[The twenty-ninth instalment]
[London. MI6. November.]
Video from the Humanity First strike in Naples rolled on the large screen, as the analyst section scribbled notes. Key sections were framed and elements highlighted from the incident which took place the week before.
"Now, until this moment, in minute 44," said the presenter, "the attack appeared to be going as we think they'd planned. They were moving through the arcade, here, in a sweep formation, when their progress forward suddenly fell out of good order. You can see the confusion, particularly these two figures, reacting to... something. We don't know what. Local police rapidly found themselves doing cleanup duty."
"A good thing, too, with the payload they were carrying," said the head of the table. "This sort of sudden breakdown - is it just me, or is it becoming a pattern?"
"The best kind of pattern to my mind, ma'am," said the woman in front of the large display.
"Yes, but only if we know why. Do we?"
"Generally? No. In this case, we think they lost comms, and fell out of sync. But we've no idea why that would've happened. And they certainly won't be telling us."
At the far end of the table, the less annoying American analyst flipped through photograph after photograph. She'd seen something, in a still photo. What was it, she thought, what was it, something faint...
More photos and video, now from minute 44, as the room discussed comms failures, a discussion she largely ignored. It's in here, somewhere, I saw it... there. What am I seeing here? She wasn't even sure herself.
"Excuse me, but... could we have item 59 from minute 43 on the large screen?" she asked, breaking into the room's conversation.
The collection of specialists present looked over, "Sorry, Agent...?" The presenter fished for the American's name, but she couldn't bring it up. "Um... certainly. Minute 43, item 59... here..." she put it on the large screen. "It's... the side of a building."
"How far in can we zoom on that second window from the left?"
The image enlarged to show the entire window frame.
"Lower half, please? Contrast enhance, gamut expansion?"
The presenter flicked controls. "Now... oh! Now I see... what the hell? Is that... someone's... back and head?"
"Someone aiming a rifle, looks like," said the tactics desk. "Someone not in our accounting."
"Is that colour correct?" asked her second. "Verify against reference." The tint shifted, brickwork used as a standard, and the Talon desk erupted in shouts as the presenter continued, oblivious to the noise, "That's... is that hair? Is it blue?"
"That, that, that that can't be her," the Talon desk second broke in, as the lead followed with, "We need that photograph and every picture of that window, and we need it right now. Do we have the other side of the building?"
"Someone verify the colour of the glass in that pane. Get someone out there to look at it, in person, we need a hard reference."
"Who is she shooting? Can we get any kind of interpolation on that?"
Systems brought up a three-dimensional rendering of the scene at that moment, and added a series of possible locations for the new actor, and possible targets, based on the one image obtained.
A small square device with a collection of protrusions hung off a nearby rooftop, at minute 41, visible, and intact, and at minute 46, visible, and destroyed.
"That," said electronics, "would be a tactical comms relay. Probably one of two. We should look for a second."
"What bet it's also smashed?" asked the tactics desk, excitedly.
As the room as a whole proceeded to tear through every photo and video segment with renewed intensity, the two reps from the Talon desk just stared at each other. "My god," said the lead. "What else did we miss? What the hell have we found? "
[Naples, a week earlier]
Kate checked her position and counted heads. Everyone who's supposed to be here, is here, in place. This'll show those fucking species-traitors. "Ready one!" she shouted, as as her team ducked behind columns and walls, and she pressed the outer ring detonator. Her team braced, ready for the impact of the explosions.
She pressed it again. Nothing continued to happen. No. No. Goddammit, Len screwed up the detonators.
"Ozzy, round one bad! Fire round two!"
"Len and Charla aren't out yet!"
"DO IT OR THIS WHOLE THING FAILS. DO IT, NOW!"
"Give them five more seconds!"
Kate would've shot Ozzy, and frankly wanted to, but he was too far away to make up the lost time. "DO IT OR I WILL SHOOT YOU MYSELF," she shouted anyway, aiming her pistol.
Ozzy was on comms, trying to raise Charla. "Shut up, I'm trying to ... god dammit! Now comms are out?!"
