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Black on Black: Part 2
Posted By: Arthur Wellesley<arthur_wellesly@hotmail.com>
Date: 20 November 2005, 5:27 am

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       Shirley Steeves lay rigidly in her bed, her eyes, already adjusted to the darkness of the room, staring restlessly ahead. She had not looked at her alarm clock, but she knew it would ring in about a minute. Her sleeping patterns were more reliable than any creation of man; an hour long attempt to lull herself into rest, her mind buzzing but unable to concentrate on anything in particular, only to wake up an hour before she arbitrarily set her alarm. She was never able to get more than five hours of sleep a night, whatever her physical or mental state might be, and awoke without feeling any more refreshed. Occasionally she wondered if it was her conscience that kept her from rest or if she had always been a restless sleeper, but she could not remember if that was indeed the case. On some level she realized this should scare her, but she could not feel it.

       She knew the exact second her alarm would ring, and as she did most mornings, lifted herself from the bed in tandem with its activation. "A heroic victory on Ceres III was unfortunately marred by the planet's ultimate glassing," a reporter read monotonously, "but the extraordinary efforts of our fighting Marines evacuated hundreds of thousands and gave the Covenant a bloody nose."

       There was a time, not too long ago, she supposed, that she would have snorted indignantly at such a blatant lie. Ceres III had been abandoned to its fate without a shot fired, its negligible defense force pulled immediately back to the Inner Colonies before the Covenant had even left slipspace. She was no longer bothered by the propaganda that no longer had any basis in truth; she didn't even attempt to justify it to herself, either consciously or subconsciously. It was just the way it was.

       She found that she had wandered into her bathroom and was now staring blankly into her mirror. She gripped the edge of her sink and pushed her face closer to the mirror, struck suddenly by the face staring back at her. She ran a hand over her cold, pale skin and tried half-heartedly to straighten the dark patches under her eyes, which themselves looked bloodshot and empty. Did I always look like this? she wondered, a rare streak of feeling washing over her. A corpse, no longer even half-alive, existing moment by moment like a hollow shell?

       Shaking her head, she plunged her face into refreshingly cool water in an attempt to drown her thoughts and grudgingly swallowed whatever pills they had her on now. She left her bathroom and hastily dressed, slipping on black jeans and a dark sweater, having long ago abandoned the vanity of any accessories. She turned off her alarm on the way out and picked up her pistol from her bedside table.

       Walking into the apartment's common room she saw that her partner, Jack Wilson, was, as usual, already up. He was making some strong coffee as he did every morning, eagerly wafting the invigorating aroma of the brew to help wake him up. He must have slept even less than Shirley, but he did find some small comfort in his morning cup of coffee whereas it simply made her sick.

       He must have heard her come in for he greeted her without turning to face her. "Morning, sunshine," he said merrily.

       If Shirley still had it in her to like anyone, it was Jack Wilson. To escape her feelings she simply retreated within herself, protecting herself in an emotionless shell sealed imperviously to the outside world. All she did was through hands connected only physically to her mind; she lived her whole life through someone else's eyes, her consciousness and her actions seemingly disconnected. Jack did the opposite, however. He pushed all his emotions to the surface in a great torrent, hiding all that lay beneath in the wild mix he projected to everyone, even, to an extent, himself. She suspected Jack's mind worked on several levels she had long ago abandoned and was a good deal more complex than her own. Both techniques were contrived for the same basic purpose, however: burying their personal atrocities below what might have been a decent soul.

       For our sins, she thought.

       "Good morning, Jack," she said, not without sincerity, but without any real spirit. She walked to the fridge and pulled a tasteless nutrition supplement from the nearly empty shelf, forcing the sludge into her turbulent stomach. I don't sleep and don't eat, she thought to herself. On what do I sustain myself? Am I still even human?

       They leaned against the dark granite counter of the kitchen together for a while in silence, Jack contentedly sipping his coffee, Shirley swallowing her breakfast down with a business-like determination. She surveyed the apartment with distaste. Its modern blandness did nothing to improve her mood, for it was comprised of hard angles, dark colors, and chrome surfaces. That they had been here for only three days just made the place look more temporary and antiseptic, more like a hospital room than a residence. ONI rented all their rooms for them, of course. Doubtless they chose them carefully and deliberately. She wondered if that should outrage her.

       As he finished the last of his generous cup of coffee he stared deliberately at Shirley from the corner of his eye, gazing at her from head to toe with obvious longing. "You look good today, Shir," he said earnestly after studying her drab, baggy outfit.

       She did not look at him, merely stared ahead, but she did award him with a small smile. These moments were about the only ones she ever enjoyed in her day, the time spent with Jack in the morning. His usual playfulness and his blatant lust for her in some way kept her in touch with what remained of her humanity. Of course, his sentiments were in no way reciprocated – she had long ago ceased harboring any sexual feeling. Any such physical sociality no longer seemed possible, let alone desirable, yet such a base human drive nevertheless filled her with a warmth she could find no where else.

       "Thanks, Jack," she replied, setting her empty container down on the counter to be disposed of later. "You don't look too shabby yourself."

