“A.N.G.E.L.s” by J. R. Frontera

Angels

The chronometer in his head clicked.

Fifty-eight.

Fifty-eight days he’d been in this place.  In the absolute darkness, the profound silence, counting had kept him sane. He counted the seconds, and the seconds into minutes, the minutes into hours, the hours into days. Sometimes he fell asleep, but the soft click inside his ears would wake him again, and he’d start over.

One, two, three …

Sometimes they slid a tray of tasteless food under the door, and the metal tray scraped against the rough stone floor fit to make his ears bleed. They never gave him a fork. Not even a spoon. He wasn’t sure what they expected him to do with any kind of cutlery when his arms were trapped against his body by the straightjacket, but he supposed they didn’t want to take any chances.

He’d killed with less.

Shouldn’t have gone after her.

He’d known it was a mistake as soon as some no-name orphan on Alpha Station had dropped her name in his lap on a dirty scrap of paper. The Guild had wanted her dead and gone for years now. They’d attempted to get him to go after her for years now, too. Claimed her betrayal was somehow his fault, somehow related to the unsanctioned relationship he’d had with her. In retrospect, maybe it was his fault. He’d initiated the first flirtatious contact. If not for that, maybe there wouldn’t have been a relationship at all. No scandalous joining of a Guild member with another Guild member. No heinous crime of falling in love, if that’s even what he could have called it.

And no child for the Guild to confiscate at ten years old.

Thus, no reason for her to run.

He sighed heavily into the quiet. They’d tried everything to get him to go after her; bribery, threats, harassment. Until they’d finally resorted to the one thing he couldn’t refuse: an official, mandated job. No ANGEL could refuse a job. Not if he wanted to stay alive. And anyway, he had a reputation to uphold.

They’d made her the next name on his list, and Jonathan Septicai never missed a name on his list.

So he’d gone. And now he was here.

Because she’d smelled him coming a kilometer away and he’d stepped right into her trap like some newbie recruit fresh off the street.

So why didn’t she just kill you? And why are you still here?

He rolled onto his back on the cold stone floor and stared up into darkness at the invisible ceiling.  She’d warned him about being predictable before, back in the days when they’d been on the same side. He’d shrugged her off at the time. His targets never knew he was coming, and he’d never needed a second chance at a job. Predictability didn’t matter; Jonathan Septicai never missed a mark.

Except Lynn Calipari.

He growled into the blackness.

You’re sulking. Stop sulking and get out of here.

“Not sulking,” he muttered aloud.  “Resting.”

Yes, taking a nice holiday seven stories underground in a damp cell that smells of my own shit.  Just the vacation I’ve been dreaming of.

The heavy thump of his cell door unlocking jolted him from his self-pity and he turned his head toward the noise. They hadn’t opened that door since the day they’d thrown him in here. Perhaps it was time for an interrogation. Or even more laughable, a trial. The Terran government still had their criminal trials, but they were more staged productions now than real court proceedings. Not that it mattered either way.

Everyone knew the Assassins’ National Guild of Extermination and SteaLth existed, but to this day no one had any tangible proof. Even a real trial would have been laughable with such a lack of evidence.

He wriggled his way to a sitting position and squinted in the sudden obtrusion of light as the silhouette of one of the outrageously muscled guards stepped through the doorway.  A second guard followed the first, and Jonathon finally rose to his feet to face them, the chain around his ankle clinking with his movement.  He winced at the stiffness in his own muscles.

Fifty-eight days. Too long to be off the fitness regimen. Shouldn’t have done that. He eyed the two brutes approaching him. Going to make this more difficult.

He let them get close. Let one bend down to unlock the heavy iron cuff around his left ankle. And just as the man was about to replace the single cuff with a pair of walking ankle cuffs, Jonathan brought his left knee up hard into the man’s nose. He whipped backward and collapsed to the floor, soundless, his face a mass of blood.

Jonathan ducked the second guard’s blow and stepped around behind him to kick his legs out from under him. He crashed to the floor alongside his colleague and Jonathan dropped down neatly on top of him, thighs locked around the other man’s neck in a second.  The guard struggled, trying to twist his body around in an attempt to put Jonathan in a similarly compromising position, but alas, his muscle mass made him far less flexible.

Jonathan closed his eyes and concentrated on keeping an unforgiving pressure on the man’s carotid arteries. He counted the seconds, until the second guard’s struggles weakened and finally ceased.  Jonathan rolled back to his feet. Kept his eyes closed. Shimmied neatly out of the straightjacket…except for that crotch strap. He reached behind his back and worked patiently at the buckle through the jacket’s sleeves, going by feel until it abruptly came loose, dangling free between his legs. Then he pulled the whole contraption up over his head and tossed it like an old shirt.

He grimaced. By the Blades, he smelled.

