I ease my way along the grotty, damp corridor towards the rickety wooden door of Blue's apartment. It took ten long, brutal days of scouring drone images of the lanes and alleys to find her building, Akron's photographic memory of my memories giving us the only lead we had.
Even though I don't remember doing it, I had looked out Blue's window. Opposite her apartment, a particular gargoyle perched on the ruins of a nearby chapel. Ten long, soul-crushing days spent searching for a gargoyle. Akron was stubborn, though, and found it in the dead of the night—terminating an exhausting search through the endless wreckage of a dying city. And now here I am, in her deserted building, dressed in full combat gear, passing the once-familiar scrawls of faded graffiti plastered over the breeze block wall: 'Fuck the GC'; 'God help us'; 'Let it end'.
The images awaken memories of before, when I was myself—when I walked with her to her apartment, burning with anticipation, my heart aching with love. Even after everything I have learned about her, it still does. More than ever. Blue. Now I can only love her in silence. The one she loved is dead. Who I have become is no one to her. I can never tell her the truth—tell her I am still alive, like this. It would break her heart to see what I have become. No longer a man, but something other—a machine made for killing.
High above, my ride: a cloaked drone shuttle keeps an eye on what's left of the partially submerged city. The size of a small tank, it's a technological wonder loaned to me from Alpha VII's Elite Command. It waits for me after my rooftop drop, patient, a multi-million dollar sentinel, simultaneously communicating with me, Akron, and the team back at Alpha VII, who are watching my every move via the camera embedded in my helmet. I suspect de Pommier is patched in, too.
A quiet beep inside my helmet lets me know the cloaked shuttle has visuals for me. I tap the panel on the side of my helmet and the inside of my visor scrolls with images of what is left of the lanes of London's Soho.
Movement draws my eye to the topmost screen. Within its tiny frame, the rusted metal door leading to The Jackpot flaps open, wobbles and falls closed again. It slams open once more, so hard it ricochets against the brick wall. A burly, tattooed arm slips out from the building and holds the door open. I wait, tense. Fourteen false alarms so far. With each one my hopes kindle. Maybe Blue doesn't work there anymore. Maybe I was the only one she ever slept with.
Akron made me to prepare for the worst, forcing me to imagine Blue with a GC soldier, of her flirting with him like she did with me. The image of her mounted by another man slides into my mind, insidious. Anger flares, hot, violent, hungry for an outlet. I fight the rush of primal heat, thinking instead of her in her apartment, curled up on her bed with Miro, smiling, feeding her. The image fades, soured by de Pommier's briefing, of the unequivocal truth: Blue belongs to the UFF. I'm crazy to hope she won't be back at The Jackpot, working the soldiers.
Like a fool, I glance at the thermal readout of her apartment for the fourth time, willing her to be there, even though I know she's not. Nothing shows apart from a small heat signal tucked into a corner. I hope it's Miro. I hope she's still alive, for Blue's sake. But of Blue, only darkness suffuses her apartment. She's not there. She's not waiting for me.
I keep a wary eye on the screen showing The Jackpot's open door, the grip on my weapon rigid, sensing this is it. This is the one. This time it will be her. I brace myself.
An emaciated woman wearing a blue wig and a black latex swimsuit emerges, followed by a well-fed, beefy man, bracing the door open with one arm, the other draped around her neck, possessive. She leads him away from the club, unsteady on her stilettos, over the alley's broken cobblestones. I catch my breath. Blue. I watch her, transfixed, drinking in the sight of her. Alive. And coming straight at me.
Blue turns out of the filthy alley and moves along a wider lane, grimy and refuse-infested. The man pulls one of her breasts out of her swimsuit, and fondles it, drunk, rough. He stops and shoves her up against a metal dumpster. Within heartbeats he's inside her, ramming himself into her, raping her with brutal, savage thrusts, his hand around her throat, forcing her head back. For a second I see her face. Anguished. Her eyes bleak, dark hollows. Blind rage claws at me.
I turn, determined to go to her, to tear the bastard limb from limb, longing for his blood to coat my armor, slick and hot. I'm at the stairwell when Akron's voice cuts into the haze of my rage, his voice harsh in my earpiece, repeating my orders. Stay in the building. Wait for the target to come to you. Get Vallis and get out. Don't attract attention. In a lower voice, he warns me not to fuck up. I get the message. Akron's life is on the line. I take a deep breath and focus on the goal: getting Blue out. I head back to Blue's apartment, keeping my eyes straight ahead, ignoring the visual of another man climaxing in my woman.
