“Bird’s Nest to Eagle, do you copy?”
Taito heard the static buzz rattle in his earpiece like the shaking rattle of a scared rattlesnake’s tail. He ignored this call for mission confirmation just as he had done the last three. Instead, he kept true to his mission, staring down the scope of his sniper rifle from his rooftop position at the small dirty window fifty yards across from him. Without answering he knew what question his tactical lead was going to ask.
“Bird’s Nest to Eagle, do-you-copy?”
His earpiece was an older model. It added a low bzzzz to every word that came through its speaker. Even with the noise, Taito could hear the adolescence in the young man’s voice. No doubt some young hot-shot; fresh out of the military academy, ignorant to the rules of the unfamiliar Assassin’s Guild.
“Bird’s Nest to Eagle, do-you-“
“Bird’s Nest, this is Eagle. Stay off my comm, you rookie. I’ll radio when my mission is complete. Over.”
He pulled the earpiece out of his ear and stuck it in his pocket. He shifted his body weight and lowered his center of gravity. From the dark rooftop he had positioned himself on, he could see the long body of the black limousine pull up to the brown brick building across the street. Out of the driver’s side, came a tall burly man with a tight fitting short sleeve shirt showing off his large tattooed arms, boulder-shoulders, and a shinny revolver holstered to his belt.
Taito glanced down at the hologauntlet on his forearm and saw the man’s face staring back at him. His name, Rocks Barrow, blinked in red along with the words highly aggressive – deadly force permitted, if necessary. The read out said he was wanted on multiple counts of murder, as well as arson, and grand theft. He walked around the hood of the car, to the rear backseat door and punched in the four-digit code to unlock the door’s air lock.
Out of the door came a whale of a man. He wore a black suit that looked more like a curtain, with a white collared shirt and matching black tie. The car tilted to the side as he pulled his massive body out of its carriage, his full upright 6’ 4” frame taking up Taito’s entire scope. His hologauntlet flashed furiously as it identified the man. Jones Barrow, Leader of the Mason City Crime Syndicate, brother of Rocks Barrow, wanted for murder, arson, rape, theft, conspiracy to money laundering, drug trafficking, prostitution…Taito stopped there, getting the overall gist of the kind of man he was staring at.
It was hard to tell by their mug shots but in person, the Barrows did share a striking resemblance, even with the stark contrast in physiques. Two other men in suits opened the building’s front door, standing on either side as Jones Barrow walked through. They bowed politely as he crossed the threshold, but Jones dismissed them as if they were flies buzzing around his head on a hot summer day.
Momentarily, Taito lost his visual of the Barrows as they navigated the building’s inner workings; but within a matter of minutes, they both reappeared in the same dirty window he had his scope trained on moments earlier.
The room was pretty stark, bare bones to say the least. There was a rich wooden desk and a high back leather chair in the middle of the room, which seemed out of place. Along the cracked and frayed walls, were faded murals of arctic sea serpents and swamp basilisks fighting each other, their long claws and wide maws filled with rows of teeth ripping and tearing the flesh of the other.
Jones sat in the leather chair, as Rocks stood behind him. His hand was on his pistol, as he surveyed the room. Taito put the earpiece back into his ear and clicked the small silver button on the outside of the small round backing. This channel, patched directly into a secure recording line, linked to a server somewhere in the city. Taito wasn’t sure where, and quite frankly, he didn’t care. He got paid to kill, not worry about where his intell was going. Weeks prior to this meeting, the district police got a reliable tip that a meeting between the Barrows and some new low life was going to take place here. So under cover of night, the Assassin’s Guild sent in a squad to fully bug the place.
Taito, looked at his hologauntlet one last time. His orders were spelled out clearly on the screen; gather viable intell and eliminate threats.
He didn’t know what the Barrows were up to, and again, he didn’t care. For the Guild to give him this assignment meant that for whatever reason, it was taken out of the Police Department’s hands and run up the shady government flagpole. His orders were certain. He definitely wasn’t here to issue an arrest warrant. This was a sanctioned hit.
Into the room walked a man covered in a hooded robe. His face covered by a mask, exposing only his eyes. From this distance Taito couldn’t get a clear visual, otherwise he could have taken a retinal scan through his scope and run it through his hologauntlet’s criminal database.
“You got my money?” Jones asked. He pulled a cigar out of his jacket pocket, lit it, and took a long drag. The smoke billowed out of his mouth like a fat, lazy dragon.
The buzz in the earpiece crackled in and out, but Taito could hear the conversation just fine. The blinking red REC symbol on the top right of his hologauntlet told him the conversation was being recorded.
“Yes, I have your money,” the stranger answered. Under his mask they must have had some kind of voice augmentation device because it sounded as if four men were talking all at once.
Rocks raised a suspicious eye after hearing the stranger’s voice. He gripped his pistol a little tighter. “What’s with the smoke and mirrors?”
