Vorpal: Gyre and Gimble #6
In 2062, high level documents were leaked from the Pentagon outlining the commission of studies into the feasibility of forming a descendants-only military unit unofficially dubbed the Powered Corps.
Nothing came of it, but the rest of the world took it to mean that the United States was planning on stockpiling descendants as a form of superhuman military resource. This in turn revived long held rumors that descendants were the result of not only wartime experimentation, but illegal post-Cold War projects, essentially a secret arms race with living humans as the arms.
In Europe in particular, the press took to the idea with exuberance and sensationalism. The hysteria mutated beyond control into a paranoia not unlike the Red Scare, with sleeper agents lurking on the edges of uneasy minds and accusations becoming the weapon of choice to settle grudges. Eventually many nations were forced to address their populations of descendants in one way or another no matter how small that population was.
The United Kingdom created voluntary registration with benefits and set up a training facility, the Brunswick School. Germany added a requirement to divulge one’s powers on permits and criminal records. The Swiss took it one step further and folded descendant services into their medical system as well. All of them kept things quiet and recommended against public power use.
And then there was France.
Zoe had traveled the length and breadth of Europe and West Asia to hunt down her targets. There was only one left: Steven Hyde-Wright. He was in Marseille for the annual summit on manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum. In the years sense Juiz de Fora, he’d used the hard lessons learned from that tragedy to advance that field, including developing a more advanced version of the standing field technology.
In coming to Marseille, Zoe had done her due diligence about the land and the people. History, culture and bad luck collided to make it the worst place for a descendants to live n the European Union. The World War II rumors had taken firm root there and the idea that the Nazis may have left a dangerous legacy that lasted even a century into the future didn’t sit well in the first place.
To make matters worse, the past decade and a half had seen several unfortunate incidents involving genetic engineering that combined to have a total number of casualties in the five figure range and financial hardship in the billions. For many who lived through it, genetic engineering was a ticking time bomb, never mind the fact that most of the incidents were the result of deregulation or eco-terrorism. By extension, descendants were seen merely as very long term experiments that may go critical at any moment.
And unfortunately, culture also played the part. The same tradition and protectionism that protected art forms from painting and sculpture to cuisine and wine-making also fostered terrible prejudice toward anything not perceived as keeping with the French culture.
So it came to pass that a year before Zoe’s arrival, in the midst of a massive misappropriations scandal, President Michel de La Fontaine diverted attention from his own wrongdoing by proposing legislation to criminalize the public use of descendant powers after the first manifestation and the institution of a draft for anyone convicted of said crime.
It was contentious, as even in a time of fear and paranoia, it was still the same country that passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but in the end, as often happens all over the world, fear and distrust outweighed fairness and justice.
She’d splurged on her hotel room. Usually, she spent frugally; just enough to ensure she had someplace clean and quiet to sleep and mentally prepare.
But this one was special. One more night and it would be over. Her loved ones would be avenged and the horrors of Groundwire laid to rest forever. And when this last victim died, so would the persona of Vorpal. Zoe would finally get to move on to something like a normal life.
In celebration, she let herself off the normally tight leash she kept herself on financially and ordered a decadent meal, the best food France had to order, and followed the meal with an in-room massage. And thereafter, she showered, packed her suit in a small shoulder bag, and went hunting.
Because she would have to change into her suit and store her clothes, she dressed light, something she regretted upon stepping out onto the street. Long ago, winters had been mild in Marseille and snow a rare sight. But the climate had shifted, and while massive scientific efforts managed to halt it before massive coastal flooding, the ship had sailed on the change in seasons.
The early January air went through her clothes so quickly she may as well have gone naked, and even with the trained, steady hands of a professional thief, she found herself shivering and hugging herself as she walked.
Hyde-Wright’s hotel wasn’t particularly upscale or historical, but Vorpal had to admit that it had a great view; positioned to give a wide perspective on the Old Port and the two forts that still loomed over it. She had plenty of time to take notice during her long, cold climb.
The cold was making even that difficult. Her suit wasn’t made to protect against the elements any more than her street clothes, and the relentless chill was making her limbs stiff and unresponsive. Only one thing kept her going: the promise that his death would free her from her self appointed duty.
A small consolation for the cold was that the climb to Hyde-Wright’s suite was an easy one, as beyond the fifth floor, every room on his wing had a wide balcony where she could rest if she needed it, sheltered from the cold and blowing snow.
Proximity to the end of her quest made her cautious to balance out her nerves. What was normally a forty minute climb turned into an hour and change. Finally, however, she slipped over the railing and onto the balcony of her target’s suite.
Staying low and out of site of the windows and sliding glass door, she took stock.