He went to the door and peeked out into the dimly lit corridor. More guards headed his way, apparently having heard the scuffle. He stepped back into his cell’s darkness and took a few quick minutes to stretch and limber up before they arrived.

Okay, escape first. Then shower.

It felt good to get a little physical activity again. Get the blood pumping, the adrenaline flowing. He almost wished this wouldn’t be so easy. But then, if they’d really known who he was and what he’d done, they’d never have risked putting him in a cell. They’d have put a bullet in his brain right off, had they really known. No prisons, no interrogations, no trials.

Alas, with no proof of his guild, there was no proof of his deeds. No proof of his list. No one to know how many he’d killed.

No one except Lynn Calipari.

He growled again and set out into the hall as if he belonged there. Filthy, smelly, sporting an unruly head of hair, a mangy beard, and only half-dressed, Jonathan Septicai ended his so-called vacation.

—–

 

He eventually reached the visitor’s registration lobby and drew up short, taking in the scene of carnage at a glance. No alarms had been tripped, but the prison personnel had all been rendered unconscious in some way or another, temporarily for some, and more permanently for others. His gaze traveled across the many still bodies, eventually reaching the woman who waited for him.

Lynn Calipari.

She granted him a smile, her posture relaxed and casual from where she stood near the registration desk.

But he knew better. She also appeared unarmed, but a lack of weapon had never stood in her way before, and he was quite sure it wouldn’t now.

He covered his unease at her appearance with a lopsided grin. “Hello, angel.”

She winced at the name. “Don’t call me that.”

He swept an arm out to encompass the bodies strewn at their feet. “This all for me? A getting-out present? You shouldn’t have.”

Her smile thinned. “Trust me, it was nothing.” A pause, her nose wrinkling. “You look like shit and smell worse. No way in hell you’re getting in my car like that.”

The impulse to look down at his filthy self was arrested by her last words. “Your car? Wait, you want to give me a ride? Where? And why? You’re the reason I’m here in the first place!”

She shrugged and shook her head, the jet-black hair shifting across her shoulders. So black it shone blue in the light. He used to run his fingers through that shining hair. Used to let her trim, athletic frame curl up next to him, confident she wouldn’t put a knife in his back if he rolled over. He’d stroke her arm as she slept and marvel at the way she could morph from single-minded killer to gentle lover in the space of hours.

He’d never learned how to do that.

But she left the Guild. She’s a traitor. She’s on your list.

“Because,” she said quietly, bringing him back to the present, “I wanted to give you some time…away. Away from that life, that dogma. I wanted to give you some time alone. To think. I wanted to tell you in person that…I don’t blame you for what happened to our son. The Guild was always going to take him and we were idiots to think otherwise. But…”

The clear blue eyes hardened and Jonathan tensed, balling his fists. He fought off the memories of their son’s Initiation Day…the day Lynn had run. He didn’t think about that day. Didn’t think about the kid. Didn’t think about her.

“How could you stay with them?” she whispered. “After everything they did to us? After they took him for their brainwashing? After they ordered you to come after me?”

He shifted on his feet, hands going to mess at his own greasy locks. “It’s …all I have. All I know. I’m sorry, Lynn.”

“Are you?” There was ice in her tone now, her lithe body coiling, and Jonathan braced himself. “You had me!” she spat, jabbing at her own chest with a thumb. She took a step forward. “You had me! You had him!” Another step forward. “Your own son! Your own flesh-and-blood son! We weren’t enough for you? We didn’t matter enough?”

He opened his mouth, but had no words. No words. No excuses. Deep down inside there was still just a void of nothing where there should have been feelings. Guilt? Regret? Shame? He knew they were there somewhere; they came to haunt him in nightmares sometimes, but he just couldn’t seem to bring them out when she wanted to see them.

“Tell me right now, Jonathan Septicai,” Lynn said through her teeth. “Are you still planning to finish this job?”

He swallowed hard. Flexed his hands and blew out a breath. “I’m sorry,” he said again, but she was right. They were mostly just words. Jonathan Septicai never missed a name on his list. Not even for Lynn Calipari, his former lover and mother to his only child.

She nodded slowly, jaw clenching. “Okay,” she whispered. “Okay.” She drew herself upright, a full six feet of lethal powerhouse. “Goodbye then, Jonathan.”

He dropped into a defensive stance, but she just turned and left. He stared after her for a long moment, confused. Then straightened and picked his way over the bodies to the prison’s front door. It had stuck half-ajar, the control panel sparking from Lynn’s override handiwork. He slid up to it and pressed his back against it, then risked a quick look out to the front yard.

Lynn had cleared that, too. Automated guard units as well as their human counterparts were motionless, slumped, or in pieces. The front gate had been jammed open; it’s repetitive, mechanized attempt to close itself was the only sound left in her wake and it echoed out across the vast, arid landscape. A prison in the middle of the desert, where the location itself could serve as a deterrent to escape.

