Seeking the Woman
Copyright July 2003
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
He was a shadow, a ghost, a part of the night. The rain might have been passing through him, for he made no reaction even when wind-driven droplets streaked directly into his unblinking eyes. Every muscle was completely relaxed, his body set in a stillness more firm than any tension could have made it. He was in that mental state known to the samurai as zanshin, or no-mind; his awareness was totally quiescent, totally unfocused, and all-encompassing. Nothing moved in the estate garden that he didn't know; nothing stood or lay or crouched within the garden that he didn't know. He had stood motionless for almost half an hour — twenty-seven minutes, his mind would have reported had his mind been engaged — and he would stand so until dawn if necessary.
It would not be necessary. The quarry he sought hadn't the patience. She had learned much, beaten down her own impulsiveness with the same unrelenting brutality she directed at any other obstacle; but in the end she was a creature of passion, and he was a machine, icy and unfeeling and absolute in his control.
Time is a weapon. Concealment is a weapon. Knowledge is a weapon. And he was master of them all.
Most telling, he could wait and she could not. She needed the night for her escape, for the other hunters would come with the day, and if she was still here then, she would die. It made a stark symmetry, for if she moved she would die. He knew she was here, and she knew as well what she was facing. She would have heard him through the comms, ordering the rest of the team to withdraw, establish a perimeter. He could have given his instructions through a subchannel, excluding her, but he had wanted her to know. That was part of tonight's pattern, of the moment he had awaited for seven months.
The perimeter wouldn't hold her. He knew it, and she knew he knew. But she couldn't approach it, not while he was within these walls. She would have to face him first, and when she did, one of them would not leave this place alive.
He was already dead. She might, conceivably, win, though he would not allow it; he could not conceivably lose, for there was nothing left to be lost, not even satisfaction. Bringing this to an end would satisfy nothing within him; he was here only because that was how it must be.
He felt her in the night, moving with that effortless silence that only the highest adepts could achieve. She did not possess such advanced skills; it was imprinted into her muscles, something that had been part of her even before her training had begun. She could move as noiselessly as a stalking leopard; what she could not do was make herself a part of her surroundings, so that her presence or passage made no difference. Though she glided through the rain and darkness without sound, her body was a barrier to the sounds around her, her motion altering the path they took to reach him. As shadow was to vision, so was she to his hearing. He knew of no more than a dozen people in the world who could have detected her so; he was the foremost among them.
She had cunningly acquired and concealed countermeasures against detection by thermal imagery or light intensification viewers, and no sonic monitoring system yet in existence could have followed her. That was why she had chosen a time when he was supposed to be occupied a continent away; and that was why he had been here tonight, as he had been in every assignment she had putatively carried out without his involvement. He had known she would attempt to break free, in time. That was part of the necessary pattern, as was that he would stand athwart her when that time arrived.
He moved to intercept her, sliding through shifts of wind and bursts of gusting rain, cloaking his advance in randomness.
She was armed, but weaponless. Five months ago, preparing for her first assignment with him as her handler — following the death of the one who had trained and sponsored and championed her until then — he had given the order to the armorer for the handgun she was to carry. The man had looked at him through reddened eyes, looked again to the data panel listing the specifications, and provided what was ordered. There was no discussion, then or thereafter, but on every subsequent assignment the armorer had supplied weaponry with the same internal modification.
When she had broken contact tonight, when he had known that this was the time, he had keyed in the code for the satellite transmission. Within the workings of the MP-5 and of the heavy-frame Para-Ordnance, a microchip the size of a grain of rice had received, checked, confirmed and accepted the burst of command; relays had closed and fused, and though there was no external sign of it, a hundredth-of-an-inch barrier in each weapon now prevented the firing pin from touching the cartridge primers. The submachine gun and the semiautomatic pistol she carried were now finely-wrought clubs. She had a knife — standard gear, vital as a tool if for no other reason — but she had a pronounced and seemingly genuine aversion to edged weapons; even if she was willing to use the one from her shoulder harness, it wouldn't be her first resort. With the press of a key, he had disarmed her.
Except that the body, too, is a weapon; and, here, she was very nearly his equal.
He had sparred with her many times before her handler's death, assessing her capabilities as he would those of any trainee or fellow operative; and many times since, goading her with his disdain and with his mastery. Her form was basic, almost primitive, but she moved with a speed and focus that were only fractionally less than his own. Even had she been his peer in technique, however, she would never have been able to match him in tactics. She had no innate conception of set-up; her every attack was all-out, total effort, absolute dedication to winning now. She hated to lose, this one, and he had pushed her hard, using her pride as a lever to pry away at any subterfuge. For he had suspected, even before she had carried back the broken body of her handler, smoke-blackened face streaked with too-easy tears, that she was holding something back. It had been only a whisper of warning, a subliminal alert without reason or evidence, but his instincts had never played him false.