       He smiled genuinely, apparently pleased with the offhand compliment, and hurried over to the closet by the door to retrieve her coat. He held it out helpfully for her, his smile developing into a mischievous, childish grin. "It's raining out, you know. Only ten degrees last time I heard."

       "Yes, well, happy holidays, I suppose," she said, slipping her arms lightly through the sleeves of the dark trench coat Jack was still holding for her, deciding to give him the sense of chivalry he was obviously so keen for.

       "Mmm," he said with a small chuckle. "So, is the plan still set as it was? Kensington Park in two hours?" His voice had lost some of its frivolity as he got down to the business they both took such reluctant pride in doing well.

       "As far as I know," she confirmed. She secured her pistol in the holster on her belt and readied herself to leave. "I'll of course contact you if anything goes wrong."

       "See you, then," he said in parting and closed the door behind her.

       It was indeed raining out, a cold, November rain that quickly drenched her long, dark hair and chilled her to the bone. She could have waited in the apartment and simply taken the subway when the time came, but she felt compelled to walk, all the greater because of the rain. It covered everything in a shiny coat of fresh water, making the cars and expansive windows of the endless skyscrapers glow with a shiny luminance from the streetlights that still lit the dark, empty streets. The occasional vehicle passed on the four-lane avenue down which she walked, but for the most part they were automated commercial trucks or police cars, and neither was a particularly warming sight. It was a cold, dark, and lonely scene, and that fit her mood perfectly.

       She walked for about an hour, the traffic and amount of pedestrians increasing with each passing minute. The city of Richfield, unofficially recognized as the planetary capital of Reach, was a bustling place, and even at just past six in the morning its commuters were already out in force. The streets slowly filled with lines of slow moving cars with sleepy, impatient drivers, the sidewalks with impersonal, dreary workers shrugging the chill rain off them with grim determination. Shirley looked at them as they passed, heads bent, half-awake. One might not even guess humanity was being inexorably wiped out.

       In the distance she spotted the car she and Jack had placed the day before. It was small and black, a vehicle quite like any other and attracted no attention from pedestrians that now packed the sidewalks. Shirley was glad for the crowd; no one would notice what was about to happen.

       He came out of the hotel doors before the car almost the very moment she reached them. He was short with broad shoulders and wore a non-descript dark trench coat that blended in quite well with the mass of dark, slick bodies that seemed to pulsate and quiver like a great, single-minded entity. He joined the flow which gravitated almost solely to the subway station just down the street, instinctually matching the speed of everyone else.

       Shirley did quite the opposite, elbowing people roughly out of her way in her attempt to catch up to the man, receiving vague but forceful reprisals for her efforts. When she was side by side with her target she shouldered him with deliberate strength, causing him to stop and stumble. He mumbled his forgiveness without waiting for an apology but found his way blocked as she twisted to get in front of him. He looked into her face and studied her curiously but his attention was drawn quickly down to where she had her pistol pressed forcefully against his gut. He looked back up, his face full of surprise.

       "Don't make a scene, Brian," she whispered just quietly enough to be heard. "Now turn around."

       He did so obediently and without hesitation, eager to please. They got some grumbling from the commuters as they walked together against the unrelenting tide, but no one gave so much as a glance to the weapon Shirley now had against the small of the man's back. She imagined him wishing feverishly for someone to notice, knowing at the same time the futility of the hope. She wondered if he even yet knew what this was about.

       "Open the door," she commanded when the reached the car. He did so, and without waiting to receive her second order clambered into the seat. Shirley positioned her body to cover the open door so no over-curious passerby could see what was happening. She still had her pistol pointed at him with one hand and with the other she tossed him a pair of hand-cuffs. "Cuff yourself to the dash," she said, indicating a small crossbar that had been specially installed underneath the dashboard. He obeyed, looping the chain around the bar and securing them to each wrist. He tested his range of movement tentatively and found it to be uncomfortably limited.

       Shirley closed the door without another word and walked to the driver's side door. She got in and was glad to see the man had not tried anything stupid but merely waited patiently in his seat, looking disconsolately at his bindings. She started the car and pulled out of her space and joined the long procession of vehicles that moved sluggishly from the residential sector to heavily commercial downtown district. At least I'll be able to avoid that little jam, she thought caustically.

       "What do you want with me?" her subject asked at last, his voice admirably calm.

       "No talking," was all she said. For her reticence he rattled his restraints defiantly against the bar, but after a threatening glance from the corner of her eye he ceased his efforts.

       She hated these jobs. They were distasteful, cold, inhuman. They always left her with a bad taste in her mouth. This was not what I signed up for, she thought miserably.

       After turning off from the bulk of traffic heading east towards downtown, she got on the highway and headed west, out of the city. The man must have recognized this, for he tensed visibly in his seat, but he must have taken her warning to heart, for he did not question their destination. This early in the morning had the highway nearly abandoned, so they quickly left the awakening city behind them, its flickering lights lost in the dense fog and driving rain.

       She pulled off the highway and steered into a dark and dreary looking park. This late in the season the trees were more or less barren and dead, and the thick haze that obscured the tips of the branches did nothing to improve its forbidding appearance. The man looked understandably alarmed when they turned into this abandoned park, and when she stopped just inside he could not contain himself any longer.

