where Warsaw could not relent nor chance a breach of defense for a brief moment of offense.

He counted the blows before Blackout kicked once, twice, and the third time was his move. He wrapped his arm around the metal leg and launched forward, hoisting his target up and throwing him to the ground. He slid forward while Blackout struggled on Its back, with the agent wrapping his upper body around the monster’s torso and forcing his knee into Its head several times.

Blackout flipped to Its stomach and pulled Warsaw by the leg, using strength that took the agent by surprise and throwing him several feet away. He scrambled to regain his footing while Blackout paced, panting through Its brief chuckles.

“I know all about your people,” the Chimaera operative leered. “You work in pairs. But I killed your partner… so where’s your new one?”

“There is no new one,” Warsaw growled, spitting into the sand.

Blackout looked him over twice before exhaling deeply from his nostrils. “I almost believe you.” The operative lunged forward, knocking Warsaw onto his back and attempting several feral blows at his face. Warsaw kept his knees up, the only object holding the attacker at bay. His bad leg was failing, though, and Blackout got a rare opportunity to smash Its fist down into the middle of Warsaw’s face.

He felt the snap of bone and cartilage in his nose and barked out as he extended his legs, throwing Blackout away and into a larger piece of rock rubble. Warsaw stood while his foe returned to Its stance, giving him a chance to blow the blood from his nose to the sand. He needed a new strategy, something that played on the ferocity that Blackout used. It wasn’t until after his second blow of blood that an idea formed.

He brought his hand to his face and blew a third time, a hefty mix of blood and clumped dirt hitting his open palm. He waited for Blackout to rush again before throwing the contents out, catching his foe’s helmet and scattering blood and mush across the emerald visor. The monster charged still as Warsaw danced around him, hearing the guttural and animalistic roars as It turned and ripped the visor from the helmet.

“Why won’t your people just die?!” Blackout thundered, eyes wide and seething.

“You first,” Warsaw returned, bolstering himself for the onslaught he knew was coming. Blackout galloped at him, savage and bullish with punches and kicks going in general motions to emphasize power over accuracy. Warsaw deflected them as best he could, using the nearby rubble to his advantage and causing the operative to hit rock more than flesh.

Blackout’s gloved fists made contact with stone too many times, and when It rounded its leg to hit Warsaw’s gut, the agent instead caught the blow again and forced the operative back. He channeled his own brutality, birthed in his desire for revenge at his partner’s death, and jolted himself forward, bringing his full weight down on the monster and collapsing It back. He smashed his elbow into Blackout’s exposed face twice before two pairs of arms grabbed him and threw him off.

The Chimaera operatives on standby had intervened, and Blackout was fine with that. It stood and looked down on Warsaw, who was struggling back to his feet. The monster’s face was gashed and bruised, left eye socket swelling but nose intact.

“Kill him,” Blackout uttered, turning to reveal something Warsaw had yet to see. There, on Its back, was Eric’s knife. The same one the operative had used to kill Warsaw’s former partner. It was more apt to call it a sword, as the blade itself was twenty inches, black and jagged, designed in an Asian style. The fact that Blackout had kept it, had it on Its person like the blade belonged to It, instilled a newfound sense of rage in Warsaw. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood at attention once more, as if Control himself were present, as if God himself was there to oversee the motions.

He counted again. Seven operatives, Blackout stepping away. All of them were arrayed in front of him. Some had weapons ready. His rage was a fuel, the fire to a reserve he did not know he possessed. His mind was centered and his core found. He knew how to channel this vitality. Two seconds had passed, and the first two operatives were nearing. He cast a glance between them and felt his entire being go still.

He exhaled once, deep and thorough. Then he went to work.

He removed the knife from its back sheath and extended the blade, keeping it in his left hand and stabbing it into the left side of the neck of the first soldier on his right. He pulled the knife from the soldier’s neck and veered left before jamming it down into the bottom center of the second soldier’s neck. With his right hand on the hilt, his left hand moved down and grabbed the pistol from the second soldier’s hand. In just as swift a motion, he fired under his extended right arm and placed a bullet in the third operative’s head.