She hated to lose. She dealt only with the moment. But she had worked and learned and complained and worked harder for nearly a year before being allowed field work; she had carried out menial supporting tasks for another four months before being trusted with more responsible roles; she had become her handler's most successful student, the two of them carrying out ten tandem missions together before the somehow undetected booby-trap had killed the one while leaving the other unscathed; and she had endured seven more grueling months of tests, interrogations, field exercises, the slow mortifying process of working her way back up the ladder, before seizing tonight's opportunity.
There was more to her than she had allowed anyone to see, and so tonight he would take nothing for granted.
He followed her progress almost as much by imagination as by perception, but even through such tenuous tracking he could tell that she was moving with unwonted deliberation. She was not seeking him; she was moving to ground of her choosing, knowing that he would find her. She did not lack for confidence, never had; it was her judgment, and her motives, that had laid the foundation for tonight's confrontation.
It had not always been so. He had personally approved her as a candidate. She met the necessary prerequisites: better-than-average intelligence, history of violence, life sentence pled down to a twenty-five year minimum. Life without parole would have been preferable, but her sheer physical courage (and the fact that she was orphaned, with no one to raise questions or initiate any investigations) was more than enough to counterbalance that. And so she had hanged herself in her cell — all the records said so, with a meticulous autopsy followed by burial in a mislabeled prison-system grave — and awakened in the briefing room. She had listened to the opening orientation, shrugged, and said, "Whatever."
A poor beginning — such a cavalier attitude usually indicated suicidal ideation or failure to recognize the seriousness of the organization's focus, which failure was generally the same as suicide — but it had been her last doubtful moment. She was a natural at unarmed combat; her reflexes were superb, her timing all but flawless. She gave herself totally to all instruction, and visibly suppressed a near-automatic attack response to anything that challenged her pride or autonomy. (Fortunately. They needed people who could think for themselves, but none of those survived without first demonstrating that they could be relied on to follow every order without question or hesitation.) She had an aptitude for weapons; oddly, next to no experience with firearms, but her natural coordination of hand and eye made her an avid pupil. Her greatest struggle was with written instruction; the organization had ample experience at educating unschooled prospects, however, and its incentive program (measure up or be "reassigned" to that mislabeled grave) was quite potent.
Two years was the normal preparation time for a new recruit. She had made it in just over eleven months, simply by allowing herself no life beyond her training. Her spare time she devoted to exercise, weapons practice, study, rigorous repetition of classical and self-developed katas. She needed no more than five hours' sleep a night, and apparently no relaxation at all. She was not a brilliant pupil, or even unusually gifted aside from her hand-to-hand skills, but she compensated for it with total dedication.
It had been established early on that her mental makeup made her ill-suited for complex operations; she excelled at field improvisation, however, and in a team of two to four she functioned flawlessly. When, at her handler's insistence, she had been assigned to higher-priority operations, the two of them — handler and trainee, instructor and pupil, mentor and ward — had met and exceeded all expectations at a level that surpassed the performance of any other team in the organization's history.
Any team but one. Comparisons were made more frequently and more openly, and he had seen the annoyance grow in her eyes … only then to be veiled, masked, overlain by something deeper and darker and hidden.
He had seen it but not acted. If the handler and her new favorite became greater and more successful than he and she had together been, that would only work to everyone's benefit, and would not alter the separate bond that existed between him and the older woman. So he had not objected to their continuing teamwork, had worked with her himself, had used them together or separately as need required. She had come far, done well, and had a future as promising as her straitened circumstances would allow …
Until the last mission. Until the unwitnessed tripping of the booby trap the older woman would never, never have failed to recognize. Until the dark girl had returned, bearing the torn body of her handler, soaked in blood that could not be her own, for beneath the rents in the field uniform were no wounds deeper than superficial cuts, already healing.
She had given her report in a numb voice; and, later, tried to speak to him with fumbling words that left him unconvinced, for they were inconsistent with everything he had seen of her personality. He had listened, nothing moving in his face or eyes, and then left her without a word; left, to throw all his influence against the natural suggestion of terminating her. He had become her new champion, sponsoring and directing her progress at a remove, where the other woman had kept her close as a sister or daughter, and her assignment to demanding operations that once more brought her to the elite levels of professional standing. She would never be a leader, but as a field operative she was one of the best …
He had watched, and waited, knowing that she was doing the same. Eventually she would choose the moment, and he would be there. And so it had proven.
Tonight it would end. It meant nothing, for all meaning had been removed from his life seven months before. But it would be done.
