Part One: She Awakes An Immigrant Smuggled Through Time

Atop the sterile surface of a folding table, a cell phone rests innocently between the mark—a man, black-bagged and ziptied to a rustic looking kitchen stool—and the operative. A hitwoman; frigid dark hair and gnawed lips, she's thinking of a dozen gratuitous ways to murder the man opposite her. She'll need to decide on one once the phone rings, and she's expecting it to. She doesn't know when, just that it will. But she needs to be patient.

She sits unnaturally still as if tied herself, limbs restrained from any unpermitted tics or twitches. She's so quiet, she suspects the man doesn't even know she's in the same room as him—that she's been here for the past twenty-seven minutes, sharing with him this space of malicious intent that is so immaculately arranged, stapled and draped ceiling to floor with slaughterhouse plastic.

A loaded 9mm pistol has been placed closest to the edge of the table and a suppressor lies nearby, positioned like an enticing suggestion. Not imperative, but there if she needs it, maybe, perhaps. Its ugly wasp nest tip just barely touches the matte barrel at an angle, compliant to the subtle power held over it by the tiny tilt of an uneven table leg underneath. A defect imperceptible by a casual glance except when the thought suddenly occurs to you that something isn't quite right. A crystalline glass with a crooked waterline—an aggravating error that needs to be corrected and can be.

In a precise movement, her fingertips make contact with rubber and her wrist pivots to straighten out the wayward accessory. The noise is like a polite throat-clear. A warning growl in the silence. It gets the man's attention, and his head perks up. His nervous inhale sucks in the thin material, gluing the bag to the front of his face until she can make out the contours of his concave eye sockets, pointed nose, and open mouth. He's a tortured face in the throes of a scream under the scratches of Munch's sadistic pastels, eyes gouged and tongue carved out.

But she knows what he really looks like because she's stared at him every day for a week. In return, she doesn't believe he's seen her, or that he'll recognize her if he has. She'd been a tight shadow, non-existent to the oblivious; or a hazy face in a crowd, nose buried in teacups always, inconspicuous at worst. However, that dance is all over with. Secrecy and subtlety are no longer required, now that she has him all to herself. He is the problem that needs solving, and soon, maybe. She doesn't like uncertainty.

There's a camera leering over her shoulder, propped up by a tripod. It's not recording, though. At least, not yet. It hasn't been positioned to make her uncomfortable. She isn't the unwilling, unaware subject being fed to hungry eyes. She's more like the director and has the camera where she wants it, perfectly centred and white-balanced and everything. All so they'll see everything and make no mistake about it. The humane way to go about would be to pick up the 9mm and shoot him in the forehead—him unsuspecting—but this method is problematic to whatever she is supposed to accomplish. There'll be no way to identify who she's just killed, and she wants them to know and understand—whoever will be watching. And although she's been told the room is soundproofed, she's still skeptical. Her neighbours are in close proximity and she's certain the walls are as thin as they look.

So her hand naturally gravitates to the hilt of a knife calmly set beside the pistol when she walks through all the steps of the procedure in her head. The serrated tool is louder and angrier than any firearm you can give her and she suspects this is the sole reason why it's been laid out for her in the first place—the bound man is soft skin and a lot of blood. A bullet is underwhelming and never looks like it does in cinema, lacking the red, punchy melodrama of postproduction. In reality, it's over too fast and only momentarily shocking, ending in ambiguity rather than graphic finality. The pistol sends a message; the knife delivers the detached pinkie in a foreboding envelope. Yet she still hasn't decided, and she hates this uncertainty.

The cell phone remains in its place, untouched and rarely glanced at. An archaic contraption that'll never leave the inside of this safe house. Despite her being in a town that still hasn't caught up to modern times completely—more dirt roads than paved ones, rusty automobiles parked forever in ditches, ramshackle farmhouses disappearing into rebellious olive groves—the phone definitely can't be reintroduced. It's a dead technology, long replaced by weightless cloud computing. Nobody here has one. Nobody except for the operative and whoever she is expecting a call from.

