“I think he’s out of the woods. I know it was a slow process but the damage was extensive, both physical and psychological. In these situation, initially you can only guess, fortunately, we were right. Of course, he is strong, we never doubted his will or his strength. He is a survivor. We are very fortunate to have someone like him.”

Steps. His life was made of them. Thoughts, struggling at the edge of his perception. Memories, violent remnants of past actions, lost and found, only to be forgotten again and again.

“Thank you doctor, I am very grateful for all your help.”

“No, thank you madam, it was an honor”

The sound became clear. He felt like fresh out of a distant dream he could not remember.

“He’s awake.”

The first glimpse of light drove a thousand needles into his sight. So he refused to give in to the powerful urge of simply opening his eyes. He heard the voices, but they were not familiar.

“Quentin, can you hear me?”

Quentin? The voice was soft, holding a promise for this Quentin guy. An enticing one. A lover. A touch of perfume on his senses and the hot breath of a women close by.  Quentin…. he knew that name.

“Yeah….”

The response came instinctively.  He finally opened his eyes. She was beautiful, the impression about her voice was correct. Dark hair with a French cut, blue eyes, full lips and a smile as present as her perfume. His type of women. Actually, she looked familiar, he was sure she knew him but most important, he knew her. They had to be close judging from her reaction.

He was connected to a medical unit. The console attached to the platform on the wall was showing his vital and peripheral functions. So he was in a hospital. But….why?

“Thank you God. I thought I’ve lost you, but you’re back, you’re going to be ok.”

The rest of her words disappeared. She kissed him. Her lips too felt familiar. Quentin Blake, the name came as an echo to his thoughts. And she was Christine, his wife. But the notion was strange, awkward.

“It’s all going to be ok.”, she said again. “The doctor is taking good care of you, you will come home soon”.

Home….another notion that didn’t felt right.

The doctor stepped in. He checked the monitor, obviously, not a necessary act but the patient had to see that he was in good and dedicated hands. Then the good doctor, in his impeccable white standard uniform, turned to examine him closely. He nodded, as it was expected, registered something on his closely held data pad and then smiled.

“Your prognosis  is encouraging, Madam Blake is right, you will go home soon. Of course, we will have to closely monitor your progress so we will have a  medical droid assigned to you for the recovery period.”

“Doc, how long….”

“Where you here?”

“Yeah.”

“Almost three months. You were under our care for this entire period. You are a very lucky man, even in our times, with all our technology, it’s hard to predict the prognosis of a patient in a deep coma.”

“I don’t remember how I got here. I feel…..don’t really know hot to describe it, like I’m out of place.”

Christine’s grip on his hand tightened for a moment. He saw the signs of the storm of feelings inside her. This simple act of recognition made it clear for him, he knew her very intimate, so what they said was true, not a hoax. Still…..

“It’s only natural to feel this way, taking into consideration the trauma you’ve suffered. Also, you had a lot o meds pumped into your system, so the recovery period should clear you thoughts and senses. You just need more time to get reacquainted to…well, to being you.”

More time. Why did he felt that he was lacking just that? Then the hole notion kicked back. He forced a smile. It was just a dream. The doctor was right, he was not himself. The Quentin character….It was just a pigment of his drugged imagination. No Christine either, just a nightmare, no waking up though.

“Doctor….”

Yes, he was sleeping and he was looking at his body from the outside. But perhaps it was not a dream, perhaps he was dead. No, he wasn’t a soft touch, whatever happened, he was in control. He was everything that he wanted to be and with a cheery on top.

xxx

Green. It looked like a wall. A moving forest? No, the forest was not moving. He was. The forest was just passing before his eyes, at a very fast pace. He was seeing everything at a maximum speed, through the inca-glass of a window. He was in a vehicle rushing on a suspended highway.

Silence. A complete suppression of all sounds but after a while, he started to hear, nothing specific, just a constant humming, like his head was underwater.

Someone was talking to him. A familiar voice, then he sensed a familiar perfume. It was as strong and enticing as the first time. Christine? Who was Christine? His question went out loud.

