It struck him, as he stalked through the filth and rubble, that the world had ended almost exactly ten years ago. Ten years ago to the day. He couldn’t remember if it had been sunny or cloudy, warm or cold -- all Braz knew was on that February 14, the world had woken to a flood of red hearts and soft rose petals and gone to bed teetering on the brink of apocalypse.
By the next Valentine’s Day, there were no heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and all the red roses lay on the fresh graves of the millions who had died when war erupted.
Now, ten years after the sky rained fire, long after the maps had all been redrawn to show the new state of world politics, the war raged on, albeit on a much quieter note. If there was one truth, it was that a war never really ended, a fact Braz knew better than most.
It was war that had brought him to this desiccated section of a city struggling in vain to regain some semblance of order.
Once, this had likely been a nice area -- he could tell from the mangled remains of curved iron fence and the twisted trunks of what had once been elegant maple trees. Braz had a good-enough imagination to be able to put together a picture of what York University had looked like before the asteroids hit.
The snow was deep, with only a cursory effort having been given to keep the sidewalks clear. He followed the narrow path pounded down by pedestrians, careful not to slip on the iced-over surface.
He’d never have fit in here. Braz was a soldier, had been bred to it from childhood by a father who deplored weakness and loved his country more than his only son. University had never been in Braz’s future, unlike his target, who had made study his life’s work.
Something the poor bastard had learned or done had earned him a death sentence, and Braz was the lucky son of a bitch who got to pull the trigger.
No, war never ended. Today’s work proved that.
His boots were gray with salt and dirty slush, but otherwise, Braz looked, to the casual observer, like a man of business -- black slacks, black suit jacket under the long black coat that billowed gently around his ankles as he walked. Anyone looking closely would see the hardness in his eyes and realize the straight-backed, purposeful stride screamed of military training. It was to his benefit that few people saw much beyond their own troubles these days.
From the outside, the university seemed undamaged, but as Braz drew nearer, he saw signs of repairs. New bricks stood out in bright contrast to the aged originals. Shrubbery tried but failed to hide the streaks of soot and pockmarks that marred the steps to the entrance.
Braz sniffed, and he ignored the tiny part of his mind that could still feel resentment toward the world powers that had led them all to this state. He was a warrior -- questioning orders wasn’t an option, despite how distasteful he may find them. Braz didn’t enjoy killing, but when it came to protecting his country, he did what he had to do, even now that “his” country comprised nearly three-quarters of the total landmass on Earth.
If this Dr. Sykes was a threat, Braz had no problem eliminating him. He just couldn’t imagine what some scholarly geek had done to earn a bullet to the brain.
The doors swung open with a creak, and Braz stepped over the threshold. The air smelled -- rich. He didn’t know how else to describe it. Somehow he’d expected the kinds of smells he remembered from high school -- old sweat and candy perfume.
Braz had studied the schematics for the building, just as he’d studied the file on Dr. Sykes. The picture had surprised him, partially because there were very few people taking pictures these days, so the man obviously came from a wealthy family.
Ridley Sykes was of average height with brown hair, blue eyes, and a small scar on his lip. The file hadn’t gone into much detail on the nature of the man’s crimes against the Atlantic Rim Alliance, but it did say the man had connections to the powerful Sykes family, one of the few families in the Alliance who had managed to hold on to their wealth during the fallout. Braz knew there were Sykeses in the upper echelons of the current Alliance leadership as well, and though the file didn’t say, he was pretty sure this Ridley was connected to them as well.
Wouldn’t be the first time a powerful man had ordered the death of one of his own to save face. Either way, the job was simple. Dr. Ridley Sykes had to be eliminated, no matter how much Braz’s stomach churned at the idea.
He passed no one as he walked the labyrinth of halls leading to Sykes’s office. Few people bothered with academia these days when it was enough just to survive. The same held true for a lot of things, Braz thought. Nobody cared about the life and times of the Egyptian pharaohs when there wasn’t enough food to go around.
He found Sykes’s office without any difficulty. A plain door with a simple bronze plaque that read ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS hung crookedly from a loose screw. Brazpaused, his hand on the knob, and wondered if it would be better to knock and wait for the doctor to let him in, or if he should just kick the door open and get the job done with.
Knocking would draw less attention, he decided, and as much as he’d like to just finish up and get back to the base, he didn’t want to be followed. He rapped softly on the oak and stepped back, unbuttoning his coat as he waited.
