A short story by Jerry Hanel
Agent Thirty-Six, Peter Gunner, sat silently in the blackness, staring into the pouring rain. This time of year, the rain was still cold, causing his muscles to ache. His hands were now dry again as they held the pulse rifle steadily at his side. He kept warm by the cover he’d secured across the alley; a small wooden lean-to crudely secured to the brick wall. It had been home of some street bum. The sleeping dart would wear off by morning, and the man would likely remember nothing except the bottle resting on his chest, assuming to have drunk himself into another stupor. But this small bit of protection from the elements was the best location.
From this vantage point he could see both exits, and the vast majority of the windows. His odds were good to catch whatever rebel scum this base was hiding. His superior officer had told him that many of the Alliance’s most notorious enemies were on the run, taking up residence in the bunk house across the way.
The Rebs had all-but moved off-world to the planets on the outer edge of the galaxy, where it was stated frequently that their failed attempt to break up the Alliance was gaining steam once more. This time, they were using precogs — people who could see glimpses of the future — and other mentalist-types to try to gain a tactical advantage. According to their latest intelligence, the latest group of mentalists were being housed on Alliance soil, right under their very noses.
“Targets on the move. Sensors have bodies moving through the lower level.” His commander’s voice broke the silence from the earpiece. “Be ready, Thirty-Six. They’re coming right to you.”
“Roger,” he said, bringing the rifle up into position. Through the scope, he could see the front door very clearly.
A few moments later, the heavy metal door squeaked open and two young girls stepped out, each no older than ten, pulling yellow rubber rain-coat hoods up over their heads.
“Where are they?” he whispered.
“Thirty-Six! Take your target.”
“Sir? Those are children. Where are the mentalists?” Even as he spoke, four more children, three boys and another girl, stepped out into the pale yellow of the street lamp.
“Those are the mentalists!” the C.O. barked. “Take your target! That’s an order.”
Gunner knew that threat. He was a secret operative for the Alliance. His records were expunged and there was no trace of his existence on the Cortex. As such, he could go anywhere and do anything, with no repercussions. Well, except one. He had to obey orders at all costs. Anonymity was a very powerful thing. But it also worked against you; no one would notice if you suddenly went missing.
“Agent! Did I not make myself clear?”
He sat in silence, his heart beating so hard, surely the kids could hear him. How could he do this? They were only children. They were nothing. How could they possibly be a threat?
“Seventeen, line up a shot on Thirty-Six. If he doesn’t fire in three seconds, take him out and finish the mission.”
“Belay that order, Seventeen.” Gunner swallowed the bile rising in his throat. It had come down to this: him or them. There was no middle ground. “I’m waiting for a clear shot, but it will happen.”
He lined the sights at the tallest of the group, the zoom of his scope clearly revealing her face in the street lights as they tromped through the puddles. He could see the girl smiling as her face passed under pool of brightness. She was having fun. His finger held firmly on the trigger, but he couldn’t move. She was what? Twelve? Maybe.
She looked up, the exhilaration of playing in the rain on her face. Then her eyes turned, slowly the smile faded. She didn’t just look in his direction. She looked at him — deep into his soul. He could feel another presence in his mind, drilling through mountains of information. Deeply classified information. Images of his past secret missions came flooding forward. He blinked several times. Adrenaline spiked through his body. His training kicked in and he rested his finger on the smooth trigger, putting slow, even pressure on it.
The gun erupted. He could see the girl go instantly limp through the scope. The images in his mind stopped and he could feel the water running down his cheeks as he moved the barrel four inches to the left. The children scattered away from the yellow-clad body slumped on the ground to find hiding places among the trash cans and street litter, but their bright rain ponchos were easy to spot.
Fear and hysteria washed across the young Asian girl’s face as it came into view, just between the crosshairs. The gun erupted again, and for a moment, the fear fell from the girl’s face, just before her body fell out of view behind the dumpster.
Thirty-Six could feel the rage boiling within him as he tried to line up the next shot. Not anger toward the children. They were innocent, far too young to have committed any real atrocities against the Alliance. A pressure like a baloon being inflated knotted in his chest until it emerged as a battle cry. His rage toward his Alliance overlords erupted from his lips as a primal shout as he pulled the trigger on the youngest boy. The tears and screams coming from the child stopped suddenly as his body splashed to the ground.
