TOWER

Dawn came upon the city without a single ray of light as fanfare. It was a subtle process, the lone figure huddled on a barren veranda noted, that only served to bathe a darkened labyrinth of ruin in varying shades of grey, greyer, and invisibly black. Considering the dismal state that comprised the town this close to the epicentre, however, Valkyrie Tower remained a lovely vantage point.

Was damn worth it too. Most of ATC's property was vandalized beyond repair, save for this. Don't know why, don't care. What I need here can wait a little longer.

The person crouched behind the precipice gazed analytically at the landmass from which a titanic mushroom cloud emanated, shrouding the skeletons of buildings in grim curtains and highlighting the shallow, grimy water-bed that separated it from the rest of the city. For the last two weeks, it had been a reliable, omnipresent landmark, and a glaring reminder of her eventual task.

Get to Ground Zero, retrieve anything and anyone that may be of use, tell us what you've found and put an end to the clone soldier situation. You have four weeks to kill anyone we want before we leave you for dead anyway. And for confidentiality's sake we're not telling our grunts that you shouldn't be target practice.

On the positive side, she supposed that the lack of proper sunlight prevented any irritable glare to join in with the smorgasbord of toxins, ash, dust, darkness, wind and constant paranoia that this city possessed. She'd certainly be dead if a little sun got into her eyes, or, god forbid, lit up her dirtied scope!

She knew she had little reason to complain - she had willingly chosen the job, she had days to plan, prepare and infiltrate, and she still had supplies to last another month. A gas mask remained on her face at almost all times, oxygen tanks rigorously rationed for every day. A silenced rifle, compact, sleek and capable of firing any salvaged ammunition, remained on her person - a reliable life-saver. Two polished pistols lay clipped to the sides of her trousers, ammunition stored within a light backpack along with any other scavenged weapons, medical supplies or 'trophies' found on her voyage. A knife was hidden in one of her boots. Her hooded grey jacket ran smoothly over her frame, concealed by an armoured vest and military harness. A crumpled piece of paper lay on top of the pile within her bag, a hastily-drawn map of Fairport on front and a list with almost all the names crossed out on the backside.

Perhaps most importantly, she always kept her personal data assistant in her camo jacket's front pocket. Although she preferred not to talk to anyone unless it was necessary, and in fact the machine was practically useless without proper reception (only available, conveniently enough, at Armacham facilities), it remained her one proper link to the outside world, filtered through the voice of a man she had come to know as "Hoyle".

Oh, and remember, Miss Dodgson. Your PDA takes pictures - I need solid proof that you've made your targets...disappear.

She grimaced at the memory of his voice. The deal was that she would report back to the Board every three days to give a status report and receive more targets. This meant that she had to keep moving from outpost to outpost, narrowly avoiding patrols of both rogue clones and overpaid murderers, killing people she had never met before, and she'd be forced to listen to his slick voice drawl in pleasure as she stated the facts of the day.

Politicians...

As she finished her visual sweep of Auburn, satisfied at the fact that the Replica forces stationed on the outskirts of the blast zone remained stationary, the soft, watery grasp of a breeze pierced her tunic and chilled her bones. She let the feeling pass, trying to focus her mind on the conversation she was about to have. She had learned during her journey that she wasn't the only hunter stalking through the city.

Well, that's the real reason why I'm here, right. Nostalgia's better than another killing spree.

In a quick, silent movement, she disassembled her rifle and strapped it onto her back. She stalked back across the veranda and into the blackened living room, barely straining to avoid tracking her boots or causing the floorboards to creak. Stealth wasn't just her profession, it was routine - but here, in a building that had not seen any fresh life in months, she had the unimaginable luxury to relax. She idly brushed her gloved fingers against the scattered keys of a brutalized piano as she passed by.

The stairwell leading to the upper floor had collapsed, forcing her to attach her grappling hook to the wall and swiftly pull herself up. She paused for another moment, looked down to gaze upon the half-rotted, disfigured corpses that lay in undignified pools of their own blood, and spared no sympathy for them. Whoever had killed the mercenaries had done her a favour.

Walking into the still elaborate bedroom (casually stepping over one last mutilated dead man), she paused to toy with a discarded antique musical box, and was bemused to find that the scratched case could only play one vague note. She dropped it, gazed around at the cracked wallpaper, the festering sheets on a crumbling bed, and the stench of melted wax that came from what could have once been a bathroom, and then strode over to the shelf. She forced it open and found herself looking into a pristine chamber, furnished by shredded papers, a burnt trashcan and a glowing door to the right.

Seems the shortcuts Hoyle gave me are still valid. Aristide's safe house still has some juice.

She tried to make sense of the papers, although the ink had cracked away and what was left were illegible scribbles, and only found the remains of a map. She sighed, tore the shreds into dust, and continued on into the safe room.

