Chapter Three: Substructure
Shadows of Kenneth had always been cast over the new existence of the man now Aaron Cross. These usually manifested themselves as disconnected memories or a sense of emotion without the full feeling of it. Marta's embrace and comforting kiss had brightened the darkness still haunting Aaron from Kenneth's old miseries.
Abandoned by his alcoholic mother at an early age, he had lived with a grandfather who had suffered dementia years before the state finally deemed him unfit to raise an already challenged child. He was then lost in the chaotic crowd of disturbed youth at the state home.
Kenneth had suffered neglect, isolation and a frightening emptiness. His entire sad life was plagued with a desperate longing for care and some amount of genuine concern. Kenneth had survived by dreaming of family, of love. He had believed someday he would have both, and that faith had given him hope.
The only fond memory of young Kenneth Kitsom was watching old patriotic war movies his oblivious grandfather had played without end. The noble cause of the armed forces and the camaraderie of its soldiers was a siren call that promised to fulfill his need of belonging. Private Kitsom did not last long on the battlefield, but had found enough of a home in the army to want to fight being discharged. He was the perfect candidate for Outcome. He accepted their offer to join, without question, grateful to be accepted into the program.
Aaron refused to think of Kenneth's life as his own past. He had been reborn a completely different person; he was Aaron Cross. Yet the yearning of young Kenneth Kitsom to belong and find a true home still lingered. Marta's words and her body's warmth were a balm for wounds inflicted on an earlier self. Aaron felt that relief, though the injuries had long since scarred over.
Marta's declaration that she was the monster, not him, had soothed Aaron more deeply than he thought possible. But if he had lead her to face culpability, so as to overcome it, he must as well.
"No", he said. "I'll own it; I am a killer."
Marta started saying "No", and shushed him as she had before, when he was viraling out and very ill. Aaron recalled his feverish head drooping onto her shoulder and into her care, her fingers running through his hair in comfort. He brought the delicate hand he held up and kissed it.
Aaron turned to face her and said again, flatly, "I'm a killer." Marta's sorrowful green eyes took in his confession with concern.
"Every day since Iraq I wake up promising myself I will never kill again. It's a promise I can't keep. Worse, it's a promise I know I won't keep. If only I could," he sighed, returning her gaze with a weary, resigned look.
Aaron continued, gravely telling her, "I see the face of every person dead by my actions even before I make it out of bed. That guard I killed? He was married; wearing a ring. How many innocents, you asked? More than I care to admit, even to myself."
He paused, looking upwards as if begging forgiveness, his face searching and penitent, then sighed. "Thanks to the enhancements, I know them well. I see too much of their lives clearly."
Aaron closed his eyes then added, "And exactly how I took it from them. I remember it all; and torture myself with it later. I replay the scenes in my mind over and over, looking for ways to avoid killing. I imagine disarming or disabling them without causing death. Then I train both body and mind to use those methods the next time, instead. It helps, but it doesn't cure, because there's always a next time."
He opened his eyes and shrugged with heavy shoulders. "Six months ago, any police officers, guards, and even bystanders that were hampering the success of my mission would've been neutralized along with any target or operative. I know it doesn't make up for killing anyone in the first place, but I honestly don't know what more I can do. I have to believe that I'm slowly, but surely, taking myself back." Aaron paused, thinking, then said, "Or more accurately, taking back control of myself."
Marta took his face in her hands, to focus him on her, not his suffering. "You are." She brought his head down to hers so that their foreheads were touching.
"It's really remarkable; you're altering your programming," she observed. "You've already accomplished so much more than should be possible. It must take an incredible amount of strength to override that killer instinct we basically downloaded into you, altering your behavior." Her hands slipped to his chest and her expression darkened as she said introspectively, "Scientists ignoring ethics; doctors doing harm."
A chastened Marta looked up into Aaron's big, penetrating blue eyes and said, a bit formally, "I deeply regret my part in the Outcome program; for what I've done to you."
"But you've helped me, too," Aaron replied, his thumb stroking her jawline. "You saved me both mentally and physically." He remembered full well that it was Marta who took out the advanced agent, bent on their destruction, and ultimately saved them both. A warrior indeed, he thought to himself with a wry smile. Outcome training would have deemed Marta a liability to be disposed of immediately after her usefulness was over. Rejecting that course had been his salvation in more ways than one.
"But while I was shoving aside doubts to keep the work going, you faced yours and had the courage to rebel. I fought against my conscience while you fought for yours. In that exam room, you demanded I look. You're right; I didn't want to see." Marta hung her head in shame.
This time it was Aaron who took her face in his hands to focus her gaze on him. "But you see me know", he said, his confidence and intent restored. He lowered his head, resolutely bending towards her.
Marta's green eyes were shining, bright and new. "We see each other," she returned, repeating Aaron's words back to him, before her lips met his. Finally.