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Shades of Gray
Posted By: Mainevent
Date: 3 February 2006, 4:45 am

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Chapter Two

      The intruder led with his gun, which was good for Mr. Black. His hand was clutched tightly around the pistol's narrow grip, and there was a slight tremble as the door nudged further open. Black leather gloves reflected dimly in the green glow of the room's low light. A standard issue silencer was snugly tightened to the weapon's barrel; this was supposed to be a quiet job. The assassins were trying to catch him sleeping, but they'd failed.
      There was a hesitant pause as the man's wrist was wrapped firmly in strong, cold fingers. For an instant there was a silent confusion, what the hell?. That's what he imagined the man with the gun was thinking; he didn't give the enemy's mind time to process beyond that. Two quick, nearly incomprehensible motions later there was an unconscious body slumped limply against the wall; his nose was quite visibly broken, and jagged white bone penetrated the skin around his forearm. A gasp broke the surreal silence of the moment, but neither man in the room had uttered it; there was another.
      Mr. Black quickly stepped from behind the door he had used for cover, and glanced into the steely gray eyes of the second assassin; a younger man, and one who dared not make the same mistake his partner had. Had Black been in perfect health, the man would have scarcely made it to the nurse's station; as it was, he'd made it to the nearby stairwell without being caught. Pain coursed through every torn muscle and tendon in his broken body as he sprinted from the room after his prey. Conditioning took control as his fine-tuned body pumped out endorphins to dull the pain as much as possible while his mind struggled to ignore it altogether.
      A nearby elevator door opened, and he sidestepped inside. A red ring of light highlighted the button for the basement floor as he pushed it. They wouldn't have been dumb enough to go through the lobby, they'd go straight for the easy in-and-out kill. It was standard operating procedure, after all.
      There was a low bell and the mirrored elevator door panels parted. A frightened and panting young man in a long black overcoat emerged from a small alcove to Black's left. He was completely unaware of the silhouette standing in the glow of elevator lights to his right. Sweat beaded down the agent's forehead in thick, salty drops before he wiped them off with his sleeve. He jumped slightly as the door behind him clicked shut; the boy's nerves were obviously on edge. The inexperienced young operator chuckled to himself as he tried to regain his composure.
      His thin, wiry fingers scrambled around in his coat pocket for car keys before unlocking the slick black, mid-sized government car he'd parked next to the elevator. It started up without hesitation and growled furiously. Thin streams of smoke billowed up from the vehicle's rear wheels before the car gripped and jerked forward. The agent had been too nervous to notice the picked lock on the right rear door, or the silent man lying on his back in the rear.

      The marina was located on the nicer edge of town. The facility was a small wharf for privately owned boat operators, most of whom were doctors or rich businessmen that needed a safe place to moor their mini-yachts. The wind was kicking up mildly from the east , sending small waves white-topping into the harbor. Men, women, children, and a few amateur sailing teams were combing their ships; cleaning and prepping for another beautiful day on the Eradinus seas. Whoever owned the complex kept it in tight shape, with cleanly swept, red-brick streets meandering through the twenty acre property. The streets were lined with tall, well groomed palm trees and small, prickly-looking shrubs.
      A small white security hut straddled the entry into the secured boat launch pavilion. The man in the booth was an older gentleman with wispy locks of whitish-gray hair that looked almost as though a small cloud dangled neatly about him. He smiled as widely as possible with the sandwich in his mouth and jerked his head in the direction of the building as an admittance. If it was the same guard from his days, then Chuck was munching on a double-stuffed pastrami on rye, dripping in the brown mustard sauce his wife made especially for him. In the entirety of the twenty-five years of service he'd put in before his...extended vacation... Black had only seen the man eat two sandwiches. They alternated daily, but were always the same two.
      The Higgins-Craft 320-Z Towncar slid quietly into the small parking berth as a heavy, corrugated aluminum door slid into place behind it. It was a twenty by twenty meter workspace specifically reserved for the ONI agents who needed this place. There was only one reason for being here, and that was immediate extraction. His cover had been blown by the target, a partner was dead, and the mark had escaped. The only thing left now was to head back to the classified headquarters and take the beating to come like a man.