It's extremely outdated even by her time—her own time. It's important to make this distinction because the operative fell asleep Yesterday and woke up Tomorrow, the Tomorrow she and everyone fantasized about when their Today was on the verge of collapse and nothing indicated a hopeful deviation in their fiery, downwards course. She'd gone to sleep uncertain, reassured that everything will be all right by a woman who's looked after her ever since she can remember, and who she thinks she loves but can't be sure (if she does, and if she might love her back) and has never asked.

She hopes, though, because for this woman, the operative is sitting in this plastic room, a pistol, a knife, and a cell phone all within her reach, herself ready to be used like a restless pen scribbling words to the pace of domineering, more self-assured dictation. She both dreads and craves to hear those gentle, encouraging whispers on the other end of the phone—when it'll ring. Soon, she both dreads and craves. She continues to gaze at the mark opposite her, a man she's been thinking about murdering for the last week, and both hostages wait for the call.

#

The receptionist of this hooker hotel is helpful enough. He asks no questions when he slides a greasy key-card across the ink-scored front desk. Rachel tweezes at it almost surgically between black finger forceps, her leather gloves lustrous in the mouldy light that settles over the tiny room masquerading as a lobby. She holds it away from herself, tempering whatever contagion that could possibly be spread from the crusty thing, when she adjusts her handbag and crosses the floor to the stairwell. She knows that the sweaty receptionist will stare at her ass when she climbs it and takes the bend out of view, her pointed boots thumping on thinning carpet and hollow wood all the way to the fourth floor.

Old, narrow hallway; wilting wall sconces and cobwebs. Rachel traverses its length and receives a passing glance from a scrawny couple headed in the opposite direction. They are kitschy scarves, knit caps, and for him, a ratty mechanic's jacket with a name that's not his own stitched on the breast pocket. Rachel doesn't belong here among the low rent, no-wave set dressing; the cigarette tarred ceiling and wallpaper—and the crocheted patches where the gunk was scraped off, thrust over some flame, and sucked in again. Her pallid blonde hair is too bright for this place.

Rachel finally reaches her door and walks in. She doesn't blink when she sees a younger man sitting on the bed, back to her and hunched over. She recognizes Julian from behind: his dark hair, and the fact that she knows this is his room—the receptionist was helpful enough. There's another woman by the bathroom, leaned up against the doorframe there, lanky arms folded over her bare breasts. Behind dollar store lashes and Cleopatra eyeliner, her gaze flits from Rachel to the back of Julian's head, then Rachel again. "Who the fuck are you?" she demands. "His mom?"

Julian turns a bit. Rachel can see he's been crying. She says to the woman, "Did he already pay you?"

"Yeah."

"Then get the fuck out."

The woman is indifferent. She pulls on a tube top and swipes her purse from off the nightstand while Rachel watches and waits. She's completely still as the woman moves past her to leave in her wobbly, cantankerous way. Then, standing in the trickled light of the hallway, the woman pauses to say: "Yeah, okay. Limp-dick cocksucker's all yours." The door slams. There's just the quiet murmur of a dusty television in the corner of the room.

Rachel circles the bed lazily. Julian keeps his eyes on her boots, even as she comes to a stop in front of him. His trousers lie on the hotel floor. She says to him, "Marie called me. Dinner was ready an hour ago." Finally a reaction—Julian winces when he hears the name. Rachel watches him carefully. "Why aren't you picking up?"

She follows the involuntary flicker in his eyes. There is a craggy paper bag on the desk. Rachel opens it and looks inside it for a long time. She crumples it back up and turns back to Julian. She says, "Does my daughter know she married such a useless, little cunt?"

Julian swallows. He says, "You saw the press release."

Rachel did.

"You know what it means."

Rachel does.

"I'm out once the deal is finalized. Investors are calling for me to hang myself with my belt. How did you even find me?"

"My contact book isn't filled with friends," Rachel says. "It's with people who owe me one."

Julian says, "Are you going to tell Marie?"

"No." Rachel's response is instant and straight. She didn't take a second to even consider it—she, especially, understands the value of a secret. The secret as a weapon. She used to be ONI Section Zero—blackest of black. She's retired now. She asks, "Have you spoken to your dad yet?"