He ducked as the fourth soldier to his left fired, the bullet passing over his head. He straightened his back and fired again, catching the fourth soldier in the chest. With his right hand still on his knife’s hilt, he pulled the second soldier’s body close and braced himself against it, pushing forward and using it as a shield with the knife remaining in place. The standing soldiers were ahead as he thrust the muzzle of the pistol into the shield-soldier’s chest before firing.

He was a weapons specialist. Everything he knew about the blade, Eric had taught him. And everything Eric had taught him, he had learned to his core.

He fired three times, hitting and dropping the fifth soldier. He pushed the second soldier’s body down and pulled his knife free, dashing forward to stab the blade into the right side of the sixth soldier’s neck. He pulled the blade forward and out, half-severing the soldier’s head. He reached out with his left hand and grabbed said soldier’s pistol, redirecting it to fire two shots at the seventh soldier, who took the bullets in their upper chest.

All of it had been one fluid moment, leading up to his apex. Blackout had turned, grabbing Eric’s blade as he went. Warsaw was mid-jump as the monster finished turning with the blade ready. The agent knew what came next. He’d expected far worse. His knife was ready, his resolve steeled. He toppled onto his foe and forced them both to the ground, Blackout’s back pressed to dirt, Warsaw on top.

The blade had pierced. In his distant memories, he could see a young woman who may have been a friend, and on her wall a diagram mapping the organs of the human body. He could see the diagram projected onto himself and knew that the blade had passed through his heart. There was no more stretching horizon. Instead, to him, there was only now. All other steps had been skipped; he accepted his inevitability. And with that acceptance, he found it.

Grit.

He pushed himself forward, driving the blade deeper into his chest. Blackout’s face morphed from shock to despair, but the blood seeping from Warsaw’s chest covered what was visible of the Chimaera operative’s visage. Warsaw gave one final push, knowing full well that the blade passing through his heart had hit its hilt, but not before breaking the skin on his back. It did not matter. While Eric’s blade had made its place, Warsaw’s had found a home of its own in Blackout’s forehead.

His own death was a lasting assurance, but he knew his foe deserved no such durable consolation. Blackout’s death was immediate. Immutable. Final.

With all his contained furor, Warsaw looked down at the lifeless eyes of his enemy and said, “You first.”

He let his body topple to the side and pulled Eric’s blade from his chest, feeling the pressure seize and ebb. His head lulled to the side, and there he saw his former partner once more, now joined by another individual. Brown hair, stubble, a face and demeanor capable of hoping and living and loving. It was the first time he’d met his partner, all those years ago.

“What’s your name?” the other man had said, one of the first times he’d heard him speak.

“Warsaw,” he'd replied, gulping as he came to terms with the new title he bore.

The other man shook his head. “Not that one. Your real name.”

The younger image of Warsaw paused nervously before replying. “Wallace. Eric Wallace.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Eric Wallace,” the other man said as he extended his hand. “I’m Eric Odell.”

The vision blurred and vanished, giving way to the dusty landscape of the fallen temple, the corpses around him, the dirt and sand turning shades of red. Somewhere along the way his earpiece had been knocked free, and he could see it only a few feet away. He crawled to it, his body going numb, his legs unable to work on command.

He grabbed the earpiece and held it in shaking hand, not surprised to hear the stammering voice of Control on the other end. He mustered what strength he had left and tapped the button on the earpiece’s side, allowing him to speak.

“Chimaera Op Four-Three-One-One is down,” he said, feeling a wave of stillness start to cover him.

“Excellent,” Control said, regaining his composure. “Extraction status?”

“Negative,” he replied, closing his eyes before the brightness of the sun blinded him. “Extraction compromised. Agent Five-One-November… Two-One-Echo is down.”

“Agent Warsaw, repeat!”

He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. His hand was insensate, his coherent self fading. He let the earpiece drop to the dirt and pressed his injured shoulder to the ground, lying on his back. He could feel it coming now, the sea of calm and amity. The pain was gone, the heartbreak and the loss. All that was left was the peace.

He welcomed it.


© Copyright 2017 JT Phillips. All rights reserved.

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