John's muscles pumped, firmly under his boss's -- the Emperor's -- control, launching him through the forest. Branches broke under his muscled frame. It was dark, the white moon obscured by low clouds.
Damn, a forest this big must have cost a fortune. Trees, like plants and wildlife, had been virtually eliminated from the nation. Only the wealthiest inhabitants could afford them.
He dodged past a tree that loomed out of the night and kept running towards the compound. To a normal man the scene probably appeared black as prison, but John Murtal's surgically enhanced eyes picked out every detail. The metal-rail fence that bounded the compound, a half-mile before him. The mansion fifty yards behind that, all brick and steel without windows.
A few moments passed before he reached the fence, spearing thirty feet into the sky. Barely too high to jump. Probably ceranium alloy, one of the few substances he couldn't snap as easily as a man's backbone.
His arms rose, out of his control, to grasp the rails and heave himself up. He didn't bother to resist. He had tried before to take back his own body from the Emperor's command. The results had been . . . painful.
Thank God he was only controlled during the night. He groaned internally. He would probably kill himself if this was his life.
His legs propelled him over the fence. He landed in a crouch, drug-strengthened bones absorbing the impact of the fall.
Gunfire exploded around him as automatic weapons sighted his form. His body veered, dodging the bullets and sprinting towards the mansion. He slid to a stop in the recessed entryway. Bullets spattered the grass outside, but in here he was safe.
His gaze rose to the closed double doors that barred entry into the house. Ten feet high and probably thick. Made of black steel, with spikes and nubs protruding from the surface.
It was a killer's entryway, unwelcoming and fortified. He tried to exhale, thankful yet again that his quarry tonight -- Emeritus -- was just another crime-lord. One of the bastards who sold heavy arms to terrorists, another man too dangerous to be trusted to the fallibilities of the civilian court system.
For another night, his target wasn't someone he loved. Not one of his friends, not his sister or his mother or . . .
It was a well-kept secret that the Emperor didn't encourage male Enforcers to have ties. Usually they were already lonely killers when they were hired. The ones that weren't were forced to cut their ties. By choice or, more often, by murder.
He tried to stop and catch his breath as he recovered from the gunfire. Even after ten years, the shock of being fired on left him weak. But apparently rest wasn't in the Emperor's plan tonight. His body lunged forward. His hands punched through one of the doors and ripped it open.
Bullets exploded through the doorway. Holy shit! He leapt to the side, expecting to feel them rip open his flesh. But they missed and smashed into the brick floor, throwing up rubble.
His mind whirled, instinctively trying to overcome the obstacle. He couldn't step inside without being riddled. Not that his thought mattered. He stooped to grab a piece of rubble, wondering what the hell he was trying to do. He couldn't read the Emperor's thoughts any more than the Emperor could read his own.
He heaved the brick into the hallway beyond the doors. The automatic weapons fire shifted, tracing the projectile and blasting it apart. He darted in.
He raced down the hallway as the gunfire refocused and tore at his heels. His less-than-subtle approach had probably alerted Emeritus' personal guards. The Emperor didn't mind killing everything in this house and neither did he, but neither of them wanted to risk John getting killed.
The hallway was long and dimly lit, but he didn't focus on it. His thoughts turned inward.
Every night, since he had signed up for this job what seemed an eternity ago, it had been like this. A brain-implant knocked him out at twenty-one hundred hours, and the Emperor took command of his body. The chemical cocktail in his blood transformed him. He became stronger, faster. Unbelievably resistant to pain.
A pair of guards appeared in a doorway, automatic weapons spraying bullets. His body lunged to the side as they sliced the air where he had been. As the guards tried to track him, his legs pumped and he launched towards them. Blood sprayed as he ripped their heads off.
He cursed internally. When he had been told that the job involved fighting every night, he had leapt at the chance. But this wasn't fighting. The thoughts that surfaced every night ran through his head in a defeated mantra. He wasn't a warrior, free to react to his surroundings and use his mind and muscles to triumph on the battlefield. He was a tool, watching as the Emperor manipulated his body.
But the Enforcer wasn't a job he could just quit. It was a lifetime of servitude, whether that life ended in old age or murder by a vengeful Emperor.
He sprinted through the doorway the soldiers had come from. He was close now; he could see the dot representing Emeritus on the map overlaid on his vision. It was the same technology the Emperor used to keep tabs on the Enforcers. He bulled through a heavy door and spun left up a flight of stairs.
He knew his lifetime probably wouldn't continue another month. The death-sentence hung on him like a lead cloak, draping him in its depression. The Emperor suspected his role in saving Celine, and sabotaging the Emperor's plans for her had consequences.