He darted across the stretch of dirt and paused again at the gate, searching vainly for any sign of her. She was so damned fast. And so damned good at her job.

No, her ex-job. She’s a traitor, remember that.

He’d spent so much time with her all those years ago he’d forgotten how good she was.

So why had she just left like that?

Rows of prison employee cars were parked out front. Lynn had crippled the prison’s security system and he had decimated the inside guard force on his way to the lobby, but this quiet wouldn’t last forever. Maybe Lynn had revoked her offer of a ride out, but there were plenty here for his choosing. He jogged to the nearest vehicle and jimmied it open, then slipped inside, giving the backseat a cursory look-over. Still no sign of Lynn. Maybe she planned to just keep running.

He shook his head and hit the car’s ignition switch, the scrambler chip implanted in his fingertip allowing him instant access. He plotted a suitably inconspicuous route into the navigation system and then engaged it, and the car slid smoothly from its space and out onto the road.

The navigation screen in the dash flickered. Jonathan tapped at it. The displayed map abruptly disappeared, replaced by a black screen and a crackle of static.

And then Lynn’s voice came through the car’s speakers, startling him.

“I’m sorry, Jonathan. In your own twisted way I know you must still love me, otherwise you would have tried to kill me just now, in the prison, when I gave you the chance. But I also gave you the chance for an out. And you didn’t take that, either. And I can’t forgive you for staying with ANGELs after what they did to us. So, I’m sorry. For everything.”

He shook his head, exhaling through his teeth. “Lynn, I…”

“You shouldn’t have been so damn predictable.”

A countdown splashed up on the screen in brilliant green and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. He fumbled for the door handle.

3, 2, 1…

His world exploded into heat and agony. Burning, everything burning, shrapnel piercing his flesh, the sensation of flying, and for one, brief moment…true, painful regret.

 

 

 


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J. R. Frontera lives in rural Missouri with her husband, son, and a random assortment of four-legged friends. She has been telling stories in some form or another since she could hold a crayon and draw.  She classifies her writing as “speculative fiction with a side of love story”, and sometimes also dabbles in poetry.  She hopes to have a space adventure novella self-published by the end of the 2015 and is in the process of editing a much larger SF novel.  You can follow her writerly escapades at jrfrontera.wordpress.com and on Facebook as J. R. Frontera.  She is also on Twitter as @lightning_bug_, so come say hi!

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3 Comments

  1. Yet again the Arena introduces me to a writer who I immediately want to read more from.

    This story, though. I’ve had a weird reaction to this story.

    First of all, what worked. The prose style. It feels clean and it flows from idea to idea. It carried me through the story. I enjoyed the way the back story arrived and we got to understand how the characters related to each other.

    But the characters. Hmmm.

    I don’t like the way Jonathan doesn’t have a voice. Maybe the implication is that he’s been cored, that the organisation which took his child stripped out his personality so thoroughly that he doesn’t have the strength to resist. In which case, Lynn’s actions show that she’s as much a hollow sociopath as he must be.

    Of course, how much anyone would be able to articulate after 53 days in Solitary (when we know that even just a few days without human contact puts a significant dent in ordinary people and prolonged periods without human socialisation count as torture) is up for debate.

    And that’s why this story works. I read it yesterday and I’m still kicking around the details and the characters. Not because they’re badly written, but because their actions make sense and I’m trying to sort out whether J.R. Frontera meant me to be angry at them, pity them…

    …ooo this is a tough contest.

  2. I mean…an elite band of intergalactic hitmen so powerful that normal laws and courts and prisons are a joke to them?

    Yes please. Sign me up.

    I’m a sucker for this sort of thing so I definitely enjoyed this story. I feel like this fits in with a lot of other great arena stories though where I wanted a book and not a short story. I want to know what sort of training or programming or whatever these people go through to become ANGELS. That must be some shit.

    I also wanted to know more about this prison, what world it was on, how he got caught and what the law thinks is going on etc…

    Which of course would make for a too lumpy short-story. We’ve seen this before plenty of times and I don’t have the answer, but there appears to be a category of story that cries out for a longer book behind it and this fits right in.

    A lot of fun, a lot of sweet ninja skills, an exploding car, all good stuff.

  3. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    Another one of those entries into the Arena that begs to be a longer story. In fact, I smell franchise material here. This one was very quick and concise, and true to the form of the author, she even managed to squeeze something of a love story in here – quite an achievement in the context of a jailbreak scenario.

    I know that the limitations of this short story framework might not allow delving too much into character development, so we really don’t have much time to get to know a lot about Jonathan, Lynn, their son, and the assassin organization for which he works. But this story definitely covered a lot of ground into letting us peek into a much larger world in which a lot of stories of intrigue would delight a reader.

    Nice job. I dug this.

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