Chapter Eight – Nightmares

2018, 30 miles north of Seattle, Washington Manticore Facility

A young man with sad, hazel eyes dulled and hollow from pain, lay back on his bunk staring at the ceiling of his cell. His perfectly sculpted body was lean from lack of food and his full lips, a high contrast to the rest of his appearance, were twisted in concentration. His hair and face were damp from perspiration and tears.

The mission had gone according to plan but somehow, by caring, he’d managed to fuck it up. He’d been back for months, or at least he thought it was that long. Time stood still in Psy-Ops, it skipped, stopped and rewound in reindoctrination. But in isolation, left alone to your own thoughts for days on end, time blurred until it meant nothing, nothing at all.

He thought about the mission. It had been a simple assassination. Go in, acquaint himself with the target, get close to said target’s daughter, prepare the charges, take out the target and return to base. He’d done it scores of times before without a hitch. But this time, something hadn’t gone to plan and he was being punished. And it wasn’t Manticore’s style to let him know why they were punishing him.

And so he waited. And waited. Minutes, hours, days. Every day he would sit and stare at the same 4 walls and every night he would wake from hellish nightmares, drenched in sweat.

It was after one extremely vivid and painful nightmare that it all came back to him. Every word, every action, every feeling. All the emotions he had discovered as he had spent time on the outside, enjoying himself and making friends, a practically foreign concept to Manticore soldiers.

It had all started when…

“494, the Director wants to see you. Now.” The guard barked sharply through the door.

494 rose to his feet and approached the door. As the key turned in the lock, he straightened. Greeting the guard with a cold, blank, Manticore stare, the soldier exited his room and made for the Director’s office. He wondered what mission he was being assigned. Recon or espionage (his favorites) or the thing he was best at: assassination.

Arriving at his destination, he took a deep breath and knocked on the door.

“Enter” came the reply from within.

494 stepped into the office of Colonel Donald Lydecker and stood at attention. His eyes focused on an obscure point over the Director’s shoulder.

“State your designation, soldier.”

“X5-494 reporting as ordered, Sir!”

“At ease, soldier.” 494 relaxed his stance just barely as he spread his legs and linked his hands behind his back.

“494, it has come to our attention that a certain individual has been sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. The target, Robert Berrisford, has discovered information regarding Project Manticore that if leaked to the wrong party could be devastating. The future of each of you remarkable soldiers could be in danger if the threat isn’t neutralized. We need our best for this mission and the Committee has specifically requested you for the job.”

494 felt inordinately pleased with this. It was a compliment of the highest form to be requested by the Committee for a mission. He knew he was the best they had but it was sweet to hear it from the lion’s mouth. Manticore wasn’t big on compliments.

“I’d like you to familiarize yourself with this file. It has all the information you need. Agent Sandoval will be the acting senior officer in charge. You will report to him daily and keep him informed of your progress. You leave at 0800. See to it that you stop by Agent Sandoval’s office on your way back to the barracks. Dismissed.”

“Yes Sir!” 494 saluted smartly and left the room.

Making his way down the darkened corridors of Manticore’s command headquarters, 494 leafed through the thick file. Scanning the information, he noted his superiors’ intentions. 494 was to develop an intimate relationship with the target’s daughter, Rachel.

No reason he shouldn’t be able to do that. He had a charm that women found irresistible and there was no point pretending. He knew he was good in bed. So be it. It was just another mission. A job. Screwing the  daughter would be an added bonus. She was kind of pretty, in an Ordinary way. But it wouldn’t be unpleasant.

The door opened before 494 could raise his hand to knock.

“Come in.” Agent Sandoval was a stocky man of medium height, balding and 494 couldn’t help but think he looked constantly constipated.

“X5-494 reporting for duty, Sir.”

“Excellent. All the items you need for this mission are here.” Sandoval pointed to a bag on the table. “Your documents are all in order. Your cover is Simon Lehane. You are a music student recently transferred from Los Angeles. Your services have been offered to Berrisford’s daughter, who is struggling with the piano and she has accepted. Your first contact with the target will be tomorrow at 17:00, in their home. We’ve deviated a bit from the original mission parameters due to unforeseen circumstances.”

Sandoval sat down behind his desk and set about rearranging some objects and papers. He glanced up at the soldier before him, unsure of why he was still there.

“Permission to speak, Sir?”

Sandoval nodded curtly. “Granted.”

“What unforeseen circumstances, Sir?” 494 figured he’d be reprimanded for enquiring about the changes, but he was mistaken.

“Berrisford has increased his research into our project. The security breach has been raised to Level 4, Code 6. The target is to be taken out as quickly as possible. Establish your cover, 494, quickly and securely. This mission is of the utmost importance. We cannot afford to fail. YOU cannot afford to fail. Is that clear?”

