By Dale Hargrave
‘Unit two. Unit two.’
‘Franklin’s twitching. Repeat. Franklin’s twitching.’
Joists creaked under each foot. Dust fell, glittering in the torchlight. The block of flats groaned a protest at the unit’s passage. The flats were some of the oldest buildings in the city, disused, dilapidated and crumbling to rubble. The city had forgotten them, like the rest of this neighbourhood.
Kurt watched the door as he approached, staring at its surface as if it would open at any moment. He glanced occasionally to the floor, ensuring it was free of obstructions or that a boot sized hole hadn’t appeared in its cladding. Only small mulched holes. Through them he saw the deteriorating timber joists and wondered how they still held under his weight.
His eyes returned to the door and the small circle of blue tinted light, cast from the spotlight attached to his semi-automatic. The green paint, peeling, revealed another white layer beneath. Through rare patches the original grain of wood peaked out. Another creak issued from the joist with his boot step. Pause and listen. The repetition continued. Each pause a chance to ensure they went unheard. Kurt finally reached the door.
A shadow, his partner Hannah, stepped past him and to the side of the door. Her slender athletic limbs accentuated in the body-glove suit. The subtle curves of her torso were however obscured by the Kevlar body armour. Hannah’s facial features were concealed behind her mask and goggles. An eruption of hair in a ponytail made it appear like she wore a medieval helmet.
The drilled and practiced routines of room clearance took over every body gesture as he slid into his position on the other side of the door. Hannah waited for his choice of entry.
The entry choice was always his as the ranking M-grade. They could breach-charge to destroy the door, smoke or flash grenade after opening or they could go in cold, opening the door then sweeping the interior.
‘Cold entry,’ Kurt said into the earpiece. Outside the mask, the room remained silent.
‘Cold entry,’ Hannah echoed.
‘3…2…’ Boom! The door disintegrated in an explosive shockwave. Fragments of wood, the door’s remains, spiralled towards them. The cloud of smoke and dust hazed red, highlighted by flames lapping behind. The forces unleashed, plucking Kurt and Hannah from the floor. Bones broke, clothes burst to flame. They struck the far wall, their bodies crushed. Kurt hit the floor still breathing. Feeling the agony of each fracture tearing at his insides, he hoped it wouldn’t last much longer.
That happened in three minutes time.
Kurt, just stepping into the room, paused to stare at the peeling green door at the edge of the flashlight. The distance to the back wall stretched. A sense of foreboding grew. The constant feed in his mind, the ghost image of events three minutes from now, turned black. His future-self died against the wall at his back.
‘Door rigged with explosives, timed to us being behind it,’ Kurt said hurriedly. It had to be timed; he’d paused before the door and hadn’t touched anything. That meant, ‘potential enemy M-grade,’ he added. ‘Status?’
‘Proceed.’ The answer Kurt expected, the agency wouldn’t discard six months of intelligence on the first hurdle.
Hannah followed him as they ran across the room. Kurt hoped to get through the door prior to the timed device’s explosion. The idea reliant upon Hannah’s feed more than his own. Kurt, as an M-3, saw three minutes ahead. Hannah, an M-1, saw only a minute ahead. She was his second pair of eyes. In thirty seconds she’d tell him if the plan succeeded or not, more importantly why it didn’t work.
Kurt’s feed crackled back to life, adjusting perception to a new future. The process took time they didn’t have and screwed with his present-time senses, akin to a concussion. Hannah’s own feed didn’t adjust with his efforts to change the future. The one minute of her feed hadn’t reached the moment being altered.
Kurt felt himself stagger. Hannah, vigilant of his impairment, let her semi-automatic fall from her hands, onto the sling around her shoulder. Kurt felt Hannah’s arms catch his drunken stagger, supporting him.
‘We make it,’ she said, her boot coming up and kicking the door open.
The door lock and hinges snapped under the impact and it slammed to the floor like a drawbridge. The revealed room was in an identical state to the last. In the centre of the room lay the small block of explosives and the timer.
They continued to run. Kurt let Hannah’s foreknowledge of the room lead them quickly through. Hannah opened the next door normally, bundling them both through and closing it behind her. They turned the corner a moment before the bomb exploded.