She looked stunned for a moment. Her smile faded like a flare. She hesitated.

“Quentin, are you ok?”

She sounded worried too.

He swallowed, blinked a couple of times, forcing his mind to give a good answer. Somehow, that was important to him.

“A little dizzy, nothing to worry though. I’ve meant where are we.”

He put up a smile, just for show. Her red lips embraced once again her own little sign of pleasure.

“The doctor said that this could happen. You need to rest. We’re going home. We’re on the 65th, close to the exit. Just a couple of minutes I think.”

A stream of familiar sensations. But, despite this, he could not shake the fact that he could not remember who he was. All his memories seemed buried behind a wall of some sort, deep in his mind. They were there, he knew it, but nowhere close to his immediate grasp. However, his instincts warned him that he must not disclose this fact. It was a strong feeling, actually, it was the only certain thing he had. So, it was only right to go with his gut.

“I can call the doctor right away you know, we’ve got 24/7 service care, the best for the best.”

“The best, huh?”

She had a perfect set of pearly white teeth. A very dangerous truth was hiding behind this beautiful woman. He had to focus, it was too easy to loose his grip on things.

“You deserve it. Our newest and most praised national hero.”

“A hero?”

“How else can you call the one that killed the Wraith?”

That name got him lost in a tunnel of smoke and mirrors. His senses ceased to be in touch with what was real, as he plunged into a world of oblivion.

xxx

“I will become the one thing I hate. I will become you.”

The words where his but their sense was lost. He looked around in disarray, surrounded by the thick clouds of his breath caught in the cold air. He was shivering.

He had no clue where he was or how he got there. The last thing he remembered were the red lips of someone close to him. And yes, a moving green wall. A forest. It looked like late summer but now he was standing in snow. A thick, crunchy layer was screeching under his feet and the clouds covering the sky were heavy with more snow and ice.

He became aware of the fact that he had company. He knew that his mind was  jumping too fast through reality. However, this time he had a bearing. Quentin and Christine Blake, the hospital, the coma, the road home, a hero and the Wraith.

“I knew I will find you here. Not exactly a good time for fishing, is it now?”

The man smiled in a friendly manner. He offered a hand and he responded, his gut still in command.

“Good bass here. Fat. Nothing better than catching bass, except northern pike probably.”

The man shivered behind his thick jacket. His hands were already bluish, bitten by the cold.

“Too damn cold. Why the hell not Mexico, somewhere near the coast, you know the stuff, beach, sunshine, beers and bikinis. Too classic for you, huh? You had to choose this freezing hole to build your retreat.”

So, he was somewhere up north.

“I like it here”, he said, believing that this was expected of him.

“Yeah, right. The perfect place to hide.”

He took a closer look at the guy. Tall, with broad shoulders, blue-sharp eyes, short hair and a hard jaw. Military, not a spook, his look was too obvious.

“Christine hates it here and you know it. She pretends to be ok for your sake and….”

“She said that?”

It seemed logical.

“Not in so many words. She got good at this, at hiding for your own sake.”

“And yet not her own sake is your concern here.”

The guy paused for a second, his expression changed. He was not pleased.

“You know damn well that I care about her as much as I care about you. You are my closest friends.”

How close? It was not a good question to ask.

“She knows, Quentin. Not everything, nobody except you knows the hole story, but she knows enough. These past months were tough on everybody but especially on her who had to put up with your….”

Another pause. The man seemed upset.

“What the hell do you call this?”

“What?”

“This! What you are doing now! This can not go on anymore! Enough is enough!”

“How about you get to the point.”

The man sighed. He tried to control his outburst.

“Why are you still here? You’re not still in recovery, I know you, you’re fine. Maybe not for the first line, sure, but still you could be very useful and you know it. Just imagine the amount of support your presence will bring.”

He laughed. The guy didn’t like it and its expression showed it.

“A fucking hero, right?”

“You need us too, this is the only way to get back in the game.”

“I’m not your freaking poster boy!”

His anger was real but it was not logic, he did not have facts to support it, it simply came from within. He started searching, going deeper.

“After the last mission…..”

