It was nearly dawn, and I dragged myself out of the Dodge’s cellar with it’s deep shadows and hard shafts of light branching around newly ignited chemical lamps.
ID’s are almost done. The client knows what he’s about.
Yeah, but he’s got about as loose a grip on his revolutionary tendencies as you could get and still call it control.
Might be useful.
We’ll have to hope so.
I pushed the worn cellar door open and stumbled into the cold, white light of dawn. Sea born mists blowing with dim fragility through the ruined city center, drifting down in heavy, dust laden droplets gave the whole street a quiet sort of tranquility, like the world had ended, and maybe that was an okay thing. As a byproduct of the radiation, no animal noises sounded throughout the city, except the random stutter and cry of weapons fire.
I resisted the urge to use the meth. I was growing itchy with sleep, but more so, I was going to need to be focused when I did, well, whatever it is I was going to do to Desmond.
Oh gee I wonder what you’re going to do.
I’m going to do what I was fucking trained to do. I’m going to drop myself in a foreign environment, assess the best options for completing the mission with maximum potential for success, and I am going to -
Fucking murder him –
- Do my fucking job? You don’t know what we’re going to do anymore than I –
He looks just like dad.
Rage swelled up in me, lashed into sudden existence, like orbital fire, and I used the leaden weight of my weariness to stamp it back down, with the added bonus of the S7 implants and mental conditioning.
I spun to see Gibbs rising from the cellar himself, his sleep stained eyes low, like garage doors on malfunctioning hydraulics. The proximity drowned the anger.
“Hal.” He nodded while he walked up next to me.
“Boss. You going to be ready for this? Things might move fast once I.” I stopped myself abruptly.
Christ, you are tired.
Gibbs had the good nature not to say anything for a while, but the man was a former detective, and despite my much lauded S7 training, my current lack of sleep, combine with the last month of mind numbing menial labor, had me perfectly aware that was cracking at the edges a lot more than I would have liked.
You were trained to get through shit like this. Shit like taking a menial fucking job for weeks or months.
Yeah, well, I did leave the corps.
Horse shit. The corp left you. They abandoned us. Mandrake –
God, would you just shut the fuck up and let me get on with this?
The training lapsed into silence, and I felt the sting of betrayal that came when my personality clashed with the mental conditioning and the inhuman way my brain had been rewired. Talking to myself on missions was a normality I was so used to, it was second only to breathing. I hated shooing it away, because it was a pain to fight the training. Because the training was always right.
“So what is the plan, out of curiosity. With Desmond.” Gibbs said finally, more to the rising sun than to me. Shafts of it were knifing though the tattered shreds of clouds, and bathing the grey, dust covered suburb in pale, wintery light. I shrugged.
“That isn’t really up to me. I was trained to infiltrate and assess. A lot of the time, we didn’t even have an objective. We might have to get a job with somebody and be their best friend for months without knowing if we we’re going to have to rescue them or kill them at some point.” I fished the combat knife from it’s sheath and started sharpening it for something to do.
“So you’re just going to go to this golf course and what? See what happens?”
Another shrug. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“Huh.” He lapsed back into silence.
“You don’t sound convinced.” I said evenly.
He smiled. “It’s not that. I’m not an idiot, Hal. I give you your space, but you think. Sideways. You aren’t the type to plan, but you tend to get the job done.” He turned towards me then. “I want to buy this. You cobbled that plan together pretty quick, so yeah, ill bite. I’ll bite that this used to be your career, but this is my daughter, Hal. I can’t, no I won’t just drop off my pet sneak and put my feet up, waiting for you to come home with her. I need to know, at least a little, about you. About who you are if I’m going to trust you with something like this.”
“You got a better choice?” I said laconically.
I watched anger flare up in his eyes before siphoning to quiet reservation.
What the fuck are you doing?
I don’t know why I was pestering this man. A man wracked with grief and given the briefest glimmer of hope after years spent in the oppressive depths of not knowing. I didn’t know what I was pushing for, so I blamed it all on being tired.
Sighing, I threw my vision up and down the street. The nuclear blast that had fused downtown Night City into a twisted monument to human failure had only dusted the southern end of the metropolis, and it was more decay and looting that had shattered this neighborhood. Shops lay cracked open like fallen birds eggs in every direction, and somewhere in the distance, the rattle of high caliber fire spat violent and short.