      "Don't turn around," came the gravelly, hard voice of someone behind him.
      There was a blinding pain in the back of his head...and he woke up groggily. His jaw muscles clenched and unclenched several times to ensure they were aligned, which luckily for him, they were. He ran fingers along his triple-bound wrists, but there was no chance of breaking them. Industrial-strength plastic bands were locked tightly in place, similar to the style of brace on his feet. Whoever he was, he'd chosen a sturdy metal chair instead of the ragged, decaying wooden constructions the management provided.
      Directly ahead hovered the "company" boat, strapped tightly in a synthetic carrier, and held up by a hydraulic lift. Its propeller glinted in the thin beam of daylight that filtered in through an overhead window. The twisted metal ominously reflected his malformed image back. The smell of salt-water and tackle permeated the air, and the sound of sea birds echoed incessantly. Blood pulsed rhythmically through the base of his skull, reminding him of the intruder.
      "I...I didn't turn around," he mumbled quietly.
      "I know; sorry about the whole hitting you thing. Usually they do. Instinct I suppose," the voice was much calmer now, and carried an almost friendly tone with it.
      "Who, who are you?"
      "Rule two-oh-two, never engage in reverse interrogation with the enemy first. Why did Hitchons, I suppose he's still around, say that was agent?"
      "We had Wierzbowski, and he never told us. We just read the book and passed the test."
      "Getting lazy these days. Well, I'll tell you why that is. It's simple, really. For one, it establishes that you want to be the dominant figure in this relationship, and may easily offend your aggressor--subconsciously of course. Secondly, I didn't ask you to."
      "I'm sorry, sir."
      "Perfectly fine. I understand you're in a high-stress situation right now, and mistakes are bound to happen. How old are you anyway, twenty...five?"
      "Good, a short, direct reply. Textbook."
      "I..I thought you wanted text-"
      "No, that's fine. Just a fact. I'll also share another fact with you though. The fact that you will most likely die here today, at the age of twenty-six, if you do not tell me what I need to know."
      "I can't do that sir."
      "Why not? Now think about that for a moment before you answer. What do you have in this world, at this very moment, which is more precious to you than your life? Nothing you are trying to protect is here to protect you from me. There will be no glorious rescue, nor will you make a miraculous escape. Your life is solely in my hands at this moment. Now tell me again, why can't you give me the answers I want?"
      "I...I," the realization of the situation set in, "what do you want to know?"
      "I only need to know one thing. Where is the man on the other end of this phone?" He held up the charred black remnants of his old life. It was a loaded question; Black knew the man didn't have a clue where The Voice was, but he had to test him somehow. Interrogations had always been his favorite part of the job, and he always got what he wanted.
      "I've never met him. He only calls once a week to check up and update me. This...this was my first mission."
      "Looks like you blew it."
       The prisoner lowered his head shamefully at the words. He looked as ashamed of himself as he was that he was being interrogated. A pang of regret quickly bubbled through the much larger interrogators' body as he realized exactly how young the man looked while waited patiently before asking his next question.
      "Why in the hell did you join some ape shit outfit like ONI?" The question was a surprise to the boy, who glanced up energetically; eagerly.
      "I wanted to get off the backwater hellhole I was born on."
      "Section Two got to 'ya huh? Join the U-N-S-C," he said with a hiss, "see the universe and fight space pirates. A regular swashbuckling good time."
      "Why are you asking me this?"
      "Okay, okay. I'll stop the chit-chat. Somebody's eager to get straight to the mind-numbing pain and torture I see," he grabbed a rusty hacksaw from the dirty floor and pulled on the end. It released with a reverberating metallic echo.
      "No! I don't mean that. Please..." He begged, mentally and physically beaten.
      "Well then, you want to talk some more?"
      "Yes, talk. I love to talk. My mom always said I talked too much. I never shut up when I was a little kid. Honestly."
      "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Calm down. I guess I should have asked if you'd like to have a conversation. I like to talk too 'ya know."
      The hog-tied agent nodded.
      "Ask me something. Anything, I don't care. Just ask."
