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“The city looks beautiful tonight,” a tall slender woman said, barely trying to hide the contempt in her voice. “The keyword here is looks,” she continued, revealing that she knew far better than to trust appearances.

“You’re never off guard, are you?” A large overweight man replied as he approached her on the balcony. He kept his hands stuffed in his pockets while he relaxed his posture, and watched her lean against the balcony railing. As he waited for her reply, he fished a lighter out of his pocket and sparked it, the flame providing a dim glow against the woman’s silhouette from the city lights. He puffed on the cigarette and offered the lighter to her, while his cybernetic eyes whirred as he changed his focus.

She brushed his hand aside, feeling the cold steel of his arm. “And just why aren’t you? We lost. Cal, we didn’t just lose. We were slaughtered, and now we have to expect a hit squad at any moment. One false step and they’ll whisk us away to one of those holes in the ground and no one will ever hear from us again.”

She went back to leaning against the railing as she sighed and sunk down, relaxing for a moment. Her shoulder dropped, and she brushed her hair back behind her ear. “I suppose we should count ourselves lucky just to be alive.”

Cal joined her at the railing and exhaled a cloud of smoke.  “Look,” he sighed, “It’s been five years, and you know why they haven’t had us killed yet, right? It’s because they don’t think we’re a threat. They’ve already won.” He smirked, changing the subject. “That doesn’t mean we have to be law-abiding citizens, though.”

He reached into his jacket and retrieved a thin parcel. He passed her the envelope, and confirmed she remembered the protocol: “The details are inside. You know how this works right? Follow the instructions if you want the assignment, leave the evidence in the locker. The contractor will take care of the rest.” He then went to leave and took a look over his shoulder at her.

“Look, Annah, so what? We lost. That means we have to go back to taking the jobs we can and make a bunch of money.” When Annah didn’t reply, he gave an irritated frown and turned back to face her. “It was always a longshot, but everyone wanted to take it.”

She spun and barked, “I don’t like losing soldiers!” But Cal was already gone. He was right, of course. Just like he’d been for the past five years. If it hadn’t been for her, those comrades would have died under the banner of some other rebellion. They were too outraged by the injustices of the world and too strongly outmatched to have ever tasted victory.

She opened up the envelope and dumped the contents onto her table. A key, some papers, and a semi-automatic with an attached silencer. It was even her favorite model. She picked up the pistol, feeling the perfect balance as it rested against her palm. Annah hated the idea of losing the gun in her hands.  Perhaps she could get away with keeping it, but that was always risky since it made the cover-up harder for the employer.

She began to reminisce, looking over at her dresser drawer where she kept her illegal goods. A pistol and a forged passport, along with the other things she had managed to collect during her misdeeds. She dragged a finger across a button on the drawer, and it slid open in response to her touch. She reached inside, and removed a deceptively simple knife along with the belt that it was attached to. The main apparatus of the disguised ballistic knife was still sheathed in the belt with the spare blades, but there was one blade missing.

It seemed fitting that she’d used the weapon of a contract killer to start her own career as an assassin, even though at first she’d lacked the heart for it. The first time she had used the ballistic knife, her hands had shaken so badly that she missed her target, breaking the blade on the wall next to him, revealing her presence in an instant. Looking back, Annah often wondered what would happen if he’d pleaded for his life, if she would have had the strength to take the life of a defenseless man. To the contrary, however, he’d taken one look at her dark clothes, mask, and knife, and fled down the hallway, shouting for security at the top of his lungs. In her panic, she’d lunged after him and taken him down. It was only after the blood already stained her hands that Annah realized what she’d done.

With a shake of her head, she hung the belt on her chair and sat down on her bed. She laid back and began reading the documents in the light of the city. She preferred the weak, diluted light of a thousand distant lives to the fluorescent ones of her room. She hated the constant pulsing sensation that they caused, but they were the government standard now, so there wasn’t an alternative option.