Thirty-Six stepped out of his position flushing the remaining three children from their hiding place. They all grabbed hands as they tried to dart back into the safety of the complex, but he was too close. He didn’t need the scope any more. At this distance, three quick pulls of the trigger left three more bright yellow corpses sprawled across the street, and in that instant all was silent again except for the constant hiss of the rain splattering on the concrete.
“It’s done, sir,” he whispered. He wasn’t talking about the job. He was talking about his soul. In that moment, he was quite certain that he had sealed his fate with the gods. It was finished, and there would be no peace for him now. Not for all eternity.
“Good work, Thirty-Six. Return to base.”
“No,” he said. The word had slipped from his mouth before his brain had registered its existence.
“Excuse me? Did you just–”
“I need a drink, sir. You know where to find me.” He didn’t wait for the C.O.’s response. He slipped the rifle under his trench coat then ripped the earpiece from his head and threw it down into the puddle at his feet. If they were going to shoot him for needing a drink, they would be doing him a favor.
* * * *
Gunner was off-duty, sitting at a bar not far from the children’s center. While off the clock, people in this world had no idea what he did for a living. They only knew him as Peter… an oddly quiet guy who drank, paid his tab and kept to himself.
The whisky burned like lantern oil as he threw it back. How many of these would it take? He closed his eyes, hoping that the alcohol would wipe the images of his latest targets from his mind, but there they were. Their faces would forever be etched into his mind’s eye. Worse, their screams wouldn’t fade. Even now, he could hear them, screaming as his bullets took them down one-by-one.
“Another!” Gunner said, slamming the glass onto the bar.
“That’ll be ’nuff for ya tonight, friend.” The bartender grabbed the glass to pull it away.
In a flash, the bartender’s nose was pressed hard against the bar, and his right arm was twisted around like a pretzel. Gunner’s fist was pulling tightly at the bartender’s wrist. “Pour me another, or I’ll rip your arm out of its socket. Am I clear?”
“Yeah. Okay, okay. Just… have a chair. I’ll pour you one more.”
“No.” Gunner leaned forward, placing his face an inch from the small man’s ear. “You’ll pour until I tell you to stop. You’ll pour until these voices go away. You’ll pour every last drink I tell you to. I have money, and I intend to spend it here. Tonight. Do you have a problem with that?”
The man whimpered and winced against the pressure. “Okay. Sure, fine. Just easy now. Don’t need no trouble.”
Gunner let go and eased back down. The little man hurried to grab the whisky, putting the whole bottle and a glass on front of Gunner. “Just, pour your own. I’ll charge you fifty cred for the whole thing. Deal?”
Gunner took the bottle and downed a full swig, praying that the liquid would wash the images from his mind. Anything to wipe away the sin that he’d just committed.
* * * * *
Morning came harshly. The light ripped around the heavy curtain like daggers against the back of his eyes. Gunner didn’t remember the ride back. An empty bottle lay shattered on the floor, and a small light brown stain splattered across the wall just above it, still glistening a little. He was laying across the sole, bare mattress in the center of the floor in what would have been the bedroom, had the apartment held any real furniture. The room was familiar. He’d spent more than one night here awaiting the perfect opportunity to take out targets as they came through this area of the city. It was the Agency safehouse.
The doorbell rang, thundering and echoing like a sonic bomb in his head. Hangovers… it had been years since he’d gone that far down the bottle, and now he remembered why.
“Shut up!” Gunner shouted back, then winced as his own voice ripped at his eardrums. The doorbell exploded again, several times in a row. Gunner rolled off the mattress and struggled against gravity to get back on his feet.
“I’m coming. Shut up. Geez!”
As he stumbled down the hall, he realized he was still wearing his trenchcoat and tactical outfit from the night before. Flashes of the children exploded in his memory and he blinked hard several times to wipe them away. A short eternity later, the doorbell stopped ringing. Gunner leaned cautiously toward the door to peer out of the peep hole. His commanding officer stood just outside with two men in tactical gear.