      "Why," he hesitated, thinking of how to best phrase the question, "why are you doing what you're doing?"
      "I used to be naive like you. Now you don't think you're naive, but you are. When I joined the corps I was as fresh as they got. I went through boot and the motions, worked my way up to Helljumper, class 201, and I loved every minute of it. There are some people who just...belong....in the military. I was a career man; I wanted everything. There was no 'quit' before there were five stars on the shoulder. I just fit into the life. So one day, I get a little note on my bunk. It was simple enough, a manila envelope with my last name scribbled on the front, but that's where simple wasn't so simple anymore.
      "Turns out my commander had recommended me for a new ONI outfit. They called it ORION when I was there, but that was just an umbrella for a bunch of black budget items Section Three wanted. We were called Spartans, and we were the best. "
      "Better than Helljumpers?"
      "We made Helljumpers obsolete. They were good, but after what we went through, they were just in another league. The chop shop took us in for "routine tests," but we got a whole lot more than that. They grafted metal to my arms and legs to reduce the chance of breakage in the field. We had a Okazaki Corneal Implant installed to give us better than perfect vision. Synthetic tissue builders and stem cells were pumped into us to increase our muscle density over one hundred percent. We were Gods among men, but we were also fairly useless. ONI needed something to do with us that they could show to their bosses, or else their funding was cut.
      "So, we started getting missions. Real missions. Personal missions. I was ready for team-insertions into hot zones, but those were few and far between. Instead, I was turned into a hit man. In and out without anyone else knowing. I used to do what you do, but I did it better."
      "So, what happened?"
      "I got tired of the missions. I've killed men in front of their children, and then I killed their children. I killed people who probably didn't deserve it, but I did it because I didn't know. I got a mission and I did it. Questions were bad; the people in charge don't like questions. So I asked for retirement, and they denied it."
      "So you went AWOL."
      "I did what I thought had to be done. And they did what they thought they had to do. Which is why I have to kill them."
      "What...what'd they do?"
      There was a cold freeze in the large man's eyes. Something dark and brooding lived behind those crimson-stained glass doors to his soul, and it wanted desperately to be set free. Silence. The darkness faded and a distant sorrow was evident. He turned away to face a small bench near the wall, "Enough." As he turned back to face the ONI operative he brandished a large, gruesome looking knife. It was long and thin, with jagged serrations on the cutting side that looked like they could cut through steel. He moved closer.
      "I'll regret doing this, I know I will..."
      The knife was enormous. The blade was almost scythe-like; gently curving back to a fine point. It had probably been laser etched, that's what most special forces teams used. Those could cut through aluminum and thin shards of steel like butter. His hair stood on end in anticipation of the sharp, sawing motion to come. Would he slit his throat quickly, or slit his stomach for a slow and painful death. He'd never imagined the feeling of pints of warm blood, his warm blood, running down his chest as he died a gruesome and painful death.
      "Please, please don't kill me. I'm sorry. Oh God..." He closed his eyes and braced for the pain.
      But it never came. His wrists popped loose as the bands were cut off. An hour seemed to pass as he held his breath, unaware that he'd been spared a grisly and horrible end. He cautiously opened his eyes to make sure he was alive before bringing his forearms around to rub the pain in his wrists away. Otherwise, he was still too stunned to make a move of any kind.
      "My name's John Black. My operator tag is Pitch Black. Service number zero-four-zero-three-two-eight. You can either go back to ONI and tell them that you met me and explain that you failed, at which point they will probably have you slip on a piece of ice and blow your brains out; or you can go back and pretend you had boat problems. Either way," John said as he flicked a thin piece of paper onto the worktable, "there's my number."
      And with that, he was gone. The pavilion door slammed shut as he left, and all was calm and right in the world again. A stork crowed its guttural song somewhere in the distance as the soothing swash of water crashing into the boat launch flooded the large room with its sound.
      Agent Darren Petrovoitz only sat there, staring at the paper on the table, half expecting the man to walk back in any second and blow his brains out the back of his head. He was going to have a lot to answer for when he got back, but just how much was entirely up to him. The situation had been easy an hour before, but nothing was easy anymore, and he suspected it never would be again.