She had ceased to move, and he was close enough now to see where she must be. Not directly, she was that good, but process of elimination left only the one place capable of concealing her. He waited, the sounds and feel of the rain and wind, the very dampness of the air, seeping into the deepest levels of his awareness. Then he drew the Heckler & Koch P7 — its manufacture discontinued, but even with the bulky sound suppressor it lay in his hand as sweetly as a kiss — and moved to where she awaited him.
He was ready for any eventuality, even surprise, and so it was no surprise when she dropped from the branches above him; he rolled away while she was in mid-fall, and the P7 spat three times as he came up on one knee. One bullet struck the tree, two more only night; she was fast, moving more quickly than gravity should have allowed, but he had left some leeway in dealing with her, and he faded back with the pistol leveled, knowing she wouldn't follow just yet (she would be rushing to death if she did) but alert all the same —
He was ready for any eventuality, even surprise, but she surprised him even so; he felt the air pressure change with her appearance, she was behind him, and he struck backward with a mule kick that launched him forward and away from her as he felt it connect, and he turned in the air to bring the pistol around. Then it was gone, she had struck it from his hand with a far-reaching kick swiveling on a knee that should have been smashed. She came at him without pause in an instant follow-through that most fighters took years to learn; she carried neither her pistol nor the shoulder-slung MP-5, she had chosen to face him bare-handed, and he met her with what would have been satisfaction had there been any part of his soul not burned clear of feeling.
He was ready for any eventuality, even surprise, but her strength overwhelmed his capacity for surprise. It was impossible, bludgeoning through unimpeachable defenses, so that only training so deep as to operate at an instinctual level allowed him to evade blows he should have brushed away easily. Without the necessity for thought he shifted to circular, indirect techniques, attempting to divert attacks too powerful to halt; but her speed, too, was beyond what he could have anticipated, as was her capacity for sustaining punishment; twice she shook off crippling strikes and almost caught him with countermoves her body should have been too damaged to generate.
She had been holding back, yes, his instincts had been right, but the extent of her hidden capabilities was past belief. Even as he sought to adjust, she switched to his own tactics, parrying and evading his every attempt to reach her, forestalling him with serene, preternatural deftness; and then she flashed back to the attack, breaking the arm he flung up in the basic block that was all he had time for, and the kick behind it hurled him backward.
This could not be. Martial arts movies notwithstanding, no human can apply enough force to lift an adult body into the air and land it a dozen feet away. But he was flying, the Kevlar dissipating just enough of the impact to save him from a smashed sternum, and when he struck the ground he lay unable to move, all his will insufficient to overcome the trauma inflicted upon him in mere seconds of whirlwind assault. He had fought her with everything he had, all his skill and adaptability and resolve, and she had crushed him.
Good. That should be enough to convince her.
She squatted in front of where he lay, and though he couldn't see her face, her voice was calm. "Sorry about that, Mike. You're too good, couldn't afford to cut you any slack. Nothin' personal."
He spoke seconds after he had recovered his voice, hoarding his strength but hiding none of the deadness inside him. "Go on and finish it."
She snorted. "Don't think so. I got an appointment with the rest of my life on the other side of that wall." She stood with easy fluency, unaffected by the few strikes he had landed on her. "Night-night, sleep tight, don't let the yard-bugs bite."
His voice brought her to a halt as she turned to go. "You killed her."
She looked back to him, and again the shadows and the rain prevented him from seeing her face. "Yeah, I killed her," she said flatly. "Too slow, too stupid, too careless …"
She almost died then, but he had not come this far to lose control when he was so close. "She was none of those things," he said.
"Wasn't talkin' about her." Again she crouched before him. "You blamed me, I knew you did, and you were right. But all this time you thought I killed her on purpose?" She shook her head. "Wasn't like that, Mike."
"Tell me what it was like." He might have been standing at the briefing table instead of lying broken in a darkened garden, so steadily did he speak.
"I tripped the trigger," she said. "I heard it go, but I wasn't payin' attention, I was zeroed on the men in the treeline. She heard it too, and she knew what it meant. She was just outside the door, she coulda got clear, but she tried to yank me out." She shrugged, and her voice carried no feeling at all. "Wasn't time."
"You were nowhere near." He had studied the schematics, the terrain maps, the blast pattern too many times to be misled by such a flimsy story. "Unobstructed kill radius on that device was four metres. Even if her body took the main blast, you would have been dead or crippled. You had no wounds when you brought her back. You lie."
She did not answer in words, but from the harness sheath she pulled out the knife he had not expected her to use. Without speaking she tore away the sleeve of the black field tunic, ripping the ballistic fabric with impatient ease, and drew the keen blade down the length of her forearm. Blood surged from the deep wound, streaming away in the rain that still pelted them … and as he watched, unable to see the purpose in her self-mutilation, the flow slowed and stopped, and the rain washed away the last of the blood to show the edges of the cut closed to a dark line.
