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Chapter 1

  Killing someone without leaving a trace is overrated. 

  I could do it. It just took money, patience, some skill… and dealing with people who couldn't care less about the police. I'd gotten pretty good at it over the years, but I'd met a lot of awful people in that time. Sitting behind the counter was yet another example. The relentless pulse of the nightclub didn't quite drown out my revulsion for the slovenly hulk I had just bribed.

  His thick hands, like he were wearing gloves underneath his dirty skin, slid the bulletproof tray around to pick up the small stack of cash I'd dropped in, along with the messy hand-written request. The man examined it thoroughly with a trained eye, until, satisfied, he dropped it into a plain burlap sack near the till.

  "Fourth floor. Hundred more'll get you the room number, honey. You aren't his type, but I bet he'd make an exception if you put out."

  I ignored him. The floor was all I needed. The Vibrato club lay just behind the steel door next to the reception desk, the thick portal visibly buzzing from the pounding music just inside. People were dancing, getting high, and trying to ignore the world's steady descent into insanity. I couldn't blame them, but… couldn't they be doing anything else?

  "You going in?"

  I shook my head. A club like that was the last place I wanted to be. I pulled my hood low around my face and turned to leave.

  "Then what was all this for?" the guy asked, gesturing toward the cash. I didn't answer—he didn't need to hear my voice. "Whatever, suit yourself… bitch," he muttered as I walked toward the street door.

  For a moment, I hesitated. Reputation is everything. Reputation is our power. If people think we are weak, we become weak. If someone this low on the totem pole was mouthing off to me, of all people, showing so little respect to me and the people I worked for, something would have to be done.

  Except in this case, my brother's advice didn't apply. I didn't look like me, for one—I'd dyed my hair, and I was wearing interface glasses to disguise my other eye, and I'd left my equipment across the street. For all the normal world to see, I was just like any other sixteen-year-old girl. I was wearing a thick blue hoodie with acid rain guards (not that we needed them in Cascadia, but they'd become a trend anyway), a scarf, normal clothes. Only my boots could give anything away.

  Point was, I didn't want anyone to know it was me. Not being recognized was the goal.

  The guy slid his VR set back onto his face as I kept walking. He had one of the semi-transparent ones, where he could still see the world while getting lost in his sims. I wondered if he was one of our customers, but I didn't stick around to check. I left the building and returned to the cold night, pulling my jacket tight to keep the rain off.

  I had a job to do.

  Out of the club, across the street, grabbing the bag I'd hidden behind the nearby dumpster, and into the apartment building adjacent. I'd cleared the place ahead of time. The night guard was the lazy type, so I wasn't worried about the human element. Carefully, I stopped in the exact spot we'd marked out, just before the building's cameras would pick me up, and pressed my right thumb between my index and middle fingers.

  The interface for my other eye appeared in midair, a ghostly projection only I could see. With tiny, quick gestures of my hand—only the right one, of course, since my left didn't have the sensor inlays—I swapped to my contact list. I had the phone number already, of course, but the encryption key shifted every two minutes, and I couldn't ever store the paired key on anything that might get stolen. It'd be pretty hard for somebody to steal my eye without me noticing, after all.

  I pulled out a burner phone and dialed. After the connection tone, I typed in the twelve-digit key.

  "Operations."

  I smiled. The guy on ops tonight was Kev, one of my better partners. I don't know if I'd call us friends, exactly—almost nobody in the organization knew my real name—but we had chemistry. Rapport, I guess you'd call it. 

  "Snipe." Snipe was my codename. I didn't pick it, neither did my brother. Somebody without much imagination had used it in the middle of my first operation, and it stuck. A sniper with the name Snipe. Well… at least I could pretend they were talking about the bird instead.

  Kev never called me Snipe, though. He knew I didn't really like it. "Hey girl. Blackout time?"

  "Yeah, take it down."

  "You got it. Just a sec here…" I heard a vague rolling sound—Kev's chair, most likely. He was always on speaker phone instead of his headset. "Here comes the haunting. Spooky ghosts."

  The security guard just around the corner was still snoozing at his desk, or maybe he was in a sim himself. I couldn't tell yet—couldn't risk being seen by any of the cameras. Strict privacy laws prevented anything pointing toward the outside of the building owned by a private company, so I was safe just inside the doorway, but as soon as I moved even a little bit forward, I'd be spotted.

  "Loops are up. You're good."

  "Thanks." 

