And another story from the Continuum universe, crafted in the pub (you can probably tell). Just a short one this time though – it’s astonishing how much dialogue pads story size.
by Ian Peters
I saw my first dead body three days after my thirteenth birthday. My mother, gasping in my arms, gurgling as blood filled her lungs. Her hands cradling my dust-covered face. Her blue eyes reaching out to me. I remember the sudden relaxation of her face. Her eyes drifting out of focus. Her hands falling limply to the ground.
I don’t know how long I sat there, holding her, rocking backwards and forwards to the distant crumping of the planetary bombardment, with grief forming a void within me. I don’t remember that much of that day, or the immediate aftermath, but the emptiness remained within me, my companion when all others may abandon me.
I made my first kill three weeks later. A gang of older kids had managed to find a stash of my food, and were busy stripping it bare. The first one never knew what happened – one moment he was rummaging around my food, the next his brains had exploded over his friends. They stood with shock, gore drippint into agape mouths. My next shot, ripping through the chest of another, sent them scattering, leaving their wounded friend behind. Mortally wounded, I thought, looking down at him. He was screaming with pain, face pleading for help. Only a single bullet left, I toyed with putting him out of his misery but opted not to. Instead I turned and gathered up my stash, supplementing my limited supplies with the contents of the dead kids’ sacks.
It was almost two months before anyone came to establish order, and until then Skegul-3 became a dog-eat-dog world. Gangs and tribes formed, scrabbling over the dwindling industrial-age resources of a suddenly stone age planet. I stayed clear. In any group, it’s far better to be at the top than at the bottom, and as a child of thirteen I knew where I would sit.
Eventually, the government came. The found me living in the bombed-out remains of a school – an indefensible location not desired by anyone else, it had a myriad of exits through which I could escape. Unfortunately the interplanetary government has resources far beyond those of a teenager, and so I didn’t stay free for long. After cleaning me up, I was stuck in a government-run orphanage, a storage-depot for the parent-less victims of the slaughter.
As a home, it wasn’t really that dissimilar from the ruins I had been haunting previously. A dog-eat-dog world in microcosm. The only difference was that at least here I was guaranteed warmish food, and a wash when I got too fragrant. Adult supervision was a fiction though, and the pecking order was rigorously enforced by the camp inhabitants.
Still, after a couple of major fights, I was left alone, which was all I really wanted. After a while though, a new leader appeared on the stage, a scarred bully who wasted no time in calling me out. It appeared he held a grudge against me for those scars.
I stole into his tent one night, past the ‘guards’ he had laughably placed around it. His crucified body guaranteed my privacy again.
It also brought the attention of the biggest bullies on the block – the Continuum government – who it turned out are always on the lookout for people with certain talents.
My first sanctioned kill was some time around my fifteenth birthday. I’m not sure of the date, exactly. Waiting for a target to arrive one long sleepless day and night, I had tried to calculate it, but the haze of the past had proven too dense to accurately penetrate.
I had been in training for over a year, when I was abruptly summoned. I was given a knife, a combat dagger heavy in my hand, and sent into a room. Told to kill the person within. No reason. No justification. Just do as I was ordered. Do as I had been trained.
The room itself was a plain office – blown-plastic partition walls, durable carpeting. The stench of sweat filled the room: old and stale, new and musk. A man in the far corner turned towards me as I entered. Fat, middle-aged. Middle-management type. A scattering of recent wounds on his face and hands, the slight tang of iron in the air.
He relaxed, perhaps seeing my age. A hint of a smile, choked off by terror as he noticed the blade in my hands. He fell to the floor, praying, pleading. Irrelevant protestations of innocence, and unreserved apologies for sins possibly committed. As I step towards him he incoherently begs, talking of his wife, his children.
It’s quickly over.
The execution marked my graduation from the academy. Whilst I would continue visiting them, performing post-graduate training, no longer would it be home. Now I could be used – now I was useful to the Continuum.
At first they used me for clean-up. Minor police actions and extra-judicial killings in friendly territory. As my skills and experience broadened, so did my horizons. Soon my handlers felt comfortable sending me deep into U.P. territory, far from support.
Months later, I was standing propping up the bar on some nameless planet. Some video-reel spooling in the background. Waiting for a local contact, someone whom I had been assured would be able to give me access to the local politico I had been sent to kill.
A surge of adrenaline and my pulse was suddenly firing. My subconscious had spotted something, some threat, and was desperately trying to get the attention of my conscious self. I scanned the room. Nothing. My eyes flicked up to the vid-screen. It was playing some awards ceremony, dredged from the archives, inter-cut with battle footage. A caption. Skegul-3.
Out of no-where, I felt a ball of anger erupt within me. I could feel again the distant explosions of planetary bombardment. Hear the screams around me. See blue eyes fixed on mine, then drifting out of focus.
I stared, sightless, at the screen as names flashed up and burned themselves into my memory.
It took me months to track down the first of them. A routine query, initiated previously on a dozen worlds, this time returning successfully. I completed my assigned mission early, then slipped away on a commercial transport, bypassing the extraction plans carefully laid out by my handlers.
Jason Marsh, in command of the Prometheus. I found him gambling away his holiday-pay in a high-end casino. A drop of liquid, tasteless and colourless, brought me my vengeance. But it left me feeling curiously empty, save for the undimmed fire of anger.