Kurt’s world became one of intense noise. They were too close to the blast. Eardrums rang. The concussion, like readjusting of his future-time feed, was now overlaid by real-time disorientation. The sensation caused his body’s gag reflex, lifting his mask, Kurt’s stomach contents spilled onto the floor.
‘Come in team two. M-22 saw that blast in real-time. He hadn’t in future-time. The future has been changed. Definite enemy M-grade. Repeat. Definite enemy M-grade.’
The repeating voice slowly swam through the loud ringing. ‘Understood,’ Kurt said back, his voice distant. They were in trouble. Enemy M-grades could see their efforts and counter changes with their own actions. The stakes just got higher.
All Kurt knew was that the opposing enemy M-grade could see further than him. The enemy had seen them coming and had lain the bomb. Did the enemy know it had failed? If they could see them concussed now, there’d be a follow up.
Kurt’s feed finally realigned with the new future. Still disoriented in real-time he concentrated on future-time.
Three minutes from now.
Kurt stood. The disorientation had passed. Gun tight to his shoulder he swept the two exits. Hannah shakily got to her feet. He noticed her blood. The body glove on her thigh was torn, a small stain causing it to darken beyond its current shade of black.
‘I told you we make it,’ she said, making light of the injury.
‘Had we made it?’ Kurt asked thinking of her future-feed.
‘We have now.’ The gamble she’d made obvious. Knowing the room’s layout had allowed her to guide them quickly across it. Originally they hadn’t made it.
‘Can you continue?’ Kurt asked.
Kurt accepted her assessment. They didn’t have time to patch her up, having already lost three minutes on a fleeing target. She assumed the same pose as him and they continued.
Kurt swept back into the blast room. The floor had blown through. Peering down the hole he saw the shattered remains of the joists and boarding on the floor below. Isolated fires were attempting to burn through the remaining floor, but the damp smothered the attempts.
Two steps further in. The silence exploded in a chatter of automatic gunfire. Hannah spun into the room, a spray of blood spiralling from her shoulder. She fell through the hole in the floor. A heavy thud announced the falls end.
The earpiece remained silent. Already moving Kurt headed towards the gunfire. The doorway began to shatter under the fusillade of fire. He ducked under the fire. The semi-automatic jolting in his hand as he sprayed controlled bursts of incandescent shots into the opposite doorway. The shadow of a man collapsed, but two others continued to fire.
Kurt remembered procedure to call in the future-time. ‘Ambush. At least three gunmen. Adjacent room to bomb room. M-1 casualty.’
‘Can you complete?’ The question was laden. Control wanted him to let it happen if the result would allow the continuation of the mission. Altering the future left them vulnerable for a minute, and against an M-grade that was dangerous. Kurt couldn’t sacrifice Hannah for himself.
‘M-3, proceed with caution.’
Kurt rolled onto his knees, still disoriented from the bomb blast. His future-feed filled with static, the future changing again. An outstretched arm arrested him from toppling. He felt the sharp pain. His palm sliced open on the masonry debris. Ignoring the pain he staggered upright.
‘Against the wall,’ he said.
Groaning, Hannah propping her back to the wall and tried levering upright. Kurt’s eyes drifted to the darkened patch on her leg. ‘Flesh wound?’
‘There about,’ Hannah replied, too dazed to completely hide the injury behind a smokescreen of professionalism.
Kurt unclipped a grenade then paused for the exact moment. He threw, ducked back and exhaled. The grenade struck the far wall. Bounced once. A mumble of startled voices followed. Then the explosion ripped through the ambushers.
The building shook under the force of the grenade. The dust of the ceiling unearthed again, doused Kurt in white powder. A cloud of dust billowed into the room. A deadened silence descended.
‘Count from initial contact?’ Kurt asked control. The enemy’s feed would take longer to recover, due to its increased length. And they had successfully tied them up in two dangers. Did the enemy have it back?
‘Six minutes, thirty eight seconds,’ control answered.
‘Hannah, an M-4 will have his feed back any second. If he’s more this will be our chance to move.’