This was no social visit. Tactical gear meant only one thing: They were here on business. And since his business was death, he was certain that this was about to get very ugly. But his commander wasn’t stupid. There wouldn’t be a back exit escape.
“Thirty-Six! Open up.”
Gunner pushed the release button and the locks buzzed. The door flew open and the two tactical agents were in the room, but made no move to subdue him.
“Now,” The C.O. said, smiling, pacing between Gunner and the guards. “You and I need to have a little talk. I don’t care if you throw a tantrum. I don’t care if you throw your earpiece away. I don’t care if you decide to just walk away from a scene, as long as you have finished your job first and are ready for the next before sundown. But you will never, never, disobey or hesitate on a direct order. Am I clear?”
“Sir, yes, sir.” Gunner said, trying desperately to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
The C.O. frowned, then nodded back toward the hallway. “Move out, men. Leave him to think about his mistake.”
The two agents stepped back out. The C.O. scowled and shook his head. “You are doused. Sleep it off, and when you get back to the office, you and I are going to have a long talk. Don’t think you’re getting off of this with a slap on the wrist. You do not ever second guess your orders. You do that again, and I won’t give you the courtesy of a warning. I’ll just order the kill shot and you’ll be dead.”
When the officers were gone, Gunner slid the door closed, sure to engage the electronic locks. Stumbling back to the makeshift bedroom, he flopped down onto the mattress.
Some time well into late afternoon, Gunner woke. His throat burned and his body felt like a thin layer of oil had been poured all over him. He shivered against some cold essence, even though he felt like was about to burn up. He pulled his private com piece from a pocket and dialed a number that he committed to memory years ago.
“Danny, here. Who am I speakin’ to?”
“We’re not on a secure line, so be careful what you say. I can’t do this any more.”
Gunner paused. If he said yes, there was no turning back. As the screams danced in the back of his mind, he knew the answer. “It was time a long time ago, but I did something I can’t live with. I need out.”
“There ain’t no ‘out’ from your current perdicament. You done made your choice. We removed all records, and placed you in this group. You asked for this assignment.”
Gunner let his forehead rest in the palm of his hand. “I did. And I was wrong. You said that if it ever became too much, you could help. I’m asking for your help, now.”
“If you want out, I might be able to do something. But if’n I do, you have to follow my friend’s orders to the letter. If you hesitate even for half a second, they gonna put a bullet in your head before you can blink. They don’t take kindly to folks twistin’ them around. They help folks like you, but at a very big risk to themselves, so if they even think that you’re about to double-cross them, they’ll take care of the situation and move on. The end.”
“Make the call,” Gunner said.
* * * * *
Evening approached as Gunner stood amidst several hulking grey beasts at the ship yards, one scribbled name on a yellow piece of paper he’d received from his last contact. The unnamed contact that Dan gave him had led him through a series of hoops, each designed to make sure that the person getting out of the Agency really wanted out, and wasn’t a mole. He’d traveled around the city, each time getting the next name or contact from the anonymous informant. He’d had no less than six guns pressed to his forehead today. Each time, they would go through the same routine with the members of some black-ops team patting him down and checking him for com signals. Once cleared to their satisfaction, one of the ops members would contact someone on a com link and set up the next meet.
Which led him to this dump.
The area was filled with peasants, travelers and crewmembers from hundreds of freighter-class starships currently resting in port. People milled all about searching for freight, rides, cargo, food and the occasional quick moment of comfort from a non-companion specialist.
“Hey!” A woman shouted. He glanced to his left to see a woman staring him down with the oddest crooked smile. She was cute, red-headed, maybe in her late twenties. “You goin’ somewhere? Need a ride? Two-hundred creds to get off-world and one hundred per click after. Cheapest flight. She ain’t pretty, but she’ll fly.”
Gunner glanced at the ancient Firefly-class cargo ship. Rust was evident around each corner. He lowered his head and pushed onward. Big white letters were emblazoned across the bow of a transport ship two docks down, Saint Aaron’s. Just below the words, a large round symbol of faith was painted in blue. Gunner stepped slowly toward the door. He pounded his fist several times against the hull, the deep echo resounded among the crowd.