“Sir, yes, Sir!” 494 replied confidently. Fail a mission? Not likely. He was everything Manticore had envisioned when creating the ultimate assassin. A smooth, savvy, charming, beguiling, handsome young man with a cold, calculated, ruthless approach to his job. No target had ever gotten away from 494 before and there was no reason this one should pose a problem.

“Very good. Dismissed.”

494 picked up the bag, pocketed the documents and left the room.

The tired soldier tried to repress the images but the bright, white walls of his cell were like a movie screen. Everywhere he looked he could see them. Eyes closed, eyes open. It didn’t matter. Everything they had stolen from him, every memory, every emotion, all of it came back to him despite having spent the past 4 months under observation. This time, none of the usual tricks had worked on him.

The Psy-Ops staff had done everything in their power to make their top soldier forget he had ever experienced the emotion called love.

Simon Lehane taught Rachel Berrisford piano. Over the weeks the two of them became close friends, but not as close as he was meant to be. He had begun developing feelings he had never felt before. He couldn’t explain the way his heart sang when he spent time with Rachel, or why whenever he saw her it made him smile. He felt protective of her, like he did for his unit, for 664, 511 and 714. He couldn’t explain it to his superiors, but he couldn’t bring himself to seduce her. She was his friend and he wouldn’t hurt her by using her, Manticore or no Manticore. But surprisingly enough, they ignored this infraction as Simon excelled in every other area.

Simon had been working closely with Rachel for the past few weeks. She told him one day that she loved him. He understood what she meant but he couldn’t say the same. Simon, 494, had never known love before. But from what he’d heard and how he understood it, he didn’t feel the same. He liked Rachel, a lot. Simon felt terrible as he told her how he felt. But she’d smiled that beautiful smile and told him she didn’t expect him to. But she had wanted him to know. 

And the knowledge that he was loved…made his heart feel light. And then heavy as the pain of guilt swept over him. He hadn’t really thought about whether killing was right or wrong. He’d always been told it was the right thing. That it was in defense of his country, that it was honorable. That it was for the greater good. And that collateral damage was all part of the package. Now he knew better. But then? 494’s mind wandered again, eyes now open and staring blankly ahead.

The Berrisfords seemed to be very family oriented. They had a steady stream of relatives and friends traipsing in and out of their home on a regular basis. One such visitor was Rachel’s cousin Grace. She stayed with the Berrisfords after school each day. She was always a part of their music lessons. And she loved to sing.

Grace was a lovely child of around 5 years of age, with soft black curls and almond shaped brown eyes that gleamed with mischief. She loved to sit on Simon’s knee and listen to him play the piano, singing along and clapping. She was a very happy child and Simon would often play games with her. She seemed to puff up with pride whenever he asked her to explain the rules…games weren’t something Simon was familiar with. Seeing the two together always made the family smile. Simon had been accepted almost like one of the family. And he had come to adore Grace.

494 fell back on the bed and closed his eyes again. Within moments he had fallen back into a fitful sleep. The nightmare crept back into his dreams. He shuddered in his sleep.

About 11 weeks into his mission, the soldier had received a phone call. The thought of going through with the job had bothered him, but it hadn’t shaken him from actually doing it. He had known what he had to do and he followed orders. But it was the memory of the result of his actions that now caused him to question everything he’d ever been taught. He thought back to the phone call that day.

“Simon Lehane” he answered casually.

“494?” Agent Sandoval wasn’t one for pleasantries.

“Yes Sir.”

“Prepare and set the charges. You take out your target today.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Oh, and 494?”

“Sir?”

“Do it when everyone is in the house. We’re not taking any chances with potential witnesses.” Sandoval had been told to pass on the order to terminate all members of Berrisford’s family. Too many of them were found to be involved. It wouldn’t do to leave Manticore vulnerable to any other possible exposure.

494 didn’t understand why anyone other than the target needed to be neutralized. The idea of killing one man didn’t phase him, while the utterly pointless killing of an entire family gave him reason to pause. Surely the family couldn’t be considered collateral damage?

“Sir? Surely the family doesn’t need to – ” 

“It’s not your place to question orders, soldier! Will there be a problem carrying out your mission? If you’re not up to the job then we have no use for you, you know.”

“Sir, no, Sir! It won’t be a problem, Sir!”

“See that it isn’t. Report back to me as soon as you’ve successfully completed your mission.”

494 hung up the phone and a feeling of dread settled in his stomach. Something about what he had to do troubled him. But he swallowed the unwelcome and unfamiliar feelings and went about preparing for the final stages of his plan.

Later that afternoon, 494 crept through the halls of the Berrisford mansion, strategically placing explosives throughout the house. He focused on the task at hand and ignored the little voice in his head. The one that was asking him “How can it be right to kill people because they might one day become a threat? They aren’t now, so that makes them innocent, doesn’t it?” The voice nagged and he batted it away.