“That’s fair.” I said, finally. “What do you want to know?”
“What was your outfit? Spec ops of some kind I guess, for the corporations? Maybe the Cartel?”
I smiled. “Actually, no. I was apart of a group called S7.”
“S7. Why does that ring a bell?”
“Ireland.” I said, and it was like weights dropping. Suddenly, he knew.
A compressed breath. “Yeah.”
“Huh. There wasn’t a lot of news out of that, but I had friends in the army, they told me it was pretty brutal.”
“Yeah, it was, for them, anyway.”
“No.” I weighted my words, tossed them back and forth a bit in my head.
Just fucking tell him, there isn’t a corps to betray.
“Look. S7 isn’t just your standard infiltration or spec ops unit. There were the initial four selections, all deemed failures, and then there was five. Five was. Ferocious. Most of those guys went insane, and it took a muted down selection six program to bring them to heel. But when they reigned in selection five, they realized that if they could fuse that program with six, they might have what they wanted; stability, perception on an inhuman scale, and above all a bone deep, hormone rewired evolutionary drive. So they did it, the made one last batch. Selection seven.”
“You say made.” He said.
“Yeah,” I nodded. “We were supposed to be giant leaps in human evolution, but that ended up making S5 go crazy, but seven. Look, I don’t know the exact process,” I turned towards him, and we locked eyes,”but they analyzed us young, looking for everything from IQ to personality disorders, home life, everything, and then through a series of surgeries, wet tech and brutal psychological conditioning, they shatter your personality, cut off every emotion you can effectively live without, and then machine build it all back. You cut open my head, its wired different. It wouldn’t even look human.”
That sat there for a minute.
“Huh. So what’s the point exactly?” He asked, but I could sense the weight of what I was saying was striking home.
“Depends on the situation. I mean, I don’t feel shame or regret, not really, the training won’t let me, although I was pretty sociopathic at a pretty young age, so that wasn’t hard to wedge mold into something detached and sharp. But there’s a lot more to it. We have enough wet tech in these skulls that we really can’t forget anything, and the machine dredges up through our memories pretty much all the time, occasionally finds stuff we missed, and then spit it back at us. Sometimes it literally takes over, locks out all of that messy frontal lobe doubt and worry, and just starts you moving like the machine you were designed to be. For the most part, I don’t even question my first responses because it’s almost always correct, and my human bred questioning would have just gotten me killed while I wondered if it was right. The bonus is that I didn’t go crazy, and honestlyt, my ability to read people and lie to them makes it so they have no idea I am this detached killer. Half the time when I’m bored, I think of ways to murder the people in the room next to me. Not because I want that, or because it’s fun, but because I have to. The training won’t let me do anything else until I give it that treat, sade the biological lust built in me like hunger or love. I Have just about the same skills as most spec ops or trained spies and assassins, but I don’t have the tangle of what human evolution did to us before we got here.”
“Jesus.” He looked back at the rising sun. “So, if you’re so detached, how was Ireland such a tough fight for you?”
I looked at him then, and didn’t say anything until he found my eyes. “No. That’s what I’m saying. Ireland was as easy as it could be. Our first deployment ever, when O’Donelli got those nukes, you remember that? Threatened to turn London AND Belfast into slag?”
“Yeah, spec ops stole the nukes and they arrested the ring leaders, the whole movement fell apart. That was you?”
And then I did smile, cold and savage, like a knife wound peeling back skin to expose bleached bone.
“Yeah, that was us alright, but thats not how it went down. When he made his threats, they unloaded us on the island, 1,800 S7 on their very first assignment. And they, S7 command I mean, they were just regular people. Politicians, generals, the scientists, but they weren’t like us. Stabilize regime instability. That’s what they wanted. 1,800 of us spent nearly a week getting into position. We all had out own speciality, of course. Some found perches, some joined up, started dating family members, got jobs in homes and restaurants, and all the while we watched and waited, recording patterns and people like laser storage units, the whole goddamn structure of the organization mapped out in each of our training bleached minds, and what do you think we figured out?”
“That they were nuts?” Gibbs said almost laconically.