  I hung up and started moving. As expected, the guard was lost in his own sim, and this building wasn't connected to any of the major corps, so he was the only one around. He didn't pay me a single bit of attention, relying on his cameras and sensors to let him know if anyone was approaching—didn't want to risk his high, after all.

  Up the staircase—no elevators, never elevators—two steps at a time, fast as I could without making noise. I'd learned the art of walking in near-silence years back, when I was first inducted into the business. Darius hadn't wanted me to join, but… circumstances.

  It was always circumstances.

  I didn't blame Darius for that. He would have died, except for the fact he had a little sister who liked guns and could get into places he couldn't. I was good at what I did, and I took some kind of pride in it. I didn't enjoy killing, but… some people needed to die for the rest of us to live in peace. That was the promise between Darius and me, when I started working for him.

  Only people who needed to die.

  It wasn't even people who deserved to die. There were certainly awful, horrible people in the world who probably deserved a fate as bad—or far worse—than the quick, easy death I could provide. But we weren't in the business of saving the world or righting wrongs. We were a gang. We sold drugs.  

  Okay, not drugs exactly. If they were like the drugs I used to read about, the ones mostly eradicated from Cascadia these days, I probably wouldn't be on board either. We sold hacked VR sims and modified implants. Still illegal, but… there's a difference.

  Sometimes I wondered if I was one of those people who deserved to die.

  I reached the fifth floor of the apartment complex. Another gesture from my hand and the interface came back up. I flicked through to the visual settings and clicked thermal on. The two primary lenses faded as the thermal camera above them booted up. I closed my left eye so I could focus better.

  With only one lens and no depth perception, everything looked a lot flatter, but I didn't really need it. I was looking for a room with no heat, somewhere empty and facing back across the street. It took half the length of the building before I found one. 

  The place used simple keycard locks, since it was retrofitted from an old hotel. I opened my bag, quickly deactivating the tracking device I'd sewn into the hem, and grabbed out a card scrambler. After only a few seconds, it transmitted the right magnetic code.

  The door clicked open.

  
  

***

  
  

  Before anyone chanced on me in the hallway, I hurried inside. The room was remarkably clean—probably unoccupied, given the empty closet. I hadn't expected the place to keep it so spotless, but evidently they had a cleaning staff who took more pride in their work than the security guard below. I crossed to the window and slid it open.

  There were perfect sightlines from my window to every room on the fourth floor of the other building. Since I'd gone one floor up, I could take an easy diagonal shot without worrying about anyone standing in the way too long, like a bodyguard. The only risk was if he stood near the far wall and never walked all the way in, but I doubted I'd get that unlucky—the drink cart and the couches were near the window.

  I took a breath, then began to set up. A sensor trap and a smoke grenade near the door, and a quick-release rappel cord on the window gave me enough protection to feel secure. For the window, I slid the desk over to make for a nice stand, since the window sill wasn't wide enough to mount properly. I checked again to make sure there were no cameras—officially, it would be a privacy violation, but I knew far too many hotels and apartments who ignored that part of the law.

  The room was secure. I pulled a chair over to the desk and sat down. From my bag, I withdrew my rifle. It was a custom-made piece commissioned by my brother after six months of working for his gang. Darius had sourced it from all over the world and assembled it himself, making sure it was completely untraceable. I inspected it, as I always did before a job, then turned it on.

  With a faint whirring sound, the rifle extended to its real length. In the bag, it didn't even appear to be a rifle, just a smooth slab of dark-grey plastic with a scope on top and a faint outline of a bird engraved into the side. When it connected to my eye software though, I could expand it into a full-length rifle, as deadly as any.

  The barrel tessellated outward, almost seeming to create material from nothing rather than a sliding motion. A trigger extended out, and from the rear, a shoulder brace—though I often didn't need it, thanks to the enhancements in my arm. I tested the software, and it connected properly. I could see through the scope.

  I propped it up with a portable tripod, taking my first proper scan of the target room. My eye software did some calculations and came up with a range of forty-seven meters to the back wall. There was virtually no wind, and even if there was, the cartridge my rifle used wouldn't be affected over such a short distance. I picked out a magazine from my bag and loaded it into the rifle.

  A deep breath. I closed my eye. The other one couldn't ever close, obviously, but I could shut it off if I wanted to, or when it detected me going to sleep. This was the part where most people couldn't take it, the patience. If I was being honest, I didn't really have much either. I'd usually pull up a book on my eye software, reading the semi-transparent words in midair while keeping watch on my target. 