For that same reason, she never had any desire to get cybernetics to enhance her body. After neurotech became prevalent, the government started urging everyone to cyberize in order to “gain a higher standard of life.” The corrupt government she wanted to replace told her she should implant technology into her body, so she wanted nothing to do with it.  It was as simple as that.

Finding her way back to the present, she began to read the job offer in earnest. For the most part, it looked routine: Go to point A, collect the assets, find and neutralize the target, and then disappear. Then the offer started getting interesting. She sat up, trailing her leg off the bed, and letting her foot graze the floor. She skimmed over the rest of the contract, pausing as she read the last line before the financial details. The statement was simple; Do this job well. You want to make a proper impression on your employers. “Huh, who am I trying to make an impression on?”

The job paid obscenely well, and since she was currently pressed for cash, she couldn’t afford to turn the job down even if it seemed too good to be true. Sure, she could find some other job offer, but in all likelihood, no one else would pay that well. She sighed as she rolled off the bed to her feet and strapped her weapons across her body.

Annah drew the knife, and trailed a finger across the trigger mechanism to affirm her familiarity with the device. She spun the handle once around her palm before sliding it back into its sheath. Pulling her jacket on over her mini arsenal, Annah flicked the hood up to obscure her face from any aerial cameras as she left the apartment. The contract didn’t specify a time-sensitive nature of the job, but she saw no reason to hesitate carrying out the task. “Twenty-seven floors up, and people wonder why I never take the stairs anymore” She sighed as she came to the elevator, and hit the button for the lobby with her elbow.

She kept her breathing measured as the capsule descended; she needed to be calm throughout the entirety of the job if she wanted it to go off without a hitch. It was easy to keep calm while she was planning out the job, the tension wouldn’t come until things didn’t go according to plan. She had killed before, so it wouldn’t be anything new to carry out a simple assassination, but going over the plan in her head would make it second nature. She was forced to pause briefly when the elevator reached the ground floor, and the doors shuddered open. Now that she was on the ground and moving, a sick excitement came over her- an excitement that only came when she was getting ready to do something fun.

She stepped outside and noticed that the lights above her street flickered or failed entirely, and several neon kiosks were still on, despite the late hour. The owners were clearly desperate for some cash to make the next payments in their lives. She began walking towards the outskirts of her residential district, spinning her new key causing it to glint in the evening light.

The state of decay around her increased as she walked toward the drop point, an abandoned skyrail station indicated by the rusted sign that swung side to side by a single screw. “Nice thing about this area is the lack of security cameras,” she muttered under her breath. The government didn’t even bother putting them up.  The people were so poor that the prison time for the theft was well worth the money they would make by selling the parts from the camera. The only trick was the money had to be spent before they were caught, otherwise the arresting officer would confiscate it to add to their own funds

Before long she came to the stairs leading down into the subway. A glimpse of red caught her eye as she descended. She turned to see her face reflected back at her. Black bangs contrasted by the violent red streaks trailing throughout her hair. Ahead of her a light sparked a few times before the glass tube cracked and began dripping sparks onto the ground. She moved to the side to avoid the cascade of fire, and continued down the staircase. When Annah reached the bottom of the stairs she pulled a key out of her pocket and turned to a service door. As she placed the key into the lock, the door fell off it’s decrepit hinges to reveal the locker room dead drop. “Guess they locked it for show?” Annah thought to herself

Following the instructions left for her in the packet, she went to locker number thirty-seven and entered a new account number that her payment would be deposited into. As she entered the last digit, a green light ignited and the door unlocked, revealing a long rifle with several tubes leading from the barrel back into the shoulder stock. She hefted the heavy rifle, inspecting it. There were several dials on the side, with what seemed to be power readouts. There was an ammo count, and one with a percentage, which she assumed was power output. There was another that was obviously a range indicator, but the others took some effort to figure out. She gathered that one was the decibel of the shot, a measure of how loud firing the gun would be with the current settings. And the final dial was a silencer, that could be adjusted to reduce the noise at the cost of some power. She slung the strap over her shoulder and closed the locker, watching the light flash red as it sealed shut.