I laughed, but this time the smile it left was less sinister. “Yeah, pretty much actually. There might be some S7 in you.”
“So, what happened? How did you get the nukes?”
“You don’t get it, Gibbs, we didn’t. Once we knew how fanatical these people were, we knew what we had to do, and there has been a lot of speculation sense then, you know, like what if they gave orders like that one. Get the nukes. Kill O’Donelli. Maybe it would have ended there, but they didn’t. They told us to stabilize the regime.”
I cocked my head slightly and looked towards the dawn. “We slaughtered them.”
“Who of them?”
“_All_ of them. There were probably ten thousand people in the movement then, and half that number died in a matter of hours. They had no idea, couldn’t even process with their ancient monkey systems. The sun came up and there was no high command, no lieutenants. Nobody was left, and when the few we let live got together, we killed them too. Overnight, a plague that Ireland couldn’t shake for generations was just gone. And here, S7 command is acting all shocked and amazed, acting like they couldn’t believe what we did, but we are S7. When we came out of Ireland, we could see the brutal pride and fear mixing like blood and water. Their wet dream fantasy had come true. Now, the corporations, terrorist cells and rouge states, they had something to fear, because when S7 comes down, we don’t negotiate, we just take what we want and dispose of the bodies. They had made us to be the best, most evolved versions of ourselves we could, and the dispassion they distilled in his created advanced killing machines in the aftermath that could lie with impunity, that could make themselves believe so hard nothing could see past the veil. Once they decide what they want us to do, we turn all that off and suddenly, we’re someone else. And any organization we let the news of what we did in Ireland slip to is suddenly, permanently afraid.”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets, abruptly aware of how tired I was. Neither of us said anything for a long while.
“I know you’re probably thinking ‘how could he save my daughter?’” I said, suddenly, the dull ache where I used to shame throbbing to remind me to act that way so this functional human being could relate, “but I swear I am her best hope. It’s not that I am unfeeling like a psychopath, thats the whole point of the training. I still act like a regular person, but when my orders are to torch a village, I don’t feel bad about it. You stay out of the corps way, you’re absolutely safe, but if not, ill go through you like orbital fire. People are just obstacles, Gibbs, and in the end, the conditioning won’t let me believe in something as ridiculous as God or Karma. This is just a messy soup of existence we are all living in, and we’re fucking it up. How can I feel bad for murdering someone like Desmond? A cog in this broken, thrasher of a machine we call life? What difference does any of it make?” Then, all at once, I wasn’t talking to him anymore.
“This whole bullshit human condition we like to haul around, I don’t want anything in it. If there is an answer, it isn’t there, its somewhere else, and the only way you can get someplace else is to leave where you’re at now. So yeah, thats me. If I can keep this guy alive, I will, but if there is a small chance that killing him will bring me closer to completing my mission, which is to get your daughter, then I will. I promise I will, and not because it makes me feel joy or quenches some sickness, in fact I won’t feel anything if I have to do it, but it’s numbers. I have work to do, and I will get that done, whatever the cost.”
I turned to go back down into the cellar, when Gibbs stopped me.
“So why care about my daughter then? Why leave the corps? For that matter, why not just kill yourself? If life is so meaningless, whats the point?”
I sighed, looking back over my shoulder.
“Honestly? Rage. They knew rage was something that, when controlled, could be used like mass drivers. Could propel us into something dangerous. I have two sisters, when I hear about your daughter, I can’t feel sad or bad for you or upset, I know how to pretend those things, but one emotion I can feel is rage. In fact, I can’t stop it, I have to shape it into something, and since sadness isn’t an option, I paint targets. Eventually, that kind of thing eats you up, pushed you out. It ate up the corps, badly.”
“It’s gone now, S7 command?”
From inside the bar, someone shouted at me to finish up with the ID’s I was busy forging. I looked at Gibbs.
“You still want me in on this?” I asked with no expectation one way or the other.
He gave me a level stare back that I had to be impressed by. S7 know how to find fear in people, and this man was not afraid. After a long moment, he nodded.
“Get my daughter back for me.” He said, and then disappeared past me into the white blaze of the basement.
I looked back at the rising sun, where dark wings of rain clouds were wrapping themselves around it, like breath blowing out a flame.