A beep, and another screen pops up, superseding the one of Blue sagging against the dumpster, blood streaking the insides of her thighs. I punch the wall, once, twice, three times, until my armour-clad fist slams through a breeze block. It doesn't make me feel better. Akron hisses at me to calm down. In the new visual, the door to The Jackpot opens and a thin, wiry man emerges, moving with the precision of a trained soldier, dressed in faded military fatigues and a flak jacket. He follows the route Blue has just taken, stealthy, holding a pistol tucked up against his torso.
'Shit,' Akron mutters, tight, into my earpiece. 'He's UFF, probably her handler. Hold for orders.' The link cuts off.
Blue moves on, slower this time. The drone maps out a route to the apartment. Two blocks. I ease her door open—unlocked as usual—with the nose of my weapon. I slip inside, cautious. It's dark. Two patches of scarred wooden floorboards stare back at me, bone-white, highlighted by the pale, insipid light of a crescent moon.
I glance at the heat sensors again. The small smear in the corner moves towards me, hesitant. Miro emerges from the shadows, her eyes huge in her thin head. She walks, unsteady, starving, towards me. She sits by my feet and looks up at me, hopeful. I kneel and hold out a gloved finger, letting her rub her cheek against it. I can hear her purring. I have nothing to give her. In the kitchen, I search bare cupboards. My heart clenches as I run a finger along a thick coating of dust, guilt almost crushing me. This is my fault. When I called down the strike on myself, I left them to die. I glance at Miro, who hasn't moved, though her eyes continue to plead, her message boring into me, visceral. Please. Feed me. Please.
'Maddox,' Akron's voice cuts in, urgent, 'you have to be quick. The one shadowing Vallis is tight with Zandiki. GC have been looking for that bastard for a long time. We need the one following Vallis. He'll lead us straight back to UFF's headquarters.' He pauses. I hear typing, rapid. A French accented voice murmurs in the background. So de Pommier is there after all, via her droid, watching me. 'Yes ma'am,' says Akron. 'Maddox,' he continues, tense, 'you have seventy seconds to get out before you compromise yourself.'
'Copy that,' I say, low. 'Get the shuttle ready. Will intercept the target in the stairwell.'
'No,' Akron says, his voice hard. 'Abort mission. You don't have time. We can't afford to lose this lead. Vallis can wait for another day.'
I look at Miro, looking at me. Starving. I think of the blood trailing down Blue's legs. Her eyes empty, bleak, her hope gone.
'No she fucking can't,' I mutter. 'I have time. Send the shuttle. I'm doing this.'
'Maddox. Fuck!' A slam judders through the earpiece, followed by a shear of silence. I don't care if he's cut me off to save his skin. I know they won't leave me here—not after what it cost GC to create me.
I scoop the cat up into the crook of my arm. She hangs, trusting and boneless in my armoured grip. She's still purring. I heard cats do that when they are just about to die, to comfort themselves.
'Hold on, Mir,' I say, soft. 'Wait till you see your new home. Cat food galore.'
I head for the stairwell. Against its concrete steps, the heavy cadence of booted feet approach the fourth floor. In between the soldier's unsteady tread, the rapid, thin clack of Blue's stilettos. The pair breach the landing of the floor below me. Between the broken railings I have a clean shot. I take it, the silencer doing what it says on the box. Blue's oppressor drops, his weight yanking her down with him. She panics, frantic, struggling to free herself from under him. Her eyes find me as I step out of the shadows holding the pistol up against my helmet in a silencing gesture. Her eyes rake over me, pausing on Miro, still hanging, quiet in my grip.
'Ryan?' she whispers, my name on her lips almost undoing me. Hope blossoms from her, brightening her eyes, radiant with sudden tears.
I don't answer. I lift the pistol over my head, and point it towards the top of the stairwell. She's trembling. Her stilettos come off and she runs barefoot and sobbing up the stairs, desperation bleeding from her. I holster my pistol, take her outstretched hand and lead her onto the roof. As I close the rusting door behind me I run a quick thermal scan of the stairwell. Nothing lights up apart from the cooling body of Blue's oppressor. We're clear.
Hovering on the other side of a scavenged ventilation shaft, the shuttle waits for us. The door to its cabin slides open. I bite back a shudder of relief, having half expected de Pommier to put the shuttle's welfare over mine. I hurry Blue through the wreckage, desperate to get her away from this hellhole before it's too late. I lift her in, her weight so slight I endure another deep, burning surge of guilt. With Miro still tucked into the crook of my arm, I haul myself in, my attention fixed on the surrounding rooftops for anyone who might have seen us.
Silence greets me, palpable, dense with lethargy and starvation. I realise in the last six months, London has turned into a graveyard, with only those in the UFF still left alive, and by the look of Blue, barely. The door slides closed in total silence. I back up, still wary, watching the door to the stairwell, tense, willing it to stay shut, willing my gamble not to fuck up.