"NOW! THEY'RE MOVING ON US! DAMM YOU TO HELL, NOW!"
Ozzy swore, and thought, sorry, guys, and pressed the second ring detonator.
Nothing happened, a third time.
"DO IT!" shouted the team leader, enraged.
Ozzy pressed the trigger again, and again, useless. "I AM! IT ISN'T WORKING!"
Kate shrieked. It's those damned Aussies, they sold us shit goods, she thought. Shouting again, "Ozzy, try to keep the team moving forward, get the fourth ring set up. I'm going back to the second, try to reset the charges. Blow them in two minutes whether I'm here or not!"
"God speed!" shouted Ozzy.
Kate retreated around the corner back out of the arcade. Three steps out of sight of the rest of her team, there was a flash of light, a single round of automatic fire, a second flash, and she was gone.
They found some blood, a bit of flesh - more than enough DNA to identify the team leader - but they never found her body.
[Alicudi, six months earlier]
"Woah, what a mess," Lena said, looking at the latest eruption of violence - this time, in Korea.
"I know," Amélie said sadly, "Even acting as quickly as we can, everywhere we can, we can only do so much."
"You know we could step in more often," said the junior assassin.
"Certainly, in retrospect," agreed the senior assassin. "It's not so simple, in the moment."
"C'mon, love, maybe for most people," Venom countered. "Not for us."
"But that's not the difficult part," insisted the Widowmaker. "Getting there, creating a plan, executing it in real time - that is not so easy."
"Sure. We can't always act. But when we can, I want to try."
Amélie smiled. "You want to become a sort of... International Rescue, but of assassins?"
Lena laughed at the thought, and said, "Aye aye!" enthusiastically.
"But it will not change history," said the assassin, reluctantly, "at least, not often, if ever. Not as we've always measured it."
"It'll save lives," said her apprentice. "Isn't that enough?"
"Lives that do not change history," insisted the spider.
"Lives nonetheless," said her lover. "Besides, fewer deaths mean fewer relatives vowing revenge and voting for demagogues. It's got to help."
"At the margins, perhaps," the spider calculated. "It is a risk. Each time, a possibly fatal risk. Stepping in improvisationally to complex situations with live fire is not a step to be taken lightly."
"I'm good at risk," retorted the test pilot. "Won't be a problem if we're careful."
After a year and a half together, Amélie Lacroix had learned when Lena Oxton's mind was made up, and turned to face the inevitable. "You're going to do this whether I help or not, aren't you?"
The inevitable replied, "I'd much rather not have to decide 'bout that, love."
"I have two counter-conditions," said the woman of blue.
The pilot smiled. She'd won, and knew it. "Name 'em."
"First, our primary mission is always paramount. Nothing may affect or endanger that."
Well, that's easy, Oxton thought. "Goes without saying," she said. "Didn't even consider it on the table..."
"Second," the spider had started, when Lena interrupted. "No, no, love, wait. I need to make that clear: I will not risk this project. I just won't. I might argue..."
"...might and have done..." noted Amélie.
"...yeh, and likely will again. But once it's sorted? Never. I swear."
Amélie smiled, relieved in spite of herself, and reached out to touch her her partner's face, gently. "I did not think you would, but I do not leave such things unstated. Particularly not with you."
"Fair enough," Lena answered, warmly, nuzzling Widowmaker's hand, and taking it into her own. How did I get so lucky as to fall into you? she asked herself, as she did every time they fought. "Hoo. What else?"
"Second, we move only if I think it is safe and practical. I will not endanger our organisation, or myself, or you." In this, she was an anchored stone, an unmovable object.
Venom laughed again, playing the river, splashing around the rock. "I'm never in danger, love."
Widowmaker gave her a most sharply pointed look. "We are always in danger, ma chérie - do not forget that."
"Sorry, sweet," she said in reply. "Not the time to be flippant." A small surrender, wrapped in affection. "I don't forget."
"Then that is all," said the Widowmaker, lightly, relaxing. "It is acceptable?"
"More than that," said Venom. "It's a deal."