Soft footsteps approached; then the door swung open to reveal -- certainly not what Braz had expected. His military training took over, and Braz raked a casual yet critical eye over the young man who blinked at him from beneath a fringe of shaggy brown hair. There was a moment of surprise in the man’s blue eyes, quickly masked as confused patience. It could be Dr. Sykes, but despite the picture, he felt a frisson of doubt. This man looked about as scholarly as Braz’s father. Butch Malone had never worn anything but standard-issue military garb, whereas the doctor wore faded khakis and an unbuttoned cotton shirt over a plain gray T-shirt, and sandals instead of combat boots. The guy looked like a prewar college student.
“I’m sorry. I’m looking for Dr. Sykes.”
The target smiled, looking shyly confused as he bit his bottom lip with straight white teeth that could only be the product of cosmetic dentistry, something very few people could afford these days. “That’s me.” There was wariness in his eyes now, but he opened the door wide and motioned Braz to enter.
The room was a mess of old books and smelled strongly of dust and what he thought might be something chemical. A large table stood in the center of the room, topped with stacks of books, a few knickknacks that could have been artifacts, and an opened leather journal.
Sykes didn’t apologize for the mess, nor did he offer coffee or tea. The man simply perched on the edge of a tall wooden stool, his arms crossed loosely over his chest, watchingBraz look around.
The comforting weight of his gun against the small of his back was like a seductive voice whispering in his ear, and he knew he should just draw and fire. Quick and simple. Hell. Sykes looked about as dangerous as a newborn puppy. What had the kid done to earn a death sentence? Braz flicked a quick gaze over his shoulder, then looked back at the books crowding the shelves.
“You’re here to kill me, aren’t you?”
Braz didn’t jump. His training was too good for him to make such a mistake. Instead, he turned slowly and met Sykes’s gaze. “What makes you say that?”
“I am a genius, or did they not put that in my file? Now, since you strike me as military and not your average hit man, I’m going to guess that my father didn’t hire you to rid him of his secret shame -- that being me -- and that in fact, you’re here because some idiot thinks I’m a Dynasty sympathizer.”
Braz barely managed to keep his expression neutral. What was he supposed to say? Just do your job, Braz. Kill the kid and get out of here.
He reached under his coat for his gun, his gaze locked on the doctor’s face.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you kill me. Not yet.”
Braz hadn’t even gotten a grip on his weapon when the room exploded with light. His body twitched with painful spasms before he drowned in welcome blackness.
* * * * *
. Ridley Sykes tucked the stunner into his waistband and began stuffing books into his leather bag with little care for their age and delicate condition. Once, all this information had been stored on a computer for easy portability, but very few could afford one these days. Ridley had been one of those few, until yesterday when someone had broken into his apartment, stolen his files, and smashed his laptop. Normally, Ridley wouldn’t mind -- there was something more personal about books and handwritten journals, and he had made handwritten copies of nearly everything -- but he didn’t want to be lugging a dozen old books with him right now.
The military wanted him dead.
He supposed it was better than knowing his father was behind it, not that it still wasn’t a possibility.
Ridley slung the bag over his shoulder and looked at the unconscious man sprawled on the floor, the man he’d seen in his dreams for almost ten years. The man who was going to kill him. One way or the other, Ridley knew he would end up dead by this man’s hand. He’d known it for so long now, it barely fazed him. Ridley wasn’t afraid of death, but he had to finish this project. His work was far too important, and he’d been so close to finding the answer.
Unfortunately, Ridley knew that he needed his would-be assassin’s help if he was going to succeed in -- well, saving the world sounded so melodramatic, but he didn’t know what else to call it.
The time had come, he’d known it the moment he’d opened the door to the tall, broad-shouldered man with haunted hazel eyes and familiar dimpled chin. Ridley didn’t know if he’d prepared enough, but he supposed one could spend a lifetime at this and still not be ready.
He grabbed a handful of loose papers, folded them, and stuffed them into his back pocket before squatting down beside the stranger on the floor. Ridley wondered what his name was and wished the dreams had been more than a series of vivid images without sound, thought, or emotion. He’d find out soon enough -- the two of them were going to get very close before this ended. Before Ridley died.
Drawing in a shaky breath, Ridley pulled the modified GPS receiver from his pocket and input the coordinates for the ancient Sumerian temple where he hoped to find the final piece of the puzzle. With one hand on the stranger’s shoulder, he pressed the release button and let the wash of white light envelop them both.