  Tonight, I couldn't possibly sit still that long all on my own. I couldn't keep my mind off Darius… and myself. In only an instant, in a single awful moment, our relationship had been shattered into a million pieces.

  When you're out there, you're never on your own.

  What happens though, Darius, when you're the one I'm scared of?

  The serving staff arrived in the room to start setting up. It was going to be a while. I couldn't take it. I needed somebody to talk to. I stayed in place, still ready to take the shot once the target showed up, but I pulled out the burner phone again and dialed.

  "Operations."

  "Snipe."

  "Hey girl. Thought we weren't gonna hear from you for over an hour. Did it start early?"

  No doubts in Kev's mind, of course. He assumed I was already done. I was a professional. I did this for a living. Even beyond the jobs I did for my brother and his gang, I contracted out to other groups, individuals with money and a vendetta… even some police under the table a couple times. We still cleared every single target, made sure they were people who needed to die, but it gave us some extra income, built up my reputation, and also served to divorce Snipe the contract killer from being necessarily linked to Darius in any way.

  A step removed. Darius had no more relationship to Snipe than anyone else in Seattle's underground.

  Did he have any relationship to Kara, the girl behind the rifle and the eye and the messed-up arm that had to be rebuilt with state-of-the-art cybernetics? The girl that loved to read and play pranks and would do anything for him? Were we even siblings?

  "Just… just needed somebody to talk to."

  "You got it. Quiet night here, we aren't running anything else. What's on your mind?"

  I couldn't tell him that. He didn't even know me and Darius were related. If we were. Kev was one of the few to know I was completely loyal and not just a killer-for-hire that we used a lot, but still… there was so much I could never tell anyone.

  "I dunno. I just feel off."

  "Do we need to call off the hit?"

  "No, not that. Just… antsy, I guess?"

  Kev chuckled. "Girl, you're going in reverse on me. How's someone like you get more antsy over the years, not less?"

  I winced. "Talk to me? Help me get my mind off it."

  "Want me to call him?" We never said Darius' name on the line, even with how solid our encryption was. Kev didn't know we were related, but he knew Darius had brought me in, and knew more about me than anyone else. 

  "Isn't he in a meeting?" 

  Darius was down in Portland tonight, dealing with one of our rivals. They were flooding the market with bad sims, using the same hacked implants we'd developed but without following the safety protocols we'd set up. Ours were more lax than the usual, but still… if you went too far, you could cause serious brain damage, or end up effectively torturing somebody.

  "Yeah, and bored out of his mind, I'm sure. Those guys just argue and argue for hours until they finally give in."

  "But calling him away would be a huge insult to them. He'd lose face."

  "True enough. You know this game better than me, I'm just the guy on the keyboard."

  Normally, I'd take that as a compliment. Who doesn't love hearing they're good at something? I prided myself on being able to navigate my brother's world so effectively, without disruption, doing as much for him as I could.

  "What about you?"

  "What about me?"

  "How… how are you?"

  Kev didn't answer for a moment. He knew it was a seriously weird question for the operations line, and especially in the middle of an op. I actually fidgeted in place a little, which was completely unlike me. I never fidgeted when I was in position. Finally, just as I was starting to think he was going to call Darius anyway, he spoke up again.

  "I'm not sure what's going on with you, girl, and I'm here for you for anything, but you know we can't get into personals."

  Of course. What was I thinking? Kev was right—we didn't get personal. This was a business, less than legitimate but still operating on the same lines. We were a team, and we could have camaraderie, but we didn't go past that. None of the mess all the other gangs got into, with emotions running high, grudges everywhere, personal vendettas, the works. We had a job, we did our job, we went home at the end of the day. 

  Except for me, home was with Darius. I didn't have anyone else. I didn't have friends like they did, or anyone else to connect with. Home was still part of the job, because my whole world was this. 

  My whole life was a lie.

  "Yeah, sorry." I took another breath, clearing my throat, clearing my mind. "I'll call you later when it's done."

  "You sure? I'm worried about you."

  "I'm good. Thanks."

  "You got it."

  He hung up. Kev knew better than to question me once I got back in the zone. Not that I was back, but I could fake it well enough. I was still uncomfortable. I kept fidgeting, shifting around in place, though my rifle remained steady and out of sight from the window.