She stepped over the door and headed back up the stairs, sending the keyword “Prey” to an unknown contact as she had been instructed. She leaned back against the wall, and waited. Her patience wasn’t long tested before an alert went off on her phone with a message, “Contract confirmed. Proceed when ready.” As she exited the station, she guessed that it was nearing four in the morning.  She didn’t have much time before the sun would be up, and there might be witnesses starting to appear on the streets. Annah resumed her original trajectory down the street until she found the building housing the target. He was supposed to be on the tenth floor in the corner room, so she began looking around for the proper vantage point. It wasn’t long before she found a parking structure close by with an appropriate height advantage, and a good line of sight on the window in question.

“I appreciate an employer that does their research,” she said aloud as she opened the door to the building and began climbing the stairs, “It really makes things a lot simpler on my end.” She walked quickly, wanting to ensure that the mission was completed before the window of opportunity had passed. As she climbed to the eighth floor, she heard a car engine start, and plastered herself to the wall, halting her breathing. She assumed this building would be abandoned, especially since no one who lived in this district could even afford a car. She drew her pistol with her left hand and unsheathed her knife with the other, and slowly moved up onto the landing from the stairs and looked around for the car. Before long, she had located the car, in part because of the sound, as well as the faint glow coming from the cigarette the man inside was smoking.

Using the shadows provided by the moon, she quickly moved towards the car to determine if it posed any threat to her. Before too long, she noticed that while the car was civilian,  the driver was not. It seemed that this operation might have been some sort of sting designed to directly implicate her in an assassination attempt. She clicked a button on the side of her pistol, and a metal tube extended from the end of the barrel to silence her coming shot. The man in the car wore a police uniform, and had his peripheral vision blocked by a pair of binoculars trained on her target’s room. She slunk right up to the car, placed the barrel against the window, and fired a single shot- ending the briefest of investigations into her target’s wellbeing. Blood sprayed against the opposite window as his head snapped to the side, leaving the binoculars he carried to slam against his still chest. His lifeless body slouched down, finally coming to rest against the steering wheel, as the last bits of shattered glass hit the pavement.

As all this was happening, Annah had resumed her march towards the top of the parking structure. She cleared the top floor and drew the rifle, extending the shoulder stock and beginning to slow her breathing. Breathe, breathe, breathe. Her heart rate slowed with each breath she took, and she could feel it in her finger as she lay it across the trigger. In and out she breathed slowly, with her heart rate nearing thirty beats per minute. She lined up the target in her sights, took a breath and held it. She waited; counting the pulses throughout her body, and after she knew her pulse, she counted. One. Two. Three. Pulse. Fire. The sound from the rifle was devastating as loud as a thunderstorm in a metal room. The effect of the shot was just as deafening. The shot had torn straight through the window causing it to shatter. Then the bullet hit her target with such force that the frame of the bed he slept on warped and twisted. With such  force, Annah feared that she had accidentally pierced through the floor and into another apartment. She kept her eye pressed to the scope looking for any sign that was the case. However as she looked around the man’s room, she couldn’t see any damage that wasn’t caused by the sheer force of the bullet. It was as if the bullet had simply stopped after she hit her target.

And just who could possibly need a rifle like that? Then it hit her: there was no collateral damage. The bullet was supposed to stop after it hit its target. The rifle was clearly a prototype designed for exactly what she had just demonstrated. With technology like that, there would be nearly no need to worry about a civilian casualty. Hit the target and not pay any mind to what’s behind it “Useful espionage tool,” she mused aloud, trying to deduce just who had designed the rifle. She walked back to the base of the building and looked around, seeing that there was no response to the noise the rifle had created, and no evidence that she had even been there, save for the dead man that she had left to rot at the top of the structure.