The stranger looked at him, eyes level, and responded. “Precautions, my friend. Even though we find ourselves working together, make no mistake. You two are snakes. I do not trust you.”
A sinister smile covered the faces of both the Barrows after hearing the stranger’s words.
Out of his robe the strange man pulled a black duffle bag and dropped it on the wooden desk. Rocks stepped forward and unzipped it. He poured the contents of it onto the desk’s surface, revealing stacks of tightly bundled dollar bills.
Jones studied him for a short time before gesturing to his brother to take the money away. Rocks quickly collected the stacks and placed them back into the bag, before resuming his place at his brother’s side.
“As promised, your package will be delivered at your signal.” Jones began, satisfied. “From this moment on, you and I will have no contact.”
“Like I said earlier, I don’t trust you Barrow. How will I know if my package is delivered?”
Jones looked at the man opposite him as if he were a child being taught a lesson. “Your instincts are correct not to trust me. I am who I am after all. But unlike you, I wear no masks. If your package is not delivered, feel free to come at me with whatever fury you can muster, my friend. After all, you contacted me. I don’t hide from the filth of this city. Including you.”
They both stood in silence before the hooded man backed down. “Very well,” he said. “I will take my leave.”
And just like that he disappeared into the recesses of the building.
“You think that guy knows what he’s doing?” Rocks asked.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” his brother answered. “We’ll find out come tomorrow, I suppose.”
The two brothers laughed and exchanged some kind of made up handshake.
“Take that money to the Rico and get it cleaned. Meet me back at the camp later.”
Rocks nodded and took two steps towards the door. The bag fell to the ground making a dull thud on the concrete floor. It was followed by the loud thud of Rock’s body hitting the concrete floor, face first. Jones, lumbered over to his brother’s side, panicked. He got down on his knees and rolled him over on his back only to find a small hole in his forehead with a single stream of blood slowly pouring out of it. He looked in the direction of the window, bewildered. Taito could see in his eyes that he had registered what had happened to his brother, but by then it was too late. He opened his mouth to scream for help but before he could make a sound, Taitos bullet pierced his skull too.
Taito broke down the rifle and put it in the boom-box –a small portable combustion box – lying at his feet. He locked it and set the timer for 30 seconds. He sprinted to the other end of the building and leapt off its edge, swan diving 50 feet into the bay below.
He swam to the surface just in time to see the building he had just leapt from go up in a blaze of smoke and fire. Taking with it any sign of his involvement.
He tapped the button on the side of his comm unit, linking him back with his tactical lead. “Eagle to Bird’s Nest. Target neutralized.” He pulled the earpiece out of his and crushed it in his palm before scattering the debris.
He pulled a pair of goggles and a small sea breather from his chest pocket and popped it into his mouth. He dove deep to the river’s bottom and swam stroke after stroke to the other side of the bay.
President, Web Janney, looked down at the nation’s map with a furrowed brow. The nation he was elected to protect was little more than a small collection of states, surrounded by an ocean on one side, and too many renegade armies of tyrants and outlaws to count on the other. A century ago this land was once considered the land of the free and the home of the brave, but now, it was more the land of the ruthless and the home of those who wouldn’t give in. His nation’s people were still brave, that much President Janney still believed, but he also believed his nation’s enemies had become more brazen as a result.
Around the large map stood his cabinet, and advisors, highest among them his two Chiefs of Staff, General Earl Brand and Admiral Peter Ryta. They both stood with disciplined focus, staring at the map laid out in front of them, carefully dictating their thoughts on battle strategy.
“The outlaws are mounting their attacks here, and here,” General Brand said, moving two small red bricks to the northern most border of the nation’s territory. “We have confirmed intell that they have gotten their hands on at least three heavy laser tanks, and are slowly gathering nuclear cores to power them. As of right now, they have enough for one central strike.”
Admiral Ryta stepped forward placing two bigger red bricks side by side on the southern most border of the nations territory. “The southern colony of separatists are mounting a full scale attack at our water treatment plants and produce harvesting centers on the southern border. Unlike the outlaws, they do not have a tactful battle plan, nor the money to back a legitimate siege. This is good old fashion guerrilla warfare. Now, we know we can punch harder than they can, hell, they know that too. Problem is, they outnumber us four to one. Which is what they are banking on. It doesn’t matter how hard we can punch if they-“
“Don’t get tired,” President Janney finished. “Why are they doing this? The south has no reason to attack us.”
“Well, to put it simply Mr. President they’ve outgrown their surroundings,” Admiral Ryta answered.
“The South’s population has near doubled over the last four years, and the outlaws, well they are just greedy,” General Brand finished.
President Janney, sat in his plush leather chair and let out a long tired sigh. He had tried everything to avoid both the separatists and the outlaws, but none of it seemed to work.