  The guests finally started to arrive, many minutes later. One by one, they trickled in. I waited for my target. I hadn't learned his name—I usually didn't, unless I was working it solo—but I'd been given more than enough of an idea of what he did… and why he needed to die.

  The world isn't a terrible place, but it's made worse by terrible people. 

  Aren't we a little bit terrible too, Darius? I kill people for a living.

  I couldn't resolve it in my mind anymore. Darius' words were always a comfort to me until now. I felt like he'd torn that away too, just like he had everything else. All his justifications, all his well-reasoned advice, echoing in his gentle voice through my mind… everything was just so hollow now.

  The target entered the room. 

  I took another deep breath. My arm slid over the desk ever so slightly as I made minute adjustments, tracking him through the room. My scope worked in tandem with the rangefinder in my other eye, helping me aim. I could work without it most days—and I'd trained hard to make sure I could operate without if it ever broke down—but tonight, I needed it.

  This man was corrupt. He'd stolen from many groups, government institutions, charities, businesses. The money went back into the child trafficking market still huge in the Midwestern States, especially after the break-up of the country. Cascadia and California had done their best to stamp it out, as had the Republic of Texas, but they always found a way. 

  Normally, even for someone as awful as this, it still wouldn't have been my job. Darius would have made a comment about how terrible he was, and possibly encouraged the police to look into him, but we stayed out of public affairs. This was different though. He'd stolen from us, taken lobbying money Darius allocated for some reforms he supported in the legislature, and turned it for his own profits.

  No one stole from us.

  He walked toward the drink cart. I took a breath and held it.

  Very carefully, I squeezed the trigger.

  My rifle made a pop—even with the suppressor, it could never be silenced—and the window across the street shattered. The champagne glass in his hand burst. A puff of red blew out from his heart. 

  He fell to the ground, dead.

  I let my breath out again. 

  It took a couple seconds for the room to erupt into chaos. By that time, I was already packing up. My rifle shrank back and went into my bag. I pulled my jacket back on, hood low, and wrapped up tight in a scarf. I slid the window shut tight, left the room exactly as I'd found it, and exited the building without being seen.

  This kill wouldn't get attributed to Darius or his gang. We had a monetary connection, and though we'd cleared every electronic communication the man ever made, Darius couldn't be sure if he'd kept a paper ledger or not. The public would assume he'd been killed for his underground connections, as soon as they came to light (with Darius' help, of course). I'd still get some credit for it, since the underground knew my rifle and my style, but I'd never claim it officially. It was clean, in and out, simple, without a trace.

  Just like that, he was gone.

  Just like that, Darius had erased my life too. As I hit the street level, I went into the nearest alley. I kept walking, heading toward one of my hideouts—safehouses I'd set up in abandoned or condemned buildings, places to lie low right after a job. Darius knew about some, but not all of them, and right now, I needed to get away.

  I pulled out my phone.

  "Operations."

  "It's done."

  "Got it. Have a good night, girl. Don't forget to check in. Feel better, all right?"

  "Okay. Thanks."

  I hung up, then snapped the phone in half with my enhanced arm. It fell in two pieces, which I crushed into the pavement. I was supposed to call my brother next, let him know it was done. He'd get worried, maybe even suspicious. But I couldn't. I broke into a sprint, against all my instincts. I needed to run.

  For all my life, I'd never wondered about myself. All I remembered was living with Darius, being raised by him though he was just eighteen and I was twelve. I'd never had friends, I'd never gone to school. I just… lived with Darius. My brother.

  If he was even my brother.

  If he hadn't changed my mind to make me think that too. I'd seen the data. I dug through my own implant history and found the logs, buried as they were. Darius couldn't erase the hardware evidence, though he'd scrubbed everything else clean. He'd found a way, impossible as it seemed, to change my memories.

  What could I believe anymore? I'd always had an implant, as far as I knew. I'd always been his little sister. I'd always been… like this. A killer. Right?

  I love you, Kara. Be safe. 

  I had to know. I had to figure out who I was, what he'd done, and who I could trust. I needed to know what was real, and what was just Darius' creation. If all those hours teaching me, helping me grow into this person—something I'd been proud of until only days before—keeping me safe, playing games with me… if any of it was true. I needed to know if Darius was real.

  If he wasn't? If my brother was one of the terrible people? If he'd done this to me and who knew what else? 

  There wasn't a single thing in the world that could stop me from killing him.

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, IT girl, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of good stories.

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