       "Why have you taken me here?" he asked nervously.

       "I just want to ask you a few questions," Shirley answered obligingly. She pulled a small recording device from her pocket and placed it on the dashboard, then turned to the man. "Please state your full name for the record," she said.

       "What the hell is this?" he demanded angrily, but eventually decided he would find out sooner if he cooperated. Sighing, he said, "My name is Brian Matthew White."

       "Okay, good," Shirley said soothingly. "Now, where were you on June 2nd, 2536?"

       This got an immediate reaction from him. His eyes widened in understanding, his face blanched, his body shook. At least this one is surely guilty she thought.

       "I don't remember," he stammered desperately.

       "I don't have a long time here, Mr. White," she said threateningly and pulled a knife from her belt. "I'll ask you again: where were you on June 2nd of last year?"

       "I don't know what you're talking about," he answered steadfastly, his eyes fixed warily on the blade that she lay across her lap.

       She sighed. "Well, let's get right to it then, shall we?" Without warning she lifted the knife and plunged it up to the handle into his thigh. He screamed and arched his back, thrashing violently in his seat, desperately straining against the bar. "Where were you?" she shouted above his screams.

       "I don't know!" he managed, and in response Shirley twisted the knife brutally and pulled it up towards his pelvis, cutting skin and muscle and drenching the seat in dark blood. He howled in agony, his leg shifting as much as he could move it to avoid the sharp blade, but it only made the pain worse.

       "Okay, okay!" he pleaded, and she wrenched the knife brutally from his leg and set it down. She would no longer need it. What a shitty job.

       "Where were you?" she asked for a final time, wiping her blood covered hand on her coat.

       White was breathing heavily now and his body shook visibly. Each breath wracked his chest and came out loud and rasping. His face, already pale, was now a deathly white. The wound in his thigh continued to well blood precipitously and he tried without success to tighten the muscle to slow the bleeding.

       "I was here in Richfield," he said, his head leaning back against the head rest and his eyes closed. "I was meeting with a man in my office building."

       "Was his name Jia Lang?" she asked, knowing the answer.

       He nodded. "Yes."

       Shirley decided to take control the conversation. "And you were meeting to discuss the sale of Covenant weaponry obtained by the UNSC to the pirate group known as 'Red Dawn'. Weapons you stole. Is that correct, sir?"

       Again, he nodded, his resistance having been bled out of him. "Yes."

       It wasn't just the job that disgusted her. People like this, illegal profiteers from a war directed towards saving humanity from extinction, deserved all she was required to inflict upon them. What was the justification in his mind to weaken such a straightforward cause? It was self-defeating, it bit the very hand that was trying to protect it, and most of all it was irrevocably human.

       Shirley turned the recorder off and put it away. It wasn't much of a confession, but it was enough, and she was doubtful that anybody would pay much attention to it. It was a formality, the tedious precursor to a job that was clear even to Shirley to be a necessity.

       "What's going to happen to me?" White ventured with a wince.

       "Your record at your company will be deleted, as will your registration with the Reach planetary government," she explained, carefully checking that the chamber of her pistol was loaded. "You will not be recognized. Your family will not be notified, your body will never be found. It will be as though you never existed."

       He sobbed, the realization of what was about to happen filling him with a renewed, frantic energy. He strained against his handcuffs with all the strength left to him, his feet pushing as hard as they could against the floor of the car in an effort to free himself. The car was specially designed to limit movement, however, and he quickly gave up on his efforts, instead shrinking away from Shirley and pleading pitifully with her.

       She in fact received some small measure of justice as she saw White squirm, and she raised her pistol with deliberate slowness, holding his eyes with her own. There was no mercy in them, and it was hopelessly that White cried, "Please, for the love of God, no!"

       She pulled the trigger, blowing out his brains and the window beside him. The heavy rain and chill air blew into the car, immediately drenching his corpse and the leather interior. It washed the blood from his head down the passenger side of the car where it joined the puddles outside to cover the earth in red.

       Feeling thoroughly less pleased with herself as she always did just after a kill, she pulled up a console from the driver's armrest, punched in a few commands, and set the timer for one minute. She hastily got out of the car and walked briskly through the cold rain that had, if anything, gotten fiercer, towards a pair of headlights that shone brightly through the dense fog. She turned around when she had counted sixty seconds in her head as a ball of fire lit up the murky woods. The plasma tipped explosive washed heat across her face painfully in stark contrast to the cool water that coated her pale skin. Such was the power of the bomb that investigators would be hard pressed to determine the remains had been a car at all let alone any human within.

       Shirley opened the car door and stepped in, closing it quickly in her eagerness to escape the driving rain. "It's done," she said tonelessly.

       Jack didn't say anything. She never wanted to talk after her missions, and he always respected that. He knew what it was like, doubtless. It was impossible not to take a life and not leave a little of your own behind. She had known that before Farrius V, before Anderson, but she had been prepared for that sacrifice as long as she knew what it was for.

       Now it really didn't matter anymore.