Annah stuffed her hands back into the pockets of her hoodie, and began her return path to the locker. The smallest hint of the imminent sunrise began to creep over the skyrise, darkening the street further with the shadows that would save it from the sweltering heat of the midday sun. It was the stillest time of the day, the calm right before the storm. At dawn, everyone would wake and go about their normal lives. Going to their jobs, to school, making implants, weapons, harvesting the rapid-grow crops that would have finished growing overnight. Everyday life and complacency: the two were synonymous to her now. No one was happy in the outer ring of the city, but they were too addicted to the safety this life provided them to change anything.

The slums might as well have consisted of the entire outer ring- from the edge of the commercial district to the port zone everyone was poor. Then from the offices to the central government tower, everyone was rich to some degree, rich of course being defined as the ability to sustain a comfortable life. The central tower was visible from every point on the island city. It rose immensely over the city, with several smaller spires arcing towards the main tower that was rumored to be so tall that it left the atmosphere. Annah had always dismissed that notion as a myth, but after waging war against the government she could see how their symbol could seem larger than life.

As a teen Annah had viewed herself as an anarchist, thinking that the people would be the best govern themselves. However, as she grew older in mind and body, she came to understand that a true anarchy would only lead to either an aristocracy, or an oligarchy, depending on who rose to power; the warlords or the wealthy. So instead she came to wish for a reform of the government, not a dissolution of it. If it was possible to remove the corruption and install a method to check up on the politicians, then perhaps the future of her world might not be so bleak. Of course, her first attempt to change things had failed. Her rebellious coup had been crushed and cast aside like a small bug having annoyed the owner of its venue. She reached the subway station before long and quickly walked down the stairs, heading straight for the door that was still collapsed. That reassured her that she truly hadn’t been followed. She vaulted over the broken door and returned to the locker, keying in the same code she had before.

Once again, the green light flared to life followed by a loud clunk signaling the door was open. She pulled on the handle and placed the rifle inside, wondering what the implications of such a device could mean. In the world of espionage, it could be game-changing. Half the difficulty of an assassination was finding an angle for the shot that couldn’t possibly cause an unwanted casualty. A sloppy shot could create the wrong result, and completely negate the original intent of the assassination, that kind of rifle would make the whole process simpler.

She turned back to leave the room and was faced with a figure wearing a hat that obscured his face. She drew her gun and aimed it at the center of his chest. “Who are you?”

“Interesting.” The man said in a gravelly tone. “I assumed you would just shoot me on sight. I guess it isn’t impossible for an assassin to have morals.” He stepped towards her,  revealing a face that seemed as though it would have been quite handsome in youth, but it was hard to tell through the badly shaven stubble distorting it. “Who I am is irrelevant; who I represent is something entirely different. You see your rebellion as a failure, they see it as a spark.”

“And what exactly does that mean?” Annah was clearly annoyed, but didn’t budge an inch with her gun. “I’m not exactly in that business anymore, so who cares about what I did in that war?”

“They do.” He spoke plainly. “They’re sick of the state of things, and they have a way to change it.”

“Things can’t change, there aren’t enough people willing to do the work required to change anything,” she spat back, trying to move past him.

He stepped into her way, and said, “Sparks light flames, Ms. Krie, and flames in the right situation can be quite explosive.” Annah looked at him wide-eyed for half a moment, and then pushed past him and jogged up the stairs. Explosions were never good for a rebellion. There was no faster way to be branded as a terrorist, and the population hated terrorists more than they could ever hate the state of the world they knew. Terrorism led to higher tension, which led to the people being willing to sacrifice even more of their freedom just so they could feel safe. She would have to do some research to find out more about this group. The man had purposely not said the name that the group went by, but she was sure that she would be able to find them in the recesses of the net. As she reached the street level it was finally dawn, but the morning was still quite cold. She zipped up her hoodie, and put her hands into her pockets as she began the quick walk home.

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WhisperZero

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