He would do it again, though. He could still smell her perfume, could see her lying naked in his arms. He groaned in his mind. Christ, even if she hated him now, he couldn't let her die.
Another guard appeared down the hall, holding a bulky stun-gun. He smiled grimly and fired. Pain exploded in John; his nerves felt like they were on fire and he tried to scream. He staggered, almost fell as blackness seeped into the corners of his eyes.
His teeth gritted and he lunged towards the man. He felt like he was moving through gel, but still too fast for the guard to get another shot off. He snapped the man's neck and kept going, splinters of pain shooting through him like leftover electric sparks.
The pain subsided, and he pushed on. Emeritus was close now. He ran down another stone-walled corridor, spun right to crash through a door, and found him.
The room was small and circular, stone-walled like a dungeon from an earlier age. White lights shone from the ceiling, illuminating the red carpet embroidered with an eagle, the wood table against one wall. Emeritus lay huddled on the carpet. His neck had been slashed.
John inspected the wound. It didn't look deep enough to be fatal. But when he used his life-scanner to check the man's vitals, they were blank. The man was dead.
There was a syringe next to him. What the hell? Maybe Emeritus was an addict. Maybe he'd been shooting up when one of his guards had decided to cut his throat.
John didn't have time to ponder the situation. The transmitter in his ear, his constant connection to the Emperor, buzzed. The Emperor's voice cut through his thoughts.
"Target is dead. Go home." John felt his limbs move as his master forced him to obey the order.
The room in the basement was well-lit and spacious. Warm light radiated from a chandelier and made the white walls shine. A big oak table gleamed darkly in its position along one wall, empty save for one holo-computer floating above it and the engraved icon of the Spanish crown. It had cost a fortune back when Spain existed; as an antique it was damn-near priceless. A pair of manacles hung from the side wall, a failed experiment.
John leaned forward in his chair, looking at the holo-computer, waiting. He felt the familiar shiver of fear he did every night when he turned it on. If the Emperor found out that he had this hooked up -- that he had bribed a tech-agent to have John's targets emailed to him two hours before he was supposed to -- then he was a dead man. But he had to know.
Who would it be tonight? Jesus, he prayed it wasn't someone he loved. He didn't want to kill someone close. Not again.
He ran through the list of possible targets with a worry that bordered on the fanatic. His mother. His best friends, Tom and Raphael. His sister Lisse. At least his brother was dead, killed five years past by another Enforcer. The silver lining on the smog . . .
Or maybe Celine, again. She had escaped once with his help, maybe he would have to return to finish the job. He slumped at the thought, groaned as his memory re-awakened old wounds. That would be the ultimate irony.
Of course, maybe he would get lucky tonight. Like he had last night, with Emeritus. He doubted it, though. A leaden dread settled in his stomach as he waited.
The computer whirred, scattering his thoughts. An electro-message flashed on the screen. He opened it. A single name appeared.
He stared at the bold letters, numb. Part of him had expected it for about a month, ever since he saved Celine. It was inevitable.
But still, to see it in black and white, now . . . he sagged in his chair as depression smothered him.
An instant later he jerked to his feet. He had known the Emperor would try to kill him. Now he knew exactly how. He knew what he was fighting, and Christ he could fight it!
His mind whirled. How much time did he have? He glanced at the chronometer on the screen. It was nineteen hundred hours. Thoughts flashed through his mind, half-formed plots and questions appearing and vanishing in an instant.
He closed his eyes, forcing himself to breath. Dammit, he had to get control! If he was going to survive, he needed to slow down enough to think. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly and drew another.
Gradually, his mind slowed and reason returned. He couldn't do this alone, he realized. He needed outside help. He walked to the wall and tapped the transmitter between two bricks.
Raphael answered after almost thirty seconds.
"What the hell, John? I'm kind of in the middle of something, I'll call you back."
A girl's voice purred in the background. "Come back to bed, Raphael. We're lonely."
"Goddamnit Raphael, I don't care if you're in the middle of a five-girl orgy! This isn't a ‘call back' situation."
Raphael paused, then spoke to his companions. "Sorry babe, John's being an asshole. You and Claire get dressed and I'll call on you later."
A moment passed, and Raphael sighed. "I hope you know they were gorgeous. Both of them. Let that sit on your conscience. What do you need?"
"Did you see my target for tonight?"
Raphael groaned. "C'mon, you know there are two people in the world who see your targets, and the one who's not you is the Emperor. Are you addled?"
John shook himself. Dumb question. What was wrong with him right now?
"Okay, fine. I did, and it's not good."
Raphael cursed. "Should I be going off-planet right now?"
"No. It's me. I'm the target. I have two hours till I have to kill myself, and I need your help to prevent that."
