I ease my way along the grotty, damp corridor towards the rickety wooden door of Blue's apartment. It took ten long, brutal days of scouring drone images of the lanes and alleys to find her building, Akron's photographic memory of my memories giving us the only lead we had.
Even though I don't remember doing it, I had looked out Blue's window. Opposite her apartment, a particular gargoyle perched on the ruins of a nearby chapel. Ten long, soul-crushing days spent searching for a gargoyle. Akron was stubborn, though, and found it in the dead of the night—terminating an exhausting search through the endless wreckage of a dying city. And now here I am, in her deserted building, dressed in full combat gear, passing the once-familiar scrawls of faded graffiti plastered over the breeze block wall: 'Fuck the GC'; 'God help us'; 'Let it end'.
The images awaken memories of before, when I was myself—when I walked with her to her apartment, burning with anticipation, my heart aching with love. Even after everything I have learned about her, it still does. More than ever. Blue. Now I can only love her in silence. The one she loved is dead. Who I have become is no one to her. I can never tell her the truth—tell her I am still alive, like this. It would break her heart to see what I have become. No longer a man, but something other—a machine made for killing.
High above, my ride, a cloaked drone shuttle keeps an eye on what's left of the partially submerged city. The size of a small tank, it's a technological wonder loaned to me from Alpha VII's Elite Command. It waits for me after my rooftop drop, patient, a multi-million dollar sentinel, simultaneously communicating with me, Akron, and the team back at Alpha VII, who are watching my every move via the camera embedded in my helmet. I suspect de Pommier is patched in, too.
A quiet beep inside my helmet lets me know the cloaked shuttle has visuals for me. I tap the panel on the side of my helmet and the inside of my visor scrolls with images of what is left of the lanes of London's Soho.
Movement draws my eye to the topmost screen. Within its tiny frame, the rusted metal door leading to The Jackpot flaps open, wobbles and falls closed again. It slams open once more, so hard it ricochets against the brick wall. A burly, tattooed arm slips out from the building and holds the door open. I wait, tense. Fourteen false alarms so far. With each one my hopes kindle. Maybe Blue doesn't work there anymore. Maybe I was the only one she ever slept with.
Akron made me to prepare for the worst, forcing me to imagine Blue with a GC soldier, of her flirting with him like she did with me. The image of her mounted by another man slides into my mind, insidious. Anger flares, hot, violent, hungry for an outlet. I fight the rush of primal heat, thinking instead of her in her apartment, curled up on her bed with Miro, smiling, feeding her. The image fades, soured by de Pommier's briefing, of the unequivocal truth: Blue belongs to the UFF. I'm crazy to hope she won't be back at The Jackpot, working the soldiers.
Like a fool, I glance at the thermal readout of her apartment for the fourth time, willing her to be there, even though I know she's not. Nothing shows apart from a small heat signal tucked into a corner. I hope it's Miro. I hope she's still alive, for Blue's sake. But of Blue, only darkness suffuses her apartment. She's not there. She's not waiting for me.
I keep a wary eye on the screen showing The Jackpot's open door, the grip on my weapon rigid, sensing this is it. This is the one. This time it will be her. I brace myself.
An emaciated woman wearing a blue wig and a black latex swimsuit emerges, followed by a well-fed, beefy man, bracing the door open with one arm, the other draped around her neck, possessive. She leads him away from the club, unsteady on her stilettos, over the alley's broken cobblestones. I catch my breath. Blue. I watch her, transfixed, drinking in the sight of her. Alive. And coming straight at me.
Blue turns out of the filthy alley and moves along a wider lane, grimy and refuse-infested. The man pulls one of her breasts out of her swimsuit, and fondles it, drunk, rough. He stops and shoves her up against a metal dumpster. Within heartbeats he's inside her, ramming himself into her, raping her with brutal, savage thrusts, his hand around her throat, forcing her head back. For a second I see her face. Anguished. Her eyes bleak, dark hollows. Blind rage claws at me.
I turn, determined to go to her, to tear the bastard limb from limb, longing for his blood to coat my armor, slick and hot. I'm at the stairwell when Akron's voice cuts into the haze of my rage, his voice harsh in my earpiece, repeating my orders. Stay in the building. Wait for the target to come to you. Get Vallis and get out. Don't attract attention. In a lower voice, he warns me not to fuck up. I get the message. Akron's life is on the line. I take a deep breath and focus on the goal: getting Blue out. I head back to Blue's apartment, keeping my eyes straight ahead, ignoring the visual of another man climaxing in my woman.
A beep, and another screen pops up, superseding the one of Blue sagging against the dumpster, blood streaking the insides of her thighs. I punch the wall, once, twice, three times, until my armour-clad fist slams through a breeze block. It doesn't make me feel better. Akron hisses at me to calm down. In the new visual, the door to The Jackpot opens and a thin, wiry man emerges, moving with the precision of a trained soldier, dressed in faded military fatigues and a flak jacket. He follows the route Blue has just taken, stealthy, holding a pistol tucked up against his torso.
'Shit,' Akron mutters, tight, into my earpiece. 'He's UFF, probably her handler. Hold for orders.' The link cuts off.
Blue moves on, slower this time. The drone maps out a route to the apartment. Two blocks. I ease her door open—unlocked as usual—with the nose of my weapon. I slip inside, cautious. It's dark. Two patches of scarred wooden floorboards stare back at me, bone-white, highlighted by the pale, insipid light of a crescent moon.
I glance at the heat sensors again. The small smear in the corner moves towards me, hesitant. Miro emerges from the shadows, her eyes huge in her thin head. She walks, unsteady, starving, towards me. She sits by my feet and looks up at me, hopeful. I kneel and hold out a gloved finger, letting her rub her cheek against it. I can hear her purring. I have nothing to give her. In the kitchen I search bare cupboards. My heart clenches as I run a finger along a thick coating of dust, guilt almost crushing me. This is my fault. When I called down the strike on myself, I left them to die. I glance at Miro, who hasn't moved, though her eyes continue to plead, her message boring into me, visceral. Please. Feed me. Please.
'Maddox,' Akron's voice cuts in, urgent, 'you have to be quick. The one shadowing Vallis is tight with Zandiki. GC have been looking for that bastard for a long time. We need the one following Vallis. He'll lead us straight back to UFF's headquarters.' He pauses. I hear typing, rapid. A French accented voice murmurs in the background. So de Pommier is there after all, via her droid, watching me. 'Yes ma'am,' says Akron. 'Maddox,' he continues, tense, 'you have seventy seconds to get out before you compromise yourself.'
'Copy that,' I say, low. 'Get the shuttle ready. Will intercept the target in the stairwell.'
'No,' Akron says, his voice hard. 'Abort mission. You don't have time. We can't afford to lose this lead. Vallis can wait for another day.'
I look at Miro, looking at me. Starving. I think of the blood trailing down Blue's legs. Her eyes empty, bleak, her hope gone.
'No she fucking can't,' I mutter. 'I have time. Send the shuttle. I'm doing this.'