Shadows and Splinters


#1

Once there was a child.

Born in a small town to parents that had not been ready yet to have a child, they came into a world that was reeling from war and upheaval. They were not unwanted, their parents just struggled to do the best they could. They were not sickly, and thank whatever gods you liked for that. They were of pleasant demeanor, so much so that their parents might easily forget they were even in the room, until the child reminded them of that fact. The world was a cruel one, but the parents tried not to let this color the household in which the child lived. They were decent people, as these things go, but struggling with the complications of parenthood.

The child could not have known about the conflicts their parents dealt with during their upbringing. They could not have known that their father could not pay the bills. They did not know about agriculture, and how difficult it could be to grow a profitable harvest of crops in a world still recovering from a cataclysm that ruined the world and affected the climate. Their father dealt with not only putting food on the table but also to pay the tribute demanded of brigands that asserted control over their land. They could not have known about how their mother strove to keep their little family safe. They did not know about diplomacy, and how such brigands play at it with regards to an available female. Their mother did what she could to appease the brigands, knowing how it might affect her marriage.

So it goes.

~~~*~

Once there was a boy.

Out of cradle ages and growing steadily, he was learned his letters and his maths. He was a model student, though not excellent. He kept his head down and did not attract attention. In his schooling, as his classmates shuffled themselves into the expected cliques, he remained outside them. He wasn’t studious or urbane enough for the teachers’ pets, and not aggressive or athletic enough for the bullies. He went through his days with little to distinguish one day from the next. He was ordinary, as these things go, not standing out in any particular way.

The boy was in fact so ordinary as to vanish into the background. He could disappear from his teachers’ sight while they called for answers from their students. They paid him little mind, only remembering him as a name on their attendance record. His classmates ignored him because he had nothing worthy of their attention. At first, the boy despaired that no one seemed to notice anything about him. His parents, still lost in their own issues and problems, could not properly sympathize with him. After all, they reasoned, if they were leaving him alone, this was surely a good thing. Anxious and alone, the boy soon grew to accept his lot, and indeed, learned to exploit it. If no one paid attention to him and no one noticed him, there were any number of things he could do with this ability. He took things he was not supposed to take and went places he was not supposed to go. In going places he was not supposed to go, he inevitably saw things he was not supposed to see.

So it goes.

~~~*~

Once there was a man.

Plain of appearance as he had always been, he was continued in his habits. He did not exactly revel in his talents, since he felt there was no point. No one could notice his celebrations or join in his enjoyment. Before long, he even stopped the taking and the going. There was no challenge to it, he felt. And so he once again despaired at the state of his life. His parents had long since split up, his father unable to ignore the things his mother had done to keep the family safe. Indeed, his parents had long since died. His father had been conscripted to fight on the losing side of one of the world’s many wars. His mother had succumbed to illness, one final side effect of her version of diplomacy. So he was left, as these things go, with a crippling sense of loneliness.

The man soon found that he was not, as he had feared, as invisible as he felt. People were paying attention. People had taken notice. They could easily have decided to apprehend him and turn him in to face the justice of the law. But these people saw themselves as outside the law. They offered the man an alternative future. They gave him additional skills. He learned how to turn his ability to be noticed on and off at will. They quietly removed him from the world’s records to the point that he effectively did not exist. He did not mind. The world at large had long since forgotten about him, so he abandoned the name the world knew him by.

Soon, only his new employers knew who he was, and they became his family. They became his father and they became his mother.

So it goes.

~~~*~

Once there was an operative.

He was representative of the agency for which he worked. He was everywhere and he was nowhere. He came and went as he pleased, but he knew the limitations of his abilities. He removed obstacles that the agency found inconvenient. Sometimes these obstacles were locks. Sometimes they were objects. Sometimes they were people. Those that met him found him forgettable, but they would never forget his placid smile or the immaculate appearance of his dark suit.

The agency found itself having to deal with a schism within the army that it ostensibly served. While the overwhelming majority of the agency was still loyal to their leader and the officer in the white uniform, there were some that splintered off, and to the agency at large, they became an inconvenience. And so the operative went to do what he did best…

~~~*~

This was an office building. To outsiders, it was an average office building, albeit a secure one. There were security checkpoints to pass by, electronic turnstiles, and personal electronic devices were prohibited on the premises. This was one of the agency’s many facilities. The lobby contained a number of chairs, and people came and went about their business.

In one chair was a man of average appearance. His hair was cut in a style popular in Albrook, parted exactly on the left hand side. He wore a dark suit, fashionable and immaculate, its lines exact and pressed. Unlike the ones who’d been pointing weaponry, his hands were empty. His build belied his abilities, and his face was set in a smile that reflected in his eyes, but at the same time was a distant expression. Those eyes were bright, pleasant, but behind this, there was a flatness. This was a man who could see every possibility about your future, and none of them went well for you.

Across from him in another chair was a splinter agent. In some respects, the other man could have been the man in the dark suit’s twin. He too was of average appearance. His hair was in another popular Albrookian style, though slicked back from his forehead. His beard was trimmed neatly. His suit was the color of melted vanilla ice cream.