That particular trip almost got me in a lot of trouble with my handlers. I let my record speak for itself, and explained that something had felt a little off with the pre-planned route. They never questioned me on things like that. The death by natural causes of a minor officer in the U.P. fleet was never even mentioned.
Weeks later, I was on another mission. This time, I had managed to manoeuvre my target to be proximate to another, personal, target.
George Wellesley. Executive officer of the Excelsior. I found him in a building that was part hospital, part hotel. He had a small suite on the fifth floor, where he sat in his wheelchair and whiled away his time. He was greyer than I had expected, weary somehow.
I studied him as I slid my blade through his diaphragm, upwards towards his heart. He never shouted out. Never even tried to scream. He didn’t look angry or fearful, only sad to be caught at last. My anger remained, unquenched. Maybe revenge wasn’t enough. Maybe I needed them to beg for forgiveness. To show fear. Something.
I slowly lower my latest kill down onto the carpet, careful not to soil my clothing in the small pool of blood forming below him. Collateral damage on the way to kill target number six. My forty-two official kills are irrelevant now, only my personal targets count.
The anger flares up inside me, pounding in my ears, pulse shaking my hands. I force it down, control my breathing through flaring nostrils, close my eyes for a moment. I need to stay calm for this, my magnus opus. Mustn’t let an elevated heart-rate shake a weapon off target at the last moment.
Feet soft below me, I drift down the corridor. There’s the doorway. I place my ear to it, hear the sound of water running. The lock isn’t engaged. I scan quickly up and down the corridor, ease the door open and slip through. It closes noiselessly behind me.
The weapon locker and safe are in their customary location, above the desk to my right. A glance shows it is secured. The bed opposite me is unkempt, apparently he’s just awoken. The first watch is rapidly approaching – maybe he has assigned himself that duty on the roster. There’s only one other door, the bathroom judging by the sounds. I lock the door behind me and settle myself in to wait, concentrating on choking down the surge of bile as anger again tries to spill out.
He walks in to the room wearing a bathrobe, still towelling the water out of his hair. I think I see a slight stiffening as he perceives me, but he walks over to the wardrobe regardless.
“I see you finally made it here,” he starts speaking, voice calm. “I hope you didn’t have to hurt anyone – I ordered the corridors around my cabin emptied.”
My mind flicks back to the recumbent form I’d left a few metres away.
He looks up at me, blue eyes reading my face. They tighten slightly, reading the trail of corpses I’ve left behind me.
“What now? Do you want to talk? Or just finish it?”
I honestly don’t know. I’ve pictured this scene numerous times over the last few weeks. I’d pictured him pleading. Apologetic. Angry. I’d pictured stabbing him. Strangling him. Shooting him in the face. Even torturing him and bathing in his blood. For some reason though, his question, his calm, sets me on my heels.
“I’m sorry about your mother. I never wanted… any… of this.”
His blue eyes capture me again. I see them soften, turn doleful. Puppy dog eyes, my mother had once called them. A rare memory of her catching me up in a hug.
“We were following the fleet that had murdered us. The vessels which had killed tens of thousands of our friends. The – madness – that followed…” He hangs his head, closing his eyes.
Freed from the hold he has on me, I move in. Only to freeze again, as he again looks up at me with those cursed eyes.
“A moment of madness. And so much death because of it.”
The way his shoulders hang, the depth of sadness in his eyes – for some reason I’m face-to-face with Wellesley again. It’s different this time though. I still see the broken body, but now I see the crushed spirit within. He isn’t sad to die, in fact he seems glad. His body seems to thrust itself onto my knife blade, seeking a release. I recognise in the memory of his face an echo of the sadness sat in front of me.
“Admiral Thorn, you deserve to die.” My lips come unstuck, my vocal chords unglued. “For the millions you have killed, for the destruction of…” I trail off.
He just waits. Looking at me, as though he’s willing the words out of me.
“For the destruction of Skegul-3. For the murder…” His blue eyes reach out to me. Compassionate. Forgiving.
“…of your mother.” He finishes my words for me. I choke slightly. My anger burning, mutating, changing, in the churning of new emotions within me.
He continues, softly. “Maybe. Maybe I should die… I am in your hands, at your mercy.” He looks down again, breaking eye contact.
And then snaps his face up again. His voice hardens. “How many fathers, children have been before me? The blood of how many mothers are on your hands…” His blue eyes have hardened with his voice. Now they are weighing, judging. Hurt by my actions against her. But still loving. I can see in her eyes that she has found me wanting, is saddened by how I have behaved. I feel the lack of her touch. Hands falling away from me, not drawn by gravity but controlled by a will. All the lessons she struggled to teach me, that I have thrown by the wayside. I blink away the tears forming in my eyes, washing away her disapproving image.
“What would your mother think of you, of what you have become? Ours was a moment of madness. But you have chosen murder as a career. A life depriving sons and daughters of their parents. Think of them! Remember them!” I feel his last words shudder through me as an order. Unbidden, the faces of my victims flash in front of me. Deaths on a hundred worlds. Killings implacable and without remorse. But now framed by those blue eyes. Judged. And found wanting.
I let out a sob, which becomes a torrent as I fall to the floor. I don’t taste the bitter tang in the air as the hypnotics are flushed from the room, or feel the subliminals being disabled. I’m begging forgiveness, cradled in the arms of my mother.