Julian doesn't reply. He isn't even taking calls from his wife, Marie, who Rachel imagines is obediently waiting at home over a bubbling pot of spaghetti. Of course Julian hasn't reached out to his father. Rachel knows that the man, Terry Stanton, has probably heard the news for himself and—knowing Terry Stanton—has probably left voice messages for his son to the effect of telling him to hang himself with his belt. Because greatest-generation, rock-steady Terry personally coined the advertising catchphrase "Stanton strong" a decade ago when he was in charge and trucking the rubble away from Old Mombasa, and right now Julian is anything but; he is a withered mess of a person hiding in a dingy hotel room, and Rachel can see his shriveled penis tucked between his legs, partially obscured by the dirty sheets. Stanton Industries is a massive corporate entity that thrived following the reconstruction of the devastated East African city; it is an empire Terry built from the ground up, and one that he had bequeathed to his heir upon his retirement a year ago, fourteen profitable years after the end of the big war.

He has, however, a right to be furious now as Julian is almost certainly days (if not hours) away from being shamefully ousted as CEO of Stanton Industries.

Rachel says, "So what happened, and who the hell is Annex Global?"

Julian clears his throat. "They came out of nowhere. There are half a dozen corporations a hundred times bigger than Annex that are competing for the contract. Somehow Annex is at the head of the running."

Like she's conducting an interrogation, Rachel is curt, her questions driven and relentless. "What does the contract net?"

"150 billion over seven years," Julian tells her. "I... thought we had it in the bag. For all the work we did in Mombasa—"

"How did you lose it?"

"Do you read The Sun?"

"I don't make it a point."

"They ran a story yesterday about Stanton rebuilding Mombasa with the ground-up bones of UNSC Marines."

"It was libellous?"

"It was true," Julian says, "but who isn't digging up the outer colonies for materials? Winger's a goddamn Torrie. He's had it out for us since we backed Gaulin's campaign last year—publicly."

Rachel nods. The conservative columnist is a dying breed, especially in this post-war slump. She knows that Jerry Winger and the rest of them are bitter that they can't peddle their war bond-fear mongering bullshit like they did at the height of the war. But obviously someone at Space Command is an admirer of Winger's rambling.

"Winger made a lot of friends back then," Julian says.

"It was a good time to be a defense contractor."

"It's always a good time to be a defense contractor."

This makes Rachel think. She's somewhere inside her head when she suddenly asks him, "How much is Annex Global worth?"

Julian looks up at her. "I can make a call and get a figure for you."

"Don't. From this point on, you're not to go anywhere near this thing. Do you understand?"

"Yes," he says, meekly.

"Good boy." Rachel comes closer to him, her knees nearly touching his. She strokes the underside of his jaw with a gloved finger, then her hand closes around his throat for a moment, and Julian shivers appreciatively. He reaches for the folds of her skirt. Rachel thinks of spaghetti spattered on a stovetop somewhere. When she feels his fingernails on the inside of her thigh, she cruelly slaps his wrist away—she looks almost repulsed by him. But she says, "Not tonight."

Rachel moves away and reapplies her lipstick, peering into the vanity. Despite the grunginess of the room, she decides she likes the dim lighting. Here she's a soft-featured, three-point lit beauty but with the eyes of an old woman. There's no cosmetic lift to disguise those tired, jagged things. She is well aware of the trouble she wants to go looking for. She picks up the paper bag from the desk and conceals it in her handbag before leaving. She tells Julian, "Just go home."

Julian, standing up from the bed, begins, "My dad..."

"Let me talk to Terry," Rachel says. Pinched between her fingers, she has already retrieved her palm-sized, leather bound contact book. "I'll take care of everything."

#

Twenty six hours later, Brooklyn Fields wakes up in her titanium casket. She has no control over her soaked, jellyfish limbs that quiver with renewed life. She expels the breath of air that she's held in her lungs for fifteen years. While consciously trying to even out her frantic gasps, she peers through the frosty pane. Eager eyes stare back. Hands are leisurely clasped. She's a spectacle, an unearthed museum piece for a predatory audience. She has a feeling she's only breathing again because she has a function to fulfil. But whether she likes it or not, she is ready to be used.

THE FOREVER SOLDIER