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By Frank J. Fleming
Liberty IslandCopyright © 2014 Frank J. Fleming
All rights reserved.
Killing is ugly. A living body is designed to survive; killing opposes its entire purpose. Nothing dies in an artful manner—a body is just damaged until it fails to sustain itself anymore. Put enough holes in something, and it will eventually stop moving, stop functioning. And often a living creature's last moments are spent in a pointless struggle, twisting and writhing in a vain attempt to continue its existence. I've seen it many times. I've known it myself.
But that's just an aesthetic quibble. The ugliness of death aside, I always enjoyed the challenge of being a hitman.
The receptionist was ignoring me. She (I wasn't familiar with the species—purplish with tentacley things on her head—but she appeared to be the childbearing variety) was talking on the phone in a clearly non-work-related manner while I waited. We were in a spacious lobby with walls and floors of glass and ivory. Everything was curved, not many hard angles where surfaces met. Several bunches of flowers and other potted plants decorated the walls and otherwise empty floor space. I noted one exit to my right and a hallway leading further into the building to my left—so I only had two directions to be wary of.
I knocked on the hard white top of her desk. She finished her call and looked at me with gray eyes. "I'm sorry for the wait, but I don't think this resort is able to accommodate your species."
"That's okay. I'm actually here on business. My name is Rico, and I am here to see Chal Naus."
"He didn't say he was expecting anyone, and he doesn't see anyone without an appointment. And business hours ended half an hour ago."
"No, he is not expecting me, but I do need to see him personally. And I specifically came after business hours because I wanted to be polite and not interrupt whatever it is he does here."
Her face tensed. I had no idea what that meant—and didn't care. "I can't help you. I think you need to leave." Her tenor had changed—I think she was threatening me. She wasn't very good at it. Perhaps I could teach her something.
The job of a hitman is always changing, always invigorating, and it often requires that I perform at my best. Plus, it makes me get out and interact with people—which is good, since I'm basically anti-social. I have trouble seeing that as my fault, though; I rarely encounter an individual worth talking to. Everyone seems so pointless, coasting through drab, rote lives. They have nothing useful to say, nothing useful to do. They just are.
I partly blame civilization for that. It allows people to get through life with so little effort. Take this receptionist. Most animals exist in a daily life-and-death struggle, and if they don't give it everything they've got, they end up with that messy death I just described. The receptionist, on other hand, just had to sit at a desk and smile ... and she couldn't even be bothered to put much effort into that. I can't imagine why someone would waste her life going to a job she doesn't care to do. I can't imagine such a person would have anything to say that might be worth listening to. So I'm anti-social.
But I'm working on it.
Sure, I find pretty much all sentients boring in their normal lives, but that doesn't mean they lack the potential to be interesting. It's just a matter of focus. No matter how lazy or unmotivated a person is, if he feels his life is on the line, he will devote every available resource to not being killed. Civilization goes out the door, and pure survival kicks in. When people are that awake and that focused, they intrigue me. So you can say I have a job that brings out the best in people.
"Are you familiar with the Nystrom syndicate? I am here on their behalf, so one way or another I will speak to your boss. In person."
Her eyes grew wider. I could have guessed at the meaning of that but, again, I didn't care. "Is he aware you are coming?"
I thought I'd covered that. Sometimes—due to my lack of social skills—I'm not as clear as I think I am. So I tried again. "I'll make this simple: You tell Chal Naus that I am going to speak to him personally and that I will kill anyone who stands in my way, starting with you." I didn't think she was actually going to get in my way, but as I said, people can be quite focused when they feel their lives are on the line. "I'm going to go sit down while I wait for a response." I smiled politely, wondering what color her species bled; you can never tell by skin color.
I sat down in one of the odd circular chairs across from the desk. The purple, tentacle-headed receptionist was back on the phone, talking much more frantically than she had before. Soon six other creatures entered the lobby: larger tentacle-headed things I assumed were male. I think they were supposed to intimidate me, and the tense faces they wore were probably their angry expressions.
I remained seated and relaxed, arms folded. There is little in body language that is universal between species, but ignoring someone is a good way to assert dominance; it communicates that I do not find an individual or group to be threatening or even worth my time.
A screen appeared on one of the walls. On the screen was the image of another creature of the same species, and admittedly able to judge by only a small sample, he seemed obese. That wasn't necessarily a weakness—it could be a cultural thing.