“We seem to have found ourselves in a bit of a,” the man in the dark suit paused, considering the vocabulary, “pickle, wouldn’t you say, my friend?”

The man in the pale suit narrowed his eyes slightly. “I don’t know if I would consider us ‘friends,’ exactly.”

“Colleagues?”

“That’s more accurate,” the man in the pale suit agreed.

“And yet, we find ourselves here,” the man in the dark suit pointed out, “and now, across from one another, in each others’ way.”

The man in the pale suit shrugged. “We needn’t be. Do you remember why you joined up?”

“Of course I do.” The man in the dark suit’s response was as calm as ever, but his opposite number failed to notice how the smile had gone. How the brightness had faded in his eyes. Outwardly, his expression had not changed, but in many ways it had undergone a significant transformation.

“It can’t have been to just maintain things as they are,” the man in the pale suit continued. “How has the status quo fared? How much conflict have we seen brewing, and done nothing to stop? How many wars could have been prevented if we’d acted on information received? How many lives could have been spared?”

“It’s never as simple as you think,” replied the unarmed man. “It is easy to look back and point fingers on how things could have been done, should have been done, would have been done if someone else had been calling the shots.”

“This isn’t about how things should have been done,” the man in the pale suit snapped. “This is about how things should be done henceforth!”

The man in the dark suit shrugged. “And this is where we have our fundamental disagreement. You believe that your side has the correct course of action mapped out, while I believe otherwise. You will not convince me of your viewpoint. And I fear that I will not convince you of mine.”

“You are correct. With or without your help, I will do what I came here to do.” The man in the pale suit gave a smile, but it did not reach his eyes. “And since I fear that you will not help me, my colleagues will have to detain you.”

The man in the dark suit did not look up as he heard the distinctive sounds of guns being cocked. Around the two men, two passing businesspeople had suddenly stopped, then were joined by the two security guards manning the lobby, and drawn weaponry, aiming it at the man in the dark suit. There had been little to distinguish them from the average bystander or civilian, but to the trained eye, one could pick out the details. The trim fitness of their build and the tense energy in their muscles, the faint and faded scars of a life outside the law, the firmness of their set jaws, and the detachment in their gaze. The lobby had emptied of all other people.

The main the dark suit sighed, closing his eyes and giving a quiet shake of his head. “It’s like that, then?”

“It must be,” the man in the pale suit agreed. “You do not frighten me, old friend. Don’t forget, I’ve read your file. I’ve seen all the briefs about you. You won’t kill me. We have no intel on you ever killing anyone.”

“You mean,” the man in the dark suit corrected, “that you have no evidence.”

He said it, however, from behind one of the security kiosks that flanked the lobby. As one, the splinter agents swiveled toward his voice, but he was no longer there. They turned again as one of their fellows suddenly let out a scream. The man in the dark suit stood behind him, fist buried in the agent’s side.

“Lamarr, Robert,” the man in the dark suit said. “Age, twenty-four. Gave a kidney to his diabetic sister two years ago. Probably needs the other one.” His fist pistoned into the wretch’s side, and he collapsed with another scream.

The man in the pale suit rose from his seat, his face grave. “No…”

“Pollack, Scott,” the man in the dark suit continued. One of the splinter agents reacted to the mention of his name. “Thirty-four. Football knee injury.” And without any of their noticing his moving, there was suddenly a crunching noise, and the named man went down with his leg bending the wrong way, an agonized bellow coming from his thick chest.

“What are you waiting for?” the man in the pale suit demanded. “Stop him!”

The nearest agent managed to grab one of the man in the dark suit’s shoulders. Without turning his head, the unarmed man identified her. “Wallis, Dana. Twenty-nine. Took shrapnel in the shoulder during the Leviathan War. Still takes pain-killers for it.” This time they actually saw him move, swiveling with snake speed, knocking aside her hand and suddenly driving his fist into her shoulder. The gruesome popping noise of a dislocation echoed in the lobby and she went down with a scream of her own.

“Shoot him!” The man’s face was going as pale as his suit as he shouted at the remaining splinter agent.

The gunshot was loud in the lobby, but the round buried itself in the wall. The man in the dark suit was not there, and he grabbed the splinter agent’s gun by the slide. With a sharp twisting motion, it was torn from the man’s hand, and in another smooth motion, he disassembled the gun, slide getting tossed one way, handle and magazine going the other. The remaining agent swiftly drew a knife and it flashed toward him, but with another smooth motion, the knife was in the man in the dark suit’s hand, and the agent’s arm was wrenched upward, bent painfully. “Goldman, Eli,” the man in the dark suit stated. “Thirty-two. Allergic to standard antibiotics. Joint wounds are slow to heal and prone to infection.” He twisted the agent back around and flipped him onto the ground, extending the man’s arm, then dragged the point of the agent’s own knife along the inside of his elbow.

The man in the pale suit was not there as the loyalist rose. His finger jabbed the button to close the elevator doors behind him, but just as they did so, a different finger flipped the emergency stop switch. “Linkletter, Gregory,” the man in the dark suit said in his ear. “Forty-five. Perfect medical record. Until now.

~~~*~

So it goes.