He lost his words, too busy too dig. Quentin Blake was someone with weight, someone who had a mission.

“The Wraith…..”

Again this. A phantom, a spirit or a ghost. He was certain that this was someone or something, a group of people. The enemy, this guy’s enemy at least. And of course, the enemy of Quentin Blake.

He ventured too far but acknowledged it only when it was to late too back down. This time though, there was a warning.

Once again, his entire world became blank. From darkness to overwhelming light, from total silence to chaos of senses. It took him apart and reconstructed him at an incredible speed. In many aspects it was just like a dream from which he could not wake up. All the memories of these dreams were erased once he opened his eyes. But when he finally did that, he knew that he had something to do.

“I see you.”

The voice was just an echo.

He was searching on his desk, removing papers and LED reports. He grabbed the old piece of paper and read the short message written by a steady yet not talented hand.

“I am close.”

xxx

“I take this as normality. I am simply grateful that he is alive, no matter the changes.

All these doctors, Sam, the tests, the protocols and he, sometimes normal, full of life but other times….so….so far away.”

The tall, broad-shouldered man was standing in front of Christine. They sat in the kitchen, she made coffee and served him home made biscuits. Quentin was outside, taking a walk, as always in the morning. Although Sam insisted, he wanted to go alone.

“He said that he wants to find a new fishing spot on the western bank.”

Sam took a sip from the cup, nibbling on a biscuit.

“Yesterday I’ve bought an elementary school history book.”

Christine faked a smile.

“He is on page 39, the chapter named the Hero of the North-American Empire”.

“Purely propaganda, Chris.”

“Yeah, but it’s an impressive one. He single-handedly destroyed the Brotherhood and its leader, the infamous and illusive Wraith. Kids are thought these things, but they will never find out the truth and what became of their hero.”

“Illusive….”

Sam nodded in approval. Her words were filled with sorrow and anguish.

“Yesterday, he said I am the war inside. He looked at me as if I was a stranger, no, worse, an enemy. Then he snapped out and continued as if nothing happened.

But it’s not a condition. He passed all the tests they’ve thrown at him, apparently he too thinks that there’s something wrong with him so he volunteered.

The doctors believe that this is most likely a case of survival guilt, but none of them is 100% sure of that. ”

Sam was supportive. He really liked Christine but his priority remained Quentin. Christine saw the effects but she knew nothing about the cause.

The Wraith. No history book will contain its name or any mention about the fact that the Wraith was one of their own. Everything was fully erased, only the hero remained in this tale. The other one was too vicious to have a name or even a face.

“This morning I’ve found him reading the book. He seemed amused. He told me that kids should be thought at a young age not to believe everything they read.”

“I agree. But kids need to have heroes. So does society.”

There was no lie there. Quentin Blake achieved something no one else could. Perhaps this was the reason behind his current situation. Christine and the public were kept in the dark on how Quentin managed to infiltrate the Brotherhood. That effort alone was worthy of their current gratitude.

“Now, when I look at him…..sometimes he seems so eager to go back to his former life. Most of the times however, he is just…static. No joy whatsoever.”

No joy…..Quentin Blake did unspeakable things in order to complete his mission.  He became a true terrorist. Assassinations, bombings, torture, he became just as destructive as the Wraith himself, all in order to gain his trust, to get close to him.

“I live for those moments when he is himself, when I see in his eyes that he still loves me. I will not give up on him and neither should you.”

Sam agreed. It was more than a personal matter, he had specific orders. The brass too wanted their hero back. It was a matter of national pride and the American Empire needed heroes now more then ever.

xxx

He ran his finger across the steamed window, drawing simple lines. He smiled, feeling the simplest and yet, the most real of joys. Something lost in his childhood. The smiley faces were crude yet the notion was clear. He knew that they will last in the cold day and that many people will see them.

You are here.

He stared at the sign. It was large, like all the signs meant to be seen. It showed a large panel with a map and a pulsating red arrow that pointed to a dot: him. His location on the map. Above the sign was a Christian cross. This was a cemetery.

After a train and three autonomous cabs, he arrived at the desired destination, found in his pocket, on another piece of paper.