"That is Chal Naus," Dip, my "partner," chimed in my ear.
"You said you needed to speak to me," Naus said.
"I was told by Nystrom to speak to you personally, and this is rather impersonal. So just tell me where you are, and I'll head on over."
"Don't bother; I don't have anything to say to you people. I'm supported by the Veethood now, and I don't intend to have any more business with Nystrom."
Dip spoke up. "The Veethood are a local cartel—"
"Never heard of them. Don't care about them," I told both Naus and Dip. The six guys around me started to stir.
"You go tell Nystrom—"
"I was not told that Nystrom cares what you have to say." I used my firm voice, hoping that meant something to his species. "And I certainly don't care. My job is to give you a message, and then I am done."
Naus's eyes narrowed. Anger? "Perhaps I can tell them all I need to by sending back your corpse."
I relaxed back in my chair. "I wouldn't recommend it. Nystrom is known for being very dogged. You kill me, they send two people. You kill them, they send three people. Then four people. Then five people. And they'll keep going until they get what they want." I unfolded my arms. "Know how many I think it will take, though?" I leaned toward the screen. "I think one will be more than enough."
I should mention that my brain is altered in more ways than one. First, my reflexes are much better than a regular man's, but more importantly, I can actually process and perform two separate actions at once as long as one of them doesn't require higher-level functions like speech processing. For instance, I have never had any trouble patting my head and rubbing my tummy at the same time. More practically, I can wield two guns, acquiring and eliminating a separate target with each hand simultaneously. That's very useful when I have to quickly gun down six people—which I did as I stood from the chair. I immediately assessed the threat level of each of the six and then shot them in order. I had shot them all before any had successfully drawn a weapon.
It was a little pathetic, but the rest of the bodies Naus would throw at me would be a little more prepared and might actually present a challenge. Their blood is orange, by the way.
Naus was shouting something at me through the screen, but I didn't pay attention and instead walked over to the receptionist, who was cowering behind her desk. "So where is Chal Naus?"
"Down the hallway in the bar!" she cried. My translator program had some trouble with her stuttered delivery.
"I know this must be stressful for you, but thank you for your help," I said before turning away. I want to be better socially, so I try to work at it whenever I have an opportunity. It's hard for me to analyze in which situations I actually gain something by being polite, but it usually doesn't hurt. I really have to remember to be polite, though, because of my intense disdain for pretty much every sentient creature.
Two more purple guys came running at me, guns pointed forward, but I still shot both of them before they could fire. I stepped over them and continued to the bar.
Now you might be thinking there are smarter ways to go about this sort of thing, but then you'd be missing the point. Sure, I could sneak in and take out my targets surreptitiously, and a skilled assassin certainly is a threat to be feared. But I am a hitman, not an assassin. And there's a good reason for that. Hiding shows weakness. When representing the Nystrom syndicate, one of the most powerful forces in the universe, one should never show weakness. That's why I always use the front door. I let my marks know I'm coming. I walk calmly. I give them time to prepare to defend themselves. And I show them that whatever they do doesn't matter. Because Nystrom always gets what it wants. Always. It is larger and more powerful than most people can even comprehend, and I am the human representation of that power.
Yes, one of these days that philosophy will earn me a hole burned right through my face. But everyone will have to admit that right up to that point I was extremely intimidating. Years ago, there was once a sensationalist piece in the works at the Laverk Times calling me the "Universe's Deadliest Man." Funny story: the day before it would have appeared, I killed the entire editorial staff in a completely unrelated matter.
Well, it was funny to me. Maybe you had to have been there.
Anyway, I met no one else on the short walk to the bar and could hear people panicking inside. I assumed security had fortified around Naus, and that would work nicely for me, because I'd rather they all just stayed put.
Bars make nice places for hits. They're public, so there are plenty of witnesses, but they usually lack many windows and are out of the way, so too many people aren't alerted too quickly. I've never liked hanging out in such places for fun, as I don't drink; I only go to bars when I'm killing people.
I go to a lot of bars.
I stepped through the front door and started firing. The non-threats were presumably smart enough to flee through the exits, so I took aim at anyone facing my direction. It's not like there's a penalty for shooting innocent bystanders (besides the legal ones, but that's always been a non-issue for me). I aimed quickly while moving in a zigzag pattern (they were expecting me, so they would inevitably get some shots off) and took them down two by two. There were nine threats by first glance, then seven, then five, then three, then ... still three.