Several seconds later, the seal-lock twisted open and a tall gray-haired man stepped out. “We’re not taking passengers. This is for the brothers of Saint Aaron’s only. Go away.”
He repeated the phrase like he’d done so many times already that day. “Danny McBride sent me.”
The man’s eyebrows arched slightly, the only sign that Gunner had said anything for several seconds. “Okay,” he finally said. “What is your name?”
“Get inside.” The man nodded and stepped to the left, directing Gunner inward.
Gunner stepped in, pausing to let his eyes adjust to the dimness.
“Don’t stop.” The gray-haired man ordered. “Keep moving. Third door on the left.”
Tim found the third entrance, and stepped inside. It was a plain gray room with smooth metal walls. It was completely void of any other details or furniture, except for a small nozzle on the near wall and an obvious drain grate in the center of the room.
“Strip,” the man ordered, pushing Gunner deeper into the room. “I mean everything. No watches, clothes, hats, socks… Everything.”
Gunner did as he was ordered as the clergyman hooked up a hose to the nozzle. When Gunner had tossed the last of his belongings on the floor, several more clergy stepped in, each bearing a colt pistol.
Gunner swallowed hard, feeling very vulnerable in his current condition. Sure, he could probably take them, but it would be risky.
“Turn around,” the man ordered. Again, Gunner complied, praying that this wasn’t an execution. He could already see how the hose could be used to wash away any crime scene evidence. It’s how he would do it.
The stark ice-cold of liquid splashed against his back and down his legs, then started to immediately burn. Acid? It would be even more efficient than his previous thought. His heart raced. He tried to stand still, but the sensations of hot and cold made him shift in place.
“Turn,” the man ordered. “Hold your breath and keep your mouth and eyes closed, or you’ll wish you had.”
Gunner turned, squeezing his eyes and lips tight. The liquid splashed over him. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the spray stopped. The lingering liquid on his skin began to bite at him, burning deep, especially at the sensitive skin under his arms, his chest and his genitals.
A rough, dry towel, brushed across his face several times, then worked diligently at his eyes. “Okay. Open your eyes. The decontamination is complete. You’ll note that all of the vermin should be gone, and if anyone tried to pin something on you, the mild radioactive solution should keep our conversation’s private for the next few minutes.”
Gunner opened his eyes to see the guards, their arms raised in a defensive stance, barrels pointed directly at his head.
“He’s safe. Leave us,” the gray-haired man ordered. The guards nodded in respect and stepped out of the room. The man turned back around and for the first time, Gunner saw a gentle smile on the man’s face as he held out a small paper bag. “My name is Reverend Jacob Laramy. You are my latest recruit, and you’re about twenty minutes from taking you position on a medical cruiser that’s about to leave port. Here. Put these on.”
Gunner took the bag and peered inside. It contained a very basic set of commoner’s clothes — a pair of cotton pants and flannel shirt. A set of suspenders were folded on top. At the bottom he could just make out one of the gray cloaks that each of the men in the ship seemed to be wearing. He pulled out each item and began to put them on. “I can’t thank you enough. But you have no idea what I’ve done. I’m not sure that your order would want me as your representative. Maybe you can help me get a job as a janitor or something. But a trainee? I don’t think I could live up to–”
“No. Not a trainee. A full reverend.”
Gunner paused. “No! No, no, no. I can’t.”
“First of all,” the man said, holding out a leather-bound black book. “You have no idea how well-suited you are to talk about what we believe. Did you know that Moses was a murderer? David was an adulterer and murderer. Rahab as a whore. Matthew was a professional liar and a thief. They say that Simon the Zealot was an assassin, but no one has ever proven that one way or another. Saul was a hypocrite that murdered in God’s name and held people to a standard that no one would ever match up to. You’re just another broken vessel to show how God’s might can move. Not because you are perfect but because you are imperfect. It is through your past that God will show the ‘Verse that there actually is a future.”
The echoes of children’s screams rang in his ears as tears began to well up in his eyes, making it difficult to see the buttons on his pants. “But you have no idea what I’ve done.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jacob said. “God forgives no matter what you’ve done.”
“No. I don’t think even God can forgive me. And I don’t need God’s forgiveness. I just need some cover.”