He was here to meet someone, the someone leaving these notes. He needed answers, he was sick and too worn out to plunge again in search of the thing that proved so illusive: his sanity.

“So, Jethro, nice to meet you again, asshole.”

A man with a large grin on his face.

“I liked Jethro better, it was way cooler. Quentin sounds so gay, but hey, you are a great asset, right?”

He laughed.

“Asset, you’ve got it, right? Come on, you’ve used to love my jokes, you where an original prankster yourself. Was that part of your training?”

The man stood in front of a burial stone. There was a name inscribed there, but no picture or years of life. No other markings for that matter.

“ So, you must be very proud of you. The fucking hero of the fucking empire and all of this on my expense. Really sweet deal you’ve made.”

The man was furious and he made no effort to hide that. It obviously wanted him the understand his degree of frustration.

“But now it’s time to pay the price, my price. I know you very well, I know exactly what’s your soft spot, you know, I’ve been watching you, playing the game, just as you did. Now, I know the real you, it took me a while but it was all worth it.”

His hand felt the cold metal of the weapon stuck in his right coat pocket. He pulled back the safety. The other guy just smiled.

“What are you going to do? You’re not man enough to do what you have to. As always, you’re just a cunt.”

“I will shoot you. I will kill you.”

“Really?”

“Sir, are you ok?”

His stopped and turned around , ready to use the gun. The guard was also ready for anything, although he had at his disposal only a stunner.

“Are you ok?”

His Nemesis was gone, taking advantage of the distraction.

“The other guy….”

“Sir?”

He just vanished. But he knew that he will be back.

xxx

“Guns make a sordid noise. Sometimes evil, sometimes lacking emotions. Guns can speak, bark or whistle, depending on the state of mind of the one who pulls the trigger. You must remember that guns are no more than an extension of someone’s destructive will. You know what they say, that people kill people, not guns. Well, make sure that you always shoot first, I say.”

He blinked. Once. Twice. He took a deep breath, like his life depended on that. He could hear distant noises, but the air filling his lungs was helping clear his perception. Images were still blurry though.

He looked at his hands and recognized the object he was holding tight. His trigger finger was in place, ready to spun, too accustomed with this role. The gun was a Kriss Vector .45 submachine gun, fitted with an thermoptic system, now cold. It was his favorite from his action days because it packed quite a punch and it was very useful in closed spaced, even against personal armor.

The dark grey gun barrel was smoking and even through the gloves he was wearing, he could feel the relative warmth of the weapon. It had been fired not long ago, in long bursts.

His vision cleared and his hearing followed closely. He could taste the fowl smell that always accompanied violent death.

He was in a large room he immediately recognized as being the lounge of his own retreat. It had been ravaged, most of the furniture being shattered by bullets while the walls were covered in bullet holes and spattered blood.

The floor was pilled with bodies. At his feet there were two spent magazines and since he was covering the only exit, the victims were cut off from any retreat.

His eyes staggered on the broken features of a tall broad-shouldered man covering the body of a woman in a protective posture. Christine was looking at the ceiling with dead cold eyes. A dark-red stain was extending on her chest, contrasting with the sky-blue dress she was wearing.

“No…..”

The horror of understanding what happened was now at full extent. He backed away, or at least, this was his next impulse but he didn’t managed to go to far. He surprised movement in the corner of his left eye and, to his immense dread, he moved instinctively, like he had no control over his action. The Vector released a spray of lead an iron, all of that hitting a target, a man that was trying to make a run for it. He knew that man, he was a colleague from the War College. His name was Bennett, he had a wife and…..

The Vector clicked empty. A storm of thoughts that were not his, invaded his mind. This was a prelude to a clear feeling, that of a vengeful presence in the room.

“It was always about control. It takes the will of a single man to change the world.”

He went for his sidearm, he placed the cold barrel to his head and squeezed the trigger gently.

A last laughter from a familiar voice covered the boom of the weapon.

xxx

“Where to sir?”

“Back to base, step on it.”

“Sure thing sir.”