A shimmer ripples along the walls of the shuttle and a message scrolls across the inside of my visor confirming cloaking has been enabled. The shuttle ascends, steady, silent; the city's ruins shrinking, fading, smearing until only the inky, polluted sprawl of the Thames River reflects the faint white light of Earth's long-dead companion.
The line clicks on again. 'You are in so much shit, Maddox,' Akron snaps. The line cuts out. I'm fine with the silence because I'm not sorry. I would do the same thing again. I glance at Blue, who huddles, bloodstained, bony, and shivering in her seat, eyeing me, raw, naked with hope. For her, I would do anything.
I hand Miro to her. She takes the cat, settles her on her lap and pets her, absent. I know she's waiting for me to take off my helmet, for me to tell her what's happening. She's going to have to see me sooner or later. I pull the helmet off. Disappointment floods her face. She looks away and bites her lip.
'I thought you were—' she shakes her head and a tear slips free. I can't bear it. I long to take her into my arms, to hold her, to soothe her. But I can't. I'm a stranger to her.
'Ryan Maddox?' I ask, quiet.
Her eyes meet mine, her look a strange mix of surprised and wary. She pets Miro, retreating into herself, defensive. 'You knew him?' she asks, soft.
Knew. I nod and set my helmet on the seat beside me. 'Better than most.'
She blinks and catches her lower lip again with her teeth. Her eyes well up, laden with tears. She blinks again, harder, forcing them back.
I lean forward and rest my elbows on my knees. 'He told me about you.' I nod at Miro. 'And your cat.'
She says nothing. I wait, watching her, every part of me tingling, alive, aware. Blue. My only love. If only you knew what I have become. I am right here, with you. I will never leave you alone again. I swear it. I will protect you to the end.
'Thank you for not leaving Miro behind,' she whispers, her tears breaking free. I watch them fall, helpless, in agony. She turns away and looks out the window, her slight body shuddering. Exhaustion claims her. I open the compartment in the armrest beside my seat. Inside, a syringe filled with a sedative. I don't want to do it, but I have no choice. de Pommier was adamant, and after the stunt I just pulled, I dare not risk pissing her off even more.
I let Blue sleep until we reach the shadowy coast of Greenland, its fjords locked in winter's endless darkness. I watch her, contentment suffusing me as she drifts in the world of dreams, relishing the sight of her, ragged, starving, but safe and alive, Miro curled up beside her. I wish for the hundredth time I had a blanket, or some food to give them, but there is nothing.
I kneel beside her. My armour creaks, quiet. She wakes, and sits up, shuttered and defensive once more. My heart clenches.
'I have orders to sedate you,' I say.
She looks down at the slim syringe, nestled against my black-gloved palm.
'Where are you taking me?' she asks, her eyes coming to mine. A flicker of fear, suppressed.
'Alpha VII. A beautiful apartment. I've seen it. It has an artichoke lamp. Very, very rare.'
A flick of her eyebrow. 'Never heard of those. And the sedation?' she asks, low.
'Your arrival is Q Clearance. Only me and my team know you are alive.'
Her eyebrow lifts. 'Then how will you be bringing me in?'
'A tech container,' I say, nodding at a silver box, the size of a washing machine strapped to the floor behind her seat, its lid closed with metal buckles. 'It's a twelve minute transfer.'
She lets out a shaky breath and drops her gaze from mine to the cat. 'What about Miro?'
'I'll figure it out,' I say. 'A cat is easier to hide. She will be there with you when you wake up. I promise.' I mean it, too. If I do anything for her, it will be this, and to hell with the consequences.
'If Ryan were here instead of you,' she says, her eyes coming back to mine, 'would he give me this?'
Her question almost finishes me. 'He would. He wouldn't want to risk losing you again.' I long to touch her face, to press my lips against hers. I look back down at the syringe, afraid she will see the longing burning in my eyes. It's unbearable: having her so near, yet so far.
'Will there be food for Miro?' she asks.
'So much food,' I say, desperate to reassure her, 'and for you, too. Anything you want, you will have it.'
'I want Ryan,' she whispers, mournful, as she holds out her arm, exposing the blue line of her vein to me. I keep my eyes on my work as I swab the spot and ease the needle in, gentle, and give her the dose. Her words seep into my soul, tormenting me.
She sags, the drug hitting her skeletal body almost instantaneously. I collect her into my arms and move back to my seat, cradling her in my lap, her head against my shoulder.
'You have him,' I murmur as I bend to brush my lips against hers, my heart clenching so hard, I can barely breathe. 'Blue. I'm right here.' I kiss her again, despairing, silenced, her love lost to me the moment I died. I hold her tight and grieve for what we have become. Torn apart. Alone. Together.
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