‘He has to be low grade, to react so cleanly,’ she pointed out.
The image of their M-22, Franklin, came to mind. To stretch a mind that far affected the links in cognitive thinking. Franklin struggled to differentiate between future-time and real-time. He twitched uncontrollably, had conversations out loud that would never occur. Control had a minder with him at all times, to interpret the seemingly mindless ramblings. It was less than precise.
‘Unless they knew before we got here… and this is one large mouse trap.’
‘Franklin would have seen?’ Hannah questioned.
‘Wait, Franklin did see,’ Kurt told her, realisation spreading through him. He thumbed the link to control. ‘Control, How long before the bomb did Franklin begin twitching?’
‘Five minutes fifty six.’
Six minutes ahead, they were facing an M-6. ‘Get out of there you’re blind,’ Kurt told control. Without Franklin’s feed, control had only the M-1 driver to warn them. An M-1 couldn’t stop a long-range missile strike.
Kurt put the danger control was in out of his mind and focused on their task. An M-6’s feed would still be off for several more minutes. ‘We need to move fast, get to the enemy M-Grade before his feed returns.’
They moved quickly across the room. Kurt, suffering the static of his future-time feed, tried to keep steady. Their guns trained on the bodies at the end. There were four altogether, none of them moving. Had one of these been the M-Grade?
The doorway led to a corridor, which turned right. Naked bulbs cast a stark light against the bare white plasterboard, highlighting the torn outer-layer and the broken lumps of powder beneath. The grenade had darkened the lower third, stripped the brick bare. They swept to the edge of the corner. Hannah’s voice stopped him.
‘Wait! Two enemies watching in ambush, M-3 is a casualty.’ That’s it; they had no future-time between them. This rarely happened. Kurt felt the isolation of not knowing his future. The sensation of fear ran along his spine.
Kurt unclipped his final grenade, primed it, and threw with all his strength down the corridor. They had no way of knowing if this would work, and no time to wait for either feed to return. The dull explosion of the detonation shook the building.
Kurt rushed around the corner gun raised. A cloud of smoke and powdered plasterboard, like a fog bank, rushed out to embrace him. Hannah was behind him aiming over his shoulder into the whitewashed murk.
Dull groans bounced through the dust cloud. The grenade hadn’t been clean. The tension made Kurt’s hands sweaty. His heart beat louder, like a drum against his ear. A moment of terror made him want to hesitate, to turn back. A single deep breath and his training kept him going.
Kurt walked eye to gun-sight. The weapon turned with his own head, a part of him.
The dust cleared.
Kurt snapped around. Gun trained on a man less than a foot away. Still, the man’s chest didn’t rise. The brunt of the blast had torn him to shreds.
‘Contact,’ Hannah whispered. The soft spits of her silenced semi-automatic whistled in the air. The aim, low and up the corridor struck the crawling remains of a man. Two clean hits in his centre mass. One last clawing arm moved and then he fell still.
Kurt’s future-time feed sparked into life.
Three minutes from now.
The semi-automatic thudded against his shoulder. Kurt’s eye viewed down the gun’s length tracking the contact before him. The man, the last of the contacts took a round in the shoulder. He spun from the door. Hannah fired three times into his chest the rounds causing geysers of blood.
‘Clear,’ they both chimed.
They stood in a large, tall ceilinged room. The long walls were segmented by two and half metre high partitions. Every partition had become riddled with bullet fractures. The occasional window between them had been shattered. The fragments of glass scattered across the concrete floor.
Kurt was in pain.
Touching his upper arm he found a bullet tear. The wound bled profusely, but didn’t impair movement. Hannah looked at him, expression hidden by her mask. ‘Flesh wound,’ he said quickly.
Kurt didn’t bind the wound, time close to running out. They kept moving. How much longer did they have? The enemy M-grade’s feed would return in a minute.
They crossed the room in a matter of seconds. The pretences of military training had gone out the window. Caution as likely to get them killed as running across the room.
The door at the end led to another room. Kurt ran through, no cold entry, no words spoken. The room an identical size to the last, but without partitions. He continued to run. Hannah, on his heels, fell behind due to the wound in her thigh.