“We’ll see about that. Come,” Jacob said, pulling on Gunner’s arm as he started buttoning the rumpled shirt. “You don’t have much time, but with the runaround you’ve had today, I can bet you’re hungry.”
Gunner took the book from the reverend’s hand as he stumbled out into the hallway. The rough clothes scratched against his irritated skin, especially in those sensitive areas.
“Do you know who I used to be before I became Reverend Jacob?”
Gunner just stared at him as they made their way through the iron bowels of the ship. “No.”
“Exactly. Neither will the people with whom you will be traveling. This is God’s second chance for you, my friend. In that book you will find a new Multi Pass, and your old ID badge and credentials. Hide the latter and use the former as much as you possibly can.”
“But… what do I say when people ask me about your brotherhood?”
“You tell them the truth. Many long years ago, God was mad at the world because they had become evil. The punishment for doing wrong is death, so every evil person floating in the ‘Verse was supposed to die. But God had a different plan in mind.”
The thought of God punishing him so severely seemed fitting, but the idea that there was an escape seemed wrong. “What plan was that?”
“God himself came to take the punishment that we deserved. Not because he had to, but because he chose to. In that moment, all of God’s wrath was subsided. He punished himself so that he wouldn’t have to punish us.”
“But… he doesn’t even know what I’ve done.”
At that, Jacob laughed. “Don’t kid yourself, Peter. He knows it all. He just chooses to ignore the messy parts that would require your death. Provided, you’ll accept the peace the he is offering you. He doesn’t want to punish you or fight you. He wants to forgive.”
They entered the galley where several other men in plain clothes and simple gray overcoats roamed about. It was obviously approaching meal time as several more people filed in. A vidscreen in the corner rambled the evening news. Several of the men seemed quite fixated on the screen, laughing and eating as though the world hadn’t actually shattered into a million pieces last night during the storm.
“Do they know?” Gunner asked, nodding toward the men at a nearby table. “Do they know what I am?”
“No,” Jacob chuckled and put a gentle hand on Peter’s shoulder. “And I won’t tell them if you won’t.”
Gunner smiled and picked up a tray, following Jacob’s lead. They slid it down the line, picking out dishes of canned fruit, canned meat and canned blue gelatin. It wasn’t much, but probably better than most of the peasants outside this ship.
When they reached their table, Jacob held out an envelope. “Here. There’s a new credstick in there with fifteen thousand credits loaded on it. It’s registered to me, so be careful with it. But that should get you off-world and closer to the outer planets before they even know you’re gone. When you get somewhere safe, mail that back to me. That’s how I’ll know you arrived safely.”
Gunner took the white envelope and slid it into his pants pocket. “Thank you. You don’t even know me, but you–”
The vid-screen suddenly seemed to get much louder, as his name blared out across the small space. “… Peter Graham Gunner, an ex-Central Agency operative went on a rampage last night.” The newscaster’s voice was calm and firm. Video began to play in the upper-left corner of the screen, showcasing that alleyway. The rain fell in streaks. Two yellow splotches were already on the ground and four yellow-clad bodies scattered as Gunner saw himself emerge into view, a loud, angry battle cry filling the space as the gun flashed. The first child fell as he stepped forward. Three more fell within seconds after that.
The newscaster continued. “This video was captured by a concerned citizen as the attacks began. According to the Agency Peter Gunner was released from active duty six months ago due to insubordination. Last night, Peter stood in the rain, waiting for his targets, then killing six children from a nearby private school as they walked home. No one knows why he attacked them, but police tonight are searching. If you’ve seen Peter Graham Gunner, please call your nearest district office.”
Gunner quickly looked away, praying that none of them there had seen his face. He knew from the angle of that video it was taken from the adjacent roof line — right where his C.O. was stationed. They knew he was on the run, and were trying to pin him in by making him a very despised man. The good news was that they wanted to make him despised. That meant they had no clue where he’d gone, and were hoping to make the general population do their dirty work of finding him. When he glanced back out into the room, the vid-screen was off and all eyes were glued firmly on him.
“Well…” Jacob said with a small laugh as he chewed the canned meat. “I guess your secret’s out. Sorry. I hadn’t planned on that. You’ll have to move quickly now. Keep your head down outside.”