"In an hour you won't see anything there," she observed conversationally. "If I sliced to the bone, it'd be a scar by morning and no sign at all the day after." She straightened. "That wasn't somethin' I could put in my report. You guys got a real kick-ass program, Mike, but you never dealt with anything like me, and I made damn sure you never found out what you had on your hands."
Her demonstration had raised unexpected questions, but ultimately didn't matter. "You're saying that what happened to her was an accident."
"I'm sayin' she's dead 'cause she trusted me, right enough, but I woulda died insteada her if I could have." Her laugh was bitter, the first emotion he had heard from her this night. "Had to happen, sooner or later I screw up everything. But it wasn't what I wanted."
"So why run?" He shifted where he lay, assessing his fitness to move."You were exonerated, put back into operations. You tried to break free, to get clear of us. Why?"
"I'm leavin' 'cause she couldn't." The dark girl stood over him. "You have any idea what a great deal I lucked into here? I'd killed people, and I was ready to pay for it … and then your guys yank me outta stir and tell me, 'Guess what? You get to serve a life sentence and do some good while you're at it.' Dream come true; 'least, it was the best dream I could come up with." She leaned over him. "It was different with your lady, though. She talked sometimes, not very often, but she wanted out. Couldn't let go of the idea. She said once she had a gun in her mouth and was takin' up slack on the trigger, it mattered to her that much." He could feel her gaze upon him in the darkness, but her expression was still hidden. "She stayed for you. Stayed because of you."
He was recovered now, ready to move, but this wasn't the moment, not yet. "You were jealous," he said, making the final cast for information.
She laughed. "Her dream was better'n mine, even if it wasn't for me. But I owe her, so I'm gonna try and live hers out for her. Make it work, make it come out right. Different kinda life sentence, but by now that's nothin' new." She was seconds from making her departure, he could feel it in her stance, but still she delayed. "I'm sorry. You and her, it was … I wish … I'm sorry," she said again, and once more she turned to leave.
"She told me something once," he said, halting her. "She said that you …" His voice faltered, and she bent to catch the words as he went on in a tortured whisper. "I didn't understand, but she thought that you —"
He lay as he had fallen, his uninjured arm pinned beneath him, so he struck with the broken one, rigid fingers spearing into the nerve point behind her ear. It lacked its usual power, ravaged muscles and ligaments folded around fractured bone, but even so he could have cracked slate with that blow. She stiffened, swaying, as if the mind were refusing to accept the body's defeat, and then she dropped limp to the sodden grass.
He remained where he lay for a full half a minute, quivering against the waves of agony that crashed through the abused arm. Then he rolled and came to his knees, and his good hand found the knife she had continued to hold after wielding it against herself. He had long ago trained himself to ambidexterity; he turned her body to expose the target he wanted, and the naked blade bit into her flesh with perfect precision and control.
She hated to lose, this one. But he did not lose. Ever. It was the essential difference between them.
It was done. Finished at last. But there was one more thing that had to be completed.
He left her where she lay, and followed along the way she had come until he found the discarded weapons. He ignored the pistol, caught up the MP-5. Another man would have fainted from the pain of field-stripping it with a broken arm; he completed the task in eleven seconds longer than his normal time, used the rain-cleansed knife to chip away the inconspicuous blob of metal obstructing the firing pin, and then reassembled the weapon with steady hands. When it was whole again, he triggered a three-shot burst into the sky. Moved to a different position, three more quick bursts. Another position, and a sustained string of shots that nearly emptied the magazine. Twenty seconds later, on a different wall of the garden, he fired the last two shots, and let the weapon fall.
The comms had been shut down, at his instruction. He re-keyed his, now, and into the throat mike he said, "Another team penetrated the garden. Four of them. They're dead. She escaped; she's wounded, I think mortally." He paused, and removed from his thigh pocket the bloody cube of tissue he had excised from her buttock. "Interrogation is no longer an option," he said. "Trigger the implant."
In his palm, the lump of flesh spat and burst, the calculated dose of curare derivative oozing from the ruptured capsule into rain-swept air instead of a captive bloodstream. (He carried a trigger of his own, but those above him knew nothing about that — the armorer kept his own counsel — and it would be quietly replaced upon his return.) He wiped his hand on his trousers and looked out across the wind-lashed garden, face and eyes and soul empty.
"Live," he said to the unhearing air, to the dark girl he had left senseless and bleeding. "Live for Nikita."
Then he moved away, and in seconds he had blended, silent and invisible, into the last gusting remnants of the dying storm.