Finally, 494 shed his soldier persona and Simon entered the conservatory for his last lesson. Rachel was already hard at work, practicing a piece he had chosen for an upcoming concert. The voice came back. “She would have been wonderful.” He shook his head slightly to clear the thought away. Rachel looked up at him and asked,

“Simon, are you feeling ok? You don’t look so good.” Her voice was laden with concern and he felt himself flush with guilt. She didn’t deserve this.

“Just what a guy wants to hear. It’s a blow to my ego!” he quipped congenially, forcing a grin.

“Like your ego can’t take a hit! Sometimes I’m surprised your head fits through the doorway!” Rachel teased back at him. Simon thought about how easy it was to talk to her, joke with her, have fun. He was beginning to see what life on the outside of Manticore could be like. And he liked it.

“Rachel, I have to go. I’m really not feeling that great. I’ll see you tomorrow?” he cringed inwardly just thinking how this would be the last time he would ever see her. And he couldn’t even say goodbye. He picked up his briefcase and laid his coat over his arm.

“Simon?”

He turned to look at her. “Yes?”

“I just wanted to thank you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’d never be where I am without you.” Rachel threw her arms around him and kissed him quickly. Simon stood glued to the spot, shocked by her actions. But slowly, he wrapped his arms around her and hesitantly placed a kiss on her forehead. Rachel’s sincerity and sweet smile almost did him in. He had to focus on his job and not let her trusting face, bright eyes or soft words get in the way. He would not be sent to Psy-Ops for that; innocent or not, failing the mission because of her was not an option.

494 walked out of the house and stepped behind the dense foliage that surrounded the mansion. He pulled out the detonator and waited.

A car pulled up the driveway and stopped at the foot of the stairs leading up to the main entrance. The driver exited the car and went around the side to open the passenger doors. Grace bounced out of the vehicle, singing loudly. The song was a nursery rhyme and it made 494’s heart constrict. The job he was about to do felt wrong.

Christine and Charles Berrisford followed after their daughter. After the trio entered the house, 494 rested his finger over the button. He was about to press it when the little girl flew out the door and shrieked with laughter. Her father Charles followed close behind, arms outstretched and laughing loudly.

Startled by the unexpected cries of the child, 494 dropped the detonator. The charges went off in a flurry, the entire house exploding in a flash of fire and brick. The little girl was thrown by the force of the blast and landed near his feet.

494 bent to scoop up the still form. Grace looked up at him with blank eyes and he held her close, whispering all the while. “Everything’s gonna be ok, Gracie. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” The little girl lay limp in his arms, no breath in her chest.

Suddenly, 494 was overcome with emotion. The feeling Ordinaries called love. He felt it for this little girl. The onslaught of pain at having failed to protect her from harm drove him. Without a second thought, he ran out the gate and down the street, heading straight to his apartment. He’d just killed a child. He’d done it before, but never had he felt so dirty.

The rest of the memory assaulted him like an almost physical pain. What had happened next had shaken the foundations of everything he’d ever thought true. And his glass house cracked and crumbled.

“Well done, 494.” Agent Sandoval was standing in the middle of his living room behind a makeshift computer setup. The monitors showed the Berrisford residence in flames, bodies that had been thrown from the house were strewn about the lawn. Whoever hadn’t made it out had been incinerated by the heat of the blast.

“This mission was highly successful. The committee is extremely pleased.” Sandoval turned to his assistant and lowered his voice. “Savage little monster. He probably got off killing those people.”

494 breathed a whisper,I’m not a monster!” The silence at his outburst gave him courage to keep going. “Are you forgetting that humans created me? I’m just a soldier, following orders.” He was shaking with rage. “I’m just doing your dirty work!” 494’s hands flew to his mouth in panic as he realized his mistake. Talking out of line would get him punishment but back talking his senior officer would mean Psy-Ops for sure.

Sandoval eyed 494 with contempt. Turning to the soldiers at his side, his words cut straight through 494 like a knife.

882, 684, 529; show 494 how real soldiers do their duty. Teach him a lesson, but leave him breathing. Then throw him in the van and make sure he’s still alive when he gets to Psy-Ops.”

The 3 X5s attacked at once, hitting, kicking, punching him from all sides. By the end of the ‘lesson’ 494 let out a piercing cry of pain. His arms slackened and his body went limp. His last conscious thought was of

Graaaaaaaaaaaaacie!

X5-494 shot up in bed, covered in cold sweat and shaking uncontrollably. Images of Rachel  and Grace filled his dreams nightly, torturing him with their sweet smiles and innocence.

He was a killer. An assassin. The best at what he did. But he hated it. He hated himself. Hated what he was forced to do. Hated the hopelessness of his existence. Was there anything else out there? He’d tasted life beyond Manticore’s walls. He wanted more. Was he really contemplating…

…escape?

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