I fired again, and the shots terminated in some sort of energy field. I had heard of these but had yet to encounter one. Naus was behind the shield, sitting at the far end of the bar at his own table with a gun in hand and two armed guards standing next to him. "Really impressive," Naus said, "but now I guess we'll find out how many men it takes to bring you down."
The rest of the bar's patrons continued fleeing, and I shot two running past me who made motions that could have been reaching for guns. I didn't know if I was right, but in the past few seconds I had developed a deep-seated prejudice against purple aliens with tentacles coming out of their heads and thus didn't really care. In a few seconds, all that remained were me and the three behind the barrier, but more guards or police were coming, and I was out in the open with multiple entrances to watch. I probably would not last long in that situation—but, who knows? Maybe I would. Today was not the day to find out, though. I looked at Naus. "Fleeing might have been a better idea than trapping yourself."
"If Nystrom wants to waste time sending me people to kill, then I'll happily oblige." Naus looked like he felt pretty invincible behind the shielding. I had noticed the lights dimming a bit when I'd shot the shield, which meant it was on the same grid as the rest of the bar. That gave me an obvious line of attack. "Nystrom doesn't have a presence in this system—certainly not enough for the cut they've been demanding. Plus, I do have some standards, and I don't want to be associated with what Nystrom has been doing on Zaldia. So I'm going to send you back to them in pieces as a little message that they should devote their time and resources elsewhere."
He was talking about the politics behind this job as if it meant anything to me. The why was never important—that's big picture stuff and it all gets rather pointless in the larger scheme. It's all just power struggles that creatures have had since the first two single-celled organisms competed for the same food source.
So I don't care about the why—just the what. And the what right now was to get past the energy shield, and quickly. I put away one gun and took out a little device that was normally a useful diversion. It was a miniature generator capable of enough power output to keep a small city running for about a second. It was pretty easy to reengineer into a nasty explosion capable of taking out a few city blocks, which made it illegal for civilian possession pretty much everywhere—something to note if you care about that sort of thing.
"Are you listening? Did you really think you could come to my home and demand anything of me?"
I plugged the microgenerator into the wall, and the power surge instantly blew out all the lights. The dark was ruined by two blaster shots, and two thuds confirmed I had correctly remembered where Naus's guards were standing. A backup generator soon kicked in, and when the lights returned, Naus could see that I was now standing beside him.
I shot off his gun hand. He fell to the ground screaming, clutching his stump, and holding back the flow of orange blood. "Now, I wouldn't say we demanded anything." I stood over him but didn't bother pointing the gun at him. "But as a representative of the Nystrom syndicate, which you've done business with for so long, I would expect a little hospitality. At no point did anyone offer me so much as a beverage; I felt very unwelcome. And why? What personally had I ever done to you? We have an expression on my home world about not shooting the messenger. Do you know what it is?"
He stared at me in shock.
"It's 'Don't shoot the messenger.'" I thought about that for a moment. "That's really only half an expression, isn't it? 'Don't shoot the messenger ...' or what? I guess 'Don't shoot the messenger, or he'll flip out and start killing everybody.' Anyhoo, can I read you my message now?"
"Don't kill me! The Veethood—"
"Your talking right now is not required or appreciated ... and considering the trouble you put me through, you should try and pay attention. Please." I reached into my inside jacket pocket and pulled out a paper note. I unfolded it and read it to him. "Chal Naus, we've heard about your new business arrangements. This is upsetting, as you've been a valuable partner, and we hope you'll reconsider. Whatever you decide, though, we wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors." I folded the note back up and placed it on the table. "You don't need to sign for it. I'll show myself out. Enjoy the rest of your evening."
I headed to the nearest exit, leaving Naus moaning in pain on the floor behind me. Things had turned out pretty well. My biggest fear on this job was that he would have politely agreed to see me, since that would have made the whole message delivery thing rather anticlimactic. It's kind of pointless for me to do a job somewhere and not shoot people.
As I left the bar I heard sirens coming my way. It's kinda funny, because I'm really not someone you want to loudly announce your presence to. "Dip, exit plan alpha."
"I've noticed a correlation between increased traffic on police communications channels and your wanting to be picked up. In the future, should I just assume that—"
Excerpted from Superego by Frank J. Fleming. Copyright © 2014 Frank J. Fleming. Excerpted by permission of Liberty Island.
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