Raphael sucked in his breath. "Tall order. I don't know if I can help you, definitely no promises." He paused. "Didn't you face this thing a couple weeks ago? When Celine was the target?"
John shook his head. "Yeah, I managed to send her off-world, barely. I can't kill her if she's a planet away." He felt a chill. The memories of that night -- the frantic rush to a space-port, bribing officials to leave early, fighting with reluctant pilots and city guards and Jesus the constant ticking clock -- still twisted his gut. If he had failed . . .
A low whistle cut through his memory. "Damnation John, why did you pick this job?"
"You know that."
"Oh yeah, you were a patriot. You thought you would be hunting down terrorists, killing the bastards that threatened the nation.
"And now . . . ?"
He rubbed his temples. "God above, Raphael, you really have to ask?"
He could hear Raphael sigh. "To think ten minutes ago I was gonna get laid . . . well damnit come over, I can't let my friend die."
John's V3 Eagle tore down the side roads a few miles from his mansion. It was a beautiful design, he thought; even when he was trying to dodge death, he could appreciate the vehicle that had cost more than his house. The leather seat was individually molded to fit his body. The windows were tinted as black as the exterior. The interface responded to his thoughts rather than his touch on the non-existent steering wheel.
He shook his head and considered his situation. He had expected to be one of the Emperor's targets for about a month, ever since he had saved Celine. He had thought the Emperor would send another Enforcer to do the job, but no . . . this made more sense. There was an elegant simplicity to it: a semi-rogue thread in the Emperor's tapestry, cutting itself off.
He shot down the road and took his bearings. He was about twenty minutes from Raphael's house. The seconds ticked loud in his ears.
His mind spun, turning over Raphael's last question. When he had signed up, he thought he would love being an Enforcer. The thrill of the hunt. The joy of killing the bastards that preyed on society.
He loved fighting, loved the thrill of pitting his skill and intellect against an enemy and knowing his life was forfeit if he failed. Being paid to kill was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
He turned left at an intersection and kept going. Buildings blurred, other cars appeared and were gone in an instant as the Eagle hit 500 kilos per hour.
But his actual job as Enforcer had turned out to be different. Even that he could deal with, though. His sated conscience outweighed the fact that he lost control of his body for ten hours a night. The pay was incredible.
It had been Celine that changed his mind. Just thinking the name twisted his gut. He could still see her in her white dress dancing with him, could hear her throaty whisper as she told him she loved him.
But his job didn't encourage lovers, and leaving every night to kill didn't foster a relationship . . .
He groaned, shying away from the memories. His iron discipline locked them away as he forced himself to focus. It was nineteen twenty-one. Barely an hour and a half left. Jesus . . .
How was he going to get out alive? He was relying on Raphael -- the genius -- to help him, but he needed to be thinking of methods on his own.
The Eagle glided down a winding side-street. Massive factories loomed on the side of the road, windows lit as they ground out industry.
He could always assassinate the Emperor, he thought bleakly. The nation's capital was a fortress, but it would be worth the risk. He threw out the idea as implausible. Maybe in ten years he would liberate the nation; right now he had to save himself.
He could break into the information warehouse where every Enforcer's data was kept. If he could delete his name, the Emperor would lose any influence over John. He turned the idea over, then shook his head. It would take too long. He only had . . . he glanced at his watch and swore. It was nineteen twenty-seven.
He slid down another side road and saw Raphael's mansion a mile away.
It was huge, even bigger than John's. Inventors were paid even better than Enforcers, particularly the geniuses. A steel palisade encircled it, tipped with spikes that gleamed in the moonlight. Massive trees encircled the house, but John could see it soaring above them. Fifty feet above the ground, a palace floating in the sky.
The main gate swung open as he approached, and John ran into the yard. Massive trees surrounded him, thick foliage cutting off the moonlight. Branches slapped him for the few minutes it took him to break through and reach the house.
He charged to a post underneath the building, punched in a password on the electronic keypad. He vanished, appeared an instant later in Raphael's mansion.
His host was waiting for him, resplendent in plum-colored robes. His pointed beard clashed beautifully with tanned skin and big blue eyes.
He crossed to meet John, extending his hand.
"John, good to see you." Solemn and unctuous at once. "I'd offer you wine, but somehow I doubt you would take me up on the offer."
John shook his head.
"Pity. If you're going to die, you might as well be drunk. Go out in style. A girl or two wouldn't hurt, either."
John growled. His chronometer ticked, every tick inching him closer to twenty-one hundred.
"I don't intend to die, Raphael."
Raphael shrugged. "Life is too good to end prematurely. If you want to live -- and I would encourage it -- I've had some thoughts on the matter."