“Everyone out,” He said, signaling to his cabinet of advisors to leave. “Ryta and Brand, you stay.”
It took little over ten seconds for the room to clear before President Janney resumed. “Give it to me straight. What are we looking at here?”
“War, Mr. President. A war that if we lose, could be the end of this great nation as we know it,” Brand answered.
President Janney tilted his head back against the chair’s high back and closed his eyes. Deep down, he knew exactly what his officers were going to say, but he wished all the same that they would give him a different answer.
“Sir, we need to make preparations immediately,” Ryta continued. “Beginning with the evacuation of the presidential party. We can arrange transport for you and your son to our safe house immediately – ”
“No,” President Janney interrupted. “War is coming, and I will not abandon this nation. Arrange transport for my son. Not the usual party either; it will be too easy to spot. A small team of your best men, four at the most.”
“Sir, are you sure?” Brand interjected. “Protocol is in place for a reason-“
“My word is final, General.” A cold air filled the room as President Janney asserted himself. With matters of politics, he was man of patience. With the well being of his son and last remaining kin, he was anything but.
“Very well, Mr. President. We will assemble four of our finest to escort your son.” Brand lamented.
“One of which will come from my Guild.”
The temperature in the room seemed to drop as both General Brand and Admiral Ryta whipped around to face the unfamiliar voice behind them. Out of the shadows of the dimly lit war room, strode the figure of a medium height man dressed in light black fatigues. He had a buzz cut and three reddish pink scars running through his left eyebrow resembling claw marks. Both Ryta and Brand stiffened as the man drew closer.
Ryta, straightening his tie regaining his composure. “Sir, I assure you our military ranks are more than capable of getting your son to the safe house. There is no need to involve the likes of the Assassin’s Guild in military business.”
“Ah yes, the wars of man.” The stranger said with a soft voice. “Before us there were many; after us, there will be many more.”
“Guild master, “ President Janney started with a smile. “Pleasure to see you again.”
“The Guild has always been loyal to the presidency,” the Guild Master said, with a bow. “This time is no different. The winds of war are among us. And we are at the ready.”
President Janney studied the man standing in front of him for a minute. In a strange way he was impressed with the reaction that his presence had had on his two military advisors. Technically, the Guild was under the nation’s military wing although no one would outright say it in the event that something particularly shady would be made public, not that it ever would. No one really knew how long the guild had been in service, but as long as they’ve been around, no one ever spoke of their dealings, especially the military. Rumor was that many of the Guild’s recruits came from fallen military men and women, so to them, the Guild was a black mark on their otherwise sterling reputation.
“An excellent idea, Guild Master.” President Janney said. Truth be told, he didn’t like the idea at all. But it was his son. And he would do anything to protect his son. “Bring your candidates to my office tomorrow morning.”
President Janney, buttoned the top button of his dark suit as he stood to face his chiefs. Brand and Ryta gave him a strong salute and the Guild Master bowed low. President Janney gave a quick nod of the head and exited the room.
Admiral Ryta and Admiral Brand exchanged a quick glance before turning to look at the Guild Master behind them. He was gone. They both turned and walked out of the room, quicker than either of them would have liked to admit.
Taito woke up the next morning to the sharp familiar chime of his hologauntlet. He picked up the gauntlet and tapped the blinking red square on its interface. The coded message appeared for ten seconds before disappearing.
1300 hours, Lion’s Den.
Lion’s Den was guild code for the President’s estate. 1300 hours was his meet up time. It was his next assignment.
As he got dressed, the immediacy of this recent assignment kept nagging at him. Usually assassins were given 30 days in-between assignments before being called on, unless it was a true emergency. In Taito’s entire tenure with the guild, he had only ever heard of one other instance where an assassin was tapped days after an assignment, and that assassin never came back.
As he made his way to the door of his flat he strapped his twin kanto knives to the small of his back before putting his jet-black cloak over his body. An assassin’s job was to be unseen in both night and broad daylight. Each assassin found their own unique way to remain inconspicuous in their respective surrounding. His cloak was made of a heavy black Kevlar hybrid which made it both warm and durable. Any passerby would see him and think he was maybe a homeless person, or someone who works in the mines, not knowing he had a collection of deadly weapons covering his body underneath at any given time.
Taito traveled the dirty streets of the capitol city with his head down and his hood up. Half of his brain traveled the overcrowded sidewalls on auto pilot and the other half was too busy looking for anything out of the ordinary. It was a skill that most assassins had to develop if they wanted to stay alive, knowing their familiar surroundings like the back of their hands, while noticing anything out of the ordinary.
He walked the relatively short walk to the President’s estate without any incident. He noticed a few pick-pocketers along the way, but that was to be expected of the capitol’s poor population.