“I should go,” Gunner whispered. “If any one of these guys turn me in, you’ll all be killed too, for helping me.”
“No. I trust these men with my life. And they understand your position. Most of them have been right where you are.”
“But… I did it.”
“Did what?” Jacob asked, a scowl wedged in his brow, a scoop of meal paused half way to his lips.
Gunner leaned in close, whispering, “I killed those children. That really was me on that video. My C.O. ordered me to fire, and I did. That’s why I want out.”
“For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s best,” Jacob said, his words laced with a soothing balm. For the first time all day, the screams lessened in his ears.
“What do you mean?”
“There is no one holy. No, not one. God said that in Exodus. Isaiah repeated it in his warnings. David echoed it in the Psalms, and Paul reinforced it in the new covenant. Ten thousand years, and that one theme has never changed. Everyone makes mistakes. Do you remember what I asked you as we came in here?”
Gunner searched his scrambled brain, but nothing came out.
“Do you know who I am aside from the title of Reverend Jacob?” he prompted.
“I am the man that raped a fifteen year old girl because my platoon leader told me that if I didn’t, he would put a bullet in my head. And had it stopped there, I might have felt justified. But over the next ten years of the war, many more women fell across my path. And with them, there was no platoon leader. No gun. It was war, and they were my spoils. Whoever I wanted, I took.”
“So… how did you get here?”
“God had to get my attention. One night I looked into a young woman’s eyes and she told me that God loved me, despite what I’d just done to her. That, my friend, is the love that can change a man from the inside out. I slapped her around some more, and each time I struck her, she said nothing. When I was done beating her senseless, I asked her what her God had to say now.”
“And?” Gunner asked, enthralled at every word, almost oblivious that his secret had just been broadcast to the entire population of Core planets.
“She said that he still forgave me, … and that she did too. I tell you, it totally blew me out of the water. I threw her out onto the street, but I had to find out what could cause a person to have such a quiet strength. I needed that strength.”
Gunner stared down at the blue blob of gelatin. “Tell me…can this same god forgive me, too?”
Jacob reached across and clasped Gunner’s shoulder. “I can say with absolute certainty… he already has. Now, eat that food before it gets any more slimy. You have a ship to catch, and people to lead.”
As tears fought a war inside his chest — a war to break free despite the people that were staring at him — Gunner nodded. The tears rose into his throat, fighting so hard that he could barely swallow as each flavorless bite went down. As he stood to put the tray on the conveyor belt, the tears made their way to his eyes, where they leaked out in streams. While he never let a sigh escape his lips, the tears were an uninterruptible force that could not be held back. He made it to the main exit before he wiped his cheeks dry.
“The name on your Multi Pass is Timothy Pasture. Don’t ever forget your new name. As of this second, Peter Gunner is dead. Understood? You are no longer that man. You are now, Reverend Timothy Pasture.” Jacob smiled and pressed a small wooden cross into his hand. A thin leather band was drawn through a small hole drilled at the top, forming a rudimentary necklace. “Read that book, and find out for yourself what God says about you. When you know what God says about you, you will be able to tell others what he says about them, too.”
Gunner nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“The ship you’re looking for is MED 07-199. It’s a medical ship headed to the outer rim to deliver supplies and care to them that need it. You’ll find the ship about eight docks down, on the right. Tell the captain of the ship that Jacob has suggested that they have a new chaplain, and that it’s time for Oliver to come home. You are to be his replacement. They will know exactly what to do.”
Gunner had never been a hugger. Never once in his life could he remember displaying any emotion toward another male, especially one he’d just met. But in that very moment, he reached out and pulled Jacob into the tightest embrace he could muster. “Thank you. I owe you so much.”
Jacob warmly returned the hug, then pushed Gunner back. “Yes, yes… Now go. They are scheduled to lift off very shortly and Oliver has seen more than his fair share out there. It’s your turn.”
God, Gunner thought to himself as he stepped out into the daylight and waved farewell to the strange old man that had just changed his life, if you really can forgive me, prove it. Let me get far, far away from this place. Put me somewhere that I never have to shoot another person ever again. If you do that, I’ll do whatever this book says I should.