Immediately, the air-conditioning blasted her into submission, a shocking contrast from the dead world outside. Stark white lights hung from above, illuminating a clean room dotted with colourful screens, humming terminals and a control panel right in the centre. The amount of activity, even if it was merely electronic, felt more alive than the actual city.

The main control panel was locked, but that wasn't a problem. She plugged her PDA into the panel, its hacking device absolutely destroyed the terminal security, and there were only nanoseconds of lag between assuming the administrator's identity (Username=Mme_ATC) and the warm, diamond-studded logo of the Company. Instantly, a deep voice cut through the surround speakers, accompanied by a flashing red telephone symbol on the screen.

"You took your damn time, Dodgson."

That's not my name.

"I've eliminated five more targets this time, Hoyle," She said. "Four Replicas and one-"

"Merc, I'm sure."

"Don't cut me off, Hoyle. I haven't sent you the pictures yet."

"Well," he sighed. "Let's see them."

She bit her lip as she accessed the photo-files, sending over the essential ones within ten seconds. She didn't want to look at the glassy blue eyes of the last 'target's' dismembered head any more than she had to. More importantly, she had to make sure he didn't catch onto the other reasons why she was here...

"Ah...lovely work, my dear." Hoyle paused to chuckle lightly before adding, "You truly are the finest."

That's right: I'm cheap and I don't ask too much.

"The Replicas have calmed down today," she said. "I've heard several skirmishes at the back of the Tower, several klicks away, but no close encounters yet."

"Have you located the commander?"

"No, Hoyle. I've killed seven 'commanders' in the last three days. They don't seem to have an off-switch bar a bullet lobotomy."

"The rogue commander's still out there, and he has many lieutenants. Surely you have SOME clue where he is?"

They're not lieutenants, they're slaves. They're all brainless slaves, and it's not just the Replicas.

"Surely," she said, "you've patched into their radios?"

"They have a special decoder ring."

"Good, I know something you don't," she didn't bother suppressing her own smile at that. "I overheard one of their squads a few hours ago. They were talking about an abandoned mall, right on the other side of the city." Pause. "If you get this under control, I suggest making them quieter."

"I don't have time for wisecracks, Janet-"

"Dodgson," she whispered.

"Dodgson, your orders are to-"

Eliminate everyone on your shit-list, retrieve your expensive toys and then drop it off at the extraction point which you change every day.

"Eliminate everyone on your hit-list, retrieve a prototype device from the facility beneath that mall, and stay alive." He sighed again, as though he was thoroughly exasperated.

How many facilities do they have?

"Any new targets, Hoyle?" she asked.

"Please, call me David."

"Anyone else I have to kill?" she repeated.

"Kill? For today?" His tone was light, playful. And mocking. "No, no...we want you to do something else."

"How many targets?"

"Three. I'll send you their profiles right now."

There was a brief pause, and a pleasant musical tone informed her that a file download had been complete. She quickly accessed the three personnel files, scrolling through the photos and brief bios and frowning.

Trevor Engstrom, Evelyn Tangier and Delilah Carcer. A suit, a scientist and a thug. They all know more classified info than me.

"Do I silence them?" she asked, dreading the answer.

"No...well, you don't really kill them," Hoyle's voice was positively jovial, and he was lucky that she couldn't physically attack him. "We want them alive."

"You want me to capture them?"

"Yes."

"You're actually helping now?"

"We've set up some extraction points at multiple outposts and blockades. The closest one to your position's a train depot a couple of klicks away. We'll airlift them from there. Do whatever you want, as long as they're alive. They'll cover our asses."

Scapegoats, you son of a bitch.

"What if they're dead?" she asked. "Or with others?"

"Civilians? You know what to do with them. Eliminate them."

"I don't kill innocents."

"Innocent my ass," growled Hoyle, his joyful facade finally forgotten. "You're a killer, Dodgson. Don't ever forget that. I have a meeting to go to, forms to sign, hands to shake. Give me better news next time."

She didn't even bother to reply as the line went dead. She looked to the secured door, straining her ears for a moment to listen for eavesdroppers she knew weren't there. She backed onto a soft chair, and looked at the personnel files once again.

They'll cover our asses. She could imagine Hoyle's pale, stubble-specked face grinning as he said that. Eliminate them.

"I'm not killing them," she whispered to herself. She looked at Trevor's file, seeing only a smiling professional executive who happened to choose the wrong company. His data file remained vague even to her - clearly, her employers had faith in her to follow orders without understanding them.

She turned back to the console, draining the computer terminals of all the essential data they possessed, and in five minutes she was already climbing down the precariously high walls of the penthouse, vertigo and exposure forgotten as she calculated what to do next.

I'll get the goon first. They're the easiest.