He circled the property twice before entering, making a mental note of the building’s layout. Under his cloak, his hologauntlet buzzed; courtyard flashed on its blue screen before disappearing along with a series of numbers.
Instead of entering through the heavily guarded front entrance, he decided to sneak in through the south gate, most used for loading and unloading trash, food, and the like.
The entrance was guarded by two men armed with rifles. One of them was asleep in the small glass booth right outside the gate, and the other was busy talking on the comm unit in his ear. He waited until the guard’s back was turned before scaling the gate with ease and darting for the building entrance.
He picked the lock and slid in, undetected. Out of habit, he launched his gauntlet’s localized E.M.P. shield, making him invisible to cameras and security equipment. He wandered the halls, being careful not to be seen before he found a terrace overlooking a small, perfectly manicured courtyard.
From the balcony, he heard the voices of men talking below. He crouched and inched closer, seeing the familiar frame he recognized as President Janney, as well as two men dressed in full military regalia he had never seen before: four younger military men dressed in fatigues, and the black and purple robes he instantly recognized as the guild masters.
“It looks like your candidate didn’t show, Guild Master,” said one of the unfamiliar men. “What a Pity.”
“Things are not always what they seem,” he responded calmly.
Taito had only meet the Guild Master once before, at his Guild initiation. Each new member must fight a senior assassin in the art of unarmed combat until the initiant is defeated, o,r until the senior assassin is satisfied with their skill. It just so happened that the Guild Master was selected as his initiation opponent. Their fight lasted six hours and Taito had broken a leg, an arm, and three ribs. He was lucky to have left with his life. Taito had gotten leagues better since then and was widely regarded as one of the guilds elite, but he still doubted he could defeat the Guild Master in one-on-one combat. The man was easily the most adept assassin he had ever met.
The President shifted in his position. “It would seem, that General Brand is right, Guild Master,” he admitted. “We must proceed without him.”
The Guild Master bowed low and presented a soft smile. “President Janney, my Guild is skilled in the art of misdirection. If I may propose a challenge to your chiefs as proof that my candidate is indeed best suited, I would be honored.”
The voice identified as belong to General Brand scoffed. “And what might that challenge be?”
From the terrace, Taito sized up the four men dressed in fatigues. One was a hulk of a human, with arms like tree trunks. He swayed ever so slightly as he stood which Taito recognized as the sway of a man who had recently been drinking. The second was a short skinny young man who spun a short bladed knife in between his fingers as his superiors talked. His fingers moved with great dexterity but the way his body language spoke he was green, inexperienced, and nervous. The third man was much older than the pervious two. He kept rotating his right shoulder, probably nursing some kind of injury. The fourth man had a completely bald head and a scar over his right eye. He looked older but it was hard to tell with the scar. What Taito did know was that he looked completely unfocused and disinterested in everything happening around him.
“If my candidate defeats the four of yours, then we will know who is right for this duty.”
“Mr. President, this game has gone on long enough, we need to start making preparations-“
Before the man could finish, Taito darted for the edge of the Terrace and leapt making a show by extending his cloak as he descended. He could have killed all four of them with the shuriken throwing blades shaped like stars he had attached to his boots but that would be too easy. He hit the ground below him in a smooth barrel roll as he unsheathed his kanto knives from the small of his back.
The four men turned in unison, startled at Taito’s entrance. The hulk of a man stepped forward first, but was far too slow. Before he could rear his arm back to punch, Taito was already in his guard and plunged his knives deep into the man’s shoulders, slicing up with enough force to tear ligaments in the man’s shoulder blades and chest. He pulled both of his blades out quickly as the large body fell to the ground and threw both of them: one at the older man and the other at the man with the scar on his face, hitting them both in the shoulders with enough force to send them flying onto their backs. As he threw the knives he rushed the young man with the blade, who was now stuck, cemented in place in a state of shock. The young man thought about throwing his knife and flipped it quickly in his palm, but hesitated for a split second. Before he could react, Taito shoved his forearm and elbow into his throat, sending him toppling to the ground, gasping for air.
President Janney and his two chiefs looked at the men on the floor, with dropped jaws and widened eyes.
The Guild Master once again bowed low, “President Janney, may I present to you the Assassins Guild’s finest: Eagle.”
As Taito looked at President Janney, he realized that he had only ever seen him on the TV broadcasts. In person, he looked a lot different. More weathered and haggard.
“Eagle, simple enough,” The President said, regaining his composure. “Pleasure to meet you.” He extended his hand to Taito, expecting him to shake it. Taito looked over the President’s face, noticing the slight glint in his eyes. Before his little show, he hadn’t stopped to think what he was getting himself in to. Now he couldn’t think of anything else and strung together the longest chain of curses in his head that he could think of.
He looked back at the Guild Master and without shaking the President’s hand he said the only appropriate thing he could think of.
“ You have terrible security and you look way older in person.”