Another door, Kurt reached for the handle. He stopped. There were voices on the other side. ‘Cold and quiet entry,’ Kurt said. Kurt turned the handle and opened it a crack into the next room. He squeezed through.
Quickly he brought the gun to his shoulder. Four men crouched over a desk. The glare of the computer screen cast them all in a blue artificial glare.
The two men in the centre wore suits, while those on the outside were in workmen’s jumpsuits. The two central men were talking animatedly.
‘You want to change the price? The products here in front of you,’ the first man said, his accent heavy but its origin undistinguishable.
‘I didn’t know you had the agency on you, it’s hotter than I’d like,’ the second man said, undoubtedly English.
‘If we don’t finish soon, it’ll be too hot for us both.’
Kurt’s earpiece interrupted his concentration on the conversation. ‘Unit two, this is control. Enemy M-grade regains sight in 3, 2, 1.’
As if on cue the workman on the left stood bolt upright. Kurt saw the workman glance over his shoulder. The workman grabbed the suited man beside him. Kurt’s gun tracked up to his shoulder. A twist of the workman’s hand and the suited man started to fall in Kurt’s path. Kurt pressed the trigger. The spray of bullets slammed into the falling man’s stomach and chest.
The sudden action prompted the other men. The other suited man pulled a pistol from a shoulder holster. The workman dragged an assault rifle, unseen, off the table. Kurt readjusted his aim to the immediate threats, cursing that the M-grade was getting away. Two short bursts silenced the would-be attackers. They slumped to the floor just as Hannah entered the room and the enemy M-grade left.
Kurt ran after him, going through the same door. He burst onto a rooftop. Momentarily hesitating, expecting an ambush. Nothing, the roof was deserted. There were three ladders around the roofs circumference. He ran to each peering down. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
They’d failed, Kurt thought.
The feed turned to static. He hesitated, missing the subtle turn of his body and the squeeze of the trigger. Time required no more. The round came from the man in front. It spiralled from the chamber of the gun to inflict the flesh wound, he’d seen in his future feed. Only he hadn’t followed future-time, he’d become distracted. It tore through his bicep. The high-calibre projectile passed clean through without rocking his body.
Kurt shot the man in reply. The three rounds made a mess of the man’s chest and neck. Turning swiftly, Kurt shot a series of rounds through the screen opposite. A man, who would have just appeared on the other side, staggered and collapsed to his knees. Kurt finished him with an economic single shot.
Hannah shot the last man. The red circles tracing up his leg, stomach, chest and the final round blew out the top of his head.
‘Part of a good conclusion?’ Hannah asked. She’d witnessed him being shot. She expected that Kurt had already seen this happen, already accepted the wound; that the injury was the cost of success.
Kurt, suffering disorientation from the static feed and a heavy flow of blood loss, ran across the room. Continuing across the next room also. He could feel his head sway. The blood soaked his arm, the effects of its loss building with each moment.
He reached the door. Holding his gun was becoming difficult, the strength draining from his arm. Hannah was still crossing the room. Was he ahead of schedule? The injury may have slowed his journey. He couldn’t be sure. He hadn’t received the call yet and that’s all that mattered.
He turned the handle quietly and slipped into the room beyond. For the first time that he could remember he’d expected it to be different. Some quirk of fate that changed what he had seen, else the M-grade having deceived them.
The four men still stood stooped over the computer.
‘You want to change the price? The products here…’ Kurt didn’t wait for the sentence to play out. Raising his weapon, he summoned some finger strength. A single round leapt in a fiery breath from the end of the barrel. The enemy M-grade’s head exploded in a shower of bone and brain matter.
The others were moving for their weapons. Kurt squeezed the trigger. His vision was blackening. The sudden feeling of fainting strangled his consciousness. He continued to fire, at least as long as he could. The shots, even from this limited distance, sprayed wide. Kurt collapsed to his knees, the three men stepping forward, vicious sneers on their faces.
Hannah burst through the door, boot first. The semi-automatic in her capable hands spat silent death. The three men riddled collapsed in heap.
‘Is it over?’ she asked Kurt.
Kurt’s eyes barely able to remain open whispered, ‘yes.’