Thank God. John grinned, suddenly and irrationally happy with his old friend, and ashamed of his earlier curtness. Raphael was a genius.
"Damnation, that's good news. What exactly did -- damnit, just a moment."
The transmitter in his ear buzzed.
"Bad news, Enforcer." The Emperor's tones were crisp and glacially cold. "Emeritus is still alive."
What? John shook his head at the words. Somehow he had forgotten he had a job outside not killing himself.
"Impossible. I saw his corpse. His heartrate was zero."
"Obviously not. He survived, he duped you, and now he's at large."
"His symptoms showed he was dead!"
"Apparently symptoms lie."
"So when am I going to kill him?" John asked, suddenly mocking. Reckless. "Before or after I commit suicide?"
"Before. John Murtal will be your second kill of the night."
The words echoed, humorless. Damn, how could the Emperor be so cold?
"Fine. He'll be dead by night's end."
"Obviously. Enjoy your last hour of freedom." The line went dead.
John sighed. By the nine hells, he hated that man. He turned to Raphael.
"So what exactly did you have in mind to help me?"
His friend turned, beckoning him to follow. John walked after him, down the long corridor lined with erotic paintings. Statues of naked women stood in alcoves. The carpet was plush and purple, and his steel boots sank in. He cursed the slow pace and pushed past Raphael, running down the corridor.
"Where are we going?"
Raphael gasped as he tried to keep up. "First left, into that room."
John dodged past a pink sofa and spun to his left. Beside a naked picture of Venus, he could see a door. Dark metal, so black it seemed to absorb the warm light of the corridor.
John pushed the door open and stepped inside. The room within was small. Raphael pointed to the far wall.
"Manacles," he said proudly. "Hand and foot." They extended from the stone wall, four circles of metal connected by chains. "Ceranium alloy, stronger than the ones I installed in your house." The ones that broke, let John break free and almost kill Celine.
John inspected them. He tugged them, squeezed them in his grip. Ceranium allow. That could work.
"Problem: they're just attached to the stone. I'll rip them out of the walls."
"They're attached by six feet of metal!"
Raphael turned to him, eyes wide. "Damnation John, how strong are you?"
"That's not half of it. I've dodged bullets, ripped the heads off an entire platoon of guards. Punched through stone."
John shrugged. "These won't work. What else've you got."
Raphael walked out of the room, sweeping John in his wake.
"You said the Emperor takes control when you fall asleep. Why not just stay up?"
"If I'm awake past twenty one hundred, he knows. An Enforcer will be sent to collect me. Unless you want one of those infiltrating your house . . . "
"Ok, how about this?"
He pushed away a tapestry and opened the door concealed behind it. He fumbled inside and pulled out a massive gun.
John fingered the dark metal. His mind flashed back to the night before, to the fire that lanced through his bones and almost left him unconscious. "Nine hells, Raphael, this thing's big enough to stun a titan. You make this?"
Raphael grinned. "Specially modified. Only one in the galaxy."
John shook his head. "Problem is, I won't be dead. It's a short-term solution to an eternal problem."
Raphael considered. "It would buy us tonight. We could try."
John nodded. "If nothing else, stun me when I transform. But there must be something more permanent."
"What was that call? A couple minutes ago."
John growled. "The Emperor. Apparently one of my targets faked his own death. He artificially slowed his vitals, probably used ribossin . . . " He trailed off as a thought occurred.
"Damnit, I should've thought of that!"
Raphael shook his head. "Ribossin? Good thought, but it's black-market, good luck finding some. I don't even have any."
He paused. "The man you didn't kill, on the other hand."
John grinned. "Of course! Ok, I need to find that man. Break into his house and steal it. For that, I need to transform . . . " He took a deep breath, thinking. Excitement surged through his system. He could do this! God above, he could survive!
With an effort of will he calmed his racing thoughts. He needed to think, not spit out half-formed plots.
"You go to the man's house. Emeritus, on the North side. Bring the gun. I'll transform and break in at twenty one hundred." He exhaled, thinking.
"Use the chaos of my entrance to find it. Never mind, I know where it is." The image of the syringe next to Emeritus' body flashed in his mind. It had been mostly full, definitely full enough for one more use. Assuming Emeritus hadn't taken it with him when he fled. "When I come, stun me and pump it in."
Raphael nodded. He was pale. "Christ, I'm going to have to subdue an Enforcer."
John laughed. It felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, just the possibility that his death sentence was no longer absolute. The entire world seemed brighter, like a black filter had just been removed.
"Don't sweat it. Leave now, you're gonna need a head start."
He grinned, suddenly energetic. "Let's spit in the Emperor's eye. Fake my death."