Of course, his driver enjoyed using all the advantages of a governmental car, not being a natural born fan of traffic rules. So the car simply jumped and scattered all the vehicles in his path because no one dared crossing an armored limousine with high ranking military personal markings.

Nathaniel Woods was not just a full bird colonel but also the Director of Section 11 of the Office of Naval Intelligence. That meant he was one of those few men in the empire that knew most of the truth, about most things, most of the time.

“Have you seen the news sir?”

His driver and bodyguard, usually shared his taste for silence and rarely engaged in unprovoked conversation. He was a large ex-marine force recon member, with an omnipresent buzz cut and a dark scar on his lower lip.

“The hero of the Empire is dead. Isn’t that something?”

A thin smile ran across his face. It was something indeed. He fixed a cigar between his almost inexistent lips and light it with his priceless Nazi vintage Zippo.

The news bulletin’s story was pretty shallow. It told nothing not even close to the truth, the event was considered to be an accident of some sort, details yet unclear. Of course, the story was still under development, everything being tightly controlled by the army media bureau.

The Generalissimo was very specific about the subject. “A hero’s death” was the label he placed on the entire story and Section 11 was named responsible for the desired outcome of a otherwise very messy problem.

“We’re home, sir”.

Indeed, they were. The automated defenses of Section’s 11 HQ stood down while they enter the premises. There were armed guards in combat suits everywhere, and the sensor array was boosted to its maximum capacity. No special reason, but Woods kept to his security.

Woods had to deal with the loose ends of the story. While cooking one for the public to clear those “yet undisclosed details”, he had to trace the complete truth for his boss. And by now he reckoned that this job will not be an easy one.

He casually responded to the repeated salutes of the personal he crossed.  No one of them lingered any more than necessary, they were busy people, or at least that was the image they’ve offered to their tall, slim and pale commander. And, like him, they were all impeccable in their appearance, wearing properly the white official uniforms of the core.

He went straight to his office, ordered a custom made coffee from his secretary, and then gave the “do not disturb” order.

Once settled in at his comfortable, large and quite his style desk, he began sapping the hot darkish liquid, letting his mind unpack and arrange the many pieces this messy puzzle had.

“Display case file.”

The system was designed to be obedient. He liked computers, no matter how evolved or complicated they were, they always responded in the same way. Sometimes, they were more useful than people. However, he had to admit that they were still vulnerable, just like people. He remembered a hacking attempt done by the Brotherhood a couple of years before, when a virus passed the protective firewall of Section 11th computer grid. The machines turned against their masters, reminding them how vulnerable they were just because of this relation. Blake’s actions were no different, he acted just like he had a bug in his system.

“So, why?”

That was the question and the “so” stood for everything that he was able to dug out about Quentin Blake.

Quentin Blake killed 20 people, including his wife, his handler and a number of high ranking military and governmental heads, even a movie star. That was his story.

Before the hero status, before the Brotherhood, Quentin Blake was a marine gunnery sergeant, a highly decorated one, with two tours over seas, in Korea and in Brazil. After his return, he was recruited by Section 3 of ONI- Special Operations. Due to his previous experience, he was sent to South America as a kite but after two years, he was recalled home to deal with a more present danger, the Brotherhood. The rest was pretty much restricted stuff because the hero of the Empire had to become it’s second most dangerous and bloody enemy, just to get to the number one.

“Receiving incoming transmission.”

The projector issued its standard greenish beam that materialized the features and surroundings of his case commander. The man saluted briefly, waiting the command. He was young but capable, otherwise he would have not gotten so far on his own.

“Connection secured.”

“Report please.”

“All operations have been finished as of zero eight hundred hours sir. The on site crew cleaned it really good, no traces were left unattended. Sir, we’ve found something not mentioned in the initial field report.”

“What is it?”

“An internal surveillance system, not registered apparently. It was on during the attack so…”

This was big, that’s why the commander seemed nervous.

“Have you accessed it?”

“No sir, as soon as I understood what it was, I’ve secured it. It may contain sensible information outside my jurisdiction.”

“Smart man. Ok, I want you to send my all the data and then render the system inoperable. No one else must see the records, is it clear?”