Two patio chairs had been pulled out from the table, and the ash tray was almost full of cigarette butts; two brands. French security; cigarettes were still cheap and easy to get in France, but an America, where Hyde-Wright was born and raised, they were heavily taxed. While he was well respected, he wasn’t wealthy enough to be a chain-smoker
None of the cigarettes were warm and the smell of nicotine was faint. The guards had been gone some time. The light film of snow showed no recent footprints either. And yet the balcony door was left open.
Zoe closed her eyes a moment and focused on her metal sense. No one knew about it, and so an armed guards would still either be given away by the copper and lead cocktail of a conventional firearm, or the compact circuitry of an advanced weapon. Neither were present.
Now she was getting suspicious. Was she even at the right room? Had Hyde-Wright left? Or was this some kind of trap laid for her?
But she couldn’t take the chance that he might go to ground after the summit. Her movements were liquid as she stole across the balcony and peered into the room.
Warm air blasted past her; the heat was on full blast to counter the open door. Inside, the only light was a stand lamp in the corner that did a fine job illuminating the whole of the main room. And sitting in the arm chair, partially turned away from her, was Steven Hyde-Wright, reading from a tablet.
Zoe took one last look around the door, looking for alarm triggers or cameras. There were none. As quietly as she could, she slipped in.
Six steps in and she saw her mistake before he informed her of it. Wright wasn’t actually reading, he was watching the large mirror that covered both doors of the room’s coat closet. And his seat had been turned so he could see the balcony door in it.
“I knew it would be tonight.” He said, voice resigned and weary. “I tried for a long time. Really tried to disappear, become unassuming. But I couldn’t. I have unique research perspectives and eventually, I realized I had a responsibility to share it with my peers.”
“Shut up.” Vorpal hissed. Not Zoe. Not now.
“I’m about to die. I may not deserve them, but I’m entitled to last words.” Hyde-Wright stared straight ahead, into the mirror. “I’d like to know why though. This is about Groundwire, right? What we did to Juiz de Flora?”
“That’s exactly why.” She crept forward.
He nodded slowly. “I guessed as much. That’s why I dismissed my guards. Told them I was having a lady friend up—I didn’t know that you were a woman though.”
Vorpal paused in misstep. “Wait a minute. You expected I would come and still sent your guards off?”
Outside, the wind kicked up and the snow started to come down harder. Neither noticed.
“I thought about killing myself that night.” he admitted. “The only thing that stopped me was seeing the effect Claybourne’s suicide had on everyone. It would have just been hurting more people.” He licked his dry lips. “I wish you hadn’t killed all the others though. I’m the one you want. This was all my fault.”
Vorpal stared at him coldly through her mask. She wanted to kill him right there, but as always, she wanted to know why more. “Explain.”
“I…” He pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger before heaving a pained sigh. “I knew about the standing field generators. I helped DARPA steal and replicate the technology. But that was an assignment that officially never happened, so I never revealed their existence to the rest of the project team. That’s why we never tested for an interaction, and that’s why what was supposed to be a controllable power outage turned into…”
“Hell on Earth.” Vorpal said, her own throat going dry.
Hyde-Wright lowered his head. “I can only imagine how many people you cared about died or how horribly. How many children I made orphans and how many parents were forced to bury their children. Sometimes, I’m shocked that you’re the only one to hunt us down. It’s nothing less than I deserve to…”
Pausing to catch his breath, he met her eyes through the reflection in the mirror. “I won’t fight. I won’t beg or make excuses. I know that you killed the others and I can’t imagine what that feels like—if the revenge makes it easier to deal with—but I’ve killed millions and there’s no way I can make amends for that or to make myself feel better.
“Every day, instead of people, I see someone who lost a friend because of me, or someone who will suffer one day because I killed the person who would have been their true love, or the doctor who could save their life. I’ve left a scar on the world and on history that will never heal and I’ve had t live with it for half a decade. No matter what good I try and do now, it can’t measure up.”
He bent his neck, presenting it. “I hope that this gives you closure at least.”
Nothing happened. He looked up to find her standing right beside him, looking down at him with an unreadable expression in those eyes.
At length, she spoke. “Feeling sorry after the fact won’t save you. Whatever good you’ve done since doesn’t erase that point in time. I don’t care if you cured every disease one Earth, solved world hunger and decoded the meaning of life. You could do all that and you would still be the man—the reason I watched my parents die. The reason all of my friends burned to death as their homes melted. As far as I’m concerned, you are the source of all evil in this world.”
Hyde-Wright lowered his head. “I won’t disagree. Sometimes I felt the same way about myself.” He glanced to where he’s set his tablet down. “But then I read things like what I saw this morning. Do you know what a psionic is?”