“Crystal, sir.”

“As soon as you’re finished there, report back to me.  Woods out!”

The man saluted and the system was left to transfer the files in question. Woods knew that the images he was about to receive could be very dangerous because they contained what really happened.

Blake’s victims were really important. Apparently, the party was Quentin’s wife idea, but that did not excluded a possible truth, and that was that the hole thing was a terrorist act. But Blake’s killing of his wife and suicidal were not very consistent with this idea.

The video file contained surveillance footage taken for the past two weeks but he was interested primarily in the events from last night. The rest could be seen later.

He navigated through the images, trying to get to the interesting part. And that came when he saw Quentin Blake approaching his handler, who seemed busy  entertaining a conversation with Madam Blake. They all seemed relaxed and in the right mood. Christine Blake was wearing a very elegant and sexy dress while the two men were dressed in black suits.

Their discussion was not that interesting. Others joined them briefly, Blake responded relaxed, smiling and dealing properly with their respect. They all wanted a piece of their hero.

Then, something happened. His expression changed, no reason obvious. His wife seemed to notice this because she got closer to him, whispering something in his right ear. He pulled away with a nervous gesture and said something.

Woods gave the command to the system to clear the sound so he could hear what.

“You don’t understand.”

Quentin’s voice was angry.

“Please calm down.”

She was begging.

“He is coming.”

“He? What are you talking about?”

Blake’s handler tried to get closer but again Blake pulled away.

“This is a perfect opportunity for him, I’ve warned you. Look at the security of this place, it’s nothing. It’s the perfect opportunity.”

“Quentin, what are you talking about?”

“You’re an idiot Sam, you always were, you’re too slow, this is why you’re still stuck with me, baby sitting.”

“Calm down Quentin!”

By now, everyone was watching them.

“He wants his god damn revenge. I didn’t killed him so he won’t let this go so easily. Just listen!”

They all listened, so did Woods. But nothing else but an old song could be heard, yet this song sticked to his memory, because it was too familiar.

“Computer, identify song!”

“Serial killer, Lana del Rey, a very….”

“Oh, fuck….”

Woods was proud of his ability to always be in control of all his emotions. His face was carefully constructed as a mask to hide anything because this was a very useful treat in his field of trade. This time however, all his self control malfunctioned as he realized in dread what was he seeing.

Quentin Blake approached an old painting on the wall, the type that was covering a hidden closet. Christine seemed the only one understanding what he was doing, or at least what was he searching for.

“I’ve told you.”

Blake’s voice was eerie, strange. His faces seemed griped in a war between his inner emotions, part confusion, part fury.

“Just listen to it.”

A large grim was now present on Quentin’s transfigured features. The Kriss Vector was ready to fire.

“So I murder love in the night, Watching them fall one by one they fight, Do you think you’ll, Love me too, ooh, ooh?”

“That’s my cue.”

Quentin Blake pulled the trigger, filling the room with the evil laughter of his weapon.

Woods stopped the recording. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his thoughts. He had no need for further information, no need for those things that could influence his job. One hesitation was enough.

He started writing a new story, one in which the hero of the empire died, defending its people against the evil remnants of the Brotherhood. It was an ultimate  and adequate sacrifice, with a lot of beautiful details about courage and self sacrifice, enough to fire the imagination of children and adults alike.

This story ended with another sip from the coffee mug and a last smoke from his cigar.

Alexandru Neagu s-a nascut la 24 noiembrie 1980 in Bucuresti. Este absolvent al Facultatii de Relatii Internationale si Studii Europene din Bucuresti, lucreaza in domeniul traducerilor, este pasionat de istorie, geopolitica si science fiction si este membru alAtelierKult. In prezent participa la proiectul Resboiu in calitate de redactor.

Alexandru Neagu

Alexandru Neagu

S-a născut la 24 noiembrie 1980 în București. Este absolvent al Facultății de Relații Internationale și Studii Europene din București, lucrează în domeniul traducerilor, este pasionat de istorie, geopolitica si science fiction. Este membru al AtelierKult. În prezent participa la proiectul Resboiu în calitate de redactor.

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