She forced herself to be still instead of shifting uncomfortably. “Everyone does.”
“They say they do. Then they forget that they’re people. Here, they can’t even use their powers without permission. Last night, there was this boy. Seventeen. Firestarter. Homeless. Someone in Lyon saw him start a fire to keep warm. They called the police. There’s still disagreement over what happened exactly, but he was shot and he’s in critical condition now. He’ll never walk again without assistance they say.”
“What does any of this have to do with what you did?” Vorpal snarled.
“Because I know why you’ve killed the whole Groundwire team. It’s not just revenge, is it? You said it yourself: you think we’re the source of all that’s evil in this world. But we’re not. You can’t just kill evil. It’s something we do as humans, just like good. My death… if you killed me yesterday, it wouldn’t have saved that boy. It won’t save the next either. Killing a thousand people won’t fix it, because it’s human nature: we get scared, or greedy or covetous and it stops being about morality or even common sense sometimes. And killings only make it worse.”
He swallowed. “I… I just thought you should know that. I deserve to die for what I did and you deserve to be the one that kills me. But please: let this be the end of it. Go home, job done, and don’t take this further. Let it die with me. It’s my only request.”
Vorpal stared down at him silently. In her head, she screamed fury and imagined separating him from his head like all the others. Before her was the man that was the source of all her pain and loss, the reason she wasn’t in college right at the moment with friends, family, maybe even love. Instead she’d spent her entire adult life trekking around the world and soaking herself in so much blood that she thought she could smell it at all times.
And unlike the others, he was putting his neck right on the slab for her.
This was one that in the dark of night, she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about.
But then why was she hesitating?
She threw off her stupor and flexed her right hand. The finely linked chain mail across the palm writhed to life, extruding into extremely thin wire.
Madness bubbled in her mind and with her thoughts elsewhere, came out of her mouth. “Snicker-snack.”
Before she could move, there was pounding on the door. “Monsieur Hyde-Wright!” came a voice that spoke English with a heavy French accent. “Monsieur Hyde-Wright, let us in immediately! Your balcony door is open. You may already be in danger!”
Vorpal looked up in time to see the door being kicked in. There were three of them, all in street cloths to better blend in. They were also extremely professional: two stood to either side of the door, outside of the line of fire while their partner kicked the door in. He then dropped down and sidestepped into the room, drawing his weapon in the same motion.
Nothing about her suit was capable of suggesting anything but ‘assassin’. It was outlier and somewhat garish, but it was still essentially the stereotypical ninja uniform. The guard didn’t even offer a warning before pulling the trigger. Two to the center mass. The bulletproof layering held and she dove to the side to avoid the next two.
The other two guards came in at that point, and Vorpal knew it was now or never. Still in a shoulder roll, she found Hyde-Wright once again, and tried to find an angle to get a wire around his neck. Only the first guard was already to him, and despite the man’s protests, was shielding the scientists’ body with his own.
“Il porte une armure pare-balles. » Said one of the two late comers. “Changer vos munitions. Utilisez les Salamandres.”
The other nodded, and with cover from his partner, he switched magazines in his pistol.
Vorpal didn’t know French, but she did know that ‘Salamandres’ meant Salamander rounds, a highly illegal, armor piercing rounds designed to use friction to heat up in air and melt their way through contemporary armor. They were incredibly painful and incredibly damaging.
Unfinished business or not, it was time for her to go. Completing her roll got her on her feet, but by then the guard packing the Salamander rounds was already drawing a bead on her. She flicked her wrist, sending the wires to wrap the barrel and pulled. It was sheared into three parts, much to the guard’s shock.
His partner kept his cool and opened fire with his conventional rounds. They felt like being punched in the side and arm by tiny fists, but didn’t hinder her as she bolted for the balcony door.
That was her second mistake. She’d forgotten the first guard on the scene. And he’d had time to load Salamanders.
The first shot missed, shattering a vase. The second went under her arm pit, grazing the material there close enough that it started to melt and fuse to her skin. It continued on to hit the wall. The third hit. It felt like a hornet sting accompanied by a pinching sensation so intense that Vorpal blacked out a moment in mid-stride.
She came too just in time to realize that she was too close to the door to stop in time.
And so she stumbled through it, the breaking glass tearing through the weaker seams in her costume and biting into her flesh. Still none of it came close to the searing bullet in her side. Momentum took her to the railing and almost sent her over.
The glass had opened a gash over her left eye, which was now pouring blood into it, and a dozen smaller lacerations complained in the sudden cold to the beat of the burning throb in her side.
Behind her, the guards shouted things she couldn’t understand in French.
There was no choice.
To Be Continued…
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